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Here we go! 6,200+ words, my longest one-shot.Reposted here since fic haven's been having some problems. This is a bit more mature than typical fare, but it's tasteful.
AU prequel to the now jossed AU futurefic drabble chapter 11 of The Moon And The Sun. This will, hopefully, make up for every time I have ever killed or will ever kill Zuko in fanfiction. Since y'all are sooooo touchy about him up and dying.
The following songs are what I have listened to every time I thought about or wrote some part of this fic. Some were used more for the music, some were used more for the lyrics.
(roughly in order)
by Ryan Adams
"Sonnet" by The Verve
"The Light Before We Land" by The Delgados
"Lucky" by Bif Naked
"Volcano" by Damien Rice
"Glass Vase, Cello Case" by Tattle Tale
"Colorblind" by The Counting Crows
"Existentialism on Prom Night" by Straylight Run
"Teardrop" by Massive Attack
Whose Hearts Are Mountains
Setting: Set future, mid-season 2, Spoilers for 2x02
Summary: Zuko and Katara come together one warm afternoon under circumstances not made for ancient Water ballads or great Fire tales: they meet in a ventilation duct.
Status: One-shot, complete.
Spoilers: The bulk of this was written before the season 2 premier, but certain aspects of the premier were later incorporated. However, it has now been jossed by episode 2x08 "The Chase", so this can be considered spoilery for episode 2x02, and a future AU after that point.
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.
-Mary Oliver, from the poem "In Blackwater Woods"
Whose Hearts Are Mountains
In the song lore of the Water tribes, it is said that when you meet someone as an enemy or as a friend, you meet half a person. When you have met someone as both, then you may claim to know their heart completely.
In the Fire Nation there is a story of two people who meet at many points through the journeys of their lives but speak only to their own companions, never to each other. It is considered one of most tragic of Fire legends, for the Spirits brought two souls together, yet each was too afraid to seize their destiny.
Zuko and Katara come together one warm afternoon under circumstances not made for ancient Water myths or great Fire tales: they meet in a ventilation duct.
Katara of the Southern Water Tribe, self-appointed bodyguard to the Avatar and sister to the idiot who probably got himself and the Avatar stranded two islands over while she was actually doing her part of the plan, hates them. Ventilation ducts, that is. For the last hour she's been having a hell of a time crawling through them in her tribal pant-skirt and summer overcoat, and in the tiny portion of her mind that isn't preoccupied with terror and confusion she wonders if she'll ever be clean again. She can guess that her clothes must look more gray than blue, and somehow she just knows there are soot smudges on her face. She is hot and miserable and lost in a maze of passages only an insane person would build. Who designed Fire Nation fortresses? Katara has long decided that whoever they are, they should be keelhauled.
In contrast, Prince Zuko is making good time through the narrow spaces and enjoying the sweet sensation of victory. Nestled in the sack on his back is the secret map he's just lifted from his sister's make-shift war office. His other reason for sneaking into Azula's fort (only hers temporarily)—the legal documents detailing warrants for their uncle's arrest and expatriation—were burned on the spot. Destroying a scroll sealed by the Fire Lord is a crime of course, but Zuko is hardly the first aristocrat to do it, and he won't be the last. Moreover, the sabotage will slow the princess down should she try to broker a deal with any Earth Kingdom officials or enlist the help of the other generals. It won't stop her, but Zuko takes a sadistic joy in what triumphs he can get and what annoyance he can inflict where his sister is concerned.
Busy with these thoughts and sure of his secrecy, Zuko lets out a undignified yelp when he bumps head-first into someone. There is a shriek, a scrambling of limbs and curses, and then fire rises from Zuko's hand to illuminate the dirty, bright-eyed face of a water tribe woman. She takes one look at his spirit mask in the firelight and screams. Before Zuko can reach out and quiet her forcibly she throws her hands over her own mouth in a bid for silence.
They sit there, the fire between them like a warm lamp, and stare at each other for a bit.
"Hi," she says tentatively. Zuko doesn't trust himself to speak.
"Are you," Katara begins, but flounders, "…um…you know."
Through the eye slits of the mask he tries to study her face in the firelight. He watches as her agitation grows with the pause stretching between them; the way her lip curls over her teeth confirms all his suspicions.
