Chapter 1: The Bridegroom
“Your lord father, Firelord Ozai, long may he reign, has made arrangements for your marriage,” say Li and Lo, trading words as is their habit. Zuko stares out the window, wondering whom Ozai has persuaded to give their daughter to a disgraced prince. He is numb, knowing that it won’t matter, that his father has made his decision and all he can do is accept it. Whoever she is, he is marrying her.
Zuko stares down into the courtyard, watching the sun glint off the ripples in the pond. Li and Lo continue, even though it seems like he is not paying attention, because they also know it doesn’t matter, that whether Zuko hears or not will not change what will be.
“Your wedding will be in one week’s time, once your betrothed arrives from the South Pole.”
So, she is Water Tribe.
Zuko closes his eyes, feeling the implication strike him like a blade sliding into his heart. It is the final sign, the spark to the funeral pyre. The Sages and the council would never allow the Heir to marry outside the Fire Nation.
His father never expects him to regain his place in the line of succession.
Zuko opens his eyes. Water Tribe… She will have much to acclimate herself to, in this place so different from her land of ice and snow.
He watches a turtle-duck slide across the pond and clamber gracelessly up onto the stone lip surrounding the water. Li and Lo, their pronouncement done, bow to his back and leave the room. Zuko is alone once more, in a room as still and silent as a tomb.
His betrothed is beautiful. Her hair is long, tumbling down her back in almost-curls, as dark as the chocolate the eastern islands send as tribute to the palace every year. Her skin is nut-brown, glowing with a faint red blush. Her eyes are wide, darting here and there with an expression of wonder and curiosity. She’s wearing Water Tribe clothes, and must be sweltering, but she sits straight-backed in the palanquin and aside from the flush does not seem affected.
Zuko holds his breath and watches as they pass, his betrothed and the retinue carrying her to the palace, hiding himself in his borrowed commoner’s clothes, his wide-brimmed hat, and the shadows. He is not supposed to be there, among the crowds trying to catch a glimpse of their Prince’s bride. He is not supposed to see her until their marriage, but he does not care. He wants to see the woman, needs to know what he will tie himself to before he actually does.
It is both better and worse than he expects. She is beautiful, but the openness of her expression will call in the court leopard-sharks like blood in the water. She is already vulnerable to them, intended-wife of the failed prince, and a foreigner.
Zuko hopes she is stronger than she looks. He has no power with which to protect her.
He returns swiftly to the palace, and hides himself away from the sly glances of his sister, the whispers of the courtiers. He does not sleep until very late, and when he does, he dreams of his intended’s face, the sweet lines twisting with revulsion when she sees the monster she must marry.
Zuko wakes at sunrise on his wedding day, sick to his stomach and numb in his heart. He still gets out of bed and through his preparations mechanically. He has no other choice.
He stands in front of the palace with the rest of the wedding procession, and waits for his bride’s appearance. He has come before the doors and said the prescribed words of a groom coming to collect his bride, and now the shrine maidens are leading her out to him. Zuko remembers his dream.
Still, he is straight and tall, face carefully composed, waiting with patient aplomb. It does not take long before the shrine maidens return, encircling a slender figure in elaborate crimson and gold robes.
She is dressed in the Fire Nation fashion, and with the finest of fabrics and jewels. Zuko feels something unclench in his chest—at the very least they are being given a proper royal wedding.
He waits until they reach the procession, and the shrine maidens split off to the sides to allow the bride to meet her groom. Zuko dips into a bow as soon as her cloth-of-gold outer robe is visible before him, not yet daring to look in her face to see her reaction to her first sight of him. He is aware of her slight pause, and her answering bow. She dips slowly, carefully, with exquisite grace.
They don’t have princesses in the Water Tribes, not as the Fire Nation does. The Tribes are governed by chiefs, who are elected to their positions by councils of elders. But seeing his bride’s smooth grace and elegant bearing, Zuko thinks that she can easily persuade people that she is one.
Her bow is so balanced that her hair ornaments barely even chime together. They straighten, and Zuko sees her face.
Her expression is closed, so unlike the wide-eyed wonder of the day before, like steel walls have been erected behind her ocean-blue eyes. There is no wonder here, no curiosity. The paint on her lips makes her look pouting, but he sees past the red and sees the straight, firm line they form. There is no smile, no frown, like she is a doll—expressionless.
He is just glad she has not let her disgust show.
Zuko turns, and she steps into place beside him and turns as well. Then they are moving, walking in a stately procession toward the Golden Shrine, which stands only yards away on the other side of the great courtyard that separates the palace from the outer wall.
The shrine had been built centuries before, for the royal family’s personal use. It has seen countless royal weddings and no few funerals. When not in use for those grand state occasions, it lies nearly empty, except for a steady trickle of devout Fire Nation citizens, who make pilgrimages to the shrine in order to pray for the health and prosperity of the royal family.
Today it is full of nobles and ministers, with Ozai and Azula standing at the fore, the place of honor. Zuko can see Azula’s cruel smirk from the entrance.
The shrine maidens stop at the doors and split off, and Zuko leads his bride to the Fire Sages that wait at the base of the massive golden statue of Agni that towers over them at the front of the shrine.
The ceremony is a blur of rituals and chanting, and then a Fire Sage is placing Zuko’s bride’s hand into his. Her palm is sweaty and her fingers lie lifelessly in his. Zuko curls his around her hand and, as prompted by the Sage, turns to face the assembled court. His wife turns with him, though she makes no move to return the clasp. Zuko feels his stomach drop.
He keeps her hand, though, aware of the eyes that watch, the eyes that wait for them to trip, for some scandal, some weakness to show that they could prey on. He’s glad that it is considered bad luck for the bride and groom to smile, because he is sure neither of them is even capable of it today.
“Long live Prince Zuko, son of Ursa and Firelord Ozai! Long live Princess Consort Katara, daughter of Kya and Chief Hakoda of the Southern Water Tribe!” a Fire Sage cries, his voice filling the shrine. The assembled court chants it back in response. Zuko realizes that it is the first time he has heard his betrothed’s—no, his wife’s, now—name. Katara…
He leads her back outside and the procession returns to the palace, where a feast has been laid out to celebrate the Fire Prince’s wedding. He splits from his wife at the door, as she is spirited away somewhere to change into a new robe for this part of the celebration. He is carried with the flow of people to the great hall, which has been set up for the feast.
Zuko sits at his place on the dais, for the first time not set back in his father’s shadow but instead in his own place of prominence. He and Katara are the ones being honored by the feast; his father and Azula have their own dais set apart from the bridal couple’s.
Zuko feels strangely muffled, divorced from everything that is happening. He desperately wishes for a moment alone to balance himself, his thoughts. The day is progressing too quickly.
Katara returns, her robe more crimson than gold this time, with the traditional symbols embroidered on it for luck. Her hair is less elaborate, with fewer ornaments glinting against the rich brown. Zuko thinks he can see the beginnings of strain in her expression, but he may be reading his own emotions into her. He rises and goes to her, offering a hand. For half a breath she does not take it, and Zuko feels ice begin to form in his chest. Just before the hesitation will become obvious, though, she reaches back. He helps her onto the dais and to her place at his side.
Food is brought in and set before them. The hall fills with the chatter of the guests. Zuko thinks that he should speak to her, say something to the woman who is now his wife. He glances at her. Her head is slightly bowed, and she seems to be staring at her food. She has made no move to pick up her chopsticks.
Zuko glances at it himself. He recognizes the dish; it is one of his favorites, a flakey white fish crusted with hot spices. He’d be excited if it didn’t feel like his stomach wanted to leap out his throat.
He vaguely remembers reading somewhere that Water Tribes don’t use spices like the Fire Nation. He leans slightly toward his wife.
“It’s tai,” he says to her in a low voice, barely audible. “The outside is very spicy.”
She looks up at him as if surprised, but her gaze flicks back down almost immediately and he can’t read her expression. She murmurs: “Thank you, my lord.”
She still doesn’t reach for the food, and he is unsurprised. She must feel as nauseous as he does.
As they sit and ignore the food in front of them, there is a slow stream of guests coming to the base of their dais to personally wish them luck in their union. Zuko’s already upset stomach curdles further when he notices Azula approaching.
“My felicitations, brother,” she says, voice poisoned honey. “It gladdens my heart to see you married to a truly deserving woman.”
Zuko tenses at the concealed insult. But Azula is not finished. She looks up at him, malice glittering in her eyes.
“I only wish our mother could be here to celebrate with us.”
Zuko clamps down hard on his temper—a difficult thing. A few tendrils of smoke rise from his fisted hands before he flips his sleeves over them, hiding his white knuckles from sight.
“Thank you, Azula. I am glad you were able to return from your campaign in the Earth Kingdom to be here at my wedding.” His voice is very carefully neutral. He is aware of Katara looking from Azula to him in wary confusion. “I, also, miss Mother’s presence.”
“I’m sure she’s here in spirit,” Azula says, causing Zuko’s teeth to clench.
“You’re probably right,” he says, a little sharply. Knowing she scored a hit, Azula smirks, and turns to Katara.
“Welcome to the family, sister,” she says. Katara hesitates, then bows. She says something, but Zuko’s ears are ringing with suppressed fury. He should have known Azula would do something like this. He does notice, however, when Katara goes rigid beside him. Azula’s smirk has turned into a full, toothy grin. Her spiteful intentions fulfilled, Azula bows and withdraws.
Zuko doesn’t know what to say, doesn’t know how he could make whatever Azula had done to Katara better, doesn’t know how the words of a stranger—even, or maybe especially, the words of the stranger who was her husband—could comfort her. He unclenches his hands—they hurt, releasing, an ache of muscle and bone and a sharp sting of skin bitten by the press of nails—and lays them on his thighs.
Before he realizes it, his father is before them. Zuko freezes, then rises. At his side, Katara rises as well. It is tradition for the reigning Firelord to dismiss the newly married couple for the night. Zuko wonders if Ozai will take the opportunity to slide poison into their ears, as Azula did.
He will not give the man the pleasure of a reaction. Zuko retreats behind a carefully crafted shield of flames in his mind, allows the wall to burn anything his father says to cinders before it reaches him. It helps, but it does not cure, and Ozai is clever with his insinuations and insults. Zuko is hot with rage by the time his father lays his hands on Katara’s shoulders and kisses her forehead, the traditional send-off. Katara holds herself rigidly under Ozai’s touch.
“Agni lay his light-filled hand upon you both,” Ozai says, making the blessing sound like a curse. They bow, and then they leave.
Zuko feels stiff and creaking, like an unoiled hinge. They walk to their wedding chamber like they are marching to the gallows. A flock of servants descend upon them when they enter, removing heavy outer robes, sliding ornaments out of hair, washing away make-up. Zuko lets them lift the heavy mantle from his shoulders, very much aware of his wife being undressed across the room. The servants finish their jobs and withdraw, leaving Zuko in a loose pair of pants and Katara in a shift of un-dyed silk. He looks at her helplessly.
There is a folding screen in the corner of the room, concealing the Fire Sage who will stand witness to the consummation. He can’t see them, and they can’t see him, but they are all hyperaware of each other’s presence. Zuko wants nothing more than to drive him from the room, run him out and shut the doors against everyone except his wife, this stranger, this woman who is trapped in this mockery of a marriage with him, who is probably the only one who understands the tumult that his spirit is at this moment.
He can’t. He may be the Prince of the Fire Nation, but he cannot spurn the laws of his country. If he does not do as is expected of him, this marriage, and the alliance with the Water Tribes it represents, will dissolve. The insult to the Tribes would not be borne by their proud peoples. His father will have another reason to shunt Zuko to the side, to press his failure of a son into the shadows to forget about.
Still, it is tempting.
His wife is staring at the floor, hands in fists at her sides. Zuko knows she must also hate this, must be afraid.
The thought that his mother must have been in the same situation—but with Ozai—prompts Zuko to be gentle. He steps toward her, and she tenses.
His wife is beautiful, but he doesn’t know her, doesn’t love her, and her fear is like ice water down his spine. It might not be a conscious decision, to doom this marriage. He doesn’t want her, this.
He touches her shoulders, smoothing over the silk, and draws her closer. She is wooden in his arms, but all Zuko does is run his hands gently, caressingly, over her sides, her shoulders. He unbinds her hair and strokes his hands over the fall. He is gentle, slow, trying to calm them both, trying to get them to a place where all this is alright.
She smells faintly of the oil they’d used to help shape her hair into the traditional coif—something sweetly floral—and of sweat. He finds that he likes the smell of her, the warmth. He can feel her breath against his bare shoulder. As he keeps his hands to innocent touches she slowly relaxes, if only slightly. Zuko traces his fingers down her spine, and she unthinkingly leans closer to him. He can feel the soft press of her breasts against his chest, the brush of her cheek against his shoulder.
Zuko shifts back, touches her chin to nudge her head up, and kisses her. It is a careful, closed-mouth press of lips. She trembles under it, like a sparrow-doe about to bolt. Zuko rubs his lips back and forth against hers briefly, undemanding, then lifts his head. Her eyes are large, luminous in the glow of the candles lighting the room. She watches as he steps back, toward the bed, and offers a hand.
If she does not take it, he will not force her, consequences be damned. Zuko has never been capable of the casual cruelty of his father or sister, and he will not start now.
Their breaths are loud in the room—his, hers, and the unforgotten Sage’s. Her blue, blue eyes hold his gaze and then slowly, she reaches out and takes his hand. He can ignore the tremor in her fingers in favor of acknowledging her courage. He presses her knuckles against his unscarred cheek, a near kiss, and leads her to the bed.
Zuko is eighteen, and not inexperienced. He’d been with another woman, once, a year ago. He’d thought himself happy, briefly, before Azula had cottoned on to what was between her friend and her brother, and told their father. Ozai had sent Mai’s whole family to the Earth Kingdom, ostensibly to govern one of the conquered cities. And Zuko had been alone, again.
Then, too, he had read how things could be, between man and woman, in certain scrolls in the library. He had known what would happen tonight, and had wanted to mitigate the horror of the experience for her, for him, and so had looked for ways to do so. He hopes it is enough.
He urges Katara onto the plush cushions of the bed. He continues to caress her, but now his hands touch everywhere he had previously avoided—her breasts, her belly, stroking across her cheeks and combing her hair away from her temples. At first, she twitches, like she wants to slap his hands away, but she holds his gaze and curls her fingers into the bedsheets.
He wonders what she sees in his face that lets her allow his touch.
Zuko leans over her, careful not to cage her in his arms, giving her the option to roll away from him, and nuzzles her hair. She turns her head, and their noses bump. He kisses her, a harder press this time. He feels her heart jump under his palm.
There is a soft touch as Katara lifts a hesitant hand and strokes Zuko’s temple as lightly as a feather. For the first time that night, he feels arousal stir.
Holding onto that feeling, Zuko lays a hand on her side, thumb brushing the underside of her breast, and gently squeezes. He feels her ribs expand with a breath and she rolls slightly into him. Her participation makes this easier, though he still wishes he could have had time to know her before they were forced to this point, this situation.
A few long moments of gentle kisses and lingering caresses, and then Zuko is sliding her shift up and she is sitting up to let him pull it over her head and then she is naked next to him, hair tumbling over her shoulders as a blush stains her down-turned face. She is trembling again. This is new to her, new and not quite wanted, but allowed.
Zuko mouths the side of her neck, brushing her hair aside. His hands roam her bare skin, cup her breasts, trace the indent of her navel. The muscles of her belly jump under his fingers, a startled reaction to an unfamiliar touch. Her hands clasp around his biceps.
She is lithe, toned, and he wonders at the muscles that tense and relax in response to him. They did not say she is a bender, but…
A kiss to her jawline elicits a small noise from her throat, and Zuko repeats the action. Her hands slid up to his shoulders, then back down to his biceps, fingers curling a little tighter around his arms.
His pants are the next to go, the last barrier, and they are both vulnerable now. He settles over her, catches one of her hands in one of his, and meets her eyes. Only when she looks back at him, eyes open and dark—unreadable—and does not flinch away from his body, does he move.
He is as gentle as he knows how to be, but she is new to this, and tight with tension. She presses her head back against the cushions, eyes shut, mouth a thin line of discomfort, the tendons of her neck straining. A tiny huff of breath escapes her, a stillborn cry, but no tears fall. He is thankful for that; he doesn’t think he could continue if she cried.
She feels good, but the pleasure is cut by the reality of the situation, the awareness that they are essentially strangers, and the knowledge that they aren’t alone in the room. Still, their duty is clear.
Zuko leans down and kisses her throat, waiting as she slowly relaxes, blinking her eyes open. When the crease between her brows disappears, he rocks slowly against her.
Her eyes widen, her hands fly to his shoulders, and she gives a little gasp. Zuko reaches down, between them, to her. A few breaths and then he finds it, that place that makes her hips twitch against his. She whimpers, eyes sliding shut again.
Closing his own eyes, Zuko tries to remember a happier time, tries to recapture a ghost of the uncomplicated joy he’d just barely touched with Mai before she’d been sent away. Katara’s legs move restlessly against his, and he rocks a little harder, rubs a little faster… And she comes undone, keening softly, tightening around him. A couple strokes more and he is tumbling over, also, panting into her neck.
A moment passes, then another, and Zuko realizes he is trembling now. He withdraws from her slowly, afraid to look into her face. Will she be crying, now, after? He hopes he hasn’t hurt her unduly, hopes that the pleasure he’d tried to give her made this all even a little more bearable. It could be he failed in that. It could be he misread the matter; maybe it made things worse, maybe he has made her feel something she didn’t want to feel and she hates him for it.
Filled with uncertainties, self-loathing thick in his throat, Zuko shifts off of her. He picks up his pants, slides them on, hands her her shift. They say nothing, and Zuko can’t bring himself to look at her. He sits on the edge of the bed, feels her tentative weight dip the other side, and breathes. He’s tired and weary and wants nothing more than to close himself away from the world.
He settles with snuffing the candles in one firm Firebending movement. He lies back on the bed and puts an arm over his eyes, clamping his lips shut against the scowl that wants to form. A few breaths later, he hears Katara shifting, lying down as well. He doesn’t think he’ll fall asleep anytime soon, hyperaware of her small breaths in the dark beside him, but the strain of the day catches up to him and he succumbs.
Chapter 2: The Bride
The day after the wedding. Zuko and Katara each try to figure out how to be married to a stranger.
POV will be changing throughout the story, switching between Katara and Zuko.
As is usual for Firebenders, Zuko wakes at dawn, just as the sun spills its first rays over the horizon. He blinks into awareness and finds that, sometime in the night, he and Katara have rolled to face each other, curling together like cat-foxes. In sleep, her face is peaceful, lips slightly parted.
Zuko sits up, careful not to wake her. Her hair is spread across the bed, and Zuko can’t help but reach out and touch the curl closest to him. What is the protocol for this? They’re married, but they still don’t know each other. Zuko isn’t sure how to proceed.
Since she’s still asleep, he goes to bathe yesterday’s sweat and grime from himself. There are thin indoor robes hanging in the adjoined bathing room. When he is finished, he throws one on over the pants he’d slept in. There are no other clothes to change into. He guesses that servants will bring some, later.
He opens the door to the bedroom and pauses. Katara is still sleeping. At a bit of a loss, Zuko sits on his side of the bed and stares at the weak lines of sunlight creeping slowly across the floor.
Arranged marriages are a part of being royalty. It is how you amass and maintain power; strategic marriages bring alliances with influential nobles who may provide land, resources, or simply strength to back your rule. As well, the line of the Firelord has always been carefully maintained, marrying for power as well as influence. The Sages say that bending is a spiritual gift, but the spirit is housed in the flesh, and a weak body will result in weak bending. In the last few centuries, not one member of the royal family had married outside the country, trying to keep the line pure Fire.
Zuko is both surprised and not, that his father has wedded him to a Tribeswoman. On the one hand, Ozai is particularly convinced of fire’s superiority, and Zuko is surprised he would even think to allow a Water Tribe woman the title of Princess Consort. On the other… It is the death-knell for any ambitions Zuko may have had.
Zuko remembers the confusion and frustration he’d grappled with, after the Agni Kai, after healing enough to be coherent. A disgraced prince may win back his honor and position, but Ozai has never even hinted at what task might accomplish this. Zuko used to think he should prove himself on the battlefields of the Earth Kingdom, but he couldn’t do that until he’d turned fifteen and been recognized as an adult. By that time, two years had passed since the Agni Kai, and it had become clear to Zuko that his father expected him to request permission to go to war. The whole situation had been calculated to this end: so that when Zuko died, everyone could pretend it wasn’t Ozai’s fault. Oh, the Firelord didn’t want to send his son into combat, Prince Zuko begged his father for the chance to serve the Fire Nation and Ozai honored that request. What a tragedy that the war has claimed another prince…
Zuko is under no illusions that his father wouldn’t stoop so low as to plot his own son’s assassination, dressing it up as terrible misfortune that two of the Fire Nation’s beloved princes would fall in battle. Even if cousin Lu Ten’s death had just been a sad result of war (and Zuko isn’t quite willing to lay odds on that), Zuko knows in the pit of his stomach that his father would never let him walk off the battlefield alive. After years of ignoring the veiled suggestions that he ride off to glorious battle, Zuko supposes that Ozai was tired of waiting. This marriage is the backup plan, but Zuko knows that it is intended to weaken him. A Firelord, or an Heir, with a Water Tribe wife? Unthinkable.
Said Water Tribe wife stirs behind Zuko, and he turns to find her rubbing the sleep out of her eyes. When she notices him sitting on the bed watching her, she sits up and stares back.
She doesn’t seem disgusted, or angry. Tension Zuko hadn’t realized was in him eases.
There is a line on her cheek where her face rested against the brocade of a pillow. Without conscious thought, Zuko reaches out to touch the mark.
She flinches back and he freezes, hand upraised.
“Don’t,” he says, too harsh. He tries to gentle his voice. “Don’t ever fear me. Please.”
It’s what he wanted to say last night, but couldn’t, knowing that the Fire Sage would hear and would undoubtedly relay such weakness to Ozai.
“I’m not afraid of you,” his wife retorts, turning her head away, nose up. “I… I’m just sore, is all.”
It is obviously a lie. Her folded arms and the flush across her cheekbones dare him to call her on it. He almost wants to smile; his Water Tribe bride has fire.
Zuko ghosts his finger down the mark on her cheek; she’s still this time, except her eyes move to stare him down. “You slept on brocade.”
Her face flames red and her hand flies up to cover the imprint the fabric made on her skin. Zuko thinks that maybe this won’t be so bad. She doesn’t seem to hate him, isn’t a wilting flower, and isn’t a sniveling sycophant. He gets up from the bed and looks down at her. “There is a bathing room behind that door,” he points.
She nods, gets up, and moves toward it. Zuko watches her walk and realizes that, though it wasn’t the reason she flinched from him, she is sore. Guilt and unease squirm in his stomach. Had he not been gentle enough, last night, or is that normal? Mai had never…
But then, Mai wouldn’t have let on if she’d been sore, would she? She had always been uncommonly good at hiding herself. Even from Zuko.
He sighs as the door closes behind Katara, and sinks into the plush window seat. That had gone… better than he’d feared.
Katara lets out an explosive breath as soon as the door clicks shut behind her. She’s not sure what she expected, but her new husband is not it. He’s much more… human. It’s surprising, considering everything she’s heard about the royal family, and considering what she’s witnessed of the Firelord and the Princess’s cruelty.
Her new father and sister.
Moon and stars, there’s a chilling thought.
Katara shivers delicately, pushing the idea out of her mind. It doesn’t even bear thinking.
She distracts herself by investigating the room. The Fire Nation way of bathing looks to be much different from what she’s used to. At home, Katara would go with the rest of the women to the steam bath; it was a communal, social event. In the Fire Nation, it seems individuals bathe alone, and without steam.
Katara inspects the set-up—the barrels of clear water, the deep tub with its copper bottom and the low fire beneath it. The floor is slightly slanted, angling toward a hole in the middle, ostensibly to let water drain away. There are dippers on top of the water barrels, and soaps beside. She guesses that one washes first, with the water in the barrels, and then soaks in the tub of heated water.
She picks up the brick of soap and sniffs tentatively. She’s pleasantly surprised by the soft scent, like nothing she’s smelled before. It’s much different from the cloying scents the servants had tried to push on her the day before; she’d bowed to the necessity of the hair-oil—her curls hadn’t seemed to want to cooperate without it—but had refused the even-stronger-scented perfumes.
When she takes off her shift, Katara pauses and runs a hand down her body. She is lucky, she knows, that he had been gentle. When the news had come that she would sail to the Fire Nation and become the Prince’s bride, the women of the tribe had gathered to give her some idea of what was coming, what could happen. They’d told her both the good and the bad. When Katara had first seen her husband, she’d feared that it would be the bad, for her. His scar is prominent, angry, and twists one side of his face into a permanent glare. The clear handsomeness of the other side had been intimidating, especially with the way he’d smoothed it to expressionlessness.
But it hadn’t been all bad. She remembers the quiet whisper over dinner, the caressing hands, the heat and weight of him above her, and how he’d kept giving her ways out. She likes to think that, if she hadn’t responded to him, he would have stopped. She isn’t sure, though, because there’d been one of their priests, their Sages, tucked away in the corner of the room, last night. Katara doesn’t doubt that the Firelord has been told of everything they’d said and did. She suspects that he would not have been understanding.
They had consummated their marriage, however. And although it hadn’t been much of a choice—submit to her stranger-husband, or face the Firelord’s displeasure—she had had a choice. Her husband had—Zuko had given her a choice. And when she had chosen him, he had been gentle, and considerate.
She flushes a little, remembering.
Perhaps this will not be as miserable as she feared.
Katara washes quickly and finds the water of the soaking tub to be just shy of uncomfortably hot. She slowly eases herself in, sighing. The heat stings her sore muscles at first, but then it is soothing and relaxing. It feels a bit like taking steam, except she floats now in the comforting, buoying clasp of her element.
She lifts a hand, trailing water, and seizes the droplets with her bending. They sparkle in the light streaming in from the window. This is her secret. The Fire Nation would never have considered her if they’d known she could Waterbend—the ability made her dangerous. For once, Katara is glad of the insular nature of her people; only the Southern Water Tribe knows she is a Waterbender, and they are in no hurry to tell anyone. Especially not after the council her father had called, to discuss the matter as a community.
They need this alliance. It brings with it improved trade deals, and the Water Tribes depend on trade to get the resources the frozen poles could not give. They used to do brisk trade with the Earth Kingdom, but with the war, the Earth junks have stopped sailing as far as they used to. The trade routes to the South are cut off. Katara’s people are starving, freezing, running down. They want the Fire Nation’s trade. The Fire Nation wants the gasses that lie beneath the South Pole’s thick ice. This alliance gets them both what they want.
But Ozai had wanted something more binding that simple legal agreements. He’d wanted a marriage of state. A surprising condition. The royalty of the Fire Nation never married foreigners. When it had become clear that Ozai offered not his daughter, but his disgraced son, there had been mutterings. Is it an insult? A disgraced Prince given in political marriage? Or is it the best he could offer, since his daughter—who is the Heir Presumptive with her brother gone from the line of succession—cannot marry a foreigner. Having seen Ozai and Zuko and the politics in this burning land, Katara thinks it is more complicated than that. It is a moot point in any case, as the Tribe had agreed to the terms. What else could they do? They need the trade deals. They kept their mouths shut about Katara’s bending for much the same reason. And also for her sake. After all, perhaps it is better nobody suspects Katara has this kind of power. It can be her assurance as she moves to a foreign land, something she can use for protection if she needs to.
Katara lets the drops plink back into the tub. She’d never imagined she’d be so involved in international politics.
She oozes out of the bath, the hot water having turned her muscles loose and pliant. There’s a lightweight robe hanging on a hook near the door, an identical twin to the one Zuko is wearing. Katara pulls it on, then looks herself over in the mirror. She grimaces. The red silk looks like blood poured over her naked body, concealing little and suggesting everything else. She can’t walk out to her husband like this, it’s far too intimate. But the shift she’d slept in had also been what she’d worn under all her wedding robes. It is sweaty and gross. She didn’t particularly want to pull it back over her clean skin.
Almost on cue, there is a knock at the door, and Zuko’s voice filters through. “Katara? The servants brought us a change of clothes.”
She cracks the door open, keeping her body hidden behind it. She peeps around the jamb and sees Zuko. He’s already changed into his clothes, a fairly simple black and maroon robe over trousers much like the ones he wore the day before. He’s holding out a folded pile of clothes for her, his face averted. There is red dusting his cheeks.
Katara thinks that maybe her husband is shy.
“Thank you,” she takes the pile from him and shuts the door. She changes quickly into the long, wide-sleeved robe, grimacing a little at the effusion of fabric rustling around her. There is no way she could bend in this; she’d trip herself in seconds. She will have to see if she can procure some more suitable clothing, later. Princess Azula had worn trousers and armor, hadn’t she? Maybe that’s only allowed because she leads part of the Fire Nation’s military. Still, Katara will not allow herself to be fettered by impractical clothing.
She leaves the bathing room, finds her husband sitting on the window seat, leaning his elbows against his knees. He looks up when she draws near, but his eyes skitter away before he even really sees her.
He stands and clears his throat. “Do you want breakfast before we see your family?”
It is Fire Nation tradition for the bridal couple to meet with the bride’s family the day after the wedding, Katara remembers. To reassure them that the bride is happy and the groom worthy. Katara wonders exactly what could happen, if the bride’s family is not reassured. Does the Fire Nation allow for repudiation, like the Water Tribes?
“I think I’d like something to eat,” Katara says. Her stomach reminds her that she hadn’t eaten much of anything the day before. Zuko nods.
“Follow me,” he says, and leads the way out of the room and through the long halls of the palace. The first servant they cross paths with, Zuko hails. “Tai Ping!”
The girl stops and bows. “How may I serve you, Prince Zuko?”
“Bring us platters of fresh fruit, and bowls of kayu. We’ll be in the royal gardens,” Zuko says, pure authority in his voice.
“Yes, Prince Zuko,” Tai Ping says, bowing again and hurrying off.
“Those are the least spicy foods I could think of,” Zuko says, and Katara looks at him. He seems almost as if he’s waiting for something. Oh.
“They sound fine,” Katara tells him. “What gardens are we going to?”
“They’re the private gardens, for the enjoyment of the royal family,” he says. He leads them around a corner, down one more hallway, and through a door into sunlight. Katara catches her breath and stares.
“Oh,” she breathes, turning in place to try to take everything in. The garden is a riot of color, full of lush greens and bright, wild reds and oranges and every other color imaginable. She’s never seen such flowers, strange shapes and petals that unfold larger than her head. Katara forgets about her husband, pulled toward the flowers like a lodestone to north.
She moves from flower to flower, amazed at the strange beauty. She is distantly aware of her husband trailing along behind her, his bright golden eyes watching her reactions.
Katara stops at a flower as huge and as pink as the sky at dawn. It is a full hand-span wide, and bobs gently in the breeze. Katara traces the tip of one finger down a silky petal. They don’t have a strong scent, for which Katara is grateful because the sight of them alone is almost overwhelming. She drinks in the sight of them.
“Prince Zuko,” says a voice, causing Katara to turn as well. Three servants are approaching, Tai Ping leading. She carries a roll of heavy cloth, while her compatriots carry covered trays. They give half-bows over their burdens, and Tai Ping says: “My lord, where do you desire your breakfast?”
“Lay it out next to the pond,” he says. Immediately, they move to do as bid. Zuko stays still, so Katara waits as well. Her husband looks at her. “I want to show you something.”
Katara nods mutely. He gestures after the servants. “This way.”
Tai Ping and the other two work quickly. By the time Zuko and Katara round the bend in the garden path, they have laid out the rug and the food trays next to a burbling fountain. Katara’s attention is diverted from the food by the sweet sound of the water running over smooth stones. The fountain feeds into a wide pond full of floating flowers and mouse-koi fish. There is also a family of turtle-ducks paddling lazily near the far lip of the pond.
“When I was younger, I spent many afternoons here with my mother,” Zuko says, almost wistful. He glances at her. “Do you like it?”
Quite abruptly, Katara is blinking back tears. Maybe this marriage is a product of politics rather than love, and maybe neither of them had really wants to be here, but he is trying. He is trying, and he has been trying since the first time they’d laid eyes on each other.
“Yes,” she says. She smiles at him, and if it is a little wobbly she hopes he can forgive her. “I like it very much.”
There is relief, she thinks, in his eyes. He hesitates, then, greatly daring, reaches for her hand. When he clasps it in his, she clasps back.
“Isn’t this sweet?” asks a drawling, malicious voice. In the instant before they break apart, Katara sees Zuko’s face go cold and serious.
“Azula,” he says, turning toward his sister as she approaches. The Princess smirks at him and Katara feels a wave of unease wash against her. Last night the Princess had been cruelly insinuating, playing at civility with words like hidden blades. Now, there are no spectators, no reason for the show. This is the Princess without her court mask.
“Showing your little water peasant all your favorite places already? Having a little heart-to-heart, telling her all your secrets? Have you told her about mother yet? Maybe you can bond over that. After all, she doesn’t have a mother either,” Azula transfers her smirk to Katara, who feels all the blood drain from her face.
“Why are you here, Azula?” Zuko asks, anger in his voice. “Don’t you have better things to do?”
“Of course I do,” she replies. “But I came here to be a good sisterand congratulate you on your marriage once more.”
She sidles closer to her brother and stage-whispers: “So, how did she taste? Did she struggle? Did it make it good? Did she cry?”
Flames literally erupt from Zuko’s hands, and Katara throws herself back away from the siblings, heart pounding. But Zuko doesn’t move, hands in tight fists at his sides, though the flames crackle and twist around him, up to his elbows. Azula’s face is bright with anticipation, her mouth stretched in a toothy grin. There’s a tension in her body that says she is ready to respond to any attack. Katara feels behind her for the water and grips it with her bending, though she leaves it in the pond, still and ready. No reason to give herself away until she absolutely needs to.
“Get out,” Zuko says, low and grating. Azula doesn’t move. Zuko hisses like an angry dragon. “Get out!”
Azula is smiling, letting them know that she is not intimidated by the implicit threat.
“How does it feel?” she asks, instead, her eyes fixed on Zuko’s. “Being hated by everyone around you?”
“Leave!” Zuko snarls as he throws a fistful of fire at his sister. She flicks it to the side and backflips away. There is pure malicious glee shining in her eyes as she wiggles her fingers mockingly at Zuko before disappearing through a door into the palace.
The garden is still once more, and silence except for Zuko’s low, growling breaths. He’s standing like a statue, like he is afraid moving will shatter him, and Katara can see that his nostrils are flared as he sucks in breaths. There is still fire wreathing his hands, arms, and there is a wild, pained look in his golden eyes.
“I don’t hate you,” she blurts. His breath stutters, and the fires die. Slowly, his head turns and he looks at her incredulously, hesitantly. She flushes, looks down. “I… I don’t. You’re kind, and… gentle… and you don’t have to be. I didn’t think you would be.”
A quick glance up at him reveals a startlingly vulnerable look on his face. Katara flushes a little harder and manages to tilt her head up and look him in the eye. “You’ve done nothing for which I could hate you. It isn’t your fault this alliance was made. We’re in this together; there’s no reason for either of us to make the other miserable.”
She tries to look firm, confident, as his gaze flickers over her face. He reaches out and touches her hair gently, right next to her cheek. It reminds her of his soft touch this morning, which she’d flinched away from to start. He lets his hand fall away. “Thank you.”
When they finally eat, Katara finds that the Fire Nation has fruit as flavorful as their flowers are colorful. She is both amused and bewildered by the strange shapes and flavors of the fruits, and she loves every last one of them. She has to force herself to stop eating them and to take some of the kayu, which turns out to be very like Earth Kingdom jook.
Zuko seems to enjoy her enjoyment, though it is only visible in the way he hands her new slices and names each taste. In the naming, Katara learns other things, as well. She learns that he talks freely about his mother, but not of himself. “This one was my mother’s favorite. It’s papaya.”
“What’s your favorite?”
“I don’t have one,” he shrugs, picking another strange morsel for her to try next. “This is called dragon-fruit. It is often given as an offering to Agni.”
“Dragon-fruit?” she asks. He nods.
“It’s already peeled here, so you can’t tell, but the fruit looks scaled, like a dragon.”
“Oh. Have you seen a dragon?” She learns that he knows stories, the kinds of stories you tell to children as well as the kinds of stories you see acted out on a stage.
Zuko barely eats anything; when Katara notices this, she starts insisting he try each fruit with her. “Maybe you’ll find out which one is your favorite,” she says with a small smile. He’s clearly doubtful, but he acquiesces.
When they’ve eaten their fill, there is a lull in the conversation. No new names for Katara to learn. They watch the turtle-ducks make ripples in the pond. Finally, Zuko says: “Do you want to see your family, now?”
Katara nods and stands up. She pauses, looking down at the spread. “Should we…?”
“The servants will clear it up,” Zuko says. Katara feels awkward as she follows Zuko back inside the palace; she is not used to depending on servants. In the Southern Water Tribe, everyone works, everyone pitches in; it’s necessary, if they want to survive. Clearly, it is different if you are Fire Nation royalty.
Zuko leads them to the guest wing, and to the suite of rooms that house the Southern Water Tribe dignitaries. He nods to the honor guards flanking the doors, and one bows, knocks on the door, opens it after a pause, and announces them.
Chapter 3: The Understanding
“Prince Zuko and Princess Consort Katara,” the guard states formally, and steps aside to let them pass.
“Finally!” Katara hears her brother sigh as they enter. Her eyes go immediately to her father and brother, who both look as if they’ve been pacing since dawn. At her side, Zuko is stiff and she can feel a little bit of heat waft off him, as if his fires are a hairsbreadth from manifesting around him. She thinks he must feel a little like he is going into battle.
Her father steps forward to embrace her, and she wraps her arms around him, squeezing back. He hugs her tightly for a moment, then pushes her back to arms-length, eyes scanning her. She smiles sincerely, letting him know with body language that she is alright.
“Dad,” she says warmly, then turns and embraces her jittery brother. “Sokka. Have you met Zuko before?”
Her father had come to the Fire Nation before her, to finalize the details of the agreement. She doubts Zuko had any part in that, judging by the way his family treats him, but it is possible they met at some point.
“No,” Hakoda says, facing Zuko. Her husband bows respectfully.
“Chief Hakoda,” he says, face and voice neutral. Hakoda returns the bow.
“Prince Zuko,” he replies in kind. Katara can see the wariness in her father’s face, though she doubts Zuko, a stranger, could pick out the emotion from Hakoda’s stern blue-grey eyes.
“Katara!” Sokka says in an overly loud voice. He throws an arm over her shoulders and leads her away from their father and Zuko. “Have you tried the food here? I almost set my mouth on fire last night!”
“No,” Katara replies, seeing through the entirely un-subtle ploy to separate her from her new husband. Divide and conquer, she suspects. She is amused, and knows her father will not be cruel like Azula or Ozai, so she lets it happen. “I couldn’t stomach anything yesterday, and today Zuko made sure to order a non-spicy breakfast for us.”
She can almost see Sokka’s ears prick at Zuko’s name. They reach the opposite side of the rather sizeable room, and Sokka lowers his voice. “Okay, spill. How dead do I have to make him?”
She swats him lightly on the shoulder. “Murdering my husband would kind of ruin the alliance. You know, the one that’ll keep you all from starving this winter?”
“You’re more important than any alliance,” Sokka says, pouting and rubbing his arm. “And we’d figure something out for winter. Maybe we’d start eating the penguins instead of riding them. They’re made of meat, right?”
Katara laughs a little and shakes her head. Even as her heart swells with fondness for her brother, she can’t help but think of Azula and Zuko and compare their relationships. Impulsively, she throws her arms around Sokka. He flails in token protest but lets her cling to him. “You’re the best brother,” she tells him honestly. “But you don’t need to worry; Zuko’s… Zuko’s a lot nicer than he looks. And he’s a world nicer than his father or sister.”
Sokka mumbles something uncomplimentary about the Firelord. Katara lets him go and steps back, but keeps hold of his hands. “Really, Sokka, you don’t need to worry about Zuko. He hasn’t hurt me.”
