Part Three of the Three Chores series -- sequel to Mending and Cooking

Summary: Katara gathers wood, Zuko gathers his courage, and the family gathers together.

Disclaimer: ATLA is the property of VIACOM and Nickelodeon. No profit is made by this story.

Notes: I want to thank everyone who has supported these three stories from the beginning. This one is very special to me, so please let me know what you think!

"Sokka, it was your turn."

"Says who?"

"Says me, that's who." Katara folded her arms. "It's gathering wood, Sokka. It's not that hard. What, don't you want to use your super special sword on some poor defenseless trees?"

"This sword is a precision instrument! It's not for chopping wood!"

"Yeah, well, there's nothing to burn, so dinner's going to be a little raw."

Sokka folded his arms behind his head. "I happen to like sushi very much, thank you."

Rolling her eyes, Katara swept out of the room and down the hall. She fanned herself as she went. The clouds had hung low and gray over the Western Air Temple all day, and the air was thick and heavy in even the coolest, most shadowed alcoves. The humidity left her hair curled in every possible direction; it had gone from a braid to a bristly coil of old rope. She briefly considered coating it in cooking oil just to keep it down.

Pausing at the fire pit, Katara toed the remains of the morning fire and winced. Even if she asked Zuko to roast their dinner, he'd have to bend continuously if they wanted to keep the fire going into the night. Briefly, she pictured the whole group clustered around Aang and Zuko's fistfuls of flame. She kicked lamely at the last bits of charcoal. They crumbled dryly under her toe. Did the Air Nomads keep hatchets around? Haru and Teo had investigated the Temple, maybe they would know.

She found them watching Toph and Zuko train Aang. Aang stood between them on a broad verandah, simultaneously fending off chunks of earth and blasts of flame. Be careful, her mind shouted, but she snapped her mouth and eyes closed. Count to three. Zuko isn't going to kill Aang. One. Toph would rip Zuko apart if he tried. Two. Aang is the Avatar and he can take almost anything. Three. Sighing, she opened her eyes and found that Aang had created a miniature cyclone around himself that diverted both the rocks and the sparks into a hot, dusty cloud over his head. He quickly sent it flying over the side. Dusting his palms off, he turned to Katara and smiled.

"Hi, Katara! Want to join us? We could have all four elements!"

"Well, actually-"

"Come on, Sugar Queen, it's good practice," Toph said. She pounded her palm with a fist. "What, are you too scared to face me a second time? Afraid of getting dirty?"

"That mud fight was classic," Aang said.

"Mud fight?" Zuko and Haru asked. Katara looked between them. Haru's mustache twitched, and he and Teo shared a look. Zuko wore a content, pleased sort of smirk.

"That's a surprise," Haru said. "We all know how you like to keep things clean."

Katara folded her arms and raised her chin. "As a matter of fact, I do. And that's why-"

Toph began making chicken noises. "Sparky, do you hear a chicken in here?"

Teo and The Duke took up the chicken noise. Soon the verandah seemed populated by a coop of increasingly-agitated hens. Aang held his hand out. "Come on, Katara, please? It'll be fun!"

"Fine, fine," she said, throwing up her hands. She crossed the verandah to stand equidistant to Toph and Zuko, forming a triangle with Aang in the middle. She uncorked her waterskins and summoned two ribbons of water. "Ready."

"Onetwothree go!"

Katara sent her ribbons of water straight for Aang's feet. He leapt high in the air, jumped on his air scooter, and took a turn around the triangle blowing the hair from their faces as he collected up Katara's ribbons. He froze them and began firing frozen arrows straight at his opponents. Toph made a suit of stone, and the arrows pinged harmlessly off her armor. Zuko summoned a wave of fire and pushed it at Aang; the boy jumped off the air scooter just before it dissolved. He somersaulted through the air, keeping himself unnaturally high and light, before directing a slice of air at all of them. Katara froze her feet in place and rescued her ice arrows from the puddle on the floor. In her hands they became thin, sharp discs. She volleyed them at Aang; he batted them away with hands gloved in flame. Then Toph sent him flying. The stones beneath his feet bounced him right off the verandah; his feet made contact with the nearest tower and he flipped over in the air, flame trailing from his feet. Katara made to make an ice slide for him, but Toph stepped forward too late, and the water coated her earth-armor. Toph now stood coated in mud.

"Ugh!" Toph stomped her foot, flicked both wrists, and sent the mud straight at Katara.

Katara wiped mud from her eyes. "Toph!"

"Look at you, you're filthy," Zuko murmured from behind her.

Her jaw dropping, Katara whirled on him and quickly bent the water from her clothes into a cloud and pushed it at him. His hair now plastered to his face, Zuko shook out his bangs and licked water off his lips. Smirking, he steamed his clothes dry. "Thanks, I meant to wash those."

Katara was vaguely aware of making a little growl at the back of her throat. Then she was summoning mist straight from the crevasse -- it twined around her arms like cold, wet serpents and she made two ice-daggers with it. Raising them, she suddenly encountered Zuko's own fire-daggers. Hers began to melt. A lock of her hair stuck to her cheek. She gritted her teeth. "I could crush your heart inside your chest, you know," she said.

Zuko's eyes followed the line of her hair from her mouth to her ear. "Maybe I should just singe off all that hair, it's gotten so wild."

"I'll show you wild," she said, and broke her stance. He pounced forward. As he did, she pictured the blood in his body as nothing but water, and drew it to her will. Instantly, he locked up. He struggled inside her grasp, but his arms and legs refused to move. Zuko tried to thrash free, but only his head and neck would move. He growled.

"What are you doing? Let me go!"

