In hindsight, Zuko admits bitterly as he trudges through the snow, his face buffeted by fierce icy winds, Uncle is probably right. Escaping Zhao’s ship on a much faster, much smaller skiff, then sneaking into the Northern Water Tribe to steal the Avatar before the fleet can besiege the icy walls might have been a little half-baked as far as plans go.
After all, if Zuko stayed with the fleet until it arrives at the walls, his own arrival would be masked by the cacophony of water tribesmen preparing for battle, and the Avatar’s disappearance would be attributed to that very same chaos. He would go in and out of the North Pole, quick and easy—unless, of course, he is hit by a different storm much like this one.
Because of course. When have the elements ever decided to give him a break? Every time he decides to do something, puts his mind to it, the world arranges itself to make it the most difficult thing he could possibly do.
So, now he’s here, wading through knee-high snow, seeing nothing but interminable greys and whites even as he holds out his flaming hand to light the way. To say that it’s cold is an understatement. His scalp—covered by nothing but a rather loose, too-thin hood—can still feel the chill, but his face is now almost fully numb. He lowers his cloth mask and takes a breath, deep from his stomach like Uncle taught him, and expels fire from his nose and mouth, bringing feeling back to his face and immediately regretting it, as the first sensation that returns is a sharp pain that could have been inflicted by a drunk acupuncturist.
Is that better than feeling nothing? He’s not sure.
In hindsight, running off to practice bending on her own, carrying nothing but a pocketful of jerky and her waterskin, might just have been a little reckless. Then again, Katara wouldn’t be here if Pakku wasn’t a sexist old coot who thinks having a catfish’s mustache gives him the final word on who can and can’t learn waterbending.
So really, it’s not Katara’s fault that she’s stuck in a snowstorm, white and grey everywhere she looks. Her parka is pulled up, and she has wrapped some cloth around her nose and mouth, but that means nothing if she doesn’t find shelter. She’s weathered storms like this before in the South Pole, but she’s never been caught in it. There are stories, though, like Amka’s husband, who went out fishing and never returned, only to be found frozen solid the morning after.
These things happen. They just never happen to her.
It’s hard to breathe again. Her breath condenses into water, and, caught on her face covering, immediately freezes, building up a layer of ice over time. She melts the ice, gathers the droplets on her hand, then flicks the water to the ground. She’s lost count of how many times she’s done this.
Maybe Sokka will find her tomorrow morning, as hard as a block of ice.
He bumps into something. A cliffside? He holds his hands out and finds something like rock and—surprise—more ice.
He keeps his hand on it, tracing the shape of the rock. Maybe at one point it'll slope into something like a lean-to, and he’ll have some shelter.
It's a thin hope, but it’s all he has. It’s all he’s had for years.
His right side of his face is almost as numb as the left. He can’t decide how he feels about that.
Zuko walks. And walks. And walks. He hasn’t eaten anything all day. He’s cold. The sun is going down, and what was white and grey is now just murky and dark. It’s hard to breathe, so he pulls down the cloth mask that was wrapped around his nose and mouth.
He’ll… sit down. Lean on the rock and just sit down here, catch his breath. Then he'll go again.
She stumbles into a lump of… something. It’s hard to see. A person?
She crouches and touches the lump. It is a person. They’re warm under her hand, warm and limp and dead to the world. It’s too dark to see their face properly, but she cups their chin—what idiot would leave their face bare in a storm?—and puts her fingers under their nose. Feels the warm exhalations of breath.
A passed-out person in the middle of a snowstorm, like Amka’s husband before he died and froze solid.
She checks the rest of them. Rubs their hands and fingers so they don’t freeze. It’s dark, but she’s kind of sure they don’t look blue. Maybe. Hopefully. She checks their arm, the wiry limbs limp in her grasp, and their torso. Feels a strong, steady heartbeat thumping beneath their honestly too-thin shirt. They’ve got a pack, a bedroll tucked under the straps.
How this person is somehow more prepared than her yet isn’t wearing anything warm enough is a mystery for later. Right now, she has to get this mystery to safety.
She hoists their lifeless body up—unexpectedly heavy for someone so lean—and stumbles a little to the side, bumping their conjoined bodies into something like… a rock? A mountainside? The person groans in her ear, their breath unreasonably warm.
They have a fever. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? She can't… she can't remember. She knows it's bad if they're cold and asleep, but warm and asleep?
No, that doesn't matter now. Not when they don't have a shelter or even a fire.
She sighs. Shifts them so they are on one side, and the rock-thing is on the other—her only guide in the darkness.
She starts walking.
There’s a bit less wind where his rescuer deposits him. Small hands—gentle even through the mittens—pat him over and ease his pack off his body. Some movement, then hands pushing him sideways. He obeys and finds his bedroll, and a blanket falls on him.
He opens his eyes, but it’s dark. Too dark.
A hand pats his shoulder, once, twice. “You’re okay. You’re gonna be okay.”
He closes his eyes again.
If it had been Aang or Sokka who’d stormed off and got caught in a snowstorm, she’d be worried sick and if—no, when, because even in this hypothetical scenario it’s too much to consider the alternative, so when—they returned, she’d yell at them and then hug them and then yell into their ears.
Except today it’s her who’s reckless, and by pure dumb luck she’s found a half-dead person with a pack. Well, the half-dead companion isn’t lucky, but the pack is. And soon after that, she finds an opening in the big fixture she’s been circling: a cave that’s sheltered enough from the wind. It’s still dark, but some groping around the cave floor earns her a little campfire with ashes and splinters of burnt wood, probably left by whoever last used the cave as a shelter. She takes off a mitten and touches the chunks. The feel of it is unmistakable. Charcoal. Not ideal, but better than she could hope for.
