It took so little to set her off, these days. At first it was just the look on Aang's face and the way he buried his head in her neck and Sokka's fury and Suki's silence. And then it was Hakoda's awkward embrace, the way he didn't quite know her anymore, the way it should have been her mother doing this, only her mother wasn't there and wouldn't ever be. And then it was her headache and the way her whole body hurt and how she didn't know if she should give up the bloodbending or cling to it because it made her stronger and more useful than she felt right now.
Katara lay on her bed and listened to the sound of her own moist, tear-thickened breathing and thought of Aang's broken body clutched close to hers, the way the water had helped her soar upward and how she had felt scared but certain, like she knew what to do. But she hadn't a clue now. Now she thought of his scar and the way she had watched him sleep, watched his hair grow, watched the baby fat melt away as he recovered ever so slowly. A voice inside her mind that sounded too much like Hama's said: Your doing, your doing, your doing.
When Aang came, he spoke through the door: "Katara?"
"Please go away, Aang. I can't see you right now."
"Katara, please "
"Aang, I'm not mad at you. I just need to be alone for a while."
"Katara, I know I should have told you sooner-"
"Go to bed, Aang."
Silence. Then she heard the sound of his trudging footsteps and the low murmur of Toph's voice. They faded away in the direction of the stable. Her hands clutched together. Please take care of him. Please don't let him run away.
She closed her eyes. Sleep came mercifully fast. In her dream, Yue was there and she said I have to do this. Katara watched the princess walk calmly into the water of the Oasis. She saw Yue's royal finery pooling around her like the petals of a lotus, and heard Sokka pleading as the waters of the oasis flared gold, turned to molten fire. When she looked down the koi fish Tui and La were two dancing dragons that circled Yue's glowing, disintegrating body. I have to do this, Yue said calmly from within smoke and flame. I have to do this. I have to do this.
Katara opened her eyes and saw the waning moon like a smile in her window, and when she left her room she was not at all surprised to see two shapes sitting just outside the glow of a low fire. Iroh sat against a pillar and Zuko faced the darkness, his back to the fire, his knees drawn to his chest. An open Pai Sho game sat behind him, the tiles ignored.
"Hello, my dear," Iroh said, and Zuko flinched. "Would you like some tea?"
"Thank you, General."
"Oh, no, please, call me Uncle." Iroh snapped his fingers and something under the teapot flickered. Katara knelt. She smoothed her dress. Iroh brought the tea to boiling and poured it, handed a cup to her. He gestured at the portable gameboard - it was a large square of leather with squares burned into its surface. The tiles seemed worn; they were shiny where fingers had frequently touched them. "Do you play Pai Sho?"
"Your father's skills are improving. But he insists that the game takes too long. I keep telling him that Pai Sho cannot be rushed. It requires careful thought and planning."
"Dad's better at going out and facing something head-on." She smiled. "He's a really good leader."
Iroh sipped his tea. "He is not the only one." Katara blushed. "I hope you will forgive me for noticing, but pink is quite becoming on you." Iroh examined a minute crack in his teacup. "I can see why he likes you."
If possible, her blush only intensified. "I thought it was just a crush."
"Oh, no," Iroh said, a little ruefully. "It runs much deeper than that."
Katara hung her head. She was reminded of Master Pakku, and the way her breath had steamed against the snow as her resolve firmed. You can't knock me down. Those were the days. "I think I'm doing him more harm than good."
Zuko turned around. "That's not true. You brought him back to life."
"The water from the Spirit Oasis did-"
"No. You did. You didn't waste your gift on something stupid like " He turned so that she saw his ruined eye. "Something stupid." Beside her, Iroh perked up like a pygmy puma scenting something tasty in the air. But he said nothing. Zuko paced. "I knew he was alive. You would never let him die."
Katara hugged her arms. "Well, there's none left. The next time Azula-"
"There won't be a next time." Zuko stared out at the stars. At his sides, his hands had curled into fists.
Katara nodded. "That's right." She turned to Iroh. "I want to go on the mission."
"What?" Zuko whirled. "No. Absolutely not."
She gave him her frostiest glare. "Was I talking to you? No."
