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Moonlight and Sunshadow

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It was sunrise when the dragon came.

Katara had risen in the early morning half-light to skin her brother’s kills. Sokka spent many nights now hunting for the tribe, since their father left. He should have hunted during the day, but Sokka’s inner desire to keep his people safe outweighed logic. No matter how many times Katara told him she could protect the tribe while he hunted regardless of the time, Sokka refused, keeping close to the village and only leaving if he thought there was no threat.

There was always a threat, but Katara wouldn’t tell him that.

Sokka looked up as she emerged from the hut, pulling her hood up over her braids. “Good,” he said, stepping back from the tiger seal lying on the ice. “You can help me with this.”

Katara yawned, covering her mouth with one gloved hand. “How long have you been awake?”

Sokka shrugged. “Not long. I got lucky.”

Good. Sokka needed to be lucky more often if he was going to keep them all fed. Not that the women couldn’t hunt, it was just Sokka thought they couldn’t. Like many men of the tribe, he underestimated the mothers and grandmothers. And, most of all, his own sister.

Katara knelt next to the seal. Sokka had already gutted it — intestines lay in a steaming pile beside the body. Drawing out her own bone knife, Katara got to work, slipping her blade into the tissue connecting the hide to the thick blubber beneath.

“This should help,” Sokka said quietly. “With the fish Koki and the other women pull up, we’ll stay fed for a while yet.”

“If you keep bringing home tiger seals, we won’t have to worry about much.” Katara ran the skin through her fingers. It would need to be stretched and tanned before anything could be done with it, but it was a beautiful section. “Thank you, Sokka.”

He huffed.

“But you need to start bringing the kids with you.” Katara didn’t try to press the point that he should bring her . That argument had been lost years ago. Now the arguments had moved from “But you’re a girl!” to “Someone needs to keep an eye on the little kids, Katara, and who better than you?”

Katara would argue that their mothers could look after them, but she was tired of the discussion.

The first fingers of cold, pale light drifted over the horizon, illuminating Katara’s hands against the sealskin. A wind fluttered up from the south, teeth biting, and Katara raised a hand almost unthinkingly to erect an inelegant wall of ice and snow between the seal carcass and the cold.

“Still practicing that bending, huh?” Sokka asked.

“I’m getting better.” Katara didn’t mean to sound so defensive, but it was difficult not to be upset by the laughing tone of voice. “It’s hard to learn when there’s no one here to teach me here.” She sighed. “Maybe someday.”

Sokka snorted. “Yeah, and maybe someday bison will fly, but right now, we have to get this done before the sun comes up.”

He gestured off to the east, where the light strengthened. Even now the colors shifted from gray and white to blue and white, a sure sign of true daylight.

Katara huffed. “Why? The tiger seal will still be here once the sun rises.”

Sokka rolled his eyes. “And so will the kids. Remember the last time we let the kids help skin something?”

“That’s because you gave Ronrin a knife and no direction!”

“I thought he’d be better at this!” Sokka said defensively.

“He’s six !”

Sokka grumbled something. “Just work faster, okay?”

Katara made a face and kept working. The blubber was good and thick in the seal and would light the collection of tents and the igloo for long enough to make Katara’s efforts worth it. She paused in her cutting to pop the tiger seal’s eyes out of their sockets, severing the optic nerves with quick slices. Gran-Gran loved the eyes. Katara would bring them to her later.

Silence fell on the ice. In the distance, the other tiger seals bellowing calls began as the light emerged. The sun rose red today, blood and cold. A tiny fingernail crescent of scarlet peered over the horizon.

“Sokka,” Katara asked in a small voice, “what are we going to do if you can’t keep this up?”

“Don’t think about that,” Sokka said. “We’re doing fine. I don’t know why you always have to worry about things.”

Katara worried because Sokka was the only man over ten in the tribe and he refused to teach the boys. Katara didn't know why. Pride? Stupidity? The women could hunt too, given the opportunity. And yet, Sokka was stubborn. He expected their father and the other warriors back any day. But Katara was more realistic. If it hadn’t happened yet, it might not. Ever. They needed a contingency plan.

Wiping her hair out of her face and ignoring the blood on the snow around her, Katara looked up at the sky. The sun was half risen now, a great half slice of red. Clouds pooled along the horizon, stained crimson.

“Sokka,” Katara said. “What’s that?”

She pointed. Sokka followed her gloved hand, squinting into the brightness at the small, undulating shape silhouetted against the sun. He opened his mouth. Closed it again.

“What the … ?”

It came closer, a sinuous line in the air, approaching fast. Katara kept thinking the size was wrong, that it had to be closer than she’d originally thought, but no. It kept growing. Estimating the size was hard, but it was bigger than an igloo. Bigger than the warrior’s ships. Like some kind of eel or …

“Dragon,” she whispered.

Sokka leapt to his feet, bloody spear held at the ready. The dragon was nearly overhead, a slithering shape descending towards them. Katara stood, knife in hand, staring as the dragon flew over them. Golden belly scales flickered in the bloody sun.

“What’s it doing here?” Sokka yelled as the dragon circled over them, coming closer and closer to the snow. “They’re not supposed to be this far south.” He paused. “And aren’t they all dead?”

“Clearly this one isn’t!” Katara shouted back.

But then there wasn’t time to talk as the dragon landed in the middle of the village, its massive body cluttering up the areas between tents. The scales on its back and wings glow the same color as the sun and Katara held a hand over her eyes.

Sokka shoved her behind him, but she forced her way back to his side. People screamed in the tents, the cries of children echoing across the ice.

The dragon swiveled its massive head and lock its golden gaze on Katara. It opened its mouth, dark crest and mane expanding around its canine face.

“There are ships coming,” the dragon said.

It sounded remarkably human, though the flash of teeth  as long as her forearm didn’t put Katara at ease. It craned its massive neck to look out to sea. “Fire Nation ships. You must hide your people.”

Sokka looked at Katara in horror. There hadn’t been ships here in years. Who cared about some primitive Water Tribe village in the south when the North still stood strong? And where would they put the people? There was nowhere to hide on the flat ice except for the village.

“Katara.” Sokka grabbed her by the shoulders, the dragon forgotten. “Do something.”

“What?” Her gloved hand flew to her face. “What do you expect me to do?”

Sokka waved a hand. “Bend it. Freeze the ships into the ocean or make a snowstorm or something.”

She brushed his hands off, shaking her head. “No! I can’t! I’m not powerful enough, and I don’t have any training. I can’t do anything that big!”

“You don’t have a lot of time,” the dragon said. It dropped its huge head so it stared right at Katara — from the bottom of its jaw to the top of its head was taller than Katara, without counting its horns. The dragon’s huge eyes were the color of molten gold. The left one was surrounded by broken scales, blackened and cracked as though they’d been burned.

The voice … Katara couldn’t get past it. It sounded so human, so young , a dark rasp covering jangling nerves. If she closed her eyes, she could imagine it as belonging to a man around her brother’s age, barely out of childhood. If it hadn’t been so large, rumbling through the dragon’s massive chest.

“Katara!” snapped Sokka.

The dragon looked at her. “Are you a bender?” it asked.

“Y-yes.” She shook her head. “But I’m not trained.”

“Then you’ll have to learn fast,” the dragon said.

She should be scared of it, but she was more scared of the ships. Memories of the last time the ships had come wrapped around her heart and squeezed — her mother, the men with the fire. Not again. Never again.

But how?

“I can’t do this,” Katara whispered.

“You can.” The dragon dropped its head down beside her, voice a deep grumble more heard than felt. “You have to. If you can’t, your people will be discovered and rounded up. Their safety will be in the hands of the fire nation. Is that what you want?”

“No.” Katara stood straighter. She shook herself all over like a wet polar bear dog and closed her eyes.

Around her, the wind howled, cold even though her parka. She spread her feet apart and breathed in that chill, listening to the creak of the ice, the crunch of snow beneath the dragons shifting feet. This was her home, her place in the world. And if she couldn’t bend this, she’d never bend anything.

Katara breathed.

Then she reached down with both hands, almost to the snow itself, and lifted with all her might.

Ice creaked and squealed. Cracks formed beneath Katara’s boots and healed immediately. The ground heaved, but she kept her feet.

And then the ice moved.

A massive wall, half liquid, half solid, rose from the tundra at one side of the village, looming over it, shadowing the tents and igloo. It froze as it grew, becoming a solid sheet, whole but rough and rugged, not unlike the other icy eruptions across the otherwise flat ground.

“Good,” the dragon murmured. “Another.”

Gritting her teeth, Katara finished and started the second, opposite the first. This one came in at a lower angle, wider and more gently sloping, a hill rather than a mountain. But she pulled just as hard and the second ice wall bumped up against the first, forming a sort of lean to.

Sweat rolled into Katara’s eyes. Her arms trembled.

“One more,” the dragon said, not unkindly but with growing urgency. “They’ll be in sight range soon.”

Katara raised her aching arms and pulled from the depths of her soul. The third wall slotted into place with a groan, surrounding the village on three sides, leaving only a hidden entrance away from the sea as egress.

But it looked too new. There was no snow to blend the opaque blue ice into the landscape and Katara couldn’t even lift her hands to bend.

“Let me,” the dragon said as though reading her mind. It lifted into the air, snake-like body coiled beneath it, and reared back. When it flapped, wind slammed into Katara. She braces herself against the onset of cold. Snow blew past her, catching against the new ice walls and half-burying them.

They could have been there for years, a solid, rocky outcrop, snow studded and, most importantly, deserted.

“Come on.” The dragon swished its tail, nearly as long as the rest of its serpentine body. “Get around to the back before the ships come.

Katara seized Sokka’s hand, dragging him behind the new fortification. The village had been cast into sudden shadow by the walls. Children and women watched Katara’s entrance with wide eyes glowing in the dim light.

When the dragon piled in behind her, someone screamed.

“He’s on our side,” Katara called, unsure if she believed it. Despite the size of the icy shield, the dragon made it seem cramped as it pulled its long tail in and curled around tents and igloos, blocking much of the entrance.

“Katara!” Gran-Gran hurried towards her grandchildren, casting one nervous eye towards the dragon. “What’s happening?”

Katara’s knees trembled and she stumbled, catching herself against the dragon’s hide. Tiny scales rasped against her mitten and she pulled away.

“Fire nation patrol,” the dragon rumbled, amazingly quiet for something so big.

“They never come this far south,” Gran-gran insisted.

“They have.”

Sokka sprinted across the shadowed village to the wall Katara had created. He pressed his hands against the ice and peered through a thin gap between the slabs. Katara watched him intently. A pause. Then his back stiffened.

Pulling himself away from the wall, Sokka wove his way through the tents to Katara’s side. “The dragon’s right, Gran-Gran,” he said, face pulled into somber lines. “Three ships. Moving slowly. They’re probably not expecting to find much, but we should lay low, just in case.”

Gran-Gran nodded. Then, to Katara’s shock, turned and bowed to the dragon. “Thank you,” she said. “We are a simple people trying to live a life of freedom, and you have saved us from this threat.”

“I haven’t saved you yet,” said the dragon, though it inclined its great head in response to her bow. “And you should be thanking your waterbender here, not me.”

Gran-Gran turned her steady gaze on Katara, who blushed. “She is a miracle,” Gran-Gran said as though agreeing with the dragon. “Please excuse me. I must help keep the children quiet.”

As Gran-Gran bustled away, Katara let out a breath she hadn’t known she’d been holding. The dragon curled its head down to watch her but she was too tired to be scared of it anymore.

“You must be exhausted,” hissed the dragon.

Katara nodded and only then realized exactly how tired she was. Her legs trembled and she slumped against the dragon’s warm side. Its scales rasped against her parka and caught in her braid as she slid down to sit, her back against the dragon’s hide and her bottom in the snow. Cold seeped into her sealskin parka.

As she dropped, the dragon settled with her. The heat coming from it was enormous and overwhelming, more heat than she’d ever felt in her life. Wherever dragons came from, Katara thought as sleep pulled at her, it must be very warm indeed. Or perhaps very cold.

The dragon’s tail curled around her, almost protective, and Katara quite contentedly passed out.

When she woke later, it was past midday. The cold sun burned above her head, a point of pale light against the unending blue sky and equally blue ice. The dragon hadn’t moved. Its head rested on the ground, eyes slitted by not closed. A translucent third eyelid drew halfway across the golden iris, but despite that, the dragon was still awake. It flicked its huge eyeball towards her as she moved.

“Don’t go too fast,” it told her. “That’s more bending than I’m sure you’re used to. Your body won’t like it.”

Katara huffed. The broken memories of the morning returned to her in slow blossoms as she looked around at the now shadowed village. “I’m perfectly capable of bending, and I don’t need you to tell me how much I can handle,” she snapped, and then remembered what she was talking to. Horror ran through her and she shied away. “I’m sorry.”

The dragon’s darkened eye twitched to her. “I’m not trying to offend you,” it said in a tone that sounded very offended. “Your brother wants your attention.”

Katara looked up. It was true — Sokka stood about ten feet away, watching her, hunting spear in hand but held upright as though making a desperate attempt not to threaten the massive beast wrapped around Katara’s tiny form.

“Sokka.” She got up, pushing herself to her feet using the dragon’s side. Sokka didn’t come any nearer so she went to him, stepping over the end of the dragon’s tail on her way. She reached out and wrapped her mittened hand around Sokka’s so both of them gripped the spear. “Is everyone all right?”

Sokka nodded. He didn’t take his eyes off the dragon. “No one wanted to get near you,” he whispered back, clearly trying and failing to be quiet. “What were you thinking, staying so near that thing?”
Katara turned and looked over her shoulder at the dragon, which watched them with its huge eyes, unblinking. “I passed out, you dumb-dumb,” she told her brother as though he was a child of three, not a man of nineteen. “I didn’t exactly have a choice in the matter.”

The way Sokka kept eyeing the dragon — a creature so large it could have swallowed him without chewing — told Katara he didn’t believe her, but she didn’t have time. Now that she’d stepped away from the dragon’s warmth, she too was terrified at the risk she’d taken. It could have killed her, killed them all. But she didn’t feel like it was going to. For whatever her feelings were worth.

“The ships,” Katara said, changing the subject. “Are they gone?”

Sokka nodded. “They sailed off over the horizon an hour ago. Gran-Gran said to leave you be, that you’d worn yourself out.” He looked up at the ice covering them. “How’d you do that anyway?”

Katara shrugged. “Desperation?”

Sokka snorted. “Should have done that years ago.” He sighed and leaned more heavily on the spear. “I guess we all owe your new friend a thank you.”

“I accept,” said the dragon with a hint of amusement in its voice.

Sokka sketched a respectful salute to the beast. “Thank you, oh eminent dragon,” he said in the tone of someone searching for words not his own. “Your benevolence has saved us from … uh …” His eyes flicked to Katara and found no help on her face. “Fiery disaster. We owe you a great debt.”

“No debt,” the dragon said, stretching and rising to its feet, though it stayed crouched enough to remain eye level with the siblings. “Just an offer.” It looked around the village, at the children peering at it and Gran-Gran coming close enough to hear the conversation if not quite joining in it.

“What kind of offer?” Sokka asked before Katara could say anything.

The dragon’s forked tongue slipped out of its mouth and disappeared.

“Your tribe is struggling,” the dragon said, looking Sokka’s spear up and down. “You don’t have enough hunters, food, or protection.”

Sokka opened his mouth but the dragon hissed and he bit back his response.

“I’ll provide for you,” the dragon said. “Food. Protection. I can keep the ships away from you, especially now that they can’t see you. But I’ll lead them away or ward them off if they come near. I’ll keep your people safe. I promise.”

A dark silence fell over the village.

Katara licked her lips.

“And what do you want in return?” asked Sokka.

The dragon’s eyes flickered over the villagers and stopped on Katara. The dark slit pupils expanded. The tongue flickered out again, breath steaming in the cold.

“I want her,” it said.


 

“You can’t,” Sokka said, smacking his hand against the ice block wall of the communal igloo.

Katara didn’t say anything. After the dragon’s staggering pronouncement, she didn’t know what to do, what to say, even what to think. She just kept its golden gae, watching those huge slit pupils widen like black holes as they watched each other. That is, until Sokka seized her hand and yanked her hard behind him, insisting to the dragon that no one was going to touch his sister, that the dragon could to something anatomically impossible with its offer.

So now they were in the igloo to fight about it where the dragon couldn’t hear.

Katara still found herself somewhat in shock. What did it mean, it wanted her? Did it want to eat her? Or just … keep her. Like a pet.

She wanted to ask, but Sokka had been about to explode from apoplectic rage, so she figured she should keep silent. For now.

He’d even kept Gran-Gran out, dropping the hide curtain door in her face as he stormed into the space. Now he paced around the eating area, avoiding the furs strewn on the floor. Katara planted her feet and folded her arms, glaring back at Sokka as he paced and ignored her.

“I can do what I want,” she told him, though she was still unsure what she was agreeing to. Or even if she was agreeing at all. She just didn’t want Sokka to boss her around, or allow her to do things.

She just wanted answers.

Sokka whirled on her. “So what, you’re going to give yourself up to a giant dragon to do who-knows-what with?” His eyes narrowed. Punctuating each word with a forceful pause, he spat “It’s going to eat you .”

“We don’t know what it wants with me because you didn’t bother to give me time to ask!” Katara ran her hands over her hair. “Sokka, it’s right. You can’t feed the whole tribe. If it’s willing to help us — and if it’s not going to eat me — then we have to at least think about it.”

“We need you here too,” Sokka said. He waved his hands as though indicating everything around them. “You saved us too, just as much as that dragon. You’re important here.”

“I’m not as important as eating,” Katara said. “I’m not as important as not having to watch my people starve. What if you get hurt, Sokka?”

“I won’t.”

“What if you do?” she insisted. “This could give you time to teach some of the kids enough to help you. It could make us self-sufficient instead of all putting it on you.”

“It’s gonna eat you !” Sokka yelped.

“You know what, hold on.” Katara pushed her way out of the igloo, past Gran-Gran who hovered around the door with eyes like steel, and past every other member of the tribe lurking behind her. Katara didn’t look at them. She stomped her way across the ice to the dragon, who regarded her with cool interest, head cocked to one side.

Her hands shook. She put them on her hips to hide the movement.

“Are you going to eat me?” she said peevishly, glaring up at the dragon.

It jerked its head back. “No,” it said and the shock and disgust in its voice made it sound even younger than it already did. “No, of course no. I’m not going to hurt you at all, I promise.”

“You promise a lot,” Katara said.

If the dragon’s face was more malleable, she thought it would be scowling at her, but the scales and thick hide didn’t bend the way human skin did. Regardless, the annoyance was clear in its voice. “I want you to come and live with me. I have somewhere. It’s … you’ll be safe there. Maybe even happy.” It coughed, a puff of smoke. “Maybe not. But you won’t be harmed. It’s not some cave full of skulls if that’s what you’re worried about.”

Katara shaded her eyes against the sun as she stared up at the beast. “No skulls?”

“Not even a spare femer.”

She almost cracked a smile then, but the fear was still too present. “And in return, you’ll care for my people?”

“Yes.”
“All I need to do is live with you?”

“Yes.”

Katara bit her lip. “For how long? Forever?”

The dragon broke her gaze, huge eyes focusing on its clawed toes as though it was somehow embarrassed or ashamed. “No, of course not. I’d never take you away from your family forever. For a year. A year and a day.”

That was nothing. It would hurt Katara to leave her people for even a minute, she knew that. But a year? For their protection? That was nothing.

She didn’t look back at Sokka or Gran-Gran. She couldn’t. This was her choice and the horror and pain in their faces would take that choice from her.”

“I’ll go,” she said, squaring her shoulders. “I’ll do it.”

“Katara, no!” Sokka’s footsteps crunched in the snow as he ran towards her. “You can’t.”

She whirled on him. “I can, and I will. I’m doing this for you, Sokka. For all of you. Let me do this. I need to.”

She didn’t know why, but it was important. They were important.

In a whisper of snow on scales, the dragon leaned down to her and said, quite softly for such a monstrously large creature, “Are you sure?”

That shocked Katara more than anything else had today — more than the ships, or the dragon’s appearance in the first place, or its strange offer. The worry in its voice. The way its scales shifted around its eyes almost like eyebrows but not quite. Despite the fact that it had teeth the size of Gran-Gran, the dragon was … cautious. Maybe even afraid.

And it was giving her another chance to back out.

Somehow, that made her decision easier. Keeping her eyes on the dragon, she nodded once. “I’m sure.”

The dragon’s eyes closed. Katara found its animal expressions hard to read, but she thought this might be relief, or perhaps despair.

Abruptly, it turned away from her, tail swishing. “Pack your things and say your goodbyes,” it said, voice harsh and cold once more. “We leave at dusk.”

Numb, Katara turned away and walked into the tent she shared still shared with Sokka — despite his snoring. She pushed aside the tent flap and stood in the center of the small, warm space, the only home she’d known for all seventeen years of her life. Everything around her felt strange and alien now, smelling familiar and yet distant all at the same time. The smell of polar bear dog fur and tiger seal skin pressed against her.

Tears welled in her eyes but she pushed them away.

Sokka shoved aside the flap, as she knew he would. “Katara!” he said and then stopped, as though the shock was too much for him to find the right words.

She didn’t turn, just walked to her bedroll and began rolling the hide and fur into a bundle. She didn’t have that much. Just her clothing and some trinkets from her parents, or things Sokka had made for her years ago before he was so stressed about feeding the tribe. It wouldn’t take her long to gather everything together.

“Katara,” Sokka said, more softly this time.

She paused and let her head droop. “I have to,” she told him.

“You don’t.”

Katara sighed. “Maybe I don’t. Maybe we could survive without help. But Sokka.” She turned and looked over her shoulder, unable to keep the fear and pain out of her voice. “I don’t want to hang our lives on a maybe.”

Sokka knelt beside her and put an awkward arm around her shoulders. Unable to handle the contact and stay strong, Katara leaned into him, wrapping her arms around his chest and burying her cold face in the front of his parka. The hunting and fighting had given Sokka heavy muscles in his shoulders and chest, but he still had some of that childhood skinniness around his ribs that he hadn’t lost despite growing up.

“I love you,” she told him, her voice strangled.

“I love you too.” Grudging, but sincere, just like everything Sokka did. “I don’t want you to have to go.”

“I don’t either.” She took a wavering breath. “I don’t want to leave you and Gran-Gran, but if I can take care of you by going, I’m going to do it.”

“I know,” Sokka said softly. “I’d probably do the same thing.”

She snorted. “You’d try to fight the dragon.”

“I’m considering it now. You want me to? I’ll do it.”

Katara shook her head, unable to stop herself from smiling. “Don’t be stupid.”

Sokka didn’t say anything.

“Help me pack.” Katara pulled away, wiping her eyes. “I have to get my things so I can say goodbye.”

Sokka helped without speaking, handing her things that she didn’t think she would need, or even things that weren’t hers — their father’s beaded bracelets, made by their mother years ago, along with a handful of skinny bone knives Sokka had made for himself, spending months carving their hilts into seals and penguin otters.

“I can’t take these,” she told him.

“Take them.” Sokka pressed his lips together. “You’ll need to protect yourself.”

Katara tucked the knives into her bedroll without any more discussion.

By the time the sun streaked red on the horizon, Katara had packed all her things and said her goodbyes. Gran-Gran took her into the igloo and had her kneel before the altar to the spirits and ancestors. There, her grandmother asked the spirits to bless her, singing to them in her low, warm voice until tears rolled down Katara’s face. Afterwards, Katara offered her own prayers and offerings, and said her goodbyes to her mother.

“Mom,” she whispered, even though the igloo was empty — Gran-Gran left her alone for this final goodbye. “I have to go away. In order to protect the tribe, I have to leave and … and take my chances with this deal. It’s the only way we’re going to make it. Sokka works so hard, but he’s only one person. Hopefully with me gone, he’ll teach the younger kids to hunt. To take the work off himself.” She sucked in a long breath. “I’m so scared, Mom. I don’t know where I’m going or what’s going to happen to me. But I know this is what’s best. I’m protecting my people. Our culture.” Another shaking breath, tears filling her eyes and blurring the alter with its small statues — walruses and fish, a sinuous eel whale, almost like a dragon — “You were so brave, Mom. You did the same thing. You gave yourself to help me and protect me. Now I have to do the same thing.”

By the time she left the igloo, her tears were under control and her cheeks dry. She hefted her pack on her back. The sky, dark red and stained with deep purple clouds, stared down at her.

The dragon, curled at the edge of the village, raised its head as she approached. “Are you ready?”

Katara nodded.

“Don’t you hurt my sister!” Sokka yelled, shaking his fist at the dragon.

The dragon cocked its head. “I would never.”

Gran-Gran, more polite but no less stubborn, bowed to the dragon, but stood her ground. If the situation wasn’t so dire, Katara would have said she was giving the dragon the stink-eye. “Please care for my granddaughter as you’ve promised to care for us,” she told the dragon, a demand rather than a request. “She’s also part of this tribe. Perhaps the most important part.” Her eyes flicked to Katara. “She is our last bender, the only connection to our cultural heritage. Katara is precious.”

The dragon nodded its head, almost a bow in response to Gran-Gran’s. “Yes, my Lady,” it said, sounding even younger than usual. “I will treat her with all the respect, dignity, and caution she deserves.”

“You should,” Gran-Gran said, glancing at Katara, “because my granddaughter is formidable in her own right, as you’ve seen. If you hurt her, I have no doubt that she’ll destroy you.”

“Gran-Gran!” hissed Katara, mortified.

“I believe you,” said the dragon. It turned to Katara and lowered its head. “Please,” it said.

Katara took a deep breath and climbed onto the dragon’s neck, settling itself just behind the head. The fur of its mane flowed around its legs. Nervously, she reached up and grasped the dragon’s horns to keep her seat.

“Are you ready?” the dragon asked.

“Yes,” Katara said, feeling anything but.

The dragon rose into the darkening sky. Below them, the village shrunk until the gathered tribe was no more than a grouping of dark dots against the blue of the ice.

Katara pretended she wasn’t crying as the dragon turned and flew north, away from everything Katara had ever known. The dragon didn’t notice. Or maybe it was pretending as well. Either way, Katara was glad for it.

Chapter Text

Katara lost track of how many hours she’d clung to the dragon’s mane. Exhaustion made her bones ache and the darkness in the sky, punctuated only by the shifting greens and blues of the aurora, convinced her mind that it was time to sleep. But she couldn’t. If she slept, she’d lose her grip and fall into the vast darkness of ocean that lay below them.

But the dragon was fast, there was no denying that. Occasionally islands would appear below them — first ice and then barren gray rock — and disappear just as quickly, lost beneath the wind of the dragon’s wings.

The sky began to lighten when the dragon’s flight slowed. Muscles bunched beneath Katara as the dragon’s body twisted, roiled like a shaken hide, and formed into a series of slow, looping spirals. They descended gently and Katara looked over the dragon’s neck to see what had halted their progress.

It was another island, or a small series of them. Most were little more than peaks of black rock breaking above the blue of the ocean, but one island was large enough to be seen from far off, a mountainous hulk of some kind of matte black stone Katara was unfamiliar with. Though there was little stone she would have easily recognized — in the South Pole, most of it was covered with ice and inaccessible.

The peak of the island was high enough that they descended past it before Katara was able to get a good look at the ground beneath them. The dragon circled again and Katara leaned over to see what they were descending towards. In the slant of morning sunlight, she beheld a square of roofs encircling a central courtyard, the terracotta tiles glinting red and orange as they sank downwards. And yet, like she had with the dragon, Katara kept misjudging the size of the buildings. At first she thought they were small, delicate, but as the dragon spiraled towards the dwelling, it became clear that this was built too large for normal humans.

It was a palace, on a draconic scale.

Katara licked her dry lips. This must be where the dragon lived, somehow. But what would it be like for her here? Would there be a space for someone so small?

But her worries were stilled for the moment by the tiny figure emerging from the eastern side of the complex and shading its eyes to look up at the dragon. Even from here Katara could tell it was human, though the details were lost.

She sucked in a breath.

The dragon landed in the huge rocky courtyard, its tail curling into the air to keep its balance. Katara kept ahold of its mane, worried it would dump her to the ground in its haste. Its head was raised, leaving her a good twelve feet off the stone below and she didn’t want to fall from that height.

“There you are.” The human came towards them — an older man, red cheeked and round as a walrus bear. He wore his long gray hair loose down his back, though there was very little of it left at the crown of his head. His eyes were bright and laughing, though currently pinched in worry. And his tone — scolding? Of all things, scolding a dragon.

“You had me worried,” he told the dragon, putting his hands on his hips. “Disappearing for a day and a half off to who knows where, so I, an old man not in the prime of his health any longer, let me remind you, must worry for your safety, you hot-headed —”

The man broke off as the dragon dropped its head and Katara slid from its neck. Her hands ached, and her arms. She had a feeling her legs would hurt just as much later, when they stopped being numb stumps that did nothing to catch her weight. She stumbled.

“Oh,” said the old man in a tone of mixed confusion and concern.

Katara shoved her hood out of her face with one mittened hand. In the air, it had been cold and the speed of the dragon’s flight made the insulation she was used to equally necessary. But here on the ground it was warm. Hot, even, though Katara was hard pressed to think of a time she’d ever felt hot air. Beads of sweat burst into life on her back and the insides of her thighs. She couldn’t quite catch her breath.

“This is Katara of the Southern Water Tribe,” the dragon said. “She’ll be staying here for a while. Set her up in the side house, please.”

And without any further conversation, the dragon turned towards the largest building on the north side of the courtyard and slithered up the front steps and into the darkened interior, disappearing with a flick of its tail.

The old man stared after him, muttering under his breath. All Katara caught was “impulsive” and “love him like a son, but …” before he turned towards her, suddenly all smiles.

“Katara, was it?” he asked.

“Yes.” Katara wanted to strip down to her underthings, but that probably wouldn’t be polite. Instead she pulled off her mittens, which helped but not much.

“Call me Iroh, my dear.” Iroh reached out to pat her shoulder. “You must forgive him.” He jerked his thumb at the large main house to indicate the dragon. “He is young and sometimes forgets his manners.”

What kind of manners were dragons expected to have, Katara wondered, but set the thought aside for now.

“Come with me,” Iroh siad. “Would you like me to take your pack for you?”

Katara clutched the bag against her chest. “No. Thank you. I’ll keep it.”

Iroh nodded. “Of course. Would you like me to show you to your room first?”

Katara nodded. Her room? She hadn’t expected that. Though now that she thought about it, she hadn’t expected any of this. Not the house, of course, and not this sweet man with his rolling, bowlegged stride and easy kindness. If she’d allowed herself to think of their destination on the flight here, it had been a cave or some kind of mountain lair. Not a well cared for house — home — with red lanterns hanging over the doors and porches and paved paths through neat gardens of smooth stone and small, hardy plants.

Iroh led her to the building opposite the one he’d come out of. Now that Katara had a moment to look, she realized it was only the courtyard and the main house that was built so massive as to accommodate a dragon. The side houses were human-sized, the doors taller than Katara but nowhere near large enough for any part of a dragon to enter.

“These will be your quarters,” Iroh said, opening the door for her. “I live across from you, on the west side. I believe there are kitchen facilities, but do not worry about that. I will cook for you, as much as you would like.” He patted his round belly. “I am a very good cook, as you can tell.”

Katara mustered a smile.

“It will be good to have more company.” Iroh smiled. “I will be able to experiment more. He —” By which  he must mean the dragon. Always an exaggerated he , never a name. “Well, he will find his own food.” Iroh shook his head. “We have an arrangement.”

“Did he take you too?” Katara asked. She turned to Iroh, keeping her pack against her chest like armor. “Where did he find you? Why are we here?”

She asked where as though she hadn’t taken in Iroh’s red jacket and trousers, the gold of his eyes and the pale face that marked him as a citizen of the Fire Nation. She should dislike him based only on that, but who could hate an old man with such goodness in him? And besides, she still didn’t know the dragon’s intentions towards her. Iroh could be her only ally.

But instead of telling her anything, he just laughed, though there was sadness in his eyes. “Oh, he did not take me from anywhere,” he said. “I volunteered to come here. Someone must keep an eye on him. He is a good boy.”

A good boy . Katara stared at Iroh. Who called a dragon a good boy ?

What was happening here?

But Katara didn’t believe this man would stand by and let the dragon eat her, so some of the tense knot in her stomach loosened and allowed her to look around the room.

What she saw nearly took her breath away.

It wasn’t a bedroom as she’d first thought. There was no bed in sight. Instead, the room was dominated by a sofa and low tables. The walls were painted red and decorated in dark wood and pale paper screens painted with intricate scenes and people. Katara recognized none of them. A bookshelf on one wall held scrolls and some thicker bound volumes that Katara knew of but had rarely seen — books. Her people didn’t have enough paper to need them, and besides, they relied on their oral traditions. But Gran-Gran had seen to it that both Katara and Sokka could read as well as hunt and tell the stories of their tribe.

“Wow,” Katara whispered.

“Yes, it’s quite something.” Iroh made a face. “I personally find all this gold somewhat ostentatious, especially in such an out-of-the-way place, but I neither built nor decorated the house. You shall have to take your complaints elsewhere.”

He smiled, cluing her in to the joke, and she smiled back weakly.

“Through that door is the bedroom,” Iroh said, though he made no move to enter. “I believe you shall find some fresh clothing in the wardrobe. While I am sure your coat is a comfort, it must be terrible in this heat.”

Katara nodded. The sweat pooled in the small of her back, soaking into everything, and she cared for very little but getting it off her skin.

“I apologize for the color.” Iroh’s mouth twisted. “I have not seen the clothing myself, but I am sure it is red.”

Katara wasn’t sure if she was meant to laugh, but she didn’t much feel like it. The color of the offered clothing didn’t offend her as much as the fact that she needed them, oreven that they were available. But her parka was beginning to suffocate her, the hide and fur too much skin against her own. She felt trapped by it. Bound.

“I’ll leave to to settle in,” Iroh said, smiling, and left her without another word.

Katara put her pack down in the corner of the sitting room as though she would be leaving at any minute. Of course she knew that wasn’t going to happen, but she also couldn’t allow herself to settle in any time soon. She’d never been anywhere outside the village of her birth for her entire life. What was she even supposed to do? Nest ? How?

Katara took a deep breath and went into the bedroom.

The walls were just as red as the sitting room, though here long hangings and paintings covered much of the walls. Nothing too Fire Nation-y, she was glad to see. Instead, the art displayed was of landscapes — cloud shrouded mountain temples, twisted trees in swamp-green forests. No ice, though. Katara sighed.

The centerpiece of the room, however, was the massive bed. Big enough for a whole family rather than just one person, the bedding was red silk and gold embroidery, the massive carved headboard painted crimson and hung with long silk curtains. Katara immediately disliked the horrendous piece of furniture. She didn’t sit on it, tried not to even look at it, as she stuck her head into the attached room containing a large tiled soaking tub. Her eyebrows rose. Despite living on ice and bending water for most of her life, Katara had never once immersed herself fully. It was just too cold on the ice. She bathed with melt water and a cloth.

More exploring showed her a second sitting room — smaller, and lined with even more books — and the promised kitchen. It was only once she’d wandered through the whole house that she caved to the inevitable and returned to the bedroom, slowly stripping away her parka and stockings, then slowly working through the hide ties until she was down to her warped loincloth and breast binding. Even this was damp with sweat, and her hair stuck to the back of her neck.

Unfortunately, in this heat, she didn’t want to put anything else on, but there was no way she could go back out showing this much skin. Maybe they dressed more lightly in this part of the world — maybe they could — but Katara wasn’t used to it. It made her skin itch.

And yet, she liked that itch more the itch of old sweat pooling in her belly button.

After some fiddling with the bathing chamber, Katara worked out how the taps worked and hot water poured into the tub, smelling strongly of sulfur. Katara wrinkled her nose and turned the water back off. Hot water — exactly what she didn’t want.

She opened the wardrobe and found a red robe, sleeveless and long enough to cover most of her thighs. It was dark red, trimmed with gold. Likely, it was a tunic but Katara was too unfamiliar with Fire Nation fashion to know its exact use. So she threw it on over her sweaty undergarments and headed outside.

Iroh stood on the porch opposite her. “Miss Katara?” he said, pushing himself away from the wall. In his hands was a small, steaming cup.

“I need to bathe,” Katara said, blushing and hoping he follow. “The water in my room is too hot.”

Iroh laughed. “Yes, the baths are plumbed straight from the hot springs underground, but it must not be what you are used to. There is a pond just east of the house. We use the spring which feeds it for water, but the pond itself is deep and full of fish. Good for bathing. And fishing, if you are interested.

Katara smiled tightly, nodded, and left the walled residence.

She thought the dragon might appear to stop her, but where would she go? Water bender or no, it was an isolated island. Home was far away — too far to get to on her own. One false step in her bending and she’d drown in the middle of nowhere, forgotten and unmourned.

So she picked her way over the dark rocks to the pool.

The water was strangely green but smelled fine. The bottom was the same soft rock as the whole island — cooled magma, she realized. The mountain must be a volcano.That explained the hot springs too. A dangerous place to live, but maybe not, if one was a dragon.

Katara stripped naked and slid into the pool. Immediately, she realized what all the hype about bathing was. This was wonderful. The water was warm but not hot, closing around her and making her feel weightless as though she could fly as well as the dragon.

She lay back, keeping her head above the water — swimming was still beyond her, an embarrassing oversight for a water bender but there’d never been any opportunity. She closed her eyes and took deep breaths.

The enormity of what she’d agreed to pressed down on her.

Katara rolled over, clutching the soft magmatic lobes at the edge of the pond, and put her head down on her arms to cry. Everything felt scarier now, without the adrenaline and the righteousness that had given her strength. She already missed Gran-Gran and Sokka, missed the shifting colors of the aurora flowing above her in ribbons. The howl of polar bear dogs and the huffing calls of tiger seals. The cracking of ice, creaking deep in the sea beneath her.

Home.

But she had to be strong. She’d done this to save her people and it would be selfish to regret the decision now. She couldn’t dwell on self pity.

Katara pushed her wet hair out of her face and looked up.

The dragon stood fifteen feet away from the pool, staring at the sky above and to the left of Katara. If it hadn’t been a massive, magical, serpent-shaped monster, Katara would have said the slightly turned in feet and wide eyes conveyed embarrassment. But what would a dragon care for human nudity?

Regardless, Katara sank down further into the water until she was hidden from the chin down in the cloudy green water. Thankfully, whatever sediment lived here made the water almost opaque.

“I’m sorry,” the dragon said. It — he, Iroh said he — swallowed, throat bobbing like a bird’s. “I didn’t know you’d be here.”

Katara didn’t know what to say. She tried to find something polite, but what came out of her mouth was, “It’s your island.”

The dragon’s nostrils flared. “I didn’t mean to —” he said, amusement in his tone, then amended, “I’m not spying on you.”

“I didn’t think you were.” Katara blinked. He was a dragon . Again, she wondered why he would care about her discomfort. It wasn’t as though he was wearing clothing either.

The dragon blew smoke. “I’ll let you finish.”

“I’m done.” Katara stood up in the water, putting her hands over her breasts.

The dragon coughed more smoke. His eyes flicked to her and then immediately away again. “I —” His tongue flicked out. “Uh, you should …”

She hadn’t been embarrassed but now she was becoming so. It was the dragon’s discomfort that sparked her own. If it was nervous, then she should be as well. But she couldn’t very well sink back down into the water now. By the spirits, was there some crossover in draconic sexuality? But she was …

No, she would not think about that. It made her too uncomfortable.

The dragon reached out with one claw and picked up the tunic wrap she’d brought, holding it out to her, still staring pointedly at the sky. “Here,” he said gruffly.

Katara reached out and took the tunic, holding it in front of her as she crab-walked out of the pool and turned her back to put it on. Tying it closed with the gold lacing around the waist, she said, “I’m decent.”

The dragon coughed again and looked at her. “Sorry,” he said again.

Katara blushed. A very human reaction from this inhuman monster.

She bent to gather her underthings, holding them to her chest. “I hope I wasn’t intruding. Iroh said to use this pool to bathe.” She pushed her went hair out of her face.

“It’s fine.” The dragon’s feet shifted against the rock, claws gouging lines in the magmatic rock. “You’re welcome to bathe here. It’s my fault. It was …” He cleared his throat. “Impolite of me. Very impolite.”

Katara smoothed her hands over the tunic. “No trouble.”

The dragon looked over her tunic. “That’s … a little large for you.”

Immediately she looked down to make sure she hadn’t had some kind of wardrobe malfunction, but no, the tunic covered her. Of course, the dragon was right — the tunic seemed to be made for a taller person, more broad in the shoulders. Likely a man, she thought, but still had no way of knowing. She’d only ever seen Fire Nation soldiers, and now Iroh. She knew nothing of their gender norms. By and large, men and women dressed alike in the south pole.

“It was the first thing I found,” Katara said. “I don’t know how I’m supposed to dress.”

“Keep it.” There was a smile in the dragon’s voice, but of course Katara couldn’t see it on his face. How did that work? How did its speech work, with no lips? “It suits you. Wear whatever you like.” It cleared its throat. “Iroh is cooking, if you’re hungry.”

She was hungry, and as if to punctuate that, her stomach set up such a growling clamor she clapped his hand over her belly, blushing.

“I’ll go back,” Katara said, edging her way along the ridge of pool.

“Good,” said the dragon, getting out of her way.

When Katara looked back, the dragon was stepping into the pool, water rising over his chest and legs. Like a walrus, he slid in as green water washed over his back.

She grinned. So she’d just interrupted his own attempts at bathing. Nothing more sinister at all.

The fact of the smile’s existence made her uncomfortable though — she wanted to be upset still, scared. No, she didn’t want to. But she felt like she should be.

She certainly shouldn’t be smiling at a dragon’s tail flipped over the edge of the rocky pool, elegant and tipped in soft fur.

Turning back, Katara bit her lip and hurried back to the house.

The smells coming from Iroh’s house were strong, spicy in a way that Katara had never experienced. She stepped lightly onto the porch, hand raised to push open the door, but stopped herself. Intruding seemed rude and she didn’t want to invite herself in to Iroh’s private quarters without asking.

“Katara?” He’d known she was there somehow, for even as she thought it, Iroh bustled out to meet her. “There you are, my dear, and looking much more comfortable I see. How do you feel?”

“Clean,” she said, smiling again — it was impossible not to around Iroh. “Still tired.”

“And hungry, I hope?”

“Yes.”

“Good, good. Come. Sit.” Iroh beckoned her into the house.

It was decorated much more simply than her own quarters, the reds painted over with softer golds and pale browns. Iroh gestured for her to sit at the round wooden table, which she did, and he placed a bowl of white rice in front of her.

“I have met many of your people, seen much of your culture,” Iroh told her, turning back to the kitchen. “I have made quite a study of your cuisine. I have no sea prunes to offer you, but I do have freshly caught fish. It is of a kind you may not have had before, but I have made sure to avoid some of the more … painful spices of my own homeland.”

“Thank you,” Katara said as he came out and laid a whole cooked fish before her, steaming and smelling amazing. Green onions and garlic surrounded it. Beside it, Iroh laid two sauces, one red, one creamy gold.

“This is very hot,” he told her, pointing to the red one. “I would avoid it.”

Katara ate with a deep hunger she’d never before felt, the kind that made her muscles weak. She scarfed down half the fish on top of her rice, the food filling the ache in her belly, and then almost fell asleep in her bowl as her body informed her of the next need it required her to meet.

Iroh insisted she go to bed and she stumbled across the courtyard, through her sitting room, and into the bedroom where she managed to collapse on top of the covers, still wrapped in the ill-fitting tunic.

Later, much later, she dreamed someone settled on the other side of the great bed, shrouded in the darkness. But she slipped back into sleep and the edges of the dream disappeared. When she woke in the morning, she was alone and the dream lost from her memory.

Chapter Text

Katara got up when fingers of light poured over the red bedspread. The sun woke her in a panic, her surroundings so unfamiliar and stifling that she had to stop herself from screaming. Just what she needed, she thought as she pulled herself into a sitting position against the round pillows, breathing hard and ragged. If she screamed, Iroh would come bursting in — embarrassing for both of them, she was sure. Or worse, it would be the dragon checking on her, trying to fit his whole massive head into her human-sized house.

She ran her hand through her loose hair. No. She would not scream. She would not upset anyone just because she missed home.

It was time to accept what she’d already agreed to and make the best of this.

Mind made up, Katara rolled off the bed and stepped onto the floor. Warm carpet met her feet and she looked down, rubbing her toes into the thick weave. Making the best of it might not be too bad. Not if her feet were going to stay this warm.

Speaking of warm, Katara steadied herself and walked to the closest, running a hand over her hair. Her curls had tangled as she slept, leaving her looking like a ghost risen from her own grave. Avoiding the mirror on the inside of the wardrobe door, Katara examined her clothing options. Iroh had been right. Red, from one side to the other.

Katara sighed. Red wasn’t her color.

She closed the door and went to her pack in the sitting room, digging through her clothing — all too heavy to wear in this heat — until she found her mother’s bone comb. She turned it over in her hands. She was so far from home that the comb lying across her brown fingers was at odds with everything around her.

Tears pricked at her eyes but she brushed them away. No. A new day, a new Katara. No tears.

Katara walked into the tiled room with the soaking tub and applied the comb to her hair in the mother-of-pearl framed mirror in one corner. Behind her reflection’s shoulder, through the windows, colorful birds circled over what she thought was the pool she’d bathed in yesterday. Idly, she wondered if the dragon was there, but no, too quiet. Not enough splashing.

She grinned, working a tangle out of her hair. She still couldn’t work up any true fear for the dragon. Iroh was part of that, but so was the dragon himself. He was too human. And made too clearly uncomfortable with her presence, despite his bluster.

Hair neatened with the help of the sulfurous taps and bound back — not in her usual braid, but up away from her neck — Katara went back into the bedroom to pick out something to wear other than the oversized tunic.

Much of the clothing was the same kind of tunic and trousers that Iroh wore — menswear, likely. The rest, which must be what women wore, tended towards sleeveless tops cut at the bottom of the ribcage to show a slice of stomach before the multi-layered skirt.

Katara sighed. Certainly not what she was used to, but perhaps it was best. Already, the day was hot in proximity to the volcano and despite the light breeze rolling in off the sea.

To that end, she donned a high-necked top that tied at the back of her neck and a knee-length split skirt over trousers of a similar length. She tied something like a thick belt around her waist and hips, shrinking the amount of skin shown on her belly and left her feet bare.

Another deep breath, a glance in the mirror — good enough for an old man and a dragon — and Katara forced herself to go outside.

“Good morning, Lady Katara.” Iroh waved. He sat at a stone table in the minimalist garden with plates laid out in front of him. Water steamed in a teapot in the middle of the table. Katara’s notice, however, was drawn more to the dragon, curled and coiled across the courtyard, watching her with lamplike eyes.

If it was human, it would be grinning. Not that Katara had any real way of knowing that, with its scaled features. It was more of a feeling.

“How did you sleep?” Iroh asked. “Come, sit, sit. We have tea here, have a cup. And bao. Fresh made. Please, eat.”

Katara sat, taking the place beside Iroh as though the dragon too needed a seat; he was on Iroh’s other side, or at least seemed to be taking that place at the table, and she didn’t want to eat with him staring at her back. “Thank you,” she said, delicately selecting one of the steamed buns and taking a bite. It was filled with custard, the sweetness unexpected but delightful.

Iroh grinned, watching her eyelids flutter. Blushing, Katara swallowed. “That’s wonderful.”

The dragon snorted smoke. “You have a fan,” he told Iroh wryly. “Someone else to fatten up.”

Katara’s hands went unconsciously to her stomach.

Iroh glowered at the dragon. “ You have no right to talk, neph —” He glanced at Katara and broke off. “I do not believe I could make enough bao to fill you in a million years of trying. Now, apologize to Lady Katara.”

The dragon reared back. “Why?”

“No, he doesn’t have to.” Katara took another bite of the bun. “I’m not going to take offense. I’m not some delicate Fire Nation girl who gets offended about my body.”

The dragon cocked its head, but Iroh laughed. “Good,” he said, putting another bao on the plate in front of her. “Neither am I.”

Katara laughed too.

Iroh poured her some tea. “And your room is to your liking?” he said, shooting the dragon another scowl as though trying to remind him of some manners Katara didn’t understand. “You were comfortable?”

“I’ll tell you in a day or so,” Katara said. “I was too tired yesterday to need comfort. But no, please don’t worry. It’s very nice.”

“Anything you need,” the dragon said, snaking in two claws and delicately taking a bun between them, “just ask.” He opened his massive mouth and popped the food in, past foot long teeth. It disappeared, barely more than a speck against the red of the dragon’s tongue.

Iroh pushed the plate towards him. “Have another,” he said, as though the buns would in any way fill the dragon’s stomach. Katara shook her head, imagining how much he would have to eat to keep that massive body fed. A shiver ran over her and she turned her mind to other things.

“Where are you going today?” Iroh asked the dragon.

A roll of skin and neck that Katara thought was the dragon’s shrug. “I hadn’t made plans. We’re well stocked with supplies?”

Iroh nodded.

The dragon glanced at Katara. “And I’ll bring something to your tribe in a day or so. It’s a long trip and I’m still recovering. Do they like eel whale?”

Katara’s mouth dropped open and she forced it closed. “Yes,” she said in a small voice, wondering when she’d last had something so big — before the warriors had left, that was for sure. “They’d appreciate that very much.”

“I’ll send them along some tea, if they’d drink it,” Iroh said, his face lighting up.

That made Katara smile too. “I’m sure they’d enjoy it,” she said. “My grandmother misses getting it, when we used to be able to trade more with the Earth Kingdom.”

Iroh beamed. “Such an esteemed lady who raised a granddaughter as lovely and thoughtful as yourself deserves as much tea as she likes,” he said.

Katara almost hugged him. Instead, she blushed.

“I’ll begin looking into special items for our next incoming shipment,” Iroh said. “Anything you want to send back to your family, let me know. And anything you want for yourself.” He looked her up and down, no-nonsense, with no appreciation in his eyes — Katara was thankful for that. “The clothing fits? It is something of a mishmash, I know, but I need very little in the way of clothing.”

“You look very … um.” The dragon coughed again. “Nice. Very nice.”

When Katara turned to him, he wouldn’t meet her eyes, an impressive trick when his pupils were the size of her head.

Iroh raised an eyebrow but said nothing.

Katara smoothed her hand over her skirt. “It’s fine,” she said, “though not what I’m used to. That’s probably because of the weather though. How do you stand this heat? And the dampness.”

“One learns,” Iroh said. “It is still only late spring. Summer will be worse, but when the rains come, cool weather will follow. Of course, not as cool as you’re used to.”

Katara sighed.

“I’ll see if I can get any other clothing,” the dragon said. It adjusted itself. “I don’t know what you like though.”

“Neither do I,” Katara said. “I’ve worn parkas for most of my life. If I figure it out, I”ll tell you.”

The dragon’s mouth opened just a little, like one of the domesticated polar bear dogs Katara remembered from her childhood. A dragon smile.

She couldn’t help smiling back. How could she ever have been afraid of this creature? Not that she ever truly had … but she should have been.


 

Living with a dragon turned out to be, of all things, boring.

Perhaps it was that suddenly Katara didn’t have to worry about feeding herself and her tribe, something that had taken up a vast amount of her time. The dragon had disappeared for another two day stint and when he returned, he bore with him a note in Sokka’s rough hand on seal hide, telling her that dragon was true to its word and also that he hoped she was keeping him in his place — as though one woman barely out of girlhood could be expected to corale a dragon. Katara figured at least Sokka still had faith in her.

But once the dragon had returned and Katara’s worries about Sokka were eased, she found there was very little to do. Iroh cooked for her, so she had no need to prepare a meal. When he wasn’t cooking, Iroh read or sometimes went through some kind of meditative firebending forms, the kicks and aggressive turns of hands so different from all the waterbending Katara had ever learned. Sometimes she watched him — he never seemed to mind — and wished she knew enough about her own bending to do the same.

Katara had very little use for the many books in her room. Most of them were fire nation history, something she never had any interest in. She didn’t like being inside for long periods of time either, perhaps given that she wasn’t used to it. Or maybe it was the dark, closed in aspect of her little house, the sound-muffling walls and red and gold painted ceiling pressing onto her like a scarlet sky.

Her days fell into a routine: rise late, take breakfast with Iroh and sometimes the dragon if he was in. When Iroh retreated into his house to avoid the growing heat of mid-day, Katara went to the small green pool to bathe and practice her swimming. Teaching herself was difficult, but she was determined — the delicate blue waves of the ocean cresting against the rock and black sand shore of the island called to her, but she had to make sure it wouldn’t kill her.

In the early afternoon she would have a quick lunch with Iroh in his front room — usually fruit or cold dumplings — and he would tell her of his childhood in the fire nation, regaling her with stories of his whiney little brother and his stern father. The stories always made Katara laugh and Iroh would laugh as well, but melancholy hung around him like a cloak, something difficult to pin down but present all the same. His stories were strangely non-specific; he never told her the names of any member of his family, or where they lived. But she learned he had a niece and a nephew who he spoke of with great warmth — especially the nameless nephew — and occasionally he mentioned a son.

But never for long.

Katara didn’t push about his child. That was when Iroh’s melancholy grew the most cloying and he tried to change the subject. Katara always let him.

In exchange, she told him about her family and life in the Southern Water Tribe. Unlike Iroh, she had no need to hide the specifics and occasionally had Iroh gasping for air after telling him with one of Sokka’s more embarrassing episodes. Talking about Sokka hurt, but it felt good too, as though reminding her that he was still alive and in the world even if she didn’t see him every day.

In the afternoon, Iroh would return to his reading, or perhaps sleep. Katara tried to entertain herself then, bending water out of the courtyard fish pond to the consternation of the koi that lived there, or pulling on too-large leather boots to walk up the volcano, though she never reached the top due to the shear angle. Occasionally she too slept, but that was rare. She wasn’t used to napping and always woke groggy and confused.

Then Iroh would call her out for dinner, where the dragon joined them. Talking to the great beast became easier and easier as time went along. After about a week and a half into her stay with the dragon, she casually reached out to pat his giant scaled shoulder at dinner as though it was the most natural thing in the world. They both froze, Katara quickly drawing her hand away as soon as she realized what she’d done — this was a dragon, not some dog to pat affectionately — but the dragon didn’t react.

When Katara turned to Iroh, his eyes glittered like diamonds in the lamplight, but he said nothing.

At night, in the oppressive darkness of her room, Katara stared at the unseen canopy over her until she sank into sleep. The dream of the other person settling on the far side of the bed was a recurring one now, but Katara learned to ignore it and roll over when it woke her. There was never any snoring or shifting to lend it credence outside her own mind, though she was rarely awake long enough to truly check.

One morning, Katara came to breakfast to find a handful of of scrolls sitting on her usual chair. She moved them carefully to sit down before taking the bowl of rice porridge Iroh offered her. “What are these?”

“He brought them for you,” said Iroh, gesturing to the dragon.

Katara turned, cocking her head.

The dragon dipped his gaze, chin brushing the cobbled pathway he lay on. “I saw you practicing your water bending yesterday,” he said, that rough laugh evident in his voice if not on his muzzle. “Those might help. Open them.”

Gently, with shaking fingers, Katara peeled back the edge of the scroll to take in the waterbending forms painted on the parchment. Each one was a series of steps and movements illustrated in black and blue ink.

“Oh,” she said quietly.

A long pause.

“Do you like them?” the dragon asked like one of her tribe’s five-year-olds offering her their first beadwork, all worry and humility.

“They’re wonderful,” Katara breathed. She looked up at the dragon. “Thank you. Where did you find these?”

“There’s a lot in the library,” the dragon said as though it hadn’t meant anything at all, despite his anxiety a half second earlier. “I just came across them. Figured you’d benefit from them more than I would.”

Katara unrolled the full scroll to examine it and admire the movement captured in the brush strokes. Swirls of blue ink marked the flow of water, a delicate flow in each image. Katara sighed longingly.

She looked up and met the dragon’s eyes, or at least one of them. “This is amazing,” she said, and bobbed a tiny half-bow. “Thank you. I’ll take good care of them and return them to you in the condition I found them.”

“Return?” The scaled ridge over the dragon’s eye rose, almost but not quite an eyebrow. “No, you don’t need to return them. They’re yours.”

Katara opened her mouth and closed it, fishlike. “I can’t take this,” she said with such heat it was almost a snap. “I just can’t. It’s too much.”

But she kept the scrolls pressed tight to her chest anyway.

Iroh, sitting between them, poured tea with the casual ease of long practice. “He is right,” Iroh said. “Neither of us has any use for the forms. It is better that you take them and master them.” He winked at her. “How is your swimming going?”

Katara gasped. “How did you know?” Her hands went instinctively to cover her chest although she was fully clothed. “You haven’t been —“

“Spying?” Iroh looked horrified. “No, of course not, my Lady Katara. I would never do such a thing. It is simply an old man’s intuition.”

Katara relaxed. “Oh.” She blushed, tucking her hair behind her ear. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have assumed.”

“You have done nothing wrong,” Iroh assured her. “I simply wish to offer help. I am not much of a swimmer myself, being now so round I tend to float, but you may find an able teacher here.” And he gestured to the dragon.

“Me?” the dragon said, rearing back.

“Of course,” Iroh said, folding his hands across his stomach. “Who else?”

Eyes still wide, mouth open, the dragon craned its neck around. Its voice developed something of a whine as it focused in on Iroh. “But Uncle!” it said.

Katara froze.

Iroh and the dragon did too, fear replacing offended concern and self-satisfaction respectively. Iroh’s amber gaze darted towards Katara and then away. The dragon didn’t bother to dart. It turned its whole head to look at her.

Questions swirled through Katara’s head. Uncle? Some term of respect, or something more? What context was she missing to fill in the pieces of this strange interaction?

But she knew better than to ask, so she blinked up, all innocence, and said, “You’re a good swimmer?”

Some of the tension left the dragon. He huffed, looking away. “I’m … okay.”

“He’s quite skilled. He can help you, if you’d like. When you move out of your bathing pond and into the sea.”

Katara narrowed her eyes, wondering how Iroh knew she’d wanted that, but he just laughed.

“Intuition again, my dear. You are a waterbender. You will always feel the pull of that element in whatever form it takes. And to finally have the opportunity to swim, after living in a place where it was impossible? Well, what waterbender in their right mind would give that up?”

Katara nodded. She looked back at the dragon. “It feels rude to ask.”

He still wouldn’t look at her, “No, don’t worry about it. Of course I’ll help you.” He coughed. “If you’d like.”

“I would,” Katara said quietly.

Neither one of them looked at Iroh, grinning like a maniac and pouring another round of tea.


 

It was a full month into her stay at the dragon’s palace when Katara woke in the middle of the night, suddenly very aware of the presence in her bed.

She opened her eyes to overwhelming darkness, but every hair on her body stood straight up. She could feel something — an aura or a warmth or maybe just a prehistorical knowledge — that told her she wasn’t alone.

The dreams came back to her, stronger now. Had she been right the whole time?

What was happening ?

There was no movement though, no indication of attack or even touch. The massive bed gave whoever it was an advantage. Katara could have stretched her arm all the way out and still left room for some stranger in her bed.

A stranger in her bed .

She shuddered.

Falling silent, she listened. Around her there were the sound of night birds and some very loud insect that probably had no right to live on a volcanic island. She breathed deep, pushing the natural sounds away. Her ears strained. Blood pounded through her veins, another noise to cancel out.

And then she heard the breathing.

Low and steady, very regular. The kind of breathing that marked her entire life from sharing a tent with Sokka. Perhaps that was why she hadn’t noticed before — too used to sleeping near someone else, in communal tents or in the igloo when she was very young.

Whatever had kept her blind to it, she knew now.

She considered reaching across to whoever it was, shaking them, demanding answers, but no. She had no plan. No weapon. The darkness of the room was absolute and pressed on her eyeballs.

She couldn’t attack them. She needed to think.

And she needed to decide if this was all a nightmare. But it felt very real.

But the stranger hadn’t hurt her yet. Hadn’t even tried to touch her. But they were still there in the darkness. In her bed . And she couldn’t think of what to do about it.

It took her a long time to get back to sleep, syncing her breathing unintentionally to that of the stranger until she fell into a shallow sleep plagued by dreams of living shadows.

When she woke at dawn, her bed was empty apart from her, and she was exhausted. Sighing in relief, she rolled over and pulled the covers over her head, trying to finally get some rest.

Chapter Text

Groggy and anxious, Katara finally got up around mid-day. The first thing she did was cross to the other side of the bed and pull back the neatly made covers, as though she would find some explanation there. Nothing was forthcoming from the bare sheets. Sighing, Katara pulled the bedding back up. Maybe she’d put a frog in the bed tonight, see if anything happened. That ought to put some fear into her nighttime visitor.

She dressed and made her way out of her house. The sky was painfully blue, speckled with the white birds which nested in the volcano’s many caves and crevices. Each had one long tail feather, a streak of sunshine yellow following them across the cloudless sky.

The dragon curled in the courtyard and raised his head when she stepped outside. “There you are,” he said, clearly exasperated. “I’ve been waiting all morning. Are you sick?”

“No,” Katara snapped back, taking immediate umbridge with the dragon’s annoyance. “I’m just sleeping late. It’s none of your business when I get up, especially if you don’t tell me you’re going to wait for me.”

The dragon’s head jerked back and he opened his mouth.

“Careful,” Iroh said from his porch, sounding entertained rather than afraid. At first Katara thought he meant for her to be careful, but no, he was watching the dragon with dancing eyes. “I wouldn’t pick a fight with her. She’ll win.”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence, I guess,” Katara muttered.

The dragon shot Iroh a hurt look and rose, shaking himself. “Do you want to come swimming or not?” he asked her.

The magic words. “Of course I do,” Katara said and darted back inside for her shoes.

When she’d emerged again, the dragon lay on the stones in front of her porch. He lowered his head, watching her. “Get on.”

With only a twinge of trepidation, Katara clambered onto the dragon’s neck, holding on tight to his ridge of fur. He rose slowly, straight up from the ground as though his wings were more decoration than necessity. Wind wound through Katara’s loose hair.

They soared over the palace walls and across the flat swath of rocks and twisted trees upon which the house was built. Instead of taking her to the rocky ocean nearby, the dragon turned, circling until a semi-enclosed cove came into sight, the waves lapping at the shore rather than crashing.

The dragon set down on the black sands of the cove, claws sending up a spray that stung the bare skin of Katara’s legs. She slid down the dragon’s side, already stripping off her slippers in order to get her toes into that alien sand. The delicate shoes ended up half buried in the dark sand as Katara dug her toes in, then leaned down to do the same with her fingers.

“You’ve never seen sand before?” the dragon asked.

Katara didn’t look back at it. “No.” She peered more closely at it. “What is it, tiny rocks?”

The dragon laughed. “Yeah. Don’t get your face that close to it, you’ll inhale it and choke.”

Katara looked over her shoulder and glared up at the dragon. “Very funny,” she said acerbically. “I’m not going to eat dirt.”

The dragon snorted smoke.

He let her run the sand through her fingers for a minute before shuffling his feet and huffing again. “Are you going to go swimming or not?” he asked, tone short.

Katara stood up and unwrapped her skirt, glancing at the dragon as she did, but he wasn’t looking. Instead, he walked towards the waves sliding up onto the sand and stepped into the water. When he was knee deep, he stopped and turned back to her, standing on the shore in her undergarments. The sun reflected off the edges of the dragon’s red scales.

“Come on,” he said. “I won’t let you drown. You’ll be able to stand here.”

Anxiety closed Katara's throat but she forced herself to take a step forward, then another. The ocean rolled in towards her, than away. The wash of water over rocks at the cove’s entrance thrummed in her ears. She stepped forward and put her toes in the edge of the surf. Cold water flowed up to her ankles and she shivered at the sudden temperature change. Bubbles of surf tickled at her bare feet, running up and down along her tendons. Katara smiled, leaning down to allow the next wave to wash up over her fingers as she’d done with the sand minutes earlier.

She took another step, and another, skipping slightly as a wave hit her, not hard but enough to knock her off balance.

“You have to get past the breakers,” the dragon said. He gestured with his chin to the waves in front of her. “Past where they start to crest.”

Katara eyed the place he’d indicated. The waves were small, broken by the cove, but she’d still have to go in to her waist to make it past the white rimmed waves. She bit her lip and pressed forward. Water washed up her thighs, freezing as the wave rose to her hips. She resisted the urge to shove her hands between her legs to stave off the chill, like a child with a full bladder. It wouldn’t be “ladylike” though she thought the dragon probably didn’t care about that. Dragons didn’t need to be ladies.

She shivered anyway.

“Cold?” The dragon cocked his head. “You’re from a chunk of ice and you’re cold here?”

She glowered. “It’s the temperature shift. Don’t tease me, I might drown.”

The dragon’s mouth dropped open into a grin. “I wouldn’t tease you if it wasn’t so easy,” he said.

“You must be an older brother,” Katara muttered before she remembered who — what — she was talking to.

But the humor drained from the dragon’s face anyway as though she’d hit a nerve she couldn’t even see. He looked out towards the horizon, the long stretch of open ocean past the mouth of the cove. “Hurry up,” he said, taking a few more wading steps out into the water so the waves crested up against his sides and belly. “You’ll never learn to swim unless you get your feet off the ground.”

Katara didn’t want her feet off the ground — she was perfectly happy to bury them in the soaked sand and stay anchored to something. But he was right. If she was going to do this, she’d have to do it right.

She took another step into the ocean. Water pulled at her hips, her belly. She let her hands skim over the surface, bobbing up and down with wash in and out, in and out …

A last step and the water rose over her breasts, crushing her chest with the chill. Katara took a long breath, urging tense muscles to relax. She dropped her hands under the waves. Still cold, but wonderful. The weightlessness took her and she rose with the next wave, feet leaving the sandy bottom. Salt water tingled along her chin and neck.

She took a deep breath, and plunged beneath the waves.

Without using her bending to control her air, or the water around her, the vastness of the sea became suddenly apparent. Even in this sheltered circle of ocean held between the black craggy arms of lava, when all she had to do was straighten her knees to return to the air, she could feel how much water was out there. The pressure of it against her skin stunned her so much she almost gasped and only barely stopped herself from taking in water instead of air.

She stood up, breathing hard, shivering, to find the dragon turning and wading back towards her, fast enough to create another set of waves. He stopped when she cleared the surface, head lowered towards her.

“You disappeared,” he said, rather unnecessarily. “I thought you’d drowned.”

Katara had been under the water for less than ten seconds, but she wasn’t going to mock him for worrying about her. Instead, she pushed her hair out of her eyes and tried to smile. “I’m okay. I don’t think I’d drown that quickly.”

“Oh.” The dragon sat back in the water, a long, sinuous curling and uncurling of body and tail. “Good.” He watched Katara with narrowed golden eyes as she bobbed up and down in the waves, hands outspread and resting just beneath the surface.

