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"I need you, Zuko."

Azula always lies. And this was one of her worse lies. When had Azula ever needed anybody but herself? But even as he thinks that Zuko finds himself longing to help his little sister, to be the supportive big brother she had never let him be. They could be loving siblings, just like mother always wanted. Mother...

"I've plotted every move of this day, this glorious day in Fire Nation history."

Song with the burn marks on her calves that looked like hands, showing where someone had forced her legs apart. Little Lee and his family struggling to eek out a living while all the able-bodied men were off fighting the war. The refugees on the boat with fearful hungry faces. Was that the glory she spoke of?

"And the only way we win is together. At the end of this day, you will have your honor back."

That's all I ever wanted. But he knows it isn't true. Azula always lies. He's stolen, lied and cheated his way across the Earth Kingdom. Can anything restore his honor after that? I did what I had to do to survive. Father will understand. He wants me back...

"You will have Father's love. You will have everything you want."

Father's love. That's all I want. If I help Azula everything will go back to the way it was. The way it was before...

"Zuko, I am begging you. Look into your heart and see what it is that you truly want."

Uncle stuck with me for three years. He saved my life when Azula tried to kill me! But he helped the Avatar. The Avatar is the enemy of the Fire Nation. Anyone who helps the Avatar...

"If we'd known each other back then, do you think we could have been friends too?"

"You are free to choose." And just like that, she is gone. No Dai Li, no Mai or Ty Lee, no imperial firebenders. She really is giving him a choice. Azula never gave choices. She bent others to her will.

"Prince Zuko."

Zuko shakes his head. "We'll get you out of here, Uncle." Zuko makes a fist of flame and prepares to bring it down on the crystals.

"Forget about me! It doesn't matter!"

"What are you talking about?! Of course it matters!"

"For once in your life, Prince Zuko, think about yourself. Forget about me. Forget about Ozai and Azula. What do you want, my prince? What do you believe?"

Zuko slams flames into the floor. "I don't know!"

"It is time to decide. I know it is difficult, but you must decide."

"She's done so many horrible things, Uncle, and I know she will do more. How can siding with her be my destiny? These people, the ones who live in this city, they aren't our enemies. They just want a safe place for themselves and their families. They're the overworked parents who bring their kids to the tea shop. The struggling workers just trying to make ends meet. They're..."

Jin, the pretty girl he almost wished he had wanted to kiss. Smellerbee and Longshot, who never did him any harm and really did just want to start over. The guard who when Zuko returned his swords to him clapped him on the back, called him a good kid and asked if he ever thought about enlisting in the city guard. "Three hots and a cot, well maybe three lukewarms and a straw pallet at first, but a respectable young man like you can rise high."

"Do what you think is right, Prince Zuko. That is all I ask. Not what I think is right, or my brother or your sister. Do what you believe to be right."

Zuko bows his head.

...

Azula, the Avatar and the Waterbender. The Waterbender who lost her mother to Fire Nation soldiers. The Waterbender he chased all over the world. The Waterbender he fought so many times. And still she offered to heal me.

Aang spots him first. "Zuko!" An exclamation of shock, or was the Airbender calling out to him?

Azula looks over her shoulder. "I was beginning to wonder about you, brother."

"You don't need to wonder anymore." But even as he says so, he has no idea what he is going to do.

"She's crazy and needs to go down." But if I can return home with her... I can... I'll... Things will be...

"Did you free Uncle?"

Zuko shakes his head. He didn't. Uncle Iroh insisted he could take care of himself, and Zuko ran to confront...

She grins. It scares him. "Good."

"He's our uncle."

She scoffs. "He's a traitor."

He speaks in almost a whisper. "Then so am I."

Her eyes widen and she barely gets her hands up in time to block. Zuko's fireblast is fueled by years worth of resentment and anger. But she executes a perfect block, like always. She returns fire and he readies to defend, but he doesn't need to. A wave of water rises to meet Azula's flame. A few droplets of hot water land on him, that's all.

Azula laughs. "I can't wait to sit front row at your execution. Dai Li! Attack!"

They come from everywhere. Three against dozens. Zuko knows it will be a brutal, bloody battle. For just a moment his eyes lock with Aang's. The younger boy gives him a solemn nod, and then a lopsided grin. Well, things could be worse. Zuko is a fighter. He knows combat. He may be beneath cold earth surrounded by water, but he is in his element. And for a moment, it seems as though they might prevail. The Waterbender is a true master, and the Avatar is... well... the Avatar. Everytime Zuko looks at Azula he feels the pain and rage filling him. It fuels his fire. His flames are more powerful than they have ever been. He sees her take the stance, but he knows the other two won't recognize it. She is going to summon lightning. Zuko calls forth the memory of Uncle's technique. She's going for the Avatar. Zuko isn't sure if he'll be able to make it in time, so he runs. In. Down. Up. Out. In. Down. Up. Out. In. Down. Up. Out.

In. He assumes the stance just as the bolt leaves her fingertips. The impact is... It's the most intoxicating thing Zuko has ever felt. He is overwhelmed by the raw power. But he knows he has to focus.

Down. He stares at Azula. He needs to redirect the lightning at her. Without a leader the Dai Li will flounder.

Up. His sister. His little sister. What would Mother say? He reaches up, towards the ceiling, and sees her grin.

Out. Cold dread fills him as the lighting leaves him. She knows something he doesn't. Of course she does. It's Azula. As the darkness takes him he only has time to process two final things, the look of glee on Azula's face, and the sound of someone calling his name. "Zuko!"

Chapter Text

Sokka looked from the sleeping, unconscious Fire Nation prince, then to Aang, to his sister, back to Zuko, to Aang again, and finally landed his gaze on Katara. "You want to run that by me again?"

Aang didn't seem to realize it was a rhetorical question. "So then after the rocks fell on Zuko General Iroh showed up and fought Azula and the Dai Li while Katara and I dug him out. Then General Iroh yelled at us to get to safety, so we did, even though I felt really bad about leaving him behind. Zuko was breathing all funny and Katara's regular healing wasn't working, so she used the spirit water to heal him. Then you guys picked us up and now we're flying to... Where are we flying to exactly?"

Sokka sighed. "Chameleon Bay, now what really happened?"

"That is what really happened," Katara snapped. "Will you quit asking?"

"I'm confused," the Earth King said. "Why would the Fire Nation prince side with us against the Fire Nation princess?"

"Well, it's not the first time," Aang said.

"He wasn't really siding with us back at that deserted village," Sokka said. "More like he just really didn't want his sister to win."

"I was talking about the Blue Spirit."

Toph brightened. "The famous Earth Kingdom rebel? That guy's a badass, you've met him?!"

Aang looked at Zuko. "Well..."

"No," Sokka said.

"Really?" Even Katara sounded skeptical.

"Are you guys using nonverbal communication again," Toph groused. "I thought we talked about that."

"Zuko is the Blue Spirit.”

Sokka spluttered. "What? How? What?"

"As always big brother, your eloquence is truly breathtaking.”

"Why didn't you tell us?!" Sokka looked equal parts hurt and flabbergasted.

"I don't know!" Aang threw his hands in the air. "I didn't know what to think! He rescued me from Zhao, but then he threw a fireball at me! I don't understand it! I don't understand anything he does!"

"He's confused," Katara said quietly. "When we were imprisoned together, he told me that he lost his mother to the war. Just like us, Sokka."

"So that excuses all the bad stuff he did?" Sokka demanded.

Katara rolled her eyes and sighed. "Of course not. That's not my point. I'm just saying that maybe the reason his actions don't make sense to us is that Zuko might not understand why he does what he does either. He sounded really conflicted... and like he was in a lot of pain."

"Can't be easy," Toph said. "Growing up with pretty much the most evil guy in the world as your dad."

Sokka shook his head. He looked at the sleeping, unconscious Firebender one more time. "Well, I guess we'll get a chance to ask him all about it when we touch down." The light of the moon shone down on Zuko's pale face, showing his angry scar in stark relief. For a moment Sokka felt a chill, even though spring was coming to an end and the night was warm.

...

Hakoda, Chief of the Southern Water Tribe, was an imposing man. He had a stern face and a strong stance. He could pass for a Firebender. Zuko glimpsed the Avatar and his companions standing a little ways back, with another Water Tribe warrior he had never seen before who the Chief had referred to as Bato when they came in. But Hakoda was the man conducting this interrogation, and Zuko had no doubt he was about to be interrogated. You'd think a little appreciation would be in order. Zuko met Hakoda's gaze. He wasn't afraid. "I'm not afraid. I accept."

"So," Hakoda's voice was calm, but it carried the unmistakable weight of authority. "You're Prince Zuko."

"I am." Zuko held his head high, so no one could make the mistake of thinking he was ashamed.

"You've chased my children all over the world, hunting the Avatar."

"I did."

Hakoda appraised him. "And yet, you risked your life to defend the Avatar from your own sister."

"Was that a question?" That was a test. A man like Zhao would get angry when spoken to in such a way, but Hakoda only smiled. He wasn't easily perturbed.

"I guess I'm just wondering why the change of heart."

"I didn't change my heart." Zuko leveled his gaze at Aang. "The Avatar is the enemy of the Fire Nation, and therefore he is my enemy."

The Avatar looked confused. The Waterbender looked hurt. Her brother scowled. The Earthbender... She was interesting. She almost looked like she was listening to something. The toes on her bare feet dug into the earth.

"Then why did you save his life?" Hakoda asked.

Zuko sighed. "If you knew my sister, you wouldn't need to ask that question."

"Well I don't know her, so I do need to ask."

Zuko met Hakoda's gaze again. "The people of Ba Sing Se are innocent. I couldn't allow Azula to take the city. All those civilians would be vulnerable to her."

"You say you are loyal to the Fire Nation, and yet you try to protect Earth Kingdom citizens from being conquered by the Fire Nation-"

"No," Zuko snapped. "I tried to protect them from being conquered by Azula. You don't understand, she's evil."

The Water Tribe boy scoffed. "Because you're so friendly."

Zuko rolled his eyes. "Been home recently?" he asked his peer.

Sokka frowned. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"If you had been home recently you'd have noticed your village is still standing. If Azula had been the one there looking for the Avatar, that wouldn't be the case. She would have reduced everything and everyone you loved to ash as punishment for daring to defy her. You may not think much of me, and that's fine. The feeling is mutual. But the two of us have something in common. We follow a code. In war you have to do terrible things, but there are lines you don't cross." Like lying, stealing, and cheating your way across the Earth Kingdom. Zuko almost flinched, but he managed to stop himself.

"So you're saying," said Katara. "Azula doesn't have a code."

"All Azula cares about is winning," Zuko whispered. "If she has to hurt you, if she has to do unspeakable things to you in order to do that, then that's just a bonus."

For a moment there was silence. "So," said Hakoda. "If a Fire Nation soldier other than your sister had been trying to conquer the city, you would have sided with them."

Zuko considered the question. "Depends on who it was exactly, but yes, probably."

Hakoda's expression was unreadable. "Most people would lie."

"I'm not a liar. And I'm not a traitor. Nor will I pretend to be one. I am loyal to my country, and to the Fire Lord." "Who are you?! And what do you want?!" Zuko took a deep breath and struggled to keep his voice steady. "Do you know what happened to my uncle?"

Katara gave him a look of sympathy. "He fought Azula to cover our escape. The last we saw him, he was up against dozens of Dai Li."

I will not cry. Princes don't cry. "I see."

"You say you're loyal to the Fire Lord, but wasn't your uncle declared a traitor by the Fire Lord?" Hakoda asked.

"That was a misunderstanding," Zuko insisted. "My uncle committed no treason. You can ask your children, they saw the whole thing. Zhao went mad. He tried to kill the Moon Spirit. My uncle had to stop him. The balance between the sun and the moon is just as vital to the Fire Nation as the Water Tribe, if not more so."

"How's that?" Sokka asked in a skeptical tone.

Zuko rolled his eyes. "What do I look like, a Fire Sage? The point is that Zhao had to be stopped. He was unstable."

"Quick question," Sokka said. "Are there any people in the Fire Nation who aren't crazy? Because I'm starting to sense a theme here."

Zuko glared at Sokka. "At least we aren't a bunch of savages adhering to a ridiculous antiquated social structure!"

"Excuse me?! We're savages?! Your whole country is full of bloodthirsty murderers who want to set everything on fire!"

"Sokka," Hakoda's voice was, as always, calm but firm. "Please control yourself."

"I can't believe you used your spirit water on this guy," Sokka complained to his sister. "What a waste."

Zuko was taken aback. "You used your spirit water on me?"

"After all those rocks fell on you, your ribs were crushed. I can't mend bones, not normally. So I used the spirit water. It allowed me to heal what I normally wouldn't be able to."

"Thank you," Zuko said softly. "I... I didn't realize I was injured that bad." Zuko tried to remember what happened after he redirected Azula's lightning, but everything was blank up until he woke up in this tent being watched by Katara and Aang. "I'm such an idiot."

"Why's that?" Aang asked.

"I flinched."

"You flinched Zuzu. You always flinch."

"What do you mean?" Toph spoke up for the first time.

"I could have redirected Azula's lightning back at her, taken her out for good," Zuko said softly. "But at the last second I..."

"You did the right thing," Aang said. "If you had let her make you a murderer she would have won."

"Uh, Aang?" Sokka said. "She did win. She conquered Ba Sing Se!"

Zuko hung his head. "Then it was all for nothing."

"Not nothing," Toph said.

"How do you figure? The people I was trying to protect are at Azula's mercy! My uncle is either a prisoner or dead! Oh, and I'm currently held captive by my mortal enemy!"

"We're not your enemy," Toph said.

"Yeah, we are," Sokka protested.

"She's right," Aang said. "Zuko, you may not consider me a friend, but you saved my life - and more importantly, you risked everything to try and protect the innocent people who live in Ba Sing Se."

"Tried and failed," Zuko grumbled.

"But you did try," Katara said softly.

Zuko met her gaze and then looked away. "Now what are you going to do with me," he whispered.

"That has yet to be determined," Hakoda said. "You would help your situation a great deal if you agreed to provide us with military intelligence."

"Even if I were willing to betray my country like that - and I am absolutely not - I was banished from the Fire Nation more than three years ago. Any intelligence I could provide would be laughably outdated."

Hakoda's gaze almost had a palpable weight. Zuko wanted to look away, but he refused to give into the impulse. "Why?"

"I just explained-"

"Why were you banished?"

Zuko's face twisted into an expression full of rage and hate, pain hidden deep beneath those. "Why do you want to know? How could that possibly be relevant to anything?"

"Maybe I just want to get a better handle on what sort of person you are."

"You must have done something pretty bad if even the Fire Nation didn't condone it," Sokka said.

Zuko's glare made it pretty clear he was probably imagining setting Sokka's hair on fire.

"What was your offence?" Hakoda asked.

"Cowardice," Zuko all but spat the word.

Aang laughed. "Cowardice?! You?! I can think of plenty of negative qualities for you Zuko, but cowardice? You hiked through a blizzard! You infiltrated one of the most secure military strongholds in the world! Without using Firebending! You challenged Katara to a fight during a full moon!"

"I didn't know she had found a master," he muttered. "And I couldn't use my bending without tipping off Zhao to my true identify."

"That's... so not the point," Aang said with the tone of the truly perplexed. "You're a lot of things, Zuko, but you aren't a coward."

Suddenly, Zuko found the floor particularly fascinating.

"Since you are both unable and unwilling to provide us military intelligence, we'll let you get some rest," Hakoda said. "Katara told us that even with water healing, the body needs rest to recuperate from an injury. We'll send food to you shortly. Do you have any dietary restrictions?"

Zuko sighed. "I'm allergic to milk," he muttered miserably.

"Who's allergic to milk?" Sokka scoffed.

"Most people are in the Fire Nation," Aang said. "Kuzon told me it's because people don't raise milk producing animals in the Fire Nation, so their digestive systems can't process it because they aren't used to it. That's also why seafood allergies aren't uncommon in the inland parts of the Earth Kingdom, but they're almost unheard of on the coast."

"Aren't you just a well of anthropological information?" Zuko said caustically.

"Why don't you raise milk producing animals in the Fire Nation?" Katara asked.

Zuko groaned. "What is this, a Fire Nation culture and history class? We're an island . Space is a valuable commodity, especially land that's suitable for farming. It takes way more acres to raise dairy animals than it does to farm produce, so we use our farmland for crops."

"What about meat?" Toph asked. "You don't raise meat animals?"

"It's. An. Island," Zuko said through gritted teeth. "We have a huge fishing industry. Also, people hunt. Any more asinine questions?"

"Maybe we should leave Zuko alone, you guys," Aang suggested.

"If you start to feel worse, send for me," Katara said. "I'll look over your injuries again tomorrow."

Suddenly, Zuko's blood ran cold. A horrifying thought entered his head. "When you healed me, did you..."

She looked confused. "Did I what?"

"Nothing, never mind."

Hakoda gave Zuko another one of those appraising glances, but didn't comment on his aborted question. "Is there anything else you require?" Hakoda asked.

Zuko sighed. He knew his request would be denied, but he gave it a shot anyway. "Can I have a candle?"

"So you can burn the tent down?" Sokka accused.

"If I wanted to burn this tent down, I wouldn't need a candle," Zuko said.

"That's true," Aang said.

"What's the candle for?" Katara asked.

"Meditation," Zuko said.

Zuko could have sworn Hakoda was staring straight into his spirit. "I will consider your request. In the meantime, try to get some rest. Bato, you will have the first watch. The prisoner is to be treated with courtesy and respect; however, if he tries to escape, use whatever means necessary to prevent him." Hakoda gave Zuko a meaningful glance before exiting the tent, followed by his son and daughter. Katara gave Zuko a brief glance he couldn't quite interpret on her way out. Sokka hadn't looked at him at all. Aang smiled and waved as he followed Katara out. Toph walked up to Zuko.

Zuko frowned. "What do you want?"

"I'm sorry your uncle was captured," she said. "He's really nice, and I hope he's okay."

Zuko blinked, trying to restrain his tears by sheer force of will. "It's my fault. He was captured because he tried to help me."

"I don't know your uncle as well as you do, but I did once have a long conversation with him. And I'm pretty confident he would have said you're worth it."

The tears came then, refusing to heed him. "Thank you."

"Good night, Zuko," the young Earth Kingdom girl said. Then she, too, was gone. Zuko was alone with the stoic Water Tribe warrior. He sighed and laid down to rest his eyes. He hadn't meant to fall asleep, but lately a lot of things had been happening that he didn't mean to, and he drifted off.

...

Hakoda looked at his son, his heart swelling with pride. Sokka's plan to invade the Fire Nation was an excellent one. Since Hakoda had been gone, Sokka had become not just a warrior, but a skilled leader. Even the Avatar heeded his words. Most impressive of all, the loss of the Earth King's forces had not deterred Sokka at all. He was, even now, trying to rework his plan into something feasible with their current resources.

"Your Majesty, do you think you could get messages out to your troops in the field? Even if the majority of your forces were captured at Ba Sing Se there's still a chance the remaining soldiers could reinforce our invasion," Sokka said.

The Earth King shook his head. "I don't know who or where my remaining generals are. Long Feng kept all of that information secret from me."

Sokka deflated for a moment, but then he perked back up. "That's okay. We'll work with what we have. And we have some friends who can help us out."

"We do?" Katara asked.

"Yep!" Sokka pulled a list out of his pocket and presented it to his sister.

"Sokka, these people are all over the Earth Kingdom! How are we supposed to get word to all of them in time? How do we get messages to them at all without risking interception by the Fire Nation?"

"We're going to sail to them, and the Fire Nation is going to help us."

"Has Sokka finally gone insane?" Toph asked. "Because I was banking on that happening a little while ago."

"I'm going to ignore that," Sokka said. "We're going to steal a Fire Navy ship!"

"Because that's so easy," Katara said.

"It won't be easy," Sokka said. "But we can do it. All I need is the greatest Earthbender in the world, the greatest Waterbender in the world, the Avatar and a few other minor things."

Katara blushed. "You think I'm the greatest Waterbender in the world?"

"Who said I was talking about you- Hey! Katara!"

Hakoda grinned. His children's skills as warriors made him proud, but the fact that they could still be children after everything they had been through? That made him happier than words could express.

...

Zuko was woken by the smell of fragrant fish. He was just sitting up as the tent flap opened and Hakoda walked in. "You are relieved," he told Bato. The warrior gave the Chief a respectful nod and departed from the tent. Hakoda sat down cross-legged in front of Zuko and passed him the tray.

Zuko gave Hakoda a suspicious look as he took the tray from him.

"Something wrong?"

"Isn't this task a little menial for you?"

"I wanted to ask you some more questions."

Zuko paused in the act of bringing the chopsticks to his mouth. "I already told you, I can't provide you with any useful military intelligence, and even if I could-"

"Antiquated social structure."

"Huh?" Zuko asked.

Hakoda nodded at the food. "Eat."

Zuko scowled, but he took a bite. The food was good, although a little bland for his palate. Still, it was nice to be eating fish again.

"You told my son that the Water Tribe has an antiquated social structure. What were you referring to?"

"I was talking about the way women are treated in your country," Zuko said.

Hakoda raised an eyebrow. "How are women treated in my country?"

Zuko took another bite of food. He suddenly felt very self-conscious. It was one thing to talk about foreign cultures at school, and another entirely to repeat his lessons to someone who was actually a member of that culture. "Well, women in the Water Tribes are treated like property," Zuko said. Although he sounded unsure.

"They are?"

"That's what I was taught," Zuko said.

"And how many Water Tribe women do you actually know," Hakoda asked.

Zuko frowned. "Well... one."

"My daughter?"

I guess I don't really know her. We just fight each other a bunch. "Yes."

"Whose property do you think she is?" The man wasn't even trying to conceal his amusement.

"No one's!" Oh man, he better not tell her I said that, she will kick my ass.

"So what you learned about Water Tribe women applies to zero percent of the Water Tribe women you've met? Interesting."

Zuko stabbed his food. "Well she's the daughter of the Chief. Of course she would be exceptional."

"My daughter is exceptional," Hakoda agreed. "But not because she is my daughter. She is exceptional because she is hard working, brave, and compassionate."

Well, I can't exactly argue she isn't all of those things. "What do you want from me?"

"Nothing, we're just talking," Hakoda insisted. "Why do you think I want something?"

"You brought me food. You're trying to engage in civil conversation with me. You want something."

Hakoda considered this. "My daughter thinks you aren't a bad person."

Zuko huffed out a burst of laughter. "That's not what she said before."

"Something changed her mind."

Zuko stared at his food. "I've done things - things I'm not proud of. Honestly, I'm not even sure I know the difference between right and wrong anymore. But one thing I will never ever do is betray my country, or betray my family."

"Your sister isn't your family?"

Zuko was tempted to throw his tray at the Chief's head. He held back. "When my sister and I were kids, our mother showed us a nest of shrewmice in one of the royal gardens. They were cute, in a weird sort of way. The next day I went to look at them, and..." I still remember the smell. Like barbeque. "She had burned them all alive. I asked her why she did it. She told me..." "They were vermin Zuzu." "The people who live in that city, she doesn't see them as people. They're just things to her. We're all just things to her." Zuko put his tray down. He wasn't hungry anymore. "I did what I had to do."

Hakoda's blue eyes locked with Zuko's yellow ones. "It can't have been easy."

Zuko broke eye contact. "Nothing in my life has ever been easy."

Hakoda gave Zuko a grim smile. "I believe you. So what else did your school say about us?"

Zuko rubbed his brow. "I don't want to talk to you anymore," he whispered.

Zuko hadn't expected his request to be honored. He was Hakoda's prisoner, and if Hakoda wanted to talk to him Zuko expected he would. Instead of a rebuke though, Zuko was given a candle. Zuko stared at it for a moment before taking it from Hakoda. "How does it work?” Hakoda inquired.

"Candles?" Zuko asked sarcastically.

Hakoda didn't rise to the bait. "I thought Firebending was all about creating bigger and more powerful flames. What's the point of just lightning a candle?"

Zuko pinched the wick, creating a small yellow flame. "It's not about lighting a candle. Any Firebender can light a candle, and any Firebender can create a big conflagration. Firebending is all about control. You must control the flames. You can't let them control you."

"Which is harder, lightning a fire, or putting one out?"

Zuko was shocked. That's a really good question. He grasped one of the basic concepts of Firebending almost instantly. "Putting one out," Zuko said.

Hakoda nodded.

Zuko closed his eyes and synced the flame to his breathing. He felt the flame dim and flare with each exhalation and inhalation. His anxiety began to abate, and he felt calm for the first time since Azula ambushed him and Uncle. Uncle. Zuko released the flame. He clenched his fists and opened his eyes. He was relieved to see that he was alone. Zuko closed his eyes and began his meditation anew. I'm sorry Uncle. I will find a way to help you. I will remember all you taught me. I promise.

...

Sokka looked through his telescope and grinned. "There." He pointed at a lone Fire Nation warship. "It's perfect. Ready?"

"I just want to go on record again as saying I really, really hate this plan," Toph said.

"Duly noted. Ready?"

Katara dropped to her knees in front of Toph. The younger girl sighed, but clambered onto Katara's back. Katara walked to the edge of their borrowed fishing boat and dove into the water. The surface parted before her, and Sokka could see a bubble of air enclosing the heads of both girls.

Sokka turned his attention back to the ship. He took a deep breath and started counting. One. Two. Three. Four. Fi- The boat shuddered to a stop. Sokka couldn't hold back a grin, but he did manage to hold in his whoop of delight.

A strong hand clapped his shoulder. "A fine plan, Sokka," Bato said.

"Wait until they send up their flare to head over. We don't want them getting suspicious," Sokka said. A moment later red sparks shot towards the sky. "Let's hurry!"

Their boat pulled flush alongside the warship. A Fire Nation sailor eyed them suspiciously. "Everything all right?" Hakoda called, looking every inch the common fisherman in his peasant's garb. "We saw your distress signal."

"We ran aground," the sailor said. "Water is gushing in faster than we've ever seen. Could you ferry us to the harbor?"

"Lucky for you, we didn't have much of a haul today. Tell your captain you're all welcome aboard."

The suspicion fled the sailor's face to make way for relief. "Thank you."

Sokka watched the ship sink lower and lower into the water as the Fire Nation troops rushed to salvage what equipment they could and board the fishing trawler. As the trawler headed back to Ba Sing Se, Sokka watched with a morbid sort of fascination the warship disappear beneath the surface.

"It was the damndest thing," the captain said. “One minute all is well, and the next we got a rock the size of a building jutting up into our hull, water coming in with more speed and force than I could have imagined possible. If it hadn't been for you... Well, needless to say, we're in your debt. You ever find yourself in any sort of trouble, ask for Captain Zing. I remember when someone does me a favor."

"That's very kind of you, Captain," Hakoda said.

"Don't think I don't know most Earth Kingdom ships would have watched us go down with smiles on their faces."

Hakoda shook his head. "Ignoring a ship's distress call isn't just a violation of maritime law, it angers the Ocean Spirit. He has a long memory."

The captain looked away. "If there's one spirit I don't want to anger... Well, you're a wise man. No matter your motives, I owe you my life and the safety of my crew. It's a damn shame. She was a fine ship."

Sokka felt tension start to form in his gut. What if this doesn't work? What if Katara can't bring the ship back up to the surface? Sokka shook his head. A plan that depended on Katara's Waterbending skills to succeed was pretty much already accomplished. Sure enough, after they had dropped off the soldiers and sailed to the meeting point they found the warship floating on the waves looking none the worse for wear. Toph's Metalbending was improving in leaps and bounds. The hull looked unblemished; Sokka would certainly never have guessed how horribly it had been damaged if he hadn't heard the captain's description and seen how fast the boat went down.

"Amazing," Hakoda said in an almost reverent tone.

Sokka just grinned. "Well everyone, take a good look at our new home."

...

Zuko was meditating when he heard someone enter his tent, but he resolved to ignore them. The intruder didn't interrupt, but quietly sat down. Eventually Zuko's curiosity got the better of him and he opened his eyes. The Avatar was sitting cross-legged in front of him. Zuko scowled. "What do you want?"

"To end the war," Aang said.

Zuko rolled his eyes. "I meant-"

"I know what you meant," Aang said softly. "What do you want?"

"Who are you? And what do you want?" Zuko flinched.

"We're leaving," Aang said.

Zuko raised a brow. "Where are we going?"

Aang didn't respond. He just gazed into Zuko's eyes. Zuko found the gaze to be quite unsettling, but he refused to give any sign of it. Finally, Aang must have found what he was looking for. "We're going to invade the Fire Nation."

Zuko's jaw dropped. "What?!" What have I done? I saved his life! I put all of my people in danger! "You- you can't! I'll stop you!" Zuko clenched his fists. All he needed to do was wait for the Avatar to be distracted. He was right there. It would only take a moment, then the threat of the Avatar would be gone.

Aang remained calm. "You care about the people of the Fire Nation and the Earth Kingdom. I think you even care about the people of the Water Tribe, despite knowing hardly any of them. Hakoda told us you care about the way women are treated there. This war hurts the people of every nation. We have a plan to stop it."

"By killing innocent Fire Nation citizens!"

"No," Aang said. "Would you like to hear our plan?"

Zuko felt suddenly ill. "Why are you telling me these things? Are you... Are you going to execute me?"

Now Aang's calm demeanor slipped. "What? No! Why would you think that? We would never do something like that! We wouldn't do that to any prisoner! And you saved my life! Three times!"

That seemed pretty sincere. But then why... "Why would you tell me your plans, then?"

Aang took a steadying breath. "Zuko, you and I both know this war has caused a lot of damage. I'm asking you to help me stop it."

Zuko stared at Aang in disbelief. "You want me to help you?! I've seen first-hand how devastating this war can be, and you want me to help you spread it to my own country?! So you can get revenge?!"

"No!" Aang shook his head. "I want to stop the war, not spread it!"

"And how exactly will invading the Fire Nation stop the war?"

"Because in a few months there's going to be a solar eclipse. For eight minutes all Firebenders will lose their bending. On that day, the Day of Black Sun, we're going to invade the Fire Nation capital. We'll capture the capital city and take the Fire Lord hostage. The Fire Nation will have to sue for peace to regain its capital and leader. The Earth Kingdom will be liberated and the war will be over!"

We're going to lose our Firebending. The capital is going to be invaded. He's going to attack my father. Zuko dropped his face into his hands. "What have I done?"

"Zuko-"

"Get out of here! Leave me alone!" Zuko punctuated his point by swiping fire through the air as he got to his feet.

Aang scrambled back. "Just hear me-"

"No! I'm going to find a way to stop you! I won't let you hurt my people! I won't let you attack my father!"

"Zuko, please listen to me!"

"No!" Zuko rushed Aang. The two of them went tumbling out of the tent. Aang regained his footing first, but Zuko sent a stream of fire at him.

Aang easily dodged. "It doesn't have to be this way! I'm not your enemy!"

"Yes, you are!"

As Zuko raised his hands to attack again ice suddenly encased his feet and legs. Zuko tried to dislodge himself, but it was no use. "I think you need to cool down," Sokka said as the two Water Tribe siblings came into view.

"Sokka," Katara said in an exasperated tone of voice.

"What happened?!" Toph came running into view.

"Jerkbender over here turned on us, just like I said he would," Sokka declared.

"It wasn't like that," Aang said. "I told Zuko about our plans-"

"You did what?!" Toph, Katara and Sokka all exclaimed at the exact same time.

"Why?!" Sokka sounded horrified.

"We all agreed we were going to let him go when we left!" Toph shouted.

"So?" Aang asked.

"So now we can't!" Katara looked at Aang in disbelief. "He'll tip off the Fire Nation!"

"I thought he could help us," Aang said.

"You thought I would help you betray my country and my father?" Zuko demanded.

"I know you're a good person-" Aang started to say.

"You don't know anything about me! You don't know what kind of person I am! But if you really thought I would help you invade my own country, then you're just as twisted and evil as Sozin said you were! But what could an Air Nomad know about loyalty or familial obligation?" Zuko sneered at Aang.

"Don't you dare talk to him like that!" Katara's voice trembled with outrage.

"It's okay, Katara," Aang whispered. "I know Air Nomad culture must seem strange to someone who grew up in a place where blood ties are so important. But our way of life is - was - just as valid as yours. My people practiced a philosophy of peace and compassion-"

"Right," Zuko said. "So compassionate you abandon your own children."

"In Air Nomad culture, children are raised by the community. Each child has access to all the resources of the community. No one is born privileged or oppressed. We all start our lives with the same opportunities. We are free to choose who we love and what kind of life we want to live. No one can force us to emulate their lifestyle just because they sired or gave birth to us. I'm not saying the way we lived was better than your way of life, but it was just as good, and we were happy."

Zuko looked at the ground. "And so class, since the Air Nomads were unwilling to repent their horrific practices, Sozin was forced to take extreme measures to save any child from having to be born into those kinds of circumstances ever again. He faced a difficult choice, but the world is now a better place." He shook his head, trying to reconcile what Aang was saying with what he had been taught.

"You're disgusting," Sokka said. "Calling Aang evil when your great-grandfather committed genocide against his people!"

"Let's play great battles of history! I'll be Sozin, and you can be the Air Nomads, Zuzu. Remember, you can't firebend."

"You can let him go, Katara," Toph said.

"Are you sure?" Katara asked.

"His pulse is lowering. He's done fighting." Toph sounded almost sad.

As the ice surrounding him melted Zuko felt colder than ever. "You can feel my heartbeat?" He felt sick.

Toph nodded. "That's how I knew everything you said to us was true. That's why we were going to let you go. Of course, that plan is shot to pieces now. Nice one, Twinkle Toes."

"Sorry, Toph," Aang said.

Hakoda and Bato walked over. Hakoda was carrying shackles. Zuko felt his pulse begin to race. "He's gonna run!"

As soon as Toph spoke, Sokka grabbed Zuko. "Oh no you don't!"

"Get off of me!" Zuko flipped the other boy off his feet, but before he could take a step the Earth itself swallowed him up to his ankles. "Let me go!"

"Wish I could," Toph said.

Hakoda gave Zuko a sympathetic look. "You attacked the Avatar. You'll have to be restrained."

Zuko created daggers of fire. "Try it!"

Water doused his flames, and in one quick, fluid motion Hakoda slapped the cuffs on him. Meanwhile Bato helped Sokka to his feet. "Ha!" Sokka grinned at Zuko. "How's it feel to be the one in chains after all that time spent trying to lock up the Avatar?"

"Sokka," Aang said quietly. "Don't."

"Bato, escort the prisoner onto the ship. Put him in a comfortable room and guard the door."

"Yes, Hakoda," Bato said.

Toph released Zuko's feet, and Bato began to drag him away. Zuko followed, knowing that, for the moment, he was defeated. But he swore to himself he would not give up, not without a fight.

...

The Fire Navy uniform felt strange and ill-fitting against Katara's skin. She touched her mother's necklace for comfort, and when that didn't alleviate all of her discomfort she looked out to the ocean for further solace. The waves were familiar. They were home. She looked around the deck. Her family was here. Her father and brother were adjusting little things to increase their speed; they needed every second they could conjure. Toph was experimenting with Metalbending some more. Aang was feeding and petting Appa. Bato, who was like a second father to her after her mother died, was cleaning weaponry. She took a deep breath. They were all safe and together. They had a plan. Maybe they really would win this war. You had a plan at Ba Sing Se. It didn't help you. She shook the thought away. They had split up, she wouldn't let them make the same mistake again.

Sokka walked over to her. "Dad wants to talk to everyone about the prince problem- no wait! I got it. Our little royal pain!" Sokka looked at her expectantly.

"I don't think it's funny."

"Oh come on. You're just mad because you were wrong, and I was right."

Aang joined them. "I don't think Katara was wrong about Zuko."

Toph joined them as the children reached Hakoda's location. Hakoda wore a thoughtful expression. "I agree," he said. "I think we might be able to deprogram him."

"Deprogram?" Toph’s voice was skeptical. "Why does that sound like Dai Li stuff?"

"I don't think the prince has had his mind altered by methods like those used by the Dai Li, but I do believe his perception of reality is colored by his Fire Nation education," Hakoda said.

"Or," Sokka proposed. "He's an evil jerk."

"He isn't," Toph said. "It's like General Iroh said. He's lost. He doesn't know what the right path is. We owe it to him, and his uncle, to help him find that path."

"We owe him," Sokka said skeptically.

"He saved Aang's life three times-"

"Two and a half at best," Sokka said.

"Don't interrupt me," Toph warned. "Helping him is the right thing to do, and if we succeed we'll have an ally who can help us navigate the Fire Nation capital."

"Toph's right," said Katara. "I think you're letting your personal feelings cloud your judgement."

"Not everyone can be saved, Katara," Sokka said. "Some people are just bad."

"I don't think Zuko is one of those people," Aang said. "He's nothing like Zhao. He cares, even if he is lost and confused. He cares about doing the right thing."

"Too bad his idea and our idea of the right thing are pretty much polar opposites," Sokka said.

"But that's still a starting point," Katara said. "Someone you disagree with is someone you can reason with. Someone who doesn't care at all, there's no talking to. I think we can get through to Zuko. I'm willing to try." For so long he has been the face of the enemy, but if we can save him maybe there can be a peaceful resolution to this war.

Sokka sighed and shook his head. "Well, I'm outvoted. I'll help however I can. How do we do this deprogramming thing, Dad?"

Hakoda looked to Katara. "You've had the most success getting through to him, love. Maybe in the morning the two of us can try to speak with him and find some common ground."

Katara nodded. She locked eyes with Aang and he smiled at her. I almost lost you. No matter his motives, Zuko prevented that. I'll find a way to repay him. She returned the smile.

...

Zuko couldn't sleep. The chains on his wrists made every possible position uncomfortable. He stared up at the blank darkness of the ceiling and tried to quiet the turmoil in his mind. He thought about Azula, Uncle, his father, his- Mother.

"Never forget who you are." I forgot mother. I'm not sure if I ever even knew. I thought I was a loyal son. I thought I was a good person. I abandoned Uncle. I helped the Avatar. I attacked the Avatar. No matter who's right, I'm a villain. What do I-

The door creaked open. Bato of the Water Tribe stood in the doorway. "You are to come with me."

Zuko sat up. "Where are we going?"

"You'll see soon enough. Stand up."

That doesn't sound like a request. Zuko got to his feet. Bato gripped his arm and began to lead the prince to the deck. Something isn't right.

"Did Chief Hakoda send for me?"

"No."

"Does the Avatar-"

"No more talking."

Zuko became frustrated. "I demand to know-"

"You are in no position to be making demands. Now be silent."

Zuko stewed. Who does this guy think he is? I'm a prince! He's just a soldier. Except I'm not really a prince anymore, am I? I don't know what I am. Or who I am. I really let you down, Mother.

Bato and Zuko emerged onto the deck of the ship. The moon was beautiful, lighting up the water with her lovely pale light. "The Moon Spirit," Bato said softly, "is the protector of my people."

Zuko shifted uncomfortably. I'm well aware. The Ocean, too. I saw what they are capable of. "The Sun Spirit protects my people," Zuko said, just to have something to say.

Bato didn't really seem to be listening, and he led Zuko further out onto the deck, closer to the railing. "Our people say that the Moon Spirit sees everything her light shines upon, so one must be careful with one's actions while she is out." Bato stopped at the railing. "I had a friend, a girl I grew up with, she once told me that the Moon Spirit lives in the heart of every member of the Water Tribe. Her light is always upon us, and she can see all that we do." Bato's grip had become painfully tight. "She was killed by a Firebender. After she was gone, her husband and I became... close. Their children, I love those children as if they were my own. I would do anything to protect them."

That was when Zuko realized. "You're going to kill me."

Bato finally looked at Zuko, and it was as though he were seeing the boy for the first time. "I want you to understand-"

"I do." He actually did. I've been so confused. There's so much I can't reconcile. But this, this I understand. He sees me as a threat to the people he loves, so he is going to kill me. What could be simpler? "Maybe this is for the best." I won't have to be confused anymore. I won't be able to make mistakes anymore. "Can I ask you for something? A, um... last request?"

Bato evaluated him with cold eyes. "You can ask."

Zuko felt strange. Is this even real? It feels like a dream. I'm about to die. "Can you make it quick? And uh... painless? Or as painless as something like this can be, I suppose." Don't let your voice shake. And don't cry. If you are going to die you might as well die with dignity.

"Of course. I would have done that anyway. I'm not a monster."

Neither am I! But Zuko wasn't sure enough of the sentiment to say it out loud. I'm sorry, Uncle.

"Look at the moon. She's beautiful."

Zuko looked up. He felt Bato's hand grip his shoulder in a tight grasp. He heard the sound of bone scraping leather. He thought about closing his eyes and just letting it happen. Never give up without a fight. Zuko grabbed Bato's hand with his chained ones and flipped the larger man over his shoulder. Bato hit the deck with a heavy THUMP. Zuko started to run away, but Bato kicked Zuko's feet out from under him and sent the boy sprawling on the deck. Zuko struggled to get up with his bound hands. Bato kicked Zuko in the ribs, and he gasped for breath.

"You just couldn't let it be easy, could you?" Bato kicked Zuko again and he landed on his back.

"Never..." Zuko struggled to breath. "Give up without a fight."

Bato knelt on Zuko's ribs. The teen would have screamed if he had the oxygen. Bato raised his knife.

Zuko lifted his hands, using the chain that linked them to stop Bato's knife's decent. For a moment, they had a contest of strength, but Zuko knew that he couldn't keep it up forever. He could see red tinging the edges of his vision. Soon, he wouldn't have any oxygen left. Zuko put every last bit of his strength into pushing up. The hilt of Bato's knife hit the man in the face. Zuko surged forward, trying to force the heavier man off of him. For a second he thought he succeeded. Zuko stumbled to his feet, swaying but standing. Then a heavy blow impacted his head. His balance already shot all to hell, Zuko went tumbling over the side of the ship. Don't inhale. Don't inhale. Don't inhale. Zuko hit the water hard, and he slipped beneath the waves. Zuko kicked his way to the surface. Once his head was above water he took a deep breath, or at least he tried to. His ribs weren't exactly cooperating. The boat was already in front of him, and getting further away every second. "Help! Help me!"

Nobody heard. Or nobody cares. Zuko shook his head. Katara and Aang wouldn't leave somebody to die like this. They don't have it in them. Zuko watched the ship become smaller and smaller. What does it matter? You're going to die anyway. Zuko shivered. The water was cold. He looked up at the stars. If I can figure out which direction will bring me closest to land... Zuko would have laughed if it wasn't such a painful prospect. There's no land in sight. I'll never be able to swim to safety before I drown. I have a heavy chain linked to my wrists! This is hopeless.

For a moment Zuko considered just allowing himself to sink below the waves. I'd finally be able to get some sleep. Zuko stared at the dark choppy water. Never give up without a fight. Zuko's legs were already starting to ache. No one would know I gave up. Zuko looked up at the moon. He sighed, and then he started swimming.

Chapter Text

Toph ran her fingers along the wall, trying to feel out the different components of the metal, trying to feel the shape of the ship, trying to get the metal to speak to her the same way Earth did. Earth and I have easy conversations, like old friends discussing how their lives have been going. But you, you're like a taciturn Sifu, only revealing what you want me to know. But I'll crack you. The metal told her Sokka was approaching. She grinned, and patted it in thanks. "Hey, Snoozles! What are you up to?"

"I'm going to check our heading. We're making good time, which of course can only mean that something is about to go horribly wrong."

"Lighten up. All that frowning is giving you crow's feet."

"Really?!" Sokka's hands shot towards his face. "Wait. Will you knock that off?"

Toph grinned. "Sure, when it stops being funny."

"When do you think that will be?"

"Probably about fifty years."

"Great," Sokka said. "So I have that to look forward to."

Toph continued to run her fingers along the metal. She frowned. "That doesn't feel right." She started down the hall.

"What is it?" Sokka asked.

She sensed two people approaching, one very familiar and one less so. "Hey Sokka, Toph," Katara said.

"You going to talk to Zuko?" Sokka asked.

"Yes," Hakoda said. "Hopefully we'll be able to open a dialogue."

Thump. Thump. Thump. Thump . "I don't think that's going to happen," Toph said.

"Why?" Katara asked. "You were pretty optimistic yesterday."

"Because his room is empty," Toph said.

"What?!" The three Water Tribe members ran to the room and burst in. Toph didn't bother. Her feet knew what they knew.

Hakoda and his children soon came back out. Hakoda set at once to interrogating the guard. "What happened?!"

"I-I don't know!" True.

"Was he in there when your shift started?!"

"Y-yes!" Lie.

"Lie," Toph said.

"I swear! Bato said he was!" True.

"But you didn't check like you were supposed to," Toph said.

"Bato said not to!" True.

"Why would Bato tell you not to check on the prisoner?" Hakoda asked scornfully.

Toph sensed the man himself approaching. He answered before the guard had a chance to. "Because I killed him." True. True. True.

Toph gasped. "No!"

"Bato?" Sokka sounded incredulous. "But he was a prisoner. Our laws prohibit-"

"I know the law," Bato said in a calm steady voice. "I knew it and I chose to break it. If my life is forfeit, then it is forfeit."

"How could you?" Katara asked. She sounded like she was crying.

"I did it to protect you." True.

"Bato," Hakoda's voice was full of grief. "I cannot save you from the consequences of your actions."

"I understand. I knew-"

"How did he die?" Toph wanted to lie down and bawl, but she couldn't. Not yet. I'm sorry, General Iroh.

"What does it matter?"

"If I ever meet General Iroh again, I have to be able to tell him how his nephew died."

"It doesn't matter."

"It does matter!" Toph stomped her foot and encased Bato's feet in metal.

"Answer her question," Hakoda said in a voice of steel.

"I wanted to give the boy a quick, clean death," Bato said.

"Wanted to," Katara asked in a tremulous voice. "What does that mean?"

"He fought back."

"People do that when you try to kill them!" Sokka shouted.

Bato sighed. "I struck him on the head." True. "He fell overboard." True. "If he survived the initial impact-" Lie.

"Lie!" Toph yelled. "Lie! Lie! Lie!" She stomped her foot again and the metal around Bato's feet tightened.

Bato squirmed in discomfort. "He did survive. He called out for help. Luckily no one else was around to hear."

"Luckily!" Katara's outrage was as forceful as a hurricane. "You left him there to drown! He was in chains! How could you be so cruel?!"

"Could he have survived?" Toph asked.

"It's almost impossible," Hakoda said.

"We've beat long odds before," Sokka said, going into plan mode. It kindled a spark of hope in Toph's chest. "I'll take Appa. Katara, you fill in Aang. He can take his glider. You can use your Waterbending to look around, right?"

"I'm on it," she said. "Let's go."

Toph wanted to help, but she knew she would be useless looking for someone in the ocean. Every second counted, so she tried to keep out of the way as the two teens got to work. "Toph," Hakoda said quietly.

"What?" she snapped. Don't cry. Don't you dare let him see you cry.

"Will you release Bato?"

"Why should I?"

"I need to arrest him and bring him before assembly to decide his fate."

"How about you throw him overboard?" Toph suggested.

"I can't imagine how hard this must be for you. You're too young to have to deal with this sort of thing. What happened here was... profane. I promise you that I will make it right."

"Can you bring people back from the dead?" Toph asked bitterly.

"No," Hakoda said gently.

Toph punched the wall, and the metal around Bato's feet split open. The warrior fell to his knees. "Then you can't make it right." Toph walked away, a single tear escaping her eye.

...

Zuko stared at the rising sun. He was floating on his back, trying to rest. It was hard. Every time he shut his eyes he started to slip below the surface. He knew he needed to start swimming again, but his legs hurt so much. "You're weak. Even your soft hearted mother had a backbone when it counted. You disgust me."

"I'm sorry," he rasped to the ghost of his father's voice. "I'm tired."

"You're pathetic." A single tear slipped from Zuko's good eye. "You were lucky to be born. Now it seems that luck has run out. And not a moment too soon."

"Please, Father. I am your loyal son."

"You're a coward."

"I fought. You know I fought. I was in chains, but still I fought." Zuko had more to say, but his battered ribs and lungs decided he had said enough.

"Dying will be the best thing you ever did for our family."

Zuko closed his eyes as more tears escaped. He started to slip beneath the surface and felt something brush against him. Something slippery, yet rough. Zuko opened his eyes. If he had possessed fully functional lungs, or been less exhausted, he would have screamed. A Tigershark stared back at him. It was circling him. If he wanted, he could reach out and touch its striped skin or sharp whiskers. Zuko kicked gently, and broke the surface of the water. The Tigershark drew closer. It bumped against Zuko again. Blood in the water. It can taste my blood. Now it's deciding if I'm something it wants to eat or not. Zuko looked up at the sun. "Please," he begged. "Please, please, not like this. I don't want to die like this."

It had been a long time since Zuko had prayed properly. His mother used to take him to the temple to pray to the spirits, but that had been a long time ago. It was amazing how the imminent threat of being eaten by an aquatic predator can spark a spiritual reawakening in a person. "I know I've done bad things, and maybe I deserve to die, but please, please, not like this. Let me live. Give me a chance to do better. Let me make it right. Let me see my uncle again." Zuko was sobbing now.

The shark started towards him again. Zuko was too weak to swim away. He was too weak to even keep himself above water for much longer. He stared at the killer fish. It reached him and-

Zuko flinched. Then he looked down. The Tigershark had lodged itself under his chained arms and was keeping him above the surface of the water. "What?"

"Hello, Zuko."

Zuko looked up at the sun again. Floating in front of the great orb was the specter of a man Zuko would recognize anywhere. Zuko had memorized his every feature on the off chance that there had been some mistake, and he hadn't died 112 years ago. After all, Kyoshi had lived for over two hundred years. "Hello, Avatar Roku."

Roku gave Zuko a warm smile. That was perhaps the strangest part of all. The Fire Nation's greatest enemy, Zuko's greatest enemy, was looking at him like a kindhearted grandfather. It was disorienting to say the least. Even more than the shark saving his life, although that was definitely a close second. "We need to talk, young prince."

"Sure. I don't really have anything else going on right now. What's on your mind?"

"The fate of our country," Roku said.

Zuko would have laughed if he'd had the strength. "Our country?"

"It is true that the Avatar must serve the people of every nation, but just as Aang is and always shall be an Air Nomad, I have always been and continue to be a proud member of the Fire Nation."

"You betrayed the Fire Nation," Zuko accused. "You betrayed the Fire Lord."

"Prince Zuko, our country is more than the whims and wishes of just one man. The Fire Lord was always meant to be a servant of the people. Even Sozin, for all his faults, grasped this."

"Then why did you betray him?!"

"Zuko, I did my duty. Just as you have always done, to the best of your ability."

Zuko let more salty tears fall into the salty ocean. They wouldn't make that much of a difference. "I failed."

"How did you fail, Zuko?"

"I didn't capture the Avatar. My father gave me a task. My lord gave me a task."

For a moment, Roku was silent. "Prince Zuko, your father is not the rightful Fire Lord. You and I both know this."

"That's a lie!"

"Your Uncle Iroh was the Crown Prince."

"Fire Lord Azulon chose my father to succeed him!"

"No, he didn't. Zuko, you know that your father usurped your uncle's throne, that he used your mother as a tool to do this before discarding her, that he manipulated her love for you to bend her to his will, and that-"

"Enough! I won't listen to these lies!"

Roku kept quiet for a long moment. "I know you love your father, but Zuko, your father has committed grave crimes, against the world, against his people, against his father, against his brother, against his wife and against his children. He has broken all of our laws, even our most sacred. You know this. You were there. He must be stopped."

Zuko looked away from the blinding light. "I'm not a traitor."

"No, you are not. Despite your father's best attempts to paint you as one, to force you to be one, you have never been a traitor. Now Zuko, now you have the chance to restore the rightful Fire Lord to the throne."

"Uncle Iroh," Zuko whispered. "Is he still alive?" I left you, Uncle. After everything you did for me, I abandoned you.

"He is currently on his way to the Capital City to be imprisoned for life."

"If I help the Avatar and restore Uncle Iroh to his throne, what will happen to my father?"

"His fate will be of his own choosing."

"That's not an answer."

"It is the only true answer I can give you."

Truth. That's more than I ever got from Azula, or my- If I can rescue Uncle Iroh and end the war... I could save the people of all the nations. "And if I refuse, you leave me here to die?"

"No, Zuko, your salvation is close at hand." Roku raised a hand and pointed into the distance. Zuko squinted and glimpsed a familiar profile. A glider being ridden by a small boy. "The choice is yours. No one can make it for you."

Zuko raised his shackled hands to wave down the Avatar. "Aang! Aa-" Zuko slipped off the Tigershark and slid under the waves. Don't inhale. Don't inhale. Don't inhale. Zuko kicked and struggled, desperate to reach the surface. No! No! He's so close! Zuko kicked and kicked and wondered where the surface had gone off to. So it was all a cruel joke, or some sort of hallucination. I really am going to drown. I'm- Zuko felt a hand grip his and pull. He went up, up until he broke the surface of the water. Zuko took as deep a breath as his abused lungs would allow. He was pulled up onto something steady and very, very cold. "Thank you, thank you."

"Zuko! Are you okay?"

Zuko bit back a sarcastic retort and looked up at his savior. "I'm going to help you defeat my father," he said right before he passed out.

Katara refused to let herself cry. Blurry vision could mean the difference between his life and death. I have to focus. But the sea was glassy and undisturbed for as far as she could see. She surfed farther and farther out on her iceboard, but saw no sign of the missing prince. Bato is my family. How could he do this? Bato had always been a good friend to her parents, and after her mother died he had been around more and more. He would take meals with them and help with the maintenance of their household. Sometimes he even spent the night when he thought Kanna, Sokka and Katara had all already gone to sleep. She shook her head. She couldn't allow herself to be distracted.

“Katara!”

Katara looked over her shoulder. Aang was gliding towards her. She turned to meet him, pulse rising, hands sweating, even though it was a windy, chilly day. “Is he…?”

“I found him, he's alive!”

Katara let out a breath she hadn't known she was holding. “Oh, Aang-”

“He's hurt, though. We need to hurry back.”

She nodded, her spine turning to steel to match her resolve. Aang had done his part, and now it was time for her to do her’s. “What's his condition?” she asked as she surfed under him.

“Not good, I think.” Aang hesitated. “When I pulled him out of the water he said he was going to help us defeat the Fire Lord.”

Why would he decide to help us after a member of our group tried to kill him? Did he just say that because he thought Aang wouldn't rescue him otherwise? “Do you think he meant it?”

“I don't know. But… I think so, yeah.”

“Well, it doesn't matter right now. We can ask him about it once he's healed.”

Zuko felt… heavy. Even just opening his eyelids took way more effort than he knew it should. All he wanted was to go back to sleep, but he had to fight. I have to keep swimming. I have to find land. He tried to move his limbs, but it felt like he was submerged in a tub of molasses. At least I’m not in chains anymore. He turned his head and looked at his wrists. They were red and raw from the salt and metal rubbing against them, but he was free. How exactly did that happen, again?

“You're awake.”

Zuko blinked. He turned his head again and saw the blurry outline of a Water Tribe warrior. His heart leapt into his throat. He struggled to sit up.

The figure reached for him. “Hey, it's okay.”

“Don't,” he pleaded.

For once, his request was heeded. The hands stopped coming for him. The warrior dropped them into his lap. “I'm not going to hurt you.”

Zuko didn't know why, but he believed the man's calm, soothing voice. “Where…?” Zuko was having trouble getting his words to work properly. It was as though his brain had been dropped in the same tub as his limbs.

“You're on the ship. You have a severe head injury. Can I ask you some questions?”

Zuko definitely wasn't up to another interrogation. “No more questions,” he murmured. “I'm tired.”

“Just a few. They won't be difficult.” The blur held up his hand again and Zuko flinched.

“Can you see how many fingers I’m holding up?”

Zuko stared at the fuzzy hand for what felt like a long time. “I'm sorry,” he finally said, expecting to be berated. “Can't.”

“It's all right,” the blur assured him. “Can you tell me your name?”

He doesn't know my name? But I'm sure I know that voice. If he doesn't know it maybe I shouldn't tell him. “You first,” Zuko said.

“My name is Hakoda. You don't remember me?”

“I do. You're the Water Tribe Chief. You're Katara and Sokka's father. Are you the one that taught him to throw that damned boomerang?”

Hakoda laughed. It reminded Zuko of his uncle's laugh. Uncle. “I am. But I can't claim credit for his arm. He took to the thing like a fish to water. Do you know what day it is?”

“It's… the end of Spring. But it's not the first day of Summer yet. Almost though, right?”

“You're right,” Hakoda assured him. “Do you know what day you were born?”

“Why are you asking?”

“I'm trying to assess your head injury.”

Bato hit me in the head. I fell in the water. I saw Avatar Roku. Was that real? How could it be?

“Zuko, can you remember your birthday?”

“I was born during the last big monsoon of Autumn. The Fire Sage said it was an ill omen and that I might not live. I was smaller and weaker than my cousin had been. My dad said I was lucky to be born at all. My mother named me for her father. Dad didn't like that. Lu Ten told me they fought for a long time about it, while everyone was huddled in the storm shelter. She promised their next child would be named after Fire Lord Azulon.” Why am I telling him all these things? I need to stop talking.

“In my tribe we say that children born during storms have been blessed by the Ocean Spirit.”

The Ocean Spirit took Zhao, but he let me live. Is that why? Was I blessed by the storm?

“Katara will be here soon. She’ll heal you as best she can. Try to get some rest.”

“Am I going to die?”

“No, Zuko, you aren't going to die. Rest.”

Zuko was too tired to do anything but obey.

Hakoda put a hand to the sleeping boy’s brow to feel if the fever had worsened. He was too warm, but not yet past the danger threshold. When Hakoda had carried Zuko into this room to get him out of his wet clothes, the boy had been shivering despite how warm he was. At least that had stopped. But his breathing still had a worrisome sound, and he was an unhealthy color under his pearly parlor. While dressing the boy, Hakoda had assessed his injuries. The head wound was bad and the ribs not much better. Of course, those weren't the only things Hakoda found. Scars. So many. I suppose it was too much to hope his face was the only one.

The door slammed open. “Dad! Is he okay?!”

“He's stable Katara,” Hakoda assured her.

Katara was at the boy's side in an instant, her hands hovering over his battered skull. A blue glow that made Hakoda feel calm emitted from her hands. She bit her lip. “This kind of work is very delicate,” she confessed. “I'm not sure…”

“Just do the best you can,” Hakoda soothed her. “That is all anybody can ask of you.”

She nodded and took a deep breath. She closed her eyes, but her facial expression kept changing as though she were reacting to something. She doesn't see it, she feels it, like the little Earthbender. She's amazing, my daughter. Soon Katara moved onto Zuko's ribs, which Hakoda remembered her saying she couldn't heal. She can fix the soft tissue, but the bones will have to heal on their own. She did the wrists last. Hakoda watched in fascination as the flesh rubbed raw by iron and inflamed by salt knitted itself back together and returned to its proper color. Then Zuko opened his eyes.

“Katara?”

“How do you feel?” Katara asked.

Hakoda could see that she herself was exhausted after such an intense bout of healing, but she kept her focus on her patient. Hakoda couldn't be prouder.

“Better. You healed me again?”

She nodded. “Just patched a couple of things.”

“Thank you,” he whispered. “I owe you.”

“You don't owe me anything. I'm a healer. I have a sacred obligation.”

His eyes started to flutter closed again. “I'm sorry for… everything. All of it.”

“Zuko-”

“I'm going to make it right. Avatar Roku…” The thought went uncompleted as Zuko fell asleep.

Katara looked at her father. “What was that about Avatar Roku?”

Hakoda shrugged. “I'm not sure. Leave it for now, he needs his rest. And so do you, love.”

Katara gave her father a wry grin. “You might be right about that. I don't want to go too far though, in case there are any complications.”

“The room next door is unoccupied. Sleep. I’ll stay here and wake you if anything changes.”

“Promise?”

Hakoda kissed her brow. “I promise.”

She smiled and walked away. Hakoda went back to his vigil.

Zuko stood at the top of the volcano, looking down at the city of his birth and childhood. He could feel the heat radiating from the mouth of the volcano behind him, which was odd because it had been dormant for a long time, but Zuko ignored it. He was fascinated by the city, watching all the people going to and fro about their lives. He had forgotten how much he missed it. After so long away, home had become an abstract idea, a vague goal for the future.

“I miss it, too.” That made Zuko turn around. Avatar Roku gave Zuko another one of his grandfatherly grins. “My prince,” Roku inclined his head respectfully.

“Is this real?”

“Only a dream,” Roku assured him. “But dreams can be very real sometimes.”

Zuko turned back to the bustling city. “I want to go home,” he confessed as though it were some sort of shameful secret. “I miss my country.”

“As did I,” Roku said. “When I first journeyed to the Southern Air Temple to learn Airbending I spent every night dreaming about fish fries, fire festivals, and long hikes on the hot beach.”

“I miss diving for oysterclams with Lu Ten, watching fireworks with mother, practicing swordsmanship with Master Piandao.”

Roku put a hand on Zuko's shoulder. Zuko's first impulse was to shake it off, but he didn't. He couldn't quite say why. “I'm sorry, Zuko.”

Zuko looked away from the city, towards the beach and the crashing waves. “In our history books I’ll be remembered as the traitor prince, who betrayed his father and lord, who helped the Fire Nation's greatest enemy land an invasion on our shore. If I am not stricken out entirely, that is.” Zuko felt a pang of longing in his heart as he watched people picnic in the sands and frolic in the waves. That was me once. Or was it? It was all so long ago.

“Is that really what concerns you, Zuko? What others will say about you? I don't think it is.”

Zuko rubbed his face. “For so long I believed everything my father told me. I knew that I was weak and pathetic, because the Fire Lord said so, and the Fire Lord is infallible. I knew our country was superior and the people of the other nations savage because the Fire Lord said so, and the Fire Lord is infallible. I believed I could please him - earn his love - with unquestioning service and loyalty. But that was only ever a dream, a ridiculous dream. Now it's time to wake up. Not questioning my father didn't make me a loyal son, it made me a fool.” Zuko all but spit the last word. His contempt for himself raged within him like acid, eating away at him.

Roku squeezed Zuko's shoulder. “You were not a fool, but a child. Many of the trappings of childhood seem foolish to us as adults, but that does not mean that we were fools. We all must grow and change throughout our lives, and part of that growth is learning. Wisdom, Prince Zuko, is not inherent knowledge. Rather, it is a willingness to admit when one is or has been incorrect, and to learn the truth, even when it is painful. Many men and women who possess great sums of knowledge lack this wisdom. But you, Zuko, you who are only now at the beginning of manhood, are well on your way to possessing it. You will make many mistakes. You will stumble and even at times fall. But there are those around you who are eager to assist you in picking yourself back up again. And they need your help, too. The Avatar needs your guidance.”

Zuko turned to look at Roku. He raised a skeptical brow. “The Avatar needs my guidance?” Zuko shook his head. “Mine?”

Roku laughed gently. “As I told you before, the Avatar must serve the people of all nations. Aang's travels around the world, before and after his internment in that iceberg, have served him well in understanding the needs of each nation. However, Aang's knowledge of the Fire Nation is one hundred years old. Aang knows well the current circumstances of the Water Tribes and Earth Kingdom. Now he must journey to the Fire Nation and interact with the people there. He must learn about our culture and our heritage. He must become familiar with our beliefs and customs. Just as Aang learned from the people of the Water Tribes and Earth Kingdom, he will learn from the people of the Fire Nation, and you will lead him through that journey. It will not be an easy task, but you will also learn a great deal and gain new wisdom.”

Zuko stared into Roku's eyes. “I’ve made so many mistakes. What if I fail again? What if I can't help the Avatar understand our ways?”

“I think you will find you have a very eager student. Besides, you are only his guide. The learning itself will be up to Aang.”

Zuko took a deep breath. “How will he be able to trust me after everything I’ve done?”

Roku considered the question. “I suppose you'll just have to ask him that yourself.”

The air around them seemed to be getting… thinner almost, and Zuko began to feel heavier, like he could sink right through the ground, even though the ground was dense rock. “Wait, Avatar Roku! I still have so many questions!”

“I will see you soon.”

Zuko opened his eyes.

Aang paced up and down the corridor. He wanted to check on Zuko, but he also didn't want to get in Katara's way if she was healing or wake Zuko up if he was resting. Aang considered going to look for Sokka, but then he remembered Sokka went to go visit Bato in the room where he was currently imprisoned, and even if the visit was concluded, Sokka probably wasn't in the best mood. To care that much about somebody, to trust them completely, and then be betrayed by them. That must be awful. Of course that thought only reminded Aang of the first time he had met Bato, and how Aang himself had been the one to betray his friends. Aang hung his head. Maybe he should go look for Toph.

Aang.

Aang's head shot up. The corridor was empty, but he knew someone had called him. "Hello?"

I need to speak with you.

Aang hesitated. "Roku?"

There is something important I must tell you.

Aang nodded. He headed to his quarters and then assumed his meditation pose. He allowed the sensations and concerns of his present life to fall away for a moment and reached out to his past life. He opened his eyes and looked at Roku. Aang inclined his head respectfully.

"Hello, Aang."

"Avatar Roku. You have something important to tell me?"

"It would be more accurate to say that I have something to show you. But I cannot show you here. You must journey to my home island. There I will be able to explain to you how this war started, so that you might finally end it."

"Your home island? But isn't that in the Fire Nation?"

"It is. You must travel across the Fire Nation, just as you have journeyed through the Water Tribes and Earth Kingdom."

"But what about the invasion? We'll never have time to pick everyone up and roam across the Fire Nation."

"You must leave this army for now, and reunite with them on the Day of Black Sun. This pilgrimage is crucial to not only the end of the war, but to your future as the Avatar."

Aang nodded solemnly. "I understand."

As Roku faded away, Aang got to his feet and set out to find Zuko. The teen was awake, and looking noticeably better than he had when Aang pulled him out of the ocean. It'd be hard for him to look much worse. Zuko was talking to Hakoda when Aang entered but stopped the moment he became aware of Aang's presence, so Aang didn't catch any of their conversation.

"Avatar Aang," Zuko said.

"Wow, that's so formal. How about just Aang?" Aang gave Zuko a lopsided grin.

"Alright... Aang. I have to tell you something. It's going to sound strange."

"I have a pretty high bar for what I consider strange," Aang said.

Zuko took a deep breath. "Okay, here goes.” He looked nervous. "You need to come to the Fire Nation with me."

Aang laughed. "That's uncanny!"

Zuko flinched. "I know this is going to sound like some sort of trick, but-"

"I just came here to tell you the exact same thing!"

"You did?" Zuko frowned in confusion.

"Yeah! Avatar Roku told me I needed to go to his home island. I thought you could show me, Katara, Sokka, and Toph how to get there."

"Well, that was easy," Zuko said. "I was worried you would think I was either crazy or a liar."

"Why is that?" Hakoda asked. "What's your reasoning for wanting to take the Avatar to the Fire Nation?" Hakoda didn't sound suspicious, exactly, just curious.

"Same reason actually," Zuko said. "Roku appeared to me too. I have no idea how though. He told me you needed to spend time among the people of the Fire Nation."

"Great!" Aang grinned.

"Are you certain this is a good idea?" Hakoda asked. "If you are captured the invasion plan falls apart."

"All the more reason to go to the Fire Nation! That's the last place they'll think to look for me."

"I suppose it's not my place to question the Avatar," Hakoda said. "Katara is next door if you want to consult her."

"Good idea! See you later, Zuko! Feel better!" Aang collected air under him and rode his air scooter into Katara's room.

...

Zuko stared at the giant flying bison. The last time I saw this beast he was in chains. He's a lot more intimidating now, especially since he hasn't been beaten or starved recently. I wonder if he remembers me. Appa took a step towards Zuko, who quickly backed up. With his giant tongue, Appa licked Zuko, covering him in slobber. I guess that answers that question.

"Thanks," Zuko said. "Nice to see you again, as well."

"Talking to yourself, Sparky?" Zuko hadn't heard the young Earthbender approach.

Zuko turned to face her, glad she couldn't see his blush. "No, no I was just... We've met before, Appa and I."

"When you were hunting Aang?" Toph asked in a tone that defined nonchalant.

"No- Well, yes. But after that. Under Lake Laogai. I was there to capture him, but I ended up letting him go instead, and then I got a fever and had a dream about a pair of dragons..." Zuko trailed off.

"Wow," Toph said. "You might just be the worst storyteller in the whole world."

Zuko's blush deepened. "Probably," he admitted. "My uncle's better."

"You're not lying," she said with a chuckle. "We were at Lake Laogai too, wouldn't it have been something if we had run into each other?"

"Probably best we didn't." Zuko began to absentmindedly run his fingers through the bison's soft fur. It was longer and thicker than Zuko imagined. He could probably submerge his whole hand into it before reaching skin. "I would have just tried to capture Aang and run off with him, probably getting us both killed."

Toph snorted in amusement. "Are you familiar with the concept of too much honesty? Because some things can just go unsaid, you know.”

Zuko shrugged. Petting the bison was oddly soothing. "A lie by omission is still a lie. I'm not a liar." Not anymore, at least. Nor will I be a thief or a manipulator. I'll be someone Uncle can be proud of, someone worthy of his forgiveness, and all the faith he showed in me when I was wretched to him.

"You okay, Zukes? Your heart is doing a weird rhythm. Sounds sad."

Zuko shivered. "Can you... always hear people's hearts? Do you turn it on and off?" One of the few things I thought was really and truly private. What's next? Can Katara read minds? Does Sokka have X-ray vision? What happened to privacy?

"I can't turn it on and off, exactly. As long as you are standing on, or at least touching, earth or metal, then I can feel the vibrations your heartbeat makes using my Earthbending. Does that bother you?" She sounded almost self-conscious on the final question.

If she can't help it, then it's not her fault. There's no reason to make her feel bad. "Not at all," he attempted to say in a tone of disinterest. Zuko had never been good at insincerity, but he hoped she bought it. He didn't know Toph very well yet, but he already liked her. She appreciated his uncle, and that was worth a lot. "Just curious."

"Liar."

She just said she can hear your heartbeat and earlier told you she can use that ability to read lies, and you tried to lie to her anyway? You are such an idiot. Zuko flinched. "No, I-"

"It's okay. Thanks for trying to spare my feelings, but you don't need to. I don't care what other people think of me."

Zuko didn't need to listen to Toph's heart to know she was lying, but he knew better than to call her on it. He wasn't that much of an idiot. "I'm sorry."

"That's one of the only lies you've told the whole time you've been with us, and none of them have been lie lies. Why does me knowing if you're lying bother you if you don't really do it?" she asked.

"It's just…” Zuko dropped his hand from Appa. “It feels really personal. It's my heart. What's more private than that?"

Toph considered this. "You know, love and all that gooey emotional crap aren't really stored in your heart. It's just an organ that pumps blood to your brain. Your feelings are still private, but I'll try not to pay too much attention to your heart since it upsets you."

"Thank you," he said. "Does that mean you trust me?"

"Absolutely. I'm a great judge of character. You're good people."

Zuko was stunned. I'm not worthy of her faith. But I'll work to become so. He bowed to her. "I appreciate that, Master Bei Fong. You honor me."

Now it was Toph's turn to blush. "Just don't tell Katara I'm a softy. I have a rep to protect, you know?"

"Your secret is safe with me," Zuko said solemnly.

"What secret?" A suspicious looking Sokka appeared with a bag slung over his shoulder. "You already scheming?"

Toph rolled her eyes and punched Sokka in the shoulder. "Mind your own, Snoozles. You have a few secrets of your own." She stood on her tiptoes and whispered something in his ear.

Sokka turned scarlet. "How do you- I never told anyone- That's private!"

Toph patted Sokka on the shoulder. "And private it shall remain," she said soothingly. "That the last of the stuff?"

"Yeah." Sokka tossed the bag onto the saddle. He turned to Zuko. "Look, I'm really sorry about what Bato did to you. It was wrong. You didn't deserve that. Nobody deserves that. But if this all turns out to be a trick to give Aang to your father I won't hesitate to take you down, got it?" Sokka glared at Zuko.

Zuko nodded. "Got it."

Sokka stared into Zuko's yellow eyes with his blue ones for a long moment before nodding and walking off.

Toph punched Zuko in the arm. "I think he likes you," she teased.

"Ow! What was that for?"

"That's how I show affection."

"Great," Zuko said.

Katara approached. She looked forlorn, staring into the distance. "You okay?" Zuko asked softly, before wondering if maybe it wasn't his place to ask.

But she gave him a soft smile. "Sokka and I were just reunited with our father, and now we're splitting up again. It doesn't feel right." She hugged her chest.

"I'm sorry," he whispered.

She shook her head. "We'll see him again soon. And after the invasion we can all go home." She smiled.

Zuko wished he could return that smile, but his thoughts were far from pleasant. Except for me. Will my people ever accept me again after what I have to do? He looked away.

"Zuko?" Katara asked.

Aang floated over at that exact moment. "The Earth King wishes us good luck! Sokka's almost done saying goodbye to your dad. Let's load up," he chirped.

Zuko looked at the distant horizon. My first time back home - with the exception of one ill fated attempt to pursue the Avatar - in three years, and possibly my last. He climbed atop the bison.

"All right, everybody!" crowed Aang. "Next stop, the Fire Nation!"

Chapter Text

Sokka took a hesitant step onto the rocky beach. "This is it you guys, we're officially in enemy territory." He swallowed dramatically.

Katara rolled her eyes. "Yeah, look at all the Fire Nation soldiers." She gestured to the deserted shore.

Zuko cleared his throat. "Actually, we've been in the Fire Nation for a while now. My country counts the ocean around and the air above our lands as being part of the Fire Nation. And the Fire Nation is actually the place you're least likely to find on duty Fire Nation soldiers. We're not invading our own lands, after all."

"Thank you, Mr. Smarty Pants," Sokka said sarcastically.

"Hey," Aang said. "Zuko is our guide. We should listen to him. I, for one, am learning a lot. A hundred years ago, the Fire Nation didn't count air space as part of their country. Nobody did. Air is the element of freedom, after all."

"And if there's one thing that's the opposite of free," Sokka said. "It's the Fire Nation."

"You might be surprised," Zuko said.

"Why's that?" Katara asked genuinely.

Zuko shrugged. "The only people you've met from the Fire Nation have been soldiers and colonials. That's not what most of us are like."

"What are you like?" Katara asked.

"Ummmm..."

"Ha!" Sokka laughed. "Some guide you are. Hey!" Sokka protested as Toph elbowed him in the gut.

"So Zuko," Aang said. "Where to first?"

"We should probably find shelter and a place for Appa to hide. Then we all need to get some new clothes."

"What's wrong with our clothes? These are Fire Nation clothes," Katara said.

"They're military uniforms," Zuko explained. "People will assume you, me, and Sokka are soldiers on leave, and they'll wonder how the hell kids as young as Aang and Toph wound up in military clothing. We don't need to draw that kind of attention to ourselves."

What a bossy know-it-all. No wonder he and Katara are getting along so well. I just wonder why Toph hasn't gotten sick of him yet. Sokka kicked a rock. As he watched it skitter away, he noticed something in the distance. "Look!"

"A cave," Katara said. "And plenty big enough for Appa to fit inside. Nice find, Sokka!" She started for it.

Toph and Aang followed her, and Sokka was about to as well when he noticed Zuko squat down and touch the ground. "Uh, Zuko? What are you doing?"

Zuko shot up. Clearly, he hadn't realized that anybody was watching him. "Nothing," he said heatedly. "Let's go."

What a weirdo.

...

Zuko cleared his throat to get the shopkeeper's attention. The tall, thin man with a long, thin mustache looked up from his catalogue. He had small gold wire-rimmed spectacles that flashed in the sunlight. He adjusted his glasses. "How can I help you, young man?"

"We need to buy some clothes."

"Well, you've certainly come to the right place," the shopkeeper said pleasantly. "Just back from deployment, are we?" The shopkeeper came out from behind the counter.

"Yeah," Zuko said.

"Are you from the area?" he asked as he rifled through a box full of measuring implements.

"No," Zuko said. "We're staying with our aunt and uncle. They asked us to pick up some clothes for our cousins, too, while we were here."

The shopkeeper chuckled. "Just got back and they're already putting you to work? Isn't that just the way of it. Do any of you see anything you like?"

"How much is this?" Katara asked, drawing Zuko's and the shopkeeper's attention. She was fingering a lovely red silk wrap. "It's beautiful. And it feels so light." I doubt she's used to summers like this, being from the South Pole.

The shopkeeper walked over, smiling genially. "Ah, I see the lovely young lady has a taste for lovely things! This is a fine grade of silk, but never you fear. I would be honored to offer a hefty discount to the brave young woman who risked her life to serve her country."

Katara blushed. "Oh, I..."

The shopkeeper examined the outfits, finding one identical to the one Katara had chosen but more accurate to her proportions. "Try this on." The shopkeeper pointed out the changing room. "You'll be a vision in it, I'm sure."

Sokka approached with an outfit for himself. "What do you think? Would this look good on me?" Sokka appraised the outfit, seeming unsure. "I'm not sure if it's my color. I do like these buttons though, very fancy. I'm torn."

