She is born among swords. A war baby, not weaned on peacetime. When she is a child, she insists. She wants her hair cut short, shorter than custom allows and she picks up her brother's play-weapons.
Her mother looks at her, concern written in the lines of her face. She does not want this life for her daughter. But Katara is as stubborn as the moon that guides her, as the stars that presided over her birth. So with careful hands, she shaves the undersides of Katara's head until her braid rests at the backward swell of her skull, lower than a warrior's wolf-tail would hang.
"She's just a baby," her mother tells her father. "Hair will grow back."
Her father looks down at her daughter, three years old and too boyish.
"You already know what she is," he says. "This is too much. There's already a target on her back."
Her mother looks at her, where she holds a wooden boomerang. She doesn't like these as much as the short swords. She was once found playing with her father's, careful with it, as if she knew it was live. As if she knew the weapon's name.
"Such things were already decided for her, long before she quickened inside of me," her mother says, voice low. "She is like her Northern family, and belongs to the moon."
To Tui and La, the parents of girls like Katara.
"And the many eyes," her father says, turning his gaze away from his youngest. "Of the wandering spy."
His mother is pious in secret, telling stories not of their ancestors but of the spirits that came before and will return after. Azula doesn't like those stories. She likes tales of conquest through fire and blood. His mother says that there is a place for those stories. That they are important. Zuko doesn't really think so.
Zuko likes the Painted Lady the best. The Mother of the Hearth Fires. She helped the dragon Fushi give birth to her clutch of eight eggs, and the dragons born of those eggs beat their wings to form the eight directions. The Spirit of the Healing Fever, and Knower of All Plants. A healer.
He knows that waterbenders are the healers, that a select few of them are able to train to use their bending to cure ailments of the body. But the Painted Lady knew the healing ways of the soil, and cured her patients with cleansing steam. She brought their fevers to their peak, burning illness from their bodies.
Zuko wants to be like her, from the earliest moments when his mother tells him stories of the Painted Lady. He is careful not to let anyone else know.
"Zuko," she says, while they sit in the garden. On her lap is a cloth and on the cloth are tightly bound bundles of herbs. There is a mortar and pestle by her delicate foot. The turtleducks are quiet, nuzzling each other in the water. "Let me teach you."
He learns at his mother's knee, how to make salves for minor burns. Ones for the fingertips. Zuko had always thought that these healing arts were for trained doctors. That the salves he rubbed on himself when Azula 'missed' during a spar were carefully concocted, far away from prying eyes.
He watches his mother. He does as she does. He asks questions, voice pitched softly. He doesn't want Azula to come trampling into the garden, disrupting this quiet moment.
She teaches him salves for little burns and big ones. For cysts and boils, ingrown nails, ingrown hairs. Salves to bring fever out of the body, salves to drag coughs out through the back. For rashes and scrapes, for dressing wounds too large to leave only bandaged. And as she teaches him, she tells him stories of the Painted Lady, and the thousand people she healed.
Zuko is grateful, many years later. His mother never taught him a salve to ease the ache of her loss, but his hands only shake a little bit as he applies a soft, cool cream to his newly scarred eye.
The Blue Spirit is the spirit of the stars. He has many eyes. He is the spy of the spirit world. A trickster and a thief. He is not easy to find or easy to get off your tail. Those born under his stars are said to share his same fate; to be struck through the chest with wanderlust, with a penchant for quick fingers.
Katara isn't the oldest woman of her house when her mother is killed. But she is the only child in the Southern tribe born under the Blue Spirit's eye. And as much as she is Tui and La's daughter, she has a second (Third, Sokka says, eyes narrowed, third) father in the spirit.
He calls her in the night, when the soft roar of the sea many miles away drags her out of bed. She gets to her feet, shrugs on her clothes, and leaves her hut. Leaves her brother and Gran-Gran behind.
The Blue Spirit takes her to the sea. He is a strange, quiet thing guiding her steps. Sometimes, she thinks she can see him. Other times, it seems like a trick of the light.
He stops and so does Katara. He has done this nightly, since she was old enough to get away without being noticed. He taught her how to do that, too.
She learns waterbending like the old masters did, by watching the push and pull of the waves. The Blue Spirit teaches her, too. How to pull water from her eyes; tears to fool old men and old women into sympathy. How to drag her sweat off of her body; in case she stops running, and must look like she hasn't been moving at all. He teaches her how to tug her blood into her cheeks, to redden her face; to feign being in love or enraged.
He teaches her how to run across water, how to use the water around her to soften the sound of her steps, how to use her gift from Tui and La to mask and manipulate her own scent. How to tug at the different parts of her body until she could trick even the keenest nosed shirshu.
He never says much. He only shows her the way, and waits until she figures it out herself. Katara is always frightened that if she doesn't figure it out, he will leave her. She has already lost her mother and her father; she does not want to be left again.
