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Lightning in a bottle

Chapter Text

 

In peacetime, the world had little need for Katara.

She busied herself in the South Pole, teaching young waterbenders and spending hours in healing houses, learning more and more about the art. She would have been completely isolated from the rest of the world if it weren't for her friends' letters.

The monotony was a blessing, she kept telling herself.

Eight years had passed since the end of the war, the first eight years of the new era. Zuko was Fire Lord, Sokka and Aang were traveling across the nations to help rebuild and reconnect severed diplomatic ties with the promise of unity and prosperity, Toph was figuring out a plan to set up a metalbending academy with the help of her family's gold, and Katara... Well, Katara was stuck in a routine she enjoyed, one she was thankful for... But she couldn't help but yearn, feeling an empty sort of longing that she tried to brush off.

She had no clue what she was looking for, only that she wanted to seek it. She was content but aimless. She didn’t have a fixed purpose, and sometimes she felt adrift with nothing to anchor her. Katara had no urge to wander the known world like Aang and Sokka or architect a singular vision of her future like Toph. She couldn’t name exactly what she wanted out of life. Whenever she tried, it was like grasping at vapor and feeling it leak through the gaps between her fingers.

This was probably her curse for ending things with Aang after turning down his offer of marriage a couple of years ago. The spirits likely had a special hatred for those who rejected the Avatar, even though there were no ill feelings between her and Aang. Her friend was probably the most benevolent person to have walked the earth because even when Katara had tearfully told him no when he proposed, he was still the one who embraced her comfortingly and talked her out of her guilt. She did love Aang, and she always would. It just took a while for her to realize that it wasn't the sort of love that she had once believed it was.

Aang did realize the error of it eventually. He told her, mere months after his failed proposal, that what he felt so strongly wasn't necessarily something that they both could stretch for an entire lifetime. Katara knew, though, that Aang would have been perfectly happy to have her as a lifelong partner... but the fact that it wasn't the same way for her would only make it unfair to him. 

So, despite all the comforts and noiseless calm of peacetime, Katara was still trying to wrestle with some ridiculous personal crisis.

(Katara hated herself for the feeling then, like she was mocking the gift she and her friends fought so hard for. When the Red Lotus eventually took away the steady quiet that had settled over her life and brought the world back to another hellish nightmare, Katara’s self-loathing was nearly enough to swallow her spirit whole.)

 

~

 

The first warning came from the Fire Nation.

Katara had never completely warmed up to Mai, but all residual feelings of resentment didn't matter in the face of the news that Zuko's wife hastily sent to her.

Zuko was abducted, betrayed by a promising noble who'd been on the rise ever since Zuko was crowned along with several other accomplices. Mai wasn't certain whether it was a coup or something else entirely, but a handful of the royal guards and soldiers that were loyal to the royal family led Mai to safety the night Zuko was taken.

Mai ended the message by informing her that she was currently in hiding with her parents and that she'd also sent Aang a letter to inform him of what happened. Mai didn't explicitly express a need for help; she didn't have to.

Katara sat frozen after reading the letter, the alarms in her mind going off wildly. To say that this came as a shock would be an understatement. Other than the first couple of years that Zuko spent dealing with fanatics who remained loyal to Ozai, his reign had been nothing but smooth and stable. The nation's economy was on the rise again, war reparations strengthened their diplomatic ties with the other nations, and his recent marriage to Mai was a boost of morale which brought a sense of hope for the future of his line.

A coup... or something else entirely.

Her spine straightened in determination, bent back to the vigilant rigidity it had when there was still a war. She wrote to Sokka, Aang, and Toph. Whatever their next move would be, they would do it together.

 

~

 

Things went as expected until they didn't.

Aang and Sokka arrived in the South Pole on Appa. They hadn't heard from Mai again, and they got no word from all available contacts in the Fire Nation. It was as if the entire Fire Nation had been cut off from the rest of the world. Toph was still in the Earth Kingdom, making her way to Ba Sing Se to meet with Iroh herself. It was only the three of them.