“He hasn’t… I mean, he didn’t…” Sokka didn’t seem capable of shaping the words. Katara knows what he is trying to ask, though.
“Zuko has been very kind,” she replies to the unasked question. “Really, you don’t need to worry.”
Sokka pauses a long moment, looking equal parts worried and confused. “Well… good.”
Katara’s brow furrows. “I… Sokka, what’s—”
Her brother waves away her question before she even gets to ask it. “Don’t worry about it, Katara. It’s just kinda hard to believe, you know?”
Katara does know, but she also thinks there is something else Sokka isn’t telling her. But she doesn’t want her last conversation with her brother to be an argument. Besides, eventually he will have no choice but to believe her, as time passes and she comes to no harm.
“When are you and Dad heading back to the South Pole?” Katara asks, changing the subject.
“Tomorrow,” Sokka says solemnly. Katara can’t help but frown. So soon. Her heart sinks.
“I’ll miss you,” she whispers.
“Me, too,” he whispers back.
Zuko thinks that Hakoda could very well hold his own against even the most cut-throat of Fire Nation courtiers. He is calm and collected, and can pack more double meanings into one sentence than a poet. Zuko just wishes he would come out and ask him point-blank what he wants to know. Zuko doesn’t play these games. He wonders if Hakoda does, or if he just thinks that Zuko does. He is Katara’s father, after all, and Katara is straight-forward, honest. Surely Hakoda isn’t that different from her?
“Chief Hakoda,” Zuko says finally, after answering several questions honestly, if warily. They were the sort of questions that had no ‘right’ answer. He cuts Hakoda off, but the older man doesn’t seem angered by it. Instead, he falls silent as if he expected the interruption. “I know… you must be uncertain of me. Worried for your daughter. But I swear to you, I will do everything in my power to keep her safe from harm.”
Hakoda’s eyes sweep Zuko’s face, lingering on the scar, trying to read him. He doesn’t look particularly reassured, and Zuko’s hands, hidden by his sleeves, clench.
“Not knowing me, you have no way to judge my sincerity,” Zuko acknowledges lowly. “And knowing my father, you take no assurances in my word. Nevertheless, I give you both. I’m…”
Zuko pauses, frustration tensing the muscles in his jaw. He knows words mean nothing; he knows it better than most. But they’re all he has to offer. He struggles to find words that might be enough.
“There is a great deal of speculation as to what the son of the Firelord might have done to warrant being pulled from the line of succession,” Hakoda says. Zuko knows better than to believe it is a non-sequitur. And he knows better than to let the anger and insult burning his heart show.
“I’m sure there are many rumors to match,” he says, relieved that he manages not to snarl.
“Many,” Hakoda agrees. “Though I heard an interesting one that tied together your fall from grace with the Baoshan Slaughter.”
For a moment, Zuko cannot breathe. The rumors he is aware of regarding his disgrace are all blind shots that swing wide from the mark. This one is too close for comfort. He closes his eyes and tries to calm down. He can taste smoke in his mouth.
“I do not like to speak of the matter,” Zuko says.
“No, I imagine not,” Hakoda agreed. There is something dangerous hiding behind the calm in his tone. “After all, your ploy failed. All the plan did was to get a division of Fire Nation soldiers killed.”
It doesn’t register, at first, what he is implying. Zuko stares at him blankly before he finally grasps that Hakoda believes the Slaughter to have resulted from Zuko’s actions. That it had been his plan to use the recruits as a diversion.
Hakoda steps closer, invading Zuko’s space. His voice lowers. “I will never trust a man who can sacrifice the lives of his countrymen so casually, so callously.”
Zuko’s heart is pounding, his ears ringing. He is breathless, voiceless. He wants to set something on fire, he wants to break something. He wants to scream, to cry. He wants to get angry. He should feel insulted, betrayed. But all he feels is the hole in his spirit tear a little wider. Zuko lets out a bleak huff of laughter. “No,” he says bitterly. “No, I suppose you wouldn’t.”
The disgraced Prince bows. “Excuse me, Chief Hakoda. I’ll leave you to visit with your daughter.”
Zuko leaves, hearing Azula’s mocking words in his memory. How does it feel, being hated by everyone around you?
He wonders if it had been Azula, Ozai himself, or perhaps one of the generals trying to earn favor with the Firelord, who had started this particular rumor.
Whatever the origin, it is obvious Katara has never heard it. I don’t hate you.
No, she didn’t. Not yet.
Zuko heads toward the training yards. He needs to let off some steam.
Katara looks up in surprise when he father joins her and Sokka. She glances around the room, but Zuko is nowhere to be seen. She looks at her father, puzzled. “Where’s Zuko?”
Her father looks at her levelly and says: “He excused himself a moment ago.”
Katara, who is not stupid or ignorant or unobservant, narrows her eyes at him and asks: “And what did you say to him, to drive him away?”
Hakoda and Sokka share a look that brings Katara’s temper to the fore. “Why did I even bother with this marriage, if you are so intent on shattering it the very next day?”
“This marriage is necessary,” Hakoda says. “You know this, and I know this. But that does not mean I will not try to protect you.”
Katara scowls at her father and brother. “Zuko hasn’t hurt me.”
“That doesn’t mean he can’t, or won’t,” Hakoda says grimly. Katara nearly growls.
“Zuko won’t hurt me,” she says, annoyed. Her father has never met Zuko; he wasn’t there last night when Zuko had been so careful with her, careful with giving her a choice. He wasn’t there when Zuko begged her not to fear him, when he lit with fury at Azula’s insinuation that he’d hurt her. Katara doesn’t know Zuko, but she understands him better than her father does.
Hakoda and Sokka trade another meaningful glance and Katara wants to freeze them into their seats. “You clearly have some bit of information that I don’t,” she says acerbically, “so why don’t you share?”
“It’s not—” Sokka starts.
“No,” Katara snaps. “No. You will not leave me out of this. I am the one sacrificing myself for this, I am the one who gave up all other lives I might have lived to come here and marry the Firelord’s son. Tell. Me.”
Sokka sends a pleading look at Hakoda, but their father seems to be considering the demand. “You are right,” he says finally. “As the one who will be endangered most by this arrangement, you have the right to enter the lion-wolf’s den with open eyes.”
“Thank you,” Katara says with enough ice in her voice to make clear that she doesn’t believe she needs to thank him for giving her her right.
“It has to do with how he got that scar…” Hakoda starts. “Which is closely tied to why he is not the Heir any more.
“You’ve heard about the Baoshan Slaughter?” Katara nods. Her father meets her narrowed gaze. “It was Zuko’s plan. To send out that division, full of green recruits, a chicken-pig ripe for plucking, to lure the Earth Kingdom’s 35th out of position and allow another Fire Nation division a clear shot at General Fong. It didn’t work, and the Fire Nation experienced heavy losses. Nearly all of the sacrificial division was killed. The failure was Zuko’s disgrace, but he did not accept it. He challenged his father for the right to remain the Heir, and in losing that duel he was burned and removed from succession.”
Katara frowns. She has only known him a day—less than, really—but the Zuko she’s witnessed doesn’t seem capable of the sort of coldness that would be necessary to conceive of such a plan. It doesn’t fit. “Where did you hear this?”
“Some of the nobles were talking about it during your wedding feast,” her father says. Katara’s eyebrows lift.
“And you just believed them?” she asked. “There are so many rumors about what happened that a few have even made their way as far as the South Pole!”
“Instead of listening to gossip, why don’t you trust someone who’s actually spoken with him?”
“Katara.” Hakoda catches her hands as she gesticulates angrily. “He didn’t deny it.”
That gave her pause. Why wouldn’t he? Did he think it useless to argue? Or is it really true?
“No,” Katara says aloud. “No, it doesn’t fit.”
Her family is silent a moment, then Sokka ventures: “He might have been nice so far, but Katara… What if it’s just an act?”
“Then I will deal with it,” she whispers. “Because even if it is an act, he will not drop it while you’re here, and once you’ve gone back home, nothing you’ve said while here will hold him anymore.”
They look displeased with the blunt observation. Sokka opens his mouth, but Katara shakes her head. “Please, just leave it. There’s nothing you can do that you haven’t done already. And I don’t want to argue. You’re going home so soon…”
Hakoda and Sokka’s faces soften. “Yeah.”
Their conversation turns to happier matters. Katara is able to put her husband, and his potential sins, out of her mind. For a time.
When she finally leaves, several hours later, she pauses outside the door after the honor guards close it behind her. She should find her husband. It is getting to be dinnertime, and she isn’t sure what is expected of her for the meal. Does the royal family dine together? She hopes not. Is she expected to eat by herself? Does she need to attend her husband at his meals?
She thinks of just that morning, sitting in the gardens, Zuko feeding her fruit and stories. The memory hurts, now, with the conflicting memory of what her father had told her also fresh in her mind.
She should find him.
Katara turns to the honor guards. “Excuse me, will you tell me which direction my lord husband went when he left?”
“Lady,” says one, tone so careful she isn’t sure if he used the title out of respect or simply to follow protocol. “The Prince went this way.”
She nods her thanks and goes in the direction indicated.
The palace is big, and a general direction is not enough to find someone in the labyrinth of halls and rooms. When Katara sees a servant hustling around a corner, she calls out and hurries to catch up. The servant bows, keeping her head low, and says: “How may I be of service, Lady?”
“I’m sorry,” Katara says, a little awkward. She’d never spoken to any of the servants before this. She doesn’t even know if it’s foolish of her to think a servant might know the answer. “I’m not familiar with the palace. I’m trying to find my lord husband…”
“I do not know where Prince Zuko is right now, Lady.” The servant deepens her bow as Katara’s hopes die. “However, the Prince does spend long hours in the training yards; my Lady might try there.”
“Oh. Then, how do I get to the training yards?”
“If my Lady will follow me, I can lead her there.”
Katara is very glad that she took up the offer, because the route the servant leads her through is winding and complicated. But they at last exit and find themselves in a paved courtyard. It is massive, and divided into quadrants by low stone barriers. There are a few buildings near the middle of the courtyard. Since Katara cannot see Zuko just yet, she guesses that is where he is.
She dismisses the servant with thanks, and moves cautiously across the courtyard. This is clearly a training area for Firebenders, judging by the distinct lack of flammables and the open-air arenas. Even if she can’t see her husband, it doesn’t mean he isn’t there, and he might not see her either. So she moves slowly, with sharp awareness and caution.
When she skirts around one of the buildings, she finds Zuko in the small space that the buildings ring. There is a set of scorched pells in front of him, soot streaking the heavy canvas of their construction, but he doesn’t seem to be Firebending. Instead, it looks like he is practicing with throwing daggers.
It’s not a good idea to startle someone who is handling sharp blades. Katara stands half-tucked behind the corner, watching. He’s decent; he hits the target consistently, though somewhat erratically in the precise location. After he throws the last dagger, he pauses, and Katara almost steps out to hail him. But someone beats her to it.
The girl tumbles into the courtyard, a bright whirl of color. When she pops upright, striking a performer’s open-armed pose, Katara can see that she’s small and finely muscled, with a cheerful face and long brown hair done up in a braid. Katara freezes, uncertain.
“Hey Zuko!” the girl says cheerfully. “You’re much better at that now! Mai would be so happy! Have you been practicing a lot?”
“Hello, Ty Lee,” Zuko responds. His voice is dull and it is obvious he wishes the girl gone. She doesn’t seem to notice, though, dropping her pose and bending into a handstand. She hand-walks over to the knife-studded pell.
“Wo-ow! They’re gonna have to replace the target!”
Zuko sighs. “Why are you here, Ty Lee?”
Ty Lee giggles, executing two perfect backflips. “Azula told me you got married! That’s so great! Your aura has been all icky and grey for so long, you needed something happy to happen to you.”
Zuko is facing away from her, so Katara can’t see his expression, but she does see his bearing stiffen. His hands curl into fists.
“But… I guess Mai might be sad,” Ty Lee continues. “It has been a year since she left, but I don’t think she’s met anyone in New Ozai…”
“That was over before it even began,” Zuko says repressively. He stalks to the target and starts wrenching the daggers from it. Ty Lee pauses, as if just realizing that Zuko isn’t particularly enjoying the conversation. She eyes him, almost frowning.
“Hey,” she says slowly. “Your aura’s almost worse now. What happened?”
Zuko stares at the pell, though he’d already retrieved all his daggers. “Nothing,” he says. “Nothing happened.”
His voice is so bleak Katara has no trouble believing his ‘aura’ is grey. She swallows against a thick throat, knowing that something did, indeed, happen. She happened. Her family happened. His family happened.
“Just go away, Ty Lee,” Zuko says wearily. Katara’s not sure if Ty Lee obeys, because she does, backtracking along the path the servant had shown her. She feels heavy, sick.
She doesn’t believe the story her father told her, not really, but at the same time she knows there is so much about her husband she doesn’t know. The list of traits she can come up with is distressingly short. They aren’t lovers, aren’t friends, aren’t even really acquaintances, and she can’t help but feel like she had been intruding, seeing Zuko’s tired pain. Hearing about a woman who might be heartsick at the news of Zuko’s marriage. About whom Zuko might be heartsick. Katara doesn’t deserve that intimacy. She hasn’t earned the right to see his pain; she doesn’t know him.
The halls of the palace eagerly swallow Katara up as she moves through them, unseeing. She is lost in her thoughts, and in short order is lost in truth. It is Zuko who finds her, near an hour later.
“Katara?” he says, approaching hesitantly. “What are you doing here?”
She blinks and glances around, then blushes. She has no idea where she is. “Um. I… might be a little lost…”
She sees guilt flash over his face, because he’d left her, knowing that she is in an unfamiliar place, surrounded by unfamiliar people. He takes a step closer, which hardly counts for anything considering he is almost halfway down the hall from her. “Where were you trying to go?”
Katara pauses then laughs a little at herself. “I guess I don’t know that, either.”
Zuko nods. “I could show you back to the suite. Or… elsewhere. A newly married couple often stays in the wedding suite for a week, but we don’t have to. If you wish, we can just move back into the east wing. The rooms next to mine were prepared for your use…”
There is an awkward little pause, then Katara asks slowly: “Is it… expected, that we remain in the wedding suite?”
Zuko’s hesitation is answer enough. Katara lifts her chin and catches his gaze with hers. “We’ll stay in the suite. For a week. As tradition dictates.”
I want this alliance to succeed, she tries to tell him with her eyes. She wonders if he can read it, because his shoulders are tense and he won’t look at her.
“As tradition dictates,” he echoes.
Chapter 4: The Change
Ozai's plan moves forward.
Thanks, everyone, for the wonderful reception this story has gotten so far! I really appreciate the kudos and comments and bookmarks.
Katara wonders if whatever her father had said to Zuko has irreparably shattered the tenuous, fragile peace that had grown between him and her. He hasn’t touched her once in the weeks after the wedding, not even the small innocent touches that happen between two people living together. They’d stayed in the wedding suite a full week, though after that first night, Zuko took to sleeping on the padded bench that stood under the windows. At first, she’d thought it to be a continuation of the chivalry he’d shown her, but…
He doesn’t touch her, avoids it when possible. After they abandon the wedding suite for their everyday quarters, he never takes her into his bedroom nor does he ever set foot in hers. It isn’t that she wants him to; she is glad he does not push for relations. It’s only—he barely even speaks to her outside of what is necessary, and what conversations she goads him into are stilted and short. It is as if there is a door in him that just… shut.
It is infuriating. She doesn’t think he understands that it hurts her, too. He is the only person in the Fire Nation with whom she may speak, the only one in the palace she trusts. There are the servants, surely, that she may ask questions of (What is the name of this flower? Where might I find the palace library?), but they aren’t there to make friends with her. They do their jobs, and no more. And Katara has no desire to confide in any of them; it is impossible to know if any would report anything she says to the Firelord. Speaking of, he and Azula are the only other people who speak to her without prompting. But they are hardly pleasant conversationalists, and Katara actively avoids them.
She sits in the garden, on the stone lip of the ornamental pond, and trails her fingers through the water. She tries to think of some way to… make things better. She is not going to live the rest of her life trapped in a cage of loneliness. Black night, she is almost willing to try to seduce Zuko, if it would only draw him out of the cold shell in which he’d encased himself. She’d thought, when Zuko fed her sweet fruits for their first breakfast together because he knew she wasn’t used to Fire Nation spices, that even if this isn’t a marriage of love, it could be a marriage of equals. Maybe even friends.
He is still gentle with her, kind, when she actually sees him. But since they have separate rooms, it is not unusual for Katara to go for days without laying eyes on her husband.
Katara wiggles her fingers in the water, making the mouse-koi startle. She sighs, pulling her hand from the water and patting it dry on the hems of her long sleeves. She still wears the voluminous robes; she’d gone to see if the seamstress would fashion her some clothes more suited for her, but within ten minutes of meeting the woman, Katara had stalked furiously out of the room, insulted beyond bearing. The woman is a horrid witch and Katara wants nothing to do with her. If that means she has to deal with trailing sleeves and sweeping hems, so be it.
“My lady wife?” Katara looks up, surprised. Zuko stands a polite distance away—and then some. He clears his throat a little. “The Firelord calls us into audience.”
Even more surprised, Katara blinks blankly. “Now?”
Zuko nods. Katara rises, and together they make their way to the audience chamber. It is the second time she will be in that imposing room, kneeling in front of a curtain of flames as the shadowed figure of the Firelord looms over her. The first time had been two weeks after her wedding, when Ozai ostensibly wanted to be sure the marriage was doing well. She suspects he also wanted an opportunity to degrade Zuko, and intimidate her. It hadn’t been a pleasant meeting. She doubts this one will be any different.
They are admitted to the chamber by the imperial guards. Ozai is a silhouette behind the flames, a quiet menacing shadow. She and Zuko walk to the edge of dais, two scant yards from the flames. Katara can feel their heat tug at the skin of her face. They kneel, bow.
“I am sending you to Shikuza Island.” Ozai speaks without preamble. “A typhoon struck the eastern coastline several days ago. I want you to observe the rebuilding and report on the progress.”
“Yes, Firelord Ozai,” Zuko intones. He keeps his head bowed, and Katara does the same.
“I trust I do not need to inform you of the importance of the province?” Ozai asks silkily.
“No, Firelord.” Zuko says, and Katara waits but he does not elaborate. She wonders what the importance is; she is unfamiliar with the Fire Nation provinces.
“You may take your lady wife along with you,” Ozai says. “It would be a shame to separate you so early in your marriage.”
Katara seriously doubts he cares. She wants to know what his ulterior motive is; there must be one. Zuko is very still next to her; he must suspect the same thing.
“Thank you for your consideration, my lord,” he says.
“I will give you a Ferret-Shrike Class ship, and a detail of guards in addition to the crew,” Ozai says. “You will be representing the Dragon Throne to the people of Shikuza; do not disappoint me.”
Zuko bows lower, Katara following suite a half beat later.
There are servants in their quarters, gathering clothing and items for their journey and packing them into two elegant chests. Ozai is wasting no time in getting them out on their ship, steaming toward Shikuza.
Katara wants to ask her husband about a dozen questions, but there are so many people bustling about that she decides to wait until they are in relative privacy on the ship. She has never particularly liked admitting to weakness, and she is well aware that her lack of knowledge of her new home is a weakness, one that any Fire Nation courtier can exploit.
She waits until after they have been sent off with pomp and circumstance, decorous ranks of Fire Nation elites lining the royal docks saluting as the ship pulled slowly out. She waits until they are steaming out of the harbor, waits until she and Zuko are tucked away in their cabin. A young private brings them a tea service, and they sit in silence as he pours, bows, and leaves.
Katara picks up her cup and inhales the fragrant steam with pleasure. She takes a sip, lowers the cup. Zuko is tipping his cup to his lips.
“So,” Katara says slowly. She sees a flash of Zuko’s honey-colored eyes over the rim of his cup. “What exactly is the importance of Shikuza Island? I’m afraid I don’t know.”
“Ah…” Zuko sets his cup down, runs a hand through his shaggy hair. “The island contains our richest deposits of ores—there are three mines on the island, and mining efforts at each recover multiple resources. It is an important part of the Fire Nation’s economy.”
“I see,” she says, nodding. “So we’re going there to…?”
“It is customary to send an envoy to provinces that have been stricken by natural disasters such as typhoons, tsunami, or volcanic eruptions. It is a sign that the Firelord cares for the wellness of the province and the people. It is also to reassure the Firelord that the province’s contribution to the Fire Nation will not be affected by the disaster,” Zuko explains. “While we’re there, we will be given reports of the extent of the damage and the number of lives lost. We’ll be shown their efforts in rebuilding. Our ship carries some supplies for them. There will be a ceremony in which we present them, a formal show of the Firelord’s support.”
“Oh,” Katara says thoughtfully. “Are we expected to help with any of the rebuilding?”
Zuko shakes his head. “No.”
Katara thinks privately that it seems kind of stupid for them to travel to this place if all they are going to do is look at it and take time and attention away from the rebuilding. But the Fire Nation attends its political needs in a very different way than the Southern Water Tribe. She guesses she should get used to it.
“I understand,” she says. “I just have one more question. What is a typhoon?”
Zuko’s face slackens almost comically in surprise. Then, he seems to remember himself and school his expression to calmness. “Ah… It’s a storm… A strong storm.”
“What kind of damage does it do?” Katara asks, interestedly. “I know how dangerous storms are at sea, and blizzards can easily kill you if you caught out in one… but it’s too warm here for freezing to death.”
Zuko is nodding. “Typhoons are very strong storms. The rain is so hard that it causes floods—people sometimes drown in their own beds. The rain can also cause mudslides, which can destroy whole villages. Also, the wind can be so strong it can knock down houses. The storms can make the sea surge like a tide, flooding low coastal areas.”
“How long do these storms last?”
Zuko shrugs. “It depends on how large the typhoon is, which part of it hits land, how fast it’s moving… This one just scraped its edge along Shikuza, but it was a very strong typhoon. They saw three days of heavy rain and high winds.”
Katara is silent for a moment, tracing patterns in the glazing of her teacup. “What do people do during one of these storms?”
“Shut themselves away in their homes, mostly. Most buildings are built so that there is a room at the center of the structure, away from the outer walls. If the typhoon isn’t too strong, this is usually enough to protect the inhabitants. Unless there’s a flood or mudslide.”
“What if someone is hurt? What if… your neighbor’s house blows down?”
“Most likely, you won’t even hear it,” Zuko shakes his head. “And even if you do, it is too dangerous to go outside in the conditions that could do that. A wind strong enough to take out a house is more than enough to take down a person. And there will be debris carried by that wind. If a person is hit with even a small piece, it could kill instantly.”
“I don’t think I like typhoons,” Katara says after absorbing this information.
“The Fire Nation is beautiful,” Zuko says. Katara thinks he sounds… sad. “But it is perilous.”
Katara wonders if he means the weather or the people.
Zuko watches his wife, and wants to ask her. She has been acting as if she is completely unaware of the rumors about him, but that is impossible. Her father told her, he must have. And yet, she doesn’t look at him like he is a monster. She talks to him. She treats him civilly, if a little distantly. He can’t imagine her treating him like this if she thinks he is a killer. He can’t imagine her sitting calmly across from him, sipping tea and discussing the Fire Nation’s weather.
“It will take us three days to reach Shikuza Island,” he tells her presently, changing the subject. “I… We’ve been given a single bed. I’ll sleep on the floor, don’t worry.”
“Will that be comfortable enough for you?” she asks, brow furrowed as if she is actually concerned for him. He’s silent for a moment, not sure how to respond.
“I’ll be fine,” he tells her finally. He stands. “I’m… going to speak with the captain.”
He leaves—or, if he’s honest, he retreats.
The captain suffers Zuko’s questions as to the status of the ship, what route he intends to take through the Scaled Sea, the weather he expects. Finally, Zuko can no longer pretend that he has any pressing questions and leaves the captain to do his job.
The disgraced prince goes down to the deck, and stands at the starboard rail, watching the islands of the archipelago slide by. It has been a while since he has been on a ship—since the last time his family went to Ember Island, before his mother disappeared—but he has adapted to the sea like he had never left. The deck had shifted alarmingly under his feet when he’d first boarded, but now he rides the swells and steps as confidently across the plating as if it were solid ground. The air makes him feel more alive than he has in a long time; it tweaks his nose with a sharp tang, brine and a hint of sulfur. He takes great lung-fuls of it, in through his nose and out his mouth, tasting it.
He feels his spirit lighten, despite everything. He has always loved the sea, even when it tried to kill him. Its relentless and untamable power reminds him of fire, for all that they are opposites.
Zuko stares out across the waves, and loses himself in his thoughts. The lull of the ocean persuades him to drop his guard. His father and sister are not here, nor are the courtiers. He doesn’t expect an attack.
It is a mistake.
Zuko is not sure what tips him off, but he has half a breath to dodge the club that comes down toward his head. He jukes to the side, and the club hits his shoulder instead. Hissing, Zuko follows the force of the blow down, dropping to the deck and rolling out of the way. A kip-up brings him face to face with three men, one holding what looks like a Water Tribe-styled club. Their clothes and faces, however, are pure Fire Nation.
The guards his father assigned to them.
“What are you doing?” Zuko demands, scowling. He remains in a ready stance, alert and aware. He ignores the throb of his shoulder. His quick response had ensured it had been only a glancing blow, but it still hurts. He knows that if he hadn’t dodged, it would have cracked his skull.
There is no answer from the three men, but Zuko is no fool. He knows without their reply exactly what they are going. A Water Tribe weapon, a dead Prince, and a missing Water Tribe Princess Consort. Ozai had no intention of Zuko’s marriage succeeding. If the Fire Nation believes Zuko to have been murdered by people of Water, they will cry for reprisal. Even if Zuko is disgraced, he is of the Dragon’s Blood, the spilling of such blood is a crime that can not go unpunished.
“You are fools if you believe Ozai will let you live after this, even if you are acting under his orders,” Zuko tells his attackers coldly. One of them sneers, apparently unable to keep from taunting his target.
“What makes you think this is the first time we’ve spilled the Dragon’s Blood?”
Zuko goes as still as a stone, heat prickling over him. Lu Ten? Or maybe his mother, or uncle?
The men take advantage of his momentary distraction, and move. They don’t seem to be Firebenders. Instead, they attack with weapons. The one has a Water Tribe club, another unsheathes a sword, and the third draws back from the fight, a bow in hand.
Zuko flares fire around him, igniting a burst of flame so hot so quickly that it blasts outward with concussive force. He snaps right into the next move, his fists punching out, fireballs erupting from his knuckles. The assassins are well trained; they duck and roll and dodge agilely. Zuko flames arrows from the air, bats aside swings of the club, and tries not to let the sword anywhere near his skin.
He wonders for half a second where the rest of the crew is—the deck is unusually empty—before realizing that they had all been selected for this voyage by the Firelord, and therefore are probably all in on it. There are probably two privates waiting just on the other side of the deck hatch, mops in hand to clean up after.
Thinking of the people below-decks jolts Zuko’s mind.
They intend to kill Zuko and blame it on the Water Tribes. Such a plan would never work if Katara lived. Even if she didn’t speak out against it, her survival would cast doubt on the story—why would they let her, an accomplice to the Prince’s murder, live?
Zuko’s attacks and counters take on a slightly desperate edge. He has to reach her before they kill her too, if they haven’t already. Because if she dies, even if Zuko survives, the treaty will fall apart. Ozai will blame Zuko for the failure.
Ozai excels in putting Zuko in situations where, no matter what, he loses.
“Ha!” Zuko shouts, leaping into the air and coming down in an axe-kick that trails fire behind it. The swordsman and the man with the club evade, but Zuko doesn’t stop. He sweeps his leg around, low, lashing a whip of fire toward their ankles. They retreat farther back.
Zuko is just drawing a controlled breath, ready for his next move, when the ship rocks violently. They all stagger, trying to remain on their feet. Before they quite recover, the deck hatch bursts open, and a figure dashes through. She stutters to a halt when she takes in the tableau on the deck.
“Katara!” The assassins are between him and her, and already recovering. The archer nocks an arrow…
Zuko hurls himself forward, trying to distract them from his wife. He lands a solid hit on the club-wielder’s elbow; bone breaks with an audible crack. The assassin lets out a choked scream, falling away, clutching his arm. Zuko spins to put Katara at his back, sinking back into a ready stance. He wishes he had his dao, but he thinks, maybe, that Firebending will suffice. At least for his purposes.
“Katara,” he says quietly to her. “Can you get to a life boat?”
She hesitates a moment, then says she can. The archer looses his arrow, and Zuko burns it from the air. “Good,” he says to Katara, warily watching the other assassins. “You need to run. As far away as you can, you need to run. Get back to the South Pole. You need to warn your people.”
He hears her suck in a breath. “But, you—”
“Go!” he shouts, as soldiers appear in the deck hatch. Her bare feet slap on the deck as she runs. Zuko breaks for the hatch, throwing fireballs to force the soldiers to back up. Two of them slash the fire from the air with their own bending, fanning out to make it harder for Zuko to attack them both at once. This leaves the non-benders in the doorway vulnerable, though. Zuko presses forward with fire, driving those soldiers back. He hits the hatch and slams it shut with a hard kick. Using one hand to block a fire-punch from one of the Firebenders, Zuko grips the jamb of the door, heating his palm hot… hotter… hotter… He holds the heat, the fire within, tightly with his bending, knowing that if he falters, the heat he is pouring into the metal jamb will burn him down to the bone in a blink. Desperation gives him strength.
The metal glows orange, and Zuko feels it soften under his grip. He clenches his hand, crushing the metal together, jamming the hatch shut. He takes his hand away just in time to divert a stream of fire away from him. That should delay the rest of the ship’s crew, leaving Zuko facing only two Firebenders, an archer, a swordsman, and a man with a club and one broken arm. Hopefully, he is good enough to keep them busy while Katara escapes. He hopes she is as clever as she seems.
The Firebenders bring a complexity to the battle that has Zuko sweating with near-misses. There is a line of reddened flesh down his arm from a lash of fire. His side is sticky with blood from a cut across his ribs.
He catches one of the Firebenders by chance, blasting the man over the side of the ship. He turns and slaps the swordsman’s blade away with a flat hand, spinning into the man’s personal space and jerking an elbow into his throat. The assassin staggers back, choking. The archer sends an arrow winging right under Zuko’s nose.
Zuko’s head snaps around, startled. Katara is running toward him. She’s still barefoot, but now her robes have been torn, shortening her hem and sleeves. She’s bare up to her knees, and her sleeves are just tattered caps over her shoulders.
“I told you to run!” Zuko shouts. She reaches him, grabs his wrist, hauling him after her.
“Not without you!” she huffs. Surprised, Zuko lets her pull him after her. Until he realizes she’s running full tilt at the side of the ship.
“Wait! What are you—” Zuko cuts himself off, twisting to intercept a fireball as it roars toward them. Katara pulls on his arm.
“Jump!” she says. Zuko does.
As they go over the side, the archer sets arrow to string, pulls, releases.
Katara swirls her hands in the air, and the ocean leaps to meet them.
Zuko is lost in a tumult of seafoam and water, his only anchor Katara’s hand tight around his wrist. The force of the rushing water pulls at him, rips at him, and everything goes dark.
Chapter 5: The Escape
(Chapter 6 will be posted in two weeks.)
Zuko claws and scrapes his way back into consciousness, his body screaming at him and sparks dancing before his eyes. His arm is thrown over someone’s shoulder, and his feet drag and stutter of the ground, his motor control uncertain.
“Come on,” pants a voice in his ear. “Work with me here, come on, Zuko. One foot in front of the other…”
Katara. He recognizes the scent of her hair, even under the briny smell of the ocean water soaking them both. She’s staggering under his weight a little, her breathing ragged. Each step jostles him a little, sending pain washing through him like a tide.
“Don’t you dare die,” she growls, heaving them both up a slope of sand. Zuko wants to laugh, because it’s the exact opposite of what he’d expect her to say, but he doesn’t have the breath. Katara sets him down, and Zuko gives a cracked groan of pain as something in him shifts and sends lightning bolts of agony jolting through him.
Katara curses, then her soft hand is patting his cheek. “Zuko? Are you awake? Can you hear me?”
He manages to flutter his eyes open, but with the motion of sitting down, it feels like there is fire in his chest. He glimpses her drawn, worried face through a haze. He tries to speak, but cannot.
“Stay still,” she says. “There’s an arrow in your side. I need to pull it.”
His head feels oddly disconnected from his neck when he nods understanding. Katara braces herself, body and expression, and then there is a tearing, burning pain and Zuko gasps, vision washing white then black.
When the spots fade from his eyes, Zuko becomes aware of an odd glowing. His head lolls down, chin resting against his chest, and he sees Katara, eyes closed and face set, holding palmfuls of water against his blood-slick side. The water laps at his skin, glowing faintly. The pain is fading.
“You’re a Waterbender,” Zuko rasps. He remembers the waterspout that reached to pluck them from the air as they went over the side of the ship. He can’t be angry with her, because she’s had plenty of opportunities to hurt him with her bending but is instead saving his life with it. He is, however, curious why she would do so.
Katara falters, the water wobbling like it might fall from her grip, then it steadies and the glow strengthens. She’s silent.
Zuko watches the skin of his side knit together, the white of bone from where the sword cut him down to his ribs vanishing under repaired muscles and skin. The hole where the arrow had pierced him trickles blood, but the flow lessens until it stops completely, and then the flesh slowly heals until all that is left is a coin-sized point of pink scarring.
The glow fades from the water, and Katara makes a gentle, elegant movement and the water sighs into the earth. She takes a breath, and then meets his gaze. “The elders thought it would be best if the woman they sent could defend herself.”
They hadn’t been wrong. Katara’s Waterbending had saved her life as well as his. He clears his throat—it aches in a way that makes him suspect he’d swallowed a fair bit of seawater during their escape—and says: “Thank you.”
She looks surprised and uncertain. He’s not the best with words, but he decides to try to explain. “You could have left me. I told you to. But you didn’t. And you healed me.”
“It… doesn’t bother you that I’m a bender?” she asks warily. Zuko shrugs. There’s surprisingly no pain with the motion; Katara’s healing is powerful.
“Why did you save me?” he responds with his own question. Katara’s brow furrows and she shrugs a little.
“I just… It seemed… right,” Katara flounders a little. “I mean, I couldn’t just… leave you there. They would have killed you.”
She tries to catch his eye, but Zuko stares at his hands, limp and curled like dead leaves in his lap. Katara inhales. “You thought I would. You thought I’d let you die!”
“You don’t—” Zuko starts, but she rides right over his words.
“Why? How could you think that of me? I told you I didn’t hate you, so how could you…” she makes an inarticulate gesture, words failing her. Zuko frowns, looking at her.
“Still? Even after…” he pauses. “Didn’t your father tell you?”
“Tell me?” she asks. There is a flush across her cheekbones from anger. “Tell me wh—Oh. About your scar? He told me the rumor he’d heard.”
“Then how can you say you don’t hate me!” Zuko bursts out. There is a flicker of anger kindling in his heart now.
“I like to think,” Katara says slowly, posture stiff, “that I know my husband better than my father does. Even if I only met you a day before he did, I have seen you in intimate moments. Away from prying eyes. You are kind to me, when you have nothing to gain from it. I know that I’m… that I was meant to be an insult to you. The Firelord or the Heir could never marry outside of Fire. I’m a message from your father that you will never take the throne. But you’re still…”
Zuko is staring at her, now. He’s surprised she is so perceptive, that she not only sees but understands the undercurrents running through the politics of the Fire Nation so well. Her eyes have slid away from him, posture softening as she spoke, but she straightens and forces her gaze to him again. “I don’t believe the rumor. I don’t believe you could be so cruel.”
“Even knowing what my father and sister are like?” he mutters bitterly. It’s strange, how easily the words rip from him. He’s spent years learning how to keep his mouth shut, how to hide himself. Maybe nearly dying had rattled something loose within him.
“I’m not deaf or blind,” Katara says. “I’ve witnessed how your father and sister treat others. I think I’d have noticed if you were even half as cruel as them.”
Zuko can’t seem to look at her. He stares a little numbly at her hands, where they twist and wring themselves in her lap. She can’t really be so… He’s not sure there’s a word for it. Forgiving? Understanding? He watches as she reaches out and touches his hands.
“I…” she hesitates then forges forward. “I’d like to hear it from you. The truth.”
He sucks in a breath, flinching away. He’s silent, head turned away from her. She waits, and he thinks. Should he tell her? He supposes there’s nothing to lose now. It’s not like he can endanger her any more than she is now; his father already wants them both dead, out of the way of his schemes. Zuko lets out his breath in a sigh.
“The rumor isn’t too far from the truth,” he says quietly. “Azula always says that the best lies are ones that are part truth.
“I was thirteen, and I was learning everything that I’d need to know to become Firelord after my father. Politics, history, geography… military tactics. I thought that I’d learn better if I sat in on one of my father’s war meetings. I begged my uncle to let me go in with him. He refused at first, but finally he said I could, if I kept quiet and out of the way…”
Zuko finds himself telling her everything. General Lu Zhun’s proposed strategy. Zuko’s cold wash of realization, knowing that the 57th was a training division, entirely new recruits, non-benders to the last man. His fury at everyone in the war room, nodding along as if there was nothing wrong with Lu Zhun’s plan. How he’d ignored his promise to his uncle to stay quiet. His icy terror seeing his father in the Agni Kai arena instead of the General. How he’d expected to be given the traditional task, to prove himself to the Firelord and regain his honor, but how the task had never been given. His realization that his father was trying to goad him into joining the army, and his refusal to play into his hand.
Katara listens without interrupting, and Zuko keeps from even glancing in her direction, lest he catch sight of her reactions to his story and lose the courage to tell it.
Finally, his words dry up and he falls silent, waiting. There is a very long silence, as Katara seems to grapple with all that had been said. Finally she asks: “Why didn’t you just tell my father the truth? You didn’t deny the rumor, so now he thinks it’s true.”
Zuko’s nostrils flare as his jaw clenches. He glares at her. “As if he’d believe me. Why even try?”
Katara huffs. “The truth is always worth it!”
“Oh? Please, educate me more about truth, Waterbender,” Zuko snaps. Katara recoils, expression going through several emotions.
“That—! You…” she sputters, then scowls and turns her head away. “Fine. That’s fair.”
Zuko’s temper fades as fast as it had flared. He rubs a hand over his face. She saves his life and gives him the benefit of the doubt and all he can do is snarl at her like a feral cat-owl. “No. It’s not. Sorry. I get why you didn’t tell anyone about your bending; it was safer. Not telling your father the truth didn’t protect anyone, it’s not the same.”
“Still, it was hypocritical of me to talk about truth when I’d also been keeping secrets,” Katara admits. They both fall awkwardly silent. After a few long moments, Katara starts laughing softly. Zuko shoots a look at her.
She smiles lopsidedly. “I think we just had our first fight.”
Zuko gapes at her. “What?” she asks, cheeks pinking.
“I just…” Zuko shakes his head. “It still doesn’t seem real.”
“What doesn’t?” Katara asks. Zuko makes a sharp gesture.
“This. All of this. Marrying you, my father finally making his move. Your... Your kindness.”
“I know what you mean,” Katara murmurs. “I didn’t really expect any of this, either.”
Zuko snorts. “Oh, I expected my father to try to get rid of me for good. I just didn’t expect to survive it.”
Katara’s nose wrinkles a little. “Your family is crazy.”
Zuko grunts agreement, rubbing at the pink new skin at his side. Katara’s water had not washed all of the blood off him, and it had dried enough to start itching and flaking off him. Katara watches his fingers.
“So, what now?” she asks quietly, after a long moment. Zuko lets out a heavy breath.
“We need to warn your family. Or at least try; it’s entirely possible that my father already has ships steaming for the South Pole.”
Katara’s face hardens into a mask of determination. “Yes. Right. Then… Getting there will not be too difficult, provided we can get our hands on a ship of some sort. I am a Master Waterbender; I can bend us faster than your steamers can run.”
“Is that taking into account time for rest?” Zuko asks, running calculations in his mind. “You need to sleep, the steam ships don’t.”
