She waits for him to ask about it all the way home. She imagines all the things he'll say, the mocking voice he'll use (what did you do what are you disgusting wrong bloodbender), and her hands shake on Appa's reins. She marshals her story, thinks about how to explain it in as few words as possible, how to cut him off, how to stop him before he judges her, and rehearses it until she knows exactly how the conversation will go.
But he waits several days to mention it, brings it up when they're sitting alone at campfire at night, when she's begun to hope that he's forgotten it.
"I wanted to ask about that thing you did to the Raider Captain." He sounds so tentative, hiding his face behind his ridiculous curtain of hair, that she forgets all of her prepared defenses.
"There was a woman, a waterbender, that we met in the Fire Nation. She was the first bloodbender. But it warped her, and she could only use it to hurt people. She tried to use it to hurt Aang. And then I - I fought her. And I used it against her so she couldn't hurt anyone else. I won."
He's idly drawing pictures in the sand with a finger, looking away from her into the dark, pretending she's not really telling him. She resents his kindness and his uncertainty, suddenly and fiercely, no matter how much she tells herself that she's forgiven him.
"You were a better waterbender," he says. And then he looks up at her, finally, and grins. "You're a master waterbender."
She wraps her arms around her knees, lets her head rest on them, and looks away. "It doesn't feel like that - it feels like she won. I swore I'd never do it again! I swore I'd never be like her. But as soon as I was angry, I reached out and I grabbed that man from the inside. I think ... she was right about me."
"Uh," Zuko says, and he sounds so flustered that she can't help a choked-off laugh. "I just - I think I don't understand you."
"What is there to understand?" she lashes out, angry. "That's inside of me. It's part of who I am. I could make someone do anything."
Out of the corner of her eye she sees him frown and shake his head. "Okay," he says. "I knew when I left the Fire Nation that I might have to kill my - Ozai and Azula. So maybe I'm not the guy you want to be talking to about, uh, ethical dilemmas. But I don't see what's so different about, about this. If Azula tried to kill Aang again, I would try to kill her first. And you would walk her into a cell and have her chain herself up and then leave her there. Forgive me if I don't see that as worse than what I'd do."
"It's just wrong," she says, "making someone do something against their will like that."
"Maybe it is," he says, and she's so startled she looks right at him. "But you can't tell me you wouldn't do it. If you had to, to save Aang. If you could've done it, under Ba Sing Se, you would have."
And of course Zuko's going to be on the side of easy answers to ethical problems. Of course he's going to tell her that the means don't matter, that it's not a big deal, that there's nothing wrong with controlling another person like that. But the thing is, he's right; she's always known she'll go further to protect Aang than he'd ever go to protect himself. If she could have held Zuko down the way she'd held that raider, if she could've kept Azula from bending, she would have, no matter what Aang said about it afterwards.
"It doesn't matter," she says, trying to deflect the conversation. "I can't do it most of the time anyway."
"Do you know that for sure? If you're stronger than that other waterbender - "
"How could I - Who would I practice on? Sokka? Momo? Aang?"
He leans forward into the light from the fire, and now she can see his determined expression. "Me. You could practice on me. If I'm telling you that you can do it, it can't be wrong to practice - just in case - "
And maybe he's still trying to apologize to her, maybe he's always going to be trying to apologize to her. But he's offering, and if this is what she has to do to save the world, to save Aang, she's going to do it.
"Tomorrow night," she says, her heart pounding. "Right after dark, when the moon is still up - I'll be stronger then, even though it's only a quarter moon. If it works at all, it'll work then."
So the next evening, after dinner, she sits by the fire and stares up at the stars until everyone else has gone to bed, until she's all alone by the dying, cracking embers, watching the edge of the moon peek out from behind the clouds.
Zuko emerges out of the darkness across from her and busies himself making tea, watching the kettle and the fire. He doesn't say anything, or look at her, and she's not sure she can do this, even to him, until he sets a cup by her knee, retreats across the campfire, scrubs his palms across his knees, and says "I'm ready."
He sounds calm, the way he sounds when he's meditating in front of the campfire or watching Aang breathe fire, and it makes her feel a little better. This is just another training exercise; she does those every day. She sits up, centers herself in her body, reaches out until she can feel the watery shape of him across the fire.
