Disclaimer: Avatar: The Last Airbender belongs purely to Mike and Bryan. This is just my vain attempt to live past the series finale.
Chapter 13: The Avatar
Summary: As the daughter of the Chief of the Southern Water Tribe, Katara must and will do whatever it takes to keep her people and her nation safe, even leaving it in order to become a servant in the home of the Fire Nation's Royal Family for infiltration. Instead of the war and destruction she expected, she finds beauty, life, and love, shown to her by the Fire Nation Prince himself.
"Zuko, I have to tell you something." She shook her head when he advanced towards her. "No, it can't wait and if you come near me, I won't want to go through with it."
Zuko's jaw clenched and he remained where he stood. Katara sniffled and looked up, hoping for the best.
"I haven't been honest with you. Spirits, I've been such a hypocrite when I've asked you for honesty and you've given it to me. And your friendship means so much to me. I didn't realize that I would— that I could get so invested. I thought you were all the same, but you're so different." She took a shuddering breath.
"I'm sorry I'm rambling," she groaned. With another sniffle, she continued, "I'm not a Fire Nation colonist." Katara laughed harshly. "I knew nothing about the Fire Nation. I'm from the Southern Water Tribe. My father is Hakoda, chief of the Southern Water Tribe. I've been trained by some of the best Waterbenders to fight and to heal. I learned combat from Kyoshi Warriors. And I came to the Fire Nation with the intention of helping my people defeat it and end the war. I was selected by our tribe's war council to infiltrate the palace as your new servant. I accepted."
Zuko's good eye widened as she continued revealing information and though he was shocked and his suspicions were confirmed, he still couldn't find it within himself to begrudge her any anger or hatred. It was like searching for snow in the Fire Nation or a volcano at either poles. It just wasn't possible. Because in a strange way, he understood. He didn't know Katara to consciously out of malice. Sure, she had a nasty temper, but who was he to judge? And she could hold a grudge for eternity. But she would never intentionally hurt others without good reason.
"Zuko? Zuko, please don't hate me. I didn't know what I was getting into. You weren't what I was expecting… and I—"
"And I— you knew?!"
Katara stared at him as wide-eyed as he was. "Katara—"
The two teens turned towards the man coming their way. Zuko recognized him as one of his lieutenants and nodded curtly when the man bowed in front of him. "Prince Zuko, we were able to arrive sooner than anticipated. The Southern Water Tribe is less than ten nautical miles away. Your highness, we have the cover of night and surprise on our side. We predict a victory if we attack. What are your orders?"
Zuko looked back down at Katara and she glanced back, her eyes filled with trepidation.
Katara could see the muscles of his jaw clench and watched nervously as he turned back to face his lieutenant.
"Get as close as you can without being seen or noticed. Then stop the ship."
"Prince Zuko, how shall we approach this? Shall I tell the men to prepare to attack? After all, this is enemy territory that we're entering. We can't merely dock at port like before."
"You don't think I realize that? Do you think that I'm a complete imbecile?" Zuko asked coolly, his voice dangerously even.
"Of course not, Prince Zuko. I didn't mean to imply anything."
Zuko ignored his apology and looked down at his side at Katara, regarding her, his mind churning. She wasn't the enemy. Not to him, not to her people. Never.
"Inform me when we're close to stopping. Prepare a small dinghy. I'll send her out first to scout." He paused before continuing, his amber eyes boring into Katara's intensely. "Then she's to be back by nightfall with a report or else we'll be forced to come after her."
Their eyes never broke contact. "Do you understand?" he asked her.
"Yes, sir, but are you sure that you want to send the girl?"
It was clear to everyone on board that the young prince was attached to the girl, if not heavily infatuated with her.
Zuko tore his gaze away from Katara, staring at the man as though he had forgotten about him. "Are you questioning my orders twice in the span of ten minutes, lieutenant?"
"Of course not," he repeated. He bowed quickly. "I'll make sure the other men heed your orders."
With an impassive gaze, Zuko watched him disappear and then turned back to Katara. She was stunned by how quickly the fire ignited in his eyes, for lack of a better word. She was spellbound by the liquid gold and had to blink and look away, feeling lightheaded.
"You know?" she asked, her voice surprising her by not betraying how faint she felt.
"I saw you that night on the storm. Protecting the ship. Saving my life. Waterbending."
"Oh." Katara really felt faint now. "Explain. More."
"I guess I just never really noticed any discrepancies in your excuses. Or questioned your excuses." He snorted. "I guess your council had the right idea when they decided to send you in." Katara blushed at his backhanded compliment and Zuko smirked. "There were also moments while you were unconscious. You'd mumble…"
Groaning, Katara hid her face in her hands. "I can't believe I was so stupid."
Zuko shrugged. "To be honest, I feel more stupid for not realizing it. I thought I was more suspicious than that." His grin turned wolfish and Katara's stomach flipped.
He continued, "And you only slipped up when you were," he cleared his throat, "otherwise preoccupied."
"Otherwise preoccupied?" Katara echoed.
"Usually when I angered you or," he cleared his throat once more, though he appeared to be slightly uncomfortable, "otherwise."
Both of them blushed, immediately understanding what he meant. When he had flustered her so much that she forgot herself.
Katara laughed in amazement. "You knew since that night? So you've known for nearly a week? And you acted like nothing happened. You saved me? Took care of me?"
"I remember little things that confused me from before but make sense now. Like after my Agni Kai when I was in the infirmary. I remember seeing a bright light and thought I was going crazy or dying. But you were trying to heal me, weren't you?"
"Yes." Katara looked strained. "And you tried to do the same for me by taking me back to Whale Tail Island? I still don't understand if you knew my secret."
"I thought we already went over this part of our discussion."
"It's been a crazy conversation," she maintained.
