Disclaimer: i don't own anything remotely related to Avatar: The Last Airbender, let alone Avatar itself. that's all Nickelodeon and Viacom and its creators. none of those listed things are me. sad, i know, but true.

A/N: first of all, buckets of thanks to AvatarSpirit .net for having complete transcripts. that was immensely helpful. so kudos to you.

A/N the second: when i saw "The Crossroads of Destiny", i really wanted Katara to heal Zuko, in the first place. and then i couldn't help but wonder what would have occurred if she had--how much would have changed? so that's where this little fic came from. i don't pretend that it's a better conclusion than the one that's actually a cartoon, but at least my curiosity is satisified. and there's a lot of canon in this, but i just wanted to preserve as much of the original as possible to help illustrate how little would've actually needed to change. and one more thing: some people might find the characters a tad OOC, but that's just too bad for those people. i think they're as close as they could be, and oh well, right?

A/N the third: read, enjoy, and review!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

The Crossroads Revisited

Things had gone from bad to worse in the blink of an eye, but as Katara slouched against a stand of crystals in her underground prison, she reflected that things couldn't possibly get any worse than they already were. Not only had she been duped by Azula masquerading as Suki, but then she'd also been manhandled by a bunch of traitorous Dai Li Earthbenders and rather uncaringly thrown into this cave; her lower back still ached from when she had rolled into a protruding crystal. Now alone, cold, and simultaneously bored and worried out of her mind, the young Waterbending Master lamented her circumstances but, with her typical spirit, cautiously hoped that events would get better. Aang would certainly come soon, and perhaps Sokka and Toph would be with him, and they would break her out of here and maybe, just maybe everything could turn out okay.

Katara rose slowly to her feet, stretched some of the stiffness from her limbs, and began pacing. If only the Dai Li hadn't taken her water pouch, she would still have something to preoccupy herself with until her friends mounted their inevitable rescue. But as she walked quietly in aimless circles around the crystal-infested cave, she heard the slightest drip-drip emanating from…somewhere. Curious, she ventured into the darker recesses of the cave, poking about to discover the source.

The grating sound of rock on rock distracted her from her search, and she dashed over to the ramp, convinced that either Aang or Toph or even both of them had arrived. She skidded to a stop in bewilderment and some disappointment as she watched a Dai Li agent shoving some random Earth Kingdom citizen into the cave with her; the boy tumbled down before he managed to gain his knees and stop himself.

Katara felt like she'd been slapped in the face; her ice blue eyes grew wide, and she took a step back in utter surprise. She would know that scar anywhere. "Zuko!" she gasped.

The exiled Fire Nation Prince glanced up at her silently, his shaggy black hair hanging in front of his golden eyes. They continued staring at each other until the harsh sound of rock sliding against itself brought them back into reality. Katara glanced up the steep slope and realized that the Dai Li had locked them in together—and she was unarmed! Nevermind that he was simply sitting sullenly on the ground; he was Prince Zuko, for the sake of everything wet, and he undoubtedly had some plot hidden up his stolen garment's sleeve to capture the Avatar. The mere thought made her blood boil, and before she could check herself, she exploded at him.

"Why did they throw you in here?" she demanded, storming back and forth behind him, as he had turned his back to her during the long silence. "Oh, wait, let me guess: It's a trap." She threw her hands up and whirled on him, her voice drenched with sarcasm and derision. "So when Aang shows up to rescue me, you can finally have him in your little Fire Nation clutches."

Zuko glanced over his shoulder at that accusation, and Katara braced herself for an onslaught of flames, but they never came. He merely turned his head back, remaining obstinately quiet.

Furious at his lack of response and ready to unleash all her stored anger, regardless of whether he reacted or not, she continued her rant. She wanted him to feel like he had done something wrong. She wanted him to know that he had crossed far too many lines. "You're a terrible person, you know that?" she declared, jabbing a finger at his motionless form. "Always following us, hunting the Avatar, trying to capture the world's last hope for peace! But what do you care? You're the Fire Lord's son. Spreading war and violence and hatred is in your blood," she spat, disgusted.

