KATARA AWOKE WITH a start, her heart rattling in its ribcage. Every nerve in her body was set ablaze as she looked around, trying to figure out where she was and if she was in any danger. However, after a cursory surveillance of her surroundings, she realised she was still in Yin's cabin.
She exhaled a soft sigh of relief and settled back into bed, closing her eyes. She was surprised she had even slept through the night, as tightly wound as she was. Her mind had been restless, refusing to grow idle lest Yin and Yang somehow managed to infiltrate her meagre mental defences and get the best of her.
The dim memory of last night's conversation with Yin surfaced and, for a brief second, it almost seemed like a dream. But then she rolled over to see Zuko sleeping soundly next to her and she knew the prior evening's events to be true. Yin and Yang were still a threat. The how and why she didn't know, only that none of them were out of the proverbial woods yet.
Banishing the morbid thoughts from her mind, Katara shifted onto her side and pillowed her cheek against folded hands. Though her intention had been to go back to sleep, her gaze instinctively drifted to Zuko. He was lying on his side with one arm resting on his hip while the other was lost underneath his pillow. He looked so boyish with his face relaxed in sleep, his brow free of worry lines and his mouth parted slightly as he breathed, evenly paced and deep.
She was close to him, incremental inches away from his face; so near that she could hear his deep, slow inhalations and feel the soft warm puff of his exhalations skittering across her cheeks. His long black eyelashes fluttered gently, fanning across pale skin like whip-marks, and she was struck by how entirely exquisite he was—how fine-formed, how distinguished and beautiful, even in his imperfections.
She tentatively reached out and slicked her fingertips over his good eyebrow, his eyelashes and the ridge of his nose. His eyelids fluttered open then, revealing bright golden irises without a trace of sleepiness in them. Katara dropped her hand, the corners of her mouth curving upwards into a small smile. She had a feeling he'd been awake the entire time.
"Good morning," he rasped. His voice was still rusted from sleep. "What time is it?"
He slowly sat up and braced his weight on his forearms, scrubbing his face with a free hand. "Ah, I hadn't even noticed."
"No wonder. You were exhausted last night."
She had no right to cast stones: she was just as tired. Right now she felt as if she could sleep for an entire week and still not feel refreshed from the fatigue she carried.
"I should go relieve Nutak," he said, and cleared his throat twice before folding back the sheets.
"Never mind," she said. "I'll do that." She patted his arm to stop him from rising. "You get some more rest."
He was about to protest when she pulled back the covers on her side and climbed over top of him. Flabbergasted, Zuko could only sputter as Katara crawled across his chest and nearly kneed him in the groin. She, in turn, tried her best not to laugh outright at his expense. Even after all these years Zuko was still a prude who adamantly stuck to his rules of propriety. It was a chivalrous and admirable quality, no doubt, but a little unnecessary to maintain with someone he had shared his bed with. Thankfully Zuko said nothing on the matter and did as told, sinking back into bed and pulling the covers up to his neck.
Normally Katara would be the one sleeping in since she wasn't much of a morning person, but yesterday Zuko had endured such intense physical and mental tortures that even she wasn't sure her bending could properly heal. What her friend needed right now was uninterrupted sleep. Katara, however, needed to be up on deck, connecting once again with her element; for the ocean gave her far more peace of mind than slumber ever could.
Katara stretched languidly, her body still aching with exhaustion. Her legs were as weak as water, but at least there was feeling in them, unlike the numbness she had felt yesterday. While she had thankfully avoided serious injury, she had almost completely exhausted her reserves of strength. Sleep had helped, but getting some fresh air would do her just as much good.
Without wasting any more time, she quickly got dressed in another one of Yin's robes and went topside. She breathed in the salty air with a smile. The dark blue ocean stretched out clear and limitless before her like the sky above, and she was content. This was her element; this was where she belonged.
The sun was just beginning to peek out over the horizon, a low dome of pale yellow. Only a few white and fluffy clouds marred an otherwise beautiful clear blue sky. If their situation was any less dire, she would have commented that it was a perfect day for sailing. But things weren't as quaint as they seemed. They were free from their captors, but that freedom seemed temporary somehow. If what Atsuo said was true, they could trust no one, not even themselves. But who could you trust if you couldn't trust your own mind?
Katara held out her hands and gathered moisture from the air, idly creating shapes with the water as she pondered. After a few seconds of busy-work, she began to frown with nagging had Yin meant by her not taking their game so lightly? Did the Truth-Seers have more in store for her than their original design, and what was their original design? Or did they simply want her for her bloodbending?
What frightened her the most was that before now she no idea what she was truly capable of. The acts she had performed underneath the city of Ka'shi seemed like they had come from another person. It was like she hadn't been in control. She had no earthly notion that she had even possessed such power. Was it awakened by the twins or was it given to her? Was this the game she was a part of now? She had so many questions and no clear answers.
Exhaling sharply, she released the water and watched as it fell through the cracks of her fingers. She had to get a hold of herself and stop obsessing over the twins. She had more urgent matters to worry about, like the possible life growing inside her.
Putting a hand on her stomach, Katara closed her eyes and took in a deep breath. She tried to clear her mind of all thoughts as she explored her body with blood and mind. Several minutes passed and her brow wrinkled in a frown.