Zuko nodded in agreement. "I know you're focused on the fact that I've known that you were a Water Tribe girl, but do you think that you can shift your attention to the fact that it doesn't matter to me and that I'm asking if you'd want to be with me?"
"You know if anyone else told me six months ago that this is where I'd end up, I would have tried healing them, thinking they suffered serious head trauma and had brain damage." Katara smiled. "I don't know if I believe I'm awake right now or still unconscious in the infirmary."
Katara yelped when Zuko pinched her cheek. She swatted his hand away, scowling, and he chuckled.
"I was helping you figure out if you were awake," he joked. He paused before suddenly lowering his lips to the spot where he pinched her. "Is that better?"
Staring at him open-mouthed, Katara nodded, her hand slowly touching the tingling area. She sighed heavily. "Are you sure about this, Zuko?"
Katara was taken aback by how swiftly he responded and without any kind of hesitation. "You sound so sure."
Zuko frowned and his eyes tightened. "Seeing you go down like that… Katara I don't think I've ever been more terrified. Even when I was facing my father during the Agni Kai and genuinely worried for my life. It pales in comparison to the abstract terror that took over when you disappeared in the wave."
"I'm also a little scared of how strongly I feel this," he admitted. "But I think I'm more fearful of what will happen if I let you walk away without knowing how I felt."
"You've only felt this way for a few days, Zuko. How do you know that you won't get over me in the same span of time?"
"I've felt this way for a while Katara, I only just realized it a few days ago." He glared at her, hurt. "Why are you so keen on me having to explain myself?"
"Oh Zuko… because you're so impulsive and passionate, but you don't think things through."
Zuko ran a hand through his hair in frustration. "Can you just stop thinking, stop thinking for a minute. And feel."
Zuko entered her personal space and Katara's stomach tightened as he approached her. She licked her lips and gasped when Zuko pulled her closer, one hand at the small of her back. He leaned down, his face strained by nervous tension. Katara ventured a hand towards him and he closed his eyes, allowing her touch. He took in air sharply when her fingers touched his scar and Katara felt him release the air through his lips when she placed her thumb there.
He told her to feel. Katara felt content. Warm. Safe. Wanted. Excited, apprehensive, nervous, giddy, relieved, and comfortable. Happy. Her mind stalled before she finally settled on that last feeling. Katara scoffed in amazement and felt her growing smile.
She felt loved.
Katara knew that Zuko hadn't expressed anything of the sort, nor did she expect and want him to right now. What mattered was that even if he didn't, he made her feel that way.
"Okay," she acquiesced.
His eyes shot open and Zuko beamed at her. He took her hand and squeezed it tightly. "Are you sure?"
"You've got to be kidding me, Zuko!" Katara huffed. "We're not rehashing this conversation in reversed roles. I don't have the emotional strength."
"I want to know that this is your choice and not just because you'd feel bad about rejecting me."
Rolling her eyes, Katara assured him, "Trust me, if I wanted to, I wouldn't have any qualms about rejecting you." She regarded him thoughtfully, her blue eyes sparkling. "But you didn't get a huge declaration from me."
"I don't need it. We'll have the rest of our time together for you to let me know how you feel."
Katara couldn't help but smile up at him, her heart warming at his sudden romantic words. "I almost don't know who you are anymore. I'm not used to romantic Zuko."
"Which Zuko are you used to?"
"Moody, bossy, brooding, angry, yelling, condescending… you know, the usual."
"I can be him, too," he threatened, glaring at her.
Zuko raised an eyebrow and Katara stepped closer, her arms snaking around his torso, surprising herself with her bravery. "I like him. He's a real person."
"Agni forbid you fall for an imaginary person instead."
Katara giggled and Zuko's face softened at the sound. His hands cupped around her neck gently, his thumbs stroking the soft skin of her cheeks. Tilting her face up, Zuko lowered his to capture her bottom lip between his. Even with his eyes closed, he could feel her smile and Zuko pulled away. One of his thumbs glided over her lips.
"This is a million times better when you're conscious."
Katara laughed and gawked at him with wide eyes. "Excuse me? What do you mean when I'm conscious?"
"The night you got hurt, you swallowed water and stopped breathing. I had to give you mouth-to-mouth-resuscitation."
An airy laugh escaped from Katara and her laughter grew until her stomach hurt until she felt as though she had to double over. "Well I'm glad I'm a better kisser when I'm awake."
"I didn't say that exactly," Zuko hedged. "I don't know if I could make that evaluation without more information."
Katara tiptoed and pressed their lips together again, savoring the press of their lips, and melded their bodies together. Zuko tangled a hand in her thick hair, tilting her head back and allowing him to deepen the kiss. He moved his fingertips against her scalp, remembering how it relaxed her last night. He swallowed her sigh and took his chance to lightly scrape his teeth against her full bottom lip. Katara gasped and Zuko exploited her responses once more, quickly swiping his tongue across her lower lip. Katara pressed herself against him, her mouth parting further and Zuko took it as his cue to intensify the kiss, running his tongue across her teeth before meeting hers.
Katara emitted a small moan and shyly moved her tongue against his. Wanting to tease him, she pulled her tongue back to nip at his tongue. In response, Zuko pulled back suddenly, a mischievous grin on his face before trailing kisses up the side of her cheek to her hairline and then her ear. Katara shivered when she felt the warm breath on her ear and bit down on her lip when he nipped at her earlobe. She grabbed his chin and pulled it back to her mouth, dominating the kiss by capturing his lips with hers. He chuckled, the throaty sound reverberating through her and settling in her stomach.
They pulled back, eyes locked and slightly breathless.
"Eager?" he asked with a smirk.
Katara blushed but grinned back. She hugged him tightly, her cheek flush against his firm chest, listening to the quickened heartbeat and he rested his chin on the crown of her head.
"Your heart's racing," she whispered.