They set off to Capital City with a vague semblance of a plan, given the lack of information they had. Sokka said they would survey the situation first then decide whether the three of them would go ahead and rescue Zuko right way or head back to regroup with the others. Katara could tell that no one was inclined to leave empty-handed and abandon their friend, but they had no other options.

It all went wrong so fast, Katara could barely keep up with what happened.

They were ambushed by men in red clothing, not the Fire Nation red but a menacing scarlet that only spelled trouble. Some were in armor, a few were in robes, and the rest were bare-chested men whose face were half concealed in scarlet silk. They hadn’t accounted for an immediate attack like this.

Their attackers seemed completely prepared for them. This wasn't going to be a fair fight.

The bare-chested men stepped in first. Chi blockers, to Katara's horror. Firebenders and earthbenders surrounded them while the group of chi blockers moved in a blur of precise attacks. Katara's advances were sloppy, devoid of any strategy. She'd lost sight of her friends, and this doused her in sheer panic more than the fact that she was fighting off a handful of chi blockers while fire fists and rocks were being hurled at her from behind.

A burst of flame made her drop to her belly to avoid being singed to death but before she could get back to her feet, a pair of hands dragged her up and threw her over their shoulders. Sokka.

"What are you doing!" she yelled at him. He set off running, one of his hands gripping hard to keep her still while the other used his sword to keep the chi blockers away.

“They've got Aang!” he shouted back. “We’re not going to make it!”

“Put me down!”

Sokka ran up to Appa, who immediately stopped lashing at their enemies upon seeing them.

“Go and warn the others. Get help. I’ll try to hold them off.”

“But— “

“I can't let them take you!”

Sokka tossed her up on the saddle like she weighed nothing, ignoring her screamed, desperate protests. “Appa, go! Now!”

No!” Katara tried to clamber out of the saddle but Appa's sudden upward movement made her lose her balance. “Sokka!

Her brother was shouting and taunting their enemies, slashing wildly with his blade as the chi blockers and benders crowded him, charging at him and away from her and Appa.

A chi blocker hit him from the back of his head and Katara watched as her brother collapsed to the ground, his prone body getting smaller and smaller as Appa flew higher into the black starless sky.

Her screams were drowned by the wind and the ringing in her ears.

 

~

 

Katara was too old to be weeping. She was curled up miserably on one corner of the saddle, panting for breath as great tremors shook her body with each sob. Appa bellowed mournfully now and then, yet the gentle beast kept soaring into the night.

Stupid, idiotic, knucklehead of a brother. We could have set off on Appa together, ask for help together and go back to rescue Aang together... Stupid idiot had to go and sacrifice himself.

Some time had passed when Katara decided to stop wallowing and start being useful. She wiped the tears and snot from her face, got up to straddle Appa's neck. She took up the reins, taking the driver's seat in Aang's place. 

She murmured gentle words of comfort to Appa and gathered her courage. Aang and Sokka were counting on her.

 

~

 

Katara flew over the peaks of the Taihua mountains, taking the less conspicuous route out of precaution, or just outright paranoia. As soon as the towering walls of Ba Sing Se came into view, Katara found that her instincts to be cautious were right.

The fortifications surrounding the great city were stained a familiar shade of scarlet, the color of her nightmares since the night her brother and Aang were taken from her. Banners of the blackest shade were rolled out on the walls, bearing an insignia she had never seen before: a red lotus bloom.

Cold fear took hold of her once again, threatening the resolve and courage she'd gathered up during her travel. The city was taken, and she had no idea where Toph was. Her friend could be in the clutches of the same people who took Sokka and Aang. Katara willed herself not to think they were dead.

She was alone, and if the Fire Nation and Ba Sing Se were already conquered, there was very little chance that everywhere else was safe. Her heart ached for her home, for her father and Gran-Gran and all of her people in the poles. There was no telling whether these scarlet devils were on their way to her tribe or had already succeeded in taking the South and North Poles.

