Summary: He's fire, she's water. Together, they create an energy they can't seem to live without.
Warning: Later chapters will be rated M. Season 3 spoilers as far as they've been aired in the US.
Chapter 1: Discovery
A full moon cast flecks of cold white light on the water, dancing before her eyes as she stared into the black water.
Full moon, she mused. She should be at her strongest now. Nigh invincible.
But instead, four weeks after almost loosing Aang, she felt drained, brittle – and cold.
It was not healing Aang that drained her strength, she knew that although she had fought the thought from the second it occurred to her. What drained her strength was his absence. Zuko's absence.
She'd never been stronger than when she was fighting him.
"I thought you've changed."
Water clashing against bright hot flames, steam hissing upward. Strength pumping through her blood.
"I have changed."
It's been always like this, if she was honest. The most frightful of her power reserved for the battle with him, not weakening when his flames clashed against the element she threw at him.
They never spared each other a quarter, and they'd been enemies for as long as she knew him.
"Whenever I would imagine the face of the enemy, it was your face."
A pained frown and an instinctual touch to his scar. "My face. I see."
She was so entranced in her memories, she hadn't noticed Aang sidling up to her.
"Where do you want to go?"
Her eyes went wide, confused. "I will stay with you, of course."
He said nothing for a long while, just stood there, contemplating the moonlight on the dark waves.
"Something happened in that cave, right?" he asked darkly. "Something between you and… him."
"Nothing happened," she said, a bit too hastily. "Nothing important."
Aang sighed next to her, troubled.
"Maybe if something had happened, he wouldn't have turned against us."
Her cold fingertips tingled with warmth as she remembered touching his face - his scar.
"I'm free to determine my own destiny, even if I'll never be free of my mark."
The weight of the vial with water from the Spirit oasis suddenly heavy against her body.
"Maybe you could be free of it."
She still remembered what she had felt when Aang had came rushing in, interrupting them when she was about to heal Zuko. She still remembered the acid taste of guilt over feeling disappointed.
And just as Aang had just said, she too believed that maybe if she had healed Zuko, taken away what troubled him so greatly, he would have acted upon the good that - according to his uncle - was inside of him.
"I was told I had to let you go," Aang interrupted her thoughts. "So, if you want to go to him, I'm not keeping you."
His dismissive, hurt tone made her angrier than she had thought it would. How could he?
"What do you think I'll do? Traipse into the palace of the Firelord, asking Ozai if he would kindly let me speak to his jerk of a son because – hey! maybe I can heal his scar and then he'll turn into a good guy and join us in our quest to kick Ozai's behind?"
Aang's face was blank when he turned to her but then a ghost of a smile tugged at the corner of his mouth. "Maybe something a bit less dramatic."
Night lay black and stifling over the city. Warm, too warm for the season.
He stood at the window of his bedchamber, clad only in loose pants, sweat trickling down the skin of his back.
Mai slept soundly in the bed behind him, probably tired from hours of enthusiastic lovemaking. Still, he never felt quite satisfied. His sleep was never as deep as hers, never as untroubled.
Four weeks, he mused. Four weeks of everything he thought he'd ever wanted.
Back to being the Prince, the heir to the throne of the Firenation. Back to people bowing to him and catering to his every whim. Back to fine clothes and delicious food. He even had a beautiful woman in his bed who adored him and never let any desire of him go unfulfilled.
It should feel perfect but not once in his life had he felt so empty.
Restless, dried up inside. Weighed down with immeasurable guilt.
He wished he could be surer he'd made the right decision. It didn't feel right.
"I thought you've changed."
Her eyes, ice-blue and full of emotion. Shock. Disappointment. Hatred.
Steam hissing as his fire cut through her hold on his sister. Power surging through him, wild and untamed like a spring flood.
He'd never felt more powerful than while fighting with her. He was disappointed it ended so fast. He didn't know if he could have won if he had been alone with her. But maybe that wouldn't have mattered. With her, the fight was the triumph.
Bedclothes rustled behind him.
"Come back to bed."
He turned and looked at the woman in his bed, gloriously naked and unashamed of it.
