IMPORTANT AUTHOR'S NOTE(S):

I received some critical feedback from one reviewer and, while I really do appreciate it, I feel the need to defend myself.

1.) I do not write porn/lemon. This story is an exploration of plot and character development. There will be sex later on but I'm trying to keep it real. For me, the anticipation is often more engaging than the actual sex.

2.) Please understand that my fanfiction is more of a realistic view of the cartoon series. What the show only hinted to (death, rape, violence), I intend to fully explore. The "Gaang" is no stranger to the realities of war and, yet, they strive to enjoy the little bits of childhood that they have left. Obviously, Katara will not be the same after her experience with Zuko. (Think Game of Thrones setting!)

3.) I haven't forgotten about Aang, Sokka, Toph, etc. They will make an appearance very soon!

4.) Thanks to your helpful reviews, I no longer found it necessary to put Zuko's POV of the former situation in this chapter.

Enjoy! (Please forgive grammatical mistakes)


CHAPTER 31

The first thing that Zuko realized when he awoke the next morning was that there was a terrible crick in his neck. He groaned against the airy white rays that seemed to touch every reach of his bedchambers, shifting to stretch his length against the taut mattress. A warm, comfortable silence reverberated in the atmosphere, and Zuko soaked it in, completely at ease until he felt a wisp and dance of something across his chest. Lazily, he cracked open a single aureate eye, searching for the origin of the sensation. That's when he came upon his second revelation.

Slender fingers just resting upon the open expanse of chest revealed by the vee of his tunic, Zuko found his waterbender slung haphazardly over him. With her face pressed firmly against his torso, his eyes met the mellow glow of brunette tresses fanned all around him. She hummed, sleep still in her throat, turning, and she would have fallen had it not been for the pale arm which had already been wrapped around her like a vice.

Seeing her like this, pressed against him without a care in the world, Zuko decided then and there that he loved her. He was done denying it. He didn't deserve her—that much he knew—but the desire he felt for her overshadowed all else—even his desire to return home. She provoked him, challenged him, insulted him, irritated him, mocked him...and for all of that he would give up this whole damn war for her. He would throw it all away if it meant being with her as they were now.

He could spend eternity with her wrapped in his arms. However, that sentiment was cut short as the Water Tribe warrior in question readjusted her position and flexed wantonly against him, the junction of her thighs brushing against his. A startled groan escaped his lips and ocean blue eyes immediately snapped open, meeting his. Tensed, she braced herself on her arms, towering over him with lethargic confusion and embarrassment etched on her delicate yet stern features.

"Well," Zuko smirked, linking his fingers against her back teasingly. She, in turn, huffed indignantly, arching an irritated brow at his antics. "Good morning to you, too. I must say, this is not unpleasant sight to wake up to."

"How did I end up here?" Katara asked quickly, her voice thick and husky from the last remnants of a heavy slumber.

"I was hoping that you could tell me. I woke up an innocent victim to your lascivious presence. I feel violated," he said in all seriousness, but the tug at his lips bespoke another truth. "It seems that you just couldn't keep your hands off of me, Water Peasant,"

"Innocent victim?" she half-smiled in question, playing along.

"I'm hardly the perpetrator; you're the one on top of me," he jested, sighing dramatically. "I shall never regain my honor now."

Katara blushed, slapping the firebender's chest in mock anger. The enjoyed this—the light banter between them. Right now, they weren't Crown Prince of the Fire Nation and Princess of the Southern Water Tribe; fire and water; yin and yang; good and evil; light and dark; enemies. They were simply Zuko and Katara, and that was enough.

"Last night—I—crazy as it sounds, after everything...I like being with you. It's comforting," Katara blushed.

Arms stilled linked behind her back with hers propped against his chest, Zuko contemplated her words for a moment, thinking of the best way to broach the subject. "What did you dream about?" he asked knowingly.

"It was nothing," was all she said, brushing off the matter as she moved to get off of him.