She opened her eyes and dropped her hand with a disappointed sigh. She couldn't feel anything, couldn't sense a thing. Was she really pregnant? Or was this just another way the twins were trying to break her? She would have to visit Kala later and have a chat. The older woman would know what to do. However, if it turned out that she was with child, Katara feared for its future. What could the twins possibly want with her and Zuko's offspring?
Yet what truly upset her were the questions deliberately left unasked, like why she had allowed the union to transpire in the first place. Yin and Yang's supposed plan didn't change the fact that she had slept with Zuko, willingly. The dynamic of their relationship would alter drastically, if it hadn't already. And what would she tell Aang?
Katara winced, feeling a great pang in her heart at the thought of her betrothed. She would have to face him eventually, but what would she tell him? What words could soften the blow? No matter what she said, no matter how her hand had been literally forced, what had happened between her and Zuko was still a betrayal to Aang.
She wished she could say that she had simply been forced against her will. She wished she could say that she felt nothing for Zuko. She wished she could say that she understood why Zuko had come for her instead of Aang. She wished she could blame the confusion and anger she felt on her and Aang growing apart these past few years. But none of that changed the facts: she did care for Zuko, she didn't understand why Aang hadn't come for her and, though she and Aang had grown apart, she still loved him.
The problem wasn't her love for Aang but that she had now found her heart opening up for another man, a man who was not her betrothed, a man who had risked everything to save her. Zuko. Her best friend, and maybe something more—something much more.
What on earth was she going to do?
A SALTY BREEZE wafted off the ocean's surface, gently caressing Katara's face as she steered the ship through calm waters. It was a lovely day, a lazy day. It was the kind of day that made one believe all was right in the world.
Everyone was going about their daily duties while Atsuo and Zuko took break out on the deck, playing a game of Pai Sho under the mid-morning sun. Zuko had found the game in Yang's cabin and only Atsuo had been interested in playing. Though Zuko was relatively good at the game, it was clear that Atsuo was a master like Iroh. He had already beaten Zuko three times in a row and the agitated Fire Lord clearly wanted to secure at least one win before they made it to the Fire Nation . . . or before he died of old age.
They had been sailing for nearly three days straight with no land in sight, yet morale remained high. The former prisoners seemed optimistic, content enough to revel in their freedom and the fresh ocean air. Katara and Zuko, however, had spent the majority of their time on separate decks, operating different shifts so they had little time to interact with one another other than during meals.
Though still amicable, an awkwardness had settled between the two since their first night alone. They could no longer act as though nothing had changed between them, nor could they deny their intertwined fates. The twins' presence alone ensured that they would never forget. So instead of facing the facts, Zuko and Katara decided to ignore them altogether—at least temporarily. It seemed like the sanest option at the time.
"A copper piece for your thoughts."
Surprised, Katara spun around to find Kala standing behind her on the bridge. Her snow-white hair shifted slightly in the breeze and Katara couldn't help but notice how much younger the mindbender looked in the natural light, and with far less worry on her face.
"Bribing me for my thoughts, eh?" Katara grinned. "I thought you could read them for free."
"Nothing's for free, child," Kala said. "Besides, I don't need to read your mind to know that something's bothering you."
"Am I that transparent?"
"You are." Kala gave a strained smile. "Would you like to discuss what's on your mind? I have a ready ear—two, in fact."
Katara bit her lip. "Well, I guess I don't have to tell you that I'm worried about Yin and Yang. I mean, I know we have them restrained right now, but Atsuo said something a few days ago that's still on my mind."
"And what was that, child?"
"He believes Yin and Yang are still watching us somehow, and I don't necessarily disagree with him."
"Have you sensed anything?"
Katara shrugged. "Not really. It's just a feeling."
"Never dismiss those feelings. Those instincts are what help you survive." Katara gave Kala a muted look, and Kala gently patted the younger woman's hand. "All I'm saying is to be careful. Yin and Yang are not normal mindbenders."
"What do you mean by that exactly?"
Kala let out a laboured sigh. "You have to understand that mindbending has existed as long as elemental bending. It is just as old and as powerful, perhaps even more so since so little is known about it.
"As far as I know, mindbending has only been practised by handful of benders throughout this last century alone. It is a rare form of bending, very dangerous—to those who use it and those it is used against. Worse still is that those who are able to bend the mind and will of another must be of sound mind themselves."
Katara frowned. "But Yin and Yang don't exactly strike me as being of sound mind."
"Perhaps, perhaps not." Kala shrugged. "But they do exert a control I have never witnessed before. Their powers go beyond what I was ever taught. They have explored gateways I would never even dream of opening."
"Gateways? Like to other realms?" When Kala simply inclined her head in answer, Katara's brow furrowed deeper. "You once told me that mindbending is also spiritual. Is that true?"
"Most mindbenders are already gifted with precognition, before they even learn to bend," Kala said. "They are special in ways that no one else is, except, of course, for the Avatar. They have the ability to see or sense auras, from this world and beyond."
"Beyond? Are they in touch with the Spirit World?"
"It is very possible. Mindbending requires a balance of the earthly and the spiritual, the corporeal and the incorporeal, the logical and the emotional. It is the yin-yang effect, for which they are so aptly named.
