A/N: This is my first time writing for source material directed at the pre-teen set, so let me start by saying this is not a story for children. I know none of you young 'uns will listen, but I'll ask anyway: Adults only, please. I don't want an express ticket to the Special Hell.
This is not my first time writing in this format. It's actually one of my favorite narrative structures (and is ideal for roadtrip tales, of which I've written a dozen or so in my life; I'm a creature with simple tastes, what can I say). So my apologies to fandom crossover readers who are looking for something totally unique. Though the plot is different, the style will feel familiar.
Speaking of crossover readers: for those who have been waiting on my other projects, please direct your ire to Like A Dove. For those like the story, please also direct your appreciation to Like A Dove. This distraction is entirely her fault and she admits it. Thanks to her and cretin_me for soothing my ego as I went.
Anyway, enough chatter. We begin at the end of the season two finale, The Crossroads of Destiny.
seems I'm damned to live a lie / unaware of what's outside
The world glows white.
The Avatar rises.
The world splinters blue.
The Avatar falls.
Katara acts on instinct as she calls the water of the canals to her hands and wipes out the Dai Li in a single gushing wave. She rides the bend forward and catches Aang before he hits the stone floor.
The moment he falls into her arms she knows there is no life inside him.
She dully registers that fireballs are rushing toward her. For a moment she is sure that this is the end, that her flesh will fall from her bones under the joint strikes of the Fire Prince and Princess. Her arms are full of Airbender and she cannot block the attack. But then two blasts appear from nowhere and throw her assailants off their feet, and Iroh - Iroh!- is there.
"You've got to get out of here!" the former general shouts as flames shoot from his fists. "I'll hold them off as long as I can!"
She has to escape.
Except there is no life inside Aang.
If she runs it could be too late. She's already exhausted from the fight; by the time they are free she may not have the energy left to heal him, to save the only hope any of them have left.
She turns Aang over. She breaks the vial from the Spirit Oasis. She pours the water across the open wound in his back.
She lays her hands on the Avatar and puts every ounce of her strength into the most important thing she's ever done.
The fire throws her backward, and when she hits the wall she passes out.
She's still on the cold stone floor when she hears voices. The smell of cooked meat is thick in the air, and for a fuzzy few seconds she thinks she's back at home waiting for Gran-Gran to finish roasting the seal steaks for dinner.
"You didn't have to do that."
"He allowed Uncle and the Avatar to escape. This isn't the time for one of your fits of compassion. This is the time to make an example."
"Burning a man alive isn't-"
"Zuko, we have taken the Earth Kingdom. We have done it in the name of our father. You have restored your rightful place in our family. We will be welcomed home as war heroes. Must we argue over methods of troop discipline at this exact moment in time?"
"...I guess not."
"Good. You can be such a wet blanket sometimes. Speaking of wet, is that peasant still alive?"
"I doubt it." The words turn bitter. "You struck her down."
Katara keeps her eyes closed and listens to the approaching footfalls. She wonders if this is what Toph feels.
A foot wedges under her ribs and rolls her onto her back, and she cannot hold back a groan of pain. Everything hurts, especially her head.
"Oh, how annoying." There's a sudden, intense heat above her. Katara tries to flinch back, but her body doesn't obey. "Perhaps we should strip that robe off first. I detest the smell of burning fur."
"You're going to kill her?"
"No, I'm going to invite her to dinner. Yes, I'm going to kill her."
A snort. "Because, Zuko, she's a Waterbender who has supported our enemies and opposed our respective missions." The heat above flares hotter. "Also she cut my hair."
The next words come from directly overhead, instead of at a distance. "Keep her as a war prisoner," the other voice hisses. "I've been watching these people for months, Azula. Trust me, the Avatar will come for her."
"I didn't miss. The Avatar's some newborn at the North Pole by now."
"We can't be sure of that. You'd be amazed at how lucky he can be."
"I really don't have time for-"
"I'll take responsibility. She's... valuable, Azula."
A long pause, and then a colder laugh than should come from a creature made of fire. "If you want a pet, Zuzu, we could get a sparrowkeet. It'll eat less and smell better."
"...oh, fine. I can't believe I forgot how sentimental you can be, brother." The next words echo through the cave. "Take the Fire Prince's new pet to my ship. If she fights or bends, don't hesitate to knock her out again. And don't be gentle about it."
The stone vibrates with the heaviness of approaching Earthbenders.
"Well? Aren't you going to thank me?"
A sullen, "Thank you."
"I hope your manners improve by the time we get home. Father doesn't care for rudeness. But I suppose you remember that, don't you?"
When several rough hands lift her from the floor Katara finally opens her eyes. She can't focus, but she can still make out the scarred face watching her impassively.
She is a Waterbender, and when she spits at his cheek, she doesn't miss.
It takes Katara two days before she's able to sit up without dizziness. It's another two before she can bend again.
Not that bending does her any good. At first she is confused about why they dare to shove small skins of tea through the slot in the door along with her rice - until she tries to freeze the lock. It makes no difference at all, and most of the ice falls through the keyhole. The guard in the hallway laughs at her.
After that she drinks her tea instead of wasting it. A dried out Waterbender is a useless Waterbender.
Every evening she is taken to the bathroom by a member of the Dai Li, her hands cuffed behind her back with solid rock. There's no way to escape in there either, at least not that she can find in the sixty seconds she's allowed for each visit.
On one walk back to her cell she tries to simply run. She gets twenty feet. For the next three days they give her nothing to drink and she lays on her cot, too dehydrated to cry.
She wonders if Aang is alive. She thinks he must be. She thinks she would somehow know if he wasn't.
She wonders if he'll come for her. He'd want to. Toph too. Sokka, though - Sokka can stop them. He will remind them of their mission: Prepare the Avatar for the day of Black Sun. Sokka is strong and capable of sacrificing his sister in the name of the greater good, even though it will kill him inside. If Iroh is still with them he will agree, and between the two of them they'll force Aang to keep his focus. Hopefully.
Katara doesn't want to die here, but more importantly she doesn't want Aang to die here. Everything hinges on Aang. He is the Avatar. Katara is expendable.
At night Katara comes to the conclusion that she is mentally defective. At least when it comes to boys.
She had believed him. All he'd had to do was say That's something we have in common and she'd caved. For months he'd chased them across the world with a blinding evil fixation, and in one little moment of apparent humanity she'd offered to waste her spirit water on his stupid face. Five minutes later he'd been whipping fire at her. He tricked her.
Not that he was the first. All Jet had had to do was mention his tragic past and then there she was, in his tree hut, worshipfully doing things that would make Gran-Gran shake her head with disappointment. And he'd just wanted to use her waterbending to kill innocent people.
Even Haru had gotten under her skin with all his talk about lost parents. Haru turned out to be honest, but she'd had no proof of that at the time. Twenty minutes of conversation and she'd been willing to get herself arrested for him.
She spends the long hours obsessing over an idiot she's been. Her compassion has been used against her time and time again. And the cave beneath Ba Sing Se was by far her most costly mistake.
She swears that this time she has learned.
After two weeks Katara notices a strange vibration in the metal floor. Shortly thereafter she feels a soft, gentle rocking. The ship has finally left port.
The water swaying her cell treats her to her best sleep since leaving the South Pole.
Katara squints at the outline of the Dai Li in the doorway. Constant darkness has not done good things for her eyesight. "Why?" It's not time for her trip to the bathroom.
"The Prince wishes to see you. Make yourself presentable and follow me."
"Presentable," she grumbles under her breath. "Let me take a bath and wash my clothes, then."
A sneer crosses the guard's face. "That much water? How stupid do you think I am?"
Katara just looks at him.
The guard binds her hands with rock cuffs, then takes her up three flights of stairs and down a long corridor - toward the center of the ship, she thinks. They come to a stop in front of a huge set of double doors, and when the guard knocks the sound of metal echoes.
If Katara gets out of this alive she never wants to see metal again.
"Enter," a rasping voice calls.
The guard turns the handles, and for a moment Katara can't decide whether it would be more defiant to walk in with her head held high or to plant her feet and make him drag her forward. She decides to walk. She is the daughter of the chieftain of the Southern Water Tribe, and their last bender to boot; if blood is so important to these people then she's entitled to just as much respect as the spoiled two-faced brat of the Fire Lord.
The empty room is large - twenty feet high, forty feet long, thirty feet wide - and it occurs to Katara that this ship must really be enormous. She'd been unconscious when brought in and hadn't gotten a look.
Prince Zuko is there and pacing. His hair is pulled back into a formal topknot and he's wearing red silk robes with the formal insignia of the Fire Nation. She's wearing a Water Tribe tunic that has nearly disintegrated with filth. She is a prisoner. He is royalty.
Aang would probably disapprove of how much hatred she feels right now.
Zuko looks up as they enter, and his strange yellow eyes widen at the sight of her - the right far more than the left, of course. Then, to Katara's complete shock, he wheels on the guard. "Why does she look like this?"
The guard appears even more surprised than Katara feels. "I beg your pardon, Prince Zuko?"
"Why does she look like this?" Tiny flames lick at the Firebender's fingertips. "Where has she been kept?"
"In- in the prison hold."
