Disclaimer: I don't own ATLA or its characters or anything like that. This is just for fun.
Katara does some late night sneaking, only to become victim to a monstrous hole in the ground. Luckily, a certain fire prince is able to come to her rescue, although he may encounter more trouble than he bargained for.
This takes place after The Western Air Temple and before The Firebending Masters.
She'd been in worse trouble than this, for example:
Trapped in a wooden jail cell by an assassin hired by Zuko.
Chased down by an insane princess and her brother Zuko.
Imprisoned by Dai Li agents with Zuko
Tied to a tree and surrounded by pirates and Zuko.
She didn't know if listing them all at once like that made her feel better or worse, but at least it got her mind off of the dank, dark hole she was currently trapped in. And thankfully not with Zuko.
It was his fault she was down here anyway. Oh sure, maybe not strictly his fault, but who was she to nitpick? After all he couldn't just give them a vague description of his former campsite and expect her not to investigate. What if there were soldiers or his sister here just waiting to ambush them at his signal?
She couldn't take that chance.
So in the dead of night, while everyone was sound asleep, she had scurried off to see if her suspicions were correct. She didn't know if she was disappointed or relieved at not finding a legion of firebenders readying an attack. But it hardly mattered anymore because she was now stuck in a hole too deep to jump out of, too steep to climb out of and too far away from the air temple for anyone to hear her cries.
At first she was positive this hole was some sort of trap set by the stupid fire prince, but upon seeing the bones of some long deceased animal she was dissuaded from that notion. She was right about it being a trap, though, albeit an ancient one. It was very large, big enough for a wild hogmonkey or tigerdillo. It had to be at least ten feet deep and had no vines or roots with which to climb. Her waterskin was little use; she had tried bending some form of an ice staircase, but she simply did not have enough water.
She huffed at the injustice of it all, the absolute indignity of a master waterbender bested by a musty old hole in the ground. She was positive she'd be rescued by her friends; Toph could probably sense her a mile away, but it wouldn't be until she awoke the next morning. And Katara did not want to wait that long.
Because the alternative would be complicated; she'd have to explain her motives for being out here and it's not like she could lie. It wouldn't take Toph to figure out why she was wandering near Zuko's old campsite. And then she and Aang would get into an argument over her "trust" issues, Toph would say something blunt and probably offensive, Sokka would resignedly agree with her and Zuko would go sulk in a corner somewhere. Katara scoffed. As if he had feelings. Because she knew with absolute certainty, beyond a shadow of a doubt, Zuko was just a coyote-wolf in koala-sheep's clothing and loved to play the sympathy card.
That stupid, arrogant, evil, conniving little ba—
She jumped at the voice, relieved at the call of her name, but cursing the caller.
"Zuko?" she asked tentatively, as if the raspy baritone could belong to anyone else. Sure enough, he was standing next to the hole, a plume of fire in his left hand.
"Yeah?" he replied. "Are you okay?"
"Fine," she said.
"What are you doing down there?"
"What do you think?" Katara snapped. "I fell."
"I mean what are you doing out here, away from camp?"
Was he really this stupid? Well, two could play at that game.
"What are you doing out here?" she asked.
"I was-I'm… Do you want help or not?"
Katara sighed. She wanted to tell him no, she didn't want help from some two-faced spoiled brat but then he would go get the rest of the group and she'd have to endure a lecture by her friends.
"Okay," she relented. "Go get a rope or something."
"I don't know," Katara replied testily. "This is your campsite, isn't it?"
"Well, yeah it was, but—wait, is that why you're here?" He shook his head disbelievingly. "You were spying on my old campsite?"
"So what if I was?"
"So you…" Zuko sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. "Never mind," he grumbled. "I don't have any rope, but it doesn't matter." Zuko lay down at the edge of the hole and extended his arm. "Grab on; I'll pull you up."
Katara rolled her eyes, but complied. She gripped his wrist with both hands and he reciprocated. His hand on her wrist brought back the memory of a river and pirates and a scratchy voice whispering in her ear… She mentally shook her head. No pirates here, and her necklace was firmly around her neck.