"But you must understand that mindbending, at its core, is the ability to see beyond the physical limitations we impose upon ourselves, to see what others cannot see. Then there are those rarer few who can not only gather such knowledge but use it to their advantage, shaping the course of fortune. My grandmother called this gift the eye of the world."
The eye of the world?
"Have you ever experienced anything spiritual like that?" Katara asked. "I mean, I know the Avatar is the only one who can bridge the gap between two worlds but . . ."
"It is possible to travel to the Spirit World and return. It is also possible to communicate with the spirits themselves—Avatar or not." Kala placed a hand on top of Katara's. "But do not trouble yourself imagining the worst possible scenarios. For all their power, those like Yin and Yang have a weakness, too. Nature always demands balance."
"I hope so." Katara lifted her hand and raked her fingers through her hair. "I really do, because I don't know how much more of this I can take. Right now everything's so confusing and overwhelming and I feel—I feel like I'm drowning." She took in shuddering breath and dropped her hand. "I don't even know who I am anymore."
Kala stared at her with those discerning blue eyes of hers and, after a moment, the elderly waterbender breathed deeply and placed a hand on Katara's flat belly.
"This is less about mindbending and more about your current condition, is it not?" She slowly withdrew her hand, but her gaze remained fixed. "You worry about your future, its future."
Katara's hands flew to her stomach and she took a careful step back. "I-I don't even know if I have something to worry about."
She had gone to Kala the morning after they had set sail from Ka'shi. She had asked the older woman if she could detect anything, but she had discovered nothing. Kala had told her not to unnecessarily worry herself, that sometimes detection took a few days or even a few weeks. Most importantly, Katara knew her own body better than anyone else. She would be the first to discover something different about herself, and Katara idly wondered if she had.
"What will you do with the child?" Kala asked.
"What will you do with the child, if you are pregnant?"
"What do you mean?" Then the meaning of Kala's words sunk in and she recoiled at the implications. "What? No! I could never do that! Not even if the child was evil incarnate."
"I understand. I never got to have a child, myself." A sad smile curved on Kala's lips and she waved a hand, as though shooing away a bothersome fly. "Ah, never mind me. You don't want to hear an old woman ramble. But if I might suggest, you should have this conversation with Zuko."
"And I will," Katara said a bit too quickly, catching a look of scepticism on Kala's face. "I will, once I find out for sure."
Kala didn't say anything more, but Katara couldn't help but feel guilty. She had been avoiding Zuko for the past few days and that was the last thing she should have been doing. They needed to talk about what had happened; they needed to clear the air. And the first topic that required discussion was what they were going to tell Aang and the others about what happened at Ka'shi. It was a discussion that required delicacy and a healthy dose of common sense, which meant excluding several key details.
Katara suppressed a sigh and tapped the helm with a frown. It was time for some delicacy. Leaving the bridge to Kala, she made her way down to the bow of the ship where Zuko sat. Thanks to his keen hearing, he easily detected the sound of her footfalls and abruptly twisted in his seat. He raised a hand to shield his eyes from the glare of the sun.
"Did you come to watch Atsuo win?" He had said it in good humour, but the slightly sour look on his face said otherwise.
Katara bit the inside of her cheek and tried her best not to laugh. Though she wasn't nearly as experienced in the game as some, it was obvious from the layout of the board that harmony was in Atsuo's favour. And if Zuko's quiet snarling at the placement of Atsuo's white lotus tile was an indication of anything, it was that defeat was about to arrive swiftly.
"Zuko, may I have a word with you?"
He set down his jasmine tile and Atsuo gracefully bowed out. Once the former guard was out of earshot, Katara took the seat across from Zuko.
"Is everything okay?" Zuko asked her.
"Yes and no."
Zuko's brow creased as he stared at her curiously.
Katara fiddled with her hands on her lap and took in a steadying breath. She was preparing to speak when her peripheral vision caught sight of sudden movement, leading her to glance skywards. On the edge of a cloud was a large red bird swooping down towards the mast of the ship. It was screeching a high-pitched cry. With its red wings and large carriage, there was no doubt to what it was: a messenger hawk.
Following the hawk was an even larger beast, and most certainly not a bird. It was as white as the downy snow, save a massive belly caked with mud. Its wide black nostrils flared with excitement and exhaustion as it let out a grunt, and Katara's cracked the widest grin imaginable.
Zuko and Katara sprang from their seats simultaneous and laughed a 'is-this-really-happening?' kind of laugh. Ouji and a few others ran up on deck, raising their heads to take in the amazing sight of a sky bison diving towards them. Some of them gasped while others offered a small nod in greeting or a smile or a wave. All of them clamoured away to safety when it looked as though the massive beast was about to land directly on top of the ship, and did.
A few short seconds later, Appa landed not so gracefully onto the deck, spilling crates and tables and the Pai Sho game everywhere. Thankfully the ship was large enough to accommodate the bison or else they'd all be toppling into the ocean right now.
Katara edged in closer and watched in amazement as heads seemed to pop up from Appa's saddle. She counted five passengers in total, excluding Aang, who was holding onto the reins of a very old and tired-looking Appa.
Sokka was waving frantically at her before literally leaping out of the saddle, while Aang flew off Appa's neck and headed directly for the waterbender.
