PROMISES TO KEEP

First, a fewAuthor's Notes:

Yes, it's been far too long since I've updated this story! My apologies to all you faithful readers, but I've had some RL issues that were utterly draining my creativity all spring and summer. I also had stories both for my husband and for another fandom that I felt obliged to update first, since they were started far before this one.

I Can Has FanWorks! It is with both pride and pleasure that I invite everyone to check out my FFnet profile, updated at loooong last, and the links to both fanart and fanfic that others have done, based on this fic! On the fanart side, "Katara: Chores and Lessons" by Hewtab is a portrait of Helping!Katara from chapter 5, and "Meditations" by Suteshi is an illustration of nearly everyone's favorite scene in chapter 4. For fanfic, "Reunion" by Vaneria Potter is an AU/spinoff, answering the question "What if Hakoda's fleet had found Zuko's ship while Katara was still aboard?" And "The Explanation" by Malicean fits perfectly into this story just after the end of Chapter 10, when Aang asks a question that Sokka really doesn't want to answer!

Speaking of explanations, this chapter offers my suggestion for what happened to 'the Kataang necklace', that foreshadowing-of-betrothal necklace Aang made for Katara that disappeared forever after only one scene. And now, on to:

Chapter 11: Chokers and Tears

Katara had been back with her brother and Aang for only three days, but already they'd fallen back into their old routine for setting up and breaking camp every day. This was another typical morning:

Katara got up first, checked the fire, got out the spark rocks and restarted it (because Sokka almost never banked it properly), and started cooking the leftover rice from yesterday's dinner into that morning's congee.

Then Appa softly grumbled himself awake, lumbered to his feet, sniffed at the cooking rice as always, then decided he needed far more food than that for his multiple stomachs and rose silently into the air to find a good grazing spot nearby.

Then Aang got up with many yawns and stretches, asked when breakfast would be ready, wandered off after finding out the answer wasn't 'Right now', and soon came excitedly back with something cupped in his hands that was pretty or really interesting or even really gross, that he just couldn't wait to show his friends.

Then when the congee was just about done, Sokka finally yawned awake and dragged himself out of his sleeping bag, irritably swatted away whatever it was that Aang wanted to show him, scratched a few times as he plopped down in front of the fire, and expectantly held out his bowl.

After breakfast, Katara set the dishes to soak for a few minutes and they started breaking camp together. Everyone rolled up their own sleeping bags or blankets; then Aang and Sokka took down the tent, while Katara finished washing and packed away the cooking gear and their dishes. Then when everything was packed into tidy bundles and ready, they sat around waiting for Appa to come back from grazing.

If they were really in a hurry to get moving, Aang would go up on his glider to look and call for his friend—or blow on the bison-shaped whistle instead; Katara had been surprised to find out that it actually worked on sky bison, even though she still couldn't hear anything—but if they weren't in a hurry, it was better to let Appa eat his fill before they went anywhere. A hungry sky bison was a cranky one, and less apt to listen to Aang's commands in the air, which could make for some really miserable air travel.

While waiting for Appa to return, Katara got out her sewing supplies and started mending Aang's spare shirt, while Sokka cleaned and sharpened his weapons and Aang started fiddling with something he'd pulled from the communal supplies pack. Their camp had been made on the shore of a lake, and this morning insects were buzzing low over the water; some fish were coming up to the surface to snap at them, including one or two big ones.

Just as Katara finished mending Aang's spare shirt and packed it away again, a really big fish came to the surface for insects too; it jumped clear out of the water, falling back in with a splash. Katara couldn't help pointing it out, and Sokka darkly declared that the fish was taunting them, before deciding that it was going to be their dinner. He grabbed their fishing rod and started to cast it over the lake towards the fish, but then realized something was missing from it. "Hey! Where's the fishing line!"

Aang said blithely, "Oh, I didn't think you would need it, Sokka," as he held up what he'd been working on to show them.

Sokka took one look at what Aang had done and started grabbing at his wolftail in frustration as he nearly howled, "Aahh, it's all tangled!"

"Not tangled, woven!" Aang corrected him cheerfully, while airbending himself to his feet. Then he turned to her while explaining, "I made you a necklace, Katara."

