'Once upon a time, there was a very skilled young swordsman who lived near a village on a river in the Fire Nation. The villagers didn't know him well – he lived alone on the banks, and even when they did see him, he always wore a mask and black clothing. He looked like a thief, but the villagers, even though they did not know him by name or face, knew he was a kind hearted man.
'They called him a hero because he did what he could to keep them safe.
"Hey Zuko." Katara called at him from Appa's saddle as he sat by the campfire sharpening his swords. Toph and Aang had gone to practise some earthbending, Sokka and Suki to the Ember Island market for supplies. She leant on the edge of the saddle and tilted her head curiously. "Why do you love those swords so much? You're already a firebender."
Zuko looked up at her. He would have thought it was obvious. "They're helpful," he answered, "If there's ever a time I can't use bending, these are my best bet." He paused a moment to inspect his work on one, and, satisfied, picked up its twin and began again. "You never know when it'll come in handy."
Katara sighed from atop the saddle as she continued to watch. "You're lucky," she said, matter-of-factly. "Without my bending, I'm pretty useless."
"I wouldn't be so sure," said Zuko, pausing again. When she raised and eyebrow at him, he snorted. "What? You can be terrifying when you're angry, with or without your bending. Trust me. I would know."
She frowned and poked her tongue out at him. "You can keep going along those lines and you'll see I can get even worse."
Zuko raised his hands in defence. "I'm only speaking the truth." He smirked at her. "Besides," he said lowering his voice mischievously, "I'll always protect you – I saved you from pirates once, remember?"
She water whipped him.
'One day as the masked swordsman ambled up and down the riverbank. He met a girl crouching by the river's edge. She looked up at him curiously and smiled.
'"If I may ask, sir," she said politely, "Why do you wear a mask?"
'The swordsman blinked, taken aback by such an audacious question. "To keep my anonymity," he answered flatly.
'"Why?" she asked again.
'Behind his mask, he frowned. "It's… better this way…"
'The girl looked down a moment, and then proceeded to stand, stretching her arms up above her head. Then she looked at him again with the same gentle curiosity dancing about in her eyes. "Have you been hurt?" she asked. "On your face?"
'The swordsman stared at her, eyes widening behind the mask. As if she could see his expression, she smiled at him. "It's okay. I won't press you for details. But… if it's not too much trouble, could you please give me a ride across the river? I need to go home."
'It took a moment for the swordsman to realise what she'd asked, but he nodded nonetheless. He'd been thinking… wondering about how such a young girl could ask such things so forwardly, and even stranger, how she could just assume things like so and be entirely right.
Zuko found her the next day lounging about on the river bank near his family's holiday home.
In her waterbending clothes.
It was such a shock to him because he'd never actually seen her practise like this. He nearly dropped his dao swords – which would have hurt considering they were recently sharpened – he'd come out here to make sure he hadn't lost his touch.
She turned her head a little to look at him and smiled in polite greeting. "Hey Zuko," she said casually, sitting up to face him.
Zuko fought down a rising blush – there wasn't very much else he could do, standing before a – he had to admit – very pretty teenaged girl stripped to her under clothes which happened to be white (and therefore slightly see through, as they were wet) and happened to cling to her body as… they were wet. Obviously she'd had swim while she was at it.
He gulped. "Uh… hey, Katara… er… why are you here and not on the beach with everyone else?"
She shrugged. "I dunno. I guess I wanted a little privacy – besides, the river's as good a place as any. What about you?"
"I, uh… come out here to practise usually –" he held up the swords and stepped backwards a little – "but I can go if you want."
"No, no, it's okay," she said lightly. "Can I watch you practise? I've never really seen you use them properly before."
"Uhh… sure, I guess…" It wasn't that he didn't want her to. His hesitant tone was a result of his accursed teenaged hormones that caused him to feel rather awkward in front of a half dressed teenaged girl. It was reason enough to feel incredibly self conscious of his probably flaming red face. But thirty minutes later, his shirt was in a neatly folded pile on the bank and the twin blades sliced through the air in swishing, fluid movements.
He'd never had anyone watch before but Katara turned out to be a very good audience, clapping enthusiastically after each routine.
She leant forward on her knees eagerly. "Can you teach me?" she asked after a while.
He paused in mid-slice. "Er… why?"
Again, Katara shrugged. "You never know when it might come in handy," she said, repeating his answer from the day before, "I mean, if for some reason I can't use my bending and I happen to have your dao swords – "
"Why would you have my dao swords?"
She made a face at him. "C'mon, please?" She stood up, and Zuko very nearly had to fight to keep his gaze on her face – but then, the face she made at him made it hard to refuse her request anyway.
He sighed. "Fine," he scowled, and held out the swords for her to take.
