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before dawn

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She could hear music from the streets below.

Peering over the roof she’d been perched on since dawn, Katara caught a glimpse of the roaring festivities six floors beneath. Men and women danced along the edges of her vision with bright dragonfly floats and thick ribbons swirling in the humid air. Drunk, celebratory cheers rang in her ears, the drums loud enough to shake the houses.

She focused on the guards stationed outside the palace gates atop the hill. Her gaze drifted down towards the ones that stumbled over their feet with tinges of firewhiskey on their breath, gripping scantily clad women to their metal chests. One girl giggled at something a soldier murmured into her ear and brushed her hand down the overly optimistic ridges of his armour.

Katara looked away, the image of herself in those thin scraps pinging off the walls of her brain.

“You are so funny,” she had tittered into his neck.

It was her and it wasn’t, all the same. An off-kilter version of her that sang a siren’s song edged with promise and danger. She pushed her breasts together under the lewd stare of the sorry soldier. It was more tedious than a firm slash of her trusty blade along the column of his neck, but it had been the only choice. She had to remain undetected for as long as possible and leaving a bloody trail of guards in her wake was going to, quite literally, ring alarm bells.

“What say you and I find someplace more private?” the stocky bastard had slurred into the ear of her fox mask.

Beautiful, Katara had thought when swiping it off a nearby mistress. It was adorned with bronze feathers that stood as tall as a crown, jewels that caught and danced with the torchlight. The slits revealed blue eyes so striking they turned heads and promised trouble. Her bronze skin was a clear giveaway that she was a foreigner, a zealous tourist or a whore bought and sold for pleasure

—it didn’t matter. It seemed that the pale folk here enjoyed the exotic allure of an outsider.

She’d agreed with convincing fervour, though she doubted her consent was worth a dime. One satisfying tug of a water whip around his cock and she’d be dragged away to rot behind bars. The lesson would foil months of preparation. She allowed the soldier to haul her down a darkened, spiralling alleyway.

The ring of keys to the security entrance clanged against her hip. Poor Bo, he was probably waking up from a deep sleep about now, the first throbs of a concussion seeping in.

The Festival of Lights was unlike anything she had ever seen. The natives danced all night, adorning shades of the sun, ducking under paper dragons and foregoing sleep for drunken mistakes. There was a small part of her that hoped she’d be close to the borders by the time morning came, and with it the grief of their dead King. These people were wild and free and a small part of her wanted them to forgive her.

There was a churn in her stomach and she thought of home. The last time she’d thought of the southern tribe, she’d cried herself into a fever. It hadn’t lasted long as she had developed an attuned talent for healing. This time, sickening guilt came in waves with an onslaught of cherished memories of the family she had left behind. A tear tickled down her cheek. She let it fall.

Katara dragged the back of her gloved hand across her cheek, the fabric rough and itchy against her damp skin.

Her earliest memories were of Gran-gran, the resident psychic feeding their nightmares with stories of the Fire Nation. The tales were simple enough, fire-breathing monsters that bared their sharp teeth at children and pillaged the weak to fuel their ravenous hunger. Katara didn’t have to worry of nightmares. She hadn’t slept well since she was eight-years-old watching a Fire Nation sword tear her mother in two.

The bells by the temple chimed twelve.

People below cheered even louder, they had no intention of sleeping tonight. Katara pulled her scarf up to rest on the tip of her nose. When she exhaled, it was muffled and warm and shaky.

She whispered a prayer to her saints and stepped off the edge of the roof.

The walls surrounding the Palace were too tall to scale.

Katara had studied the guard rotation every night-fall for the last week from the highest branches of the trees dotting the outskirts of royal territory. In five minutes, the guards would begin their nightly game of poker, the perimeter left mostly clear if you were a fast five-foot-something cloaked in shadows. She’d left the keys in a small hole beneath a tree for her escape.

She stared down at her hands. They were wrapped entirely in black fabric apart from her fingers. She flexed them into and out of a fist. The guards were easier to deal with when grouped off so neatly. She didn’t have enough time or water in her pouch to take care of each individually.

Katara cracked her neck and unwrapped her scarf. She walked straight for them.

“Hello? Can you help me? I am lost.” She said in her meekest voice, making sure her Wu was heavily accented.

The guards darted up at her voice, some reaching for their swords.

“How—how did you get in here?” A stocky one yelled at her. She had no doubt he was angrier with himself at how a tourist wandered into Palace grounds in the middle of the night.

