PROMISES TO KEEP

Chapter 12: Fire and Ice

Author's note: The last chapter covered two episodes, 'The Fortuneteller' and 'Bato of the Water Tribe'. This chapter skips right over two more episodes, 'The Deserter' and 'The Northern Air Temple,' because nothing about them changed at all as a result of Katara's brief stay aboard Zuko's ship.

As for 'The Waterbending Master', nothing changed for the Katara-centric scenes; her time aboard the Wani and seeing Sergeant Tetsuko treated as a warrior and equal did nothing to change her canon outrage and disgust at being treated by the Northern Water Tribe as 'just a girl' who was only good for healing and household chores. Well, maybe it made her even angrier and even more determined to give Pakku the worst beating of his life, but even huge helpings of natural talent are usually outmatched by many years of experience. Nope, Katara still lost that epic battle, and Pakku still decided to train her anyway, as a favor to his long-lost-love Kanna.

The Wani had pulled into port at a northern colony that day for provisioning, and was still moored to the dock by sunset, when several crew members gathered on deck for another Music Night. Moments after Lieutenant Jee came out with his pipa tuned and ready, Taozu joined them, holding his flute; his appearance was greeted with smiles and promises that they'd stick to relatively quiet tunes, as the doctor had just released him from sickbay two days ago and his head was still aching frequently from the concussion he'd suffered.

General Iroh also came out on deck, with his tsungi horn tucked under his arm. Taozu asked him hopefully as he joined the circle, "Will Prince Zuko be joining us tonight, sir?"

Iroh slowly and sorrowfully shook his head. "I asked him to, and I told him how much we all appreciated his excellent playing the night he joined us, but he refused. I believe he feels that it would be a painful reminder of… well." The name of their former 'guest' remained unspoken, but everyone knew who he was referring to.

After a round of resigned shrugs and glances, everyone tuned up their instruments and started playing, deciding to enjoy the gathering anyway. Those who didn't play instruments sang instead, and a few who could neither sing nor play even danced a little around the fire.

Occupied with the music, no one even noticed the troop of soldiers marching down the docks towards them. But just after they finished "Four Seasons, Four Loves," everyone turned at the sound of booted feet stomping up their gangplank… and saw Admiral Zhao striding up to them, a particularly nasty smirk on his face.

00oo00oo00oo00

It had not been a good day for Zuko, and it wasn't shaping up to be a good night for him either.

They'd gotten a report of another Avatar sighting and confrontation, this time at the mountain-based refugee camp that used to be the Northern Air Temple. He and his uncle had looked over the northern charts, calculating the sky bison's speed and probably course, and Iroh had come to the regretful conclusion that by the time the message had reached them, the Avatar had already crossed the border to the Northern Water Tribe.

There were two regions that the Wani could not venture into in their search for the Avatar, upon pain of death: the Fire Nation home islands, because of the terms of Zuko's banishment, and the Northern Water Tribe because it was flat-out suicide for any lone Fire Nation ship to venture across their border. Two months ago Zuko had dared to cross the Fire Nation border and blockade, in hot pursuit of the Avatar, hoping against hope that his father would understand and forgive his transgression. But he knew better than to hope the northern savages would understand and forgive anything.

Eighty-five years ago, the Fire Nation had sent an invasion force of forty ships into the Northern Water Tribe's territory, to conquer them and to capture the Avatar. One of the Fire Sages said he'd had a vision that the Avatar had died on the day of Sozin's Comet, despite the complete lack of the usual spiritual signs of the Avatar Cycle beginning again as its Spirit was reborn into another body. That Fire Sage's vision had indicated that the Avatar had been reborn into the Northern Water Tribe, and he had embarked on the flagship of the invasion fleet to find and assist in the as-yet-unnamed youth's capture, before he turned sixteen and the Water Shamans began his Avatar training.

The Fire Sage had never returned. Neither had thirty-seven out of the forty ships in that invasion force.

The few survivors who had limped back across the border spoke of ships being rammed by icebergs that chased them across the sea; of being completely enshrouded by dense fog, and the firebenders who stood on deck to burn the fog away being riddled with ice spears shooting out of the featureless gray mass; of entire battleships being capsized, by dozens of waterbenders working in concert. The Board of Admirals had evaluated the survivors' battle reports, and grimly concluded that they would need a force of at least one hundred ships, most of them equipped with long-range weaponry such as catapults to destroy their targets from a safe distance, in order for the next invasion plan to have any hope of success.

