Chapter 12: Like Fire and Water
posted November 18, 2009
Zuko felt her arrival even before the distant steam whistle cut through the air – the bond shimmered like rain on a sunny afternoon, and he grabbed the countertop to steady himself. She's back, he thought, relief and terror warring within him. She's back. Breathe, Zuko.
He tried to finish tallying the ledger sheets spread before him, but the bond rippled, drew away and then grew nearer and suddenly he knew that Katara was walking towards him. He gave up on the ledgers, bent to rest his forehead on clasped hands atop the store counter, and breathed.
Images flashed through his mind, the mountains rising over Skaguak, Main Street's crowded walks, the alley behind Toph's building, and he forced himself up, through the kitchen, to the back door. The bond rippled, sang, and he didn't remember reaching for the door, turning the knob, but there she was, blue eyes as vivid as he remembered, mouth slightly open and hand outstretched towards the door.
Zuko stared at her for an eternity, overwhelmed by her eyes and her nearness and how he could feel her somehow, almost taste her, the sensations terrifying in their intensity but he swallowed the fear and watched her, felt her do the same.
"Were you there?" she blurted out, and Zuko felt his own surprise echoed in her and tried to steady himself, block her out to hear his own thoughts. He almost asked "where?" in reflex, but the images rose in his mind, the burning village and the distant screams.
"No." He swallowed, trying to project his sincerity, trying to think of those distant weeks on the steamer, his first impressions of the Southern Territories, how new the towering mountains and dense forest were to him.
They stared at each other and Zuko saw her eyes widen, felt her understanding. "Okay." She took a deep breath and looked away. "Okay."
Zuko steeled himself, forced himself to speak. "But… Uncle was."
Emotion surged down the bond to him, rage in her eyes, and Zuko almost regretted saying it, but better the truth be known now than later. He felt her rage turn to helplessness, to despair, and he wanted to reach out and steady her, soothe the emotions that tore through his mind. He raised his hand and stepped forward, but stopped himself as she turned away.
"He…" Zuko dropped his hand, clenched it by his side. "He said it was what changed his mind. Why he stopped. He…" Zuko closed his eyes, trying to remember his uncle through Katara's panic, threatening to overwhelm him as it had her. "I don't think he… participated." The words felt lame, inadequate even to his own ears, but he didn't know what else to say and only hoped that Katara could feel his sincerity as he could feel her anguish.
The feelings echoing along the bond deepened, confusion and reluctant acceptance joining the pain and rage and Zuko could feel how his words cut them both, and he had never felt as helpless as he did in that moment, caught in a torrent of emotion that wasn't his. He remembered laying a muddy ditch for half the night, the earth shaking beneath him and flame burning the sky over him and the screams of his brothers-in-arms dying around him, and felt like he'd had more control over his surroundings on that hellish night in the Huilin Forest.
They stood there helpless for an eternity longer before Zuko grit his teeth and slid his hand into his pocket and tried to close his mind, to think of firebending and the clean burn of sunlight. He forced himself to speak. "I …" He withdrew his hand, held out the necklace he'd carried with him all these weeks. "You left this behind, when…"
Katara looked up and the emotion raging between them subsided just a little even as he dropped his head; he struggled to complete his thoughts against the distraction of her eyes, the memory of her teeth and her hands and that sudden, sweeping realization that changed everything. "I know it's important to you so I brought it with me, but then…" He swallowed, gathered his strength to continue. "Do… do you need help putting it on?" He looked back up and allowed himself to hope as Katara stared at the leather band, the silver pendant swaying between them.
She reached out hesitantly, touched the engraved surface, grasped the leather, and took it from him; Zuko let it slide through his fingers into hers. He folded his hands carefully behind him as she looked at it.
"Thanks." Her voice was the barest whisper, and her hands shook as she raised the necklace, clasped it around her neck and under her hair. "Thank you."
