Setting up a camp in the middle of nowhere was almost like it used to be, Katara, Aang, Sokka, and Toph all fell into old rhythms, practiced as ever.
For a few stretches of time Katara could forget that they’d had to leave without her father again, that they’d had to run from attacks from Fire Nation airships—from Azula—again. She could forget, briefly, that now Zuko was part of their group, who was once in the place his sister now occupied: hunting them down across the entire world.
Except once she had that thought, she couldn’t ignore it. He was just so undeniably Fire Nation it got her angry just to think of him. The bright of his golden eyes, the deeper, true black of his hair compared to that of other nations—even the cool, tawny paleness of his skin reminded her of new morning sunlight. Frustrated at her own distraction and a minor distaste still lingering from the dream, she took out her irritation on the blanket in her hands, snapping it in the air with a sharp flick of her wrists and gaining a small sense of satisfaction from the audible noise it made.
Suki’s voice came from over her shoulder and startled her, and Katara gathered the blanket against her chest, feeling a faint heat in her cheeks.
She’d forgotten, too, that Suki was now with them—something that was a little embarrassing, considering that she genuinely really liked the Kyoshi warrior.
The smile that Katara gave her wasn’t entirely put on. “I’m fine, thanks. Just… getting all the dust out of our blankets.”
The look Suki gave her had her wondering if all denizens of the Earth Kingdom could sense lies regardless of bending abilities, but to her relief the other girl smiled back. “Can I help with anything? You guys are all in sync with one another and I feel a bit useless.”
Katara’s mouth curved into a sincere smile. Exasperation at feeling useless was something she could certainly relate to. “Sure. Why don’t you unpack some bowls for dinner while I finish up with the blankets? And after that we can make a fire.”
It felt good to share some of her old chores with another girl, and soon Katara was joking and laughing more easily than she felt she had in a while. They didn’t take long with either of their tasks, but when Katara turned to start a fire pit, she saw Zuko crouched near it, setting up an armful of sticks into a teepee formation. He was engrossed with the simple task, it seemed, and didn’t notice her staring down at him, at the way his hands moved while he worked.
A desperate, shouted warning echoes from somewhere to her left as she stares up at the crumbling ceiling—but then an arm wraps tightly around her waist and drags her along with its owner. A second arm is also suddenly around her, grasping onto the first and holding her firmly against a solid, impossibly warm torso. She doesn’t have time enough to think as she is snatched, tumbling, out of the way, cushioned by this mass from hitting the floor. It is only when they roll to a stop several feet away that her mind registers that it is Zuko who saved her, that his chest is still pressed against her back, his arms still framing her against the stone floor. Her heart pounds in her chest and the proximity of his heat and the rush of his heartbeat in her ears nearly drowns out her own.
“What are you doing?”
The quiet snap in her voice made him look up, startled. “Uh—” he began, then tried again. “I’m a firebender?”
When he stopped there, Katara tilted her head at him. “Yes,” she said, as if to a child, “you are a firebender. I’m glad you finally figured that out for sure.”
His mouth turned down beneath the red rising against his cheekbones. Suki covered a laugh beside her. “I mean it makes sense that I’d set up the fire, is all. Since I can make it whenever.”
Katara’s smile turned sharper and she folded her arms across her front. “So if we run out of firewood does that mean I can just make you hold the cooking pot for meals?”
The flush of heat faded from his face. “If you want help, you could also just ask me—”
Her sharpness diminished into something sour. “Don’t worry,” she interrupted. “I won’t.”
Turning back to Suki, she continued. “Looks like Zuko has this managed,” she said not bothering to keep the venom from her tone, though it lessened as she went on. “I’ll go wash up. Thanks for your help earlier.”
Not waiting for any kind of reply or reaction from either of them, Katara left them behind to seek out the quiet rush of a creek not too far away. Being around Zuko made her blood boil, made her lungs feel tight, and she wanted to be by water to ease calm back into herself.
The creek ran cool around her calves as she stood in it. She hadn’t intended to get into the water before she arrived, but upon seeing the steady flow, she knew that she needed to be in her element. Perhaps if she were a different person, she could sit and meditate by it, but that wasn’t her—she needed to do something.
She opened her senses up to feel the course of the water flow through her and began to move through katas, without bending. Katara let out a breath and tried to push all thought from her mind. She just needed to focus on the current, on the push and pull. Katara closed her eyes and breathed with intention along with each one of her movements.
She’d come so far since the beginning of the year, barely knowing how to bend. All Katara had known then was the feel of the tides beneath her skin, and the notion that she needed to know how to do—be—more one day. That had been with her for years, since she was very small. Her mother had always tried to help her in whatever way she could, but without a proper waterbender left to teach her, there wasn’t much she could do.
