Notes: So stuff? Things? College? I'm sorry guys, but I mean it when I say that I have not and will not abandon this fic. But you know. Life happens. Thanks so much for the patience! I genuinely appreciate your support and interest; you're all great. I can't say for certain when chapter 14 will be out, but it will be out, maybe in a month. My exams are over by the end of May, so we'll see. Wish me luck, aha.
"I HAD TO break Ty Lee out of a cabinet, Prince Zuko," Mai tells him. "Your cousin is a menace."
Zuko looks from Mai's schooled composure to Ty Lee's watery glare and back again. "Well," he says, "you don't have to tell me twice. About the menace part, I mean. I, ah, wasn't aware of the cabinet…thing…until just now."
"Zuko." The dropped honorific speaks more eloquently of Mai's agitated state than passionate inflection would. "I had to chip ice off that cabinet with my knife." Mai flexes her wrist; a stiletto drops into the grip of her fingers.
Zuko may or may not ease back fractionally on his heels. The time has long passed since Mai needed him to rescue her from his capricious sister's antics. There is no doubt in the prince's mind that Mai could slice a man's throat and come out of it clean of both bloodstains and guilt. He isn't afraid of her, exactly – Ozai burned fear of anyone else out of him years ago – but he's sensible enough to treat her with a respect that he extends to very few.
The meaning behind what Mai just told him finally sinks home. A headache settles into his left temple, and he reaches up to massage the sting out of his brain.
"She froze the cabinet?" he asks the hall at large. He can't cast himself as surprised, but he's certainly frustrated, and it shows in the sigh that carries steam out of his nose. "Is that all?"
A passing servant laden down with bed linens goggles, either at the events alluded to or the prince's jarringly cavalier attitude. Mai flicks the knife from one hand to the other, and they hasten their pace.
"She froze the cabinet," Mai confirms, "with Ty Lee inside of it."
"I gathered as much, thanks," Zuko snaps. He simmers down, looks at Ty Lee's stocky figure rather dubiously. "I've seen you choke a grown man with your legs. How did a little thing like Katara wrestle you into a cabinet for half a second, let alone long enough to freeze the doors shut?"
Ty Lee knuckles drying salt trails off her face. Her eyes are pulped and red, but there's a grudging admiration to her words when she says, "Lady Katara's stronger than she looks."
"I knew that already." Zuko peels his hand off his skull only to take the bridge of his nose between his fingers. Katara would have to be stronger than her appearance suggests, or else she wouldn't have (nearly) wiped the floor with Azula yesterday. But hand-to-hand combat with someone who's been honing their craft for years is one thing; trying to incapacitate a skilled martial artist and stuff them into what amounts to a very small box…is quite another.
"And tricky," Ty Lee adds after the protracted beat of silence has become so uncomfortable that it's started to make everyone present itch. "Tricky as Azula, even. Or almost as much."
Zuko squints at her around his fingers. "Not hardly," he says, but there's a distinct lack of conviction to the rebuff that even he can sense.
Mai sees the uncertainty too, pounces on it before Zuko can shove it down. "What do you know about her, really? What do any of us know about her, Zuko?" There is no accusation to her words, no meanness in her attitude. She is simply presenting the blunt truth with her usual lack of subtlety. "You aren't stupid. I can't imagine that you'd take your uncle at his word about her when she's –"
"Do you take my uncle for a fool?" He lets go of his nose because his temper has made his skin uncomfortably, searingly hot.
"Of course not," Mai retorts, frosty as the ice caps from which Zuko's cousin hails.
"Then drop it." Zuko's done here. If Katara wants to cut a swathe through the palace on an errand of petty revenge, if she feels as if she's justified in hurting the people who would have hurt her yesterday, it's no skin off his nose. He isn't their babysitter, or Katara's. He promised Uncle Iroh that he would keep an eye out for her; he never said that he would regulate her free time.
"Do you believe her?"
Zuko rotates his shoulders, glances around until his eyes meet Ty Lee's and hold. Ty Lee is the kind of person who won't allow the fierce strength of their intellect to shine through unless it suits them. People see her pretty face and her round breasts and take her at face value.
There is nothing of the acrobatic idiot that people take her for in the look she's levelling his way right now.
"I don't know what you're talking about," Zuko says, coolly stiff and formal enough to give Mai a run for her gold pieces. Ty Lee didn't clarify; maybe that was her way of sparing him.