She felt his muscles tense as he pulled her up; the veins in his forearms prominent against his pale skin. She hated to admit it, but the feel of his muscles rippling under her fingers was somewhat alluring. But that was stupid because this was Zuko and nothing he could ever do would be attractive in any way, ever.
She braced her feet against the earthen wall for leverage and his other hand grabbed her by the elbow. Katara was slowly gaining altitude (who knew Zuko was so strong?) and she thanked La she wouldn't be trapped there all night.
Some of the dirt was crumbling away from the edge and falling on her face, but she was so close to freedom it hardly bothered her. Until, that is, a sizeable chunk landed on her head.
All of a sudden Katara was on her back, lungs expelled of any and all air courtesy of the large amount of dirt and fire prince lying on top of her.
"Get. Off. Me," she said, gasping frantically for air.
He scrambled off, backing himself into a corner and raising his arms in the universal sign for "please don't hurt me."
"Sorry," he said. "The ground just kind of… fell. Sorry." She still lay on the ground attempting to regain her breath. "Are you okay?" He approached her hesitantly, offering a hand to help her up. She ignored it.
"Fine," she grunted. She slowly rose to her feet, using a wall to help support her.
"Good," he replied. "I'm sorry about falling on you."
Katara snorted. "You couldn't just go get a rope, could you?"
"So it's my fault we're stuck here?" he asked, incredulous.
"Yes!" she cried. "If it weren't for you I wouldn't be out here in the first place."
"You're going to blame me for your obsessive need to spy on me?"
"Of course I am!" she said. "I don't trust you as far as I can throw you."
"I could've just left you here, you know, instead of trying to help," he told her. "How's that for trust?"
"Sorry, Prince Zuko," she spat. "I don't think helping me out of a hole is going to make up for your little stunt in Ba Sing Se. And besides, you didn't even succeed. Now we're both trapped here."
Zuko crossed his arms and mumbled something under his breath that sounded like "stupid peasant."
"What did you say?" Katara asked, glaring at him.
"Nothing," he sighed. "So did your spying uncover a legion of Fire Nation soldiers ready to ambush the Avatar?"
Katara huffed. "No."
"Disappointed, waterbender?" he smirked.
She glared at him even more fiercely, if that were possible. "No. But I did find you. What are you doing out here anyway?"
"I was, um, I couldn't sleep. So I went for a walk," he said lamely.
Katara raised her eyebrows. "Hiking up the cliffside and visiting your old campsite puts you to sleep?"
Zuko shrugged. "I wanted to see if the air balloon was still here."
"Well, it is," Katara told him.
"Yeah, I saw," he replied evenly.
They lapsed into silence, Katara glaring at the firebender and the firebender glaring at the ground. Neither seemed keen on spending the night together in such close quarters.
"You could lift me out of here, I bet," Katara said after a time.
Zuko met her gaze, then ran his eyes over her body, as if assessing her. She didn't like it; she felt… unprotected. He looked her in the eye once more before shrugging.
"I guess I could, yeah."
"Good, then let's do it," she said.
"What?" she cried. "Why not?"
"Once you get out of here, then what?" he asked. "You're just going to leave me here?"
"No," she replied. "I'll do what you should've done in the first place and go find some rope or something."
"And when will that be?" he countered. "Tomorrow? Two days from now?"
"Come on, Zuko," she said. "Don't be ridiculous."
"You don't trust me; I don't trust you." He turned away from her, under the impression it would put an end to Katara's plan.
Suddenly Zuko was accosted by a very determined, and probably crazy, waterbender. She jumped on his back and-was she climbing him? One hand grabbed a hold of his hair and the other his shoulder; her feet had wrapped around his torso trying to gain leverage.
"Katara!" he yelled. "What the hell are you doing?"
"What do you think?" she replied. "I refuse to be stuck here with you just because you won't help."