Aang stepped forward. "Katara-"

"What are you gonna do now, Jerkbender?" Katara asked Zuko. "You know, it's too bad I didn't know bloodbending in Ba Sing Se, maybe it would have made a difference. I'm sure it would have healed Aang a lot faster."

Zuko's face hardened. "Maybe," he said. "But you're forgetting something."

"Oh, yeah? What's that?"

He took a deep breath. She saw the flame in his eyes before it poured from his mouth; he directed it over her head but she ducked anyway, breaking her grasp. He grabbed her by the wrist and forced it behind her back. "We agreed," he said in her ear. "You said you'd play nice."

"Go jump in the river!"


"Stop it, both of you!" Aang appeared between them and suddenly Katara was three paces away, catching her breath as a blast of wind sent her sliding across the floor. She stopped herself with a careful hand on the flagstones. Zuko stared at her, panting, from his corner of the shadows. Aang paced between them, his glider twirling in his hands. "I'm the Avatar," he said. "I'm supposed to restore peace and balance. How can I do that for the whole world if I can't even do it for you two?"

His face lifted, and Katara saw the frustration, anxiety, and disappointment there on his young face. Her heart plummeted and her gaze hit the floor. No one, not her dad and not Sokka, had ever made her feel shame quite the way Aang could. It was like a physical thing, like a cloud of Master-Pakku's ice-needles. She felt just as imprisoned by it, just as chilled. "I'm sorry, Aang," she said quietly.

Silence, then: "Well, I'm not the one you should be apologizing to, Katara."

Her face flamed and she stared up at Aang. The boy remained resolute, though she saw the effort in it. She risked a glance at Haru and the others; they looked away as though the moment were just as hopelessly awkward and uncomfortable for them as it was for her. Firming her lips, she looked at Zuko. He seemed oddly impassive, his posture loose. He looked away from her. "I'm sorry," she said.

Aang turned to the firebender. "Zuko?"

"I'm sorry, too," he said. He looked at the floor. "For everything."

Aang sighed. Wind filled the whole room. "Okay, then. Well, Zuko, I guess we should keep training-"

"Does anyone know where I can find a hatchet?" Katara asked.

"Why, so you can bury it?" Toph asked.

Katara winced. "No, so that I can cut down some firewood. Sokka didn't gather up any, and I'd rather not get splinters in my bending water."

"You won't get anything dry enough to burn, anyway," Zuko said. "It's going to rain."

She forced her voice to remain civil. "I suppose your Sparky super-powers alert you to oncoming thunderstorms?"

"No," Zuko said. "It's the monsoon season."

To a one, the assembled crowd slapped their foreheads. "Monsoons," Teo said. "Great. Wheelchairs just love the mud."

"Just because it's the monsoon season doesn't mean it's going to rain right this minute," Katara said.

No sooner had her mouth closed than lightning split the air and rain began shimmering down from the afternoon sky. A moment later, thunder reverberated through the temple. Katara closed her eyes. She focused on her breathing. She counted to three. Why, when she was still covered in dirt and Aang had just forced her to apologize in front of the others, did the universe see fit to send some of Sokka's luck her way?

"So what if the wood gets wet?" Toph asked. "Sugar Queen can just bend the water out."

Katara opened her eyes. "That's a great idea, Toph!" She popped back up to her feet. "Who's scared of a little rain, anyway?" Only the thunder answered her. "Well, I just need something to cut down the wood-"

"Take Zuko with you," Aang said. "Those swords cut through wood, right Zuko?"

"They cut through anything," Zuko said. He shifted on his feet and looked at Katara briefly before looking away. "If you want to go, we should go now. I don't want to have to bend lightning away from you."

Katara sighed. Aang gave her his sternest look, the sort he gave to people who destroyed forests or poisoned lakes. Suppressing a shiver, Katara squared her shoulders. "Fine. Let's go."

Zuko remained mostly quiet on the trip. He helped her up the vine-rope without complaint, and led the way to a copse of trees due north. The trees clung tenaciously to the cliffsides, and their shape had long since bent to accommodate the winds that funneled through the crevasse. The sun still shone, although the warm rain continued pattering down on them. "How can it be sunny and raining at the same time?"

"Sunshower," he said. He pointed west, to a thick line of gray clouds marching across the sky. If she squinted, she could see the silken lines of rain sluicing down from them. "Those are the ones we should be worrying about."

Katara bit her lip. "Okay."

"Don't worry, we'll be back before it hits."

"I'm not worried."

"Good, because you shouldn't."

"I'm not."

Zuko pulled his swords before they entered the scrub forest. "It's steep," he said. "Toph usually roots her feet a little before we go in."

"Oh, and what do you do? Fly?"

"Sort of," he said, and ran straight up the nearest tree. It had bent to a low angle, so that he could walk along the trunk as it curved parallel to the ground. "I chop, you gather," he said, swinging the swords.

Mentally reciting several colorful words she'd learned during her time at sea with her dad and Bato, Katara trooped into the forest. To her chagrin, she discovered that Zuko was right: the footing was insecure at best and outright dangerous at worst. Her right foot rode higher than her left, the incline was so steep. She had to pick her way along tree roots and jutting rocks. This meant she moved much slower than Zuko; she was vaguely aware of him climbing, swinging, or just plain jumping from tree to tree above her head. His blades would glitter in the air, and another bough would fall down ahead of her. For a moment she thought of Jet, and she had to work hard to push the thought from her mind.

"Slow down! You're going too fast!"

"You're going too slow," Zuko said from a few trees ahead of her. "You can move faster than this. I've seen you."

Katara bent and grabbed another prickly bough of wood. She shouted over the twigs: "Well, I wasn't aware you were taking notes! I'll be sure not to disappoint you, next time!"

A pause, and the blades whirred through the air. Another bough crashed down to earth. "How did you do that, before?"