She watched him back, though her stare was far less significant.

“Come on,” the dragon said, sinking down in the water so the waves slid over his back. “I’ll tow you out into deeper water.”

She paused, heart pounding.

“I won’t let you drown,” the dragon said in the softest voice she’d ever heard from him. “I promise.”

Katara believed him.

She waded over to him, bouncing a little as the waves passed, and put one hand on his shoulder. His hide was warm even in the cold water as though fire ran in his veins. He waited, very still, for her to get a solid grip, or at least twine her fingers into his mane, before he started moving. Scales glowed beneath the sheen of pale water and Katara looked over her shoulder at the wake they created with their passage, two streaming lines dissipating as the ocean shifted.

At some point, the dragon’s feet left the sand. He must have had some kind of natural buoyancy because he didn’t sink, though Katara thought his small legs couldn’t be doing enough to keep him afloat on their own. The membranous wings stayed tight against his spine, beaded with water droplets.

It was then, away from the palace and even the land, that Katara gathered her courage and asked, “Does anyone else live in the house?”

The dragon paused. His skin shivered all over , but when he spoke, his tone was even. Too even. “No,” he said. “Just you and I, and Iroh. Why?”

She couldn’t tell him about her nighttime visitor — who would believe someone was creeping into her bed, but not actually doing anything? Even if she lived on an otherwise abandoned island, in the home of a dragon, some things stretched imagination too far even for these circumstances.

“I was just wondering,” she said.

“You would know if there was anyone else,” the dragon said. “You’ve been here long enough. It’s not that big a house.”

The house was in fact larger than Katara’s whole village, but to a dragon, it must seem small. But he was wrong. Katara hadn’t ventured into the main house at all since she’d come to stay. That didn’t seem like her place to be. Occasionally Iroh would go there, usually when he had some bone to pick with the dragon in private — they argued in a friendly sort of way often enough that Katara assumed history rather than asking after it. But to her, the main house seemed off limits. Scary, in its size and occupancy. She preferred her own home, despite the red decorations and the unfamiliarity. It was made for someone her size, at the very least.

But she had to trust him, despite the fact that his caginess made her doubt his words.

The one thing she did believe was his constant promise not to hurt her. He’d stood by that for this long and there was an earnestness to his attitude that made her think it was probably the most truthful thing about him.

Not that she was going to accuse a dragon of lying. Of course not. That would be both stupid and a death sentence.

What she managed, after a great deal of internal debate, was, “All right.”

Then she slid away from the dragon and sank into the ocean, bending the water around her to contain the air, encasing her head in a massive bubble. The water was deep here, deep enough that she could drop a whole body’s length before her toes brushed the sand.

When she looked up through the shifting surface of her air pocket, the dragon’s silhouette above her looked huge and distant, a placid shadow out of some kind of half dream.

Then the dragon’s clawed forepaws came down and seized her around the waist, dragging her back up to the surface. He was already lecturing her on proper swimming safety when she broke into the air.


 

If the dragon wasn’t going to tell her what was going on, Katara resolved to do it herself.

It rained that night, a storm Iroh proclaimed to be early for the rainy season. “A summer downpour,” he said, watching the unabated raindrops over the lip on a delicate ceramic teacup. “Nothing to do with winter yet, my dear.”

Katara gave the rain a critical glance. “Winter?” she asked.

Iroh laughed and the sky rumbled in response. Katara started, having heard thunder only once or twice in her life, but only at a distance. Iroh didn’t appear bothered so Katara settled back onto her chair.

“It would not appear like winter to you,” Iroh said. “I have never once seen snow in the Fire Nation. But it does rain. Often, and with much gusto.”

“Like this?” Katara waved her hand at the sheets of water.

Iroh nodded sagely. “Very much, yes. But for days at a time on occasion. We all find it very damp and uncomfortable, but you might like it.”

Katara smiled. Iroh had taken it upon himself to help her with her bending despite not being able to truly practice the art; they ran through the flowing forms together in the morning, water trailing Katara’s fingers while Iroh’s stayed dry. He said the motions calmed him and focused his own bending, though how that worked exactly, Katara didn’t know. Firebending was a far more robust exercise, comprised of kicks and spins that Katara didn’t know if she could physically accomplish.

But she still couldn’t believe “winter” would be too warm for snow. How was that possible?

It didn't’t matter. Katara turned away from Iroh and any thoughts she might have about winter, to watch the rain drip from the eves of the side house. Anxiety moved in her belly like a great beast. She needed to do something about her night time visitor, sooner rather than later. Allowing them — it? — to stay in her bed was unacceptable.

A stream of rain ran down the red column to Katara’s right, twisting against the gold filigree, splitting and rejoining. The sky had darkened, a hard black slab, the stars and crescent moon hidden behind the thick rain clouds.

Katara sighed and rose. “I’m going to bed, Iroh. Good night.”

“Sleep well,” Iroh said, his tone turning melancholic. “I love to sleep in this weather, when the rain lulls me to rest. I hope it will do the same for you.”

Katara was pretty sure she wouldn’t be doing a lot of sleeping. She had other things to deal with before her bed could again be comfortable and safe. But she smiled at Iroh anyway and ran across the courtyard to her own house, bare feet splashing in the puddles between black stone slabs.

She left her damp clothes in the bathing room and dressed for bed in short cotton pantaloons and silk top. Usually she wore only one of the tunic shirts from the wardrobe, but that had been when she thought the bed was hers alone. Now, there were other things to consider.

Most importantly, she tucked her bone knife underneath her pillow.

Then, wide awake, muscles humming with electricity, she lay down, pulled the blankets over her, and doused the candle beside the bed.

Then she waited.

It felt like hours, but it probably wasn’t. Katara’s body hummed with awareness, from the tips of her fingers to the ends of her hair, stirring in the slight nighttime breeze. Rain pattered against the tiled roof and the sound did sooth her as Iroh had promised, but not enough. Soothing wasn’t what she needed. Katara wanted answers.

The creak of a floorboard in the main room almost set her off, but she held herself still. Then another footstep, this one lighter and closer.

Katara focused on her breathing. Soft, slow. The breath of a sleeper, not someone lying in wait to ambush any intruders.

When she held her breath, another woosh of air took its place. Someone else was here.

The mattress creaked when the stranger sat down. There was another pause as though they too were making sure that no one suspected their presence, but the joke was on them. Katara was wide awake, her body singing like the plucked string of a lute.

Blankets rustled. The mattress shifted.

The stranger settled on the other side of her bed. Katara stiffened, waiting. For a moment, they breathed together, Katara matching the inhales and exhales with her own, attuning her body to the one lying two feet away from her on the other side of the massive bed.

A breath.

Another.

And then she struck.

Throwing herself across the bed, knife clutched in one fist, Katara dived onto the strangers body. Bare skin and hard muscle met her hands, for which she was grateful — it wasn’t some kind of spirit. She slammed her forearms into the stranger’s chest and it — he? — let out a hard “Whoof!” as she knocked the wind out of him. Scrambling for her knife and scraping it harmlessly across foreign skin, Katara slammed her elbow into the softness of belly beneath her own.

“Ow!” snapped the stranger, sounding slightly strangled. “Katara, stop that! Don’t you dare stab me, you crazy weasel-cat!”

A million questions presented themselves, distracting Katara long enough for the stranger’s scrambling hands to find her wrists and flip her over as easily as if she was an ice turtle. She kicked out but he slammed his hands into the bed. His weight lay heavy across her belly and legs.

“Get off me!” she spat.

“No!”

There was a brief scuffle for Katara’s knife, but it was lost somewhere in the mass of bedding. Katara stopped flailing and lay still, catching her breath. The stranger’s rough palms pressed tight around her wrists. He didn’t move.

It was also becoming rather obvious that it was a he.

Katara twisted but he was too heavy. She allowed nothing but cold certainty into her tone as she repeated, “Get off me.”

“Am I hurting you?” The stranger’s voice was familiar — annoyance, mixed with concern, a low raspy voice. Young. Harsh.

“No,” Katara said, though she briefly considered lying. But he wasn’t actually hurting her.

“Then I’m not getting off.” Amusement crept into that low voice. “You tried to stab me.”

“You’ve been sneaking into my bed!”

He huffed. “But I haven’t stabbed you.”

She blew out a long breath. In a voice more steady than she felt, she told him, “There’s something digging into my leg.”

A pause.

A strangled, “Oh no .”

He rolled off her, the pressure lifting from her legs and abdomen. Katara pushed herself onto her elbows, trying to peer through the oppressive darkness, but there wasn’t even a sliver of light for her to latch on to. The stranger’s weight settled beside her, close enough that she still felt his presence, near enough to brush her skin with his own.

The silence stretched between them.

“You didn’t need to stab me,” he said finally. “I wasn’t going to hurt you. Ever. I promise.”

I promise .

Katara sucked in a sharp breath. She knew that voice, the rasp, the annoyance edging on disgust. She’d heard it almost every day for the last month. But it couldn’t be. The very thought was too much to even consider, stranger and almost wrong. Horrible. Amazing.

It was the dragon’s voice.

Whoever this strange man was, the one sneaking into her bed to lie beside her, he was the dragon. Somehow. She didn’t know how it was possible, but the voice was the same, down to the tiniest inflections.

“How?” she whispered.

Silence deeper than the darkness surrounding them fell upon the room. Katara didn’t know what to say to break the sudden tension, but she might not have been able to speak even if she’d wanted to. Theories chased each other across her consciousness — a spirit after all? Some kind of horrible magic? Was the dragon the true form, or the man? Or neither, maybe something else entirely?

“I —” he said, and stopped.

Then she remembered the real reason. “Wait, why are you in my bed?”

A snorting laugh in the darkness. “You wouldn’t understand.”

“Wouldn’t I?” she snarled.

“Well, I can’t tell you anyway.” Petulant. Young , just as she’d always thought the dragon was. This confirmed that. Or maybe it didn’t. She didn’t know what he looked like. He could still be something terrible, a spirit or a monster or a demon for all she knew. Something born of this darkness, or maybe in the heart of the volcano above the house —

Katara shook herself. Her imagination was running away with her. She’d felt his warmth and weight so she knew he was a solid being. If one that usually looked far more monstrous.

On the other side of the bed, the stranger — the dragon — sighed. “I’m sorry,” he said, the annoyance gone. Now he just sounded tired, and a little sad. “I didn’t mean to scare you. You sleep really soundly, so I thought I would be safe. I couldn’t tell you …” He trailed off, paused, and began again, “I wanted to tell you.”

“But you couldn’t?” Katara spat out the words, sudden anger boiling up in her chest. “You just had to lie to me?”

“Yes!” he snapped back. “I did have to! I’m not even supposed to be talking to you now, but I don’t have a lot of choices, now do I? There are rules , Katara, and I can’t break them, or … or bad things will happen. To both of us.”

Bad things ?!”

“Yes, bad things.” He groaned. Blankets rustled. “I can’t tell you that either. I wish you weren’t so stubborn and pig-headed.”

“Excuse me?” Katara snarled. She sat up, turning to face him even though she couldn’t see him. “The problem is me being stubborn ? Not the fact that you won’t tell me anything and keep sneaking into my bed ?”

“I wasn’t going to do anything!” He huffed. “I’m not a monster .”

It was funny coming from a man who was a dragon most of the time. Katara let out a bark of laughter and flopped over, putting her back to him. She believed that he wouldn’t do anything to her, partly because he hadn’t yet and partly because of the annoyance in his familiar voice. She was no longer scared, she was just upset that he wouldn’t tell her anything. Whose rules were stopping him from talking? What had been done to him?

After a moment of silence, he sighed. “Katara …”

The way he said her name, a half sigh, laced with desperation, sent a shiver down her spine.

“What’s your name?” she asked.

An even longer silence.

Then a strangled, despairing voice. “I can’t tell you.”

Katara hissed through her teeth. “So you can’t tell me anything at all? No why, no how? Not even a who ?”

“I want to tell you!” Now he was angry again, a harsh, grating presence. Sheets rustled and there was a muffled thud — Katara thought he might have punched a pillow. A human, boyish gesture she didn’t expect. “I want to tell you everything. I’ve been away from people for a very long time. Well, except for Iroh.”

Briefly, Katara wondered who Iroh was to the dragon — despite his being human now, she couldn’t think of him as anything else — but there were other things on her mind. The mystery of Iroh disappeared under the pile of other questions.

He growled again and shifted. “I wish I could tell you things. I want to. I want to tell you everything, about my life and who I was before I came here. About the place I was born and the people I knew. My family. My home. But I can’t. I can’t talk to you about anything important. You can’t even see me or —”

“Or what?”

A long pause.

Katara smiled a little, glad for the darkness hiding her. “Bad things?”

“Bad things.”

She didn’t know why or how, or what. Honestly, she didn’t know anything. But she knew there was something deep in this man’s soul that was hurting. Something he’d had to tamp down for a long time, showing to no one and locking away like a buried treasure.

And even if he was going to be something of an ass about it, she couldn’t fault him.

So she let out a long breath and closed her eyes, rolling so she faced him in the darkness, though she still couldn’t see anything. “You can stay,” she said.

“What?”

“You can stay here. Sleep here.” She clicked her tongue against her teeth. “If you want. But only sleeping. Nothing weird.”

“Weird?” He laughed. “I wouldn’t … don’t worry about that. I promise your virtue will stay intact.”

Always with the promises, Katara thought. Someday he’d make one he couldn’t keep, and then where would he be?

“It didn’t seem like that earlier,” Katara said, smiling and hoping he heard the amusement. “When you were on top of me. Holding me down. All excited and …”

Katara !” Sharp horror laced his words, and embarrassment. Exactly what she’d wanted.

She yawned. “Go to sleep,” she told him sternly. “I’m tired, you’re tired, and I had to try to stab a man sneaking into my bed tonight so I deserve a little rest.” The adrenaline was wearing off and tiredness fell over her like a heavy blanket. Resisting its pull was too hard and she let it drag her under.

When she woke, the bed was empty, though the sheets today were mussed. Her knife sat on the table on the other side of the bed, nowhere near where she had left it, the blade pointed away from her. Sunlight slanting through the windows in the front room reflected off its bone edge like the sheen of dragon scales.

Chapter Text

“Iroh,” Katara said carefully, rolling her small teacup between her hands, “where did the dragon come from?”

It was mid afternoon, the sun still high and hot in the sky, so both Iroh and Katara stayed in the shade of their porches. Katara had risked the short sprint across the courtyard, bare feet scorching on the black tiles. Again, she wondered how people ever survived in the Fire Nation. How had they not been so exhausted by the warmth all the time that they’d stayed home and invaded no one at all? But perhaps it was like how the cold of the ocean woke her up and made her feel as though she was made of bright sun and frozen ice. A different sort of people entirely.

Iroh gave her a stern, considering look, his mouth drawn into a sharp line above the neatly-kept length of beard. “That is a verys specific question, Snow Lily,” he said softly. “What has prompted this?”

The pet name made her smile — Iroh had made up several for her now, trying them on her like new sets of clothes. But it didn’t distract or dissuade her from her question. If the dragon, or the man he became, wouldn’t tell her what she wanted to know, she’d go to other sources. Not that she was truely sure Iroh would tell her anything at all. He hadn’t let much slip up until now. In fact, it was the dragon who had a harder time keeping his secrets. Iroh was like a locked box, unassuming and unassailable.

“But who is he?” she insisted. “What’s he doing here on this island? And what does he want with me?”

Iroh smiled, but it didn’t reach his eyes. The calculation there was so strange — a contrast to their usual sparkling mirth — that Katara began to regret asking the question at all. Maybe she’d stumbled onto something she shouldn’t be near. It wasn’t her business. It wasn’t her question to ask.

But then she shook herself. It absolutely was her business, if this man-dragon who had bargained her away from her people kept sneaking into her bed. She should have a say into who it was sleeping beside her, even if he was enough of a gentleman to stay two feet away from her at all times, except when she was trying to stick a knife in his ribs.

“Where is he?” Iroh asked, looking around as though the giant beast might emerge from behind an ornamental shrub at any second.

Katara shrugged. “I thought you knew.”

“He tells me very little of his plans.” Iroh stroked his beard. His eyes flicked to her, continuing their calculation. “Has something happened?”

“No!” Katara said too quickly and looked away. Her cheeks heated with more than just the sun, remembering that press of muscular body against her own — what did he do to keep his human body toned during his time as a dragon? She thrust the thoughts away. He may seem safe, sound young, and promise never to hurt her, but he was a stranger, and a man she’d never seen. She couldn’t trust him.

She certainly shouldn’t have let him stay last night. She’d been kicking herself about it all day. And yet …

Perhaps she’d just been tired. That would explain it. She wouldn’t make the same mistake again.

Iroh gently lowered his teacup onto the stone table and reached for the pot. The tea, still steaming, rolled from the spout, the same gold as Iroh’s eyes. “My Lady Katara,” he said carefully.

“I’m not your lady,” Katara snapped, though she wasn’t completely sure why she was upset. That was one pet name to far. The daughter of a tiny village’s chief and his murdered wife, what was she the lady of ? A lump of ice and snow over dark ocean? A family and tribe she’d left alone, hoping to buy them some time? That wasn’t what a lady did.

Iroh’s gaze softened. “I meant no disrespect, my sweet. None at all.”

Katara replayed the words over in her head. The way the title rolled off his tongue, respectful but not subservient, a simple term of address. He was used to saying it as a simple addendum to people’s names.

What life had Iroh come from that “My Lady” was as easy as breathing?

The dragon clearly wasn’t the only one with secrets.

Katara dropped her head. “I’m sorry,” she said, sounding as contrite as she could without completely feeling it. “I didn’t mean to snap. You were only being polite.”

“What’s happened?” Iroh asked.

“Nothing,” Katara said, still too quickly. She bit her lip. Why couldn’t she lie better? That would be something to work on.

“Hmm,” Iroh said, leaning back with his fresh cup of tea balanced on his round belly. “Well, I can tell you very little about the dragon, so don’t get your hopes up.”

Katara snapped her head up. “Why can’t you tell me?”

Iroh’s round, smiling face wasn’t smiling now. “Because there are rules,” he said.

Rules .

“That’s what he said,” Katara blurted. She clapped both hands over her mouth, shocked and horrified by her own stupidity — lying, Katara, learn lying ! — but Iroh’s expression barely changed. Instead of confusion or shock, he just smiled.

Katara released her hands, mouth open, still staring at him.

Glancing around the empty, sundrenched courtyard, Iroh put his index finger to his lips, still smiling. “Very important rules,” he said, eyes sparkling. “And there is very little we can speak of. But I promise you, I would tell you if I could. And I will tell you what I can, if you ask the right questions.”

Katara scowled. “If I ask the right questions? How come I have to do all the work to get the information that affects my life? You two are both so close-mouthed and secretive, no matter how much you say you want to tell me. What does wanting matter when you’re not actually doing anything?”

She started out at a normal volume, but by the end, she was screaming. The teacup tipped from her hands as she leapt to her feet. Shards of pottery shattered on the stone floor, the edges scratching at the bare sides of her toes. “I was taken from my people!” she yelled, conveniently forgetting that she’d agreed to go. “My tribe needed me and now I’m not there to help them. I’m here, drinking tea and playing around in the ocean and being lied to!”

She stopped and caught her breath. Her hands shook by her sides and she twisted them into fists. That only made it worse. She wanted to hit something.

“Your anger is justified.” Iroh set his teacup down and leaned forward. Despite his words and her tone, he didn’t seem at all set off balance by it. That cold, amber calculation flashed over her. “But righteous anger alone cannot change rules. You must find a way around them.” Something flashed in his face. “Until you can break them.”

Katara stretched her fingers wide, then released them. They still trembled but less  than they had a second ago. Iroh was right. Being angry was the correct reaction to her situation and the helplessness and frustration of being stuck here, but it wouldn’t help her if she couldn’t control it.

Ask the right questions.

Katara thought back. The familiarity between the dragon and Iroh. The way they spoke as though they’d known each other for a long time — Iroh must know about the dragon’s nighttime form. Coupled with the lack of surprise, the references to the “rules”, she had to conclude that he also knew what had happened to the dragon.

And then the dragon’s slip of the tongue, something she’d almost forgotten until now.

Uncle .

“Oh,” Katara said, sitting down and pulling her feet up to avoid the fragments of ceramics. She cocked her head and leaned her elbows on the edge of the table. “Iroh, where are you from?”

Iroh’s smile unfurled like a sunrise. “What a good question,” he said. “I was born in Royal Caldera City, on Capital Island in the Fire Nation. My family was — is — very important. Extremely well known.”

Katara raised an eyebrow. “Would I know them?” she said, grinning — she would know no one from the Fire Nation, of course.

“You might,” Iroh said. He looked down into his tea. “I was very famous in my day, before I decided my belly was more important than my name.” He patted his stomach, seeming pleased with himself. “But all that is behind me now, by many years. I have told you of my family, yes?”

“Only a little,” Katara said, thinking of the pointed lack of names in Iroh’s stories.

“It is enough,” Iroh said with pointed finality. “I have a brother. A younger brother, very smart and very ambitious. And cruel, in ways I never realized until it was too late. I left my home because of him. Exile was better than being another pawn in his schemes for power and recognition.”

Katara stared at him. “So you ran away with a dragon ?”

“Not every monster looks monstrous,” Iroh said. “Some of them are all too human.”

The smell of smoke rolled across Katara’s memory — smoke on snow, the cold wind biting into her face when she turned into the south, away from the Fire Nation ships. Her mother’s voice, strong and sure.

The snap of flame in the freezing air.

The thud of a body onto furs.

“Katara?” Iroh said, as though from a great distance away. “Katara, what’s wrong?”

She snapped back into her body with a jolt. Tears clung to her eyelashes and she blotted them away with the back of her hand. “I’m sorry.”

“No, no, my dear, no.” Iroh reached for her but pulled his hand back at the last moment. “I should apologize to you. I did not mean to upset you.”

“It’s okay.” Katara took a shaking breath. “I just … I know what you mean. About monsters.”

“I’m sure you do,” Iroh said. There was no condescension, just fact and sympathy. “I will of course never push you about your life or your sorrows, and I am sorry that some of mine have come to affect you. It was never my intention, or his. We all have our secrets.”

I know , Katara wanted to say, but at that second, the courtyard darkened and the dragon descended in spiraling coils to land on the dark stone. It was the first time Katara had seen him since she’d learned of his nighttime form, and she found herself struck all over again by his mass and beauty, the unjulation of ruby and gold in his scales, the graceful sweep of horns over his neck.

“And his secrets,” Iroh said, too quietly for anyone but Katara to hear, “are worse than most.”


 

Katara didn’t let the footsteps reach her bed that night. She sat up when she heard the creak near the door, a sound her whole body had been waiting for. “Really?” she asked, using the voice she usually reserved for Sokka’s especially stupid plans. “You’re back to sneak into my bed again? Didn’t  you learn the last time?”

A silence in the dark, then a cleared throat.

“Um,” he said, “is that all right?”

Katara smiled to herself. She wasn’t scared of him anymore, no matter what form he wore — her comfort around the dragon spread to his human form as well once she knew who it was. But she still appreciated him asking, even if it came slightly too late.

“I have a deal for you,” she said, pulling the blankets up over her chest, even though she couldn’t see him and therefore thought he couldn’t see her either. But who knew with someone who was a dragon, more often than not.

“What kind of deal?”

“Every night you sleep here, you have to tell me one thing about yourself.” Katara leaned back against the carved headboard, her hair catching on the embossed wood. “Not something that breaks your stupid rules. Just something true.”

She could hear his smile when he said, “Deal.”

“Good.”

A beat.

“Can I get in the bed first?” he asked. “My feet are cold.”

“In this heat?” Katara huffed. “How is any part of you cold? I feel like I’m dying all night long. Suffocating.”

“Dramatic.” Blankets shuffled and the mattress shifted as his weight came down on the other side. “This body is much colder than my other one. Dragons put off a lot more heat than humans.”

Katara wanted again to ask him which form he was supposed to have, but that would break the rules, both his and hers. And if Iroh was really his uncle, and it wasn’t some kind of respectful address, that was her answer. Unless Iroh was supposed to be a dragon too. Maybe Iroh was the same kind of shapeshifting creature but he’d been caught up in a human shape, cursed —

She shook herself. The dragon was right, she was being dramatic.

“Do you breathe fire?” she asked.

He laughed, a kind of rough and low sound that was human to the core. It sent ripples through Katara, running down her throat, into her belly and pooling quite unexpectedly between her legs.

What was wrong with her?

Katara shifted her thighs to alleviate any pressure and said, “Well, I don’t know, now do I. I’m not a dragon.”

“I bend fire.” He was still laughing and no amount of squirming around halted the effect on Katara. “Dragons were the first firebenders, did you know that?”

“But do you breathe it?” Katara insisted.

A put-upon sigh. “Yes, I breathe fire.”

“Wow.”

“If I’d known that was all I’d have to do to impress you, this would have been a lot easier.”

“Were you trying to impress me?”

A cough, the kind that covered up some other emotion, though without a face, Katara couldn’t tell what emotion it was. “No. Of course not.”

“Hmm.” Katara settled back into the bed, rolling her round pillow over to the cooler underside. Silk slipped against her cheek as she lay back, facing the darkness that was the dragon. His breathing was steady, though not slow. Still wide awake, like her.

“So tell me something,” Katara said. “About you.”

“I just did.”

She rolled her eyes, wishing he could see it. “That doesn’t count.”

“Why not?”

“Fine.” She rolled, taking blankets with her. “You can sleep somewhere else. See if I care.”

A low groan of annoyance, and then a pull as he seized the blankets and unrolled her from their cocoon. His fingers brushed against her elbow for a second as he reeled his half of the covers back towards him. Echos of the touch burned on Katara’s skin.

“Your grandmother was right,” he grumbled. “ She’s formidable . I thought that meant you could kill me with your bending, not annoy me to death.”

Katara hissed. “Oh yes, I’m the annoying one. You’re trying to get out of this deal. Just tell me something about yourself. It can be something unimportant if you want, just to get you started. Tomorrow night you can do something that matters.”

“So there will be a tomorrow?”

The hope in his voice melted some of her stubborn edges.

“If you tell me something tonight,” she told him.

A sigh. And then a long pause.

A very long pause.

“Hello?” Katara asked.

“I’m thinking.” He sounded frustrated. “All of it’s boring or off limits.”

“Iroh tells me stories without using any names,” Katara said, hoping it might give him an idea. “I guess it’s so I don’t actually get to know anything but the story. Keeping it in its own vacuum. Not that I’d work anything else out, you know. I’m just some stupid Water Tribe peasant girl. I don’t know anything about the outside world, so no matter what you tell me, I won’t have any context.”

“You’re not stupid,” he said softly. “Or a peasant.”

She snorted. “You’re stalling.”

“Fine.” A low hum, and then he said, “I can play the tsungi horn.”

What ?” Katara burst into laughter. Of all the things she’d expected to hear him say, that had been last on her list. The image of a dragon with a horn wrapped around its neck popped into her head, and she cackled.

“Thanks,” he said dryly. “I feel really great about sharing.”

“No, no, I’m sorry.” Katara wiped her eyes. “I don’t mean to laugh.”

“But you’re going to manage to do it anyway?”

She snorted. “I was expecting something about your life …” She trailed off. The words, before all this lingered on her tongue, unspoken. It was what she’d meant, of course, but it wasn't something she should actually say to him. What if his life had been bad? If what Iroh said was any indication, perhaps the dragon’s childhood — if he was human — hadn’t been idyllic. Not that her own had been, of course. But she wouldn’t want anyone asking her about that either.

“You said it could be something stupid,” he said, sounding vaguely put out.

“I did,” Katara agreed. “I wasn’t laughing to be cruel. It’s just a funny image.”

“How would you know?” Now there was bitterness creeping into his tone like a rising tide. “You don’t even know what I look like. You can’t imagine anything.”

“What do you look like?” Katara asked.

“None of your business.”

She humphed and turned over. “Maybe it should be, if you’re going to keep sleeping in my bed.”

The darkness swallowed the conversation. Outside, some kind of droning night insect took up a chirping chorus. Katara wasn’t well versed in the flora and fauna of the volcanic islands, but the bugs always annoyed her. Iroh told her they were good luck. Instead, they made Katara want to puncture her own ear drums.

“Is this okay?” the dragon asked.

“Is what okay?”

“Me. Here.” He cleared his throat. “Sleeping here, I mean.”

“It’s a little late to ask.”

A sigh. “I should have. I’m sorry. It’s just …”

“Rules?”

“Exactly.”

Katara considered, biting the inside of her cheek. “Yes,” she said. “It’s okay. Though you still have to pay in answers. Or at least the ones you can give.”

“You were serious?”

“Of course I was. Do I look like I’m joking?”

“Since I can’t see you,” he said in that dry tone that made her smile, “I’m going to assume you don’t.”

It made her feel better to know he couldn’t see anything either. How unfair would it have been if he could see her but she wasn’t able to see him? Maybe she’d make him describe himself someday, just to have some image to put on the other side of the mattress — right now it was just a faceless human man, no features or marks, just that rough voice that did such stupid and pleasant things to her insides.

That was something she certainly wasn’t going to tell him.

“I’m going to sleep,” she announced. “If you want to bother me more, do it in the morning.”

A laugh, brief but genuine. “Good night, Katara.”

At the sound of the laugh, more warmth slid down Katara’s chest. She crossed her legs and focused on falling asleep. Certainly not anything else. Not at all.


 

“Katara?”

She opened her eyes and was met by an unending expanse of blue. The heat from the sun was cut by the cool water against her back, but her face was still baking. It felt amazing. She was starting to understand the whole obsession with the sun that Iroh and the dragon had. Thankfully, her dark Water Tribe skin stopped her from burning red, but Iroh kept slathering some kind of herbal concoction all over her face whenever she went swimming.

“Katara,” the dragon said again, sleepy and contented. “Did you drown?”

“No.” Katara rolled over, her belly dipping into the ocean and scraping against the dragon’s back. He lay in the shallows, or what for him counted as such — where the edges of the waves rolled over his spine. Stray hairs from his mane brushed up against Katara’s arms as she lay on his back, secure and not likely to wash out into into the sea.

The dragon yawned, head twisting down towards her on his long, snake-like neck. “Were you sleeping?”

Katara yawned. “There’s a creepy man who sneaks into my bed and insists on telling me about his musical accomplishments. He keeps me up.”

The dragon breathed a low cloud of rolling heat across the surface of the ocean. Steam rose off the waves. For a second, his glowing eyes flicked around the ocean as though sighting for enemies, but then he refocused on her. Nervous energy flowed through his gaze. The long whiskers on his muzzle rose into the air, twisting in a non-existent breeze.

It was the first time, Katara realized, she’s spoken to him about his night time visits during the day. Her heart pounded as she sat up, suddenly worried she’d been wrong all along, that the dragon and the man were different people. She’d been tricked. It was all some huge con.

“He sounds annoying,” said the dragon. Wry amusement trickled into his tone, at odds with the worry. “Why haven't you kicked him out?”

Katara shrugged and found herself blushing. To hide it, she lay back, letting her hair mingle with the dragon’s mane in the flow of the waves. “I don’t know,” she said. “Maybe I feel sorry for him. Maybe I’m lonely here.”

“Are you?” The huge dog-like head twisted over her, blocking the sun until he was one large shadow. “I don’t want you to be lonely.”

“I’m fine,” Katara lied, for his sake. “Please don’t.”

“Don’t?”

This wasn’t relaxing anymore. Katara slid off the dragon’s back and into the ocean, dropping straight to the sandy bottom. Her hair undulated around her head, a tangle of dark, cold water kelp in the warm tropical clarity, out of place. Just like Katara. Girls of ice and snow shouldn’t be forced to dwell in places full of sun and fire. Maybe the dragon flourished here, but she felt like a delicate transplanted flower, wilting in the heat, roots drying in the arid soil.

But she wasn’t going to tell the dragon that. For one thing, he had been kind and given her everything she’d asked for. He’d housed her, clothed her, given her knowledge and power in the form of the waterbending scrolls. He protected her and provided for her tribe. He was gruff and awkward, but sweet underneath all that.

She wouldn’t burden him with her sadness.

Water moved around her in unnatural patterns. The dragon’s huge body pressed into the sand around her, his head dipping under the water, searching for her. Katara didn’t want to be found. She spread her arms, palms up, and raised them towards the sky. Confidence and practice leant power to the motion and the water followed her arms, raising her up, wrapping around her stomach and chest like a blanket. It fell away from her face as she breached the surface and she sucked in a long breath. She rested at the crest of her own stationary wave, peering out towards the bare horizon.

Beneath her, the dragon’s dark shape circled like a sea monster.

Katara circled her arms in front of her chest and the water spun with them, forming a spout that carried her up into the sky. She turned it south and strained her eyes, trying to see a home that was too far away to even reach, much less catch sight of.

She dropped the water and dropped like a stone into the ocean. The surface struck her back, hard and painful from ten feet up. The breath rushed out of her and she closed her eyes, robbed of air and unconcerned by it.

Hanging weightless in the ocean, Katara let a few tears escape her, each one containing an ocean’s worth of salt and pain.

She surfaced again, freezing cold and shivering. The dragon opened his mouth, but Katara stood up. Water ran off her back and shoulders.

“I’m going inside,” she said. Her teeth started chattering.

The dragon nodded and didn’t follow her as she slogged out of the water and onto the beach. Black sand stuck to her bare feet, grating in between her toes and rubbing the skin raw.

“Katara!”

She turned.

The dragon tilted his head. “Your bending is impressive,” he said quietly. “You’re getting very good. I’ll have to find you some more scrolls, or you’ll be making up techniques all your own.”

Katara gave him a crooked grin. “You’ll be calling me Master Katara before you know it,” she joked and turned away before the tears hiding in her eyes rolled down her face, joining the trails of salt dripping from her hair.


 

“My mother’s dead,” the dragon told her one night.

Katara stilled, cold running through her at the words. Her hands curled against her thighs, digging painful gouges into her skin. She didn’t know what to say to him here, but she knew something was expected. Or maybe it wasn’t. She didn't know. She’d never had to tell anyone about her own mother before, so why would she know how to react?

Instead of doing anything, she stayed silent.

“When I was young,” he said quietly. “She poisoned my grandfather and they killed her for it.”

Now Katara didn’t know how to react at all. His mother had murdered his grandfather? But the dragon didn’t seem upset by either her death or that of his grandfather. He presented it as though it was a simple fact of life, though it was hard to tell if it was a universal one or just one from his family. And she couldn’t ask.

“I’m sorry,” she said.

He sighed, sounding more like a little boy instead of a man or a monster. “It’s all right. It was a long time ago.”

Katara bit her lip. Her own mother’s death had been a long time ago too, but she certainly wouldn’t have told anyone it was “all right”. It was anything but all right, and stayed with her like a hot knife to the heart. In her dreams, she could still smell the smoke and the sickening stench of cooking flesh. A tear formed in one eye and ran down her check, dripping into her ear. She rolled over, drying her face on the pillow.

“I wish she hadn’t,” the dragon said.

Hadn’t died, or hadn’t killed? Another thing Katara couldn’t ask. It was his pain and she wasn’t going to force him to relive it for her. It was unfair. In the same way, she didn’t want to mention her own mother and try to turn the conversation away.

“Do you miss her?” she asked.

“Yes.” The dragon’s voice fell to a whispered growl with so much anger in it that for a second, Katara couldn’t breathe. He swallowed in the darkness, the sound large and all encompassing. “Yes,” he said again, and this time it was sad, a normal emotion for the situation. “I miss her every day. It was hard growing up without her.”

Katara nodded, knowing he couldn’t see her and happy for it.

“Do you miss your mother?” he asked.

She sat up, shocked. “How did you know?”

A low laugh, still sad. Not the usual chuckle, but something tired and personal. “Your brother told me.”

Katara sometimes forgot that the dragon’s absences were often caused by trips to visit her family. She stared at the place in her bed where the dragon lay, mouth open, seeing nothing. “Sokka talks to you?”

“He talks a lot.” The dragon laughed again. “His jokes are terrible. Did you have to grow up around that all the time? I’m so sorry. It’s a wonder you didn’t strangle him.”

Katara agreed, but that wasn’t the point right now. “Why would he tell you that?” she demanded, already considering the wording of a very strong letter to her idiot brother in which she’d detail why he shouldn’t tell secrets to big scary dragons. Especially when they were her secrets too.

“He was complaining that it was harder without you to mother him into doing the chores,” the dragon said. “I asked why your actual mother didn’t do that.” More darkness filled his voice, blacker than the night around them. “He said Fire Nation soldiers killed her when you were small. That you took care of him after that. It must have been hard.”

“It was,” Katara whispered. “But not because of Sokka.”

“You should have been allowed to grieve too,” the dragon said. Blankets shifted and Katara imagined him propping himself up on one elbow to watch her even though he couldn’t see anything — at least, she hoped he couldn’t. “Instead of having to take care of someone older than  you who should have been caring for you.”

Katara snorted. “Sokka can’t take care of anyone,” she said. “He’s nineteen and still couldn’t tie his own boots in the morning without help.” She shook her head and said fondly, “Idiot.”

The dragon laughed.

“Yes,” Katara said, sobering. “I miss my mother. Constantly.”

More blankets shifted and something prodded gently at Katara’s wrist. She flinched, but then a hand settled over her own, the palm warm and callused against the soft back. Katara stiffened. The dragon hadn’t touched her in his human form since the day she found out what — who — was in her bed. He’d kept a careful distance, always letting her make any moves, accepting touch and affection while in his dragon form only when she gave it.

His fingers twinned into her own, dropping between as though it was the most natural thing in the world. Hard callus rasped against her knuckles. She wondered what it was from. What hard work had he done in this life, or maybe in the one before he was a shapeshifting monster hidden away on an island?

Or whatever he was.

Katara turned her hand so her palm pressed into his and laced her colder, chubbier fingers through his long ones. She squeezed once.

He squeezed back.

She fell asleep with her hand in his, mind electric with the touch. Her dreams turned surreal and heated, full of the sound of his laughter and the caress of his hands.


 

The dragon craned his head onto Katara’s porch, shoving his nose between two columns. She glanced up, glaring as he cut off her light source. “What do you want?”

“Snappish, aren’t you.” The scaled flesh around his mouth drew back in a half-snarl. “I wanted to see what you were doing.”

“You’re in my way.” Katara held up the fabric hanging from her hands, trying to see what she was doing. “This isn’t an easy thing I’m doing and you’re blocking all the light. If I stab myself in the finger, I’m blaming you.”

Grumbling, the dragon withdrew his head and craned around in another direction, where his vast bulk was out of the sun. Katara settled back, raising her needle again.

“What is it?” the dragon asked.

Katara held up the long stip of hide, keeping her needle and thread of seal gut out of the way. “Beading,” she said, presenting the intricate patterns of whale bone and dark sea stone for the dragon’s inspection. “My people do it for our ceremonial dresses and for decoration. My mother and grandmother taught me when I was young.”

“You brought that with you?” The dragon squinted one huge eye at the piece spread across Katara’s lap and arms. “What do you make beads out of?”

“Animal bones.” Katara pointed to a chunk of white beads in the shape of an eight pointed star. “The dark blue are a kind of rock found in the ice and the purple are snail shrimp shells. We used to trade for glass beads from the Earth Kingdom, but trade hasn’t exactly been going well lately.” She sighed. “When my father and the other warriors were still at home, they would make some out of silver wire too. We ran out of those a while back. Now it’s just the ones my grandmother and I can make ourselves.”

“It’s beautiful,” the dragon said.

Katara blushed and pushed her hair out of her face. “It’s nothing,” she said quickly. “Just something to do to keep my hands and mind busy.”

“What will you do with it?” The dragon extracted his head from the tight confines of Katara’s porch, careful to avoid catching his horns on the tiled roof. He arranged the coils of his body in the courtyard so he could instead lie down and rest his head on the stairs to speak with her — their eyes were still level.

Katara eyed the strap in her lap. “It’s for Sokka,” she said. “I make him one every year for his birthday. When I’m done, I’ll put a strap at either end and he can use it for a belt, or to holster his boomerang.” She sighed. “I just wish I had some golden beads for the stripes here, and here.”

The dragon hummed, a sound so loud and deep it was like rock shifting. Katara looked up at him, but his face offered nothing to explain the noise. Instead, his eyes skated up over her clothing — still red silks, still a cut that showed far more of her belly and ribs than she was comfortable with.

“Can you sew?” he asked.

“Of course.” Katara looked at him askance, almost offended. “How do you think I clothed myself for, oh, I don’t know, the last ten years of my life?”

The dragon rolled his eyes, something that seemed beneath his dignity and yet right at home on his face. “ Definitely snappish,” he said, pulling himself to his feet and stalking off across the courtyard into his own large, shaded home.

Katara grumbled to herself and reapplied her concentration to the beadwork before her, keeping herself out of the hot summer sun until evening when she could practice her bending in peace and relative comfort.

The dragon left for two days — a period of time where Katara’s bed felt strangely lonely. When he returned, it was with the usual crates of foodstuffs and teas for Iroh, but two strange, new boxes appeared on Katara’s front steps.

“What are these?” she asked Iroh, who was setting out breakfast.

“They’re for you.” His round face cinched into smiling lines. “Open them.”

The first box, and the larger of the two, contained rolls of fabric in every color except red — pale blue silk like summer ice, thick golden brocade embroidered with orange butterflies, simple lilac and white cotton. Katara gasped, running her fingers over them. Each one must have cost a fortune, and all of them at once? She couldn’t even imagine the price they would have fetched. Included with them was a package of silk threads, the kind Katara only vaguely remembered from her childhood.

The other box was a rainbow of glass beads.

Katara put both hands over her mouth. The bright motes of glass glittered in the midsummer sunlight, blending together in the haze of happy tears. She looked around the courtyard for the dragon, as though he could have hidden himself somewhere, but of course he was gone.

“Do you like them?” Iroh asked.

Katara swallowed the lump in her throat. “They’re perfect,” she whispered.

Chapter Text

Katara rolled over when the dragon slid in beside her, immediately awakened by his presence. “You’re here. I thought you were still in the South Pole.”

“I had a tail wind.” He sighed, settling back with a hiss of silk sheets. His voice turned wry. “Why, am I disturbing you?”

Katara laughed. A month of knowingly sharing a bed with him had made her room too large and oddly distant without his breathing in it. When she gave the needy, dependant thoughts voice, she couldn’t even recognize herself in them. It had become habit to think only of the what and not the why . The latter was too full of confusing emotions.

“I was trying to sleep,” she told him. “How’s Gran-Gran?”

A yawn. “She told me to tell you she loves you and is proud of you. The usual. She also gave me a very nasty stink eye when I asked about things you like.”

“Why were you asking about that?”

“None of your business.”

Katara sat up. “What does that mean?” she snapped, her voice rising.

“You’ll find out.” His voice was all laughter now and Katara couldn’t stand it. The scratchy growl burned like low embers and set fire to her belly. “Later.”

Katara groaned and flopped back onto the bed. She pushed stray, itchy strands of hair off her forehead. “You can be a real tease,” she told him.

A squeak of intaken breath, and then a coughing fit erupted from the dragon’s side of the bed. It sounded serious, but Katara was too annoyed with him to feel bad. She rolled over as he spluttered and gasped, putting her back to him.

He got his breathing under control, clearing his throat. “And Sokka liked your beading. He swapped it out for the one you gave him last year right away. Then he brought them all out to show me. Every single one you’ve ever made him.”

Katara put her hands over her face in horror. “Oh no. Even the ones from when I was six?”

The dragon laughed. “Even those.”

She pressed her eyes shut, imagining the crooked lines of her stitches, face heating with embarrassment. Then she imagined Sokka bringing them out of their — no, now it was just his — tent, holding them up to show the dragon, so proud of his baby sister. Her chest clenched. Heartbeats thudded through her ribs and her throat closed.

She pressed her lips together as the first tears slid down her face, trying to be quiet.

“You know, even though his jokes are corny and he’s a little over dramatic, I like your brother.” The dragon sighed. “He’s fun to be around, at least. And he’s really committed to your tribe. It’s impressive watching him provide for all those people and help your grandmother out —”

A half-hitched sob pushed its way out through Katara’s lips, despite her best efforts to stifle it. She pressed the back of her hand over her mouth, embarrassed that he must have heard it, but the tears were coming faster and thicker now. Her nose closed almost immediately, making breathing difficult.

“Katara?”

The sobbing broke from her in a sudden torrent, all the pent up emotion spilling out of her like a tidal wave. Tears clogged her eyelashes, burning against the delicate skin of her bottom lids. She pressed cupped hands over her mouth and nose as though she could contain the sound of her exhausted loneliness, but there was no way she could hold it back.

“Oh, no, what did I say wrong?”

Even through the tears, Katara couldn’t clamp down on a laugh. It came out burbling and horrible, like something dredged up from deep in a swamp. “It’s n-not you,” she managed. “I just miss him so much, the s-stupid idiot.”

An arm skimmed over her collar bones and wrapped around his shoulder. She was unceremoniously yanked against a warm chest, her nose squashing into his sternum. The dampness of her tears smeared against his skin and her own cheeks. She tried briefly to push away — he shouldn’t have to touch her, her crying was disgusting and she was probably getting snot and spit all over him — but collapsed back against his warmth as a fresh bout of sobbing wracked her body.

“Oh, Katara,” he whispered into her hair. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry I took you from them. It wasn’t fair to you. Poor thing, you don’t deserve any of this.”

She laughed, then coughed as a sob caught in her throat. “I make my own choices,” she told him, spreading her palms flat against his ribs, below the rise of his pectorals. Warm fingers smoothed over her tangled curls as she tried to get her breathing under control. It wasn’t working.

“I shouldn’t have asked you to make that choice.”

But would she have chosen otherwise? He asked and she said yes, no matter how bitter she got about it afterwards. And there were parts of living here in the dragon’s palace that she loved, even if she didn’t want to admit it.

That didn’t make her miss Sokka any less though.

The dragon wrapped his arms around her, one hand tangled in the hair at the back of her neck, the other resting in the middle of her back. He murmured something, the words unheard but soothing all the same, and brushed his mouth against her hairline in a half-kiss. Slowly, Katara pulled herself together. The drying subsided and she managed to wipe her face off on the heels of her hands. It was hard to cry for too long — there was an exhaustion to sadness that always left her feeling empty and burned out, her chest hollow and head aching.

As she stilled and calmed, she became aware of her position, pressed to the dragon’s chest. She spread her hands across his skin, shocked by the warmth of him, more surprising when he was human. She ran her fingers up the center of his chest, trailing her nails against his skin until they dipped over the edge of his clavicle and into the hollow of his throat.

He let out a noise somewhere between a sigh and a growl. “Katara, what are you doing?”

“Making sure you’re really human.”

His chest vibrated against her cheek as he laughed. The hand wrapped in her hair resumed its stroking motions, but with less comfort to it, as though he was only now realizing what he was doing and relishing in it.

Or maybe she was making things up.

She raised her chin and nestled her cheek against his shoulder. Her nose and mouth brushed the base of his neck.

He sucked in a breath.

There was part of her that wondered what on earth she was doing. That was the sane part, the one that said things like “You don’t know what he looks like, he could be ugly or old or anything ” and “He’s a dragon, not a human being at all, not really, don’t be stupid.” But Katara had let that logical voice rule most of her life — by necessity, of course, it had some very clever things to say — and she was tired of its tyranny now. Besides, there was a new voice, one that lived in the base of her skull and spoke like a fire in her chest, and it said things like “You should check that he’s completely human. You know. All the way down.”

And it laughed like he did.

She ran her hand back down his chest.

“Katara, cut that out.” He didn’t pull away and his voice was breathless, not angry. “I promise you, I’m human. You don’t need to do that.”

“You want me to stop?” Katara said, almost sleepy, but also more awake than she’d ever been in her life. “You should let go of me, then.”

He didn’t.

Taking that as a kind of light encouragement, Katara ran her hands over his shoulders and arms, feeling muscle there. Again, she wondered what it was he did in human form that kept him so lean and taught. But she couldn’t ask. That probably broke some unknown rule.

She reversed the direction of her fingers and brought them up his neck, brushing short cropped hair at the back of his neck before suddenly he said, “No!” in a voice so full of panic that Katara froze and pulled her hands away from him as though she’d been burned.

“What’s wrong?” Fear hit the pit of her stomach. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to —”

“It’s not you. It’s not. I’m sorry.” He didn’t exactly release her, but he did relax his grip. “I just … there are rules but even if there weren’t …” He took a shaking breath. “I don’t think you’d like how I look very much.”

Katara’s heart hammered. This was part of her fear — there was something wrong with him. Oh, Moon and Stars, she’d gotten herself into something she should have left alone and now she was all wrapped up with this monster

No. She shook herself. It didn’t matter, did it? Was she that shallow?

“Why would you think that?” she asked, hoping her voice didn’t flutter as much as her stomach.

He laughed, low and bitter. “I’m not much of a catch.”

Katara took a deep breath and raised her fingers towards his face again, settling them on his chin. He tensed. “I can’t see it,” she said softly. “I don’t need to see it. That’s … I mean, most of the time you’re covered in scales, right? Is it scales?”

He snorted. “It’s not scales.”

The laughter settled Katara’s skittering heart, but not as much as she wished it had. “Then it’ll be fine.”

He yanked her against him, sudden and hard, her elbows knocking into his ribs and getting trapped somewhere beneath his armpits. His cheek brushed against hers and there was a sensation of scrape rather than skin-on-skin slide. When he settled, she concentrated on the sensation — warmth, but a harder texture than his chin or chest. Ridges and whorls, like an enlarged fingerprint.

Hesitantly, she raised her hand and ran it up his back, shoulder, the side of his neck, over his ear, and onto the opposite cheek. That one was as she’d expected — soft, marked only by a rough stubble along his jawline.

There was something wrong with half of his face.

Katara thought of his draconic form, the cracked and blackened scales circling that one golden eye. Whatever that was, it was repeated in his human form like a brand. She didn’t know what it was — a birthmark, a scar, a deformity — but if that was all he was worried about …

“I’m sorry,” he muttered, pulling away from her.

Katara raised her chin, turning her head so her mouth brushed along his jawline, then up and finally to his lips.

The darkness held its breath.

She kissed him delicately, unsure of how he’d react. It wasn’t much of a kiss, more of a brush of lips on lips, a gentle press and then she pulled away.  Her heart pounded.

He said nothing.

Heat spread over Katara’s face and she tried to push herself away from him, wriggling to get out of his arms. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean anything. I’m so stupid, just forget that ever happened.”

He pushed her onto her back, body pressing down on top of hers, heavy and solid and burning like a campfire. The heat of his mouth slid up her neck, across her cheek, searching for hers in the darkness and she turned her head to meet him. His mouth slotted into hers, head tilting, tiny wimpers building in her chest.

She’d never kissed anyone before — there hadn’t been anyone to kiss — but she suddenly realized why everyone liked doing it so much.

There was no more talking to be had from him. The dragon ran his hands down her shoulders and arms, across her stomach and ribs. While there was a roughness to his mouth, a desperation that she couldn’t stand to wonder at, the touch off his fingers was light, hesitant.

He pulled back to breathe for a second, his bottom lip still resting on hers. “Katara,” he said, more growl than speech, “I … you …”

Katara wiggled so her hips lined up with his and arched up into him. He gasped.

When he pulled away again, breathing even more heavily and leaving Katara’s lips nearly bruised. Her heart still ran at twice its normal rate and she was hyper-aware of the many places her body pressed against his — her legs wrapped around his, ankles looped over the back of his knees, his hands on her waist, weight resting on her stomach, the peaks of her breasts brushing against his bare chest through the cotton of her tunic, and the second heartbeat building between her legs as pressed her hips into his.

He rested his forehead against hers, breath running across her cheek. “Are you …?”

Katara bit her lip. Now that she wasn’t actively kissing him, her head began to clear and she started wondering what horrible mistake she was making. And why this was happening to begin with. What was wrong with her? What kind of idiot was she to let herself … with someone she couldn’t see … she didn’t even know his name.

“Am I sure?” she asked softly, voice trembling.

“You’re not,” he said firmly, apparently noting her nervousness. “You’re not sure at all and I’m pushing you into something you don’t want, I’m so sorry.” He pushed up off her, weight lifting from her belly. “I’m an idiot and now I’ve hurt you and —”

He stopped as she wrapped her legs around his waist, trapping him against her.

“Katara,” he said, low and almost threatening.

“Mm hmm?” She tilted her hips, pressing against him until he groaned and heat flooded her. She repeated the motion until he dropped back onto her, burying his face in her neck and whimpering.

“That’s really distracting,” he muttered.

“Oh, yeah, because I’m trying so hard to let you think clearly,” Katara said, surprised at how much her voice resembled a purr. Who was she, to be able to sell this as though she knew what she was doing? She obviously knew about sex — Gran-Gran made sure she got The Talk — but it was one thing to know the words and the idea of something and another to feel longing coursing through her body, making the hair on her arms stand on end with the electricity and fire of it.

“I just want to make sure,” he said.

Katara rolled over, taking him with her. Her body, honed from two months of waterbending every day, plus swimming, gave her no protest and she’d taken him unaware. Or maybe he let her do it.

She bracketed his hips with her thighs. Hair spilled over her shoulders and pooled on his chest — she could feel the ocean of loose curls against her own hands. When she managed to find his lips again, she could feel the smile there, the relief as his hands settled onto her hips.

Kissing was fantastic.

The adrenaline pumping through her made her feel as though she’d been awake for days, or perhaps like she’d never need sleep again, it was hard to tell. Even with the darkness, things seemed blurry, if the word to could be applied to touch and sound. And taste — the hot spice of his bottom lip as she ran her tongue along its edge, a teasing motion that made him suck in a sharp breath.

There was too much sensation. It overwhelmed Katara’s capacity to process and reduced her awareness to tiny details, small sounds. A bullet list of excitement.

She relaxed, sliding off him, her body going from taught to lose. She slithered to his side rather than pinning him beneath her — she liked having that control over him, she found, but her legs shook and weakened. It was less embarrassing to lie beside him, his mouth a lazy caress against her neck and ear.

“You know,” he said softly into the skin of her temple, “I’d been hoping …”

“Hmm?” she said, and yawned.

“Am I that bad a kisser?” he asked.

She snorted. “I never said that. Don’t put words in my mouth.”

“I had other plans for your mouth.”

Katara flushed hot and cold all over and let out an offended yelp.

For kissing ,” he said in panic. “Obviously I meant for kissing purposes, not … not …” He cleared his throat. “ That .”

“So we’ll save that for later?” she said.

He started coughing and turned his face. The sound muffled — he must have buried his head in the pillow. After a moment, in which Katara tried her hardest not to laugh, his voice came back clear, if a little weak. “You’re going to be the death of me.”

“Oh, so it was me that was bad at kissing?” She pressed a hand to her heart dramatically, even though she knew he couldn’t see. “So bad you want to die?”

“Katara,” he said, such a whine she could imagine the eye-roll that accompanied it.

“You know, I have other uses for your mouth too,” Katara said, the darkness making her bold. “And it’s not kissing.”

This time when he said her name, it was a warning growl, so low and deep she almost pulled him right back on top of her to show him what she meant. But no — Moon and Stars, not yet — she had to clear her mind. She had to think before she dived into anything else.

She found herself grinning at her own idiocy. Trust her to think about not diving any deeper when she was already at the bottom of the ocean.

She stretched and rolled within the circle of her arms, putting her back to him. “We can talk about this in the morning,” she said unthinkingly, and nestled against him, her spine fitting into the curve of his chest.

Sleep came immediately and unexpectedly, as though her body was too confused to function anymore. The last thing she remembered was the dragon kissing the back of her neck and whispering, “No, Katara. We won’t talk about it in the morning.”

Chapter Text

Katara sat up in bed, blankets flying. Delicate light slanted in from the front windows of the house, filtering through the living room and into the red bedroom. The covers around her were a mess, thrown around as though a fight had taken place beneath them. Which, now that she thought of it, was exactly what had happened.

Or at least … she thought so.

The previous night was lost to a half-sleep haze. Katara rubbed at her eyes, wondering if anything was real anymore. It had seemed so solid but sometimes dreams were like that. And it made more sense if she’d dreamed the whole thing. Otherwise she’d have to make sure she wasn’t going insane. She couldn’t have kissed him, the dragon man with no name, no face? She’d have to be crazy for that.

A dream she could buy. A strange and now very uncomfortable dream. Of course, she wouldn’t be able to meet the dragon’s eye for a long time, or at least until the dregs of the dream had faded. But that was a better option than for the previous night to have been real.

Katara rubbed her eyes and groaned.

With great effort, she swung her legs out of bed and onto the cool floor. The full heat of the day hadn’t yet started, though Iroh promised her summer was waning. She wasn’t sure she believed him, given that her skin was still beaded with sweat before midday, but he likely knew more about Fire Nation weather than she did.

The dragon’s mouth against hers, his hands running up along her ribs, one thumb brushing the underside of her breast …

Shaking her head to clear it, Katara put her hands over her ears as though the dream was a sound she wanted to block out instead of a false memory.

She had to go have breakfast with the dragon! It was absolutely unacceptable to eat cold sweet rice and fantasize about her seventy-foot-long monster neighbor. Even if it was a humanoid version. It was just … impolite.

So Katara dressed in a sleeveless blue tunic tied at the waist — finally something she was comfortable in, even if she had had to make it herself — and crossed the delicately lit parlor to try her hand at breakfast.

Iroh sat at his table in the morning sun. The dragon rested his huge head on the stones of the courtyard, speaking quietly. His words were unclear, no more than a low grumble, but his eyes flicked nervously. As soon as he spotted her, he murmured something to Iroh and coiled his body beneath him, lifting off the stones and launching into the air as Katara came down her steps. By the time she reached the breakfast table, he was no more than a dark curl in the sky, black against unending blue.

Katara watched him, shading her eyes. “Is he all right?” she asked.

Iroh snorted, peering at her like she was supposed to tell him something. She wasn’t sure what. “He is confused today. It happens occasionally to all of us.” He pushed a bowl towards Katara. “ Bai zhou ? I made it with duck eggs, the way you like it.”

Katara sighed and sat down, pulling the bowl of porridge and egg towards her, dipping her spoon beneath the white surface but not raising it again. She ran a hand over her hair, twirling the end of a curl between her thumb and forefinger.

Even though she knew now, in her wakeful state, that she’d dreamed her … encounter with the dragon, it still hurt a little to be scorned by him. Maybe she’d said something in his sleep, made him uncomfortable somehow.

Iroh peered at her. “Are you alright, my sweet? You are very pink.” His eyes flicked down towards her motionless spoon. “And you are not eating. You must eat and keep up your strength.”

“Because I have so much to do,” Katara said wryly. She gestured vaguely around the courtyard as though taking everything in — her easy waterbending forms, her pile of beadwork and half-finished dresses that she didn’t actually need, and her days of lazy swimming and sunbathing.

“Yes,” Iroh said firmly. “You do. Eat your zhou .”

Katara did as he said, raising a spoonful of the savory porridge to her lips. It was, of course, delicious. Iroh’s cooking was never anything but fantastic.

But she was still anxious. The dream stayed with her — the roughness of the dragon’s cheeks and the gentleness of his lips. She found it difficult to focus on the food in front of her or the conversation Iroh seemed intent on having.

Part of that seemed to be that she wasn’t totally sure what she was supposed to say to him. It was something. Something important. But he wasn’t giving her any clues about what it was he wanted to know.

Iroh poured her tea. She took it and finished her zhou in silence, the tea steaming quietly beside her hand. She stared into the blue ceramic bowl smeared with the remains of her breakfast, desperately wanting to say something and yet not knowing how to say it.

“Iroh,” she said quietly, “what happened to the dragon’s eye?”

Iroh flattened his soft hands against the stone tabletop. “Ah,” he said, smiling sadly. “That is a horrible story. There are monsters in it, my dear, and I do not wish to inflict it upon you. Besides, it is not mine to tell.”

Katara sighed and leaned her elbows on the table. Sudden mental exhaustion washed over her and she put her hands over her face, groaning loudly.

Warmth pressed against her elbow and she looked down to see that Iroh had pushed her teacup up against her skin. His round face pulled into delicate lines, a slight smile lurking around his full lips. “Is there something you’d like to tell me?” he asked.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with me.” Katara rubbed her cheeks against her palms. “I’ve been having these … I had a dream. It was just …” Her face heated beneath her fingers and she pulled them away, trying to get some air. “No, it’s nothing. It’s just embarrassing.”

“Katara,” Iroh said, the first time in a long time he hadn’t referred to her by some sweet honorific. “If you are speaking of what I was speaking of, it was no dream … although he thought it was as well.”

Katara hadn’t though she could blush more, but her body seemed to be pumping every ounce of blood it could into her face. “W-what?” she managed.

Iroh grinned like a child with a new toy. “He came to me this morning to confess. With much ‘maybe’ and ‘I think’ of course, but what I got out of him was that you two shared some kind of … moment.”

And then he winked at her.

“Oh, no,” Katara whispered, mortified and wishing she could sink into the ground or perhaps die, whichever would get her out of this conversation faster.

“He’s quite taken with you, Ice Plum.” Iroh made another little poke at the tea cup. The rim bumped against Katara’s arm and she picked it up more out of reflex than anything. Her stomach churned. “Of course, I could have told you that months ago when he brought you here. No, no, no, do not look so offended, sweet girl, I do not mean to be crude. He is not shallow or borish, though you are a beautiful young woman. He saw the strength in you, the grit and determination. You are an intriguing girl and would be no matter what you looked like.”

“So are you saying he planned this?” Katara said. Her fingers tightened on the cup.

The playful look in Iroh’s eyes vanished. “Absolutely not. I do not believe he is anything but befuddled and amazed that you may have taken to him as he has to you. I’m sure he planned to lie silently beside you for the whole year you are to stay with us and never once make you aware of his presence. Of course, that was folly to begin with, but we are all human.”

“Even him?” Katara grumbled.

“Even him, child.” Iroh reached out and laid one hand over hers. “Perhaps him most of all.”

Katara set down the teacup and stood all in a rush. She looked up to the sky, hoping the dragon would still be circling, but he was gone. However, she had a good idea where he might be.

“I need to talk to him,” she told Iroh.

“I know,” he said. “This is why you needed to eat your zhou . Go on, before it gets to hot.”

Katara turned and took only a few steps before her feet got ahead of her and she found herself running, rocketing out of the courtyard and across the old magma, pooled in gelatinous formations around the compound. Her feet, still bare and soft, ached as they scraped across the rock, but she ignored them. Pebbles dug into her heels as she skiddend down the side of island, circling around towards the secluded beach.

The rock she ran on turned to small, soft stones, then to black sand. Something gouged into the side of her foot but she kept going, ignoring the pain, desperate to reach the dragon. Adrenaline drove her, building in her stomach and chest like a sunrise waiting to explode over a horizon.

There he was, curled half on shore and half in the waves, looking out to sea. If he’d been an illustration in a story book, or if she hadn’t known him, she would have called him regal and pensive. But she did know him — did she ever — and she called it what it was. Sulking.

Katara skidded to a stop, opening her mouth to yell and discovering she didn’t know what to say.

The spray of sand and pebbled distracted the dragon from the ocean. His head snapped around, massive teeth baring until he saw who it was. If a dragon could go pale, he did. His ears shot back and his sinuous neck twisted away from her, rearing up behind his head and making him look ready to strike.

Katara stood her ground.

“What are you doing here?” he asked, petulant and confused.

Katara’s hands tangled into fists at her side. The fluttering, nervous energy worked its way into annoyance in her belly and she let out a frustrated sigh. “What are you doing here?” she snapped. “Are you avoiding me?”

“No!” he said, too quickly. His whiskers rose from the sides of his muzzle, fluttering in the sea breeze.

“You are, aren’t you.” Katara stalked down the beach towards him until the waves washed up onto her toes. Something on the bottom of her foot twinged as the salt hit it, but she put that aside for later. “You’re out here by yourself moping because you don’t want to talk about …” She faltered. “About, you know. What happened?”

“You —” The dragon's massive throat bobbed as he swallowed. “That happened?”

“Yes,” Katara said primly, pointedly forgetting that she too had wondered at the veracity of her recollection. “Obviously.”

She didn’t miss the tiny draconic smile as he ducked his head, shadowing his face for a second. That same excitement from last night welled up in her again, bubbly and effervescent. She rubbed one shoulder as though the happiness clung there like glitter she could brush away, but it remained, flitting through her bloodstream.

“Good,” he said. “And you’re …” He paused again. “All right? About all of it?”

At some point, Katara thought, they’d have to come out and say what “it” was, but that was so much more difficult when she had to look him in the face. The darkness made her feelings clearer, easier. Sunlight burned them away like so much smoke.

“Yes,” she said more quietly. “I’m very all right with it.”

“Oh.” The dragon shuffled his feet like an uncomfortable polar bear dog and huffed. “Good. I … that’s good. I want you to be alright. Comfortable. With, um … everything. You know.”

“I know.” It was hard to ask the next question, what with him looking as huge and untouchable as he did, but she had to anyway. “What about you? You’re okay with it?”

The show of teeth was intimidating, but she was used to his smile by now. “Yes. Absolutely, yes, I’m more than okay with it. I’m just happy you are. I don’t want to hurt you.”

“You’re not going to hurt me, you stupid egg.” Katara glowered at him, both annoyed at his constant worry for her emotional state and touched by it. “I’ll tell you if you ever hurt me. Don’t worry, I’ll be very clear about it.”

He laughed. “All right, I get the idea.”

She took a step towards him and his great head sunk down to meet her. She raised her hands to his snout, placing them between his nostrils. Sometimes she forgot how big he was as she grew accustomed to having him around her, but he dwarfed her and made her feel tiny. Insignificant.

She leaned her head against his scaled nose and breathed out.

He let out a breath in response, ruffling Katara’s dark hair with the strength of its passage and again reminding her of how small she was in comparison.

“Katara,” he said as softly as he could given his size.

“Mm hmm?” She leaned against his warmth.

“Your feet are bleeding. We need to get that looked at before it gets infected and disgusting.”

Groaning, Katara slapped him on the nose for ruining the moment, but then allowed him to fly her back to the house where a grinning Iroh cleaned and bandaged her gashes, humming all the while.


 

“Katara, come over here a moment,” Iroh called across the heat of the courtyard.

Curious, Katara stuck her head out of her sitting room, putting aside her sewing. The long swath of silver fabric and glittering beads was delicate, so she took a moment to drape it over an unused chair before she stepped outside to see what it was that Iroh wanted.

He was standing on his porch, grinning and holding a glass jar, beckoning her over. Katara approached, her eyes focused on what he was holding, concern growing in her belly.

“Good afternoon,” Katara said slowly, falling back into a kind of careful politeness until she knew what it was Iroh wanted from her.

Iroh’s smile widened, his eyes crinkling. “Here. I have a gift for you.” And he handed her the jar.

Katara took it, peering through the glass. “Is this … tea?”
“Yes, it is.” Iroh nodded sagely, as though he’d come up with the very concept of tea. “A very special one which I’ve blended myself. Cabbage palm, white raspberry leaf, and northern moonflower.”

