Disclaimer: ATLA is the property of Nickelodeon, VIACOM, Paramount, Mike, Bryan, and Night. No profit is made by me for this story.
Notes: I forgot to mention, in the header for the last chapter, that Katara's wedding robes were designed by none other than OrePookPook. (I can't take credit for the beauty of the design, only for the basic idea. Like Katara, I wanted something inspired by the Painted Lady, but he refined my ideas and created an absolutely beautiful costume.)
Thanks: YOU. You guys, my fellow divers, are the real heroes of this story. Without you I could not have gone on. Without you I would not have discovered all that I was capable of with this story. You have shown me what I can be when I try, and that makes you the real storybending teachers.
It is not light that we need, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. -Frederick Douglass
The dawn came too soon.
Katara woke early. The nervousness was like a living thing inside her stomach and her bones – she thought she might crawl out of her skin. Instead, she took a deep breath and slid out of bed. Then she practiced waterbending forms. She leaned into the postures, testing her balance, stretching the muscles she knew would see the most use. She thought back to that first scroll - funny, the way things worked out sometimes – and she remembered Master Pakku and Akna and even her enemies, how they had been her best instructors, how she wouldn't be the bender she was without those challenges. They had made her strong. And she needed that strength, today.
The guards found her practicing. She stood up, for once unashamed of her state of undress, and watched as Li and Lo shuffled into the room. "It is time for your ritual cleansing, my dear," one said. "You have a big day ahead," said the other.
"You're telling me," Katara said.
Before the ritual cleansing, however, came a ritual breakfast. They marched her down into the bowels of the palace, far below Azula's hair-combing room to a place with dark wood walls, a slate floor, and a single hot spring. There was a rough family-style table near the spring, and several dishes laid out. "Eat up," one of the old ladies said. "You'll need your strength," said the other.
Katara sat down. She contemplated the dishes. There was a roasted turtleduck soup with long noodles, purple coconut rice, dumplings shaped like moon peaches, a juicy dragonheart fruit cut into fourths, and marbled eggs boiled in what looked to be spicy hibiscus tea. It looked beautiful.
It was also likely poisoned.
Of course they would let us get this far. Of course, at the end of all our plans, when we've worked so hard, this would happen. Now I'm alone at the bottom of the palace with two crazy old bats who probably want to bury me in the foundation of Azula's house.
"This is too much," she said. "I can't eat all this. I won't fit into my new robes."
"Nonsense," one said. "You'll work it off," said the other. And their eyes twinkled.
Katara kept her hands in her lap. "Why are you being so nice?" she asked. "I haven't exactly been the model prisoner."
"That is true." Both women turned away and looked at the hot spring. Steam rose off it. Idly, Katara wondered if she should just bend the water up around them and drag them into the spring. She could hold them down. She could drown them. And if they generated any lightning, they would only cook themselves alive.
"Do you know what this place is?" one asked.
"It's a hot spring," Katara said.
"It is the Spring of Life," one of the old women said heavily. "Long ago, a woman gave birth to the first Fire Lord in this spring. She had a dream that if she bore the child here, he would grow strong and unite our people." Her sister spoke, now, gesturing toward the pool: "The waters of this spring come from deep within the soil of our greatest island. They have the power to purify all ills and pre pare one for what lies ahead." They turned to her. "Just as the North Pole has the Spirit Oasis, the Fire Nation has this place."
Katara looked at the spring with renewed interest. From here, it seemed like a flat plane of obsidian – she couldn't see the bottom. "So you're saying it's a sacred place?"
"Oh my, yes." The old ladies walked back to the table. "And these are special foods," one said. She pointed one knobby finger at the soup. "Turtleducks mate for life. That is why we eat them on wedding days. And the noodles mean long life." Her sister pointed at the dragonheart. "And that fruit, the dragonheart, is called maidenheart in other countries because it bruises so easily. Maidens like it best."
"I do like them a lot," Katara said. "Zuko gave me one, once."
"Yes, he would," Li or Lo said. She pointed: "Those eggs are for fertility, and so are the lotus seed buns." Her sister smiled. "You'll have enough for a good game of Hide and Explode."
Katara blushed. "What about the rice?"
"Oh, that," one said, smiling. "We just liked the color."
"It's red and blue together," said her sister.
Despite herself, Katara beamed. "I guess that does fit."
"It's safe," one said. "Go ahead," said the other.
Katara pursed her lips. Only one more tactic left. "Won't you share it with me?"
The old ladies whisked chopsticks from their sleeves. "Don't mind if we do!"
Katara watched as the two women began digging into the food. Only after she had seen them chew through some of the food without any after-effects did she allow herself to take a bite. And then another, and then another, because the food was good – it tasted like Oyster District food, hot and spicy and sweet and sticky. She'd had no idea she could miss it so. When the meal had finished, she pushed her bowl away and carefully laid her chopsticks atop it. "You're making me fat," she said.
"You'll sweat it out." One sister gestured. "Come on. Up you get."
Katara stood. "Undress," the other sister said.
One very suspicious part of Katara wondered if maybe this wasn't an attempt on her life but rather a nasty prank – it would be just like Azula to let someone wander around the palace naked. But Li and Lo were undressing, too, and she slid her clothes off and folded them neatly. "What's next?"
"Your wrap," one sister said. They shuffled over to a group of earthenware jugs along one wall, retrieved them, and uncorked them. Kneeling at Katara's feet, they both dipped their fingers inside one, and began smearing something dark up along her calves.
"What is that?" Katara asked.
"We do charcoal treatments before weddings in the South Pole, too," Katara said, suddenly pleased. "It's to help the skin."
"Ah, but do they also wrap the girl in seaweed?" One of the old women reached into a second jug and drew out a long green leaf of wet kelp. Carefully, she wrapped it about Katara's leg. The process took a long time, but when it was finished they had coated and wrapped Katara's whole body, and smeared her face with charcoal. "Now you cook," one said, and gently guided her into the water. One sister sat beside her, a finger on her wrist. Soon, Katara felt her pulse begin to thrum inside her body. The water was so hot she could feel the sweat start leaking almost in time to heart beating. And then the other sister began washing her hair.
"I'm going to fall asleep," she said.
"Go ahead. When you wake up, you will be cleansed."
Katara sighed and let her eyes flutter closed. When they opened again, one of the old women was pressing something wet to her lips. "A little honey and yuzu juice," she said. "Drink up."
The drink was sour and sweet, but mostly just cool in comparison to the hot sulphurous stew she was cooking in, and Katara drank until it dribbled down her chin. "Thank you."
"How do you feel?"
Katara smiled weakly. "Like one of those noodles."
The old woman smiled. "Good. Now stand up."
"I'm not sure I can…."
A stern look drifted over that ancient face. "Is that any way for a true daughter of the Fire Nation to speak?"
Katara stood up just to get a better look at the old woman's eyes. "I'm still a hundred percent Water Tribe, thank you."
"Then why do your eyes spit fire?" Smiling craftily, the old woman lifted a hand and scrubbed away the charcoal on Katara's face. "You have bathed in the waters of the Spring of Life, and washed clean the ashes of the past," she intoned. The old woman pressed a thumb to her forehead. "Now we give you the old blessing." The sisters chorused slowly: "A spark in the mind, an ember in the heart, a fire in the belly, and destiny in your hands."
"Now you are reborn," one said. They smiled. "Today Sozin's Comet returns," one said. "Today you will drink ryu-nyuu, the royal drink, and take your new place in history."
Katara took a deep breath. She looked into the glassy water surrounding her. Lifting her arms, she bent it up in one shining wave and doused herself clean. She shook her wet hair free. "I'm ready."
Her footsteps were surprisingly steady and sure as she entered Azula's hair-combing room. The seamstress and her assistants were there waiting. They quickly undressed her, then dusted her over with a sweet-smelling white powder. "It's rice flour and powdered honey," one of Azula's attendants said. "It's for the sweat."
"Do I get to put on my robes, now?"
"I'm afraid not," the seamstress said. "First your hair needs doing, and if you spend all that time sitting down, you will crush the silk."
"Oh, my hair," Katara said. "Um, Ty Lee gave me-"
"Those have been taken from your room," either Li or Lo said, and withdrew the little square of blue silk from a sleeve. The pearls were still there. Katara took a seat, and waited as the women combed through her hair and began threading her hair with the pearls. In the mirror, she watched as they worked on her with their pale, careful hands. After threading the hair framing her face, someone said: "Bring the sticks."