That seemed to strike a nerve in the Firebender, and Katara saw his shoulders tense. "You don't know what you're talking about," he said slowly, deliberately, his voice low but hardly accusatory.

But she'd been protecting Aang from the Fire Nation and Zuko especially for too long, and her righteous fury wasn't nearly spent yet. Her own fire sparked in her eyes, and she cried incredulously, "I don't? How dare you! Y-You have no idea what this war has put me through! Me personally," she added in a whisper, her voice cracking sharply under the weight of all the emotion churning within her. She looked away from him, feeling the tears pricking the corners of her eyes, and she sank down into a crouch, fighting them. She couldn't break down, not here, in front of him, of all people. She would not appear weak… "The Fire Nation took my mother away from me," she choked out, almost blaming him personally for it. Her fingers closed tightly in a fist around her necklace, clutching it as if it would keep her grounded. But she couldn't help herself, and she drew her knees to her chest, sobbing out her pain.

Somehow, she had expected a disdainful remark, something cruel and unfeeling. She certainly hadn't expected sympathy.

"I'm sorry," Zuko offered, and Katara raised her face from her arms, shocked. He was what? Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation was what?

"That's something we have in common," he added, the sadness in his voice audible.

She hastily wiped the tearstains from her cheeks and swiveled, staring at him in disbelief. Something had happened to his mother as well? She supposed that she never had heard of the Fire Lady, but…how could he suggest that his own nation had taken her away from him? She brushed the questions aside, assuming she would receive no answers if they were asked, and rose to her feet hesitantly, all her anger fading away. Cringing at the memory of her outburst, she felt overwhelmed with shame for her ignorance, and she stared at her feet.

"I'm sorry I yelled at you before," she apologized meekly, not daring to look at him.

He rose to his feet as well, the fingers of one hand tracing the facets of a crystal. "It doesn't matter," he dismissed quietly, apparently engrossed in the crystal.

Katara sighed, wanting, needing to explain herself. He should know that she was more than just an angry girl who blamed him for everything that had ever gone wrong in her life; he should know that he was simply a representative of his people and their deeds. "It's just that for so long now, whenever I would imagine the face of the enemy…it was your face," she elucidated tentatively.

He stared at her for a moment, amber meeting azure, as if weighing her words. "My face," he echoed, raising his hand to his scar. "I see."

She nearly smacked herself. She hadn't wanted to make him feel worse! "No, no, that's not what I meant!" she hastily exclaimed, drowning in momentary regret. Smooth one, Katara, she rebuked herself.

He shrugged it off, although his fingers remained in place. "It's okay," he reassured her. "I used to think this scar marked me. The mark of the banished prince, cursed to chase the Avatar forever." He shook his head slightly, and his tone became lighter. "But lately, I've realized I'm free to determine my own destiny, even if I'll never be free of my mark."

Katara almost offered something sympathetic when an idea struck her. Of course! "Maybe you could be free of it," she suggested, hardly able to believe her own ears. Here she was, attempting to help her sworn enemy. So much for black and white in war.

He looked back at her sharply, his face the picture of sudden hope. "What?"

She gestured to herself with one hand. "I have healing abilities," she explained.

The light died in his eyes, and he bowed his head. "It's a scar," he said bitterly. "It can't be healed."

I also don't have any water, she thought to herself, disappointed. But as she folded her arms on her chest, she felt something dig into her side. What was…A small smile curled her lips, and she reached into her shirt, withdrawing a small, ornate vial from the inner pocket of her robe. She held it up, and she saw Zuko glance at it curiously.

"This is water from the Spirit Oasis at the North Pole," she informed him. "It has special properties, so I have been saving it for something important." She approached him, and he didn't shy away, waiting patiently for her to arrive. She studied the vial and then his scar and added, "I don't know if it would work, but…"

He gazed back at her, hope flickering in his golden eyes once more, and he closed his eyes in silent acceptance.