“I think so,” Katara says. Then her mouth twists. “It will have to be enough.”
The alternative clearly cannot be countenanced, in her mind. Zuko briefly considers himself and his own abilities. “If we get a craft that is light enough and shaped right, I can use Firebending to propel it. We can do shifts.”
“What shape? And how light are you talking?” Katara asks, interest sharpening her blue gaze.
Zuko leans forward to trace his fingertip through the loose, sandy dirt beneath them. He sketches out the shape of the craft, adding a rudimentary human figure next to it for scale. Katara studies it for a moment, and nods.
“Which island did you carry us to?” he asks her, standing up.
“It was off the port stern, maybe… five klicks from where the ship was?”
Zuko considers this, then nods. “I think we’re on Lantau Island, then. It doesn’t have a formal port; mostly it’s inhabited by fisherfolk who provide for themselves. This is perfect; they are most likely to have the type of boat we need.”
Katara rises to her feet also. “Will we steal one, or…?”
“I don’t think we have a choice,” Zuko says grimly. “My father will not be happy if his assassins return without proof of our deaths. They’ll search every island here until they find us. We can’t let any of the inhabitants see us.”
“That’s true,” Katara murmurs.
They creep along the edge of the beach, where sand gives way to rock and dirt and trees, hiding behind the thick, lush leaves as they scan the waterline for any beached craft. They find three separate boats, each pulled onto the sand above the high-tide line. The first two they leave behind, the size or shape not conducive to their plans. The third…
“That one looks promising,” Katara says, pointing. Zuko runs a practiced eye over the craft. She is right—the boat looks exactly like what they need. Its wooden sides are battered, but Zuko thinks it will probably keep together well enough.
They move cautiously out from their cover, eyes sweeping the beach for signs of people. It is empty and quiet of all but the surf and sea birds. Zuko reaches the boat and scans the inside. There is not much there, just a coiled rope, a rock anchor, and an oar. He grasps the side and tugs experimentally. The boat shifts on the sand. He looks up at Katara, who is frowning at the footprints they’d left in the sand.
“Use your bending,” he suggests. She looks at him, and he jerks his chin to the ocean. “Cast a wave up the beach, wash away the footprints.”
Her expression clears and she nods. “Hold on to the boat,” she warns, then sinks into a low stance and sweeps her arms forward.
Water rushes up from the breakers, hitting the high-tide line and onward. It hits Zuko mid-thigh, and knocks the boat against him. He shifts to keep himself upright. Katara is a rock in the streaming water, directing it further up the beach, wiping away all evidence of their passage. Then she holds her last form.
“Get in the boat,” she instructs. Zuko steadies the boat, feeling the gentle rocking, times it, then hauls himself into the bobbing craft ungracefully. Katara shifts, dragging the water back carefully. The boat is pulled with the water back down toward the breakers, Katara keeping deliberate pace beside it. When they reach the ocean, Katara stands hip-deep and makes one final movement, releasing the water, then turns to the boat. Zuko reaches a hand out, she takes it, and he leans back in the boat to balance it as she uses his hand to help pull herself aboard.
Zuko glances at the beach, and sees only smooth, wet sand—no indication that two people had walked upon it and no sign of the boat that had been beached upon it. She had erased their presence on the island.
“Where should we head first?” Katara asks. “I don’t think it would be wise to spend much time in Fire Nation waters…”
“No,” Zuko agrees thoughtfully. “We should keep to the open ocean. Nearer to land there will be more ships and more likelihood that we’ll be spotted.”
Katara nods, then stands and stretches out her arms. “Hold on,” she says, and bends. The boat shoots forward with a hiss of rushing water.
Zuko takes over when Katara becomes too tired to sustain their breakneck pace. He watches her settle down in the bottom of them boat, pillowing her head on her arms, before rotating his arms and neck to loosen up. There is a plank nailed into the boat as a rudimentary seat, and Zuko wedges himself between it and the stern, bracing his back against the plank. He takes a deep breath, centers himself, and lets it out in a slow, controlled exhale. Then he punches, and a jet of flame roars to life at his knuckles, licking the top of the water. The boat lurches, then the nose lifts and, jouncing a little, they skim over the waves.
Deepening his breathing, Zuko slides his mind into a meditative state, feeling his connection to his fire strengthen.
He keeps up his bending until Katara wakes, and then they switch and Zuko curls up at the bottom of the boat and closes his eyes. When he wakes, they switch again, and again, and again. Katara takes the night shifts, her power waxing as his wanes, her Waterbending invisible where his Firebending would have been obvious in the darkness.
They see a few ships, but none of them are closer than the horizon and they are able to steer clear of them.
They do stop fully every once in a while, and Katara bends them some fresh water out of the ocean, or a fish, and they drink and eat. As they start approaching the South Pole, the air becomes colder and colder and they slow a bit once it gets bad enough that keeping warm takes special effort. Zuko persuades Katara to curl up against him when it is her turn to sleep—his Firebending keeps them both warm. When it is Katara’s turn to bend, she can keep herself warm for a time with the sheer physicality of the task, but eventually they start having to take breaks to huddle together and share heat before she can continue on.
It is very awkward, at first, because Zuko is unused to casual physical contact, and beyond that they are still relative strangers to each other. He can tell by the blush that rises on her cheeks that it is just as awkward for her. But once she settles against him and his heat seeps into her muscles, she relaxes and presses herself against him fully. Still, the further south they get the longer it takes Katara’s teeth to stop chattering, and the more Zuko’s exhaustion piles up on him.
He knows he can’t keep this up forever, that eventually the numbing cold will overwhelm him and they will die of exposure. He knows Katara sees that end barreling toward them, as she starts pressing more food and water on him, trying to keep up his flagging strength.
Zuko is bone-weary, feeling energy bleed out of him like water through cupped hands. He has nearly given in to despair when Katara gives a glad cry, her body surging forward against him as she throws out an arm. “There! The Southern Water Tribe!”
Blearily, Zuko lifts his head. For a moment, he can’t see anything except the pristine whiteness of snow and the vivid blue of glacial ice. Then what he’s looking at resolves itself in his mind and he grips Katara a little tighter in shaky relief.
The Southern Water Tribe’s city is built at a smaller, more modest scale than their sister’s in the north, but the precise angles of the ice walls take the sunlight and scatter it like diamonds. It is beautiful and otherworldly.
Zuko presses his nose against Katara’s neck and laughs in panting breaths. They’ve made it. And, since the South still stands, they made it in time.
They might have reached their destination, but Zuko cannot give up his bending now; the air is as cold as ever and they still only have their Fire Nation silks to protect them. He shuts his eyes against the desolate beauty of the polar vista and concentrates. It is so hard, now. He’s passed his limit days ago, but he can’t stop yet.
Katara shouts, but Zuko doesn’t even hear the words. Distant, someone shouts back. Katara laughs, a jubilant laugh that shakes Zuko against her. She wraps her arms around him, laughing and saying something he doesn’t catch. He feels their boat lurch, then there are hands on him, pulling.
He lets them move him away from Katara—they’ve made it, they’re safe.
There are startled exclamations as he finds himself utterly boneless, flopping limply out of boat like a dead fish. He can’t find the energy to move even the least bit. And Katara; Katara is shouting his name, high, alarmed. He is lifted, bundled into something thick and warm, borne up and away.
Chapter 6: The South
((Katara's quote about good men is from Edmund Burke. It's a good line; one of my favorites.
Pretty much all of the Water Tribe culture stuff I just made up, building up from three facts: the 4 element basis of the Avatar 'verse, the Water Tribe is partially based on the Inuit, and Tui and La (ocean and moon) are the most important spirits to the Water Tribe.))
Katara wakes with a crick in her neck. Unsurprising, considering she’d fallen asleep sitting up, watching Zuko breathe shallowly. She hadn’t known how thin he’d stretched himself, keeping them warm. When she’d seen him on the ground, pale and loose-limbed as a fresh corpse, her heart had nearly stopped.
She lifts her head, wincing as the muscles protest and a vertebra pops. Rubbing the sleep from her eyes, she edges a little closer to Zuko. Feeling for his pulse, she notes that his color is much improved and his skin isn’t cool and clammy any more. Very good signs. She does wish he would wake up, however, since he can hardly eat while sleeping and he needs to replenish his chi. Bending non-stop for days can kill a bender, if they aren’t careful to restore their energies.
His heartbeat is a little slow, but not worryingly so.
Two waterskins—much like the ones she used to carry with her before her relocation to the Fire Nation—are lying beside her. She uncorks one and draws out some water, setting it to the chakra between Zuko’s eyes. It glows, and with a graceful movement, Katara draws it in a bright path down his chi meridians to his heart. He feels healthy, though she can sense his chi like a guttering flame within him.
“Katara,” her father says, pushing aside the heavy fur draped across the igloo’s entrance. His eyes flick over Zuko—she’d told him everything but he still looks at the Fire Prince with suspicion—before focusing on her face. “How are you feeling?”
“Fine,” she says, then admits: “Hungry.”
Hakoda nods. “Your grandmother is coming with a meal.” He allows himself to look at the insensate Firebender. “Has he woken yet?”
“No,” Katara says, smoothing her fingers over his forehead. She ignores her father’s frown and focuses on how Zuko sighs a little in his sleep. “He exhausted himself. First the fight, then the journey here; he hasn’t had a chance to rest in days.”
Hakoda hums noncommittally. Katara had told him what had happened, for the Fire Nation’s Prince and Princess Consort to show up at the walls of the Southern Water Tribe wearing tattered silks and half-frozen in a weather-beaten whaleboat. She doesn’t think it has completely changed his mind about Zuko, but at the very least he hadn’t killed Zuko outright.
“Dad,” she starts with a sigh.
“Why did you go back for him, Katara?” he interrupts her. She frowns.
“When have you ever known me to turn my back on someone who needs me?” she asks. Hakoda shakes his head.
“This isn’t so simple as comforting a child who has stubbed a toe, Katara. You have revealed your Waterbending, to save the disgraced Prince of the Fire Nation. The men on the ship will have told the Firelord, and he will want answers.”
“He doesn’t want answers,” Katara says stiffly. “What he wants is to take our lands without payment. He wants us gone. He was going to blame Zuko’s death on us, justify a war on us! What does it matter now that they saw me Waterbending? And will you stop belittling Zuko? I keep telling you, you’re wrong about him!”
“I can’t think of a good reason why he wouldn’t tell me the truth, and many reasons why he would lie to you,” Hakoda says. “I’m worried for you, Katara!”
Growing frustrated and angry, Katara makes a furious noise, throwing her hands up. “I don’t know how I can possibly make you see what I see. He’s been nothing but kind to me, polite to you, and he’s saved my life and risked his to bring you warning. I can’t understand why you’re resisting this so much!”
Hakoda merely shakes his head, either unable or unwilling to explain himself.
“It’s not who I am, it’s what I am that bothers him,” says Zuko’s raspy voice from behind them. Katara whirls around to face him. Zuko is watching Hakoda, propped unsteadily on an elbow, shadows under his eyes. “And what I am is a Firebender, the son of Firelord Ozai, and a disgraced Prince. Any one of those things could make me dangerous. All three together…”
“Then you understand my reticence,” Hakoda says, crossing his arms. “Tell me why I should allow you to remain here.”
Zuko’s eyes narrow. “You don’t have to. My obligations have been met; your daughter is returned and our warning given. Only give me warmer clothes and the whaleboat I arrived in, and I will go.”
“Enough,” Katara says repressively, scowling between the two men. “We should be united, not squabbling amongst ourselves!”
“United in what, Katara?” Zuko nearly snarls. She tries to ignore the jolt that zips through her at her name on his lips—a rare sound.
“We need to stop your father,” she says. “You know we do.”
“What am I supposed to do? I have no power in the Fire Nation; not only have I been removed from the line of succession, it’s likely I’ve been declared either dead or a traitor by now.”
“Then we reveal the lies your father’s told the world! You obviously aren’t dead, when people see you—”
“They won’t believe I am who I say I am. Katara, most of the Fire Nation doesn’t know what I look like! They won’t care who I claim to be, they won’t be able to tell the difference.”
“Then we find someone who can confirm your claim,” Katara says stubbornly. “This can work, Zuko. We can stop the war.”
Zuko shakes his head, frowning. “We can start a whole new one,” he corrects her.
“Prince Zuko is right,” Hakoda says, causing Katara to shut her mouth on her retort and glare at him. “But Katara is right also. On the base of your blood and your birthright, Prince Zuko, we can oust Ozai and bring about peace. However, that cannot be accomplished without starting a new war. A war that the Southern Water Tribe cannot fight by itself.”
“We are not without allies,” Katara says.
“They are your allies, not mine,” Zuko points out. “They won’t go to war to put me on the throne.”
“You don’t know that.” Katara puts her hand on Zuko’s. “Zuko, we have to at least try. The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
As Zuko visibly grapples with the implication that he is one of the ‘good men’, she continues: “We should speak to the Avatar.”
“No one has seen the Avatar in years.”
“The Avatar went into hiding a few years ago after a particularly comprehensive assassination attempt,” Hakoda says, reminding them of his presence. Zuko takes his hand back from Katara with a sharp movement, but Hakoda doesn’t comment on the intimacy. “He’s still around; you just need to know what paths to take to see him.”
“And I suppose you know these paths?” Zuko grumbles, bad-temperedly.
“Not specifically,” Hakoda replies stiffly. “I only know that one path is through the White Lotus.”
“What is the White Lotus?” Katara asks. Hakoda seems to sigh, and he fishes something out of one of the pouches hanging from his belt. He holds it up and Zuko makes a surprised sound.
“That’s a Pai Sho tile.”
“It was about a year ago, during one of our trading runs,” Hakoda says. “I met a man in the Earth Kingdom, and we got to talking. Before I left, he gave me this and told me, if I ever needed any help, to find a man playing Pai Sho in the tavern and to show him it…”
Zuko feels a lot more alive after he eats the meal Katara’s grandmother brings to them, though he’s so tangled in his thoughts he hardly tastes it. He knows Katara is watching him, wanting him to commit to her mad plan. He knows her father is watching him, wanting her safe and away from him.
He knows he isn’t sure of what to do. He doesn’t think the Avatar or any other Water Tribe ally will be willing to help him. He doesn’t think the Fire Nation will accept a disgraced Prince who murders his way to the throne, which is the only path he can see for himself to become Firelord.
He also knows he doesn’t want to be alone anymore. And, for some unfathomable reason, Katara is more than willing to cast her lot in with his. She trusts him. Believes in him. He doesn’t have to be alone. He can be with her.
But he also can’t.
The hope hurts.
There is no future he can see for them. They may be married, but he can hardly stay with her here, in the Southern Water Tribe. He is unwelcome in this community, and more than that, he is dangerous to them. Ozai is already sending his navy to crush them, what worse would he do if it is found that Zuko is alive and hiding amongst them?
And she certainly won’t come with him into a life of exile. She is home now, restored to her family and the community that obviously loves and values her. Why would she walk with him down his lonely, dangerous road? Even if he did go along with her plan, the Fire Nation won’t accept a Consort of Water. He would have to divorce her and marry a proper Fire bride, to keep the royal line strong. The idea makes him grimace, because who would willingly marry him aside from those calculating nobles who wish to buy influence with the move? He has a strong distaste for the sort of political maneuvering that would doubtless be present in someone who married purely for power’s sake.
Katara had married him for duty. For her tribe, who would have died without the alliance (he wonders what they will do now that Ozai has metaphorically torn the contract in two). She hadn’t done it for herself, for the power it would gain her. She’d done it because it would save her people. She is kind and beautiful and honest. Bright flame, how can he turn away from that?
“Where is your son?” Zuko asks Hakoda, desperate to distract himself. The young man with the half-shaved head had been present for Katara’s wedding, but he was conspicuously absent now.
Hakoda’s expression makes clear that he does not trust Zuko’s motives for asking, but he answers all the same. “Sokka is in the Earth Kingdom, meeting with some of our allies.”
“Suki?” Katara asks, bright with interest. Hakoda nods.
“Who is Suki?”
“She is the leader of the Kyoshi Warriors,” Katara says, smiling. “We met her a while ago, when we were still trying to make treaties with the Earth Kingdom for our food. Unfortunately, Kyoshi Island is too small for the scale of farming necessary for sustaining both their population and ours. But we bonded well with Suki during our visit, and we remain friends. Though I think Sokka is trying to work up to courting her.”
Hakoda doesn’t look pleased that Katara is divulging all of this information, but she gives him a pointed look and he doesn’t stop her.
“The Kyoshi Warriors are skilled and well-respected,” Zuko offers, stiff and uncertain. Hakoda snorts, and bizarrely Zuko isn’t insulted by the amusement in the twist of his mouth, merely relieved. He lets out a breath that shakes only a little bit and asks: “What will you do now?”
Hakoda eyes him and responds: “I am grateful for the effort you put forth to aid Katara, and for the warning you carried. But do not think for a moment that I trust you.”
“What?” Zuko demands, exasperation and annoyance pushing his voice out sharply from thinned lips. “You do not trust my word, you do not trust my actions. What, then, will make you believe me? How can I earn your trust? What is there left for me to do?”
Hakoda drew himself even taller, his dark face grim, eyes like ice. “What is there left for you to do? Release my daughter.”
Katara makes an angry noise, seeming ready to make some retort. Zuko realizes his mouth is hanging open, startled. He shuts it then says quietly: “She is already free to go.”
“Is she?” Hakoda demands. “Did you divorce her before making good your escape? Or, are you telling me you never consummated your marriage to begin with?”
Zuko feels his face heat and knows he is as red as the banners of his homeland. At the corner of his eye, he sees Katara flush darkly and duck her head also. Hakoda shakes his head. “As long as my daughter is legally married to you, she is in danger. You want to prove yourself to me? Protect her. Protect her from her enemies, your enemies. And protect her from yourself.”
“Chief Hakoda,” Katara’s voice is as cold and sharp as forged steel. The two men startle, and look at her. She is standing, trembling in anger. Zuko holds his breath at the absolute fury that turns her eyes into torches of blue fire, at least as dangerous as that which Azula can bend. The full strength of her ire is directed at her father. “How dare you. You insult Zuko—you insult me, or have you forgotten that I vouch for his honor? If you don’t trust him, then obviously you don’t trust me, as I have counseled that you listen to him. What’s more, you call for me to abandon my vows without seeking my opinion! It’s true that under different circumstances the Prince of the Fire Nation would have been my last choice for a husband, but we are married. I have given my oaths and he has given—and kept!—his. And now his family has betrayed him! He’s alone. I will not abandon him as well, not when all he has done is treat me well.”
Hakoda is staring at his daughter as if he has never quite seen anything like her. And Zuko can hardly hear for the thundering of his pulse in his ears, can hardly breathe for it lodged in his throat.
“His father may have broken the alliance, but Zuko has not. He has kept faith with us. His life is at stake, too!” Katara continues. “With Ozai’s betrayal of his allies and his own blood, it’s obvious we can’t sit idly by. We are at war. Zuko can help us win it. He is our future, whether you like it or not. He is the world’s chance for peace, the Fire Nation’s chance for peace.”
Her piece said, Katara whirls on Zuko, who tenses warily. Katara’s blue eyes catch and hold his golden ones.
“Well?” she asks. “Will you come with me to the Avatar?”
He should say no. Like Hakoda said, being tied to him is dangerous. He doesn’t deserve her unwavering loyalty, not when it could very well cost her life. But the ache in his chest and the fire in her eyes pull his answer from him in a ragged whisper.
Despite the fury with which Katara had spoken to her father, she hugs him tightly while Zuko waits beside the small yawl the Tribe was providing for their journey. Hakoda tucks his head close to Katara’s ear and murmurs something to her that Zuko can’t hear. Katara nods and smiles, a little tearfully. She hugs him again, then comes to stand by Zuko.
As Katara’s grandmother—Kana, Zuko had learned her name is—comes forward to bless the boat, he looks at his wife. There are tears bright but unshed in her eyes, and she watches both her grandmother and her father as if she will never see them again. It is a future that is possible, Zuko reminds himself.
“You can stay,” he whispers to Katara. She turns her blue eyes to him, gives him a smile, and curls her mittened hand around his, clasping tightly. The warmth of the gesture takes Zuko’s breath away, and he falls silent, accepting her decision.
Kana draws a half moon curve with dark red paint onto the prow of the yawl, streaks her finger down to bisect it with a vertical line.
“Blood and ash,” Katara murmurs to Zuko, who blinks and looks at the dull red mark with new eyes. “Air and water in the blood, earth and fire in the ash.”
Kana lights a bundle of herbs and, with a skillful twist of her wrists, waves the pungent smoke over the prow and the mark. The low drone of her chant is a strange melody to Zuko’s ears, but he finds it pleasant all the same.
After a few more passes over the yawl’s hull, Kana brings her ritual to an end and steps back. Thin ribbons of blue-tinged smoke wreathe the craft, drifting across the painted sides and carved bow and stern. It has a strange scent, thick and somehow spicy. Zuko opens his mouth to inhale it, letting the smoke settle on his tongue, but it has a different taste, not at all like anything from his home.
“Katara, daughter of this tribe, is going on a journey,” proclaims Hakoda in a powerful voice. The phrasing has the feel of a ceremony.
“La be gentle to her on her way,” responds Kana.
“Tui light her path to guide her,” an elderly man intones in turn. Zuko is sure that the lines tattooed on his face denote some important position within the tribe, but he cannot read their meaning.
“Katara, daughter of this tribe, is going on a journey with the man who is her husband, a prince of his own people,” Hakoda says, and Zuko is surprised and grateful that the chief would recognize him in this ceremony.
“Tui and La stand as an example for them to strive toward,” the elders say, and then they bow, sweeping their hands together in movements almost like Waterbending. Beside him, Katara responds in kind, and Zuko places the fist of one hand into the palm of the other and bows over them, the Fire’s gesture of respect.
They board the yawl, and Katara stands at the prow, straight and proud. She does not hesitate as she lifts her hands to a bending stance and flows into motion. The yawl slides out of the Water Tribe’s icy harbor at her direction. She does not falter as her home once again fades into the distance behind them.
Zuko watches her, feeling a little sick at himself. He knows the rigid discipline that is keeping Katara’s eyes dry, understands her single-minded devotion to her bending. He knows what it is to wall oneself up, shore up the margins of the spirit so that it doesn’t crumble.
He should have told her ‘no’. She shouldn’t be wasting her time with him on this fool’s errand. She should be with her family, her people. But he’d been selfish. Unable to turn away from the warmth in her eyes and be alone again.
His father is right, has always been right. Zuko is weak.
“Katara—” he starts, voice nearly a croak. She turns, hands falling down to her sides, and the yawl rocks a little as the water around it sloshes back into the ocean’s control.
“Thank you,” she says, the words quick and muddled as if they’d simply burst from her. Zuko blinks, mouth opening then closing. She looks up at him then out at the ocean. “You keep… You’re a good person, Zuko.”
All Zuko can do is shake his head, because she doesn’t know how wrong she is.
Chapter 7: The Journey's Start
((Next update will go up on Monday Nov. 23.
The legend Zuko tells borrows elements from Japanese folklore, but I molded and mashed them into a new story to fit the AtLA 'verse.))
“What will your family do?” Zuko asks in between careful bites of freshly roasted fish. Katara jumps a little, the sound of his voice after the long silence that preceded it sudden and unexpected. She hastily swallows her mouthful of fish.
“They’ll move the village. My people are nomadic; we travel between summer and winter camps. Our homes, the village, can be moved. They’ll shift inland further, out of reach of Fire Nation steamers.”
“But…” Zuko hesitates. He’s learned of the Water Tribes, somewhat. It is nearly autumn, and the Tribe would be using every spare bit of daylight to hunt and gather stores for the long hard winter. To interrupt that… “They’ll have to travel further to hunt.”
Katara blinks at him, clearly surprised he would make that connection, hold that concern. Then her eyes darken and she nods. “Yes. It was going to be a hard winter to begin with, with our trade with the Earth Kingdom cut off. Now it’s… Now it’ll be even worse.”
Katara’s head dips and she regards the skewer of fish in her hand with a bleak expression. Zuko’s fists clench. He can’t find anything to say, if the right words for this situation even exist.
“Tell me about the dragons again, Zuko,” she asks, voice small. He looks down at the ground beneath his feet, and tries to scrape up the words.
“Do you know why they call the waters around the archipelago the Scaled Sea?” he asks her finally. She shakes her head and looks at him, eyes dark and pleading. He finds himself leaning in toward her, voice softening into a storyteller’s cadence. “They say that, when the world was young, Agni took his jeweled glaive and used it to stir the sea. And the path the glaive cut through the water became a great dragon. This was before my father, and his father, and his father’s father, and so down to a time when the islands had not yet been born.”
He can almost hear his mother speaking the words with him, can almost see her as she had been long ago, when she told him the story. “The dragon Agni drew into the waves was called Owatatsumi, and he was a great and fierce spirit. His breath could boil the sea, and the lashing of his tail birthed tsunami. His claws were sharp and hard as diamonds. His wings were made of wind and one beat of them stirred storms.”
Katara’s eyes are fixed on his face as she listens.
“Agni was pleased with his creation, but his daughter, the Painted Lady, saw darkness in Owatatsumi. She knew that the dragon was too powerful, and begged her father not to release Owatatsumi in the world. But Agni saw the world, and saw the other spirits carving it up between them, and saw Owatatsumi’s strength and wanted the dragon to protect his other creations, for Agni was not finished in the world.
“Agni scattered fire onto the sea, and it took the shape of the panda-whales and parrot-sharks and other things that live in the depths. But Owatatsumi opened his great mouth and swallowed them all down. Agni called up the fire within the earth, and it boiled up to form islands. But Owatatsumi crumbled them under his claws.
“The Painted Lady told Agni: ‘You have made Owatatsumi strong enough to defend your creations from anything, but you made him only able to destroy.’ And Agni could see that she was right. So he went to Owatatsumi and said: ‘Child of my hand, you destroy even what I wish to create. You are too powerful. Give me the strength of your body.’ But the great dragon liked the power he held, and refused. Agni asked again, and Owatatsumi said: ‘I am what you made me. I will not give you my power.’ A third time Agni asked, and a third time the dragon refused.”
Zuko pauses briefly to wet his throat with a mouthful of water. Katara looks like she has been drawn into the tale, leaning forward over her knees as if being closer to the teller will bring her closer to the story.
“Agni and Owatatsumi fought. Their battle caused a great tempest, with lashing rain and howling winds. Owatatsumi was powerful, and his teeth and claws sharp. But Agni is a god-spirit, and it had been his power that had made Owatatsumi. Agni let the dragon bite him, and reached out while the dragon’s teeth were stuck in his flesh, and tore away Owatatsumi’s breath which could boil the seas. Owatatsumi tried to pin Agni down with his fearsome claws, but Agni shattered them with his fists. Owatatsumi tried to wrap Agni in his wings made of wind, but Agni tore them away. Agni’s blood dripped on the powers he had taken from the dragon, and they mixed to form the first people of Fire.
“Without his breath which could boil seas, his claws that were hard and sharp as diamonds, or his wings that were made of wind, Owatatsumi was weakened. His teeth were still stuck in Agni’s flesh, and he could not move as Agni raised the Sword of the Sun and cut his body into pieces. The pieces fell into the ocean, and formed the islands of the archipelago. Owatatsumi’s shining scales filled the sea…”
Zuko looks at Katara and sees that she recognizes the connection to the question he’d asked at the beginning, but the story is not yet finished. He continues: “But Owatatsumi’s head was still gripping Agni between his teeth. Agni pried the fangs from his body, weeping, for Agni had loved his creation Owatatsumi and had not wanted to destroy him. The Painted Lady saw her father’s grief and love, and felt sorrow. She bent and kissed the dragon’s head, and Owatatsumi released Agni and began to weep as well, for her kiss had given him the ability to love, and feel sorrow. Agni saw this, and could not bear to destroy this final part of Owatatsumi, so he split the Owatatsumi’s head into two smaller dragons. He gave them hearts made of his fire, and they became the first Firebenders. With the Painted Lady’s gift of love and sorrow, they became wise. They were Setsuri and Yi, the ones from which all other dragons descended.”
“The first Firebenders were dragons?” Katara asks. Zuko nods.
“But it’s treason to say so, now,” he admits. She looks surprised.
“Treason! But why?”
“Well, the Painted Lady’s gifts made dragons righteous. They will not support liars or murderers. And when my great-grandfather started the war, the dragons abandoned us. It was a terrible blow to Sozin’s rule; it was taken as a sign that our cause was not just. But Sozin began a propaganda campaign against dragons within the Fire Nation. He made it a sign of power and prowess to slay them. And anyone who spoke against him disappeared… Eventually, people forgot what the dragons actually were.”
“How… how do you remember?”
Zuko looks down at his hands and feels the old wound begin to ache. “My mother told me the stories.”
Katara is silent a long moment. Then, she asks, very quietly and gently: “What happened to her?”
His first reaction is anger, instinctive because until now every mention of his mother had been used to wound him. But this is Katara, and she looks at him with compassion, not contempt. And he remembers something his sister had said: ‘After all, she doesn’t have a mother either.’
“My mother saved my life,” he says, clenching his hands together in his lap. “And then disappeared.”
“Disappeared… like… the people who spoke against Firelord Sozin?”
Zuko shakes his head. “I don’t know. I know that she said goodbye to me, but… I don’t know what happened to her after that. Maybe she got away? But my sister acts like she’s dead…”
Katara watches him. “Do you trust your sister?”
Zuko smiles without humor. “No. I suppose not. But she never lies when the truth will hurt more.”
“I’m sorry,” Katara looks down. They are silent a long moment. Then Katara inhales and says, lowly: “My mother died on an Earth Kingdom ship, in a Fire Nation attack.”
The words slip under Zuko’s skin like needles. He swallows, and forces himself to look at her. There is pain there, and anger, but surprisingly this is not directed toward him. Instead, Katara stares sadly at her hands, clasping her knees. “As the Chief’s wife, it was her duty to form and maintain trade relations. She was coming home from a trade negotiation in Gansu province. Back then, the Fire Nation was targeting Earth Kingdom ships, trying to sever the lines of supplies that kept them fighting. It wouldn’t have worked. It didn’t work. A decade later, so many trade-routes on both land and sea broken, but they’re still fighting. But my mom’s still dead.”
“I’m… sorry,” Zuko says thickly. For a moment, he thinks that Katara will say something sharp, but she visibly reins herself in, taking a careful breath and holding it before exhaling out the flare of anger. She closes her eyes.
“I am, too,” is all she says instead.
They are not so far from the pole, and there is a definite bite in the air after the sun sets. Katara pulls out the sleeping furs, and is both pleased and upset that there are two sets. While she does not want to have to share with Zuko (no matter how nice he had felt braced against her in the whaleboat), she worries about taking so much from her Tribe. They had already been so generous, and she is very much aware of the hard times that are approaching her people.
There is nothing to be done for it; the furs are here and the Tribe far behind. Katara lays them out, bracketing the low-burning fire.
“I’ll take first watch,” Zuko says, and Katara opens her mouth to protest—why do they need a watch? They are in the middle of nowhere and there is no one following them—but the low light from the fire catches in Zuko’s sun-colored eyes and she stops. They are in Earth territory, and Zuko is very obviously Fire Nation. Perhaps it would be best if they saw trouble coming before it found them.
“Wake me when it’s my turn,” she says. She pulls off her parka and boots and slides into the furs. They smell like woodsmoke and herbs, like home. Katara presses her nose into them and closes her eyes, but sleep is elusive. She lies awake, listening to the soft crackle of the campfire and the sounds of a nighttime forest. After a long moment, she opens her eyes and unobtrusively studies her husband in the firelight.
He looks as stern as ever—jaw set, mouth a firm line, scar pulling one eye into a narrow glare. But she knows now, to look closer, to see the wary tension of his posture. The defensive slope of his shoulders.
He is a surprise. The Fire Prince who is gentle. The son of Firelord Ozai, yet so unlike his father. He makes her hopeful. After all, if he can be so kind and good to her, then surely he would be a good and kind Firelord. Surely he would end the war.
But he is disowned, removed from the line of succession. His father has attempted to assassinate him. To put Zuko on the Dragon Throne, they’ll need a lot of help. She’s glad that he agreed to go to the Avatar, to try.
Katara’s not stupid, she knows that Zuko doesn’t believe this will work. Knowing what he grew up with, it isn’t surprising that he believes himself a failure, weak, unlovable. But even she, who has known him for so little time, can see the goodness in him. She truly believes that others will come to see it as well. The trick was getting Zuko to see that, and to believe it.
She thinks that, if she stays with him, he will. If she keeps telling him he is good and worthy, he will rise to her expectations. She’d already been willing to sacrifice herself in marriage to a man who could have been as cruel as his father. It is infinitely easier to sacrifice herself to healing this wounded man, this good man.
“You should try to get some rest,” Zuko says, startling her from her thoughts. She blinks and refocuses on him. “You were bending all day; you must be tired.”
He isn’t watching her, he’s staring at the stars. Katara sits up.
“I can’t. My thoughts won’t quiet,” she admits. He grunts. She slides out of her sleeping furs, and pulls her parka around her shoulders, moving to sit next to him. She leans her head back to look at the stars, too. It is a clear night, and they sparkle brightly.
Looking at them reminds Katara of the stories her mother and grandmother told her, about the sun and the moon and the sea and the stars. These in turn remind her of the stories Zuko had told her. She exhales softly, and smiles a little.
“The stories my people tell say that the stars were made when Tui, the moon spirit, performed her wedding dance for her husband, the ocean spirit La. She danced across the sky, and every step she took shone with the love she felt for her husband, so that even when the moon was dark, he could look up at the sky and see how much she loved him.”
He is watching her now, face turned toward her, half in shadow. When she glances at him, he looks back up at the sky.
“What’s a wedding dance?”
“During a traditional Water Tribe wedding ceremony, the woman will dance her acceptance of her bridegroom under the open sky, so that the spirits may see and bless the union,” Katara explained. She sees the pale flash of Zuko’s sclera as he glances at her and away.
“Oh,” he says.
“Do your people dance, Zuko?” she asks. He shifts a little. Discomfort? Shyness?
“Yes,” he admits. “We have many dances. There are traditional dances for most of our festivals. There are dances that tell stories. There are women’s dances and men’s dances. Dances that are performed with fans, or swords, or with firebending. The traditional prayer dances are always fire dances.”
Katara is quiet a moment, then, curious, asks: “Do you dance?”
He fairly squirms.
“I… know some,” he admits. “A firebending member of the royal family is always the one to perform the Houou Odori.”
“What is that?”
“It’s performed to greet the first sunrise of the new year.”
“Mmh,” Katara yawned. “That sounds nice.”
“It’s a difficult dance,” he says. “The bending in it must be very precise. I’ve never actually performed it…”
“I think I’d like to see it sometime,” she mumbles. Zuko doesn’t respond and they are quiet for a moment. Katara can feel her exhaustion seeping into her muscles now.
“You should rest,” Zuko murmurs. Katara hums agreement, and drags herself up and back to her sleeping furs. She settles back down, eyes drooping.
“Good night, Zuko.”
“Good night,” he responds quietly. This time, when Katara closes her eyes, sleep enfolds her.
She opens her eyes to sunlight and birdsong, and sits up with a gasp. Zuko is building up the campfire, their cookpot next to him, full of water. He sees her awake. “Good morning.”
“You didn’t wake me,” she tells him, voice fuzzy with sleep. He looks down at the fire, feeding it another bit of wood. She pushes her furs off. “Zuko. You didn’t wake me.”
“You needed the sleep more than I did,” he says. “I wasn’t tired, anyway.”
“We’re not going to have the boat anymore,” Katara tells him, disapproving. “We’ll be walking from now on, hours every day. We’ll need to keep our energy up. You can’t just not sleep!”
“I’ll be fine,” he says, a hint of a growl in his voice. “I’m not a child. I know my limits, and I haven’t reached them.”
“That’s not—” Katara cuts herself off, and scowls. She takes a moment to calm down. “Zuko. Right now all we have to depend on is each other. We need to work together.”
“You had been bending all day,” Zuko says with a stubborn set to his mouth. “You say we need to keep our energy up? You needed the sleep. I didn’t. So I took both watches to let you. Isn’t that working together?”
Katara groans, pinching the bridge of her nose. “Look, I… Arg. Fine. Will you at least discuss the matter with me before you make decisions for the both of us?”
“Fine,” Zuko replies stiffly.
Katara fights against her own temper, trying to remind herself that all of this would be new to Zuko. Traveling like this, working with and depending on someone else, making joint decisions…
She sighs. Reaches out a hand. “Zuko. We’re partners here. What one of us does affects the other. Please.”
He doesn’t take the hand, but she does see his bearing relax a little. “Fine,” he says, again. This time it sounds like the truth. There is a pause, then he adds, awkwardly: “Sorry.”
“Apology accepted.” Katara takes a breath. “Now. I see you brought water. Was there anything specific you had in mind for breakfast?”
Zuko shakes his head. “I don’t actually know how to cook… But I assumed you’d need the water anyway.”
“Alright,” she replies, thinking through the supplies the Tribe had sent with them. “I could make seaweed stew… And they gave us some sealjerky…”
She bustles around, digging in their packs, setting the pot of water Zuko had filled onto the fire that he’d stirred to life. As she cooks, she wonders at his response to her culture’s cuisine. At their base, Water Tribe and Fire Nation foods don’t seem too different; they both take much from the sea—fish and shellfish and seaweed. But the Water Tribes don’t have the same taste for spices as the Fire Nation, and Katara had been overwhelmed by the sheer number of fruits available on the archipelago. Up until the morning after her wedding, she had only tasted the berries her people were able to harvest in the summer months, and a sweet melon they had once imported from the Earth Kingdom.
Then Zuko had offered her pomegranates, and dragonfruit, and mangoes, and three different types of melon, and other exotic tastes that she doesn’t remember the names of. Her peoples’ cuisine seems a bland offering in return, but Zuko had not complained and had eaten heartily while they were at the South Pole. However, he had been starved for the energy and nutrients, and her people always said that hunger was the best spice.
He accepts the seaweed stew she makes, though, and seems to appreciate the salty warmth, sipping it slowly from the rim of his bowl. And he says nothing as he tears sealjerky into bite-sized pieces that disappear one by one into his mouth. She eats just as quietly, feeling silly to be so pleased that he likes her food.
Like a real wife cooking for her husband for the first time.
She shakes the thought away.
Once they finish, Katara turns from packing away the sealjerky to see Zuko hesitating awkwardly by the cooking fire. She considers him a moment, then asks: “Where did you get the water?”
He blinks. “A stream, just through the trees.”
“Did it have a sandy bottom or rocky?”
“I see.” Katara digs out a small sack from their supplies, and then grabs the waterskin they’d drunk empty. She holds out the skin. “While I clean the cooking pot, will you fill this with fresh drinking water?”
He takes the waterskin, nods, and leads her to the stream. While Katara uses a small handful of clean sand from the little sack to scour the cooking pot, Zuko walks upstream a small distance and holds the skin underwater until it fills.
They strike camp, dividing up the supplies into the reindeer-walrus-hide packs the Tribe had given them. Katara lays a hand on the prow of the Water Tribe yawl, pulled up onto the sand, and tears prick her eyes. As a waterbender, she feels at home on the ocean, but she is especially embraced by the feeling when the slap of waves against the hull is accompanied by the fragrance of the wood and smoke her Tribe uses to shape their vessels. The yawl is a piece of her home, her people, that she does not want to leave behind, but must.
“Is it alright to just leave it here?” Zuko asks.
“We can’t do much else.”
“We could…” Zuko pauses, perhaps searching for the right word “…scuttle it.”
Katara flinches. “No. No, I… I couldn’t.”
Zuko nods understanding. Katara takes a breath, holds it, lets it out. Her hand drops to her side and she turns away. “Whoever finds her won’t know who sailed her. Let them wonder, if they wish, and let them use her as they will. Maybe a fisherman will find her.”
They leave the beach and the yawl, heading inland.
