Summary: S3 AU from FBM. Deep in the Fire Nation jungle, the Gaang discovers a rogue tribe of exiled water ninja who send Zuko and Katara on a mission to recover the Fire Nation's secret battle plans.
Disclaimer: ATLA is the property of VIACOM and Nickelodeon. No profit is made by this story. I am profoundly grateful to Mike, Bryan, and everyone they employ for growing such a fertile garden of characters and settings.
Spoilers: ATLA Season 3, post "The Firebending Masters."
Notes: Special thanks are due to RachelTheDemon, AKAVertigo, and OrePookPook for their special support and encouragement. In addition, my other friends at LJ helped me refine this story, commented on early drafts, and basically told me to hurry up and post.
What we call little things are merely the causes of great things; they are the beginning, the embryo, and it is the point of departure which, generally speaking, decides the whole future of an existence. One single black speck may be the beginning of a gangrene, of a storm, of a revolution. Henri-Frédéric Amiel
Years later, Katara suspected she should have seen it as a turning point when the boys decided to teach Aang how to shave.
"But I already shave," Aang protested. "I've been shaving for years!"
"Those middle hundred don't count," Sokka said.
The boys stood at a trough of steaming water in one of the Western Air Temple's communal bathing rooms. Someone had blocked the entry and exit points of flowing water into the trough, so that it pooled into a secondary channel and continued its descent into the waste-water channels leading into the chasm below the temple. Sokka, Aang, and Zuko stood shirtless before an old, spotted mirror. Foam coated Sokka and Zuko's jaws. It coated Aang's whole head, chin to scalp.
"The face is harder," Zuko said. He squinted at himself in the mirror. He pulled his dagger down carefully, stretching the skin of his face taut as he did so. "You have to be precise-"
"What do you think you're doing?" Katara asked. Zuko flinched. Blood blossomed up on his chin. In the mirror, she saw him roll his eyes. Sighing, he flicked foam off the edge of the blade with a single motion of his wrist. Blood trailed down his throat as he began to heat the tip of his knife with his breath.
"Katara, did you not see the sign?" Sokka gesticulated in the direction of the door. He marched up to her, looking like a very angry old man with a very white, soapy beard. He jabbed a finger at the engraving in the door's center. "That bison has horns. It's a boy bison. This is the boys' room." He pointed across the hall. "The girl's room is over there."
Katara pushed him aside. "Aang doesn't need to learn how to shave," she told Zuko, who momentarily paused blowing on his knife. The tip glowed orange now. He kept his mouth in a tiny circle, his single good eyebrow lifted. One clean column of smooth skin stretched from his scar to his chin, where blood had welled inside the foam. "He's twelve!" Katara said, pointing at Aang. Aang's large gray eyes blinked owlishly from within their mask of soap and water. His shoulders seemed to fall.
"I was twelve when I learned," Haru said, from his crouched position near Teo's modified two-seater. He squirted oil onto the axles.
"Not that you've made much use of it," Teo said.
"Yeah, you want Aang to grow up with a caterpillar hangin' off his lip?" Sokka asked.
Katara waved Sokka away. She pointed at Zuko "Shouldn't you be training him?"
"I am," Zuko said.
"In the manly arts," Sokka said.
"I heated the water," Aang said. "See?"
Katara bent up a ribbon of the steaming water. "That's very good, Aang." She let the water drop. Zuko blew again on his knife. The tip glowed red. "And what are you doing with that knife?"
He paused. "Cleaning it." He blinked. "This cut isn't going to heal itself, you know."
"Heal…" Katara rolled her eyes. "You are so infuriating," she said, bending up a thin thread of water into a spinning disc over her palm. "Stand still…" She moved forward and he flinched away. "Stand still, I said!" She grabbed for his good ear but he ducked away and she gripped hair instead. He stopped short and she moved up and for a minute they were back under Ba Sing Se, he went so still and silent. She was very conscious of the way the steam dampened his skin and how the thin trickle of blood on his throat shone when he swallowed. "How could you cut yourself?" she asked, bending water to his chin. She smelled his soap - yuzu and something else, maybe sesame - and watched the water glow. "You used to shave your whole scalp. What happened?"