The half-dead person is now on a bedroll, so at least they won’t freeze to death yet. They will, if she doesn’t make a fire, so she rummages into their pack and finds—nothing. No tinder box, no spark stones, no bow drill. There is some dried fruit and nuts, a little tin pot, a clay bowl and cup, and loops of rope dangling from the side of his pack, but nothing she can see that can light a fire.
And there goes her luck. She knew it would only last for so long, but it’s still disappointing.
Maybe she’s dislodged the spark stones with her rummaging and they rolled to the other side of the cave, and hence will now be lost forever to her. She doubts it, because she was pretty careful, but it’s more likely than someone packing a bedroll and rope and food yet nothing to make a fire with.
Well, she needs to make sure they’re still alive anyway.
A small hand pats his cheek. “Hey. Hey, you.”
He makes a sound. He’s not sure what kind, but it’s not something intelligible.
“Oh, good. You’re alive. Where’s your spark stones?”
“Tinder box? Bow drill, maybe?”
He opens his eyes and squints at the vague shape of a girl looming over him. “I don’t—”
“Right, you’re probably not even from around here, how would you know what a bow drill is?” She sighs. “Look, I need to make a fire so we don’t both freeze to death, okay?”
Oh. Fire. “I can do that,” he says. He tries to push himself up on weak limbs, and she reaches for him and helps prop him up until he’s leaning on what must be a cave wall. He’s about to tell her to take a step back but she already does, so he brings a pathetic amount of fire to his hand.
She gasps. “You—!”
Water shoots at his hand, dousing the fire and propelling it back to the cave wall before it freezes.
Just like that and all too late, he’s fully awake.
There's thundering in her ears, and it’s not the storm outside.
“Why are you here?” Katara demands, even though he could have only come here for one thing and one thing only. Suddenly all of the oddities add up. He’s not wearing the right clothes. He’s stranded out in the middle of nowhere. He’s got no fire-making tools, because he is a fire-making tool. Her blood runs cold. The Fire Nation is here. Here. The Northern Water Tribe has survived the war for a hundred years, but now— “Who else is with you?”
Prince Zuko—because that's who he is, that’s who she’d saved and brought into this damn cave—answers the first question with a shrug and the second with, “Just me.”
“Don't lie,” she snaps. “Or I’ll—” What? What will she do? She won’t kill him or torture him for information. She wants to, wishes she could be so ruthless, but she can’t. She’s not Fire Nation. She’s not Jet. She grits her teeth. “Answer me.”
“I told you,” he says, “it's just me.” He heaves a breath in the dark. His teeth chatter. Her ice is still shackling his hand to the wall, and his silhouette is still in the dark. His voice is low, sluggish.
Clearly, he’s still losing heat. If she keeps him like that, he’ll lose that hand before the rest of him freezes over. She might be able to survive without fire, if she uses his bedroll and his blanket. Maybe. And the cave only gives them partial shelter, and it’s a winter night. There’s still at least fourteen more hours before the sun returns.
She needs fire. He can make fire.
And letting him die isn’t any different than killing him.
He’s still waiting for her judgement. Obviously, he knows he’s at her mercy.
Still, she’s taking no chances.
“I’m going to take the ice back,” she says, “and you’re going to make a fire for us. But if you try anything—”
He somehow manages a scoff through his chattering teeth. “You’re not very good at threats, are you?”
She glares at him. He probably can’t see it, what with them being surrounded by darkness and all, but it makes her feel better. “Are you going to cooperate or not?”
“Are you going to trust me?” he shoots back. “Make your choice and do it fast before I freeze to death.”
She needs his fire, and she has the upper hand. That doesn’t mean she trusts him.
“So?” he demands.
She doesn’t make any more threats. He knows, just as well as her, that while she doesn’t want to kill him—doesn’t want to kill anyone— but she can end him if he starts a fight. Maybe. She’s in her element, at least, even though she’s not a master waterbender. So, she melts the ice, guiding the water back to her waterskin. His hand falls heavy, like lead, and he doesn’t firebend immediately. Instead, he rubs his wrist, his hand, flexing the fingers.
“I’m going to firebend now,” he says.
“Okay.” She appreciates the warning. She’s not going to thank him for it.
He summons fire to his hand, a small pathetic thing. He closes his eyes, breathing in, then out. A puff of smoke exits his mouth, and the fire in his hand grows bigger.
She grips the waterskin by her side tightly, with the same hand that Aang had burned. Her whole body is a spring wound up so tightly, she’ll burst at any moment.
He reaches forward with the fire. She skitters backward.
He flicks his gaze up at her, the gold of his eyes illuminated by the flame. “Relax.”
He rolls his eyes. Leans a bit further forward, and pours the fire onto the charcoals like releasing a fish back to the water. The flame soon dies, leaving glowing embers behind. “There,” he says, and retreats back to his shadowed corner.
She slides down the cave wall and folds her legs, her knees pressed to her chest. Somehow, it feels wrong to not thank him, but the moment is long past, and so she stays quiet, and he does too.
The charcoals are still glowing bright when the wind starts blowing stronger, bringing snow into the cave. It falls on him, melting into water, cooling his skin. He shivers and curls up tighter under his blanket.
Remember your breathing exercises, Uncle had told him. He tries, but his jaw trembles and his teeth chatter and he’s so, so cold.
Katara pulls the hood of her parka up. Folds her limbs as closely as possible to her chest, as if that can stop the cold from seeping into his bones. Across the campfire, he’s shivering again. The rattle of his teeth is giving her a headache, which she really doesn’t need right now.