"These are a gift from the governor of Omashu's daughter," one of the women said. She held out a dark wooden box, then lifted open the lid. Inside were four hair sticks that looked suspiciously like Mai's senbon. They had mother-of-pearl beads at the heavy end, but their points were unmistakable. "She left a note."
"Oh, really? Let me see, please."
Katara examined the tiny scroll. Mai's handwriting was elegant and spare, like the girl herself. "On your big day, be careful. These can draw blood."
Katara frowned at the note. Was Mai really telling her to be careful out of the goodness of her heart? Anything was possible, but the emphasis on blood struck her as odd. Were they poisoned? Would Mai really take her revenge that far? Maybe, but if so Katara could turn it to her advantage and stab someone else with them in a pinch. (How odd, to think so casually of stabbing someone on her wedding day. But she knew that by the time the day was through, lots of people would have to make the same choice.) Katara put the note down and nodded at the women with their hands in her hair. "Go ahead and use them."
The women drew her hair into a high bun, twisting the hair around one stick, then using the others to secure it. Little charms dangled off the mother-of-pearl beads, and they caught the light when Katara turned her head. "Now it's time for the robes," the seamstress said.
The seamstress and her girls had tightened the dress a little; now it had a more definite outline and seemed to push Katara out and suck her in a little more. When she looked into the mirror, her eyes popped. She no longer looked like herself – that was someone else in there, wearing Fire Nation colors and a glittering sky opal. She gulped. "Wow."
"Indeed," the seamstress said. "Now the veil."
"There's a veil?"
The seamstress smiled. "Are you not the Painted Lady? Does the Painted Lady not wear a veil?"
Katara grinned at her in the mirror. "You're right."
They secured the veil by placing it over her hairsticks. The sticks made a little tent that spread the veil out, and tiny golden beads and pearls dangling from small red lotus flower knots at the hem of the veil held it down. "I feel like a princess," Katara said, staring at herself through the veil.
"You are one," Li or Lo said. As one, the two women seemed to prick their ears up as though they had heard a signal that no others could hear. "The Comet approaches," one said. "It is time."
They led Katara to a formal outdoor courtyard featuring a high dais framed by massive pillars. Someone had set up a long table there. A long white carpet stretched from the dais to a gatehouse beyond, with large tables on either side, people in Fire Nation formal wear, and great strings of lanterns high above the tables. For now they were unlit, although Katara heard someone complaining in an undertone about the weather and how dim it was.
And the weather was awfully foreboding – the air was thick, but a stiff breeze kept slicing through that brought an ocean chill in its wake. Heavy clouds hung low in the sky. Ursa had said that they should prepare for a storm. Nature, it seemed, felt like cooperating.
Katara had only a glimpse of the setup before Li and Lo pulled her back. "You must make your entrance after the Fire Lord," they said.
"Where is Zuko?" she asked.
"He is on his way."
Real fear set in. Maybe Azula had scheduled Zuko for one last interrogation before the Comet's return. Maybe something had happened – Mai had ratted them out, Wai Lee had slipped up, or they left something incriminating behind. Maybe it was all over. Zuko, where are you?
"Here we are," Azula said from behind her. She stood beside her father. She wore a match to Zuko's black armor. The Fire Lord wore massive golden shoulder guards in the shape of phoenixes, but otherwise looked the same. Sages flanked them. One squinted at Katara and pointed.
"Don't I know you?"
Katara's heart stopped. She struggled for the right words. Of all the people she had imagined bringing the whole scheme down, she had never once worried about the sages. "Um, you probably just remember my wanted poster," she said.
Squinting, the old man nodded and moved back into line. Azula scowled at him for a moment before turning to Katara. "It looks as though we may be in need of some rainbending," she said.
"I'll do my best." She looked around. "Where is Zuko?"
"He's in position," Azula said. She looked to her father and the sages. "Father?"
Ozai peered up at the clouds. "Yes," he said. "Let's finish this before the Comet returns." He nodded at the sages. "Go."
The sages left. They assembled on the dais, faced the crowd, and lifted their arms. Katara heard them begin exhorting the virtues of the Fire Lord and the royal family. She leaned over to get a better glimpse, but strong fingers clamped down on her bare shoulder. "Wait," Ozai said.
Goosebumps rose on her arms. "…Yes?"
Ozai turned her around to face him. He narrowed his eyes down at her, and slid a hand up under veil. She backed away, but his other hand held her fast. She held her breath. He was playing with her necklace. "This is turned around," he said. "It won't do."
"What is that on the opposite side?"
"It's an eclipse," Katara said in a tiny voice.
"Ah," Ozai said, laughing a little snidely back in his throat. "Because you eclipse him, no doubt."
The sages said Ozai's name and Katara watched the Fire Lord walk away. She saw Azula's eyes following him, and for just a moment she felt a stab of pity – for how blind he was to everything his children could be, the good and the bad. Ozai ascended the dais, and his citizens knelt before him until he took a seat behind the long table.
"That's our cue," Azula said. "Come along, Ty Lee."
The two girls flanked Katara with Li and Lo standing behind. Slowly, they marched up to the dais. The crowd, sitting on their knees, knelt again. Azula ushered Katara to a small table set with red thread, a slender dragon-shaped bottle, and a single bone cup. "Kneel," she said under her breath.
Katara knelt. She did her best to sit upright, and stared up at the clouds. They were deepening gray – she was reminded suddenly of Aang's eyes. A tremendous knock sounded at the gatehouse. The wood jostled on its hinges. "Who knocks?" one of the sages asked in a theatrical voice.
"It is Prince Zuko, son of Ozai and Ursa, come to claim his prize," said a guard at the gate.
"What is the Fire Lord's will?" the sage asked.
Silence. Katara turned her attention to Ozai. "Prince Zuko may enter," Ozai said, "but he must crawl."
A murmur moved through the crowd. Katara stared at the gate, now. She watched it swing open. Zuko stood there in his black armor, and he gave her one long look before the guard nearest him knocked him to his knees.
Something hot and painful wedged itself in Katara's throat and tried to come out through her eyes. She was suddenly sorry that she had ever forced him to knees. She watched the others watching him, looking down at him as he slowly placed one hand in front of the other and brought his knees forward. The armor looked twice as heavy, now, and the shin guards meant he had to lift each leg carefully so as to avoid tearing the rug. Katara glanced up at Ozai and Azula. Both smiled, apparently pleased, and anger so pure it made her heart race surged up through her. Petty. Petty, ignorant, and selfish – just like he was on our first night in this place.
Zuko had made his way to the steps. He raised his head and looked at Katara, then his father. When Ozai said nothing, he continued crawling on his knees to the little table. When he reached it, he was sweating. But then he paused, and his eyes searched her robes, and settled on her necklace. He beamed, and made a show of adjusting his cuff, exposing her old necklace on his wrist. She smiled. Then he adjusted the other and gave her the tiniest glimpse of a hilt secreted up under the fabric – his dagger. He winked. She had to work to suppress her giggle.
"Let us begin," the oldest sage said, and moved to the little table flanked by two younger assistants. "Child, pull up your veil."
Katara pulled her veil up and back. Zuko's smile only increased. Her ears burned. The sage turned to Zuko and held out a massive, ornate scroll of the same leathery substance Katara recognized from the legal documents. This looked much older, however, and the scroll's rods were carved of bone. "Prince Zuko. By reading these vows, you accept all obligations described therein. Are you prepared to accept those obligations?"
"Then please read."
Zuko glanced at the scroll, widened his eyes, and looked quickly at Katara. Taking a deep breath, he cleared his throat, and said: "My life I give to my family. With my hands, I protect my wife and our children. With my mind, I seek ways to better their life, and with my feet I turn always toward our home."
The sage shifted over to Katara. "Princess Katara," he said. "By reading these vows, you accept all obligations described therein. Are you prepared to accept those obligations?"
She nodded. "I am."
"Then please read."
The sage bent down a little and showed her the scroll. She opened her mouth to read – and promptly understood Zuko's sudden alarm. The vows, like most of the Fire Nation's most ancient documents, were in classical script. And this time – unlike the tale of Painted Lady – she couldn't just read the pictures. Her eyes shot up to Zuko. His mouth began to shape the words, and she followed them:
"My life I give to my family. With my…hands…I protect my…husband…and our children. With my…mind….I seek ways to…better their life, and with my…feet…I turn always toward…our…home."
"Very nice," the sage drawled. "Now the tying of the knot. Gentlemen."