Katara licked her dry lips and inhaled a deep breath. Now or never, she thought to herself, and she raised her hand to his face, her fingers barely touching his scar. The skin was ridged and dry, almost leathery to the touch, and she traced the folds carefully, examining the scar in its entirety. "It's pretty bad," she offered after a moment. "But…I think I'll be able to heal it. However, it'll take some time, and it'll most likely hurt, although I'll try to keep the pain down as much as possible."

"Alright," he agreed quietly, the apprehension clear in his low tone.

"Here, sit down," she instructed, and he lounged against the stand of crystals. She kneeled at his side, sitting back on her heels to give herself some height, and placed her right hand gently on his scar again. With her other hand, she opened the vial and drew out its contents; it was a pitiful amount of water, but it glowed in the low, sickly green light, and she prayed it would be enough. "Maybe you should talk about something. You know, distract yourself," she suggested as she bent the oasis water over her left hand and laid it on his mutilated skin.

He grimaced slightly, his face tightening for the briefest of moments as the water seeped into all the ridges of long-burnt flesh, but he relaxed again once she guided the water soothingly. She chewed on her lower lip, knowing that her knowledge of the healing arts was somewhat limited; however, this didn't seem too terribly complicated, and she had a gut feeling that she would be able to accomplish her task. Zuko was right—she couldn't heal scar tissue, but maybe she could somehow remove that and heal what remained.

She almost thought he would stay silent when he slowly began speaking.

"How old are you?"

Her eyebrows slanted together in concentration as she very carefully began removing scar tissue, hyperaware that she needed to prevent pain with the water as well. "Fifteen, just last month," she replied, her voice somewhat strained.

"I didn't mean to distract you," he said, moving his mouth as little as possible.

"'S okay," she mumbled, her lips tightening into a grim, straight line.

He paused, his eyes still closed, and exhaled a long, low sigh. "I had just turned fourteen when my father gave me this scar," he said in a reminiscent sort of way.

Katara choked on her shock, doing her level best to take that in stride and keep her concentration. "He did this to you?" she managed to ask, her voice high-pitched with disbelief.

"Yes, because I wouldn't fight him in an Agni Kai, a Fire Duel," he elaborated. "And then he sent me packing and told me I couldn't return home until I had captured the Avatar. You don't need to apologize," he added, and she closed her mouth and swallowed the words. "You didn't know."

He fell silent again, and Katara focused on coaxing new skin into life, layer by layer, right around his left eye. To say it was an arduous task would be a grave understatement, and it took all of her Waterbending proficiency to make even the minutest amount of progress. A drop of sweat beaded on her forehead and trailed down her cheek, following the line of her jaw.

"My mother didn't die, not like yours," he finally said after more minutes had slid by. "I don't know what happened to her. She just left one night, and at the time, I had no idea why. Now, though, I think I understand." He frowned just at the corners of his mouth. "She knew something was suspicious concerning my father and his rise to power. After all, Grandfather was found dead the next morning, right after she disappeared. And then my father ascended to the throne within the week and took complete, ruthless control of the armies. Uncle Iroh should've been the new Fire Lord, but Father convinced my grandfather otherwise." His words gained a hard edge. "It was all some sort of conspiracy. And my mother must've known."

"I'm sorry," she breathed, freezing some of the water to ice to numb the pain.

He shook his head very slightly, not enough to disturb her work. "There was nothing anyone could've done. I was just a kid, and Father's the most powerful Firebender alive, and of course Azula's following in his footsteps." He sighed once more. "But Uncle Iroh, he's a good man. He's really helped me." He chuckled quietly to himself. "I was actually content with the prospect of life as a tea shop owner. Isn't that crazy?"

She allowed herself a small smile. "Yeah, a little."

"Of course, Azula ruined everything and threw me in here, but…" he trailed off and then inhaled in a sharp hiss. "Ouch!"

