Disclaimer: Do I HAVE to keep telling you people? They're not mine, not mine! Otherwise, the cave of two lovers would have had some different people stuck in it...
Author's note: This is actually based on a dream I had. A cool dream, not a psycho one. Anyway, I focused on the story more than the writing, so it's not top notch, but oh well.
"There is no war here…. There is no war here…." The voice echoed over and over in Katara's head, seeming to penetrate her very self. The circling lantern, reinforcing the rhythm of the voice, made another pass, blinding her for a second. She squeezed her eyes shut, trying to block it all out. She had seen what these people had done to Jet. She winced. The thought of Jet had cleared her mind, if momentarily. She couldn't let the voice get to her. For some time she focused her thoughts on Jet, then Sokka, Aang, and Toph. Finally, the voice stopped and took the lantern with it. She opened her eyes. She was less dazed than the last few times they had tried to brainwash her, so she could hear the quiet comment that was made to a guard near the door"No one's lasted that many sessions in this short of a time," the voice said, the same hated voice that would stay in a dark corner of Katara's mind forever. "They're both too strong-willed for their own good. We'll bring in a more advanced procedure tomorrow." Then the voice left.
Katara pondered a phrase for a minute: They're both too strong-willed…. She had never been… awake enough to notice anyone else in her cell. Shaking her head to clear the last echoes of the voice, she looked around. It didn't take long to spot a figure across the room for her, bound as she was. The figure's head was bowed, and it was hard to see very much in the greenish glow that surrounded them. Katara cleared her throat. "Hello," she managed. The figure looked up, and despite the dim lighting, it was impossible for Katara to miss his very familiar face.
She gasped. "Zuko!" she growled. He bared his teeth at her, but didn't reply. Both clenched their fists in anger at their extreme misfortune of being imprisoned with the other. After a time of silence, Katara began studying her fellow captive. His lifestyle definitely seemed to have gone downhill since the last time they had met. His hair had grown out and he was wearing a simple tunic. Besides that, it looked like he hadn't been treated very well since he'd been captured. Particularly obvious was the half-healed gash across his good cheek. Not like Katara cared.
Eventually, Zuko broke the silence. "You heard what they said?" he rasped.
Katara nodded. "I don't want to find out what 'advanced procedures' are."
"Then we're in agreement. We have to get out of here."
Katara thought about that. "Can you fire bend?" she asked.
She saw him shake his head. "They have some kind of cloth on my palms," he said. "I can't do anything." The last few words got louder with his obvious frustration. He took a deep breath and seemed to calm down. "What about you?"
She sighed. They had taken her canteen. "I don't have any water."
He stared at her. "We are under a lake, you stupid peasant!"
"Don't you think I know that?" she snapped. "I can't find anything in this room! And I can't keep a clear head long enough to concentrate on outside! And another thing: if you can't stop insulting me, you can get out on your own!" She panted and seemed to be done with her tirade for now.
Zuko stared. He never thought he would meet anyone with a temper to rival his own. He was so shocked that he thought he heard himself mutter, "Sorry." Then he got himself back on track. "Well, your mind seems to be clear now. Besides, I doubt you could get out of here on your own."
Katara was about to bite out a retort, but knew that it was true. She sighed deeply. If I find some water, I can cut us free…" she hesitated, "and let you fire bend."
"Good," he grunted, and they didn't speak anymore for a while. Katara closed her eyes and began to seek out a source of water. It was hard to find anything inside the building with the lake all around her. Finally, she found it; she focused on it until she could almost hear the steady drip of the leak down the hall.
Uncounted hours later, when they heard someone just outside the door, Katara was ready. As soon as the door opened, a canteen's worth of water came zooming in and bounced around the room. In seconds, their bonds were cut. Zuko ripped the cloth off his hands and flames began to singe the guards. Before Katara could quite grasp the situation, the guards were on the ground, Zuko had a sword, and he was saying, "Let's go." He disappeared down the corridor and she raced after him. They only knew to go up, up to the surface. Minutes later, they rounded a corner and were forced to stop by the blinding sunlight. They waited for their vision to adjust, and then crept forward.
This wasn't the way they had come in. It was a small opening in the side of the cliff by the lake. When she peered around the water, Katara could see soldiers waiting for them by the way they had entered. It seemed someone had seen the unconscious - or so Katara hoped - guards. Katara was about to step outside, quietly, when Zuko grabbed her arm. She spun around, and was about to snarl something at him, when she stopped. There was a look of absolute panic on his face.
"We have to go back," he hissed.
She couldn't quite process that. "What?"
"We have to go back! They have my uncle!"
Katara snuck a peek at the soldiers outside. "Zuko, we have to go now!"