Katara had been about to gently scold Aang for taking the fishing line—Aang knew very well that they needed that fishing line; just because the Air Nomads never ate fish didn't mean the Water Tribe people with him were going to stop eating them—but shut her mouth over the words when he saw the earnest expression on his face. An earnest expression that turned shy and embarrassed as he went on, "I thought, since you lost your other one…"

That was just so sweet of him! As he held it out in offering, she smiled and walked over to accept it. "Thanks, Aang; I love it." She thought to herself that they didn't really need a fishing line, anyway; now that she was back with them and even better at waterbending than before, she could catch her and Sokka's dinners even faster than fishing for them.

Sokka said sourly over his shoulder at them, "Great, Aang. Maybe instead of saving the world, you can go into the jewelry making business."

Aang turned back to Sokka while she tried the necklace on, saying with a philosophical shrug, "I don't see why I can't do both."

Sokka made another disgusted sound, turned back to where the fish was still leaping out of the water, and proceeded to throw what could only be described as a tantrum. He threw the fishing rod out into the lake while shouting about the fish's supposed taunting, then stomped out into the water and grabbed his knife to start stabbing at it. Katara decided to just ignore her brother and let him get it out of his system; instead, once the necklace was on she asked Aang, "So, how do I look?"

Aang had been watching Sokka's antics with both curiosity and disapproval, and had probably been about to spout some Air Nomad philosophy about anger, but he turned back around to answer Katara's question—and then just stopped and stared at her, his eyes wide in something like shock, or maybe awe.

Katara started blushing at his stare, and after a few seconds Aang stammered while blushing too and pulling at his collar, "You mean all of you or just your neck? I mean, uh, both look great!"

Out in the shallows, Sokka's ridiculous antics must have lured that big fish in to gawk at him or something, because he suddenly straightened up with the fish in his hands! But instead of grabbing it firmly by the gills or tossing it onto the shore, he looked at Aang and Katara and then said sarcastically, "Someone's in love… Smoochie, smoochie!" as he pretended to give the fish a kiss. But the fish was having none of that; it flipped out of his hands, whacking his face with its tail, and splashed back into the lake.

Annoyed with her brother, Katara said firmly, "Stop teasing him, Sokka! Aang's just a good friend," as she gave his bald scalp a gentle rub. "A sweet little guy – just like Momo," she added as she rubbed the lemur's head too.

Aang thanked her for the compliment, but he seemed a little downcast; maybe Sokka's teasing had hit him harder than she'd thought. But before she could say anything else, they heard a loud roaring, and Aang leaped up to a high vantage point to check it out.

The next few minutes featured an amazing encounter—amazing even for people who traveled with the Avatar, which was saying something! First, seeing an ordinary man face off with an enraged platypus-bear without any concern at all… and then learning that there was a fortuneteller living nearby! Someone who could actually predict the future—and do it amazingly well, judging by the umbrella that Aang had been given just moments before the sudden shower started. A real fortuneteller!

They set out for Makapu village, to have their fortunes told. But along the way, Katara felt something sort-of tickling her at her neck. She discreetly felt up around her throat, and then took off the necklace that Aang had made for her to look it over again.

She saw with mild chagrin that the woven design had started unraveling; the strands must have been rubbing the wrong way against each other whenever she moved her neck. And the flower at the center of the necklace was already wilting, too. The gift had been pretty, but it just hadn't been made to last. She glanced over at where Aang was cheerfully walking while feeding Momo some nuts, and then quietly tucked the necklace into her belt pouch. She'd finish unraveling it later and give Sokka his fishing line back, sometime after they reached Makapu Village.

00oo00oo00oo00oo00

Hours later and far away…

Down in the mess hall of the Wani, the crew was just sitting down to dinner. Sergeant Tetsuko sipped at her soup with a preoccupied air, and then looked down at her bowl in surprise before calling out to the galley, "Hey, Chu Si! What do you call this new soup?"

Chu Si popped his head out of the galley with a rather wary expression as he responded, "What do you think of it?"

"It's different, but it's tasty! Where'd you get the recipe from, one of the colonies?"