"Are you…trying to escape too?" The waterbender's voice carries in the darkness at a softer pitch than he's ever heard it (probably frightened out of her wits), but the sound has long been embedded in Zuko's memory, held as closely in his thoughts as all things tied to the Avatar are kept. Like burrowing scarabs, he carries a piece of each beneath his skin: here is the bouncing child who stood in the way of everything he wanted; here is the boy who taught him that all the training in the world is nothing if you don't know how to duck; here is the beast that carries off his hopes and dreams to an empty sky.
Here, face lit by the glow of the firebending she despises, is the girl who tried to drown him in snow and ice, who would have been his killer in the North. He can be her killer today—here and now make certain her threat never comes to pass.
And to think, I tied this girl to a tree once.
The recollection is a wistful one, and Zuko senses the irony (irony the girl is no doubt oblivious to) hanging over his shoulder like a specter of pass misdeeds. He decides to have pity on her. After all, he has no means to hold her and certainly no means to capture the Avatar. Killing her would be messy and bothering with her otherwise is pointless…except that if he helps her out it will piss off his sister, and that suits Zuko just fine.
"I'm not trying, I am," he grumbles, speaking from the back of his throat to deepen his voice. "Back up ten feet. No talking."
Any help is better than no help, Katara rationalizes. She does as she's been told, and after eight feet or so notices an opening on her left. In the darkness the firebender turns in front of her and begins to crawl down the side tunnel without so much as a wave. Every few feet he lights a tiny flare, just enough to give her a beacon, and Katara follows the sparks in silence.
After nearly a quarter hour of crawling he stops in front of her and maneuvers himself to a sitting position. His hands reach up to twist at something above, something that creaks and grinds . Realization comes to Katara a moment later.
Oh, it's a hatch.
As he works it partway open a streak of dim sunlight shines through the crack to illuminate the mask. Katara sees that what she'd thought was painted black is as blue as the ocean's surface, accented with features white as sea foam. The analogy entrances her with its possibilities, and she wonders at such a mask on a firebender. She can only conclude that he must truly have rejected his country.
Or truly wants to hide his face, the other corner of her mind murmured. Why else choose a mask of a water demon? Why else—
Before she can finish the thought the stranger reaches out and grabs her by the wrist, pulling her closer to him and the hatch. His grip is warm and young; his fingers encircle her skin and bone in a way she's familiar with, too familiar with—"I said come on!" the masked man snaps in a tight whisper, emphatically gesturing at the hatch above. Obviously he must need her help to turn the rusted wheel, but Katara can't lift even an arm to assist him because her body and mind have frozen at his words. They echo back to her with
"I wonder what this scroll is worth?"
"I didn't come this far to lose to you."
She wrenches her hand away from his and scrambles backward.
With that voice it must be him. His voice has been one of the most persistent in Katara's nightmares since the day she left home: in so many dreams he crowed his victory as Aang was stolen way. Here is the same Prince Zuko, Aang's constant hunter, right in front of her! And he wants her to get close enough for him to strangle her? She can't; her muscles refuse to move.
Zuko rips his stare from the waterbender in disdain. She is looking at him, eyes blank, as if he is some kind of animal. Yes, he'd grabbed her wrist to get her attention, but he'd barely touched her… and surely his mask isn't any scarier in partial daylight than it was in firelight?
It doesn't matter, I don't have time for this.
Instead of asking again he braces one shoulder and both feet against the walls of the tunnel and pulls on the wheel with every pound of pressure he can muster. It moans, screeches, and finally pops loose, circling easily in his hand. Zuko allows himself a satisfied grunt and pushes the hatch all the way up. He waves a careless hand down at the waterbender and rises nimbly into the light.
After her strange guide (Zuko!her mind screeches, and she smothers the sound) neglects to send a fireball behind him, the lure of freedom wins over Katara's fear. The sun is low in the afternoon sky as she climbs out; it hovers near the horizon of the water. She drops the hatch closed behind her and scans the area.
He's taken her outside the edge of the fort, and her gut tells her that if she stays here any longer she's sure to be spotted by a sentry on the wall. No time for dallying, as her father would say, and Katara runs quickly to a pile of rocks near the water's edge, rounding them with her heart beating painfully in her chest. Out of sight, she stops and leans back against the stone. Oh, to stretch her legs again! She's never imagined something so simple would bring such relief. Her eyes close, but the sound of sloshing water draws them open again.
