Hooooooo boy, a Zuko/Katara fic. Those who've heard me rant know I'm an extreme skeptic of Zutara, especially that completely unrealistic fluff that seems to be popping up everywhere in the world of fanfiction. Buuuuuut, at the kind request of others, I'm going to overcome my reluctance to touch the coupling with a ten foot pole, and challenge myself...by writing a quasi-romantic Zutara fic.
Lord help us all.
Before you read, there is a note I would like to make. This story is a sequel to my fic "Fire In the Moonlight"–before you read any further, read that first. Also, be sure to read another of my fics, "The Bluest Eyes", since it serves as a back-story for this piece. Trust me, you need to read both to understand what's going on...talk about a great way to advertise...hehe.
So, read 'em yet? Then lets get going!
Chapter 1: "A Collision"
Zuko sat below deck in his uncle's quarters, waiting for the servant to finish cleaning up the dinner plates and leave the room. When the door clicked shut, Zuko opened his eyes to see his uncle sitting contentedly in his chair, picking his teeth. Well, at least one of them had relished their meal. Everything had tasted sour in his mouth. But then, he had been very bitter over the past two days. The humiliation and frustration of losing the Avatar because of the interference of a certain waterbender was almost more than his pride could bear.
He sat moodily in his chair, thinking spiteful thoughts, as his hand trailed unconsciously to the bandage over his temple, where the waterbender had struck a blow that had temporarily knocked him unconscious. His fingers traced over it several times, indignance growing with each stroke.
"Prince Zuko," his uncle drawled from his chair, one eye cracked open, "Leave your cut alone. You are going to make it bleed again."
"Your nagging is tiresome, uncle," Zuko hissed, resentful at being told what to do.
"As is your temper, nephew" his uncle replied lethargically, shutting his eye.
Zuko let out an impatient breath and stood up. He was not in the mood to bicker with his uncle. As he opened the door leading out into the hallway, his uncle called from his chair, "Be sure to shut the door when you leave..."
Zuko slammed it loudly.
Later, he lay on his bed, glaring at the ceiling with an ugly look that parodied the mask he hung on his wall. Zuko was always in a bad mood after missing yet another opportunity to capture the Avatar, but he had been especially angry this time for losing him to that stupid girl. She had used waterbending and sneak attacks to get the upper hand on him. And she had won.
It wasn't losing the Avatar that upset him so much. That had happened numerous times before, he remembered with a groan. But many of those times had been due to bad luck and circumstance. This time, it was because he had met an opponent who could actually oppose him. And as if to add insult to injury, it had been some Water Tribe peasant! It was almost beyond fathoming, but he had to admit the girl was a decent fighter.
And that infuriated him.
If some Water Tribe country bumpkin could hold her own against him, how weak was he? Zuko's venomous stare upwards intensified. He needed his uncle to teach him more advanced techniques, but it seemed to take forever before the old man deemed him capable of the next set. His uncle said many times that he was being impatient, but dammit, how did he expect him to capture the Avatar on mere basics? When some stupid waterbender had proved a challenge?
Zuko huffed angrily and rolled over, his hand once again tracing over his bandage. Wretched waterbender. He would be ready next time.
Katara manipulated the water across her brother's skin, drawing out its healing powers. Cuts and bruises lessened as she worked, and she noticed a slight perk in her brother's posture. When she finished, she willed the water back into its container.
"Thanks, Katara," Sokka said gratefully, as he flexed and checked himself over. "I've been feeling better everyday."
"Yeah," Aang piped up from Appa's head, "That water-healing sure makes a difference!"
"Well, I'll admit I not the best at fighting techniques," she replied, putting supplies away, "but I've always been pretty good when it comes to using water for healing purposes. I used to help out the doctor at our village sometimes when she had to treat the sick and injured."
"Wow, that's pretty impressive, Katara," Aang said, smiling back at her.
"Not nearly as impressive as you sticking up to Prince Ass back there," Sokka cut in with a smirk, "Not the best at fighting techniques, huh? Well, I'd say you've come a long way from splashing around and getting me wet all the time." He crawled over to his favorite corner of Appa's saddle and sat with a huff.