The flames creep up Zuko's knuckles. "What?"
Katara notes with some interest that the guard is clearly terrified. "Prince Zuko, I assure you, we received no orders to give the girl special consideration. She has been treated as a standard prisoner-"
"I'll decide how she'll be treated!"
The girl in question is lost.
Zuko looks away and takes a few heaving breaths. The fire disappears from his hands. "Unbind her and get out," he says. His tone reminds Katara more of the Prince at the North Pole and less of the boy in the cave. "Have a proper room prepared with appropriate safety measures. She's of no use to me in this condition."
Katara's blood goes cold as the guard's face lights with understanding. "Of course, Prince Zuko. Right away." The cuffs disappear from her wrists, the rock welding itself around the Dai Li's forearm.
Then he leaves, and it is just her and her enemy.
Katara can't let him have the first word. "Thanks," she says sarcastically, "but I'd rather stay in my cell. I don't care about being of use to you."
Zuko frowns - and a tiny blush appears on his right cheek. "That isn't what I meant."
"It isn't. I wouldn't-"
"Why not?" Getting flame-broiled is starting to sound like a more appealing fate every minute. "What's stopping you? It's not like you have any honor to worry about."
Her words have their intended effect: Zuko flinches as though he's been slapped. But he recovers quickly. "You could be a little nicer," he snarls. "You'd be dead under Ba Sing Se if it wasn't for me."
Katara gapes. "Are you kidding? You're the reason I was injured in the first place!"
"You were protecting the Avatar! I had no choice!"
"Of course you do! Everyone has a choice!"
"Right, because of your precious destiny-"
"So is it my destiny to rot here until someone uses me for fish food?"
"Forget it! If that's what you want, next time I'll let Azula finish the job!"
"I hope you do!"
Zuko makes a wordless noise of frustration and smacks his palm against his forehead, but Katara barely notices. Spots are appearing in her vision. Yelling takes effort and this is the most she's exerted herself in two weeks.
She sits down hard on the floor.
"Leave me alone," she mutters as she wills the room to stop spinning. "Unless you'd like to get me a really big glass of water."
Obviously, he doesn't.
In a few minutes she's steady enough to look up at the Prince instead of just focusing on his boots. His expression is unreadable. "I'm sorry," he says quietly. "You weren't supposed to be down in the cells."
She snorts in a way she learned from Toph. "I'm sure feather pillows will make being held prisoner much more fun."
"It might. So will real food."
She silently resolves not to eat a bite.
"Look, I thought you'd be in better shape right now. I have a proposition for you, but it can wait until you can... um... stand."
"I can stand," Katara snaps. "I'm just... choosing not to, is all."
She knows she sounds petulant. She really doesn't care.
The red boots shift, and then Zuko is sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of her. It's another moment where she can't decide what is more defiant: to refuse to meet his eyes, or to stare at him full-on. She decides to stick with insolently studying the gold embroidery of his collar.
"You're a good bender," he says with the reluctant air of someone who's never been asked to give compliments. "Really good. A lot better than you used to be."
Katara squelches the little spark of pride in her chest. It's true. She was Master Pakku's best student, and since the North Pole her skills have only grown.
"And the Avatar has improved, which means you must be a good teacher too."
"So I want to fight you."
Katara does meet amber eyes at that. "Fight me?" In spite of herself, she starts to scramble backward. "That's not fair, that's cheating, there's no water in here-"
"Spar," he adds quickly. "Just spar. And not now. Once you're stronger." Zuko gestures around the empty room. "That's what this space is for: nighttime firebending practice, so no one sends up flares announcing the ship's location. You and I would use it during the day."
Katara stares at Zuko as though he's grown a second head. Maybe even a third. "Why? Why not practice with Azula?"
"I've fought her a thousand times. She doesn't have anything to show me. And Uncle-" Zuko falters briefly and looks away. "Uncle was able to invent firebending moves no one had ever seen before. He learned them by studying the Waterbenders."
She finds herself mouthing wordlessly for a few moments. She'd picked up a lot about Zuko in the past months - his obsession, his selfishness, his arrogance - but insane was an adjective she'd reserved for his sister. Apparently he hasn't escaped the family curse after all. "You're crazy if you think I'm going to help you learn better moves."
The temperature rises several degrees. "Not better," he snaps hotly, clearly insulted. "Just new."
"New, huh? So you can use them against me? So you can use them against Aang?"
Zuko jumps to his feet. "So I can use them against anyone!"
Katara's eyes narrow. So I can use them against Azula is what he doesn't say in that moment, but she hears it anyway.
That makes things a little different.
The Fire Prince paces again in short lengths. "It's not like there's no advantages for you," he says. "You'd get practice, too. Maybe you'll beat me." His tone makes it clear how unlikely he finds that.
Oh, she wants to beat him. "Even if I did," she reminds him, "it's not like I can get away. I can't just fly out of here." She knew the minute the ship put to sea that she was well and truly trapped, so there's no point in launching some grand escape plan. Unlike some people, she thinks things through.
"We won't be at sea forever. We're going around the Earth Kingdom instead of through it. That's a long trip - two months, maybe. Once we're home, who knows what you could do. Maybe you'll be powerful enough to fight your way free."
Katara crosses her arms. "But what about Aang? Aren't I supposed to be bait?"
When Zuko doesn't answer, the pieces fall into place. Yes, she's bait, but that's not what Zuko had meant when he told Azula she was valuable.
She realizes the only reason he saved her is to study her.
"All right," Katara says.
Zuko's angry pacing stops abruptly. "Really?"
"Oh. Um... good." Her sudden, flat acceptance has clearly thrown him off. "I'd thought we would get started immediately, but I guess we should probably wait a few days. Until you're stronger."
"Right," she says. "Stronger."
The Waterbender can study the Firebender, too.
The new room is more comfortable. There's still a guard outside her door at all times, but now she has a real bed, a small table to eat at, a shelf with a half-dozen scrolls, and a new set of clothes. The latter are Fire Nation color and cut, exposing far more skin than Katara would prefer. She wears them anyway because they are clean, and tries to adjust to the air against her stomach and shoulders.
She even a tiny bathroom of her own. Katara spends hours with her hand on the tap, feeling out how the water runs through the plumbing of the ship. If she tries she could turn it to ice. The pipes - all of the pipes - would shatter. The ship would sink. She'd die, of course, but so would the only children of the Fire Lord.
But it would also mean drowning the crew. They are people with friends and family and Katara knows they're at war but it would still feel like murder.
She keeps the pipes clear in her memory anyway, just in case.
Her intended hunger strike doesn't last more than thirty seconds after the guard delivers a tray of dishes that make her mouth water. But the new food burns her tongue and blazes down her throat; she chokes so hard on the komodo chicken that she gulps down all of her tea in two swallows. Her nose stings every time she exhales and the only other part of the meal she'll touch is the rice.
Sokka would have eaten it. Sokka would have complained, but he would have eaten it. Meat is meat. Except when it's not meat. But if it tastes like meat, I guess that's good enough. Unless it doesn't taste like meat. Then you should get real meat. Mmm. Meat.
Katara wonders who is taking care of him. Who is taking care of all of them.
She thinks the guard must have heard her coughing, because dinner is plain fruit salad.
After four days Katara is fed and rested enough to be brought back to the training room. The Dai Li guard keeps her wrists bound in stone as they travel through the hallways. She's in better accommodations and clean clothes but she's still a prisoner, not a guest.
The double doors lock behind her, and the first thing she notices - and how can she not notice it in an empty space - is the enormous wooden barrel. She can hear the sloshing inside as the ship rocks.
Without thinking she pulls so hard that the barrel explodes outward, raining the room with splinters, and then she is encased in a cool, salty cloak of liquid. It takes no concentration to cover herself from the top of her head to the soles of her feet, and she absorbs the moisture through her skin like a frog.
Through her cloak she can make out muffled speech. Katara opens her eyes to slits and watches the blurry orange form of Prince Zuko standing a few feet away, waving his hand in front of her face, trying to communicate.
She knocks him off his feet with an icy fist.
An instant later she's throwing up a shield to block a fireball and then they are locked in battle, waves striking flames over and over and over and over.
In less than half an hour Katara is panting and shaking with fatigue, while Zuko is still deflecting her blows with annoying ease. That's all he's been doing, really: deflecting, deflecting and watching her technique. She knows she shouldn't make herself such an easy study but she's too angry to hold back now that she's got her element at her fingertips.
He tricked her, so she will fight until she literally can't.
That moment comes a few minutes later, when Katara is too slow to dodge the razor-thin flame that whips toward her. The crack echoes through the room and the searing lash slices into her cheek.
Katara staggers back, hissing. It hurts - a lot - and when she instinctively claps a palm against her face it hurts worse.
The light dims as the fire dies, and Zuko stands on the other side of the room, staring at her in horror.
Katara waves her free hand and shoots a few half-hearted ice spikes in his direction, but she drops them out of the air when he doesn't move to block. The fight is clearly over and it would be... cheating to just impale him like that when he's not even trying. She doesn't have to cheat to make him sorry. And she will, soon; even if she's lost this battle she will win the war.
When she moves her palm some of the skin pulls away; her eyes fill with pained tears as she probes at her cheek and assesses the damage.