The bond surged as silence fell between them, more awkward than that first moment of reunion. Zuko wanted to reach out or run away – anything to break the tension – and knew somehow that Katara did too, but they were trapped by each other, drowning in the sudden nearness, and –
"Thought I heard a steamer pull in." Zuko jumped at Toph's voice beside him, saw and felt Katara startle as well. "How's your fancy-pants client?"
Katara blinked and the bond quieted, the spell somehow broken, and Zuko frowned. Did Toph…? but the earthbender was speaking, slugging Katara with awkward affection.
"Your stuff is upstairs. Wanna go get settled in?" She jerked her thumb at Zuko. "Sunshine here will make you some tea, if you want it."
"Later, maybe." Katara's voice was barely a whisper, but the crushing awkwardness had dissipated and Zuko nodded and stepped back inside to let her pass. He watched her move slowly through the doorway, glancing at him for the barest instant before turning to the staircase and ascending silently.
"That went well," Toph said, and stomped up the stairs behind her.
Zuko stood rigid for a moment longer, then slumped onto the kitchen settle. He rested his elbows on his knees and stared at the floorboards, thought of everything he might have said, everything he'd thought of saying in those long anxious weeks between Katara's departure and moments before.
I guess it could have gone worse.
Toph led her to the second guest room, the one with soothing blue walls and a view of distant mountains across the harbor. Her press stood against one wall, displacing the bureau Katara remembered, and her own quilt draped across the bed. She sank down atop it, studied her boots standing neatly against the wall, tried to ignore Zuko's presence, tantalizingly and revoltingly close.
The bed creaked as Toph sat down beside her and shared a memory, forming it carefully in the void between them in the way that had taken Katara a decade to realize that others, regular people who aged and stayed blind to the world around them, couldn't see. In it, Zuko sat at Toph's table, hands folded and eyes downcast and posture conveying bitter shame and desperate hope. Her throat tightened and the bond throbbed, and Toph's voice held emotion that Katara had never heard from her.
"He's not one of them. Not any more." The words fell against barriers that had already crumbled, and Katara let the tears fall as Toph rubbed her back awkwardly. "It's okay."
"I'm sorry, Toph… I know, it's just…" She tried to sigh, but it came out a sob, and she leaned into her friend. Vampire, his voice echoed, a mere whisper after so many weeks. "There's just so much… and I don't know what to do, and I've had it with this stupid client already, and I just…" She sniffed. "I just don't know where to start."
"Oh, Sweetness." Toph handed her a handkerchief. "Did you sleep at all on that big fancy boat?"
Katara laughed through her tears as she took it, wiped her eyes. "Not really."
Toph leaned forward and her shoulder brushed Katara's for a moment before she slid off the bed. "Well, I'm sure there's time before dinner for a nap. If you want it."
Katara clutched the handkerchief and tried to smile. "Thanks, Toph."
Toph didn't turn as she stepped into the hallway and closed the door, but Katara could feel her smile as she lay back on the bed; it warmed her as much as the old quilt as she drifted slowly into sleep, feeling Zuko close and distant all at once.
Toph carried the conversation at dinner, prompting Katara to share her journey north and back. "You ran into Sokka in Kanikek? Good timing." She took another massive bite, and silence fell on the table again.
"How…" Zuko started and Katara looked up and this time she didn't flinch. "How was the engine running?"
Katara reached for her water glass and shrugged, tried to make the gesture casual, though she knew Zuko could feel her awkwardness as she could feel his. It's okay. "Fine, I guess. He didn't say anything about it, so I guess it's fine." She glanced at him again, tried to smile. "Sokka says you were his roustabout."
"Yeah." Zuko pushed food around his bowl. "He spent a whole day complaining about benders and asking me to heat things."
Katara quirked her brow. "Let me guess. He called it 'freaky magic.'"
Zuko looked up, a ghost of a smile on his face. "I take it you've heard that, too."