She stands up. Feels the way her half-asleep legs protest under her. Stands before the opening of the cave.
She pulls the snow, melting it and then freezing it again, laying the ice layer by layer, closing up the cave entirely except for a small hole at the bottom so they don’t suffocate.
There. No more wind. She probably should have done that right away, but whatever. It’s there now.
She returns to her corner, weary, sleepy. She can’t sleep. She must not sleep.
She’s shivering. Zuko can hear it, the sound amplified under the curved ceiling of the cave. She must be holding her jaw slack, because her teeth aren’t chattering, but every breath is shuddery, and her silhouette seems to shrink with every minute as she curls up tighter and tighter.
He can’t sleep. Won’t sleep. He doesn’t trust her, and he knows she doesn’t trust him, either. Right now, he’s lying on his side in his bedroll, under his blanket, because the cave wall is too cold to lean on and he’s too tired to be sitting up.
And now, he can’t sleep because she’s shivering almost as loudly as the wind outside.
Between them is the campfire, the charcoals glowing lazily, but the warmth is nearly negligible. Even with the cave closed against the roaring wind, even with her fur-trimmed parka, she’s still shivering.
He sits up on his bedroll. She jolts, and even in the relative darkness he feels her eyes following him.
“Calm down,” he says.
“What are you doing?” she asks, every word wobbling with her chin.
“We need a bigger fire,” he says. He bends fire in his palm, just like before. This time, the fire is steadier, growing and shrinking in time with his breaths.
He stands up, exploring their surroundings. It’s a small cave, about half the size of his cabin. There’s nothing here, though. Just his pack, his bedroll, and his blanket.
And a lump of something yellowish, next to a little pile of moss.
“Seal blubber,” she supplies from behind his shoulder. This time, he jumps, the fire dying as he whirls around to face her. Mockingly, she says, “Calm down.”
He scowls and brings the fire back. “Why would there be seal blubber here?”
She shrugs. “It’s”—she sneezes—“harder to get firewood in winter, so we burn seal blubber instead. The charcoal in the campfire is probably from before winter.” She bends down to get the seal blubber and moss, then hands him the blubber. “Warm this up a little,” she says.
He brings heat to his palm. The grease melts and coats his hands, but before it can drip down his cupped hand, she snatches the blubber back. She’s taken off her gloves, and now she’s working the blubber to coat the moss, pressing and forming it into a sort of coal-like lump. She does it with ease, with certainty. She’s probably done this countless times, growing up in the South Pole.
Eventually, she stops and inspects the lump, and with a satisfied nod, she holds it out towards him. He takes it, his fingers brushing her oil-slick palm. The lump ignites easily in his hand, filling the cave with light and warmth.
She sighs, eyes half-lidded, mouth curved in a small, satisfied smile.
He looks away. Tosses the lump into the campfire. Flexes his fingers and let tiny licks of flame eat up the grease that still sticks to his skin.
He returns to his bedroll, watching her wash her hands with melted snow before putting her gloves back on. When she takes a step back to her corner of the cave, he finds himself saying, “Don’t.”
She gives him a withering glare.
“You’ll freeze to death sitting on the ground,” he says. “Use my bedroll.”
“How noble,” she says, though her tone is anything but approving. “Going to sacrifice yourself for the peasant?”
“No,” he says, gritting his teeth. “If we sit up, we can both sit on the bedroll.”
She looks at the bedroll doubtfully, then at him. Purses her lips. And then she says, “Okay.”
He scooches to one end of the bedroll, sitting cross-legged, his back straight. She gingerly lowers herself onto the other end, folding her legs underneath her, leaving a handsbreadth of space between his knee and hers. He spreads out his blanket, and she takes one end as he tucks the other around his own body. His back is cold. If hers is, too, she’s not complaining.
He focuses on the fire, breathing in and out, watching the way the fire flares at the inhale and shrinks at the exhale. Next to him, she sits quietly. Her breathing evens out, her posture slackening. How did she find him? What was she doing so far away from the tribe?
What will happen in the morning, once the storm is gone and the truce is over?
Those questions feel like thin ice over a lake, so he stays quiet and merely breathes. In. Out. The cave is warmer, now. He can only hope the warmth stays.
Katara’s eyelids are beginning to droop when he asks, “Why is there seal blubber in this cave?”
She frowns. Turns to look at him. He’s turned his face ever so slightly towards her, and she can see the beginnings of his scar curving away toward his hairline. He turns away, fixing his gaze on the fire, and once more the scar vanishes. She always thought he looked kind of ridiculous, with the bald head and the ponytail, but right now he’s wearing some sort of hood that covers his scalp, leaving the sharp features of his profile—
She doesn’t finish that thought.
“I told you,” Katara says, shaking her head slightly as if she could shake off her unwanted observations. “In winter—”
“Not that,” he cuts her off. “I mean, who put it here?”
She shrugs. “I don’t know. Some guy, probably. In case he was out hunting and got stuck in the storm like us.”
He doesn’t reply. She doesn’t say anything else, because there’s nothing to say. She’s sure whoever it is will not be thrilled when he finds out that his cache of supplies is currently being used to keep the backwards southern waterbending girl and the Fire Lord’s son alive. She’s not thrilled about Zuko, either, but she doesn’t care much about the opinion of some northern guy who’s probably just as sexist as the rest of his tribe.
It’s warm under the blanket. Even with the space between them, he radiates heat. She’d thought he was feverish, but now it’s clear that he’s just a firebender, and firebenders run hot. The campfire seems to breathe with him, burning brighter, then lower, brighter, then lower. It’s an even rhythm, almost like the rocking of a boat over gentle waves.
