hidden identity

zutara month 2018 day two | day one


Katara was distracted.

She couldn’t stop thinking about the previous night, about the masked man in the Siagyo household. It wasn’t even because he’d grabbed her and nearly held a blade to her throat, or that she felt his heart pounding against her back as hard as hers. If she were being honest, it wasn’t even completely because someone else had even been in the house before her. The moment he helped her—that’s what her thoughts all snagged on. That, and his mask. Though her glance of it had been brief, she’d clearly seen that it was blue and white. Despite it being the visage of a grinning demon, the colors alone struck a homesick chord in her.

Would she see him again, if she visited another house with an ill family member? Was he trying to do the same as she? It seemed unlikely, armed with that sword like he was. Yet, it was obvious that he’d distracted the mother of the household so that Katara could get upstairs to help the coughing child. So why was he there?

“Hello? Anybody home, Katara?” Toph’s voice brought her out of her reverie.

She shook her head to clear it and smiled vaguely. “Yes, hi. Of course. What is it?”

“Nothing. You just seemed out of it.” Toph hesitated a moment, then leaned in, her voice dropped to a near whisper. “Are you okay? You’re heart’s pounding like crazy.”

Embarrassed, Katara waved her hand a bit, dismissing the notion. “Nope, I’m fine.”

“You know that I can tell when—“

“I’m just fine,” Katara interrupted, standing up from her place at the table and going into the kitchen.

They were staying in a tiny abandoned house beyond the outskirts of the Fire Nation town of Ha It Yai. When they first arrived, Aang thought to find an inn to stay within the town itself to resupply and sleep indoors for a few nights, but not only was that a dangerous idea if they were to be found out, but they quickly learned that a sickness had spread to many people. It hadn’t been quite enough for the town’s officials to call a quarantine, but it was enough for their small group to not want to risk it.

“What if you catch some weird Fire Nation cold?” Sokka had exclaimed to Aang. “You have to be in top shape when you face the Fire Lord.”

“Yeah.” It’d been clear Aang was disappointed. “Wouldn’t want to face him with a runny nose.”

Toph had come to the rescue, though, and sensed the empty house just outside of town, so that was where they set up camp. It wasn’t much, and more than a little ramshackle, but it was a roof over their heads and a safer spot to sleep than in the middle of the jungle. Of course, it’d fallen to Katara to resupply their food stores while the boys investigated for any interesting information or non-essentials they might need (or, in Sokka’s case, want), and Toph relaxed back at their temporary home. It was a far cry from their luxurious house in Ba Sing Se, but Katara suspected Toph actually liked this better.

It was while she was in town that Katara learned more about the sickness that was plaguing the town. People talked, and she was genuinely interested to learn more about it. Many people were worried—though it didn’t seem to spread from person to person very quickly, it took a heavy, rapid toll on the people who did catch it and fell ill. Consumed them from the inside out, one person described in a hushed tone. It’d been an easy decision for her to pick up her Painted Lady persona again and visit as many houses as she could. She’d been more careful this time than at Jang Hui, and she was sure that neither Aang nor Sokka were the wiser about her nightly goings. Toph, she could never be sure of, so she just assumed the other girl knew. But, after their reconciliation, she thought Toph would keep her secret. For at least two nights, she hadn’t been proven wrong.

Last night, the Siagyo house was the third she visited, and finding another disguised person there had been quite the surprise. In the market, she’d heard a few people mention a mysterious woman appearing to heal the sick, but nothing about a masked man. Would it be too suspicious to ask around about him?

“You’re thinking about whatever it is again,” Toph said from behind her.

Katara looked back to see the earthbender leaning against the doorframe. Crossing her arms over her chest, she leveled a glare at Toph, though it had no effect. “So? What does it matter?”

She received a shrug in reply. “I don’t know, but you’re really preoccupied with it today. Must’a been really something to keep distracting you.”

Katara didn’t quite know what to say to that, casting her gaze down at the floor and feeling her cheeks warm. Toph tilted her head. “The boys aren’t back from town yet, so…” A sudden grin split her face. “Is it a boy?”

If Katara’s cheeks had been warm before, they flared like a blaze now. “What? No!”

“I can tell you lying,” Toph sang.

She buried her face in her hands and spoke through her fingers. “Okay, yes. But, not like that!”

Toph’s grin only widened. “I knew it. You’ve been sneaking out every night since we’ve been here, so I knew something was up.” Well, that confirmed Katara’s suspicion, at least. “Is he cute?”

“I actually don’t—I said it wasn’t like that!”

The earthbender chortled. “You don’t know what he looks like? How come? Do you just admire from afar?”

There was no way Katara could see getting out of this, but at least it didn’t seem like Toph knew what she was doing at night, even if she did know she was sneaking out. Then again, she wasn’t sure it’d really matter if Toph knew. It couldn’t hurt, Katara figured, to talk about it a bit more. She lowered her hands and resigned herself to the conversation.

“He was… wearing a mask.”

Toph’s eyes widened beneath her heavy bangs. “A mask?” she echoed. “Why the heck would he be wearing a mask?”

A quiet exhale escaped her. “Probably because he didn’t want people seeing his face.”

Toph rolled her eyes. “You don’t say. Listen, you don’t have to tell me what you’ve been doing at night. I don’t really care, to be honest; it’s your business, and you can take care of yourself. But, something about this guy’s got to you.” Her voice softened a bit. “So, if you want to talk about that… well, I’m here, I guess.”

Katara smiled, touched. “Thanks, Toph. I… really appreciate that.” She drew in a breath and released it. “I don’t know why I can’t stop thinking about him,” she began. Toph’s eyebrows lifted, but she didn’t say anything, so Katara continued. “I didn’t expect to meet him, it was a surprise. And—and it wasn’t an ideal situation, so I didn’t know if I could trust him right away. I thought he was going to attack me.” She remembered his arm tight around her, holding her trapped against him, his blade raised close to her neck. Had she absolutely needed to get away, she could have used her bending, but she hadn’t waned to resort to that if she didn’t need to.

“But,” she said, her voice growing subdued, “he didn’t. He actually ended up helping me. It all happened so quick, it was just… surprising.”

“So… you really just want to find him to thank him for helping you?” Toph guessed.

Did she? Katara wondered. She’d said it then, though she wasn’t certain he’d heard her. He moved so quickly and so silently, and his black clothes made him seem more shadow than human. For all that she’d been dressed as a spirit, she might have thought he really was one, had she not felt his solidness firsthand. Her face warmed again at the thought.

“I… guess,” she said finally. “Yeah.”

She moved to lean against a small table in the kitchen. “I don’t know what I would say even if I could find out who he was. It just… it’d be kind of nice to know, you know?”

Toph nodded, and joined Katara at the table, sliding into one of the two chair at it. “It’s not like you can head into town and ask every good-looking guy if they helped you while wearing a mask last night.”

“Hey! Why would it matter if he was good-looking?”

Toph shrugged. “Because it’d make for a better story?” She made a wide sweeping arc with her hand, fingers spread. “Waterbending master helped by handsome young mystery man in a mask,” she declared. “I can hear the crowd oohing and aahing already.”

That made Katara laugh. “It’s hardly anything to make a story out of.” Still, she allowed herself a moment of fantasy, gaze drifting up toward the cobwebbed ceiling. With all of Toph’s talk, now she was wondering if he was handsome or not. He was certainly in excellent shape, that much she’d been able to tell when they were standing flush together in the dark. He also seemed skilled with a blade, perhaps as much as moving unseen and unheard. She wondered if she’d run into him again when she went out again tonight.

“You know what else?” Toph asked after a moment, breaking her wandering thoughts and resting her elbows on the rough wooden table.

“Hm?”

“It’s all terribly romantic. I hope you meet him again tonight and tell me all the juicy details.”

Katara reddened and buried her face in her hands again.


@thirtydaysofzutara

vigilantes

zutara month day one


A shadow hurried along the peak of a roof.

The town below slept, mostly quiet. In a few houses, loose shutters tapped against their windowsills whenever the air stirred. The shadow paused, an inky stain against the dappled starlight of the night. It waited.

In the dirt street below, a single torch rounded a corner and bobbed steadily along. The guard walked much the same path, night after night. The torchlight illuminated the wooden eaves of the houses, and reached faint fingers of orange all the way to the rooftops. It stained the white of the shadow’s mask for a moment before the guard continued along their rounds. The light faded and the mask receded back into darkness. Sitting still as stone atop the roof, Zuko knew there was no reason for anyone to look up and see him.

Still, he waited.

A few minutes later, there was movement at the end of the street. The shadow shifted. A figure in a dark robe slipped against the building on the opposite side of the street. It was impossible to see many details in just the starlight, but the figure appeared to be wearing a large sugegasa. The long sleeves of their robe trailed behind them as they darted across the street. Dirt crunched softly beneath their feet before they disappeared out of sight beneath the peaked  tsumakazari eave of the building on which the shadow perched.

Only the faintest of clacking heralded Zuko’s leaving, slipping almost soundlessly down the length of the roof to the edge. With a quick, practiced movement, he swung down from the eave and into an open window on the second floor of the house.

Inside, the house was dark. There were no loose shutters to tap against their frames here, and the wooden floors were polished so much that even in the dimmest of lights, they gleamed beneath Zuko’s feet.

Again, he waited.

A moment passed. Two. Then—a sudden chirp of metal joists against wood, followed swiftly by a frustrated hiss. Zuko darted across the smooth wooden floor to the stairs, descending with a surety of step that didn’t appear to alert the robed figure below of his presence.

At the bottom, the shadows were deeper; all the windows on the ground level were shaded from any starlight by the deep eaves of the house. Zuko slid into one of these dark pools and watched the robed figure from a few spans away. They stood frozen at the moment, the sugegasa tilted to indicate they were probably listening to see if the nightsparrow floor had alerted anyone of their presence. The upstairs of the house remained silent, and the figure straightened again.

The movement showed more to the shadow watching—a bare shoulder was revealed, with dark whorls of red staining the skin there, obscured by a veil translucent as gossamer. There was something familiar about this figure, but it was difficult to pinpoint what.

As the figure went to move forward again—more cautiously this time—some small movement must have caught their notice: they looked directly at the pool of darkness that housed Zuko. Despite being confident in his abilities, he felt his heartbeat quicken and leap up to his throat.

