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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.

Chapter Text

 

“I’m really sorry, Katara, but we can’t come with you,” Ty Lee said. Katara kicked herself for even asking when she already knew the answer. “Suki is counting on us to watch over the village, and after hearing what that man said I don’t think it’s safe for us to leave it now.”

“But if we rescue Aang, he’s going to fix this and you wouldn’t have to worry about any threat from the Red Lotus anymore. Suki and the others can come back home, too,” Katara said, unable to stop herself from trying to convince her. “The Fire Nation is your home, too, right? We can’t just let the Red Lotus ruin everything.”

“We're needed here, Katara. I know that sending that false letter to the Red Lotus is going to buy us some time, but we don't know if that trick even worked.” Ty Lee took Katara’s hands, her bottom lip wobbling like she was trying to stop herself from crying. “I really, really want to help. I'm worried about Mai and Zuko, too. But there's too few of us left to protect the village. I'm sorry."

“I understand,” Katara said. She meant it, really, but she was unable to keep the edge of disappointment from leaking out of her voice.

The smile that Ty Lee gave her was tinged with relief. She wasn't sure whether it was because Ty Lee thought she'd keep on pushing the matter and plead for her to say agree, or that she had feared Katara might lash out and get mad at Ty Lee for not going along with her plan. She felt her guilt rise at the thought.

Ty Lee squeezed her hands before pulling away. Katara was grateful for it. There had been very little comfort for her in the past several days.

The upper balcony of Ty Lee's house where they stood granted them a brilliant view of the sea. Now and again, she would catch a sight of the dragon as it soared above the Island, like an ancient guardian patrolling the skies. Katara was glad she wasn’t the one tasked to explain the sudden presence of a dragon to the villagers. Small mercies.

There was lone figure standing in the sand down by the beach, silhouetted against the pale moonlight.

“Her aura is different.”

Katara turned away from Azula's shadow to look at Ty Lee. “What do you think that means?”

“I don't know. It's still bright, warmer even. But there are dull shades that worry me, like she's carrying some trauma with her."

Katara wanted to scoff at Ty Lee, tell her how Azula probably deserved whatever happened to her and that she would never give a single crap about any sob story about Azula's life. But she remembered having looked at Azula's eyes earlier that day, how they were not as cutting as the two blades cast in gold that she despised all those years ago. She remembered noticing the slight gauntness of her face.

“The last time I saw Azula was also the last time I visited her in the asylum.” murmured Ty Lee. The turmoil in her face was a contrast to the bubbliness Katara had associated with her. “Azula was acting strange then, not like my previous visits. She didn’t throw insults me. Not even once. Her back was turned to me the entire time, but I talked to her even when she refused to speak to me. I think her silence made me brave because I managed to raise my voice at her.

“And she just sat there with her face turned away and listened to me tell her how bad a friend she had been to me. I thought it would be therapeutic.” Ty Lee sighed. “It was at the time, but now I just feel guilty.”

“You shouldn't,” Katara said. “She was terrible.”

“We were kids. It doesn't excuse everything she did, but it also means that she deserved a second chance then.” Ty Lee sounded rueful. She let out a shaky breath, looking worriedly at Azula's shadow.

“Did you talk to her yet?” asked Katara.

Ty Lee nodded. “She didn’t mention anything about all those years she’d been gone.”

“And you think we can trust her?”

“I do. She did save us today.” Ty Lee shrugged. “Give her a chance, Katara.”

Katara wasn’t convinced, but she couldn’t dispute what Ty Lee deemed as evidence. She was also desperate, and Azula proved to be useful judging by the fact that she so effortlessly got rid of several enemy ships.

“Azula apologized to me earlier,” Ty Lee murmured after a stretch of silence. “She didn’t really say what for, but she sounded sincere.”

When she looked at Ty Lee again, her eyes were still glued to Azula. “She never said sorry to me that way before, like she didn't even expect me to forgive her.”

 

~

 

Azula calmly announced at breakfast that she was going back to the Fire Nation as soon as possible.

“The Red Lotus has to be taken down. This charade has gone on for too long.” Azula sipped her tea. Her hair held a topknot but she let several strands drape her back and frame her angular face. “They have my brother rotting in a cell somewhere and I'm going to find him.”

Since when do you care about Zuko?

“Do you even have a plan?” Katara asked pointedly.

“That's not your problem.”

“It is, now. I'm going with you,” she blurted. The idea sounded absurd, she knew, but her mind was made up. 

Azula barely reacted but Katara could tell she was taken aback. Beside her, Ty Lee looked animatedly surprised. “And why would I let you?”

Katara snorted. “You're not going to let me. I don't need your permission. No one can possibly mount a rescue mission in this scale alone.”

“You’d be surprised.”

She should’ve expected Azula to be this impossible. “My point is that I was going to do the same thing and rescue Zuko anyway. And Sokka and Aang are imprisoned with him, remember? It’ll increase our chances if we work together.”

Azula looked at her with narrowed eyes then. There was no threat in her stare, just a cold calculating look that made Katara's hackles rise. Katara stared right back, her gaze defiant and unyielding. She was vaguely aware of Ty Lee quietly watching their wordless duel.

Azula was the first one to relent, to Katara’s surprise. “Fine. We’re going to need that rancid smelling beast of yours, anyway.”

“What did you say?”

“I said we’ll need your bison. It's less conspicuous than a dragon and we can hide it easily. It’ll be useful when we gather information, and we’re going to need to a lot if we want to come up with a concrete plan.”

Katara expected much more resistance from Azula, was counting on it even. Anything to help Katara talk herself out of teaming up with her. Katara couldn’t believe she was stuck with Azula of all people.

“It's not going to be easy,” Azula said as if Katara didn't know that already. “But hopefully we’ll have the element of surprise on our side. They wouldn’t be expecting us if we remain unnoticed. Our prisoner did say the Fire Nation is in utter chaos so we could use that to our advantage.”

“Speaking of our prisoner,” Ty Lee spoke up, “what are we going to do with him?”

“Have Oyaji decide, or maybe we could ask the people,” Katara suggested.

Azula had a different idea. “I was thinking about how Lan deserves a reward after what he did yesterday. I’m sure the village leader would agree.”

“Who’s Lan?”

“My dragon.”

Katara’s eyes grew wide. “We are not feeding him to your dragon!”

Spirits, calm down,” said Azula. “If you insist on sparing him then I won’t do it. Besides, the villagers probably want to execute him publicly so you’re just wasting your breath.”

Katara wanted to grab fistfuls of her own hair and pull it so hard until she woke up from this nightmare. But this was her reality, and she could not afford to waste her time whining when the people she cared about most in the world were still in mortal peril.

She was lucky she even had Azula—and by extension, her dragon—on her side. Though the princess was making it very hard for Katara to acknowledge her as the heaven-sent miracle that she was, or whatever silly joke the spirits thought of when they sent Azula to her.

 

~

 

They left after gathering supplies and having dinner with Ty Lee. Getting a good night’s sleep before starting their journey would’ve been ideal, but both of them were antsy to leave.

Oyaji and the Kyoshi warriors saw them off by the beach that night and wished them luck. Oyaji was still guarded around Azula, and given how she didn’t even bother making herself look less threatening, Katara couldn’t blame him. But the village leader didn’t fail to express his and all the entire villagers’ gratitude towards Azula for what she did to save them. Azula accepted this with surprising calm and not a single hint of a sneer in her face. Katara wouldn’t put it past her to roll her eyes, but she merely nodded and got back to loading up the saddle on Lan’s back.

Ty Lee hugged them the longest, giving them both a kiss on the cheek. Poor Azula looked like she couldn’t breathe underneath Ty Lee’s bone-crushing hold, but the way Azula closed her eyes and briefly lean into it—just like yesterday, thought Katara—made her look uncannily vulnerable that it almost hurt to look at her.

Katara shook her head. So, the murderous nightmare of a girl who tried to hunt you and your friends when you were kids and very nearly killed you is acting weirdly normal and not murderous. Grow up and get over it, you have people to save.

They set off into the sky on separate mounts: Katara on Appa and Azula on her dragon, Lan.

They kept to themselves for a while. But an hour into their journey, Katara steered Appa to fly near their traveling companions. She turned to look at Azula, who sat astride Lan like she belonged with her dragon and the dragon belonged with her, her gloved hands gripping the dragon’s mane and her boots planted on its neck. The moonbeams leaking through the thin layer of clouds overhead gave Lan’s scales and fin-like ears a silver sheen. Azula’s face was awash with the same light. They both look ethereal, like spirits who left their own realm to be in the physical world or lost celestial beings trying to find their way back to the cosmos. Katara stared, seized by the same awe that overwhelmed her the first time she laid eyes on the dragon up close.

She swallowed and brushed the feeling away.

“Where are we supposed to go when we get to the Fire Nation?!” Katara shouted to be heard over the howling of the wind.

“I know some deserted places we could land!” Azula yelled back. With a gentle pull of Lan’s mane, they met her and Appa halfway until they were close enough to talk without having to shout. “Just follow my lead. We’ll figure things out once we get there but we’re going to have to leave Lan behind if we don’t want to attract attention. I hope you don’t mind sharing some space on that large saddle.”

Katara frowned. She’d expected Azula to actually use her dragon when they reach enemy territory. “What if we’ll need him? Your dragon, I mean.”

“Don’t worry about that.” She glanced at Katara sideways. “Lan will show up when I need him.”

She nodded. It didn’t sound plausible, but she wasn’t about to question someone who was literally riding on dragonback about how to deal with her dragon.

They each packed enough food to last them weeks, provided generously by the Kyoshi Island villagers. They found a crag or a small island a few times and landed to rest and for Appa to feed on any available greenery while Lan hunted for fish. Katara watched in wonder as the firebreather plummeted from a great height and dove head-first into the water, the sunlight making rainbows in the spray and drawing laughter from Katara. Lan would emerge with a large fish trapped in his mouth. She didn’t expect a creature of flame to be this at home in the water.

As they flew over the vast sea, Azula would always stay above the clouds during the day in case any sailors were nearby that could spot her dragon. But when night fell, they would soar back down right beside her and Appa. Katara couldn’t help but stare at them every time they did, and she would steer Appa to fly near Lan’s tail so Azula wouldn’t notice her gawking. Just right before sleep took over her, she’d come to her senses and look away.

Days passed when the Fire Nation finally came into sight.

She and Appa followed Azula as she led them to an abandoned coastal settlement. The reason why it was uninhabited, Katara didn’t want to know. The few remaining structures in the area were all empty and broken down after what seemed like years of neglect. Other than the unsettling feeling of being in what was basically a ghost town, the place Azula chose for them to land was perfect—desolate enough yet not too far away from civilization.

Azula temporarily said goodbye to her dragon there. Frightening as Lan appeared, the dragon looked something near gentle as he nuzzled his great head against Azula, whose eyes filled with tender fondness as she carefully caressed Lan’s snout. Katara could never have imagined Azula to look this soft.

“I promise I’ll call for you when I need help.”

Lan responded by nuzzling her again before backing away. They watched as he spread his wings, readying himself for his flight.