Katara snorted. "I grew up with him."
Zuko's smile strengthened and Katara found herself smiling back tentatively. It's okay, she told herself, and for the first time, she started to believe it.
Across the table, Toph smiled.
The connection pulled Katara from sleep far too early the next morning, the sun barely risen in the sky. She pushed herself up, shook her head, groggy and unsure what had awakened her until she felt Zuko's presence burn nearby. He's firebending, she realized as that invisible pulse seemed to move, change rhythm; she lay back against her pillow and allowed herself to really think about that tie, to feel it pulse between them.
Her dreams had been muddled, fire and landslides and warm golden eyes, the change ripping through her skin and steaming water that stung and soothed at once. The connection throbbed, Zuko's fatigue and satisfaction clear across it unlike those weeks on the steamer and in Ba Jin Hu, where it had been little more than a whisper. The sensation of him so close spawned an odd contentment and Katara found herself almost wishing he were closer, but…
Katara felt the side door close at the same time she felt Zuko near, move through the lower floor and start up the stairs. She rolled over, closed her eyes and stilled her breathing and hoped he couldn't hear her, but his footsteps continued down the hall towards Toph's third bedroom. She tried to tune him out and fall back asleep, but she remained wide awake as sunlight climbed up the wall beside her, as Zuko's footsteps passed by her door and down the steps again.
His presence hovered warm and quiet below, almost teasing, and Katara finally gave up. She rose from the bed and smoothed her quilt, splashed her face in the wash basin, dressed quickly and stepped into the hallway.
Zuko heated water for tea carefully, holding his hands around the kettle as Uncle had taught him a lifetime ago. "Patience, Zuko," he had coached during the exercise, and Zuko had for once bitten back a snappy comment.
The connection shifted, shimmered, as the floorboards creaked above, and Zuko took a deep breath. Patience, Zuko, he repeated to himself and poured boiling water into the waiting teapot. He took three cups from the cabinets and set them on the table, then leaned back onto the settle. Sunlight played on the thin curtains and he tried to concentrate on those shifting patterns rather than Katara's presence above.
He felt her move as she came down the stairway, towards the kitchen and he tried to look away, tried not to look like he'd been waiting for her, but he couldn't look away as the door swung open. They stared at each other again, the easiness at dinner long fled and finally Zuko forced himself to look away.
"I... made tea," he said carefully, nodding at the pot that steamed on the table. "It's ginseng… I can make something else if you want."
Katara seemed to shake herself and almost smile, but then her expression closed even as her uneasiness simmered in the air between them. "This is fine," she said softly, but she poured herself a cup and sat down at the table, her posture as tense as her voice. Zuko stayed on the settle, not daring to move closer to pour himself a cup and remembered weeks before in Iroh's warm kitchen, how easily she'd sat beside him as they sipped their tea.
Still, he tried to tell himself. We're in the same kitchen again.
"Did you want toast?" he asked when he couldn't bear the silence any longer, and Katara startled, spilling her tea. "Or eggs?"
"No, thank you." Her voice was barely above a whisper, the awkwardness strangling them both and Zuko had no idea how to break it; he wanted to reach out to her, to flee out the back door and to the wharf and away from this wilderness. Breathe, Zuko.
Toph saved them from themselves again, opening the door with a bang and sauntering into the kitchen and breaking through the silence. "Morning, Sweetness. Sunshine." She sniffed the air and gestured, and Zuko stood and stepped forward to pour her a cup of tea. He poured himself a cup and retreated to the settle as Toph flopped down in the chair opposite Katara. "So you outfitting Mr. Fancypants today?" she asked.
Katara nodded, less mechanically than her previous gestures and a little tension drained from the air. "I'm meeting them at Down South in a little while."
"You aren't outfitting them here?" Toph said with a frown, and Katara snorted.
"Trust me, you don't want the headache."
"I want his money, though."
