Three months later
Zuko awoke with a start. The sun was beginning to appear over the trees and the fire was gently smoldering. Not wanting to go back to sleep, Zuko stood up and walked quietly to the clearing where they had been practicing with the elements for Ruon.
He sunk into a form and lithely began to move through it. Flames erupted from his fists, periodically licking the sky. It felt good to work out the cricks that came with sleeping on the ground. He smiled, satisfied with his morning performance, and turned around.
Golden flames rushed towards his face. Instinctively, he threw his arms up and divided the flames. They fell to either side of him, harmless. He looked up and saw Ruon, fire daggers protruding from his knuckles. They stood in silence before Zuko roared and threw a fireball at him. Ruon quickly brought up a wall of earth and pushed it at Zuko.
Zuko jumped up and leaped over to meet Ruon, an arc of fire moving gracefully over his head. Ruon grinned and tackled Zuko to the ground mid-jump.
"Yield?" He asked through heavy laughter. Zuko shoved Ruon off of him, smiling tightly.
"You're too stiff. You need to learn to improvise." He said breezily. Zuko shrugged.
"And you have a puerile fighting style."
Ruon grasped his chest.
"Your words hurt me." He mocked. Zuko allowed a rare smile and together they walked amiably towards the campfire and Iroh's tea.
The beating of the drums matched her heartbeat as Katara entered the ceremonial hall for the Southern Water tribe. She tightened her hold on Jinju's arm as their names were announced and they began the walk down the hall to the main table of the Chief. The hall glowed an ethereal blue as the moonlight cascaded down the walls of ice.
A feast had been prepared for their arrival and she, along with Aang and Jinju, were the guests of honor.
It reminded her so much of home it hurt.
As they took their seats by the chief, the drums finished their song and the hall became silent. The chief, Tho, stood triumphantly and raised his arms to the night sky.
"Tonight we celebrate our airbending allies and the hope of a new world their visit brings! Tonight, our brethren, we unite against the tyranny of Ozai. Tonight we celebrate a visitor more like our sister than a guest. We have much to be grateful for, my people. Let us give thanks!" His voice rumbled across the hall, met with claps and shouts of praise. Katara could barely suppress a smile. She tried to imagine the airbending people clapping and yelling when Jinju spoke at banquets. She tried to imagine her own people doing that; solemn-faced Sangok, Sokka, and Zuko…a smile finally broke out on her face at the thought of Zuko shouting praises for a leader. She shook her head and tried to conquer the smile again, but failed.
She caught Jinju looking at her from the corner of her eye. She turned to him, still trying to appear dignified. He cocked his head and smirked at her.
"What's got you smiling?" He whispered conspiratorially, leaning in close. Katara almost waved it away, but at the last minute decided to tell him.
"I'm just trying to imagine what it would be like if our people were this jubilant."
Jinju looked at her, a breathless look on his face. Katara felt herself grow confused.
"What?" She asked, a bit worried. Jinju shook his head, disbelief crowding his face.
"Just…you referred to them as our people." He said, a half-smile now on his face. Katara shrugged, trying to appear nonchalant. She turned back to face the people of the Southern Water tribe, who had begun to eat.
She soon slipped into banquet mode, talking merrily with Aang, trying the many different foods (who knew that adding a bit of spice to stewed sea prunes improved the taste so much? She could never go back), and occasionally talking of her own home and the customs there with the many different women who came to talk with her. She was shocked to find how lax the Southern Water tribe was with their women. They fought alongside the men and many held advanced places in the tribe.
I could get used to this, she thought happily as the night went on.
Soon, the food was cleared from the tables and instruments were brought out. Deep drums began a rhythm, with flute-like instruments chiming in. Tables were pushed to the side and feverish dancing began.
Katara watched with amazement as the men and women wove in and out of intricate dance moves. The people were so…happy here, so unlike the harsh, melancholy lives of her kin.
She began to forget herself and her worries as the dances grew more and more fiery. She clapped along from her seat at the side, laughing occasionally at Aang's attempts to join in the festivities. Suddenly, the hairs on the back of neck pricked as she felt a pair of eyes rest on her.