“If you’re going to be stubborn and follow us, make sure you’re not seen,” Azula called out to him. “Don’t get yourself in trouble.”

Lan hissed in agreement, blowing steam out of his nostrils before flying upwards with a rush of wind.

“You two seem close,” she said to Azula while they unloaded Appa, preparing to camp out for the night. It was meant to be teasing but it came out softer, a hint of curiosity in her voice.

Azula’s face reverted back to its glassy mask of aloofness. When she spoke, it was in a matter-of-fact tone. “Lan imprinted on me when I cared for him as a hatchling. He’s still quite young, but dragons grow fast. He's still growing, actually.”

The idea of Azula caring for something tiny and fragile would've rang false to her a few hours ago, but she was proven wrong by the way Azula acted around Lan and the palpable strength of their bond that Katara couldn’t deny.

They set up camp in what was supposed to be the town square, or it used to be. It was an odd place to camp but the clear wide space allowed Appa to rest nearby.

When it came time for them to eat, Katara was possessed by an inexplicable urge to offer Azula some of her own food. An olive branch, perhaps, despite the nagging distrust she couldn't brush away. 

“Here, have some.” Katara held out some round fruit, which was a few days away from going bad but still looked fresh enough, inwardly wondering why she was playing nice to her. “I noticed you didn’t pack any fruit.” 

Azula didn’t even look up. “I’m fine with my own food.”

Katara tried not to huff. Oh, so she thinks she’s too good for my peasant food, huh?

“I can tell you're vexed,” Azula said after a while. She took a long intake of breath as if she was trying to keep her own annoyance at bay. “I didn’t mean any offense for not taking the food you offered. I just really don’t like that particular kind of fruit. Also, you’re going to have to stop being petty when we have bigger problems in our hands.”

On a different day, perhaps when the world was at peace and her friends and family weren’t being held by people who could decide to kill them at any moment, that reply would’ve set her off like flame on dried leaves.

She sighed, swallowing her pride. “You’re right.”

Azula was satisfied by her reply and got back to quietly eating her dinner.

Katara would die for her loved ones, dealing with Azula for spirits knew how long should be nothing to her.

 

~

 

Gathering information was hard work, and remaining covert the entire time made it all the more difficult. The fact that the Fire Nation was in disarray helped in being clandestine, but it also complicated a lot of things. Katara was tempted at every turn to stop bandits from taking advantage of the chaos by victimizing the people. Azula had to remind her more than once to focus on what they truly came there for. It was incredibly taxing on her conscience, but she listened to Azula each time.

Katara wasn’t a stranger to situations like this. In the time she spent traveling with Aang and the others, during and after the war, she had been in countless situations where stealth and evasion were needed and their odds against their enemies were slim. But working with Azula made it different in several ways.

Sokka had been the planner in their small team. Though Azula was also strategic and resourceful like her brother, she was way more scrupulous. She was sharply critical about any flaw in their plans and she was so cunning that Katara felt like she should be scared being so close around her. Katara still didn’t completely trust her yet. Katara even kept an escape plan in her head just in case the other woman decided to double-cross her.

They had been at it for a week, questioning locals and surveying places from the skies, when Azula decided it was time to take riskier steps. She had just returned after sneaking into Capital City Prison when she told Katara about her plan to pose as a Red Lotus militant and infiltrate one of their hideouts. They were in Capital City then, and they were already in a precarious position for being there.

“I’m going with you, then,” said Katara. They were inside the room they rented in one of the few dingy inns that weren’t affected by bandits and the riots by royalists that had been going on in the city.

“There’s barely anyone from the Water Tribe ranked higher than a lackey. They’ll single you out before we can even find out where my brother and the others are,” Azula reasoned.

Katara couldn’t argue against that logic, but letting Azula go on this mission by herself didn’t sit right with her. Azula could betray her after witnessing how the winning side worked, or she could be a double agent the entire time. She didn’t want to let Azula out of her sight for so long.

“I don’t like this plan. I’m sure there’s another way we can—”

“This is the way. We’ve wasted enough time, and I know this will work if I do it.” Azula walked over to her side of the room until there was merely an arm's length of distance between the two of them. “I know you hate me and believe me I don't exactly hold soft feelings for you either. But I need you to stop being so wary of me for once or I'll be forced to set about this without you. It was your idea that we work together, wasn't it?”

That’s the problem. I can’t let myself trust you.

Katara fixed Azula with a hard stare, blue eyes boring through her gilded ones. She sought for signs that would give weight to her suspicions, just like she had done so many times before ever since Azula showed up. And just like those previous times, she found none. She recalled how good Azula was at lying that even Toph couldn’t tell if she was telling the truth or not.

“Alright, but on one condition.”

Azula’s right eye twitched. She was running out of patience. “What?”

“You’ll tell me what happened to you in those six years you vanished after escaping. You’ll tell me how in the spirits’ name did you get yourself a pet dragon.” Katara’s voice rose, suddenly not caring if anyone could hear them. She had been holding all of this back for too long. “And you’re going to tell me how all of a sudden you care about your brother enough that you would risk your own safety to save him and why you’re now suddenly saving lives when I remember distinctly how you used to hunt us around like a predator!”

For the first time since Katara saw Azula that day in Kyoshi Island, Azula’s mask fell. Her face crumpled in a scowl doused in hatred and rage, her eyes of molten flame staring Katara down like she intended to burn holes through her skull. Katara didn't back away. Instead, she prepared for the inevitable clash, took note of the water in her vicinity as she readied herself for the jets of blue flame to be thrown at her at any second.

A minute passed and nothing happened.

Instead, Katara witnessed the anger dissolve from Azula's face until all that was left was pain, sheer and raw anguish that unseated her instantly, shook her more than any attack could've done. Azula shut her eyes and, to Katara's horror, squeezed out fat beads of tears.

“You don’t deserve to know,” Azula said before she strode out of the room, slamming the door so hard that the foundations of the room rattled.

Katara fell back and collapsed against the nearby wall, Azula’s tortured face playing over and over in her mind. There had only been one other time that she witnessed Azula break down in front of her.

What did I just do?

The sky grew dark and Azula still didn't return. Katara lay on her side, facing the empty bed where Azula was supposed to be sleeping at.

She probably went on with her plan alone, or left to find Lan and flew back to wherever she'd been hiding for years and left the Fire Nation for good.

Azula proved her wrong again later that night.

Katara was right on the cusp of falling asleep when the door slowly slid open, nimble feet moving soundlessly across the wooden floorboards. Katara opened her eyes and could barely make out Azula’s face under the scant light. But she could see that the other woman was looking back at her from where she stood. Azula lit up the lamp that rested on top of the room's lone table with a tiny spark of blue flame and sat down on the edge of her bed, her eyes still locked on Katara. She looked neither angry nor sad, just tired.

Katara let a few seconds pass before sitting up. “I thought you weren’t coming back.”

“I did consider it.”

Katara noted how Azula didn’t seem angry anymore. More than anything, she sounded exhausted. “Look, I’m sorry if what I said—”

“Save your breath. You want answers, I'll give you answers. It’s only fair,” Azula said dispassionately. “It's what you want in return, right? For you to finally stop being suspicious of me.”

Katara was torn between her guilt and her burning curiosity. “You don’t have to. It’s okay.”

“I know you don’t mean that,” Azula said. She crawled up to her bed so she could sit while resting her back against the wall that separated their room from the empty one beside it. When they arrived at the Inn, Azula had checked whether the neighboring room was occupied or not. Always the perfectionist. “How far back do you want me to go?”

Katara shifted so she was fully facing her. “Wherever you want.” she replied, not bothering with the pretense anymore.

Azula took a deep breath and released it in one long exhale. Katara waited patiently, watched the minute expressions passing through Azula’s face as she sifted through her own memories.

“It took me two years wallowing in that asylum before I had the guts to escape it,” she began. “My time inside that wretched place made me realize things, like how I don’t care about the throne anymore. How I don’t hate Zuzu as much as I thought I should. How it was my own fault that my friends betrayed me. I didn’t know how to deal with those thoughts. I’ve never had the chance to deal with guilt before.” Azula smiled bitterly. “I thought escaping would bring me back to 'normal' or whatever delusional ideas I had back then. My bending had waned ever since you and my brother defeated me, and I thought getting out would fix that too.

“Escaping didn’t do any good to me anyway because I was captured by bandits while wandering the woods in some far-flung village. They knew who I was right away and the idiots were ecstatic. The bounty on me could set them for life. So, they tied me up and dragged me with them to be laid at my brother’s royal feet unharmed. They never hit me too hard to leave a mark, scared that it would lower the price of the bounty. But they did other things to break me without leaving any visible mark on my skin. Not the parts other people could see, anyway.” Azula paused. She was staring straight ahead at nothing. Katara caught a rustling sound and looked down to see Azula clutching the sheets of her bed like her life depended on it.

Katara shuddered in shock and horror when she realized what those last words meant.

“It only happened once,” Azula plunged on, each syllable a needle to Katara’s heart. “They got scared that the damage would be too obvious and Zuzu would have their heads. But they didn’t regret it. They kept laughing and jeering amongst themselves the next day and leered at me the entire time.”

“Azula…” Tears sprang to Katara’s eyes. She reached out for Azula, clasping one of her pale hands between her own. “Azula, I’m so sorry that happened to you.”

Azula shook her head as if to say it was okay but couldn’t manage to get those false words out. Katara wanted to wrap an arm around her, to let her know that she was there for her and that those men couldn’t touch her anymore. The only thing that stopped her was the feeling that Azula wouldn’t want her to do it.

“Those animals got themselves killed,” she went on after some time. Slowly, she extracted her hand from Katara’s, who let her without protest. “Another group of bandits ambushed us and murdered every single one of them. They didn’t recognize who I was but kept me alive to sell me to some slave traders. They took me and covered my face with a filthy sack. Next thing I knew I was on a ship bound for the Earth Kingdom with other would-be slaves to be sent to some rich lord who has so much loathing for the Fire Nation that he wanted his own Fire Nation slaves to torment. One of the other captives befriended me, even after I made it clear that I didn’t want anything to do with her. An older woman named Ome. She was taken by pirates from her tribe who exchanged her to our current captors for supplies. Ome was the one who convinced me to find a way to escape and soon enough we hatched a plan along with the others. Our captors didn’t know Ome was a firebender and we outnumbered them by a wide margin. It was easy taking over the ship after that.

“Ome told me about her tribe and offered to bring me with her. She made me swear not to tell other outsiders about it, so I couldn’t tell you anything other than that I stayed with Ome for the next several years. I got help there from people who listened to me, who were patient with me even when I was being so difficult. They helped me cope with a lot of things. They had their ways of healing even the deepest of wounds, even fractured minds. It was hard, but I wasn’t alone. Ome was with me during all of it like… like a mother.” Azula’s voice cracked slightly as she said that last word. “I still struggle, sometimes. But it's a lot easier now. Then we heard about what happened here. I was going to leave my nation with its mess. After all, what good did this place ever caused me? But Ome convinced me to help my brother. So, here I am.”

