"You do realize how sad this is, don't you?" Katara leaned back on the big, cushy futon, scroll unrolled halfway across her lap. "You've been in meetings all week, and the first time you get a chance to do something fun, you decide to do—" She swept her arm around, gesturing to the whole room. "All of this."
Zuko peered up at her, eyebrow raised. "And you decided to stay. If going over Ozai's old reports is that boring to you, you could have gone with the others." He looked down at his scroll again, but she didn't miss the edge of his smirk. "The squid wrestling arena sounds like so much fun."
She huffed and rolled her eyes. "Right, because reading old political scrolls and squid wrestling are the only two options when it comes to having fun." She watched him for a response, and when there was none, she added, "It's not like there's a whole city out there or anything."
"I don't see you running for the door." He furled up the scroll he'd been reading and pushed it aside for a sheaf of loose papers. "If I'm such rotten company, then—"
Katara pursed her lips. He won this time. She would prefer reading dusty old scrolls with him over—well, pretty much anything with anyone else.
"And pass up the opportunity to snoop through the Fire Lord's personal files? Please. I'll make a pretty poor politician if I'm not willing to be a little bored to get my hands on some secrets." She snuck a glance in time to see him shake his head.
"You'll be a great politician. I'm not sure you'd make the best spy. At least not if you're going to announce yourself like that."
"Maybe I'm trying to lull you into a false sense of security. Is it working?"
Zuko snorted, smiling down at his desk. "Maybe I'd be concerned if we weren't going through Ozai's papers. I didn't know most of this stuff." He turned to the next page in his stack. "It's not like we can overthrow him a second time. Though the more I read, the more I wish we could."
Katara made a small noise of agreement. Her pile of scrolls hadn't been terribly interesting so far, but the things she'd seen—Ozai funneling food and medicine away from his own people and into the military, his refusal to honor soldier's pensions below a certain rank, his orders to close schools and orphanages to push the children into combat training or out into the streets—she shuddered. It was all over now. Zuko had seen to that, and if he hadn't, Katara would have marched all over the Fire Nation to personally put things right. But even so, the world would bear the scars of Ozai's cruelty for decades or longer. She found her gaze drawn toward the left side of Zuko's face, and she found herself wanting to touch it again, to caress and soothe the roughened skin.
No, that was a bad idea. That would be weird.
She turned back to the scroll in her lap and made it halfway through Ozai's orders for the construction of a massive statue of himself in every town of more than a thousand people—with greatly detailed descriptions of what was and was not to be portrayed in those statues—before she was too disgusted to read further.
"Find anything interesting?" she asked.
Zuko made a thoughtful noise. "Something weird."
"Weirder than Ozai commissioning more than fifty gigantic statues of himself?"
Zuko looked up and made a face. "That's—actually, that's just typical Ozai."
Katara wrinkled her nose. "Ew."
"Mmhmmm. I wish I could say I'm surprised, but I'm not." He looked down at his papers again and his brow furrowed. "I am surprised that there's a report about a river spirit scaring some soldiers back to the capitol, though."
Katara felt her eyes widen and her cheeks warm. "Oh. Is that—is that unusual?" Stupid. Of course it was unusual for soldiers to write the Fire Lord about spooky spirits. "Where did that happen?" she amended before he had a chance to answer.
"Jang Hui." His eyes narrowed as he studied her. "A few weeks before the eclipse."
She tried to fix her expression into one of puzzlement. "Hmm. Never heard of it."
"Right," Zuko said slowly. He picked up the report and held it just high enough that he could maintain eye contact with her over the top of the paper. "A river town that was starving. While you were in the Fire Nation. Apparently, a lot of villagers woke up miraculously healed one morning." He paused. "Doesn't sound familiar?"
Katara pressed her lips together and looked down at her scroll again. "Not a bit."
"How about this? All the water pipes in a factory upstream from Jang Hui exploded, and the men on guard reported seeing a woman in dark robes running across the surface of the river."
She kept her eyes fixed downward and fought to hold her expression still. "Aren't explosions a firebending thing?"
She didn't even have to look up to see him roll his eyes.
"Then," he continued, "Apparently all the soldiers were driven off the site by a terrifying river spirit, and when a scout returned to the area a week later, the river was perfectly clean again." He dropped the report and leaned his elbows on his desk. "And you don't know anything about it."
Katara considered. Zuko knew plenty of other things that she had done. Plenty of which were equally incriminating. But he was the Fire Lord now, and being the Painted Lady was technically a crime against the Fire Nation. Probably. It was better not to risk it. "Nope. And I'm a little offended that you think I would have something to do with a terrifying river spirit."
"You are terrifying," he said. "And I wouldn't be that surprised to find out that you scared a bunch of soldiers for fun."
"Fun? You think that—" She stopped short when she saw his grin.
"I knew it." His smile reached clear up to his eyes, and he almost looked giddy. "I knew it was you."
Well, he wasn't upset about it. That had to be a good sign. Katara gave him her best grumpy look and held her scroll up to cover her face. "Shush."
"Why didn't you ever mention that?"
She huffed and dropped the scroll in her lap. "It's not exactly the kind of thing that comes up in normal conversation. Besides, you're being weird about it."
Zuko took a second to school his expression back to normal. "I am not being weird."
Katara rolled her eyes. "You did a happy wiggle when you figured it out. That's definitely weird for you."
This time, he looked grumpy. "I didn't wiggle."
An edge of a smile crept up on her. "Keep telling yourself that, oh grand and dignified Fire Lord. I know what I saw." She closed the scroll and pushed it to the side. "Besides, you never told us about the Blue Spirit. Why should I give you all the details about the Painted Lady?"
"You guys already knew most of that. What's there to talk about?"
"I didn't get to hear it from you. That makes a big difference."
Zuko shrugged. "I started wearing the mask when I wanted to be someone else for a while. I got better with my swords, and I started doing a lot of sneaking around and fighting in costume. Sometimes I did good things, other times I stole fancy tea sets from rich merchants and tried to convince my uncle that I found them abandoned in a riverbed. Then I threw the mask away in Ba Sing Se." He paused, watching her. "That's pretty much all. Your turn."
"I saw a village full of starving people, dressed up like one of their spirits, and did everything I could to help them." She broke from his gaze for a second. "It's possible that I blew a few things up in the process."
He made a noise that sounded very much like a stifled laugh, and Katara glared. He cleared his throat. "I, uh—was that that only time you were the Painted Lady?"
Katara nodded. "It's not like we visited a lot of river towns where the disguise would have made sense. Besides, the robes made it hard to bend." She leaned forward a bit. "Have you ever thought about being the Blue Spirit again?"
He ran a hand through his hair. "Maybe sometimes. There are days when being someone else sounds really good."
"Hmm. Pity you threw the mask away, isn't it?" She felt a hint of a smile creeping over her face again. "It sounds to me like the Blue Spirit and the Painted Lady would have been a good team. If the Painted Lady had some more practical sleeves, I mean."
Zuko rubbed his chin, eyes narrowed. "Practical sleeves could probably be arranged. If you're serious."
Katara raised an eyebrow, smiling. "Think you could find another mask, Fire Lord? Or do you have to go back to Ba Sing Se to find the old one?"
"Ha. Very funny." He looked down at his papers. "The old one is at the bottom of the lake. You'd have to go get it."
"Well, in that case, I'll settle for a replacement." She smiled until he peered up at her again. "And I'm sure the new Blue Spirit will be even better than the old one."