"Here, let me see your arm."
Zuko shifted in the saddle. "It's fine."
"Don't be difficult." Katara's hand went to the tear in his sleeve, where one of Mai's arrows had sheared through the fabric and grazed his arm.
"It's just a scrape," he insisted, looking away. Half an hour ago, they'd been seated on the back of an ostrich-horse, her body a warm weight against his chest, and though their kiss had muddled his feelings toward her, he'd at least known how to respond when she spoke to him. Now that she was back with her friends, he couldn't be certain of anything. He didn't even know how to react around his uncle right now, given what the Avatar had let slip about the Blue Spirit. His uncle's lack of a reaction had implied that he'd known, or at least suspected, but if so, why hadn't he said anything?
Katara surveyed the wound for a moment, then guided a trickle of water from her canteen and let it flow over her hand as she pressed it against his arm. At once, he felt the cool, prickly sensation of skin knitting back together. Katara withdrew, then caught his hand and turned it over, pressing her water-gloved palm over the shallow cut there. It was a minor wound, barely deep enough to bleed. He wondered why she'd bothered. "You should save your strength," he said quietly. "You're still weak from your injuries."
She raised an eyebrow, then went back to healing his hand. Within seconds, the cut had vanished, replaced with smooth skin. She siphoned the water back into her canteen with a gesture, but held onto his hand a moment longer, tracing his knuckles with the pad of her thumb. "You haven't changed your mind, then?"
He had no need to ask what she meant. "We're still enemies, Katara. That's not going to change."
She nodded as if she'd expected it and released his hand. "Maybe once the war is over."
He regarded her for a long moment, wanting to say a hundred things but unsure which of them was right. In the end, he simply nodded.
They flew nearly three hours before they started to descend.
Zuko felt the subtle shift and sat up, suddenly alert. He'd spent the first hour of their flight watching the Avatar, making plans to capture him. When those imagined plots had proven fruitless, he'd set to work trying to figure out where they were going. He judged they were somewhere near Omashu, which could be problematic. The Fire Nation had claimed a significant portion of the Earth Kingdom's western coasts, sometimes pushing inland for hundreds of miles, and Azula wouldn't be the only one looking for them. They'd have to be careful not to run into any Fire Nation patrols as they walked to whatever destination they selected next.
That's another problem, he thought. We won't be able to track the Avatar without some faster form of transport. Even his ship hadn't been able to keep up with a flying bison. He'd often had to rely on rumor to predict where the Avatar would be heading, then try to arrive before him to lay a trap. With their limited resources, it was unlikely he'd be able to follow the Avatar more than a few miles before he was too far away for it to matter.
He's sitting less than fifteen feet away, and I have no way of capturing him. He clenched his jaw, trying to ignore the bitter edge to his thoughts. Of course his best chance to capture the Avatar would come when he had no means to get him back to the Fire Nation. When had the universe ever handed him such an opportunity without that sort of catch?
When they were about twenty feet above the ground, their descent ceased. Zuko peered at the rocks blow. "I hope you're not expecting me to jump."
"Of course not," Katara said, eyebrows slanting. "Sokka's going to tie a rope to the saddle so you can climb down."
He said nothing, merely watched the water tribe warrior knot a rope around one of the saddle's handholds, shoulders stiff. Though they'd all acceded to an unspoken truce, none of them had eased their guard, and tension hummed between them. As soon as Sokka had secured the rope, he dropped the loose end over the side. It was just long enough to drag against the rocks below without becoming ensnared.
"There," Sokka said, not even deigning to look their way as he gestured for them to climb down. "You can go now."
Zuko stood carefully, but before he could take the few steps toward the robe, his uncle laid a hand on his shoulder. "Let me go first, to make sure the line holds."
"Uncle . . ."
The old man smiled. "Just a precaution, Nephew."
Zuko took a breath, then let it go as his uncle took hold of the rope. "Best of luck on your travels," he said, eyes touching first on the Avatar, then on Katara and her brother. Sokka stiffened, regarding the old man warily, but Katara returned the smile.
"Good luck avoiding Azula."