"With good reason."
Being so close to him, Katara was able to feel when he tensed up. "What's wrong?"
"I'm beginning to regret letting you go home."
She pulled back to look at him completely, her mood sobering quickly. "Zuko, I can't lie to them. Not to my family, my father. Especially him— he's the chief of the tribe."
Zuko cursed under his breath and soothed her by rubbing her back. "Tell them what you know and what you think they should know."
Her expression turned aghast. "Are you sure you want me to do that?"
"Just do what you need to do, Katara." He hesitated before asking, "Do you think the Avatar is there?"
Katara shook her head adamantly. "I grew up here. My parents grew up here. There's been no sign. There's no Avatar." She bit her lip nervously. "Besides, I don't have much to tell them. I was a really horrible spy. I kept getting distracted."
Chuckling softly, Zuko drew her in closer once more. "Then let's make this a quick stop." He paused and his voice lowered, a solemn, sad tone. "Unless you want to stay," he offered.
Surprising herself, Katara mumbled, "I think I like where I am." Zuko's hold on her tightened and she closed her eyes, burying her face into his chest, satisfied.
Katara looked up nervously at Zuko as she was lowered down the side of the ship in the small boat. She didn't know how to handle the motorized dinghies and requested a simple rowboat. She had to assure Zuko that she knew how to maneuver it around the ice a million times, swearing on the entire Spirit World before he agreed. Even then, she could still see the weariness on his face and she had to remind him that she grew up around ice and water.
As she watched him, she could see the tightness in his eyes, the set of his jaw. Venturing a small, reassuring smile, Zuko's expression softened slightly but he still had an air of tension around him. Katara supposed he would remain that way until she returned that night. The sun was just beginning to rise; she had all day to be with her family before leaving again.
Once the boat touched the water and detached from the boat, Katara set to work on rowing towards the settlement she had called home for so long. Because she was rowing backwards, Katara was able to maintain her eye contact with Zuko until she had to curve around a bend and disappeared behind a large glacier. She knew that she wouldn't be seen by the crew anymore. The Southern Water Tribe was protected by the tall, icy landmarks. The sheer size of them shielded the tribe and allowed them a first line of defense.
Lifting the oars out of the water and placing them on the floor of her boat, Katara stood up in the dinghy, tensing her body to prevent from falling over. Then she lifted and extended her arms, hearing the quiet roar of the growing have behind her. Thrusting her arms out in front of her, the wave crashed and propelled the boat forward quickly. Katara directed the dinghy agilely through the ice, swerving around floating chunks, rising and swelling over stationary boulders.
Eventually, the water began to clear and she didn't have to move against the stronger currents of open sea. As the ice slowly disappeared from her line of sight, Katara relaxed her bending. Her arms dropped and the wooden boat stopped, only rocking gently as she gasped at the crowds of people awaiting her at the dock and along the coast.
At the front of the crowds was her family— Hakoda, Sokka, Kanna, and Pakku. Sokka threw his fist up in the air and cheered when he saw her. But it was the solemn yet proud look in her father's eyes that caused Katara's heart to swell and tears to fall.
Bending a huge wave, Katara sailed up onto the shore and jumped off of the boat, into her father's waiting arms. "Dad!"
Hakoda tightened his arms around his daughter, smiling.
"Welcome home, Katara."
The both of them laughed when Sokka joined in, glomping them both at the same time.
Hakoda led his family away from the shore and through the crowds. "I'm so proud of you, Katara."
His arms were around his children's shoulders proudly. Katara smiled and waved at everyone who shouted their praises at her and congratulated her. Katara lagged behind when her family entered the large central igloo. Standing outside of the official building, Katara held her hands together in front of her and bowed in front of her people.
Tears in her eyes, she thanked them. "I love being a member of the Water Tribes, the most loving community and home. And it is my love for my home, my culture, and my fellow people that helped get me through the past six months. I'm forever thankful for the love I felt and feel right now… and for the hope that you may not even know you instilled in me. Thank you."
She bowed slowly and smiled at them before following her family back inside, Sokka's hand on her back to usher her inside. "Come on, sis, we've got five flavor soup!"
Katara smiled eagerly and playfully tugged on one of the patches of stubble on his chin. "Are you trying to grow facial hair? It's all patchy," she teased.
Sokka scowled at her and pushed her hand away from his face. "Jeez, I forgot how annoying you could be."
The siblings stopped from following everyone else into the banquet hall and turned to see a young warrior who appeared to be a little older than Sokka. Sokka glowered at him and made his way towards him, but Katara held him back.
"Hahn," she addressed him calmly.
"Look, I just wanted to apologize about the way I acted towards you before you left. It was my fault that you were the one who had to go." Hahn shrugged and rubbed the back of his head. "I'm glad you're back and that you're alright."
Considering him, Katara reached out her hand and smiled when he took it. "No, thank you. Being given that assignment was one of the best things that's happened to me."
"Well at least it's over now, huh?"
Katara frowned. "Over?"
"I'll see you guys inside."
"Over?" she asked Sokka.
"You mean you're not going to stay?"
"Sokka, it's not as simple as it sounds. I need to—"
Hakoda came out of the hall, laughing boisterously. "Hurry up, you two. Everyone's waiting. Katara, the council's waiting to be briefed with whatever information you have. And I'm sure you want some breakfast, right Katara?"
"I'm actually full, Dad. I ate breakfast on the ship."
"Katara, you should eat a real meal, not some mush in a bowl."
She frowned at him. "I had my favorite— smoked sea slug with rice and a cup of lychee nut tea."
Hakoda and Sokka stared at her and Katara squirmed under their scrutiny. "You have a favorite dish? Well the Fire Nation's so rich, they probably had surplus of food to give. At least you aren't malnourished." Hakoda continued to move them through the crowds to sit at a large table.