She looked up to meet Jinju's eyes staring at her from across the hall. He sat with the other dignitaries around a fire, talking calmly. He smiled entrancingly at her, his eyes brightly lit by the dance of the fire.
The world slowed to a stop around them as they looked at each other. The music turned to a haunting melody and Jinju raised an eyebrow at her and smirked.
"Dance with me?" He mouthed. Katara shook her head, laughing.
"I can't dance." She replied. Jinju ran a hand through his hair, mock-exasperation on his face. He stood up and walked over to her.
"I can't dance, she says." He said, a teasing light in his eyes. He bowed and offered her his hand, "It's a good thing I took seven years of formal dancing then. All you have to do is follow me."
Katara shook her head again.
"Jinju, I-" She felt his finger on her lips, effectively silencing her.
"You can't deny me, Katara. I will be your husband soon."
"Not for at least one more year. Even then, I will still be my own woman. You won't control me, husband."
Despite how easy the joke flowed from her lips, it felt strange to be joking about marriage with him. Marriage was so…finalizing. Once it was done, there was no going back. And here she was joking about it like she was a pre-teen with her first crush again. Zuko…
Katara hastily stood up. Her mind would not go there tonight.
"I would still like a dance with my fiancé though, no matter how controlling he might be." She teased. Jinju's eyes lit up as he led her to the dance floor among the other couples.
He swept her up in his firm grip and she gently placed her hand on his shoulder. Their hands clasped, and Katara was surprised to find his hand cool. They began to swirl in a graceful circle and she couldn't help but be reminded of the first time she had danced with Zuko at Sokka's wedding.
"So…" Jinju began, a bit awkwardly. Katara laughed.
"I guess we should begin by asking soul-searching questions." She said in mock solemnity, trying not to grin. Jinju nodded in understanding.
"Agreed…ok, I have one."
Katara nodded her head in anticipation.
"Are you ready? This is pretty soul-searching." He asked, putting on a serious face. Katara thought he looked like a little boy trying on his father's coat.
"Just ask me the question." She laughed.
"Ok. Do you think the sun really rises every morning or do you just light up my world?"
Katara let out a loud laugh, garnering several looks from surrounding couples. A blush creeped onto her face and she shrank into Jinju.
"That's not fair!" She hissed. Jinju chuckled.
"I thought it was a fairly good question." He shrugged innocently. Katara shook her head.
"Jinju, you are supposed to ask things like, I don't know, 'What is your favorite color' or 'when was your first kiss'? You can't use a..a pick-up line!" She whispered the last part, as if it would incriminate her even more. Jinju raised an eyebrow at her.
"Blue and you."
"Huh?" Katara asked confused.
"Blue is my favorite color and you were my first kiss, that night on the boat." He shrugged, somewhat embarrassed. Katara stared at him incredulously before she laughed nervously. They were venturing into unknown territory.
"You've never kissed…anyone before me?"
Jinju shook his head.
"I think a kiss is special. I don't want to give it to just anyone." He smirked at her, as if he had just won an important argument.
"I agree with you, but I mean, even I had kissed someone, Jinju!" She laughed, a bit flustered. Jinju clucked his tongue.
"And here I was thinking ladies don't kiss and tell."
Katara shook her head, a blush in full rage across her face.
"I'm just going to stop talking now…" She mumbled. Jinju spun her around, laughing quietly to himself. Katara felt herself back in his grasp and looked up at him.
The world did its funny thing again and stopped moving as they locked eyes. Suddenly, his face was moving closer to hers…her chin titled up ever so slightly…her eyes fluttered close…
Wait, Jinju is trying to kiss me. I can't-won't-do this.
Her eyes flew open and her head turned to the side, her hair fell over the side of her head, hiding her face from him. Jinju barely avoided smashing his head into her temple and coughed. He rubbed the back of his neck awkwardly.
The song ended and they continued to stand in the middle of the floor.
"Thank you for the dance." Katara whispered and walked off. Jinju watched her go and saw Aang run up to her. They fell into easy conversation and Jinju felt a slight pang of jealousy for his younger brother.
I shouldn't have tried to kiss her again. It was too soon…
Katara felt Jinju watch her as she walked away. She rubbed her arms awkwardly and was grateful when Aang came up to her, babbling about something. She nodded absent-mindedly and chanced a glance at Jinju. She looked over her shoulder at him.