It all felt like standing on hard steady soil for a long time only to have the earth bent from underneath her feet. Mere weeks ago, her troubles were as inconsequential as anyone else's during a time of peace. All of a sudden, this new threat disrupted everything they worked for and Katara had no idea what to do. She was strong, one of the best waterbenders in the world even, but she was all by herself. She couldn't just barge into Ba Sing Se or Capital City to demand her friends back.

Katara closed her eyes and attempted to clear her mind of the chaos. A plan of action was needed, and she needed it as soon as possible. She couldn't save great cities or mount a rescue by herself. She had no inkling whether her other friends were still safe. The South and North Poles were definitely targeted, but she wouldn't have enough time to warn them. That is if her home wasn't taken already.

After a long time of sifting through ideas, she finally came up with something. In dangerous and uncertain times like these, there was one place she was fairly sure would still be untouched, somewhere relatively secluded but not too remote for it to be in the dark with whatever was happening. It just so happened that Kyoshi Island was home to some old friends of hers.

 

~

 

Katara landed Appa near the outskirts of one of the villages in Kyoshi Island. She jumped off on the ground, her chest strumming with fear and hope.

“I'll be back. Don't worry, we'll get help,” She told Appa. “When I come back, I'll bring something for you to eat. I promise.”

The place was quiet. There was no presence of the enemy, as she expected and hoped, but the hustle of the people was muted. When she asked around, she found out that Suki and half of the Kyoshi warriors had set off to the mainland to try and help with the situation after getting news of what went down. Ty Lee remained with the other half, tasked to watch over and protect the village.

“They called themselves the Red Lotus,” said Oyaji, the village leader looking weary as he spoke. Beside him, Ty Lee was fiddling with her fingers. “They sprouted out of nowhere. Suki's source told us that they were headed by people from the inside, powerful and influential folk. That's how they took nearly every city and village in the Earth Kingdom in just days. They’ve kidnapped the Earth King and the governors that weren’t on their side.”

“Is there any news from the Water Tribes?”

This time, Ty Lee looked stared her feet and avoided Katara's eyes. She didn't think of Ty Lee as a friend exactly, but Katara grew to trust her over the years and they got along well enough. She also knew that when Ty Lee showed her emotions in full view, they were most likely genuine. It made Katara's gut twist as she saw the forlorn look on Ty Lee's face.

Oyaji looked just as dismayed. “We just got word from some sailors this morning at the port. The passages to the South Pole were guarded by Water Tribe ships with the sails slashed with red paint. They saw vessels from the Fire Navy headed there too, but the flags that were raised were not of the Fire Nation.”

“Was it a red lotus instead?” A group called the Red Lotus with a red lotus banner. Kind of predictable in her opinion, and unoriginal.

“That's what I heard, yes.”

“It's the same one in Ba Sing Se when I flew by there.” Katara heaved a deep sigh, an overwhelming weight on her shoulders threatening her posture to hunch. She turned to Ty Lee. “The men who attacked us in the Fire Nation wore the same colors.”

 

~

 

The rest of the day was spent exchanging information. Ty Lee accompanied her when she went to feed Appa and they talked the entire time, perhaps the longest period they ever spent talking to each other. She told Ty Lee everything, going as far back as the day she received the letter from Mai. At the mention of her friend, Ty Lee's face crumpled in a mix of worry and helplessness. Katara felt the same way hearing about the assault on Ba Sing Se. Someone from the inside orchestrated the capture of the Earth King and other powerful figures including Toph and Iroh. She had assumed that her friend suffered the same fate as Aang and Sokka, but it still gutted her to hear it said out loud.

“They announced the names of the ones they kidnapped and told the people of the entire city that they were free now. That they could do whatever they want,” Ty Lee said. The note of downcast seriousness in her voice sounded alien from her lips, the absence of her usual cheer more than a little odd and unnerving. It didn't help with the deep well of fear inside Katara. “They did the same with the other cities and villages. It's a mess, Katara. No one knows what their aim is. They're not taking over exactly, they're just...”

“Taking down leaders and disrupting the peace,” said Katara. “They want chaos.”

