Disclaimer: Sadly I don't own Avatar: The Last Airbender. Otherwise I would make a remake in which Zutara happens...
The next morning Katara and Zuko departed without speaking much to one another. Shang had given them lots of supplies and telling them that they'll probably arrive at the Capital the day after tomorrow. The two benders had thanked him for his hospitality and Zuko had shoved all his dark thoughts to the back of his mind. He couldn't allow himself to dwell on the uncertain future during their mission.
"What do you think is written in those scrolls?" Katara looked sideways at Zuko as they walked down the dirty path towards the capital. Zuko shrugged. "I don't know, but it has to be something big. Uncle seemed pretty worried." Katara nodded and continued gazing straight ahead. Concerned, Zuko took her hand and intertwined his fingers with hers. "Don't worry; whatever he's planning, we'll stop him."
Katara just nodded again and didn't look at him, but she felt better. The pair walked for the better part of the day, just resting if they need be. They barely talked. Both were too lost in their own thoughts and fears.
The sun was starting to set when Katara broke the silence" between them. "We should stop for the night. There's not much of daylight left and we need some to set up camp." Zuko agreed with a nod and together they worked quickly to finish before dusk. Since they didn' t have any tents they laid their sleeping bags close to the fire next to each other.
The fire was burning brightly and was casting shadows around them as they sat down on their makeshift beds. Katara suppressed a shiver and wrapped her arms around her knees. She was scared of what would happen tomorrow, even though she didn't want to admit it; Zuko knew anyway. "It will be fine. Uncle said that there's a second camp in the capital somewhere. We just have to find it and they'll tell us how to proceed. Nothing to worry about, I promise."
Katara allowed herself a small smile at his reassurance. "The resemblance between you is uncanny,"?" Zuko furrowed his brows. Between who?" Katara had to laugh at the look of confusion on his face. "You and Sokka,"The brown haired girl giggled even more as his confusion turned into horror.
His voice sounded rather childish as he exclaimed that he did not, in fact, have any resemblance to her stupid brother. And Katara had to smile wider at this, as he was acting exactly like Sokka when he was insulted.
"Whatever you say, pretty boy." Katara smiled mischievously as she said it. Zuko couldn't help but to laugh along with her, even if their laughter was on his own expense.
It felt good not to think of the dangers that lay ahead of them. Tonight it was just the two of them. Just Zuko and Katara. He had to admit he rather liked that idea.
The next morning came too soon for both benders. Even though Zuko was used to rise with the sun, he wished that he did not have to open his eyes and face the day. He gently shook Katara awake, and after a quick breakfast, they packed their things and silently started their way to the Capital.
It took them a few hours before they reached the outskirts of the city. Merchants and farmers soon joined them on their way to the city gates. Zuko and Katara had their hoods drawn to hide their features, but no one paid any attention to the two travellers. "How are we supposed to find the camp? I doubt that there'll be a sign that reads 'Resistance Camp This Way' somewhere in the city." Katara's voice was quiet and sarcastic.
Despite their situation Zuko had to chuckle. "While I'm sure there won't be such a sign, there must be little hints all over the city." They reached the city gate and waited in line to get inside. "Zuko, we won't find any of these hints if those guards notice who we are." Katara was looking around nervously while Zuko stood by, unimpressed. "They won't, trust me."
The waterbender was momentarily pacified by his guaranty but couldn't help but pull the cloak a little tighter around herself.
The guards didn't even give the pair a second glance before waving them through the gate. Katara was confused, but didn't question it until they were out of earshot. Zuko laughed quietly under his breath. "Look around. This is the Outer City. The nobles don't care who is coming and going here, but trying to get into the Inner City would be a whole different story."
Katara understood. "So the Fire Nation Capital is basically like Ba Sing Se?" Zuko nodded. "Basically. While Ba Sing Se has three social rings, the Capital has just two, but they're just as extreme. In the middle of the volcano, protected by its stone walls, lies the Inner City, called Caldera. The palace takes up most of the space, but there's still plenty of room for all those rich and arrogant nobles to live in luxury and else in the Outer City around the volcano have to finance the war and have barely enough money to survive."
Katara sensed his anger at the injustice of it and took his hand. "When you're Fire Lord, you will have the power to change all of this." Zuko nodded, but still had his doubts. "For now, let's just hope that the Camp won't be in the Inner Ring. Otherwise we might have a problem."
