They made camp in the woods outside their destination. Katara knew something was troubling Aang but every time she would try and talk to him he would simply give her a halfhearted laugh and tell her he was fine. She didn't believe him for one minute.
Sokka and Zuko were discussing strategies; what the best way of going about questioning the villagers without raising suspicion. Zuko had changed out of his Earth Kingdom green wardrobe and now wore Fire Nation attire. Zuko also took the liberty of purchasing Fire Nation clothes for the rest of the group. He even got Aang a new black head band to replace the water tribe blue one he usually wore.
"How come Prince Zuko felt like he could dress ups up like his ow dolls?" Toph complained tearing out the soles of the shoes she was given.
"It wasn't Zuko's idea, it was mine." Sokka stated applying some of Appa's fur to his chin "Incognito. Zuko did the shopping because he was the only one who already had Fire Nation clothes. Being nosy foreigners can only lead to questions and suspicion. We will need the villager's trust."
"And why are you giving yourself a beard?" Katara asks.
"Because I look awesome!" The water tribe warrior exclaimed.
"Can I have a beard?" Toph asked looking up apparently excited over the possibility.
Zuko's snort of disgust only encouraged her as she gathered the left over hair from Sokka.
"Sure, maybe we should all have beards." Katara states sarcastically.
"You would look hot as a bearded lady." Toph encouraged. This make Zuko choke on his tongue and Katara hit her friend with a water whip. Toph once more was laughing like a crazy person. Then suddenly she stopped, with a serious expression her head turns toward the massive mountain to the East, "Does anyone else hear that? People screaming under the mountain."
"That's really funny, Toph, but we're not falling for it." Zuko says turning to the road walking towards the village.
When everyone is dressed (Sokka still the only one with facial hair) they make their way to the village. Sokka splits them up to cover more ground. Sokka and Aang, Toph and Katara, which left Zuko by himself, until Momo volunteered to go with him, the flying leamer settling on Zuko's shoulder like they were longtime friends. Katara reached over taking Zuko's hand and shows him how to pet the creature, Zuko's shock and pleasure written on his face at Momo's affection. Momo's acceptance making him feel like, perhaps, he was finally a member of this group.
Momo was also a perfect distraction. Many people spotting the cute animal then approaching Zuko with questions about the flying leamer. Zuko answered the ones he knew and used the opportunity to ask a few questions of his own. He found out that with the full moon approaching the village was on full alert; people have been vanishing in the woods over the last several months during the full moon. He also had a lead, apparently there was a man who had escaped the moon monster and he lived here in town. With this information Zuko decided to talk to Katara, having remembered parts of her dream he felt she should be there when they question Old Man Ding.
He ran across Sokka and Aang first who were unsuccessfully interrogating a merchant. Momo took the opportunity to switch partners flying to Aang's shoulder. Sokka backed off the man when he spotted Zuko. "There's my grandson! Zuko, can you help Mr. Yao here by escorting him to his crops on the out skirts of town, he is worried about being snatched by the Moon Monster, I told him you were a very accomplished fire bender and you would keep him safe. In return he said he would pay for us boarding tonight at the inn down the street."
Sokka's grandpa voice was both frightening and humorous. Zuko could only glare and nod. "I would be happy to, pappy, but first I was hoping to talk with Katara. Do you know which way she and Toph went?" Zuko asked with a smirk at Sokka's apparent upset over the nickname.
"Oh, how am I supposed to keep track of all you whipper-snappers? Why don't you escort Mr. Yao here and I'll go find my ungrateful granddaughters then we will meet you back up at the inn?" Sokka pushed. Zuko rolled his eyes and Sokka swatted him on the head, "Tis disrespectful to roll your eyes at your elders." Sokka reprehends. Zuko rubs his head and once more glares at the water tribe boy.
Aang, Momo and Sokka walk away leaving Zuko to pull Mr. Yao's cart and escort him out to his fields. Zuko spent the trip day dreaming of all the different kinds of revenge he could take on Sokka without upsetting his sister. But Mr. Yao was a chatty old man and seemed to be holding up a one sided conversation as Zuko began to listen and hear all about the villages fear of the moon monster, and his apparent crush on the local inn keeper. When they returned Zuko is exhausted and since it was late, any conversation that was to take place with Old Man Ding would have to wait for tomorrow.