He stood in the middle of the dance floor, running his hand through his auburn hair. His gray eyes flashed with some unknown emotion. Tall and sinewy. Lithe and unmarred features.
So unlike Zuko.
And with that, she turned back to Aang, putting a smile on her face.
I miss you.
Zuko stared into the flickering fire, night having descended upon the camp. He should be sleepy. Iroh, Ruon, and he had traveled hard all day. Iroh had picked the tribe of Senlin, a feared Earth tribe some thirty miles from where they were. There was rumor of a master earthbender who was staying there; someone who could teach Ruon everything he needed. It was clear that though he considered himself a master, he was not. Ruon was proficient, but there was still much refinement needed in his earthbending. And if they happened to convince Senlin to join the cause while they were there, so much the better.
A twig snapped somewhere beyond the fire. Zuko frowned. Ruon and Iroh were still fast asleep. Deciding to err on the side of caution, Zuko stood up, grabbing his dagger.
I wish I had my Dao blades back, he thought, annoyed at his lack of weapon.
Disappearing into the shadows, he crept along, dagger held out. Firebending would be of no use to him. It would give him away immediately and if there was someone out there, there was a very real possibility they were against firebenders and would not hesitate to kill him. They were in Senlin territory now. He had walked for five minutes when he heard it again.
Zuko froze. It came from behind him. He whirled around just in time to see a blade coming toward him. His dagger swung up and sparks flew where the steel collided. Zuko sidestepped out of the way as the blade came at him again. Zuko squinted trying to see the man wielding the weapon. There was nothing but the floating blade continually coming at him. Growing frustrated, he could do nothing but defensive moves, being unable to see his enemy.
Finally, Zuko threw an orb of fire out, desperate to see his attacker to be able to land a hit. A masculine form became visible as the orb whizzed past him. Zuko lunged for him, but missed as he disappeared into the forest.
"It's a firebender!" A ghostly scream rang through the woods. He tried not to take offense at being called an "it".
Zuko stood hunched over, holding his dagger out as the forest clearing became still. He whipped around when he heard the even the faintest sound, but it seemed his attacker had disappeared entirely. He stood up warily, still distrustful of his surroundings.
Suddenly, the forest was crawling with men dressed in black. They converged on Zuko, who fought with new intensity. Fire and steel mixed as he lashed out at anyone who tried to get near him.
Without warning, the ground beneath Zuko flew out from beneath him and he landed hard on the ground, the air knocked out of him. Earthbenders. He was struggling to get up when a boot lodged itself into his lower back, forcing him down again. Zuko let out a ferocious growl and knocked the man off him. He leapt to his feet and lashed at the man with a fire dagger. It cut into the man's arm and he screamed in pain.
Several men jumped him from behind. They yanked his elbows behind his back and Zuko felt his hand's being tied. He struggled viciously, kicking and whipping back and forth. His hands began to smoke and the rope caught on fire. He ripped his hands free and punched a man in front of him. Zuko was kicked from behind and fell to the ground for the second time that night. Another kick connected with his stomach. This time he didn't get up. A hilt from a broadsword came crashing down on his skull, rendering him unconscious.
Zuko went limp as a stocky figure stood over him.
"This firebender will catch us some nice money. Some of the northern tribes have been taking them as slave." The slave trader grunted, as if he had nothing better to do than go around ensnaring randome firebenders. He turned to the group of earthbenders and motioned to the other two benders holding Zuko.
"Tie him up. He's coming with us."
Katara awoke to the sun crossing over the frozen lands of the Southern Water tribe. She smiled, stretching her arms over her head. Everything was so peaceful. If there were birds here, she was sure they would be singing. She sighed and snuggled back into her blankets. She wasn't scheduled until at least the ninth morning hour. It was nice to have some time to wake up calmly and-
"Katara!" Aang's voice reverberated through her whole room. She cursed his airbending. He had learned that trick a while back when trying to get the attention of younger airbending students.
"Katara, Katara, get up now! We are going to be so late!"
