This story is set after The Southern Raiders and before The Ember Island Players.
When Katara woke, it was to the swish and clang of swords. An attack!
She sat up, her hand halfway to the cork of her waterskin before her bleary eyes made out Toph lying still and calm on the floor beside the bed. Toph always slept on the floor, even here in the Fire Lord's summer mansion where beds were comfortable, soft and plentiful for once. She didn't much like sleeping inside the house, either, but even on the wooden floor she was freakishly sensitive to all movement within a mile's radius of the house. If there was any danger, Toph would have warned her.
Katara pushed back the sheet and got out of bed, slipping around the blind girl's sleeping form. Her little arm was slung across her face, her hair all a-tangle. Katara's fingers itched to run a comb through it, but it wasn't worth the risk. Toph had a nasty roundhouse kick for a child her size.
She slipped out of the house and made her way towards the sound, keeping her waterskin within reach just in case. When she found the source of the noise, she found herself wishing she was still in bed. Zuko and Sokka were sparring in the courtyard, the steel zing of Zuko's dao blades singing in sharp counterpoint to the clash of Sokka's 'space sword'.
As she came into the yard, Zuko twisted sharply, his left hand spinning back and knocking Sokka's sword cleanly out of his hand. The right-hand sword came around to rest threateningly against Sokka's throat.
Sokka's face fell and his shoulders slumped. "Awww," he moaned. "It's not fair, you have two swords and I only have one!"
"Go get another one then," Zukko said flatly, sheathing his blades and stretching. "It'll be funny to see you slice your fingers off."
"It can't be that hard," Sokka scoffed retrieving his sword and wiping it on his Fire Nation breeches. "One sword, two swords… what's the difference?"
"Ever tried patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time?" Zuko asked, raising an eyebrow.
"No," Sokka scoffed. "But that doesn't sound hard." He raised both hands and attempted it, with very little success. "Wait… it can't be… this is… blargh!" He threw up his hands. "Okay, I'll admit that may be a smidge more difficult than I thought."
"Come to me when you've mastered that, then you can try with two swords." Zuko looked up and saw Katara for the first time. His expression changed slightly the way it always did when he saw her. He lost that smug, self-satisfied expression and became somehow sad and quiet.
Sokka started mumbling something about Sifu Jerk Hotman, but stopped when he followed the prince's line of sight and saw his sister giving him the Look. "Oh," he said. "Hey Katara."
"Expecting Suki?" Katara teased.
"No!" he said, way too quickly.
"You two are up early," she noted, going to the fountain and bending a coil of water to wash her face. It was refreshing in the heat of the island. On this side of the house, even the sea breeze was little comfort. She was glad of her Fire Nation outfit, much cooler than her own clothes, even if it did feel a bit wrong wearing the colours of the enemy. Zuko was dressed head to toe in red, as usual, full sleeves and everything. Firebenders. It was enough to make you want to bathe in ice water.
"I was hungry," Sokka said, shrugging. "And this guy never sleeps."
"I do so," Zuko hissed. "You've seen me."
"I've seen you lying down with your eyes closed. Doesn't mean you sleep."
Zuko's good eye narrowed and his lips twisted into a snarl. Katara thought she knew him well enough by now to recognise the danger signs. "Sokka, go wake up Aang," she said quickly. "Find him some breakfast before we start training. He won't eat lately unless you put it right there in front of him."
Sokka gave her a searching look, but shrugged and went inside, leaving her alone with the angry prince. Good plan, Katara, she thought wryly to herself.
Zuko came over to the fountain and splashed his face, rubbing his forehead with the back of his hand. The water steamed off his fingers as he flamed them dry.
"Does that hurt?" she asked suddenly.
He glanced at her. "No. Does it hurt you when you stand barefoot on ice?"
"No. Should it?"
His cheek twitched, and she realised he was smiling. Water dripped off his fringe onto the pale stone of the courtyard. "Ice can burn as well as fire, if it's cold enough. You should think about that next time you encase someone in it." He walked away, apparently assuming the conversation was over, and stripped off his shirt in order to do stretching exercises.