Did she know why he closed his eyes when he kissed her? Why he bit his lips and kept quiet when he came, holding back the one name that was always on his mind?
He turned back to the window.
"Just a few more minutes."
He did not know why he was counting the days. Five weeks and three days.
"I decided to go looking for mother."
Azula quirked one perfect eyebrow at him.
"She's our mother."
"And you want her present at your wedding, I presume? How romantic."
Mai lowered her head and squirmed in the seat across from him. He had not yet formally asked her to marry him.
A malicious little smile quirked his sister's lips. "You're a grown man," she said smoothly. "Get over it. She's probably not even alive."
"How dare you—"
"Your Highness." One of the guards interrupted his outburst, bowing deeply.
"What is it?"
"The palace guard captured a woman outside the walls this morning. She claimed she needed to speak to you."
"I don't speak to every peasant who wishes it," he barked.
"I know, my lord. But she was quite insistent and gave us something to prove that you'd want to talk to her."
With his head lowered, the guard came toward him and dropped something into his palm.
The blue crystal necklace caught the light of the fires around him, still sparkling fresh and lively in the palm of his hand. The wavy lines symbolizing the Water Tribe shimmered milkily in the glass. He'd carried this necklace at his wrist for days out of a sentimentality he still did not understand.
It felt like his soul sighed the name in relief.
He fought to keep his expression neutral as he gingerly closed his fingers around the necklace before his nosy sister could see it.
"Bring her in."
In the end, it had been easier than she'd thought. She only needed to let herself being taken prisoner and then convince the guards that their Prince would want to see her.
That was the part about which she was most unsure. At worst, he'd keep her necklace and would let them throw her into prison, never to see daylight again.
But now she was here, roughly shoved alongside a vast corridor, adorned with gold and dark reds wherever one looked. And although she was so deep inside the enemy's den, she felt excitement coursing through her in invigorating pulses, her stomach tight with anticipation.
They stepped through a large door and she saw him at once. Standing between his sister and Mai, clad in full regalia, the gold symbol of the Fire-Nation adorning his hair.
How different he looked from the sad boy in that crystal cave, lost and motherless and ashamed of the scar that so hideously marred one side of his handsome face.
"Bow!" the guards barked next to her, shoving her to her knees.
She had not come to fight, so she dropped to her knees and pressed her forehead to the floor.
"The waterbender," Azula's voice sounded over her, dripping venom. "I hope you've searched her for water. She wants to kill the Prince."
"She does not." His voice sounded hoarse and a bit choked. "Release her and go, you've done well."
Katara sensed the guards bowing and stepping backwards out of the room. She still knelt on the floor, forehead on the ground.
"Azula, Mai, leave us alone."
"No," Azula said evenly. "I'm responsible for your safety."
Katara almost smiled to herself as she envisioned him glaring at his sister. She also bit back the comment that Azula had not demonstrated much concern for her brother's well-being before.
She lifted herself from the floor and drew upright, immediately fixing her eyes on his.
His bright, golden gaze slammed into her, so intense she had to gasp.
A hoarse gentleness was in his voice as he said her name, cradling every syllable like something precious.
"Zuko," she replied rather breathlessly.
"It's Prince Zuko," Azula sniped from somewhere to the side.
"Shut up!" he snarled.
Katara could not be bothered to look at Azula's expression, priceless as it might be. She had her gaze fixed on the glow of amber, deep and warm. Fatigue and cold terror fell off her as she looked, replaced by a new sense of buoyancy.
"Can I offer you something, Katara?" he asked after a while. The slow drawl sent a shiver down her spine. He'd never so affected her as he did just now. He was so in control, calm and deadly, unshakable sure of himself.
"Some water would be nice," she answered evenly.
The two other women in the room snorted.
"Mai, you've heard our guest," Zuko said slowly, never taking his eyes off her. Whatever control he had over her, she felt that she also held some measure of control over him.
"You can't be serious!" Mai said, horrified.
"Do I have to repeat myself?"