After receiving the admirals' report and recommendation, Fire Lord Sozin had declared that so long as the Northern Water Tribe kept to their isolationist policy and did not come to the Earth Kingdom's aid, there would be no second invasion until after the Earth Kingdom had been conquered. He further declared that wherever the Avatar was hiding, he was not in the Northern Water Tribe; the Fire Sage had been in error about the death and rebirth, and had paid the ultimate price for his error. But Sozin had still commanded that every battleship in the fleet be retrofitted with catapults or other extreme long-range weaponry, just in case.

After Fire Lord Azulon had come to power, he had started the war of attrition on the less-well-defended Southern Water Tribe, slowly but surely capturing all their waterbenders in raid after raid after raid. He had also occasionally sent spies into the Northern Water Tribe's territory, to learn what they could of the tribe's defenses and capabilities, in preparation for when the Earth Kingdom was completely conquered. And about once a decade, some captain in the Fire Nation Navy would try to win glory for his crew by raiding and capturing a few Northern waterbenders for interrogation, take his ship across the border… and never be seen or heard from again.

Zuko knew that it would be too much to ask of his crew, to take the ship into Northern Water Tribe territory chasing after the Avatar; they'd mutiny for sure. Iroh had gravely agreed with his assessment, but then had tried to cheer him up by saying that the Avatar couldn't stay hiding in the frozen north forever; sooner or later he would venture south into the Earth Kingdom again, seeking an earthbending teacher, and then they would have more opportunities to capture him!

But Zuko had refused to be cheered up by the prospect of waiting for months while constantly patrolling the Northern Water Tribe's border, hoping to capture the Avatar whenever he ventured south again. The border was vast, and he had just one ship; he'd have to be very lucky to be in just the right spot to encounter the Avatar just as he left the tribe's territory, and Zuko was never that lucky. And once Aang and that blasted sky bison flew deep into the Earth Kingdom, far beyond the reach and capabilities of one lone ship…

Uncle Iroh had tried to distract him from his brooding with an invitation to join the crew in another Music Night, but Zuko had refused. Sitting down with the crew and holding the tsungi horn again, would only remind him of her and how she'd maneuvered him into playing it for everyone. And he didn't need any more reminders of her, when he'd spent far too much time thinking about her already!

So he just sat there in the dark, brooding, telling himself that he should at least set the candles out and meditate with fire—and shying away from the idea each time, because nowadays doing it reminded him of how he'd taught her to meditate with water. And that reminded him of how serene and beautiful she'd looked while meditating, and what all that deep breathing had done for her—

It was no use; he just couldn't stop thinking about her! And now his body was reacting to those memories, too… Oh, what the hells, he thought with resignation tinged with bitterness. At least focusing on her while taking matters in hand, would get his mind off of his other problems for a while.

But just as he started unfastening his pants, he heard his cabin door creak open. "Uncle! Don't you ever knock?!" Zuko demanded, thankful that he was facing the other way and his clothes still fastened, and trying desperately to get rid of at least the blush that had instantly stained his cheeks. "Look, for the last time, I'm not playing the tsungi horn again tonight!"

But instead of apologizing for barging in, or trying again to wheedle him into coming to Music Night, his uncle responded in foreboding tones, "No, it's about our plans. There's a bit of a problem."

Then the bulge in Zuko's pants died a fast death as a familiar and hated voice spoke up after his uncle: "I'm taking your crew."

"What?!" he demanded as he spun around to face the intruder, Admiral Zhao.

Zhao's voice and face were filled with an obscene amount of gloating as he explained, "I've recruited them for a little expedition to the North Pole."

No, this was impossible! Zuko had been given his ship by the Fire Lord himself, and not even an admiral could take it from him! …But Zhao hadn't said his ship, Zhao had said his crew. And they were all still enlisted or officers in the Fire Nation Navy, which meant they could be subject to reassignment when the Navy deemed it necessary… Zuko asked desperately, "Uncle, is that true?"

Iroh said bleakly, "I'm afraid so. He's taking everyone." He looked ready to cry as he added, "Even the cook!"

Zhao sneered at him, "Sorry you won't be there to watch me capture the Avatar. But I can't have you getting in my way again."

Zhao had to burn. Zuko wasn't even aware he'd done anything until he suddenly registered that his uncle was physically holding him back from attacking the bastard, who'd dared to turn his back on Zuko like he was inconsequential and was now walking casually over to inspect the room's decorations-

And then Zhao stopped in his tracks, his whole body tensing with anger.