"Well, I don't want the headache, then." She rubbed at her eyes and Zuko felt weariness along the bond; he wished then that he could shut it out, stop invading her privacy. "I'm going to head on over, a little early." She set her empty cup on the table and stood, ducked her head as she walked to the door. "I'll be back… later."
The kitchen seemed deafeningly quiet after the door closed, the bond echoing painfully loud until Toph yawned and stretched and Zuko looked up. "Give her a little time, Sunshine."
Memories rose with the steam from his tea and Zuko thought involuntarily of his uncle's revelations, the ashes of his old life, those brief days of happiness with Katara, that warm clarity after waking from the rockslide… "Do I have a choice?"
Toph grinned, seeming to see right through him again. "That's the spirit."
Katara blew loose hair out of her eyes, short wisps that had escaped her braids and only added to her annoyance. "That about does it, I think," she finally said. I hope.
"Really, Ms. Katara, is all of this –" Zhao waved expansively at the outfitting shop, his "associates" packing supplies into canvas panniers while old Luo the packer supervised. "– necessary?"
Katara forced herself to breathe deeply, swallow the irritation before she spoke. "The Feng Seng Yuan is at least four days' ride away. It's not an easy trip, even on horseback. This –" and she tried to mimic his gesture "– is a light load, the minimal needed for the trip there and back." She held her breath, waiting, and tried to ignore the way the connection jumped as if in response to her emotions.
Zhao sniffed disdainfully, then smiled, the expression neither warm nor pleasant. "Very well. I suppose you've done this before."
Yes! she wanted to scream. Yes, I've done this before! That's why you're paying me to do it again! but she held her tongue and smiled coolly in return.
Finally, finally, the afternoon deepened and she stood with old Luo in his mule shed, surveying the loaded panniers. Zhao and his associates had retreated to the hotel for the evening, leaving her to finish the preparations in peace.
"That ought to do 'er," Luo said. "I'll have 'em packed up and ready early tomorrow morn."
Katara nodded gratefully. "Thanks, Luo."
"It's no worries, Wolf," he grinned. "You ridin' tomorrow?"
Katara let out her breath in a rush. "I suppose I have to. Do you still have Huan-Huan?"
"Sure do. That old nag'll outlast me." Luo grinned knowingly and Katara smiled in thanks. Most horses would try to buck her off in seconds, but old Huan-Huan was either too patient or too stupid to bother.
She left Luo to tend to his mismatched herd of pack animals and started the walk back to Skaguak proper before realizing that she wasn't quite ready to return to Toph's house, to the emotions there she could feel even now. She walked slowly along the edge of town instead, past the temple and the school and the scattered houses and the vacant lots until she came to the bridge over Fox Creek.
The creek ran wide and shallow as she walked to the middle of the bridge and paused to breathe, truly breathe, for the first time all day. She smelled the tall grasses and listened to the gulls crying and felt the water flow by beneath her and let those small sensations drown the murmuring in her mind, that warm, inescapable pulse.
She sank after a time into a bending form, pulling water from the creek and moving it through the air in a careful pattern, trying to make her limbs mimic the smooth flow of the creek. She finally released the water to splash back down and flow into the sea, and she sat down on the bridge and just watched the currents twist and straighten around infinite rocks and branches and tiny obstructions, intricately braiding itself like Katara's mother had once braided her hair.
The connection pulsed again, warm at the back of her mind and less threatening at this distance and with the weight of relaxation in her limbs, and suddenly she wanted to see him. To talk with him, to find out who he was and where he was going, and if they were going there together, after all. The connection jumped again, surged and crackled like a campfire and Katara almost stood, but then she felt Zuko moving towards her, approaching slowly and steadily.
It's okay, she reminded herself, and waited.
He moved almost silently, the bridge barely creaking with his footsteps and she wondered how much of that was his and how much of that was borrowed from her, given to him with her blood – but then he was sitting beside her and she stared at the water to keep from staring at him.