She closes her eyes. Just for a little bit.
His stomach rumbles, and before she can stop herself, she laughs.
“Sorry,” he says. It’s unexpectedly polite. He is a prince, but she’s only ever seen it reflected in his sense of entitlement, his rage, his demands that the world bow down to his will. That he would apologize for a rumbling stomach, to her of all people, feels absurd.
“Don’t worry about it,” she finds herself saying, because she’s been raised properly, too, and because why not? It’s not like her night is going to get any weirder than this.
He leaves their two-person blanket fort, rummaging inside his pack and reemerging with a handful of dried nuts and fruit. He closes his fist around it for a few seconds and then holds it out to her.
When they had been crossing Earth Kingdom territory, Katara had heard a folk tale about a fisherman. A turtleduck is caught in his net, and when he lets it go, it guides him to a palace under the sea. The sea princess holds a feast to thank him for his service, for three days and three nights, and when he returns to the land, he finds that three hundred years have passed.
Katara has rescued no turtleduck. Zuko is no princess under the sea, and the fruit and nuts make no feast. And yet, his offering feels like a trick. Like if she takes it, she’ll return home only to find that everything’s changed.
She shakes her head. “I’m good, thanks.”
He rolls his eyes. Takes a random berry and pops it into his mouth. “It’s not poisoned,” he says. “Don’t be stupid and just eat.”
Did he just call her stupid? “Or what?” she challenges. “You’re gonna make me?”
He flinches. “No! It’s just—you seemed—argh! Fine! Starve all night. See if I care.”
“I won’t starve,” she says, rolling her eyes. “People won’t die from not eating for a night, you know.”
“I know. Don’t mind me.” And then he eats in silence.
She goes back to watching the fire, but it’s not the same now. It’s jerky, jittery. Not the calming undulation of warmth that it was previously. For some reason, it feels like it’s her fault. Which is stupid, because there’s nothing wrong with not taking food from an enemy.
Except he isn’t an enemy, not right now, not since she let him light their campfire.
She’s beginning to regret not letting him die. If he were dead, she wouldn’t have to apologize to him.
He’s finished the food and goes back to retrieve something from his pack. When he’s back under the blanket, he places a clay bowl with another handful of dried fruits and nuts in front of her. She looks down at it, then at him.
He looks away. “In case you change your mind.”
“Why?” she asks. “I won’t die—”
“I know,” he snaps.
“No, I mean...” Katara pulls her edge of the blanket tighter around her, and between them the fabric is taut like an unfurled sail. “You don’t have to share your food with me.”
He scowls, but says nothing.
She can’t bear the silence, so she says, “I know we have a truce, but it’s just for the night, and I’m just saying—”
“I wanted to thank you,” he says, very quickly and so thinly that it’s nearly swallowed by the roaring wind outside.
For a moment, she sits there, trying to process whatever that is he just said. He wanted to thank her. With food. Because she… didn’t kill him? He has an incredibly low bar for gratitude, if so. The truce is for her own benefit. That he also reaps the benefits of their tentative partnership is a loss she’s willing to accept.
Before she can formulate a coherent reply, though, he continues, “You saved me from the storm. I know you didn’t know it was me, and if you’d known—”
This time, she’s the one who cuts him off. “No.”
He turns to look at her, his face oddly open, vulnerable.
“No,” she repeats. “I would never leave anyone to die like that.” The mere idea of it is so repugnant, she refuses to even let him finish his sentence.
He tilts his head as if trying to solve a riddle that makes no sense. “You’re right,” he says eventually. “You’re not very good at threats.”
The first time he’d said that, it had sounded like an insult. Now, it feels like something else. Something she doesn’t care to think about. She pulls her knees up to her chest and rests her forehead atop them. It’s probably a bad idea to look away from her enemy, but it’s hard to bear the weight of his gaze, somehow.
She says, “I thought about it.”
“You’re here to capture Aang.”
She keeps her face hidden and lets one ugly truth after another spill. “I can’t. I still can’t—I needed you to make the fire, but we have a fire now, so it doesn’t matter anymore. I mean, I guess it might die in the fight. If I attack you now, I mean. But I can’t do that, and it’s not because I don’t want to risk the campfire.”
He doesn’t say anything. Doesn’t move. His warmth is heavier than the blanket, filling the space between them. It’s oddly comforting. It angers her. She’s so very tired of being angry.
She continues, “You’ve risked your life to capture Aang, while I’ve risked my life to protect him. He’s the only hope we have against—you. Your people.”
Finally, Katara lifts her head and turns to look at him. He’s got his gaze fixed on her, and it looks as if some of their campfire is dancing in his eyes. Eyes of a firebender. Eyes of the enemy.
“I would die for Aang,” she says. The truth settles heavily in her chest. “But right here, right now, I won’t kill you for him, and I don’t know why.”
He picks up the bowl of offerings from in front of her, and cradles it for a few moments between his palms. Then, he holds it out to her, and—unthinking—she takes it.
“You should eat,” he says. “You’ve used up a lot of your strength.”
She picks at the berries. They’re warm, too, and sweeter than she thought they would be.
As she eats, he makes them some tea. Zuko doesn’t remember packing it, but he finds it anyway, wrapped in paper and tied with a string. Uncle’s doing, no doubt. Zuko doesn’t even like tea, but it at least gives him something to do in the silence. What could he say anyway, when faced with such a confession?
Thanks, I don’t want to kill you too.