The two younger sages stepped away from their elder and knelt beside Zuko and Katara. Each picked up an end of the red thread laying on the table. "Please hold up your hands," the elder sage said. Katara held up both, but Zuko held up only his right, and the younger sage took only her left. He prodded her little finger away slightly, and looped the red thread around it. He pulled it tight, then he and the other saged worked deftly on an intricate mandala knot with the two ends.
"Is it tight?" Zuko asked.
"What?" one of the sages asked under his breath.
"I like my knots tight."
The sage gave him an odd look, but Zuko continued smiling calmly as ever. The sages withdrew and he gave Katara a knowing grin. He looked absurdly happy – you'd never know that the dagger up his sleeve was probably meant for his sister. Then again, maybe that was part of his good mood.
"By accepting these obligations, you have agreed to be tied together by a bond that only death should tear asunder," the older sage said. "Maintaining the strength of this bond requires courage. One cannot flinch away from one's promises, no matter the trial." He gestured. "Please hold your hands high."
Zuko raised his hand, and Katara did the same. Now the little red knot was directly in front of the sage. She watched the old man pull back, raising his hands in a classic firebending pose. Now she understood what he really meant about not flinching: he blasted fire straight at the knot. Heat strafed her open palm. Across from her, Zuko remained perfectly still. When the flames dissipated, the knot had disappeared. A few in the crowd applauded. Behind her, Katara thought she heard Wai Lee do the same.
"And now the contract," the sage said. The two younger sages unrolled a second scroll, with Water Tribe and Fire Nation symbols burned into the leather. Zuko produced a tiny flame on one finger, and signed his name. He held his finger out. "Stylus?"
"Oh, no," one of the younger sages murmured. "We forgot…"
"Oh, that's no problem," Katara said, and with some difficulty, removed one of Mai's senbon-turned-hairsticks. She smiled at Zuko. "Could you please heat this up for me?"
"With pleasure." He held his flame to the tip, and waited until it glowed orange. Katara drew it away, leaned over, and signed her name.
"The names of these two have been written on the contract and written into Fire Nation history," the elder sage said loudly. "Now they will drink ryu-nyuu, the royal drink, and seal their partnership."
Zuko reached for the dragon-shaped bottle, poured a small measure into the cup, and handed it to Katara. Frowning, she sniffed the drink. It was white and milky, but smelled like honey and pepper. Shrugging, she tipped it back – and nearly cried at the spice that exploded in her mouth. She coughed. Zuko reached over and grabbed the cup, then slid a thumb over her upper lip and stuck it in his mouth. He poured himself a drink, raised it to her, and tossed it back.
The sky shattered.
Katara looked up. The clouds had darkened significantly. She saw flickers of lightning nestled deep inside. And directly over the courtyard was a swirling vortex. The wind rose. The crowd began whispering. Behind them, Ozai and Azula stood up. Ozai strode over to the table and pointed at the vast, twisting spiral in the clouds. "What is that?"
Zuko stood. "It's your destiny."
Something rumbled beneath their feet. Katara looked to the stones at their feet and saw the aisle that Zuko had just crawled rupturing and splitting – the carpet shredding, the stones flying, people shouting. Her heart started to skip. This is it. It's really happening.
The stones erupted beneath them. Something rose from the depths, roaring – a massive creature with curving horns and slavering jaws and floppy ears. Flopsy. King Bumi's huge pet. And riding him were two figures, one in green, one in pink. They jumped free of Flopsy's saddle. Katara watched Ty Lee arc through the air and heard Azula cursing. And beside her was Toph, hands outstretched, and she brandished gleaming golden Dai Li gloves. They shot through the air straight at Ozai. The Fire Lord stood agog and silent as Toph's golden gloves hit him in the shoulders, the knees, the stomach. One clamped down over his throat. She and Ty Lee landed in unison.
"Who are you?" Azula asked, hands ablaze.
Ty Lee tilted her head sadly. "You mean you didn't even notice I was gone?" Then she slapped Azula across the face with a gloved hand. Both the Fire Lord and his daughter fell like sacks of rice.
Azula growled. "Why can't I move?"
"Because Sokka was right, as usual," Ty Lee said. She winced at her glove. The palm looked sticky. "A little xirxiu venom goes a long way."
Toph dusted her hands off and shrugged something off her shoulders. She tossed Zuko a sheath. "Nice crawling, Sparky."
Zuko drew his swords, spun them in his hands. "Oh, I missed these…"
"Here you go, Katara," Ty Lee said, and handed Katara double skins of water. "Ooh, that's a really pretty necklace!"
"Shoot them!" Azula was shouting from her position on the ground. "Shoot them now!"
They looked up. Above on the parapets, Yu Yan archers and Fire Nation soldiers appeared. And in the soldiers' hands were the dragon-shaped firebreathers – the Mechanist's weapons were aimed solely at them. "Toph. Walls," Zuko said.
"Don't worry," Toph said.
The weapons fired. Katara saw it happen slowly: first chambers turning on the weapons, then the fire in each soldier's hand-
-and the black finger of cloud that touched the scarred earth below, sending arrows and lead balls flying along with dishes and tables and lanterns, the whole detritus of the wedding spinning in the wake of a cyclone at whose center stood the Avatar.
Aang's shoulders heaved. China and glass and silk and lead fell all around him – a rain of garbage. He looked leaner, stronger. He wore a necklace of wooden beads like the one she had seen on Monk Gyatso's skeleton, and he carried his staff in white-knuckled hands. "Fire Lord Ozai," he said. "Your time is up."
Lightning clapped above them. Thunder rolled. And with the pattering rain came three distinct shapes streaking down from the clouds. One of them was Appa, in full armor. The other two were blue and red and long and they moved like ribbons, quick and nimble as a dream, and when they breathed fire the people fell to their knees.
"Dragons," Ozai said in a broken voice. "I thought they were all gone."
"You thought the same about my people," Aang said, as he ascended the stairs. He gave Flopsy a friendly scratch on the chin. He looked at Zuko and Katara. "Hi, guys."
Katara ran for him. She stumbled a little on the rift in the earth, but managed to grab him nonetheless. He smelled like rain. He let her squeeze him for just a moment before pulling away. "You look…different," he said.
She smiled. "So do you."
Aang leaned around her. "Hi, Zuko."
"Aang," Zuko said, nodding, as a Fire Nation banner behind him went up in flames. The remaining lanterns caught fire under the dragons' mouths. The crowd scattered in terror, ran for the gate. It wouldn't open. Katara looked up. Even the Yu Yan had broken ranks – what few were left now shot their arrows harmlessly at the dragons. The sages had assumed postures of deep regret: they knelt on the dais with their foreheads pressed to the ground. Even Li and Lo simply stared up at the great beasts circling the palace.
"So," Toph said. "This one's your dad, huh?"
Zuko looked. "Yes."
Toph plunged her hand into stone and came back with a fist three times its normal size. She marched over to Ozai's prone body. "Hey there," she said, and punched him solidly in the face. The Fire Lord raised his head once, snarling, before his eyes rolled back and he fell.
Zuko leaned over. "Um, Champ, I don't know if this is what you were going for, but you kinda got him in the wrong eye."
Toph shook stone free of her fist. "I'm blind, Sparky. He's just lucky I didn't miss low."
"Oh, Toph, look at your hand! It's all dirty!" Ty Lee stepped up to the earthbender and began brushing Toph's hand off. "You really have to watch these things; you could break a nail-"
Toph's face flared. "Stretch, come on, let go..."
Katara turned to Aang. "So…"
"They got friendly during her questioning," Aang said. "Only Toph could tell if she was lying."
"How sweet," Azula said from the floor.
"Shut your face," Toph said, and bent a stone glove over the princess' mouth. She kicked the earth and stones jabbed Azula in the stomach. The princess coughed around her gag. Toph jerked her hand away from Ty Lee. "You put up with this crap, Stretch?"
"Well, it was before I met you, Toph-"
"Oh, dear sages," Zuko said, pinching the bridge of his nose.
Above them, tiles crashed down from the roof. The red dragon dug his claws into the structure and exhaled fire over the crowd. Flopsy promptly whimpered and cowered. Aang blew sparks away from his fur. A figure slid away from the dragon's spine and down the roof. General Iroh wore antique Fire Nation armor; it looked like what Sokka had said Yue's father wanted his soldiers to use during their "undercover" mission. He pulled off his helmet and strode over to them.
"Children," he said, smiling.