Not ten feet away waits the masked man (maybe not a man—he's not very tall, she thinks, and neither is Zuko), sitting on a small boat with an oar in each hand. The lines are all pulled in that she can see; he's keeping his position in the shallow rock bed by lodging his oars in the sand.
He's waiting for me. He must recognize me. Why would Zuko wait for me?
From where he's sitting she can't spy anything of his face but the mask. Katara looks up and down the shore, biting her lip. There are no other boats except the navy ships; she has to get off the fort's island and she can't swim that far.
It's possible that maybe he isn't Zuko at all. Maybe she's just being an idiot and setting herself up for capture. If she tarries any longer, he might just leave her here and then what would she do? Frown renewed, Katara runs to the water's edge and jumps in the boat, facing him. She crosses her arms; he'll get no waterbending out of her unless he asks for it. And then I can use it to knock him overboard so he never hurts Aang again, she decides. Leading me out of the fort is nothing if he's still trying to kidnap my friend.
To both her relief and her dismay, the stranger doesn't ask her to waterbend. He rows for well over an hour to get them across the bay and speaks not a word to let his identity slip again. A part of Katara guesses, but doesn't fully comprehend, that in that time he is studying her.
The waterbender is at once everything Zuko remembers and a hundred things he doesn't recall. It's been less than three months since he woke up in the riding basket of the bison and saw her sitting beside him. He remembers hating her so ferociously at that moment because he'd known there was nothing he could do to hurt her in that godforsaken place. She'd proven that to him, and she'd only prove it again in time. So he'd pretended to sleep as they reached the frozen city, pretended to be as helpless as they wanted him to be, and he'd waited for his chance to strike. The chance never arose; no sooner had the bison landed than Zhao had come, murdered the moon spirit, and fled like the coward he was. Unable to take the Avatar and unwilling to fight the waterbender so soon after defeat, Zuko had focused on Zhao and not looked back. The last glimpse he'd had of the waterbender was the image of her kneeling beside his uncle, mourning the death of the moon together.
As she sits before him with a glare and a purpose, part of Zuko is stunned at the differences he sees. Her clothes are lighter and her body is heavier; there's muscle in her toned arms that wasn't present the last time they'd fought. At her waist she wears not only her flask but a knife as well, completing the image of the bending warrior he never imagined could grow from the inexperienced and foolish girl he'd met in the South Pole.
And yet, she still remains that girl: strands of hair have drifted from her braid to messily frame her face, and soot from the ducts stains her round cheeks and defiant chin. She points that chin at him like an accusation, as if hoping that at any second he'll give her a reason to knock him overboard. Still mistrusting… but still naïve, if getting into a boat with a masked stranger is any sign. She sits calmly, and her gaze is too clear for someone who believes themselves in real danger. Zuko envies such willingness to trust—the last of his trust disappeared with Azula's trickery.
That's not true, his thoughts argue. If it were, you would've never let her follow your back, and you wouldn't be looking at her eyes right now.
Zuko barely stops himself from physically shaking his head to silence his mind, and instead concentrates on rowing at an even speed. They have not been spotted yet, and the beach is in sight.
When they finally reach the mainland he brings the boat into a tiny sand strip quite a distance south of the nearest marina, hidden by a rock outcropping and surrounded by trees. The sun has come very close to setting, making it even more difficult for them to be spotted landing.
Warily, Katara steps from the boat and backs off several feet. As for the masked boy (he has to be a young man, simply from the way he moves his body), he jumps out as well and tugs the rowboat onto the sand. To her surprise he doesn't tie it up, instead pulls it clear of the water by several yards. Then he braces his feet and spreads his hands wide before him.
"Wait!" Katara yelps, holding out her palms. "You can't burn it!" It isn't just the impulse in her people that abhors destroying water craft of any kind which makes her raise her hands… "It's the smoke. It's not dark enough yet."
The stranger looks out across the water, up to the sky, and back down to her. He nods and in minutes has the boat hidden amongst the rocks and weeds near the tree line. Katara watches him work and squirms in place, trying to decide what she should do. Should she run away?
If this is really the prince... is this beach he's led her to a trap? Where are his soldiers? Is all of this a ruse he's planned since she bumped into him in the dark… to help her escape from the fort only to hold her hostage himself?