Now Katara allowed herself a smile. He was magnificent. A traitor, a liar and a jerk, but commanding respect and obedience none the less.
Still unflinchingly staring into his eyes, Katara couldn't see who brought water, but she felt it as soon as it was in the room. Not breaking eye contact, she lifted a hand and brought only a handful of water to her, not enough to fight, but then again, she hadn't come here to fight.
She brought her hand close to her stomach, palm up, the water rotating as a blue ball a few inches above her hand.
Blood thundered in her ears and her focus narrowed even more. She was aware of nothing but his eyes and his body, only two feet from hers.
"Zuko," she whispered, her body trembling.
He brought his hand to his stomach in a gesture just like hers.
A pleasurable jolt went through her as a flame sprung to life, broad as his palm and not very high. He did not want to fight either.
In a slow, calculated motion, she brought her hand up, palm toward him, the blue orb of water quivering in front of it.
"Katara," he growled.
Steam hissed between their hands as fire met water, but only for a short moment. Then they found the perfect balance. The fire did not rise in temperature, while she cooled the water down just so it wouldn't boil.
She felt as if she was expanding with the strength rushing into her body through the palm of her hand. Her blood pounded, sending heated blood coursing into every fibre of her being, flooding her with energy, with warmth, with life.
"Zuko," she sighed.
He could barely believe she had come to him. Stepped back into his life at a moment when he had honestly asked himself if it was still worth living.
Stepped into the room, a vision of unparalleled beauty. She wore Fire-Nation clothes of a deep red: a long, flowing skirt and a top clinging tightly to her breasts. The bare stomach and shoulders exposed a wide expanse of silky, caramel coloured skin. Her hair fell in rich, chestnut waves down to her hips, hugging her curves.
His body had come alive instantly, yearning and aching as if he had not had a woman for ages.
In the end, though, it were her eyes that held all his attention. With every second he stared into them, his parched soul sobbed with joy.
But nothing could have prepared him for what had happened after he'd given her the water. He knew she hadn't come to attack him. She was many things, and none of them was stupid.
As soon as their elements made contact, he felt the return of his power.
His shrivelled insides came to life as the cool liquid of her power washed through him, reviving his heart, swelling his slackened muscles, clearing his muddled thoughts.
She was vital to him, he realized. He could take from her what he needed and if he had known it before, he'd never failed in the first place.
Looking at her, though, it didn't seem as if he was depleting her resources, as if him taking her power was weakening her. If anything, the ball of water pressing against his flame grew colder, more insistent. Her pupils had widened to the point where the sky-blue of her irises was only a small band around a deep pool of darkness.
"Katara," he said, hoping to express his awe and his gratefulness.
No other thought was left in his brain but the chanting of her name, over and over. A prayer and a benediction to his enemy, his saviour.
Time lost meaning, as did their surroundings. They were on a journey together, he realized. Upwards, toward an unknown summit and once there, they might understand the pull between them, the magic that happened between the palms of their hands, frightening and exhilarating at the same time.
Then a sharp pain ripped through his skull. At the same time, he heard a piercing scream and the blue irises, centre of his awareness, left his field of vision.
The blow to his head was so severe, he swayed on his feet, taking long moments to focus on his surroundings.
Katara was sprawled on the floor, a nasty scorch mark on her right temple. For a moment, he agonized whether he had hurt her, when his sister's voice came up next to him.
"She bewitched you."
His new-found energy rose in him as a white-hot wave of rage. Spinning round to Azula, he only lifted his hand when a burst of white fire slammed into Azula's stomach, hurling her across the room.
No firebender had ever produced white fire. Not even Uncle Ihro.
But that wasn't at the forefront of his thoughts as he sank to his knees in front of Katara's lifeless body. A faint pulse throbbed against his fingers as he put it on her neck and he almost shattered with relief.
He scooped her up in his arms and strode from the chamber, yelling for help at the top of his lungs.
"When will she regain consciousness?"
He could not keep the tone of despairing impatience out of his voice and he knew the old healer, sitting hunched over Katara's body, could barely hold back a sigh at the repeated question.