Mai tucks her stiletto out of sight. Her wide sleeves fall neatly over her wrists; a stranger wouldn't know about the holsters concealed there until a knife was already at their throat.
"No," Mai says, a bundle of things unsaid weighing down the syllable. "You don't, do you?"
Zuko makes a sound of disgust, resigned to the waste of the last fifteen minutes, and marches off in any direction but one that will loop back here.
The knots of soldiers that are filing out of the throne room go unnoticed by the prince.
BATO ASKS HIM, "Where's your sister?" right off. His boots haven't even hit the packed snow, and the warrior is already asking after Katara.
Sokka steadies himself against the aging boat's hull, praying to the spirits that Bato will take the minute show of weakness for relief at the continued survival of their village's remaining warriors. Grown men are a dying breed in the Southern Water Tribe. Too many husbands and sons have been cut down in their prime; too many ships have sunk in foreign oceans.
No one in this village would have thought to lose one of the girls, though. Not to something aside from raids or grief or starvation.
No one in this village would have thought to lose their dead chief's daughter to a voluntary absence.
"Sokka?" Bato prods him, hefting his small bag of personal belongings off the boat and onto his shoulder. "Something wrong, son?"
Everything, Sokka doesn't say. Everything's wrong. I let my little sister go; the entire village let her go. Bato's a gentle man, possesses a sweet nature that belies his stature and craggy face. But even kind men have their limits, and those limits likely relate to losing their dead best friend's daughter to enemy lines.
"I'm fine," Sokka hedges, thinking, At least he's stopped asking about Katara. It won't be long before Bato resumes that line of inquiry, though. To call this village small is to flatter it. Missing people do not go unnoticed; absences gape like wounds in predator's hide.
There's no one left, really.
"How long will you guys be here for?" Sokka redirects, shaking off the bulk of his queasy, panic-spiced guilt and compartmentalizing it for later. "Any," he swallows, fights the way his voice wants to crack, "any casualties?"
Sokka sees the confirmation in Bato's eyes before the man opens his mouth; after living your entire life through a war, you start to recognize the signs of loss when they're presented to you. The loose drapes of skin around Bato's kind eyes tighten, the blue in his irises pales, the bridge of his nose bunches.
"Two," Bato said, "off the southernmost island of the Fire Nation."
Sokka's so accustomed to the slow plummet of his insides that he hardly notices it. He doesn't ask for names; picking out who's missing in their pitifully small army will be easy enough.
"Hey," he says, knowing that Bato won't need words to understand Sokka's mourning, "all the way into enemy waters? That's…that's good."
"I wish that the good news was the only news I had to give."
Bato starts the slow trek to his hut, stopping every so often to great watery smiles with murmured words, and Sokka falls into step with him. There's nothing more he'd love than to find an opening and escape, but he's already done enough to shame his father's memory. Warriors don't run from deserved retribution.
"How long will you be here for?" Sokka asks, investing himself further in the conversation, knowing that he can't dodge the inevitable question when it comes again. He holds his breath and dives in deep. "We missed you, you know. All of us. Especially…"
"A day or two." Bato shifts the tanned hide bag around, reaches down to pat Sokka firmly on the shoulder. "And I know, Sokka. I missed you and Katara, too."
There it is; the gut-punch. I miss her, too. He wants to ask – does Bato think that Hakoda would be ashamed of his only son? Kya certainly would. Sokka can hardly remember his mother's face, but he knows that Katara was her be-all, end-all. Kya adored both her children, but Katara was special.
"Sokka?" There's that softened voice again, like Bato's genuinely afraid that something in the younger man's skull has been displaced. "If something's the matter, tell me."
Sokka's mouth works; no sound comes out, nothing more than a trickling wheeze. If his father would be ashamed of him for letting Katara go, his mother would be doubly ashamed of his circling round the topic.
He manages to shove something out of his throat after two seconds too long of mute wheezing and increasingly concerned looks. "It's," he grates, "it's about Katara."
"Katara?" The first signs of alarm begin to taint Bato's stolidly calm persona. "Is she hurt? Did she get frostbite again?"
If only it were that simple. Sokka bites his tongue in defense of the hysterical laugh that wants to choke him. "No," he says, "nothing like that."