Zuko followed Zhao's gaze to the far wall—and saw the display holding his dao blades, the ones he used as the Blue Spirit.

The ones he'd used a lot while stealing the Avatar away from Zhao, back at Pouhai Stronghold. Zhao had gotten a real good look at those blades, that night—oh cinders cinders cinders cinders

Zhao took one of the blades down from the mount and began swinging it around, while commenting with noticeable tension in his voice, "I didn't know you were skilled with broadswords, Prince Zuko."

The lie clogged up his throat, but he managed to respond, "I'm not. They're antiques. Just decorative."

But he just knew in his sinking guts that Zhao didn't believe him, a belief confirmed when Zhao asked his uncle, "Have you heard of the Blue Spirit, General Iroh?"

Uncle Iroh said firmly, "Just rumors. I don't think he is real."

Zhao retorted, "He's real all right. He's a criminal, an enemy of the Fire Nation." He handed the blade to Iroh as he finished, "But I have a feeling that justice will catch up with him soon."

Cinders and ashes! What was Zhao going to do?! If he outright accused Zuko of being the Blue Spirit, then—but he'd have to have some proof to back up that accusation, right? Even an admiral couldn't accuse someone of treason without some evidence for the trial. He'd have to prove that Zuko knew how to use broadswords so skillfully, when no one aboard the Wani or back in the capital had ever seen him wield them in practice. So Zuko should be okay in that regard, but he'd still better come up with an alibi for that night, really quickly.

Preoccupied with what sort of lie he could come up with to explain his absence from the ship that night, or if it had even been noted in the logbook-for once, he actually hoped the officer-on-deck had been slacking off again about making proper log entries that night-Zuko barely noticed as Zhao left the cabin with a parting, "General Iroh, the offer to join my mission still stands if you change your mind."

00oo00oo00oo00oo00

Anyone looking at the men standing in front of Zhao's desk would have had no doubt whatsoever that they were pirates; a motley crew united only by their avarice and bloodthirstiness. Looking over the assortment of weapons they'd worn to the meeting and their greedy expressions, Zhao said dryly, "You all seem highly qualified for the mission I have in mind."

The pirate crew's captain was unmoved by the flattery. He scratched under the chin of his pet lizard-parrot as he said bluntly, "Three gold pieces bought you this meeting, but nothing else. What's the mission, and how much gold are you offering for it?"

"I'm offering this much," Zhao said as he pushed forward a small chest, and flipped the lid open so they could see its contents; hundreds of gold pieces and an assortment of precious gems as well. One crewman bit into a gold piece, while another one picked up an emerald and eyed it closely; they both nodded to their captain, indicating that the treasures were real instead of fake.

The pirate captain nodded acceptance, then asked bluntly, "Who do you want murdered?"

Direct and to the point; Zhao could appreciate that, especially since they both knew that no one hired pirates or paid that much money for anything legal or moral. "The banished prince Zuko," he replied just as bluntly. "In some method that can never be traced back to me."

00oo00oo00oo00oo00

One deadly plot and explosion later:

Pain. Bright Agni, he hurt everywhere… Zuko moaned, and was dimly aware of someone saying "Zuko!" with great relief.

He forced his eyes open, and they gradually focused on Uncle Iroh leaning over him. "Thank all the spirits you are still alive, nephew," his uncle said, his eyes glistening with unshed tears.

"H-how bad?" he gasped, and immediately regretted it when just saying that much sent a fresh wave of pain through him.

"Two cracked ribs on your right side, enough deep cuts to have kept me busy with bandages and stitches for the last two hours, even more bruises than cuts, and a nasty knock on the head that concerned us the most until now," someone else said brusquely, and a strange Earth Kingdom woman poked her head and one hand into his field of vision. "How many fingers am I holding up?"

"Three," he whispered, his mouth filled with the taste of copper.

"So you can focus on them. And your pupils seem to be the same size, near as I can tell past that old scar, so you probably don't have a concussion," she finished briskly.

"Madame Huang is wife to the innkeeper here, but trained as a healer before her marriage," his uncle said by way of explaining her presence. Then he and Madame Huang bowed to each other before the woman left with four gold coins for the room, twelve gold for the medical care… and twenty more gold coins for her silence, to tell no one of their presence in the inn.

It hurt to even breathe, let alone talk, but after the innkeeper's wife left he managed to croak out through an aching throat, "The ship?"

Iroh lowered his head, his expression mournful. "Utterly destroyed."

