Pretty Little Girls
There is a certain amount of romanticism applied to hair. In any time, any nation. Fairy tales are woven around this allure, and in many a culture it is linked wholly with beauty. Hair of all things.
Azula was not immune to the lore. She had never been very feminine. When other young girls had chosen teas and dolls, she craved blood and knives. It was conceit that drove her obsession, rather than femininity. Perfectionism and arrogance; from she, whose only admitted flaw was her compulsiveness.
"My hair!" Not many would enter into the lion's den without some form of assurance, and truly, had Zuko not spotted the large whips of blue flame illuminating the velvet sky, then the trail of horrified solders edging away from the throne room would have alerted him to the disturbance.
"Azula...it isn't so..." Ty Lee's words of condolence were halted by a warning look from Mai, who, unlike her more airy friend, could appreciate the danger of speaking at all. "Look at me!" Azula hissed at her reflection, "I'm hideous!" She wasn't, as one might suspect, the victim of a particularly disfiguring battle scar, nor had half of her face been blown off of her head. It seemed, as far as Mai could discern between fire blast after fire blast, that in the mist of some fight, her hair, yes her hair—had been trimmed in a particularly...unflattering way.
"I can see her scalp." Ty Lee whispered, seemingly unable to tear her gaze away from the sight of the ranting girl. Azula rarely got upset, for things always went her way; and this upset was unprecedented.
Her mood did not improve by the following morning. In fact as she stomped, emphasis on stomped her way down to breakfast, one could wonder if in fact, it had only gotten a great deal worse. Zuko had joined the girls for breakfast, more of a formality that Azula had insisted upon than an actual need for them all to mingle. Also, it was as good a chance as any to smother the taste of defeat onto the tongues of the remaining Earth Kingdom nobles. Here was the Fire Nation, in their palace, eating their food at their table – it was quite humiliating.
Mai was fidgety. Ty Lee noticed it immediately, for Mai was notoriously against early morning gatherings of any sort, especially breakfast, and as a result usually sulked and stared at breakfast time, unnaturally quiet. She was seated beside Zuko this morning, and hence the seating arrangements explained everything. Ty Lee giggled unashamedly with the knowledge before throwing the dour girl a particularly knowing wink once she had taken her own seat beside Azula. Who, at the moment, had ceased her rants, and was instead glaring blankly ahead.
"We're going after the Avatar." She spoke finally, and the girl next to her, also the only one eating, nearly spat out the sickeningly sugary pastry that she had been devouring. "Why? Azula I thought that we were—ow! Mai! Stop kicking me!" Azula didn't hear it seemed. Instead of commenting on Ty Lee's questioning, Mai's distracted behaviour, or even her brother's sullenness, she rose to her feet, and began to walk.
"The Avatar and his friends have chosen to humiliate me." She stated, with the typical practiced viciousness. "And as an obvious Fire Nation figurehead, a blemish on my character, is a blemish on our entire people." It took a while for those listening to realize that she intended to track the Avatar in order to avenge her severed locks.
"The Avatar did this to her hair?" Ty Lee whispered through a mouthful of fish. "No!" Azula snapped, overhearing, "it was that little..." Words obviously couldn't describe this person, and around the table they each imagined a war hardened earth bender, eager to humiliate the princess of the Fire Nation. "It was that girl that he's with...what's her name...Kya?"
Next to Mai, Zuko jumped rather violently, causing the cup of thick tea he had been clutching to spill onto the table, contaminating the meats. The action didn't go unnoticed by his sister, although she chose not to comment on it, "what was that Zuko?" she pressed. "K-Katara." He replied. "It's her name."
"Right. Regardless of that—with the defeat of the Earth Kingdom's capital, it would truly be a final, crushing blow to the rest of the world if we were to capture the Avatar as well."
And of course, even though she didn't mention it, it would be absolute vindication for the wounded. Case in point: her hair.
It was the fifth night following the fall of Ba Sing Se when Azula first came to Zuko's side. He had been standing on the small balcony adjoining his bedroom—or rather, the bedroom that had been given to him as a token of Azula's happiness concerning his betrayal. He was still unused to the feeling of these rich fabrics against his skin after months of wools and the roughest of leather, and it was even stranger still to relish in the comfort of a large, dry bed. Bed chambers and garments aside however, he had never slept worse in his life. For it appeared that guilt was a terrible bed-mate.
"It is certainly a powerful view, is it not brother?" He stiffened immediately, an act that they both liked to consider nearly second nature. She was referring to the image of the fresh hole that currently decorated the once might city wall. It was necessary, Azula had said, for more troops from home would be arriving in a matter of days. She had a knack for small talk, that one, although by now he wasn't fooled at all by her seemingly casual conversation. She knew that too. "Brother, I would...appreciate any advice you could offer me for trying to capture the Avatar."
Another lie, for it was by now common knowledge that he was an absolute failure when it came to holding on to the boy. "Of course Azula."
She accepted his offer with a regal incline of her head. At this angle, the bald patch gleamed maliciously atop her ear. "How close do you think that the Avatar and his companions are?"
It was a loaded question, laden with impatience and despite her efforts, blatantly the only reason that she had sought him out tonight. He thought for a moment, hesitating before he gave her any more reasons to distrust him, "he has been travelling with the boy and his sister since I found him." He didn't add the last bit that had been tempting his tongue, the: "they are friends" explanation that he was certain she would misunderstand.
"You mean Katara?" She breathed, watching him out of the corner of her eye when she first said the girl's name.
He nodded stiffly, still unable to force his tongue and his lips to co-operate into forming words. Katara, pretty Katara. The girl with the skin like rich chocolate and the eyes that moved like liquid sapphires. She, who had sympathized with his loss, really, truly sympathized and offered to heal his scar—still, after everything. He found that he didn't like to think about her very much. His hands would turn inexplicably sweaty and his heart would race, his stomach would churn sometimes, depending on whether or not he had eaten and overall he would simply feel... unwell. He was allergic to her, that was obvious, and to his disappointment, he couldn't stop thinking of her regardless of how much he tried.
"Girls in the Water Tribes, I find to be very...pretty." Azula spoke breezily. He shrugged off the comment, hoping to feign disinterest, when in truth his ears hung on to her every word. "I know that at home it is more attractive to appear...delicate and fragile. But I find them exotic. Don't you brother?"
"I have never been very interested in the fashions of females." He muttered, although his voice shook with the struggle to keep itself neutral.
"Of course not." And then, she left.
Later that night Azula made her way to Mai's chamber, and to her relative delight, she found that the weapon's master was still awake and staring—dare she say it—wistfully at the dark sky outside her bedroom window. Well, it seemed that the Spirits themselves were aiding her with this plan. She wouldn't need to try too hard at all. "Mai." And the other girl visibly fell from her trance. "We need to talk."
It wasn't a request, and the slighter girl nodded immediately, understanding. "What about Azula?"
A dramatic sigh, and just the right amount of real, true, concern and—yes— "It's about Zuko, Mai." And out of the overused corner of her right eye she watched with a greedy satisfaction as Mai flushed. She moved on with carefully suppressed glee. "I fear that he isn't loyal to us."
"W-Why...What would make you think like that Azula?"
"He has always seemed unsure of his decision to join us. But I fear that he is hiding information...about the Avatar and his companions."
"Zuko..." She faltered then, torn between the feelings that she still possessed for a boy that she didn't truly know and her commitment to Azula. "I don't believe that he is so foolish as to betray us...you Azula. Where would he go if he did? Who would—"
"He could have loyalties elsewhere! Don't you see! After all this time who is to say that he isn't already with the Avatar!" She didn't believe that of course, but it was imperative that Mai did, and so she hid her smile behind the veneer of true trepidation. "I had hoped that he would be loyal to our cause, but that uncle of ours...must have polluted his good sense."
"Has he been to visit Iroh in the prisons since he's been with us?" Mai clung to this last bit of reason as though it were the last scrap of hope in the world.
"No." Azula admitted. "But it doesn't mean that they haven't already planned something. We can't trust him Mai. And so when we go after the Avatar, he must not come with us." Mai nodded dumbly, nervously tugging at the sleeves of her robe, but refusing to speak any more.
It took them six weeks to locate the Avatar and his group. And then another two weeks to steadily pinpoint the precise location of the party. Azula had long determined that since the Avatar was wounded, the group would need to either stop completely to allow him rest or find a healer in order to fix him. Zuko had long determined that the girl could and probably had healed her friend, with her precious vial of oasis water. Although he didn't share this bit of information with Azula.
She did seem to be at least partially right. The boy was wounded, and as a result, they had slowed tremendously. And they were catching up it seemed. And even more interesting was just how easy it was to deduce these pieces of reconnaissance once in the companionship of Azula. For although his usual reaction with people left individuals feeling either offended or enraged, Azula evoked fear in men similar to how a dragon hawk scares a polar mouse. News of the fall of the Earth Kingdom had spread like a wildfire, and as a result, most considered it suicidal to aggravate anyone from the Fire Nation. Princesses and peasants alike.