Zuko walked into dinner, a long table set with a variety of foods that he had never seen before, this was not a fire nation banquet. "Zuko! This is Hama, she was from the southern water tribe just like us! She made some of our home land food to welcome us to her inn." It was apparent that Katara was excited to meet someone from her tribe. Zuko could only nod as he looked at the old woman with messy hair. Her eyes narrowed as she assessed him and her sneer was quickly hidden as she turned her attentions back to Katara, the softening around her eyes, showed her apparent fondness for the water bender. This made Zuko immediately suspicious.
"How long have you lived here?" Zuko asks.
"A long time. I was taken from my tribe nearly sixty years ago by the southern raiders, and kept in prison until I escaped." She explained her voice shaking with emotion.
"How did you escape?" Sokka asked.
Hama's face paled, "I would rather not talk about it." She said tears in her eyes. Katara stands gives the old woman a reassuring hug. "We understand, I lost my mother to the raids." Hama gave Katara a sympathetic pat on the hand, then stood to start collecting the dishes.
"Do you know of anything about the Moon Monster?" Zuko's tact being less sensitive that Sokka.
"Just that people have been vanishing in the woods on a full moon. Promise me you will steer clear of them." She request, not waiting for a reply before walking into the other room. Katara sits back down her hands in her lap.
Sokka shrugs "She's going to take Katara out tomorrow and show her some water bending techniques from our tribe. Techniques that were lost when the Southern Raiders wiped out all of the water benders of our tribe." Sokka put in, his beard laying on the table beside him as he ate.
"That's wonderful." Zuko tried to sound sincere as he looked at Aang and Toph to see what they thought of this. Neither seemed bothered as Toph was as busy eating as Aang was avoiding the soup in front of him.
"Well before that I need your help with something." Zuko's request made Katara blush and nod.
Aang suddenly stands loudly dropping his spoon back into his bowl.
"Aang?" Katara asked looking up at her friend.
"It's okay, Katara, I'm not hungry." He says walking out the door to go check on Appa.
"I'll go talk to him." Sokka states chasing after him.
Toph's cheeks were suspiciously red and Katara didn't miss the innocent look on the fire nation prince's face. These two had been at each other's throats since day one and Katara was happy she would not be in the middle of whatever drama was brewing for tomorrow.
The next morning Katara woke up early knowing this to be the only way she would be able to meet up with Zuko before her lessons with Hama.
"Good morning." Zuko greeted while walking though the lighting steps, still unable to form so much as a spark.
"Good morning." Katara returns the greeting, moving to stand in front of him: her body position mirroring his.
"What are you…?" He began to ask before her finger pushed against his lips in a hushing motion.
"Let's make lighting, Zuko." She tells him and his can only nod. The feel of her skin on his lips immediately calms his spirit. The moment is all that matters.
She walks through the steps with him mirroring his actions, only hers are more fluid, less angular than what he has spent a life time witnessing of his sister and father. There is grace in the way she moves, it's utter serenity and he lets it guide him, letting the structure of his lessons go and without realizing it he is matching her step for step, his body relaxes and he can feel the calm energy take form and before his self-doubt can take root, her hands are on his and he has formed a cluster of electric blue energy contained in his facing palms. He pushes the shock down refusing to let emotions run in and potentially hurt the girl whose safety is literally in his hands. He does not look at her as he pulls and she steps away, the electric energy is guided up and out his right arm all the while he maintains an emotionless focus. The morning sky lights up and he takes another calming breath, feeling drained by the whole experience. Her hands are on his face and he doesn't realize his kneeling until he looks up at her. Her smile is radiant and proud. "You did it!" her face is inches from his and he can't find the energy to lean forward and press his lips to hers, so he settles for a hug resting his head on her stomach waiting for his strength to return.
"It will get easier with practice." She tells him. He doesn't move, he only breathes.
When he begins to feel his strength returning, the first thing he realizes, is that she is running her fingers through his hair in a soft steady rhythm. He crushes her to him and she wraps her arms around him her body curving over his.
Someone clears their throat and Zuko is wishing that person a slow and painful death as Katara jumps back and out of his embrace. There standing behind Katara is Hama, the old woman has an unfathomable look of disgust on her face before she masks it with a fake smile, which is directed solely at Katara.