"I don't know. To be perfectly honest, it's a miracle she's still alive."
Zuko resumed his pacing.
He had brought Katara into his own bedchamber, only later remembering that the palace had hundreds of guest rooms. A few hours ago, Mai had come in to tell him that Azula had recovered from his attack, her armour had taken the worst of the blast that otherwise would've been fatal. He did not care. He had not intended to kill Azula, but at that moment, it had felt like self-defence.
He had then coolly dismissed her, making no secret of the fact that Katara would stay where she was. Where she belonged, in his opinion.
"She's a strong woman, that little waterbender," the old man rasped from the side. "Beautiful, too."
Zuko balled his fists, resisting the urge to shoot flames at the man's head.
"You should heal her, not ogle her."
The healer inclined his head and proceeded to wrap the wound at Katara's temple.
"I'm afraid there is little else I can do," he said a while later. "Her head is burning with fever, but I can't cool her down, because her whole body is ice-cold. She needs something to warm her, while I put a wet cloth on her forehead."
While Zuko puzzled over what exactly the man meant, he came shuffling back to a bed with a basin with cold water and a cloth.
"I take it from here," Zuko said gruffly.
The man looked to him, smiled and bowed and then finally left the room in a completely unhurried fashion.
Finally alone, Zuko divested himself of his outer tunic, body armour and the light tunic underneath.
He sat down at Katara's side, dipped the cloth into the cold water, wrung the water from it and laid it gently on her forehead.
Then he walked to the other side of the wide bed, climbed under the covers and tentatively cradled her body to him. Her skin was so clammy to his touch, he almost shuddered.
Marginally increasing his own body temperature, he cradled her even closer.
She had to live through this, he determined. He needed to learn the secret of the bond between them, needed to know what exactly all that meant. And as unbelievable as that was, most of all he needed her.
Her head pounded as she woke up and for long minutes, her eyelids refused the task of opening. Deciding that this could wait for a while, she tried to remember where she was and why her right temple hurt like she had slept in a fire.
Memories crashed back into her mind and she jerked involuntarily. She was at the palace of the Firelord. Zuko had been there and something marvellous had transpired. But her memories ended right there.
Something warm and living moved behind her, and something that felt conspicuously like a male arm tightened around her waist.
"Sleep," a voice rumbled into her ear. Rather stirringly so.
To be honest, splitting headaches aside, she felt on the whole like in a sensual dream. The room around her smiled intoxicatingly like musk and incense, her body was covered with flowing soft silk. And the smooth, naked chest pressed against her back felt just divine. Warm and comforting.
Wait. Naked chest? Alarm bells went off in her head, doing nothing for her headaches.
She tried to spin around, but the strong arm tightened a little more.
"Don't be alarmed, everything is all right."
There was no mistaking the voice. She was in bed with a naked Zuko. Half naked, but still. That had been so not part of her plan.
Yes, she had come to explore the mysterious drain on her strength she was sure had to do with him. While she was at it, she wanted to see if she could gain some important information. Or maybe – even if that was highly unlikely – see if he could still be prevailed upon to stand up against his father.
"What have you done to me?"
He chuckled behind her and then pressed a kiss onto her hair. She could have done without the shudder that went through her at this.
Then he drew back from her enough so she could turn onto her back, looking at him. At once she remembered in vivid detail the magic that had enveloped them the day before and she had trouble averting her eyes.
He reached toward her forehead and tentatively touched it as if feeling for fever.
"Azula attacked you during our… meditation."
She felt her mouth twitching at his choice of words.
"You have a nasty wound on your temple and had a bad fever for two days. I was…"
He shook his head.
"I was worried."
Then he smiled. "You know, water witch, I should ask you what you have done to me."
She smiled a little. "I hoped you'd know."
He shook his head, a smile lingering around his mouth. His finger trailed a path from her forehead over her nose to her mouth, tracing its outline.
"I just followed your lead and it was…" he took a deep breath, drawing his hand away. "It was divine, wasn't it?"
She only nodded, too mesmerized by his sensuous touch.
"How do you feel?"
"My head hurts and I can barely move."