When she is eleven, he decides she is ready. He draws the face of his mask in the snow, the sharp tusks, the curves of his heavy brow, his high cheeks. Katara returns to the sea the next night with a whittling knife and a hunk of fine wood. From behind his mask, she can tell he is smiling at her. She stole these supplies. She is an excellent student.
It takes her two moons to carve the mask, and a third to paint it. All of it, she does under the Blue Spirit's careful guidance, under the watching eyes of Tui and La. Her three parents are all silent as Katara does what she has been trained to do.
On the last night, she holds the mask up to her face. She peers through the holes she has carved for its eyes. She breathes, and it feels like coming home.
She knows before the Blue Spirit tells her what she must do. And though it cleaves her heart in half to do it, she does. She draws the pendant off of the fine blue cord of her mother's betrothal necklace. With it, she binds the mask to her face.
The pendant cuts keenly into the meat of her palm. She doesn't want to throw it, but she knows she can't keep it. She builds a mound of snow, and settles it on the top.
She cannot be anyone's daughter to do what she must. She cannot be Katara.
Searching for the avatar feels like a fool's errand. He may have his uncle on his side, but Zuko knows better. Who would send a child out to do what was clearly an adult's mission, a general's? Yes, go and gain your honor back by searching for a man lost to time. Zuko is pious because his mother was pious, but he does not believe in fairytales.
"The avatar is not a fairytale, Prince Zuko," his uncle insists, tutting at him over a cup of tea. Zuko does his best not to roll his eyes. "You were taught better."
Zuko prickles, but pours his uncle another cup of tea when he holds out his cup. The mantle of the banished prince hangs awkwardly on his shoulders. He has known since childhood that he was not the favorite to inherit the throne. There was a reason Azula was named after their grandfather.
He has not succeeded as well as he had hoped he would have. But he did catch sight of the strange beam of light coming from the South Pole. He had brought only his uncle down with him, convinced that the terrified people of the tribe would cause him no harm. All of their men were at war, and Zuko didn't see the point in frightening women, children, and the sick.
A woman named Kanna had received him. Insisted there were no waterbenders left here, and that she and her people had seen no strange beam of light. Zuko pretended not to notice the sounds of movement outside of her home, the voices of two boys; one that curved in the Southern dialect, another that was distinctly foreign to even his world-traveled ears.
The avatar was a friend to the Painted Lady. He wanted no business hurting a friend of the goddess whose cult had taught his mother how to heal.
He leaves the Southern Pole, and sets a sprawling, childish course. That of a boy who has been frustrated and does not know what choice he should make next.
His uncle smiles at him, sets up the Pai Sho board, and invites him to a game.
"One day, you'll be a better player than I am," Iroh says, steepling his fingers and settling them on his stomach.
Zuko leans his chin on his hand, looking out at the turbulent sea around them.
"I'll get that White Lotus piece from you yet, uncle."
It brings a smile to Iroh's face, and that's enough for Zuko.
He's better at playing the fool than people give him credit for. Most expect him to be a sullen, spoiled prince. All of the weakest, worst things about Ozai distilled into Zuko since Azula got everything good. He gives them what they expect to see.
They don't know that he's his mother's son. His hands are made for healing, not to hurt. So he heals. When the ship comes into ports scattered across Fire Nation occupied territory, he slips out. He covers himself in a dark red cloak, wears peasant clothes. Paints his arms and his face. Covers his head, keeps the wide brim of his hat over his scar.
Even people in these broad reaches, who have been occupied by Fire Nation soldiers with Fire Nation myths and Fire Nation schools know the stories of the Painted Lady. Ozai was not a fan of the old religion, but soldiers far from home always were.
He comes to them in swaths of steam, the peasant children, their sick fathers, their dying mothers. They tell him what hurts. He pulls salves out of his pockets, lays his hands on their bodies, drags their coughs out through their backs, rubs creams into cracking skin.
They sniff the salves he has made, mutter things about the roots in their territories, the herbs and flowers they could substitute. Zuko files it all away. He will need this information later, when he runs out of native Fire Nation greenery to heal what his father has tried to destroy.
"You are a good son, Prince Zuko," Iroh whispers to him, when he stumbles into bed after another night in another village. "She would be proud of you."
Her name is Kanna. Or Kya. Or Kila. Ken, or Katto, or Kooah or Koah, or Kay or Kei. She is an orphan, or a page boy, or a delivery boy, or a maid, or a fortune teller. She is never in one town for longer than two nights. She always has a gold piece to give, or silver pieces to spare, and more bronze than she knows what to do with.
She is invisible. It is how she knows that the Fire Nation prince has been scarred and banished; how she knows that the avatar has returned. How she knows invasion schedules and battle plans. She funnels the information back with hawks she tells her father to kill after arrival. She signs her notes with the curve of her mother's betrothal necklace. It is as close as she can get to who she used to be.