"What you said…" she started, forcing herself to speak, to break through the silence and the awkwardness. "I'm not… I'm not a vampire." Beside her Zuko stiffened but Katara kept going, knowing that she had to air it. "Sokka's read some of those books, and that's not what I am – I have a reflection, and I wear silver, and I eat, and I –"
Zuko shifted restlessly and she felt his intent to apologize but she didn't let him. "My Gran always said that when I got older I'd understand, but then the Shadow Catchers came –" She spoke though the remembered fear, tried to plow it aside with her words. "– and now there's no one to teach me and I don't know. I don't know what I am." Her eyes burned and she dragged her wrist across her face to catch the tears before they fell, trying not to let them show in her voice. "Gran said that we're of an ancient clan, that it runs in our blood and loosens our skins, but I don't know what that means." She tried to show him that helplessness she felt, tried to project that horror and self-doubt his words had spawned in her, and felt something in him recoil. Vampire. She dropped her hands and her voice died to a whisper. "I just know that I'm not that. I'm not some monster." She sniffled and hated how weak it sounded.
"I know," Zuko said after a moment, his voice soft and rough all at once. "I know. The books are wrong. They're stupid. Xueyin –" he broke off and looked straight at her and she looked up, met his eyes and saw the remorse, felt it and tasted it in the air. "You are nothing like that. I know."
He said it with such certainty that something inside her broke, came loose like water overflowing a dam. "Then what am I?" She leaned towards him, searching his face for some affirmation, and his eyes widened in surprise – apprehension? – as he leaned away. "Do you know? Do you know what I am?"
"I… don't know." Zuko looked away, folded his hands in his lap and she knew that he did it to keep from fidgeting; she looked away and tried to calm herself as she felt him do the same. "Toph said… I've never met anyone like you before. What you did… the way you changed…" He raised his hands and dropped them again, conveying the surprise and helplessness mirrored in the connection. "I've never seen that before. I've never even heard of it before."
He glanced up again and away just as quickly and Katara let herself study his face, the way he looked into the distance. The smooth side of his face turned away from her and she saw only scar, his eye narrowed permanently by puckered tissue. "My – the guild always taught us that… there's xueyin, and there's xuedai. The xueyin look like humans… but there's something more about them." He looked at her and she looked back at the stream to avoid the intensity in his eyes. "Like you. There's something more about you. You don't age, and you heal fast, and…" He looked away and again raised his hands helplessly. "You're different. And that's not bad, just different."
She didn't respond, watching the water rush below her feet; he stayed silent for a moment and Katara felt him gather himself to continue.
"Xuedai are xueyin who… break somehow. The guild taught that it was like a thirst, an inherent evil and instability in the blood." Katara looked up, started to protest, but he continued before she could speak. "And I know, now, that's not true. I know it." He met her eyes, desperation written there and in the connection, and she finally nodded; she felt the relief as he continued. "That's just what they taught. But xuedai…" He looked into the distance again, and Katara felt his distress, unrelated to the awkwardness and uncertainty between them. "I've fought them. That's what I did, why the guild existed. I don't know what they are anymore, but… they're sort of like what's in those books. They're killers."
She saw the memories then, the flashes of wild eyes and sharp fangs and blood and death; felt his fear and his drive to protect, and understood, somehow, even as she remembered the flames that consumed her village. She saw the images, the memory, reach him through the connection; felt him flinch and force himself to continue again.
"I… don't know much more than that. I mean… I thought I knew, but…"
The creek flowing beneath them sounded loud, a raging torrent compared to the silence between them. "What do you know?" Katara finally whispered. "What can you teach me?"
"I… don't know. I'm not xueyin – I'm twenty-six years old and I know how to fight a pointless war and how to kill xuedai and how to do well enough at university that they don't kick you out. I know the guild's teachings, but..." He shrugged, helpless again. "I guess I've learned in the past few weeks that I don't know as much as I thought."