We haven't seen him in over two months, Katara recalls, brushing one of her loosened bangs behind her ear. There's only another two months until the comet arrives, and we used to see him at least every week or so. Now it's that other one—the girl. What if he's not chasing us at all anymore?
"Don't be an idiot Katara," she mutters in her best brother voice.
Yet here they stand. On the beach, with the island of the fort a distant mile across the bay. He's rowed them over the expanse when he must have known she could've cut the time in half. He's surrounded himself with her element, put himself at the mercy of his enemy with only a mask and a pretense to protect him.
He stows the boat without her help and turns away towards the woods. No soldiers have sprung out to surround her. No trap at all.
"Your uncle is a good man," Katara blurts, unable to stop the admission from spilling out her mouth. Why those words? They're absurd, but she can't help that part of her believes them true. She remembers the old general at the oasis, the soft sadness in his eyes for Yue.
Ahead of her, the masked figure stops dead. The waterbender's heart is a drum in her chest as she waits for his reaction. He pivots and looks at her, but doesn't advance.
I knew it. I knew it.
"He tried to protect the great spirits from Zhao." What is she doing? It's like it isn't even her speaking, not Katara, Katara would never let this list of rationalizations spill from her lips to the ears of a firebender, but— "That must mean he's a good man. And he's always with you, right? And… Aang wants to like you too, I can tell."
Still and silent, the mask's demonic eyes catch hers in the twilight of sunset. Katara feels small under its gaze.
I am not afraid of him anymore. I am Katara of the Southern Tribe, I wear the mark of the brave. She walks forward, speaking slowly with each step.
"And today you've helped me. So... I think..." Three steps from him now, and he isn't moving. "Maybe... you're not so bad." Two steps. One.
Zuko hasn't uttered a syllable since ordering her to help him in the ducts. He hasn't moved since she started talking. He's done nothing to confirm or deny her assertions about his identity.
He could still leave—run away. She'd never know. Not for sure.
The waterbender is standing closer to him than anyone but his enemies or his uncle have stood in months. Katara reaches a hand up to touch his mask and Zuko, held immobile by a nameless feeling that curls in his stomach and itches at his fingertips, does nothing to stop the motion. Her fingers graze the edge of the painted plaster and then gently push it upward.
Katara takes in scarred features, blue eyes searching yellow-gold, and whispers, "I knew it."
Naked, no mask to protect him, Zuko still says nothing. To speak is to make it real, and none of this feels real yet.
His silence is a window of time granted to her, and Katara takes that time to study him. A parade of changes has marched its way across every part of the prince: his cheeks are thinner, and his eyes move too quickly, as if afraid to settle on her or anything else. It's the quickness of someone always moving and always being followed; she knows it well.
His hair is the most startling change, but it's the last thing Katara notices. With the topknot cut Zuko no longer looks like the aristocracy, and the soft brush of black locks where once was shaved skin makes him appear older. The end result is an amalgamation of the familiar and the alien, painting a picture of someone the young waterbender cannot recognize. This isn't Zuko. This isn't the proud son of their enemy. This is a stranger that wears Zuko's scar and borrows his voice.
Don't be cruel, a corner of her conscience whispers. It is the speech of her grandmother, and the tone of her father. Don't deny him his changes; he's worked and bled for them them as surely as you have for your own.
Katara counts the flecks of gold in Zuko's tawny eyes, and acknowledges this to be truth.
"Thank you for showing me the way out," she whispers at last, almost as if his silence is robbing her of her own sound. "I know you wouldn't have done it if you weren't already escaping yourself, but...thank you."
She begins to step back, then upon thinking better of it, steps forward. There is a feather of a kiss on Zuko's cheek, and then she is walking away.
"Wait," he croaks in a voice hoarse with hours of silence and years of loneliness. He reaches to grab Katara's arm as she turns to look at him, and before either of them can reconsider he pulls her into a kiss too deep for gratefulness and too ardent for any façade of partnership.
Shock is the first thing she feels. It overtakes her senses then pulls back like the lull before the next wave, leaving Katara swamped and weak at the knees. Her hands find their way around Zuko's neck with no prompting from her mind, and she lets her thoughts get carried away.