Chapter 8: The Earth Kingdom
((Just barely under the wire! Sorry about that; the day got away from me. Hope everyone who'll be celebrating Thanksgiving has a great holiday. Next update will go up Nov. 30))
Despite the both of them being physically fit, neither Zuko or Katara are used to long marches. Strong bending skill and endurance do not translate to immunity to blisters or weary muscles. When they make camp each night, both of them are tired and sore. Katara uses her waterbending to heal any popped blisters or raw skin, and Zuko warms rocks to soothe away aches.
It is strange, to be in constant company of someone who doesn’t try to kill him, and doesn’t insult him with every breath. Even with the trail-rations and blisters, Zuko almost feels comfortable.
Almost. After all, he is in constant company of Katara. His wife. A woman to whom he didn’t want to be married and who had not wanted to be married to him. A woman whose mother had died at the hands of his countrymen. A woman with whom he had been intimate once, under duress. A woman he still didn’t understand.
The first day, they travel in awkward silence. Zuko doesn’t know what to say, and Katara’s attempts to initiate conversation peter out after the first several stilted responses from him. The second day starts out much the same, until after a long silence, Katara suddenly begins to tell him the story of Hunter Miksa and the Hawk-shark. When she’s finished, he offers her a similar folktale from the Fire Nation.
It’s easier to share stories with her than memories. And the interest in her eyes and the occasional smile or laugh on her lips are worth the dry throat he ends up with at the end of the day.
The trade of stories becomes their traveling ritual for the next few days.
Then, one night as they tend their aches and pains and stretch out weary muscles, Zuko notices Katara shooting glances at him. It is obvious she wants to say or ask something, but the crease between her brows makes it just as obvious that she’s not sure if she should. Finally, though, she makes up her mind and takes a breath.
“Zuko? I was wondering…” Her eyes are on the ground when he looks at her, and she chews on her lower lip. “I was just…”
She pauses, then lifts her eyes to meet his. Her brow is furrowed, and her gaze is full of things he can’t name but that hold him captive, unable to look away. “You’re my husband, but I barely know you. And you seem so reluctant to share anything personal about yourself…”
Zuko tears his gaze away, wincing. Katara hurriedly adds: “And I know how hard it must be, for you to trust anyone, but I just… I want to know you, Zuko. I think you’re someone worth knowing.”
He would do anything for her, soul aching for the kindness she offers. He’s already doing everything for her, answering the hope that shines in her. His voice is rasping, hoarser than usual: “I have few happy memories.”
Please don’t ask me to share the unhappy ones.
Katara’s eyes watch him, ocean-deep. “You tell me such beautiful stories; surely the memories of learning them are happy?”
Oh, how innocent she is. Zuko swallows. “My mother taught me many. The others…”
He is silent for a long time, struggling with himself. Finally he says haltingly: “There is little to do, when your eyes are bandaged and you are kept to a cot in the healers’ hall. My uncle… I asked him to tell me folktales.” It had been an appallingly childish request, but Iroh hadn’t said anything about it, only obliged.
“Your uncle? What’s he like?”
“Uncle Iroh,” Zuko says, remembering with a pang of mingled amusement and pain. “My father’s brother… but as unlike him as was possible. Uncle was shorter than I, grey-haired and barrel-chested. He loved tea. He was also an amazing Firebender, and taught me everything I know. He was the only brightness in my life, after Mother left.”
He can see in Katara’s face her recognition of the past tense—the sadness, the worry.
“Uncle was the only one to visit me after I was burned. He started out telling me reports, news about the country and the war. But I couldn’t stand to hear it, so like a child I asked him for stories. And he told me, story after story, every day for a week. But then...”
There is a pause, then Katara is brushing fingertips over Zuko’s knuckles—he hadn’t realized he was clenching his fists—and murmuring softly: “I’m sorry, Zuko.”
“Father said that Uncle volunteered to lead the 57th. He and Azula laughed over it. I don’t… I don’t know what Uncle was thinking. He knew what Father planned for the 57th. He knew what the projected losses were… But he still asked my Father to let him lead them. He left retirement for it.”
“The 57th was the battalion your father was going to sacrifice, that you spoke out against?” Katara asks. Zuko nods.
“Seventy-five men, plus my uncle.” He pauses to swallow his shame. “Only eleven returned. And two of those died from their wounds after.”
Katara is still touching him, her hands folded over his. Her head is bowed, and Zuko can’t see her face. But he does notice when wetness drops down onto their joined hands. Startled, he extracts a hand and uses it to tip her face up to his. He stares as more tears slip down her cheeks.
What did he…?
“The other nine lived,” he offers uncertainly. Katara’s face crumples.
“Oh, Zuko,” she says, pain filling her voice. She presses herself against him, her arms sliding around him in an embrace.
Zuko remembers the hugs his uncle had bestowed, and more vaguely the ones in which his mother had enfolded him. After only a small hesitation, he lays his hands gently on Katara’s back and leans his cheek against the crown of her head. He can smell the sweat from the day’s long journey on her, but it is far from an unpleasant scent. She sniffles against his chest, and he suddenly realizes that he also is dusty and sweaty. He can only hope it’s not too bad. After a few moments, she sniffles again and draws back a little. Zuko quickly releases her, allowing her to shift away from him.
“Your uncle must have loved you very much,” she says, scrubbing her cheeks with the heels of her palms.
“What?” He is confused.
“Don’t you see? He did it for you. You tried to save them, faced an Agni Kai for them; you were burned for them. Your uncle tried to make it so your sacrifice was not in vain. He volunteered to lead them because he hoped to save them, because it mattered to you.”
It hits him like a punch. “So it was my fault. He died because of me, too.”
Katara’s eyes widen and she grabs his hand again. “No! No, Zuko, don’t think like that. It’s not your fault! Your uncle chose, you didn’t force him. You aren’t responsible for what another person decides to do.”
“That’s what being a leader means,” he disagrees. “A leader takes responsibility for the actions of those under him.”
Katara’s expression shifts and he can’t read it. She gives a short laugh like a sob. “Oh, what a Firelord you will be.”
It confuses him more. Katara releases his hand and cups his face between her palms. “Zuko, you were a child. You were an injured child, and he didn’t tell you what he was going to do. He didn’t ask permission. And even if you had told him not to, he would have still gone. Because he loved you, and you can never stop someone who loves you from acting to protect you.”
“If he wanted to protect me, he should have stayed with me,” Zuko says hoarsely.
“I don’t imagine it entered into his calculations that he could die,” she says. Zuko closes his eyes, hurting. Katara’s thumb moves on his face, a feather-light stroke. He feels it flutter all the way down into his belly. His eyes open, meet hers.
She looks sad, but there is something else there, too. For a moment, Zuko almost thinks she might… Half a breath, and then he remembers himself and leans away, disengaging. She lets her hands fall, and that something is gone. Perhaps it had never existed in the first place.
“But he did,” Zuko says, and they both fall silent for the rest of the night.
The next morning, by some unspoken agreement, neither of them brings up what had transpired the previous day. They simply go about making breakfast, washing both the dishes and themselves, and striking camp. They walk some distance before Katara says: “We should arrive in the village of Nanxiong by this evening.”
Zuko nods, then says: “I think it would be best if we… or at least, I, did not use my real name.”
“Good idea,” she says thoughtfully. “You already look Fire Nation, you don’t need so obvious a Fire Nation name as well. What were you thinking instead?”
“Lee?” Zuko shrugs. “It is common enough.”
Katara’s lips twitch as if she will smile, but all she says is: “That’s true… Lee.”
They walk a little farther, then Katara says: “We should also buy some more food. We can stretch the seal-jerky if we buy a bag of rice.”
“I can do that while you try to find our Pai Sho contact,” Zuko offers. Katara nods.
“Alright. I’ll give you the money next time we stop.”
They make good time, reaching the village with a solid couple of hours until sunset. On the outskirts of village, they stop and Katara digs out the small pouch of money her Tribe had gifted them. It was a fair amount, earned while the Water Tribe had still been able to trade with the Earth Kingdom. Since they were cut off from their trade routes, the money wasn’t doing much good just sitting in the Tribe’s coffers, so Hakoda and the elders had decided to give a large portion to Katara and Zuko.
Zuko feels a little guilty, accepting the bag. It is his nation’s fault that the Water Tribe is starving, and taking this money… It had been given with the intent that it finance a bid to put him on the Dragon Throne, a bid that he knows will be futile. Taking it feels like theft.
But his selfishness desire for Katara to keep smiling at him keeps him silent.
She pauses as she hands it to him. “Ah… Do… Have you been to a market before?”
It is a fair question; he is—had been—a prince, with servants who could have fetched him whatever he wished. He doesn’t think Azula or his father had ever had to buy anything for themselves. However, he is not his father nor his sister.
“I have,” he tells Katara. “I know how to haggle.”
He sees relief and curiosity mingle in her expression. “Good. Try to get a few pounds of rice; we’ll be going through it fairly quickly.”
“While you do that, I’ll see if our contact is in the inn,” Katara continues. “I guess it would be easier for you to find me there than the other way around…”
“That’s fine,” Zuko says. He tucks the money pouch away. “I will meet you there, then.”
“Alright,” she says. He takes a step away, but she quickly reaches out to grab his wrist. She lets go when he stops and turns to her. “Um, be careful. Lee.”
“You also,” he replies. They pause, awkwardly, then part. Zuko makes his way toward the village’s small market.
He hadn’t lied. He had been to markets in the Fire Nation, but he hadn’t been buying food. In the scant handful of times he’d been able to slip away from the palace, he had bought a fine pair of dao swords, rough linen clothes that he could wear as a sort of disguise in place of his high-quality silks, and a set of theatre masks. That last had been something of a whim. His mother had enjoyed theatre, specifically the play “Love Amongst the Dragons”, and so when he saw the masks of the Dragon Emperor, Empress, and the Dark Water Spirit, he hadn’t been able to help himself. The weight of them, the smell of the cedar they’d been carved from, had been comforting, calling up warm memories of his mother. They were gone, now, hidden away with the swords and the clothes in the niche he’d found for them outside the walls of the palace. It was a secret place that not even Azula would find, but that Zuko, effectively an exile, would not be able to return to.
The thought stings a little, but Zuko is used to such pain.
The village’s market is small, and it doesn’t take long to find the one merchant who is selling rice. He has a steady trickle of customers—Zuko hovers behind the pair of middle-aged women currently being served, waiting quietly and with his face carefully down-turned.
It is the work of a minute to haggle the price of the rice down to something acceptable, and the merchant measures it out and bags it up with swift, practiced movements. And then, Zuko, task finished, turns away from the merchant’s cart and scans the market.
He had hoped that there might be a weapons merchant, but the village isn’t big enough for the extravagance. All they have is a blacksmith who makes farming implements and rough cooking knives, not swords. Zuko will have to rely on his hand-to-hand and, if things become dire enough, his bending.
He sighs a little, to himself, and starts back toward the inn, where Katara is waiting for him. It’s not a long walk, but when he arrives, she is already outside the door, looking anxiously for him.
She sees him before he can hail her, and rushes toward him. “We need to get moving, now,” she hisses.
“Come on,” she pulls him along by the hand. Zuko is confused, but lets her guide him. She hustles them out of the village and starts down the road before she lets out a breath and releases him. “Sorry.”
“What happened?” he asks. Katara frowns.
“There was a man playing pai sho, but he didn’t know the signals or the words my father said he should, if he were our contact. So I just started playing for real—I couldn’t just stand up and leave in the middle of a game, it would be rude, and we aren’t in that much of a hurry. It was fine for a little while, but then a squad of Earth Kingdom soldiers came in.”
“Oh,” he says. It’s really all the explanation he needs.
“So I let the guy win, and went outside to wait for you.” Katara’s brow is furrowed. “You didn’t see any soldiers in the market, did you?”
“Good. Still, I’d prefer to put as much distance between us and that village as possible.”
Katara’s jawline softens a little as a sheepish expression steals across her face. “Um. Sorry about grabbing you like that.”
“It’s fine,” Zuko says, a little surprised at the repeated apology. She must hear something in his tone, because she glances down and says:
“It’s just… I don’t imagine you are used to casual touch… I mean, you avoid it whenever you can, so I just thought it might bother you that I…”
“Oh,” Zuko says again, feeling stupid. “No, that’s… I mean, I’m not used to it, but I don’t mind when it’s you. I mean, you’re not bothering me…”
He shuts up before he makes a bigger fool of himself, babbling. Katara looks relieved, but there’s a bit of color in her cheeks. “I’m glad. You’ve been so considerate toward me, as much as you can considering everything, and I was afraid that I wasn’t respecting you in turn.”
How could her touch bother him when he craves it so much? When the possibility of feeling the gentle warmth of her hand wrapped around his wrist makes his heart beat faster? It is true that he isn’t used to casual touch, but he does remember what it had felt like, when his mother had stroked his hair, or when his uncle had enfolded him in boa-bear-hugs. The touch of Katara’s hands feels the same. Confident, caring warmth.
But how could he tell her any of that? He doesn’t want her pity. He feels she is too close to that emotion as it is. Uncomfortable, he merely shrugs and changes the subject. “How far is it to the next village?”
“Um,” Katara says, twisting to pull the map her family had given them out of the pack on her back. They stop walking as she unrolls it and they bend their heads over the vellum. Katara passes one side to Zuko so she has a free hand, and points to an ink dot. “That’s the village we just left. This is the road we’re on… I’d say we probably have two days of walking to get to the next village?”
He traces the path with his eyes, nodding agreement, and makes a note of the village name.
“Hopefully, we’ll find him there,” Katara says, rolling up the map.
“Find who?” asks a voice unexpectedly. Both Zuko and Katara jerk, and spin around. Zuko feels his heart drop to his heels. Uniforms in shades of green and brown… Earth Kingdom Army. Their leader—a sergeant by the look of it—smirks at them from a few yards away. They hadn’t heard them approach; either this squad is trained in stealth, or they have an Earthbender among them. Seeing two of their number without weapons and in lighter armor, Zuko rather thinks the latter.
“A family friend,” Katara answers the sergeant’s question warily. He grins at her, an expression that doesn’t touch his flat, brown eyes. He looks Katara up and down, then does the same to Zuko. It is a cold, impersonal inspection, one that makes Zuko worry what exactly he sees.
“Family friend, hm?”
“That’s right,” Katara replies, voice dropping in temperature.
“You two don’t look related,” the sergeant drawls, apparently unaffected by Katara’s forbidding tone.
“He’s my husband,” she says before Zuko can think to say anything. While true, the statement makes Zuko as nervous as if it had been a lie. He wishes more than ever for a good, steel blade in his hand.
“I see,” the sergeant says, leaning back and nodding almost absently. “Interesting.”
His eyes flicker over the two of them once more. “Very interesting. Tell me… What sort of ‘family friend’ could a Water Tribe woman have in the Earth Kingdom? Particularly a Water Tribe woman married to a Fire Nation man.”
Both Zuko and Katara stiffen. As if it had been a signal, the two Earthbenders lunge into motion. Zuko has a half breath to consider bending, himself, as their hands thrust forward and up. But before he can make a sound, rock rises between him and Katara.
Zuko hears her scream “ZUKO!” before the ground swallows him up, dragging him to darkness and dust.
Chapter 9: The Waterbender
(Next chapter will go up on Dec. 14)
The Earthbenders bury Zuko in rumbling stone, and Katara screams: “ZUKO!”
She stares at the smooth earth where Zuko had been standing for two sharp, fast heartbeats. Then the rage comes, and she lifts her head slowly, fingers curling into claws.
“Now, then,” the sergeant begins. Katara cuts him off with a furious sweep of her arms. His words twist into pained gurgling, and he claws at his mouth. The five members of his squad jerk toward her to counter-attack, but Katara is already moving on them. She rips water from nearby plants, lips peeling back from her teeth in a snarl. She hits two of them with water-whips, sending them tumbling into each other. They collapse to the ground in a jumble, and the grass around them dies as she pulls the water from it, the liquid sweeping over them and freezing into a hard crust. They shout, and struggle, but cannot move.
Katara ducks under the boulder one of the Earthbenders tosses at her, and turns her dodge into the beginning of a new attack. She gives a shout of exertion as she hurls a disk of ice at him. It shatters against the spar of rock he stomped up in front of him, ice fragments glittering in the setting sun as they fall. He does not expect Katara to rush him while the rock spar is blocking his sight, dragging a net of water with her. She slides around the Earthbender like a wave herself, ebbing and flowing around his startled lashing, pulling the net around him. He manages to graze her cheek with a rock glove, drawing a line of blood down it, but Katara freezes him in place like the others.
A rock hits her leg. She gives a cry, more anger than pain. It catches the heavy muscle of her thigh, fortunately, which means it stings and will leave an impressive bruise, but breaks no bones.
The last Earthbender and the final, sword-wielding soldier stand ready behind her. The sergeant is to the side, on his knees, bloody spit dribbling out of his mouth. She’d frozen the moisture in his mouth, lacerating his tongue, gums, and cheeks with sharp ice crystals. But the ice is melting from his body heat; he is recovering from what she’d done to him. She needs to finish this, quickly. The initial surprise of a rather short young woman blasting into an attack has worn off, mostly. As they collect themselves, the odds become worse and worse for Katara to win this.
She throws a barrage of ice disks toward the swords-man, forcing him to either break his stance or bat them away. He chooses the latter, his sword shattering the disks before they hit. He is fast enough not to miss any, but his sword can’t shatter the water-whip that follows them. Katara’s water yanks the feet out from under him, but splashes away before she can freeze it, as the last Earthbender breaks her concentration with shifting earth. She dives into a forward roll to avoid the grasping rock that rumbles underfoot.
As she rolls, she grabs a fist-sized rock, and when she rose, she whipped it toward the swordsman’s head as he gained his own feet. Neither of them expect a Waterbender to attack with earth. He drops back to the ground to keep the rock from bashing into his skull. While he is down, and as she dips under another Earthbent boulder, she flicks her hands up. The water puddling on the ground under him climbs his wrists and legs and freezes. He gives a shout.
Katara doesn’t target the last Earthbender, not yet. Instead, she bolts toward the sergeant. He is still on hands and knees, fingers digging at his mouth. She puts him between her and the Earthbender, and her hands form claws.
The Earthbender makes a move like he’s about to bend, but Katara grips the sergeant’s blood and yanks, making a muffled sound burst out of him. The Earthbender stops.
“Don’t move,” she says coldly. The Earthbender eyes her, eyes his sergeant. She can tell he’s considering it. She flicks her fingers, and the sergeant makes an alarmed noise and splutters and coughs. Blood pours over his chin from his mouth. The Earthbender makes an angry noise, but Katara pins him in place with a glare. “I only melted the water in his mouth that I’d frozen earlier.”
They watch the sergeant curse and spit blood and saliva. “There’s so much water in human bodies,” Katara says musingly. “I wonder what would happen if I froze all of it?”
“Do what she says,” gurgles the sergeant, body bent and submissive, but his eyes burning. The Earthbender lowers his arms, scowling but obedient.
“Good,” Katara says grimly. “Now, you had both better hope that my companion is still alive.”
“We dropped him into an air-pocket,” the Earthbender tells her grumpily. “He should be fine.”
“So it won’t be a problem for you to bring him back,” she says pointedly. The Earthbender’s face twists unpleasantly, but he glances at his superior officer and does as she says.
Zuko bursts from the ground on a flat plane of rock. He is paler than normal, she thinks, but as soon as he’s in open air, fire explodes around him, wreathing him. The Earthbender jumps back, defensive, and the sergeant twitches under Katara’s grasp.
“Zuko!” she calls in relief. He rounds on her, eyes a little wild, flames still licking his skin. He sees her and hesitates. She freezes the last two Earth Kingdom soldiers into place and runs toward him, stopping just outside the reach of the flames.
“I’m so glad you’re alright!” She feels tears sting her eyes, and a part of her is surprised at her reaction. She hadn’t realized how fond of him she had become. Mindful of what she’d decided earlier—to respect his personal space—she checks herself before she throws her arms around him, instead trying to communicate her concern and relief through her expression. She can see the tightness ease in his jaw and shoulders, a little, but the wildness remains in his eyes and he doesn’t release the fire wreathing him.
His eyes flicker over her, perhaps searching for signs of injury, then he looks beyond her shoulder at the squad of Earth Kingdom soldiers in varying states of iciness. The black glare causes Katara to turn and survey them as well.
She hadn’t frozen over their faces, somehow recognizing even through her rage that they need to breathe. Right now, their attention is fixed on her and Zuko, expressions twisted.
“You’re Prince Zuko,” spits the sergeant.
“Yes, I am,” Zuko replies coolly. The fires around him flicker and vanish, his strict control over himself re-asserting.
“We should have killed you when we had the chance.”
Katara takes one furious step forward, but Zuko’s hand on her arm stops her.
“You’re a damn fool if you think my death would change anything in this war,” Zuko tells the soldier. “I’m not in-line for the throne. I am exiled. My father wouldn’t care if I were dead.”
“As if I will believe a filthy Firebender,” sneers the sergeant as the Earthbender near him scoffs. Zuko eyes them.
“You are fortunate I am more merciful than my father,” and so saying, he turns and walks away.
Katara curls her lip at the soldiers. “The ice will melt by morning, though you’ll probably be able to break out before then,” she says. “When you do, I hope you have enough intelligence to forget you ever saw us.”
The nearest Earthbender spits at her. She levels a cold glare at him. “You really are idiots.”
She stalks after Zuko, leaving the chicken-pig-headed soldiers behind in their ice.
He must have been waiting for her, because she catches up with him immediately. Heat radiates off of him, distorting the air around him. He is clearly still angry. Perhaps still reacting to the horror of being buried alive.
“Are you alright?” she asks him. He merely grunts, and keeps walking. “I’ll take that as a yes…”
“I’m uninjured,” he says. His eyes flick over her. “Though you are not.”
Katara’s hand lifts to touch her cheek, and she flinches a little at the sting of the cut. It had stopped bleeding, however. “It’s no problem,” she tells him, and pulls a little water from her flask to heal the wound. Zuko watches intently as the narrow cut seals up as if it had not existed.
She re-corks the flask and sighs. “I suppose we’ll have to move even faster. Those soldiers are going to report us, and then there’ll be even more patrols.”
“Yes,” Zuko says grimly. “Let us hope that our contact is in the next town.”
Zuko tries to disguise the tremors that run through him, shivers from a lingering chill in his marrow. He had only been buried a few short minutes, but the abrupt and malevolent loss of the evening sunlight on his skin had taken a toll. Firebenders couldand did go underground, but in controlled circumstances, with intention and will wrapped around them. To thrust an unwitting Firebender away from the sun is akin to thrusting a dagger into their flesh, and Zuko is still bleeding from the wound.
He strides determinedly across the Earth Kingdom’s soil, jaw set and anger and pain aching in his chest. He is furious that the idiotic Earth Kingdom troops had gotten the drop on him; he should be better than that.
“Are you sure you’re alright?” Katara asks, and Zuko realizes he’s grinding his teeth. He relaxes his jaw.
“I’m fine,” he says gruffly. Katara frowns and looks away. Silence falls between them as they hurry along the road toward the next village and, hopefully, the man who would lead them to the White Lotus and the Avatar.
By unspoken agreement, they do not stop for the night, walking on and on through the night and into the day, and beyond the night once more. They are lucky and either the guards do not report them (unlikely) or they have been able to keep ahead of the patrols. They reach the village by dawn of the second day of traveling.
The village is larger than Nanxiong, is walled and has a gatebooth manned by constables. They slip off the road and sneak over the wall some distance from the gatebooth, using some subtle and skillful Bending. A white lie and a brief question directed toward a villager yields the names of the village’s two inns, and rough directions to them. This time, Zuko and Katara do not split up, prudence suggesting that they stick together in case they need to flee again.
Zuko feels fuzzy and weak. It takes most of his concentration to keep his limbs from trembling. Being out under the sun all day yesterday had helped a little, but staying awake for over a day as well as walking without rest had not allowed his body to recover from the shock of being buried alive. He can still feel a lingering chill in his marrow. All he wants is to wrap up in warmth and sleep.
Katara looks a little paler than usual, a tint of greyness to her face that hints at her own exhaustion. But her jaw is also set in determination and she doesn’t falter as they make their way to the first of the village’s inns.
They blink rapidly as they move from facing the rising sun to the dimness of the inn. Despite the early hour, the common room that takes up the first level of the inn is moderately populated—patrons breaking their fast with the inn kitchen’s simple fare, a few merchants taking a moment for a quiet cup of tea before heading to the bustle of the markets… And a man sitting at a pai sho board, contemplating the pieces arrayed across it. He seems to be playing against himself, or reliving a previous game, as there is no sign of an opponent.
Standing beside her, Zuko feels Katara stiffen with sudden, hopeful energy. She hesitates a moment, then heads for a table close to the man. Zuko thinks that maybe she doesn’t want to seem suspicious, jumping right into a game with him. He follows her lead easily.
They order tea, which comes out to them quicker than Zuko expects. His uncle had always…
He breaks the thought viciously, but it’s too late. He can feel the fractures spider out through his chest, ache of loss like frostburn. He takes a gulp of tea, hardly tasting it, wanting only the heat of the liquid. And it is hot, hot enough that Katara’s face breaks from careful expressionlessness to stare. Zuko keeps his eyes carefully averted, unsure of what she might read in his gaze, but he can see her in his peripherals. She opens her mouth, then glances around at the people surrounding them in the room, and shuts it. Zuko takes another mouthful of steaming tea, feeling the heat crawl down his throat and sink into his belly. He sighs carefully, keeping himself from exhaling smoke, and curls his hands around the cup.
“Z—Lee. Are you… are you alright?”
He looks up, and finds Katara watching him, a line between her brows. Her eyes at the moment are on his hands, clinging to the tea cup as if it is life-saving medicine. He hunches over it involuntarily, realizes that he did, and straightens. “I’m just tired.”
Katara’s too-bright eyes lift to his face and she inspects him solemnly for a moment. When she speaks it is only just loud enough for him to hear, and soft enough to avoid any eavesdroppers. “No. That’s not just it. But this isn’t the place to talk about it, so I’ll let it go for now.”
She places her tea cup a little further from the edge of the table and stands, moving to the pai sho table. Putting a friendly smile on, she speaks to the man: “Excuse me. May I have a game while I wait for my tea to cool?”
“Certainly,” the man smiles back at her and nods to Zuko, clearing the tiles and resetting them. “The guest has the first move.”
Zuko’s attention sharpens as Katara sits and selects a specific tile from the set in front of her, placing it in the center of the board. The man’s smile widens for a flicker.
“I see you favor the white lotus gambit,” he says. Those are the words that Hakoda had taught them. This is their man. “Not many still cling to the ancient ways.”
“Those who do can always find a friend,” Katara replies, returning the man’s welcoming gesture. “Let us play.”
Taking turns, they lay down tiles, forming a flower shape on the board. Once it had been completed, the man bows in his seat. “Welcome, sister, brother. The White Lotus opens wide to those who know her secrets.”
“Thank you,” Katara says, and Zuko sees some of the tension leave her shoulders.
“Finish your tea, friends, and then we can go somewhere where we may speak.”
Zuko glances down into his cup, which is empty. He had wanted to drink the tea while it was still steaming, the heat bolstering his tired spirit. It had, but it had also not been quite enough to slake his thirst.
“May I tempt you with some jasmine tea?” asks the pai sho man quietly, to Zuko. He looks up, a little startled, to see the man joining him and Katara at their table. The pai sho board is cleared, tiles tucked into their storage bowls. “I have a fresh pot, nearly full, and will need some help emptying it.”
“Thank you,” Zuko says automatically, shifting to give the man room to pour. Katara sits across from them, sipping from her first cup. The fragrance of the jasmine tea wafts delicately over Zuko’s face as it splashes into his cup, the scent calling out memories that Zuko pushes back just as viciously as the first.
Jasmine had been one of his favorites.
Katara and the man—he introduces himself as Min—make small talk, carefully dancing around saying anything incriminating.
“Tea is just hot leaf juice,” Zuko remembers complaining to his uncle once, much to the man’s horror and indignation. He hasn’t changed his mind—it still just tastes, well, green. Like the way bruised leaves smell. He doesn’t understand the allure, but it evidently tastes good to some people. Katara and Min both drink with evident enjoyment. Zuko’s enjoyment is derived solely from the warmth and… liquidness… of the beverage. It warms him and quenches his thirst.
Min watches him with brief, casual glances while conversing with Katara. Zuko doesn’t see the same sort of malice or suspicion as he had in the Earth Kingdom soldiers, but the calculating gaze makes him uneasy all the same. He sits, uncomfortable and nervous, until Katara and Min finish their tea and make to stand.
Min smiles at them and bids them to follow him. They do, Katara with apparently no concern that the man could very well be an enemy and this could be a trap. Zuko walks behind her, trying to scan their surroundings while simultaneously keeping a low profile. They walk to what appears to be a potter’s shop, large, long-necked jars standing in regimented order along the outer wall. Min leads them around the back of the shop, to the kiln building that stood separate from the shop proper. He knocks on the door of the kiln building, and after a moment the small slit-window in it slides open.
“Who knocks at the gate?” asks a voice within.
“One who has eaten the fruit and tasted its mysteries,” intones Min quietly. The window snaps shut and there’s a click as the door is unlatched and opened. Min beckons them to follow him inside. This time, when Katara moves to go first, Zuko touches her wrist to hold her back. He ignores the inquisitive glance she sends his way, all his attention on the door and what lay on the other side. He goes in first, prepared in case this really is all just a trap. But there is no threat within the kiln building, only Min and another old man and the thick heat of the kilns.
The door is shut behind Katara and then the new old man is bowing to them. “Welcome to the Order of the White Lotus. I am Zhu Xiang, leader of the south-western quadrant of the Earth Kingdom,” he says, straightening and looking them over. Zuko knows what he sees: Two teenagers in rumpled, road-dust-covered clothes in Water Tribe colors, the woman obviously of the Tribe, the man bizarrely pale and yellow-eyed for his blue tunic.
“Thank you,” Katara replies. “I’m Katara, daughter of Chief Hakoda of the Southern Water Tribe.”
“Welcome Lady Katara,” Xiang says, dipping another bow before turning to Zuko and bowing to him also. “And Prince Zuko, son of Firelord Ozai.”
Fire leaps to Zuko’s hands almost without conscious thought. He steps back, hands rising, tongues of red and orange slithering around them.
“Wait!” Katara jumps between him and the old men. “Zuko, wait.”
He does, if only because she is facing them, as if she were protecting him from them, instead of facing him, as if she were protecting them from him. His side. She’s on his side.
Min and Xiang hold up their hands, looking abashed. “Apologies, Prince Zuko, Lady Katara. I had not meant to alarm you. We do not offer any threat to you.”
“Why should I believe you?” Zuko demands, eyes narrowed. “My father is the Firelord. Why wouldn’t you hate me?”
“The sins of the father are not the sins of the son,” Min says mildly. “And… there is a brother in the Order who vouched for your character.”
Zuko’s stance drops from sheer shock. “Who?”
Min and Xiang share a glance, then Min says: “Master Jeong-Jeong.”
This time, Zuko’s jaw drops.
“Do you mean Jeong-Jeong the Deserter?” Katara asks, sounding confused.
“Yes,” Xiang answers her, watching Zuko struggle with his reaction. “He is one of the leaders of the White Lotus; he took a more active role in the Order after his desertion.”
“But…” Zuko says, still reeling, “…Master Jeong-Jeong hated me.”
“Ah,” Min says with a wry, apologetic smile, “not hate… He thought you were spoilt and arrogant, but that you had a good heart. He… ah… considers the fact that your father tried to have you assassinated a mark in your favor.”
He has no response to that.
“You… knew him?” Katara asks, eyes flicking between them all, trying to connect the dots.
“He was my Bending instructor,” Zuko replies automatically, still trying to reconcile his memories of the man and what Min had said. “At least, he was before he deserted.”
That had been years ago, before that fateful meeting which had lead to Zuko’s injury and Iroh’s death. He wonders how Jeong-Jeong could possibly still believe that he had a good heart; he would have had to have heard about what happened.
“You can speak with him,” Xiang says, watching Zuko. “If you’d like. We can take you to him.”
Zuko is simultaneously desperate to see if Jeong-Jeong truly does believe in him, and terrified to find out if he doesn’t. But his feelings hold no bearing on what must happen. He’d promised Katara. “No. We must see the Avatar.”
Katara’s eyes are dark, her face uncertain. She glances at him, hesitating, but something she sees in his face—or doesn’t see—makes her nod and turn to the two White Lotus members and voice her agreement. “Yes. Zuko’s exile from the Fire Nation provides us with an opportunity we can’t miss.”
Min and Xiang nod as if they understand perfectly what opportunity Katara means. And perhaps they do. They certainly do not hesitate to say: “Of course. We would be glad to escort you to see the Avatar.”
Zuko feels the air close in around him, feels like he suddenly can’t breathe. The prospect of facing the Avatar had been so distant up to this point. He’d expected to be dead before he got this far, killed for even asking to see the Avatar. Who in their right mind would allow the Prince of the Fire Nation to see him? Even an exiled former prince. And what happens when he sees the Avatar and is judged useless, any attempt to employ him in the war empty and doomed to fail? Certainly they would never just let him go, the son of the enemy let go to wander with the knowledge of how to find the Avatar. Would they kill him or imprison him?
Katara’s hand slips into his, smooth and cool as the water she Bends. It is a gesture meant to reassure, to affirm their alliance, but her touch calls up another thought, one that sends ice through Zuko’s limbs.
When he fails, what happens to Katara? Her people?
Katara curls herself a little tighter in the bottom of the belled pot, closing her eyes and pressing her forehead against her knees. She sways gently with the motion of the cart her hiding place had been loaded onto. The air is filled with the sounds of road traffic and the quiet clacking of ceramic against ceramic. She knows that Zuko is hiding in one of the pots beside hers, and that Min and Xiang are coaxing the grumpy ostrich-horse hitched to the cart through the early morning crowds of the town.
They’re on their way to see the Avatar.
Katara’s hands squeeze around her legs, and she has to hold her breath so she doesn’t start hyperventilating. Hope is a giddy bubble in her chest, even as nerves curdle her stomach. They are on their way, but there is still so much that can go wrong. Perhaps they never get to see the Avatar. Perhaps they are captured of killed on the way. Or perhaps they do meet him, but they lose the war and never have the chance to put Zuko on the Dragon Throne.
But perhaps things work out, and they are able to end the war. Zuko takes his birthright, and leads the Fire Nation to peace, and the Avatar’s support earns him allies in the other nations. Perhaps hope wins.
She wants that. She is willing to bleed for it.
By the sounds outside of the cart, they have reached the town’s gates. All comings and goings are recorded by the gatekeepers, which is why she and Zuko are huddled in large ceramic pots. They had not entered the town legally, and would leave in a similarly clandestine manner.
There is a soft shush of fabric against fabric as the gatekeepers lift the cart’s awning to check the cargo against what Min and Xiang were claiming. A thorough search would reveal her and Zuko, but the two members of the White Lotus had assured them that the gatekeepers rarely do their job to the full extent of the description, and never when there are bribes involved.
Sure enough, the awning is dropped, and soon enough the cart begins trundling forward once more. Katara counts the passage of time, knowing they have to get out of the view of the gates before Min and Xiang let her and Zuko out of their hiding places. It seems like forever, her position becoming cramped and more claustrophobic, before finally the cart slows to a stop. She hears the clink of other pots being moved, before hers rocks a little, then slowly and steadily tips over onto its side, allowing Katara to crawl out. When she straightens, Min and Xiang are tipping over Zuko’s pot, and he’s crawling out too.
They climb back onto the cart, sitting on the rough wood floor of its bed, and Min taps the ostrich-horse back into motion. Katara watches the road roll out before them, and smiles. This is the road that will lead them to their future. She turns to Zuko, but pauses, the smile dropping from her lips, as she takes in the sight of him.
He’d been quiet, she’d noticed, but he is usually quiet and she hadn’t thought anything of it. She should have. She should have remembered how doubtful he’d been of his welcome, of the Avatar’s willingness to ally with him. Seas and sky, hadn’t she just seen the disbelief and confusion on his face when Min and Xiang had told him that his old Firebending master didn’t hate him?
Zuko’s head is bowed, his face nearly gray with—Katara imagines—exhaustion and uncertainty and worry. His hands are clasped around his knees, the knuckles white with strain. Before she can think about it, her hands are reaching for his, untangling his fingers from each other. The muscles and tendons of his hands are rigid and tight. She traces along them, touch gentle and soothing. He doesn’t look up, but he watches their hands.
“What’s wrong?” Katara asks, keeping her voice low so that Min and Xiang don’t hear. For a while, she doesn’t think Zuko will answer.
“I’m…” he says at last, slowly, still not looking up at her, “… concerned.”
She waits, but it seems that those are all the words Zuko can manage on the subject. She bites her lip, trying to think of something she can say. Her thumbs continue to stroke over his knuckles.
“They…” she starts, then has to clear her throat when it comes out hoarser than anticipated. “They say that the Avatar is a kind man. Sworn to never kill. He’s not going to… He’ll listen to us. To you. I know it.”
“That’s not what I’m afraid of,” Zuko mutters. She frowns, thinking that maybe she knows what he means.
“Zuko,” she says, clasping his hand together between hers. She lifts them slightly, the motion enough to make him glance up at her. “I believe in you.”
It clearly surprises him, his eyes widening—the left one as much as it can with the scar tissue pulling at it. He opens his mouth, closes it, swallows, then looks down, lips turning down.
“Hey,” Katara says, pulling his hands. “I mean it. Do you think I’d’ve survived until now without you?”
“Pretty sure you would have,” Zuko’s voice is dry. She gives him a wry smile in return.
“If you hadn’t been with me, I never would have reached the South Pole in time. And I probably would have frozen to death trying. Zuko, you helped me save my family. That’s no small thing.”
She almost jumps when she feels his hands move under hers, the tips of his fingers curling to return the clasp of her own. He has calluses that she knows aren’t typical for high-class Firebenders—most of them eschew the use of any weapon besides their fire, but the lines of toughened skin along Zuko’s palms speak of extensive sword training.
“I don’t feel like I did anything,” Zuko mutters. “Just passed out and was a burden on your people.”
“You are far too hard on yourself,” she tells him honestly. “You worked yourself into exhaustion keeping the both of us from freezing to death, and that was on top of continued, hard bending for days before. Not to mention the fighting and getting injured by your father’s assassins.”
Zuko shakes his head. “I would have been killed by those assassins if it weren’t for you. And you were bending all that time, too. You also saved my life, with those Earth Kingdom soldiers.”
“So we both owe each other,” Katara says. “Is that so bad?”
“I just…” Zuko scowls, apparently becoming frustrated. “I should have done more. I should be able to do more. My father always said I was useless—”
“Are you really going to believe anything he says?” she interrupted, serious and edging toward anger.
“I don’t—I’m not—Arg! I’m saying this all wrong!” Zuko growls. “I don’t think I’m useless because he says I am. I think I’m useless because he made me useless! I have no power in the Fire Nation because he’s denounced me, I’m hated everywhere else if not because I’m a Firebender then because everyone thinks I’m a callous bastard who throws away the lives of his own countrymen, and I’ll never be able to persuade anyone to believe anything I say because I’m his son.”
Katara’s mouth opens, closes. It isn’t that he’s wrong, because honestly he isn’t, entirely. Their path, the one Katara wishes them to take, is not without its obstacles. But what uneases her about what he’s saying is that he’s so resigned about it. Defeated.
“You haven’t let your father, or your sister, beat you down so far,” she says finally. “You’re still yourself, and you still act for yourself. I’m sure you’ve realized that your father might be placated if you acted more like them, and yet you don’t. So why should you let his actions limit you?”
“Let,” Zuko repeats with stinging bitterness. She shrugs.
“You have nothing to lose in trying,” she says. “And everything to gain.”
There is a long pause, and then Zuko extracts his hands from her grip and rubs his face. “Yeah,” he sighs. “I know.”
She watches him for a moment. “I’ve meant everything I’ve told you, you know. I don’t hate you, I appreciate everything you have done for me and my family, and I really do believe in you.”