"Uncle!" Zuko had the old man in his arms. "You're here!"
"Today is a special day," Iroh said. "I wouldn't miss it."
Katara stepped forward. "What about my dad?"
Iroh's bushy brows rose. "I imagine he is with that lovely Akna, planting undersea explosives on Fire Navy vessels."
"Hey, that's our trick," Zuko said.
"Yeah, no fair, he copied us," Katara said.
They laughed. Then Iroh began coughing. He clutched his heart. Katara looked at Zuko – he was doing the same. Slowly, he slipped to his knees. His eyes were wide and he was sweating. His breath came fast. Aang fell in a little heap, knees drawn to his chest. He twitched. "The Comet," he said. He looked at Katara, and for a moment she saw a little boy again. "Run," he rasped. "Run away. Now."
She shook her head. "No."
"LOOK TO THE SKY!" she heard Li and Lo chorusing. From their knees, the old women pointed their scrawny arms to the west, where the clouds had not quite gathered. "SOZIN'S COMET HAS RETURNED!"
It streaked down through the blue afternoon sky, tiny in the daylight but bright as the morning star and fast as a darting fish. It disappeared, and Katara turned to look at the people on the ground. Slowly, the whole wedding party was rising. Fire Nation aristocracy stood and rolled their shoulders. They looked at their fiery hands. And they smiled.
"You know, it's funny," Azula said, and Katara's blood went to ice. She watched the other girl stand up and brush her mouth clean. "I've never wished on a shooting star before." Blue flame blazed in her hands. "Guess I'm just lucky."
She threw twin balls of fire at Iroh. Zuko scissored his legs at her from the ground and she fell, rolled backward, popped back up. Her hands were still aflame. Zuko drew his swords. A pause, then he lunged first. "I should have known you would do this," Azula said. "You know I'm still the better bender."
"I know it doesn't matter," he said, and swung for her neck. Azula flipped backward, danced up and back. Zuko was so intent on her that he didn't see his father break free of the Dai Li gloves and begin stirring the air with his hands, didn't see the sparks, and didn't see it when Katara uncorked her waterskins and bent Ozai's lightning back at him with a crack of her waterwhip. The Fire Lord staggered back, hair mussed, crown sparking. He snarled at her and raised his hands, but a blast of flame to his right knocked him off his feet.
"Brother," Iroh said in a heavy voice, "this is our fight."
Ozai swung his wild eyes on Iroh. "You're right," he hissed.
Iroh flicked his gaze in Katara's direction. "You know where to go."
She glanced at Aang. He nodded. "Go. I'll be okay."
She bolted in Zuko's direction with a snake of water already spinning above her head. He and Azula were sparring on the long table likely intended for the wedding meal, disturbing plates and cups as they moved. China and lacquerware crashed to the stones below. Azula brandished daggers of pure white flame. Zuko skimmed white fire off his blades. They wove around one another; her foot arced over his head and he pushed forward, tried to stab her. Raising her hands, Katara threw all her concentration at the blood in Azula's body. The other girl froze for just a second before wrestling mightily. The Comet had given her terrific strength – she fought harder against the bloodbending than even Hama.
"Do it now," Katara said through gritted teeth. "Now, Zuko!" Azula wriggled and Katara squeezed, tried finding the blood in her throat. "I'm slipping!"
"You witch!" Azula writhed and spat. "I don't know what you're doing, but you're an abomination-"
Zuko crossed the swords on her neck. "Watch your mouth when you're talking to my wife."
A shot rang out.
She turned. Azula's blood slipped from her grasp. Ozai stood over his brother with a small firebreather in both hands. The end looked sawed-off. It smoked. Slowly, Ozai lowered it. Iroh was on the ground. His breath heaved. He clutched his left shoulder. Blood pooled around him. A low, anguished scream filled Katara's ears, and it wasn't hers.
Ozai spun, robes whirling, hands on fire, but Zuko ducked under them, crouched low, and skewered his father in the belly with both swords. Ozai flinched. His weapon dropped. He coughed blood. "Zuko…" He snarled. White flame blazed in his hands. He reached back to hurl it in Zuko's face. Zuko blocked his fist with one arm. Then the other came down and he had to block that one, too. Now they stood with arms locked and trembling. Ozai spat blood in his son's face. He grinned. "Oh, Zuko," he said. "Truly, you are my loyal son."
"No," Zuko said, and he broke his father's grasp, spun his hands in two circles. Lightning crackled in Zuko's fists, and he plunged them down onto the blades. Light sizzled down the steel and into his father's body. Ozai went rigid, lips pulled back, body twitching. Grimacing, Zuko kept his hands on the steel. His father's body jerked. Katara smelled something burning. Finally, Ozai wriggled free of the blades. He fell backward, hair fried, fingernails black, with one hand upraised.
"What?" Azula hopped up from the table and grabbed a beam. She swung up to the roof. "I'm finished helping you, Father. The Avatar is right. Your time is over." She ran for the dragon. She made a fire-whip and lashed the animal with it.
"She's getting away!" Aang leapt into the air and jumped for the roof. He dashed after her. Katara started running, but a warm, sticky hand clasped her wrist.
"Let him go," Zuko said roughly. "Please."
Katara pointed. The dragon was taking off. On it were Aang and Azula. She saw blue flame. "But…"
"Aang has a glider. Azula doesn't." Her gaze fell to the Fire Lord. He looked surprised and hurt, a little bit like a lost child lying in his own blood, and she didn't know if he was alive or dead. Zuko's hand squeezed hers. "My uncle is dying."
Katara turned. Toph and Ty Lee had knelt beside Iroh. Toph held one hand over the wound. Katara watched as tiny fragments of metal wiggled out of his flesh and into her fist. She bent them aside and the shining, bloody chips scattered on the stone. "You're gonna be fine, Pops," Toph was saying. "You're going to bend again, I promise."
"Please," Zuko whispered.
Katara broke away from him. She summoned a ribbon of water and crouched beside Toph. "Oh, Miss Katara," Iroh said, eyes closing. "You are a vision to these old eyes…"
"Oh, be quiet," Katara said, and began working the water over his wound. "Toph, did you get most of it out?"
"Think so," Toph said. She sat back on her knees. "Good thing you got us those plans…"
Zuko sank to his knees at the crown of his uncle's head. He removed the helmet. "Come on, stay awake," he urged. "Stay with me."
Iroh smiled. "You'll be fine… You always find a way…"
"But I need you," Zuko said. He smoothed the old man's hair back. "I don't know how to be Fire Lord. I don't know anything about how to run a country." He was crying, now. He bent double and laid his head on the old man's shoulder. "I can't do this on my own," he whispered. "I need your help."
Katara's vision blurred. She waited for the water to glow. He was leaking blood too quickly. She raised one hand and pinched the vessels off. Sweat broke out on her forehead. "If I can heal a stupid sloth, then I can heal you," she muttered. She plunged her awareness into his blood. She bent it back where it needed to go. "Zuko, hold him together."
She felt rather than saw Zuko take hold of the shoulder. Using his grip as a brace, she bent the water around inside the wound. Iroh gasped. "It's okay, it's just healing," she said, as the water began to glow. She forced all her energy into it, imagining the vessels repairing and the skin knitting. Pain spiked up in her head. Iroh groaned and arched up off the ground. She finished and sat back, hands tingling and wet. Below her, Iroh was white.
"His heart is still beating," Toph said.
Zuko's bloody hand covered Katara's. "Thank you."
"What happened, here?"
Katara looked up. Standing over them, their figures dark against the clouds, were the Stormbender Xiao Zhi and Ursa. Xiao Zhi's pale eyes narrowed in their deep and wrinkled sockets. She looked even more haggard than before. Ursa, however, had taken a place beside her son. "Zuko…what…?"
"Ozai shot him." He turned to his mother. "Azula got away. She's with Aang." His eyes lifted to Katara. They were still wet. "Katara, I'm sorry, I promised I wouldn't let her hurt him, I told him-"
"We can find them," she said.
"And you can destroy that phalanx of dreadnoughts along the way," Xiao Zhi said. She pointed behind herself. "They're over the harbor. They're carrying a payload of bombs, and they're headed straight for the colonies."
Zuko stood. "But Aang-"
"The Avatar is not the boy you left behind," Xiao Zhi said. She looked at the both of them. "He is in control of his elements, and so are you. The dreadnoughts cannot be brought down by firepower alone – their payloads will explode directly over our forces on the ground. We need another way. We need stormbending."