"Don't lie to me. Don't shut me out," Zuko half-ordered, deliberately echoing her words as he tightened his grip on her back.

"You'd think me foolish," Katara breathed, unsure of herself. "I know I do."

"Tell me," he urged.

"You weren't there," she spoke, clearing her throat as her voice broke unexpectedly. "He—it was done and you were too late. I wasn't strong enough. I thought I was...but I wasn't. And you didn't...you just weren't there."

Zuko felt her tears before he saw them pooling in her azure eyes, though his feisty waterbender did all that she could to hold them back. He hated seeing her like this: unnerved and unsure. She was a warrior—strong and fierce. Once, he would have reveled in seeing her broken and scared. Now, he wished more than anything to see the fire in her eyes blaze with passion.

So wrapped up in his thoughts, the raven-haired prince almost didn't hear the sigh of disgust from above as his waterbender struggled to remove herself from his person. "I hate feeling like this," she muttered, pushing against him. "I shouldn't be like this. Nothing happened."

"Wait, stop," Zuko snapped, trapping her legs in between his in an effort to halt her movement.

"Let go," Katara hissed angrily, increasing her irrational need to get away from the firebender tenfold.

"You know that I can't. Not now," he said, an undercurrent of resolve laced within his tone, and the mocha girl begrudgingly ceased her thrashing as his thumb slowly wiped away an errant tear.

"I'm not supposed to feel like this," she reiterated softly, playing with the frayed edge of the v-cut on his tunic, and Zuko's brow relaxed as he took in the double meaning of her words.

"We can't choose how we feel, Katara. All we can do is choose how to act on those feelings. And, sometimes, the right path isn't always the easiest. I should know."

Gradually, she relaxed against him, nestling the side of her face against his chest before speaking. "I don't know what to do. This isn't me. What if he—"

"I will never let him hurt you, Katara. Not again. Even if it doesn't seem like it, I will always be there... I swear it on my mother."

"You say that now—"

"I mean it. Now and forever. I give you my word."

"You shouldn't make promises that you can't keep, Fire Prince."

"I never do."

Katara exhaled long and slow, defeat emanating from her breath. "We're enemies, Zuko."

"Look me in the eyes and tell me you still believe that nonsense," he urged softly, forcing her to meet his eyes as his fingers gripped the back of her head. "Tell me that you hate me."

Gold met sapphire and Katara's lips parted, ready to spew deceit, when she averted her eyes. "You won't always be there," she retorted logically. "And I'm no damsel in distress, in case you've forgotten, Your Royal Hot-Head."

Ah. There was the saucy little spitfire that he knew. "Oh, I haven't forgotten, Water Peasant. I know that you're more than capable of taking care of yourself—"

"Better remember that," she mumbled under her breath, cutting him off.

"But when the real danger comes... I'll be there."

But which side will you be on?

Zuko saw the flash of doubt consume her countenance, but he decided to leave the issue as it was. He was a man of his word. Even if she didn't believe him, he'd always hold her best interest at heart. "I'll keep that in mind," he heard her say dryly, attempting, once again, to get off of him.


Dressed in a pale cerulean tunic (courtesy of her "host"), Katara emerged from the bath-room to find her firebender tugging on the grave clasps of his charcoal gauntlets, preparing to leave. At her footsteps, he chanced a glance at her direction before walking towards the bolted chamber door.

"The color suits you," he remarked politely, fingers poised on the handle of the door.

"Thank you," she returned in kind.

He inclined his head in awkward acknowledgment, not really knowing what to say. In the course of a month, their relationship had drastically evolved, and Zuko found himself in uncharted territories. He didn't know how to be kind or attentive or courtly. He was screwed. "I'll be back soon," the young prince spoke softly, his voice curt and formal as he made to exit.

"I want to see him," he heard her say before he closed the door; the steel in her tone not lost on him.

With a regrettable sigh, Zuko stepped within the bounds of his quarters once more, shutting the door with his back as he leaned against it, eying the waterbender with her firm stance and crossed arms.