“Northern moon —” Katara broke off as she realized, with dawning horror, what the tea was. “That’s a contraceptive , Iroh.”

“Exactly. They all are, actually.”

Katara tried to shove the jaw back at Iroh, her face burning. “I don’t need this. We aren’t doing anything. It’s not like that. I don’t want this, Iroh, please don’t —”

His smile disappeared and he caught her wild, anxious fingers between his own rough, round palms. “It is not a requirement, my dear. I am not trying to force you into anything at all, or imply anything rude. I understand that this business has very little to do with me; it’s between you and him, as it should be. But it is better to be prepared for a great storm beyond the horizon than to wake up to its devastation.”

She kept pushing the jar into his hands, but he wouldn't take it and her protests were becoming less hurried as the logic set in and the embarrassment lessened, though of course didn’t disappear. She wrapped her fingers around the warm glass and stopped trying to make Iroh take it back.

He had a point. And Gran-Gran would agree with him, a surefire way to get Katara to do something. There had been some more kissing, but most of what had gone on in Katara’s bed had been sleeping, albeit with the dragon’s arm wrapped around Katara’s belly, his quiet, sleepy breath against the side of her neck. But it wasn’t as though she hadn’t thought about something else, something more.

“I …” she said.

“I was young once.” Iroh winked. “A very long time ago. And my sweetheart and I needed practice before my son was born. This is not because i think of you as loose, dear heart, of course not. I know that your people keep their noses out of each other’s business for the most part, but it is only you and I here and if I am forced to play the role of your grandfather, I will. And be greatly honored to do so.”

“Oh.” Katara looked down at her hands, embarrassed for a whole different reason now. “Thank you. That means a lot to me.”

“Good.” He was all business now, standing up straight with his hands folded over his stomach. “The dosage is one cup brewed with very hot water — as hot as you can get it, let it boil for at least two minutes so you are sure. Steep for ten full minutes. Do not destroy any other tea this way, promise me. This one only are you allowed to burn.”

She laughed, tucking her hair behind her ear. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

“Afterwards,” he added. “Not before.”

The blush returned and she couldn’t quite shake it now. “All right,” she muttered, nodding. “I’ll remember.”

“And I’ve already given him Night’s Fern,” Iroh said, his smile returning. “I thought you’d like to have your own insurance. Not that I personally distrust him and his taking of it, but I can understand if you do not.”

Katara started coughing on nothing. Night’s Fern, unlike Northern Moonflower, hadn’t made its way to the Southern Water Tribe since it only grew in warm climates, but she knew it would render a man sterile for a handful of days after ingestion. Often a far more sure way to prevent complications, but Iroh was right. Katara liked having her fate in her own hands.

Iroh patted her shoulder. “Yes, that was his reaction too, though his face was much more red.”

Jar clutched tight against her chest, Katara fled back to her sewing, flushing so hard her face hurt.


 

Katara yawned and stretched as the dragon slid into the bed, leaning into his heat. He sighed and pressed in against her, kissing the back of her neck. His hand slid down over her hip and belly, sliding back up as soon as his fingers dipped below her bellybutton.

“What a gentleman,” Katara muttered. She’d been going for coy but it came out somewhat annoyed. She rubbed an eye as though that would help her see in the oppressive, ever present darkness. “I was sleeping.”

“Mm hmm,” he muttered into her shoulder. “You seem very sleepy.”

Katara grumbled and rolled her hips back into him, grinning when he caught his breath. Kissing was one thing — even a lot of kissing, which they’d been doing — but the line between kissing and other things was getting thinner and thinner every day.

“Iroh gave me a jar of moonflower tea,” she said.

He froze, hand tightening on the soft flesh between her ribs and hips. “Son of a wolfbat,” he muttered, pulling away from her. “I’m sorry, he thinks everything is his business. I didn’t … I don’t want that. I mean, I’m open to it but, um …” He coughed. “Only if you want to. If you really want to, not because Iroh is forcing medicinal teas on you.”

Katara rolled over and lowered her head to kiss his collarbone, smiling as he shuddered beneath her lips. “I’ll keep that in mind,” she told him, planting another kiss on his shoulder, then his chest over his heart. “I’ll try very hard to keep myself from being pressured into anything.”

“You’re making fun of me,” he accused, any bite burned form the words by the breathlessness of his tone.

“How’d you guess?” She ran her lips lower, down his stomach and then back up — despite her words and the bravery given to her by the darkness, there were some things she just couldn’t yet bring herself to do.

“I’m serious,” he said, running his hands through her hair. “I don’t want you to feel like I’m trying to push you into anything I want — ow !” His fingers clenched against her scalp. “Did you just bite me?”

“You were being stupid,” she said, kissing the spot right above his hipbone which she’d given only a quick nip. “Don’t be a baby.”

“You bit me!” The offense was overdramatic, but she could tell  he was smiling. “And here I was, trying to be nice to you. See, this is what you get for — ow, stop it!”

“I’ll stop when you treat me like someone who can make decisions for myself,” Katara told him, suddenly seeing exactly where this night was going and shivering. She tried to hide the nerves, especially as she was telling him how comfortable she was. The truth was, she wasn’t comfortable. Oh, she certainly wanted … well … what she wanted. But her shoulders were tight with concern over the how, the what. The newness.

“I’m just —”

She nipped at his hip again and this time he hissed with some combination of pleasure and pain. His skin shuddered beneath her mouth and she pulled back.

“Sorry,” he said, a little higher pitched than normal. “I didn’t realize that would … uh …”

A sudden realization came to her. “You haven’t done this either.”

A pause, and then in a rough, cracked whisper, he said, “Wait, you haven’t?”

“No, of course not.” She almost laughed at him. It wasn’t something she was necessarily ashamed about. “The only man I know over ten-years-old is my brother.”

Good ,” he said hoarsely, the single word an exhalation of a breath she didn’t know he was holding. “Oh, good, and here I was worried I was going to make a fool of myself on my own.”

“So you never —?”

“I’m not that old, you know,” he said, petulant and upset again, which made Katara smile. “It’s not unheard of. And besides, I have a slight dragon-related problem. It hasn’t made it very easy.”

She smiled into his ribs, running her bottom lip over his skin. “You haven’t found some nice lady dragon who also enjoys swimming and awkward conversation?”

Katara , please.”

“Yeah, I hope you’ll be saying that a lot later.”

He growled at that, an actual growl like the dragon he often was, and the hand tangled in her hair drew tight. Pain pricked against her scalp and Katara couldn’t help the tiny whimper that escaped her. “You,” he told her, “are on thin ice.”

Katara laughed and ran the tip of her tongue from his solar plexus, down his stomach, and over the dip of his navel, only stopping when she reached the silk ties of his trousers.

He swore.

“Oh, I’m on thin ice, am I?” She shifted, sliding so she lay on top of him, elbows resting on either side of his waist. She desperately wanted to be able to look up at him, grinning, a laugh caught in the corner of her smile, but the darkness stole that excitement from her. Instead, she was left to imagine him, nervous and fluttering with excitement — the kind of excitement she could feel pressing at her chest just below her breasts as she leaned into him.

“Very thin.” His voice was so scratchy as to be unrecognizable.

She shifted, taking an intentionally deep breath in, and he groaned.

“Don’t worry,” Katara said. “At least I’m comfortable on the ice. You, on the other hand.” She ran her fingers lightly down his chest, over the muscle of his pectorals and the dips of abdominals. “You don’t seem comfortable at all. Are you all right?”

“Just a little distracted.”

“Why’s that?”

She thought the noise he made was supposed to be a snarl, but it came out as more of a desperate whimper. “I don’t know,” he managed, breathy and annoyed. “Maybe it’s because someone is lying on me in a distracting manner. Just maybe.”

Katara pulled at the waist of his trousers, inching it down just a little and kissing him as lightly as possible.

“That’s it,” he said, and suddenly limbs and blankets were flying everywhere. In the darkness, it was impossible to tell what was going on. The scuffle, somewhat prolonged as Katara got caught up in blankets, ended with the dragon on top of her, kissing her neck, her shoulders, the upper slopes of her breasts, until she had to wrap her hands in the bedclothes to stop from shoving his head lower.

He paused and his hands slid down her sides to unclasp the frogs at the side of her tunic. Katara sucked in a breath, suddenly worried that he wouldn’t like what he saw, but of course sight wasn’t part of the problem at all. He pulled the fabric away from her skin and then his mouth came back, hot and demanding, sliding down until his tongue flickered over her nipple.

Oh !” Katara said in a fluttery, breathless way that didn’t sound at all like her own voice. Her legs clenched in on his waist, wrapping around him and trapping his legs between her own. A wave of sensation ran over her, burning down the nerves of her spine. She wanted to clench her legs together as though that would contain the sudden pressure, but of course he was in her way. Instead, she tilted her hips into his stomach, which did absolutely nothing except make everything much worse and much better.

One of his hands ran up her ribs and onto her other breast and she arched into his palm, gasping and very self conscious about it. The hand squeezed just slightly and his mouth slid away, down towards her stomach. “Wow,” he said softly, squeezing again. “Just … wow.”

“You can’t even see them,” she said, hiding arousal under annoyance.

“I don’t need to. And besides, I know what they look like in clothing. Trust me, it’s impressive.”

She offered him a long suffering sigh. “You’re a pain. Has anyone ever told you that?”

“All the time,” he said and suddenly he was moving again, sliding down, leaving a line of kisses across her soft stomach. Then he was wriggling his shoulders under Katara’s legs and she couldn’t figure out what on earth he was doing until the last second in which she managed to say, “What —?” before he dipped his head between her thighs and kissed her there.

Speech became impossible.

Katara reached for his hair, running her fingers over and through it, biting her lip. She wanted to pull him closer, but no, no, she had to stop herself, had to let him —

Then his mouth moved and the sensation decreased. Her high began to fade slightly and she tried to wiggle her hips to reposition him, but he wasn’t working with her.

She sighed, and muttered, “Left.”

“Hmm?” It vibrated against her skin and sent a little twinge of pleasure through her belly.

“Go to the left. You’re missing it.”

Oh .” An embarrassed chuckle. “Sorry.”

His mouth moved to the left and she gasped and arched, pressing herself against the warmth of mouth and tongue. Stars flashed in her vision, phantom bursts of light against the night.

He pulled away. “At least I’ll know when I’m doing it right,” he said, still laughing. “I hope you’re vocal because otherwise I have nothing to go on.”

“Are you hoping I’ll wake Iroh up?” she teased, then moaned as his tongue flickered across her and then down. He never did answer the question, just ran a hand up her thigh, over her hips and waist, until his fingers played over the undersides of her breasts like the flutter of a butterfly’s wing.

Even thinking was difficult after that.

Finally, when her chest hurt from uneven breathing, she pushed his head away. He tried to return, but she gave him a solid shove in the forehead and pressed her legs together, denying him access. The lack of warmth hurt her, in a way, and she wanted him back, but even without him there, she was shuddering and aching. Her hands shook.

“Did I do something wrong?” he asked.

“N-no.” She shook her head, knowing he couldn’t see but too stupid with pleasure to remember. “It’s just … a lot. Of … everything.”

“You didn’t, uh … ?”

She let out a shuddering laugh. “No, no. I think you’ll know. But it’s a lot of stimulation. I just, um … it’s too much right now.”

But that wasn’t right either. It was too much, a kind of overstimulation where her body didn’t know what was good and what was bad, and yet she wanted more. So as he pulled himself away from her, she caught him and pulled him down onto the bed beside her, tugging at his trouser ties.

“Katara,” he growled.

She paused. “No?”

“Yes.” A breath, a plea, but also a holding back. His hand fastened on her wrist. “If you want —”

“I want,” she told him, and untied the knot.

The darkness was not her friend here. It had held her hand through her own nervousness, allowed her to remain nearly as anonymous as the dragon was, and given her a courage that she otherwise might not have possessed. But now, the inability to see became a hinderance. Katara ran her hand down his stomach and hips, grazing her nails lightly across the skin, and realized that being able to see what she was doing would have made this a lot easier.

She took a deep breath and the heel of her hand butted up against the hardness of him, nearly hot enough to burn her. He hissed and she carefully turned her hand and wrapped it around him. Which at least gave her a point of reference as she swung her leg over him, balanced on her knees and calves, then slid down.

She missed.

It wasn’t all bad. In the process of missing, they moved together in a way that put all the right points in contact with each other. He groaned low and long, stretching beneath her, as though that would help rather than hinder.

“Sorry,” she whispered, focusing on the problem in front of her, not the ache in her thighs or the deeper, darker one higher up, the one that was screaming at her not to miss again.

“It’s all right.” His hands came up and settled on her hips. “I wouldn’t have done any better.”

Katara laughed at that and slid her hand between her legs. Wetness trickled across her fingers and palm — mostly from his mouth, probably — and with an embarrassment she was glad he couldn’t see, pressed a finger into herself, opening a clearer path and then she resettled, her aim more sure.

There was a press, a tightness. A slide.

Katara gasped.

He gasped louder, fingers tightening against her hips until it almost hurt, but Katara couldn’t think about that. She pressed her lips together, biting the insides and trying to stop her shaking. It was as though her body wasn’t sure what to do, how to process this new information.

She’d been warned it might hurt, but it didn’t. Not really. Or maybe it did and her body wouldn’t process that either.

The fingers digging into her skin lessened. One thumb made a small circle on her hip bone. “Are you okay?”

“Uh huh,” she said, wispy and high pitched.

“Are you sure?”

She shifted her weight, slightly more on her knees, rising up, then back, dropping back down.

His jaw clenched so loudly she could hear it in the dark.

“Am I okay?” she said, turning the rush of feeling into a slightly hysterical laugh. “Are you ?”

“I’m fantastic.” Now there was some aggression in his voice. He’d ascertained her wellfare, so now there were other things to think about. “I’d be better if you did that aga —”

He broke off as she did, and then, figuring out the correct motion, Katara managed to find a rhythm, one that pressed against something inside her that made the darkness sparkle and a kind of joyful dizziness run up her spine. Unthinkingly, she reached out and leaned one hand against the carved headboard, the sharp edges of leaves and petals biting into her palm. That stopped her from falling and — ah, yes. There.

As though from slightly outside her body, she could hear the gasping wimpers escaping her lips as he balanced her other hand on his shoulder, but the sounds were the least of her concern. Pressure built in her, next to the muscle ache developing in her thighs, and she wanted something to pop her like a bubble, but it wouldn’t, it just kept going.

Her head went foggy.

The dragon’s fingers scraped down her lower back and she shuddered.

She was sealskin lacing pulled too tight in a stitch, her skin ruched up around her insides. He moved below her, hips bucking up to meet hers, not too hard but not hard enough. She braced herself against the headboard with both hands now, the pain from the carvings the only thing keeping her grounded in her body and pressed down.

And then his hand slid around her hip and down her belly, thumb rubbing in circles against her and it was all too much. She opened her mouth to tell him to stop, but the stars burst into glorious life across her vision. She let out a brief yelp, fingers tightening on the leaves. In fact, everything tightened — her shoulders, her jaw, the muscles of her legs and belly. Sensation rolled through her like a tidal wave, flooding her system, burning and freezing her blood at the same time.

When she could think again, she was bent over, hands still out against the headboard. Her head hung between her elbows, hair damp with sweat and stuck to her back and neck. Every breath was a whimper. She couldn’t stop shaking and there was a weakness flooding through her, a languid complacency of blood and bone.

“Are you all right?” he whispered. His hand still rested on her lower belly, but he’d stopped moving it, for which she was grateful.

“I —” Katara managed.

“I can keep …” His thumb moved again.

“No!” She managed to tear her hand away to grab his wrist, yanking his fingers from her skin. “I need a minute.”

“Are you hurt?” He froze, the tendons in her wrist stiff.

“It’s not that.” She tried to move and yelped again, this time with pain. “My leg cramped up.”

He laughed, a somewhat helpless sound. “Let’s get you down from there,” he said.

She eased off him, shuddering a little, and rolled onto the bed. The silk was cool against her hot back and she was glad he couldn’t see her, splayed out and exhausted, her hair probably a matted wreck across the pillows.

“You’re right,” he said, from somewhere above her. “I did know.”

She laughed, more giggle than she usually liked but that was unavoidable. “You didn’t? I mean, you’re still …?”

“Uh, no … I didn’t.”

Now that she was on her back, able to relax, her muscles had stopped protesting. Still riding her lingering high, Katara reached for him, wrapping her hand around his wrist and her legs around his waist. It was but the work of a moment to angle her hips up, pull him against her, and let him slide back in. Her nerves jumped again, already excited.

It was different with him over her. She had to hike her hips up more than she’d expected, and arch her back to get the same kind of feeling. But she liked having his face beside her ear, listening to the desperate noises he made, the nearly silent whisper of her name as he pushed into her. He was still too slow with her, too gentle, and she had to pull at his hips a couple of times until his aggression met her own need.

She wasn’t able to reach the same point of tension release as she had before, but it rose and fell like the ocean, catching her up in it. He moved faster and she rocked her hips to meet him and then he slammed into her once so hard it made her wince. Before she could protest, he growled against her neck and bit her as she’d bitten him earlier, the sharp shock making her groan.

And then she realized why he’d done it.

He rocked against her a few more times, panting, hand clenching against her bicep and then he collapsed against her. She stroked his back, making easy circles between his shoulder blades.

For a moment, it was very quiet.

He slid out of her, groaning, and fell back into the sheets. His hand flopped against her arm, then settled on her belly, palm up. “So …” he managed.

“Yeah,” Katara replied, then, taking a mental account of her body, added, “Ow.”

“Are you okay?”

She reached between her legs and gave some cursory prods. Then immediately regretted it. The soreness and minor pains covered by all the other things flooding her system made themselves known. There was probably blood on her fingers and smeared on her thighs, but Katara couldn’t see it and it wouldn’t show up on the red sheets. She let out a deep breath.

“Katara, are you all right?”

She laid her hand in the one resting on her belly. “I’m fine. Just a little achy. Nothing to be concerned about.” She wasn’t at all worried. This was probably what she’d been warned about and she was glad it hadn’t been worse.

“Uncle says sometimes it’s um …” He coughed, sounding as embarrassed as though he hadn’t had his face between her legs tonight. “Sometimes it hurts for girls. He told me if it did, it was my own fault for not taking care of you.”

She squeezed his hand. “I’m glad he gave you advice. You took care of me just fine.”

“I wasn’t glad about getting the advice,” he grumbled. “At the time. I’m even more upset now that I’m going to have to thank him for it.”

Katara put her hands over her face. “Oh, no. Please no.”

He laughed. “He’s going to know anyway. He knows everything.”

Katara rolled over and propped herself up on one elbow. She leaned in to kiss him, aiming blind, and managed to run her lips straight into the curve of his jaw. “That’s wonderful,” she told him, slightly grumpy. “Let’s deal with the local matchmaker.” She yawned. “I’m exhausted. I need to sleep.”

“Is that good or bad?”

“It’s neutral.” She rolled over and shoved the blankets away, too hot to even consider lying beneath them. “It’s sleep. Which I'm doing.”

It had been a joke, but sleep hit her like a freak blizzard and the true darkness overtook her in seconds. She didn’t even dream.

The next morning, when she woke in the diffuse light and he was gone, she brewed a cup of very strong tea, just as Iroh had told her to, and drank it down in one gulp. Then she dressed, squared her shoulders, and went out to face Iroh’s smirking, of which there was a lot.

The excitement in both body and mind lasted for a full week until the dragon returned from the South Pole carrying a somber air and a letter in Sokka’s shaking hand.

Chapter Text

Katara stared down at the sealed letter, the reed-and-rag paper pale against her fingers. The dragon towered over her, a huge shadow between the letter and the sunlight. She looked up at him. “What is this?”

“Read it.”

Katara unfolded the paper, reading before she could even make out the words. It was Sokka’s messy, too large scrawl, but worse than usual, the characters twisted and difficult to make out.

The message was short. Gran-Gran’s sick. We don’t know what to do. The dragon says he knows someone who might be able to help, or get some herbs, but he didn’t seem sure. I can’t lose her too, Katara. I just can’t.

Katara’s hands tightened on the message, crinkling the edges of the paper. The late summer sun beating down on them seemed out of place when her heart felt as though it was snowing. She couldn’t see right. Color slowly drained from the stones around her, leaving the blue sky gray and ominous.

“Katara?” The dragon bent his head towards her. “It’s okay, we can talk to Iroh. He knows all about this kind of thing. And we have resources that your tribe doesn’t. I’ll make sure she gets them —”

“Take me to her.”

“What?” The dragon’s head jerked back.

Katara looked up at him, jaw and eyes hard. She stuck out her bottom lip. “Take me to her right now. I need to see her and I’m not going to sit on this useless rock just because of some stupid rules you have when my grandmother, who raised me, might be dying.”

“She’s not —”

“I don’t care what you say!” She was yelling and tears leaked down her face, but none of that mattered. “I need to be home and I need to be there right now !”

“You can’t.” The dragon’s eyes widened in horror and he shuffled his front feet, gouging white lines into the stones. “No, Katara, that’s really against the rules. It would be bad if anyone — if they found out. You can’t leave here. It’s only been three months.”

“Didn’t you hear me?” Katara balled Sokka’s letter up in her hands and threw it right at the dragon. It bounced harmlessly off his chest, but she didn’t let that stop her. “I don’t care about anything except seeing her! I need to go there and I need to go there now and if you try to stop me, I’ll gut you like a fish the next time you try to climb into my bed!”

“What’s going on?” Katara’s screaming had summoned Iroh from his house and he came down the front steps with a speed she’d never seen him display before. “Katra, what’s wrong? What did he do?”

“Hey!” the dragon protested.

Katara whirled on Iroh, stomping her feet in rage. “He won’t take me home.”

“Her grandmother is sick,” the dragon explained, his voice tense but quiet.

Iroh’s eyebrows went up and suddenly the concern turned into a business-like calm. “Of course you’ll take her home. As soon as she is packed. Do you know what’s wrong with your grandmother, my dear?”

Katara dashed the tears from her eyes. “No, I don’t know. My brother, he —” She waved her hand at the letter crumpled on the ground at the dragon’s feet as though that explained everything. “He didn't tell me.”

“She has a cough,” the dragon said. “Wet, with a fever. Sometimes she coughs up blood. Sokka says it’s been two weeks.”

“Blood?” Iroh peered at the dragon. “Hmm.” He nodded and put his arm around Katara’s shoulders. “Listen, sweetheart, we shall make sure your grandmother gets well and you will be there to help her. Of course we would never keep you from family.” He shot a look over his shoulder and up at the dragon. “Isn’t that right?”

“But —” the dragon said.

“Yes,” Iroh said loudly and firmly, “I think that’s right.”

The dragon huffed.

“Go and pack your things,” Iroh said. “Dress warm, though I’m sure you know that already. I will get my medicines and give you a kit to help your grandmother. And remember what you have learned from your bending scrolls about healing, yes?” He leaned down to peer into her face. “You remember.”

“I remember,” Katara said weakly. “But I don’t know if I can —”

“You can,” Iroh told her. “And you will. Now go.”

She went. Her parka and fur lined pants hung in her closet, nearly forgotten, next to the skeletons of the three dresses she’d been working on. She pulled the warm clothes out and changed into them, already sweltering at the overwhelming heat. Leaving the hood of her parka down so as not to smother herself, she threw some things into her pack and ran out to the courtyard.

“I can’t do this!” the dragon was protesting when she came flying down the stairs. “You know what they’ll say if she leaves? What she’ll do to me if she finds out?”

“So we make sure she never finds out.” Iroh shrugged. “Yes, if she finds out Katara left at any point, she will do her best to destroy you and me both. But how would she know? You will stay with Katara and with any luck, your aura will protect her. If it does not, we will come up with a solution.”

“What kind of solution?” snapped the dragon.

“An extravagant lie,” Iroh said, his face serious. His amber eyes darted to Katara. “Now don’t worry about that. You need to be ready to go. Katara, take this.” He handed her a wooden box with gold clasps. When Katara took it, glass clinked inside. “That is many tinctures and herbal remedies which may help. I’ve labeled them all. Put them safe in your pack and now go.”

Katara did as she was told, and then on impulse, hugged Iroh hard. He returned the hug, tears shining in his eyes. “Go,” he urged. “Fix what must be fixed and come back here so I may know that you are also safe.”

With a nod, Katara disengaged from his arms and ran to the dragon’s back, pulling herself up onto him with the ease of practice. He lifted off the ground as soon as she was comfortable and Katara lowered herself into his mane, pulling up the hood of her parka as they rose further and further into the summer sky.

The last time she’d made this journey, she was fed by fear of the unknown and a deal she’d made without understanding the consequences. Now, she was wide awake and full of anger. From the air, she could see the receding night far to the west, a line of twilight on the horizon. On the other side, the sun’s hard light slammed against them, bright and unforgiving, making Katara’s hands shake.

It was too much time to think.

The journey seemed faster this time than it had when she’d been brought to the island, though that may have been a function of knowing where she was going. They crossed into the ice of the south pole just as the sun was setting and two hours later, in full darkness, the dragon descended on Katara’s now hidden village. She was shivering and exhausted, but unable to sleep.

“I need a rest,” the dragon whispered and without further ado collapsed onto the ice.

Katra slid from his back and knelt beside him in the snow, her heart pounding. “No, no, no,” she whispered, running her hand over his eye ridges. “Talk to me.”

The eye beneath her arm opened a sliver. “No,” he said, grumpy but very much alive. “I’m sleeping. Go fix your grandmother, now that you’ve made me fly all the way here.”

“But —”

He growled at her, so she kissed the scales on his nose and turned towards the village.

People were coming in her direction with torches. “He’s back,” someone called. “That’s too soon. What’s he doing —?”

And then the firelight stopped as it reached her and someone said, “Katara?”

She couldn’t answer though because suddenly an even more familiar voice was yelling her name and something hit her hard from the side where the furry hood of her parka blocked her vision. She managed to get her arms around Sokka before he crushed her and they stood for a second on the dark ice, hanging on to each other for dear life. Sokka was talking but between her hood and the babble of voices around them and Sokka’s arms over her ears, Katara couldn’t hear him.

He pulled away from her and leaned down to look her in the face. “And he hasn’t eaten you, so that’s good,” he finished.

“Uh huh,” Katara said breathlessly. “He said Gran-Gran …”

“Oh, yeah.” Sokka grabbed her elbow. “Come on, she’s this way. Did you bring something for her cough? It’s pretty bad.”

“I have some medicines,” Katara said, “and I have me.”

“You?” He raised an eyebrow at her. “I mean, it’s amazing to see you, but I don’t think your presence is going to magically cure her.”

“No, you moron.” Katara rolled her eyes. “I’ve been learning to bend. And maybe heal. I haven’t had a lot of chances to practice, but there’s a first time for everything, right?”

“Whatever helps,” Sokka said and ushered her into the communal igloo.

Gran-Gran lay surrounded by heavy furs, propped up on mounds of clothing and pillows. She started when Katara slipped into the tent, sitting up and then immediately breaking into a fit of coughing. Her hunched shoulders shook and her face twisted in pain.

“No, don’t get up.” Katra rushed to her grandmother’s side, putting her hands out. “I brought you medicines. We’re going to fix you right up.”

Gran-Gran coughed again, but managed a weak smile. “Katara,” she said when she could speak again. “My sweet girl, how is it that you’re back?”

Katara grinned. “Special dispensation for you. I’m sure you scared the dragon. And Iroh insisted.” She glanced at Gran-Gran’s hollow cheeks. “You’d like Iroh. He lives with the dragon too.”

“I’m glad you have company,” Gran-Gran said, eyebrows contorting in confusion. “Are they treating you right?”

Heat rose to Katara’s face, so she busied herself with the cask of medicines that Iroh had given her. “They’ve treated me very well,” she said, pushing all thoughts of her night time visits aside. “See, I’m all in one piece.”

“Mmm,” said Gran-Gran, peering at Katara with dark ocean eyes, more knowledgeable than they should be.

“Here.” Katara drew a pouch of herbs out of Iroh’s kit, checking the tag hanging from it — Iroh’s characters were neat and delicate, full of flourishes. “Tea to soothe your throat. We’ll start with that and then work from there.”

Gran-Gran put her hand over Katara’s, stopping her from opening the bag. “You didn’t need to come.”

“Yes I did,” Katara said.

Gran-Gran smiled. “My grandchildren are a blessing,” she said. “Sokka, boil some water for Katara’s tea, please.”

Waiting was torture, after months of watching Iroh heat water to the perfect temperature in seconds. Katara measured out the leaves and placed them in one of Gran-Gran’s carved horn cups, stirring in some of the honey Iroh had included. She pushed the cup into Gran-Gran’s hands, taking a moment to observe the wrinkled fingers and skinny wrists. She’d been sick for longer than Sokka had known, that much was clear.

Only once did Katara manage to catch Sokka’s eye while Gran-Gran drank the tea, and he gave her such a piercing look that she had to turn away quickly. There was so much she wasn’t telling him, and wasn’t sure she was allowed to. But keeping things secret from Sokka was nearly impossible. She’d had to confide everything in him up until now, since there wasn’t anyone else who would listen.

Once the horn cup was empty, Katara bent the remaining warm water from the pot over the cookfire and swirled it in a circle in the air to cool it. She focused her breathing, falling into the meditative half-trance she’d developed for healing purposes. Not that there’d ever been anything to really heal, but she’d practiced on Iroh enough times, mapping the waterways and currents of his blood and energy until she could follow his heartbeats in her sleep.

This was the same principal. It shouldn’t be hard.

“Lie still,” she told Gran-Gran, and placed her water-bound hands over Gran-Gran’s chest.

Energy knotted in the weathered lungs beneath Katara’s palms, coils and spirals of chi, sluggish and barely moving. They pulsed when she circled the energy-laced water over them, unwilling to loosen. Katara hooded her eyes, counting on the unearthly blue glow of the water to show her where the worst damage was. It took some time for her to suss out what she was looking at — there was fluid in Gran-Gran’s lungs and beneath them, tiny snarls of energy.

An infection.

Katara gritted her teeth and bore down on those small knots, pushing her own energy against them, straightening the flow and allowing chi to push the offending particles away, sweeping them into parts of the body that would neutralize the harm. She worked gently at the tightly wound energy of Gran-Gran’s lungs, settling it into a normal rhythm. The levels of fluid lessened. The lungs filled more smoothly, emptied naturally without a wheeze or rattle.

When she pulled herself back out of the flow of energy, her grandmother was asleep and breathing normally, and Katara couldn’t feel her legs.

She tried to move, but she must have been sitting on them for hours because they filled with pins and needles worse than she’d ever felt. She bit back a yelp and rolled to the side, wiggling until at least her knees would take her weight and she scuttled awkwardly out of the igloo and ito the emerging sunrise over the sleeping village.

Sokka’s hands closed around her arms and yanked her to her feet. Katara yelped in pain and put out a hand to steady herself against the side of the igloo, trying to work feeling back into her bloodless toes.

“You were in there all night,” Sokka said, almost accusing. “What happened to you being good at this?”

“I said I could do it,” Katara snapped, only now realizing how hungry she was, “not that I was good. Do you have any seal jerky?”

Rolling his eyes, Sokka fished around in his pockets and produced a hide-wrapped packet. Katara seied it from him and scarfed down three hand-length srips of meat before she could even think. Her stomach grumbled when the food first hit it, but presently settled down enough for Katara to take inventory of her other physical woes; her head pounded, her feet were still numb, all her fingers had cramped, and her bladder was screaming at her for relief.

She took care of last issue first, shoving the rest of the seal jerky into Sokka’s hands and making for the latrine tent at full speed. Once that was dealt with, and the feeling had mostly returned to her legs and hands, she returned, finding Sokka chewing thoughtfully at a long sliver of jerky and watching the dragon coiled at the entrance of the village’s outcrop.

“He hasn’t hurt you?” Sokka asked, jerking his head at the still sleeping beast.

“No, of course not.” She peered at him. “You seem to like him. You tell him enough personal stuff about our lives.”

Sokka made a face. “Gotta mock a man for making friends, huh? Sisters.” He shook his head. “What’s it like living with him?”

Katara bit her lip. She could lie to him, leave out certain details about the dragon’s shapeshifting proclivities, but he deserved to know. And she wanted to tell someone. Especially if that someone was Sokka.

So she told him everything. Well, except for the personal parts. Recent developments, she thought. None of his business.

Sokka started shaking his head about halfway through Katara’s story, his eyes — her eyes, just the same — incredulous, but Katara pushed on anyway. The chill air swept through the village and into Katara’s hood, around her cheeks. She shuddered and ended with, “See? It’s fine.”

“Let me get this straight,” Sokka said, running a mittened hand over his hair. “The dragon turns into a human? And sneaks into your bed?”

“It sounds bad when you say it like that,” Katara said.

“It’s pretty bad.” The seal jerky was gone, but Sokka continued to roll the skin wrapping back and forth in his gloved hands. “No, not bad. It’s just weird. Really bizarre.” He resumed his head shaking. “How do you get yourself into these situations?”

“I’ll have you know that this is the only situation like this I’ve ever been in,” Katara said primly. “It’s not as though I’ve met a lot of dragons.”

“Point in your favor,” Sokka conceded. He was looking at the dragon with new, calculating eyes. “I mean, I guess as long as he hasn’t tried anything it’s fine —” He broke off. “You’re all red. Why are you all red? Did he try something?” His face twisted into pure, unadulterated rage. “I’m going to kill him.”

Katara caught him by the hood before he could march over and pick a fight with a massive dragon. “No, Sokka, stop it. It’s not like that.”

Sokka peered into her hood, eyes narrowing. His cheeks darkened and he cleared his throat. “Wait, did … um … did you try something?”

Katara was so embarrassed her throat momentarily closed up. She absolutely did not want to be having this conversation with her idiot brother, but there was no getting around it now.

“Well,” she said, looking at her boots.

Sokka started coughing, turning his head away and pressing the back of his gloved hand to his mouth. “Oh,” he said, his voice slightly raw and pitched much higher than it should have been. “That’s … um …”

“Sokka,” Katara cautioned.

“I’m going to beat him up,” Sokka said and started off towards the dragon anyway. Horrified, Katara dived at him and shoved him down into a snowdrift before he could get any further. Hacking, he sat up and threw a dry handful of snow at her, which got her straight in the face.

“Don’t be an idiot!” she snapped at him, sputtering and brushing snow out of the fur lining her parka.

“Oh yeah, all well and good for you to say that,” Sokka shot back, shaking his head and creating a tiny blizzard into his lap. “I’m just doing something completely rational. You on the other hand, turned into some kind of dragon fu —”

“Sokka!” Katara yelped, loud enough that the few early risers turned to look at them. Her face was warm enough to melt the snow which ran down her face and into the neckline of her hood, chilling her chest. She considered throwing Sokka back into the snow — or maybe into the frigid sea — but that would only invite more questions.

Sokka turned in a tight circle, running his hands over his head, knocking back his hood. “I just … this is a lot more than I ever wanted to know, Katara.” He shuddered. “And I mean.” He waved a hand in the dragon’s direction. “Really?”

“This is why I didn’t tell you,” Katara snapped. “I knew you’d overreact.”

“You don’t even know what he looks like!” Sokka hissed, thankfully bringing his voice down to levels where the nosey mothers and children around them couldn’t hear. “He could be a spirit or a monster or anything . He could be old !”

“Does he sound old to you?” Katara snapped.

“Well you didn’t look stupid until now, but —”

She kicked him in the shins and he yelped, hopping around dramatically. “Call me stupid again,” she told him, in exactly the same tone of voice she’d used when she was eight. “I dare you.”

He didn’t, just glowered at her from under thick, dark brows.

Finished with the conversation, Katara whirled and stomped off back to the igloo to make Gran-Gran drink some more tea. It was better than standing there with Sokka watching her like she’d done something terrible. It was her business, not his. Why couldn’t he ever trust her?

Mid-morning, after a brief nap at Gran-Gran’s side, she went back out to speak with the dragon, only to find Sokka had gotten there first. He stood nose to nose with the dragon, one finger digging into the scales of the massive snout, the top of which was level with Sokka’s forehead.

“Oh no,” Katara muttered, breaking into a jog.

Sokka kept wagging his finger in the dragon’s face, but the dragon wasn’t reacting. At least, not until Katara’s crunching footsteps grew closer and he glanced at her, eyes wide with what she could only call terror. She increased her strides.

“And look, my sister is a grown woman and can do what she wants,” Sokka was saying, “but if I ever, ever find out you pressured her into anything, I will come to your house and I will kick you in your scaly face.”

“What are you doing?” Katara yelled, too far away to do anything else.

Sokka glanced up at her. “Oh, hey Katara. How’s Gran-Gran?” He didn’t wait for her to answer, before turning back to the dragon. “You understand me?”

“Yes, I do,” the dragon said, his one visible eye flicking towards Katara for assistance she couldn’t give.

“Good,” Sokka said. He clapped Katara on the shoulder. “Worked that out for you.”

“I’m going to kill you,” she hissed.

His face softened. “Do you have to go back?”

Longing welled up in Katara’s chest. She didn’t want to. Or maybe she did. There was a lot about living with the dragon that she enjoyed — the swimming, the bending, having time to herself, for herself — but this was her tribe. Her people. Her family. She didn’t want to just abandon them, no matter how well cared for they were. She missed the snow and the ice, the endless blue of the sky. She belonged here, in a way she never quite felt at the dragon’s overly-warm palace by the sea.

But then she glanced at the dragon, at the pain in his huge eyes.

“Yes,” she told Sokka. “I have to go back.”

“I’ll get your things,” Sokka said.

Katara took a moment to say goodbye to Gran-Gran, to make sure she would take the tea Iroh had sent. Gran-Gran’s cough was gone, her breathing clear and easy, but she was still weak from the illness and Katara couldn’t help but wish she could stay just a little while longer, to make sure her healing had been effective. But Sokka promised to make sure everything was taken care of, and that meant there was no more use for Katara here.

It only hurt a little bit.

Before she clambered back onto the dragon’s neck for the long flight home — or away from home, it was hard to tell which — Sokka pulled her aside, behind a tent. He took a hide pouch from his pocket and pressed it into her hands. “Here,” he said, eyes darting around as though someone might take issue with the transaction. “Take this and keep it somewhere no one can find it.”

“What is it?” Katara pulled the cord at the mouth of the pouch and peered in. Blue-green light seeped up, illuminating her face and hands. In the pouch was what looked like a chunk of solid aurora, glowing and shifting like the winter sky. The light it gave off was gentle but clear and bright.

“Sokka,” Katara breathed. “That’s a spirit stone. Where did you get it?”

“Hunting.” Sokka put his hand over the pouch’s opening, hiding the light. “There’s a cave inland that’s full of it. I managed to break this piece off. I was going to give it to Gran-Gran, but we agreed you needed it more.”

She looked up at him. “For … ? To see … ?” She flicked her eyes in the dragon’s direction, though he was hidden from them by the tent.

Sokka nodded. “I don’t know what’s going on there, but I’m worried for you. I’m not saying you have to use it. If you trust him. If you don’t think you need it. But you should keep it as a contingency plan, just in case.”

Tears filled Katara’s eyes. “You shouldn’t — “

“I should,” Sokka said firmly. “You’re my only sister and I love you. You spent your life protecting me. You went to live with a dragon to protect me. It’s only fair that I try to do the same for you.”

She hugged him, trapping the pouch between their bodies and effectively muffling the light. “I love you,” she told him, fighting the dampness in her voice.

He patted her head. “Yeah, I love you too. No need to be gross about it.” He pushed her away, but not fast enough to hide the shine of his own wet eyes. “Now hide that thing so the big monster doesn’t see it, and get out of here. I don’t want to get you into any more trouble than you’re already in for coming.”

Unable to handle any more goodbyes, Katara nodded and shoved the spirit stone down the front of her parka. She turned and walked somewhat unsteadily to the dragon, not speaking as she climbed onto his neck. The ascent was familiar now and she wasn’t afraid as they rose into the air and turned north. But the stone bumped against her belly, an anxious reminder, all the way back to the palace.

Chapter Text

The rainy season came, first in a series of scattered thunderstorms, then building to a near-constant downpour.

The first night Katara woke to thunder, she panicked, shielding her head with her arms until she realized the ceiling wasn’t falling on her. She’d heard thunder before, living in the dragon’s palace, but sleep lessened her awareness and always sent her back to a tent on the ice where a rumbling like that meant nothing good. Certainly nothing “harmless”, like the dragon delighted in telling her.

Still unsure what had happened, she patted at the carved table beside the bed, looking for her striker to light her nearly burned-out candle. But as soon as the flare struck, sparks brightening and blinding Katara to the darkness, they whisked out, a strange, sideways motion that blurred the length of fire into oblivion.

As though it was bent .

“Katara?” The dragon’s voice was muddled by sleep, but the edge of it was as hard and panicked as Katara’s own heartbeat. “What are you doing ?”

Even though she couldn’t see it, Katara stared down at the striker, wondering stupidly what had happened.

The dragon’s warm hand landed on her back. “You can’t light that,” he said, sounding even more panicked. “What’s wrong?”

He’d bent the fire. She remembered he’d once joked about bending fire, not breathing it, but this was different. He was human and he’d still done it. A little boiling worry bubbled up in her belly.

“The thunder,” she said distantly, finally recognizing the sound for what it had been. “I thought it was something else.” She took a deep breath. “You’re a firebender.”

“Of course I’m a firebender.” He sounded relieved, but also like he was laughing at her, which set her skin on edge. “What did you think?”

“You’re Fire Nation ,” she said softly.

A long quiet. The dragon withdrew his hand.

She hadn’t thought about that part of it. There was so much other nonsense in the way — the draconic form, the rules about not seeing, the solitude of the island — that she hadn’t thought about what he’d be as a human. Just who. Some people might have said that was a good thing. That Katara was a bigger person for it. But if he was from the Fire Nation, he was part of the whole horrible march of war and bloodshed that had taken her family from her. Her tribe. Her mother.

“I’m from the Fire Nation,” he said quietly. “I’m not … I don’t agree with what they do.”

“What you do,” she snapped. “Not they.”

“All right,” he said, and she hated how reasonable and calm he sounded. “I don’t agree with what my people do.” He sighed and she heard the annoyance growing. “Would I have saved your village from the Fire Nation navy if I agreed with them? Would I live here on this volcanic rock in the middle of nowhere if I agreed with them?” His voice was pitching up, louder, more offended and enraged with every word. “Would I have this horrible, twisted thing on my face if I —?”

The silence of his voice cutting off spoke volumes. In that silence, Katara heard pain and regret, an urge to say more and a fear of doing just that. She heard the youth of the dragon’s voice and the story that in of itself told, if she was just willing to listen. Which she was, despite — or perhaps because of — her own pain. It didn’t make her own suffering any less important. It didn’t mean her mother’s death was something to overlook, or that her own anger was stupid.

It just meant they got to hurt together.

She reached across the bed for him and put her arms around his shoulders, pulling his head into her chest. Strong arms wrapped around her belly, his hands digging into the soft flesh of her lower back. He held on tight, almost too tight, but Katara didn’t say anything. She’d sobbed into his shoulder enough times to know that sometimes it was just nice to be held and to hold back,  no matter how hard that had to be.

She wasn’t sure if he was crying, but she wasn’t stupid enough to ask.

The rough skin of his cheekbone and brow scraped against her bare chest. Neither of them had dressed before falling asleep — she’d pulled him down on top of her as soon as he’d come to bed, already naked, and he’d pushed into her once his pants were out of the way, as desperate for her as she’d been for him. Now, though, Katara found her nudity somehow distracting, as though serious conversations shouldn’t be had in the dark with no cloth between the participants.

At the same time, she still couldn’t get over the feeling of his skin, the after-sex smell of him. Like the hormonal idiot she was.

But now really wasn’t the time.

“I’m sorry,” he muttered.

“For what?”

“Everything.” He burrowed in against her chest, chin digging into her sternum. “That I made you come here with me. That you have to live by all these rules just because I messed up. I’m sorry for me. My … everything.” A long sigh. “I’m sorry I was born this way.”

She didn’t think he was talking about the dragon. The words had the exhausted rasp of something said too often, repeated over years and years.

“Don’t be sorry you were born,” she said, attempting comfort and instead finding only chastisement in her voice. “Don’t be an idiot. You didn’t choose where you were born. Just who you are now.”

“Not much better on that count,” he muttered.

“I happen to like that person,” Katara said snootily. “Are you saying I have bad taste?”

He kissed the side of her breast. “Yes.”

She glanced down, wishing he could appreciate the artfully arched eyebrow she was delivering. “I think you’re getting distracted. Are you listening to me?”

“Maybe.” His mouth found her nipple and she lost her train of thought entirely.


 

The dragon looked down at Katara, resting against his hind legs, knees draw up. “Are you ever going to show me what you’re making with all that?” he asked.

“None of your business.” Katara looped another gold bead into the work, marching steadily towards the point of her stylized sunbeam. The strip of beadwork was already two feet long, but she still had another foot to go before the end. She checked her pattern against the identical strip that lay on the porch floor beside her.

“How many more of those are you going to make?” the dragon asked.

Katara held up the strip, admiring the way the crimson and amber beads caught the weak sunlight. She shrugged her overtunic closer — the onset of the rainy season brought with it slightly cooler temperatures, a blessing. “This is the last beading for this dress. Then I have one more dress to finish up.”

“What are they for, though?” the dragon pressed.

Katara shrugged. “Fun?”

“Fun, she says.” The dragon leaned the side of his jaw against one of the crimson pillars holding up the fluted roof. A few raindrops dabbled at the courtyard tiles, despite the remaining sunlight. Katara was getting used to the change in the weather, the shift into rain so often she stopped trying to get her hair to dry. She supposed there would be snow back home, the wild, howling blizzards that kept everyone in tents or igloos for days. The rain was a more gentle version of that.

And yet, she missed the snow.

Iroh picked his way over to the porch of the main house where they sat, holding his waxed silk umbrella and delicately avoiding puddles. “That’s beautiful,” he said, peering at Katara’s beadwork. “I am always stunned by the incricacy and inspiration our beautiful snow lily brings to us on this poor rock. Isn’t that right?” He shot the dragon a significant look.

“Yes,” the dragon growled. “I already complimented her. You don’t need to remind me, I’m not that much of an idiot.”

“It may not be necessary to remind a flower to bloom,” Iroh said, “but the encouragement can still help them grow.”

The dragon huffed. “She won’t show me what she’s putting all these beads on,” he complained.

“Maybe I haven’t grown enough yet,” Katara muttered. “I need more encouragement.”

Iroh threw his head back and laughed, belly shaking. “Not only beautiful and talented, but quick like a cat snake,” he said, shaking his head. “Let her show you when she’s ready. Maybe she has a specific time in mind. It wouldn’t do to rush her.”

Katara didn’t have a time to show the dragon the dresses she’d been crafting, but she still wasn’t ready to show them off. For some reason, part of her wanted to keep them safe and secret, as though saving them for an event she had no knowledge of yet.

“And now, my dear, what will you be doing for your birthday tomorrow?” Iroh asked Katara.

The dragon whipped his head around. “It’s your birthday? You never said.”

Katara gaped at Iroh. “How did you know?”

“You told me,” Iroh said. “Early in the summer.”

“How did you remember?”

Iroh tapped the side of his head. “I remember a lot of things that I don’t need to and very few that I must. This is, of course, one of the latter.”

“Why didn’t you tell me earlier?” the dragon said, sounding strangled.

“I assumed she would tell you if she wanted you to know.”

Embarrassed, Katara tucked her hair behind her ear. “Birthdays aren’t important,” she muttered. “It’s just another day.”

“Of course it’s important!” the dragon snapped. “Who told you they weren’t?” His voice softened. “Or are birthdays just not something the Southern Water Tribe cares about?”

Katara shrugged. “Maybe we used to,” she said, keeping her eyes focused on her beadwork, “but not anymore. We don’t have that kind of time. I don’t remember the last time I had a birthday that anyone but Sokka cared about.” She smiled. “He made me sea prunes last year.”

“Lovely,” the dragon said, sounding strained.

“So you haven’t had a birthday in a long time?” Iroh said. He sounded interested, but his eyes kept flicking towards the dragon suggestively.

“Not since I was little,” Katara said.

“Excellent.” Iroh kept staring at the dragon. “A word?”

Groaning, the dragon rose, carefully allowing Katara to readjust so she didn’t fall. She gathered up her beading and crossed to her own parlor as Iroh and the dragon disappeared into the main house, talking softly.

She didn’t like that.


 

The next morning, Katara woke to the smell of cooking whale.

She sat up, confused about where she was — warm, in a silk draped bed — but her senses had gone wild. The smell wasn’t like the many spices Iroh used in his cooking, which were harsh and bright, often making Katara sneeze upon first contact. The meaty, familiar smell of the whale though had her out of bed and pulling on a tunic before she even knew she was awake.

Iroh looked up as she came outside, smiling. “Happy Birthday, sweetling,” he said, stirring a heavy pot over a perfectly controlled fire. “I know it may be early for this, but we wanted to make you something familiar.”

Katara stared at the pot. “Is that suaasat?”

“As best as an old Fire Nation disappointment can make it,” Iroh said. “I only have a basic recipe. I’m sure it’s not as good as your grandmother’s.”

Katara trotted down the stairs and peered into the pot. The stew was thick and foaming, a red-brown studded with green onions. The onions weren’t necessarily traditional, but Katara forgave Iroh because the soup smelled like blood and home.

“Thank you,” she whispered.

“Don’t thank me,” Iroh said. “Eel whale meat is hard to come by in this part of the world, and I certainly wasn’t the one to find it.”

Katara looked around for the dragon, but didn’t see him anywhere. It wasn’t as though he could hide.

She hugged Iroh. “Thank you anyway,” she said. “Now dish me up some of that glorious soup.”

It was one of the best birthdays she could ever remember. The dragon landed halfway through breakfast and she forced him to eat some of the suaasat despite his protests — “It tastes like nothing, I don’t understand why you like this.” Before the predictable afternoon cloudburst, he took her swimming and they splashed around in the shallows until the first raindrops fell. In the afternoon, Katara worked on her bending, catching individual raindrops and bending them into a covering crown around her head, the shining droplets catching in her curls. The way the dragon watched her, with adoring, sleepy eyes as she did made her happy, but exposed, as though his feelings peeled the skin from her body and left her nerves open to every breath of cool air.

That night, he pulled her up and out of bed, setting her on the edge and kneeling down on the floor in front of her with her legs over his shoulders. His technique with his tongue and lips had greatly improved and she was a panting mess sooner than she’d like to admit, clinging to his hair with one hand as she wrapped her legs around his ears.

He kissed the inside of her leg. “You’re the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” he whispered. “I’m the luckiest man in the world.”

She laughed weakly. “You don’t even get to see me,” she said.

His hands tightened on her knees. “I may not get to see you,” he said, sounding more gruff, even a little angry, “but someday I will. If you’ll still have me. And someday …” His hand slid up her leg, fingers slipping inside her and making her gasp. “Someday I’ll have you moaning my name when I do this.”

“Oh?” Katara said, trying to sound playful when the only thing she felt was desire and waves of pleasure. “Are you sure it won’t be the other way around?”

“It already is the other way around,” he grumbled. “Stop teasing.”

She laughed at him and his fingers disappeared. Before she could express her annoyance with it, he scooped her up into the air. She shrieked, losing her sense of direction in the darkness as he twirled her around and deposited her on top of the lacquered end table on the far side of the room from the bed. Her heels banged against the drawers as she drew her legs up and yanked him towards her. He was already panting by the time he sank into her, his hands twisting into her hair.

“Harder,” she whispered.

“I don’t want to hurt you.”

She bit him where the muscles of his shoulder met his neck and he growled, dragon-like. His hips bucked against hers and she slid across the top of the table to meet him, bracing her weight on her arms. Wrapping her legs around his waist, she pulled him against her again, setting the pace until it all became to much and the darkness around her went white. She arched into him, but he didn’t stop, plateauing her release and catching her in the second before full fulfillment until he finished, stuttering against her and jerking hard. Only when he was done and shuddering, his pace slowing, was Katara able to crest the wave of sensation and slide down the far side of it, laughing weakly.

He carried her back to bed, kissed her, and fell asleep.

Katara found herself rolling over and reaching beneath the carved wood of the bed frame for the thing she’d hidden there; the hide pouch containing Sokka’s spirit stone.

She shouldn’t open it.

The dragon breathed beside her, quiet and regular. His sleep was deep enough that she didn’t need to worry about moving around and waking him.

She wrapped the ties around her fingers, pulling until it hurt, and then dragged the pouch up onto the bed, resting it beside her hip.

She absolutely should not do this.

But what was he. Who was he?

She’d lasted a whole month without looking or checking, just leaving the stone beneath her bed, but this was too much.

“I deserve to know,” she whispered out loud, trying to convince herself.

Don’t open the bag.

Don’t do it.

She opened the bag and took out the stone.

Blue-green light filled the room. The stone glowed between Katara’s thumb and first two fingers. She held it steady, knowing what a spirit stone could do if agitated. She stared into it, biting her lip until blood filled her mouth. She shouldn’t, shouldn’t, shouldn’t …

But she couldn’t live like this anymore.

Holding the stone aloft, she rolled over and looked down at the dragon.

He wasn’t a spirit. He wasn’t a monster or a beast. He wasn’t even old, like Sokka had insisted.

He was just a man.

A young man, with high cheekbones and a long face. His overgrown, rumpled hair was darker than Katara’s own, though his skin was lighter — the exact color hard to see in the otherworldly light of the spirit stone. The expanse of chest left bare by the silk blankets was muscular and toned, his shoulders and forearms flecked with thin weapons practice scars like the ones on Sokka’s hands.

Katara’s eyes went instantly to the left side of his face. The skin over his eye and cheekbone was twisted and red, puckered into ridges of scar tissue. He was missing the eyebrow and lashes on that side as well and his eye seemed pulled out of shape, slagged and melted. A burn, Katara knew from her own experience caring for children in her village. Nothing else looked quite like that.

He was a real person, spread out there before her, lips parted slightly. His chest rose and fell. The lashes of his good eye fluttered but didn’t part.

Katara leaned over.

She’d forgotten about the stone in her excitement and as she bent, it jerked in her hand. Droplets formed on the outside of the crystal structure, blue green as though made of light. Katara tried to pull it back, but she wasn’t fast enough. Three drops of the liquid light dropped from the stone onto the dragon’s — the man’s — chest, sinking into his skin.

His eyes popped open and even in the oddly colored light, they glowed as golden as the sun, brighter than Iroh’s, and fixed on her face. His hand came up, grabbing her wrist. The spirit stone fell away, bouncing across the bed and leaving a trail of luminescence.

“Katara,” he breathed, staring at her, eyebrows coming down hard over those intoxicatingly gold eyes. “What have you done ?”

Chapter Text

For a moment, Katara could only gape at him, the solidity of him, the realness. But he had no such moment. Already he was sitting up, blankets sliding down to pool in his lap. Fear lit his eyes as he looked around, then down at his right pectoral where three blue-green dots glowed, colors shifting nearly imperceptibly.

“What did you do to me?” he asked, raising his free hand to his chest.

“It’s just spirit stone,” Katara snapped, annoyed that he hadn’t let go of her wrist. His grip made her bones ache. “I didn’t do anything to you.”

He rubbed at his skin. “It’s not coming off.”

“It’s from the spirit world.” Katara twisted her hand and freed herself. “It just leaked a little. I can get rid of it if you just —“

But he was already out of the bed, pulling on his trousers. With a practiced flick of his wrist, fire flashed into light above his palm, bringing the room into brightness. The unearthly glow from the leaking stone lessened.

“Oh, now it’s all right to have a light?” Katara grumbled.

He glowered at her over his shoulder, a look full of such menace that Katara was struck mute for a moment. But this was her dragon and she wasn’t about to start letting him push her around now.

“Of course it’s not a problem now,” he snarled. “You made sure of that.”

“So this is my fault?”

“Obviously it’s your fault.” He ran his hands through his hair. Katara resisted the urge to do the same thing. “There was one rule, Katara, one spirit cursed rule and you had to go and break it. How hard would it have been just not to have a light?”

“There were a lot more rules,” Katara snapped back. “I didn’t agree to follow all of them anyway. Don’t be stupid.”

I’m being stupid?”

“Yes!”

He got up and pulled open her wardrobe, yanking out her favorite dark red tunic and pulling it on, belting it shut with a gold tie. It fit him perfectly and Katara suddenly realized that at least some of the clothes in her room — at least the men’s styles — were his . She’d been wearing his clothes for months and he’d never said anything about it, just let her do it.

Katara scrambled for her own clothing, suddenly embarrassed and underdressed. The dragon glanced at her briefly, eyes roving over her, so she turned around as she tugged on her cropped leggings. “It’s not polite to stare,” she said.

“It’s not polite to ruin a man’s entire life with some weird Water Tribe stone, but you’ve gone and done it anyway.”

Katara pulled her hair out of the collar of her overtunic and whirled on the dragon. “Blame me all you want, but we both know you were asking more from me than any one woman should have to give,” she snarled, stepping towards him. He was significantly taller than she was, but she didn’t let a little thing like that stop her. “Maybe you have to live by all these rules, but I don’t and it’s not fair of you to ask me to follow them without knowing why or even what they are!”

He hissed out a breath, deflating somewhat. “It’s too late now,” he said, turning. “Come on.”

Annoyed, Katara stomped after him, out of her house and into the courtyard. He kept his small flame light burning in front of him as they walked. He’d just turned towards the main house when Iroh burst out into the cool night air, wrapped in a red robe and looking … horrified. Katara didn’t know if she’d ever seen anyone look that scared.

“The lights,” he said, panting, looking at the dragon, the fire, and then Katara. His face fell and he slumped against the wall of his house. “Oh, no. Nephew. What happened?”

The dragon sighed, rubbing his hand over his mouth. “You were right,” he said. “I underestimated her.”

Iroh turned sorrowful eyes on Katara, but there wasn’t anger in them. Instead, he just shook his head. “We should have known,” he said softly. “We should have known.”

“How long do you think we have?” the dragon asked.

“Not long.”

The dragon nodded.

Katara looked from one to the other. “Is either one of you going to tell me what’s going on here? Or are there more rules I don’t know about?”

“I think the rules are pretty much out the window at this point,” the dragon snapped. “Come on, would you?”

Annoyed and grumbling to herself, Katara followed the dragon up the steps to the main house of the complex. She’d never been inside — the proportions were off, too large for a normal human to walk through comfortably without the sense of trespass on something out of their realm of understanding. But of course, the dragon didn’t seem to have any sort of problem with it, despite his now human frame, and Katara only briefly got to look around at the stone floor and carved walls, the large open spaces of the house before he pulled her into a room with a view of the northern sky and a table with a blue fire burning on its surface.

The dragon swore.

Intrigued, Katara edged closer. The fire wasn’t actually on the desk itself, but burned in a large golden dish without any visible fuel source. Katara leaned in. Lotus petals were carved into the edge of the dish and the flames were blue-white tongues of heat so intense she had to back away quickly or else risk her eyebrows.

“What is this?” she asked.

“A bad sign.”

Katara folded her arms, done with his games. “All right, you’ve had your time to be upset with me. But now you have to get your head in the right place and tell me what exactly is going on around here before I throw you straight into that fire.”

The dragon rubbed both his hands over his face and let out a disgusted groan. “You’re right. You’re absolutely right. All of this has been unfair to you and I shouldn’t have expected you to just go along with things. I owe you an explanation at the very least.” He waved his hand. “Come outside, away from that thing .” He indicated the fire and strode from the room before she could say anything, leaving her to run to catch up.

“I was cursed,” he said as though people were cursed every day.

“You were what ?” Katara said.

The ghost of a smile flitted around the corner of the dragon’s mouth, a nice smile if somewhat unused. “ Cursed , Katara. Cursed. Try to keep up.” The smile vanished. “When I was younger, I had a disagreement with my father. I said something he didn't like and embarrassed him in front of men whose respect he required. It undermined him, which was something my father couldn’t stand. He punished me. Challenged me to a …” He groped for words for a second. “A duel. Essentially. But there were conditions, and he staked everything on them. If I won the duel, we’d do things my way. If I lost, I would face consequences.

“I was young. Very young. Too young to understand the kind of consequences he was talking about. So I agreed, trying to make my father happy and trying to prove myself to him all at once. I should have known there was no pleasing him. I was a child and there was no way I’d be able to win.” He raised one hand, brushing it along the whorls of his scar. “He burned me. Humiliated me as I’d humiliated him. It was public and he had no mercy for me.”

“What about the consequences?” Katara asked.

The dragon waved a hand around hm, taking in the whole palace, the island, and seemingly his entire life. “Banishment. Exile. And more than that. My father made some kind of deal with the spirits of my ancestors. When I lost, I was … transformed. A dragon during the day, and a human being at night. It was, in his view, a fitting punishment. Exiled not just from my home, but from human company and society.

“The only way out of the curse was to find a … a girl. This is where you come in. If you stayed in this palace for a year and a day, slept in the same bed as me, without ever once seeing my human face, I would be human. I could go home in triumph, take back my rightful place. Become what my father had told me I could never be: worthy.”

“So I was just a means to an end?” Katara snapped, wishing it didn’t hurt as much as it did.

“No!” The dragon whirled and grabbed her by the shoulders. “You are absolutely not that. Maybe I thought of you that way at first, but not for long. You set me straight. I never expected …” He stopped, shaking his head. “I didn’t mean for things to go so far. You just … I wasn’t …”

“He was not using you,” Iroh said quietly, and Katara realized he’d been listening the whole time. “I warned him time and again to stay away from you. That he was tempting fate.” Iroh’s bushy eyebrows relaxed and he gave Katara a pleading look. “It would have been easier if he did not care about you. If you were a means to an end, he would have listened. Your curiosity would not have been aroused.” He shot the dragon a wry look. “If there is one thing my nephew cannot be accused of, it is selfishness. Or good sense.”

“Uncle!”

“When I realized there was no help for it,” Iroh said, shrugging, “I decided to offer what I could. Call it the whims of a stupid old man, but I am a romantic at heart.”

“That’s all well and good,” said the dragon, “but just a heads up, Azula’s on her way here as we speak to drag me home in disgrace to be punished, so if we could have a little less romance and a little more planning, that would be ideal.”

Iroh muttered something and stomped back into his house. “I have to pack ,” he called over his shoulder. “This is undignified.”

“Who’s Azula?” asked Katara. The name niggled at her awareness like a hangnail, something she should know but couldn’t quite remember.

“My crazy little sister.” The dragon shook his head. “She’s my father’s errand girl, and no doubt she’s getting herself on a ship right now so she can come down here and rub my nose in my failures. As usual.”

“And she wants you to come home?” Katara cocked her head, trying to process all the information he was giving her. “Why? If they banished you.”

The dragon laughed once, a nasty, hard edged sound. “Banishing me was a blessing,” he said. “Azula wants me home so she can torture me more. My father wants to break my will. As usual.”

Iroh shook his head. “Something is very wrong with my brother,” he said sadly. “He is ruled by cruelty and hunger for power.”

Katara glanced at the dragon. “So you two really are related,” she said. “I mean, I thought so, but …”

The dragon’s face softened and she could see the handsomeness in it despite the scar and the anger beneath his human skin. “We really did have to leave you in the dark,” he said as if realizing it for himself. “Katara, I’m sorry. You didn’t deserve this. You’re right.”

“I know I’m right,” she snapped, mollified slightly but not quite ready to forgive. “But that’s not the point. What are we going to do right now .”

“Nothing.” The dragon threw up his hands. “There’s nothing to do. You should pack your things.”

“Am I coming with you?” Katara asked in surprise.

“No!” said Iroh and the dragon at the same time.

“Azula can’t get her hands on you,” the dragon said. “Who knows what she would do to you. Or worse, my father. They’d hurt you to get to me, and I won’t let them.”

“Then what am I supposed to do?” Katara demanded. “Just stay here on this island? Or are you going to fly me home?”

The dragon looked at her, face twisted in pain. “I can’t bring you home,” he whispered. “Even if I wanted to, as soon as you saw me, the outcome of the curse was decided. I’m human now. All the time. I can’t get you back to the South Pole.”

Fear flooded into Katara’s chest. Somehow she figured she’d end up back home, a little worse for wear, but somewhere familiar at least.

“You’re going to leave me here?” she asked.

Iroh and the dragon exchanged another significant look. “We cannot do that either,” Iroh said. “It is the presence of a dragon on this island that keeps the volcano’s might at bay. Without it, the magma will overcome the island and the palace. It’s not safe here for you. Already I can hear the rumblings.”

Katara paused to listen and indeed, she could hear something scraping at the rocks deep beneath the island

“So where am I supposed to go?” Real fear seized her for a second. She whirled on the dragon. “Why do you need to go anywhere? If the curse is broken, we can just go. Run away. Somewhere where your sister will never find us, where we’re safe. Where you’re safe. I can protect you. I promise.”

The dragon leaned forward and kissed her forehead. “I don’t doubt it,” he said quietly. “But for once, would you just shut up?”

“No,” Katara said, fighting the urge to shove him away. “That’s not a good enough reason.”

“My father will find me,” he told her, leaning down to peer into her eyes. “It’s part of the curse. And I’m not letting that sly old bastard get his hands on you. Ever. So you’re going to pack your things and you’re going to waterbend yourself somewhere safe.”

“It’s not magic ,” Katara grumbled. “It’s not like I can fly.”

“What are we surrounded by?” the dragon said.

“Water,” Katara conceded.

“Try not to drown.” He rolled his eyes. “Pack. Now.”

She stomped her foot into the flagstones. Rain was starting again, a few light drops against her hair and bare arms. “Don’t just roll over and let them take you away,” she insisted.

“It’s too late for that.” His sharp jaw set and he folded his arms. “The only thing I can do is get you out of here.”

“But —”

“Could you just pack your things?” He ran a hand through his hair, glaring at her. The disfigured eye made the look especially potent, which Katara thought was cheating. “Please?”

“Fine,” she snapped, and stomped into her room. It took longer to pack to leave than it had when she’d come to the palace. Annoyed, she folded her three dressed and shoved them into the bottom of the pack — she’d spent a long time on them and she wasn’t going to lose them now. On top of that went her parka and her waterbending scrolls. Then some extra clothing because who knew where she’d end up, sent out of the palace with nothing to wander the world, homeless and friendless.

He should have told her.

Katara didn’t care that he probably couldn’t have — curses, who even knew? — or that maybe she would have made exactly the same choices if she’d had all the information. It was the not knowing that killed her inside.

Of course, now it might kill her outside if she wasn’t careful.

With an angry finality, Katara grabbed the inner seal skin lining of the pack and pulled the ties closed, wrapping it carefully and tying it off. The pack was designed to keep the inner contents dry in all kinds of wet and weather, so she just had to hope it was good enough to protect her few possessions.

