AN: Reviewers, I weep! I squirm and squeak as I read your reviews! I devour them with unflattering, undignified enthusiasm! (Just so you know.)
Question! When will Zuko become aware of the need to switch alliances? It shall come like a fever dream! Like a bumblebee in the face! Like waking up hungover and remembering with dread the night before! *dramatic finger-wiggling* Epiphany!
Katara spent most of her day puzzling over Pakku's little riddle between bouts of practicing the new technique - raising mist. At first she would sweep her arms up and shift her feet and tendrils would come curling up off the water in lazy whirls, but by midday she could lift a haze thick enough to conceal a piling. By the evening meal, she could almost cover one of the moored ships. She didn't notice the others' resentful gazes - they were still working on the pilings - but if she had, she wouldn't have cared.
Water can gain power from fire. Water can take what fire carelessly offers and turn it to its own ends.
Mostly, Katara tried to envision how her bending could adapt to the rapid, ferocious attacks Pakku had told her to expect. She thought of Zuko, the few times he had fought her with bending, but she only really remembered the one time - the first time, on that little island far to the south - and he had only struck at her once, then. His punch had been sudden and fierce, and it had been almost instinctive to draw up the water of the stream and whip it around at him. Almost, because she had been angry when she did it, she recalled. What was it he'd said? Some bullying thing. It had been back before he had hair, it was almost like he was a different person then.
Katara lost control of her mist and it splattered down on the ship in big fat drops. She sighed, cleared her mind, and tried again.
Zuko was not a different person. He could make all the rational-sounding apologies he wanted, but it didn't change who he was and what he planned to do. When his opportunity came, he would use every weapon at his disposal to capture Aang. Katara would have to be prepared for anything. She hadn't expected him to be so good with the swords, or to be so tireless during their match, and she could only assume that that energy and skill would translate into his firebending as well. She had to be ready.
Katara raised her arms and shifted her feet and a wall of mist hissed up off the harbor, billowing like silk.
So, later, when Zuko sat down beside her in the mess hall, she hadn't really noticed how edgy he seemed. She had wondered how near he was to mastering firebending, whether he had already accomplished it. She went on eating, and wondering, until the big warrior, Tantec, said her name.
Then she looked up at him. He looked vaguely familiar, but that didn't mean anything to her now, because the next words out of his mouth made the rice she had just swallowed turn to concrete in her stomach.
"Katara, daughter of Chief Hakoda, is my betrothed."
For a second, she could only stare past Zuko at this big Northerner with his arrogant posture, trying to wrap her head around his claim to possess her like an ice hut or a caribou-yak. For a second, she pictured trying to be a wife to this swollen-headed strutting brute. She didn't want to wash his socks or mend his clothes. She didn't want to cook his meals or have his children.
She wanted to beat him into the ground.
Katara was on her feet before deciding to stand. "Says who?"
Tantec turned his frown to her, mild confusion crossing his expression. "Chief Hakoda. We'll be entering talks upon his return. What's it to you?"
"What's it to me?" Katara wasn't really aware that her voice was high, too loud. "What's it to me? I will never consent to-"
Zuko shot up between them, and his hand was suddenly on her shoulder. He fixed her with a wide-eyed glare. It took Katara a few heavy breaths to realize why he looked so alarmed. She blinked, then looked back to the warrior.
"…to… my cousin… marrying a man she hasn't even met!"
Tantec crossed his arms and scoffed, casting a disparaging glance over both of them. "We met," he said. "When I sailed to the South Pole with Chief Hakoda's crew."
Katara's face twisted up in disbelief - because she certainly didn't remember ever meeting this man during Hakoda's visit and he obviously didn't recognize her. But his face was a little familiar. He may very well have been among the crew. Katara had just had more important things on her mind.
"But that doesn't matter anyway. Unlike the South, where you bumpkins don't live by any particular rules, the North has a certain way of doing things. A man talks to a girl's father and brothers." Tantec curled his lip. "Not her dopey cousin."
Katara glared up at him and stepped away from the table, around Zuko, so that nothing separated her from the warrior. She wasn't really aware that she was preparing for a fight, but she was. "If you want to marry Katara," she said, "you should be talking to her. That's how it's done in the South."
"And who's going to marry her down there? A tiger-seal? This yellow-eyed outsider?" Tantec looked at Zuko and laughed. "She won't thank you for setting her up with a half-Fire Nation man with no family, no home, and nobody to vouch for him. She'll take one look at his face and she'll see what everybody sees - an unwanted son."