"Maybe you need something to eat."
Her stomach grumbled affirmatively, but she wasn't even sure she could sit up. She lifted her hand and gingerly touched the marred side of the face that hovered over her with an expression of genuine worry.
"Could you do something for me?"
"Everything," he whispered.
She almost wished there had been a trace of mocking in his voice.
She could sense a bowl next to the bed and lifted her hand to bring a bit of water to her finger, not bigger than a marble. She was glad she could do this much.
Balancing it over one fingertip, she held it out to him.
Zuko swallowed heavily and lifted his hand again. A tiny flame ignited at his index finger.
"Give me your strength," she murmured.
Zuko was still tying the strings on his outer tunic while he hastened along the corridors to his father's office. He had been summoned only ten minutes ago and although he only reluctantly left Katara's side, he had no intention to anger his father.
"Prince Zuko," Ozai's voice thundered as soon as he had stepped into the room and bowed deeply to his sire.
"Can you explain to me, why you viciously attacked your sister, why you are harbouring a fugitive, an enemy of the Fire-Nation in your quarters and carrying on with her in a manner that upsets the woman who is to become your wife?"
His sister's malevolent snicker was loud enough to be heard through the whole vast hall and Zuko had to grind his teeth the keep himself from repeating what he'd done to her two days ago.
But he got a grip on his violent emotions, and inclined his head deferentially.
"Lord Ozai, I am deeply sorry I've caused you grief but I can assure you I've meant no harm to my family or my people."
"Well said, Price Zuko, but that is no explanation."
Zuko took a deep breath. He had to think quickly if he wanted to keep his secret.
"The waterbender is here on my invitation," he said smoothly. "She claimed to be able to heal me. Unfortunately, Azula thought she meant me harm. My so called attack was only a means of ensuring the survival of my healer and as far as I'm informed, Princess Azula sustained no serious injury."
"You almost killed me you lying jerk!" Azula spat.
He threw her a glance that hopefully communicated that he wished he had.
"Please accept my apology, beloved sister."
Looking back at his father, he found Ozai nodding approvingly.
"I presume you wanted the waterbender not only for her healing capabilities," his father said with an unappetizing undertone to his words. "Or why else would you entertain her in your bed?"
Zuko tried not to squirm. "She was gravely injured from Azula's attack and only today recovered from a bad fever. It was a matter of convenience."
"I guess you needed to cure her illness with your dick," Azula remarked.
He balled his fist against the white rage that he felt boiling within him, but managed not to dignify that outrageous remark with an answer.
No one – including Katara and himself – could grasp what they shared. Only this morning, the tiny contact between a drop of water and a mere spark of a flame had revived Katara so much, she could sit up and eat and even walk again on her own. He would allow no one to soil that.
"You shamed Lady Mai with your conduct, Prince Zuko," his father said.
Zuko's face hardened. "As a future Princess Consort, Lady Mai should be aware that I can choose to take to my bed whomever I want. If she insists on being difficult about such matters, I shall be looking for another companion."
One corner of his father's mouth curled upward. "Quite right, Prince Zuko."
"Father!" Azula almost screamed next to him. "You can't be serious!"
"Be quiet Azula. Your brother is right. It is unseemly for a woman to question whom her husband is bedding. I expect Prince Zuko to select quite a number of concubines once he's married."
"Concubine!" Azula exploded. "This water peasant is no concubine! She is not fit to wipe the shoes of a concubine. She is a stupid cow, reared between peasants, consorting with your worst enemies and spreading her legs for everyone who…"
Only from the corner of his eyes could Zuko see that even the mighty firelord had flinched at his sudden roaring command. He spread his arms sideways, wicked sharp white flames flickering in both his hands, coiling into Azula's direction.
She took a step back. Ozai's eyes widened a fraction.
Zuko smirked. These new flames were rather cool.
"Take that back," he said slowly, letting the flames flicker a little closer to her.
"You're wrong if you think I'm intimidated by that fancy white light," she said, but her words lacked conviction.
He smirked some more. "You're right, dearest sister. Unlike you, I have no idea how it feels to be hit by that measly white light."