His face hardened, and he turned and ran back into the tunnel. After a moment of indecision, Katara decided that she would rather face a bunch of soldiers later, with two fire benders beside her, than to possibly face a bunch of soldiers by herself. She ran after Zuko.
Zuko raced frantically through the halls, sparing a decisive glance into each cell. Katara, who was lagging behind, was forced to deal with most of the guards. Five halls later, though, she had a much bigger supply of water. She rounded a corner and stopped abruptly, almost running into Zuko; he had stopped, and was peering into a cell. Then with a shout of, "Uncle!" he stepped up and pressed his face to the bars. Katara vaguely heard someone inside say, "Zuko…?" and figured this was the right place. She froze the lock and Zuko broke it open with his borrowed sword. He rushed inside. Iroh didn't look so good - half conscious with obvious bruises. Zuko cut his bonds and helped him stand.
"It's good to see you, Zuko," Iroh said wearily. Then he perked up some. "Who's this young lady?"
"No time, Uncle," Zuko said. "Can you walk?"
Iroh thought about that for a moment or two. "Can we go very slowly?" he suggested meekly.
Zuko made an irritated noise, handed the sword to Katara, and supported his uncle. "Let's go," he said shortly.
They made their way - a lot more slowly this time - to the alternate exit. Katara edged up to the doorway and looked to her left. The masses of soldiers were still waiting at the main entrance. She sighed quietly with relief and looked to her right. There was a narrow pass, guarded by only two people. She turned back to Zuko and Iroh. "I have a plan," she said. Zuko rolled his eyes, but she ignored him. "I can distract them by shooting the lid off the entrance they're guarding, while you use your fire bending to knock out those two guards. But don't make too much noise."
Zuko glared at her. "Fire bend," he growled, "quietly, while towing him around?" He jerked his head toward Iroh.
Katara sighed. All this water bending was taking a lot out of her. "Fine," she said, "but when I give the signal, follow me as fast as you can." Zuko nodded, once.
Katara turned to the lid of the entrance and summoned as much energy as she could. The water suddenly surrounded the lid and exploded upwards. There were shouts among the soldiers as the water, carrying the stone lid with it, rose high into the air, and slowly began to fall. Katara turned to the guards that they had to deal with, who were absorbed in the display halfway across the lake. She quickly grabbed some water from the lake and froze them in place. She waved at Zuko and began to run to the pass.
They made it to the pass without incident, but it opened up into a plain, on which it would be easy to find them. Beyond the plan was a forest, and they ran for it. Though Iroh slowed them down, they didn't see any soldiers looking for them across the plain. When they reached the forest, though, they kept going, memories of imprisonment fresh on their minds. They didn't stop until dark, when Katara, who was ahead, found a clearing and sat down against a tree. "We'll stop here," she gasped. Zuko walked into the clearing, helped Iroh down, and lay down on the grass. No one suggested making a camp; they were all too exhausted. They fell asleep as they were.
Zuko woke up first. He got up with a groan and went to find a stream. There, he bathed and washed any cuts in particular. He found a few nut and berries for breakfast on the way back. When he got back to the camp and looked around, he dropped them.
Iroh was shivering and sweating. Zuko ran over to him, felt his forehead, and cursed. It was burning hot – a bad fever. Zuko looked over at Katara, who was still sleeping. He hated to get help from a water bender, especially this one, but he didn't really have a choice. He walked over and shook Katara roughly. She groaned and opened her eyes. She was about to snap at him, but was surprised at the urgency in his tone and face. "He's not good," he said. She sat up and looked at Iroh.
Zuko was right. Iroh didn't look good. Katara felt his forehead and pulse. Then she sat back and sighed. She looked at Zuko. He looked… concerned. She had never seen him concerned before. Really, she had only seen him angry.
"We probably should have lit a fire," he said quietly, more than a trace of guilt in his voice. Katara couldn't argue with him.
"Get him near some water," she said instead. Together, staggering under his more than ample weight, they carried him to the stream Zuko had found. Katara breathed deeply, preparing herself for what was sure to be an amazing feat of water bending. "Need space," she said. Zuko opened his mouth to argue, but stepped a few paces back.
Katara summoned some water and determined what was wrong. A broken bone. Cuts. Infection. Fever. This was going to be a long day. Katara got to work. First she dealt with the infection. She had to cleanse the blood, which was a lengthy and tiring process. So she settled her hands about six inches above Iroh's heart and began to heal.
Zuko watched her hands glow with the healing power of water. He had never liked other elements much, but he felt a small pang of envy. Fire couldn't do that. He was also jealous of the peaceful look on Katara's face when she was bending like this. She was in the presence of her enemies, had just escaped being brainwashed, and healing someone whose life… Zuko pushed the thought away… who was very sick, and yet she could let it all go to bend.