It took her a moment to puzzle out his words. She was suddenly glad they weren't looking at each other. "I'm a waterbender. Blood is made of water. So I can bend it while it's still inside someone." She stepped forward and picked up more wood. "The woman who taught it to me said I could only do it during the full moon," she said, grimacing. "But I think I'm just a stronger bender than she was."

"Don't be stupid," Zuko said. He was now much closer, somewhere directly overhead. "Of course you're stronger."

Katara found herself hugging the sharp, knobbly twigs in her arms a little more tightly than she'd thought. It was one thing for her friends and family to cheer her on, or for her master to mark her as gifted. Hearing an enemy take her skills as given was something else entirely. "Thanks," she murmured. Then the burning in her ears got to her and she added: "That woman was once a Fire Nation prisoner, you know. She was from the Southern Water Tribe, just like me. And they put her in a cage and she went crazy."

A bough fell before her feet, and she saw Zuko dart away through the trees, far away from her. Wishing she had a hand free to slap her forehead, Katara picked it up. Bending down, her spine popped and she sighed. Why did she always have to ruin things? He had just complimented her. He was trying to be nice. Not that his being nice meant she'd ever forgive him. But she could at least be civil and put aside the hard, cold lump that moved from her stomach to her throat when she pictured her mother falling down in the snow, pictured Aang's body plummeting to earth.

A twig snapped in her hand. Then again, maybe not.

In the distance, a second twig snapped. "Zuko?"

Nothing. Her senses seemed to explode at once; she was suddenly and painfully conscious of each sound -- or rather, the lack thereof. The birds and insects had ceased their chatter. Goosebumps rose on her arms. Thunder shattered the air above her. Suppressing a shriek, she looked to the west. The clouds were much closer than they had been when they started out. A chill wind blew through the trees. "Zuko?" she asked in a much smaller voice. And other twig snapped. She wondered how long it would take to uncork her waterskins. Should she drop all the wood? Would that attract whoever was out there? "Zu-"

Someone dropped into place behind her, clamped a hand over her mouth, and slammed her against a tree. Zuko. She bit him and he pulled his hand away quickly. "What were you thinking?"

He was sweating. "Cover yourself in ice. Right now."


"Right now, Katara." Lightning flashed and he pulled them away from the tree. Barely a moment later, thunder shuddered through the air. Zuko set his teeth. "There is a razor-toothed iguana-moose out there," he said. "It should have gone to ground in the storm. That means it's either hungry or crazy."

"What does this have to do with me freezing to death?"

He rolled his eyes. "They follow body heat. Make yourself cold."

"Why, so you can just leave me here? We should go fight it together!"

"If it's rabid, we can't let it bite both of us," he said. "We might spread the sickness to Aang."

Katara hadn't thought of that. Her anger at not having thought of it was only matched by her indignation at being left behind. "How will I know if you've been bitten? Am I supposed to just sit here and wait for you to show up? What if the-" she had to avoid saying the word monster "-razor-toothed thing shows up first? What am I supposed to do?"

"Kill it, then kill me," he said. "Didn't you say you could crush my heart? Here's your chance."

"But what are you going to do?"

"I'll distract it, lead it away." Lightning licked down through the darkening sky. The rain had begun in earnest. "If the storm gets bad, go home. If I'm not back tomorrow, don't bother finding me."

She whipped wet hair from her eyes. "Could you be more melodramatic? You're going to get rid of this thing. Right?"

He swallowed, and looked out into the damp, chilly darkness. "Right."

"You'll be right back."

"I'll be right back."

"Because if you abandon me out here like this, Zuko, I swear to you I'll-"

"You'll kill me. I know." He licked his lips. "I'm not leaving you. I'm just…finding dinner." Zuko turned to her and gave her an odd look as though he wanted to say something. His gaze settled on her necklace, and she found herself touching it. "Don't let that get wet," he said. "The leather will shrink." And then he was gone.

"I know that," she said to herself, as she slowly began to coat herself in frigid armor.

The necklace did get wet. So did everything else. Katara crouched in the mud, her body huddled against a rock -- no good hiding under a tree in a lightning storm -- and her arms hugging themselves. Zuko hadn't returned. How long had it been? An hour? It felt like longer. But everything felt longer when the night was closing in and the rain just wouldn't quit, and when the thunder kept returning for seconds and thirds. Why didn't I bring a lantern? Why didn't I bring a blanket, or something?

She had tried bending the rain away from her. It worked for a while, but it distracted her enough that she worried about keeping her eye out for the razor-toothed menace. Then the hunger set in: her stomach said it was time for her to consider making dinner. Maybe that will lure Sokka out. Maybe he'll realize there's no food and he'll come looking for us.

For the second time that day, it seemed as though the universe had heard her thoughts. A tallish shape emerged from the rainy shadows. She stood up, shedding the watery armor, for once grateful to see Zuko. Then she noticed the broad rectangle sprouting from the shape's back. Instantly, she assumed a bending posture. "Who are you?"

A ball of flame appeared in the figure's hand, exposing a woman's wet face framed with stringy hair. She carried what appeared to be a large instrument case. "Just another woman lost in the rain," she said. "I think there's a little cave up a bit further. Would you like to share?"

Katara thought about it for a moment. Even if Zuko's plan was a little stupid, she shouldn't just leave him behind. On the other hand, he had distracted one predator -- assuming he'd told the truth -- and she had the chance to distract another. Someone wandering out here at night was bound to find the crevasse, and might hear the goings-on in the Temple. And that someone might lead the Fire Nation to Aang. She smiled. "That sounds great," she said. "Thank you."

"So," the woman asked as she measured out servings of boiling water, "what's a nice young lady like you doing out on a night like this?"