Zuko’s ears go pink; his face might have also, but he has his scarred cheek turned to her and she can’t see anything else. He makes a noncommittal grunting sound. Maybe he believes her, maybe he doesn’t. Maybe he thinks she’s just saying those things so that he’ll go along with her plan. Katara heaves a tiny, surreptitious sigh and turns her head to watch the Earth Kingdom pass by.
Min and Xiang keep their pace steady, but they don’t stop for anything longer than a trip to the bushes, except to switch ostrich-horses a day into their journey. As they check over the cart, unhitch the black mount, and hitch up a new, russet-feathered one, Zuko and Katara have a full candlemark to stretch their legs.
They’ve been mostly quiet since their conversation at the start of the day, only talking when it was necessary or polite. Katara feels like she’s back to the early days of their marriage, when Zuko had been avoiding her. It is making her twitchy. She had thought their relationship had grown during their travels; they’d had to trust each other and work together often, and save each other almost as frequently. But Zuko’d obviously been damaged by life under his father’s iron fist, and she wondered if he actually trusted her—if he could. She wishes he would. In spite of everything, she likes Zuko. He has been a good ally in all of this.
Katara glances at him, sitting next to her. His head is tilted back now against the side of the cart, eyes closed. There are shadows on his face.
She wants to reach out to him again, but she worries that she’s too free with him. He had said that he doesn’t mind, when it’s her, but that doesn’t give her permission to grab him whenever the mood takes her. She feels strange, clinging, like a child wanting to hold on to a parent.
Still, her fingers itch. He just looks so weary, and the tired bruises under his eyes make him look sad. She tries to imagine what he looks like smiling—truly smiling—and, in wondering, realizes she never has seen him happy. Her heart gives a painful lurch in her chest, and she can’t stop herself from slipping her fingers into his.
He closes his hand around hers automatically, then blinks his eyes open a moment later. He watches his thumb brush over her knuckles, then his honey-gold eyes lift to scan her face. “Are you alright?”
He wants to know if she’s alright?
Something warm flares in her, and she squeezes his hand. Maybe it is an involuntary reaction, but his grip tightens minutely, also.
It’s two days of travel after they leave the walled town before they arrive at their destination. Zuko stares at the craggy landscape and the dark maw of the cave entrance in front of him. Katara stands next to him, frowning a little as she also peers into the darkness.
“Where are we?” she asks.
“This is the Cave of Two Lovers,” Xiang tells her, and her face brightens.
“Oh! Like in the story of Oma and Shu?”
“Yes, exactly,” Xiang replies, seeming pleased that she knew it. “The story is true, you know. The tunnels move, and it’s impossible to find your way if you don’t know how. There have been a number of Fire Nation reconnaissance scouts who have entered but never found their way out.”
Zuko couldn’t help the wince. Even if they might have been trying to find the Avatar for Ozai, Zuko feels a sting at their deaths. They had still been his people.
“What is the trick?” Katara asks curiously. “Do you need to be an Earthbender?”
“No,” Xiang says, and mischief makes his voice sly. “You remember the story, right? ‘Love is brightest in the dark’? All you need to do is trust in love.”
Zuko can tell without looking that Xiang is looking between him and Katara pointedly. He feels his ears go hot and knows he’s blushing.
“You are a hopeless romantic,” Min tells Xiang dryly as he wraps cloth around a stick and dips it into one of the pots in the back of ostrich-horse cart. Zuko catches a whiff of oil as Min moves closer to him. “Prince Zuko, if you would be so kind?”
It takes Zuko a breath to realize he’s asking him to light the torch with his Firebending. He moves jerkily to do so, flaring a tiny, tiny flame in his palm and holding it to the oil-soaked cloth until it catches. Min gives Zuko a nod in thanks, as if this was entirely normal, as if Zuko isn’t an enemy, as if Earth Kingdom nationals had Firebenders light torches for them every day. Zuko can’t speak, can barely nod his head back in acknowledgement. His heart is thundering in his chest.
“Come on, I’ll show you two the real trick to finding your way in the tunnels,” Min says. “Xiang, bring the cart.”
Zuko stumbles after him into the cave. He can hear Katara follow, and the creak of the cart’s wheels and the ostrich-horse’s annoyed chuff at having to move again.
The sunlight fades the deeper they go, and Zuko feels his skin prickle at the loss. His inner-fire dims a little, but it still burns warm within him; he is underground, but he won’t get sick like when he’d been buried. He is ready, this time, for the lack of sun, and has shored up his spirit accordingly. They walk in silence for a while, until the light from the cave entrance is no longer visible and their only light comes from the torch in Min’s hand. And then Min stops.
“Ready to learn the secret of the Cave of Two Lovers?” he asks with a small smile. Zuko glances at Katara, who is looking back at him. She lifts her eyebrows at him as if to say ‘might as well.’ She nods to Min, who drops the torch and stamps it out.
Katara makes a surprised sound but doesn’t move. Zuko startles, almost bends himself a light, but something stops him from doing so. It isn’t trust, quite, but just a feeling that urges him to wait to see what Min is about. If he really needs to, he can still Firebend at a moment’s notice.
“It will take a moment for your eyes to adjust,” Min’s voice comes calmly out of the darkness. They stand still, the only sounds their breathing and tiny scuffs of boots on rock and dirt. Then Zuko can start to see a green glow. It gets brighter and brighter and then he can see Katara and Min and Xiang and the ostrich-horse cart. He looks up, and sees a river of green crystals flowing down the tunnel’s roof, a forest of glowing minerals.
“Oooh,” Katara breathes, awed.
“Following the crystals leads you to Oma and Shu’s tomb. That’s where the main camp is,” Xiang tells them. “If we hurry, we may be in time for lunch.”
“You said the tunnels move, earlier,” Katara says to Xiang as they walk. “What do you mean, move?”
“There is a colony of badger-moles that lives in the tunnels,” he replies. “They are Earthbenders, the first. They shift the tunnels around to suit themselves; it helps us keep hidden, so we just adapt to the changes.”
“Wouldn’t that disrupt the crystals?” Zuko finds himself asking.
“They do get buried or crushed sometimes,” Min says. “Every fortnight or so we send out Earthbenders to re-establish the path. There usually isn’t too much disruption that we can’t fix it.”
“How many people are living in here?” Katara asks. “You said ‘the main camp’ and you obviously have the Avatar and some Earthbenders here…”
“Hmm,” Min hums thoughtfully. “Maybe five hundred?”
Zuko chokes. Five hundred? Xiang smiles at his reaction, and says: “About a hundred and twenty of those are Fire Nation.”
Jeong-Jeong and the soldiers who had deserted with him. And, by the numbers, some others who have left the Fire Nation on their own.
Zuko feels… conflicted. On the one hand, he is obviously not the only one of his people to disagree with Ozai. On the other… that didn’t necessarily mean those soldiers would appreciate Zuko’s presence. He trudges on, following Min and Katara, Xiang and the cart behind him, and feels his heart sinking.
“Ah, here,” Min says, as Katara sucks in a breath, “Welcome to the camp of Avatar Aang.”
Zuko’s gaze lifts from its contemplation of the ground, and he understands why Katara had gasped. The chamber—Oma and Shu’s tomb—is huge, and full of people and tents and torches burning brightly. In the ceiling high above, some Earthbenders had punched little holes to let air in, and the sun trickled in in thin, weak shafts of light.
“Min will take care of you alone from here,” Xiang says, “I need to bring the cart and ostrich-horse to the animal pens. Welcome to the camp, Prince Zuko, Princess Consort Katara.”
Both of them are too busy gawking to respond and Xiang leaves. Min gives them a moment, and then steps forward. “Shall we?”
They wind their way through the forest of tents and pillars, people stopping and watching them probably because it is unusual to see someone so obviously Fire Nation dressed in Water Tribe clothes and with a Water Tribe woman, particularly in inland Earth Kingdom. Zuko keeps his gaze trained forward, not looking back at the gawkers.
“Would you like to eat or rest before you see the Avatar?” Min asks them. “It’s near enough to lunch that we could probably scrape something up for you. And we have several tents that remain open for messengers or visitors.”
“I’d like to see the Avatar now, if it’s possible,” Zuko says before Katara can speak. Better to get this all over with, before he has too much time to think about what he’s doing.
“Of course,” Min says. “I can check about his availability. I’m sure he’ll have time this afternoon, if he doesn’t now.”
Zuko nods, face absolutely smooth, as if he isn’t so nervous that he’s sure he’ll vomit if he opens his mouth to respond. He follows Min toward a large stone statue near one of the cavern’s walls. There’s a small cluster of tents there, somehow looking more officious, more… More. It has to be where the Avatar stays, where meetings take place.
Min directs them to a rough-hewn bench a polite distance from the tents. “Here, sit here while I check.”
Zuko sits tentatively, and after a short pause, Katara sits next to him. He doesn’t say anything to her, still trying to reel in his almost-panicked reaction.
This is it. He’s here, fifty paces away from the Avatar. Mere moments away from judgment. From being a failure again. Again, the thought comes to him: What will they do when they realize he’s worthless? It’s more than the Avatar’s safety now, it’s this… this army. They are carefully hidden, here, but now Zuko knows the trick of finding them. They can never let him leave, whether they ensure it by killing him or locking him up.
Katara will be so disappointed. She had really hoped he could be used as a rally point. Look, a Fire Nation royal who is on our side, someone who could replace Ozai.
Zuko feels sick.
He’ll never see her again. He’ll be alone again, having let down the one person in this world who believes in him. She’ll… she’ll either go home to the South Pole, to help her people more directly, or she’ll keep looking for a way to end the war. Maybe she’ll fight; she’s a strong enough bender.
She’ll never watch him with those blue, blue eyes again. He won’t ever see the temper snapping in them like fire. She won’t stroke her fingers over his hands, won’t speak his name in that same gentle way his mother and his uncle had. She won’t scold him about not treating her like an equal, a partner. She won’t be his wife anymore, won’t be his friend, won’t be his companion by circumstance, even.
Agni, he can’t lose her. He doesn’t want to lose her. The thought makes him sick to his stomach. She makes him try. She makes him want to try, because the alternative is disappointing her and he can’t. He can’t lose the regard of the one living person who thinks he’s worth something, who thinks he’s good.
“I’ll go with you,” she whispers, and for a moment he thinks it’s only a dreaming of his mind, but he looks at her and she’s watching his face, a tiny wrinkle between her eyebrows. He wants to say yes, but…
“No, it’s alright. I should… I should speak to him myself,” he says.
He doesn’t want to see the hope fade from her expression in front of him, when the Avatar realizes he’s useless.
She doesn’t look convinced, but she nods. He swallows thickly. His heart’s racing. Min’s coming toward them, and Zuko stands as if the bench had been set on fire. Katara stands too, her motions more cautious, recognizing the nervous energy making his limbs twitch.
“Avatar Aang would be happy to see you right now,” Min says, coming to a halt in front of them. “Are you ready?”
Zuko licks his lips, tries to find his voice.
“Are you sure you don’t want me to come with you?” Katara asks, very soft. The tips of her fingers brush against his arm. He looks at her, looks at the rumpled, travel-stained clothes, her tumbling hair, worried eyes, the bow of her slightly-frowning lips. He tries to memorize her.
They probably won’t let him see her again. He doesn’t want to lose her. But he will. He always loses the people he cares about.
He wants to have something for himself. He wants to brand every glance she’d directed at him into his memory. He wants to hold onto the warmth of her hands in his. He wants…
Zuko reaches for her, palms sliding across her cheeks, fingers slipping into the hair at her temples. Katara is still, eyes fixed on his. She lets him cradle her face in his hands, watches as he leans down. Her eyes flutter shut as he brushes his lips against hers. Her mouth moves under his, pressing back.
He can feel her pulse racing, the same as his. He kisses her gently, holding back the desperation. And then he’s drawing away, tearing himself away. His fingers trail through her tumbling hair as he turns away, catching a brief glimpse of her eyes fluttering open as he goes.
“I’m ready,” he says, approaching Min as Katara stands silently behind at the bench. Zuko strides forward, clinging to that little part of her that he could keep for himself after this is all over.
He ducks into the Avatar’s tent.
:) Finally, right?
Chapter 11: The Avatar
((Sorry, I meant to get this out this Monday, but I was traveling and was a little pressed for writing time. Anyway, here we go, a gift for you all this holiday season...))
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Avatar Aang is over a hundred, but he is also a Master Airbender, and benders are notoriously long-lived. Zuko remembers records in the Royal Library of Firelord Zhi, who had reached one-hundred and eighty before dying of old age. And Avatars often push beyond the limits of normal benders. It is possible for Avatar Aang to live another hundred years, even though he is already wrinkled and his long beard is snow-white. He smiles at Zuko, crow’s feet at the corners of his eyes deepening.
“Welcome, Prince Zuko. I am very pleased to meet you.” Zuko drops into a deep bow, and would have kowtowed, but the Avatar places a gentle hand on his shoulder and stops him. “That’s not necessary. Come, will you sit with me?”
There is a tea service sitting on a low table behind him, steaming gently. Zuko nods, and they sit. The Avatar pours them cups, and Zuko can’t help the way his fingers twitch and tap at his knees, ill at ease at the sight of the Avatar serving him. It’s protocol—the host pours—but there is also the vast status gap between them. Zuko is only an exiled, disgraced prince.
The Avatar smiles at Zuko serenely, setting down the teapot and folding his hands into his sleeves. “Now, young prince, tell me why you have come so far to speak with me.”
Zuko takes a deep breath, and pauses. Where should he even start with this? He lets out the breath. He wants this man to understand him, trust him. Perhaps he should start there. “I… The 57th battalion wasn’t my idea. I didn’t… It was…”
He bites his tongue, trying to quell the stuttering and stammering. A fine first impression, stumbling over his words like a child. Zuko grits his teeth, furious at himself, and glares at his tea.
“I know,” the Avatar says calmly. “I have already been told the truth behind the Baoshan Slaughter.”
Zuko looks up, brow creasing. “Master Jeong-Jeong told you?”
The Avatar smiled mildly. “I admit that I have been wanting to meet you for a while, now. With such a staunch character reference, I have wondered… Well, I had hoped to find an ally in you.”
A staunch character reference? Zuko is surprised; it hardly fits with what he remembers of Master Jeong-Jeong, and with how Min and Xiang spoke of his description of Zuko. Was the Avatar being polite? Or perhaps generous?
It hardly matters, now. There are other concerns to discuss. Zuko clears his throat. “Yes… that is why I am here. You might know that I have married the Southern Water Tribe Chief’s daughter?”
“I thought at first that he was using it to send me a message. A Firelord could never have a Water Tribe wife; it would dilute the Blood. So I thought by marrying me to her he was distancing me even further from the throne. But later he sent assassins after us, armed with Water Tribe weapons. He wanted to kill me, just remove me entirely from the gameboard, and blame it on Katara, on the Water Tribe, so he could declare war on them and the people would support it.” Zuko takes a breath, wets his lips with his tea. The Avatar is listening intently, hands folded into his saffron yellow sleeves. “We escaped, went to her family, warned them that Ozai had broken the alliance. And then we left, to find you. Katara hopes… We hope that my presence, my assistance, could be useful to your efforts of ending the war.”
The Avatar is silent, watching Zuko’s expression. Zuko meets his grey eyes, tries not to flinch or turn his burned cheek away. Finally, the Avatar smiles. “And perhaps more than that. Tell me, Zuko, how did the position of Firelord come about?”
Zuko blinks, frowns. “Why—?”
“Indulge an old man,” he says, and Agni, it’s like talking to his uncle, and doesn’t that just sting.
Zuko swallows a few times, then says: “Before there was a Dragon Throne, the archipelago was divided into fiefdoms, with a hundred lords ruling over mountains, valleys, even whole islands. They governed their lands, making and enforcing laws, passing judgment on matters brought before them, building roads and managing land use. And they also protected their fiefs, from other lords, from bandits, and from the islands themselves. The archipelago is volcanic, and many of the mounts are still active. In areas where there are lava flows or eruptions, the lords were always Firebenders, so they could pull the heat from the earth and protect their fiefs from destruction.” Zuko knows he is drifting into the sort of story-telling voice his mother had adopted when telling him the story, but he doesn’t try to stop. There is a sort of rhythm to storytelling, and trying to force himself into or out of it would trip him up.
“In the time before my grandfathers’ grandfathers,” he says, “there was a great volcano in the islands called Shirokiba, which had been quiet for so long that it had come to pass that the lands around Shirokiba were ruled by a non-Bender lord. And so he was powerless when Shirokiba suddenly bared its fangs again. The eruption was so great that it threatened to destroy the whole archipelago, killing everyone who lived on the islands. Very quickly, the Firebending lords of the surrounding lands tried their own hand at quelling Shirokiba’s fury. But they all failed. More and more Firebenders, lords or no, began traveling to the volcano, to try to stop the calamity. All failed. And then, when it seemed most like the islands would be swallowed up by lava and ash, a Firebender came across the Scaled Sea from his hermitage on a secluded islet. He succeeded where all others had failed, and Shirokiba was silenced.
“However, the archipelago was in chaos, hundreds of lords having died trying to stop the volcano, many more civilians killed or displaced by the eruptions. Some of the remaining lords gathered together, forming a council, and they determined that the archipelago needed a central power, a leader who would unite the islands, rule over and protect them all. And thus, the office of the Firelord was created, and the Firebender who had stopped Shirokiba became the first. The remains of Shirokiba, once cooled, became Caldera City, the seat of the Firelord’s power.”
Zuko looks up, finds the Avatar smiling at him. “You have a storyteller’s flair.”
“I…” Zuko blinks. “It was how my mother taught me.”
“You were close to your mother?”
Why is he asking all these questions? They don’t have anything to do with the war, why Zuko is here. Why doesn’t he just get this over with and dismiss Zuko?
“I was,” Zuko replies shortly. The Avatar doesn’t react to the tension in his voice, flicking his sleeve out of the way and picking up a small bowl sitting off to the side. He plucks what looked like a chunk of green crystal out of it, then offers the bowl to Zuko.
Zuko fights against his temper. “No, thank you.”
“Hmm,” the Avatar hums, popping the bit of rock into his mouth. Zuko’s temper fizzles a little with surprise; the stuff must be edible, though it doesn’t look it. Avatar Aang eyes him thoughtfully. “Your uncle said you had a bit of a temper.”
And with that, his anger vanishes. He stares. “You knew my uncle?”
Avatar Aang crunches the jennamite between his teeth. And there is the anger again. “Avatar Aang—”
“Call me Aang,” he says. “If we’re going to be working together, I prefer a more informal form of address.”
“Working together?” Zuko repeats. He feels like he’s been spun around and let go. The conversation doesn’t track; it’s like they’re bouncing between subjects. “What?”
“I said I hoped to find an ally in you, and I think perhaps I have. You are a strongly principled young man, despite the wounds your spirit bears.”
“I… don’t understand you.” Is he saying what Zuko thinks he’s saying?
“I accept your offer of help. And I want to help you gain your birthright. I believe you will be a strong and just Firelord.”
Zuko opens his mouth, closes it, then opens it again. “Provided I can survive long enough to take the throne, and that the people don’t overthrow me.”
“I don’t think that last part will be as much of a problem as you might think.” Aang stands. “Come, young prince, I want to show you something.”
Zuko scrambles up and follows Aang out of the tent. He glances back toward the bench where he’d left Katara, but she isn’t there. Probably Min has taken her to get something to eat, maybe somewhere to rest for a while. Zuko himself could stand an actual meal, and a true, full night’s sleep. He turns back and follows the Avatar.
Katara’s pulse pounds in her throat, and the tips of her finger tingle. She watches Zuko duck into the Avatar’s tent, thoughts in a disarray, mind filled with only white noise like beach surf.
She can feel the ghost of his lips on hers.
She clears her throat, swallows, wets her lips, then bites the lower one. She… she had wanted him to kiss her. But she hadn’t wanted it to taste quite so much like sadness. Like goodbye.
“He’ll be alright,” says Min, and Katara jumps, having forgotten him. She looks at him, and he gives her a reassuring smile. “Avatar Aang has wanted to meet him for a while. I think he has the same hope that you do.”
Katara can’t find her voice, so she just nods weakly. Min surveys her for a moment, before apparently taking pity. “They might be a while. Is there something I can get you? Somewhere you’d want to go? You might want something to eat; it’s been some time since our last meal.”
“No, I…” she clears her throat again. “I’m not really hungry yet. But I’d like to… Do you have an infirmary here? I’m a healer, I could help. I… think I’d like to be busy for a while.”
“Of course,” and there’s understanding in Min’s voice. He leads her without qualm back through the tent forest, to an area demarcated by long lengths of linen strung between the huge pillars that braced the ceiling of the massive cavern.
“Yumei,” Min calls as they round the entrance—a gap in the linens. There are cots arrayed in ranks within the area. Most of them are empty, but a few contain injured men and women. Katara holds herself back against the instinct to go to them, to help. There’s a woman coming towards them; she’s obviously the one in charge of the infirmary, her stride measured and confident. This was her domain.
“Min,” she says. Her voice is mellow, lower than Katara expects. “What can I help you with?”
“Li Yumei, may I introduce you to Katara, daughter of Hakoda of the Southern Water Tribe,” Min says, gesturing toward her. “Katara, Li Yumei is our head healer.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Katara says, bowing. Yumei bows back.
“Likewise. Did you need my assistance for something?”
“No, I… I’m a Waterbender. I trained in water healing. I was wondering if I could help you.”
“A Waterbending healer?” Yumei’s eyebrows shot up. “Well, I could certainly make use of your abilities, though I’ll want to observe your skills first, you understand.”
“Yes, of course,” Katara responds. She hadn’t expected to be allowed to treat the soldiers without some sort of oversight, at least at first.
“Wonderful, come along,” Yumei says, turning on her heel and striding away. Katara blinks, glances at Min—who gives a shrug and a wry grin—then follows after the older woman. Yumei leads her to the foot of one cot, on which a middle-aged man lay with his leg bound up tightly in strips of cloth and lashed to a board. He’s unconscious, his face sickly pale. Yumei turns to face Katara. “Broken in two places. The bone shifted in the break and pierced the skin; he nearly bled out. I believe there is significant damage to the big muscles of the leg, but I can’t do much about that without the wound opening and bleeding again.”
Katara nods. “How was it broken?”
Yumei moves to one side of the cot, gestures for Katara to move to the other, and they bend over the patient. Yumei traces a hand down the leg: “The big bone here is the one that broke—here and here. The bone shifted to the left and tore the leg open from here to here.”
Katara examines the leg and considers Yumei’s words throughtfully.
“I can’t heal bones,” she says finally. “But I think I can help with the wound. I can get the muscle to knit, and I can heal up the blood vessels so it doesn’t start bleeding again.”
Yumei nods. “What do you need?”
“Water,” Katara says. “A largish bucket, if you can.”
Yumei calls to one of the other people drifting from cot to cot, sends him for the water. As she does, Katara gently runs her hands over the man’s bandaged leg. “The bone was set well; if he keeps it immobile, I think it’ll heal nice and straight.”
She reaches the thicker bandages where his flesh had been torn by the broken bone. “We’ll need to remove these, after. Well, we’ll need to change all of the bandages. I heal with water; all of these will get wet.”
“Of course,” Yumei says. The young man comes back with the water, and Katara wastes no time in pulling up a shimmering bubble of it, spreading it between her hands and setting them to the leg. She doesn’t bend it to energy, to healing, just yet. Instead, she closes her eyes and feels what the water runs against, what it runs through. The thick muscle next to the bone is torn, a little, but it seems like the bone slid between it and the thinner strip of muscle next to it. The rest of the wound is damaged blood vessels, which Katara has extensive practice in healing. She takes a breath, and bends.
The water glows softly as she presses it into the tissues of the man’s leg, reaching for the torn muscle and veins. The energy for the healing flows from her and from her patient, suffusing the wound as it slowly heals.
Katara works from the inside out, healing the tissues nearest the bone first before moving outwards through the layers of tendons and muscles and blood vessels. She dips water from the bucket over and over as the flesh drinks in the water as it heals. Finally, she stops. She hasn’t healed the wound totally—she was taught Waterbending healing from a very practical and frugal mentor, and conserves energy whenever possible—but she has healed enough that the man wouldn’t be lamed from the damaged muscle and wouldn’t bleed out. The rest was superficial—he’d probably scar some, but it would all be surface damage, nothing to impair him. That he could heal on his own power.
Katara opens her eyes and exhales, releasing the sharp focus she’d had on her patient and her healing, and finds Yumei watching her like a cougar-hawk. She returns the last of the water in her grip back to the (empty) bucket and straightens. There is a light sheen of sweat on her brow—she can feel it now that she’s come back to herself.
“The big muscle here was torn a little. I healed it. And I healed up the blood vessels. I didn’t seal up the wound—that can heal naturally—but he won’t bleed out if you unbind the wound now.”
“Excellent,” Yumei says. And that apparently is that. She gestures to another infirmary worker, tells her to get a helper and change the patient’s bandages, then looks back at Katara. “Are you still good for more?”
She reminds Katara a little of Healer Qaiyaan. Blunt and pragmatic. She nods firmly. “I can heal another wound like this, or perhaps a handful of lesser wounds.”
“Come,” Yumei says, and sets off. Katara follows. Her limbs are loose, muscles pliant. Bending to heal is tiring, but also almost meditative. Though she might be weary later, healing that man’s leg has centered her. And she has always enjoyed healing—the sense of accomplishment at taking away pain, saving lives.
The next patient is not as badly off as the previous. This one—a woman—has a blistering burn across one forearm. Katara heals it just shy of completely, and then Yumei leads her to the next. Katara heals three burns, a concussion, and punctures from stone splinters (an Earthbending exercise gone wrong). She is starting to flag when Yumei leads her to a young man with a bloody mess for a shoulder. She frowns and touches the angry red skin around the large abrasion—it is hot and dry to the touch, a sure sign of infection.
“I’m not sure how much I can do for him right now,” she tells Yumei frankly. “I’ve used up a lot of my reserves healing the others.”
Yumei hums understanding. “He has shards of glass in the wound. If you can get them out and heal the worst of the punctures, we can use herbal poultices for the rest.”
Katara considers. She would normally want to do this under bright sunlight, since glass was difficult to see, especially in wounds, and the cavern was lit only by torchlight. But she had certain tools at her disposal that might help… “I can do that.”
She sits down on the cot next to the young man, “I’m Katara,” she tells him. “I’m a Waterbending healer. Is it alright if I work on your shoulder?”
“Yeah, sure,” he agrees readily. She generally likes to get consent from her patients, when they’re conscious. What she does is often very intimate, in the sense that she is reaching into another person’s blood and muscles with her bending. It feels wrong to do so without asking.
“Hold still,” she tells him, and frames his shoulder with her hands. Bloodbending is something that very few Waterbenders can do, but Katara has always been powerful. Once she’d been trained, she’d become powerful and skilled. Her healing mentor Qaiyaan had taught her Bloodbending as another tool. Her combat teacher Pakku had taught her to use it as another weapon. She tends not to use it as such, unless she is very, very angry. It feels like an intrusion, unforgivable in how personal it is. But with permission…
She feels for the young man’s blood, how it moves through his heart, along his arms. She feels it pooling, leaking from his shoulder. She can sense where the glass shards are, feeling the blood flowing from the cuts, around the glass. She doesn’t use Bloodbending to extract the glass; it’s not really suited to that application. But now she knows where the pieces are.
“Do you have anything I can use to pick the shards out with?” she asks Yumei.
“Yes, actually,” she replies, and starts digging in the many-pocketed apron that is tied around her hips. She pulls out a bit of curved bamboo that tapered to narrow, blunt points on both ends. She holds it up and demonstrates how it works. “Here. Hold it like this, and manipulate it with these fingers. You can grip the glass between the tongs.”
Katara takes the bamboo, tries the motion a few times, then nods and gets back to it. It doesn’t take her very long to take out all the shards, each piece dropping onto a scrap of cloth, blood-smeared. She takes a moment again to check with Bloodbending for anything she’d missed, but there’s nothing. She shifts away with a sigh. “That’s all I can do right now. He’ll need a poultice for the infection, and bandages.”
Yumei nods. “I will introduce you to our herbalist, and you can ask for what you need.”
The herbalist has a tent right next to the infirmary, with a large barrel of fresh water outside the flaps and a small brazier—heat and water readily available for the making of tinctures and salves and poultices. Yumei calls as she approaches: “Gwisin! Are you here?”
Katara blinks at the unusual name, but is distracted when ‘Gwisin’ brushes aside the tent flaps. She’s a tall woman, obviously one of the Fire Nation deserters. Her eyes rival Zuko’s for brightness—glittering gold in the lamplight. Her straight black hair is pulled back in a practical braid. She’s beautiful, though there is something sad that lingers around her eyes. “Yumei? What can I do for you?”
“This is Katara, a Waterbending healer. I’ve just evaluated her, and she’ll be joining us in the infirmary while she’s available. She has a patient that needs some of your skill.”
“It is a pleasure to meet you, Katara,” Gwisin says softly. “Please tell me about your patient.”
Apparently Yumei’s no-nonsense, to-the-point attitude is infectious. Katara mentally shrugs and decides that she’s glad the Avatar’s camp has such dedicated and efficient healers. “Young male, Earth Kingdom. Abrasions and puncture wounds on the shoulder. There was glass in the wound, though I removed it. Beginning stages of an infection though, with inflammation around the wound and a low fever. Do you have poultices to draw the infection out?”
“Certainly,” Gwisin says, and ducks back in to her tent. “Come in.”
The interior of the tent is well-lit with steady flames on oil lamps. There are three tables set up along the sides of the tent, bottles and bowls and bundled herbs on two of them. The third table is clearly a workbench, knives and mortars and pestles carefully organized on its clean surface. “Tell me more about your patient,” the herbalist requests. Katara describes the wound and the symptoms of the infection. Gwisin listens closely, nodding thoughtfully. “Alright, that is easy enough to treat.”
“I’ll be able to finish healing him tomorrow,” Katara says. “But I don’t have the energy right now, and we shouldn’t leave it untreated.”
“Of course,” Gwisin agrees. She moves to her stores. “So you heal with your bending? That is impressive. I have always envied the Waterbenders for that ability.”
Katara, who had edged closer to watch Gwisin pull out two bottles and several sprigs of unfamiliar herbs, blinks. “Oh. Well, we—ah—it’s the only healing we have at the Poles, mostly. We don’t have herbal remedies. So I’m kind of envious of the herb-lore that you have…”
“Is that right?” Gwisin says, turning a little to look at Katara a little more closely. Finally, she smiles and holds up one of the plant sprigs. “This is lavender. It comes from a small shrub-like plant that grows all across the Earth Kingdom. The leaf shape differs greatly between regions, but the flowers are always purplish or bluish. And the biggest indicator that you have the right plant is the smell. Here, smell it.”
Katara takes the sprig and runs it under her nose. “Oh! That’s lovely.”
“Yes. It is often used in perfumes, as well as herbalism. And the flowers are both decorative and edible,” Gwisin tells her, continuing the lesson. “The part that we care about is the leaves, which are used as an antiseptic and anti-infammatory. You need to crush the leaves to release the healing properties.
“This is aloe,” Gwisin holds up a new plant—strange-looking. “It is a stemless plant—this is one of the leaves. The leaves are thick, with serrated edges. They’re usually green or grey-green in color. The outside of the leaves is very tough and waxy. What you want to do is cut it open and scrape out the fleshy inside—mash the flesh up with a little water, and spread it on a wound, burn, or even sunburn. It soothes the skin, decreases pain, and can help prevent the skin from drying out. It can also be eaten, though too much can make a person sick.”
Gwisin turns and lifts one of the tiny bottles. “This is tea tree oil. It is made from the leaves of a tree that grows in the southern Earth Kingdom and some of the islands of the Fire Nation. You will almost never find it for sale as anything but an oil; it is labor-intensive to make the oil and so individual herbalists don’t usually bother to make their own. It is used to treat infections, but should never be eaten.”
The herbalist turns back to her workbench and gestures Katara closer. “As with any healing, the water you use should be purified. Which should not be a problem for a Waterbender, no?”
Katara smiles back at Gwisin. “No, not really.”
“Combine the lavender, aloe, and tea tree oil in a bowl, and create a paste of it, adding water if necessary. You want this to be easily spread, as you will add a thick layer to clean linen to lay against the wound.” Gwisin grinds and scrapes the ingredients into a smooth, fragrant paste with economical, practiced movements. “The paste should stay on the wound until it starts to dry, but you don’t want it to dry completely and adhere to the wound. Your patient will not want you to have to pick linen out of his wound.”
Gwisin turns and offers the bowl to Katara, smiling. She takes it and bows deeply. “Thank you for sharing your knowledge, Master Gwisin.”
It is what she would say to any of her teachers back home, deeply grateful and deeply respecting. The older woman laughs lightly. “I am master of nothing; I have simply been training in herb-lore since I was a child.”
Katara smiles at her. “Your abilities and knowledge speak for themselves.”
“I thank you for your generosity,” Gwisin replies, a slight twinkle in her honey-gold eyes. She stands and Katara moves with her to exit the tent. “If you have time, and the desire, I am willing to teach you more of what I know.”
“I would love that,” Katara responds earnestly. “These days, I think you can’t have too many tools to help you keep the people you care about safe.”
“That is very true.” That indefinable sadness was back in Gwisin’s face. Katara pauses, uncertain, but is interrupted by an unfamiliar tenor voice.
“Ah, young miss Katara. Knowing how restless you father may be, I suppose I should have known you would be making yourself useful already.” Katara turns to see an old man in yellow, orange, and brown robes striding toward them. She gapes a little in surprise. The Avatar! And, oh! Zuko’s trailing along after him, looking… Well, he looks as brooding as ever, brow furrowed in thought, but she thinks that maybe his shoulders are held a little straighter. He looks up, sees Katara, and a wave of uncertainty washes over his features.
And then his eyes flicker to Gwisin beside her.
Zuko stumbles then stops dead, face going slack and pale. His eyes widen, scar pulling at the left one. Katara opens her mouth, to say what she’s not sure, but…
Gwisin gasps, hands flying up to her mouth. And Zuko rasps: “Mom?”
Next chapter will be out January 4th, I hope.
Chapter 12: The Reunion
((The emotions are all over the place this chapter. :\ I guess my muse wanted to confuse the shit out of Zuko.))
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The Avatar’s army trains in a separate chamber from Oma and Shu’s tomb, where their Earth- and Firebending cannot damage the living quarters or injure unknowing bystanders. Zuko follows Aang into the training area, taking note of the freshly-hewn walls. It is clear that they’d had to Earthbend the chamber; presumably there hadn’t been one large enough for the army’s exercises in the tunnel system, so they had made one. It is almost as large as the tomb chamber—the ceiling is certainly as tall, but in width and breadth it is noticeably smaller. And it is full of people.
Zuko blinks, watching with a slight sense of surprise as mixed teams of Fire- and Earthbenders spar against each other in one corner while a large group of nonbenders practice hand-to-hand forms in another. It is one thing to know that people of Earth and of Fire are working together, but seeing it is entirely different. For as long as Zuko has been alive, his people and the Earth Kingdom have been at war. To see this…
Maybe Katara is not wrong to hope.
“Master Jeong-Jeong!” Aang hails a white-haired man, who finishes explaining something to a group of soldiers before turning. Zuko feels his palms start to sweat.
Jeong-Jeong had taught Zuko Firebending for three years, before the Master Firebender apparently had a disagreement with Ozai and was sent to the eastern front. Zuko had always thought his father had made a major error in alienating one of their best military leaders—Jeong-Jeong had a fine tactical mind and he inspired great loyalty from his soldiers. In point of fact, when Jeong-Jeong had deserted, he’d taken with him a couple hundred of the Fire Nation’s soldiers. Almost all that had been under his command.
The deserter folds his arms over his chest and looks Zuko up and down, ignoring the Avatar. Zuko straightens involuntarily, squaring his shoulders.
“Well,” Jeong-Jeong says, gruff-voiced as ever, “if it isn’t the Exiled Prince.”
And there’s the typical Jeong-Jeong sharp tongue. There was no way this man had been saying all those kind things about Zuko. Still, for all his biting sarcasm and harsh demeanor, he was one of the better men Zuko had ever known, at least in the way of morals. So Zuko bows lowly, pressing his fist into the palm of the opposite hand.
“Master, I’m glad to find you well,” he says. Jeong-Jeong snorts.
“Drop the court manners, boy, they have no use out here.”
“Still so sour,” the Avatar scolds. “Have some jennamite!”
He shoves a large piece into Jeong-Jeong’s hand, and Zuko gapes as the green crystal—candy?—grows with a crackling sound, surrounding the Firebender’s fist. Jeong-Jeong gives Aang a very unimpressed look, and strikes his crystal-bound hand against the nearby wall. It shatters, raining down chips of jennamite to the ground. Aang Airbends one of the pieces back to himself, and pops it in his mouth.
“Still so childish,” Jeong-Jeong shoots back dryly. Aang smiles benignly, then winks at Zuko when he catches him gaping.
“There are far worse things than having the heart of a child,” he tells Jeong-Jeong. The former admiral just sighs, and turns back to Zuko with a frown.
“So, boy, you’ve finally managed to slip out from under your father’s heel.”
“I have,” Zuko replies stiffly when it seems like the Deserter is waiting for an answer.
“Good,” Jeong-Jeong says gruffly and apparently sincerely. His frown deepens. “It gave the men a great deal of hope when you spoke against the feint at Baoshan.”
Zuko frowns back at him. “But I failed. The men still died.”
“Mmm,” Jeong-Jeong harumphs. “But the fact remains you spoke against it, were the only one to do so. You showed that you value the lives of even the common soldiers. Don’t underestimate the importance of showing loyalty back to your troops.”
His obvious approval, and near-praise, is confusing, exhilarating, and embarrassing. Zuko still doesn’t feel as if he should be admired for what had been, after all, a failure. And he doesn’t know how to respond to Jeong-Jeong’s approval. The most he had ever gotten out of him for completing a bending kata satisfactorily had been a curt nod of the head.
“Don’t trust your old master, boy?” Jeong-Jeong asks, and before Zuko can sputter a denial, makes a sharp gesture. “Just look around you.”
The men who had been training around them have stopped, and nearly all heads are turned to watch the Deserter, the Avatar, and the Exiled Prince. Zuko can see dozens of Fire Nation soldiers staring at him and whispering, and their expressions are not scornful or hating. He stares back, because they’re looking at him with… with hope. Admiration. They’re glad he’s here. They want him to be here.
Zuko swallows through a tight throat.
“Enough of this,” Jeong-Jeong says. “What butcher took over your training?”
“After you left, Ozai took over my and my sister’s training,” Zuko replies.
“Ha!” Jeong-Jeong barks in derision. “A butcher in truth. All power, no finesse. Come, let me see what bad habits I must break you of.”
“What?” Zuko says, bewildered, but the Deserter is already turning and calling for the center of the chamber to be cleared.
“He wants to spar,” Aang says softly to Zuko. “If you aren’t up for it, I can tell him to wait.”
“No, I’m fine,” Zuko negates automatically. It’s only after that he considers the question, but it’s fine because he’d pretty much told the truth. Aang searches his face a moment, then nods.
Jeong-Jeong clears the chamber of spectators before they begin. It is both strategy—he could not be seen to defeat the Prince, not if they intend to make Zuko a leader here—and kindness… Somehow Jeong-Jeong realizes that up until now ‘training’ for Zuko has been synonimous with ‘public humiliation’ and took action to make this seem less like that. No arena with watching, cheering spectators. Just bare rock, Zuko, Jeong-Jeong, and the Avatar. It still makes Zuko’s heart pound
They face off with a significant distance between them. Aang stood between them, off to one side, waiting to begin the fight. Zuko tries to breathe normally, tries not to tense up his shoulders. Jeong-Jeong lifts his arms into waiting position, and raises an eyebrow questioningly. Zuko settles into position.
“Ready?” Aang calls to them both, one hand raised. They nod. Aang’s hand drops. “Begin!”