They found the Avatar within three days of their arrival near to a particularly desolate town far past the outskirts of the Earth Kingdom capital. Villagers, when questioned had stated that they had seen the Avatar and his gang a mere day prior, and so the hunt was on.
He had been told that they would attack in the daylight when Azula's firebending skills were at their most magnificent. There had been no moon that night, and thus the skies stretched endlessly onwards, forever a canopy of twilight punctuated ever so often by the lone cry of a deserted star. The winds had echoed on mercilessly through the night, and after a while rains had poured forth from the heavens, dancing angrily against the canvas roof of his tent while the very earth beneath him had seemed to shake.
When he awoke the next morning. He was alone. They were gone.
It wasn't really surprise that met him once he found himself alone in the middle of a desert. Disgust perhaps, at himself for being so gullible. Frustration; once that had faded. And finally a cold, hard feeling that he linked to mounting concern for his uncle. He hadn't seen the man since that fateful night in the caves—ever since he had annihilated the older man's trust and condemned him to a life as a traitor. He could be dead by now. It would be is fault.
After that realization, there was only anger.
Had the Avatar ever been here? He found it impossible to think so. She had played him for a fool. It was obvious now that he had only been a pawn in her game, to be used as she saw it fit and then discarded. In his cesspool of all consuming, black rage, he didn't pause to question the loop holes in his theory. No need to question his significance in his sister's ploy, no true reason to ponder why she would desert him, rather than slaughter him, no possible desire to consider why she would leave him here, rather than in the Fire Nation, where his humiliation would certainly be greater.
It took him a long while to recognize his location; half a day to be precise, but he did come to notice that he had been here before. In the town at least, there were some of his uncle's Pi Sho friends, the ones who had helped them escape to Ba Sing Se. He briefly wondered if they would care to help him again.
It wouldn't matter even if they did. What would he do in Ba Sing Se? Attack Azula for her treachery? Perhaps not—but he could rescue his uncle. The old man deserved far more than that from him.
The sun had slipped between the cracks of the day, disappeared with only a fleeting wave of pink and orange. The desert was a spiteful mistress—ridiculously hot in the day, and then painfully cold in the night. Somewhere throughout the anger and the bitterness, he did notice that there were some supplies remaining: barrels of water, boxes of bread and fruit—obviously left unintentionally as the group had fled the scene. Was that it? Had the Avatar and friends escaped? Or worse had they proven too powerful for the girls? The rains and quakes from the night before obviously weren't natural. Had they retreated and simply forgotten about him in their haste? No. Nothing Azula did was unintentional. She had left him here for a reason.
He had still been pondering that reason when he found her. He would say that it was he who did the finding even though in truth he had merely stumbled over her half buried body on his way towards the half empty town. Her: Katara.
She with the chocolate skin, although from what he could now see of it now, it seemed more purple and blue than actual brown. She with the liquid sapphire eyes, now forced shut, swollen and cut. And those lips; soft, full and dusty pink as he had recalled was crimson and hardened with dried blood.
It was a cold sense of panic that breeched his defences next, defeating the battleships harboured in mind, those laden with resentment and guilt. He found himself on his knees, beside her immobile frame, his fingers, now numb with fear and as a result of the blistering cold pressing against her neck—feeling something—something. And then gathering her up into his arms, surprised, if not disturbed, by how he almost didn't even feel her.
His tent protruded against the dark horizon, a single sheet of grey against the diamond spotted velvet background of the night. He didn't know what he would do with her—a fact that only came to light when he, front covered nearly completely with sticky blood and confronted with the full image of her injuries, laid her down on his small cot. Where she stayed, ever still.
He stared at her for a long while after that, urging her, wordlessly to arise. There was only one plausible solution as he could see: that she awaken and heal herself. Which, even in a mind drunk on fright and confusion, seemed significantly out of reach.
When his uncle had been hurt by Azula some time back, he had been able to care for the man...he had bandaged his wounds, stayed with him until he had come to. But...this was a—a girl. It was different. Not to mention that this was a girl who had an unnatural effect on him. For weeks he had been taunted by her memory, with the shards of her aroma and snippets of her sweet voice. He really, truly didn't know what to do with her. Only that he most definitely needed to help her.
Mind made up, he sat down in the space next to her and began his work. Her chest was the worst off as far as he could tell—in fact, it was the only part of her that had truly been afflicted. A single, long gash that began near her throat and continued past the lining of her charred and disfigured clothing; blue robes that now seemed black, coloured solely by blood and ash stuck to her like a second skin. The cut itself was nasty as well as deep, it had already started to water, and about the edges of it looked swollen and sick.
So it seemed that Azula hadn't wanted her dead either.
He worked to the best of his ability. Washing her wound with a combination of water and salt, coming into contact more than once with the delicate twin globes that sat proudly on her chest, but to his absolute pride, he did avert his eyes at the sight. He had needed to shred one of his tunics in order to make bandages, and once he had deemed her satisfactory, he bathed her face.
She didn't move once during his ministrations, in fact, on more than one occasion he had needed to press his fingers against her wrist to ensure that she was still with him.
Even with the scars and swelling, she was lovely. Not breathtaking but strong, with an exotic allure. Wide cheekbones and a stubborn chin, full lips and wide spaced eyes—upon noticing where his thoughts were leading him, he closed off his mind to such foolishness. She was a girl, a smart mouthed little slip, who wouldn't even hesitate to attack him once she awoke. It was foolish to romanticize her looks and mannerisms when all he really knew of her was that she had offered to heal his scar—and it was for that reason alone that he was helping her now. He was a great many things, but ungrateful wasn't one of them.
She awoke that night half insane with fever, watching him with wide, glassy eyes and whispering in a voice that he didn't remember ever being hers. She cried out for her mother, for her friends and for her brother. Zuko had needed to pin her arms down on the cot once when she had started clawing at herself, and then, seemingly hours afterwards she had fallen asleep, unconscious. It was then, in then golden light of the virgin sun, that he first noticed her hair. It had been cut—nay it had been sliced right to the sharp point of her jaw. So vicious had been the attack that even now he could see the thin cuts at her nape, the bruises along her cheeks.
The surge of tenderness that he felt in that moment could not be helped—he was responsible for this somehow—and he knew just what hair meant to women. Worse than the scars on her face and her chest would be the loss of her hair. She would consider herself disfigured, unattractive—
Just as Azula had.
"Where is she?" For what had to have been the millionth time Aang stared his captor straight in her wicked golden eyes, screaming at her impassive face the only question that he cared to know the answer to. "Now, now Avatar, indoor voice."
"Where is Katara! What have you done to her!" His grip on his emotions was nearly severed already, what with the weeks of suffering, again at her hands, and now this!
"I think that you should attempt to quiet yourself. Knowing that you aren't in the best of health."
"You tell me where she is!" He prayed that he sounded threatening, menacing, anything other than the helpless boy that he felt like.
"Tell me Avatar, what do you think happened to her?" No answer, and so she taunted him further. "You know, the thing about water benders is that they are useless unless surrounded by their element. I mean consider it, air benders will always have air, earth benders, well they usually have earth, and fire benders...we create what we need from that around us. But water benders are utterly useless without water. " Her hand slipped in between the thick steel bars at the top of his cell, and then with only a brief, dry laugh, she dropped several things into the darkness. He bent quickly to examine them—hair—Katara's hair—and her—her mother's necklace. "If you've touched her! I swear—"
He felt his words slipping, being pulled of away from his body by a wild, gripping force. Energy unlike anything he had ever felt ripped through his every nerve and pore, and then he heard himself speak, in a voice that could never be his own, "You will regret what you have done to her—anything I— " The power fled as soon as it had come, around him the winds stilled and his cage ceased to tremble. Just like that, all he knew after such inconceivable power was the slippery kiss of darkness.
"Aang!" Katara awoke near the fall of day, memories like shadows drifted across her mind, lingering on her thoughts until she was finally able to segregate the two and come to one, final conclusion: everyone she cared about was gone. Dead—probably dead. And she had been left alone in this dark, dry place. Her entire body cried out in pain, truly, there wasn't a single spot that wasn't sore. When she attempted to open her eyes to survey her location, she found that one of them was so swollen that it was impossible to even blink.
Where was she anyway? The last thing she remembered was stopping in the desert to set up camp. They had been on Appa, headed to the Southern Air Temple, towards the Guru that Aang had sought out only weeks before. Hoping; praying that maybe he could heal their damaged friend.