"Don't talk; you'll mess it up!"
Zuko's lips thinned. She squinted at his chin, watching the water knit the broken skin back together. "Watch carefully, Aang," she heard Sokka say. "You won't always have a healer to help with this kind of thing. I recommend covering those little cuts with snow."
"Or mud," Haru said.
"Or leaves," The Duke said. They all turned to him. He shrugged his little shoulders. "Pipsqueak showed me."
"See?" Sokka said. "Not too young at all!"
"Are you done?" Zuko asked.
"I told you not to talk!" She peered at his chin. Perfect. "Yes, I'm finished." She folded her arms. "Well? Aren't you going to thank me?"
"I thought I wasn't supposed to talk."
Growling, Katara threw her hands up and turned on her heel. "Lesson Two of the Manly Arts, Aang," Sokka said. Katara felt a stinging slap across her behind. "The towel-snap."
Katara whirled. The water in the trough twisted upward. She spun, and it covered Sokka in one large wave. The others ducked, but couldn't avoid the splash. Sokka held up his newly-soaked towel. It still maintained its twisting, snapping shape. Water dribbled noisily to the flagstones below. "My towel…"
"Hey look, a saber-toothed moose-lion," Sokka said. He lay flat on his belly and twisted his hands into an unusual shape. There on the wall, three polar tigers high, a shadow puppet limped haltingly across the stones.
"It looks more like a wild hogmonkey," Toph said.
Sokka turned. "You think so? I know the antlers-" He stopped short, scowled, and folded his arms. "You know, every time you do that, it's a little less funny."
The others laughed. "Do Wan Shi Tong," Katara said.
"Who's Wan Shi Tong?" Teo asked.
"Spirit of knowledge," Sokka said, before making a bird shape with his hands. He mimed angry flapping. "Cower before my vast intellect, you pitiful humans! And fetch me more mice! My enormous brain requires small, furry snacks!"
"Uh, I'm not so sure the knowledge spirit actually ate mice, Sokka," Aang said.
"C'mon Aang, he was a giant owl. What else would he eat?" His jaw dropped and his shadow puppet stopped flapping. "You don't think Professor Zei is a big fat owl pellet right now, do you?"
"Who's Professor Zei?" Haru asked.
"Bird food, apparently," Teo said.
Zuko strode in just then. He carried a fat lumpy sack over one shoulder. "'Bout time, Sparky," Toph said. She snapped her fingers. "Gimme my moon peach."
"Moon peaches!" Sokka scrambled to his feet and tugged the sack free of Zuko's grasp. His fist dove in and retrieved fruit. "One thing about the Fire Nation: plentiful fresh fruit."
"We aim to please," Zuko said, rolling his eyes. He dug into the sack and produced two peaches. He handed one to Toph, who eagerly bit down into the fruit.
"They're so fuzzy!" she said, her mouth full of half-chewed white flesh.
"Like a tasty little fruit creature," Sokka said. He took three dainty bites before holding the peach up. "Look! I made a face!"
"Maybe you should teach it to shave," Katara said, before peering into the bag. "Did everyone get some?"
"No," Haru, Teo, the Duke, and Aang chorused. Aang floated over and dug into the bag. He lifted the peaches and juggled them with airbending, spinning them in a circle before jetting them to the others' waiting hands on little streams of air. The Duke missed his and it splatted on the wall behind him.
Aang winced. "I'm sorry-"
"He can have mine," Zuko and Katara said in unison.
"Jinx!" Sokka cried. "Neither of you can talk until someone says your name!"
Katara frowned. "Who-"
"You can keep yours, Katara," Aang said, grinning. "The Duke can have mine."
"Aw, Aang, you ruined it…"
"Hey, Sparky, cut me some of yours," Toph said. "I'm done with mine."