"Sorry…" Katara said, swiftly bending the water to soothe. "Your eye's just really difficult…"

"Ahh…it's okay," he brushed aside, his forehead becoming smooth again. "It's just…" he paused, searching for the right words. A smirk twisted his lips. "I can't believe I'm telling you all of this. I think Uncle's gotten to me more than I thought."

"It is crazier than you as a tea shop owner," she admitted, fingers tracing his cheek, the water flowing along. "But, well…I don't know. It doesn't really seem wrong, does it?"

"No, not really," he agreed. "In a strange way, it almost seems right."

Katara couldn't hide a smile at that, and when she returned her attention to her healing, traces of the smile lingered. There was something sweet about him, she decided. Something good.

He was quiet for a while as she progressed along his cheek and back to his ear. "The night my mother left, she told me something," he continued, his voice softer than ever before. "She told me never to forget who I am. Even up until a month ago, I thought she meant that I was Prince Zuko, son of Ursa and Ozai, heir to the throne of the Fire Nation. But that's my title, not who I am. And if she knew about the conspiracy with my father, then…" he slitted open his right eye, careful not to disturb the left side of his face, and looked at her.

She noticed the movement and arched an eyebrow. "Yes?"

His eyelid dropped, and he settled more comfortably against the crystals. "Do you think…" he began in that soft, soft voice, "that she meant to be good and honest and honorable? To do what Uncle's always telling me and not do what people order just because they're higher in rank than I am? To make decisions based on my heart?"

Katara carefully swept the last of the oasis water across his face, tempering the new skin so that it wasn't so delicate. Closing her eyes, she laid her hand flat, palm and fingers cupping his cheek, and eased the water into his flesh, finishing her healing. She opened her eyes and couldn't keep a smile from appearing. Pale, flawless skin covered the left side of his face, perfectly matched with the right; she had even taken care to return his eyebrow and lashes. Now instead of feeling leathery, ridged flesh beneath her fingers, all she felt was the cool smoothness.

"I think your mother would've wanted that," she told him gently, replacing the empty vial within her robes and rising to her feet. "She would be proud of you, Zuko. I know it."

"Are…are you done?" he asked hesitantly, remaining still.

She gazed down at him, simply sitting there. He seemed so…normal. Like he was just anybody else. He was handsome, even. "Yes. You're free from it."

Zuko tentatively opened his eyes and lifted his hand to his face, caressing the skin. He let out a gasp, amazed at what he found, and turned around swiftly, examining himself in the greenish reflection of the crystals. "In the name of Agni…" he breathed, smiling broadly. "I can't…I can't believe that you actually…and that it's…oh, Katara, it's gone! It's finally gone!" He leapt to his feet and spun around to face her, and she realized that tears of joy and relief had welled up in his amber eyes. "I'm me again! I can't believe I'm me again! I have to—"

"There's no need to thank me," she dismissed with a brief wave of her hand. "If I can help you become who your mother wanted you to be in any way, well, that's enough."

"You don't understand," he insisted, shaking his head, and before she could respond to that, he had lunged at her and caught her up in a tight embrace. He buried his healed face in the crook of her neck and shoulder, his tears dampening her skin. "I'm so indebted to you. Thank you so, so, so much. I swear, if there's anything I can do…anything at all…"

Katara had stiffened reflexively in the unexpected hug, but she gradually relaxed and even wrapped her arms around him in return. She drifted a little, lost in thoughts of how warm it was so close to him, before she came back to reality. "Oh, well…if you want to stop chasing Aang, then I think I can call it even."

He started shaking against her, and she thought that he had begun sobbing but realized that he was quaking in silent laughter which soon erupted into hearty chuckles. She couldn't help herself and dissolved into laughter, clinging to him tighter in her merriment. The whole situation did seem a bit ridiculous, after all. They finally quieted and she felt him nod into her shoulder.

"Of course…I can do that," he agreed huskily. "Uncle and I need to get back to our tea shop, anyway."

