Katara sat half-reclined against the rock wall of the mineral spring with dark water lapping up to her throat. The dripping cave sounds, so brutally loud in the pre-dawn stillness, were almost enough to drown out the words and images still clamoring in her head. All around her, the grotto was soupy with humid darkness. She had brought a candle when she came down here, a stout beeswax candle on a gleaming brass holder. The flame had dipped and shimmied inside its halo in the fog, and had cast a million gentle shadows on the rippled cavern walls. It had burned down and finally gone out, maybe an hour ago. But probably longer than that.
For a while, the fat moon had risen to its zenith and cast its cold light through what had to be shafts cut in the cave ceiling and up to the mountain's surface. The light speared down, making the steam glow in shuddering sheets for a second before they curled off and vanished. Where the moonbeams hit the surface of the spring, the water was white and opaque as milk.
Katara watched the light sweep slowly toward her as the moon journeyed west. She was growing familiar with the sour ache that filled her chest and belly and occasionally crept up through the back of her brain.
As quick as it came, Katara tamped the thought down again, mashed it hard under the water sounds. Then there was stillness again, and the sick feeling faded to something bearable.
She'd almost lost it in her luxurious room in the villa after all the servants finished tucking in their royal guest and the hallways went quiet. The silence had dredged her, raking through the muck of things she had been holding down since the palanquin had taken them from the city this afternoon. Finally unwilling to endure it any longer, she had left her room and prowled the halls. She brushed off the inquiring servants and bared her teeth at the majordomo, who finally put the brass candleholder in her hand and directed her gently toward the entrance to the spring.
She half expected Zuko to appear, but apparently no one had told him that his "honored guest" had gone feral in the night. That, or he had meant it when he had made his little speech to the household staff right there on the grand front steps when they arrived late in the afternoon.
"Princess Katara is my honored guest," he'd said, leveling a severe look on the assembled maids and footmen and cooks, "and she is to be treated with the same consideration with which you honor me."
Katara had frowned at the ground in front of her as her face got hot under so many eyes.
You killed people. You never even saw their faces. Just like Jet and Smellerbee, slicing the throats of those soldiers in the woods. And for what? For who?
She had squashed the thoughts then, and she squashed them again now, though it was easier here in the cave and the dark where no one could see her face twist with the pain of it.
The moonbeams had carved down to poles and then threads before disappearing entirely when a lantern's glow spilled down the steps into the cavern. For a moment, the halo it cast in the steam was too bright, and Katara could not see who carried it. She gritted her teeth and raised a hand to block the light. There were several sets of footfalls - and the voices bouncing off the naked wet stone were familiar.
"This is ridiculous. No one would just sit in the dark down here. Let's go back."
"Would you quit being such a wet blanket, Loska? There are clothes on the floor. Of course she's here."
It was Sian who called out, raising the lantern up high, but apparently still unable to see Katara where she sat against the far wall of the pool. Behind her, Loska and Iyuma went on frowning at each other from the corners of their eyes.
This was a hallucination. They couldn't actually be here - they were all back in the palace, the better part of a day's journey away. Clearly Katara's exhausted, guilt-riddled brain was offering up visions of familiar faces to ratchet up her torment.
If this was real, she could stay very still and they probably wouldn't see her in the shadows and steam. They would eventually just go away and leave her alone.
But there was no way this was real. It had to be a dream - and if it was a dream, it was likely a nightmare, so it followed that it was inevitable that they would find her.
Katara slid forward through the water, stepping into the deeper center of the pool where the water lapped just over her shoulders. Her voice came out low and strained, sharper than she intended.
"What do you want?"
The three women's eyes snapped to her at once, finally able to pick her out of the shadows. Sian beamed. Iyuma's mouth hitched up in one corner. The furrow in Loska's brow deepened.
"We came to attend you, Princess," Sian said, bowing into a proper servant's posture. The sight of her like that, now, after everything Katara had done—
"Stop." The word bubbled involuntarily up her throat and came out harsh. Three sets of eyes fixed on her again. "What- what are you doing here? How did you get out of the palace?"
"Machi packed up Prince Zuko's entire household inside an hour," Sian said in a rush, coming to kneel on the stone at the water's edge. She set the lantern down with a clack. "All the clothes, and the books and papers and - it all happened so fast! I've never seen anything like it."
"We only heard what happened when we got down to the city." Iyuma's half-smile had vanished. She seemed uncertain, as if all her enthusiasm for stories about fighting had dried up upon hearing this particular story. That gave Katara a sick flutter in her gut.
"Is it true?" Sian asked into the silence. "Did you save Prince Zuko from being assassinated?"
They were all looking at her, three sets of eyes showing three totally different reactions. Katara's neck felt suddenly cold. She longed to dip back down in the water until it cradled her chin. Iyuma craned her head forward as if looking for a clearer angle on this situation, some way of making it make sense. Loska only watched her, flat and knowing.
"Is it true he put you on a ship," Iyuma said, her lips pulling back oddly from her teeth. "He set you free and you came back for him?"
The sickness inside her thrashed like a live eel, and Katara was more certain than ever now that this was a nightmare. The very people she had nearly abandoned had come to find her, to make her face every messed-up aspect of what she had done. Even the catastrophic falling feeling was the same.