Her eyes watered. “Oh, I am very sorry. I, how do you say—need help?”

“You have to get out of here, right now.”

“Wait! Look at her, she’s harmless.” A scrawny one from the back perked up, his eyes lingering on her chest.

“And fruitful.” One laughed, assuming she didn’t know the colloquial term.

She batted her lashes and gave them an innocent smile.

“Oh please, kind sirs. You are all so strong and how do you say? Handsome.”

Unsurprisingly, that seemed to work. A few of them blushed, puffed out their chests and made a move towards her. She waited till they were closely packed and stumbling over each other.

She froze them into a block of ice.

Katara gave herself a few moments to admire her handiwork. They were neatly crammed into a huge block of ice that wouldn’t melt in this weather for hours. Some of them were mid-step. She caught their lewd stares and devious smirks. Maybe she’d keep them like this forever.

She drew her scarf back around herself and ducked back into the night.

His fingers thrummed against the table impatiently. Where was she? He felt on edge without his General, especially this close to a meeting with the Elders. She was meant to bring word of the refugees thirty minutes ago. He knew the Elders were wary, to say the least, about his recent asylum mandate. He didn’t think he could stand another meeting with the bigots without leaving the room in flames.

“Zuko, are you listening to me?”

The Fire Lord refocused his gaze and gave her a smile.

“Of course Mai.”

She rolled her heavily lined eyes. “Well? Fire lilies or roses?”

Zuko didn’t know what to make of her sudden interest in the wedding. It was unlike her to show much interest in anything. She was a gifted fighter and could probably kill him without as much as lifting her finger. But they didn’t talk. And she certainly didn’t sit around the palace contemplating centrepieces.

They had been promised to each other before birth. Zuko hadn’t argued, least of all when they had taken each others’ virginities. Mai was the daughter of a very rich Noble and important political figure. She was beautiful and fertile with healthy family genes. And sometimes, before he got so busy with Fire Lord duties, she would let him between her legs. Their alliance simply made sense. After his twenty-fifth birthday, plans for their wedding had just set naturally into motion.

“Whatever you prefer.” He said, taking a sip of tea. He grimaced as he set it down. It was bitter. The leaves had soaked for far too long. He would have to get Uncle to teach the staff a thing or two.

“I cannot do this alone.”

“You don’t have to do it at all. We have staff taking care of all the arrangements.” He didn’t have to notice her scowl to immediately regret the words.

“You don’t care for my input in our wedding?”

Zuko had always possessed the impressive talent of fitting his entire foot into his mouth.

“That is not what I meant…”

Mai opened her mouth to ask him what it was that he meant exactly. Her words were stopped short by the doors being thrown open. He thanked Agni for his General’s impeccable timing.

“Sorry for the wait, I broke a nail.”

Azula threw them a dazzling smile, unbuckling the lapels of her armour and handing them off to a waiting maid.

“You didn’t have to wait on my account.” Azula said as she walked over to her seat, pressing a greeting kiss to the air beside her brother’s cheek. She winked in the direction of her longtime friend whose fingers were tight around the handle of her fork.

“We wouldn’t have had to wait if you were on time.” said Zuko.

His sister stuck her tongue out at him. For a few moments as they tucked into dinner, there was nothing but the clanging of chopsticks against plates or the quiet sipping of wine. Azula lifted her glass and it was refilled immediately. The maid blushed at the smirk the General gave her, scurrying away with her hands clasped tight.

She looked over the rim of her cup to her brother and then his fiancé.

“And how are the almost-weds?”

Mai said nothing as she soundlessly pried at her soup. Zuko cleared his throat and made a note to kill his sister after.

“Busy.” He said, avoiding eye contact with Mai. “And the refugees?”

“Settling in well,” She told him after swallowing a steamed dumpling. “The transition will be a hard one but they are thankful for asylum.”

Zuko nodded. “Arrange for more medics to be sent. They have to be vaccinated against any local fevers. Many of them should be farmers or teachers; arrange them work and send their children to schools as soon as they’ve settled in.”

“Already taken care of.” Azula told him. She shrugged at his surprise. “Somebody has to do your job.”

Zuko narrowed his eyes and bit his cheek to keep from smiling.

After dinner, Mai’s chair screeched against the floor.

“Not staying the night?” Azula said slowly, quirking a brow.