Zuko restrained the urge to roll his eyes at the Water Tribesman. And I thought my sister was vain. She's got nothing on this guy. Zuko yanked a cheap-looking robe off a hanger and looked for something that would appeal to Aang and Toph. In the background, he was vaguely aware of Sokka discussing the merits of various clothing ornamentation. Zuko picked up some headwear for Aang. He'll need this.

"What do you think?"

Everyone turned around at the sound of Katara's voice. The shopkeeper actually applauded. "Stunning!" he crooned. "Absolutely stunning! I should pay you to wear it. All the young women of the village will come flocking to me for clothing when they see you!"

Katara blushed. "Oh... Thank you..."

"That necklace doesn't really match, though it’s an interesting design." The shopkeeper adjusted his spectacles.

Crap! We're screwed. "We, uh... found that on a campaign," Zuko said. "Thought it looked interesting. I'd never seen anything like it before."

The shopkeeper took a closer look. "That might be because this isn't an Earth Kingdom design. It's Water Tribe craftsmanship, if I'm not mistaken."

"Really?" Katara feigned ignorance. "Is it valuable?"

"Hard to say. Certainly, some might be enamored with such a novelty. You should keep it though. It's nice to have a memento of one's time abroad. It will be something to show your grandchildren, if nothing else." The shopkeeper smiled.

"I'll do that," Katara said. She took the necklace off and put it in her pocket. "But you're right. It doesn't really go with my outfit."

"How did you recognize that it was Water Tribe?" Sokka asked suspiciously.

That's a good question. Strange knowledge for a tailor in a small town to have. Zuko would have almost sworn the tailor looked nervous.

"I had a friend who was a member of the Southern Raiders. He showed me all kinds of oddities he found down there."

Sokka opened his mouth to say something Zuko just knew was going to get them into trouble. Zuko cut him off before he had the chance. "Do you think that T- Tsuki and, um, Lu Ten will like these?" Zuko held up the outfits he found for Toph and Aang. Next time, think of the fake names before you go into the store, Zuko berated himself.

"Is your cousin starting school?" The shopkeeper seemed relieved to have something else to talk about.

Sure, why not? "Yes," Zuko said.

"He'll look a fine young man in this." The shopkeeper took the clothes from Zuko, including the ones Zuko had picked out for himself. The shopkeeper frowned. "You'll be much too hot in these."

"I'll be fine," Zuko said in a failed attempt at a casual tone. "I like them."

"I can find you something with a similar design that will be much cooler."

"Really, I'd prefer these."

The shopkeeper looked at Zuko again, and this time his eyes lingered on his face. "You shouldn't be ashamed of combat scars. They're a badge of honor."

Zuko flinched. "I..."

The shopkeeper patted Zuko's shoulder. "You served your Fire Lord with honor, and that is all that matters. Do you want to try this on before you purchase it?"

Zuko took the clothes and headed into the back, more to escape the shopkeeper than anything else. He kept an ear out, though, in case any more dangerous subjects came up. This might turn out to be more difficult than I thought. Zuko hesitated before starting to disrobe. He knew he was alone, but still he felt uncomfortable. Then he reminded himself that the less time the Water Tribe siblings spent alone with the shopkeeper the better, and he hurried up. Zuko was right to be concerned, because when he came out Sokka was haggling with the shopkeeper, who was frowning at the young man.

"If she gets a discount, does that mean I get one too?" Sokka asked.

Zuko kicked Sokka in the shins. "Ow! What was that for?"

"A thousand pardons," Zuko told the shopkeeper. "He has spent far too much time in the Earth Kingdom. He intended no disrespect to you. We are sure your prices are more than fair."

The shopkeeper seemed mollified. "Yes, no doubt you're used to dealing with unscrupulous Earth Kingdom scam artists who would charge you a month's salary for a burlap sack. You're back in the Fire Nation, though. Here, merchants conduct themselves with honor."

"Of course," Sokka said, clearly put out and struggling not to say something. "I'm sorry."

"No need for apologies, young man. I, like all of our citizens, am in your debt for your service to our country."

"So then- oof."

Zuko smacked Sokka upside the head while the shopkeeper wasn't looking. "Stop talking," Zuko hissed in his ear.

"Well now, here is your total. I'll wrap the clothes for your cousins." Katara counted out the gold to give him while the shopkeeper painstakingly wrapped Aang's and Toph's outfits. The price had been exceedingly fair, although Zuko suspected it would have been even lower if Sokka had just kept his mouth shut. It's not really his fault, though. Haggling is just how things are done in the Earth Kingdom. How was he supposed to know it's perceived as an insult here? As their transaction was all but concluded the shopkeeper grinned at Katara again. "Truly, you are a vision. How nice it must be to be able to wear fine things again after being stuck in a uniform for so long. You need only one thing to complete the ensemble." The shopkeeper reached under the counter and pulled out a beautiful hairpin, a ceramic red flower. "What do you think?"

"Oh, we can't really afford-"

"You misunderstand, dear girl! This is a gift. You have honored me by choosing to wear clothing made by my own hand. I wish to give you only a small trinket in return." He held out the flower.

"Oh, Than-" Zuko, out of the shopkeeper's line of sight, shook his head emphatically. "k you, but I couldn't."

"Please, child, it would do my heart good to give something to such a proper young lady, and so patriotic."

Zuko shook his head again, and then held up three fingers, hoping that she would understand. "It's too generous. I would feel like I was taking advantage of you. You've already been so kind."

"I am honored by your words, but I want you to have this. It will complete your outfit, and send even more young women to my shop. Please, you will be doing me a favor," he insisted.

Zuko shook his head again. "I'm sorry," Katara said. "It's too much. That's beautiful enough to be sold to a noble lady. I'm just a peasant."

"You do yourself wrong. You are a warrior, a faithful servant of our most gracious and noble Fire Lord. You deserve this as much as any noblewoman. Please, take it."

Zuko nodded and made a 'go ahead' gesture with his hand. Then he bowed slightly. Katara copied Zuko's bow but at the appropriate depth. "You honor me."

The shopkeeper put the hairpin in Katara's hair. It really did match her outfit perfectly. "All the young people of the village will be trying to either marry you or hide their marriage prospects from you," he said with a chuckle.

Katara blushed, and then she bowed again. "Thank you. I will make certain to tell as many people as possible about the excellence of your shop."

As they left with the package containing the clothes for the younger members of their group under Zuko's arm, Sokka glared at Zuko. "What was all that?"

Zuko looked at him in confusion. "What do you mean? The haggling thing? We don't haggle here. It's disrespectful."

"No it isn't," Sokka insisted. "And what was with not letting Katara take that hairpiece? He clearly wanted her to have it. Why shouldn't she take it?"

Zuko sighed. "There's a code of etiquette for giving and receiving gifts in the Fire Nation. It's really complex with the noble class, but among the common people it basically boils down to a few strict rules, one of which being that when a stranger offers you a gift like that, you have to say no three times before you accept it. Otherwise, it's an insult."

"That's stupid," Sokka declared.

Zuko felt a flash of annoyance, but before he could snap at Sokka, Katara interceded. "Come on, Sokka. How would you feel if Zuko called our culture stupid? It's just good manners."

"No, waiting until the oldest person at the fire has started eating before taking a bite is good manners. This is just dumb. If you want to give someone a gift you should just give it to them."

Zuko scowled. "Well, that's not how we do things here," he said. "Get over it."

Toph dropped the pair of shoes Zuko handed her onto the ground. "I'm not wearing these." She folded her arms.

"Toph!" Katara sounded upset, but Toph didn't care a bit. "These are brand new!"

"So?" I didn't tell her to buy them. What was she thinking? I've had lots of brand new things in my life. Is that supposed to impress me? Toph jutted out her chin in defiance. "What do I care?"

"So we spent good coin on them, and you're getting them all dirty."

"Take them back," she said with a shrug.

"Be reasonable!" Katara pleaded. "What will people think if you walk around with no shoes on? We can't let anybody find out you're an Earthbender."

"I doubt that's the first conclusion that anybody will jump to," Toph said with a derisive snort. And if they do, I'll just throw rocks at their head until they agree to keep quiet. Better not say that to Katara, though. She won't approve.

"We can't be too careful," Katara insisted.

Toph was about to reply when she noticed Zuko bending down to pick up the shoes. He pulled something out of his pocket. Or at least his body weight shifted in the way people's usually did when they were pulling things out of their pockets. "Uh, Zuko?" Aang sounded nervous. "What are you doing?"

Toph was pretty sure the thing Zuko pulled out of his pocket was a knife, because his next movement was one she identified easily as Zuko stabbing her shoes. Toph laughed.

"Zuko!" Toph wanted to bottle Katara's outrage so she could savor it later.

Toph didn't realize what Zuko was doing until he tossed the shoes at her. She caught them easily. They had no soles. "Will you wear them now?" he asked.

Toph shrugged. "Sure."

"Problem solved," Zuko said. "Let's go get something to eat."

I'm digging your style, Sparky.

...

Zuko led his new companions into the village square. "Our number one priority is to not draw attention to ourselves, so let's all try to keep a low profile, and-"

"Meat!" Sokka ran for one of the wooden stalls advertising various meats.

I can't believe this is the tactical genius that foiled all of my plans and outsmarted my sister once.

"Meat!" Sokka begged the vendor.

The heavy man produced a hearty laugh that shook his whole body from his thick gut to both of his chins. "What can I do you for kid? I've got swordfishsalmon burgers. Electric eelsnake stuffed with crabspiders. Sharkwhale cubes fried in its own fat-" the man began what was no doubt a very long list.

"That! The thing fried in its own fat please and thank you," Sokka said.

The cook grinned as he turned around to complete the order. "A man after my own heart," he declared. "What'll it be for the rest of you kids?" he asked.

"Those kabobs look good," Katara said.

The man grabbed one and threw it on the grill. "A kabob for the lady."

"Do you have anything for vegetarians?" Aang asked hesitantly.

The man stared at Aang like he had just started speaking a foreign language. "Anything for what now?"

"Do you have anything without meat?" Aang attempted a second time.

"Got some crispy seaweed. ‘Course, I fry it in sharkwhale fat..."

"He'll just have an ice drink," Zuko said quickly. "He's just kidding."

"Right, then," the man said. "Mango, Papaya or Banana," he asked.

"Banana," Aang said. "And can you put some onion in it?"

"Can I put-"

"Knock it off A- Lu Ten. He's a real prankster, this one," Zuko said.

"Uh-huh."

"I'll have one of those swordfishsalmon burgers," Toph declared.

"You got it, little lady." The man handed Sokka a paper bag dripping grease. "You want hot sauce, fire sauce, or volcano sauce?" the man asked Sokka.

"Uh... do you have a regular sauce?"

"I said we have hot sauce."

"I'll take that, then."

The man handed Sokka a small container of a red sauce that looked incredibly spicy. "And what'll it be for you?" he asked Zuko as he wrapped the bottom of Katara's kabob stick in several napkins to catch all the grease and juices dripping off of it. The man handed the kabob to Katara. "Here ya go."

"Thanks!" Katara said.

"Do you have any fire flakes?" Zuko asked hesitantly.

"Do I- What do you take me for? Of course I do! I'll crisp them up nice."

"You don't need to," Zuko said.

"Oh, you're a Firebender, eh?" The man tossed Zuko a bag tied with string.

I haven't eaten these in three years. Zuko felt weirdly giddy to be able to eat his favorite childhood snack again. They probably aren't as good as I remember. I probably built it up in my head because I couldn't have any.

Sokka tossed a gelatinous cube into his mouth. "Mmmm, so good," he said with his mouth full. "I can taste the fat."

"I'm so ashamed to be related to you," Katara said as she took a delicate bite out of her kabob. "This is very good, sir."

The man laughed some more as he handed Aang his drink and Toph a glistening burger wrapped in several napkins. Katara counted out the money they owed him while Zuko opened the bag of fire flakes. He threw a handful into the air and then created a brief stream of fire for them to fall through before catching the now crispy flakes.

"Cool!" Aang grinned as Zuko dumped the flakes into his mouth. "Can I have some?!" He was bouncing on his toes.

"They're not vegetarian," Zuko reminded Aang. "Sorry. Otherwise I would share."

"That's okay," Aang said with a shrug. "I like my banana drink. Want some?"

"No thanks."

"Well, I love meat," Toph said. "Hand over some flakes, Sir Flames-A-Lot."

Zuko laughed. He tossed another batch into the air to crisp and catch, then offered the handful to Toph. She grinned as she reached her much tinier hand in and pulled out a fistful of fire flakes. "Careful," Zuko said. "Hot."

Toph threw the whole handful into her mouth. "Yah! Aang! Hand over your ice drink!" She snatched it before he could comply and took a long sip before returning it half as full as it had been.

"Sorry," Zuko started to say, but Toph was now laughing.

"Give me some more of those."

Zuko chuckled and shook his head, but he complied. Instead of eating them straight this time, Toph sprinkled them on top of her burger. She took a bite and grinned maniacally. "Yummmmm."

Sokka, Katara, and Aang all laughed at Toph, or rather they laughed with her, Zuko realized. Toph was putting on a show, and clearly having a good time doing it. They all have a sense of humor about themselves and each other. They're not looking for weaknesses to exploit in each other. They trust their friends not to ridicule or manipulate them. Zuko thought of Azula.

"You okay, Zuko?"

"Huh?"

"Your face got all pensive.”

"Just thinking." Zuko threw another handful of flakes in the air.

"What ab-" Their conversation was interrupted by a naked toddler running up to Zuko and holding out his hands.

Zuko laughed and dropped some crispy fire flakes into the kid's hands. The toddler stuffed his cheeks full of flakes, although most of them ended up on the ground, grinned, and then ran off without a word.

"Uhhhh..." Sokka stared at Zuko with wide eyes. "Does that happen a lot?"

"What happened?" Toph asked. "Some kid asked Zuko for free snacks. So what?"

"He wasn't wearing any clothes!" Katara sounded horrified. "He was naked!"

"So?" Zuko said through a mouthful of fire flakes. "What's the big deal?"

"Really?" Toph asked. "Are you guys pulling a prank on me? I can hurt you."

"It's true! That kid wasn't wearing any clothes. And that woman isn't wearing a shirt!" Aang pointed at a breastfeeding mother who, as he said, was topless.

Zuko grabbed Aang's hand and forced it down. "Knock it off," he hissed. "You're being rude. She's just feeding her kid."

"Why doesn't she use a blanket?" Katara asked. "That's what we do in the Water Tribe, and we don't take our shirts off."

"It's blistering hot out," Zuko said. "Covering your newborn with a blanket in this weather is a great way to give it heatstroke. Anyway, what difference does it make? If it bothers you, don't look." Zuko crisped another handful of flakes.

"So people in the Fire Nation just... walk around naked?" Sokka asked. "Just because it's hot? That's crazy!"

Zuko rolled his eyes. "We don't ‘walk around naked’. She wasn't naked."

"That kid was definitely naked," Aang said in a mild voice. "No clothes."

"He was practically a baby. He's not even old enough to know the difference."

"Shouldn't his parents do something about it?" Sokka asked. "Shouldn't somebody make him get dressed?"

"Hold on, guys," Aang said. "This is a cultural difference. In Fire Nation culture apparently nudity isn't a big deal."

"Not when kids do it," Zuko said. "Adults don't walk around naked, that would be completely inappropriate."

"But that woman-" Sokka began.

"So do you think her kid should starve or get heatstroke?" Zuko asked. "Or do you think new mothers shouldn't be allowed outside until their kids are weaned?"

"Uh..." Sokka looked at Katara.

"What?" she asked.

"You want to take this one?"

Katara took a bite out of her kabob and chewed thoughtfully. "Nope!" she said after she had swallowed. "I like seeing you suffer. Also, I think Zuko might be right. It's like the thing Aang said about milk. Or seafood in the Earth Kingdom."

"I'm not following," Sokka said.

"Me neither," Toph admitted.

"Ooh!" Aang threw his hand in the air and started hopping from foot to foot. "I get it, call on me! Call on me!" he pleaded.

"Aang?" Katara said, clearly amused.

"When people grow up in different environments, it shapes them physically and culturally. People in the Fire Nation don't drink milk because this isn't a good environment for dairy farming. And they don't have the same nudity taboos as the Water Tribes or Earth Kingdom because the intense heat makes lots of clothing uncomfortable or dangerous."

"Excellent answer, pupil Aang," Katara said. "Full marks."

"Woo hoo!"

Zuko shook his head. "You guys are so weird," he muttered.

Aang whistled a jaunty tune. Katara and Toph had gone off to check out some hot mud pools that were supposed to feel amazing and have some sort of special medicinal properties. Katara's interest was as a healer, and Toph had decided to tag along because: "You had me at mud." Sokka wanted to try diving off of some tall cliff locals used when hunting for oysterclams. Zuko went with him because: "I don't want you to get yourself killed." Sokka was offended, but Katara seemed to appreciate someone taking over 'keep Sokka alive' duty from her for a little while. Aang, however, had different plans for the day. Still thinking about Avatar Roku's words, Aang was determined to interact with as many Fire Nation citizens as possible.

"Good day, Hotman. Hotman." People were giving him strange looks for some reason. Aang couldn't figure out why.

"There you are! I've caught you!"

Aang froze. He turned to see a severe looking woman glaring at him. "Me?"

"Yes, you! You thought you could get away with skipping school?"

"With... Yeah! That's what I did. Skip school. I'm sorry. I'll head there right away." Aang put on his most remorseful face. "I was wrong."

"You most certainly were. You can't fool me. I'll escort you to make sure you make it to class this time. Come along."

Fire Nation school! This is great! What better place to learn about the people of the Fire Nation than their own schools!

...

Zuko smirked at Sokka. Maybe it was petty, but the other boy had been giving him a hard time, and it was a little sweet to see the tables turned. Sokka gulped as he stood at the edge of the cliff, looking down at the choppy water below. "Are you sure this is safe?"

"Come on!" another teen loudly complained. "Jump or get out of the way! Some of us have places to be!"

"It's okay, Sokka. If you're too afraid-"

Sokka’s eyes snapped up to glare at Zuko. "I'm not afraid!" he declared shrilly.

Zuko held up his hands in mock surrender. "Of course not. You don't want to jump in the water for a completely different reason."

"Well I don't see you particularly eager to jump in either!"

Zuko smiled. I can't exactly turn down that challenge, now can I? Zuko tossed the contents of his pockets, with one exception, at Sokka. "Watch my stuff."

"What are you-"

Zuko unsheathed his knife and put the blade between his teeth, before tossing the sheath at Sokka as well. "Hey! No cutting in line!" someone yelled.

Zuko ran. "Wait! Zuko!"

When he hit the water, instinct took over. He started kicking immediately, using the momentum from the dive to help him get to the bottom. Lu Ten taught me how to do this, he remembered. We were at Ember Island. I was scared to jump, but he told me it was alright and that I could wait until I was ready. He dove down and came back with dozens of oysterclams. I helped him clean them and we found four pearls. One of them was a fire pearl. "I'm collecting these, Zuko. One day I'll have enough to make into a necklace. I'll give it to the woman I'm going to marry." Lu Ten grinned.

"Who are you going to marry, Cousin?"

"Well, I haven't met her yet," he admitted.

We both laughed. In the end, I summoned the courage to dive. I didn't make it to the bottom that time, but Lu Ten hugged me and said he was proud of me anyway. By the time that vacation was over I was bringing up oysterclams almost every time I dived down.

Zuko took out his knife and started cutting oysterclams away from the rocks. You would have made a great Crown Prince, Lu Ten. Much better than me. You wouldn't have disgraced yourself. You were always so brave and so strong. If you had lived...

When Zuko broke the surface holding up the bag of his catch, yelling "Dinner!" at Sokka and grinning, he was confident the ocean water was disguising his tears.

Katara raised a brow when she and Toph entered the cave and smelled stew simmering over the fire. "You started dinner?" she asked Sokka in disbelief.

Sokka shook his head and pointed at Zuko, who Katara now saw was whittling holes in oysterclam shells. " You started dinner?" I didn't even know he could cook. I figured he was used to having servants for that sort of thing.

Zuko didn't look at her, focused on blowing on the oysterclam shell. "Is that okay?"

"Well, yeah, of course. I'm just surprised."

"Thanks," Zuko said dryly.

"No, it's just... Usually I have to do all of that stuff by myself. Thank you."

Zuko added his shell to a small pile of shells with holes in them and picked up a new shell. They were all clean and shiny. Katara thought they looked lovely when the firelight reflected off of them. "You're welcome." He started whittling his new shell. "It's oysterclam stew."

"I kind of figured that," she said.

"Zuko and I caught the oysterclams."

"You really jumped off that crazy tall cliff?" Toph asked Sokka. "I thought for sure you would pigchicken out."

"I jumped!" Sokka defended himself. "...Eventually."

Toph laughed. "I knew it!"

"Hey! I did jump. That's all that counts."

"Sokka did a good job," Zuko said mildly. "Especially since it was his first time."

"He pay you to say that?" Toph asked.

"No," Zuko said, not seeming to realize she was kidding. "Katara keeps all the money on her person." Well, I have to, otherwise Sokka spends it all on trinkets and jerky.

"Right," Toph said. "So where's Aang?"

Zuko shrugged and then blew on his shell. "He's not back yet."

Sokka sat up suddenly. "Yeah," he said in a strange tone of voice. "Where is Aang, huh, Zuko?" He glared at Zuko.

Zuko looked up from his shell. "Sokka," he said with a sigh. "We've been together the whole day. It's literally impossible for me to have done anything to Aang. He probably just got distracted by a colorful bird or flower and is on his way back right now." Zuko returned to his whittling. "Quit being paranoid."

"That's exactly what a guilty person would say!" Sokka scrambled to his feet and pointed an accusing finger at Zuko.

Katara's heart leapt into her throat. I can't believe I let us split up. What is wrong with me? If Aang's in trouble it's all my fault. I should have been there to protect him! Katara felt sick.

"Hey, guys! What are you doing, Sokka?"

Everyone except for Zuko turned to watch Aang enter the cave. "Where have you been?!" Katara practically shrieked.

"We were worried sick!" Sokka shouted, still pointing at Zuko. He then realized he was still pointing and lowered his hand, his cheeks reddening.

"I wasn't worried about you at all actually," Toph told Aang.

"I was at school," Aang said, sniffing the air. "What's for dinner?"

"Oysterclam stew," Zuko said. He pointed at a small pot between where the stew was simmering and the rice was cooking. "I made you a vegetarian version." Zuko started stringing his shells together.

"Thanks, Zuko!"

"What were you-" Katara started to question Aang, but she was cut off by Zuko loudly clearing his throat.

"Are you getting sick Zuko," Aang asked, clearly concerned. "Are your ribs still bothering you? Maybe Katara should take a look at them again."

Zuko glared at Sokka. "I'm fine."

Sokka squirmed under the weight of Zuko's gaze. "Aang, what did you-"

Zuko cleared his throat again, louder this time. He tied the string of oysterclam shells together, making a necklace.

Sokka sighed. "Sorry," he mumbled.

"Did you say something?" Zuko asked.

Sokka released a far more dramatic than necessary sigh. "I'm sorry I accused you of doing something to Aang." Sokka rubbed his neck. "My bad."

"Why would you think Zuko did something to me?" Aang asked.

"You were late!" Sokka yelled.

"We all agreed to be back before dark," Aang said. "The sun hasn't even started going down yet. Anyway, even if something did happen to me, why would you assume it was Zuko?"

"Well, you know... What did you mean you were at school?" Sokka deflected.

"Well, the school truancy officer saw me and thought I was skipping school. I guess you guys bought me a school uniform by accident-"

Zuko looked up suddenly and slapped his forehead. "I'm such an idiot! That's why the shopkeeper asked if our cousin was starting school!"

"See," Sokka exclaimed triumphantly. "I was right! Aang being late was Zuko's fault."

"Sokka," Katara said.

"I wasn't even late," Aang protested. "It doesn't matter anyway, Zuko, because I had a really good time at school."

Zuko raised a brow. "Seriously?"

"Yeah! I made a macaroni portrait of the Fire Lord! Look!" Aang pulled out what was, to Katara's utter amazement, actually a macaroni picture of Fire Lord Ozai. Zuko looked the opposite of impressed. "Does it look like him?"

Katara never realized just how severe Zuko could look when he wanted to. It wasn't just his frown. Zuko frowned a lot - way more than a person should, actually. It was the way his whole face went still, like he was holding in a powerful negative emotion that one wrong move would release like a powerful hurricane. She shivered.

"A little bit," Zuko conceded.

"Sweet!" Aang chirped.

Zuko threw his oysterclam shell necklace at Sokka. "Hey!" Sokka scowled at Zuko, who went over to the stew to stir it. "What was that for?"

"I made that for you," Zuko said. "My cousin made one for me the first time we went diving for oysterclams together. He said it's nice to have reminders of accomplishments you're proud of."

Katara didn't think it was possible for a person to look more guilty and upset than Sokka did in that moment. "Oh... thanks, Zuko. That's... really nice."

"Uh huh," Zuko sounded unimpressed.

"I really am sorry about-"

Zuko held up his hand. "Save it."

Sokka fingered the necklace, seemingly unsure what to do with it. "That's pretty," Aang said. "Can I have one?"

Zuko grumbled something that sounded suspiciously like, "I didn't sign on to be your personal jewelry maker,” but he went back to his pile of shells.

"What are Fire Nation schools like?" Katara asked.

Aang sat down and started babbling about his day. The air was warm and full of pleasant smells. She was listening to her best friend speak with a voice full of joy. Katara felt warm and content, which is why she almost missed when Aang said something alarming.

"Wait. What do you mean, when you go back tomorrow? You can't go back tomorrow, we have to leave first thing in the morning," Katara told Aang.

"But we have weeks until the Summer Solstice. I have time to stay a little longer. I'm having a good time. Plus, I'm learning a lot about the Fire Nation."

"You need to be careful, Aang," Zuko said. "Fire Nation schools are very strict."

"I'll be careful," Aang said. "I promise."

"I agree with Katara," Sokka said. "I think this is a terrible idea and that we shouldn't stay in any one place for more than a couple days."

"But this is important!" Aang said. "The kids at this school are the future of the Fire Nation. If we do achieve peace they'll be the ones who have to maintain it. I have to learn to understand them."

"Well, how long do you think that will take?" Katara asked. "Seems like a pretty big task, getting to know a whole generation. We can't stay too long."

"It won't take long," Aang promised. "I'm already making friends! Isn't that great?"

"You're such a dweeb, Twinkle Toes," Toph declared. "You're probably the first kid in history to argue why he should go to school. Can we eat now? I'm hungry."

...

Zuko was a light sleeper. He hadn't always been, but his life had become such that it required a hyper-awareness of his surroundings, even when he slept. So when Katara got up and went outside, Zuko woke as well. He looked at the fire, which had almost died out, then at Aang curled up against Appa, Toph nestled in her nest of rocks, and Sokka actually clutching his boomerang in his sleep. Zuko stood up and channeled power into the fire, trying to keep his companions from getting cold. He wondered if he should go outside and check on Katara. On the one hand, maybe she left because she wanted some privacy. On the other hand, going to check on someone who wandered off seemed like a very Katara thing to do, and Uncle Iroh always said people often treat others the way they themselves expect or would like to be treated. Zuko got up and went outside. Katara was standing under the waning moon, up to her ankles in the surf, practicing her bending. It occurred to Zuko he had never seen Waterbending outside of combat before, so he sat down to watch her. At first he didn't think she knew he was there, so he was shocked when she spoke to him.

"I didn't know you have a cousin."

Zuko scooped up a handful of pebbles and let them drop from his hand, one by one, making tiny little clacking sounds as they hit the ground. "Had."

She was still facing the ocean. Oddly, the fact that she couldn't see him made it easier to talk to her. "I'm sorry."

Zuko shrugged, even though she couldn't see it. "He was a captain in the army. He... he was sort of my hero."

Katara turned around and he hid his face from her, pretending the rocks were far more fascinating than they could ever possibly be. She walked over and sat down next to him. "You know, it occurs to me that I don't know anything about you," she told him. "I know everything about Sokka, more than I really want to, in all honesty. Aang is an open book, and he's shared almost everything significant in his life with me. Even Toph - I don't know everything about her, but I know a lot. You though... You keep surprising me. I should probably stop being surprised and accept that almost everything I think I know about you is wrong. Who are you?"

Zuko ran his fingers through the black rocks. "What do you want to know?"

She was silent for a long time. Zuko listened to the waves crashing against the shore and retreating over and over again. It was soothing. "When you captured me after I stole that Waterbending scroll, you told me you had lost your honor. How did that happen?"

Of course she would ask about that. She couldn't ask an easy question like what my favorite color is? "I already told you. I was a coward."

"I'm going to have to go with Aang on this one. You're no coward, Zuko."

"I was," he said. "That's why I was banished. I... refused to fight in an Agni Kai after I had accepted a challenge."

"What's an Agni Kai?"

Zuko picked up a rock and walked to the edge of the water. He threw the stone as far as he could. He watched it fall through the surface and imagined it sinking to the bottom. "It's a duel between two Firebenders."

"But if you were afraid to fight, why did you accept? Why not say no?"

Zuko clenched his fists in anger. She doesn't know what she's talking about! She couldn't possibly understand! Although a more rational part of his brain responded, That's because you're being deliberately vague. She doesn't have all of the information.

"Zuko?"

Zuko's palms were getting hotter and hotter. He forced himself to unclench his hands and turn around. "Do you love your father, Katara?" he asked.

She looked taken aback. "Of course."

"If he raised his hands against you, would you try to defend yourself?"

"My father would never do that," she said, sounding outraged on his behalf.

"But if he did," Zuko insisted. "Would you fight back? Or would you maybe think, 'This is my father who loves me. If he's doing this to me I must deserve it.' Would you just take it?" he said softly.

"I..." Katara looked bewildered. This is too far outside her realm of experience. She can't comprehend it. "I don't know."

"Well, I know," Zuko said. "And I didn't fight back. That's why I was banished."

After that it was so quiet Zuko would have sworn he could hear the blood flow in his ears. "Is that how you got that scar?" Katara whispered. She's quiet, like it's some shameful thing. And I guess it is, but it still hurts that she thinks so.

"Yes."

"I'm sorry I never got the chance to heal you, back in Ba Sing Se."

Zuko shrugged. "It doesn't matter."

"But-"

"Even if the mark were gone, the scar would still be there. Thank you for wanting to help me, but it's fine."

Katara stood up and walked over to him. "Even after he did this to you, you were still loyal to him. I can't understand."

"No," Zuko agreed. "You can't."

Katara put a hand on his shoulder. "I'm sorry. If you ever need to talk to some-"

"I'm going back inside. Sorry for interrupting your bending practice." Zuko headed back into the cave. Toph, was shivering even though the fire was still going strong. Zuko laid a blanket on top of her before settling back into his own sleeping space. He was never able to get back to sleep. Even after Katara returned half an hour later and her even breathing told him she was asleep, he continued to stare at the ceiling, unable to get the smell of burning flesh out of his nose.

Chapter Text

Toph dragged Zuko along through the town. "I can't believe you didn't tell me there's a dormant volcano on this island! And we can go inside! That is so cool!"

"Technically, the whole island is a dormant volcano. Almost every island in the chain is. Well, some aren't exactly dormant..." Zuko trailed off.

"This is so cool!" Toph stopped in front of the smell of meat. "Hey, get me another one of those burgers."

"Katara still has all the money," Zuko reminded her. It's almost like Sugar Queen doesn't trust us. Toph pouted at Zuko. "So I'm supposed to starve?"

"I packed us some smoked oysterclams for lunch," Zuko said. "Want some?"

"We had oysterclams for dinner," Toph groused. "I want something else."

"What do you want me to do, hunt down a wild boarlion and serve it to you raw?"

"Of course not. Cook it first," Toph said with a cheeky grin.

Zuko chuckled, but a moment later he fell into another one of the pensive silences she was beginning to associate with him. This guy can't take a step without tripping over a negative thought, can he?

"You okay, Sparky?"

"Just thinking about my sister."

"Gee, thanks." I was just teasing him. I didn't try to set the guy on fire.

"No, no! I meant I was thinking about how you're nothing like her."

"Even she didn't put you through this kind of grief, is that it?" Toph asked.

"I always wanted to be a good big brother to Azula, but I never had the chance. She never... needed me. The only use she ever had for me was as a pawn in her various schemes. We never got to just be brother and sister. This... you poking fun at me and making unreasonable demands. Me taking you somewhere you want to go. I guess I just wonder if this is what it would have been like to have a sister who wasn't..."

"A homicidal pyromaniac?"

"Yeah," Zuko said softly.

Toph squeezed Zuko's hand. "My parents never had any kids after me. I think they were worried they'd get another defective one. But I always wanted a brother or sister. A brother preferably, someone who wouldn't be afraid to roll around in the dirt with me."

Zuko didn't answer at first, and Toph started to wonder if she had crossed some kind of line. He probably doesn't want a spoiled, dirty loudmouth for a sister either. I'll just play it off, make some kind of joke about- "Hey!"

Zuko had suddenly yanked her forward, forcing her to stumble through a puddle of mud. He kept hold of her hand, though, ensuring she wouldn't fall. "Toph, you ruined your shoes! Katara’s not going to be happy with you."

Toph shoved her hand into the mud, sending several clumps flying towards the Firebender. "Eat mud, Sparkles!"

Having a sibling is even better than I thought it would be.

...

Zuko had been inside a lot of volcanoes in his youth. His entire country was really just a large collection of volcanoes. But seeing them through Toph's eyes - feet? - gave him a whole new perspective on them. By the time the two finished exploring, the sun was sinking into the horizon and the two were tired but elated. "I'm surprised Sokka hasn't chased after us and accused you of kidnapping me yet."

Zuko knew that was a joke, but he was starting to get sick of the constant mistrust from the other boy. He wasn't amused. "Yeah, you should probably go inside first, otherwise he'll assume I'm returning from disposing of your body."

Toph laughed. I was only half joking, but at least someone is getting some enjoyment out of the situation. "Do you think he'll ever come around?"

Zuko shrugged. "I just shrugged-"

"I know," Toph said.

"Oh sorry, I wasn't sure how much you picked up. Anyway, I guess he's entitled to a little bit of suspicion after-"

"You want us to what?!" They heard Katara shouting inside the cave.

Toph and Zuko stopped. I really don't want to go in there. "Maybe we should go find something else to do."

"Then Sokka will definitely think you kidnapped me," Toph pointed out.

Great. I don't know what's going on in there, but I know I definitely don't want to be involved. "Ladies first," Zuko said.

"Pigchicken," she said fondly as she led the way into the cave. Aang was flipping through a textbook Zuko recognized from his days at the Fire Nation Royal Academy for Boys. Katara and Sokka were standing over him yelling.

"I need you to pretend to be my parents."

Yep. I definitely don't want to be involved in this in any way.

"Aang, this has gone too far," Katara said.

"It's just for one meeting," Aang said.

"That's not the point! It's too risky, we're going to get caught," she told him.

"But I'm really getting through to these kids!" he pouted. "And I'm learning so much about how people in the Fire Nation are taught to view the rest of the world. That thing Zuko said about the Air Nomads came right from this book."

Zuko felt his cheeks heat up. It was also at this moment that the trio finally noticed Toph and Zuko had returned from their excursion. "You!" Katara pointed at Zuko. "Talk some sense into him!" I'm the sensible one now? When did that happen? How do I reverse it?

"Hi, guys," Aang said cheerfully. "How was the volcano?"

"Wicked," Toph said. "How was kid jail?"

"Great! Although I did kind of get into a little bit of trouble... for fighting."

What?! There's no way. "You? You got in trouble for fighting? You don't even fight people who are literally attacking you. You do that weird dodging thing."

"I'm proud of you, Twinkle Toes." Toph punched Aang in the arm.

"Thanks," Aang said as he rubbed his arm. "But I didn't really fight him. He kept punching me, and I kept moving out of the way, and then he tripped over his feet." Yep, that sounds like Aang.

"Lame," Toph declared.

"Anyway, now the headmaster wants to meet my parents. So I need Katara and Sokka to be my mom and dad."

Zuko resisted the urge to slap his own forehead. "And you don't see the critical flaw with that plan?" he asked.

"They can disguise themselves to look older," Aang said.

"I do love disguises," Sokka admitted.

"Do I really have to spell this out for you guys?" Zuko asked. "Because I would rather not." It's bad enough I said all that racist stuff back when we were enemies. I don't want to accidentally say something offensive now that we're tentatively friends.

"What do you mean?" Aang asked.

"Ugh." Zuko grabbed Aang's and Katara's wrists and held their arms side by side, displaying the difference in pigmentation. "Get it now?"

"Get what now?" Toph asked. "How many times do I have to tell you guys to cut it out with the nonverbal communication?"

"Oh," Katara said. "Right. I guess Sokka and I trying to pass Aang off as our son would be a little unbelievable." She looked at Toph. "People from the Water Tribes tend to be dark skinned."

"Hmm," Aang mused. "Maybe you and Zuko could pretend to be my parents."

"What?!" Zuko and Katara shouted their horrified objection at the exact same time, while Toph started laughing hysterically.

"Knock it off, Toph!" Katara snapped.

"Ha ha ha! Ha ha ha!" Toph was rolling around on the ground in hysterics.

"You never laugh that hard at any of my jokes." Sokka sounded rather put out.

"Ha ha ha! Ha ha ha!"

"It's not funny!" Zuko shouted.

"Ha ha ha!"

"Stop laughing," Katara demanded.

"What's so funny?" Aang asked.

"Oh man," Toph wiped tears of mirth away from her eyes. "That's the best idea you've ever had, Twinkle Toes."

"I am not pretending to be Zuko's wife."

"Why not?" Aang asked.

"Because I don't want to!"

That's a relief. I wouldn't even know how to pretend to be in a relationship with her. And I'm pretty sure if I were objecting that stringently she would be offended. "Aang, it might be time to just hit the road. There will be other schools."

"Wait, I've got it! Zuko and Sokka can be my parents!" Aang looked incredibly pleased with himself.

Don't murder the Avatar, Zuko. Remember what Uncle said about keeping your temper. Breathe.

Sokka started spluttering in disbelief. "Aang! Two guys can't have a kid!"

"Yes they can." Aang held up his book. "The Fire Nation has gay marriage. There's a whole chapter about it in my book. Actually, there's two, but the second one is in the health and human sexuality section and we haven't-"

Zuko snatched the textbook out of Aang's hand. "Enough! This is a dumb plan! The risk is high and the payoff is minimal. We should just leave."

"No wonder people from the Fire Nation are so messed up and violent," Sokka said. "That's just disgusting."

Don't murder the Water Tribe boy, Zuko. Remember what Uncle said about keeping your temper. Breathe. The tension in the air was as heavy as cast iron cookware. Zuko noticed the cover of Aang's book was smoldering in his hand. "What's that supposed to mean?"

Sokka squirmed under Zuko's murderous gaze. "Just... Two people of the same gender getting married? It's gross."

"And why is that?" Zuko's voice was deceptively calm. Not too deceptive though, because Aang's book was moments away from catching on fire.

"Seriously? It just is."

"Sure, like people from your country are just inferior to people from my country-"

"Hey!" Katara and Sokka both shouted in outrage, but Zuko spoke over them.

"And your culture just is barbaric and antiquated. And all Water Tribe men just are uneducated, sexist savages. And-"

"Stop it, you guys!" Aang sounded close to panic. "This is just a cultural misunderstanding! If we all open our hearts and minds to each other's-"

Sokka scoffed. "I don't want to open my heart or my mind to a country of racist pyromaniacs who also happen to all be huge perverts! The spirits fashioned man and woman to each be one half of a greater whole and for two-"

"Oh, so suddenly you're all religious now, is that it?!" Zuko yelled. "Because this is the first time I've ever heard you even mention the spirits. I've never even seen you meditate! But I do know you tried to blow up a door in a sacred temple once, so excuse me if I don't buy this sudden religious fervor, you hypocritical bigot!"

"I'm a bigot?! I'm a bigot?! You're the one who tried to justify a genocide!"

"At least I admitted I was wrong and am trying to do better!" Aang's book was ashes in Zuko's hand, but he didn't care.

"No you didn't! You never once apologized for any of the horrible stuff you did to us! You expected us to fall all over ourselves forgiving you just because you finally realized that your country's racist propaganda is garbage and that genocide might not be ok, which by the way, most people don't need to have explained to them !"

Both boys were sweating and panting, the weight and heat of their fury filling the room. Maybe he's right, a tiny voice whispered in the back of Zuko's head. Maybe you haven't entirely put your old prejudiced ideology behind you. Maybe you need to work harder to overcome the parts of you that still believe you're better than them. Meanwhile a much louder voice in his head was screaming about how that ignorant barbarian has no idea what he's talking about! He's just an uncultured savage! Zuko opened his mouth to unleash his fury upon the other boy when he suddenly found himself encased in rock. The only upshot was that Sokka was encased in rock also.

"Shut up - both of you - or I'll squish you!"

"He-" both began.

"What did I just say?!" The rocks compressed down slightly.

Zuko felt a twinge of panic. Toph wouldn't actually hurt you. She just wants to make a point. Listen to what she has to say, and then she'll let you go. But he couldn't hear her over the sound of his racing heart. That's what you thought last time. You don't even know this girl. If your own family is willing to hurt you, why would she hesitate to do so? Everybody wants to kill you, Zuko. You have that effect.

"Let me go." He struggled to keep his voice calm and even despite his panic.

"I'm not done talking."

"Okay, I'm listening! Just let me go!"

"When I'm-"

Zuko took a deep breath, and then he used his Firebending to destroy his makeshift prison. It was a dangerous move, what with some of the heat and concussive force rebounding on him, but he didn't care. He took one look around the cave, at a panicking Aang, furious Sokka, shocked Toph and, strangely, a Katara who looked very sad, and he ran.

Katara stared at the pieces of burnt and broken rock. "What is that guy's problem?" Sokka complained loudly. "We never should've let him join the group."

He sounded scared. He was trying to hide it, but I could tell. Did he really think that Toph would hurt him? The two of them spent the whole day together, and when they came in, they both looked like they'd had a fantastic time.

"I'm sorry," Aang said softly. "This is all my fault." He sat down hard.

"Aang, how could it be your fault?"

"I'm the Avatar. I'm supposed to promote peace between all the people of the four nations. I couldn't even mediate a dispute between two." Aang flicked a pebble away from him and sighed.

"Don't beat yourself up, Aang," Sokka said. "Fire Nation people are jerks. No one can get along with them. Who would want to anyw- Ow! Toph! Stop it!"

"That's not right. Ever since I came out of that iceberg I've had trouble reconciling the way the Fire Nation is now with the friends I had in the Fire Nation a hundred years ago. How could so many people change so quickly? But the thing is, they haven't changed. The kids I've been going to school with are just like kids everywhere else in the world. Some are jerks, and some are really nice, but most of them are just kids. They're just trying to find their way. They're no different from my friend Kuzon, or from us."

He's right. Except... "But Aang, if people in the Fire Nation are just like everyone else, why did Roku say you needed to come here and learn about them? They are different from us."

Aang considered this. "Monk Gyatso once told me that differences don't have to divide us. They can actually bring people closer together. He told me that the more I traveled and saw how different people are, the more I would realize that we are all the same. And he was right. These differences between us, they're cosmetic. Our customs may not be the same, but just because two people express love, loyalty, friendship or faith differently doesn't mean they don't both feel these things just as strongly as each other. Katara, you and I believe a lot of different things, but you're still my best friend. The fact that you eat meat or think two men can't fall in love doesn't change my feelings for you. My feelings are deeper than that."

"Wait," Sokka said. "You agree with Zuko? Come on Aang, he's wrong!"

"The monks taught me that love is a connection between two people's spirits, not their bodies. A person's physical form shouldn't preclude them from the spiritual fulfillment of a loving relationship if that’s something they desire to pursue," Aang said.

Katara bit her lip. I thought it was something shameful. I thought I wasn't supposed to talk about it, or even think about it. I certainly wasn't supposed to know about it. But maybe Aang's right.

"Toph," Sokka said. "You must agree with me. Two guys or two girls? Yuck!"

Toph shrugged. "My dad always said gay people are part of what's ruining our country. I figure anything he's that strongly opposed to must have some merit to it. Besides, people have been looking down on me for the way I am since the day I was born. I'm not about to turn around and do the same thing."

"Ugh, but it's-"

"Dad did it," Katara blurted out.

Silence filled the cave. "What are you talking about?" Sokka whispered with trepidation. "Dad loved Mom, just Mom."

Katara looked away. "Toph, could you…?"

Toph released Sokka and then walked over to Aang. "Come on, Twinkle Toes," she said as she pulled him to his feet. "Let's leave them to it." The two left.

"Katara," Sokka said. "What-"

"It was after Mom died. Dad and Bato became really close. I didn't understand it. I guess I still don't. But they shared sleeping furs. And Bato was always around, helping us with our problems, talking to us when we were upset-"

"Because he's- he was- Dad's friend!"

Katara sighed. "It doesn't matter. The point is that Aang's right. If two men love each other, or two women, who are we to judge? It's none of our concern."

"But men aren't supposed to fall in love with other men!" Sokka shouted.

"Like they're not supposed to fall in love with women engaged to be married," Katara whispered, so softly she wasn't even sure if she meant for Sokka to hear her. But he did.

"That's different! What Yue and I had was good and pure! We..." Sokka's shoulders slumped. "This is Kyoshi Island all over again, isn't it?"

"Maybe," Katara said. "And there's something else too. I think Zuko really is trying to be a better person. That's an admirable thing. Shouldn't we be helping him, instead of making it harder? And shouldn't we acknowledge that maybe, just like he has stuff to learn from us, there might be some things we can learn from him? We're all on the same side."

Sokka scoffed. "Now we are."

Katara smirked. Got you. "Exactly. Now we are. So let's act like it."

Sokka groaned. "Are you going to make me apologize?"

"I'm not going to make you. You are going to decide to do the right thing all on your own because you're my mature and responsible big brother that I look up to," she said sweetly.

He stomped off grumbling something that sounded suspiciously like, "Stupid little sister that always has to be right about every stupid little thing."

...

It felt like the air itself was on fire. Flames shot from his hands and feet in quick succession as Zuko executed just about every Firebending move he knew, culminating in shouting enough flames at the night sky to almost singe the stars themselves. "Anybody ever tell you that you have anger issues?"

Zuko spun around. Of course. "Don't you know better than to sneak up on a practicing Firebender?!"

Sokka rolled his eyes. "You couldn't hit me even back when you were trying."

"So you followed me out here just to antagonize me?"

Sokka averted his gaze. "No. I actually came out here to apologize."

"Well you suck at it," Zuko said.

Sokka held up his hands in a placating gesture. "I'm sorry for what I said."

Zuko rolled his eyes. "Thanks, Katara."

"Hey! I decided to come out here all on my own, thank you very much! I'm trying to meet you halfway, but it's a little hard when you don't provide the other half!"

"Fine," Zuko snapped. "Let's hear this oh-so-great apology of yours."

"Uhhh..." Sokka rubbed the back of his neck. "That was it. You know, the part where I said I was sorry for what I said."

"Wow," Zuko said.

Sokka threw his hands in the air. "What do you want from me? A musical accompaniment? Me on my knees?"

Zuko shivered. Not that. Never that. "You will learn respect, and suffering will be your teacher." Zuko looked away.

"Hey, are you okay? You kind of freaked out a little bit back there, what with the dramatic demolition of those rocks, not that everything you do isn't dramatic, because it definitely is, extremely-"

"Would you shut up?!" When Zuko finally turned to look at Sokka, half hoping the other boy had given up and left, Zuko saw that he was standing there quietly. "Sorry," Zuko said. "I just... I don't like being trapped, pinned that is."

"That's pretty reasonable," Sokka said.

That was unexpected. He's just accepting it? He isn't demanding an explanation or calling me a weakling or a coward? "I need to get over it."

"I'm sure if you tell Toph she'll understand and, you know, not do that in the future. She's pretty much your number one fan at this point."

"I don't want to hurt her feelings. Besides, I shouldn't be so... sensitive."

Sokka rolled his eyes again. "Well, you are. You get upset or offended about basically everything. You're like Katara if she could set things on fire whenever she got angry. Which is a terrifying thought."

Zuko remembered how Katara had trounced him in the North Pole and how she had gone toe to toe with his prodigy sister under Ba Sing Se. Katara probably would have been an amazing Firebender, but the thought didn't scare Zuko the way it did Sokka, not when he had Azula to compare it to. Zuko supposed he should be offended by what Sokka said, but honestly he could almost take it as a compliment. Katara has more compassion and courage than anyone I've ever met. There are certainly worse people to be compared to. "Fine."

"Fine what?"

"Fine, I accept your apology. I'm sorry too. I should have apologized to you a while ago. Let's just..." Zuko sort of waved his hand in a helpless I don't really have any idea what I'm trying to say sort of gesture. "Move on."

"Sure," Sokka said. "Follow up question."

"Uh-huh?"

"Wanna marry me?"

Don't kill the Water Tribe boy, Zuko. Remember what Uncle said about your temper. Breathe.

Sokka scratched his mustache. Why did I have to pick such an itchy disguise?

Zuko elbowed him. "Stop that," he hissed. "I told you not to wear it."

Before Sokka could respond with a defense of his mustache, a woman entered the waiting area. "The headmaster will see you now," she told them. She glared at Aang before leading them down the hall to an ornate door.

Once inside, Zuko bowed to the headmaster, so Sokka copied him. Aang gave his own bow. The headmaster looked unimpressed. "So you're Kuzon's parents," he said. "I must say, your son has not made a good first impression."

How dare he say that about my fake son?! Sokka opened his mouth to reply.

Zuko beat him to the punch. "Honorable headmaster, you have our sincerest apologies. We know our son's manners are lacking, that's why we moved back to the homeland. The colonial schools are corrupted by Earth Kingdom morals, and our work keeps us too busy to tutor Kuzon ourselves. We hope going to such an esteemed school as this one will purge the Earth Kingdom influence from our boy," Zuko said.

The headmaster seemed to like that answer. Suck up. "It is true that colonial schools are notoriously bad. The one your son went to must have been particularly egregious; did you know they told him the Air Nation had no army? What a ridiculous claim."

"Very strange," Zuko said.

The headmaster sighed. "Have a seat."

The three boys sat down. "I'm sorry for any disruption I caused, Headmaster."

The headmaster glared at Aang. "It is always painful to see a good Fire Nation boy corrupted by less savory influences, but I don't think you're entirely the innocent in all this. Your parents are clearly loyal, hard-working citizens. You have their example to emulate, and you chose to copy your peers in the Earth Kingdom instead. This was your choice, and it was the wrong one. Don't you want to grow up to serve your country and the Fire Lord like your parents?"

"Yes, Headmaster," Aang said solemnly.

Aang's actually a pretty good actor.

"How can you do that when you lack the proper decorum and say such fantastical things? Would you rather end up in the coal mines with uneducated louts and ne'er-do-wells? Would you?"

Aang shook his head. "No, Headmaster."

The headmaster tapped his desk. "I'm willing to overlook your previous indiscretions if you are willing to put in the hard work to catch up with the rest of the students. Does that seem fair?"

"More than fair, Headmaster." Aang bowed his head. Nice touch, kid.

"I do not tolerate fighting amongst my students. Once you're sixteen you can join the army and fight all the bloodthirsty savages you like, but as long as you are among civilized people, civilized is how you will behave."

Sokka clenched his fists, struggling not to stand up for his people and the people of the Earth Kingdom. This guy doesn't know the first thing. This is what he calls civilization? Ba Sing Se makes this place look like a little kid's first snow castle. And they would call us bloodthirsty after what they did to us?

"I understand, Headmaster."

"I don't really think anything else needs to be said. I trust you will discipline your boy as you see fit?" the headmaster said.

My time to shine.

"Oh absolutely! Young man, when we get home you are going to get the thrashing of a lifetime, do you hear me?!"

Aang bowed his head contritely. "Yes, Father. I understand."

"There, there, Kuzon." Zuko patted Aang's shoulder. "Cheer up. It sounds like you've learned your lesson, so the rest of the year should be smooth sailing, right?"

"Right!" Aang grinned.

Even when he's pretending that kid can't hold onto a bad mood, and you're not exactly helping, Zuko.

"Well, it seems our business is concluded." The headmaster bowed to Sokka and Zuko. The three boys then bowed to the headmaster. As they departed, Aang was bouncing on his heels and grinning. Zuko pressed down on Aang's shoulder. Aang tried to adopt a more sedate pace, but each step was hit and miss. Definitely an Air Nomad.

"That was really nice what you said, Zuko," Aang said out of nowhere as they made their way back to the cave.

"What?"

"When you were trying to make me feel better." Aang beamed at Zuko.

Zuko blushed. "I was just acting."

"Well, you did a great job. You too, Sokka, I definitely felt the terror."

Sokka smiled. "I missed my calling as an actor for sure," he said.

"Look, Aang," Zuko said. "We really do need to start thinking about moving on soon. It's only a matter of time before you accidentally correct someone on history again or commit some sort of major faux pas. Haven't you learned enough from these kids? There are plenty of places in the Fire Nation we haven't seen yet."

"I know," Aang said slowly. "I think I might be almost ready to go. There's just one thing I need to do first."

"What's that?" Sokka asked absentmindedly as he looked over at a meat vendor and started drooling.

"I'm going to throw my classmates a secret dance party!" Aang did a little jig and then beamed at his companions.

Sokka and Zuko made eye contact. For the first time since Zuko joined the group, Sokka felt like they were really on the same page. Because Sokka saw in Zuko's eyes exactly what he was thinking himself: this kid is going to be the death of me.

...

Zuko leaned against the wall of the cave. This is insane. Toph was remodeling under Aang's direction while Katara made a fountain and Sokka hung his makeshift decorations.

"Hmmmm," Sokka said, pinching his chin. "Do you think it's too red?"

Zuko tried to infuse as much exasperation as possible into a single expression and then directed that expression at Sokka. I can't believe this is the same group that evaded me on a cross global chase. How embarrassing.

"You're right. This is the Fire Nation. There's no such thing as too much red."

"We use other colors," Zuko protested.

"Only to highlight all the red."

Zuko grumbled vaguely insulting things under his breath. "Quit being a stick in the mud, Zuko," Katara said. "This might actually be fun! And this whole thing is supposed to be a celebration of Fire Nation culture. Isn't that your thing?"

"All it will take is one kid with loose lips to bring the locals down on us. We're supposed to be trying to fly under the radar. And you were the one who wanted to leave, what happened to that?"

Katara shrugged. "Who doesn't like a good party?" She put the finishing touches on her fountain and nodded at it in approval. "What do you think?"

Zuko appraised the fountain. "Whatever."

Katara rolled her eyes. "So you're just determined not to have a good time?"

"I haven't been to a real party since I was thirteen. They were all boring and awful and full of people shoving any kid even remotely in my age range at me, and I had to dance with all of them. It was humiliating." Zuko kicked a pebble.

"Well you don't have to dance if you don't want to," Aang piped up. "Hey, do you know how to play the Tsungi horn?"

Zuko groaned. "Really?"

"I can't play and dance at the same time, and you don't want to dance."

"Fine," Zuko snapped. "I'll play the stupid horn if you promise that the second this stupid party is over, we leave." At least no one will try to talk to me while I'm playing an instrument. "Immediately."

"Deal!" Aang stuck out his hand.

Zuko glared at Aang, but he shook his hand. "Don't forget."

"Anybody ever tell you you're kind of antisocial?" Sokka asked.

Zuko kicked a pebble at him.

Aang flitted from person to person, giddy as he pulled them inside and situated them with refreshments. "I'm so glad you're here! Thank you for coming!"

"Hi, Kuzon."

Aang turned and saw the girl that had become one of his closest friends at school and smiled. "You made it!"

"Yeah." She blushed and looked away for some reason Aang couldn't figure.

"Want to dance?"

"With you?" She sounded almost hopeful. That was weird. She must be so excited to learn traditional Fire Nation dances! My plan is working!

"Sure!" Aang held out his hand.

...

It was a little difficult to frown while playing the Tsungi horn, but Zuko managed it as Sokka walked over. "Oh man, this is one of the funniest things I've ever seen. This so makes any possibility of being caught worth it."

Zuko couldn't respond without ruining the song. I will have my revenge.

"Where did you even learn to play?"

The Fire Nation Royal Academy for Boys, you dullard. Zuko remembered his embarrassment when his mother read his first progress report aloud at dinner one night. "Zuko is an excellent student. He keeps good pace with the other children, and he shows a great natural talent for music. After only a couple of months, he is already proficient at the Tsungi horn."

"Oh? Play for us cousin," Lu Ten said.

"I don't want to."

"Why not?"

"Lu Ten, do not tease Zuko," Uncle Iroh admonished in a light hearted tone.

"I'm not, I want to hear him play."

"Zuko should be spending less time on silly frivolities, and more time practicing Firebending. A prince of the blood who still hasn't made fire at the age of six is an embarrassment," father said.

"I can make fire!" Azula said cheerily.

"And we're all very proud of you, sweetheart," Ursa said. "Just like we're so proud of you, Zuko, for doing well in school. I'm a lucky woman to have two such hardworking, accomplished children."

"If he really worked hard, he would have bent fire by now," Father said.

"What other random skills are you secretly concealing from us?"

Zuko waited for a brief pause in the horn section of the song, took a deep breath, and exhaled a tiny puff of fire at Sokka.

"Hey!" None of the fire had actually touched him, but Sokka was outraged all the same. "What was that for?!"

Zuko was back to playing the horn and couldn't respond. Sokka stomped off, grumbling to himself. Zuko allowed himself a small smile. Now that the other boy was gone, however, Zuko almost missed his company. That's ridiculous. No I don't, Zuko reprimanded himself. He's obnoxious and I detest him. Zuko looked down at the dancing children. Aang was pulling Katara onto the dance floor. Sokka was making quick work of the buffet. Toph stood off to the side leaning against the wall.

Unbidden, another memory surfaced in Zuko's brain. "What are you doing over here all by yourself?" Lu Ten demanded teasingly.

"Nothing," I said like a sullen child.

"Come on, Zuko, this is a party! There are no bad moods allowed at parties."

"I don't want you to go."

Lu Ten sighed and knelt down next to me. "I'm coming back, don’t worry. And when I return we'll have conquered Ba Sing Se! It'll be the greatest military accomplishment since Fire Lord Sozin conquered the Air Nation in a single day! And we won't even have a comet when we do it."

"Great." I didn't even look at him. I didn't care about the war. I was such a selfish spoiled brat. All I wanted was for my uncle and cousin to stay home.

"Is there anything that could cheer you up?" Lu Ten begged me. He was always better to me than I deserved.

"Can I go with you?"

Lu Ten laughed. "We're not quite so desperate as to be recruiting eight-year-olds into the army, not yet anyway."

"But Master Piandao says I'm one of the best students he ever had! You said I could probably beat a few of the soldiers in your unit, even! I want to help you!"

"First of all, Zuko, you are an amazing student, that's true. But you're also just a kid. That isn't a bad thing. It's okay to be a kid. You should enjoy this time."

"But I'm so behind at everything! I've only been Firebending for a year! Azula is so good and I mess up all the time and-"

He wrapped me in a hug. "That doesn't matter, kiddo. Listen." He pulled back and gripped my shoulders. I forced myself to meet his gaze, even though I wanted to just disappear. "You don't have to compete with Azula all the time. She's good at the things she's good at, and you're good at the things you're good at."

"But she's better at all of the important things. No one cares about the stuff I'm good at. No one except you and Mom."

"Who told you that the stuff you like isn't important? It is important. You are important, Cousin, and you don't have to show up your sister to prove it."

"Dad-"

"Your dad just gets excited about Azula's Firebending because it's something they have in common, that's all. You and your dad have a lot in common as well."

"You think so?"

"Yeah, of course. Your dad loves you, Zuko. He just... He'll come around. I promise. In the meantime, keep working hard - not to compete with Azula, but for its own sake. Uncle Ozai will notice, and he will be proud of you. Okay?"

"Okay."

"Hey." He lowered his voice. "Can you keep a secret?"

What a fool I was. I was so excited at the very mention of a secret. I had no idea how terrible things were going to become. "Yes!" I whispered excitedly.

"Once my dad conquers Ba Sing Se, Fire Lord Azulon is going to give him the throne, and that's not all. My dad is going to make your dad the governor of Ba Sing Se, which means that one day you'll be governor! You'll have your own city to rule. Won't that be exciting?"

"Yeah!"

"Feel better?"

"Yes. Sorry for ruining your party."

"You didn't ruin anything." He picked me up and started for the dance floor. "The night is young, even for little kids."

"I'm not little."

He laughed. "Yes you are! Let yourself be! Have fun. I promise I'll return soon."

I saw Dad dancing with Azula and Mom laughing with Uncle Iroh. My whole family looked so happy. I honestly believed everything was going to be okay. "I'm going to keep working really hard with Master Piandao. By the time you get back, I'll be able to make you so proud!"

He looked so sad. I couldn't figure out why. "I'm already proud of you. I always will be. But I'm glad you're going to keep working hard, that's a wonderful thing."

"Do you think Dad will be impressed once I master the blade?"

He smiled, but it didn't look right. "Yes."

"Hey, Zuko." Zuko blinked. He'd been so lost in thought, he hadn't even realized the song had ended and the band was taking a break. "Nice playing."

"Nice dancing."

"Thanks!" Aang held out a bowl of fire flakes to Zuko. "Want some?"

"You're not supposed to eat stuff like that while playing the Tsungi horn, dries out your throat. Thank you, though."

"No problem! You're really good."

"Thanks."

"You okay?"

"I'm fine," Zuko snapped. He noticed that Toph was still standing all by herself.

"You want me to cover you for a bit?"

"No I- Yeah, actually. Could you?"

"Sure!"

Zuko passed the horn to the delighted Airbender. Is there anything that doesn't make this kid happy? Zuko made his way over to Toph. "Hey, Toph."

"Sparky," she replied.

"You aren't dancing."

"Are all sighted people this perceptive?"

Zuko blushed. "I just..."

"I don't know how, okay?" She kicked a rock across the floor, causing several people to protest as they almost tripped.

"Would you like me to teach you?"

"So people can laugh at me even more?"

"Who's laughing at you?" he demanded.

"Everybody! I'm blind, not deaf. They're all muttering to each other, wondering who invited the blind girl. Why would anyone invite a blind girl? It's so awkward, she doesn't belong here."

Zuko looked away. "Yeah, the Fire Nation isn't very tolerant of, um... disabilities."

"Well, isn't that great for you?"

"No," he said softly. "It isn't."

"Just leave me alone, okay?"

Zuko wanted to say something, anything, to make her feel better, but he had to respect her request. He walked away feeling sick. "Aren't you supposed to be with the band?" Sokka asked around a mouthful of something meaty.

Zuko shook his head. "Where does all of that food even go? It defies physics."

Sokka stuck out his tongue, which happened to be covered in food. Zuko resisted the urge to vomit. "I thought the music seemed too cheerful suddenly."

"I was asking Toph to dance."

"Good luck with that. Toph hates dancing, and anything else that can be considered high society," Sokka said.

"All right," Zuko said.

"So I have a question."

This ought to be good. "Go ahead."

Sokka pointed at two girls merrily dancing with one another. "When two guys or two girls dance, who leads?"

"Either. Same as when a girl and a guy dance with one another. Usually just whoever knows the steps better."

"That's so w- wonderful!" Sokka corrected himself at the last minute.

"Uh-huh." Zuko couldn't have said what came over him in that moment. "Do you want me to show you?" he asked.

"What?" Sokka looked horrified.

Abort! Abort! Turn back! "Do you want to dance with me?" Zuko asked.

"I'm not..."

Zuko rolled his eyes. "I'm not asking you to have sex with me, you moron. I'm just asking if you want to dance. If you don't, you don't, but there's no need to get all awkward about it." Zuko started to go.

"Sure."

Huh? "Beg your pardon?"

"I'll dance with you. Whatever."

"Fine," Zuko said. He held out his hand for Sokka to take. At first, Zuko thought Sokka would back out, but the other boy took his hand after a momentary hesitation. Zuko led him to the dance floor. "Do you know this dance?"

Sokka shook his head. "Nope."

"Guess I have to lead then."

"Just don't make me look stupid."

Zuko grinned. "Unnecessary."

Sokka scowled, but he followed Zuko's lead as Zuko led them through the steps he had learned what felt like a lifetime ago at the Royal Court. "You're not really that bad," Sokka admitted begrudgingly.

"Thanks," Zuko said. "I'm touched."

"You must have missed this stuff."

"Dancing?"

Sokka nodded.

Zuko considered. I didn't miss the dancing or the parties. What I missed was belonging somewhere. "Not really."

"You don't like high society stuff either?"

Zuko was tempted to agree, especially since that was clearly the answer Sokka would most respect. But then he remembered his resolve not to do any more lying. "I liked some of it."

"Like being treated like a prince?"

Zuko scowled. "Forget it." He dropped Sokka's hand and started to turn away, but Sokka kept his own grip and pulled Zuko closer. "Knock it off," he insisted.

"You are so sensitive," Sokka said. "I didn't mean anything negative."

"Being a prince doesn't mean being treated like you're special. It means you have to be perfect at everything or you're a disappointment to your regal lineage."

"Nobody's perfect at everything."

"Exactly," Zuko said as they fell back into the pattern of the music. "That's the problem. It's a no-win scenario."

"So what stuff did you like?" Sokka asked.

"I liked calligraphy."

Sokka raised a skeptical brow. "That fancy writing stuff? Boring. Next."

"Well, what about you? What do you do besides eat meat and concoct hare-brained schemes that always work for no discernable reason?"

"I," Sokka said with fake pomp and circumstance. "Practice the ancient art of sarcasm. Also, I'm a scientist."

Zuko raised a brow. "You're a scientist?"

"Yeah, I am. I helped invent the hot air balloon. It was a pretty big deal."

"The what? That sounds fake."

"Well it's not! It's a balloon that holds up a little basket with people inside it."

Zuko snorted. "There is no way that's real. How gullible do you think I am?"

Sokka scowled. "Whatever." He pushed Zuko away from him. "Song's over."

"Right," Zuko said. "Thanks, I guess."

"Sure," Sokka said as he walked away.

A tiny hand slipped into his. Zuko looked down and saw Toph. She snuck up on me. That's a difficult thing to do, the girl has skills. "Go ahead, laugh it up."

Toph shook her head. "Dance with me."

Zuko grinned before sweeping the young girl into his arms, just like his cousin had for him all those many years ago. Eight. Eight years isn't actually that long. Although it's half a lifetime for me, I suppose. Toph wrapped her legs around his abdomen and rested her head on his chest. I was this young once, but it doesn't feel that way.

"If you drop me, I'll murder you."

"I would never do that," he assured her.

"I know," she whispered. "Thanks."

"For what?"

"Letting me do this on my terms. Aang would have just dragged me out onto the dance floor. Katara would nag me about being social until she wore me down. Sokka... wouldn't ask me at all."

She has a crush. That's so sweet. Poor kid. I bet he doesn't even know, which is probably for the best. "Nobody has the right to make you do things you aren't comfortable with doing."

"Even for my own good?"

"Yes. It's your life."

"Thanks, Sparkles," she whispered.

I thought I was so subtle when I blinked away my tears and sniffed up the snot as I waved at the ship carrying my uncle and cousin off to war. I wasn't. "Disgusting," father said. "You are a prince of the blood. Act like it."

"I'm sorry, Father."

I had no idea I was never going to see him again. Just like I have no idea if I'll ever see Uncle again. What if my father has him executed before the Day of Black Sun? Or what if we win and he becomes Fire Lord, but he's so angry at me for abandoning him that he has me banished all over again? Zuko came to a stop as the song ended and people started to disperse. "Party's over."

"Yeah," Toph said as she jumped down.

"Did you have fun?"

She shrugged. I know the feeling.

Chapter Text

Aang relaxed on his bison's back, staring up at the clear blue sky as they floated down the river. "Yuck," he heard Katara say. "What is all that... gunk?"

Aang sat up and looked down. The river had gone from a clear blue to an ugly sickly grey. "That can't be good for the fish," Aang said. Or any people nearby.

"It's pollution," Zuko said in a bored tone. "There's probably a weapons factory nearby."

"Someone should tell them they're contaminating the river," Aang said.

Zuko gave him a funny look. "I'm sure they know. They just don't care."

"But that can't be good for the environment!" Aang felt outrage blooming in his breast. Rivers were such an important part of the ecosystem, providing a home for fish and other aquatic animals, water for the creatures of the land and air and irrigation to plant life. Someone thinks it is acceptable to destroy something so essential and beautiful to make things that kill people?

Zuko shrugged. "One of the side effects of progress," he said casually.

"There's nothing progressive about destroying the natural beauty of the environment," Aang insisted.

Zuko rolled his eyes. "What do you want to do? Knock on their door and politely ask them to stop?" Zuko sat up and cleared his throat before adopting a terrible impression of the younger boy. “Yes hello, I'm the Avatar, the mortal enemy of your country, I'm sure you've heard of me. Will you please stop making highly profitable weapons and make something a little gentler on the environment? Maybe something peaceful like candy? What do you say?”

"That's an idea," Aang said. Who doesn't like candy? Way better than things that hurt people.

"A terrible one," Sokka said. "We're not getting side tracked on another save the trees quest," he said. "The last time that happened I got stuck in the Spirit World."

Zuko stared at Sokka. "You've been to the Spirit World?! When? How long were you there? What happened?"

Sokka gave Zuko a weird look. "Why are you so excited? What's the big deal?"

"Do you have any idea how rare it is for a human being to survive a journey to the Spirit World? It's a big deal!"

"Aang goes to the Spirit World all the time," Sokka said dismissively.

"I wouldn't say I go all the time." I never knew Zuko was so interested in the Spirit World.

"Aang's the bridge between our world and the Spirit World," Katara said. "It's a lot easier for him to cross that boundary than it would be for a normal person." Plus it helps when Roku is around to guide me, since I usually don't actually know what I'm doing.

"Oh, so I'm just a normal person," Sokka demanded. "Thanks Katara, I really appreciate that. Way to make me feel good about myself," Sokka grumbled.

"You people are-" Zuko forced himself to calm down. "What happened," he asked.

Aang tuned Sokka out as he relayed the story (with the standard Sokka elaborations). He had after all been there when it transpired (well he had been there for the actual events, not the version Sokka had concocted). He saw some aquatic wildlife that looked unwell, and even a few that were mutated. Ugh. So gross.

"Aang?"

"Huh?" He looked up.

Katara was looking at him fondly. "Sokka found a village on the map. I think we should stop for some supplies," she said.

"Sounds good!" We'll be able to meet more Fire Nation citizens. What fun lessons will I learn this time? Aang smiled cheerily.

...

Zuko sat on the edge of the pier next to Toph as they both dangled their feet just above the surface of the water, not actually wanting to touch the disgusting sludge. "Stupid wooden town," she grumbled. "What do you guys have against good old fashioned earth? I mean a wooden town in the middle of a river? Worst. Idea. Ever," she proclaimed.

Zuko patted her shoulder. "There, there,"

Toph made a rude gesture with her finger that had Zuko biting his cheek to keep from laughing. "I'm sure they'll be done soon. How long can it take to buy a few days’ worth of supplies?"

"But you're forgetting that Katara stupidly allowed Aang and Sokka to accompany her. Which means at least five arguments about whether or not we need some stupid doodad Sokka is infatuated with and at least three different instances of Aang pulling Katara off to see 'the coolest thing ever Katara, you just have to see it!' So you might need to adjust your estimation."

"You're right," Zuko said. "We're going to be here forever. Might as well buy a house and start planting crops."

"I may not be able to see you with my Earthbending right now, but I can still hear you and gauge your location well enough to shove you into the water."

"Please don't. The water looks so gross."

"Can I interest you in a sculpture of the Painted Lady young man," an old peddler asked as he approached the two pushing a cart full of his wares.

Zuko's expression soured. "No."

"If you pray to her maybe she'll heal your sister's unfortunate affliction."

Zuko saw Toph tense. "We don't want your frogsnake oil. Leave us alone," Zuko snapped at the old man.

"Frogsnake oil? You would say that about such a benevolent spirit as-"

"Get lost!" Something in Zuko's expression must have made the peddler weary, and he moved on.

Toph was squeezing the wooden planks hard enough for her fingernails (which sorely needed to be clipped) to leave divots in the wood. "What's their deal?"

Zuko looked at his murky and malformed reflection in the water. "In the Fire Nation there's a big emphasis on productivity. Everyone is supposed to contribute to the ever growing greatness of our country. So if someone is... less able to contribute... they're seen as unworthy. Our whole lives we are told we're the superior race. I guess certain flaws undercut that message."

Toph was scowling at the water she couldn't see. "Because I'm disabled, so clearly I'm inferior?" Toph's voice was hard and cold. Maybe I should tell her about… No. Bad idea.

"No! But yes, that is what we are taught."

"And what makes you so special?"

"I'm not special," Zuko said. "We aren't born with these beliefs. They're taught to us. I had the opportunity to see other perspectives when I was a refugee."

Toph was quiet. She seemed to decide she wanted to talk about something else, almost anything else. "Who's the Painted Lady? I've never heard of her. She's a spirit?"

"I think she's only worshipped in the Fire Nation," Zuko said. "Also she's fake."

"Fake?"

"She doesn't really exist." I wasted so much time praying to her. Mother did too. I took so long to learn my lesson.

"Okay," said Toph. "But who is she? What's her story? I never knew there were spirits unique to each nation. I mean obviously different nations put different emphasis on different spirits, but I thought we were all on the same page about who the spirits are." It's not a pleasant story. Certainly not something to fill an innocent kid's head with. Besides, it's all lies. I know that now.

"They're taking too long." Zuko got to his feet and brushed his hand against Toph's to let her know he was offering her assistance. "Let's go look for them."

Katara knelt down next to the ailing child. "It's the fever," her weeping mother said. "People never used to get sick like this before the factory started dumping its waste in the river. Now every other day someone passes from the fever. I don't know what to do to help her. Have you ever seen anything like it before in the other villages where you practiced healing?" The mother sounded so hopeful. No, but I could heal her easily with Waterbending. Except I can't Waterbend in front of you. So what am I supposed to do? I can't just do nothing.

Sokka knelt down next to her. "I know what you're thinking. You can't," he whispered urgently. "If word were to get to-"

"I know," Katara hissed. "What do you want me to do? Let her die?"

"Is there another way? An herb, or-"

"I can help your daughter," Katara said. I will find a way. I will make a way. I can't let an innocent suffer just to protect myself. It would be a violation of everything Yagoda taught me.

The mother stared at Katara with wide eyes, for a moment not seeming to comprehend. "You can?! Oh bless you! The Painted Lady herself sent you, I'm sure if it." The woman grabbed Katara's hand and kissed it as though she were some powerful queen. Katara blushed.

"Who's the Painted Lady," Aang asked.

"Who's the-" The woman stared at Aang as though he were an alien. "How could you not know the Painted Lady?"

"He's from the colonies," a voice spoke up. Katara turned around and saw Zuko standing there holding Toph's hand. "Of course it doesn't matter anyway because you've been worshipping a lie."

The woman gasped. "How dare you say such a thing?! Get your blasphemy away from us! It's no wonder the spirits saw fit to strike your daughter blind if you would say such heretical things about such a-"

"Such a fake useless delusion?"

The mother covered her ears with her shaking hands. "I'm not listening to you!" Tears sprang from her eyes and her whole body trembled with distress. She was obviously terrified.

What on Earth is this? Why is she so upset, and why is Zuko acting this way? He's tormenting this woman for no reason at all. He doesn't even know her. How could he do such a thing?

"Your ignorance won't help your daughter," Zuko said. "Maybe if you spent less time praying to a fable and more time trying to get your daughter away from such a toxic environment, then she wouldn't be sick!"

"Zuko!" Katara hadn't meant to say his name. It had just slipped out in her horror.

Zuko's eyes widened. Toph's grip on his hand tightened. Sokka and Aang exchanged looks of trepidation. But the bereaved mother only laughed. "You have a cursed name. The traitor prince bore the same name before his death."

Before his... "Prince Zuko is dead," Katara asked. "How did he die?"

"He tried to sell his sister, the gleaming light of the West, out to the Earth Kingdom in exchange for an army of Earthbenders to use to overthrow and assassinate his most noble father, our glorious Fire Lord Ozai. Princess Azula was forced to kill him in self defense and grieves for him terribly, though the spirits know he doesn't deserve her grief. The traitor General Iroh partook in this most heinous plot, but thankfully he was arrested and will stand trial at the capital for his many crimes," she said.

"That's a-" Toph began.

"A relief," Zuko said. "It's a relief we don't have to worry about their treachery anymore. Our nation is safe from them."

"But not safe from heretics it seems."

"I wasn't struck blind," Toph said in a voice that trembled with rage. Careful Toph. I already screwed up. Don't make it any worse. If we drop too many hints she'll start to put the pieces together. "I was born blind. And there's nothing wrong with that! Or with me!"

The mother scoffed. "Cripples are born to parents who anger the spirits. It's-"

"I'm not a cripple! I'm the-!"