For a moment Katara could only stand frozen in place, every muscle in her body seemingly locked down. And then it was as though a switch had been flipped on and she started running towards them, her legs as nerveless as stilts.
Aang reached her first and gathered her up into his arms. He lifted her into the air and spun her around in circles until she became dizzy with laughter. After a moment, he set her down and nuzzled his face into her hair.
"I missed you so much." He wrapped his arms tightly around her. "So much."
"I missed you, too," Katara said, trying to keep the tears from falling. "I'm so glad you came."
Before any more words could be exchanged, Katara was suddenly yanked from Aang's grip and enveloped into perhaps the tightest bear hug ever.
"You're safe!" Sokka lifted his sister up onto her toes. "Thank the merciful spirits you're safe."
"I need to breathe, Sokka," Katara managed to croak out, and he immediately released her.
"S-sorry, it's just that I've just been searching for you for almost four weeks and—" he took in a deep breath and gave her a watery smile "—I was worried about my baby sister, and now I'm just happy that you're safe and sound."
Katara couldn't halt the tears this time and she folded back into her big brother's embrace. "Thank you for finding me, Sokka." A beat later she pulled Aang into the hug. "The both of you. Thank you."
"Hey, what about me?" Toph shouted, still stranded on Appa's saddle. "I'm missing the heartfelt reunion, which I was also a part of, y'know! A little help here!"
Zuko and Ouji quickly obliged and ran over to Appa, delegating the grounding effort. Ouji leapt up on the sky bison and began lowering the others down into Zuko's waiting arms, starting with Toph.
"You're looking good," Zuko said, setting the metalbender on her feet.
"Wish I could say the same about you, Sunshine."
Zuko smiled and was about to help the next person down when Toph tapped him on the shoulder. He glanced back.
"So I heard you saved the girl," she said, before jabbing him hard in the arm. "Good job, Sunshine."
He winced. "Yeah, thanks."
When he turned his attention back to the passengers being slowly lowered off the sky bison, Zuko was met with a most pleasant sight.
"Nephew!" Iroh's arms shot out and pulled Zuko into a bone-crushing embrace. "Thank Agni we found you."
A small smile angled across his lips as he affectionately patted his uncle's back. "I'm fine, Uncle. I had everything under control."
"I know you did," Iroh said with a slight tremor to his voice. "I had every confidence that you'd find Master Katara and bring her home safely. I'm just—" he hugged Zuko even tighter "—I am just so happy to see you well, Nephew. I don't say it enough, but I am so very proud of you."
Zuko's hold on his uncle tightened and he nodded appreciatively before choking out, "Thank you, Uncle."
As the others began to gather around the newcomers, Aang gave Katara a worried look.
"Katara, are you all right? You look pale."
"N-no, I'm fine."
When Aang's worried look turned sceptical, she smiled at him. It was weak and a little trembly at the corners, but it was better than no smile at all.
"Really, Aang, I'm fine. I'm just a little tired." She rested her head against his shoulder. "You'll just have to bear with me—okay?"
He pulled her in for another hug and rested his chin a top her head. She pillowed her cheek against his chest and watched as her new friends conversed with her old ones. At some point Sokka had managed to steal Zuko away from Iroh and had the firebender trapped in the same bear hug he had given Katara moments ago.
"I knew you'd find her," Sokka said, letting go of his dignified friend. "Never give up without a fight—that's Mr Zuko the Fire Lord for you." He lightly punched the firebender in his bruised arm and his blue eyes softened. "Thanks for saving my baby sister."
Flustered, Zuko could only rub the back of his neck. "It wasn't all me. If it wasn't for Katara and the others, I don't know if we would have made it off the island alive."
"If it wasn't for you, none of us would have found a way to escape the island in the first place," Ouji said.
Katara nodded in agreement. "He's right. You rescued us all, Zuko."
The Fire Lord's face had reddened to beet-like proportions and Sokka chuckled, clapping Zuko on the back with a good-natured grin.
"What do you all say? Three cheers for Zuko!"
Everyone gave cry and Katara couldn't help but laugh at the shrinking violet that was Zuko. A humble Fire Lord. Who would have thought? But he deserved their praise and adulation. He had achieved the impossible, and it had all begun with him wanting to save a friend: her.
When the cheering died down, Aang released Katara and walked over to Zuko, grabbing his forearm first before pulling the firebender in for a hug. Zuko was stiff at first and then relaxed, fully embracing the Avatar, who had always been like a little brother to him.
"Zuko, thank you for everything—for finding Katara and saving her, for saving everyone here." He pulled back and smiled boyishly at the firebender. "Really, I can't ever thank you enough. You're not only a great leader but a selfless friend."
Katara swallowed thickly when she saw the flash of guilt wash over Zuko's face. It was imperceptible to all but her, for she felt the same guilt ache in her own stomach and spine, making it difficult to remain still.
"What are friends for, right?" Zuko glanced over at Katara. "She would have done the same for me."
"He's right," she said, with a nod in the affirmative. "Although I don't think if I could have pulled off the scary assassin look."
"Oh yeah, you were crazy scary as Kage," Ouji agreed, with less than fond remembrance.
"It was the mask," Zuko said.
"No, it was the knives and the muteness."