Mai folded her hands in front of her as she stood. Zuko stood from his seat. Azula watched them from her seat for a few moments before downing the rest of her wine and standing up in a formal goodbye.

“Goodnight Azula, Zuko.” 

Azula dropped back to her cushioned seat and undid her topknot. Her fingers thread through her silky hair and she sighed in relief.

“And what is that look?” Zuko asked when she looked at him curiously.

“When was the last time you two had sex?”

“Azula.”

“It’s a fair question, brother.”

“It’s inappropriate and none of your business.”

“That long?”

Zuko glowered.

“I imagine Mai is rather stiff in bed. Or is she the kinky sort, knife-play and all? Tell me when I’m getting warmer.”

“You’re drunk.”

“You’re lonely.”

Azula felt a pang of guilt when the mirth disappeared from his eyes. An apology settled itself on the tip of her tongue. She leaned forward and refilled his glass with wine instead.

“And Ty Lee?” He said after a long sip.

“Enjoying the island. She writes about it endlessly.” She let out a dry laugh. “The Kyoshi have her heart.”

“You know that’s not true.”

“Well.” Her lips pressed into a thin line. She ran her fingertip over the rim of her glass. “They have months to steal it.”

Her brother studied her for a long time. Her shoulders, usually the epitome of posture, almost drooped. Her eyes were glazed in a way that had nothing to do with the wine.

She blinked and was Azula again. A tinkling laugh. “I’m drunk.”

“You’re lonely.” He said softly.

“Ah,” She smiled and pinched his temple.“But you can’t see it in my eyes.” 

Tui and La save her.

She craned her head back to catch a glimpse of the balcony outside his private chambers. Her only option, she realised weeks ago, was to climb. 

Taking a deep breath, she closed her eyes and focused on bending what water was left in her pouch. It formed a tall lasso that flew up, up and swung around the base of a pillar. She opened her eyes and smiled. It was thin, but it’d do. She tugged the end of the makeshift rope and the water jiggled slightly, obeying her commands. She turned it to jelly as she pulled herself up onto the wall. When her feet were planted firmly along the exterior and her body stood perpendicular to the building, the jelly became ice under her fingertips.

She walked slowly up the side of the palace, her hands grappling onto the ice and pulling herself further up till the wind blew into her eyes and the air felt thinner.

When she caught the edge of the railing with her fingers, the door slammed and noises filled the room. It jostled her concentration and the iced rope gave way, shattering and leaving her hanging from the balcony.

Katara bit her cheek till it bled to keep herself from screaming. Her fingers were too slippery to hold onto the railing. She had to do something before they lost what grip they had.

In a hasty decision, she used her feet to push herself up a little more. If she failed to catch hold of something, she was about to fall to her death.

Her hands scraped at the top of the marbled handrail and she thanked her spirits over and over. Using all her strength, she hoisted herself over it and tumbled onto the balcony as soundlessly as she could. It was dark enough in the room that she remained unseen, even with the doors open so welcomely.

She waited in the shadows for ten, fifteen minutes till his breathing evened out. She had to strain to listen, the room was large enough for an echo. She slipped off her shoes so they wouldn’t click against the floors.

When the waterbender was convinced he was fast asleep, she padded into the room, not once slipping from the dark corners and crevices. The room felt as large as her entire village. Her heart pounded so loudly she worried if he could suddenly wake at the sound.

Katara couldn’t believe it. She was inches away from the Fire Lord Zuko, sleeping peacefully with the weight of thousands of corpses on his shoulders. It made her sick to her stomach how serene he looked. His hair, midnight black and unruly, fell over his unmistakable scar. His sharp features were soft and faint, the muscles in his face slack and tired.

Like this, in that single moment, he looked like a man.

Katara unsheathed her dagger and braced it above her head.

Zuko heard a shuffle in his room as soon as the door shut behind him.

Twenty minutes later he could feel the heat of another person skirting around his bed.

Feigning sleep, he waited till the intruder had convinced themselves they had the upper hand. He heard the distinguishable clang of a knife being unsheathed, a soft swoosh as it cut through the air towards his heart.

He caught it by the hilt before it could pierce him. His free hand reached out and clasped the intruder’s throat. They struggled against his tight hold. He clenched his teeth and lurched them back till they hit the wall. He was quick to his feet, slamming the assassin back into the wall at their desperate struggle. They scrambled to their feet, slipping the dagger into the black folds of their disguise. 