“Do not be afraid,” the figure said in a low, calm voice. “I’ve come to your aid.”

Aid? This was the house of a wealthy family that was being blackmailed by one of the town officials. That was why he was even here, to stop any midnight assassins or kidnappers that might try and levy more weight against the family. The father had died of an illness a few months ago, leaving his widow and their three daughters to continue the philanthropic work the family had always been known for.

In response, Zuko stood to its full height—perhaps a head taller than the robed figure—and drew out a dao blade from his back. The family did a lot of good for the poorer parts of this town, and it rankled him to see them threatened to be exploited. There needed to be more people who did good in this world.

With the blade leveled at the robed figure, Zuko finally stepped forward, silently making his own threat to this intruder be known.

Painted hands lifted, dragging long sleeves with them, in a show of peace. “I’m here to help one of the family,” they repeated, and it was clear now that the figure was a woman.

As if to punctuate, a fit of coughing broke the silence on the second floor, followed soon after by a quick shuffling of footsteps. Both the woman and Zuko held their breaths, veiled face and masked alike tilting back to look at the ceiling. A soft voice speaking indiscernible words drifted down, and then more footsteps, louder this time and headed for the stairs.

Before he could think about the wisdom of his actions, Zuko grabbed the veiled woman by the arm and dragged her along with him through a partially open doorway, the shoji leaving just enough space for them to slip through. For a moment, the woman struggled against him, but he wrapped one arm around her tightly, and began lifting his dao to her throat. Both of them froze, however, as the footsteps shuffled closer to the room they were in. He felt the woman tense against him, the angles of her shoulders pressing into his chest, and he swore he could feel her heart pounding. The footsteps continued beyond their room, and she immediately relaxed and let out a soft breath. He must have made some noise as well, because she tensed again and lifted one hand to grab onto the arm that was holding her.

“I will stop you,” she breathed, so quiet he could barely hear her, “if you plan any harm to these people.”

Something about her was very familiar. The cadence of her words, the slopes of her body—he couldn’t shake that he knew who this was. She certainly was no more a spirit than he, but he could not place a name or a face to her.

Despite the softness of her voice, the conviction of what she said convinced him she wasn’t some kidnapper or assassin. He didn’t release her, but, as a show of good faith, slowly and silently sheathed his dao. That seemed to set her as ease; she relaxed again a little, though he could still feel a taut line running through her spine. With the immediate threat of discovery or needing to stop an intruder, Zuko suddenly became acutely aware of the way their bodies were slotted together. Before he could decide what to do about that observation, she spoke again, as another fit of coughing echoed through the house. He had to lean close to hear her, her heat mingling with his own.

“If you’re not here to hurt anyone, then let me help them. I can heal the child coughing if you let me go.”

Her hand gentled on his arm. “Please.”

He hesitated a few moments longer, then stepped back. Her hand ran along his arm as he drew it back, and she turned in a fluid movement to face him. Had he not known better, he would have thought the motion part of a dance it was so well timed. Through the veil, he saw the bottom half of her shadowed face, striped with red paint. She smiled.

Without bothering to say anything more, she turned back to the half-open shoji door and slipped out, the length of her robes drifting behind her like ripples through water. An instant after she left, he heard the footsteps coming back their way. He followed out of the room on her heels, and saw the vague movement of someone walking toward them in the corridor. Sparing only a glance back at the veiled woman, Zuko gritted his teeth and stepped further into the direct path of the head of the house. The last thing he heard was a whispered “Thank you,” as the veiled woman quickly headed up the stairs and the woman approaching him caught sight of the white on his mask. That’s all the distraction he felt the veiled woman deserved from him, and so darted around the corner of the room they were just in, and watched as the mother of the household passed by the deep shadow he’d slipped in to hide.

He was already back up on the roof by the time the mother came back to the stairs, and he listened as two voices exclaimed happiness and surprise. He caught the gist of their conversation—the coughing child was visited by a spirit whose hands glowed, and made the hot pain in her throat go away, and the mother was just flabbergasted that all traces of the fever were gone. Zuko went to the edge of the roof and watched the robe of the veiled woman vanish down the street the way she had come.


@thirtydaysofzutara

the prequel scene to the Mononoke Hime au from a while back (I’d put links but, yanno, tumblr. Find it on ao3 as The Spirit’s Waterbender, or here on my blog under my fics tag)

There he is! Ooh, Lan Yi was right—he is handsome.”

“Quiet out there! We lost some good men today bringing you this rice you’re eating.” The man, whose name Zuko thought might have been Shenzu, snapped beside him.

The women crowded in the doorway laughed and made faces at the man speaking. The one who called Zuko handsome just then spoke again. “And who makes the steel that pays for all that rice, hm? We’re pumping bellows all night while you sleep off all this food.”

Zuko twisted a little and gave the women a ghost of a smile. “Actually, I would like to see where you all work, if it’s not a problem.” A large tatara bloomery dominated one side of the village, and Zuko could see a continuous plume of smoke drifting up from it. He’d learned that the woman leading this town, Aunt Wu, was a firebender, and he was curious to see how she’d set up an operation to make steel blooms in a town with no other firebenders to keep the furnace fueled long enough.

Several of the women blushed even as they laughed, and a few began talking all at once.

“You would?”

“You can come right over, whenever you like!”

“Don’t be a stranger—we’ll be looking for you!”

“We’ll have to wear our best kimono tonight ladies!”

“Don’t forget us, now! And don’t listen too much to the moans and groans of these old men—we’ll be waiting!”

A bell rang from another side of town, and the women waved at him as they dispersed from the doorway, laughing and talking amongst themselves.

“Don’t pay them any mind,” Shenzu said, drawing Zuko’s attention back to the table and the group of men he sat with. “Aunt Wu spoils them, that’s why they’re like that.

Zuko shrugged and picked up a bowl of rice and his set of chopsticks. “Happy women make for a happy village.”

That sent a ripple of laughter through the men immediately gathered around him. “Yeah—these women sure are happy enough now!”

“What do you mean?”

“They were all brothel workers. Aunt Wu bought the contracts of every woman working in a brothel that she could get her hands on, and brought them all with her when she settled here,” Shenzu explained.

“Them and the others,” another man to Zuko’s right said.

Someone beside him cuffed the back of that man’s head. “Don’t talk about them like that. Aunt Wu’s given them a chance that no one else wanted to.”

Zuko rested his rice bowl against his thigh. “Gave a chance to who?”

Again, Shenzu spoke up, his voice even and subdued. “Warriors who got very badly burned. Every inch of them is wrapped up in bandages, the burns are so bad. A lot of people got caught up in some nasty battles, and Aunt Wu’s got a soft heart. She helped when everyone else turned their backs on them.”

The scar on Zuko’s face suddenly became a point which every man in the room avoided looking at directly.

“It’s from an angry spirit,” Zuko told them without anyone needing to ask about it. “It touched me before I drove it away. I’ve been following it to try and stop it once and for all.” His gaze dropped to the half-empty rice bowl in his hands. “Before anyone else can get cursed like me.”

A low murmur went through the room. One man came over to sit beside Zuko. “You should talk to Aunt Wu about it,” he said with a mouthful of rice. “She may have a soft heart for people, but spirits don’t shake her at all. You should have seen the way she dealt with Ozai!”

“Yeah—to think we were giving it gifts all these years! Who knew we just needed to shoot it?”

“Well, we couldn’t have done that even if we’d’ve known. Not before Aunt Wu showed up.”

“Who’s Ozai?” Zuko interrupted, feeling a sharp sliver of dread form in the pit of his chest.

“Who’s Ozai?” the man echoed, incredulous. “Only the spirit of the volcano! We used to go up to the rim every year and take offerings to it to keep it from blowing up and destroying our whole village. But then Aunt Wu showed up with her warriors and rifles.”

“Rifles?” The word tasted strange on Zuko’s tongue, acrid and sharp. It made him think of the smell of his face after the spirit had touched him. He didn’t like it.

“A weapon that lets us nonbenders fight back with iron and fire.” The man holding the rice bowl beside him gesticulated sharply with his chopsticks, sending a few grains flying. “Some of us are earthbenders, but we never stood a chance against spirits like that before. We’re real lucky Aunt Wu decided to come to town.”

The dread in his chest grew until it felt like there were shards of it pressing against his lungs. “Why did she come here?” Zuko distantly heard himself asking.

“She heard about the iron in the ground beneath this town, but we’d mined all that out years ago. She thought there was more further up the sides of the volcano, but fear of Ozai making the volcano erupt had always stopped us from clearing the forest and finding out,” Shenzu continued. His voice wavered and Zuko wondered what he’d seen.

The other man next to Zuko laughed, half-eaten rice sticking to the sides of his mouth. “Well, she was right. Soon as she got rid of that spirit we were able to get at a whole lot more iron.”

A warmth grew within the scar on his face, making the ruined skin feel tight and painful. Zuko clenched his teeth. His face began to burn as it had when the angry spirit—Ozai—had touched him, and he recalled exactly how large the swath of burned forest around his home was. Fury began boiling deep within him, like a fire in his belly that he did not ignite, and he had to take a few deep breaths to calm his flame before it erupted from his fingertips. Before he could stop himself, he lifted his hand and pressed fingers against the outer edge of the scar, willing it to stop throbbing.

“What’s the matter?” Zuko recognized Shenzu’s voice out of the angry red haze that had settled over his senses. “Does your… face still hurt?”

With a controlled release of breath, Zuko lowered his hand from his face and held it tightly against his lap. “I was just thinking how angry the spirit must have been, wounded and driven from its home. How full of hate for humans it must have become.”

Silence hung in the air after he spoke, thick and unsettling, like too much grease in the stomach from roast duck.

“Aunt Wu’s ready for you,” a young woman announced from the doorway, her voice cutting through the stillness. Everyone in the room knew who she was talking to—there was no need for her to name him. Zuko put his unfinished dinner down and stood, giving the men in the room a mild bow of thanks before following her out.

The woman, who introduced herself as Meng, led Zuko down a dirt path through the center of the village. “You’ve caused quite a stir here,” Meng told him as they walked, and Zuko could not tell if she was amused or irritated by him.