Katara looked around the city. She had to admit that the white homes with the red roofs possessed a special kind of beauty, but the buildings were run-down and dirty. The people they saw walked with weary postures, their gazes on the ground and their shoulders hunched as if carrying a great weight. Katara frowned. There were no children playing and laughing in the streets, in fact there weren't any children at all.
"Zuko, where are all the children?" The firebender peered up at the hot sun and wiped his brow. "They should be in school right now." Katara smiled. "Oh, I remember. Aang went to school here in the Fire Nation a few months ago." Zuko stopped short. "Aang, the airbending Avatar, went to a Fire Nation school." The look on his face was priceless. He couldn't understand how that was even possible. Katara laughed.
"This is Aang we're talking about." Katara shrugged. "He even managed to organize a dance party." Zuko shook his head, but realized that Katara was right. Even after all this months, the Avatar still continued to surprise him, and he knew that this wouldn't be the last time.
After hours of walking through the Outer City, their feet sore and mouths parched from the heat, they still had not found one any sign of the resistance camp. "I don't get it. It has to be somewhere here." Zuko threw his hands in the air.
"Maybe it really is inside Caldera." said Katara tiredly. She was tired of walking through the dirty streets and just wanted to rest.
"We should find something to eat and a place to sleep. We'll probably have more luck tomorrow." Zuko nodded. There was nothing else they could do. Now the only question was where to stay. Around the inns they've passed lurked some of the cities more unfavorable characters. In other words, those inns weren't a place were the two benders wanted to stay.
Zuko scowled into the growing darkness. There was not one decent place here, and there was no way that they could stay at the streets at night. That option was much too dangerous, especially for Katara. It was then that he noticed that she had stopped.
"Katara, what are you doing?" She turned back to him and smiled. "I think I found our camp." Zuko followed the direction of her gaze. At the corner of the street stood a small and plain shop with the words "The Ginger Dragon" written over the entrance. The firebender chuckled. "Why am I not surprised? Uncle really is one of a kind."
"He just loves tea a lot. Besides, the shop looks too small to be the second biggest resistance camp." Katara shrugged.
They were now standing right in front of the tea shop. "It might not be the camp itself, but the owner is without a doubt friends with uncle and part of the Order. The name practically screams 'Uncle'. This has to be it"
Small bells over the entrance rang as the pair entered. The tea shop was just as simple from the inside as it was from the outside, but it looked homey and comfortable. Someone had painted a giant white lotus on the back wall. Zuko had leaned down to mutter in Katara's ear. "They can't be more obvious, can they?" The girl just nodded, finding herself unable to pull her gaze from the back wall.
Suddenly a voice spoke from behind them. "Could I be of assistance?" Katara jumped and even Zuko was a little startled. Both turned to a young man with dark black hair who was regarding the pair with a knowing smile. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to scare you. Do you want to sit down?" Katara narrowed her eyes at him. He had a mischievous glint in his eyes that told her that he was anything else but sorry. She nodded her head in confirmation anyway. "That would be nice. Thank you."
He smirked at her again and turned around, obviously expecting them to follow. Katara looked at Zuko who hadn't said a word since the strange waiter had appeared. She was surprised to see him standing still, looking shocked at the back of the young man. "Zuko, are you okay?" Her voice showed her uncertainty. He turned around towards her and smiled softly, saying nothing.
"I'll tell you later. Let's go before he gets too impatient." He smirked at the waiter who was scowling at them.
"I don't have all day, you know."
The pair didn't bother to answer him and followed . The man shook his head in annoyance, but they could see a small smirk already back on his lips.
The waiter led them to a plain door at the back of the shop, right next to the lotus on the wall. An old sign read "Employees Only". He looked around to see if anyone was watching them, but the few old men that lounged in the shop were drinking their tea and talking quietly among themselves. The waiter opened the door and quickly waved them through, before he closed it again carefully. The hallway they were in was dark, the only light coming from some candles on a sconce on the wall to their left.
"I didn't realize that we were employees." Zuko's tone was sarcastic, but Katara saw that he knew exactly what was going on. She, on the other hand, was lost.
The waiter had regained his annoying smirk. Katara had a feeling the possibility of it dissapearing anytime soon was highly unlikely. As she stood next to Zuko, she heard the man speak again in the same mocking tone Zuko had used previously.
"But Zuzu, aren't you excited to see me? "
Katara laughed humorlessly. "I'm guessing you two know each other."
The waiter beamed and flung an arm around Zuko's shoulder, the aforementionned currently scowling at the waiter. Katara guessed it was probably because of his hated nickname.
