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Falling Slowly


IX. You've Made It Now


The soldier held the wanted poster steady in front of Katara's face, watching her intently. For her part, Katara was trying not to panic while pretending to inspect the notice. She let her eyes widen as she read the words, and looked ingenuously up at the soldier.

"I haven't see them," she said, trying for innocence. "Are they dangerous?"

She met his brown eyes and hoped he couldn't read the lies in her blue ones. He paused, eyes narrowing a bit. Katara held her breath.

"Yes," he replied finally. "They are both firebenders and very dangerous. If you see them, don't talk to them. Come find someone wearing a uniform like mine, and we'll take care of the criminals."

Katara nodded eagerly. "Yes, sir!"

"We don't see many Water Tribe around here," the soldier said then.

"Really?" Katara asked, an edge of nerves creeping into her voice. "But my dad's ship stops here a lot…"

"What does your dad do here?"

This was clearly becoming more and more dangerous, but Katara did her best to ignore her pounding heart and lied her hair-loopies off.

"He's a merchant," she said, affecting pride. "He trades furs and animal skins. We have the best ice-antelope leather in the east!"

Katara didn't know much about fur or skin trading—though before the war her tribe had done a brisk business in it—but all of the cobbler's wares had been made with ice-antelope leather. Hopefully her story was believable…

"If your dad's ship is in the village harbor, why are you leaving toward the forest?"

"Oh, we don't like to tie up in the harbor. Dad says they charge too much for such a crowded and disorganized port. The coast just down the way is perfectly fine for weighing anchor—" she prayed that it was or that the soldier wouldn't know if it wasn't "—and we save money that way because we don't have to pay to use the harbor or for staying in an inn. We're not used to lots of people, anyway, so we like camping better."

"I see," the soldier said as Katara's babbling died down. "You should be careful. It's likely that these criminals are hiding out in the forest, too."

"Oh," Katara said, nearly giddy with relief that he seemed to be buying it. "I guess that makes sense. I'll tell my parents, and I'll be very careful."

"Okay." The soldier rolled up the scroll and made a dismissive gesture. "Run along."

"Yes, sir!" Katara scuttled away. As soon as she turned a corner and was out of sight, she let out a wobbly breath and leaned against a wall. That had been too close. Her heart was beating fast and her hands were shaking.

She took five slow, deep, calming breaths before she could hurry on back to the camp. Then she practically sprinted back, pounding into camp yelling: "SOKKA! AANG!"

Her brother and friend leapt to their feet, yelping in surprise. Sokka pulled out his boomerang. She stopped in front of him, panting. He looked a little wild around the eyes. "What? What is it!"

Gulping in air, Katara forced out: "Soldiers… in village… looking for them!"

"Huh?"

"They're looking for Iroh and Zuko?" Aang was a little faster on the up-take. Katara nodded.

"Wanted posters and everything," she gasped. "Soldiers asking questions."

"We have to go. Now," Sokka said firmly.

"What about Zuko and Iroh?" Aang asked.

"I don't know," Katara wanted to pull her hair out. "We obviously can't leave them, but…"

"Do the soldiers know they're here?" Sokka asked. Katara hesitated.

"I tried to lie, but I don't know if they believed me," she said. "And the soldier said they thought the criminals were hiding in the forest."

"Great," Sokka said grimly, his expression saying it was anything but.

"Where are Zuko and Iroh?" Katara asked. She would have thought her shouting would have drawn them out of the house.

"They went down to the river, to wash," Aang said. Katara tugged nervously at the strap of her haversack.

"We need to warn them!"

"And then what?" Sokka demanded.

"I don't know!" Katara said. "But we have to leave now!"

"Leaving so soon?"

Sokka yelped, lifting his boomerang again. Aang jerked around, hands going into a starting airbending position. Katara gasped and spun around too.

A girl in Fire Nation armor stood at the head of a group of soldiers, one of whom Katara recognized as the soldier who had questioned her. She felt sick. Apparently, he had not believed her lies.

The armored girl smirked at them. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Avatar. I would love it if you could stay awhile and chat."

Sokka and Katara closed up on Aang, wary and poised to defend.

"Who are you?" Aang asked.

"Don't speak so familiarly to the Princess!" barked a soldier, stepping forward aggressively.

"Princess?" Sokka muttered. Katara swallowed thickly. This was Zuko's sister. The one who had nearly killed him.

"Aang," she whispered, shoving the haversack into his arms. "Run to the river. Give this to Zuko and Iroh, and tell them to get out of here."

"But what about—!"

"Go!" she said, giving him a push in the right direction. He got a couple steps away before a fireball splashed on the ground in front of him, making him jump back. Katara whipped a stream of water out of her hipflask, bringing into a menacing arc over her head.

"I didn't say you could go," Princess Azula said, fist still extended from her strike.

"We didn't say we'd stay," Katara responded. "Aang, go!"

She slashed out with a waterwhip, covering Aang's retreat. Sokka hurled his boomerang at a soldier that tried to stop the airbender, too. And with that, fighting broke out in earnest.