"I didn't come back for him." Her breath cast sharp ripples across the surface of the water. "I- I didn't mean to leave you behind."
But you did. You did leave them. And then you came back to save him.
The word slapped against the walls and Katara stared at Loska, who was looking at her now with enough venom to freeze her to the core.
"You were free," Loska spat. "You could have gone to fight like a warrior, but you didn't. Because you're not a warrior. You're a little girl who never learned her place. This is exactly why women don't waterbend in the North. This kind of flighty, emotional-"
"Excuse me," Iyuma spoke over her. "This isn't an opportunity to trot out your traditionalist manifesto, Loska. She came back for us-"
"The slush she did!"
Everyone else in the chamber stiffened at both the profanity and the volume of the ordinarily tight-lipped woman's voice. Loska's cheeks and throat had gone fiercely red and her scowl only deepened as she went on with more control.
"She came back to save the Fire Prince. Because he owns a piece of her she can't ever get back."
Loska turned her pitiless blue eyes from Iyuma to Katara like a whip cracking through the air. Despite the hot water, Katara felt suddenly, terribly cold.
"Because she gave it to him of her own free will."
No no no no no
The silence was massive and brittle. Katara couldn't breathe. If she breathed, that silence would crack and only pain would follow. Finally, Loska spoke again, turning to face Iyuma.
"I kept telling you she's not like us. None of us got a choice - but she did. She chose him, Iyuma. Their prince." She locked her arms together over her chest. The redness in her face was swiftly being replaced by a pallor. "That collar she's wearing is good as a betrothal necklace. Or as much of one as he'd give her."
"Th- That's enough," Sian said, trembling but resolute. "That's Princess Katara's private business."
"Wrong," Loska snarled back. "It's Water Tribe business. By letting the Fire Prince touch her, she betrayed all of us, especially those of us who have been- most- most cruelly used by the Fire Nation. Not that that matters at all to someone like you, who just stands back watching it happen."
"I didn't- That's not true! I had no i- idea-"
"Either you're playing ignorant to soothe your dirty conscience, or you really are as stupid as you seem."
Sian stammered and went a deep shade of red. She dropped her eyes to the pitted stone floor and did not speak.
Iyuma's eyes were fixed firmly on Katara with some powerful feeling - realization, betrayal, it was hard to tell. It was hard to think past the grasping wish that a drainage chute might open up and suck her in, just drown her. Abruptly, Iyuma set her hands on her hips and lifted one eyebrow.
Katara squirmed under that direct look and the reminder of what she had said about Zuko when Iyuma had questioned his intentions. The silence of the chamber, once so calming, felt suffocating now. She had to tell them something. They deserved some kind of explanation - they deserved the best she could give them. More.
"I'm- I'm sorry. Loska's right - I can't imagine what it's been like for you. For all the healers. I'm so, so sorry, for everything you've been through. I- I was…"
Katara swallowed hard, fighting against the strangling knot in her throat.
"I was just so stupid," she finally managed. Once she started, the words just kept coming, slipping out of her too easily, slick as the tears rolling down her cheeks. "My brother was captured and only Zuko would go with me to save him. No one else - not Attuk or Palluk or any of the tribe helped me. It was just him."
They were all watching her, she felt the weight of it, but she couldn't meet their eyes. She didn't need to tell them what that meant - the tribe not helping her. Loska and Iyuma would know. Katara, even when she had been Katto, was still an outsider. She didn't need to tell them how that hurt, having no one to back her up. She only twisted her mouth at the shivering reflection of the lantern in the water.
"We weren't friends. We were never friends. But he was honorable. And he was the only safe thing I had to hold onto. And war is… terrifying. He made me feel strong, and steady, and I did what I needed to do to keep going and save my brother. Later… I was so stupid, I believed… I actually believed that I could change him."
He's changing on his own now, though, isn't he? Turning over his shiny new leaf.
Katara felt the anger flare back up in her, the blinding outrage threatening to pull her down, but she shook it off. She thought of Suki, her hard warrior's way, and jerked her chin up instead. She scrubbed off her face and forced herself to meet their stares. Iyuma's disenchanted uncertainty. Sian's pity showing through her fresh shame. Loska's unrelenting judgement. They all hammered at her.
"You were right. I've been an idiot. Then and now. The whole point of following through with the oath was to improve conditions for the enslaved healers. All this time I've been here, playing nice and obeying the rules… and it hasn't accomplished anything. Now, I've fulfilled the oath and I'm just supposed to leave?" She shook her head, met Loska's glare with one of her own. "No."
The older woman's eyes narrowed further, the lines around them deepening. "So you'll stay, and stir up trouble, and remind the Fire Nation that healers can be dangerous? You'll get us all killed. Or worse."
"It's already worse," Iyuma sputtered. Loska snapped her hard look over to her instead, but she seemed immune, waving easily with one hand. "What kind of life is this, Loska? We hang our heads and hide from every soldier with a grudge - and we have it better than most! Can you imagine what it's like in the lesser mansions for the healers who aren't the property of the Fire Lord?"
"No," Loska said, her voice rising. "And if we aren't careful, we'll find out first-hand! Do you really want to risk that - all of that - just for your pride?"
"It's not about pride - it's about our freedom and our culture and our lives-! We've already lost so much! How can you still be such a coward?"