His ship. He'd known every hull plate, every steel beam and very nearly every rivet of that vessel. For the last two-and-a-half years, that aged and rusting hulk had been simultaneously his prison, his burden, and his refuge from strangers' staring eyes… his home away from Home, though he hated to admit it. He felt a deep aching inside, as though shrapnel from the explosion had sliced through part of his heart as well as his skin.

"Should've just drowned." The words tumbled from his bloody lips before he realized he was saying them, but they were spoken truly nonetheless. Now he had no ship, no crew, and no hope of capturing the Avatar and going home again. No hope left at all, and no reason to live any—

"No, nephew!" as Iroh abruptly leaned over him, his expression fierce. "Never say such words! Our situation is dire, yes, with all our recent losses and now with some unknown enemy looking to kill you, but you are still alive! And where there is life, there is hope!"

" 'Unknown enemy'… it was Zhao," Zuko muttered. He'd figured that out, in virtually the same instant he'd figured out that his ship had been invaded by pirates and they were about to set off an explosion. Zhao had the gold to hire such greedy and ruthless killers, and he had plenty of motivation, now that he knew it was Zuko who had snuck in and stolen the Avatar right out from under his—

He blinked, startled by the thought that struck him at just that moment.

Cautiously, he turned the idea over in his mind, looking at it from different angles… and even though it made his lips start to bleed even more, he stretched them just a bit in a tiny but real smile. It was a slim chance, but it was a definite possibility, to do what he'd done before… to steal the Avatar right out from under Zhao's nose again! And the idea would never have occurred to him if he hadn't lost his ship too; Zhao would have an apoplectic fit if he ever found out that his attempt to kill Zuko had resulted in his losing the race to capture the Avatar after all…

00oo00oo00oo00oo00

One desperate plan, 'borrowed' uniform, daring masquerade and freezing sea voyage later:

As his nephew lowered the canoe into the water, Iroh called softly but urgently after him, "Remember your Breath of Fire! It could save your life out there!"

"I will," Zuko responded as he spared a glance upwards to give him a brief but solemn look; it seemed to contain both a farewell and a student's gratitude to his teacher, though Iroh might have been imagining that.

"And put your hood up, keep your ears warm!"

This time Zuko didn't glance back, but somehow Iroh knew that his nephew was rolling his eyes (even though it was good and exceedingly timely advice! And he hadn't even couched it in a proverb that time!) The voice floating upwards to the deck carried a definite trace of annoyance: "I'll be fine."

Then the canoe entered the water with a quiet splash, the lines were cast off, and his nephew was paddling off towards the great ice-walled city of the Northern Water Tribe, on one last desperate attempt to capture the Avatar.

Bright Agni… Great Tui, and Mighty La… Please keep him safe for me, Iroh prayed silently but with all his might.

Please, please let Pakku find him first, and recognize the symbols

Iroh had 'acquired' that all-white insulated clothing for Zuko, a full day before he'd actually turned it over to his nephew. Time that he'd used to painstakingly stitch patterns into the material with white thread, while silently thanking his first commanding officer for insisting that he learn how to sew just as all the enlisted men did, so he could appreciate the trouble that went into keeping their uniforms in good condition.

The clothing Zuko wore now sported a white-on-white, faint but discernible lotus pattern on both the chest and the back. On the inside of the parka, Iroh had stitched characters in bold black thread just under the collar, a simple message: "Keep the wearer safe from harm." Iroh had made a point of showing those sewn-in characters to Zuko, telling him it was a written prayer to the spirits, and his nephew had nodded acceptance. Iroh had deliberately not pointed out the characters stitched in white thread right under each arm, the characters for "Grand Lotus."

Iroh had never found the opportunity to smuggle a message out to Master Pakku, the White Lotus organization's main operative in the Northern Water Tribe, warning him of the coming invasion fleet and Zhao's plan to lay siege to the city and capture the Avatar. If he had, he would have included a note for Pakku to keep a sharp lookout for his nephew as well. There was no doubt in Iroh's mind that if Zuko knew Iroh was secretly hoping he'd be captured by the tribe's greatest waterbending master, his nephew would see it as utter betrayal and probably never forgive him. But if it could be done without harm to Zuko or anybody else, it really was the best option Iroh had left.

