Set after Zuko help's Katara find closure with her mother's death. Standard disclaimers.
Katara faced the window as she mixed the paint. She assessed her appearance in the reflection, noticing that she looked more tired than usual. With a heavy sigh, she began painting her face in the same familiar pattern. That of the Painted Lady.
Although they had long left the small fishing village, the legend of the Painted Lady reached far and wide, and Katara found she was able to continue her nightly healing sessions under her favorite guise. Giving herself a quick once over in window's reflection, she turned and donned her hat and veil. She was ready.
Katara moved as if she were a shadow. She was stealth. Sticking to the sides of buildings and crouching behind boxes, she smoothly made her way to her new destination. The sick house was conveniently located for her purposes, away from the more crowded areas of the small city, and more importantly, far away from the vivacious night life and bars. On more than one occasion she had been mistaken for an elaborately dressed mistress by an intoxicated soldier.
She reached the door and silently entered. She stood in the entryway for a moment, waiting for her eyes to adjust. Glancing around the room she observed that it was much the same as any other sick house she had visited. She quietly began her work.
Hours, and many patients later, she turned to leave. She heaved a huge sigh, exhausted. Reaching the door, she looked up and was extremely surprised to find herself face to face with the mask on hundreds of Fire Nation wanted posters. The Blue Spirit.
For a split second she was sure her eyes were playing tricks. She let out a quiet gasp of surprise. The Blue Spirit motioned for her to be quiet and made a 'follow me' gesture. Katara followed, too shocked to speak. Aang had told her how the Blue Spirit had rescued him from Zhao almost a year ago, but he had conveniently left out his identity.
She followed him some ways from the city to a small stream that ran through a few sparse trees, all the while running over lists of people in her mind to try and find someone who she thought could be behind that mask. He stopped and turned to her slowly, not speaking.
"Who are you?" she asked. She was starting to regret following a complete stranger into the solitude of the woods, but the stream nearby gave her confidence. He simply stood there. All she could make out were a pair of amber eyes behind the mask.
"You mean Aang never told you?" came a familiar raspy voice in an astonished whisper.
As he began to remove his mask and let it fall to the ground Katara finally found her voice, nearly shouting "It's you! It was you all that time!" Before her very eyes stood Zuko, the newest member of their family. He had been the one to rescue Aang all that while ago?
It was almost unbelievable.
"Yes, it's me. I heard you leave camp and wondered where you were going. I followed you. I thought I might put my mask on, for old time's sake, you know, sneaking around, doing…stuff."
Katara removed her hat and veil and began to wipe off her face paint. "So you've caught me," she sighed, "please don't tell Sokka. He made a big deal out of it last time."
"Don't worry. I had heard in the last town we stopped at that someone was masquerading as the Painted Lady. Somehow I'm not surprised it's you. She's one of my favorite legends you know."
"It's the least I can do for these people, to give them some hope. Sokka just doesn't understand"
"I get it. And you know its fun sneaking around." Zuko smirked.
"Yeah, Sokka can at least agree with that. All that sneaking around he's been doing with Suki..." She shuddered "Well, I'd at least like to think I'm a bit sneakier than they are. Was I really that loud leaving camp?"
"No, you weren't. I was already awake anyways. Just thinking about things."
"I hope you're not worrying about Azula," she stepped closer to him, looking in his eyes with fierce determination"you and I, we're going to make sure she can't hurt people anymore."
Zuko closed the gap and hugged Katara to him, "I know we are. But it still tears me up, all the things she's already done, all the things I sat by and watched her do. Seeing Suki reminds me of that every day." He squeezed her closer and nuzzled his head into her hair "Oh Agni Katara, what she must have put her through." His voice broke.
Katara was was frozen.
How many more surprises would tonight hold for her? It was almost absurd the way Zuko was opening up to her. She reasoned that it did make a strange sort of sense. After he helped her find closure with her mother's death, she considered him as close a friend as anyone in their group. Not only that, but Zuko was fascinating. She was particularly interested in how he 'rose with the sun'. It was so foreign to her, but still hit close to home. Slowly thawing, she reached her arms around his waist, hugging him back. She knew this was something he had held in for a long time, his guilt and uneasiness. Now was his chance to get it out, and she was going to listen, to help him.
"Its ok, Zuko. Look what you've done already. You stood up to your father, you've taught Aang fire bending, something he had no hope of learning before you showed up. You've held your own with Azula on several occasions, even without blue fire. And I know that Iroh is so proud of you."
Her last words struck a chord "Katara, after all that I've done, how can he…"
She cut him off, pulling back to look into his shining eyes "There's no doubt about it Zuko, Iroh is very proud of what you've done, of your persistence, your ability to adapt."
The corners of Zuko's mouth twisted up into a small smile, something he had just recently learned to do. Persistence. That was the name of his game. He looked down at her, into her kind and loving face; oh how different it was from when he first arrived. His eyelids lowered, and Zuko leaned down and kissed her.
And Katara kissed him back.
Sappy and predictable, I know, but I thought the world needed some more Painted Blue fiction. Your thoughts are greatly appreciated.