To speak the true name of a thing is to try to grasp the whole of the thing, to make it your own. But to avoid speaking a name: what is it? Is it to deny knowing, deny the desire to know? Is it to relinquish power, to deny that deepest desire to possess? Or is it to hide oneself from the harsh light of others? To truly know a person's name is to be both nourished and consumed by the light of his inner fire.
-from the Holy Books of the Fire Sages, seventeenth canticle, lines 20-28
The first time he'd said it, they'd just escaped from the Western Air temple, and they were hungry, tired, and irritable. The remote mountain they'd landed on to make camp was dry and cold, and a piercing and steady wind made sleeping an uncomfortable affair at best. Aang had been about to gather firewood when Sokka stopped him.
"No fire," Sokka said, "Azula could still be tracking us."
"This far from the Western Air Temple?" Aang groaned. "Come on, Sokka, can't we just have a little fire?"
"And risk burny death at the hands of Azula's minions!? I'd rather not die crispy and deep-fried, just because I was a little bit nippy!" he yelled, raising his arms above his head in emphasis, which Momo, sitting on a rock nearby, mimicked.
Suki put her hands on Sokka's shoulders. "You should probably tone down the yelling, too."
He lowered his hands. "Oh," he said in a dramatic stage-whisper. "Right."
"Sokka's right," said Katara, as she dropped the last load of the bedclothes to the ground at her brother's feet. Brushing the dust from her hands, she continued. "We'll just have to huddle together for warmth."
"Dibs on Sparky!" Toph cried, grabbing Zuko's arm. "Ah, my own personal hot-water bottle."
Zuko smiled a little awkwardly and tried to pry Toph's arms off, with no success. "Hey, Don't I get a say in this?"
Katara gave her blanket a shake that was a little too hard.
"Nope!" Toph said, beaming. "You became my slave for life the moment you burned my feet."
Zuko rubbed the back of his his head and tried not to look too embarrassed. "I guess I owe you."
"Tch!" said Katara.
"Whatever, Sugar Queen," said Toph, grinning about a foot to the right of where Katara stood, taking her hair down for the night. "You're just jealous I called him first."
"What? Jealous?" she undid the last pin, and her hair cascaded freely down her back. "I'm not jealous."
"I can tell you're lying," trilled Toph, a smug smirk on her face.
All eyes turned to Katara. Well, the ones that weren't blind, anyway. There was a fire on her cheeks that had nothing to do with bending. The incredulous look on Sokka's face and the way Suki dropped her pillow on a badger-frog would have been funny if it hadn't been her in that situation. Aang's look of surprised hurt was bad enough, but Zuko's half parted lips were enough to make her want to become a firebender herself and shoot lighting at everyone just to make them stop looking at her.
"It's not- that's not what- it's just he's a firebender! He's warm! It's practical! Why else would I want to sleep next to that creep!?"
"We're all warm, Katara," said Sokka, still frowning. "We do this thing called 'generating bodyheat.' Maybe you've heard of it?"
"Yes! But you have Suki! And Aang has Appa and Momo! And now apparently Toph has Zuko! What do I have!? This rock?" she gestured at it in emphasis. Momo, who had been cleaning himself, blinked at her owlishly, then covered his head with his arms.
"Katara, I'm a firebender," Aang said, jetting down from Appa's head. "I'm warm. You can share Appa with me."
He blushed slightly as he said that, which only served to make Katara panic. "I don't want to slee- his fur's itchy!"
The hand on her shoulder, she thought, had to have been warmer than the hands of anyone else who had been flying all night and finally come to rest at the peak of a very cold mountain. A warmth that she swore to herself had solely to do with the fire in that body spread all the way down her arm, through her fingers, and down to her torso, where it settled somewhere between her legs. This, probably, was why she was so quick to throw him off.
Zuko withdrew his hand as if she'd burned him. "Um... I don't think we'll all be sleeping separately. We should all be pretty warm together. Anyway, you can sleep between me and Aang. I've got two sides."
"Tell me something I don't know," she snapped, and immediately regretted it.
If the look on his face earlier had made her want to shoot lightning, the way his lips thinned and his eyes closed made her want to sink into the ground and disappear. She turned away and hugged herself. Toph whistled.
"Katara, that was harsh," said Suki.
"No," said Zuko. "It's fine."
"You deserve it," said Katara, so quietly that only Zuko could hear. She didn't know whether Toph heard or cared.
Aang approached her with his hands placatingly raised before him. "Katara, I think you're taking all this a little too seriously. Why don't you just-"
"Seriously? Who's taking this seriously!?" Katara whipped around to face him, her hair flying behind her like a storm, and he shrank back. "I don't like what you're implying!"
"Hey, Katara, no one's implying anything," Sokka said. "We're all a little stressed, what with fire being shot at us and all. Why don't we just stop arguing, lie down, and have a big cuddle party?"
Appa yawned hugely, as if in agreement.
Toph flopped down onto his soft bulk. "I'm with this guy."
"I," said Katara, her voice ice, "Am going to sleep, over there. I don't care what anyone else does in their bed of sin."
"Wasn't this 'bed of sin' your idea, Sweetness?"
Katara balled her fists, counted to ten so that she wouldn't waterbend Toph into her next incarnation, grabbed her things, stuck her nose in the air, and stalked off.
"Katara, wait!" called Aang, and he tried to catch her wrist, but missed.
"'Bed of sin?'" snorted Toph.
Their laughter quickly faded behind her as Katara stomped off at speed, clutching her bedclothes as if she were trying to strangle them. Where did Toph get off? Jealous? Ha! The only thing she was jealous of was Zuko's ability to act as a personal hot rock for whomever he was with. It was degrading, the way he let Toph push him around. Did he think doing that would convince everyone he'd changed for good? He couldn't fool her, though. She knew he was good at pretending to have feelings.
"Stupid firebender," she muttered, throwing her things down in a heap.