She took them excitedly but half a second later, her wrists dropped with their sudden weight. She glared at him as a laugh almost escaped from his lips, but it was obvious that she'd never touched a weapon that wasn't made out of water before.
He snorted and made to stand behind her, fixing her posture and moving his arms along hers to fix her grip and their position. Then she spoke quietly.
"I'm sorry I never got to heal your scar."
He paused. "Why?" he asked. "If you'd done it, Aang might be dead. It went to a better cause – don't be sorry."
Katara turned her head a little and looked at him from the corner of her eye. "Do you really want it gone?"
Zuko shrugged a little. "Yes and no," he answered shortly.
"I think it defines you," she said. "And I don't think it's a mark of shame – you're pretty honourable after all, if you ask me." She took her turn to shrug. "Zuko?"
"What do I do next? My arm's cramping up."
Zuko snapped back into reality and cleared his throat. "Oh, right."
It was as though the conversation had never happened, but Zuko wondered if she was always this outspoken or if it was just when she was with him.
'For the next four days, the swordsman found the same girl in the same place every time he went for a walk along the river bank. He grew to like her strange questions and the way her mind worked, and finally, on the fifth day, she asked him something quite different.
'"Can I… May I see your face? Only if it's alright of course, but… may I?"
'The swordsman stepped back a little and blinked at her behind the mask. "I… no," he said bitterly.
'She frowned. "Why not?"
'He hesitated and turned his masked face away from hers. "I don't want you to be afraid of me," he muttered slowly, quietly. And it was true – no one had seen his face in so long because he believed it was too marred and perhaps slightly inhuman. He did not want to be feared.
'But the girl smiled at him and lifted her hands to the mask. "You are a good man," she said, "I have nothing to be afraid of."
The two of them were still at the river at sunset. Sozin's Comet would come in less than a week and they decided silently that it was moments like these they would have to treasure.
Katara lay with her eyes closed on the river bank, basking in the orange glow and warmth of the sinking sun. Zuko watched her feeling quite relaxed. Then she sat up and turned to him.
"Do you mind if I have another look at your scar?"
He frowned at her. "I thought you said it defined me," he said quickly. "And you haven't got any spirit water left."
She shrugged (she'd been doing that an awful lot lately). "I know. And it does… but I want to see how bad the damage really is. Maybe one day, I can heal it for you – only if you want, of course."
Zuko hesitated a little, but after a moment's thought, he nodded.
Katara grinned at him and moved forward. Her fingers brushed his scar just lightly at first, and when Zuko closed his eyes, she ran her fingers softly over the burnt flesh. It was a strange a feeling, really; the soft pads of her fingers pressed against marred skin, and he was so caught up in all of it, he hardly noticed how close they'd become. He cursed himself when he felt his cheeks flame, and when she lowered her hand, it was resting on his cheek, and her face was burning too.
Zuko did the only thing that made sense in his mind and leant forward, pressing his lips lightly against hers.
And then shocked at his own boldness, he pulled back and stood up quickly. "I'm sorry," he muttered, "I shouldn't have – "
He was silenced when she stood up and kissed him back.
'On the sixth day, the girl wasn't there.
'The swordsman waited for her to appear at the river bank for hours, but she never came. At sunset, he was still there and he was torn between bitterness, concern, and dejectedness. Had she just played him? Was she perhaps laughing at him on the other side of the river? No – she was hardly the cruel type. Perhaps something had happened?
'The bandits came as he was pondering her wellbeing. They were stealthy, and the swordsman was distracted, and he didn't notice their arrival until it was almost too late. The twin swords whistled through the air, and the swordsman fought so fiercely that in no time at all, half the bandits were incapacitated.
'He did not see the girl finally arrive.
'When he did, it was when he saw the arrow aimed at her heart. His mind went blank. His feet moved. His voice called out to her and everything happened in slow motion.
'In the end it was the swordsman that fell limply to the ground.
Red and blue flames alike flashed through the arena and sometime during the Agni Kai between Zuko and his sister, Katara realised she'd never seen such a mesmerising display of bending. Not even Aang could produce something this huge, this epic without using the Avatar State. But a somewhat beautiful display it was, it was also terrifying.
If Zuko lost…
Mentally she kicked herself. Zuko wouldn't lose. Zuko never gave up without a fight. Zuko. Wouldn't. Lose.
"No lightning today?" he taunted. At the same time, Katara rushed forward a little, hand on the opening of her water skin in case she needed it. Zuko jeered at his sister. "What's the matter? Afraid I'll redirect it?"
Azula cackled, and Katara could have sworn she saw the definition of insanity dancing like wildfire in her sharp amber eyes. "I'll show you lightning!" she drawled.