He can almost hear Azula’s snort. Good thing she’s not here. Or Uncle, or Father, or anyone else. Just Zuko and the waterbender girl. Katara. That’s her name. It feels weird calling her by her name. But it also feels wrong not to do so, after all she’s done for him, after all she’s said to him.
Zuko finds his tin pot and his waterskin, the latter of which is as stiff and hard as a club; the water inside has frozen solid. Zuko curses.
“Here, let me,” she says from behind him. Reaching over his shoulder, she takes the waterskin from him and unstoppers it, and then, with a graceful twist of her wrist, she pulls the water, now melted, out in a stream. Suspended in the air, it shimmers, the fire reflected on its surface.
He didn’t know waterbending could be so beautiful.
“The pot?” she asks, her hand still held aloft.
Zuko manages a nod, and she gently pours the water into the tin pot before returning to her end of the bedroll.
There’s no way for him to safely put the pot over the campfire, so instead, he holds the pot in both hands and warms it with the heat of his own palms. He watches the water in it simmer, then bubble. The same water that this unforgiving land had frozen, and the same water she’d bended for him. Not at him, but for him. For them.
His whole life, he’s been taught that fire is the superior element, and that the Fire Nation is the most advanced and civilized of all. Fighting her time and time again, he’d believed it. Even water, his natural opposite, had been inferior, feeble. If not for the advantage of numbers—if not for the Avatar—he could have defeated her in single combat.
Tonight, though, he’s witnessed her use waterbending for other uses than fighting. She built a wall to shelter them from the wind, and just now she helped him with the waterskin. She isn’t weak. She has never been weak. She was merely untrained, and why wouldn’t she be, when his nation has captured every single waterbender from the Southern Water Tribe?
And what does it say about water, if the Fire Nation fears its benders so much?
He sets the pot down and pours into it all the tea leaves from the paper packet; the smell of tea—who knows what kind—fills the air. It’s actually kind of nice. Comforting.
He takes her bowl and begins to tip the pot over it, but she stops him with a hand on his arm.
“You’ll splash it everywhere,” she says.
He puts the pot down, and once more watches as she bends the tea into her bowl, and then to the cup he gets from his pack. She doesn’t comment on the mismatched crockery, but something in the casualness of her movements as she pours for them both makes him feel contrite anyway.
She tilts her head. “For what?”
“I only have one cup.”
She cradles her bowl of tea under her chin, the swirling steam washing over her face. “Shame on you,” she says calmly. “Don’t you know that you could get stuck in a snowstorm with an enemy at any time?”
“My apologies,” he says obsequiously. “How stupid of me.”
She rolls her eyes, but there’s a hint of smile tugging at her lips. “Honestly. Be better.”
“You’re not the first person to tell me that.” He sips his tea. It’s already lukewarm. On his ship, tea stays hot for longer, but he’s far away from his ship.
She lifts her bowl to her lips and takes a sip, then jerks it away from her and makes a face. “What is that?”
“It’s…” She pauses. Sticks out her tongue and makes another face before chugging from her waterskin. “Very strong,” she says, eventually.
Is it? He takes a bigger sip. The bitterness sticks to his tongue, the roof of his mouth. It’s stronger than when Uncle usually makes it, but he doesn’t really see what’s so bad about it. “It just tastes like tea to me.”
“Really, really bad tea.”
“Well, tough luck. You’re stuck with it.”
She snorts. “I guess I am.” She drinks the rest of the tea in her bowl, shuddering when she’s done. Zuko winces. After the production she had with the first sip, he thought she’d be retching by now, but she’s looking at him resolutely.
“You didn’t have to—”
She shrugs. “You didn’t have to pour some for me, either.”
Technically, she’d poured the tea for the both of them, but he lets it slide. Instead, he lifts the pot and grins at her. “Refill?”
She doesn’t answer immediately, blinking a few times with her mouth open. “Um… no. No, thanks.” Throwing off the blanket, she leaps to her feet. “I think I’m going to try to sleep now. It’s been a long day.”
“Okay?” Zuko says. Somehow, he feels like he’s messed up, but he doesn’t know what.
“Yeah,” she says, nodding. “So I’ll just…” And she crosses the cave, back to her corner.
“You’ll freeze,” he says, standing up. “Use the bedroll.”
“You’ll freeze,” she points out.
Before he can stop himself, he finds himself saying, “Better me than you.”
“I didn’t mean that.”
Slowly, she turns to him. “No, you did.” She takes one step after another until she’s very, very close. Her eyes are wide and dark, and she watches him keenly, as if trying to read his mind. “Why did you say that?”
“If I’m dead, you don’t have to worry about me chasing the Avatar around anymore.” It sounded funnier in his head, but he can’t really take it back. He gives her another grin, hoping she’ll take it as a joke.
She doesn’t laugh. She doesn’t even gape like the last time he grinned at her. “That’s not funny,” she says, as if he doesn’t know it already. “You know I can’t let someone die like that. Not even you.”
“I know.” He doesn’t say anything else. He doesn’t know where it came from, how the thought so suddenly formed, so easily spilled. But it is true. Her life is worth more to him than his own. He won’t apologize for that.
She crosses her arms. Uncrosses them. Then, hesitantly, yet with a defiant glare, she says, “If we both lie down on our sides, we can mostly fit on that bedroll.”
She’s right. Her figure is smaller than his, and he’s not particularly bulky either. Still, “You don’t want me to keep my distance?”
“Suuure,” she says. “I’d feel so much safer stuck in a cave with you if you’d just pretty please be two steps away from me. It’s not like I haven’t eaten your food, which you could’ve poisoned, or drank your awful tea, which might as well be poison on its own.”
“I didn’t poison you,” he snaps.