As the night wore on and even the light of the stars grew dim, it got colder and colder. By the time frost started to form on the grass, Katara was maybe sort of almost willing to go back to the group. If that didn't involve apologizing for her outburst. Which she would never, ever do.
"He deserved it," she said through her chattering teeth.
'He?' Hadn't she meant to say, 'They?' An image of Zuko's thin lips and tightly closed eyes passed through her mind, and she irritably flipped to her other side. She definitely wasn't feeling sorry for him. That was just the cold talking. What she wouldn't give for the furs they'd lost when Appa had been kidnapped. They'd been so useful on those long nights after she and Sokka had first left the South Pole. Back then, everything had been so easy. Just the three of them, without complications, without confusing interpersonal relationships. Well, the four of them, if you counted Zuko. Which she didn't. Brother Sokka, friend Aang, enemy Zuko. Sometimes she wished they could go back to that.
It seemed her whole life was wrapped up in complications now. Earlier in the night, not more than an hour after she'd left, Aang had crept up on her, as she'd known he would. No doubt he wanted to talk her into coming back. But her anger had been at its height then, and she'd ignored his repeated, whispered pleas to wake up. He'd eventually given up and for all she knew, was spooning Sokka while Momo sprawled on top of them both.
She giggled, and then sighed. Aang's footsteps had been so quiet it sounded like he was walking on eggshells.
"I'll never get to sleep," she groaned, pulling the blanket over her head.
Somewhere behind her, she heard a twig break. She suppressed a groan. It had to be Aang again. Maybe if she could keep the shivering down to a minimum, he'd think she was asleep and leave. She steadied her breathing, closed her eyes, and tried not to scratch her nose. The footsteps drew closer. It didn't sound like he was bothering to keep quiet; every few steps he would kick a rock or step on a leaf. He stopped about a foot away from her, but didn't say anything.
The minutes passed. Katara was beginning to get irritated. What did he want? Why didn't he try to wake her up if he wanted to talk? She knew he wasn't held back by any kind of politeness; Aang was the type of person to throw a cake at someone if he wanted to get his attention. Well, she wasn't going to move if he wasn't going to say something.
Then, something soft and warm fell around her shoulders. A blanket. And the footsteps began to turn back to camp. A heavy, guilty feeling lit on her heart.
"Wait!" she said, sitting up. "Aang, I-"
She stopped, completely dumbfounded, her mouth still open from the act of forming words.
"Not who you were expecting?" said Zuko, his back to her.
"No!" She drew the blankets around herself more tightly.
"Sorry to disappoint you."
"What are you, a walking cliché?" she snapped.
He shrugged, and began walking again.
"Wait," she said, and shifted her position so that she was facing him more directly. "I'm sorry. You just surprised me."
He stopped, and looked at her over his shoulder. "Don't worry about it. I couldn't sleep, anyway. Too crowded."
She laughed. "I know what you mean. Sokka's stinky feet are not something I want to wake up with in my face."
"It's not that," he said. She waited for him to elaborate, but he said nothing further, and instead looked at her, the moonlight making his eyes appear softer than she could ever remember seeing them.
"So..." she said, twirling the ends of her hair. "Thanks for the blanket."
"It's no big deal. Back in the 'bed of sin' there's more than enough heat to go around."
She grimaced. "I really said that, didn't I?"
"You really did," he said, sitting down next to her. "Aren't you cold?"
She shivered a little and pulled the blankets tighter around her shoulders. "Extremely. Not as cold as I was, but maybe now I'll be able to sleep."
"Why'd you leave?"
She bristled. "That's none of your business."
"Is it me? Did I do something?"
"No! Not tonight, anyway," she muttered, running her fingers through her hair, combing out the tangles. Zuko's eyes followed her hands as they moved.
"I don't know. It's just... Aang has this idea about me, and I don't know how..." she sighed. "It just would have been weird to sleep all cuddled up to him." She spread her fingers in a hopeless gesture, unsure of how to even begin explaining why this bothered her so much.
The corners of Zuko's mouth twitched. "And me?"
"Of course!" she snapped, too quickly, trying to cover for her failure to mention him. "In case you don't remember, I still don't trust you!"
"Don't you 'right' me! You don't have any idea how hard it is for me to even talk to you, after what you did!" she leaned on her arms and bore down at him, but he didn't shrink back. "I was the first person to trust you! Remember, under Ba Sing Se? If you ever want me to trust you again, even a little bit, you're going to have to earn it. A blanket isn't going to do the trick."
Zuko didn't say anything. He looked back at her, his arms resting atop his knees. She glared at him, and he met her gaze head on, one eyebrow slightly raised.
"Have you told him?" he asked.
She could have screamed. "Don't avoid the subject!"
"I'm not," he insisted, narrowing his eyes. "Have you told him?"
She met his stare with one that could make glaciers shiver. "Told who what?"
"Aang. How you feel."
She wanted to say something, snarl back, tell him where to stick it, but at those words the anger that had kept her going all night deflated inside her like someone had hit it with an arrow. An uncomfortable void settled where it had perched, glowering in her soul, and the voice that she'd been avoiding, the one that said she was wrong for ignoring what Aang was very obviously trying to tell her, coughed and woke.
"What difference does it make?" she said, rubbing her forehead with the ball of her hand. "We might not even live through this stupid war."
Hesitantly, he placed his hand on her back. When she didn't immediately throw him off and demand to know what he was doing, he let it settle there, as if to hold her center against the cold.
"It makes every difference. Uncle says that a half-truth is worse than a lie. You don't want him to feel like you haven't understood him, or he'll do something stupid trying to make you understand."
"How can I?" she said in a small voice, and unconsciously leaned against his shoulder. "I don't even know how I feel."
"But you don't like it."
"No," she admitted, picking at the blanket. "I really don't."
She really didn't. Her heart sank like lead. She'd been dancing around that fact for a long time now, every time Aang showed off or made something for her or blushed at her.