The word rapped hard off all the walls and echoed in the sudden stillness. Loska's mouth turned down in a sour grimace. Her eyes flicked from Iyuma to Katara and back again.
"Better a coward than another dead girl."
With that, she turned on her heel and stalked into the darkness of the stairs, only her receding footsteps indicating she had not simply vanished. Sian wrung her hands, but Iyuma rolled her eyes and looked back at Katara.
"I'd say she'll come around, but she probably won't."
"She's not wrong," Katara said quietly. "I don't know what comes next, and I really doubt it's going to be easy… or painless. My track record on making things better is hit-or-miss… pretty much all miss lately."
"That's not true," Sian said quietly. "You made things better for me."
Katara tried not to think about how badly that had almost gone. "Zuko made things better for you, Sian."
"But you forced the issue," Iyuma said. "You could hardly walk but when you found out someone needed your help, you didn't let that stop you." She frowned thoughtfully. "Maybe you can do as much for the tribe, too."
"I- of course I will-" Katara stammered, hesitated, felt the implication strike her.
Outsider. Fire Nation sympathizer. Traitor.
Iyuma held her stare for a moment longer. Then she rubbed her elbow and shrugged. "I'm rooting for you, Katara. If you ever figure out what the next move is, let me know how I can help."
And then she turned and left the chamber, too. Sian glanced anxiously after her and back at Katara, but Katara only stared at the dark stairs, her heart in her throat. She had thought Iyuma at least… She had thought they were almost friends. Like Toph or Suki. But Toph and Suki weren't Water Tribe. They weren't depending on Katara the same way. They weren't damaged in the same way by Katara's failures. She had a terrible feeling that even if she managed to fix everything - even if she miraculously won the war and freed her people - she would always be in this position, held at arm's length even by those who liked her best.
Just like Pakku had said.
She looked up to find Sian watching her and wringing her white-knuckled hands. "Don't call me that," she said, sharper than she meant to. "Just go, Sian. Leave me alone. And take the lamp."
Sian obeyed - and the obedience itself chafed Katara raw. Only when she was finally alone again in the dark did she slide back in the water, struggling sightlessly to find the comfortable place she had lost.
Word spread quickly in the alleys packed with tents and makeshift shelters. By the next morning, the news had traveled to all ends of Harbor City; Prince Zuko had sworn to help the poor and displaced.
Hardly anyone really believed it, of course. The Crown Prince, come down from the palace to set things right? Not likely. Fire Princes didn't do things like that. Fire Princes went to war or captured the Avatar. Feeding the hungry seemed a little… Water Tribey.
Even the people who had witnessed him ordering food distributed - after he was shot, too, and nobody at all believed that detail unless they had heard the words come out of his mouth - suspected that it was a one-day event. Surely his highness had had enough of life in the gutter. They couldn't really blame him - but in their hearts, at least a little bit, they did.
It was the kids who really bought into the fantasy. On any street south of Ash Court you could find a clutch of children playing some Prince game or other. Prince Zuko freeing the sailors, or Prince Zuko distributing imaginary food, or Prince Zuko fighting off assassins - usually played with a waterbender defender. Parents the whole city over were already getting sick of hearing his name.
No surprise then that it was kids who started following the palanquin when it entered town from the north-west road and made its way toward the just-opening legal district. The filmy curtains were drawn, so there was no telling who was riding inside, but the escort wore nicer armor than most of the city guard, and the kids told each other excitedly it was the same palanquin from yesterday so it had to be him. The small procession stopped outside some boring building with boring workers inside, where a waiting man with a wooden leg bowed and spoke through the curtain. No one heard what he said, but no one really cared about that guy anyway.
A moment later, the Prince himself emerged and swept into the office with the one-legged man following close after. They stayed inside for just long enough for a few more kids to gather, asking what was going on, and then they came back out. The Prince gave the man some instructions, and sent him off with a couple of sealed messages and a coin purse. Before he climbed back into the palanquin, Prince Zuko looked fiercely at all the gathered children.
"Why aren't you in school?"
The ones who had been threatened with the coal mines vanished like smoke. The ones who were playing hooky scurried off and waited until they were out of sight before they laughed. But some stayed, and bowed like they'd been taught, and told him how the schools in the city were too crowded, and you needed an address to register anyways, and there were fees…
The Prince listened gravely. Then he thanked them, got back in the palanquin, and disappeared down the north-west road from which he'd come. When the schools for children of the war opened in empty houses around the city three days later, the kids would be the least surprised of anyone.
Even Zuko had his doubts as he rode back to the villa. There was so much need, everywhere he looked. The kids needed to be in school, and no doubt it was another case of slow, bumbling paperwork failing to reflect a complicated and changing society. The misclassified soldiers needed to be identified and the bureaucrats evidently needed the fear of Agni put in them to get them to correct their records. Tyno had told him rumors that soup kitchens across the city were often closed when they were supposed to be open, and that several housing projects had stalled mid-construction, and those were all things that needed to be investigated, a job that could not easily be done by Zuko's lone conscript. So, among his other errands, he had sent Tyno to enlist more people in the search for answers.
How Zuko was going to pay them for their service, he hadn't worked out yet. After compensating the food vendors for yesterday, his on-hand funds were severely depleted. He had written a request to the Minister of Finance, but it was unlikely his father would allow him to bleed the treasury for long, if at all.