The cook grinned proudly as he announced, "It's my own creation; I call it Sea Dragon Soup!"

Other people tried the soup too, and while a few people made faces over it, over half the crew agreed that it was pretty tasty. Not as spicy as they had grown to expect from Chu Si's kitchen, but a little more variety in their daily diet was more than fine by them! It was only after Chu Si had disappeared back into the galley with a self-satisfied air that the cook's assistant Sheng quietly informed them all, "It's based on the recipe for Five Flavor Soup, from the Water Tribes. General Iroh had Chu Si experiment with our own ingredients to see if he could come close to making Katara's favorite soup, while she was here."

Mention of the escaped prisoner—who had become more of a ship's mascot than a prisoner, before her abrupt departure—set everyone in a somber mood. Silence reigned over the galley for a few minutes before Tetsuko broke it with a determined, "If no one else is going to say it, then I will! I kinda miss the kid, and I hope she found… a safe place to live out the rest of the war."

Lieutenant Jee gave the sergeant a raised eyebrow; most of them knew exactly what she'd been going to say, before she paused and changed her mind in mid-sentence. "It would be better all around if she found a nice quiet Earth Kingdom village far from the front lines to live in. Because if she found her brother and the Avatar again, that would mean that next time we saw her, it would be as enemies again."

"Yeah," Tetsuko agreed morosely, before taking a long swig from her cup.

"I don't want her to be our enemy," Hūn spoke up unexpectedly. "She was nice! She never once even called me dumb!"

Kunio snorted, "That's because she wasn't aboard long enough to see you screw up like you usually do."

"No, Hūn's right," Cheung said, squaring his shoulders as if bracing himself for trouble. "Even if she's a waterbender, she's a really nice girl. More than that, she was practically a hero! She saved me from going overboard during that killer storm, and she saved Taozu from drowning!"

But no one argued with Cheung; instead, there were a few murmurs of agreement. "Yup; brave, helpful, good-mannered and kind, and she even got the prince to act more civil to everyone, most of the time she was aboard," Joben mused wistfully. "It's really a damn shame she was born Water Tribe. If she'd been born in the Fire Nation, I'd have written a letter to Bunjiro, my youngest, telling him I'd found just the girl for him!"

00oo00oo00oo00oo00

Two days later, at Makapu Village:

The worst of the danger was over; working together, they'd managed to divert the lava flow away from the village! And Aang had done the most work of all of them; when lava had threatened to overflow the trench everyone had dug, he'd used airbending to push the lava upwards and then cool it to stone, making a protective wall out of what could have killed them all. Staring at his achievement, Sokka remarked, "Man, sometimes I forget what a powerful bender that kid is."

Katara looked at him sharply, as her insides lurched. "Wait, what did you just say?"

Sokka shrugged, "Nothing, just that Aang is one powerful bender."

As Aunt Wu's voice echoed inside her head: The man you're going to marry... I can see that he is a very powerful bender.

No. NO! She couldn't marry an Air Nomad! The Zephyrs ceremony, Bayarmaa's baby… Never! Katara would never just give birth to children only to see them taken away from her! She'd die first—or kill anyone who tried to take them from her! She'd even kill Aang if he tried!

But then she remembered her Gran-Gran's last words to her about Aang, just before they left the South Pole: your destinies are intertwined.

The air around them was furnace-hot from all the lava flowing through the trench, but Katara felt ice-cold inside, clear to her bones. Oh Tui and La, please, don't let that be her destiny! Destined to become nothing but a bearer, birthing baby after baby to repopulate the Air Nomad race; having to watch Aang take them away as soon as they were weaned so they could learn to fly around without a care in the world, just like him, including care for family

The man you're going to marry... is a very powerful bender.

Wait a moment… Aunt Wu had definitely said 'marry'! And one thing she'd learned about Air Nomads was that they didn't marry each other at all! So whoever her future husband was, he couldn't be Aang!

Your destinies are intertwined.

Well then, maybe… maybe his being the Avatar meant things would be different. The Avatar was the balance between the nations, right? He always learned all the forms of bending. Maybe in addition to learning and practicing their bending, he also learned and practiced other nations' cultures and customs! So if Aang learned and started practicing Water Tribe attitudes and family values, then it would be okay to marry him.