A long moment of silence followed after that, filled by the light thud of Katara’s foot tapping lightly at the wooden floor. Katara willed herself to stop crying. Her guilt came to her like a sharp knife twisting her insides. She had been so selfish, asking things that she had no business asking. Forced someone to poke old wounds open just because she couldn’t get herself to trust Azula, couldn’t get over her past grievances like a proper adult. She sat quietly and waited for Azula to break the silence herself.

“I got my bending back with the help of two ancient dragons, Ran and Shaw,” Azula said at length. She glanced at Katara briefly, gauging her reaction. “You ever wondered how your Avatar ever learned firebending? How Zuzu reclaimed his?”

Katara gaped at her, her eyebrows raised. “You mean they—the dragons?”

Azula grinned weakly. “Don’t get mad at them for not telling you, Ran and Shaw would’ve devoured them alive if they didn't swear to keep it a secret from everyone. They did it to protect them. Ran and Shaw were the only dragons left at the time."

“But you’re here telling me now.”

“That’s because things have changed,” said Azula. “Ran and Shaw told me that my arrival had been prophesied by one of their elders long before I was born.” Her voice took on a deep timbre, “She who will bring forth a new age of rebirth will one day seek your wisdom. A woman with a spirit of pure blue flame.

Katara frowned slightly. “What does that mean?”

“It means that I’m supposed to be the one to guide my nation into accepting dragons back into our world. And I’m supposed to help protect dragons from those who would want to harm them, help make it safe for them to be restored back into the Fire Nation’s wildlife.” Azula turned to her again. “People will know that dragons are back eventually so what’s the harm in telling you?”

“Sounds like you've got a lot of responsibility in your hands,” Katara remarked. She didn't even have space in her mind to doubt Azula, not after seeing Lan in the flesh

“Tell me about it,” Azula said. “I never asked for something like this, I just wanted my bending back. But I pretty much don’t have a choice. You saw how I’m stuck with Lan.”

“So, you’re like Lan’s guardian?” Katara asked.

“We’re each other’s guardians. Lan is one of Ran and Shaw’s offsprings. It was in the prophecy that he becomes my companion, so it was part of the deal,” Azula explained. “I like him, though. He’s quite special and unique in many ways.”

“Like how he likes to be in the water so much?” suggested Katara.

A rare soft smile grazed Azula’s face, a small lilt of her lips that made her look more her age, thawing the imperious set of her features. “That’s mostly my fault. I almost drowned while swimming once and he had to dive after me. He developed a habit after that.”

“You swim?”

That made Azula roll her eyes. “Firebenders don’t hate water, you know.”

“I know that. I just—” Katara breathed out a soft laugh, conceding. “Yeah, that was a stupid thing to ask.”

Azula let out an indelicate snort. For a moment, she looked surprised at herself for it, like letting her amusement show was such an unforgivable blunder. Then their eyes met, and not long after they were both chuckling. The unexpectedness of it made it all the more ridiculous, setting them off in waves of laughter. It was freeing. She felt the frosty foundation of their reluctant partnership finally start to thaw.

“The only other person who can make me laugh like that is Ome,” Azula said as their mirth settled. She looked mortified when she realized what she just said. Katara didn’t comment on it in fear of ruining this newfound camaraderie between them, delicate as it was.

Azula’s other revelation still sat heavily in Katara’s mind. It hung between them, making Katara desperate to do or say something. She looked at Azula and decided that it wasn’t the time, that she’d be risking making Azula feel smothered. She would have to figure out a way to help without driving Azula to close herself off to her. It was a deep, old hurt, and Katara was determined to assist Azula carry that burden if ever she needed her to, however she needed her to.

“So, are you finally going to go along with my plan?” Azula asked eventually.

Katara jerked out of her thoughts. She fixed Azula with slightly irritated look. “Fine, just don’t die while you’re at it. I still need your help when it’s time to do the actual rescuing.”

“Trust me when I say it’ll take something far more dangerous to kill me.”

Katara playfully shook her head at Azula before sliding back beneath the sheets of her bed. She found that she could trust Azula now, that she could easily have started doing so when Azula came to their rescue in Kyoshi Island, but bitter memories of their past had prevented her.

Now she nursed that newfound trust close to her chest. It was still a premature, fragile thing, but it was there nonetheless.

Chapter Text

 

Azula was right, posing as a Red Lotus militant to infiltrate their ranks for information did work.

She came back after a few days of being gone with not a single scratch in her, a cocky grin plastered in her face. But Azula could shove her triumph in Katara’s face to her heart’s desire. Katara didn’t mind, not when they finally have enough information to mount a rescue.

And of course, Azula already had a plan in mind by the time she met with Katara at their rendezvous.

They were in an abandoned hut near the harbor. The place wasn’t ideal, but they needed somewhere to go over their plan without having to worry about anyone hearing them.

“I should’ve known they were keeping them in the bunkers,” Azula chided herself. “I might have overestimated Xiuqin's intelligence.”

“You knew this Xiuqin?” Katara asked. Xiuqin was the noble who was behind Zuko’s capture and a prominent figure in the Red Lotus’ ranks.

Azula nodded. “Her father used to serve on Ozai’s council. From what I gathered, Zuko had Xiuqin replace her father when he ascended the throne.”

“And Xiuqin couldn’t have been loyal to Zuko,” She muttered.

“Xiuqin had always struck me as a bit of a progressive, but it went deeper than that, apparently. I had no idea she’d been secretly harboring anarchistic beliefs the entire time.” Azula sighed. “A shame, really. She was one of the few nobles who wasn’t a blubbering fool.”

Katara shifted so she was sitting cross-legged on the wooden floor. “You think we can take her?”

“I can bring her down without breaking a sweat,” Azula stated plainly. She brushed off some dust off the floor and sat down right across Katara. “But Xiuqin's the type to outsmart her enemies. Too bad for her, she has no idea she’s dealing with me.”

Katara had to agree with her. She didn’t think she’d ever met someone whose mind could run as fast as hers, always a few steps ahead. No wonder she’d given them so much trouble back then. Katara was starting to think that all those times they managed to escape Azula hadn’t been because of their skills of evasion but more sheer luck, not that she was ever going to admit that out loud.

 

~

 

Azula had thought of everything, it seemed. While she was undercover as a militant, Azula managed to get her hands on the staff schedules, determine which bunker Zuko, Aang, and Sokka are in, as well as times of day when the area would be least guarded. She also basically knew the tunnels beneath the Royal Palace by heart after she had essentially masterminded the Fire Nation’s defense during the eclipse invasion. Azula was privy to some secret passages no one else knew existed, old service tunnels forgotten after years of disuse.

The plan was simple enough: They enter a secret passageway near the base of the volcano (which Azula had already checked) and stealthily make way through the labyrinthine tunnels, navigating through an arranged path to avoid guards. They extract Zuko first, who was being kept inside a cooler cell. Xiuqin held the cell keys with her at all times, so Katara would have to freeze the metal lock until it was brittle enough to shatter without much trouble. She would heal Zuko’s ice burns while Azula firebends Aang and Sokka’s bunker open. Together, they would trace another path towards a separate secret passage where Appa would be waiting for them.

Katara ought to thank her lucky stars for Azula.

“You really thought this through, huh?” said Katara after Azula drilled the plan to her for the final time. They crept up to the secret passage while shrouded in darkness, wearing the scarlet tunic of Red Lotus guards. The cloth was lined with a thin layer of chainmail, yet still lightweight enough to suit Katara.

“It wasn’t that hard. One could even say that it was a bit too easy.” Azula’s brows drew in. “Just keep your guard up.”

“You’re telling me that now?”

“It was just a thought. I'm probably just overthinking so it isn’t relevant. I work with facts, not hunches.” Azula glanced at her. “Besides, I have a fallback in case things go wrong.”

“Oh, a plan B? Does it involve panicked firebending and flinging multiple lightning bolts?”

Azula glowered at her but Katara could tell it was just a front. “For that comment, I refuse to tell you about it.”

“Fine by me.” Katara shrugged. “I doubt we’re going to need it anyway.”

They reached the door to the passage. It was near midnight and the place would’ve been pitch black if not for the small flickering flame on the palm of Azula’s hand. She saw the blue light cast odd shadows on Azula’s sharp face as Katara turned to her, nodding once. “Ready?”

Azula nodded back. She gestured at the rusted metal door before them. “You do the honors.”

Katara pushed the door open carefully. They’d destroyed the lock the night before so as not to waste time the night they sneak in. Once inside, she let Azula lead the way. They hurried through the tunnels and flights of stairs, encountering the occasional forks where Azula had to consult a roughly sketched out illustration of their path. Katara could tell they were right at the end of the unused servant passageways when the stench of decay started to thin. By the time she caught a whiff of smoke and fire, Azula began to slow down.

The temperature rose the deeper they got underground, and Katara had to wipe the sweat from her forehead more than once. Azula seemed far more confident maneuvering the way now than they did back at the old service tunnels. She paused when they reached the bottom of a narrow staircase. “Two more halls and we’re there.” she whispered. “Is your water pouch secured?”

Katara checked underneath her tunic where her water pouch is hidden then nodded at Azula.

“Good. Let’s go.”

With each step, Katara’s chest thrummed with both anticipation and anxiety. She didn’t let herself feel relief just yet, but slowly her spirits were already starting to be lifted. They were so close.

Azula stopped abruptly in front of her. Katara nearly collided against her back but caught herself just in time.

They weren’t alone anymore. And their company didn't look like a wayward guardsman who lingered in his post despite the scheduled break. 

“Princess Azula, is that you? Spirits, you've grown.”

A woman stood right in front of the cooler cell where she assumed Zuko was, donned in grand scarlet robes with black trims. She was tall, her face bearing the characteristic sharp angles of the Fire Nation. She looked at Azula with what seemed like the same degree of shock as Katara was feeling.

“We all thought you were dead. The Fire Lord searched every corner of the world for you,” said the woman. Her eyes found Katara and lit up as if she just saw an old friend. “Ah, Katara of the Southern Water Tribe. Now, there’s a face I was expecting to see tonight. Though I admit I thought you’d be alone. Or at least not drag a missing princess along.”

Azula’s face was curled in a contemptuous smile. "I see you've gone so low as to fraternize with fanatics, Xiuqin. I can't say I'm surprised," she said. Fear and anger welled at the pit of Katara's stomach at the mention of the name.

“Drop the act, Azula. I know you didn't expect to find me here tonight.” Xiuqin took a step back, positioning herself between them and the cooler cell. “You see, the advantage of being allied with fanatics, as you say, is that we have such a tight network. Each member is loyal to the core and willing to die for the cause. It’s not quite the same as your father’s nest of vipers which you’re used to.

“When I got word that a stranger was pretending to be one of our own, I didn't lay the order to take them down right away. Instead, I moved our precious prisoners to our other headquarters and told my associates to let the spy gobble up the outdated information. I've been showing up here every midnight by this empty cooler cell knowing the scheduled guard rotation would be seen by the spy as an opening to attack. You’re here a lot sooner than I predicted though; I’ll give you that.” Xiuqin regarded Azula with eyes like flint. “Too bad your dear Zuzu and his friends aren’t here.”

“Where are they?!” Katara shouted. She stepped forward, intending to throttle Xiuqin, but was blocked by Azula’s arm. “Where are you keeping them?!”