Eventually, Katara could feel Iroh's fever going down. She healed the cuts fairly quickly; it was something she was used to. Unfortunately, she didn't know whether she could heal a broken bone. That was something she had never attempted before. It can't be too difficult, she thought. But it almost was. It took a long time for her to figure out how to set it, much less mend it. She did invent a method, though, and much later she was able to let her control on the water go. She stood up, and abruptly stumbled over from exhaustion. It seemed she had overestimated her strength.
Zuko caught her as she fell. There was an awkward moment where he held her until she could stand up on her own. They walked back to camp, where Katara sank wearily to the ground.
"How is he?" Zuko asked, radiating impatience.
"Fine," she said wearily. "Sleeping."
Zuko sighed with relief. "Thank you," she said, so quietly he was almost inaudible. Katara looked up, shocked to hear the arrogant prince thank her. Ignoring her look, he said, "You probably need something to eat." She nodded. "Stay here."
Katara sighed. As if she would go anywhere. She looked up at the sky and grumbled a bit; it was later than she had thought. Leaning back, she let her mind wander. Zuko being something other than angry, not to mention thanking her, all in one day was a bit confusing. This was definitely a new side of him. She found she liked this side better.
Only a few minutes later, Zuko returned with nuts, berries, and a slightly charred bird. He gave some nuts and berries to Katara and started a fire to cook the bird more thoroughly. Katara ate her share greedily. Zuko put the bird down and got up. "I forgot," he said.
Katara looked up. "What?"
He smiled slightly. "He'll want tea when he wakes up."
That afternoon, Iroh strolled into the camp, causing both Zuko and Katara to jump up. "Uncle!" Zuko said. He was definitely smiling now.
"It's nice to be up and about," Iroh said, smiling back. "I think now I'd like…"
"…tea?" Katara guessed, offering him a cup.
Iroh's smile widened into a grin. "Jasmine! My favorite!" He sipped on it. "Ah. Very refreshing. Now, Zuko, I have a very important question to ask you."
Zuko looked up. "What?"
"How did we get here?" Zuko and Katara looked at each other. Katara went to the stream to give the reunion some room. On the way, she realized she had some minor injuries of her own to attend to. She sat down on the bank and relaxed as she settled into the rhythm of healing. Eventually, she switched from restoring her health to restoring her energy, and fell asleep.
Back at the camp, Iroh was on his third cup of tea and still going strong. "Well, I am certainly glad that we are out of Lake Laogai," he said cheerfully. He scratched his head. "Although I'm afraid I don't remember much of your heroic rescue."
Zuko stared at the fire, clutching his cup of tea, and remembered his part in the 'heroic rescue.' Mostly, he had helped his uncle hobble along. Now that he thought about it, Katara had done all the fighting. He gritted his teeth. Being outfought by a water tribe girl was not something he enjoyed.
"Who is that nice young girl, anyway?" Iroh asked. "She's about your age, isn't she? Very pretty."
Zuko choked on his tea. The very thought of him with that arrogant peasant! He could respect her fighting skills, and certainly he could respect anyone with a temper to match his own. But them, together? No. Never. He might respect her, but he could hardly stand her.
"She's with the Avatar," he said. "She's the enemy."
Iroh gave him an odd look. "I don't know about you, Zuko," he said mildly, turning his gaze back to his tea, "but I don't think 'the enemy' would, from what you said, save my life, do you?"
Zuko continued to stare at the fire, feeling a slight blush of embarrassment coming on. Of course his uncle owed the girl his life. How could he have forgotten?
Iroh cleared his throat as he poured himself more tea. "So, who is she?" he asked again.
But Zuko was on another train of thought entirely. "Why did she do it?" he said to himself, completely oblivious to his uncle's question.
Iroh shrugged. He liked to let his nephew think his way to his own conclusions.
"We're enemies," Zuko said, half to himself and half to his uncle, "or were, or something. But then she heals you, who she shouldn't even care about. And as far as she knew, I could kidnap her while she was weak." He was pacing now. "But she didn't even hesitate, she didn't think about it. She just did."
Iroh decided to intervene and give Zuko something to think about. "That is Fire Nation thinking. Most other people are not so picky about who they help."
Zuko sat back down, thoughtful. Iroh sipped his tea victoriously.
It was near sunset when Katara awoke. She was accustomed to waking up beside streams, so the setting brought her comfort. She stretched and sighed contentedly. The healing, and especially the much-needed rest, had left her very refreshed. The moment of peace didn't last very long, however, as her mind turned to her current situation - and being in a camp with enemies was not an ideal situation at all. She hadn't left yet because she was too tired to go anywhere, not surprising considering the amount of water bending she had done recently. And now it was too late to try to get back to her friends, even if she had any clue which way to go. Tomorrow, she decided. Tomorrow morning she would leave.