"You're worse than a hog-rooster," Zuko said. His worked his knife into the fruit and produced a single slice. "You can have that one."
Katara's jaw dropped. "Toph! That's disgusting! That's the knife he shaves with!"
Toph popped the fruit into her mouth. "Doesn't bother me."
"It's clean," Zuko said. "It would rust if I didn't clean it."
Toph pawed for his face. "You shave? Really?"
"Get your fingers out of my face!"
"I wanna see! Are you all smooth, prettyboy?" The earthbender reached for him and he swerved out of her reach. Toph's stubby fingers grabbed for him and fell awkwardly, knife in one hand, peach in the other. He pushed away from the wall with his legs. Toph crawled after him, laughing, seemingly intent on tackling him. Zuko stretched his arms above his head, keeping the knife a careful distance from her as he frantically crabbed across the floor. She descended on him, hands out-
"Toph, I mean it, don't!" Zuko flung an arm over the left half of his face just as Toph's hands landed there.
"Hey," she said. "How come you're covering it up?" She pulled away slowly. "Are my hands really that dirty? I mean, I know I-"
"No," Zuko said, sitting up. "That's not it. Just…take this." He handed her the rest of his moon peach. "You can have it."
"I'm not hungry, anymore," Toph said.
"Then give it away," Zuko said, standing up and leaving the room.
Toph stared at the floor. For a moment, she seemed to listen to something the rest of them couldn't hear. "What was that about?" she asked, squaring her shoulders. "Jerkbender can't take a joke."
Silence. Katara looked at Sokka. Sokka gave her the You're a girl, you tell her, face. Katara opened her mouth to speak-
"Maybe his eye just hurts," The Duke said, with his mouth full. "It looks like it hurts."
"His eye?" Toph asked. The others winced. "What's wrong with his eye?"
Katara struggled to find the right words. "Maybe we should-"
"Someone burned it," The Duke said. "It's all rough and scaly like a komodo rhino."
"We don't know what happened," Katara said. "He could have had an accident."
"No, someone did it to him," Haru said. He grimaced. "Take it from someone who did more time on a Fire Nation prison ship."
"Who would do something like that?" Toph asked. Her fists tightened. "Who just wakes up and says, 'hey, I think I'll scar someone today'?"
Another silence. Aang's face clouded and his jaw set. "Azula," he said, touching his chest where Zuko's sister had left her mark.
"Whoever did it, it's not our business," Sokka said. "We're here to win the war, not to gossip. If Sparky wants to tell us, he will."
"Don't feel bad, Toph," Aang said, attempting a smile. "I bet it hurts when anybody touches it."
"No, it doesn't," Katara said, without thinking. She instantly wished the words back into her mouth, but they wouldn't come. The others stared at her. Aang's eyes seemed especially large and penetrating.
Sokka frowned mid-bite. "How would you know?"
Her mouth opened, closed. Her hands found her hips. "Who trained at the Healing Hut, huh? You, or me?" Distantly, she noticed her feet carrying her out of the room. "I could probably fill an ocean with the things I know that you don't!" She breezed out-
-and bumped right into Zuko. He grabbed her wrists - I'll save you from the pirates - and then let them go. He looked at a point somewhere over her shoulder. She moved right, he moved left. She moved left, he moved right. "You go ahead," he said, stepping aside and letting her pass. She heard him sweep away down the hall, his steps oddly quiet but his breathing shallow and noisy. She turned to watch him leave, and only then did she realize she had no clue where she was headed.
That night, a storm came.
"Sparky says it's the monsoon season," Toph said. Thunder echoed through the girls' bathing chamber. Toph paused to count: "One Omashu, two Omashu, three Omashu…" Apparently satisfied that the lightning was not too close, she continued cleaning her teeth.
"Would you like me to brush your hair?" Katara asked.
Toph shook her head. "I'm good." She spat into the trough of cold water. "I would like you to tell me one thing, though."
Katara winced. I knew this was coming. "Oh? What's that?"
"How come you didn't tell me about Sparky's face?"