"Enough." Katara didn't shout, but she spoke with such absolute authority that everyone fell quiet. "Zuko, take Tsuki back to our camp. I have to take this child somewhere where I can treat her in silence. Sokka, you'll help me. Aang, stay with her parents." Katara's voice was firm and brokered no argument.

As Zuko led a furious looking Toph away and Sokka started to pick up the weak and almost insensate child the mother leaned over and whispered in Katara's ear. "Please tell me that man isn't your husband kind lady. I would hate to see one as kind and innocent as you made to suffer for his evil. The spirits-"

Katara shook her head. "He's just a friend," she assured the woman.

"You need better friends," the mother said as Katara took her daughter away.

Maybe I do.

...

Toph was punching rocks while Zuko bored holes into his leftover oysterclam shells. He wasn't making a necklace, he just needed an outlet for the raging emotions inside of him. It seemed Toph had laid claim to destroying the campsite (and Zuko wasn't quite angry enough to set all of their things on fire anyway), so he made due with the fragile shells. He whittled hole after hole into one shell, until the shell cracked, unable to maintain its structural integrity. Zuko picked up another shell as Toph continued to demolish their campsite. All I do is destroy things, and now I'm rubbing off on her.

"What the hell is wrong with you?!"

Zuko looked up. He was surrounded by shell fragments and only just now realizing that he had several cuts on his hands. Blood was oozing from his fingers. Toph stopped ripping apart the earth for a moment to listen to Katara yell at him. Toph was panting with what Zuko guessed was both rage and exhaustion. Zuko put down his whittling stick and met Katara's furious gaze. Her eyes were hurricanes. "I told the truth."

"What does it matter if that woman prays to some random spirit?! It gives her comfort, who does that hurt?!"

Zuko spoke softly, so that Katara would have to strain to listen. "The Painted Lady isn't a spirit. She's a lie. These people stay here, in this desolate used up place, and they pray to the Painted Lady to save them. Their children are dying, and they won't do anything about it because they believe the Painted Lady will heal them. And when their children die they will blame themselves for not being faithful enough. So that's who gets hurt Katara. The innocent kids."

"These people don't have anywhere else to go! And why should they have to?! They didn't ask for their home to be destroyed! How could you be so cruel to someone with a dying child?!" A loud crack filled the air as Toph split a large boulder in two. "Would you knock that off?!" Katara stomped her foot.

"You didn't stick up for me!" Toph's voice trembled with rage, but Zuko could make out the pain beneath. "You let her say that horrible stuff about me!"

"Toph," Katara said in a gentler tone. "She's a grieving mother. What she said was awful and wrong, but-"

"But nothing!" Toph shattered the boulder into shards hardly bigger than the oysterclam pieces scattered around Zuko. "I am not broken! I am not a tragedy! I am just as good as any of you!" She stomped her foot and shook the ground. "I'm better than all of you!"

"Toph," Sokka said warily.

"No! Shut up!" The ground felt as solid as a flooded marsh even though it was stone.

"Aang," Sokka whispered out of the corner of his mouth. "Do something."

"Like what," Aang whispered, clearly terrified. "She's stronger than me."

"Talk to her."

"That'll just make her angrier."

"Good point, don't say anything."

"Toph," Katara begged. "Please calm down. We can talk about this."

"I don't want to talk! My value as a human being isn't up for debate!"

"Mom! Mom! We have to help it! It has a broken wing! We have to save it!"

"Oh Zuko, I'm so sorry. It won't be able to survive like this. I know it's hard love."

"But we can help it!"

"No, we can't."

"No one is trying to-"

"Why were they protesting?"

"They want free stuff from grandfather."

"What kind of free stuff?”

"Food, housing, stuff like that."

"Don't they need that to survive cousin?"

"Zuko... They don't contribute to our country. If we started supporting every person who can't or won't work we wouldn't have the resources to continue expanding our borders and increasing our greatness. I know it seems harsh, but some people... don't deserve to be a part of society. Helping them will only prolong their suffering. In the end it's kinder to let them sink or swim."

"She said I was a curse!"

"Prince Zuko, how is your vision?"

"It's fine Uncle."

"Any blurriness or loss of-"

"I said it's fine!"

"She didn't- Stop! Stop it!"

Zuko was drawn from his flashback by Katara's shout. He looked at her horrified expression, eyes blown wide. She was looking right at him he realized. He followed her gaze to his hands and saw that he was clutching crushed shells in his hand. The sharp fragments were embedded in his flesh and the blood was flowing freely. "Oh," he whispered.

"Zuko!" Aang clutched his head in obvious distress and agitation. "Why would you do that to yourself?!"

"I... didn't mean to. I was just..." Zuko opened his hand and let bloody shell fragments fall to the ground. Some were still deep under his skin though.

"Zuko..." Toph sounded frightened.

Sokka walked over and sat down cross-legged in front of him. "Can I help you get those out? I don't think Katara can heal it with the pieces still inside."

Zuko wearily held out his hand. Sokka gently took it in his own and pulled out a pair of tweezers. Zuko looked away while the other boy worked. "This is the Painted Lady Zuko. She protects the victims of injustice. If ever anyone hurts you, you can pray to her. She'll heal your wounds and ease your suffering."

"Done." Zuko was once again pulled from his reverie. He looked down at his mangled hand. "Katara, can you..." Sokka trailed off.

Katara came over and took her brother's place. She still looked furious. She held her hand over his own and Zuko saw the blue glow that was becoming all too familiar to him. "Will the little girl be okay?"

"What do you care," Katara snapped.

"Of course I care. I-"

"Finished." Katara stood up.

Zuko tested his hand. It was as though it had never been injured at all. He felt shame spreading through him like a raging fire. He had shown humiliating weakness. What would father say? It occurred to Zuko that his father would have a lot more to say about the treason, and since he was betraying his father he shouldn't really care what he might think anymore anyways. It didn't help. His shame endured. He got to his feet and didn't look at any of them.

"Are you okay," Aang asked.

His shame grew. "I'm going for a walk."

"When will you be back," Sokka asked.

"When I get back!" He didn't wait for any response, and the speed at which he left was more similar to a run than a walk.

Toph sat down amidst the debris of her destruction. She felt like crying, but she refused to let any of her companions see her weep. "Toph," Aang started. The gentleness in his tone just made her more furious. She felt like a ratviper ready to bite and tear and hurt .

"I'm not broken. I'm just blind." Why can't they understand that? Why can't anybody ever understand that? What's so amazing about being able to see? As far as I'm concerned it just seems like a distraction. It makes people petty and shallow. It makes them overlook their other senses. If I had the choice I wouldn't even want to see, pretty stars or sunsets be damned.

Katara knelt down in front of her. "We know that Toph. I'm sorry I didn't stick up for you to that woman. You're our friend, and you deserve to be treated with respect," Katara said with her soft tone.

"So if I weren't your friend I wouldn't deserve to be treated with respect?"

"Of course that's not what I mean Toph,” Katara whispered gently.

"Everywhere I go people treat me like I'm defective. Like I'm a burden." My own parents thought I was useless, an embarrassment to be hidden away.

"It's not like that in the Water Tribe," Sokka said. "At least, not in the Southern Tribe, and I don't think Northern either."

"What do you mean,” Toph asked.

"In our tribe," Katara said "We function as a unit. We all work together to ensure the survival of the entire tribe. No one is allowed to go hungry or stay cold. We see to each other's needs. If a child is born with a disability the whole tribe is expected to help that child with whatever he or she might need, just the same as they would be expected to for any abled child, and that child will be taught whatever skills he or she can develop to help the tribe."

"What if the kid can't help at all?" A person shouldn't have to have some amazing special talent to be allowed to exist as a disabled person. I'm the greatest Earthbender in the world, but my life would still be worthwhile even if I weren't.

"That's okay too. Every member of the tribe is a vital part of our community. Tribe is Tribe. You don't have to do anything special to be worthy of being Water Tribe. Every child born into our nation is a blessing from the spirits and treated as such,” Katara assured Toph.

I was never even acknowledged by my community. And these people here think I don't even deserve to exist. A single tear escaped Toph's eye. "Your home sounds pretty great," Toph said. Except for all the ice and snow of course. Still, it would almost be worth the cold to live somewhere where disabled people are actually accepted instead of scorned and ostracized. Toph blinked away her escaped tear.

Katara wrapped her arms around Toph, and the younger girl let her. "I'm so sorry," Katara said. "I promise I will never prioritize someone else's feelings over yours again." Katara squeezed her.

"I'm sorry I destroyed the camp."

"We should probably get out of here anyway," Sokka said casually. "Who wants to volunteer to track down Zuko?"

Toph wiped her eyes. "I'll do it."

"I can-" Aang began.

"I'll do it," Toph insisted. I need answers, and I don't think I'll get them with you guys listening.

...

Zuko sat on the cliff edge staring down at the filthy water. "Don't jump,” the stealthy Earthbender said in a voice far more sedate than the one she normally used.

He didn't look at her. "Ha ha," he said in his most dry emotionless tone.

"Well I'm no Sokka," she admitted.

"I'm sorry," he whispered.

She sat down next to him. "You scared me. Why would you want to hurt yourself like that," she demanded.

"I didn't want to. And I never meant to frighten you. I just..." He struggled to find the words to explain without actually telling her anything.

"You just what?"

You can't tell her. Once people find out about your weaknesses they'll use them against you. Keep your mouth shut.

"Zuko?"

You have to say something.

"Earth to Zuko. Come in sparky."

"Almost everything I ever believed, everything I was taught, the principles my country and culture are founded on, is a lie. A horrible destructive lie. Ours is the superior race. We are destined to rule the world. All sacrifices are justified to bring about our destiny. Weakness and imperfection are blights that must be excised. I believed all of that. In my core of being I believed every word."

"But you don't now."

"But I did!" Zuko slammed a hand down on the ledge. "I'm so embarrassed and ashamed and..." Zuko clutched the rock in his fists. It's a good thing I'm not an Earthbender, or I would probably send us tumbling down into the water.

"Well... Maybe that's a good thing. It's good that you're ashamed of what you used to believe, because it was wrong and hurt people. But that means you should also be proud of who you are now. Because you moved past all of that and are helping people."

Zuko stared at the sick river. "You're pretty wise for a kid," he admitted.

"I was just trying to channel my inner General Iroh. How'd I do?"

Zuko felt a pang. "Do you think he'll forgive me for abandoning him?"

"I think he already has, if he was ever mad at all. Your uncle cares a lot about you. When I first met him you were all he wanted to talk about. He'll be so proud to find out you've been helping us."

Zuko released a shuddering breath. I owe her the truth, but I just can't do it.

"Let's get out of here. There have to be more interesting places in the Fire Nation to not see." Toph got to her feet.

They didn't speak on their way back to camp, but they didn't have to. Zuko found that for the first time in his life he had someone he could honestly relate to. Someone who he could understand and who understood him in turn. Not a loving mother or a supportive mentor, but a friend, a real friend, who he trusted more and more each day. You'll screw it up Zuko. You always do. Zuko banished the doubts from his mind. He knew they hadn't gone far, but for now he held his ground against them. That was enough.

"Guys." Aang sounded nervous when the two returned to the campsite that looked like a battlefield. "Something's wrong."

Zuko was instantly on high alert. Did the locals get suspicious? Someone spotted the bison? What happened?

"I think Appa's sick." Some of the tension released from Zuko's shoulders.

"Can't Katara just use her woo woo magic to fix him with the splashy splash," Toph asked.

"My what? Water healing is an ancient art sacred to my people. It is not woo woo magic or splashy splash." She sniffed in indignation.

"Plus the woo woo magic isn't working," Sokka added. "Looks like we're stuck here until Appa recovers."

"Does that mean I have to put the campsite back together," Toph asked.

"We'd sure appreciate it," Aang said.

Zuko felt a sinking feeling in his gut and tried to repress it. So the bison is a little under the weather. It'll probably be better by morning and we can get out of this cursed place. Zuko looked at the poison water and shivered.

Katara clutched her basket of herbs so tight her knuckles were almost white. Sneaking one kid away to heal in secret was difficult enough. And she was too sick to see what I was doing. I can't help anyone who might realize I'm a Waterbender and tell someone. But there has to be a way. I have to find a way. Soon. This ruse won't last forever. If Appa stays 'sick' for too long Aang will start to panic. Toph can tell when I'm lying. Sokka is smart enough to put it all together if he gets suspicious, and he will eventually. Suspicion is pretty much his default setting. Zuko's not exactly dim either. And he really wants to get out of her. What's his problem anyway? He was way out of line earlier. I got so caught up in helping him I almost forgot what a jerk he can be, even when he isn't evil anymore. That poor mother.

"Please," an elderly woman approached Katara. "Spare some change. Just a few coins. We're so hungry. My son is too proud to beg, but it's been days..."

Katara wordlessly pulled some coins from her purse and held them out to the old woman. She fought the tears trying to reach her eyes. This is wrong.

The woman kissed her hand. Her lips felt like crumpled paper, dry and unpleasant. "Bless you lady. Blessings."

Katara turned and ran before she could say or do something stupid. Someone has to help these people, and it can't be me. But it has to be me. There's no one else. Someone has to do something.

Katara stopped in front of a vendor selling sculptures of the Painted Lady. Someone will.

...

"You're weak. Weak and pathetic just like your mother. It's only fitting you should have to be the one to take her place. You didn't even put up a fight. Quit crying and fight! Fight!" Zuko sat up suddenly. His breath was ragged and his heart pounding. Just a dream, he reminded himself. But his father's voice was still ringing in his ear and his arms felt like they were still burning even after all the years gone by. Zuko got to his feet and realized to his disgust that he was shaking. Zuko knew he wasn't going to be able to get back to sleep. He started walking. He followed the river for want of another path. Weak. Pathetic.

Zuko was so caught up in his thoughts and memories that he almost didn't notice the mist. But once he did he stopped in his tracks. It was her . It can't be. That's impossible. She isn't...

Zuko ran. He had to confront her. He had to demand an explanation. At first she didn't seem to notice him, which was ridiculous. She was a spirit, how could anything escape her notice? He stood on the rocky shore and stared at her ethereal figure. "You're real," he croaked.

She looked at him. Or at least it seemed that she did. She was still obscured by mist, and clouds hid the waning moon. For a moment Zuko considered that he might be dreaming, but a quick pinch to his wrist confirmed that he was awake. This was real. She was real.

"You're real!" His voice was no exhausted whisper now. It was powered by rage and indignation. "You were real the whole time! I prayed to you! I prayed every night! Just like mother taught me!"

She didn't answer. Of course she didn't answer. She went years without ever acknowledging him. Why should it be any different now? Zuko felt fury boiling his blood, begging to be released in the form of fire. Why shouldn't it be?

Zuko sent a stream of fire towards the spirit. The river rose up to meet his flames and where the two met a cloud of steam burst into existence, completely covering the Painted Lady. By the time the steam had faded the spirit was gone. She was gone. Zuko felt sick. His legs were wobbling and he sat down before he could fall down. She was always real. My prayers didn't go unanswered because I was praying to a fable. She heard me, she just didn't care. Zuko started to sob. Once the tears started he couldn't stop. He could hear his father laughing about it.

"Crying over a spirit?"

Zuko remembered all the nights he whispered to the Painted Lady under his red silk sheets, begging her to keep him safe. It never worked. He came in the night, leaving the small boy Zuko tried so hard to separate himself from burnt and bloody. Zuko cried and cried. When the sun came up he was still there all wept out and shaking from misery and lethargy. In all his life he had never felt so alone as he did in that moment.

Aang woke up with a loud yawn and stretched. Katara was already awake, stirring something over the fire looking tired and miserable. Aang stood and padded over to her. He sat down cross-legged next to her. She looked over at him and smiled. "Don't worry," she said softly so as not to wake the others. "No meat." She set the spoon down.

"I'm more worried about you than about breakfast. Are you stressed about healing Appa? I have confidence in you Katara. You'll figure it out eventually."

"Right," Katara said. "Appa."

Aang cocked his head. "Is there something else going on? Is it the sick people in the town? I know you want to help them. I wish there were a way."

Katara looked around the camp. "Did Zuko ever come back last night?"

Aang also surveyed the camp. He could hear snores coming from Toph's earth tent and see Sokka curled up in his sleeping bag. But Zuko was nowhere to be seen. "I didn't realize he went anywhere," Aang admitted. "I hope he's okay. He seemed really..." I'm not sure how to put it. He was certainly something. That thing with the shells...

Katara shook her head. "We've all tried to be so nice and welcoming ever since he joined the group. Even Sokka has pretty much backed off. We gave him a clean slate. And then he went and pulled a stunt like he did in town. He's volatile."

Aang shifted uncomfortably. He struggled to find the words he was looking for. He knew Katara was just concerned, and Aang was concerned too, very concerned. But something felt wrong. The trouble was that he didn't know exactly what. Then all thoughts of Zuko fled his mind as he gaped at Katara's face. "What happened to you?!"

Katara touched what looked like a sunburn on her cheek. It wasn't too bad, faint enough that Aang was only just noticing it. But he hated to see any of his friends injured. "Oh, I didn't..." Katara quickly healed herself. "I was experimenting with steambending last night. I didn't even realize I overdid it."

"You work so hard," Aang said. "You need to rest every once in a while."

Katara smiled. "I appreciate you looking out for me, but I'm fine," she promised.

Aang bit his lip. "You're my best friend."

Katara knocked her elbow against him gently. "And you're mine. I- He's back."

Aang turned around and saw that Zuko was trudging back into camp. There was no other way to put it than that he looked terrible. His eyes were red. His hair was a mess. He was paler than normal and covered with a sheen of sweat. His clothes were dirty. He didn't acknowledge them as he entered the camp. He just sat down on his sleeping bag and stared at his muddy shoes.

"Hey Zuko," Aang said. "We were w-"

"I saw her," he told his shoes.

Next to Aang Katara stiffened. "I don't understand," Aang said. "Saw who?"

"I saw the Painted Lady. She's real."

Zuko looked more miserable than Aang had ever seen him. Aang wasn't quite sure what to say. Why does the Painted Lady being real make Zuko so upset?

"Maybe it was just a shadow," Katara suggested. "It was really cloudy last-"

"I'm not crazy!" Zuko's shout woke Toph, but not Sokka who could sleep like the dead. "I know what I saw! I saw her!"

"Okay," Aang soothed. "You saw her."

"Quit patronizing me!"

"No one is patronizing you," Katara shouted at him. "Calm down! You don't have to always blow up over every little thing! We're just talking to you!"

Zuko's face twisted into an inscrutable expression. He almost looked at war with himself. "We need to leave."

"Appa's still sick," Katara said.

"Well I don't care! This place is bad news and we need to get out of here. We don't have to go far, just enough distance to get away from this town and river."

"We're not going to risk Appa's health just because you have the heebie-jeebies!" Katara crossed her arms.

On the one hand Aang could clearly see that Zuko didn't just have the heebie-jeebies. He was obviously very upset about something. So much so that he was almost shaking and looked half like a spirit himself. On the other hand Aang was outraged that Zuko would dare so casually disregard Appa's well being.

"This place is dangerous! And if you can't see that you're just dense! Why won't either of you listen to me?!"

"Because you're not making any sense!"

Zuko rubbed his face. Unfortunately since his hands had soot on them this had the side effect of making his face even dirtier than it already was. "Can't you just trust me? Please? We shouldn't stay here Katara. This spirit is... bad."

Katara scoffed. "So you're an expert on the spirits now? Aang's the Avatar. He's the bridge between our world and the Spirit World. If anyone is going to be judging this spirit's intentions it should be him. Right Aang," she asked.

Aang gulped. I don't know anything about this spirit. But I guess there's only one way to learn. "Sure. I can try to talk to her. Where did you see her Zuko?"

Zuko looked ready to explode he was so obviously furious. "Find her yourself," he snapped as he stormed off.

Katara rolled her eyes. "Jerk."

Toph looked ready to object and Aang just knew another confrontation was brewing between the two girls. Sleep deprived Katara + protective Toph = a muddy mess. "I'll go talk to him," Aang said quickly. "Katara, do you think you could look over Appa again? And Toph, could you go into town with Sokka and find out if any of the locals saw the Painted Lady last night," Aang asked.

Both girls hesitated. "Of course Aang," Katara said obligingly as Toph rolled her eyes and snapped "Fine!" dramatically.

Two bombs defused (temporarily). One to go. Aang grabbed his staff and started in the direction that Zuko had gone. Looking over his shoulder Aang saw Toph rudely shaking Sokka, apparently deciding he was as good an outlet for her frustration as any. But those two had a deep loyalty and affection for one another and Aang knew once Sokka was properly awake they would set to their task with little or no conflict. Aang looked towards Appa for a quick peek before he ran after Zuko. Aang's running skills were incredible and he knew he would have no problem catching up to the older boy. Katara was petting and hugging the bison, whispering something soothing into his ear. Aang smiled. Appa was in good hands. Katara pulled some berries from her basket to give to him. Medicine, Aang thought dismissively. Although strangely the berries were the same color as the splotches on Appa's tongue. What a weird coincidence.

Aang shook his head. He needed to get going. I don't know what happened between this spirit and Zuko, but it's my job to figure it out and make it right. Maybe this can be a good learning experience for both of us. I’ll work on my mediation skills, which could use some improvement, and Zuko will learn about the Spirit World. It's obviously something he's interested in. He and Katara will apologize for their silly misunderstanding and we'll all be friends again. Everything is going to be fine. With a whistle on his tongue and a spring in his step Aang took off running after the Firebender.

Chapter Text

Toph hesitated  in front of the wooden path into the town. One more step and the world will disappear. “C’mon,” Sokka said. “Let's go.”

Sokka doesn't understand. He can't understand. She took a weary step onto the wood and started the short, but seemingly endless, trek over the river into the town that stood nestled in the center of it. “This is lame. Why does Aang want to talk to some stupid spirit anyway?”

Toph wondered if the beat of silence was Sokka shrugging. He often shrugged before answering questions, but she had no way of knowing if he just had because she was walking on wood instead of Earth. She hated it. “Who knows with him? Avatar stuff maybe?”

Toph scoffed. “I don't see how any of this is supposed to help us take down the Fire Lord, and you heard what Zuko said. This spirit is bad news. Why poke the sabertooth mooselion?”

“I try not to get involved in all the spirit mumbo jumbo myself. We’ll get the information from the villagers, pass it on to Aang, and hopefully that will be the end of our involvement.”

“Right,” Toph said. “And what do you think the odds of that plan working out are?”

“Slim to none,” Sokka said casually. “But hey, that's life traveling with the Avatar.”


Zuko was employing his tried and true anger management method, throwing fireballs through the air. It never really worked to be honest. Sometimes he finished practice even angrier than he had been when he began, but it was the only outlet for his rage that he had. So he drilled and drilled and drilled. Muscle memory led him through the sequences as his mind was elsewhere, consumed by memories of blood and fire. Candles lit before the altar. Mother's soft hands carding through my hair. I cried when she was gone, and I cried even harder after. There was blood on the red silk that only I could see. Everything smelled like ashes. My skin smelled like ashes. My sheets smelled like salt and iron. Ash and blood and flame and silk and no number of candles could ever fix any of it. I should have fought. I was weak. I didn't fight.

Zuko was out of fuel. He turned around and saw the Avatar standing there, watching him. There was no judgement in his eyes, no wariness, neither contempt nor fear. He was just watching quietly, declining to interrupt.

"What do you want," Zuko said with all the venom of a snapping turtlepython.

"I just want to talk to you."

"Unless what you have to say is that we're leaving I'm not interested."

"I'm going to try to talk to the Painted Lady. You seem pretty sure that she's dangerous or evil. I'd appreciate it if you would tell me why, so that I can be prepared. You were so sure she wasn't real, and now that we know she is you're just as sure she's bad. Why?"

Zuko clenched his fists. I'm supposed to bare my soul to them to sate their curiosity? Well I won't do it! "I just know."

"How?"

"I just do okay?!" Zuko's fists filled with flame. Aang didn't so much as take a step back. He really does trust me, or he's a cocky idiot. Although I suppose they aren't mutually exclusive.

"I don't understand. Why don't you want to tell us? Did you do something bad?"

Zuko scowled. "Because I'm the evil fire prince, so I must have done something horrible, right?" Zuko turned away.

"Do you not trust us?" That hit closer to home than Zuko would have liked. I don't trust them. But I can't trust anybody. I never even told Uncle. He wouldn't have ever looked at me the same way again. It's the same situation here. If I tell them it will change how they see me, and there won't be any going back.

"Do what you want to do. It's obvious you don't value my input-" Zuko began.

"We do-"

"I said my piece. When you talk to the Painted Lady ask her how she decides which prayers to answer." Shut up!

"What-"

"We're done here." Zuko stormed off. I'll find somewhere to practice my Firebending in peace! But of course Zuko knew there would be no peace for him.

Katara stood on her ice board and began to bend the water into a veil of mist to obscure her from view. She knew Aang would be looking for her tonight, which meant she would have to be extra careful. The smart thing to do would be to take a break for the night, but she couldn't let these people suffer one moment more than necessary. Besides, the sooner she finished healing them the sooner Appa could be 'cured' and they could all leave. Katara came to the boardwalk and stepped gingerly onto it. She made her way towards the healer's hut, where the sickest of the villagers were resting. Katara went in and knelt before the person closest to the door. She surveyed the room to make sure they were all asleep. Of course if anyone woke they would only see the 'Painted Lady' healing the sick, but it couldn't hurt to be careful. Katara finished healing the people in the hut and then moved outside to make a few house calls.

"There you are!" Katara flinched. She turned around and saw a woman with sunken eyes and the figure of a scarecrow. "Oh thank you! You healed my brother! Thank you! Thank you!"

Katara started to back away. She whipped up more mist around her by bending the water particulates through the gaps in the wood planks.

"Please, wait! I want to make an offering to you! Please my Lady! Don't go!"

Katara fled. I can't let her get close enough to me to recognize me. I guess the other patients will have to wait until tomorrow night. It's too risky to stay in the town now. Katara surfed down the river back towards camp. At least there's no sign of Aang. I got lucky with-

"Hi!"

Katara was tempted to take a page out of Sokka's book and slap her own forehead, but now was not the time for dramatic gestures. She turned around and saw Aang hanging onto one of his balls of bent air. His feet gently touched the water, which froze under him.

"I'm the Avatar. You probably already knew that, being a spirit and all. I was wondering if we could talk."

Katara shook her head.

"Oh that's too bad. My friends heard a lot of stories from the villagers about the amazing stuff you did for them, but my other friend is convinced you're a bad spirit. He won't tell me why, but I was hoping you could help me clear things up. You see, I'm the bridge between the human world and the spirit world. It's kind of my job to resolve any misunderstandings." Aang grinned at Katara expectantly. Katara increased the amount of mist around her. "Wait!"

Katara turned and prepared to surf away. Unfortunately that was when a gust of air dissipated the mist. Katara gasped and tried to bend the water to conceal herself. Too late she realized her hat and veil were gone, blown away by the same Airbending that had removed her mist cover. She covered her face with her hands.

“Katara?!”

Katara peaked over her hands. “Hi Aang?”

“You're- But- How- Why- What-” Aang stared at her in confusion. “I don't understand.”

“I'm sorry Aang. I had to help the people in the village. This was the only way.”

“Wait a minute! You're the one who made Appa sick,” he shouted angrily. “How could you?!”

“He's not really sick,” Katara assured him. “I just made it look that way to buy time. Please try to understand. I couldn't turn my back on these people. They needed me,” she pleaded.

Aang sighed. “I guess I do understand, but I just wish you hadn't lied to us. I was really worried about Appa, and I think you really freaked out Zuko.” No less than he deserves, Katara thought.

“I just need one more night,” Katara said. “I’ll finish healing the villagers and then we can leave without anyone being the wiser.”

“Well…” Aang looked torn. “Okay, but you need to tell the others what you're doing.”

“What? Why?” There's no way that will end well. They'll be furious with me for lying.

“Because they're our friends and it isn't right to lie to them. And because I think Zuko deserves to know the truth about the Painted Lady.”

Katara rolled her eyes. “He doesn't deserve anything after the way he's been acting.”

“It's obvious he's afraid of this spirit. Knowing it's you will put his mind at ease. Katara I'm not comfortable lying to him about this. I think he should hear the truth from you, but if you won't tell him I'll have to.” Aang looked resolute.

“Fine.” This isn't going to be pretty.

The campfire was a somber gathering place that morning as the five companions ate their breakfast in tense silence. Zuko was surprised Aang hadn't reported his success or failure in contacting the Painted Lady last night. Aang was prone to overshare. He kept stealing glances at Katara instead. She was stirring her bowl, looking nervous and agitated. Aang cleared his throat loudly. “Katara-”

“Okay!” Katara put down her bowl.

“You okay Katara,” Sokka asked.

“I'm the Painted Lady.”

For a moment Zuko couldn't breathe. She heard me. She knows. This is a disaster. This is so humiliating. How could this happen? “Are you okay Zuko?” Sokka was staring at him.

Zuko looked down and saw that the contents of his bowl were boiling. He carefully set it down and leveled his gaze at Katara. “You're the one I saw on the river the other night,” he asked.

“Yeah,” she said. “I-”

“You had no right!” Zuko jumped to his feet.

“Excuse me?!” Katara scrambled to her own feet. “I have every right to help the innocent!”

“The Painted Lady is sacred to my culture! How would you feel if I dressed like the Moon Spirit and ran around the Water Tribe trying to get people to worship me?!” How dare she?!

Katara scoffed. “You don't even believe in the Painted Lady! And all I was trying to do was help these people! You don't care about them at all! You don't care about the damage your father's war inflicted on them! You don't care about anybody but yourself!” The boiling water in the pot over the fire sloshed dangerously close to the edges while the flames beneath licked the metal pot hungrily.

“This isn't about me! You have no business appropriating Fire Nation culture like that!”

“You are so phony! Just admit the real reason you're mad is because you're embarrassed!”

Zuko's eye widened. She wouldn't tell them what I said. She wouldn't be so cruel.

“You couldn't see through my disguise and got spooked thinking I was a real spirit. Now that you know there is no spirit you're humiliated about being so afraid. Isn't that the truth?”

“No! It isn't! You don't know me! And you don't know anything about my culture or religion!”

“That's not the point!”

“Yes it is!” Zuko noticed Sokka stand up and pull Toph away from the fire. Aang followed them wearily. “You don't even know who the Painted Lady is and yet thought you could represent her to people who worship her!”

“I saved their lives!”

“That doesn't make it okay to make a mockery of our faith! I wouldn't do that to you!”

“You wouldn't need to! You wouldn't care about a Water Tribe village suffering! You were willing to burn mine to the ground!”

“Katara,” Sokka said hesitantly.

“You don't even care about your own people!”

“You don't know what I care about!”

“I know you-”

“He's right Katara.”

Everyone turned to stare at Aang. Did the Avatar just take my side? Over Katara's?

Katara was apparently just as shocked as Zuko was. “What are you talking about?”

“If… If someone appropriated Air Nomad culture the way you just did with Fire Nation culture I would be really upset. I know you were only trying to help, but I kind of think Zuko has the right to be angry. None of us even know who the Painted Lady is. How could any of us accurately represent her? And she's obviously important to people in the Fire Nation.”

“But…” Katara looked at Sokka.

Sokka rubbed his neck. “I don't know. If someone pretended to be Yue, especially someone from another nation, I'd be furious, but I don't really see why this Painted Lady is such a big deal. What is she even the spirit of?”

“Succor,” Zuko whispered.

“Huh,” Toph said.

Zuko looked at the fire. It had died down, and the water was still now. “She eases the suffering of those who… have been unjustly harmed.”

“Okay,” said Katara carefully. “Why is she only in the Fire Nation? What's her story?”

Zuko ground his teeth. They could never understand. Their cultures are too different.

“Zuko,” Aang said. “Avatar Roku said I needed to learn about Fire Nation culture. Isn't this-”

“Shut up,” Zuko snapped. Then he instantly felt bad. Aang looked crestfallen. Zuko cleared his throat and looked away. “If you want to learn then listen.” Zuko unconsciously rubbed his arms. “Fire Nation society is… It's…” Zuko rubbed his face in frustration. He looked around and saw that everyone (except Toph) was staring at him in confusion. “My uncle said that the Water Tribe is about community and family bonds above all else. Everyone takes care of each other. There is a hierarchy, but it's loose and secondary to social bonds. Is that true?”

Sokka looked at Katara. “Well yeah. We have a Chief, but the Chief is still subject to the will of the people. And he doesn't govern anyone's day to day life. He's just there to keep everyone organized if there's a disaster or something.”

Zuko nodded. “Well the Fire Nation isn't like that. Our society is based on obligation. We have a very strict social hierarchy and everyone knows their place in it. The allegiance owed to a lord or a parent or a master is absolute. You do not disobey or disrespect your lord, your father or your teacher. You just don't do it,” Zuko said.

“And if you do,” Toph asked wearily.

“They punish you as they see fit.” Zuko took a deep breath to steady himself. “But it's not a one way relationship. A subject must be loyal to his or her lord, but that lord must protect his or her subjects from harm. A child must obey his parents, but those parents must provide for that child. A student must respect his master, but that master must teach his student. There's… balance.” Zuko squeezed his arm tight.

“That's so different from the way the Air Nomads did things,” Aang marveled. “We were always encouraged to exercise our freedom.”

“So what happens if a lord or parent or master breaks their end of the bargain,” Sokka asked.

“They're not supposed to,” Zuko said.

“But if they do,” Katara insisted. “Whoever is in charge of this village clearly isn't upholding their responsibility to it.” She crossed her arms.

“You're hurting me!”

“Be quiet! I can hurt you a lot worse.”

“Da-” I screamed. I tried to muffle my scream into the mattress, but I was too late.

“Zuko?”

Zuko blinked and looked at Aang. “Huh?”

“Who makes the lords do their job.”

“Nobody,” Zuko whispered. “You're just supposed to do it. Our whole society is founded on the belief that some people are born superior to others. They have power because they deserve to have power. If you're Fire Nation you're better than Earth Kingdom. If you're a noble you're better than a peasant. The lord's word is law and his decisions are not questionable. His noble blood is supposed to ensure his righteousness.”

Katara scoffed. “And the last hundred years of corrupt despots forcing endless war haven't woken the people up to the fact that maybe that's a stupid idea,” she said caustically.

Zuko shook his head. “No.”

“I'm just not seeing what any of this has to do with the Painted Lady,” Sokka said.

“Right,” Zuko said. “Okay, well… A long time ago… A really long time ago, there was a soldier. We don't know what her name was. But she was a fierce warrior and her mother was a skilled healer. The soldier lived with her husband and many children. Her mother was also a member of their household. One day there was a terrible battle. The soldier, her husband and all but one of their children went off to fight for their lord. The youngest child stayed behind with her grandmother. So… the husband and the older children all died in the war.”

“They all died?!”

A kiss atop my head. “Yes love.”

“That's so sad!”

“It is my sweet.”

“Did the lord praise them for their sacrifice?”

“Listen to the rest of the story Zuko.”

“The soldier lived, but she was gravely injured and would never be able to fight again. In fact there were few jobs she would be capable of due to her wounds. However she decided to learn healing from her mother to assist her community in whatever way she could. That Autumn there was a bountiful harvest, and when the soldier went to get her share… she was turned away by her lord's guards.”

“But mom! She was a veteran! And the widow of a fallen soldier! She should have been provided with whatever she and her family needed for the rest of her days! How could those men turn her away?!” I actually cried. What a pathetic sentimental child I was.

“She petitioned her lord, but he dismissed her complaint. They needed every resource for the war effort… and had none to spare on cripples and freeloaders. So she was forced to eek out a living on donations from those whom she and her mother healed. She couldn't bring herself to charge those who had nothing, so the family barely made it from week to week.”

“Why didn't the Fire Lord punish that corrupt noble for mistreating his people?!”

“I don't know Zuko. It was a long time ago.”

“The daughter… She grew older. And one day while she was working in the fields trying to earn extra coin for her family the lord’s son happened to see her and ah… He was… enamored by her beauty and ah… asked for her favor.” Zuko blushed at his awkwardness.

Toph snorted. “You mean he thought she was hot and asked her to sleep with him?”

“Toph!” Sokka sounded scandalized.

“Is this story appropriate for kids,” Katara asked.

“Kids?! You're two years older than me Sugar Queen. Give me a break. And I heard some really raunchy stories back at Earth Rumble-”

“I don't wanna know!” Sokka squaked.

“Me neither,” Aang said wearily.

“Just finish the story Zuko,” Katara said with a resigned expression.

That's what I was trying to do before I was interrupted. Zuko huffed in displeasure. "Well at first she of course wanted nothing to do with him. But he was persistent and... charming. He listened to her grievances and assured her he would speak to his father about her family's plight. And over time she developed uh... affection for him. And she er..."

"Granted her favor?" Toph seemed greatly amused by Zuko's awkwardness.

Zuko turned beat red. "Yeah." Zuko looked down at his feet and kicked a few bits of dirt towards the fire. "She did."

"Then what happened," Katara asked when it seemed like Zuko wasn't going to say anything else.

"The daughter became pregnant. The soldier went to her lord to request that the child be provided for." Zuko's voice cracked. He remembered being held in his mother's arms when she told him this part of the story. He remembered his sorrow and indignation. "The lord's son denied their relationship and said that the child wasn't his." "That's so wrong! How could he do that to his own child mom?! It isn't right! That was his baby!" "Once again she was turned away." Zuko worked his foot against the earth like he was squishing some sort of bug or worm. "The soldier... did everything she could to provide for her child. But that year the harvest was bad. People couldn't afford to pay for their healing. What little food there was kept being siphoned off to the war effort. The soldier and her mother were willing to go without in order to help the daughter and her baby. The mother died before the daughter went into labor. Maybe from malnutrition. Maybe from age. Maybe from grief. Maybe she was just tired. The daughter... She did not survive childbirth. So once again the soldier went to her lord and begged the son to claim and provide for his child, or at the very least send a wetnurse until the baby could be weaned. But..."

"But she was turned away," Katara said softly.

"That isn't right! That isn't fair !"

"Yeah," Zuko said. "She was."

For a few moments, no one spoke. "Did- did the baby live," Aang asked.

"No," Zuko said. You had to have known the answer to that question. Haven't you been paying any attention at all? "She did everything she could of course. But it wasn't enough."

"Her whole family," Katara whispered.

"All gone," Zuko said. "She was alone and disabled. She wasn't the only one. All around her she saw her neighbors suffering just as much. That night she prayed to the spirits. She detailed her plight and the plight of her community."

"And the Painted Lady answered!" Aang grinned, looking rather pleased with himself for solving the puzzle.

"Aang," Zuko looked at Aang like he was an idiot. "That soldier was- is- whatever. The soldier and the Painted Lady are the same person." Zuko took a deep breath. "The Sun Spirit looked down on this righteous pious woman and listened to her prayer. He appeared to her, in all his resplendent glory, and asked her what she wanted from him. She told him all she wanted was to save others from the suffering she had been forced to experience. The Sun Spirit offered to grant her request, but demanded a sacrifice from her."

"Like she hadn't sacrificed enough!" Katara looked furious. Zuko saw hurricanes start to brew in her eyes again. I can't believe I actually fought this girl. I can't believe I fought her and lived.

Zuko sighed. "Do you want to hear the end of the story or not?"

"What did she have to sacrifice," Aang asked.

"Her humanity. She would have to become a spirit. She would leave the cycle of life, death and reincarnation to join the spirits. She would have to forsake all the pleasures of mortal life for the rest of eternity. She would never be reunited with her loved ones in any of her next lives because her current life would be her last. A hefty price. But she agreed to pay it without hesitation."

"And I bet she kicked that corrupt lord's but, huh?" Toph spoke with grim satisfaction.

Zuko shook his head. "She healed the sick, filled the cupboards of the indignant with food, eased the hearts and minds of the weary and blessed the upcoming harvest. Then she moved on to the next village. And that's the story of the Painted Lady." Zuko looked up.

"Are you kidding me?" Katara looked angrier than ever if that was at all possible. "Are you telling me that after everything that lord and his son did, all the pain and suffering they caused, they just got away with it? No wonder Fire Nation soldiers are so quick to commit atrocities! All of your stories are about how if you abuse authority and hurt people there won't be any consequences for you! Honestly, what kind of sick twisted mind comes up with something like that?" Zuko averted his gaze.

"Umm Katara," Aang said. "I don't think that's the point of the story."

"You mean you actually gleaned some sort of moral from that horrible tale?"

"Yeah, I did," Aang said. "The story isn't about the lord. He doesn't matter. What matters is that a person can suffer, over and over, in horrible ways, and instead of letting that suffering make them bitter and angry, instead of using their suffering as an excuse to be hateful and cruel, that person can choose to be kind and generous. The Painted Lady sacrificed everything, all the joy she might have found in her future lives, to save anyone from ever having to suffer the way that she did ever again."

For a long, long moment, that stretched on and on, no one said a word or made a sound. "Please Painted Lady, protect me from my father. I know he doesn't mean to hurt me. I know he's just trying to teach me how to be a better son and a better prince. But it hurts so bad and mom still hasn't come back... Please keep me safe."

"I guess it's kind of fitting that you dressed up like her after all," Sokka told Katara.

"What?" Zuko's voice was dangerous.

"I mean that's Katara to a t. What Aang just said, it describes her perfectly."

Zuko shook his head. "You have no idea what you're talking about," he insisted.

"I know my own sister-"

"But you don't know the Painted Lady, not like I do. She abandoned us! All of the people who were counting on her! Who prayed to her! Who- Who begged her..." Zuko wiped away a rebellious tear.

"You prayed to her," Toph asked. "Why?"

"Forget it," Zuko said. "Do whatever you want. Dress like whoever you want. I don't care." He turned to flee.

Katara grabbed his arm. Even though her hands weren't on fire he still felt like he was burning. He snatched his arm back and glared at her. "Yes you do," she said.

"I thought I was just a heartless bastard who doesn't care about his people."

Katara frowned. "What did you pray for?"

"That's none of your business!"

"Well how am I supposed to understand if you won't talk to me?" Frustration was leaking back into her voice.

"I don't need your understanding! I don't want it! Leave me alone," he roared.

"You are so messed up Zuko." She sounded more concerned than accusatory, not that it made Zuko any less angry. "You can't keep all that stuff buried inside. You're poisoning yourself with it. I only want to help you."

There was a part of Zuko, a part buried deep down beneath all the rage and the pain, that wanted to tell her everything, to spill his guts, leave nothing out and let her think what she would. What's the worst thing that could happen, he thought. But he already knew the answer to that question. She will look at you with pure unbridled disgust.

"Zuko?"

"You're not my mother. And I don't need your- your- mollycoddling. You need to quit trying to save everybody. It's not like you're so perfect!" Zuko watched the concern morph into hurt morph into anger. He almost regretted it. Almost.

"Fine. Keep that rage all bottled up inside. I hope you choke on it." This time it was Katara who was the one taking a dramatic exit. Zuko almost wanted to apologize. Almost.

Sokka watched his sister storm off. Then he watched Zuko depart in the opposite direction. He watched Aang sigh dramatically and plop to the ground in a cross-legged position. He watched Toph bite her lip and stomp an earth chair into existence to fall into. “Well, that could have gone better,” Sokka said.

“Gee, ya think,” Toph asked.

“I just don't understand it,” Aang said.

“What's not to understand twinkle toes? This is what happens when two high strung people lock horns. And no one is strung higher than madame fussy britches and sir sparks a lot.”

I should probably stand up for my sister, but Toph's right. Once she becomes convinced of something there's no reasoning with her. It's usually not too bad because she's right so often, but every once in a while you get cases like this.

“But all Katara wants is to help the people of the village, and all Zuko wants is for his culture to be respected. Those are both perfectly reasonable positions. And they were getting along fine before we got here. I just don't understand why they can't find a compromise.”

“Well you weren't exactly helping,” Toph said.

Is this going to be another fight? Seriously? I can't take much more of this. I'm the meat and sarcasm guy, not the reasonable responsible guy.

“What do you mean?” Aang looked more hurt than angry, but Sokka knew better than to underestimate Toph's ability to piss people off.

“You keep trying to force them to be nice to each other. All that's doing is creating resentment,” Toph insisted. “If you just let them work it out on their own they would eventually come to some kind if accord. In their own time that is. But you just had to force the issue and dredge up all these 'issues’ and now they're even angrier at each other than ever.”

When Sokka saw Aang's heartbroken face he had to speak up. “That's not fair Toph. It's not Aang's fault that Zuko has emotional problems and Katara is so bullpig headed,” he insisted.

“But if I can't even get two kind-hearted people with mutually compatible goals to get along how am I supposed to bring peace to the world?”

“I don't know if kind-hearted is the first adjective that springs to mind when I think about Zuko,” Sokka said.

“That's because you don't know anything about him at all,” Toph accused. “Zuko does care about the people in that village, and he cares about all of us. Sure he's not great at expressing himself, but who would be with the freaking Fire Lord for a father. I mean c'mon, we've all seen Azula. Zuko could have turned out like that instead. Can you even imagine having two of her running around?” Toph shivered.

Sokka, for his part, blanched at the idea of having two Azulas in the world. Ugh. Why would she even bring that up? I'm going to have nightmares for weeks. But… “Hey! I have been super nice and accommodating to Zuko ever since that stupid dance party. It's not my fault he has a temper and sets things on fire at the slightest provocation, now is it,” he demanded.

“See! This is exactly what I'm talking about! I'm the one that destroyed the camp the other day, not Zuko. What exactly has he set on fire since we got here?” She crossed her arms in challenge.

“He destroyed Aang's book,” Sokka said weakly.

“Meanwhile, I tore apart the whole camp! But no one said a word to me about that. The only person Zuko has hurt or inconvenienced since we got to this village is himself. Doesn't that say something? Like maybe he's really honestly hurting and doesn't need us to armadillodog pile on top of him in addition to all the crap that he has going on?” Toph jutted out her chin and kept her arms crossed, clearly projecting that she had no intention of budging from her stance.

“Yeah but…” Toph tears stuff up all the time, that's just how she is. I'm used to it. I guess it is a bit of a double standard though. “Okay, let's say you're right. We tried to help Zuko and to get him to tell us what was wrong. He didn't want our help. It only made him angrier!”

“Of course he's angry!” Toph threw her hands up in the air. “Nobody likes having help forced on them. Trust me, I know. It sucks.”

“So then what are we supposed to do?”

“Just don't be a jerk! Is that so hard?”

“Hey I'm not the…” Oh no. Sokka stared in disbelief at the column of smoke rising from the direction of the factory. Sokka locked eyes with Aang and the two shared a thought. Katara.

“Okay, both of your hearts just went into overdrive. Did you do a nonverbal communication thing again? Because if I have to tell you one more time not to do that I'm-”

“We have a serious problem.” Why do you always have to do this to me little sister? Why?

Zuko saw the smoke and ran back to camp as fast as his feet could carry him. If somebody got hurt while I was off sulking… Zuko skidded to a stop in front of Aang, Sokka and Toph. “Is everybody okay?” His heart was still racing.

“We need to get Katara and get out of here before someone shows up to investigate what happened,” Sokka said. “How could she be so stupid?” He looked ready to tear out his hair.

Zuko raised a skeptical brow. “You think Katara is responsible for that? Doesn't seem like her.”

“Well we can find out for sure in just a few minutes.” Aang pointed at a figure surfing towards the shore of the polluted river.

There's no way Katara did something so short-sighted and reckless. I can't believe it.

“What were you thinking?!” Sokka waited until Katara was in earshot to start yelling.

Katara crossed her arms and widened her stance, looking for all the world like the most stubborn Earthbender in history. And Zuko knew the actual most stubborn Earthbender in history. “I did what needed to be done. Zuko's story made me realize that I had overlooked something.”

“What?!” This is my fault now? How is everything always my fault? This is so unfair.

“So long as people like the ones who run that factory go unpunished they'll continue to abuse the people they have power over. They were never going to choose to stop polluting the river, so I made them stop polluting the river.”

That's what you took from the story?!” Zuko was starting to miss his old haircut because it would be a lot easier to resist the urge to yank every single strand of hair out of his head if he still had a buzz cut. “That was not the point of the story! That was the opposite of the point of the story! Are you kidding me right now?!”

Katara shrugged. “Well the way I see it, it was open to interpretation. Aang thought it was about overcoming suffering. I see it as a warning in regards to what happens when evil men are allowed to have control over people.”

“You- This- You- I-” I can't believe she did this!

“Guys I uh, I think we broke Zuko,” Sokka said.

“Do you have any idea what you've done?”

“I saved the village,” Katara said.

“No, you haven't. You've doomed them.”

“What do you mean,” Aang asked nervously.

“First of all,” Zuko said. “The kind of heavy metal and toxic chemicals these factories produce will take years or decades to filter out of the river. People are going to continue to get sick no matter what. Second of all, the noble in charge of this region isn't just going to shrug off that lost tax revenue. He's going to raise taxes on everyone who lives in this district, including all the people in that village, if there are any survivors after that factory's security team is done with them. Which I doubt there will be.”

Katara had gone pale and she looked ready to shake apart. Maybe I shouldn't have told her the truth. She was only trying to help. She doesn't deserve to suffer for that. She's suffered enough already for so many things she had no part in.

“I don't understand… Why would they-”

“The factory owner is going to assume the sabotage was done by a villager. Who else would have a motive? He'll make an example out of the whole village in retribution.”

“I didn't know… I didn't realize.”

“I could have told you,” Zuko said. He didn't mean for it to sound as harsh as it did.

“There has to be something we can do!”

“I think we've done enough,” Toph said.

“No! I can't accept that!”

“What do you want to do,” Sokka asked. “We can't fight them. You, Aang and Toph can't use your bending without risking tipping off the Fire Lord to the invasion. I don't think Zuko and I could take the whole security force if it's big enough to wipe out a whole town,” he said.

“Prince Zuko, take a look at this. Wanted dead or alive, an Earth Kingdom rebel known under the moniker of the Blue Spirit. Wears a theatre mask depicting the famous character and wields the dual Dao. Highly skilled and extremely dangerous. Any information regarding this rebel is to be reported to Admiral Zhao. I do not envy this man nephew. He must be truly desperate to take on such a visage. Everyone knows the Blue Spirit is a malicious and frightful being.”

“You picked the wrong spirit.”

“Huh,” Sokka asked. Everyone (except Toph, who had her ear angled towards him) was looking at him. “What are you talking about?”

“The Painted Lady is a spirit of benevolence and compassion. You should have picked a spirit of chaos and malice. That would scare off the security force and provide an explanation for what happened to the factory,” Zuko explained.

“Do you have any in mind,” Katara asked.

“Toph, how detailed can you get with your Earthbending,” Zuko asked instead of answered.

“Sparky, who do you think you're talking to?”

“I need you to help me carve a mask.”

Aang held the heavy stone mask in his hands. “I don't understand. Why don't you want to do it?”

Zuko looked at the smiling face held in the Avatar's hands and felt his heart leapt up into his throat. “Who are you? And what do you want?” “Because I'm not that person anymore, and I don't want to be. To you that's just a mask, one you can put on and then take off again. But the Blue Spirit was my identity. It's who I became when I felt like I had to do something dishonorable. I did terrible things with that mask on. Things I am so ashamed…” Zuko tore his gaze away from the mask. “And I don't ever want to be that person again.” Zuko refused to meet the Avatar's eyes. “I just can't…”

Zuko felt a touch on his shoulder and flinched away from it. He looked down and saw concern in Aang's big grey eyes. “It's okay Zuko.”

“No, it's not. You don't know what I did.”

Aang considered this. “I don't know about every bad thing you've ever done, but I do know about a lot of them, because you did a bunch of those bad things to me. And I forgive you. For each and every one of those things, I forgive you.”

Zuko looked away. “I don't deserve it.”

“Monk Gyatso once told me that forgiveness is a sort of gift. You don't give it to someone because they deserve it. You give it to them because you want them to have it. I want to forgive you. You're my friend,” Aang said.

Zuko rubbed his arm. “I'm not a very good one.”

“I think you're better than you realize.”

Zuko blushed. “We should ah… hurry up and go save that town.” Zuko headed for Katara's ice board. She would sneak them to the village where they would provide pyro and hydrotechnics to support Aang's illusion.

Zuko had been in a lot of awkward situations, but surfing with Katara, even for only a few minutes, definitely ranked high on the list of uncomfortable experiences. At least once they were under the wooden planks they couldn't speak. Scaring away the security force turned out not to be too difficult, and in the end almost the entire village decided to pack up and leave, fearing that it wasn't safe to live somewhere that had been touched by such an evil spirit.

Packing up took a lot less time than normal. Once they were up in the air Zuko felt the tension in his gut uncoil and a weight slip from his shoulders. For the first time in days he felt like he could breathe again. It's over. And I was right. She isn't real. My prayers weren't ignored, there was just no one to hear them. They didn't fly for very long because they had left so late in the day, but it was long enough, and the village and the river were both far behind them. Zuko was content to let Aang, Sokka and Toph carry the conversation over dinner, and he even felt his heart warm when Toph fell asleep cuddled up next to him clutching his arm like a stuffed platypusbear. He knew he probably wouldn't have any sensation in that arm in the morning, but when he looked at her peaceful face (craning his head to get her in the view of his good eye) he decided it was worth it.

Sokka yawned. “Well goodnight everybody.”

“Yeah, I'm going to bed too,” Aang said.

Zuko hoped that Katara would leave with them, but she remained by the fire. Zuko would have fled at the prospect of being alone with her, but disturbing Toph was not an option. Katara held her knees to her chest and stared at the fire. He couldn't read her expression. Rather than risking saying something stupid he turned his gaze to the fire as well. The warmth was a comfort to him, and his inner fire reached out to the fire in the pit, drawing strength and solace from it. In time it began to lull him to sleep. “I'm sorry.”

“Huh?” Zuko blinked. He had almost forgotten that Katara was there. “Oh. Me too. I'm s-”

“You don't need to be,” Katara said.

“No, I was an ass.”

Katara considered. “Well I was a bigger ass.”

“It's not a competition,” Zuko said.

“Fair enough. We were both asses and we're both sorry,” she said. “I never should have said those horrible things about you, or treated your culture like some frivolous thing. I was wrong.”

Zuko looked at her earnest face. “Sokka was right,” he said. “You are a lot like the Painted Lady that my mother told me about. You care so much about other people, even people who don't actually deserve it. If anyone has the right to be the Painted Lady, it's you. Everything I did to you and the people you love, and you still gave me a chance. You saved my life. Thank you.”

She stared at him. “Do you really think you don't deserve to be cared about? Zuko, you do.”

Zuko hid his face. “When you… Did you see my scars? All those times that you healed me?”

“Yes.” Don't look at her. You can't see the disgust if you don't look at her. “I'm sorry. I never meant to invade your privacy. I was only-”

“Katara it's okay. I mean it's not. But it wasn't your fault. You saved my life. I am so, so grateful to you for that.” Even if I feel like throwing up knowing that you know.

“Are you?”

His surprise made him look up. To his even greater surprise she didn't look repulsed, only mournful. “Of course I am. I owe you my-”

“I didn't mean… Do you want to live?”

“How could you ask that?”

“I knew a girl once, in the Southern Water Tribe, who used to hurt herself, and one day she-”

“You think-!” Zuko forced himself to lower his voice so he wouldn't wake Toph. “You think I did that stuff to myself? You think that I-”

“No,” she said firmly, and she had such an authoritative voice it stilled him at once. “I'm talking about what happened with the shells.”

“I didn't mean to do that.”

“I know,” Katara said. “I know you used to pray for succor. I know that someone hurt you, someone burned you and cut you and did all of these horrible things to you. I know that I don't have the right to know any of these things because you didn't choose to disclose them. But I just want you to know that you can talk to me about anything. I will listen, and I will not judge you. If ever you feel the need to hurt yourself or anything like that I really hope you'll come talk to me instead. But if you choose not to I won't get mad. You can come to me for healing and I promise I won't ever snap at you like I did before with the shells. Okay? I promise .”

The strange thing was that he believed her. He believed every word. I don't deserve her kindness. I don't deserve the compassion of someone this selfless and wholly good.

As if she could read his mind she stood up and walked over to him. “Can I sit here?”

He nodded.

She sat down. “It wasn't your fault.”

“Yes it was.”

“It wasn't.”

And then the words came spilling out. The words and the tears. Salt and water and so, so much pain all flowed out of him. “My mother sacrificed herself to save me. I wasn't a good enough son. I didn't deserve to be a prince of the Fire Nation. They were going to get rid of me, but she sacrificed herself to give me another chance. And I messed it up. He made me take her place. I-I-I-” His sobs overwhelmed him and he felt like he couldn't breathe. She wrapped her arms around him and let him cry into her shoulder and he knew he didn't deserve it, but he wept onto her dress anyway. He sobbed until he was all dried out, and she didn't say a word or move away or look at him in disgust.

“My mother died to save me too.” He looked into her eyes. For a moment neither needed to speak, because the words passed between their eyes. This is our pact. This is our bond. Maybe if we combine these loads and bare them on both our shoulders they won't be so heavy as when we carried them alone. “A man came looking for the last Waterbender in the Southern Tribe. He came to kill the last one. He came to kill me. She took my place. She laid down her life for mine. I should have saved her. I should have shown him that I was the bender. But I didn't. She died because of my cowardice.”

Zuko stared at her. “She died because of my grandfather's cowardice. She died because Fire Lord Azulon was consumed by the fear that the Avatar was going to be born into one of the Water Tribes and wanted to make sure there was no one left to teach the Avatar. She died because my family tried to destroy your culture. She did not die because of you. And I am so sorry for everything that we stole from you.” He waited for her to strike him, for her to condemn him, call him a monster. Instead she leaned against his shoulder and let him put his arm around her and cried into his shoulder this time.

When Katara woke up the fire was dead. Toph was still nestled into Zuko, but he was in the middle of some horrible dream. His whimpering might even have been what woke her up. She bit her lip, trying to decide whether it was better to rouse him from the terror or let him sleep. All of a sudden the fire came back to life. Katara almost jumped out of her skin. She would have screamed, but she felt like her breath had been stolen from her. On the other side of the fire stood the Painted Lady. Seeing her in person Katara now realized the red lines the villagers painted on their sculptures weren't tattoos or skin paint. They were battle scars. They came from swords, rocks and balls of flame, maybe even sharp shards of ice or gusts of wind. She was a soldier. That part of the story at least had been true. Maybe the whole thing was. A spirit stood in front of Katara and Katara felt like she would shake apart with fear. She's come to punish me for daring to impersonate her. She's come to kill me. She's come to- The Painted Lady reached out with both hands, and Katara couldn't move. One hand touched Katara's forehead, and the other touched Zuko's. The prince stilled, his nightmare banished. Katara in turn felt all of her fear, guilt, rage and pain slide away. She knew it would return, but for now she felt as peace. It was such a relief to be able to set her burdens down, if only until the sun came up. The Painted Lady took Katara's hands into her own. The spirit's hands were cold, but it was a pleasant chill, like the snow she played in with her brother when they were toddlers. The spirit held Katara's hands, the hands that healed, the hands that took care of others, the hands that fed her friends, protected the innocent and did so many wonderful things. The Painted Lady kissed each hand once, and Katara understood.

The spirit brushed a hand over Toph's brow and then went over to where Aang and Sokka slept before touching each of them as well. Then she faded away, and Katara slipped into a sleep more peaceful than any she had slumbered in a long long time.

Chapter Text

Iroh’s first hint that something interesting was about to happen was the sound of footsteps. The steps were light and rhythmic like a dancer's, not the heavy angry tread of the guard who usually had this shift. Iroh's second hint was the smell of delectable tea. Iroh's third hint came when a tray appeared in front of him containing a delicious looking meal, a steaming cup of tea and a beautiful white flower. “Not many still cling to the ancient ways,” Iroh murmured.

“Those who do can always find a friend,” the man with dancer's feet replied.

Iroh picked up the cup of tea and sipped. He savored the complex flavor. “I hope you did not undertake all this risk simply to bring me a good cup of tea. Although if you did, I most appreciate it. This is a fine cup of tea indeed.”

“Grand Lotus Iroh,” the man said. “I come bearing a message from Grand Lotus Piandao.”

“Ah, how is my old friend?” It feels like so long ago that we cut a bloody swath through the Earth Kingdom together. But it really wasn't such a long time, was it? Some of the orphans we made are probably still children. I must never forget what I have done. If nothing else this imprisonment gives me time to meditate on my past wrongdoings. “Still refusing every young man that comes to his door?”

“Master Piandao has taken on a new student.”

“That is good. Old men like us need to spend time around the young, lest we become too set in our ways. But tell me, what is his message?”

“Your nephew is alive and well.” At that moment Iroh almost bowed down to pray to every spirit he knew and all the ones that he did not. Zuko is alive. My s-nephew is alive. “He is traveling with the Avatar and his companions.”

“The Water Tribe siblings and the Young Earthbender,” Iroh asked. I really liked that girl.

“I don't know that much. This message was passed to me by Piandao’s manservant. I was not present for any of the events. I'm sorry.”

“There is no need for apologies. You have given me a gift of incomprehensible value.” Zuko is alive and with the Avatar. Iroh remembered entering the cavern to see a bolt of lightning hit the ceiling and send rocks tumbling down onto Zuko. Iroh had felt like his heart would stop beating forever. One son was not enough to punish my transgressions. This city would take another from me. This city will take everything but my life, so that I can suffer all the more. But Iroh had seen Zuko's chest rise. Iroh attacked the princess and her treacherous Dai Li, allowing the Avatar and the Waterbender to get Zuko and escape. Iroh sipped his tea. The taste was even better now. For the first time since entering that cavern Iroh felt like he could breathe. It was like the sun was coming up over the horizon, promising a new day.

“Do you have a reply for Grand Lotus Piandao?”

Iroh finished the tea. It is a new day. We cannot squander it. “I have a message, not just for Piandao, but for the whole order.” Iroh put his cup down and raised his eyes to meet the gaze of the man with dancer's feet. “Every one of us.”

The man took a moment to absorb the magnitude of Iroh's statement. “Yes Grand Lotus Iroh. What is your message?”

“A garden cannot bloom that exists only in shadow. A flower must see sunlight to reveal its beauty to the world. The Avatar has returned, and as the sun rises we must seek out its warmth, even if by doing so we risk our own demise. My brothers, we will meet outside the walls of Ba Sing Se on the day of Sozin’s comet. One hundred years ago my grandfather changed history. Now, we will change it again.”

The man bowed his head. “I am honored to have served you, if only in this small way.”

“You have done no small thing this day. May the Earth be steady beneath your feet. May the Sun shine on your endeavors. May the Wind blow only good omens your way. May the Moon light your path.” Iroh bowed his head.

“As it once was, so it shall be again. The seasons come and go. We shall meet again.”

When Iroh looked up the man was gone. Iroh set to finishing his meal before the ornery guard could come by and see it. Zuko has found his path. I could not be happier. Now I must complete my own destiny. After finishing his meal Iroh created a small flame in the palm of his hand. “Spirit of the Sun,” he whispered. “I call upon you to safeguard my nephew in these times of trouble. If blood must be spilled, let it be mine. If someone must pay for the transgressions of my family, I beg you to let me balance that scale. My nephew is young and full of promise. He is kind, loyal and more honorable than he ever realized. Please, keep him away from harm.” Iroh closed his fist, sending the cell back into darkness. But even in the inky black Iroh felt as though light were all around him. He began to hum to himself.

Winter, Spring, Summer and Fall. Winter, Spring, Summer and Fall. Four seasons. Four loves. Four seasons. Four loves. Winter maid, moonglow adorns you. Winter maid, sea foam surrounds you. Carry me, safely to new lands. Carry me, onto my next life. Winter, Spring, Summer and Fall. Winter, Spring, Summer and Fall. Four seasons. Four loves. Four seasons. Four loves. Spring lad, flowers adorn you. Spring lad, stone surrounds you. Tend the fields, care for the new life. Tend the fields, till the harvest time comes. Winter, Spring, Summer and Fall. Winter, Spring, Summer and Fall. Four seasons. Four loves. Four seasons. Four loves. Summer lady, sunlight adorns you. Summer la-

“Hey! Knock it off! Don't make me go in there and beat you into compliance! Be quiet!”

Iroh stopped humming. But the song went on in his heart. He had everything he needed, everything he wanted. Zuko was safe. He was safe and he was with good people. At that moment Iroh considered that he just might be the happiest man in the world.

Chapter Text

Toph felt Zuko's warm hand wrapped around her cooler one as he moved her extended finger from point to point, trying to help her map out the constellations in her head. “This star is the phoenix's beak. This is the tip of its wing. This is its claw.” Toph tried to put the shape together in her head. It didn't look anything like a bird.

“Are you sure you know these constellations?”

“I lived on a ship for three years,” he said with a slight edge of agitation to his voice. “Yes, I am.”

“Use your imagination Toph,” Katara said. “The shapes aren't going to line up exactly right.”

“Uh huh.” Toph reclaimed her hand. “I think this is one of those things you have to see to really appreciate,” Toph said. “Thanks for trying Zuko.” Toph dropped her hand onto the solid stone, letting it fill her with familiar comfort.

“Wow,” Aang said. “That's amazing!”

“What is,” Toph demanded.

“A meteor,” Katara said. “It looks like it's…”

“It didn't burn up in the atmosphere,” Zuko shouted in a high frightened voice. “It's headed right for that town! Come on!” He jumped up and started running. Toph followed despite having no idea how they were supposed to go up against a giant ball of flaming rock.

Luckily the meteor didn't actually hit the town itself, but the abandoned field it did impact wasn't far away and the field was consumed by flame almost immediately. Toph felt Zuko shift his weight into a stance she had never encountered before and the heat began to lessen and then die. “Wow,” Aang said. “I didn't know that Firebenders could do that.”

“Put fires out,” Zuko asked in a quizzical tone as Toph headed for the meteor’s crater, ignoring Katara imploring her to be cautious.

“Yeah. One time I tricked Zhao into setting all of his ships on fire and he didn't seem to have any way of putting them out,” Aang said.

“Ha! That was awesome,” Sokka reminisced.

“He must not have bothered to learn how,” Zuko said. “A lot of Firebenders don't. A Firebender is supposed to have control over his or her bending at all times. Learning to put out a fire is like admitting you're going to make a mistake and set something on fire you don't intend to.”

“But what about situations like this one,” Katara asked. “And isn't it best to always be prepared for an accident? Even if you are really skilled?”

Toph felt Zuko shrug. She dug her feet into the earth and tried to feel the composition of the meteor without touching it. Even from a distance it was still hot enough to make her sweat. “My father didn't think so. He was always of the: the more fire the better school of thought. My mother is the one who taught me how to put fires out to help me with my lessons.”

“What do you mean,” Sokka asked.

Zuko sighed. “I started bending late, I mean really late. I was seven years old and my sister had already been bending for a year. When I was finally able to make fire I was relieved, but I was also terrified. My cousin always talked about how amazing firebending was and how great and powerful it makes you feel, but I was so scared of the flames at first. During practice my instructor was always pushing me to create bigger and hotter flames. I was never able to even master a kata before he pushed me to the next and I was terrified that I was going to burn myself, or worse, set the palace on fire.”

“How is setting the palace on fire worse than burning yourself,” Aang asked.

“Because my father would have been a lot more dissapointed about the palace. When I told my mom how scared I was she taught me how to put out fires, so I wouldn't be so nervous and hesitant. It helped. I felt… more in control.”

“Well You definitely got over the hesitation thing. You never had any problem throwing fireballs at us,” Sokka said. “Er, no offense.”

Zuko shrugged again. “It's never my first choice of combat method. Remember our first fight at the South Pole? In the beginning I didn't use any bending at all. The truth is, I'm not a very good Firebender. I don't have any natural talent. I’ve improved a lot, but that's mostly due to my uncle's teachings. He's a great master, and just about anybody could figure out how to firebend under his tutelage. He even figured out how to adapt Waterbending moves for Firebending.”

“Really?” Katara sounded skeptical.

“Did you see that move I used against Azula in the crystal catacombs? My uncle invented it.”

Toph slid her foot and tried to make the meteor bend to her will. This feels strange, but I'm the only person in the world who can bend metal. I can master this space rock. She bowed her head in concentration, only half listening to Zuko and Katara's discussion. She would never admit it to either of them, but the idea of using techniques from the different bending styles fascinated her.

“When you threw the lighting back at her?”

“Yes.” Toph felt Zuko go through the motions of the move. It was almost identical to one of Katara's Waterbending stances. I wonder what would happen if I tried to bend rock like water or fire, or even air? Twinkle Toes would love it.

“That does kind of look like a Waterbending move,” Aang said. “But when did your uncle ever get the chance to study Waterbenders?”

Zuko shrugged. “He's traveled all over the world. I learned to stop questioning how he knows what he knows. Usually the answer was some sort of proverb. I hate proverbs.”

“Well all this talk about bending sure is interesting, and by interesting I of course mean really boring,” Sokka said. “But we should probably get out of here before someone shows up to investigate the big boom. Let's go Toph!”

“You don't have to shout,” Toph groused. “And give me a minute. This rock is different from anything I’ve ever bent before. I want to explore it a little.” Toph scrunched her nose and licked her lips. I just need to concentrate. Just… focus.

“Well how long is it going to- Hey!”

Toph put up her hand and made the ground beneath Sokka's feet dump him on his ass. She heard Aang snicker, but she blocked it out. I can tell there's something different about you. You are Earth, but you're not. I need to go deeper, break you down to your smallest parts. Feel what it is that makes you different. Toph was starting to get a headache. She reached out her hand to touch the meteor, but a larger warmer hand snatched hers away. She had been concentrating so hard she hadn't even felt Zuko approach. “What was that for,” she snapped.

“You need to wait for it to cool down.”

Right. Almost forgot. “There's something special about it. I just can't put my finger on it.”

“You'll figure it out. We can come back tomorrow and blend in with the crowd of gawkers that's sure to arrive. But for now we should probably get going,” he told her.

Toph's sighed. “You're right,” she admitted.

“How come you listen to him, but I get knocked into the dirt,” Sokka complained loudly.

“He annoys me less,” Toph said with a smirk.

Sokka grumbled all the way back to their campsite, but Toph wasn't listening. Her mind was occupied with shapes. Not just the shape of the Earth itself, but the shape of all the tiny pieces that it was composed of. Unlike those silly constellations these shapes made sense, and Toph knew she could discover their secrets.

Zuko sighed the sigh of the long suffering as Sokka dragged his four companions into the weapons store. “I thought we agreed that after we picked up supplies we would go check out the meteor,” Toph complained.

“Weapons are supplies,” Sokka said.

Zuko rolled his eyes. The inside of the store was almost identical to the way it had been the last time Zuko was here, even though that was more than three years ago. “Did you help make this?”

My chest puffed up with foolish pride. “Yep.”

“This is fine work. You might have been a blacksmith in another life Prince Zuko.”

I laughed. “Or a great swordmaster.”

“The way I hear it that might be this life.”

Zuko ran his finger along a long sharp steel blade, careful to keep his skin away from the cutting edge. He was equally careful to keep out of sight of the shopkeeper, who might recognize him even after three years and a marred face.

“This is nifty,” Sokka said.

“You’ve a good eye. That's a Piandao original.”

“That's good right,” Sokka asked.

Zuko resisted the urge to peek at them and catch a glimpse of the sword. “Master Piandao is the greatest sword maker and Master Swordsman in Fire Nation history. In the history of the whole world even! Boy and girls used to come here from all over the Fire Nation just for the opportunity to possibly train with him.”

“Used to,” Katara asked. “What happened?”

The merchant sighed. “Master Piandao hasn't taken on a new student in three years. He vowed to never teach the art of the sword to anyone ever again.” Zuko's heart was racing. Master Piandao hasn't taken on any students since I left the Fire Nation? Why? It couldn't have anything to do with me could it? “These days he spends all of his time at his estate, all alone but for his manservant, who brings me swords to sell and picks up supplies. Everyone who's tried to convince the Master to teach them has been turned away at the gate. A young man offered the Master a golden statue inlaid with precious jewels so valuable it would be almost impossible to appraise, but the Master wouldn't even see him. Some say he's gone mad.”

“What happened three years ago,” Aang asked.

“Everyone has their theories, but no one knows for sure. One day Master Piandao just up and dismissed all of his students and declared he would never take another. His students were devastated, and each pleaded with him to reconsider, but he refused. One claimed that the night before Master Piandao had received a letter from Capital City, but she didn't know the contents of the letter or even who it was from.”

“Huh,” Sokka said. “Sounds like a real mystery.”

“Some think the Master had a secret lover in the army, and the letter brought news of his lover's passing. Others say that the Fire Lord himself forbid the Master from teaching the art of the sword ever again. Those theories are pretty far fetched I grant you, but no one can figure out why such a revered Master would abandon teaching so suddenly. I suppose we'll never know the truth. Not that lack of knowledge will keep people from gossip and speculation mind.”

“Huh,” Sokka said. “Could you excuse us? Our parents are probably wondering where we are.”

“Sure thing. You kids have a nice day.”

Zuko was so relieved to be leaving the store that at first he didn't notice Sokka's contemplative mood. Katara did though. “What are you thinking, and how much trouble is it going to get us all in,” she demanded of her brother.

“Well I'm not thinking about blowing up a factory or anything,” Sokka shot back.

“Come on guys,” Aang pleaded. “Don't start.”

“I'm with Katara,” Toph said. “You're being too quiet. You've got a capital P plan brewing.”

“Maybe I do,” Sokka said.

“So what is it,” Toph asked.

“Well I was just thinking… I'm a great warrior-”

“And so humble,” Zuko said.

“Also true,” Sokka said. “But I would be an even better warrior if I learned from a great Master! Katara, you learned from Master Pakku, Aang, you learned from Gyatso, Katara and Toph, Toph you learned from… Who taught you how to Earthbend anyway? Not Master Yu?”

Toph scoffed. “In his dreams. I learned from the original Earthbenders, the badgermoles.”

Zuko stopped short. “Really?” Just when I think I've heard it all. I should really stop being surprised by this stuff. “Like Oma and Shu?”

“You know the legend,” Katara asked.

“Everyone knows that legend. Sometimes I still get that stupid song stuck in my head.”

Aang and Katara shared impish grins. Sokka took on a look of pure terror. “Don't even think-”

“Secret tunnel! Secret tunnel!” The two belted out in tandem. “Through the mountain-”

Sokka and Zuko both groaned loudly while Toph hooted with laughter and joined in. “This is all your fault,” Sokka shouted over the song.

Zuko didn't even try to defend himself. “I would completely understand if you murdered me for this,” he said as he tried to ignore the music.

“You two are so dramatic,” Toph said as she, Katara and Aang got bored with the tune.

“Well yeah,” Sokka said. “Anyway, as I was saying, I’ve never had a Master. I’ve had to learn my fighting technique on my own.”

“So you want to see if Master Piandao will take you on as his student,” Aang asked, voice pitching up in excitement. “That's a great idea!”

“Except for the part where he doesn't take on students anymore, remember,” Toph asked.

“Yeah, but I'm pretty convincing,” Sokka said.

“Well it can't hurt to try,” Katara said. “And if he says no we can just look for another Master.”

“Or I could challenge him to a fight and impress him with my determination and skill until he has so much respect for me that he has to agree to teach me. I call that move the Katara.”

“Cute,” Katara said, chuckling.

“And if all else fails maybe your grandmother used to date this guy too,” Toph suggested.

“Ugh,” both siblings exclaimed simultaneously.

“I don't want to know,” Zuko said loudly. “No one explain. I'm literally begging you.”

“You've lost story privileges,” a horrified looking Sokka told Toph. “From now on you aren't aloud to hear about anything that happened before you joined Team Avatar.”

“Sokka,” Katara said. “It's still not catching on.”

“Give it time,” Sokka whined.

They go from revealing they learned their bending styles from mythic creatures in an epic backstory pulled right out of one of Uncle's ballads to squabbling like toddlers. I don't get it.

“What do you think Zuko,” Sokka asked.

“I don't really have any strong opinions on group names one way or the other.”

“No, about me studying with Master Piandao.”

“Oh, right.” Duh you idiot. “Well it would certainly be an amazing opportunity. We all need to be in top form for the invasion. Just try not to be too disappointed if it doesn't work out.”

“And in the meantime I'm going to take apart a super cool space rock,” Toph said as she rubbed her hands together in anticipation.

“Just make sure you put it back together afterwards,” Katara warned. “We don't want to draw too much attention to ourselves.”

“Like by blowing up a factory,” Toph asked.

“Come on guys,” Zuko said. “Katara made one mistake in a long history of saving us all from a variety of unpleasant situations. Why don't we just, ya know, move on,” he asked.

“Suck up,” Toph complained. But she couldn't have been too mad because she grabbed Zuko's hand and dragged him off to look at the space rock with her. Maybe I should tell him…

“Wait, hang on,” Zuko called after Sokka as the other boy started towards the Master's estate.

“What's up?”

“In my culture you always bring a gift to a Master you want to take you on as a student, usually something that demonstrates skill or knowledge in the field you wish to enter.”

Sokka frowned. “Like what?”

Zuko knew most of the things they carried with them were essential supplies. Sokka didn't really have anything that would make a suitable gift for the Master. Maybe one of his weapons could work, but Sokka would have to explain where he got something of Water Tribe craftsmanship and that could get complicated. Zuko reached into his pocket and pulled out his knife. “Here.”