Zuko breathed in deeply, moving his hands into position as Azula brought shards of electricity to life in her hands.
Only she wasn't focused on her brother.
Katara saw the panic arise in Zuko's face. His expression told her everything, and though she could see the lightning speeding towards her, her feet were jammed to the ground. She couldn't move. Her eyes squeezed shut and she braced herself –
Nothing happened. Not to Katara, at least. When she opened her eyes again, her heart nearly stopped dead.
Zuko lay twitching and unconscious n the charred arena floor.
'The girl wept for him.
'She dropped to her knees and wept over his unmoving body as the bandits closed in on from all sides, grinning predatory grins with their swords glinting menacingly in the glow of the sunset. Terrified and devastated, she prayed to the spirits for something – anything at all – to come to her aid.
'But nothing did.
'Anguished, she had nothing left to do and so she threw herself into the river because spirits only knew, she would rather drown than fall pray to these people. But the river caught her with open arms, surrounding her and embracing her, but it did not swallow her. Rather, she became a part of it. All of a sudden she was not one being anymore. She was the river. The river was her.
'She raised herself as a beautiful water spirit, cloaked in flowing white robes, hair held back neatly, and under a thin veil of fog, her face shone brightly lined with earthy red and a pale silver moon on her forehead. The water rose with her arms, and a swift movement later, the bandits were cowering before her.
'"Leave," she commanded. "And do not come back. You have killed a good man and you are all nothing but cowards. You should count yourself lucky that I am not a vengeful woman."
'The bandits gave a collective whimper. "Yes ma'am!" the muttered and hurried off at once.
'The girl-now-spirit glared after them before kneeling beside the unmoving swordsman. "You made a sacrifice," she said quietly. "I am thankful." She raised her hand and the water followed, and, laying it on his wounded chest, it began to glow.
Zuko! No, Zuko! Hang in there! Zuko!
It was all that ran through her mind as she saw him fall with dying grace to the arena floor. He had taken lightning to the chest. For her. She needed to heal him, right away, she could not – would not let him die for saving her.
"Zuko!" she called. Her feet moved towards him at the same time, hands already gloved in water at the ready when lightning rained from the sky, landing a few mere inches from her.
She heard a cackle from above. "I'd really rather our family physician looked after little Zuzu, if you don't mind!" Azula laughed a deranged, terrifying laugh as another blast of fire sprang to life at her fingertips.
Katara ran towards the nearest pillar and hid for cover behind it with her head in her hands as blue flames exploded behind her.
"Zuzu," she heard. "You don't look so good!" The way Azula taunted her brother made her feel sick. There was the crackle of more lightning, and a moment passed when the panic in her head rose to deafening volumes. No! She'll kill Zuko! No, no, no, n-
But then she heard it coming closer. It wasn't aimed at Zuko, Azula was still trying to kill her! She moved without thinking further along the colonnades and a half a second later the pillar she was standing behind blew up in a cloud of debris and smoke.
And then the laughter stopped. Katara peeked out from behind the pillar to see if Azula was still there, and she was, so she bent the entire amount of water from the pool on the arena ground and allowed to fall in that same place.
But the laughing started again, and she turned around to see Azula speeding towards her with blue flames at her feet.
What little water there was left in the other pool, she used to help her run. Every turn was followed by another explosion of bright blue flames, and as she turned into the colonnade on the other side of the arena, a huge rush of searing blue blew past her on the other side of the pillars as she fell to her knees in exhaustion.
That was when she had a stroke of genius.
She was standing on a drain. Underneath which was something that looked like a river. And further along in the direction she was facing was a chain.
She had one chance. In her head, she made a silent prayer to the spirits that it would work. If she couldn't beat Azula with skill, she'd have to outsmart her.
"There you are, you filthy peasant!"
Azula had found her. She had to be quick.
They glared at each other for a moment and Katara realized that she had to make her move first. She bent the water she had left in her water skin into four water whips that lashed out at Azula with as much precision as she could.
Azula dodged her attack and moved her hands straight into lightning position. At the same time, Katara raised her arms above her head. The water below followed them, and before Azula could realize it, they were both suspended from the world and reality by being encase in a giant block of ice. Azula's fingers were a second from sending sparks right into Katara's face.
Katara exhaled slowly, both in relief and to melt the ice around her – and only around her – and began to swim around the Fire Princess, shackling her arms together with the chain she had picked up earlier. She forced her to kneel and tied her down to the drain itself before allowing the water to melt completely and fall back to where it came.
The two of them coughed for air at the same time, but Katara tightened the chain and made sure Azula could not escape before she hurried to Zuko's fallen form.
The pain must have been awful, she thought as she turned his body around gently so as not to touch his wound.