Katara stuck her hands closer to the fire. She hadn't remembered how cold she could get just being wet; she didn't dare bend in front of this woman and now her clothes clung to her. She shivered. "I was gathering firewood with…" She bit her lip. What to say? She'd never refer to Zuko as her brother; that was just wrong. Her friend? No. "My cousin," she said quickly. "We got separated. He heard a noise and thought it was this big animal. He wanted to distract it, so he left."

The woman whisked tea carefully in two bowls. She turned one in her hands before handing it to Katara. Katara smiled gratefully and curled her hands around the warm ceramic. "Thank you for the tea."

"Nonsense. Sharing tea with a fascinating stranger is one of life's true delights." The woman frowned as she whisked. "Your cousin's plan sounds brave, but foolhardy," she said, lifting her own bowl of tea. She had the sort of quiet beauty that Katara envied most. Her hair streaked silver at the temples and she held her tea with a delicate grace despite her ragged fingernails and calluses.

Katara nodded. "He's not too bright, sometimes."

"I'm sure he will be fine."

"Oh, I'm not worried," Katara said. "He's pretty strong when he wants to be."

"I'm sorry, you just looked a little preoccupied," the woman said.

Katara smiled tightly. "Just cold, I guess."

"You poor thing, lost out in the rain." She sipped her tea. "Is it just you and your cousin?"


"You don't have any parents?"

"Our mom and dad-" She stopped herself. "Well, my mother and his mother…" Quit messing this up! Figure out a story and stick to it! "They died in the war." She hurriedly sipped her tea.

"I'm sorry," the woman said. For a moment her eyes seemed to gaze off into a distance that Katara couldn't see. Then she returned to herself and said: "Very sorry. And my manners seem to have left me. My name is Kuma."

Katara smiled. "I'm-"


The shout was very distant. It seemed to drift away on the wind. Then it sounded again, closer, like the approaching thunder. Katara half-stood in the little cave. "I'm Katara," she said, and poked her head out. "That must be-"

Zuko emerged from the shadows completely drenched and furious. He looked like her memories of him: eyes spitting fire, face wet. His hair hung down across his face and his boots squished water. He leaned in close: "What were you thinking? Do you know how long I've been looking for you? Don't ever-"

"You're the one who took too long! I thought you were moose-meat!"

"I said I would be right back! Why don't you ever believe me? I thought-"

"Stop yelling at her this instant!"

Zuko froze. He turned woodenly toward the cave. The storm suddenly seemed very loud. This close, Katara saw the muscles in his throat working up and down. His lips could barely move. "Mom?"

His swords clattered to the cave floor. And then Katara had to move aside, because Kuma stepped out of the cave and into her son's arms. "My darling," Kuma said, gently covering Zuko's ruined ear with one hand. She leaned against him. "My darling."

"Mom," he said, and Katara saw his eyes squeeze closed as he buried his face in her wet hair.

Her name wasn't Kuma. It was Ursa. And she was a traveling guzheng player.

"I've been collecting songs about the Avatar," she said, as she unfolded the instrument's legs. Her zither, while smaller than Katara had expected, was ornately carved in dragons and lotuses. The lotus reminded her of something, but she couldn't remember what. "There are quite a few, now."

"There are songs?" Aang leaned forward on his knees. "Really?"

"Yes, especially recently," Ursa said, smiling. Aang blushed. From the corner of the kitchen space, Katara thought she heard Zuko snort quietly. She looked at him quickly; he sat with his knees to his chest, a blanket still draped around his shoulders and his hair blown in every direction by a gust of Aang's bending. Katara imagined she didn't look much better: dress still covered in dirt, hair fluffy beyond repair, and eyes hollow with hunger.

"Like what?" Aang asked.

"Well, there's Happy Avatar Day and General Fong's Folly, and Fear Not, Little Arrowhead…"

Sokka frowned. "What was that last one?"

"Oh, it's a very peaceful song. I learned it from some kind, gentle nomads who claimed to have met the Avatar." Ursa flexed her fingers. "They also taught me some of their other songs. They said you enjoyed the one about the-"

"Secret tunnel," Sokka said, slapping his forehead. "Oh yeah. We remember."

"I can play it-"

"NO!" Sokka, Katara, and Aang shouted.

Silence. Katara cleared her throat. "I mean, do you know any others?"

"Well, there's Hei Bai's Lament and The Ballad of Tui and La," Ursa said. She smiled. In unison, Sokka and Haru took on a dopey, happy look, like when Momo got his belly scratched. Even The Duke looked like he'd fallen in love. "There are even songs about each of you," she said. She looked to Katara. "There's The Coal-Bender's Friend, and The Painted Lady Returns-"

"You've been following them?" Zuko stood. The blanket fell from his shoulders as he strode to the center of the room. He jerked a thumb at himself. "I was following them! This whole time I was trying to win Dad over and running away from Azula and you were following him?" He pointed at Aang, who seemed to shrink a little.

"No," Ursa said in measured tones. "I was following you." Her face softened. "Sadly, I don't move as fast as a flying bison, or a Fire Navy ship." She tilted her head. "I've been gathering stories as I go, trying to learn as much as I can…"

Katara waited for Zuko to say something. All eyes turned to him. The firelight flickered on his face, giving it odd, deep shadows, making it seem older and his scar uglier. His mouth opened, then shut. His gaze hit the floor. He opened his mouth a second time. "I-"

"Oh no!" Toph yelped. "I forgot to feed Appa!" She knelt forward on the stones, patting them with her hand, doing the helpless blind kid bit from her Runaway act. "Sparky, can you help me?"

"Of course," Zuko said, making a beeline for her. He crouched on the floor. "Get on."