Sokka hesitated. “I can't take that.”

“Why not?”

“Because it's yours.”

“Well you need something to present to the Master to prove your worth. Tell him you're from the colonies and won it in a fight against a member of some Earth Kingdom militia.”

Sokka shook his head. “I can't take your stuff.”

Zuko became frustrated. “Well you need to bring him something. I'm offering it to you.”

Zuko could have sworn Sokka was grinning now, like there was some hilarious joke that Zuko wasn't in on. “I just can't take it.”

“It's a gift.”

“Okay,” Sokka snatched the knife from Zuko's hand so fast if the blade hadn't been in a sheath Zuko's hand would have been sliced open.

“What's your problem,” Zuko asked.

“I'm just following your dumb rule.”

Zuko's face fell. “Oh.” Well what was I expecting? That a few civil conversations made us friends? Although I didn't really explain the minutiae of the rules now that I think about it.

“What is it,” Katara asked, ever perceptive.

“That rule is for strangers, not f-acquaintances.”

“Whatever,” Sokka said, not really seeming to see the implication. “Thanks for the knife.”

“You're welcome,” Zuko said, but Sokka had already turned to leave and Zuko wasn't sure the other boy had even heard him.

“You want to learn from the Master?”

Sokka grinned as he puffed out his chest. “I sure do. Name’s So-” Sokka cut himself off by clearing his throat. Nice one! Now you need to think of a Fire Nation cover name that starts with an S! I don't know that many Fire Nation names to begin with! Okay, don't panic.

“Sorry, I didn't catch that.”

“It's Saku. My name is Saku.”

“Let me guess. Your father is a gardener?”

Sure, why not. “Yeah. Great gardener.”

“And you have no interest in such a monotonous profession and wish to learn something more exciting, like swordplay?”

How dare you insult my fake father's fake profession?! “Hey, being a gardener is a noble calling! It isn't as easy as people think.” At least it isn't easy in the South Pole, where it's more like impossible. Maybe it is easy in the Fire Nation, I wouldn't know. Gah! Why do I always overcommit to the role? “That is to say, er…”

The man at the gate didn't seem annoyed or contemptuous though. If Sokka hadn't known better he would have said the man looked almost impressed. “Then why don't you want to follow in your father's footsteps?”

“Well I uh… I just don't have the aptitude for it really and uh… I'm not passionate about it.”

“But you are passionate about swords?”

“Swords, spears, clubs, boomerangs, I'll fight with almost anything. Whatever works. I've been fighting for a long time. Sometimes it feels like I've been fighting my whole life. But there wasn't anyone around to teach me. I had to learn on my own. There were a lot of times where I ended up on my backside in the dirt. But I never gave up. I can't ever give up. Fighting is…”

“Your passion,” the man guessed, not unkindly.

“I'm not a violent person.” Just stop talking Sokka! You're digging yourself into a deeper and deeper hole! “I don't like hurting people.”

“People get hurt in fights,” the man said.

“I know. But the thing is… There's always going to be people out there who will prey on the innocent. They've always got one excuse or another why they have the right, but in the end they're all the same, bullies. I just need to know that if people are in trouble I’ll be able to protect them. I can't just back away and let someone, anyone, get hurt. So I fight. Win or lose I have to fight. I might as well learn what I'm doing first, don't you think?” Sokka chuckled nervously and gulped. “Right?”

“I will take you to see the Master, but I must warn you that he will in all likelihood turn you away. Try not to take it to heart. I see that you have a gentle spirit, not unlike another young man that once stood where you stand. If you are not taken on I encourage you to seek out another Master for your training. You seem deserving.”

That's really nice. “Thank you, that's… thanks.”

“Are you not used to hearing such praise,” the man asked as he led Sokka up the hill.

“I just… My sister is an incredible bender, and sometimes people are so caught up looking at her they don't even see me. I love her with all my heart and would do anything for her, and it's not like she didn't work hard every step of the way to get where she is. Sometimes I just…”

The man nodded. “Are you a bender?”

Did he hear a word I said? “Why would I need to learn swords if I could w- whip out some flames whenever I wanted? Like my sister, who is a Firebender and bends flames.” Nice save.

“Some of the Master's past students have been Firebenders of varying skill levels. Many believe bending to be the most powerful form of combat, but Master Piandao does not hold that view. A skilled Swordsman can hold his own against any sort of bender if he has been trained in the proper techniques. And it is always useful to know several different combat forms. You said that you use many different kinds of weapons to fight. Fire is just one possibility.”

“I guess I never thought about it that way.”

The man opened a nondescript wooden door and gestured for Sokka to enter. Another man was sitting at a low table doing calligraphy. Sokka squared his shoulders and marched in. “So,” the man said, causing Sokka to come to a sudden stop. “You've come to learn from the Master?”

“I…” All of a sudden Sokka's throat felt dry and all of his words deserted him. Speak up dummy!

“Lizardcat got your tongue,” Piandao asked.

Sokka pulled out the knife. “I brought you a gift Master.” Should I bring it to him or keep still?

“I have been given many gifts by eager young people over the last few years. I returned them all. What makes yours so special,” he demanded.

“Well…”

“I thought so,” the Master said.

“Hey,” Sokka said. “I may not be the son of some great house who could afford to lug a cart full of gold up the hill, but I'm dedicated and I work hard. Isn't that more important?”

Master Piandao put away his brush and rose to his feet in a slow deliberate move. He turned to face Sokka. He looks so stern. Maybe he's about to throw me out. “Let me see this gift.”

Sokka held out the knife. Piandao took it and examined it for far longer than Sokka would have preferred. He's probably finding a million things wrong with it. “This is no ornamental blade. It has been used often, but it has also been well cared for. Earth Kingdom make…”

“I'm a colonial,” Sokka said quickly.

Piandao gave no indication that he had heard Sokka. “Did you steal it,” he asked abruptly.

“What?! No! It was a gift.” I was supposed to say I won it in combat! Ugh. What is it about this guy that has me so nervous? “Like I said, I don't come from wealth or anything. Most of what I own is tools, clothes, survival supplies and stuff like that. And half of that stuff isn't even really mine. It's mine and my sister's.”

“So you asked someone to give you this knife?”

“No.” This guy must think I'm a real jerk. “A friend of mine gave it to me. I told him to keep it, but he insisted I take it,” Sokka explained.

“Hmm. He must not be a very good friend, if you didn't want to accept his gift.” What? Oh this must be more of that etiquette nonsense Zuko keeps going on about. It's so silly. In the Water Tribe almost everything is owned communally anyway. We don't have to give each other things. If someone needs something they can usually just take it, within reason.

“Well… We didn't used to be friends. To tell you the truth, he's kind of a weird guy and I don't really understand him at all. But I've come to see he means well. Maybe we aren't good friends at the moment, but we're becoming friends at least. All of my best friends are people I didn't really get along with at first now that I think about it. Sometimes you have to get past your initial bad impression of someone and let them show you their true selves.”

Master Piandao put the knife in his pocket. “I once knew a young boy who was very shy and withdrawn. People often assumed he wasn't good at much because of his nervous disposition and disinclination for showing off. But he was a hard worker and a great talent. He could have become an even greater Master than myself.”

Master Piandao's voice cracked on that final statement and he looked away. “Did he die?”

“Very recently,” Piandao whispered.

“I'm sorry.” Sokka knew loss. He knew his words fell far short of any possibility of comfort because nothing could soothe the pain of a fresh loss. “Was he your son? Did he die in the war?”

“He wasn't my son. But I had a responsibility to him that I failed.” What was it Zuko said? A student must respect his master, but a master has to teach his student? “As to the war, yes, he did.”

“I didn't mean to intrude on your grief. I'll go.”

Before Sokka could turn around Piandao shook his head. “No, stay. I will train you.”

Sokka stared. “You will?!” Calm down! Play it cool. “I mean…” Sokka bowed. “You honor me Master Piandao. I will be a good student.”

“That remains to be seen. Come along.”

Zuko approached Katara as she scrubbed a metal pot to glistening. He hesitated. Maybe I should just leave her alone. I know we made up and everything, but I shouldn't push my luck.

“Do you need something,” she asked without looking up. She didn't sound annoyed, so that was a good sign. Aang was absorbed with Toph's experiments on the pieces of meteor she had snuck away from the impact site. The two of them were alone. “Or are you just fascinated by the process of cleaning cookware?”

“I uh… do you have a knife? For, you know, cutting things.” I'm just going to go ask Toph to entomb me in the earth until the end of time.

Katara looked up, clearly amused. “I know what a knife is Zuko,” she said, suppressing a laugh.

He flushed. “No, I know. I just uh… need one.”

Katara held up a sharp blade. “Will this work?”

Zuko took the knife. “Thanks, I’ll bring it back.”

Katara shrugged. “You don't need to. If I need it for something I’ll come find you.”

“But isn't it yours?”

“It's just a tool. It belongs to everybody.”

“Huh.” That's an interesting notion.

“Do you need anything else?”

“Nope. Oh uh… I’ll make dinner tonight.”

Katara looked up and smiled. “Thanks.”

“No problem.” Zuko walked away from the campsite towards a lake he remembered well from his early days training with Master Piandao. He made sure there wasn't anybody nearby before disrobing and jumping into the water. He took a deep breathe and dove down.

“Look at this one Zuko.”

“Wow. It's huge!”

Lu Ten chuckled as his deft hands separated the shells and began carving the meat out. “It had probably been down there for a long time.”

“Years,” I asked with excitement.

“Maybe even decades,” he said somberly.

“Are you teasing me?”

“Would I do that?”

“Yes.”

He laughed again as he flicked guts at me. I shrieked in protest while he howled with laughter. “Careful cousin. If we're dirty when we get back to the manor I doubt Master Piandao will allow us back inside.”

I sighed. “I don't think he likes me.”

“What? Why do you say that?”

“He's always telling me to slow down. He won't let me move onto the next move until he's decided I'm ready, even if I showed him that I can do the current one perfectly. Sometimes he even makes me go back and drill moves we did weeks ago! He thinks I'm hopeless.”

“Hey, that's not true.” He placed two fingers under my chin and lifted my face so that I was looking at him. “I know Master Piandao has a different teaching style than you're used to, but he teaches everyone that way. I for one think that you have made exceptional progress.”

“Really,” I asked skeptically.

“Would I lie to you?”

“Yes.”

Lu Ten clutched his heart. “Oof! I am wounded Zuko! Mortally wounded I tell you!”

“Knock it off.”

“Zuko, come closer so that you can hear my last words. Please cousin, they are of dire import.”

“You're just going to tickle me or something.”

“Would I do that?”

“Yes!”

“You are so suspicious Zuko. I give you my solemn vow as a prince of the Fire Nation that I will not tickle you. Now come here.”

I approached wearily. He jumped up and swept me off my feet. “Hey! You promised!”

“I promised I wouldn't tickle you. I never promised that I wouldn't throw you into the water, now did I cousin,” he asked merrily.

“Wait, wait, wa-” I was in the middle of a poorly timed inhale when I hit the water. My lungs filled with liquid. I panicked. I kept trying to breathe. I reached for the surface, but I had forgotten which way it was. I thought I was going to drown. But only a second later I was yanked out of the water. Firm but gentle hands were pounding on my back as I hacked up water.

“Are you alright?! I am so sorry! I was just playing around! I didn't mean- Are you okay?!”

“I'm-” I coughed some more. “I'm okay.”

“Are you sure?”

“It was my fault. I shouldn't have opened my mouth.” I hacked up the last bit of water.

My cousin rubbed circles on my back. “I need you to listen to me for a minute, okay cousin?”

“Are you mad at me?”

He pulled me into a hug. “No, I'm mad at me.”

“It was an accident.”

“Oh Zuko.” He ruffled my hair. “What's wrong with you kiddo? Yell at me. Call me a jerk.”

I shook my head. “It was an accident.”

“It was. It was an accident. I would never ever hurt you on purpose, you know that right?”

I nodded.

“But you have every right to be angry with me all the same. I should have thought it through before I did that. I made a dumb mistake that almost got you really hurt. It was my fault, not yours, okay? It's never your fault if somebody else hurts you. And if they try to tell you it is they're in the wrong, not you. Understand?”

I thought about my father and his fury that I hadn't done any Firebending yet. “But what if I…” I bit my lip. “What if I do something bad?”

“Like what?”

“What if I… What if someone shows me how to do something over and over again but I just can't do it and they get frustrated with me?”

“Did Master Piandao-”

“No!” I shook my head emphatically.

He sighed. “Your dad still giving you a hard time about Firebending,” he asked quietly.

“I… I don't want to talk about this anymore.”

Lu Ten picked up a towel and started drying my hair. “Okay Zuko. Let's go back up the hill and eat some of these Oysterclams, sound good?”

I nodded. “Sounds good.”

Zuko broke the surface of the water with another bag full of shellfish to see Toph sitting alone, cross-legged on the bank. “Toph?”

“I thought you were never going to come up for air,” she groused. “I was starting to doubt that you were here at all, even though I can feel your stuff in a pile over there.” She pointed.

“Do you need something?”

“Yeah. You're going to teach me how to swim.”

She doesn't know how to swim? “Sure thing.”

“Great.” She stood up. “You can't tell Katara about this by the way. You can't tell Aang or Sokka either come to think of it because they would tell Katara. Just tell no one.”

“Okay, is there-”

“I'm sorry, can you get out of the water? Talking to a disembodied voice is kind of creepy.”

Zuko hesitated. She can't see my scars, he reminded himself. He exited the water. “That does sound somewhat disturbing,” he agreed.

“I'm so used to feeling where everyone is all the time. Most people close their eyes and the world goes away, but I don't close my feet. I'm always aware of what's going on around me, so when someone is somewhere I can't sense them…”

“Freaks you out?”

“Big time.”

“You can't sense things in the water?”

“Or up in the air,” she said.

“And that's why you can't swim?”

“I never learned. I never thought I would need to know. Why would I want to go somewhere that cuts me off from my element? Why would I want to unable to sense anything,” she said.

“What changed your mind?”

She sighed and kicked a pebble. “You know about the Serpent's Pass,” she asked.

“Sure. I took a ferry past it once.”

“You took the ferry into Ba Sing Se? How did you get a ticket? You didn't steal one did you?”

“My uncle knew a guy that got us some fake papers. Then he flirted with the customs agent-”

“Yuck! Too much honesty, too much honesty!”

Zuko smirked. “Hey, I had to witness it.”

She shivered. “Blah!”

“So when we're up on Appa…”

“Misery, torment, the works.”

He flinched. “I'm sorry.”

She scowled. “Don't you dare pity me.”

“I'm not. I just think you're really selfless for doing something that's painful for you to help save the world. Not a lot of people would.”

She considered this and then grinned. “Yeah, I'm pretty great. Feel free to bow and kiss my feet whenever I walk by you,” she said.

Zuko tried to resist the urge to roll his eyes, remembered she couldn't see and then went ahead and rolled them. “Why can't Katara know you're learning to swim? Seems like something she'd be excited about, wouldn't it be?”

“She's offered to teach me dozens of times and I always turn her down,” Toph said. “She'd get all sad and dejected about it. Then she would want us to get emotional with each other. Barf.”

Zuko snorted. “Can I ask then why you want me to teach you? Katara seems to have more experience with the whole teaching thing.”

“Yeah, she's a great teacher. Always wants to make sure everybody is having a good time.”

“And that's… bad?”

Toph edged closer to the water and dipped her toe in with trepidation. “When we were going over the Serpent's Pass I fell in the water and almost drowned. Katara thinks that learning how to swim could be some fun bonding activity for the two of us. But I will never enjoy being in the water just like I will never enjoy being up in the air. I want to learn how to swim because I now realize it's a necessary survival skill, not because I think it will be fun. It won't be fun. It'll be torture. And I could try to explain that to her, but she would just try to find a way to make it fun. She wouldn't understand.”

Zuko nodded. He wasn't sure if Toph was right about Katara, sure she liked to make things enjoyable for people, but she did listen when people tried to talk to her. It doesn't matter whether Toph is right or not though. She has the right to learn how to do this on her own terms.

“So, when do we start Sifu?”

Zuko scowled. “Don't call me that.”

“Fine Mr. Flames.”

“That's so much worse,” he protested.

“That's what you get for complaining.”

Katara was smiling as she and Aang returned from Waterbending practice. Not only had their session been both enjoyable and productive, but dinner was almost completed by the looks of it and the camp was tider than it usually was after she had been away for a while. It's nice to not be the only one who picks up after herself a anymore, she thought cheerily. Aang used his Airbending to sprint the rest of the way to the campfire. “Hey guys! What did you do today?”

“Earthbending,” Toph said as she picked at her toes. Blah. Why Toph? We're about to eat.

“Diving,” Zuko said. “I made you another necklace. Actually I made one for all of you.”

Katara's eyes widened when she saw Zuko pull out three strings of, not shells, but pearls that shimmered and shone like moonlight. Well, most of them did. The first necklace had only a single large pearl and on either side of it were strung little nautical odds and ends like small shells, sea glass and bits of coral. The second necklace was the same, but it had three smaller shining white pearls instead of a single large one. The third necklace was identical the second except for that the pearl in the center was not white, but a brilliant red that danced like flames.

“Thanks Zuko!” Aang took his necklace, the one with the single large pearl and immediately put it on. “How's it look,” he asked.

“You look great,” Toph exclaimed.

“Thanks!”

“Uhh… You know she's messing with you don't you,” Zuko asked. “She can't see you.”

Aang shrugged and grinned. “A compliment is a compliment.” He tried to glimpse his reflection in the stew pot and was unsuccessful.

“Never change Twinkle Toes,” Toph ordered.

Katara fully expected Toph to reject whichever necklace Zuko offered her, and so was quite surprised when Toph took the one handed to her and put it on without a single comment about 'girly stuff’ or any other derogatory remarks.

The necklace with the pearl that shone like fire was the only one remaining. Zuko offered it to her quietly. She reached out and took the necklace. “Thank you,” she said. “This is…”

“Can we eat now,” Toph asked. “I'm starved.”

Katara rolled her eyes at the younger girl, but they all sat down to eat. The food looked and smelled incredible, even Aang's seaweed stew didn't appear to be half bad. Katara took a bite and was delighted to discover that the flavor profile was not identical to their last pot of oysterclam stew. There were subtle changes that improved the flavor. “This is great,” she said.

The dinner passed quickly and amicably. Soon the four of them were sated and ready for sleep after a long active day. “I wonder what Sokka is doing right now,” Toph asked. “Hopefully this Master isn't as tough to please as I am.”

“Aren't you pleased with my Earthbending progress Sifu Toph,” Aang asked.

Toph harrumphed. “We'll evaluate your progress tomorrow Twinkle Toes. Bright and early!”

“Aw…” Aang put down his bowl. “Then I'm going to bed.” He pet Momo and then dropped into his sleeping bag to almost immediately start snoring. Momo curled up on his chest.

Awwwww. Katara shook her head and went to start collecting the dining ware only to realize that Zuko had already done so. “Oh, you don't have to do that. You cooked. I’ll clean.”

“I've seen you clean up on nights you cooked.”

Well that's true. “You really don't have to.”

“I know.” He continued collecting dishes.

“Well... thanks. Good night.”

He didn't look up at her. “Good night.”

Katara went over to her sleeping bag and made herself comfortable. She didn't fall right to sleep as Aang had. She tended to lie awake for a little while at the end of the day and reflect on the events that had transpired while planning tomorrow's activities. Katara's mind was like her hands. It rarely stilled. I'm glad Zuko was in a better mood today. Although he was still acting a little strange. I guess he's always somewhat awkward, but he seemed particularly so today. Although it was sweet that he made jewelry for everyone. I appreciated that he made dinner and did the dishes. He… Oh no.

Katara leapt to her feet. She looked around the campsite. Everyone but her was asleep. Katara bit her lip. Oh no. What do I do? Calm down Katara, you could be wrong. You just need to talk this out with someone. Who though?

Katara went over to Aang's sleeping bag. She nudged him with her toe. “Aang,” she whispered. He didn't respond. She shook him gently. “Aang,” she whispered again.

“That's enough fruit pie Momo.”

Katara sighed. She leaned in close to whisper into his ear. “Aang,” she said a little more forcefully this time. “Wake up.”

Aang sprung to his feet. “What? Who?”

“Shhhhhhh,” Katara pleaded.

“Katara?” He rubbed his eyes. “What's wrong?”

“I need to talk to you.” She gestured for him to follow her. When they were what she judged to be a safe distance from the camp she turned and took in his concerned expression. “Nothing's wrong,” she assured him. “It's Zuko.”

Aang sighed. “You guys are fighting again?”

“No, that's the problem. We're not fighting.”

“That seems like the opposite of a problem.”

“What I mean is, he's been acting weird.”

“Well you know… It's Zuko. He is kind of weird. There's nothing wrong with that.”

Katara bit her lip. “I think he likes me.”

“We all like you Katara. You're the best.”

She rolled her eyes. “No Aang, I think he likes me like in a romantic way. He was all awkward around me this morning, and then he gave me jewelry, and then he cooked and cleaned up.”

Aang gave her a skeptical look. “So?”

Sometimes I forget that my best friend is a monk. “So, I think he has feelings for me.”

“Because he was awkward?”

“Yeah.”

“Zuko's always awkward.”

“Okay, but what about the jewelry?”

“He made a necklace for all of us. I think it was his way of asking if we're his friends.”

That threw Katara for a loop. “What?”

“Zuko said that when strangers offer you a gift you have to deny it three times. But when a friend does, you can just take it. That's why it hurt his feelings when Sokka didn't accept his knife. It was like declining his friendship.”

He didn't look upset to me. Although… “That's why Toph didn't make any snarky comments.”

“She's surprisingly perceptive when she wants to be. Which isn't often, but still,” Aang said.

“But he cooked dinner.”

Aang waited for a beat. “And?”

“You never cook dinner.”

“The only time I tried to make dinner Sokka accused me of trying to poison him! You didn't exactly love my dish either,” he complained.

“It was… interesting.”

“You both hated it.”

“Okay fine, point taken.”

“So… Is everything good?”

I'm just worried that after the two of us were emotionally vulnerable with each other he's convinced himself that there's romantic potential between us. I don't want him to get hurt. “I'm not sure Aang.” I need to be sure.

“So just ask him.”

Katara looked at Aang like he had just suggested she swim all the way to the North Pole and back. “Just ask him what?”

“Just ask him if he likes you.”

“You can't just ask a person if they like you!”

“Why not?”

“It just isn't done!”

“Why not? Air Nomads did it all the time. Free and open communication is one of the keys to an unburdened mind. Secrets and worries weigh us down and keep us from joy and happiness.”

He doesn't get it. He's just a kid. “Aang, a girl can't just go up to a boy and ask him if he likes her. It's completely improper and… not done.”

“Well then don't worry about it. Like I said, I think you're way off base. Zuko doesn't seem like he even likes girl. So you should be fine.”

Maybe he's- wait what? “What do you mean?”

Chapter Text

Zuko looked over his shoulder. Yep, she's staring at me again. Katara looked away. Zuko gave up on his Firebending practice. He couldn't concentrate with that weird feeling of being watched constantly distracting him. Katara went back to pretending to practice Waterbending. It was too bad Aang was at Earthbending practice and couldn't distract her. Zuko walked over to the other teen. “Hey,” he said quietly.

“Oh hello,” she said as if she were only just noticing him. “How are you today?”

What is going on? “Fine, yourself?”

“Me? I'm excellent.”

“Great, so… Everything's… good?”

“Everything's great,” she said a little more forcefully than necessary. “I'm great.”

“Good... That's good.”

“It sure i-”

“Okay, what's going on?” I am not doing this all day. “Why have you been spying on me?”

“I wasn't… Don't be ridiculous.”

“Katara, if I did something to offend you, please just tell me. I swear it wasn't intentional and that I will do my best to correct it,” Zuko said.

“What? No, I was just… I was just trying to learn some Firebending moves.”

What? Now I'm even more confused. “Huh?”

“You said your uncle learned how to redirect lighting by watching Waterbenders, right?”

“Yeah…”

“So I figured, hey, why not try to invent a new Waterbending move by watching a Firebender?”

That's… actually brilliant. “Huh, well why didn't you say so? I'd be happy to show you any moves you want to see,” Zuko offered.

“Great! Can you start with the basics? How do you make a flame? And don't just show the mechanics, I want to know how it works.”

“Okay.” Zuko adopted a stance. “The most important component of Firebending is your stance. You have to stay rooted to the Earth.”

“Like an Earthbender?”

I never really thought about it like that, but I guess she's right. “Yeah. The Earth is full of heat. There's magma right under our feet, not to mention the heat of the sun that the earth absorbs into itself everyday. By staying rooted to the Earth you allow yourself to draw upon that heat to strengthen your inner fire.”

“That part doesn't seem particularly applicable to Waterbending. But keep going,” she said.

“Well breath is the next most important thing.”

“Like in Airbending?”

Huh. It is like Airbending. “Exactly. Breath fuels your fire. A fire without oxygen dies.”

“And the third thing?”

“The third thing is the move itself.” Zuko slowly showed the different components of the most basic Firebending move. “Draw in the heat that exists all around you. Let it become fire.”

“Draw in the heat? The heat in the air?”

“Well it comes from the sun, but I guess it is in the air, yes. Let it come to you and-” Zuko went through the move faster this time and conjured forth flame. “Do you want to see it again?”

“Yes.”

Katara had Zuko repeat the move several times until he was bored and tired. But he didn't complain. He saw the look of intense concentration on her face and was fascinated by it. If there's anyone in the world who can figure this out, it would be her. “Need it again?”

“Hold on.” Katara went through a sequence of motions similar, but not quite identical, to the move Zuko had shown. His eyes widened in shock and amazement as he saw condensation form in the air wherever her hands passed through until she was holding a small puddle.

“That's amazing!” Zuko and Katara jumped.

They turned around and saw that Aang was watching them, with Toph standing next to him looking intrigued. “Hi guys,” Katara said.

“That was incredible,” Aang shouted again.

“Heh, Katara's a Firebender,” Toph said.

“Do you think I could teach you some Airbending moves,” Aang asked giddily.

“I don't see why not,” Katara said.

“Let's go!” Aang grabbed her hand and the two ran off laughing.

Zuko chuckled and shook his head. “I've never met anybody like him before.”

“Jealous?”

Of the ability to be constantly finding new sources of joy and delight in this terrifying painful world? Yeah, I guess I am. Zuko opened his mouth to reply, but Toph had already grabbed his hand and was pulling him towards where she and Aang had been training earlier.

“Where are we going?”

“I'm teaching you how to Earthbend.”

Don't move Sokka. But my nose itches. Don't move Sokka. Just a quick scratch! No! “Is all well with you pupil,” Master Piandao said between strokes of his brush.

“My nose itches.”

The Master shook his head. “Go ahead.”

Sokka sighed with relief as he alleviated the terrible itch. “Ahhh.” Master Piandao rolled his eyes, but Sokka didn't even care. “Master can I ask you a question?” How much longer is this going to take?! Probably shouldn't ask that one.

“Why am I painting you,” Piandao guessed.

“Well, yeah actually. How'd you know what I was going to say? Can you read minds?”

Piandao chuckled. “No, and I never had the desire to before meeting you.”

“Thank you?” Yeah, that wasn't a compliment.

“I paint portraits of all my students. I paint one when they begin training, and I paint one when they achieve Mastery of the blade.”

“Why?”

Piandao waited so long to answer that Sokka gave up on receiving a response at all. He let his mind wander until he heard the Master begin talking again. “I’m a peasant.”

“Huh?”

“I was not born into wealth. When I joined the Fire Nation army at fourteen I was the fourth of eight children born to destitute farmers.”

I'm not sure how to respond to that. “Well it looks like you've done pretty well for yourself.”

“The drill sergeant who instructed us in weapons pulled me aside one day. He told me that although I had no noble lineage or great aptitude in the sciences I could achieve prestigious standing in our nation. During battle, he said, all men are equal. The strength of your arm is what determines your success.”

“It sounds like he really inspired you.”

“He was a fool. ” Okaaaaay. “The world is full of strong men and women. I once saw a man lift a whole cart of grain onto his shoulders. Do you think I could do that?” No, but I'm pretty sure that was rhetorical. “I am the greatest Swordsman in our nation. That's not a brag, it's an acknowledged fact. My skill has nothing to do with strength. A true Master of the sword is a warrior of the mind, not just of the body.”

Sokka nodded. “I think I understand.”

Piandao turned the eisel around. “Well young man, what do you think?” Who's that handsome devil? I look great! “You are a skilled painter Master,” he said. It seemed more prudent.

“We will leave this here to dry. Now-”

“Can I see the other portraits?”

Piandao paused. “Of my former students?”

“If you don't mind?”

Piandao shook his head. “I don't mind.”

Piandao led Sokka to a door made of dark wood with birds carved into it. Piandao opened the door without any fanfare. Sokka was bowled over by the sheer number of portraits. Even keeping in mind that many of the students had been painted twice there was still an impressive number of portraits. “You taught so many…”

“Each of these children, well some of them were adults when they came here, but most arrive as children, was unique in their own way. Some were particularly clever. Others were more agile than most. A few had the speed of a hungry cobrarabbit. Strength, creativity, forethought, and dozens of other skills are represented by these faces. But the one thing they all share is a passion for the blade and a willingness to work hard to achieve Mastery. I am remembered for my military feats, which will still be taught in schools long after I am gone, but it is the contents of this room that I consider to be my life's work. These children are my legacy.”

Sokka moved further into the room. He saw a portrait of a pimply girl with a giant gap-toothed grin. He saw a boy with a cunning look, a girl who radiated smugness, a boy who looked like he was holding in a laugh, a girl with dreamy poet's eyes, a boy with a smudge of grease on his cheek, a girl with a nose that had been broken more than once, a boy with downcast eyes, a girl who was almost snarling. Sokka came to a sudden halt in front of a picture of a boy who couldn't have been a day over six years old. His look was one of trepidation. This child was far too young to be so nervous. Furthermore, Sokka was sure he knew him from somewhere.

“I see you found the young prince.”

Sokka felt like his blood had frozen inside his veins. “Prince Zuko,” he whispered. “You…”

“I was his teacher, yes.”

Sokka's mind whirred as he put all of the pieces together. “He's your student that died recently.”

“Yes.” Piandao's voice was suffused with such anguish that it took Sokka's breath away.

“You cared about him a lot.”

“I knew him from the time that he was six until he was thirteen. I remember the first time I ever saw him. He was just a little boy hanging so tight to his cousin's hand the poor lad had a big bruise on it. He would sneak out at night to the training yard to do extra practice. He was so eager to prove himself at all times. His first lesson after his cousin died and his mother left he arrived with hollow eyes. He did not cry, nor did he smile. For over a year afterwards it was like he was a ghost of the boy I knew. All he did was train and study. All of the life had gone out of him. Then, at the most gradual pace, bit by bit he returned. One day he arrived at the gate for his lessons with a smile on his face. The boy I thought I had lost had returned to me.”

Sokka did the math. “Then he was banished.”

“Yes,” Piandao said softly. “I received a letter from General Iroh telling me what had happened, and that was that. He was just gone.”

“I'm sorry.” Once again Sokka knew his words were insufficient. “You cared about him alot.”

“He was the most promising student I ever had.”

“What did happen? Why was he banished?”

"What was your offence?"

"Cowardice.”

Piandao stared at the portrait. The little boy in it had an unmarked face, but more than that he seemed as of yet uninfected by the rage that the Zuko Sokka knew was so beset with. “Most people don't talk about it for fear of rousing the ire of Fire Lord Ozai,” Piandao said.

“The Fire Lord isn't here,” Sokka said in a voice soft enough for Piandao to pretend he hadn't heard if he was so inclined. He wasn't.

“Prince Lu Ten desired to follow in his father's footsteps and have a military career. He was a good lad, studious and driven. He believed that in order to be the best commander possible he  needed to be an expert in all the combat forms the men under him would be using. That way he would know how best to utilize their strengths and accommodate their weaknesses. The prince knew his father and I were old friends and asked Crown Prince Iroh to arrange for him to train with me. I agreed to meet the boy. On the day he arrived he brought his cousin with him, a six year old boy who was so nervous when he first encountered me he couldn't say a word. But this little boy had just as much drive as his grown cousin did. He never complained when a task was difficult or draining. He might become frustrated when he felt he wasn't making as much progress as he should, but that only made him that much more determined. He never quit.”

Sokka realized this was going to be a very long story, even if it only covered the highlights of seven years of Zuko's life. He didn't care about the time it was taking though. I never even thought to consider what Zuko might have been like as a kid. This is fascinating. As the story went on though and they got closer and closer to the inevitable banishment Sokka felt dred settle heavy and thick in his gut. He wanted to ask Master Piandao to stop, but he didn't.

“Do you think we should check on him,” Katara asked as she practiced her newest move.

“I'm sure he's fine,” Zuko said as he practiced his own adapted move. “It's only been a week.”

“How long does it take to master the sword?”

“Years.”

“We don't have years,” Katara pointed out.

“No, but the solstice is still a month off. Sokka knows the timetable. The first lesson is the most difficult to finish. It's more about the philosophy of the sword than anything else,” he explained.

“Philosophy?”

“Sure.”

“There's a philosophy to swords?”

What do you think we've been doing for the past week? “There's a philosophy to everything.”

Katara conceded the point. She looked at something in the distance. “They're still experimenting with the pieces of that rock. You know I half expect Toph to invent another type of bending. She's only twelve. Imagine what she'll be doing when she's twenty, when she's thirty, forty, fifty and sixty. The possibilities.”

She sounds like a proud mother. I suppose she has the right. If anyone is a mother to those kids it's her. She's the same age as my sister. It's too much for one person. It isn't fair. “Imagine what you'll be doing,” Zuko told her.

“What do you mean?”

“Do you think any Waterbender has ever done what you're doing right now before?”

Katara was quiet for so long Zuko thought she had abandoned their conversation to focus on her bending. “Zuko can I ask you something?”

“Sure,” he said in an absent minded tone. He moved his fire from one hand to another.

“Do you like me?”

“Hm, sure. Who wouldn't?”

“No, do you like me?”

The fire flared up and disappeared. “What?!”

Katara blushed. “So… you do?” Zuko couldn't help it. He snorted laughter. Katara's face turned to stone. Oh crap. I'm dead. “What's so funny?”

“Nothing, I swear.”

“Then why are you laughing?”

“No reason, I swear! It's just kind of a funny idea is all. Me being attracted to you.”

“What's so funny about it?”

“Nothing!”

“You just said it was funny!”

Yep, I'm dead. Goodbye cruel world. Just engrave my tombstone with a warning about pissing off Waterbenders and I’ll be satisfied.

“Aren't you going to say something?!”

“It doesn't have anything to do with you.”

“The fact that the idea of someone being attracted to me is apparently hysterically funny doesn't have anything to do with me?”

“No, what I meant was… I'm just not attracted to… There's um… You're not…”

“I forgot. I'm a filthy Water Tribe peasant.”

“No! That isn't it.”

“Then what is it?”

“I don't… feel that way. I don't get those kinds of feelings. I never have before that is.”

Katara scoffed. “You don't like girls?” Her face dawned with a sort of comprehension. “Oh. You don't… like girls. You're… You're gay?”

Zuko sighed. “No. I don't think about people in that way, men or women. I just…” He shrugged.

“Oh. Oh.” These next few minutes are not going to be pleasant for me. Oh well. In for a copper, in for a silver. “Well that's okay.”

“I'm glad you approve,” he said in a dry voice.

“No, really. It's not like it's your fault.”

What is that supposed to mean? “Okay.”

“It's not like you chose to be in the situation you were in. You came out of it remarkably well adjusted all things considered. So you won't get any judgement from me, none at all.”

Is she talking about what I think she's talking about? “Hold on. You think that the reason I'm asexual is because I was raped,” he hissed.

Katara flinched at that last word, an action which hurt almost as much as her assumptions did. Just shut up. Just walk away. Remember what uncle said about your temper. “It makes sense that an experience like that would mess a person up. You don't have anything to be ashamed of, really.” Walk away. Walk away.

“So not wanting to have sex is messed up?”

“No! I just mean… Men are supposed to get married and have families, you know?”

“Get married to women you mean?”

“Don't you want to be a father one day? I see how you are with Toph, you'd be a good dad.”

Isn't it strange that the genuine complimentary statement hurts more than all the rest of it combined. “You know what, I think we need to walk away from each other right now.”

“I'm sorry. I'm doing my best here. I don't know anything about this stuff. I'm sure there's some kind of… I don't know, like a treatment or-”

“Katara, shut up!”

Katara flinched. “Okay, it's clear you don't want to talk about this right now. I'll give you some space, and maybe later when we're calmer-”

“You just told me that a completely innocuous and essential part of who I am is a- a- a side effect of one of the worst things that ever happened to me. Do you have any idea how hurtful that is? I know I have issues. I know that I'm too angry and prideful and suspicious and a million other bad things. But there is absolutely nothing wrong with me being asexual!”

Katara looked away. “I’m sorry. I didn't mean to upset you, but clearly I have. I shouldn't have-”

Zuko didn't let her finish. “Yeah, you shouldn't have,” he snapped. “Just leave me alone.”

Aang didn't know where Toph and Zuko had gone off to, but he knew a perfect opportunity when he saw one. The camp was deserted except for Katara, who was studying her Waterbending scrolls. Aang exercised caution as he approached. “Hey Katara,” he said.

She smiled at him. “Hi Aang. I had an idea for another adapted Waterbending move.”

“That's great!” I’ll let her finish this before I bring up Zuko. I want her to be in as good a mood as possible. “Can you show me?”

They practiced for a little while. Aang was in the middle of trying to create a funnel with water the same way he did with air when Katara spoke up. “I know what you really came over here to talk to me about. You want me to make up with Zuko.” Busted. Oh well, here goes.

“But you don't want to?”

“I do want to.” Well that's good.

“So then what's the problem?”

“It's not about what I want. He wants to be left alone, and I need to respect that. People's boundaries have to be honored.”

“But how are you going to repair your friendship if you never talk to each other?”

“Some things are more important than friendship.” More important than friendship?!

“Like what?”

“Like feeling safe and comfortable. If you violate a person's boundaries you make them feel vulnerable, and you prove that you don't really respect them. Toph taught me that.”

“She did?”

Katara sighed. “I saw Zuko teaching her how to swim the other day. At first I was furious, because I offered to teach her so many times and she always turned me down flat.” More like you hounded her about how much fun she was missing out on and what a valuable skill and great exercise it is. “But then I realized that the reason she didn't want me to teach her is because I was always pestering her about learning. I didn't respect her boundary, and so she didn't trust me to teach her. Realizing that hurt, but it also taught me an important lesson.”

“To accept people's limits?”

Katara nodded.

That makes a lot of sense. “Monk Gyatso once told me that there were lots of different kinds of loves, but that most of them fit into two categories: selfish and selfless. When we have selfish love for someone or something we want to lock that person or thing away so no one but us can touch it. When love is selfless we relinquish control over the object of our affections so it or they can flourish with or without us. You love Toph, and so you wanted what was best for her, but by relinquishing control of her you're allowing her to decide for herself what path she wishes to walk.”

“That’s beautiful Aang,” Katara said.

Aang beamed.

“Plus no one can tell Toph what to do anyway and I was just banging me head against the wall by trying,” she pointed out.

Aang laughed. Yeah. There's that too.

Katara sighed. “I wish Sokka were here.”

“Yeah, I really miss him.”

“Things just aren't the same without him here.”

“I know what you mean,” Aang said. “Where's the sarcasm? The funny jokes? The world is a little less colorful when Sokka's not around.”

Katara sighed. “Yeah.” After a moment of quiet contemplation she spoke again. “So we're in agreement he can never know we said all that.”

“Absolutely.” Aang gave an emphatic nod.

“His ego is swollen enough,” Katara added.

“So,” Toph said as she dried her hair. “You and Sweetness still aren't talking to each other?”

Zuko sighed. “Why do you call her that?”

Toph smirked. “Because it's funny. Why does it bother you? I thought you were angry at her.”

“I'm always angry,” Zuko muttered. That's certainly true. “Hasn't done me much good.”

“Still,” Toph said.

“It's just a little misunderstanding,” Zuko said as he tied his robe. “Anyway, I don't want to talk about it,” he said before she could start questioning him again. “It's… personal.”

So you'll tell Katara about personal stuff, but you won't tell me? Toph didn't let on to her hurt feelings and pulled one of her pieces of space rock out of her pocket. “When most Earthbenders bend they reach out for the rock and they… apply force to it? I'm not sure what the exact description would be. It's like when you push or throw something. You're not applying equal force to every part, and you don't choose the exact dimensions that are affected.”

Zuko tilted his head. “If I kick in a wooden door I don't choose where it splits open. I just kick and let the natural faults in the door help me.”

“Exactly! But what if… What if you could see where the door was weakest and apply all of your force to just that area? No door would ever be safe again! A lot of Earthbenders think skill means going bigger and bigger, but when I developed Metalbending I was focused on the smallest pieces. I think that's the trick.”

“Uncle always said precision will win out over strength every time. But how small can you go?”

“I'm not sure. I can sense that there are... components inside the earth. I don't know what they are. I don't think they have a name, because no one has ever been able to perceive then.”

Zuko hesitated. “What do they do?”

“They…” How do I describe it? It's so hard to explain something you only just found out existed and know next to nothing about.

“You'll figure it out,” Zuko said, almost as if he could sense her frustration. “If anyone can then you will. Katara predicted this by the way.”

What? How? She doesn't know anything about Earthbending. “She predicted that earth was made up of a bunch of smaller pieces?”

Zuko chuckled. “No. She predicted that you would discover another new type of bending.”

“She said that?” Oh. Katara really does believe in me. She always claims she cares about me and supports me, but I never believed her because my parents said the same things. I know they were lying. But I guess Katara wasn't.

“She said she couldn't even imagine what kind of amazing discoveries you'll make one day.”

Toph blushed. “I…” Toph was ashamed to realize a single tear had welled up in her eye.

“Are you okay?” Zuko sounded on the verge of panic. Good ol Sparky. “I'm sorry Toph. I didn't mean to put pressure on you or anything.”

“You doofus.” She punched him in the arm.

“Ow,” he said.

“Don't be a baby. It's an expression of love.”

“Well then I love you too.”

Ugh. Too many emotions.

Sokka almost lost his footing when he entered the camp and was ambushed by a small Airbender glomping onto him. “Sokka you're back,” Katara shouted with delight.

“Not quite,” Sokka said as he extracted himself from Aang. He looked at Toph. “What's their problem,” he asked the only member present who wasn't ecstatic to see him.

“I don't know. They missed you or something. I didn't care,” she insisted. Uh huh. Sure.

“Thanks. That warms my heart. Where's our travel guide? Did he get lost,” Sokka asked.

“He's off meditating,” Toph said.

“What was it like learning from a Master? You were gone such a long time,” Katara said.

“It's been good. But I'm not finished yet. In fact today I get to make my own sword!” And it will be the coolest sword ever! Everyone will be so jealous! “That's why I'm here. I need your help.”

“I’ll go get Z-” Toph started to say.

“No don't bother him,” Sokka interrupted. He would certainly be difficult to explain to Master Piandao. “It's mostly your help I need Toph.”

Just as Sokka expected, getting the meteor to Piandao's estate wasn't difficult with an Earthbender’s help. Piandao was waiting for them at the gate. “I see you brought friends.”

“They're just helping me with the heavy lifting.”

“Would you like to make introductions?”

Right. Duh. “Master Piandao, these are my friends Kuzon, Tsuki and uhhhh…”

“My name is Mizu and I am honored to meet you Master Piandao.” Katara executed a perfect Fire Nation style bow. “You are a legend.”

“And you are too kind to an old man. Come in, all of you, and have something refreshing to drink. You must be exhausted after pushing that enormous rock up this hill,” he offered.

“You have our thanks,” Katara said. “But we have to get back before our other friend starts to worry about us,” she explained.

“In that case, Saku you can get right to work.”

Aw man. But Sokka knew better than to complain to the Master. Sokka had observed Piandao make several swords and knew he could complete the task. Nevertheless, Master Piandao's gaze fell heavy on Sokka as he went through the steps. By the time he was finished he was worn out and exhausted. Although he was covered in a sheen of sweat that made him feel gross and uncomfortable he felt a swell of pride in his heart when the Master inspected his work. The black blade glimmered.

“Beautiful,” Piandao declared at last.

“Thank you Master.”

“You should be proud.” I am. I spend so much time trying to prove myself. Now I have proof of what I can do that I can wear on my back and hold in my hand. “I know you must be eager to return home and show your family the progress you have made. But I hope you will return soon to complete your training.” I would love- Sokka froze. After Aang meets Avatar Roku on his home island we're going to the capital city, and after that, if we are successful, the war will be over. I’ll go home and probably never see Master Piandao again. I'm the first student he agreed to take on in three years and I'm just going to disappear from his life. I can't do that to him. Especially not after everything he's been through. “Is something wrong Saku?”

“I'm sorry master.”

“Oh? What are you sorry for?”

“I lied to you. My name isn't Saku. I'm not from the Fire Nation. My name is Sokka, and I’m-”

“From the Water Tribe,” Piandao finished in a nonchalant tone. “I'm aware. It's one of the reasons I agreed to train you.” Sokka's eyes widened and his jaw dropped. “Catching flies?”

“You knew?!”

“Of course I knew. Boomerangs are unique to Water Tribe culture. You told my servant you fought with a boomerang when listing your weapon proficiencies. You also almost revealed that your sister is a Waterbender but swiftly recovered. Thus I deducted that you are from the Northern Water Tribe,” Piandao said in a smug tone. He looked quite amused.

“Actually I'm from the Southern Tribe.”

“Really? I was under the impression that there are no more Waterbenders in the south.”

Just one. “I don't understand Master. You're Fire Nation. Do you… Are you not loyal to the Fire Nation anymore? Is it because of what the Fire Lord did to his son?” Sokka shivered at the memory of the way Piandao's voice almost broke with grief when he relayed the tale.

“The way of the sword does not belong to one nation, but to all who are willing and able to learn the philosophy of the blade. I love my country, but I do not love this war. I do not love what this war has done to the people of all nations, mine and yours included. Your people have done nothing to me that I should hold against you. If anything is surprising it would be that you are willing to learn from me.”

Sokka considered this. I wouldn't have been a year ago. “I knew a kid once who, like me, wanted to fight the Fire Nation and liberate his people. But he took it too far. He wanted to wipe out a whole village just because it was occupied by the Fire Nation. Even the little kids wouldn't have been spared. I didn't have a way to stop his plans, so the only thing I could do was warn the village. Once the danger was over I left, but on the way out I saw a Fire Nation mother holding her daughter. The little girl was still shaking with fear, but the mother held her tight and was singing her a lullaby. She was Fire Nation, but in that moment she wasn't the enemy, she was just a mother. She reminded me of my own mother. Not everyone in the Fire Nation is bad. Not everyone in the Earth Kingdom or Water Tribes is good either.”

Piandao smiled. “You are very wise.”

“You think so?” Ha! Take that Katara.

“For your age,” Piandao amended.

Still counts. “So are we going to test the sword?”

Piandao laughed. “I won't go easy on you.”

Something is wrong with the water. Zuko had been swimming for a long time, and he knew water in a way that disgusted his father and his sister. He knew the currents and how to navigate them. He knew how to move with the water instead of fighting against it. The way the water was moving right now was… unnatural. He leaned over and looked at the sloshing shimmering liquid. Something- A thin tendril of water surged up smacked him in the face. Zuko scurried back. “What on-” he spluttered.

Laughter broke out from behind a pile of rocks a short distance away. Zuko sighed and went over to the rocks. Aang and Toph were rolling around on the ground, howling with delight. “Wha- What did his face look like Aang,” Toph asked.

“He looked like he didn't even believe it!”

The two kids laughed harder. “Are you done?”

Toph and Aang continued to snicker, so evidently they were not. Zuko took a deep breath and blew steam into Aang's face, causing him to yelp in surprise. Toph started laughing harder than ever, and Aang once again joined her, apparently finding Zuko's revenge to be quite fun. “I bet Sokka would fall for it too.”

“We have to do it as soon as he gets back,” Toph loudly declared. “He'll never see it coming!”

“I thought you two were practicing Earthbending,” Zuko said. He wasn't really annoyed, but I have a reputation as a grouch to maintain. “How did you know I was here?”

“You're always here,” Aang said. “Which really annoys Katara, because this is the best swimming spot and now she can't use it because she's giving you your space,” he explained.

Zuko flinched, feeling guilty. Why should I feel that way though? I didn't do anything wrong.

Zuko shifted his weight from foot to foot. “I never told her she couldn't come here.”

Aang shrugged. “She's just trying to be respectful of you and your needs.”

If anyone else had said that Zuko would have interpreted it as a subtle dig, but this was Aang and Zuko knew he was sincere. “I'm uh… going to go talk to her,” he said. “Patch things up.”

“Good,” Toph said. “I think we can all agree this group has had enough drama to last us for a long time. Don't you think so Aang?”

Aang nodded emphatically. “I hate conflict.”

“Try not to get into too much trouble,” Zuko said as he walked away. I have no idea what to even say to her. I'm not apologizing.

“You know I'm going to interpret that as a challenge right?” Toph called after him. “Now I have to get into as much trouble as possible!”

He hoped he was far enough away that Toph wouldn't sense him chuckling. I don't want to encourage that kind of behavior… Even though I kind of do. Focus Zuko. What are you going to say to Katara? Zuko still hadn't come up with anything when he made it back to camp and saw Katara sewing one of Toph's old pairs of pants.

“Could you teach me to do that?”

Katara looked up and smiled. “Can it be that we have finally found something Prince Zuko isn't an expert at? Today is a great day,” she teased.

“Shut up,” he mumbled without venom.

She gestured for him to sit beside her. For a few minutes they worked in silence. She showed him how to do the stitches and then let him try it himself. When he made a mistake she covered his pale hands with her dark ones and let him feel the proper movements. He struggled at first, but eventually he began to understand the process. He had nimble fingers, and once they learned the proper motions they were more than capable of executing them. “You're good.”

“It's actually sort of relaxing.”

“I've always thought so,” she agreed. “But you can't tell Sokka I said that. I'd never be able to complain about doing all the sewing ever again.”

“What a nightmare,” he joked.

She snorted a laugh. “It's kind of strange being in a country where there aren't 'boy things’ and ‘girl things’ and instead things are just things.”

“Strange in a good way or a bad way?”

Katara shrugged. “I guess that part is good.”

“Yeah,” Zuko said. “The racism and ableism not so much.” He accidentally pricked his thumb.

“Oh! Let me get that.” A flash of blue had the skin smooth and unblemished again. “Better?”

“Thanks.” Zuko set down the sewing. “I know you were just trying to help. I know that you care about me, that you care about all of us.”

“I do,” she said in earnest. “I care a lot, but that doesn't make it okay for me to condemn your culture like I did. If this asexuality thing is something you have in the Fire Nation, then-”

“It's not.”

“Huh?”

Zuko pulled up his legs and rested his chin on his knees while holding his calves. “My people are a passionate people. We don't judge you for who you love, or lust, within reason, but someone who doesn't lust at all, that's a freak.”

“Oh,” Katara said. “I didn't realize…”

“I didn't even know what I was until I met someone like me when I was in the Earth Kingdom. The Earth Kingdom may be really intolerant of gay, bi and trans people, but they have no problem with asexuals apparently. It's the opposite of how things are here. It struck me as so funny that we have all these stupid preconceptions about people. Except it isn't funny at all. It hurts people, a lot of people.”

“I guess it does,” Katara whispered.

“And when you said what you did, implied that I was broken in some way, it made me feel like who I am isn't valid. Like it's just a symptom.”

“I was wrong,” Katara said. “I've had a lot of time to think and I've realized that. You're not hurting anyone. Who am I to judge you for who you are, for how you feel? My people would say it's unnatural, but in the North many believe it's unnatural for women to learn Waterbending and a lot of your people believe the natural order is my people being enslaved to yours. So maybe humans aren't really the experts on what's natural. You're right Zuko. You're no symptom.”

Zuko remembered a fight he'd had with his uncle on this very topic. Zuko recalled how he had shouted and denied while his uncle offered only unconditional acceptance. He hadn't been able to appreciate it then. He sure did now.

“Zuko? You okay?”

Zuko picked up the stitching. “Thanks.”

Katara squeezed his shoulder. “No problem, I like teaching people new things.” They both knew what he really meant, but Zuko appreciated the pretext. “You're really doing me a favor. Now Sokka is going to insist on learning just to show you up.”

Zuko laughed. “Do you think when he gets back he'll try to challenge me to a sword fight?”

Katara rolled her eyes. “All I ask is that when you finish with him he's still functional.”

Zuko burst out laughing. Maybe that was why he didn't notice the pair approaching until a familiar voice spoke. “It has been far too long since I heard that laugh young prince.”

Sokka double checked his packing. He didn't have a lot to bring with him, but it couldn't hurt to be thorough. Afterwards he hunted down Master Piandao to say farewell. The man was in the room of portraits, looking at the little boy he believed to be dead. Impulse, as was usually the case, overtook Sokka before reason could have its say. “If you could say one thing to him, anything at all, what would it be?”

Piandao shook his head. “There are so many things I would wish to say, I wish I had said, I wish I could one day say… It's too late for all of them.” Piandao seemed to force his gaze away from the portrait and onto Sokka. “I wish the two of you could have met. I think you would have liked each other. But there's no point in speculating on what can never be.”

Don't do it Sokka. Don't create a problem where none existed before. “Master?”

“Yes lad?”

“I want to introduce you to someone. Would that be alright? It won't take long, I promise.”

Zuko scrambled to his feet. “M-M-Master Piandao!” He quickly performed a low bow.

“You know each other?” Katara was puzzled.

“Master Piandao is the one who taught Zuko those ninja moves he used to break Aang out of prison,” Sokka said in an excited voice.

Master Piandao started towards Zuko and the young man backed away. Katara was worried the older man was going to attack her friend, but Piandao instead pulled Zuko into a fierce hug while Zuko stood there with his mouth hanging open and his hands at his sides. “You're alive.”

Zuko blinked away a tear. I think Master Piandao was more than just his teacher.

Piandao pulled back. “I thought you were gone.”

“No, I… Master I'm so sorry. I betrayed your teachings. I betrayed… everything. Everyone.”

“I don't believe that.”

“But it's true! I abandoned Uncle Iroh.”

Piandao shook his head. “If you were in danger your uncle would want you to prioritize your safety above all else, including him. That isn't a betrayal of him. You're alive. That means you honored his wish,” Piandao insisted.

Zuko shook his head, eyes wet. “Master-”

Piandao pulled out a knife. “This is yours I think,” he said. “I recognize it now. It belonged to the general who surrendered the outer wall of Ba Sing Se. I think you should hold onto it.”

Zuko took another step back. “It was a gift.”

“But not to me,” Piandao said. “This is not a rejection. I accepted the gift your friend brought me. Now I give a gift to you. I do not think you should part with the only thing you have that your uncle gave you. You won't forget him anytime soon I know, but it is nice to have reminders of the ones we love. Things that make us feel even a little closer to them can be a great comfort when we are separated.” Piandao picked up Zuko's hand and placed the knife in it before folding Zuko's hand closed. “Take it.”

Zuko lowered his hand but raised his eyes. “I betrayed my father. I betrayed my country.”

Piandao's eyes flashed with something dark and dangerous. There's rage in there. I wouldn't want to fight him for real. Katara shivered, but the darkness left as soon as it came. “You did not betray Ozai. Ozai betrayed you. He betrayed us all. The man has no honor, no principal!”

Zuko's eyes widened in shock. “He's…”

Piandao's voice softened. “I know. He is your father, your lord and your Master. But Zuko, he did not care for you, protect you, or educate you as he was meant to do. You owe him nothing.”

Zuko looked at the ground again. “He will always be my father. Even if he doesn't really care about me… I'm still his son.”

Piandao hugged him again. “Just promise me that whatever obligation you feel for him you don't allow him to endanger your life.”

“I…”

Piandao hugged his student tighter. “Promise me Zuko.” Piandao looked almost desperate.

“I promise Master,” Zuko whispered.

Piandao pulled away with wet eyes. But in a few blinks they were dry and all of a sudden shining with mischief. “I would love to see how you have improved since your last lesson.”

“Oh!” Sokka looked giddy. “Sword fight!”

Katara and Zuko locked eyes. Remember what I said Zuko. He still has to be functional after.

Sokka lay on the ground panting. “My whole body hurts.” Sokka started to lift his hand, felt a twinge of pain, and gave up. “Ow.”

“I told you we could stop,” Zuko said from nearby where he was sipping on a cold drink with Master Piandao and the rest of the group.

“A Water Tribe warrior never surrenders.”

Zuko shrugged. “Okay.”

“I didn't know you were that good.”

“I told you,” Aang said.

“As did I if I recall,” Piandao added.

Why is everyone ganging up on me? “Humph.”

“Come on big brother. Come have a drink.”

“Can't. Moving hurts.”

“Don't be a baby,” Toph said.

Sokka saw that Zuko was still examining the blades Piandao had loaned him for their impromptu battle. “You can keep those.”

Zuko looked up in surprise. “Are you sure?”

“Certainly. I can think of no one I would rather have them. I always preferred to use a single blade myself. Besides, the pair you made when you were here ended up underneath the sea.”

Zuko blushed and rubbed his neck. “Thank you.”

How did that happen? “Were you battling mermaids Zuko?” Sokka snickered at the thought of Zuko fighting half fish women.

“My ship exploded.”

“I like my explanation better.”

“So do I,” Zuko said. “I was on the ship.”

Yikes. Piandao placed a hand on Zuko's shoulder. “Where are you kids off to next?”

“We still have a few weeks before we need to meet up with our allies,” Katara said. “There's plenty of other islands in the archipelago to see.”

“Or…” Aang drew out the word.

“Something on your mind Twinkle Toes?”

“I think it's time for me to start learning Firebending. I've put it off long enough.”

“I thought you said you never wanted to Firebend again,” Sokka said.

“Well I didn't,” Aang admitted. “But if Toph can learn to do something she hates so can I.”

Yeah but Toph can do anything. “Well we're in the right place. I'm sure we can find a Firebending Master somewhere around here.”

“Actually, I already know who I want to teach me. We don't have to find him. He's right here.”

Zuko looked startled. “Do you mean me?”

“Yep!”

“But I'm not a master. I'm not even good.”

I don't know. You're pretty good. “As someone who has fought you before I strongly disagree.”

Zuko shook his head. “I don't know.”

“If you're good enough to teach Katara Firebending moves you're good enough to teach me,” Aang insisted. “Don't you guys agree?”

Piandao raised a brow. “You taught a Waterbender Firebending moves? Intriguing.”

“I uh… got the idea from my uncle.”

“I think it's a great idea!” Toph's loud proclamation caused a nearby flock of birds to take to the air. “You're outvoted Sparkles.”

“It doesn't work that way Toph,” Katara admonished gently. “Zuko doesn't have to teach Aang if he doesn't want to.”

“It's not that. I'm just not sure that I would be a good teacher is all.”

“You're a fantastic teacher,” Toph insisted.

“I think your friend is right,” Piandao said. “You may not be a Master, but you have struggled and fought to get to where you are. I think you are uniquely suited to teach the Avatar. After all, it seems you too have decided to try and master all the elements. Your uncle will be proud.”

Zuko blushed again. “Okay. I'll show you what I know.” Zuko's complexion matched the setting sun, and for a moment they were all quiet as they watched the great orb sink lower and lower into the horizon. Piandao started to hum a tune Sokka was certain he had heard before but that he couldn't place. Maybe I will come back and finish my training one day. It could happen.

Chapter Text

Aang's eyes widened and his jaw dropped as he stared at the clear water, the shining white sand, and the tidal pools crowded with thriving marine life. “It's gorgeous! Nobody lives here?”

Zuko pointed to a tall mountain a short distance away. “The Fire Sages say that volcano will erupt within the next few years. No point in building a house that's just going to be destroyed as soon as you finish. After the eruption when the sages say it's safe people will come back. Until then, we have the whole island to ourselves.” Zuko started unpacking.

“Uhhhhh,” Sokka said. “What if it erupts while we're here,” Sokka asked. “It would be just our sort of luck.” What are the odds of that, Aang thought as he fed Appa an apple and pet his thick pelt. “I don't fancy being buried in lava.”

“There are signs leading up to an eruption. We would have plenty of time to evacuate.”

“Great,” Aang exclaimed. “So let's get started!”

Toph dug her toes into the sand and scrunched her nose. “I should probably practice my Sandbending. Everything's fuzzy again.”

“Are you okay,” Zuko asked. “Do you want to go somewhere else?” He's so concerned for her.

“I'm fine. I'm the inventor of Metalbending, if those dessert jerks can figure out how to bend sand then so can I. You two have fun blowing stuff up.” Toph turned her feet and hardened the sand beneath her. She bent down and picked up a handful of the loose stuff, letting flow through her fingers. She shook her hand to dispel a few spare grains. That looks interesting.

“Okay, well let's go Aang.”

Right, fine. “You got it Sifu!”

Zuko sighed. “Don't call me that.”

Sokka looked far into the distance where Aang and Zuko were… meditating. Well that looks incredibly boring. He looked at a spot a bit closer where Toph forcing the sand to obey her every command. Better it than me. Katara was reading one of the scrolls Master Pakku had given her when they left the North Pole.

“I'm bored.”

Katara didn't even look up from her scroll. “So go do something.” She started to draw a diagram in the sand. Isn't inventing stuff supposed to be my thing? This is so unfair.

“By myself?”

“Uh-huh.”

Sokka looked out at the clear clean water reflecting and refracting the light of the sun as the waves threw themselves against the baking sands. “Let's go swimming,” he suggested.

Katara looked up and grinned. “Okay.”

“Do you feel the heat?”

“It's hard to feel anything else. I think the sun is trying to cook me. Even the sand is blistering.”

“You have to control it. Let the heat fuel your inner fire. Direct it away from your skin and into your core. Breathe in and pull the heat to your center. Breathe out and release heat into the air. You must be the master, not the subject.”

Zuko opened his eyes and saw Aang squirming in discomfort. Well this isn't working. Zuko stood up and tapped Aang's shoulder to get his attention. Aang looked up as Zuko offered the younger boy a hand. Aang smiled as he took the hand and hopped to his feet. “Break time?”

We just started. “We're going to work on your stance. Your Earthbending training with Toph will have laid a good foundation for this. But on top of loose sand isn't the best place to start learning. We're going up there.” Zuko pointed to the volcano. Aang gaped at it. “Let's get going.”

“Ugh…” But Aang trudged after him without argument. It took almost hours to get to the top of the volcano and the sun was beginning to set when they arrived. “At least it's a little cooler.”

Zuko looked at the pink and purple sky. In a way it reminded him of his childhood. Azula had been like the sun was now, powerful and intense with the whole world seeming to revolve around her, and always surrounded by a splash of pink and a darker more somber color.

“Zuko?”

Zuko blinked and looked at Aang. “Huh?”

“What are you thinking about?”

“Just…” She was always more skilled than I could ever be. How am I supposed to teach the Avatar when I can't even achieve the same proficiency as my younger sibling? He shook his head. “Let me see your stance,” he insisted.

Aang took his stance. It was pretty good, requiring only a few minor corrections. Zuko walked him through each stance. Aang had a firm mastery of breathing Airbender and in almost no time he had mastered the stance. All that remained was to produce fire. The idea of which made Aang drop his arms and shoot Zuko a weary look. “I… I don't think I'm ready.”

“Sure you are. You know a lot more about Firebending than I did when I first bent.”

Aang frowned. “But you are a Firebender. I'm an Airbender. This doesn't come naturally to me like it does to you.” You were a Firebender in your past life. You already know this stuff.

“You can do this. I believe in you.”

Aang bounced on his heels. “But-”

“Stop that.” He looks like he's about to take to the air. “You need to stay rooted to the ground.”

Aang released a petulant puff of breath. “But-”

“And maintain breath control. You have to keep the rhythm constant so your inner fire doesn't become too weak or too powerful.”

“That's what I'm worried about!” Aang threw his hands in the air. “The last time I tried to Firebend I burned Katara! Fire is too dangerous to just- just- I'm not ready, okay?!”

Zuko looked around. “Nobody else is here.”

“You're here,” Aang said. I'm still getting used to the idea of people actually caring if I get hurt.

“I'm a Firebender Aang. I can defend myself.”

Aang started bouncing on his heels again. “I-”

“Stop that!”

Aang recoiled. “Sorry Sifu.”

Nice going jerk. Zuko took a deep breath. “No, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have yelled at you. If you want to wait before trying to produce real fire then that's fine. We can just work on the forms.”

Aang breathed a sigh of relief. “Thanks Sifu.”

Katara watched her brother have an animated discussion with Toph about something while Aang sat on a rock a short distance away meditating. A casual observer wouldn't see anything different about Aang, but Katara was no casual observer. He looks distressed somehow. Katara bit her lip. She turned around and looked at Zuko practicing his stitches. “So.”

Zuko looked up. “Hm, did you say something?”

“How's Firebending practice going?”

Zuko shrugged. “Fine.”

Katara didn't need Toph's skills to know that he was lying. He is an awful liar. “Really?”

Zuko scowled. “It's impossible to teach him anything about Firebending. He hates it.”

Katara frowned. “Toph hates swimming and you still managed to teach her how to do that.”

“She actually wanted to learn.”

That's not fair! Aang wants to learn. He wants to master all the elements and end the war. “I don't think you're giving Aang enough credit. He's a good student. You just have to work with him.”

“I'm trying,” Zuko insisted.

“I know you are. I'm sure it's frustrating when you try hard to help someone and they don't seem to be making any progress. But it's important to remember that the fault doesn't lie with you, or with Aang. You're both doing the best that you can,” she assured him.

Zuko paused, considering this. “I guess you're right. I feel like this is just one more thing that I'm failing at, but it isn't about me. It's pretty self-centered to think that it is. Aang has to come to Firebending in his own time, just like I did when I was a kid. Thanks Katara.”

Katara shrugged. “What can I say? I'm wise.”

Zuko grinned. “And so humble.”

“There's a difference between being arrogant and being self aware.”

“The difference being whether we're talking about you or your brother,” Zuko guessed.

He can be taught. “That's right.”

Zuko laughed. “Fair enough. I suppose this is a good opportunity for me to work on patience.”

“In the meantime we have this beautiful utopia all to ourselves. Looking around at all this nature, untouched by man, it's almost possible to forget about the war.” Almost. I hope you're safe dad. I hope you found everyone and are on your way here. Please, please be safe.

“Are you okay?”

Katara blinked. “I was thinking about my dad.”

Zuko nodded. “You love him a lot.”

Way to bring up a sensitive subject Katara. “I'm sorry, I didn't mean to make you-”

Zuko shook his head, cutting her off. “No, I just meant… It must be difficult for you. When someone you love is in danger and you can't do anything about it… It's so frustrating.”

Katara nodded. “I try not to think about it. He's been fighting for a long time. He knows what he's doing and I should just trust him, but I know that in war you can be as prepared as it's possible to be and still…” Don't cry. Don't cry.

Zuko stood up. “Do you… need a hug?”

She couldn't help it. He looked so awkward and unsure of himself, standing there with his arms at such odd angles. She burst out laughing.

He scowled. “Hey! I'm trying here.”

“I know.” She hugged him. “You did well.”

“I'm not as good as you are.”

She released him and smiled. “You don't have to be the most eloquent person ever. What helps is knowing that you care. It's not being alone.”

Zuko nodded. “Your dad is proud of you. He told me so at Chameleon bay. He thinks you're brave, hard-working, compassionate and exceptional. He loves you. He'll do whatever it takes to get back to you. You'll all be together.”

Katara started crying.

Zuko looked paniced. “I'm sorry! I didn't-”

You dummy. She hugged him again. “Happy tears,” she whispered. “These are happy tears.”

“Oh. I didn't know.”

“Yeah well you're kind of dumb.”

“Thanks.”

This isn't so hard. All it took was a couple of shouting matches and frosty silences and now we're friends. Aang is going to be so proud of the two of us. Katara giggled at the thought.

“Do I even want to know?”

“I doubt it.”

Aang closed his eyes. The sun was at the top of the sky, sending waves of heat crashing down on him. I think I can feel it, the magma just below the surface. Or maybe the sun has just fried my brain. “Zuko,” he asked tentatively.

“Hm.”

“How do the Fire Sages know this volcano will erupt in a few years?”

“They use their Firebending to sense the temperatures and volatility of the magma.”

“How do they know the difference between stable and unstable volcanoes? What's the metric for something like that?”

“They study the subject for decades.”

“Huh.” It must be difficult to become a Fire Sage. “Can the sages bend the lava?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“It's made of molten rock.”

“Huh.” If they could they could have made this island safe for habitation. Instead of just detecting the danger they could have eliminated it entirely. “Can Earthbenders bend lava?”

“I don't know.”

“How co-”

“Because I'm not an Earthbender! Are you even trying to control the heat anymore Aang?”

Aang opened his eyes and shot Zuko a guilty look. The older boy was glaring at him. “Sorry.”

“It's okay. You can take a break.”

“I don't need a break. I want to try again.”

“Are you sure? It's fine, really. If you feel overwhelmed by all of this we can stop.”

Aang shook his head. “I want to keep going.”

“All right then.” Zuko closed his eyes again.

Aang risked making one more comment. “I bet Toph could do it. Bend lava I mean.”

Zuko chuckled. “If anyone can, she can. Now hush. Focus on the heat of the sun. Feel it all around you. It's under your feet and in the air.”

Aang closed his eyes and took a deep breath.

Toph sat cross-legged on the sand. She ran her fingers through the fine grains over and over again as the sun cooked her pale flesh. She felt a brief reprieve from the heat. Someone was standing behind her, blocking the sun's rays from accessing her. She dug her hand into the sand and tried to sense who it was. “Hey Sokka.”

He sat down next to her. “You're getting better.”

“Not enough.” The pieces are too small! They aren't steady like stone! They're constantly moving around! It's too much! It's too hard!

“Is that why you look so miserable?”

“Go away.”

“Toph I'm only trying to talk to you.”

“Go. Away.” Toph closed her fist around a bunch of sand and felt it compress into stone.

“Okay Toph.” She heard him get to his feet and brush sand off his clothes. “I'm always here for you if you ever need to talk to me. Okay?”

“Bye.” She scooped up another handful of sand and focused. I know you're there. I can feel you.

Zuko was watching Katara twist and braid the fibers of the rope into a net with intense fascination. He tried to copy her movements with limited success. “Almost,” she encouraged.

“I feel like it would be easier to just swim out there with a spear and a bag,” he said.

She snickered. “Trust me, in the long run this will be easier.” Katara's fingers ket dancing.

Sokka cleared his throat to get their attention.

“Yes,” his sister asked pleasantly.

He looked at Zuko. “Can I talk to you?”

Zuko go up and went over to the other boy. “Is everything okay?” Zuko looked over at Aang meditating and Toph playing in the sand.

“It's Toph.”

Zuko took a closer look. She was turning a frightful shade of red, but she presented no other obvious signs of discomfort. “What happened?”

“She's obsessed with this sand thing. She feels like she has to master it right now. I think this is the first time she's really struggled with something like this and it's driving her nuts.”

“I'll talk to her.”

“I already tried that.”

Zuko frowned. “Well what do you want me to do if you don't think talking will be effective?”

“I was hoping you could distract her.”

“Distract her how?”

“Dunno. I figured you would handle that part.”

Zuko rolled his eyes. “Thanks Sokka.”

Somma clapped him on the shoulder. “No problem buddy. By the way, you net weaving sucks. I say this as a friend of course.”

Zuko made a rude gesture as he walked away, which sent Sokka into a fit of giggles. Zuko shook his head in amusement. When he got closer to Toph he stopped and stood still, waiting for her to acknowledge him.

“What do you want?”

“I need your help.”

“Oh?” She tried to sound uninterested, but at this point Zuko knew her better than that.

“I need you to help me settle an academic question. Of course, it will be somewhat dangerous. We'll have to climb inside an active volcano. So I'll completely understand if you'd rather not take the risk.” Toph was already on her feet and slugging him in the arm before he even finished speaking. “Ow,” he said without any real sincerity. “Why does love hurt?”

“Come on dummy. I can only hope that something truly life endangering happens!”

“And you want this… why?”

“To upset Katara.”

Zuko sighed. Yeah, that tracks. “You wouldn't intentionally put us in harm's way just to upset Katara would you? Would you? Toph?”

She didn't answer. Which I suppose is its own answer. Oh well, I have the greatest Earthbender in the world with me. We'll be fine.

Toph put her hand on the stone. She let all of the nonsense fall away. The many vibrations and sounds that her world composed of stilled and grew silent as she reached down, down, down into the ground. She wished the badgermoles were here. Of course they wouldn't like it though. They preferred cool dirt, enriched with silt and minerals. They wouldn't like the heavy oppressive heat. But she found herself enjoying it. It felt good. It felt natural, familiar. She almost gasped. “There's… There's so much of it down there. It's like an ocean Zuko, but an ocean I can feel. It's not a blank space full of nothing. It's warm and rock and real. I bet I could pull it up here.” She laughed. “But then of course we would both be roasted alive.”

Zuko was quiet for a moment. She was tempted to feel his heart to try to gauge what he was thinking, but she remembered her promise. In due time he spoke his mind. “Could you turn it into solid rock? Neutralize it somehow?”

Toph considered this. “I'm not sure.” I don't know what the consequences would be if I tried.

Zuko nodded. “I can feel the heat, but not the rock. Can you feel the rock, but not the heat?”

Toph laughed. Sometimes I forget how limited everybody else's perception is. “The heat is a part of the rock. They are one and the same.”

“Huh.” She felt him reach out to touch a piece of stone next the the section she was touching.

“Maybe one day I'll be able to feel the whole world,” she whispered. It's a fanciful idea I suppose, but wouldn't it be wonderful?

Zuko touched her shoulder. “There's no maybe about it. It might take a little time, or a lot of time, but there's nothing you can't do.”

Toph's breath caught in her throat. “You're just saying that,” she accused. But I oh so badly want for you to mean it. I want it to be true.

“Listen to my heart.”

“It makes you uncomfortable.”

“I need you to know, okay?”

She nodded, and she stretched out her perception to the way his body made the floor vibrate, to the rhythm of the blood in his veins.

“There's nothing you can't do.” He isn't lying.

Aang stared at his hands. He remembered the sound of his best friend in the whole world crying in pain. He remembered the smell of cooking meat. It was a foreign and unfamiliar thing to him, and it came from his dearest friend’s hands. Aang shivered. “You okay?”

Aang looked up. Zuko was standing there with a look of concern on his face. Aang had never been one to pay much attention to a person's appearance, but he found himself wondering how that burn had gotten there. Had it been an accident like the horrible day by the lake, only without any Waterbenders to heal the damage done? Had it been intentional? Who was responsible? Had Zuko lost control of his bending? Had someone else? “I'm okay.”

Zuko took a step forward like he was going to sit down next to Aang, but then he hesitated, as if he were unsure if his presence would be welcome. Aang hated that. He hated when people felt excluded. “The biggest illusion is that of separation.” The words of the guru filled his head. “ Even the four elements.” Aang shook his head and pressed the heel of his hand against his eyes, trying to press down the confusion and anxiety. “Are you sure about that?”

“I was never afraid of fire before,” Aang whispered. “I knew Firebenders. I was never afraid of their flames because I knew they were in control and wouldn't let the fire hurt me.”

“Well… Things are different now.”

“Are they? Or is that just an illusion?”

“An illusion?” Zuko gave Aang a funny look.

“I thought the Air Nomads were gone, but Guru Pathik told me that the separation between the different nations isn't real. Maybe there are other Airbenders out there. Maybe I'm not the last one. If that were true, then where are they?”

Zuko sat down. “Aang… If any Airbenders survived Sozin would have hunted them down and killed them. I can't imagine how painful that must be for you, but it's the truth. That's as good a reason as there can be to fear fire I think.”

Aang shook his head. “It's all wrong. There's supposed to be balance. The four elements, the four nations, it's all supposed to exist in harmony. But even if I end the war how can there ever be balance? The Air Nomads…”

“Well… You can have kids, when you get older.”

Aang gave Zuko a strange look. “Okay…”

“They'll be Airbenders.”

“There's more to being an Air Nomad than just being an Airbender. Is someone Fire Nation just because they're a Firebender? We had a culture that doesn't exist anymore. I'm only twelve years old, there's so much I hadn't learned yet, and now I never will! I can't teach what I don't know. Really, there are no more Air Nomads.”

“You're right,” Zuko whispered.

“I just can't make sense of it! How can something so destructive be a part of the natural balance?! I'm the Avatar! I'm supposed to embody harmony between the four elements and the four nations! But even the thought of making fire makes me sick now!”

Aang looked at Zuko, all but begging the older boy to make sense if it for him. But Zuko just hung his head in shame. Aang felt his heart sink to the floor. “I wasn't talking about you.”