"It's not fair," she half-whimpered, burying her face in the crook of her arm. "Why can't I- Why don't I feel that way about him? I've tried."
A few tears escaped her squeezed-shut eyes, and she sniffed, trying to hold them back. The wind stung her cheeks and arms. She tried to wipe her eyes before Zuko noticed, but it was too late; her sniffle had already given her away. His arm stiffened around her.
"He'll understand," he said in a strangled voice.
"No. He won't."
Zuko gave what he apparently thought was a very convincing smile. "He will, one day."
"Don't lie," she said, her eyebrows furrowed. "He won't understand. How can he? I should like him. He's always been so nice, and he cares so much, and he's never done anything to hurt me. It doesn't make any sense. And it's going to hurt him so much. I can't do that to him. I saved him."
"Saved him?" he raised his eyebrows.
"I took him out of the glacier!" she said, gesturing wildy, as if pointing at the ice that had encased Aang for a hundred years. "I saved his life! Me! He's my responsibility!"
"You can't protect him forever."
"Yes I can!" she exclaimed, her voice cracking.
He drew back a little, startled by her declaration, and for some reason, this made her want to cry all over again. Her cheeks flushed and she buried her face in her arms before he could see.
Her name sounded unfamiliar in his voice, like a word in a new language, heavy on his tongue. She didn't know why, but this made her heart skip. She chose the safety of her arms to the danger of looking him in the face, and when she responded, her voice was muffled.
"Katara," he said again, softer this time, and she risked a glance.
He looked surprised at what he was doing even as he was doing it. Just as he had cautiously placed his hand on the small of her back earlier, so now was he reaching for her face. When he made contact with her skin a blossom of heat spread down her neck, and her breathing quickened. His palm settled on her cheek, his thumb just over the corner of her mouth. With that hand, he tilted her head so she was facing him.
Her startled heart beat its wings and took flight. She closed her eyes.
He was so close that she could feel his breath on her lips. For a few seconds, she didn't think either of them breathed. Then, Zuko cleared his throat and drew back, and her hair fell back into place where his fingertips had been. Her eyes snapped open. The moment broke.
"I, uh. You shouldn't mother him too much." He rubbed the back of his neck with the hand that had been at her back. "Let him make his own mistakes."
"What," she growled, her voice ice both literally and figuratively, "Is wrong with you!?"
Zuko went pale. "Wait, please, I can explain-"
"Where do you get off!?"
"I didn't mean-"
"Why am I even talking about this with you!? I hate you!"
Whatever Zuko had been about to say, it died in the face of Katara's outburst. She didn't care what it was he wanted to talk about, whatever actions of his he was about to explain or make up for, she wanted him gone. She shot up, clutching her blankets around her shoulders, and glowered down at him as he stared at her, his eyes round as Momos's.
"You don't know me, and you don't know Aang! And you've got a hell of a long way before you can tell me how I'm supposed to handle this. Just- just take your stuff and go. Go!"
She threw the blanket he'd brought at him, which he caught. He scrambled up, clutching it.
"I'm sorry," he said, his eyes plaintive. He held the blanket out to her.
She turned her back to him. "Get out of my sight, traitor."
He sucked in his breath through his teeth, like he'd just pricked himself on a knife. The silence now wasn't of the night, which isn't silent at all, but a heavy silence, thick with what had almost passed between them.
"Fine!" he shouted, throwing the blanket to the ground. "Fine! See if I ever try to help you with anything again!"
"Like I'll ever need your help," she scoffed.
"By the way, nice impression of Azula," he shot back.
She spun around, easily flowing into her standard dueling stance. He reciprocated, his hands trailing fire.
"Come on," she snarled. Moisture from the air began to crystallize around her fingers until they were claws. "I'll show you how much worse I can be."
For a moment, he seemed like he was going to take her up on that. His muscles tensed, and orange fire blazed up from his hands. Then, slowly, he let his arms fall to his sides, and the fire vanished.
"No," he said. "Not tonight."
A high-pitched growl of frustration escaped Katara's throat. She didn't break her stance. "Face me!"
Her heart was beating fast as it had before. Why wasn't he fighting her now, like he always did? He'd dueled her over spilt tea before; surely what she'd said had made him angry enough to lash back at her. And right then, more than anything, that's what Katara wanted. A chance to really match him, move for move, to let out all the frustration and anger and confusion that he'd built up in her ever since he'd shown up and asked to be the Avatar's firebending teacher. Since he'd become friends with everyone through one adventure or another, and not made the slightest effort to convince her that he'd really changed this time. Since bringing her a blanket, and everything that followed. Since saying her name.
Especially for that.
"No," he said, and he turned away. "I can't. Just- I'm sorry. Go to sleep. I'll see you in the morning."
Unable to contain herself, she threw her ice daggers at him. They landed in the ground at his feet, half their lengths buried in the rocky earth. He didn't flinch. He looked over his shoulder at her for the last time that night.
"Good night," he said, and it seemed to her that he said it with regret.
She stood there for a while, watching him walk back toward the campsite, until he disappeared in a distant clot of trees. Even after he'd gone, she stood staring at where he'd been, until her heart finally slowed and her fists unclenched, leaving crescent-shaped marks on her palms. She held them up to her face and frowned. Hopefully, they'd be gone by morning, and she wouldn't have to explain them away. She was too tired and confused to consider healing herself. And far, far too cold.
Realizing she'd thrown off her own blanket when she'd entered her fighting stance, Katara picked it up and shook it out. The one Zuko had brought to her was still there, looking forlorn and rumpled in the dim and dusty starlight, but damned if she was going to use it after what had happened.
What had happened? She settled onto her pallet and let the thought roll through her consciousness, hoping it would find ballast somewhere. He'd brought her the blanket, she'd yelled at him, he'd talked to her for a while, and then... what? He'd made her so angry. She saw red, she couldn't see straight, she wanted to fight him, to get back at him. But why? Was that all it was? Anger? She felt herself redden and rolled onto her stomach to bury her face in her hands.