As soon as Hakoda left them to speak with other members of the council, Sokka hissed in Katara's ear, "What do you mean you're not going to stay? I thought we agreed as soon as you come back home, it's for good and we find another way."
"Sokka, what other way is there? If I come back home, we'll be right back where we started and then what? We're no closer to ending this war than before."
"What do you think we've been doing here? Sitting on our hands, waiting for your next letter? The council and the Earth kings have been talking for a while."
Katara paused to mull over his information. "You managed to get a message through to Ba Sing Se? King Kuei's always ignored anything we've sent."
"We pulled a Katara."
"Yeah, sent someone in under the guise of a refugee Earth Kingdom citizen."
"And who would this be?"
Sokka blushed. "Suki."
Katara grinned at the mention of her brother's crush-slash-maybe-girlfriend. "How long?"
"She's been in the Earth Kingdom for about three months. Made it to Ba Sing Se a month ago. Contact with the king two weeks ago."
Nodding appreciatively at Suki's skill, Katara asked, "How'd she get to King Kuei? I've been hearing that his political advisor and secret police like to keep a tight leash on him?" Katara vaguely remembered Zuko's frustration two months ago as his attempted correspondence with the man, Long Feng, resulted in a dead end and Zuko changed their course for the Southern Water Tribe instead of Ba Sing Se.
"The Dai Li. And Long Feng likes to think himself the real king of Ba Sing Se, not its Grand Secretariat." Sokka turned to eat a spoonful of the soup and he pushed a plate towards her. "Haf shum uf tha shoo."
"Maybe I'll have some soup later. How'd Suki deal with the Dai Li?"
Swallowing noisily, he deadpanned, "She's the leader of the Kyoshi Warriors. How do you think?"
Katara resisted the urge to bend soup into his face. Sokka pushed another plate towards her.
"Katara, giant sea crabs from the North Pole. Giant. Sea. Crabs."
"Yeah, I got that, Sokka." Katara pushed away the crabs and hissed, "So what's going to happen when I tell the council— when I tell Dad— that I'm leaving tonight?"
"I need to be back by nightfall."
"Or else Zuko will come and get me."
Sokka blinked at her then scoffed before continuing to eat. "That's what you're worried about?" He bit into the leg of his arctic hen. "Katara, don't worry about them. We've got more than a couple boatloads of warriors from both tribes. We'll scare him away in no time."
Katara groaned and snatched the hen from his hands, ignoring his whining. "Sokka, you never listen. I don't want to stay. I want to go back."
"Katara, the council decided that we don't need you endangering yourself any further. You don't need to feel like you need to go back."
"Sokka, I could care less about the damn mission. I want to go back for Zuko!"
Sokka slowly turned to face her, putting down the new arctic hen leg he had picked up. He regarded her carefully. "Let's go."
"Come with me!"
The siblings left the crowded hall and back out into the tundra. Sokka led her back into the dinghy she arrived in and motioned impatiently for her to get in. He shook his head when she made to waterbend them.
"I want to row," he grunted.
Katara nodded and he took them out to where people usually fished. Seeing as how it was mealtime and the fish for the day's markets and trade would have already been caught, it was deserted. Sokka released the oars and leaned back, shaking his head.
"Katara what are you thinking?" He reached up at the sides of his scalp where his hair was freshly shaven. Katara supposed he was used to the hair that he had let grow in during his brief stay in the Fire Nation.
"I knew you had a crazy crush on the guy, but you're telling me that you're willing to go off with him on this wild mongoose-lizard chase?!"
Katara looked down at her lap and shrugged. "Sokka, I don't know…" She looked up at her older brother imploringly, "He saved my life. I was stupid. There was this huge storm and I thought I could waterbend us to safety. I nearly got myself killed. He saved me. Turned the ship around to get me to the nearest healer."
Sokka considered her words silently. Katara sighed and continued.
"He even celebrated my birthday. I forgot about my birthday and he insisted we celebrate it. Gave me these beautiful earrings. I know it sounds shallow, but I know he cares about me too, Sokka." She smiled sadly. "He knows what it's like to lose a mother. Told me about how she was exiled from the Fire Nation. He's been hurt, too." She swallowed before adding, "And I know you think he's just a pompous prince, but he's so much more than that. He's protected me since the night I've met him. I've seen him show kindness. He's not like his family."
Sokka shook his head and asked quietly, "Does he love you?"
"I don't know," Katara admitted. "But he makes me feel like I'm loved."
Sokka bent down to try and meet his little sister's eyes. "Do you love him?"
Katara blushed. "I'm not sure. But I want to give him the chance and see if I do."
"You know, I ought to keep you here until nightfall and wait for him to show up so I can talk to him. But he'd probably recognize me from the palace, wouldn't he?"
"He— he what?" Sokka blustered.
"The night I was out during the storm, he saw me waterbending. That's how he managed to save me. He came up on deck to look for me."
"And how do you know he really feels this way about you? Are you sure he's not playing with you?"
"I trust him, Sokka."
Sokka pouted and crossed his arms. "Still, I think we should wait for them to show up and then we'll take over the ship— keep them hostage."
"Sokka, no," she scolded.
"I never figured how much trouble your little crush on the prince could cause," he commented, ignoring her scolding.
"It's not a crush," she retorted, though she turned pink.
"Yeah, ok," he scoffed.
Katara's temper rose and around them, the calm water became aggressive. The gentle rocking of the boat intensified into deep sways that caused Sokka to grip the side. He looked at Katara with a mixture of fear and annoyance.
"Sokka, quit it. And you know what? Quit acting like you know him because I'm the one who's spent months with him and I'm telling you that he's not like the others."
"Okay, okay! Katara calm down!"