Katara shifted weight. "Well…you're the one who told me that appearances don't matter to you-"
"Can he still see?"
"Huh?" Katara blinked. "Oh. Yes. He can still see out of that eye. His vision is fine."
"How do you know? Did you ask?"
She folded her arms. "I've fought him, Toph. He can see perfectly."
"I'm blind, and I fight just fine."
Katara's face heated. She sighed. "That's right, Toph. You're an excellent fighter. I'm sorry." She leaned against the trough. "In a way, you're sort of alike. We're always forgetting that you're blind, and most of us don't even see Zuko's scar any more. It's just a part of who he is."
Thunder rolled above them. In the distance, Katara heard rain slashing against the verandas and balconies of the temple. My face? I see. She fisted her hands against the feeling of glossy, rippled flesh, and the stiffness of it there under her fingers, the odd delicacy of that permanent violet bruise - as though the wound would never finish healing, ever. Maybe you can be free of it. "Is it big?" Toph asked.
Katara shook herself. She hugged her arms. "It goes from his left eye all the way back to his ear, and up near his hair. It looks sort of like a comet."
"And that would look like…?"
"Oh. Sorry. It's shaped like, um…a fishtail."
Toph crunched her little fist into her palm. "One day, I'm gonna get that little-" She stopped. Her face paled. "We're not alone."
But the earthbender had already charged into the hall. Katara bent up a rope of water from the trough and followed her. "Sparky! We've got company!" Toph stomped her foot. The stones beneath rippled upward, shooting up at odd intervals like broken teeth. Toph raised them still further with her fingers; the ancient bricks hovered before she flipped her hands over and flicked her fingers outward - the stones shot backward into shadow. Katara sensed movement above them. She whipped water above Toph's head into the darkness, but touched nothing. Behind her, Sokka and the others skidded into place.
"Intruders?" Sokka asked, shaking hair from his eyes.
"Where's Sparky?" Toph asked.
"Show yourselves!" Aang shouted, slicing the air with his staff. Tiny balls of white flame answered him. Katara raised a wall of water and pushed it out in a wave; the water returned to her as a thousand icy needles. Eyes wide, she whirled and sent them high over her head as the others ducked low to miss them. She froze them into a club that circled overhead.
"So the firebenders bend water, now?" Sokka asked, palm slapping his face. He raised his fist. "Why, Universe? Why? What did we ever do to you?"
"Retreat," Teo said. "Duke. In the glider. Now." Katara heard the rattle of wheels on stone behind her. They screeched to a halt a moment later. "Uh, guys…" Teo's voice shook. "I can't move."
"Oh, no," Sokka said. His boomerang clattered to the ground. Aang's staff fell. Katara's limbs tightened and her water splashed down. Her blood froze. Oh no, please no, not this, anything but this. Lightning flashed and she saw moving shapes in the hall, saw them crawling on the walls, saw an approaching shape that looked female and carried a sparking ball of blue lightning in each hand.
"No!" With her last bit of willpower, Katara threw herself in front of Aang. She stumbled and her body hit the stones. She could only look upward.
So she saw with perfect clarity the moment when Zuko fell from the ceiling, arms out, mouth open and shouting. He crashed down on the woman, drew his swords, and crossed them over her neck. Fire exploded from the walls around him and Aang cried out: "Zuko! Behind you!"
Zuko lifted his hold and his hands stirred the air into a circle of fire; he spun the bolts of flame away and fire trailed along the steel of each sword. The woman beneath him popped up and he ducked low as she shot white flame his way. It looked like he was fighting a shadow - a whole team of shadows. Katara couldn't see their faces, only the rare glimpse of their black shapes as fire lit the air. And they were advancing.
"We can't move!" Katara shouted. "They're bending the water in our blood!"