The flames flickered closer. Azula lifted a fist and shot a burst of blue in his direction. The white flames consumed them, growing brighter and taller with their energy.
"Interesting," Zuko said with a grin. "Care to try again?"
Azula put her hands to her side.
"You wouldn't dare in front of father," she hissed.
"You insulted a friend of mine. I'm sure he approves of my defending my honour."
Azula pressed her lips into a thin line.
"Take it back."
"No," she said through gritted teeth and then looked at his father. "My lord, please tell him this is immature."
"I disagree, Azula. It's his prerogative and his obligation to defend his honour. I'm glad he's finally learned that."
Zuko's grind vanished and now Azula was the one smiling a sickly sweet smile.
"All right," she said. "I take back what I said about your esteemed friend. I'm sure I'm grievously wrong and I regret to have caused you distress…" her smile widened. "My beloved brother."
Katara stretched luxuriously on the blood-red silky sheets. She'd always hated Zuko for being such a snob about everything, but if she had grown up in such luxury, she would probably be rather spoilt, too.
Since he had obviously left quite specific instructions, his servants treated her like a queen. Two nice but apparently mute girls had helped her bathe, had brushed her hair, applied some make-up and clad her into a new dress, a stunning robe of flowing red silk with golden trimmings. She had been brought food that made her fear she would not fit into the dress anymore two days from now. With nothing else to do, since she was not allowed to leave Prince Zuko's apartment, she had made her rounds of the vast number of rooms, one more luxurious and expensively decorated than the next.
Admittedly, the prevailing colour got on her nerves a little, but he had to live in red rooms, not she. It explained his constant aggressiveness, though.
Although with her, he lately only showed utmost gentleness and was disturbingly sweet and loveable. In short, he was not himself at all.
She wanted to get to the bottom of his sudden personality change, but for now it was nice to be treated so superbly. After what she'd been through, she could do with a few niceties. As far as her experiences went, things wouldn't stay that way.
She had just resolved to get up and do some more exploring, when the door crashed open and admitted a rather furious looking individual.
That was the Zuko she remembered.
"I hate my sister," he shouted and ripped his tunic off him with angry impatience.
"I hate your sister, too," she said sheepishly, which got her his attention.
He frowned at her and then one corner of his mouth lifted a little.
"How are you?" he asked and she wondered at the caring way he asked the question.
"Much better. I healed the wound on my temple, see?"
He untied the strings that held his bulky body armour and let it fall to the floor unceremoniously. Then he stepped over it and leapt onto the bed. The mattress dipped a little under his weight, bringing her even closer to him.
He brought his fingers to her temple and she couldn't suppress a tremble as his fingertips brushed over the newly healed skin.
"Astounding," he said, a trace of wistfulness in his voice.
She lifted her hands and touched his face as lightly as he touched hers, feeling the tightly stretched scar tissue under his eye.
"Does it still hurt?" she asked softly.
He lowered his eyes. The old Zuko would have probably barked at her that it was none of her business, or at least told her that it did not hurt.
"Sometimes," he said quietly.
She put her finger under his chin and made him look at her.
"I'll take it from you, I promise. I only need to find water as clean and magical as the one I used to…"
She swallowed her words at the same moment that he put his fingers over her lips.
"Don't say it."
"Do you know?" she asked, trembling. She had not meant to reveal that the Avatar was still alive. Not to him of all people. But something in his changed behaviour, and of course all that they had shared somehow inspired unreserved trust.
"I had a feeling. Did you know that my sister gave me the credit for killing him?"
Her eyes went wide. That bitch! Once Ozai found out that Aang was still alive – which was bound to happen eventually – there would be hell to pay for Zuko. Again.
"You have to leave," she whispered urgently.
"I will," he said and then grinned mischievously. "I just waited for you to get off your lazy behind."
She took the water from the pitcher next to the bad and shackled his wrists.
He laughed boisterously. "That's not to say I don't like your behind," he wheezed between giggles and she drew the shackles a little firmer, biting the insides of her cheeks to keep herself from grinning. "I rather like the way it fits so snugly against my... umphhgg."