"Sorry to interrupt, but we must be going, Katara, we have a long walk ahead of us and it is a full moon tonight." The old woman smiles again a twisted and strange sight that makes the hair on Zuko's neck stand up in response. Katara just nods, her palm on his cheek a reassuring smile before she follows Hama out the gates and down the road. Only then does Zuko realize he did not get a chance to ask her about her dreams.
With nothing better to do, Sokka, Aang and Toph walk with him to Old Man Dings, and the tale the man has for them is disturbing and informative. The man is frantic while attempting to board up his home as he slams the hammer into his thumb, cursing. Sokka steps up taking the board and motions for Zuko to help him with the other end. They secure the house in no time and Old man Ding is thanking them, when Toph again goes still her head turning towards the mountain. "I hear them again, I was right. That is where the lost villagers have to be, under the mountain." Her voice is in a tone Zuko has never heard her use before there is an edge of fear to it.
Zuko takes off sprinting towards the mountain the gang close behind him. They reach the entrance to the cave as the sun sets. Toph take the lead, following the screams to a solid metal door.
"What? How are we going to get in?" Zuko asks motioning to the massive locked door.
"Move aside, Sparky." Toph threads her fingers together stretching her arms out and rolling her shoulders. Zuko looks on completely confused until she uses the back of her wrists, slamming them into the metal door, the door bows in before she grips it and throws it out of the way completely clearing the entrance. Zuko stands there wide mouthed in awe. She looks over her shoulder with a cocky grin aimed right at him.
"Have I told you lately how happy I am that you joined our group?" Sokka asks, running into the dimly lit opening.
"You could stand to mention it more." Toph informs him as they all follow Sokka.
It's a jail. The sight makes Zuko sick seeing all of the innocent people chained up close to starving. They make quick work releasing the people as they, thank their rescuers.
"I had thought that maybe this was the work of an angry spirit, but why would a spirit need a jail?" Aang asks confused.
"This was not the work of a spirit it was that innkeeper, she looks like a nice old lady, but she is evil, she can control people like a dark puppet master, she reaches inside you and can make you do things you don't want to." A woman claims as Toph released her bonds.
"Katara!" Zuko yells, once more he is running this time towards Katara praying that old witch hasn't harmed her.
He hears foot steps behind him and when he looks back he is surprised it is not Aang who has followed him.
Sokka nods his hand is on his sheathed sword and there is a deadly intent in his eyes.
They reach the pair as the moon reaches its apex. Hama is standing condescendingly over a kneeling Katara, and even in the distant dark Zuko can see the tear on her cheeks. He feels it all, the fury and anger returning boiling dangerously, as he runs faster. Then suddenly Katara stands her fingers flexing pulling the water from the grass as she stands with all the grace of an avenging goddess. He stops suddenly caught in Deja vu, because he has seen her like this before standing before him caught in one of her night mares and he knows he has to help her.
"You're not the only one that draws power from the moon, Hama, and just between us girls, La likes me more." Katara taunts and for unknown reasons Zuko is smirking. Neither water bender sees them approaching as they battle, Katara is winning as she sweeps the old woman off her feet with a surge of water with opposite pulls. Zuko has not dared to fire bend, knowing he was too far away and the likely hood of him burning down this forest more probable that hitting his target. When he is within range, in his peripheral vision he sees Sokka pull his sword. It is the sound of metal that turns Hama's head and the gleam in her cold eyes is telling.
He no longer has control over his body as something crawls inside and his body is being lead. His hand reaches up pulling loose his duo swords and he feels fear in its truest form as he unwillingly charges the beautiful water bender with blue eyes. He tries to resist, to force his body back into his control but his arm still raises still swings forward and he is powerless to stop it. Hama is laughing, and Katara without missing a beat freezes him to a tree, then her brother with his black sword to another.
"Don't hurt your friends, Katara, or rather don't let them hurt themselves." Hama states wickedly, pulling Zuko and Sokka loose, their bodies flying towards the other with swords pointed out. They each have a look of terror and apology Sokka choose to close his eyes as Zuko finds he has control over his neck and is able to turn his head and get one more look at the pretty little water bender that changed his life. That is why he sees it, Hama going ridged, Katara's body twisting then her back bows out, her fingers curling turning to the ground as she uses the old woman's technique against her.