The palanquin and its escort journeyed perhaps a mile through increasingly thick forest and past the guarded gateway to the manor proper. Beyond stretched a short avenue lined in raised planters bristling with lush blooming flora, leading to a wide courtyard with a tasteful fountain at its center. A grand house framed the courtyard on two sides and, to the right, built into the rocky cliffside at the base of the volcano, was an ancient stone threshold open onto dark steps leading down - the spring. Zuko had of course seen all of this yesterday evening when he and Katara arrived, but it was much more impressive in the full light of day.
A second, less grand palanquin - this one bearing the same crest that appeared on the guards' armor - had been parked at the foot of the wide front steps.
The moment Zuko stepped into the mansion, Machi was there, steering him toward a tea room. He had not known how bossy she was, and he certainly had been surprised when she showed up late last night with his staff, two waterbenders, and all his worldly possessions packed into a single handcart, but he was starting to see why Iroh had appreciated her so much. She seemed to think of everything. She even had a brush in hand to sweep the dust from the road off his clothes before she signaled the footman to open the door and vanished.
Lord Gan rose from the low table and bowed. He flashed the sort of carefully crafted smile he had worn at their previous meeting, but there were questions hiding behind the walls of his eyes.
"You put me to shame, your highness," he said after their greeting. "Here I thought I would arrive early and welcome you over breakfast - only to find you already gone to town despite your infirmity."
"Yes… my business was pretty urgent." Zuko had to restrain himself from delving straight into the topic he most wanted to discuss with this man. If he was too direct, it would seem like he was desperate. Which he was. But "desperate" was not princely. Now more than ever, he couldn't allow it to show. "You didn't exaggerate. The villa is truly remarkable. You have my gratitude for your hospitality."
"It is I who is grateful, your highness. You do me a great honor with your visit. This villa has not hosted a member of the royal family since Azulon's reign. I hope you are finding everything to your satisfaction?"
"Yes," Zuko said as he settled across the table. Gan mirrored his descent. "Although I haven't had a chance to enjoy the mineral spring yet."
A servant emerged from her unobtrusive place and poured Zuko's tea. For an instant, he stared at her unfamiliar face, then shook the distraction and looked back at the man watching him from across the table.
"No Water Tribe princess today?"
"Princess Katara is… indisposed."
In fact, he hadn't sent for her this morning, figuring she could use the rest after everything she had been through yesterday - especially if she had slept as fitfully as he had. Besides, he was trying to build trust with this man now, not intimidate him. Katara's previous role as subtle threat would make her presence here awkward.
Never mind that the thought of Katara pouring some noble's tea now made Zuko feel queasy.
He was not admitting it to himself yet, but he didn't really want to face her. She had been on high alert since the docks, and she had not seemed at all pleased by his recent decisions. If anything, she seemed angrier than ever, even though he was basically doing what she had wanted from the start.
So if he was avoiding her - which he wasn't - it was just so she could cool off and get her head straight. Zuko had more than enough to deal with right now without her.
"I am given to understand," Gan said with an inquisitively hitched eyebrow, "that you have taken on a bit of philanthropy to fill the time of your convalescence?"
This was what Zuko wanted to talk about. He knew that this man, with his outspoken criticism of the Fire Nation's failure to take care of its veterans, very likely harbored some greater dissent, but it was only sensible to let him broach the topic himself. To probe might only win Zuko answers intended to please him. And Zuko didn't want to be pleased. He wanted to survive.
"I guess you could say that," he said blandly, "but even after our conversation on the subject should have prepared me, I found the situation in Harbor City is a lot more serious than I had expected."
He went on to describe the many failings he had discovered in less than a day of looking, to which Lord Gan listened with raised eyebrows as he sipped his tea. At length, when Zuko had arrived at the end of his observations, Lord Gan set down his cup. For just an instant, he lingered with his gaze and his fingertips on the porcelain. He turned his hand, admiring his rings. Then, he settled both hands in his lap, looked back up at Zuko, and offered that same cagey smile.
"Quite an undertaking. One wonders how your highness has the strength, considering your injury."
"Waterbender healers," Zuko offered lamely.
Lord Gan nodded as if accepting this was a valid explanation. "Perhaps a non sequitur but it may interest you to know - a dear friend of mine heard a great many rumors about you at a small gathering last evening. Most ludicrous among them being that you freed all the criminals from the jail and they absconded with you. Some also speculate that you fled the palace to be with your lover away from your father's watchful eye."
Zuko's brain stuttered over the word "lover" and his stomach filled with rocks. Lord Gan paused just briefly, then went on.
"I have it on much better authority though that you freed your own soldiers - who were being held for treason on the Fire Lord's orders - and then swore yourself into service to the unfortunates. But that is not the sort of rumor that sparks interest among the Fire Court. Among that particular crop of rumors, in fact," he said a bit too quickly, "one stole my interest from all the rest. It supposes you are here in Harbor City at the Fire Lord's command, working hard to regain his favor by… snuffing out unrest, and the like."
The precise way he said it made Zuko's eyes bulge - because it was like tossing a firecracker onto the table. It ruined every chance he had of establishing trust with Gan - and every other noble who might help him. And Zuko needed help. If he was going to overthrow his father, he needed influence, people, and funds. It all started here, with this particularly dissident, influential, deep-pocketed noble. Without Lord Gan, he might as well be running around the countryside with the Avatar.