For some reason, she felt a hint of regret. When they weren't trying to capture Aang, Zuko and his uncle didn't make bad company. Katara laughed at the thought. Still, Zuko didn't seem to be the heartless monster she had marked him as to begin with. Knowing that he card about somebody - anybody - softened her views of him a bit. Just a bit, though. She couldn't let her guard down. Not around him.
Standing up, Katara made her way to one last night at their camp.
It had been hours. Zuko was just about to go and get the girl when she walked into the clearing. He scowled. "It's late."
"Why do you care?" Snarled retorts were just a reaction to Katara when it involved Zuko. "I've been healing." She didn't want to add that she had slept for a time, as well.
"For that long?"
Katara dodged the question in one of the only ways she knew how. "We need healing, too, you know." She stared pointedly at the gash on his good cheek.
Zuko got the point. "Somehow, I think I'll manage."
Katara scowled. She wasn't spoiled, but she was used to winning arguments, especially with men. "Just let me look at it."
"I'm fine! Leave me alone!" Zuko growled.
Iroh watched the exchange as one watches a spectator sport, his eyes sliding back and forth between the two contestants.
Katara huffed angrily. "Fine." Why did she care, anyway? She leaned back and fiddled with a few blades of grass for a while.
Eventually, Iroh broke the uncomfortable silence. "I am going to try to get some sleep now," he announced. "Don't stay up too late." Zuko glared at him. Iroh laid back and, within a few seconds, began to snore. For some time, that was the only sound in the camp. Katara sighed and settled back to look at what stars were visible through the trees.
"What's your name?"
Zuko's sudden question startled her, and she looked at him, puzzled. He looked away, as if embarrassed. "Your name," he prompted, but more quietly this time.
"Oh," she said. "Katara." Then, as she had nothing else to say, she laid back down.
Zuko settled down, too. "Katara," he whispered to himself. He closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep with the sound of her name in his head.
Katara didn't go to sleep quite yet, however. She waited until she heard even breathing from both of them. If she was going to leave in the morning, she was at least going to get her way before she did. And she couldn't resist a challenge. Silently, she got up and knelt down by Zuko. Summoning some water, she placed her hand on his cheek and began to heal. Her eyes were drawn to the scar on the other side of his face. She might be able to heal that, too, but she wasn't sure she wanted to try. It hit her that she had never wondered where he had gotten it. Shaking her head, she tried to clear her mind and focused on healing.
He was too stubborn, she decided. No one else she knew could be as stubborn as her, but it seemed she had met her match. Once she was done, she lingered for a moment. He looked… peaceful when he was sleeping. It was starting to scare her, but she kept forgetting what he had done to her and her friends. She almost - almost, because she would never admit it, even to herself - she almost liked him when he wasn't angry.
Satisfied that she had won the argument, even if in an unorthodox way, Katara went to sleep.
"There is no war here… There is no war here…" The lantern flashed in front of her eyes…
Katara sat straight up, drenched in a cold sweat. She took deep breaths to calm herself. She had a feeling that this was not the first nightmare she would have about Lake Laogai. Katara looked at the sky. It was just before dawn. Good; she had a head start. She had to get ready to go before anyone got up.
Katara went to the now-familiar stream, had a drink, and washed her face. Today, she was going to have to do a lot of navigation. She looked back in the direction of Lake Laogai. She would have to start there. As much as she hated to even go close to that place again, it was the only point of reference she had.
Zuko woke up and was about to go look for food when he felt his face. He brought his hand up and felt around carefully for what he knew was there - only it wasn't. He looked down. The cut on his leg was gone, too. That girl - Katara, he corrected himself - had apparently decided to heal him whether he wanted her to or not. He looked across the ashes of the fire. She was gone. He smirked as his ears picked up the slight crunch of leaves. She hadn't gone too far. With carefully quiet steps, he followed her.
Katara was less than fifty yards from the grassland that surrounded Lake Laogai when something made her jump.
She turned around at the sound of her name, sighing softly when she saw it was Zuko. Funny, she had never heard him say her name before.
"You're leaving?" It was only half question.
Katara nodded. "I have to find my friends." She narrowed her eyes at him a little.
He caught the look. "I won't follow you," he said quietly.
She considered that. "I know." And she did, strange as it sounded, even to her.
Suddenly, he looked a bit uncomfortable. "Look… for what you did… thank you." Thanking people wasn't something Zuko was used to. She smiled. Suddenly, he got the urge to ask her whether he could come with her. He wondered how she would get home. But that was ridiculous. At least, that's what he told himself. So instead, he just said, "Goodbye."
Katara wanted to ask him how he got his scar. She wanted to know where he would go from here. But why did she want to know? So she just replied, "Goodbye."
As Katara walked off toward the lake, both of them wondered when – and how – they would see each other again.
My first Zutara fic! Yay! Review if you liked it! Tell me the problem if you didn't!