Sokka gently flicked one of her earrings and pushed back the sleeve of her thick, furry parka to reveal the red, silky cloth that Katara still had tied around her wrist. "You know, you should really work on hiding it more in your letters. And when you talk to the council later." He sighed at Katara. "You're going to have to choose eventually," he reminded her gently.
By now, Katara's powerful waterbending began to settle and the waters calmed down, prompting Sokka to tentatively release his vice-like grip on the sides of the dinghy.
"I'm your big brother. I only want to make sure that you're safe." He pressed his lips together and reluctantly added, "And that you're happy. But I don't want to be there when you tell Dad."
Katara rolled her eyes at him and pulled him in for a tight hug. "Idiot," she admonished. "Thank you."
The two broke apart and looked at each other in alarm when they felt the boat shuddering. They peered over the edge and noticed the rumbling within the water.
"Katara, that's you right?"
"I have nothing to be upset about right now, Sokka," she shot back. "Quit blaming my bending for everything that— ah!"
Sokka immediately huddled over Katara and provided cover from the chunks of ice that fell from the tall ice formations surrounding them, creating huge pillars of water as they splashed into the sea. From where she huddled, Katara could see over the edge and into the water, her eyes widening at what she saw. Tapping him insistently, Katara forced him off of her and to look into the water. Sokka's own eyes widened in trepidation and he hurried to grab the oars.
"Katara, bend us out of here!"
Katara continued to stare at the strange light coming from the water until Sokka called her a second time. She raised her arms, but another shudder swayed the boat and toppled her over and she landed in the water, hearing Sokka's muffled voice through the water. Katara immediately bent an air bubble around head by bending away the water. Her first instinct was to swim up to the surface, but her attention was captured by the glowing light. Katara turned and swam further down to investigate. She gasped when she saw the silhouette of a small boy trapped within the ice. He was also the source of the bright light. Katara quickly tried to free him, grunting as she tried to bend the enormous glacier trapping him.
A resounding crack echoed and she stared at the large fissure she had caused. As it began to spider, Katara quickly swam to the surface, gasping, and Sokka pulled her out of the freezing water into the boat.
"What the hell were you thinking?"
"Boy," she panted, "Boy in the water. In ice."
"What? Katara, what are you saying?"
A harsh blue light burst from beneath the water and raced to the sky in a large pillar, spreading across the tundra. Once more, Sokka covered Katara until the light died. When they turned around, they gawked at the sight of the boy in strange clothing and tattoos floating in the air. The light dimmed from the arrow-shaped tattoos on his bald head and hands before he began to hurtle back down.
Hurriedly, Katara bent up a pillar of water to carry him onto their boat. Sokka and Katara hovered over him cautiously and he slowly opened his eyes, as if a newborn adjusting to the world for the first time. Katara was taken aback by the grey color.
"Sokka," she murmured. "His eyes. And tattoos."
"Huh?" The boy sat up, his wide eyes absorbing his surroundings quickly. "What's going on?" he mumbled. He settled his gaze on Katara and he grinned. "My name's Aang," he said energetically.
A loud, deep whine echoed around them and Sokka and Katara fell back into the boat while Aang eagerly stood up, leaping into the air and onto the back of what looked like some kind of overgrown, fluffier buffalo yak.
"Who are you?" Sokka demanded.
"Sokka…" Katara pushed her brother aside and stared up at the large animal. She directed her attention to the young boy. "You… the way you leapt up there. You're an Airbender."
"Yup." He smiled nervously at Katara. "And thanks for catching me. You're a great Waterbender, by the way." he said shyly.
Katara simply stared at him at a loss for words while Sokka groaned and slapped his palm against his forehead. Katara turned to glare at him. "We need to bring him back to the council."
"Katara, you can't possibly think that this little kid is—"
"He's the only one left, Sokka!"
"It's ridiculous. How are we supposed to rely on—"
"Hey!" Aang directed the large animal to swim towards their small boat. "What are you talking about?"
Katara held a hand up to quiet her brother, who shot her an indignant glare. "You're the Avatar, aren't you?" In her excitement, she missed how Aang's face fell and shifted uncomfortably, his hands tightening over the reins he held on the strange animal. "This… this animal is your sky bison. I've heard of them. Gran-Gran used to tell us stories about them. Stories she heard as a child from her grandmother."
"Yeah, Appa's one of my best friends." Aang frowned. "What do you mean, stories? They fly all over the place. You have to be careful when you're gliding in the Southern Air Temple or you might fly into one of them."
Katara frowned. "Aang, there are no more Airbenders or sky bisons. No one's seen or heard of the Avatar in nearly a century."
Aang's face became stricken and contorted angrily. "You're lying!" he cried, a gust of wind blowing at them.
Sokka dropped his oars and fell over backwards. "Great. Now you've done it, Katara."
Katara nodded enthusiastically. "Yes, that's great, Aang! Now just lean your weight back and push forward with your arm."
The stream of water Aang was controlling limply moved forward before completely falling apart and splashing the two of them. Aang smiled at her apologetically while Katara merely laughed, bending the water off of her and him. Sokka groaned and shivered when the cold wind bit through his now drenched clothing.
"Watch it!" he yelled.
Ignoring him, Katara smiled encouragingly at Aang. "That was a good first try, Aang. The key to executing the water whip is having enough force to really whip the water. It's all in the changing of your weight. Here, watch."
Katara almost lazily lifted the spilled water from the ground and pulled one of her arms backwards, as if an archer pulling back a notched arrow. The ball of water followed her arm, swirling before stretching into a thin tendril. "Watch how I lean back from the lunge, shifting my weight to my back leg."
Gracefully, as she sank into her back leg, Katara pushed off and lunged forward, her back arm pushing forward and swinging as if she were tossing a ball underhandedly. Her other arm circled backwards and stretched out elegantly behind her. The tendril of water curled in the air and swirled in an elegant arc. Then, it snaked around and shot forward. Sokka's eyes widened at the cold stream of water and quickly dove into the snow bank to avoid it.