His uncle laughed, easing out of the saddle. "We'll do our best." He slid down in increments of several inches, the rope stretched taut between his hands and the saddle. Zuko studied the knot, making sure it held, then, when his uncle was about halfway down, he reached for the rope, his eyes turning toward Katara. Stay with me, he almost said. But he had nothing to offer her: no honor, no title, not even a promise of safety. Even if he could somehow convince her to join him, she deserved better than a life as a fugitive.
At last, he managed to speak. "I'll see you again someday."
To his surprise, she smiled gently, laying her hand over his as he gripped the rope. "Someday," she agreed. "When the war is over."
Sooner than that, he thought, glancing at the Avatar. The boy met his stare, clutching his staff tightly in one hand. Zuko nodded once, then began his descent, sliding smoothly down the rope as his uncle touched the ground below. Halfway down, he craned his neck upward, hoping for one more glimpse of Katara, but she'd already withdrawn out of sight.
He slid the last ten feet toward the ground, landing gracefully despite the uneven terrain. As soon as he released the rope, Sokka started pulling it back up, and then the flying bison rose up into the sky, leaving no trail that Zuko could follow.
Katara waited until the ground below became a distant patchwork of green and brown, then turned to Sokka. "Okay. You can say it."
Sokka regarded her, eyebrows furrowed, his eyes like those of an arctic wolf, wary and watchful. She waited for the accusations, the disbelief. In the span of a few weeks, she'd gone from viewing Zuko as an enemy to all but hauling him into Appa's saddle so Azula wouldn't capture him. A certain amount of cooperation would have been understandable, given the circumstances, but she knew she'd stepped over a line somewhere—perhaps more than one line, she thought, remembering the sensation of Zuko's mouth on hers, the press of his body as she'd kissed him on the forest floor.
But Sokka's words surprised her. "He really didn't hurt you?"
She shook her head. "I expected him to, at first, but he never did," she said, thinking back to those days at sea, when her hands had been bound. He hadn't exactly been personable, but he hadn't harmed her, either, and the few threats he'd made had simply been pragmatic. "He's not evil, he's just . . . conflicted. He's always talking about restoring his honor, but more than anything, I think he wants to go home. That doesn't excuse all those times he tried to capture Aang, but . . ."
Sokka nodded slowly, as if he didn't quite believe her, but didn't press the point. "If he wasn't the one who hurt you, who was?" he asked, eyes flicking to her side.
"We had a run-in with the Rough Rhinos—Fire Nation mercenaries, each specializing in a different weapon." She unwound the bandage—really just a strip of cloth from Zuko's tunic—to reveal the still-healing burn beneath her ribs. "Iroh had to cauterize the wound to stop the bleeding, but Zuko was the one who saved me."
"Couldn't you have healed it yourself?" Sokka asked, frowning.
"If I'd gotten to it soon enough, maybe, but I'd already used up all my bending water in the fight." She sighed, rooting through one of the nearby packs in search of fresh bandages and burn salve.
Before she could find it, Sokka handed her the medical kit Gran-gran had packed for them so many months ago. Though they'd scarcely used it since she'd discovered her healing abilities, it appeared fully stocked: bandages, salves, herbal remedies, even a needle and thread for stitching. "We weren't sure how long it would take us to find you," Sokka said, "so we picked up some supplies."
"Thanks." She dabbed two fingers in a container of salve and smeared some over the wound. "So what did you guys do after the battle at the North Pole?"
"Well, once we realized we weren't going to find you out at sea, we headed for the Earth Kingdom to meet up with General Fong—he runs a military base to the northwest of here. We'd hoped their intelligence reports might give us a lead on where you'd been taken, but while we were there, the general suggested Aang try to master the Avatar State so he could face the Fire Lord before things got any worse."
Katara drew back, dismayed. She'd seen Aang in the Avatar State several times, and while it had gotten them out of some dangerous situations, the transformation from the idealistic young monk she'd befriended to an unpredictable tempest of destruction had always frightened her. Unbidden, her mind leapt to that argument she'd had with Zuko so many weeks ago, when he'd accused Aang of sinking the fleet that had swarmed the North Pole. Did Aang understand what he'd done, how many deaths he'd caused when he'd merged with the ocean spirit?
"I couldn't do it," Aang said quietly from his perch at the front of the saddle. "The only thing that worked was to make me think that someone's life was in danger."