"Stop, don't, that'll make it worse. I'll have the guard bring some lotus oil-"
"Don't bother." She kneels in the puddle at her feet; her red skirts cling wetly to her legs. Her reflection shows a long crimson welt running from her chin to her temple.
Katara places her hands flat in the water, closes her eyes, and exhales slowly. Cool energy - life and growth - pulses through her blood, and when she raises her fingertips to her face the pain vanishes almost instantly.
She's getting better at this.
After another quick stroke to make sure she's gotten all of it, she glances at Zuko. His sparring robes are soaked too. His fingers are on his own cheek and he's looking at her with a strange mix of jealousy and shame.
"I would have healed you," she says spitefully.
"I know," he replies.
The guard takes her back to her room; she sleeps solidly for several hours, then lies awake through the night.
They spar every day.
For the next few sessions he does nothing but block, and not very well. Like he's doing some kind of penance. As though he's surprised burns are a consequence of lobbing fireballs at people when he, of all people, should know better.
But Katara realizes she's misjudged the situation when she suddenly finds herself dodging a series of flaming rings that careen through the air at amazing speeds. The rings look, move, and feel suspiciously like her ice discs.
She curses at Zuko with language that would make her father's warriors blush. She curses louder when he smirks at her.
She focuses on his footwork. The way his waist twists and his shoulders rotate. How his bending is sharp and forceful in places where her bending would be smooth and fluid.
Her water whips begin to move more like fire whips. They become thinner and faster, and one afternoon she jerks her wrist and forms an ice blade on the end just before it strikes his arm. If he notices the blood dripping from his elbow, he doesn't show it.
Her stamina catches up to his quickly. Before long the matches have extended from twenty minutes to nearly two hours, with high sparks and low ebbs, of course. The explosions from their bending must be felt around the ship, because whenever the guards come to collect her they look like they never quite believe she and the Crown Prince are still alive.
Every evening she stands by the sink and repairs her bruises and aches from the day's training. By the next morning she is always ready to fight again.
She doesn't know how her partner is managing, but he can't keep it up forever.
"We need... better vents... in here," Zuko wheezes, spread-eagled on his back.
Katara nods against the iron floor.
They have discovered that hitting jets of fire with jets of water over a long period of time only results in a lot of evaporation. Katara gave up first because the effort of constantly reforming the steam sapped her strength, but it was close because Zuko had had to work twice as hard to maintain flames in the sticky air.
Given that they are both half-conscious on the ground, Katara figures it counts as a draw.
The humidity is wretched, even worse than the Foggy Swamp. Katara closes her eyes and blows out slowly; the condensation nearby freezes into tiny ice crystals and the space around her body cools thirty degrees.
For a moment she watches Zuko continue to gasp like a dying koi. Then - because she always felt sorry for the twitching, struggling nets the men would haul from the sea - she makes a weary gesture in his direction.
Snowflakes melt against the Firebender's face, and his breathing becomes steadier. "Thank you," he says hoarsely.
Katara grunts in acknowledgement and rolls onto her side.
The next day Zuko asks her to have tea with him.
As she's led back to her room she hears a thud that sounds a lot like a water barrel hitting a metal wall.
Every night before she goes to sleep she plays a game called What Would They Say?
It goes like this: Katara thinks of something that has just happened, something she would have shared over the campfire. Today a wave rocked the ship and my tart pie fell off the table.
What would Sokka say? Did you catch it? No! Oh, lovely tart pie, we hardly knew ye...
What would Aang say? It's okay, Katara, we'll get you another one. A hundred years ago there was this bakery on Whale Tail Island that made nothing but tart pies, we should go there!
What would Toph say? That's what happens when you're not on good solid earth, Sugar Queen. Eat faster instead of like a little priss next time.
Appa and Momo wouldn't say anything, of course. They'd be too busy licking her to see if there were any bits of crust left. Then everyone would laugh, they'd fall asleep, and the next morning they'd be flying off to their next adventure.
Katara hasn't seen the sky since she fell into the catacombs.
One morning - she's losing track, but she thinks they've been at sea for about four weeks - just as their sparring session is beginning to really warm up, the doors open without a knock.
Katara's water dome drops to the floor with a splash, and Zuko's fire bomb vanishes mid-air.
Azula's regal, relaxed face shows no sign of concern as she she walks in. "Don't stop on my account," she says, completely ignoring her brother's furious expression. "But your appropriate deference is noted."
Katara stays in her fighting stance.
The Fire Prince doesn't frighten her. The Fire Princess does.
Azula raises an eyebrow at Katara and holds up her hands in a mocking gesture of peace. "There's no need for that. You're spending too much time with my brother. He's got a flare for melodrama, as I'm sure you've noticed."
"It runs in the family," Zuko mutters. "What do want, Azula?"
"Want? Oh, I don't want anything." Azula might be the younger sibling but she looks every inch the heir apparent, from the tips of her blood-red shoes to the golden flame in her hair. "I'm only curious about what's been taking up so much of your valuable time, Zuzu."
Katara glances at Zuzu, who is flushing. "I'm training, Azula," he says. "Some of us like a challenge."
"I'm challenging. So is Ty Lee. So is Mai. Really, we're all feeling rather neglected."
"You're not Waterbenders."
Azula smirks. "You're right. We're not."
Katara prefers it when Azula's voice is hard; this cold sweetness is much, much worse. She doesn't dare relax her stance, and she has a grip on every single drop of moisture in the room, from the sea water on the floor to the sweat on Zuko's forehead. She could call it to her in less than a second - which might still be too short a time to block an attack.
The Princess walks around Katara in a slow circle; Katara stays at the ready. "Where did you find the clothes?" Azula asks, glancing down at Katara's bare midriff and silk skirt.
"Some of the women on the crew," Zuko snaps. "What difference does it make?"
"No difference. She looks lovely, that's all. Almost Fire Nation, don't you think?"
Zuko looks away.
"And how about you, Sparrowkeet?" Azula is standing directly in front of Katara now, her smirk widening, her hands clasped behind her back. "Do you feel Fire Nation?"
Katara raises her chin and wonders if she could choke this girl on her own saliva.
"I asked you a question."
She remains silent.
Azula's eyes narrow for the briefest moment, then she turns away with a wave of her spiked fingers. "She's very polite, Zuzu. Father is just going to love her."
Zuko stiffens, but the barb doesn't hit Katara; she has no intention of ever seeing the Capital, much less the Palace. By then she will either have escaped or died in the attempt. The potential reaction of the Fire Lord to her insolence is hardly a concern.
"Well, don't let me delay your little playdate, brother." Azula looks Zuko up and down like a viper bat, ready to strike with or without provocation. "Like I said, I was only curious. You'd best get back to training... below deck... where there's no chance of the Avatar spotting our bait."
Azula is barely out the door before Zuko is stripping off his tunic. "What are you doing?" Katara demands, her muscles shaking now that the danger has passed.
"Teaching you," he says flatly. "There's a way to channel lightning through the body without harm. I learned it from Uncle. Watch my movements carefully, you have to get this right fast."
Zuko's pale skin is covered with bruises and frost burns from their daily battles. "Because Azula likes to break my toys."
They practice nothing but electric redirection for two days. Since Zuko can't produce lightning himself, there's no way to be sure she's doing it right; instead he simply drills her over and over and over on technique and the flow of chi. In one arm, through the stomach, out the other arm. In one arm, through the stomach, out the other arm.
"I really think I've got it," Katara complains, bored and irritable. "Can we do something else?"
She throws a handful of water in his face - not a bend, just a regular splash from the barrel. He sputters and, wet hair sticking to his eyelashes, gives her such an incredulous, insulted, childish look of indignation that Katara bursts out laughing.
The annoyance fades from Zuko's expression. His mouth curls up in a hesitant half-smile.
And because she hates that she laughed and that she doesn't hate the half-smile, Katara shoots a high-pressure stream at his chest and knocks him back fifteen feet. He quickly counters with a blazing kick and they're fighting again, the way they should be.
Katara has gotten so good at sensing the ship's vibrations that she thinks even Toph would be impressed. Given that she spends twenty hours a day in her room, it's not like she has much to do but study her surroundings - and the only part of her surroundings that changes is the feel of the engine.
She knows when they're slowing down and when the captain has to steer against the weather. She knows when they're dodging icebergs and when they've stopped mid-ocean for repairs. And, of course, she always knows the tides.
She knows they're not making good time.
It's another day where they fight themselves to a standstill and end slumped against opposite walls, exhausted and panting. It hurts to move, it hurts to breathe, it hurts to think. All of the water is steam in the air and it reminds Katara painfully of her trip to the spa with Toph.
Zuko gets up first. He crosses the room, limping - he'd fallen hard when she'd turned a puddle beneath him into an ice slick - and offers Katara a hand.
She turns her head.
After a long moment he withdraws, exhales smoke, and watches resentfully as Katara struggles to her feet. She desperately wants something to drink. It feels like every drop of moisture has been boiled out of her body.
Katara finds herself saying, "I'll take that tea now."