But either way, she still had years ahead of her to make sure Aang would make a good husband, instead of making her life a living nightmare. Right now he was still a child… and they still had a war to win; that had to come first! She determinedly shoved all thoughts of marriage, family and destiny out of her mind, and started thinking about what she'd taught herself about waterbending while aboard Zuko's ship. After they left Makapu Village, she would show Aang not just how to freeze water into ice, but how to turn it back into water. Then, how to carve and throw the razor-sharp ice disks. And then…

00oo00oo00oo00oo00

A few days later, and further south:

All that time and effort, wasted!

Zuko's crew had heard a rumor that the Avatar had been spotted in a port town a full day's journey south of Pouhai Stronghold, so Zuko had ordered the ship to head there at full steam. He knew Zhao would ignore the rumor as false because it didn't fit the pattern for the Avatar's travel established in the last few weeks, always journeying northwards. But Zuko knew something that Zhao couldn't possibly know; that Aang would be looking for his friend Katara after finding out that she was alive after all.

If Aang had made the reasonable assumption that she was much further south than he had gone, because people on foot traveled much slower than a sky bison did, then he would have backtracked to try to find her. So Zuko headed south, to track down and capture the Avatar and maybe Katara too—

Only to find when they got there that the 'Avatar' was just some guy who'd shaved his head and painted an arrow on it, pretending to be the Avatar just for all the attention it would get him. He was nearly a foot too tall and thirty pounds too heavy to be Aang. And his glider-staff hadn't worked either, even before Zuko had burned it to ashes, and then given the pretender a hotfoot for being such an idiot. The pretender had last been seen yelping and fleeing inland as fast as his legs would carry him, while Zuko had stomped off in the other direction, back to the docks.

He'd come aboard ranting and furious with himself for all the time wasted on that pretender, but his uncle had persuaded him to calm down a little and come to his cabin for some tea. Now they sat at the small table together with a teapot full of Iroh's best jasmine blend, the aroma filling the air around them as Iroh poured a cup for him, saying, "See, Prince Zuko, a moment of quiet is good for your mental well being."

Zuko picked up the cup to drink it—and a sudden shock of impact reverberated throughout the ship, splashing the cup's contents all over his face. Growling under his breath as he wiped the tea off and swept his phoenix plume back in place, he got up and stomped out, to find out what the hells had just hit his ship!

Uncle Iroh hurried after him and they arrived on deck together, to find a huge and hideous eyeless monster climbing aboard their ship, with a whip-wielding woman on his back. The woman called out, "Get back! We're after a stowaway."

All the crew members around him were fearfully backing up or falling into defensive stances, but Zuko refused to be intimidated by the monstrous beast; he stood his ground as he informed her, "There are no stowaways on my ship!"

But then the beast, snuffling at the deckplates, abruptly bit into the metal—and ripped a section of it out! A section that they'd had repaired after that hellish storm had damaged the ship; either the shipyard crew back at Pouhai City had used substandard materials—which Zuko wouldn't put past them, remembering how they'd sneered at him and his mission—or that beast was even stronger than it looked. The cargo hold was right below them; the beast stuck its head into the hold and began sniffing around, and Zuko grimly readied a fireball to throw before that damn thing started gobbling their food stores.

Then he stepped back in surprise, the fireball in his palm dissipating, when a strange Earth Kingdom peasant popped up out of the hole and began running away from the beast. A stowaway? But how had she known, when even Zuko hadn't known the man was aboard?

The stowaway's desperate dash for freedom came to an abrupt end when the beast opened its mouth and an insanely long tongue lashed out, tagging the fleeing man on the back of his neck. The man abruptly collapsed right in his tracks, to lie on the deck utterly unmoving.

Zuko stared in dismay at the man who'd just been turned into a corpse right in front of him—no wait, not a corpse; he was still breathing! But though the peasant's expression was clearly terrified, he wasn't moving at all… "He's paralyzed!"

The black-haired woman with the ship commented as she slid out of the beast's saddle, "Only temporarily. The toxins will wear off in about an hour." She hoisted the paralyzed man up by his collar, smirking as she finished, "But by then he'll be in jail and I'll have my money."