"Oh, so you want to go by yourself. Well, have fun! I hope you have a great time!" He threw his hands up in the air. "You're insane, this is crazy-"
"Tell me about the weapon," Katara said, glancing at Iroh.
"Don't tell her anything! We're not going!"
"If you don't want to come, Zuko, you don't-"
"Don't want to come?" The fire flared. "I'm never going back there. Ever. I'm staying right here where I belong."
"Well, good for you. But I have a job to do." She pointed herself toward Iroh. "There's one full moon before the comet comes. That's when my bending is most powerful. I should go-"
"Are you even listening to yourself? You can't just abandon Aang because of how he feels about you!"
Her mouth fell open. Her voice went low and cold. "How dare you?"
Zuko pointed down the hall. "He loves you. If you leave, it will destroy him."
"You don't know that."
Fine lines appeared at his good eye. He spoke in a pained voice. "Yes. I do. We don't have to leave. We can train him."
She felt herself almost wilt, then drew herself to her full height. "What's all this we stuff? You're staying right here. You said so yourself." She firmed her lips. "I'm not asking you to do anything-"
"Yes, you are! You can't get in without me!"
"My nephew raises a good point," Iroh said. "Zuko is the only way you have into the palace. If he does not go with you, it is best that you stay here."
"Thank you, Uncle."
"But if he does not go with you, then we cannot prepare for the weapon."
Katara smiled. "Thank you, Uncle."
Zuko rolled his eyes. "You can't prepare that quickly. You don't have enough time-"
"There is enough time to evacuate the towns that need it," Iroh said. "The war will not end with Ozai's death, nephew. There are Fire Nation armies all over the world, waiting for the comet. Time is on their side."
Zuko's knuckles tightened. "But we know where the Fire Navy is. I was at those meetings! I know their plans!"
A deep line appeared between Iroh's brows. "Do you think my brother won't have changed his plan of attack, now that he knows you travel with the Avatar?"
Zuko flushed. He looked again at the stones. "I won't leave him," Zuko said quietly. "I made a promise."
Iroh sighed heavily. "Your desire to remain with the Avatar is not wrong, my nephew. Already you are a stronger, better man than Ozai could ever hope to be." Iroh reached over to the Pai Sho board and adjusted a tile. "Now is the time to use that strength for others."
"But I am," Zuko said. He let his hair cover his eyes. "I'm teaching Aang. At least, I think I am."
Iroh shifted uncomfortably. "Jealousy is always born of admiration, Prince Zuko."
"There's nothing to be jealous of." Zuko turned to Katara. "You really didn't say anything when he kissed you?"
Katara reddened. "He flew away. And then " She shrugged. "And then everything happened."
His good eye popped. "So you just left him hanging?"
"I thought he was just being sweet!"
"You train him in your underwear! What was he supposed to think?"
"Children," Iroh said, holding up his hands. "What's done is done. The human heart does not change for another's wishes, and neither does the past." He sipped his tea. "Both of you must decide your next course of action. Do not decide too quickly. Whatever path you choose, you must follow it through to the end."
They sighed. Zuko turned away from them both before pushing himself to his feet and walking to the furthest edge of the terrace. He sat down and hung his legs over the side. The sky lightened gently; from their west-facing vantage point they wouldn't see the dawn. The moon, or a ghostly glimmer of it, still hung in the paling blue sky. Katara turned from him to the general. Iroh watched his nephew carefully and with more than a little sadness.
"He is right, you know. You do not have to leave."
"I'm holding Aang back."
"That is a matter of opinion. The Avatar is wise to nurture the love in his heart. It is what separates him from men like my brother."
"I know " Katara picked a thread from her dress. "General Fong tried to force the Avatar State, once. Nothing worked. Then he buried me alive. Aang nearly destroyed his fortress." Her fingers tightened on her hem. "Aang has to learn how to control his power, or it will control him." And with that, she stood up, dusted herself off, and went to sit a careful distance from Zuko. The feel of her legs swinging out into empty space gave her a fresh dose of goosebumps.
"We have to figure this out," she said.
"There's nothing to figure out. We're staying."
"I don't want to fight-"
"No. You don't." His voice had attained a quiet, detached calm. He looked away from her and into the mist. From this side, she saw only un-marked skin, the outline of a face that might have been.