Zuko launches into a sprint, circling around to the left, his bad eye facing away from Jeong-Jeong. As he runs, he lobs fireballs at his old master. Jeong-Jeong avoids them easily, cutting off Zuko’s path with a gout of flame. The younger Firebender twists to avoid it, cartwheeling to the side before leaping into the air and coming down in an ax-kick that trails flame. Jeong-Jeong dissapates the fire with a swift gesture, and Zuko charges into the void where it had been. He attacks with a flurry of kicks and punches that shoot out small flares. The former admiral deflects all of them, then steps and turns and sudden catches Zuko’s ankle and tosses him aside. Zuko tumbles easily, bouncing to his feet unharmed.
They attack, counterattack, and defend back and forth across the smooth stone floor. Their fire raises the temperature of the chamber and Zuko very quickly finds himself wiping sweat from his brow before it can drip in his eyes. It’s during one of these moments when Jeong-Jeong gets him.
“Yield,” he says through deep, controlled breaths, flat on his back on the ground. Jeong-Jeong lets him up.
“You have good form, and power,” the Deserter tells him brusquely, “but you bounce between being too cautious and too aggressive.”
Zuko straightens his robes once he gets to his feet, and resigns himself to being torn to shreds by Jeong-Jeong’s sharp tongue. But his old master doesn’t continue, just yet. Instead, he stares at Zuko assessingly, stroking his beard.
“How much vision do you have in that eye?” he asks finally, and Zuko can’t help but stiffen. It takes him a moment to answer.
“About sixty-five percent,” he says, words stilted. “The field of view is narrowed and the quality of vision is blurred.”
Jeong-Jeong grunts. “It is an obvious weakness that any of your opponents will exploit. You have a few things you already do to work with it, but you seem to toss it all to the wind when you attack. That’s a good way to get killed. Offense does not have to come at the expense of defense.”
“I can teach you mindfulness and spatial awareness the way Airbending masters do,” offers Aang, joining them. “It is standard training for Airbenders of all levels. In fact, the written histories of the Southern Air Temple spoke of a Master Airbender, Master Pakpao, who was blind. She was counted as one of the most skilled benders the Temples have ever seen.”
Zuko blinks, a little surprised at the offer. His father had always treated his damaged eye as a personal failure of Zuko’s, something that Zuko had had to learn to deal with on his own. He’d made no concessions to it in his training, which had put Zuko at a significant disadvantage when he’d sparred with Azula, or occasionally Ozai.
“You might also train with Katara,” Aang suggests. “Waterbending kata have a fluidity between offense and defense; a gesture can start as one and end as the other.”
“Your wife is a Waterbender?” Jeong-Jeong says, surprised. “And she hid it from Ozai? Damn, girl must have some courage.”
“She does,” Zuko says softly. Jeong-Jeong gives him a narrow-eyed look, then smirks. But all he does is turn to Aang and ask:
“How long until you send him out?”
Aang hums. “I’m waiting on some information, so probably a week or two.”
Jeong-Jeong turns back to Zuko. “Meet me here for training every day of that time.”
Zuko shakes his surprise enough to bow to the older man. “Thank you, Master Jeong-Jeong.”
He waves him off, already turning to leave. Jeong-Jeong had never been one for sentiment. When Zuko glances at Aang, the Avatar is smiling at him. “Speaking of your wife, shall we find her? I have heard of her from her father, but I have yet to meet her myself.”
“You’ve met Chief Hakoda?” Zuko asks, following when Aang starts walking out of the chamber.
“Yes, I’ve met most of the leaders of the world’s peoples,” he replies. “I will admit that Hakoda happens to be one of my favorites. He is a good man.”
“He is,” Zuko agrees awkwardly. And he does think so, even if Hakoda disapproves of him. ‘Disapproves’… ha.
“He hates me,” Zuko blurts, then winces at how pathetic he sounds. Aang glances at him from the corner of his eye.
“I am certain that is because he does not know you,” the Avatar tells him calmly. “I don’t think a good man, or a good woman, for that matter, could hate you once they come to know you. Jeong-Jeong may be rough around the edges, but he is fond of you. Hakoda, Katara, Min, and Xiang thought enough of you to help you come here. And I may not know you very well, but I would be pleased to be able to count you among my friends.”
Zuko’s throat feels tight, and he can’t seem to lift his eyes from the ground. Aang seems to understand what he’s feeling, though, because he rests a hand on Zuko’s shoulder and gives him a warm smile. “Anyway, from everything Hakoda has told me about his daughter, I expect we’ll find her in the infirmary. This way.”
He leads the way off to the large main chamber as Zuko follows along behind him, trying to reconcile all of the warm welcoming he’s found here with the scorn and ridicule of his life in the Fire Palace. It’s hard to believe in the kindness. A part of him cynically whispers that they’re only pretending, that they’re using him. Azula used to be nice to Zuko, when they were growing up, largely so that Zuko would go along with her plans or trust her, and she could set him up for an even bigger fall. As with anything, Azula uses kindness as a weapon. It is never real.
It cannot be the same with Katara, surely. She’s never shown any of the cruelty or sadism that typifies Azula and surely only a truly cruel person would use such a ploy. Then, too, her family had obviously disapproved of the kindness she’d shown him. They’d clearly doubted him. If it is a game, to make Zuko do what they want him to do, then wouldn’t they play along?
“Ah, young miss Katara!” Aang calls. “Knowing how restless you father may be, I suppose I should have known you would be making yourself useful already.”
Zuko looks up, sees Katara, remembers suddenly what he’d done the last time he’d seen her, and flushes. Did she hate him for that kiss? Did she regret it? He’d thought she’d kissed him back…
He looks away, and his gaze snags on the woman standing beside her.
His heart stumbles along with his feet. He feels the world tilt around him.
Could it really be…?
The woman gasps, her hands going to her mouth in shock, and her eyes—so like his own—filling with tears and it must be. It must. Because why else would she react like that unless…
“Mom?” Zuko hears his own voice ask, muffled as if underwater. The woman sobs.
“Zuko,” she says. “Oh, my Zuko. My child.”
He is in her arms, clutching her like the child she calls him, before he realizes he’s moving. She hugs back just as hard.
“I thought you were dead,” he says. “I thought he’d killed you. Mom. Mom.”
“Oh, no, my Little Spark,” she whispers into his hair, “no. I’m here. I’m here.”
She nudges him back with her hands on his shoulders, and smiles at him through her tears. “Look at you. Look at how you’ve grown.”
Her eyes fall on the scar, and Zuko can’t stop himself from turning it away. His mother touches his cheek gently, turning him back to face her. She looks sad. “I hadn’t wanted to believe he could do this to you, to his own son. He is more of a monster than I remember.”
Zuko’s tongue feels thick and heavy, his mind clumsy. “…Why did you leave me behind?”
“Oh, dear heart,” she says, expression crumpling. “I didn’t want to, but it was his condition. Do you remember what you told me, the day before I disappeared?”
Of course he does. “Azula told me Father was going to kill me. That Grandfather told him he needed to feel the pain of losing a son.”
“When I confronted Ozai about it, he told me I could save you, if… if I poisoned Azulon. There were only two ways it could end: I could stay and face execution as an assassin, or I could leave and live.
“I thought about taking you with me, but Ozai knew that I was thinking it. He told me if I did, he would hunt us down, to the ends of the earth.”
Hurt and shock and confusion whirl in Zuko’s chest, pressing against his heart. She’d saved him. She’d left him. She could have tried, despite Ozai’s threat.
But… but she was alive. He had his mother back. She’d loved him enough to commit regicide, loved him enough to kill with the skills she’d only ever wanted to use for healing.
Of course he would forgive her. It had hurt him so much when he’d thought her gone forever, he would never push her away now that she is back.
“I’m so glad you’re alive,” he says hoarsely. “I never thought I’d see you again.”
Ursa shushes him, holding and rocking him gently. There are tears on both of their faces.
When the tears run dry, Zuko basks in the warm embrace of his mother, marveling at the unexpected gift of finding her alive and well. Slowly, though, reality creeps back into his thoughts and he extracts himself gently from her arms.
“So, you… you met Katara?” he starts awkwardly.
“Yes, she is a lovely girl. I—” His tone, or perhaps his expression, seems to register with her and she sucks in a sharp breath. “Is she… Zuko, is she your wife?”
“Y-yes. I—” Zuko trails off, uncertain.
“I had heard that you married. It surprised me that Ozai would broker an alliance with the Water Tribes. But it didn’t take long to realize what he was doing.”
Zuko shakes his head, words sticking in his throat. Ursa grips his hands in hers, searching his face.
“But are you… You came here together. Are you…?”
“I think I love her,” Zuko admits in a whisper. The first time he’d even allowed himself to think it. Ursa’s face does something complicated.
“Oh, Zuko,” she says softly, squeezing his hands. As when he’d been a small child, Ursa seems to know exactly what he’s thinking and feeling without him having to stumble and bumble through an explanation. She doesn’t push. Instead she raises her brows and says: “I should properly introduce myself to your wife, I think.”
Katara and Aang have retreated, to give them some privacy at least, but they’ve remained in sight. Ursa takes Zuko’s arm and he leads them over. As they approach, Katara and Aang turn to them. Katara looks hesitant but her gaze flicks between them with a sort of hopeful happiness. Zuko feels a pang because she will never get to feel this; her mother is not just presumed dead. And yet she’s not jealous of him, she’s happy for him.
“Katara,” he says. “I want you to meet my mother, Lady Ursa. Mom, this is Katara, daughter of Hakoda, the Chief of the Southern Water Tribe.”
“Katara, I am so pleased to learn that the young woman I admired just minutes ago for her compassion and abilities is my son’s wife,” Ursa says warmly, resting her hands on Katara’s shoulders and kissing her cheeks.
“Um,” Katara says, face flushing. She glances at Zuko and away, blush deepening. That damn kiss. Zuko could almost curse himself for it, but he remains selfishly glad.
“I know that it was an arranged marriage, but I hope that you will find happiness in each other,” Ursa continues blithely. “I am sure that my son will treat you well; he was always a sweet boy.”
“Mom,” Zuko says, strained.
“No, I… He… He has been good to me,” Katara says with a wavering sort of smile. “Zuko has been nothing but kind and considerate. I’m… I hope that we’ll be happy, too.”
Zuko is in agony. He might actually die of embarrassment, and Katara might go with him. Neither of them can look at each other, or even at Ursa. Aang gives him a twinkling smile when he glances at him and, oh. Zuko seizes onto that distraction gratefully.
“Did you know?” he asks the Avatar. “You knew! Why didn’t you tell me my mother was here?”
“But this way was more of a surprise, wasn’t it? A good surprise,” Aang asks. Zuko gapes at him.
“That… you… You’re mad.”
Aang’s smile widens. “You have to take pleasure in the little things in life.”
Zuko makes a noise in the back of this throat. “This isn’t little!”
“Avatar Aang has a unique way of viewing the world,” Ursa says with amusement. “When I first came here, I was afraid Ozai would send men after me. To help protect me, the Avatar gave me a new identity… which he named ‘Gwisin.’”
Zuko’s gaping again. That is just terrible. Katara gives a muffled little snort of giggles. Aang winks at her, and says to Zuko: “If you want, I can—”
“No,” Zuko blurts, then flushes as Aang laughs.
“You’re right,” the Avatar says kindly, still smiling. “I think who you are works very well already.”
Katara and Ursa are smiling at him, too. And Zuko… In this moment, Zuko might actually, fully, be happy for the first time in a long time.
"Gwisin" means ghost in Korean. Hardy-har-har, Aang.
I hope to have the next chapter out Jan 18, but it might be late.
Chapter 13: The Promise
// Ugh. I am so sorry this has taken so long. January turned into a shit show and it all kind of knocked me right out of my writing headspace. It's taken me a while to find my voice in this story again. I know this chapter is a little rocky, but I just can't do more with it than I have. Next chapter will likely see my writing revv up again. Thanks for sticking with me, though. //
Zuko’s mother may still be alive, but he doesn’t really have her back. Too many years have passed, too much has happened to them both. They aren’t the same people they’d been when Ursa had been exiled. He’s no longer sure how to be around her. The comfort he’d felt at their reunion had sunk into uncertainty and… he isn’t too proud to admit it… fear.
Their conversations are stilted, Zuko hesitant and reluctant. Ursa is not blind, nor a fool. She notices. She doesn’t say anything, but Zuko can catch the looks of sadness that flit occasionally across her face. He wants to make it better, but he doesn’t know how. He’s not good at being… being anything other than what he is.
He spends a lot of time with Jeong-Jeong and Aang, training. Katara spends a lot of time with Ursa, learning herblore. They have become as thick as thieves, which Zuko looks on with relief and also envy. And perhaps a fair amount of worry. Ursa knows who he was and Katara knows who he is and if the two of them are getting together then the truth will out and he isn’t sure if he’s ready for that.
So, he… withdraws. Tamps himself down into smaller spaces in conversations, in the world. He’s used to doing so; it is how he’d (tried) to keep his father and sister from tearing him apart every day. Don’t give them a target. Act like they have already defeated you.
He feels sick to his stomach, a nest of rolling, writhing snake-spiders in his belly, to apply the technique to his mother. But she is just as capable of destroying him as Ozai or Azula. Perhaps moreso.
The stress takes its toll, making him tired and to lose his appetite. He’s sure that Jeong-Jeong notices, though whether he cares is another matter entirely. Jeong-Jeong had never had much tolerance for anything outside of bending forms and exercises. He thinks the old Master is annoyed with what he’d likely call Zuko’s “moping.” It is, in fact, probably why Jeong-Jeong has increased the severity of his training. Aang notices too, but instead of working Zuko to exhaustion, he merely recites incomprehensible idioms and parables at him.
Neither of them have anything on Katara, who watches Zuko with a thunderstorm growing on her face. Finally, she has enough, and intercepts Zuko on his way back from training. She appears before him, eyes sharp and intent, and seizes his hand in a firm grasp, towing him along after her as she strides down the dim tunnels leading away from the main chamber of the Avatar’s camp. Zuko lets her, because he is discovering that he is loath to deny her anything.
She brings them to a stop a fair distance away, far enough that even if they shout, no one in the tomb chamber will hear them. Keeping hold of Zuko’s hand, she turns around to face him, expression solemn and searching. She opens her mouth, hesitates and closes it, biting her lip. Zuko swallows against the tension tightening his throat. Finally, Katara says slowly: “Zuko… Do you… Will you tell me why you’re avoiding your mother?”
His jaw creaks as he clenches his teeth. Katara continues, “It’s only… Well, you seemed so happy that she was alive, and here, but now you’re barely talking to her and… and you spend all your time training and you don’t really come to see her…”
Her eyebrows are drawn together, but not in anger, Zuko thinks, just confusion and worry. She doesn’t understand. And she wouldn’t. Her mother is dead; she will never get the reunion that Zuko has had with his mother. What she sees right now is Zuko inexplicably ignoring what should be something to celebrate, something she would give almost anything for.
He feels like he owes her an explanation. It is the least he could give her. But it also is so difficult to give her. The words stick in his throat; he is too used to holding his hurts and worries close to his chest, hiding.
“I’m…” he says, stops, tries again. “I am not the eleven-year-old she knew. It’s been years, and I’ve changed. I don’t… want her to… see how much I’ve changed. How much my father’s changed me.
“I look like him, you know. Well. Without this I would,” he gestures to his scar. “I’m afraid she’s going to look at me and see him. Not only in my face, but in… in everything I do.”
Katara stares at him for a long moment, and he clenches his jaw. Had that made sense? Had he explained it well enough? Why was she just—
“That’s impossible,” she says, the tone of her voice quiet and firm, lacking even the hint of a sneer. “Zuko, nobody can look at you and think you’re like your father.”
He opens his mouth, but Katara lifts a hand and presses the tips of her fingers against his lips. He freezes. “You might have his chin, and his nose.”
Katara’s hand shifts along his jaw, to cup his cheek. Zuko trembles a little under her touch. She holds his gaze with hers. “And you might have his bending. But, Zuko… You have your mother’s eyes, and her spirit. You might be the son of Ozai, but you are also your mother’s son. The greater part of you is your mother’s son.”
Her hand slides up so that her palm covers his scar, presses briefly and then falls away. “If you need any more proof, you don’t need to look any further than this scar. Your father burned you because you’re not like him. You’re better than him. You tried to save those soldiers, when he would have thrown them away. You have compassion where he only has ambition. You’re so much better than you think, Zuko, I wish you could see that.”
“I’m a coward,” he says. “No, I am. After he burned me, I never stood up to my father again. I just let him do whatever he wanted, and I did what he told me. And even now, I ran away from my mother rather than let her realize what I am.”
“I don’t think that counts,” Katara says, frowning. “You were a boy, and your father hurt you, badly. Courage does not preclude self-preservation. If you had antagonized him, he would have killed you. You’re not a coward, Zuko, everything I’ve ever seen you do tells me you’re not.”
“I lied to you. I’ve been lying to you—” Zuko starts hotly. Katara interrupts him.
“I knew you didn’t think the Avatar would accept you. You hate yourself, just as your father and sister taught you to. And despite that, you came with me. You decided to try, even though you were sure you’d fail.”
“Because I couldn’t let you go,” Zuko snaps. She keeps trying to cast him in such a bright light, why won’t she just see… “Because you were kind to me even when I didn’t deserve it, and I wanted that. Wanted you. Even though staying with me will get you killed, I’m selfish and I can’t let you go.”
“I used you,” Katara says. “I knew how you felt about my plan. I knew you thought you were coming to your imprisonment, or death, here. And I still asked you to come. I asked you to risk your life for me. So I think we’re even.”
Zuko glares at her, and she glares back.
“Why don’t you hate me?” Zuko asks, exasperated and confused. Katara huffs.
“Because you haven’t done anything for which I could hate you. In fact, you’ve done a lot to make me like you. Your tendency to be stubborn and broody notwithstanding.”
“Broo—” Zuko starts, then shuts up as Katara puts her hands on his shoulders and goes up on tiptoe to press her lips to his. It’s not a hesitant kiss, it’s firm, and Katara’s mouth opens slightly as he kisses back. His hands go to her hips to steady her as her fingers tighten on his shoulders. After a moment, they ease apart to breathe, and Zuko feels a flutter in his chest at how flush her face is.
“Do you trust me?” she asks breathlessly. Zuko nods. “Then, will you please trust my judgment of you?”
He hesitates. “I…”
She looks sad, and worried. “If you can’t do that, will you at least stay with me until I can persuade you?”
Zuko’s hands press against her hips. “I… I told you. I’m too selfish to let you go.”
His voice is a lot more tentative than he would have liked, but Katara smiles in relief and leans up to kiss him again. The tiny flicker of her tongue makes Zuko’s heart speed. He pulls her a little closer and slides one hand up her back, feeling her shoulder blades shift as her arms wind tighter around him. She sighs into his mouth. “Zuko…”
The embrace is quickly becoming a little too heated, so Zuko regretfully loosens his hold on her, drawing back to look down at her kiss-swollen lips and dilated eyes. He can’t help but to reach out and touch his thumb to her lower lip. She smiles and kisses it.
“You should talk to your mother,” she tells him softly. Zuko tenses, then deliberately takes a breath and forces himself to relax.
Katara smiles as she grinds plum-berries in the corner of Ursa’s herb hut while Ursa and Zuko quietly talk at the workbench. Zuko is obligingly heating a small pot with his bending, at Ursa’s direction. Their heads are bent together and both of them look a lot happier and more relaxed.
She’s glad Zuko listened to her. He is so conflicted all the time, so certain that everyone will hate him… She remembers suddenly his sister, taunting him: “How does it feel? Being hated by everyone around you?”
Her jaw sets and she starts powdering the plum-berries with greater energy. It is no wonder how twisted up Zuko is when she considers how he’d grown up. Especially after his mother and uncle were gone and there was nobody left to stand up for him. In the Water Tribes, it is a crime to treat a child the way Zuko had been treated; if three tribe members accused someone of such abuse, then the child was taken away from their abuser or abusers and fostered out to another family. She wonders if the Fire Nation has similar laws, and who would possibly try to enforce them on the Firelord.
“Katara?” She jumps at Zuko’s voice, so deep in her thoughts that she’d missed him coming over to her corner. She looks up at him, meets his eyes, and is again struck with the pure sunshine-yellow of the irises. She give him a smile and an inquisitive look. His answering smile is small and hesitant, but it’s there, and that’s progress. “The Avatar’s sent for us.”
“Oh,” she says, and looks down at the mortar in her lap. The plum-berries are no more than a pile of pale pink-purple powder at the bottom of it, so Katara stands and puts the mortar and pestle onto the workbench. Ursa smiles and thanks her, standing next to the hut’s door, waiting. “Will you be coming, too, Lady Ursa?”
“Yes, the Avatar’s summons were for all of us.”
Ursa tucks her hand into the crook of Zuko’s elbow, her son automatically bending the arm as if he is leading her at a court function, and they make their way to the entrance of the main chamber, where the Avatar is waiting for them.
Aang stands with Jeong-Jeong and a young soldier on whose arm a messenger hawk perches, hooded and jessed. He greets them cheerfully and they learn what he’d called them there for. “We have squads patrolling most of the Earth Kingdom, keeping watch over the conflicts and recruiting men and women to our cause. It’s mostly Earth Kingdom citizens, but we get a number of Fire Nation deserters. I thought you might like to come with me to greet this squad as it comes in.”
By Zuko’s expression, he clearly isn’t sure this is a good idea, but Aang looks eager. After a second’s pause, Zuko shrugs one shoulder uncomfortably. “Alright.”
“Excellent, follow me,” Aang starts off, followed immediately by Jeong-Jeong and the falconer. Zuko glances at Katara and she lifts an eyebrow.
“We’ll come along, as well,” Ursa says, catching the look. “I’m sure the Avatar will not mind.”
Zuko gives a short nod, and leads the two women after Aang. Katara hopes, for Zuko’s sake, that this will go as well as Aang apparently thinks it will.
They all wince and squint as they exit the caves, walking out into the bright sunlight of the early afternoon. The falconer recovers first, and unbinds the hawk’s jesses. Katara can see the glint of a message tube on one of its legs. The falconer pockets the jesses, then removes the hood. The hawk shakes its head, fluffing then smoothing its feathers. The falconer tells the hawk, in a firm voice: “Arnook, Northern Water Tribe.”
The bird gives a single cry, and the falconer launches it from his fist. The bird’s wings ruffle his hair with their powerful strokes, carrying the creature higher and higher into the air. The falconer watches a moment, then turns to Aang, bows low, and disappears back into the caves.
“Chief Arnook’s cooperation has been instrumental in the acquisition of some Fire Nation frigates,” Aang says, seeing how all of them were watching with interest. “We’re working on some plans to utilize them to enter the archipelago.”
“You’ll need to make sure you have current pass-codes,” Zuko says absently, squinting after the hawk. Aang beams at him.
“Yes, we have sources for that.” This makes Zuko look at him.
“You have spies in the Fire Nation?”
Jeong-Jeong snorts. “Of course we do, boy. To neglect the role of military intelligence is to set yourself up for defeat.”
“Yes, but…” Zuko trailed off. Katara watches as he frowns down at his feet. She supposes that it wouldn’t be a comfortable thing, learning there are spies in your home, even if they are spies for the good guys.
“Ah! There they are!” Aang says, grinning. Katara follows his gaze and sees a column of soldiers emerging from a cleft in the rocky hills around them. They are all wearing Fire Nation armor, except for a group of green-and-brown-clad people at the center of the column. At first glance, it looks like a troop of Fire Nation soldiers guarding prisoners, but as Katara takes in postures and attitudes, she realizes that this isn’t so.
“Welcome!” Aang calls, as soon as they’re close enough. Whispers begin to race among the newcomers.
“It’s the Avatar!”
“Avatar Aang! He lives!”
One of the soldiers stops, bowing to both Aang and Jeong-Jeong. “Avatar Aang. Master Jeong-Jeong. It’s an honor that you came out to welcome us back yourselves.”
It is probably the most polite way Katara has ever heard anyone say “why are you here?”
“Prince Zuko wanted to greet the patrol personally,” Aang tells him, with a small tilt of his head toward Zuko. The soldier looks, his face showing surprise and awe. He draws himself up even straighter.
“Prince Zuko! Your Highness, it is a great honor!” the soldier exclaims, bowing low—lower than he had bowed to the Avatar. Zuko is plainly surprised, but inclines his head.
“Corporal Fan, please bring the newcomers to the quartermaster to receive bedrolls and barrack postings,” Aang requests, and the soldier bows again (his focus still on Zuko out of the corner of his eye) and disappears back into the flow of people entering the cave. As whispers begin to pass between the soldiers, and looks slanted their way, Aang says: “This patrol is comprised of the survivors of the Bao Shan Slaughter.”
Katara hears Zuko’s sharp, surprised gasp of breath. She looks at him, worried. He stares at Aang, eyes wide; whispers: “Survivors…?”
The hair on the back of her neck prickles and she has a bad feeling that, whatever is about to happen, it will not go well for Zuko. She swallows, and takes a step closer to him, about to speak, when a voice rises above the sound of the last of the patrol entering the cave.
Zuko’s face goes utterly colorless. Even the gold of his eyes seems to drain. He stares, motionless and silent, as a grey-haired man approaches. Katara looks at this man, tries to see what about him would shock her husband so. He is not frightening at all, his face kind and wrinkled from smiles. There is a twinkle in his tarnished gold eyes…
Oh. The Fire Nation and their royal family’s golden eyes…
Zuko’s lips move. His voice is a tiny, fragile thing. “Uncle?”
His uncle folds him into a hug, even though Zuko remains stiff and shocked in his arms. Katara sees his fists clench at his sides. Prince Iroh—for it could only be he—shifts back, hands staying on Zuko’s shoulders as he beams at the younger man. “Oh nephew, it is wonderful to see you! I am glad you have made your way to the Avatar.”
Emotion is filtering back into Zuko’s expression, or at least his eyes, which burn like fires in his pale face. His throat works, but nothing comes out. His fists clench and release as if trying to grasp the words his tongue is failing to find. There is a storm of emotions in his face. Katara’s heart is thundering, breath caught in her throat, as she watches.
Zuko turns on his heel and walks away.
They stand in shock for a moment, watching after him. Then, finally, Prince Iroh says quietly: “You didn’t warn him?”
“Ah…” the Avatar says. Iroh shakes his head, starts off after his nephew. Katara steps in front of him.
“Wait. Sir. I’ll go after him,” she says. “I… This… this might be a little too much for him right now.”
Iroh’s—the Dragon of the West’s eyes focus on her, but she stands firm. After a quick inspection, the former General smiles slightly. “Katara of the Southern Water Tribe. I should be glad to meet my nephew’s new wife after all this, but for now, will you take care of him?”
Her tongue is thick in her mouth. She nods, glances at a chastened Ursa and Aang, and hurries after Zuko.
She’s not surprised he left. Really, she should have expected it. Zuko’s only defense for the last—well, perhaps his entire life—has been to avoid his feelings. She saw how his father and sister had reacted to any hint of emotion. Like bear-sharks to blood. So he learned to hide it, and if he couldn’t do that, to avoid things that made him feel.
He did it the night they married—snuffed the lights in the wedding suite to avoid seeing her reaction to their coupling. He did it when her father had spoken to him the next morning. She’d only that week talked him out of doing it with the return of his mother.
Zuko hadn’t gone far; Katara finds him out of sight and hearing some ways out, sitting on a rock with his head cradled in his hands. There’s a charred fist mark on the trunk of a nearby tree. He doesn’t stir as she walks up to join him. She thinks he’s crying into his palms.
“Zuko,” she says hesitantly. A very long moment, and then he lifts, creakily, his head, but doesn’t quite manage eye-contact. His face is dismal—eyes reddened with the tears that drip silently from them, skin pale except for a hectic flush across his cheekbones, lips in a pained twist. Katara feels like hooks have been pressed into her guts, and yanked. She swallows thickly, hurting for him. “Are you…?”
His head lowers again and he stares at his knees. “I should be happy.”
He pauses and shakes his head slightly. “I am happy. I’m glad he didn’t die. But I am so tired of everything being a lie, of everyone hiding everything from me. I just want something honest in my life for once. I don’t want to second-guess everything everyone tells me anymore.”
He sounds tired. Katara reaches out and strokes her hand over his back, squeezes his shoulder. “They shouldn’t have kept it from you. For what it’s worth, I think your uncle is also upset with them for it.”
Zuko rubs the heels of his hands across his face. When he speaks, his voice is muffled by them. “Was he hurt? That I just…”
“No,” Katara tells him firmly. “Of course not.”
He sighs. “I didn’t really mean… He… I’m not going to—to avoid him…”
She blinks, realizing what he is tripping over his words saying, why his forehead is creased, why he won’t meet her gaze. He thinks she’s going to yell at him, like she had when he’d been avoiding his mother.
“I know,” she says softly. “I understand why you left. I didn’t think you’d stay away, that’s not why I’m here.”
“It was too much,” he mumbles.
“Yes,” she agrees plainly. Finally he looks at her, and she again sees that spark in them that makes butterfly-birds flutter in her stomach. The wonder and amazement twined with sharp focus. Like he sees her, and can’t really believe she’s real, and with him.
She could so easily believe that it’s a look of love, Tui and La help her foolish sentimental heart.
“Can you… Can we just stay here a moment? Just a moment, then we’ll go back,” he asks. “We’ll go back, I just need…”
Katara sits next to him before he even finishes. His eyes run searchingly over her face, and then he returns the little flicker of a smile she gives him. They sit together in silence for the space of a few breaths, before he hesitantly reaches over and takes her hand. She grasps it warmly.
“Thank you,” he says, barely a whisper.
Chapter 14: The Plan
((I think we're ramping up for the end, guys! Maybe three or four more chapters? Depending on how many words my muse stuffs into my brain.))
The Avatar is waiting for them when they head back to the cave entrance, standing somberly just inside the shadow of the rock mouth. He waits until they get close enough, then he bows low to Zuko.
“Prince Zuko, I offer my sincere apology. I let my ignorance of your life and experiences lead me to make unwanted and unwarranted decisions about you. I should not have kept your uncle’s presence in my organization a secret; however much I believed the surprise would be a good one, a happy one, the fact remains that I did not consider the other ways my actions may affect you. I apologize for mishandling the information and your feelings.”
From the look on Zuko’s face, he hadn’t expected such an apology. Katara herself is a little surprised with how low Aang is bowing. “I…” Zuko says, staring down at the back of Aang’s bald head. “It’s fine.”
“I hope my unconscionable neglect of your feelings has not irreparably damaged our relationship?” Aang asked hopefully.
“No,” Zuko says, still looking a little confused. He blinks twice, and visibly pulls himself straighter, expression settling into a polite mask. When he speaks again, the words are as formal and measured as Aang’s. Katara realizes they are both in their political personas—the Prince and the Avatar. “I understand that your actions did not come from a place of malice. I hold no antipathy towards you for this, and I still wish to continue our alliance.”
Finally, Aang stands up. He looks genuinely relieved. “I’m glad. And I really am sorry, Zuko.”
Zuko shrugs a shoulder uncomfortably. “You didn’t mean it.”
“Doesn’t mean it didn’t hurt you.”
This is apparently as much as Zuko can take, because he clears his throat and unsubtly changes the subject. “Um. Where did my uncle go? I should greet him properly.”
“He’s gone inside to have some tea and something to eat before our debriefing meeting. He asked me to pass on an invitation to join him. Shall we make our way back, so you have time to talk with him?”
They walk, in silence. Despite trading formal apologies and forgiveness, there is tension between them that Katara can feel. Aang seems to exude a sense of regret and sorrow, and Zuko strides along in a haze of weary wariness. Katara doesn’t quite know what to do to help the tension, and isn’t sure if she should try. It isn’t her place to tell Zuko who he should forgive, who he should trust, or what sort of trespasses he should forgive.
It’s hard. She wants them to get along, wants them to be allies. She wants Zuko to forgive the Avatar, who hadn’t really meant any harm. She wants to tell him this, but bites her tongue. He had been the one injured by Aang’s actions. It isn’t her place to tell him how to feel about it. She suspects that he will forgive—has forgiven—Aang, but doubts that he’ll forget. Zuko’s trust is hard-won and she thinks that Aang’s playfulness makes it hard for Zuko to trust him. What is a joke and what isn’t? What will the next surprise be? Zuko is paranoid; these questions are not playful to him, they’re painful.
Katara realizes that they’ve reached the main chamber of the Cave of Two Lovers and pauses in the doorway. When Zuko notices that she’s no longer in step with him, he turns back. She says: “You should probably speak to your uncle privately. I’ll… I think I’ll go check on my patients in the infirmary.”
She sees Zuko’s throat bob as he swallows nervously, hesitating, but then he nods. “Alright. Um, he’ll probably want to meet you, so we might come find you after.”
She nods, reaches out and gives his hand a squeeze. His palm is sweaty, but he squeezes back and when he and Aang turn to continue on, his shoulders are squared. He’ll be alright.
Katara turns and heads off to the infirmary.
The flap to Iroh’s tent has been tied back, and Zuko hesitates a moment—long enough to take a deep breath and let it out slowly—before ducking his head through. “Uncle?”
The older man is just setting a teapot down on a table set with two cups. He looks up with a warm smile. “Nephew! Come in; I was hoping you would come here.”
Zuko sidles inside, fighting the urge to fidget. He stares at the carpet covering the ground, opens his mouth, closes it, then tries again: “I…”
Iroh cuts him off with another hug, as fierce as the one he’d given outside. Zuko’s surrounded once again with the scent of woodsmoke and brewed tea. It raises a welter of emotions and memories in Zuko—his uncle has always smelled like tea, with a lingering smokiness from his Firebending, and the scent is comfortable and familiar to Zuko in a way even his mother’s scent of herbs is not. In fact, it hadn’t been until he’d been reunited with her and recognized it that he’d realized he remembered the smell that had always clung to her robes.
Whatever tension still in his body fades, and Zuko presses his face into Iroh’s shoulder, like a child.
“I th-thought you were dead,” he says, not knowing he was crying until his voice broke mid-sentence. “I thought I’d gotten you killed.”
Iroh’s arms tighten, then he pushes back so that he can look Zuko in the face. “No. Zuko, no. That was never your fault. I… Have you really spent all this time thinking that?”
Zuko mumbles something noncommittal, then tries to change tack: “How did you survive? The soldiers that made it back said the Earthbenders buried the division alive.”
Iroh pauses, and Zuko knows he hasn’t quite distracted him enough, but the older man allows the conversation to turn. “Buried us alive… yes, that is an apt description, but probably more apt than those men believed. Come, let us sit, and I’ll tell you. I made ginseng tea.”
Tea’s not his favorite thing, but Zuko sits without protest, and cradles the cup Iroh pours for him. Iroh doesn’t start talking until they both have tea steaming gently in their cups and he’s taken a sip and declared it “passable, but the best they’ll get while in hiding like this.”
The former general sets down his cup, and contemplates it a moment, before lifting his royal golden eyes to Zuko. “Lady Ursa tells me you came here with the help of the Order of the White Lotus?”
“Yes. Katara’s father told us how to get in contact with them.”
“Good, good,” Iroh nods absently. “How much do you know about them?”
“The White Lotus? Not much… They’re a society spread across all the nations, watchers and followers of the Avatar,” Zuko recounts.
“Yes,” Iroh says, then clears his throat. “I am the Grand Lotus, the leader of the Order of the White Lotus.”
As Zuko gapes, he continues: “I think you know how changed I was after Lu Ten’s death, and how I did not come home right away, even though I retired as general immediately. I had always harbored doubts about the war, but I kept my peace. At least until I lost a quarter of my troops, and with them, Lu Ten, at the walls of Ba Sing Se. It shames me to think that it took the loss of my beloved son to make me realize the arrogance and cruelty of this war—up until that point, I had lost countless soldiers, had sent innumerable sons and daughters and fathers and mothers to their deaths… and that hadn’t stopped me. Perhaps if I had realized sooner… Well, the past is the past, and I have sworn to atone.
“While I traveled, after Lu Ten’s death, I managed to run into Master Jeong-Jeong. He, too, is a White Lotus member, and was at the time of our meeting. It was he who inducted me into the society. After some time of travelling and meeting other White Lotus members, I decided that I would best serve the Order by returning to the Fire Palace.”
“You were a spy?” Zuko asks, not sure how to feel about it.
“Yes,” Iroh says baldly, not trying to sugarcoat it. “And I am glad for it, because I have saved so many lives by doing so. Including yours, Nephew.”
This much is true. If Iroh hadn’t been present to demand that Zuko be seen by the palace healer’s after the Agni Kai, Zuko would have been left to heal on his own—which likely would have meant dying of an infected burn, or at the very least losing his eye.
Conceptually, Zuko knows that Iroh had been spying in order to help the Fire Nation, to save it from Ozai’s mad ambition, but it still stings a little that he had committed treason.
Zuko takes a deep breath, and releases that hurt with the exhale. It would be hypocritical to protest, since Zuko himself is now an exile and guilty of treason. “What about the 57th?”
Iroh nods. “When you protested Lu Zhun’s plan, I knew that I had to save them. The 57th represented too many opportunities to let them perish. A battalion of soldiers that Ozai would throw away… That you tried to save. They know what you did, Prince Zuko. I told them, so that they knew what their Firelord had consigned them to, and that their Prince at least was loyal to them. In the end, most of them agreed to the plan. I got in contact with my White Lotus brethren in the Earth Kingdom, and we created a false battle. The Earthbenders did drop us beneath the earth, but there were caverns, tunnels, to lead us safely away. We’ve imprisoned the few soldiers that are still loyal to Ozai, but most of the 57th revere you, Prince Zuko.”
He shakes his head. “But I failed. It was you who saved them, Uncle.”
“In secret, by stealth. You stood up to your father, to the war council, to speak for them,” Iroh points out calmly. “I did not risk what you did.”
Zuko glares at his tea. Everyone speaks of it as if it had been brave, when really it had been foolish to speak so boldly at the Firelord’s war table. Iroh reaches across the table and touches Zuko’s shoulder. “Even a dragon may be burned, when it is young and inexperienced.”
Whatever that means.
But Zuko finds himself soothed by his Uncle’s weird proverbs, another familiar and comfortable thing. He sighs and doesn’t argue.
“You will be a Firelord truly worthy of the title,” Iroh says with confidence and satisfaction. Zuko avoids responding by taking a gulp of still steaming tea.
Avatar Aang calls a meeting of all his ranking officers that afternoon. Zuko finds his seat next to Katara, his uncle, and his mother. He looks around the table, recognizing a number of faces and seeing some unfamiliar ones. There must have been some new arrivals to the Cave of Two Lovers while he and Iroh sat and talked in Iroh’s tent. There are three new faces that Zuko can see—an Earth Kingdom general, a white-haired elder with a squint to one eye, and a Water Tribesman. Katara gasps when she sees this last. “Master Pakku!”
The man looks up and his eyes narrow when he sees her. He harrumphs and crosses his arms. “Should have known you’d be in the thick of this, girl.”
Katara smiles at him, completely unrepentant. “I’m glad to see you again, Master Pakku.”
“It looks like we’re all here,” the Avatar says, sweeping into the large command tent and glancing around. “If everyone will be seated?”
There is a moment of shuffling, then the tent settles, with everyone looking expectantly at the Avatar. Aang stands at the head of the long table that ran the length of the tent. He scans their faces, then nods. “Before we get into things, I believe introductions are in order.
“General Yi?” The Earth Kingdom general stands. “This is Yi Ma, General of the Eastern Earth Army.”
The general bows to the table, then sits as Aang calls on the next person.
“Master Jeong-Jeong, former Admiral of the Fire Nation, member of the Order of the White Lotus.” Jeong-Jeong stands and bows as well.
“Corporal Jijiu Wang of the Northern Earth Army, Master Earthbender.” One of the officers Zuko had met a few days after arriving at the Avatar’s camp stands and bows.
“Master Pakku, Master Waterbender of the Northern Water Tribe and member of the Order of the White Lotus.” The sour-faced Tribesman gets up and bows shortly.
“King Bumi, King of Omashu, Master Earthbender, and member of the Order of the White Lotus.” The squint-eyed old man stands, revealing a stooped shoulder. He sort of bobs his head in an approximation of a bow, and cackles.
“Master Iroh, former General of the Fire Nation, former Prince of the Fire Nation, Grand Lotus of the Order of the White Lotus.”