“Then lie down and shut up,” she snaps back.
“Fine.” He takes one single stomp to the side of his bedroll and lies down on his side, facing the cave wall. “There, happy?”
“Elated,” she says, deadpan. Then, he feels her settle behind him, her back pressed to his back. There’s a solidity to her, and he’s suddenly very aware of the way she only barely brushes him on the narrow bedroll, of the way she shifts a bit here and there, the way she pulls the blanket over them both before settling still.
That’s when Zuko realizes: it might be safer for him to be across the cave, on the cold hard ground. He’ll freeze like that, but here, on the bedroll with her, he might burn.
Her plan had backfired.
When Zuko had offered her a refill and an easy grin, something in Katara’s mind had screeched to a halt. There’d been danger there, though she still doesn’t know what. He’d been, at that moment, not an enemy stuck in a ceasefire. He’d been a companion, a friend. She’d made a joke at his expense, and he’d taken it with grace.
And then, he’d grinned. And there’d been something in that little tilt of his mouth, the crinkle at the edge of his golden eyes, that had invited her to smile back at him.
Which was why Katara had panicked, had made up the lie about wanting to sleep, because she’d thought it would give her some space from him, except of course he’d volunteer to freeze on the ground with her, and…
Here they are.
It’s her own fault, really. She should’ve explained that growing up at the South Pole had made her more resistant to the cold, or something. That would also be a lie, because while she’s sort of better adjusted to tundra climate, she doesn’t magically lose the ability to die by exposure. And the ground is really, really cold that she’ll probably only last two hours or so before she starts shivering again.
Right now, she wants to shiver for entirely different reasons, and she hates that. She doesn’t want to like him. She doesn’t want to enjoy the warmth that he generates just by being. She doesn’t want to admit that maybe he’s not so hateful a person, that maybe they could be friends in another life, that she would want to kiss his stupid face.
He has such a nice face. It’s horrible. She prefers it to be constantly growly and fiery and yell-y, because that makes it easy to hate him, to think of him as the pinnacle of Fire Nation cruelty. He hasn’t really been any of that, in this cave. He’s awkward and careful and considerate, and then he’d grinned at her.
He’s the Fire Lord’s son. He wants to capture Aang. He’s chased them across the world for that very purpose.
“Hey,” Katara asks. “You asleep?”
“No,” he says. “What’s wrong? Are you too cold?”
She’s positively toasty. He’s very, very warm. It’s the worst. “I just can’t sleep.”
“Yeah.” She gnaws at her lower lip for a bit, then throws caution to the wind. “Hey, why haven’t you tried to kill me yet?”
“You said I wouldn’t have to worry so much about Aang if you’re dead, right?” She waits until he makes a little hmph of assent, and continues, “Well, you’ll have an easier time catching him if I’m dead.”
“We have a truce. I’m honoring it.”
That’s not a good enough answer. Not for her. “I thought you lost your honor. Isn’t that why you have to capture Aang?”
“It’s not that simple,” he says, huffing.
“It’s a long story.”
“We have time,” she points out.
“I lost my honor because I disrespected my Father at a war meeting. I spoke out of turn, and…” He huffs, shifting a little behind her and eventually settling at the exact same position as before. There’s not a lot of room on this bedroll, even for two skinny people. “Look, the point is, I can’t go back home unless I bring the Avatar home.”
That still doesn’t answer much, but it doesn’t seem like asking more questions will get her anywhere. And besides, that doesn’t answer her first question. “But he’ll be easier to capture if I’m out of the way, right?”
He turns a little, his shoulder poking her back, and then asks, “Do you want me to fight you?”
“No!” Maybe. “I just… you didn’t even offer to share, like before. You just went and offered to sacrifice yourself.”
“I shouldn’t have said that.”
“But you meant it,” she insists. She knows he’d meant every word, and she doesn’t understand why, and she wants to. Even though she has a feeling the answer might change everything beyond this night, beyond this cave.
He doesn’t reply. Maybe he’s asleep, or just refusing to answer. She settles on her arm again, facing the fire. It’s back to its rhythmic movements, growing brighter and lower evenly. Maybe he is asleep, then, if his breathing is that slow.
But just as she closes her eyes, he asks, “Why do you fight?”
“This war. Why do you fight in it?”
Of all the horrible, stupid, ignorant questions. Doesn’t he understand what the Fire Nation has put her through, put her entire tribe through? How can she not fight? The fire in front of her looks almost frozen, as if it, too, is waiting for her answer. So she says, to the fire, “What other choice do I have?”
“You can surrender,” he says, matter-of-fact. “A lot of towns in the Earth Kingdom—towns bigger than what’s left of the Southern Water Tribe—many of them have surrendered.”
It’s hard to breathe, lying down, so she sits up. Watches him as he rolls around to look up at her. Fury swells in her chest. He seems so unafraid of her. She’s his enemy. She wants him to see that.
“It’s easier than fighting,” he says glibly. “It costs less, too. You’ve got better odds now with the Avatar, but—”
“It’s not right,” she snaps. “Do you have any idea what the Fire Nation has done to us? To me? It takes and it takes and it takes. Our waterbenders are gone. Our seas are patrolled by your ships, polluting it with your smoke and waste. Our men are killed by yours. My mother was killed by your men.”
His eyes, dark under the shadow she casts on him, are glued to her face. His brows are the slightest bit crinkled, but he doesn’t interrupt her.
So, she continues, “You can’t just rob us of our land, our waters, our way of living, and our people, then expect us to thank you. To just—” She looks for the right word, and when she finds none, she spits out, “lie down and sleep with the enemy.”