"Then what is it? Are you sure there's nothing wrong with you? You don't look so good, now that I look at you."
He's working his way up to saying it, just quick and clean, he really is; he's got the confession on his tongue and between his teeth. He's going to say it, to confess that he lost the person he was supposed to protect. Maybe the disgrace will die, maybe it will only burgeon. He can't know for sure until he tells Bato what happened.
"Sokka." Ataneq sneezes into the cuff of his parka, drawing even with Sokka and Bato. He has to trot to keep up. Sokka digs his heels into the snow and Bato follows suit. "Did you tell him? You just told him, right? You've been looking funny ever since you spotted the boat."
Sokka grinds his teeth down to stubs, practically. "Not. Now. Ataneq."
Ataneq's never been what Sokka would call quick-witted, but even an obtuse twelve year old should catch a punctuated warning when he hears it.
Ataneq does not catch it. He shoves his snot-crusted sleeve into his mouth and speaks around the fur cuff, "Were you just in the middle of telling him? Jeez, I'm sorry. Want me to go?"
Bato says, "Telling me what, exactly?"
Sokka's not like Ataneq. Sokka knows a warning, even (especially) when it's spoken so very evenly.
Ataneq says, "Katara would want you to tell him."
Oh for – Sokka rounds on Ataneq and puts all four inches of height separating them to good use. "Clearly you don't know my sister, buddy, because me tattling on her to Bato is the last thing she would want – and if you don't want her to make mincemeat out of your vital organs, you'll shut up right –"
"Sokka." The impact of Bato's bag sends up swirls of displaced snow. "Where in Koh's Lair is your damn sister?"
"In the fucking Fire Nation," Sokka just about yells, flinging both arms wide to encompass the sheer vastness of his little sister's stupidity.
Bato's eyes harden.
Sokka's arms drop and bounce off his sides.
Ataneq wonders, "Was it something I said?"
"I WAS WONDERING," Iroh announces, stacking both hands on his belly, "when you were going to request my assistance." He speaks with his typical meandering informality, but his eyes are a general's, not a doddering old uncle's.
That speed at which Iroh can drop his foolish demeanor and allow steel to leak into his eyes stopped surprising Katara a while ago. It still throws her for a bit of a loop, but does it shock her? No. No one in this country is wholly genuine, not even the kinder citizens.
Not even her.
"Request your assistance with what?" Katara fists two hands in the palanquin's heavily embroidered curtain and twitches it aside. When she asked for a walk outside the palace, she meant…an actual walk. She did not mean that she wished to be carted around on the shoulders of serving men. She yanks the curtain back firmly into place, unable to stand the flushed, perspiring shoulders that peep into her view. It is too hot even in the palanquin; how must laborers feel under the noonday sun?
"Your quest, my dear. The reason for your deceit."
Katara keeps her back to Iroh. He just saved her the trouble of asking. She'd just committed herself to her goals in earnest. For all she knows, Azula will grow bored of lording her secret over her and let it drop. The amount of time she has left is unknown, but surely it is finite.
"Of course," Iroh plods on, "once you complete your quest – pardon me, I must amend myself – if you get what you want, you will not be able to return to the Fire Nation."
Katara leans back into a round silk pillow, face still turned away from the palanquin's sole other occupant. "I don't want to return," she tells him, sketching her fingers across her upraised knees. "I'm not here because I like it."
"Do you not? Not all of us are as bad as all that, Katara." He is not correcting her or challenging her, not directly. The implication sits like grease on the surface of her skin all the same.
She couldn't stem the wisps of people and places even if she threw the entirety of herself into her efforts. The din of life, the chatter of voices that box her in, only serve to amplify that which she'd rather mute.
A Nonbender standing in a field of rice patties, up to their knees in water, their face baked brown as Katara's by the Fire Nation sun. Ty Lee's shout of protest when Katara had locked her into that cabinet this morning, a shout that sounded no different from a Water Tribe war cry. People, so many people clogging up Caldera's streets, hardly sweating in the heat, going about their business like the don't feature in the nightmares of a hundred thousand foreign peoples.
She very carefully does stifle one face, one voice to go along with it. What she's come to feel for him is unfortunate, but it won't be the end of her world. It's unimportant compared to the rest. Trifling, even.
"Maybe," Katara says, still not looking, closing her eyes to the soft red haze of filtered sunlight, "maybe I'd miss…you."