"Mute?" Sokka nudged Zuko in the ribs. "Isn't that you being your normal self?"
"So, c'mon," Toph urged, leaning against Sokka for support. "Tell us what happened on this island you guys were on. You mentioned an island, right? And who are all these people? It's like a party up in here."
"Ms Beifong is correct," Iroh said. "Introductions are in order, and then you can tell us your riveting tale of escape."
Katara and Zuko obliged and went about introducing the former prisoners of Ka'shi, excluding Nutak, Ken and Ryuu, who were currently guarding the prisoners in the brig. When it came to introducing the gang, Katara was at a loss for who the two strangers were who had accompanied them. One of the men looked downright haggard and abused, while the other man was decidedly handsome with a dark complexion, light blue eyes and a scar that ran from the top of his right eyebrow all the way to the bottom of his eye. He looked to be Water Tribe and no more than a few years older than herself, but she hadn't the foggiest idea who he was.
"Ah, I'm sorry," she said, pointing back and forth between the two strangers, "but I have no idea who you two are."
Iroh gestured to the haggard man first. "He's our prisoner, a Fifth Column scout. We captured him at my villa in Phanom Rung."
Zuko frowned. "Why was a scout at Phanom Rung?"
"He was looking for Mai."
"Mai?" A slightly panicked look crossed Zuko's features. "Is she okay?"
"She's fine," Sokka said, placing a reassuring hand on Zuko's shoulder. "Suki and Ty Lee got her out of the palace safely. They're regrouping with the other Kyoshi Warriors at Hei Bai Forest as we speak."
Zuko furrowed his brow in contemplation. "But if Mai had to flee the palace, that means the Fifth Column has seized the capital. And that means Shin's dead or—" He saw the look on Sokka and Iroh's faces and he grimaced. "Shin's a double agent for the Fifth Column."
"I am sorry, Nephew."
Zuko palmed his face with a frustrated sigh. Civil War had befallen his nation and his crown had been taken without a fight. Even if he reclaimed his throne now, knowledge of him abandoning his position as Fire Lord, no matter how noble his intentions were, would be made public and his citizens would lose faith in him. More aptly put, they would lose all faith in him.
"Things just keep getting better and better." He dropped his hand and turned to examine the scout. "If he was looking for Mai, who you say is safe, why did you bring him here with you?"
Sokka awkwardly rubbed the back of his neck. "Yeah, about that."
"He was supposed to be our guide to help find Katara," Toph said, picking at her ears. "We tortured him for information."
"You what?" Katara all but shrieked.
Sokka, who now hiding behind the handsome stranger like a shield, pushed him forward. "Hey, yeah, and this guy here is Hahn."
"Hahn?" Katara blinked. "Hahn of the Northern Water Tribe Hahn?" He politely bowed and Katara's eyes almost bulged out of their sockets. "But Zhao threw you overboard!"
"That he did."
"B-but how are you even alive?"
"It's a long story."
"He survived the fall and was saved by a fisherman," Sokka informed her blandly. "Then he toured the world and discovered the lost airbending temple, ancient airbenders included, and is now a personal guest of Aang's, which is why he'd here with us now. The end."
"Okay, maybe it's not that long."
Katara shook her head in amazement. "Wow, that's just . . . wow."
While Katara was intrigued with Hahn's story, the rest of the former Ka'shi prisoners were far more interested in the Avatar and his sky bison. Zuko, meanwhile, took this opportunity to properly introduce Iroh to Ouji.
"Uncle, I'd like to formerly introduce you to Ouji, my mother's adopted son. Ouji, this is General Iroh."
Sokka, Aang and Toph immediately stopped talking and observed the scene with open mouths. Ouji bowed respectfully to Iroh, but the older man just chuckled and folded the shocked boy into a brief hug.
"Please, call me Uncle. It's a pleasure to meet you, my boy."
After that, Sokka and Aang jack-knifed over to hear the tale of Ursa and how she had come to be imprisoned at Ka'shi. The story of Ursa, however, had inevitably led to the tale of the twins and mindbending, of which Aang held no knowledge of but Iroh did.
"Ah yes, Yin and Yang. I remember them well." Iroh nodded sagely, folding his arms into his sleeves. "It doesn't surprise me that they were Father's illegitimate children."
"But with Hama?" Sokka made a face and shuddered. "So gross."
"And you're sure Yin and Yang are contained?" Iroh asked.
Katara and Zuko shared a look before Zuko nodded. "There's something in the metal that suppresses their powers."
"I see." Iroh stroked his beard with a frown. "The twins were always held in high regard, but I had no inclination that they were so powerful. Your father even looked down on them because they were non-benders."
"Yeah, we'll it turns out that they're not a big fan of his either," Zuko said. "All this time I thought the Fifth Column was rallying under my father's name to put him back on the throne, when its leaders are two people who'd rather see him dead."
"Then what do they want?" Aang asked.
"We're not sure," Katara answered quickly. "It would help if we knew more about the twins and the nature of mindbending itself."
"Where are you going to find another mindbender?" Sokka asked. "They sound pretty rare to me, and dangerous."
"Well, we happen to have our very own non-dangerous mindbender right here from the South Pole." Katara smiled and motioned grandly to Kala. "Sokka, this is our cousin, Kala."