 

~

 

Katara decided to stay in Kyoshi Island for the meantime and accepted when Ty Lee offered her a place in her seaside home, which had been a gift from both Mai and Zuko. She had no other choices left that wouldn't involve being stupid and impulsive which could lead to her death or capture, and she wouldn't be able to help fix this as a prisoner or a corpse. As one of Aang’s companions, the Southern Water Tribe chief’s daughter, and a powerful bender in her own right, there was a huge target on her back.

Katara sent missives to every trustworthy ally or friend she could think of, all in coded messages. She was aware there was a certain risk to what she was doing, but doing nothing tortured her.

She cried herself to sleep each night. It was a terrible feeling, helplessness. Katara wasn't a stranger to it, but she hadn't felt it for such a long time, and she had never been this lonely. She used to always have Sokka, then Aang, then Toph... 

It was up to her to save them this time.

 

~

 

A week later, ships with scarlet sails from both the Fire Navy and Southern Water Tribe were spotted heading towards the Island. 

Katara prepared herself to fight alongside the Kyoshi warriors and defend the village. She was strong, she knew, and the Kyoshi Warriors were some of the best in the Earth Kingdom, but not even they could stop an assault as big as what was slowly approaching them. The island has no military defenses to speak of, no navy of its own. No one in the village had thought that the Red Lotus would bother with their little patch of land in the middle of the South Sea, the same way they had been relatively unbothered during the war for many years other than that whole ordeal with Zuko. Katara had thought the same thing. They were all proven wrong.

The villagers hid in their homes, with some able-bodied men and women joining them with makeshift weapons, some were earthbenders whose skills were honed for farming rather than for fighting. She thanked them and told them that every fighter will count, but Katara knew, deep inside, that this was hopeless. They could very well die defending their island.

I don't care, she thought. I'm not going to leave innocent lives under the hands of these thugs.

As they awaited the ships' approach, she could feel the nervous energy slowly drain the resolve from everyone around her. In front of her, she could see Ty Lee's hands clenching so hard it must have hurt. She saw hands shaking, heard her companions’ nervous sighs, and muttered prayers sent to the spirits over and over again...

Then a miracle came.

 

~

 

Katara had heard about dragons, great beasts of with spirits of pure flame that were long thought to be extinct. She never thought she would ever see one in her life. But there was no questioning what her eyes were seeing, what everyone else was seeing.

It was impossible, and yet here it was, all mighty and dreadful.

Katara's breath came to a standstill. The massive creature was long and scaly, its great wings and scales a majestic shade of blue with a long lissome body holding a splendid horned head. 

When the dragon’s tail lashed at one of the metal ships, some of Katara's fear dissolved into wonder. Of course a creature of legend and myth wouldn’t be on the side of whatever scum the Red Lotus was.

They all watched in awe and shock, speechless as the dragon destroyed each ship swiftly, woods splintering and metal hulls flipping to its sides. Their enemies were entirely unprepared and unequipped to ward off an attack from a dragon. It was like witnessing a god descended from the heavens move in an elegant deadly dance.

“Someone is riding it!” one of the villagers shouted. “Look!”

Sure enough, when Katara squinted at the creature, paid more attention, she could see a figure mounting the dragon’s back. Katara's jaw dropped.

One last ship remained, one that was stolen from her tribe. The dragon released a belch of fire from its fanged mouth, enough to burn the lone ship’s sails. Everyone, including Katara, gasped at the display. The dragon lowered down its body near the ship and stayed low for some time. When it soared high again, she could see someone dangling from its body, like the rider had dragged a person up with them as the dragon flew higher.

The dragon was heading towards them at full speed, gliding in the wind like a serpent on water with its wings flapping like sails. The villagers and even some of the warriors scrambled back in fear, but Katara remained where she was until only Ty Lee and a few others were the only ones who stood with her.

The creature loomed above, blocking the view of the harsh sun and casting a shadow upon them, graceful despite its size. It was beautiful, Katara realized in the face of her fear. The dragon’s size was even more breathtaking up close, its blue scales glinting like living flame. The dragon landed, its feet touching the ground, and the gust of wind that came with it made Katara shield her face. She kept her eyes closed even after the air settled. If the creature was here to raze the village, the blow would come anytime soon. Katara stood her ground.