Zuko laughed. It was a brittle ugly laugh, and it made Aang shiver even under the intense uncomfortable heat. “My father taught me that hate and rage fuel Firebending. All those times I fought against you I was thinking about how Avatar Roku betrayed my Great Grandfather Sozin and how you were the only thing keeping me from going home. Even when I fought with you under Ba Sing Se I was thinking about all the wrongs Azula ever did me. She's always been more powerful than me because she hates with a depth and intensity I could never accomplish. Maybe… Maybe fire is evil.”

That can't be right. There has to be some other explanation. “What about your uncle? What about all those moves we invented using each other's elements? There has to be more to fire than that! There has to be something that we're missing. It's like…” It's like fire has been corrupted. Everyone forgot what it's supposed to be like and just started using rage to fuel it.

“Whether you're right or not it's probably not a good idea for me to be your Firebending teacher anymore.” That's not the point I was trying to make at all. Zuko got up. “You won't need to know Firebending on the Day of Black Sun anyway. You should just focus on Air, Water and Earth. Fire would only be a distraction.”

“But Avatar Roku said-”

“Forget about Avatar Roku!” Uh oh. Here comes that famous temper again. “He was a Firebender. Firebenders are all evil, right?”

Aang scrambled to his feet. “That's not what I was trying to say!” Why can't he just listen?

“I know. I don't know why you weren't saying it though, because you should. Your people are all dead! Why aren't you angry? I'm angry. I'm angry all the time. I don't have a reason half so good as yours. Maybe it's the fire in me that keeps me angry. Maybe if I teach you how to control fire you'll become like me, and you'll be angry all the time as well. I can't do that to you.”

“Zuko-”

“Don't try to change my mind!”

“Okay.” Aang put up his hands in surrender.

Zuko took a deep breath. “My uncle said that Fire is the element of power. The people of the Fire Nation have the determination and will to achieve what we want. But it seems to me that a lot of the time the things people want they shouldn't have. More power. Wealth. To see one's enemies suffer. To- to- to…”

“What do you want Zuko?” I don't think it's any of those things. “Do you just want power?”

Zuko laughed his unsettling laugh once again. “I want something I can never have. I've always been that way. I pray for the impossible.”

“What's that?”

“Home,” he whispered. “A place where I am loved and valued for who I am instead of who I pretend to be. To walk between vendors at the big festivals and laugh at the kids clutching handfuls of sparklers screaming through mouthfuls of spicy jelly candy. I want to be home. I want to not be a fugitive that has to hide my identity from my own people. I want-”

I want to go home too. But my home doesn't exist anymore. “When the war is over-”

“I'll be dead.”

Aang recoiled. “What?!”

“Azula will kill me for betraying her.”

Has he thought that this whole time? How can someone walk around thinking they're heading towards their own execution and not give any sign of it? “I won't let her do that.”

Zuko gave Aang a shaky smile. “I appreciate that, but she won't ask for your permission.”

Aang gaped at Zuko as he left. I have never understood him… And now I really don't understand him. Things will get better when the war is over. They'll get better for all of us. They have to. It can't get a whole lot worse.

Toph sat cross-legged on the ground and listened to the earth. The magma far beneath them whispered secrets to her. She felt the corner of her mouth tug into a smile. “I love it when that happens,” Zuko said from where he sat across from her. “Better than sunrise.”

“What is?”

“You smiling.”

Toph's cheeks caught on fire. You are so going to get it for that one. “Shut up,” she said.

“My apologies Lady Beifong. I- Ow!”

Toph snickered. That's what you- What on Earth? “Uh Zuko?” It feels like…

“Are you okay, what's wrong?”

“Someone is walking up the volcano.”

“Not one of ours?”

“Don't laugh, but he's made of metal.”

Zuko got to his feet and offered her a hand. She got up as fast as possible, her feet still keeping track of the man's progress. “Where is he now?”

“Halfway up. He's moving fast. He's not running, but keeping a consistent pace.”

“Can you bend us a tunnel to the outside?”

“Who do you think you're talking to?” Toph slammed her foot down and created a passage between where they were inside the volcano and its sun-dappled exterior. “I thought this island was supposed to be empty.”

He held her hand as they went through the passage. “Maybe someone just wanted to get away from it all,” he suggested.

“Are we ever that lucky?”

“No,” he admitted.

As they came out the other side Toph felt the stranger turn to face them. She felt his movements as he prepared to… do something she didn't recognize. There were very few bending moves she couldn't recognize. “Zuko.”

“Get down!” He tackled her to the ground. She felt the earth where they had been standing explode . There was no other word for it.

Toph slammed a fist into the earth and created a burrow for them to shelter in. “Come on!” Once inside she felt another explosion, one that would have collapsed the hollow they hid in if she weren't bracing it with her Earthbending.

“Are the others still on the beach?”

“I can't feel them, so they must be either on the sand or in the water. Unless they're on Appa…”

“I'll lead him away. You warn the others and help pack up camp. I’ll meet you guys there as soon as I shake him.” He did not just suggest what I think he just suggested.

“I'm not leaving you!”

“Toph, do you trust me?”

“Zuko-!”

“Please. I have a plan, okay?”

Don't do this to me Zuko. “Who is that guy?”

“I'm not sure, but he's a combustion bender.”

“A what?” Another explosion shook the walls even with Toph's reinforcement.

“I’ll explain later! Just get to the others!”

Damnit Zuko!

Zuko ran through heavy laden trees surrounded by overripe bananamangoes that had fallen to the ground. Some of them were split open and emitting a sickly sweet odor. A lizardmonkey hissed at Zuko as he ran by, furious that his meal had been interrupted. Zuko paid no attention to it. All he focused on was putting one foot in front of the other, regulating his breathing and listening for the sounds of metal crushing undergrowth. What does he want?

Somehow Zuko figured it wasn't a good idea to turn around and ask him. A loud crunch gave Zuko only a slight forewarning. Zuko dove behind a tall papayaplum tree. The ground where he had stood was now scorched. Zuko took a deep breath and lobbed a ball of fire at his assailant. The man disrupted the blast with his metal arm. For a moment their eyes locked, and the man grinned a horrid grimace. “You're only making this harder on yourself,” he taunted.

“Who are you? What do you want?”

“It's nothing personal. I'm being paid to be here.”

“By who?”

The man smiled again. “Who do you think, Zuzu?” Azula! She's telling everyone she killed me in Ba Sing Se. Me turning up alive would be most inconvenient for her after that.

“When you finish the job she'll just kill you to keep her secret. She's ruthless.”

“Thanks for the tip.” Zuko had only a second to get out of the way of the next explosion.

He continued running. He vaulted over a downed tree without so much as a secondary thought. “Your youth and agility are some of your most valuable assets pupil. Larger, stronger, more experienced opponents may think you an easy opponent, but all of that bulk weighs a person down. It is exhausting to carry a great deal of weight for an extended period of time. If you are patient, you will be able to outrun and outmaneuver most of your foes.”

Zuko grabbed a tree branch and swung up into the branches. He saw the man approaching, his third eye standing out in brilliant definition, covered in a thin veneer of sweat. Zuko pushed the fire at him. The man once more brushed the flames aside. He aimed another blast at Zuko, but Zuko leapt down, leaving only leaves in the path of the explosion. Blackened branches fell to the ground. Zuko kept running.

Patience, patience. Why must it always come down to the thing I'm worst at? Zuko zigged and zagged, dodged and danced. He planned every movement at least three steps ahead. He had to, lest he be consumed in a fierce conflagration.

“Give up! What are you hoping to accomplish?!”

Don't respond.

“Your uncle is going to be executed! At first the princess thought to lay a trap for you, using him as bait. But if course she quickly realized you're far too selfish to ever risk your own life for another. It's a shame. They say the old man has gone mad. He cries out for his son each night.”

Azula always lies. Azula always lies. This isn't Azula. He works for her! Same difference.

“Even in his insanity he remembers how you abandoned him. He curses you each night for your betrayal. You're a real heartless bastard.”

Azula always lies. Azula always lies.

“Treachery is in your nature. You betrayed your father, your nation, your sister and your uncle.”

“Shut up!” Zuko turned around and sent a series of powerful flames at the assassin. The man batted most of them away, but Zuko's speed and force were hard to counteract. One attack caught the mercenary in the chest and sent him flying into a tree. Zuko took a moment to catch his breath. That was a mistake. The explosion came straight for him. Just like lightning. Oh this had better work. Zuko caught the explosion in his hands. For a moment he was stunned as he held the bundle of energy. He could feel it shaking, all but begging to become kinetic. It worked! I can't believe it worked! Then the force erupted.

Typical, he thought as the world went black.

Katara gasped as she saw Toph trip and go skidding across the sand. “Toph! Are you okay?”

“Some jerk with a special kind of Firebending attacked me and Zuko! Zuko led him off into the woods and sent me back to warn everyone!”

“Did he say who he was? What he wanted?”

“Who cares,” Toph shouted. “We have to go help Zuko! Come on!” She was already on her feet and brushing the sand off her bloody knees.

“You're hurt.”

Katara reached for her, but Toph smacked her hands away. “There's no time for that!”

“It'll only take a moment. You won't be much help to Zuko injured,” Katara argued.

“I’ll scout ahead,” Aang volunteered.

“Me too,” Sokka said. “I'll take Appa.”

Toph allowed Katara to heal her scraped knees while the boys took to the air. “Hurry up!”

She doesn't mean to be rude. She's just worried about Zuko. To be honest so am I. “Can you sense where they are,” Katara asked.

“Not until we get on solid ground. Let's go!”

Katara grabbed her water pouch and scrambled after the younger girl. Hang on Zuko. Why do you have to be so impulsive? Don't you know how much we care about you? A nagging voice that she tried to exile from her head argued that in all likelihood he didn't. Just focus on finding him. Everything else we can sort out later.

Zuko blinked away the heavy darkness and coughed up a bit of soot. A rock dug into his thigh and he hissed with pain. Another blink sent reality slamming into him. The assassin was dragging him along the ground. Zuko flinched as the rough earth battered his burnt body. His hands, arms, chest, neck and face all felt raw and painful. It wasn't as intense a pain as the burn his father had given him, but it was spread over a far wider area. Not to mention his lungs felt like they'd been ripped out and cooked well done before being sewn back into his body.

“You're awake.”

Zuko couldn't summon the breath to reply, much less conjure fire. The swords he hadn't been close enough to his enemy to use until now were slung over the mercenary's back, where they wouldn't do Zuko a whole lot of good. Zuko contemplated grabbing a rock to hit the assassin with, but he knew his hands were too burnt to lift anything heavy, much less throw it.

“You're trying to figure out how to escape.”

Zuko would have loved to curse the man, but his seared lungs had other ideas. He couldn't even turn his head to glare at the man. Even if he could he would have only been glaring at the back of his head, since the man was no doubt looking forward in the direction they were going.

“There's no point. The only reason you are alive right now is because you have use to me. If you become more trouble than you are worth I won't hesitate to destroy you. I mean that in the most literal sense. I once examined the remains of a man who was in my direct line of fire. I say remains, but there was little more than ash and a few bone fragments left of him.”

You and Azula must get along fabulously.

“So you might as well quit fighting and accept your fate.” Zuko laughed at that statement, even though coming from his charbroiled lungs it was really more of a pathetic wheeze. Never give up without a fight. “You're finally going to do what you set out to do three years ago. Well, you're going to help me do it anyway. Close enough.”

Even through the burning pain all of a sudden Zuko felt cold. He's going to use me to get Aang .

“There,” Toph whispered. His metal foot is crushing the plants and insects that make this place their home. He's dragging Zuko behind him, and Zuko's heart doesn't sound good.

“Is anyone else nearby?”

Toph shook her head. “Not unless you see anybody up in the air. Now come on.”

The two girls moved closer. Toph waited for her opportune moment, listening to the earth and all the little secrets it liked to whisper into her ears and feet. The man put his foot down, but the earth slid away from him. She felt Zuko hit the ground. Katara used water to shove the unbalanced man into a tree and then froze him there. Toph and Katara both ran to their friend's side. Toph felt sick as the earth told her that her friend was hurt and in a lot of pain.

“Hold still,” Katara murmured.

Toph kept her senses tuned to the man frozen to the tree. Drops of water were falling to the earth and creating tiny craters. He's melting the ice!

Chapter Text

Zuko felt cool hands touch his burning skin and soothing energy fill his agonizing wounds. He blinked and tried to see who was leaning over him. He saw thick brown braids swaying in front of a copper face twisted in distress and concentration. Katara. He tried to speak, but all that came out of his mouth was blood.

 

The ground moved under his feet. "Katara!" He recognized Toph's voice and the fear in it. He wanted to shout at her to run, flee, but he couldn't even whisper.

 

Katara stood up, planting her feet in front of Zuko in a protective gesture. Zuko heard a loud splash and then whimpered in pain as a body fell on top of him. There was heat in the air and an arm over his face. He realized Katara was shielding his body with hers. He wanted to shove her off and tell her to run, but he still couldn't do anything.

 

Zuko felt so useless. His friends were in danger, and instead of helping them he was just lying there, putting them in greater danger by needing to be protected.

 

"Hey!" Zuko recognized Aang's voice and he wanted to scream. Aang was the last person that needed to show up. That was who the assassin wanted.

 

"Avatar."

 

Zuko felt more heat. He felt the Earth shifting all around him. Katara stood up and Zuko heard water splash. Air shrieked. All four elements were in conflict with each other. Zuko tried to roll over and see what was happening, but it was a losing battle.

 

Zuko inhaled smoke from the raging fires and his abused lungs protested. He gasped for air, feeling red at the edges of his vision, red that wasn't from the flames, but from his own oxygen deprived mind. His eyes shut and he wondered in a distant sort of way if they would ever open again. I'm sorry uncle. I tried to fight.

 

 

Sokka's heart dropped into his stomach when Appa swept over the combat scene. Their disadvantage was clear. Toph, Katara and Aang were fighting a man with metal limbs and a firebending style Sokka had never seen before. They were also maintaining a protective barrier between that man and a body on the ground; they had to focus on defense to keep their opponent away from it. Sokka sent out a quick request to the spirits that the body was still living as he took in the sight of Zuko, burnt and battered.

 

Sokka jumped off Appa's back and ran at the man with his sword. The bender grinned as he turned to Sokka and took in a deep breath. The ground dissolved under him, but he still managed to release the strike of energy from his third eye. Sokka felt a body slam into him. Aang stood where he had been standing and attempted to deflect the strike with airbending.

 

Aang experienced partial success, but was also thrown several yards back by the energy. A metal hand grasped the edge of the hole Toph had made and the assailant threw himself out, blasting as he did so. Sokka and Katara threw themselves to the ground, but Toph thrust a fist into the air and brought the ground up to shield her. She stamped her foot down and widened her stance as her shield exploded.

 

"Enough!" Sokka had never heard that tone in Toph's voice before. She sounds so serious. "You're going to leave this island now."

 

The man laughed. It was a deep sound, and it made Sokka feel unwell. "Why would I do that?"

 

"You think you're so hot, blowing up the air? That's KID stuff. Do you know what's under your feet?" Her face was twisted in concentration. She looked more somber than Sokka had ever seen her.

 

"I've fought Earthbenders before," the man said. "You can sling all the dirt you wish at me child. You're still going to burn."

 

"So will you. Like you just proved, firebenders aren't fireproof." There was a rumbling sound in the distance. Not possible.

 

The assassin didn't seem to notice the distant rumble. "You going to firebend at me mud girl? You're no daughter of fire."

 

"Don't need to be." Toph slid her foot along the ground and the Earth cracked again, but this time the crack wasn't just an empty canyon for someone to fall in. From within the crack Sokka felt a wave of intense heat. Then lava began to spill out.

 

The man stepped back. His face contorted into an expression of pure horror. "How is this happening? You can't… What… How…"

 

"I'm the greatest Earthbender in the world! This whole planet is clay in my hands! Do you want to see what else I can do?"

 

If the speed with which he ran away was any indication he really, really didn't. Sokka's mouth fell open and he just stared at her. "I had no idea you could do that," he said in an almost reverent whisper.

 

"Neither did I, and I have no idea how to un do it. That volcano is gonna blow and if we're all still here when it does we're getting buried in lava."

 

"Let's go," Katara shouted. She helped a woozy Aang to his feet. He looked sunburned, but other than that unhurt.

 

Sokka ran to Zuko and started to throw the other boy over his shoulder. Sokks heard a pained moan pass through his bloody lips. "Sorry buddy." Sokka grabbed Toph's hand and they all made their way to Appa.

 

Appa was in the air in seconds. Sokka could hear Katara fretting over Zuko behind him and knew he should be intrigued by what she was doing, but he was captivated. With Toph's tiny fingers in his hand he watched the display of her raw ferocious power.

 

"Describe it to me," she whispered.

 

"It's…"

 

"Beautiful," Aang began for him. "It's like an upside down red waterfall. There's a fountain of fire, and it's covering the forest. There's smoke dancing in the air and burning rocks shoving paths through it."

 

"I didn't know you were a poet Aang," Sokka said. He was going for sarcasm, but somehow he didn't quite catch the right tone despite it being so familiar to him.

 

"I just destroyed an island." Toph sounded unsure how she felt about that.

 

"Zuko said the volcano was going to erupt soon anyway," Sokka reminded her. "You just made it happen at the most convenient time for us."

 

Saying Zuko's name made Sokka at last rip his eyes away from the trees being swept away by the burning river of lava and turn to look at his injured friend. Katara was leaned over him, both hands coated in water and pressed against Zuko's chest. There was painful-sounding wheezing coming from his throat. You do NOT get to die on me you jerk. I finally decided I like you.

 

"Katara," Aang asked in a plaintive tone.

 

"I… I'm trying. There's… I think there's smoke in his lungs. There's nothing I can do about that."

 

Aang shifted position so that he was sitting cross legged right in front of Zuko's feet. He raised a hand and took a deep calming breath. He lifted his other hand and began a complex movement with it. Smoke began to drift out of Zuko's mouth. Sokka stared, transfixed.

 

Aang twisted his other hand. Clean air went into Zuko's lungs and dirty smoke came out. Katara moved her hands up to Zuko's throat, almost like she was going to strangle him. Sokka knew she wouldn't though. Raw burned skin lost its angry red hue and began to resemble healthy flesh again.

 

Sokka crawled forward, keeping out of their way, but staring at Zuko with intensity. Sokka wasn't a bender himself, but he'd seen enough of it to understand how incredible the displays of bending he'd just witnessed were. If after all their efforts Zuko died anyway Sokka didn't think he could take that. Eyelids opened and two gold eyes, glazed over with pain, looked at him.

 

"Hey idiot," Sokka said. "You sure do know how to make people angry, huh?"

 

Zuko groaned. "I hate you," he whispered.

 

Sokka heard Toph sniffle behind him. He put a comforting arm around her. The fact that she didn't shove him away proved more than anything how distressed she had been. "Don't ever scare me like that again Zuko!" The fact that she wasn't using a nickname was a second, unneeded, indication.

 

"Sorry…" His eyes drifted shut. "Aang okay?"

 

"I'm fine," Aang said, dropping his hands into his lap. "I'm not even hurt." Well you look like a cherryberry, but other than that, yeah.

 

"Katara?"

 

"We're all fine Zuko," Katara said, cutting off what was turning into a roll call. "Just rest." Either from inescapable exhaustion or acknowledgement that Katara's will was not to be defied Zuko went silent.

 

Toph squeezed Sokka's arm and he hugged her tighter. "He'll be okay," Sokka whispered. "You saved him. You saved us all." Sokka looked back at the island one more time. The beach was submerged in a sea of liquid rock, and the ocean was kissing fire.

Chapter Text

Aang was tired, but he still didn't want to sleep. He made frequent hopefully subtle glances in Zuko's direction. Zuko was no longer in danger of dropping dead right in front of them, but he didn't look in peak condition either. He kept rubbing his chest when he thought no one was paying attention.

 

Aang had cleared the smoke out of Zuko's lungs, but he hadn't been able to fix the damage the smoke had already done. Aang looked at their campfire and frowned. He wished there was something he could do for Zuko, even if it was just giving him a few kind words. Zuko didn't appear to be in the mood for condolences however.

 

"So this is just a regular island, right," Sokka asked. "It's not secretly another volcano? We're not going to drown in lava while we're sleeping?" Sokka chuckled at himself.

 

Zuko answered in a quiet rasping voice that made Aang flinch. Every word sounded painful. "Technically the whole Fire Nation is a chain of volcanoes. Most of them, including this one, are dormant, but yes, it is a volcano."

 

"You ever think that living in the shadow of death might have messed up your brains a bit," Sokka joked.

 

Aang closed his eyes. He knew Sokka was kidding, but the words hurt him. Desperate to change the subject, Aang spoke up. "So why doesn't anyone live on this island?"

 

"It's considered to be cursed."

 

"Oh that's just greaaaaat," Sokka said. Aang heard the sound of him flopping on his back. "No need to worry about lava! Now it's just a curse."

 

"It's not-" Zuko coughed. "It's not actually cursed. This is where Avatar Roku lived before he died."

 

Aang's head shot up. "It is?!"

 

Zuko nodded. Aang looked towards the mountain in the center of the island, covered in trees. He looked up and down the empty beach. There was no sign that there had ever been a settlement of any kind on the island.

 

Zuko seemed to know what he was thinking. "There was an eruption. That's how Avatar Roku died. In school they taught us that the volcano spirit killed Roku to punish him for turning on the Fire Nation."

 

Sokka snorted. "You must not have gotten to that lesson yet Aang."

 

"Is the Volcano Spirit a big deal in the Fire Nation," Katara asked.

 

"As-" Zuko coughed again. Katara stood up and got him a cup of water. "Oh thank you. You didn't have-"

 

"As your healer I very much do. So you better drink the whole thing," Katara ordered.

 

Aang looked over at Toph. It was strange for her to be so quiet. She was running her fingers through the sand. "You okay Toph?"

 

She shrugged. "Just find all the spirits talk a bit boring is all. I'm not exactly religious."

 

Zuko finished his water. "The volcano and sun spirits are worshipped in the Fire Nation like the ocean and moon spirits are in the Water Tribes. They're the source of our bending."

 

"I guess I can see how the sun could power firebending, but volcanoes," Sokka asked.

 

Zuko shrugged. "I haven't gone to temple in a long time. Even back when my moth- back when we went regularly, I wasn't paying the strictest attention. I was a little kid and I tended to get bored."

 

"What are the main Air Nomad spirits Aang," Katara asked.

 

Aang looked up at the sky. "Jiyu, the spirit of the sky," he told her. Aang felt a smile slip onto his lips. Despite everything that had happened he was uplifted by memories of he and Monk Gyatso doing their morning meditations to Jiyu.

 

"Just the one," Sokka asked. "Ha. Water Tribe beats Air Nomads," he said.

 

Katara flicked some water at him. "Don't be mean Sokka."

 

"I'm just joking," he complained as he sat up and tried to beat the water droplets off his clothes.

 

"The Spirits are nothing to joke about," Zuko said with a shudder. "I saw what the Ocean spirit did at the North Pole." Zuko stared off into the distance, looking almost haunted.

 

"Well he was just defending us against all the Fire Nation soldiers attacking us! None of that would have needed to happen if Zhao hadn't killed the Moon spirit and-"

 

Aang looked on in sympathy as his friend broke off and looked away, trying to hide the distress on his face. Aang knew Sokka still grieved for Yue. Sokka reached for a stick and started fiddling with it, twisting it in his hands. Aang considered warning him he would get splinters, but figured he knew.

 

"He paid the price," Zuko whispered.

 

Aang's eyes widened again. He looked at Zuko. "Zhao? What happened to him?"

 

Zuko looked surprised. "You don't know?"

 

Aang shook his head. A lot of what had happened when he communed with the ocean spirit was vague in his memories. He remembered the spirit's rage and grief, but little else until he woke up as himself again. "No. Is he…"

 

"The ocean spirit dragged him under the water. I assume he drowned."

 

No one knew what to say to that. The silence stretched on and on. The sound of wood crackling in their campfire sounded like firecrackers in the deep quiet. Aang couldn't even look at his friends.

 

"Not to ask a stupid question, but who is this Zhao person you're all moping over?"

 

Sokka chuckled. "Just a huge jerk that used to follow us around trying to capture Aang."

 

Aang glanced at Zuko and saw him flinch at the comment. C'mon Sokka! Try for a bit more sensitivity. Aang cleared his throat. "He trapped me in this fort once. Zuko rescued me," Aang said in an attempt to make his friend feel better.

 

"I'm going to sleep," Zuko said. He stood up and walked over to his bedroll.

 

Katara stood up as if to follow him, hesitated, and then sat down. Aang stared into their campfire. He pulled his knees up to his chest and sighed. Aang looked up at the sky. "I wish I could talk to them," he said without even realizing he was speaking out loud.

 

"Talk to who," Katara asked.

 

"The spirits of the Fire Nation. Maybe they could help me make sense of…" How fire can be anything but evil. Why a country full of normal people waged such a brutal and senseless war. What I can do to reconcile my peaceful philosophy with the violence of firebending. "Everything."

 

"You're so weird sometimes twinkle toes. I'm going to bed." Toph stood up and walked a little bit away. She bent a tent for herself and disappeared inside.

 

Aang hugged himself tighter and stared into the fire. "Are you alright Aang? Do you want to talk about anything," Katara asked.

 

Aang shook his head. "No. You should get some sleep Katara. I'm going to stay up for a little bit."

 

"I could stay up with you."

 

"That's okay. I want to be alone."

 

"What am I, invisible," Sokka complained.

 

Katara rolled her eyes. "C'mon Sokka. Let's give Aang some space." She dragged her brother away, leaving Aang alone with the fire.

 

Aang stared into the flames. He felt the heat on his face, pushing away the chill of the night air. The smoke had a slight sea smell from where the fish Katara had roasted had leaked juice and fat into the fire. Even though Aang didn't eat meat, after sharing so many meals with his friends he associated that smell with food.

 

Aang released his knees and crawled closer to the fire. He folded his legs in a meditation pose and stared deeper into the pit. He looked at the crisping wood. He felt on the edge of some understanding, but he didn't know what it was. Aang sighed and closed his eyes.

 

When Aang opened his eyes he didn't see the fire. He also wasn't on an island anymore. Standing in front of him in the middle of a forest clearing was Avatar Roku. Roku gave Aang a slight bow. "Hello Avatar Aang."

 

Aang scrambled to his feet and returned the bow. "Avatar Roku! What's going on?"

 

"I'm here to help you with your quest."

 

"My quest?"

 

"To find the sun and volcano spirits. We should get started."

 

Aang watched Roku walk away, but he didn't follow. He looked around at the lush trees of the forest. Aang felt uncertain. "Wait."

 

Roku turned around. "What's wrong Aang?"

 

"The sun and volcano spirits, can they help me understand…" Once again Aang had trouble putting his doubts and fears into words. "I know fire isn't evil. I know the four elements are meant to be in balance."

 

"That's correct Aang," Roku said.

 

"But I just watched a volcano destroy the island we were on. That firebender assassin almost killed Zuko. I know there's something I'm missing, but to me fire feels like the element of death. Can the spirits show me why I'm wrong?"

 

Roku approached Aang. He wore a benevolent paternal smile. "Why are you so desperate to prove yourself wrong Aang?"

 

"Because there has to be more to fire than death and destruction!" Aang tried to tamp down his frustration, but it was hard. Roku himself was Fire Nation; Aang would have thought he, better than anyone, could assure him of the element's merits. "There has to be something that I don't understand."

 

"Aang, I spent a lifetime mastering the elements and their philosophies. Even after decades of study there are still things about each element that I don't understand. To acquire true wisdom you must first acknowledge the limits of your own capacity to understand. We can never see the totality of the world. We are confined to glimpses of finite pieces."

 

Aang scratched his head. "Oookay… I think I…" Well I can't say I understand because Roku just said I need to acknowledge that I don't understand. "I can't know everything; I can accept that. Will the spirits be able to help me understand some things though?"

 

"No one can understand for you, young Avatar. True enlightenment comes from within." Roku placed a hand on Aang's shoulder. "I'm not trying to discourage you."

 

"I know," Aang said. "I appreciate you trying to help me, Roku. I really do." Aang straightened his shoulders. "I want to meet the spirits. Whether I like what they have to say or not I want to hear their wisdom."

 

"I'm proud of you Aang," Roku said. "Are you ready to begin our journey into the spirit realm?"

 

"I…" One other thing troubled Aang. He looked down at the backs of his hands. He smiled at the blue arrows. In the spirit world they didn't need to be concealed.

 

"You can tell me anything Aang."

 

"I'm not the only one that needs to understand," Aang explained. "My friends… I think they need help too. Ever since the war started the world has been out of balance. People have lost their connections to the spirits."

 

Roku nodded, wearing a grim expression. "You are not wrong."

 

"Can my friends come with me into the spirit world," Aang asked. "If they want?"

 

"It takes a powerful spirit to bring people into the spirit world, even as the solstice nears," Roku said. He smiled, a twinkle sparkling in his eyes. "Luckily you have such a friend."

Chapter Text

Zuko frowned. He felt something wet on his face and wondered if it was raining. Something rough like sandpaper but moist like a sponge was sliding against his face. He opened his eyes and gasped as he stared at the face of a giant black and white bear.

 

"Hey Zuko!" Zuko's eyes traveled up to the neck of the bear, where Aang was of course sitting. The bear went to lick Zuko again and he rolled out of the way. "This is Hei Bai!"

 

Zuko got to his knees and blinked at the large creature. "Uhh… Hi."

 

Zuko heard grumbling and saw Sokka emerge from his sleeping bag with mussed hair and a furious expression. "Some of us are trying to sleep!" Sokka blinked at Hei Bai and started screaming. "Spirit monster! Spirit monster!"

 

Katara was out of her sleeping bag and Toph out of her earth tent in seconds. Katara had a water whip floating under her hands ready to go and Toph has a boulder floating in front of her. "Wow, wow!" Aang waved his hands. "It's okay everyone! Hei Bai is our friend!"

 

"That's the monster that dragged me into the spirit world!" Sokka stuck out an accusing finger towards the creature.

 

"Hei Bai isn't a monster. He's the spirit of the forest. He's here to help us."

 

Zuko got to his feet with gradual careful movements and backed away. He moved towards Toph as slow as he could since she was closer than Katara. "Put the rock down," he whispered. It won't do any good against a spirit, but attacking it might make it angry.

 

Toph looked like she wanted to argue, but she complied. She dropped the rock with a bit too much volume for Zuko's taste, but the spirit didn't attack, so he counted it a win. "Help us with what," Toph demanded. She put her hands on her hips.

 

Don't sass the spirit Toph! Zuko cast a nervous look at Hei Bai, but he just lowered his head to sniff something on the ground. Zuko looked at Appa and started calculating how quick he could get everyone on Appa's back and in the air. Aang was on the spirit, so recovering him would be tricky.

 

"Roku said he would help me find the spirits of the sun and volcano! I can ask them about firebending! They're the source of your bending, right Zuko? If anyone can answer my questions they can!" Aang bounced on the spirit's back, seeming overcome with glee.

 

Zuko just kept staring at the spirit and waiting for it to attack. The ocean spirit didn't have any mercy on my father's soldiers. Why would the forest spirit have any on his son? Zuko wanted to run away, but he couldn't leave his friends behind.

 

"And Hei Bai is here because…" Katara prompted.

 

"He can help us all cross over into the spirit world!" Aang threw up his hands in excitement. "Hop on everybody!"

 

"There's no way I'm letting that monster kidnap me into the spirit world again." Sokka crossed his arms and scowled. "If you want to chase down some evil fire spirits that's-"

 

"Hey!" As scared as he was Zuko couldn't let that comment slide. "The volcano and sun spirits aren't evil! They're the protectors of my people!"

 

"Well they're doing a great job of protecting the Fire Lord from the consequences of-!"

 

"Guys! Guys!" Aang used airbending to flip off Hei Bai's back and land on his toes as light as a feather. He held out his hands in a placating gesture. "This is why we need to meet the spirits of the Fire Nation!"

 

"Is it safe," Katara asked. "You're the Avatar Aang; you're the bridge between our world and the spirit world. The rest of us are just normal people. Will the spirits be angry with us for intruding on their territory?"

 

"No, no, it'll be fine," Aang assured her. I'm sure you believe that, but that doesn't make it true. Zuko took another look at Hei Bai and tried to swallow down his fear. "Trust me guys."

 

"I trust you Aang," Sokka said. "That spirit I trust a bit less."

 

"Oh don't be such a pigchicken," Toph mocked. "You've got the greatest Earthbender in the world with you. If those spirits step out of line I'll just pound them into the dirt."

 

"Actually Toph… There's no bending in the spirit world," Aang said.

 

"Yeah I'm out," Toph responded.

 

Aang looked down at the ground. "Please guys. I don't know if I can do this on my own."

 

"Why do you need to do it at all," Zuko asked. "How will meeting these spirits help you defeat the Fire Lord?"

 

"Because…" Aang rubbed his temples. "It's not enough. I'm the Avatar. I have to restore balance between the nations. Defeating one dictator won't do that."

 

"But meeting these spirits will," Katara asked.

 

"Maybe. I don't know. All I know is that the four elements are supposed to exist together in harmony. How can that ever happen if Earth and Water fear Fire? There needs to be understanding between the four nations, and it needs to begin with us."

 

Zuko looked at the ground. He stared at his hands. Maybe they should fear us. What if the answers we find aren't the ones you want Aang? A tiny hand slipped into Zuko's, startling him. He glanced at Toph.

 

"Okay twinkle toes, we'll go with you," Toph said.

 

"Thanks Toph!" Aang ran up to her and hugged her. She hugged him back and then punched him in the arm. He just kept grinning while he rubbed his arm. "Sokka? Katara?"

 

Katara smiled at Aang. "I'm in."

 

Sokka sighed. "I guess someone has to look after you idiots in there. Most of you are useless without your bending. Well Zuko's not. We should bring our swords."

 

Zuko scoffed. "Swords won't be any good against a spirit. I'm leaving mine behind."

 

"So you're coming," Aang asked Zuko.

 

"Fine. Sure. I guess," Zuko said.

 

"That's the spirit!" Aang then laughed at his own pun. "All aboard!" Aang airbended himself onto Hei Bai's back.

 

Katara and Sokka climbed onto the spirit as though it were just some normal animal. Zuko stepped in front of the creature and gave it a respectful bow. It licked Zuko's face again, eliciting laughter from his friends. Zuko decided to interpret that as permission to climb on.

 

Zuko boosted Toph and Sokka grabbed her hand, pulling her onto the beast. Sokka then offered Zuko his hand as well. Zuko took it and let the other boy help him on. "You said you've been to the spirit world before," Zuko reminded him.

 

"Uh huh."

 

"What… What's it like?"

 

Hei Bai opened his mouth and roared, releasing a wave of blue energy. Zuko tightened his grip on Sokka's hand, which he'd forgotten to let go of. Sokka didn't complain though. Hei Bai ran forward. Zuko squeezed his eyes shut.

 

Hei Bai stopped running after a second and Zuko opened his eyes. He gasped as he took in his surroundings. He found himself blurting out his initial reaction. "I can see!" Next to him Toph said the exact same thing at the exact same time.

 

Zuko jumped down off the bear and turned in a circle, taking in the vivid greens and deep blues that had been so faded to him for so long. He was astounded at the depth of everything, the dimensions and distances he no longer has to guess. He couldn't hold back laughter. "There's so much color!"

 

Zuko's gaze landed on his friends and he stopped smiling. At first he marveled at seeing what they really looked like. Katara's and Sokka's eyes looked so deep, like wells of emotion. Aang's tattoos seemed so bright and lively. Zuko realized none of them were wearing their Fire Nation clothes anymore.

 

Toph had run off laughing, shouting about how she could feel everything. The other three weren't laughing. Aang looked confused. Sokka looked mad. Katara looked so sad.

 

"What do you mean you can see," Sokka demanded. "Can't you always see?"

 

"Zuko…" Aang said. "Your face…"

 

Zuko reached up a hand to his face and felt… nothing. His skin felt smooth and unblemished. He lifted his other hand and felt the same thing. He turned away, feeling awkward and strange.

 

"Guys I can sense those birds!" Toph was pointing at the sky, giggling. She wasn't looking up. Her eyes were still clouded. Somehow though she knew what was up there and could point right at it.

 

Toph tilted her head to the side. "What's wrong?"

 

Zuko couldn't stop looking at how green her clothes were. There were vines crawling up trees with flowers of freshest pink. Everything was so beautiful. It made him want to cry.

 

A hand settled on his shoulder. Zuko turned to face Katara. "Zuko… Can you see out of your burned eye," she whispered.

 

Zuko opened his mouth to answer, to lie, to assure. He stopped. He looked down. "No. And after… Colors became so much less brighter. I thought maybe as it healed they would come back, but they didn't."

 

Katara hugged him. "I'm sorry."

 

He wanted to push her away, but he hugged her back. It felt nice. "It's okay. I'm used to it. It's just that everything here is so… beautiful."

 

"Yeah," Aang piped up. "It really is."

 

Zuko stepped back from Katara's embrace and she let go without resistance. Toph approached them, her bare feet sliding against the grass. "What does it look like Toph," Zuko asked her.

 

"It looks alive. You all look so alive. The trees are growing and I can feel them. The wind is blowing and it brings voices here from all around the world. I can FEEL it. It's SO beautiful."

 

Katara looked at Toph with so much love and happiness it almost took Zuko's breath away. Zuko still wasn't used to people delighting in someone else's joy. Toph's experience isn't benefiting Katara in any way, but Katara is still so happy Toph gets to have it. That's what love really is, isn't it? That's what Uncle wanted me to be able to experience.

 

Aang looked up at the sky and then closed his eyes before taking in a deep breath. Zuko looked up as well, but he didn't close his eyes. He just soaked in the blue. He hadn't realized how much he missed the color in its full intensity until that moment.

 

"Welcome back Avatar Aang."

 

They all whirled around to face the new voice, all except for Toph, who just smiled. Roku was standing in the clearing. He bowed to them, and Aang and Zuko returned the bow. Katara and Sokka followed their example a second later, but Toph just kept still and smiling.

 

"Avatar Roku, we're ready to find the sun and volcano spirits. We're eager for their wisdom," Aang said. "Oh!" Aang turned to Hei Bai and bowed to him. "Thank you for your help my friend." Hei Bai nuzzled Aang's cheek with his nose and then turned to disappear into the trees.

 

Zuko looked at Roku and then averted his gaze. Zuko wondered if Roku had been monitoring Zuko's progress with the task he had given him. "You seem troubled Prince Zuko," Roku said. Zuko was forced to drag up his eyes to avoid disrespecting him. Roku looked at him with an expression of paternal benevolence.

 

"Apologies, Avatar Roku." Zuko bowed again.

 

"You have changed since we last spoke."

 

Zuko couldn't deny it. "I have… seen things, learned things, about myself and my country."

 

"But to see is not always to understand," Roku suggested.

 

"Yes," Zuko admitted. "I don't understand."

 

"That statement alone shows how much you have learned since your last lifetime where we knew each other," Roku said.

 

Zuko tilted his head, baffled. "What do you mean?"

Chapter Text

Toph felt like hugging the whole world. She felt like she was hugging the whole world. She felt warm and secure and good. She was used to feeling connected to the Earth, and it felt amazing. What she was feeling in the spirit world was so much more and so beyond amazing.

 

Songs not yet written were being sung deep in the forest and she could hear the voices in her veins. She had to fight herself to pay attention to what Roku was saying. "You and I were friends in one of your earlier lives Prince Zuko, dear friends. We grew up together."

 

"I don't remember," Zuko said. "I'm sorry."

 

What are you apologizing for Sparky? Who remembers their earlier lives? Who would even want to? There's plenty of living to be done in the present.

 

"There's no need for apologies. The rest of you don't remember our shared history either." That perked Toph's ears.

 

"The rest of us? We all knew each other in another life," Katara asked.

 

"Not exactly. Toph, in a previous life you were my Earthbending teacher, a man named Sud."

 

"Then that's Sifu Toph to you," Toph shot back to avoid the emotional implications of what she was being told. "Were you any better of a student then than you are now," she asked.

 

Roku laughed. "Perhaps Sifu, if only because fire and earth compliment each other so well. The spirits in the swamp led Aang to you because of our shared history. You taught me once, and they knew you could do it again."

 

"Was I your waterbending teacher," Katara asked.

 

Toph felt sadness in Roku, but it was deep within him. It felt like someone else's sadness that Roku was just carrying. "In my own time I never knew you, but I did when I was Avatar Kuruk."

 

"Who's Avatar Kuruk," Katara asked.

 

"He was the Avatar before Kyoshi, I think," Aang said. "I'm not sure how I know that."

 

"As the Avatar," Roku began. "You are more connected to your past lives than other people. The reincarnation cycle is not the same for you as it is for others."

 

"What about me," Sokka asked. "When did you know me? Was I someone cool? Was I a king?"

 

Roku chuckled. "You are a new friend Sokka, but those are always good to meet."

 

"Oh." Sokka sounded somewhat disappointed.

 

"Why are you telling us these things," Toph asked. "I thought you were going to help Aang find the Fire Nation spirits? How does knowing about our past lives help us?"

 

"What is happening has happened before," Roku explained. "As the sun rises so does it set. One may see, but that doesn't mean they understand. How many walk upon the Earth Sifu, and never know its name?"

 

Toph stilled, feeling thoughtful. "I know its name," she said. "She sings to me in my bones." Toph sat down and crossed her legs. "Her name is Gonglu, the spirit of the mountain," she said after listening for a few seconds.

 

For a long moment there was silence. "Wow Toph," Aang said. "I didn't realize how connected you are to the spirits."

 

"I'm not. I-" I've always known the Earth. Ever since the badger moles taught me earthbending I've been able to feel her. I just didn't know it was a spirit I was feeling.

 

"Just as the earth is strong, so are you, so that you can bend it. She does not change, though the seasons may. Autumn turns to winter, turns to spring, turns to summer, but the mountain does not shift."

 

Toph nodded. "You're right."

 

Toph looked deep within herself. She pushed aside what was on the surface. She brushed away dirt, grass and other moveable things. She reached the bedrock. She found what was constant. She opened her eyes.

 

She was a general in the Earth King's army. She fought against the Dragon of the West. She commanded her men to never retreat, to never give up, to never surrender. She was killed by an arrow to the throat, but fought to her last breath.

 

She was an architect in Omashu. She designed and brought to life beautiful creations of stone. She reinforced the walls against any possible attack from the Fire Nation. She accidentally made tea out of a White Jade flower. She refused to acknowledge her own sickness until it took her.

 

She was requested to teach Avatar Roku Earthbending. She laughed at the overconfident youth and resolved to humble him. She learned some humility herself. Age took her before she could learn of her dear friend's death.

 

She was a peasant who moved soil to urge her crops to grow. She felt their life under her skin and delighted in it. She taught her craft to her children. It lived on and on even after she forgot it in later lives. She knew she would remember again.

 

She exhaled and released the memories from the front of her mind. "You cheated Roku. You tunneled through the center of the mountain to reach the top before me." She laughed. "I taught you well."

 

Roku bowed. "Thank you Sifu."

 

"Toph," Zuko whispered. "Did you just… Were you just remembering your past lives?"

 

"They're a part of me. I didn't notice them before, but they were always there, waiting for me." Toph laid down to feel the softness of the grass under her entire body. "In the beginning… We all knew the spirits."

 

"Yes," Roku said. "Once humans and the spirits spoke with one another, lived with one another. That was long ago. Now even their names have begun to be forgotten."

 

"And the spirits we're looking for," Katara asked. "What are their names?"

 

Toph put her hand on the grass and took a deep breath. "Tui and La were some of the first spirits to cross over into our world. They gave the people who worshipped them the gift of waterbending. They taught the Water Tribes the importance of balance, harmony."

 

Toph dug her fingers into the Earth. "Next came Gonglu. She lay down and created mountains and valleys for people to live on. Her pet badgermoles taught Oma and Shu how to earthbend. When Oma and Shu wanted to run away together she told them that they had to be steady and strong to save their peoples."

 

Toph listened closer as all the living things in the dirt whispered in her ear. "There were two twins. Their names were Shi and Seimei. They did not teach their people to adapt like the Water Tribes or to stand firm like the Earth Kingdom. They…" Toph sat up.

 

"They what," Aang asked, sounding almost frantic. "What did they teach?!"

 

Toph shook her head. "I don't understand."

 

Aang groaned in frustration. He threw himself onto the ground. "So close," he moaned.

 

Zuko reached out and took her hand, getting dirt all over his and not seeming to care. "That was amazing Toph. You were connecting with the spirits. A Fire Sage could study for decades and still not be able to do that."

 

I never cared much about the spirits. I didn't think they had anything to do with me. But they've been with me all along. She threw her arms around his neck and hugged him. "It's a good thing my eyes still don't work here. Otherwise I never would have listened to those songs."

 

Aang sat up. "What songs?"

 

"Can you really not hear it Aang? Everything here is singing. Even the sunlight is singing! I just wish I could understand what she was saying."

 

"You did well Sifu Toph," Roku said. "The song of fire was not written for your ears."

 

Toph nodded. "I guess not." She squeezed Zuko's hand again. "Zuko, I bet you could understand it. You're a firebender."

 

Zuko shifted in discomfort. "I don't know. I don't hear anything Toph. I don't have the connection that you do."

 

"Listen," she insisted. "They're singing to each other. They're… passing the song back and forth. There's… light, but also darkness. There's… smoke and there's fire." She pressed his hand between both of hers.

 

Zuko took a deep breath. She held on tight to him, encouraging him. I know that you're in pain. I don't know how to help you, but maybe THIS can help you. Zuko, listen. Remember.

 

A breeze whispered something in Toph's ear and she repeated it. "Remember who you are."

 

She could feel his heart slowing down. She could feel him relaxing, letting go. She matched her breathing with his. For a while everyone was still and quiet. They waited.

 

Something went wrong. Zuko snatched his hand away and jumped to his feet. His heart was racing. He was terrified. "No."

 

"Zuko," Aang said. "What's wrong?"

 

"That can't be. I can't be…" He was backing away from them. He was afraid.

 

Toph got to her feet. "Zuko, wait. You can't be afraid of the past. You're safe. We're here."

 

"It's not possible. I'm not…"

 

"What's impossible," Katara asked. "Zuko?"

 

Zuko turned on Roku. "You knew about this all along?! Why did you stop me from drowning?! Why didn't you just leave me?!"

 

Katara gasped in distress. Toph wanted to reach out for him. Distress and pain was rolling off him like heat waves from a fire. Aang approached them. "Zuko-"

 

"Stay away from me! All of you stay away!"

 

"Zuko, just talk to us," Katara pleaded.

 

"We can't help you if you don't tell us what's wrong," Sokka said.

 

"You can't help me at all, and you shouldn't want to! All this pain and suffering…"

 

"You have to let go," Roku said. "Prince Zuko-"

 

"Don't call me that!" Zuko turned on his heel and ran away.

 

"Zuko!" Aang started to run after him and they all followed. Toph noticed that Roku stayed behind, but she didn't care. She was much more worried about Zuko.

 

They ran for a bit, but it soon became clear they had lost him. "I don't understand," Katara said. "What happened?"

 

Toph opened her mouth to respond and then frowned. "Hey… Where's Sokka?"

 

Aang groaned. "This is just perfect! No spirits! No Zuko! Now no Sokka! I'm sorry. This is the worst idea I ever had."

 

"That's not true Aang. You've had worse ideas," Toph consoled him.

 

"Gee, thanks," Aang said.

 

"We have to find them," Katara said. "Who knows what could happen to them in the spirit world?"

 

Toph tilted her head to listen to the giggling trees. "Actually… I think they'll be fine."

 

"What," Katara demanded. "How can you say that? They're on their own. Zuko is freaking out. Sokka is terrified of spirits!"

 

Toph heard the wind laugh. "Nope. They'll be fine. They just need some time. I'm going to go look around. I'll see you later."

 

Toph laughed at her own joke and turned to run off into the forest. "Toph, wait!" Katara ran after her, but Toph had the advantage. She rolled under bushes and swung from low hanging branches. She felt so alive.

 

A great booming laugh stopped her. She did not have to turn around to see the long snake resting on its coils. "Look at you little one. You are a sight for bright eyes."

 

Toph snickered. "And you are…" She listened to the chuckling wind. "Shen, the spirit of the desert. Are you the one responsible for all that sand?"

 

Shen laughed. "My little friends the rivers and the streams stole the sand from their big brother, the ocean, and brought it to me."

 

"You must be enemies," Toph guessed. "Since he's so wet and you're so dry."

 

"Not at all," Shen assured her as he slithered around the trees. "Without the ocean there would be no desert. Without the desert there would be no ocean. We must all exist together, or else not exist at all."

 

"But you stole his sand," Toph pointed out.

 

Shen laughed again. "What's a little thievery between friends? You walk through the desert, and the sand fills your shoes. Then you fly over the ocean and it falls back in. So everything is a circle, you see? I was just borrowing it."

 

Toph considered this. "I don't wear shoes."

 

This inspired Shen's loudest laugh of all. "You have me there. All the same. We exist in a circle. What happens has happened before and will happen again."

 

Toph thought for a second. "Then what's the point?"

 

"That is for you to say. You humans are the ones who go from place to place, doing and feeling and all manner of things. I just relax under Shi's light. She warms me up while I delight in all the hardy creatures that make their home in me."

 

Toph nodded. "I'm hardy. I still almost died in the desert though." She sat down. "I keep trying to figure out how to bend sand. The pieces are too small, too… fiddly."

 

"You are strong, Earthbender, but strength isn't the answer to everything. Some things call for precision." His smooth skin slipped over her toes and she giggled at the tickling sensation. "I'm sure you will find the answers you are looking for."

 

Toph laid down and felt Shi's light on her face. "What is she like? The spirit of the sun?"

 

"Her name, do you know what it means?"

 

Toph took a deep breath and exhaled the answer. "It means death."

 

"Do you understand?"

 

Toph shook her head. "I don't."

 

"That's alright. We are of the Earth, Gonglu's children. We don't have to understand the ways of water or fire or air."

 

Toph felt the light on her skin. "I'm worried about my friends. When the water dries up, the fire burns out and the wind dies, the Earth remains. It isn't enough though. I don't want to be alone."

 

"You are never alone," Shen told her. "In the beginning there was balance, harmony. There was an ocean that stretched on and on. There was no light, no earth. There was no death."

 

Toph frowned. "How did people live with no land to live on? How did they survive without light?"

 

"They did not. Then there was the Earth. Mountains rose tall out of the ocean. There was steadiness, strength. There was no death."

 

"There was no death," Toph whispered. "But there was also no life."

 

"Just so. Then the twins crossed over into the material world. Shi climbed into the sky and Seimei jumped out of the sea. There was death."

 

"And also life," Toph said. The snake rose up in front of her. She was aware of his long sharp fangs, but she wasn't afraid. "One cannot exist without the other. That's why they are twins."

 

"See. You do understand." He slithered over her lap into the bushes. "While you are here watch the birds," he shouted as he left. "They'll show you what you need to do!"

 

"Thank you," Toph called after him. She laid down with her eyes closed and set to watching the birds. Ohhhhh. THAT'S how it works.

Chapter Text

"Toph! Toph! Aang, can you believe she just ran off like… Aang?" Katara turned around and looked at the empty forest. "Argh!"

 

"Are you lost?"

 

Katara whirled around and took a step back. Out of instinct she shifted into a bending stance even though she knew it was pointless. A dark woman with long brown hair was looking at her with an alarmed expression. "I… No, sorry. I'm…"

 

Katara looked all around her again. "I guess I am a little lost," she admitted. "My friends and I got separated.

 

"I'm sorry to hear that. I'm lost too."

 

"Oh," Katara said, unable to conceal her disappointment. I sort of thought you were going to help me, but I suppose that would have been too easy. "Did a spirit bring you here?"

 

"A spirit?"

 

"Because… we're in the spirit world," Katara prompted. "You know that, right?"

 

The woman shook her head. "How long have we been in the Spirit World?"

 

"I don't know about you, but I just got here," Katara explained. "What's the last thing you remember?"

 

The woman stared into the distance. "I ran."

 

Katara nodded. "Were you running from someone?"

 

She shook her head. "I knew he would save me. I just had to get to him. I was so afraid. I shouldn't have let it show. It's my fault."

 

"I'm sure that's not true," Katara said even though she had no idea what they were talking about.

 

The woman turned to stare at Katara. "I'm so young now. I'm beautiful again."

 

"Uhh…" Katara looked at the woman's face. Katara supposed she was lovely. I wouldn't be worried about my looks right after finding out I'm stuck in the spirit world, but I suppose everyone has different priorities. "Yes, you're beautiful."

 

"Is he here? My love?"

 

"I'm not sure. What's his name?" Katara doubted knowing the name of this strange woman's lover would help find him, but she couldn't think of anything else to say.

 

"If I had gotten to him in time he would have saved me. I should have remembered what he said. He told me not to be afraid."

 

"It's natural to-" Out of the corner of her eye Katara saw a slithering shadow. She froze. "Did you see that," she whispered.

 

"He's back," the woman said with a sigh.

 

"Your love?"

 

The woman shook her head. "I saw him once. He was a child though. He'd lived so many lives and didn't even remember me. I died gasping, I think. Was he there?"

 

Katara took a step back. She felt a sick twisting in her gut. "I don't understand. What are you talking about?"

 

"I don't understand either. Why did he let me out? Unless… He wants you. He wants two of my faces. I guess that makes sense."

 

Katara saw the shadow again, this time out of the corner of her other eye. Why did Toph have to run off? I knew someone would get in trouble if we separated. I just didn't expect it would be me. On instinct Katara reached for an absent water skin.

 

"That's the expression that got me too, fear."

 

Katara stared at the woman. Faces? Expressions? This reminds me of something Aang told me. What was it… "Koh!"

 

"Yes?" The voice was so close Katara felt its vibrations on the hairs sticking out of her neck.

 

Katara schooled her face. She kept still and did not move or speak.

 

"I have to go back now, don't I," the woman asked. A single tear fell from her left eye.

 

"I've had you for a long time, but this is a new face, and I've been wanting a child's face. If you help me get her you can go," Koh said.

 

Katara didn't react as she recalled the details Aang had relayed to her about his encounter with Koh. She recalled Roku's earlier sad proclamation that he had known Katara when he was Avatar Kuruk. "Kuruk," Katara said to test her theory. "He's your love," she said with a neutral still expression.

 

The woman nodded, looking far away. Katara considered that what she was looking at might be long past. Koh stole the face of the woman Avatar Kuruk loved. She was me? This can't be her spirit then. It's just her face.

 

"I'm sorry for what happened to you," Katara said. "I wish there was something that I could do to help you." Koh must be able to animate the faces somehow, give them bodies. He uses them to lure people in, like an anglerlion that uses its bright light to lure prey.

 

"I want to be pretty again." The woman took a step forward and reached out to touch Katara's face. Katara took a step back, but she was careful not to react. She backed into something smooth and slick. A few pointy things prodded her back and shoulders.

 

Katara wanted to close her eyes. She wanted to run away. If I do that I'll be lost. I'll die like she did, gasping. I have to face him. A face lowered itself into view.

 

Katara was shocked to see the blue spirit looking at her, but she didn't show it. Katara would have thought that spirits couldn't have their faces stolen. Perhaps, like the painted lady, he had once been mortal. She wished she had asked Zuko more about the blue spirit when they had all impersonated him to save that village. It had been an emotional time, and a good moment hadn't presented itself.

 

Katara bowed. "Koh," she said.

 

"Master Katara of the Southern Water Tribe, the first waterbending master of the south in over a generation. You are the last hope of your people. You carry a heavy weight on your shoulders."

 

"You honor me."

 

"A responsibility is only an honor if it is carried well. Are you worthy to shoulder the load?"

 

Katara released a slow calm breath that gave no indication of the rage boiling in her blood. He's just trying to upset me. I won't let him. No one is taking my face.

 

"Is something wrong Master Katara?"

 

"You have given me something to consider. I thank you."

 

Koh slithered out of view. His dark laugh crept down her spine. "You have come here with the Avatar, haven't you? Once again he presents you to me for the taking."

 

"Aang is my friend," Katara said.

 

"He won't save you ice-girl."

 

"I don't need him to. I can save myself. Aang has enough to do saving the world."

 

"But can he do it? Can he strike the killing blow? I don't think so, and neither do you."

 

"I believe in Aang." I do, but he is such a gentle soul. He'd do anything to save a life, but I don't know if that includes taking one.

 

"What about you? Could you do it? If Sozin himself stood before you, would you be able to freeze the air in his lungs?" Is that something waterbending can even do? It probably is.

 

"Sozin is dead," Katara said. "He died a long time ago."

 

"So did you. Yet you live again. Do you not want to punish him? I can tell you where he is. I can lead you to Sozin's reincarnation."

 

He's just trying to get a rise out of you. Stay calm. Don't react. "Vengeance isn't the point. We just want the war to end."

 

"Doesn't it burn in you? Your friend's people extinguished, your culture destroyed, your mother killed, and all because of Sozin's ambition. He isn't far away. You can hurt him. You have the power to destroy him."

 

Katara looked at the sad and empty face of her past life. "It wouldn't make a difference. Whoever he is now, he doesn't remember who he was, just like I don't remember being this person. Hurting him wouldn't fix anything."

 

"It might make you feel better," Koh said. "What if he was reborn into a life of privilege and luxury? What if he is powerful and skilled? What if he is surrounded by love and friendship? That would hardly be fair."

 

Keep your face still Katara. So what if Sozin's spirit is out there somewhere? It doesn't matter. He doesn't matter. All that matters is ending the war and all the suffering it causes.

 

"You don't have anything to say?"

 

"I don't care who he is."

 

"What if it is someone you know? What if it is someone you trust? What if it is someone you have shown kindness to and taken risks for? Would that matter to you?"

 

He just wants to see the look on your face so he can steal it. He's going to say something shocking so you react. I can't react. I won't react. Katara looked at her past face. "I'm sorry that this happened to you."

 

"You can help me. Give him your face so that I can go free. I'll be young and alive again."

 

Katara felt sick. This can't be me. I would never ask that of someone, anyone. I would never forsake another so that I could live.

 

"If you give Ko your face you won't have to worry anymore. You won't have to make another difficult choice ever again."

 

"Making difficult choices is what life is. Like I said, I'm so sorry that this happened to you-"

 

"It happened to us," the woman interrupted.

 

"No, it didn't. I'm Katara. I'm Kya's daughter. I'm the last waterbender of the Southern Tribe. I am who I choose to be. I will not carry around the weight of the past when the future is so much more worth my efforts."

 

The woman reached out and Katara let the woman touch her. Katara did not flinch, even though the woman's hands were as cold as ice. "I want to live again."

 

"You lived. I'm sorry it was for such a short time. Now I get to live. I'm going to need my face. I have so much more to do."

 

The woman's face twisted into an ugly envious grimace. Then she crumbled away into dust. Where she had stood was a blank emptiness. Katara did not shiver. She did not react.

 

"You've changed. You're strong now. Are you strong enough for what's to come," Koh whispered in her ear.

 

"I thank you for your company spirit. I must be going now."

 

"You may go. Say hello to the Avatar for me." He rose up in front of her, wearing the face of the woman that had disappeared.

 

Katara bowed to him, but before she could turn around he spoke again. "It's your new friend, the prince. He is the one who started the war. He is the source of your suffering."

 

Don't react Katara! You can't react. Katara took a deep breath and let it out. "Who he was in a past life doesn't matter. What matters is who he is now and the choices that he makes moving forward."

 

Koh chuckled. "As you say." He turned and left, leaving her standing by herself, feeling cold.

 

Katara wanted to release her emotionless facade, but she wouldn't put it past Koh to return and strike when she thought she was safe. She turned around and started to walk away, face still. He must have been lying. Katara clenched her hands into tight fists, nails digging into her calloused palms.

 

Birds in the trees were chirping at one another; their songs infuriated her. She wanted to scream. That woman wasn't me. I'm not weak and selfish. I don't need someone to rescue me. So even if Zuko really is Sozin's reincarnation they're not the same person.

 

Katara stood in front of a tree and stared at it. She tried to anchor herself. She examined the designs in the bark. It doesn't matter. The past doesn't matter. Except… Roku said that everything was a circle, that it would happen again.

 

"Katara?" Katara turned around and saw Toph standing there, looking worried. "Are you okay? You feel sad."

 

"I'm… I'm fine Toph. I saw a dangerous spirit. We need to find everyone else and get out of here," she declared.

 

"Sokka and Aang are over there." Toph pointed in one direction. "Zuko's that way." She pointed the other way.

 

"Let's go find Sokka and Aang," Katara decided.

 

"Zuko's by himself. Shouldn't we get him first?"

 

Katara took another deep calming breath. "That spirit… It was looking for Aang. We need to warn him. Zuko will be fine. We'll get him right after."

 

"Alright," Toph agreed. "Follow me."

 

Katara walked behind Toph. Her mind felt like it was at war with itself. It doesn't matter. It doesn't matter. It doesn't matter.

 

Toph stopped. "Are you sure you're okay Katara?"

 

Katara took a deep breath. She tried to think of something to say.

 

Toph stepped back and took her hand. "We're all in this together."

 

"Yeah," Katara agreed. "Yes, we are. Thanks Toph." Katara hugged her. "Let's go get the boys."

 

"They need so much looking after," Toph said with a chuckle.

 

"So true," Katara said. She squeezed Toph's hand. "Thank you."

 

Toph squeezed back. Katara heard her.

Chapter Text

"Katara?! Aang?! Toph?! Zuuuuuko?!" Sokka kicked a tree and then winced at the pain. "Unbelievable! They left me! That's so like them!"

 

"Then why is it unbelievable?"

 

Sokka reached for the weapon he didn't have as he turned to face the speaker. There was no one behind him. He scratched his head. "Huh."

 

"Up here."

 

He looked up at the tree branches hanging over him and still saw no one. "What-"

 

"Up! Here!"

 

Sokka lifted his gaze further and saw a snow white cat floating in the air. It had its legs crossed in a meditation pose as if it were sitting on the ground instead of thin air. Its arms were crossed over its chest in annoyance. "Oh. Hello."

 

"Hmph." The cat licked its own nose. "What are you doing here?"

 

"You know, I was just asking myself that same question," Sokka said.

 

"No you weren't. You were complaining about your unreliable friends."

 

"I'm a great multi-tasker."

 

"Hmph." The cat batted its ear and yawned in an adorable fashion. "If you say so."

 

Sokka's neck was starting to hurt from looking up and he rubbed it. "I bet you can see a lot of things from up there," Sokka said.

 

"Of course I can. I'm Guancha Zhe. I see everything, always." He licked his nose again.

 

"Uh huh. Can you see my friends?"

 

"Obviously."

 

"Can you tell me where they are?"

 

"Certainly."

 

Sokka waited a moment. "Will you," he forced out through gritted teeth.

 

"Will I what?"

 

"Will you tell me where my friends are?!"

 

"The moon spirit never said you were so rude," Guancha Zhe said.

 

For a moment Sokka felt like he couldn't breathe. "You know Yue?"

 

"Of course. She's up here all the time, half the time actually. There's not many other people to talk to at night. Well there's the stars, but they are SO cliquey. Except for Shinjitsu, but she never has time for me."

 

Sokka pretended he understood. "Yeah, of course. Is she here right now?"

 

"Shinjitsu? No, she's coddling her fav-"

 

"Yue," Sokka interrupted. "Is Yue here?"

 

"She's out there." He gestured in a vague direction. "Lighting the night, pulling and pushing the sea." Guancha Zhe yawned. "I liked that story she told about you though."

 

Sokka couldn't help but grin. "She told a story about me?"

 

"She didn't need to of course. As the watcher I see everything. Hearing it from her perspective was… illuminating though. Events look different when you're the one they're happening to I suppose."

 

Sokka nodded. "What did she say about me?"

 

"Why do you want to hear about yourself? Do you not know your own person? You humans are so strange."

 

Sokka bit back a cutting retort. There was something he needed to know. "Is she happy?"

 

"Who?"

 

Sokka tasted blood as he bit his tongue to keep from shouting. "Yue, the moon spirit, is she happy?"

 

The cat shrugged. "How should I know?"

 

Sokka sighed. "Just tell me where my friends are."

 

"What, all of them? That'll take hours."

 

"Why would it take hours?"

 

"They're scattered all over the world," Guancha Zhe complained. "A whole tribe in the freezing south full of people thinking about their brave warrior, denizens of so many scattered islands wishing well for that clever boy, warriors far from home trusting in your plans to see them south again… I'm already bored and I'm not even at the equator."

 

Sokka felt his heart swell up. It had never occurred to him that there were so many people who cared about him. "I uh… I just meant my friends in the spirit world," he explained. "But thank you."

 

"Why didn't you just say so? The daughter of the mountain is bird-watching. Jiyu's son is weeping. The sailor is by the water. Your blood is keeping still, clever girl."

 

Sokka scratched his head. "I don't understand."

 

"A human doesn't understand something? I'm shocked. Can you see how shocked I am?" Guancha Zhe scratched his ear. "What was your next question?"

 

Sokka frowned. I'm standing in front of a spirit that knows everything. I could ask him anything. I just wish I could understand him. "Where's the Fire Lord?"

 

"Which one?"

 

This is ridiculous. All the same there was one question Sokka couldn't resist. "You see my dad, right? Is he okay? Is he safe?"

 

"Battles and battles. I get so sick of watching battles. They're all the same."

 

Don't panic Sokka. Dad's been in plenty of battles. "Is he hurt?"

 

"His soul aches. He talks to your girlfriend every night, praying for his children. He pleads for intersession on your behalf. You seem like you're doing fine on your own to be honest. One wouldn't think it by looking at you."

 

"Gee, thanks," Sokka muttered.

 

"You are welcome," the cat said, not seeming to pick up on Sokka's insincerity. "Is there anything else you want to know?"

 

"A bunch of things," Sokka said.

 

"Yes, you are a curious one. Wan Shi Tong would have loved you if he weren't too blinded by his grief and anger to see you for who you are. You seek knowledge. I bet Shinjitsu likes you too. After all, your people are seafarers."

 

Thinking about Wan Shi Tong reminded Sokka of the invasion and, by extension, the point of it. "Zuko's uncle, General Iroh, is he still alive?"

 

"He lives and breaths, and plans and sings."

 

"Will he actually be a good FireLord? Will he end the war?"

 

"I see what is and remember what was, but the future is not known to me," Guancha Zhe said.

 

"But you've seen his past," Sokka insisted. "Is he actually a good person? I know he gave Toph some tea, and he did try to save the Moon Spirit, but we're risking everything to get him on the throne. If he doesn't end the war then everything we've sacrificed will mean nothing."

 

"I see your dilemma," Guancha Zhe said before licking his fur. "What is it from his past that you would like to know? His life has been long, and your time here is short."

 

"Well…" Sokka scratched his head. What's the true indicator of someone's character? What's a straightforward enough question that this stupid cat won't just give me a nonsense answer? "Why was he helping Zuko look for the Avatar?"

 

Guancha Zhe scoffed. "He wasn't."

 

Oh great. This stupid cat doesn't even know what he's talking about. He's just been messing with me. "Yes, he was. I was there."

 

"As you say," Guancha Zhe said with a sniff. "Who am I to argue with such a wise and knowledgeable human?" He rolled his eyes.

 

"What was he doing then?"

 

"He was trying to protect the boy, the little storm-child, from further harm. It didn't work."

 

"Who, Zuko?"

 

"Who else?"

 

"What does that mean, storm-child?"

 

"I saw him born, as I have seen every child born under moon or sun. This child was born under neither, but in the darkness while storms raged. The ocean was in a fury, destroying buildings, taking the lives of those without proper shelter. Among those who died was an old man, who lived his whole life in a storm."

 

Sokka scratched his head. "You lost me."

 

"He died in the storm and was born in the storm, and a storm has always raged within. In a previous life he slaughtered Airbenders and passed a law that any found would be slayed where they stood. He was reborn as an Airbender and forced to spend his life hiding, afraid. Yet when the storm came again he stepped outside to fight it and protect his family."

 

"Wait, stop," Sokka said. "You're not making any sense. The Airbenders all died a hundred years ago."

 

"If you say so," Guancha Zhe said. He shrugged, seeming uninterested in continuing his story after being interrupted.

 

Sokka played through the cat's words in his head, taking them apart and putting them back together to try and make sense of it all. Zuko told my dad he was born during an autumn storm; at least I know that part is true. "So you're telling me that in his last life Zuko was an Airbender? Zuko?"

 

"He was. He held the storm inside for decades, and it kept him its prisoner."

 

"And before that, before that he was… the person who killed all the Airbenders?"

 

"He was," Guancha Zhe said in a somber tone.

 

Sokka felt ill. "That's… a lot. But wait, hang on." It's just not possible! "If an Airbender died sixteenish years ago then that means…"

 

"It seems like you lost the end of your sentence friend," the cat said with a yawn.

 

"Are there still Airbenders out there?! Besides Aang I mean." Sokka felt excitement bubbling up in him. "How many are there?! Where are they?!" Aang is going to be thrilled.

 

"There were many. They filled the skies," Guancha Zhe looked into the distance and sighed. "It's so quiet up here now."

 

"But how many are there NOW, as in right now," Sokka insisted.

 

"Nine," Guancha Zhe said. "There are nine left, including the Avatar."

 

"Where are they?"

 

"They are all in the Fire Nation," Guancha Zhe said. "Including the Avatar, but you already knew that."

 

"The Fire Nation captured them," Sokka whispered to himself.

 

"Hmm, that is an interesting way of looking at it, but yes; I suppose that is accurate."

 

"We'll free them when we take out Ozai," Sokka resolved. "This is amazing! I have to tell Aang. Which way is he?"

 

Guancha Zhe lifted a paw. "He's that-"

 

Sokka was already running. He almost felt like he was going to explode with excitement. Sokka remembered the sight of the skeletons at the Southern Air Temple. This can't make it right, but it's SOMETHING. At least it's something.

 

Sokka stopped and smacked his forehead. "I'm such an idiot. I should have asked more questions before I ran off!" Sokka ran his hand down his face and sighed.

 

A heavy ball of fur landed on his back and knocked the wind out of him. "Oof!"

 

"I found one!" Something crawled over his head, paw slipping across his brow and landing on his nose. "Hello," said a small wolf pup.

 

"Hi."

 

"I like your ships."

 

"Uhhh…." What ships? "Thank you?"

 

"Aang, I fouuuuuund one! That means I win!"

 

"It's whoever finds the most, not whoever finds one first," shouted a lion cub that came running out of the trees.

 

Aang was right behind the lion. "Sokka!" Aang threw himself into Sokka's arms and hugged him tight. His eyes were red like he'd been crying, and he hid his face in Sokka's shirt as soon as he could.

 

"Hey Aang," Sokka said. "I'm glad I found you." In every way, both now and the initial meeting. Even though you've been nothing but trouble, I don't care. Sokka hugged the younger boy tight.

 

"I made some new friends," Aang whispered.

 

Sokka chuckled. "Yeah, we're good at that. Listen buddy." Sokka gripped Aang's shoulders and leaned back just enough to look into his eyes. "I've got some things to tell you."

Chapter Text

Aang turned in a circle, looking for any sign of one of his friends. He groaned in exasperation. "This is all my fault," he said to himself. "Why did I insist they come with me?"

 

Aang felt a hand shove him in the back and he had to pinwheel to keep from falling. "Tag!" Orange fur disappeared into the trees.

 

"Huh? Hey wait!" Aang ran after the small agile figure. "Are you a spirit? I need help!"

 

Aang heard someone drop to the ground behind him. He whirled around and saw a tiger cub pointing at him with her paw and laughing. "You're one of Jiyu's sons! Where have you BEEN? It's been AGES!"

 

Aang took a step back. "You know the spirit of the sky?" I know I'm here to find the Fire Nation's spirits, but to talk to the spirit of my own people would be… "Is he here?"

 

"He's everywhere. He blows to and then he blows fro. He's THE BEST at tag. I'm getting pretty good though." The cub jumped on Aang and batted his face with her paw. "Tag!"

 

Aang laughed. "Actually you tagged me earlier, so doesn't this count as me tagging you?"

 

"Argh, fine!" She climbed onto his head and licked his arrow. "Double tag times infinity!" She jumped down and started running again.

 

"Wait! I have so many questions!"

 

She ran up from behind him and raced through his legs. "I don't think you understand how tag works."

 

Aang bent over to face her. She was upside down, but Aang could work with that. "Are you a spirit?"

 

"Only the best spirit of them all," the cub bragged.

 

"Which one?"

 

The cub looked offended. "WHICH ONE??"

 

"Sorry great spirit, I-"

 

The spirit started laughing. She jumped onto Aang's shoulders and crawled under his shirt. He stood up. She poked her head out of his collar, claws digging into his chest. "I'm Xifang, the western wind!" She grinned, showing off her fangs.

 

"Oh wow! It's such an honor to meet you!" "As an Airbender you must make friends with all the winds, especially the cardinal winds. They will carry you where you want to go if they like you." "Monk Gyatso told me about you!"

 

"He did?! What did he say about me? Did he say I'm fun? I don't want to brag, but I am SO MUCH FUN," Xifang bragged.

 

"Yeah, he definitely mentioned that," Aang assured her.

 

"Where did he go? Where did everybody go? We used to carry so many gliders through the sky. Then they all went away…"

 

Aang dropped his eyes. "They didn't… go away. They… were killed." He swallowed hard.

 

"Oh." Xifang crawled out of Aang's shirt and jumped to the ground. "What about you? You're one of Jiyu's sons."

 

"I did go away," Aang admitted. "But I'm back now, and I'm not going anywhere."

 

"So you're the last one," Xifang asked.

 

Aang sat down and leaned against a tree. "I am." He bit his lip to keep from crying.

 

Xifang crawled into his lap. "Well at least we have each other. We can play tag with my sisters and Jiyu. We can race over all the oceans and dance with La's waves."

 

Aang started to pet the spirit. "I'd like that. I just have to… finish something first."

 

"Is it a game? I'm so good at games!" She put her paws on his chest and licked his chin.

 

Aang laughed, but it was tinged with sorrow. "No… No, it isn't a game. I have to fight. I don't want to, but I don't have a choice."

 

"Sure you do! You can fly away. I'll take you wherever you want to go. You can live in my temple. We'll have races every day!" Xifang started to run circles in his lap.

 

Aang began to scratch between Xifang's ears. She curled up in his lap and started to pur. "That sounds wonderful, but I can't."

 

"Sure you can." She yawned. "You can do whatever you want."

 

"Xifang!" A wolf pup came running out of the bushes. "You're supposed to be IT! Where did you go?" The wolf pup pouted at her.

 

"Nan, look!" Xifang bounded out of Aang's lap and tackled the wolf. "It's one of Jiyu's sons!"

 

Nan stared at Aang. "You are?"

 

Aang nodded. "It is an honor to meet you, spirit of the southern-"

 

Nan ran up and tackled Aang, licking his face. "We missed you! The sky has been so empty and lonely! Welcome back!"

 

"Hey! I found him first!" Xifang ran up to Aang and climbed into his arms. "Get your own."

 

Aang started to cry. He tried to hold it in, but it was a useless attempt. The sobs ripped through him. I'm the last one. The skies will remain empty after I'm gone.

 

Aang didn't know how long he cried for, but when the tears were all spent he looked up and saw four cubs looking at him. Xifang and Nan were joined by a small bear and lion cub. "I'm sorry," Aang whispered.

 

Xifang walked up and put her paw on his knee. "Don't be sorry brother."

 

Aang wiped his nose. "I thought I worked through all this with the guru. I let go of my grief and embraced love. But it isn't just about what's lost, it's about what will never be!"

 

Xifang got back in his lap and curled into a ball. The other three approached. The lion leapt onto his shoulders and stretched across them. The wolf jumped onto his head. The bear curled up by his feet.

 

"The skies will never be full again," Aang grieved. "If I don't stop the Firelord the oceans will be the same, and then the Earth. Everyone is counting on me."

 

Xifang nuzzled her head against Aang's stomach. "That doesn't sound like a fun game brother, not the least little bit," she said.

 

Aang pet her with slow gentle motions. "The monks taught me that air was the element of freedom, but I don't feel free. I feel like I'm tied down, like I'm… like I'm suffocating."

 

Nan leaned over and blew on Aang's face. "You can have some of my breath brother."

 

Aang forced himself to smile. "Thanks. That was just a metaphor though."

 

"You can have some of mine too!" The bear cub scrambled up his arm, jostling the lion as she did so. She blew on Aang's face.

 

"Watch it Azuma!" The lion gave the bear a playful shove that sent both of them tumbling to the ground. They began a good-natured bout of wrestling.

 

Xifang jumped up, putting her paws on Aang's chest so that she could look into his eyes. "What do you have to do brother?"

 

"I… I have to stop the Firelord. I have to…" The words felt like ash in Aang's mouth, and he couldn't speak them.

 

"I wish you didn't. I wish you could just stay here and play with us."

 

"So do I," Aang admitted. "When I first got back… Even though I knew I was the Avatar it didn't feel real yet. I thought I could keep having fun and playing around. I went to ride Elephant Koi…" Aang smiled at the memory.

 

"That sounds awesome," Xifang marveled.