"Cousin, you say?"
"Yes, she's Gran-Gran's cousin, which makes her our, uh, great-something-or-other cousin."
Aang bowed respectfully to the older woman, as did Iroh.
"It is a pleasure to meet you, Master Kala," Aang said. "I'd love to learn more about mindbending from you someday, if you'd allow me such a privilege."
Kala smiled. "It'd be my honour, Avatar."
Sokka waved a hand dismissively. "Yeah-yeah, privileges and honour aside—what are we going to do about these Yin-Yang twins? If they're so dangerous, how exactly are we going to keep them from putting the whammy on us?"
Katara tilted her head incredulously. "The whammy?"
"You know, some mystical magical mind-mojo."
"Gee, thanks for simplifying that, Sokka."
"Me and my students could create a special metal prison for them," Toph suggested. "That way they don't have to be tied up at all times. Plus it'd be easier to hide them from those who might have the same powers."
"Hey, that's a good idea," Aang said.
"Of course it is." Toph scoffed. "It came from me, didn't it?"
"Okay, lock 'em both up," Sokka said, throwing up his hands. "I'm all for that. But if they're the leaders of the Fifth Column, don't you want to be able to use them to stop the civil war? I don't want to be morbid or anything, but nothing quite shuts down a coup like beheading its leaders."
"Sokka, that's horrible!" Aang chastised, but Sokka merely shrugged.
"We can't kill them," Zuko said. "At least not yet."
"Why not yet?" Toph asked. "Do they have an expiry date or something?"
"It's complicated." Sokka about to protest when Zuko raised a hand. "And I'll tell you why later. But for the time being we have to keep them alive."
"All right," Sokka said reluctantly. "We trust you, Zuko. We do. We just need to know what the game plan is—what we're doing and where we're heading."
"We're heading to the Fire Nation capital," Zuko said. "I must take back my palace and rescue my people, regardless of the consequences."
Sokka stroked his bearded chin in contemplation. "Sure, that sounds like the lordly thing to do, but if we charge in now, won't they suspect something? They've got to know we'll be coming, what with no word from their leaders. They'll be prepared for something like this." He sighed. "Look, I want to help, Zuko, but we don't have the numbers, even with Aang in our corner. It'd be suicide."
"But I can't let a tyrant sit on my throne!"
"Patience," Iroh said, placing a hand on his nephew's shoulder. "Tyranny cannot endure forever. By its very nature it rots everything it rules, including itself." He slipped his arms up his sleeves and shrugged. "But then that can take a lifetime, so you'll need to accelerate the process or stop it altogether."
"And how do you propose I do that?"
"Hey, that's what we're here for," Sokka said, tapping at his temple. "We're your think tank, buddy. We'll come up with a plan."
"Don't worry, Zuko," Aang said, nudging a grumpy-faced Zuko in the ribs. "We'll find a way. We always do."
"Yeah, Grumpy Pants," Toph said, piping in. "So turn that frown upside down."
Zuko's frown deepened. "How do you even know I'm frowning?"
"Your voice is frowning," Toph answered tersely. "I can feel the frown-vibrations from here."
From that point on the topic of conversation became a little less dire and everyone began discussing more trivial matters, like getting to know one another. Aang informed Katara and Zuko on the discovery of the ancient Air Nomads while Sokka and Iroh entertained the others, filling them in on the current events they had missed while imprisoned.
Toph, who wasn't her normal vocal self, staggered starboard with the grace of a platypus-bear. Ouji, being the young gentleman he was, offered the petite woman a helping hand.
"Who're you again?"
"Great, Ouji," Toph said, tightening her grip on his forearm. "Wanna help a blind girl catch her bearings on this stupid rocking ship and direct her to a lavatory? I think I'm gonna be sick."
While Ouji helped steady a seasick Toph, the screech of a messenger hawk seemed to rattle the ship, and Appa grunted his disapproval.
"What's Zuko's bird squawking about now?" Toph grumbled.
"That's not Ryu." Zuko pointed to his hawk roosting on one of the masts. "That's got to be someone else's messenger hawk."
Right then the unknown bird swooped down in Sokka's direction and the Water Tribe warrior yelped before quickly extending his arm so that the bird had a place to land. It dug its talons in deep and Sokka winced in pain, sharing a few colourful expletives with those in earshot.
"Yeah, this bird's here for me all right."
He carefully removed the canister from its leg and, once free of its post, the bird took off and joined Zuko's hawk in search for food. Sokka then emptied the canister and unfurled the small scroll inside, while the others waited in nervous anticipation.
"It's from Suki," he said, and Katara quickly joined his side.
"What is it? Is she okay?"
Sokka didn't answer but kept on reading. After a moment, his hands began to tremble and he lowered the paper, licking his lips with a nervous smile. "It's a boy. She had a boy."
Everyone gaped at him in confusion, and then Sokka threw his fists up in the air with a loud whoop.
"I have a son!"
The crowd joyously erupted with cheers and roars of congratulations, and Katara tackled her beaming brother with a grin. She was going to have a nephew. She was going to be an aunt again. Finally, they all had something to celebrate.