After having identified herself as a bounty hunter with that speech, the woman loaded her prey onto the back of her beast's saddle while Zuko asked, "But how did you find him on my ship?"

The bounty hunter stroked the monster's fur and climbed into the saddle as she replied, "My shirshu can smell a rat a continent away."

Uncle Iroh commented, "Well, I'm impressed." The woman cracked her whip, and her shirshu leaped off the ship and onto the dock. Hunter and mount galloped away as his uncle mused with that tone to his voice, "Very impressed."

Zuko narrowly eyed his lecherous uncle, trying not to feel disgust but failing. They'd had a stowaway aboard for who knew how long, eating from their stores; they'd have to do another inventory count. And repair the deck again, which meant another trip to Pouhai since this port town didn't have the facilities. And all his uncle could think about was pillowing with a woman who was probably less than half his age?! Why couldn't the old man obsess on something more noble and honorable, like capturing the Avatar—

Zuko stopped his inner tirade as a thought struck him, and then stared alongside his uncle at the bounty hunter disappearing between the buildings lining the dock. He had an idea…

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"…I need you to find someone," Zuko said as he held Katara's necklace up for the bounty hunter to see.

The bounty hunter glanced at the necklace before asking him with a definite mocking tone to her voice, "What happened? Your girlfriend run off on you?"

Yes. But Zuko shut that inner voice up fast; Katara was not his girlfriend! She couldn't even be his friend, so long as she kept choosing the Avatar over him. Then he shoved that hurt aside to gruffly tell the bounty hunter, "It's not the girl I'm after, it's the bald monk that's her friend. They'll have found each other again by now."

The bounty hunter's look said she didn't believe him, but she said aloud, "Whatever you say."

"She's not my girlfriend!" he insisted with gritted teeth, before continuing, "Look, if you find them, I'll consider the damage to my ship paid for."

The bounty hunter just snorted and said scornfully, "Forget it," before turning to climb onto her shirshu.

She dared turn her back on him, and refuse to make amends for the damage she did to property of a Prince of the Fire Nation! Zuko thought briefly about inflicting some property damage in return, using precision firebending to burn her saddle right out from under her… but that would burn her shirshu too. Though that was the very creature that had wrecked his ship's deck, but before he could tell that vicious inner voice that sounded a little like Azula to shut up again, Uncle spoke up, saying cheerfully, "Plus we'll pay your weight in gold!"

Her weight in gold?! Zuko didn't havethat much money! Repairing the worst of the damage from that killer storm had already strained the ship's budget to the breaking point! But before he could pull Iroh aside to point that out, the bounty hunter turned back to them, walked right up to his uncle and said challengingly, "Make it your weight and we've got a deal."

Uncle Iroh just agreed with a chuckle, "You got it!"

The bounty hunter grabbed the necklace right out of Zuko's hand (and he had to stifle an impulse to reach after it) as she told them, "Get on."

He and Uncle climbed up into the shirshu's saddle, and Zuko told himself to stop worrying over how they were going make good on that promise of so much gold. Once he had the Avatar in chains and could return home in triumph, he'd have access to the palace treasury, and enough money to pay even the shirshu's weight in gold. A beast that could track unerringly by scent from so far away, and the paralyzing toxins in its tongue… This time it would work; he'd capture the Avatar at last!

00oo00oo00oo00oo00oo00

One long shirshu ride / One happy reunion, guilty confession and parting of ways later:

Sokka decided that if this wasn't proof that the universe just had it in for them, then he didn't know what else would do. He and Katara had left Bato behind not even twenty minutes ago to go back to Aang, when suddenly they were facing a monster out of somebody's nightmare!

They tried to outrun it, but in no time at all they were cornered by the monster; huge, hideous, eyeless, snarling to show jaws full of carnivorous teeth, and practically slavering as it seemed to focus on Katara. And the monster had people riding on its back, including—

Beside him, Katara gasped, "Zuko!"

One of the other monster-riders was a scary(sexy)-looking lady with the reins in one hand and a whip in the other. She drawled, "So this is your girlfriend. No wonder she left; she's way too pretty for you."