A distinct chill expanded from her stomach to her skin. Her fingers curled around the lip of stone beneath her. "Are you challenging me?"
"Is that what you want?"
She looked at the last, almost-translucent sliver of moon in the sky. A solution suddenly appeared with the first blue pre-dawn light. "Yes. Let's get it over with." She turned to him. "If I win, we're going."
"And if you lose, you're never bringing it up again." He turned so that she saw the scar, too. "I won't hold back, this time."
For some strange reason, her heart did a little flip. "Me either."
Something in his face softened. "You don't have to do this. I don't want to hurt you."
"Who says you're going to?"
In answer, he merely reached for his swords. They sat discarded near a pillar, and he shouldered the sheath. "What are you doing, nephew?" Iroh asked.
"Finishing something," Zuko said.
Iroh stood. "This isn't the way-"
"You've never countered these, have you?" Zuko moved and suddenly two swords were in his hands; she was oddly reminded of Jet's twin hooks. It seemed their thin blades absorbed the fire's light somehow and reflected it back at her; they gleamed.
"No," she said, swallowing. "I haven't."
"I cut Aang free of his chains with these." The swords whirled and he was closer to her, his feet moved lazily, he was still talking: "I sliced right through the cuffs." The swords moved and air stirred around her, she blinked, she backed up. "Let's change the deal," Zuko said, and he had his old voice back, his Aren't you a big girl, now? voice. "All you have to do is keep me from taking your necklace. You're already wearing it. It shouldn't be too hard."
"My " Her fingers trailed to the pendant. Katara raised her chin. "Fine."
"Good. Get ready." She turned to the fountain, and as her focus shifted to the water she understood it was a trap, understood what he intended, and she froze the water over her arms just in time to feel two blades slice down into the icy sleeves. Her crossed arms shook with effort just keeping him from pinning them to the floor.
"I thought you had changed," she said through gritted teeth.
"I have changed," he said. "But Ozai hasn't." Zuko moved and the swords sheared through the ice, sending glittering chunks of it to the floor. The force sent her aching arms swinging to either side. Katara stumbled backward, summoned more water. She clothed herself in it. The cool armor coiled up her legs and arms. She cast water whips at his feet and he jumped away nimbly. He moved as though picking up the swords had awakened something new inside him. His toes barely touched the floor. The blades were an extension of his arms; fire skimmed right off them and she had only enough time to try whipping him once more before sizzling hot steel arced over her head and she had to lean back to avoid it.
Growling, she pulled the water from her body and pushed a ball of ice at Zuko's stomach; he flew backward into a pillar and she froze him there. Panting, he spat before staring her in the face. "This is nothing," he said.
"Do your worst."
Inhaling, he let loose a mighty jet of fire and broke free of the ice. Spinning, his blades making a complicated pattern that she only recognized from the sparking ball of blue light now developing between his swords. He moved low and she brought up her water and when the lightning hit the wave it glowed like a net full of stars. The water steamed and trembled in her grip; she felt lightning coursing through it and she watched him through the wall of water and light, saw him start to run. She channeled the simmering water down the fountain. The temple glowed and the air filled with the smell of a storm. He ran straight up a pillar, kicked away with legs streaming fire. He landed behind her and she spun a water whip under his legs; he jumped but she grabbed his ankle with the water and dragged him into the fountain's channel. Freezing the water that snaked up his legs, Katara ducked his fireballs and coated him in ice. She flicked her wrist and suddenly he was flying backward.
"Zuko! No!" Iroh reached for him but it was too late; Zuko's shape vanished over the edge, into the mist. Horrified, the general turned to her. "What have you done?"
A hot pulse of life radiated up to her and she said: "Not enough."
Zuko roared back into the room from the abyss, fire at his feet and hands. He skimmed the ice and the steel squealed along its glittering surface; he turned, spun, and swung the swords to slice clean through a fresh volley of ice-balls. She raised her hands just as he slammed her against the wall and crossed the blades over her neck. This close, she felt his breath on her damp face. He smirked. "All I have to do is squeeze."
"I know the feeling." Pain thrummed through her head as she took hold of the veins in his neck and slowly began to choke them off. Dread replaced triumph on his face. She could smell his sweat.
"Don't," he said. The blades trembled. "I'll lose my grip."