Katara was on the brink of spitting that Zuko was a vast improvement over Tantec, but she was cut off before the first word even left her mouth.
"What did you say?" Zuko asked suddenly. Katara glanced at him and found his entire body had gone stiff. The banished prince stood rigid and tall, eyes wide with outrage.
In the back of Katara's head, a tiny voice said, Oh...
Tantec shook his head, and somehow smiled and curled his lip at the same time. "Everybody knows your father was some raping firebender. What happened? Did you go knocking on his door one day? My bet is he told you to get lost - the only way firebenders know how. It's plain as the scar on your face."
"Rrah!" Suddenly Zuko was chest-to-chest with Tantec, baring his teeth. Violence seemed to radiate out from his entire body, a fury Katara hadn't seen in him before. Tantec flinched back, then returned the glare with equal force.
It happened in just an instant. Katara smelled smoke. She glanced down and saw Zuko's hand fisted around his chopsticks. They were smoldering. Unthinking, she clamped her fingers around his knuckles, squeezing tight and breathing out the sting. He turned just his eyes to look at her. Something passed through that fierce yellow. An animal eased back from the bars of its cage.
Katara's fingers were burning, but the chopsticks were not. The whiff of smoke vanished in the quiet mess hall.
"Let's all just take a moment," she said, the words heavy and hard to move past the yelp trying to erupt from her throat, "to remember that we're adults here, and that slinging nasty words around-" She glared up at Tantec, who frowned back. "-is undignified for grown men."
Zuko didn't back off, but Tantec glanced between them and then stepped away, folding his arms over his chest. He was a warrior, after all, and was supposed to be above all this. "Yeah, well, just remember your place and stay out of my way. I'm marrying the Southern princess. It's just a matter of working out the details with Chief Hakoda."
Zuko twitched under her grip. Katara only scoffed and pulled him toward the nearest exit. "Yeah, you work it all out with Chief Hakoda. Princess Katara will just love that."
Katara managed to get Zuko out of the mess hall and into the stairwell before she had to let go of his fist. She stopped and pried her fingers away, wincing, and then looked. Her palm and the pads of her fingers were blistered and red and it hurt.
"I- I burned you!"
Katara squinted up at Zuko. He looked startled, horrified. She wanted to say, Of course you did. That's what firebenders do. She wanted to shake him until he stopped looking so surprised at the destruction he wrought. There was a lump hardening in her throat, threatening to come boiling out in tears of pain and frustration.
But Katara wasn't that girl anymore. She wasn't a girl who cried. She was a warrior who snarled.
"Yeah, you did." She swallowed and blinked hard and started down the stairs. There was no clear reason in her head as to why she was going down instead of up. She just needed to walk away, and she just decided to go down. Zuko kept apace, apparently not noticing. "You nearly gave yourself away," she said through her teeth.
"I'm so sorry, Katara," Zuko said. He wasn't looking at the stairs at all. He was looking at her, holding out his hands to her, pleading. "I didn't even feel your hand at first. I lost my temper and it just- happened! Rrhh! What were you even thinking, anyway? You can't stifle fire like that when you aren't a firebender, Katara!"
"Don't you dare make it sound like this was my fault!" She shoved him back with her uninjured hand. The burned one, she held close to her chest. "And don't be so loud here. It echoes. You'll give us both away next."
He stiffened and fell a step behind her, but didn't go away. Katara finally arrived at the pier. She hadn't really decided to come here, but now that she was by the water, it seemed like a good idea to put her hand in it. Because it burned, and the water would be soothing.
She knelt on the edge of the pier and bent down to reach, to dip her hand below the cool surface. And it was cool. Cool and gentle and aching. Katara braced her forehead against the flat stones and sighed.
"What are you doing?"
The pain was fading. She didn't even lift her head to glare, just speaking to the stone. "The water feels good."
Zuko was silent for a long moment. "You're glowing."
Katara turned her head to frown at him where he stood some feet away, but he only looked back at her, bewildered. Actually, he wasn't looking at her, but at her hand in the water. Katara peered down, too, and her eyes widened.
She really was glowing. Or maybe it was that the water was glowing around her hand. Katara sat up and the water came with her, a glove of gentle light. Beneath, her skin was smoothing, the blisters relaxing away completely.
"What is that?" Zuko asked. He was still standing at a distance, looking suspicious and a little alarmed.