Yes. It had to be anger. There was no possible way it could be what she was trying very, very hard not to think it could possibly be. She hated him. And starting tomorrow, she was going to make sure everyone knew it. No more pretending for Aang's sake.
Soon after that, both the blankets wrapped around her, Katara fell into an uneasy sleep, one last thought echoing in her mind, which she forgot on waking: it was the first time he'd called her by name.
Breakfast the next morning was a gloomy affair. Katara had managed to sneak back to the camp and throw Zuko's missing blanket back onto him without so much as kicking a pebble out of place. She didn't know why she succeeded in that when normally Toph was so good at sensing approaching intruders, even in her sleep, but she didn't question it. Because of this, she was feeling smug enough to bang on the cookpot to wake everyone, which didn't boost anyone's morale but hers, and led to a silent and moody meal. It wasn't until they'd finished eating and Katara was collecting the bowls that anyone was in the mood to talk. Aang was the one to break the silence.
"Thanks, Katara," he said, sleepily smiling at her. "You cook a mean bowl of rice."
"Yeah, thanks, Katara. Thanks for the HORRIBLE BANGING NOISE YOU WOKE US UP WITH," yelled Sokka, scaring a nearby group of rat-pigeons into flight.
"What was I supposed to do?" she said with toss of her hair. "You didn't respond to anything else, and believe me, yelling 'Sokka' over and over again gets old after the first ten times. Aang, give me your bowl."
"She has sort of a point," said Suki. "You sort of sleep like a rock."
"So what if I'm a healthy sleeper!?"
"More like comatose," muttered Toph.
"She could have at least poked me or something. Did you hear that, Katara? Poking is good!"
Zuko suddenly came over with a coughing fit. Toph punched him in the arm.
"Huh. And risk tripping on someone's tangled legs? I might have landed on you. Thanks, Suki."
Sokka sighed. "We're all aware of your feelings regarding personal space. Next time try a stick or something, okay?"
"I can make no guarantees."
She held out her hand for Zuko to pass her his bowl, which he did, looking at her but saying nothing. She treated him with equal silence, not thanking him as she had the others. On most mornings, he would have taken that as an invitation to start an argument, or at least commented on her constant exclusion of him. This time, he just stared. She turned away, the barest of blushes creeping onto her cheeks. Only Aang seemed to notice, and he frowned at them as she put his bowl on top of the stack.
"Who wants to help me wash dishes?" she asked, forcing a cheerful smile.
"Hmph," grumbled Toph. She hadn't yet had time to fix her hair, so it was sticking up around her like a fan, giving her the look of a very grumpy water dragon.
"Thanks for volunteering, Toph!" said Katara in her brightest tone, and shoved the bowls into her friend's arms.
"I protest this," she weakly groaned, but got to her feet and followed Katara to the spring where she'd gotten their cooking water.
"Am I at least a cuddly rock?" she heard her brother ask his long-suffering girlfriend.
"Very," assured Suki.
"Urgh," said Toph.
The spring was a little ways from the camp, far enough that Aang's voice assigning people tasks for packing was inaudible to those with normal hearing. She'd found it the night before on her way to the hollow she'd chosen for her bed. Working together, Toph made two rock basins and Katara bent the water into them, and they set to work cleaning. Once they fell into rhythm, the work went fast.
Katara was scrubbing the inside of the rice pot when Toph asked her how she slept.
She slipped and almost dropped the pot. "What?"
"I asked you if you slept okay. Have any trouble getting comfy? Warm enough? No bad dreams?" She added her bowl to the stack of ones to be dried and moved onto the next. Katara wished she could see the expression on her face behind her bed-tousled hair.
"No! No, no trouble at all!" She tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear and feigned disinterest. "Is it hot today? Man, mountain weather. Crazy, huh?"
But the greatest earthbender in the world wasn't exactly one to be sidetracked by anything. "Weird. Because I felt some really interesting vibrations in the ground last night. Seemed to be coming from your direction."
This time, Katara did lose her grip on the pot, and it rolled back into the basin with a dull clang. "I thought you said you slept well."
Toph shrugged. "After the vibrations stopped, anyway."
"I, uh, I did get to sleep eventually," Katara said, trying to sound convincing, but it was like someone had filled her head with mud. "It was hard at first, and I wasn't really tired... so... um, so I practiced some waterbending! Nothing like a good workout just before bed."
"Hm. Guess that's what it was," said Toph, setting the final bowl onto the stack and dusting off her hands.
Sagging with relief, Katara resumed her now overly-thorough cleaning of the rice pot.
Close one, she thought, until she saw Toph cross her arms.
"I know Sparky visited you last night."
Katara went on scrubbing away at the pot as if nothing had happened while her mind went blank with the horror of Toph having this information, and how she was likely to use it.
"So did Aang," she said, quickly. "So what?"
Toph paused. This information had taken her by surprise. Katara used those precious few seconds to try to come up with some plausible version of what happened the night before, but the rice pot wasn't exactly a well of inspiration.
"Uh, I knew that. Point is, I bet he didn't do it to kick you while you slept. And you know I only bet to win."
She stopped cleaning, stood up straight. Water from her washcloth dripped down her arm.
"He thought I was cold," she admitted, twisting the washcloth over and over in her hands.
"See what I mean? He did something nice and you gave him hell for it."
"Nothing happened!" Katara snapped, her anger rising like a snake. She spun around and brandished her rag at Toph, who stood immovable as a rock.
"I'm not saying it was a sex thing," she said, her voice flat. Katara squeaked, 'a what thing!?' in protest, but she ignored her and went on, "The guy tries so hard to make up for his mistakes and all you do is give him crap for it. It wouldn't kill you to give him a chance."
"You know what? No," Katara threw the washcloth into the basin, and it splashed her in the face. "We're not having this conversation."
Toph snorted. "Yes, we are. We're doing this thing called 'talking?' Maybe you've heard of it?"