And she takes him in her hands.
She struggles against the weight of his body for a moment; she can't find the right places to push or the right angles to lift. And then she pictures the bones and muscles and arteries under his skin, presses the water in his body up towards the sky, and watches as his arm lifts off his lap. She bites her lip, hard, and tries not to be distracted by how strange it feels to be holding his arm from the inside. She can do this.
"Whoah!" he says, and laughs a little shakily, staring at his hand flopping in front of his face. "That's - really weird."
"Yeah," she agrees, and she pushes his arm until he's pointing at the moon. He watches his hand with his lips parted, moving his eyes a second behind her control of his body, like he's never sure where he's going to be pointing next. She pulls the water in his palm toward her until he's leaning forward with his arm extended over the campfire, pushes it away until his hand, reaching behind him, pulls him off-balance, and he falls backwards onto the sand.
She watches the way he moves with fascination; it doesn't feel wrong at all, it feels smooth and easy, so perfect that it makes her uncomfortable. She can feel the blood moving inside him, his heart beating against her palms, his chest expanding against her arms. She picks his hand up again, and lets it pull him upright.
"Okay," he says, clearly trying for calm, "that's a good start. We can, um, we can try more tomorrow."
She lets go, and watches him as he walks away into the dark.
He walks to the campfire after dark the next three nights, sits across from Katara and waits for her to pick up his hand or his arm and move it without his input. He relaxes into her hold on him and lets her do whatever she wants.
He wants it to work - of course he wants it to work. He wants Katara to be that strong. He wants her to save everyone with a wave of her hand, to walk into the palace and walk Azula out of it, to make sure no one can ever hurt Uncle again.
The fourth night, as he's staring at his hand moving over the campfire, he realizes that his optimism might be a problem. He's not resisting her. He's not acting like Azula, who would hate every moment of being in someone else's control. She would fight this. She'd pull herself away from that power. Azula's so much stronger than he is.
"Wait, this is wrong," he says, before he thinks about it.
She pauses, holding his hand still above the fire.
"It can't be - I want it to work too much. I'm not fighting you enough," he says, and looks away from her. "It has to be something I don't want. You have to be able to make it work no matter how hard I fight."
"Okay," she says, her voice high and reedy and uncertain.
"And I can't be prepared for it, either, it has to be a surprise - "
He's still focused on the problem, and so he's not thinking about what she's doing at all until his left hand suddenly turns around and comes at his face. He has barely a second to push back against Katara's grip, and it's nowhere near enough time. He slaps himself in the face, hard enough that his head snaps to the side. His hand is rigid, unmoving; his wrist hurts more than his cheek.
"Oh no - sorry!" she says, and he can move his arm again. "I didn't think that would work."
He shakes the sting out of his hand and massages his cheek with his good hand. "I told you to do it," he says, a little rueful. "But, uh, maybe we shouldn't do anything that might actually hurt. Or leave a mark, in case - someone would notice."
"Of course," she agrees. "I'll think of something else."
"You can't tell me what it is," he says, and he tries not to think about the things she might come up with - surely nothing like the things Azula would have done with this kind of power, nothing like the things she can do with just words. As he's saying it he wishes that it could be Aang, instead, wishes that he weren't the only one that Katara would do this with. But she wouldn't push Aang. She wouldn't want to hurt him. No matter how much she's forgiven him, he's sure that she'll still be happy to put him in his place.
There's nothing to be done about that; this is the price he'll always have to pay for the things he's done. "Tomorrow night," he says, and walks toward his room, leaves her behind him in the dark.
She tries to imagine herself moving Zuko's body, moving more than just his hand, but the only things she can think of that he might not want to do could be dangerous. She's not sure that her control of his body is fine enough for pinches or scratches; she can't move Zuko's fingers one at a time yet, and as the moon wanes she'll only get less precise.
Pinching is too sudden, anyway. If she wants to know if it works if he struggles, it should take longer. And of course she can't ask Zuko for help, not if she want to know if it really works.
She tries to casually drop it into conversation all day: "What do you think Zuko dislikes?" or "Do you think there's anything Zuko really hates?"