The aforementioned waterbender sat up, running her hand through her hair. What on earth was that crazy kid talking about? He burst through the door and suddenly blushed. He turned his back to her quickly. She looked down, confused. She was wearing a thick robe. She smiled and shook her head.
"What is it, Aang?" She asked, curious now as to what he was in such a rush about.
"Your first waterbending lessons! They are starting in five minutes!"
The color drained from her face. She flew out of bed and began tucking her pants into thick boots. No time to change into clean clothes. She couldn't-wouldn't- be late for her first formal lesson! What a horrible impression to make on her teacher-how could she have not known the lesson was today!
Throwing on a parka over her robe, she rushed out the door with Aang, who pulled out his glider. The wings extended and he motioned for her to climb on top.
"It'll be faster this way!" He grinned. Katara stood motionless for a few seconds. She had never flown before.
"I don't kn-Aang!" She screamed as he grabbed her and flung her onto his back and took off. After her initial shock, she found herself to enjoy the flight over the tribe. The wind blowing in her face made her feel so…so care-free and innocent again. She let out an incredulous laugh as they began the descent.
Disappointment coursed through her when they landed on solid ground again.
"Aang, that was amazing! You-" And Katara found herself interrupted for the second time that day.
"How kind of our new student to join us." A snide voice from behind her said. She turned to find a tall man with white hair that comes only with age. He stood imperiously, staring down at her, judging her.
"I am sorry, Master…?"
"Pakku. Master Pakku." He answered. Katara inclined her head respectfully.
"Again, I am sorry for being late, I was unaware that there were lessons today and-"
"There are lessons every morning and yes, you will be expected to be on time every day. Just because you have special permission to be here does not mean you will get special treatment."
Katara's eye narrowed. Ok, maybe she was late, but did he have to be so rude about it? Before she had a chance to retort, Pakku turned his attentions to Aang.
"And what are you doing here, airbender? Last I checked, only the Avatar could bend more than one element."
Several students snickered. Aang blushed and averted his eyes from Pakku's icy stare.
"I…um, well, you see…my teacher, Gyatso, he says that…he says that-"
"Just spit it out. Enough of this mumbling nonsense."
Aang's blush deepened.
"My airbending teacher says that air and water are the most similar of any elements and that I can further my status as master by studying waterbending."
Pakku offered him a rare smile.
"Your teacher-Gyatso, is it? He sounds most wise. Welcome to my class, airbender." Pakku extended his arm towards his other pupils.
Aang beamed at him and bounded forward. Pakku turned back to Katara, the smile dropping from his face.
"You, what is your story? Besides your obvious contempt for my class."
Katara fumed inwardly. How dare this man talk to her like this! She had done nothing to him!
"I am here to learn waterbending, Master Pakku." She spat his title like an insult. Pakku raised an eyebrow.
"You are not the first to come to me to learn. I only teach those with genuine potential. Let us see what you can do."
Pakku sank into a form, liquid water rushing from the ground beneath him at his control and into the giant basins on either side of him. When they had filled to the brim, he let the excess water fall back to the ground in snowflakes.
He stood up slowly, brushing his hands together.
"We are going to test your basic command of the water. If you pass, you may learn with my pupils. If you fail, you will be sent to the healing huts. I take only the best." He warned. Katara glared at him.
"I can take anything you can dish out." She spat, angry now at his utter disrespect and disbelief in her. Arrogant amusement danced in his eyes.
"We'll see." He said calmly. They stood in silence for a moment before Pakku spoke again.
"Push and pull the water." He ordered. Katara scoffed and leaned on her back leg. She rocked back and forth, gently pulling the water with her. Pakku nodded.
"Freeze the water."
Katara took in a deep breath, closing her eyes. In a flash, she opened them and blew air across the surface of the basin. The water crackled as it froze over.
"Now melt it."
And so it went. For an hour, Pakku tested her on the different forms of water, the different ways to stream the water, how to make a wave, etc. while the other students worked on offensive and defensive sparring. Occasionally she would glance over at them longingly and Pakku would draw her back with a quick snap of the water whip on her head.
Finally he proclaimed her adequate.
"Adequate?" She nearly screeched. Pakku nodded.