Toph climbed on his back and clung on. He looped her legs through his arms and she held his shoulders. Zuko stood and Toph said: "Gosh, I hope he's okay!"

"Me too." And they marched out of the room, Toph bouncing lightly against Zuko's back. Katara frowned, looking between them and Ursa. She watched Ursa watching them. The former Fire Lady looked more than a little bewildered. Toph had that effect on people.

"Would you like more tea?" Sokka asked, standing at Ursa's elbow with a towel hanging on one arm.

Katara quickly bent mental ice-daggers at her brother. Don't flirt with Zuko's mom, she tried to say with her eyes. I'm just being nice, Sokka said, lifting his eyebrows at her.

"More tea would be lovely," Ursa said, holding out her cup with both hands.

Sokka made an elaborate bow before pouring. "My pleasure, my good madam," he said in his best stuffy manservant voice. He sounded like the butlers at the Bei Fong household.

"You're quite the gentleman," Ursa said. "What service!"

"Zuko used to work in a teashop," Aang said. "He and Iroh ran it together."

Ursa smiled faintly. "Yes, I heard about that…"

"Iroh's really smart," Aang said. "And he's, um, really kind to animals. Zuko and I met these people who used to know him, and-"

"You saw the dragons?" Ursa asked. Her voice had gone quiet, apprehensive.

Aang's eyes grew very round. "You know about the dragons?"

Ursa gave Aang a very indulgent look. She gestured to the dragons entwined about her guzheng. One was lacquered blue, the other red. They coiled around one another. "These dragons?"

Aang's jaw dropped. "Those are the ones!" He pointed. "I faced the red one!"

"Ah, so Zuko faced the female," Ursa said. "That's…fitting."

"The blue one's the girl?" Aang asked. "How do you know?"

"Blue dragons hide high in the sky to camouflage the young, while red dragons use their bright coloring to distract other predators," Ursa said. She stroked the edges of her instrument, tightened a knob on one side. "The mother stays behind to protect her clutch, and the father goes off to battle."

Katara's stomach flipped over. We might spread the sickness to Aang. I'll distract it, lead it away. Suddenly she was standing. "I'm, uh, just going to see what's keeping them," she said, nodding down the hall. And then she was running.

"I'm not so good at families, either," Toph said.

Toph and Zuko lay against Appa's fur, facing one another. They rose and fell with the great animal's sleeping breath. Zuko twisted white fur between his fingers. "It's just-"

"Hi there, Sugar Queen."

Guiltily, Katara stepped out of the shadows. Zuko instantly reddened and looked away. "Don't worry, she didn't hear much," Toph said, sliding down Appa's belly. "They're dancing up there; I'd better make sure Twinkletoes doesn't hurt himself."

Zuko sat up. "I can carry you-"

"Nah, I got it," Toph said, waving a hand. "Just don't keep your mom waiting too long. She might get ideas."

Zuko's mouth opened, fish-like, then shut again. He drew his knees to his chest and fell back against Appa's fur. He stared up at the stable's high rafters. They were still beautiful a hundred years later, with smooth, polished wood setting off a fabulous trompe l'oeil ceiling. "What do you want?"

Katara folded her arms. "Your mom is waiting for you."

"I know."

"She followed you all this way."

"I know."

"She knows about the dragons."

Zuko directed his gaze at her. "Really?"

"Yeah. She said you faced the female."

"The blue one," Zuko said, nodding.

Zuko's eyebrows furrowed. "Why would my uncle tell her about the dragons and not me?" His face pinched. "He never trusted me…" Zuko threw his hands in the air. "Of course he never trusted me, look at what I did!" He covered his face with his hands. "And now Mom knows, too…" Zuko peeked from between his fingers. "You love this, don't you?"

Katara frowned. "What?"

"My mom's been following me! She knows every bad thing I've ever done! She knows I betrayed my uncle and hunted the Avatar and fought you all those times! She knows everything!"

Appa snuffled and abruptly rolled to his other side; the whole stable shook and Zuko stumbled to his feet. He brushed himself off. "So go up and tell her what a bad person I am," he said, lifting his face. "Tell her how I tied you to a tree and stole your necklace and everything else. I know you want to."

Katara blinked. It was one thing for Zuko to beg and plead and throw himself on his knees and say how sorry he was. A small part of her expected that. Sooner or later, everyone fell down in front of Aang and pleaded for forgiveness or help or mercy. But Zuko wasn't a coward -- stupid, yes, and arrogant and a traitor -- and he never ran from a fight, not even from men twice his size. Zuko never gives up.

So he had to be pretty sorry about everything, to hide from Ursa. He had to be pretty ashamed, to avoid his long-lost mother who clearly loved him enough to follow him despite what she heard. Katara blinked and tried to imagine what that kind of remorse would feel like, how heavy it would be, how it would weigh her down, and she thought of Aang's limp, dying body in her arms and how failure and regret felt like her friend's blood trailing down her aching, shaking limbs. She tried to imagine carrying that every day.

"I don't know what you've heard," she said, turning away, "but I don't break rule number one." She peered at him from the corner of her eye. "I won't tell on you. Water Tribe people don't do that."


Katara stepped up to him and began picking strands of Appa's hair from his clothes. "We were on Dad's ship for weeks and Sokka didn't tell on me once! Not about the pirates, or Jet, or anything else." She brushed his shoulders with both hands. "So I'll be nice. This time."

"But you hate me," Zuko said. "This is your chance."

Katara grabbed his tunic. "Look, I don't know how you do things back home, but this isn't your dad's house and I'm not your sister. I don't betray people."

"I know you don't…"

"Your mom is up there waiting for you! And she followed you all this way!"

"I know that!" Zuko broke her grip on him and stepped away. "She doesn't know me! She's never seen me like this!"