“Don’t worry, the Fire Lord and his friends are alive, and so is the Avatar. We still need him, if he ever decides to cooperate, that is,” Xiuqin said, waving a hand nonchalantly like she was simply describing the weather. “They’re in our headquarters under the ruins of the Fire temple, deep in Roku’s underground passages.”

Azula let out a cold laugh. Her voice echoed in the underground hall, and if Katara had been fighting her instead, she would’ve shuddered. This time, its cruelty gave her courage. Azula spoke, “Oh, Xiuqin. Stop playing this game, you’re clearly not as good as you think you are when you just let slip vital information like that.”

“Why should I not?” Xiuqin countered, sounding completely unbothered. “It’s better to have you both know that your loved ones are in good hands before you, well, die.”

Before either of them could react, guardsmen and militants emerged from the dark confines of the tunnels, closing in on Katara and Azula like shadows threatening to swallow them whole. They materialized from every direction. Some even dropped down from above, landing effortlessly in a crouch on the ground. 

Katara scanned her eyes for Xiuqin only to find that she had fled in the midst of the sudden commotion.

Azula turned her body around so they stood with their backs to each other. She craned her neck to whisper to Katara’s ear. “Stay close. I’ll try to carve a way towards the passage. Just keep watching my back.”

“On it.” came her immediate answer. Katara uncorked her water pouch and let its contents spill before her. With a sharp swish of her arm, a wisp of water turned into tiny shards of ice, its tips deadly sharp.

A group of bare-chested chi blockers made a beeline towards her just in time. She flashed them a grin, then flung some of the shards at them just as she heard screams and the unmistakable sound of burning flesh from behind her. She heard Azula throw a quick succession of blows, some of the flames she deflected from her attackers sizzling past Katara. She matched her companion’s efforts, her attacks getting more and more creative as their enemies’ numbers seem to only grow.

“They keep blocking the way!” Azula said to her after a while, shouting over the noise. “I’m going to clear it.”

Katara couldn’t see what that entailed, didn’t look when Azula released a grand blaze of flame that must’ve fallen over their attackers like a wave. For a moment, the underground hall was awash with the unnatural light of Azula’s fire, its rays sneaking into the tunnels and making the approaching militants pause in the face of Azula’s might. High-pitched, gurgling screams were everywhere.

When the light ceded back to dimness, Katara finished off the last remaining militants in front of her before finally turning around. The militants who blocked them from moving forward were all splayed in a messy heap on the floor, some were singed to death and others cried out in agony. Katara fought the urge to throw up.

Azula prodded her forward. “Let’s go!”

Katara didn’t have to be told twice. With Azula ahead of her leading the way, she ran as fast as her legs could take her. Any militant who tried to stop them was met with a fire first or a bullet of ice.

They were near their final turn when they were apprehended again. The ceiling collapsed suddenly in front of them. Katara grabbed Azula by the arm and pulled her to safety just in time before a boulder fell over her. They stumbled down together, Katara still gripping Azula’s arm.

Katara turned around and saw a man in hunter green robes standing several meters away from them, his hands planted on the ground. His hair was long and the scar along his dark face contorted as he sneered at them. “Going somewhere, ladies?”

The man took a step back and fell into another stance, raising his hands over his head before returning to its place below. The ground in front of him began to crumble. Billows of smoke rose as soil and rock slowly melted into lava.

Katara had no time to wonder how the man could achieve such a feat. She scrambled to her feet, Azula following behind her.

The man was grinning at them. "Good luck escaping that." With a grand sweep of his robes, he fled down the tunnel and away from the hell he’d just created, collapsing the walls behind him for good measure. Katara and Azula couldn't jump over the lava to safety. They were trapped.

“Oh, no. No, no, no, no.” The lava was slowly creeping towards them, melting everything in its wake. It would take a long time for it to reach them, but the two of them were trapped in all corners. Katara stared at their approaching doom with helpless terror.

“Stay back!” Azula commanded.

“You can’t possibly—”

“I said stay back, Katara!”

Katara did what she was told, moving backward until she nearly stumbled against a fallen rock. Azula fell into a strange stance then began to twist and sway, legs stepping into complicated forms as her arms coiled and her fists flicked. Strange as it was, it looked like she was dancing. Under different circumstances, Katara might've been mesmerized. Just as Katara was about to interrupt her, the firebending dance finally ended with Azula deep in a low stance. Her right arm rose upwards in a movement so sharp and swift that it produced a whipping sound in the air.

Something blue-white shot out of her fingers. It wasn't fire, Katara realized, more like a ray of pure energy that could disintegrate anything blocking its way. It passed through the layers of earth above them. After a few seconds of emitting the ray, Azula’s hand fell back, looking spent as she tried to catch her breath. She swayed on her feet but Katara caught her just in time.

“What the hell was that?”

Lan,” Azula rasped out. 

“Lan is not here, Azula,” Katara said, her voice breaking. “We’re alone and we’re going to die.”

Katara’s legs gave in as a sob escaped her. Her arm was still around Azula and the other woman was dragged to the ground with her. She sat on the ground, weeping as she kept her hold on Azula.

“Don’t cry,” Azula whispered, her words slurred. Her head rested on top of Katara’s lap and she looked up at her, eyes faltering. Whatever it was that she did, it drained her of her energy.

Please don’t faint, I don’t want to die here alone.

Katara took the remaining water from her pouch. Making it glow was second nature and she guided it to Azula’s body, eventually focusing the healing water on her stomach as she remembered what Zuko once told her about firebenders and their sea of chi. Not long after, Azula’s eyes cleared. Tears were still leaking out of Katara’s eyes.

“Stop crying, we’re not going to die,” Azula hissed. She sounded so certain, it almost had Katara believing her. But when she looked up again, the lava was still burning its way towards them. It now reached half of the distance it needed to disintegrate them from the face of the earth.

Katara gazed down at Azula. “Just stop, okay? We’re stuck here. We failed and—”

The ground shook beneath Katara, cutting her off. She wrapped her arms protectively around Azula as cracks raced along the walls and dust fell from the earth above their heads. The shaking didn’t cease, only growing in intensity. Katara thought the man had returned to bury them alive, impatient to rid of them.

What Katara didn’t expect were large claws breaking through one side of the walls. It looked like something had dug through the ground to reach them. A large whiskered head appeared through the enormous hole. 

A fresh wave of tears flowed from Katara’s eyes, this time it was out of relief at the sight of Lan slithering his way inside through a tunnel of his own making. The creeping floor of lava was now covered by soil and rock. Azula stood up and ran to her dragon, wrapping her arms around his head.

“Thank you,” Azula whispered against his mane. She turned to Katara. “Come on, we have to hurry.”

Azula hauled herself onto Lan then reached out a hand to Katara. She took it and clambered up to the saddle easily with Azula’s help. The saddle was sizeable but wasn’t meant for two so she ended up sitting with her body flush against Azula’s. Though comfort was the least of her worries.

Azula urged Lan to move and the dragon started to slide backward, retracing the tunnel he drilled with his claws to get to them. They eventually made it out and Katara's heart skipped in relief when Appa flew up to meet them.

“Hold on tight,” said Azula, and suddenly they were rising up towards the sky at a great speed. Katara gripped Azula’s waist out of instinct, letting out a surprised cry

Flying on a dragon was nothing like riding Appa. The whistling wind lashed wildly at Katara's ears and she fought the nausea that threatened to slide up her throat. Her vision blurred as they knifed through the sky, Lan's serpentine body shooting up like a spear thrown by a god. They flew past a mantel of clouds and Lan froze in the air for a moment, the moon in full view ahead. Katara felt like she would slip if she so much as loosened her hold on Azula.

With a flap of his wings, Lan floated forward at a much slower pace. Katara kept her arms snaked around Azula.

"Thank the spirits," she murmured. She felt Azula's body give a slight shiver. Only then did she realize that her face was buried against the nape of Azula's neck, muffling her voice.

They flew above the clouds and below a thousand stars. Katara kept looking behind her to check if Appa was still at their tail and was always greeted with a groan of reassurance from him. As the night wore on, she started to feel the prickling cold of a night flight without wearing her snug Water Tribe garb. After a long period of trying to endure it, her body started to shake slightly. 

Azula glanced at her briefly. “You’re cold.”

“I’m okay,” Katara insisted. “I'm used to it.”

Azula didn’t make a comment on that. She turned back towards the way ahead, returning her focus on steering Lan towards their destination.

Katara let out a gasp as she felt a sudden warmth permeate through her arms, chest, and thighs. Slowly, her shaking started to cease. It was when she instinctively burrowed against Azula that she realized it was coming from her. It was Azula who radiated her warmth like a hearth, bending her inner heat for Katara’s benefit.

All she could manage was a whispered thanks against Azula’s warm neck before she fell in a fitful slumber.

 

✽✽✽✽✽✽

 

Xiuqin was holding a steaming cup of tea in her hands when one of her subordinates barged into her dining quarters.

It was Chen, the captain of the prison guards. He bowed as Xiuqin frowned at him.

“What’s so important that you felt you had to disturb me while I break my fast?” she drawled.

Chen stood back up from his low bow, his shoulders stiff. “It’s about last night’s intruders.”

Xiuqin's hand froze just as the rim of her cup touched her lips. She lowered it and placed it back on the table, turning towards Chen with a more serious gaze. “Have you gotten rid of them as I commanded?”

“Genzo reported to us that he'd trapped the intruders and turned the ground into lava.” explained Chen. “We trusted the mighty Ghenzo's judgement as he is an esteemed member of the Red Lotus.”

“But?” Xiuqin asked, feeling exhausted already.

Chen avoided her eyes. “There were reports of strange occurrences from last night. Residents were talking about a beam of light jutting through the sky and a few of our men had felt slight tremors. Just this morning, we found a large hole at the side of the volcano that led directly through the place where the intruders were supposed to be trapped.”

Xiuqin gritted her teeth. “You think they managed to escape?”

“It is likely, Mistress Xiuqin. Though we have no idea how they managed to carve up that tunnel. None of them were earthbenders.”

With a sigh, Xiuqin stood up and abandoned her tea. She would have to send a messenger hawk to the Fire Temple ruins. The security must be fortified, just in case. “Investigate the area and send out some of our men to find them. If they escaped, they couldn’t have gone far.”

“Yes, Mistress Xiuqin.” Chen bowed again. When he rose, there was a peculiar expression on his face that could only be perceived as sorrow. Xiuqin had no time for this. “If I may ask, Mistress. We are wondering about what we should do about the corpses.”

“What corpses?”

“The ones from last night’s attack, Mistress. Several of our brothers and sisters died. A lot of them have been burned so much that it’s hard to identify them.”

Xiuqin cursed out loud. Sleeping soundly after leaving the scene last night was a mistake. She should have known something like this would happen as soon as she saw Azula. She had been prepared for the water peasant, but the princess was an unexpected piece to the equation. She didn’t account for her and her utter viciousness.

“Have the bodies be carried away from the city and prepare a large funeral pyre for all of them. Perform all the necessary rituals for the benefit of their spirits,” she told Chen, who nodded and left without another word.

