Author: Jade Sabre
A/N: So this basically started with me rewatching "The Waterbending Scroll" and noticing, hey, when Aang and Sokka show up the next morning, Katara's still standing on her feet. Tied to the tree. Whose idea was that?
I owe thanks to Rabidline on Livejournal for her FST contest entry, which contained the song "Dusk and Summer" by Dashboard Confessional, which I listened to on repeat while writing this fic.
Credit for the stroke-of-genius title is split between myself, my dear lovely beta Quark, and my friend Avian.
Reviews, as always, are like little rays of sunshine to brighten any day.
Disclaimer: Avatar doesn't belong to me. If it did, I would have retained the movie rights and made an animated book 4.
She said, no one is alone the way you are alone
And you held her looser than you would have if you ever could have known
But you've already lost
When you only had barely enough of her to hang on
"Search the woods for the boy and meet back here." The prince finished speaking, and all of the pirates and most of the soldiers disappeared into the woods. He started shouting at the ones that remained, calling for a tent to be raised, perimeters set and guarded, other things that the men could probably have done in their sleep. A few of them were shuffling around with their eyes closed, and more than one winced at the sheer volume of his voice. Katara glared at all of them, and in response they gave her a wide berth. Most of them avoided looking at her; the ones that did at least had the decency to look guilty. She didn't really care. Tie her to a tree, would they? She would make them all regret it.
"Everything is prepared, Your Highness," said one of the older soldiers, saluting.
"Excellent." Almost as an afterthought, Prince Zuko took one final look at his prisoner. "I'm going to bed," he said, his voice carrying an arrogant command that expected to be obeyed. "Wake me if there's any news."
"What, and you're just going to leave me here?" Katara demanded, straining against the ropes that held her. The prince didn't even give her a smirk; he lifted the flap on his tent, and disappeared inside. Her ropes refused to give, and she stamped the ground in frustration, letting out a strangled scream. She didn't feel particularly helpless—she knew exactly what she was going to do to the next soldier that came within range—but she was angry, and not only at the stuck-up Fire Nation noble keeping her necklace hostage. If something happened to Aang—and something would happen, if only because he would never leave without her—it would be all her fault and if she had just left the stupid scroll in the stupid bag and—
"You must forgive my nephew," said a voice next to her, and she glanced over and saw the short, squat old man who seemed to spend most of his time standing behind the prince's shoulder. He held a cup of steaming liquid in his hands; she could feel the water, but with her hands tied to the tree she could do no more than try to make it move through sheer willpower. But she couldn't focus herself enough, didn't know any of the techniques because she didn't have a teacher—Aang could have done it, she thought, Aang would have a million different ways to get out of this, but she was tied to the tree and there wasn't anything she could do about it.
"I don't think so," she snapped, and he chuckled; her fingers twitched, but there was nothing for them to strangle.
"He is unused to entertaining female guests. The captain forbids them, you see, to keep the peace aboard ship." He held out the cup. "Would you like some tea?"
This close to her, there was something she could do to it—she exhaled through her nose, freezing the tea in its cup.
"Oh, now, was that necessary?" He withdrew the cup and looked sadly at the chunk of ice. "This is the last of my jasmine tea. Very soothing, you know."
"I don't know," she said, scowling at him. "I'm from the Southern Water Tribe. It's not like we have plants blooming all over the place."
"Even more tragic, then! You simply must try this." He balanced the cup on his hands, and the smallest flicker of flame ran around its rim, and in spite of herself, Katara flinched.
His gaze concentrated on the cup, he said quietly, "This flame will not touch you, my dear. No harm shall come to you as long as you are in the prince's care."
"You call this care?" She pulled against the ropes again. They weren't tight enough to cut off circulation, but she couldn't slip her wrists through them, and the more she banged them against the tree trunk the more they chafed. Giving up, she said, "I knew there was a reason I didn't want to experience Fire Nation hospitality."
"Oh, this is nothing like that at all!"
"Because I'm not in a cage, is that it?"
The old man sighed. "I regret that we met under these circumstances," he said, but the prince had managed to sound almost as conciliatory, and she wasn't buying it. "Anyone willing to be a trusted friend of the Avatar is surely someone worth sharing a cup of tea with. As it is, I can only offer you this."
She eyed it, thinking. It could be poisoned, or any number of things, but on the other hand she was tied to a tree in the middle of the night and her knees were already starting to shake as the adrenaline wore off. "I'm a waterbender," she said suddenly. "I could force that down your throat and kill you."
"No, you could not," he said, and to his credit he managed to hide his chuckle as a mere twinkle in his eye—the sort of twinkle any old man might have, and therein lay the danger. "I watched you practicing—you have talent, but not yet the skill, I think. Still, with the thought of future training in mind, I suggest you drink."
She hesitated another moment, and then nodded. He stepped forward and placed the cup against her lips, tilting it as she drank. She licked her lips as he drew it away, trying to catch the dribbles; he busied himself with finding a cloth and dabbing away the places she missed. It was an oddly parental gesture, and she watched him with mistrust in her eyes, but he either didn't notice or chose not to care.
"What did you think?" he asked.
"It was all right," she said, though in fact she had never tasted tea so perfectly brewed—and this tea had been defrosted, at that.
"It is my favorite. I personally think that everyone—"
"Uncle!" came the brash unwanted voice, accompanied by the flop of a tent flap flung aside and heavy footsteps. "I need you to—" The prince stopped short, looking between the old man and his prisoner. "What are you doing?"
Katara glared at him; the old man said, "I was simply introducing our guest to the wonders of jasmine tea."
The prince's one eyebrow narrowed. "She's a Water Tribe peasant—"
"I have a name!"