This is what passion feels like. It's not a blushing stare at a rebellious boy or a quiet talk with a fellow orphan. It's not sparring practice or a smile in the marketplace. Passion is the heat of two hands splayed across her lower back, two lips caught by her own. It's Zuko's tongue in Katara's mouth and her tongue in his, as if taste is the only way they can truly understand one another. She leans further into him, and tells herself she doesn't care if he never stops.
Zuko doesn't know what he's doing. He no longer considers himself a prince, but even so he knows that kissing the Avatar's waterbender is a step in a direction he shouldn't be going. Not the waterbender, Katara, I know her name, he tells himself in a fierce and defensive thought. Her name is Katara and she's stubborn and she wears a necklace and oh spirits I'm kissing her.
She isn't at her prettiest; there's dust on her nose and her overcoat smells like firewood and charcoal. Zuko's clothes are hardly better, and all the dust in the world doesn't compare to the scar he sees in the mirror. Dirt can be washed away, but he wants her exactly as she is at this moment, with earth and sweat and all the things he's learned exist beyond his ship. That tiny world is gone forever, has been gone for months, and now he lives in the same world as Katara.
I want her, he realizes. Whatever this feeling is, it's her, and I want so much more.Does she?
Pulling back mere inches for air, their eyes meet again. Forehead to forehead they stare into blue and gold. The sun's down past the horizon. Twilight is descending into night, and Zuko knows he doesn't have to meet his uncle till tomorrow. It must be the same for Katara too if she was in the fort alone. They have time. Time for what?
Time for— "Come with me."—for anything.
He pulls her down the forest path by her hand, her fingers as calloused as his own. They stop every few minutes to kiss again, and he remembers that when he'd captured her for a night (when I was still a prince and she was still a child) her palms had been soft as a sea gull's feather.
So much, Zuko thinks haphazardly, bottom lip caught between hers. We've both changed so much.
No sooner do they reach his camp than they're falling backward into the leaves and the grass, hands everywhere and tongues dancing clumsily. Zuko rolls them onto his sleeping mat, Katara sitting on his waist and kissing him in ways he never wants to end.
Does it mean anything? How can it? They're not married— they're not even betrothed. They're too young and too scared, but maybe that's why it has to happen. Nothing about this is normal: Katara knows she's not a normal water tribe maid, she hasn't been since the day she left the South Pole and the boy clutching her upper arms and breathing into her skin is the farthest thing from normal she's ever crossed.
"Are you sure—do you want to—"
"Yes—" a breath, "Do you want to—"
"I don't want to stop, please don't stop."
Clothes fall away, are almost ripped away. I don't even know him, she thinks, but the idea of letting him walk away, of herself walking away, is unfathomable. This is crazy and it's going to change everything and she wants it. Katara has been nearly half a year away from her home, away from everything she loved and knew except Sokka. And everything she's had since leaving home (every meal every friend every fight) has been shared with Sokka and Aang. Everything she's done has been to help the Avatar reach his destiny.
I just want something for myself. Katara drags her hands over Zuko's shoulders and around his neck. His short, ink-colored hair slips between her fingers like soft threads. I just want—
— and Zuko pulls her head to his for another kiss, the feel of his lips like something hot and deafening. He has one naked leg between hers and every time they move the friction tells Katara she must get closer, even closer—
—I want him.
She wants this boy, with his forbidden darkness, his damage, his blazing stare. His lips are rough yet the skin of his chest is smoother than hers. The dichotomy thrills Katara: everything about Zuko is two-sided. Hands that move in ways both delicate and hard, a voice both hot and chilling. A demon mask to cover a mark of shame. Is the boy touching her breasts in frantic, careful worship the boy in the mask or the boy with the scar? The question escapes her before she can stop it.
"Who are you really?" Katara murmurs into his neck.
Zuko stills momentarily as the answers careen and collide through his consciousness: the son of the Fire Lord, the Blue Spirit, General Iroh's nephew, the future king, failure brother to the future queen, your enemy, my enemy, my mother's son, does it matter, it doesn't matter, I don't know—
"I'm... I'm here," is all he can force out, his mind overwhelmed with too many ideas and too much emotion. He can't think clearly of anything but her right now: Katara above him and smiling like summer in the city of his childhood. He rolls her beneath him so he can look into her eyes and she can look to the sky. He kisses her lips not a second later—just to make her look at him again, to steal her from the sky—and then a push, a sigh, and they're together.