A block of solid ice stuck between his teeth which he melted with a breath of orange fire.
At the contact, Katara instantly felt the connection again, that pulsing force of life that bound them somehow, that had healed her in matter of hours from a nearly fatal wound.
"Katara," he whispered, golden orbs shining warmly. "Stop touching me like that."
She withdrew the water at once and put it back to the pitcher. Then she stared intently at her hands, embarrassed beyond measure.
Now he was the one to lift her chin to force her to look at him.
"I would love to do nothing else but that with you the whole day. But we don't understand what happens between us then and we know that we're both vulnerable when we're in this… state."
She nodded, still trying to avert her eyes.
"I'm not rejecting you, Katara, I really am not."
She ripped her chin out of his hand and scrambled off the bed, toward one of the big windows. The world had just tilted on its axis with the fact that Zuko – Prince Zuko – had told her ever so magnanimously that he was not rejecting her. What a joke.
"I don't care either way."
"That's a lie and you know it."
She turned around to him and glared. "You're Zuko."
He smirked. "A very obvious but nonetheless accurate observation."
"You lied to me, betrayed me and my friends, helped the Fire-Nation to bring death and misery to the world, you—"
"I am all that and still you're the one who came to me. Why?"
She grasped for a lie, any old lie would do. None came to mind, though.
"I felt… I felt…"
He leaned forward, his eyes on her deadly serious.
"You felt like less than half a person, isn't that right? You felt like you'd dwindle away to nothing and perish in a pile of dust."
"I felt like I was freezing to death inside," she admitted softly, lifting her fingers. "I burnt my fingers because I held them too close to a fire one night, but still it did not warm me. I lost my strength, my abilities. And I can't believe the cruel irony that all this is connected to you."
"My uncle wouldn't find that ironic at all."
She turned back to the window and only barely trembled when she felt him standing behind her, breathing a kiss into her hair.
"You smell like the open sea," he whispered, "And like dewy fresh grass."
"You don't have to pretend with me, Zuko."
"I am not."
He wound his arms around her middle and pulled her back against him. She should have fought him, but didn't.
"If we want to get out of here alive, we have to trust each other," he mumbled into her hair, barely audible. "I can't even tell you about my plans because these walls have ears. You have to trust me implicitly."
Trust him? Another one of those cruelly ironic jokes. As if he had ever, on any given occasion, given her a reason to trust him. The problem was, if she did trust him and he betrayed her, she was dead. If she did not trust him, she was dead as well.
And still she could not regret coming here. She turned in his grip and buried her face against his chest.
"I trust you," she whispered into the fabric of his tunic. "Implicitly."
He tightened his arms around her, his nose still nuzzling her hair.
"I trust you, too. Katara."
After a long moment, he pulled back a little. "I've to show you something."
He took a few steps back and plopped back on the bed. Then he lifted his arm and produced a small, completely white flame.
"It is. It's not as hot as the blue flames, but it can absorb them, which is pretty awesome."
"Since when can you do that?"
He gave her a heart-stoppingly sweet smile. "Since you came here."
Thoughts swirled in her mind.
"Do you think I can do new things as well?"
"You should try. But either way, I guess we're not even begun to understand what is happening to us. We need a guide."
She did not need to ask him whom he meant.
"You are making quite an effort on behalf of your vanity, Prince Zuko."
Zuko took his father's words calmly. He knew that he would be accused of vanity sooner or later when he used the feeble excuse of having to leave with Katara to look for water with which to remove his scar. He could not very well tell this man that he meant to look for his mother. Or that he meant to take his incarcerated uncle with him.
"Don't we all, my lord," he replied.
Ozai frowned at the cheeky retort but said nothing. There was something new in his demeanour, something that gave Zuko the feeling he would not openly contradict him, would even let him go and then look for another sneaky way to force him under his rule once again.
For whatever reason, his father suddenly feared him.
"Very well, then, Prince Zuko. Go and take that water peasant with you, but we expect you to return as soon as your business is concluded. You may choose whichever troops and equipment you require for your journey."