"I am not going to stand here and let you tell me how I should handle Zuko. You have no idea," she seethed, "No idea."
She was back at the cave under Ba Sing Se. Zuko was saying, 'I'm sorry. That's one thing we have in common.' The soft green glow of the crystals was bright enough that she could see how genuine he looked, how sorry for what had happened to her, and to him. To their mothers. She found herself starting to trust him.
'...Maybe you could be free of it.'
Toph stomped, and every nearby rock jumped two feet. "Well maybe if you told me what I'm supposed to be missing here-"
'It's water from the spirit oasis...'
She was touching his face, covering his ruined cheek with the pads of her fingers, and he was breathing, breathing so slowly she thought he'd died, and then they both went still and she thought he was going to lean into her hand when the wall exploded and everything went wrong.
"He's Fire Nation," she said, scooping up her share of the clean dishes and glaring at Toph. "Hatred and violence and war is in his blood. One day he's going to turn on us and I will be the first one there to take him down before he can do anymore damage than he already has."
"Fine! If you want to go on being miss oh-so-wronged with the worst problems in the world, keep at it, because you're doing an amazing job. Here, let me add one more tragedy to your list: you can carry the dishes back yourself."
"Whatever," she said under her breath to Toph's retreating back. "I'm used to carrying everyone's weight."
This was enough to make Toph stop and spin around, her tiny fists balled tightly at her sides.
"Here's a hint for you, Sweetcakes: Next time you want to have a secret rendezvous with Zuko, try not to sleep in his blanket. Dead giveaway."
Katara bent all the dishwater onto Toph's head.
"It's on, Sugar Queen," growled Toph, and the mud went flying.
"Whoa, what happened to you two?" asked Sokka.
"Nothing," said Katara just as Toph said, "We fell in the stream."
They were covered from head to foot in splotches of mud. Instead of cleaning up after they'd finished bending at each other, they voted to go back to the camp and get fresh changes of clothes. Though waterbending master she was, even Katara couldn't clean them up and heal the rips in their outfits. It was just a happy coincidence that Aang and Zuko were busy with morning firebending practice, and not around to see them and ask questions. This, however, did not prevent Sokka from acting in their place.
At least the dishes were clean.
"You fell?" Sokka raised his eyebrows at the two of them.
The power of their combined glares was enough to make him cringe. "Right! What you said! Better change before all that mud dries on! I'm gonna go... feed Momo."
Behind his back, Suki rolled her eyes. This was so familiar and ridiculous that Katara laughed for what seemed the first time in weeks. Suki caught her eye and grinned.
"Toph, I'll fix your hair if you want," she said.
"I can manage fine on my own, thanks," growled Toph. She snatched her clothes from her bag, sat down, and drew up an Earth tent around her with a loud bang.
Suki sighed. "Guess that leaves you and me, Katara. Come on, let's go wash up."
Katara set all the dishes down in their pack on Appa's saddle, and rummaged in her own belongings for a fresh outfit. She was dismayed to find that her only clean one was her Fire Nation disguise.
"All I've got is this Fire Nation thing!" Katara complained, thrusting the red silk at her like it was something she found under a rock.
"That's pretty," said Suki. "I wish I had something to wear besides this." She ruefully plucked at her prison uniform, and Katara was once again filled with the urge to bite off her own tongue.
"Sorry. As soon as we find someplace to stay, we'll find you something nice. Maybe some Earth Nation stuff."
"I think Fire Nation clothes are cute, too," said Suki, with a sidelong grin.
Katara grimaced. "They'll look even cuter with Water Tribe hair."
Her time with Suki at the river was everything washing dishes with Toph was not. Suki wanted to talk about silly things, like how much Sokka snored, or whether they'd find some good food in the next town. She didn't seem to know about Zuko's visit to her the night before, or if she did, she didn't seem to care. It was nice. They began their walk back refreshed and giggling, exchanging stories.
"...then the entire flock of penguins slid through the village, and when the snow finally settled, there was Sokka, covered from head to foot in fish guts."
Suki clutched Katara for support, and the combined laughter of the two girls sent a nearby flock of squirrel-sparrows flying.
"Gran-Gran was so mad she took his boomerang away for a whole moon cycle. We never saw that penguin again. Sokka still thinks it's out there, though, waiting to take revenge."
"I somehow doubt penguins remember that long," Suki said, still giggling as she bent over to push some low branches from their path. "Careful, there's a drop here."
Gingerly, Katara stepped down from the unexpected ridge of sandstone, which was covered in slippery green moss. She could never find her way in forests. They were too crowded. There was no way to see how far you'd gone or how much further you had to go, there were just trees and the smell of earth and darkness. She missed the sharp, metallic air, the snow, and the desolate beauty of icebergs at sea. Homesickness caught her in the throat.
"I wonder how Gran-Gran's doing."
"Probably fighting Pakku off with a really big icicle," said Suki, dusting off her prison uniform. "I bet she's got him sleeping outside her front door."
"When the war's over," said Katara, picking her way through more outcroppings of slick rocks and tree roots, "I'm going to go home and start a school for waterbending."
"Unless Pakku's done it first."
Katara frowned. "Do you really think he has?"
Suki shrugged. "Anything to impress your Gran-Gran. Look, I can see a clearing. We're almost there."
Katara's shoulders, which she hadn't realized she'd tensed, relaxed, and she smiled. "Good. What are you going to do after the war, Suki?"
"Well, first of all, I've got to go back to Kiyoshi and get the warriors in order. Prison isn't exactly a vacation, but I guarantee you that they've lapsed on their training. Especially Su Li. A badger-mole couldn't make her practice every day. After that," she said, pausing to step over a burrow, "I think I'll try to visit the South Pole."
Katara's smile widened. "That's really great, Suki! There aren't any girls my age back home."
"No one you can gossip with about the hottest warrior?" Suki teased, grinning.
"You know what I meant!"
"That's why I- oh!"