"—so what could she possibly care about—"
"Oh, I think everyone can appreciate the benefits of a well-brewed cup of tea." The old man stroked his beard and opened his mouth; the prince threw up a hand, as if to ward off the upcoming lecture.
"Spare me your platitudes, Uncle," he spat. "Don't you know better than to give water to a waterbender? However untrained."
"How about you untie me and we see how untrained I am?" She was certain she wouldn't be able to beat him, but she was pretty sure she could outrun him. Besides, how well could he see with one eye all squinty like that?
He ignored her. "I need you to supervise the pirates. I don't trust them to find the Avatar and not run off with him."
"Maybe if you did your own dirty work instead of relying on pirates—"
"Of course, Prince Zuko," the old man said calmly. "I was only performing the duties of a good host."
The prince glanced at her, involuntarily, with what might have been guilt, and so she went for the kill. "—and stealing girls' necklaces—"
"I didn't steal it!"
"Oh, right, because thieves don't have any honor—but neither do you!"
The look on his face, following her words, was pure shock, as if he couldn't believe that a mere peasant would have the guts to say such a thing, and she smiled in satisfaction. In light of her smile, his expression flickered—for a moment, she saw a deep, ugly hurt, worse than the scar on his face—and then it melted into pure fury, and she shrank back against the tree.
"Prince Zuko," the old man said, emphasizing the title, and stepping ever so subtly between herself and the angry young man. Once the prince's gaze turned on him, he said in a quiet voice, "I am sure our guest is merely tired, and speaking without thinking." There was a warning in his voice, but Katara didn't care. "Look, she has been standing for quite some time, and her legs are trembling. Perhaps something can be done—"
"She can stand all night for all I care!" He sidestepped his uncle, pressing closer to her than he'd been all night, his ugly angry face crowding her vision, but she lifted her chin and jutted out her jaw, refusing to be cowed. "I forgive you your insult, peasant—"
"My name is Katara."
"—because you clearly have no idea what you're talking about. Uncle," he said, turning his back on her, "I asked you to go find the pirates."
"Once you've gone to bed," the old man said, unmoved. There was a tension in the air; Katara longed to lash out, kick him in the shin, but something in the set of his uncle's shoulders told her that it would be the worst thing she could do, and so she scowled and waited.
Finally the prince turned and stormed off, and the old man's shoulders sagged. "What's his problem?" she said, not realizing she asked the question as if she trusted any answer he had to give.
"Give him time," his uncle said, his voice weary, and Katara caught herself wondering how often he had to shield others from his nephew's volatile temper. For a moment, she almost pitied him.
"Time to what, spontaneously combust?"
"I hope not," he said. He sighed, and then bowed. "Forgive me, but I have a promise to keep. I am sorry to leave you standing here alone."
"I'll be fine," she said, her feet starting to tingle. Then she remembered that she hated him, too, and said, "I hope you don't find anything."
"I hope we do," he said. "We'll never leave if we don't." He bowed again, and said, "Good night, Katara."
She snorted, not bothering to watch which way he went as he left. They would either find Aang and Sokka, or Aang and Sokka would come find her; no matter what happened, they weren't getting out of this quietly. She sighed and tipped her head back, watching the crescent moon as it made its way across the sky, feeling its slight pull in the same distant way she felt the river, so near and yet miles away for all its worth to her, and a prince sleeping soundly in between.
Zuko couldn't sleep. He paced in his tent, shoulders hunched and head ducked to keep from hitting the ceiling, tiny endless circles going round and round in the flickering candlelight until it occurred to him that dizziness and claustrophobia were a step in the wrong direction. He lay on his back, his bedroll raised several inches off the ground, his feet comfortably stretched in front of him. He turned on his side, curling his legs in. After another minute, he rolled onto his other side, and halfway through rolling over again he stopped, face-first in his headrest, and let out a groan.
Darkness swam at the edges of his vision, but he decided asphyxiation was a poor path to sleep, and so he flopped on his back again, staring up at the ceiling. He should have been tingling with excitement, with the thought that this time he was sure to have the Avatar—they were so close, and the mere nearness of his goal was usually enough to keep him up, plotting ways of keeping the boy aboard his ship for the journey back to the Fire Nation, ways of keeping his uncle from accidentally slipping him a bendable substance, and sometimes (when sleep was hard to come by, when hallucinations were only a few minutes away) his father's expression, when he returned triumphant.
He never tried to imagine what his father might say.
Tonight, there was another reason for his restlessness, and it felt like guilt except that there was absolutely nothing for him to be guilty for—he wasn't a thief, would never be a thief, would never reduce himself to that level for the sake of survival—he was a prince of the Fire Nation, exiled or not, and even if he didn't have his honor he still had his pride. Everything was going according to plan, and the sooner he went to sleep the sooner he would wake up to the sight of the Avatar in chains. The mental image was strangely unsatisfying tonight, rather like the actual sight of the Avatar's precious waterbending peasant pet tied to a tree, his prisoner. Katara, she said her name was.
It was probably only unsatisfying because she had looked so—so self-righteous, like she was completely right and he was completely wrong. As if she had any idea of what was going on. She was just a stupid peasant girl mixed up on the wrong side of things far beyond her possible level of understanding, and the sooner she understood that, the sooner…
What was he going to do, keep her on the ship? Ji wouldn't allow it. Letting her go would mean she would probably end up chasing after the Avatar, but without him on her team she was even more pitiful than that worthless excuse for a warrior that traveled with them. There were other options, but they weren't worth considering. Too much time and effort for someone so insignificant.
"It's a dumb name, anyway," he said aloud, and his voice, in the deadened silence of his tent, sounded authoritative, like the voice of a not-exiled crown prince of the most powerful nation in the world.
Satisfied, Zuko rolled over and went to sleep, dreaming of pirates and burning ships, and blue-eyed girls, watching him drown.