For Zuko, being inside Katara means the world that surrounds him has come tumbling from its tower, smashing to pieces around their bodies and assaulting him with sensation. Suddenly it's too real—he can feel tremors run up her frame when she sucks in her breath, he can feel the evening breeze on his back and the leaves beneath the bedroll he puts his weight on. I've never been this close to someone, he thinks, and wonders if she can hear him.
Pressed as tightly they are (I think I'm breathing her breath), Zuko can tell the sensation of total contact is new for Katara also, and just as frightening. She gasps into his kiss and clutches his shoulders, nails not quite sharp enough to break skin. He holds her in stillness and whispers anything he can think of. But he doesn't know her well enough yet and he doesn't know himself like this; it's a short list and winds down to an endless repetition of it's okay, it's okay, okay, okay.
They begin to move together, slowly until they assemble their confidences into knowledge of something greater than themselves. There is an awkward but intoxicating push and pull to their movements, and the closeness of sex is an aphrodisiac like nothing they've known. Every clumsy touch has an echo of beauty in it. When Zuko runs his hands from Katara's shoulders down to her hips she can't help but arch her back and rise to meet him. He admires the lines her body makes in the early moonlight, awed by the intensity of feeling the sight stirs in him. He wants to know if she feels everything he feels, if this is as strange and wonderful for her as it's become for him.
She opens her eyes to meet his over the planes of their bodies, and seeing everything he wanted in her gaze takes Zuko's heart away. She's not his country, she's not his stolen throne, but she is a person, and she's laid out beneath him, her flesh encircling him, here because this is where she wants to be. Close to him because she desires it as strongly as he does. He pushes his face to her neck and tries to go deeper into her embrace, moving as intently as his body will allow without bursting out of his own skin.
As strange as it is there are moments early in their lovemaking when Katara almost feels like she's the older one. Even though they're linked as intimately as two people can be he still trembles to touch her—she has to touch him more to bring out his boldness, touch his hips and his chest and his back until he does the same to her. But that's okay too, because she wants to touch him. She's never experienced true lust—true physical need—for another person before but she thinks she is beginning to understand why desire is such a drug. Why folks write ballads and recite poetry and marry people they shouldn't. Could there be any feeling stronger than this? This sensation of being so close to someone that their inhale is your exhale. Your heart beats with their heart.
"Zuko," she whispers and his next breath is"Katara."
It's a mantra they recite many times over in the hours to come, even after they collapse together, skin still naked against skin. Only the moon and dark of night witness their union, their secret exchange of isolation for ardor. Without food or drink, without a thought for anything but discovering each other, the two youths slip into sleep satiated on nothing but their passions.
Morning arrives, warm the way all mornings in the western province of the Earth Kingdom seem to be in spring. The two would-be saboteurs have slept past sunrise because they both needed it. For rest, for sanity. For the strength to look into each others eyes and notfall into a chasm so deep they'd never be free to climb out.
Zuko wakes first, to the curious sight of Katara's ear. He traces one finger along the ear down to her neck, and the actions pulls her out of the dreamworld. She turns her head and they stare at each other for a while; it reminds Zuko of the way they stared at each other in the fortress, except whatever Katara sees now, she sees without a mask to hide the truth.
"Are you hungry?" he finally asks.
Katara's stomach grumbles, and she blushes. "I'm starving." With a faint smile (for hunger, she blushes!) Zuko reaches behind him and with one hand pulls his traveling pack closer to their makeshift bed. He digs around for a moment before bringing out a few strips of jerky and a pouch of dried fruit. He hands two strips to her, and sets the fruit in the narrow space between them. Katara takes the jerky and sniffs it, tossing him a pair of raised eyebrows.
"Be assured, it is most certainly poisoned," Zuko declares in his best impression of an officer's voice. He bites into his own jerky and makes eyes at her pieces, which she quickly snatches closer to her chest. Taking a tentative nibble, Katara settles onto her back again. He nudges her head into the crook between her arm and his shoulder, and she lets him.
"So…" she says, and stops. Zuko knows she expects him to say the same, and for that reason he doesn't.