Picking it up, Katara accidently kicked the remains of the spirit stone which lay on the floor. Now it was just a clear chunk of crystal. The shifting lights had spent themselves in a wild tumble across the bed and floor, still glowing delicately. Well, Katara certainly wasn’t going to bother to clean it up. She stuffed the crystal into an outside pocket of her pack and slung the whole thing over her shoulder.

She was exhausted. Her head hurt and the sun beginning to rise in the east didn’t help. Red light lanced over the walls of the compound and straight into Katara’s eyes.

The dragon stood in the open doorway of the palace. She put her pack down by the breakfast table and crossed to him, watching him watch the sunrise. He was staring off to the south, at the empty stretch of water there.

“Go that way.” He pointed. “Just keep going straight that way until you can get home. I know it’s a terrible thing to ask of you, to make your own way across half the world in order to go back to your people. But it’s the only option I have right now. To keep you safe.”

“I don’t need to be kept safe,” she said. “I can fight.”
“I know you can. But you shouldn’t have to.” He glanced at her. “Could you try to pick your battles for once?”

“What’s the point? I’ve never done it before, so it would be idiotic to start in such a crisis.”

He grinned, though his eyes remained distant and sad. “I’m glad this hasn’t crushed your fighting spirit. It’s good to know there’s nothing in the world that would do that.” He looked at her, then back into the courtyard. “Are you packed?”

“Yes.”

He sighed and looked back at the lightening sky. “I haven’t seen daylight in human form for six years.”

“Six years ?” Katara gaped. “That’s … a very long time … you were a dragon for six years ?”

“No need to rub it in.”

Instinctively, Katara walked up behind him and wrapped her arms around his chest, pulling him back against her. She tucked her cheek in between his shoulder blades and breathed in the spice-and-smoke scent of his skin, so familiar and yet now somehow new. The light made all the difference in the world.

“I don’t want to leave you,” she whispered.

“I know.”

“I’m sorry.”

He put his hands over her arms, a clear attempt to hug her back despite his awkward angle. “No, don’t be. I expected you to live under rules you didn’t know, to do things just because I told you to. That’s not who you are. And I like who you are. I wouldn’t have you any other way, even if you are stubborn and headstrong and too curious for your own good.”

Katara snorted and was horrified to find tears gathering in the corners of her eyes. She pressed her face into the back of his tunic, blotting her eyes. “That does sound like me,” she said, hoping he attributed the fogginess of her voice to the angle of her mouth against his back.

“I wish it wasn’t like this,” he said.

Before Katara could respond, he pointed out towards the ocean. “There she is.”

The ship was no more than a dot on the vast empty blue-green, but Katara saw it anyway and twisting dread grew in her stomach.

“You should go,” the dragon said urgently, turning Katara to look at him. “You need to go now before she sees you here.”

“If I go now, she’ll see me.” Katara waved her hand at the incoming ship. “If I go once she’s here, it’ll be harder for her to chase me. She won’t do it if she’s got to deal with you too.”

“You don’t know that.”
Katara set her jaw and stared up into his face. Since she hadn’t gotten that long to see it, she spent a moment memorizing the angle of his jaw, the shape of his mouth, the mismatched eyes. “It’s a risk I’m willing to take,” she told him, “if it means getting a chance to keep an eye on you for another hour or so. You need it.”

It didn’t turn out to be an hour. Far less, in fact. Iroh heated water and Katara and the dragon sat in the courtyard watching the sky and drinking from Iroh’s least favorite cups. The dragon reached out and took Katara’s hand, holding it almost tight enough to hurt. They didn’t speak.

“She’s coming across in a dinghy,” Iroh said shortly, looking out the open doors of the compound. “It’s time.”

Katara stood as the dragon did. He released her hand, shoulders straightening. His hair was in his eyes, too short to tie back but too long to intentional. She assumed that when he spent so much time as a dragon, it hadn’t mattered.

She stood with Iroh by the doorframe as the dragon walked down the beach. He stopped well above the watermark, his feet bare on the sand, and watched the girl hop out of the dingy and splash through the shallows and up onto the sand.

“You know, you could have made this easier on me,” she complained. “Father’s soldiers have been hanging all over me all the way here. They think you’ll hurt me. As though you even could.”

The dragon’s sister wasn’t what Katara had been expecting. She was smaller than the dragon, but the wide shoulders of her heavy Fire Nation armor made her seem more imposing. She wore her dark hair swept back from her face into a top knot, making her high cheekbones and cruel red mouth seem all the more severe. Her eyes, though, were exactly the same. Well, the same as one of the dragon’s.

“You didn't need to come,” the dragon said.

“And miss seeing you humiliated? I think not. This is probably the best day of my life. We’ve been taking bets back home, ever since word came that you’d decided to give breaking the curse a try.” The girl — Azula, Katara remembered — leaned around the dragon’s shoulder. “Is that her? A chubby Water Tribe peasant with no spine. Really, I thought you had better taste.”

“Shut up.” The dragon stepped forward. “Don’t you say a word about her. You’re not here for her. You’re here for me.”

Azula looked him up and down. “You’ve grown, at least. I thought you’d still be a scrawny child. Now you’re a scrawny adult.” She clicked her tongue. “It’s a shame you’ve let yourself go like this.”

“Azula, good to see you,” Iroh said, bustling forward in his usual attention-grabbing manner. “How is your father?”

“Better without you there, Uncle,” Azula sneered. “Still fat, I see.”

Iroh laughed, but the humor didn’t ease the set of his shoulders. “Someone has to enjoy themselves on this rock,” he said.

“Bring that girl over here,” Azula said, still focusing on Katara. “I want a better look at her.”

“I don’t think so,” Katara said. She leaned down and picked up her pack. “I’ll leave you to your family squabble. It’s going to take me a long time to get home and I should start moving now.”

“I said come here,” Azula snapped, with the tone of someone used to being obeyed.

Katara refused to give in. “No. I don’t know who you think you are, but I’m not going to do anything you tell me. Thanks anyway.”

A strange smile danced across Azula’s face. Sea air ruffled her bangs and she turned to the dragon. “She doesn’t know who we are, does she.”

“She knows the important parts,” he said. “Let’s go.”

That wasn’t important?”

The dragon grabbed Azula’s elbow and whirled her around. “I said let’s go . Before you say something you’ll regret.”

But Katara couldn’t help herself. She took a half step towards Azula. “Where are you taking him?” she asked.

Azula’s grinned turned positively feral. “Far away, little girl, where you’ll never see him again. I’m taking him to a city of sun and fire, where you don’t belong. Go back to your lifeless icey rock and forget all of this ever happened.”

Katara’s hands rounded into fists, her nails digging into flesh, but she didn’t do anything. The escort of soldiers still waiting in the little boat kept her at bay. Her eyes locked on the dragon. His face was pleading, his mouth half open.

“Go,” he whispered.

“Oh, well, maybe I’m getting sappy in my old age.” Azula waved a hand at the dragon. “Go say goodbye to her.”

As though finally given a permission he couldn’t take on his own, the dragon broke away from Azula and strode up the beach to Katara. She just barely managed to turn her gaze up to him before he seized her face in both hands and kissed her. His mouth was hard, but hers was equally so and she put her all feeling and desperation into the kiss. She kept her eyes open, fixing the details of his features in her mind.

He broke away, panting. “I love you,” he told her solemnly.

“I love you too,” she said, wondering if she should have hesitated coyly and then realizing how stupid that was. “I’ll come for you.”
“Don’t.”

“Oh,” Azula said, sounding disgusted. “I thought it was … it’s like that , is it? Unfortunate.”

“Go,” the dragon whispered and Katara pulled away.

He was halfway back to his sister, before she realized something and yelled after him, “What’s your name?”

He looked back, a half smile curling the corner of his mouth. “Zuko,” he said. “My name is Zuko.”

A thought shifted and things suddenly fell into place. Zuko. The lost prince of the Fire Nation. Azula, his sister, the crown princess. That was where Katara had heard the name before, but she hadn’t quite put two and two together until now. She looked at Iroh, suddenly realizing where he fit in; Prince Iroh, General Iroh, Dragon of the West. A conqueror.

They weren’t just Fire Nation. They were Fire Nation royalty.

Azula’s smile was back. “You know, we could take her with us, Zuko, what do you think of that? Maybe bring her to meet Father?”

Zuko whirled on her. “Katara, go! Now !”

War criminal or not, Katara threw herself at Iroh who was still a few feet away from her, hugging him tightly. He’d been her only friend here, an ally, and always on her side. Before he could say anything, she was pushing him away again and bolting down the beach, to the left of where Azula’s dinghy waited. The soldiers were yelling behind her but she didn’t stop, hands already raised as she lept directly into the surf of an outgoing wave. The water froze a hair’s breadth before her feet hit it and she skidded slightly on the ice floe she’d created, but didn’t slow down. A downward pushing motion, and then her hands flew back and the ice shot across the warm surface of the ocean, leaping over waves and leaving a double spray of wake behind her.

She risked a glance over her shoulder. Azula was ankle deep in the ocean, yelling after her, but the dragon — Zuko — stood on the beach, watching her, one hand raised to shade his eyes.

He was smiling.

Behind them, the volcano began to belch black smoke.

She turned back and put on more speed, swerving around the large Fire Nation battleship Azula had arrived in, heading out into deeper water. Her pack dragged on her shoulders and sweat beaded her forehead with the exertion of the bending — too much too fast — but she didn’t slow down until the island was a faint smudge on the horizon behind her.

She didn’t cry. There wasn’t any time.

The day had been damp but warm when she set out from the island, but there were gray storm clouds in front of her. But she couldn’t see a way around them. Her bending would protect her though. It had to. And if Azula decided to pursue her, the storm would be a good deterrent.

She piloted directly into the darkening sky.

The first fat drops of rain stuttered onto her ice and Katara didn’t even notice them. The bending — keeping the ice frozen in this warm water — was sapping her energy more than she’d anticipated. The first large wave was nothing, an easy fix, but the second was harder, and the one after that even worse. Her head began to feel fuzzy.

This was a bad idea.

She run from something that might kill her into something that would and she was only now realizing the mistake she’d made. Katara bit her lip. She wasn’t about to escape a crazy Fire Nation princess only to get taken down by a little bit of rain.

But when she looked down, the ice of her raft was slipping away, turning back to sea water. The waves, darker, blacker, and higher than before, became more threatening.

She dodged one particularly nasty one and bent the water way from her face, but there was more to replace it. She couldn’t keep the rain out of her eyes.

Which was why she didn’t see the twenty foot wall of water that smashed down on top of her.

The ice was immediately gone, smashed to pieces by the force of the water. Katara’s chest felt like a tiger seal had slammed into it. She was choking, breathing in salt water. A turn of her hand sent water away from her face for  just a moment, but she couldn’t hold the bending. She didn’t even know which way was up. More water slammed into her and she sank like a stone.

Gritting her teeth, she fought for the surface, but before she could reach air, something slammed into the side of her head, and the blackness closed over her like a second sea.

Chapter Text

Water filled Katara’s senses.

A flash of gray clouds overhead. Her eyelashes heavy with salt.

A blue sky.

The darkness of the sea, dark green and endless. Her ears full of whale song.

The splash of surf washing across her back. Sand in her mouth. Her head ached.

Something touched her shoulder, rolling her over. Katara’s bleary eyes made out a snow white face, huge red eyes. A bloody mouth.

Something jingled around the apparition's face. It cocked its head, examining her.

Katara decided this must be the spirit world and she was dead. Having worked that out, she promptly fainted.

She woke to birds singing and soft cotton sheets. Groaning, Katara cracked one eye open. Her head felt like someone had hammered it until her skull split. Wincing, she tired to sit up, but only managed to roll over and immediately vomit. It was mostly salt water, the brine burning on its way up. Hanging off the edge of the futon bed, she heaved until there was nothing more in her belly.

“Gently,” someone said from the doorway.

Katara looked up and for a second reality skewed and she really did think this was the spirit world. But the woman standing before her wasn’t a spirit, or at least, Katara didn’t think so. But her brain was still too stupid to work out what was wrong with her sudden visitor. Her face really was paper white, and while her eyes weren’t red, they were lined in some kind of red substance, edged in black.

“Here.” The woman stepped further into the room, holding out a cup. Katara struggled to get back into bed, her stomach screaming with the effort, but the woman reached out and helped her up. Her hand on Katara’s elbow felt very solid. Not particularly spirit-y.

The woman held the cup to Katara’s lips. “Drink,” she said.

Katara drank.

The water was clear and fresh, a blessing. Katara could have drunk four more cups, but the woman took the water away before Katara had quenched her thirst. “Carefully,” she said. “I know you’re thirsty, but let's see if you can keep down what you have first.” She looked pointedly at the seaweed-smelling puddle beside the bed — all water, nothing solid.

Katara wrinkled her nose. “Are you a spirit?” she asked.

“What?” The woman let out a bark of laughter. “Why on earth would you think —?” She broke off. “Oh, the makeup. No, I’m not a spirit. I’m human just like you. See?” She pulled aside the neck of her green robe to show the line between her white neck and tan shoulder. “Just paint and powder.”

Katara blinked and lay back into the pillow. “Oh. So I’m not dead?”

“Do you think you’d be throwing up if you were dead?” the woman asked.

Katara conceded that and then had to take a moment to work out her next logical question, “What happened?”

The woman smiled and sat down on the edge of Katara’s futon, drawing her knees up. “Well, you should be the one to tell me that. You washed up on the beach, a Water Tribe girl in Fire Nation clothes with a pack full of knives and silk gowns.”

“My pack?” Katara’s head still hurt. “It survived?”

“You were hanging on to it for dear life.” The woman’s very dark eyebrows went up. “Dry as a bone inside. Whatever it was made of kept the water out of it. You, on the other hand, probably drank half the ocean.”

Katara groaned. “Is that why I feel like death?”

“Probably.” The woman cocked her head. “I’m Suki. What’s your name?”

“Katara.”

“Nice to meet you,” Suki said, sounding like a child coaxed into saying it a million times by a well-meaning parent, and Katara realized that Suki wasn’t much older than she was. It was hard to tell with all the makeup, but Katara was becoming relatively sure that Suki was just barely out of girl-hood.

“Where am I?” Katara managed.

“Kyoshi Island.”

That didn’t help. Katara rubbed her head. “Where is that?”

“Southern edge of the Earth Kingdom.” Suki braced one gloved hand against her chin. “Where are you coming from?”

“I don’t know,” Katara said. “Fire Nation, maybe?”

“Maybe?”

She didn’t want to get into the whole problem with Suki. “I never had a map of where I was. It was an island. Volcanic. North of here, probably, near the Fire Nation, though I’m not sure what part.”

“Uh huh,” said Suki slowly, disbelievingly. “That’s quite the story.”

“Don’t I know it.” Katara leaned back, staring up at the ceiling, a gridwork of wooden strips. “I just want to go home.”

“Where’s that?”

Katara glanced down at Suki. “The South Pole.”

Suki snorted. “Well, good luck with that. It’s a long way through open ocean. And at this time of year, it’s just storms all the way up and down the coast. Probably blizzards when you get further south.”

Katara groaned. Of course, Suki was right. Getting home through her bending, completely exposed to the elements was an insane idea. And it wasn’t like she really wanted to. Oh, sure, she’d rather be home safe than here — wherever here was — but what she wanted to do was go save the prince of the Fire Nation from his sadistic family.

It sounded crazy even in her head.

“Do you feel like standing?” Suki asked.

“No,” Katara said, “but I have the feeling you’re going to make me.”

Suki did in fact make Katara stand up, which took both of them working together to achieve. It was awkward given that Suki had a couple of inches on Katara, plus shoes, which made Katara feel unbalanced. Through an odd three legged hobble, they got to the other side of the room and Suki pushed open the sliding paneled door, guiding Katara out into the sunlight.

Katara stumbled to a halt, her mouth open.

Even though she’d now lived somewhere besides the South Pole, the island upon which the palace stood had still been rocky and desolate. There wasn’t a lot of plant life there, except for Iroh’s carefully maintained shrubbery.

This place was full of trees.

Most of them had the kind of sharp, spiky leaves that Iroh had called “needles”, and the rocky landscape of the island made the twisted trunks lean over Katara’s head. The island was mountainous, but the village spread before her was set on the edge of a bay, the single road sloping gently towards shore. This must have been where Katara washed up, though her memory of the incident was still spotty and unformed.

Unlike the volcanic island, this place suffered from actual winter. Katara shivered in her thin tunic, good for heat and warm rain, but not for the chill in the air here. She wrapped her arms around her shoulders.

Suki gently lowered Katara to sit on the edge of the wooden porch. People passed by, looking curiously at Katara but not approaching her. They were dressed in blue robes with thick fur collars. The sight and color made Katara’s heart clench and she wondered how far home was from here. But she couldn’t go home, not yet. She’d promised Zuko she’d rescue him.

Though how long ago had that been?

Katara waved a hand at the people. “What, um … nation is this?”

“Earth Kingdom, of course.” Suki raised a very dark eyebrow. “Oh, you mean because of the clothing?”

Katara nodded.

Suki laughed. “You know, it’s not a requirement that we all wear green. I don’t know how they do it in the South Pole, but here, we tend to be a little less tied to rules and traditions.” She shrugged. “Are you hungry?”

Katara nodded. She hadn’t realized it, but her stomach began screaming at her as soon as she thought about eating. Grinning, Suki got up and made a quick run to another wooden building, returning moments later with a black bowl full of rice. Laid on the top were strips of raw fish, red and pink, bright against the white grains.

Katara, who ate much of her fish raw straight from the ice, sighed at the familiarity, missing home. She took up the offered chopsticks and stuffed a piece of unfamiliar pink and white marbled fish into her mouth, half closing her eyes in joy.

“I thought I would have to talk you into eating that,” Suki said, raising an eyebrow.

Katara slurped down the fish. “This is how we eat it at home,” she explained, suddenly ravenous. “Keeps the blood flowing during hunts.”

Suki raised an eyebrow. “Guess I should have known.”

She let Katara eat in silence for a while, her pale eyes fixed out on the bay. The sky above the village was blue and empty of gray clouds, but the thoughtful look on Suki’s face — somewhat obscured by her makeup — made Katara think maybe another storm was on its way.

When she finished her rice down to the last grain, Katara put down the bowl and rested her chopsticks across it.

“So,” Suki said, not quite looking at Katara. “Do you want to tell me how you got here?”

The question was bland, almost uninterested, and perhaps that was what made Katara start right at the beginning with the dragon circling down on her and Sokka out of the sunrise. Suki was a good listener, even if she did have a tendency to laugh too much at things that Katara hadn’t particularly thought of as funny. She found the fact that Katara had fallen for a man without seeing him especially humorous and Katara had to pause in her telling while tears rolled down Suki’s white face. “Are you done?” she asked repeatedly and every single time, Suki would shake her head, still laughing uproariously.

The laughing and the story itself, perhaps, drew the attention of a number of other women and girls who dressed as Suki did, in armor and green robes, their face painted. They crowded around Katara, giving their names and asking who she was, where she’d come from, until Katara had to start the whole story over again, still wondering who on earth these warrior girls were.

The sun had shifted into the afternoon sky by the time Katara got to the end of her story. The warriors hung on her every word, their unearthly white faces turned towards her like a flock of moons.

“And then,” Katara said, a lump forming in her throat, “he told me he was Prince Zuko.”

One of the younger girls actually shrieked and put her hands over her mouth. A couple of the others cursed, and everyone started talking at once.

“From the Fire Nation ?” someone called.

“The lost prince?” said another, high pitched and almost horrified.

Only Suki didn’t lose her cool, just watched Katara fight back her emotions. A tiny grin quirked the corner of Suki’s bloody lips.

“Let me get this straight,” said one of Katara’s more gleeful listeners, a petite girl with wide green eyes and an even wider smile that Katara vaguely remembered introducing herself as Misa. “You were unknowingly getting busy with the lost prince of the Fire Nation, who’s been a dragon for the last six years?”

Katara winced. “That’s … not how I would have put it exactly, but yes.”

Misa’s eyes flicked to Suki, then away. “And now you’re going to go home? Just up and leave?”

Katara bit her lip and tried to say that yes, of course she was just going home. The words caught in her throat, clinging like brambles. She tried again, then gave up.

“No,” she said quietly, admitting it to herself. “I’m not going home. I can’t let them torture him.”

“Oh, a rescue,” sighed one of the younger warriors, who couldn’t have been more than nine. “How romantic.”

Suki stood. “All right, we all have work to do and remember, Katara’s still not healed. I want all the initiates to do a double set of forms this afternoon since I let you all slack off for so long. Nanase, make sure they meditate for twice the usual time too — stop moaning, if you didn’t want to meditate, you wouldn’t have become a Kyoshi warrior. And don’t let them fall asleep.”

One of the warriors nodded and began shooing the younger girls away, down the hill towards one of the larger buildings where Katara could see training dummies in lines around the back. Most of the girls gave her wistful looks over theirs shoulders, their small white faces creased in disappointment.

“As for the rest of you, I need a second patrol out this evening.” Suki shaded her eyes, looking again out over the sea. “I don’t think it’s likely that the Fire Nation cares where Katara’s gone, but if they decide they do, they’ll have us to contend with. Misa, send messenger hawks to the other dojos around the island to alert them to the situation.”

Misa nodded and took off, her green robes flapping around her ankles as she ran.

The rest of the warriors started off, but Suki held one tall woman back. “Yori, I need you to make sure Katara gets new clothing,” Suki told her. “She’s not dressed for this cold. See what we have in the stores. Not a uniform.”

Yori, who was a head taller than Katara, nodded and gave Katara an appraising look. “I’m sure I can find something that fits her,” she said, glancing at Suki. “Just clothing for today?”

“We’ll work on the rest later. I have a feeling Katara won’t be staying with us for very long.” Suki cocked her head. “And when all that’s done, I want a meeting with the senior warriors after the initiates are released for the night.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Yori said and strode off up the hill.

Katara gawked after her. “You’re in charge of them?” She shook her head. “But you’re only … you can’t be more than twenty.”

Suki’s face hardened. “Oh, and I suppose you weren’t the de facto chief of your village because you weren’t old enough?”

Katara’s mouth twisted. “I had my grandmother —”

“But you made the day-to-day decisions, right? You made sure everything was running smoothly? You worried about your brother, your people?” A smile lit Suki’s eyes without actually appearing on her mouth. “You gave yourself to a dragon for them?”

“I suppose.”

Suki sighed. “The Fire Nation’s influence isn’t particularly strong here since we’re so far south, but it’s certainly been felt. On paper, the Kyoshi warriors are neutral in the conflict, but what warrior can stand by and allow her homeland to be invaded by a foreign power? Our numbers haven’t fared well.” She shrugged. “I’m the oldest of this warband left. Leader by default.”

Katara whistled softly.

“We all do what we need to do,” Suki said, and gave her a piercing look. “I just hope you’ll understand that.”

“What?” Katara said.

“Later.” Suki offered Katara a hand up, which she took gratefully. “Let's get you back to bed. I have to talk to the girls about some things and you look exhausted. We can talk tomorrow.”

Katara almost protested. It was only mid afternoon and she’d already slept for an unknown amount of time, but then she tried to get to her feet and found her knees were jelly. She shut her mouth and let Suki help her back into bed. Sleep was easy after that.


 

Katara was woken the next morning by three of Suki’s Kyoshi warriors coming into her hut with a bowl and a pot of tea.

“Drink this,” Misa said, pouring Katara some tea and pulling up a chair. She leaned forward, eyes bright. “How are you feeling?”

“Better,” Katara said truthfully, reaching for the tea. “I probably won’t be bending my way through a storm any time soon, but I think my muscles remember how to function.” She glanced up at Yori, who was holding the bowl. “What’s in there?”

“Rice and natto.” Yori offered the bowl. Her short bangs fell into her face as she leaned down. “I don’t know if you’ll like it, but give it a try at least. It’s good for you.”

Katara’s eyebrows went up at the pungent smell, but she took the bowl anyway and peered into it. Something brown and slimy looking had been stirred into the rice, but Katara stuck her chopsticks into it anyway and was pleasantly surprised to find that it had the same heavy, sharp flavor of some of her childhood dishes. She tucked in immediately.

“I like her,” Yori told Misa. “Not everyday you find a stranger who will eat natto like that.”

Misa’s small nose wrinkled. “That’s because she’s starving.”

Katara swallowed. “It’s like igunaq,” she said. “Back home, we take walrus yak steaks and bury them underground from spring to winter, when they freeze. Then we take them out and —”

Misa held up a hand. “Enough,” she said weakly. “I’m too delicate for this kind of conversation.”

Katara grinned, but before she could say anything else, another, unfamiliar girl came into the room. Her face was long and her eyes tilted downwards and storm gray. Her short auburn hair framed her wide cheeks. She wore a green tunic and wide pants tucked into boots.

“Oh, good, you’re up,” she said and it was only then that Katara recognized girl as Suki, but without all her makeup. Suki didn’t seem to notice Katara’s shock, just threw down a pack by the door and came over to stand with the other warriors.

“What … are you doing?” Katara set down her bowl and looked Suki over. “Why are you dressed like that?”

“You’ll be dressed like this soon enough,” Suki said. “Are you ready to go?”

“Go where?”

“To find your stupid prince, of course.” Suki rolled her eyes. “I thought you were a woman on a mission.”

Katara was having trouble processing what was happening. She looked from Suki’s green outfit to the pack again, then down at herself, still dressed in water-ruined silks. Her brain, slow and plodding, managed to put a few things together, and she squinted at Suki’s face.

“Are you coming with me?” she managed.

Suki laughed. “Obviously.”

After another moment, Katara formulated the necessary next question, and asked, “Why?”

Suki’s mouth twisted up into a concerned little knot. “The Fire Lord is … erratic. Over the last ten years, we’ve seen more and more movement of his citizens into the Earth Kingdom. It’s a big place, obviously, and the colonies are far away from here, but he’s proven himself to be less than selfless when it comes to territory. Sooner or later, he’ll turn his attention to other parts. And since the Earth King won’t do anything about it, just sits in Ba Sing Se and pretends nothing is going wrong, someone has to take up the fight.”

“And it’s going to be you?” Katara said, wondering how Suki had gotten so brave.

“No, stupid,” Suki said, her grin widening. “It’s going to be you .”

Me ?”

Suki shrugged. “Of course, you. You have the in. You’ve managed to find the lost heir to the Fire Nation throne, figure out that he’s opposed to his father’s plans, and have him fall in love with you. You’re the secret weapon none of us knew we needed.”

“I don’t understand,” Katara said.

“Katara,” Suki said, suddenly becoming very serious, “if we rescue your dumb boyfriend, it has the added side benefit of saving the world .”

Katara opened her mouth, then closed it. “How?” she managed.

“Think of it like this.” Misa sat down on Katara’s other side, patting at the blankets soothingly. “He had all kinds of rules for his curse, right?”

Katara nodded.

“If he had rules, then Fire Lord Ozai also has rules.” Misa shrugged. “It stands to reason. That’s how spirits work when they curse someone. Besides, if Ozai made a promise to restore Prince Zuko to the throne if he won, then he’s still bound to that.”

“But he lost,” Katara said. “There’s no winning.”

“No, of course Zuko can’t win,” Suki said, “but you can.”

“I’m not even playing!” Katara snapped.

“The most dangerous player,” said Nanase, who hadn’t spoken a word in Katara’s presence until now, “is the one no one knows is even on the board.”

It sounded so much like something Iroh might say that Katara was stunned into silence for a moment. But Nanase was right. Katara had been dragged into this game and acted as an unwilling participant, blind to the rules. But she was tired of being a simple jasmine piece moved across an unseen pai sho board by a distant hand.

And even if Suki was wrong, even if none of this worked or the world didn’t change, maybe she could still free Zuko. Get him back. Run somewhere far away where his sister and father would never find them, and damn the consequences.

Maybe she could be a player after all.

“How do you know this will work?” she asked Suki.

“How do we know it won’t?” Suki countered.

Katara struggled to her feet. “How soon can we leave?”

Chapter Text

“We’re taking that ?” Katara asked, raising an eyebrow at the little boat bobbing in the clear water of the bay. It was small, with a fan-shaped green sail. Red-rimmed eyes had been painted on the prow, but as Katara watched, Misa looped brown canvas around the front, lashing it in place to cover the paint.

“What’s wrong with it?” Suki said.

Katara shrugged. “It’s so little.”

“There’s only two of us.” Suki tossed her pack into the stern of the boat and hopped over the side. She held a hand out to Katara to help her in, but Katara refused in and slid off the dock on her own. The boat bobbed slightly as she settled into it, half crouched among ropes and neatly coiled nets.

Suki glanced over her shoulder, raising an eyebrow. “What, can’t you sail?”

“I’m not … great,” Katara admitted.

Suki sighed. “Well, between the two of us, we’ll make it work. I can probably figure out which way to go …” She caught Katara’s horrified look and laughed. “Relax. I live on an island, I know how to sail a fishing boat. We’ll be fine.”

Katara plucked at her green tunic, unlike either the Kyoshi warriors’ uniform or the blue robes of the Kyoshi civilians. “So hiding the markings on the boat is part of our … disguise?” she asked.

Suki nodded, looking out towards the mouth of the bay. “When we reach the Earth Kingdom, we can blend right in. But we have to be careful about where we land. There’s a village on the other side of the water that we should uh … avoid.”

“Noted,” Katara said.

Suki turned around and waved to Misa. “Cast her off!” she yelled.

Misa grinned and unwound the lines, tossing them into the boat.

“Take care of the girls for me!” Suki called, cupping her hands around her mouth even though they were only a few yards away, bobbing in the waves. “Make sure the kids are training and don’t let them manipulate Yori anymore. You know how easy she is.”

“Yes, boss!” Misa yelled back, grinning.

“And keep patroling! If the Fire Nation —”

“Suki, shut up and go save the world, would you?” Misa’s laugh carried over the water. “We’ll be fine!”

Suki settled back into the boat, sliding into the stern and taking the tiller. She muttered something that might have been “ungrateful” and shook her head.

Katara scooted along, sitting down on a coil of rope with her pack beside her, back against the mast. Blue sky stretched above them, pale and chilled with the beginnings of winter. They were sailing away from that now, Katara realized, her heart aching for snow, and her family, but there were things that had to be done before she could go back. Quite besides that, there was the weather. And she probably should take more time to recover from her ordeal in the ocean before she attempted an ocean crossing like that again …

Any lie she could tell herself to make her aims — save a boy from an evil empire — seem less selfish.

Suki yawned. “So if I just nod off, you’ll be fine, right?” she said. “Aren’t you Water Tribe?”

Katara shot her a sharp look.

“Kidding.” Suki snickered to herself. “If I do nod off, just use your bending to push us around for a while. It’ll be totally fine.”

“I bet your warriors get really tired of you,” Katara said in her prissiest voice.

“They’ll be excited to have some time off,” Suki said, nodding and smiling. “Apparently I’m ‘not as funny as I think I am’.”

Katara grinned, but there was a seriousness to Suki’s stormy eyes that kept her from laughing outright. A snakegull gave a cawing hiss somewhere above them and Katara looked up at the feathered forms wheeling over the boat, like omens of destruction.

“Are we going to be okay?” she asked quietly.

Suki snorted. “Katara, please. We’re both incredibly skilled women who could kill anyone who stands in our way. I’m not worried.”

“I’m worried.”

“All right, fine, I’m a little worried.” Suki cast a quick glance at Katara, but shook her head. “But if I wasn’t worried, I’d be stupid. We’re doing a dangerous thing, a crazy thing. But if we can make it work, it’s going to change everything. And who wouldn’t take some risks in order to do that, right?”

“I guess…”

“Buck up.” Suki tapped Katara’s knee with the toe of her hard-soled leather boot. “No one can stop us now. We’re strong. We’re smart. What can they do against us?”

“Plenty,“ Katara said, a quiet, dark fear filling her stomach.

Suki kicked Katara again. “Stop it.”

Katara breathed out, long and slow. It was stupid to worry, she knew that. No good being concerned about things that hadn’t happened yet. But maybes and mights lay along the back of her tongue, heavy and brooding.

But she was turning into Sokka, and no one wanted that.

To distract herself, she pointed to the smear of land on the horizon, dark against the sky. “Is that the Earth Kingdom.”

“Yup,” Suki said and rotated the tiller just a little. A new breeze filled the sail and they changed course slightly, aiming for a different part of the indistinct land mass. “It’s all cliffs here, so we’ll have to head west. Just have to be careful not to land ourselves in the middle of the swamp.”

“Swamp.” Katara rolled her eyes. “Lovely.”

“Just because you don’t have swamps,” Suki muttered, but when Katara looked back, Suki’s mouth was curved in a tiny smile. Maybe going adventuriting with this bright eyed girl wouldn’t be all bad. Maybe they really could do this.

Or maybe Suki would get them lost in a swamp, but Katara tried not to think about that.

The sun was just past its zenyth when Suki started looking for a place to dock the boat. The cliffs they’d seen from the water roared above them, pale and impenetrable. An hour ago, Katara had pointed to a small man-made port of rocks and floating docks huddled at the base of the cliff, but Suki had shaken her head and given it a wide berth.

“Chin Village isn’t friendly to Kyoshi Warriors,” she said, shading her eyes and making a rude gesture towards the busy docks. “Our founder was a powerful bender with an even more powerful temper. She split our island from the mainland right  there at Chin Village. They’re still bitter.”

Katara’s jaw dropped. “She split the island ?”

Suki smirked. “Yeah, we’re very proud of her.”

“But you’re not a bender,” Katara pointed out, realizing that none of the warriors had displayed any signs of bending.

“You don’t need to bend to be able to fight,” Suki said with some significant bite. Her free hand fell to her waist, where a pair of metal-edged fans sat sheathed in her wide sash. “Maybe I can teach you something. In case you have to fight an enemy more solid than a thunderstorm.”

“I didn’t mean that,” Katara said, suitably ashamked. “My brother isn’t a bender and he’s the best warrior in our village.” She left out that he was the only warrior, and instead said, “He kept us alive for years when it was just the two of us trying to feed ten families.”

“So you know,” Suki said.

Katara nodded and didn’t try to convince Suki to land at the village, which faded into the distance until it was no more than a congregation of gulls.

As they tacked around a curve in the land, the cliffs gave way to lush greenery creeping all the way down to the ocean with no beach in sight. It was for this green that Suki steered the boat. The waves lessened significantly, now only brushing up into the strange trees growing on the coast, short and stubby with wide canopies still green with arrow shaped leaves. Katara found herself fascinated by the roots, looping up and out of the water like a spider's legs.

Katara pulled down the sail and tied it around the boom, then stood in the bow with the long oars , bracing them against the sandy ocean floor to propel them towards shore. Tongue tucked between her teeth, Suki maneuvered the boat into the roots and Katara, unheeding of the water, kept out and tied the boat off to a thick cluster.

Suki climbed out more carefully and pulled both packs out of the boat, holding them high enough that the minor waves didn’t soak them. She handed one pack to Katara and the two of them waded through the chilled water to the shore, clambering over the high-rooted trees until they reached something like solid ground.

It was warm here, but more than that, it was wet. Water dripped from the trees around them, splashing on Katara’s shoulders. She pulled her hair up off her neck and tied it with a scrap of silk ribbon. Suki too seemed to be unhappy with the humidity, rolling the sleeves of her tunic to bare her muscular shoulders and biceps, and braided her hair into two short tails, one beneath each ear.

Suki rolled her shoulders back and cracked her neck. “Let’s start walking,” she said and set off through the thick swampy undergrowth, leaving Katara to run after her.


 

By the time the sun was setting — difficult to make out through the canopy — Katara was soaked and shivering. She kept trying to bend the water away from her, out of her clothes and hair, but it was always back seconds later, clinging to her skin. The temperature was dropping too, reminding Katara that it was nearly winter, even in these warmer part of the world.

“I think I’m lost,” Suki said.

Katara paused, leaning against a gnarled tree, its bark smeared with slime. “That’s not what I want to hear,” she said, pushing damp hair off her forehead. “You’re supposed to know where we’re going.”

Suki gave Katara an exasperated look. “Wandering through swamps isn’t how I spend most of my time,” she said, managing to sound both upset and endlessly patient at the same time. “I’m a mountain and forest woman, not someone who goes tramping through wetlands and slime for fun.”

“What you’re saying is that you’ve seen a map once or twice, right?” Katara said flatly.

“Essentially, yes.”

Katara grumbled wordlessly, but honestly, she wasn’t upset. Or perhaps it would be more correct to say she was too damp and miserable to be able to work up the anger needed. Besides, she reminded herself — not for the first or last time — that Suki had agreed to accompany her on this idiotic journey and if not for her, Katara would have been lost all by herself.

“We should find some solid ground,” Katara said, glancing at the deep blue sky between the leaves. “Somewhere to camp for the night.”

“We won’t be able to get a fire started,” Suki warned.

Immediately, Katara missed the ease of fire on the volcanic island. If the dragon — Zuko — had been here, fire would be no problem. Actually, she wouldn’t be here in the first place if Zuko was here. She was lost in this unpleasant moist swamp because she was trying to to find him. So really, this was his fault.

She’d remind him of that later.

“We can’t walk through this mess at night,” Katara pointed out. “We’ll sink in the mud if we can’t see where we’re going.”

Suki nodded and the two of them slogged over to a solid patch and began working their way across the packed earth to a rocky outcrop. Circling it, they discovered a small indentation in the stone, perfect for the two of them to fit into together, shoulder to shoulder, leaning back against the somewhat dry rock.

Katara bent the water out of their clothing and rested her head against the cold stone. She closed her eyes for just a second. Out in the swamp, a chorus of fat frogsquitos buzzed and bellowed into the growing darkness. Water dripped down the rock around them. Katara’s legs ached.

Something scraped out in the night, but the animals didn’t still, so Katara assumed it was normal. It wasn’t as though she knew the sounds of a swamp.

“All right,” Suki said, all business.

The scraping noise intensified. Katara looked up as it crunched over her head and then suddenly a dark shape dropped down over the entrance of the cave, blotting out the blue darkness beyond.

Katara yelped, reached out and yanked . The water beading on the rocks around them slammed through the air, hardening into tiny pellets of ice, which she threw with all her might at the creature hanging upside down in front of them. Suki loosed a cry that was less fear and more rage — a warcry — and the golden fans were in her hands, open and shining before Katara could blink.

Wings extended from the creature’s sides, skinny and skeletal, raised towards them —

Suki threw her fan.

The creature knocked it aside with one wing. Sparks flew, lighting the hollow briefly, and Katara saw — what did she see? It looked like the rock around them, glittering with wet, but shaped like a thick glove wrapped around ….

“Calm down,” said the creature in a bright, laughing voice, and Katara realized it was human . “I come in peace.”

Katara and Suki didn’t calm down, but instead stayed on their guard as the person slid unnaturally down the side of the rock face, staying perfectly perpendicular to the stone the entire time. Once they rotated around to what seemed like upright, rocks rained down from their feet, hands and shoulders. An earthbender, then, Katara deduced, watching chunks of rubble tumble to the muddy swamp ground.

The figure crouched down and, close up, revealed itself to be a girl with a wide, cruel smile and the palest eyes Katara had ever seen on a human being. Her round face creased in concentration and Katara would have assumed she was giving them a serious once over except her eyes were fixed somewhere slightly above Katara’s head.

“Interesting,” the girl said, tilting her head to one side so her long, dark bangs flipped over one ear. “What are you doing here?”

Chapter Text

Her name was Toph and she was a runaway.

“Toph Beifong,” she said, almost proundly, jamming one grimy thumb into her chest. “Of the Gaoling Beifongs. Pompous bags of butts that they are.” She flopped down in the dirt next to Katara and Suki, tilting her head to one side and still not looking at them, though maybe that was because of the encroaching darkness. “Bailed on them real fast. It’s quiet out here. I like it, for now. Though I’m just passing through.”

“Where are you going?” asked Suki.

“How old are you?” Katara said, more concerned about this child alone in the swamp with no parents to take care of her. Also without shoes, Katara noted, watching Toph dig her toes into the dirt.

“I’m sixteen,” said Toph, offended, pressing a hand to her grubby tunic in mock offense — Katara thought it was mock, since she was still smiling, but she was also coming to the conclusion that Toph didn’t have an expression other than smiling. “That’s like, basically an adult, right?”

“It’s not at all,” Katara said, who at two years older than sixteen didn’t often feel like an adult anymore. Or if it was an adult, it was a very bad one. Of course, she’d been caring for her village at sixteen, tending to seal kills and helping sick children. Her own experiences, however, didn’t stop her from being very convinced that Toph should be safe at home and not wandering around some swamp.

Toph’s smile turned cruel, confirming Katara’s theory. Who knew so many emotions could be conveyed with teeth? “Oh what, because you’re so grown up? You only sound a few years older than I am.”

“Sound” grated on Katara as a word choice — what was Toph saying about her looks? — but she just huffed and stopped fighting what appeared to be a losing battle.

Suki folded her arms, examining Toph. She didn’t seem as concerned with Toph’s apparent youth, but from the younger trainee warriors, Katara knew that Suki had been an “adult” at far younger than sixteen. “So you’re not heading back to Gaoling?” she asked.

Oh, Gaoling was a place. Katara wished she’d had a chance to study a map of the Earth Kingdom at some point in her life. Not that she would have needed to before this stupid, harebrained quest.

How had she become a woman with a quest , of all things?

“No,” Toph said, unaware of Katara’s inner monologue. “I’m absolutely not going back to Gaoling, full of those soft-brained toadheads. I have no desire to get stuck there with those people ever again. Do you know how long it took me to get out of there in the first place?”

“No,” Suki said blandly. “I don’t know.”

“Ha,” Toph replied, with equal blandness, her pale eyes sliding across Suki’s shoulders and over to Katara’s left ear. “She’s funny.”

Suki laughed, rough and mocking. “Katara,” she said, glancing over to follow Toph’s gaze, except she managed to make it all the way to Katara’s eyes, “have you ever wanted to adopt?”

“I hadn’t thought about it,” Katara said, realizing exactly where this was going.

Toph seemed to recognize it too, because her head jerked back on her neck, jaw tightening. “You know,” she snapped, “I don’t actually need parenting.”

“I never said I was going to adopt you ,” Suki said, grinning.

“She just implied it,” Katara muttered.

Toph huffed. “Seriously, I ran away from home so I didn’t need to have parents,” she repeated, sounding significantly more annoyed this time. “I’m not letting some random idiots in a swamp try to put me back into a family. Families are bullshit.” She sighed, but didn’t let Katara have enough time to marinate on the stab of pain shooting through her belly. “Can’t we just agree to travel together as casual acquaintances?”

Suki glanced at Katara again, who shrugged. Suki nodded.

Toph sat there for a second, silent and unmoving, her head cocked to one side. She didn’t respond.

Suki stopped nodding and raised one eyebrow.

“Are you nodding?” Toph said finally. “I’m going to assume you’re nodding,s ince you’re not answering and I don’t want you to say no.”

“Oh!” said Katara with a sudden flash of insight. “You’re blind!

Toph rolled her eyes expansively, putting both hands to her mouth. “Am I? Oh no, whatever will I do! How will I survive? How did I not notice this terrible affliction before right now when you pointed it out?”

“Are you sure your parents didn’t just kick you out of the house for being a pain?” asked Suki dryly, clearly more used to dealing with teenage girl drama than Katara.

Toph grinned, dropping her hands.

“I’m sorry,” Katara said, guilt eating away at her belly despite Toph’s mockery. “I just hadn’t realized.”

“Most people don’t.” Toph leaned back against the rocky wall behind her. “I try not to broadcast it when I don’t have to. I get around just fine. I can read the world around me through my bending, so it’s not as though I’m really curtailed by not being able to ‘see’.”

“Yeah, you made it straight into a swamp,” Suki said, poking the end of her stick into their small, damp fire. “Good work.”

“At least I knew where the swamp was,” Toph countered. “It was intentional swamping.” She cocked her head again and her lank bangs flopped across her forehead, slightly damp with the humidity of swamp air. “Unlike you two, I think. You don’t really seem like the swamp was a final destination.”

“It wasn’t supposed to be a destination at all,” Katara said, glaring at Suki, who ignored her. “We’re trying to get to the Fire Nation.”

She probably shouldn’t go around telling Toph everything, but there wasn’t much of a threat from a girl who was intentionally lost in a swamp. A blind, pissed off girl at that. And she wouldn’t mind some direction. Given that Suki had turned out to be a little lax in her mapping department.

“I’m no expert,” said Toph with the dryness of a desert, “but I’m pretty sure you’re supposed to cross an ocean for that. You may be going the wrong way.”

“If we can get to the colonies,” Suki said, poking at the coals one more time before giving up, “we can get a ship to take us over to the archipelago. It’s the best way in or out. We don’t have a boat big enough to carry us there over sea, and they have all sorts of patrols. Overland through the Earth Kingdom is safer and smarter.”

“If you can get there,” countered Toph.

“Exactly.”

Toph had a kind of odd, thoughtful look on her round face, but before Katara could ask what was on her mind, she shook herself and it disappeared. “So your plan is to just traipse through a warring Earth Kingdom in order to get to the Fire Nation? To do what?”

“Save the crown prince from an evil curse and restore peace and balance to the land,” Suki said dryly. “Apparently.”

Toph laughed. Katara didn’t blame her.

“Are you serious?” she asked.

“Yup.” Suki cocked her head. “Isn’t that right, Katara?”

“I’m not sure it’ll be that simple,” Katara said, desperate to add a little context and lower expectations of her ability to save the world. “This isn’t a fairy tale, after all. I think it might take some actual work.”

“Stop hedging,” Suki said blandly, then added, “Princess Katara,” with such a cruel little smile that Katara almost punched her.

“I’m tired,” Katara managed in her most sickly sweet voice, turning to unroll her sleeping bag, strapped to her pack. It was warm here, but the dampness of the night was turning chill and unpleasant. Water beaded on Katara’s skin began to cool and she shivered, brushing drops off her forearms.

“So sleep,” Suki said, leaning back against the rock. “And we’ll get out of here in the morning.”

“You seem very sure of that,” Toph said.

Katara sighed. “Aren’t you going to help us?” she said with exaggerated patience.

“Well, yeah,” Toph said, yawning. “But you know. You’re supposed to ask.”

“Will you help us?” Katara said, eyelids already fluttering in response to Toph’s yawn. “Please?”

“Yeah, whatever,” Toph said, and bent a rock pillow out of the ground, collapsing upon it like it was the softest of feather beds.

“Must be nice,” Suki said, after a moment where they both watched Toph’s snoring, trying to figure out if she was actually asleep or not — she absolutely was. “I’ll take first watch,” Suki said, turning to Katara. “You catch some sleep. I’ll wake you when I want rest.”

“I don’t think we need to keep a watch,” Katara said, too tired to argue more vigorously. “Unless you’re worried about bullfrogs.”

“I’m worried about everything,” Suki said flatly, then winked. “Just sleep, Katara. You’ve got princes to save.”

And Katara slept. Because she didn’t have any more excuses.


The next morning, Katara woke at dawn with a blue-grey hummingbird moth hovering around her forehead. When she opened her eyes, the creature squeaked and fluttered away, leaving a dusting of soft powder across her eyelashes. Sputtering, she brushed it away and sat up.

Suki was asleep, her back against the rock, but when Katara moved, her pale eyelids fluttered. Toph, on the other hand, looked like a dead body, one arm thrown across her eyes. She didn’t move at all.

“I forgot to wake you up,” Suki muttered, her voice thick. She wiped her mouth on the back of her hand and grimaced. “Gross.”

Katara nudged Toph with one foot and got no reaction. Suki ran her fingers through her auburn hair, trying to get it look less wet and grubby, but to no avail. Katara couldn’t even bear to think of her own hair, which felt like one large, soaking wet mat.

“We should get moving.” Suki peered up at the thick canopy of leaves as though she could see the sun through them. She glanced down at the sleeping Toph. “Get up,” she said loudly.

Toph still didn’t move.

Katara, who was tired of being in this disgusting, humid swamp, bent the water out of her own hair, leaving it a dry and cracking disaster, and dumped the dirty brown water directly on Toph’s face.

Sputtering, Toph sat up, cursing and shaking her head like a wet polar bear dog. Katara ducked.

“Good,” Suki said, rubbing sleep out of her eyes. “You’re up. We can get going now.”

Toph called her something Katara knew was terrible, but would have to look up the specifics on later. She kept her head down so Toph couldn’t see her laughing, and then realized she had nothing to worry about.

Once Toph stopped swearing and Katara stowed her bedroll away, they started off through the swamp, chewing on some jerky Suki produced and didn’t elaborate of the providence of. Flies buzzed around them, too loud even against the constant chorus of swamp animals. Katara had never thought about how many things lived in a swamp, but apparently all of them were out this morning and intent on screaming as loudly as possible.

The going was easier today than it had been yesterday, both due to the way the early morning sunlight filtered more easily through the thick canopy, and also Toph’s unerring sense of what was dirt and rock — solid — and what would swallow them up to the knees. She moved in a kind of sulky swagger through the roots and rocks, occasionally bending a pebble into an area that looked perfectly solid until something broke the surface tension and revealed it to be a pit of mud, depth unknown.

By afternoon Katara was tired, drenched in sweat, and disgusted by her own scent. From Suki’s wrinkled nose and hunched shoulders, she felt the same. Toph, on the other hand, didn't seem to care, but from the amount of old mud crusted behind her ears and down the back of her neck, cleanliness wasn’t first and foremost in her mind.

“How much longer?” Katara asked, trying not to whine. She adjusted the tie on her hair, pulling it up and away from her face yet again and securing it in a thick, quavering bun near the top of her head.

“I don’t know,” Toph said. “I’m not great at telling time.”

Katara glanced at Suki, exasperated, but Suki only smiled wanly and glanced up at the trees over their heads as though she could see anything through them. “It looks like the undergrowth is getting thicker,” she pointed out, “and the trees are shorter. That’s a good thing. And look.”  She pointed up to where a break in the leaves showed a patch of blue sky and slanting sunlight, “we’re heading out for sure.”

“If you say so,” Katara said, feeling too disgusting to be optimistic.

But Suki was right. Another hour, the sun coming in at a different angle, and they were kicking their way through brush and saplings, the ground solid beneath their feet. It was still warm, unbearably so for Katara whose pack made her back slick with sweat, and there were definitely bugs living in her hair. Or perhaps just trapped in it and dying as the curls smothered them; it was hard to tell.

“That way,” Suki said, shading her eyes and pointing north. The position of the sun made it easy to tell direction and Katara was a little annoyed that Suki seemed to assume she wouldn’t know. On the other hand, maybe that was the exhaustion talking.

“Where are you planning on going from here?” Toph said, kicking at a rock buried beneath thick brambles.

“Omashu’s up there somewhere, right?” Suki shrugged. “We can start there.”

Omashu ?” Toph laughed harshly and a flock of cat crows startled from a nearby tree and winging into the air, yowling. “You want to go to Omashu? Do you know how far that is from here? How much work it would take to get there?”

Suki huffed, finally losing her patience. “So what’s your idea, you dumb little swamp brat? You think you’re so smart, lost in some spirit-haunted swamp like you’re some kind of heroic rebel when really you’re just a stupid kid —”

“Like you were doing so great!” Toph said, voice rising, lip curling up in a snarl. “You were lost there and you’d never have gotten out if it wasn’t for me so you can take that high and mighty —”

“I don’t think you need to fight,” Katara said, shading her eyes.

“ — And you can shove it right up your —”

“ — This is why some parents beat their children, you snotty little —”

Katara considered trying to shut them up but it would waste time and she wasn’t sure how much of that she had. So instead she jogged away, heading towards the dirt track she’d made out on the far side of the bramble patch. A cloud of dust rose from the past and she headed towards it, waving her arms and smiling.

By the time Toph and Suki stopped bickering for long enough to wonder where she’d gone, Katara had already befriended the two girls — sisters, Miyo and Lelong — on the wagon seat. They were around Toph’s age, maybe a little younger, and when Katara explained her situation — “We were caught in a storm and took refuge in the swamp but then we got lost, and our friend, she’s blind, you know, it’s been hard on her, and we just want to get back home to Omashu” — they agreed to give all three women a lift in the back of their hay cart.

The two ostrich horses that pulled the cart gave them all, but mostly Toph, unpleasant looks after getting a good sniff, but the sisters were nice enough. Miyo was younger and chatty, Lelong older and more reserved. It was Miyo who told Katara they were from a village called Hongyan between the swamp and the mountains into which Omashu was carved. Katara tried to pretend like she knew where that was, but her deception was obvious, so Miyo took her for a city girl and make fun of her.

It was the farthest thing from the truth, Katara thought, wishing for open tundra and freezing wind, but it was safer to let Miyo think what she liked.

“So you live there?” Miyo said, twirling her black bangs around her finger. “You and your …” her eyes flicked over Toph and Suki, now both half asleep in the piles of hay, “friends?”

Not family. An easier lie if she could have told it, but selling moon-faced, pale Toph and high browed, grey eyed Suki as related to each other would have been hard enough without throwing in Katara’s brown skin and wide, flat nose. They didn’t look anything alike, any of them.

Katara nodded. “My dad was from the Northern Water Tribe,” she lied, feeling less bad with every falsehood. This she even managed to say like a secret, pulling a bright smile from Miyo. “He fell in love with my mom in, uh, Ba Sing Se,” — the only Earth Kingdom city she could name — “and they ran away when her family didn’t approve. But they, um … died. When I was little.” She swallowed. “We were raised in an orphanage together until we got too old.”

She winced even as she layered on the lies. It was too much, too dramatic, but the truth was so much worse that it seemed like nothing now. Hard enough to believe without the dragons and princes.

Her lie was the more believable option.

Miyo, however, soaked it up. “Wow,” she said quietly. “You gotta come home and stay with us for the night. Our little sister is gonna love to have some big city girls to ask questions to. She won’t shut up.”

Lelong snorted, as though at Miyo’s hypocrisy, but Miyo didn’t seem to notice.

“What was your name again?” she said again, brow furrowing.

Katara hadn’t thought that far. She opened her mouth, frantic, unsure of what name would be common enough …

“She’s Min,” Toph said, the right amount of annoyed and grateful. She threw her legs up on a bale of hay and leaned back. “I’m Neng and that’s Ema.” She jerked a thumb at Suki. “I’ve never been to Hongyan but I hear it’s nice. Mostly farmers, right?”

Miyo nodded, watching Toph with new, appraising eyes. “That’s what we do,” she said, waving at the hay. “Obviously.”

“We’re bringing it home for the herd,” Lelong said, pulling a loose feather from the tail of the ostrich horse in front of her and eliciting a squawk. “We also grow silk rice. It’s a family operation.”

“Can’t wait,” Toph said in the tone of voice of someone who absolutely could. Katara kicked her, but she just kicked back and Katara winced.

But then again, maybe to Toph this was something to mock, whereas Katara saw a family together, safe, cherishing each other in a way she hadn’t had in a very long time. It was either a soft, melancholic happiness that slithered through Katara, or envy, it was difficult to tell which. So she just said, “It sounds lovely.”

“It’ll be a little tight,” Miyo said, biting her lip. “We don’t have a lot of space, what with five of us in the house, you know. But we have a barn with a hay loft and you can sleep there. I know it’s not very glamorous.”

Suki picked a piece of hay out of her hair and shook her head. “Anything’s better than a swamp,” she said, leaning back into the pile and yawning. It wasn’t dark yet, not even close, but Katara too felt the exhaustion in her bones. Maybe it was from sleeping on rocks in a loud, damp swamp. Toph looked wide awake, but maybe to an earthbender, rocks were soft as the finest feather pillow. Though somehow Katara doubted that.

“A hayloft will be wonderful,” Katara managed just as the little farmhouse came into sight, a long building of stone and thatch, the roof slanting down dramatically over the front door. Behind it rose a barn, higher but of a similar construction.

Katara yawned.

Activity swamped the little cart as a middle-aged couple came out — Katara’s heart ached at the sight of any middle aged anyones — and then a young girl asking a million questions all piled on top of each other. She looked just like Lelong but with Miyo’s bright, interested eyes, so this must be the little sister.

Thankfully, Suki did the talking for all three of them. “From Omashu, yes, lost, uh huh, hugery? Yes, of course, but we don’t want to take anything — well, I mean, if you insist, of course we’ll have some rice and radishes, that’s very kind.”

Katara managed to extract herself and Toph from the hay. Toph hung on to Katara’s arm, looking as though she really could see nothing, her steps slow and nervous. They ate outside — “Our kitchen is very small,” said the girls’ mother apologetically, as though it was something to be ashamed of, “I wouldn’t want you to be cramped.”

The sun streaked the sky red. Katara leaned against the stonewall of the little house with her legs drawn up to her chest. What she wouldn’t give to show this to Zuko, be somewhere with him other than their island prison. She missed him like a needle in the heart and that embarrassed her too because she’d always thought herself above such things. Oh, a romantic story here and there was one thing, but it was another to be part of one. She felt so idiotic.

But she missed his warmth that night in the hay loft, lying on the rough, dry grasses with Suki curled away from her on one side and Toph sprawled out on the other. She wondered where he was, if he was safe. What they were doing to him right now, as she tried to sleep in a stranger’s barn. How had this become her life? How was she ever going to find him?

When she finally did sleep, it was fitful and marked with dreams of laughter and blue fire and she woke often, panting and sweaty in the cold, with no one to hold her against the fear.

Chapter Text

“We’re not really going to Omashu, right?” Toph said once they’d waved a final goodbye to Miyo and her family and crested a brief hill, putting them out of sight.

Suki shrugged and pushed her hair back and up. There hadn’t been anywhere to bathe, which was still a major concern for Katara. The farmers had a tub in their kitchen that they would fill with heated water, but it was too much work for guests. Katara could still feel the swamp, now two days old, sticking to her skin and hair like a thick sheen of pond scum.

“All I care about,” she said, rubbing her eyes, “is finding a river.”

Toph rolled her eyes. “Hygiene,” she said, like it was a dirty word.

Thankfully, Katara and Suki overruled her because they were both louder and an hour later all three stood on the bank of a quiet, sleepy waterway that was almost too narrow to call a river. It wasn’t quite a stream either, but a colony of beaver ducks had dammed it about twenty yards downstream, creating a waist deep pool of clear, eddying water.

“Perfect,” Suki said, and she was stripped naked in a matter of second, splashing into the water and yelping at the chill.

Katara took longer to undress, peeling her tunic and pants away from her filthy skin and wincing all the while. Suki was already laughing with Toph who still stood on the riverbank, calling for the younger girl to join her. Toph too had no modesty and was already undressing, muttering swears under her breath — Katara thought Toph’s change of heart about cleanliness might have something to do with how many times Suki told her she was “being a weenie.”

Next to the two of them, both broad in shoulder and slim in hip, with little (Suki) to no (Toph) chest to speak of, Katara felt somehow embarrassed by her own body. Maybe because the only man who’d seen her naked hadn’t really — not apart from that last night which hardly counted. Self confidence didn’t come as easily to her as it did to someone like Suki. It helped that Suki was trim and lean, though muscle stood out in her arms and calves. Katara was much rounder.

But neither one of them seemed to care. “Get in here!” Suki called, laughing. “Unless you’re saving that dirt for later.”

Katara got in, slowly, letting the water welcome her and buoy up not only her body, but her spirits as well. She bent the water up around her, drawing intricate lines of droplets that hung in the air. She dunked her head almost immediately, imagining a  cloud of filth rising from her much-abused curls to lie on the surface of the water line a sheen of oil, but if there was such a thing, it had dissipated down the river by the time she surfaced. It took her a while, half sitting on a rock, to work the tangles out, but she managed at last and felt like a human being again, instead of some swamp-dwelling creature.

Toph and Suki splashed each other, laughing. The sun, still enough to warm the water — though not very much — came out through the clouds and shone down, making Katara’s midair creations sparkle in the light like diamonds on a string.

“Well, what have we here?” said a male voice from the stream bank.

Katara whirled and sank into the water at the same time, her water jewelry slapping back onto the surface with a patter like pouring rain. She kept her nose and eyes above the water, but kept everything else submerged as she fixed her gaze on the man on the shore, standing with one foot out, the curled toes of his black boots digging into the rocky beach.

Fire Nation.

She didn't need to guess this time, because he wore the military uniform she’d seen on Princess Azula’s soldiers. Heart pounding, Katara trid to determine if this man was one of them, someone who might recognize her, but she hadn’t spent a lot of time looking at the faces of the sailors who had come to take Zuko and Iroh away. She did see the other men behind this newcomer, at least six, maybe some kind of command unit, or scouting party. They wore those pointy shoulder guards that haunted Katara’s nightmares, a kind of insectoid shine to the reds and blacks which made her stomach turn.

“Three girls in a river,” the man said, his eyes roving over the water’s surface and the distortion of the ripples which protected Katara from his unasked-for gaze. “Three naked girls.”

He leered, and a rock bounced off his forehead.

It wasn’t a very large rock, and he was wearing a helmet which came down over the bridge of his nose, so it didn’t hurt him. Thankfully, Toph hadn’t bent the rock at him, because her hands were full of them, ready to throw another. “How about,” Toph said, as sweetly as a spider, “you find somewhere to go curl up and die?”

“Toph!” Katara snapped, horrified.

Suki stood up, something Katara absolutely didn’t have the courage to do, even though the water covered Suki to her ribcage and she’d folded her arms across her chest. It was a good move, because the muscles of her arms and shoulders stood out as she did it and made her look like someone who should not be messed with. “Can I help you?” she said, all acid to Toph’s fake sugar.

“Feisty,” said one of the other soldiers, and they all laughed. “Good aim too, eh, Commander?”

Their commander, the man on the beach who couldn't have been much older than Suki, smiled again, but there was a sharpness to the expression that Katara didn't like. “No need to take offense, ladies,” he said. “Can’t a man look?”

“No,” Katara said, raising her mouth out of the water enough. “I don’t think so. It’s not polite.”

“Polite, huh?” He quirked an eyebrow at her. “Well, I guess my boys and I weren’t raised right.”

“You certainly weren’t,” said Suki, though she was retreating from him, towards her pile of clothes on the far bank. “What would your mother’s say if they knew you were spying on helpless girls?”

Helpless , Katara thought, reaching out with both hands under the water and stirring it with a current of her own making. Just in case. Just because she could.

The Fire Nation soldiers didn’t notice. They were too busy ogling and laughing, looking more at Suki’s mostly covered breasts than at her muscles, which was a bad choice. They’d almost completely forgotten about Toph, which was an even worse decision.

“Why don’t you girls just come over here?” said the commander with a toothy grin. “We’ll have some fun.”

This time, Toph threw an entire boulder at him.

It didn’t hit him, just slammed into the beach about three inches from his feet. He yelped, high pitched with terror, and jumped back. The other soldiers’ hands went to their weapons. One of them sparked as flames boiled out of thin air across his palms.

Katara released the breath she’d been holding, and pushed .

The stream, so carefully dammed by the beaver ducks, broke its banks and swelled over the soldiers, dropping down and soaking them and their overly shiny armor. Katara released her control of the water as soon as gravity took over and by the time the water hit the ground — and the soldiers on it — she had grabbed Toph’s hand and both of them were running for the far bank. Suki was already there, grabbing up their clothes and weapons and packs. She threw Katara some of it without pausing, and they kept moving, scrambling up the banks and into the tall grass and scrub trees that lined the edges. There wasn’t anywhere to go, not really, but at least they had the water between them and the soldiers. Though form the sounds of cursing and splashing behind them, that might not last very long.

“Oh, great idea,” Toph said, panting as she ran and tried to pull a tunic over her head at the same time. “Let’s just have a bath . Clean up. This is what you get when you insist on societal norms, Katara, and I hope you take that to heart.”

“Stop talking,” Katara snapped, hugging her pack more tightly, “and run faster.”

They skittered down a hill and into a depression in the ground where some trees grew, shading the area. Toph grabbed both Suki and Katara, holding them back as she tore up a huge swath of grass and leaves, rolling it back like a carpet. “Under there,” she snapped, shoving them forward onto their faces in the revealed dirt and throwing herself down with them. The turf rolled back over them and Katara had a sudden horrible feeling of being buried alive before Toph shoved a hand over her mouth in the darkness and she lay still.

Muffled by six inches of dirt and grass, the soldiers’ footsteps were more felt than heard, a vibration in the soil above them. Rocks and worms and who knew what else rained down into Katara’s hair, erasing all the work she’d done in the river. She lowered her head, burying her mouth in her tunic to keep it clear of dirt and tried to hold her breath.

She reached out, moving just her fingers, and found Suki’s hand. The pads of their fingers pressed into each other, a desperate act of comfort.

The soldiers clanked off, yelling.

Suki moved but Katara grabbed her and she stilled. Not yet. It was too soon and the soldiers could circle back at any second. Katara managed a breath, shallow and hot, through the rough weave of the buddle of clothing she held. It wasn’t much, but it was all she allowed herself.

She didn’t know how long they lay there, but it felt like hours. Finally, her head began to spin with the lack of air in the tiny underground pocket. Just before she started to panic, Toph threw back the layer of dirt and leaves, soil exploding outward as the ground birthed three partly- or fully-naked girl, all gasping for air.

Suki rolled onto her back, her chest heaving. “Okay,” she managed, spitting dirt. “So maybe we should have been more careful.”

“Maybe they shouldn’t have been such creeps,” Toph snapped, shaking her hair and showering them all with mud. “We could have crushed them, you know.”

“We’d have had to kill them,” Katara pointed out.

“So?”

“Killing is bad,” Katara said, looking to Suki for backup and getting only a shrug. “It’s bad and wrong and you both know it,” Katara said, glaring, and even if neither one agreed, they didn’t argue with her.

“What are Fire Nation soldiers doing this far south?” asked Suki, pulling her green tunic over her shoulders and securing the clasps, though she didn’t bother to put on her pants. “They should be in the colonies, or on one of those big metal ships of theirs, floating around like a pot full of lobster monkeys. They definitely shouldn’t be this far into the Earth Kingdom. This close to Omashu, of all places.”

“So we’re not going there,” Toph said as though they’d all decided together.

Unfortunately, she was right. Katara, shouldering her now much abused pack, nodded. “We can’t go there. But we should get moving before they circle back and catch us.”

They didn’t run, but they did walk very quickly. Occasionally Suki cajolled them into a jog, though Katara couldn’t last long carrying her things. She didn’t have the practice Suki did, or Toph’s lack of worldly possessions. And she wasn’t dumping her things. “Do you know what’s in here?” she’d snapped when Suki suggested it.

“No,” Suki said mildly. “But I know it’s more than you need on a day to day basis.”

“It’s important,” Katara said, and that was the end of the conversation.

Suki steered them just east of north, avoiding the more civilized areas around Omashu, which included any big towns. They could see the city in the distance, though only as one of a handful of mountains rearing into the twilight sky, purpling with distance.

The soldiers didn’t come after them, though at one point they saw the twinkling light of a fire and gave it a very wide berth. There was only so much hiding Katara could do in one day.