Xiuqin followed out the door not long after, making her way to her study so she could write that message. She thought wistfully about her cup of tea—which was probably growing cold in the table where she left it—and cursed Sozin's entire line for ruining everything that was good in the world.

 

✽✽✽✽✽✽

 

The soothing sound of running water filled her ears when Katara woke. There was a slight ache in her temples and joints but other than that, she felt rested. She opened her eyes and was met by the sight of the predawn haze. Katara must have been asleep when they landed because she couldn't recall ever moving from her place on the saddle atop Lan and against Azula to the much colder ground with nothing but a blanket separating her from the ground. She got up on wobbly legs, her eyes scanning around her to look for Azula.

Katara found her at the edge of the river not far from where Katara was. Her silhouette cut against the golden backdrop of the sky.

Lan was in the water, frolicking and holding a brightly hued fish in his fanged mouth. Katara walked over to them. Azula didn’t spare her a glance, not even when she stood beside her to watch Lan.

“I should thank you,” Katara started to say, “for last night. You got us out of there.”

“You shouldn’t,” replied Azula. “It was my fault we were in that mess in the first place. My failure.” Her impassive face belied the subdued tone of her voice. Her eyes hinted a bit of the emotion she tried to hide, a deep self-loathing that were as grim as the memory of last night.

Katara was having none of it.

She grabbed Azula by the soldiers, twisting her body so she could stare right into her eyes. She risked inciting Azula’s ire but there was no other way to convey what she was about to say.

“What are you—?”

“Are you hearing yourself right now?!”

Azula frowned at her. “What the fuck are you talking about?”

“I thought someone who went through all the things you endured and still managed to come out a better person wouldn’t take the coward’s way,” Katara said, staring hard into Azula.

Azula pushed her away. Anger was painted across her face, but not the kind that would leave coldness in its wake. It was an anger spurred by genuine hurt. Katara swallowed down her guilt.

“The coward’s way?” Azula exclaimed to her face. “My life has been peaceful for years and I left the home that I built for myself when I heard that my idiot brother was in trouble! I disguised as a militant, infiltrated their headquarters to try and rescue him, and nearly got myself melted in lava for it! And you dare call me a coward?!” Her anger blazed like her flames. Katara was hoping to draw this conviction out her.

When Katara smiled, Azula’s glare dissolved to confusion. “What are you—is this a joke to you?”

“You just admitted that you don’t think you’re a coward,” said Katara. She pitched her voice low in a reassuring tone. “And I agree. You were brave despite our odds. And you saved my life, Azula. You saved both our lives. You can never be a failure for that.”

Azula stared at her like she was a puzzle she couldn’t solve. “That’s absurd,” she said, though with less certitude this time.

“It’s not! I was there with you last night, remember? I saw you demolish all those militants who would’ve killed us and did it in a single blow! You got us out when I was sure we were going to die!”

A stiff silence fell over them until it was broken by a muttered curse from Azula. “Alright, you win. You’re right.”

“There it is!” Katara beamed. “Agreeing with me wasn’t so hard, was it?”

When Azula looked at her then, her exasperation was gone. Katara wasn’t sure what the expression that took over her golden eyes meant. She looked a bit wistful.

It was gone before Katara could think too hard on it.

Azula turned and headed towards their camp near a blissfully snoozing Appa. “Come on, let’s get you fed. We still have some rescuing to do now that we know where Zuko and the rest actually are.”

"Oh no, I'm going to stop you right there," Katara said as she caught up with Azula's quick strides. "You need to rest. We both do."

Azula stopped and turned to look at her. “And what do you suggest we do? Just wait and do nothing while our brothers and your Avatar are still being held by those extremists?”

“I said rest, that’s not nothing.” Katara sighed, trying so hard not to stomp her foot indignantly. “They’ll find out we escaped by now. If we charge there right away, they’ll be prepared for us. It makes no difference whether we wait out for a couple of days or attack now.”

“They could be moving them again to another prison as we speak,” Azula said.

“Which means we’ll be wasting our time planning when we could’ve been regaining our energy.”

Azula’s brow furrowed. She looked like she was trying to come up with a counter-reason but was failing. Eventually, she gave up with a groan. “How are you so good at this.”

“You mean arguing? I have a brother.”                 

That drew out a small laugh from Azula. “You’re ridiculous.”

“And you’re a pain. If I tell you I want to do something fun, will it convince you?” Katara asked, nudging Azula’s shoulder with hers. She wasn’t exactly sure what’s spurring her to do this. (But if she were to be honest with herself, she would admit that she hated seeing Azula upset just earlier and her instincts pushed her to help cheer her up.)

“It depends,” Azula said, stroking her chin as if she was thinking something over. “What rejuvenating activity do you have in mind?”

"I want you to take me on a ride with Lan." The words spilled out of Katara before she could think better of it.

Azula just stared at her for what seemed like an eternity, and with each passing second Katara felt her confidence slowly slip. “You’re actually serious?” Azula asked teasingly after some time.

Katara almost sighed in relief. “Just say yes. I know you want to do it.”

“Alright, I’ll take you flying. If it will get you to shut up.” She turned and proceeded to walk towards camp again, flipping her luscious hair from her shoulders. It was impossible how good it still looked and not wind-torn like Katara’s.

“But breakfast first, though,” Katara called after her.

She didn’t have to see Azula’s face to know she was rolling her eyes. “Of course. We can’t go starting our day without sustenance, can we?”

 

~

 

“Azula, tell Lan to slow down or I swear I will have you both—” Katara’s words were cut off by another yelp that escaped her lips as Lan took another deep plunge. “Azula!”

They were shooting down like an arrow and Katara had lost her voice halfway through their drop. Her vision blurred, but she could see the shimmering cyan-blue sea beneath them—and Lan was plummeting right towards it.

She opened her mouth to tell them to make it stop but no sound came out. She held on to Azula, aware that her nails dug into the woman’s waist but didn’t care.

Lan dove right into the water.

She was saved from most of the impact by hiding herself behind Azula’s small frame, but it still nearly slipped her out of the saddle. Water flooded her senses but before she could bend her element away from her face, Lan was already surging back towards the surface. Katara took a lungful of air as soon as they were above water.

Azula, on the other hand, was cackling.

“You’re the worse,” Katara grumbled. Her heartbeat still hadn't completely settled after that whole ordeal. She bent the water out of her clothes and Azula’s. “You could’ve at least warned me!”

“Where’s the fun in that?” Lan flew into the sky again, much slower this time. Azula twisted her body to look at Katara. The corners of her lips tilted up in secretive smirk, like she was sharing a joke only the two of them knew. Something warm curled in Katara’s belly. “The first time Lan did that to me, I nearly throttled him. He was lucky I had no idea how one goes about strangling a dragon.”

Lan hissed at that and Katara laughed. “I would pay money to see your reaction.”

“I remained dignified despite my shock, thank you very much.” Azula turned her eyes back to the horizon. They were high up from the sea again.

Katara had to admit though, it was exhilarating. She was willing to try it again, actually, if there was ever going to be a second time. She found herself wishing for there to be one.

“How many times have you done that with Lan?” she asked.

“Too many to count,” answered Azula. She urged Lan upwards and as they passed through the clouds, the sunlight flickered gold against the sapphire blue of Lan’s scales. “We always find a way to do it whenever we fly out of leisure. You were really just inadvertently asking for it when you coerced me into this, so you only have yourself to blame.”

Katara lightly shoved her. “I did not coerce you into anything. I asked politely.”

“So? Politeness is just another form of manipulation.”

“Spirits, are you always this infuriating?” Katara said to her, not really meaning it. She wished Azula’s face wasn’t turned the other way so she could see the smirk that was inevitably there.

They fell quiet again as Lan flew back towards land. Katara alternated between gazing down at the landscape below them and tilting her head back to stare up at the clear blue sky, her hair billowing against the wind. She had been right to ask Azula for this. After their failed rescue attempt and being tricked by the Red Lotus (for the second time, in Katara’s case), they could easily have spiraled into dejectedness that wouldn’t help with their morale and overall sanity. Flying with Azula on Lan, taking a quick plunge on the sea, and soaring to the skies without the fear of being chased or followed lifted her spirits enough to take on their enemy with renewed vigor. She could only hope it did the same for her companion.

The prospect of heading into danger to save those she loved intimidated her less when she knew Azula would have her back. The knowledge, backed by their experience in the tunnels, gave her a swell of relief. And of something else, something without shape just resting at her stomach and rising occasionally into her chest. She tried not to untangle that particular knot of a feeling.

"Something is bothering you, isn't it?" Azula asked her. They'd been flying for some time already and were nearing their riverside camp where Appa was probably sleeping or eating.

“How’d you figure that?” 

"'Cause you've gone completely quiet for the first time today," Azula said as if that was the most obvious thing in the world.

Katara smiled briefly, tinged with the sadness she'd been carrying. “I’m just worried about my friends and Sokka. There’s also the fact that I don’t know how Toph is doing, wherever the Red Lotus decided to put her.”

Azula hummed like she was deep in thought. “I think I’ve figured out Xiuqin's whole plan.”

Katara was instantly shaken out of her depressing thoughts. “You think so?”

“She said she needed the Avatar for something, and our captive back in Kyoshi Island told us that their very important prisoners were being held as leverage,” Azula recounted. “I think she’s keeping Zuzu and the others alive to try and control that Avatar of yours, have him do their bidding.”

“And what you’re saying is…”

“I’m saying that there is no way any of them would be killed anytime soon.” Azula told her. If this was her way of comforting her, Katara could tell she needed a bit of practice. But she was grateful for the effort. Azula went on, “And that’s also probably the reason why your Avatar hasn’t gone berserk and glow-eyed yet and destroyed them all.”

“You mean the Avatar state,” Katara corrected her. “Also, you have got to stop calling him my Avatar. He’s everyone’s Avatar.”

“But isn’t he, though? Your Avatar?” She turned her face just enough for Katara to see half of a smirk. Somehow, it seemed forced… strange as that notion sounded. “I seem to recall you two being inseparable.”

“Yeah, well that is a thing of the past. Aang is just my friend now. I mean, I still love him. As I said, he’s my friend. But it’s been a while since I stopped thinking of him that way.” Katara felt an unexpected lightness after saying that out loud. She also couldn’t figure out why she felt the need to word vomit about it to Azula.

Oh," Azula breathed out then snatched her eyes away. Katara couldn’t say she expected that reaction.

“Enough of that, though. Let’s get back before it gets dark. We still have to come up with another strategy like you said,” Katara said dismissively. 

Azula nodded and said nothing.

They were quiet for the rest of the flight back to their camp.

 

✽✽✽✽✽✽

 

The sudden appearance of a long presumed dead princess, who was probably one of the most formidable benders of her age, and Xiuqin's failure to subdue her and her accomplice brought an imbalance to Xiuqin's inner harmony. She was getting paranoid.

She decided that simply sending a message to the Fire Temple headquarters was not enough, so she traveled to Crescent Island with a large party mostly made up of fighting militants and Ghenzo.