It was a possibility that looked even more promising, after Katara's brief time in captivity on their ship; she was surely in the city with the Avatar, and Iroh was quite sure that she would argue on Zuko's behalf for an honorable parole similar to the one she had sworn to while aboard the Wani. And then, after the invasion and siege inevitably failed—attacking this close to the full moon?! Even the first invasion leaders 85 years ago had known better! After Zhao's plan failed and he took the troops home in disgrace, Iroh would return; ostensibly to ransom his nephew, but really to help Zuko see that the war needed to end, and that his destiny lay in helping the Avatar end it and bring the world back to balance and peace.

But it all hinged on Pakku finding Zuko first, recognizing by the subtle lotus symbols that Zuko was more than just another Fire Nation soldier, and using his mastery of waterbending to subdue his nephew without killing him. Iroh's plan was really almost as desperate as Zuko's plan of capturing the Avatar, drugging him unconscious with the packet of herbs stuffed inside his parka, smuggling him back aboard Zhao's flagship without anyone else finding out, and keeping him drugged and hidden until they were back in Fire Nation waters. But right now, Iroh could see no other options; every other avenue would lead straight to him being found out, accused of treason and executed on the spot, with or without his nephew beside him.

Iroh gazed worriedly out at the lone canoe cruising silently over the water to its goal, and sent another prayer up to the spirits. Please, he'd already lost one son to war on a besieged city; don't let him lose his second son as well…

00oo00oo00oo00oo00

Inside the Spirit Oasis, Princess Yue whispered to Katara while staring at Aang, "Why is he sitting like that?"

Katara whispered back, "He's meditating – trying to cross over into the Spirit World. It takes all his concentration."

Princess Yue asked, "Is there any way we can help?"

Katara was about to say that probably just leading them to the Spirit Oasis had been helpful enough, but Aang suddenly snapped, twisting in his seated position to glare at them, "How 'bout some quiet!? C'mon guys! I can hear every word you're saying!"

Oops! Katara covered her mouth in chagrin, and both she and Yue fell silent as Aang resumed his meditative pose. And just a minute or two later, Aang's tattoos started glowing, a sure sign that he was using the Avatar State.

Princess Yue stared at the glowing lines and asked in concern, "Is he okay?"

Katara reassured her, "He's crossing into the Spirit World. He'll be fine as long as we don't move his body. That's his way back to the physical world."

The princess asked worriedly, "Maybe we should get some help?"

Katara shook her head slightly. "No, he's my friend. I'm perfectly capable of protecting him."

Yue half-smiled. "I suppose you are, now… Do you know how much I envy you?"

Katara blinked at her, astonished. "You envy me?! But you're a princess; you've always been loved and respected by everyone in your tribe!"

The Northern Water Tribe princess looked at her solemnly. "I'm respected as the daughter of Chief Arnook; as the girl who was blessed by the Moon Spirit when she was a baby. For what others have done for me, or before me. Katara, you are respected for yourself; what you can do, and what you've done already. And your father hasn't betrothed you to his successor, just so there's no question as to who the next chief will be. You're perfectly capable, and you're free; free to fall in love as you choose. How can I not envy you?" And with that, Yue turned and left the Oasis, to return to the palace.

Katara stared after her, feeling stunned. And she was even more stunned when, a few seconds later, a voice she knew but absolutely wasn't expecting to hear in the Oasis said softly, "So now you're the envy of your own royalty… you've gone up in the world."

She spun around, her mouth gaping. "Zuko?!"

Zuko looked terrible. He'd always been pale-skinned but now he was nearly as white as the clothes he was wearing, and his lips were blue; he was half-frozen with cold. On such pale skin, the cuts and bruises on his face stood out even more starkly, nearly as much as the ever-present burn scar.

"You look half-dead! Spirits, Zuko, what happened to you?!" Katara blurted out as she ran over to him, her eyes wide with concern.

He blinked at her as he said numbly, "Zhao blew up my ship."

"He what?!" Katara's hand flew to her mouth. "Oh, spirits…Your uncle?"

"He's safe. I was the only one aboard when it happened. Zhao took—he commandeered my crew right out from under me; I couldn't stop it! And then he hired pirates to blow up the ship and kill me. They would have succeeded, if I hadn't—what are you doing?" he asked as she summoned water from her waterskin out to surround her hand, and set it to glowing with healing energy.

"Sshhh; just hold still and trust me," Katara said distractedly as she reached up to the lower half of his face, gently laying her hand over the bruises and cuts on his jaw and around his mouth, concentrating on healing them.