Her face is wet. He reaches up, his thumbs wiping away the cold tears, warming her skin with his touch. She doesn’t flinch. If he burns her, then let him. She’ll drown him, then, freeze him to death, win her war, but he’ll have to strike first.
He doesn’t burn her. He simply lets his touch linger, fingertips pressed to her skin so very lightly, and confesses, “I don’t know why I fight my father’s war.”
She frowns. There’s a hundred questions on her tongue and a thousand in her mind, but she waits. He pulls his hand away, and she follows it, chasing his touch like a moth chases light, until she lies down facing him, so close that she can feel his breath.
He says, “It’s all I’ve ever known in life. We’re taught that we’re the strongest, and so we have the right to rule. We’re taught that the other nations are backwards, full of uncivilized savages. When my father banished me and I had to travel the world that’s all I saw, too.”
His thumb goes back and forth across her cheekbone. He doesn’t even seem to notice it, his eyes fixed on her face, as if trying to read every single expression she makes. She asks, “Did that change?”
“Three years is a long time,” he says, and she thinks she understands. She’s only travelled a couple of months, and she’s already changed so much. “But it didn’t matter. I had one mission: capture the lost Avatar, bring him home, and my honor would be returned to me.”
“Have,” he amends. “I think. I… don’t know. Like I said, I don’t know anymore why I’m fighting this war. But you do. So…”
“Better me than you,” she echoes. Belatedly, she recognizes his taunts. He already knew why she fought. He just wanted to hear her say it, to confirm to him what he already understood.
“Yeah.” He gives her a grin again, but this time it’s a rueful one, one that makes her chest ache. “My father’s war is all I’ve ever known. And like you said, what choice do I have?”
She wants to say, join me. Join us. But even she knows it isn’t so easy. Jeong Jeong and his deserters refused to fight, but they’ve been in the war much longer than he has, and even now they still have no place. They’re neither allied with the Earth Kingdom nor are they peaceful civilians. They hate their own element. It’s a horrible life, not knowing one’s place, and Zuko knows it more than her.
He looks at her as if she holds the answer, as if she is the answer.
But all she has is a question. “What will you do in the morning?”
He is quiet, and then, “I don’t know.” For a moment, he doesn’t say a thing, as if waiting for her rebuke. When none comes, he says, “But for what it’s worth, I’m sorry you had to lie down and sleep with the enemy tonight.”
He offers her another grin, and this time it’s neither teasing nor sad, only something else Katara doesn’t understand, doesn’t want to understand. His palm is flush to her jaw, a warm cradle. His thumb has stopped moving. It now rests still on her cheek, waiting. If she pulls away, she knows he will, too.
She doesn’t want him to.
So she leans forward, and before she can second-guess anything, she kisses him.
He shudders; that sends her jolting, retreating, because what was she thinking, but he chases her lips, pulls her to him, and he kisses her back, and his lips are chapped but his kiss is gentle, and his mouth tastes like smoke, and Katara has kissed a dangerous boy before, but not like this, not one that she knows she shouldn’t want, except she does.
They break for air, eventually. Their legs are tangled, their foreheads pressed to each other’s, and they just—breathe. Behind her, the campfire burns bright, scalding. It is nothing to the fire in her arms.
“You’re not the enemy,” she tells him. “Not tonight.”
He kisses her again.
After the sixth kiss, or maybe the seventh—how is he supposed to count them, anyway, when one is so different to the next—Katara sits up and removes her parka, leaving her in a fitted, long-sleeved tunic. His mouth is dry as he watches her bundle the garment up and place it next to his head. When she lies back down—her head on the makeshift pillow—his arms reach for her as if that’s what they’re made for.
She’s so much smaller, without the thick furs, and so much more solid.
She thumps on his chest. “Do all firebenders just run around fever-hot all the time?”
“What do you mean?”
“When I found you out there, I thought you had a fever. And that was you freezing to death.”
“Huh.” He presses his forehead to hers, and it’s true. Her skin is much cooler than his. It’s warm, compared to the air around them, human-warm, but he’s not sure why. He’s not much of a hugger, so it’s not like he can compare her with anyone else.
But then, he doesn’t think she compares with anyone else. In any way.
“Is it bad?” he asks. “That I run hot?”
She laughs, snuggling closer. “In this weather? No.”
“Good,” he says. He’s an untalented firebender. A disgraced, honorless prince. A scar upon the lineage of the royal family.
But tonight, he keeps this girl warm, and that is good.
She falls asleep, for a bit. It’s warm in his arms. Comfortable. But the bedroll is too small and she’s all too aware of every move he makes, no matter how slight; it’s not long before she opens her eyes and finds him watching.
“Sorry,” she says.
She’s not sure, so she kisses him, and he doesn’t ask more questions. Who knew kissing was useful like that?
He falls asleep, too. Not for long. Probably. Time is weird on North Pole winter nights, and even weirder with her pressed all along him. When he wakes, she’s watching him.
“Hey, Katara,” he says.
Something flickers on her expression, quickly there and gone again. He realizes, distantly, that it’s the first time he’s called her by her name out loud.
“Sorry,” he says.
“For using my name?” She rests her palm on his cheek, her fingertips brushing his scar. His eyelids flutter close. She says, “Zuko?”
He opens his eyes again.
“Hi,” she says, a small smile on her lips, and it hurts him to see that, to know he’ll never see it again in the light of day, so he leans forward and kisses her, and kisses her, and kisses her, and maybe he can swallow a little bit of that smile and carry it with him outside of this cave.
Katara traces the topography of his scar, the wrinkles of the leathery skin, the redness of the burn. “Does it hurt?”