Katara flexed her hand and felt the surprising normalness of it, the total lack of tightness or pain. The glow faded and the water dribbled away. She swallowed. "In the North, female benders are trained in healing. I didn't know I could just do it, though."
After a tense pause, Zuko came to kneel beside her, glancing between her hand and her face. He frowned and held out his hand to her. "Would you like to try again?"
For a second, she thought he was offering to burn her so that she could get more practice and she was about to make a snarky retort, but she paused when her eyes fell on his palm. There was a big red wedge across the heel of his hand and up his two smallest fingers. It looked at least a day old.
Katara peered at him, pulling a wry face. "You burned yourself?"
Zuko frowned harder. "No! I put my hand on a stove." His cheek went a little pink. "Firebenders don't burn themselves," he said, surly.
He seemed about to withdraw his hand, so Katara snatched his wrist and, shifting to face him, held it firmly between them. She didn't particularly feel like healing him now, after he had burned her, but she could see the benefit of practicing a new technique and there was a lot of energy racing through her now, seeking an outlet. Besides, if she did it wrong and made his hand worse, she wouldn't have to feel guilty about it. With her other hand Katara pulled a stream of water up from the harbor and awkwardly molded it into a glove before laying it over his palm. It took a second, but the water began glowing again.
Zuko made a soft, startled sound that eased into a sigh.
It was strange. Katara could sense the hurt in his hand, the disruption in need of soothing, and the act of healing was as simple as combing a tousled pelt into order. When the glow of the water faded, there was still some redness to his pale skin, but the blisters were gone. Pleased with herself, she looked up.
Zuko was watching her with an aching openness to his face. Katara, for all her frustration with him, could sense the hurt in him. She didn't really think about the movement. Still gripping his wrist, she raised her hand toward his scar.
His eyes flicked to her fingers, then back to her gaze. "Don't," he said. His face was suddenly hardening, closing off, but the word sounded as much like a plea as a command.
Katara haltingly lowered her hand, letting the water splash down between them. Immediately embarrassed and angry again, she frowned down at his hand and prodded one of the red marks so she wouldn't have to see whatever that wrenching thing was in his eyes.
"Does this hurt?"
"When you do that, yeah." His tone was sour but he wasn't pulling away. Katara felt at his fingers, examining the reduced toughness of the burn, the faded color. "It's a lot better, though," he finally said, much more quietly. "Thank you."
"You're welcome," Katara said, abruptly releasing him and sitting back with her own hands clenched in her lap. She felt suddenly foolish for a lot of reasons. Zuko was watching her as if struggling to come to some decision.
"Did you…" Zuko cleared his throat. "Are you really a princess?"
Katara scoffed and rolled her eyes, then climbed to her feet and headed for the stairs. Zuko hurried to keep up. "The only real Water Tribe princess was Yue of the North, who left this life to save the moon. But my dad is the Southern chief, so technically, according to the Northern way of doing things, I guess so. You've seen the village, though. A title like that doesn't mean anything there. That's not how we live."
Zuko climbed beside her in silence. Katara stole a look at him from the corner of her eye. She didn't like how seriously he was taking this princess thing. She didn't like it that he was following her around right now like he was concerned about having burned her, and she didn't like it that she actually believed that feeling was genuine.
"You should probably start addressing Sokka as Prince Sokka, though." He shot her a horrified look. She went on, smirking just a little in grudging amusement. "Just to be properly respectful."
Zuko's eyes slowly narrowed. One corner of his mouth tugged up. "Right. Because offending the dignity of Prince Sokka probably results in dire consequences."
"Yeah," Katara snickered, "like, he'll issue a royal mandate! The offender must sit through his retelling of the Pickled Walrus-bear Toe Knuckles Incident!"
Zuko just looked at her. Katara knew that look - it was the look of someone deciding that Sokka's clever humor actually didn't run in the family after all.
"Trust me," she huffed. "He does voices for all the knuckles. It's awful."
"I'll take your word for it," Zuko said. She didn't catch the soft look in his eyes as he watched her.
They returned to the barracks and Katara expected him to leave for the showers, but he didn't. He hovered in the doorway as she sat on her pallet and peered up at him with a mildly impatient frown. She couldn't undergo her hurried new bathing routine until he left, but he just stood there, scowling as if with some great effort.
Finally, Zuko locked his eyes on her and, stiff and formal, bowed hand-over-fist. "Please accept my deepest apologies, Princess Katara, for my shameful loss of control. It was not my intention to burn you and I am sincerely grateful for your intervention on my behalf."