The group was split evenly between those who were firebenders—Azula and two of the soldiers—and those who fought with spears and swords. But still meant that Katara and Sokka were trying to take on three opponents each.

Katara moved like a grandmother-storm—one of the big storms that hit the South Pole every so often and left a wake of death and destruction. While she had a limited amount of water to work with, she made it count with her mastery of waterbending. She swirled it up into icy shields to block fire blasts, hurled slashing whips at limbs. But she knew they were losing. The odds were too great, and even beside that, the Princess was the best firebender Katara had ever seen.

Breathing hard, Katara only just dodged a streak of blue fire from Azula. It came so close she could feel its heat tighten the skin of her arm. She responded with a spike of ice, which the Princess somersaulted to avoid. She came back upright with a sweeping kick that sent a wave of blue fire toward Katara.

Katara was running out of water. With each block, she was losing water to Azula's fire, her weapon literally disappearing into thin air, as steam. But she had no other choice. What was she supposed to do, let the flames burn her? She brought her remaining water around to defend against the wave of fire…

But a blast of red flame hit the blue, and both dissipated in a howling rush of heat.

"Azula!" Zuko shouted furiously as he made his entrance. Katara gaped. He wasn't supposed to be here!

A glance behind revealed a very chagrinned Aang hurrying after the disgraced prince, and Iroh behind him.

"So kind of you to join us, Zuzu!" Azula said, flipping a lock of hair out her face as casually as if they'd been out for a stroll. Zuko fairly growled at her.

"Come to finish the job?" he asked sharply.

Azula adopted a sad expression, but something about it ran hollow to Katara. "I didn't want to hurt you, but you force me into it. Really, Zuzu. You attacked me first, remember?"

"You lied to me!" Zuko exclaimed. "You said father wanted me back, but really you were going to arrest me!"

"Oh, Zuzu. You take everything so personally. It wasn't going to be real, but the only way you can return to the Fire Nation right now is as a prisoner. You haven't completed the task father set you, after all. But as soon as we got home, father was going to meet us at the royal docks and pardon you. We have to observe protocol…"

"Liar!" Katara exclaimed. "Your soldiers were showing wanted posters all around the village calling Zuko and Iroh criminals and traitors!"

"Are you going to believe this peasant, or your own sister?" Azula asked.

"Azula always lies," Zuko murmured to himself, but Katara was close enough to hear him.

"This peasant saved his life after you nearly killed him!" she spat.

"Be silent in the presence of your betters," Azula sneered. Katara seethed, drawing up her water, but the three continued their stand-off, even as the soldiers continued to fight Sokka and Aang nearby. "Brother. You can still come home."

"Home…" Zuko said in a subdued tone. Katara looked at him, worried.

"Zuko, don't believe her."

"Zuko, don't believe her," Azula mimicked. She gestured toward Katara. "She's with the Avatar. They want to destroy the Fire Nation!"

"That's not even close to believable! Aang doesn't want to hurt anyone, he just wants the war to end!"

"I'm sure that was of great comfort to the soldiers that died at the North Pole," Azula replied sardonically.

"That—that wasn't Aang, that was the ocean spirit! And it was only because your stupid Admiral killed the moon spirit!"

"Father knew about it," Zuko spoke finally. "He knew what Zhao planned. He allowed it. What did he think would happen? Zhao killed a spirit; of course there would be a price to pay for that. But I'm sure Father considered it an acceptable loss. Five ships full of men."

"Careful, Zuzu," Azula warned, though she sounded more eager than anything. "You're dangerously close to treason here."

Katara didn't think. She saw the glint in Azula's eyes and just moved, placing herself firmly between the siblings, shielding Zuko.

"You already call him a traitor," she said. "But he's the one who cares about the Fire Nation!"

Azula laughed. "What have you been telling them, Zuzu?"

"The truth," Zuko said. He moved from behind Katara and lifted his hands into a firebending stance. "I'm not going to believe your lies anymore, Azula."

Anger and glee chased each other across Azula's face. She lifted her hands, too. "Fine. If this is what you really want, Zuzu… I'll oblige!"

She shot forward with a massive blast of fire. Zuko shouted and swept his hands down, splitting her firebending and diverting its power to the sides. He jumped in the air and gave a quick pair of kicks, which Azula blocked with a smirk on her face.

Katara wanted to help, but they were so intent on each other that she worried she couldn't get in an attack without also hitting Zuko. She glanced around, taking stock of the other battles. With Aang and Iroh backing him up, Sokka was holding his own against the rest of the soldiers. In fact, it looked like Iroh could take all five of the soldiers by himself with his hands tied behind his back.

None of them were aiming to kill. She didn't know if the soldiers were avoiding kill-shots because Azula had ordered them to, or if they couldn't bring themselves to kill a bunch of kids and the Firelord's brother. Whichever the case, between their reluctance to actually injure them and Iroh's apparent prowess at defensive firebending, Katara did not have to worry too much about them. Instead, she lingered on the fringes of Azula and Zuko's fight.