Katara’s hands fell for a moment as she sifted through memories of her mother, stirred and agitated from the morning’s dream she’d had, of the events she never got to have with her mother as she passed from child to woman. Her mother had been the leader of what was left of their village, and while she couldn’t teach Katara waterbending, Kya had taught her so much.
Here, in the middle of the war, just come from an almost extinct culture’s temple, in the heat of the nation that was doing their damnedest to bring the entire world to heel, that had nearly eradicated and subjugated her entire people, Katara was suddenly drowning in the rush of her mother’s teachings. The ritual to wrap knives in sealskin after one of the elusive and massive arvik was killed by a group of hunters and towed back to the village, how to play the morin khuur, and the first techniques for proper khoomei singing, which mimics the way water swirls around the ice flow. How to gut and skin and carve; how to sew and mend and weave.
Still as stone in the middle of the creek, Katara’s throat tightened. Waterbending was an integral part of who she was, but so unending was her quest to learn that part of her heritage that she’d diminished the rest somewhere along the way. So much had been lost, beyond just waterbending, and Kya had passed on everything she could to her young, eager daughter. After her mother died, her grandmother could only add onto her Southern heritage so much, having been born and raised in the North—though Katara had never known that until recently. And the other women in the village always seemed to be in a strange sort of state of both sympathy and deference; she was the daughter of the village’s chief, after all, and so most felt uncomfortable placing themselves as her teacher.
But Katara had watched and listened and learned. Her fingers lifted to touch the necklace around her throat. She’d felt so naked all those months ago, so incomplete, when it’d been missing.
When Zuko had it.
Heat prickled at the corners of her eyes and she swallowed the sadness down into her chest again where it settled, familiar and cold. It brought her back to the present and she scowled in the direction of the group camp. The Fire Nation had taken everything from her, from her people—carving away at them as if they were broken shards of polar bear bone—and their crown prince was no different, whether exiled or defected or not.
No matter how warm the cadence of his pulse in her thumb.
Katara did not return to the camp until the sun drew the evening’s shadows out long and dark. It was much later than she thought it had been, and even while part of her was glad the others had let her have her time alone without searching for her—Like Aang, her mind immediately supplied before she could push the thought away—Katara could not stop the pang of guilt she felt, even so.
Zuko’s fire was bright against the growing darkness of the evening, standing out like a small beacon to guide her back to the rest of the group. As she neared, she heard the chatter of conversation and smelled food cooking. Guilt bubbled within her again—she hadn’t been there to start dinner, even though now the sun was below the horizon and she normally would be serving it out by this time.
The sight that greeted her was surprising. She’d expected Suki or even Sokka to be keeping watch over the little clay cooking pot and serving out food, but it was Zuko who was portioning out bowls when she stepped into the camp proper.
He looked up at her and his mouth opened as if to speak, but Aang beat him to any words he might have said.
“You’re back!” the airbender exclaimed. “I was starting to get worried; you were gone for so long, and especially with Azula chasing after us again.” The grey of his eyes dimmed as he glanced away from her. “I wanted to go looking for you, but Suki said you were fine.”
Katara looked over at the older girl, and felt her face soften. A brief exchange passed between them: silent understanding from Suki and wordless thanks from Katara. She joined the circle around the fire, across from Suki and between her brother and Toph.
“I was fine,” she confirmed, and Aang let out an audible breath. A twinge of anger tugged at her mouth, at the space between her eyebrows. Sokka nudged her with his elbow, gaining her attention and she accepted a bowl of rice and vegetables from him, as well as a cup of tea. Part of her wanted to explain herself, but she bit down on the words. Katara knew she should be glad that Aang was so concerned for her, but all she felt was irritated. She was a master waterbender—the one who taught him, taught the Avatar! Surely he didn’t think she’d be in any danger by herself for a single afternoon.
But she also knew that she couldn’t say any of that to him, and so swallowed the forming words down with a mouthful of food. Her eyebrows went up for a moment, startled to discover it was rather good, despite the plainness of the fare itself.
Raising her gaze to Zuko, who’d settled between Toph and Aang, she said, with no little amount of disbelief, “You cooked this?”
For an instant, his reaction mirrored hers, his remaining dark eyebrow lifting, then furrowing back down again as he watched her. “I did,” he replied, guarded and unsure how to take what she said. “I know it’s not fancy, but the supplies are limited.”
“I think it’s actually pretty tasty,” Sokka interjected, gesticulating with his chopsticks before taking another bite to emphasize his point.
“I guess that means you don’t have to do all the cooking anymore, Katara,” Aang supplied, brightly. Zuko’s face softened.