"You're a waterbending master!" He summoned great whips of fire and spun them over his head. Thin discs of ice careened through the air toward the group; they hissed away into drops as he backed away and the fire-whips licked the air. He moved his arms and the whips became wheels. He drove them along the floor and they split and rolled along the walls. The shadows leapt through the air and he lifted the fire and sent a great wave of it down the hall. He crouched low. Katara smelled sweat pouring off him. He breathed hard. "Bend it back."
"He's right, Katara," Aang said. "You can do it."
She grimaced. "You're a waterbending master too, Aang. So can you."
"Less talking, more fighting," Sokka said.
Katara shut her eyes. She pictured the blood inside her as the canals of the North Pole, carrying life through the city that was her body. Those are my canals. This is my blood. No one else can have it but me. Inside her the canals rose, surged, she pictured herself standing on an elegant bridge of ice and lifting her arms and snapping the hold someone else had on her like Aang had broken the Fire Navy's Northern Fleet-
-and her body was hers again and she rolled to her feet and converted her puddle to two sleeves of water that snaked through the air alongside Zuko's fire-whips. The others cheered. She whirled - they whirled - and she moved high and he moved low and fire jetted across the floor as long spears of ice shrieked through the air.
Silence. They straightened. Distantly, she was aware that they breathed in tandem. Then laughter - dry, low laughter that raised the hairs on her neck. In the darkness, she saw two glowing balls of sparking light. "Very good," someone said. "You almost pass."
Lightning crackled through the air toward them; Zuko moved and he was in front of her and he caught it - he caught the lightning - and his arms made something like a waterbending form. His two hands pushed and he lunged and she caught herself shadowing him - like teaching Aang, like showing Aang how to do it - and blue lightning shot from his shaking hands and she heard his teeth grinding as the light skittered down the darkened hallway.
"Whoa," Sokka murmured.
Katara heard footsteps. Zuko moved and he was backing up, pushing her behind him. "Get Aang out of here."
"No way," Aang said. He stretched his arms. "I can move!" Air lifted his staff back into his hands. The others rose with him. All but Toph assumed defensive postures.
"It's okay," Toph said, smiling. "It's-"
"My nephew," an older voice said. Out of the darkness, his footsteps strong and sure, came a broad-shouldered shape. Katara saw the beard first. Then she saw Zuko falling to his knees. She barely recognized the old man. His whole body had changed - he walked taller, held himself straighter, and his paunch had disappeared. New lines had appeared under his eyes. When he looked at Zuko, those eyes narrowed.
"Zuko," he said.
Zuko trembled under that gaze. He suddenly seemed much smaller than she remembered. Horrified, Katara watched him kneel even further, placing his palms flat on the floor and letting his forehead touch the stones. "Un…" He caught himself. "F… Father," he said. "Please forgive me. I'm… I'm your loyal son."
Something in the old man's face melted a little. He sighed. "Oh, junior," he said. He held a hand down to Zuko. "You worry too much."
Zuko took his hand and rocketed to his feet. Suddenly the old man had his arms full of teenager, and his startled eyes made contact with Katara's over Zuko's shoulder. He patted Zuko's back lightly. Zuko pulled away. He had the old man by his newly-sculpted shoulders. "You've changed," Zuko said.
The other man smiled. "So have you."
Sokka cleared his throat. "Uh, this is very touching, but about those people trying to kill us?"
Zuko's uncle - or was he his dad? - held out his hand. "Avatar Aang," he said.
"I would like to introduce you to some very special friends of mine." The shadows emerged from the darkness and into the rain. Balls of fire glowed in some of their palms. They pulled off their black hoods and exposed a rainbow of faces: dark and light, male and female, silky Fire Nation hair and tight Water Tribe braids. Lightning exposed their smiles. Thunder split the sky. "These are the Stormbenders."
I apologize for how short this chapter is. But this felt like the right place to stop. I hope you enjoyed it!
Some of you who read my other ATLA stories, specifically the Three Chores series, may be wondering if Chores is canon to this story. It is not, although they do (and will) share some elements. I avoided making Chores canon for SB because of Part Three of ChoresGathering) takes the story in a different direction than the one SB is going. Just be patient, and all will be made clear.