She invaded his arms, felt the water and blood inside them like threads that led only to her fingers. Pain shimmered behind her eyes. "That's the idea."
"No." Baring his teeth, he leaned in closer. The steel creaked in his hands; she felt the swords up under ears, in her hair. "Look at me."
"Look at me." He was trembling, his gaze focusing in and out, his breath too shallow. He turned fractionally, each movement stilted and awkward, so she could see the scar. "Is this what you want?"
Stars appeared in her vision. "No." She swallowed against the steel. It was still warm. "But my people need me, Aang-"
"All Aang ever did wrong was love you."
Something inside her cracked. "Don't-"
He lunged with bared teeth. This was his last inch of strength and she understood his intentions as clearly as though he'd spoken them: He's going to bite the necklace off me. So she let him free and his arms fell and she kicked up off the wall and threw her forehead forward. It connected. A haze of pain exploded in her vision and they both cried out; they were falling clumsily and Zuko's hand closed over her neck and her hand closed over his. Then there was nothing.
"Well hey there, look who's up?"
Katara's eyes blinked open. Toph and Sokka stood in the door. Aang and her father were conspicuously absent. Katara tried to sit up. Pain and nausea rippled up along her body. "Easy, there," Toph said. "You did some tough bending this morning. You'd better rest."
Katara swallowed. Her hand flew up to her neck. The necklace was still there. She sighed and fell back on the pillows. "I won."
"Oh yeah, you won all right," Sokka said. "You've got an all-expenses-paid trip for two to the Fire Palace! Congratulations!" He threw his hands in the air. "Katara, what were you thinking?"
"Sokka, I just went through this with Zuko-"
"Oh, great. You can tell Jerkbender, but you can't tell me. Awesome."
"No." Her brother pushed away from the door. "We have Suki back. We have Dad back. Everyone's healthy, and we have enough supplies. Why do you want to ruin it by leaving?"
She sighed. "You were the one who said Aang should get over me."
"Oh, and you going on a suicide mission is really going to help with that, Katara."
"Do you have a better idea?"
"Yes! No! I don't know! We'll introduce him to some other girls! You could stop taking baths!"
Despite herself, she laughed. "I'm not sure that'll help."
"Anything has to be better than you and Sparky ditching us, though, right?" Toph asked. She toed the space between two stones. "I mean, come on, we'll get through it like we always do."
Katara sighed. "We're not ditching you, Toph. We're coming back. But right now we have a chance to save a lot of people." She pursed her lips. "We have to make sure that what happened in Ba Sing Se doesn't happen again. If we get Ozai's battle plans, we can really make a difference."
"But why does it have to be you guys?" Toph asked, balling her fists. "Can't someone else do it?"
Katara shook her head before remembering that Toph could not see her do so. "Zuko is the only one who can get close enough." She tilted her head. "You wouldn't want him to go there alone, would you?"
"No " Toph frowned. "Why can't I go? I don't need some special secret passage into the palace; I'll just blow a hole right through it-"
"No," Zuko said. He moved stiffly into the room, and Katara saw the shadow of a bruise on his chin. The lip seemed a little puffier than usual.
"Why not?" Toph asked, turning to him.
He crouched. "I need you here," he said. "You have to make sure my uncle doesn't eat too much."
"Ha ha, very funny, Sparky. I mean it, why-"
"Hey!" Zuko silently held a finger up to his lips. "Don't move."
Toph stiffened. "What is it?"
"Can't you feel it?" Zuko walked his fingers crab-like along Toph's shoulder. "It's headed right for your neck!" His hand darted for her neck and started tickling; Toph yelped and fell to her knees, futilely trying to bat his hands away. "It's going to bite you!" His tickling hands raced up under her arms. "There's two of them!"
Toph shrieked laughter. "I'm going to kill you!" She clawed for his face; he grabbed her two ankles in his one hand and pulled them out from under her.
"I caught a hogmonkey!" Zuko said standing up with her ankles in his hands. Her long hair fell out of its bun. "I'd better go skin it-"
"Sparky, no!" Toph flailed her arms above the floor.
He moved for the door. "Maybe I should clean it first; I think there's a fountain around here somewhere-"
"No! Put me down!" Toph pounded ineffectually on his shins from her upside-down position.