“I didn’t mean to,” he said, looking around the village with interest. It was different from the one he grew up in, and the presence of the massive tatara made the architecture have unusual additions he’d never seen anywhere else, a strange combination of Fire Nation and Earth Kingdom. “I just followed the spirit’s trail. It led me here.”

Meng sent him an unwavering look, but said nothing more. Zuko contented himself with the silence, though he wondered how they saw his arrival. He hadn’t outed himself as a firebender yet, so he wasn’t sure how warm their reception would remain if that became known. As they neared the other end of the village, the growing sound of singing filled the air. A great slash of light and shifting shadows stretched out across the path not too far ahead of them. When they reached the light, Zuko stopped and stared at its source—the inside of the tatara bellows. A shift of women were steadily working them, their plain hippari short and allowing them to move without hindrance. They sang in a rhythm to help them all move in time—and, Zuko supposed, to pass the long shift they worked with some form of entertainment.

Slowing to a stop before the open door, Zuko watched the women move and sing. When Meng cleared her throat to get his attention, he didn’t move his gaze at first, then slowly turned and rejoined her.

She led him up a small incline to a wooden house with actual shōji, unlike the cloth-covered open frames most of the other buildings they’d passed along the way had. Aunt Wu was inside, scrawling notes on a scroll. When he entered, she set her brush aside and smiled at him.

“Good evening, stranger,” she said. Though it was a polite enough, innocuous greeting, there was something about it that struck him as sharply astute. It reminded him of his uncle in a way, wherever he was now.

Aunt Wu nodded to Meng, who took this as a signal and left them alone in the room, the fusuma clacking quietly as she closed it on her way out. Once she left, the older woman turned her gaze back to him. “Now. To what do I owe the pleasure of someone from the homeland coming here? Surely you’re not here to steal my rifle design—a firebender doesn’t need it when he has the real thing.”

His eyes widened. “You know I’m a firebender?”

Laughter filled the room, bright and thoroughly amused. Zuko kept his face as impassive as he could, though he could feel his traitorous eyebrow trying to inch its way up his forehead.

“Like knows like, my dear boy.” Aunt Wu rested one hand on the writing desk that held a lattice for scrolls and her writing brushes. “Don’t worry, I won’t give your secret away. The people here have come to accept me as one, but they’re still Earth Kingdom. They still fear the power of destruction we wield.” She watched him as he shifted a little uncomfortably under her gaze. “Now, tell me what brings you here.”

Zuko lifted a hand to the left side of his face, his fingertips touching the skin just below his scar. “This.”

With no immediate further explanation from him, Aunt Wu’s eyes narrowed just slightly. A slender line of silence stretched between them, and he made himself remain steady and unwavering beneath her gaze, his hand falling back to his side.

“You’ve been spirit-touched,” she said at last.

“Cursed,” he corrected, and the curt edge to his tone made her eyes focus on his again. “An angry spirit attacked my village, and burned the entire surrounding land in the process. I drove it away and then chased after it, hoping to stop it before it could curse anyone else like it did me.” As hard as he tried, as much as he hoped, Zuko knew he had not succeeded in that. He’d seen too many burns being tended in the villages he passed through on his way here, too many patches of scorched earth.

Aunt Wu’s eyebrows both went up, though her expression remained carefully neutral. “And so you came here.”

Zuko nodded.

Abruptly, she stood, her long haori skimming the ground. She folded her hands inside her sleeves. “Will you walk with me, stranger? I have something to show you.”

Unsure but curious, Zuko nodded.

She led him through a few corridors of her home before walking out a doorway in the very back of it. A few wooden steps off the engawa took them down into a lush garden, full of all kinds of herbs, vegetables, and flowers. Zuko even recognized a small section of tall, awned wheat spikes that bobbed gently in the air.

“My private garden,” Aunt Wu said as she continued through, leaving him to trail a few steps behind. “I’ve tried to get fire lilies to grow here, but they just won’t last. Only a few have even made it past sprouting.”

“Must be the climate,” Zuko said, feeling awkward and off-put at so mediocre a conversation as gardening. He’d been waiting for her to make the connection that he knew she had set the spirit here on a rampage by driving it out, but instead she was taking him on a tour. He frowned.

“Perhaps.”

Passing through the garden, she followed a dirt path that ended in a stream with a small, flat bridge overtop it, and just beyond that was a smaller house that butted up against a wooden wall within the outer wall that surrounded the entire village. Aunt Wu led him there.

It was a simple wooden house, about a third of the size of Aunt Wu’s machiya, with no engawa surrounding it. Unlike the rest of the village buildings, and even the machiya, it had a hinged door. Aunt Wu opened it and went inside first, clearly expecting him to continue following her. Zuko lagged behind for a moment, then stepped in.

Whatever he had been expecting, it wasn’t the sight that greeted him.

About a dozen people were in the house, some working at a low table on long pieces of wood and metal that formed an instrument Zuko didn’t recognize, some lying down on woven tatami mats. They were all wrapped nearly head to toe in bandages. Despite himself, Zuko’s eyes widened. These were the burned warriors that Shenzu talked about.

“Hello, Aunt Wu,” one of them said. She smiled at them and went over.

“How are you all doing this evening? Do you need anything?”

The concern in her words was genuine, Zuko noted. All at once he felt even more an interloper onto something private for which he shouldn’t be present.

“We’re all right,” a woman said, her head tilted up toward Aunt Wu. Zuko could see parts of her face beneath her bandages, and the shadows of burn scars there. “We’ve finished with the next prototype you asked for.”

“Excellent. I can show off your wonderful work to my guest.” Aunt Wu didn’t motion toward him, but all the eyes in the room turned his way. He felt exposed in a room where other burn victims were covered in bandages. Zuko wondered if theirs still burned hot as well.

“A guest, hm?” The bandaged woman who’d spoken before turned her head carefully to look at Zuko. Only one eye peered out at him, the other completely covered. “Not another addition to your special forces?”

A ripple of quiet laughter spread through the room, including Aunt Wu in its wake. “No,” she said. “He saved some of our people earlier, and brought them back to us alive.” She bent and picked up one of the wooden and metal instruments off the table and hefted it, testing its weight. “This is better, but I think it’s still a bit too heavy,” she told the bandaged woman, who laughed.

“I’m not sure we can make it any lighter. It won’t be able to fire as well if we do.”

Aunt Wu smiled, a bright motion. “I know that you can, without losing any firepower. I need something that won’t be too heavy for the girls.”

Looking back to him from the nodding woman, Aunt Wu’s smile faded to a more schooled expression. “Follow me.”

She crossed the room through the seated people to a ladder that extended up through a hole in the roof. For holding something in one hand and being a woman of greater years, Aunt Wu climbed the ladder with familiar ease. Zuko wove his way through the room and followed her up. Once they stood on the roof, Zuko saw the cleared land beyond the wooden wall that surrounded the village, and the darkness of the forest beyond that. Beneath his feet, there were little soot marks dotting the roof itself, but they didn’t look as if they were from firebending.

“Look.” Aunt Wu broke his thoughts, and he did as she instructed, lifting his gaze from the soot marks. She now stood with the long wooden and metal instrument on one shoulder, its open end pointed out toward the forest.

When she didn’t explain further what he was supposed to be looking at, Zuko took the few steps forward to lean his hands on the wall. Something moved in the dark between the village and the trees.

“What is that?” he asked.

“Spirits,” Aunt Wu replied. “They come by night after night, trying to replant the forest.” With a sudden scowl, she snapped her fingers and lit a wick sticking out of the metal part of the instrument on her shoulder. It lit and burned quickly. Zuko watched with wide eyes as she pulled on a trigger and made a hammer-like object the wick was attached to snap down. An instant later, a blast of flame and smoke erupted forth from the open end of what Zuko now understood to be what Shenzu called a rifle. The sound loud and made his ears ring for a moment, and the firing itself made Aunt Wu jerk back from the force. A distant thud followed soon after the ringing faded from his hearing. He looked back to the cleared space of forest ringing the village to see the spirits there had scattered and were headed back toward the thick of the tree line.

Heat rose briefly in Zuko’s scar, but it faded as soon as someone spoke again, though it wasn’t to him. She leaned back to peer down the hatch they’d come up.

“How does it fire?” The bandaged woman’s voice drifted up from the house.

“Smooth as silk,” Aunt Wu called down. “But, still too heavy.”

She looked back up to Zuko, drumming her fingers along the wood of the rifle once. “Would you like to try, stranger?”

Zuko shook his head when she held out the rifle to him. “No,” he told her simply, then turned his gaze back out toward the forest. “You know they’re not going to stop until the forest comes back,” he said. “That’s all they want.”

He didn’t have to look at Aunt Wu to know she was scowling. He could hear it in her voice. “They can want it and try all they like, it’s not going to happen. I helped these people carve a better place for themselves in this land, and a couple of mindless spirits aren’t going to undo all that work.” There was a pause between them. “Why do you defend them? You’ve been cursed by one of them by your own words. Help me drive them away for good. Perhaps then your curse will be lifted.”

Part of him wanted to laugh at the suggestion, but his mouth tugged down into a frown instead. “No,” he repeated. “That wouldn’t solve anything. You have to find a way to live in harmony again with the spirits, or all this will just end badly.” He lifted a hand to skim fingers over the ruined flesh of his cheek. “I know that first hand.”

Instead of any kind of sympathy, Aunt Wu said sharply, “You sound a lot like that damn waterbender.”

Surprised, Zuko turned from the forest back to her, one hand still resting on the wooden wall. “Waterbender?”

“Yes.” Aunt Wu rested the butt of her rifle on the roof and didn’t meet his gaze. Now she was the one looking out toward the forest. “Runs with the spirits almost as if she’s one of them, and attacks her own kind—us—instead. She’s the reason those people you saved earlier were in danger in the first place.”

His frown deepened. Fighting on either side wouldn’t only instigate the other further, but he didn’t know how to stop it. He didn’t know if he could, or even if he was the right person to do so. He’d followed a single angry spirit to try and stop it, and came upon a far more complex situation than he’d anticipated. Zuko longed for the wisdom his uncle could have provided.

“Will you help me?” Aunt Wu cut through his thoughts. “Will you help the people here defend their home and their livelihoods?”

It tore at him. The villagers deserved a chance to make their lives better, but it shouldn’t be at the cost of the spirits of the world. They should all be in this together, not at each other’s throats. He had no answers.