They don't speak on the walk to his quarters. She hasn't been to this part of the ship, and she keeps her eyes open for a window, a port hole, anything that might allow her a glimpse of the open sky. But apparently Zuko doesn't care for that sort of thing, because his accommodations seem to be below water level.
Katara realizes quickly that on a vessel this large, a Fire Prince is entitled to multiple private rooms. This particular room is small and more comfortable than she would have expected for her sparring partner, so she assumes it was furnished by someone else. The low table in the center of the space holds a tea set, as well as several small dishes of food. Cushions line the walls. A red Fire Nation banner is flanked by two sconces.
Katara settles on the floor and crosses her legs, back straight, determined to ignore her nervousness. Having only seen three rooms for more than a month has made her uneasy about changes in her surroundings... and to think that not long ago, she felt relaxed in a new town almost every day.
Zuko sits down. He wets his lips. He stares at her.
A minute passes.
Finally Katara raises an eyebrow and glances pointedly at the teapot. Zuko's good cheek turns bright red, and he lights the fire beneath the pot with a snap of his fingers. "Sorry," he mutters.
Katara doesn't really know how to respond, so she just shrugs.
Zuko lines the tea cups along a slotted tray. When he pulls out the gai lids as well and awkwardly pours water over them she realizes he's going to do the formal ceremony; it means she'd be here that much longer and this is already difficult, so she says quickly, "Don't worry about that. I'm just thirsty."
Zuko manages to look simultaneously disappointed and relieved.
There's an uncomfortable silence. Even if Katara were inclined to speak - which she's not - she has no idea what she would say. It's not as though she and Zuko have had any real discussions; they train, not talk. Sometimes they've gone several days without speaking a word to one another.
"Do you want something to eat?" Zuko asks suddenly. He gestures at the little plates of food. "It's fresh, the servants bring it in just before I-"
"I don't like spicy food."
"The dumplings are mild, it's only the dipping sauce that's hot-"
"No." Katara can feel her grandmother frowning from thousands of miles away, so she reluctantly adds, "But thank you."
Finally the brewing is finished and Zuko fills the cups. She waits for him to drink first - because you never know - before taking a sip.
She spits it back out.
The Crown Prince of the Fire Nation glares at Katara as she wipes her tongue with a napkin. "What was that for?" he demands furiously.
"Uncle said it was bracing."
Zuko pours her some plain water with a scowl.
Katara senses weakness and decides to press her advantage. This is another sparring match, after all, just in a new format. "I bet your uncle's having a good time making tea for Aang now."
Zuko's expression darkens further.
"In between all the firebending lessons, of course," she continues, taking a sip from her porcelain cup. "Aang's probably gotten pretty good by now. Better than you. Better than your sister. Better than your father."
"You're assuming," says Zuko, "that the Avatar is still alive."
"I know he is," Katara shoots back. "I healed him myself." But as she says the words she hopes Zuko doesn't notice how her heart is sinking. If everyone thinks Aang is dead it means he hasn't been seen; in other words, he hasn't tried to rescue her.
She tells herself this is a good thing. She tells herself this is what she wanted.
"You'll see," she says stubbornly. "He's alive. He's alive and he'll defeat the Fire Lord and he'll end this war."
"And then what?"
Katara frowns. "Huh?"
Zuko has set down his teacup; the fire of his bloodline is in his amber eyes. "The Avatar and the Earth Kingdom armies - what's left of them - are going to invade the Capital during the eclipse, right?"
The blood drains out of her face.
"Let's say they win. They won't, but let's say they do. Do you think the invaders are just going to go home afterward? You're not stupid, Katara. Think about it. If the Fire Nation falls then the Earth Kingdom will rule the world." His tone turns nasty. "Did you like the way Ba Sing Se was run? I didn't."
"No." Katara shakes her head slowly. "It won't be that way."
"What's the other option? Would you rather the Water Tribes control everything? Tell women they can only be healers or mothers?" His eyes flick to the carving Katara still wears around her neck. "Marry girls off to whoever can pay the most turtle seal shells or whatever it is you peasants bargain with?"
"Of course not! Aang wouldn't let that happen!"
"Oh, so the Avatar will rule?"
"No! The Avatar restores balance!"
"I don't know, but he will!"
Embers glow where Zuko's fingers touch the table. "I take it back. You are stupid."
Katara is too furious to speak. She is only furious. She is very certain she is not hurt. She can't think of what else to do, so she bends water out of the teapot and douses the wood before it catches fire.
Zuko blinks at his soaked hands. The action seems to bring him back to himself; his shoulders slump and he pinches the bridge of his nose.
A few minutes later Katara has control of herself enough to mutter, "So why are you sharing your meal with a peasant, Prince Zuko?"
He looks down. His finger runs around the edge of his teacup, and then he says quietly, "You were nice. And... you didn't have to be."
"You're right. I didn't." Katara makes her voice like the southern tundra. "Don't worry, it won't happen again."
Her words effectively end the conversation.
She learns to conjure ice balls from the moisture in the air.
He learns to create a stable wall of fire.
They keep having tea. His brewing skills improve. She's not really sure why he bothers.
Today I cut Zuko's shoulder with a water blade then fought with him over who should get the last coconut butter cookie.
What would Sokka say? Well, it was a coconut butter cookie. Did you win?
What would Aang say? Maybe it would have been best to split the cookie. I hope you didn't get hurt.
What would Toph say? Sugar Queen, you are in so much trouble.
Sometimes they don't speak as they eat. Katara likes it when that happens; it disturbs her that conversation between them is becoming easy, in spite of her hatred. Quiet is less worrisome.
At that moment, though, it's clear that Zuko's silence isn't from exhaustion. On the contrary, he can't sit still; he fidgets with his teacup and keeps glancing at her when he thinks she's not looking.
"What?" she finally snaps, irritated. "Do I have something in my hair?"
"How old are you?" Zuko blurts out.
She's not sure what she was expecting him to say, but it wasn't that. "I turned fifteen a couple months ago. Why?"
He frowns slightly, and his gaze drops to her throat. Katara reaches up to touch her necklace and understands. "It was my- it's just an heirloom," she says. She won't discuss her mother with him, not again. That's what got her into this mess in the first place.
"But I know what those mean," he says, frown deepening. "And I know that one is your family's. It's not... being reused?"
"No. I'm not engaged."
"Oh." Some of the tension goes out of his shoulders. "Not that it matters." He picks up his chopsticks and pokes at a sesame roll. "Engaged isn't married."
"No, I guess not." She narrows her eyes suspiciously. "Hey, how do you know what they mean? I didn't even know until I got to the North Pole."
He gives her a strange look. "When you travel the whole world you pick things up. How did you not know? You're the one wearing it."
"We don't have engagement necklaces in my village. The Southern Water Tribe isn't very formal... since it barely exists anymore." She throws in the jab as a matter of course.
"So you wouldn't have had an arranged match?"
"I don't think so." Katara tries to picture a world where she matured with prospective suitors instead of just old women, babes, and her brother. "Well... I guess I could have. I mean, it happened sometimes." She was twelve when the warriors left, and as she recalls the roles of men and women had been... rigid. "Gran-Gran wouldn't have liked it. But I'm the last Waterbender in the south, so... they might have wanted me to start making more benders as soon as possible."
The edge of Zuko's napkin starts to smoke.
"What about you?" Katara presses, turning the line of questioning around. "You're a prince. Won't you have an arranged marriage?"
He pats the napkin quickly as he answers, "No. I would have had to choose someone appropriate, of course, but it still would have been up to me."
"That was before I was banished. Until my father declares otherwise, I'm still honorless and not much of a catch." Zuko gestures bitterly at his face. "And this doesn't help."
For a moment Katara is genuinely confused - until she realizes he's referring to the scar. It's like Aang's blue arrow; she simply doesn't register it anymore. "I don't think that'll be a problem," she says without thinking.
Zuko's eyebrow shoots up and, to her horror, Katara feels a hot blush rise in her cheeks. "And Azula?" she says, grabbing a cookie. "What will happen to her?"
It seems to take Zuko a minute to process her words, but when he does he snorts in disgust. "That'll depend on me. If my honor is restored I'll be returned to the line of succession and Azula will eventually marry someone suitable. If I'm not, she'll be Fire Lord and she'll do as she pleases."
"She'll probably do that anyway," Katara says distantly. She's never actually considered that there would be a new Fire Lord after Aang destroys Ozai, let alone that that Fire Lord would be either Azula or Zuko. The former doesn't bear thinking about. The latter is... complicated.
Zuko shakes his head. "I don't envy her husband," he says, pouring another cup of tea.
Katara can't help but giggle, even though it's not really funny. "Siblings are tough," she offers. "My brother drives me nuts too."
"Yeah. Of course, he doesn't shoot lightning or plot world domination."
Zuko smiles weakly.
As she lies in bed that night Katara thinks that her captor is more complex than she thought, and that that probably doesn't bode well for her.
The guard delivers a qipao dress instead of her breakfast. "You've been invited to dine with Princess Azula," he says tersely. "Dress yourself."
Katara feels the blood stop in her veins; she swears it takes conscious effort to make it move again. "Why?"
"Orders from the Princess are not for anyone to question. Be quick about it."