"Katara, quit it!"
She shrugged innocently and Sokka rolled his eyes. Katara looked back down at Aang, asking, "Do you want to try it again?"
Blinking his large eyes at her, Aang blushed. "Maybe you should try it again. I don't think I got a good look."
Brushing off the snow from his shoulders, Sokka huffed, "It sounds like you got enough of a look if you ask me."
"What do you think is taking so long, Sokka?"
The older sibling shrugged, shaking the snow out of his warrior's wolf tale. "I mean, you've given them a lot to process and figure out, Katara. The information on the Fire Nation, the Avatar. The council kept you for a pretty long time. I'm pretty certain I can say that no one was expecting Aang. So you know, thanks for throwing that wrench into the machine."
Katara was about to retort when the group of older men and women emerged from the igloo, stern expressions on their face. Hakoda called over his children and Aang.
"I apologize, Avatar, for the long wait, but—"
"Please, call me Aang."
Hakoda momentarily stared at the young Airbender but nodded. "Aang. We had to discuss our next plan of action. I assume you've been informed of how much the world has changed since you disappeared."
"Katara told me," he began slowly. "But it can't all be true, right? A whole group of people can't be gone. All of the sky bisons. And the Fire Nation can't be the cause. My best friend is from the Fire Nation."
Katara met her father's concerned gaze and shook her head sadly. The older man sighed and knelt down in front of him, putting a hand on his shoulder. "I'm sorry Aang, but it's all true. The Fire Nation's genocide of the Air Nomads is what began this century-long war. They nearly succeeded in wiping out the Southern Water Tribe."
Aang removed himself from Hakoda's hand. "So what do you want me to do?" he demanded. "I'm just a kid. I can't be the savior you're hoping for."
Pakku stepped forward. "You are the Avatar. The fate of the world is in your hands. It is your responsibility to maintain balance." His eyes were stern and looked down at Aang. They narrowed. "You must master the other three elements and help us end the war."
Aang's gaze wavered and he ran off, grabbing his staff and leaping up, gaining height as he flew off.
"Aang!" Katara called out. She turned around to glare at the council. "He's twelve years old. He doesn't realize everything that's happened. His friends, his family, his nation is gone! You can't expect him to be able to cope that quickly or that easily!"
Hakoda moved towards her and Katara stepped back. Hakoda sighed. "Katara, time is of the essence. While we speak, the Fire Nation is producing more weapons, sending out more ships to raid and destroy villages and families. They nearly ended the Southern Water Tribe. According to you, there's a ship less than ten miles from here!"
Katara turned to glare at Sokka for telling their father.
"And you expect me to let you go back?" Hakoda's eyes hardened. "Stop glaring at your brother. You should've been the one to tell me. And you're not setting foot on that ship."
"Dad, I have to."
"You're not going."
"I said no, Katara."
Kanna held her son's arm. "Hakoda," she said sternly. "Not now."
"Your mother's right, Hakoda," Bato joined in. "We need to decide how to proceed with the young avatar."
Pakku snorted. "We do exactly what I said. Get him trained, make sure he masters the other elements, and end this war. He needs to face the Fire Lord."
Katara's eyes widened. "You can't be serious. I've seen Fire Lord Ozai's skills, his tenacity, his brutality up close. There's no way Aang can face him!"
"Then you need to work hard, Katara. You should be the one to train him."
"Me?" Katara laughed bitterly. "You're joking, Master Pakku. Me?"
Pakku flinched at her use of his title, which she hadn't done since he had returned with her to the Southern Water Tribe to reunite with and marry Kanna. "You are my best student, Katara. And we all witnessed you with him, just now. You'll be a great teacher. The Avatar clearly won't learn with me."
"I can't teach the Avatar," she argued.
Kanna took her by the shoulders and rubbed her arms reassuringly. "Come with me, my little Waterbender. Let's talk."
Katara huffed and stomped away from her family and the council, apathetic to their opinion of her disrespect.
Katara walked silently next to her grandmother, hugging herself as she stared at the snow. Kanna gently rubbed her granddaughter's back as they walked. She looked out at the sea in front of them and then back at Katara, a sigh passing through her weathered lips. She reached into the pockets of her thick coat and held something in front of Katara. They stopped and Katara focused on the dangling pendant, a carving of the symbol of the Water Tribes etched deeply in the blue stone.
With gentle fingers, Katara took her mother's necklace from Kanna, softly running her fingers over the smooth stone.
"I thought I lost it," she whispered. "I tried looking for it in my pack before I set sail from the palace."
"Apparently, it got mixed in with your brother's things. He found it in his bags when he returned several months ago. I've been keeping it safe until your return." She nodded. "And now I'm giving it back to you."
"Gran-Gran, I can't take this. I might lose it."
"No, I don't think you will, Katara. Besides, your neck has been looking a little bare, especially with your new accessories."
"My new accessories?"
Kanna gently reached for the earring dangling from Katara's ear, now in plain sight ever since Katara plaited her hair like she used to before taking off for the Fire Nation. Wisely, Kanna also reached for her wrist, tapping it while giving Katara a knowing look.
"Sokka told you," Katara ventured, her tone piqued.
Kanna shook her head. "A grandmother knows things, my child. I have had your image ingrained in my memory since the day you were born until you left us to go to the Fire Nation. Did you think I wouldn't notice any changes? Even the most subtle of differences are obvious to a grandmother, little Waterbender."
She smiled kindly and pressed her hand affectionately against Katara's cheek. "But it is your eyes that are most telling, Katara. I've known these eyes for the past sixteen years. I watched every emotion imaginable pass through them as you grew up. And now they are showing me an emotion I haven't seen before. But I recognize it. It's the same one your parents held in their eyes as they looked at each other."