"You are adequate. You form on streaming the water was horrible and you just barely managed to de-pollute the water. You have much to learn."
"But you will teach me?" Katara asked. Pakku nodded, seemingly uninterested.
"I will. You show signs of… coming improvement."
Katara smiled. That was the closest she would get to a compliment from the crotchety old man. He pronounced class over for the day, and everyone dispersed. Katara grabbed a hold of Aang and together they flew up, out of the village into the crisp air, high above the tribe.
The grey light of dawn creeped in on the cell where Zuko lay gagged and bound. He winced as he came to, the pain of his injuries and having been bound in an awkward position all night coming to his attention.
He looked around as best he could from his position on the floor, taking in his surroundings. He was alone in several rows of earthy cells. A sigh of relief he didn't know he had been holding rushed out. If he was alone, it meant that Iroh and Ruon were free and safe.
Zuko grit his teeth and began to struggle with his bonds. His hands and feet had been tied behind his back and he lay awkwardly on his side. He tried heating his hands to burn through the ropes but bit back a yelp when hot metal rubbed his wrists.
Metal rope? Dear Agni, my captors are smarter than I thought.
Zuko looked up as a low chuckle filled the room. He watched warily as a shadow emerged from the wall in the cell next to him.
"You're quiet the fighter there, sparky."
Was that…a girl? He looked again in amazement. Sure enough, a girl who looked no older than fifteen crawled to the edge of her cell in front of him, eyes glazed over.
Is she blind? He wondered when she continued to stare just above his head, not seeming to take in her surroundings.
"I'm blind, not deaf, sunshine." She quipped in confirmation. Zuko groaned and let his head fall back to the floor, a resounding thump echoing through his head. Great, just great. He was captured in some earthbending cell in the company of a blind fifteen year old with an affinity for nicknames.
"I'm Toph, by the way. We got captured around the same time. These suckers don't know what's coming though. They think they can capture me for ransom money just because my dad is a chief? Ha! I'm a master earthbender."
At this revelation, Zuko's ears perked up.
"Now I've got you interested, huh?"
Zuko nodded before he remembered she was blind.
"If you're a master why don't you just tunnel out of here?" He asked. Toph shrugged.
"So you do have a voice! I was beginning to wonder." Before he could retort, she barreled on.
"Anyways, I've always enjoyed a show. I'm waiting for them to come back before I kick their pathetic butts all the way back to Banyan."
Zuko let out a rare laugh. He had to give it to the teen; she had spunk.
"If you can get me out of these bonds, I can help you."
"Can you, now?"
"I am a master firebender and proficient in the Dao blades."
Toph rubbed her chin thoughtfully.
"I guess I won't let you rot here forever." She reached out a grubby hand. "Come over here and I can get these chains off."
Zuko grunted as he wormed his way across the floor. Finally he had his back against the bars where Toph's cell began. He let his head down as she began to deftly work on bending the chains.
"So how come you're not tied up?" He asked. Toph shrugged.
"They think I'm a helpless rich girl who's never left home. It also helps being blind. They think of me as weak."
It grew quiet as Toph bent the metal away from his wrists. A soft clank echoed through the room as the metal fell to the floor. Zuko rubbed his wrists gratefully as Toph began to work on his ankles.
"So, now that you know my story, how did you end up here?" She asked as the second clank resounded. Zuko slowly uncurled from the awkward position from before.
"I had been traveling when they jumped me." He answered noncommittally and began to stretch out the kinks that had formed. He sighed gratefully as his back cracked.
"What's your name?" She asked, shrinking back into the shadows of her cell.
"My name is…Zuko." He answered truthfully. She already knew he was a firebender. What else was there to hide? Besides he travelled with the Avatar and was from the clan of Ozai, of course.
"Shh." Toph hissed. "Get down! I hear them coming!"
Zuko dropped to the ground. He caught Toph's eye as she smiled.
"Well, Zuko, are you ready to kick these scum around?" Toph whispered. His hand ignited in flames. Zuko looked at her and smiled wryly.
A/N I am sorry this update took so long. School caught up with me and then my computer decided it didn't want to work with me anymore. Also, I had a new story idea called "Return with Honor" that I've been working on. Go check it out please! Also...please review! :D