"You're awake?" Had she not been so overwhelmed by the shock of hearing another voice, she might have been inclined to notice the worry so intricately intertwined with his words. But all she knew was shock, and later fury as recognition devoured all other thought. "You." She hissed, through bruised lips, "what are you doing here you bastard!"
Had he been anticipating her gratitude? Perhaps. When his thoughts had lingered on her inevitable resurrection, he'd imaged appreciation in those pretty eyes, and glory on her face, then he would think of her small body pressed against his as it had been last night, and all his self control would go to hell. But of course not, the girl that he'd imagined in his dreams was nothing like her—
"This bastard saved your life. And thank you would suffice." He spat, for a moment considering where the oily maliciousness in his voice had originated.
"Where's Aang?" Ignoring him completely, she made a valiant effort to sit up, realizing then that she was undressed...exposed, with naught but a thin sheet of red fabric covering her upper body. She fumbled about on the cot, attempting to still her body against the stabs of immense pain that sent her head reeling whilst she sought and found the edge of a blanket. "Where are my clothes?"
"Damned if I know. I found you like this." His sympathy had all but evaporated, which was reasonable he thought since it was undoubtedly difficult to feel empathy towards anyone who was looking at him like that. Although, he still felt a certain amount of obligation towards her despite her nasty looks and so he moved towards her to offer her a cup of water.
Thirsty as she was, she'd rather suck cactus juice than take anything from him. She demonstrated her feelings towards his "peace offering" but tossing the entire thing back at him, feeling unreasonably satisfied when the heavy metal goblet collided with his thick skull. "I don't want anything from you!"
There was more injured pride here than injured skull, "don't you ever!" And he considered grabbing her arms to enforce his point, but hesitated remembering the state of them, "touch me again."
"Where are my clothes?" She snapped, completely unnerved by his tone and his words.
"I told you..."
"I'm not an idiot. I know what men like you do to girls like me once you..." She trailed off suggestively and he felt himself blushing at her frankness, "Trust me, the last thing that you evoke in me is lust." Deciding to allow her last attack on him to slide, he filled the same goblet again and pushed it under her nose. She stared at it (the water, not its container) for an impossibly long time, evidently considering her odds if she chose to risk an escape. "You could try." He spoke wryly, "you wouldn't get far."
And so she took it from his hands, swallowing the entire thing in two large mouthfuls, and then falling silent.
"You should be able to heal yourself then?"
She nodded, seemingly meek now, with her eyes fixed on her hands. "Well then once you're well, you can leave."
"I have to find Aang. I had been healing him...and..."
He found in that instant that he hated the way that her voice softened what she thought of the boy, and he absolutely resented the fact that it had been his name on her lips when she first awoke. "It's like I said before." An order, and they bother knew it. "Once you're healed you can go."
She didn't say anything else after that.
She'd never known what to expect from boys. She'd met a great many in her life of course, and they all seemed to behave differently. Sokka was in love with his own voice and thought that everyone else should be as well, and then there was Aang, quiet, sweet Aang who was delightfully awkward and immeasurably kind. Jet, who had been passionate, although misguided; her father, who was brave and strong—and now Zuko. Who was spoilt, selfish and uncannily quiet. He was plotting something, she knew. Although far be it from her to know exactly what it was.
Undoubtedly something devious—that evil betrayer—he had to know where the others were. He was keeping it from her—because—he only wanted to torment her, that sadist. She had a great deal of time to dwell on all of these things, because Zuko never talked to her. No, he left her alone in the tent while he did—absolutely nothing outside (she knew because she'd bitten back nausea and checked). Oh, he was definitely plotting something...so he wanted her to leave?
The healing was a slow, laborious process, inhumanly painful and torturous. Made even more so by the fact that she refused to cry out lest Zuko think that she was some weakling. She wasn't.
Katara worked on her face first, simply because she had considered that the use of both her eyes around him was invaluable. She hadn't been able to make the swelling go down, but the cuts themselves had closed, and she had cleaned the blood away.
She needed to play her cards right in this situation. She couldn't trust Zuko, regardless of what he said or did. He'd fooled her once, and she be damned if she let him do it again.
She had begun to peel away the bandages on her front when he'd come through the tent flap, carrying a bowl of fruit which he would tell her was dinner, and he'd seen her, just for a few seconds really before she' turned and noticed him. She had been turned away from the front of the tent, with her back facing him, and now without her long curtain of dark hair to obscure his view, he wondered at the clean, unblemished skin just barely illuminated by the lantern that he carried in his hand. Her neck whipped around, her eyes, glassy and watery from the pain, harden upon his frame, and he saw that she had healed her face, and was, truly, beautiful again.
It was difficult to control his frustration at her renewed good looks, and so he merely indicated to her with a spasm of the arm, "this is your dinner." And walked away from the tent, his chest rattling with nerves.
The worst of the cut had been mended before a powerful wave of exhaustion claimed her. She had wanted to escape tonight, she needed to find Aang of course, he needed her—and the more time that she spent in Zuko's presence the less confident she felt in her ability to despise him. He'd been nice to her—well, cordial at least. He hadn't touched her, or spoken to her much, but he'd ensured that she'd had enough food and water and—these thoughts were dangerous. He wasn't nice, he was narcissistic and cruel. This was a plot of some kind and the sooner she escaped, the better it would be for everyone.
It simply wouldn't be tonight however. She was far too tired. Tomorrow, yes, tomorrow, when she had more energy—then, she'd leave.
He had planned to sleep outside that night. Of course, it was something that he had concluded before the night breeze hit, and once he was half numb and at the mercy of the spirits of the winds, he went inside the tent. His tent, he reminded himself, and so he had more right to it than she did. She had no right to it at all in fact.
Still he stayed near to opening to the tent for the entire night, watching her back as it rose and sank beneath the blankets, until he too fell asleep.
She wouldn't awake until the next evening and when she did it was to the sound of absolute stillness. It took her a while to remember that the others were gone, and that she was now alone, trapped in the middle of the desert she assumed, with the heir to the Fire Nation throne. And, yes, her entire body hurt like hell.
She could fix the skin, wash away the blood and renew the muscles—but the pain and the soreness, she couldn't do a damn thing about those. Still, Katara knew that she needed to leave, she also knew that Zuko wouldn't consider the possibility of her leaving before her body was perfect—and so now was the ideal time to—
"What are you doing?"
Shit. She straightened her back, still clutching her now refilled water pouch at her side, and turned to face him, her back literally painfully straight. "I'm leaving." The jagged edges of her hair fell into her eyes, though she hesitated to remove them. His reply was unpredicted, "No. You're not."
"I appreciate our concern, really, I do but this doesn't have anything to do with you."
There was no real way to plead with her to stay without betraying the nest of uncomfortable feelings that he associated with her and so he stated plainly, in a dry, matter of fact voice, "where would you go? You're...you aren't well enough to go anywhere in this heat."
She had been considering if she carried enough water in that pouch to freeze him to the wall of the tent, but that, that still her. "What...what do you care?"
He didn't. "I don't."
"I'm leaving. Don't try to stop me."
"Katara." Those eyes, those glorious aqua eyes stilled upon his face, "you...you tried to help me once. I'd like the chance to repay you." It was the greatest risk that he'd ever taken, because he told her the truth. She didn't take it as well as he had hoped.
"Well...you have a lot of...how dare you! How dare you even..." She hated him. She truly did, she had thought about her hatred every night since his betrayal. Each time that she stared at Aang and every moment that she looked to her future, now ruined by uncertainty. It was his fault. "I made a mistake." She concluded, and she watched with a callous sense of pride as his face crumbled.
After that particularly gruelling bout of honesty, which he had no real intention of repeating, he spoke again in a low, quiet voice. "Stay. I don't want your blood on my hands. If you leave, I will find you."
And then, after placing another bowl on the floor, he turned to leave.
"It's nice," she said acidly, "it's really, truly, admirable that you are so noble now. Where was that nobility back in Ba Sing Se?"
When he passed through the flap of the tent to what he considered the sanctuary of the outdoors, she followed him, her hair still falling into her eyes, her chest and arms still tender. "Aren't you going to talk to me at all? Because I want to talk." His silence only fuelled her rage and in the shadows of the sunset, she let herself burn. "Quiet now are you? It's all right! It's just fine. Tell me, why did you turn on us?"
He fell into a sitting position, near to the centre of camp where the supplies that he had gathered were heaped. He had assumed that if he remained unresponsive she would take the hint and leave. "I was never with you." He said simply, in a tone that indicated that such discussions were finished.
"You know what I mean..." Flustered by how he was simply brushing her off she paced around behind him, unaware just then of how familiar this entire scenario seemed. "I...thought you had...that you were..."
"Well, I'm not. Are you happy now?"
"No. Why are you here by yourself?" And then feeling spiteful she added, "Did your sister kick you out?"
"Why does any of this concern you?"