Zuko rolled his eyes. "Come on, Champ." He let Toph down far enough so that her palms touched the ground. He turned to Katara. "How are you?"
She smiled. "Still got my necklace." She wagged a finger at him. "You tried to bite me. I'm telling your uncle on you."
"You bit my sister?"
"She almost knocked my teeth out! I have a loose one, now!"
"You knocked his teeth out, Sweetness?"
"We could always tie it to a doorknob and pull," Katara said. "Or maybe I should make you some nice mushy baby food so it won't hurt your tiny little teeth-"
"I do not have tiny teeth! You have an enormous forehead!"
"I do not!" She felt along her hairline. It still hurt where her head had made contact with his chin. "Do I?"
"It's huge. And very hard. My mouth still hurts."
Sokka gave Zuko a very odd look. "Oh, really?"
Zuko took this as his cue to leave, for some reason. "Come on, wheelbarrow. Let's load you up with some lunch."
"I'm not a wheelbarrow, I'm a champion! Put me down!"
They left, Zuko walking Toph along so that her body paralleled the floor as her palms slapped the stones. Katara watched them go. She caught herself leaning out of bed to follow their movements. Sokka hove into her vision, a distinct frown on his face. "You sure your head's okay?"
"I'm fine," Katara said. "It's just weird how well those two get along."
Sokka nodded and looked out the door. "Sparky probably just likes having a little sister who's not trying to kill him." He folded his arms. "So. The plan. I hate it."
"I don't think you do. Do you want to talk to Suki? Have her tell you what Azula does to her favorite prisoners?"
"Because Dad's grilling her on it, right now. He's suddenly very interested."
Katara's heart sank. "Oh, no "
"And Aang decided that the stable needed another entrance. Just so you know."
She hung her head. "And what about you?"
Sokka crossed the room. His arms slipped around her and he rested his chin on her head. "I still think you're the best sister in the world." He pulled away. "Even if you are pretty reckless and naive."
"Reckless, maybe, but I am not naive."
"Sis. Aang's liked you since he laid eyes on you. You're naive."
Her jaw dropped. "You knew?"
Sokka used two fingers to point at his face. "See these? We call them eyes." He ruffled her hair. "You've really gotta work on that whole noticing things bit."
She stuck her tongue out. "I'll get right on it, Mr. Sneak Attack."
"I happen to be very stealthy!"
"Tell it to the Five Seven Five Society, Sokka."
That night at dinner, Iroh laid out a map of the Fire Palace. "The palace is like a small town," he said. "It has many layers of security. First, there is the main wall, here. It is patrolled by archers and firebenders. Then there are guards at each of the main entrances. In addition, there is a river far below the palace that flows into the bay."
"Whoa, so there really is a secret river?" Sokka asked.
"It's not so secret if you know about it," Zuko said.
"Hey, they taught Aang about it in school," Sokka said. He turned. "Isn't that right, Aang?" Aang said nothing. He looked away. Sokka winced and turned around. "Well, then. Moving on."
Iroh cleared his throat. "There is a network of secret passages and hidden tunnels extending from inside the palace to the volcano through the Dragonbone Catacombs. But after the invasion, entering the palace without being noticed will be extremely difficult. And if you are caught, your fate will not be pleasant." He sighed. "That is why I think it best that you enter through the main gates, in broad daylight." He turned to Zuko. "You must convince your sister that the Avatar has rejected you. Tell her that the past was too much for him to forgive."
"So I just go there and beg to be let back inside? Are you crazy?"
Iroh lifted his teacup. "As I have frequently told Chief Hakoda during our Pai Sho lessons, it is sometimes best to approach an opponent from a position of weakness. You and Miss Katara must behave like two unlucky travelers looking for work. Azula's Dai Li agents will notice you very soon. I have a friend who will give you a job across the street from their favorite bathhouse!"
Zuko frowned at his uncle. "Where are we going?"
Iroh smiled. "The Blue Sparrowkeet," he said. "The finest teashop in the capitol!"
"Not another teashop," Zuko said. He pinched the bridge of his nose.
"What do you mean, another one?" Teo asked.
"Sparky worked in a teashop in Ba Sing Se," Toph said. "He wore an apron."