The door clangs shut, and Katara holds up the red brocade. It's thick and soft and clearly bears the royal Fire Nation insignia. She's never touched clothes so extravagant, let alone worn them.
It makes her nervous.
Her hands aren't cuffed as she's led up and up and up the stairs, which keeps her even further off balance. Eventually the flights become steeper and shorter, and Katara figures they must be above deck in the tower.
The guard stops at a small landing and knocks on an engraved door.
"You may enter."
When Katara walks in she has to flinch away from a painful bright glare. Her first thought is that there has been an explosion. The second is that someone has lit a fire by her face.
"My, my. I don't think I've ever seen anyone afraid of a sunrise before."
Katara blinks several times.
She is facing a window. It is too high and narrow to see anything more than a long strip of blue sky, but the light filtering in is simultaneously painful and wonderful.
She can feel the sun.
Her breath catches in her chest.
"Will you be joining us before our breakfast get cold," says Azula, "or would you prefer to keep staring at nothingness?"
Katara looks down and actually takes in her surroundings. The room is large and opulent and richly decorated; a table is set with a variety of exotic-looking dishes that Katara suspects wouldburn her tongue right out of her mouth. Azula sits at the head, but there are two others as well: the girl with the knives and Ty Lee, the girl who can block chi.
It takes a great deal of effort for Katara not to back away. Azula is disturbing and the girl with the knives is just spooky, but Ty Lee is genuinely terrifying. It doesn't matter that she wears pink. No one should be able to take away bending.
"We've all met, but I don't believe we've had formal introductions," Azula says graciously, the half-smile on her lips a cold imitation of her brother's. "Sparrowkeet, this is Mai and Ty Lee. Mai and Ty Lee, allow me to present Princess Katara, daughter of the legendary Chief Hakoda of the Southern Water Tribe."
Katara is struck speechless.
Mai doesn't react. Ty Lee waves merrily. Azula gestures to the fourth chair. "Please, sit."
After a quick look up and down, Ty Lee claps her hands together with obvious delight. "You were right! She looks great in red!"
"Of course she does." Azula takes a prim sip of mango juice. "Like true Fire Nation royalty, wouldn't you say, Mai?"
Mai's eyes narrow very slightly.
Ty Lee cocks her head to the side. "Hey, wait... isn't that your dress, Azula?"
Azula's smile widens as Katara freezes. "It is."
"Wow. That's really generous of you."
"Well, I thought the Princess and I ought to learn to share. Considering."
Heat rises to Katara's face as she resists the urge to tear off the qipao and slink under the table. She knows she's the butt of some joke, but she's not sure exactly what it is.
"And how is my brother these days, Sparrowkeet?" Azula continues. "He's been lurking below deck and we never get a chance to talk. By the way, those eggs aren't poisoned."
Katara's appetite is gone and she has no intention of eating. She's also not going to play Azula's game when she doesn't even know what the rules are. Instead, she does the only thing she can: she keeps her mouth shut.
After a long moment of silence, Azula starts to laugh. "Your wit is priceless, Princess Katara. Didn't I tell you she was an exquisite conversationalist, ladies?"
"She's just shy," Ty Lee says encouragingly. "She's spending too much time with Zuko. Her aura is all muddled. A girls' day should help sort her out - I mean, her hair is so wrong for that outfit."
"Oh, come now, Ty Lee. I'm sure it will be all the rage within a few months. Mai, don't you agree?"
"No," the expressionless girl says curtly.
"Not to mention the waterbending," says Azula as though she hasn't heard Mai's reply. "Just wait. Fire will go completely out of style. In fact-" Azula looks like a cat with the sparrowkeet Katara is supposed to be "-why don't you give us a little demonstration, Princess? Something you've learned during all this training with my brother?"
Katara stares resolutely at the tabletop.
"Maybe some motivation," says Azula. She makes the smallest of gestures, and Katara's sleeve bursts into blue flame.
On pure instinct Katara bends the juice out of Ty Lee's glass and douses the fire. It doesn't even have a chance to touch her skin.
She notices her heart is going at about twice the normal rate.
Azula claps slowly as Ty Lee gasps. "Oh, no. Azula, that was your prettiest silk..."
"I'll survive," Azula says.
Mai's lips twitch as though she is suppressing the tiniest of smiles.
Breakfast lasts nearly two hours. Azula and Ty Lee continue to shower her with compliments; Mai steadily cheers up, or whatever seems to count as cheerful for Mai; Katara wishes the currents deep in the ocean would carry her far, far away.
It's Mai who takes her down to the training room, not Azula. Mai is very clearly fingering her shirukens as they walk, and Katara wonders if she will have gone through all the trouble of mastering waterbending only to be killed by a simple knife to the chest.
When they reach the double doors Mai pauses. She gives Katara a long, evaluating look, and Katara prepares to dodge. But all Mai does is shrug indifferently. "I guess there's no accounting for taste," she says. Then she bangs twice on the doors and disappears back toward the stairs.
Zuko is dressed for training and clearly irritated. "You were supposed to be here twenty-" He stops short and his eyes widen. "Katara? Why are you wearing a dress?"
Katara is silent.
He all but drags her down the halls. A few guards glance at each other knowingly on the way; Katara doesn't acknowledge their presence. Zuko pushes her into the tea room then slams the door behind them, throwing the bolt. "Did she hurt you?" he demands.
Katara shakes her head. It feels like her jaw is locked in place.
He spots the scorched sleeve. Grabbing her arm, he shoves the silk back as far as it will go and runs his fingers along the inside of her wrist. "Did she burn you?"
She studies the Fire Nation banner on the wall.
She keeps her teeth gritted tightly, but to her absolute, unending humiliation, her eyes fill with tears.
This long in captivity and it is a few catty comments that finally get to her.
A shuddering breath, then hot hands cup her face. "Katara, Azula always lies. Whatever she said to you, it doesn't matter. Azula always-"
"Stop it!" She knocks him away, all the rage she had to swallow that morning boiling to the surface. "Stop being nice to me! Stop acting like this isn't all your fault, because it is!"
"What? How it is my-"
"I trusted you! I trusted you and you betrayed me!"
"I never betrayed you-"
"You kidnapped me!"
"You're prisoner of war!"
"I don't care! I hate you!"
The words are too loud for the tiny space.
Zuko stares at her, unblinking. He is as still as if he's frozen in ice. "Well," he says finally, "I don't hate you."
It is the very last thing she wants to hear. With something between a sob and a scream caught in her throat, Katara tackles him, intent on doing as much damage as she possibly can. He's taken completely by surprise and they both fall to the floor with a heavy thud.
The tea table crashes to the side. She lands a few hits, but Katara has had little experience with hand-to-hand combat; Zuko flips them over and pins her down with absolutely no effort. They are so close that his shaggy black hair is brushing her cheek, and she thinks she might spit at him again.
He kisses her before she can.
Now she is the one frozen in place. His lips are firm and insistent; his hands let go of her wrists and bury themselves in her hair, holding her head still. The way his body rocks makes it all too obvious what he is thinking of.
It is yet another sparring match, Katara realizes. He must be expecting her to falter and back down like a helpless little girl, the way he expected when he tied her to a tree. The way he expected at the North Pole. The way he expected in Ba Sing Se.
But she is not a little girl. She will not falter, and she certainly will not back down.
She returns the kiss instead.
The room grows hot as Katara matches Zuko move for move. He coaxes her mouth open, but she slides her tongue along his; he grabs her waist, so she arches into his grasp; when he fumbles with the ties of the qipao, she pulls his tunic over his head. They are at war and she will best him.
It's not until his thumb hooks into the sarashi at her waist that Katara realizes just how far this new battle is going. But her pride won't let her shrink away. She pushes past the nervous flutters in her stomach and scrapes her nails down Zuko's back, wishing they were filed to points like his evil sister's.
He groans against her throat. It must mean she's winning.
But when he reaches between her legs, she finds herself choking on a whimper of her own. In fact, after a few strokes and a kiss to her earlobe, Katara is no longer sure what winning is supposed to look like. She turns her head and stares at the upended tea table as his fingers slide shallowly into her body; it feels good and if she cries she swears she'll embed every one of her tears beneath his skin.
As he presses deeper, he is slow and careful - and a moment later he looks up in surprise.
Katara ignores his reaction. It's been half a year since she laid down in a treehouse and gave up the barrier he expected to find. He can believe whatever he wants, as far as she's concerned. She doesn't owe him any explanations.
Whatever Zuko is thinking, he keeps it to himself. But the restraint disappears from his touch; he nips his teeth along her neck and greedily rocks his hand with a movement that feels like firebending. It might be one, because there are flames building deep beneath the surface, ones that make her grind against his palm and clutch at his shoulders.
He's burning her, but she'll drown him. It takes nothing to reach into his leggings, and when she brushes across him his eyes glaze over with desperation. She runs her fingers up and down in response - steady, even, waterbending caresses - and squeezes his flesh experimentally.
Then her bindings are off and he's parting her knees. "I'm not taking anything," he says as he positions himself. The words are certain, but his tone asks her a million questions.
Katara answers none of them. She just tilts her hips and helps him push inside.
Today I had sex with Prince Zuko.
What would Sokka say? Tell me you're joking.
What would Aang say? Tell me you're joking.