Katara smiled at her brother's compliment, but she knew she had a long way to go. If Sokka hadn't come in when he did, Zuko probably would have overpowered her and taken Aang. She bit her lip. It was true she had become much better at controlling water, but her stamina...even now, two days later, she was feeling the remains of fatigue. Katara realized she was going to need a lot more training if she was going to raise her level of endurance. She might have been able to hold off Zuko this time...but next time... She would have to be ready.
Zhao marched hastily down the ramp that lead from his ship to the city of Puaga's harbor. Two weeks at sea, trailing Zuko, and he could not get off that blasted ship fast enough.
Hearing the boy's ship had been spotted nearby by his naval fleet, he had been personally following Prince Zuko's trail, hoping by chance that he would lead him to the Avatar. An effort that had turned out completely and utterly fruitless. Several times they had lost track of the ship, and nowhere during those two weeks had they heard so much as a whisper in regards to the Avatar. When Zuko's ship had slipped from their sights once more, Zhao decided to quit following. What good was it trying to scavenge off someone who was entirely incompetent in their task?
Frustration and annoyance from two weeks of nothing built up inside him, Zhao strode down the docks into the bustling streets, eager to get away from his ship and commanding duties. His back felt stiff and he had a kink in his neck that was bothering him. He needed to relax. His men would be busy for the next few days...perhaps later tonight he would look for a brothel and find a whore to lighten his mood.
"The city of Puaga. As bustling as ever, I see..." Iroh remarked as he peered over the ship's rim.
"You've been here before, uncle?"
"Mmm, many times. Puaga was taken by the Fire Nation decades ago. Because of its location, and the size of its harbor, it is a well known trade center, and creates a great amount of revenue for our country." Iroh straightened and smiled at his nephew, "But more importantly, it is a great place for shopping! There are many hard-to-find items here!"
Zuko groaned as his uncle gleefully rubbed his hands together. He hated when his uncle got like this. Oh well...at the very least, a shopping spree with his uncle would provide him opportunity to gather information on the Avatar while his men loaded supplies. Since their last encounter was only three days ago, they couldn't have gone very far, and a busy city like Puaga would be the ideal place to pick up on rumors or sightings.
Zuko stood resigned as his ship docked into port. As he looked down the long stretch of ships lining the shore, he spotted some impressive Fire Nation ships at the other end of the expansive harbor. Probably the special reserve docks, used only by high-ranking Fire Nation officials. Where he belonged. Zuko grit his teeth. That sort of privilege belonged to him by right of birth–to be forced to dock in lesser ports for two years because of his banishment was a humiliation Zuko couldn't stand. He was their future lord! How dare he be forced to act as if he was some...commoner! Zuko bit back his anger. When he captured the Avatar, things were going to be different. A lot different.
Glaring evilly at the large ships in the distance, his eyes stopped on the insignia marked into the side of the largest vessel. Even from afar, he recognized it instantly. Zhao. Zuko stiffened. If Zhao was here, then Zuko didn't want to be. They needed to leave immediately...the last thing he wanted was an encounter with that deplorable man.
Zuko searched out his uncle, who was putting on casual robes over his usual armor. "Uncle, we need to go–"
"Zhao, yes, I saw," his uncle interrupted. "But there is no need to leave. Supplies must be loaded, I'm afraid–I am almost out of tea herbs–and as long as we keep a low profile, there is nothing to worry about." Zuko was about to argue, but Iroh raised a hand to silence him, "Do not worry. Though this port is owned by the Fire Nation, you are technically not within its borders. So long as I am with you, Zhao cannot do a thing." Iroh turned around to grab something. Turning back, he handed Zuko a simple cloak, "Here, put this on."
Zuko balked. "I am to dress as some peasant?"
"Unless you would prefer to attract attention," Iroh replied, his eyes resting on Zuko's scar. Reluctantly, Zuko took the cloak and put it on. They walked down the ramp and entered the city's marketplace.
"The city of Puaga!" Aang announced grandly, arms outspread.
"Do you have to do that for every city you've already been to?" Sokka quipped from Appa's back, readjusting his boots. The Avatar and his companions were perched on the ridge of hills that surrounded the glittering city.