"Of course we do. We were best friends until this guy over here suddenly disappeared without a trace. I'm still expecting an explanation and apology for that." His expression had darkened at his words as if he just realized what his friend had done.
Zuko's head snapped in his old friend's direction.
"Wait. You're telling me you don't know?"
The waiter, whose name Katara still didn't know, scoffed and stood back from Zuko with his arms crossed over his chest, a skeptical look on his face.
"Know what? You told me you were going to kick an old guy's ass and never returned the next day. Please tell me. What am I supposed to know?"
The nameless waiter was obviously angry and hurt. Katara tried to distance herself from the two, because she knew that nothing of this was her business, but at the same time she was curious.
Zuko sighed. "There's a lot you don't know, Tian. I'll tell you soon, but please believe me that I didn't leave of my own free will all those years ago." He drew his hood back so that his face showed, the candle light dancing on his scar flickered in the candle light.
Tian's eyes widened and his glare transformed into shock. If the situation had been different, Katara would've found it comical, but she didn't move from her position next to the wall. Tian's hands twitched as if he wanted to reach out to comfort his friend, but thought better of it halfway through.
Zuko smiled sadly at his friend. "I'll tell you later. Let's just go to the camp, okay?" Tian nodded, obviously still shaken from the new discovery. He started to walk down the dimly lit hallway when he finally noticed Katara.
"Oh god, I'm sorry. I totally forgot about you. I'm Tian and Zuko's best friend, but I guess you already know that." He smiled apologetically and put his hand behind his neck rubbing it in an off-hand way. Katara noticed that it was the same gesture Zuko always did when he was embarrassed.
She returned his smile and pulled the hood away from her head to reveal her face.
"It's fine, I understand."She said, waving a hand dismissively.
When Tian saw her face his smile transformed into a smirk.
"Of course we can meet in private later on and I can introduce myself much-"
A slap on the back of his head cut him off. He turned his head to find Zuko glaring at him. "Cut it off!"
"Oh come on, Zuzu. You honestly can't expect me not to introduce myself while you have such a pretty girl with you."
While he was talking Tian pushed a brick into the wall. Ignoring the compliment, Katara watched as the brick easily slid into the wall and gasped when part of the wall suddenly opened like a door to reveal a narrow and steep staircase heading downwards
Tian smirked. "Just wait until you see the actual camp. You won't believe your eyes."
He started walking down the stairs and with a slight reluctance Zuko and Katara followed him. "Is he always like that?" Katara asked Zuko in a quiet voice. The firebender smiled one of his rare smiles. "Always has been and always will be."
"Hey you slow slothslugs! Any day now." came the sarcastic reply from Tian, his form but a shadow in the receding light as the pair walked further and further downwards, away from the door. Katara raised an eyebrow but Zuko just shrugged and they continued on their way down the stairs. Minutes passed by and they still hadn't reached the end of the stairs
"Tian, are you sure this is the right way?" Katara called out questioningly. If she was to be perfectly honest with herself, she really just wanted to sit down after her tiring day, sipping a hot cup of tea before taking a warm bath and heading off to bed. She didn't want to see the camp, her bed was calling to her. But instead of drinking a nice cup of tea she was walking down neverending stairs. The steps stopped, and Katara held on to Zuko's arm as the path continued, letting him lead the way into the tunnel that emerged at the landing.
It was a while more before they saw a light further on ahead. They emerged to find a city unfolding in front of them. The resistance camp in the Fire Nation Capital was nothing like they'd expected. It was sort of like in Ba Sing Se where there had been an old city underneath the newer one, forming the catacombs Katara and Zuko knew so well. However, instead of eminating green lights this vast hall was lit in a red light that reflected off the various amors and swords of the camp's occupants.
If Zuko took a guess he would say that were around 500 people in this hall alone. In the distance he could see more hallways leading to what he guessed were similar halls.
"Impressive, right?" Tian had walked up and now stood next to the two benders.
"No one knows when this caves came into being and only a few remember that it still exist." Zuko nodded.
"I remember one of my teachers telling me about this years ago, but he said that the cave had collapsed a long time ago." He looked around at all the people who were either talking in small groups or sparring with each other, practicing.
One person stood out in particular. He had been talking to his friends standing almost right next to the entrance and was now looking at Zuko with shocked expression on his face.
Yeah, I'm alive. There's no excuse for the long wait so I'm not even trying. I still hope that you like the chapter. :D
Special thanks to Vladi and Oleg who proofread this chapter for me. You're awesome, my friends. :P