"So," Katara begins again, trying not to let her indignation slide into her voice. She opts for the most harmless opener she can think of: "I see you have hair."
Zuko snorts, and almost chokes on his jerky. The remaining chuckle makes his chest and shoulders rumble pleasantly against her.
"Yes. I also have ten toes and all my teeth."
"Whoa, listen to that tone. Someone's not a morning person. I knew all that 'I rise with the sun' stuff was bravado."
"It's not bravado if it's true," Zuko says, glancing at her as he reaches for a handful of fruit pieces. "I could have woken up two hours ago, if I'd decided to."
Katara 'hmphs' and bats his hand away, going for the dried food herself. She drops a piece into her mouth from above, and chews quietly. Zuko watches the way her jaw moves.
"I haven't eaten since before I snuck into the fortress," she says eventually. "I don't even want to think how many hours that's been."
"What were you doing in Azula's outpost anyway?" he asks, because he's been thinking about it since he first decided to let her follow him out. "Where's the Avatar and your dunce of a brother? I can't believe they let you out of their sight."
"Let me out of their sight?" she retorts, sidestepping his question. Katara feels pretty certain that Zuko's not after Aang at this point, but neither is she a fool. "Like they could stop me if I really wanted to. I once got myself arrested for the good of the rebel cause, you know. I even convinced them to help."
"My estimation of your companions' intelligence is plummeting with every word. Not that it was very high before, but of the Avatar, at least, I expected better."
She pokes him in the chest for his impertinence, and he can't hide his grin.
"Shut up Zuko. My plan was perfect. I did my part, and somewhere over there," she gestures vaguely northward with one hand, "they're doing their part, and then they'll come pick me up when the dust settles."
"That's not perfect. That's absurd."
"Whatever you were doing, you were lost. When I bumped into you you were on your way to the soldiers' barracks."
"I was not."
"I would have gotten out."
Zuko's smile slips a little. "Sure you would've," he mutters. Oh no you don't, Katara thinks, and pushed herself up onto her elbows to look down at him. Bits of her hair drift down to tickle his forehead. Give us a little longer before you go Prince Of Doom And Gloom on me.
"You think because you do your sneaking with a mask that makes you an expert or something?" She wants to distract him, and it works.
"Why yes. It pleases me that you acknowledge my unrivaled skill." She snickers and slaps his chest lightly; Zuko's smile returns, and he absentmindedly fiddles with bits of her hair.
"Well," she says, secretly enjoying the tiny displays of affection he'd already adopted, "You know I was being a general nuisance to that witch; what were you, Fire Nation Fan Number One, doing sneaking around a Fire Nation fortress?"
"Annoying the witch, just like you," he says too quickly and too lightly. Katara hears the omission in his voice but decides it's not worth it to push him. Unfortunately, the damage is done and there's suddenly a tension in his arms that wasn't there before. Their moment, like so many opportunities between them, is lost. Swallowing the last of the fruit in her hand, Katara sits up. Blushing as the realization of their behavior finally settles in her chest, she starts hunting for her clothes. Zuko sits up, warm shoulder grazing hers, and does the same.
Clothed again, they face each other: Zuko in his brown and green Earth Kingdom cotton and Katara in her Water Tribe ensemble from the day before. Katara knows she needs to find Appa's landing place and make sure her brother and Aang are okay, but her stomach churns uncomfortably at the idea of just leaving. She can't go, not quite yet.
Zuko takes a deep breath, and begins the lines he's practiced in his head while dressing. "Two miles north-east of here there's a creek that feeds into the bay. Follow it up stream for an hour and you'll get to the rock beds. You know the ones I mean?"
She nods; it's not far from where she promised to meet Aang and Sokka. They might even be waiting for her now.
"Good. You should be able to find your way from there, wherever it is you're going."
"Thank you." A nod from him, and Katara feels her shoulders drop a little. So this is it then. She inhales, and—
"Katara." —exhales, heart pounding again.
Zuko can't look at her, and his voice hitches at her name. Katara waits, imagining what it'd be like to hear him say it a hundred times. Everyday, even.
"Katara. I'm not your enemy anymore."
She kisses him, hot and swift, one last piece of him to take with her as she walks away.
And maybe, Katara thinks as she feels Zuko's pale amber stare follow her into the distance, it's a piece of myself to leave with him.