"Yeah," Sokka said, his voice rising. "That crazy general tried to bury me alive. I thought I was going to suffocate!"
Aang nodded, a melancholy note to his voice. "Afterward, Roku came to me in a vision and told me that if I was killed in the Avatar State, the reincarnation cycle would be broken, and the Avatar would cease to exist."
"Oh," Katara said, disquieted. She laid a hand on Aang's shoulder, hoping to reassure him, but Aang stayed quiet, staring emptily at the clouds ahead of them.
"After that, we spent some time searching along the coast," Sokka said. "We figured if you'd been captured, they would have had to transport you by boat, so we did a few raids at ports controlled by the Fire Nation, looking for information, but most of it was outdated, and we had to be careful not to draw too much notice. Eventually, we ended up in the Foggy Swamp, where Aang had a vision about you, and we narrowed our search from there. Oh, and Aang might have found an earthbending teacher, but we need to fly back to Gaoling to meet her."
"It sounds like a missed a lot," she said, hoping her words sounded more sincere than they felt. She was glad to be back with her friends, but she'd become so accustomed to having Zuko and Iroh around that their sudden absence had left her feeling strangely bereft. When the war is over, she'd said, but she'd learned a long time ago that any goodbye might be the last, and while she could hope for their survival, her wishes wouldn't make it so.
"Oh, that reminds me," Aang said, gesturing for Sokka to take the reins so he could rifle through their supplies. After a few moments, he produced an ornate wooden box inscribed with the sigil of the Northern Water Tribe. "Master Pakku wanted me to give you this."
Surprised, she took the box and slid the lid aside to reveal the stacks of scrolls within. Her heart leapt as she caught sight of the glyphs etched onto the caps. "These are waterbending scrolls!"
Aang smiled. "We don't have time to go back to the North Pole, but he said you'd make a great teacher."
Something in her eased. Zuko had taken her from the North Pole before she could finish her training, but maybe she'd have a chance to master waterbending after all.
"There's something else at the bottom of the box," Aang went on, eyeing her. "He didn't say what it was, but he left a note.
Surprised, she reached through the stacks of scrolls until her hand closed around an elegant, icicle-shaped necklace filled with water. A piece of parchment had been wrapped around the necklace's chain, and she unfurled it carefully.
Katara, it read in Pakku's precise handwriting.
As you well know, parchment is prohibitively expensive this far north, so I shall keep this brief.
Firstly, I have included a collection of waterbending scrolls within this box. With luck, Aang will have found some time to practice these techniques as he and your brother searched for you, but I suspect many of these forms he will have to learn from you, which means that you will have to learn from these scrolls. Given your passion for combative waterbending, I suspect you will take to these instructions well.
Secondly, presuming this note has not been tampered with or intercepted, you are likely holding an icicle-shaped necklace as you read this. The necklace contains water from the Spirit Oasis, which is sometimes used in healing when the need is dire, as the water has unique properties. As you might imagine, there is only a limited supply, so I advise you be judicious in your use of it.
Know also that Yugoda has included several scrolls on healing, should you find the time to study them. She mentioned that you had a particular talent for it, and I hope that you will take the opportunity to pursue it. I realize now that I have erred in considering the healing arts to be woman's work, and as I look toward the future, I will try to leave some of those beliefs behind. Healing is a valuable art, and it was unwise of me to scorn it so. Whatever you become—healer, warrior, or both—I know you will excel at it. Either way, I look forward to seeing you once again once I've had a chance to reunite with your grandmother, so that I may see how far you've come.
Master Pakku of the Northern Water Tribe.
"What's it say?" Aang asked as she rolled up the message.
She smiled. "He says that I'm going to be your waterbending teacher from now on."
Sokka sighed, shoulders slumping. "Does this mean I should start looking for a pond so the two of you can splash around?"
"First we have to get back to Gaoling," Aang said. "After that, we'll figure out where we're going next."
"Great," Sokka said dryly. "We'll add 'make a plan' to the list of things we need to plan."
"Sounds good to me," Aang chirped.
Katara smiled, warmth seeping into the hollows where worry and fear had twisted through her heart. It would take time to fill those empty places, but for now, it was good to be home.