“Not anymore,” Zuko answers. “It doesn’t feel like much of anything, really.”
He doesn’t volunteer more. She doesn’t ask. Her fingertips skim over the curve of his shriveled ear, the jagged hairline. She wants to heal him, and not just this scar, but that’s not within her abilities. Waterbending can only do so much for someone made of fire.
He asks, “Will I be the enemy again, tomorrow?”
She says, “That’s for you to decide.”
And there are no more words that night.
He rises with the sun.
The campfire has died down, but the warmth remains. Her ice wall is gold-veined, the early dawn light reflecting and refracting through its rippled surface. Inside him his firebending sings, awake, alert.
It’s time for him to go.
He watches her for a moment, the shape of her face, the way her brow is smooth and untroubled, the curve of her lips. In a moment, he’ll sit up and she’ll wake up, but for now—
She opens her eyes. He’s forgotten how blue they are.
“Is it time?” she asks.
He gets up, and her hand reaches for his shoulder, trailing down his arm, until her fingers are tangled with his though he’s on his feet and she’s sitting up on their bedroll. She doesn’t grip tightly, doesn’t demand he stays.
Her touch feels like a weight anyway, so he sinks back to his knees, resting his forehead against hers.
“I don’t want to go,” he says.
“Then don’t.” It’s half-hearted at best. She knows better.
“I have to,” he says, more to himself than to her.
She nods. Her expression is hard, resolute. Like a glacier that refuses to melt. “I’ll help you pack.”
“No,” he says. “Keep the bedroll. And the blanket.”
“I’m not sticking around,” he says. “I shouldn’t be here, anyway.”
He shouldn’t be chasing the Avatar. He shouldn’t wait for someone else to recover his honor. He doesn’t know what other choice he has, what else he can do. He needs to find out on his own.
“Listen, before I go,” he says. “Zhao—I don’t know if you’ve met him, but he’s my father’s most vicious admiral—he’s bringing a fleet here. You have probably three days before he arrives. Maybe less. The ships are big, strong, but slow. Do you understand?” The words tumble out of him hastily, easily. As if it’s something he should have done a long time ago.
Her hand trembles against his, so he pulls it up. Kisses her fingertips, warms them with his lips.
“Win,” he tells her. “Win this battle, and maybe—one day—”
He sees her face and swallows down the wishful thinking, the hope. Her brows are knotted, her eyes furious. She’s angry. Of course, of course. He ruins everything he touches, and so he’s ruined this, too. Ruined them. She pulls away from his touch. He waits.
But she doesn’t strike, or shoot water at him, or yell. Instead, she reaches up to her hair, easing out the twin beads hanging on either side of her forehead. “Here,” she says, dropping them into his palm. “If you ever want to find me again, will you—”
“I will,” he promises. It’s probably too quick, too eager, but he doesn’t care.
She pokes his chest with a finger. “If you ever try to use them against—”
He kisses her, one last time. She curses him against his lips, then kisses him, then curses him again. She’s not very good at threats. He thinks he loves her for that.
After far too long and no time at all, they part. She melts away the ice wall, and he steps out into the sun. He doesn’t look back. If he does, he’ll go back, and it would be unfair to them both. So he walks, his pack much lighter on his back, his gaze set on the endless white before him, his fist clenched tightly around the two beads.
Katara rolls up the bedroll and folds the blanket, leaving them in the corner where they’d found the seal blubber and moss. She rebraids her hair, two beads short. She pulls her parka back on.
And then, she leaves the cave.
There’s a battle to prepare for.
It’s already spring when Zuko finds Katara—and his sister, and his uncle—in an abandoned Earth Kingdom town. It’s not the reunion he’d hoped for, but he’s grateful for any reunion at all.
They have Azula cornered, and when she sends a bolt of fire at Uncle, Zuko screams.
“Zuko.” Katara’s hand is gentle on his arm. He doesn’t look up to her—his face is a shameful thing, undeserving—but he doesn’t shrug her off. “Zuko, I can help. Let me help.”
Healing the old man is bitter work. The wound is deep—like an arrow that scorches everything in its way—and it takes everything she has to shed the burnt flesh and knit what remains together, to smooth out the chi pathways and make sure her little patchwork holds.
The sky is dark when she’s done. Toph is curled up on the ground, a rock under her head. Sokka and Aang jump to their feet, ready to escort her far away from the fire prince, but Katara ignores them.
“He’s going to be okay,” she tells Zuko. Then, “Can we talk?”
He nods, and they walk out of the decrepit building and down the empty street, slow and aimless. Over them, the sky is clear and star-strewn.
“You left your Uncle,” she said. The old man had arrived separately from his nephew, and they’d seemed surprised to find each other here.
“I needed to look for answers on my own.” Zuko’s still steadfastly avoiding her gaze, but she sees him anyway. His gaunt face, his even narrower frame. The short jagged hair. He looks like a hungry refugee. She wonders where he's been, how he got here.
But instead, she asks, “Did you find your answers, then?”
He stops walking, and she does too. He takes her hand, turns it palm-side up, and drops two blue beads onto it. “Yes.”
Katara leans forward and rests her forehead on his chest. He’s still fever-hot, firebender-hot. His heart thumps strong beneath his shirt, and she thinks she might cry. She doesn’t, though. His arms wrap around her and—for a moment—it’s as if they’d never left that cave.
But they had left that cave. He had gone off on his own, and she had seen the moon die and come back to life. They're different people, now, freed of the uncertainty of a tenuous truce.
So Katara says, “Fight with us,” and she means, stay with me.
And Zuko says, “Alright,” and he means, I’ll be yours for however long you’ll have me.