She had opened her mouth to reply, but before her words could escape, the wall of the cave beside them was blown away, hunks of stone and crystal flying in all directions. She felt Zuko shift protectively, angling her so that he was in the path of the debris, and once the dust had settled, she peered curiously over his shoulder.

Aang and Iroh stood in the creatively-made entrance, both of them gaping soundlessly at the young Benders. Zuko and Katara stared at them for a moment before they let go of each other, and she ran over to the Avatar, hugging him instead.

"Oh, Aang, you made it! I knew you'd come!" she said happily, embracing the short monk.

Behind, Zuko made an incredulous motion at the other Firebender. "Uncle, what is this? Why are you with the Avatar?"

Iroh smiled in a conspiratorial sort of way and glanced at Katara, who had just released Aang. "I could ask you the same thing, Zuko. Except that I would ask why you are with the Avatar's best friend, mm?"

He seemed at a momentary loss at that. "Well, I…she and I…we were stuck here…and…"

But Iroh apparently didn't care much for an answer, and he rushed over to his nephew as fast as his aging limbs would allow. "Your scar, Zuko! It's gone!" He reached up with one broad, callused hand and touched the other's face. "Miraculous! Praise to the spirits!"

"You needn't thank the spirits, Uncle," Zuko muttered. "Katara did it. She healed me. That's what we were doing."

Iroh accepted the news passively enough, but Aang looked dangerously close to entering the Avatar State, his gray eyes nearly bugging out of his head.

"WHAT?!" he shouted, and wind rushed in every direction, disturbing everyone's hair and clothes. He turned on the Waterbender in a flash, looking livid. "You healed him? Zuko? How could you do that?"

Katara frowned and crossed her arms defensively on her chest. It was so like Aang to overreact like this. "There're worse things I could do than make friends out of enemies, Aang!" she shot back, and her words seemed to quite literally take the wind out of the young monk. "Just try to understand, okay? He's not just the psycho evil prince we've always taken him to be—and you were the one who saved his life at the North Pole, remember? This is actually a good thing. So calm down," she concluded, laying her hands gently but firmly on his shoulders.

Aang moped a bit more before glaring sidelong at Zuko. "Fine," he grumbled. "But we need to get out of here anyway. Come on." He tugged on her sleeve, trying to make her follow him.

"What about Iroh and Zuko?" she asked, gesturing to the Firebenders. "Are we just going to leave them?"

Aang threw up his hands. "What else do you want me to do, Katara? Let them come with us? And then what?"

"We'll be okay," Zuko interrupted, his golden eyes coming to rest of her ice blue ones once more. "You two should go before Azula finds you. And I guarantee that won't take long."

Katara stood indecisively, caught between the Avatar and the Fire Nation Prince. Azula would certainly not react well to discovering that her brother and uncle were free from her control; she would descend upon them with all her characteristic vengeance. And Iroh was a good man…and she knew that Zuko was one, too.

"Go, Katara," Zuko told her, a small smile on his lips. "I'll be fine."

She shivered—his words were far too reminiscent of Jet's—but nodded and followed Aang from the crystal cave, only glancing once over her shoulder at the Fire Nation's forgotten prince. He soon disappeared from view as the Avatar and the Waterbender charged up the newly hewn tunnel, Aang quickened by his Airbending. They soon emerged into a gigantic underground cavern bristling with green crystals and crisscrossed with water, which was issuing from a majestic waterfall on the far side.

"We've got to find Sokka and Toph," Katara called to Aang over the sound of their pounding feet and the rushing water. They obviously couldn't just abandon their other friends and escape themselves; they were a team, after all.

A sixth sense caused the hair to rise on the back of their necks, and they turned around just in time to see blue lightning-fire racing towards them from the mouth of the tunnel. Aang swiftly leapt to action, ripping up a section of the ground and using it as a shield to diffuse the flames, but the force of the blast knocked him back off his feet. He skidded across the ground on his shoulder before finally coming to a stop.