“Lady Ursa, exile of the Fire Nation, former wife of Firelord Ozai.”
“Lady Katara, Master Waterbender, daughter of Chief Hakoda of the Southern Water Tribe, wife of the exiled Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation.”
“Prince Zuko, son of Lady Ursa and Firelord Ozai, exile of the Fire Nation.” Zuko stands and bows, trying to ignore the weight of the regard of everyone at the table. Master Pakku raises one sardonic eyebrow.
“Half of the Fire Nation’s royal family in the Avatar’s camp… Certainly an unexpected occurrence.”
“Considering that Ozai has tried to kill most of them, yes, it is,” Jeong-Jeong says dryly.
“His failures are our gains,” the Avatar says calmly, re-commanding their attention. “We must take all opportunities presented to us for alliance, for resistance. Ozai’s armies are strong; his rhetoric and propaganda have made slaves of the people of the Fire Nation. His ambition would made slaves of us all.
“There is news. News that may mean the end of the war is coming. Whether that end is our victory or our defeat depends on our actions now. We must move quickly, as a united front.” The Avatar pauses, meeting each of their gazes.
“What is the news?” Master Pakku finally asks. Aang leans back in his chair.
“Sozin’s Comet approaches.”
All of the Firebenders in the room tense, backs going straight, heads snapping up to stare. The Avatar nods grimly. One of the Earth Kingdom men asks: “What is Sozin’s Comet?”
“It is a heavenly event,” Iroh responds, “in which a great, fiery body, like a second sun, passes across the sky. It strengthens Firebenders to unnatural levels of power. I expect Ozai will try to take advantage of the phenomenon to unleash a devastating attack on his enemies.”
“Precisely,” Aang says. “Our information tells us he plans to attack the Earth Kingdom from the air, Firebenders razing the ground from airships, using the Comet to power their bending. And he plans to lead the attack himself, as what he calls the ‘Phoenix King’. He has already crowned himself, allowing his daughter to succeed him as Firelord.”
Zuko grits his teeth, anger washing through him as he imagines Azula, his cruel, petty, and selfish sister, ruling the Fire Nation. He remembers an incident when they were younger—Azula was nine, he thinks—when she set one of her maids’ hair on fire, after the hapless woman had accidentally pulled hers while combing it out.
“What do we do?” he asks before he realizes it Attention shifts to him. He just looks to Aang. “Do we have a plan?”
“Yes. Ozai intends for this to be the final decisive battle of the war. He is fielding not only an airship armada, but also an infantry army to occupy the Earth Kingdom armies as the airships sweep the land. What all this means is that Ozai will be pulling over half of the Fire Nation’s fighting forces from the archipelago. He’s leaving the Fire Nation itself vulnerable.”
“We’re attacking the Fire Nation,” Jeong-Jeong states, folding his arms.
“Not quite,” Aang says. “Prince Zuko is attacking the Fire Nation. I and the rest of you will be attacking Ozai’s forces.”
“What?” Zuko blurts, surprised.
“The Firelord is my opponent,” Aang tells him. “I would not ask you to fight him, however, I believe that you must retake your birthright yourself. The Fire Nation will not respect you if I take the archipelago and place you on the Dragon Throne. It is not the way of Fire; they would call you a puppet Firelord, my pawn.”
“That’s true,” Zuko admits, frowning at the table. This means facing Azula. Is he strong enough to do so? He’ll have to be.
“Chief Arnook of the Northern Water Tribe has been keeping two captured Fire Nation ships in trust for us. We also have enough sets of Fire Nation armor to outfit two crews. With the passcodes passed on to us by our spies, it should be enough to get you and a force of three hundred into the capital city. Once there, you’re on your own.”
“I understand,” Zuko says. “Have you assigned soldiers to the crews already?”
“Not formally, though I expect that the remnants of the 57th will volunteer. There is also a joint team of Water Tribe and Earth Kingdom fighters—lead, in part, by your brother, Lady Katara—that would be ideal for the job. The last two hundred I will assign for the job based on your recommendation.”
Zuko nods, thinking it through as Aang turns to the others. “Iroh, I would like to use the White Lotus’s meeting lodges as rallying points for our allies. We will need to keep our numbers as obscured as possible as we move into position.”
“Of course,” Uncle replies. “I can send out the message today, after we’re done here.”
Aang nods. “Good. There won’t be much we can do against the airships—Earthbenders can launch boulders at them, but Earthbenders will also be vulnerable to attacks from the infantry on the ground. I will take a strike team on Appa to take out some of the airships. They will drop me off on Ozai’s ship—my primary focus will be to take him down; I expect all of you to lead our forces.”
“What’s Appa?” Zuko hears Katara whisper to his mother.
“The Avatar’s flying bison,” Ursa replies in the same manner.
The Avatar unrolls a map onto the table. The Earth Kingdom corporal obligingly places a weight on the far end. On the map, the continents of their world are outlined in thick black ink, spidery writing naming each bay, island, and mountain.
“Right now we have forces here and here,” the Avatar says, placing markers on the spots he indicates. “Intelligence says Ozai plans to sweep from west to east, hitting the major cities of the western Earth Kingdom… We’ll need to assemble here. It’s the only place with a large enough harbor for all the troop transports Ozai will need to move his ground army.”
The soldiers nod understanding. Master Pakku says: “Chief Arnook and Chief Hakoda have promised ships to harry the Fire Nation fleet before they make landfall. After that, it’ll be up to us.”
“Once you’ve neutralized Ozai, I don’t think the army will last long,” Zuko says. “He hasn’t been promoting officers based on their intelligence or tactical minds, they’re cruel and brutal, but without Ozai’s orders they will be uncoordinated and in chaos.”
Aang nods. “I expect so. As for you, once you have your sister in custody, you’ll need to take up command of the Fire Nation troops left in the archipelago. The quicker we stop the fighting, the more lives we save.”
Zuko nods, and they turn back to the map. There are still many details to work out, between the two prongs of their attack. They’ll be at it for hours.
Chapter 15: The Assembly
The Avatar’s camp resembles nothing so much as a kicked butterfly-ant hill. People are rushing to and fro, tents are in varying stages of striking, the quartermasters are looking harried and annoyed. Their timetables are very short—Sozin’s Comet is expected to appear in just two weeks, and they have to move an entire army across the hilly country of the western Earth Kingdom to the great harbors in the Taedong Sound. Everyone is scrambling to be ready when the command to move out comes.
Zuko doesn’t have much in the way of personal items, only the few necessities Katara’s tribe and the Avatar’s quartermasters had given him, so he is packed and ready quite quickly. He spends the rest of the time seeing to the provisioning of his troops.
The remnants of the 57th are joined by a rag-tag group of Earth Kingdom and Fire Nation soldiers from the Avatar’s army, people Zuko had selected based on their attitudes and skills. They get equipped with what they’ll need for the march to Taedong. Everything they’ll need to cross the ocean to the archipelago waits for them at the harbor, along with the group Aang had mentioned, the one that Katara’s brother partly leads. Zuko makes sure that the messages that get sent to the people responsible for preparing their ships note the proper number for his crews, and the right equipment for the journey.
When he’d still been a prince and before he’d realized his father wanted him to join the war effort so that he could assassinate him with minimal fuss, Zuko had been training to take command of a cruiser. He knows everything he’ll need for the two ships that will be under his direction, and it feels good. He feels like he’s been out of his depth for so long, being competent and not needing advice or assistance in this is like finding solid ground under his feet finally.
Katara helps, mostly in recommending healers that would be a good fit for their crews, but also because she can argue with the quartermasters on his behalf while he’s doing other things. She’s from a sea-going people, so she is intimately familiar with what’s needed for ocean journeys and knows what to push the quartermasters on and what they can compromise on. She also knows the skills her brother and his group of soldiers possess, and the information helps him make decisions about the other personnel he decides to bring with them.
They spend a few hours every night going over the preparations they’d completed that day, and what still needs to be done on the morrow. Zuko can feel his admiration and affection for her grow by the moment. It is both buoying and distressing. He knows that everyone expects him to take the Dragon Throne when this is all over, and that he’ll face opposition and problems from the people of the Fire Nation. They’d been on the receiving end of decades of xenophobic propaganda, and as an ally of the Avatar and leader of a multinational strike force, Zuko will be seen as a traitor and an oppressor of Fire purity. As well, there has been specific propaganda about Zuko himself; the coward, the disgraced prince, the exile. With all of that already against him, introducing a Consort of Water would be essentially political suicide. The people would never stand for it. Any support he could scrape together would be gone.
But everything in Zuko rebels against divorcing Katara. He wants to remain married to her. He loves her. There’s something amusing—in a dark and probably not actually amusing way—that Ozai’s plot to marry Zuko to Katara so that he would be unfit for the throne has turned out to make Zuko not want to take the throne, so that he could stay with her.
Even though he likely hadn’t intended it to work out this way, Ozai has made it so that, no matter what, Zuko loses. The throne or Katara? His people or himself? Duty or love? It’s a decision he doesn’t want to make, but one that it seems he’ll be forced into.
He wonders what Katara thinks about it. She must know; she’d demonstrated her grasp of Fire Nation politics early on in their relationship. His first thought is that she expects to be divorced, but… She’d asked him to stay with her until he believed in her faith for him. She’d kissed him. Would she have done so with the expectation that they wouldn’t be able to stay together?
He tries to ignore the voice at the back of his mind, the one that sounds like Azula, that is saying “She’s using you. You’re like a dog-panda, following her with blind devotion. Give you a kiss and you’ll help her wage war on your own people. And once she wins, she tosses you away like a rotten persimmon.”
It’s hard to ignore, but it’s also hard not to believe in the open affection Katara shows him. She kisses him every night, after their planning sessions, before she leaves for her own small tent. He doesn’t think she’s faking the way her pupils dilate, the way she goes breathless and her heart speeds up. They may not share a bed, but he thinks they both want to.
He almost invites her to stay, the night before they leave. She’s warm in his arms, pressed close to him so that he can feel the softness of her breasts against his chest, his hands against her feeling the firm power of her muscles as she leans into him.
“Katara,” he says on a breath. Her eyes open, blue irises almost completely obscured by the pupils, and he swallows hard. He can feel her uneven breath against his face, and his gaze flicks down to her slightly-parted lips—pinked from kissing. He wants . He’s silent a little too long, and Katara’s eye lose a little of their dazed softness.
“Zuko?” she whispers. He hesitates, struggling with himself, then loses his nerve. Instead of asking, he simply kisses her again, undemanding, warm and soft. She makes a small noise in the back of her throat, tilting her head further back so their mouths fit a little closer together. Her tongue rubs against his, and he feels like he will burst into flames.
They are both breathing hard when they finally part. Staring into Katara’s up-turned face, Zuko very carefully lets her go and eases back a step. He just barely keeps from stepping right back into her as her tongue flicks out to lick her lips. They stare at each other for a heated moment, then Katara smiles and says, softly: “Goodnight, Zuko.”
“Goodnight, Katara,” he manages, voice rough. She gives him one last smile before disappearing out the tent flap.
Katara is very aware that she and Zuko are courting tragedy. And she knows that he knows it, too. He doesn’t say anything, but she can see it in the way he looks at her.
They’re falling in love, and they can’t. Zuko is to take the Dragon Throne, and he can’t have a Water Tribe wife. They don’t want to rock the boat by flaunting centuries of Fire Nation tradition. Especially considering the origin of the office of Firelord. The Firelord is supposed to be the strongest Firebender in the Fire Nation, so that he or she can protect the islands from the volcanic eruptions that might devastate them. It isn’t something they can just ignore.
Still, Katara simply can’t walk away from Zuko. She doesn’t want to. He’d surprised her from day one, with his compassion and his vulnerability. His honor. And the more she learns about him, the more she wants to stay with him. She’s never really considered marriage before; there had never been a young man she sighed over, never anyone she thought she would like to marry. It had been a vague acknowledgment in her mind, as she got older, that her family would likely broker a marriage for her soon, but it had never been an active thought. But now, she can’t imagine being married to anyone but Zuko. She wants to continue exploring this relationship with him.
She remembers what Ursa, Aang, and Iroh have all said to them—gladness and well wishes—and wonders why none of them have said anything about the issue. Are they simply ignoring it? Do they, somehow, not know? Or do they intend to dismantle the tradition of a pure Fire dynasty?
“Ursa?” Katara asks hesitantly, the familiar address weighing strangely on her tongue. She hadn’t had a problem referring to the woman by her given name before, but it feels uncomfortable in relation to what she wants to talk about. They’re alone in Ursa’s herb hut, packing up everything they’ll need for the coming battles. It is as good a time as any to have this conversation.
The former Consort to the Firelord looks over at her, smiles. “Yes, Daughter?”
As it always does, the title makes Katara’s throat constrict and her heart swoop. It’s not uncommon to refer to one’s daughter-in-law in such a way, but Ursa always says it with real warmth, meaning it. Katara might love her for it. She has to clear her throat before responding. “I… I want to ask you a question…”
Her face must be twisted into something horrible, because Ursa’s expression turns concerned and she takes Katara’s hands and leads her over to the stools at the workbench. “Child, what’s wrong?”
“I’m falling in love with your son.” The words fall from her lips like the first raindrops of a storm. Ursa’s concerned expression blooms into one of beaming joy, and she embraces Katara tightly.
“Oh! I am so glad that you have found joy in each other!” She pulls back enough to kiss Katara’s cheeks and forehead with motherly affection. “But why do you look so upset? This is a happy thing!”
“But…” Katara says. “But… We won’t be able to stay together!”
Ursa sobers, cradles Katara’s face in her long elegant hands, and meets her gaze. “Oh, Daughter…”
“The Fire Sages, the people, they’ll never accept a Consort who is not Fire. It’s more than tradition. It’s religion, it’s… it’s… The whole position of Firelord was create for a Firebender, for the strongest Firebender, because the day might come when the Firelord has to stop another Shirokiba. It’s the same reason a non-bender can’t assume the throne, even if they are born to royalty.” Katara stops, swallows. “If I remain Zuko’s Consort, there will never be peace. The Fire Nation would overthrow him, or be thrust into civil war.”
Ursa sighs, and drops her hands to clasp Katara’s. “Dear heart, Katara… I am going to speak plainly to you now, and I hope you will not take offense…”
“I welcome your honesty,” Katara tells her sincerely. Ursa nods, a line between her brows revealing her careful search for the right words.
“I do not know how it is for your people,” she starts slowly, “but in the Fire Nation, political marriages are very common. Not only in the royal family, but also between nobles. Even merchants will vie for the more advantageous matches for their children, to expand their business holdings. Because of this, marriage is… more of a business agreement, rather than a joining of lovers, in most of the Fire Nation. And so, it is not uncommon for there to be… other arrangements outside of the marriage.”
Katara blinks, uncertain whether she’s understanding correctly, worried that she might be. “Do you mean…?”
“Mistresses,” Ursa says bluntly. “Husbands in arranged marriages almost always have mistresses, or concubines. Wives might also, as long as they have provided a legitimate heir to the family before indulging. It isn’t usually hidden, either. Both parties often are aware of the other’s companions; clauses regarding them might even be drafted into marriage contracts.”
“Did you—” Katara starts to ask, then shakes her head. “No, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t ask—”
“You may ask me anything,” Ursa tells her. “You should know. I want you to understand. No, I never sought out companionship outside of my marriage, but that was not because of any loyalty I felt toward Ozai, but rather due to Ozai’s cruel and possessive nature. He never was one to share something he considered his. I… I was in love, you know, before I was engaged to him. A young man in my village. I loved him, and Ozai knew. One of the first things he did when we met was to threaten to hurt him I loved if I did not cut all ties with him.”
Katara feels pity and empathetic regret as she digests this. Ursa had not had it easy when she was given as a bride to Ozai. But this is not the reason the older woman is telling her all this, Katara knows. And she knows what the actual reason is, too.
Zuko might have to divorce her and marry a proper Fire Consort, but he can keep Katara as a mistress. Once he ensures the dynasty with a Firebending heir, he can all but ignore his wife and look to Katara for love and companionship. Katara would not have any power, and any children would not have any claim to the throne, which would probably mean that the Fire Sages and the people of the Fire Nation would be able to accept her presence more than if she were to be a true Consort. But…
“I don’t think I could accept that,” she says softly. “Even if it’s accepted and even common in the Fire Nation, it isn’t in the Water Tribes. We have arranged marriages—not as many as the Fire Nation, it’s true, but... We believe that marriage represents a blending of spirits, so even if you do not marry for love, it is expected that you honor that. I would feel… dishonorable. Dishonored. I don’t think I could be anything other than his wife without becoming embittered.”
Ursa nods, understanding and regret clear in her expression. “If it means anything,” she says hesitantly, “the Avatar holds the hope that the Fire Nation will be more accepting after the war ends.”
Katara winces, but diplomatically says: “Aang is… a very optimistic man.”
“Hope is not a bad thing,” Ursa says. “As long as it does not cause you to lose sight of reality.”
“Hope might not be a bad thing, but it can be painful.”
“That is also true.” Ursa scans Katara’s face closely. “Many things in life are painful. We must chose which are worth it.”
The day they leave dawns overcast and dusty, hot and dry like only the hilly grasslands of the Earth Kingdom can be. The Earth Kingdom natives in the Avatar’s camp pass along the trick of tying a cloth over one’s nose and mouth, to keep out the worst of the dust kicked up by the marching army. It’s still very unpleasant, and Katara thinks longingly of the ocean spray of ship travel. She’d take the cold, briny damp over this choking dust any day.
She walks with the wagons that are carrying the few patients that had still been convalescing in the cave infirmary. None of them are badly injured or sick, and all will recover by the time the army reaches its final destination. Katara will make sure of that, with her Waterbending healing.
Zuko spends most of his time with Aang and the other military leaders, those who will command battalions or squadrons in the upcoming battle, going over tactics and timetables. It means that she rarely sees him, but that’s probably for the best. She has a decision to make, a difficult one, and one that will be easier to make without Zuko’s presence beside her. She really should have thought about it earlier, instead of spending long minutes every day kissing Zuko goodnight, but it had just been far too comfortable in his arms. She hadn’t wanted to step out of them. She’s keeping her distance now, aided by the fact that they have no time for romance in the middle of moving an army across the Earth Kingdom.
When she isn’t distracted by the looming personal tragedy that is her and Zuko’s relationship, her mind is filled with thoughts of war. While this whole time it has been her ultimate goal to help put an end to the fighting, she is startled with how quickly everything is moving. She can’t believe that they are mount their final defense. The prospect that, in a couple weeks, they will have either won or lost for good is daunting. She feels like she’s dreaming, walking around in a haze.
She is glad that she’ll soon see her brother again. It seems like an eternity since the last time, after her wedding, but it actually has only been a couple months.
Nothing quite feels like reality any more. Katara wishes she could just stop everything and just breathe for a moment. At the very least, she’ll be able to rest once all this if over, even if it turns out to be the relaxation of the Spirit World.
A few days after leaving the Cave of Two Lovers, Zuko, Katara, and their allotted soldiers break of from the main body of the Avatar’s army. They are bound for the small port town of Zhen, where their stolen Fire Nation frigates await them, along with half their crews. The Avatar and the rest of the army will continue on to Taedong Sound, to head off Ozai’s forces.
The dust from about two hundred soldiers is just as bad as from fifteen hundred, unfortunately. But they do move faster with fewer. It takes them a week to reach Zhen. Their first look at the town is from the top of the stone cliffs that swoop up like a half-bowl around the calm inlet of ocean that makes up the port. The town is a cluster of buildings at the base of those cliffs, and the reaching fingers of docks stretching into the blue-grey waters.
Even though she had known to expect it, the sight of the Fire Nation ships moored at those docks sends a chill down Katara’s spine. The phantom taste of ash coats her tongue, but she swallows it down with her instinctive fear.
The ships are here, which means her brother is here, and they are that much closer to ending this war.
She looks over toward Zuko, who has stopped alongside her and is staring down at the port and the ships with a blank face. It’s probably as hard for him to see them as it is for her, though for different reasons. For him, these are the ships that will carry him back to his abusers. Or at least, one of them. Azula. The Mad Princess. Any time he’s talked about her, Katara has gotten a very clear image of a power-crazed, immoral, and cruel young woman.
She takes a breath, touches Zuko’s shoulder, and offers him a wan smile. “Shall we?”
He nods, and moves them out, down the winding path that leads down the cliffs into the port town. The approach makes them extremely visible to everyone in the town, so by the time they reach the bottom, their allies are waiting for them. Katara sees Sokka standing at the head of the group, and can’t restrain herself. She hurtles down ahead of her companions with a glad shout. Sokka catches her easily, and they hug tightly.
They let each other go and start talking at the same time: “Dad said that—” “I’m so glad you—”
They stop, Katara gestures. “You first.”
“Dad told me what happened,” Sokka says, squeezing his hands on her shoulders. “You’ve been dancing on thin ice, Katara.”
Katara rolls her eyes at him. “Come on, Sokka, you know me. You really think it could have been any other way?”
“No,” he sighs reluctantly. “But—”
“But nothing,” Katara retorts. “Hey, is that Suki? Hi Suki!”
Sokka gives an indignant grumble at the blatant subject change, but lets her go and turns to watch her greet the Kiyoshi Warrior.
Katara is vaguely aware of Zuko in the background, organizing the integration of the soldiers they’d brought with them with the mixed Kiyoshi and Water Tribe warriors. There will have to be billets assigned, supplies will have to be checked, and probably a dozen other little logistical issues to take care of. But right now, Katara wants to reunite with her brother and her friends. Hopefully Zuko will forgive her for not helping.
“It’s good to see you again, Katara,” Suki says. Then her eyes glint mischievously and dart toward Zuko. “Or should I start calling you ‘your majesty’?”
It brings back to mind the decision she has to make, but Katara gamely snarks back. “That’s ‘your supreme excellence’, to you, Suki.”
They grin at each other and hug. “We should catch up. Let’s have dinner together tonight.”
“Of course,” Katara replies. “But I should probably help get our soldiers settled, now.”
“Yeah, sure,” Suki nods. “Hey, introduce me to Prince Zuko; my warriors have prepped the crew quarters in one of the frigates for use by your people, and there are a couple of buildings the locals are letting us use to house the overflow. I can help get people to where they need to go…”
Chapter 16: The Dance
((Here's a new chapter to make the prospect of tomorrow being Monday a little easier to swallow. This one's got some intimacy in it, fair warning.))
Katara sets her hands against the main branch of the ship’s hydraulics tubes and closes her eyes. Concentrating, she lets her bending sense feel along the liquid, testing for leaks or clogs. Any of the crew could do the same, albeit by eye rather than bending, but with Katara doing it, it goes faster. At the very least, she doesn’t have to walk the whole length of the hydraulics system to check the pipes visually.
“There’s a loose join in the starboard, aft storage room,” she told Nunaq, one of the Water Tribesman who had come with Sokka and the Kiyoshi Warriors. “It’s not a bad leak, but we might as well see to it before it becomes one.”
He nods, and makes a note on a wax tablet. She lets her hands drop from the pipes. “That’s the last of my checks. Get that list to the mechanics as soon as you can, alright?”
“Yes, Master Katara,” Nunaq says respectfully.
“Thank you, Nunaq,” she tells him as he leaves. She stretches out her arms, sighing. The last two days have been nothing but checks and provisioning. Zuko and the others from the Fire Nation have been working with the other nations’ soldiers, to drill them in looking and acting like true Fire Nation sailors. They have to look convincing enough in their stolen Fire armor that they’re allowed past blockades and into ports. Katara has been making sure their ships are sea-worthy and correctly provisioned.
Everything is falling into place, and none too soon—they’re sailing tomorrow. Katara feels the anticipation like a pit in her stomach, anxiety and adrenaline hollowing her out. She knows Zuko feels the same, his nerves apparent when they sit together in privacy for their nightly tea before bed. He is becoming more and more free with his affection, and they’ve been together long enough that Katara has noticed a trend in his initiation of physical contact. The more he needs reassurance, the more he touches her. Not necessarily in sexual ways; even if it’s only the brushing of fingers over an arm or shoulder, his or hers, the contact settles him. Which isn’t to say there isn’t more intimate touching… It hadn’t taken long for Zuko to learn how to twist her up with a single kiss. And she knows how to lean her body against his to make him breathless.
Sometimes, Katara thinks back to their first night together, their wedding night, and remembers the heat and weight of him over her. She hadn’t really enjoyed it then, and he hadn’t been particularly invested in the proceedings at the time, either, but she finds herself remembering it sometimes, and wonders how different it would be now that she wants it. And now that he wants it, too. She’s no fool; pressing up against him like she does when they kiss goodnight, she can feel how much he wants it. But she knows Zuko, and knows that he will never initiate, never ask, without her making it very clear that she wants him. She’s kissed him, done a dozen other physical things that would indicate her interest, but she’s never said anything out loud, in words, and he needs that unambiguous assurance.
Katara wets her dry lips with the tip of her tongue, disembarking and heading back to her room in one of the village’s buildings. She’s been thinking about this particular problem for almost a week now, a very real deadline bearing down on her has pushed it to the forefront of her mind, and she thinks she has made her decision. At the very least, she has been making plans based on that maybe-decision.
She shares her room with Suki, who only sleeps in it occasionally. Katara suspects that her brother’s wooing has finally managed to persuade the Kiyoshi Warrior to accept his suit. She’s happy for them, though they have their own obstacles before them. Suki is the leader of the Kiyoshi Warriors, and though Chief of the Southern Water Tribe isn’t a hereditary position, it seems likely that Sokka will succeed their father when the time comes. Katara is both worried for them, and jealous of them. The consequences for their options are not as dire as those she and Zuko face. But it also makes Katara sad that her brother and her friends might have to lose things that are important to them, to stay together.
Suki is in the room, performing maintenance on her war-fans. Her sword and knives are also laid out for cleaning and sharpening. She looks up and smiles as Katara enters, deftly attaching heavy gold paper to a sharp iron rib. She smoothes the paper carefully before moving to the next rib.
“Finish up your duties for the day?” Suki asks.
“Yeah,” Katara replies with a sigh. She moves to her side of the room, and starts rummaging through her things. She doesn’t have much, but there are a couple things she’ll want tonight, and the free-time she has right now is as good a time as any to pull them together.
“If you have anything you want me to sharpen, I can lump it in with all my stuff,” Suki offers absently, nose almost touching the iron skeleton of her war-fan as she inspects the edge. Katara is about to decline—she doesn’t own any blades, let alone any that need sharpening—but pauses thoughtfully, eyeing the neat line of knives laid out on the floor beside Suki.
“Actually…” she says slowly, “You wouldn’t have a spare blade you could lend me, would you?”
Suki looks up, eyebrows raised. “You don’t have one?”
“No,” Katara shrugs. “I used to, but…”
“Of course,” the other woman says, frowning. “You shouldn’t go into this unarmed. I mean… besides your bending, that is.”
“Bending can do a lot of things, but a knife is better at some of them.”
“True. Here,” Suki holds out a small knife, about as long as her hand. “See how this one feels.”
Katara unsheathes it, trying the hilt in a couple different grips. She tests the edge with the pad of her thumb. It’s wickedly sharp, and a comfortable weight in her hand. “This is very nice.”
“Fire Nation steel,” the Kiyoshi Warrior says, the corner of her mouth quirking. “I have to admit that their smithing is fantastic.”
“Maybe, but most of their ore comes from the Earth Kingdom.”
“There is that.”
Katara stares contemplatively down at the blade. “I feel like there’s something ironic about using a knife forged by the Fire Nation using Earth Kingdom metals to fight a war to stop the Fire Nation from razing the Earth Kingdom to the ground.”
“Darkly ironic, anyway,” Suki snorts.
“It kind of makes me angry,” Katara says. “This knife should be a symbol of cooperation—the strengths of two nations married together to make something better than what either could create by themselves.”
She looks up and finds Suki watching her with an indecipherable expression. “What?”
“It’s just…” Suki pauses. “I never thought of it like that. You’re… You’re the best of us, Katara. You’re always so full of hope.”
Katara shakes her head. It isn’t the first time someone’s said something along those line to her, but it’s really not true. She’s full of doubts and fears; she just doesn’t express them. She doesn’t really know if it’s because she’s afraid saying her fears out loud will make them more likely to come to pass, or if she doesn’t want to infect others with those fears. “It’s… not so much that I’m so full of hope, as that I refuse to dwell on my fears. Why give them more power over me, right?”
“Our fears are only as powerful as we make them,” Suki agrees, quoting a Water Tribe proverb. Katara smiles at her.
“Take the knife,” Suki says after a beat of comfortable silence. “I hope you won’t have to use it, but better safe than sorry.”
“Right. Thanks,” Katara replies. She pauses, then tells her: “Also, um. I won’t be sleeping here tonight…”
Suki looks surprised, then sly. “Oh?”
“I’m taking a tent and pitching it on the bluffs,” she says, trying not to blush. “Just… In case anyone needs to find me.”
“Alright,” Suki says, smirking. “Do you need any...ah…”
“No.” Katara gives up, feeling her face heat. “I’ve got it covered. Thanks.”
She bundles up the things she’s gathered, and retreats.
She persuades Zuko to follow her up the winding path to the top of the cliffs, though she isn’t sure quite how she’d managed, with the way she’d stumbled over her words. It seems somewhat silly, to be so hesitant and shy about it, when Zuko is already her husband and they’ve been intimate with each other. But on the other hand, they haven’t been really treating their relationship as a marriage, and their one sexual encounter had been… awkwardly distant and not intimate. They’d been strangers, and the act had been expected—pressed on them. This time, the act would be intensely more intimate, more meaningful; they know each other now, and they would be choosing each other. Knowing that, her nerves seem a lot more reasonable.
They eat dinner together, a stew that Katara heats up over a fire that Zuko builds next to the tent Katara had pitched earlier in the day in preparation for this. The sun is setting as they do so, painting the sky in flame colors. Katara looks over the cliff to the horizon, the blazing gold, pinks, reds, and oranges meeting the smooth blues and purples of the ocean, and takes heart in the beauty of the meeting of their two elements.
They trade casual reports of what they’d done that day, two leaders collaborating and organizing, as they eat. But once the tea has brewed and their cups filled, Katara takes the silence as they both take their first sips as an opportunity to change the tone.
“Zuko,” she says, holding her teacup cradled between her hands. Tiny ripples move across the surface with the minute movements of her body. “We… we should talk about our future together.”
She ignores how he goes still, his complete attention fixing on her. “We should , but… but I don’t want to. I… I think… Zuko, neither of us is unaware of how unlikely our future together is. But, one or both of us might well die in the upcoming battles. If we both survive, there will be time after to speak of what we’ll do. But right now, I just want…”
“What?” Zuko asks, nearly inaudibly. His gaze is piercing. Katara meets it.
“I want tonight. I want us to be husband and wife, in truth, tonight. Even if this is all we get, I want to have it. I know we might not be able to remain together after this, but—”
“Katara,” Zuko interrupts.
“I want that, too.”
Katara holds her breath, watching him. He watches her. Almost as one, they reach for each other, hands and lips meeting. Katara is trembling, a little, from nerves and anticipation. Zuko’s hands move up her arms, skimming lightly over her skin, over her shoulders and down her back. She shivers, nails biting into his shoulders. He groans into her mouth, and the sound sends a thrill through her.
But she hasn’t done everything she’s wanted to yet, so she pulls herself away from him. They pant, nose to nose, a moment, staring at each other with dilated pupils, heavy eyelids. Katara draws back slowly, stands, steps back from him, all the while keeping eye contact. Zuko watches her with confusion and desire plain on his face.
Katara places herself far enough away from him, the campfire, and the tent, then arranges her limbs purposefully. Zuko remains seated, silent, watching.
Arms lifted to the Gibbous moon, Katara closes her eyes, and starts to dance. She starts by turning a slow circle, arms tracing a graceful line through the air. She doesn’t have a drumbeat to dance to, so she uses her heartbeat. She steps and turns, arms curving and sweeping in moves similar to her Waterbending. Her dance gets faster as her heartbeat speeds up.
She can hear Zuko’s sharp intake of breath when he realizes what she’s doing. She lifts her hands to Tui again in supplication, then traces sinuous lines down, drawing the spirit’s attention to Zuko. She repeats the gesture toward the ocean, and La.
Katara dances her acceptance of her bridegroom, Zuko, under the sky. The night is perfectly clear, the pale face of the moon shining down on them, the stars glittering diamonds on the soft field of black sky. Katara’s eyes close for the final few steps of the dance, breathing deep and even, left foot stomping the ground twice to draw the spirits’ attention back to her. She holds her final pose, body and elegant line, hands held out toward Zuko.
She holds it a beat, two, and then opens her eyes. Zuko is standing now, gaze hot. Slowly, he walks toward her. She doesn’t drop her pose until he reaches out and takes her hands. He pulls her closer, his hands rising to cup her face in his palms. He leans down to kiss her deeply, and she kisses him back just as fiercely. Her breath shudders out of her, and she reaches down to pull at the knotted belt at his waist.
Somehow, they make it into the tent without losing contact. Zuko’s hands take care of her clothes as quickly as hers do his. The feel of Zuko’s callouses, earned learning to wield dao, on the bare skin of her shoulders makes rabbit-goosebumps rise.
“Lie back,” she murmurs to him between kisses, and he obeys. His eyes glow like they’re lit from within. Katara straddles him, gently running her hands down his chest, pressing a palm over his heart. She can feel it beat, strong and sure, and a little fast, like hers. She leans down to kiss him again before straightening and reaching down between them.
Zuko makes a soft sound when her hand wraps around him, and then his head falls back and he groans as she guides him in. She gasps and bites her lip as she lowers herself down onto him. She’s still tight and unpracticed, but there isn’t as much pain as the first time because she’s much more prepared, and wanting , this time. It’s a strange, aching fullness, and as she settles completely on his lap the sensation sends a shiver through her. Zuko’s hands are at her waist, clutching her just shy of bruising.
They stay still a long moment, each a little overcome, and then Katara shifts a little and they both gasp. Zuko’s fingers bite into her flesh.
“Katara—!” he grates out. His hips give a little jerk, and he moves inside her. She gasps, loudly, and can’t help but twitch her hips in response. And then they’re both moving, awkward and unsure at first, then with a slow rhythm. It isn’t very physically demanding, but they’re still both panting.
Katara closes her eyes and enjoys the push and pull of his body with hers. She tilts her hips a little and whimpers at the change in angle. Each press in now sends sparks scattering through her body, lighting a fire in her belly and tingling in her fingertips.
“Zuko…” she gasps breathily, eyes opening to stare dazedly down at him. Her hand slides down to where they’re joined, remembering how he’d touched her on their wedding night. Zuko’s grip twitches, and his next thrust is a little harder. Katara moans, and a few moments later pleasure rips through her like a river bursting free from a dam. Zuko growls, surging up and biting her shoulder.
“Roll over,” he rasps in her ear, and Katara does on wobbly limbs. His hands smooth over her back and she instinctively arches into the touch. He blankets her with his body, slides back between her legs, and anchors her against his movements with his hands on her hips. Katara’s fingers dig into the blankets under them. She’s sensitive from her climax, and he seems to be reaching even deeper inside her. The burn of pleasure is white-hot, and she’d only half aware of the noises he’s wringing out of her.
One of his hands slips around to press against her belly, and she falls apart again with a string of gasping breaths. Zuko makes a choked noise, presses even deeper, and follows.
It takes them two days to sail to the Fire Nation. Katara stands by Zuko on the open deck of the frigate, breathing in the sea air. She thinks she can smell the sulphur of the volcanoes of the archipelago. Zuko is a towering monolith of tangible emotion beside her.
“Are you alright?” she asks, her voice echoing oddly. They’re both in full Fire Nation armor, helmets and faceplates and all. The only ones who aren’t are former Fire Nation soldiers, men who can look and act like real Fire officers.
“I didn’t really think I’d see it again,” he replies after a long pause.
“Me either,” Katara admits. She’d expected that, if Zuko returned, she wouldn’t be with him. She’s a little surprised how much pleasure the sight of the islands brings her. They aren’t home, not by a long-shot, and they’re so different from the ice and snow she’s used to, but they’re beautiful all the same.
Up in the bridge of their frigate, Lieutenant Jee, the man who Zuko’d put in effective command of this ship, bends fire into lamp. It has a mirror behind it that amplified and directed the light of the bright flame, and a shutter in front that Jee now flicks open and closed in a defined pattern. Signaling the harbor towers.
Katara holds her breath as they continued to approach the harbor of Caldera City. If the towers don’t accept their pass codes or suspect them in any way, the trebuchets arrayed along the harbor mouth will open fire.
She sees another light flicker in one of the towers, though, and the two frigates filled with one half of the Avatar’s army slide into the port. There’s suddenly a lot more activity around them, as the crew hurries about to prepare the ship for docking. She and Zuko get out of the way.
It seems like no time at all before they are standing in formation on the dock, waiting for the last of the crews to disembark before they march up the long road to the royal palace. The coronation ceremony to crown Princess Azula the new Firelord is taking place within a few hours, in the massive courtyard of the palace. There are already streams of people heading toward the location, citizens and soldiers alike. They will join the procession, just another platoon of soldiers wanting to watch their new Firelord crowned.
Katara feels like she’s suffocating behind the faceplate of her helmet. It’s hot, and close, and she’s more nervous that she’s ever been in her life and her breathing is shallow for it. She fights down a wave of panic— what are they thinking how can this possibly work .
Failure is not an option. They must succeed.
“Company! Atten- shun !” Lieutenant Jee’s voice barks over the sounds of the harbor. They all snap to, as had been drilled into them over the two days of the voyage. There had been little to do but drill marching, between shifts of ship-board duties, and they had become ‘passable’ at it, according to the career military men with them. Jee is one such man, and it shows in his precise movements and the perfectly pitched voice that is loud but wouldn’t tear up his throat. “To the front, march !”
They’d been told not to speak as they marched, since it was against protocol. There had been some shouted lectures on the frigates, but now… none of them are really in a conversational mood. They are perfectly silent, aside from the thump of boots on the ground and the rattle of armor in motion. All of them are focused on what is before them.
Their plan is mad, desperate, and it always had been. If they had had their druthers, Katara is sure every last one of the Avatar’s soldiers would admit to wanting just a little more time to prepare. More time to amass soldiers and support. But the comet and Ozai’s sociopathic plans for the Earth Kingdom don’t allow for that. They’ve been forced to move.
A little over three hundred soldiers against all the palace guard, Azula’s portion of the Fire Nation military, and whatever patriotic citizens might decide to join in the fray. It’s not going to be easy, and it skirts the edge of suicidal.
Katara feels sweat bead on her brow, and it isn’t just from the heat of the late morning sun. By sundown tonight, it is likely that the outcome of this mad attack will have been determined. The wheels have already been set in motion. There will be war. The only thing they can do now is try to survive it.
Chapter 17: The Duel
(I think it's just one more chapter after this!)
The comet appears in the sky when they are about halfway up the steep road to the palace. Katara finds out the exact moment because Zuko, and the couple dozen other Firebenders in their company, all gasp and shudder like someone has dumped ice-water down their backs. Their heads turn as one toward the west, and everyone else follows suit. Sozin’s Comet is a blazing second sun on the horizon, a baleful eye glaring at them from across the ocean.
She doesn’t think it hurts them, even though Zuko’s breathing gets a little harsh as they continue marching. It seems more like it’s making the ‘inner Fire’ of the Firebenders burn higher, hotter. They’re probably feeling great, physically, the same as Katara feels when she’s bending under the full moon.
Jee has to snap at them a few times when some of the overly-energetic Firebenders start stepping a little too fast for the rhythm of the march, throwing off the whole group.
When they reach the palace, they are momentarily stunned into stillness—or at least the foreigners are. The large courtyard (around which the palace itself, the shrine where Katara and Zuko had been wed, what looks like a barracks, and a few other buildings are arrayed) is full of people, some of them apparently exuberant Firebenders sending gouts of flame into the air. Celebrating the Coronation and stirred up by the power of the comet , she guesses.