“I will help wherever I can,” he said carefully.

That didn’t seem to wholly satisfy Aunt Wu, who fixed him with another piercing look. “I’ll hold you to that, stranger.”

He climbed back down the ladder, alone, but hadn’t made it halfway to the door out before a weak voice called out.

“Boy,” the voice said. It was difficult to tell through the rasp if the person was a man or woman. Zuko stopped in his tracks and turned toward the source, gaze finding a person in the back corner entirely covered in bandages, including their face. They were also missing an arm and a leg from the knee down.

“Stranger,” they said again. “Aunt Wu took us in when no one else would. They sent us to fight and then condemned us for coming back not whole. She cares for our burns and scars herself, makes sure we’re comfortable as can be.” The person was overtaken by a coughing fit, and a few others nearby shifted as if to try and help them. The coughs subsided.

“This village was like us, scarred and dying. It was under the whim of a reckless spirit that would never care about the people here. Then she came and helped it get on its feet again, helped the people throw off the shadow of the volcano. Now it’s thriving.”

Zuko swallowed, hearing threads of his own conflicted thoughts echoed back at him.

“I won’t let anything happen to the village,” he said, hearing his own voice crack. “But I can’t sit by and let other spirits be driven mad and do to others what one did to me.”

He couldn’t be here any longer, couldn’t stand to hear more. His heart would surely crack listening to how these people had been helped by the woman whose actions resulted in him being cursed. Zuko fled the little house and went back out through the garden. The way through the machiya proper was easy enough to remember, and no one barred his exit. Soon, he was back out on the streets of village, his heart pounding and trying to swallow down the ache in his chest.

It wasn’t until a wave of golden firelight bathed him in heat that Zuko realized his feet had brought him to the tatara forge. He stopped in the wide doorway and watched the women work the bellows, moving together in steady rhythm with one another. The distraction was welcome.

One of the women lounging on the worn tatami against one wall inside the forge recognized him from when he arrived earlier that day. She waved at him and he went over, recalling her name was Lan Yi. “Hey! Look who it is! How do you like Makapu so far?”

“It’s been very welcoming,” came his mild reply, his gaze drifting from her to the women working the bellows. Their attention was divided now between him and their work. “You all must work very hard here,” he said, marveling at all the kinds of strength these women had as well as feeling his heart break a little that it required such hard labor. But, this was the Earth Kingdom, and taking pride in the work they did was in their blood; he would not insult them by suggesting otherwise.

The women around him laughed heartily. “Yeah, it sure is. But we love it. It helps Aunt Wu and it helps the town, so it’s more than worth our effort,” Lan Yi said. Her grin widened into something almost sharp. “The men all think they have the hardest job, lugging all that raw iron and cutting down trees, but they wouldn’t last a single shift here.”

Zuko’s gaze followed the women working, not saying anything for a moment. Then, on a sudden whim, he asked, “May I join in for a little while?”

Lan Yi and the other women exchanged surprised looks, but in the end she just gave him a shrug. “Sure, if you think you’re up to it.”

He undid the ties of his hippari and shed the layer of clothing, stepping up to one of the women on the bellows and giving her a small smile. She glanced at him twice and blushed a bright red at his bared chest, tugging at the front of her own hippari in an attempt at propriety. Zuko barely noticed, being far more focused on stepping in at the right time and picking up the rhythm they had going.

A few of the women on the bellows with him whooped a bit, the hems of their hippari flapping. He was so focused on trying to make sure he wasn’t slacking among them that he’d picked up the pace and stepped deeper than any of them with his longer legs.

Lan Yi laughed somewhere behind his shoulder. He didn’t look back, but kept his concentration on the bellows.

“I’m impressed,” she said, not really sounding all that impressed. “But, you won’t be able to keep up that pace. Our shifts here are four days long.”

“It sure beats working a brothel in the city!” another woman chimed in from his other side. Several laughed.

“You got that right,” Lan Yi said. “We get good square meals here, and the men don’t bother us unless we want them to.”

That sent another wave of laughter through the women. Zuko didn’t join in, now completely set on the bellows. It was hard work, and he respected the women even more for their dedication to it. Sweat quickly formed and rolled down the trough of his spine, but the exertion felt good. Especially after the conversation with Aunt Wu and her rifle makers, which left his heart hurting and his gut twisted. This was honest, simple work, and he threw himself into it for as long as he could.

After some time—longer than Lan Yi had expected, she readily crowed when he surpassed all the bets the ladies had going on how long he’d last—Zuko finally threw a glance over his shoulder. The women there took immediate note of his signal and stepped in while he stepped off.

“Good job, stranger! I haven’t seen a man last that long at anything in my life,” Lan Yi said with a wide grin. She handed him a thick strip of cloth.

He accepted it gratefully and wiped the sweat off his face and neck. “It felt good,” he agreed. “In a really tiring way.”

“Well, you’re more than welcome to come back any time and do that again. We certainly enjoyed ourselves—and the break was nice too!”

Despite himself, Zuko chuckled. Both the bellows and the women who worked them were like a breath of fresh air after everything else earlier in the evening. “If I’m ever back this way again, I’ll be sure to take you up on that offer.”

“You’re leaving already? You just got into town today.” Lan Yi grew serious.

He shook his head. “Thanks, but there’s someone I’ve got to find in the forest.”

A shadow passed over Lan Yi’s expression, and she looked at the woman to her left momentarily. “You must mean that waterbender.”

Before Zuko could ask her what she might know about the waterbender in the forest, a clamor from outside interrupted their conversation. He tugged on his hippari and tied it shut, then jogged to the open doorway to see what the commotion was about.

“The waterbender,” Lan Yi said darkly behind him.

Zuko ran out into the streets.

chapter one | chapter two

chapter three

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.

“You okay?”

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.

chapter one

chapter two

It seemed that just as soon as Zuko had wormed his way into their group, he declaring that he’d lost his bending. It struck her as the most amusing sort of irony, and she scathingly told him as much.

And yet—she found herself wondering, if he did have some sort of ulterior motive to joining their group… why admit so readily that he’d lost his bending? Aang needed a firebending teacher, and they tolerated Zuko because he could fill that role. When he stopped being able to bend, why tell them at all? He could have easily staved off any of them knowing with some excuse. Late at night, alone and feeling the restlessness the moon awoke in her, Katara frowned. If she thought she could have understood him once, she had been proven sorely wrong. It was no different now. Breathing out curious thoughts of Zuko, Katara closed her eyes and tried to sleep. Who knows why he did what he did?

After he went off alone with Aang, they both came back having discovered—and rediscovered—firebending. Now he could finally get around to teaching it. Katara grudgingly had to admit that it was impressive to spectate them practicing. Being able to actually watch Zuko bend as he demonstrated katas, rather than in relation to how she could avoid and counterattack, gave her an odd new appreciation for how he moved. It made her uncomfortable when she catch herself enjoying watching. Whatever he told them all about being changed and on their side now, Katara couldn’t so easily dismiss all his past actions. She remembered Ba Sing Se with painful clarity, and promised herself she would not be so easily fooled by him again.

It wasn’t long after that when he disappeared again, this time with Sokka.

The flimsy excuse of going on a trip to bring back some meat didn’t fool her, but for the life of her, Katara couldn’t figure out what they—what Zuko was up to. That didn’t stop her from trying to make sense of the real reason behind their disappearance as she make breakfast in the large clay pot the morning after they vanished. She worried that he’d tricked them all and betrayed them all again, and abducted her brother, and was well on his way back to the Fire Nation with his prisoner by now.

But, of course, that didn’t make any sense. Why come all the way here, gain their trust, announce so openly that he’d lost his bending, start training Aang—only to then vanish with Sokka on some weak fabrication? If he was abducting her brother and going back to the Fire Nation, why didn’t Zuko just make off with Aang in the first place? As much as she loved her brother, Katara knew that Sokka was worthless to the Fire Nation; he was unknown, and a non-bender. What benefit could Zuko possibly have to kidnap her brother? Smoke filled her nose, and she scowled, angry that even when he wasn’t here she was still so aware of the scents that lingered around him from his bending and—

“Katara!” Haru’s exclamation snapped her out of her reverie. “The juk!”

“What?” Even as the words formed and tumbled from her mouth, she looked down to see dusky smoke rising from the pot, the breakfast forgotten under the tirade of her thoughts. “Oh no!”

She rotated her hands quickly in counter-circular directions—one to thoroughly stir the liquid of the juk itself, and one to coax some water from the nearby fountain onto the flames beneath the pot to settle the cooking fire into steam. Only the porridge at the very bottom had been truly burned enough to be inedible, but she was embarrassed at herself, nonetheless. To think that she’d gotten so consumed in thought over him that she completely lost track of herself—especially when he wasn’t even here. Katara told herself it was because she was worried about her brother, and where they could have gone.

Absently, she worried the pad of her thumb.

After nightfall four days later, Katara felt a slow drawing within her, the way it felt beneath her skin when the tide rolled in at its highest and tugging, tugging her to go along out to sea with it. Something was coming.

It was only a few moments later when the familiar, gut-twisting sound of whirring echoed against the cliff walls and through the sodden fog. Aang, Toph, and Haru all scrambled to their feet and joined Katara to stare out into the mist to see what came for them. Every one of them was tense; Katara could feel the erratic thudding of their heartbeats as they all anticipated the worst. They all knew the only thing that sounded like that: Fire Nation airship propellers.

Maybe she had been right, Katara thought hysterically. Maybe that traitor had absconded with her brother back to the Fire Nation and now he’d come back with an airship to take down the rest of them. Or, worse yet, he’d come with his sister.

She shifted her weight into a fighting stance and popped open the cork of her waterskin, hand hovering and wrist taut, ready to whip and lash and freeze.

The dark metal hull of a Fire Nation airship sank down from the opposite side of the gorge into their view. It was headed directly toward them.

“Aang,” Katara said, the warning biting like ice in her voice. She didn’t have to look over her shoulder to hear the soft sound of his closed glider cutting through the air; in her peripheral, Toph and Haru sank back into their respective stances, firm as granite and waiting.

No attack came as the airship slowed. It turned and eventually banked against the edge of the Air Temple, scraping to a halt. To her right, Aang visibly winced at the noise, but Katara did not budge. It was difficult, through the adrenaline threaded through her veins and through the strangeness of the metal hull, to tell just how many people were there. All the steam pressure built up in the pipes confused her newly formed senses.