What would Toph say? Tell me you're fucking joking.
The next morning she's taken to the training room, just like always. She and Zuko fight without incident. He treats her no differently.
They don't speak over tea.
The boarcupine bao is gone and the last coconut butter cookie has been eaten before Zuko asks, "Did I hurt you?" He is focused on the now slightly battered table; a heavy blush colors his cheek.
"No." Even if he had Katara would not have admitted so.
The blush crawls down his neck. "Did you hate it?"
Here is a place she could easily lie - but, again, that would be winning this competition of theirs by cheating. Katara does not cheat. "No."
The look of relief on his face is impossible to miss. Katara assumes he was worried about his prowess; Gran-Gran always told her men concern themselves heavily with such things.
She doesn't ask if he hated it. He had finished gasping and trembling, so she must have done something right. And Jet had praised her highly, back then, when she was living a different life. Though Jet was not known for his honesty.
Katara is not all that surprised when Zuko reaches for her wrist and pulls her to the other side of the table. What does surprise her is that his kiss is soft and quiet, and that the hand on her lower back whispers across her skin. He must be adapting his strategy of attack.
But she will not let him fool her this way, either. Katara can do gentle just as effectively as he can. She's sure of it.
She sinks into his lap.
This time they get undressed. Katara is happy for the dim light, which she hopes will mask her inexperience; Zuko seems to understand her body better than she understands his, and the imbalance makes her seethe beneath the surface. But she is a quick learner, and she'll master him the same way she mastered waterbending.
In this situation, the best defense is a good offense. She rolls them over and settles a knee on each side of his waist; now she is the one in control. This position presents the opportunity for her to explore his exposed chest, and for a brief moment she feels a twinge of guilt about all the marks from their training. She is healing herself every night; he has to mend on his own. Still, as far as she's concerned, that's his own fault. All of this is his fault.
When she laps softly at his collarbone his hands tighten on her hips and his breath escapes in a hiss. She thinks she is doing well, all things considered.
Katara is improvising when she leans back and lowers herself onto him, but she tries not to let Zuko notice. Instinct is her guide; she simply moves up and down and follows the pathway of her own pleasure. Her path seems to be his path as well, and he helps her along by feverishly touching all the right places. She has to admit this new form of sparring feels much better than the other kind.
When they're done he again presses his lips to hers. She finds that strange, because the duel has ended and there is no point.
The recent confusion has been so consuming that Katara doesn't think of the danger until that night. When she does it hits her like a tsunami.
She jumps out of bed and bangs on the door. "Hey! Hey! Open up!"
The Dai Li guard has a wary expression and a rock suspended mid-air when he peeks inside. "What?"
"I need tea."
He rolls his eyes. "You had tea."
"Well, I need more. I need a special tea." Katara forces a shy, pretty blush. "For... you know... girl things."
The guard - this one is young - pales immediately. "Oh. Uh... right. Um. Okay."
"Just ask the cook to add black dragon root to the leaves." She prays the cook believes the old story that black dragon root is only for monthly cramps - and that it's not too late for root to have its real effect.
When the guard returns ten minutes later his hands are empty. "The cook says your tea has always had that stuff, so if you're still having problems with your... um... girl things... there's nothing he can do."
She goes cold. "My tea has always..."
"Yep. Princess Azula's orders."
Katara spends the rest of the night vomiting, but for different reasons than she had feared.
She sends the ice blades for his throat. He parries with a fireball and a look of surprise, but if he meant to speak he has no time; she forces him to use his breath blocking the onslaught of her attacks.
It has been a long time since they've genuinely tried to injure one another. Training has become just that: training. Learning the styles of the opposite element. Adapting methods to their own individual techniques. Inventing. Experimenting.
Now Katara is trying to kill him - and when Zuko's defenses don't turn to offense, it only enrages her further. "Did you plan this?"
He retreats, his kicking arc slicing through her whip. She reforms it and shouts again, "What do you think, Prince Zuko? Am I of use to you in this condition?"
She had believed him when he'd said that wasn't what he wanted her for. She'd believed that their new sparring was just an extension of the war they've been battling for nearly a year, which had simply escalated and escalated until they'd fallen into one more way to fight.
But she's been drinking contraceptive since the day she was brought on board.
She has been tricked again.
The blast catches her off guard; it throws her from her feet and knocks the breath from her lungs and then Zuko is standing over her with an exasperated expression. "Katara, I have no idea what you're talking about."
The pain isn't only in her body. "You should have just asked me to train naked," she says venomously. "It would have saved us both a lot of time."
The shock and hurt on his face nearly makes her look away. But her fury would match that of any Firebender, so she stands and and unties the red fabric serving as her top, tossing it aside. "What?" she taunts as Zuko's eyes automatically drop to her breasts. "Isn't this what I'm supposed to do?"
He shakes his head slowly.
"I'm your pet, right?" The skirt is next, followed by the cloth beneath. The meaning behind Azula's mocking comments finally clicks into place. "Your little sparrowkeet."
She has never been a war prisoner or a sparring partner or bait for Aang.
She has been a whore.
Despite the bulge in his leggings and the sparks igniting from his fingertips, Zuko doesn't reach for her. Katara tosses sweaty hair over her shoulder. "What's wrong? Isn't this part of your plan?"
"Katara," he says, "if there was a plan, believe me, this wasn't part of it."
Something in his tone nearly makes her falter, but she squashes the flicker of uncertainty. "I don't. Believe you, that is."
"You think I would intend to feel like this?" His voice is harsh but the heat in his eyes isn't from anger. "There is no advantage to it. None. But I'm still..."
Confusion subsumes Katara's outrage. "Still what?"
Zuko does reach out now, and she's too bewildered to pull away. "Red isn't really your color," he growls, forcing her to retreat step by step. Then he grabs the backs of her thighs and lifts her clear off the ground, bracing her weight against the cold metal wall. "And I don't care."
He takes her hard and bruisingly fast, with Katara scrabbling to keep her balance against his uneven thrusts. She's not sure if she's crying out in pain or pleasure, but she doesn't want him to stop until she figures it out, and the sensations running up her spine make her question his inability to conjure lightning.
His grip is going to leave marks on her legs.
After he gasps against her shoulder, he lowers her to the floor and rains gentle kisses across her skin; it raises enough doubt for her to say, "Let's have black dragon root with tea."
He steps back and gives her a puzzled look. "What's that?"
The relief makes Katara light-headed. "Never mind," she says, mentally plotting her revenge on Azula. "You probably wouldn't like it."
In the tea room she falls asleep before they've finished eating and wakes to Zuko lying by her side, trailing his fingers through her hair.
The days blur together in a haze of glinting metal and red banners.
In the training room she learns to block every conceivable move and return attacks with equal ferocity.
In the tea room she learns which foods are bland without dipping sauce.
On the cushions she learns what makes him smile or shiver or grit his teeth against a moan.
If nothing else, her captivity has become very educational.
One afternoon he suggests that his bedroom might be more comfortable than hers. She acts as though he hasn't spoken, and he doesn't bring it up again.
She's careful to always drink her tea.
"Who was it?"
Katara lifts her head from the pillows. She's in a smug sort of daze; Zuko has been rubbing at a knot in her lower back for the last ten minutes and her mind has gone all fuzzy. But she's learned to use her mouth on him, so in spite of the massage she still definitely won this match. "Who was who?"
"Before me." Zuko doesn't look up, but she can see the tight muscle in his jaw. "Who was it?"
She turns her face away and looks at the wall. "Why does it matter?"
His hand drifts lower and strokes the curve of her bare backside. "I just want to know," he mutters.
"You never met him." She closes her eyes and remembers Jet's pained expression, Toph's quiet He's lying. "He's gone now, anyway."
The stroking pauses momentarily, then resumes, a little gentler this time. "Oh."
"Who was it before me?" Katara asks, parrying and riposting the way she always does in their conversations. It's obvious there has been someone; he knows too much about what he's doing.
"Why does it matter?" he throws back at her.
"It doesn't, but you asked."
He makes a humphing noise and Katara smirks in triumph. "I didn't know her name," he says grudgingly.
She rolls her eyes. "Typical."
"Yes, typical," he snaps. The warm hand disappears from her skin and Katara suppresses a little whine of protest. "Why would I have?"
Katara turns over onto her back. "You don't think you should know what to call the person you're taking to bed?"
Zuko's eyebrow furrows. "There wasn't a bed."
"Oh. Right." Katara is catching on, and her disgust is deepening. "So the sailors took you to a whorehouse, is what you're saying."
Now Zuko looks completely affronted. "No. She was very respectable and a very good teacher. My father wouldn't have chosen her otherwise."
"Your- wait, what? Your father chose?"
Pink tints his pale cheek, but the expression of pride doesn't fade. "It's tradition."
"A creepy tradition."
"And having your father choose your husband is so much better?"
"I didn't say it was!" Katara blinks. "How old were you, anyway?"
"Thirteen." At her expression, Zuko adds defensively, "It was my birthday."
She just shakes her head in amazement. "When Sokka turned thirteen," she says, "our father gave him a seal skin belt."
"I like my present more."
"It was a really nice belt."
"I hope your brother didn't use it the same way."