After a moment of silence, his lips moved against her fingertips as he almost whispered, "I do trust you. I probably shouldn't, after you ran away, but I…" Zuko's voice had started to gain strength as he spoke, but then it trailed off again as she worked on him. "It feels… you're…" When she took her hand away, he raised a gloved hand to hesitantly pat at his jaw and lips, feeling the now-unblemished skin. "You can heal with water?"

She nodded with a wry half-smile. "It's what they teach the women waterbenders up here to do. I learned how to do it on my own a few weeks ago, and then had a couple lessons in how to do it properly after I arrived here."

His unscarred eye was wide with awe, and something more; a flickering of hope. "Can you—can you do something about this?" as he hesitantly pointed up at the scar his father had given him.

She gave the scar a frown of mixed uncertainty and determination. "Maybe… I don't know, but it's sure worth a try. But first, where else were you hurt in the explosion?" as she first took his chin in her hand to turn his head from side to side, looking for scalp injuries, and then pushed up one of his parka sleeves to begin examining his arm. "Let's deal with the recent stuff first, before I get involved with-"

But Zuko suddenly shook his head, his expression pained. "Don't-I don't deserve your… Katara, I didn't come here for healing…"

Then it hit Katara like a giant slushball to the head. Zuko hadn't come for her, he had come for Aang. To capture the Avatar; his ticket back to the Fire Nation.

She quickly jumped back to put herself between Zuko and Aang, and raised a wall of water from the oasis between them as she said heatedly, "You can't have him!"

"I have to capture him! It's the only way to restore my honor!" Zuko said as he took a firebending stance, his face anguished. "Just get out of the way, please; I don't want to hurt you!"

"Don't worry; you won't," she said grimly as she whipped up and sent an ice spear flying right over his right shoulder; a warning shot that startled him into drawing back a few paces.

"Uncle didn't teach you that move," Zuko said half-admiringly as he recovered. "You found a master here to teach you, didn't you?"

"Finally, yeah, but even Uncle Iroh was more help than he was at first! He didn't want to teach me anything, not even the most basic moves, even after I proved to him I already knew how to fight!" she grouched, as it was still a sore point with her. "Northern Water Tribe doesn't allow its women waterbenders to learn combat moves."

He snorted. "Then the Northern Water Tribe is packed full of idiots."

She was really tempted to agree with him. She was even tempted to give him the names of the most chauvinistic idiots, for Sergeant Tetsuko to teach a few lessons to. But instead she said, "How's Taozu?"

He'd been preparing to punch fire at her, but the question startled him into relaxing his stance slightly. "H-he's fine. You were right, he had a concussion, but our doctor took care of him and he recovered enough to go back on duty, just before Zhao… And I overheard him telling another sailor that when he gets married and starts a family, his first daughter's going to be named after you."

She smiled almost despite herself. "When you see him again, tell him I'm honored."

"I would, but I don't know when I'll see him or any of my crew again. I told you, Zhao took my crew for the invasion, before he blew up my ship! Now move aside!" as he finally punched a fire blast at her.

But it wasn't a very strong blast; as though his heart wasn't in it. She raised an ice wall to easily take the blast, then glared at him over it. "Then why are you even here?! Why didn't you just challenge that rotten Zhao to another Agni Kai, and this time kill him in the arena? If he tried to kill you, that has to be reason enough for another duel—and you already took him down once; I heard the crew talking about it at dinner one night!"

"Because now that he's an admiral, he'd just refuse me—and laugh in my face! Didn't anyone explain the honor tiers to you? Only another admiral, or admiral-equivalent like a general, can successfully challenge him now; being banished and with only one ship under my command, I was never more than a captain-equivalent. Any firebender can opt to refuse a challenge from someone in a sufficiently lower honor tier, without any loss of honor to himself; they're considered not worth his time in the arena. I'm not worth the trouble for Zhao to kill personally; that's why he sent pirates to do it," Zuko said bitterly.

" 'Not worth the trouble', my foot! He sent pirates to do it because you're a prince, and he doesn't dare openly kill a member of the royal family; even I know that! Quit beating yourself up; you know your uncle hates it when you do that!" Katara scolded him.

He rolled his eyes. "I don't believe this—are we talking, or are we fighting?! …Or are you getting ready to just step aside so I can take Aang, and sneak him out before Zhao's fleet takes the whole city? That might be the best option now; I can guarantee I'll treat him better as my prisoner than Zhao did in Pouhai Stronghold!"

"Pouhai Stronghold? What are you talking about?"