Sabotage is her forte. She poisons the water that wets the throats of the army. She ties up their plumbing. Makes their living arrangements reek of shit and piss and vomit. Inhospitable. She frees prisoners of war and freedom fighters. She runs into some Water Tribe men like that, who look at her small stature and her blue mask and mutter a prayer under their breath as she leaves them.
"I didn't think you'd be so short," one says, a crooked smile on his face.
It's when she's liberating child slaves on the black market (and she isn't looking for Sokka's face here, isn't looking for little Wheein's or Bala's either, she isn't the girl that she used to be, and she doesn't remember those people, she doesn't) when she sees them.
A twin pair of uluit, gleaming in the low light. One whose handle is black, the other, white. They look terribly like the knives her mother used when she was small.
The weight of them is easy. She knows how to handle them. She used them to cut her own hair after her mother died, used them to skin otter penguin pelts. If they're sharp enough for that, they're sharp enough to tear a man's flesh from the bone. She remembers Gran-Gran warning her away from the sharper ones. She had only ever been allowed to use live ones under careful supervision.
The Blue Spirit visits her less now, but she can feel him, peering over her shoulder as she rips the knives off the wall. Women's knives, they were called.
She can feel the spirit smile over her shoulder, just barely shifting the air around them. She knows the opening for what it is, takes it, turns, catches the hilt of a Fire Nation sword against the white handled ulu.
She uses the ulu to deflect, to bind the sword away. She turns, using her momentum to drag the sweat on her body into an amount of water small and sharp enough to slip through the cracks in Fire Nation armor. Her canteen is still shut at her side, and there isn't enough space to open it.
She moves how the Spirit taught her, rising with a forward thrust of her new weapons. Her sweat lands on the soldier's armor, and she pulls it, pushes it how Tui and La taught her, sneaks it under his armor, and freezes it, drives it into the soft skin of his throat.
As he falls, she looks at the uluit in her hands and wonders if they were a mistake. She feels more like Katara than she has in years.
There's an illness sweeping this side of the bay. When Zuko goes into town at night, to the places where the frozen frogs thaw before they get to the mouths of those they can heal, he does what he can.
"Did the bison bring you here?" a sick child asks, tilting her head to see beneath the wide brim of his hat.
Zuko doesn't still. He knows the avatar is somewhere near here. Knows that Zhao's heavy handed ordering of every Fire Nation vessel this side of the water is the result. He had told Zhao the precise nothing that he knew, but Uncle Iroh had been tense after the order came. He hadn't wanted Zuko to go out that night.
Zuko nods, and the little girl smiles, toothless around the piece of ice Zuko instructed his mother to make, filled with this leaf and that. It was enough to mimic the wood frogs' healing properties, but it would take her longer to heal because it wasn't the genuine article.
"I knew you and the avatar were friends," the child says, eyes bright and glassy, though not because of her fever. "He's that way, go find him and say hi for me, okay?"
He nods, and the girl's mother hushes her, coaxes her into sleeping.
Zuko is probably too curious for his own good.
She is Katara again, and through no fault of her own, no, through the fault of this idiot airbending idiot that somehow got caught by Admiral Zhao.
She wants to tell the Blue Spirit that she didn't sign up for this, but she knows he won't respond or he'll pretend not to hear her. The avatar was technically his cousin or something, which meant that he was probably Katara's cousin, too, but she's too flustered, too annoyed behind her own mask to think about it.
It's hard enough sneaking into Pouhai. She would know. She's tried. Katara isn't cut out for assassinations yet; she's quiet, she's good at improvising, but she doesn't have the stomach for killing someone in their bed. The Spirit had suggested that to her, had told her to take a couple Fire Nation throats out while no one was looking. She hadn't made it farther than the library of the Stronghold before she stole some maps and ran.
Now, she wishes she had stayed longer.
The avatar is twelve. Twelve and it shows. But when she comes into the room, when she uses her uluit to free him, he doesn't make a sound. He mostly follows her, tugging on her sleeve and yanking her back down a different corridor when he thinks he knows the way better than she does. She's a minute away from knocking him out and bodily carrying him away from here her own damn way.
And she would, she really would if the way he tugged at her didn't remind her so much of Sokka, and their games of hide-and-seek when they were little, and the war didn't seem like a war.
She gets them out through the sewer system. She forces the avatar in front of her, because she knows better than to have someone unknown at her back. She freezes the pathways behind her, breaking restraints, preparing for another flood of shit-water to erupt after she's gone. Newly faulty pipes in Pouhai will open up a door for someone less experienced than her, and Katara is always happy to pay it forward.
It gets complicated when the gates close, and the avatar abandons her. She can't use her waterbending here, in public, for fear of recompense on the tribes that used to be her home. There are too many guards, even with the avatar snapping the head off a spear to make a staff, even as he blows enemies away as fast as they can join the fray.
So she does the only thing she can think of. She curves around the avatar, and digs her uluit into the tender skin on either side of his neck. The fighting stops into silence. Katara really needs to get better at threatening people's lives. It always works out in the end.