The silence returned as Katara forced herself to calm, forced herself to speak again.
"I'm sorry," she finally said, and felt Zuko's surprise as he turned to her.
She stared at the stream, unable to meet his eyes. "I almost… I almost bit you. I've never done that before and I don't know why I did, except that we're connected somehow, and… oh gods, I don't know what I almost did, and now..." She hid her face in her hands and tried to hold back the sobs. "I can still feel you, and Gran said something about a bond, but I don't know what that is. I just know that I can't get away from you…" Her breath caught in her throat, burning and painful. "And I don't know what it means or what I've done and…" She broke off, looked at him through the tears. "Do you know?" she repeated.
He didn't speak for a long moment and she almost wondered if he would answer. When he finally spoke, she felt his conflict, his struggle to reconcile past with present. "All I know are the guild teachings, and what Uncle has told me…" He shrugged helplessly again, then continued. "It happened… because you shared your blood with me?" She nodded hesitantly, remembering the rockslide, remembering his life slipping away, and Zuko nodded to himself as if confirming it for the first time.
"The guild calls it a bond of blood. It's different than um… when…when a xuedai… or a xueyin… takes someone. They don't really say much about it, other than that it's a curse – Uncle says that it's more like a curse of empathy – but… They… they never said it was like this." He met her gaze quickly, eyes that warm gold from her dreams, but looked away just as fast. "It's… different for everyone… but… it's not going to go away."
Katara stared at the stream, taking in the depth of that quiet statement. "I'm sorry," she finally whispered. "You can't have wanted this, and I didn't realize, and… I'm sorry."
Zuko didn't respond and the connection stayed surprisingly silent, laying still between them, and finally she looked up. He watched the stream, no expression in his scarred face but faint wistfulness trickling along the connection; she could feel how he wanted to reach for her hand, wanted to take her in his arms and pull her into him.
"I don't know what I want," he finally said, echoing her words of weeks before. "But…" He turned to look at her again. "This…" He swept his hand between them, a weak description of the way the space pulsed. "Whatever it is… doesn't feel wrong."
Relief flooded Katara, washing into him and back to her with his own ready acceptance, and she wiped the tears from her face, dried her hand on her tunic. She lifted her other hand, felt it shake as she reached out slowly, laid it softly in his, and he sighed as he squeezed lightly, stroked the back of her hand gently with his thumb.
The connection – the bond – quieted, the anxiety dissipating, and they sat together quietly as the creek flowed under them to the sea.
Katara had planned to leave early the next morning, planned to avoid the kitchen's awkwardness and let the pleasant evening serve as goodbye to Zuko. Toph would sleep late and while Zuko likely would not, she could easily slip out the alley and walk the short few blocks to the Huakao Hotel, return to the wilderness and let another week or two pass before facing Zuko again. Katara planned this, reviewed it in her head as she pulled her traveling clothing on, laced her boots tight and gathered her hair into braids as she felt Zuko moving smoothly below, no doubt firebending.
Her resolve held as she slipped a few last things into her pack, smoothed the quilt over her bed, descended the stairs into the kitchen. The connection lay gentle in the air, pulsing smoothly and almost comforting as it had last night while she slipped into sleep, but it jumped as she passed the side door and before she knew it Katara had slipped off her pack and opened the door and stepped into the yard.
Zuko faced away, his back shined with sweat as he traced a complicated pattern of fire through the air and she leaned against the doorway and just watched for a few moments. It was almost mesmerizing, the way he moved and how the fire moved with him; she wished she'd slipped out without interrupting, but knows he would have noticed, would have known and –
It's okay. Katara steadied herself as Zuko closed the form, stretched with a crack of his back and turned towards her; his face held surprise for just a moment before he smiled.
"I didn't mean to interrupt," she started, but didn't know how to finish.