Zuko ignored the scary-sexy lady as he slid down from the saddle to take two steps toward them, his face and voice grim. "You know why I'm here, Katara. Where is he? Where's the Avatar?"

His knees felt wobbly beneath him, but Sokka still deliberately stepped between the firebender and his sister. He would have spit at Zuko, except his mouth was suddenly too dry to spare the saliva. But he still had enough to say defiantly, "We split up! He's long gone."

Zuko scowled at him and snarled, "How stupid do you think I am?"

Every warrior ancestor Sokka had ever been told about would have approved of his answer in the face of certain doom; an almost nonchalant, "Pretty stupid." Then he grabbed Katara and shouted, "Run!"

Unfortunately, they only got about three steps before something sharp slapped across the back of his neck—and just like that, he and Katara were both face-down in the dirt, unable to move. They heard Zuko growl from somewhere nearby, "What are we supposed to do now? We need the Avatar!"

The beast's horrible snuffling grew louder, and the scary-sexy lady commented, "She's seeking a different scent; perhaps something that the Avatar held."

The beast snuffled right over Sokka's head, than at something that he couldn't see, in the dirt just beyond his head. Then Zuko picked him and Katara up like sacks of rice, and heaved them onto the back of the eyeless shaggy monster's saddle. Lying there with his head and arms flopped over the side, Sokka didn't have a good view of anything except monster feet and hard ground. But he could hear everything around him; he heard the sexy-scary lady with the whip say that her 'shirshu' had found another scent trail—'shirshu' must be her monster-mount, he decided—heard a whip-crack, then heard the Angry Jerk snarl, "Stop! Hold the beast still for a minute!"

The old guy—probably that General Iroh Katara had talked about, the prince's uncle—said with some surprise, "Is there a problem, Prince Zuko? …Ah. Of course."

Sokka strained to hear what the prince was doing, and could make out the faint rustle of fabric coming from where Katara lay flopped over next to him, but couldn't even lift his head to see what was happening. Hot suspicion lanced through him; was Prince Ponytail trying to feel up his sister?!

Then the prince muttered, either to Katara or himself, "There; that'll stay on." He raised his voice again, snapping, "Let's go!"

The shirshu began bounding down the trail, each leap jarring Sokka's bones and making his stomach lurch until it was all he could do to keep from puking his guts out. After a few seconds, he figured out what Prince Ponytail had been doing to Katara; tying another one of those blasted honor-bond ribbons onto her wrist again! Declaring her his honor-bound captive once more and those rotten 'honorable parole' oaths back in effect, so even once the paralysis wore off she couldn't fight back or do anything to help Aang!

Sokka silently swore that if they offered him one of those stupid ribbons, he'd throw it to the floor and spit on it right in front of them. And then he'd find a way out of whatever cell they put him in! He was a warrior of the Water Tribe, and he could handle anything!

00oo00oo00oo00oo00oo00

The shirshu took them back to the abbey, where one heckuva fight broke out; a four-way fight between Aang and Appa versus Zuko and the shirshu. A fight that Sokka missed the first half of, because the paralysis hadn't completely worn off yet. But once the nuns came up with some shocker of a perfume that helped them shake off the last of the paralysis, between Sokka's cleverness and Katara's ability to waterbend the perfume, they managed to beat the bad guys and leave them just as paralyzed as Sokka and Katara had been!

Sokka had had a bad moment after telling Katara to waterbend the perfume and drench the shirshu in it, worrying that the honor-bond would prevent her from joining in the fight at all. But she did it without hesitation, probably because her sacred oaths didn't apply to the shirshu, who hadn't been a crewmember when Katara was aboard. Either that, or the oaths wouldn't go back into in effect unless she set foot on Zuko's ship again—which would never, ever happen again if Sokka had anything to say about it!

But still, once they were in the air, Sokka got out his belt knife with determination and said firmly, "Katara, hold out your wrists."

Katara just gave him a wary look instead. "Why?" she asked as Aang turned to give him a questioning look as well.