"I'm curious by nature."
"Perhaps I was mistaken. You can leave, you seem fine to me."
"I don't need your permission!" And she didn't, she was leaving here tonight whether or not he wanted her to or not. "Just as soon as you tell me where Aang and the others are."
"And how am I supposed to know that?" Lying. He was lying.
"Your sister attacked us. She took my friends. Obviously, since you two are so chummy, you'd certainly know where she was."
"She's in Ba Sing Se." He figured. "Now go." It was good that she was leaving, he figured. She was an annoyance, even when she wasn't speaking. Once she was gone with her distracting self, he could concentrate on much more important things. Like his sister's warped mind.
She'd be fine—probably wander around aimlessly for a few days until she discovered that she was in the middle of nowhere and then, she'd come back. A tad more respectful he hoped.
"I don't believe you." And he made a noise that echoed his aggravation. "Well that really isn't my fault is it?"
She was quiet for a while after that. Wondering if perhaps she should leave—could leave. He didn't seem very dangerous from where she stood. The embers of the day caught and shone in his raven hair, and he sat hunched forward, his elbows on his thighs. But then again, he hadn't seemed very dangerous in the caves either. She snorted to herself before bending and gathering a handful of sand in her hand. That she tossed at his head. By the time her turned around, he had concluded that what she was after was a series of burns—but she had already strutted back inside.
She was staying it seemed. And to the slight jump that he felt in his chest, he sighed, recalling that it had been he who had told her to.
"I still don't understand," It had been a week since their capture of the Avatar, an entire week in which there had been no less than fifty attempted breakouts. And despite all of this, Azula had refused to move them. No, they remained in the city of Ba Sing Se. But this wasn't what she had come to the throne room to discuss. Zuko had been gone for a week. Abandoned, in the dead of night while they sought out and captured the Avatar and his companions. At least some of them.
"It's simple Mai." Her hair had been growing back quite nicely, good genes she decided, and it did help that she was significantly more cheerful over these last few days. Considering that she'd gotten revenge on that conniving little water bender. "I need to know that Zuko is with us. Truly with us." She could already picture the other girl's confused expression, hidden, or so she believed behind her curiosity.
"But you...I mean Azula, you never thought to test me or Ty Lee."
"Of course not." A shrill cry disrupted the peace of the night as well as the tension breeding in between the two. "But my brother is different." And so it seemed that tonight there would be escape attempt number fifty-one. "You need not worry Mai." She turned away from the frowning girl, "I have full confidence that Zuko will return to us."
She ran off into the corridors of the castle then, directing the guards fumbling about in the darkness with a definite ease. Mai was much slower to answer the battle cry, for there was yet another question that weighed on her mind, one that she had been too cautious to ask. Why, why had the water bender girl been left there as well? Left there alive? If, as Azula said that her only purpose was to as a pawn against the Avatar?
Wouldn't a pawn be stronger in the hands of the player? Why wasn't she in Ba Sing Se?
Katara didn't know what she was still waiting for. She'd admit it. She had stayed there four days longer than she'd wanted to, and had no reason for it. Well, just one: she didn't know where Aang was, and Zuko did.
She needed to get him to tell her.
Yes, that was it. "Where's Aang?"
Over the past few days he had grown more distant, the only time she ever saw him was when he came to give her meals and at night time, when he came inside to sleep. He didn't answer. He never did.
"I'm can't leave until you tell me." She sat with her legs crossed atop of the cot, clothed in one of his shirts she assumed, for it smelt like him—stupid to think—and stared at his rigid back. She had become most familiar with his back over the past few days. She knew just how broad it was, exactly when it sloped inward as well as each rise and fall of each offending muscle. She never really thought about it though, she had more important things on her mind. "And I think that we both know how much you want me gone."
He didn't reply, instead he fixed his attention on the walls of the canvas tent, thinking on something that he obviously wouldn't share with her. "Still quiet then."
"I have already told you where the Avatar is. If you think that he is with my sister, then my sister is in Ba Sing Se!"
Her eyes narrowed at him, but instead of screaming or uttering some low, snide sarcastic remark she stared, genuinely confused. "If you're telling the truth then why are you here?" He grew silent again, returning his gaze to the walls and later to his feet, Katara rolled his eyes at his behaviour. "Sulking again then. It seems to me that you are forever sulking and moping about. What worries you today Prince Zuko? Realized that the throne is a little out of your reach? What, didn't Daddy—"
"Don't!" He warned, moving towards her and coming to grip her arms in his hands in little more than a few seconds. "Don't think that I am not tempted to wring your neck little girl."
She had brought to light the questions that had been infecting his thoughts since he'd awakened in this pit. Why would Azula leave him here in any case? Wasn't there a great deal more satisfaction to be derived from his humiliation in the Fire Nation? Before his peers? Before their father?
"Don't ask of things that don't concern you." And then he released her.
She swallowed, truly considering her position—the fact that she could still feel the sting of his fingers against her flesh, that her breath now came in low, shallow pants and that her heart was bellowing in her ears. And then, deciding that Aang was far more important than any fear that she still possessed for him, she uttered, "Of course it concerns me! Don't you understand! I trusted you! I thought that there was something else...that you could actually feel...that you weren't such a—"
"And what?" His eyes glittered like pure gold in the silent darkness, "I proved you wrong?"
She decidedly ignored his coldness, moving to her feet and for the first time since her arrival, she stood directly before him. "Why did you help me?"
She saw his eyes flicker, watched as his lips twisted free of the grip he held on it. "Why did you stay?"
She shook her head slowly, not entirely certain why, she truly didn't mean to tell him no. The cold tongue of the evening air nipped at her exposed neck and she fought back a shiver, she still wasn't used to the feeling. "My mother used to say that everyone deserved a second chance. You made a mistake." She sought out his heavy amber eyes once more; it had a profound effect on him. Those eyes, those lips; her, whispering to him words that seemed surreal, "And I think...that I'm not afraid of you."
He felt it. Literally, truly felt it. A surge of warmth, unfurling in his gut, burning through his veins and settling in his throat. Warmth, absolute warmth that infiltrated his defenses and slowly left him breathless. He nearly staggered away from her at the sheer strength of this feeling—and that was just what it was. Feeling, rich, warm sensation, devoid of thoughts and meanings. Just her. Katara with that flawless chocolate skin and wide blue eyes. With the full, pouting mouth, and the hair that was too short to be considered lovely by anyone's standards, yet it suited her, it highlighted the strong slant of her cheekbones, the rebellious jut of her chin—
It took him a while to find his voice. And when he did speak, the words were dusty and small. "And that, Katara, is another one of your mistakes."
He didn't sleep inside the tent with her that night. And although she endeavoured to convince herself that he was merely sulking again. It really didn't work so well. Months of travelling with the others had left her with an overwhelming sense of responsibility it seemed, it even extended to spoilt princes. The empty space near the tent flap taunted her until she chose to get up and investigate his activities.
He hadn't gone far. In fact, she had only wandered ten feet away from the façade of the tent before she encountered his frame, sitting cross legged and facing the horizon, his clothes and hair, longer now she noted, dancing in the desperately cold air.
"Zuko?" She called, and although he didn't answer her she saw his body stiffen. "What...what are you doing outside?"
The wind had turned on her now. It tugged at her hair and scraped at her scalp, bit at her neck and cracked her lips when she tried to speak. "You'll catch your death out here!" It was hard to keeping that motherly quality in her voice when the truth was that she was freezing.
"Go inside." He commanded, and she ignored it. "Look...I believe you all right. Aang's in Ba Sing Se. I'll leave tomorrow. Just come inside." She had mistaken his seclusion for his usual moodiness, when in fact; he simply couldn't trust himself around her any longer. Zuko had no intention of enlightening her to that fact however. He didn't know what it was that had made his knees go weak and his head feel so heavy, but he did realize that whatever it was, it was directly associated with her. And that was most definitely, by all estimates and accounts, a bad thing.
She had taken a seat beside him, for his lungs were suddenly filled with her slight, flowery smell. He mumbled, by way of distraction, "I said that I would go inside." She was shivering, he noted with a bit of a start, rather violently in fact.
"I-I h-heard you. I-I wanted to stretch my legs a bit...y-you know, f-fresh air."
It was no use. His insides burned again. "How is it?" There was a reluctant smile tugging at the sides of his mouth, and just then he found himself remarkably grateful for the darkness. "That you were raised on ice and yet you can't even tolerate a bit of wind?"
Was he mocking her? She wasn't sure, certainly, she had never heard him speak to her so amicably before. "I'll...I'll have you know that at home we...we a-are much...much b-better prepared for the weather." She indicated his large billowing shirt and her own thin leggings. "A-And the c-cold isn't this bad at...at home."
She was a stubborn little thing, that one. "Really?"