It's surprisingly easy to say. She expected to choke on the admission, to taste it on her gums like rotting fish. But here she is, and admitting affection for Iroh is as easy as feeling it.
"I find that I would feel your absence as well, Miss Katara."
Her eyes drift open. She wicks moisture off the nape of her neck. "Just Katara," she says.
"Dearest," he says, "you could stay if you wanted to. If you were to let go of this unhealthy need for revenge…"
The palanquin tilts; they're cresting a small hill. The affection warming her gut cools immediately. "You can't say that to me," she tells him, quick and mean, "you've lost someone you loved. You can't tell me to let it go."
Iroh exhales. That's it. No pained noises, no angry chastisements. Katara immediately wants to cut off her own tongue.
She says, "I'm sorry."
"You are forgiven. Children can be cruel in their grief."
He's not talking about her in particular, not exclusively. No, he's not.
"Yes." Katara stretches her legs out one at a time. "They can be." The man who killed her parents may never find out just how cruel, not at the rate things are going. But she hopes he will.
"Would you even," she starts, stops. Forces herself to look him in the face, because the least you can do when you're requesting something this steep is look the other person in the eye. "Would you help me, even? If I asked for help."
Iroh tips his head. A strand of grizzled hair flops out of his topknot. "What do you wish to know?"
It's not a confirmation, but it's answer enough.
Her throat is thick with dry heat.
"There were men, soldiers," Katara says, clinging to eye contact where she spurned it just moments before. "They raided my village. The main ship, it flags with sea ravens on it." She hadn't known what they were until Sokka told her; she'd been too young, eyes swollen and unseeing from the tears.
Her eyes are clear now, and she searches, searches for even a spark of recognition. Anything will do.
(She wishes that she'd asked this of him before she'd come to care for him.)
"Ah," Iroh says, just like that, "the Southern Raiders. I know of them."
It's all terribly anticlimactic. Katara can breathe again.
"Can you tell me more about them?" she ventures, plucking at his sleeve, not wanting to ask for a reassurance that she doesn't deserve. "Where they're stationed nowadays? Anything?"
I'm sorry. I'm sorry, I'm sorry –
Iroh pats her hand, ever too kind to a strange girl who claimed to be his daughter, who underestimated his intelligence and continued to take him for granted even after he essentially saved her life. "We will discuss it over tea," Iroh says. "There is a very nice tent just around this next corner. Quite private. Just a moment –"
The curtain on Iroh's half of the palanquin is shoved out of place before the old man can lean out and relay his request to the palanquin-bearers.
Katara hadn't even noticed that they'd stopped.
"You are under arrest," the hard-eyed woman says, frowning in mighty disapproval from under her visor. Like she's reprimanding a child for eating desert before dinner.
Iroh draws himself up, radiating bumbling confusion. Katara knows the act when she sees it, but the growing clutch of guards around the palanquin might not. "Pardon me? If my brother longs so strongly for my company, all he need do is ask –"
"Not you, Your Highness," the head guard cuts in. Her eyes are a little less disapproving and a scant more pitying when they touch down on Katara. "Her."
"On what grounds?" Katara demands, trodding right over whatever misdirection Iroh was about to make. She won't let him take the fall for her, not now. She'll protect him if she has to freeze his tongue in his skull to do it.
"Treason," a second, shorter guard says. "Katara of the Water Tribe, you are hereby charged with impersonating a royal."
Iroh's gearing up to say something else, she knows it. He's going to try to take the brunt of her mistakes.
Far, far too kind.
Katara says, "Is that all?" and nails the guard who just spoke right in the eyes with a fistful of ice. She dives out her side of the palanquin and onto a soldier's back.
There is a vast difference between fighting a single opponent, no matter how prodigious that opponent might be, and taking on roughly a dozen armored guards. Katara works Sokka's dagger out of the collar of her qipao with one hand and lashes out water with the other.
Hands are in her hair, searing her scalp. Hands are on her hands, struggling to incapacitate her, to cuff her, to work her bone dagger free. She digs in with her toes and tries to burst free of this clot of enemies. Her fingers strain for clear air. If she can lose herself in Caldera's crowds...
One of the hands in her hair jerks at the wrong angle and pulls a chunk free. The first noise of acknowledged pain warbles out of her mouth. Something in her wrist snaps. Her fingers spasm, the knife clatters free. Somebody grips her by the collar and pulls; someone else takes her by the arms and pushes. Her toes hardly graze the uneven ground.