THE NEXT MORNING Katara quietly slipped out of bed, careful of Aang who was still sound asleep. He was lying on his back and snoring loudly, unaware and unaffected by his surroundings. Katara was surprised he had even slept with her in the cabin last night instead of up on the main deck with Appa. The two were rarely separated, even if Katara was supposed to be his betrothed.
The normally graceful waterbender tried to be as quiet as possible as she stumbled towards the starboard side of the cabin, bumping into objects and furniture as she went. She felt groggy and hungover, like her brain was cluttered with fog. Last night's festivities must have worn her out completely, for she seemed to have trouble regaining her equilibrium and was currently willing the contents of her stomach to remain in her stomach.
It was odd for her to get seasick—she was a waterbender for goodness' sake—so she chalked it up to having the flu. Swallowing back the nausea, she braced herself against the bulkhead of the rocking ship and slowly inched her way over to the small window. Once there, she shunted open the curtain just far enough to see out, sighting a sluggish grey sky and a tumultuous dark sea with rough waves lapping against the massive hull.
Shutting the curtain closed, she grabbed a cloak and quietly exited the cabin, careful not to make a sound. Once topside, the cool salty air hit her in the face and cleared any traces of sleep from her head. Though her stomach was still unsettled, she felt better out on the open sea with the wind at her back.
The sun was nowhere in sight, but she instinctively knew that it was dawn and that she'd find Zuko up on deck. Not to be disappointed, she found the firebender standing at the bow near a slumbering Appa. His hands were resting on the railing and he was scowling up at the thick grey clouds gathering in the sky.
A storm was coming.
Waves battered noisily against the ship and, after a moment, a misty rain began to fall. It was light at first, but soon it would thicken and swell like the clouds above. Katara didn't even bother to draw her hood and instead diverted the rain around her like an invisible umbrella and walked over to him.
"Hey," she called above the crash of the waves.
Zuko swiftly turned, his golden eyes lighting up with surprise. "Hey. I didn't hear you coming. What are you doing up so early?"
"Couldn't sleep." She gave a little shrug. "And besides, I think I've become a morning riser."
She smirked and he grinned back at her, motioning for her to join him. Katara did just that and stepped beside Zuko, resting her hands on the railing and mirroring his stance. The two listened to the sounds of the sea, staring idly out into the murky distance.
"We're close to land," Zuko said, pointing to a landmass that Katara couldn't see. "Looks like it might be an island south-east of Ba Sing Se."
"The Earth Kingdom?" She thought they were heading straight for the Fire Nation capital.
"It'll be easier for us to travel through the Earth Kingdom first than directly sail into the Fire Nation," he explained. "Last night Sokka, Uncle and I decided it'd be best travel to Ba Sing Se first and gather forces there, then rendezvous with Mai and the Kyoshi Warriors at Hei Bai Forest. From there we'll head to Yu Dao."
"Yu Dao?" Katara's brow knitted in concentration. "You mean Toph's Metalbending Academy?"
"What better place to keep the twins imprisoned? We can leave them with Toph's students while we launch our assault to reclaim the Fire Nation capital."
Katara slowly nodded. "What about Kala and the others?"
"Don't worry. We'll get them home."
"Yeah, home." Katara sighed and braced her arms on the railing. "I wonder when I'm going to see that again, and where it will be."
Zuko frowned. "What do you mean?"
She remained silent. How was she supposed to tell Zuko that she wasn't sure if she'd have a home to go to after she told Aang and the others about her time on the island? How would they take the news of what she and Zuko had been forced to do? Would Aang easily forgive her and take her back? Did she want to go back?
"Katara, if you're worried about Aang, don't be."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean I'll take the blame." When Katara made to speak, Zuko raised a hand to stop her. "Look, my marriage with Mai was ruined the moment I decided to go off and play spy. That's on me. But what happened to you wasn't your fault.
"You were kidnapped and tortured and forced to act against your will. It was beyond your control. Your relationship with Aang doesn't have to suffer because of what Yin and Yang made you do—what they made us both do." He took in a deep breath and nodded sharply. "I'll tell Aang it was my fault."
"Oh no you won't!" She jabbed a slender finger at his chest. "I refuse to let you take the blame for something that was beyond your control, Zuko. It wasn't your fault, and you will not tell Aang that it was." She inhaled slowly and tried to calm herself down. "I will not let you take the blame when all you were trying to do was save me."
Determined to not have him refuse her, Katara gave him a sharp look before planting her fists on her hips, staring at Zuko like a stern mother lecturing her misbehaving son. There was no way she was going to let him take the blame for what happened to them both. No way.
After a minute under her intense scrutiny, Zuko finally relented and averted his gaze, much to her relief. An uncomfortable silence settled between them and they both turned to stare blankly out at sea. The rain had died down and to the east a wide swath of the ocean seemed to glow with a ghostly luminescence, rising and falling with the waves. And as the silvery sheen rolled and eddied, Katara found her own thoughts swirling like a whorl on the tide.
"We don't have to tell them," she said quietly. "What happened to us, I mean. It was a private affair shared between the two of us. Aang and the others don't have to know."
Zuko's forehead wrinkled in a frown. "Katara, you know we can't do that."
"Because they're our friends. They deserve to know."
Katara hung her head. He was right, of course. He always was. But that didn't mean she had to like it, or like herself for advocating dishonesty. She was an honest person by nature, but something like this seemed too personal to share with others, even though they deserved to know the truth.