Katara immediately wanted to protest the use of that joke of a title. She wanted to wave him off and tell him he'd already apologized once and just stop him from making such a big deal out of it already. Instead, she sat there, stunned, and remembered what Pakku had taught her today about firebenders and the necessity of self-control. This was clearly a really big deal to Zuko. And despite herself she found, on a level, that she had really needed to hear those words.
Zuko just held the bow, and finally turned his eyes up at her. His expression was impatient, searching, desperate. He expected her to say something.
"It was an accident," she said, shrugging as if she understood, as if it could happen to anyone. Which it couldn't.
Zuko frowned. "An accident that could have ruined your hand. Firebenders can't afford to have accidents, Katara." He looked down again. "You're supposed to accept or reject my apology."
"Alright," Katara said. She straightened and assumed a formal tone. "I accept your apology, Prince Zuko."
Still not looking entirely happy, he rose from his bow and crossed his arms and just stood in the doorway for a long moment, glaring at his rumpled pallet. Then, with a final glance at her, he swept past the curtain and away along the walkway. Katara, heaving a sigh, hurriedly took up her wash rag and braced herself to use yesterday's bathing water. Zuko was quick in the showers - she didn't have a lot of time.
Zuko marched down to the showers, glowering at everyone he passed but not seeing the one face he was looking for. It was in the cubby room that he found him, wrapped in a towel and laughing in the steam with his little Northern buddies. Zuko caught his eye as he stalked across the room.
"Sokka," he said, crossing his arms. "Got a minute?"
"Sure, Li! Let me just-"
Zuko didn't wait for him to say goodbye to the others, who looked on wide-eyed as he grabbed Sokka's arm and dragged him to a more isolated corner. Then he whirled on the other guy, scowling.
"Who's this Tantec guy and why's he so convinced he's betrothed to Katara when she doesn't know anything about him?"
"Betrothed?" An alarmed expression flashed over Sokka's face, but then melted into a laugh. He slapped Zuko's shoulder - a chummy gesture that almost slipped past Zuko's notice. Almost. "You're really getting into this! Alright, you got me this time, but the next time we train-"
"This isn't a game, Sokka. The guy came into the mess hall to pick a fight with me and Katara pretty much ignited. She nearly gave herself away." That wiped the smile off Sokka's face. "He said he's entering negotiations with your father. Tell me what's going on."
Sokka shrugged and then rubbed the side of his neck. "Well… Tantec was the first guy to ask me about Katara, but he hasn't tried again since the first time. I guess it's possible he talked to our Dad about it before getting off the ship, but there's no way he'd just agree to marry Katara off to that meat-head. Maybe he told him that thing about negotiations to get him off his back."
In Zuko's chest, a frozen block was melting.
"Although," Sokka went on, anxiety creeping across his face, "Hahn has really dominated a lot of the discussions between the two tribes. If he saw a chance to forge a marriage bond, he would probably pressure Dad to make some kind of arrangement."
Zuko frowned, momentarily caught up in the power struggle, the impossibility of Katara yielding to such a marriage - especially now that she had become such a powerful bender. No, surely she would-
"Why so interested, buddy?"
Zuko blinked and found Sokka examining him with a smug expression on his face, hands braced on his narrow hips. He sputtered. "I'm not interested, I just-! It was upsetting to her, and I wanted to find out what was up."
"Mm hm," Sokka said, "and I'll bet you were about to tackle the guy over a totally different issue, right?" Zuko hesitated. Sokka gesticulated. "This one guy even said he smelled smoke, but everybody's pretty sure he's just making stuff up to get attention…"
Zuko narrowed his eyes but didn't question how Sokka seemed to know so much of what went on around the base. It didn't make sense that someone who talked so much should also be able to hear so much, too. "Actually, it was a different issue," he grated.
"No - really."
Sokka just shot him a disbelieving smirk and shrugged.
Seething, Zuko crossed his arms and hunched a little forward, glancing around to be sure no one was watching them. Then he locked a hard glare on Sokka. "He said anybody could look at my face and see I was an unwanted son."
"Oof," Sokka winced, then rubbed the back of his neck, looking away. "He must have really wanted you to throw a punch. It would look pretty bad for one of the warriors to start a fight with a recruit, but if you'd struck first, he'd have had all the justification he needed to beat up a rival."
Zuko scoffed. "He could try." Sokka was frowning thoughtfully at the floor. It made him a little uncomfortable. "Is it true?"