Whatever Suki had been about to say was lost, for she and Katara had finally broken through the trees. Instead of finding a clear path to camp, they'd accidentally come across the spot Zuko had chosen for Aang's morning firebending training. The two were in the middle of what looked like the Dancing Dragon, which, despite its silly name, really was an elegant exercise in strength and balance. A few weeks before, at breakfast, Suki and Katara had agreed that there were very few things wrong with that particular form of firebending. Especially when the mornings got a little too hot. That morning, much to Suki's delight, was one of those times.
"Mmmm," murmured Suki, her eyes following Zuko. "I wish that warrior would move to the South Pole."
"Suki! You have a boyfriend! Remember Sokka? My brother?"
She shrugged. "Doesn't mean I can't look. Oh, look at that."
The sun, which had been hanging below the mountain ever since they woke, just peaked the ridge. Instead of obscuring Aang and Zuko, the shadows cast their bodies into sharp relief, which emphasized the way the muscles moved under their skin. Aang's body was lithe, light, and limber, he moved more like he was the wind than a bender of it. Opposite him, Zuko cut through the air as easily as flame licked through paper. She could see a sheen of sweat shining on him as he flowed in and out of each step of the form. The uneasiness in Katara's chest was quickly replaced by a strange, warm feeling in her belly. And it wasn't to Aang that her eyes kept straying.
"Come on," she whispered, "Let's go before they see us."
Suki made a cat-like noise of protest and resisted Katara's attempt to push her back to camp. it was at that point (of course, thought Katara), that Aang and Zuko finished their training.
"Good workout, Sifu Hotman!" said Aang.
Zuko groaned and pulled out of the bow. "Would you please stop calling me that?"
"Look! It's Katara! Hey, Katara!"
Aang jetted over to where the two girls stood in a blast of air, leaving Zuko alone to pick up his discarded tunic and refasten it, much to Suki's disappointment.
"Hey, Aang." Katara feebly attempted a smile. "Good training today?"
"Yeah! I think I'm really getting the hang of this firebending thing. Wanna see what I can do now?"
Suki grinned and shrugged, Katara said, "Sure!"
"Stand back," Aang said dramatically, raising his arms.
The two girls exchanged glances, but withdrew to a respectful distance, leaving Aang standing some twenty feet in front of them. He slowly breathed in, held it, and fell into a graceful somersault, turning over and landing neatly in a kneeling position with his hands held palm out before his mouth. Then he let out his held breath through the triangle he made with his thumbs and fingertips, causing the twin jets of flame that burst from his hands to lengthen and twist like ribbons of lava in the air, until they touched the trunk of the nearest tree and burnt a black mark in the gnarled wood.
Katara smiled approvingly. "That's really good, Aang. Did you come up with that yourself?"
"Zuko taught me the initial move," he said, springing to his feet. "But I added the airbending."
"One day, you'll be breathing fire," said Zuko, coming up behind Aang. His eyes widened briefly when he glanced at Katara, but he didn't comment, which was perfectly fine with her. If he didn't want to talk to her, she wasn't going to talk to him.
"Then I'll really be a dragon," Aang said, moving his arms to imitate the sinuous motion of a dragon in flight. Katara laughed, and he grinned up at her, so pleased with her approval that it made her heart ache.
"Maybe in your next life," she said, with a watery smile.
"Hey Aang," interjected Suki. "Could you fly back to camp and make sure Sokka and Toph are ready to go? I really want to get some new clothes before the markets close."
"I guess prison wear does get a little old after a while. How close is the next town?" he asked, looking to Zuko.
"Okay. Lemme get my staff." He stomped, and the rock his staff had been sitting on shot up and vaulted his staff to his open arm. "I'll be right back."
"Thanks!" Suki called, waving briefly at Aang's departing form before turning to Zuko and Katara with a suspiciously cheerful smile on her face. "Well. I'll just make sure Sokka hasn't stabbed himself with his own sword."
"Wait, Suki-" The hand that Katara had shot out to grab Suki's shoulder closed on empty air.
"See you at camp!" she called.
"Stupid warrior reflexes," muttered Katara.
That was it. Everyone was against her. First Zuko, then Toph, and now Suki seemed to think they knew what was best for her, and she wasn't going to take it anymore. When she got back to camp, she was going to waterbend all of them into their next incarnation. Starting with Zuko. She couldn't believe that she was stuck alone with him again, after what had happened the night before. It was bad enough that he was Fire Nation and a traitor, but on top of that he had no business making her feel so... so... it made her furious to think about it.
She glared at him. He brushed his hair out of his eyes and tried to smile, but she was feeling about as receptive to this as a nest of vulture-wasps. His smile faltered a little, but apparently undeterred by the psychic arrows she was firing at him, he tried to initiate conversation.
"So. Uh. Hey. I've never seen you in Fire Nation clothes."
She'd forgotten that she was wearing them. Irritably, she plucked at the beautiful silk, wishing she were back in the homespun blue of her tribe.
"Don't get used to it. Once mine are clean, I'm burning this."
He closed his eyes, let out a small sigh, opened them. "That's a shame. They look nice with your hair."
"No, never mind, I'm not burning them. I'm tying them to a really big rock and throwing them into the ocean." She irritably folded her arms across her chest and looked away.
"Well. I guess I'll go on ahead. See you."
She spun around, incensed. "What, scared to be left alone with me?"
He frowned. "I thought you wanted me to go."
"Ha! Nice excuse! You just don't want to be trapped with some Water Tribe peasant when you could be off planning another war. Well, don't let me keep you."
He threw up his hands in frustration. "What is it with you!? Ever since we got here everything I do is wrong and it's driving me crazy! What is it?"
"If you can't figure it out," she snarled. "I'm not going to tell you."
He made a strangled noise and stepped closer. "Then what, did I do something wrong? Is it me? I won't know what I did unless you tell me! Is it your Dad? Is it Aang? Are you worried about what happened to Teo and the Duke? What!?"