Fully docked as best it could against a foundation that never anticipated such a machine, the entry hatch opened and a ramp lowered down onto the stone. All at once she felt throbbing pulses in her ring finger and her thumb, so sudden and so forceful she took an involuntary step back, her defense dispersing like water droplets in the sun.

Before anyone could comment on her abrupt change in demeanor, Zuko walked down out of the ramp, followed closely by Sokka. Everyone else flanking her relaxed together, and she stepped forward, finding her balance again.

“What are you doing in this thing?” she demanded, confused and angry and relieved more than she would ever admit to anyone. “What happened to the war balloon?”

Zuko had the audacity to look a bit sheepish as he rolled a shoulder in a lazy shrug. “It kind of got destroyed.”

Aang leaned on his glider like a staff, instantly relaxed in the way only he could be now that he knew they weren’t being attacked. “Sounds like a crazy fishing trip.” He sounded jealous that he hadn’t been included in whatever adventure the two older boys had gotten themselves into.

“Did you at least get some good meat?” Toph stacked her hands akimbo on her hips expectantly.

“I did,” Sokka spoke up, his voice taking on a superlative hitch. “The best meat of all. The meat of friendship and fatherhood.”

The fact that he hadn’t been abducted by Zuko explained the ‘friendship’ part of that, but the fatherhood

Before she could start questioning about this dubious statement he so carelessly flung out, three more figures peeled away from the darkness inside the airship. Breath snagged in her throat, the greater meaning behind Sokka’s ridiculous proclamation sinking in the same way that her feet sank into a sandy shore beneath a receding tide.

Suki, the Kyoshi warrior that both she and Sokka had an instant affinity toward made her way down the ramp. Two men followed her out—one she didn’t recognize who was saying something she didn’t hear at all, because the last figure to emerge from the shadows, dressed in dull prison reds, was her father.

All in an instant, Katara felt full to the brim—her breath welled up in her throat, tears stung at her eyes, and her face ached strangely for a moment before she realized she was grinning. A hoarse, “Dad?” croaked out of her throat before her feet surged into motion without conscious thought on her part, and she propelled herself into her father’s arms.

“Hi, Katara,” she heard him breathe somewhere above her head. She couldn’t tell exactly where because her face was burrowed into his chest. It felt so much like home that it opened up the hollow in her chest she’d so carefully closed off and made it ache.

It took a great amount of effort to force herself away from the strong, familiar beat of her father’s heart. She looked up into his face, cheeks wet and uncaring that they were so. “How are you here?” Through happiest tears she’d had in a long while, she looked over at Sokka and Zuko. “What is going on? Where did you go?”

“We kind of went to a Fire Nation prison.” Her brother cocked his head with an arch look on his face. Over his shoulder, Zuko had an uncharacteristic smile that widened to a grin when Hakoda reached for his son’s arm and drew him in with Katara against his chest again. It didn’t matter where they’d gone or what they did—her father was alive and safe again. That’s all Katara needed to know.

Her family. Here. Together. A hiccuping breath caught somewhere in the middle of her throat, and her heart fluttered like a catbird exulting in a newly built nest.

They stayed up far too late that night, listening to four different people regale the nigh-impossible escape from the Boiling Rock prison—Sokka’s excited storytelling, their father’s calm additions, Suki’s correcting interjections and acceptance of Sokka’s flattery when describing her capture of the prison’s own warden, and even the former prisoner they brought with them through happenstance, Chit Sang, had a few humorous addendums to the getaway.

It wasn’t until after they’d all exhausted their voices and were lying all in a circle with one another in the starlit dark that Katara realized Zuko hadn’t spoken up—he’d merely sat and listened with a ghost of a curve to his mouth. She didn’t know what that meant, but she was too tired to ruminate on it. Surrounded by the lullaby of so many heartbeats, Katara sank into dreamless sleep.

_____________

Everyone fell into a sort of strange normalcy for a while.

What surprised Katara most, of all the things that could have, was having Chit Sang help her with cooking duties. Both he and Zuko were the first up in the morning, rising with the sun every day, but while the younger man went to meditate, soaking in the new rays of daylight, Chit Sang would set up the big clay pot for juk. By the time Katara herself got up, he’d have wood stacked beneath the pot, waiting for her to come over before he lit it, and then helped serve and even clean up after everyone had eaten. It was nice, having help, even if her helper was a surprising one.

By the time they’d have everything cleaned and stacked, nearly everyone was scattered, tending to their own things. Sokka trained with their father and Suki both, building on the knowledge that Master Piandao had begun; Teo and the Duke continued their exploration of the ancient temple; Haru honed his earthbending with Toph somewhere deep in the temple, the stoneworks vibrating gently every so often from their efforts; and Aang was finally able to start making true progress in his firebending training with Zuko. Katara itched to be practicing herself, but the only person left was Chit Sang. As willing as he was to help with the group chores, she didn’t particularly relish the thought of sparring with him. He didn’t seem to be jumping to suggest they face one another, either.

Instead, she found herself seeking out Aang and Zuko to watch them train. Aang fluctuated between acting glad she was there and showing off—something that got him reprimanded by Zuko more than once—and abashed that there was someone watching him at all. He never acted that way while learning earthbending. She wondered if he still felt so much remorse about accidentally burning her all those months ago.

Even if he did, he didn’t say anything, and Zuko didn’t give him any chance to protest. The native firebender pushed Aang hard, Katara noted, while balancing it out with intermittent but welcomed encouragement. It was strange, noting how his training style differed. She knew she was a gentle teacher—especially when it came to Aang, her last hope, the world’s last hope—and that Toph was unrelenting as with all things, but Zuko fell somewhere between them. The majority of the time, he was firebending right alongside Aang, demonstrating a technique or mirroring so his student could follow along. After watching them a few times, Katara had to concede that Zuko’s method was… rather effective.

Absorbed in training, neither boy paid much mind to her. Cautiously, almost timidly, Katara closed her eyes and breathed in, singling her focus onto the pulses in her thumb and middle fingers. She exhaled, allowed her perception to flow out of her like a tide rolling toward some distant shore, out to the two benders those pulses belonged to.

She felt Aang’s instantly, that powerful roll in her longest finger, but there was a difference this time. It felt… warm. It felt just like Zuko’s had when he first came to them. Her brow furrowed a little, head tilting just so in concentration. Perhaps she was also sensing Zuko, and thus was confusing the two.

No, a few more moments of focusing on that simultaneously weighty and cavernous pulse convinced her that it was indeed only Aang she was focusing on. What was it, then? What was causing this difference she now felt with him?

“You’ve got to steady your breathing,” Zuko reprimanded him, his rough voice cutting through her thoughts. “Firebending comes from the breath. If you don’t learn to control it, you’re going to hyperventilate and pass out. Not to mention you might set everything around you on fire.”

Katara’s eyes snapped open. She smiled, a small curve of her mouth. That was it, she realized, the rest of whatever Zuko was explaining diminishing to background noise to her—the firebending was the difference. Aang had never truly done any firebending before, even was actively trying not to for a long time, and she’d heard that firebending comes from the movement of internal qi itself, rather than just the manipulation of an external element.

Light and movement at the edge of her line of sight caught her eye and she lifted her gaze to see Zuko in the midst of demonstrating. Katara found her gaze locked to him as he stood, eyes closed and feet at shoulder width, arms solid and hands held palm-up before his solar plexus. He very visibly drew breath in through his nose and exhaled through his mouth several times. Within his chest, she sensed his heartbeat slow, but strengthen, and she felt the drag from it within her chest, insistent and tugging at the spaces between her ribs, and she had to bite down on the inside of her cheek to keep herself from reaching for him.

It was almost like being drunk, or like being caught in the heavy fog between sleep and wakefulness, like her limbs were leaden and she wouldn’t be able to move them if she tried, but she didn’t feel compelled to do so; the rhythm of his heartbeat and the rush of his blood filled her ears like some foreign siren song she knew would lead her against a cluster of rocks and drown her, but she very suddenly just couldn’t stop herself from sinking further into it anyway.

Then she felt a shift, a controlled change and channel within him, and was flung back to her full senses just in time to witness Zuko take a concise step back and exhale a bright tongue of flame.

It didn’t last very long, but the light and heat from it were intense, and when it dissipated into curling wisps of smoke, Aang’s wide-eyed admiration came into full view. His undivided attention was now firmly on Zuko, who shifted through a surprisingly fluid set of katas, controlled flames forming from along his knuckles with every strike, and from the soles of his feet with every kick. He moved deliberately slow to demonstrate to Aang; some of the moves Katara recognized were at fraction of the speed at which he had performed them at other times. And just before every release of his fire, she felt the same shift of current within him, through the trawling in her thumbs and clavicle and hips, through the insistent flow of his blood and qi that sang its strange and hypnotic deluge, its intoxicating promise of submersion.

And then he relaxed his stance, lowering his hands, palm-down now, and released his breath and all the tension he held through his body. His heart returned to normal, and the rush of headiness that had gripped her finally and fully relented its hold on her, though the echo and reverberations of his pulse lingered in the hollow of her throat and in the thickest tendons of her wrists.

“That was amazing!” Aang exclaimed, bright voice disrupting the lull within her. Katara refocused her gaze on the two benders she had intended to watch. “When can you teach me to do that, Sifu Hotman?”

Zuko scowled at him. “Maybe I’ll consider it once you stop calling me that.”

She rubbed her thumb and longest finger together, feeling the pulsing warmth in each of them, noting how much warmer the former was, how much more prominent the heartbeat in it was. Katara frowned.

This was a bad idea, she decided for the second time.

She didn’t want to get to know the ebb and flow of Zuko’s heartbeat better, didn’t want to know what would happen if she spent more time focusing on what she felt inside his veins; a growing, desperate pit in her stomach feared that she just might lose herself and not mind.

She had to stop.

All at once, Katara rose to her feet in a single, fluid movement. She was too warm, with heat spreading out from the bottom joint of her thumb and creeping down her wrist to the rest of her, felt too heady and drifting in her own head. In the space of a hitched breath, she walked away, leaving a perturbed Aang and firm-mouthed Zuko watching after and wondering at her sudden departure.