Azula obviously did not have the same compunctions as her soldiers; she was fighting to kill. Zuko was hard-pressed to keep up with, and withstand, her attacks. Katara might have healed his physical injuries, but she wasn't able to give him back the weight and strength he'd lost from the infection and fever. Zuko was flagging, she realized in horror.

A hard kick from Azula sent Zuko skidding across the ground. As he struggled up, she swept her hands in wide, deliberate circles. Sparks leapt from her pointed fingers, and Katara realized what Azula was planning to do.

"Zuko!" she screamed in warning, in fear. She'd seen what Azula's lightning had done to him once, heard what Iroh had had to do to keep him alive right after. She didn't want to find out if he'd be as lucky a second time.

She moved, but everything felt too slow. She could see Azula completing her motion, stepping forward to release the cold fire of the bolt…

And suddenly Iroh was there, catching the crackling energy with one hand, drawing it down through his belly and then back up through the other arm. He pointed his hand to the sky, and the lightning shattered the still air.

Katara gaped, shock and relief and the remnants of fear shaking her body. Had he just redirected the lightning? How was that possible!

Azula seemed just as shaken. She stared at her uncle with wide eyes… and then she turned and fled. The soldiers, once realizing that their leader had abandoned them, followed raggedly after.

Gasping, Zuko levered himself upright. Iroh hurried to his side. "Nephew!"

"Katara!" Sokka ran to her.

"I'm fine!" she said. "Where's Aang?"

Her question was answered by Appa's low bellow as the sky bison, with Aang on his back, landed beside them.

"Come on, guys!" the Avatar said. "Azula might come back with more soldiers!"

"Let's get while the getting's good," Sokka agreed. Katara nodded, then turned.

"Zuko, Iroh, come on!"

She half expected Sokka to protest. He had been firmly against bringing the firebenders with them before. But apparently the battle, and the lines drawn in that battle, had changed his mind. Sokka said nothing, only watched to see what Zuko and Iroh's response would be.

For his part, Zuko seemed conflicted. He looked at them, at Iroh, and finally in the direction Azula had fled. His inner struggle was visible on his face.

Finally, he seemed to set himself. His chin lifted… and he walked toward them. Iroh beamed.

"Nephew!" He rushed to Zuko and hugged him tightly. Zuko's face colored.

"Uncle!" he protested.

"I am so proud of you," Iroh ignored his embarrassment. "I truly believe you are doing the right thing."

"Um," Sokka said from the sideline. "Not to be a killjoy, but… shouldn't we be getting out of here before Crazy Blue Fire comes back to roast us all?"

"Yes," Zuko agreed, extracting himself from his uncle's arms. "We should. Let go, Uncle."

Iroh did, though his smile did not lessen.

It did not take them long to pile into Appa's saddle. Katara, Sokka, and Aang were all used to making quick get-aways, and Zuko and Iroh had little to worry about packing or leaving behind. They were in the air in very short order.

Once they were sailing through the clouds, Katara breathed a little easier. She was relieved, and a little surprised, that no one had been really hurt. Though Zuko had some scorched marks on his already-ragged clothes, and a reddened strip down one arm where he'd skidded across the ground.

She slid over to where he sat, rigid and uncomfortable, against the raised edge of the saddle. She pulled out her water and gloved her hand in it. "I can heal that, if you want."

He looked at her, then down at his arm, and hesitated. Katara waited. Finally, he extended the arm a little reluctantly, and watched closely as she set her glowing water against the raw skin. She worked on it quietly for a moment.

"I meant what I said before," she told him finally, not looking up from her healing. "We will stop your father. We can save your people, and our people, together. I think you did the right thing."

Zuko looked away, brow furrowed. Nearby, Iroh had apparently heard what she said, because he added: "You know, Prince Zuko, I think that it was your destiny to help the avatar. Especially with who your great-grandfather was."

Zuko gave Iroh a look that suggested he was crazy. The rest of the occupants had similar expressions. "Sozin?"

Iroh shook his head, smiling secretively. "No. Your great-grandfather on your mother's side. Avatar Roku."

"What!" Sokka exclaimed. Zuko's mouth dropped open. Aang turned around from Appa's reins.

"Roku!" he said. "Really? We're practically family, then!"

"Family?" Zuko looked bewildered that Aang would be so excited over the prospect.

"Yeah! Well, Roku was one of my past lives, but that kinda makes me like your great-grandfather, too. Plus, I mean, I am technically one hundred twelve years old."

"…Not really," Zuko said faintly. Katara finished healing his arm and let him go. She glanced at Sokka to see what he thought of Aang's adopting Zuko, but her brother was cradling his head in his hands mouthing 'Roku' and 'Zuko' over and over, still stuck on the exiled prince's relationship to the previous Avatar.

She glanced at Zuko's kind of confused expression as Aang bubbled excitedly toward him, and had to smother a giggle. She smiled out at the clear blue sky and wispy white clouds. Maybe Iroh was right. Maybe this was destiny.

Yeah. Everything was exactly as it should be.

"Hey guys," she said. "Where are we heading next?"