 

"Yeah… Now I realize how serious this all is. People are suffering in Ba Sing Se right now because of my failure. I can't fail again. I have to fight the Firelord, and I have to…" Aang flinched away from the word, eyes stinging.

 

Xifang licked some tears off his face. "I'm sorry brother. Maybe you can come play with us afterwards? My temple has been so empty for such a long time. There haven't been any visitors since Seimei's student came to put the ghosts to rest."

 

Aang sniffed. "If I survive my fight with the Firelord I promise to go to… What do you mean Seimei's student put the ghosts to rest?"

 

"About a century ago when the sky became empty there was a lot of smoke. I was covered in it, and it was hard to see. Nobody was in my temple anymore, but there were ghosts. They were everywhere, and no one ever came to put them to rest. I don't know why."

 

Because everyone was dead. There was no one left to put anyone to rest. The Southern Temple will also still be filled with ghosts. I should have given all the bodies last rites, but I just couldn't stay…

 

"Three years ago some men came, and two of them put all the spirits to rest," Xifang explained. "One of them had Seimei's fire, that he only teaches his favorite students. The twins don't fly much either anymore. They're sad and angry. Their children forgot them."

 

Aang continued to pet her silken orange fur. "Do you know where they are?"

 

Xifang purred. "They're on their island. It's not far from my temple. It's the first volcano, where the first rays of sunlight touched, when life and death first came to the world."

 

Aang scratched the tiger's stomach. "Thank you," he said.

 

She just purred in response.

 

"Hey!" Azuma pushed the lion's head to the side and glared at them. "Xifang, you're hogging our brother!"

 

Nan stood up from her place on Aang's head. "Yeah, share Xifang. Don't be greedy."

 

"I'M the one who found him."

 

Aang laughed. "I know a game we can all play together," he told them.

 

That got their attention. Aang explained the simple rules, and then they all ran off. It wasn't long before Aang heard Nan shouting. Aang ran to her and was relieved beyond words to see Sokka.

 

Aang hugged Sokka tight. Somehow just having Sokka near made the word feel a little bit safer, a little more logical. Too soon he was forced back from their embrace to look into Sokka's eyes. "I've got some things to tell you."

 

"What is it?"

 

Sokka grinned at him. Aang dared to hope that for once some unexpected news would turn out to be good instead of catastrophic. "Aang, you're not the last one." Sokka looked giddy.

 

"What?"

 

"You're not the last Airbender Aang! There are others, eight others. They're being held prisoner in the Fire Nation, but when we take Ozai down we can free them. Isn't that amazing?!"

 

Aang stared at Sokka, almost uncomprehending. He didn't dare to believe, didn't dare to hope. He was sure he had misheard or misunderstood. "Other Airbenders," Aang whispered.

 

Sokka released Aang's shoulders to clasp his hands. "Yes, other Airbenders. Aang… Katara and I love you; we'll always consider you part of our tribe. But I know the loss of your people hurts you in a way we can't even begin to understand, even with everything we've suffered. I swear to you Aang, we will rescue those Airbenders. Your people will fill the skies ag- oof!"

 

Aang threw himself into Sokka's arms again. He hugged Sokka as tight as he could, sobbing into his shoulder. "Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!"

 

Sokka rubbed his back, gentle calming circles. "Hey, don't hug the messenger," Sokka joked. "I'm just the bearer of good news. This emotional stuff is really more Katara's department."

 

I hate to think of my people as prisoners. I can't imagine what they've suffered. Still, to know that they're alive… To know that soon we'll have the chance to free them. I'll do whatever it takes. "Thank you, Sokka."

 

Sokka gave up and hugged Aang back. "I'm really happy for you buddy."

 

"Aaaaaaang," Aang heard Xifang call. "I found three! I won!"

 

Aang grinned. He grabbed Sokka's hand and ran after her.

Chapter Text

Zuko sat cross-legged in front of a river and stared at his face. He kept reaching up to touch the smooth skin. His vision, clear for the first time in years, kept blurring from tears. He wiped them away and then slammed his hand into the water to destroy his reflection.

 

Zuko looked ahead at the dense forest. It can't be true. It must be some kind of cruel trick. Or maybe a test. That's it. He's testing me. Zuko looked down again and couldn't stop himself from sobbing.

 

"Oh star-boy. What's wrong?"

 

Zuko jumped. In the river, arms crossed on the bank, was a spirit. She was as black as ink, with bright pricks of shining silver all over her body. White wings sprouted from her back, and instead of legs she had a black fin, thick with muscle.

 

Zuko scrambled to his feet so that he could bow to the spirit. "I-I-I-I-"

 

"Sh, sh, sh," the spirit said in a kind soothing voice. "Do you need directions again? You have not prayed to me in a long time. I asked La if you were at the bottom of the sea, but he said you were not."

 

Zuko shivered. "I almost was. I saw the ocean spirit drag a man down into his depths."

 

"The ocean is unforgiving. You know this. Every sailor does. Is that why you left the sea? Come, sit back down."

 

Zuko sat down and cleared his throat. "Thank you, great spirit. I-"

 

"Shinjitsu," she corrected. "I remember your prayers star-boy."

 

Oh. This is- This is the Spirit of the North Star. I used to spend hours staring at her through the telescope, making sure we were still on course. I was so desperate to find the Avatar. It was all I ever thought about.

 

"I sent you south. Kuruk's love was reborn and the Avatar cried out to her spirit. He was soon to rise. You spent such long hours every night asking me for directions. So I sent you there. Did you find him?"

 

Zuko's voice and breath were caught in his throat. For so long he had believed that spirits didn't answer prayers, at least not his. A new tear sprang into his eye. He wanted to answer her, but the words wouldn't come.

 

"What's wrong star-boy?" She reached out and put a hand on his knee.

 

"I-" His voice cracked, and he couldn't manage another syllable.

 

She planted her hands on the ground and pushed herself up onto the bank so that she was seated with her tail dangling in the water. "Your ship was full of such beautiful prayers. Yours were the longest and most devoted, but the others were nice too. The sailors sang the same comforting prayers of generations. The old man had such a gorgeous request."

 

"My uncle?" The surprise shocked the voice right out of his throat.

 

"Must have been. 'Oh Shinjitsu,' he would pray. 'Spirit of the North Star, revealer of truth, show my nephew the untempered reality. Brush the clouds from his eyes. Let the light of truth fill him.' It was so beautiful, star-boy."

 

Zuko felt warm with embarrassment. "Why do you call me that," he asked.

 

"What should I call you?"

 

"My name is…" Zuko trailed off and looked away. "You may call me what you wish great spirit. I deserve no special consideration."

 

She placed a wet hand on his shoulder. "When I asked La about you, he knew you at once. A child born during an Autumn storm. You were blessed by the ocean spirit. He passed you over when he sought his revenge."

 

"I don't feel blessed," Zuko said.

 

"Nor would I were I you," Shinjitsu admitted. "You smell like smoke. Fire is a great danger to sailors. Did you burn, little star?"

 

Zuko shivered. He could feel the tears coming again. "Over and over again," he said as he trembled. "Turns out I deserved it though."

 

"That is not truth."

 

"Yes it is! It's all my fault! Everything is because of me! I…" Zuko was choking on the words, so he spit them out. "I was Sozin, in another life. I'm not just descended from the person who started the war, I AM him."

 

Shinjitsu nodded, thoughtful. "I must confess little star. I give seldom a thought to the wars of humans. You do not tend to pray to me before you go into battle. Directions are not often needed at that point. I just lead people where they want to go."

 

Zuko scrubbed his face with the heel of his hand. "So many have died because of me."

 

Shinjitsu put a hand on his cheek. He realized there was a translucent webbing between her fingers. It was moist and cool. "That is not truth. Shadows are lies."

 

Zuko reached out for hope. "So I was wrong in what I saw? Sozin isn't one of my past lives?"

 

Shinjitsu shook her head. "Your spirit has lived many lives, and one of them was this man you call Sozin. Yet you are not him, and he is not you. You are as you exist in this moment young star. You are yourself."

 

"I have to fix it," he said as he shook with sobs. "I have to make it right. For all the young people sent off to fight while their lords were safe behind walls. For all the mothers who wept. For, for, for my own mother. For Katara's. For Aang's people. For-"

 

Zuko was overwhelmed with the weight and enormity of the list. "I have to stop the war. No matter the cost, it must end." He wiped another batch of tears away and looked at his smooth skin in the water.

 

"Look at you star-boy, burning so bright."

 

Zuko couldn't help but chuckle at that remark. "How am I supposed to tell my friends?"

 

"The truth is a light. Take my hand." Shinjitsu extended her arm out with her palm up. Zuko placed his own hand on top of her webbed fingers. "Open your eyes."

 

"They are-"

 

"Your real eyes."

 

Zuko closed his eyes and looked inside himself again. I have to let go of all the lies and illusions. Fire is the superior element. My father loves me. The war is justified. Zuko puffed up his cheeks and blew the lies away like they were so much smoke.

 

Zuko held out his other hand and let it fill with a small bright flame. He looked deep within himself to his inner fire. He saw the love he felt for the people that mattered most to him. He saw his mother, uncle and cousin, the strongest and most uncomplicated loves.

 

He saw his sister, a raging fire of love and hate all tied together. He saw his friends. He saw the way they cared about him and how he cared about them. He would do anything to protect them, and they felt the same way.

 

Zuko was tempted to give in to fear and doubt. He could imagine their disgust and rage upon finding out he was responsible for the pain and grief that had consumed the past century. Zuko knew those images were a disservice to his friends. He pushed past the lies to look at the truth.

 

"I'll be honest with them, and they will understand," Zuko said. "We will all work together to end this war. They accept me for who I am." Zuko opened his eyes. His chest was tight, but when he exhaled it loosened.

 

A wing rested on his shoulder. "Do you see how bright the truth shines little star?"

 

"Zuko," Zuko said. "I'm Zuko. I'm not Sozin. I'm not my father. I'm… I'm just me, just Zuko."

 

"So you are, Zuko." She kissed him on his temple and then slipped back into the water. "Will you ever go sailing again? I miss your prayers."

 

"When the war is over, if I survive. I'll sail from one end of the world to the other, and I'll look to you for direction every night."

 

Shinjitsu clapped her hands in delight and then dove down into the river, splashing him with her tail. Zuko took a deep breath and then exhaled all the smoke in his lungs. He took another deep breath and with each exhalation he let go of another lie. When he got to his feet he smiled.

 

He looked up at the brightest star and knew just where his friends were. He started walking towards Toph, laughing at the knowledge that she had learned a new bending technique in the one place where she absolutely couldn't bend. There really wasn't anything beyond that girl's reach.

 

A flash of orange fur came running out of some bushes. "Got you!" It jumped into Zuko's arms, who caught the tiger cub on reflex.

 

Zuko laughed. "Hello, who are you," Zuko asked as he scratched behind her ears.

 

"No time for that! Help me find the others so that I can win," the tiger cub pleaded. "Nan already found one! I HAVE to beat her!"

 

Zuko sensed that this spirit was a benevolent one and didn't wish any harm on him or his friends. He tilted his head, listening like he'd watched Toph do. "Toph and Katara are that way." He raised a hand to point.

 

The tiger cub jumped out of his arms. "C'mon! Hurry! I have to win!"

 

Zuko laughed and followed her. Soon a small green blur had latched herself onto him. "Zuko!" Toph took a step back. "I figured out sandbending. I have to wait until we get back until I know for sure, but I realized why it was so difficult for me; it's like airbending."

 

Katara looked at the cute tiger cub with bemused delight and then to Toph and Zuko. She averted her gaze. Zuko felt his heart skip a beat.

 

"All good, sparky?"

 

"Wha- yeah Toph. I can't wait to see your sandbending." Just be honest with them. As soon as Sokka and Aang get here tell everyone the truth. The truth is a light.

 

"Toph, I thought you said Aang and Sokka are this way."

 

"They are," the Tiger cub said. "Aaaaaaang! I found three! I won!"

 

Aang and Sokka soon emerged from The trees. "Wow! Nice one Xifang!"

 

"Xi- You're the western wind!" Zuko stared at the cub in amazement. He bowed to the small creature. "It is an honor," he said.

 

Xifang jumped up into his arms again and then licked his face once more. "You taste like sunlight," she declared. "You and Seimei's student are the only people to pray at my temple in a hundred years," she said. "You didn't pray to me, but that's alright."

 

Zuko flushed with shame at the memory. He remembered the skeletons at the Western Air temple, how he and uncle had gathered them up and given them last rites. They had done it the Fire Nation way, the only way Zuko knew. Was that worse than doing nothing at all? "I'm sorry spirit."

 

"I liked your prayers. I gave you a good wind to the Earth Kingdom, and I even asked Azuma to take over once you were in the East. She gets distracted though."

 

"They weren't proper prayers," Zuko confessed. "Not like the ones they taught us at temple."

 

"No," Xifang agreed. "They came from your heart. I liked them. I didn't understand them, but I liked them." She licked his face again.

 

"She's cute," Toph said. "Can we keep her?"

 

"Toph!" Even with her newfound connection to the spirits she still has no reverence. She's Toph after all. She's still herself. "Apologies oh spirit of the-"

 

Xifang laughed as she jumped from Zuko's arms to Toph's. Toph reached out and caught her with ease. "I would love to go with you! Whenever the breeze kisses your cheek that's me!" She licked Toph.

 

Toph giggled. "You'll be useful when the invasion fleet arrives. You can help us make good time to the capital."

 

"Sure! I race around the world, but I will remember your voice! When you need me just say a little prayer. You don't have to use the formal words. I'll come."

 

Zuko bowed to the spirit again, even though she was in the process of nuzzling Toph's face. "Thank you for your benevolence great spirit."

 

"No worries," Xifang said. "Hey," she shouted at something behind them with an annoyed tone.

 

Zuko sensed who it was and turned around to confirm his suspicions. He was relieved to see Hei Bai. I'm ready to return to the physical world. The spirit world is beautiful and amazing, but it's also emotionally draining.

 

"These are OUR humans! Get your own!"

 

"Sorry Xifang," Aang said. "But we need to go home. It was wonderful to meet you, and I promise to visit your temple once the invasion is over." Aang bowed to her.

 

She sighed. "Fine." She jumped to the ground. She dropped her jovial countenance and playful tone. "The western wind will always blow in your favor. When you need sanctuary, come to me."

 

Zuko bowed once more. She returned the bow, looking oddly dignified. She was bowed to by and returned the honor with each other member of the team. Then she and her sisters ran away.

 

"Wait, Aang," Katara said. "Did you find Shi and Seimei?"

 

Aang shook his head. "I know where they are though. They're on an island near the Western Air Temple."

 

"Well let's get out of here," Sokka said. "I'm done with the spirit world. Seriously Aang, we are NEVER doing this again."

 

"Seconded," Katara whispered.

 

They all climbed aboard Hei Bai. When they returned to the physical world the sun was just starting to rise. It was still dark, and only the slimmest sliver of light was peeking over the horizon. Proper bows were given to Hei Bai, who then departed.

 

Zuko looked at the grey world, which he knew wouldn't be that much more colorful even after it was fully lit. He reached up and touched his scarred face. He dropped his hand as though the scar were hot, which of course it wasn't. It hadn't been for a long time.

 

"You okay Zuko," Toph asked.

 

Zuko turned around, but he didn't look at any of them. He just stared at the cold ashes of their burned out fire. "There's something I need to tell all of you," he whispered.

 

"Maybe we should try to get a couple hours of sleep first," said Sokka in the tone of one looking to avoid something extremely unpleasant.

 

"No," Katara said in a tone that was firm but not unkind. "I want to hear what Zuko has to say."

 

Zuko took a deep breath. "Firebending comes from the breath nephew. Control your breathing to control the fire within you." Zuko forced his eyes up.

 

The truth is a light. Zuko looked at Aang. "I…" The truth is a light. "I'm…" The truth- oh just do it you big baby! "I'm the reincarnation of Firelord Sozin!"

 

Zuko dropped his eyes to the ground and took a step back, stealing himself against the verbal and perhaps physical assaults to come. He tried to take a calming breath, but his whole body was shaking. He clenched his hands. Breathe in, and then exhale the smoke. Rid yourself of falsehoods.

 

"Can we get some sleep now," Sokka asked.

 

Zuko looked up. Katara was staring off into the distance, like the sunrise was of dire importance and she needed to observe every second of it. Toph looked uninterested. Aang looked confused. Sokka just looked tired.

 

"Aren't you mad," Zuko asked in a cautious tone.

 

Katara released a huff of exasperated breath. "We're exhausted. Even if we were mad, which, I dunno… Even if we are…" She rubbed her eyes. "I'm with Sokka; I just want to get a couple of hours of sleep before we need to move camp."

 

Toph walked up to Zuko and punched him in the arm. "I'll show you my sandbending after our nap," she said. "Night Zuko, or morning, whatever."

 

Zuko looked over at Aang, who wore an unreadable expression and said nothing. "Right. Goodnight everybody." They all laid down.

 

Well that was… unsatisfying. They didn't accept me, but they didn't reject me either. I guess it's like uncle says. The important things in life are a process. Whatever, I'm going to sleep. He dreamed about starlight, glittering on the surface of the ocean.

Chapter Text

Katara stared up at the moon. She had given up on trying to sleep since each time she closed her eyes a new thought emerged in her head to trouble her. So she just stared and stared, seeking wisdom and guidance. I wish I didn't know. This would all be so much easier if I just DIDN'T know.

 

Katara sighed. She sat up and rubbed her eyes. She thought back to the day her mother had died, to the smell of smoke… She closed her eyes and held back tears. She looked over at Zuko's bedroll. She realized with a start that he wasn't asleep either.

 

Zuko's glittering golden eyes were wide open and aimed at the moon. Like Katara he appeared to have given up on sleep. She bit her lip and looked away. Everything was simpler before you got here. Good was good and evil was evil.

 

She flinched at her uncharitable thought. He's my friend. I'm not being fair. He's suffered as much as I have. We're all supposed to be in this together. Nothing should be different.

 

She looked up at the moon again. Everything is different. She sighed. She stood up and then felt ridiculous. There was nowhere for her to go in the middle of the night.

 

She considered just lying back down, but even though he hadn't so much as glanced at her she knew Zuko knew she'd gotten up. He would notice if she just laid right back down. You're ridiculous , she chastised herself. All the same, she made her way down to the river.

 

I'm just gonna practice some waterbending in the moonlight. I do it all the time. Nothing suspicious is going on here. Katara lifted her hands and closed her eyes. She felt the moonlight fill her with strength.

 

Katara stepped into the water and began to dance. It swirled all around her. She thought about Toph. Toph had amazed her when she'd shown them all how sandbending worked.

 

"It's like birds, flying in the air. I didn't realize because I never see birds. They're up in the sky where my feet can't get a glimpse of them most of the time. I saw them when I was in the spirit world. There's so many pieces, but they all move as one."

 

Katara smiled at the memory of the dancing sand, of watching Toph, stubborn earthy Toph, bend like an Airbender. That's three subspecialties of earthbending she's mastered in addition to the classic style, one of which she INVENTED. Katara swiped some water out of the air like she'd figured out how to do with Zuko. There must be so much unseen potential in waterbending. She passed the water from hand to hand, thinking of possibilities.

 

"Would you be able to freeze the air in his lungs," Koh's voice whispered in her head.

 

Katara gasped and dropped the water. Her heart started racing. "That's NOT a possibility," she growled to the empty night air.

 

It might be. I'll never know because I would never try it, but that doesn't mean it isn't possible. There's so much I don't know. Katara clenched her fists and felt the water around her get colder and colder. She'd seen their campfires get bigger and hotter when Zuko was angry. Is this what it feels like?

 

"Ugh!" She threw out her hand. Dozens of icicles shot out of the water and embedded themselves in some trees nearby. She pulled up a swirling whirlpool. The water danced all around her. She felt water leaking from her eyes.

 

Katara opened her mouth and screamed, confident the wall of rushing water blocked the sound. She screamed and screamed and screamed, letting out her rage like poisoned blood from an infected wound. When she was exhausted she dropped the water and let the river return to a calm midsummer temperature. She fell to her knees. She didn't have any more tears to shed.

 

Enough. She splashed some water on her face. She stood up and returned to camp. Everyone was asleep, even Zuko. He'd nodded off during her absence. "Would you be able to freeze the air in his lungs?" Enough!

 

Katara took a deep breath and then let it out nice and slow. She laid back down on her bedroll and was soon overtaken by a deep sleep. If she heard Koh's voice in her dreams she didn't remember in the morning. She awoke when Shi's rays started stabbing her eyes.

 

Katara rubbed her eyes as she sat up and yawned. Toph was sitting in front of the fire eating. Sokka was still asleep. "Where's Aang," Katara mumbled as she stood up.

 

"Zuko and Aang went to go give firebending another shot. Zuko made breakfast. Come eat Sokka's share before he wakes up. I love it when he gets all mad. It's hilarious."

 

Katara walked over to the fire. "I thought you were enlightened now," Katara said as she served herself a portion of the plentiful stew. There was more than enough for everyone.

 

Toph released a loud belch. "I am."

 

Katara rolled her eyes and laughed. "I know I said it before, but the way you mastered sandbending, that was incredible. I've been trying to think of other forms of waterbending I could try to master. Any ideas?"

 

Toph took a big bite of stew and gave it a few thoughtful chews. "Well, what's some stuff that's made of water?"

 

"Ice," Katara said. "I can already control ice and snow. That's like waterbending basics."

 

"Okay, so what's some other stuff?"

 

Katara remembered her lie to Aang after one of her outings as the painted lady. "Steam."

 

"Is there steam coming off the stew?"

 

Katara nodded, watching the faint white wisps of evaporation drift up towards the sky. "Yep."

 

"Well, try to bend it." Toph took another bite, spreading roux all over her face. Katara resisted the urge to lick her thumb and rub it off.

 

Katara stared at the steam. "It's hot," she said.

 

"Steam? No way. That's crazy." Toph took another big bite. This time Katara licked her thumb and got revenge. "Katara! G'off!"

 

"Your face is a mess! Hold still," Katara said with a laugh as she snatched the roux off Toph's face with her thumb. Katara popped her thumb in her mouth.

 

"I hate you," Toph got out between uncontrollable giggles. "Also you're gross. I'll have you know I haven't washed my face in DAYS."

 

"Oh, well let me help you with that." Katara made sure her thumb was covered in saliva.

 

Toph put her bowl down and scrambled away. "Sokka, help! Your sister has gone crazy!"

 

Sokka groaned as he sat up. Katara didn't pay much attention to him. She was focused on her prey. "That face of yours is going to be sparkling when I'm done with it!"

 

"Keep her away from me!" Toph snickered as she got into a bending stance.

 

Katara was aware of Sokka picking up Katara's bowl and beginning to eat her breakfast, but she didn't care. There was still plenty in the pot. "You'll feel better when you're clean!" Katara felt rock shift under her to capture her, but she shattered the stone with a well-timed strike from her water whip.

 

"This is my protective coating of earth!"

 

"Well here, have a protective coating of water!" Katara sent a gentle stream of water towards Toph's face. Toph retaliated by sending a dust cloud at Katara that covered her entire body in a fine layer of dirt. Both girls collapsed to the ground in laughter.

 

"You're both crazy," Sokka said with a mouth full of food. "This is good stew Katara."

 

"Zuko made it," Toph said as she stood up and walked over to the fire. Just like that Katara's good mood evaporated, like the steam she'd watched earlier.

 

"I should have known," Sokka said. "It has flavor." Just like that Katara's mood went from no longer good to actively bad.

 

"Katara, come have some breakfast. There's plenty," Sokka urged.

 

"I'm not hungry," Katara muttered.

 

"You sure? I think Zuko put some cherrygrass in here. It's really good. Have some."

 

Katara kept her back to them and stared at the river. Maybe I'll go do some laundry today. No one else will. Well Zuko would if I asked, but I don't WANT-

 

"Uhhh… Katara?" Sokka sounded concerned.

 

"Uh huh," she said, struggling to keep a casual tone.

 

"What are you doing?"

 

"I'm not doing anything Sokka," she snapped.

 

"Why'd you just freeze breakfast?"

 

"Huh?" Katara turned around. The fire had gone out. The stew that had been steaming was a solid block of ice. Katara walked over and stared at it. "That's weird."

 

"Weird and not appetizing," Sokka complained. "I wanted seconds, and I don't want to get them with an ice pick."

 

Katara held her hand over the pot and the ice turned to liquid, but it was still cold. "I'll go get the spark rocks," she said with a resigned tone.

 

"No way," Toph said. "This is your chance. Heat the water."

 

"Katara isn't a Firebender Toph," Sokka said as he poked the cold stew with a spoon. He made a disgusted face at the consistency.

 

"No, she's a WATERBENDER. Do it Katara."

 

"Fine," Katara snapped. She looked at the stew. She thought of all the times Zuko had lost his temper and the campfire had gotten hotter. Well I'm plenty angry. Katara stared at the pot and thought about her rage.

 

The stew solidified into ice once more. "Great," Sokka said with heavy sarcasm. "That's what we were going for."

 

"Try again," Toph demanded.

 

"This is stupid! I'm not a Firebender. I don't make things hotter, and I wouldn't want to! Who would? It's a rotten element."

 

"Hey Katara."

 

Katara felt her cheeks go flush at the sound of Aang's voice. She turned around. Aang was standing there shirtless covered in sweat. Zuko stood next to him, just as sweaty but not shirtless.

 

"Hey Aang," she muttered.

 

"What are you guys doing," Aang asked in his normal cheerful tone, devoid of reproach or awkwardness, full of curiosity and delight.

 

"Well someone, and I won't say who, but it was Katara," Sokka began. "This unnamed person, who I remind you is Katara, froze our breakfast. Toph thinks Katara can heat it back up with waterbending, but so far she's only been able to freeze it again."

 

"Oh cool! More new bending! Let me see Katara!" Aang rushed over.

 

Katara frowned, but she turned back to the dead fire and held out her hand. She lowered her hand, melting the ice. She focused on the liquid, feeling her connection to it. Cool water, refreshing water, healing, rejuvenating water. Now I want hot water. I want boiling, RAGING, wa- damnit!

 

Katara stared at another block of ice. "Maybe it just isn't possible to heat stuff up with waterbending," Sokka said with a shrug.

 

"You have to keep trying," Toph insisted.

 

"Well I'm hungry," Sokka complained. "Hey Zuko, can you come heat up breakfast?"

 

"Sure," he said. "Although if it's been frozen and unfrozen so many times it won't taste good anymore after being reheated. I can just make something else if you want."

 

"We're running low on supplies," Katara said. "We can handle a bit of bland stew, unless that's beneath your standards YOUR HIGHNESS," she snapped.

 

"Wow," Toph said. "Someone woke up on the wrong side of the blanket this morning."

 

"Are you okay Katara," Aang asked.

 

Katara glanced at Zuko. He was just looking at the cold fire, expression unreadable, not saying a word. Say something! She shook her head. "I'm fine."

 

"Your heartbeat doesn't feel fi-" Toph began before Katara cut her off.

 

"I'm fine!" Katara turned on her heel and marched over to the river. She walked in up to her calves and submerged herself in her connection to her element. I'll make this water boil. I'm plenty angry.

 

She'd been practicing for a little while and her ankles were frozen when she heard Zuko clear his throat behind her. She turned around and glared at him. "What?" The ice around her grew colder, harder.

 

"Aang, Sokka and Toph went to go get more supplies," Zuko said.

 

"So Sokka's gone to go spend our last coin on silly trinkets? Awesome. Thank you for telling me."

 

Zuko rubbed the back of his neck. "I figured…"

 

"What? What did you figure," Katara demanded.

 

"I figured that since they're not here this is a good opportunity for us to… talk about what you're feeling, without anyone else around. You can tell me what you're thinking and not have to worry how the others will react to it. I know you're angry with me, and I respect that. We should… talk… about it."

 

Katara let go of all the ice, letting it return to liquid state. "I," could freeze the air in his lungs. Katara looked away. "I don't know how I feel."

 

"That's… understandable."

 

Katara sighed. She sat down on the bank and stared at her reflection in the water. She touched the spot where her mother's necklace would be if she weren't forced to hide it while in the Fire Nation. "I keep thinking that this should be simple. I should just hate you, or I should just not hate you."

 

Zuko took a step closer and then hesitated. "Is it okay if I sit down?" Katara gestured to the spot next to her. Zuko took a seat. His unscarred side faced her, blemishes hidden.

 

"I used to hate you. Then you saved someone I love and turned out to actually be a decent person. You are- were- I don't know- my friend. We are friends. Or at least…" Katara let out a frustrated huff of air.

 

"Do you want me to give you space? I could, y'know, talk to you less and try not to be around you too much until you decide how you feel," he offered.

 

Katara twisted her hands in her lap. The water where it touched her feet was ice. He is saying and doing all the right things, so why am I still angry? Maybe I do just need space. "I appreciate that. It sounds like a good idea."

 

Zuko nodded and got to his feet. He hesitated. "Umm… Before I go…"

 

"Go ahead Zuko. I'm listening."

 

"It's just… With the water… I definitely think that you can do it. Maybe… Whatever feeling you channel to freeze things you might try channeling the inverse… I'm not trying to tell you how to-"

 

"Thank you Zuko." She cut him off before he became a stammering mess. "I'll try that."

 

"Right. I'll see you la- I mean. I- Um…" He cleared his throat. "Have a great rest of your day?" He ran off.

 

What a dork , she thought with a fond smile. Then she remembered the smell of smoke, and the smile melted away. She stared at the river. The ice spread.

Chapter Text

Toph picked her nose and flicked her bounty into the crowd. "Is it just me or is Sweetness losing whatever semblance of calm she had left?"

 

"Katara will be fine. She always is," Sokka insisted. "By the time we get back to camp she and Zuko will have hugged it out and be sitting together talking about their feelings and braiding each other's hair."

 

"I don't think Zuko's hair is really long enough to braid," Aang said.

 

Toph snorted laughter. Never change twinkle toes. Never change. "I don't see what the big deal is. I mean I remember the stuff I saw about my past lives, but that doesn't make me those people."

 

"You didn't commit genocide, to be fair," Sokka said in an offhand tone.

 

"Ooh look, a crowd," Aang said before running ahead. He sounded like his typical distractible self, but Toph could feel his heart. She knew he was running away from their conversation.

 

The three pushed to the front. Toph felt two men leaned over a table. There was a rock that the man kept slipping in and out of his sleeve. She focused, listening and feeling as the man in front of the table lost coin after coin to the man behind it.

 

"What a sap," Sokka snickered.

 

"Wait, hang on," Aang said. "I was watching. The rock SHOULD have been under that bowl."

 

Toph chuckled. "You sighted people are all so blind. How much money do we have left?"

 

"Toph, these games are scams," Sokka explained.

 

"Not what I asked."

 

"Uhhh… Two copper pieces," Aang said.

 

"Gimmie."

 

Aang, a smart kid who valued his life, complied. Toph brushed her hair out of her eyes to put what, she was told, were very noticeable cataracts on display. She took hesitant unsteady steps forward. "Hello there little lady. Do you feel lucky?"

 

Always.

 

Twenty minutes later Toph grew bored, so she took pity on the poor sap and left with her gains. "This is amazing Toph! We'll be able to get so many supplies," Aang enthused.

 

"Yeah, I'm pretty great." That was almost too easy. There's got to be something more fun to do around here. "Let's go find what else this town has to offer."

 

"We should probably just pick up supplies and head back," Sokka said. "If we're gone for too long Katara and Zuko might get worried and come look for us."

 

Toph released a put upon sigh. "Fine. Suck all the fun out of everything. Let's get some of those fancy spices."

 

"Ooh. I like fancy spices," Aang agreed.

 

When they got back Katara was down by the river doing laundry and Zuko was at the campsite mending one of Toph's torn tunics. Toph didn't much care that she damaged her clothes more often than she didn't, but Katara tended to object when she walked around in "tattered rags." Zuko wasn't as good as Katara, but Toph couldn't see the clothes, so she didn't much care what they looked like.

 

"You missed it sparky," Toph declared as she dropped a basket in the middle of camp.

 

"Oh? What'd I miss?" He set the clothes to the side.

 

"Toph used this awesome earthbending trick to win us a bunch of money," Aang exclaimed.

 

Toph could sense that Zuko was alarmed. "People saw you earthbending? We need to-"

 

"Relax flame boy," Toph said with a flippant wave of her hand. "No one knew I was earthbending." She explained her trick, but she didn't sense any tension leave Zuko.

 

"Well… That's impressive that you have such fine control over even miniscule pieces of rock. I'm not sure scamming people out of money is a great idea though."

 

"Hey," Sokka said with a mouth full of some juicy fruit they'd picked up. "That guy was scamming other people first. We scammed a scammer. It's like… stealing from pirates."

 

"Riiiiiiiight… Because that ended so well for you the last time you did it," Zuko said.

 

"It sorta did actually," Aang said. "We escaped from the pirates. One of your boats got destroyed. We ended up getting to keep that waterbending scroll, and Katara got her necklace ba-" Aang slapped his forehead. "Oh man! I completely forgot!"

 

Zuko scrambled to his feet in a stance that bespoke readiness for any eventuality. "What is it? What happened?"

 

Aang ran up to Zuko. Before Zuko could react in any way Aang kissed him on the cheek.

 

"Ew! Aang! What the hell?!"

 

Toph collapsed to the ground and HOWLED with laughter. She felt Sokka torn between instinctual disquiet and uncontrollable mirth. He was shaking his head, but also snorting with laughter. Toph rolled around on the ground while she guffawed.

 

"Katara told me to do that."

 

"Why?!" Zuko was scraping his cheek with the back of his hand, trying to remove all traces of Aang's saliva.

 

"When I gave Katara her necklace back I said you wanted to make sure she got it and then she told me to give you a kiss from her."

 

"Pretty sure she was joking Aang," Sokka said.

 

"I know," Aang admitted. "I thought it would be funny though."

 

"You were right Aang," Toph assured him. "It was hilarious." She could feel through his vibrations that he was quite pleased with her assessment.

 

"You got SPIT on my FACE," Zuko said in a horrified tone. Toph could tell that he wasn't upset in any genuine sense, although the initial shock had been quite authentic.

 

"It's just water," Sokka said. "Who cares?"

 

"Water that came out of his mouth," Zuko whined. "Ugh. I can still feel how gross it is."

 

"The river is right down there." Toph pointed towards where Katara was still doing laundry.

 

"Um. I'm good," Zuko said.

 

Toph sat up. "You and frosty still frosty?"

 

"What? No. We're fine. Everything is fine."

 

"Didn't seem fine this morning," Toph pushed.

 

"Well, it is."

 

Toph sensed Katara coming back with the pile of wet clothes to hang up. I don't want to provoke any real conflict. I'll drop it for now, but I will get answers. "So, was Aang your first kiss?"

 

"It wasn't a kiss!"

 

Aang and Sokka both joined in on Toph's laughter. Katara entered the camp and set down her basket. "What're we all laughing about?" She sounded better. There was a lightness in her voice.

 

"Apparently you kissed Zuko," Toph said.

 

"What?! No I didn't! Why would you think that?!"

 

"Well Aang kissed him for you," Toph conceded.

 

"I'm going to go wash my face," Zuko grumbled. He started to stalk towards the river. "I'll, uh, dry those when I get back." He pointed at Katara's basket and then departed.

 

"I don't even want to know," Katara said. She walked over to Toph's discarded tunic. "Ugh. Who did these stitches, Momo? They're terrible! I'm going to have to start it over."

 

"Did uh," Aang began. "Did you and Zuko get a chance to talk while we were away?"

 

"What do you mean?" Katara sat down and started pulling out Zuko's stitches.

 

"Just… Uh…"

 

Toph shook her head and headed down to the river. Zuko was poking something that wasn't earth. She titled her head as she listened and felt for clues. "What is it," she asked.

 

"Ice," Zuko said. "The bank is frozen."

 

"Ah." Ice didn't interest Toph. I can't bend it. I can't even see it. "Will you take me to the closest volcano? I want to practice some more lavabending."

 

"We're about a day's walk from the closest place with near to surface magma," Zuko said. "When we move camp I'll make sure we set down somewhere near a good place for you to practice."

 

Fair enough. "In that case do you want to come to town with me? I have a great idea for another scheme."

 

She felt tension in Zuko's stance as he stood up. "I don't think that's a good idea Toph. What you did was impressive; it required very precise skill. Still, cheating people out of money isn't very honorable."

 

Toph scowled. "It's not like I slipped it from their pockets. It was a game, and I won."

 

"I'm not judging you," Zuko was quick to assure her. "I-"

 

"It sure SOUNDS like you're judging me."

 

"Trust me, I'm not. I'm the last person with a leg to stand on when it comes to judgement, especially involving stealing-"

 

"I didn't steal anything!" Everyone else gets to play by rules that disadvantage me, but when I'M the one with the advantage suddenly there's a problem. No one cares that the world is designed for sighted people. They want the cripple to remember her place. Toph felt her face heat up with anger.

 

"No, I know. That's not what I-"

 

"I beat those jerks at their own game! They designed a system where they always win, and I still managed to win! I evened the playing field. You think that's dishonorable? I say it's more honorable than playing by their unfair rules!"

 

"Toph, I never meant-"

 

Toph threw up a hand. "Save it. I get that your whole life is one big pit of moral quicksand, but mine isn't. I know who I am and what my values are. I didn't do anything wrong, and I'm not going to let you make me second guess myself."

 

Toph turned around and walked away. She ignored the voice in the back of her head whispering that she might have overreacted. Nobody tells me what to do. Toph kicked a rock out of her path as she made her way back to the camp.

 

She was just in time to hear Sokka and Katara squabbling at each other while Aang tried to keep an already lost peace. Ugh. I am so sick of us fighting with each other! I thought we were supposed to be fighting the Fire Nation!

 

"I can't believe that you would do something so stupid! You put Aang and Toph at risk! You could have derailed the whole invasion."

 

"Hey! It wasn't my idea! Anyway, we needed supplies, and now we have supplies. It doesn't matter now."

 

"Of course it matters! I'm so tired of being the only responsible person in this group!"

 

"Well," Toph said. I didn't want to start drama before, but now I'm annoyed. If Katara wants to be mad then she can be mad. "You and Zuko," Toph continued, knowing the comparison would irritate her. "He just gave me a talking to about the scam."

 

Toph could feel Katara's irritation in her pores and it delighted her. She felt a twinge of guilt at the delight, but then she dismissed it. She'd done nothing wrong, and if Katara and Zuko wanted to shame her she would make sure they were the ones who ended up feeling bad, not her. "Looks like you guys see eye to eye on the whole it being wrong to steal from the Fire Nation thing."

 

"That's not what I-!" Katara took a deep breath and then let it out slow. "All I meant was that it's important not to draw too much attention to ourselves. I don't have any problem with stealing from the Fire Nation! After everything they've taken from us we're entitled to anything we want from them."

 

"Well Katara…" Aang sounded nervous. "The monks always said that an eye for an eye makes the whole world bl-" Aang bit his tongue in his haste to silence himself. Toph could taste the salt in the air.

 

"Makes the whole world what," Toph asked in a faux innocent tone as she crossed her arms over her chest.

 

"It makes the whole world… an awesome place to live?" Aang let out a nervous chuckle.

 

"That's what I thought," Toph said.

 

"I don't care if you steal from the Fire Nation," Katara said. "All I ask is that you be careful."

 

"Careful," Toph said. "I can do that. C'mon guys, let's go get some careful cash."

 

"I'm good Toph," Aang said. "I think I'll just stay here."

 

"Suit yourself. Well snoozles? You want to buy some fancy cartography tools, don't you?"

 

"Well…"

 

"Have fun guys," Katara said in a bright chipper voice. If Toph couldn't feel her heart she would have had no idea she was being insincere. "I'll have dinner ready when you get back."

 

"Thanks! See you later!" Toph grabbed Sokka's hand and started to run towards the town. I know who I am. Water and fire are so fickle. Not me, not the Earth. We're steady, constant.

Chapter Text

Aang groaned as he felt the sharp toes of someone's shoes prod his shoulder. "Five more minutes…"

 

"Sunrise is almost over. If we're going to practice firebending before it ends you need to get up."

 

Aang opened his eyes and looked up at Zuko's face. "Can't we just practice later?"

 

"Sunrise is the best time."

 

Aang sighed and then pushed himself to his feet. "Fine." He stretched and then released a jaw-cracking yawn. "Let's go."

 

Zuko turned around and headed towards the hill they'd trained on yesterday. Aang looked with envy at their sleeping friends and then followed. When they got to the top of the hill Zuko turned to him. "Are you ready?"

 

Now that the haze of sleepiness had faded Aang felt his anxiety uncurl in his gut. "I guess so."

 

"You don't have to be afraid. I know what I'm doing and I won't let you get hurt."

 

"Right." Aang bowed like he would to a real Master, even though Zuko claimed not to be one.

 

Zuko returned the bow. "We're going to start with sunrise meditation. We still have a few minutes before sunrise is over. I want you to focus on your inner fire and feel how it grows stronger as the sun rises higher."

 

Aang nodded. Both of them sat down and crossed their legs. Aang closed his eyes and looked inward to his inner fire. He thought about the things he was passionate about.

 

Aang thought about his friends and how much he loved them. That stoked his inner fire. He thought about the beauty of nature that surrounded them. The fire grew brighter. He thought about his upcoming fight with- The fire went cold, and his eyes snapped open.

 

Aang shivered. Zuko opened his eyes and looked at him. "What's wrong?"

 

"I just…" Aang looked into the distance, at the sun finishing its climb over the horizon. "I don't know." He released his legs from their meditation position.

 

"Do you… wanna talk about it?"

 

Aang looked at Zuko. His friend and he is my friend looked as troubled as Aang felt. He still wanted to try to comfort Aang though. Aang smiled at him. "Yeah."

 

Zuko loosened out of his stiff meditation pose as well. "Is the spirit world always like that," Zuko asked.

 

Aang considered. "That was only my third time going in. Each time was different."

 

Zuko nodded, even though that wasn't really an answer. "It was intense."

 

"Yeah," Aang agreed. "I mean… It was amazing to meet the cardinal winds. My whole life they've carried me on my glider, and I actually got to meet them!"

 

Zuko chuckled. "Yeah… That was something special."

 

"I don't…" I don't know how to say this right. I guess I just have to try my best. "I don't blame you Zuko. I'm not… I'm not Roku, you know?"

 

Zuko frowned. He didn't look like he understood, but he did look like he was trying. I need to be more straightforward.

 

"I'm not Kyoshi. I'm not Kuruk. I'm not…" Aang stretched his mind, trying to think of what his name had been before that, centuries ago.

 

"I get it," Zuko said. "Thank you. You're… you're very generous, to forgive me."

 

"That's not…" This part is tricky. "I don't forgive you Zuko. I don't blame you."

 

Zuko tilted his head. He looked baffled. "I… You lost me," he confessed.

 

"Yeah, I…" Aang fell backwards and let his body rest heavy on the earth in a way that was so unnatural to him as an Airbender, but felt comforting as a budding Earthbender. He looked up at the sky. A hyenabuzzard was circling high above them.

 

"Are you okay," Zuko asked.

 

"I'm not sure. I fought at the North Pole, but there's a lot of it that I don't remember. There were parts where I wasn't in control. This time… This time everything depends on me."

 

"Yeah," Zuko said. "That's tough."

 

Aang kept staring at the bird. "I'm afraid."

 

"Me too," Zuko said in a voice so soft Aang wondered if he was even meant to hear him.

 

"I don't think I'm strong enough to do what needs to be done. Everyone is depending on me. The whole world is counting on me. I'm going to let them all down."

 

Aang heard the sound of movement and footsteps. At first he thought Zuko was leaving, but then Aang remembered to use his earthbending to follow Zuko's movements. Zuko walked over to him and sat down next to his head. "When I was your age…"

 

Aang sat up. He turned to look at Zuko. He met his eyes, both of them, even the one hiding in folds of scar tissue. Aang waited and listened, just like an Earthbender.

 

"I thought I had a destiny too. I thought a lot of things that… that turned out not to be true. I thought I knew so many things. Now I'm not sure if I know anything at all."

 

Aang nodded. Is this supposed to be encouraging? I appreciate the effort, but it isn't in any way encouraging. Still, I need to thank him for trying. "You know lots of things Zuko," Aang assured him.

 

Zuko snorted in derision. "The thing is Aang… I've seen… I've seen a lot of horrible things in my life. I reached a crossroads, and I… I'm not sure what all I believe in anymore. But…" Zuko cleared his throat and averted his eyes, but then he forced them back to Aang.

 

"You saved my life, the life of your enemy when you could have left me to freeze and die. You should have done that. You always choose mercy, and you always choose compassion. My whole life I heard that the Avatar was powerful, and I thought that was just because he was a strong bender."

 

Zuko put his hand on Aang's shoulder; his fingers were calloused but gentle. "You are a great bender Aang, but that isn't what makes you strong. It's easy to hate. It's easy to look away, but you never do. Your compassion is your courage. So if I believe in anything, I believe in you."

 

Aang felt his lower lip tremble. "Oh."

 

"I'm not trying to put more pressure on you. I probably should have just kept my mouth shut. All I mean is… It's just…"

 

Aang threw his arms around Zuko and hugged him tight. "Do you think I'm strong enough to face him," he pleaded.

 

Zuko hugged him back. "I know you are."

 

Aang got to his feet. Zuko followed his lead and stood in front of him. Aang took a step back and held out his hand. He thought about his people, about the Airbenders that were depending on him to free them. A tiny red flame grew from his palm.

 

"Pretty good," Zuko said.

 

"How do I uh… put it out?"

 

Zuko chuckled and then walked Aang through the breathing exercises that would regulate the strength of his flame and allow him to either grow or extinguish it. Aang felt good when the practice was done. He felt more certain. He felt warm.

 

They walked back to camp together. Aang noticed a lot of baskets of stuff and that Toph was counting a large pile of money. He flinched. "You've been busy," Aang said in a neutral tone.

 

"Yep. I had a productive day. Did you learn how to set people on fire yet?"

 

"I learned how to make a flame."

 

"Well that's pretty good. It's not destroy an entire island good, but you'll get there."

 

"Um, Toph," Zuko said. Aang could hear his nerves in his voice. "I'm sorry about our misunderstanding earlier. It's not my place to judge you. You're my friend, and I support you, even when we disagree."

 

Toph shuffled her feet, digging her toes through the stone like it was just clay. C'mon Toph. Take the win , Aang begged in his mind. Toph walked over and punched Zuko in the arm, her affectionate punch, not the angry one.

 

Zuko rubbed his arm. "Still friends?"

 

"Always Sparky, you know that."

 

Zuko's cheeks went red a bit. Aang found himself thinking about Azula all of a sudden. Aang wondered how much it must hurt to have so much love to give, but nowhere to put it where it wouldn't be squandered. He wondered if Azula ever regretted throwing away her brother's love. Thanks Toph.

 

"So when do you think you'll get to shoot lightning out of your fingers and give princess psycho some payback," Toph asked. Her thoughts seemed to have been running parallel to Aang's, although they ended up in a very different place.

 

"I can't actually teach you that," Zuko said with a guilty look on his face. "My uncle tried to show me how, but I never mastered it."

 

But… "You redirected lightning in the tunnels under Ba Sing Se," Aang protested. "When you saved me from Azula. You said your uncle invented the technique from watching waterbenders."

 

"Yeah, I can redirect lightning," Zuko said. "I'll show you how to do that later. I just can't make it on my own."

 

"Oh sure you can," Toph said. "What's with you guys lately? You're all so quick to give up. What's the problem?"

 

"Creating lighting requires a clear mind. You have to separate yourself from your emotions."

 

Toph snickered. "Oh yeah, that's never gonna happen sparkles. You're the most emotional person I know."

 

"But that's a good thing!" Aang was quick to interject. "Who'd want to separate themself from their emotions? Our emotions are an important part of who we are."

 

Toph shrugged. "If you say so. Well we're about packed up. Sokka found a town a few hours ride from here that we can make camp near."

 

"I thought you wanted to go to that magma reserve and practice lavabending," Zuko said.

 

Toph waved her hand in a dismissive fashion. "Plenty of time for that later. I have a great new scam I want to try in a new town. Those unsuspecting suckers won't know what hit them."

 

Aang flinched. Really Toph? "Don't we have enough money," Aang asked.

 

"Hey, we're buying stuff that will be useful for the invasion. This is all to help you twinkle toes. You're welcome." Toph gathered her things and went to climb onto Appa.

 

Aang sighed. "I think this might be getting out of hand."

 

"Yeah…" Aang looked up and saw Zuko staring, but when he followed Zuko's line of sight Aang's eyes landed on Katara instead of Toph.

 

"Hey, uh… Is everything okay between you and Katara?"

 

Zuko flinched. "She just needs time… and space. She's grieving," Zuko said.

 

Aang nodded. "Well, thanks for understanding. Katara does so much for all of us. It's the least we can do to give her room to breath I suppose."

 

"Yeah, although…" Zuko shifted his feet, looking uncomfortable. "I'm worried about her. I think something might be wrong."

 

"Something like what?" Aang tried not to panic. I can't let anything happen to Katara.

 

"I'm not sure… You know what? Never mind. I don't know what I'm talking about. Forget I said anything."

 

"Zuko-"

 

Zuko ran off to collect the rest of his things before Aang could finish his sentence. They flew to their next campsite in silence for the most part. Aang found himself disinclined to engage in his usual chatter. Each campsite was one step closer to the capital, one step closer to a confrontation he didn't know if he could handle.

 

Once they set down Toph ran off with Sokka to try her newest scheme. Sokka had ideas of his own, and the two of them were laughing together as they left. Katara didn't complain about the pair not assisting in setting up camp. She got to work without a word.

 

"Let me help you with that," Aang offered.

 

"Thanks Aang. When we're done how about some bending practice?"

 

"That's a great idea! I can put a blindfold on and test out my earth vision. You and Zuko could do dual attacks, make it harder."

 

Katara's smile narrowed into a thin line. "Sure, that sounds fun."

 

"Or… It could just be me and you. Maybe I should wait until I'm a little better before I go up against two people."

 

"Whatever you think is best," she said, sounding more enthusiastic and cheerful.

 

Aang noticed that Zuko had gone off to get water, an activity that was helpful, but that kept him away from them. When all the work was done Aang blindfolded himself for sparring with Katara. He tried to listen to the Earth with his skin like Toph taught him.

 

"Are you ready Aang? Do you want to take a minute to adjust?"

 

Aang wiggled his toes. He could feel the different objects around him pressing on the earth like Toph had taught him. He also felt something else. He tilted his head up and felt the sun on his face. There was warmth all around him.

 

He could reach out and feel the flame of life in all the living things around him, just like the one Zuko had taught him to sense in himself. He could feel animals scampering on the ground with his earthbending, but he could also detect birds up in the air with his firebending by detecting their body heat. When he combined the two senses information came pouring in. "Wow."

 

"Aang?"

 

Aang frowned. He reached out to sense where Katara's voice was. He could feel her standing there, pushing down on the Earth. There wasn't any heat though. He took off his blindfold.

 

"Is something wrong?"

 

Aang walked up to Katara and reached for her hands. He felt like he was holding two blocks of ice. "Katara, are you okay?"

 

Katara pulled her hands away. "Of course I am. What are you talking about?"

 

"You're frozen," Aang insisted. "Are you sick? Let's go by the fire so you can heat up."

 

"Aang, I'm fine," Katara snapped. "You're not making any sense."

 

"Don't you feel cold?"

 

Katara stared at him for a second. Why won't she let me help her? She's my friend, and I love her. I just want to help.

 

"I need to go… unpack another bag." Katara turned around and walked away, leaving a sheen of ice on every blade of grass she stepped on.

Chapter Text

Toph laughed as Sokka continued his tirade against the poor design of some of the weapons in a shop window. There were days that she berated herself over her silly crush, but the fact was that Sokka could make her laugh like no one else could. She used to worry he would notice how much she enjoyed the sound of his voice, but he just seemed delighted to have an appreciative audience. Sokka stopped talking mid-sentence. Sokka not talking was weird by itself, but in the middle of a thought?

 

"What is it?" Increased heart rate, erratic breathing, but no sign of a nearby threat…

 

"Oh no…"

 

"Sokka." She put her hands on her hips.

 

"It's a poster Toph, a wanted poster."

 

"For Aang?"

 

"No, for you."

 

"Really?!" Toph grinned. It's about time I got some recognition. "Does it look good?"

 

"Toph, this is serious." Sokka's voice was tinged with worry. "It says you're a dangerous criminal and lists a high reward." Toph felt the movements of Sokka doing a visual scan for people watching them. She heard him tear the poster off the wall.

 

"Did it give me a cool nickname?"

 

"The authorities in that last town must have figured out our schemes after we left," Sokka muttered to himself. "They might have put up posters like this in all the surrounding towns."

 

"I'm sure it will be fine. No one is going to see the poor helpless blind girl that can't even get around on her own and think: dangerous criminal." Toph grabbed onto Sokka's elbow as if she needed his guidance.

 

"Toph, what if Azula or her crazy sidekicks see one of these posters? If they recognize you they'll realize we're in the Fire Nation."

 

"Is it a good likeness," Toph asked.

 

She heard the sound of crumpling paper. "Eh. It's decent. I could do better."

 

Toph scoffed. "Based on what Katara and Aang say about your art skills that means the poster is just a bunch of squiggly lines. Sokka, relax. The princess of the Fire Nation isn't going to be sorting through wanted posters from random nowhere villages."

 

Sokka took a moment to reply, but Toph could feel his heart steadying as he did. "I guess you're right."

 

"I know I'm right, because I always am."

 

"We should probably move camp though, just to be safe."

 

Toph shrugged. "Whatever. This scene is dead anyway. I wonder if there's a town near those magma reserves Zuko told me about…"

 

When Toph and Sokka arrived back at camp Toph could feel the tension in every step and breath her friends took. Katara was down by the river, so Toph couldn't feel her well. Aang and Zuko were sitting in front of the fire, not talking and radiating miserable vibes. This won't do at all.

 

"What are you two moping for? Get up, it's time to go find some lava."

 

Aang scrambled to his feet. "Toph! I practiced my ground-seeing like you taught me, and I learned a new skill!" He ran over. "It's not just the vibrations in the Earth I can feel!"

 

Toph tilted her head. "What do you mean?"

 

"I can sense heat too! I'm not good yet, but it's definitely possible. Zuko and I are going to work on it… later. How was town?"

 

Sokka started to answer. "Well-"

 

"It was fine," Toph cut him off. "We made a bunch of money."

 

Zuko walked over and took hold of Sokka's elbow, urging him to walk away from Toph and Aang. "Can I talk to you," he murmured in a low voice.

 

"Huh? Sure." What's going on? Why wouldn't they want to talk in front of me? What happened to this being a team?

 

"What's going on twinkle toes," Toph demanded. She felt for Sokka's vitals while she spoke to Aang. Normal, normal, nervous, distressed, PANIC, PANIC. "Aang?"

 

"I… I'm not… I don't…"

 

Toph pushed past Aang to head down to the river. Katara must have gotten in the water, because Toph couldn't sense her precise location. "Katara? Are you still here?"

 

"I'm here," said Katara. "What is it?"

 

"Everyone else is acting really weird. What's going on?"

 

Katara laughed. It was a cold and brittle sound. "Who knows with them? Zuko taught Aang some weird new firebending trick and now Aang has got it into his head that-"

 

"Can you come out of the water? Talking to a disembodied voice is giving me a headache."

 

Katara gave a gentle laugh. "Sorry." She stepped onto the bank, dripping water onto the earth where it mixed with dirt and turned to mud, becoming something Toph could feel and control.

 

"So what's wrong with Aang?"

 

"Apparently he thinks that there's something wrong with ME. He thinks that I'm sick or something, but I'm fine."

 

Toph laughed. "How could there be something wrong with you? You're our healer; you put us back together when there's something wrong with us." There's a hole in that logic, but if I don't stick my finger in it then it won't get any bigger.

 

Katara chuckled. "Exactly. The stress of the invasion must be getting to his head."

 

"I'll say." Even as they laughed together Toph felt a sense of disquiet lingering heavy in the air. What do I care about what's in the air? That's Aang's problem, not mine. "Come on sugar queen, let's get outta here."

 

"What do you mean?"

 

"I mean that if those three want to work themselves into a state that's nothing to do with either of us. Let's go do something FUN. Forget about Aang and Sokka," Don't be surprised when an Earthbender plays dirty. "And Zuko."

 

Toph felt the flinch and knew she had won. "What did you have in mind?"

 

I probably should have thought of something to do before I tried to convince Katara to do it. "You're going to pull a scam with me."

 

"Oh, um… I don't know Toph. I don't think I'd be very good at-"

 

Toph waved her hand in a dismissive fashion. "No, it's cool, I get it. It's like Zuko said, these scams are dishonorable."

 

"That's not-! Fine. I'll do it."

 

I may have gone too far. I should be helping them bridge the gap, not pushing them farther apart. Well they can fix their own relationship. It's not every day I get a chance to teach Katara to loosen up. I can't just throw that away!

 

Toph grinned. "Let's go."

 

They headed towards town, but Sokka stepped in front of them as they walked past the edge of their camp. "Katara, we need to talk," he said. His heart was racing, but his tone was calm.

 

"Toph and I have an errand to run, but I can talk to you when we get back." Katara took hold of Toph's hand. Toph almost shivered from how cold it was. She must have been bending a lot of ice.

 

"It can't wait," Sokka said.

 

"Well it's going to have to." Katara started to walk away. Toph followed. Nice! I'm proud of you sweetness!

 

"Katara! Listen to me!"

 

Katara whirled around. "No! You listen to me! I don't need this right now!"

 

"You're sick, Katara! You have frost fever! You need to come over to the fire and warm up!"

 

"You're ridiculous. Frost fever? That's not even real, just a story Gran-Gran told us when we were being brats. Name one person you know that's ever actually had it!"

 

"You, right now! The reason no one we know has ever had it is because only Waterbenders can catch it. You're freezing your own blood with your bending Katara! You need to come warm up and talk to us about whatever has upset you so-"

 

"The only thing upsetting me right now is you." Katara's voice was so calm, and so cold. "You, and your ridiculous accusations that I can't control my own bending."

 

"That's not what I-"

 

"I know how to control my bending. I know how to control myself. If ANYONE is out of control it's our resident pyromaniac! I'm fine! I'M NOT THE PROBLEM! IT'S NOT ME!"

 

The stunned silence stretched on and on, getting heavier and heavier. Toph's hand was starting to go numb from holding Katara's icy one. "No one thinks you're a-"

 

"Who suggested that I have frost fever? Did you come up with it?"

 

"Well your symptoms-"

 

"I don't have any symptoms!"

 

"Listen for a second! In the Fire Nation there's a similar disease called smoke poisoning where Firebenders lose control of their bending and their blood boils from the inside. When Aang brought up how cold you were Zuko mentioned it and it reminded me of Gran-Gran telling us about-"

 

"So this is Zuko. Of course it is."

 

"No! He said he got it a few times when he was first banished and his uncle made him this calming tea that-"

 

"I don't need any calming tea! I don't need any help from you! I don't need any help from ZUKO! I'M! PERFECTLY! FINE!"

 

Wow. Maybe there is something going on. Toph slipped her hand out of Katara's grasp. "Toph," Sokka said. "Come back to camp with me."

 

"Leave her alone. We're just going to have some fun. Don't take this out on her."

 

"You need help Katara. If you won't let me help you that breaks my heart, but don't drag Toph down with you. Toph, let's go."

 

He sounds just like my dad. "What," Toph said in a sarcastic drawl. "Is it not safe for me to go with Katara or something?"

 

"Frankly, right now I don't believe it is."

 

Well, too bad. I'm not a delicate flower that needs to be shielded. I can handle underground fighting rings. I can handle traveling with the Avatar. I can definitely handle a trip to town. Toph took Katara's hand again.

 

"Toph-"

 

"We'll pick you up something nice while we're in town," Toph said. "A pretty bag or something."

 

Katara snickered. "We'll be back in a couple of hours."

 

"No." Sokka sounded more certain than Toph had ever heard him before. All of his jokes and charm were gone. He felt like stone, firm.

 

"You're not in charge of us," Katara said. "You can't control what we do. Either one of us could wipe the floor with five of you."

 

"Maybe," Sokka conceded. "But I'm your brother, and I love you. I love both of you. If you won't listen to reason then I have to look out for you. I'm coming with you."

 

"Fine," Toph said before Katara could retort with another cutting remark. "The more the merrier, let's get going."

 

Toph could feel Katara's scowl in the lines on her palm, but Katara didn't protest further. As they walked to town in silence Toph began to realize that there was no way their outing would end up being the fun romp she had planned. She couldn't be the first to back out though. She was committed. She had to be steady like the Earth.

 

"So what's the plan," Sokka asked. He sounded tired, so tired, and sad.

 

"Do you still have that poster," Toph asked.

 

"This one?" Toph heard more crinkling paper.

 

Katara gasped and snatched the poster out of Sokka's hands. For a moment the hand in Toph's felt almost like a normal temperature. "Toph, this is really- I mean." Katara's hand was going cold again. She cleared her throat and dropped whatever she had been going to say.

 

"Sokka said the reward for me is a lot of money. So what you two dummies are going to do is turn me in and collect the cash. Then I metalbend out of prison and we hightail it back to Appa. Isn't it brilliant?"

 

"It's dangerous," Katara started to say. She shook her head. "Not that danger has ever stopped any of us. Brilliant plan Toph."

 

"I hate it, but I'm assuming my opinion isn't good for anything," Sokka said.

 

"That would be correct," Toph teased. "Let's go."

Chapter Text

Katara gripped Toph's smooth skin and saw goosebumps erupt on the girl's arm near where Katara was touching her. This is crazy. This is stupid. This is dangerous. Katara thought about articulating her thoughts, but she felt frozen.

 

Toph schooled her amused features into something more defiant. "I don't know," Sokka said. "I really do think that this is a bad idea."

 

"This will be our biggest score yet," Toph said. "We'll have plenty of money for the Appa armor you wanted to make, for all those weird fancy tools you like, for atlases and star charts and for whatever else you want."

 

"Toph I really don't care about that right now," Sokka said. "These people are Fire Nation. They could hurt you."

 

"Yeah, but they're also gonna think we're Fire Nation. I'm wanted for theft, not murder. They aren't going to execute me. Stop being a pigchicken."

 

Sokka sighed and took Toph's other arm. This is such a terrible idea. It doesn't matter though. Why would it matter? Why does anything matter? I was so unhappy, but everything feels fine now. I feel nice and cool.

 

Katara took a deep breath and then pretended to drag a struggling Toph to the local precinct. She let Sokka do all the talking. She didn't feel like saying much. This is so pointless. She noticed with disinterest that her fingertips were turning blue. Huh, whatever.

 

The peace officers were delighted to lead Toph away. Toph wasn't making much of an effort to conceal her smirk. I think she forgets sometimes that other people can see her , Katara thought in a disconnected way. She realized she could see her breath as she exhaled.

 

The head peace officer pulled out a box and started to count out gold coins. The wooden boards under them creaked as someone walked into the building, someone heavy. Sokka was chatting and laughing with the head peace officer and didn't notice. Katara just didn't care. What did it matter to her who walked in?

 

A crushing metal grip encircled her wrist and yanked, pulling up her arm and forcing her to turn around. "Where are they?!" Hey, I know you.

 

Sokka gasped. "Combustion man!" Sokka drew his sword. Combustion man? Eh, it's not your worst. "Put my sister down!"

 

The man squeezed, hard. That should hurt, right? That should definitely hurt. "Where's the Avatar and the… other one?" So many secrets Azula, must be exhausting.

 

The peace officers attacked Sokka. He hadn't learned nothing with Piando. His strikes were swift and sure. Katara remembered being told that Piando was a painter. Sokka was painting red lines on the peace officers.

 

Combustion man was still squeezing. Katara could hear things cracking in her wrist. I know that should hurt. Oh well, not my problem.

 

He reached out with his flesh hand to grab her neck. He snatched his fingers back and hissed in pain. "What the hell?!" He lifted her off the ground. "What are you?"

 

"Katara? Katara, do something! Our cover is blown! We need to fight!"

 

"What's the matter, water witch?" Combustion man laughed at her. "Where's that furocity now? You were so passionate before."

 

"Kata-uh!" Her eyes slid over to where three officers had ganged up on her brother and disarmed him. They were clapping iron on him. "Get off me!"

 

"This one can't bend metal, right," one of the officers asked.

 

"Toph," Sokka whispered in horror. "Toph!"

 

"Oh, you want to see your friend? Sure." Combustion man dragged Katara by her broken wrist into the back room. Sokka's captors forced him to follow.

 

Toph had been thrown in a wooden cell that she was trying to pry apart with her bare hands. "Let me out of here! Open this door and face me you spineless jellymice!" Her hands were full of splinters and smeared with blood.

 

"We made it just like you said, no earth or metal of any kind anywhere in the room," one of the peace officers told Combustion man. "Are you sure she's as powerful as you said? She's just a little girl."

 

"I can hear you out there! Open this door!" Toph stomped her foot. She tilted her head to the side and smirked. She slid her foot along the floor and little pieces of dirt tracked in on shoes came rushing towards her.

 

Combustion man noticed and dropped Katara. He reached out with his metal hand, snapped two wooden bars in half and then yanked Toph out and up off the ground by her wrist like he had Katara. I knew that was supposed to hurt, Katara thought as Toph let out a shrill shriek. "You just can't quit can you, you little brat?"

 

Toph laughed through her pained gasps. "I'm the greatest Earthbender in the world. NOTHING can stop me."

 

"What should we do with her sir," one of the peace officers asked.

 

"Poetic justice," Combustion man spat out. "Get a hammer." He lifted Toph up higher. "Do you know what Earth Kingdom soldiers do with captured Firebenders?"

 

Toph's face went pale, and so did Sokka's as much as his darker complexion allowed. "Don't you touch her! She's just a kid! She's a little girl! Leave her alone!"

 

"If she's old enough to fight then she's old enough to bleed," Combustion man proclaimed. "Don't worry mud girl, once I have the Avatar and you-know-who I'll kill you. You'll only need to be a cripple for an hour or two at most. Of course, you've been one your whole life, so-"

 

Toph cut him off by kicking him in the face, crushing his nose with her powerful leg muscles. Combustion man growled in irritation. He lifted her as high as his arm could stretch and slammed her onto the floor. "Toph! Stop it! You'll kill her!"

 

Katara felt so cold. The snow was black, but it was still cold. She could smell the smoke. Her father had tried to keep her away, but she could see what they'd done to her mother. She just couldn't understand why her mother was whimpering in pain. How can she be whimpering if she's dead?

 

"Here you go sir," one of the peace officers said as he returned with a heavy hammer.

 

"Don't," Sokka begged. He struggled against the chains that bound him. "Please, I'll do anything. I'll tell you where Aang and Zuko-"

 

Combustion man turned around and punched Sokka in the face, silencing him. "Did he…" the peace officer holding the hammer began. "Did he just say Zuko, like prince Zuko?"

 

Combustion man snatched the hammer away. "I think you're hearing things, and if you want to live to see the next sunrise that's what you think as well."

 

Zuko. Zuko. Zuko. All anyone wants to talk about is Zuko. He makes me so angry. I love him. I hate him. I don't understand him. I grieve for him. I'm frustrated by him.

 

Everything is so complicated. It makes me so angry. At least the ice is cool. I don't have to feel anything in the ice. The ice protects me.

 

"Katara! Katara, help me! I'm sorry! This is all my fault! Please help me!"

 

Katara wanted to help her mother, but she couldn't. There was nothing a little girl with a few tricks for moving snow could do against a Firebender. Her mother sounded like a little girl too. That's not right.

 

"Hold her down," Combustion man said.

 

"Please," Sokka said through a mouthful of blood. He spit out a tooth. "You don't have to do this. She'll cooperate. We'll all cooper-"

 

"Shut him up," Combustion man said.

 

A peace officer hit Sokka again, and again, and again. Another one pressed down on Toph's shoulders to keep her still. Combustion man grabbed her calf in his metal hand, squeezing hard enough to cut her tender flesh. "This is what you savages do to our brave boys when you catch them, to their hands anyway. Your feet are more dangerous though. I'll start with them."

 

"Katara! Katara, where are you?! I haven't heard her voice once! What did you do with her?"

 

"Oh she's watching. I think she's somewhat amused by the whole situation. You need better friends mud girl." He tightened his grip and lifted the hammer.

 

"If you keep being so sullen you'll get frost fever," Kana lectured Sokka as he kicked another snow drift four days after Hakoda had left with the fleet. For three days Kana had let Sokka pout to his heart's content. On the fourth day she decided enough was enough.

 

"I don't care," Sokka spat. He kicked another pile of snow that just so happened to be concealing a heavy urn. He winced and whimpered in pain. "Ow! Gran-Gran," he shouted as if she were somehow responsible.

 

Kana chuckled. "Enough moping boy. Time to come inside for dinner."

 

"What's frost fever, Gran-Gran," Katara asked.

 

"It's a serious disease. My friend Hama caught it once. When you feel a powerful negative emotion, a feeling that hurts so much you'd rather feel nothing at all, you can catch frost fever. It turns your blood to ice."

 

Katara shivered. "So if I get too sad I'll die?!"

 

"No dear, not at all. If you catch frost fever all you need to do is sit in front of a fire with someone you love and talk about what you're feeling. That will cure you."

 

"That sounds easy Gran-Gran."

 

"It sounds easier than it is love. Now let's have some dinner and get some sleep."

 

"Katara!" Someone was yelling her name, someone far away. "Katara, please! I need you!"

 

Katara felt a heavy CRACK like the sound of pouring hot water over a brick of ice, but tenfold louder, PAINFUL and right in the center of her chest. She looked up and saw Toph. Toph was crying. Katara had to help her, but she couldn't move, and she was so cold. She could see her breath in the air, little ice flakes melting in the hot summer evening.

 

"Could you freeze the air in his lungs," Koh asked her. "It turns your blood to ice," Kana explained to her. The air smelled like smoke.

 

Combustion man was bringing the hammer down, down, down. CRACK. There were two howls of pain as the hammer crushed the metatarsal bones in Toph's right foot. At the same time Katara felt an excruciating pain in her chest as a chunk of ice cracked open. Blood was oozing out.

 

"Better make sure," Combustion man said as he raised the hammer again. "Never do a thing by halves."

 

I can't move! I can't bend if I can't move! Katara stared at Combustion man's flesh and blood arm, raised high, holding a hammer. "Could you freeze the air in his lungs?" "It turns the blood to ice."

 

Combustion man stopped. His arm was still above him. He gasped in pain. The veins in his arm were bulging. Water expands as it freezes. His veins will burst.

 

Combustion man's eyes found her, and he growled with hate and rage. "The water witch! Knock her out! Do it now!"

 

It didn't hurt. It didn't feel like anything at all. In the darkness no one spoke to her, not even Koh.

Chapter Text

The sun was setting. Zuko stood up and picked up his swords. "Zuko? What're you doing?"

 

Zuko took a deep breath and turned to face Aang's guileless pleading face. Zuko held up two fingers. "Two hours. If I'm not back in two hours you go to the rendezvous point. If anyone other than me, Toph, Katara or Sokka head this way you go to the rendezvous point."

 

"But-"

 

Zuko shook his head. "Do you trust me?"

 

"Yeah Zuko, of course I trust-"

 

"Do you really though? Do you really, really trust me?"

 

"Ye-"

 

"Trust me with your life?"

 

"Yes!" Aang pushed the syllable out as fast as he could so as not to be cut off again.

 

"Trust me with Katara's life?"

 

The beat of hesitation was less than a tenth of a second, but Zuko still caught it. "YES."

 

"Listen to me Aang." Zuko did an awkward partial kneel so he was eye level with Aang. He put his hand on Aang's shoulder. "I need you to listen to me."

 

"I'm listening," Aang whispered.

 

Don't mess this up Zuko. You've messed up everything in your life that has ever mattered, but you can't mess THIS up. "Do you remember Katara and Sokka's village?"

 

Aang looked at Zuko like he was nuts. "Yeah…"

 

"Kyoshi island?"

 

"Uh-huh."

 

"Omashu?"

 

"Zuko, where are you-"

 

"Do you remember those Earthbenders you freed from prison, that town you saved from Hei Bai? The fire sage that's rotting in a cell right now for helping you? The Northern Water Tribe? Ba Sing Se?"

 

"Yes, Zuko, I remember all those people! I know they're all counting on me! I know they need me to take down the Firelord and win the war! I know, okay, I know!"

 

"Katara and Sokka risked everything when they decided to take you to the North Pole. Toph risked everything when she left… wherever she's from." Weird that it never came up.

 

"Gaoling," Aang muttered.

 

"Whatever, listen!" Aang's grey eyes were avoiding him, but Zuko tracked and pinned them down with his gold ones, even the one that hardly worked. "If you get killed trying to help them they won't thank you for it. If the Firelord finds out about the invasion because the Avatar was apprehended so close to the capital they won't thank you for it."

 

"But Zuko-"

 

"Everyone is counting on you Aang. I'm counting on you." Low blow, you dick. "I need you to trust me. I'll take care of them. If I'm not back in two hours you HAVE to leave. Do you understand?"

 

Aang bit his lip and clenched his fists. "What if something happens to you too?"

 

"That's okay. It doesn't matter."

 

"Of course it matters!"

 

"No! It doesn't!" Remember what Uncle said about keeping your temper. Breathe. "There's a little boy in the Earth Kingdom right now who lost his brother and maybe his father to the war. If this war doesn't stop he'll have to fight too as soon as he's old enough to hold a sword."

 

Aang shook his head. "But Zuko-"

 

"There's a healer who has never hurt anybody, doesn't even know how to fight, and she has burn marks all up her legs. Do you know what that means?" Of course he doesn't you idiot, he's TWELVE.

 

Aang tilted his head in confusion. "No…"

 

Zuko sighed. "You're just a kid. It's not fair that all of this is on your shoulders, but it is. I hate that. I hate that the spirits let this burden fall on your shoulders when-" Zuko bit his lip to try to calm down, but it didn't work.

 

"Zuko?"

 

"You're so young! You're innocent! You shouldn't have to deal with all this! IT ISN'T FAIR."

 

Aang's eyes went wide and he took a step back. Zuko knew his breath smelled like smoke. He took a deep calming breath and got to his feet. "We're all counting on you Aang. I'm sorry, but that's just the way it is."

 

"I can't just leave you behind!"

 

"You'll have to, or this was all for nothing." Zuko took off for the town. There wasn't a lot of time. He only had two hours.

 

The street lanterns were all out when he approached, but that was fine. The Blue Spirit worked well in the dark. I'm not the Blue Spirit. I'm not even wearing a mask.

 

Zuko held his swords at a ready angle as he walked down the empty cobbled street. He heard the man take a step behind him. Zuko ducked and rolled just in time to avoid the blast that took out the corner of a building.

 

"Where's the Avatar," the assassin from the island Toph had destroyed asked.

 

Zuko stood up and faced the man. "Who," he asked in a deadpan intonation.

 

The assassin scowled. "Doesn't matter. He'll come for you."

 

Zuko snorted in condescension. "Nobody fights for ghosts."

 

"You think I'm merciful enough to let you die? It will be slow my prince." His last two words dripped with thick sarcasm.

 

"Well you'll be quick," Zuko promised. "I have a prior engagement."

 

The assassin took a deep breath. Zuko got out of the way fast. No onlookers came to inspect the noise. The town was empty. Good. I don't have to worry about collateral damage.

 

Zuko knew the steps. He knew the steps better than the ones to the dance he had taught Sokka. He knew the steps better than anything. They were natural, familiar.

 

Dodge, duck, roll and jump. Zuko circled the assassin, letting him waste more and more energy attacking while Zuko just… waited. "You're a coward," the assassin snarled. "I see now why your father was so eager to get rid of you."

 

Zuko laughed. "Yeah, well, what can I say? Creatures of the dark aren't known for their bravery."

 

"You disgust me. I don't know how the spirits could ever bless someone as weak and pathetic as you with sacred fire."

 

"Because you, a man that murders children, is so much more worthy," Zuko said right before dodging another blast.

 

"They aren't Fire," the man snarled. "And neither are you. You're a traitor."

 

"I've heard this song before," Zuko said. "It wasn't very good the first time either."

 

Zuko dodged another explosion, escaping the resulting debris by a hair. "You pathetic little worm, FIGHT BACK!"

 

Zuko stepped forward and held his swords to either side, making himself a perfect target. "You need to work on your aim."

 

The assassin stepped forward. Zuko saw that he had a broken nose. Nice one guys. I'm proud of you. The assassin took a deep breath.

 

Wait until the last second, and don't mess up this time. Zuko waited. Don't break your root. The explosion came for him as he let his swords slip from his fingers. Zuko reached out and caught the explosion.

 

Ha! Zuko smiled. Focus! Zuko threw it back. He derived deep satisfaction from the shock on the assassin's face as he dove out of the way of his own fire.

 

Zuko picked up his swords and ran forward. The assassin blocked the first blow with his metal arm. He grabbed Zuko's arm and tried to flip him over his shoulder, but Zuko just jumped, leaning into the momentum and flipping in the air to land on his feet.