Katara nodded vigorously, partly from trying to keep herself warm. "It isn't...a-as b-bad as you s-seem to th-th...to thin..."
"Y-yes. It isn't."
"Well, you've convinced me Katara. I'll go back inside."
"You don't n-need t-to because of m-me...it..it isn't s-so very...b-bad."
He smiled then, a genuine smile that softened the lines of his face considerably, with his eyes like that, and his mouth set just that way, he was infectious—she realized that she was smiling back. "Do you miss it much?" His hand edged forward, second-guessed its location and then slunk back to his side.
"No," his voice was very beautiful she thought, husky and deep, masculine and strong. If only he didn't shout so much then maybe she could appreciate it. "Your hair?"
"What?" She raised a trembling hand self-consciously to her face, but shrugged it away. "It'll...g-grow back...I-I think...that it was a terrible time for a...a h-haircut...I'm freezing...without it..."
"When you leave tomorrow," He whispered, although he wanted to look into her eyes as he said these things, he found, that he just didn't have enough courage. He watched the moon instead. "I'm coming with you."
"Y-you...you're going to your...s-sister." It wasn't a question.
She bowed her head, nodding silently. "I-I...I want to th-thank y-you Zuko. For...for taking care of me. I-I'm very grateful."
"No..." She clenched her jaw stubbornly, annoyed by it's chattering, "you...you didn't have to. But you d-did." He could see it, he could hear it, in her mind she was concocting ideas about him, deeming him some noble, worthy knight of her childhood tales, but he wasn't. "I couldn't let you die. Regardless of what you may think Katara, I am not a monster."
Her eyes travelled, then sought, found and captured his own. "I-I...n-never th...thought that...you were a...monster."
"You did." He pressed, his voice less humorous, more demanding, "But it doesn't matter, it's what everyone thinks."
She thought on it for a while, immune, at least temporarily from the cold, but when she reached her decision, he had already left. It seemed just as well, for she wasn't ready just yet to absolve him of his crimes—yet it seemed very childish to just hold onto the anger for anger's sake. He had taken care of her. He had laughed with her just now—made her feel like a friend rather than just an intruder. He...He had betrayed them. But—she could, she would give him another chance. He deserved that at least.
She moved to tell him of her decision, only to find that he had already gone back inside. He hadn't even told her that he was leaving. Still, she followed his lead, and welcomed herself into the tent, watching him with renewed interest as he prepared his blankets by the entrance. "Does...it...I mean, does it snow in the Fire Nation?" She didn't want it to return to that barrier of silence that had plagued them before...and if frivolous conversation about the weather helped, then she'd gladly participate. "No." He responded, and then lay down atop of his bedding and closed his eyes, a wordless command that she should go to sleep.
"It is only winter at home for half of the year. The other half is..." He didn't seem to be very impressed, "...is summer."
She sought her mind for something else to talk about, but found nothing. When he remained still and quiet she lay down against her cot and stared at his body for a long time, speaking only once. "Do you think that you're a monster Zuko?"
He didn't answer her. She hadn't expected him to. And she fell asleep listening to the darkness.
That night, he edged closer to her cot when the winds grew too unbearable and contented himself with the ragged lullaby of her tiny snores. It was the best sleep that he'd had in a very long time.
He awoke before she did. He accomplished many things before she did in fact, including securing them safe passage back to Ba Sing Se. It would be different this time; Azula had closed off the ports, and had placed guards all about the other entrances. He suspected that it wouldn't be too difficult for him to get into Ba Sing Se. What would happen to him once there remained a mystery though. And she was another question altogether. During his nights here, alone to his ponderings, he had discovered his sister's true intention. Why he had been left here. Why she had been left here with him. It was simple: this was a test.
Some intricately woven plan that Azula had created, and meant for him to follow. He was to bring the girl back to Ba Sing Se. That was obvious. Once that was completed, well perhaps he'd finally earn her trust.
"Are we leaving now?" Katara had been waiting for him outside of the tent, her arms folded across his shirts to kept it from tossing up over her head. "Yes. We're leaving."
"How are we getting there?"
"I...I found," Or rather he had threatened, "a man who was willing to part with two ostrich horses."
"Found?" She repeated, staring at him as though he'd committed a very horrible offence. "Yes, found." He clarified in a voice that told her to drop the matter immediately. "Zuko," But then considering that she could return the horses after she'd escaped with Aang. "You shouldn't steal."
"I didn't steal them."
"Right...you found them. Look it doesn't matter, just once we're in Ba Sing Se, you can give them to me and my friends will return them to whoever you got them from." He managed not to look incredulous. "Do you really think that it will be that simple? My sister has the Avatar, do you really think that you'll just be able to prance in there and take him back?"
She refused to fight him on this. He was right, of course he was, and therefore she needed his help. It wasn't wise to annoy him any further. "I have to try." She mumbled, so quietly that he could scarcely hear it. "I'll...I'll figure out something."
He watched her for naught but a few seconds, anything more would make him do something foolish, like forget his plan. He didn't need to feel sympathy. He didn't want to. "We'll go across the Serpent's Pass..."
"I figured. We've been there before." Just why did she have to look so...Damn it! "Look Katara, I didn't tell you that to be...cruel. It's just a fact. You need to be more prepared if..."
"I know." She had been folding any form of fabric that she came into contact with rather than look at him. "I know."
She most obviously didn't.
If she was planning, then he surely wasn't going to disturb her. This was the most peace that he'd had in days. She was unusually expressionless during the journey, communicating only once when she'd volunteered her water bending talents for catching fish in a nearby stream.
He had been satisfied for four days. But after that, he found that in her silence, she was driving him to focus on other this. Like the graceful swells of her curves, because he could see them without even trying, beneath the too sheer tunic that she was wearing. He made a mental note to obtain more...sturdy clothing for her as soon as possible. Not to mention that she had a habit of biting her lip, which in this heat translated to the single most provocative gesture he had ever seen. By the sixth day, he'd had enough.
They had found a secluded place to set up camp for the night, and he, as was their usual routine had built a campfire whilst she set up the tent. She still wasn't talking, not word all day, which of course drew his attention to just how shapely her legs were beneath those leggings.
When she sat down to partake in the evening meal he found himself angered beyond reason by her blank gaze. "What?" The first thing that she's said to him for the last two days: what?
"What?" He echoed, although his was significantly less confused, and a good deal more frustrated. And frustrated he was...beyond a single fathomable doubt...Agni! How he hated those leggings!
"In most civilized cultures it is impolite to stare! So stop it!" Responding to his tone, she snapped back. Just what he'd been hoping for.
"I wasn't staring at you!" And he hadn't been, how dare she even suggest such a thing! "And just what do you know of civilized?"
"Obviously more than you." She rolled her eyes, those sinfully blue orbs, and his patience snapped. "Obviously." Was his retort.
"I just asked you to stop. There's no reason to drag this on."
"And I heard you..." He watched momentarily as she got to her feet and stomped off...he wouldn't be ignored. "Everyone must have heard you. In fact now that I consider my unrefined upbringing, I recall it being impolite to shout as well. Or is it that they don't teach you that one in the ice, seeing as it's the only way the peasants can communicate."
Her hair had grown wilder over the last week, it couldn't be controlled he noticed, and usually she spent most of her day brushing the stray strands away from her eyes. Even now her mahogany coloured looks tumbled into her face, although since she was preoccupied with yelling at him, she left them undisturbed. "You know, I don't understand you. One moment you can be actually normal, and the next you behave as though..."
"As though what? I don't know what you think I am Kata...you...but I'll tell you that I am nothing of the noble sort." He'd gotten to his feet now as well; primarily because he had a good eight inches over her, and he thought that they were as good an advantage as any.
"I said normal, not noble. Why do you keep screaming at me anyway? What have I ever done to you?"
Nothing. Absolutely nothing but look...like that...in those clothes. There had to be a way to get her out of those—err—to get her to change into something else. Yes. There. "You keep talking! After I repeatedly asked you to stop!"
"I was never talking to you! And what do you mean you told me!" Oh Agni, what had he done. His height obviously wasn't enough—well, at least they had passed that stream. "You can't tell me what to do! Do you understand? I wasn't doing anything to you and then you started staring at me..."
"I was never staring at you!" He hadn't been...he'd been watching the walls of the cave that were behind her. She'd been in the way!
"You know what?" She rolled her eyes again, and made a sound that sounded as though it contained words that she wouldn't utter if she'd been in a better mood. "I'm tired. I am sick and I am tired and so I'm going to sleep."
"Fine." Glad that at least she had ceased her screaming and stomping—her flushed cheeks still taunted his memories—he sat back in his space before the fire.
"Fine." She snorted, and walked further away.
"I said fine!" He bellowed back, but before he could appreciate the warmth of the fire, he felt the unfamiliar thump of a rock as it collided with his head.