"Get off me!" He grabbed her arms and pulled; she tumbled off him and into an adjacent wall. He refused to let go of her, lest she try it again, effectively pinning her there against the earth.
"Let go of me," she breathed, struggling against his grip.
"Shut up," he growled. "I may not be a prince anymore but you can't just climb all over me. I'm not your monkey."
She looked away, an embarrassed blush on her cheeks. "I'm sorry," she murmured. "I just-I want to get out of here."
"So do I," he said.
"We can help each other out!" she cried. "I won't leave you here, I promise."
He narrowed his eyes at her, as if he could detect a lie just by looking at her. "Fine," he ground out after a long moment of scrutinizing. "But I want collateral."
"Something to hold you to your promise," he explained.
His eyes flicked to her neck. "Your necklace," he said.
"Zuko, no, I can't."
He leaned closer, staring into her eyes. She could feel his breath on her and she shivered involuntarily. "No necklace, no deal."
"Fine," she relented. "But I get it back as soon as you're out of the hole."
"Fine," he agreed. He released one of her hands and reached behind her head. His fingers ghosted along her neck, underneath her hair and she couldn't believe how close he was, how she could smell him (smoke and cinnamon and adrenaline) and feel his heart beat in his chest which was nearly pressed against hers.
He expertly undid the clasp of the necklace and pulled it away, the blue ribbon tickling her skin. Zuko let go of her other hand and stepped away from her, tucking the necklace in his shirt.
"Okay," he said. "Come here."
Katara obliged without protest and dutifully stepped onto Zuko's interlaced fingers. She used his shoulders to balance herself as he lifted her up. As soon as she was in reach of the ledge, she grabbed on and started to pull herself up. Zuko gave her another push from below and soon she had cleared the hole.
"Zuko, I'm up!" she called.
"Good," he said. "Now help me."
Katara cast around for something, anything, resembling rope, the bareness of her neck a pressing weight on her psyche. On a nearby tree she found a long vine, and she remembered Hue in the Foggy Swamp. It would be no problem to bend the vine and lift Zuko out of the hole.
At the urging of her waterbending, the vine snaked through the air and down towards Zuko. She deftly wrapped the plant around the firebender's waist and hauled him up.
"Katara, what the—"
"I can bend the water in plants," she said. "Now give me back my necklace."
He reached into his shirt and pulled out the blue ribbon, offering it to her without comment. She snatched it away and began walking back to the air temple. Zuko, however, did not follow. He approached the tree and began digging a hole next to it.
"What are you doing?" Katara asked, upon realizing he was not behind here.
"Getting what I came here for," he said.
"And what's that?"
"This," he said simply, holding up an object covered in a cloth.
"A dirty rag?" Katara asked.
"You wouldn't understand," Zuko told her, and started the walk back to the temple.
"How do you know if you won't tell me?"
Zuko sighed, and held out the object. Katara approached, tentatively unfolding the cloth. She revealed a shiny golden hair ornament in the shape of a flame.
"It's worn by the crown prince," he said. "But Fire Lord Sozin gave it to Avatar Roku; they were childhood friends."
"My uncle gave it to me before he left." Zuko rewrapped the crown and tucked it away. "But I don't deserve to wear it." He walked away, and Katara had to take two steps to his every one to keep up.
"Where is your uncle?" she asked softly.
"I don't know," he replied. "He broke out of prison before I left."
"Oh," she said lamely. "Why did you bury it?"
"Because I knew you'd go through my stuff."
They had arrived back at the air temple in record time, courtesy of Zuko's infuriatingly fast pace, in spite, or because of Katara's many more questions.
"I'm going to bed," Zuko said abruptly.
He turned toward his room determinedly, but Katara was not ready to let him go.
"Zuko," she called softly. He stopped, but did not turn. "I think it's good that you have it… I mean, I think your uncle would be glad that… that it's not still there- in the palace- I mean."
She watched his shoulders tense for a moment, then relax as he nodded once, sharply.
"Good night, Katara."
"Good night, Zuko."
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