"Thank you, my lord, I think we'll travel lightly."
"He means to betray you, father," Azula piped up beside him.
Again this was something he had just waited for.
"Which would be a tremendously stupid thing to do, wouldn't it, dear sister? Now that I'm back in father's good graces."
"You're known to do stupid things, dear brother."
"Well, then let's say I've learned my lesson the hard way. Not all of us can be so gifted as you, dearest."
"Azula, I've heard your concern and I think it unfounded. Zuko has nothing to gain by betraying me, and everything to lose."
"The water wench has him under her spell."
Zuko snickered, loud enough for his father to hear. "Were you always this superstitious, or is this a recent development?"
"Enough, Prince Zuko. I wish you a successful journey, you may leave. Azula, you too."
Holding his immense relief in check, he bowed deferentially to his father, threw Azula a nasty look and strode out of the door.
His travel arrangements, as they were, had already been made. A little steam boat lay in port ready to depart on a moment's notice. Since a prince could not travel without the proper entourage, he had to take a dozen servants and another dozen soldiers, not counting those who would operate the ship. He just hoped they could smuggle Iroh on board inconspicuously and keep anyone from noticing. True to his style, his plan had not developed further than that.
Everything else he had to make up as he went.
At the moment, he was striding purposefully into the prison beneath the palace, looking regal and important. Katara hurried along behind him. He'd rather left her on the ship to await his arrival, but he had no idea in which shape he would find Iroh and he needed him at least sound enough to walk on his own.
"I want to see the prisoner," he barked at the guard who stood in front of Iroh's cell.
"We have strict orders not to let anyone—"
The man stopped talking, having turned into a solid block of ice.
His new white flames came in handy for making precise cuts into various locks and bars that stood in their way.
As they reached Iroh, Zuko inhaled sharply at the sight of what had once been his uncle. He did not look alive, much less able to walk.
Katara was already kneeling at his side, water gloves gliding over the emaciated body, over whip and burning marks, bloody and dirt-crusted.
"He has no internal injuries, and no broken bones, but I doubt he can walk. I would need hours to treat him."
"Begin with his face," he whispered.
Panic welled up in him while he watched her washing and healing Ihro's face. They could carry him out, but he could not bring him onto the ship this way without being discovered.
"You have to leave me here, Zuko."
The rasping words ripped him out of his musings and he walked over to his uncle, who had his eyes open to look at him.
"Go as long as you still can and leave me here."
"I won't betray you again," he said, his throat burning.
"I can't walk, I have no strength left."
Katara's head shot up at the last words, looking at him intently.
"We could try giving him some of ours."
He looked, not quite understand what she meant. But then she balanced a globe of water on her fingers, right in front of him, and he understood. And balked at the thought.
"Another guard can come in at any second, and we would be defenceless. Besides, we don't even know if it'll work."
"That's right," she said evenly. "Than we'll have to leave him."
He closed his eyes tightly and pressed a closed fist against his forehead, willing his brain to come up with another idea. He gave up just seconds later.
"All right, we'll try. How?"
"I suppose we both have to touch him while we… meditate."
She gently put her hand on Ihro's forehead while Zuko grabbed his hand.
Then she lifted her other and while intently looking into each other's eyes, Zuko brought a red-orange flame to the blue orb of water in her hand.
They both gasped at the contact. Fear and desperation laced their union this time, but this only served to heighten their awareness of each other.
"Zuko," she whispered.
"Katara," he said on an exhale.
Reality crashed between them as they felt Ihro slipping from beneath their hands.
Disoriented, they broke the connection and instinctively readied themselves for attack.
"That was quite a trick," Iroh groaned while trying to stand up. "But I guess an explanation can wait until later. If you two don't mind, I'd like to leave."
Dressed as a lowly servant, his ruined face hidden beneath a wide hat and his scarred hands beneath gloves, they brought Iroh aboard without complications. Still, it would only take half an hour, if not less, for the guards to discover the loss of one very valuable prisoner.
Until then, they had to be safely off the ship, with no one the wiser.