The Blue Spirit always did teach her not to get ahead of herself. Not to speak too soon. The moment she thinks she just might have saved the avatar's life, an arrow whistles through the air faster than she can see it coming, and then she is asleep.
He's coaxing an ice cube into the mouth of a Water Tribe boy, Southern from the cut of his clothes, when he hears an intake of breath behind him.
Zuko turns slowly, and sees the avatar. Holding up a Blue Spirit.
The Water Tribe boy groans around the ice cube, and Zuko stands up at his full height. The avatar's jaw is dropped, but Zuko doesn't pay him much mind. The Blue Spirit in his grasp is unconscious.
"Was he hurt?" he asks, breaking his only rule against speech. It's easy to tell that he's a man when he talks.
The avatar shakes his head, but brings the spirit closer. He lays the Spirit down beside the Water Tribe boy, and with careful hands, takes off his mask. Zuko's eyes narrow; the Spirit is a girl. A Water Tribe girl if her coloring and her weapons are any indication.
"Is she sick?" he asks.
The avatar shakes his head.
"Just unconscious," he replies. "An archer got her, but her mask was too thick. It just knocked her out. I think she'll be okay."
Zuko nods slowly, then gives the avatar a once over. The boy smiles, ducking his head.
"I'm fine," he says. Then he cocks his head, his eyes too intelligent for his youthful face. "But you aren't her, are you?"
Zuko figures it's probably best not to lie, even though he's built the lie so much these past few years. The real Painted Lady would probably scald his other eye if he lied to the avatar.
"The son of a believer," he replies, trying to stay vague.
The avatar nods, sticking his hands in his pockets. His gaze grows wide, then he searches his pockets frantically, before he buries his face in his hands. Zuko lifts an eyebrow, but smiles.
"The wood frogs, right?"
The avatar peeks from between his fingers.
"How'd you know?"
He gestures at his cloak, at his wide brimmed hat. The avatar flushes red.
"I brought most of the fever out," Zuko replies. "The ice should do the rest. He should be fine by morning."
The avatar walks over to his companion, peers down at his face. The Water Tribe boy mumbles nonsense, but he seems happy to be the subject of so much attention.
The avatar looks back up at him, and Zuko tries not to flinch under his gaze. Then, the boy beams.
"This is Sokka," he says, gesturing to his ill friend. "And I'm Aang."
He opens his mouth to tell another lie. Then, he remembers that the Painted Lady was the avatar's friend.
"Zuko," he says, trying to smile back. "I'm Zuko."
She jolts awake, feeling someone standing over her. Her forehead connects with another, but where Katara would usually let out a groan of pain or a curse, another voice fills the air.
"C'mon Katara!" her brother whines. "Did you have to hit me?"
She's frozen. She is the only person that calls her by that name, and even then it is only in the privacy of her own mind. Her father does not return her correspondence at her own request. She hasn't told anyone her birth name in years.
But here is Sokka, rubbing his forehead, staring at her like he is seeing a ghost. He looks so different. So impossibly different.
Sokka reaches out and Katara forces herself not to flinch even though she wants to. She doesn't like hands near her face. But Sokka reaches out, cups her cheek in his hand. She sees the tears in his eyes as he touches the short crop of her hair. It only just reaches her shoulders, nothing like the long, sloping braid that hovered over her undercut as a child.
It must have fallen out of her wolf-tail when she was sleeping.
"You look - ," Don't say like mom, don't say like mom, don'tsaylikemom, "hideous."
The laugh shocks her. It surprises him, too. And even though she isn't the Katara that Sokka knew when she left, she is still his sister. He is still her brother.
The Spirit doesn't bother her as she pitches forward, dragging her brother close. She holds him. He sobs, but she doesn't. The avatar keeps his back to them, tending to his bison and his lemur.
Sokka rears back mid-sob, and reaches down into his pockets, digging for something. He holds it, shut in his fist, then slowly unfurls his fingers around the fine, gleaming pendant of their mother's necklace.
"I thought - ," he says, sniffling. "Gran-Gran said she couldn't tell me much. That one of dad's men came to take you to the North Pole to learn waterbending. Aang -," he points over his shoulder, "he needed to learn, too. So I thought I'd find you there, and I could give this back to you."
Katara swallows thickly. Half of the story was true. One of her father's men had come to take her, but she had left him behind somewhere in the Earth Kingdom. She had been wandering since, learning waterbending from rivers and waterfalls, ponds and puddles. If she had gone North like Sokka thought she had, she could have been a master by now.
But she wouldn't have saved the avatar's life. And she wouldn't have found her brother.
She reaches out, lets her fingers brush the pendant. It's cool to the touch. A reminder of a home she swore to leave behind until the Spirit was finished using her as his hands. As another pair of his many eyes.