The blow never came.

Near her, a sound escaped from Ty Lee. It seemed as if the young woman wasn't sure whether to shriek or squeal. When Katara opened her eyes, Ty Lee was running towards the dragon, or rather towards the person who now stood beside it: a woman in black clothes grabbing a man in scarlet armor by the hair.

Something about the woman, even from afar, struck familiar to Katara.

Ty Lee was still running towards the stranger, the other warriors shouting at her to stop. Katara uncorked her pouch of water and prepared herself in case they had to strike and protect her. Ty Lee didn’t stop, but her steps faltered when she finally came close to the woman. No one spoke. Ty Lee and the woman stood face to face, unmoving, the man who was still in the woman’s grip thrashing on the ground.

“It’s really you. It’s been years and we all thought—” After what seemed like an eternity, Ty Lee took the final step forward and pulled the woman in an embrace. The woman didn’t return the gesture, but Katara saw her squeeze her eyes closed and lean her face against Ty Lee’s shoulder. “Azula, where have been all this time?”

 

~

 

“Wait, what did you just say?” Katara strode forward towards the two women, the other Kyoshi warriors following behind her. She got to them just as Ty Lee pulled away, and Katara’s gaze caught the the recipient of her hug.

Piercing gold eyes, a pale angular face, hair as dark as midnight. Neither the sneer nor the knife-sharp smirk was plastered on her face and her hair wasn’t bound up in a topknot, but Katara was sure it was her.

“Don’t look so shocked. You look like you’ve just seen a ghost.” Azula’s voice was deeper than she remembered it to be, but it held the same edge. She was taller, though she and Katara were of the same height.

Azula might seem like a ghost, but the shadows underneath her eyes and the brief and barely concealed flash of shock on her face when she saw Katara made it look like she was the one being haunted.

(Her last memory of Azula was in the asylum, inside the special quarters Zuko placed her in. The place had been heavily guarded, and there were protocols set in case she lashed out. But the room Katara saw her in when she visited her with Aang was plain yet comfortable, a testament to Zuko’s compassion. Azula only spoke when she asked them to leave. This happened months before her escape.)

“What are you doing here?” were the words that Katara managed to say to Azula.

“I saved this stupid island from being attacked, what did it look like?” Azula ignored her and turned to Ty Lee and the warriors. “You’re welcome, by the way.”

Ty Lee was still staring at her former friend’s face like she couldn’t believe what she was seeing. She looked close to tears. “Azula how did you—and you have a dragon?”

“A story for another time, Ty Lee. Right now, there are far more pressing things to attend to.” She lifted the head of the Red Lotus soldier by dragging up his hair. They didn’t even notice the man fall silent, preoccupied as they were with the dragon and the sudden appearance of a princess long thought dead. The man stared up at them with hate in his eyes. His hands were bound in a black silk tie. Azula glared down at the man and tightened her grip on his hair, making him screech in pain. “Any place we could interrogate this man uninterrupted?”

 

~

 

“I was monitoring a whole fleet of them from the Fire Nation, all of the ships defiled with their joke of a symbol,” Azula said. “They were headed south and was met with Water Tribe ships, also defiled.”

Katara, along with Azula and Ty Lee, were standing just outside the room inside an abandoned shack. The other Kyoshi warriors were inside, binding the man so they could start interrogating him. Katara was apprehensive about the whole thing, doubtful that the man would give up any information to them. Azula merely flashed her a wicked half-smile when she said this. 

She was still reeling from everything that took place in the span of a few hours. Ships showed up to attack the island, then a dragon appeared out of nowhere (a dragon!), and it turned out that the magnificent beast's master was Azula—the not-dead princess who came out of hiding or rose from the dead or whatever elaborate story she had—who showed up just to save the island. She doubted it was all a dream since her mind wouldn’t be able to concoct such a peculiar nightmare.

“I was going to head back to the Fire Nation, but then I noticed a small portion of the combined fleet veer off course, so I followed them.” She rested her elbow on her other hand, examining her short and already clean nails. "I was mostly curious. I have a perfect memory of the Earth Kingdom map and I was certain that the only notable place they could be heading to was this quaint island of yours. Figured I should help you since I was already in the area.”