"Who?" Zuko queried, feigning innocence.

"You know who," Katara challenged in that no-nonsense tone of hers.

"Why do you want to see him—of all people?" the firebender returned, an angry tic pulsing in his jaw.

"I need..." she started, trying to gather her thoughts, "to make sure."

Her drawn eyes were willing him to understand, and Zuko did. At the pain that briefly shone in her azure orbs, his own softened a fraction. "He can't hurt you, Katara."

"I know but—" she started to say before Zuko approached her, gripping her gently by the upper arms as he towered over her.

"He can't hurt you...not anymore."

The inflection in the firebender's hard, persistant tone spurred Katara to really look at her captor, and she found the unyielding line of his jaw and the intense loathing in his amber eyes disconcerting. "What did you do?" she whispered.

He took a step back, releasing her and finding the door again. "I took care of it."

"What do you mean you 'took care of it'?"

"It's done; he's gone. I. Took. Care. Of. Him," Zuko stressed all at once meaningfully and indifferently; though the way his alabaster fingers clenched around the cold metal of the door told another story.

"You killed him?!" she accused in horror, an insatiable rage building in her body.

"You're defending him? You're actually defending the bastard!" Zuko shot back in equal horror. "Are you forgetting that he almost raped you?!"

"No, you jerk—I didn't forget. But that doesn't mean—"

"Yes, it does," Zuko seethed. "He deserved what he got and more."

"So youtook it upon yourself to play executioner? To kill him?!"

"I gave him the choice!" Zuko roared, infuriated by the fact that his warrior girl was defending her attempted rapist.

"What?" Katara voiced, taken aback.

"I gave him a choice: either face a trial in the Fire Nation or take his chances at sea. He choice the sea. He knew to defy me—the Crown Prince—was death."

"But you're exiled."

"It doesn't matter. His disrespect to me was like raising a hand against the Fire Nation. Ozai would never let that pass."

"You're sure of this?"

"My father is many things. He's done many things. But, in the end, he's a proud man. He'd kill him simply for the fact that he was a commoner or to show me that I should have killed him the moment that he touched you. Either way, he'd die, and Andros knew that."

Katara, face downward cast in contemplation, said nothing. "I gave him a small, emergency raft, an oar, and a serving of bread," Zuko continued. "I left him out in the ocean in the dark of night and told him that, if he lived, to run as far away as he could or I would kill him myself."

"You shouldn't have done that," Katara whispered darkly, her muscled mocha arms shaking with rage.

"He was one of my closest childhood friends. Even after what he did, I couldn't bring myself—"

"I should've done it," the Water Tribe girl spoke coldly. "I wanted to KILL him."

"I know," Zuko spoke, audibly sympathetic and melancholy. "That's why I took care of it."

"You had no right—" Katara argued hotly, her chest heaving with barely restrained fury.

"I know. But you're no killer. If you were, I would've been dead weeks ago. And I wasn't about to watch you destroy yourself because of him. I couldn't." And with that, the exiled prince left, shutting the heavy door against the blue-eyed girl and her endless, racing thoughts.


With the last bit of tawny liquid courage making its way down his throat, Luka lazily threw the grimy rum bottle behind him, ignoring the thunderous pitter-patter of shattering glass as he settled himself near his desk. Weary, his filthy fingers found the infected laceration etched across the length of his neck, scratching at it furiously before his roguish green eyes fell upon an untouched parcel at the corner of his desk.

Cautious, the sea rat surveyed his surroundings. Where the hell did this come from? With the assurance of solitude, he slowly opened the parcel which revealed a tiny, ornate vial and a letter:

Finish what you started. Refuse and your children will pay

for the sins of the father. Oh, yes, I know about your precious

sons and the daughter that you have hidden in the Earth Kingdom.

You didn't think you could hide them from me, did you?

Get rid of the Water Peasant and bring me my brother...or

I will have your daughter sold into the filthiest brothel I can

find and hang the charred bodies of yours sons for all the world

to see.