“Hmm.” he leaned closer, pulling down her mask so it pooled around her neck. His tongue ran dry, heavy in his mouth when he saw his attacker. He’d known to expect a female the moment soft curves, ample and taut, struggled against him. But, this. Her skin was dark and rich under his hand. Her eyes, hard-set in a glare, were so startlingly blue Zuko had to remind himself of the circumstances.

“I don’t know you and yet you want to kill me.”

“How impressive.” She bit back, her accent thick and clipped.

His lips quirked up, briefly, surprised.

Familiarity tugged at a shadowy corner of his mind but he couldn’t place her foreign tongue or her features. He hadn’t expected her to speak fluent Wu. A foreign attack settled better in his stomach than treason from his very own. Maybe a refugee from the Northern tribes? Surely not.

Katara reeled with shame and fear and dread. She had failed. She had failed to slay the Dragon King and now her sharp tongue was bound to get her killed if nothing else. She would not beg for her life. She would pray silently to her spirits and face the strike of the sword with her head held high.

There was a sudden harsh knocking at the door, followed by, “Your Highness, is everything okay?”

This was it. Guards would storm in and she would be dragged into whatever dungeon or prison or hell-pit this palace was built on. When he hesitated, eyes unwavering in their pursuit for answers on her face, there was a silly surge of hope.

“Yes. Do not bother me for the rest of the night.”

Katara’s jaw felt as if it would unhinge. Was this a trick? Even so, she was spared more precious moments of life. She was certain her spirits watched over her as his intrigue trumped any sensible precaution. She wondered if he now thought himself the predator and her the prey. Perhaps she was. Suddenly a cold, hard cell seemed almost appealing.

“I must say, from the women I’ve had in my chambers.” His voice was low and rough as his native Wu spilled out in what Katara considered to be a patronisingly slow pace. “None of them have been quite,”—his hand dropped to touch her knee, sliding up, up her thigh. She tensed, then tried to ignore the fear pulsing in her ears; the heat seeping from his hand, through the coarse fabric of her trousers to her bare flesh—“so”—she clenched her teeth but kept her eyes locked on his. She wouldn’t show weakness, no—“interesting.”

He had snatched her dagger out of its sheath.

Pulling back far enough that Katara realised how close they had been, Zuko twirled it once in his hand. Shit. She had been so careful, tucking it neatly within the folds of her robes. He ran his finger along the handle she’d carved, then the blade. He could tell she had made it herself, with the questionable workmanship and unintelligible carvings on the wood. His long fingers wrapped around the handle and then, he threw it sideways across the room. It sank into the wall to her left, almost buried to the hilt.

She hissed something foreign but he didn’t have to be a genius to know it was a curse. 

He looked at her then, curiosity bright on his smooth features. He didn’t recognise the language but the curl of her tongue coerced that niggling semblance of familiarity to the forefront of his mind. His gaze held hers for just a moment before casting downwards — in search of more weapons or more reasons to grope her? Katara could not tell.

This is when she should have ran, fast and hard. If she jumped from the terrace, she’d have to heal her broken limbs. Her water pouch was empty — she had wasted her only lifeline.

He leaned into her again, this time close enough that she could smell him. Wood and spices and smoke. She struggled against his grip but his legs braced her tight between his body and the wall. His palms pressed against her clammy ones, fingers brushing up against her hands and leaving a trail of gooseflesh before they pushed up and deftly yanked the blades out from under her sleeves. They clattered to the marble floor, shattering on impact.

She bared her teeth at him just as he had the gall to smirk. “I do hope you have more. I’m having so much fun finding them.”

She didn’t, but she’d use her bare hands to strangle the life out of him if she had to.

“I’m going to rip your dick off and feed it to the fishes.” Caution be damned.

Shock lit up his eyes and he laughed. There was a pang of humiliation in her gut that melted into a confused flurry of nerves at the genuine, molten sound. His throat was the second thing she’d rip out.

“What is your name, assassin?”

“You can pry it off my cold, dead lips.”

“You know, I just might.”

But she didn’t hear him. She was suddenly distracted. Her body practically hummed, for it sensed water nearby. It called out to her like a siren song. It was all she needed to break her foot free and drive it into his shin, hard. He almost keeled over in pain, giving her enough space to gather her wits. She couldn’t see the water but it felt close enough to beckon.

“Go to Hell—” Her words stopped short at the sight of the flames that engulfed each of his fists.