"I know what the Angry Jerk did to you, while we were stuck on that shirshu's saddle. He put another one of those stupid honor-bond thingies on you, but it's not staying on! No arguments; this time I'm cutting it off and burning it in our next campfire!"

Katara slowly shook her head, even as she held her wrists out for inspection. "He didn't put another honor-bond ribbon on me."

And she was right; no red ribbons, the only things on her wrists were her usual wraps. "Then what did he put on you?" he demanded, still suspicious. "I heard something!"

Katara's smile was sad and bitter. "You really didn't notice?" Then she brought one hand up to her throat, and touched—

Her necklace. It was back around her neck, like it had been almost every day of the last seven years since Mom died. Sokka stared at the ribbon and stone in disbelief, saying, "He gave it back to you?"

She nodded mutely, gently rubbing the stone between her fingers.

"But—how'd he get it in the first place? You lost it thousands of miles from here!"

"Zuko found it on the prison barge; he went there to investigate what we'd done and get more clues to where we were going. Right after I swore the oaths of honorable parole, he gave it back to me, so I had it back for two weeks. But the ties loosened when I jumped over the side to save that crewman I told you about, and it fell off onto the ice platform I'd made. When I realized I'd found a way to escape, I left in such a hurry that I didn't realize I'd forgotten it until I was already ashore."

"Why'd he do that, though?" Aang asked, rubbing the back of his tattooed head in puzzlement. "I mean, not that I'm complaining, but he's always trying to capture us; why didn't he tie an honor-thingy on you again, instead of that?"

"Because she found a loophole in her oaths the first time, and he knows now that we'll always find loopholes and ways to escape," Sokka said with grim pride.

"Maybe," Katara said quietly, still fingering the carved stone. "Or maybe... maybe he just wanted to make sure I got this back first, because he knows how much it means to me."

Sokka clenched his fists, hating her wistful expression and what he knew was behind it. "He is not a good guy, Katara! Prince Zuko is the enemy! He's trying to capture the Avatar, so his daddy can finish conquering the world!"

"I know that!" she snapped at him. "And if he tries again, I'll do everything I can to stop him, just like I did this time!" But she still kept fingering the necklace.

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In a small village about an hour's walk from the abbey, Zuko surfaced from the waters of his hot bath with soap and a scrubbing sponge in his hands, inhaled deeply, and grimaced. He'd taken four hot baths in the last two hours, completely changing out the water each time before heating it, and he could still smell that cursed perfume! He could almost hear the jeers of his men behind his back, if they caught a whiff of him like this.

Iroh walked into the bathhouse clad in a robe that barely covered his bulk, with another robe over his arm for Zuko to wear. "You'll be pleased to know that Jun's shirshu is already beginning to recover from that overwhelming experience. Jun estimates that we'll be able to ride him back to the ship by tomorrow evening."

"I'm not 'pleased' by anything right now, Uncle!" Zuko growled. "We failed to capture the Avatar again, I reek like a cheap whore right now—and you promised to pay that woman money that we don't have!"

"You can rest your mind on that matter, at least," Uncle Iroh said with a dismissive wave of his hand. "I will take care of her fee when we detour to Pouhai City on the way back, with a letter authorizing the payment from my private funds back home." And when Zuko opened his mouth to protest, his uncle silenced him with a lifted hand and stern look. "I made the bargain, Prince Zuko, so I insist. I cannot use those funds to help you capture the Avatar, but since that did not happen this time, I can call the expenditure… a rather expensive vacation. An interesting experience, traveling the countryside on a shirshu; I shall have to recommend it to my friends someday."

Embarrassed, Zuko mumbled his thanks to his uncle before taking another deep breath and submerging himself in the bathwater again. Uncle Iroh had gotten that look in his eye that said he was about to start spouting more platitudes and incomprehensible proverbs, and Zuko was just not in the mood for any of that. He could hold his breath for a long time, longer than nearly anyone except the pearl divers back home, so maybe if he stayed underwater for a while his uncle would get tired of waiting for him to surface again, take the hint and leave.