Your choice.

Luka's fingers trembled with unbounded rage and fear as he thought of his beautiful daughter and sons. He hadn't seen them in years—not since he began his quest for revenge. Leaving them broke his heart but he had to. Nights plagued by dreams of his dead wife and the son that he had abandoned urged him to enact his plan for retribution. Before he left, Luka had entrusted the lives of his children with a trusted medicine woman. "Great Gran" they called her. She assured him that the children would be safe and that his daughter would be trained in the ways of the warrior.

He sighed, raking a hand through his greasy, unkempt hair. Before, his need to kill the waterbender stemmed from his desire to advance his infiltration within the Fire Nation. Now...now he didn't have a choice. The lives of his children were at stake. She needed to die.


It was late in the afternoon, a storm brewing in the pitch black horizon, when Zuko finally returned. He said nothing as he entered his bedchambers, stripping the cumbersome armor from his lean figure before sitting at his majestic mahogany desk. Quill in hand, he began to write a series of dispatches in utter silence, not even bothering to acknowledge the stony waterbender sprawled idly against the perch near the windowsill.

It was the caustic scratching that initially caught her attention, so wrapped up in her thoughts was she. Rising, Katara furtively approached the raven-haired prince, quietly placing a hand on his shoulder as she peered across his shoulder. At the contact, Zuko stilled for a moment before continuing.

"You were right," he heard his waterbender say softly, her voice barely a whisper.

"I'm sorry," he teased, "I didn't quite get that."

Katara exhaled in relief, glad that the firebender wasn't in a foul mood because of their heated conversation earlier on. "You better be paying attention because I'm only ever going to say this once: you were right."

Glancing over his shoulder with mischevious amber eyes, Zuko opened his mouth to speak but was interrupted by a succinct rapping on his chamber door. Rolling his eyes in a very un-princely manner, the firebender arose, approaching the vast reach of cold metal. "Who is it?" he questioned.

"Luka. Your uncle asked me to give you something," the bandit spoke, muffled by the barrier.

"And what exactly did my uncle send?"

"Tea."

Zuko made a shuddering, gagging face at Katara, prompting her to clamp a hand over her mouth as she burst out in an undignified chuckle.

"I don't want any." Zuko grasped his side as Katara elbowed him in the ribs, mouthing the words take it to him along with a chastising glare.

"He made a cup especially for the water peasant—"

"You will address her as Miss Katara," Zuko demanded authoritatively.

"Miss Katara," Luka corrected through gritted teeth. "He said that he would like for her to at least taste it."

Eyes darting to his captive, Zuko saw that her baleful glare remained steadfast and, so, against his better judgment, he opened the door. Within seconds, Zuko had the tray of tea in his hands, getting ready to shut the door when Katara spoke.

"Where's Baki?" she asked, her brows upturned in concern.

"The lad's restin'; asleep with the rest of the crew." She seemed to accept that answer, nodding her head, when her eyes fell upon the pus-filled mark on his neck.

"Shavin' accident, I'm afraid. Just a scratch," he said, answering her questioning gaze.

"Have these dispatches sent out in the morning after the storm's cleared," Zuko ordered, handing him the carefully wrapped scrolls.

"Aye," Luka complied, a strange expression on his face, before he sauntered off.

"I don't trust him," Katara voiced as Zuko shut the heavy door.

"I don't either," Zuko agreed, "but we need him to get to the Fire Nation. We need him and his crew." The young exile thought he saw a flash of disdain or sadness dawn on his waterbender's face but he decided to let it pass, not deigning to question it.

Bringing the fine porcelain cup to her lips, Katara's mouth watered as she inhaled the calming scent of the tea. However, as the warm liquid filled her mouth, she crinkled her nose, swishing the tea around her mouth like a connoisseur. The taste was oddly familiar and yet...not. Something wasn't right.

It taste like...Wolfsbane. Wolfsbane? By Yue, it's poisoned!