“That is no way to speak to your Fire Lord.” He growled, the hoarse words shooting up her spine. The flames burned brilliantly. The smoke rose into her nose, filling her mouth. She coughed, dizzy and unable to bend. Was he going to burn her alive? She wouldn’t put it past him.

“You are no Lord of mine.” Katara mustered, playing her minimal odds and yanking out the long, sharp pin that had kept her hair in a tight bun. She held it to his neck and willed herself not to cough from the fumes. Her hair, now free, cascaded in loose waves down her back to brush the backs of her thighs. Zuko’s breath hitched and she felt her cheeks burn.

Before she could react, he reached up and broke her measly weapon in two with his fist. But she could breathe again and her head cleared up and now—pushing off the wall, Katara extended her arm and pulled it back sharply. A bubble of water flew across the room. It split into two shards of ice that sliced through the air just as the Fire Lord growled and pulled sharply at her leg. She caught the makeshift daggers before she fell to her knees with crushing pain. He looked at her through the long strands of his hair, his eyes wide and his mouth set into a snarl.

She kneeled before him, chest heaving, picturing what he saw. A woman scorned, wild hair unruly over stormy eyes and daggers of ice in each fist. A fitting final image before his death, she thought.

“Any last words, Fire Lord?” The ice thaws her skin, but she doesn’t care.

“Do it.” He said.

Silence, then. “You will not trick me, Heathen—”

He surged towards her, took her wrists before she could scurry away and held her weapons to each side of his throat. She could feel him swallow hard beneath them. 

“No trick. Go on, do it.” Zuko told her harshly. The room spun around her. 

Katara’s mouth parted but the words were lost in her throat. She pressed the tips further into his neck, drawing blood and watching his face the entire time. He closed his eyes but his fingers closed over hers. They helped warm her skin and regain control of her frozen hands.

“What are you waiting for?” He snapped, his eyes boring into hers, challenging.

She didn’t know. She didn’t know.

Zuko tilted his head and nodded ever so slightly.

He melted the ice till water washed away the trickle of blood down his neck. Two long flames licked at each of her hands, burning her, starting the pyre she thought he’d crucify her on. She screamed, tears welling up in her eyes, her vision blurry and red. Her raw palms slipped on the cool marble as she scrambled away from him. He had evaporated the water, then suddenly leapt up and wretched her by the elbow, slamming her against the wall. If she wasn’t reciting her final prayers, she would have appreciated the training he’d had that resulted in such fluidity and speed.

This time when he spoke, it wasn’t to her. “Guards, summon General Iroh immediately.”

There were confused murmurs and snuggling on the other side of the door as she struggled against his hold on her. His good eye narrowed as if it could command her into obedience. It didn’t. They were going to lock her up. They probably had nifty little cells for peasants like her.

Angry and desperate, she pushed her fist into his face. He dodged it smoothly, but her nails caught his cheekbone and she clawed at him with unleashed rage. Burnt skin against burnt skin. He winced, swearing in pain. With royal blood drying under her nails, she hissed at him.

“I hope you rot in Hell, you murdering piece of—”

“Am I interrupting something, Your Highness?” A gentle voice wafted across the room, freezing her in place.

Zuko caught her wrist and slammed it back against the wall so hard she heard a snap of bone. Katara bit her tongue to keep from screaming.

“Only my assassination, uncle.”

“Perhaps I should come back later, then.”

The Fire Lord loosened his grip till he let go of her entirely. She chose the moment to run straight for the balcony.

Her feet hit the ground hard, spikes of pain shooting up her legs, hands begging to be healed the first chance she got. She could hear yelling and the sound of swords being unsheathed behind her, but focused on the blood pumping in her ears, the short distance to her freedom.

Katara climbed up one of the pillars and stepped onto the railing of the balcony, bracing herself for the jump. Drops of blood smeared the marble beneath her. Perhaps his, perhaps hers. Her vision spun, fraying at the edges. The pain of the burn was unbearable. She took a sharp breath through her nose, squeezing her eyes shut and stepping off, down—whoosh

Armoured arms wrapped around her middle just before she was pulled back to collide against steel.

“Summon the Healers and ready the room in the West Wing. She will be staying there.” There were murmurs of disapproval. If she could keep her eyes open, they would be wide with shock too. “Any of you lay a finger on her and I will cut it off myself.”

Her vision went inky black.