Katara couldn't help but close her eyes, feeling as though they betrayed her.
"No, I understand, Katara. Believe me, I understand the conflict between love and duty. Of the allure— the need, really— of venturing into the unknown. You are more like me than I could have ever imagined."
Katara met her eyes and asked softly, "What do you mean?"
"Don't you remember how I left Pakku to come to the Southern Water Tribe. I left my family, my friends, my fiancé back in the Northern Water Tribe. And now you're feeling a similar conflict. Tell me, who is it that has you feeling split?"
"It's here, Gran-Gran. This place," Katara whispered. "I've already decided I wanted to stay with him, but it's Sokka and Dad and everyone here making me stay…"
"Katara, if there's one thing I know about you, it is that no one can make you do anything you don't want to. You do whatever feels right in your heart. Your family will understand. I already do." Kanna gently stroked Katara's face. "You have my support."
"I don't know if I can."
"I left the Northern Water Tribe because of how I disagreed with its chauvinistic traditions and because Pakku adhered to them. I had a duty to myself to find a place where I was happy. Someone who accepted me the way I was. Eventually, Pakku changed his ways and found me again— accepted me and loved me more than he did before. Katara, you do what feels right to you. You have a duty to yourself. I promise you, in the end, everyone who truly matters will accept your decision."
"What about Aang? His waterbending?"
"Don't worry about that. I'll make sure Pakku stops being so lazy." Kanna's eyes crinkled with joy. "Although, I know he truly meant it when he called you his favorite student."
"How can you be so sure about everything?" Katara asked.
"It had been a while since I've had hope. But watching you and Sokka leave to fight for the greater good, and come back safe… you brought it back to life, my little Waterbender. You are an unstoppable force, Katara. Don't let anyone make you believe otherwise."
Katara smiled and closed her fist tightly around her mother's necklace before gently wrapping her arms around her grandmother.
"I love you."
"And I love you, child," Kanna laughed.
Sokka ran through the snow in their direction. "Katara!"
Katara glowered at her brother. "Sokka you should really know better than to try and come talk to me right now," she snapped.
"It's not what you think," he panted. "I didn't tell Dad about you and Zuko," His eyes widened when he finally noticed Kanna and gave Katara a panicked, apologetic look.
Kanna merely raised her eyebrows and laughed. Turning to Katara she asked, "Zuko? As in Prince Zuko? Hm, the prince himself? I thought it was merely a Fire Nation boy, another servant in the palace maybe, but the prince? Katara, you really are something special."
Katara blushed and looked back at Sokka expectantly. He looked between the two women, frowning. "Gran-Gran knows? Gran-Gran? You told her?"
"I didn't tell her!" Katara yelled back.
Quickly interceding in order to end her grandchildren's bickering, Kanna said, "You should know by now, Sokka. Grandmothers know everything."
Sokka gulped nervously. "E-everything?"
Kanna playfully narrowed her eyes at him, leaning forward. "Everything," she whispered.
Katara sighed and waved her hand in front of Sokka to stop his staring match with their grandmother and get his attention. "Why'd you come over here Sokka?"
"No one else knows about you and Zuko, I swear. I told you I'd have your back when you decided to tell everyone. Especially Dad. But Dad cornered me."
Katara groaned, knowing the nature of her brother and father's relationship. "So what did you tell him?"
"I was trying to help, Katara. I was mentioning to Dad that maybe he should just agree to let you go back because we all know you'd find your way back there eventually. And then he managed to get me talking and I told him how you made the deal to go back by nightfall. That's how he knew about the ship. But after you ran off, I told him that he needs to trust you more and have more faith that you know what you're doing."
Katara let out a sound that was a mixture of a groan and a sigh before hugging her brother tightly, forcing him to take a step back before reciprocating the embrace.
"Thank you, Sokka. How did Dad take it?"
Sokka shrugged. "Why do you think I ran over to tell you?"
The two laughed but were cut off when yet someone else was running towards them. Katara and Sokka straightened up and glowered at the warrior who stopped in front of them. Katara narrowed her eyes at him and crossed her arms defiantly, thinking him to be one of her father's messengers.
"Can we help you?" she asked coolly.
"I have word from the men posted near the wall of glaciers!" he panted. "They've sighted a Fire Nation ship coming towards us. They say that they're awaiting orders on whether to attack or not."
Sharing a worried look with Sokka, Katara whispered, "But it's not nightfall yet! Why are they early?"
Sokka's lips formed a thin line and he ordered the warrior. "Have you given word to the council yet?"
"Go inform them, immediately. Let's go!"
"Wait!" Katara cried. Hurrying to the edge of the water, Katara froze a large block of the water into ice. "Everyone get on! This will be faster!"
Sokka and the warrior helped Kanna onto the slippery makeshift raft. "I've got her, Katara! Go!"
Katara nodded and moved them through the water, feeling the light spray of the salty water on her face as they skidded and skipped on the surface. Unable to slowly pull to a stop onshore and too impatient to attempt it, Katara raised them up on a wave and cascaded back down onto the shore, the ice sliding into a group of people until they ended up in front of the council hall, where her father still stood, discussing something with Bato in hushed tones.
"Katara! We need to speak—"
"Not now, Dad," she said assertively. "He," she pointed to the messenger behind her, "said that guards at the wall have seen a Fire Nation ship approaching. You need to let me go back."
"They're attempting an attack? Katara, that's more than enough reason for me not to let you go."
"Hey! You! What did they say about activity onboard?"
The young man stepped forward nervously, looking between the chief and his strong willed daughter. "The guards did say it was peculiar… the crew wasn't preparing any cannons or catapults on the deck. And they were traveling at a relatively slow pace if they were planning a surprise attack."
"Dad, I don't care what you need to say to me. They're not coming to hurt anyone and I need to go talk to them and see what it is that they want. You have to start trusting me to be able to take care of myself."