"Katara, you know I respect you, not just your opinion but who you are as a person. I know that telling the others what happened to you, to us, will be difficult. You don't want anyone to get hurt and—and maybe you're afraid that they won't understand, but we have to tell them." He took her hands in his. "We can't keep something like this a secret. Eventually it will come back around, and it'll be so much worse."
"I know." Her chin wobbled. "I know that. It's just—could you keep it a secret for just a little while longer? We've only just been reunited with everyone and it's been so long since we've all been together like this and everyone's so happy and I . . ."
Her words trailed off and she closed her eyes with a painful sigh. She knew she was asking too much of him. It was also in Zuko's nature to be honest and noble. And he was right. Aang would eventually find out, if not from her than from someone else, someone who would not have her or Aang's best interests at heart. Not telling him now would only make the betrayal that much greater.
When she finally opened her eyes, she was surprised to that the grey had lifted from the sea and the skies had parted to reveal a beautiful morning blue. Light seemed to jerk towards the horizon and her vision was filled with that light. The sun had finally come out, moving slowly across a now cloudless sky, and she was awestruck by the sight of it.
"Look." Zuko pointed to the large pale moon west of the rising sun. "The sun and the moon are coexisting in the same sky."
"Yeah, they are." Her face lit up with a radiant smile. "Kinda like us, huh?" She nudged him in the side and he smiled, looping an arm over her shoulder.
"Yeah, kinda like us." They watched the sun and moon move across the sky and Zuko's smile briefly waned. He paused and then inhaled deeply before nodding. "All right."
"All right, what?"
"All right, I won't say anything to Aang or the others."
Katara's shoulders dropped. It felt like an immense weight had been lifted from her chest and she hid her relief behind a gracious nod of acceptance.
"Thank you." She reached up and wrapped both arms around his neck. "Thank you, thank you."
"You're welcome." He awkwardly returned her embrace before slowly pulling back. "But this, what happened between us, we need to eventually tell Aang about what we did, what the twins made us do. As soon as possible."
She nodded emphatically. "I know, and we will, soon, just—let him and the others enjoy this moment for now. There'll be war soon and much more to worry about than us and what happened at Ka'shi."
A tic worked in Zuko's jaw and he abruptly let go of her, turning back towards the bow with a grimace.
Katara watched Zuko's face contort with conflicting emotions and she couldn't help but feel his pain, too. Both had been to war before and neither wanted to revisit that kind of loss and struggle again. But sometimes liberty left you no choice other than to sacrifice for the greater good.
"Hey." Katara looped an arm around his waist. "No matter what happens, I won't let you fight this war alone. You can always count on me to be by your side."
She rested her head against his shoulder and he glanced down at her, his golden eyes crinkling into a soft smile.
"I never doubted you, Katara." He bent down and brushed his lips a top her head. "Not once."
Katara buried her face into his arm with a smile. It was true. Zuko had trusted her more than she trusted herself, even when all the odds were against them and she had literally held his life in her hands. Not once had he doubted her. It was a great feeling to be trusted so unconditionally, but that euphoric feeling was short-lived.
Breaking free from Zuko's embrace, Katara leaned over the railing and spilled the contents of last night's meal into the sea below.
"Hey, are you all right?"
Katara nodded and continued to heave over the side of the ship while Zuko rubbed small circles on her back. Once she had nothing left to expel, she stood back up and shakily wiped her mouth with the back of her hand.
"I'm fine, just a little nauseated."
She tried to give a cheerful, eager face, yet she was pale and clammy and ready to void her stomach again at any moment. It also didn't help that her legs were shaking like a newborn fawn.
"Are you sure you're okay?" Zuko asked with a concerned frown.
"Yeah, I'm probably just coming down with the flu."
"You should get back in bed, then."
"I will, in a bit. The fresh air makes me feel better."
Zuko eyed her sceptically for a moment before nodding. "Okay, well, I'm going to go relieve Ouji. But you and me," he said, pointing between the two of them with a waning smirk, "we'll settle up after this."
Katara couldn't help but laugh, remembering the first words she had said to him in the interrogation cell. "Yeah—yeah, we will."
"Get some rest." He rubbed her back once more and she nodded.
"And Katara—no matter what happens, I will always be here for you, too. Remember that."
Water gathered in her eyes and she nodded sharply before averting her gaze. She didn't want him to see her cry, not now. His words had sounded too close to a promise and, for the first time since what seemed like forever, she felt safe.
Zuko then left for the bridge and Katara watched him go. He had only taken a few steps when he glanced over his shoulder at her and gave her a look that could only be described as knowing. She froze, her heart momentarily refusing to beat.
Did he know?
She forced a smile and shook her head as if it was nothing. The concerned look on his face gave way to a sad smile and then he was gone. Inhaling deeply, she turned back towards the sea and braced her hands against the railing.
Everything was changing.
Zuko had once told her that everything changes. It was all changing so quickly now, like the tide, and she with it. Placing a hand on her stomach, Katara knew her body was changing too, and a sad smile curved on her lips.
Yes, everything was changing—for good or ill she had yet to find out, but she would. Someday soon. For this was only the beginning.