"Azula!" Katara groaned, recognizing the color of the fire. Of all the times not to run into that girl, now was very high on the list. Streaming the water from the channel, she dodged around the rock-wall and, sighting the Fire Nation Princess, let loose a massive whip. Azula shifted positions, deftly blocking the water with a brief slice of fire, but Katara wasn't about to be deterred; no Firebender was going to bring her down that easily. She kept running, swirling the whip back around her to increase its speed and rammed the whip into the ground, transforming it into a colossal wave that shot towards her opponent.

Another smooth transition of her hand- and footwork and Azula effortlessly called up a wall of flames. The wave collided violently with the fire and evaporated in a blinding cloud of steam which quickly enveloped everything in its white clutches.

Katara glanced at Aang, who had regained his feet and walked close to her.

"Where is she?" he asked, squinting his eyes in an effort to see through the steam.

"Wait for it…" she muttered in reply, scanning the roiling cloud. Azula would undoubtedly use all this water vapor as cover, probably mounting her next attack as they stood there obliviously, vulnerable sitting ducks.

"I don't—there she is!" Aang shouted, his quick eyes catching sight of the elite Firebender poised high atop the crystals as the steam began to clear.

Katara looked up just as Azula jumped from her lofty perch, two balls of blue fire preceding her. In unspoken unison, both she and the Avatar bent the water from the channel, this time bringing it above their heads in a fluid shield, effectively eliminating the threat. Azula landed cat-like on a tall pillar of stone, readying herself for her next attack. But Aang was quicker, and he performed a brief series of sharp moves with his hands, unleashing a shockwave through the ground. The tremors ripped into Azula's pillar, smashing it to rubble, and the startled princess leapt gracelessly to more solid ground, finding it directly between Aang and Katara.

Katara fell into her stance as Azula aimed one hand at her and the other at the Avatar, but she couldn't help experiencing a sense of satisfaction: Azula actually looked scared. The invincible prodigy, pride of the Fire Nation, feared defeat at the hand of a Waterbender and the last Airbender. How fitting. How like poetic justice.

The stalemate and the tense silence were shattered as a blast of red fire seared the stone between the Avatar and the princess. Everyone looked sharply about to discover the source, and Katara simultaneously felt her spirits rise and her heart plummet into her stomach. This could only end one of two ways…

Zuko stood in his stance a dozen or so feet away, his fist still smoking from the attack. He had shed his outer cloak, and so he clearly had prepared himself for battle. And behind him and slightly to one side was Iroh, now appearing so fierce that the title "Dragon of the West" could not have been more aptly awarded.

"Zuzu, Uncle," Azula said in a disarming manner. "How nice of you to join us."

"Nice for us, sister, but not for you," Zuko remarked scathingly. "You're finished here."

Azula's face darkened. "I seemed to have overlooked this before, Zuzu, but your scar has gone missing. Would you like me to find it for you?" she threatened, shifting her hand from Katara to her brother.

Zuko seemed ready to reply but the words never found their way from his mouth, as hundreds of Dai Li agents descended from the ceiling, clawing their way down the walls with their strange rock-coated hands. The little group watched them for a long, drawn-out second, and then everything hurtled into fast-paced action.

"Katara, take the Avatar and go!" Zuko roared at her, throwing two fire-punches at his sister. She cut up with one hand, blocking his attack, and fell into a crouch, whipping her foot around and shooting out a circle of blue flame.

"What? Why? We can help you!" Katara yelled back at him over the mêlée, snatching water from the channel to dispel the fire-circle, and she streamed the water into a gigantic whip and, turning, took out several Dai Li agents approaching from behind, sending them crashing into their fellows.

"No!" Iroh insisted, pausing to breathe fire into a large wall between himself, Zuko, and the Dai Li creeping down the crystals. "Aang has not fully mastered the Avatar State! We cannot risk losing him now—Zuko and I will be able to hold them off long enough for you to escape!" He bent the top of the fire-wall onto itself, bringing it crashing down like a wave on the renegade Earthbenders.