Hakoda's shoulders fell and he sighed. "Katara, that's not it. I know you can take care of yourself. I just, I don't want you to have to."
Katara's face softened slightly and she whispered, "I'm not always going to be your little girl."
"Of course you will be." Hakoda placed his hands on her shoulders and looked her in the eye. "I just need to realize that my little girl is also a grown woman. You think you can get them out of here?"
"Still don't know what we're going to do about the Avatar."
Kanna snorted. "You force my husband to teach him. He's getting lazy."
Hakoda smirked at his mother and nodded sharply. "Yes, Mother." Turning back to Katara, he asked, "Do you need anything from us?"
Katara smiled and shook her head. "No. I can handle it from here." She bit on her lower lip before adding, "Dad, look, I should explain why it's so imperative for me to get back to the ship."
"Besides your love for your people and your duty to them? Katara, I understand—"
Looking at her grandmother, Katara felt her resolve grow at Kanna's encouraging smile and Sokka's nod. "No, Dad. It's more than that. It's my duty to myself and the love I have for—"
"Chief Hakoda! We're receiving further news of the ships' approach. It'll arrive at the glacier wall in minutes!" another messenger yelled, racing towards them.
Hakoda's expression became stern and Katara sighed, knowing that it wasn't the right time. "Forget it, Dad," she murmured. "I'll tell you about it the next time I come home."
"You know, this morning, I really thought that I finally had you two home to myself. Ever since I had started sending you and Sokka up North to be trained, I feel like I haven't seen you kids in ages. And now… well I'm leading a few troops up into the Earth Kingdom. I can't expect Suki to play the middleman forever."
"You're taking Sokka too, right?"
"You don't really expect me to keep him separated from Suki forever do you?"
She laughed and shook her head, hugging him fiercely. "I'll miss you."
Hakoda closed his eyes as he leaned his head on the crown of her head. "Keep the letters coming, Katara. Every bit of information is worth something. I know you felt like your information was being overshadowed by Aang's discovery." He released her and took a large pack from Bato. "This isn't much, but it's something to remind you of home."
"It's already packed? But we just found out about the ship…"
"Sokka might have been able to straighten me out a bit earlier. Now go on. We'll see you soon."
Katara leapt into her father's arms once more in a strong hug before smiling and doing the same with Sokka and Kanna. Then, she waved quickly at the council, briefly making eye contact with Aang, who had returned and sulked near the back of the crowd. She nodded at him and smiled when he nodded back. She pulled the pack's straps over her shoulders and hurried into the small dinghy, pushing off of the snowy shore and bending her way back out towards the open sea.
Katara acknowledged the guards as she moved past the tall glaciers. "Don't worry anymore," she called. "The ship won't be coming any closer." She slowed while she waited for their recognition of her orders before speeding off once more, halting her bending and using the oars when she saw the dark metal ship.
To her relief, the ship groaned as it came to a stop and she rowed over to the side, waiting for them to drop the hooks she would attach to the dinghy in order to be lifted up. Tilting her head up, Katara spotted Zuko leaning out far over the edge to watch her. Just as she predicted, he appeared to be much more relaxed when she left and overcome with relief.
Zuko didn't wait for the dinghy to be raised completely before he reached down, his hands gripping Katara's waist as he lifted her up and over the railing before carefully putting her feet down on the deck. Immediately, he took her pack off of her shoulders, handing it to one of his men and ordering him to put it in her room.
"Katara," he whispered, almost as if it were a prayer. "You're alright."
She blinked at him in confusion. "Why wouldn't I be?"
Zuko took her hand and led her to his room, closing the door behind him. "What did you say to your family? To your council?"
Katara sighed, sat down on his bed, and folded her hands in her lap, her shoulders slumping. "I didn't tell them anything. At least, nothing worth telling."
Zuko frowned, perplexed. "Why not?"
Katara closed her eyes and shook her head. Zuko joined her on the bed, turning her to face him. She shrugged. "They were distracted at the time…" she said vaguely. "By the time I briefed them… they weren't too interested in what I had to say."
"So they know nothing about the Fire Nation or me… or us?" he pressed.
"My grandmother and brother know." Katara felt Zuko tense and added quickly, "They both support me and are happy that I'm happy."
"Your older brother?" he recalled, remembering one of her slips.
Zuko raised an eyebrow at that. "The horrible servant?" He shook his head and tried to remember what they were talking about before she mentioned her family, though he couldn't deny the slight elation at the small victory of her family members' acceptance. "The council?" he prompted.
"Whatever information I had was not their main concern," she said softly.
Zuko scoffed. "What the hell could be so important that they would blow off any intelligence that you may have? Katara, you're not lying to me, are you? I meant what I said, that you could have told them anything and I wouldn't be angry."
"They want me to stay in the Southern Water Tribe," she whispered hoarsely, her voice cracking slightly.
"Stay," he echoed roughly.
Katara nodded and pressed herself into his chest. Zuko's arms automatically wrapped around her.
"Why?" he asked.
"They want me to teach waterbending."
"I don't understand. Don't you already have a waterbending master there? You told me about him. Your teacher."
"The student… he didn't get along with Pakku. And the council thinks that he's already formed an attachment, a bond with me."
"Who is this person?" Zuko asked possessively.
"Zuko why did you come early? I was supposed to have until nightfall."
Taken aback by her change in subject, Zuko looked down at her, his amber eyes wide. "Some of my men and I saw a bright pillar of light burst straight up into the sky. It was so strong that everyone was momentarily blinded. We couldn't bear to look. I got worried… I didn't know what that was. Didn't know if you were okay."
Katara steeled herself and moved away from Zuko's embrace, pacing around his room. She looked up at him with sad eyes. "It's the Avatar," she answered quietly. "I found him."