"You know I don't care if you don't talk to me." So it seemed that girls had different types of silences. There was the lost in a daydream quiet, which had annoyed him to end, and now, he had encountered the glaring kind of quiet. Which was a lot worse than the former.
"Good." She snapped, still not removing her eyes from the side of his face. After realizing that the sun had still been out when she'd announced her premature retirement, she had come back outside, sat down in the space facing him and stared at his face with her arms folded across her chest.
"At least you're being obedient for once."
This went on until the moon arrived, only then did she appear to calm down. Instead of being furious with him, she had become downright empathetic. "You know what I think Zuko?"
"I don't think that I care."
His nonchalance she had suspected, and so she gracefully overlooked it. "I think that you're miserable. And that's why you're so angry all of the time."
It was her tone that did him in."I'm not! How dare you think that you can ever understand anything about me!"
"Don't you say my name!"
"Zuko." She breathed, guiding his gaze towards hers, and keeping it there by sheer strength of will alone. "People make mistakes. People learn from their mistakes. They change."
"I can't change." He hissed, going to his feet and then walking away from the entire campsite. "I don't want to."
"You're miserable. I can see it."
"You make me miserable." Which was the truth, she awakened something in him that disconcerted his emotions completely. "If you are so concerned about my happiness then maybe you should leave." Which was a lie, he hated the thought of being without out her—which was why he was so miserable, as she had put it, for every day that passed brought them closer to their inevitable separation. And the fact that he cared so much was the most exasperating of all.
"Fine." Wait, what? He paused mid-step. "If it bothers you so much, I'll leave. I'll go tonight, we can continue on separately."
She was bluffing. No, she was getting up. He felt himself shudder at the thought of her travelling alone, unprotected, defenseless—"Katara...wait."
"I...I apologize." He stumbled good-naturedly over the words, fumbling even at the end when all he needed to do was to check for her reaction.
"You mean you're sorry?" Her face had softened, he could tell because her voice had lost that sharp edge that it possessed whenever she got upset.
"Yes that." Satisfied that she would now stay with him, which, he told himself was where she belonged, he planned his return to the clearing.
He froze in between steps, now this was pushing it. "I thought that I already did."
"No." She was enjoying it. He took one look at her rebellious little face and just knew that she was relishing in having the upper hand here. It didn't bother him that much, he could see the hint of amusement lurking beneath her pretty eyes...his stomach jolted once more.
"Fine." He breathed slowly. "I'm sorry."
That little..."What's properly?" Now he folded his hands across his chest, mimicking her pose perfectly.
"Not in that tone for one," She raised her head slightly, "And secondly, you have to mean it. Oh yes, and address me properly." A smile. A soft, white smile that brightened her face substantially.
"Katara." His voice was hard to find, and rusty when he put it to use.
He knew then that he absolutely loved the way that she said his name. In her faint accent, there was a certain pause above the o. "I humbly apologize for offending you."
"On several occasions."
"On several occasions."
"And for insulting my principles."
"Do you know..." Was he laughing too? It seemed so. She was infectious, irresistible, and completely, utterly addictive. He...He wanted her.
"That doesn't sound like an apology Zuko."
He didn't know what to do about this wanting...He could barely speak. "Katara, I'm sorry."
"See now?" More smiling. "That wasn't so difficult." A pause. It grew uncomfortable. "Well, I'm going to get some sleep now. Last night was freezing wasn't it? I almost missed the desert."
"Katara..." What was he doing? What was he saying. Nothing...He didn't know. He was merely following this fool worthy sensation that now dominated his gut, and it seemed ravenous.
She stilled at his voice. She'd never before heard him sound like that. He'd never before heard himself sound like—pleading—begging—needy. It was her fault.
He wanted to touch her. His fingers burned from the craving. He wanted to hold her and bury his woes in her sweet aroma. He wanted her lips, like those fleeting kisses he had experienced almost a lifetime ago.
She wasn't afraid of him. No, of course not. It was simply that his voice worried her, that look in his eyes, it startled her. The need in his voice—it thrilled her. "Yes."
"I'm sorry." He was coming closer, and instantly her entire world closed into the space that the two of them shared. For that moment nothing else mattered. Not Aang, not his sister, not the improbability of getting into Ba Sing Se. There was just him and his warm, spicy smell. His heated fingers, capturing the jagged ends of her severed hair, placing them behind her ear. She looked up, her mouth dry, her tongue swollen...her breath...gone. "I'm sorry." He breathed, and then there was his lips, brushing against hers, whispering her name and warming her completely. He was softer than she would have imagined, more gentle, more patient. He held her, half shivering in his arms, kissing her gently, mere bites, temptation—promises of what a kiss could be like. "I'm so sorry." Again, and she whimpered, falling, bending, succumbing to his warmth, allowing him to take from her everything that he wanted, if only he left a part of himself behind. She was surrounded by the dark sea of sensation, the ground itself seemed to melt at her feet. As far as she knew that was only him, holding onto her and keeping her buoyed to this world.
And then, it was over. And there was that ever awkward instant when she looked for the first time into his heavy lidded eyes and saw her own much too drowsy reflection peering back—it was then that she understood the throbbing in her body, the burning that ate at her very soul. She knew then, right then, that she was half in love with him already, and if he ever dared to kiss her again, she'd be lost forever.
"Zuko," It was all that she knew, hence, it was the first thing that she said. Oh...she was in trouble. "You shouldn't trust me Katara." He'd been planning on handing her over to his sister, he had been telling himself that it was for the best—for her, for him—mostly for him.
She nodded dumbly, her heart still racing, still to bemused to do anything other than to stare. "Again?" She whispered, and he obliged her. Telling himself that he was only comforting her, distracting her from her worries, and then she touched her tongue to his lips and he knew, he knew that the truth was something far, far worse.
He couldn't let her go.
She had slept in his arms that night. More her fault than his. She had been desperate for warmth, for kisses and caresses and he carried them all in abundance. He had kissed her countless times into the night, at first softly, and then with passion, rough one moment and the other undeniably tender. Her lips were swollen by the time they had stopped. And then, with the haze of desire fading from around them, she found that the consequences of lying here in his arms were more than she could contend with.
Love? What did she know of love? She was fifteen. He was her enemy! He couldn't be trusted and— "I don't know what I'm doing Zuko." She confided to his chest. But what she really meant was that she was scared, frightened out of her mind by all of this.
He ceased his slow stroking of her scalp. He had been content, unimaginable for him, but he had been happy, blissful almost, until she had told him that. "Katara..." He was the man here, he had a role to play, he needed to be the comforter, the rock. "It'll be fine."
"It won't," she persisted. "Aang..."
Heaven, the Avatar found his way into his bedroll even. "I shouldn't be here."
"He..." Zuko didn't want to know the answer, but the ignorance had to be worse...right? "He cares for you?"
"He's my best friend."That wasn't so bad. "I shouldn't have let you kiss me. It complicates things."
He couldn't tell her that it didn't. "Katara..."
"You don't love me!" She blurted out at long last and he realized that she was sobbing openly into his chest. It had just been kissing! And it hadn't been bad. Why did women always need to make things so difficult. "Katara, look...it doesn't change anything...it...it was just the stress." She wept even harder. "I kissed you and...Well...if it makes you feel any better, you are completely blameless here." A hiccup followed by a sob and then, "I could have stopped you...I just...I didn't want to." That admission pleased him tremendously.
"Katara," He steadied his voice, forced his body to remain quiet and he tried to speak the truth for once—she deserved that, at least. "You..." How to say it? He wasn't no good for flowery words and exaggerated metaphors, the entire art of love was lost on him, because obviously, he was a man who knew even less about love than she did. "You drive me out of my mind." It was the truth, regardless of how it sounded. "I...I...can't stop thinking about you...and...I liked kissing you." She sniffled in reply. "Very much."
"Thank you." She muttered, telling herself that it was as close to I love you as she was bound to receive. She lay back down in the crook of his arm, and he relished in the knowledge that it had been he who had ebbed her flow of tears. "T-There's something else."
"What is it?"
"It's...the reason that I'm going to Ba Sing Se."
"Your sister," she interjected. Yes, there was yet another obstacle. Truly, Aang was just the tip of the iceberg. "Right. Haven't you wondered why she didn't take you along with your friends?"
"She said..." He had never heard her speak of that night, and he listened intently, "She told them to leave me...after that girl...the one with all the daggers...after she cut my hair."
"Her name's Mai." He whispered, and he felt her nod, "I...I figured that she wanted me to die."
"She wanted me to find you...I think...I think that she wanted me to bring you to Ba Sing Se."
At once, the pieces all fell into place inside of her head. "And you...you were taking me to Ba Sing Se. You didn't care about me finding Aang at all did you? You've always been on her side! And...You...I can't..."