"You keep it," she replies. And her voice feels so underused. When was the last time she spoke to a person she rescued? Or to anyone, for that matter? Anyone who she trusted?
"Give it to some nice Northern girl," Katara says, quirking up the corner of her mouth.
It makes Sokka's face fall, but before he can ask her why, Katara reaches forward and drags him into her arms again. She doesn't know how long it'll be before she sees him again. She can't waste this chance.
He wakes up immediately, the chill in his room frosting his eyelashes.
She's standing there, in the corner, arms lax at her sides. The canteen at her waist is open. A waterbender. How fitting. The Blue Spirit was a waterbender. He took his name from the sky and the sea, where he disappeared every morning and every evening when his trickery was finished.
"You're doing a poor job at hunting the avatar."
Zuko pushes himself into a sitting position. He breathes in the frigid air, and breathes out steam. The breath of fire fills his lungs the way Iroh taught him, the way the Painted Lady taught her acolytes.
"I thought if the Blue Spirit was unmasked, he disappeared," he replies.
She doesn't move. She doesn't have to. Zuko has the feeling that she's much more dangerous when she's static. Still waters ran deep, and all that.
"There are plots to kill your father and sister," she says, offering the information like she hopes to tempt him. "You should return home, and see to them."
Zuko lifts an eyebrow. A plot to kill the Fire Lord hadn't worked since his grandfather's death.
"They'd have to be clever," he says. "And twice as quiet."
The Blue Spirit steps forward, and each place she walks, frost from the air comes to meet her step. She walks in silence.
"The avatar," she says tonelessly from behind her mask, "is under the protection of the Blue Spirit."
"And the Water Tribe boy traveling with him," Zuko replies, "is under the protection of the Painted Lady."
There is a whisper of metal, and then there is an ulu at his throat and a broadswoard at hers. They breathe in tandem, fine skin almost cutting itself on the blades.
"If you want to kill the Fire Lord," Zuko says, "you'll have to do better than that."
"I was only aiming to kill a banished prince," she sneers. "Your bounty is decent."
"I'm sure yours is just as fine," he replies. "Maybe double the cost of all the damage you've caused and the prisoners you've set free."
As abruptly as she drew her weapon, she yanks it away. Zuko leaves his broadsword at her throat only a moment after she withdraws her ulu. He narrows his eyes.
"You aren't here to kill me."
She reaches up behind her head, and undoes her mask. Bright blue eyes stare at him in a face of Water Tribe brown skin. Her hair is cropped close, shaved underneath in the style of the Water Tribe warriors.
She's beautiful, in a terribly severe way. A frightening way. Her eyes glitter like the dark sky overhead, and he can understand why the Blue Spirit chose her to be a pair of his eyes, why she was born under his stars.
"If the Fire Lord and the Crown Princess were both to die," she says, lifting an eyebrow, "then the Painted Lady's emissary would rule the Fire Nation."
It's a thought that's crossed his mind at some point, yes, but not one that he ever put overmuch stock into. It was like sending a child to find the avatar: impossible. But with this Blue Spirit in front of him, who managed to break into Pouhai, who managed to slip onto his ship, into his quarters - It suddenly doesn't seem quite so impossible.
People forgot that the Painted Lady was still a spirit. They thought that just because she used her knowledge of the earth to protect those who lived on it, she must have been benevolent and good. Pure.
Zuko knows better than the people who thought so little of the Painted Lady. His mother taught him. He's smarter than people like to give him credit for. And though he doesn't have all of the pieces together now, he can guess. Why would a believer have to leave the palace after the old Fire Lord's death? Why would she have to flee in the night? Why would Zuko be forbidden his mother's knowledge, forbidden books on herbalism? Why would his father look at him, rage contorting his face the day after the Agni Kai, when Zuko's scar looked less like a wound freshly inflicted?
Like Ursa, The Painted Lady was neither good nor evil. She poisoned as many wicked men as healed the good. That was her way, and the way of those that believed in her. If she hadn't, the world would have lost balance. Zuko had saved countless lives, and he had no doubt that this Blue Spirit in front of him had taken them.
There was a story, somewhere, about the Blue Spirit stealing one of the Painted Lady's healing potions. How he stole one every night, until, when the moon was covered by a cloud, she left her chambers to chase him down. Instead of killing him like she had the right to do, she stole a kiss from him.
He looks at this Blue Spirit. She doesn't seem the type to steal kisses.
"If you can get us in," she offers, "I can do the rest."
Zuko shakes his head.
"You get us into the Fire Nation, I can get us into the palace."
"And the rest?" she asks, tucking her ulu onto her belt, and offering him her hand.
He takes it, and gets to his feet. He wonders what story his uncle will tell them, about how their banished prince has now vanished. How the Blue Spirit killed Prince Zuko in his bed, and destroyed the body beyond recognition, using fire to burn him in death, as a warning to the royal family.
"The rest," Zuko says, "we do together."