In the darkness of the deep of night, Katara lay awake, unable to sleep. Her heart ricocheted in her throat and even with the comfort of having both Sokka and her father nearby for the first time in years could not drown out the cadence persisting in the pad of her thumb, a thin but tense thread connecting to Zuko’s sleeping form across from her in the circle they all made. She felt like a fish caught by a line and hated herself for being ensnared so easily, again.

No. Not again.

She wouldn’t let herself get swept up by him again, not after the catacombs. Not after how quickly she’d allowed herself to fall so fully into the rush of his veins earlier.

Katara clenched her hands into fists until her nails dug into the skin of her palms to drown out the warm, steady pulse she felt in her thumbs until she finally found sleep.

“How long will it last?”

Her voice sounds too small to her ears, too frightened. She wants to be strong—don’t crumble, don’t cry, don’t curl in on yourself. So she sits up tall, legs tucked beneath her, and tries not to squirm.

“It’s different for everyone, kuluk,” her mother replies, hands sifting through an old woven basket. “But the first time shouldn’t be more than a few days.”

When she straightens, she has a braid of dark hair in her hands—and then it is in Katara’s, and her mother is behind her, brushing out her long hair, hair past her waist now, thick and curling and so very far from the downy baby curls she holds in between her fingers.

“We have to hang on to that,” her mother tells her, tugging new braids into her hair. Three now, tied each themselves then bound around one another, marking the third step of her life. She would once day add braids herself—one for each of her children, and the last for when she no longer would bear them. “You’ll need it later.”

Days pass in an instant—surrounded by women, only women, only anntullik, the ones beside her. Her mother, her grandmothers, her aunt, women she knew from the village. They laugh and share stories and worries with her, share a bowl of specially made caribou-seal milk, fermented in a small clay pot for just this purpose. The first few sips make Katara gag, and the next she takes make her suddenly clench over and heave up the contents of her stomach. But the anntullik are ready for that, too. Someone rubs her back while she clutches the baby down to in her fingers. Words in the Tribe’s tongue drift like smoke around her and she feels her heartbeat between her hips.

A fire is before her as she kneels on the floor and her hands are shaking. What will it show? Her mother’s form presses gently into the curve of her back, her long hair falling over Katara’s shoulder just like her own would were it not braided back. She murmurs words into her ear, and Katara can’t understand them clearly, but she knows the meaning anyway. She reaches out, shoving her hand into the flames to release the baby down braid into it. The braid starts smoking immediately, thick and dark and rank, and the strands of hair curl twisting in on themselves several times over.

“There will be pain, your labor will be long,” a voice much like her mother’s says next to her ear. Katara frowns. She feels the pulse in her wrists press forward and back. Waves wound behind her bones.

Then she is lying on her back, her parka and layers of shirt hiked up to her ribs and her pants and smalls tugged down to bare her hips—there is no sensation of indecency, for they are all of a kind together in the hut, they’ve all bared their hips just like this when they were her age. Strong hands, calloused hands, warm hands hold her sides, her shoulders, they touch her face, soothe her hair back and along the pillow. A white-haired woman she doesn’t recognize from here is hunched over her hips with caribou-seal gut thread and a bone needle, sewing a pattern of thick dots into the ruddy brown of her skin.

She feels every pulse of her heart now, like she felt undercurrents beneath the ice, feels the heartbeats of all the women around her. She knows where they are, how they are standing, which ones were recently sick, which one will soon feel a quickening in her own womb. The place between Katara’s hips houses her heart instead of her chest now, and she feels blood run down the inside of her thigh, back toward the furs she lays upon.

Blood—like water, moving like waves, tides within each person. Reach out to them like you would a stream of water beneath the ground, pull it up up up until you command its form—yes, good, Katara. You certainly are worthy of learning the greatest lesson of the last Southern Waterbender.

Katara gasps audibly and tries to buck her hips, but the white-haired old woman’s hands are too strong as she holds them down, Katara’s own blood from the sewn tattoos beading around bony fingers, and Hama’s face looks up at her from above those hands, grinning. Now you are truly initiated, her voice crackles like wood or bone snapping in two. A living hum tingled along the bloodways of her entire body and made her bones shake and ache and she knew all she had to do to stop it was just reach out and seize control of Hama’s blood just like before and command its movement to her will—

The hut she was in suddenly shattered into consciousness from the deep dhoum of an explosion, and Katara rolled her feet on instinct, all while realizing the thrum she felt beneath her bones wasn’t the sense of blood, but the vibrations of a Fire Nation airship outside the temple. In an instant, she was on her feet and prepared to launch herself into a fight, already reaching out to the water in the fountain on the terrace. Another shudder ran through her—no, it ran through the entire building, upending any thoughts or worries she might have spared for the dream. Then everything happened at once.

Slabs of rock tumbling down toward her as the ceiling crumbled—saved from crushing by a tumble of body against her own across the stone floor—their group separated and tunneling escapes out of the temple and into the fray, grasping a pair of warm hands in her own and dragging the Exiled Prince into Appa’s saddle to save him from a sure death (repaying the debt just incurred for him saving her own), then a flight through the clouds faster than any airship—or war balloon—could hope to follow.

The dream already was fading from her mind, pushed out by more immediate worries, threats that were real. When her first blood had come upon her three years ago, Katara had been only with her grandmother, and they’d braided her hair together. Her baby down was long gone, lost in the Fire Nation raid that killed her mother, and she’d known next to nothing of waterbending—let alone bloodbending—then. It was just a dream, and it sank away from her waking mind as they flew through the cover of clouds.

chapter one

It wasn’t something she noticed right away.

When she did notice, when she realized what it was, it made her sick to be in her own skin.

She hated herself for it, for what Hama had forced her to do with her bending. She hated how achingly powerful it made her feel, to be able to have the pulse of the older woman beneath her fingertips without even being within arm’s reach. To be able to feel the skittish rattling of Aang and Sokka’s hearts ricocheting in the back of her throat, even if she didn’t reach out for them with her bending.

It’d been a creeping sensation sliding beneath her skin ever since encountering the old waterbender, but it wasn’t until they were on the way the Western Air Temple that the full weight of understanding sank into her like a heavy stone to the bottom of the ocean.

Katara could still sense the pulse of not only Aang and Sokka, both of whom she’d felt under Hama’s control, but the blood of everyone around her. It shifted and thrummed at a low, low level, like undercurrents beneath the stronger tide. The same way she could feel the siren call of the dark depths of the ocean, the muted beats of pulses not her own called to her, tried to lure her down to them.

During the day she shoved as much of her friends’ heartbeats as she could aside, keeping the disquieting desire to sift through them one by one at bay. She had plenty of distractions to busy herself with—preparing all the meals for the group, conversations she threw herself into, practicing bending forms as they walked. But, in the quiet dark of each night, when she was only half awake and curled up on her side, there wasn’t enough to keep her curiosity from wandering back to the chorus of pulses surrounding her.

Three days before they reached the Western Air Temple, Katara finally gave up on sleep, the last iron of her resolve rusting away. With everyone asleep around her on the grass, she drew in a breath and let her water sense expand.

She could feel each pulse at the very tips of her fingers. Sokka, she realized, was the cadence in her ring finger; his was a familiar pulse, one she’d known for a very long time. Lingering in the floating space before true sleep, Katara listened to her brother’s heart, steady in the night. It grew and filled the edges around her so clearly, she could convince herself they were back home, back in the frozen south with skins and furs and fleeces piled all around them and her head was pillowed near his back.

This opened a new possibility for her. As well as she knew Sokka, she wondered if she would be able to always sense him now in a way more definitive than just a sister’s intuition. Would she be able to pluck his heartbeat from among any others with the same surety with which their mother had plucked each tautirut string? Would it always be there for her to listen to if he was near? Being able to have his presence always there so long as a heartbeat should have been a comfort to her, if it didn’t make her wonder just how close to the surface this perversion of her bending had been her whole life.

In the daylight, she found herself watching him, wondering, a slow twist of disgust twining around her stomach. Did she really remember Sokka’s heartbeat and reassuring heat from the years in their family’s igloo, or was she always destined to bloodbend? Was it always in her nature, hidden in the depths, simply waiting to be called up to the surface?

Disgust roiled inside her to think that such an awful power was lurking in her waterbending, something she loved so dearly. She retreated a distance from the others while they were distracted by lunch and promptly retched up the rice and vegetables she’d eaten.

After her stomach finally stopped lurching at the notion that she could concisely identify her brother’s heartbeat five people away, Katara took in a deep, shaky breath, searching for a calm center within her mind around which to orient herself. She had to look at this rationally, had to parcel this into manageable pieces. Perhaps she could find a way to stop sensing everyone around her, learn to control it, learn to silence the transfixing rhythm of hearts beneath her own, to quell the tug lingering in her fingers to reach out and dip into the currents in each of her friends and companions.

A small, derisive voice in the back of her head that she did not like whispered, It will be as easy as stopping you from waterbending.

Still, she had to believe there was a way to control it, so that whenever she felt a rush of blood not her own it wouldn’t send her into waves of nausea from the knowledge.

The days of their trek to the temple passed, days spent intent on her own breath, on narrowing her focus to that of her own heartbeat to try and drown out all the others. Eventually, she was able to distance her awareness enough to feel somewhat comfortable again. In that space she—against her better judgement—could not help but undertake a cautious, tentative examination. Now that the initial, immediate revulsion had passed over her, Katara felt something akin to curiosity that she wasn’t quite ready to admit as such.

She spent careful time during each of the next three days dedicated to the very controlled and slow exploration of reaching out with her bending to simply sense what she could. There was water everywhere: the moisture in the grass, dew in the mornings that evaporated as the sun rose; the winding sluice of a stream to the norther, far beyond the sight or hearing of anyone else but her; the beads of sweat that had gathered at the backs of all their necks and curves of their spines as they walked beneath the sun.

All these things she knew the very first afternoon they’d spent in the temple, without even trying. She went further.

The soil beneath them held water—an amount comparable to a heavy fog, but not as easily drawn out. Still, she knew that she could pull it up to her fingers if she wanted to. If she needed to. Even the stones that lay scattered about the grassland they walked through held beads of moisture trapped in cracks or more porous spots. The water there would be even more difficult to reach, but she still could. Her fingers itched at the thought of stretching her abilities again, to draw water from the very stone itself.