When they slept, it was under a jutting overhang of rock and this time they did keep watch. Suki took the first half of the night and woke Katara at midnight to take her place. Katara watched the sky, mostly, wonderous at the whirl of unfamiliar stars above her head. Far south, nearly on the horizon, she picked out a few constellations she knew, but the ones over her were new and strange.

She wondered what they were, making up names and stories for them. That long twist of stars was the Dragon, and its story was obvious. That group on the western rim of the world, a lopsided pyramid, those were the Warriors and she imagined placing Suki as the brightest among them. The curling lines off towards the north was the Sea, because she missed it — this was the furthest inland she’d ever been and she didn’t like it.

When the stars began to twist above her, she kept herself awake composing a letter in her head to Zuko, because of course she had no paper to write him, and besides, it was dark and they didn’t dare risk a fire.

Dear Zuko , her letter began, quick and perfunctory, with no romance to it, I wish I had never broken the curse on you because then you could still be a dragon and we wouldn’t have to do all this walking. My legs hurt from running. It’s all your fault. Love, Katara.

She’d have to get better at letter writing, she supposed. Maybe they were good at that in the Fire Nation. Zuko probably wrote flowery love letters, overly saccharine and more awkward for it. He’d probably had to, living in a court, with fawning ladies and pretty gardens.

Maybe he was happier there. She wouldn’t even blame him. Who could compare an island prison with a palace? And who would even want to compare some pretty Fire Nation girl to a stupid Water Tribe peasant? Maybe he’d already forgotten about her. That might be easier, at least for him. She should give all of this up, forget this stupid world saving nonsense, and go home to Sokka and Gran-gran. They wouldn’t care if she wasn’t good at writing love letters.

She shook herself. That was the exhaustion talking. And maybe the fact that she hadn’t even been able to keep her hair clean for five whole minutes. She sighed. Someday she’d have a proper bath, and that would be the best day in the world.

The next day, they walked.

Actually, for the next six days they walked, and Katara’s mind started to turn inside out from the mind-numbing boredom of it. The terrain went from grasslands to scrub to rock as they passed around the Kolau Mountains. They stuck to the foothills, despite the constant rise and fall of the terrain, since to their east stretched cracked earth and, in the distance, the rolling red-gold dunes of the Si Wong Desert.

“Can’t go that way,” Toph said, not looking at the desert but with her face turned in its direction. “I can’t feel anything over there. It’s like the earth just drops away into a void. Emptiness. You couldn’t pay me a prince’s ransom to go in there.”

The comment was pointed, since Katara had spilled all her secrets to Toph on their long, long walk. Suki had listened to the whole tale over again, still asking a few pointed questions here and there, but Toph snickered her way through it and at the end declared that Katara was an idiot for going to gaga over “some dumb boy”. At first, Katara thought it was a factor of age or perhaps just personality, but as things went along, she started to think maybe it was actually the “boy” part that bothered Toph.

But she didn’t inquire further. Instead she just rolled her eyes and kept walking.

It took them almost the full week to find anything but dirt and rocks. There were a few small mountain streams from which they drank and refilled their canteens — that, of course, Suki had never mentioned leaving behind. They ate either Suki’s travel rations or the things she or Katara could catch. Mostly, their diet was jerky, which Toph was complaining about when they reached the top of a small hill and saw the river.

This wasn’t a half-stream like the last river they’d seen. This was a real river, wide and swift, with a town at its banks and a long stone bridge arching gracefully across it.

“Oh, thank Moon and Stars,” Katara whispered, her hands inadvertently going to her mouth. “Civilization.”

Suki gave her a wry look. “Weren't you raised on a patch of ice with some tents stuck to it?” she said.

“Yes,” Katara said drawing herself up, “and tents are more than I’ve seen in too long, thank you very much.”

“Fair point,” Suki said and they started down the hill towards the town.

It was a busy place, with more people than Suki’s village on Kyoshi Island, but not as many as Katara imagined would have been in Omashu or the Fire Nation capital. The people here looked like fishers, for the most part, and though the street they entered was still far from the river, the stink of fish suffused the town like a mist. Katara, who was well used to the smells of the sea, its inhabitants, and their decomposition, didn’t mind it so much, but Toph’s nose wrinkled in disgust.

“What is that?” she asked, holding one dirty hand in front of her face, as though she had a leg to stand on when it came to smelling good.

“Hard work,” Katara said primly. “Suki, do you still have that purse? Let’s see if we can find ourselves a bed for the night that isn’t made of rocks and sand.”

A red-roofed inn with a tiled courtyard answered that need and they soon had a room with three mat beds and, to Katara’s infinite relief, a wooden bathtub and fireplace. As soon as they’d put down their things, Katara snatched up the buckets beside the tub and announced that she was going to fill this tub, “and die in it, if possible.”

When she got back with the water — it took her three trips to fill the tub — Suki had scrubbed away the worst of her grime with a damp cloth and she and Toph had gone to get something to eat. Katara was hungry too, but she was more interested in being clean. It was one thing not to have access to a full bath like this, to subsist with wet clothes and animal fat soaps as she had for almost all her life in the southern ice fields. It was another thing to not even have that and be expected to sleep in, on, and sometimes underneath dirt for weeks at a time.

She bathed, fell asleep in the tub, and finally got out when the water began to turn cold. Thinking in terms of practicality rather than attractiveness, she braided her hair into two thick snakes of hair on either side of her face, in the style of some of the Earth Kingdom girls they’d seen. Then she put on a slightly fresher pair of cotton pants and a pale yellow tunic with a quilted jacket, which would keep off the delicate, autumnal chill in the air. Suki had insisted on bringing extra clothing and she’d been right. Katara dunked her traveling clothes into the tub a few times to get off the worst of the grime, then bent the water out of them and left them on one of the mats in a neatly folded pile.

Toph and Suki were downstairs in the inn’s front room, empty bowls in front of them. “Good, you’re done,” Suki said, getting up. “My turn.”

“I can help carry more water up,” Katara offered, wavering on the edge of sitting.

“No need.” Suki grinned and flexed, though with her long sleeves, it didn’t show off much. “I’m a big girl. I can carry some water if I need to.”

Toph yelled for the innkeep and ordered another meal for Katara. It turned out to be simple but filling — sticky rice flavored with ginger, and fat bao , the dough pale and swollen with recent steaming. Katara ate gratefully, trying not to shove the whole dumpling into her face at once, but it was a difficult prospect. They were good, filled with a meat she wasn’t familiar with and flavored with something sweet rather than the spice she was used to from Iroh’s version.

When she was done and her red bowl picked clean of every grain of rice, Toph leaned forward. “This town hasn’t seen very much activity from the Fire Nation,” she said quietly, managing to look casual rather than suspicious which Katara envied. “Even though we’re getting closer to the colonies, they leave them alone here. They mostly fish, though there are some rice fields, but they don't produce enough for the Fire Nation to be interested. Besides, why would they want all these river fish when they live on islands?” Toph snorted as though the very idea was stupid. “It seems safe enough.”

Safe, perhaps, from Fire Nation peeping toms. Not safe from a myriad host of other dangers which were now cycling through Katara’s imagination. She tried to tamp them down, focus instead on how nice it was to have clean hair, but there was no way she could just block out the many, many ways they could get killed in this nice fishing village.

How was that for optimism?

But Toph was right, of course, and Katara was being an idiot. This place was safe, or as safe as they could get right now. Perhaps some soldiers were looking for them, but that was a week’s journey south of here, so she didn’t think word had spread. Besides, what would they say to their superiors? Some little girls beat us up so we have to find them? Somehow, Katara didn’t think that would go over well.

Anyway, she planned on giving the Fire Nation a much better reason to come after her when she stole their prince away. Getting a head start on it probably wouldn’t hurt.

Instead, she sighed deeply and put her chin on the heel of her hand.

“Are you pining?” Toph said with actual disgust in her voice.

“No,” Katara said in the measured voice she was learning to use around Toph to avoid setting off a fight. “I’m thinking about how much I’d like to sink a couple of Fire Nation ships right now.”

Toph’s round face split in two at the mouth as she smile — a discomforting expression at the best of times, which this probably wasn’t. “You know,” she said slyly, “every time I think you’re some kind of nice, goody two shoes who can’t do anything wrong, you say something like that and I think ‘Maybe this girl really could hold her own in a fight’.”

“You know I can do that,” Katara said.

“Yeah. I do.” Toph’s smile stayed in place. Her pale eyes roved over the ceiling as though following the progress of a creature Katara couldn’t see. “Traveling with you hasn’t been all bad, despite how nice you are.”

“Better than Gaoling?” Katara asked.

“Loads.”

“So does that mean you’re going to come with us to the Fire Nation?”

“You know what?” Toph said, tilting her head and reaching for the teapot with awkward hands, “I think it does.”

In the end, Katara poured the tea so Toph didn’t scald herself and they got into a brief spat about Toph having a bath, but it was generally good natured and Katara too realized that she liked Toph, for all the kid was a pain. She thought Sokka would have gotten along with Toph better than Katara did, but since she’d been appreciating his brand of unbridled idiocy her entire life, it wasn’t a hard transition to see things Toph’s way. Or … well, maybe “see” wasn’t the best choice of words.

When Suki returned, they walked through the town, which after some delicate questions they found was called Baiyun and wasn’t a major player in either fishing, transportation, or rebellion and had therefore been left alone by the Fire Nation during their attempts to conquer the Earth Kingdom. The people were generally friendly and Suki managed to replenish their stock of jerky, though Katara would have been happy never to eat dried meat again in her life.

“Look at it this way,” Suki said, waving the heavy waxed bag at her, “it could be seal.”

“I happen to like seal jerky,” Katara said, only half lying.

“But do you like it every single day?” Suki said, letting the bag fall back against her wrist before she stowed it away in her own pack.

Katara had to admit that Suki had a point, so she chose not to respond to avoid the problem. Instead, she glanced up at the sky, shading her eyes. Fluffy clouds floated by, high up against the blue, and Katara bit her lip. If only they could float over this town, no more than a speck below them, instead of having to tromp over mountains and across rivers, living on jerky of unknown providence. That would make this journey so much more pleasant .

Of course, it wasn’t like she could turn into a cloud and fly across the ocean to the Fire Nation, so she turned her face back down to the ground and tried to remember what else they needed.

Suki and Toph were fighting over fruit at a nearby stand — “It’s sweet, Toph, you can’t complain about that, sweet and good for you, no don’t make that face, you’ll get stuck like that” — and Katara edged her way back over to them, out of the center of the market square. She pointed out some fruits that looked tasty, though she had very little experience with anything that wasn’t a meat or a seaweed. Her mouth watered over the round pink globes of some fruit with tight, shiny skin and Suki bought three, insisting that Toph eat one as well.

It tasted of sun and had an almost syrupy sweetness, but Katara ate the whole thing. Even though the evenings were cool enough that she wrapped her tunic more tightly around her, a chill biting at the back of her neck, farmers still came here and sold fruits and vegetables as though it was normal for things to be growing this late in the season. For all Katara knew, it was. Who was she to question a farmer?

They made their way back to the inn and locked the door rather than keep watch. Sleep came more easily to Katara than it had in a long time, since she had an actual pillow and blanket. The sound of Suki and Toph’s breathing was becoming familiar too, and filled in for the absence of Zuko’s, though not quite. A sideways comfort, in a way.

The next morning, they crossed the bridge over the river. The town’s people had called it the Plum River for its odd color, a result of mineral deposits up near its headwaters that gave the whole expanse a vaguely violet edge. Katara resisted the urge to bend some of it up to her, examine the trapped particles that gave it the odd hue, but that would be too obvious. And her Earth Kingdom disguise, basic as it was, wouldn’t stand up against waterbending.

A little downriver was an island where the river divided. At least, Katara thought it was an island. It was too large to see the other side, so perhaps it was just the beginning of a delta. Who knew how far it stretched, but if it ended in the ocean — the right ocean — the Fire Nation was on the far side of it. Katara considered diving straight into the water, creating an ice raft as she had when leaving the volcanic island. She could leave Toph and Suki here and strike out on her own.

Because that had gone so well last time, Katara thought wryly, and tried yet again to pull her head out of the clouds.

It was a good thing too, because they were in the middle of the bridge and Suki kept glancing over at her. When Katara shook her head and made eye contact, Suki raised an eyebrow. “You all right?” she asked.

“Fine,” Katara said, trying to smile. “I’m just miles away.”

Suki’s mouth quirked up in a smile. “At the Fire Nation Royal Palace, maybe? With a certain dragon prince?”

Katara blushed.

“Gotcha,” Suki said, shading her eyes.

They passed people coming in to the town for the new day’s market, their wagons heavy with goods and children who examined the three young women with interested, secretive eyes. Katara barely got out of the way of an elderly man with a rickety cart full of cabbages before he ran her over in his haste to get past.

“So which way now?” Katara asked. “Where are we going?”

“The innkeeper says there’s a town north of here, on the coast.” Suki’s face wrinkled up as though she smelled something foul. “Well, maybe not a town. More of a gathering of undesirables. Black market dealers, pirates, criminals. Fire Nation sailors.” Suki shrugged. “You know the sort of place.”

“Sailors?” Katara said, raising an eyebrow in concern.

“Those jerks from Hongyan aren’t going to have made it all the way up here yet,” Toph said with a confidence Katara didn’t feel. “Besides, what are they going to do? Chase us around the Earth Kingdom like a bunch of assholes? I don’t think so.”

“That sounds like exactly what they would do,” Katara snapped.

“Calm down.” Toph waved a hand. “I can take them out. No sweat. And this time, Katara, you’ll have a whole ocean to dump on them, instead of one measly little stream.”

Katara didn’t know if she could dump an ocean on anyone — probably not — but more importantly, she didn’t want to. She wanted to avoid throwing any bodies of water if at all possible, but she couldn’t tell Toph that. Toph loved a fight, which was going to become a real problem if they kept traveling together.

“More importantly than some skeevy sailors,” Suki said, shading her eyes and looking northward as they stepped off the end of the bridge onto the cobbled road, “did I mention the Fire Nation sailors ?”

“Yes, Suki,” Katara said acerbically, “you did, which is why we’re talking about —”

“And,” Suki continued, slightly louder but otherwise not acknowledging that Katara was speaking, “their Fire Nation ships ?”

At that, Katara fell silent. Fire Nation ships. That could get them directly to the Fire Nation. “Oh,” she said, picking at a loose thread in the sleeve of her tunic. “You meant those ships.”

Suki sighed. “And understanding dawns,” she said, smiling. “See, you’re smart enough. I knew you’d come around eventually.”

“So you want to what, hijack a ship?” Toph’s face lit up. “I’m so ready.”

“No, dummy.” Suki bounced her fist lightly off the top of Toph’s head. “We’re going to use diplomacy on it. I would tell you to look it up in a dictionary, but since you can’t read …”

“I can’t see ,” Toph snapped. “Don’t make me sound like an idiot.”

“You don’t need my help with that,” Suki said, smiling so widely it was evident in her voice, and Toph kicked some sand at her before both of them started laughing.

But Katara was almost efervesent with excitement at just having a plan. This was it. They went to this odd black market not-town, they stowed away on a ship, or talked their way on, or any number of other plans, and then they went to go save Zuko. This wasn’t hard. They could do this.

She smiled and quickened her step down the winding, sandy stones, straight towards the Fire Nation.

Chapter Text

“That’s a lot of Fire Nation,” Katara said quietly.

The three girls stood beneath the roof overhang of a tailor’s shop, rain hammering down on the tiles over their head. Katara peered out from beneath her leaf hat, a few stray raindrops sliding down the lacquered straw and dripping onto the ground in front of her. Toph and Suki wore similar hats; they’d purchased them from a man in a blue tunic who had overcharged for them given the growing monsoon as they came into the town.

Unlike Baiyun, this was barely a town. There were shops, but most of them were staffed with hard, shifty-eyed men and women who smiled without it reaching their eyes. And there were inns but Katara had yet to find one that she thought would leave them unscathed for the whole night. The street gutters ran with trash and dirt, and barefoot children gave Katara thoughtful, feral looks from doorways as they passed.

What the town did have were ships. Dozens of them, arrayed in messy patterns from the piers. There were small fishing vessels, fat trading junks with fanned sails, and slim, delicate ships with dragons carved on the prows. But beyond all of them, arrayed in a much more military faction, were the heavy metal Fire Nation ships, each one a dark streak on the blue-green sea, black even against the rain.

Katara’s heart had started pounding the second she saw them. For a moment, she smelled smoke and blood, remembered her mother’s desperate voice, and watched Zuko be taken away all over again. Fire Nation ships were a bad omen and the thought of boarding one made her blood run cold.

But Suki was right. That was their best option.

It was just a matter of how.

“Okay,” Toph said, her mouth full of a dinner of late season black plums, the skins matte obsidian under the cloud belly sky, “I say we go for a full frontal assault.”

“With three people?” Suki said skeptically. “Yeah, I’ll get right on that.”

“I feel like you’re not convinced.” Toph spat a plum pit into the street, where the water carried it away.

Katara left them to their wild theories and watched a group of drunk, laughing sailors run down the street, gauntleted hands held over their heads as though that would protect them. She lowered her head so the conical hat hid her face just in case, though she didn’t think these soldiers knew her. And anyway, they wouldn’t expect to find her in some foul, black market trading hub on the Earth Kingdom coast. Her location was a better disguise than anything she wore.

“How do we get onto the ship?” she said.

Suki and Toph, bickering goodnaturedly, stopped talking. Suki squinted through the rain at the ships far out in the harbor, while Toph dug her toes into the stone beneath them, sinking a good half inch before she pulled her feet out of the depression she’d made.

“Talking seems like a potential solution,” Suki said thoughtfully, scratching at her chin beneath the silk strap of the hat. “We’d have to be very careful though. It’s a long shot, but we’ll keep  it in the back of our heads. Stowing away would be my first option. Katara, you could get us out there and I’m sure we could find a way to get aboard unseen. My real concern, though, is finding somewhere to hide on one of those ships for the whole journey. And we don’t even know which one of them are heading back to a home port. It’s a plan, but it could be a disaster without careful execution.”

“I’m still in favor of a fight,” Toph said unhelpfully.

Katara glared at her.

“In lieu of that,” Toph said, of course ignoring the look, “we could always intentionally get ourselves captured.”

“Bad idea,” Katara said immediately.

Suki shrugged. “I don’t know, she could be right. At least we’d be immediately taken back to the capital. They’d probably feed us and torture would probably be minimal.”

“No.” Katara was firm in this one thing; she had no intention of being brought to Zuko’s cruel-voiced sister in chains. That was a situation she’d never escape from, and they’d punish Suki and Toph more harshly because of her. Putting them in even more danger was out of the question.

“Fine.” Toph rolled her eyes. “You have so many rules about what we’re allowed to do, it’s honestly a wonder you get anything done. But I guess it’s your prince to rescue, so we’ll do it your way.”

“That’s right,” Katara said with finality, taking her wins where she could get them.

“All right, so we’ll go with stowing away?” Suki raised one reddish eyebrow, watching Katara in the careful, efficient manner of a commander looking over troops. “We’ll need to do a lot of reconnaissance first to get the right ship.”

“We certainly will,” Katara said, shaking her head so raindrops rolled down her hat. “And we’re going to do it by getting close to the enemy.”

“I’m not fucking some Fire Nation —” Toph started, her whole face crinkling.

“No!” Katara yelped, louder than she’d meant to. She managed to lower her voice. “Spirits, Toph, I can’t believe you would even think that.”

“It’s the easiest way,” Suki said. “But I’m not doing it either.”

“I didn’t mean that.” Katara balled the cuffs of her tunic in her fists, shaking her head. “What is wrong with you two?”

“Nothing.” Toph shook her head. “What do you mean ‘get close’ to them?”

Katara, blushing fiercely, pushed her hair out of her face. “I was considering talking to them. Maybe a little coy eyelash batting if necessary. Not … not …”

“You slept with a Fire Nation prince who you couldn’t actually see and now you want to pretend sex is embarrassing?” Suki shook her head. “You’re a study in contrasts, Katara. I respect that about you.” She squared her shoulders and pushed her hat back. “All right, girls, let’s go charm some Fire Nation soldiers.”

“I won’t,” Toph said pointedly.

“Except Toph,” Suki said, transitioning smoothly, “who will be around in case we need back up or someone to arm wrestle.”

“Better.”

Despite her better judgement, Katara chose an eating house near the dock, packed tight with men and a handful of women stinking of smoke and the sea. In the crush of people gathered around small tables within, it was easy enough to become another anonymous face, even after she pushed her hat onto the back of her neck, the weight nearly unnoticeable even as it dripped water down her back.

They didn’t get a table but they did find a corner to lean and left Toph there with the hats while Katara and Suki scanned the room. The Fire Nation soldiers dotted the room like a rash, clustered in loud knots, their shoulder plates clinking against each other over the din of drunken laughter and carousing.

Katara pointed towards one little group of men and nudged Suki. These soldiers were younger than the rest and had a green worry to their faces that made them stand out in a crowd of good natured sailor types, though there were too many flashes of weaponry and nasty, sideways looks for Katara to consider anyone in this room anything but a threat. She couldn't help thinking maybe this place wasn't somewhere nice girls went. But then again, most nice girls weren't flying across the country — the kingdom, the nations — in order to retrieve their lost lover, so maybe Katara just didn't know anything about how people were supposed to work.

No, not maybe. That was absolutely true. Katara knew she wasn't the best judge of character when it came to what was and wasn't proper for her to be doing. That's probably why she was here. That was likely why Zuko had chosen her, some cold peasant girl on a raft of floating ice, instead of a nice Fire Nation girl who would probably have known better than to get on a dragon's back and let him fly her off to stars only knew where.

"Katara?" Suki hissed. Her hand closed down around Katara's elbow and the question in her stormy eyes snapped Katara out of her own thoughts.

"Sorry," she whispered back, tilting her head close to Suki's, both hiding their conversation and making the eating house momentarily disappear into safety and warmth. The bar's overwhelming noise — more than Katara had ever experienced in her life, really — pressed against her, but Suki's presence managed to lessen its otherwise anxiety-provoking atmosphere.

"It's all right," Suki said, her skin warm against Katara's cheek. She managed to keep a smile through the whole conversation, even though Katara personally didn't feel much like smiling at all. It was false, Katara knew, something Suki had managed to plaster onto her face in order to convince the men around them that these were just two sweet, innocent girls who didn't need to be looked at funny in any way. They were safe. Katara tried to project the same kind of feeling towards the other patrons of the bar, soldiers and pirates though they were. She pasted a smile onto her own mouth as Suki spoke.

"Are you doing okay?" Suki whispered. "What's wrong? You looked upset."

"Aren't you?" Katara said through her frozen smile.

"No, I'm not," Suki said, maybe a little more harshly than she needed to given the circumstances, "because we can't afford to be. Come on, get it together. You're here to save the world, aren't you? Not to be uncomfortable because we have to make nice with some creepy assholes in order to do it."

"Creepy assholes," Katara muttered. "Sure. Not murderers."

"Get it together, Katara," Suki hissed. "You suggested this plan, and I swear if Toph finds out you couldn't go through with it, she's going to make so much fun of you, and by Mountain Lady Kyoshi, I will let her."

Katara winced. "You know, for not knowing you all that long, you've got a significant handle on how anxious I get about things."

"Yeah, well." Suki smiled and nudged Katara as though she's just said something cute, rather than a threat. "You're not that hard to read. Now look at that man and then look away."

"What?"

"Look at that eighteen-year-old baby soldier over there, and then smile, and then look down like he's making you nervous because he's just so cute." Suki jerked her chin across the room at the man she's chosen, one of a young group, the kind of boy who should be doing literally anything other than being a soldier.

Katara imagined him in another life, maybe as a farmer or a fisherman. Selling vegetables in a market somewhere in the fire nation, his oval face smiling and open rather than nervous eyes pressed into a face too young for the worry in his brows.

She looked at him, waited for the force of her gaze to draw his attention, then, as Suki had suggested, smiled in the embarrassed manner some of the preteen girls in the village did to her brother and looked away quickly.

"Good." Suki put a hand over her mouth, eyes sparkling as though she was giggling rather than coaching Katara of how to flirt with Fire Nation boys. "Do you think you can take it from here?"

"I can do it." Katara blushed, which was probably Suki's intention, and glanced back up at the boy through her lashes. His eyes darted away as soon as he saw her looking, cheeks going pink, eyes wide and probably a little scared. Katara pressed down at the little voice yelling at her to stop being like this, but she knew she had to. For Zuko's sake, if not for her own. For the sake of the world, or whatever reason Suki had for following her around.

She sighed and put her mind to flirting with the war criminal.

After a minute or so of pretending not to look at the boy while absolutely looking at him, his friend noticed, which was a good thing. Katara had been slowly trying to work out how she was going to go over there and say hello without seeming too forward.

It was likely there were other women here specifically looking for those Fire Nation soldiers, but in a very different way. Being mistaken for a prostitute wouldn't put her on good footing for getting information, and whatever would she do if he tried to pay her? She'd never be able to talk her way out of it and he would be absolutely flummoxed when she wouldn't take whatever coin he tried to give her. So he needed to think she was there for him, not for his purse.

His friend, though, was the best of wingmen and very interested in getting his friend to go to talk to the nice pretty girls on the other side of the bar. Within five minutes, in which Katara and Suki quietly laughed at the boys trying to be obvious without being too obvious, they crossed the room, weaving through traders, pirates, and their fellow soldiers until they were right in front of the two girls and Katara's heart started pounding like a drum.

"Hello, ladies," said the boy's friend, smiling first at Katara and then more broadly at Suki, since it seemed like he'd already set his sights on her. Given Katara's false interest in his friend, it made sense that he was going for Suki, who was clearly the less nervous of the two.

Suki flipped her hair out of her face and gave him a look that said she was a little bit too good for him. Katara didn't want to tell Suki how to do her job — if this could be considered a job — but it seemed like maybe being sweet would be a better choice. She tried to catch Suki's eye in order to convey that feeling, but it wasn't going to happen. Suki was now totally focused on the boy, and from the way he was smiling back still, but with a developing kernel of hard light in the back of his pale golden eyes, he didn't have time for anyone else either anymore.

Katara looked at his shy friend. "Hi," she said softly.

He cleared his throat. "Oh. Um. Hello."

"I'm Min," said Katara, given the same false name Toph had suggested the last time they were in this situation. She pushed her curls behind her ear, trying to show off a little more of her face while also keeping her eyes very firmly down. "I've never met a Fire Nation soldier before."

She tried to sound awestruck and excited, rather than angry, which was what the thought of the Fire Nation military made her.

She probably didn't need to have tried so hard, given how anxious the boy looked as he answered, "I'm not a soldier. No. Um, I'm just a sailor."

"Oh?" Katara fluttered her eyelashes, which felt just about as unnatural as she was sure it looked. Instead of doing it again, she bit her lower lip. "I didn't know there was a difference."

"I'm not much of a fighter." He  shifted from foot to foot, his armor clinking. "I just know how to run the boat.”

Katara smiled. "Isn't that much more interesting though?"

He blushed all the way from his chin to the roots of his dark hair. "I guess so," he said, stuttering slightly on the first word. "Oh, I'm uh ... Miken." He swallowed hard and turned to his friend, likely to introduce him or maybe to fall back and hide under his less awkward wing. Unfortunately, the other soldier had already cornered Suki against the side of a table, hemming her in on one side, though Suki had her arms folded and was smirking in a way that made Katara think the soldier might be biting off more than he could chew.

"Oh," said Miken, which seemed to be his favorite word.

"It's okay," Katara said, trying to give him a smile which might put him at ease, but given that she didn't really feel particularly at ease herself, found it difficult. "You don't need to introduce me to him." She cast a glance at his friend and said, in a way that made it sound slightly scandalous rather than disgusting, "He seems busy."

Miken's face got, if it was possible, even more red, and Katara reached out to pat his arm, as thought that would help. It didn’t. Miken almost jerked away from the touch entirely. She sighed. At least there was no worry that he'd hurt her or try to take advantage of her perceived naivatay. Unlike his friend, he clearly wasn’t the pushy type. On the other hand, that meant getting information out of him would be more difficult that anticipated; she'd have to do all the work herself. Which would probably be exhausting, but that's what saving the world was all about.

At least, that was probably what Suki would say, damn her.

"Where are you coming from?" she asked him. "Are you on a ship?"

He nodded. "Came straight here from the capital," he said, holding himself a little straighter, and she realized he meant the Fire Nation capital. Her heat clenched. That was probably where Zuko was, sequestered away in the royal palace. She knew very little about Fire Nation geography — why would she have had to learn it, living out in the middle of nowhere? — but she wasn't stupid enough to think that he would be anywhere else. A prince belonged in the capital.

As opposed to an island, some traitorous part of her brain said.

She gritted her teeth against the intrusive thought, one incisor scraping her cheek.

"Are you all right?" Miken asked. "You look upset."

Katara pushed the emotion down deep and smiled up at him. "I'm sorry," she said. "I've just never been to the Fire Nation before and I wish I could see it. It must be very beautiful."

"It is," Miken said, with serious wistfulness in his voice. "Incredibly beautiful. Much warmer than here too." He rubbed his forearm, even though that was covered in the leather and metal of his bracer, which had the cotton of his uniform tunic tucked into it. Katara couldn't understand howhe'd be cold, but given that she found herself always warm even in the Earth Kingdom, perhaps it was just being acclimated to different climates. She remembered how little clothing she'd been interested in wearing in Zuko's island palace. It must be the same for Fire Nation soldiers in the South Pole — always cold.

Good. Maybe it would keep them out of her home.

"Are you going back there soon?" she asked, remembering the reason she was even talking to this idiot to begin with.

Miken shook his head, melancholy flooding the lines of his face. "Not for a while," he said. "We've been transferred over to the Colonies, but we put in a stop here along the way. It's a good meeting place for Fire Nation ships to exchange goods and information. Almost every ship comes through here, you know." He offered her a tiny smile, as though this little piece of information might impress her, and she felt so bad for him that she smiled back, letting him think maybe he was right.

"Are you from the Colonies?" he asked, looking her over again with a hopeful brightness to his eyes.

She almost laughed in his face. It would be ridiculous to think that someone with her complexion was from this area, or at least, it would be if he knew what it meant. Given that he was so young, and that he probably hadn't been to the Earth Kingdom before, she should cut him some slack. Besides, it worked in her benefit: not knowing she was Water Tribe kept her safe, whereas more awareness would put her — and through her, Suki and Toph — at risk.

"No," she said, looking down at her toes again, fiddling with her hair, anything to make herself not laugh. "I'm from Ba Sing Se."

"Wow," he said, dark eyebrows rising. "You're a long way from home. Are you traveling?"

She nodded. "With my friend." She gestured to Suki. "We're going to visit our family in Omashu, but we were, um ... " She scrambled for a convincing cover story about what they were doing here, of all place. "We were robbed on the way here. Bandits. They took our ostrich horses and all our money." She gave Miken her best innocent maiden eyes. "It's been hard, but we made it here. And now we have all of you strong soldiers to protect us."

Which was both ridiculous given how many pirates and thieves there were in the bar all around them, but looking like an idiot was Katara's goal. Being stupid got information, she reminded herself, thinking of how many times she'd been able to con Sokka with one strategically placed stupid look. Men were all the same. It wasn't difficult to convince them to do what she wanted if she just pretended to not be particularly bright.

Flattering his ego probably didn't hurt either.

True to form, Miken smiled and puffed up his chest, even though his face was still bright red. "The bandits out there are becoming a real problem," he said, nodding sagely as though he personally knew all about bandits. Which she had no doubt he didn't. He'd probably never even met one in his life. "It's all those Earth Kingdom peasants getting greedy. Especially with the land for the colonies. They're too lazy to relocate and fend for themselves, so they think that the Fire Nation should just given them somewhere to live." He shook his head and she was almost shocked by how easily he'd forgotten he was talking to someone who was, as far as he knew, a loyal subject of the very kingdom he was disparaging. But maybe it was "peasants" that he took offense too, not, "Earth Kingdom". Or maybe he was just an idiot colonizer, just like every other idiot colonizer.

She had to briefly stop to remind herself she was in love with one of these idiot colonizers — the phrase "in love" even inside her own head made her jump — and maybe she should be rethinking that as well, but it was too late to do anything about it now.

"It's really dangerous," Katara managed, nodding. "It was so scary when they caught us. I was afraid ..." She bit her lip rather than give specifics, letting Miken fill in his own ideas of what she'd feared. "But anyway, I hope you do something about them." She shook her head. "Honest people can't even take a simple journey to visit their grandparents anymore. It's unacceptable, don't you think?"

Miken nodded. "Oh. Yes. Absolutely."

Katara bit her lip, trying not to break her character. It was hard, but she bore down with her teeth until it hurt and she had to stop herself from screaming, which would have been better than punching Miken. His face, open and honest, almost made it worse. All she could think was how sweet and awkward he was, and yet how horrible everything that came out of his mouth sounded. She dug her fingernails into her palms and forced a smile.

It probably looked terrible. She smoothed her features, stopped thinking of herself as a Water Tribe girl with a dead mother. She was Min — an Earth Kingdom girl who just wanted to be safe. Maybe meet a nice boy. Start a family. Accept whatever had to happen to let her have a simple, easy future.

Probably the exact opposite of Katara herself, who had never once accepted anything in her life. That was why she was in this situation to begin with.

She let her face relax, smiling up at Miken. Letting him play the big, strong man to her small, delicate lady. She laid her fingers delicately on his arm, then took it away quickly as though she'd let herself go too far. Miken's neck reddened up to the gorget of his armor and he looked away, clearing his throat.

"I just want to tell you," Katara said, fluttering her eyelashes up at him like she had a pair of butterflies glued to her face, "how grateful I am to have someone like you around. To keep us safe. Don't you wish that we all had more people like you who were able to make sure ordinary folk were safe? The world is such a scary place these days."

She didn't bother to mention that, in her opinion, the danger was because of the Fire Nation. The best lies were the truth with parts left out.

Katara glanced over at Suki, hoping maybe she was getting some more information, but Miken's friend had his face buried in Suki's neck. The look on Suki's face would have been hilarious if the situation wasn't so terrible — her eyes were burning and her mouth pressed tight. Katara almost envied Suki's control, for though her fingers twisted into hard fists, the tone of her voice — the words obscured — was still flirtatious and light. She caught Katara's eye, registered that Miken wasn't looking, and rolled her eyes.

Katara muffled a snort of laughter and looked away.

"So are any of the ships going back to the Fire Nation soon?" she said, readopting her wide-eyed idiot stance. "It just seems like you're all here so long, away from home. Don't you miss your family?"

Miken smiled. "There are a few ships that will be traveling back soon. We do get to rotate home, so we're able to see our families sometimes. Not as often as we'd like, of course. That would be too much to ask, but we're all happy to serve Fire Lord Ozai so we know our duty."

"Mmm," said Katara, looking around the room. "Is anyone in here going around back soon?"

"Thinking of trying to visit?" Miken said, and she realized he was trying to tease her, so she only smiled mysteriously.

"You said it was beautiful," she pointed out.

He nodded, agreeing, and indicated a group of men standing near the door. "Their ship came into port yesterday," he said. "And they're just stopping here before they head back to the capital. Here, let's bring him over, I'm sure they'd be happy to talk to you." He raised his voice. "Commander Yoze! Could you come over here a minute, sir?"

The man turned, smiled, and took a whole five steps towards them before Katara's blood froze. His face, the leer plastered across it, were familiar and horrible from their nightmare flight from the river. The commander whose squad had caught them bathing.

Of course it was.

He recognized Katara at the same time she recognized him. His face twisted and red spots roared to life in his cheeks. His mouth opened, showing teeth, his lip curling —

"Suki!" Katara screamed.

Given that she was the commander of an elite force, Katara knew Suki was a capable fighter. But it was one thing to know that and another entirely to watch a Fire Nation soldier fly almost gracefully across the room and crash directly into the open-mouthed Commander Yoze. Suki rose from her crouch and Katara realized that she must have twisted and thrown her handsy sailor friend over her hip. But there wasn't time to think about that.

Suki grabbed Katara's hand, told the stunned Miken, "Excuse us," and yanked her close.

"How do we get out of here?" Katara asked, realizing she had no access to water and wishing she'd come prepared.

"We're going to have to fight our way out," Suki siad, stepping in front of Katara as the whole place turned to look at them in horror. She grabbed a nearby ceramic rice wine bottle and smashed it against the side of a table, wrapping her hand around a shard. Blood ran between Suki's fingers. She glanced at Katara, her grip digging into Katara’s arm. "Try to find something to bend, would you?"

Which was when Toph threw a chair through a shuttered window.

The shattering of wood snapped Katara's head around and she only had a second to register what had happened before Toph roared, "Go!" and Suki dragged her across the room before anyone else could move. Suki shoved at Katara, who scrambled up onto a table and was halfway through the window when the yelling started. She glanced over her shoulder. The shock had worn off. The Fire Nation soldiers were coming towards them, but all at once, bottlenecking themselves in the tight space between tables. Suki threw her shard like a knife. It flipped end over end and buried itself in a soldier's shoulder. He screamed.

"Katara!" Toph yelled. "Hurry up!"

Katara slid out the window into the late night rain. Her feet splashed into a puddle and she raised the muddy water around her head. Suki was about to dive out the window, but she saw what was coming and ducked. Katara threw the water, putting all of her energy into it. Brown, foul-smelling puddle slammed into the bar like a battering ram, but Katara didn't get to see the damage she'd done, because a second later, Suki was rolling out the window and then they were both turning around to yank Toph out after them.

"Great job, guys!" Toph griped as she seized Katara's arm and dragged her into a run. "Fantastic work, as usual. How do you always do this?"

"This wasn't my fault!" she yelled.

"Keep telling yourself that!" Toph yelled back.

"Stop bickering, and let's go!" Suki shoved them both in the back, encouraging them to pick of the pace. They pounded down the street, but the Fire Nation soldiers were already after them. And there were more of them in the town than they could easily escape. Katara almost turned left before she heard the clank of curl-toed boots on muddy earth, and saw more soldiers that way. Everyone was yelling. The previously quiet town smoldering with illicit activity was now loud and bright with it.

"Right!" Toph screamed, and then went right.

The harbor loomed before them and there was nowhere to go.

"Katara!" Suki said when she realized Katara wasn't slowing down. "What are you doing?"

Feet aching with running, Katara glanced at Suki. "Trust me," she gasped back.

"It's not ... that I don't ..." Suki kept up, but her face twisted with worry.  "It's just ... what's your plan?"

Katara reached out, grabbed Suki's hand, and said, "I promise we'll be okay."

She seized Toph's elbow in the other hand and, without slowing down even a step, dragged them both off the edge of the pier and straight into the dark, cold water.

As they dropped, Toph yelling in horror, Katara released them and raised her hands  as gracefully as she could while hurtling through a rainy night into an ocean, twisting them above her head, one palm facing the other.

The water opened beneath them and caught them, closing over their heads as the bottom of the bubble Katara had created cradled them and they sank slowly to the bottom of the harbor.

"Okay," Suki panted, splaying against the water, the surface tension of which was suspiciously strong. Strong enough to support three girls. "I should have ... trusted you."

"I can't see anything," Toph said.

Katara and Suki both looked at her.

"I can hear you judging me," Toph said, upset, but sprawled out on the bottom of the bubble as though she didn't have a care in the world. "I mean I have no bending. Because you know. All the water." She waved a hand, then flopped back onto the bottom of the bubble, eyes closed.

The bubble began to settle on the base of the harbor, which made Toph sit up, spluttering as damp sand, rocks, and flattening seaweed pressed against her back. Suki got her feet under her in a slightly more graceful manner and a moment later, all three girls stood in the dark on the bottom of the ocean, breathing quietly and lit only by the subtle blue glow of Katara's waterbending.

"We need to keep moving," Katara said, looking around. "We don't have a lot of air in here with us, and if we use that up, we'll suffocate. Besides, they might decide they need to come into the water and no one wants to try to fight off swimming Fire Nation soliders and pirates while twenty-five feet underwater."

Toph shifter her feet, biting her lip. "I'm not at my full awareness down here," she said as though saying they shouldn't expect much, "but there's enough rock that I can tell you we should head that way." She pointed north. "The harbor's natural. It'll slant up to dry land away from town. And we can circle back around to grab our things."

Katara bit her lip, then nodded, turning the way she'd pointed. She shifter her hands into a twisting, round motion, as though she held an invisible ball between her palms. The bubble began to move and she walked along with it, slowly pickiner her way around rocks.

"So," Suki said, taking Toph's hand to keep both of them inside the bounds of the bubble. "I think stowing away might be out of the question now."

Katara groaned. She hadn't thought that far, but Suki was right. They'd angered enough Fire Nation soldiers that they'd never get close enough to any ship to get aboard. That significantly cut down the ways into the Fire Nation. Katara bit her lip. Maybe she could work through it some other way? She'd have to rework her ice floe. Maybe something more like a boat. She'd never made anything out of ice, so it would be hard, but —

"I have an idea," Toph said. "But you might not like it."

"I think we'll take anything you got, kiddo," Suki said, sounding exhausted, which Katara agreed with wholeheartedly.

"Well," Toph said, reaching out and idly poking the side of the bubble as they moved under the shadow of one of the huge ships floating at anchor above them, "have you ever been to the Western Air Temple?"

Chapter Text

Katara leaned back on her hands and watched the sunset stain the mountains red. Her view was south, over sharp peaks and ocean, rolling down and away as their transport scraped along the rough outcroppings. There wasn't a road, as such, but that at least had been expected. Katara wasn't pampered enough to expect something as easy as a road. That didn't mean she was particularly enjoying this traveling experience though. Who would?

Though she had to admit, it was better than walking. And the mountains here were beautiful. More beautiful than any she'd seen in her life, though in fairness, she didn't have a lot to compare them to. Just a volcano or two, and the flat, unending ice shelf of her life. Though now, she had to admit, she'd have stories to tell whenever she got back home. No one would believe her about the way the sun set the peaks ablaze as it sunk into the sea, each mountain ringed in red fire, bleeding down the slopes.

Suki sat beside her, also silently contemplating the beautiful, harsh landscape laid out before them. She watched the scenery roll by with her head cocked to one side. In the weeks since their disastrous attempt to board a Fire Nation ship, she'd kept her cheery attitude, which was good given how unhappy both Katara and Toph tended to get about the amount of walking they had to do — all the way around the Fire Nation colonies, up the coast to the north, a quick jaunt by stolen fishing boat across the strait, and now into the mountains.

The weather cooled too the further north they went and Katara realized at some point they must have passed through the hottest part of the continent and were now closer to the North Pole than the South. Her stomach clenched at the thought. What was she doing, so far from her people? Her sister tribe, still somewhere on the other side of the world, was lost to her and the very idea that she could reclaim those people if she just walked far enough was insanity, but yet, here she was. Almost to another version of her own home, one she didn't know. One that she couldn't, or wouldn't, know, given how little support the southern folk had received from the northerners after years of raids and burnings.

But it didn't do to dwell on that now.

Behind them, on the other end of their rocky transportation, stood Toph, feet set as though she too was a rock. She had her hands up in one of her classic bending stances — elbows crooked, palms facing towards her — and every once in a while, she'd move her hands slightly in one direction or the other, which would change their trajectory. Their transport was a huge rocky outcrop, about five feet in diameter, flat on the top with a conical bottom which Toph was able to guide along the sides of mountains, through passess that would have been impossible to climb to. Every day, they would get as far as they could on Toph-power alone and then they would camp on their rock, set into the ground by its pointed base.

It was day three of this, and shockingly, Toph hadn't fallen over from exhaustion. Likely because after too long, both Suki and Katara would start yelling at her to stop. That worked all right, but it was always the promise of food that made Toph finally see reason.

It was about time anyway. Suki looked at the setting sun. "If we're going to be able to catch anything," she said, speaking as their resident hunter, "we'll have to stop."

"What was that about hunting?" Toph's left hand made a gentle movement away from her body and the rock slid down a brief depression in one mountain and then up onto a secondary peak.

"I'm hungry," Suki said, leaning her head back to show her long, pale throat to the sun, which immediately turned it as bloody as the mountains around them. "Are you hungry?"

"Yes," Toph said, gritting her teeth as though the rest of her statement was going to hurt her, "but we're almost there."

And then the rock stopped abruptly.

It was so sudden that Katara and Suki both jolted back, banging against their packs which were piled in the center of the rocky platform. They scrambled to their feet, turning, but saw nothing, only …

"Mist?" Katara said, confused by what stretched before her eyes. The whole area in front of them was full of fog, stained red and pink from the sun. It was strange, this odd, open area where there should have been mountains, and Katara's mind couldn't quite fill in the gap. Something about it was off. Unnatural.

No. Manmade.

"I don't get it," Suki said. "Where's the temple?"

Toph pointed, straight down into the mist. "It's in there," she said.

"In the mist?" Katara squinted as though that would help her see through the opaque covering.

"Not mist," Suki said, apparently understanding what was happening first. "Cloud. That's cloud."

Katara opened her mouth. If that was cloud, she wanted to protest, then whatever was in front of them was creating some kind of atmospheric condition. It was deep, carved out from the mountains. Some kind of pit …

"The temple's down there," Toph said again, nodding with full confidence as she sat down on the edge of her rocky transport and rubbed her thighs, wincing. "But we should hunt for dinner before we go down. I'm guessing that they don't have a lot of rabbit goats in that hole."

"Why is the Air Temple in a hole?" Katara asked, exasperated and tired of traveling.

"How am I supposed to know?" Toph said. "I'm not an Air Nomad."

"There aren't even supposed to be any more Air Nomads," Katara pointed out, annoyed, even as she clambered over to the side of the platform to peer down into the cloud cover. "I don't know why you think taking us here is a good idea."

Toph rolled her eyes, which was always strange given that she's have had to learn about it without ever once seeing it done. "Oh, so everyone just has to trust you, but when I have an idea, it's all, 'No, Toph, we can't do that, there aren't any Air Nomads, no one lives that that temple, what's wrong with you?" She stuck her tongue out at nothing. "You know, I have some secrets of my own."

"I don't doubt that," Katara said, "but knowing about Air Nomads when they're all supposed to be dead is a pretty big secret. A little hard to believe."

Suki coughed loudly. "So I'm going to go shoot a goat for you two to squabble over," she said loudly, pulling out her small bow and a couple of handmade arrows, both of which she'd somehow managed to fashion on the journey here. "Don't push each other into the pit, all right?"

"Oh, yeah," Toph said sarcastically, "because I'm really scared of her pulling anything like that."

"Lady of Mountains give me strength." Suki rolled her eyes. "You two are morons. I'll be back."

Slightly stung by the comment, Katara watched Suki hop off the platform and clamber up the rough side of the mountain, almost like a rabbit goat herself. In the gathering darkness, her form was soon lost to sight and Katara sat back, running her hands absentmindedly over her pack. It was rougher now than it had been when she'd packed it, all those months — half a year almost — ago. It had been drowned, dragged across the whole Earth Kingdom, buried, and now up into some unknown mountains full of clouds. And yet, it still managed to keep her possessions safe and dry, sometimes to an almost miraculous degree. She'd have to thank Gran-Gran the next time she saw her for its amazing construction. Sometimes it seemed like the pack had a mind of its own.

She and Toph lapsed into a companionable silence. Despite the bickering Toph engaged in with everyone near her, Katara found she liked the girl. It was hard, sure, but what wasn't? And besides, Toph was young. Maybe some of her sharp edges would wear off in time. Probably not, but one could always hope.

"I'm going to take a nap," Toph said, lying back and, to Katara's eyes, doing just that. Within seconds, she was snoring.

Katara shook her head, still shocked by Toph's ability to not care about a single thing in the world when she put her mind to it. It was something Katara wished she could do. But she couldn't stop caring. Apathy wasn't something she was at all good at, and  maybe that was for the best. At least a couple of people on this journey had to care. Someone had to be in charge of feeling things, thinking they were important. Suki was very good at thinking logically, keeping everything in perspective, but Katara had no doubts that if necessary, Suki would sacrifice herself or anyone else for that greater good. Toph couldn't be bothered to even think about something like a greater good, much less the worth of one life. That left it almost entirely up to Katara to consider multiple angles rather than what was right (in Suki's case) or easy (in Toph's).

The line of thought was depressing. She put her chin in her hands and leaned back to watch the stars.

By the time Suki came back, Katara was almost in a half-doze, but Toph awakened almost instantly, shooting up from her prone position so quickly Katara screamed. They both laughed at her for that as Suki began to clean her kill, opening up the rabbit goat's belly and draining its guts and bowels down the side of the mountain with ruthless efficiency. Katara helped with the process as well — it wasn't much different from a tiger seal, though with less blubber — and Toph complained about how long it took, since neither Katara nor Suki trusted her with a knife or the flint stone enough to make herself useful.

Within an hour, they had their dinner in hand, eating the chunks of meat on skewers  cut from the twisted trees growing in pockets of soil along the slopes. "If we go down there in the morning," Suki said, "we might be more welcome by whoever's down there. If there's anyone at all."

"There'll be someone," Toph said with that easy confidence she'd showed about the entire process. It was a little frustrating, since she hadn't given them any more information apart from the location. In fact, Katara wasn't even sure that there were Air Normads down there, or if that was who Toph was looking for. It was simply the easiest guess based on where they were.

"But we can't stay up here tonight," Katara pointed out. Already the winds whipping up from the unknown pit beneath them were pushing wet clouds through the mountains, chilling them and dampening their skins and clothing. "There's no shelter. With the wind and the wet, it'll be too cold to sleep safely. Look how hard it was to get the fire going." She waved her hand at the embers, which they'd had to shelter with their packs and bodies. Already, the winds had scattered them across the platform and the bed was cold and still, without a hint of flame.

"Do you think it'll be any better down there?" Suki asked, waving a skewer of gamey, unseasoned meat.

"There are buildings down there at least," Toph said, wiggling her toes. "I can feel them. They can shelter us from the winds and maybe someone down there will be nice enough to lend us a blanket or two. I know you two have trouble sleeping on rock."

"That's because we can't mold it to our bodies like you do," Katara said sweetly.

"Yeah, I know. It's a real failing for you." Toph grinned. "Must be a real pain in the ass."

"Thanks, Toph, that's really helpful."

Suki sighed, picking rabbit goat out of her teeth with one pinky nail. "If there are buildings down there —"

"There are," Toph assure her.

"If there are," Suki said, louder and with more conviction that there weren't, "we don't know who lives in them. You haven't told us anything about the people —"

"Because you'll find out when we get there." Toph sounded as though she was talking to a very stupid child. "I don't get why you're being so stubborn about this."

"That's a little hypocritical of you, Toph," Katara said. "Don't you think?"

"No."

Suki ripped the last of the meat off her skewer. "Fine," she said. "If you wanna go down there tonight, we'll do it. But if you're wrong, I'm going to push you into that bottomless pit and we'll see who's laughing then."

"Deal," Toph said, unconcerned, getting up. "Everyone keep your arms and legs inside the earthbending at all times."

With only that for warning, Suki and Katara scrambled to gather their things, including the remaining uncooked rabbit goat, before Toph set her feet, raised her hands, and dropped them straight into the pit.

Katara yelped, half with fear, but half with exhilaration. Their decent was fast, but not so fast that they went flying, for which she was happy. She managed to snag the last two skewers of meat but the rabbit goat, slippery without its skin and unable to hang on to the platform, slid off and dropped away from them. Katara couldn't hear its body hitting the ground, and she didn't even know how far away that might be. Their view was obscured by clouds pressing around them, black as the last light from the vanished sun faded from the sky above.

Straining her eyes to see, Katara hugged her pack to her chest, sharing a terrified look with Suki, who mouthed, "I told you so!" before the clouds thinned and they could see what they had descended into.

It was still mostly obscured, given the cloud cover and the darkness, but off to their right, Katara could make out the roofs of some kind of pagoda, but all inverted. The sight gave her a strong sense of vertigo, her mind trying to piece together a new upside down. There was some light leaking through the clouds, which reflected off the undersides of the pagodas. They looked like a collection of intricate stalagmites and Katara felt like she too should be the other way around, but looking at them in this way made her stomach ache.

Below the temple roofs were flat platforms and decks, some with columns ringing them, and Katara was grateful for her night vision that she could make those out at all. Unlike the pagodas, they were carved from the same rock as the pit, making them blend with the background. What allowed her to make them out most were the collections of white balls dotting them, which looked small from above until they descended closer and Katara could appreciate their full size. Most were as big as an igloo roof, with some a quarter of that size, and they clustered together like puffball mushrooms.

"What's that?" Katara asked Suki, pointing to them.

"Sky Bison," Suki said, and there was a note of awe in her voice that made Katara startle just a little, it was so unusual. "I've never seen one before, but they said the Air Nomads kept them. Or maybe just lived with them, it's hard to tell." She shrugged, still watching them. "They're the first airbenders, and whatever the relationship, the Air Nomads nearly worshiped them."

Katara looked again and, now that they were close enough and her vision was sharpening, adjusting to this lack of light, she could see the lumps were fluffy, and rising and falling with breath. Sky Bison. They were huge, she though, wondered what they looked like when they weren't asleep. She'd have to try to get a better look when there was a little more daylight. Sokka would love to hear about them. Actually, Sokka would probably try to eat one and get himself tossed off a cliff by some Air Nomads, which he'd deserve.

But she'd tell  him anyway. He'd like it.

Toph slowed their decent and the platform scrapped sideways, jostling Katara's seated pose into something splayed and awkward. She got her legs back under her just in time for Toph to bring the platform in gently against the side of one of the long decks beneath the pagodas, almost like some kind of landing pad. No wonder the bison slept here, Katara thought. It must be easy for them to land here when they came home to ... roost? Did bison roost?

This area, however, was mostly free of bison and they stepped onto the carved stone with trepidation but no hindrance. Katara pulled her pack onto her back and Suki did the same. Toph cocked her head one way, then the other, her bare feet sliding across the ground as though she was getting her bearings. Her pale eyes blinked once, then she nodded.

"We're in the right place," she said.

Suki dug in a side pocket of her pack and produced a flint, her small knife, and one of the slim torches she kept there for emergencies. With quick efficiency, she lit the beacon and held it up to get a better look at their surroundings.

Katara gasped.

There was a simplicity to the architecture of the temple, which consisted mostly of large columns, open doorways, and simple floored spaces with perhaps a well or koi pool, now empty and dry. But it was the tiny details that sang through the place. In carved alcoves to their right sat three huge statues of seated women, their hair shaved well back from their foreheads, eyes closed, faces serene. They must have been twenty-five feet high each, even sitting, and Katara felt suddenly tiny, as though her kind — humans — shouldn't be allowed in this place made for giants.

White paint clung to the stone, though only in patches as though time had stripped it back without a single human to prevent it. There was stone dust, old leaves, and layers of dirt in the corners of the courtyard, and the place smelled strongly of what Katara had to assume was bison dung. She wrinkled her nose.

"There's a door," Suki said, pointing to a curved archway, still dark and unlit. She stepped forward and Katara followed, nervous, biting at her lip as though that would maybe stop Sluki from her gung-ho exploration. Toph was already moving ahead of them, her feet sure and shockingly silent on the old stones, though Katara wasn't sure Toph had ever been quiet at anything else.

They moved into the temple itself, wandering through empty rooms and hallways, all bearing old paint and the signs of the  people who used to live here, care for this place. Everything was beautiful but ancient and abandoned. It filled Katara's chest with melancholy and she found herself wiping away at tear at the thought of this elegant place left to rot with its caretakers dead. Like her own people, the Air Nomads had been attacked by the Fire Nation, but they hadn't been lucky enough to lose only their benders, mothers, brothers, fathers ...

They'd lost everyone.

More correctly, this temple had, Katara thought, as though the temple was a living being and missed the people who used to live in it. She trailed her fingers along a wall, collecting dust and the evidence of old whitewashing.

They came to another archway to outside and poked their head out to see part of the bison herd sleeping soundly on the rocky ledges. Up close, their size came into full focus and Katara stared open mouthed. Bigger than a polar bear dog. Bigger than six polar bear dogs all pressed together. The adults were massive, even to someone who had lived with a dragon. She used that as a size comparison and found that the bison's heads were probably bigger than Zuko’s had been, taller than she was by an order of magnitude. Their mouths were as wide as she was tall.

Suki pressed a finger to her lips and they slipped back into the bowels of the temple, their light the only way to guide them.

The temple was labyrinthine, with arches set along halls. When Katara peered into some of the small rooms, she found the remnants of old cots and bedding, most lost to moth mice and other scavengers. Some were simply piles of mildew.

"What's that?" Suki said at the next intersection.

Katara turned, following Suki's pointing finger. Down a hallway, back towards the outside and the resting place of the bison herd, a flicker of firelight lit the stones. Between the light Suki held and this new one was a patch of darkness, made even blacker by the contrast, but Katara turned anyway, striding resolutely towards the strange glow while flipping open the skin of water at her hip, just in case. Beside her, she heard the whisper of Suki's fan opening, held low against her leg, and behind them, the scraping rumble of Toph's bending, despite all Toph's indication that they needed to trust her more.

There wasn't a lot of trust to go around these days.

The light, they saw as they approached, came from a low fire burning in one of the old ponds. Sheltered slightly from the wind, it illuminated another group of fluffy bison, each one guilded in pale gold and orange. There were young ones here too, small lumps of fur and curled legs.

But there was one bison set slightly apart from the others, curled into a loaf shape, its long, flat tail tucked under its body, and on its side, pillowed against its plush fur, was a boy.

Katara blinked.

He was about Toph's age, maybe fifteen or sixteen, and very skinny in the way of someone who has recently gone through a growth spurt. His limbs were slightly too long for his body and stuck out of his saffron and gold robes, showing a few inches of bare ankles and wrists. His head was shaved bald and against his pale skin was a tattoo of a blue arrow, curving over the back of his skull and ending with the point just above his eyes. Similar arrows marked the back of his hands and the tops of his bare feet.

Despite the cold, he seemed to be sleeping very soundly, his head thrown back into the bison's fur. His mouth was slightly open and the softness of his face only accentuated the baby fat still visible there.

"What ... ?" Suki whispered. "Who is he?"

"He's an airbender," Katara said, her eyes flicking from his robes to the beads strung around his neck to the arrow tattoos. "Got to be."

"He can't be an airbender," Suki said as though Katara was being stupid, which maybe she was. "They're dead."

"So what is he?" Toph asked as though all of this was only proving her point. Which maybe it was. She looked smug, arms folded, grinning, but she often looked smug so there wasn't a lot to go on.

"Toph," Suki growled.

"What?" Toph shrugged and pushed past Suki to step into the ring of firelight around the boy.

The bison, roused by her presence, looked up and opened its huge, blunt-toothed mouth. The sound it made was like a tiger seal's bellow, but lower, louder, even though it was clearly trying to be quiet. Toph stepped back, just a little but enough to set Katara on edge. Anything that upset Toph was bad news. Really bad news.

The boy groaned and stretched, his eyes fluttering open as he blinked up at the three girls.

"Oh," he said, as though strangers wandered into his air temple all the time. He smiled, which made him look even younger, despite the shaved head and the heavy wooden beads. "Hello."

"Hi, Aang," said Toph.

"Wait a second." Suki stomped forward, holding her torch above her head, her mouth pursed in annoyance. "Toph, you know him?"

"Sure I do." Toph stepped forward and sat down on the edge of the pool-turned-fire-pit, rubbing her hands together and holding them out towards the flames. "I wouldn't bring you two all the way out here on some wild goose chase, would I?"

Katara rolled her eyes, since that sounded like exactly the kind of thing Toph would have done, but didn't say anything. She was watching the boy, who sat up and rubbed his eyes, blinking around at his sudden visitors. He didn't look upset by their presence, or even really confused. Just as though he'd been expecting something like this all along and was glad they'd finally made it.  Which, if Katara was being honest with herself, was exactly how she'd expect an airbender to react to her.

He was almost like a stereotype of what she'd thought to find in this place, abandoned though it was, which made her a little suspicious of his presence.

"Katara," Toph said, indicating her, "Suki, this is Monk Aang."

Aang got to his feet and bowed to them, one hand curled over the other. His robes were mussed and covered in bison hair, which made him slightly less impressive than Katara had anticipated from a lost airbender, but his smile was so big and so easy that she couldn't help but to smile back. "It's nice to meet you," said Aang, a very young answer for someone who shouldn't even exist. "Welcome to the Western Air Temple. Toph." He turned to her and smiled, a genuine smile though Katara wasn't sure if there was anything Aang could do that wasn't genuine. "It's good to see you again. How's your family?"

"Still the worst," Toph said cheerfully with a shrug. She waved to the bison. "Hi, Appa."

The bison bellowed at her in what seemed to be a friendly way.

"Toph," Suki said softly, though there was awe in her voice as there must be in Katara's as well, "how do you know an airbender monk?"

Toph shrugged. "He came through town once. Back when I was still with my parents. Actually, just before I left home, before I met you two. Said he was on a pilgrimage."

"How did one of the lost Air Nomads get away with just casually wandering through some Earth Kingdom town without arousing suspicion?" Katara asked, as suspicious herself as she thought the townsfolk might have been.

"I disguised myself," Aang said brightly. "You'd be surprised what a little bison hair can do to make someone look like an old man. It's a great trick."

Katara peered at him, wondering where this boy had come from. He didn't act like she'd thought an Air Nomad would. He didn't spew out confusing advice like Iroh or give her a sense of spiritual inner peace. He looked like a boy. He acted like one too, maybe even a little young for his age. But all of her questions paled against her real issue which was how on earth an Air Nomad had survived the Fire Lord's raids and burnings one hundred years ago. Clearly no one else from this temple had made it out alive. And there was this boy, just a normal kid sitting around in the abandoned ruins of his ancestors? Something was fishy, Katara thought, and she was the expert on fishy.

But Aang's eyes, colorless in the firelight, gave away nothing but a general decent nature and some excitement about seeing other people.

"Is anyone else here with you?" she asked as though he was a child she needed to return to his parents.

Aang shook his head. "Just me. And Appa, of course." He leaned back to pat the bison's shoulder. "We move around a lot, just the two of us."

"What about ..." Katara asked, trying to find the right way to ask her question, "the rest of you?"

Aang smiled and finally Katara saw an expression on his face that didn't look open and honest. "Oh, that," he said, but didn't expand on it. A spark gathered in the corner of his eye and Katara watched it dance there, wondering what exactly that meant. But of course, it was clear she couldn't ask him. He wouldn't tell her. That much was clear.

Okay. So no questions.

"Do you come here often?" she asked, indicating the temple.

Aang shook his head. "I've only been once. I went to all the air temples when I was young, or what's left of them." He shook his head. "Some have been left to rot, which is a real shame. Like this one. Maybe someday we'll be able to get some monks out here to clean it up but ..." and then a sadness slipped into his face, one that Katara knew well because it was the one that lived in her own heart, with the memory of her mother's death, "... Well, maybe not right now."

Katara nodded. She couldn't help but feel for Aang, even though she still had no idea what he was doing there. He shouldn't exist. For years, she'd been told that not a single Air Nomad had escaped the Fire Nation's rain of destruction. They'd killed every single monk and nun they found in the temples.

But, she realized suddenly, thinking back on the rooms and their musty, half eaten contents, she hadn't seen any bodies.

It had been a hundred years ago, a more logical part of her mind said. Of course there weren't any bodies. Nothing could survive in a place as open as this for one hundred years, not even a skeleton. If there were any bodies — and honestly, why was she hoping they'd run across some? — they would have been eaten, or taken off by scavengers years ago. The bones were probably down in that pit, left there by birds and anything else that lived here in the strange ecosystem of mountain, canyon, and wind.

But Aang smiled mysteriously at her again and Katara wasn't sure.

Suki had folded her fans again and stuck them through the sash of her tunic, but she hadn't stopped eyeing Aang with the suspicion that Katara knew she too should share. It was stupid of her to let her guard down, she thought. Stupid, stupid, stupid. And yet here she was, just accepting this odd, bald boy because he had a charming smile and a mysterious story? She'd have to work on that at some point. That gullibility. It wasn't healthy.

"So, while I'm so glad we've been able to meet you," Suki said, "what I'd really like is for Toph to tell us why she dragged us all the way up and down a mountain range to find you."

"I couldn't tell you that," Aang said, looking at Toph as though she could see him. "I told her where I was going because it seemed like maybe she might someday need a friend. I wasn't expecting her so soon." He glanced from her to Suki and back. "And not with companions."

"We need help," Toph said, kicking her bare heels into the stone. "We're in some trouble because Katara here is on an epic quest to save her boyfriend."

Katara blushed. "It's not like that," she said, even though it was exactly like that.

"What are you saving him from?" Aang asked, cocking his head to one side, birdlike.

"The Fire Nation," Toph said.

"His parents," said Suki at the same time.

Aang's eyebrows, which were as dark as Katara's own and the only indication of his hair color, pinched together in the middle. "Who is this boyfriend?" he asked Katara.

She cleared her throat and looked away. "The crown prince of the Fire Nation," she said quietly. the words grating out of her throat like ice on stone.

Aang's eyes got very wide and he whistled softly, which made Appa perk his ears up. "Your boyfriend is the prince of the Fire Nation?" he repeated, and Katara could only nod. "But ... and forgive me if this is out of line, you're from the Water Tribes. Aren't you?"

"I am," she said. "It's a long story."

Suki snorted, but her hand was falling away from her fans finally as though she'd decided Aang wasn't really a threat. Which was good, because her nervousness was infecting Katara as well and without one calloused hand on her weapon, Suki was an easier person to be around.

"She's putting it mildly," Suki said, folding her arms instead as she kept her eyes fixed on Aang despite the apparent decision not to murder him. "But the point is, if we can get him back, we can end the war between the nations."

"Suki has lofty ambitions," Katara said.

As though the conversation had tired him out just from the having of it, Aang sat down on Appa's middle paw, his robes pooling across the pads of the bison's foot. "So, a Water Tribe girl saving the lost prince of the Fire Nation is going to stop the war?" he said, and he didn't look nearly as disbelieving as Katara would have thought. Instead, his round face was thoughtful and there was an age to his eyes that hadn't been there a second ago, as though there was in fact something about being a monk that made one older and wiser than regular people. "You really think that will work?"

"I do," said Suki, all conviction.

"Me too," Toph added, raising her hand as though a vote was being taken.

That surprised Katara. She figured Toph was along for the ride because it was fun and somewhere to be, not because she had any real investment in the cause that Suki was so interested in. Katara gave Toph a shocked look and caught Suki doing the same.

As though she could feel their eyes on her, Toph shrugged. "What? Just because I come from a place that hasn't been touched by the war doesn't mean it won't get there eventually. And I mean, my parents are jerks but I don't want to see them killed by the Fire Nation." She rolled her eyes. "I don't care a lot or anything, but I'm still a little patriotic at least."

"Really?" Suki said, legitimately confused.

"Well, I mean, I don't wanna bow to anyone, much less some asshole from a hot rock with glowy fingers." She waved her hands in front of her in a parody of firebending. "Isn't a girl allowed to want her people not to get caught up in a war? Is that so much to ask?"