"He hasn't—what? Aang?!" she demanded, swirling the water around her into a vortex before loosing it in all directions in a miniature hurricane.

The Airbender smacked his staff against the ground, sending a slice of gale-force wind at an approaching Dai Li agent, sweeping him off his feet. He cringed at Iroh's words, and it was obvious he hadn't wanted that information to get out. "I couldn't lose you, Katara!" he shouted in explanation, rebending a stone launched at him and hurling it back at its sender.

Katara's eyebrows slanted together, thinking briefly that was the worst explanation he could have possibly offered—what did she have to do with his Avatar State, anyway? But before she could consider his words further, a huge stone slab brutally rammed her from behind; it hit her clear across the cavern, where she rolled into a stand of crystals, momentarily blacking out. She came to a second later, groggily pushing herself to her feet once more, and noticed that her hair had somehow managed to come out of its tightly woven braid. Dismissing the mystery of her particular hairstyle, she shoved the dark locks from her face and raced toward the channel, summoning all the water she could reach to her body. As she ran, she eyed the waterfall; it had to come from somewhere, and she and Aang could use it as an escape.

Still running, she made a sweeping motion with her hands, and all the water she had collected gathered under her feet, bearing her skyward on its rising swell. For the briefest instant that she claimed this vantage point, she could see Zuko and Azula intensely dueling, spurts of red and blue fire exchanging between their rapidly moving limbs; Iroh was splitting his energy between supporting his nephew and keeping the Dai Li at bay as much as he could; and Aang had started in her direction, blasting Earthbenders to the far corners of the catacombs as he went. And then the moment was up, and she thrust her hands behind her and rode the wave she had created as it bore down on the enemies between her and the Avatar.

"Aang! Over here!" she yelled above the surging roar of the water. "Jump on, quick!"

He nodded, unfolding his glider and using a Dai Li agent's head as a stepping stone. He took to the air, manipulating the air currents until he reached her side; he collapsed his glider again and hooked an arm about her waist, using his free hand to continue shooting gusts of wind at approaching Dai Li.

"This doesn't feel right, Katara," he said sadly. "Leaving Ba Sing Se…"

"We can come back, Aang," she reassured him as they arrived at the waterfall. She dissipated the wave and instead twisted the waterfall itself into a rising elevator, bearing both of them away from the hectic battle below. Right before they vanished into the ceiling of the cavern, following the tunnel that would lead to the surface, she caught sight of Zuko and Iroh finally being apprehended by the Dai Li, imprisoned by crystalline spikes. She bit her lip, feeling as if she had somehow betrayed them, and added, as much for her own conscience as his, "We're alive and free to fight another day. We can win this yet."

He nodded silently, and after a few minutes, they emerged into the night air; the waterfall resumed its normal course behind them. They stood, cold and wet, for a moment before Aang pointed into the black sky.

"Over there—Appa! Hey, buddy! Over here!" He waved his arms energetically, hopping up and down like his old self.

The massive flying bison gave an acknowledging grunt and soon had landed near them. The two Benders climbed on board, greeted by Sokka, Toph, and the Earth King as Appa took to the skies again, flying away from the beleaguered city. They all leaned against the side of the saddle, peering down at the last, finally broken stronghold of the Earth Kingdom.

"The Earth Kingdom…has fallen," the King whispered, his voice full of despair.

"We can win this yet," Aang declared optimistically, echoing Katara. He glanced sidelong at the Waterbender, as if expecting her to support his statement, but she remained as she was, staring listlessly back at the city. "Right, Katara?" he asked, nudging her in the side.

"What? Oh…yeah. Of course we can," she said without too much enthusiasm, soon returning to her old position. Down there somewhere was a brave young man who had sacrificed everything to do what he believed to be right…to listen to his heart. She lowered her head to her crossed arms, leaning her cheek on them so that she could watch the city until it disappeared behind the mountains. And she let out a low, soft sigh.