Iroh is shouting. Even over the swell of a confused and frightened crowd, she knows this.
She blinds them with water, her unbroken wrist twisting, but the only pull down their visors. She bites their skin; they hand her over to someone else. She kicks and rails like a wild thing, like the personification of her years of stifled anger, and she thinks, At least Iroh will be okay. If he doesn't say anything, he'll be okay.
She won't let him say anything.
She is blind in her rage, but she feels the air that strangles her transition from damp and hot to cool and dry. She blinks the spots from her eyes, sees tall windows and low-burning candles. Her nose – it's bloody, she can taste the salt on her upper lip – flares through the pain. Incense.
She sees the throne room.
She sees Azula.
Katara bunches what strength she has left in both fists and breaks out of her coterie of guards, nails going straight for Azula's rounded eyes.
Is that shock? Katara wonders, but it's a fleeting thought.
"So much for keeping it to yourself." Katara slaps red onto Azula's cheek, fingernails catching in the ghosts of yesterday's scratches and opening them up anew.
Azula catches her wrist. Her fingertips press burn sores into Katara's skin. "I said nothing," Azula snaps, looking more harried than genuinely afraid, although there might be some of the latter in there, too. Katara's too far gone to pick up the subtle nuances of human expression, least of all from a seasoned liar like Princess Azula. "Do you hear me, Katara?" She uses the leverage she has to tip Katara forward, slick red mouth bumping her ear. "It wasn't me," the princess hisses.
Katara blinks, brain stalling. On the one hand, Azula could convince the sky itself that it shone green. On the other, wouldn't Azula want to revel in a victory this grand? Wouldn't she need to brag?
Two hands grip two soldiers by their scruffs and slam them aside. Zuko's ponytail is nearly standing on end. He sees a guardsman swipe out at Katara, and his skin blanches around his scar.
"What's the meaning of this?" Katara would laugh at his overdramatic bluster if things weren't going as they were…no. That only makes it funnier. She hiccups out a disbelieving laugh. Zuko looks at her like she just lifted her skirt and pissed on the marble floor. He shakes his head, knocks the guard out of Katara's personal space. "Get your fucking hands off of her. She's a prince's daughter."
"No. She is not."
Katara spits out what might be a tooth. "I was wondering when you'd show up," she says to Ozai. A boot lands in her spine for her troubles. She's on her hands and knees again, a mirror of her first meeting with Zuko's father.
"She is a traitor, Zuko." Ozai tucks his hands behind his back. "A fraud. A liar."
"Who told you," Katara licks blood off her mouth, "anyway?" Somebody grips her left arm; someone else grips her right, the one that sings from the bone they broke. She's yanked up just far enough to meet Ozai's eyes.
He's not angry. He's not even dead-eyed. He's just…quietly amused.
Katara hates him more than she could ever hate Azula and her parents' murder combined. She's dizzy from it.
"One ought to be more mindful of what one says in the presence of one's serving staff, don't you think?"
Katara shakes her uncoiled hair out of her eyes. She can't process what he's saying. If it was not Azula, then…
"You are aware, I presume," and now Ozai looks downright bored, standing far too tall for a mortal man, looking far too blasé about a death penalty, "of the punishment that befits your crime?"
Katara spits on him.
Something flares at that. Ozai swipes the saliva trail off his cheek, stiffening. Katara has to wonder – will he turn his fist to her face? Will he burn her shame into her skin?
The hands on Katara's straining arms are knocked away. Katara hisses, snapped wrist flopping from the impact. New hands touch her now, gentle hands. They haul her to her feet, press her into something solid and warm, a support in the chaos.
Prince Zuko digs his fingers into her belly, daring her to speak through the blood in her mouth and nose.
"Father," he says. There's nothing of the frightened boy in his tone, in those two precise syllables. "She's not a member of our royal family. But she will be. The law won't be able to touch her."
Ozai says, "Oh?" If anything, he looks more bored, that evil thing gone from his face.
"Nephew, brother –" Iroh, that's Iroh. Katara twists in Zuko's arms; he clamps his strength down on her and roots them both to the spot.
"Yes. Father," Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation says, "you will spare her, because I am going to marry her."