Zuko opened his mouth to explain, then paused, and finally shook his head. "It's a long story, and I'll tell you all about it some other time—after I've taken Aang prisoner!" as he fired a stronger blast at her ice shield; strong enough to crack it, but she mended the crack and made the shield even thicker in the blink of an eye. He continued, "Zhao's got too many ships and too many men to be stopped; he will conquer this city to get to the Avatar! The best option for all of us is for me to get Aang out of here as my prisoner, before Zhao gets his hands on him!"

Katara retorted, "The best option would be for Aang to come back from the spirit world with enough help and wisdom from Tui and La to stop the entire invasion fleet—and that's just what he's going to do!" And Aang had better hurry up about it; she didn't really want to fight Zuko, but she didn't know how much longer she could stall him with just an ice shield and lots of distracting questions.

"He's calling on the spirits to get physically involved?" Cold as he had already been looking, Zuko actually paled further, as his good eye went round as a snowball. "Do you have any idea how dangerous that is?! When spirits get physically involved—whole villages have been destroyed that way! And I mean destroyed as in every building, every fence, every signpost and every single man, woman and child just gone, like they never existed! That happened on the island of Khofu, back during Avatar Kuruk's time—the entire island was wiped clean of humanity!"

Katara stared at him. "Are you serious?"

"Yes! You could look it up in Earth Kingdom records, if you don't believe me! And if you didn't know about the danger, then that—that kid," as he pointed accusingly at Aang, "is probably just as ignorant, and in way over his head! Did he leave a spirit-tether to tug on? Something we could use to bring him back from the spirit world?"

Katara slowly shook her head. "Not that he told me about; I don't think he even knows there is such a thing as a spirit-tether."

"Gaah," as Zuko yanked at his phoenix plume in sheer frustration. "I don't believe this!"

"Hey! He's self-trained in all this spirit-stuff!" Katara said defensively. "Do you know how to make a spirit-tether?"

"Well, no; I just read about it in a spirit-tale once, when I was a kid," Zuko admitted.

"Big help, there," Katara said sarcastically.

"And it's utterly beside the point! Zhao knows the Avatar is here, and he's coming for him with the entire invasion fleet! He's ready to wipe out the entire city, just to get Aang! So let me take Aang out first; give me an hour's head start, then start shouting your head off that he's gone! Shout loud and long enough that word gets picked up by the warriors and gets out to the invasion fleet! If-if he knows for a fact that Aang's not here, then—then it's possible that Zhao will call off the invasion!"

Katara eyed him, then shook her head. "Zuko? You're a terrible liar. You don't really think he'd call off the invasion, do you?"

"…No," Zuko admitted, hanging his head. "He has too much committed to this now; too many resources in ships and men, and too much of his reputation and honor at stake. He probably wouldn't call off the invasion now unless Agni Himself came down from the sky and told him to."

"But you still want to grab Aang. Take the single best—the only—hope for saving all these people—all the innocent children in the Northern Water Tribe, Zuko!—and you want to tie him up, sneak him out and drag him back to the Fire Nation, all so you can go back home to your fancy palace. Is that it?"

"It's not just-Yes, curse you! Yes!"

"No," she said calmly in response to his shout, that was really a scream of anguish. She knew she was getting to him; if she could just push a little harder… "I'm not going to let you do that. Because there are innocent children in this tribe who are counting on Aang to save them. Because I made a promise to help and protect Aang, and right now is when he needs me most. And because I think, deep down, you don't really want to do what it'll take to stop me from stopping you."

"…Don't really want to do what it will take?" he echoed incredulously. "Katara… I've chased Aang clear from the South Pole to the North Pole, we've fought often enough I've lost count, and most recently I damn near froze to death twice over in getting to this very spot! So yes, no matter how I feel about it, I am willing to do whatever it takes to capture the Avatar!"

He was dead serious... but so was she. "Then we fight," as she instantly created a full dozen ice spears, all of them pointed at him and ready to fly.

So they fought, though neither of them really wanted to. And their fight became all the more vicious for it. The first blasts of fire and ice were accompanied by silent screams of Stop fighting me! I don't want to hurt you! But when neither showed signs of stopping or surrender, each one's anger grew; couldn't the other see what this fight was doing to them?! They were hurting, the other was making them hurt, and so they hurt back.

Fire blasts were countered with water shields, and vice versa. She lashed out with a water ship that snaked in from the side and took his legs out from under him; he recovered with a spinning fire-kick, and the shot clipped the end of her long braid.