"We can't take down a dreadnought with just one shot," Zuko said. "And how would we even get up there?"
Xiao Zhi pointed to a nearby rooftop. The blue dragon circled it. "I see a dragon in the sky, and an ocean with your name on it," she said. "You figure it out."
Zuko looked down at Iroh, then Katara, then the sky. He licked his lips. "But-"
"Zuko, the Fire Lord's first duty is to protect the people of this nation," Ursa said in a low voice. She stood. Katara followed her. "I am your mother and I am asking you to bend those things into the sea." Ursa placed her hands on his shoulders, dusted them off. "And then you come right back to me, do you understand?"
Zuko smiled. "Mom, I promised Aang." He took hold of her hands. "We're his teachers. We have to protect him. We're not coming back without him." He looked at Katara. "Right?"
"Right." She looked Ursa and Xiao Zhi. "We'll disable the dreadnoughts. But then we're finding Aang."
"Well hurry up, time's wasting," Xiao Zhi said.
As she'd feared, the run across the courtyard was hampered by her voluminous underskirt, and in the end Katara had to stop just to tear it off. She kicked it away and kept running. The thing was surprisingly heavy, and she was much better able to keep up with Zuko's dead sprint without it. He didn't notice it was missing until they had pounded up the stairs and crested the roof. Above them, the dragon darted this way and that in a slow circle. It puffed fire toward the sky – Katara wondered if she was signalling her mate, somehow.
"I might have to – wow." Zuko pointed. "Uh…when did…?"
"Oh." Katara looked down. As requested, the seamstress had given her a new undergarment, but it was more like a scrap than anything else. Now all that covered her legs were it and the two broad panels of dark fabric attached to her lowest belt. "Well, the skirts made it hard to run…"
Zuko gulped. "Right." He shook his head and stared up at the dragon. "Um…I hope I remember this right…" He lunged forward. A bright white flame appeared in his hand. The dragon darted down to him. Zuko looked so small before that massive, bearded head. The dragon breathed steadily, nostrils flaring. Katara understood now the reverent tones the boys had brought back to the Western Air Temple. The beast before her was beautiful and rare and powerful. And now it was looking at her over his shoulder, and she caught an unmistakable intelligence glittering in those huge golden eyes.
"Do I have to dance?" she whispered.
"I don't know." He backed up a little. "Um…get your water out."
"Zuko, it's a dragon, it doesn't want to see waterbending-"
"Just trust me!"
Growling, she released more water and held it aloft. "Okay, now what?"
"Put your arms around me," he said. "Bend the water right in front of me."
She grinned. "Oh. I get it." She bent the water down in front of him. Slowly, she began to stir it, and he felt him doing the same in the air. They wove around one another, pushing and pulling. She saw the briefest flicker of sparks before he said: "Now," and she shot the lightning-infused water off into the distance. The dragon reared its head to watch the fizzling dance of light. Then it swung back to examine them. It lowered its head.
"I think we're good to go," Zuko said. He moved for the dragon. Hesitantly, Katara trailed after. She tiptoed up to the dragon's face and nearly died right there when a delicate, forked tongue flicked out and touched her leg.
"It's licking me…"
"That just means it likes you," Zuko said, and grabbed her hand. He hauled her up to a spot behind the dragon's horns and sat her in front of him. The creature's hide was surprisingly soft on her bare legs. When it breathed she could feel it humming all through her skin. "Um, I've never done this before." He leaned around her. "Uh…the dreadnoughts, please?"
And they were off.
The impact of sudden flight kicked her back against Zuko. He scrambled to grab hold of the horns, but settled for a little patch of scales in front of her instead. They rocketed into the air. She gave a little scream, then started laughing. It was like her first time on the glider. She bit her lip and looked down. The whole capitol was in flames, it seemed. I was right to ask Mai to leave with Tom-Tom. Everything about the place was much tinier from here, but she could still pick out Appa's shape gliding through the sky, and see the little golden arrow that was his armor. And if she squinted, she saw two shapes, one blue and one green, in his saddle. That alone gave her the strength she needed to look forward to the dreadnoughts. They were huge, great steel things with dragon-shaped prows that hovered like vulture-wasps over the peninsula.
"I'm going to need more water," Katara said, and shrieked when the dragon dipped down toward the harbor. Zuko's hands clamped down over her hips and kept her from lifting up in the sudden rush downward. Her veil flew away and the little red stone tied to her belt bounced. She laughed. The dragon skimmed the sea and she leaned forward – Zuko grabbed her waist and she thought of that other wedding, the one in the Oyster District, and how he had kept her from falling – and summoned two waves of water on either side of the dragon's spine. The waves grew and grew and grew until they were shimmering walls at their sides, and then the dragon burst free toward the sky and the battle above them. She bent the two streams of water – big as Ba Sing Se transit trains – in their wake. She watched Zuko's hands descend in front of her. He wove them in opposing circles. She looked up. The dreadnoughts were so close now she could see men in uniform waving to one another.
"Now," Zuko said, and when she lashed the first dreadnoughts with her massive new water-whips they were sparking and they smelled like a storm.
They rode straight up the cloud of machines, trailing lightning and seawater and destruction in their wake. The steel-sided vessels began to spark. They drifted down and away. She saw men slumped dead over their tillers, fried like Fire Lord Ozai. Fire from untouched vessels blasted over them. The dragon responded in kind. Bombs triggered inside the cargo holds of each vessel – the explosions nearly knocked her off the dragon.
Then came the grappling hooks.
They soared through the sky, all cable and steel, and the dragon swerved to avoid them, but she was too big and too long, and they were too many. The hooks pierced her flesh and she screamed violet fire. She fishtailed and Katara almost slipped again. She looked backward. The dragon was bleeding in several places. "I can try healing-"
"No," Zuko said. He pointed. "Look."
The hooks had penetrated deep. But they had also bound the dragon and the dreadnoughts. And she was stronger. And she was towing them out to sea. "Dive," Zuko said quietly. He yelled at the dragon. "Dive! Dive! DIVE!"
There was a horrid squealing sound as those steel beasts fell toward the sea, rivets popping free, metal shearing. They entered the ocean and Katara felt the ocean's cold drag at her ankles before she bent a pocket of air around them, and they plunged down and down and down into someplace dark and murky. The dragon tore down through the depths. She barrel-rolled and some of the hooks tore loose; she sped up and plowed out of the water, shining and wet.
Behind her, Katara felt Zuko standing up. She heard him draw his swords. "I have to cut the cables," he said, and before she could say anything he was gone. She turned to see him dashing down the length of the animal's spine, hacking and slicing at the cables. With each slice, the creature got faster. Soon she was straining to get free and when he cut the final cable she whipped the water with her tail and they were headed straight for the sky, streaming blood and water. But Zuko wasn't there.
"Zuko?" Katara tried to see him. She levered herself up on her knees and crawled toward the horns. Grabbing one, she tried catching a glimpse of the animal's belly. He wasn't there, either. "Zuko! Zuko!"
The animal bucked and she caught sight of him clinging to the dragon's tail. Behind him were the remains of the dreadnoughts. They foundered in the sea. And they were growing smaller, the higher the dragon flew. Katara swallowed. She grit her teeth. And she bent two boots of ice to secure herself to the dragon's still-damp body, and started walking.
The dragon bucked again, screeching, and knocked her to her hands and knees. So now it was her crawling to him, the way Ozai had made him crawl to her, and the wind whistled past her and the air got thinner and it was tough to breathe, but she lifted her raw and bleeding knees up and made her slow way down the animal's twitching body. "Hold on," she whispered. "I'm coming."
But then the dragon inverted again, and she fell, and she slid helplessly down its skin and landed much closer to its tail. Something cold and blinding enveloped her, and then brilliant sunlight warmed her skin. They were above the clouds. Pain made her arms shake, but she hauled herself up onto her belly and squirmed the rest of the way. She pushed herself down toward the tail. Miraculously, Zuko was still there. "Gotcha," she said, and grabbed his hand. She wrenched back and he collapsed over her.
"You saved me," he said into her neck.
"Not for long, though," she said. They sat up. She had to gulp air. "This air is getting really thin."
"I think she's panicked," Zuko said. "She's still bleeding."
Katara looked at the wounds. There were too many of them. "I can't heal them all."
Zuko rubbed his arms. His hands looked purple. "What about freezing them?"
Katara winced, then nodded. "It'll stop the bleeding." She inched closer. "Hang onto me, okay?"