Aang, Toph and the villagers arrive in time to witness Katara's victory. The town's people praising her as they bound the old woman with chains. "Prince Zuko, thank you for saving us." One villager stated bowing in respect, the rest of them too bowed in a ripple until the whole village was kneeling at his feet. This shocks him as he stands before them trembling, "I didn't do anything. Katara did." He stated throwing an arm around her and hugging her to him. She sagged into him and he knows she is hurting, because when she said she wanted to learn techniques of her tribe this dark branch was not what she had meant her soul was too white for this burden.
"Yes, she did. My work here is done." Hama's voice cracked as she again smiled wickedly, "Congratulations Katara you're a blood bender."
Katara fully collapsed into Zuko, he holds her sinking to the ground her in his lap as she sobs uncontrollably. He looks up to see the knowing smile on many of the villagers as well as the water bender's big brother and then the accusing and hurt on Aang's there is so much the boys seems to be yelling with his eyes. But Zuko has more pressing matters to deal with as he crushes Katara to him and bury his face in her hair. "You're not alone." He whispers to her as he finds himself rocking her like a tiny child.
Zuko takes them to Ember Island, his family owns a beach house on the coast it's the closest place Zuko can think of and it only takes them a few hours to fly there. Katara is quiet as she stares at him from across the saddle. Aang is whispering feverishly in her right ear as Toph every once in a while is shaking her head to something the boy says. Sokka is on Appa's head, Momo on his shoulder holding a map for him. Zuko takes this opportunity to sharpen his swords.
When they land they are greeted by the small staff that Zuko retains even when he is away. He is the only one to use this house and he prefers it to the Palace. When each guest is shown to their own rooms Toph argues, "No way am I going to have my own room, I am sharing with Sugar Queen." She has that stubborn tilt of her chin and the servant is clearly intimidated. So they show her to where Katara is staying and Toph barges in fixing herself a place on the floor. "We can have a bed moved in here." The servant offers.
"I like the floor." Toph growls chasing the servant out. Zuko notices the small smile on Katara's face as he too turns to leave.
"Why do the girls get the same room?" Sokka asks clearly offended when he hears the news that the girls are rooming together. Zuko is confused who wouldn't want their own rooms? To him, it was strange that they would preferred to share.
"If you guys want to room together its fine, I just thought, you would like a bit of privacy." Zuko told them.
"We generally share. Aang and I come from communal tribes." Sokka stated like this explained everything.
"And Toph? She comes from a communal tribe?" Zuko asked the skepticism in his tone.
"No, she just like to keep an eye on Katara." Sokka explains. The Fire bender nods saluting a goodbye before walking out the door.
He was halfway across the court yard when Katara intercepted him. "I need to talk to you. I need a favor." She said staring at her feet, her cheeks red.
Zuko smiles tilting her head up. "Anything." He vows. Her cheeks darkened and her eyes fill with tears.
"I lied to you." She tells him and he rolls his eyes.
"And what did you lie to me about, Katara? I have known you for several weeks and I know you don't lie."
"I did by default. I should have told you this much sooner, but I wasn't sure, there are a lot of people that might want to hurt him and I was afraid you might be one of them. You were so angry when we meant." She explains. "Then at the swamp I knew we could trust you, but the timing never seemed right."
"You're going to tell me about the Avatar." He states realizing where her rambling was leading.
"Yes. I need you to become his fire bending teacher." She tells him, her stony face, tells him the favor she just asked of him was one of up most importance to her.
"I haven't even mastered lighting, I'm no protégé, not like you, not like Toph. I don't think…"
"You are a powerful bender Zuko. I was nowhere near as good as you when I began his lessons, we kind of learned together. With each element he has needed a different kind of teacher, for fire I believe he needs you, someone who understands his own fear of losing control. Please." She begs. Her blue eyes were a dangerous weapon. He really did not want to become anyone's Master not even the Avatar's, but Katara had asked him and he was finding he could not deny her or her blue eyes anything.
"Okay. I see how much this means to you. I'll do it for you. But I want something in return." He tells her as he locks eyes with her.
She can only nod, her cheeks bright crimson and he can read the uncertainty in her face. He smiles his hand on her cheek as he leans in, his breath on her face, "You have to teach me how to dance on the ice." He whispers.
Her smile is breath taking beautiful as she nods in agreement.