They half-circled each other, looking for openings—or in Katara's case, looking to lure him closer to the pond. When he was close enough, whipping her arms in a frenzy of bending, she created a massive surge of pond-water that completely covered him, and instantly froze into a dome of ice. But while she was catching her breath from that huge effort, he glowed with fire at every extremity, and shattered the ice dome from within.

The oasis filled with steam from the collision of fire with water, and in the thick clouds of steam, Zuko almost managed to slip past Katara and grab Aang by the collar—almost. "No!" she snarled as she blasted him back with a water jet, this one hard enough to knock him clear back against the rocky wall of the oasis. He hit the wall with a hoarse cry of pain, clutching at the ribs on his right side, and momentarily slumped to his knees. Before he could get to his feet again, she shoved hard with her bending, and the water became a tidal wave carrying Zuko ten feet straight up, to freeze him in place on the wall.

"Now just—just stay there!" Katara screamed at his slumped and defeated figure, hot angry tears running down her cheeks. That cry of pain meant he'd probably cracked or even broken some ribs when his ship had blown up, and she'd undoubtedly just made them worse, but it was his own fault! He should have just surrendered right at the start!

Angrily wiping the tears from her cheeks, Katara turned away from Zuko as the rising sun peeked over the rim of the oasis, to check on Aang and make sure he hadn't gotten hurt during the fight.

Because she had turned away, she didn't see how the sun's rays touched Zuko's pale face like a father gently patting his child awake; didn't see him respond to the sun's touch with raised head and renewed determination in his expression.

Her first clue that Zuko still had some fight left in him after all that they'd just done to each other, was the sound of running footsteps behind her. She turned around, instinctively raising a shield of ice—but she wasn't quite fast enough, didn't make the shield thick enough. The force of the blast hit her and knocked her back—and that was the last thing she knew.

00oo0oo00oo00oo00oo00

Zuko's face had been locked in a fierce grimace as he fired a blast that was so powerful, just the concussive force of its impact on the ice shield knocked Katara right off her feet and into a post of the torii gate nearby… but his fierce determination melted into dismay verging in horror as he realized what he'd done. "Katara!"

He scrambled up to her, checking for a pulse and breathing, and his shoulders sagged and shuddered with relief as he confirmed that she was still alive, just unconscious. He took a moment to lay her out in a more comfortable position; then he stroked her hair and said softly to her unconscious form, "You kept your word, you know. The last promise you made, when we first gave you honorable parole; you've made me regret I ever took you captive. If I hadn't gotten to know you in those two weeks, learned to care about you, this wouldn't hurt so much…"

He leaned down, his lips pursed… but stopped a mere inch away from her face, and finally withdrew with a faintly whispered, "sorry." Then he picked up Aang's unconscious form, and headed out of the oasis.

.

Next: Ashes to Ashes

But first, another Author's Note:

Zuko's mention of the island of Khofu in Avatar Kuruk's time is my way of reconciling two disparate statements that Kuruk made, at two different times.

In the Avatar Escape Online Comic, showing what happened to Aang's spirit during the weeks he was in a coma after getting shot by lightning, Kuruk said, "Ummi fell into the spirit pond, as if some unseen force pulled her in. She didn't drown. She disappeared into the Spirit World... Koh took her to punish me for my past mistakes."

In Sozin's Comet Part II: The Old Masters, Kuruk said "When I was young, I was always a "go with the flow" kind of Avatar. People seemed to work out their own problems, and there was peace and good times in the World. But then, I lost the woman I loved to Koh, the face stealer. It was my fault, if I had been more attentive and more active, I could have saved her."

If there had been 'peace and good times', no wars between nations, and people worked out their own problems, then exactly what past mistakes was Koh punishing Kuruk for?

I decided that the biggest problem in Avatar Kuruk's time wasn't between two countries, but between a group of mortals and the Spirit World. Someone on the island of Khofu did something to anger the local spirits—cut down a sacred tree, hooked a golden trout, walked whistling past a shrine, I dunno; in all the old fairy tales, spirits operate by their own rules and it's just too damn bad if humans can't figure out those rules in time. Anyway, something happened that really upset the spirits at Khofu, and Avatar Kuruk either didn't notice they were angry, or noticed but did nothing about it. When the Bridge between the mortal world and the Spirit World did nothing to mediate and resolve the issue, the angered spirits decided to physically manifest and do it themselves—and all of Khofu was wiped clean of humanity. Failing to prevent a tragedy like that, would be a mistake worth punishing the Avatar for.