"Like what? Taller?"

"Like this," Zuko said, pointing to the scar. "She's never seen my face."

Katara rolled her eyes. "Who cares about your face?"

"You do! It's the enemy's face, you said-"

"I didn't mean it like that! You think I'm that shallow, Zuko? You think your mom is that shallow?" She stepped forward and jabbed him in the chest. "If you don't have the guts to face up to your own mother, then you don't have what it takes to be in this group."

Zuko gently moved her pointing finger away. "Then maybe I don't have what it takes. Maybe I'm just ugly inside and out."

Katara bit her lip. She gave Zuko's scar a hard look. Funny, how she couldn't really imagine him without it. "Do you know what I would give to have my mom alive to tell me I was ugly?" she asked in a tiny voice. "Do you?"

And with that, she left.

Upstairs -- downstairs, really, but up a few floors in number -- she found Aang trying to teach The Duke some of his oldest Fire Nation dance moves. The younger boy was a bit clumsy, but he tried his best. Mostly he kept staring at Ursa from the corner of his eye. Her fingers plucked the strings of her zither. She knelt before it, her hands flying through the air. Music rose in to the highest corners of the Temple. Sokka danced with Toph standing on his feet. They were terribly off-beat.

"Katara!" Aang held his hand out. "Let's show Ursa our moves!"

"Don't you want to try it with The Duke?"

"I tried," Aang said. "He got kinda nervous."

"I don't like being upside down," The Duke said.

"We'll fix that," Haru said, laying a hand on The Duke's thin shoulder. "Come on, I'll show you how to do a cartwheel."

The boys retreated, leaving the way clear for Aang and Katara. Smiling, Katara bowed, and assumed a bending posture. They began their dance. As before, Aang waited until they formed a tight circle before bending the air beneath her. Ursa's music grew livelier, as though she were responding to the dance. Toph began clapping. Sokka and Teo joined in. The air licked her toes and her neck and she saw the Temple ceiling, saw her feet above her head.

"Wonderful!" Ursa said, still playing.

"I'm doing it!" The Duke shrieked, standing on his hands with Haru's hands keeping a loose hold on his hands. "I'm upside down!"

"Good for you!" Ursa shouted.

"Way to go, Duke!" Haru said.

"It's The Duke!"

Katara sailed through the air. When she landed, Zuko was leaning against a column, watching. She stumbled a little and he caught her by the wrists. "He can see down your dress, you know," Zuko said in her ear.

Her face flamed. She pushed herself away. She pointed a single shaking finger at the pots and pans. "Dinner," she said, sputtering. "Now."

"Sparky just got told," Toph said.

The music ended. Applause and whistles surged up from the audience. Ursa blinked at Zuko as he began arranging vegetables on the cutting surface. "Zuko cooks?"

"Zuko does lots of things," Sokka said. "He cooks, he sews, he makes pottery, he dances with dragons." Sokka turned to her. "I'm sorry, but your son has turned into a complete girly-man."

Toph promptly stamped her foot, twisted it, and made the nearest stone jump up and punch Sokka in the stomach. He doubled over. "Sparky burned my feet," Toph said, dusting off her hands. "But then he begged me to forgive him. He even crawled. So it's all okay now."

"And he can run sideways on the wall, like this," Aang said, skimming the nearest column with his air-scooter. "But he's not even an airbender!"

Ursa turned to Katara. "Do you have any stories?"

Katara folded her hands. "Um…"

"She and Sparky don't get along," Toph said.

"To be fair, Katara's temper is legendary," Sokka said. "Like, there should be a song about it. You could call it Shortest Fuse in the South Pole, or something."


"I rest my case."

"Dinner!" Zuko called, brandishing skewers. Teo got there first, and Haru "walked" The Duke there on his hands like a wheelbarrow. Toph sucked fruit off her skewer. She sat in the other seat of Teo's glider, her feet hanging off the edge. "I like mango as much as anyone, but how come we don't eat papaya anymore?"

"I hate papaya," Zuko and Katara said in unison. The whole room laughed, even Ursa, who seemed unable to help herself. She laughed behind her hand.

"Zuko, may I please have one of those?" she asked, mastering herself.

"Oh! Right. Sorry." Zuko handed her a skewer with both hands. The room paused as she took a tiny bite. She smiled. "Honey and spark-seed, just like the recipe your uncle sent from Ba Sing Se! That was years ago; how did you remember?"

Katara turned to him. "You remember recipes from years ago, but you forget when it's your turn to make breakfast?"

Ursa seemed to choke on her food. Aang patted her back. "Are you okay?"

"Oh yes, I'm fine," Ursa said. "Zuko, this is very good. I don't know who taught you to make this-"

"Uncle," Zuko said. "I watched him."

"Iroh taught him all kinds of fancy bending too, and now he's teaching me," Aang said, his mouth full of vegetables. "Look!" Aang lunged forward, the skewer pointed out like a sword. Fire shot from the end of it, inadvertently scorching the vegetables. "Uh, that wasn't how it was supposed to go."

"It rarely ever is," Ursa said.

"But Zuko's still really good at firebending. You should see." Aang's eyes widened. "We should do a demonstration!"

"What, like a talent show?" Sokka asked. His eyes popped. "A talent show! Sokka, you're a genius!"

A collective groan rose from the crowd.

Sokka's genius plan involved Teo and the Duke flying through the night air in their two-seater trailing a flaming rag; Sokka demonstrating both his boomerang ("and then it hit him like this, right between the eyes!") and his sword ("I made it myself!"), then testing the latter on Zuko's twin blades; Haru and Toph facing off (Toph won by a landslide, when she bent her bracelet into a blindfold); and Aang and Zuko performing the Dragon Dancing form.