"Gee, let's think," she said, not noticing that she had started to tremble. "When did I get really mad at you, Zuko? At what point in the last twenty-four hours did you screw up? Think hard."
He went quiet. His pale gold eyes searched her face, as if trying to find a cure there for whatever had caused him to look so pained.
"Katara," he breathed, and took a jerky step toward her.
She blushed, and not out of anger. What was different about how he'd said her name? Aang used her name constantly, like a charm, like a pretty bauble, like something to show off, to share, to cherish long past the point when it no longer held a shine. She'd never felt that twinge in her heart from his voice forming the cadence of 'Katara.' It was Zuko, only Zuko. She certainly said his name readily enough, throwing it at him like a dagger or pulling it out like some grim memento of past hurts. His use of her name shouldn't have been any different. Was it that he so rarely used it, and it caught her by surprise? She hadn't gotten used to it; yes, that had to be it. She was so accustomed to being called "girl" or "peasant" by her haughty enemy with the scar and the ponytail that "Katara" seemed foreign.
There was a warm pressure on her hand. She looked down, saw that he'd taken it, was running his forefinger across the underside of her wrists. Her thoughts went awry.
It wouldn't kill you to give him a chance.
The knot in his throat rose and fell as he swallowed. All around her, she could feel the water in the air, the earth, the plants, his skin as he pressed her hand to his chest. Maybe that was why the motion of his heart, desperate as a trapped sparrow-hawk, was so palpable to her. It was surprising; she'd never thought of him as anything but cruel, manipulative, and in-control. This wasn't the same enemy, was it? Was he. The ponytail was gone, the condescending language discarded in favor of awkward attempts at reparation, even his armor with the huge, spiked shoulders and the metallic wrist guards had been replaced by a simple tunic. He seemed smaller somehow. Maybe he'd always been this small, and she hadn't noticed. Maybe she hadn't noticed anything.
"Your hair's in your eyes," she said, and her voice sounded far away.
She lifted her free hand, and pushed his hair away from his forehead. It fell back into place. Then, slowly, she traced the burnt place on his forehead where his eyebrow would have been. His breathing caught and he closed his eyes, just as he had all those weeks ago at Ba Sing Se, when she'd laid her hand over his ruined cheek and told him she might be able to fix it.
"Does it hurt?" she asked.
"Good," she said, and stood on her toes.
Even before she got close she could feel the heat of him. He smelled like sweat and smoke and grass. And as he bowed his head to meet her lips with his, she knew she would always wonder what it would have been like to answer the question that he'd asked with the syllables of her name.
Katara, I'm a firebender. I'm warm. You can share Appa with me.
"I can't," she whispered, "I'm sorry."
She turned her head so that his lips fell on her cheek. Undaunted, he slipped his hand behind her head and tried to turn her face back to his.
Irritated now, she tried to pull away. "I said I can't. Stop it."
His grip didn't slacken. "Katara-"
The wind picked up behind her, scattering grass and dust. In one movement, she uncorked her bending water and used it to fling him so hard that he stumbled backwards and fell, sliding a short way on his side over the sun-baked earth.
"What was that for!?" he shouted, angry and incredulous. There was dirt on his face.
The wind hissed through the leaves. "I'm sorry," she said.
And then, just as Zuko opened his mouth for a retort, Aang's glider broke through the canopy. Zuko quickly glanced up, then back to Katara. She wanted to say something, anything to make that expression on his face disappear, but when she opened her mouth the only thing that came out was breath. She had never been very good with words.
The glider spun to the ground, and Aang landed gracefully as a flower petal. "Hey guys! Sorry I took so long. Toph wouldn't come out of her tent so I- whoa, you okay, Sifu Hotman?"
Katara violently shook her head at Zuko, and though the line of his jaw tightened, he looked away and muttered, "Nothing. Sparring accident. Katara got a little carried away."
Her eyes narrowed and she theatrically put her hands on her hips. "Not anymore than you did, Mister Grabby Hands."
Zuko shot her a long-suffering look, and Aang burst out laughing.
"Katara, your skill with insults never ceases to amaze me."
She shrugged. A few feet from her, Zuko stood up and began meticulously brushing the dirt from his clothing. "Did you see Suki on your way back?"
Aang nodded. "Yeah, she showed up right when I was leaving. Said something about Sokka. Anyway. You guys ready to go yet?"
Katara risked a glance at Zuko. He was still pointedly ignoring them, now having moved his attentions to inspecting the sheath of his swords. "Hey, Aang, can you give me a lift back to camp?"
His face lit up. "Definitely!"
He hoisted his glider into position and she took hold of his waist, not caring that it caused him to blush, or that Zuko was there to see it.
"Uh... what about Zuko?"
"He'll be fine," she said, slinging the words like arrows. "Right, Zuko?"
"Yeah. Fine," he said, and his voice twisted strangely in the wind.
Knowing what it would cost her later, she laid her cheek against Aang's shoulder. He swallowed, and let out a nervous laugh. Her gut felt heavy and cold.
"Let's go, Aang."
She watched Zuko grow smaller behind her as they soared into the sky, until the place he stood was covered by the branches of trees, and he was gone.
When they landed again, the packing was nearly done. Even Toph had come out of her Earth Tent, and though she wasn't exactly what Katara was comfortable calling 'clean,' most of the dried mud was gone and she was in fresh clothes. Spotting Katara, she unceremoniously tossed her dirt-caked clothes in her direction. Katara caught them and made a face. They were completely stiff and stank like rotting river-mud.
"One more for the laundry bag, Sweetcakes," said Toph.
"Ugh. Did you have to let it dry like that?"
"Do I look like the waterbender around here?"
Rolling her eyes, she wadded the clothes up in a ball and walked to the laundry bag. Her hand was in it up to the elbow when she felt someone tap her on the shoulder.
It was Aang. He looked oddly serious.
"Hey, Katara, can I talk to you for a minute?"
"Not here," he said.
Feeling slightly uncomfortable, she nodded. He started walking without another word. She followed.