In retrospect Zuko doesn't understand how Aang being the Avatar could have taken him by surprise. The truth had been bouncing in front of his for nearly two weeks. And while the full moon had pass-along with the opportunely for Katara to heal his face he understood there were many more full moons to come and he could wait one more month, he had after all been waiting three years.
Aang was a good student, though Zuko could sense the tension between them. The boy clearly did not like him and even so Aang was dedicated to learn his craft. They started their lessons two mornings after Katara had asked him to teach the Avatar, he had witnessed them arguing near the beach a couple hours later and then again the following morning in the courtyard.
Sokka had looked shocked. "They never argue." Was all Katara's brother said before he approached the pair. Soon Toph was down there too. All four arguing and he heard his name more than once. It seemed the Avatar did not want him as a teacher any more than he wanted a student.
Still the Avatar conceded and worked hard under Zuko's tutelage, he showed great maturity in this and Zuko knew that Katara's magic did not just work on him.
After the first time Aang successfully formed a flame it was Katara that praised him and dragged them all down to the beach to celebrate.
It was the first time Zuko saw Aang without a shirt and the leading paths of his tattoos were so detailed Zuko couldn't fathom how long the needle work had to have taken.
Aang and Toph played in the sand and Sokka got roped into a volley ball game with some of the locals. Which left him alone with Katara whom drug him down to the water.
"It's too warm for me to teach you to skate, the ice would melt too fast, so I thought I could teach you to water run." She explains her hand in his and the sun on her face.
"Water run?" He asks looking confused.
"On an ice board." She encourages her eyebrows raise and her smile is all teeth.
Suddenly Zuko understands, "I have seen you do this before, in the Northern Water Tribe, right before you fell on top of him." He couldn't help but smirk at the memory and the red the flooded her cheeks.
"Sorry. Aang and I were racing." She was suddenly shy, her eyes down cast.
He lifte her chin and looks into her eyes, "Admit that even then you were falling for me."
She laughs. Hysterically. He can't help but laugh too, "Too much?" he asks.
"Keep working on it." She manages taking a few steps back before full out running towards the water, her arms forming a board right before she hit the water and she is sailing effortlessly along the ocean's surface. Zuko waits watching her balance and the way her body moves with the board, he is ready when she come back her arm out stretched and he without hesitation climbs on behind her. Katara shifts her stance, freezing his feet to the now bigger board, his hands are on her waist and he can only focus on his breathing as she takes them out the water. She is doing all the work, he can feel the subtle movements that no doubt push and pull the water making them speed along the surface. He is smiling, this is more than he could ever imagine and he is having fun. Zuko can't remember ever having fun.
They are out on the water for most the afternoon and as the sun begins to set she takes them back in their feet hitting the sand as the ice board melts into nothing. "Thank you." He tells her pulling her into a tight hug. He knows she doesn't understand but she has given him so much. When her arms come around him he does the stupidest thing he can think of, and kisses her.
She freezes when his mouth touches hers, he does not linger simply touches his lips to hers and pulls back. She is looking at him with wide eyes completely terrified of what he just did.
He opens his mouth to apologize when she throws her arms around his neck and her hand grabs his hair and pulls him down, her lips are cool from the water but she his burning as she slants her mouth over his again and again. He meets her step for step his lip hot as he takes all that she offers. He crushes her to him one hand on her back the other resting on her jaw line, his does not hesitate as his tongue sweeps inside her mouth, she makes a small sound of surprise before she too meet him step for step.
"Awe isn't that sweet, Zuzu, found himself a girlfriend." The condescending hellish tone is enough for Zuko to truly hate his sister and then Katara pulls away and she is blushing, rather from passion or shame, Zuko does not get to ask.
He turns to the sound of the familiar mocking voice and there standing on the beach with her stupid two friends is Azula.
"Hello brother." She squawks her expression mighty and all he wants to do is light her on fire. "Aren't you going to introduce, me?" She asks like he has poor manners, while she motions to Katara.
Zuko shakes his head. "No." He tells his sister grabbing ahold of Katara's hand and dragging her back to the beach house. Hoping the others have already returned. He does not trust Azula, not with any of his new family.
"Dinner then! So we can all get acquainted." Azula yells after them.
Zuko can only keep walking hoping Katara does not get the wrong idea.