Katara opens her mouth to retort - then the image of Sokka doing things with the seal skin floods her brain, and she can't hold back a sputtering laugh. Zuko smiles down at her, looking pleased with himself.
The laugh becomes a sob.
She might never see her brother and his seal skin belt again. She doesn't know where Sokka is. She doesn't know if someone's washing his disgusting socks, or if someone's keeping Aang from being sad, or if someone's stopping Toph from insulting everyone, or if Gran-Gran made it through the winter...
She quickly rolls onto her side and hides her face. "I want to go home," she bawls, curling into a fetal position. "I want to go home..."
After a long moment the hand returns to her back, where it rubs a slow circle. "That's something else we have in common."
Katara would cover her ears to shut out his sympathy, but that would mean letting him see her tears.
"The Fire Nation... it's beautiful," he continues. He works again at the tension near her spine and Katara lets out an unwilling moan. "If the volcanoes are awake the whole sky glows. When it gets hot in the summer everyone goes to the beach and swims and the ocean is clear and blue and salty..."
His fingers span over her side, across her hip, his thumb still keeping soft pressure on the sore spot.
"...and the palace gardens are full of ash banana trees and fountains and ponds. There's turtle ducks." She hears Zuko swallow. "I think you'll really like it there, if you just... give it a chance." Warm lips brush her shoulder. "You'll always be around water."
She stiffens as the implication of his words hits her like a slap.
He doesn't think of this as a sparring match.
Her back heats as Zuko spoons against it; he slips inside and moves slowly and his hand reaches around to fondle her breast. "And you can wear whatever colors you want," he murmurs, his voice hitching with each thrust. "I won't let anyone say a word about it."
Her body goes through the motions. Her mind is worlds away.
Today I realized Zuko loves me.
What would Sokka say? He what? I'm gonna break his legs. Then you're gonna heal him and I'm gonna break his legs again.
What would Aang say? ...he'd be stupid not to, Katara.
What would Toph say? I told you you were in trouble, but did you listen? Nooo...
She tells herself this isn't what she wanted when she set out to master him. She tells herself that no matter what he's done she's still being cruel and unfair. She tells herself she is going to stop.
Her resolve never lasts beyond a few kisses to her throat.
Katara is roused from sleep by a hand clapped over her mouth. It takes her a moment to react, but then she hits out wildly and takes a breath to scream-
"Quiet!" Zuko's voice hisses in her ear. "It's just me!"
Her heart flying a million miles an hour, Katara gives the Crown Prince of the Fire Nation her very best Eat dirt and die look. He removes his hand and she growls, "You scared me!"
"What are you doing here?"
"I have a surprise for you."
"Now? What time is it?"
"Late. Or early. Depends on how you look at it. Come on, get up."
When Katara rolls out of bed, Zuko's eyes gleam. She's in her usual sarashi wraps - which Zuko has seen her in dozens of times - and his reaction is always the same. Katara wonders briefly if they'll even make it out of the room, but he shakes his head and hands her a simple dressing robe. He's only wearing loose pants. "Hurry up. We don't have long."
As Zuko pulls her through the hall, Katara glances around. Things are suspiciously quiet. "Where is everyone?"
"Downstairs in the kitchen."
"They're... putting out a fire."
"It's just a little one! Do you want your surprise or not?"
As they continue to sneak through passageways, Katara notices that he's leading her up. And up. And up...
Then he turns a wheel on an oval door and cool night air blows across Katara's face.
She is outside.
Her breath comes into her lungs in shaky gasps. The sky overhead is dark and clear, lit by a crescent moon; as her eyes adjust she can make out the stern of the ship and the vague horizon line where the stars disappear and the ocean begins. She can hear the gentle rhythmic slap of waves against the hull.
Zuko steps into her field of vision; his face is strangely blurry. "This wasn't supposed to make you cry," he says.
Katara swipes at her cheeks in surprise. "Sorry. I didn't realize."
"You can come out further if you want. There's no guards around."
"Yeah." She walks forward, each step feeling strange, until she wraps her fingers hard around the railing and looks down into the sea. The moon reflects off the water in broken patches.
She's scared, not being surrounded by walls, and she's scared that she's scared.
"We've got about ten minutes," Zuko says, leaning next to her. "If you're back in your room by then no one will know you were gone."
"I guess we'd both get in trouble."
"I let a Waterbender out on deck in the middle of the night. That's not smiled on in the Fire Nation navy, even for princes."
"And I don't want you sent back to the prison hold. I couldn't..." He trails off, then a wry half-smile crosses his lips. "We couldn't keep having tea if you were down there."
Katara wishes she could bend the waves just high enough to dip her hands in the water, but it's too risky. "We couldn't spar anymore, either."
"I don't care about that. I don't want to fight you." He reaches for her face, rubbing her tears away with an uncertain expression. "Why are you still crying?"
She leans slightly into his touch. Katara doesn't know how to explain that seeing the moon and smelling the ocean feels good and makes it all so much worse, because it has reminded her of the days when she could see the moon whenever she wanted. Because the daze of the previous weeks is washing away with every wave that passes beneath her feet, and he might not want to fight her but she is going to fight him.
She still wants her freedom.
"Thank you for bringing me out here, Zuko," she says softly. "It's... clearing my head."
He brushes his thumb across her lips, tracing their outline.
"Well, isn't this sweet."
Zuko jerks away, and Katara turns to look at the figure standing mid-deck.
Azula's red lipstick is almost black in the darkness of night. "Zuko," she says, shaking her head, "you are the worst sneak in the history of the Fire Nation."
"The kitchen is fine, by the way. No major damage from a sudden but completely ordinary incident where a stove burst into flame for no apparent reason."
"Glad to hear it," he says curtly. His fingers lock onto Katara's wrist and she tries not to grimace.
Azula watches for another long moment, then dismisses them with a little wave of her hand. "All right, you've taken your pet out for a walk. Now get her back to her kennel before anyone sees."
Blood boils through Katara's veins - she doesn't know how Azula always knows the most hurtful thing to say, but she does - but before she can think of a retort, Zuko starts tugging her away. The stars are about to disappear again.
"Zuzu? Since I'm being so generous, would you indulge me by answering a question?"
Katara can hear Zuko's teeth grind, but he stops.
"How do you imagine this little story is going to end?"
His hand tightens around her wrist. "I don't know what you mean."
"Of course you do. Tell me, and don't bother lying. You're terrible at it." Azula sounds almost compassionate. "Do you think you can hide her in the Palace and no one will notice?"
He doesn't reply.
"But that's the whole problem, isn't it? You don't want to keep her hidden."
"We captured Ba Sing Se." In contrast to his sister's sweetness, Zuko's tone is flat. "You said it yourself, we'll be welcomed home as heroes-"
"-which might make up for your past transgressions. But there isn't an Avatar to chase anymore. You have nothing to offer, nothing to bargain with. You'll never convince Father to let you put the Fire Lady's crown on that peasant's head, and you know it."
"Stop it, Azula."
"Honestly, Zuko, can you even imagine his reaction? Agni Kai will be the least of your worries. You'll be lucky if all he does is burn off the other half of your face."
"He might decide your little pet should match-"
"Shut up!" Katara finds herself shoved away, and then her vision lights up as flames blast into the night sky.
The Prince is shouting and the Princess is saving her breath, so it's only a few moments before blue overwhelms red; Zuko's body flies backward and hits the railing with a sickening crack. He groans as Azula shakes her head. "I'm only trying to help you, dum-dum."
"Leave him alone."
Azula glances at Katara with raised eyebrows, then blinks and looks up.
The ship is surrounded by fifty foot walls of water. They block out the moon.
Lightning sparks between Azula's palms as she looks back at the Waterbender. Her expression doesn't change. "We both know you won't do it," she says.
Katara shifts her stance and the tips of the walls start to crest. Foam patters softly onto the deck. "Don't be so sure."
Orange flickers and reflects against the waves as Zuko struggles back to his feet, fire in his hands.
Then Azula sighs and shrugs her shoulders. The electricity disappears from her fingertips. "You might want to head below before the guards arrive," she says carelessly.
The ship rocks as Katara releases the water and allows it to sink back harmlessly into the sea. As she wraps an arm around Zuko to help him to the door, Azula calls to her, "By the way, we dock evening after next."
"And you're welcome for the dragon root," Azula adds.
Zuko is trembling by the time Katara retraces their steps to her room. She closes the door and pushes him to sit on the little bed. "Lie down and turn over," she whispers. The guard could be back at any moment. "Let me take a look."
He reaches for the tie on her dressing robe instead. She smacks his arm. "Stop that. I need to see how bad she hurt you."
"I'm fine." The robe comes apart and his shaking hands grab at her sides.
In a quick move Katara finds herself flat on her back with Zuko's weight pressing her into the mattress. "Azula always lies," he mumbles against her neck. His eyes are squeezed shut. "Azula always lies."
Katara reaches around and slaps the flat of her hand against Zuko's back. He yelps and flinches away. "You're injured," she says sharply. "Get off of me so I can fix it."
Zuko hesitates, but then he lifts himself up with a sigh, giving her space to wriggle out from underneath him. "I don't need any help," he mutters.