"Why? Are you planning to put it in his dinner?" Sokka asks, and wanders out to the beach before she can try to rephrase her question.
"I think he really doesn't like not being trusted," Aang says, and gives her one of his significant looks.
"Azula," Suki says, which is no help, not unless she can learn to be Azula in two hours after dinner. She thinks about it anyway: Azula would be able to think of something instantly, something that Zuko wouldn't want to do, and she'd know what to do with her power. But it doesn't work; she doesn't know enough about Azula to think the way she does.
She tries to ask Toph that afternoon while they're sparring, just to finish off her set of useless answers. "What do you think Zuko doesn't like?" she asks, lifting a wave over Toph's head.
Toph slams her heels down into the beach and throws up a sandstone tent to protect herself. "Dunno," she says, sliding boulders back towards Katara, "but the way you talk about him, it sounds like he's really worried about honor."
That's no help at all.
"I don't know how things work in the Fire Nation, but I bet it's a lot like city life in the Earth Kingdom. All rules and manners and high court customs." She spits to one side. "There are probably things a prince isn't supposed to do. Make tea or sit with a bunch of peasants around the campfire or offer to be our prisoner to teach the Avatar."
It's an interesting idea, but he's been doing all of that ever since he joined Aang. Before that, too, really; he wasn't dressed as nobility when they fought Azula in the Earth Kingdom. And he worked in a tea shop in Ba Sing Se, after all.
And then she remembers the moment in the caves belonw Ba Sing Se, when he was shoved down the tunnel toward her, the way he immediately scrambled to his feet.
But there was this moment - just a moment - when he was on his knees at her feet, his expression simultaneously angry and ashamed.
And, oh. She could do that to him, make him look that way again. The idea tugs at the pit of her stomach; she feels shivery and hot at the same time.
Toph hits her in the face with a sand cloud while she's distracted, and the feeling disappears.
She's standing by the fire when he approaches that night. She looks nervous; he's suddenly worried about what she'll have thought up. But she'll respect his rules - it won't be anything painful or permanently damaging. He can put up with anything else. Every time he thinks about walking away, he imagines Katara walking Azula down into the dungeons. He thinks about a day when everybody lives.
"Ready?" she says, and she smiles the way she always does when she's ready to start sparring, ready to prove to everyone that she's the strongest waterbender in the world.
"Okay," he says, and the next thing he knows his knees are hitting the sand. And that's all right, it's fine, it's not a big deal at all, it's just a little embarrassing, and he's been shamed in front of her before. But then he's slumping over forward, down on his hands and knees at her feet, his forehead pressing down into the warm sand by her foot, and he hasn't done this since Father - since Ozai punished him.
He'd always thought that when she bloodbent for real it would be like being frozen, like the times they'd fought before. It's not the same at all: it doesn't feel like water or ice, and it doesn't feel like her hand on the back of his neck pressing him down, holding him in the dirt. He can try to push back, but there's nothing there to struggle against; he's just held there implacably, his own body keeping him down at her feet. He's only fighting himself. She could do anything to him like this; she could lift up her foot and press his face into the ground, she could hurt him, she could -
And all of a sudden he can't be there anymore, and he's trying to fight his way back up, but he can't move at all. She's too strong, and he's not looking up at her but her feet look relaxed, her legs loose and barely braced like she can't even tell that he's fighting her as hard as he can. It's a moment before he can say anything, and then the words tumble out of his mouth into the ground, "Please, let me up, let go, please."
She jumps back like his voice has burned her, and he falls forward onto the ground; he was fighting the wrong way, and his arms aren't in the right position to hold him up. She's saying something over his head, and he tunes in to hear her apologies, her voice saying "sorry" and "are you okay" and "I didn't mean it."
He pushes back up onto his knees and wipes his eyes roughly with the back of his hand. He swallows twice, clears his throat, and says, "It's okay. I just wasn't expecting it, it's fine, I'll be fine."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes," he says. "Yes. Okay. We know that that works. I'll resist that." He takes a deep breath and watches his hands tremble on his thighs. "Do that again."
As she presses him down again he thinks, next time she has to take away my voice.