Zuko set down his teacup. "I assure you, my father doesn't care about what's happening in Harbor City, as long as his ships continue to come and go. My interest is my own."
"And I am thrilled to hear it - as you well know! How fortuitous that you chose to grace my villa with your presence during this sojourn, rather than any of the other numerous homes that are doubtless open to you."
There it was. Lord Gan knew his own reputation, and he had deep suspicions about Zuko. After all, if the Fire Lord was trying to stamp out his most vocal critic, what better way than to entrap him with an apparently scheming prince? Zuko struggled to keep his composure.
"That's not why I'm here- Well, it is why I'm here, but not for the reason you're implying."
Gan fixed him with a penetrating stare, a hint of his curiosity burning through to the surface. "The mouse that nibbles the cheese gets more than if he tries to take the wheel. Would you not say, Prince Zuko?"
Zuko gritted his teeth and fought to think what sort of equally vague proverb he might give in answer, but he was too slow.
All of a sudden, Lord Gan blinked, and looked again at his hands. They had crept somehow back up on the table, his fingers interlaced at the tips. He was twisting one ring with the tip of his thumb, Zuko noticed, and then abruptly stopped, and folded his hands in his lap once more.
"Your highness, I worry that I may have lingered overlong, when I only came to welcome you to my home." He rose to his feet, bowing. "Please stay as long as you like. I wish you every success in your undertakings, and hope you will consider this place your own as long as it serves."
Zuko rose as well, grave disappointment rising with him. He needed this man, but to plead with him would not engender respect. Princes didn't beg. Princes were simply followed, and if Zuko couldn't inspire this man to follow him in a cause Gan already believed in, then he was in a lot more trouble than he had initially thought. With no great ideas presenting themselves to him now, Zuko walked the noble out to the courtyard, where Lord Gan's palanquin awaited alone.
It was as he opened his mouth to try one final time to entice the man to talk that Machi came storming out of the entrance to the mineral springs, red-faced and soaked from head to foot. She spotted Zuko and marched past the three waiting attendants and across the courtyard toward him, leaving a dribbled trail on the paving stones as she skirted the fountain.
"Prince Zuko, Princess Katara has been in the spring all night and just informed me that she will not be coming out today either."
"She- What do you mean she was in the spring all night?"
Machi swept a few wet strands of hair from her brow and pinched her mouth into a fierce line. "Your highness, all I know is she's holed up down there like a swan-odile on a clutch of eggs and refuses to come out. She needs a swift-" Her eyes flicked, just slightly, toward Lord Gan, and she softened her tone minutely. "-stern talking to. Your highness."
Zuko glanced at Lord Gan, too. The noble was lingering with one foot on his palanquin, watching the goings-on with raised eyebrows.
"A matter of the home, Prince Zuko," he said politely, "must be attended to with all haste."
With a final glance between the noble and the entrance to the springs, Zuko stormed off. "Join me for an early dinner. Not a request."
He didn't look at the three servants as he passed them, but Iyuma was among them and made a malcontent sound as he stomped through the entrance and down the steps into the chamber chipped into the mountain stone. It was lit by chutes cleverly cut up to the surface, and the midday sun fell in glaring beams on the opaque water. The air was humid and almost uncomfortably warm, and steam curled in the intermittent light only to vanish into the deep shadows. From somewhere in those shadows came her voice, low and harsh.
"Oh great. What do you want?"
So much for letting her cool off. Zuko clenched his teeth. He knew she was angry. She had a right to be angry. But right now, Katara's righteous fury was getting in the way of Zuko achieving something they both wanted. He was trying so hard to do the right thing, and she didn't even care. She just kept creating new ways to make everything harder, as if it wasn't already hard enough.
Fighting a scowl, Zuko stepped off the stairs and onto the irregular stone floor, worn smooth by many thousands of feet. Water puddled here and there, and it quickly seeped through the soles of his fine cloth shoes.
"What are you doing down here, apart from terrorizing the servants?"
"I'm minding my own business. You should try it sometime."
"You've been down here all night. It's time to get out." Zuko took another step toward the large pool that filled the rest of the chamber. He still couldn't see her. "And in case you've forgotten, making sure that you don't hurt yourself or someone else falls under the umbrella of my business."
"I am not," she snarled, "hurting anyone. But if you don't leave me alone, I'm gonna hurt you."
Zuko hesitated. He wasn't entirely sure what this was… but that threat echoing off the rock walls took him back to another cavern entirely. It made his heart bang in his chest, and he balled up his fists and scowled at the shadows. If she thought he would back down before he would fight her, she was doomed to disappointment.
"If you want to take a shot at me, do it. Otherwise, tell me why you're hiding down here like some-"
A whip of water cracked out of nowhere and nailed him on his injured shoulder.
Iyuma had treated it early this morning, tutting over Katara's technique while Zuko fought not to show how much it hurt. It's almost like she was trying to cause you more pain. She'd been joking - or some very dry version of it that made Zuko break out in a nervous sweat. Her words were too true to be funny, in any case.
Now, as the whip's snap ricocheted off the rock walls, his shoulder radiated blinding agony and Zuko bit down on a cry.
"You want to have a heart-to-heart?" Katara asked nastily. "Go talk to your adoring public. I have nothing to say to you."