She knew he was being helpful, being a peacemaker, being a mediator, but it just stoked the anger in her brighter, and her hands tightened around the bowl she was holding. She wasn’t a child any longer that needed protection or coddling—hadn’t been one for years, before she even met the Avatar—but all at once his concern pressed down on her like exactly those things. “I guess I’m just glad to see that Zuko is finally contributing something to the group.” Her words tasted acerbic on her tongue, felt like they should have cut parchment-thin lesions at the corners of her mouth; they sounded nothing at all like a compliment.
In an instant, any softening in his face hardened, and Zuko leveled his gaze at hers, the firelight between them reflecting like a living thing in the gold of his eyes. She felt his heart rate quicken, felt the rest of the small group’s echoing responses in their chests. She knew she should stop, that there was no real reason for her to keep needling, but there was hurt and anger boiling over in her between the dream and reminiscing and missing her mother and the sting that Aang felt like he couldn’t trust her, that she had to be protected.
And so she continued, against her better judgement. “I’m honestly surprised it’s edible at all. Who would have thought that a pampered prince could cook.”
The scowl that she had always seen on his face half a year ago returned in full force against the caltrops she intentionally threw his way. “Tea shop assistants can cook,” he said, firm and scraping and irritated as sand against her skin. “And if refugees don’t learn to cook, they die from hunger.” The hurt in his voice did not go beyond her notice, either, though he tried to cover it up all the same.
He’d been all those things after being a prince, this she knew empirically. Personally. She’d seen the way his long green changshan had hung off shoulders not quite as full as they’d once been when he’d been in armor; she’d noticed the way his cheekbones had been more prominent in the soft light of the catacomb crystals than she remembered before, remembered how defined his face had felt beneath her fingertips. Even now, even after feeling the way his muscles moved against her back when he’d rolled them away from the crumbling ceiling of the Western Air Temple that morning, she knew that he still wouldn’t fill out his old armor they way he used to.
Katara was the first to break eye contact with him, in the end, a cord of shame twisting deep in her stomach. She bit her lip, but didn’t say anything. Heartbeats echoed tensely around her, but then the silence was shattered by four simultaneous pairs of chopsticks clattering against clay bowls. She stared down at her own, sitting on the ground before her.
After several more long moments, Aang broke the silence again. “Wow… camping. It really seems like old times again, doesn’t it?” There was actual levity in his voice, and to his credit it did lighten the mood of the circle.
Zuko picked up a several days’ old mantou bun and broke it in half. “If you really want it to feel like old times, I could—ah—chase you around awhile and try to capture you.” His tone indicated he’d latched onto Aang’s levity and ran with it—and also succeeded in doing so; his smile was sly and looked practically comfortable on his face.
The laughter of the rest of the group flickered around Katara like the flames of the fire, something she saw and heard but couldn’t quite feel either really touch her. She heard a quiet, sarcastic ha, ha leave her mouth, but it sounded distant to her own ears. Zuko’s words were louder in her head—they die from hunger—and she kept remembering the hollows on his face and the darkness beneath his eyes when his uncle had been hurt in the abandoned town of Tu Zin. It was in such sharp contrast to the arrogant, armored Fire Nation Prince that hunted them down for so many months on end, who’d stolen her mother’s necklace and used her for bait, who’d attacked Suki’s home without thought, and it wrenched something within her chest.
On her right, Sokka made a toast to Zuko that was drowned out by a rushing sound in her ears. How dare Zuko make her feel ashamed in her own thoughts when he’d done so many horrible things to them. A scowl threatened to drag the line of her mouth downward. Being a refugee and a lowly teashop assistant served him right after all he’d done in his pursuit of Aang—and it hadn’t even humbled him; after all, he’d turned on them again in the catacombs, and while she spent exhausting days bringing Aang back from the edge of death, he went home as a celebrated hero. All Katara seemed to do was lose and lose—her mother, her people, her heritage, her father, nearly the Avatar himself—and all Zuko seemed to do was win and win, despite it all. All the Fire Nation did was win and win and take and destroy. Her jaw started to hurt, and Katara realized she was clenching her teeth together tight as a vice.
His voice cut through the rush in her ears like a blade. “I’m touched. I don’t deserve this.” She could almost hear his face fall, that self-deprecation she’d seen in him bubbling up again.
Something in her snapped. “Yeah,” Katara said, gaze shifting sharp from her bowl to him. “No kidding.”
She couldn’t stand to be here anymore, her heart thudding painfully in her chest, the light from the fire he’d made casting shadows about her, his golden gaze wondering at her and searching her face, his pulse insistent in the pad of her thumb. Like she had walked away from him teaching bending to Aang back at the temple, now too she rose in fluid anger and stalked off into the night.
The camp was a decent ways behind her when she heard the roll of waves with her own ears. She’d felt it pulling her, especially with the moon so close to full, and followed it until she reached the edge of a grassy cliff and perched on a rock there. It calmed her a little, the salt and the sea and the moon, allowed her space to breathe away from the smoke and heat and steady pulse that was Zuko.