She flushes when she hands him his rice the next morning; it seems so strange to eat and wash dishes side by side when she was making him bow just a few hours ago. When she closes her eyes, she can see him humbling himself at her feet; when she opens them, he's shaking Appa's slobber off his hands, or putting a guiding hand on Aang's shoulder, or shoveling his dinner into his mouth as fast as he can.
She meets him again that night, and every night through the new moon. And every night, no matter how much he struggles, or how much warning she gives him, she takes his body in her hands and pulls him until he's on his hands and knees before her. She practices finer motions by turning his head so that he has to look up at her through his hair, or look only at her feet. She tries, once, to keep him from closing his eyes when he looks up at her, and she's surprised when she succeeds and he stares up without blinking, his eyes watering. She always leaves the rest of his face free, though, precisely free enough that he could speak, and just enough for her to see the red flush that spreads across his cheeks and down the bared nape of his neck when his forehead presses into the dirt.
He has only the freedom she gives him.
Every time she molds his body to her desires she feels her heart race, her breath quicken. She sometimes can't believe her power, can't believe that she can do this and that he lets her. And it's so easy; he says he's fighting it, but she can hardly tell. She just pulls him, and he crumples at her feet, stays exactly where she puts him. This must be how Azula feels all the time, she thinks, this in control of the world, of Zuko.
She never gets tired of it, but she worries that Zuko will. As her control gets better, and as she tries everything she can think to try, she thinks that they must be getting near the end of their experiment.
One night when he's just on his knees, when she's practicing shifting his weight back and forth, he glances up at her and says, through yet another blush, "you're getting really good at this."
She grabs his body tight in her hands to keep him from moving but stops the rest of her exercise. "Yes. I am." She fears she knows where the conversation is going.
"I think you could even do it to Azula," he says.
"Maybe," she agrees. "I don't know if - I haven't tried it with enough people yet."
"And you're getting, um, more accurate," he continues doggedly. "I can feel the difference in the way you move me now."
"You can?" she says. "I wasn't sure how much you felt."
"Yeah," he says, the flush spreading further up his ears. "Just a little - sometimes I can feel the way my blood moves in my arms. Mostly it just feels - smoother."
"Really?" she asks, oddly complimented.
"So I was wondering if - if you have that much control, could you move my chi with my blood? Could you firebend through me?"
She closes her eyes to picture it: moving him into a firebending stance, tugging the blood through his body until she turns his power into fire.
She opens her eyes again and grins down at him, delighted by the idea. "I could try."
The next night, after Zuko walks up to the campfire, he holds up a hand to stop Katara before she takes his hands away from him.
"Let me teach you a beginning firebending stance, so you know what to do."
Katara's watched him with Aang before, of course, probably mostly to make sure that he wasn't going to try anything that might hurt the Avatar, but he's never felt her watching quite like this. She seems curious and eager, not worried or disapproving. He centers himself, takes a moment, and then turns and pushes fire out of his hand into the sand.
"That's not where you started with Aang," she says, apparently startled.
"I thought something with bigger gestures might be easier for you to make me do." He lets his arms fall down by his sides and waits for her to make him dance.
She leans back on one leg, frowning thoughtfully in his direction. "I'm not sure I - can you do it again?"
He shrugs and returns to his stance. "Sure. Ready?"
"Yes." She lifts her hands in a familiar bloodbending position, and he expects that she'll take over halfway through, when he's already in position.
Instead, the moment he raises his hands, she leans forward just a little and just barely touches him. He's still moving on his own, almost startled out of his stance by his unexpected freedom, but Uncle trained him well enough that he finishes the move, punches fire out into the ocean, and pulls back just slightly off balance.
He can still feel her under his skin when he turns back to her: a gentle pressure against his lungs, icy sensations skittering up and down his arms and legs, her cool hand against his skull. It feels the way he thought it would in the beginning, before he realized that he'd only feel his own body moving against his will.
And then he realizes: she's still observing him, trying to feel for the way his body moves. He starts to say something, and is startled by his cool breath. She's still inside him, her power finely tuned and precise against his veins and arteries and lungs, and he can feel everything she's doing.
He swallows hard, the motion difficult against the pressure she's still holding on his throat. "Are you - did you see what you needed to see?"
She's biting her lip again. "I'm not sure," she says. "Keep doing it."