As the pain broke and receded, Zuko felt a crazy kind of exhilaration he hadn't felt in a long time. Fighting her was actually probably a good idea. Maybe she just needed to work out some tension. Zuko could understand that. Empathize, even.
"You sure?" he ground out, sinking into a bending stance with his left side back, his right hand out like a knife before him. "Because you're fighting like someone who really just wants to talk it out."
He launched a few measured strikes in her general direction, and in flashes he saw her rising up from where she had sat back with her arms stretched out along the rock ledge. He adjusted his aim, and then all he saw were blinks of her blocking his fire, snuffing it out in booms and hisses. Then her water came for him out of the dark, swooping and hard.
Zuko blocked what he could, but with only one strong arm, and an opponent who didn't shy away from taking advantage of his injury, he was outmatched. She tripped him up with a tentacle and knocked him into the wall with a sudden wave that froze over, locking him up to his neck in ice. Zuko blew steam out his nose and started building up heat, getting ready to explode out.
Then she floated into the light, and he lost focus.
She moved through the water like a shark and stepped up out of the pool with the same casual danger. She wore only her white Water Tribe-style underclothes and the iron collar, and it shouldn't have lit any kind of fire in him because it was all so wrong - but it did. He hated the sight of that collar, but her… Her hair was loose, curling past her chin and off the back of her head where it had grown in. Steam wafted from her skin where droplets raced and beaded. She was scowling, and her sharp blue eyes promised to do brutal things to him.
She was so beautiful.
Zuko bared his teeth to cover his moment of weakness - and the molten shame spewing through him - and roared as he blasted the ice away. He fell into a kata that ate the space between them, and noticed Katara was struggling to keep up blocking at the shorter distance. He pressed her, and she retreated and teetered on the rock ledge at the edge of the pool. Smirking, he stepped forward to give her a shove-
And by some quick movement that he did not fully understand, ended up with her clutching the front of his robes as his arms looped around her. It felt hauntingly familiar, the hard edges of her forearms against his chest, her breath on his neck, her lean frame filling his arms. Zuko held her and pressed his cheek to her damp hair, aware of each instant as precious and fleeting - and doomed to end badly.
Katara ached. It felt so startlingly good to be held, and for the space of a few breaths she allowed herself that comfort. It was so much closer to what she had needed than the soak. Folded against him for just this instant, she could set aside all her turmoil and just feel steady and secure. He smelled better than he ever had back in the hold of her father's ship – like a boy who bathed more regularly, and with better soap – but he still smelled like that boy. It was a smell that traveled all the way down to her belly and tugged her nose closer to the skin of his throat.
Then reality hit her and she shoved him hard. Zuko went sprawling on the rock floor with a startled look on his face. Water stained his silk robes and tufts of hair had slipped out of his fake topknot.
He wasn't that boy, Katara viciously reminded herself, because that boy wasn't real. What was real was the prince lying before her with his dignified veneer shattered, his hair coming loose and his eyes flicking - again, traitorously - down her body.
Only an idiot would wait around for this guy to free her people.
"You may have convinced yourself that you've transformed," she spat, "but I know you, Zuko. It's just a matter of time before you backslide. And when you do, I'll be there to make sure no one else gets hurt because they were depending on you. Do you understand? No more second chances. No more mistakes."
She took a step so that she was looming over him. All night she had thought about this. The reason she was here. The waterbenders, the war, the rules she had followed, the assassins she had killed. Her purpose. Her very identity. It all boiled down to this.
"If it even looks like you're about to make one more wrong step, you won't need to worry about your father any more. Because I'll be there. Right there beside you. And I will end you before I let you go back to him."
He didn't speak, but the look in his eyes - morphing through shock and alarm and penitent determination… and something else, something sad and hungry - just made her angrier. He almost looked… grateful.
"Do you understand me?" she demanded.
His face hardened, and the bare feelings disappeared once more behind his surly mask. "I understand."
"Good. Then get out!" In a rush, she yanked up a stream from behind her and slapped it down on top of him - or would have, if he hadn't sprung out of the way. He paused, ready to dodge or strike.
"If you're gonna threaten to kill me," Zuko growled, "you should try to fight like you can actually do it."
With a wordless snarl, Katara slapped at him again, and again he dodged. He was on the stairs now and it was as if the moment had never happened, as if he had never laid on the floor. There was nothing penitent about him. He punched fire at her, one fist and then the other, and if he was in pain it only seemed to fuel him now.
Katara dragged up half the contents of the pool to block and then hurled the massive stream at him, intending to blast him right up the stairs and out into the courtyard like a barnacle out a whale's blowhole. Zuko was ready now, though, and leapt forward with a big slicing fiery kick that split her wave in two and nearly knocked her back a step. With a shout, she redirected and hit him again with both waves. He staggered back up a couple steps, but countered with a less powerful blast. Intent on getting rid of him, Katara pressed the advantage until she, too, was on the stairs and he was just a silhouette in the sunlit doorway above. She bowled him out into the courtyard with a final rush of water and, wanting to hit him just one more time, leapt up the stairs after him.