"And you think this'll work?" Aang asked, looking at Toph as though it was only her opinion that mattered. Which would make sense, given that she was the only one he knew, and both Katara and Suki were strangers breaking into his temple and disturbing his bison.

Toph sighed and laid one hand on the wall of the pool next to her. She let herself droop to that side, head lolling onto her shoulder, all tension going out of her posture. "I don't know," she said with so much raw, easy honesty in her voice that Katara wondered how Toph was even a real person. No one was like her. "I haven't met Katara's prince, but I know her. And I trust her, though don't tell her that."

"I'm right here," Katara muttered and Suki gave her a long suffering twist of a smile.

"She's smart and she's tougher than she looks," Toph added.

"And you can't even see me, so I'm going to take offense to that," Katara hissed, which made Suki's smile stretch wide enough that she had to put a hand over her mouth to stop from laughing.

"And here's the deal," Toph said, stoically ignoring everything that was going on beside her and focusing on Aang, or in his general direction. "Katara wouldn't tie herself up to someone who was interested in hurting anyone else. I know the Fire Nation's a bunch of assholes. Especially their royalty. We've all had to deal with that. But she's not just Water Tribe. She's Southern Water Tribe. They've been destroyed by raids for the last hundred years, ever since the Air Nomads were 'out of the way'." The way she said it, with venom in her voice, made it clear exactly what that meant and how much it disgusted her. "Katara, would you get involved with some prince just because he was a prince?"

"No," Katara said truthfully. "I didn't even know who he was until later."

"How do you feel about the Fire Nation?" Toph asked.

Katara made a face, and then, just to really hammer it home, spat to one side, hitting a cobweb by the wall. Visceral disgust welled through her at the thought of those soldiers by the river, and the cruelty on Zuko's sister's face. The Fire Nation had taken almost everything from her. She wasn't going to let it take Zuko too.

Toph made a gesture with one hand to Katara as though showing her off to Aang. "See?"

"Okay," Aang said slowly, looking from Katara to Toph. "So she wouldn't get involved with Fire Nation to hurt anyone, or for her own gain. What's your point, Toph?"

"My point," Toph said as though she was talking to an idiot again, which Katara noticed she did far too often for comfort, "is that if anyone's going to take the Fire Nation down by using their own prince, it's going to be the Water Tribe girl who hates them."

"You could probably have just left it at agreeing with me," Suki said.

"What's the fun in that?" Toph grinned, too many teeth for her small face.

Aang considered them. "So you want to take down the Fire Nation with a blind earthbender, a Water Tribe girl, and a ... " He peered at Suki. "I'm sorry, not to be rude, but what is it you do?"

"I'm a Kyoshi warrior," Suki said, deadpan.

His eyebrows shot up again. "Okay, that I believe could probably take down the Fire Nation."

Suki smiled with cruelty in her face.

"No," Toph said, "we want to take down the Fire Nation with a blind earthbender, a Water Tribe girl, a Kyoshi warrior, and an Air Temple monk."

Aang considered them for a second, his hand going up to his chest and resting on the wooden medallion there, carved with the curling symbol of the Air Nomads and hung with saffron silk tassels. His fingers ran over the grooves of the carving, thoughtful, almost meditative. For a long time, his eyes settled on Katara's face and she met his gaze, keeping her chin high and her mouth firm and steady.

Finally, he smiled.

"All right," he said, clapping his hands together. "How do we do it?"

Chapter Text

From above, the biggest island of the Fire Nation archipelago looked like the base of a flame, the smaller islands fanning up from it like a tail of fire. The great curved harbor that filled the belly of the island was dotted with black ships, tiny from their altitude, moving in strange patterns across the surface of the blue water. Very blue, for something so full of machinery and warships, Katara thought, thinking about the water off the volcano island and how it had always been so beautiful and bright. Here, nearly the same shade was a threat, like a poisonous animal warding off predators.

Not that they were particularly intimidating predators. Despite everything Toph had said back at the air temple, Katara still didn't feel like much of a world saver.

It was easier to see being a hero, though, in clean clothes and riding on the back of a six legged bison through the sky. That was enough to give anyone a feeling like they could save the world. Like being on Zuko's back over the sea, there was a feeling of wonder, of seeing something most humans couldn't experience.

She scooted forward in the huge leather saddle afixed to Appa's back, to where Aang sat near the bison's shoulders, holding the reins. She leaned half over the edge to talk to him and he turned back, smiling. His eyes sparkled under the late day sun.

"Hi, Katara," he said as she adjusted her seat to make herself more comfortable. "Getting used to flying on bison-back?"

"It's easier than dragon-back," Katara said.

Aang let out a surprised little laugh. "You've been on a dragon?" he asked in shock. "How?"

"Remember how I told you that it was a long story?" Katara said.

"Part of the story was dragons?"

"The prince," Katara said, embarrassed to be talking about this yet again. "His name is Zuko. He wasn't lost, he was cursed into the shape of a dragon. For most of the time I knew him, that was what I knew him as. So  yes. Part of the story is dragons. Or a dragon, at the very least." She thought mentioning Iroh, Dragon of the West, would be a little too metaphorical, and even harder to explain than a lost prince. There was a lot more trauma behind Iroh's existence than Zuko's.

Aang went quiet for a minute, watching the scenery float along below them, the bright blue of the sea like a handful of jewels. "It sounds like a fairytale," he said finally.

"Tell me about it," Katara replied, feeling exhausted by the whole concept. "Don't worry. I don't want to be on this dumb quest either. I want to go home and eat seal jerky and die in a hide tent on an ice floe."

With a snort of laughter, Aang pulled on one side of the reins and Appa descended slightly, straying away from the harbor, floating through a cloud to hide his progress. "I think you're meant for bigger things than that," Aang said. "Anyone who has ridden dragons isn't allowed to die in obscurity. There's a rule about it."

Katara laughed, somewhat charmed by Aang's easy, cheerful nature. She wished she was as in touch with herself as he seemed to be. There was a calm and delicacy to Aang that Katara found she very much liked and she'd have to, when this was all over, maybe get some tips on how to find her inner peace. How did he act so calm all the time? Maybe it was all the meditation. She wasn't really sure what being a monk required, but she had a feeling there was probably a lot of meditation involved. Maybe she should try sitting quietly for a little while.

Not that Suki and Toph would let her.

At the thought, she glanced over her shoulder at the other passengers, but for the moment they were actually being quiet. Probably because they were clearly asleep, Toph curled beneath Suki's outstretched arm, an almost sweet scene. Wind ruffled through Suki's hair as her head leaned to one side, against Toph's.

Aang, following her gaze, glanced over his shoulder. "I'm glad Toph found someone," he said quietly.

"Her parents can't have been all that bad, right?" Katara asked.

Aang shrugged. "I don't know. I never had parents. But I have to say, if any of my guardians at the temple wanted to stifle me and hold me back as much as Toph's parents did, I'd run away too."

"I'd give anything to have my parents stifle me," Katara said wistfully.

For a moment, Aang said nothing, just watched the water, his robes flapping behind him. "I'm sorry," he said.

"It's okay." She didn't need to explain any more. He clearly understood, and that made her wonder what pain he too might carry, under that open smile and glowing robes. But she'd already figured out that Aang and questions didn't go together. So no. She wouldn't be asking him.

They sat together on Appa's shoulders in silence for a moment and Katara watched the capital city. It was built up from the harbor, first with sprawling markets and piers against the painfully blue water, then a lessening of traffic through the greenery up to the crater of what Katara thought was an old volcano, hopefully dorment now, given how many buildings it was filled with. It was more beautiful than she'd thought, and suddenly it made a little more sense that Zuko was from here. It wasn't somewhere she would have classified as evil. There were no spikes or hanging bodies. Just people, and beautiful architecture, and highly manicured trees.

Not everything that came from the Fire Nation was bad, she thought as the bison circled down into the forest and the heavy scent of flowers reached her nose. Nowhere that had given her both Zuko and the smell of candle jasmine could be hell on earth.

Toph and Suki only awoke when they landed, Appa touching down as gently as a huge bison could. Suki yawned, covering her mouth with the back of her hand, blinking in the afternoon light lancing through the treetops. Toph just groaned and rolled across Appa's saddle like a child about to throw a tantrum.

"Welcome to the Fire Nation," Aang said, stretching his arms above his head until the joints cracked. "We hope you enjoy your stay."

"He's kind of sarcastic, isn't he," Suki remarked to Toph. "For a monk."

"I think that's just a normal sense of humor," Toph said. "Which you wouldn't recognize, given that you don't have one."

Suki's eyebrows rose and she nodded her head. "You know what," she said, "I'm going to give you that one because it was a really good burn and I respect that."

Toph grinned and they high fived.

"Do you see what I have to deal with?" Katara said to Aang, waving a hand at the two laughing idiots in the back of Appa's saddle. But Aang just grinned good-naturedly and Katara started collecting her things.

"What's the plan?" Suki said, heaving her pack over her shoulder and vaulting from Appa's saddle with ease that made Katara jealous. Suki pushed her hair back from her forehead, sweat already beading her brow. "Why is it so hot here?"

Toph was already pulling open her tunic and tying it around her waist, leaving her in a linen sabuk, her muscular arms and shoulder bare. Aang looked up and away as though Toph cared what she looked like, or even that Aang was looking. Katara and Suki didn't go as far but both of them rolled up their sleeves and though Aang seemed like he was trying his best to ignore the heat, drops of sweat emerged on his bare scalp.

"We need new clothes," Katara said, wishing she'd shoved some of the Fire Nation garments from the volcano palace into her pack when she fled. "Even if the heat wasn't a factor, we'd stick out in Earth Kingdom clothing."

"I thought it was winter," Suki said, fanning herself.

"Late autumn," Katara said, but it was basically the same thing. She poked the ground with her shoe and found it wet beneath the grass. "Monsoon season."

"I'm starting to think I prefer snow," Suki said. "There's not a cloud in the sky. Why is it so humid?"

"We should get under cover soon," Katara said, remembering how Fire Nation weather tended to go. "It rains basically every day and I don't think we want to get caught out in the storm when it comes in."

"Fantastic." Toph slid down Appa's back leg and planted her bare feet in the still-soggy ground, settling into a bending stance. She circled one flattened hand and nodded. "Not a lot of caves or anything, but there's some craggy spots near the volcano ridge. If we go over there, I'm sure I can bend us up something nice to keep us dry from this monsoon nonsense."

“Monsense,” Aang said quietly and Katara groaned.

They set off through the woods in the direction Toph had indicated. Appa picked his way around trees and hillocks with more delicacy than Katara had expected, bowing his huge head to fit under some of the lower-hanging branches. The terrain began to become rockier, running upward towards the rim of the ancient volcano, and it was there Toph led them to a little rocky overhang, bending away dirt, debris, and some shockingly large rocks with ease. In a moment, they had a cavern in which to hide and none too soon — just as they got Appa settled beneath the rock, clouds rolled in and within a moment it was pouring.

"Wow," Suki said, settling on Appa's outstretched paw, "you weren't kidding."

Katara, who wasn't looking forward to the amount of water she'd have to bend out of her clothing and hair later, sighed and pulled at her braids. "Our first step," she said, biting her lip as she picked at the somewhat tangled twists of hair, "is to blend in with the locals."

"So what does that mean?" Suki asked.

"Clothing first." Katara untangled one braid and started on the other, her scalp relaxing as her curls were released. "I don't know where we'll get it, but we can work that out after the storm. Then, we need to find a way to get to the royal palace."

"And after that?" Suki asked.

"I haven't gotten that far." Katara shook her hair free, the curls flaring around her face like the mane of a black lion bull. "But when I figure it out, they won't know what hit them.”


 

"You want to get in there ?" Suki said, raising one eyebrow and staring up at the royal palace compound. "You don't do things by halves, do you."

"I'm starting to wish I did," Katara said.

The palace was huge. And, more importantly, heavily guarded. Katara and Suki lurked on the other side of the boulevard, casting surreptitious glances at the straight-backed soldiers stationed in front of the heavy wooden gates, carved with dragons and phoenixes and painted a painful shade of crimson. There was no way in. That much was obvious. And yet, that was exactly where Katara wanted to go.

Because she was an idiot, probably.

Definitely.

They wore the clothing of young, middle class Fire Nation women: heavy sarongs, short trousers, cropped, sleeveless shirts, and top knots. Clothing stolen from real Fire Nation women, of course. They'd had to sneak into a public laundry and take what they needed for their whole merry band. Their Earth Kingdom tunics would have attracted far too much attention, especially when they were lurking near the Royal Palace.

"You think he's in there?" Suki said.

"I really hope so," Katara said, rubbing her arms. "Otherwise, we've wasted a lot of time."

"The power of friendship is never a waste of time," Suki said and managed a full five seconds of seriousness before bursting into laughter. The guards glanced at them and Katara tried to shush her, but nothing would shush Suki. Thankfully, the guards seemed to be smiling rather than coming over and stabbing them with swords. They weren't particularly suspicious, that was true — just two young Fire Nation girls giggling in the street before the daily rainstorm.

But the reason the guards were laughing, she realized suddenly, was because they weren't the only girls lurking by the palace. There were at least three other knots of young women, most wearing much nicer clothing than Katara and Suki had managed to steal. These women wore longer, heavier dresses that looked too warm in this humidity, and their hair was piled on their heads with elaborate pins and flowers.

"What's going on?" Suki asked, her laughter lessening.

Katara, unsure, shrugged.

A small door, big enough for two guards to walk abreast, opened inward in the large gate, and two girls came out with an escort of three soldiers. One was dressed in a similar manner to the women lurking around the palace, in a long tied robe that hid everything but the tips of her black shoes, and long bell sleeves that fell over her fingers. Katara felt hot just looking at her. But the girl gave no sense of discomfort, or emotion at all, her black hair piled into two buns on either side of her head in a style that would have been difficult to balance if the girl looked at all like she was going to move quickly enough to dislodge it. Which she didn't. Katara had never seen a more unhappy looking individual in her life.

Her companion was smaller and had all the emotion the other girl lacked, babbling away, her pink lips moving without pause. She wore pink too, dressed in a way similar to Suki and Katara in a cropped top and sarong skirt. Her hair was brown and she was very pretty, with big eyes, a small, pouty mouth, and rosy cheeks.

"Well, well, well," Suki said, her eyes narrowing and locking on to the pair of girls like a predator targeting prey. "If it isn't all the information we're ever going to need. Come on, Katara."

"Wait, what —?" Katara said, but Suki was already dragging her along by the wrist, twisting both arms around Katara's elbow as they went. Within a few seconds, Suki had locked Katara against her side and was grinning and laughing as though she didn't have a care in the world. Katara, unable to laugh on cue the way Suki could, forced a smile and did her best not to be uncomfortably obvious.

"What are we doing?" she hissed through her exposed teeth.

"We're following them, Katara," Suki said, shrugging a shoulder. "Obviously. Now try to be less obvious, would you?"

Katara did her best as they fell in behind the girls' guards, close enough to hear what the girl in pink was saying. Katara strained her ears and watched the girl's lips moving as though that would help her decipher what the girl was saying more easily.

"... And anyway," the girl said, tossing her braid over her shoulder, "it could be fun! I'm excited to dress up. Aren't you?"

"No," said the pale girl, deadpan.

"Ugh,” groaned the girl in pink, rolling her dark eyes, her voice going sing-song, "you're no fun, Mai. You're going to have to get on board with this, though, since Zuko's there."

Katara went rigid.

It was only Suki's fingers digging into Katara's bare arm hard enough to leave bruises that kept them both moving. Katara's stomach rolled and she thought she might throw up, but she was also trying so hard to hear what was being said that she thought her ears might detach from her head and fly over to the pink girl's lips.

"Walk," Suki hissed, her nails drawing blood on the underside of Katara's bicep. "Walk now or I'll leave you."

Katara walked.

"Ty Lee, come on," said the pale girl, Mai, without adding even a single ounce of emotion to her voice or face. "Don't say his name like that."

"Why not?" Ty Lee bounced a little bit in her curly-toed slippers. "I know you like him. You've always liked him, ever since we were kids."

"That was a long time ago," Mai said, but a light pink blush appeared in her cheeks, so pale Katara might have missed it if she hadn't been staring at Mai with rage building in her stomach.

"Yeah, yeah, yeah." Ty Lee waved a hand. "Before he went away and grew up and got pretty."

Katara's teeth ground together so hard pain lanced through her jawbone.

"Great," she whispered to Suki through the fakest smile she'd ever faked, "we get to follow my boyfriend's new girlfriend around. This feels really great. Why are we doing this?"

"Katara, get it together," Suki whispered back, her fingers still so tight Katara wasn't sure she was getting blood to her hand. "Put your emotions in a box and get on with your mission. These are the perfect people to get this information from and I'm not going to have you ruin it because you think she's trying to steal your man."

Despite the fact that everything Suki said was totally reasonable and exactly what was needed at the moment, Katara glared at Suki. She wanted to be jealous and angry, not be forced to keep her cool as these two idiot Fire Nation nobles discussed her prince.

Suki met her glare and didn't flinch.

It was Katara who backed down first and they had to run to catch up, trying not to be too obvious about it, but the guards looked bored and the girls weren't looking around at all. They were still chatting.

"What are you going to wear?" Ty Lee asked.

"Who cares?" Mai rolled her eyes.

Ty Lee pouted. "I care. It's a party! I love parties, and you would too if you tried a little bit. And everyone who's anyone is going to be there. Can't you just pretend you maybe want to have some fun?"

"I'm not good at that," Mai said. "Besides, it's not really a party. It's just more work."

"Oh, because finding a girl to marry the Crown Prince of the Fire Nation is work."

Suki hissed but Katara heard nothing. Her entire world had narrowed to Ty Lee's mouth, her smile, the words forming there. She knew she was walking but it was an automatic reaction. She wasn't looking where she was going. All she knew was she had to stay close to hear what was being said.

Mai rolled her eyes. "Who wants to marry him, anyway?"

"Apart from you?" Ty Lee teased.

"They're just doing it because of whatever happened with that stupid curse." Mai sighed so deeply it seemed to come from the depths of her soul. "He won't talk about it but you heard Azula. There was some girl there and who knows what went on."

"Who cares?" Ty Lee asked, slapping Mai's arm lightly. "Girl or no girl, she's not here now. You are."

"The Fire Lord just wants him tied down," Mai said. "Azula says that a marriage alliance will secure his place in the Fire Nation again, after all that time away. It's not like they'll let him inherit anything. Whoever marries him isn't going to be Fire Lady, for all they're billing it like that to the girls."

"But you don't care about that, do you," Ty Lee said.

Mai shoved her friends small hands off her shoulder. "Cut that out," she said, her voice gaining a snappish edge, the first emotion she'd shown since they'd begun following her. "I know you think you're helping, but you're not. I don't care about Zuko. He's ... I mean, he's fine, I guess, but I don't want everyone winking at me every time he comes up. I don't need to fight a bunch of airhead girls for him."

"Well, then you need to get in there first," Ty Lee said sagely, as though she had all the answers. "Three nights of party isn't going to be able to cut through years of actually being friends with him. You have an advantage."

"What if I don't use it?" Mai asked.

"Why are you being so stubborn?" Ty Lee stomped her foot. "You like him. He likes you."

"Yeah, when we were kids." Mai folded her arms. "That was a long time ago. Then he found some girl while he was cursed."

"And where is that girl now?" Ty Lee stuck her hands on her hips, tilting her head to one side and getting right into Mai's face. "Not here, that's for sure. Not looking her best at the biggest Fire Nation party of the year. Probably running away anyway. You're here. And you're better than her anyway, I'm sure."

Mai shook her head. "Fine," she said, sighing. "You win. Let's go buy dresses."

Suki pulled Katara left, into a cross street, letting Mai, Ty Lee, and their guards stride off down the avenue. Katara leaned against the wall, putting her hands on her thighs and bending over. Her stomach ached. She thought she might vomit. Her vision darkened at the edges.

Suki, however, wasn't having any of Katara's panic. She leaned against the wall, looking back over her shoulder as though the two girls might follow them, but they were gone. "Katara," she said, eyes shining silver with excitement, "do you know what this means?"

"Yes," Katara said weakly, "I'm going to be sick."

"No," Suki growled, "you idiot. Get it together. This is the perfect opportunity for you to get into that palace."

"I can't —”

"Katara." Suki's voice cut through her like a razor-edged fan. "Do you want to get this boy back or not?"

At least she didn't try to take the world saving angle. Katara couldn't even think past her own nose right now. All she could hear was Ty Lee's laugh over and over again. Marry the prince. Marry the prince. She couldn't mean ...

But obviously, that was exactly what the girls had meant. Katara wasn't stupid enough to be able to convince herself otherwise.

"Katara," Suki said, threat in her voice as she raised one hand, "don't make me hit you."

"I'm okay," Katara said.

Suki's hand didn't drop.

"I am," Katara said, finding that it was true. Her stomach settled and she was able to see around the darkness that had edged up to her vision. Her breathing was easier too and she found that while she still wasn't happy, she was at least able to think clearly. She wasn't going to cry. That was always the first step.

"All right." Suki's fingers curled down out of her slapping position and her hand dropped to the knot of her skirt on her left hip. "You're ready to fight for your man?"

Katara, who wouldn't have put it quite like that, nodded.

"Good." Relaxing, Suki leaned back against the building beside her, a wine merchant's shop. "I don't know if you heard, but they gave us all the information we could need. A party. To meet the prince. This is exactly what you need to get into that palace."

"A slight flaw in your plan," Katara said, waving a hand over herself, "I'm not Fire Nation nobility."

"That is exactly the kind of detail a warrior trained in diplomacy and spycraft might be able to get around," Suki said, tossing an arm around Katara's shoulders. "Thankfully, you have one of those right here. Now come on, we're attracting attention."

They were, but it was only from street vendors wondering why these two girls weren't looking at anything they were trying to push. With brisk steps, Suki led Katara back through the streets, towards the suburban outskirts and out into the manicured trees. Most of the island was kept by a crew of landscapers, who they kept having to hide from in their little cave in the woods, but it made the transition from busy city to "wilderness" seem odd and unnatural. It was a somewhat significant walk and during that time, Suki outlined her plan to Katara, complete with some daring-do and a good amount of general heroism.

It was the kind of think Sokka would have loved, Katara thought, her mouth quirking into an unintentional smile. Of course, she hated it. Swashbuckling fairytale heroics weren't for her. She would have rather had a nice long talk with Azula or maybe the Fire Lord himself, at the end of which they would nicely agree to just let her have Zuko and be on her way, world saving be damned.

Suki, however, loved planning. Katara made a mental note to introduce Suki to her brother just to see what might happen. Either they'd get along famously, or one would kill the other. It would probably be entertaining either way.

"Let me get this straight," Katara said. "You intend to steal an invitation, smuggle me into three nights of Fire Nation equiquite and finger foods and then do ... what? What do you expect me to do, start a revolution on the dance floor?"

"If that's what you feel will work for you," Suki said, patting Katara's back. "Really, once you're in, it has to be up to you."

"Where will you be during all of this?"

"Waiting outside as your backup." Suki shrugged. "We can probably only get one invitation. And besides, we'd be suspicious."

"Oh, and I'm not?"

Suki rolled her eyes. "Honestly, if I was running this mission with my girls, you wouldn't be my first choice to go in there, no. But our options are really limited right now. You have the in with the prince, so we need you inside. Even though maybe you don't quite blend in."

"I look like Water Tribe," she said pointedly, glancing around at the citizens of the Fire Nation all around them, the vast majority of whom were far paler than she was, with dark, pin-straight hair, despite their intricate top-knots. With her brown skin, bright eyes, and curls, Katara looked exactly like what she was. Not that she wanted to look any different, of course, but it would have been easier, just this once, to not look so much like her mother.

"You do," Suki said, nodding. "But on the other hand, maybe we can use that to your advantage. Have you stand out instead of blend in."

"How is that an advantage?"

Suki grinned mysteriously. "We'll have to find you something to wear."

"I already have something."

Suki's eyebrows went up and her mouth opened, but then she seemed to realize something and the confusion turned into glee. "Oh. Of course you do. Of course!" She slapped Katara on the back. "Wow, that's lucky, now isn't it."

"Lucky," Katara said faintly. "Sure."

"Come on." Suki pulled at her hand elbow. "Let's get back to Toph and Aang and we can work out a plan from there."

Katara really didn't like the sound of that.


 

In the moonlight, Toph looked less spiky, but Katara had learned that apparences could be deceiving. On the other hand, whatever she was doing was engaging more of her attention than Katara had ever seen before and anything that made Toph concentrate was probably worth investigating.

Katara got up from the small fire deep in the cavern and wandered over to the front, where the grassy edges and delicate bushes blended in against the rock. "What are you up to?" she asked, looking down.

Toph's head tilted to one side but she didn't turn away from whatever she was working on. Katara squinted and saw that she had three piles of ... things. They were organized on the ground but Katara couldn't tell exactly how. She leaned forward to examine whatever Toph had collected and saw an odd collection of jewelry, inlaid boxes, seemingly normal rocks, scraps of metallic cloth, and carved figures. They were organized, Katara thought, according to material -- one pile was shining silver in the pale moonlight, one a muted yellow of gold at night, and the last sparkling stones, most clear.

"What's that?" Katara asked.

"I'm helping," Toph said. She set a hairpin down in the gold pile and took a deep breath. Holding her hands above the piles, palm down, she closed her eyes. Slowly, ever so slowly, she raised her hands, turning them slowly. Katara raised and eyebrow, and then realized that as Toph's hands turned, so too did the metal objects on the ground. The pile of silver rose into the air and began to lose form, pooling like sudden mercury, any attached stones, enamel, paint or other metals dropping away.

"Toph," Katara breathed. "Are you bending that?"

"Obviously." The corner of Toph's mouth quirked into a smile. The silver beneath her hands rolled together into a floating, liquid ball, then a flat surface, as Toph's fingers fluttered. The disk formed and shaped into a delicate filigree moon, a wide crescent set upon a long toothed comb, the kind upper class women tucked into their hair.

"That's beautiful," Katara said.

"Good. It's for you." Toph handed the moon comb to Katara, who found it shockingly light for the size — bigger than the palm of her hand.

"Toph, how —?”

"For your dress." Toph shrugged. “Figured if you had to look pretty to infiltrate the enemy base, I might as well help.”

Katara put a hand to her chest, touched. Her eyes blurred with tears and she pushed them back because Toph would make tons of fun of her. “Thank you,” she managed, not totally hiding the wetness of her voice.

“Don’t go soft on me,” Tooh said, turning her attention to the pile of gold. As Katara watched, delicate movements of Toph’s fingers, so unlike her usual bending, created a spiraling, many-pointed sun, the base stronger than that of the moon, the points sharp, almost weapons in their own right.

“How do you even know how a moon looks?” Katara asked.

Toph actually turned around ao Katara could see the look of disgust on her face. “I’m blind,” Toph spat, “not stupid.”

“I didn’t say that!” Katara said, immediately defensive, given Toph’s face.

Toph rolled her eyes. “I can appreciate some art,” she said. “Sculpture, mostly. Which, you know, sometimes depicts things like the sun.”

“Oh.” Katara sighed. “Fine.”

Toph grinned as she turned her attention to the pile of gemstones in front of her, the only remaining pile. This one she shaped into a series of small, shining stars, piled on top of each other in unknown constellations. When Toph handed it over, Katara gasped as the shine of it, the magic Toph had somehow instilled into the shimmering rocks.

“These are beautiful,” she told Toph.

“Yeah, I know, I’m an artistic savant.” Toph grinned and got up, wincing. “Use them to impress all those colonizing assholes, would you? They deserve to be taken down a peg.”

“Of course.”

Toph grabbed her wrist, eyes hard and icy. “No, Katara,” she said, her nails digging into the soft flesh under Katara’s wrist. “I mean it.”

Katara wanted to pull away, disconcerted by that sightless, angry gaze, but Toph’s grip was too strong. Her mouth turned down. “Boyfriend or not,” she said, her voice remarkably light given the darkness in her eyes.

“He’s not —”

Toph shrugged. “I don’t really care what he is or isn’t to you,” she said as though the words confidided a secret. “I care about making sure you get to fix things.”

“You think I can do it?” Katara said too quietly for anyone but Toph to hear.

Toph’s eyes rolled in their sockets, pale and ghostly in the moonlight.

“I think you can do more than you think,” she said. “The only one who thinks you can’t do it is you.”

Which didn’t make Katara feel better.

“But yeah,” Toph said, shrugging. “I think you can do it.”

“Thanks,” Katara said, her mouth twisting and her hands tensing around the hair ornaments pressed into her fingers. “I think.”

Chapter Text

"If you think we're going to leave you here," Suki said, her usually stoic face red with rage, "you're an idiot."

Katara sighed and ran her hand over her hair again. The pack slung over one shoulder was beginning to make her muscles ache. She adjusted a strap and shook her head. "I'm not an idiot," she said for what seemed like the hundredth time since this conversation had started. "I'm right, too. There's no point in all of you waiting around for me while I try to steal back the prince of the Fire Nation from under his family's noses. You might as well do something useful for the next three days instead of just sitting around waiting for me to get  home."

"You need backup!" Suki insisted.

"I'm perfectly happy to go on a trip," Aang said.

"No one asked you, Baldy," Suki snarled.

Aang stepped back, shocked by the venom twisting Suki's face. Even Katara was a little horrified by how nasty Suki was being to all of them about this, but anger did funny things to people. Especially someone like Suki who was so bent on protecting all of them.

"Suki, chill out." Toph leaned back against Appa's shoulder. Even the bison was looking at Suki with judgement in his massive dark eyes. "Katara's right."

Suki whirled on Toph. "Katara is not right," she snapped, and even though Katara wanted to stop her from yelling at the poor kid, Toph was the only one who could handle the full force of Suki's anger. Her facial expression hadn't even changed. Maybe it was because she couldn't see Suki’s red face and bared teeth.

"I think she might be right," Toph said, rolling her eyes. "We're not going to be useful at all while she goes in a does the dirty work. We might as well go run her errands."

"I'm not an errand girl!" Suki snapped.

"Does anyone want to know what I think?" Aang said. "Given that I'm the one with the transport bison?"

"No!" Suki and Toph barked at him at the same time.

"Fine," Aang said, jerking his chin back as though slapped.

"Come on," Katara said quietly, laying a hand on Aang's elbow. Toph and Suki were well into the screaming now, both of them waving their arms, and Katara didn't want to disturb them. Despite the fact that Katara was the one who'd come up with the suggestion and Aang had already agreed and was the only means of transport, neither one of them seemed to have any say in the matter. So it was easier to just leave.

Katara shrugged her pack off and she and Aang wandered through the manicured woodland. The sun was high in the east, casting golden shadows through the leaves to splay across the red grasses at their feet.

"It's too bad they're like that," Aang said, sighing and running his hands along the smooth bark of one of the weeping trees, the leaves golden-brown against his pale fingers. "They both seem so nice on their own."

"Stubborn," Katara said, like the hypocrite she was. "Both of them. I respect their passion, I guess, but I also know that I'm asking you to do the right thing."

"I know that too," Aang said quietly. "But you can see it from Suki's side, right?"

Katara sighed. "Yes," she said. "I can understand how being sent away in the middle of this might make Suki feel ... like she's unable to carry out her duty."

The corner of Aang's mouth quirked up. "I suppose that's one way to phrase it," he said as though it wasn't how he would have done it.

Katara groaned and ran her hands over her hair, which was pulled back against her neck. "You'd think I was asking her to stick a sword through me," she complained. "All I want is for the three of you to go to the South Pole to get Sokka. I want him here for this. I can't do this without him."

"I think she's thinks you've been doing just fine without him so far," Aang said. "And I'm forced to agree."

"I'm not saying that I'd going to die without my stupid brother's help," Katara said, unsure of how to explain things. "Sokka's a planner. And a fighter. And I don't know how this is going to work. What are we going to do even if I manage to get Zuko back somehow? What are we going to do about Fire Lord Ozai?"

Aang raised one eyebrow.

"Didn't think of that, did you?" Katara propped her hands on her hips.

"I ... did not." Aang rubbed his hands together. "You've got a solid point there." He glanced over his shoulder. "Have you brought this up to Suki?"

Katara snorted. "Suki probably thinks she could take the Fire Lord and his whole court out all on her own. I wouldn't dare imply she couldn't."

"You think Toph will talk her around?"

Katara shrugged. "Suki doesn't have to go," she conceded. "You and Toph can probably make the trip on your own. It'll be tough, given the weather, but the real problem would be the ocean, not the air. With Appa, you can probably make it all the way there without a lot of trouble."

"All right ... " Aang said, nodding and waiting for the rest.

"But," Katara said, conceding, "if Suki sits around here all night while I go in and potentially get myself into dangerous situations, which will take spirits know how long, she's going to be utterly insufferable. Imagine how annoying she'd be cramped up somewhere while I try to infiltrate the Fire Nation royal family all by my lonesome." Katara rolled her eyes. "I can't put up with that. Suki's the best, she really is, but she also really wants to protect everyone. Especially me. And I don't really need protecting."

Aang's face told her he wasn't totally sure about that part of it, but was smart enough not to say anything.

"Do you think your brother will do anything?" he asked instead.

Katara bit her lip. "No," she said quietly. "I don't think Sokka will somehow turn the tide of this situation. I don't think he'll magically fix everything that's wrong in the whole wide world. If that’s what you’re asking."

"So why do you want us to go get him?" Aang asked.

Katara took a deep breath. "If something goes wrong, I want all fo you to be in the best place to do what needs to be done to continue the fight."

"If you get kidnapped or something?"

"No," she said quietly, looking up at the golden leaves against the blue sky, "if they kill me."

Aang stopped walking, his fingers wrinkling a few dying leaves. Katara didn't look at him, just watched the clouds floating by overhead. She felt strangely dead inside already. Implying her own death should upset her, but it just didn't. It was just a fact — or a potential fact. She wasn't dead yet, and of course she wasn't exactly planning on keeling over any time soon, but she had to make contingency plans. Just in case.

"You want us to get your brother so he'll avenge you?" Aang said.

"Somone has to take this collonizing dunghole of a nation out," Katara said, all the anger from her childhood rearing up inside her and burning like a flame. "My mother died for them. My people are being wiped out by them. I'm going to be the one to end it, whether it's by taking back the man I love from them, or by martyring myself for the cause."

"Wow," Aang said softly. "You really hate them."

"No," Katara said, even though he was right. "I love my people."

And there didn't seem to be a lot to say after that.


 

"I just want you to know I'm not happy about this," Suki said from Appa's back.

"Well, I'll make it up to you." Katara shaded her eyes and looked up at Suki, Toph, and Aang gathered together on Appa's back. "How long will you be?"

"Four days," Aang said. "Maximum. Less, if we push it, but I don't want to burn Appa out."

Appa yawned in response.

Katara patted the bison's front shoulder and stepped back as Aang flapped the reins and said, "Yip yip!" Appa rose off the ground, gracefully for such a big animal.

"Don't get killed!" Suki yelled, cupping her hands around her mouth.

"I'll do my best!" Katara waved and watched them ascend into the blue-gray clouds until Appa's brown belly disappeared into the distance. She sighed, rolling her shoulder, and picked up her pack. One deep breath. Another. And then she walked into the Fire Nation capital and got a room in one of the best inns in town.

When she paid, she noticed that the purse was a lot heavier than she remembered. When she surreptitiously glanced into it while the innkeeper was otherwise occupied, she found it filled with far more coins than it had been previously. There were also a higher concentration of gold and silver. She considered them briefly, trying to figure out what her friends might have done to get her so much extra money, but then decided she didn't want to know. This move reeked of Toph and she spent most of her time avoiding getting into Toph's business.

She decided to thank Toph and do nothing else.

The innkeeper showed her up to her room, a full bed with a carved wooden frame and canopy, wood floors covered in red carpeting, windows with light curtains flapping in the delicate breeze. The innkeeper bowed to her as he left, which made her immediately uncomfortable and she was happy when she was alone.

It was the first time in what seemed like years since she'd been alone.

She briefly took a moment to enjoy the quiet, despite the noises outside her window of people going about their business. When she put her things down and crossed to the window, pushing aside the carved shutters, a perfect view of the royal palace greeted her. From this height, she could see over the wall and into the courtyards beyond. She whistled. So many guards. So many courtiers, rushing around in high black hats and long robes.

She put a hand in the pocket of her sarong, fingering the rolled invitation there. It had originally belonged to a noble girl from the colonies by the name of Hao Lilolo who would be very, very upset when she discovered it missing. Thankfully, Suki had quicker fingers than Lilolo's guards had eyes and she'd brought the invitation to Katara with excessive smugness.

Only a few hours now.

Katara availed herself of the tub in her room, enlisting the maids to bring up buckets of water, steaming in the fall air, to clean herself. It was perhaps the best thing she'd ever experienced, after her long travels. She slid under the water until only her nose stuck out, allowing her to breathe but not see. Air bubbles caught in her eyelashes.

From under the water, everything felt safe and far away. She imagined she could sit up for the bath and find herself back in the warm ocean off of the volcanic island. Waves would wash around her bare shoulders and Zuko would be there — human, not dragon — to welcome her back, arms open, smiling.

What would she say when she saw him?

She blew out a stream of bubbles, which broke against her lips, just under the water. It tickled and she sat up rather than sucking water in through her nose. That was the last thing she needed, to choke on her own bath water before she could even get around to getting Zuko back. It wouldn't matter what she said to him then.

She just hoped he would actually be happy to see her.

After a full hour, when the bath was lukewarm and her fingers were wrinkled as sea prunes, Katara got out of the water and bent the liquid off her skin, no drying necessary. Naked, she sat down on the edge of the bed and ran her hand through her still-wet curls, working the knots out. She glanced at the sky. The sun was just beginning to dip towards the horizon. She had a few hours yet, but she'd need all that time.

Though she'd never have admitted it, Katara loved the little details of making herself pretty. It had been one of the few times back home she'd been allowed to be alone and quiet in the South Pole. Sokka wanted nothing to do with her when she was "primping" and so let her be.

It was that feeling she sought now, breathing deeply as she wove her hair into intricate plaits and sculpted curves, securing it with silver pins and ornaments. When she finished, she took one of her precious dresses out of her pack. It had traveled all the way around the world with her, through half the ocean and banks of clouds. And yet, somehow everything in it had survived. Seal skin pack lining. Who knew?

She lay the layers out on the bed, smoothing the fabric, and then began to dress. She'd had so much time to make them that all the layers, robes upon robes upon robes, had been a fun challenge. Putting it on was less fun. She fixed each one just so before adding the next, then the next. The beading on the outer layers was heavy and felt solid on her, calming her nerves like the heat of a bedroll. As she added each robe, her shoulders dropped, her chin rose and her breathing steadied.

Clothing was just like armor. Fancy clothing especially.

She tucked her feet into slippers and sat down in front of the mirror provided by the inn. The box sitting there was a gift from Suki who had grinned when Katara had opened it and gasped at what it contained.

"Standing out wouldn't be a bad idea at all," Katara whispered to herself, echoing Suki's earlier words. She took a deep breath and opened the box. Inside was paint, like the makeup the Kyoshi warriors wore but in more colors.

"Waterproof," Suki had said, tapping the lid of the box. "Doesn't smear. Won't stain your skin, but won't be coming off any time soon. You'll have to use the remover in the box to get it off. Once you set it, it's not going to leave your face until you let it."

Katara dipped a brush into the paint and began.

When she was done, she set down her brush and looked in the mirror. The face that looked back at her, set under intricate dark hair, looked like something out of the spirit world. Katara smiled and tucked Toph's moon-shaped ornament into her hair.

She looked like a goddess come to earth. She looked like a lost sea queen risen from some otherworldly depths.

She looked perfect.

Katara put her invitation in her pocket and went to win back her prince.

Chapter Text

The guards who took Katara's invitation couldn't take their eyes off her, and Katara didn't want them too. She watched them with hooded eyes, staring each one down until he finally looked away, unsure of who this strange woman was. People whispered around her, Fire Nation nobles and courtiers, all staring at her with wide eyes like tiny suns.

Katara welcomed their stares. Each one meant they weren't looking at her as some Water Tribe peasant. They looked at her as something inhuman.

"Lady Lilolo," the guard said, uncertain.

Katara smiled.

"Welcome to the Royal Palace," the guard said, bowing, and indicating that she should go past him into the ballroom. Silently, she held her hand out for her invitation back and he handed it to her. Katara tucked it into her voluminous sleeve and swept past him, head held high.

Thankfully, he couldn't see how hard her heart was pounding.

The palace opened up before her, a great room filled with huge red columns, the walls inlaid with scenery in precious stones. Firelight flickered from troughs along the walls, lighting the room and the mosaics from beneath. Everything shimmered. The people did too, men and women in red and black and rich gold. Katara, who had lived in a dragon's palace, had never seen that many jewels in one place. They dripped from women's necks, fingers, and intricate hair. They sparkled at men's wrists and the hems of their long formal tunics and robes.

There was a lot of red.

At the far end of the room was a wide dias, lined on either side with flames. Upon it were three thrones, one huge and placed in the middle, the other two smaller and flanking it. The ornate middle throne was empty and glimmered like a threat. It was carved with golden dragons watching the throne room with ruby eyes. Stones like claws protruded from the arm rests.

In the right hand throne was the Princess Azula, sprawled casually across the seat. She wore red like everyone else, robes piled on top of robes, split in the front to reveal pants and boots. The last time Katara had seen Azula, she'd been dressed like a soldier. She'd retained the width of the shoulders in this dress but it was done in gold filigree and gemstones rather than dark steel.

She looked like a flame wrapped in dragon scales and phoenix feathers. Katara's mouth went dry.

Standing beside Azula's throne was the dark haired noble girl, Mai. It wasn't a surprise to see her here, but Katara hadn't been expecting her to be so close to Azula's throne. Mai wore darker shades than Azula and her hair wasn't as intricately put up, a quiet shadow to Azula's bright flame. But she was beautiful, which Katara hadn't noticed earlier. If she hadn't looked so upset, Katara would have worried more about Mai's prospects in regards to Zuko. But given that Mai's face was still tensed into a bored grimace, it was difficult to take her seriously.

And it only made sense that Ty Lee, the other noble girl, was seated on the armrest of Azula's throne, dressed in pink and showing off a shocking amount of chest, her cheeks rosey and eyes glittering.

There was a cruelty to their little huddle, which mostly stemmed from Azula and her scarlet nails tapping against the golden throne. They whispered together, their heads bent in towards the throne.

Katara wouldn't have been able to take her eyes away from them if the throne on the left hadn't been occupied by Zuko.

He slumped in his seat, chin propped on one hand. Beneath his formal robes, his feet were splayed wide, the toes of black slippers sticking out beneath them. His hair had been scraped back from his high forehead into a semblance of a topknot and there were dark circles in the pale skin beneath his eyes. He didn't look as though he'd been sleeping and the gauntness of his face told her he probably wasn't eating either. His head drooped beneath the weight of the golden flame set in his dark hair, or maybe it was simply under the weight of being in this place.

He wasn't looking at anything.

Katara couldn't move. She couldn't even take another step forward, though she knew she stood in the middle of the floor and people were beginning to look at her, tittering, holding hands in front of their mouths. But the eyes over those hands weren't full of laughter, but of awe.

She knew why.

Silence began to spread out from her like a wave and she tilted her chin up, folding her hands in front of her and watching the thrones. Azula looked up first — Katara caught the motion out of the coernver of her eye — but didn't say anything. She just watched Katara the way everyone else was.

Finally, Zuko noticed the quiet and raised his head. His eyes widened as they locked on her, glowing and golden.

Katara smiled.

It wasn't as though she was difficult to see. In a sea of red, black, and gold, Katara wore silver. She glowed like a moon in a sea of blood. Her dress was made of the beautiful silks and brocades Zuko had brought her, the ones she should never in her right mind have worn on an island in a humid summer. So she'd made them into a dress that shimmered like the moon, silvers and pale blues, delicate purples, glistening glass beads she'd painstakingly worked into panels of stripes and whorls, the traditional designs of her people. Her hair swept back into intricate swirls and sweeps of curl, all set beneath Toph's crescent moon ornament.

And she'd painted her face, in a way that none of the women here had. All the noble ladies around Katara had rice powdered faces and small red mouths, their eyes darkened with rust red or gold. Katara's face was painted as though she was going into battle, silver-blue stripes and streaks, her forehead and chin marked by spirals.

Zuko's eyes opened his mouth.

She watched his lips form her name.

One of the musicians, the only people in the chamber still making noise, began to sing.

Courtiers began to move again, swaying to the music, forming couples and taking up their positions on the floor around Katara. The strangeness of her entrance faded into the background and people just gave her nasty looks as she stood unmoving in the middle of the hall.

Zuko shot out of his seat and nearly flew across the golden tiles towards her, the sleeves of his robe flaring out behind him. He shoved aside a couple who shot him nasty looks. Katara's back straightened as he came towards her, but his face was stormy and harsh. It was not the face she'd been hoping to see. Doubt bloomed in her stomach and her smile faltered.

Zuko reached out as soon as he was close and grabbed her by the forearms, wrinkling the thick layers of silk. He yanked her towards him, heat radiating from his skin despite how much fabric was between them. "What are you doing here?" he snarled.

Katara blinked, and then her lip turned up, a silver sneer. "Rescuing you," she snapped, staring up at him. "Obviously."

"You can't be here!" He gave her a little shake and her teeth clacked, so she tilted her chin up and put one palm on his chest.

"Oh, I'm sorry," she said with exaggerated sweetness, anger replacing the doubt until her skin burned as hot as his. "I thought you needed to be saved from your horrible family because the last time I saw you, you were being kidnapped by them. But I guess you've settled back in and you don't need me here." She waved a hand to take in all the gold and gemstones, the elegant music, the party guests. "I don't blame you. Luxury agrees with some people."

"Katara," Zuko growled and the sound of her name on his tongue made her skin shiver in anticipation. But his face was still hard and there was fear creeping into his eyes. "You need to leave. Now. It's not safe —”

"Zuko," said the voice that haunted Katara's nightmares. Azula oozed around Zuko's shoulder, one hand resting on his arm. "Who's your friend?"

"Go away, Azula," Zuko said, not taking his eyes off Katara. "You're not wanted here."

Azula searched Katara's face, her thin eyebrows furrowing. "I know you," she said slowly.

"I don't think so," Katara said, smiling.

"Yes, I do," Azula said, pointing one sharp-nailed finger at Katara's chest. "The girl from the island. What was your name?"

Katara just smiled.

"Leave her alone," Zuko said, putting himself between Azula and Katara.

"I can take care of myself," Katara hissed at Zuko.

He just scowled and turned to his sister. "We're drawing attention," he said shortly. "Is that what you want? For all these people to know that maybe the prince isn't as well in hand as you say?"

Azula gave him an appraising look. The gold of her eyes, which on Zuko looked warm and inviting, was cold like ice-crusted coins. "Hmm," she said. "You have a point. Dance with the girl, Zuko, and then get back to your sulking." She smiled and Katara was the only one close enough to see Zuko's wince as Azula's nails dug into his arm. "Don't make me regret this," she whispered and then she was gone.

Katara looked up into Zuko's half-ruined face. The fear was still there, but his mouth was soft, his eyes half hooded.

"You idiot," he said, sounding tired.

"What did you expect me to do?" Katara demanded. "Sit at home and mind my own business?"

"I don't think you've ever minded your own business in your life," Zuko grumbled.

Katara glared.

"But what I didn't expect," Zuko continued, ignoring her face, "was for you to sweep in here dressed like the queen of the moon to fight my entire country for me."

"I never said I was going to do that," Katara said, sticking her button of a nose in the air as though that made her more intimidating, though she knew it didn't.

"But you would," Zuko whispered. His face was very close to hers and she wanted to kiss him, but there were so many people here. Katara could feel their stares.

"Do you want to dance?" she asked.

Zuko's mouth twisted up at the corner. "Do you know how to dance?"

"Do you?" she shot back.

He raised his one good eyebrow, an arch of black over the gold of his gaze, his mouth quirking in a half smile. "You know, I had the benefit of a royal education," he told her.

It was so strange matching the tones of voice she knew like they were her own to the new facial expressions, the way his mouth curved and his nose wrinkled. All of that was alien and strange to her, but the way he shaped his words, the emotion he put into his voice, that was hers. She found, even in a situation like this, that she liked the way the two went together.

It was strange, she'd never really imagined him before she'd given into the temptation to see who and what he was. She'd tried, a couple of times, but the face she conjured was empty, the features blurry or missing. This wasn't what she'd expected him to look like only because she'd expected nothing.

And she found she liked what she did see. Scar and all.

"So?" he held out one hand. "Is that a yes or a no?"

Katara, who absolutely didn't know any Fire Nation dances but was too stubborn to admit it, smiled like a lie and put her hand in his.

To his benefit, Zuko clearly knew she had no idea what she was doing and didn't shame her for it, though Katara thought he'd have been well within his rights to do so. Instead, he just muttered quiet instructions as they musicians struck up a slow, melancholy song. "Step back," he said gently, leaning closer to her than the other couples around them, who kept a very formal arms length. "Turn. Good. Fingers here ... no, a little lower ... and spin."

Katara focused on her feet. "Do you have a lot of dances?" she asked, aware of very little other than the warmth of him and how awkward her feet were.

"Too many." He sounded wry and upset. "I had to learn them all when I was little. My mother insisted on it. Thought the future Fire Lord might need to know them, I suppose."

The tone of his voice went from joking to angry.  She looked up at him, eyebrows curving in worry, and he didn't smile, just looked over Katara's head at the thrones on the dias. She snuck a glance behind her and saw Azula and her two friends watching them, all of them with hard eyes. The Fire Lord's seat was still empty.

Zuko pulled her close in the next past, his cheek rasping against her temple. "I missed you," he whispered.

"I missed you too." Her heart stuttered just a little and then resumed at twice the speed. The smell of him was the same, the feel of his hands against hers, his breath at her ear. She wanted to bury her head in his robes and sob, so tired and anxious had her last months been. It had been one thing when everything was a mission — get to safety, find a way to the Fire Nation, infiltrate the palace, rescue Zuko. It was another to be here with the man she'd been looking for this whole time and just feel like she couldn't do any more. No more missions. No more journeying and traveling. She was done.

Of course, there was still more to do, but in this moment, all Katara wanted to do was let Zuko comfort her.

But there was no time for that. The song was coming to an end and she had to figure out how to get him away from his family before Azula came back to drag him away. "How do I get you out of here?" she asked.

His teeth ground together, a sounds she felt rather than heard. "You can't," he hissed.

"I have to," she said, managing not to add "idiot" at the end.

"Katara." He pulled away, looking down on her with serious eyes. "You don't understand. The spirits my father summoned are strong and they won’t let me go. The curse bound me to my family. I can't get away from them just by leaving. It won't allow me to escape. Don't you think I've tried?"

"Well, try again," Katara told him, annoyed at the defeat in his voice. "With me here —”

"It won't make any difference. And you need to go too. Get out of here, before they use you against me. Azula already knows who you are. If she tells my father ..." His eyes went wide with fear. "You have to leave."

"Absolutely not," Katara said, stomping one foot against the golden floor in a counterpoint to the melody.

"Why are you so stubborn?"

"Why are you such a shrinking violet?" she snarled back, the warpaint turning her face into an inhuman mask, her silver lips twisting in a shimmering grimace.

Zuko just glared at her. "Go home, Katara," he said, his voice going cold. "You shouldn't be here."

The song ended. Zuko bowed over her hand, his mouth brushing her fingers, and then he was gone before she could say anything more. She stared after him, anger running though her body. No matter that she knew this was Zuko's way of protecting her, she wanted to slap him. How could he turn off his emotions like that? How could he stop fighting for himself?

She glanced at Azula, still lounging on her throne like a hyena rat queen. Her eyes were hooded, her red lips curved in a horrible smile.

When that was someone's family, Katara thought with a flash of insight, maybe it became easier not to fight.

A delicate tap landed on her shoulder and Katara turned towards it, her hands going up.

"May I have this dance, beautiful lady?" Iroh asked, smiling.

Tears pricked at the corners of Katara's eyes and it was everything she could do not to burst into tears and throw herself directly at Iroh, trying to make him solve all the problems she'd built up over the past months. Even knowing who he was made no difference to her affection for him, the way her whole body relaxed at the sound of his voice.

"My lord Iroh," she said, voice cracking as she desperately tried to contain her emotions.

The corner of his mouth turned up and his eyes sparkled under his heavy brows. "My lady Katara," he said, as formally as she had. "Please. Just one dance for a sad old man."

"You may have as many dances as you like," Katara managed, putting her hand into his and letting him lead her out of the crush forming on the floor.

"It's been many years since I last danced with so beautiful and elegant a lady," Iroh said, his amber eyes glowing as he assumed the starting position. "You'll have to excuse my feet. My mind isn't what it was and some of the steps may allude me."

"Imperial Fire Nation dances weren't part of my childhood education," Katara said, hoping he'd lead her through the right steps because again, she had no idea what she was doing. "Clearly it was an oversight on the part of my parents."

"Perhaps the oversight is instead on your volcanic island chaperone," Iroh said. "The future Fire Lady of our great nation should know our dances, don't you agree?"

Katara reddened underneath her warpaint. "I d-don't think ..." she tried, but trailed off, too stunned to think. "Iroh, I ... I'm not ..."

"Not yet," Iroh said. "Put your hand here, my lady, and I shall teach you."

Despite his earlier hedging, Iroh knew every step she needed to take and was graceful despite his bulk. She realized that he'd changed out the tunic and trousers he'd always worn for a long robe, though his color choices were slightly off from the courtiers around them — burgandy to their scarlet, and amber to their gold. It made him look as though perhaps this wasn't his nation after all, that he was just a refugee like her who had wandered into the wrong party. But then she forced herself to remember who he was, and what. This was the Fire Lord's brother. The man grinning at her with soft, fatherly eyes had in fact been only inches away from that empty throne sitting at the far end of the hall.

"How are you?" Iroh asked softly once he had run her through the pattern of the dance a few times and she found herself copying his foot movements rather than panicking.

Katara nodded, despite the lump in her throat, and tried to smile. "I'm fine," she said, though she didn't necessarily feel fine. "It's been a little tough, but I made some friends along the way."

"I knew you'd come for him," Iroh said, his face losing some of its happiness. "I hoped you would not, but I knew we would see you sooner or later. One does not expect a saber-tooth moose lion to act like an armadillo mouse when she is threatened."

"Um," Katara said. "Sure."

"Zuko wished you would come too," Iroh said, glancing up at the dias, where Zuko was arguing with Azula about something. The girl in pink, Ty Lee, had both hands wrapped around his upper arm and was all but hanging on him, her expression pleading in a way Katara recognized as the one she used on Sokka. A little sister. But they'd grown up together, she remembered from her eavesdropping. It made a certain amount of twisted sense that they might act this way.

"He didn't seem like he wanted me to come at all," Katara grumbled.

Iroh sighed. "You may have noticed that my beloved nephew is no good at using his words. I know he is gruff and upset now, but he did not wish for you to put yourself in danger for him. He has his pride, but more than that, he cares for you. Very much."

"Wouldn't he want me here?" Katara asked. "If he cared so much, shouldn't he be overjoyed that I’m here?"

"He is," Iroh said. "But his happiness has to be tempered by what he knows might happened to you in the Imperial Palace." His eyes slid to Azula. "My nephew is pointy on the outside and soft within, but my niece ... well. She is spiked inside as well as out, and that has turned to a sickness under my brother's ... care."

Katara looked at him askanse. "Shouldn't you be ... I don't know, kinder to her? Wish for her to be better?"

"Of course I wish for that, my dear." Iroh gave Katara one of his inscrutable looks. "But wishes are like dragons to a mortal man."

Katara blinked. "What does that mean?"

"Unattainable," Iroh said. "Except perhaps for you, my dear. You seem to be rather good at taming dragons."

Katara blushed.

The song ended and Iroh offered Katara his arm to lead her off the dance floor and into the darkness behind the columns, where the light came from the low burning fires and the guests became backlit groups speaking quietly, their heads bent together. Groups of women watched Katara with unkind eyes, their gazes flickering between her and Zuko as though she'd stolen something that rightfully belonged to them. Perhaps in a way, she had. She ignored their looks.

"A drink," Iroh said, reaching for the tray of a nearby servent and presenting Katara with a ceramic cup of something cold that smelled of fruit and fermented rice. "You will be tired after your dancing. And this I can promise is not poisoned. But don't be so naive as to think everything else you are handed in the Fire Nation is safe for consumption."

Katara nodded, taking the warning to heart as she sipped at the wine, flavored with some unknown spice and berry combination. Just what she needed to steady her nerves: a warning against poisoning. Thanks, Iroh. Very helpful.

"What do I do?" she asked him, raising her eyes from the red drink.

Iroh tilted his head. "First, you must get past Azula. She has been charged with keeping Zuko under control and Ozai will not allow him to slip away without a fight. Azula knows that, and she knows it is better to do what her father says than to attempt to defy him."

Katara shivered at the implication, suddenly feeling sorry for both of the royal children, not just Zuko.

"Speak to Zuko," Iroh said quietly. "Away from all of this. He will not refuse you."

"But what do I ask him for?" Katara asked, finding all her plans and scenarios slipping away from her when faced with reality. How could she have thought this would be easy?

"You'll know," Iroh said.

Katara looked over her shoulder to find Zuko dancing with the blank-faced girl, Mai. Her heart clenched up, remembering the conversation she and Suki had overheard. Mai's cheeks had taken on that barely pink blush she'd developed before as Zuko led her through the steps, and Katara felt suddenly jealous until she looked at Zuko's face. His eyes were far away, his movements jerky. He held Mai away from him as though uncomfortable with the contact. It shouldn't have made Katara feel better, but her heart lifted. Maybe she had a chance to make this alright after all.

Iroh followed her gaze. "Lady Mai will try her best," he said, and there was pity in his voice, not anger, "but she won't succeed. Not with you here. Look at him. Look where his eyes fall.”

Indeed, Zuko's gaze kept flashing to Katara, half hidden in the shadows, and then away. Mai said something to him and it took him a moment to respond. Katara met his eyes the next time he looked her way and, despite her anger with the way he was acting, she couldn't help but smile, a little shyly.

The back of Zuko's neck turned bright red and he looked away, jaw tight.

"I did tell you," Iroh said quietly. "He misses you. He loves you."

"I know," Katara said quietly.

Apparently now that Zuko had shown a willingness to dance with one of the many women at the gathering, he now had to dance with all of them. Katara watched as the strain on his face grew, smiling to herself and then feeling somewhat bad about her entertainment. None of the other Fire Nation noblemen asked Katara to dance. She wasn't surprised. Who would want to dance with the strange moon spirit who had descended into their midst? Instead, she lurked in the shadows, watching everyone with silver-lined eyes. The courtiers began to move away from her, no longer laughing but clearly unnerved. Since that was Katara's goal, she kept it up. Iroh stayed with her, quietly filling her in on what she might need to know about his family, the goings on since they'd left the island.

"Where's the Fire Lord?" Katara asked at one point, unable to take her eyes from the huge imposing throne and the dragons carved along the back.

"Oh, Ozai wouldn't come to something this trivial," Iroh said, as though disgusted with his brother's choices. "My baby brother always had a flair for the dramatics, and not attending the event to marry off his son is exactly the kind of thing that would send a message. So of course he's done it." Iroh rolled his eyes. "It's the only thing Zuko got from him, you know. That desire to make everything more important than it really is. If only Ozai had gone into acting, we might have been spared."

Katara snorted.

"But no," Iroh said, shaking his head. "Zuko is Ursa's son, through and through. No matter what his father's tried to do to him since she died, he will always be like her. And that is why we must make sure he becomes the Fire Lord, not my niece. Azula is Ozai's daughter. She takes after him, and my father. Strong men, but cold. The Fire Nation needs someone warm on that throne. Someone who remembers that fire is not only for destruction."

Katara looked at him, dropping her voice in awe. "You want to usurp your brother," she said, her voice barely more than a breath. "And install Zuko there. You want him on that throne."

"Not just him," Iroh said.

"Are you planning on ruling as well?" Katara asked, confused. Iroh had never struck her as someone who was looking for power.

"No, my dear," Iroh said, fixing her with the most ancient and cunning look she had ever seen on a human face, "you are."

Again, Katara gaped. "Iroh," she said, sounding as strangled as she felt, "I'm not going to be the Fire Lady. That's not my plan. I'm going to get Zuko and leave this awful place so he doesn't have to be under his family's thumb anymore. I'm not planning on staying."

"Not yet," Iroh said. "But we need you here. Soon, you'll see that. I know that it is a scary prospect, my sweet girl, but you traveled with a dragon for only the possibility to protect your family. You walked to the Fire Nation in order to save the man you love. What would you do for your people and everyone else? My people are suffering too, Katara. They don't want this. Our young men die in the Earth Kingdom, flinging themselves against the walls of Ba Sing Se like moths against a candle flame. We are being hurt. And you are our healer."

Katara shook her head. "No, Iroh, I ..."

"And," Iroh said as though she hadn't spoken, "you are our redemption."

She scowled at him. "It seems like all of a sudden, I'm doing a lot for you people."

"They could be your people too," Iroh said quietly.

Darkness washed the corners of Katara's vision. "No," she said, firmly, with her lips clenched together. "They are not my people, and they won't be. Iroh, I've spent years hating the Fire Nation. They killed my mother. They subjugated my people. You're right, someone needs to take care of them, put the Fire Nation on a better track, but it's not going to be me. You can't ask me to put aside years of pain to help these people just because they're your people."

Iroh opened his mouth, then closed it.

"No one helped my people," Katara said, her rage building. Her hands shook so she tucked them into the wide sleeves of her gown. "I can't ... I won't help them. And it's not fair of them to shove me on them. They need someone who trusts them. Who believes in them. Not someone who can't stomach the look of Fire Nation armor without wanting to vomit."

Sadness blossomed in Iroh's eyes. "Oh, my sweet girl," he said softly. "I have asked far too much of you. You are absolutely right. I am forcing you to heal my own nation while doing nothing to help yours." He put his hands together over his belly and, to Katara's shock, bowed low to her. "Please forgive me."

"Iroh," Katara said more quietly, aware that there might be people listening, people who would try to stand in her way to get to Zuko. "Stop it. Please."

He shook his head, still half bent over. She was suddenly worried he might kowtow to her right here in front of all these people. She put a hand out on Iroh's shoulder and tried to look at his face under the mane of white hair and beard. "Iroh, please," she said. "There's nothing to forgive."

"Of course there is." He sounded matter-of-fact, but at least he raised his head slightly so she could meet his eyes. "I was selfish. I thought only of myself, my family. My people. I didn't think of how you might feel, surrounded by those who have hunted and tormented you for years." His mouth twisted. "Just because you grew to enjoy Zuko's company, and I hope my own, does not mean that you wish to be responsible for the Fire Nation."

Katara nodded. "Thank you for understanding."

"I will always try to understand you, sweetling," Iroh said. "My nephew is very lucky to have you."

Katara blushed.

Out of the corner of her eye, she caught movement and turned just in time to see Azula herding Zuko out of the room, her bejeweled fingers pressing into the small of his back like weapons.

"I need to go," Katara said, kissing Iroh's cheek absently. "I'm sorry."

She didn't hear Iroh's response, if there was one, because she was already sweeping across the room, the hem of her dress whispering against the floor. Courtiers watched her go as though stunned by her presence. They hadn't gotten used to her amongst them, only managed to paper over their confusion for a little while. Good. Katara wanted them to be off kilter. It was to her benefit.

Two guards blocked her way, down a closed off hallway. They stared her down and she felt sweat beading at the back of her neck, where the dress covered her skin and left her shoulders bare. But she turned her chin up and though she was somewhat shorter than either soldier, she managed to look down her nose at them.

"Move," she said.

They shuffled their feet and she saw their desire to obey her in their eyes, though they didn't. It gave her some feeling of power though. She could make them do it. If she really tried.

"Excuse me, my lady," said the older of the two, clearing his throat and staring at the heavy silver jewelry around her neck, which Toph had "borrowed" for her. "This area isn't open to guests."

Katara gave him her most sugary smile. "I'm not a guest," she said. "I'm allowed."

Another quick foot shuffle. The younger soldier, who was about Katara's age, looked at the older and moved a couple of inches out of the way, then back. Katara kept smiling. She was winning.

"I really can't," the soldier said, and he sounded so apologetic, Katara almost relented.

She let her eyes get wide, huge blue pools of innocence. "But why not?"

"These are the royal suites, my lady," the younger soldier offered, jumping at the opportunity to answer a question for the strange girl in the moon gown. "We can't let anyone down there unless it's a member of the Fire Lord's family."

Katara looked over her shoulder for Iroh. He'd get her in here.

"Don't bother looking for my uncle." Azula's voice slithered ahead of her like a snake. She stalked down the hallway, holding one hand out in front of her to light her way. The flame in her palm was blue as the sky, but the sight chilled Katara to the bone. It made the reds and golds of the hallway flicker to black and gray. It reminded Katara of the blue flame that had burned in the volcanic palace after Katara had broken — or triggered — the curse. Things began to make more sense.

Both guards went rail straight at the sound of Azula's voice.

"Don't make her wait," Azula drawled, stopping a few feet away, holding her hand up higher. "Let her through."

"Yes, Princess Azula." Both guards bowed and got out of Katara's way.

She didn't let the tremble in her hands show as she stepped through the archway into the hallway beyond.

Azula looked Katara up and down and Katara couldn't stop herself from swallowing terror. It was the first time she'd been alone with Azula and the princess's sheer presence made her skin crawl. Azula smiled wider and Katara blessed her warpaint, which concealed much of her facial expression.

"Katara," Azula purred. "Wasn't it?"

Katara didn't say anything.

"Zuko didn't tell me, if that's what you're thinking," Azula said. She waved her free hand and started off down the hall, putting her back to Katara in a clear indication that she wasn't scared of being hurt. "Iroh did. Not on purpose, but the old man isn't the brightest flame."

"Were you worried I would upset your plans?" Katara asked, knowing she shouldn't needle this woman and yet doing it anyway.

Azula snickered. "No one upsets my plans," she said. "It's a miracle you survived this long. But there are contingencies." She threw Katara a smirk over her shoulder. "It's not like you can take him away."

"Mmm," Katara said, unwilling to weigh in.

"You don't believe me?" Azula laughed again and turned through some open doors to her left. Katara found herself in a plush parlor inhabited by heavy carpets, dark furniture, and the two girls from the ball.

"Ugh." Mai rolled her eyes at the sight of Katara. "I think I have a stomach ache."

"Mai!" Ty Lee looked horrified. "Be nice!"

Without answering, Mai got up and stalked through a door at the far end of the room. Katara glimpsed the corner of a red bed before Mai slammed the door shut behind her, the carved black wood vibrating in its frame.

"She's so dramatic." Azula rolled her eyes. "Ty Lee, get our guest some tea, would you?"

"I don't want any," Katara said, refusing to drink anything Azula handed her. "What do you want?"