The ruins had none of the comforts of the Royal Palace, but being there did well for her nerves. A large portion of Avatar Roku's underground tunnels survived the Temple's destruction during the war so it was chosen as their second headquarters in the Fire Nation. It fit perfectly with the secret society's whole theme.

Truth be told, Xiuqin didn't care much about the Red Lotus' entire purpose, like their obsession with the Spirit World and having the Avatar open the portals. If it were entirely up to her, she would have the Avatar and the leaders under their custody publicly executed and be done with it. Alas, she was in no position to make that call. She needed the Red Lotus to help her take down the monarchy and bring about a new age for her nation, free from incompetent rulers like Zuko and the tainted line of rulers who did nothing but drag her nation to the dirt in their personal crusade for power. And she knew very well that everything came with a price. In this case it was her cooperation. So, Xiuqin played her part.

“Hulranoq said he’s got the Northern Tribe handled after he finally got his chief brother captured, but he’s having trouble down South with Hakoda still at large,” Genzo said. They were dining together, having just arrived in the Temple ruins after traveling by ship. Xiuqin listened to him with fake interest. "The Earth Kingdom, however, is still a mess."

“When has it ever been not a mess?” Xiuqin commented dryly. At Genzo’s slightly affronted expression, she amended, “I meant no offense, of course. I’m only saying what your Nation has lacked. Once this is over and our purpose is fulfilled, it’ll finally be at its best state in ages.”

Genzo seemed pleased by that. Xiuqin didn’t really mean what she said, though. She couldn’t care less about the Earth Kingdom and thought it to be doomed for destruction.

For a while, Genzo went on to impart news from overseas as they ate. Xiuqin kept her façade in place as the man prattled on. Other than that, it was a mostly peaceful dinner. And the roast duck they were having was divine. She patted herself on the back for bringing the Palace cook with her in this hellhole.

The peace, like most good things, didn’t last.

The first thing she heard were the echoes of shouted commands from the captains. Genzo instantly rose, his meal forgotten. “What’s going on?”

Xiuqin sighed. “Could be our wayward princess and her peasant friend. Prepare for a rematch, Genzo. Make sure to actually succeed this time.”

The earthbending savage glared at her for a second before he remembered himself and who he was addressing. “As you command, Mistress Xiuqin.”

They heard footsteps and turned their heads towards the direction of the sound. It was Chen. “Mistress Xiuqin,” he panted, “there’s been—we- we have a problem.”

“Out with it, boy,” Genzo spat.

Chen was sweating buckets, looking visibly rattled. He kept on catching his breath even as he spoke. “There’s a dragon approaching.”

The captain of her guardsmen has finally lost his mind. It was probably because of all that Spirit World nonsense the Red Lotus was feeding its members. “That’s impossible, dragons have been extinct for years. Have you all gone mad?”

“I swear it, Mistress. I saw it with my own eyes.”

A loud bang startled the three of them. The ground and ceiling shook, and Xiuqin felt anxiety take a hold of her chest. She turned to Genzo, whose faced looked determined, and then to Chen, who seemed like he was about to keel over.

Xiuqin was on her feet in an instant. “I’m going outside. Get all my guards to accompany me and prepare everyone for an attack. Genzo, stay by my side.”

The two men scrambled to follow her as she strode out of the dining room with a purpose. She wasn't going to hide in the sidelines this time. She might not be a born fighter, but she had to see this through. She needed to witness for herself that Azula and that savage was taken down.

They passed through tunnels and crudely constructed bridges over rivers of magma until they reached the bottom of a large flight of stairs that lead to the metal gate which separated the tunnels from outside. The stairs had been carved out by earthbending militants when they were preparing the ruins for the purpose of using it as a hideout. Several militants were already in position when they arrived. Xiuqin couldn’t help but wonder at the absurdity of such a reaction simply over two young women.

“Now, where’s this dragon that you talked about?” she asked Chen, still skeptical.

“We closed the gates before it could even get close, Mistress.” the young man explained. He put on a brave front now that he was with his fellow fighters. It wouldn’t do him good to look cowardly.

An otherworldly shriek reached her ears. Xiuqin's chest thrummed with a sudden fear and when she looked at Genzo, she saw his grow wide as saucers. She caught the source of his shock when she followed his gaze.

The metal door that protected them from whatever beast lay behind it began to glow a dull orange. Men and women backed away from the sight, and the metal continued to light up like the sky during the sun’s ascent, glowing brighter and brighter until the metal started to ooze into the staircase below. Militants screamed and ran for their lives. Xiuqin watched and stood her ground.

The melting created a large hole and through it, Xiuqin saw a sight she thought she would never witness.

Chen hadn’t gone insane, after all.

The dragon was blue and long, snarling at them from where it hovered in front of the hole it created with its flames. The militants cowered before it, yet some were foolish enough to charge towards it with their battle cries. But instead of being met by flames, they fell one by one as if an archer hidden from sight shot them with small and white arrows... Xiuqin looked past the dragon’s head and to the shadowed figures riding its neck. The waterbender was felling approaching militants with shards of ice.

“Men, with me!” she heard Chen shout over the cacophony. She saw him and other captains lead the charge made up of guardsmen, benders, and chi blockers—the Red Lotus’ Fire Nation contingent in full force. Genzo remained beside Xiuqin at the bottom of the stairs, just as she commanded.

“There’s no way they could stop that attack, dragon or no.” Genzo remarked with a wicked grin. Xiuqin allowed herself a smile, feeling assured by his confidence.

The dragon and its riders watched the hundreds of militants running up the grand flight of stairs to meet them with all their strength and might. It let out an ear-splitting shriek, then a white light raced along between its scales. With a mighty screech, it opened its mouth and instead of spouting out flames, which the firebending militants had been ready to ward off, pure lightning cracked out of its jaws. 

Before Xiuqin was dragged down by Genzo as he shielded them both with layers of earth and rock, she caught sight of the blue-white glow of lightning and the wretched smell of electrocuted flesh.

No wonder Sozin started the tradition of wiping out dragons. A man obsessed with power wouldn’t want to be outdone by beasts.

 

✽✽✽✽✽✽             

 

A strip of cloth covered Katara’s nose and mouth but the smell was just too strong. She shoved the cloth away and bent her body down to the side as she vomited.

Azula glanced over her shoulders to check on Katara. “Sorry about the stench,” she said.

“It’s fine,” Katara replied as she righted herself on the saddle. "At least you warned me about it."

Azula smirked before turning to Lan. “You’ve outdone yourself.”

“You mean you two have done this before?”

“No, silly. We practiced back in the tribe, but we did it up in the sky,” Azula said as if that was the most obvious thing in the world. “It’s the first time Lan ever did this on land.”

“You’re so defensive, I was just asking,” Katara said teasingly. She wasn’t sure how she could be so insouciant about what just happened.

Those Red Lotus militants took your brother and your friends from you, Katara reminded herself. They messed with the peace and the lives of those you loved. They got what they deserve. The Red Lotus wanted chaos, so you brought chaos to their door.

Azula slid out of the saddle, reaching out to help Katara down, whose legs felt a bit wobbly after a long period of riding Lan. They had followed Xiuqin's ship from atop the clouds just in case the information she fed them the first time was false. The moon was full to bursting in the sky and Katara could feel the trill of power in her veins.

She stepped forward to stand next to Azula, who was busy stroking Lan’s neck. “Rest now and wait here. You did great. Don’t forget to watch over the bison, too.”

Lan nuzzled Azula once, then inched its large head to nudge gently at Katara. Too stunned to speak, Katara simply smiled and reached out to ruffle his mane briefly. Azula produced a small fire on her palm and together they stepped inside through the 'door' that Lan created. Before them, bodies and molten steel were strewn across the massive staircase that led to the underground passages.

As they were descending the stairs, Azula looked at her sideways. An emotion Katara couldn’t place gleamed in her eyes. “Lan likes you.”

“You sound surprised about it,” said Katara, stepping over the still twitching bodies spread over the steps. “I mean, if you got him to stick with you for so long…”

“You’re impossible,” Azula muttered over Katara’s sniggering. “I was being serious, you know. He doesn’t take easily to other people. The only other person he liked other than me was Ome.”

Katara’s stomach lurched with a familiar feeling at that revelation. She looked up to find that Azula hadn't stopped looking at her, and she realized with a start that Azula was arrestingly beautiful like this, her face illumined by her blue fire.

Not the time, Katara. Get a grip.

There was a tremor on the ground at the bottom of the grand earthen staircase. Katara whipped her head towards the movement instantly. Beside her, Azula produced a ball of fire on her other hand, already geared for a fight.

“Reveal yourself,” Azula called out. Her tone was cold and stern. “We might consider sparing you if you surrender.”

Katara knew the meaning behind her words. We won’t kill you if you give up and help us find the people we came here for.

The way Azula said it seemed more effective, though.

There was movement down below again. They watched as a patch of earth shifted, revealing two people crouching low on the ground. The two righted themselves and when their faces met the light from a nearby torch, Katara saw that it was Xiuqin and the scarred man, the one in green robes who bent lava and nearly killed her and Azula.

“Your Highness, don’t delude yourself. I have no need of your mercy," said Xiuqin by way of greeting. She tilted her head towards the man beside her. “Genzo, go and finish what you started.”

Without warning, the man—Genzo—made a swift motion with his feet. A large boulder came hurtling towards where Katara and Azula stood. They got out of its way in opposite directions.

They dodged more rocks as it came at them in ever-increasing speed, some of them glowing like embers. Katara had no time to look at Azula as she swerved and ducked out of the way, trying to land a shot but always apprehended by an incoming attack before she could.

It went on like that for some time and Katara had the feeling that the man was dragging this out, just like he did back in the tunnels of Capital City, When he trapped them instead of taking them out quickly. Katara licked a drop of sweat from her lip. All the attacks she managed so far had missed. The man was surprisingly agile for his size.

Katara was in the middle of sending a whip of water to target the man’s feet when she heard Azula’s yelp followed by a loud thud. The other woman was already on her feet after being hit when Katara glanced at her direction. But something about the sound that she let out, the rarity of it and the fear that gripped Katara when it reached her ears, had kindled the deep well of pent-up rage inside Katara.

Drawing strength from the moon, she fell into a waterbending form that she hadn’t attempted in years. A power she had tried to forget.

Katara felt the blood coursing through Genzo’s body. With a subtle twist of her hand, she held the flowing water inside of him with her invisible grip. The man froze, his hands planted on his sides and eyes growing wide with panic and confusion. Katara moved her fingers as if she was plucking invisible threads that connected her to Ghenzo. His knees promptly buckled until he was kneeling on the floor, struggling in vain. He stared at Katara; his expression was laden with cold fear.

Katara was vaguely aware of the movement in her periphery and the unmistakable sound of lightning being generated. She saw the bolt hit Ghenzo squarely on the chest and Katara finally released her hold on him as the man twitched and shook to his death.

“You savage!” She heard a shrill voice say. It was Xiuqin, standing not far from Genzo’s prone body. Her eyes were fixed on Katara with a repugnant mix of horror and disgust in her stare. “You barbaric, wretched, abomination! I know what you just did, you— you monster!”

“You don’t get to speak to her like that.”