"Sure you don't. Like you didn't need any help up on deck."
"I was doing fine."
"Your sister was about to roast you into little prince-kabobs."
After wetting her hands in the sink, Katara straddles Zuko's thighs and tries to change her mindset from combatant to medic. The blue glow of her gloves highlight angry bruises along his back, and she winces as she probes deeper. "You cracked a few ribs."
"I fought Azula. It's a hazard."
The first pass begins the knitting process, but only just. She realizes it's going to take a lot of time to repair him, longer than they have before the guards come back from the fire. "You're going to have to stay here tonight."
He nods into the pillow.
Katara gives him a moment to breathe before making a second run across his fractured bones. It reminds her uncomfortably of Lake Laogai and how she'd tried to do this for Jet, so to distract herself she asks, "Is this hurting too much? Should I be gentler?"
"No, it's okay." He pauses. "You've never healed me before."
That had occurred to her. "It's usually me who's kicking your butt," she says, trying to keep her voice light. "It would kind of defeat the purpose if I fixed you up afterward."
"It feels good."
"Don't lie. It's a painful process."
"Feels good anyway."
As she prepares for the third pass she feels him shift uncomfortably, so she holds off for another minute, giving him time to recover. As she waits she touches the edge of his disfigured ear. She's not surprised when there's no effect; scars aren't injuries and don't respond to healing. "So... your father did this?" she asks hesitantly.
When they'd first met she'd thought he'd had an accident of some kind; once she realized he was too talented for that, she'd assumed Azula was responsible. That it might have been the Fire Lord had never occured to her. "Why?"
It's a long, miserable silence before Zuko responds. "I begged when I should have fought. I was weak. He was right to do it."
Katara swallows against sudden nausea.
"But things will be different, now. The Earth Kingdom has fallen. The Avatar is defeated or dead. Father will restore my honor. And I... he'll see. He'll understand."
This time the bones truly set and Katara is able to start working on the surrounding contusions. She lifts a few frostburns while she's at it. "In the Water Tribes," she says, "we're taught that honor is something you gain or lose on your own. No one else can take it from you. No one else can restore it."
"That's nice. You're wrong, but it's nice."
She pokes his side. "This isn't a good time to disagree with me. I've got you at my mercy."
"Yeah. I know." She can feel him mending and growing sleepy under her hands; his next words are thick. "Do you still hate me, Katara?"
She exhales and, in spite of herself, runs her fingers along an uninjured part of his skin. "No." It's a surprise to her. A sad one. "I guess I don't."
He dozes off a few minutes later. She sits awake for the rest of the night.
Katara sets aside some of each of her next meals. She creates a makeshift sack out of scraps of her blanket to carry them in.
She refuses to spar for the next two days, since he is still recovering, even though she knows her healing was thorough. They go straight to tea and when he kisses her stomach he gives no indication that he knows what's coming.
Katara thinks that Azula lies to Zuko far less than Zuko lies to himself.
She waits in the bathroom as soon as the engines begin to slow. Through the tap she can feel the vibrations grow longer, lower, deeper. Finally they grind to a halt.
In that moment she freezes all the water in the pipes to ice.
Within seconds blasts start to rock the ship. Iron fractures and breaks; pumps back up and erupt; boiler pressure rises and shoots steam in every direction. A cacophony of shouts and stomping boots fills the halls.
Katara snaps a small water whip at the lock of her door. It is built nothing like the one on her old cell in the prison hold and falls apart in a single hit.
In the chaos, no one is prepared to stop her; the few crew members who reach out find themselves whirled aside or slipping on ice slicks. Katara runs up and up and up, her lungs burning with exertion, seeking the wheeled door that had led out onto the deck.
Mai is waiting.
Katara skids to a halt. The whips in the air fatten and come together, ready to be formed into a weapon or a wall at a moment's notice. She holds her sack in front of her chest.
The expressionless girl tosses a stiletto from hand to hand. Her shiny black hair is still perfect, even though steam is beginning to fill the hallway. "I think you've destroyed this ship," she says blandly. "It's the first interesting thing to happen in months."
She doesn't have any time to waste. "Get out of my way. Now."
The knife continues to flip back and forth, back and forth. And then, to Katara's complete shock, Mai steps aside and opens the door. "Go on, then."
Katara steps backward and closes her free hand into a fist. It has to be a trap.
Mai shakes her head with a sigh. "I'm not going to hold this door open forever. It's a limited time offer. I suggest you take it."
After a moment, Katara realizes Mai is serious. "But why?" she asks, flabbergasted. "Why are you helping me?"
Mai doesn't so much as twitch an eyebrow. "Because sooner or later Azula will kill you, and he doesn't deserve that. Now get out."
When Katara dashes away she fully expects to feel shirukens sink into her back. But no pain comes. She hears the door clang shut behind her.
The harbor is massive. Dozens of vessels stretch in every direction, huge war ships the size of her whole village and little fighter boats that look like toys in a bathtub; people in armor scurry like ants across planks and up ramps carrying sacks and armfuls of weapons. Red-roofed markets and military buildings line the shore and a white wall separates them from the surrounding mountains. It's late evening. The sky is lit orange in the west, backlighting the craggy tip of the volcano that overshadows them all.
She realizes Zuko was right. In its own way, the Fire Nation is beautiful.
The deck is beginning to list aft; the first crew members are escaping into the open air, looking wet and worried. The ship is going to sink, but the water can't be too deep. It'll roll onto its side and the hull will settle in the mud, but it won't entirely go under. No one will drown. At least Katara hopes not. She doesn't want to kill anyone - she just wants to get away.
The engines had stopped but the ship hadn't been prepared for disembarking, so there are no ramps connecting to the dock. Katara leaps right over the railing and falls twenty feet to land on the wooden planks, using all of her bender agility to not break her legs in the process. It's still a near thing. Pain shoots up her ankles and she falls with a grunt. She prays she just looks like another citizen fleeing the damaged vessel as she scrabbles back to her feet and breaks into a sprint.
An enormous arc of fire severs the dock, cutting her off from the land.
She drops her sack and spins around with a wave of ice.
It has been a very long time since Zuko and Katara battled outside of the training room, and she is amazed at how enormous the explosions can be. They have come a long way from their fight in the Crystal Catacombs and she's not limited by a canal this time - the entire bay is at her command. But he told her once that fire is fueled by powerful emotion, and his emotions are more than a match for all the water she can call.
She can't win because he's learned from her. She can't lose because she's learned from him.
It ends with the dock half-burned, half-submerged. It ends with them an arm's length apart holding blades of fire and ice to each other's throats.
Katara can feel the flames singeing the curls just behind her ear but it doesn't hurt nearly as much as the look on Zuko's face. "I'm leaving," she says.
She presses the ice closer to his neck, and the point nicks the skin. She can smell her freedom. It mingles with the smell of his blood and her burning hair. "Please," Katara whispers. She tells herself it's the smoke making her eyes fill with tears. "Please don't make me do this."
He swallows, and it makes the ice cuts deeper. For a long moment, neither of them moves.
Then, with a gesture of his hand, the fire blade disappears.
Katara steps back warily, keeping her weapon pointed in his direction. He watches and looks every bit like the banished prince who chased them across the world.
People are beginning to shout nearby. Her waterbending has not gone unnoticed.
"Do you have a plan?" Zuko says.
"Not really." She'll make her way to the small towns and listen for rumors of a flying bison. How long that takes, or what she does in the meantime, is anyone's guess. "I'll just figure it out as I go."
"Says Mister I'll-Walk-From-The-North-Pole."
A few more steps backward, and she allows the ice to fall from her fingertips. "Come with me."
Zuko frowns. "What?"
"Come with me," Katara repeats, wanting to stop the splintering she feels inside. She wonders what it would be like if things were different, if the two of them had tea over a campfire and shared a tent and looked up at open skies. It's hard to picture but not impossible. "We'll find Aang and your uncle. You can help us fight. I know you, Zuko, and you're better than this."
A visible shiver runs through him; his golden eyes search her expression, rake down her body, and she can feel the fire in them like the flames still licking at the planks. He takes a half-step toward her.
Then his gaze turns to the shadow of the volcano, and something longing and desperate crosses his face.
Katara knows she has lost.
She bends down to pick up her bag. The ship is sinking deeper. People are beginning to run in their direction. She walks to the edge of the dock and prepares to swim as far as a Master Waterbender possibly can.
A strong arm wraps around her waist and yanks her back. "I'm going to find you," Zuko murmurs in her ear. She is tied to a tree again, feeling warm breath brush across her neck. "I don't care what happens. Once my honor is restored I'm going to find you. I'll hunt everywhere."
This time it is different; she is not a scared girl who can't form a water whip and he is not an exiled boy throwing tantrums in the woods. Katara reaches up and pulls the stone carving from her throat, then holds it over her shoulder without looking back. "This helped you find me before, didn't it?"
She hears him inhale sharply, then she is slowly released from the embrace. The suede ribbon pulls through her fingers.
"Be careful," Katara says. "If you lose it I'll freeze you to a wall."
And she dives.
When he walks into the Western Air Temple three months later with her mother's necklace on his wrist and his father's war plans in his hand, she is the first one to smile.