"Sure." He grabbed her waist and she leaned down over the animal's side and skimmed the air with one hand. Water froze to her fingers. She concentrated, and blasted icy water along the creature's body. She watched the bloody gaps in those blue scales frosting over. Quickly, she dipped into the air again and twisted more ice crystals free, gave it another blast. The coat of ice was thicker, now.
"Other side," she said, and leaned over to repeat the process. But when she had coated the wounds in ice, the dragon continued climbing. Zuko was panting, now. He looked dizzy. Katara felt sick. She looked down at the clouds. Above them, the sky was darkening. She thought she saw stars, but she wasn't sure if it was just the lack of air.
"We have to jump," she said.
"You're crazy." He could barely sit up straight.
She grabbed his face. "Zuko. Listen to me. I need you to bend a signal flare. Okay?"
He looked down into the clouds. "Who's going to see us?"
She bit her lip. "I don't know. But if we don't jump soon, we're going to pass out and fall, anyway."
Zuko breathed like a child struggling not to cry. He leaned his forehead against hers. "I can't," he said. "I can't. It's too much."
She wrapped her arms around him. She set her chin on his shoulder. "I know you," she said in his ear. "I know what you can do. And you can do this."
He almost laughed. His arms circled her, held tight. "Hold me tight and don't let go," he said. He kissed her.
They fell through ice and through fire, down toward the sea, straight past flaming war balloons. They fell and she felt Zuko's fire streaking around them, and she held his arm to keep it straight and gripped his sheath. He coiled his other arm around her and he was kissing her with his eyes open like he didn't want to forget and the sea was rising to meet them and she wondered if the fall would hurt or if they would just wake up in the Spirit World-
-and something jerked her hard in the back and she flew backward, gripped Zuko's hands, yanked him back over her-
-and into Appa's saddle.
Sokka flipped his wolf helmet up. "Hey, sis." He was still gripping the double waterskins at Katara's back. "Miss me?"
She threw herself into his arms. "Sokka!"
Her brother hugged her tight. He rubbed her arms when he pulled away. "That's some outfit." He looked over at Zuko. "You've got some explaining to do, buddy."
Zuko sighed and hung his head. "Believe me, I know."
"Uh, I hate to interrupt, but there's trouble due east," Suki said from her position at Appa's reins. She pointed. The red dragon was whipping through the air. Aang darted around it on his glider, avoiding blasts of blue fire from Azula, who clung stubbornly to one of the creature's horns.
"Take us there," Zuko said.
"Appa, yip yip!"
The beast groaned and slid through the air, all six legs churning and tail beating the wind. Katara grabbed for the edge of the saddle. She felt Zuko take up a position behind her, all warmth and armor. His hair had come loose. So had hers. Her robes were soaking wet and torn. She shivered and he wrapped her up in his arms as Appa dived for the dragon. They watched as Aang sent blast after blast of fire Azula's way. She batted them away. As they drew closer, Aang shot up on a ball of air, snapped shut his glider, and spun it to create a vortex. He punched it forward and its spinning force tore Azula free of the dragon. She fell to earth streaking blue fire. The impact drove her deep into a hillside.
They stood to watch. Azula was so deep inside the earth they couldn't see her any longer. Suki leaned over. "Is she-"
"No," Zuko said. "She doesn't go down easy."
They heard a rumble and crack down below. Appa circled the hill. Something orange bubbled up from the earth. It rolled down the grass. Lava. Then a great stream of it spurted up the hill, and riding it was Azula, her hands full of fire.
"I hate it when you're right," Sokka said. "How come that place looks so familiar?"
"It's the bunker," Zuko said. "Take us down there."
An explosion knocked Appa to the side. They collapsed to their feet. He roared and flew up a little higher, spiralling around the plume of ashy smoke belching up from the ground. "Uh, no can do," Suki said. She pointed. On the ground were Fire Nation tanks, their cannons pointed up at Appa. "There's nowhere to land!"
"This is bad," Sokka said.
"It's a trap," Zuko said. "She knew she could lure him away. And I let her do it." He drew his swords. "Get me a rope."
"You're insane!" Sokka pointed down into the fire. "I'm not letting you dangle out there like bait for those tanks!"
"But she's my sister!"
Sokka leaned in so close his face was inches from Zuko's. He jabbed him in the chest and spoke through clenched teeth. "And my sister is your wife, and if you leave her a widow today, I will never forgive you." He pulled away. He stared down at the fight. Aang was bending air at Azula; she kept on dodging and dancing and lashing him with whips made of lava. "Aang has to do this on his own."
Zuko hung his head. Katara sidled up to him. She reached for his hand; their fingers tangled. Below, Azula made a dash at Aang. He twisted water free of the air and made an ice slide. Azula charged up its length, spun in the air, and brought down a leg that trailed blue fire. Aang sent an air-ghost of himself in her direction; she flipped backward, landed skidding on her feet, summoned lava straight from the earth and made spinning blades of it that rolled straight for Aang's feet. He brought up a wall of stone and squashed them flat. He flicked his fingers and the stones below Azula rose, clamped around her. She exploded free of them. She made the Yu Yan form. Zuko's grip turned steely on Katara's hand. "No, please no…"
Azula bent the lava straight at Aang in one blazing arrow of molten heat. He bent up a wall of rock, but it was no use: the stones shattered around him, and he fell.
"NO!" Zuko was yelling. It sounded like something being dragged out of him, a noise like rusty chains hauling a heavy load. He had fallen to his knees and he was reaching over the saddle. He looked ready to climb out and jump. "AZULA!"
A pillar of light soared up from the volcano. It glowed through the smoke and haze. The red dragon roared and Appa groaned. Something small and brilliant floated up through the light. It was Aang.
He was glowing.
Katara sat on her knees. He looked so beautiful, suddenly, so different from the rest of them, his arrows blazing brighter than anything anyone could bend. He moved his hands and she knew those movements, she had seen them before, the confidence and efficiency and the wisdom of a thousand lifetimes condensed into one too-small vessel. Lava spiralled up under him. He wove it through the air, split it, shaped a penta-pus of fire and sparks.
He mowed down the tanks like a farmer threshing wheat. They exploded. Iron and steel bounced into the air, fell with a crash, melted. She tried not to hear screaming. Instead she watched Aang bend a deep river in the earth, saw him channel the lava into it so it flowed down into the sea. Something exploded near him, and he looked up. Their gaze followed his. A small group of war balloons had converged.
"Oh, no," Zuko murmured.
"He'll be fine," Sokka said.
"I know he will," Zuko said, just as Aang stirred the air almost lazily with one hand, and bent a ball of white lightning straight at the nearest balloon. It burst into flame. The others tried turning away but he was still the boy who had bested everyone at airball, and he sent them speeding missiles of lightning and wind that streaked across a sky snowing ash.
"Aang, stop," Katara whispered. She knew he couldn't hear her from here, but she kept it up: "Stop, please stop…"
As though she had heard her wish, Azula struggled up from the ground. She carefully stirred the air with both hands. And just as they, in one voice, yelled at Aang to look out, she sent lightning crackling up at him. It struck him full-force. His hands twitched.
"In, down, across, out," Zuko said.
Aang bent the lightning back. But he bent it along a stream of water culled from the steam that shimmered below him, and that water coiled around Azula's shuddering, burning body like a fist or a cocoon. She jumped and jolted inside its grip. Then she fell. And so did he.
"I'm on it!"
Appa didn't have to be told. He dived for the falling shape. He dipped down into the dark and pungent clouds, and when he arose trailing ash and sparks, Aang was with them. Zuko held him cradled in his arms, across his knees. I held him that way, once, the other time Azula shot him with lightning. Katara crouched down.
"Aang, wake up," Zuko said in a firm voice. He touched Aang's cheeks. He bent down, listened to his chest. His face came up. "His heart's not beating."
Katara's own heart seemed to stop. She held a hand over his heart. Sniffing and trying to concentrate, she sought the blood inside him, felt around for the right vessels. They were stagnant. She stirred them, but they had lost the rhythm. She tried again. Nothing. "It won't start!"
"Wait, you can re-start somebody's heart?" Sokka asked.
"You re-started mine! You can re-start his!"
"That's different! I'm the one who stopped yours! Azula's lightning did this!"
"Stop it!" They looked up. Suki was standing up inside the saddle. For the first time, Katara noticed that both she and Sokka wore facepaint. She looked every inch the Kyoshi Warrior they had met all those months ago – the kind of girl who could lead a battalion, the kind of person who would never let Azula win, ever. "You two are married. You have the rest of your lives to fight. Right now Aang needs you." She swallowed. "Lightning stopped his heart. Maybe it can start it up again."