Zuko just nodded, still breathing a little heavily. "You're leaving?"
Katara nodded in return. "I'll… be back in a week. This shouldn't take long."
Zuko smiled again. "I'll be here."
"Okay." She paused, frowned briefly. "I guess I'll be coming back here, too, until… well…" she stumbled. I guess I'm homeless, she thought, even if the Golden Peaks had never really been home, anyway…
She looked up at his tone, soft and firm and warm, met his eyes and tried not to fall into them.
"I'll be here."
"Okay." Katara nodded again, feeling thick-witted and knowing she was repeating herself. "Okay. So… I'll see you in a week. Or so."
His smile was soft as his voice had been and she almost hugged him, almost surrendered to his embrace right there, but she smiled instead and turned and stepped back into Toph's kitchen. She picked up her pack, balanced it against her shoulders and let herself into the alley; she felt his presence, warm in the back of her mind and quiet like it hadn't been since that brief happy interlude searching for the gāo shān jasmine.
Zuko tried to focus on the papers spread before him the next day, the catalogs laid open on the counter while Toph did mental calculations. The work had become routine, his responses automatic as he marked inventory, and Zuko found his mind wandering to Katara yet again. Her presence receded slowly, a gentle shimmer far stronger than when she had been borne north on a steamer, and now almost comforting. On impulse, he reached out along it, like extending his hand to touch her on the shoulder.
The bond seemed to flinch slightly and Zuko held his breath for an instant, but then the touch was returned, a faint ripple against his mind, warm blue shallows in a deep ocean. He shivered, both scared and thrilled.
"Zuko." Toph's voice cut through the air.
"Wha – oh." He looked down at the inventory sheet, his pen hovering in the air above it.
"You're giving yourself away, you know."
Toph grinned faintly. "You're thinking about her. Reaching out to her."
Zuko felt himself flush, knew that Toph could tell even if she couldn't see his face. "… Yeah. I'll be glad when she gets back."
"She will, too." Toph leaned back in her chair, resting her feet on the counter. "Sounds like she hates this guy already."
"Who is it?" he asked, suddenly curious.
"Some northern eastern jerk." Toph nodded. "Like you, only worse, I guess. Arrogant. She doesn't like him."
"And she likes me?" Zuko asked before he could stop himself.
Toph leered at him. "You tell me, Sunshine."
Zuko lay awake in bed that night, feeling the bond shimmer gently; he tried to reach along it again, but felt no distant response. Katara's presence felt distracted somehow, almost uneasy; he tried instead to think of her smile, how it had felt as well as looked, and finally he slept.
A knock interrupted their quiet evening, loud even against the radio program filling the kitchen. Toph frowned from her end of the settle and Zuko set the book he'd been trying to read aside. "Snoozles?" she asked the empty air as Zuko opened the door.
Sokka stood on the stoop, sweaty and exhausted and shirtless, and Zuko knew without asking that the Southern Wind did not lay moored at the wharf. "She needs me," he said simply, brushing past Zuko. Suki followed, gliding into the light.
"How do you know?" Zuko asked without meaning to, and Sokka just grunted. A tattoo stretched across his back, two wolves like Katara's that seemed to shift and shudder as he pulled a glass from the cabinet. He filled it with water, drank deeply, and handed Zuko a rumpled piece of paper.
"Does this mean anything to you?
Zuko smoothed the once-crisp parchment, but his fingers tensed as he saw the seal, skimmed the text and read the signature. "Zhao?" Fire flared in his hands before he could stop it and he dropped the letter hastily. "She's with Zhao?" He doused the flame and looked up. Toph wore a frown, Sokka a scowl, and Suki looked thoughtful. "Zhao must be looking for him."
"Who?" Toph and Sokka and Suki responded in unison.
Author's note: Thanks to Sable Ambiguity for betaing this chapter, and to Drisela for beautiful Chapter 8 art, linked in my profile.