They get into Fire Country the backwater way, sneaking through the borders while Katara keeps their footsteps quiet, and Zuko keeps them warm in the shockingly cold winters. They sleep back to back, not trusting each other for some time, until Katara falls ill and Zuko gets captured, and they must fight their way back to each other.
Killing doesn't come easy for either of them. Katara finds it easy in the heat of battle when her own life is on the line, but they both struggle with Zuko's work for the Painted Lady takes him to a young man with a growth that cannot be removed without taking his life. Zuko feeds him a tea that will take his breath quietly in his sleep, then vomits when the boy convulses, twitches, until he is a corpse.
They hear of the avatar's exploits. Word of mouth about flying bisons spotted over the sea. Katara collapses when the moon dies, falls to her knees, her heart leaping out of her throat as she sobs for her dying-dead mother. Zuko holds her through it, best as he can, and when the moon rises again, Katara falls asleep and stays there for three days.
He wipes the sweat off her brow, pulls the dream-fever out of her skin and expels it in puffs of steam.
She uses her uluit to cut his hair, and for a while, he is hideously bald. She laughs at him as his hair grows out, and Zuko suffers through it, poking fun at her unkempt undercut.
They're nameless, faceless in the boonies of Fire Country, where the riches of the capitol do not reach. They work their way slowly towards the bigger cities. By then, Zuko's hair has grown longer, shaggier to cover his face, and Katara has enough hair to look less unkempt.
Sometimes, the spirits pull them from their sleep in different directions. Katara to guide a squad of revolutionaries through a bog; Zuko to heal the burns of freedom fighters in the basement of a teahouse.
They find their way back to each other by dawn, when the moon and sun hang for the briefest moments together in the sky. Zuko ignores the bags under Katara's eyes. Katara pretends not to see the way Zuko's hands have been rubbed raw. They sleep cheek to cheek, desperate for comfort, after the horrors they see. The miracles they commit.
Azula happens almost comically easy.
She is leaving for the Earth Kingdom, and Zuko knows that she is cocky. He racks his brain for the right brew, for something colorless, odorless, slow acting enough that she will die well outside of the Fire Nation.
He finds a book in an old corner shop, one on the conquerers of antiquity. Though he knows Azula will not read all of it, he is aware that her fingers will linger on the pages of the bloodiest imperialists. He paints those pages with the poison, lets them dry, and then paints them again.
Azula will recognize him, so Katara must be the one to do it, to get the book to her.
"Gloves," he hisses, when she picks it up with her bare hands. "Only wear gloves when you handle it."
Katara rolls her eyes, but handles the book with care.
She feigns being a delivery girl, off to get the book to a highborn lord who needs the book and an assortment of others stolen to make the display believable. She runs into the street in front of Azula's caravan, pretends to be startled by the ostrich horses, and drops every last book and piece of parchment.
Zuko's breath stills when Azula exits the carriage, her golden eyes young and mean and narrowed. He hasn't seen his sister in ages, and it isn't good to see her now.
He has to dig his fingernails into his arm to keep himself from darting forward when Azula stalks, all predatory, towards Katara. She kicks a book and then another, reveling in the fear that makes Katara shrink on herself, mumbling apology over apology.
Then, Azula stops. Looks down at a history book, whose familiar tome made Zuko sure this plan would work.
"What," Azula snarls, "is a peasant fool like you doing with a book like this?"
She doesn't let Katara answer. She sweeps up the tome and turns sharply on her heel. She demands her carriage driver pull forward, tells him to drive over Katara if he has to.
Katara scrambles out of the street apologizing, sobbing as she goes.
She ducks into an alley, and Zuko follows her, and when he gets to her, he can't stop himself. He grabs her by the arms, patting her down, looking for injuries. He knows she's crying crocodile tears, but the sob that she let out when Azula had snarled at her -
"Hey," she says, reaching up and holding his wrists. Her blue eyes are deep and still. Calmer than Zuko feels. "I'm alright. Look at me. I'm alright."
Zuko nods, but his hands still shake. Katara holds them, probably for longer than she needs to.
Azula dies twelve days later, and the Fire Nation is in an uproar. There are demands for Iroh to return, to be named as Ozai's heir. There are calls for Ozai to take another wife. By now, word of Zuko's 'death' has spread while stories of the returned avatar have continued to flutter across the world, and the Fire Lord is in a tenuous position.
"He'll get sloppy," Katara says, sharpening her ulu. "We just have to wait for a chance."
Zuko's lips are puckered. He's been making more burn salve lately, more than they need. He sells them in the markets they pass through, or trades them for things that they need. He had managed to save enough to get Katara a nice comb. Whalebone, though no one in this part of Fire Country knew it. A few of the teeth had been broken, so whatever lady it had belonged to had thrown it away.
It's another piece of home that she resents having, but is grateful for.
"My father doesn't get sloppy," Zuko says, grinding up a few sprigs of country fire-lily.