As soon as she was through the doorway and on open ground, he redoubled his efforts. His left arm strikes were significantly weaker, but he made up for it with speed and a huge variety of kicks. Katara paced him fairly easily at the start, but she was feeling the sleepless night and skipped meals, now, heaped atop her incomplete recovery. Her energy was draining rapidly. Zuko's blasts scattered her water with every hit, and the amount she could raise up diminished again and again until she had just two sleeves of water to whip at him and slap his fire out of the air. The impact of his blows jolted her to her bones, sent her stumbling off balance.
But she refused to lose to him.
With a cry from her belly, she whirled the water from the fountain around the circular basin and brought it all sloshing down on Zuko from behind. She had meant to freeze him in it, but found she couldn't summon the strength to harden the ice. Instead, it just crashed over him, slicking his hair down to his eyebrows and leaving him clammy at best.
He stood there dripping and gave her an appalled, scathing look. "What was that?"
Fists trembling at her sides and shoulders heaving with every breath, Katara screwed up her face and was about to show him exactly what it was supposed to be, when a voice cut across the courtyard so loud and authoritative it made her lurch to a stop.
"Prince Zuko, are you ready to end your sparring session? Would you perhaps like a towel?"
Katara and Zuko turned at the same time to stare at the source of that shout. Machi stood on the steps, a picture of humble composure. Nearby, a well-dressed man stood beside a small palanquin, watching with eyebrows seemingly stuck near his hairline.
"Would Princess Katara perhaps like a robe?" Loska hissed from near the entrance to the spring.
Abruptly, Katara recognized Lord Gan, their host. And her underwear. She was in her underwear in front of a member of the Fire Court. She had had nightmares like this.
Zuko abruptly side-stepped, placing himself between her and Lord Gan. It was difficult to feel any kind of gratitude for him, though, with the way he peered down his nose at her. His expression was a little too haughty, and his cheek was pink.
"Ah, yes. A towel," he said stiltedly."Thank you, Master Katara, for that… exercise. We'll continue this later."
The last words were tighter, more honest in their hostility. Clearly a threat. Katara glared at him and unthinkingly tipped her head to one side. His eyebrow jumped up. The pink in his cheek deepened.
Then he made a stately retreat. Fists trembling at her sides, Katara glared at his squared shoulders and then stalked to where Loska, Iyuma, and Sian had been sheltering behind one of the big stone flower pots. Loska, sour-faced as ever, grabbed a wad of cloth out of Sian's hands and shoved it into Katara's. As Katara hurriedly shrugged into the robe, Iyuma grinned.
"That was amazing. I've never seen waterbending like that before. Are you going to teach us that?"
Sian glanced at Iyuma with a little vicarious spark in her eyes. Loska huffed and went green.
Katara hesitated, too grim and distracted to parse the complicated feelings of this moment. She met Iyuma's eyes. "If you want to learn, I'll teach you."
She turned to go, but Loska's scandalized muttering pulled her up short.
"No shoes, bare legs. Puh, absolutely shameless."
"I'll fetch your sandals from the spring," Sian said, already in motion. Iyuma rolled her eyes and said something about modesty standards being different in the Fire Nation and Loska needing to mind her own business.
Katara didn't really hear with all the blood beating in her ears. Shameless. Loska had always suspected what had happened between her and Zuko - but now she knew it for a fact. The words stung, even though they shouldn't have been surprising; this was the kind of barb Katara should expect from Loska and from any Water Tribe woman who knew the truth.
A wretched little part of her felt like she deserved it.
A bigger part, however, was still spelunking in the deep well of her rage.
"Look," she said, stepping close to Loska - too close. Katara put her scowling face right up to the bigger woman's until Loska took a startled step back. "When this war is over, we'll go back to opposite sides of the world and you can say whatever you want about me. For right now though, I don't want to hear your assessments about what a low and shameful woman I am. Got it?"
Loska stared back at her for a silent moment before she was able to speak. "I'm only trying to help you. Exposing yourself like that - you're inviting trouble. The Fire Prince could easily decide he wants more from you than just tea service."
Katara glared at her for a beat, then coughed out a derisive laugh, shaking her head. "Right. Thanks for the concern, but-"
"If not for himself, then maybe to sweeten whatever deal he's making with that noble," Loska hissed, leaning closer and guiding Katara to look across the courtyard where the two were still talking. Zuko looked stiff, more uncomfortable than his wet clothes could account for. And Lord Gan did look a bit excited… Loska laid her hand on Katara's shoulder, surprisingly gentle. "If he decides to use you as capital, there is no one to stop him."
Katara felt a sick dip in her stomach. Then she wrenched away and glared. "If that happens - and it won't, but if it does," she snarled, "then I will stop him."
"How? Clearly he can overpower you-"
"In his dreams!"
"-he stopped attacking when it was obvious you were too weak to hold out any longer."
Katara opened her mouth to make a scathing reply, but then noticed the way Loska's off hand clutched at the fabric at her hip. She noticed the way Iyuma only watched the debate, not throwing in on either side. She remembered who she was talking to, and how different their reality in the Fire Nation was from her own.
Maybe she really had misunderstood Loska's meaning. Maybe she really did only want to warn her - in her unpleasant, abraisive way. Katara drew a breath and let her shoulders fall from their defensive hunch.
"Thank you for trying to help, Loska. I won't forget what you've said."
Loska furrowed her brow but nodded and said nothing more.
Unable to wait any longer for Sian to return, unable really to hold still at all, Katara stalked across the paving stones and through the front door without so much as glancing at the two men.