The words came from Azula. Her hand was still thrust forward and Katara saw the tips of her outstretched fingers emit a smaller bolt of light. It fizzled in the air and right into Xiuqin, who wasn’t quick enough to avoid it. The bolt hit her and she froze in the air for a second before falling into the ground, stunned yet still alive.

Azula caught Katara’s gaze and raised an eyebrow. She shrugged. “I didn’t like how she was speaking to you.”

Katara ran to her— ally? Friend? Partner? Whatever she was to her, all Katara knew was that she needed to reach Azula and wrap her up in her arms and not let go of her anytime soon.

“Katara, are you alright?” Azula asked tentatively, her voice uncharacteristically soft. Worried.

“You heard what Xiuqin said,” Katara said against the Azula's shoulder as she sought her warmth to quell the turmoil inside her. “You saw what I did. I’m—”

“Don’t let a scum of the earth like Xiuqin affect you. She has no right, do you understand?” Azula’s lips were near her ear when she spoke, quiet and fierce. “You only did what you had to do. Don’t ever feel bad for that.”

Katara held her tighter. Xiuqin's words still echoed in her head, but as she felt Azula’s arms tentatively wrap around her, they slowly lost their power.

 

~

 

They searched the tunnels for what seemed like forever before they found two cooler cells. Right across it was a large steel bunker that was sealed shut. Katara got to the cooler first, the lock she’d frozen giving in easily when she smashed it with a rock. Zuko was unconscious when they opened the cell and Katara quickly got to work. Azula helped by warming him by bending her heat and staying close. When Zuko woke, he was too overwhelmed by the rush of emotions upon being saved, seeing Katara, and finding out that her sister was alive. Katara explained things as briefly as she could while she continued to heal him.

Katara didn’t miss the look that Zuko gave Azula when she found out she helped Katara in rescuing them, that it was largely because of her that they succeeded.

There was a tentative hopefulness in his eyes when he said, “Thank you, Azula. I don’t know how I could ever—”

“Save it, Zuzu,” Azula cut him off. Her voice was slightly reprimanding but quiet, perhaps even a bit awkward. “Stop talking and let Katara heal you so we can leave this place.”

Zuko told them that the other cell held Iroh. Katara rushed to open it and found him barely alive. It took much effort to heal and revive Iroh, and she could feel Zuko’s worry seep out of him as he watched. But soon enough, Iroh opened his eyes. The old man merely let out a weak chuckle as his nephew smothered him in an embrace.

“Azula,” Iroh said when he saw her. He eyed her warily for a second before coming to the right conclusion that Azula wasn’t a threat. His voice turned warm. “Such a pleasant surprise to find you here. I had a feeling you were still alive.”

“Sorry to disappoint you for not being dead.” Katara knew Azula had meant for her words to be scathing, but her tone didn’t match it. She just sounded tired. “And I didn’t come here for you.” Iroh merely grumbled out a laugh at that.

The bunker took a lot more work to open, and Azula, Zuko, and Iroh had to melt the hinges of the steel door. Azula kicked it open and was the first person that the ones inside could see.

“Wait, Azula?” she heard Sokka’s voice say, and Katara could weep in sheer relief. “Out of all the people who could bust us out of here, we got you? Or are you actually here to kill us?”

His brother shut up the moment Katara came into view and crossed over the bunker to hug the life out of him.

“Nice for you to drop by, Sugar Queen.” It was Toph who spoke this time. “Now can someone untie me? I need to kick Genzo’s ass.”

Aang was in the middle of the bunker, his arms and legs bound to a metal cot. He looked like he was in a deep sleep. Katara came to him as soon as she cut off the binds from Sokka’s arms and foot.

Sokka followed her. “Xiuqin poisoned Aang so she could subdue him. It’s non-lethal, but he still hasn’t woken up.” 

Toph and the others joined them. Katara walked over to Azula, inching close enough so that their shoulders touched, as if to tell everyone without having to explain with words that Azula was on their side. That Katara trusted Azula.

“The poison is metallic,” Toph said to them. “I could feel it even when I was tied away from him, but I had to get close to bend it out of his system. I couldn’t use my bending to release myself because this whole bunker is made of platinum. Those asshats thought of everything.”

“Can you get the poison out of him now?” Zuko asked.

“Were you even paying attention to what I just said?” Toph snapped before holding both of her hands out to hover over Aang’s body. She began to move her arms in a sweeping motion like she was moving the air above him, repeating it over and over until some dark liquid leaked out of Aang’s mouth and nose.

Aang woke, and his friends were on him in an instant. He looked at them with half-lidded eyes. “Oh, hey guys. I just had the strangest dream.”

Katara let out a sob that turned into a laugh, tugging Aang close to her. She felt others join in and soon enough, it turned into one big group hug.

“Ooof," Aang grunted in surprise at the sudden barrage of arms wrapping around him. “Why are you all crying? Did you think I was dead?”

Their laughter, dripping with exhaustion and relief, echoed through the confined space. Katara felt like a piece of her heart was returned to its place again.

 

~

 

After Katara recounted everything that had happened while they were all on Appa, a silence fell for a long time as they processed the information she just dumped on them. The only sound that could be heard over the roaring wind was Xiuqin's muffled ranting at the far edge of the saddle. Toph had encased her body with rock and clamped a layer of earth over her mouth when she wouldn’t shut up. If it weren’t for the information they needed from her, Katara or Toph or Sokka would have already pushed her off the saddle.

Toph was the first to speak up. “I can’t believe you got to Genzo before I could. I was really looking forward to showing him who's the actual best earthbender in the world."

“Also, shooting lightning at all those people was probably a bit of an overkill, sis,” Sokka pointed out. “And the smell—yuck!”

“It wasn’t,” said Zuko.

Sokka stared at him incredulously. "Has your nose stopped working? Katara, check the Fire Lord's nose. It's broken."

Zuko ignored him. “The Red Lotus has to be stopped. And if Katara and Azula hadn’t done that, we wouldn’t have been here right now, free and outside of our cells.”

"Chill down, Zuko," Sokka said, shoving Zuko playfully. "I was just joking. Those bastards deserved what they got. Anyway, about the dragon—" he turned to Katara. "I can't believe you got to ride one! Where did Azula get that dragon, anyway?”

Katara caught the knowing look that Zuko exchanged with Aang.

“I think that story isn’t Katara’s to tell,” Iroh told Sokka with a pat on the shoulder. “All you need to know is that dragons still exist and that Azula has bonded with one.”

“Oh, come on!” Sokka whined. He looked pleadingly at Katara. “Are you really going to make me ask Azula? She’s scary! I can’t believe your friends with her now!”

“I’m not scared of her,” Toph said. She was lying on her back, her hands spread out. “I’ll ask her for you. How hard could it be?”

“Really? You’d do that for me?” Sokka was positively buzzing. “Can you also ask her to let her dragon do that lightning thing? I want to see how that works.”

“You know what? I take it back. You’re a grown man, you can ask a woman about her dragon yourself.”

Katara let their banter drown out and snatched her eyes away from them, turning her gaze to Azula and Lan soaring not so far away. As always, the sight of them nearly stole the air out of her lungs, and she kept watching as the fullness of the moon set them alight. 

Katara clutched the staggering feeling that bloomed as she looked at Azula from afar. It was separate from her feelings of gratitude and trust; those were easy to name. Easier to define. This was a feeling that sat heavily on her chest, on her tongue, manifesting itself in her compulsion to reach out. It crept up to her ever so slowly, but realizing it was like catching lightning in a bottle.

It should probably terrify her. But then again, good things are meant to be embraced, not feared.

The Red Lotus han’t been defeated yet. The Earth Kingdom and the Water Tribes were still in chaos. But with her brother and her friends returned to her side, and the knowledge that she had Azula watching her back, she didn’t feel so hopeless anymore.

Chapter Text

Six months later

~

Katara was the first representative to arrive in the Fire Nation.

She was a whole three weeks early before the very first meeting of the Council of Nations, but no one questioned it. She was one of the founders, after all.

Zuko was the one who came up with the idea to establish an international committee that would maintain peace, respond to any threats to the four nations’ security, and make sure no person in positions of power would abuse their influence. Katara and the others simply helped him execute it. After all that mayhem with the Red Lotus, it was easy to convince other world leaders to agree to it.

Katara had hopes for the council to be more than just a safeguard against threats; she wanted it to encompass all the pillars of peace and balance, to extend its efforts to humanitarian causes as much as it would with peacekeeping. This was mainly why she accepted the position as the Southern Water Tribe representative. The post was supposed to be Sokka's, but since he was completely absorbed by the work that he and Aang were doing in the former Fire Nation colonies with Earth King Kuei, the offer fell to her.

She couldn’t remember a time in her life where she felt this much personal purpose. During the war, she had fought for her family and her friends, fought against Ozai’s iron grip in the world. But she had been born into that fight, was shaped to face it by loss and love. Now, she was doing something she chose to be passionate about. This time, Katara wasn’t the chief’s daughter, her tribe’s prodigious bender, or one of the Avatar’s companions. She was just a young woman carving her own place in the world while trying to make it better. So far, it suited her well.

Katara was apparently an important enough guest of the Fire Nation to warrant a welcoming entourage. As her ship docked at the harbor, the hour already late, there were Royal Palace staff and guards waiting to escort her. She was taken to the Royal Palace on an ostrich horse-drawn carriage, and Mai met her by the palace doors. Her previous visits had never been this formal, even with Aang around. Perhaps being ambassador changed things a bit.

“Zuko sends his apologies for not meeting you personally,” Mai told her as they walked through the grand high-ceilinged hallways of the palace. The two of them had always been civil towards each other, but she noticed a slight change in how Mai interacted with her recently. It probably had something to do with the fact that she was one of the people who rescued Zuko. “Unfortunately, he’s still stuck in a meeting.”

“That’s okay. I understand,” she assured Mai. “Besides, I didn’t come for business. Not yet, at least. I’m just visiting.”

Mai nodded and they settled into a stiff yet comfortable silence. The hallways and corridors twisted and turned before them, but Mai navigated it with ease.

Mai spoke again when they finally reached the Guest Wing. “Azula’s here, too, by the way. Though she’s in the meeting with Zuko.” Katara thought she caught a hint of a smirk in her face, though she could never really tell with Mai. “It will probably go on for a while longer. The minor lords have been dying to harangue Zuko since he left on his little field trip with Azula. They don’t seem to want to let him go so soon.”

“Are they allowed to do that? I mean, he’s the Fire Lord.”

Mai shrugged. “Zuko’s too patient with them. Azula has to step in sometimes.”

Katara let out a small laugh and shared a secret smile with Mai. She had heard stories about the Fire Lord’s new advisor, who sometimes verbalized Zuko’s anger on his behalf through precisely worded insults and thinly-veiled intimidation. Stories the advisor herself told her through letters. It had become a weekly source of amusement for her for a couple of months, despite how she disapproved with some of her methods. 

Two months. It would seem short if she only considered time in numbers, but it felt longer to her.

They arrived at Katara's quarters, which was different from the one she used to stay in during all her previous visits to the palace. When Mai led her inside to give her a tour, she noticed it was also far bigger. It was an entire living space, actually. Complete with multiple rooms and a study. She even had her own personal group of servants, who Mai introduced to her by their names after they brought Katara’s things inside.