"Then he'll get cocky," she replies. "Both are openings."
Zuko nods and says nothing, though Katara is sure he wants to say more.
With every day they get closer and closer to the capitol, Zuko gets more and more on edge. Katara can't blame him. She hasn't seen the Blue Spirit in months, and not for lack of trying. He only ever showed up when she was in immediate danger, and she's been in plenty of danger at Zuko's side.
She's sent herself on fool's errand, that's what she had thought before. Killing the princess and the Fire Lord had seemed - daunting. Impossible. But the Blue Spirit had helped her get onto Zuko's ship. Then, he had disappeared and hadn't returned. This was the path his eyes had chosen for her. Katara was sworn by her birth to follow it.
She just hadn't expected Zuko.
Sometimes, he is so like a child, she wants to scream. Other days, he is somber and quiet. There are few moments when he laughs, loudly and sincerely. Every time he sees a turtleduck, he goes stiff-necked and quiet. His eyes are sunrises, and his firebending -
His firebending is nothing like that of a soldier. He uses it to fight as often as he uses is twin broadswords. But at camp - at camp Zuko tends their camp fire, warming twigs and brush and dried leaves by with his bare hands and patience. He says it is how the Painted Lady prefers them to do it, to build a fire from scratch the same way one was to build a meal.
Katara watches the light dance in his eyes, build shadows from his hair, and a knot of something ties itself tight in her stomach.
His uncle wouldn't forgive him for this. Though, he never told Zuko not to leave, so somehow he must know. Iroh was no stranger to death, to political killings. By now, word of his niece's death must have caught him. Zuko wonders what kind of nephew he is. What kind of Fire Lord he would be, if he wanted the crown.
He realizes, as Katara poisons the palace's water, that he doesn't want the crown at all. That his uncle is likely already traveling back to the Fire Nation to consult with his brother about the heir situation, hunt for the avatar be damned.
He doesn't think it would be such a bad thing. Iroh was a good man. He would probably end the war. He was a friend of the Painted Lady. He had taught Zuko all that he knew. He had been a better father than Ozai had.
He says as much in the dark, when another servant has fallen sick from Katara hurting the water and Zuko dropping poppy ash seeds into it for good measure.
A cool hand comes to rest on top of his, but he doesn't look at her. That would spell the end for them both.
Instead, Zuko turns his hand until his palm is against Katara's. They lace their fingers together, and she gives his hand a sharp squeeze. She never had to ask who gave him the scar. It was common knowledge, and Katara is already cleverer than the average person.
She holds his hand, and it is the closest to an apology she will ever say to him. Small wonders. The Fire Lord was adeptly talented at tearing families apart, all over the world. Even his own.
Their siege lasts five days, and Katara is patient. It was amazing, how quickly people forgot how necessary water was. How foolish it was to try and survive without it.
Zuko advises that they wait until a full moon to strike, when she will be at her ready strongest. The Fire Lord will not expect a waterbender.
Katara steals them clothes, and Zuko sneaks them in through a pretty garden. Though he does not stall, Katara can tell this place means something to him other than the terror that the rest of the palace makes his shoulders tight with.
This garden was a safe place for him once upon a time. Katara thinks she would react the same way, if she were back in her native snows.
Before they hit the open mouthed halls, before Zuko can take them to his father's chambers, Katara stops him, grabs him by the shoulder and tugs him into her. The Blue Spirit was a thief, and Katara couldn't think of a better time than the present. She tugs up her mask over her forehead, and she takes.
The Painted Boy in her arms is stiff until her mouth meets his, and he hardly whispers her name into the suddenness of the kiss. It's brief, barely a press of lips, inexperienced but curious. Katara is sixteen, and Zuko isn't her first, but she thinks she might be his.
"I'll do the rest," she says against his mouth.
Zuko is stock still, not because he wants to be, but because she has bound his blood in place. She rifles through his pockets for the poison, and she leaves him in the hall.
Demon or not, she could not ask anyone to kill their father.
Zuko had talked her through the layout of the palace in case they had ever gotten separated, but she doesn't need his whispered schematics in her head. As soon as she turns her first corner with out him, she sees a whisper of blue in the corner of her eye. She follows her Spirit, her third father down the halls, until she comes to a resplendent set of chambers that could only belong to the Fire Lord.
She slips inside quiet as he taught her, unscrewing the cork of Zuko's poison and bending it out of its container. She carries it in a wide arc, over to his bed, steps silent as she follows it. She only has to get it into his ear -
Even a little spark can set the finest wood ablaze.
The Fire Lord is awake, but Katara knows better than to scream.
He's never seen the Painted Lady before, not outside of his dreams. And in his dreams, she usually looks more like his mother, but with the red paint, and the bright yellow sun in stark, beautiful relief on her forehead.