You deserved it, you little pompous lizardcrow, she thought, in an inner voice not quite her own. But she couldn't say it out loud. He had helped her find the man who had killed her mother. They were even, by unspoken agreement, even if it hadn't gone quite the way she had wanted. It's not fair, she thought, drawing her knees up to her chin, watching the young prince with unseeing eyes. Sokka got Dad back. Aang learned firebending and got to see dragons. All I got from my field trip with Zuko was a hole in my chest where all that anger used to be.
Zuko fell forward onto his hands and stretched his toes up towards the sky, before flipping forward onto his feet again and turning to look at her with an unreadable expression. "Stop staring at me," he demanded.
I wasn't, she thought, but there was little point in saying it. "You should eat more," she said instead. "You got skinny."
"I was a refugee," he pointed out, nostrils flaring. "There's not a lot of food in the Earth Kingdom for refugees."
"You haven't been a refugee lately," she pointed out. "You just don't eat enough."
"Argh!" he stamped his foot childishly and his hands blazed for a moment. "What is it with you people? Eat more, sleep more… why can't you just leave me alone!"
"Because you're one of us now," she said, as calmly as she could manage. "Team Avatar looks after each other."
He grimaced. "Team Avatar," he muttered. "Whoever came up with that stupid - oh wait, don't tell me, I think I know."
"It might be stupid but it's true," she said, standing up and bending some of the moisture from the fountain to hang around her for a moment. It was blissfully cool. "How do you think we got so far if it's not from looking out for each other? If it weren't for us, Aang would run himself ragged trying to save everyone. Toph would have fallen off Appa half a dozen times. Sokka… well, honestly, Sokka's mouth probably would have got him stuck in a Fire Nation cell a long time ago. We're a team. Aang's teachers. Water, earth, and now fire…"
"I am aware of the irony," he said, sitting on the porch step, about as far away from her as he could get, she noticed. "If he'd been a half-decent firebender from the beginning, it would have made things much harder for me."
"You never caught him," Katara said quickly.
"But I came close," he said, smirking. "A lot."
A week ago this would have made her furious, now she recognised it at a poor attempt at humour. Maybe Sokka was rubbing off on him. She shuddered at the thought. She bent her cooling drops at him, splattering his face.
"Hey!" he protested. "Do I throw fire at you when you annoy me?"
"Don't joke about hurting Aang. You're supposed to be his teacher."
He even had the grace to look ashamed. "I was never going to actually hurt him," he muttered.
"And what do you think your father was going to do him once you handed him over?" she demanded, reddening. He couldn't be that naiive, surely?
His face fell. "All right, point taken."
There was a crashing sound from inside the house. Zuko was on his feet in a flash, hands raised in firebending stance.
"Toph's awake," Katara told him, pointedly.
He lowered his hands slowly. "Oh. Is she always so loud?"
"What do you think?"
Toph came vaulting over the porch to land with a thump between them. "Okay fellow bending Sifus!" she crowed, hands on her hips. "Who gets him first today?"
"Me," Zuko said seriously. "He's had months with the two of you. He's had hardly a week to learn firebending."
"Aw, but I was going to take him up the volcano and make him dodge lava," Toph pouted.
"Why don't you both take him," Katara said. "He can practice combining earth and fire."
Zuko looked at her searchingly. "You don't want to come?"
"I'll train with him this afternoon. It'll cool him down after you both get him fired up." And I'll get some peace and quiet for once, she thought happily.
"Are you guys done fighting over me yet or should I wait?" Aang was at the top of the stairs with his staff held loosely in his hand.
Toph eagerly told him the plan while his face gradually grew more tredipidatious. "Lava?" he moaned. "I hate lava."
"Lava is fun," Toph said. "We won't let you fall in."
"If he falls in it will be the end of the world," Zuko pointed out. "We can't allow that to happen."
"Thanks Zuko," Aang muttered. "I feel loads better now." He looked hopefully at Katara. "Are you coming?"
"We'll train later, Aang," she said gently. "Just you and me, okay?"
This did seem to cheer him up. "All right then," he said, snapping open his glider. "Last one to the top of the volcano is a slugpanda!"