She struggled free of his grasp, but her held her still, "I told you not to trust me..."
"Don't try to make me seem like the fool here! You're so stupid! Can't you see that she's using you? Why does she need to test you? She doesn't trust you any more than I do!"
It was true. Of course it was, still that didn't take the sting away. "What am I supposed to do Katara? If I go against her...everything that is mine will be lost."
"You'd have your pride." She argued fiercely, "and you'd have your dignity!"
"And what am I supposed to do with those?"
She searched his face in the fading light of the mute moon, watched as he stared at her, challenging her—she fought back. "You told me once that you needed Aang to get something that you had lost...what was it?"
"My...my honour." He confessed, feeling awkward when her eyes left his and took to judging the moon instead.
"I...don't think that you know what you want. And I don't think that I can tell you what to do." He watched her rigid back, wondering perhaps if he tried to kiss her again what would possibly happen. "I'm going to sleep." She meant in her bedroll, and proceeded to vacate his arms, but he held her back. Urged her downwards for a kiss. Her lips were trembling when they found his again, and although he did his best to placate her, the spasms refused to subside. She contented herself with the warmth of his chest, against her back, the brush that his exhales caused when they touched her bare neck. She was perfectly comfortable in his arms, trapped in his aroma, safe in his arms. She would enjoy these moments that she had with him here, for upon the morrow, once he'd had the chance to think things through—she wasn't certain if she'd ever be able to experience safety like this again. "Good night Katara." He whispered.
There was nothing like awakening with her next to him, he really did find the sensation indescribable. If he was forced to, then he supposed that wonderful would have to suffice. She was curled up against him, like a cat, drowning him in her sugary smell. He breathed deep, sinking in the sensation and watched her sleeping for a long time, as long as he could in fact, before she awoke to find him glaring. "W-What..." she mumbled, her voice hazy from sleep. "I'll help you find your friend." He stated, and she smiled. "Do you really mean that?"
"I don't think that there has ever been a Fire Lady in the entire history of the Fire Nation. I mean there was Lady Akira, but she only took the throne when her husband died because their son was still an infant."
Ty Lee nodded distractedly, for she, like Azula was lost to her own thoughts. "That blind girl can bend metal... Have you ever heard of..."
"Yes, yes!" Azula snapped, but as if to contradict her impatient tone, she merely leaned further back in her over sized golden throne. "Well, it has been well over a month since I've seen my brother. One can only assume that he's gotten himself lost. Or else he's run off with that water bender girl."
Mai, who had been leaning uncomfortably against a pillar, frowned heavily at the jest. "Why do you think that he's even found her Azula?" Ty Lee questioned, genuinely curious.
"I was just teasing." She folded her arms, "but his absence does worry me...perhaps you and Mai should go look for him. I've closed off the ports, and so the only way into Ba Sing Se is by a stretch of land called the Serpent's Pass. It's very dangerous...maybe he fell off."
"We'll leave tonight." Mai concluded, and Ty Lee, tired of being trapped in this palace for so long agreed whole-heartedly. "I really do hope that Zuko didn't fall off the Serpent's Pass, Azula. He always had such terrible balance."
"There it is." The city of Ba Sing Se rose high above the plains, but crouched low behind the mountains. There was more smoke than she had imagined, the wall was nearly completely destroyed by now. "It's different than I remember it." She mumbled, but then noting how foolish it sounded, she continued, "but of course it's different now."
"We'll be there tomorrow maybe...the day after. I can never estimate these things."
"You aren't so very bad. I had an uncle at home who went hunting once—he decided to follow a cloud to find his way back home. The last we heard of him, he was near to the Earth Kingdom."
"I pray that you're making that one up for my amusement."
"Absolutely not." She laughed, tucked beneath his arm, she felt undeniably happy. "You remember what you're supposed to when we get there, right?"
"Yes." They'd figured out something, a plan of sorts. He really seemed to want to help her—help Aang, and she felt a delicious sort of sensation in his proximity. "This is probably our last night together...alone...I mean."
"Probably." And she shifted beside him—what did she want for tonight? Something memorable—but other than that...
"What do you think will happen once we get Aang back?" And she hoped that he was still all right. She should have tried to get there sooner—but—no, she'd come as quickly as she could. She needed to be careful, she couldn't help any of them if she were caught. "Azula will come after us. She wants the Avatar, she already has everything else."
"Don't make it sound so hopeless."
"It's the truth."
"Still..." There was something that caught her eye, before her the looming cloud of smoke, parted surreptitiously and a single dark figure revealed itself. It was coming closer. "Zuko, look."
Whoever—or whatever it was seemed to have spotted them and next to her she felt Zuko grow rigid. "Zuko...Zuko do you know who it is?" The shadow was moving forward, faster now, with more purpose..."My sister," he noted, and tugged her behind him. "Remember Katara...trust me."
"I...I do." She gripped his fingers tighter, willing them to give her strength.
"Zuko!" Ty Lee chirped from atop of her mongoose dragon. "See look Mai...I think that we should be very grateful that he wasn't devoured, or plummeted to an unsavoury death...or..."
"What's she..." There was a battle being fought within her chest—it took all of her strength to keep her face and voice dull. "What's she doing with you..."
"Where's Azula?" She wasn't used to being so meek—she hated this sensation of hiding—but Zuko had told her to be quiet—he had said that he would take care of it.
"She's in the palace." Mai replied, her face taunt.
"Take me to her."
"Zuko, what is she doing with you?"
"Come on Mai, Azula told us to bring him back...so let's bring him back." Ty Lee was reluctant to have to tread through this dense tension filled moment.
"They can ride with you." Mai said brusquely, and she rode off without another word.
"Um...so...you guys can ride with me." She edged forward on the creature, who hissed its displeasure. "You know..."
"Zuko's back." Mai barged into the throne room unannounced startling several members of the Dai Li, who had been involved in a fairly one-sided discussion about the earth bending—metal bending girl who continued to torment them.
"Oh, is he?" Grinning widely, Azula concluded the meeting with a wave of her hand. "Thank you gentlemen, we'll conclude this later."
"Well," Still smiling, she straightened out her robes and stood upright. "He's with Ty Lee." Mai scowled and then blurted out the one fact that had been tormenting her for the entire time, "he has that water tribe girl with him. She survived."
"Did she?" Oh things would play out much better, and much sooner than she had originally hoped. "In that case...Dae-Ho! Bring the Avatar here. No, you don't have to bring the earthbender as well." She nearly rolled her eyes at the man's reluctance, but she did manage a smile for Mai's sake. "I'm certain that the Avatar will be pleased to have his friend back."
"What are you planning Azula?"
"Me? Oh, nothing. Nothing at all."
"She's in there..." Ty Lee watched the pair with a growing fascination; they certainly weren't doing a very good job at playing the prisoner-captor role. They kept whispering...
"Stay out here," She heard Zuko say, and then, before she could ask, she was pulled into the throne room, behind the prince. "Look...Look Azula...Zuko...didn't die..." It was oddly quiet in the room, her voice seemed to echo endlessly onwards, until Azula's took its place. "Very good Zuko, you came back."
"Yes. Yes I did."
Their reunion was interrupted with the entrance of the Avatar. He was still in his cage, although oddly silent there. "But where's the girl? I was told that you had...what's her name again? Katara?"
"Ty Lee, go get her." Azula snapped, her grin fading nearly as soon as it had come. "Thank you Zuko, for delivering her to me."
"It was my duty. To my country." It was gone completely now. She nodded none the less. "Avatar! Haven't you been listening, your girlfriend's here. Is that what you've been asking about?"
"Katara?" He screamed, and Zuko heard the pain etched into every syllable of the word.
"That's better." Azula taunted. "And here she is..."
"Aang!" He couldn't look at her—he wouldn't be able to bear it. "Aang! Are you..."
"This is all very touching. Now, take her away. I just wanted the Avatar to know that my brother had returned her."
"You! You liar!" She rounded on Zuko, her eyes were electric with their anger. "I trusted you..."
"Ty Lee," Azula inclined her head towards the smaller girl, who nodded, once—before Katara froze her to the spot. "Don't fight girl. You are obviously outnumbered and outmatched." The cage beside her began to rattle, Azula sucked in a breath. "Take him away."
"You leave him alone!" She fell, unconscious then—Ty Lee had freed her feet. And above, at the head of the room, the Avatar's cage went wild. A wild vibrant light filled the room, the wind suddenly changed direction, and Azula fire two blasts at the origin of this confusion. "Take them away." She ordered when it was quiet.
They were headed back to the Fire Nation. They'd leave tomorrow. Azula had been more than a little displeased at the way their reunion had transpired. But she would be nothing if she didn't have a backup plan; hence, they were leaving, with all haste, tomorrow.