The real Painted Lady is much paler than Ursa, and the steam that wafts off her garments smells of jasmine. She runs her fingers over Zuko's forehead as he struggles out of Katara's bloodbending. Taking along a waterbender that had been taught the craft by the spirits that created it probably wasn't his best bet.
But the Painted Lady only smiles at him, her eyes kind as she touches him. Then, his body is his again. The hairs on the back of his neck stand up, and Zuko is turning, running before he can thank the spirit.
The way to his father's chambers is one filled with hideous memories. Zuko always avoided this portion of the palace. He hated the idea of one day growing up and sleeping in his father's bed, far away from anyone else in the palace, his room still stained with his father's wickedness.
Now, he shoves the memories down, and he runs for Katara's life.
She is on the ground, her mask split in half, charred half to nothing. The poison is a wet spot on Ozai's sheets, and Zuko's father is breathing heavily.
His veins are purple in his skin, his movements sluggish, his eyes glassy. Poisoning the water with poppy ash seeds paid off. Zuko slides low into a defensive stance, looking from his delirious father to where Katara is on the floor. She reaches for her uluit, but Ozai lets out a raspy grunt, and throws a fistful of fire at her.
Zuko moves before he can think. He draws his broadswords, pours his flames down their length, and cuts his father's onslaught in half.
Katara looks up, and takes the distraction for what it is. Zuko presses forward, challenging his father for the second time in his life, and hopefully the last.
Ozai doesn't recognize him, that much is true, and Zuko isn't surprised. He hangs back, deflecting more than attacking, while Katara gets onto the bed and drags the poison out from where it has soaked into the sheets.
His father is delirious, but still stronger than him, and it doesn't take much for Ozai to give up on distance firebending and rely on brute strength. That much tells Zuko his father can't see clearly from the small space in between them.
He's tackled to the floor, one sword knocked out of his hand, the other useless in his grasp. Ozai holds Zuko's wrists down, calling fresh fire to his own palms and burns his son again.
This close, Zuko can see his father's vision begin to clear. Can see confusion give way to shock to rage, to deep, bloody satisfaction.
"Ursa," he whispers, voice low and mean. "You're just like Ursa."
The burns on his wrists are nothing compared to the pain of nearly losing his eye. Still, Zuko bites the inside of his cheek until blood fills his mouth. The smell of his own cooking flesh enters his nostrils, and he tries bucking blindly against his father's weight.
Then, he remembers his lessons with Iroh. He swallows his blood, sucks in a deep breath, and breathes it out in flames into Ozai's glassy eyes.
His father falls back, screaming, and Zuko scrambles up to hold him down, to shut his mouth. Katara is there, shoving Ozai's face to the side to expose his ear, and pouring the clear poison into his ear.
He stops thrashing shortly after that. The poison takes effect quickly, leaping on top of the black veined weakness that the poppy ash had built up in Ozai's body. He foams at the mouth, eyes rolling into the back of his head, and Zuko burns his father's mouth shut to stop his screaming.
Zuko doesn't vomit, but Katara nearly does.
"Patricide," she explains later, once they are out of the palace, now swarming with guards. "It's a sin. I wanted to spare you."
She doesn't look sorry, and she doesn't sound it either. A little weak around the edges; there's a hint of a burn on her forehead down the bridge of her nose, where Ozai had split her mask open. She lets Zuko rub his own salve on it, the one he used for his scar those many years ago.
Because he's treated it so soon and because Katara's waterbending is threefold strong with the strength of her birth stars, it's likely she won't even scar. But something in her has changed, rather abruptly. Something has changed in him, too. Zuko can feel it in their new proximity. They're close. They were close before but now - Now, they are closer.
"He killed his father," he explains. "It's balance."
Katara looks at him for a long while, and says nothing. She takes his hand and Zuko allows it.
Iroh is named the Fire Lord, and his nephew disappears. Aang, the last airbender comes out of hiding when Iroh ends the war. Peace comes, in fits and starts and reparations, but it comes.
Sokka of the Southern Water Tribe sets out on a mission to find the Blue Spirit. She travels quick under the cover of night, finding Ozai's loyalists rooting out insurrection against Iroh's new rule. They say the Painted Prince is with her, the Painted Lady's only son, and he follows her, healing those who cannot afford trips to the new hospitals, those in isolated pockets of the world that Iroh's relief efforts haven't reached yet.
Iroh commissioned the Southern boy to do such a thing. He says he would like to see his nephew again, would like to call Prince Zuko by his name. Make him Iroh's heir.
Hakkoda encouraged Sokka to go. Said if he found Katara once, he could find her again. They had been so close as children, had known each other better than anyone else did. Avatar Aang offered free use of his flying bison, provided he could come on the journey.
It's easier to find them than most people think. If you know the Blue Spirit, you know she can't resist stealing things that belong to her. If you know the Painted Prince, you know he is desperate to heal wounds that even his salves cannot restore.
Sokka holds a piece of home in his hand, holds the weight of his broken up family in his heart, and knows that he will find them.