 

The assassin snarled as he turned around to face Zuko, but Zuko was ready. The slash cut across the man's forehead, bisecting his third eye. The man howled in pain as he reached up to press against the bleeding. Zuko grabbed the man's collar and raised one of his swords high. "Where are my friends?"

 

"Do it brat," the assassin said as blood ran from one eye into the other two.

 

"Tell me where they are!"

 

"Strike! Strike, you coward!"

 

Zuko dropped the man, disgusted. He turned around to start searching buildings. He heard scraping metal and dropped to one knee so that his head wasn't there when the assassin tried to strike him. Zuko turned and swept his leg, sending the assassin sprawling to the ground.

 

Zuko placed the blade of his sword against the prone man's neck. "Which building are they in?"

 

The assassin started laughing. "You're pathetic. You can't do it." He struck as fast as a ratviper, grabbing Zuko's hand and yanking. Zuko was pulled to the ground while the assassin used the momentum to stand up. He yanked the sword from Zuko's grasp.

 

Zuko did the only thing he could. He thrust his second sword forward to ward off the blow he assumed was coming from his stolen one. The assassin, like many Firebenders, seemed to hold to the belief that weapons were beneath him as a chosen bearer of sacred flame. He was in the process of tossing Zuko's first sword away when the second sliced open his abdomen.

 

Zuko stared in shock at the sight of a man's intestines falling out of his body. There was so much blood, and it flowed onto Zuko like a waterfall. Zuko scrambled away like a spidercrab, whimpering in disgust. The assassin fell to his knees, one knee crushing a section of intestine beneath it.

 

"I'm sorry," Zuko whispered. "I'm sorry."

 

"Finish it," the assassin begged. It wasn't a taunt anymore; it was a plea. "Finish it." He begged for death, his face pale with pain and blood loss.

 

The waxing moon was watching them as Zuko, shaking, got to his feet. He picked up his sword and took a single step forward. "I didn't want this," he tried to explain.

 

The man was beyond understanding, in far too much pain. "Finish it," he pleaded one last time.

 

Zuko looked up, past the moon, to the North Star, shining so bright. "I can't just leave him like this. I didn't mean… I'm sorry."

 

She didn't answer. Zuko finished it. The arterial spray struck him across the chest, but there was already blood there anyway. He picked up his other sword and noticed one lone building somehow illuminated by extra starlight. He didn't understand why any spirit would still answer his prayers, but he didn't have time to question it.

 

There was no one inside. Zuko didn't know if the peace officers had fled with the citizens of the town or been killed by the assassin to keep the identity of his prey secret. Zuko kicked open the door to the backroom. Then he threw up.

 

He'd been trying to wait to throw up, but that hadn't worked out. Katara looked like she had to be dead. She was starting to turn such a deep blue even Zuko could see it. Zuko had never known anyone who wasn't a corpse to turn blue.

 

Toph was on the ground trembling and sobbing. Her feet looked like lumps of raw bloody ground meat. She didn't seem to be aware anyone had entered the room. She must not have heard the door slam open over the sound of her own sobs.

 

Sokka was chained up and also sobbing. He alone noticed Zuko enter the room. He opened his mouth to say something, and blood leaked out. He was missing a tooth.

 

Zuko felt an odd sensation wash over him, like he might faint. I can't faint. What kind of rescuer faints mid-rescue? Zuko rushed over to Sokka and struck off the chains with his blades. Sokka tried to get to his feet and wobbled. Zuko reached out to hold him up.

 

Sokka took a second, just one, to stabilize and then walked over to Katara and started to feel for a pulse. Zuko went and dropped to one knee next to Toph. He wanted to speak to her, comfort her, but he couldn't utter a sound.

 

A strangled cry from Sokka's direction made Zuko think he'd been right in his assessment of Katara, but then he heard a thick, wet voice. "She's alive, but she's frozen. You're a Firebender. Help her."

 

Zuko crawled over to where Katara was and placed a hand on her cheek before snatching it back. She was so cold it hurt to touch her. He didn't know how it was possible that she could be alive. He gave Sokka a hopeless look.

 

Sokka's face twisted into fury. For a moment Zuko thought Sokka might strike him. He didn't. He just let several tears fall down his face. "Please, please, please," he begged over and over again.

 

Zuko motioned towards Toph as he crawled even closer to Katara. Sokka nodded in understanding and crawled over to Toph. Zuko stared down at Katara. Warm the core. That's the cure for hypothermia.

 

Zuko shook his head in disbelief as he got in the position for rescue breathing. He'd done it once before, on a man who stopped breathing and collapsed at some Earth Kingdom port. Someone with actual healing experience had shown up and taken over. Zuko had left without finding out if the man lived or died. He had to continue his search for the Avatar.

 

I'm an idiot. Zuko opened Katara's mouth and leaned over to breath heated air into her lungs. Hot, but not too hot. What is too hot? Is it different for Water Tribe than Fire Nation?

 

Zuko didn't have time to second guess himself. He just exhaled. One, two, three, inhale, exhale. One, two, three, inhale, exhale. He put his hand on her icy neck and felt her slow, weak pulse.

 

Zuko heard a loud whimper and turned around to see Sokka standing up while cradling Toph in his arms. Zuko turned back to his patient. Patient? I'm not a healer. Zuko breathed air into her lungs. He gathered her up in his arms and got to his feet.

 

"Will she…"

 

Zuko managed to get out one word. "Moon."

 

Sokka may or may not have understood, but he didn't argue. Zuko carried Katara outside and laid her down again on the rough ground under the moon and stars. He looked up at the moon. I know I'm not yours, but she is. She has done more for your people than ANYONE. She deserves to live, and even if you don't care about that, you NEED her.

 

Zuko leaned over her and breathed the warm air into her lungs. He lifted his head to take another breath and saw her open her eyes. She stared at him. "Oh," she whispered, voice weak and soft. "I know you."

 

Zuko nodded.

 

"I can't…" Her eyes started to close again. He picked her up to carry her to camp.

 

When Zuko looked at Sokka he saw him staring at the body of the assassin. Zuko didn't know what to say, and he couldn't speak anyway. They began the long walk to camp. Zuko didn't know if they would make it in time. He just knew they had to try.

Chapter Text

Sokka loved his sister. He assumed that most people loved their sisters. Maybe Zuko didn't, but Sokka had never asked. It seemed like a personal question. Still, loving one's sister, that was pretty normal.

 

Sokka thought that if his sister were someone other than Katara he would probably still love her. It wouldn't be as easy though. Loving Katara was… effortless. She was so… good.

 

Sokka held Toph tight in his arms as she sobbed and shook. He kept glancing at Zuko and the precious cargo in his arms. Sokka had wanted to protect Katara and Toph. He loved them, in a pure uncomplicated way. Yet life made everything complicated.

 

Sokka couldn't get the image out of his head of his sister slipping away, frosting over, only to break out of her trance with the sheer force of her love for Toph. Frost fever wasn't supposed to work like that. Sokka wasn't an expert, but he didn't think any disease worked like that. He wanted to kill Combustion man. Too late.

 

The more he walked the more Sokka's injuries ached and the heavier Toph felt. He forced each foot in front of the other again and again. He would get Toph to safety if it killed him. There was no other option. Her breathing was so pained and shallow.

 

Aang was waiting for them. He was sitting on top of Appa, staring in the direction he knew they would come from. He ran over the second he saw them. Sokka watched his expression transform from relief to horror.

 

"Did you ever learn any healing," Sokka demanded.

 

"I… no… I didn't…" Aang looked stricken, as though he were the one responsible for their friends' injuries. He's the least to blame of any of us. Don't be cruel.

 

Sokka couldn't push down the anger and frustration. Having one healer was such a terrible idea. It had never seemed like one before though, because that healer was Katara. Katara could do anything.

 

Zuko walked up to Aang and got to his knees, laying Katara down on the ground. Zuko took Aang's hand and with a gentle pull guided him down to his knees as well on her other side. Zuko took a deep breath. I wonder if he realizes that he's covering Aang's hand with blood. Katara was smeared with blood from being carried by Zuko as well.

 

Zuko took another deep breath, like he was struggling to reclaim his voice. "You can bend all four elements Aang," he whispered. "You don't have to do it one at a time. You're a Firebender AND a Waterbender AND an Airbender. You can warm her up."

 

Aang's eyes widened with panic. "What?! I-!"

 

Zuko grabbed Aang's shoulder like he was going to shake him. He looked like an insane person. There's so much blood. It stinks. In the South Pole the cold air often kept the stench of fresh kills from being too pungent, but in the hot summer, even at night, Zuko stank with the odor of blood.

 

"The air in her lungs, the water in her flesh, it's all too cold. You have to infuse those elements with heat, GENTLE heat, not enough to burn her."

 

"I don't know how to do that!"

 

"I know. I know." Zuko was shaking. Sokka held Toph as close to his chest as he could, trying to shield her from the misery pressing down on them. "You have to figure it out, or she'll die." Sokka felt like he was suffocating.

 

Aang pulled his hand out of Zuko's and took a deep breath. His clean hand went on her brow and his bloody one went over her abdomen. Please Aang. Please. Aang breathed in deep through his nose and blew frost out of his mouth. Is that good or bad?

 

Aang inhaled and exhaled several times. Sokka just kept holding tight to the shaking body in his arms. I don't think she's aware of anything happening right now. This is fear as much as it is pain. Sokka put his mouth to her ear and started whispering meaningless comfort.

 

Aang pushed down against Katara, but in a gentle controlled way. His breaths weren't looking as frosty. Her skin seemed like it might be an almost normal color, but in the darkness it was impossible to tell. Hope skewed Sokka's vision.

 

Then Katara opened her eyes; there was nothing subjective about that. "Aang," she whispered. Aang started crying. For his part Sokka had tears streaming out of his eyes, but they were silent. He refused to let himself sob and risk jostling Toph in any way.

 

Katara pushed herself into sitting position. She looked from Aang to Zuko, and then her eyes found Sokka. Her pupils went wide as she struggled to get up. She halfway crawled and halfway ran to Sokka and Toph. "Toph!"

 

"Katara, wait." Zuko tried to get in front of her, but his movements were jerky. She slid right past him to kneel in front of Sokka and the precious bundle in his arms.

 

"Oh Toph, Toph." Katara raised the hand that wasn't mangled by Combustion man and brushed her fingers down Toph's hair and the side of her face.

 

"Katara," Toph whispered.

 

Katara waved her hand through the air, collecting enough water to form a glove. Katara placed the glove against Toph's foot. Sokka felt Toph's trembling lessen, but he also saw Katara's face twist in distress. Sokka wasn't sure what to make of the conflicting information.

 

Katara moved her hand to the other foot. With the blood gone Sokka could see the smooth skin, but the structure of the foot was still misshapen. She can't heal bone. There's no water in bone. Sokka bit his lip. He winced at the pressure against the gap where his tooth used to be.

 

Katara started crying. "I can't fix this."

 

"You need to stop bending," Zuko said. "If you keep bending before you're cured you'll exacerbate your condition until-"

 

"I don't care!" Katara's tears were landing on Toph's feet.

 

Toph picked up one shaking hand and reached out in the direction of Katara's voice. Katara took her hand. "I can do it," Toph whispered. "I saw it once. I just have to remember."

 

Is the pain driving her crazy? Sokka didn't intend to argue with her. He just wanted to hold her and keep her safe forever. He wanted all the suffering to end. It wasn't fair.

 

Toph took a deep breath and let it out so slow. "It's REALLY deep, because it was a REALLY long time ago. I think… Once there weren't four nations. There used to be… a bunch of villages, and each one had every sort of people in it. I was in a tent full of healers."

 

She's not making any sense. The four nations have always been four. It doesn't matter though. That has nothing to do with what's happening now.

 

"I was there to see a woman. She's beautiful, with long black hair and pale skin. I don't know what that looks like, but I know that's what she looked like. She's putting her hands on a man's head. Her hands are glowing. She's healing him."

 

"She's healing his bones," Katara asked.

 

Toph shook her head. "Firebenders can't heal bone. There's a man with Airbender tattoos. He's standing in front of a man with a stomachache. He's moving the gases in his body to relieve the pressure."

 

"I can do that," Aang questioned and marveled.

 

"There's a Waterbender healing a burn. Behind him is a woman with a broken arm. An Earthbender is… She's putting the bone back the way it's supposed to be." Toph let go of Katara's hand and reached for her maimed foot.

 

"Toph-" Katara began to say.

 

"Everyone has to be quiet." Toph grabbed her right foot in both hands and hissed in pain.

 

It was hard for Sokka to keep silent while Toph whimpered, shook and cried throughout her entire healing attempt. Her tiny body quaked in his arms. He felt pathetic and useless. I should be able to do something more helpful than just hold her.

 

Moving the bones seemed to be having an adverse effect on the flesh. Katara's healing was becoming undone as shifting bones tore up mended tissue. The process went on and on, but none of them dared speak. At last Toph dropped her hands. "I think I got that one."

 

Katara surrounded the foot in water. Her efforts were much faster. The bruising disappeared. "You did. All the pieces are in the right place and fused back together. Toph… That was amazing. I had no idea that was possible."

 

Toph didn't respond. She just reached for her second foot. "Maybe you should take a break," Sokka suggested. Her exhaustion leaked out of her and was seeping through his skin.

 

"If I wait it won't work." Toph grabbed the foot and gasped, tears streaming from her face. The second bout of healing took even longer. She did finish though, and Katara fixed the mangled flesh left behind.

 

When Toph's feet were done she passed out in Sokka's arms. She went limp all at once. He hugged her closer and let himself cry.

 

Zuko knelt in front of Katara. "You need to come sit by the fire. If you keep bending you'll keep getting worse. I've never seen frost fever before, but I know that smoke poisoning is deadly when untreated and this seems to be the same thing but inverted." At least Zuko got his voice back.

 

Katara got to her feet. She didn't try to walk to the fire. She just stared up at the moon. I have to do something. How can I save her?

 

Katara lifted a hand up high, fingers spread out as far as she could. She took a deep breath and exhaled. All around drops of water condensed out of the air. Katara closed her hand into a fist and they evaporated into steam. She opened her hand again and the air became water once more. Then it turned to ice.

 

Push and pull. Sokka looked up at the moon and then towards his sister. She wasn't turning blue, for whatever that was worth. Don't let her die, Yue, please.

 

"You were right," Katara whispered. She got into a bending stance Sokka had never seen before. She looked like she was dancing. The water moved with her. "The ice came from grief and pain and rage." Her voice dripped with emotion and trembled when she named the individual feelings.

 

Katara stood balanced on the toes of one foot as she reached up to the sky. "The warmth comes from hope and love and joy. I was in so much pain that I tried to cut myself off so I couldn't feel the agony. You have to feel the pain though, because the negative energy is mixed with the positive energy. If you sever your connection to one you sever your connection to both."

 

Zuko walked up next to her. He stared at his bloody hands. "The positive and negative energy want to be together. My uncle tried to explain it to me. I didn't understand. It's not about feeling no emotion."

 

"Pain demands to be felt." Katara brought her other hand up to the first as she slid a foot up her leg in a perfect tree pose. "It has to be felt so it can be released. If it is held onto it will consume you from inside. I thought I could keep it in me and away from all of you, but it froze my heart."

 

Zuko nodded. "Yeah. I'm sorry."

 

"So am I." Katara kept balancing on the toes of one foot, but she brought her hands down to her chest. As she did it began to rain. Did she just… That's impossible. Waterbending can't make it rain.

 

Sokka hunched over Toph to try to keep her from getting wet. Katara raised one of her hands back up. Every drop of rain that fell over them evaporated before it could touch their camp. The ground around their campsite got soaked, but they all remained dry.

 

"I'm ready to let go." Katara looked at Zuko.

 

He nodded. "Me too." He took a step forward and moved his hands in a complicated series of motions. He pointed to the sky with two fingers and as he did prongs of lightning leapt out of his hand into the sky. The sound was painful in Sokka's ear. Crazy benders.

 

Katara just stared at the flashing blue light long after it was gone. "This is why water and fire are opposites. We're both about energy. Waterbending is all about the flow of the energy, the direction, forging paths. Firebending is all about… the strength?"

 

"Yeah," Zuko whispered. "Uncle said fire is the element of power. I thought that meant I needed more power, but I was wrong. It's not about being as strong as possible. It's about having control. It's about using as much force as you need, no less… and no more."

 

I'm not discounting the possibility that they've both just gone insane. Even as Sokka considered the possibility he looked up at the sky and realized it was wrong. He'd just witnessed something important, something profound. He felt like he should be having some kind of reaction, but he just wanted them to stop before they woke Toph up.

 

"Are you going to be okay Katara," Aang whispered from where he'd been watching in silence.

 

Katara looked at the campfire she was still keeping dry and smiled. "I will be. Come sit with me for a little bit. I need to talk to you."

 

Katara and Aang sat down together in front of the fire. Zuko looked over at Sokka and took a step forward like he wanted to walk over to him. Then he looked down at his bloody hands and walked out into the rain. Sokka sighed. Benders are all insane.

Chapter Text

Aang rubbed his hands together in delight as Zuko passed him the stick of speared vegetables. "Yum!"

 

"That cannot be filling," Sokka said as he bit into his meat kabob. He flinched when the meat pushed against the gap from his missing tooth. Juices squirted onto his face and ran down his chin.

 

"Have I ever mentioned how dignified you are," Katara asked.

 

Toph snickered as she picked her teeth with the stick from the kabob she'd just finished. Aang glanced at her feet, unblemished and resting in comfort on the ground. The first thing he'd done after they moved camp and got a few fitful hours of sleep was insist on learning healing. He'd anticipated backlash in the form of arguments that healing wouldn't help him against the Firelord. That didn't happen.

 

Katara's lessons were from a master to a student, but Toph was learning at the same time she was teaching Aang. It was an inversion of how he'd first started learning from each of them. The problem was that without injuries to practice on everything was theoretical. "Are you okay Aang? You look deep in thought," Katara said.

 

"I was just trying to think of a way to practice healing. Maybe we could go to the nearest town and look for people who need help!"

 

"Great idea Aang," Sokka said. "While you're doing that I'll paint a big banner advertising our location to wave at the Firelord."

 

"Right… I guess the healing would be pretty conspicuous," Aang admitted. You'd think doing something nice for people would make them not want to turn you in to their evil dictator, but I guess not.

 

"Just a bit," Toph said. She threw her stick into the fire.

 

"If you want I could break my arm," Zuko said right before biting into his kabob.

 

For a second the only sound was the crackling firewood. Is he serious? Aang stared at him. Zuko looked up from his food, seeming to sense the new awkward atmosphere. "Was that a joke," Aang asked.

 

"...Yes?" It wasn't a joke.

 

"Leave the jokes to me buddy," Sokka advised him. "I don't want to brag, but I'm something of a jokebending Master."

 

Then everyone was rolling their eyes and teasing Sokka. Aang kept his eyes on Zuko and tried not to imagine the sound of his bones cracking. Aang shivered and looked away into the woods. Who would offer to inflict something like that on themselves?

 

"Everything alright Aang," Katara asked.

 

"Uh… yeah! Of course! I was just remembering this spooky story one of the other acolytes told me once."

 

"Ooh! Ghost stories!" Toph's face lit up. "Let's see who can be the most terrifying. Aang, you'll definitely lose, so you go first."

 

"I can be scary," Aang protested.

 

Sokka snorted. "Sure you can Aang. This is the perfect setting for a good ghost story contest though. Dark spooky woods, campfire, what more do you need?"

 

"Let's hear this story Aang," Katara said.

 

Great. We did tell scary stories to each other at night sometimes. I just have to try to remember a really good one. "Okay… This is… the story of… Um…"

 

"You're off to a great start twinkle toes."

 

"I'm nervous! Why do I have to go first? Someone else go first."

 

"I bet the Fire Nation has really good ghost stories," Sokka said. "What about it, Zuko? Got any stories about fire demons or lava monsters?"

 

Zuko looked thoughtful. "There is a story Azula heard from one of her friends at school. It was…" He shuddered. "It was terrifying."

 

"Well don't keep us in suspense," Katara said.

 

"Yeah, spill," Toph demanded.

 

"Okay." Zuko cleared his throat. He looked up at the moon. "Well, decades ago there used to be these monsters that haunted Fire Nation waters. They were called mermaids, and-"

 

Sokka started chuckling. "Mermaids? Your scary story is about mermaids? Pretty girls with tails that give kisses to sailors?"

 

"Yeah Zuko, sorry, but mermaids aren't scary at all," Katara said. "They lead adventurers to gold and provide wisdom to boys on coming of age quests. There's nothing scary about them."

 

Zuko blushed, looking embarrassed. "Guys," Aang interrupted their teasing. "Maybe in Water Tribe stories mermaids are harmless, but that doesn't mean they can't be scary in Fire Nation ones. Every culture has its own unique stories."

 

"Yeah, I want to hear about the murderous mermaids," Toph said.

 

Sokka rolled his eyes. "Let's hear about these terrifying pretty girls then."

 

Zuko shifted in discomfort and cleared his throat again. "Well, you're right about one thing. They are beautiful. At least they're beautiful sometimes. During the full moon they cast spells to look like young attractive women, but during the new moon they look like monstrous fish-creatures, with long talons and sharp beaks."

 

"What about all the other phases of the moon," Aang asked. "Is it like a sliding scale or do they switch over all at once?"

 

"Uhh… I have no idea. Anyway, they lure sailors to the edges of their boats and offer them kisses, and then they grab them and pull them into the water. They force the sailors down below the waves and drown them before eating their flesh."

 

"Okay…" Sokka said as he looked around at the trees as if assuring himself he was still on dry land. "I admit that's a little bit scary."

 

"And then," There's more? "The most vicious of the mermaids slice their tails in half so they can walk on dry land. They sneak into people's homes while they sleep and cast magic spells to fill their lungs with water, drowning them in their beds."

 

Aang shuddered. I don't like this story.

 

"And then," There's still more?! "The mermaids sneak into the kids' rooms and take them away down to the water. The little boys they drown, and then they feed their flesh to the little girls as part of the spell to turn them-"

 

"Zuko!" Katara sounded horrified. "This is a very inappropriate story!"

 

Zuko looked taken aback. "Sorry. I thought the stories were supposed to be scary."

 

"They're supposed to be scary, not disgusting! Do you really think stories about cannibalism are appropriate for children to hear?"

 

"Azula was ten when she told it to me, so…" He looked at her disturbed expression. "No?"

 

Toph scoffed. "You're only two years older than me," she told Katara.

 

"Speaking of your crazy sister," Sokka said. Or we could not do that! Aang watched Zuko for any sign of an adverse reaction. "What's her deal?"

 

Zuko didn't give any outward sign of distress at the question. That doesn't mean he isn't freaking out on the inside. "What do you mean?"

 

"Why is she… you know? So nuts."

 

Zuko opened his mouth to answer and then glanced at Katara. "It's not an appropriate story for children."

 

Katara flinched. "You can tell us. We're your friends. You can tell us anything."

 

"Also, not children," Toph added.

 

Zuko rubbed his arm under his sleeve. "She's just… I don't know. She's my sister."

 

"Yeah, we know she's your sister." Sokka rolled his eyes. "But-"

 

"So," Aang cut Sokka off. "Whose turn is it next?"

 

"I want to hear the end of the mermaid story," Toph said. "What did they do with the little girls?"

 

Zuko looked up at the sky. "They turned them into the monsters that hurt them. They made them the thing they had feared and suffered at the hands of. I asked Azula why they only turned the girls. She said it was because boys were useless, because they were afraid of blood."

 

"And Azula told you this story when she was ten," Katara confirmed.

 

"Yeah," Zuko said. "She snuck into my room later that night and poured water on my face to try to scare me. I knew it was her though, so it didn't work. Also, in the story they make the water appear in your lungs, so it wouldn't really have made sense anyway."

 

"How did you know it was her," Toph asked.

 

"Because she…" Zuko trailed off. He was looking into the distance, but Aang got the sense that he was seeing something from a long time ago. "I thought…"

 

"Zuko," Katara said in a gentle voice. All trace of her earlier admonishment was gone. "Are you alright?"

 

"It's just that I remember…" He reached up and scratched his head. "I'm not remembering it right. I don't think I did know that it was her."

 

"You can talk to us, you know. We're your friends." Aang got the sense that he was hearing the continuation of a conversation he hadn't been privy to.

 

Zuko looked away. "It's not appropriate for children," he whispered.

 

Katara opened her mouth to say something, but before she could they all heard a blood-curdling scream ring out from somewhere in the forest. "Mermaid," Sokka screamed. He jumped behind Katara.

 

"Sokka! There's no such thing as mermaids! It sounded like a foxswan anyway."

 

Aang got to his feet. "We should check it out just to make sure."

 

Katara nodded. They all got to their feet and headed towards the scream. Aang saw that Sokka and Zuko had their swords drawn. They entered a clearing and saw a woman on her hands and knees.

 

Katara rushed forward. "Are you okay?!"

 

Aang thought the woman must be old, because her hair was as white as bone, but when Katara helped her to her feet he saw the face of a woman maybe in her thirties. Maybe she's spirit-touched like Yue. I don't think so though. "Oh thank you sweet child. I tripped, so silly of me."

 

"Are you hurt?"

 

"No, I-" The woman looked at Katara and recoiled. "I-I-" She took a step back.

 

"What's wrong," Katara asked.

 

"Kanna?!"

 

Katara's hand flew to her mouth and she gasped. Aang heard Sokka's sword fall to the ground. Sokka pushed to the front of their group to stand in front of the woman. "How do you know our Gran-Gran?"

 

"You- Of course! You're her grandchildren! I don't understand. What are you doing in the Fire Nation? Did they capture you too?"

 

Sokka and Katara exchanged a look. This woman must be from Sokka and Katara's village! I wonder why they don't recognize her.

 

"What's your name," Katara asked.

 

"I'm Hama," she said.

 

"That's impossible," Sokka said. "Gran-Gran's FRIEND Hama? She was taken away during a Fire Nation raid fifty years ago!"

 

Hama took a step forward and reached out to touch Sokka's cheek. He leaned back, so she dropped her hand. "She told me she wasn't ever going to get married. She said she'd had enough of men for a hundred lifetimes."

 

Katara and Sokka exchanged another look, each wearing twin expressions of confusion and distress. "Are you saying that you are Hama of the Southern Water Tribe, who was taken from our village fifty years ago," Katara asked with a slow deliberate voice.

 

Hama looked away. "Has it really been that long?" She stared up at the sky and put her hand on her face. She slid her hand down to wipe away some tears. She turned around. Aang realized his previous assessment had been put off by shadows and that she looked older than he had thought earlier, perhaps in her forties or early fifties.

 

Katara stepped forward and hugged Hama. For a moment the woman stood still and straight, arms sticking out at her sides. Hama seemed to melt in Katara's arms. She hugged Katara back, squeezing tight.

 

"I don't understand," Sokka said. He wore an expression of complete bafflement.

 

Hama and Katara broke their embrace. "I can explain," Hama said. "Would you children like to follow me home? These woods are no place to be lingering."

 

"Of course," Katara said. She offered the elder her arm. Hama took it looking grateful and touched. This is amazing! Aang grinned as they walked out of the woods, feeling light as air.

Chapter Text

Sokka watched the old woman move around the kitchen, putting on a tea kettle and collecting snacks. In the light of the kitchen lamps her wrinkles were more pronounced than they had been in the woods. "I can't believe you're here. I never thought I would see anyone from my tribe again."

 

"How did you get here," Katara asked in a tone of amazement. Yeah, that's what I want to know too.

 

"What kind of tea do you like," Hama asked. "I have ginger and oolong. I thought there might be some camomile around here, but I can't seem to find- oh! Here it is!" Hama pulled some leaves out of a drawer.

 

"Gran-Gran said the last Waterbenders were taken away in a raid fifty years ago," Sokka reminded her. "Where have you been?"

 

The old woman's hands stilled. "A horrible place," she whispered.

 

"You don't have to talk about it," Katara assured her. She shot a glare at Sokka. Oh, so I'm the bad guy now? Great.

 

"How did you escape," Toph asked in a tone much quieter and gentler than her usual one. Sokka flinched at the memory of Toph in her cell and everything that had happened after.

 

Hama rubbed a hand on her arm. "Sometimes I wonder if I ever did. Maybe I'm hallucinating you all right now. It's the sort of dream I would like to have." She smiled to herself. "Seeing Kanna again…"

 

Katara stood up and walked over to her. "You're not dreaming. You're safe. You're with your tribe." Katara opened her arms.

 

The old woman embraced Katara, tears running down her face. "Is she still alive? Was she happy? Who did she marry?"

 

"Gran-Gran's fine," Sokka said. "She's in the South Pole." Sokka tried to remember what the name of Gran-Gran's husband had been, but she never talked about him. He had died a long time ago as far as Sokka knew.

 

"Gran-Gran will be so happy we found you," Katara enthused.

 

"How did you find me," Hama asked. "How did you get here? Who are your friends?"

 

"Oh!" Katara turned to face the group. "Well I'm Katara, and this is my brother Sokka. These are our f-"

 

"Uh, Katara," Sokka interrupted. There's no way she was about to tell this stranger about Aang and our secret plans. "Can I talk to you for a second?"

 

"In a moment Sokka, don't be rude. I'm making introductions."

 

"That's what I want to talk to you about," Sokka said with a significant look.

 

"I'll just make tea while you two chat," Hama said. She turned back to her kettle while Sokka ushered Katara into the hall.

 

"Sokka," she hissed. "That was so rude."

 

"You were about to tell her about Aang."

 

"So?"

 

"What do you mean, so? We just met this woman and you want to tell her about all of our top secret plans? Are you crazy?"

 

"She's Gran-Gran's friend. She's a Waterbender. I thought I was the last Southern Waterbender, but I'm not. She can teach me about our traditions. There's so much I thought was lost forever…" Oh.

 

"Right." Sokka nodded. "I just think we should be careful."

 

"Sokka that's Gran-Gran's best friend. The Fire Nation took her away and did who knows what to her. Do you think she's going to turn us in to the Fire Lord?"

 

"Well, no…" That doesn't mean we should put absolute trust in her right off the bat though.

 

"Then stop being so paranoid." Katara brushed past Sokka and went back into the kitchen. Sokka sighed and followed her. Hama was pouring six cups of tea.

 

"Sorry about my brother's rudeness," Katara said. "Like I said, we're Katara and Sokka. These are our friends, Aang, Toph and Zuko. Aang," Katara paused for dramatic effect. "Is the Avatar."

 

Hama looked up, her lined face overcome with shock. "The…" She turned to look at Aang. "You're the Avatar child?"

 

Aang squirmed under her scrutiny. "Yeah."

 

"I've been teaching him waterbending," Katara explained. "Our friend Toph is his earthbending teacher, and Zuko just started teaching him firebending."

 

Hama's shocked expression disappeared. Her features grew still. She was unreadable. She turned her head to stare at Zuko, her blue eyes piercing. "You're a Firebender?"

 

Zuko nodded. "Yes ma'am."

 

"I see." She turned away so that none of them could see her face. "And how did you all come to be traveling together?"

 

Sokka cut in. "We all met in the Earth Kingdom. We fought together in Ba Sing Se against the princess's occupation."

 

Hama turned around and looked at Zuko. "You fought against your own princess?"

 

"Well… She's my sister, and I did."

 

Zuko, I swear, you and Katara are going to send me into an early grave. The stress you both inflict on me is going to turn MY hair white. "What he means," Sokka started to say. Then he realized he didn't have a way to finish that sentence.

 

"Yeah," Katara said. "Zuko is technically the prince, but he's a good person. He's going to help us defeat his father and restore balance to the world."

 

"Yep," Aang agreed. "Sifu Zuko has been an amazing teacher. He isn't just teaching me about firebending, but all about the culture of the Fire Nation! I've learned a lot."

 

"Please stop calling me that," Zuko said.

 

"Well," Hama said, her voice emotionless. "You children must be tired. I have a spare room you girls can stay in, and you boys are more than welcome to camp out in the living room."

 

"Can't we all just stay together," Toph asked. "We always share a campsite."

 

"I don't think that would be appropriate," Hama said.

 

Aang stood up. "Thank you for your hospitality." He started to bow to her in the Water Tribe fashion.

 

She reached out and gave a gentle push against his shoulder, stopping him. "You don't need to thank me. Katara and Sokka are of my tribe, which means this is just as much their home as it is mine." She smiled at the room in general. "I'll make you kids a nice breakfast in the morning. Katara, Toph, I'll show you where your room is."

 

Toph mumbled something under her breath, but she took Katara's elbow and followed Hama down the wooden hall. Sokka, Aang and Zuko were left alone in the kitchen. "I was trying to cover for you," Sokka complained to Zuko.

 

Zuko stood up and started clearing away the teacups with the ease of someone working off of ingrained muscle memory. "You don't have to lie for me Sokka."

 

"You're supposed to be dead though, remember?"

 

"Hama won't say anything," Aang protested. "She's part of your family."

 

"She was my grandmother's friend, but I never met her," Sokka argued.

 

"We can't be honest with everybody we meet," Zuko admitted. "That doesn't mean we should get in the habit of always lying to everyone. The truth is a light."

 

"Is that one of your uncle's proverbs," Aang asked in an excited voice.

 

Zuko smiled. "No, a spirit told me that."

 

Sokka threw up his hands. "Oh great, another spirit. They're always so helpful."

 

"Aren't you happy, Sokka," Aang asked. "You thought someone from your tribe was lost forever, but now you get her back."

 

"But how," Sokka insisted. "How is she here, free? Did the Fire Nation just let her go?"

 

"Of course they didn't," said Hama's voice from the hall behind them.

 

Sokka spun around. "Oh, uh… Hi, Hama."

 

"I escaped from the Fire Nation's prison for Waterbenders. It was a dreadful place. I thought that I would die there." She stepped further into the kitchen towards the table and then frowned, realising it was already cleared.

 

"How did you escape," Aang asked, sounding curious but not suspicious. I suppose I shouldn't be suspicious either. She is part of my tribe. I just want to understand.

 

Hama looked over towards Zuko, who was washing her dishes. "You don't need to do that."

 

"Oh, sorry. It's just a habit. I used to work in a tea shop."

 

"A prince who used to work in a tea shop, my, that sounds like an interesting story." Hama raised a hand, and the water in the sink with the cups suspended within rose out of the sink towards the cabinet. She moved the cups onto the shelf and then whisked the water away, leaving not a drop of moisture behind. The water splashed back into the sink, sending a few drops Zuko's way.

 

"Cool!" Aang clapped. "That looks way more fun than doing dishes the normal way."

 

"Does that mean you're going to start helping with the dishes every night," Zuko asked, folding his arms over his chest and raising a skeptical brow.

 

"Er…"

 

Sokka snorted in amusement. "We'll make dish duty a Waterbender exclusive chore."

 

"Are you not a Waterbender Sokka," Hama asked.

 

Sokka's shoulders stiffened. I don't need to play with magic water. I've got my sword. I've got my brain. Those are better. "No," he muttered.

 

"Sokka's more like our idea guy," Aang explained.

 

"And he's pretty handy with a sword," Zuko said in an offhand tone as he dried his hands on his shirt.

 

Aw, thanks guys. "All true." Sokka grinned.

 

"A warrior," Hama said with an approving nod. "That's good. Our people have a strong tradition of bravery in battle. It's good to see the younger generation continuing that tradition. Come boys, even warriors need to rest. I'll get you some blankets and show you to the living room."

 

Hama gave them blankets and then left to retire for the night. "Should we check on Appa and our stuff before we go to sleep," Zuko asked.

 

Aang yawned. "Appa was already asleep. He'll be fine until the morning."

 

"And I'll be waking you up in a few hours at sunrise anyway," Zuko said with a smug grin.

 

Aang groaned and then dropped to the floor to pass out. Sokka snickered. Sokka flopped down onto his own blankets. "I'll say this for Hama, her floor is comfortable." He rolled over onto his stomach and stuck his arms under his pillow.

 

"Do you really not trust her," Zuko whispered to him in the darkness.

 

"I make it a general rule these days not to trust people I just met." Sokka shifted a bit to get into the most comfortable position possible. "Why do you trust her so much?"

 

There was a long pause and Sokka considered that Zuko might already have fallen asleep. "I know what it's like to have to leave behind your home and everyone you care about."

 

Sokka opened his eyes and lifted his head off his pillow. Zuko was lying flat on his back looking up at the ceiling. He didn't look like he was going to fall asleep anytime soon. "Zuko…"

 

"I'm not trying to compare our situations. Obviously what happened to her is worse-"

 

"I don't think it's a competition," Sokka said.

 

"All I mean is… She's been here, in a foreign country, for such a long time. You and your sister are the first of her countrymen she's seen in decades. I can't imagine how she must be feeling right now."

 

Sokka laid back down. "Thanks Zuko."

 

"For what?" He sounded confused.

 

"The perspective," Sokka said in a solemn tone. "Now shut up and go to sleep jerkbender. Also if you wake me up in the morning with Aang we will be having an impromptu sparring session right here."

 

Zuko chuckled. "Goodnight Sokka."

 

"Goodnight Zuko," Sokka said as he started to drift away, too tired to think of a good nickname. He dreamed about girls, as he was like to do on occasion. All the girls he'd ever liked were swimming with him off the shore of Kyoshi Island. Then the Unagi came and dragged Sokka down under the water, drowning him. It was almost midday when he woke up.

Chapter Text

Katara grinned as the sunlight streamed through the window and woke her up. She glanced at Toph, sound asleep, her feet pink and fresh-looking where they stuck out from under the blankets. Katara resolved not to wake her. Katara stood up and, on impulse, kissed Toph on the head before she walked downstairs.

 

Sokka was snoring away in the living room, causing her to chuckle and shake her head. The blankets Aang and Zuko had used last night were folded in a very neat pile and set on a table. Katara walked into the kitchen and saw through the window the boys themselves walking out of the woods. Aang spotted her through the window and gave her an enthusiastic wave. She grinned and waved back.

 

"Appa's fine," Aang yelled, pointing to where Zuko was still trying to get bison slobber out of his hair.

 

Zuko noticed her and lifted up a hand in his own wave. She gave him a smile that communicated just how amusing she found his situation and then started looking for supplies to make breakfast. She wanted to surprise Hama. She was midway through preparations when she heard footsteps behind her and turned to smile at the woman herself.

 

"Hama! I know you said you wanted to make us breakfast, but I thought I'd prepare something for you. I want to let you know how much we appreciate your hospitality, and how glad we are to be reunited with you."

 

Hama grinned. In the light of the morning she seemed a lot older than she had at night, her wrinkles deeper. "Dear girl, you know that anything in this house is as much yours as it is mine. We are of the same tribe."

 

Katara grinned. "Gran-Gran is going to be so happy to see you again."

 

Hama looked horrified. "You can't bring Kanna here!"

 

"No, no," Katara agreed. "Of course not. I mean that once the war is over and we've defeated the Firelord you'll be able to come back to the South Pole. You do want to come back, don't you?"

 

"More than anything," Hama said in a wistful tone. "If there had ever been any way I would have taken any risk. I once considered trying to get onto a colony ship to the Earth Kingdom, but if my paperwork were too closely examined I would have been thrown right back in prison. Still, I might have risked it, but even from the Earth Kingdom how would I have found a ship back home?"

 

Katara nodded. "It's not like anyone trades with us anymore. We don't have anything to trade. There's so little left…" Katara looked away. "I'm so sorry Hama."

 

Hama walked up to Katara and wrapped her arms around her. "So am I Katara."

 

Katara held tight to the woman. At first she tried to hold in her tears, but then she recalled what happened the last time she repressed her emotions. She let herself weep for everything both of them had lost. They held onto each other and shared their grief, supporting each other as they wept.

 

When the embrace ended Katara wiped her eyes. "Thank you."

 

"No Katara, thank you." Hama kissed her brow. "You're just like your grandmother."

 

Katara beamed. "I can't wait to see her face when we go back home! She's going to be so happy." Katara squeezed Hama's hands.

 

Hama reached out and brushed her fingers through Katara's hair. "Can you… tell me about her life? Tell me what happened after I left?"

 

"Of course! Sit down, I'll make you a cup of tea and tell you everything while I finish fixing breakfast." Katara got to work making her elder's tea. She couldn't keep the grin off of her face, and she didn't want to.

 

Toph came down in the middle of a story about Gran-Gran, right as breakfast preparations were finished, in typical Toph fashion. "Toph, can you get Aang and Zuko? They're probably in the yard practicing firebending."

 

"Sure thing. Save me whatever it is that smells like roasted pigduck."

 

"There's plenty for everyone," Katara called after her.

 

"Are you sure you trust him," Hama asked. "The Firebender?"

 

"Absolutely," Katara said as she began to set out plates. "He saved my life a few days ago, and if it weren't for him Aang would have died in Ba Sing Se. He's a good person, even if he is a bit of a catcupine sometimes."

 

"It's hard for me to imagine. I've only ever known Firebenders to be vicious and violent." Hama took in a sharp breath and pulled down on her sleeves. Katara thought about all the scars she'd seen on Zuko when she'd healed him and how he kept himself covered even in the intense heat. Hama's long sleeves were in stark contrast to Katara's light silks.

 

"I'm sorry." Katara reached out and took her hand. "Firebenders can be cruel and vicious, but one thing I've learned while traveling the world is that good and evil doesn't belong to any one nation. We all have a capacity for darkness in us. It's up to us to choose the paths we wish to take. I promise you that Zuko is trustworthy."

 

"I believe you dear." Hama patted her hand.

 

"I'm going to go get my idiot brother." Katara gave Hama's hand a final squeeze.

 

Katara walked into the living room to find Sokka drooling on his pillow. He looked at peace, but Katara could see the stress lines on his face. She knelt down next to him and decided she couldn't bear to wake him. She kissed his temple and whispered a promise to save him some pigduck. He didn't even move.

 

Katara re-entered the kitchen just as Toph came storming in with two sweaty Firebenders. "Feed us!"

 

"Alright, sit down," Katara said with an indulgent eyeroll.

 

"Katara!" Aang was jumping up and down with excitement. "I'm making a lot of progress! Zuko said I'll have mastered the basics by the end of the week!"

 

"There was a second half to that sentence," Zuko said as he sat down.

 

"He said if I don't miss any practice and pay attention I'll have mastered the basics by the end of the week," Aang admitted.

 

"Is he slacking off," Toph asked. "Do you need me to beat him for you Zuko?"

 

"Aang is a great student," Zuko assured her.

 

Katara sat down and told everyone Sokka was still sleeping but to dig in. Toph didn't need to be told twice. Her mouth was full of food when she responded. "We'll see about that. Earthbending practice after lunch."

 

"Make sure you're in the woods far from where anyone might see you," Katara said.

 

"Yeah, yeah, I know."

 

"There is a place in the woods that is excellent for practicing waterbending," Hama said. "I can show it to you tonight if you would like. The moon is almost full."

 

"That would be great," Katara said. "Would you, that is, I learned from a northern waterbending master. Would you consider showing Aang and I something of the southern style?"

 

Hama smiled at Katara, her eyes watering. "Passing on our traditions to another southern Waterbender is a dream I gave up on long ago. Katara, I will be honored to show you everything I know."

 

Katara grinned. "Thank you Hama- Master Hama." I never imagined that something like this would be possible. So much tragedy and horror, but at last something wonderful is happening. "I will be a diligent student."

 

"Katara is a great student," Aang confirmed. "She even learned how to waterbend like a Firebender."

 

Hama froze with her chopsticks halfway to her mouth. She lowered the utensils. "What's that?"

 

"Yeah! It's so cool. Katara, show her the thing."

 

"You use the most eloquent descriptions twinkle toes," Toph teased.

 

Katara got to her feet. "I figured this out from watching Zuko. So Firebenders can pull heat from all around them to make their fires, that's how they bend even when there isn't already a flame."

 

Toph snorted. "Can you imagine if a fire already had to be lit for Firebenders to bend? That would be so lame."

 

"The thing is though that there's water all around us as well, in the air, too small for us to see. But I can pull it together and-" Katara swiped her hand through the air and showed Hama the resulting glove of water.

 

Katara looked at Hama's face, hoping she would be pleased. Hama's expression was one of distress and disgust. I don't understand. I thought she would be impressed. "Hama?"

 

"That is… an interesting trick. It's not something I've ever…" She cleared her throat. "I'm sorry, I just… Waterbending is an art sacred to our people. The idea of… perverting it with the heathen practices of Firebenders is…"

 

Definitely not impressed. I'm sure I can make her understand. "It's not like that. We've all been learning from each other. Toph recently learned a new earthbending technique that's similar to airbending. Zuko's uncle invented a firebending technique from watching Waterbenders."

 

Hama's eyes snapped up. "What?!"

 

"Uhh…" Katara looked at Zuko. Hama's eyes followed. "Zuko actually used the technique to save Aang's life," Katara added. Saving the Avatar, can't get more noble than that, right?

 

"And what is this technique," Hama asked Zuko, her eyes boring into him. Katara wanted to bail him out, but the question had been clearly directed at him.

 

"Uh…" Zuko cleared his throat. "Well waterbending is all about the flow of energy-"

 

"You don't have to explain the essentials of waterbending to me boy, I AM a Waterbender."

 

"Jeez lady," Toph said. "Calm down."

 

"Toph," Katara said on reflex. "Don't be disrespectful." Gran-Gran would never let us speak to an elder like that.

 

"I apologise," Zuko said. "I only meant, that is, well my uncle thought." He cleared his throat again. "My uncle thought that maybe Firebenders could do the same thing, redirect the energy of someone attacking us back to them, or at least away from ourselves. So he invented a technique to channel lightning through our bodies without hurting ourselves."

 

"It looks really cool," Aang added.

 

"Right," Zuko said. "So… Well that's the technique. I'm going to teach it to Aang once he's mastered the basics. My father and sister can both create lightning, so it should be useful."

 

Now she'll understand and see that sharing our knowledge and learning from each other is a good thing. Katara gave Hama a hopeful look. Hama's face was unreadable again. She got to her feet with slow deliberate movements. "Please excuse me." Or not.

 

Katara was crestfallen as she watched Hama walk away. Toph snorted in annoyance. "Bitter old ha-"

 

"Toph!" Katara turned and scowled at the younger girl, even though she knew Toph couldn't see it. "She's our elder! We don't disrespect our elders."

 

"She's YOUR elder. I'm not Water Tribe." We're family Toph, that's near enough.

 

"Toph," Zuko said, before Katara could vent her frustration, in a voice that wasn't quite a whisper but was soft enough that they both had to stop talking to hear him. "Hama has suffered a great deal at the hands of the Fire Nation. My grandfather believed that the next Avatar would be reborn into the Southern Tribe. He raided the South Pole for decades, imprisoning any and every Waterbender he found to make sure that if the Avatar was born there they would have no one to teach them."

 

"Why the Southern Tribe," Aang asked. I want to know that as well.

 

Zuko shrugged. "I think the Fire Sages told him that's where the next Water Tribe Avatar would be born? Um, Azula always paid more attention to that class than me."

 

Toph snickered. "Of course she did."

 

"My point being," Zuko said with a tinge of annoyance. "I'm not sure what all their imprisonment entailed, but I know one thing for sure. My grandfather was NOT a merciful man." His good eye looked hollow as he spoke that final sentence.

 

Toph squirmed a bit, looking uncomfortable. "She didn't need to be so mean to you." All the same she wore a look of slight regret.

 

Katara stood up. She put a hand on Zuko's shoulder to signal her thanks for communicating that to Toph in a calmer way than Katara would have been able to manage. "I'm going to go talk to her. You guys enjoy breakfast, okay?"

 

Katara headed down the hall and up the stairs, following the sound of Hama's steps. She heard Hama on the other side of the door to her room, weeping. Katara gave the door a few gentle knocks. "Hama? Are you alright? I'm so sorry we upset you."

 

The sobs died down and Katara heard Hama approach the door. The door opened and Hama's tear-stained face peaked through. "Oh dear girl, you have nothing to apologise for."

 

"I know waterbending is an art sacred to our people. I understand how it can feel wrong for a Firebender to learn about our bending. They've taken so much from us. I get that you want something to hold onto that's still ours, that they can't touch."

 

Hama smiled. "You are a very insightful girl."

 

Katara grinned. "We do have something though. We have each other. We have our tribe. This place, the people here aren't like us. They don't have the bonds of tribesmen."

 

Hama scoffed in agreement. "I have noticed."

 

"But we do. Hama, our tribe will always be strong no matter what they do to us, because the one thing they can never take from us is the loyalty and the love we have for each other."

 

"That's beautiful child." Hama reached out and caressed Katara's cheek. "You have given me great wisdom."

 

Katara grinned. "Thank you Sifu Hama."

 

"I should apologise to your friends, but I confess I am very tired. This has been a great deal of excitement for an old woman."

 

"They understand," Katara assured her. "You should get some rest. Is there anything we can do for you?"

 

"I was going to go to the market today, would you mind?"

 

"Of course not. What do you need?"

 

"I have a list. I'll get that and some money."

 

"Oh, we have plenty of money," Katara assured her.

 

"Nonsense." Hama placed the list and the coins in her hand. "If you see anything you like feel free to pick it up. Don't worry about the change. I'm going to take a nap."

 

"See you later?"

 

"Of course dear." Hama kissed her cheek and then went back into her room. Katara heard the click of the door lock followed by a few steps to the bed.

 

I knew it would all work out. Tribe is tribe. We all stick together.

Chapter Text

Zuko was cleaning up the breakfast dishes when Katara came downstairs. "Aang decided to do some earthbending training," he explained. "I think he needed a break from firebending. He's still adjusting to it."

 

"You're a good teacher Zuko." Katara crossed her arms over her chest and leaned against the wall, smiling at him. Zuko had been waiting the last few days for the other shoe to drop, for their mutual understanding to fade away and her rage return. That's what would have happened with Azula. Katara isn't Azula. He'd been so sure he'd lost her good will last night with that ghost story, but there she was, beaming at him like she was proud of him.

 

He blushed. "Well… Aang's a good student."

 

"Sometimes," Katara said. "I don't just mean Aang though. I really appreciate you saying what you did to Toph."

 

"It was true," he said, still not quite sure why she was thanking him.

 

She smiled. "I know." She looked like she was about to say something else, but then she seemed to change her mind. She shook her head. "I'm going to the market to pick up some things for Hama. Will you come with me?"

 

"Um, okay, sure." He gave her a hesitant smile. She returned it with a gleaming one. Maybe we are good now. The thought made him feel warm inside.

 

It was a beautiful day, and the walk to town was adorned with the sight of vibrant flowers and regal trees. Katara started pointing out species she was unfamiliar with and asking Zuko to name them. "Fire lilies," he informed her about some crimson blooms.

 

"They're gorgeous," she gushed. "And that one?"

 

Zuko squinted. "Lightning tree."

 

"It is kinda zig zaggy," Katara mused. "What about that one?"

 

They passed most of the walk to the village that way. Once they arrived Zuko noticed several wooden stalls lining the streets and colorful streamers decorating lampposts. "Huh, there must be a festival today. What day is it?"

 

"I couldn't even tell you," Katara said with a laugh. "Middle of summer?"

 

Zuko snickered. "There's so many festivals in summer. It's our main season for parties. Longer days make for more fun."

 

"Most of our big holidays are in the winter. There's too much work to be done in the summer. But in the winter we spend so many days hunkering down from storms with nothing to do. Might as well drink, eat and dance, right?"

 

"Sounds like a great plan to me."

 

A teenager skipping down the street grabbed Katara's hand. Zuko felt a moment of panic. We're being attacked. She pulled Katara close to her body. "Come pretty girl, dance with me!" Oh, well that's less worrisome.

 

Katara gave an awkward chuckle. "Oh I… no thank you." Tiny roses bloomed on her cheeks.

 

The teenager let go at once and shrugged. "What about you handsome," she asked Zuko.

 

Zuko's whole face caught fire, except for the part that was always red and never changed. "I… Uh… I don't… Well… You… I…"

 

She laughed. "No worries! Enjoy the party!" She ran away, gone as quick as she had come.

 

Katara started snickering. "You're adorable."

 

He scowled at her. "You were no better."

 

"Well," she gave him a cheeky grin. "I'm adorable too." She grabbed his hand and pulled him behind her as she waded further into the party atmosphere. "You have no idea what's being celebrated today?"

 

"I would if I knew the date. It's either a spirit's day, a historical military victory or the birthday of someone important." I bet they have festivals for Azula now. They never did for me.

 

"Oooh, desert!" Katara pulled him along to a stall selling rice cakes with all manner of fruity fillings. The vendor, delighted by Katara's charming smile, gave them extras for free. Katara remembered to decline three times and then after receiving her cakes turned around and yelled into the crowd. "These are the best rice cakes I've ever had!" Several people wandered over while the vendor beamed.

 

Zuko couldn't help but laugh as they walked away, munching on sweets. "You fit in here." Why did I say that? I shouldn't have said that.

 

Katara just smiled. "Well it's like Aang said, right? Our differences don't have to divide us. They can bring us together. You know what? When the war is over and peace returns I'm going to visit the Earth Kingdom every spring and the Fire Nation every summer so I can go to fun parties nine months out of the year."

 

Zuko chuckled. "Sounds like you've got it all figured out." He watched a group of musicians wave at all their friends and then strike up a tune. "Would you really?"

 

"Really what?"

 

"Ever come back here." Zuko looked at her, eyes searching. "After everything, how can you…" He trailed off. Why do you always do this? You were having a nice time, why do you have to ruin everything?

 

Katara looked thoughtful. "I… don't know. For so long the idea of peace has just been a dream, not something I ever thought I would actually be able to make plans for."

 

Zuko nodded. "I know what you mean."

 

She linked arms with him. "What about you? What are you going to do when it's all over?"

 

Rest in my grave. "I don't know. Maybe I'll go back to serving tea," he attempted to joke.

 

"Nothing wrong with making an honest living," Katara said.

 

She's right. "You sound like my uncle."

 

"I can think of no higher praise."

 

Zuko snickered. "Neither can I."

 

The street musicians started playing a jaunty tune. Another teenager spotted them and broke away from his group. "Would the lovely lady care for a dance," he asked.

 

"No, but thank you," Katara said graciously.

 

"What about your handsome escort?"

 

She patted his arm. "I think he's okay."

 

The teenager's friends started laughing from where they were watching. "Maybe try finding someone a bit in your league," one of his friends taunted him.

 

Jerks. "Alright," Zuko said. "I'll dance with you."

 

The boy lit up. "You will? I mean, of course you will. I mean-"

 

Katara pushed Zuko into the boy. "Have fun cousin," she told him.

 

A pretty girl swooped in the moment Katara was unattended and asked for a dance. As Zuko took the boy's hands he saw Katara relent and consent to her own dance. Zuko knew all the steps, but he let the other boy lead. He was a much better dancer than Sokka, and not half so chatty. The dance lasted a few minutes, and when it was done the teenager turned red and started rubbing his neck.

 

Zuko turned his own crimson hue. He spun around and ran away, looking for Katara. He spotted her in time to see the other girl plant a kiss on Katara's cheek before fleeing, a mess of hormones and anxiety. Katara laughed, spotted Zuko and then walked over. "You really are a passionate people."

 

"It's the heat," Zuko said. "Can't be helped."

 

"I'd never been kissed by a girl before."

 

Zuko gave her a skeptical look. Aang's joke kiss lasted longer than that one. "Yeah Katara, you still haven't been kissed by a girl."

 

She elbowed him, but without much force or any malice. "Oh shut up you." She took his arm again. "I guess we should get around to the shopping at some point."

 

"Might be a good idea," Zuko said. They started working on Hama's list. They stayed close to each other to ward off all but the boldest prospective suitors.

 

At one point Katara stopped in front of a cart of wooden figures. Zuko followed her sightline and saw that she was looking at a carving of the painted lady. He dropped his eyes. He wondered what she was thinking. He started to take his arm out of hers.

 

She put her hand on his arm. "I know what you should do when the war is over. You should come to the South Pole. Sokka and I can teach you all about the Water Tribe like you've been teaching us about the Fire Nation. We'll have you loving sea prunes and seal jerky."

 

Zuko couldn't hold back a smile. I know she's joking, but it's still a sweet thing to say. He looked up at her. Her blue eyes were swimming with kindness. "Parties nine months out of the year, right?"

 

"And in autumn we'll help Aang hold a big three month long celebration of the Air Nomads." Her face lit up with sudden realization. "And your birthday. We'll take a day off from that party to throw one for your birthday."

 

Why is she being so nice to me? He took a step back from her.

 

"What's wrong?"

 

"You… You don't have to be so kind to me Katara. You don't need to do that."

 

She sighed. "I guess you didn't get the message. We're all in this together Zuko. You're part of the family. I'm sorry about what happened before. I know you're sorry about things too."

 

Zuko nodded. "I am, for all of it."

 

"And it's done, past. Look." She gestured to the party taking place around them, still in full swing. "Isn't the present a much better place to live than the past?" She makes a good case.

 

He smiled at her. "I think you're right."

 

"Of course I am. Let's go dancing."

 

"Er, what about our groceries?"

 

Katara stepped in front of the cart and leaned to examine the carvings, attracting the attention of the vendor. "See anything you like young lady?"

 

"I love that carving of the painted lady. Although my cousin and I were about to go dancing and it would be cumbersome to carry around."

 

"Don't worry about that. I'll hold onto it for you. I can watch your other purchases as well, and you can come pick them up before the show."

 

"Thank you!" Katara passed him the coin for the figure, as well as their baskets of goods. Then she grabbed Zuko's arm and pulled him into the crowd of dancers. She let him lead; he assumed it was because he knew the steps. Although in the Water Tribe I suppose it would be customary for men to lead.

 

"Oh, look," Katara shouted halfway through one song, throwing off his rhythm. The pattern of the dance had brought them to the end of the street, where there was a good view of the bay. Katara pointed to two large prop boats sitting in the bay, one made of metal and one made of wood. The metal boat was decorated in shimmering red and gold paints, while the wooden boat was blue with paintings of monsters on it.

 

Zuko's heart sank. "I know which festival this is. We should go."

 

"Why, what do you mean? Let's go look at those boats. The village must have put a lot of work into decorating them."

 

"I'm sure they did, but we shouldn't stick around for the show." Luck is never on our side. When will I learn that?

 

Katara looked at his face, her own expression twisting into a nervous one. "What's wrong?"

 

"I'll tell you on the way back."

 

She frowned, but nodded. They made their way back to the stall to pick up their purchases. The vendor grinned and waved at them. "You two want to get a good spot for the show, huh? Me too. My nephew is playing the Water Tribe barbarian this year."

 

Zuko saw the way Katara's muscles went stiff and started cursing in his head. "Is he," Katara asked. Her pleasant voice gave no sign of the inner distress she had to be feeling.

 

"It's going to be a fun show. I won't keep you kids. Go on, get a spot with a good view." He shooed them away.

 

Zuko bit his lip. I hate my life. Well, what else is new? "I'm sorry Katara," he said.

 

"For what," she asked. She rearranged the items in her basket, not looking at him.

 

"I didn't know that today was THIS festival."

 

"Then you have nothing to apologise for." She gave him a weak smile. "Let's go watch the show."

 

Zuko stared at her, baffled. "What?"

 

"I want to see. I want to experience for myself how the Fire Nation sees my people."

 

Zuko felt like he was going to be sick. "Katara-"

 

She seemed to have anticipated what he was going to say. "You don't have to stay with me. You can take the groceries back, and I'll see you later."

 

Zuko sighed. That's not an option. He'd never forgive himself if he left Katara alone to experience what she was about to see. "C'mon, let's go find a good spot." If we're standing in the front of the crowd no one will be able to see our faces and reactions.

 

Zuko led Katara down to the bay and the fake ships. Zuko remembered the first time he had seen this show, a kid sitting on his cousin's shoulders. "Lu Ten! That Water Tribe man is going to hurt our soldier! We have to help her!"

 

Zuko looked at the wooden ship, more of a set really. It was designed to burn, not to float. Lu Ten laughed and squeezed his foot. "She's a daughter of fire, blessed with sacred flame, sworn to the honor of Firelord Sozin. She won't fall to an ice savage cousin, don't worry."

 

"It is pretty," Katara murmured. Monsters decorated the wooden boat, ice men, seawolves, octofoxes and all manner of creatures of legend. Zuko even saw some mermaids painted near the bow. It was pretty though. Local schoolchildren had no doubt been tasked with the decorations.

 

"Yeah," Zuko said. "Well Zuko, did you like the show?" "It was scary, but I liked the ending!" "Let's go get you some fireflakes kiddo."

 

People were starting to file in and claim spots. "We don't have to do this," Zuko reminded Katara.

 

"No, but I want to." That was that. Zuko put his basket down by his feet. It wasn't a short show as far as he could remember.

 

When the music started he was tempted to just close his eyes. No one would know. He kept them open. If Katara has to watch then so do I. The music was a smooth drumbeat that grew in tempo. It sounded like adventure.

 

When a woman wearing a ridiculous costume that looked nothing like actual armor emerged onto the deck of the metal boat everyone started cheering. Her outfit was red silk and covered in golden glitter. She glimmered and shone like flame itself. There were several whistles from the audience. Zuko held in a groan of exasperation.

 

"Comrades, countrymen, loyal children of fire, lend me your ears!" This incited more cheering. This is going to go on forever. "Victory is ours! The Air Army has been defeated! No child will ever have to be born into their degenerative ways again!"

 

As the crowd cheered all the more Zuko snuck a look at Katara. She stared straight ahead. "Now we sail home under the blessings of the great sun spirit, to see our families again and serve the honor and glory of our great Firelord Sozin!" It's not me. I'm myself. There was still more cheering.

 

From a trapdoor in the floor a second actor emerged onto the deck of the wooden boat. Children in the audience were gasping and shouting. "Look out! He's behind you!" Zuko cringed at the ridiculous costume. Whoever had been tasked with bleaching the hide of that pantherbear hadn't done a good job.

 

The actress turned to face her opponent. "Peace brother! The Fire Nation has no grievance with you! Though your cruelty to your own people is known to us we desire no conflict! Let our ships pass and we will be on our way!"

 

The actor stepped forward and gave a line delivery that made Zuko nostalgic for the Ember Island players. You can't enunciate EVERY word! What's wrong with you? Have you ever even seen a play?

 

"You may wish for peace, weak-willed woman, but the Southern Sea belongs to the Water Tribe! If you wish your boats to be allowed through you must submit to our tax! Otherwise our Waterbenders will sink your whole fleet! For the glory of the moon and ocean spirits!" He raised his fists in the air.

 

People were booing while also laughing and clapping. "Set him on fire," a child's voice shouted. Several people laughed. Even the actress and actor snickered for a second before getting back into character.

 

"What is your tax barbarian?"

 

"My men will each take their pick from among your women for a night of entertainment! I will take my pleasure with you!" Zuko shivered. It's just a play. It isn't even a well-acted play. This guy is about as convincing as Aang's Fire Nation slang.

 

Zuko was surprised to feel a hand slip into his. "It's okay," Katara whispered. SHE'S comforting ME? I don't deserve that. She squeezed his hand. He squeezed back.

 

"The daughters of fire will have none of your ilk, savage! Away with you. Know that you are experiencing the mercy of the benevolent and generous Firelord Sozin, who wishes to share our peace and prosperity with the world!"

 

"You will submit to us! If you do not my Waterbenders will drown your fleet as a sacrifice to our cold spirits!"

 

"This is your last chance to turn around and return to your icy hovels barbarian!"

 

The actor took a step forward and began to to swing his arms around in a ridiculous pantomime of bending. "Prepare to feel the icy cold of my waterbending!" He raised his arms high. The actress got into an actual firebending stance. For a second they both just stood there. "I said-!"

 

"Wait, wait a second!" Someone yelled from off to the left of the action. "The rope is stuck!"

 

Katara snickered and nudged Zuko while several people in the audience grumbled and complained. She nodded towards the metal boat and he saw where the bucket of water was held up by a pully system. "Should I help them," she whispered in his ear.

 

"No, you absolutely should not," he hissed back.

 

"Okay! I think I got it! Go again," the poor stagehand yelled.

 

The actor rolled his eyes. "With the power of my waterbending!" He threw out his arm.

 

The actress resumed her stance and looked up. Nothing happened. "Seriously Hiro," she yelled. "We do this every year!"

 

Katara flicked her finger and the bucket moved, pouring water down towards the actress. The actress deflected the slight amount of water with a simple firebending move. The crowd cheered. "Now," she shouted, sounding somewhat exasperated. "You will see what the daughters of fire can do!"

 

The actress sent a careful controlled punch of fire well to the left of the ship where it couldn't catch anything alight. The actor slipped back through his trapdoor. The actress sent several more harmless flames well away from the ship. Zuko glanced behind the boat and saw the actor crawl out of the back and send a thumbs up to the actress. Zuko rolled his eyes.

 

When the actress saw her co-star was clear of the boat she sent a final wave of fire right into the center of it. The dry wood caught quickly, and soon the blue paint was scorched black as the boat turned into a raging fire. The whole crowd was clapping and cheering. Someone started singing an old song about the superiority of fire over water; several people joined in.

 

Zuko looked away. He squeezed Katara's hand tight and didn't dare look at her face. She squeezed back and then let go to pick up her basket. "Let's head back," she said.

 

"Katara, I'm so s-"

 

"You warned me. You don't need to apologise. I wanted to see, and I did." Her voice was calm.

 

Zuko followed her through the crowd. People were cheering, singing, dancing and just enjoying the celebration in general. Everyone who saw them made sure to step aside for the teens with groceries to carry home though, as was only polite. Once they were out of the village and on the path back to Hama's Katara stopped.

 

"Are you okay Katara?"

 

"Is that what they taught you about my people when you were growing up?" Zuko saw her release the calm facade she had forced herself to maintain for the villagers. She wore her grief on her face and in her posture.

 

Zuko nodded. "I used to see that show every year. I never thought to question it. We would hear stories about vicious- It doesn't matter."

 

"It does matter though," Katara whispered. She set her basket down and brought her hand to her face. "It matters to me."

 

"I didn't mean- I only-" She looked at him, tears already collecting in her eyes. She pulled him into a hug. I wasn't expecting that.

 

"Will there ever be peace? How can there be when people spread so much hate?"

 

He hugged her back, hands on her shaking shoulders. "I don't know. I think it's possible though. It has to be possible. After all, we found peace."

 

She squeezed him tight and then let go. "You're right." She wiped her eyes. "It might be a long and difficult journey, but there is a path to peace if we're willing to walk it."

 

Zuko gave her a tentative smile. "I'll walk it with you." If I'm not dead, which I probably will be. If I'm not though, I can think of nothing I'd rather do.

 

She smiled back. "Are all plays in the Fire Nation that overacted?"

 

Oh she has no idea the can of wormslugs she just opened. "Katara, let me tell you about a group called the Ember Island players. Now I love a good classic romance as much as the next person, but all it takes to turn drama into melodrama is a casting director that pays more attention to inseam than talent, and-"

 

Katara burst out laughing. "Zuko! Are you a theatre nerd?!" She looked delighted.

 

Zuko felt a scowl rising, but then he looked at her wide smile and it couldn't finish forming. He just gave her a sheepish smile instead. "Maybe a bit."

 

"This is great. Alright then, carry on."

 

"Using symbolism in costume design is great and all, but there's something to be said for subtlety!" Zuko was surprised that Katara was willing to listen to his nonsensical rant about his mother's favorite play. He kept expecting her to interrupt him, but she never did. She just smiled. So he kept talking, and she kept smiling. This feels nice , he realized.

Chapter Text

Sokka read over Katara's note explaining that she had gone to the market with Zuko and she expected them to respect Hama's home and not make a mess in her absence. He then yawned. After eating some breakfast Katara has set aside for him he wandered into the woods to make sure Aang and Toph were fine. They were throwing rocks at each other, so all was well there. Appa was content as well and so was Momo.

 

Sokka sat down in Hama's yard and polished his sword while going over the invasion plan in his head, searching for any weakness or possible improvement. Hama entered the yard after he'd been outside a couple of hours and smiled at him. "That's an interesting weapon you have there," she said.

 

Sokka grinned. "I made it myself."

 

"The longsword isn't a traditional Water Tribe weapon."

 

"No," Sokka agreed. "I learned how to use it from Master Piando. He's the greatest swordsman to ever live."

 

"I believe I have heard that name. He's a Fire Nation soldier, is that correct?"

 

"Yeah. He'll teach people from any nation though. Swordsmanship is an art, and art belongs to everybody," Sokka quoted his master.

 

"So… You don't fight with traditional Water Tribe weapons?" She sat down next to him.

 

"Well, I've always got my trusty boomerang!" Sokka grinned at her. "I don't carry it around as much here in the Fire Nation because it's too noticeable though," Sokka explained.

 

Hama grimaced. "Yes, I know what you mean. I have to hide every part of who I am, every piece of our culture, just to survive in this cursed place."

 

Sokka thought about what Zuko had said last night. He put his sword and polishing rag down. "I can't imagine what you've been through. If I got taken away from Katara and dad and couldn't see them for years, decades…" I don't know if I'd survive. Having my family to fight for has kept me strong, but if I were trapped in a cell my whole life, I think I might just give up.

 

Hama placed a wrinkled hand on his shoulder. "It's not a thought worth your consideration. Those monsters have taken everything they can from us, don't give them your peace of mind."

 

Sokka nodded. "That's a good idea." Right, well time to take the plunge. "I want to apologise if I was rude to you last night. You're of my tribe; you're one of my elders. I guess I lost sight of that because I didn't grow up knowing you, but that isn't your fault."

 

Hama gave his shoulder a thankful squeeze. Hama's hands didn't feel like Gran-Gran's, light and shaky. Her grip was firm and strong. "Thank you child, but you did nothing wrong."

 

"I am glad we found you," Sokka continued to assure her. "After losing so much, it's nice to get something back." I wonder what dad's reaction will be. Gran-Gran told us about Hama, so he must have heard about her growing up as well.

 

"It is," she whispered. "Loss and gain are two halves of the same whole. They balance each other, like the push and pull of the tides. This is part of the central philosophy not just of waterbending, but of our people's culture."

 

Sokka nodded. Great, more spiritual stuff, my favorite topic of conversation. He forced an attentive look on his face and smiled. "Sure is," he agreed.

 

"With this outlook we can see that suffering is never meaningless, but part of the path that will lead us to where we need to be. Pain tempers the body like fire tempering steel, and although it is an unpleasant process it can also be necessary." Hama stared into the distance, her eyes no longer in the present. She still lives through it everyday. I wouldn't wish that on anyone.

 

"I'm sorry for what you went through. It's over now though. You don't have to…" Have to what? I have no idea what I'm talking about. Where's Katara when you need her?

 

She turned to look at him, expression blank and chilling. "I'm fine. You don't need to worry about me." She patted his knee. Well that's resolved. I guess I am good at the emotional stuff.

 

Sokka still felt like something needed to be said, even if he had no idea what. "If you need to talk about what happened though, you can talk to us. I know you probably see us as kids, but we've fought in the war and seen a lot." Sokka's tongue explored the spot where his missing tooth used to be.

 

Hama shook her head. "There's nothing to say. What happened, happened. Now we must all live with it." She looked at him again, and her face warmed. "I don't see you as a child Sokka; I know you are a man of the tribe."

 

Sokka felt his chest puffing out with a bit of pride. That I am Hama, that I am. "I passed my test and everything. We had to use rocks instead of ice, but I succeeded."

 

"You are a brave warrior, and a good protector for your sister. Is she back from the market yet?"

 

"I don't think so, but she shouldn't be too much longer. She went with Zuko, and of all of us those two are the least likely to get caught up in time-wasting shenanigans."

 

"She went with the Firebender?"

 

"Zuko," Sokka reminded her of his name with a gentle correction.

 

"And you trust him?"

 

"With my life," Sokka said.

 

"It's difficult for me to imagine, a Firebender that can be trusted. I dream about what they did to me and my brothers and sisters every night…" She's still there , Sokka realized. She never actually escaped.

 

"Zuko isn't like that," Sokka explained. "I was skeptical about trusting him at first too. The thing is that he's not a bad person. He cares about people. He wants to do the right thing."

 

Hama nodded. "Of course. You wouldn't let your sister be alone with him if that weren't the case."

 

Well Katara can take care of herself, but that's not really what we're talking about. "Exactly," he agreed. "Zuko wouldn't let anything happen to Katara, or Toph, or Aang or even me. The thing about Zuko is that he's crazy stubborn and loyal. Once he's on your side he'll do anything to protect you." It's almost impressive that Ozai and Azula managed to squander that much loyalty.

 

"I see." She stared ahead. "Oh, there they are." She pointed to a section of the path that led to Hama's home which could be seen from the yard.

 

Sokka saw that she was right; Zuko and Katara were both carrying laden baskets as they walked up the path. Zuko looked to be in a riled up state. He seemed to be shouting about something, although Sokka of course couldn't hear what it was. He did see that Katara's eyes were red like she'd been crying, her face flush. I thought they worked everything out! Why are they fighting again?!

 

"Um… I'm gonna go check on them." Sokka jumped to his feet and ran towards the path, leaving his sword behind. He didn't hear a response from Hama.

 

"But wouldn't that make her the Dragon Emperor's granddaughter," Sokka heard Katara ask as he approached. She sounded amused, not at all upset.

 

"Well… kinda sorta," Zuko said. "It's sort of left vague. Even if she is, the mages raised her, so they're her real family. Anyway, the sorcerer finds the Dragon King's temple and-"

 

"So there's a Dragon Emperor AND a Dragon King? Isn't that kind of needlessly complicated? Hey Sokka." Katara shoved her basket in Sokka's arms, not even bothering to look at him, still engrossed in her conversation and very much not in tears. Oh, I guess everything is fine, weird, but fine.

 

"No, not if you understand the story."

 

"Well if the story is difficult to understand that's on the writer, not the audience," Katara insisted. She wore that special smile she used when she was baiting someone.

 

"Ugh, you don't get it," Zuko complained, but he was smiling too. "It's different when you see it on stage."

 

"Well, we'll have to schedule a trip to Ember Island to see it at some point," she said with her extra special I'm-saying-this-just-to-torture-you tone of voice and a huge grin. I don't get it.

 

"How could you say that?!" Apparently Zuko gets it.

 

Katara snickered. "Alright, we'll find a company that meets your rigid unobtainable standards."

 

"What are you two weirdos talking about," Sokka asked.

 

"Sokka, did you know that Zuko loves the theatre? How were we unaware of this?"

 

Sokka considered this new exciting information. How do I best use this for ridicule? "You mean the guy who likes to run around in black pajamas and colorful masks is a drama nerd? The guy who says things like: you rise with the moon; I rise with the-"

 

Zuko pushed his basket of groceries into Sokka's chests, forcing him to balance the two heavy loads. "Shut it."

 

"Why am I carrying all the groceries now," Sokka complained.

 

"We carried everything up from the village. You can at least put it all away," Katara said as they reached the door. She held it open for him though, because even when she was being mean she had to be nice about it. That's Katara in a nutshell.

 

Sokka grumbled and Zuko took pity on him, reclaiming his basket. The boys walked into the kitchen with Katara trailing behind. "Sokka, you forgot the best one." She lowered her voice as much as she could, infusing it with gravel. "I'll protect you from the pirates."

 

Zuko's ears turned red, well the one that wasn't already red turned red. "I did!"

 

Sokka snickered. "You're the Avatar? You're just a child," he said with all the pomp he could muster.

 

"He was- is! I hate you both."

 

Katara and Sokka were bent over with laughter when Hama came in. "Is everything alright children? I heard shouting."

 

"We're just teasing Zuko; he's a theatre aficionado," Katara explained.

 

"I just think that if you're GOING to put on a play you should do it WELL," Zuko said with all the dramatic gestures he could since he'd put his basket down and freed his hands.

 

"All this time and I had no idea you were a nerd," Sokka said, delighted. This is shaping up to be a great day. I should sleep in more often. "Where's Toph? She'll be so happy."

 

Zuko scowled at Sokka, but it wasn't one of his scowls of actual anger, so Sokka just grinned in return. "Well at least some of us are a little bit cultured. What was the last book you read, 1001 terrible puns?"

 

It was a book I found while shopping with Toph about different kinds of armor used in the Fire Nation. I took notes on weak points so I would know where to aim, best not bring that up while we're having fun. "I know way more puns than that," Sokka assured him.

 

"The Southern Water Tribe once had a strong tradition of oral storytelling," Hama said. She walked up to their baskets and started unpacking them. "As the raids got worse and worse, and we lost many of our elders, a great deal of those stories were lost." Well, that killed the mood.

 

"Maybe you could tell us some," Katara suggested. "I'll make you some tea, and while I get to work on lunch you could tell us some of the old stories."

 

Hama glanced at Zuko. "I'd rather not." Sokka felt a twinge of annoyance. They were all trying to please her. It was starting to feel like Hama was determined to be unhappy with their efforts.

 

"I'll go check on Aang and Toph," Zuko said. He bowed to the elder before departing, but she pretended not to see him.

 

Hama kept unpacking their baskets. "What's this?" She pulled out a wooden carving. Sokka recognized the figure from their adventure at the poor village on the polluted river.

 

"Oh," Katara said. "That's the painted lady. She's a spirit who eases the suffering of those in pain."

 

Hama examined the figure with a look of disgust. "It's a Fire Nation spirit, isn't it?"