A short distance away, enough that they were out of earshot but not nearly far enough to be out of Toph's radar, there was a great pillar of rock in the middle of a clutch of trees. If she reached out with her waterbending, she could feel an underground river, probably a tributary of the one she'd washed the dishes in earlier. Instead of ducking behind it, Aang sprang up and landed on top of the rock, then bent down to offer his hand to her. With a slight smile, she took it, and he hoisted her up so that she was able to climb without much trouble. When she stood next to him, she could see the valley below them clear down to the green fingers of the bay stretching out to the silvery sea.
"Nice view," she said.
Aang clutched at his staff and looked at his feet, like a child.
"Katara, did something... happen between you and Zuko?"
"What?" she said, too quickly. "Why would you say that?"
"Well... you seem sort of... meaner."
Angry color rose in her cheeks. "I am not mean."
"Just to Zuko!" he said, raising his hands like a shield.
She huffed a little, but calmed down. "Maybe I am a tiny, little bit mean to him. But he deserves it!"
Aang look like he wanted to argue the point, but didn't. Instead, he pressed his original inquiry.
"And when I woke up last night Zuko was gone. I thought, maybe..."
"You thought maybe what?"
Aang blushed. "I dunno. Never mind."
"Aang," she said, putting her hands on his shoulders.
He was still shorter than her, though he'd risen a little in height from when she and Sokka had first found him in the glacier. Back then he'd seemed so fragile, like a baby, or a sculpture made of ice. She'd always been careful to be gentle with him, even when teaching him waterbending. He'd never reacted well when he sensed disapproval, so much so that he'd disappear and make her worry herself sick whenever anyone managed to upset him. These days, she was even more careful. If he disappeared, if something happened to him because she wasn't there to help, she knew she'd never forgive herself. His life was hers to protect. And she would protect him, no matter what.
"There's nothing between me and Zuko except what's between the Fire Nation and the Water Tribes. That's all."
"You don't feel... you don't-"
"It's complicated," she said, "But it's not tender or anything. After all he's done to us, it's hard to even look at him, you know?"
"Yeah, I guess," he said, and the clouds that had been darkening his eyes cleared. He cocked his head and smiled brightly at her. "Thanks, Katara."
"Sure, Aang," she said, breezily, letting her arms fall to her sides again. "Let's go, okay?"
He leapt back down the rock, and she followed, carefully sliding down the craggy surface in her bright red silks. And as she watched him walk in front of her with the very literal spring back in his step, the quiet voice in the dark places of her mind, the one that sounded like her grandmother, called her a liar.
Shortly after she and Aang returned to camp, Zuko returned from the clearing. He didn't look at Katara, and she didn't look at him. It was easier that way. There was still a bruised spot between them. It hurt when she brushed it with her thoughts.
Long after they finally took to the skies and the cheerful conversation had flowed into companionable silence, Katara leaned over the rim of Appa's saddle and trailed her hand in the thick, cold folds of a cloud. With subtle twitches of her fingers she bent wisps of cloud into the shapes of her friends' names. Master Pakku had always said that the more delicate work of bending was where skill became mastery.
Aang's name was first. Ān-áng, Peace, contentment, soaring, lift. It was an easy name. Aang lived up to it; he was an easy person, light and free as the name the monks had given him. His life would never be easy as the Avatar, but things would come easily to him, and for him. His nature was of one that rises and does not stop. Above her, his name turned to wisps in the wind, and she moved on to the next one.
Sokka. From the characters suǒ, to search, and kǎ, to check. He was always questioning, always looking for answers, like in the village with Aunt Wu. Suki, sū-qí, revive and angel. Would that make her an angel of resurrection? She giggled, and let the cloud words disappear. Suki's nature was more like an angel of battle than one of rebirth. Seeing her with Sokka, their laughter and closeness, she wondered whether that first part of her name would one day become the truth of her nature. Were people like that? Did they grow into their names?
She wrote Toph's name next. Tuò, opening. Fú, lotus. Katara looked over her shoulder to see Toph pick dirt from between her toes, inspect it with a couple of experimental squeezes, then flick it towards Momo, who caught it, sniffed it, and shuddered.
Now that's a name to grow into, she thought, and tried very hard not to giggle. It was a typical name for someone of Toph's status, and to Katara, very indicative of the nature of her relationship with her parents. It wasn't any wonder that they were so desperate to protect her, and she so desperate to prove them wrong, with a name like that. Katara blew on the characters, and they turned to ice, and fell.
Toph was anything but a flower in need of protection. But one day, despite her best efforts, she was going to be beautiful as the name her parents thrust upon her. As she picked her nose for good measure, Katara felt profoundly sorry for the person who would one day fall in love with her. He would have a hell of a time winning her heart.
Or she. Katara frowned. Toph was very hard to read.
She hesitated for a moment, and then wrote sū. Exactly like Suki. Revival, resurrection, rebirth. Then, kē. As she understood it, the character had several meanings, so it was difficult to determine how exactly one was intended to read it. "Law" was one of them. She could agree with that reading, if Zuko was going to be Fire Lord one day. Revival of law was a fitting name for a Fire Lord. However, it could also mean "to mete out punishment." Rebirth and punishment. Katara wondered if his mother had known what was in store for him when she named him, or whether, like Toph, he had been doomed to grow into it.
And how he'd grown.
Katara's name was made up of three characters; kǎ, to check, tǎ, pagoda, and lā, to pull. She liked to think that the first two characters meant that she was a pillar of morality, but deep down, she was fairly sure it only meant she was a stickler for the rules.
The last character was her favorite; lā, the same as the Ocean Spirit. It made her feel more connected to her waterbending. It told her that no matter where she was, she would always carry the spirit of her people with her, because La was a part of her. In a way, it was her. She could hear the pull of it every time Zuko said her name. Maybe she always would. As the others faded away, she held onto that one as long as she could.
There's power in a name, she thought.
Then, she let it go.