Zuko scowled. Suddenly he was the one looking away. "Nevermind."
Sokka was quiet for a second and Zuko shifted his weight to walk away before he spoke. "Your whole cover story does kind of suggest that calling you unwanted would be pretty likely to strike a nerve. And, with the scar…" There was a shrug in his voice.
Zuko looked up at him, narrow-eyed. "Yeah?"
Sokka shrugged again. "I'm just saying it's a little… blasty-looking."
"And pretty much, you know, located right where someone might…"
"Go ahead, Sokka," Zuko snarled. "Where someone might what?"
Sokka waved a hand casually, rolling his eyes up to the ceiling. "…punch a guy covered in noodles who was threatening his sister. That's all I'm saying."
Zuko breathed deeply and fought hard against the urge to blow smoke.
"Maybe if you started telling a story about how you were a freedom fighter for a while and you got in a fight with a firebender one time, and you won, only-"
"I don't want to tell some stupid story, Sokka."
"Hey, suit yourself. Personally-" Sokka pressed a hand to his chest. "-I enjoy telling a good scar story. For example, see this right here?" He held up his thumb, close to Zuko's face. "That's from the time I got two fishhooks stuck in my thumb!"
Zuko leaned away, grimacing. "Two?"
"Well, I got one stuck and the only thing I had around to try and get it out was my spare fishhook."
"Right," Zuko said, twisting his mouth. "Because that makes perfect sense."
Katara bathed hurriedly with what she had, then lay down on her pallet and stared at the ceiling, thinking. Her mind was a jumble - there was so much to think about.
She thought about Pakku's riddle, what water could gain from fire. She thought about Hakoda's imminent return, and what kinds of answers he was going to have to the furious questions brewing in her mind. She thought about going to find Sokka and demanding some right now, but they had already risked enough contact for the time being. She thought about the field training that she and Zuko would be sent for tomorrow…
She thought about Zuko. His fire, and remorse, and explosive anger. She thought about the things Tantec had said that had set him off that way. His father. His scar. She didn't like the inevitable conclusion that led her to, and she shied from the idea of any father inflicting a wound like that on his own child, but Katara was familiar with the horrors firebending could wreck upon a body. Her own hand. That other, dearest body. She shut her eyes and thought of other things.
She thought of the way she had grabbed Zuko's fist - stifled the fire, as he'd called it - and wondered if that could somehow be what Pakku was talking about. Could waterbending be used to control the energy of firebending?
With so much whirring through her mind, it was no surprise that she was still awake when Zuko returned, though he had taken longer than usual. Katara turned her head to look at him as he settled on his pallet and he startled and darted his eyes away from where they had been - the curve of her hip under the blanket, she realized.
Zuko cleared his throat, not looking at her at all now. "Here. You didn't get to finish your rice, so..." He held out a bundled napkin.
Katara hesitated, then sat up and took the offering, unfolding it to reveal a puffy bun. She glanced up. Zuko was watching her with his usual frown, perhaps a little anxiety in his eyes. "Thank you," she said, and began eating slowly.
"You're welcome," he said in a stilted voice, staring alternately at her and the floor. At length, he turned on his pallet to take off his boots.
"Did you get something for yourself?" When he looked at her, Katara shrugged. "You ate less than I did at dinner."
Zuko peered at her as if searching for some other question she could be asking. At last he shook his head and set his boots aside. "I'm not really hungry."
Katara sighed and tore half of the bun away from the part she had already eaten, then held it out to him. Zuko looked for a moment like he wanted to argue, but then took it, a sulky knot in his brow. He ate with remarkable speed, Katara noticed. "We're shipping out tomorrow," she said at length as she settled again in her blankets. "For field training. Did you hear?"
"Yeah," Zuko said as he swallowed his last bite and lay back, folding his arms behind his head. He did not take off his shirt. "Do you think we'll get back in time to meet your… to catch our ride?"
Katara blinked. He was avoiding mentioning her father. She studied his profile. "I don't know, but we'll have to."
He shot her a sideways look. "Even if it means deserting?"
"We'll be deserters anyway when we leave on Dad's ship," she said, shrugging. "Saving Aang is more important."
Zuko looked back at the ceiling and seemed to be mulling this over. His scar caught the light in several softly glowing ridges. His eye was barely open.
"I know I'm not supposed to talk about it," he said at length, "but Sokka doesn't think your father intends to arrange a marriage for you."