He lifts his hands and firebends again, against the tug on his arms and the pressure on his breath and the spreading chill.
Katara doesn't even try to firebend the first night. She makes him bend over and over and tries to feel his blood and body moving; she can tell that he feels her bending, because he hesitates when she changes her grip, shakes his hands out when she's focused on the tiny vessels in his fingers, pants a little when she puts too much pressure on his lungs.
She feels it changing him: the blood flowing and moving and pooling in his body, and sometimes, when she pushes too hard, or holds him back so that he stumbles, she feels the flush rising up over his shoulders and the back of his neck.
They don't talk at all; he doesn't describe what he's doing, and she doesn't ask.
The next night, she waits for him to stretch and prepare, and then she says, "I think I'm ready to try."
"Okay." He relaxes into a neutral pose.
She holds him in position, slides her power under his skin, and moves his blood and bones carefully and precisely. She shifts his weight forward, spreads his feet apart and grounds him, leans forward into the punch and pushes his blood and breath out with it.
"Huh," she says, and shrugs. It took her a long time to control her own bending, and this is going to be harder; she's trying to move his chi without being able to touch it or sense it, by just opening the right meridians and moving his body the right way. She can't expect it to work right away.
She's a little disappointed anyway.
She keeps trying, pushing his body into the stances, pulling the heat towards his hands. It never seems to work, and half an hour later she stops and loosens her grip and lets him relax. "Do you feel anything?"
"It's not right -" he hesitates, and she bites her lip in sudden apprehension. He pushes a hand through his hair, blows out a breath, and then starts again. "I mean, from inside - the movement felt right, like you did everything right, but it didn't feel hot. It's like you're putting out the fire."
"Oh," she says. And then, "Oh, of course, I can't believe I - " and she matches his body to hers, reaches out and pulls water from the ocean, swirls it around her body, settles it into a globe between her hands. She looks up and sees Zuko across from her, her mirror image, holding a globe of water suspended between his hands.
She lets go of him, and the water drops from his hands and splashes his feet.
He's more anxious about their second night of waterbending practice than he had been about all the nights when Katara pushed him to his knees. He walks up to their bonfire and waits for her to take hold of him, pull water out of the ocean and make it dance.
The water between his hands or hovering over over his shoulders feels strange and miraculous, startlingly cold, and he is shocked that he can feel his body controlling it at the same time that he can feel Katara controlling him.
His body aches at the end of their second practice; he feels the cold settling into his bones, and when she lets him stop he breathes fire into his cupped hands to warm them. She's standing behind him, and he can't see her, but he feels her grip loosen and then tighten again, and he knows that she just jumped, startled, and nearly lost her grip.
He takes a deeper breath and breathes the fire again, and he can feel her cold grip on his lungs and the hot air on his skin at the same time.
The fourth night, when she has finished bending through him, he stops her. "I think we might have practiced enough," he says.
She looks away from him, nods. "I - you might be right."
"It's just - " he runs a hand through his hair; it's cool against his forehead. "We have so much to do preparing for Sozin's Comet. And you're already really good at this. We've probably practiced enough." He lists the reasons the way he did earlier this morning, when he was preparing his speech in front of a sleepy snail-sloth, but he leaves one off: the arousal pooling in his stomach, hot and tight when she touches him, that he knows she could not have missed.
"Thanks," she says, quietly, "I mean - you're right. We have other things to do." She drops her hands, relaxes her grip, and he is standing on his own.
When she lets him go, he walks away from the fire feeling nothing.
She misses it after they stop practicing. She tells herself that it's just because she can't tell anyone else about it, because Zuko never judged her for it. She doesn't miss controlling him, of course; she just misses being able to bloodbend so casually.
She has to stop herself from reaching out and touching him all the time. When he slides off the roof during a practice session, she nearly puts out her hands to catch him, and when they spar together against Aang, she thinks about how well they could fight together if she could just lift him above Aang's line of fire, hold him in place against the whirlwinds, throw him up into the air. She knows the way his body moves so well, now, that she thinks she could touch him just enough to make his jumps higher, strengthen his braced feet against the ground, push him until he fights a little harder and better and stronger.