They array themselves carefully out of the way, Zuko and Katara slip away to change out of the armor. Zuko needs to be easily recognizable, and to not look like a common soldier. They’ll need to remind the people that he is also a Prince of the nation. He puts on silk robes, nothing too long or loose, but still something regal he could fight in if necessary. Katara puts on similar clothes, needing the heavy, stifling armor off so she can perform the motions needed for her Waterbending. They hide themselves in hooded cloaks, so they aren’t recognized before it’s time.
They don’t have to wait long. As Katara and Zuko slip through the crowd unobtrusively, the towering doors of the palace slowly swing open, admitting the passage of a string of Fire Sages, officials, and finally the soon-to-be-Firelord.
Azula looks like a predator who’s scented blood. She prowls after the procession, grin too sharp, eyes wild. She takes her place before the crowd, turns her back to them to face the head Fire Sage, who lifts his arms. The crowd quiets, stills, and the grey-beard intones: “People of the Fire Nation, the Dragon Throne is empty. Who would come before the Sages to claim it?”
His voice is powerful, and the acoustics of the courtyard are good. Everyone can hear him, and Azula when she speaks: “I do. I am Azula, daughter of Ozai, Princess of the Fire Nation and Master of Lightning. I claim the Dragon Throne.”
“Do any contest the claim of Azula, daughter of Ozai?” the Sage asks the crowd at large. It’s obvious they don’t expect anyone to speak, because when Zuko does, they all startle.
“I contest!” Zuko says, pitching his voice and using the acoustics as well. The words thunder across the courtyard. He stands upright, his cloak thrown off to show his face and the crimson and gold silk of his clothes. He looks powerful, confident. “I am Zuko, son of Ozai and the lady Ursa, Prince of the Fire Nation, and rightful heir to the Dragon Throne.”
Azula whips around, rage in her eyes but maintaining her snake-shark’s smile. “Zuzu!”
Zuko stares coldly at her. “You are unfit for rule. You are arrogant and cruel, concerned only with yourself and your desires. Like our father, you do not care at what cost your glory comes, as long as you personally do not have to pay it. The Fire Nation deserves better than both of you. The Fire Nation deserves to be the first thing in its leader’s heart and mind. Countries should not sacrifice to their leaders, their leaders should sacrifice for their countries.”
“What are you talking about, Zuko?” Azula laughs. “Father and I have made this country great. We are powerful. Soon the whole world will bow to the children of Agni.”
Zuko shakes his head. “This war has been slowly bleeding the Fire Nation to death. How many of our soldiers have died in this year alone? How many, Azula? How many children have been born in the last ten years? The classes at the officer’s academy have been getting smaller, haven’t they? So many of our people are gone, dead or simply in service. The population is declining . How will we maintain power, when our enemies outnumber us? When we’ve burned their towns and their crops so often that they hate us so much they don’t let our soldiers surrender? This war must end . End now , Azula, not with violence but with peace.”
“You’re as much of a coward as ever, Zuzu,” Azula spits with disgust.
“Call me a coward if you want,” he says. “But everyone will know who the true coward is if you refuse to meet me in an Agni Kai.”
Azula freezes, then throws back her head and laughs. “Is that really what you want, Zuzu? To fight me in an Agni Kai?”
“I challenge you for the right to the Dragon Throne.”
Still chuckling, Azula gestures at the Fire Sages. “Very well. Though I wonder if you know just what you are doing… Where is your lovely wife? Does she know she will soon be a widow?”
“I’m right here,” Katara says, pulling back her hood. She suspects that Azula had already guessed who the hooded figure was beside Zuko; her words had been rather pointed. There is no use in hiding it, and she’s very much aware of the tense and watchful crowd of Fire citizens around them. “And I think you are underestimating Prince Zuko.”
“Very well,” Azula says again, malice in her smile. She raises her voice just a little louder, for effect. “I, Princess Azula, accept your challenge, Zuko.”
Zuko’s heart is racing in his chest like a hummingbird-moth. Katara might have confidence in him, but Zuko had grown up with Azula. He knows how she’d attained Firebending Mastery at nine years of age, and how she’d learned to bend lightning by twelve. Up against that, he was almost certain to lose.
The palace guards corral the people who had gathered to watch the coronation out of the way. They mostly clear the courtyard, but there are still people lined up all along the perimeter, including a lot of the soldiers Zuko and Katara had brought with them. Part of Zuko is surprised that he is being allowed this, that Azula would face him in an Agni Kai, and that nobody is trying to interfere. He had almost expected at least one over-zealous soldier (or even citizen) to try to take down the treasonous former Prince who dared threaten their almost-Firelord. But an Agni Kai, as the name would suggest, is practically sacred. A challenge, once given and accepted, falls under the purview of Agni himself; any who interfere risk displeasing the spirit of the sun.
He faces off against Azula across the courtyard. When he’d done this against his father, there had been more ceremony involved, and he’d worn the traditional outfit of a duelist. But this is an unplanned match, and there’s no time for the pomp and circumstance of an honor duel.
Apparently, there is no time for honor , because when they should bow to start the duel, Azula smirks and attacks right out. Zuko feels anger spark in his heart. To behave dishonorably during an Agni Kai is just as bad as to interfere with one.
Azula’s fire is more voracious than usual, roaring out with the slightest provocation, unleashed by Sozin’s Comet. It is usually a furious blue, hotter than normal orange-y red fire, but it’s now nearly white. Probably riding the edge between fire and lightning. Zuko can feel the heat of it even from a dozen paces.
His fire is stronger, too, but not nearly so wild. He never has been able to product blue fire; his teachers had always said he lacked the conviction. But when he’d been working with Aang and Jeong-Jeong, they’d told him that blue fire isn’t always a sign of power and control, sometimes it is a sign of power and lack of control. Blue fire is incredible dangerous, incredibly hot. It is very easy to burn something or someone with it, even if you aren’t aiming for them in particular. Zuko had witnessed this, at least, having occasionally watched Azula hit individual straw dummies with fireballs and blackening the dummies beside them from sheer proximity and overwhelming heat.
Even though there are spectators around them now, Azula does not rein in her fires. She never has cared for other people. Zuko hopes that the Firebenders among them are capable and ready to defend against errant fireballs.
“Are you going to fight back, Zuzu,” Azula taunts as he rolls out of the way of another attack. “Or are you just going to dance around the whole time?”
“You’re not fit to take the throne,” Zuko tells her, unable to resist responding with his own taunts. “You’re too weak.”
Azula’s face twists. “Weak? Weak ? I am the farthest thing from weak! I am the most powerful Firebender in the royal family in centuries! I am a master of lightning! I bend blue fire! I AM NOT WEAK !”
She is shrieking by the end, very little of anything human in her expression. She jabs at the air with taloned fingers, eyes glittering like a weasel-snake’s. A spark and a sizzle, and the smell of ozone builds. The hair on Zuko’s arms rises; she’s going to bend lightning.
As she sweeps her arms around, gathering the charge, Zuko slides his feet into a more grounded stance. His focus narrows to the flickering blue-white energy shuddering and leaping from Azula’s hands. He’s ready when she stabs her hand forward, at him, and a crackling bolt of lightning lances towards him.
Iroh and Aang had prepared him for this, knowing what he would face. Zuko stands his ground, and reaches out a hand to meet the bolt, firm and confident. Flinch or falter, and you will die, Aang’s voice tells him in memory. It is very clear to Zuko now, as the lightning hits his pointing fingers and sizzles down his arm and into his belly. It feels like it is flaying the skin from his body, like it is boiling his blood. He holds it a moment, arms curling in, before he draws the path carefully back up and to his other arm, which then points sharply upward. The lightning leaps from him, screaming into the sky. Panting, Zuko looks back at Azula, who has gone white and furious. She hadn’t expected him to redirect her lightning, had never expected him to be able to do so. Zuko feels a thrill of smug triumph. She thinks he’s worthless, weak and stupid. She’s wrong .
“Who taught you that?” she hisses, then shrieks. “Who taught you that ?!”
“I think you already know,” Zuko replies. There aren’t many choices; lightning bending is rare, difficult to master. There are only a handful of people in the Fire Nation who can do it: Ozai, Azula, Master Peng (one of Azula’s Firebending tutors), and Iroh. Azula knows that as well as Zuko. “Surprised?”
“That traitor is alive?” she demands. A few strands of her hair has escaped from its binding, sticking to her face. With her wild eyes and snarling mouth, she looks mad.
“Despite you and Father’s attempts, yes, Uncle Iroh is alive,” Zuko says, making sure to pitch his voice to carry. There is stirring amongst the Fire Nation soldiers, but Zuko keeps most of his attention on Azula. “And he is not a traitor. He has ever been loyal to the people of the Fire Nation. You and Father made his choice for him when you set up the 57th battalion to be slaughtered. You made my choice for me as well. We cannot stand idly by as you burn our country to the ground to sate your own self-important thirst for power.”
“The ever-righteous Prince Zuko,” Azula sneers. “So soft, so weak. You can’t rule a country by coddling it.”
“You are selfish, Azula, and blind. You’ll destroy this—” he gestures to their surroundings “—with your greed and cruelty, until there is nothing for you to rule but ashes and ghosts. You don’t love the Fire Nation; you only love yourself.”
There is a beat of silence, a breath, and then Azula is laughing. High and crazed. “Love? Love? Oh, Zuzu. What use is love? Love is only weakness, that much is obvious just looking at you. If this is what love has made you, then I want nothing of it. I don’t need it.”
“Who are you trying to convince, Azula? Me? Or yourself?”
Azula’s face twitches. “Shut up and fight, Zuko. Stop trying to avoid it.”
“I think you’re jealous,” he continues. “Jealous of me for Mother and for Uncle. Because you don’t believe that they love you.”
“Shut. Up,” Azula says from gritted teeth.
“I loved you once, Zuli,” Zuko says, using the childish nickname he’d given his baby sister long ago. “But you drove me away.”
Azula shrieks and attacks. Zuko spins, slide-stepping the gout of flame the way Aang had taught him—Airbender circle-walking. He sweeps his hands up, creating a wall of fire that stops Azula’s, making both flare and dissipate. She punches a series of small white-hot fireballs toward him, and he evades them with light feet, before pausing to twist his body into a roundhouse kick that sends a lash of flame whipping at her. She parts the fire with her hands, still screaming wordlessly in rage. She sprints forward, punctuating her advance with flaming punches and kicks. Her attack is ferocious, but in her anger she is predictable. Zuko holds his own, using what Iroh, Aang, and Jeong-Jeong had taught him to block, evade, and return the attacks.
After a while, Azula stops, heaving and snarling like some rabid animal. Zuko stops also, watching her, breathing a little harder, his heart-rate up. “Azula, it doesn’t have to be like this. Mother—”
“You stole her from me. Perfect, fragile little Zuko. She loved you. She thought I was a monster.” Azula smiles a terrible smile. “She was right, of course.”
She prowls forward a couple steps, stops, and almost lazily sweeps her fingers through the air, gathering sparks. Zuko’s stance tightens, ready. “Tell me, Zuko. What is it that you love most in the world. Is it Mother? Uncle? Or perhaps… your wife?”
Zuko’s eyes flick over to Katara, as directed by Azula’s pointed head-tilt, then flash back to his sister. He’s just in time to see her stab her fingers forward, lightning leaping from them. But he’s not the target.
“NO!” he screams, and throws himself forward.
He has no stance. His core is unbalanced, his feet are not grounded, he is not ready.
But he still reaches for the bolt with one hand.
He still gathers the lightning into his body, knowing there is little chance he can hold it.
Anything would be better than letting it hit Katara, letting Katara die.
Katara watches as Azula breaks the laws of the Agni Kai, and purposefully targets one of the witnesses. Her. She knows she should move, tries to move, but her body is frozen in shock and fear. The lightning is a bright arrow aimed for her heart.
And then Zuko throws himself in front of her, and it hits him instead. And Katara screams, because even though she’d seen him redirect it before, she can also see that his stance isn’t right to do it again.
He falls to the ground, body convulsing, and Katara is running toward him. She’s barely aware that the courtyard is erupting into chaos around her, all of her attention focused on his now feebly twitching body. She slides to her knees beside him, grips his shoulders, and hauls him bodily onto his back.
His eyes are rolled back in his head, showing the whites between partially-closed lids, and he jerks spasmodically with the aftershocks. There is a large, raw burn at the center of his chest, with a delicate lace-like tracery of thin lines radiating from it. Under Katara’s hand, his heart beats arrythmically, too fast. Taking a deep breath, Katara very carefully Bloodbends him, soothing and coaching Zuko’s heart back into a steady rhythm. Water gathers to her hands then, and sweeps over him. There are numerous tiny burns inside his muscles, more dangerous than the admittedly ugly burn on his skin. She heals them, desperation and fear making the energy of her Waterbending healing surge, flaring through Zuko’s body.
She can’t heal everything though, because in the too-long-too-short moments it takes her to do this much, Azula has blasted her way through the battlefield that the courtyard has become. She clears out the last of the soldiers—hers or theirs, she didn’t seem to care—between them with a wave of fire that fairly explodes out of her kicking foot. Katara looks up, concentration breaking, and leaps to her feet. She has just enough time to bring up a wall of water to block the punch Azula throws.
The soldiers around them are smart enough to stay well away from them as the two women bear down on each other. Katara slings discs of ice at the Princess, and Azula flames them viciously out of the air. She tries to start gathering lightning again, but Katara interrupts with a lashing water-whip.
“I am the Firelord!” Azula screams. “You should fear me, serve me! You are all below me! You should all bow to me !”
“In all things,” Katara speaks clearly and coldly, each word as sharp and precise as ice, “Zuko is your better.”
“He isn’t ! He could never be!” Azula throws handfuls of fire, driving Katara back. “And I’ll prove it when I tear out his stupid tender heart !”
She lunges for Katara, snarling the last word.
It’s like Zuko, trying to reach her, ignoring everything except closing the distance. Except where Zuko had done it to protect her, Azula is doing the opposite. She’s completely open, vulnerable, so intent on attack she’s forgotten defense.
Katara jerks her hands up. Azula freezes mid-motion, toppling to the ground and landing on her side before tilting onto her face. Sweat springs up on Katara’s face as Azula immediately and violently begins fighting the hold her Bloodbending has on her. She’s also screaming wordlessly from behind gritted teeth, and flaring fire on her breath. Because Katara is holding her body still and rigid, she can’t do more than that, but it still makes it dangerous to approach her.
“Can you hold her?” Katara nearly jumps and loses her concentration at the hoarse rasping voice.
“Zuko!” she says, a little strained. She doesn’t dare look away from Azula, afraid of lapsing. He appears in her peripheral vision, slightly hunched and limping, face ashen. But alive, and moving, and coherent.
“Can you hold her?” he asks again.
“Not for much longer,” she replies. “She’s fighting me… and it isn’t easy to begin with.”
“Here,” says Suki, appearing next to Zuko, offering him a length of heavy metal chain. “Secure her with this.”
Breathing deeply and trying not to waver, Katara wonders at the relative silence around them. From what she can see without turning her attention from Azula, the fight in the courtyard is over. The three hundred soldiers they’d brought with them are scattered around. Some are on the ground, unmoving (Katara’s throat knots), but most of them are standing, guarding those of Azula’s soldiers who had surrendered.
“Done,” Zuko says, breathless with what is probably pain. He’s backing away from Azula, who is now securely wrapped in chains. Katara thankfully relaxes her hold on the princess. Azula’s shrieks become louder, but no less coherent. She is raging, eyes wide and wild, spittle on her lips. She tries to breathe fire at them, but they’re all outside her range.
“Are you alright?” Katara asks Zuko worriedly.
“Fine,” he says absently, limping toward the group of Kiyoshi Warriors and Water Tribesmen who are guarding the Fire Sages. He pins down the Head Sage with a glare. “Princess Azula deliberately targeted a spectator during an Agni Kai. She has lost the duel and her honor.”
“Yes,” the Sage agrees, swallowing nervously.
“She is removed from the line of succession, and will never be named Firelord.”
The Sage hesitates, but agrees again in the face of Zuko’s grim expression and the warriors surrounding them. Zuko nods sharply.
“Good. Now. You are going to send a message out, telling everyone to stand down. Tell them that Azula is not Firelord and has been stripped of her position. Tell them that the rightful heir will be crowned Firelord in five days.”
The nation should listen to the Fire Sages, Katara thinks. Even if Ozai and Azula do not apparently respect Agni, the rest of the Fire Nation does. Lacking a Firelord, the people will listen to the Sages.
“Katara, we have wounded,” Suki says quietly beside her. Katara jolts a little, surprised, but recovers quickly.
“Of course,” she says, but then hesitates a moment. Zuko should be fine… she’d healed most of the really bad injuries from the lightning. Everything else can wait, even though her heart is crying for her to heal it all, take the pain away. She steels herself, and turns to Suki
“Can you get the other healers here to help?” she asks her. “And get a group of uninjured soldiers together to deal with the dead. For now, we’ll lay them out in front of the shrine.”
She waves vaguely in the right direction. Suki nods. “I’ll see to it.”
“Thanks,” Katara says absently, already moving on to the next problem. Their wounded are scattered—those who are mobile have huddled together in one corner of the courtyard, but there are also a fair number who can’t move from where they’d fallen.
Katara leaves Zuko to deal with the Fire Sages and the immediate problems of taking up the reins of a country that doesn’t yet know its leader has fallen. Even though all she really wants to do right now is to stick by Zuko and make sure they both get through the rest of the day, they each have their duties. Hers lie with the burnt, bleeding, and broken soldiers around her.
Taking a breath and trying to push back her personal feelings, Katara bends to her work.
Chapter 18: The End
((So I forget to mention in a note last chapter, but I have lots of problems with the way bloodbending is portrayed in canon. Yeah it can be terrifying, but how is setting people on fire or burying them alive any less scary? Personally, I don't see much of a difference between freezing a person in place with water and freezing them in place by bending their blood. Yeah, maybe one is more 'intimate' but functionally there is no difference. So yeah, my Katara uses it like a tool just like Waterbending, albeit one more difficult to do.))
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The ship bumps gently against the dock as the workers moor it, the huge, heavy ropes rasping against themselves. The crew on board wait for the signal before they start to crank down the boarding ramp. Zuko waits and watches, trying to seem more patient and less weary than he feels. The ship bore the Avatar, Iroh, and some number of the Avatar’s army, come to help Zuko reestablish his sovereignty. That help will be a relief. The Fire Nation is divided, some people glad to welcome Zuko and the end of the war, others less than pleased that they’d technically lost the war and are under the “cowardly prince’s” rule. There have been a handful of assassination attempts already, and protests calling for the release of Azula from the palace prison.
Zuko wonders how those people would react to being told that Azula is not in the prison, but rather in a secure ward in the hospital, raving and delusional. It seems that losing the Agni Kai and being deposed had broken something in Azula’s mind. She wasn’t just sociopathic now, she was deranged and a danger not only to others, but to herself.
And yet, there are people calling for her return as the rightful Firelord. It is utterly mad.
The boarding ramp is set and everything triple checked, and Zuko moves forward as figures appear at the rail of the ship. The soldiers—mixed Kiyoshi and Water Tribe warriors, and Fire Nation troops—who have been acting as his personal bodyguards, move with him. Zuko ignores them as he bows, formally greeting Aang as the Avatar steps off the boarding ramp with a wide smile.
“Prince Zuko! Well met!”
“Avatar Aang, welcome to the Fire Nation,” Zuko replies. Aang smiles up at Caldera City, a wistful expression on his face.
“It had been so long since I have been in the archipelago… I believe I was nine the last time,” Aang gives a little chuckle.
“It has not been so long for me,” Iroh says as he joins them, “but I have still missed the Fire Nation. It is good to be back.”
“I’m glad you’re both here,” Zuko says, sincerely but understated. However, the docks are not the place for an emotional reunion. “Your men will be taken care of by Commander Jee; we should head up to the palace now, though. Things are mostly peaceful, but there are a couple factions that have not taken the end of the war well.”
“You’ve been having troubles?” Avatar Aang’s nostalgic smile vanishes, and he looks disappointed. Zuko tries not to take it personally; he’s not disappointed in him. Probably.
Iroh sighs. “I had hoped… Well. This isn’t surprising, though it is disheartening.”
Zuko leads them to the gondola that runs from the docks to the palace complex. The three of them can fit inside with room for five of his bodyguards; the rest will have to walk back.
“It isn’t as bad as it could have been,” Zuko tells Iroh. “I didn’t expect any of them to accept me. But a lot of the non-bender soldiers heard about the 57th, the truth, and they’d been getting tired of being Ozai’s chaff. Most of them are on my side. But… The number of those who aren’t isn’t negligible.”
The air about them becomes grimmer, faces settling into slight frowns, brows furrowing. Silence falls between them as the gondola begins to move smoothly toward the palace.
Katara feels just as uncomfortable in the Fire Nation now, when her husband and her army are in charge, than she had when Ozai had been in power and she had been newly-wed to a stranger. She assumes it is a combination of not knowing what her place here is anymore, and the assassination attempts on Zuko. The war is over, not counting the unrest here in the Fire Nation, and Katara is remembering all of the questions about the future she and Zuko have been avoiding.
They still spend time together every night, once they’re done with their duties during the day. But they still haven’t addressed the cloud hanging over them. They both know that Aang wants Zuko to take the throne, and that his hope is that the Fire Nation would accept Katara as Consort. But the reality is that Zuko is barely accepted as the interim leader, let alone Firelord, and let alone Firelord with a Water Tribe Consort. There is no way Zuko can be Firelord and stay married to Katara.
She’s starting to try to steel herself to losing him.
She’s not really succeeding. Whatever doubts she’d held on the day they’d married have been washed away by Zuko’s words and actions. He has proven himself to be a compassionate man, a mindful leader, someone Katara could fall in love with if she hasn’t already (she has). She doesn’t really want to let him go.
She will, if that’s what the world needs. But she doesn’t want to.
Katara sighs, trailing her fingers through the fountain beside her. Sitting in Ursa’s garden, where she had spent time with young Zuko, Katara misses the older woman’s motherly presence. But as much as Katara wants Ursa’s advice, the wounded left behind in the Earth Kingdom with the bulk of the Avatar’s army need her healing talents more.
Zuko’s wounds from the lightning strike are mostly healed, to speak of it. Katara had managed to fix the internal damage, the tiny tears and burns in his muscles, so that he probably won’t suffer from any lingering issues. But he will always bear visible scars from the strike, the ugly splotchy ones on his chest and the sole of his left foot, where the lightning had entered and exited his body, as well as the strange lacy ones that spread delicately outward from both sites. Katara regrets those scars, not because she thinks they take anything away from Zuko in character or looks, but because he already bears enough scars from his abusive father and sister and he doesn’t deserve more.
For his part, Zuko seems… not upset at the scars, exactly, but more resigned. It’s possible that his reaction upsets Katara more than the scars themselves. It isn’t that she wishes he were more sad or ashamed or anything, but the weary acceptance with which he addresses them speaks of his experience and expectation of being marked, being hurt, by his family. Katara is reminded once again that not all scars are visible, that she will likely be combating the injuries Ozai and Azula had dealt Zuko in his heart and mind for the rest of her life.
She freezes at the thought, appalled with herself. There may not be a ‘rest of her life’ with Zuko, if he has to repudiate her to keep his throne and the peace in the Fire Nation. She has to stop thinking that there will be, if only to protect her heart.
“Countries should not sacrifice to their leaders, their leaders should sacrifice for their countries,” Zuko had said. Never had duty felt quite so much like heartbreak.
Speak of the bear-shark, and he arrives. Katara stands and turns to greet Zuko. Suki, Sokka, and a Firebender whose name she doesn’t know are behind him, apparently his guards for the day. Katara’s heart warms at the sight of her brother protecting her husband, a man he’d started out hating.
She slips her fingers into Zuko’s, because she can’t deny herself that comfort. She sees more than hears Zuko exhale with the contact, always surprised and pleased by the gentle intimacy of her touches. His hand curls around hers.
“The Avatar and my uncle are in my study,” he tells her, probably catching her focus behind him. “I’ll be meeting with them in a moment, but I wanted to see you first.”
She nods. “I’ll be heading to the hospital shortly, but I have a little time.”
He glances at his guards, then leads her a little distance from them, out of hearing but not sight. His hand slips from hers and rises to cup her face. His eyes sweep over her face, searching, uncertain. Katara lets him look, meets his gaze openly, wondering what is wrong. He hadn’t looked at her like this for days, like he’s desperate for her but uncertain of his reception. His thumb strokes her cheek and Katara catches his hand, pressing it closer against her.
“Zuko, what—?” she starts, beginning to worry, but falls silent immediately when he touches the fingers of his other hand to her lips.
“If there were a way, would you stay with me?”
The soft, urgent question makes Katara’s heart leap, and she almost can’t respond with it pressing against her throat. She swallows, hoarsely says: “ Yes .”
Zuko kisses her deeply, uncaring of their audience. Katara clings to him. She is dizzy with it when he pulls back, strokes her cheek once more, and then sweeps out of the garden and back into the palace. Behind him, Sokka is pulling a rather horrific face, and Katara hears Suki say “Oh get over it; they’re in love and it’s wonderful” as they follow after Zuko. Her lips twitch into a tremulous smile that fades quickly. She isn’t sure what Zuko is planning, but it is obvious he is planning something.
“I can’t be Firelord,” Zuko tells Aang and Iroh bluntly. They both immediately begin protesting:
“Nephew, you can’t—”
“No,” he says. They fall silent, and Zuko relaxes a little. They’re going to let him explain. “I can’t be Firelord. And you both know it.”
“The protests and assassination attempts,” Iroh says, face unreadable. Zuko nods.
“Those aren’t going to go away. And there are too many who agree that I am unfit for the throne; I can’t arrest all of them. And trying to do so would make my reign as oppressive as my father’s.” Zuko takes a breath. “And there is also the fact that, by my own words, I am not fit. I told Azula that she was too selfish, that a leader needs to put their country first, before all else. I couldn’t do that. I threw myself in front of Azula’s lightning to save Katara, because I love her. I was willing to sacrifice myself, and I know that I would do the same thing all over again. What if I am Firelord, and someone targets Katara, or my mother, or someone else important to me? I would sacrifice myself for them, potentially leave the Fire Nation without a leader. I can’t put the country before myself, before the people I love. Our people deserve better than that.”
Aang sighs. “You needn’t—”
“Why do you want me on the throne?” Zuko interrupts. He looks from Aang to Iroh and back. “Really, tell me.”
“Why? Because you are of the Blood, it is your right. And you are good, compassionate. You have the right and the disposition to be Firelord. The potential to be a great leader.”
“I am not the only one with those things,” Zuko reminds them, looking pointedly at Iroh, who frowns.
“I gave up my position in the line of succession,” he protests.
“But you can be reinstated,” Zuko says. Iroh shakes his head.
“My son is dead, I have no heirs, and I am too old…”
“If you’re too old, I shudder to think what that makes me,” Aang chuckles. “To be fair, Zuko has a point.”
“You’re only twelve years older than my father,” Zuko says. “And you’re a lot younger than a number of Firelords had been when they sired heirs. Firelord Joizu was eighty when Lady Kinu bore Sozin. Forgive me, Uncle, but you aren’t too old to remarry and have more children.”
Zuko knows the loss of his wife and son had sorrowed Iroh, the latter more than the former. But he also knows that he is right, and that Iroh can see that. Still, he feels a little guilty when Iroh winces.
“No,” he says a little sadly after a long moment. “I suppose I am not. It is only that I feel it.”
“Then, do you think this will work?” Aang asks him, looking interestedly between the two royals. Iroh is silent a while, thinking, stroking his beard.
“I may be the best compromise in this situation. I am an ally of the Avatar, yet I am also a hero to the Fire Nation people.”
“Dragon of the West,” murmurs Zuko. “You aren’t like me; once Father thought you were dead, he didn’t bother to defame your name.”
Iroh frowns. “It should be you. You were always the best of us. I fed this war, for years, I perpetuated the killing, the death. I am a relic of the war. You were always above it. It should be you.”
“But it can’t be,” Zuko says. “It can’t be, not if you want this peace to last. The Fire Nation needs a Firelord they can all follow. They can’t follow me; Father made sure of that.”
Iroh closes his eyes like a man steeling himself for the gallows. Zuko understands the feeling. “Very well. You are right. Very well.”
“Alright,” says Aang very mildly, bringing them back around. “What needs to be accomplished to reinstate Iroh?”
The courtyard is filled once again with masses of Fire Nation soldiers and civilians, faces turned toward the large stone ‘stage’ that had been built against the wall of the palace to provide a venue for speech-making and coronations and other state displays. Massive red banners bearing the black flame device of the Fire Nation hang at the back of the stage, rippling gently in the slight breeze and providing a dramatic backdrop for the finely robed figures standing before them.
Zuko twitches the sleeves of his robe uncomfortably, the weight of the shoulder piece multiplied by the fact that is is the Firelord’s mantle. He takes a couple centering breaths, watching the Fire Sages finish their little ritual on the stage. Azula had forgone the ritual, which is supposed to honor Agni and ask for his blessing upon the archipelago, its people, and the incumbent Firelord. Azula hadn’t liked the idea of anyone or thing that is more powerful than she, so she had bullied and threatened the Sages into skipping that part.
While Zuko is mostly ambivalent on the subject of spirits—if they are as benevolent and caring as people say, then how could they have let a century-long war happen?—he knows that alienating the Sages and all of the people who truly believe is a poor leadership choice.
Even if his stint as ‘leader’ will be short.
He recognizes his cue, even though anxiety is making his ears ring, and strides with carefully cultivated confidence and poise onto the stage. Clearing the pillars and stepping out into the open has his shoulders tightening a little, the knowledge of exactly how many assassination attempts his bodyguards have foiled (one today; they were going to kill him with a poisoned arrow right here, actually) fresh in his mind. But his people have done their jobs well, and he survives his walk across the stage.
Kneeling in front of the Head Fire Sage, he manages to say and do everything he is supposed to, and then he feels the weight of the golden flame ornament slide into the small knot his servants had managed to scrape his hair into. Zuko breathes through the small spike of panic, and stands smoothly, turning to face the crowd. They’re cheering, if a little half-heartedly.
“The future is a delicate thing,” Zuko says, and Aang, standing in the place of honor slightly to the side of the stage, uses his Airbending to amplify his voice beyond what simple pitch and volume tricks can manage. Zuko’s voice rings out above the cheers, which quiet rather quickly as he speaks. “Something that needs a strong, righteous hand to guide it.”
He pauses, looks out over the crowd. Katara is in the front row, with the Kiyoshi and Water Tribe warriors who are not currently on guard duty. They had decided not to have her stand on the stage; her presence there is not necessary and could have caused tension. She doesn’t look bothered to be amongst the crowd; her face is shining, focus unwaveringly on him.
“My first act as Firelord is to reinstate my uncle, Prince Iroh, son of Azulon, and Dragon of the West, to his place in the line of succession. As witnessed and ratified by Agni’s servants on the earth, the Fire Sages.” As Zuko speaks, Iroh walks out, garbed in a similar robe to Zuko’s.
The cheering that goes up at this proclamation is more sincere than it had been before. Zuko takes it as a sign that his plan is going to work. He takes a breath, reaches up, and removes the golden flame ornament from his hair.
“My second act as Firelord is to abdicate in favor of Prince Iroh, who is the true and rightful Heir to the Dragon Throne.” Iroh bows his head to receive the flame as Zuko speaks. The cheering has scaled up into a chaotic roar as people react with shock, confusion, happiness. Zuko steps away from Iroh and says: “Hail, Firelord Iroh!”
He bows low to his uncle. If possible, the cheering gets even louder, and Zuko feels a rush of relief.
Katara is arguing—amiably, but still arguing—with some of her Tribesmen about the storage of cargo in the little cutter that is one of several that will carry them home to the Poles. Zuko leans against a railing and watches, feeling more relaxed than he remembers ever feeling in his life.
“Think you’ll make the tide?” Iroh asks, coming up to the rail beside Zuko. He smiles at his uncle—at his Firelord.
“A ship with a Waterbender needs no tide,” he says easily. Iroh chuckles.
“This is true.” He’s wearing the Firelord’s robes, but he manages to make them look comfortable, rather than stiff and formal. Zuko allows himself a moment of envy, but quickly returns to his relief.
They watch Katara brow-beat the crew into obeying her. She watches them scurry away with her hands on her hips, then turns and walks over to join Zuko and Iroh.
“Hello, Uncle. Come to see us off?” she greets Iroh with a fond embrace, having bowed to his insistence that they are family and she should address him as such a mere week after their second introduction. Iroh clasps her hands, smiling.
“Always a pleasure to see you, my dear,” he says. “Are you sure you don’t want to stay in the Fire Nation?”
“It’s for the best if we don’t,” she says regretfully. “But we will visit… Once things calm down a little more.”
Zuko grunts. They’d finally stopped trying to kill him, but his proximity to the throne makes a lot of people unhappy. It is for the best that he leaves for a while.
“Prince Zuko! Lady Katara!”
They turn to watch Aang Airbend himself up onto the ship from the dock. He lands easily on the deck, smiling at them. He gives a congenial nod to Iroh. “Firelord Iroh. Mind if I steal them from you a moment?”
“Not at all,” Iroh says, then tells them: “I’ll say goodbye again, once you’re finished.”
“Is there somewhere a little more private and out of the way we can go?” Aang asks after Iroh strolls away. Katara nods.
“We can use the captain’s quarters,” she says, and leads them there. Once they’re inside and the door is shut, Aang Airbends himself onto the top of the tiny desk, presumably there for the captain to check maps and write logs. He smiles at them, tucking his hands into his sleeves.
“Everything ready for your departure?” he asks. Zuko eyes him, but bows to the necessity of small-talk before the Avatar speaks of the real reason he’s here.
“Yes,” Katara responds. “We were going to wait for the next tide…”
Aang smiles wider but doesn’t answer the implicit question of whether they’ll have to wait longer. “And your first port of call is Taedong? To see your mother again before you return to Katara’s home at the South Pole?”
“That’s right,” Zuko says, suspicion peeking through his tone. Aang nods.
“Good, good. I have a proposition for you.”
Zuko’s eyes narrow. There it is. “What proposition?”
“Well, I’ve been working with the King of the Earth Kingdom. I’ve been concerned about what would happen to the colonies after the war, the older ones anyway—they’ve been under Fire Nation control for decades, long enough that there are families who think of them as home, more-so than the Fire Nation. And there are Earth and Fire intermarriages, children. Where do they go? So, I was talking to the Earth King, and I’ve persuaded him to deed the land to me. To the remaining Air Nomads. We’ll need—”
“Wait,” Zuko blurts. “Remaining Air Nomads?”
“Yes. The purges killed most of the monks and nuns at the temples, but we are people of the Air. We’ve always tended to blown with the wind. The purges couldn’t get us all, couldn’t find all the Air Nomads who were traveling the world. They got some, but there are a couple hundred of us still around, in hiding.”
Zuko feels a little weak with relief. He’d thought his nation, his people, had irrevocably broken the world—no more Airbenders, the world’s balance tipped and wrong. But they hadn’t. There are still Air Nomads, Airbenders, in the world.
“Anyway,” Aang continues, apparently oblivious to the effect the revelation has had on Zuko. “These people, the Fire Nation colonists, the Earth Kingdom natives, the Air Nomad refugees… They all need a home, one that isn’t the Fire Nation, the Earth Kingdom, or the Air Temples. A place they can all live together, without elemental affiliations. A place to be a beacon of peace and cooperation between all peoples.”
“That is a wonderful idea,” Katara says.
“But where does this proposition come in?” Zuko cuts in.
“Well, I would take it as a great favor if you stopped by the colony on your way to Taedong and… kind of checked things out for me. I still have a lot of work to do here, agreements and treaties to negotiate and sign… I can’t go myself, but I don’t want those people to live with this question hanging over them of what will happen to them, to their homes.”
“Alright, but… Why do you want us to go?”
“You’re like them,” Aang points out. “A union of two elements, a symbol of how this can be successful. And you have both been raised to positions of leadership. Zuko, you were raised as an heir to the Dragon Throne. Katara, after your mother’s death, you helped your grandmother with all the duties the wife of the chief would usually take. And neither of you are the leaders of your respective nations. You aren’t quite affiliated with Fire or Water, you’re outside of both peoples, so you aren’t going to be going in as Prince and Consort of the Fire Nation or as Matriarch of the Southern Water Tribe. You are the best emissaries I could possibly send.”
“I’ll cede you those points,” Zuko says, “but these are Fire Nation colonies. How do you know these people won’t hate me like the Fire Nation does?”
“You’re putting the emphasis on the wrong part. They’re Fire Nation colonies . These people have been coexisting, Fire and Earth, for decades. Their feelings and opinions are very different from the Fire Nation’s. And a lot of Ozai’s propaganda didn’t reach them, or if it did, it didn’t have the same weight as it did in the archipelago.”
Zuko frowns, considering this. It is probably true…
“We can add a stop to our plans,” Katara says. “Is that all you want us to do?”
Aang clears his throat in a way that makes Zuko’s suspicion rise again. “Well… I was kind of hoping you’d take the opportunity to check it out for yourselves, too. Because Republic City will need a governor—I can’t tie myself down, being the Avatar—and I think you two are perfect for the job.”
“You… want… What?” Zuko splutters.
“Republic City?” Katara asks at the same time.
“Well, yes, that’s what I want to name it. Granted, it’s a little more than a city… maybe more like a city-state, but Republic City-State doesn’t sound as—”
“Stop,” Zuko says, pinching the bridge of his nose. “You want us to govern this… this new nation?”
“I think you’d be perfect,” Aang agrees.
“You thought that about my being Firelord.”
“Yes, but this is different, like I said. The colonists are a lot more accepting of you than the Fire Nation. Especially since you gave up the throne and stayed married to a woman of the Water Tribe. The reports I get from the White Lotus agents there are all very promising.”
Zuko opens his mouth, then closes it and his eyes.
“Do we need to make a decision right away?” Katara asks, and Zuko opens his eyes to shoot her an incredulous look.
“No of course not,” Aang says. “For now, just go and see the place. See the people. Get a feel for their situation and their opinions. Talk it over between the two of you. It’ll take some time to settle the logistics between myself and the Earth King, to form the actual city-state. You have time to make a decision.”
Katara takes Zuko’s hand. “Alright. We’ll go there. To check on it, like you asked. And we’ll think about the rest of it.”
“Fantastic!” Aang says, Airbends off the desk, and heads for the door. “Send me a message when you get there, and when you make your decision. For now, fair winds and following seas!”
He zips out of the cabin, the door swinging shut behind him. Zuko sits down hard on the narrow bed. Since he’s still holding Katara’s hand, she gets tugged down beside him. She squeezes his fingers once.
“We’ll need to let Captain Aqakuktuq know about the change in heading,” she says. “And send a messenger hawk to your mother and my father so they’ll know we’ll be delayed.”
“Right,” Zuko says a little numbly. Neither of them move.
“You think we should do this,” Zuko finally says, and looks at her. She meets his eyes forthrightly.
And Zuko realizes that, just like he’d followed her across half the world to the Avatar, just like he’d wanted to rise to the expectations she held for him, he is going to do the same thing again.
“Well,” he sighs. “At least it’s easier to appoint a new governor than a new Firelord, if they end up hating me too.”
“You’ll be fine,” Katara says, smiling at him. “I think Aang is right; this will work.”
Zuko hums noncommittally. Katara stands, and pulls at his hand. “Come on, let’s say goodbye to your uncle again.”
Zuko lets her pull him to his feet, but stops her as she begins to turn to the door, tucking her closer to him and tilting her face up for his kiss. “If this works,” he murmurs against her lips, “it’ll be because you made it.”
She smiles into the kiss, and corrects him: “Because we made it work.”
The end! Thank you all so much for sticking with me to the conclusion. I've been really grateful for the response this story has garnered; thank you for taking the time to comment, or bookmark, or give kudos. Even if I don't always respond to comments, I do really appreciate 'em.
The ending is a little open, but I'm sure you guys see where I'm going with it. Katara and Zuko do go on to govern the new Republic City, though they retire from office after a decade or so. Katara opens a Waterbending school for the small but growing population of Water Tribe immigrants. Zuko becomes a council member and advisor for the new governor. Everyone's happy, even if they're somewhere they'd never expected to find themselves.