"But this city is special, Sokka. Puaga's been a trading mecca for years! And by the looks of it," Aang chirped, gazing down on the metropolis, "it's only grown in size."
"And come under the control of the Fire Nation," Sokka added darkly.
"Well, Fire Nation or no, we need to restock pretty badly," Katara sighed, limply waving an empty sack like a flag. "We can buy the stuff we need, as long as don't draw attention to ourselves."
"Phhht!" Sokka scoffed. Easier said than done.
The three put on their cloaks. Aang had to wear his hood over far over his head, to cover his arrow. Appa had to stay behind on the hills, since ten ton bison tended to be noticed easily. The bison, however, seemed to hold no objection to spending the day grazing on the lush hillside.
"Momo, stay here and keep Appa company. We'll bring you back a treat!" Aang called as the trio started their walk down to the city. Aang would have liked to have brought him along, but Momo was loud and curious, not to mention a rare breed of animal. Not good for keeping a low profile, especially when going into a city owned by the Fire Nation.
"So, where's the best place to go for supplies?" Katara asked.
"Puaga has a huge marketplace just off the harbor. If there's something we need to get, we can get it there!"
Zuko looked up disdainfully at the sign leading into the tavern his uncle had pointed out.
"The Saucy Mare?"
"Yes! This looks like a quaint place!" Iroh affirmed, "We have enough time while our ship is reloading to grab a quick bite to eat before shopping."
Zuko scrinched his nose. "I wouldn't be caught dead in such a seedy establish–" The firebender prince found himself cut off as his uncle pushed and shoved him towards the door. As they entered, Zuko squinted and took in his surroundings. The air was hazy, and smelled of sweat, meat, and liquor. Since it was a tavern, there were hardly any customers during this time of day. One man sat at the tavern's bar, which held a vast array of liquors, with a few other customers situated at various tables. Iroh lead him to a table along the wall and sat down. The table was small and cramped between the two high-backed benches that were placed on either side of it. A poor excuse for an eating place, Zuko thought, lip curled.
"Ahh, this place has quite the country charm, don't you think?" his uncle inquired happily.
Katara looked up warily at the sign leading into the tavern her brother had pointed out.
"The Saucy Mare?"
"Look, I'm hungry, I want food, and this place looks cheap," Sokka stated resolutely.
"But it's a tavern..."
"So? Taverns sell other things than beer..." Sokka answered, marching towards the door. Before Katara could argue further, he had already entered. Exchanging a quick glance with each other, the Katara and Aang followed.
They sat down quickly at a table along the wall and waited patiently while the waitress took the orders of the customers sitting a few tables behind them. Katara looked around warily. Not a lot of people. That was good.
Sokka slouched against the high-backed bench he sat on. "Think they would sell me alcohol?" he pondered aloud.
"No," Katara answered flatly. Honestly, what was her brother thinking?
"No?" he repeated, looking slightly offended, "You think I look too young?" He traced his face with his hand.
"Too irresponsible," she retorted with a smile. Aang chuckled next to her. When the waitress, a greying, heavyset woman in her forties, finished with her other table, she came to them and took their order. It took a while to find a dish for Aang that didn't have meat, but it was finally managed. At last they received their meals: Aang, a bowl of soup, Sokka, a roast chicken, and Katara, some manner of stew. Having not eaten a square meal in so long, their dishes were quickly devoured and seconds ordered.
When the waitress came to collect the bill, the group blanched at the amount owed. It had been double what they were expecting! And what money they had remaining had to go towards supplies!
"Twenty copper pieces!" Sokka wailed, clutching their wallet as though the waitress may snatch it from him any moment, "What the hell! When did food cost so much?"
"We charge more in the daytime," the waitress responded lazily, "Now, are you gonna be able to pay, or not?"
"Ummm, just one moment!" Aang said quickly. The group brought their heads together and lowered their voices to conspiratorial whispers.
"This is outrageous! We're getting ripped off!"
"You're the one who said we should come here!"
"How are we going to pay this, guys? We still need to buy food for our journey..."
"Well, if somebody hadn't had a third helping..."