When Sokka tells embarrassingly bad jokes at dinner, she watches Zuko's skin flush the way it always does and knows that she could feel him flushing if she just reached out and felt for the blood under his skin.
If she wanted to, she could feel his frustration when he makes a mistake in their sparring, the hot rush of anger when he talks about the Fire Lord, the shame in the pit of his stomach when someone mentions the time he spent pursuing the Avatar.
She doesn't touch him.
One night, after dinner, Suki slides down next to her in front of the fire, and hands her a hot cup of tea before she can protest.
"You seem to be watching Zuko with a different eye these days," she says, after Katara takes her first sip of the tea.
Katara's hands spasm around the cup; for a moment she thinks they've been found out, that Suki will tell Aang what they've been practicing.
"I just wanted you to know," Suki says, "that if you feel like wandering that way, or even if you just want to look, nobody's going to be mad at you. You can talk about it." She glances over and stops when she sees Katara's stricken face. "Or not! You don't have to talk about it with anyone."
Katara looks down at her cup and finds herself fidgeting with it, turning it around between her palms. "Thanks," she says, taking a deep breath and trying to school her face back to calm. "I - guess I'm just looking at him in a new light these days. I haven't really, um. Thought about - it."
"Well," Suki says, putting an arm around her shoulder. "Just so you know, we'll all still be your friends no matter what you want to do." She squeezes Katara's shoulder and grins at her over the steaming tea. "And if all you want to do is keep looking, hey, he's definitely got the best ass on Ember Island, my boyfriend included."
"Suki!" Katara squeaks, feeling herself flush; at least Suki won't be able to see it in the dark the way Katara can always feel it happening to Zuko.
Suki lifts an eyebrow at her and sips her tea delicately. "Or we could talk about battle plans," she says."Or go out and spar, just you and me."
"Yes," Katara says, gratefully, "sparring sounds good."
But she feels warmed inside by more than the tea; she's pretty sure that no matter what happens, no matter what she has to do when they fight the Firelord, even if she really is a bloodbender, she'll still have these friends.
He knows that he misses their practice, her skill at making him kneel and bow and dance. But he doesn't realize quite how much until after the comet, after he fights Azula, after she walks Azula off the battlefield, after she heals him with one hand and saves the Fire Nation with the other, when he's staring up at her determined expression through a sheen of healing water. He misses looking up at her - always looking up at her.
He says something about it, but he's not sure exactly what he's saying; it's hard to think clearly through the haze of pain and fear.
Later, when he has a moment between making decrees and reassuring counselors, he tracks her down in the gardens outside the palace. If he said anything embarrassing or revealing, he figures he'd better explain in case she gets the wrong idea. The right idea.
He feels free in a way he never really has before, free of the endless worry about the Firelord and Azula, the aching tension he felt while they were waiting to see what would happen. He knows that it's a temporary reprieve; the weight of the Fire Nation will land on him tomorrow, when Aang arrives or at the coronation. But now he's almost flying, his nerves humming with the release, and all he can think about is finding Katara and asking her to pull him down.
She's standing on the moss by a stone lantern, creating tidal eddies in the pond. He sits down in front of her, crosslegged on the slate tiles at the edge of the pond, rests his hands on his knees, and takes a deep breath. "I was wondering if - if you'd be interesting in practicing bloodbending again. Not that I think you need the practice! You're great at it. I just - I liked the way it - I wanted to - " and he's ashamed to be asking for it, blushing red and feeling the blood rise in his body, and then he feels her reaching inside him, her cool power sitting inside his skin and feeling that flush.
She's blushing, too, but she's smiling through it. She holds up a hand and presses him down, down into the bark and dirt. She tosses her hair like Azula, and she looks like she's been practicing Azula's poses, because she looks completely smug and sure of herself, sure that this is the only gesture she needs to make to keep him there. It takes his breath away.
"Is this what you want?" she asks, and he nods jerkily through her control.
And this time - finally - she walks over to him. She drops her hand into his hair and brushes it over the back of his neck, lets her warm palm sit there for a moment before she pushes him down just that one inch further, until his lips are pressed against the straps of her sandal, and he relaxes into her hold on him.
"Do you think it matters what you want?"
He uses the tiny amount of freedom that she gives him to turn his head and press his cheek down into her foot.