Zuko's jaw fell. "We're trying not to kill him-"
"No, she's right," Sokka said. "Think about it. Today is the day of Sozin's Comet. You're stronger now than you've ever been. You can focus enough to create a little tiny blast, right?"
Zuko turned to Katara. "You found him. You brought him back to life. It's your decision."
Katara looked at Aang's pale face. She remembered something, reached back into her hair, and retrieved the sole remaining senbon. Biting her lip, she pricked four of her fingers and clenched a fist. Blood pulsed free. She pulled Aang's robes aside and held her dripping hand high over his skin. "Do it."
"Whoa," Sokka said. "Stormy, bloody, healing bending."
Zuko was weaving his hands tightly. He made a tiny white shape in both hands, the size of a lotus. "Small enough?"
He flicked it at the trails of blood leading down to Aang's heart. It fizzled across his skin and Aang arched up, caught his breath. His eyes opened, closed, then opened again. He coughed. "How'd I do?" he asked, before his head rolled to one side.
"You did great," Zuko said, and rested one dirty, bloody hand across Aang's tattooed head. "Let's go home."
Zuko carried Aang into the infirmary himself, and laid him down on the bed beside his uncle's. Katara tried occupying herself healing, too, until someone reminded her that her knees were a mess and she sat down to heal herself – and couldn't get up again. She was dizzy and sick and sore. Zuko sat on her little infirmary bed and watched his uncle and Aang. Someone came up to him and called him Fire Lord Zuko and asked for orders:
"My Lord, King Bumi's forces have arrested the Dai Li. Where would you like them held?"
"Your Fire Lord is in that bed over there," he had said, pointing to Iroh. "Ask him."
Katara had sat up. "Use a wooden crate." She swallowed. "Then push them out into the ocean."
"Yes, my Lady."
Zuko had turned to her, then, eyes glittering. "I'm not the Fire Lord," he said. "I can't be the Fire Lord. I just can't."
She reached out and grabbed his hand. "You're not giving up, are you?"
"…Not without a fight."
She woke up to hear a woman singing: "Little soldier boy / Comes marching home / Brave soldier boy / Comes marching home…"
And her father was there when she opened her eyes, his hair wild and his wolf helmet bloody, and he looked terribly old and his lip was split, but he was petting her hair and he said: "Hi, baby," when she smiled at him.
"How's my little girl?" He sniffed. "I guess you're a married woman, now, I can't call you things like that…"
She yawned. "It's okay. They have this thing called divorce here… It's pretty neat…"
"General Iroh told me all about it, sweetheart." He looked over her shoulder. She made a half-turn and saw Zuko lying beside her, head pillowed on one arm, the other arm draped across her ribs. "I wish you all the luck in the world with that whole divorce thing. It looks like you'll need it."
She blushed deeply. "We didn't…" She wormed her way deeper into the pillow. "I mean, nothing happened… It wasn't like you said…" She sniffed. "I mean, what you said that day, when you said that I couldn't come home…" She was crying, now.
"Oh, Katara…" He grabbed her hand and held it to his face. "Oh, my baby." He gulped. "Your mom and I had a serious talk about those words, and how they would protect you."
"Well, me, your mom, and a big bowl of cactus juice." He smiled. "You can come home anytime you want. If you want to, that is." His smile broadened. "Seems like being Fire Lady would be a lot of fun."
Katara frowned. "If anyone's Fire Lady around here, it's Zuko's mom."
"Not the way she tells it," he said. "She keeps on saying she was 'only a princess' when Ozai banished her. Whatever that means."
Katara shrugged. "I guess Zuko did say I'd be good at it…"
As though hearing his name, Zuko sat up. "Huh? What?" He paused. "Oh. Hakoda. Sir. I was just-"
"I think you should take my daughter to a better room, son," Hakoda said. "She needs her rest."
"Oh. Right. Yes. That's a good idea."
Hakoda handed Katara folded blanket. "And tie this around yourself. The men in this country don't know what it means when a woman wears a necklace."
Giggling, Katara stood up. She dutifully wrapped the blanket around her middle. She had to half-hold it in one hand while waiting for Zuko. At the door, she turned and saw her father grip his upper arm and squeeze it. She watched Zuko bow deeply and salute. And when he rose, she saw her dad grab him and hug him hard and she saw his lips shaping thank you.
Zuko undressed her. She felt a little like a child when he made her step out of her slippers, but she was falling asleep on her feet and couldn't complain. He eased off the great sleeves and their attached armbands, and slowly picked the pearls out of her hair. Next came the intricate knots over her belts, and he said something about his fingernails being too short but she watched and his hands were shaking too hard to untie those tiny little knots. "Use your dagger," she said. So in the end he simply cut her free, and she helped him with the other belts, and stepped out of the last piece of her skirt. She hugged her arms. All her necessary bits were still covered, but it was hard not to feel more than naked under those eyes.
"Jun was right," Zuko said. "You are too pretty for me."
Katara stepped up and laid a hand over the scar. He stilled and closed his eyes. He pressed her palm into the rough flesh there. "You're the first person I ever let touch this," he said. "Whatever happens, just…just remember that."
Katara tugged at the battered armor. "You know, the sooner you take this off, the sooner we can go to bed."
His lips quirked. He looked at the floor. His good ear had pinked. "I, um…I wasn't sure if…"
"Zuko, if you run out on me on my wedding night, my dad will break you in half."
He paled. "Good point." He undressed facing away from her, then moved around the bed before pulling back gauzy red curtains and sliding in beside her. He looped one arm around her. "Is this okay?"
"Yeah…" Her eyes were already closing. "What room is this?"
"Oh. I like it."
He kissed the edge of her ear. "It's yours now, too."
The next morning she caught him propped on an elbow, staring at her. "Am I drooling?"
He smiled. "No."
She rolled over to see him better. "So."
He burrowed down in the pillows. "So."
She bit her lip. "They're not, like…going to check our sheets or something, right?"
He reddened. "No." His eyes popped. "Is that what they do in the South Pole?"
"No, not anymore."
"Well, we used to light our brides on fire, so-"
"It was a purification ritual. The groom doused his bride in kallu wine, bent fire at her-"
"It was before the islands unified! It's primitive! We don't do it, anymore!"
"Yeah, now two old ladies take you down into a hot spring and cook you alive," Katara muttered.
He frowned. "They showed you the Spring of Life?"
"That's a very special place."
"Are you saying I shouldn't have been allowed in?"
"No, not at all," he said, opening his palms. "It's like ryu-nyuu. It's normally reserved for Fire Nation royalty." He smiled. "But you are Fire Nation royalty, now, I guess."
Katara pursed her lips. She looked at their hands. "So, um…." She gulped, and hated her eyes for stinging. "About this divorce thing…"
"It'll take a while," Zuko said. "But if it's what you want, then we'll do it."
Why am I crying, now? "I just… I just don't know if I'm ready to be grown up all the way, yet," she said. "It's too big. And it's not because of you, I promise! If it could just be like this all the time, just you and me, then it would be different, but-"
She blinked. "What?"
"I understand." He picked her hand up and twined their fingers. "Yesterday, when I saw Uncle Iroh fall, I had to face being the Fire Lord. And I wasn't ready. I'm still not." He licked his lips. "And if that's how you feel about this, then…"
She nodded. "Yeah. That's it. It's just too much right now." She wiped her eyes with the ball of one hand. "I've always been something for somebody else. Like the daughter of the chief or the Avatar's waterbending teacher. And I don't want this to be like that. I don't want to be just another part of someone else's plan."
"You're not just anything."
"I know, but…" She sniffed. "When I was the Painted Lady, I got to choose it for myself. And when I choose someone – anyone – I want it to feel the same."
"You didn't choose me?"
"No, I did, I just…" She wormed up against him. This was too hard to say with him looking at her that way. "I just want to choose you for myself, not because it helps Aang or it hurts Azula." She smiled suddenly. "I don't want to have to share."
"My wife, the tyrant." He kissed her hair. He ran his fingers through it. "Your hair needs washing."
"You're a real romantic, Zuko."
"…Can I please wash it?"
She pulled away and blinked. "Um…"
"You can keep your clothes on. It'll be like swimming."
She smiled. "Okay." They got up, and this time she saw what she hadn't last night: great swaths of purple bruising across his ribs. She pointed. "Zuko!"