Despite the distaste on her tongue at the thought of the one who taught her to look for water in everything, being able to know these things now made her feel powerful, made her feel good.

It was what lay beyond simply knowing where to find water in the least likely of placed, what power she would find in the blood currents of others, that frightened her.

It took her two more days, but Katara, sitting still and straight in the middle of the night during her watch, bit her lip and finally steeled herself to sink down to the litany of pulses waiting for her to know them.

At first, it was overwhelming, allowing herself to wade into so many different heartbeats pulling and pushing in different bodies. They were all oceans unto themselves, and Katara could not tell them apart. She sucked in a breath, but then forced herself to release it and focus again. Sokka—she knew him, knew him for all her life, she could find him anywhere—and so she stilled herself and parsed through all the rhythms like fingers threading through drifting silk strands until she found him. Her ring finger tingled. Even through her trepidation, it emboldened her.

She drew in and then exhaled another steadying breath. Her eyes fall shut as she submitted to identifying the living currents around her.

Toph she felt in her littlest finger. The even, strong pulse of the earthbender’s heart ran a line along the outside of her finger, down the length of her hand until she lost it somewhere among her wristbones. It was slower than the others she could feel, but had more power with every beat, and if she let it she could feel it vibrate every bone in her hand. In a strange and almost disconcerting way, it was almost as much a comfort as Sokka’s.

Katara wondered, suddenly, if this was similar to the way that Toph navigated the world, through the overt and subtle vibrations everyone made as they moved and lived on the earth itself. Her eyes flew open as she considered the possibilities that started to trickle into her mind. What if this could be the equivalent with her waterbending? She wouldn’t be limited by what sort of material a person was standing on—Katara bet that with enough practice, she’d be able to determine the distance and state of a person if she needed to.

Even as practical, even useful applications of this… extension of her waterbending took form in her reasoning, the revulsion returned. How could she be doing this? How could she be seriously considering using the blood in someone else, even if it were for what could be argued as a good cause? Blood was one of the most intimate elements a person could posses, it wasn’t a toy for her to tap into whenever it suited her.

She unfolded her legs hurriedly and ran to a spot far enough away from the others and retched onto the ground.

This was a bad idea.

She should stop.

But the moon wasn’t near enough to full for her to worry she’d accidentally use the power she now possessed, and what harm was there if she couldn’t really do anything? In the end, her curiosity proved stronger than her fear. She felt quiet patterns tapped out between all her friends, and she couldn’t help herself.

She’d only use it to help them, to find them, to heal them, she resolved. She’d never, ever use it to control someone again.

Relenting with a quiet escape of breath, she sat on the pallet laid out on the stone slab of some ancient monk’s bed she now used, Katara then yielded to the deep undercurrents and let them take her where they will this time.

Haru had a similar pulse to Toph’s—just as steady, but not quite as slow, not quite as strong. Teo’s pulse was lighter, with more pulling than pushing, as if his very blood was trying to help him get off the ground. The Duke’s was more rapid, but he was much younger than everyone, and the most energetic of the three, even deep in sleep as they all were.

She found Aang in her longest finger. It was a strange, almost rolling pulse that started at her knuckle and ended at her fingertip, and she wondered at the distance it traveled in a single beat. It felt like the length of millennia, of generations. The length of lifetimes. Katara could feel spacious, carefree resonance echoing with every push outward that his heart made. She could feel all the things that made him a nomad, an airbender down to the very blood in his veins, but she could also feel the solemnity that drew heavily back to his heart. It was weight that he bore as the Avatar for centuries, and would continue to bear for centuries after she was long dead.

Katara lingered on the cadence of Aang’s pulse the longest, flowing with it in her mind but not interfering, not reaching out—not that she could, as it wasn’t the full moon yet. She allowed herself to simply drift along, letting the push and pull of his heartbeat dictate her accompaniment. It was hypnotizing, inducing a lulling trance that seemed to slowly draw her further in and further down into the depths beneath the weight he carried inside him. She didn’t realize she was completely engulfed until her chest constricted sharply, her heart pounding erratically and giving her the sensation of drowning—something she had never feared since she began waterbending in earnest.

With a sharp gasp, she snapped back from Aang’s pulse and grasped at the strange, uneven hammering in her chest. It was difficult to breathe for several terrifying moments before she forced air deep into her lungs to prove to her body that she wasn’t drowning. Her heart slowly calmed to its normal rhythm, and the pain in her chest faded.

Carefully drawing in long, steadying breaths, Katara tried to determine what had happened. One moment she was sinking into nearly ten thousand years of lives and the next she felt her own heart might explode. Lost. She must have gotten lost in his undercurrent, strong and ancient as it was. That alone didn’t explain the constricting pain she felt clawing up through her heart out to her lungs. She found no answer by the time she woke Sokka for his turn at the watch and laid down against Appa’s side. Weariness spread from her heart outward, overtaking her.

She slept in late the next morning without meaning to. The others must have decided to let her be for once; normally she would have gotten up in haste and apologized in a flurry, rushing over to the cooking fire to make sure everyone got fed. This time she stayed cushioned on Appa’s fur, thankful that breakfast was being made on the opposite side of where she lay.  Eventually, she would get up and join them, but for now she closed her eyes against the light of the morning and drew in a rattling breath. She felt an odd ache in her chest—it wasn’t the ache of muscles or bone, but something deeper, like her heart had strained too much for too long—and she wanted nothing more than to rest for a while longer.

It was then she remembered losing herself in the pull of Aang’s pulse. A furrow creased across her forehead and she worried the plane of her sternum with her fingers. She hadn’t felt tired at all, but after pain had gripped her chest, it seemed as if all the energy was drained from her body. Katara frowned, trying to recall as many details as she could about it. It was difficult to pull single moments of memory out of the trance-like state she’d been lulled into.

As if summoning it, she felt the rhythm of his heart again. Almost immediately upon feeling his cadence again, Katara was nearly dragged back into it, but she was prepared this time, and held herself firm against the tug of it.

It was then she felt it—the stuttering of her own heart for a few beats, trying in vain to match his. That’s what had caused her pain last night, she realized. His pulse was such a force with so many lifetimes behind it, that her heart had responded and tried to change her own natural rhythm to match his. A relieved sigh left her, and she felt muscles she hadn’t realized were tense relax. No wonder it had been so uncomfortable—his heartbeat was faster than hers, and it went against every rhythm in her body, immediately rejecting the rhythm and snapping her out of her trance.

Biting her lip, Katara ventured to sink just a bit into the pull of his heart and sway of his blood as he moved around the campsite, getting ready for another day of walking. She wanted to see if she could keep her feet beneath her, not get swept away as she did last night.

It worked.

She drew back, holding his and everyone else’s pulses away—something she was already better at doing, now that she could parse through each pulse individually. Perhaps it wasn’t so bad after all, she ventured to admit to herself. She’d satisfied her curiosity, and eventually she might be able to develop benign uses for bloodbending—uses that didn’t include forcing someone else to her will.

She finally got up and stretched as much weariness out of her bones as she could, then went over to join the others. A quick bowl of congee satisfied her for breakfast, and then she helped clean up the campsite so they could start their trek again.

They walked for a good portion of the morning and afternoon, sighing complaints and worries to one another. Halfway through the afternoon, Toph stopped suddenly, planting her feet and lifting her chin. “Hey, we’re here! I can feel it!”

Katara glanced around. “Uhh… I think your feet need their eyes checked,” she told Toph.

“No,” Aang interjected, “she’s right. We’re here!”

“Wow…” Toph breathed. “It’s amazing!”

Words of disbelief and confusion flitted between them all, but then they clambered up on Appa again, and he took them down below the cliffside.

Toph was right—it really was amazing. Katara had no idea that buildings could even be built on the underside of a cliff like that. Every archway, terrace, and rooftop was as graceful and meticulous as the Southern Air Temple’s had been. It was also just as empty and echoing. Katara saw a brief shadow pass over Aang’s face before it faded. It was difficult for him not to hope they would find someone still hiding in one of the temples, she knew. The flashes of his grief plucked at her heartstrings every time. She resisted the urge to draw him into her arms and console him.

Instead, they landed and disembarked out of Appa’s saddle and Aang excitedly talked about the things he knew about this place. Watching him as she and Sokka gathered their traveling packs out of the saddle, Katara wondered if he’d been here a hundred years ago. Had he visited all the temples during his native time, or was he just taught about them? She’d never asked him before, and now found herself curious.

Teo, Haru, and the Duke soaked up Aang’s enthusiasm like sea sponges, chattering to each other about what they wanted to explore first. Their plans quickly devolved into a racing challenge. Katara saw exactly where this was going—and who would be the first to follow after the trio.

She stopped Aang’s exuberant exit short with his own staff, preventing him from following the other bows on their exploration of the temple. Instead, she led him back to a fallen column where Sokka and Toph perched upon the broken stones, somber. The mood leeched out of Aang as soon as he sat with them all. The anxiety coming from both Aang and her brother was nearly palpable in the air. Not surprising in the least, but it put them all on edge, feeding off one another and the narrowing window they had to bring any kind of plan to fruition.

Well. No time but the present; better to rip a leech off right away than let it linger.

A few days before, Aang had avoided all attempts she and Sokka had made to talk to him about a plan, about finding him a firebending teacher so that he could face the Fire Lord—nevermind that their options were severely limited. It had to be done, so they would find a way to do it. They had no other choice.

So she brought up the need for a firebending teacher, again. Aang, predictably, argued with her. Again. She argued back. It was a now-familiar push and pull to their dynamic, and as much as she cared for and believed in Aang, he frustrated her to no end sometimes.

She was about to lean into her argument and not allow him to avoid the situation any longer when he verbally pivoted around anything else she might have said as surely as he turned his airbending circles in zhuǎndòng yuánquān, and snapped open his glider.

“Oh well,” he declared in a definitive rush of breath, “guess we can’t come up with anybody. Why don’t we just take a nice tour around the temple?” He jogged to the edge of the temple and glided off into the air, Momo trailing behind him.

Katara let out a sound of exasperation, a low noise that vibrated through her throat. It was times like this that she wished he would have been older when he vanished from the world. She wished that he was someone who’d embraced more of the gravity of being the Avatar instead of being just a young boy who hadn’t been given enough time to grow up and simply play.