Ursa clapped. "That's amazing!"

"And now you know why dancing was banned in the Fire Nation," Sokka said.

"Actually, that is one reason it was banned," Ursa said. "The Fire Lords wanted no one establishing an alliance with the dragons."

"Really?" Sokka raises his fists skyward. "My genius is confirmed! Eat that, universe!"

"Yay…" The Duke said sleepily, and promptly put his head in Ursa's lap. Ursa's mouth made a little O of surprise and adoration. She stroked The Duke's hair away from his face.

"Looks like it's past his bedtime," she said.

"What bedtime?" Sokka asked.

Ursa winced. Great. Now she thinks we're a bunch of helpless orphans in need of a mom. As though reading Katara's mind, Ursa looked up at her and said: "It must take all your energy to keep this crowd in line."

"Oh, it's not that hard," Katara said, summoning a ribbon of water from one of her skins. She flicked her wrist and the water tripped Zuko over on his way to finding more skewers.


"I want one, too," Katara said.

Zuko picked himself up and made two fists. "There's only one," he said. "So you'd better come over here and get it."

"Oh, no," Aang murmured.

"Oh, yeah," Toph said. She folded her hands behind her head and lay down. "This is gonna be great."

"You might want to move back," Teo said, wheeling backward. As an afterthought, he pulled his goggles down. Katara was already crossing to the center of the kitchen. She had two ribbons of water, now, and they hovered under her hands. Seeing them, Zuko waved his hands in the air and brought forth two fire-whips. They blazed in his hands.

"Was once not enough for you, today?"

"I just thought I'd give you the honor of a rematch," Katara said. She gave him her best pout. "You want to win your honor back, don't you?"

"I never lost it," Zuko said, but he was already swinging the two whips at her. She jumped over them, and pushed a wave of water at him. Knocked backward, Zuko stumbled into the puddle of water. Katara quickly froze it around him. She raised it, freezing him to a pillar.

"I'm sorry," he said, the ice around him already dripping, "I didn't know you were so hungry."

Katara braced herself. "I'm starving."

He exhaled a blast of fire. The ice shattered and he was running, firing volleys at her. She retrieved the water and made an ice slide for him. He ran straight up it and dove off with a flip, kicking leg trailing fire on the descent. Katara spun her water-whip, but he ducked it and inched in closer, hands on fire. He punched wide; she wove around it and kicked high. Water splashed his face. Katara took advantage of his momentary blindness and let the ice skate her away. Transforming it into needles, she sent them flying toward him. Zuko, his hands still aflame, batted them away as he came closer. He made two long arms of fire; sent them straight for her. She sucked up more water from the fountain, its glittering length briefly spraying their audience as it roared above their heads, and made her own arms. They locked, fell away, locked again. They swung their arms, their hips.

"Feels like old times, doesn't it?" Katara asked, her elbows trembling with effort.

"Don't tell me you missed this." He spun, joining his two arms into a great arrow of fire. Released, it blazed over her head. She rolled sideways, folding herself into a cocoon of water. A boom resounded through the Temple. Lifting her arms, Katara raised herself on a cyclone of water, her whole body leaning this way and that as she twisted a second ball of water from the fountain. She sent glittering shuriken of ice through the air. Smirking, Zuko darted around them, running straight for her pillar of water. Yelling, he jammed his hands inside, right up to the elbow. Katara frowned. A moment later, she understood: the water nearest her feet started to get very hot. Now I know how crawdads feel.

Hissing, Katara popped free of the water. She soared, flipped over, and the water came with her in a broad swath; rain turned gold by firelight sluiced all around her. Thinking quickly, she froze it. Snow whistled down at Zuko, who stared up at her with legs braced and arms out. Shivering, he caught her and they rolled down into the fresh snow. He pinned her. Teeth chattering, he said: "Looks like I'll be eating seconds."

"Oh, really?" Katara asked, and nodded downward. The ice dagger in her hand pointed straight for his belly.

Zuko almost laughed. He rolled off her into the snow. Instantly, it began melting and pooling around him. He panted. Katara sat up. "That was-"

"Great," Zuko said, still breathing hard.

"Waterbending," Katara said, looking at Ursa. "I hope you enjoyed it."

Ursa looked at her son lying in a melting puddle of snow, still dazed. "It was most…enlightening."

"She beat the pants off him, as usual," Sokka said, yawning. "What else is new?"

"Can I take my goggles off, now?" Teo asked.

"I think it's safe," Haru said.

Zuko sat up. He tilted his head to the right and tapped the left side. "How did you get water in my ear?"

"Oh, be quiet. You'll live." Katara bent the snow around them into a cloud, and sent it over the side into the crevasse. "Ew, you stink." She bent the sweat right off him. It followed the cloud.

Toph yawned hugely. She whistled. "Sparky! Tuck me in!"

"Tuck you in? You're twelve! Do it yourself!" Zuko rose tiredly to his feet. He swayed unsteadily. "Let's go."

"Carry me!"

"No way."

"I'll bet Iroh would carry me."

Zuko cleared his throat. "Young lady, these old bones are very tired," he said in his Iroh voice.

Ursa laughed outright. "Go ahead and tuck her in, Zu-Zu."


Ursa knelt beside Katara as she wearily bent soapy water around a bowl. As she finished, she handed it to Aang to dry. "Here, let me," the former Fire Lady said. "My hands get so stiff playing; the warm water feels good."

"Do you need a healing session?" Katara asked.

"I'd be a fool to pass up the Painted Lady's healing touch," Ursa said. "But if you're too tired, please don't worry about it."

"Oh no, it's fine," Katara said, taking the older woman's callused hand in her own. She summoned some water. A moment later, it began to glow.