Katara had been placed in a cell next to Aang's cage, because they were all sadistic, she knew, and they wanted her to be continually reminded of her foolishness, and of their supposed superiority. And once there, she waited for Zuko to come to her, if not tonight then tomorrow, but he'd come.
"Aang?" The boy hadn't stirred once since she'd been placed next to him. And that worried her tremendously. "A-Ang," There were tears in her eyes—a lump of dry emotion that clogged her throat and muffled her words each time that she attempted to speak. In the end, all she could manage was a few tear ravished sobs and a whispery prayer for his survival. "I had to Aang...it's the only way that I could get you out of..."
"You..." She walked closer, intending to touch him, for her stood just beyond the bars, his words seemed hidden, lost somehow, they touched a part of her that she'd tucked away—a bed of late night kisses and early morning caresses. "You're all right?"
She wouldn't cry. Not in front of him—Aang would survive; she had no reason for tears. "I'm fine." And then his hands were on her face, holding her wet cheeks and taking away her tears. His mouth next, warm and shivering, on her forehead, her brows, her nose—oh yes—her mouth. The instant he slipped inside, she gasped his name, slipping her hands through the bars and pulling him closer, winding her fingers through his hair and kissing him with such ardour that she nearly tore his heart wide open.
"When can we leave?" She panted as he continued to kiss her face. "I'm not sure...soon...I hope." She nodded.
"It'll be all right." He promised, so fiercely that she felt as though she had no choice than to believe it. "How's..." He meant Aang, she picked up on the awkwardness that he generally carried around concerning her friend. "He hasn't woken yet...I...I wish that I could at least seen him."
"Katara," Spirits, had he really thrown his entire world aside for those eyes? "It won't be too long now." He hated the way that she still spoke of the Avatar—jealousy he knew, although he'd never call it that. "Don't cry any more. It'll be fine."
"No one saw you, right?"
"No one. Azula is furious, she hasn't left the throne room since we've arrived."
When she seemed to be worried still, he told her in a low voice, "It won't be long now. See, I know that your brother and the earthbender are fine. They're below you. My uncle should be near them."
She nodded again. "I wish that I could hold you."
He swallowed thickly, "I do too."
"Zuko...I want to tell you..." Her breath quaked over her lips, "that I can't stop thinking about you either...and you've driven me out of my mind because I can't stop caring about you...and when you kiss me. I get this feeling...it feels...so wonderful; I don't ever want it to stop. I like it." She smiled slowly, "very much."
"Katara." He loved her. He wanted to tell her so, as inexperienced as he was with the emotion, he knew that this had to be what the sages wrote about—but—not here. She deserved more than a prison cell. He'd ensure that. "Don't cry any more." He repeated, and then bade her farewell.
With the memory of her sweet kisses still fresh on his mind, he didn't pause to notice the density of one particular shadow—off in the corner.
"Katara?" Zuko hadn't been gone for more than a minute before she'd heard the timid voice coming from the large metal box beside her cell. "Aang?" She couldn't believe her luck—or her good fortune. Thank you, she whispered to any God who had been kind enough to answer her prayer. "Aang...you're alive...oh thank..."
"Do you love him?"
She had never once heard him sound so cold, the silence was worse, for that sent a tangible chill along her spine. "Answer me Katara!"
"Aang...you have to understand...it's different now. Zuko's changed and...he's going to help—"
"He's using you!" She didn't need to pry deep in order to hear the sobs.
"Aang, no...don't do this. Please don't do this."
"He'll break your heart Katara. He'll do it because that's just who he is. And when he does—I won't be there to make you feel better!"
"Aang! You aren't being fair!"
"Fair!" She heard him scoff, and afterwards, regardless of how many times she called him. He refused to reply.
"Mai." She considered it lucky, of course, that she had been so perturbed by Zuko's behavior around the waterbender girl that when she'd seen him leaving his bed chambers earlier that night, she'd followed him—all the way down into the prison. To the girl's cell, and then listened, with a mixture of fascination and disgust and he had pledged his loyalty to her.
It was trouble. And so, she immediately scampered back upstairs, to Mai's room to explain it to her. The girl had been asleep when Ty Lee had found her. But the minute that she had mentioned Zuko's name, the tiredness instantly fled from her eyes. The brunette explained it all very hastily, giving each and every detail—save for some at the end—for she knew just how fond Mai was of Zuko, and those things would only upset her.
"What should we do then?" She questioned once she had finished recounting the details. "Should we tell Azula?"
"No." Her face was hidden mostly by the shadows, and darkness clung to her long body like a sheath. "Not yet."
She left then. Ty Lee wasn't certain where she was headed, but, she felt that it would certainly only make things worse. Her loyalties lay with her country—her country was technically...Azula.
It didn't take her very long to reach the throne room, where the object of her allegiance remained, pacing along the jade green carpet. "Azula...I think...I heard...Zuko plans to betray you. I told Mai. He has...An infatuation with the Water Tribe girl. I knew it...At least, I mean I think that I suspected..."
"What?" Eyes like gold, skin like porcelain and hair as dark as the devil's hands. "What...What did you say?"
"Zuko plans to betray you! He..."
"Ah..." She smiled contentedly. "Now this, this is perfect. I was wondering where the flaw lay. Truly, I had never failed without reason before."
Mai could disown her intentions. She could, and would be justified, to state that she didn't feel her feet as they carried her body, step by steady step, into the dungeons. It wouldn't be a lie. To her, it seemed as though she were a mere puppet, being tugged along by a string that was wrapped treacherously about her bleeding heart.
"What are you...Aren't you going to do anything about Zuko?" Worry captured her pretty face, twisting her features into a nearly comical mask of trepidation.
"You said that you told Mai?"
"Yes...she left...I don't even know where she went...I..."
"Don't worry Ty Lee. Soon everything will make itself clear."
Mai didn't make a sound when she entered the chamber. Her own heart was overflowing with words that were swimming in feelings; they would evaporate if she ever dared to unleash them in this cold, uncaring world.
She kept them in.
The girl was crying in her cell. She sobbed freely, uncaring whether or not she was seen or heard. She martyred her emotions; she sent her words to the harshest of deaths.
Was this why he had chosen her?
It didn't matter! Each cry was a stab in her pride, a rip that desecrated everything that she held dear.
She had loved him. She saw it now. She had loved him so profoundly that his betrayal was worse than death. Had he held her? Had he seen her crying? Had her tears caused him to melt in her arms? Had he loved her?
Yes! She could see it now. Clearly printed against the pages of space before her. How could she have been so foolish? So naive?
But, she could fix this. Her hand clutched her tanto closer to her side. He would love her.
Azula made herself comfortable on the magnificent golden throne. Dressed only in silk, manicured, pedicured; her long ebony hair twisted into an elaborate coil at the top of her head; flawless, as always. "I suppose that there will be a Fire Lady after all."
"Azula..." It wasn't awe in Ty Lee's voice, but foreboding; caution. Disgust. This had been a plan—all of it. She had used them all to get what she wanted.
Before morning they would find the four; all dead; each more gruesome than the last.
The first was her; the beautiful one; her blue eyes wide open, staring endlessly out of a crimson painted face at a savior who would never come.
Beside her was a man; a nobleman, clearly, from the noted finery of his dress. He clung to her as though she alone could save him. His hands and side, charred beyond recognition seemed to have simply melted into her.
There was another woman as well, far away from the first two. She was alone, crumpled up in a corner. Her face had been burnt away, the flesh and muscle on her arms hung like tattered ribbons on her bloodless corpse. Faceless and silent, she stayed there like a vengeful demon, making many a spectator weary.
Finally, they came across the final body. He was the youngest, and about him, the metal bars of his cage curved outwards to the heavens. He wasn't malformed like all the others; the only bruise on his corpse was the one that had been there all the while. But it was his face that was the most haunting. There was a certain hopelessness in his dull grey eyes; a mocking, jaded smile still twisted on his blue lips.
And about him, the damning air of romance hung heavy; beckoning other young fools to inhale.
"It may be that we are puppets-puppets controlled by the strings of society. But at least we are puppets with perception, with awareness. And perhaps our awareness is the first step to our liberation."
Author: I wrote this about a year ago for a zutara exchange thing. It was a request for the lovely jadesabre. It was anonymous and I didn't really get a response on it. I just found it again the other day and decided, well, hell, let me post it here in honour of zutara week, although I may be a bit late...
I did re-write the last part. There was no murder scene in the first edit, back then I thought it seemed trashy to write it. Still, without it, the entire story just seems to vague.
It was also written before S3 aired, so this was kind of my opinion on everything and what I thought might happen. I always thought Azula was the type to manipulate everyone and everything about her to get her way without getting her hands dirty.
Hope you enjoyed it! And here's to a very zutara ending for all of us! (Fingers crossed).