"Oh, can it, Katara. Men need more food to fuel their bodies than women! We have muscle–"
"Guuuys? Maybe we can work to pay off the bill..."
"Good idea, Aang!"
"Yeah, we can get Katara to use her waterbending to wash dishes, hehe–OW!"
"Let's ask her..."
The trio turned back to the waitress, who was beginning to show signs of losing patience. "Um," Aang began, "Do you think we could work off the tab? Cleaning dishes or sweeping floors?"
The waitress glared down unmercifully at them. "Do you know how many runaway kids ask that? And then dash off the first chance they get? You either pay off the entire amount right now, or I'm going to have to call the bartender out here. And you don't want that, sweetie." She motioned to the man behind the bar, who seemed to be made entirely of hair and muscle. All three of the trio gulped.
"Hehe," Iroh said good-naturedly, nodding at the waitress, "The women in Puaga certainly are full figured, aren't they?"
Zuko nearly choked on his roast pig. "Ugh," he gagged, "Can you at least say something disgusting like that AFTER you've had too many drinks?"
Iroh laughed. He took another look over at the waitress. She appeared as though she were about to eat the people at the table in front of her alive. He couldn't see them or hear them well because of the high-backed benches, but judging from the worried pitch of their voices, the customers seemed to be having trouble paying. He smiled, bemused at their situation, until it reminded him of something.
Reaching in his sleeve, he searched for his wallet. Oh dear. It seems he had forgotten it. His eye caught Zuko's.
"Prince Zuko," he lamented, his voice honied over, "It seems your dear old uncle has forgotten his wallet. Now, how is your sweet, caring uncle supposed to pay for his nice lunch, mmm?" Iroh gave Zuko a signifigant look.
Zuko stared back, unmoved.
"It sure would be nice if someone relieved your poor uncle the burden of paying his share of the bill..." Iroh trailed off with his best smile.
Zuko still stared back, unmoved.
Iroh frowned. "Very well, I shall go back to the ship and retrieve my wallet."
Iroh rose with a sigh and walked towards the door. To be cursed with such a stingy nephew! And after all the selfless things I do for him! Iroh thought grumpily to himself, as he walked out the tavern door, the waitress glaring at him and checking back at his table to see if Zuko had moved. The three customers were still whispering furiously about their bill as he left.
Oh well, at least the walk back would give him an opportunity to look at prospective shops he would like to visit.
As Iroh's exit distracted the waitress, Aang Sokka, and Katara put their heads back together.
"How are we going to get out of this?"
"Don't we look trustworthy?"
"We need this money...blowing it all here is going to put us in serious hurt in the future."
"Yeah, but if we don't pay we're going to be put in serious hurt now!"
"Maybe we can ask somebody to loan us money?"
"Who would do that?
"I don't know. There has to be somebody understanding and nice here..."
"You're way too naive, Aang."
"Well, we have to do something..."
"Fine. Katara, go ask around for money."
"'Cause you're a girl!"
"People feel sorry for girls–OW! Will you knock that off? Go ask somebody! And put on a sad face!"
Katara rose with a groan from the table and scooted meekly around the waitress, who was eying her like a hawk. She trotted over quickly to the nearest table, which had person wearing a red, hooded cloak sitting at it. Tapping the person's shoulder, she asked in her nicest voice, "Um, excuse me, but would you be so kind as to loan us some money? My friends and I–"
The person at the table stiffened under her touch, then turned around sharply and shouted, "PAY YOUR OWN DAMN–"
Time froze as each other's faces came into view.
"YOU!" Zuko roared.
Then time started up again.
Hehe, bet you saw THAT collision coming a mile away, eh? Next chapter, things will go from bad to worse to just plain awful. Tee hee!
Also, for those of you who are wondering WHY I didn't just add this as another chapter to "Fire in the Moonlight" (and I assume you've read it by now), it is because I felt that adding this on would undermine it. FITM was intended to yank the chains of Zuko/Katara fans by providing a Zuko VS Katara fic...to add this story on, which is intended to be romantic (sorta), would kinda defeat the purpose of FITM. Does that make sense? I don't know...