Zuko groaned, and Katara bit her lip in concern as she inspected the damage to his chest. It wasn't that deep, she thanked the spirits, nowhere near as deep as the one Aang received a few months ago. She covered her hands in water, placed them on his chest and let them glow.
Zuko's face contorted a little in pain, but relaxed after a moment. "Thank you, Katara…" he murmured.
With tears threatening to fall from her eyes in relief, Katara smiled back down at him. "I think I'm the one who should be thanking you," she said softly. She had to stop herself from throwing her arms around him in order for her not to hurt him a little more.
'Behind the mask, the swordsman opened his eyes. "You are an angel," he murmured.
'She shook her head. "I am the girl. You gave your life for me – I shall give it back."
'She smiled back down at him. "The Spirits granted me this form. I am the river now. It is my turn to protect this village, and I shall do it in this form. I shall protect them as the Painted Lady."
Three years later
Zuko lay on the grass in his mother's garden with his eyes closed. It was summer. He was the Fire Lord. All was well except for the very few rebellions that took place on the outskirts of the Fire Nation. Fire Lord, he decided, was no longer his ideal job. But today was such a nice day he told himself it was high time he took a break. Katara sat next to him playing with a couple of Turtleducklings.
"Mm?" she replied.
"You remember the good old days when we were enemies, and I chased you, Aang and Sokka all over the world?"
She giggled. "You tied me to a tree, how could I forget?"
"Hm, we didn't like each other very much back then. I was such a jerk."
This time she laughed at him as he pulled himself into a sitting position. "You made up for it," she said, amused.
He looked at her, moved a little and lay back down with his head in her lap. "You don't mind, do you?"
Katara grinned at him. "What? That you're lying on my lap or that you're not a jerk? Because I have to say, I do miss the good old days a little."
Zuko rolled his eyes at her and snorted. "Well I don't see you objecting, so I suppose this will be fine, yeah?"
She moved her hand to his bangs and tucked a lock of his hair behind his ear. "Yeah," she mumbled lightly, "It's fine."
There was a pause in which the two of them enjoyed the simplicity of being in each other's company at the pond on such a day when there was nothing but blue skies in sight. The silence was comfortable, friendly, and not awkward or venomous as it had been years ago. The peace was welcome too.
"Katara?" Zuko asked again. "You remember when we defeated Azula? You sat over me like this and brought me back to the living when I was within an inch of death."
"Well," she snorted, "Not quite like this. I don't think you had the audacity to randomly lie on my lap back then, but yeah, of course I remember. A battle that terrifying isn't really that easy to forget."
Zuko grinned up at her. "I was so worried about you."
She tapped his forehead lightly. "Is that to say you don't think my bending was up to par with Azula's?" she demanded playfully. "I think it's safer to say I was really worried about you. You took lightning to the chest after all."
Zuko was feeling awfully childish that day, and he poked his tongue out at her. "You know what I should have done after you healed me?" he asked, sitting up.
"This." He placed hand on the back of her neck, pulled her towards him and kissed her.
She giggled a little against his lips, and then closed her eyes and kissed him back.
'"I want to help," the swordsman said.
'The Spirit quirked an eyebrow, and he was reminded that Spirit or not, this was definitely still the same girl. "You are giving up your life. Are you sure?"
'"I am," he said firmly.
'She smiled down at him. "Very well. You were a hero in life wielding twin dao sword, so you shall be one afterwards. You are the Blue Spirit."
'He nodded. "The mortals of this village are ours to protect?"
'"Indeed," she said gently, "We shall do so together."
"Grandpaaaa, that's not the story of how Mommy and Daddy fell in love!" The six year old whine was hardly resistible, but Iroh smiled back down at the child.
"Oh?" he asked tapping a finger on her nose. "And Kaya, my dear, how would you know that?"
Fire Princess Kaya stuck her tongue out at her great uncle playfully. "Mommy told me that story a looooong time ago, see. That's the Legend of the Blue Spirit and the Painted Lady, not Mommy and Daddy's love story."
Iroh laughed at his nephew's daughter and tickled her a bit. She squealed a little. "Grandpa, stop – hahaha – that –haha…"
Iroh smiled at her. "Don't you know my dear? Your Mommy is the Painted Lady, and your Daddy is the Blue Spirit. That's their story."
The little girl scrunched up her nose. "No, they're noooot."
"You should ask them," he said with a smile. "And ask Uncle Aang, Auntie Toph and Uncle Sokka too. They'll say it's true too."
"Grandpa," she whined.
"You don't believe me!" Iroh mock-gasped. Then he smiled and tapped her nose again. "You'll just have to see, my dear. You'll just have to see."
'And they all lived happily ever after.'
Notes: Apparently this is too big to go on LJ. XP