 

"Well, yes, technically. She helped me once though. I didn't understand her story at first, but I do now. She's a being of great strength and tenderness."

 

Hama held out the figure to Katara while looking away, as though she could not bear the sight of it. "I see."

 

Katara took the figure. Katara's smile had slipped away and been replaced by concern. "I know that it's strange for me to feel connected to a spirit associated with the Fire Nation, but none of the spirits belong just to one nation. All of the spirits are connected, and they balance each other. The Water Tribe needs the sun too, just like the Fire Nation needs the moon."

 

"Excuse me," Hama whispered. "I don't feel well." She disappeared down the hall.

 

"Well, you tried," Sokka said. Maybe we should just be on our way. It seems like us being here is only making Hama feel worse.

 

"She was tortured by the Fire Nation for decades, she's not going to just get over that in the space of a conversation," Katara huffed.

 

"Uh-huh." Sokka started digging through the groceries looking for something to snack on.

 

Katara smacked his hand away. "I'm going to start lunch. Go play with your sword or something."

 

"Ow!" Sokka rubbed his hand. "Fine, I will."

 

Katara didn't even look up from what she was doing. She just lifted her hand and made a shooing gesture with her fingers. Sokka went to retrieve his sword. I'm growing; I need to eat! Once Sokka had his sword he went to go find Zuko. I'm not going to spar with myself.

 

It wasn't too hard to find Aang and Toph's earthbending practice spot, since it was well within sight of their original campsite. Appa yawned at Sokka. Sokka gave him a couple of pats and then headed towards the three benders. When he was close enough to get a good look at them Sokka realized that both Aang and Zuko were blindfolded. This is weird.

 

"You have to be faster twinkle toes! You should know what I'm going to do before I even do it! Feel the way I project my next movement with each step!"

 

"I'm trying Toph."

 

"Try harder fancy dancer, and you too sparky! Let's feel some heat!"

 

"I don't know if this heat sense is as effective as your earthbending, Toph," Zuko said.

 

Oh. They're trying to fight blind. Heh, I can help with that. Sokka put his sword down. Even with a healer on call he wasn't going to risk cutting anybody. He found a thick stick instead. He stepped into the clearing.

 

No one turned towards him, but Toph did smirk in such a way that let him know she not only knew he was there but also why he was there and that she approved. So Toph was out as a target. He looked between Zuko and Aang. Aang had been learning this skill longer and had access to both the heat and ground sense. Zuko would probably be easier to sneak up on. So should I go after the easier target or the more difficult?

 

A more difficult target is more rewarding. Sokka looked at Aang and pictured his big sad eyes looking up at him projecting feelings of hurt and betrayal. Zuko it is. He can use some humbling.

 

Sokka took careful quiet steps further into the clearing as Toph kept chucking pebbles at Aang and Zuko. Aang had to deflect with earthbending while Zuko used his swords. Sokka got closer and closer to Zuko, who seemed focused on detecting Toph's movements, not that it was helping. He deflected less rocks than hit him. Heh, at least you aren't good at everything.

 

Sokka stood right behind Zuko, and Zuko gave no indication that he had even the slightest clue something was amiss. Maybe this is mean… Nah, it's training. Sokka lifted the stick and swung for Zuko's shoulders, being careful not to put too much force in his swing.

 

Zuko was fast. Sokka knew how fast he was, but it still stunned him just how instantaneous Zuko's movements could be. The swords were falling to the ground and Zuko was spinning around before Sokka even realized Zuko was moving. Zuko caught Sokka's wrist. Less than a second after Sokka had started his swing he was facing the way he had come with his arm wrenched up behind his back. The grip wasn't painful, but it was firm.

 

Toph was laughing like a maniac. "You knew I was there the whole time, didn't you," Sokka complained.

 

"Not the whole time," Zuko said, laughing.

 

"You missed all those rocks on purpose to lull me into a false sense of security!"

 

"Would I do that?" Zuko's snickering indicated to Sokka that he both would and had.

 

"What happened," Aang asked. "Can I take my blindfold off?"

 

"You absolutely may," Toph said through uncontrollable laughter. "You need to see this."

 

"Ugh, you're still wearing that blindfold aren't you," Sokka asked as he tried to struggle out of Zuko's grip. It was an effective hold, and Sokka couldn't seem to find its weak point.

 

"Yep. Do you want me to let you go?"

 

"Pft. I can break this hold whenever I want. I'm just tiring you out a bit first. It's strategy."

 

"Greeeeeat strategy," Toph drawled.

 

"I've got this," Sokka insisted.

 

"Are you sure," Zuko asked. Smug jerk. I'll show him. Sokka tried to yank his arm down, but the angle of the hold made it impossible to do so without hurting his shoulder. He wasn't that desperate to show Zuko up. "I'll just let go."

 

"I'm about to turn the tables on you," Sokka declared.

 

"I think he beat you, Sokka," Aang said, giggling.

 

"I'm just biding my time!"

 

"Well how much time are you going to bide? You're cutting into training," Toph complained.

 

"I've got th-is!" Halfway through his last word Sokka managed to yank one arm free and pull away from the grip. "Ha!" He turned to face his former captor. Sokka went pale.

 

Zuko was standing there, still wearing that stupid blindfold, with a long sharp icicle sticking through his shoulder. The point extended a full two inches out of the exit wound. Zuko reached up with a shaking hand to yank off his blindfold. "Wha-"


Sokka caught him as he started to crumple. I guess we don't get good days. Sokka looked in the direction the icicle should have come from based on the angle and saw a pretty little brook. Hama was standing in the water up to her ankles, expression one of panic and horror. Yeah, we don't get good days.

Chapter Text

Aang was sort of getting the hang of seeing the world without looking at it. He hadn't quite mastered the combat applications yet. He could feel the world around him and appreciate its beauty. As far as sensing movement and using it to predict which bending technique Toph was using and then countering before the rock struck… Ow!

 

Even with Toph going against both Aang and Zuko she was wiping the floor with both of them. Aang was so focused on defense he didn't have time to mount an offense, and any strikes he did manage were so off course Toph didn't even need to deflect. It was frustrating, but he knew he was making progress. Classic earthbending had been frustrating in the beginning too, and it had been more than worth it. All the same, he was glad when Sokka showed up to provide a distraction.

 

After Toph gave Aang permission to remove his blindfold Aang was treated to the sight of Sokka's pointless struggles against Zuko's firm grapple. Of course the more they urged him to yield the more determined Sokka became to win the fight he'd already lost. It was all in good fun and quite amusing, until it wasn't. From the woods, so fast Aang didn't see it until it had already found its target, an icicle went through Zuko's shoulder.

 

Sokka slipped free, turned around and then caught Zuko as he started to fall. Aang and Toph both ran for them. Toph couldn't have seen the ice, but Aang knew she could feel Zuko's reaction to it. "Zuko," Aang cried out in horror. He dropped to his knees next to his friend.

 

Zuko gritted his teeth against the pain. "Here's a perfect opportunity for you to practice healing, Aang," he said. Jokes about you being hurt aren't funny! Aang wanted to shout the sentiment at his friend, but he knew that wouldn't help.

 

"Can you heal it Aang," Toph asked in a panicked voice.

 

"I, uh… I don't…" This is a lot more serious than a simple cut or even a burn! "Maybe we should get Katara."

 

"What were you thinking?!" Aang jumped, but Sokka wasn't yelling at any of them; he was yelling at someone behind them. Aang turned his head and saw Hama standing in a creek a little ways away. She started to walk towards them.

 

Toph jumped to her feet. The second Hama exited the water she was in Toph's range of perception again, even if Toph's back was still turned to her. "You! You did this! Why?!"

 

"He attacked Sokka," Hama said. She sounded afraid and mournful. Was it just a misunderstanding? That's not what matters right now.

 

Aang looked at her. "You're a healer. Please help him." So much blood was leaking out of Zuko's shoulders.

 

"No way!" Toph stomped her foot. "I don't trust her! She'd just make it worse!"

 

"Toph," Zuko groaned. He was getting paler and paler. "It's okay. It was a misunderstanding."

 

"She stabbed you!"

 

Zuko grabbed Aang's hand. The arm attached to the injured shoulder was hanging limp, so he used the other hand. "You can do this Aang. Katara taught you. You believe in her teaching skills, right?" This is so unfair!

 

Aang took a deep breath and let it out. He squeezed Zuko's hand and Zuko let go. Aang held his hands over the wound. Aang melted the icicle. Blood mixed with water flowed out of the wound without the projectile to keep it inside. Zuko gasped in pain.

 

I don't think I was supposed to do that! Aang held up his hand, stopping the water from flowing. He closed his eyes and felt for the chi lines in Zuko's body. I can do this. I know what to do. He encouraged the healing energy to flow.

 

Aang opened his eyes. Zuko's clothes were still ripped and bloody over where the wound had been, but the flash itself was whole again, and that was what mattered. Aang released a breath he hadn't realized he was holding. As relief washed away the tension in his body Aang felt limp.

 

Zuko tested his shoulder. "You did it." He smiled at Aang. He was still too pale. Healing a wound didn't replace the blood that had been lost.

 

Sokka breathed a sigh of relief. "I knew you could do it Aang. I wish we hadn't needed to find out for sure, but I never doubted you."

 

The crisis past, Toph returned to expressing her displeasure. "You could have killed him!" She pointed an accusing finger at Hama.

 

Aang got to his feet and looked at Hama. "Why did you do it," he asked in a calm nonconfrontational tone.

 

"He attacked Sokka. I was worried he would hurt him." She looked so frightened and weak. Her wrinkled hands were trembling. I can't believe there's any malice in her heart.

 

"We were sparring!" Toph's face was twisted in rage. "That's the whole reason we came out here to begin with!"

 

"Toph." Zuko got to his feet. "It was an accident. Let it go."

 

"It wasn't an accident! She impaled you! She did it on purpose! She could have killed you!"

 

"Well she didn't," Zuko said. "She was just trying to protect someone she thought needed her help. There's nothing reprehensible there."

 

"Ugh! Stop it!" She stomped her foot. "You keep doing this! You keep letting everyone push you around! You think you deserve it, but you DON'T!"

 

"Toph," Aang started to say. "Forgiveness is-"

 

"Can it twinkle toes! Forgiveness is all well and good, but that's not what's going on here!" Toph threw an accusing finger in Zuko's direction. "He lets everyone treat him like dirt because he thinks he has to in order to atone for the past."

 

Huh. She might be onto something. Aang remembered the way Zuko had reacted when Katara was in the throes of frost fever and shouting assassinations of his character to Sokka. Zuko hadn't said a word in his own defense and had never asked for an apology. Aang looked at Zuko, but the older boy wouldn't meet his gaze, like he was the one guilty of something.

 

"You don't deserve to be treated this way, and the more you accept it the more you encourage people to keep doing it!" Toph stomped her foot, and the ground shook.

 

Zuko looked up. His golden eyes glittered with some emotion. Aang didn't know if it was rage or pain or both. "You don't know what I deserve," he said, voice quiet and toneless.

 

Toph scoffed. "Suffer then. I don't care." She stormed off, leaving feet shaped indentations in the ground.

 

Zuko sighed. "We'll need to fill in all those holes so no one sees them and realizes an Earthbender came through here."

 

Aang closed his eyes and lifted his hands up. He opened his eyes and looked for the holes. There was no trace of them. He grinned at Zuko.

 

"Nice job."

 

Aang beamed. I do love encouragement. That wasn't a very difficult bending move, but all the same. It's nice to fix things.

 

Zuko glanced at Hama and then at the woods. "I'm going to go make sure Toph makes it back okay." He ran off before anyone could respond. Aang knew that excuse was ridiculous, but he understood why Zuko didn't want to hang around.

 

Aang looked at Hama. She still looked distressed. Upon closer examination Aang worried that she might fall over. Her age was more apparent than it had been at any point since they'd arrived. "Are you okay?"

 

"I'm- I'm fine. When I saw them fighting I remembered… It was like the raid all those years ago. It was like I was there again. I had to protect…" She hid her face in her hands.

 

Sokka walked up to her. He put his hand on her shoulder. "Hey, it's okay. We're safe. No one was ever in danger."

 

Hama gave a weak strained laugh. "What would Kanna say if she could see me now?"

 

"She'd thank you for trying to protect her grandson," Sokka said in a tone of confidence and assurance. "Let's get you back home. I bet Katara made a great meal."

 

Hama nodded. Sokka offered her his arm and she took it. They started to walk away, but Aang stayed where he was. He looked at the blood on the ground, seeping into the soil. He wished there was a way he could clear that away as easy as Toph's footprints.

 

He shook his head and started to walk back towards Hama's house. He kept his pace slow. He didn't want to pass Hama and Sokka. That might be cowardice. I don't know what to say though.

 

When he did arrive Aang found himself no more eager to confront Hama. He walked around to the backyard and saw Zuko and Toph. I'm not sure this is any better. He tilted his head in confusion. They were both sitting on the ground facing away from each other, back to back.

 

Aang took a step back into the shadows. Toph would still know he was there, but she would also think Aang was too far away to hear them. Aang lifted his hand to perform a bending move he hadn't used since before he was frozen. He knew it wasn't polite, but he needed to know if they were okay, and they wouldn't tell him on their own. Aang bent the air into a funnel to carry their voices to his ears.

 

"Why did they keep coming over? I would have just stayed home after that." What's she talking about?

 

"Their parents might have made them. Having a daughter be a playmate to a princess is pretty good for your social standing. They might have just liked her. She's easy to like."

 

Toph scoffed. "I don't see how anybody could like her."

 

There was a long pause. Aang watched Zuko struggle against a rising grin. "Well you don't see any-"

 

"Don't be proud of yourself. I handed that to you giftwrapped. Also, don't change the subject. How could anyone like her?"

 

"Maybe it would make more sense if you could see her." Zuko sounded unsure.

 

"What, is she really pretty or something?"

 

"Ew, that's my sister!"

 

"Well why does it matter what she looks like then?"

 

"It's not about what she looks like. It's the way she stands in front of you. She's so confident, so powerful. It's so easy to surrender to her, to just let her take over and give up all responsibility for yourself. With Azula… the world makes sense. She gives you clarity."

 

"She's evil."

 

"Yeah, but sometimes it's easier to do the evil thing. There's less doubt involved."

 

"So why didn't you? If you'd sided with her in Ba Sing Se you could be in your palace right now, eating cherries without pits and listening to trained musicians serenade you."

 

Zuko snorted laughter. "That's a pretty accurate picture."

 

"I'm serious. Why didn't you go with her?"

 

Zuko ran his fingers through the grass. He was quiet for a long time. Aang kept expecting Toph to prod him, but she didn't. She waited, and listened. "All those people, they just wanted a safe place to live. The war took everything, and they just wanted to rest."

 

"Is that what you wanted?"

 

"I don't know what I want. I don't think it matters. My life isn't important." Aang felt a pang in his heart. Yes it is. "But…"

 

"But," Toph encouraged.

 

"I like being with all of you. It's… nice. I like having friends."

 

There was another long pause. "We like you too Zuko."

 

He scoffed. Zuko doesn't think we like him? "You don't have to say that."

 

"Ugh, you don't get it. You're the only one in the world as high strung as Katara, as much of a dork as Sokka and as obnoxious as Aang. Do you know how few people are crazy enough to put up with those losers?"

 

Zuko snickered. "That's so mean." Yeah Toph, it is mean. Aang wasn't mad though. He thought he might understand what she was doing.

 

"You're a mess Zuko, but so are we. You fit in with us." She put her hand on top of his.

 

"You guys aren't so bad."

 

"Well no, I'm a flawless gem. It balances out the rest of them."

 

He laughed again. "It is easier to talk to people when you can't see their face."

 

"I told you. See, never doubt me."

 

"I won't," Zuko promised. He squeezed her hand.

 

Aang turned around to walk in through the front door. I'm not ruining that moment. Thanks Toph.

Chapter Text

Katara cleared away the lunch dishes. For once Zuko didn't stick around to help or even offer to do so. She couldn't blame him. The awkward atmosphere in the house was stifling. Toph was radiating animosity towards Hama, who was quiet and forlorn. There had been no conversation during the meal.

 

Sokka came into the kitchen, but Katara knew better than to think he was going to offer to help. "Why don't you just use Hama's waterbending trick for the dishes."

 

Katara shrugged. "This relaxes me," she admitted.

 

Sokka leaned against the counter. "I know you're really looking forward to learning the southern style from Hama tonight, and I would never want to take that from you. Still, I think we should leave first thing in the morning."

 

Katara sighed. "It feels wrong to abandon her." Tribe is tribe. That's Gran-Gran's friend. How can we just cast her aside after she's already lost so much?

 

"It's not like we can stay here forever. The invasion is coming up fast."

 

Katara bit her lip and nodded. "I know."

 

"And when everything is done we can come back. We'll give her a lift to the South Pole. Gran-Gran will be thrilled."

 

Katara found herself smiling. I can imagine the look on her face. She'll be so shocked. "I guess you're right. I don't know about first thing in the morning though. Let's spend the night, and then tomorrow at breakfast we'll tell her we have to move on soon."

 

Sokka nodded, seeming satisfied. "That will work."

 

"Do you think Zuko is okay," Katara asked.

 

Sokka released a huff of breath. "Aang healed him, so there's no reason he wouldn't be."

 

That's not what I meant and you know it. "He loves his people you know."

 

Sokka gave her a look of complete confusion. "He's not going to betray us."

 

Katara returned the confused look. Of course he isn't. "I know. What are you talking about?"

 

"What does that mean, he loves his people?"

 

"He cares about them and about his culture, even about the hurt feelings of random teenagers." Katara snickered at the memory. "I can't imagine what it must feel like, to be fighting so hard for your people all the while knowing that they hate you." She looked down at the water. "Can you imagine our tribe thinking we were dead and celebrating the fact?"

 

"No," Sokka admitted. "I can't even imagine."

 

"They're lucky to have him for a prince. They don't even realize it, but they are."

 

Sokka made a humming sound of consideration. "Is he even really still a prince though?"

 

Katara considered that. "Well… Once we overthrow the Firelord and put General Iroh on the throne he'd be his heir, wouldn't he? I mean his son is dead, who else is there?"

 

Sokka shrugged. "That's all someone else's problem. We just have to win the war. Everyone else can figure out what to do afterwards. I'm gonna go work on my designs for Appa's armor. Later."

 

Katara shook her head as he left. Even knowing what had happened, and even being distraught over it, she couldn't help the rising excitement in her chest. I'm going to learn real southern techniques! She busied herself cleaning the house to make the day go by faster. She prepared dinner early and watched the sun get lower in the sky.

 

Hama came down just as the sun was starting to set. Her previous distress had vanished. There was no shaking or tears. She was all smiles and excitement. "Are you ready Katara?"

 

"Oh yes!" Katara rubbed her neck in embarrassment over her unnecessary shout. "I'm sorry. I'm just so excited."

 

"I am as well. I never thought I'd get the chance to pass on these techniques."

 

"I'll go get Aang. I'll be right back." Katara rushed into the backyard, where Aang was fighting with Sokka over some weird leather contraption. "Aang, c'mon! It's time for waterbending lessons with Hama!"

 

Aang looked up. The argument must have been a good-natured one, because he had been smiling. The smile slipped away when he looked at her however. "Oh… I've done a lot of practice today. Maybe I should take a break?"

 

"What are you talking about? We're leaving soon. This is our only opportunity to learn real classic southern techniques. Let's go."

 

Aang sighed and got to his feet. "Okay."

 

"What's the matter with you? I thought you were excited to learn this with me?"

 

"I was- am. I am. Let's go." He plastered an unconvincing smile on his face and followed her.

 

Hama led them to a place deep in the forest near a beautiful clear river. The sun was finishing its descent. "This place is so beautiful," Katara marveled. The scent of fresh flowers filled the air. The sound of rushing water was music to her ears.

 

"It is," Hama agreed. "Are you ready?"

 

Katara gave Hama an eager nod, her face lit up. "We are."

 

Hama stepped into the shallows of the river. "Waterbending is all about push and pull, just like the moon and the ocean, just like the tides. It is important for Waterbenders to understand and embody this idea of balance."

 

Katara nodded. She understood the concept very well, but she still listened in rapt attention. "Water flows naturally, and will do so even without your encouragement. A wise Waterbender doesn't try to force water to do something it doesn't want to. Rather, we guide the water in a direction that benefits us," Hama continued to explain.

 

Hama raised her hands and pulled some water out of the river. The water glittered under the light of the full moon. "Don't fight it. Let the water guide you as you guide it. The water knows where it wants to go."

 

Katara and Aang stepped into the water with Hama. Hama's teaching style and bending style were both very different from Master Pakku's. Katara closed her eyes and submerged herself in the information she was getting. She reached out for her element and felt that connection that was always there. She felt at peace.

 

Hama was a powerful bender. Katara hadn't realized at first just how powerful she was. Her technique was flawless. The water didn't just comply with her commands, it was eager to abide her. Don't fight. Become one with the flow.

 

Katara took a deep breath and then let it out, feeling the water ripple with her, responding to even the small movements of her lungs. "This feels nice," Aang whispered. Katara turned to him and grinned. "It's peaceful," he said.

 

"Water is a gentle element," Hama agreed.

 

Katara thought about ice, freezing and cutting and leeching out warmth and life. She shook her head to dispel the thought. "It is. It cools, soothes and heals," Katara agreed. She lifted a stream of water and suggested with gentle movements it dance with her. The water was eager to comply.

 

"Oh!" Aang had an excited expression. "Does the southern style have any special healing techniques," he asked. Ooh! That's a great question Aang! Katara turned to Hama with her own eager expression.

 

Hama smiled. She stepped onto the bank and sat down. "Come children." She patted the bank next to her, inviting them to sit down.

 

Katara and Aang sat down on either side of her. She stretched out one arm. Katara made sure not to react to the many scars. "Healers guide the chi inside your body towards wounds, allowing the flow of energy to do what it does naturally, just faster. The most skilled healers can do more though."

 

Hama placed two fingers on the skin of her arm and slid them down. The skin split open as she did, as if she had been cut. The wound didn't bleed though. "We can reach into the body where there are severe injuries or illnesses and correct the cause. We can drain blood from an internal injury. We can remove tumors and parasites."

 

Katara felt queasy. Hama raised her hand and a thin stream of blood rose out of her arm. She lowered her hand and it returned to where it belonged. "With bloodbending you can correct almost any abnormality of the flesh. It is difficult though."

 

Hama put her fingers back on her arm and resealed her skin, leaving a thin white line behind. "Only the most experienced healing masters can use this method. Even the tiniest mistake can cause more grievous harm than the original malady. Bloodbending must only ever be used by a Master." Katara noticed Hama's arm didn't have any wrinkles anymore, although all the scars remained.

 

"I never realized…" Katara stared at her hands. "It turns the blood to ice." Blood is just another kind of water. "Waterbenders can control blood. We can…"

 

"Yes," Hama said in a solemn tone. "This sacred gift comes with obligations though. It is forbidden for a Waterbender untrained in bloodbending to use or attempt to use it for any reason. Even once you have been trained, it is a healing art and must never be used for combat."

 

Katara stared at the river. I froze Combustion man's blood in his veins! I used this sacred gift to do something profane. Katara felt a tightness in her chest. She couldn't breathe.

 

"Katara? Katara!" Aang's voice sounded like it was coming from far away. I'm a monster.

 

A cool hand rested on her shoulder. "It's alright Katara. Take a deep breath," Hama said.

 

"I did it. There was a man… He attacked Toph. She's just a little girl." Katara started to sob. "I tried to freeze the blood in his veins."

 

Arms wrapped around her, arms that felt too strong for a frail old woman. "It's alright Katara. You did NOTHING wrong. I'm so sorry love."

 

"What's wrong with me?" Katara sobbed and sobbed in Hama's arms.

 

"There is nothing wrong with you dear child. These monsters drive us to the depths of desperation. They steal, kill and rape to their heart's content. You are NEVER wrong for wanting to protect a child."

 

Katara wrapped her arms around Hama and cried into her shoulder. "I try so hard to be a good person, to do the right things. Sometimes I feel like this war is turning me into a monster too."

 

"You could never be a monster Katara!" Aang stood up and ran to her other side. He wrapped his arms around her. "You're the kindest person I've ever known."

 

Katara just let herself be held for a little bit. After a minute or so she sat up. She lifted her hand and breathed in and out. She turned vapor to water, to ice, to water again and then to steam. The exercise calmed her.

 

"You did what you had to do Katara," Hama whispered. "Just like I did when I escaped from prison and made a life in the Fire Nation. This isn't what we would have chosen for ourselves, but that choice was taken from us. We are not to blame, they are."

 

Katara exhaled. She felt Aang's hand on her shoulder and reached up to pat it. "I'm okay. I accept what happened. I'm fine."

 

Hama got to her feet. "You children should keep practicing. Let the water wash over your hurts and heal you. This old woman must rest for the night."

 

"Do you want us to go back with you," Katara asked.

 

"No, no," Hama assured them. "You need this. I can find my way back."

 

Katara smiled at her. Hama returned the grin and left. Aang sat down next to Katara. For a little while Katara just cycled the water through its different states, letting the exercise soothe her. She felt the emotions, pain, acceptance, joy, grief, determination, love , as she bent the water.

 

"I'm proud of you Katara," Aang said.

 

Katara stood up and offered Aang a hand to bring him up as well. "Thanks. I'm proud of you too. Let's keep practicing."

 

He grinned at her. They got into the water and danced under the moon. They immersed themselves in their connection to water and to each other. Katara felt accepted and at peace. It was almost sunrise when they ended their practice and began the walk back to Hama's.

 

Katara felt rejuvenated as she and Aang walked through the forest under Yue's protective light. The drops of water that still clung to her skin were a comfort to her. "I wish we could stay another night," she said without thinking.

 

"Well we have time, don't we," Aang asked. "I'm sure no one will mind."

 

Katara grinned at Aang. I love my friends. "I think that's a great idea Aang."

 

There was light coming out of the windows as they approached Hama's house. They didn't have to wait up for us, but it is sweet. As they approached the door Katara smelled something that was somehow both familiar and strange. She didn't think it was food, but she couldn't quite place it.

 

With Aang right behind her Katara opened the door. The smell slammed into her like a rock wall and she had no trouble identifying it. The source was clear to see. There was so much blood. It stank of salt and iron.

 

Hama sat in the living room with her knees pulled up to her chest, face hidden. Her white hair fell over her legs like a blanket. Katara took a step into the room. Hama must have heard, because she lifted her head to face her.

 

Katara gasped. The woman wasn't Hama. She couldn't be. She looked like a teenager only a few years older than Katara herself. There wasn't a single wrinkle anywhere on her face. "I'm sorry." She had Hama's voice.

 

"What did you do," Katara whispered.

 

"There was a fire. I had to put it out." She lowered her face back into her knees and wept.

Chapter Text

Zuko grabbed Sokka's wrist and used Sokka's own momentum to toss him to the side. Toph's amused snickers filled the night air. Zuko glanced over at her and saw her happily munching on roasted fish and enjoying their lesson. He offered Sokka a hand. "You okay?"

 

"Is this actually a useful skill, or do you just like watching me be bad at things?"

 

"Those aren't mutually exclusive," Toph piped up. "But you being bad at things is fun."

 

Sokka grumbled. "This is dumb. Swords are better than knives. They're bigger."

 

Zuko rolled his eyes. How can someone so smart be so dumb? It defies logic. "Knives are better for close combat, and you won't always be able to reach your sword in time. Knives are easy to carry and conceal."

 

Zuko picked his knife off the ground from where Sokka had dropped it. He tossed it to him. "Try again. Remember, speed is more important than force."

 

Sokka assumed his stance. He held the knife like it was a sword. Zuko shook his head and stepped forward to correct his grip. He stepped back and nodded. "Be fast."

 

Sokka was fast, but not fast enough. He ended up sprawled on the ground again. "I hate you," he mumbled without any venom.

 

"You're getting better. Keep trying."

 

Sokka rolled over onto his back. "How did you get so good at this?"

 

"Hours and hours of practice. Now get up."

 

Sokka sighed, retrieved the knife and then stood up. His stance and hold were much better. "If I get close enough to a Firebender to stab him with a knife I've probably already been burnt to a crisp."

 

"If you get close enough to an unarmed Firebender to stab him with a knife you've already won," Zuko corrected. To illustrate his point he blasted fire across the yard, nowhere near either Sokka or Toph. "You see that gap between my body and my hand, the place with no flame? If you're standing there what am I supposed to do? I'm dead; you won."

 

Sokka flinched. "Yeah…"

 

Zuko dropped his hands. "I understand if you don't want to learn this." Why would he want to learn anything from a murderer?

 

"No, I do!" Sokka adjusted his grip. "You're right anyway. This is important to know."

 

Zuko nodded. "Go ahead."

 

Sokka rushed him. Zuko slammed his hand down on Sokka's elbow, not hard enough to hurt him, just hard enough to cause the joint to bend and the knife to skew away from its target. Zuko shoved his chest and sent him to the ground, again using the minimum amount of strength to accomplish his goal. Sokka fell to the ground.

 

Toph spoke up. "It works better when you're standing," she said, wearing a cheeky grin.

 

Sokka lifted his hand and gave her a thumbs up she couldn't see. "Thanks Toph."

 

"No problem."

 

Zuko offered Sokka his hand again. "That was good."

 

Sokka took Zuko's hand and stood up. He brushed dirt off his clothes. "Not good enough," he muttered. "If this were the invasion I'd be dead."

 

"It won't be like this during the invasion," Zuko said.

 

"Why, because no one is as good with knives as you?"

 

"Because during the invasion we'll all be watching each other's backs. If you get disarmed we'll protect you," Zuko said.

 

"Anyone who tries to stab you is going to eat dirt," Toph agreed. "And then they'll never eat again because I'll knock all their teeth out."

 

Zuko noticed Sokka explore the hole where his tooth had once been with his tongue. He probably doesn't realize he's doing it. It's weird to lose something that's always been there. "Thanks Toph," Sokka said with more sincerity than last time and a light chuckle.

 

"You are a good fighter," Zuko assured him. "No one is too good to get better, not even Master Piando."

 

Sokka shook his head. "I…" He glanced at Toph and then shut his mouth. It wasn't your fault , Zuko wanted to say, but he wasn't going to bring up what had happened in front of Toph either. She'd suffered enough.

 

Zuko put the knife back in Sokka's hand. "Do it again." So he did. He did it again and again until his form was perfect. He still wasn't good enough to get through Zuko's defenses, but he was quite good all the same.

 

"Hey guys," Toph said. "Hama is coming back. I feel her walking up the path."

 

"Maybe we should stop for the night," Sokka suggested.

 

I'm all for that. Both of our healers are out, and I don't want to be stabbed again regardless. "Good idea. It's getting late."

 

Sokka handed Zuko his knife. "I'll have the hang of it in time for the invasion."

 

"I know you will." The three of them went inside. Toph was licking grease off her fingers. Zuko couldn't help but chuckle at the sight.

 

Zuko was sure he wasn't the only one hoping Hama had gone up to bed. He was disappointed to see she was in the kitchen making tea. He felt a rush of shame. This is her home. She has the right to make tea.

 

"Hello children. Would you care for some tea?"

 

"Sure," Zuko said. Uncle always says that tea brings people together. "We'd love some."

 

"Have a seat." She pulled out some extra cups.

 

"Where are Aang and Katara," Sokka asked.

 

"They wanted to keep practicing," Hama said.

 

"He's going to be exhausted in the morning during firebending training," Toph said with a chuckle.

 

"I suppose I could give him the morning off," Zuko said. "Just this once."

 

"You can't go easy on twinkle toes Zuko. You give him one morning off and he gets it into his head he can sleep in everyday."

 

"Aang works hard," Zuko protested.

 

"Only when you make him. If you don't force him to do it he won't."

 

"I don't think that's fair," Sokka protested.

 

"The Avatar spirit holds within itself the wisdom of the ancients and should not be questioned." Hama poured the four cups of tea.

 

"Yeah, that's Aang all right," Toph said sarcastically.

 

Hama either didn't notice the sarcasm or she chose not to comment on it. She passed out the four cups of tea. "Did you have fun at the market today," Hama asked. She didn't look at anyone in particular when she spoke, but there was only one person the question applied to.

 

"I…" It's better to focus on positives than negatives, right? We started out having fun and had fun in the end. The middle doesn't matter. "Yes. We had a lot of fun."

 

"Did you watch the show?"

 

Zuko grimaced. "Yes."

 

"What show," Toph asked.

 

"Oh is this why you and Katara were arguing about plays," Sokka asked in an amused tone.

 

"I'm sure you enjoyed it a lot more than she did," Hama whispered, staring at her cup.

 

"No, I… I didn't like it at all. It wasn't a very good play."

 

Hama chuckled, a dark and strangled sound. "Not up to your standards?"

 

"It-It wasn't accurate."

 

"Not enough of my ancestors cut down or burnt to a crisp for your tastes?"

 

"Uhhh… What are we talking about," Sokka asked.

 

"There was a festival in town today," Zuko explained. "I didn't realize until we'd been there a little while. Today is the day of the first big Fire Nation victory against the Southern Water Tribe fleet."

 

"Our tribe had always been friendly with the Air Nomads," Hama said in a wistful tone. "My grandmother told me stories when I was a little girl. She'd just been a child herself when they were all killed, but she remembered. She told me stories about yellow and orange gliders that swooped down carrying people and fruit pies. They didn't trade so much. They just brought gifts and listened to stories."

 

When Hama stopped talking Zuko picked up the tale. "The Fire Nation fleet went through the Southern sea to get to the Air Temple on the day of Sozin's comet. No one tried to stop them on the way there-"

 

Hama slammed her fist down on the table hard enough to rattle all their cups. "How could anyone have known what was going to happen?! The world was at peace! There was peace until YOU broke it!"

 

"Well," Sokka said, he voice high-pitched and tinged with panic. "This tea was really great, but we're super tired. Thanks Ha-"

 

"We didn't understand the true depravity of these monsters yet. We thought some of our friends might still be alive, imprisoned in the holds of the ships. We attacked, yes, but our attack was provoked. Our ancestors, Sokka, they tried to save the Airbenders, but we couldn't. They were slaughtered for their efforts, and thus began the decimation of the Southern Water Tribe."

 

Zuko hung his head. What could I ever say or do to make up for such a monumental injustice? "I'm sorry," he whispered.

 

"He's sorry," she said, accompanied with a deranged-sounding laugh. "Well I guess it's all okay then. After all, he's sorry."

 

"It's not Zuko's fault," Toph snapped. "All that stuff happened before any of us were born, before even you were born. He didn't do anything. Leave him alone." Isn't it my fault? No, it isn't; I have to remember who I am.

 

"You're so young-" Hama started to say.

 

"I'm old enough to understand. I've fought in the war. I know as much as you do about-"

 

"You could never understand what I know about the war!"

 

"Toph, go get yours and Katara's stuff," Sokka said in a firm tone that brokered no argument.

 

"I'm sorry," Hama said. "I just-"

 

"It's okay," Sokka said. "We just have to go. There's somewhere we need to be and we don't want to be late."

 

I should do something. I should say something. There has to be some way that I can help. "It matters that you fought," he said. "Everything that you sacrificed meant something." They were the words he would have liked to hear, so he tried them.

 

"Really? And why is that?" Her voice was acidic.

 

"Because…" Uncle would know what to say. "It has to, doesn't it? If it didn't matter… What's even the point? All this suffering, it has to mean something, doesn't it?"

 

"Zuko," Sokka said. There was no trace of humor or teasing left in his voice. He sounds like the chief's son. He sounds like a leader. "Come on, let's get our stuff."

 

Hama slammed her fist down on the table again. The tea flew out of the cups, hardened into ice and then flew at Zuko. He threw his arms in front of his face. Sokka grabbed his arm and yanked him out of the path of the ice.

 

"Enough! We're leaving," Sokka said. He pushed Zuko in front of him so he would be in the way of any attack Hama might make as they entered the living room, but then he froze. He looked down at his feet, his eyes panicked.

 

"Sokka," Zuko asked. Is he okay? What's happening?

 

"We're leaving," Sokka said again, sounding unsure. He stared at his unmoving feet.

 

"Sokka, what's-" All of a sudden there was a weight, a terrible forceful gravity, pulling him down to the ground. Zuko fell, his limbs like lead beneath him. "What's happening?"

 

Hama sat down in front of them, legs folded. "Everyone keeps calling it a war. Wars are fought on battlefields, not in front of people's front doors. They're fought by soldiers, not people desperately spilling their last drops of blood to protect their lovers and children."

 

Children. "Toph! Don't come back downstairs! Get outside! Run!" She'll be safe once she's out of the wooden house and on solid ground.

 

"What's going on?" He could hear her running down the stairs. Toph never runs away from a fight you idiot. "What happened?"

 

"Toph, get out of here," Sokka shouted.

 

"Are you guys- ah!" Her shriek of pain made Zuko tense up. Not Toph. Not again. Please, no. She came sliding into the room as if she were wearing slippers on a marble floor, her movements not her own.

 

"Please," Sokka said. "We're tribe. You don't have to hurt us."

 

Toph sat down, hard, next to Sokka. Her limbs looked tense and rigid. "I would never hurt you," Hama said, sounding aghast. "You don't understand." She reached forward to brush a strand of hair behind Toph's ear.

 

"Don't touch her," Zuko snapped, knowing how alarming it would be when Toph felt the touch come out of nowhere.

 

Hama froze. She dropped her hand and turned to stare at Zuko with hateful eyes. "Is that your job then Firebender?"

 

"What?" What is she talking about?

 

"Is that why you spend all your time around innocent little girls? I know your kind. I know what you do. I've seen it. I've FELT it." Oh.

 

"What's she talking about," Toph asked.

 

"Just… Don't listen to her Toph," Sokka said, voice unsteady.

 

"You made a poor daughter of my tribe weep. That's what you do, isn't it? That's what your kind are like. You claim our society is barbarous and yours has so much respect for women. I know what you're really like on the inside."

 

Hama rolled up a sleeve to reveal her many scars. She ran a finger down her arm. Zuko watched in amazement as her skin split open. He could see her rushing veins. "I can see inside," she whispered.

 

"Ugh! That's disgusting," Sokka shouted.

 

"What's happening," Toph demanded.

 

Hama moved closer to Zuko so that she was sitting right in front of him. He wanted to back away, but he couldn't move. He was paralysed. This shouldn't be possible. This is like something from one of Azula's stories.

 

She reached out and touched his forehead, a single finger right in the center. "I know what's in here. You've got them all fooled, but I know what's inside. I see what's inside."

 

Maybe she's right. Maybe she really can see what a monster I am. Maybe this is what I deserve. I was an idiot to ever think otherwise. "Okay," Zuko whispered.

 

"Hama!" Sokka's face was tense and he was sweating, but he wasn't moving. Zuko tried to shift a single pinky, but all of his muscles were seized up. He couldn't do anything. "Leave him alone," Sokka demanded.

 

"You've got him fooled," Hama said. "You've tricked him into abandoning the ways of our ancestors. He carries your weapons, speaks your poisonous words. You just take and you take and you take. Not even our lives are enough."

 

"You're angry, and you want revenge," Zuko said. "Toph and Sokka don't have anything to do with this. He's part of your family-"

 

"You don't even know," Hama snapped. "She was the love of my life. I went out to fight them to keep her safe. I spent all these years, wondering… What would she say now?" Tears spilled from her eyes.

 

"I'm sorry," Zuko said. There has to be a way to get her to let Toph and Sokka go. I'm the one she's angry with. She doesn't have a reason to hurt them. "Please-"

 

"You're not sorry," Hama hissed. "But you will be." She wiped away the tear tracks from her face. When she removed her hands from her face her skin was smooth and bright; she looked no older than twenty.

 

Sokka gasped. "What are you?" Can't you tell Sokka? She's a mermaid.

Chapter Text

Toph couldn't see through the wooden floor. All she had to let her know what was going on around her were voices. There was nothing she could focus on to distract her. Sokka didn't want her to hear, and she was starting to not want to listen, but in the darkness all that existed were the sounds.

 

"I was the healer in our village. I was a prodigy, the greatest healing master to ever live. No woman ever lost her babe or her life in my birthing hut. I could stop bleeds the second they started. I kept our people strong." That does sound amazing…

 

"Many men wanted to court me. I used to be beautiful- well, you can see." What is she talking about? "I never paid them any mind, but the moment she got off that boat from the Northern Tribe, I knew. I fell."

 

Toph tried to reach out with her bending, but all the energy in her body was held in place. Her chi was locked in her blood. "I would have died for her. The day of the attack I thought that's what I was going to do. I didn't realize they had other plans for me."

 

"Don't listen Toph," Sokka said again as if she had any choice. What's she talking about?

 

"The Avatar was supposed to be reborn into the Southern Tribe. Any captured Waterbender was a potential Avatar. They kept us alive. They made us wish we were dead, but they never granted the wish." Toph shivered.

 

There were sounds, wet squelching sounds and whimpers of pain. Toph felt the need to squirm in discomfort, but her limbs were still weighed down, her chi frozen. "What's she doing," Toph demanded. "What's happening?"

 

"Don't listen Toph," Sokka pleaded. He was begging her, his voice high with desperation. She didn't want to listen, but there was little else she could do. With all her senses cut off there was nowhere else she could look but inward. There's that I suppose.

 

Toph reached down into the bedrock, seeking knowledge or comfort. She saw herself with her hand on her daughter's shoulder, explaining. "We move the minerals around to give the crop optimal nutrition. This one will grow big and strong. Feel the Earth love."

 

It was a nice memory, and educational. She could stay in it and learn other useful things while feeling sweet emotions soothe her wounded heart. She moved past it. She needed something else.

 

She dug her hands into the Earth and raised up the walls. It was tedious, difficult, exhausting work. "When this is done our people will always have a safe place to retreat to. War will never breach the walls of Ba Sing Se."

 

Toph kept moving. That she didn't even want to see. She ran her fingers through her lover's long black hair. "But how does it work," she asked as she felt the silken strands between her calluses.

 

Deep beneath, in the foundation of her being, where the magma flowed, she felt her lover answer her, though she knew not the true meaning of that title. "The mind is full of energies. There exists around each of us an aura put out by these energies. They enhance or inhibit the flow of our chi."

 

"So you can what, bend these energies?"

 

Toph felt a kiss for the first time in her life. She swam back to the surface. She wasn't ready to learn about that yet. There were people crying, people that she loved.

 

"How could I ever go home now? The second I stepped off the ship they would all turn away from me. They would all know. I'm touched by fire. Can you even imagine what it feels like?"

 

"Yes," she heard Zuko whisper. He sounded like he was in pain. He also sounded resigned to his fate. Don't you dare give up sparky.

 

"Is that right?"

 

"I know exactly what it feels like," he said in a whisper so low Toph had to strain to hear, against Sokka's strict instructions.

 

"You were born with the fire inside."

 

"That doesn't make me immune to it. I've felt it too. It hurt, every time. It wasn't your fault, and you don't have to be what they tried to turn you into. You aren't a monster."

 

"You are." There were more terrible sounds. I have to do something. I have to make this stop, no matter what it takes. I want to scream and rage and HURT her, but it doesn't matter what I want. I have to do whatever it takes to help Zuko.

 

"I know how to help you," Toph said in a tone of perfect calm that reflected all the emotions she did not feel and none of the ones she did.

 

"Toph, it's okay," Zuko said. He thinks I'm going to antagonize her. Have a bit more confidence in me sparky. I know what I'm doing.

 

"You tried to heal yourself, but you couldn't. Waterbenders can only fix flesh. You needed a kind of healing that was forgotten a long time ago. I remember how to do it though. I saw it, over a thousand years ago, warm hands that cradled dreams within."

 

"Toph, what are you doing," Sokka hissed.

 

"I can't help you if you kill my friend though."

 

"He's not your friend sweet girl. He may have deceived you into believing such, but he is of a monsterous breed. This creature is no friend to you."

 

"You're right, he's not my friend." He's my brother. "But we need him, and so do you. There's power in him that will go away forever if you snuff the fire out. They took so much from you, don't you want something back?"

 

"Toph, what are you saying," Sokka demanded.

 

Toph took a deep breath. "The human body is full of water, salty and rich with iron, but its foundation is earth, strong and full of minerals. There is air within that maintains equilibrium, and deep down within everyone a spirit lighter than air, that the most learned Airbenders could learn to see. Yet there is that which is not physical or spiritual, that which is part of each being's life, and it is composed of thought and memory." Toph recited words that she had heard long ago and did not understand.

 

"The fire that lives in all of us is fueled by our passions. When our passions are love or healthy ambition the fire keeps us strong. When our passions are pain or hate the fire begins to burn us from the inside. That's what happened to you Hama, but you can still be healed."

 

"There's no fire in me," Hama snarled. "I'm a Waterbender. I'm of the Southern Tribe."

 

"There's fire in all of us, and water, and air and earth. Long ago the peoples were one. We were singular and we were many. We knew no kings, and we worshipped all of the spirits."

 

"You don't know what you're talking about. You're a CHILD."

 

She won't listen to me , Toph realized, deflating. I really can help her, but she won't listen to me no matter what. She's too far gone. She's burning up.

 

"Gran-Gran said you had frost fever, long ago," Sokka said. "Katara had it recently. She almost died from it. Zuko helped us save her." That won't work; she already thinks he's got us lying for him. You're desperate… but so am I.

 

"I'm sure in some way it was his fault she caught it to begin with."

 

"It was," Zuko whispered.

 

"Would you STOP GETTING INTO TROUBLE I CAN'T GET YOU OUT OF?!" Wow, that's the angriest I've heard Sokka since… ever.

 

"It doesn't matter. She's right. It's like Azula said, we always become the things that hurt us."

 

"That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard you say! Remember, the vast majority of what you say is unbelievably dumb, but that right there topped all of it! Your sister is a monster, and nothing she says-"

 

"She's a monster because of me! He moved on from me when I got too old and he started on her! I didn't want to believe it. She was his favorite. I told myself he would never do to her what he did to me. That night, when she snuck into my room, I could smell the smoke from when he'd hurt her."

 

Toph felt a shiver go down her spine. She didn't quite understand what Zuko was talking about, but she sensed that it was an evil thing. "She's my little sister. I should have protected her, but I didn't. That's why she hates me, why she wants me dead. I deserve it."

 

Sokka took a deep breath. "Please, please let us go. Can't you see that we've all suffered enough? Just once, can't the violence stop?"

 

"Some people are afraid of healers, but I can't really blame them. Yes, most of us wish only to mend. None the less, anyone with the power to put a broken body back together has the power to rip it apart. The inverse is not always true," the woman from long ago explained.

 

"I don't believe you," Toph said, pointing her face in what she believed was still Hama's direction. "I don't believe that you were ever a healer. Just because you take bodies apart doesn't mean that you can put them back together. Prove it."

 

A frantic laugh broke the air. "You are a strange child," Hama told her.

 

"You say that fire is evil and water heals, but you haven't healed anyone since I've met you. When's the last time you healed somebody?"

 

"Why would I heal anyone of fire," Hama asked.

 

"I don't think you can do it anymore. I think you lost your stuff. Prove me wrong. If you're so sure of your beliefs then stand behind them. I can prove that fire can heal."

 

"That's a lie," Hama snarled.

 

"If you're sure, if you're positive, you have nothing to lose by letting me try to prove it."

 

Toph's chi started to flow again. Her blood lost its impossible weight. She got to shaky feet. "Toph, run," Sokka shouted. "Go get Katara and Aang!"

 

Toph held up a hand. "Hush." I could just go outside and bury her house in a landslide. This will be better though.

 

Toph walked up to Zuko. She sat down in front of him and reached for his hands. They were slick with blood. "You have to let him go too," she told Hama.

 

Hama scoffed, but then Toph felt Zuko's hands move. "Toph, Sokka's right, just-"

 

She put a finger, now bloody, over his lips. "I said hush. Now," She reclaimed his hands. "You know how to do this, it's inside you."

 

"I d-"

 

She squeezed his hands. "Listen. Reach into your mind and find the unbalanced energy. There's lightning in your head, striking you, hurting you, burning you long after the fire has gone cold. Put it away."

 

"I c-"

 

"Just do what I tell you." How did poor Iroh ever put up with such a terrible student?

 

She felt him take a deep breath and then lift his hands. Her hands followed his own to his temples. She felt his fingers press against the skin there. She felt the skin get warm, not hot, just warm. "You know how to put out fires, you learned long ago. Now put this one out."

 

"What if I'm supposed to burn," he whispered.

 

"You're not. Now do what I tell you." I've been too harsh on Aang. This is my new worst student. "Remember."

 

"I'm afraid."

 

"I know," she whispered. "But I'm here with you, and I love you. You can do this."

 

"You- you won't see, will you?"

 

"No," Toph whispered. "I'm not a Firebender, and I can't do what I need you to do. Reach for the fire, and put it out, nice and gentle."

 

Under her tiny fingers she felt his hands begin to heat up. She heard Sokka yelp. "His hands are glowing! Toph! His hands are glowing!"

 

"Reach for the fire, Zuko."

 

She heard him whimper. "What happens after? If I put the fire out, what will happen to me."

 

"You'll stop burning," she whispered.

 

She felt him breathing. She felt, inside him, his bones shifting. His ribs stretched. He sat up straight.

 

He inhaled. "I just reach in and feel the flames. The healthy ones I stoke, the unhealthy ones I put out." "How can you tell the difference?" "That's why what I do is so dangerous if you aren't properly trained."

 

He exhaled. "Just the one, Zuko. Just put out the painful one. Leave everything else alone."

 

He lowered his hands, bringing hers with them. "Toph," he whispered.

 

"Are you okay? How do you feel?"

 

"I feel, um…"

 

"What did he do," Hama demanded. "What was that?"

 

Zuko squeezed Toph's hands. "What happens now?"

 

"Now," Toph asked, sounding confused even though she wasn't.

 

"How do we escape?"

 

"Escape?" Toph reveled in the feeling of her chi flowing free. Hama's influence was gone, but Toph's distraction was over. She had to act. She lifted a hand.

 

"We aren't escaping." She closed her hand into a fist, and Hama screamed. "No one is escaping. This ends, now."

Chapter Text

There was so much blood. Sokka remembered the sight of Combustion man's corpse, lying in a pool of blood. He had been horrified, but it could get so much worse. Sokka had hated Combustion man and still been sickened by the sight of his body. Sokka cared about Zuko, more and more each day. There were no shadows to hide what was being done to him.

 

Toph looked like she was far away, like she was hidden inside herself. Sokka was grateful for that. He hoped that, wherever she was, it was nice. Hama slid her hand up Zuko's arm and his skin split in half. Sokka held back his gag reflex. As Hama moved her hand her sleeves got pushed up, and Sokka saw her own scars, cuts and burns, old and white.

 

Why didn't she just fix them , he wondered. Then she pulled his friend's blood out of his body, and Sokka had other things to think about. She played with the blood, watched the way it shined in the moonlight. She seemed transfixed by it, like it was a work of art. Zuko started to cry from the pain, and she took his tears too.

 

Sokka wanted to cry himself. I'm supposed to protect them, but I'm useless. I can't move. All I can do is beg, and she won't listen. Then Toph started talking. Then things got weird.

 

When Toph spoke ancient words from lives long past Sokka shivered. This isn't right. This isn't her.

 

When Hama let Toph go, relief washed over Sokka, but she didn't run. What are you doing?! Flee! Get Katara and Aang. Toph sat down in front of Zuko, and things got even weirder.

 

Sokka watched Toph guide Zuko's hands up to his head. He watched as Zuko's hands glowed and then Zuko's face… changed. The tension fell out of Zuko's shoulders. His grimace softened. His breathing slowed.

 

Hama saw it too. When she was distracted, when her reaction time was compromised, Toph struck. She seized control of Hama's bones just as Hama had seized control of their blood. Sokka was free at once.

 

Sokka held up his hand and clenched and unclenched his fingers. He crawled over to where Zuko was. Even without Hama still in control blood was flowing from him. His skin was a red mess.

 

Toph walked over to Hama. She moved her fingers, and Hama fell to the ground. "You hurt my family," Toph said. "Why shouldn't I do the same thing to you?"

 

Hama started crying. "You should. I'm a monster. The fire made me a monster."

 

Zuko tried to stand up, and Sokka helped him to his feet. "Toph," Zuko begged. "Stop."

 

"She doesn't deserve mercy."

 

"Mercy isn't something that a person can deserve or not deserve. Mercy is a benevolent quality we choose whether we wish to embody. Don't let her taint your spirit."

 

Toph stood still, undecided. Zuko tried to walk over to them, and Sokka had no choice but to help him or let him fall. Zuko sat down in front of Hama. "I can help you," he whispered.

 

"You're a monster. Monsters don't help people."

 

"You said you're a monster. If we're both monsters, then why shouldn't we help each other?" You aren't a monster Zuko, do you really think that?

 

Hama laughed. Her pain and grief spilled out of her eyes and throat. "You're made of fire. All fire does is burn and kill. I used to be a healer, until the fire changed me. Now I'm just like them."

 

"You're not like them," Zuko insisted. "And neither am I. We don't have to be the things that hurt us. They just tell us that so they won't be held accountable for their actions. They think if we're like them then we deserve it."

 

Hama looked up. "How did you get that scar," she whispered.

 

"My dad gave it to me." Zuko said it like the words were just a simple statement, as if they held no emotional context for him. Sokka shivered. Just when you think you understand how evil a person can be, you realize that you never will.

 

"Does it still hurt?"

 

"Sometimes," Zuko admitted.

 

Hama looked down at her arms. She still couldn't move; Toph was holding her in place. They all knew what she was thinking about though, about the marks under her sleeves. "I feel it every day. I say they refused to kill me, but that isn't true. Hama of the Southern Tribe is dead, and I'm what they left behind."

 

Zuko looked up at Toph. "Toph, let her go."

 

"But… She hurt you. I can't just forget that. How can you?"

 

"I'll never forget. Please?"

 

Toph opened her hand, and Hama fell forward onto her hands. "I just want you all to die," Hama whispered. "When I walk down the streets in the village and I see Firebenders laughing and playing and kissing and breathing and living… I feel this instant hate. It burns and burns. It has to be right, because if it isn't right then I'm the one who is wrong."

 

Zuko nodded, like what she was saying made perfect sense and wasn't disgusting or heartbreaking at all. "I get it." Oh… He does. He really does. Sokka felt like he was going to throw up.

 

"So you see, I can never go home. The fire is in me. It would spread. I can't risk the people that I love being hurt. If I weren't such a coward… I'd have killed myself long ago. Sometimes I go into the woods just to scream…"

 

Zuko held out his hands in front of him. They were pale and trembling. Sokka recognized the symptoms of blood loss. He wanted to step in and put a stop to whatever was going on, but he knew it was important. "Take my hands."

 

Hama sighed. She lifted her hands and dropped them on top of Zuko's. His blood stained her skin. "Even now I feel that fire in you. You can't hide it."

 

He closed his eyes. "There's fire in all of us. It doesn't have to burn. Think about the woman you love. That love is a fire."

 

Something clicked in Sokka's head. "Gran-Gran never told us the name of her husband."

 

Hama looked up at him and gave him a confused look. "What?"

 

"She told us stories about you, but never about him. You were the one that she loved. She never forgot you. If she knew that you were alive, and that you were giving up on ever seeing her again, she'd be furious."

 

Hama stared at him. "Oh…" She turned back to Zuko. "Okay, show me how it works."

 

Zuko brought his hands to Hama's temples. Sokka saw her tense like she was going to attack, and he saw Toph raise a hand in preparation to strike her down. Both kept still though. Zuko's hands began to glow again.

 

"All the things inside yourself that you hate, the thoughts that sneak into your mind at night, the urges you feel ashamed of, you don't have to keep them. You can release them like exhaling smoke from your lungs." He lowered his hands, still dripping blood.

 

She grabbed his hands, and Toph raised her hand again, ready to end her. Hama moved her hand over Zuko's arms, sealing the skin she had broken. She was a good healer, Sokka realized. When she was done the only remaining sign of his torture was his anemic complexion. She sat back and pulled her knees up to her chest. "Why don't you want to kill me?"

 

"We're the same," Zuko said. "Maybe if I can help you… There might be hope for me too."

 

She buried her face in her knees. "Everything used to make so much sense."

 

"Do you want me to make you a cup of tea," Zuko offered. He's insane. They're all insane. I am the last sane man in the world.

 

She shrugged. "Okay."

 

Zuko started to get to his feet and almost fell again. Sokka grabbed Zuko's arm and put it around his shoulder while grabbing Zuko's waist. Sokka helped Zuko into the kitchen and then made him sit down. "I'll make tea, not to help Hama, but because you're obviously dehydrated from blood loss. You are going to tell me what just happened in there."

 

Toph followed them into the kitchen. "I remembered how the fire form of healing worked. It fixes people's brains," she said, bubbling in excitement. "All the anxiety and grief that overwhelms people, Firebenders can put those fires out."

 

Sokka stared at her. "Emotions aren't fire…" This is starting to be too much for me.

 

Zuko spoke up. "They're more like lightning. Little bits of lighting in your brain."

 

"I think the blood loss has made you loopy, Zuko."

 

"You did say you were going to make me tea."

 

Sokka scowled, but he got to work on the tea. "So, you changed your brain?"

 

"No, my brain is the same." His voice sounded weak from exhaustion, but at the same time he seemed confident, sure. "I healed an old wound that had been bleeding for a long time."

 

Sokka pulled out the tea leaves. He weighed whether or not to push further. "What was it?"

 

"A long time ago something terrible happened to me. In the years since I've been… angry, and reckless. I did stupid, impulsive things. I told myself I needed to do those things because of duty and honor, but I think a part of me was just trying to get myself killed. I felt compelled to seek out situations that I knew would hurt me. I thought I deserved them."

 

Sokka turned around. Zuko was staring at his hands. "And now?"

 

"Now I see things more clearly. I don't feel those compulsions anymore. I can decide for myself what I want to happen." He looked up at Sokka. He seemed nervous.

 

"What about Hama? She didn't want to hurt herself. She wanted to hurt other people."

 

"Yeah, that's what happened to Azula too." Zuko flinched and dropped his eyes.

 

Toph sat down next to him and hugged him. "I'm sorry Zuko."

 

"So am I," Sokka added. "I'm sorry… too." As if that helps. What good are my apologies?

 

"Thanks," Zuko whispered.

 

Sokka turned back to the tea, trying to make sense of everything in his head. "What are we going to do about her," he asked. I can sort out the spiritual nonsense later, but Hama is a problem that needs to be figured out now.

 

Sokka heard the front door open. There was whispering in the living room for a moment and then shouting. "Sokka! Zuko! Toph!" Katara and Aang ran into the kitchen.

 

Sokka turned around. Katara and Aang both looked terrified. The two of them examined each of their friends with their eyes. "What happened," Aang asked. "Who's hurt?"

 

"We're fine," Zuko mumbled. "Everyone is fine."

 

"Zuko, you look awful," Katara insisted.

 

"Thanks."

 

Katara pulled water out of the air and got to her knees in front of him, but there was nothing left that she could fix. "Did Hama do this to you?"

 

"It's okay." He yawned, and his head started to drop onto Toph's shoulder.

 

Aang approached Sokka. His eyes were wide and questioning, but he didn't say a word. He started to help Sokka with the tea.

 

"She had some kind of sickness in her brain," Sokka whispered. "Zuko thinks she's healed."

 

"Is she," Aang whispered.

 

"I have no idea. I just want to get out of here."

 

Aang nodded. "I'll take all of our stuff to Appa." He slipped out of the kitchen without anyone else noticing.

 

Sokka brought Zuko a cup of tea. "Drink this," Sokka ordered.

 

Zuko sat up a little straighter and accepted the tea. He took one sip, and his face twisted in disgust. "This is disgusting. Who taught you to make tea?"

 

Don't kill your injured and traumatized friend, Sokka. You'll regret it later… probably. "Just drink it."

 

"Haven't I been tortured enough?"

 

Katara flinched. "That's not funny. I'm so sorry this happened to you. I should never have left you guys alone with her. I'm sorry."

 

"It's not your fault, Katara," Zuko said. "We're all fine."

 

"You are not fine," Sokka snapped. "Drink your tea." He directed his next statement at Katara and Toph. "You two, don't let him get up." That will keep them in here as well.

 

Sokka went back into the living room to talk to Hama. She still had her face buried in her knees. Sokka sat down across from her. "So, did it work? Are you feeling less homicidal?"

 

She raised her face. "I want to go home."

 

Sokka nodded. "We all do. I'll send the fleet to pick you up on its way back to the South Pole."

 

"Kanna will hate me," Hama whispered.

 

Sokka shrugged. "Maybe. But you'll never know if you don't talk to her." He squinted. "How does it work?" He gestured to her face.

 

She wiped away more tears. "It's rehydration. I bend water into my skin to plump it up." There never was a magic spell. There's no such thing as mermaids.

 

Sokka shivered. "You can do almost anything to a human body, can't you?"

 

She nodded.

 

"Is that how you escaped the Fire Nation prison?"

 

She lowered her head. "I couldn't take it anymore, what they were doing to me. I didn't mean to hurt anybody. I was in so much pain. I was screaming, and then there was blood everywhere. I was the only survivor."

 

Sokka held back the bile rising in his throat. "Oh, I see."

 

She gave him a skeptical look. "Do you?"

 

He shook his head. "Probably not," he admitted.

 

She lifted a hand and pulled all the blood in the room to her, even what had already soaked into the floorboards. She held out her palm and it hovered over her hand, a crimson sphere. "It looks the same. You'd never know it came out of a Firebender."

 

"We are the same," Sokka said. He took a deep breath. "I'm sorry for what happened to you. I hope that you can find some sort of peace."

 

She sighed. She dropped the blood. It began to sink into the wood again. "I don't want to be a monster anymore. I want to be human." She hugged her knees tighter.

 

"There's no such thing as monsters. There are no mermaids. There aren't any fire demons or lava monsters. There's just people. We're all people. It's up to you what kind of person you want to be."

 

She didn't answer. Sokka was okay with that. He went back into the kitchen to collect his little family. He wanted to be well away from Hama's house by sunrise. He looked at the streaks of red on his fingers. He decided he had time to wash his hands first.

Chapter Text

Azula wasn't afraid. She looked over her preparations for the invasion and knew that they were perfect. The capital would be safe. Her father would be safe. He would be proud of her.

 

Zuko might be with them. Azula clenched her hand into a fist, letting her sharp nails dig into her palm.

 

Azula walked to her vanity. She looked at her reflection. "You look so much like your mother," Ozai whispered in her ear. He didn't of course. He wasn't there. She was in her room, and Ozai hadn't come to her room in a long time.

 

"But you're nothing like her, are you? You aren't weak like her, like your brother." Azula flinched. Zuko is dead, she promised herself. Even if he managed to survive, my assassin will have done away with him by now.

 

There was a knock on the door. "Who is it," Azula demanded.

 

"It's me," Mai said.

 

"Come in," Azula ordered.

 

Mai entered and bowed. "The preparations you asked for have been completed."

 

"Good." Azula examined Mai as she straightened. Mai's posture was perfect. Her face was blank. Azula couldn't be fooled; she knew people.

 

Azula began to probe her friend. "How is your family settling into their quarters in the bunker?"

 

Mai went stiff. "My parents decided to visit some friends in the countryside. They left this morning."

 

"I see." Azula pursed her lips in displeasure. "What about your brother?"

 

"They took him with them." Her voice was toneless, as if her words held no emotional weight. Azula knew better.

 

Azula tapped her fingers on her vanity. "That is interesting, Mai. That is quite interesting."

 

"My mother suffers from claustrophobia."

 

"Is that right?" Azula stared at the whorls in the wood, the slight inescapable imperfections. She felt a sudden urge to light it on fire.

 

"She thought the open air would be better for her health than-"

 

"I don't really care about your mother's neurosis. I don't really care about either of your parents in the slightest. If they both decided to jump into an active volcano you wouldn't need to update me. What I do care about is that I ORDERED YOU TO KEEP YOUR BROTHER IN THE CITY!"

 

Mai didn't react. She didn't even flinch. She was too well-trained. "My parents didn't take my opinions into consideration when they made their plans."

 

"Perhaps if you had made them aware of the desires of their princess, they would have been more compliant."

 

"Of course, Princess Azula. I apologize." The words were perfect. They were said with the proper deference. Azula knew Mai didn't mean a single one. Azula knew people.

 

Azula raised her hand and slapped Mai across the face. Mai didn't try to defend herself. She didn't flinch away. She stood still and calm as a red handprint formed on her cheek.

 

"Now is not the time to be getting sentimental, Mai."

 

"I don't control them. They wanted to protect their son. There was nothing I could do."

 

"You and I both know just how protective your parents are of their children, so spare me your feeble lies and pathetic excuses."

 

"He isn't important," Mai said.

 

"No," Azula agreed. "He isn't. What is important is the wish of your princess."

 

Mai looked into Azula's eyes. Her face was still. Her words were calm. "Haven't you killed enough brothers, Azula?"

 

Azula's hand filled with blue flame. Mai stood still. She knew better than to try to run. Azula pictured what Mai would look like with her face scarred up like Zuko's. Azula doused her flame. "There's been a change of plans."

 

"Yes?"

 

"Ty Lee and I will man the decoy chamber alone. I'll be stationing you with my father's personal guard instead. I trust that won't be a problem?"

 

"It is an honor to serve the Fire Nation and the Firelord," Mai said. "Thank you, Princess Azula." Mai bowed.

 

"Send in Ty Lee so that I can inform her of the changes," Azula said.

 

Mai bowed again and turned to depart. Her cheek was already swelling.

 

"Mai."

 

"Yes, Princess Azula?"

 

"Don't ever defy me again."

 

"Yes, Princess Azula." Mai left.

 

Azula sat down in front of her vanity. She began to brush her hair. Her mother used to do that for her, before she disappeared. Azula scowled at her reflection. She looked more like Ursa each day. Azula felt an urge to slam her fist into the mirror.

 

Ty Lee didn't keep Azula waiting long. She never did. When Azula heard the knock she put her brush down. "Come in," she ordered.

 

"Hi Azula! Oh! You're doing your hair! Can I brush your hair? Please!"

 

Azula scoffed. "If it gives you pleasure to do the work of servants, then be my guest."

 

Ty Lee clapped her hands with delight and ran over. Azula handed her the brush. Ty Lee got to work, treating each strand like precious silk, just as Ursa had done all those years ago. "You have such beautiful hair," Ty Lee gushed.

 

"Yes, that's true," Azula agreed. She closed her eyes.

 

"You've done such a wonderful job planning the defenses for the invasion. You're so smart and amazing."

 

"Equally true," Azula agreed.

 

"Mai is so sorry she misunderstood your instructions about her brother. She feels just awful about it. She hates that she disappointed you. We love you so much, Azula."

 

Azula laughed. "I'm sure she is sorry. It was ridiculous for her to think she could defy me without consequence."

 

"You have the lovliest softest skin," Ty Lee breathed. "It's like moonlight."

 

"You say the strangest things."

 

"Oh, but it's true! I wish I could be half as pretty as you. I bet Mai does too. She doesn't like to talk about how she feels, but she admires you so much." Ty Lee ran her fingers through the softness of Azula's hair.

 

Azula felt heat building inside her, but she refused to let it rise to her face. "If you would be so good as to give her a message for me, please tell Mai that it is no longer necessary for her to be stationed with my father's personal guard. She will be stationed with us in the decoy chamber as originally planned."

 

"That's wonderful, Azula!" Ty Lee threw her arms around Azula in a hug. "We're going to have so much fun together making the Avatar and his friends look silly. I'm so excited!"

 

"Yes, I'm sure it will be quite entertaining," Azula said in a sarcastic voice.

 

"Do you want me to tell her now, or can I finish your hair first?"

 

Azula shrugged. "You can finish my hair, if you like."

 

Ty Lee gave each strand her absolute attention. Azula remembered walking into the Royal Garden and seeing her two closest friends. "My dad said that one of you can spend the night." Azula clenched her hand again. She felt her skin split under her nails. It felt good.

 

"You look so beautiful," Ty Lee breathed.

 

"Yes, well, I always do."

 

"Shall I go give Mai your message now?"

 

"Yes, go. You are dismissed."

 

Ty Lee grinned as she danced away, her steps lighter than air. "Thank you, Azula!" Ty Lee always did that, thanked Azula. Azula wondered if the other girl even knew what she was really thanking Azula for.

 

Azula looked at the mirror and didn't cry. She didn't need to cry. She wasn't weak, not like her mother, like Zuko, like Mai. She touched her soft silken hair. She was strong enough to face what was to come. She was strong enough to face anything.

 

Her father had made sure of that.

Chapter Text

Sokka stood on top of the cliff overlooking the bay. "It's perfect! We have a complete view of the surrounding area; no one can sneak up on us. We'll be able to see the fleet arrive in a few days." He rubbed his hands together in enthusiasm. "Everything is coming together."

 

Katara yawned. "That's great Sokka. Can we get some sleep now?"

 

It had been a long day of flying, but Sokka had felt an itch under his skin since leaving Hama's. He had been ready for their journey to be over. Now that it was, the sensation of relief evaded him. There was still the invasion to carry out.

 

"We need to establish a watch first. We're too close to the capital to be taking chances."

 

"I'll-" Zuko started to say.

 

"No," Katara, Sokka and Toph all said at the same time.

 

"You always get up crazy early, and you need to SLEEP," Katara ordered. "I'LL take the first watch. You can have the last one, since it'll be about when you'd wake up anyway."

 

Zuko scowled and mumbled something under his breath too low to hear. At last you learn that arguing with Katara is pointless.

 

"Alright, I'll take the second watch," Sokka said. "Aang, Toph, you can fight over your preference."

 

"I'm good with whatever Toph decides," Aang assured the group before Toph could throw any rocks at him. Smart.

 

Sokka yawned. Katara was right. Sleep was an excellent idea. He threw his bedroll onto the ground and did a graceless dive onto it. "Goodnight everybody."

 

"Goodnight," four people responded.

 

Sokka slept. It was nice. Then it wasn't.

 

There was so much smoke. It was in his eyes and in his lungs. He couldn't see or breath, but he could hear. His mom was screaming. His dad was screaming. His sister was screaming.

 

Sokka tried to call out to Katara. When he opened his mouth smoke rushed in. Sokka tried to cough up the smoke, but each time he inhaled, more rushed in. He collapsed to his knees.

 

Two pale, scarred hands reached out to him. He grabbed them in desperation. The smoke cleared away. He looked up at the owner of the hands and saw the Painted Lady. She squeezed his hands.

 

"I'm going to get them all killed," Sokka gasped. "I made a mistake somewhere, and I'm too stupid to see it. I won't find it until it's too late, until-"

 

She knelt down in front of him so they were eye to eye. She leaned forward and kissed his forehead. An image flashed through his head of a world on fire and a grey cloud hovering in the sky above it. The cloud cracked like an egg to release a deluge of water onto the flames.

 

He stared at her, uncomprehending. "I don't understand. What do I do? What am I supposed to do?"

 

She squeezed his hands again. She faded away, like she had never been. Sokka sighed and looked down at the ground. He ran his fingers through ash.

 

Katara shook him awake for his turn at the watch not long after his dream ended. He watched her settle into her blankets and drift off. She looked so peaceful as she rested. That's my sister. How am I supposed to lead her into battle?

 

Sokka circled their camp, looking for signs of anything strange from every angle. He looked back at his friends. All of them wore untroubled expressions. Even Zuko looked calm as he slept. That was a first.

 

Sokka walked his path over and over. He looked up at the moon, hoping for some sort of wisdom. A light glimmered in the corner of his eye. Sokka turned. On the far corner of the island, someone had lit a fire.

 

Sokka shook Aang awake. "What? Already?"

 

Sokka shushed him. "I'm going to check something out on the other side of the island. You keep watch until I get back."

 

Aang rubbed his eyes. "Do you want me to go with you?"

 

"No, just wait here. Don't follow me."

 

Aang yawned and then shrugged. "Okay."

 

Sokka started to walk away. "Sokka?"

 

"Yeah, what is it Aang?"

 

"Do you think I'm selfish?"

 

Sokka turned around and blinked at Aang in surprise. "Of course not. Why?"

 

"I just… Nevermind. I'll see you when you get back."

 

Sokka wanted to inquire further, but he had a task he needed to attend to. Whatever was going on with Aang could wait for a little while. Sokka headed to the far side of the island. Sokka kept his hand on the pommel of his sword and listened for any signs of movement.

 

As Sokka neared the fire he began to hear voices. "Okay, okay, I've got one. Um…" A youthful male voice said.

 

"I thought you said you had one," a youthful female voice said.

 

"I do! I do. Shut up, listen. Okay, so there's a ship, right? On the ship there are three life preservers."

 

"This sounds like a really boring joke."

 

"You haven't even let me tell it!"

 

Sokka glanced at the fire from behind a tree. There were two people in their late teens or early twenties wearing Fire Nation uniforms. "So on the ship there's three passengers. There's the Earth King, a Fire Sage-"

 

"Why would a Fire Sage be on a ship with the Earth King," the woman interrupted.

 

"It's a joke, Isa! It doesn't have to make sense!"

 

"Fine, fine, finish your stupid joke."

 

"And there's a little Earth Kingdom kid. Anyway, the captain comes onto the deck and is like: oh no, the ship is sinking. So he takes one of the life preservers and jumps overboard."

 

"Are they near shore? Because if they're not near the shore then-"

 

"It's a JOKE, Isa!"

 

The woman rolled her eyes. "Continue."

 

"So like, the Earth King is all: I'm too important to drown, blah, blah, blah. He takes a life preserver and jumps into the sea. So now there's only one life preserver left."

 

"Hang on, you said there were three."

 

"Yeah, there were. The captain took one, and then the Earth King took the second one."

 

"Oh, right, right."

 

"So-"

 

"But wait, that's stupid. They should have enough life preservers for everyone on the ship!"

 

"You know what Isa, forget it."

 

"Oh c'mon, don't be like that." She gave him a playful shrug.

 

"No, you always do this. You and the sergeant are always bullying me. I'm sick of it!"

 

"It's just because you're the new kid. Finish your joke."

 

"I don't want to."

 

"C'mon," she wheedled. "Please."

 

"No," he snapped.

 

"Pleaaaaase." She shoved him again.

 

"No!" They sound like me and Katara , Sokka thought as he watched the two get into a playful wrestling match. They're just bored kids really. They probably don't even want to be here. But if I don't do something they'll find our camp and tip off the Firelord.

 

"Just tell me. It's going to drive me nuts if I don't hear the end."

 

"Well, you should have thought of that before."

 

Isa clasped her hands together and held them in front of her chest. "Pleaaaaase."

 

I could take them prisoner. I wouldn't need to hurt them. What would we do with them though? We don't have any chains, and they could both be Firebenders. We'd have to leave someone behind during the invasion to guard them so they don't send a warning.

 

"You'll just have to go to your grave wondering," the boy snapped. He was fighting a smile. He'll give in soon.

 

"When we get back to base I'll just find someone who's heard the joke before," Isa said.

 

"You can't. I made it up myself."

 

"I don't believe you. You're not creative enough to come up with your own jokes."

 

Sokka stepped out from behind the tree. "Don't try to grab your weapons! I'm taking you both prisoner in the name of the… uh, the Earth Kingdom. Surrender now and I promise not to harm you." Well, that didn't work.

 

The woman was a Firebender. Great. She wasn't as good as Azula, or Zuko, or a lot of the Firebenders Sokka had faced. She was passable. Of course, dodging fireblasts was a lot easier when you weren't also dodging spear thrusts from a guy making it impossible to get close enough to use your sword.

 

Sokka danced away from flame and spear, keeping himself unsinged as he looked for an opening. The woman became more frustrated and less cautious. A wild blast left her defenses down. Sokka didn't hold back any of his strength as he brought the sword down on her arm. She screamed as blood poured out of where half an arm flopped loose, still attached by just a strip of flesh.

 

Sokka jumped back, face twisted in horror and disgust. The boy ran at him with the spear. Sokka cut the spear in half with his blade. Sokka grabbed the half the boy was still holding and flung him into his friend.

 

"Surrender," Sokka ordered the bloody tangle on the ground. "If you surrender I'll get you medical attention."

 

The boy jumped up and ran at Sokka with a dagger. It was almost too easy. Zuko had shown him the move almost a hundred times. Sokka grabbed the soldier's wrist and yanked up. His own momentum brought him into the path of his blade. The knife entered his side, right between two ribs.

 

The kid fell to his knees. "Oh."

 

Sokka stared in disbelief. We didn't practice for this part. Sokka dropped his sword. He grabbed a rag that smelled like cooking spices from next to their fire and held it against the wound. "We can fix this."

 

The young soldier whimpered. "Hurts."

 

"My sister is a healer. I'll take you back to my camp, and…" Sokka glanced at the Firebender. She wasn't moving. Under her arm was a large pool of blood, a very large pool.

 

"I should have just told her," the boy said. Blood dripped out of his mouth. "It's not even really that funny." His pale skin was getting paler.

 

"You should have just surrendered," Sokka said, tears in his eyes. "I didn't want to hurt you."

 

"I haven't answered my mom's last letter yet." He slumped forward. Sokka held him for the last beats of his heart.