He was infuriating.
It wasn’t that she even thought he was still trying to capture the Avatar; at this point, Katara was more than willing to concede she’d been wrong about that, after the way he’d fought against his sister earlier. He’d helped Sokka find and bring back their father with nothing to gain and virtually everything to lose if they’d been successfully stopped in doing so. And he’d stepped in, in her absence, and tended to dinner and made sure everyone had something to eat.
Despite chasing them relentlessly for so long, despite stealing her mother’s necklace and trying to use her as bait, despite hiring a bounty hunter to find them, despite playing his part in Aang’s near-death, despite setting a mercenary who could shoot fire from his mind after them, despite burning Toph, now he was with them. Now he was helping train Aang to face his own father, fighting his own sister to protect them, reuniting her family—now he was cooking for them, and unknowingly helping with her usual camp duties, and joking with them, and smiling so disarmingly—
Heat rose unbidden in Katara’s cheeks and she glared out across the ocean. She was furious with him, and it made her even angrier that she wasn’t quite sure why. She told herself over and over it was because she didn’t want to get to know him better, she didn’t want to let him get closer—not again—but still she found herself drawn to him, to watching him, to wanting to submerge herself in the cadence of his pulse and feel just how warm it could be.
The desire to do that was even stronger with the waxing of the moon, only a few nights away from being at its fullest, and Katara worried her lip in thought over it.
So lost was she in thought, so strong and close the push and pull of the moon and the ocean tides, she didn’t sense Zuko approaching her until he was nearly upon her. His presence stoked the directionless, confused anger in her and she scowled, rising from her rock and stalking further out along the cliff’s edge.
“This isn’t fair.” His voice rang out, rough against the salt air. “Everyone else seems to trust me now—what is it with you?”
The sincerity of his words slithered into the cracks she thought she’d sealed up, and the hurt in them shook something that was pulled taut in her stomach.
It made her even angrier.
Furious, she turned to face him. “Oh—everyone trusts you now?” A hand came up and pressed hard into her chest, over her hammering heart. “I was the first person to trust you, remember? Back in Ba Sing Se?” Katara jabbed a finger out across the endless ocean. “And you turned around and betrayed me. Betrayed all of us!”
Her anger felt good, felt strong. It felt like a layer of ice she was constructing around her, between them, that not even his impossible heat could breach. A desperate part of her hoped the words she flung at him stung and opened up fractures inside him. Zuko closed his eyes against her onslaught, mouth twisting in a grimace.
To her surprise, though, he lifted his eyes to meet hers again, his gaze determined and focused.
“What can I do to make it up to you?”
“You really want to know?” A thousand things ran through her mind in an instant, and she spat out the first ones that formed as she neared him again. “Hmm, maybe you could reconquer Ba Sing Se in the name of the Earth King.” No, that wasn’t enough, a vicious voice whispered in her mind. Her heart thudded against her ribcage like a trapped beast and she was close enough now to felt the heat emanating off of him. Her thumbs throbbed and ached, but she ignored them, her face mere inches away from his.
“Or, I know! You could bring my mother back!” She barely even noticed the slightly feverish tone upon which her voice hitched.
Katara didn’t know why she said it—of course no one could bring her mother back; but it seemed so fitting, to thrust such an impossible task upon Zuko. In the sparse seconds after her demand, she felt giddy and lightheaded, the ocean pulling at her bones at her back, the boy before her pulling at her blood. Caught between the two of them, Zuko’s eyes searched hers, fleetingly, their normally vibrant gold leeched pale as platinum in the moonlight.
Not giving him any kind of chance to respond to her, Katara shouldered past him, the echoes of her heartbeat filling up her entire chest and throat until there was no space left at all, and left him alone on the cliffside.
She blatantly ignored the others when she got back to the camp, not even bothering to say goodnight to any of them before vanishing inside her tent. Everything was seething inside her—the memories of her mother, dredged up and raw still after so much time; fury toward the Nation that had torn her life to shreds, that had torn so many lives to shreds; frustration and confusion and she wasn’t sure what all else at Zuko; the pounding of her blood in her ears, in time with the pounding of the waves upon the rocky surf.
The ground was hard beneath her thin bedroll, and she lay awake for some time, staring up into the loosely woven darkness of her tent, feeling the pull of the moon and the ocean and willing the rhythm of them to lull her to sleep.
She was starting to descend into the waiting fog of dreams, finally, when she felt a warmth spread through her hands, and distantly heard a quiet sigh outside her tent. Zuko, she thought, dimly, the recognition lazily adrift as flotsam floating away from the shores of waking. His name seemed to summon forth to her senses the cadence of his heartbeat just beyond the cloth boundary of the tent walls, and it was that steadiness that finally soothed her to sleep.