“And what makes you think we can trust you?” Katara blurted out. “How do we know that you’re not on their side?”

Katara expected Azula to quickly react in faux outrage, emphasizing the fact that she was the one who demolished the ships and saved them all. Katara knew better than to blindly trust Azula right away. It must’ve been an act, all of it. She orchestrated everything. The attack was a sham meant to show how trustworthy she is when in fact she’s a spy working for the enemy. There's no other possible explanation for all this.

“I’m not going to waste my time proving myself to you,” Azula told her. There was no venom in her tone, not even a sliver of condescension.

Her response was not what Katara anticipated at all.

“I’m sure you’re aware that the Four Nations are in shambles right now and my nation is being picked apart by fanatics who think themselves superior for their idiotic idea of liberation.”

“Wait, you know something about the Red Lotus?” Katara narrowed her eyes. “How?”

“Only that they intend to free the Fire Nation from my family’s rule. They want to tear down the monarchy to grant the people ‘freedom’ so they kidnapped Zuzu.” Azula answered plainly, as if Katara’s accusations were nothing but a minor nuisance to her. “And as to how I knew about this, I had been scouring for information in a port town before I went to follow the fleet.”

This didn’t make sense to Katara. Not the part about the Red Lotus, that part disturbingly didn’t surprise her. What she was trying to grasp was Azula, this Azula she was talking to didn’t make sense.

"I suggest we settle your suspicions after we deal with our prisoner. He holds some information that we need. If you'd rather I leave after this? Fine by me. I don’t intend to stay."

Before Katara could reply to that, the door opened wide in front of them abruptly. The prisoner was bound to a chair inside right at the center, his body limp under the restraints after being chi blocked by Ty Lee earlier. They entered the room, Ty Lee closing the door behind them, and stood right in front of their captive.

The man glowered at Azula with pure contempt in his eyes.

"Why did you come here on our island?" said one of the Kyoshi warriors behind Katara. They were spread out in the room, their painted faces scowling at the target of their ire.

"And why should I tell you that?" The man scoffed. "Why should I tell you anything at all? You think you little ladies can scare me with your adorable little getup?" He spat.

In a blink of an eye, Azula stepped forward and grabbed the man’s jaw, nails digging in his stout face. Azula raised her other hand near his cheek, hovering just over the skin as it fizzled with tiny sparks each time her fingers moved. The man gulped audibly.

“You know, I trailed your ships for days and my dragon hasn’t eaten anything for just as long,” Azula said to him, her voice menacingly low.

This. This was the Azula she remembered. Watching it directed at someone Katara loathed filled her with an unexpected satisfaction that almost made her shiver.

“So, if you’re not going to be useful to us and refuse to tell us everything you know, I’m going to have to find another way to make sure every single pathetic morsel of flesh in your bones would not be wasted. Do you hear me?”

The man went pale and stammered apologies, pleading for his life. He spilled everything he knew without further resistance after that. 

 

~

 

Here was what they gathered from the soldier:

The Red Lotus was a secret society formed by former members of the White Lotus whose ideologies became too contradictory and extreme that they branched out from the Order. They were a militant group and they had been gathering strength and followers in the years following the end of the Hundred Year War. Their goal was to rid the world of its leaders and dismantle the foundations that had kept the Four Nations’ balance in the belief that it was the only way to usher in a new era of freedom. They were keeping the leaders alive and imprisoned either as leverage or they were trying to recruit them for their cause.

The man was part of a team sent to the Kyoshi Island in a mission to wipe out every relic and evidence of Avatar Kyoshi’s existence. If it meant killing the residents themselves, or anyone who would prevent them from fulfilling their task, then they would have done so without hesitation. This told Katara one thing: The Red Lotus hated the Avatar. And they had Aang.

The soldier wasn’t privy to their plans for the Avatar. All he knew was that Aang was being held in Capital City with Sokka and Zuko.

Katara was running out of time.