But of course, Uncle didn't take the hint, and was still there five minutes later when Zuko finally had to come up for air. "Take heart; there will be other opportunities to capture the Avatar, Prince Zuko. And I do not consider this mission a total failure, for we did accomplish one thing; we verified that Katara has been reunited with her brother and friend. I will admit that I, for one, am rather relieved to learn that. I had feared that she would run afoul of Admiral Zhao and troops from Pouhai Stronghold."

"There is that," Zuko quietly admitted. He'd told himself over and over again in the last two weeks that Katara and Aang would find each other again quickly, because the Avatar quite obviously had all the luck that Zuko himself didn't have. But he couldn't deny that it had been a private but great relief, at that moment on the trail, to see her alive and well and reunited with her brother.

Uncle Iroh eyed him for a moment before saying gently, "One might even say we accomplished two things today. It was honorable of you, nephew, to return Katara's necklace to her again, instead of keeping it to use as a bargaining chip."

Zuko snorted in disdain, "As if that had worked on Katara the first time! Her mother's necklace is important to her, but the Avatar is even more important." Then he abruptly ducked under the surface of the water again, to show that he considered the conversation over. This time his uncle took the hint, and left Zuko alone with the hot water and his own thoughts.

Thoughts that kept returning to Katara, no matter how much he tried to think about something else…

00oo00oo00oo00oo00oo00

That night, after the Gaang landed and camped as far away from the abbey as Appa could fly in the remaining daylight… Sokka was almost asleep, when he heard a very soft snuffling and muffled whimpers coming from his sister's sleeping bag.

His heart clenched up like a fist, but he forced himself to stay relaxed as he rolled and flopped his own sleeping bag over to lie alongside Katara's, so he could put a brotherly arm around her and give her an awkward hug. She rolled to face him and hugged him back hard, and muffled her sobs in his shoulder.

She soaked his shirt with tears and snot while he rubbed her back and murmured to her, the way Dad had done it back in the really bad days right after Mom had died. Soon she settled down, and since Dad would have done it, he quietly asked, "Thinking about Mom?"

There was a moment's hesitation before she whispered back, "Yeah."

That moment had been just a little too long, and the shock of their separation and her supposed death just a little too recent; it made Sokka's tone harsher than he meant as he hissed, "Don't lie to me, Sis." She flinched, but didn't deny the accusation, so he continued, "Were you crying over that—that jerk firebender? The one who kidnapped you? He's not worth shedding tears over!"

"You don't understand," Katara said miserably, as she rolled away from him. "You can't understand; you weren't there! You didn't see him teaching me how to meditate, or heating waterskins for my moon time, or teaching me how to throw things so they'd hit the target, or making such beautiful music… I was his prisoner, but he wanted to be my friend! And I… It's not fair, Sokka!" as her voice strained, nearly cracking with more suppressed sobs. "He should have been born Water Tribe, not… It's just not fair!"

"…Well, this whole slushy war isn't fair," Sokka muttered, his eyes on the tension showing in Katara's back. "That's why we're trying to end it, by helping Aang learn the elements so he can defeat the Fire Lord. Go to sleep, Sis; everything will look better in the morning."

And with that, Sokka rolled over to go back to sleep again. But sleep was a long time in coming, and while he waited, he made himself a promise; the next time they encountered Prince Zuko, Sokka was going to take his war club and beat the slush out of him. Not for hunting the Avatar for all this time, not even for invading his village and wrecking his watchtower; no, Sokka was going to give that jerk a heaping helping of Pain, for making his baby sister cry. No one did that without paying for it.

To be continued…

But first, another author's note:

The mentioned backstory of Zuko getting briefly decoyed by an imposter is more than just bringing forward a bit of humor from "The Serpent's Pass", when Aang found out he couldn't get into Ba Sing Se just by playing the Avatar card. It's also my explanation for why the shirshu's hunt for Katara started south of Pouhai Stronghold and passed through that region instead of starting far north of it, since Zuko had already figured out that the Avatar was steadily traveling northward. Last chapter I had Katara sneaking right past the herbalist's hut in the dead of the night, so readers could envision the shirshu ride including a stop there just as in the canon episode. But for a completely-fits-within-canon suggestion for why the shirshu stopped at the herbalist's hut when only Aang was seen visiting her, check out my drabble series "Avatar Drabbles: Missing Moments" and drabble #38.