"Katara's really good at that," Aang said, blowing a spoon dry.

"Magic," Ursa said softly.

"Not magic, just bending," Katara said. She squinted at Ursa's sleeve. "I can mend that hole, too, if you want," she said. "See, it's unraveling."

Ursa looked at the sleeve. The light inside her dimmed slightly. She picked at the threads. "This was how I felt about Ozai," she said.

"Excuse me?"

"When you hate someone, this is what happens," Ursa said, gently tugging a red thread away from the hole. It grew wider and wider. "You keep trying, but the hole just grows bigger until there's nothing left."

The water flared bright blue. "Don't tell me you forgave Ozai," Katara said. "He banished you! He took your family away from you!"

"From a certain point of view," Ursa said. "But from another, I chose to give Zuko up. Despite how much I loved him, I had to leave to keep him safe. I knew that when I chose to eliminate Azulon."

The spoon clattered to the floor. Aang bent to pick it up, hiding his face. "You had to give him up?" he asked.

"Yes. It was the hardest thing I've ever had to do. But it meant that he lived. And even though Ozai hurt him, he still found all of you." She smiled. "He turned out to be a pretty good bender, too! He's made such progress!"

Katara goggled. "Progress?"

"Oh yes, Zuko could barely execute a kick when he was small," Ursa said. She lowered her voice to a conspiratorial level. "Don't tell him I told you, but he was always a little bit clumsy."


"I, uh, have to go," Aang said, standing.

"Is something wrong?" Katara asked. "Do you not feel good?"

"Just something I have to do." And then he was flitting away.

Ursa's frown mirrored Katara's. "He's a very special boy, isn't he?"

"You've got that right."

That night, Katara heard Zuko and Ursa and Aang moving about the Temple long into the night. Funny, how she could already distinguish between their footsteps. Maybe this is how Toph does it. She waited until Zuko passed her door for the third time in an hour before finally opening it. "What?"

He startled. "Can't sleep."

"Can you not sleep somewhere else? I'm tired."

Zuko rubbed the back of his neck. "I know, I'm sorry." His good eye widened. "You're not hurt, are you?"

"Pfft. Please. You? Hurt me? You can't even touch me."

"Mom says you're a really great bender. She was really impressed."

"Well, she's impressed with you, too, Zu-Zu," Katara said, rubbing sleep from her eyes.

"She told you that? Really?"

"Don't act so surprised! You're her son! Of course she's proud of you!"

He looked at the floor. "I've done such terrible things…"

Sighing, Katara threw her hands in the air. She re-entered her room, intent on finding a lace to tie her hair back with. To her surprise, Zuko had followed her. "I'm really sorry," he said.

"I know you're sorry," she said, pushing her hair to the side and beginning to braid it.

"Really sorry."

"Zuko, I know how sorry you are."

"No, you don't," he said. "I know you'll never forgive me, I know you hate me-"

"Shut up, Zuko. Stop putting words in my mouth."

Instantly, he silenced. Katara concentrated on finishing her braid, not looking at him. "Aang's right," she said. "We aren't going to win this war if we keep fighting amongst ourselves. And if I… If we don't learn to let go, we'll just end up…unraveling." She took a deep breath and looked at him. "But the truth is that every time I think about forgiving you, it feels like I'm betraying my mom."

His mouth fell open. He stared again at the floor. "I understand."

"No, you don't," Katara said, pulling her braid out of its knot. "I don't like hating you, okay? I don't like who I am when I'm fighting you."

"You don't?"

"Well, I like the bending part," Katara said quickly. "Just not the being angry part."

Silence. She ran her fingers through her hair. Zuko watched them. "Maybe…" He squared his shoulders. "No, forget it."

"What? What were you going to say?"

He made to leave. "Nothing. You wouldn't like it."

"Tell me now!"

Zuko turned. "Maybe…" He licked his lips. "Maybe we could make the bending a regular thing. Like…practice."

Katara let her hair go once more. "Together?"

He nodded, stepping closer. "It can't hurt to train a little bit more," he said. "And even if you did get hurt, you could always heal yourself."

"That's true…" She bit her lip. "Aang wouldn't like it…"

"He doesn't have to know," Zuko said, his voice strangely low, like there were already a secret to keep. "We could wait until he's training with Toph."

How had they gotten this close? He radiated heat. "It might help," she murmured. "We could try getting it out of our system…"


She was nodding. "It did feel like old times tonight, didn't it?"

"Like home," Zuko said.

"And you won't get any better if you don't get a challenge once in a while…"

"You wouldn't have to hold back."

Katara couldn't suppress a nervous little laugh. "You promise?"

"I promise." He swallowed. "Think about it."

The moment broke and he stepped away, turned for the door. Then he turned on his toe and said: "Oh, I forgot. Mom says…" He was breathing too lightly, and he was pushing the half-braid away from the left side of her face, he was too quick on his feet these days, "Mom says…"

"What does she say?" Katara whispered.

He moved and his mouth was just at the corner of hers, warm and dry and soft, and his fingers were in her hair. Her cheek burned when he pulled away. "She says goodnight," he said.

"Okay," Katara thought she heard herself say, though blood thundered in her ears. This is how it's supposed to feel like. Right now, this minute, is what first kisses are supposed to be.

Swallowing, Zuko pulled away. His fingers trailed down her arm as he left. He was at the door: "So, tomorrow," Katara said.

He turned, smiled. "Tomorrow."


Whew! Flamio, my good hotmen! Three Chores is over! I worked pretty hard on this, so please leave a review!

A note on Ursa: Although the rest of Three Chores focuses on "moments in between," the end of Three Drinks (A Royal Drink) features Ozai and a final battle scene. I thought it only appropriate to include Ursa. I hope you liked it!