Azula sprawled on one of the dark chairs, gazing out at Katara like a predator. But Katara wasn't prey and she stared back, refusing to lower her chin or look away.

After a long moment, Azula smiled.

"I'm impressed," she said, running her fingers along the edge of of the armrest. "I didn't think you'd even come here, much less sweep in like a conquering queen. Of course, it was stupid of you and it'll get you nowhere, but still. Impressed."

"I didn't do it for you," Katara said.

"Yes, I know." Azula raised her hand, an idle, dismissive gesture. "You did it for my idiot brother."

Katara didn't say anything. She didn't need to.

Azula sighed and rolled her eyes. "Ugh. Love." She shook herself all over as though the word was ice water dripping down her back. "Disgusting."

"Let me see him," Katara said, keeping her tone as even as possible.

Ty Lee came back with the tea and laid it at Azula's right hand, on a black laquered table. She glanced at Katara with fear in her eyes but even so, tried to offer  a smile.

"I'm going to check on Mai," she said quietly.

Azula didn't even look at her.

They both waited until Ty Lee had left the room, opening and closing the bedroom door soundlessly. When they were alone again, Azula turned away to pour herself a small golden cup of tea from a teapot painted with red dragons. "I'm not keeping you from Zuko," she said dryly.

Katara raised an eyebrow.

Seeing the expresion, the corner of Azula's mouth turned up. "I mean, yes, if you try to walk out of here to see him, I'll burn you to death, but other than that."

"I'm not scared of you," Katara told Azula blandly, even though she was terrified. "You can threaten me all you like, but I'm not going to go away."

Azula's nails scraped across the gilded ceramic. "No, I can't imagine you will." Her eyes roved over Katara. "So we'll just have to reach an agreement, won't we."

Katara swallowed and managed, "What kind of agreement?"

"I let you see Zuko," Azula said, "for a price."

"What price?" Katara asked, ready to fight her way out if she needed to. The tea could be a weapon, if she moved quickly. Azula wouldn't know what hit her.

Azula's eyes fixed  over Katara's head and her smile turned cruel. She pointed with one long red nail. "That."

Katara blinked, unsure of what Azula was pointing to. She turned around, but there was nothing behind her but painted screens and inlaid walls. When she turned back, Azula was smirking.

"Not behind you, Water Tribe," she said, condescension dripping from her lips. "On your head."

Reaching up, Katara's hand brushed the moon resting in her hair. The points pricked her fingertips. "This?" she said, loathe to give it up. A good luck token.

"Give me the trinket," Azula said, her voice bored but her eyes hungry, "and I'll let you see your little boyfriend."

Katara paused, nodded, and pulled the comb out of her hair, tossing it on the table next to the tea set. "There," she said. "Take me to Zuko."

Azula grinned like a corpse. "Leave here, go left. Second door down. He's all yours."

Katara was out of the room before Azula was finished speaking and heard only the princess's lingering laughter behind her.

She knocked lightly on the door Azula had indicated, but got no answer. When she tested the knob, it turned easily but beyond was only darkness. Edging the door open to admit her, Katara slid into the room. Moonlight streamed in through the open window, showing Katara a messy bedroom dominated by a large canopied bed. On the blankets lay Zuko, still dressed and unmoving.

Katara gasped and rushed to him, grabbing his shoulder. He was breathing, but it was the deep breath of sleep. His eyes were closed, his body curled around an absence that Katara longed to fill. He was ... asleep. Deeply asleep, but not dead.

"Zuko," she whispered, shaking him. "Zuko, wake up."

He didn't move.

Katara shook him harder until his head rattled on his neck, but still he didn't move. She checked his pulse. Slow, but steady. She cursed, wishing for water to check his vitals that way, and sat down on the edge of the bed.

"Well," she said quietly, as though Zuko could hear her, "I'm well aware of the irony here."

He didn't answer, of course, just rolled over and flopped on hand onto her thigh. Katara smiled, rolling her eyes, and looked him over. He looked so calm and innocent in sleep, a man just out of boyhood, his human features still unfamiliar and alien to her. There was something about him that looked as though his body wasn't used to being human either, an oddness to the way he curled his arms and tilted his head as though he was used to being larger.

Katara sighed and leaned down to pull off Zuko's formal slippers. "Idiot," she told him, annoyed. "If you'd talked to me like a normal person, I wouldn't be back here. We should have just run away when I asked the first time."

Zuko grumbled and his forehead wrinkled.

Grumbling in return, Katara took off her shoes and untied her robes, draping them over a nearby chair. She pulled the pins from her hair, laying them on the table beside the bed. Finally, she pulled Zuko's formal robes from him and rolled him under the blankets, slipping in beside him.

He rolled over and wrapped an arm around her waist, sighing into her hair.

She didn't sleep for a very long time and when she did, the  moonlight seeped into her dreams, coloring them silver against a velvet black sky.

Moon Gown

Chapter Text

Before the sun rose, Katara  was woken by Azula hauling her out of Zuko’s bed. "Times up, Water Tribe," she said, nails digging into Katara's arm. "Let's go."

Katara struggled, immediately reaching for Zuko, but he still wouldn't wake. He had moved around in the night in the normal way of a sleeper, but he hadn't woken, no matter what Katara did. She’s kicked him, shaken him, sung to him in her rough and untrained voice. When that did nothing, she’d fallen asleep beside him, woken again, and repeated the process. Halfway through the night, when her patience wore thin, she pinched him hard in the delicate skin of his underarm.

He still didn't move.

That was when she'd decided this absolutely wasn’t natural.

Maybe this was some lingering residue from the curse, she thought, lying in bed beside him in the dark, running her fingers up and down Zuko's chest. It was hard not to feel like he was ignoring her on purpose. But no one could sleep through the amount of shaking and pain she'd inflicted upon him.

And he still didn't move when Azula grabbed Katara and dragged her from the bed.

Katara whirled on Azula, snarling and still half asleep. "Don't touch me!" she hissed, grabbing at Azula's wrist and pulling at the skin, but the princess was stronger than Katara had anticipated. Katara wasn't weak — she'd spent most of her life hauling seal meet and dried seaweed for fires, so she could carry her weight. But Azula's hand was like iron, despite all the gold she wore on her fingers, the remnants of last night's finery.

Azula yanked Katara to her feet and Katara was suddenly very aware of her state of undress, wearing only a thin under robe with no shoes and her hair all over her face. In contrast, Azula was fully dressed in boots and a tunic, every fold military precise. Her hair was perfect.

"Did you have fun?" Azula said with a cruel smile.

Katara glanced back at Zuko's still sleeping form, his forehead wrinkled in sudden worry.

"He'll be fine," Azula said, pulling Katara towards the door, pausing only long enough to let her shove on her slippers and gather the many layers of her formal robes into her arms. "He won't even notice you were here, much less that you've left."

That was about when Katara began to suspect Azula of something.

But she didn't have time to think about that because Azula was shoving her out of the door and down the hall, not towards the throne room but the other direction, towards smaller doors and a maze of hallways that Katara realized was the servant's halls. Of course, she thought, tripping as Azula pulled her along. To the princess, Katara was nothing more than the help. Her brother's whore.

"All right," Azula said, turning into a much simpler corridor with no red paint or gold leaf. Katara kept her hands locked around her dress, even though it was heavy and her arms began to hurt. "You had your night. Now it's time for you to leave and not come back. Are we clear?"

Katara wrenched away and drew herself up. "You can't tell me what to do," she said.

"It's literally my house," Azula said, "so yes. I can. In fact, it's my nation."

Katara snorted.

"Get out," Azula said, her laughing mask slipping slightly to reveal the pure, unadulterated rage beneath it. "Get out of my home, you slut, and don't come back."

And then Azula shoved Katara out a door and left her shivering in an outdoor courtyard in the morning darkness.

A guard with a lantern wandered by, glancing at her curiously, but didn't stop her. Katara sighed, trying not to feel like an utter failure, and pulled on the outer layer of robes just so she wasn't wandering around the streets of the capital in her underwear. She bundled the rest of the layers together and wrapped her arms around them, looking around for a way out. A few young women in dark tunics and red trousers trekked through the courtyard, watching her. Katara followed their path and saw a small door on the outside of the wall, watched by a guard.

She put her chin up and walked towards it.

In a moment, she was on the street, being stared at by more imperial servants and trying not to be uncomfortable. A couple of the girls looked at her with pity in their eyes and she smiled at them in response. Some of them smiled back and she tried to fix those faces in her mind, in case she needed allies later.

She certainly wasn't going to take Azula's advice and stay away. That wasn't in her nature at all.

The walk back to the inn wasn't long but it felt like she was crossing the Earth Kingdom again. Katara's feet hurt and she was hungry, so hungry she stopped at a street vender just as he opened his stall and bought a warm handful of mantou drizzled with heavy sugared milk. Given all the elegnace she'd subjected herself last night, she didn't even feel bad by how fast she shoved the oblong buns into her mouth, barely chewing or tasting the sweetness of them.

The innkeeper gave her a strange look but didn't say anything — she was paying him too much for comments. She nodded briskly, stumbled up the stairs, unlocked her door, and tossed the robes onto the floor. She sat down on the edge of the bed, exhausted and empty.

Why hadn't he woken up?

She lay back, her feet hanging off the side of her bed, and put her hands over her face. Tears welled through her eyelashes. The sobs rolled up her throat, deep and full of pain, and she tried to lock them behind her lips, but there was no stopping them. Her face crinkled, the corners of her mouth turning down so hard it hurt.

Tears slid down her face, into her ears and messy hair, and Katara let them. She allowed the sound of her horror and pain rattle out of her chest, more animal howl than human noise.

When she cried herself dry, she slept.

Her second waking of the day was less sudden than the first, but equally painful. Instead of nails in her arm, it was her head and it was coming from the inside. Katara knew she shouldn't have gone to sleep after crying but she'd done it anyway and now she was paying for it with one of the more painful dehydration headaches of her life. She managed to stumble to her feet, open the window, and bend some rainwater straight into the bedroom, hovering over one hand. She drank the first swirling jewel of it, her mouth aching as the liquid touched it. The next drops clung to her fingers and she pressed them against her temples, encouraging her headache to heal, the blood vessels to open and the ache to fade.

Twenty minutes later, Katara no longer wanted to die. That didn't mean she wanted to get out of bed though. Instead, she lay on the covers on her back, staring up at the ceiling beams and wondering if she should even bother to go back to the palace. Would Zuko want to see her? Would he be alive, after whatever Azula had done to him? If she'd even done anything to him ..

Katara shook herself and got the maids for a bath.

This time, she didn't take the luxury of time in bathing. She finished quickly, even though she took a long time to comb out her curls. They were tangled almost beyond belief and she found herself wincing frequently as she combed. The maids brought up lunch in the late afternoon, as the sun was beginning to set — a bowl of rice and seasoned pork — and Katara ate it without tasting it.

She dressed, painted her face, and left the inn.

Plenty of Fire Nation noblewomen were making their way to the palace but most of them had palanquins or armed escorts. There were even a few intricate carriages pulled by plumed ostrich horses, making their ponderous ways down the avenues under the delicate, pruned trees.

Katara was on foot, and alone. The common folk watched her with odd, shining eyes as she passed, wary and confused, but full of awe. She didn't like that. She was just like them, really. A nobody, pretending to be something she wasn't.

That thought actually made her feel a little better.

Tonight, the guards at the entrance looked from her to her invitation for a long time. Katara just kept smiling. They absolutely didn't want to let her in after last night, but what could they do? Did they have orders from Azula to keep her out, or did the princess just expect Katara to do what she said and therefore wouldn't have bothered to fill her guards in?

"My lady ... " one guard said nervously.

Katara smiled.

The guard lost his nerve and smiled back. "Please enjoy the Fire Lord's hospitality," he said and gestured her into the palace.

Tonight, people were waiting for her entrance, and she didn't disappoint them. Clad in cloth of gold with frog clasps to her neck, her shoulders bare and and her arms covered in beaded sleeves, Katara shone like the sun in a room of women pretending they could do the same. Their gold was darker than her own, and none of them had a glowing sun set in their hair or rays painted on their face.

And tonight, they wanted to speak to her.

A nobleman in a black robe approached her, bowing slightly — enough to not stand out as a lack of politeness, but not enough to convey proper respect, Katara thought. Though of course, how would she know? Water Tribe wasn't big on bowing.

Katara bowed back, exactly the same amount he had.

"My lady," the nobleman said with a laugh in his voice that Katara didn’t trust. "I have not had the pleasure of your name —”

"Our mystery lady," Iroh said, sweeping up behind her, her savior in a slightly baggy robe. He bowed to her, very deeply, and then less so to the nobleman. "Are we not lucky to have her, my Lord Pilo?"

Pilo smiled through bared teeth. "Yes, of course, Prince Iroh."

"Did you perhaps come to ask for a dance?" Iroh asked, all innocence, though all three of them knew Pilo had come for no such thing. But what could the poor man do but fake more smiles and nod, holding out his arm for Katara.

She didn't want to dance with the slimey man, but like Pilo, she had been pushed into a corner. Sending Iroh a brief glower, she accepted Pilo's hand and suffered her way through the dance. Thankfully it was the same one Iroh had taught her the previous night so she wasn't an absolute disaster, but it wasn't pretty. Pilo started looking down his nose at her when she forgot the second turn and she managed to ignore him, but only just.

"You are not from the Fire Nation, my lady," he asked her, turning the honorific into an insult.

Katara didn't smile, just raised an eyebrow at his stupidity. "No," she said blandly. "My people have very different dances."

He looked her over and it was her eyes that finally seemed to clue him in, which Katara thought ridiculous. This man, who was obviously important at this court in some way — more important than an average citizen at least — hadn't even gotten far enough away from his own nation to be able to differentiate foreigners. Maybe to him there wasn't any point and if one wasn't Fire Nation, that was all he needed to know. Katara didn’t know if that was worse.

"And what sorts of dances are those?" Pilo asked, sounding horrified.

Katara smiled and said, as sweetly as she could manage, "Far less stuffy."

Pilo paled and as soon as the dance was over, bowed slightly again and excused himself from her company. For which she was grateful.

Unfortunately, either because Iroh was forcing them or because the courtiers had become curious rather than scared, another one after her to dance, a man closer to her own age who stared at her in a way she found incredibly impolite and more than a little bit creepy. And then there was another after him, older than Iroh even, who moved slowly and was as forgetful of the dance steps as Katara.

She slipped away from the old man and tried to make for a corner where no one would see her, but another hand landed on her shoulder. She turned, trying to fix a false smile on her face, but it wouldn't stick. Her hand was already up to brush away the offending digits on her bare skin, but found herself face to face with Zuko.

"Come on," he said, pulling her towards the low flames in the corner. "Let's see if we can keep the maggots off you."

Shuddering at the image, Katara allowed herself to be guided off the floor. Zuko's hand was warm — almost hot — on her bare shoulder and he pulled her into a dark patch where a half-wall and some columns came together. They were hidden from view and for the first time since Katara had seen Zuko, he relaxed.

"I didn't necessarily need the rescue," she told him.

Zuko turned on her, his hand still on her shoulder, and stepped closer. His head came down towards her and she thought he would kiss her, but he just put his forehead against hers and sighed.

“You know,” he said with his characteristic roughness, “I knew you’d be back. You’re still an idiot for it, and you’re putting yourself in danger, but I knew.”

“Thanks,” Katara said wryly. “I appreciate your confidence.”

He glowered at her but his face was so close, his eyes blurred into one, somewhere between whole and slagged. The scarring on his face rasped against her painted skin. For a second, she was worried he’d smudge her makeup but then she remembered how perfect last night’s paint job had been in the mirror this morning, after a night of tossing and turning in two different beds.

“Why did you come back?” zuko whispered.

“To get you, dummy.” Katara kept her voice low even though she wanted to yell. Why was he so stupid? “I’m not leaving without you, no matter how long you fake sleeping.”

He jerked his head back and looked at her in confusion. “What?”

Katara rolled her eyes. “Whatever. Curse or no, we need a plan to escape your family.”

“I told you —”

She held up a hand. “I know, I know. It won’t let you. But really, Zuko, there’s no way — what?”

Zuko had shivered suddenly and blood rushed to his cheeks, made ruddier by the firelight all around them. When he opened his eyes, there was a dark hunger lurking behind the bright irises.

“I just ...” Zuko said, sucking in a long breath through his nose and releasing it in a clear attempt to calm himself. “I haven’t heard you say my name before.”

Blood rushed to Katara’s cheeks, a mirror to Zuko’s own. She remembered a very specific conversation about this exact subject. She scowled at him, though butterflies bubbled up in her stomach. “Is this really the time?” she snapped to cover her fluster.

Zuko ran one finger down her shoulder. “Can you think of a better one?”

“Yes,” Katara said, batting his hand away. “Any other time would be better. We’re surrounded by people. Your people, actually, who don’t like me all that much. If you hadn’t noticed.”

Sighing, Zuko stepped back and shook his head. “You’re right,” she said, though his agreement was slightly tempered by the fact that he held onto her hand

“Who’s Mai?” Katara asked suddenly.

Zuko jerked, not necessarily away from  Katara, but just in surprise. “Mai?” he said as though he’d never heard the name before. “Oh, um. No one.”

Katara pulled her hand from his to fold her arms as she observed Zuko. “No one, hmm?” she said with acid in her tone.

Zuko rolled his eyes and his shoulders fell in defeat. “She’s just my sister’s friend,” he said, rubbing his eyes.

“Your sister’s friend who’s in love with you,” Katara pointed out.

“Are you jealous?”

“Maybe I am.” Katara raised one eyebrow. “I feel like I have the right to be. Given that your father and sister are trying to marry you off.”

“Well, it’s not going to happen,” Zuko said, annoyed but not, Katara thought, at her. "My father thinks he can do whatever he wants with me, but curse or not, it's not like I'm his property."

Katara raised an eyebrow, still skeptical.

"For Flame's sake, Katara, do you really think I'm planning on marrying someone else?" Zuko snapped.

"Iroh keeps trying to convince me that I should be Fire Lady," Katara said, taking a quick left turn in subject matter in order to throw him off his game.

It worked, in a way. Zuko turned very pale, and then bright red. "My uncle has a big mouth," he said.

"I thought you'd be more adamantly opposed," Katara said, unsure of what to say to him now that he was being so unsurprised by her surprise.

"I'm ... it's not that, Katara, I swear. I don't necessarily want you to be Fire Lady, if that's what you're asking. It's not your job and I don't know if you'd agree to it anyway. What I mean is ..." He sighed and ran the flat of his hand across his tightly controlled hair. "You'd be good at it."

It was Katara's turn to blush. "You know what you're implying, right?"

"I didn't ... I'm not asking you that." Zuko wouldn't look at her. "I'm just stating a fact."

"Sure," Katara said weakly. "A fact."

They'd been hiding too long in the shadows and apparently their conversation was becoming too personal for the universe to take. So of course at exactly that moment, Azula's friend Ty Lee turned up about a half foot away from Zuko's elbow like a rose-colored ghost. "Zuko!" she said brightly, without honorific or respectful bow. "That's where you went off to — ooooooh."

"Hi, Ty Lee," Zuko said, not taking his eyes away from Katara, though only a second ago, he'd been insisting on examining the carved column behind her head. "Get lost."

Ty Lee pouted in a pretty way that had envy stabbing through Katara's stomach. "Zuko, don't be like that," she said, her smile back in place almost immediately. "You're so mean lately. What happened?"

"I was cursed to spend the last six years as a dragon and banished from the Fire Nation, what do you thing happened?" Zuko snapped.

"Zuko," Katara said quietly, in the same tone she used when Sokka got testy on her, "be nice."

Ty Lee cocked her head like a bird, looking at Katara. Her face was made up in the traditional Fire Nation way except her lips were very bright, like a rose bud, and her eyes sparkled in a way no cosmetics would have allowed. "Thank you," she said, which was so unexpected that Katara had to process the words for longer than usual. "I'm glad you agree. I love your dress."

Katara blinked. "Thank you," she said, unsure. She glanced at Zuko, who just shrugged.

"I don't think we've actually been introduced," Ty Lee said, and suddenly she looked younger, tucking her hands behind her back and rocking back on her heels. When she leaned forward towards Katara, Zuko coughed and looked away, his cheeks turning pink. Katara almost did the same — Ty Lee was more confident in regards to her necklines than anyone Katara had ever met. It took Katara a second to realize that Ty Lee had extended a hand towards her.

"I'm Ty Lee," Ty Lee said as though Katara was her new best friend. "It's so nice to meet you!"

Katara stared at the hand for a second before taking it. To her great surprise, Ty Lee's hands were heavily calloused, rough in different places than Katara's own. When Katara looked down, she saw that the first two knuckles of Ty Lee's hands were rough and scarred, slightly larger than the others.

Katara released the hand and looked at Ty Lee with new found respect. This woman wasn't the noble girl that Katara had assumed, given that she was the right hand of a princess.

"Ty Lee," Zuko said, and Katara realized she'd been quiet too long, "allow me to introduce you to the Lady Katara of the Southern Water Tribe. Katara, this is Ty Lee, my sister's ... lackey."

"Zuko!" Ty Lee qhined, stomping one foot under the silk of her skirts. "I'm Azula's friend ."

"Whatever," Zuko said.

Ty Lee looked Katara up and down again and Katara knew she was being judged as a competitor — not for Ty Lee herself, but definitely for Ty Lee's friend, which was probably worse. But then Ty Lee's eyes flicked to Zuko and she must have seen something there that made her falter. Her shoulders fell just a little, but she maintained her sunny smile.

"Come with me," Ty Lee said and before Katara could say anything, Ty Lee grabbed her by the wrist and dragged her away from Zuko.

Ty Lee led Katara to a group of pretty, well dressed women fluttering by the side of the room, removed from the dance floor but adjacent. Waiting, Katara thought, for someone to ask for a dance. But they'd never ask on their own. Oh no, of course not.

"Ladies!" Ty Lee said, bursting into the center of the group and throwing her arms wide like she was the princess instead of Azula, "Hello, ladies!"

A lot of practiced court smiles greeted them and then turned very cold as soon as they saw who was with Ty Lee. Their eyes lanced into Katara, every single one of them looking for flaws in her look, chinks in her armor. But Katara just straightened  her shoulders and raised her chin, smiling back in a cool, confident manner that felt nothing like her. They were just delicate, dove-like creatures with pale faces and petals for mouths. Katara was a warrior queen, the embodiment of the sun, her gold warpaint sparkling in the firelight.

"This is Lady Katara!" Ty Lee said, and Katara was so glad about how Zuko and Iroh kept introducing her. She had no title, of course, but to these women, she needed the lie.

"Is she?" one of the women said, but there were so many faces pointed towards her that Katara couldn't tell who'd spoken. It was a quiet, hissing comment that should have made Katara falter, but instead she just looked around the circle with hooded eyes, smiling very slightly as though she was blessing them with her presence rather than being insulted.

" Lady Katara," Ty Lee repeated with a slight emphasis on the title, glaring around the group, "traveled all the way from the Southern Water Tribe to be here. I bet you saw amazing things on your journey." She turned to Katara, noble ladies forgotten. Her eyes glimmered. "Didn't you?"

"Of course I did," Katara said, wishing she could disappear, but her robes were too massive to be able to sneak away quietly.

"Oooh!" Ty Lee clapped her hands and bounced on the balls of her feet. "Like what?"

"Well, for starters," Katara said, feeling annoyed and somewhat mischievous, "dragons."

The noblewomen snorted in either disgust or disbelief. Ty Lee, however, turned somewhat red and started coughing, covering her mouth with a sleeve. Katara managed not to grin. This was what these nice girls got if they wanted to play against her. Not that Katara considered herself much of a player. But she was petty, and maybe that was the same thing.

"There are no dragons left," said one of the girls — they all looked so similar that Katara couldn't bother to keep them straight. Pretty, covered in rice powder, and disapproving.

Katara smiled at her. "Is that so?" she said as though she was talking to a child. "Interesting.”

"Oh!" The girl's face went from snobby to excited as she looked over Katara's shoulder. "Lady Mai."

Katara turned and found herself face to face with Mai. The other woman froze and Katara didn't move, clenching her jaw behind her yellow paint.

"Oh," Mai said and her disgust was more than just "this person is less than me". It was deeper, more personal. "You're here again."

Katara breathed slowly through her nose before responding. "Lady Mai. I haven't had the pleasure."

"And you won't," Mai said.

Katara was impressed by Mai's ability to keep her voice so bland, her face expressionless. "I see," Katara said, finding herself making her voice intentionally more lilting than it normally would be. Perhaps it was because of Mai's blandness that she wanted to appear to be more interesting, have more personality. Perhaps she just disliked Mai.

Mai rolled her eyes and Katara resisted the urge to turn to Ty Lee and ask if she could go now.

"So who were you again?" said one noblewoman.

"She's Zuko's whore," Mai said mildly.

Katara dug her nails into the meat of her palms so she didn't slap Mai right in the face. The noblewomen tittered and Katara felt herself going red under her golden face paint. They were laughing at her. Even Mai was, though her face didn't change. Ty Lee looked at her feet.

There were two option, Katara thought. Play it safe. Or don't.

She wanted to hit Mai right in her blank face, but because starting a fist fight in the middle of a formal ball probably wasn't the best idea, she just offered a sweet, golden smile and said, "Jealous?"

Mai went even more pale, which was impressive. Every woman around them gasped. A few fans snapped out to cover mouths and noses that couldn't hide their horror. Katara didn't let her smile slip.

"Mai," Ty Lee said, her bounciness disappearing under worry. "Why don't we just —?”

Mai held up a hand. "No," she said, sounding strangled, which was like an emotion, "I wanna hear what she has to say."

Katara sighed and tilted her head. "I don't want to fight with you over a man," she said, which was absolutely the truth. "Even a prince. Even a prince who's ... " She stumbled, unsure of how to put it.

Good in the sack , said Toph's voice in her head.

Katara settled for a coy little smile. "Well," she said and shrugged. "You know."

Mai shook her head. "You're not helping your case."

Katara shrugged. "Why are you attacking me on this?"

Mai's eyes flashed to Ty Lee. "I've had some encouragement," she said. "It's not your fault." She sighed and looked Katara right in the eye. "I don't hate you."

"Don't you?" Katara asked.

"I just ... " Mai looked away. Behind her, Ty Lee was shooing away the other noble girls; apparently this conversation wasn't any of their business, which Katara appreciated.

"I don't think you're good enough for him," Mai said with painful honesty. Katara's chest contracted but she didn't let it show on her face, trying to emulate Mai's ability to remain emotionless no matter what. "You barely know him. You're just some Water Tribe peasant girl. You can't understand who he is. What he is."

"Can you?" Katara countered. "Do you know how long its been since he was what you think he is? Years trapped in a form that doesn't belong to him changed him. Not to mention that you haven't seen him since he was ... what?" Katara cocked her head to one side. "Twelve? Fourteen? Just a child, really."

"Just because he met you, that doesn't mean it erased his past," Mai said and it was almost a snap except she followed it up with, "I mean, whatever, but I'm right."

"Of course it didn’t erase anything," Katara said, folding her arms. Her heart pounded against the inside of her wrist but she clamped down until she knew she wouldn't waver. "His past meant a lot to him. It crushed his soul. Scared his face. Took away his family." She raised one eyebrow. "Killed his mother."

Mai made a disgusted noise. "He's such a downer," she said.

Katara resisted the urge to make a point about the pot and the kettle. She understood what Mai wanted intellectually, even if she didn't think the poor girl would ever get it. Someone who cared just a little bit more than her. But not too much. Someone who could cut through some of that emotional exile she lived under ... but not too much. Too much meant feeling and examining her own life. Too much meant fear and potential failure. Enough to help her, not enough to hurt her.

Zuko's past was too much. But Mai didn't want that. She wanted the  child prince she'd known, back again, unchanged by his experience. And even though most of that experience had happened before Katara even arrived on the scene, Mai blamed Katara for it. Katara was a real physical being, here in the flesh, looking like something out of a story book and clearly alien. Foreign. Zuko's other experiences were too close to home, and too abstract from Mai to blame. She could see Katara and hate her. She couldn't see Zuko's pain to hate that instead.

And besides, Katara really had been telling the truth. She didn't want to fight with Mai over a man. That would be embarrassing and Katara had embarrassed herself enough in all of this.

"Downer or not," Katara said, shrugging, "it's the truth."

Mai shook her head. "Whatever," she said, which Katara took as a win.

A hand brushed against her waist and she turned to see Zuko standing behind her, looking from her to Mai to Ty Lee a few feet away with the most genuine concern on his face. "What's going on?" he asked, still more  of a snap than it should have been.

"We're talking," Mai said sullenly. "I'm not even allowed to talk to her?"

"What?" Zuko cocked his head to one side, eyes narrowing in confusion. "No. I didn't say that. Did I say that?" He looked at Katara as though she would confirm or deny what exactly he had said, but she didn't, just shook her head and shrugged.

"It's fine," Mai said in a tone of voice that even on her clearly meant "it's not fine". Zuko, however, didn't seem to notice and ignored it, nodding as though he'd been given the green light to proceed. Katara rolled her eyes. Men. Idiots.

All thought vanished though when Zuko dropped his head a little so his breath skimmed along the top of her ear — very distracting — and said, "Come to my rooms after I leave. We'll talk."

"Oh, like last night?" Katara said, feeling snappish and remembering her cold morning.

He gave her another odd look like he had no idea what she was talking about and shook his head. "Just come, would you? Can't you stop being stubborn for one second?"

Katara absolutely could not do that, but she didn't want to tell Zuko that. He already knew.

"Fine." She tossed her braided hair back over her shoulders and gave him the haughty look she found herself getting very good at. "But if anything happens ... " She let the threat hang in the air between them, unseen.

"I don't know what you think is going to happen," Zuko grumbled. "Just meet me later. Okay?"

"All right, all right." She waved her hand. "When is later?"

"Soon." Zuko fiddled with the high collar of his robes as though the fabric was choking him with silk fingers. "I can't stand much more of this. Everyone keeps looking at me."

"You are the prince," Katara pointed out. "Doesn't it make sense that they might be watching you?"

"I still don't like it," Zuko said, clearly annoyed.

Katara rolled her eyes but saw Azula approaching from over Zuko's shoulder and made herself scarce. She didn't want to talk to Azula and Zuko at the same time; getting involved in the royal family's domestic spats was more than she'd signed up for. Rescue operations were easy when compared to that.

Iroh caught her then, holding a plate of delicate foods, all tiny and exquisite, and made her eat something. She appreciated the effort, but her stomach was so twisted with nerves that it was difficult to eat.

When she noticed Zuko was gone, she made her way to the doors to the family residences, heart in her throat. This time, though, the guards took one look at her and got out of her way. That made it somewhat worse. Katara couldn't help to think that this was somehow Azula's doing, like a spider luring her into a trap.

Like a fly, Katara stepped through the door.

"Hello, Lady Katara," Azula said.

Katara didn't even jump. She just squared her shoulders and turned to face the princess, who lurked at one side of the hall, leaning against the wall. Blue flames crawled across her hands like fat, glowing worms, each one dangerous and somehow foul. The cold from them was palpable even from where Katara stood.

"You came back," Azula said. "Why?"

"You know why."

Azula waved her hand dismissively and the flames went out. "I don't, actually. But I don't care. Didn't I tell you not to be here tonight?"

"I'm not a great listener," Katara said. It was taking all her energy to stay calm instead of completely panicking in the face of Azula's anger — however slight and cold that was. But she wasn't going to back down. Zuko had told her to see him, and she absolutely was going to. She wasn't going to miss him again.

Azula rolled her eyes. "This is embarrassing," she drawled. "For you, I mean. For me, only second hand. Listen to me, girl, and walk away from this. You don't need to follow him around —”

"Oh, shut up," Katara said, like an idiot.

Azula's mouth snapped shut and Katara realized that there probably weren't a lot of people in this world who talked to Azula like that. Fear blossomed in her belly — she'd made a bad decision and she knew it — but she couldn't go back on it now. The only option was to hold her ground, keep Azula's gaze, and wait.

And maybe run away if things got rough. She kept that as an option.

"Hmm," Azula said, half thoughtful, half a growl. "Give me that."

She pointed at the sun on Katara's head.

Sighed, and knowing better than to argue, Katara pulled the ornement from her hair. She tossed it at Azula's feet and walked past her towards Zuko's room as though she didn't think Azula was about to put a knife in her back. It was a good lie; her shoulder blades itched and ached the whole way there.

When she opened the door, there was a candle burning on the bedside table and Zuko was asleep.

Katara almost screamed in frustration. How could he be sleeping? What was wrong with him? The curse? Something else? But why would he have invited her back here if he knew he was going to be asleep?

The anger and exhaustion bubbled up Katara's throat and she turned, slamming her hands into the surface of a carved wooden bureau. A vase of dried flowers rattled and tipped, the ceramic shattering. Broken stems and flower heads scattered across the wood and onto the floor.

Katara leaned on her hands, breathing heavily.

"What is wrong with you?" she snapped, not turning around but addressing herself to Zuko. "Why wouldn't you tell me that you've developed some kind of curse-related narcolepsy? Wake up. Wake up!" She whirled around, her voice raised enough that she was sure everyone in the palace could hear her and not caring. But Zuko didn't wake up. He  didn't even move.

Katara screamed and swept a handful of carved figures wearing Fire Nation robes off the bureau and onto the floor. They cracked and shattered, a few heads rolling away across the carpet. Katara slid down the door, her dress bunching up in the back until she sat on the floor in a pool of gold cloth. Her hands shook. She raised them, and then buried her hands in them, letting all the anger inside her out as tears.

Idiot, she told herself. You're being an idiot.

None of that made her feel better. She wasn't crying because she was sad, she knew that. It was anger. All of this was too much and she was doing so much — so much — and none of it was worth it. The whole world settled on Katara's shoulders once again and she wanted to scream, but she didn't.

Instead, she closed her eyes, and sang.

It was an old song, one her mother had taught her whens he was small. There was a time when Katara hadn't been the best of children — the thought now made her smile even through her rage and tears — and the singing had been something to concentrate on.

She wasn't a good singer. It didn't help that her voice was quiet, and clogged with tears. The anger tempered slightly, a tsunami dropping to a rough sea. She didn't let herself hang on to it.

Thankfully, no one disturbed her. When she was done, her throat raw and her voice even worse than it had been, she dried her face, undressed, and stood over Zuko for a second.

She wanted to hit him.

Instead, she leaned over and kissed his forehead.

Zuko sighed, the worry lines between his eyes softening. Maybe he was asleep — perhaps for reasons that had more to do with the spirits than with her, she hoped — but the motion made Katara's anger melt. He knew her. He had to. She had nothing to really prove it, but she hoped.

And sometimes hope was all she had.

She slept even less that night than the one before, watching the moon through the open window until the city was nearly silent and the stars sang to her like tiny winter suns.

Chapter Text

Azula came for Katara in the morning but Katara was ready for her. When the princess pushed open the door without knocking, Katara was already standing, dressed and fixing her hair in the dragon-ringed mirror. She met Azula's eyes in the reflection and smirked.

"Your Highness," she said quietly.

Azula's eyes flicked from Katara to the still sleeping Zuko — tucked under the covers now, his shoes off and clothing folded on a handy nearby chair — and her lip curled. "You don't live here, you know," Azula said. "You don't get to do ... that."

Katara turned around and raised an eyebrow, folding her hands into the sleeves of her robe. "Do what? Take care of him? Make sure he doesn't rumple his clothing? Shouldn't I do that regardless of whether I live here or not?"

"No," Azula snapped. "You absolutely shouldn't. Unless you're being paid to clean up after him, what's the point?

"Love," Katara said, unselfconsciously.

"Disgusting," Azula said. "Get out."

This time Katara didn't let Azula touch her. She made her own way out of the palace and didn't even react when Azula slammed the door closed inches from her back. She was able to smile at the servants today, who watched her with curious, hungry eyes roving over her face and dress.

When she got back to the inn, she changed into a tunic and went to a city bathhouse.

Katara had never experienced a communal bathhouse and first she was worried. Worried enough that she almost went back to the inn and hid herself away. But what Iroh had said two nights ago niggled at her. The anger she had against the Fire Nation's government had spread to so many other parts of her life, poisoning her feelings and digging fingers of rot into her soul. She wouldn't forgive the people who were responsible for the destruction of her people — the Fire Lord, the military — but perhaps Iroh was right that it wasn’t the common people of the Fire Nation who were at fault for all of this destruction.

Dictators, Katara thought, probably practiced on their own people first. Generations of dictators had a lot of practice.

It was the laughter that allowed Katara to take a deep breath and step into the communal bathing room.

The first thing she noticed about Fire Nation women was how loud they were.

A couple of young girls splashed at one end of the pool, occasionally dunking each other and laughing. They couldn't be more than ten and Katara's heart clenched up at the sight of girls that age being so carefree. She'd been younger than that when she'd had to grow up, but of course she didn't begrudge these girls their childhood; everyone deserved that.

In a nearby corner, a number of old women Gran-Gran's age gossiped and combed out their long, pale hair. Their gnarled hands moved with easy grace through the tresses and they laughed loudly and without worrying about disturbing anyone, in that way women of a certain age had. Katara smiled at the sight of them, missing Gran-Gran immediately but in the happy, melancholic way.

In the middle of the pool, women of all ages waded and even swam in the steaming water, their hair loose and waving like kelp. Others wore only complex scarves wound around their hair, covering all of it to keep it dry. None of them seemed bothered about their own nudity or that of the women around them.

Katara placed her bundle of clothing alongside others at the side of the pool and, heart pounding, shed her tunic and slipped immediately into the hot water.

No one looked at her twice.

Of course, she still couldn't help wrapping her arms around her chest, hiding as much of her breasts as she could. Maybe she'd grow out of that nervousness someday, but not yet. If she stayed in the Fire Nation that long, though, maybe she had other problems.

She unbraided her hair and let it float across the surface of the pool. Bubbles fluttered through it and broke on the surface as the weight of wet hair sank around her shoulders.

"I've never seen curls like that," someone said behind Katara.

She whirled, feeling for the pulse of the water surrounding her, but it was only a girl a few years older than her, pale and smiling. She wasn’t quite pretty but cheerful enough to make up for it. Her round cheeks were red with the heat of the bathhouse. When Katara gave the girl a very quick once-over in order to determine the girl's threat level, she saw the heavy swell of the girl's belly, distorted by the water.

Katara blinked. A smiling, naked, pregnant woman in a bath house probably wasn't going to attack her.

"Uh," she said, trying to work out the question implicit in the statement, her hand rising to her hair. "Thank you?"

The girl laughed and placed one hand on her stomach in a comfortable, easy way. "Relax," she said. "You look like a scared rabbit goat. Don't worry, I'm not going to hurt you."

"I didn't —" Katara said, already defensive, and then stopped. "Sorry." She took a deep breath and smiled, trying her best.

"Wow," the girl said, her eyes opening very wide. "You're so jumpy." For a second, Katara couldn't tell what the emotion in the downturn of the girl’s mouth was, but then Katara recognized it as protectiveness.

"Are you okay?" the girl asked.

"Yes?" Katara cocked her head, wondering at the question.

The girl looked Katara over, her eyes hard and searching, which didn't make Katara feel any more comfortable. Her eyes settled on the ring of bruises around Katara's wrist, a memory of Azula's hard hands. "Are you sure?" the girl said, dark anger suffusing her tone.

"Oh!" Katara realized suddenly what was wrong. She folded her arms to cover the bruises. "Oh, no, that's not —"

"Are you sure?" said the girl, her voice a growl.

"Yes, I'm sure." Katara forced a smile. "I just ... I was in a ... it wasn't like that. No one's ... hurting me."

The girl raised an eyebrow.

A surge of good will rose in Katara. "I promise," she said, smiling. "I had an altercation with a very nasty piece of work. She's not going to do it again."

"Good." The girl put her hands on her hips. "You know, no one here is going to hurt you."

"Huh?"

"You look uncomfortable. Just because you got into it with some girl—"

"No, no, no," Katara interrupted, her face going deep red. "I just ... I'm not used to communal bathing."

The girl's mouth snapped shut and she looked startled for a minute, but then smiled again, the expression clearly more at home on her face.  "You're not from here?"

Katara wrapped her arms around her chest, still blushing. "What clued you in?" she said wryly.

The girl laughed, her hand returning to the swell of her belly. "Oh, you're funny !" she said. "I'm Cheo. What's your name?"

"Katara." Katara glanced down and channeled her grandmother. "How far along are you?"

Cheo beamed. "Nearly eight months," she said. "My feet hurt all the time."

"Your first?"

"Second." Cheo turned and pointed to some of the old ladies at the side of the pool. When Katara looked more closely, she saw a few of them held toddlers and babies. "My son, Dadan. He's almost a year old." Cheo beamed. "Do you have any little ones?"

Katara shook her head. "No," she said, feeling like she'd been left behind with something.

"Married?" Cheo asked.

Katara shook her head. "I've been busy."

Cheo waved a hand. "Doesn't matter. You'll get around to it if you want to. Some of us get there earlier than others." She made a face. "I love my husband, but I wish I could have loved him a little less, if you know what I mean."

"Northern Moonflower," Katara said distractedly, watching Cheo's son splash his chubby hands on the surface of the water. Maybe someday that boy would grow up to be a soldier who would kill her people, or be killed himself. But right now, he was just a fat baby in his grandmother's arms, just as Katara had once been, and she couldn't hate him. She wanted to, because of what he could become, but the emotion refused to manifest. The rage wasn't there when she watched his huge golden eyes narrow in tiny child concentration.

It wasn't just that she didn't hate him. It was that she wanted to save him from becoming something terrible. Or dead.

This was what Iroh saw, she realized, when he looked into the faces of his people. Not the snooty courtiers. Not the cruel smiles of the royal family. Iroh saw the babies and the children. He saw their innocence, their desire to simply live. He saw fat, lower class babies who would grow up to be soldiers shipped off in some unending war, killing and being killed and leaving mothers like Cheo at home to cry for them.

Katara ground her teeth together. That hadn't mattered when they came to her little village, when she was only a little older than Dadan. They hadn't cared about her fat cheeks and awkward hands when they killed her mother as she ran from from them. No one had been there to save her. They didn't deserve her pity.

But maybe the deserved the chance to earn it. And they couldn't do that if they were all dead.

"What did you say?" Cheo said, laughing.

Katara, still staring at the baby, repeated, "Northern Moonflower would have helped. With your husband."

Cheo burst into peals of laughter. A few of the other women in the bath looked over and Katara snapped back to herself, a blush rising in her neck and cheeks. "And here I thought you were shy!" Cheo said, still chortling. "Some quiet little foreign girl who didn't want people to see her naked, but here you are, lecturing me on contraceptives!"

Even more red than she had been a minute before, Katara stuttered, "I-I'm sorry, I didn't think ... do you not use them here? Do Fire Nation girls ... you know, not, um ..." She waved a hand helplessly. "You know."

"Canoodle?" Cheo asked.

"I suppose," Katara muttered.

"Of course we do!" Cheo was laughing again and Katara was getting tired of it being at her expense. "How do you think I got Dadan? Had to hustle myself off to get married real fast after that. But you, I'm thinking now you've done your share of canoodling. Where are you from?"

Not seeing the sense in lying, Katara said, "The Southern Water Tribe."

"Getting warmed up with all those big strong barbarian types?" Cheo said, grinning.

"We're not barbarians!" Katara said, annoyed now. "But no. That's ... " She peered at Cheo. "There aren't many men in my tribe. I didn't ..." It was too much to explain. "No. No one from the Water Tribes."

Cheo's eyes flicked around the pool and she grinned like a little girl with a secret rather than an adult woman. "Fire Nation?"

Katara blushed. "Yes. So what?"

"So nothing." Cheo grinned. "I'm just saying, you've got yourself a fire boy you need Northern Moonflower for and I for one am glad our nation had something to offer you."

What would Cheo say if she knew the “fire boy” in questions was the prince? Katara didn't know, but she did know she couldn't tell her that. It would be too much, and besides Katara was still trying to keep something of a low profile, rather than throwing herself around the whole capital and getting into trouble. Not that she wasn't already in trouble, she thought. But maybe less trouble.

"Is he pretty?" Cheo asked.

Katara, blushing so hard her face hurt, muttered, "Yes."

"My husband is too," Cheo said, grinning and nudging Katara in the ribs. "I have to tell you, I love a man in a uniform."

Katara's heart stopped.

"Soldier?" she managed, the only word she could get out without fainting.

Cheo laughed. "No, thankfully. He was going to be drafted, but then Dadan was born. The only good thing a lack of Moonflower has given us, I suppose. No, my Imom is a guard at the palace. He's very proud."

Katara started breathing again. Not much better, she thought, but maybe a different branch of service? She didn't understand the Fire Nation's military structure, but from the way Cheo said it, she sounded like they were two very different services. "Is he ... at the palace now?" she asked.

"Not now. He's been working late." Cheo made a face. "The Fire Lord has been holding parties, trying to marry off the Dragon Prince."

"The who?" Katara asked, though she knew exactly who Cheo must mean. She widened her eyes, trying to pretend that she didn't understand what was going on.

"Don't you know?" Cheo tilted her head to one side, shifting her hands so the water fluttered around her waist. "No, of course not. Why would you? The crown prince just returned to the palace, you know. No one knows where he went for the last six years or so, but rumor has it he was living with dragons. Or maybe he was living as one. It's a little confusing."

"Is that what the Fire Lord said?" Katara asked.

The color in Cheo's face faded and her smile flickered. "The Fire Lord ..." she said, more quietly, then forced a smile. " Our Fire Lord is ... well, he wouldn't tell us, now would he. I mean, what would he need with some peasants like us?" She shrugged, but there was fear in her eyes and that scared Katara more than anything else. "We're loyal to the crown, of course," she added quickly. "But the royal family doesn't speak to the people. Of course they don't."

Katara stared at her. "So, they never told you why the prince was gone?"

Cheo smiled. "No. Just rumors. We didn't need to know. I knew more than most, of course, since my husband worked for the family. He says they're not happy he's back. Triumphant, for some reason, but now they have to do something with him. And there's something about a spirit who haunts him. Haunts the palace. A woman who keeps turning up and then disappearing. The servants see her sometimes, outside the royal apartments. Some of them hear her singing at night."

Katara's face drained of blood and her heart stopped. "W-what?" she said.

"Oh, are you afraid of a few spirits?" Cheo joked, nudging Katara in the ribs. "I thought you'd be used to that. I hear there are all kinds of spirits up where it's colder." She shrugged. "I'm not saying I believe them. But that's what people say."

Open-mouthed, Katara shook her head in slow arcs. She'd meant to look like some kind of spirit, of course, but she hadn't expected anyone to believe it. Maybe the nobles didn't — she hoped they didn't at least, given how they'd treated her — but if that was the rumor going around the capital, there was someone to spread it. At least a few people had bought her spirit impersonation, like a deep sea eel swallowing a barbed bone hook.

She didn't know how she felt about that.

"Is something wrong?" Cheo said, concern evident in her voice. "You look very pale."

"I'm fine," Katara said faintly. "I'll be alright."

"Are you sure?" Cheo put a hand on Katara's elbow. "You look pretty terrible. Do you need to sit down?"

Without thinking, Katara waved her hands and settled back into the water, which caught and held her in a way it probably shouldn't have. She closed her eyes and took a breath, then opened them to find Cheo staring at her, open mouthed. It was only then that she realized she was bending bath water in the middle of the Fire Nation capital. The damp chair she'd formed collapsed and she rocketed to her feet, splashing water everywhere.

"You're a bender," Cheo said softly.

"I —"

"I won't tell," Cheo said. "My husband is too. I'm hoping Dadan won't be so they don't send him to the army." She glanced over her shoulder at her son, still with the old women, his fat arms moving through the water. "I don't know what it's like where you come from, but here, we have to learn to give our boys up. The nation takes them, especially the smart ones, or the strong ones, or the benders." She rested her hand on her stomach again, a scared, protective gesture. "I hope this one's a girl," she said softy. "Maybe she'll get to grow up."

Katara's heart, already fluttering, dropped. "He'll be fine," she said, making a promise she wasn't sure she could keep. "Dadan will get to grow up just fine, if I have anything to do with it."

"You?" Cheo turned, mouth open. "What can you do?"

Katara put a finger to her lips and smiled at Cheo. Maybe she couldn't do anything yet, but Katara was starting to think maybe an angry Water Tribe girl to dismantle their central government was exactly what the common people of the Fire Nation needed.

Besides, if Cheo didn't know who Katara was yet, Katara thought she might after tonight. She didn't intend to go along quietly anymore.

The irony wasn't lost on her


 

She didn't present an invitation to the guards tonight. She didn't even wait for them to ask her for the paper, or introduce her, or speak to her. Instead, Katara swept by them, freezing the late night rain around her so it tinkled to the ground in her wake like fallen stars. Everyone else handed over robes, capes, or waxed parasoles to attendants, their feet and hems damp. Katara was bone dry, her dress blazingly pristine in stark contrast.

Her first night had been mysterious and fae. The second was blazing bright, more fire than the Fire Nation. Tonight was no pretense. She was a warrior ready for battle and this dress, this paint, and the diamonds in her hair were armor. And she was ready to take a Fire Lord down with her if she had to.

People got out of her way.

Ty Lee, in brocade the color of rose petals and patterned with chrysanthemums, smiled when she saw Katara and stepped forward, but the smile faltered quickly. Her eyes ran over Katara's dress, her hair, the look on her face, and Ty Lee stopped moving. Her waving hand slumped and her mouth opened.

Katara had intentionally arrived late, unwilling to stand around and make small talk, so the room was very full. Noblewomen stared at her from behind fans and delicate fingertips. The women she'd spoken to last night watched her with hard eyes that couldn't quite conceal the fear behind them. Katara didn't smile. Last night had been about smiling, about playing their game better than they could. Tonight was about power.

She looked away in disgust and disinterest and made sure they saw it.

Zuko stood up from his throne and met her in the middle of the floor. His mouth was slightly open as he took her in. "You look ..." he said and trailed off.

"I know," Katara said.

She wore white and black, her curls cascading over her back and shoulders. The robes left her neck, shoulders, and much of her chest bare and she would have been uncomfortable except she didn't care all that much what these people thought of her. The dress had a high waist and her precise beading shaped stars and harsh stripes. Wide skirts — more of the Earth Kingdom rather than the Fire Nation or Water Tribe — made her take up more room on the floor, further pushing the courtiers away from her.

Her face was painted with black spirals and white stars. Her lips were night black. Diamonds — Toph's creation, plus more that the Earthbender must have smuggled into her pack — sparkled in her hair and at her throat.

Zuko spent another minute looking her over, open mouthed, which her ego appreciated. Finally, when he was done, he looked up and said, "Why didn't you come to see me last night?"

Katara propped her hands on her waist — her hips were lost in skirts. "I did," she said cooly. "You were asleep."

His forehead crinkled. "What? No, how? I just sat down and ... and ... " Lines appeared around his eyes and mouth and he ran one hand over his scar. "No. I don't remember anything."

"If the curse is still affecting you," Katara said, "you could have just told me."

He shook his head, angry now as well as confused. "It's not the curse. It's ... I don't know."

Katara glanced around. "Is your father coming to this? Does the Fire Nation have a special way to challenge someone?"

"What?" Zuko snapped and there was more fear in his voice than she'd expected. "Do you mean you want to challenge the Fire Lord to a duel? In front of the whole court?"

"I thought that was clear," Katara said.

"You're crazy. And also, you're absolutely not doing that."

"I'm not scared of him," Katara said and for once it was true. She hated him too much to be scared.

"You should be," Zuko snapped. "The last person he dueled with was me. When he gave me this." He pointed at his scar in all its angry red glory. "He did that to his own child. He'll kill you if he can. Duel or no, he'd probably do it for fun."

"Zuko," Katara said softly, cracking just a little and reaching out for his hand. "I promised I'd protect you."

"You can't protect me from him," Zuko said with equal gentleness and Katara's skin shuddered at the tone. "You're strong — so strong, the strongest person I've ever met — but that won't matter. He has no mercy, Katara. No humanity left in him. He's ... he's evil."

"No one is all evil," Katara said, thinking of pregnant Cheo laughing in the baths, of Ty Lee trying her best to make Katara feel welcome despite everything, and of the little boys being sent off to war.

"He is."

She reached up and put her hand on his face, on the scared side. Zuko groaned and leaned into her palm, the rough edges of badly healed flesh pressing into her palm. "I have to," she whispered. "For my people. For your people." She paused, feeling less for saying it, but wanting to anyway. "For you."

His hand came up to rest on top of hers. "We'll find a different way."

"Like what?"

His eyes opened, sleepy and hooded with arousal. "I don't know, but I'm not letting you die."

"What if I don't?"

"Optimistic, aren't you." He turned his head and kissed the inside of her wrist. The gesture was intimate enough that it would have embarrassed her even in private. In front of these people, all of whom were watching the interaction, it was all Katara could do to stop herself from sinking into the floor. Her skin burned beneath his lips.

"Zuko," drawled Azula's familiar voice, " what are you doing?"

Both of them snapped their heads around towards her voice and when Azula met Katara's eyes, the princess actually stepped back. That in turn took Katara aback. She'd never seen Azula anything less than perfectly controlled. Even that tiny half-step ... that was a crack in Azula's armor.

Whatever Katara was doing, it was working.

"You're embarrassing me," Azula said, covering her shock well and examining her long, sharp nails. "What's gotten into you?"

Zuko told her to do something Katara hoped was anatomically impossible.

Azula clicked her tongue at him. "Manners, Zuzu, manners . Just because you weren't human enough to use them doesn't mean you were never taught. At least pretend you have a little respect."

"Princess Azula," Katara said, cold in opposition to her usual over-sweetness. "With all due respect , this is none of your business."

"Isn't it?" Azula said. "I'm pretty sure everything going on between you two love birds is my business, given that it's my job to keep you as far apart as possible. For your own good, of course, Zuko. I mean look at her." Azula looked Katara up and down and shuddered. "You can take the barbarian out of the Water Tribe, I suppose, but you can't make her people ."

The needle of frozen rice wine whizzed by Azula's cheek, not quite touching it, but close enough for it to ruffle Azula's hair and skim across the shoulder of her dress. Azula's golden eyes went wide and her whole body turned unnaturally still.

"The next one," Katara said, the chill in her voice as well as every liquid in the now silent hall, "goes through your eye. Are we clear?"

Azula smiled but it didn't reach her eyes. "If you were Fire Nation," she said quietly, "I think we'd get along. Enjoy your evening, Lady Katara. We'll talk later."

She waved and stalked away like a wolf bat waiting for prey.

When Katara looked back at Zuko, his mouth hung open and there was something like awe in his face. "You are crazy," he said. "And scary. And I'm really into it."

She shot him a look. " That's how you're feeling?"

A ghost of a smile touched Zuko's lips. "Can you blame me?"

"Yes," Katara said, annoyed, but smiling anyway. Just a little bit — she really didn't want to ruin her look right now. The adrenaline still roaring through her system chilled her rather than kept her warm which for once was good. It was strange to want to feel cold, after years on the ice. But maybe that was where she was pulling her strength from these days.

People started talking again, but they left a wide berth around Katara and whatever knives she may or may not have whipped up out of the beverage assortment. There would be no one asking her to dance tonight, for which she was grateful.

"I think I've won the argument about whether or not I get to fight your father," Katara said, craning her head to look at the still-empty throne in the center of the dias. She hadn't yet seen Fire Lord Ozai in person, but this was the last night of revelry. He'd have to be here, wouldn't he? In order to marry off his son, or whatever it was they were trying to do.

"Absolutely not," Zuko said.

Katara glared at him. "We have to end this," she said, "and I promised Suki I wasn't leaving without you. She thinks you're the key to saving the world or something and I don't want to upset her."

Zuko's eyebrows wrinkled. "Who the hell is Suki?"

It was then that Katara realized Zuko had no idea what had happened to her since they left the island. She'd gone through so much and fought so hard to get to him, and she hadn't yet gotten to tell him about it. To Zuko, she was still the same girl who had taken off on her ice floe into the unknown. The one who had run away.

Of course that was still who Katara was, but now she knew what she could do for herself. If she'd been on that island again, had it to do over, she'd have tackled Azula straight into the ocean rather than let her take Zuko away. She was harder, maybe, but also sturdier, like a well constructed igloo, able to weather storms in a way no tent ever could.

But that was too much to explain.

"Suki is a Kyoshi warrior who's dead set on using you to end a war," Katara said matter-of-factly. "You'll like her."

Zuko blinked at her. "Great," he said weakly. "Sounds great. And uh ... how is she going to do that?"

Katara smiled coyly at him.

"You're not dueling my father," Zuko said again.

Katara huffed. "Fine. He's not even here anyway. Are they going to try to marry you off to Mai at the end of this?"

Zuko coughed, his face turning very red. "I hope not. This was all Azula's idea. The marriage thing. I think she thinks it'll get me out of the way, so her and my father can go back to ruling the Fire Nation with an iron fist." He rolled his eyes, a gesture Katara thought was too casual for what they were going through. "And since the whole curse thing keeps me from running off, I've only been able to argue."

"How does it do that?" Katara asked.

Zuko sighed. "It essentially bound me to the will of my family. Since my father made the deal with the spirits, they've wrapped me up in it too. I can resist them of course. I don't have to do exactly what they say or anything, but ..." Zuko ran his hand through his hair, disrupting his delicate top knot. A couple stray locks of dark hair fell over his face. "If I try to run, if I try to hurt them ... it hurts me instead."

Katara bit her lip. The curse hurt him? What had these spirits done to her poor boy?

She was about to ask another question about what on earth was wrong with Zuko when the room went quiet. Zuko's spine stiffened and he turned slowly as though his spine had turned to ice.

Settling onto the dias behind Zuko was a tall, muscular man wearing robes that put even Azula's finery to shame. The resemblance between the three of them was immediately obvious; Zuko and Azula shared this man's high cheekbones, long, oval face, and golden eyes. This was, without a doubt, Fire Lord Ozai.

Zuko cursed very quietly into the silence.

The Fire Lord waved one hand and the music and conversation started again as though they'd been waiting for his signal. Azula took a few steps up the dias, and bowed before stepping closer to whisper something to her father. Despite the cruel little smile twisting Azula's face, there was fear still in her eyes. It wasn't only Zuko who had been hurt by the Fire Lord, Katara realized. It was Azula too.

"You need to go ," Zuko growled.

"I'm not going anywhere," Katara said, her eyes fixed on Ozai's face. She memorized every detail, especially the ones that were different from his children — the thin lips, the narrow jaw. She compared all three members of the royal family and put together the features that would have belonged to the late Fire Lady. She drew herself an imaginary picture of Zuko's mother and set her teeth.

She knew she hated the Fire Lord. Looking at him only made that more true. But it wasn't just for her own mother. It was for Zuko's mother too. It was for the people of the Fire Nation, and for the citizens of the Earth Kingdom who lived with a lurking fear of invasion. It was for her grandmother and her mother. It was for all of them.

Katara pressed her hate into a hard, shining thing, sharpened it, and locked it in her heart. A blade aimed right at Ozai's smug little face.

Zuko grabbed Katara's arm, squashing layers of silk. She glared at him, but then realized she'd taken at least two whole steps towards the throne before he'd stopped her.

"Don't," Zuko said quietly. He kept his back to his father, bending his head down towards Katara. "Please don't. I don't want to watch you die."

"I appreciate how much trust you put in me," she growled.

"It's not you," he said. "You have a soul. He doesn't."

What kind of man made his children talk about him like that? Unable to answer her own question, Katara nodded mutely and stepped back from the throne, turning her head to hide her face. The last thing she needed was Ozai being able to recognize her.

"Why is he here?" she asked Zuko, allowing him to lead her off the floor and into one of the many dark corners. "I thought you said he wasn't interested in these things."

"He's not." She'd seen two whole nights of Zuko on edge, surrounded by these courtiers, but this was something else. His shoulders were rigid and he stood up even straighter. It made Katara feel small — Zuko wasn't unusually tall, but he had significantly more height than she did and when he stood as though suspended by a string from the back of his neck, it gave him an extra two inches or so.

"So what's he doing here?" Katara repeated.

"It means they're probably going to actually try to get rid of me." Zuko glanced over his shoulder.

"Kill you?" Katara put a hand to her mouth.

"No." His mouth quirked up. "Probably not. Has anyone told you that you're very dramatic?"

Katara stuck her bottom lip out at him. "Of all the people to tell me that," she said, annoyed, clicking her tongue against her teeth. "What do you mean get rid of you ?"

"I mean maybe they were serious about this whole getting married thing." Zuko ran his hands through his hair again. He winced and unwound his small topknot, sighing as he did. His hair tumbled down around his face. Katara smiled — she liked him better like this, which might have been the Water Tribe in her. Or maybe that he looked far more comfortable with his hair down than scraped back.

"Oh, so your father is here to make sure you find the right girl?" Katara's mouth quirked up at one corner. "Do you think he'll approve of me?"

"No," Zuko said, "because he's an idiot. Anyone who doesn't approve of you isn't allowed to have an opinion anymore." He smiled at her, more shyly than she'd have expected given their surroundings. "You're perfect, after all."

"Stop it." Katara put a hand in front of her mouth and nose, feeling heat rising across her skin. "You're making me blush."

His eyes flicked down to her chest, which was equally warm. "Yes," he said. "I can see that."

She wacked him with the back of her hand and they both laughed. For the first time since she'd arrived here, things felt normal. Comfortable. Right. This was how things were supposed to be with Zuko, not tense and full of fear. Even just this second of getting to forget the danger they were in, the lurking presence of the Fire Lord, made everything Katara had gone through seem worth it.

Zuko leaned in. "Come to my room after this."

"You keep falling asleep," she reminded him.

His eyes darkened. "Don't worry about that," he said, though his tone was angry and chilled. "Please. Say you'll be there."

"I will," she said, though it meant she couldn't try to fight the Fire Lord in his own house. Oh well. Maybe that hadn't been her best plan anyway. If she was able to get Zuko on his own, they could make a plan, get out of this terrible situation together with maybe less bloodshed than Katara's first plan.

He kissed her neck, just below her ear, and Katara sucked in a breath. "Good. Now come dance with me."

"I don't like your dances."

"I don't either, but I like them a lot more when you're there with me."

Unable to say no to that, Katara sighed and took his hand.

He only laughed at her a little as they danced and she forgot the steps, but she noticed that he made sure to keep his back to the Fire Lord at all times. Katara would have been upset, but it kept him between her and the throne which she wanted. Dancing with Zuko was fun and he was sweet if somewhat mocking, but it was hard to keep her mind on Zuko when she knew that the most dangerous man in the world was no more than ten feet away from them and also that he probably wanted to kill Katara personally.

"Katara," Zuko said softly, leaning his head down towards her ear. There was a sadness in his voice that she couldn't place. "I —"

A shoe scraped on marble.

Every single person around Katara turned in unison and dropped to the ground. In a rustle of silk, all the party-goers slid to their knees, then bowed their upper bodies down until their foreheads touched the floor, bracketed by their hands. Beside Katara, Zuko dropped to his knees as well, though his back stayed straight. His head dropped and his hands folded on his lap.

The only person in the room still standing was Katara.

She turned and looked right at the Fire Lord, who stood on the dias with his hands folded into his sleeves. He stared at her with eyes like Azula's but even colder, if that was possible.

Katara knew she should kowtow just like everyone else around her. If only to keep herself safe, she should play along, bow and scrape to this murderer of a man.

She didn't.

Instead, she folded her arms across her waist, mirroring the Fire Lord's pose, and watched him just as he watched her.

If he was going to try to burn her up, she'd be ready for it.

"Katara," Zuko hissed.

She gave the Fire Lord a brief nod, as though she shared his rank and wouldn't need to bow to him. A Fire Lord was nothing to a goddess queen, she reminded herself when her knees shook.

The Fire Lord smiled.

"Rise," he said, choosing to ignore Katara, even as he continued to stare at her. "This is a party, not a funeral, and we're all here for entertainment. Dance, drink. You are all welcome." The Fire Lord stared at Katara as all the courtiers rose slowly to their feet, murmuring. "I simply wish to inform you all that I have made a decision regarding my eldest son's marital prospects. I shall announce it soon."

Katara's heart sank.

Zuko groaned in disgust. "Katara," he whispered, standing now and putting a hand on her shoulder. People were watching them, but pretending not to watch them. "You need to go. Now."

"No," Katara said. She still hadn't broken eye contact with the Fire Lord.

"We are so grateful that you have decided to come and join us in this search," the Fire Lord said. "Especially those of you from far away. The union of our crown prince is a joyous occasion, but also an important event to join hands with others who can help us achieve our goals ... against those who might stop us or take what belongs to us."

"Go now ," Zuko said, panicked.

"Now, please, continue your merriment," the Fire Lord said. "I believe we have a few more dances this evening."

He sat and Zuko tried to shove Katara out the door, but she held her ground. Her blood boiled and she was surprised there wasn't steam coming out her ears. Who was this man to speak to her this way? Well, she knew who he was. But that didn't give him the right. Because Katara wasn't an idiot. She knew what he was saying and who he was saying it to. She was right there in the middle of his home, dressed like a fallen star and refusing to kneel.

Probably not her best idea, but it was too late to worry about it now. Not that Katara was interested in worrying. Right now, she was considering murdering the Fire Lord with her bare hands, no bending allowed.

"Katara," Zuko said and there was real panic in his voice. Katara ripped her gaze away and focused on him, trying to still her anger for even a second. Zuko's eyes were huge with panic. White showed all around them. "Katara, you need to go."

She smiled at him and put her hand on his chest. "Dance with me."

"What?"

"Dance with me." After three nights she was starting to know the dances, and she recognized the tune the musicians had struck up. She put her hands in Zuko's though he didn't seem to want to hold onto her right now. She flashed him another smile, hoping that it was more dazzling with her black lips. "Dance with me or we're going to arouse suspicion and you don't want that, now do you?"

Jaw tight, teeth creaking against each other, Zuko took her hands and spun her out onto the dance floor.

"You're playing with fire," he warned through his gritted teeth.

Katara snorted, unladylike. "If I didn't like playing with fire, I wouldn't be with you, now would I."

"Oh, I get it, because I'm a firebender, yes, very funny." Zuko didn't seem particularly amused. Anxiety grew in every line of his body like a fungus. "My father will murder you if you're not careful, Katara. He's done it before to political enemies, and they weren't as in-his-face as you are. You know this is a terrible idea, right?"

Katara did. She absolutely knew this wasn't a good idea, and yet here she was, doing it anyway. And despite Zuko's worry, she knew she wasn't going to stop, not until his family let him go. It was stupid and she knew that too, but she really didn't want the Fire Lord to think he was winning. Yes, he was powerful, and yes, he did have an army at his command, but at the end of the day, wasn't he just a man? And men were easy enough to take down. If Katara played her cards right.

Not that she even knew what her cards were, or what the game was, but that didn't matter. Or at least, that's what she told herself.

Zuko turned her in time with the music, and Katara locked eyes with the Fire Lord over his shoulder. Ozai stared at them, eyebrows low over his golden eyes. He didn't smile.