It all seemed excessive to Katara, who grew up sharing a tent with her family, and whose own house back in the South Pole was just a little bit bigger than her new quarters’ living room.

“I know it’s far more lavish than your old rooms, but all representatives are assigned to similar chambers,” Mai informed her, having interpreted the expression on her face accurately. “Feel free to redecorate, if you want.” 

Katara perked up at that. “I can do that?” 

“Sure,” said Mai with a half-smile. “I've already acquired some genuine water tribe decorations for you to select. I think some of the hangings would suit your quarters.”

That was a relief. Katara was sure she'd end up wanting to gouge her eyes out if she had to stare at nothing but red, gold and black for the entirety of her time serving as a representative.

It was also a relief to hear another evidence of her tribe's growing economy with trade between the South Pole and the Fire Nation going well enough that Mai could just arrange orders of authentic water tribe wares easily. Economic growth and expansion were things that her father and Sokka had always pushed for, and now with her position in the council she could nurture the progress they had planted to bear more fruit. 

After Mai left, she dismissed her servants and told them to rest for the night, assuring them that she would simply call if she ever needed help with anything. The way she told them this was somewhat awkward, though. She never had to deal with personal attendants before.

There was a canopy bed befitting royalty in her bedroom. She collapsed into it, relished in its softness despite knowing full well that her back would ache the next day, having been accustomed to sturdier surfaces. Katara lied to Mai when she said she already had dinner back on the ship. The truth was that Katara felt jittery ever since the Fire Nation came into view, which only got worse the closer she got to the palace. She didn't think eating would be a good idea with how her belly was flipping all over. Some minutes passed and she realized that another thing she couldn't do was sleep, apparently.

She sat upright and rose from the bed. There was a smaller room attached to the bedchamber, separated by a deep red curtain. Katara swept it aside to find a freestanding bath full to the brim with warm, steaming water. It beckoned to her, so Katara took off her clothes, and sank into the water with a pleased sigh. The water sloshed along the rim as she settled herself into the bath and Katara played with a few drops, suspending them in the air for a few seconds before letting the droplets trail her face soothingly. As soon as the water started to cool, she gingerly got herself out and bent a coil of water to reach for a towel. She could've called for a servant, but she still wasn't entirely comfortable with the idea of having other people help her with something as menial as taking a bath.

Katara put on some clothes but kept her hair out of its braids and loops, letting it drape loosely down her back. With nothing else to do, and no desire to sleep, she decided to walk about her new living quarters. The place that would become her home for the foreseeable future while she served as a representative of her tribe. 

Katara was skimming through the spines of the books in her personal study’s bookshelf when she heard a knock.

She didn’t run towards the door, but she might as well have with how quick her strides were. When she reached it, she took a moment to briefly examine herself before opening it slowly. Azula was on the other side, and Katara tried to tamp down her smile so as not to look like a lunatic.

Azula rolled her eyes. Opening her arms slightly, she said, “Alright, come on. I know you’re itching to do it.”

The last word was barely of Azula’s lips when Katara pounced on her friend, trapping Azula in her arms. Azula returned the gesture albeit with less gusto. “I didn’t think you’d miss me.”

She pulled away quickly and fixed Azula with a hard look. “I haven’t seen you in two months and that’s how you greet me?” She tried not to laugh as Azula raised her brow. “Of course, I missed you.”

“That's good to know." Azula took one of her hands in hers. Katara was struck by how far they have come. There had been a time when Azula wouldn't have allowed Katara to step into her personal space, or the idea of threading their fingers together without so much as a thought just because they wanted to seemed like such a laughable notion. Azula tugged at her hand. "Come on, I want to get some fresh air."

They walked hand in hand through the hallway. This, too, was normal now. If anyone caught the two of them like this, they wouldn’t bat a single eyelash. Everyone knew the formidable princess was close friends with Katara.

Still, casual or not, Katara felt her breath expand in her chest and a prickle of warmth from where their skins touched. She tried to look just as unaffected about it as Azula seemed.

“Mai told me you were in a meeting with Zuko,” Katara said.

“Don’t remind me. Talk about something else.”

Katara shook her head fondly. “How was your trip with Zuko, then?”

Azula didn’t answer right away. Katara started to regret asking when they neared the royal gardens and she was still quiet. Some time ago, Azula had written to Katara about traveling with her brother. She didn’t say where they were going, and Katara didn’t push her for details.

At length, Azula finally spoke. “We went to see my mother.”

She glanced at Azula but didn’t say anything. They walked some more until they reached the gardens, the cool air in her face giving her the sensation of being lightly splashed with water. They stopped at the edge of the large pond.

“She has her own family now, apparently.” Azula’s voice was pointedly devoid of emotion. “Zuko found her a long time ago but didn’t bring her back home. She was happy where she was, he said. He would visit her sometimes.”

She was quiet again after that. Only the moon and the stars above could see them now, and they blanketed them with their pale light. Katara kept close to Azula, close enough that she could count her lashes despite the dimness. She waited for her to finish.

“When I saw her first, I nearly… I almost slipped again. Zuko was there and he helped me through it.” Azula’s grip on her hand tightened. “I don’t hate my mother. Not anymore. I don’t think hate was ever the word for it, actually. But I couldn’t look at her or be near her without feeling some old resentment rise up again. I don’t even think I could look at my father now without… I'd end up maiming him, I'm sure.”

Azula paused to wipe her cheek. “I managed to hold a few conversations with my mother before we left. The first few ones were... hard, but it got less difficult eventually. Hindsight cleared my mind, I guess. It helped me realize that my mother was only human, and she had her own set of scars from Father. Still, it felt more like a closure. I think Zuzu's a bit disappointed about that, but it's something he'd never understand.” Azula leaned her head against Katara's shoulder, her topknot brushing against her cheeks. Katara felt the weight of the contact, the intimacy of it. In times like these, Katara knew that what Azula needed was for her to listen. To be there for her, assure her wordlessly that she wasn’t leaving, help her carry whatever burden she was struggling with.

The first time Azula opened up about Ursa to her was when they were in the South Pole on an evening not so different from this.

After their bold rescue, they had split off from their group to help the Northern and Southern Water Tribes while the others went to the Earth Kingdom. Hulranoq and the rest of the Red Lotus put up a fight, but ultimately Azula and Katara triumphed over them. When they reached the South, the remaining Red Lotus forces surrendered as soon as they saw Lan and Katara was reunited with her father. At some point after the celebrations that followed, when Katara took Azula to one of her favorite quiet spots where they had a vast view of the stars, Azula asked about her necklace. Her friend wondered why a lot of women seem to wear the same ones, varying only with their shades and carvings. She told Azula that they were betrothal necklaces, but hers used to belong to her mother. The conversation that followed was painful for the both of them, one that lasted until their eyes were heavy. A girl who saw lost her mother so young and another who felt like her own mother never loved her.

She was stirred from her thoughts when Azula raised her head from where it had been resting on her shoulder. Katara mourned for its absence. “We went to Ome’s tribe after that,” Azula went on. “Zuko’s been there once, so they didn’t mind.”

“Wait, Zuko’s been there?” she interrupted. “To Ome’s super-secret tribe that you won’t even talk to me about?”

“It’s a long story.” Azula laughed breathily. “I’ll take you there soon, don’t worry. Ome wants to meet you. She even asked the chief for permission.”

Katara's eyes stung. She felt like crying, but Azula would make fun of her for it. Instead, she poked Azula on the cheek and laughed at the affronted look it elicited. When she spoke next, her voice sounded genuinely touched. “You talked to Ome about me?”

She delighted at the color that rose to Azula’s pale cheeks. “Cut it out or I’ll feed you to Lan.”

Katara held back a smirk. “Speaking of Lan, where is he?”

“He’s just flying about. You know how he gets.” Azula waved her hand to gesture at nowhere in particular. “Can’t stand to stay in one place for very long.”

“Too bad. I hope he comes back soon—I miss him,” Katara said with a sigh, then lightly nudged Azula when she added, “Not as much as I missed you, though.”

Azula didn’t say anything, but Katara saw her blush deepen. She savored each time she could break Azula’s composure like this, at how easily she could ruffle someone whose default façade was as cold as the ice back in the poles and could make men cower simply with a sharp glance.

Silence fell over them again but even that didn’t feel empty. Standing so near Azula, she could smell her familiar scent of soft sandalwood and fire that made Katara feel heady and awake all at once.

“I still have trouble letting people in,” Azula admitted suddenly, taking Katara slightly by surprise. Her voice just a touch above a whisper. “It even took me a very long time before I opened up to Ome about who I really was. About what happened to me.”

Azula turned until they stood face to face. There was an earnest look in her eyes, one that still managed to stun Katara to silence. She waited, aware that Azula could feel the quickening of her pulse from where their hands and wrists were entwined.

Azula’s words came out in a sudden rush. “I’ve come to realize though that it somehow comes easier to open up to you, that it doesn’t scare me as much.”

Katara knew what it was like to drown. The feeling in her chest as she stared wide-eyed at Azula was not so different. Whether she would end up floating or have the air leave her lungs hinged on what Azula chose to say next.

“And whatever this means, I’m not scared to find out either.” Azula continued to tell her. “I want to find out. With you. If you’ll have me.” Azula’s face was open, bare of all the masks she had acquired over the years. “I know that I’m far from perfect, and I don't think I could ever change some broken parts of me. I know I have a lot to make up for.”

As Katara reached out to take Azula’s other hand she remembered the broken, defeated young girl all those years ago. “You ceased being the enemy when the war ended, Azula. And you’ve more than made up for everything. The way your people love you can attest to that.”

“The world can despise me for all I care. It’s your opinion that matters to me.”

That robbed Katara of all the arguments that were about to spill from her mouth.

When words fail her, she turned back to the language of movement and action. It was something they were both well-versed at: in battlefields, in the sharing of warmth, in glances and embraces, in the push and pull of unseen energies guiding them through this world. She trusted in that shared language now as she reached out to Azula. Her fingertips traced Azula's jaw like a question, and the answering gaze she got in return was everything she hoped for.

She abandoned all her inhibitions, angled her face just so, and kissed Azula.

The way Azula’s lips were softer than she imagined was the first thing she noted despite the kiss being far from it. It was all grasping hands and desperate clashing of lips, but Katara wouldn’t have it any other way. There would be time for gentleness later.

The kiss deepened and she felt a tingling from her head down to her toes, as if Azula had just sent a lightning bolt through her. She could feel Azula’s warmth seep into her own skin, felt it in the lips touching hers, the small of her back where Katara’s hands were twisted in. Slender fingers in her hair, then suddenly she felt more of Azula against her own body.

It was over too soon when Azula pulled away. She stayed close enough, her breath billowing around Katara’s face. “You keep surprising me.” Her voice was low and breathy.

Katara smiled at her. “Get used to it. I don’t intend to stop anytime soon.”

“That’s a relief.” Azula pulled Katara’s head down to rest against her chest. Katara closed her eyes, allowing herself to be held. She found that she felt right at home in the warmth.