Behind his hand, Teo snickered. Haru's mustache twitched. Zuko covered his face with his hands. "Go on. Laugh."
"There is nothing funny about making an honest living," Iroh said, just as Suki's giggles overpowered her.
"Teabender," Sokka said. Suki and the others doubled over. Katara suppressed a smile as she watched Zuko's good ear slowly go pink.
"This teashop is even better than the Jasmine Dragon," Iroh said, and Haru erupted in laughter. "Is that a funny name?" the general asked. He frowned. "The Blue Sparrowkeet is a fine establishment in the heart of the Oyster District-"
"The Oyster District?" Zuko asked. "No. Absolutely not. We're not going."
Sokka snorted. "Scared of some oysters, teabender?"
"No," Zuko said. He glowered at his uncle. "I can't believe you would send us-" He took notice of Hakoda's arrival, stiffened, and continued: "To such a wealthy neighborhood."
"It's wealthy?" Katara asked.
"Well, a lot of money changes hands," Iroh said. "I think you'll be a big hit!"
Katara drew her knees to her chest. She tried to imagine herself making tea alongside Zuko. His tea is terrible; why would anyone pay him for it? For some reason, though, it was a lot easier than imagining herself lying to Azula and coming out alive. "But what am I supposed to tell her?" Katara asked. "I mean, Zuko's got a pretty good story. What do I say?"
Iroh's brows rose. "It is always best to tell the truth," he said. "Tell Azula that you fear that the Avatar's feelings for you are a distraction from his goal."
"I'm sitting right here, you know," Aang said hollowly, from his place in the shadows with Momo.
"Then perhaps you should join us," Iroh said. He smiled a little sadly. "For Azula, the opportunity to bring her brother home in disgrace will be irresistible." He sighed. "Both of you will also have information on the Avatar. She cannot afford to leave you in the capital, where you can spread stories of his greatness."
From the shadows, Aang snorted. Katara turned to him and bit her lip. "Aang, you are great-"
"Not great enough," Aang said, and the bitterness in his voice sliced across her heart.
"Aang, don't talk to her that way," Zuko said. "She's only-"
"She's only leaving me to play teabender with you," Aang said. The firelight cast sharp, deep shadows across his face. "I get it."
Zuko shut his eyes. "It's not like that, I promise-"
"Stop promising me things, Zuko." Aang stood. He picked up his staff. "Do what you want. Don't mind me. I'm just the Avatar." He ran for the balcony, snapped open his glider, and took off into the night.
Zuko sighed steam. "I told you," he said, lifting his eyes. "I told you a hundred times."
Katara wiped her eyes. "We're doing this for him." Her eyes found her father's. "Someday he'll understand that."
"We'll be here," Sokka said. He rested an arm across her shoulders. "We'll help."
Iroh cleared his throat. "I'm afraid to say that we cannot remain much longer. Once my nephew and Katara begin their journey, we will be leaving."
Katara frowned. "Where are you going?"
Iroh blinked. "I am afraid I cannot tell you that."
"What? Why? My dad and my brother-"
"The Dai Li," Suki said. "The Dai Li are going to question you, Katara. They're going to ask you where Aang is. And it'll be a lot easier for you if you just don't know."
"Miss Suki is correct." Iroh folded his hands. "In all things, you must behave as though you have broken away from the Avatar. If he did not trust Zuko, would have told him his destination? Would you know his plans?"
"But " Katara looked between Iroh and her father. "How will we find you? How will we get the information to you?"
"We'll find you," Hakoda said. "General Iroh is working on planting another spy inside the palace. But right now, you're our best chance. If nothing else, you can try to steal a messenger hawk. You can even pretend that you're trying to get a message to Sokka because you miss him."
"But I will miss him!"
"And how can we hide what we know from the Dai Li?" Zuko asked.
"Azula and her spies do not know everything," Iroh said. "They may not know to ask you about the Sun Warriors, or the dragons, or even the Avatar State. Both your sister and my brother tend to believe their own assumptions, flawed as they may be. Try to let them deceive themselves. That way, you'll have less to remember!"
Katara hung her head. "This is going to be really hard, isn't it?"
"We don't have to go," Zuko said. "We can stay."
She looked at the empty spot where Aang had sat. "No," she said. "We can't."