Katara paused, hesitated. He was pushing her boundaries by bringing up her dad - but he'd also gone looking for Sokka tonight? He'd brought her food and talked to her brother? She took a moment to trace the glossy ridges of his scar back to where it vanished against his sleeve. At last, she sighed. "Of course Sokka doesn't think so." She paused for a long while, watching his eye widen, then relax. "Did your mother teach you to apologize formally like you do?"
Zuko's eye widened and, when he turned his head to look at her, he was frowning. He examined her for a long moment. "Court etiquette. I had tutors." He shut his eyes, scowled for a moment, then looked back at her with a more controlled expression. "But… my mother taught me that rules like that existed so that you'd always know what to do in an awkward situation."
Katara smiled faintly. "That sounds handy."
"It is if you remember the rules."
"There are a lot?"
"Thousands," Zuko sighed. His breath gusted across the space between them and the word stroked gently past her cheek. He was looking into her eyes steadily, and Katara found her breathing was coming a little faster than it should have. "So many I gave up and just learned how to make the different levels of formal apology."
Katara laughed softly. Zuko didn't laugh, but he drank her in with his eyes - she could see it, the way they darted across her smile, her eyes, her cheeks. His own mouth turned up at the corners, just the tiniest bit, and his eyes took on that softness, that gentle warmth.
Katara knew she was supposed to be sternly not developing feelings. She knew he meant to turn against them at the first opportunity. She knew nothing had really changed, not really, and it never would. Zuko was still that creepy prince, was still conflicted and unhinged, dangerous even when he didn't meant to be. And he was still bent on capturing the Avatar.
…but when he looked at her the way he did now, heat pooled in her chest and her groin and she found her own eyes widening, her smile drifting away. She found her breath coming a little harder. She found herself wanting him to be closer.
She found, when the sharpness returned to his eyes and the hints of a smile evaporated and he very frankly assessed her lips, she liked that even more.
Zuko looked suddenly back at her eyes and the tendons in his neck grew taut as he began to sit up, as he began to slowly roll toward her - but then he stopped, and shut his eyes, and lay back. His mouth twisted bitterly.
Katara swallowed and blinked, faintly relieved but more disappointed than she had expected. Was it so wrong, she wondered, to just want to touch him? Just, for a little while?
"How's your hand feeling?"
He turned back to look at her, frowning in confusion. "Fine. The same."
"But it hurt before, didn't it?" Katara bit her lip. "Maybe I should… try again?"
Zuko peered at her, and his eyes flicked just for an instant to her mouth, her teeth against her lip. He licked his own lips, just a tiny dart of his tongue. "Yeah. Good idea."
Katara sat up on her pallet, cross-legged, and drew water from her bucket - it wasn't that dirty, she reasoned. He didn't have to know. Zuko mirrored her on his own pallet and watched as she scooted closer. He held out his hand before him, expectant.
Katara formed the water around her hand and then grasped Zuko's between both of hers. His hand felt big, heavy in its construction in a way that teased at her pleasantly. She went through the procedure again, and the water glowed and Zuko sighed. But this time, Katara peeked.
She looked up at his face as she held his hand, and watched the furrow ease from his brow. His mouth opened and then shut without sound. The glow of the healing water was blue and cast his scar into sharp relief. It looked almost purple, cut out of the shadow that way.
The glow faded. Katara let the water drain away. She still held his hand. Zuko opened his eyes.
Katara stared into the heat simmering there.
She did not think of the man who killed her mother. She didn't think of the Fire Nation, or even of fire at all. She did not think of her father's disappointment, or her future husband, or the war her people were losing. She didn't think about waterbending or picking fights or the overbearing sexism surrounding her, and she didn't even think about Toph's philosophy or Sokka's concerned admonitions.
As she leaned slowly forward to seal her lips against Zuko's, she thought just for an instant, just in passing, of Gran-gran's advice about kissing.
Kiss all the boys you can, Katara. When you marry, you'll only get to kiss one.
It had seemed like a joke at the time - because there were no boys around for kissing and marrying age had seemed so far off. Now, it made sense. Kissing was allowed. Kissing didn't hurt anything. Kissing didn't mean she'd developed feelings, it just meant she felt like kissing.
And so did Zuko, apparently. The instant she leaned past some imaginary midpoint between them, he surged forward, capturing her mouth with his.
After that, Katara didn't really think of anything at all.
AN: I swear this isn't a fade-out. And knowing that makes it ANOTHER CLIFFHANGER! Woo!
This chapter will seem short because the last three have been long - but it really isn't! It's normal length!