Eyes wide in realization, she immediately spat out the lethal tea, coughing a little as she did so. At this, Zuko turned to her from his desk.

"Are you alright?" he asked. Failing to answer, Katara rushed over to her scarred firebender and knocked the cup out of his hands violently.

"Did you drink any?" she all but screamed.

"Calm down, Water Peasant," Zuko said, irate. "What's the matter with you?"

"It's poisoned!"

"What?"

"The tea—it's been poisoned. At least mine was."

"With what?"

"Wolfsbane. I'm guessing whoever tried to kill me before came back to finish the job."

"We don't know that for sure. It could have been—"

"Oh, gods," Katara interrupted, seizing Zuko's foream. "It's him. Luka."

Zuko hesitated for a moment, clearly furious at the thought of a traitor aboard his ship yet striving to act rationally. It wasn't working. "How do you know?"

"The mark on his neck. Whoever the assassin was, Suki struck him with a hair pin."

"That doesn't prove anything," Zuko argued, but he had a gnawing feeling that Katara was right.

"I'm telling you that it's him. I need you to believe me," the blue-eyed Water Tribe warrior contended fiercely, her tone stony and unyielding.

Zuko relented with a foreboding nod. Taking Katara by the hand, Zuko made way for his uncle's room. "If what you say is true, then it's not safe here. I need to get Uncle, and we need to get out of here before the crew catches on."

"I can't leave Baki," Katara breathed as she kept pace with Zuko.

"We'll get him, too," Zuko agreed. "He's usually with Uncle, anyway."

Stealthily, the pair made it to the old general's room only to find the chambers empty.

"He's not here," Zuko seethed, jaw tense with worry. Breaking away, Katara's heart raced as she sought out Baki's room. By the time the Fire Prince caught up with her, he came to the same conclusion that she did: someone had taken his uncle and the little boy.

"We'll find them," Zuko vowed gravely, clasping her hand once more. "Come on," he said, motioning to search above deck. Climbing the steps with as little noise as possible, Zuko stumbled as the large vessel rocked against the roaring waves of the storm brewing outside. As the two benders emerged above deck, the force of the whipping winds and stinging salt air caught them by surprise, forcing them to hold onto each other for support.

As their eyes adjusted to the constant spraying of the sea and wicked winds, what they found made them tense, preparing for battle: Baki and General Iroh held at knife point and surrounded by the crew.

"Took you long enough," Luka said with a sinister grin, tugging on Baki's hair tighter as he made a thin incision on the young boy's throat.

The boy whimpered in pain and Katara leaped forward only to be blocked by Zuko's muscled arm. "Let him go—he's just a child!" Katara screamed.

"You were supposed to die," Luka growled, his tone colored by a mixture of incredulity and vexation.

"It's gonna take a lot more than poison to get rid of me, you coward!" Katara shot back.

"Oh, I know, love," Luka smirked with a look of pure cold calculation etched on his features. "That's why I'm gonna give you a choice. Either come with me or I kill the boy."

"How about I give you a choice, Sea Rat: release the old man and the boy," Zuko said with deadly calm, igniting an orb of fire in his palm, "or I will kill you all."

"Then how are you going to get back to your precious Fire Nation, pretty boy?" Luka laughed along with the rest of the crew. Their laughter, however, was cut short as the ship shook violently and their collective gaze fell upon the waterbender. Her head was bowed and damp, chocolate tresses flailed against her outstretched arms. She emitted an aura of pure power as she remained rooted to the planks of the deck—seeming unaffected by the progressively worsening storm.

Though the thick, charcoal clouds hid it well, Zuko understood the source of his waterbender's power and the thought of it made him uneasy. She was harnessing the power of the full moon.

"Katara," he called out to her cautiously, but she ignored him.

"Let. Them. Go," she demanded as her fingers contorted to that of a puppet master, drawing forth a wall of sea water four times the height of the ship.


Reviews are kindly appreciated but not required!

I hope you liked this chapter :)