She released a heavy breath, laden with the irritation that she had to start growing up four years younger than he was now. As much as she hated it in a small, locked away corner of herself, she’d never shirked the duties she knew she had to do. In that same corner, she stuffed the spikes of resentment of having to act his mother at times, and climbed up on Appa. Both Sokka and Toph followed her suit—even Toph understood the importance of finding a solution and she was the same age as him—and took off after Aang.

“Aang, can we talk about you learning firebending now?” she called after him, the sharpness of her tone parting the wind before them like a guandao blade.

He shouted back about the wind being too loud—she knew it wasn’t and that he’d heard her just fine—and then spiraled into a great arcing loop in front of them with his glider. Katara tightened her jaw.

Next to her, Sokka called out next. “Aang, I think we should be making some plans about our future!”

This seemed to finally get through to him, and they followed his curve downward and back to the temple proper. Was he more open to talking because firebending wasn’t mentioned? Or was it because she wasn’t the one making the suggestion? As soon as that question formed in her, a hot twinge of annoyance twisted at the bottom of her lungs before she could stop it.

“Okay,” Aang shouted as he descended. “We can do that while I show you the giant pai sho table!” He landed and kept talking, excited and determined to avoid. “Oh, you’re gonna love the all-day echo chamber!”

They landed behind him and slid down Appa’s sides. All at once, Katara felt an abrupt intensity prickle beneath her fingertips, distracting her from what Aang was saying. Next to her, Toph straightened a little, motion back past the great girth of Appa.

“I think that will have to wait,” the earthbender said.

A new pulse came sweeping in like the tide against the shore of Katara’s heartbeat, slipping down into her veins with a curious warmth. It almost gave her a sense of disorientation, feeling a strange ripple that began deep in the well of her ribcage and ran out and down through her limbs. It made her entire body fill warm.

Zuko—it was Zuko.

The last time she’d seen Zuko was a thousand leagues from where they now stood, and it felt like a lifetime ago. Even though she’d never fathomed of bloodbending the last time they’d encountered him, she instantly knew it was him before she turned and he came into her view.

He was a sudden bright heat in her thumb, a sharp, concentrated pulse the way a healing wound felt. Somehow, his pulse felt hot, like she might warm her hands from it by the sheer virtue of his nature. His heart’s rhythm was steady, if a little fast, and the thick rush of blood through his veins made her almost feel drunk, as if from overly rich lychee wine.

Katara had to suck in a quick rush of air to remember herself and draw back from the lure of wading further in to submerge herself in this new pulse. Her hands curled in on themselves, and she clenched her jaw so she could separate herself from the pulse in her thumb, giving her room to breathe. She shoved anger in the space she created as he supplicated himself before them.

She had to remind herself that she’d trusted him before, had started opening up to him—and she thought he had started to, along with her. With the way his voice had softened at his apology, at the mention of the mother he’d lost as well, she’d thought perhaps there was something in him that hurt as much as she did. But that’d been a lie that even now still stung her as if he’d slapped her. So it felt good, it felt sharp and satisfying in the cracks of hurt in her he’d caused beneath Ba Sing Se, to drench him with water and shout at him to leave.

The way his pulse stuttered at that, she knew he’d be back. Katara could feel the determination flooding through him, despite her outburst. She clenched her hands to try and stop the new throbbing in the pad of her thumb.

He didn’t deserve a place in her hands like everyone else, like all the others she was close to. Katara wasn’t close to Zuko, and she didn’t want to be. Not after how quickly and easily she’d started down that path before.

When they were attacked and he came back, trying his best to help them—when, in the aftermath, everyone else grudgingly accepted him, Katara didn’t want to agree. She didn’t want him in their group, tentatively or not. She didn’t want to feel the strength of his pulse in her thumb.

But. She knew they were out of choices to find Aang a firebending teacher. She had no choice but to defer.

Katara waited until she was sure Sokka and Aang were well out of earshot before entering the open doorway of his room, her own blood roaring in her ears.

The young man who’d chased them all around the world who was somehow, somehow now precariously within the folds of their group was smiling as he gently fingered the frame of a picture. Such a soft expression caught her unawares; it caught and tightened something deep in her stomach.

He seemed to sense her and turned, and she felt the slightest hiccup in his heartbeat, saw the slightest smile form on his mouth before it quickly faded.

Good, she thought. Let him worry about me. He should.

“You might have everyone else here buying your… transformation,” she leveled at him like a kunai blade, “but you and I both know you’ve struggled with doing the right thing in the past.”

The cloth of her tunic scraped harshly against the stone doorframe as she pushed off it with her shoulder, feeling like she’d swallowed glass, feeling like if she tried to bend water it would only turn to ice. She stepped near him, close enough to shove her nose and teeth in his face, close enough to feel the improbable heat of him. Katara ignored the throbbing in her thumbs and bared her teeth at him like a posturing animal.

“So let me tell you something, right now. You make one step backward, one slip-up…” The sneer of her face made her feel stronger, feral, sharper. It made her feel like he wouldn’t be able to get past the shards this time. “Give me one reason to think you might hurt Aang, and you won’t have to worry about your destiny anymore. Because I’ll make sure your destiny ends right then and there. Permanently.”

Zuko didn’t speak, but he didn’t have to. She saw the apprehension settle over his face like a shroud, felt the rapidity of his heart and knew all she needed to know from him. Katara turned and left.

If you’re feeling it, I suggest a oneshot prompt: ‘come here, you can sit on my lap till I’m done working’ ;)

I hope this works for you, Anon!


A bored sigh accompanied the creaking of a chair across from where he sat. Zuko didn’t look up from the spread of scrolls and letters before him.

The quiet rustle of cloth followed not to long after, and slender taupe fingertips slid into the edge of his view. He ignored the urge to look up at her and ignored the little wiggling of her fingers to try and get his attention.

He scratched out a few notes on a slip of paper. One of Katara’s fingers reached and stretched and tapped the end of his writing brush just ever so lightly. He closed his eyes.

“Zuko…”

He opened his eyes again, only to refocus them–very obviously–on the work in front of him. “Mm,” he said, trying to sound busy.

If he had a good, solid hour to work on this, he could probably get his outline done. One of the toughest things he’d run into after taking up the full mantle of Fire Lord after reaching his majority was reestablishing a solid foundation for the economy. Being at war for a century meant that they didn’t really have to worry about trade agreements or import taxes or selling their exports. Now that the war was over, however, those were all things they desperately needed. Of course, none of the other nations were offering any kind of leeway or help, either. The Fire Nation had been doing just fine during the war, after all, why should they need help now? Except–they hadn’t been doing fine. War benefitted those in power and those who already had money who weren’t in danger of losing any. The poor who didn’t have much to begin with far too often lost what little they had, and the gap between his poorest citizens and the nobility had grown frighteningly during the last few decades–

Zuko.” Katara’s voice was much closer to him, this time–right beside his ruined ear, in fact.

He blinked at the scatter of rice paper across his desk, then lifted his chin and tilted his head a bit so he could just see her blurry outline in his periphery.

“Are you trying to sneak up on me?” he teased her.

She laughed, one of her hands sliding across the line of his shoulders. He imagined he could feel the cool of her fingers even through the layers of his robes. Leaning over him, she peered down at the notes he’d been taking and the old, dusty scrolls he was using for reference. It was such a small, innocuous thing, but the way she pressed against him in doing so was intensely distracting.

The Chun Tai Restoration?” she asked. It took him a moment to understand what she was talking about.

“It’s just a name I’ve been toying with,” he said. “I know the Sages are technically the ones who name when a new era starts, but it felt fitting. I really want to phase out as much of the military presence as I can.” Zuko frowned, his own gaze falling back to his notes and scrolls. “It’s proving a lot more difficult than anyone anticipated, though. Soldiers are usually really good at being soldiers, but not much else, and a lot of them are having trouble reintegrating back into non-war life. On top of that, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of jobs we can try and move them into. Too much of the economy’s old foundations have been let waste away. Did you know we used to be the primary exporter of specialty spices and top quality ceramics? I didn’t know that.”

Katara moved around him so that she was leaning back against the table, facing him. Amusement was bright in her eyes and tugged at the corners of her mouth. “I’d say you’ve been working on this a lot, but I think that might be the understatement of this century.”

He leaned his head against the back of his chair with an exhale. “I’ve got to get this outline done.”

“Well,” she said, straightening and smoothing out the front of her patterned, cobalt áo dài. Ever since she’d taken to wearing Fire Nation styles but in Water Tribe hues, Zuko often found himself losing the trail of his thoughts whenever he caught sight of her. She was stunning in the bold, contrasting colors amid a sea of reds and maroons. “I suppose I should let you get back to it, then.”

Zuko wrested his attention back to what she was saying. It didn’t help his concentration any that the close-fitting silks of the dress highlighted just what physical changes she’d gone through the past few years. “You could help,” he suggested.

She feigned indifference, turning her head to look off to the side. “Oh, I’m not sure just how much help I’ll be with all that right now.”

Now it was Zuko’s turn to laugh. “Katara, please. You know I’m always happy to hear your thoughts on everything.”

The curve of her mouth shifted smoothly from nonchalance to arch, and she tilted her head just so, giving him the graceful line of her neck and a glimpse of collar bone. Her eyes were hooded when she sent her gaze back to meet his. He felt a plume of heat blossom and curl beneath his ribs. “I’m afraid my thoughts are about as far from spices and quality ceramics as you might imagine.”

The heat pooled downward, and the drop in his voice indicated yes he very well might imagine. “Come here, why don’t you sit on my lap until I’m done working?”

Her áo dài’s silk was just as smooth beneath his hands as it looked when she pushed off the desk and slid onto his lap. Her hands found his chest and shoulders; his found the lines of muscle at her waist and back.

Zuko had always believed one of his greatest assets was his ability to focus wholeheartedly on the tasks set before him, and to overcome whatever challenges he had to. He knew proper áo dài had several hidden ties that held the intricate squares of fabric into place so the wearer could move without fear of any slipping. Where those ties were hidden depended on the tailor, and he had the feeling Katara would keep those secrets to herself, as well. His palm pressed against her back, while the one at her waist began the slow, wandering challenge of discovering where each tie was.

Scrolls and policies were left forgotten on the desk behind Katara. They had quite a lot of work to do before getting back to them.