"What? Oh. That." He shrugged. "The dragon gave me a beating."
"You probably broke a rib!"
"Is that why it hurts to breathe?"
She pointed. "Get in that bathtub right now!"
"Spoken like a true Fire Lady." He limped into the bathroom. A moment later she heard water pounding into the tub. She watched him ease himself into the water, wincing, and was reminded of their first night in this place, how Azula had commanded that she "fix" him. She had spoken as though Zuko were just a broken toy, which to Azula he probably was. Katara took off her necklace, then hopped into the water across from him. He already had a bar of soap. "Come here."
"Healing first, then hairwashing."
She drew the water up in two ribbons that coiled gently around him. She closed her eyes and found the cracked rib. With a quick jolt of energy, urged the blood back into the proper place – he groaned – and soothed the hurt with water. Dizzy, she stumbled back a little and saw the glow receding from the water. His bruising had improved. "See? All better."
"Not quite," he said, and reached for the back of her knee. He squeezed, then used the leverage to pull her into his lap. "I need this, too." His wet hands rose from the water and pulled her down for a kiss. The kiss went deep and she tasted the sour remnants of spices on his tongue, but didn't care. His hands were everywhere, in her hair, down her back, pulling her right up against him until his body jerked up to meet her and she squeaked her surprise into his mouth.
"Just tell me when to stop and I will," he said. "But you made me feel better, and I really, really want to return the favor."
"Yeah, you're a real giver," she said, as his teeth trailed her neck.
"Sweetness," he said, "you have no idea."
They were late to breakfast.
Zuko had spent the next little while proving his point. And then proving it again, just because he was proud of himself. And then a third time, because she was honestly surprised and said a little breathlessly: "You know, this is a lot better than when I do it." (For some reason that made him look happy enough to cry, before went back to the matter at hand.)
He was still flexing his fingers when they entered the dining room. Which was a mess. Not least because of the bear.
"Oh, hello there, Fire Lady Katara!" King Kuei popped up and waved. "Don't mind Bosco; we're really working on his manners, but the battle was kind of stressful-"
"There's a bear at my dining table," Zuko said.
Katara turned. "You're not too quick, are you?"
"Well there you are!" Sokka waved a drumstick in their direction. "I saved you some meat!"
They pushed forward. "What about Aang?" Katara asked.
"Right here," he said, dropping down from the rafters with Momo on his shoulder. "Sorry. Momo got his tail stuck up there."
The lemur leapt for her shoulders and eagerly began sniffing her. "Are you feeling better?"
"Yeah," Aang said. He smiled. "That's three times you've saved my life, now."
Katara patted Zuko's arm. "Well, the third time was more like a team effort."
Aang made the Fire Nation salute. "Thank you both."
Zuko did the same. And then he surprised Aang the way Hakoda had surprised him – with a fierce, tight hug. Aang looked over Zuko's shoulder at Katara, but she just put her arms around both of them. "I told you I would find you," Zuko said.
"I remember," Aang said. "No matter how long or how far, right?"
"Always," Zuko said.
They pulled back. Aang wiped his eye with the back of one finger. "Well, let's eat."
"Now there is a wonderful idea," a very tired voice said behind them. They turned. Iroh was on a wheeled chaise lounge, pushed by Ursa. He looked exhausted and worn, but his eyes still sparkled. Along behind him came Teo and the Duke in a cushy two-seater pushed by Haru. Beside her, Zuko froze. Katara's heart skipped a beat. Their hands found each other for just a moment before Zuko was pushing forward and kneeling at Teo's chair.
"It's okay," Teo said. "Your friend – the one with the all the arrows? He said Dad died serving the cause."
Zuko blinked. "Yes. That's true. He did." He swallowed. "The Fire Nation has a lot to rebuild. And we need engineers. And if you want…"
Teo grinned. "Sounds awesome. What's my salary?"
"Draw the contract yourself," Zuko said.
Teo's eyebrows lifted high above his goggles. "Well, uh, okay…I'll, um, get right on that…" He wheeled away.
Katara smiled at Zuko. "That was a good thing you just did."
"More like the least I could do."
"Will you two sit down already?" Sokka was standing up with a cup of tea in one hand. "Everybody's here."
And everybody was. Wincing, Katara dashed over to the table. Zuko took a seat beside her. Sokka, however, remained standing. He gave Katara one of his You're never gonna believe this, but… looks, and she narrowed her eyes. This could not possibly be good.
"So, we'd, uh, we'd like to invite you all down to Kyoshi this spring," Sokka said, ears burning. "If you can make it, of course. But it would be really great if you could. Because we'd like you to be there. Even you, Zuko."
"I'll check my calendar," Zuko said flatly.
"And you too, Ursa, and Wai Lee, well both Lees I mean, and General Iroh, too-"
"Where is this going, Snoozles?"
"We're getting married," Suki said. She looked at Katara. "I'm sorry, but you really gave me a bad case of wedding envy."
"Hopefully yours doesn't end in explosions," Zuko said.
Iroh clapped his hands together dryly. "Well, this is fantastic news!"
The Duke raised what looked to be a whole mug of tea. "Cheers!"
"Seconded!" Toph said, and held up her teacup.
"Thirded!" Ty Lee said. "Oh, we'll have to get you something really cute to wear, Toph-"
"I'm wearing my champion belt, or nothing at all."
"You tell her, Champ," Zuko said.
"Speaking of Miss Toph," Iroh said, "I have an announcement of my own."
"Oh, great sages," Zuko murmured. "You know, I always wondered-"
"Miss Toph is now the Bei Fong representative to the Fire Nation," Iroh said. "She will be living here from now on." He looked at Zuko. "If that is quite all right with you, Fire Lord Zuko."
Zuko's jaw dropped. "Me? You were first in line-"
"I abdicated," Iroh said. "While you were sleeping." He blinked. "I do hope the two of you had a nice rest." He smiled gently. "And regarding your divorce…it seems that the sages will want to wait at least a month to see if there is any cause for concern…"
"Why a month?" Aang asked.
"To see if the Sugar Queen's got a dumpling in the steamer," Toph said.
As one, Katara and Zuko's palms met their faces.
At the end of the month, after Ozai and Azula's cremations and after the coronations – Katara got one, too, despite the paperwork they had filed – and after the cleanup, after the trials and the late night meetings with the White Lotus and after Iroh sent "some of his Pai Sho chums" to the Bei Fongs to "make matters painfully clear" regarding Toph's new residence, after they heard from the Sun Warriors that both dragons were nesting comfortably once again, after the first treaties were drawn and after King Bumi sent the most absurd wedding gifts, after the musicians finally left with a new crop of songs to share with the Ember Island Players, after Zuko gave Hakoda the Southern Fleet and a sack of "some really funny looking money" that Katara recognized from a rainy night in the Oyster District, Katara and Zuko sat together looking at the turtleducks.
"So," he said. "Tomorrow."
"You're all packed?"
"You're taking those teas-"
"Yes. Your uncle showed me."
"And the koalamb's wool-"
"Yes. You've asked me twice, today." She hugged her knees. "I'm going to miss you."
He smiled. "I'm going to miss you, too."
"It's a long time, you know. Almost a year."
"You'll be fifteen. Almost sixteen."
She frowned. She rather failed to see what that had to do with anything. "I guess so." Her frown deepened. "Shouldn't you be making some big romantic speech about how you don't want me to leave?" She pointed. "There's a full moon! And glowflies!"
"Whatever! This is the part where you tell me you love me and you don't want to do this without me!"
He lay back in the grass. "I do love you. And I don't want to do this without you." He turned to look at her. "But I want you to want me, too." He looked up at the moon. "I've been forced into too many decisions," he said. "I've had to go where other people tell me to. And that's not what I want for you."
She looked at the turtleducks. Iroh had given them two jade ones. He said they were a traditional gift, because the animals mated for life. (Her own father had given Zuko a spear; it now hung over his bed, above the twin swords.) Zuko had a point. And she liked that he thought of those kinds of things. If she was being honest, it was something she loved in him – the way he had become accustomed to his freedom and wanted the same for everyone he cared about. That was something they had in common.
"Well," she said, blinking tears back, "you're taking it a lot better than me."
He sat up and faced her. "That's because I know something you don't," he said.
She sniffed. "Yeah? Like what?"
"I have a date with you in the spring." He kissed her. "And I never, ever give up without a fight."
SEE YOU ON KYOSHI FOR THE EPILOGUE…