Then Zuko turned her again and she returned her gaze to his face. She saw a lot of his father there, but not as much as she'd feared. Zuko wasn't Ozai, that was clear. Zuko's face was full of emotion, even if sometimes that emotion was sulking. And that scar ... well, on the one hand, no one would ever think he looked like Ozai for that. Katara wondered if Zuko ever thought that. If maybe he considered it a blessing that way.

"I'm scared," Zuko whispered. "I'm scared for you. If you get hurt ... Katara, I did everything I could to keep you safe. And now you're here and you're trying to save me but that's just putting you in more danger. I don't want you to get hurt for me."

"I'm not going to get hurt," Katara said, with far more confidence than she felt. In the back of her mind, she still remembered what she'd told Aang — maybe she wasn't meant to get out of this alive. But no matter what, her job was clear. Get Zuko as far from his family as possible. Do her best for him. Taking down the Fire Nation was a potential bonus, but she might not be around to see it. It would be worth it though, she reminded herself.

Maybe that was how Zuko was thinking too. It would be worth his death to see her alive. Just as it would be worth hers to see him safe.

But, Katara thought with the bloodlust of a great ice snake creeping up on her again like an unshakeable chill, she'd rather kill for him than die for him.

The music ended. The Fire Lord was still staring at them.

So was everyone else.

Katara stood on her toes, put her hands in Zuko's hair, and pulled him down to kiss her.

She hadn't kissed him in months, but it felt natural in a way that she didn't know how to explain. Despite the fear in his eyes, his mouth was soft, warm. Hot, even, as his lips opened under hers. She pulled his face as close to hers as she could get it, digging her nails into the back of his neck. Zuko's hands settled on her elbows, pulling her close, holding her body against his as he bent over her.

She kissed him because she wanted to, and because she was scared she wouldn't get to do it again.

But she also kissed him because whatever the Fire Lord said next, whoever he gave Zuko to as some kind of piece in a larger game, every single person in this room would know that Zuko was hers. Ozai could raffle his son off to the highest bidder if he wanted, but that girl would always know that Katara was the one Zuko wanted.

There was a statement in that kiss. Katara wished it could be otherwise, that she could just kiss Zuko because she wanted to, but neither one of them could do anything for just one reason right now.

The kiss went on and on as Zuko wrapped his hands into her curls. People were staring but Katara didn't care.

When she pulled away finally, gasping for air, Zuko swayed on his feet as though drunk. His lips scored across her cheekbone. "What ... ?" he said, dazed and cloudy.

Katara looked over Zuko's shoulder at the throne. The Fire Lord wasn't smiling anymore. Good.

"I'll see you later," she said, holding Zuko's eyes. "I'll come to your room. If you're asleep, I'll throw you out a window."

"Okay," Zuko said faintly.

Katara kissed him one last time, a light brush of lips against lips, and slipped away.

She lurked in the darkness at the edges of the room and no one came near her. Her attention was split between Zuko, darting around the room, and his father, a dark presence on the throne, silent and sulking with no announcements forthcoming. Well, that was where Zuko got it from, Katara decided. But while in one it came across as almost endearing, if somewhat exhausting, in the Fire Lord, sulking was different. More like "plotting" and that made Katara nervous. Especially because she knew exactly who he was plotting against.

Maybe she should have been slightly more subtle. But no, subtlety wasn't really her style. Certainly not these days.

Zuko, on the other hand, was talking to everyone. First he stopped by Iroh and whatever he heard made his face darken in rage. Which made him look like his father, Katara thought, not unkindly. She liked the look a lot more on Zuko than she did on Ozai. But she did wonder what Iroh was filling Zuko's head with.

But she didn't interfere. Instead, she just swirled her tiny ceramic cup of rice wine around and around, even as she bent the liquid into a tiny waterspout, whirling against the bottom of the cup.

After he spoke with Iroh, Zuko stomped across the room to Azula, grabbed her elbow, and dragged her to one side of the room. Then they proceeded  to have what seemed like an epic screaming match, minus the actual screaming. Occasionally Zuko's voice got loud enough for Katara to catch a word or two — "betrayal" and "brainwashing" and once, very loudly in a gap in the music, "you insufferable little brat!"

How must it be, Katara wondered, to talk to someone as terrifying as Azula the way Katara would talk to her own brother? It was hard to see Azula as human sometimes. She was so sharp and cold, like the blue fire she summoned. Katara was impressed by Zuko's ability to not care about any of that.

Finally, Zuko stormed off across the room, heading for the family apartments. He paused in front of the throne and looked up at his father for just a moment, his whole posture full of ineffectual rage. The Fire Lord looked back at him.

Then Zuko moved on and Katara drank her wine and stepped forward to follow him.

Azula beat her there and she could hear the screaming from the ballroom. A door slammed.

"My Lady," said one of the guards. Tonight they really didn't want to let her in.

Katara studied the man. Almost a boy, not much older than she was. Maybe a little older than her brother. Good looking, with a classic Fire Nation jaw line and bright eyes. He was nervous and his uniform fit him perfectly.

A man in uniform , she thought, and took a guess.

"Imom, right?"

The guard blinked and his jaw fell open. The other guard beside him turned, equally stunned, his eyes running over Imom like he'd never seen him before.

"Cheo's husband," Katara said, more confident. "You are, aren't you."

"How ... ?" Imom swallowed hard. "How do you know my name?"

Katara smiled as mysteriously as she could manage, which probably looked better with her painted face. "Imom," she said gently, without answering the question, "would you just please let me in? I need to have some words with the Crown Prince."

Imom looked at his fellow guard and nodded.

She took a step forward but Imom said, "Wait."

Katara turned.

"Are you ... are you a spirit?" Imom asked. His face went red as soon as he asked the question, but Katara smiled at him.

"Do you think I am?" she asked.

Imom nodded, just a little.

"Then I am." Katara drew a finger through the air, freezing the moisture on Imom's nervous skin. A few sudden snowflakes fell from the air onto his jacket sleeve. Katara laid one finger on Imom's cheek and then slipped past him, silk rustling.

Azula stood beyond them.

Without pausing, Katara yanked the diamond star pin from her hair and threw it like a boomerang. She'd never been fantastic with the weapon like Sokka was, but this was an easy shot. The stars zoomed past Azula's face and lodged in the soft lacquered wood of the wall beside her. The points quivered.

Azula raised an eyebrow, but her eyes twitched.

"Stay out of my way," Katara told Azula and pulled open Zuko's door.

The room was dark.

Her heart plumited towards her toes and she almost screamed in frustration. How could the curse get to her like this? All her work, all her suffering was for nothing. She'd have to watch Zuko get married off to someone else. She'd have to fight her way through the court, do everything she could. She was going to die for this cause just because some stupid spirits —

A few footsteps and then Zuko shoved Katara back into the closed door. Her shoulder blades hit the wood at the same time his mouth hit hers. Moonlight skimmed through his hair and Katara gasped but it was swallowed by the kiss. She raised a hand but Zuko kept her pressed against the door hard enough that she might bruise.

She didn't mind.

Katara arched her back, pressing herself against Zuko. Her dress was cut low enough that much of her upper chest was exposed and the feel of his silk brocade tunic pressed against her bare skin sent shivers through Katara's skin. She tried pull him closer to her with an ankle around his, but there were too many layers of robe between them for her to get any kind of grip on him. She couldn't even get her foot free.

Zuko pulled back for a moment, his hand coming off her arm and flicking towards a bank of candles near the bed. Flame slid across the room like golden ribbons and the candles lit with ease.

"What —?" Katara said.

"I want to see you." He buried his face in her neck, mouth hot as the candle flames. "Do you know how long I've wanted to get to actually see you, Katara? How much it's killed me inside that I don't get to see you when ... when ... " He cleared his throat.

"When you're on top of me?" Katara said, turning her head so she presented him with more neck to kiss.

"Katara," he grumbled.

"When I'm on top of you?" she asked, running her nails across the underside of his wrist, the only patch of bare skin she could reach. "When I'm naked and you're inside —?"

"Katara!"

She laughed and was shocked at how throaty it sounded, hot and dark like burnt sugar. "I thought so."

"You were going to fight my father for me ten minutes ago and now you're trying to make me uncomfortable?" His mouth ran down the ridge of her shoulder and Katara sighed in pleasure.

"Hobby?" she said and then yelped. "Did you just bite me?"

Zuko bit her again, harder, and Katara gasped and shuddered against him. Zuko pulled back and his eyes so close, so full of heat, that Katara couldn't breathe for a second. His mouth curled into a smile. "You like that?"

"I'll like it more if you stop talking."

"Are you just using me for my body, Katara," he said, still smiling.

"I haven't even seen your body," she told him acidically, "and the way you're going, I don't think I'll bother to — oh!"

Zuko pulled at her dress and peeled it down. Layers of silk pooled under her breasts and Katara managed to catch Zuko's audible gasp as he looked down. His hand slid up her waist and his thumb and forefinger circled her nipple, pulling slightly. Katara gasped in turn and Zuko's palm flattened against her breast.

"There are ties," she said, fumbling to reach them. "on the belt. In the back."

"Let me." Zuko pulled her forward by the waist, one hand flat against her lower black. With his other, he untied the belt and it slid off, taking a layer of beaded skirt with it. Her robes slid open, pooling in the crooks of her arms and pouring onto the floor.

Zuko reached forward and untied the bow of her underrobe, He sucked in a breath.

"Haven't you ever seen a naked girl before?" Katara teased, but her heart was pounding. She kept forgetting that no matter what they'd done up until now, she hadn't gotten to see him doing it. It was very different to watch him watch her as though she was a goddess come to earth. Yes, of course she'd been going for that look with the Fire Nation courtiers earlier, but that was one thing. It was another when it was Zuko. The man she loved. The man she'd fought her way across the world for, covered in dirt and scrapes and swamp mud doing it.

She was entirely sure he'd look at her the same way if he saw her in that swamp, and the thought was almost too overwhelming to bear.

"You ... are ... " Zuko whispered.

"Cold," Katara said. Now that her legs were free, she pulled him close with one leg, pressing her hips against him. "Very cold. I would love for you to warm me up." She tugged at the sash on his tunic.

Zuko kissed her again and she pulled at his sash, working out the knot with her fingernails. It fell open and Zuko shed his long over robes, letting the lighter under ones hang open over his trousers. Something flickered on his shoulder, but Katara didn't get to take a good look at it because suddenly she was in the air and Zuko's hand was between her legs.

She was gasping and shaking when he slid off his pants and pushed into her, his teeth scraping against her earlobe. Katara whimpered and bucked but Zuko pulled away to look at her. His mouth was slightly open and his eyes couldn't focus quite right. His grip on her thigh was too tight and she knew it was an effort of will for him to keep still.

He looked her over, his eyes locking on hers.

"I love you," he told her.

"I love you too."

He watched her for another second.

Katara tightened her legs and tilted her hips even further into his and the stillness was broken.

Everything was fast and frantic after that. Katara wound her hands into Zuko's hair and, despite the fact that she had to worry about a whole palace full of enemies instead of one old man, she let herself make a lot of noise. Maybe it was the same reason she'd kissed him in the throne room — it let people knew she'd won.

Also because it was a relief to have him back, his skin against hers, his breath in her ear.

When she climaxed, she dug her nails into the door hard enough that she peeled lacquer off the wood. Someone in the hallway made a disgusted noise and footsteps hurried away.

Zuko bit her and she yelped.

A moment later he groaned and slumped against her, breathing hard. He let go of her thighs and she slid down until her toes touched the ground, though she was unsure of whether or not her legs would support her. Thankfully, Zuko helped keep her up and his thumb ran over the silk of her sleeve, which she still wore, if only barely.

"I ... " Zuko said, then managed, "Sorry."

"Sorry?" She blinked. What had she missed? "For what?"

"I thought ... " Zuko lay his head on her shoulder. "I'm sorry I was pushy. I should have let you come save the world. We should have talked?"

"I didn't want to talk," Katara said. "I've done a lot of talking lately and I wanted to remember why I did all of that."

"The ... " Zuko's eyebrows wrinkled and he lowered his voice like a man who hadn't just taken a woman against a door to a common hallway, "The sex?"

"No, you dummy." Katara rolled her eyes. "The way you look at me."

Zuko coughed and looked away, his face red.

"Why aren't you asleep?" Katara asked. She pulled her robes back around her as she spoke, breaking the moment of what would have to count as their pillow talk.

"Azula," Zuko said. He turned away from her and stripped off his robes, tossing them onto the floor. The muscles in his back flexed as he stretched his shoulders and Katara couldn't help but stare.

After a moment, she said, "What about Azula?"

Zuko waved a hand at his nightstand, upon which sat a pot of tea and an empty cup. "She's been drugging me," he said, running a hand through his hair. "Sleeping herbs in my tea every night before you got here. I'd sit down, have a cup, and pass out before you got past her." He glanced over his shoulder. "I'm sorry she's been bargaining with you. I didn't know."

"I know," Katara said with a sigh. "I know."

Azula. That made more sense than the curse, Katara thought. That kind of malice seemed right for the princess.

"But Katara, what's your plan?" Zuko turned around, bare chested, retying the sash of his trousers. "The curse is still holding me here." His eyes were anguished. "I love you. I want you to be safe. You can't be here in the morning or they'll kill you."

But Katara wasn't looking at Zuko's exhausted, sad eyes or his muscular stomach and arms. She was instead staring at his right shoulder, where three blue-green drops glowed beneath Zuko's skin like escape aurora.

"I think," she said softly, hope blooming in her heart, "I know exactly what to do."

Chapter Text

After a few brief hours of sleep, Katara bathed in Zuko's private bathroom — until, that is, Zuko joined her, and then she had to wash all over again as he sat on the edge of the bathtub, naked and looking at her with such unadulterated joy that it made her chest ache. She peeled the paint from her face and washed her hair, though she had nothing to put on except for her overwhelming gown. But she was beginning to feel that her next task wasn't going to be one for finery. So instead, she dressed in some of Zuko's clothing, as she often had at the volcano palace, tying the trousers tight around her waist so they fit.

"Are you going to tell me your plan?" Zuko said, annoyed from the bed. He was very distracting.

Katara chose a tunic out of Zuko's wardrobe and belted it closed. She missed his cotton tunics back at the volcano palace. These were silk and covered in delicate embroidery. They weighed heavily on her shoulders and she was glad it was cold this early in the morning — or late in the night — that it wasn't hot yet. Later, she'd probably be sweating in this silken prison, but for now, it kept her chilled skin warm.

She pulled her hair back, braiding it away from her face, and flashed a grin over her shoulder. "You'll know when you need to," she told him.

Zuko huffed. "You're insufferable, do you know that?"

"Of course I do." She turned and walked over to kiss him. Zuko raised himself up on his elbows to bring his face to hers, reaching up and cupping one hand around the back of her neck. His thumb brushed along her jaw.

"Are you going to fight my father?" Zuko asked.

"Not physically, if that's what you're worried about." Katara stuck out her bottom lip. "I wasn't planning on punching your dad in the face."

"And no agni kais?"

She raised an eyebrow. "What?"

Zuko's hand went unconsciously to his scar. "Duel. You're not going to try to duel the Fire Lord in his own home, right?"

"No," Katara said. Her eyes drifted back to the shifting, glowing patch on his bare skin. "I have other plans now."

"I really don't like that," Zuko grumbled. "Should I get dressed?"

"Unless you want your sister to bust in on you without any clothes on," Katara told him.

"It would serve her right." Despite the words, Zuko slithered over to the edge of the bed and put his feet on the floor. "Toss me some pants, would you?"

Katara just looked at him.

Zuko sighed, but there was a smile in the corner of his mouth. " Please could you hand me a pair of pants, when you're done ogling me."

She threw the pants directly at his face and he laughed. "I'm never going to be done ogling you," she said. "But I suppose poor, delicate little Azula deserves to not be traumatized by her naked brother. I know if I had to go through that, I'd probably faint."

"Sokka seems like the kind of brother who doesn't have a lot of personal boundaries," Zuko said and it took Katara a moment to remember that Zuko had met Sokka. Sometimes she forgot that he was her dragon. That seemed so long ago. More than a couple of months. So much had happened.

There was no knock when Azula entered. She tossed open the door and froze at the sight of Katara — fully dressed in Zuko's clothing and tying the end of her still-damp hair — and Zuko — awake and dressed only in loose trousers. Her eyes darted from one to the other and then to the empty teacup on the bedside table. Her nose wrinkled. "Oh. So Mai was right."

"Mai?" Zuko raised an eyebrow. He didn't even seem upset with Azula, which Katara was surprised about. If it was her, she'd have been furious. But Zuko had known Azula for a lot longer, so maybe he was just used to it. "What does Mai have to do with anything? What did she do this time?"

"She said you were ... awake." Azula's face twisted. "I believe her exact words were 'that Water Tribe slut is loud as a hog monkey'."

"I knew I didn't like her," Katara said, though she felt blood running into her face. Through a sheer effort of will, she made herself not be embarrassed. It wasn't that she didn't know people had heard her. That had been the point, after all. But it was one thing in the throws of passion and all that. It was another when faced with the cold-eyed Azula the next morning.

"Mai's going to have to get over that," Zuko said in the same bland-but-annoyed voice he seemed to always use with Azula. Another callus of their relationship, Katra thought.

"You could be nicer to her, Zuko," Azula said, propping her hands on her hips. "All she ever wanted was for you to like her, you know."

"Azula," said Zuko, sounding older and more tired than Katara had ever heard. He pulled an undertunic from the wardrobe and tied it on before adding a black and red overtunic and a gold sash. "I wasn't even here for the last six years, all right? Mai barely even knows who I am anymore. Stop encouraging her to chase me around like a puppy and let her be happy with someone else. Maybe Ty Lee, if you aren't still trying to save her for yourself. I don't know your business anymore."

Azula's eyes flicked to Katara. "So you're going to give up a future where you'd at least have someone who loved you for nothing at all because of this ... girl?"

"That's my plan, yes," Zuko said.

"Well, it doesn't matter." Azula waved a hand. "Father's going to make the decisions for you, so what you want isn't particularly important."

"Why don't you just take us to your father?" Katara said, tired of the bickering. "I'm ready to get all of this over with."

"Very funny," Azula said. "You're being arrested."

"Fine," Katara said, though her heart started pounding against her ribs, making her chest ache and her vision pulse with darkness. "If that's what it takes, that's what we'll do."

Azula blinked, but her confusion lasted only a second. "What do you have to say to my father?" she asked, suspicion in her voice.

"I have something to tell him," Katara said, examining her nails, still stained black from last night — another gift from Suki's paint box. "I think he'll be very interested."

Azula's mouth twisted into a sneer. "You don't get to just demand an audience with the Fire Lord," she snapped. "Maybe that's how it works in your backwards little tribe, but —"

"Azula," Zuko growled, a warning.

"I'm trying to make her feel more comfortable," Azula said, rolling her eyes in the most exaggerated fashion Katara had ever seen. She remembered then that, like herself, Azula was a younger sister of an older brother and tormenting Zuko was probably a way of life for her. Even with the gap in their acquaintance, Katara couldn't imagine that went away. If Sokka was here, right now, and she could harp on him for something, she'd do it. Regardless of the danger or the situation she was in, it would be second nature.

This was Azula trying to tease her brother in the best way she knew how. It was clearly twisted by years of Ozai's influence and the rift the curse had made in their relationship, but in that moment, Katara felt for Azula as she hadn't previously been able to. Azula had, in her own way, been just as alone and isolated as Zuko, but she'd had only their twisted excuse for a father. At least Zuko had Iroh to lead him in the right direction. Katara couldn't imagine Ozai being that caring.

Regardless, though, of the why , what Azula was doing was still terrible. Just because Katara understood her didn't mean that she was going to forgive Azula's behavior.

"Oh, I'm sure Fire Lord Ozai wants to hear what I have to say," she said sweetly. "If he wants to continue his reign and expansion into the Earth Kingdom uninterrupted, he'll want to talk to me."

Azula's eyes narrowed.

"Please," Katara said, correctly interpreting the look on the princess's face as hidden confusion. "You don't think I would have just waltzed in here without any kind of contingency plan, do you? If I was you, I'd want to find out what that was."

Of course, walking in without a contingency plan was exactly what she'd done, by and large. But Azula didn't need to know that. All Katara needed to do was sell it. She took a deep breath, imagining she was Toph and could exude confidence. Toph would look up, her eyes wide and innocent, and smile, one eyebrow raised.

Katara did just that.

Azula's mouth twisted, and she grunted. "Fine," she said, "but he's not going to like this."

"I can't say I care very much," Katara said. "Are we going now?"

In Azula's eyes, the desire to deny Katara everything she asked for warred with curiosity about what this Water Tribe savage might be planning. Katara waited. It was only a matter of time before Katara got her way and it wouldn't do to push Azula. The princess was having a hard enough morning as it was.

"Fine," Azula snapped. "Zuko, put on some shoes, you look like a peasant."

Katara, barefoot and loving it, followed Azula out of the room, only glancing back once to make sure Zuko was coming with them. He hopped on one foot to pull his boots on and half-ran after them down the hall. Azula lead them not to the large throne room, but to a smaller sitting room, off the main hall. Katara had been to Azula's private suite but it was nothing compared to this room. Fire burned in braziers along the walls and there were silent guards in full-face helmets stationed around the room, still as statues.

In the middle of the room, lounging on a wood and silk sofa, was the Fire Lord himself, picking at a plate of cut fruit.

Katara had noticed his impressive height earlier, and the breadth of his shoulders, but she'd attributed some of that to the dias and to the wide-shouldered robes that seemed to be the height of royal Fire Nation fashion. But now, as he looked up at them with those cool, hooded eyes, she realized that neither one of those things was a feature of his clothing alone. Fire Lord Ozai was physically imposing, in a way that Katara hadn't thought should be allowed, given how scary he was politically.

"Ah," the Fire Lord said, looking up at her. "The Water Tribe girl."

Katara folded her arms and said nothing.

"Father," Zuko said, and Katara was once again startled by the idea that this man was someone's father. In fact, the father of someone she loved. It should have humanized Ozai, but did no such thing.

"Shut up, Zuko," Ozai said. "You're not being spoken to."

Katara raised her lip, but she wasn't here to fix Zuko's relationship with his father. She was here to play a very nasty trick on a very powerful man. So she just let Zuko sulk behind her and watched Ozai with unblinking eyes.

The Fire Lord tapped his long, shaped nails against the black tabletop beside the fruit tray. "So," he said, watching Katara in the same predatory way Azula had, "why are you still here?"

"Am I supposed to leave?"

Ozai waved a hand. "Given that you won't be able to get what you want, which I assume is to use my son as a way to the Fire Nation throne, it seems like perhaps it's time for you to scuttle back to that little ice sheet you come from. Or maybe over to the Earth Kingdom to try your luck there. They still have a king." He smiled and it didn't reach his eyes, which Katara assumed it never did. "For now."

"Mmm," Katara said, horrified by the content of the statement and doing her absolute best not to show it. She didn't want to show any kind of weakness in front of the Fire Lord and she knew she was on very, very dangerous ground with him. One wrong move and he might eat her alive.

Katara, however, was set on winning.

"You’ve missed something very important," she said.

Ozai's eyes flicked not to Zuko but to Azula, who leaned against the door, part uninterested observer, part bodyguard. Azula gave the tiniest of shrugs, likely to show that she had no idea what Katara wanted from them. Which was ideal.

"And what exactly is that?" Ozai asked.

"What did you give the spirits?" she asked instead, drawing out the interaction until she stopped shaking. "How did you convince them to curse your own son?"

"I have my ways," Ozai said.

"Yes," she said dryly. It was easier to be annoyed with him than it was to fear him, she found. Far easier. The fear took work. The annoyance was second nature. "I'm aware you have your ways. I was asking what they were."

Ozai's sharp eyebrows rose and he looked at Azula again, as though she would be able to answer the question of what was wrong with this odd Water Tribe peasant who refused to be afraid. Azula apparently didn't have any answers for her father, so he turned his attention to Zuko. "She's mouthy," he said. "What do you see in her?"

"I enjoy being challenged," Zuko said, more of a barb than it should have been given who he was delivering it to. "It keeps me sharp."

"This is why you could never be Fire Lord," Ozai said.

"Excuse me," Katara said, her hands shaking, but her voice steady, "I asked you a question."

The room held its breath.

"Yes, you did," said the Fire Lord. "And since you've been so patient, I'll give you an answer." He drummed his fingers on the table for a moment and then said, "There are some spirits who like to make deals. I, like you, had something the spirits thought would be interesting collateral. Besides that, I have access to spirits that you may not understand, given that you are from somewhere where all the spirits are untamed and wild."

"He means," Zuko said, clearly interested in whatever games his father was trying to play, "my ancestors are real jerks."

Katara raised an eyebrow.

"Powerful Fire Nation rulers have power as spirits here," Zuko said. "My great-great-great-grandfather Fire Lord Whoever is still hanging over us." He looked at his father, nose wrinkling. "Like a bad smell."

"You'll do well not to speak of your ancestors like that," Ozai said. "They're always listening and you've already upset them."

Zuko made a face. "I've upset you ," he said. "It's not the same."

"Let me get this straight," Katara said, having to suddenly rework her concept of what she was dealing with. "You got your ancestors to curse your only son? Why?"

"Because he needed to be taught a lesson." Ozai shrugged, a great rolling of shoulders. "They agreed with me. And between that and an interesting bet, here we are." He smiled and as usual his eyes stayed frozen. "I've won."

"Have you?" Katara asked, wide eyed as though she really didn't know. "Are you sure?"

Ozai leaned forward and both his calm and false smile vanished. "Listen to me, little girl," he hissed, voice thin and cruel. "I don't play games with barbarian peasants. Especially ones like you , who think you can use your feminine wiles to get anything you want from a stupid man. That won't work on me."

"I'm not trying to use any kind of wiles on you," Katara said. Her heart pounded in her throat. "I'm also not here to try to convince you of anything. I just want you to know something. To notice it."

"What are you talking about?" snapped Ozai.

"Zuko," Katara said. "Show him your shoulder."

"What?"

She glanced at him, pushing a few escaped curls off her neck. It was hard to communicate what she wanted to him, but she tired to exude any kind of trustworthiness. "Your shoulder." She tapped her own. "Has he seen it?"

Zuko blinked, and then pulled open the neck of his tunic to reveal the three swirling droplets beneath his otherwise pale skin.

Ozai's head jerked back. "What is that? What have you done to him?"

"I haven't done anything," Katara said. "I'm just pointing it out. Wouldn't it become a problem to his new wife when she sees how he's been tainted by his time as a dragon?"

"Is that what that is?"

"Is it?" Katara cocked her head to one side, widening her eyes like she was a delicate little creature who just couldn't know something as horrible as all of that. "I don't know, your Imperial Majesty." The title was an insult, and Ozai's immediate scowl told her he knew it. "Why would a savage like me know anything about curses and spirits?"

"Zuko," Ozai said, his eyes snapping to his son. "What is that?"

"I don't know," Zuko said, though Katara didn't know if he was lying.

"How can I get rid of it?" Ozai asked Katara.

Katara shrugged. "I'm simply here to point out a problem," she said. "I never said I could fix it for you."

"Then what good are you?" Ozai's fist came down on the arm of the sofa and somewhere in the body of the piece, wood cracked. "Why are you showing me this? Telling me this? You don't even have a plan to fix it, but you want to make some kind of deal?"

Katara smiled. "I'm sure someone knows what to do with it," she said as though she couldn't be bothered to think who that person might be. "But I am saying that maybe you want to do something about that before you marry him off. Otherwise the poor girl might want her money back. Given that he might still be cursed and all that. Couldn't have that, now could you. It would make it seem like maybe you don't have quite the handle on everything around here that you're supposed to."

Ozai's teeth ground together. "Listen, water witch —"

"Maybe your ancestors can help," Katara interrupted and from the stormy look that descended over the Fire Lord's cold, handsome features, interruptions weren't something he endured with any sort of grace. "If they got you into this mess, they should be the ones to get you out of it, don't you think?"

Ozai blinked and Katara knew she had him.

"Azula," he said and Azula stood suddenly. Katara jumped. She'd forgotten all about the princess leaning against the wall behind them and maybe that was Azula's intention. "We're going to the temple," he said. "Bring the girl. Zuko, follow me."

Azula seized Katara's arm and Katara winced but otherwise didn't allow herself to show any pain. Azula would obviously enjoy that too much. So she set her teeth and let Azula drag her out of the room behind the Fire Lord, through hallways and down sets of polished obsidian steps. They descended further and further into the palace until they were walking through hallways old enough that they should have collapsed already. The walls were as dark as the floor but in the light from Ozai's palm — a dark fire, red and hungry looking — she made out some kind of carvings in the glassy stone.

They went in silence and every step was warmer than the last. Katara's bare feet, at first cold on the uncarpeted floor, began to grow uncomfortably warm. It was like the sand in her swimming cove on a hot day, heated by the sun, a heat so intense it was almost cold. But she didn't complain. She just gritted her teeth and ignored it, hoping whatever calluses she had developed there would save her from burning.

After a long time — too long to still be within the palace propper, Katara thought — they emerged into a large, man made cavern. In the wall across from them was a huge door, standing open and guarded on either side by men in long robes wearing a kind of odd, pointed hat with a bulbous top.

"Where are we?" Katara hissed to Zuko, knowing that Azula at her side wouldn't answer.

"The Capital Temple," Zuko whispered back. "Or, underneath it. There are catacombs here."

"Lovely," Katara said, making a face. "I'm so glad you keep your dead down here where they can't even get to the sky."

"What are you talking about?" Azula gave Katara a little shake. "Some kind of barbarian custom? No, don't answer, I honestly don't care that much. Now shut up."

Katara galred, but closed her mouth, unwilling to be burned for asking about Fire Lord burial customs. They approached the doors and passed through into a long hallway lined with intricate torches carved like blooming lilies. Katara expected to continue down the length of it, but Ozai swept off to the right, down a darker hallway, and Azula followed.

At the end of it was a much smaller door, this one closed. Azula released Katara long enough to step forward and point two fingers at the door. Lightning lanced from her fingertips and Katara gasped. She'd never seen anyone bend lightning before. Her chest contracted and she had to force herself to breathe in again.

At the touch of the lightning's white-blue fingers, the door clicked, then split open, each side folding neatly back against the stone wall around it. Ozai stepped inside. Azula shoved Katara until she followed, and Zuko brought up the rear, rubbing his hands together like a nervous cricket vole.

The room they stepped into was smaller and less ostentatious than the palace, or the long hallway preceding it. It was a simple box room, unremarkable except for the height of it, so tall the ceiling was lost in darkness. At the far end of the room was an alter and set in the wall behind it were tiny statues, hundreds of them, of men and women wearing Fire Nation clothing. Some of it looked archaic, the shoulders widening as the figures got older, the waistlines shifting, the headdresses becoming more or less intricate as fashion dictated. Katara looked up at the rows and rows of little figures until they were lost in the blackness over their heads.

"Your family?" she asked Zuko quietly.

"Too many of them," he grumbled.

Ozai clasped his hands in front of him and bowed, though not nearly as low as Katara thought he should, given that these were his honored ancestors. Fire Nation traditions were clearly different from her own, but from what she'd seen, these weren't some “ice barbarians”. These were Ozai's own family members, and important ones at that. Closer to spirits than ancestors, likely. He definitely should be bending much further over.

But as he bowed, a blue flame very like Azula's own curled up from the dish on the altar, lighting the entire room in an eerie glow. Ozai closed his hand, snuffing out the dark red flame he'd carried to light their way, leaving them with only the blue fire for light. It coiled higher and higher until it was taller than Katara, then taller that Ozai. Dark holes opened in the flame, then kindled white, high above their heads, peering down at them.

Eyes.

"The Fire Lord," the fire said in a voice like lightning, its mouth a dark gash opening to more white fire. "Back again, I see. And you've brought the son. Hmmm ... " The fire seemed to consider Zuko for a moment, flames fluttering around what passed for its face. "I liked you better with scales."

Zuko swallowed and didn't say anything.

"Great Fire Spirit," Ozai said, and it wasn't respect in his voice but the simpering of someone with an agenda. "A terrible thing has occured to my son. I do not know what it is, but this girl has brought a taint upon him."

"Hey!" Katara snapped.

Ozai turned to her, scowling, and the spirit coiled down to look at Katara as though it had never seen anything quite like her. "How interesting," it said, white fire eyes burning into her own. Despite the brightness, Katara refused to blink or look away. Maybe here in the Fire Nation spirits were something to be feared, but to her, they were a part of her life, always in the aurora fluttering above her like iridescent kelp in the unending night sky. Katara  knew spirits. This one wasn't going to scare her.

"What are you doing here, Snow Blossom?" said the spirit and either the pet name or the interested softness of its crackling voice reminded her of Iroh. Despite everything, Katara thought she might get along with this particular spirit. Given the opportunity, of course.

"Your Eminence," Ozai said, annoyed.

Katara dropped to her knees and did what she’d refused to do to the Fire Lord beside her: she leaned forward and touched her forehead to the floor. She held the pose for a long breath, then straightened, putting her hands on her thighs and looking up at the spirit.

“Greetings,” she said quietly. “I am honored.”

The spirit's sun-bright mouth flared into something like a smile. "So polite," it said, keeping one eye fixed on her even as it turned back to Ozai. "What's wrong with your son?"

"Zuko," Ozai said, "show him."

Rolling his eyes, Zuko pulled aside the neck of his tunic and showed the spirit the three rippling spots on his shoulder.

Since the spirit was little more than a massive tongue of blue flame with a child's drawing face, it didn't have expression as a human would have defined it. But despite that, Katara would have bet her life that it was amusement that the spirit was feeling as he looked Zuko over.

"What about it?" it asked.

"Great Fire Spirit," Ozai said, giving another tiny bob of a bow, "my son has been disfigured by some otherworldly force. Surely you can see that."

"Yes," the spirit said, and there was certainly laughter in its words if not in the fire of its face and form. "Of course."

"Oh, Spirit of my Ancestors, what must I do to free my son from this contamination?" Ozai asked.

The flaming head turned towards Katara. One white eye went out, then flicked back into life.

Katara’s mouth popped open.

"Lord Ozai," the spirit said. "The ... blemish to your son is of course very serious. But it is not something you can fix, even with my help."

"But —" Ozai said.

"What you must do," the spirit said, interrupting Ozai in a way that made it clear how little the spirit cared for Ozai's authority in this place, "is find the person who can."

"Who is that person?" Ozai gritted out.

The spirit's form swirled and twisted into a form, vaguely feminine, and then back. "He's getting married," the spirit said, "isn't he?"

Ozai glanced at Zuko, whose back went suddenly straight as a jade pillar. "I had meant to —" Ozai said.

"Well, women have ways," the spirit said. "Who is he marrying?"

"I haven't decided," Ozai said, annoyed.

"Wouldn't it be best for him to marry someone who can fix him?" the spirit said.

Katara didn't move. She couldn't even breathe. If she did, she might smile and if she smiled, it would all be over.

"Yes," Ozai said, nodding. "Yes, that's ... that very good. Thank you, Great Spirit."

That tiny bow. Katara kept her lips pressed shut.

The spirit whirled like a tornado and vanished.

"Father, you can't —" Zuko said.

"Don't tell me what I can and cannot do," Ozai snapped. "You've disappointed me enough for one day, Zuko. Azula, take his little whore to the guards. Have her confined."

"What?" Katara snapped, the urge to smile vanishing.

Ozai sent her the briefest of glances. "I don't need you interfering any more, child," he said as Azula's bruising hand came down on Katara's arm. "Get her out of my sight."

Katara reached for water, but there was nothing down here, nothing at all. The air was dry with heat. She had nothing to fight with except her fists.

Zuko took a step towards her and fire kindled in Ozai's hand. Katara shook her head frantically.

"Fine," she snarled at the most powerful man in the world, "but you'll regret it. You just don't know it yet."

Chapter Text

Katara slept.

The bed was thin and hard, what was left of the frame dry and creaking every time she moved. There were no windows, of course, so she had no idea what time it was. Sometimes it felt like only a few minutes had passed since Azula shoved her in, sometimes days. Katara's stomach ached with hunger but no one brought her food. No one opened the narrow door even though there were occasional footsteps on the other side of it.

She tried meditating like Iroh had taught her, but she was too anxious to do it correctly. And she was tired. So tired.

So she slept.

After what could have been years, the door opened and Azula, in full armor, stepped into the room.

"What do you want?" Katara said.

"Is that any way to greet royalty?"

"Unless you've got food hidden somewhere under those shoulders, I don't care who you are." Rubbing her eyes, Katara sat up and swung her legs off the side of the low cot. Her back screamed in pain and she winced. "What do you want?"

"I liked you better when you were afraid of me." Azula leaned against the frame of the open door, blocking Katara's one chance at escape. "I can make you afraid again. All it would take would be a little bit of pain and I'm sure we can work something out. Something to benefit both of us."

"Being afraid won't benefit me," Katara said. She didn't bother to get up. That would read too much like respect towards Azula and she refused to allow that. "What's your logic?"

"If you're afraid of me, then you can leave here and never come back." Azula shrugged and raised an eyebrow. "Wouldn't that be easier?"

Katara rubbed her hands together. Her hair was a mess. Her mouth felt like a desert. "Lots of things are easy," she said. "But it doesn't mean I should do them. Besides, it took me a long time to get here and I'm not willing to walk away from that."

Azula sighed. "You sound so old ," she complained.

"I've had a lot of time to think," Katara snapped, her usually thin patience wearing even further. "Because you stuck me in a windowless room. Why are you here?"

"All business, aren't you." Azula sighed dramatically and flicked a stray hair off her forehead. "Be that way. I've been sent to bring you to my father. He thinks it will do you good to watch Zuko be given away to someone else. I agree with him, of course. Maybe that will finally break your spirit."

"I doubt it," Katara said.

Azula's eyes narrowed.

"I mean," she said, swallowing hard. "Yes. Of course. I will be devastated."

Azula grunted and her eyes flicked over the too-large tunic hanging from Katara's shoulders in wrinkled panels. "You look terrible," she said. "Good. You've had too much time looking pretty for the populace. It'll be good for them to see you human."

"Have you gotten onto the wagon of believing I'm a spirit?" Katara asked, offering Azula her largest and most innocent eyes.

Azula snorted. "Shut up," she said. "Let's go."

Katara followed Azula down the hall, between her and the guards she'd brought. It kept her in line, in a way, or at least that's what Azula must think. And Katara was happy to let her believe it. As they walked, Katara patted her hair down, trying to work out some of the fluff in the back from her impromptu nap. She was still hungry and her neck ached like she'd slept directly on her head. She probably looked like a very different kind of spirit at this point. The kind that haunted travelers on dark roads or pulled them under black ocean waves at midnight.

She didn't care.

Azula led her through the palace and out into a wide courtyard tiled in red stone. It reminded Katara of the dragon palace on the island, but without the gardens that had made it so beautiful and homey. This courtyard was sterile and hot with only a few sterile ornamental patches. The air was heavy with moisture and, from Katara first glance upwards, she thought it was mid afternoon. The sky was gray-white with cloud and rain held heavy above them. The impending rain pressed against Katara's temples. Something pale passed overhead and disappeared back into the clouds.

At the far end of the courtyard was a dias surrounded by women wearing massive wide hats — a much fancier version of the leaf hats Katara had encountered in the Earth Kingdom — and looking like diaphanous dragon flies. The Fire Lord sat in another golden throne, back straight, hands on the arms like a distant god.

Kneeling on the steps of the dias, shirtless and covered in sweat and scratches, was Zuko.

Katara took a step forward, gasping.

"They've been at it for hours." Azula grabbed Katara's arm before she could rush to Zuko's side. "We've had washing and scraping and a particularly good scouring from the girl over there with the red face." She pointed. "I think father's having more fun watching them torment him, if I'm being honest. But you know what, despite the blood, those little dots are still there." She glanced at Katara sideways. "What is it?"

"Why do you think I know?" Katara asked, still straining against Azula's grasp. There was blood on Zuko's shoulder and his face twisted in pain. She had to get to him, had to end this.

"I think you did something to him," Azula snapped. "And you're going to exploit it."

"I didn't do anything to him." Katara stopped pulling and whirled on Azula, nose to nose with the princess. Azula was taller but Katara was angrier. "The lot of you are too stupid to even know what it is and here you have people hurting him to try to get rid of it! This is exactly what's wrong with the Fire Nation. You don't bother to learn anything about anyone else and you just hit it until it gets out of your way. But the problem with that is that at some point, hitting stops working and then what's your plan? What do you do when you need a little nuance?"

"I don't need to listen to this," Azula said.

A shadow passed over them and cold washed over Katara. The potential of rain lay heavy on her skin.

Katara considered her options. Given her discussion about hitting, she needed to do something that was well thought out, logical, and involved planning. She needed to make a calm and reasonable choice to convince Azula that maybe there was another way out of this predicament.

So she headbutted Azula directly in the nose.

Things started happening very quickly after that.

Azula's head snapped back and her hand went to her mouth. It was sudden enough that she released Katara, who skipped back a few steps, out of arm's reach. At the sound of the thud, which given the blood between Azula's fingers might have broken her nose, the girls fluttering around the dias turned. Ozai looked up. So did Zuko.

Ozai's mouth opened. Fire blazed across the backs of his hands.

With a much louder thud, a thirteen-foot-tall sky bison landed in the middle of the courtyard.

"Nobody move!" Toph yelled, standing in the front of Appa's saddle with her hands raised, fingers pressed together like knife blades. "Or I'll bring this whole damn place down!"

Katara took the opportunity to bend the entire contents of a nearby ornamental fish pool into her control, koi and all. She swirled the water around her head, hovering there in trickles and bubbles. A fish swam through her peripheral vision, seeming unimpressed by its sudden change of venue.

The girls screamed and flapped away from Ozai and Zuko, losing hats as they went. The Fire Lord hadn’t risen to his feet yet, but one hand wrapped around the arm of the throne and it was clear he was a second away from rocketing to his feet and burning a path across the courtyard to Katara. Or maybe the bison. She wasn't sure which he was more upset with.

Zuko's eyes were still foggy with pain. Blood pooled in his belly button.

With all the grace of a drunk platypus bear, a gangly figure in a blue parka slid down the side of the bison, straight down the middle leg and stumbled a few steps before steadying. He raised a hand and shoved the hood back and stomped across the courtyard, completely ignoring the screaming women, bleeding prince, and enraged Fire Lord.

"Katara!" Sokka yelled, waving his arms like a furry sea star. "You would not believe the week I've had. A flying beaver landed in the middle of the damn village and then this crazy girl started yelling at me that we had to come rescue you! And she wouldn't shut up and she's really, really scary and I might be in love with her."

"I see you've met Suki," Katara said.

"Exactly!" Sokka drew closer to her and pushed aside a foot-long fish to give her an awkward, one-armed hug. "Good to see you. Your hair looks terrible. It is so warm here, what is wrong with this place?"

"Hi, Sokka." Katara didn't hug him back because she was busy keeping her defenses up given the very dangerous situation she found herself in. Which Sokka apparently didn't notice.

"So!" He glanced around but didn't appear to take any in any more of the people around him than he would of some familiar icy rocks. "What's going on?"

"Well," Katara said cooly, despite her pounding heart, " that's Fire Lord Ozai."

Sokka's head rocketed around and his eyes bulged. "What have you gotten yourself into now?" he snapped, stepping slightly behind her, which she didn't appreciate at all. "Why is everything always like this with you?"

"Oh yeah, this is all my fault," Katara grumbled. "Sure, sounds about right. Do you want to help, or just hide?"

"Help do what ?" Sokka snapped. "Kill the Fire Lord? Please, Katara, don't be an idiot."

"Thanks."

Ozai stood up.

Even Sokka took that seriously. His mouth snapped shut and there was a boomerang in his hand, though Katara didn't know where he'd gotten it. Zuko slumped forward and only put a hand out to catch himself at the last second.

"What," Ozai said in a calm, conversational tone that nonetheless carried across the courtyard in frozen waves, "is going on here?"

"Father." Azula stepped forward. Her nose was bleeding onto her red lips but she kept her head up, which Katara respected greatly and also feared. "I brought the girl up like you asked. See if she can ... " She waved a hand at Zuko. "Repair the damage."

"And?" Ozai said, voice low and dangerous like the fire on his fingers.

Azula paled. "I'm sorry, Father. I underestimated her."

"Most people do," Katara said. The water spun slowly around her like a quiet river, waiting for someone to make a move. "Why don't we handle this like civilized people?"

"How can you be civilized?" Ozai asked derisively.

Ignoring the insult, Katara looked over at Appa. Aang crouched on the bison's head, robes rippling in a wind that seemed to touch no one than him. Toph hadn't moved, but her head was cocked to one side and there was a stillness to her that spoke of threat rather than confusion. Suki was nowhere to be seen, which worried Katara more than any threatening posture. If Suki wasn't in sight, that meant she was absolutely planning something.

Ah yes, a flash of golden fan on the other side of Appa’s massive head. Suki was probably ready for the kill.

"How about a deal?" Katara said.

"What sort of deal?" Ozai's eyes flickered around the courtyard and she wondered if he was looking for Suki too. Or maybe just other threats.

She tried not to look at Zuko, but it was impossible. "He's no use to you anymore," she said. "Even to marry off, since you've just proven that he's still cursed. And now everyone knows and no one can get rid of it. You need a way to get the prince off your hands."

"And you have one?"

She looked at Ozai through her watery shield. His features swirled but his cold eyes remained the same. "I'll heal him," she said. "And afterwards, if I can remove the mark, you give him to me. I take him away and you never see either one of us again. No curses, no soldiers coming after us. We walk away and never set foot in the Fire Nation ever again."

Ozai considered the offer. "You won't try to take the throne?"

"I don't want it," Katara said. "But no. I swear on the moon and the sea that if you let me take Zuko away, I will never, ever try to take your throne."

The hot air held its breath.

"Done," Ozai said. "If you can heal him and purify him, you can take him. But one condition."

Katara paused.

"When you remove the mark." Ozai smiled. "No bending. If you can't do it, you leave without him. Same conditions, but no prince."

Katara pressed her teeth together so hard her jaw ached. "Fine," she said and it came out tense and angry, which wasn't how she wanted to present herself to this chilly tyrant. "I'll do it without bending."

"Good." Ozai smiled like a snake. "And I swear on my ancestors. Now do it."

“Katara,” Sokka whispered loudly, “what are you doing?”

“Shut up, Sokka,” she hissed back. “I got this. Don’t let Suki murder anyone, okay?”

She wanted to heal Zuko first, but that would only make Ozai think she'd done something to him. So she carefully returned both water and fish to the empty pond and held her palms up so Ozai wouldn't perceive her as a threat. And then, sweat rolling down her spine, she walked forward, unarmed, towards the Fire Lord. His hands still burned.

She knelt in front of Zuko. "Hey," she said softly.

He looked up and took a deep breath. "Katara," he whispered, relief evident in his voice. "You're okay."

"I'm better than you." She looked him over. "Well, a little."

"You look beautiful."

Katara rolled her eyes — her hair was a frizzy mess come down from her braid and she smelled like smoke and fish water. "You've gone blind too," she said. "I'm going to get you out of this, okay?"

"Katara —"

"Don't argue." She looked up. "I need clean, white cloth. Not silk, something that will absorb water. And water too, a bowl of it. Clean, fresh water, none of that sulfur stuff you pump up here. Rain water, if you can get it. And ice. I'm sure you have that in this weather, or everything would have rotted by now."

"That's a long list of demands," Ozai said.

"Well, it's not my fault none of your people could get rid of it," Katara said sweetly. "Have someone fetch it now, or the deal's off and my friends destroy your palace. Right, Toph?"

"I'm more than ready," Toph said.

"Azula," Ozai said, "get the girl her things. And remember, no bending."

"Obviously," Katara muttered under her breath.

Zuko's hand settled over hers, his bloody fingers stroking the back of her wrist. "You don't have to do this," he said. "You can just go. You don't have to try to save me. I want you to be safe."

"Don't be an idiot, Zuko," Katara said.

He smiled but there was still pain in his face. Katara wished she could heal all the scratches and scrapes on his shoulder, but she didn't want to lose him on a technicality. The healing could wait until they were free and away from the palace. They'd have all the time in the world then.

"I love you," Zuko told her. "You're the most amazing person I've ever met in my life and I'm so incredibly lucky that —"

"Yes, I love you too," Katara said, cutting him off before the blush could spread up her neck. "But this isn't really the time."

"It's always the time," Zuko said.

"You're being really sappy," Katara said, "and my brother is right over there."

Zuko's eyes flicked over her shoulder. "How?"

"I made friends with an air nomad, a Kyoshi warrior, and the angriest blind girl on the planet," Katara said, a half smile pulling at the corner of her mouth. "I was going to tell you, but things got away from me a little bit. It's been a long couple of months, while you were kicking around in the palace, eating peeled grapes and drinking that wine with bubbles in it."

"Katara," Zuko groaned. "I'm in pain and you're making it worse."

Azula slammed a wooden bucket down at Katara's elbow. "There's your rain water," she said. "The servant has the rest of it."

A girl knelt down on Katara's other side, peering at her from behind her dark bangs. Katara vaguely recognized her face as one of the girls she'd passed in the courtyards outside the royal family quarters. She was staring at Katara as though she was still an otherworldly spirit, even though Katara looked more like a swamp demon at this point.

"Thank you," Katara said, smiling as the girl placed a bowl of ice on the courtyard tiles, and handed over a couple of thick white cloths. The weave was rough, but the fabric was bleached until it looked like snow.

The girl nodded and slipped away.

"Don't bend this at me," Azula warned.

"If I was going to hurt you," Katara said, carefully not looking at the blood still on the princess's face, "I would have done it earlier with all that fish water. I'm not going to waste clean water on you. Don't worry." She picked up the ice bowl and dumped it into the water bucket.

"So," Ozai said and Katara realized the Fire Lord was standing above them, looking down. Her shoulders tightened as he continued, "What did you do to him?"

"For the last time, I didn't do anything," Katara said patiently, folding one of the cloths and pushing it under the now freezing water. She held it there for a while, waiting for it to soak the cold water up into every strand, and then pulled it out, squeezing gently. Folding the cloth in four, Katara placed it over her palm and pushed it against Zuko's shoulder.

"What are you doing?" Ozai asked.

"It's just spirit stone," Katara said, speaking to the Fire Lord as though he was an idiot child. "If you knew anything about spirits, you'd know what happened to him, instead of panicking."

"Careful," Ozai said, voice like silk. "Think before you speak."

"What nonsense is a spirit stone?" Azula asked.

"It's not nonsense." Katara didn't roll her eyes, but it was a close thing. "In the South Pole, where spirits are common, the energy coalesses into physical objects. It infuses the ice and becomes spirit stone." She raised her voice. "Toph, I need that rock!"

"What rock?" Toph asked. "You're going to need to be a lot more specific."

"The one you stole out of my pack," Katara said, her patience very, very thin. "The crystal. I know it was you.”

"Oh, that one." Toph rolled her eyes, reached into her pocket and threw the rock across the courtyard. It missed. Azula yelped as it hit her in the leg.

"Thanks," Katara said. "Princess. The rock?"

Swearing, Azula kicked the rock at Katara and it rolled up against her knee.

"So you've got a rock and some ice water." Azula, rubbing her leg, didn't seem impressed. "And you want me to believe this isn't nonsense?"

"You'd get a lot further with spirits if you were gentle with them," Katara said. "They're not people and they don't have the same energy. They don't just do what you say. You can't force them. You need to work with them, not against them." She pulled the cloth away slowly. "Spirit stones are the same way."

As the cloth came away, it drew with it Zuko's blood but also three fat drops of blue-green light, pooling on the surface of his skin. Without taking her eyes off the light, Katara picked up the crystal and held it up to Zuko's chest, using one finger to gently roll the spirit energy back into the stone. Each drop slid into the rock, melting into the crystal like oil on a fire.

Katara pulled the rock away and gave it a little shake. The drops flowed around the inside of the stone but didn't spill over. "When I was little, I spilled some all over my face," she said. "My grandmother cleaned it right off for me. Took five minutes. It's a real pity none of you know enough about about my culture to understand how to get rid of it. The Water Tribes have been cleaning up spirit stone for hundred of years." She smiled up at the Fire Lord. "We'll be going now."

But before Zuko could rise, Ozai's hand came down on his shoulder like an anchor. "You're not going anywhere ," he hissed. "None of you are."

"We had a deal!" Katara snarled, rocketing to her feet.

"I don't make deals with barbarians," Ozai said. "You should have known that."

Katara's blood ran cold. She pulled at the water in the bucket beside her and it came whirling out around her head in blades of ice. She knew she couldn't escape Ozai, directly next to her and more powerful than almost any bender in the world, but she wasn't going to just let him jail her or kill her without fighting back. She'd planned for this. She didn't want to, but if she had to die —

The flames burning beside Ozai's empty throne turned bright blue.

More blue fire erupted around the courtyard, burning in the air in willow-the-wisp balls and between cracks in the stone. It rose up from the courtyard tiles in delicate, detailed human figures, burning blue like ghosts. Fire Lords and Ladies. Ancestor Spirits, all arrayed around the courtyard in silent sentinel.

Ozai released Zuko's shoulder and turned. He stepped back. The ancestor spirits stepped forward, all in unison.

"What —?" Ozai said.

Right in front of Ozai's throne erupted a twenty-foot-tall column of fire with white eyes and a fiery, laughing mouth.

"Ozai," said the spirit, its voice so much louder here than it had been in the crypt temple. "We had a deal."

"I never —" Ozai started. "Get back in your grave, spirit! I am the Fire Lord here! I do not need to make deals."

"I placed that curse on your son," the spirit said. "I extended that curse on his return, at your request. I amended that curse today, also at your request. And then you made a deal with this clever, brave girl and you did not honor it ."

"Get out!" Ozai screamed at the spirit, his long hair whipped back from his face like a flag. "I do not need to honor deals! I am the Fire Lord!"

The spirit bent in two, twisting down and opening its huge mouth wide. "So was I," it boomed.

"I am —" Ozai began.

"You are nothing," the spirit roared. "Let me show you!"

Ozai's mouth opened. His hair twisted around his face and shoulders and he raised his chin, extending his neck towards the spirit. But then it kept going, longer and longer, his head stretching and growing, body lengthening, twisting, coiling back. Katara yelped and dragged Zuko away, past Azula who stood stock still. She looked somewhat blue and then Katara realized that no, she was blue, her skin changing color. Azula's body too began to pull and pull.

Katara threw Zuko's arm around her shoulders and they ran.

Scales and wings filled the courtyard, surrounded by blue fire, and then two dragons streamed into the sky. One, bigger, heavier, was night black with wings the color of old blood. The other, smaller and graceful as a dove, had scales as blue as the warm ocean, or perhaps it was as blue as a lightning strike.

Silence fell in the courtyard, apart from the crackle of the spirit flames.

"Correct me if I'm wrong," Sokka said, too loudly, "but I'm pretty sure the Fire Lord just turned into a big dragon and ran away. Is that ... what happened?"

"I'm pretty certain that's what happened," Zuko said.

"Good," Sokka said, suddenly much fainter. "Glad we're on the same page."

The spirit on the dias reduced, smaller and smaller until it stood only about as high as a normal person. Its form coalessed, becoming humanoid, then human. Details fluttered into focus — a long, oval face, a high forehead, a soft, smiling mouth. It was a man, with a full and somewhat wild beard spilling down the front of his robes. The clothes were a style that was alien to Katara, simple print tied at the waist, shorter than the current style over something that might have been a robe, but might also have been very wide pants. His face was lined and there was laughter in his fiery eyes.

"Zuko," the spirit said, extending a hand to beckon to them. "Come here. Bring our beautiful Snowdrop as well. I'd like to get a good look at the two of you."

Katara looked at Zuko, who gave a tiny nod. They moved towards the dias, Katara still balancing Zuko. Rain began to fall, a delicate drizzle that didn’t touch the spirits they walked between. They got to the bottom of the steps and Zuko let go of Katara to kneel, bowing onto the ground with a groan of pain. Katara knelt beside him, copying his movements.

"Get up, please." The spirit didn't move, but he sounded annoyed. "I don't need you to prove your politeness or respect to me. Boy, you've redeemed yourself more times over than you know. I'm not your father."

Zuko didn't rise, though Katara sat up onto her knees.

"Tell him to get up," the spirit said, sounding huffy and frustrated, more like an annoyed grandfather than a vindictive spirit. "One Fire Lord should not embarrass himself for too long before another."

"What?" Zuko sat up, mouth open. "I'm not —"

"Yes, you are," the spirit said. "No one else is clamoring for the job. Oh, there will have to be a coronation and whatnot, but at the end of the day, you'll be on this thorne, so you'd better get used to it."

"But I don't want —"

"I didn't want it either," the spirit said. "In my day, there hadn't been one before, but someone needed to have the job and here I am."

"You're —" Zuko said.

"The first Fire Lord, yes," the spirit said. "Now get up and let this pretty girl heal you. She's too smart for you, you know."

"I do know," Zuko said. He looked at Katara. "She's better than me at almost everything, probably."

"Good," the spirit of the first Fire Lord smiled at him. "That's a good attitude to have, since you'll have to listen to her when she's Fire Lady."

"What?" Katara asked.

"If she wants to," the spirit said, then winked at her.

Zuko's face went as red as the blood on his belly. "Can we ... talk about that later?"

"All right, I won't butt into your business." The spirit smiled down at them. "You'll do well, boy. I can see it in you. Your heart wants peace, not war. It wants prosperity, not conquest." The smile turned to a smirk. "Love, not hate."

"Thank you?" Zuko said.

"Now this one." He looked down at Katara and shook his head. "You'll have to watch her. She was a brave warrior's heart, and a mind like a snake. Make sure she doesn't get carried away, would you?"

"No promises," Zuko muttered.

The spirit laughed and Katara helped him to his feet. "You have our trust, Fire Lord," he said, and then he knelt, blue flame knees touching the ground without a sound. Around them, the other spirits did the same and then they all bent forward, foreheads on the ground.

Zuko gasped.

The spirits flickered out, one by one, and the fires in the air disappeared. The fires burning on the dias turned golden again.

Behind them, Sokka clapped loudly and Katara nearly jumped out of her skin. "That was fun ," Sokka said. "My favorite was the part where the fire ghosts made me pee myself! Does anyone want to explain what's happening around here?"

Katara reached out and took Zuko's hand. She took a deep breath and they turned to where Katara's friends stood. Iroh stood with them now, next to Aang and Katara saw the same depth to their eyes, the same kindness in their smiles. The same thing she'd seen in the fluid face of the first Fire Lord.

"Everyone," Katara said, smiling. "This is, uh ... Fire Lord Zuko."

Zuko waved. "Hi," he said, clearing his throat. "It's nice to meet you all. Does anyone have some tea? My head is killing me."


 

"I can't just move in to your rooms," Katara said, sitting on the edge of Zuko's bed with nothing on. "What would people think? You haven't even been officially coronated yet, Zuko. You can't just do whatever you want."

"Think of it this way." Zuko rolled over and held up one arm to block the sun just beginning to stream into the windows. "I have the most obvious divine right to the throne since ... I don't know when, actually. Quite beside that, at least half of my nation is convinced you're a goddess descended to earth to free us from tyranny and bless the Fire Nation with peace. I don't think my wooing a goddess is going to upset the people very much. I'll probably be applauded."

Katara hit him with a pillow and he laughed. "I'm human!" she snapped. "This is rich coming from a man who spent most of his time as a big flying snake monster."

"Don't blame me!" Zuko held up his hands to fend off her attack but he was laughing. "I'm not the one who convinced people I was a spirit. My guards are more scared of you than they ever were of my father. I think that kid you smiled at yesterday almost fainted." He sobered. "Besides, all your things are here already."

Katara looked at her pack, which she'd retrieved from the inn. It contained some dirty clothing, three very wrinkled gowns, and more knives than she wanted to tell Zuko about. Her stash of worldly possessions was very small. Living in a palace now, temporarily or not, was just pushing that feeling home.

"But what about protocol," Katara insisted. "Won't Iroh be upset?"

"The man who gave you moonflower tea? Please. He's already planned our wedding and named our first child. If you ask, he'll probably show you designs for your dress — ow, stop hitting me, that hurts!"

Katara flopped back onto the bed, amid the rumpled sheets and blankets. "Well, I know Mai isn't very happy with me," she grumbled.

Zuko made a face. "Don't worry about Mai. Her family and most of my father's loyalists are going to quietly vanish into the countryside after today's ceremony. Once I'm officially the Fire Lord, they won't try anything, but on the other hand, I can't imagine they'll want to be here."

"I hope that's not my fault," Katara said. "I was really unpleasant to some of them."

"They started it," Zuko said. "But really, I think they just know they're on the future Fire Lady's bad side."

"Zuko, stop." Katara propped herself up. "I'm not the Fire Lady. And I'm probably not going to be. You know that. They'd never accept me."

Suddenly serious, Zuko rolled over and ran his hand over her shoulder and down her arm. "I know you don't want it," he said quietly. "And of course I'd never push you into being Fire Lady. Never ever. You know that, right?"

Katara sighed. "Yes. Of course I know that."

"But," Zuko said, still somber and still as an ornamental pond, "if you want it. At any point. The job is yours."

Katara's heart stuttered. "Are you asking me to ... to marry you?" she said, ending on a squeak that was barely a word.

"No!" Zuko's face went very red. "I mean ... not ... right now. I don't ... that would be a little too sudden, wouldn't it? And I'm naked. I don't think I should propose without clothes on. I'm just saying that someday. Maybe. If you'd ..." He cleared his throat. "Maybe if you want to. I know that comes with a lot of baggage. My crazy family is still out there somewhere. Probably. And there's the whole ruling the country situation, and I know my people haven't exactly endeared ourselves to you. And, you know. Your brother might kill me. So that could be fun."

Katara looked down. "I just ... can we at least get through the coronation first?"

"Yes, please. Let's take one overblown ceremony at a time." Zuko sat up. "I need to get dressed. And so do you." He looked down at her with tenderness in his eyes that made Katara feel as though she was lying in the sun. "You'll stand with me, right?"

"I shouldn't," she said for the thousandth time. "I'm not from here. I'm not the right sort of people."

"Katara, please." Zuko rolled his eyes. "They wrote a song about you. Iroh's already learned it. He keeps playing at me while they fit me for my robes and it's exhausting. I promise you, you probably deserve to be up there with the Fire Sages more than I do. Please do it. For me. Then maybe they'll like me too."

"They do like you!"

"They barely know me. I'm a strange secret monster prince. You're the spirit who saved the Fire Nation. I need you up there in case they change their minds. Besides, you can be my bodyguard."

Katara sighed. "Fine."

"And anyway, if you didn't, Iroh would cry. He loves that dress they made for you more than he's ever loved me."

That pulled a smile out of her. "All right, all right. Fine. I'll get dressed."

"Oh, that seems sort of extreme. Do you have to?" He dodged before he could hit him with the pillow again. "I'll meet you later. Thank you. I need someone to make sure I don't flub up my lines anyway. Imagine how embarrassing that would be."

She caught him and kissed him before he could escape. "I love you," she told him seriously. "You'll do fine."

"I love you too." He kissed the tip of her nose in return. "I'll do better with you there."

She grumbled but let him go and threw on a long robe. "Be careful," she warned. "Those maids can be nasty about getting you dressed. They'll pull your hair."

He cocked his head, haloed by the sun streaming in the window behind him. Sunlight glowed on the ridges of his scar, so reminiscent of scales that it made Katara's vision blur. Even with his name and his identity, and now his country spread out before her, something about him would always be inhuman to her. Fire Lord or not. Spirit savior or not. To Katara, Zuko would always be her dragon.

And this time, she intended to keep him.

Chapter Text

They were married on the first day of winter, almost a year after Zuko ascended to the throne of the Fire Nation. Katara hadn't wanted to get married that quickly, but she'd missed one too many doses of her tea. Even though Zuko swore up and down that he'd rather a whole brood of illegitimate children rather than to force her into something she didn't want — "Katara, I am overjoyed of course but you could give birth to a sabertooth moose lion and the people would see it as the heir to the throne because it came from you" — it was her choice.

Besides, she wanted to fit into Iroh's extravagant dress while she could.

Zuko was right about one thing, though: the people loved her. Katara didn't understand it, but it was a relief and so she chose not to question it. Perhaps it was because she routinely walked through the capital without an escort, often with Toph or Suki or sometimes Aang whose visits were exciting but impossible to plan for. Sokka spent most of his time in the Southern Water Tribe, of course, and Katara still yearned for ice and snow, especially in the heart of the Fire Nation summer. She went when she could, flying on Appa's broad back over familiar ocean that tugged at her heartstrings whenever she saw it.

Of course, Sokka also kept sneaking off to Kyoshi Island whenever he could so maybe it wasn't from a sense of duty that he stayed home.

The wedding was, of course, an extreme affair. There were more people than Katara had even seen in one place in her whole life. It was, Zuko liked to remind her, bigger than his coronation. Katara wore red. She'd argued against it, saying that no one in her tribe bothered with wedding dresses at all, and she didn't look good in red anyway, but Iroh had loudly overruled her.

Even with her reputation as a woman who wore extravagant gowns — something Katara was still trying to quash so she could go out into the city in a tunic and trousers — the dress was a confection of red brocade silk and heavy blue beading. Gran-Gran had done the beadwork. She and Iroh had in fact conspired on the dress, and it was a good thing too because Gran-Gran seemed to have talked Iroh out of some of the more traditional aspects of Fire Nation weddings, like faked crying and groom testing. Iroh had in turn managed to quash Gran-Gran's requirements for throat singing, faked kidnapping, and proof of Zuko's hunting prowess.

Unfortunately, they'd agreed on a procession through the city and a guest list that included every single citizen of the Fire Nation and the Water Tribes. The Northern tribe sent a delegation. The Southern tribes sent everyone.

Katara's overwhelming impression of the ceremony was how much the Fire Sage talked, how her blue jeweled headdress made her neck ache, and how happy Iroh looked. Zuko, of course, looked happy too, but they spent most of the time sharing tired, long suffering looks until it was all over.

She didn't need the whole Fire Nation to approve of her love for Zuko. She just needed him to know.

The baby was born six months later, right at the start of summer. The labor was long and Katara squeezed Suki's hand so hard she almost broke a finger. Sokka refused to be involved. Despite insisting at the beginning that they could absolutely help, Aang and Toph left the birthing room early on, Aang with a look of horror that made Katara laugh despite the pain.

When they handed Zuko his daughter, he cried. When Iroh held her, he cried even harder and Katara, exhausted and in pain, found herself patting his arm and taking the baby from him before he drowned her.

The baby had Katara's rich brown skin and Zuko's sunshine yellow eyes. She was quiet as Katara held her against her bare chest, wide eyed and solemn. Her head and neck were covered in fine, dark down like a baby bird.

On her fat infant belly, wrapped around her navel, was a dark purple birthmark, the perfect likeness of a dragon.