She could feel it though, prickling the back of her neck; they watched her pass.
As he crossed the courtyard, Zuko struggled to think of some explanation for the sparring match that had clearly not been a sparring match. It was difficult to think, though, with Katara's look dominating his thoughts. He hadn't seen that look since… maybe since she had been bullied by the other recruits under the mountain, but he knew what it meant. Lips pursed, head tipped to one side, eyes wide and fierce. Do you want to fight? She was weak and exhausted in body and spirit and yet it was there - her spark, her fire, roaring back to the surface…
Zuko was having trouble thinking about anything else - even his sodden clothes. He cleared his throat as he came near enough his lingering host for polite conversation. "Lord Gan. I thought you were in a hurry to go."
"I had a question regarding dinner," he said mildly, "and then several other matters occurred to me as I waited."
Zuko tried to read the man's expression but what he saw only made him nervous. There was a spark in Gan's eye, disconcertingly as if he had learned something of great interest. It was at least as unpleasant as being doused by the fountain. Maybe worse.
"Your Princess seems to possess a much hotter temperament than she did the last time I saw her."
"Under the terms of her oath, she hasn't exactly been free to be herself."
"No, I suppose not. But circumstances are changing for her now, aren't they? Now that you are…" Gan lifted one eyebrow in query. "…away from your father's watchful eye?"
Zuko was immediately reminded of the "lover" rumor and then, more disconcertingly, of Katara stalking up out of the pool. His stomach filled again with rocks and his face blazed. "She saved my life," he said with some effort. "So yes, her circumstances are changing. Where we happen to be hardly matters."
"How very noble, in that case."
Lord Gan assessed him for a moment and Zuko watched him right back. He had the feeling he was trying to outmaneuver a mirror - only, unlike him, the mirror was completely unperturbed by this conversation. Gan glanced across the courtyard toward where Katara stood mostly hidden behind a planter with her attendants. Zuko followed his gaze, then frowned sharply at him. Gan peered boldly back at him, unaffected.
"She does not hold back with you. And you enjoy that."
There was nothing suggestive in his tone - it seemed to be an observation born of genial interest - but Zuko still felt his face hardening and going hot. Lord Gan lowered his chin and glanced at his palanquin thoughtfully, then finally went on.
"I would like to bring my family with me to dinner, if that is amenable to you. Lady Gan's conversation is far more engaging than my own. She…" There was a tiny, secret smile in his eyes. "…is not one for holding back, either."
Not sure how to interpret this, Zuko glanced sideways just in time to spot Katara striding across the courtyard with her chin high and her attendants scurrying behind her. Her bare feet slapping the ground made his ears burn.
"I hope your Princess will be in attendance," Lord Gan said quietly.
"She's not some exotic attraction for nobles to gawk at."
The words were out of his mouth before he thought about propriety or winning favor or caution or even recent history, but Zuko realized as he glared at the man beside him that he didn't care anyway. Enough was enough. Katara might refuse to let him remove the collar, but he was done letting other people treat her like a slave. He was done perpetuating the role Azula had forced her into.
And he was done, too, letting her lash out at him with her own slow destruction. If she wanted to punish him, she could do it like a warrior.
She could try, anyway.
Lord Gan's eyes widened, then his chin tipped up in understanding. "No, Prince Zuko. Of course not. Would you say she is a royal hostage? Or perhaps-"
"Bring your family," Zuko sighed at last, ready to be rid of the man. He'd stumbled into enough pitfalls for one morning. As soon as he waved off the palanquin, he sent Machi to arrange another healing session. He needed the full use of his shoulder if he was going to sit with proper posture through a tense meal.
Not to mention when he got Katara on the sparring court. Because he would be doing that at the earliest possible opportunity. There were countless practical reasons they should both be training, and Zuko mentally enumerated them as he went about the business of the day.
Meanwhile, at the back of his brain, the image of her rising up out of the water in whorls of steam and fury played again and again.
The attack on the old swordmaster's house came with the dawn. They came with wooden cages and sedative darts, grappling cannons to net the beast, and weights and chains massive enough to hold it down. Dozens of elite soldiers rappelled down ropes from airships directly into the compound so that their approach would not be sensed by the blind earthbender.
It was all still a gamble, Azula knew. Exposing the Fire Nation's secret weapon before the attack on Ba Sing Se could have devastating consequences for the invasion. But letting the Avatar roam free was unacceptable. Risks had to be taken.
Yet, despite all her preparations and all her secrecy, the old master and his servant were waiting to receive them. They stood on the wide veranda, a sheathed sword in the servant's hands the only evident weapon. When Azula slid down her rope and set foot in the courtyard below, the old man, Piandao, addressed her with no hint of surprise.
"Princess Azula. To what do I owe the honor of a royal visit?"
"You may thank your own treachery," she said, sharp and with more feeling than she had intended. She rounded on her captain, who was still hovering nearby. Useless. "Search the grounds. Find them!"
The soldiers scattered, but Azula could already tell the search was in vain. She could see it in the old man's fox-keen eyes, his unshakeable calm. The moment Ty Lee alighted behind her, Azula struck.
"I know they were here," she said, bland and unimpressed. She began a slow ascent of the stairs, stalking nearer, never taking her eyes off the old man. "There have been numerous reports of earthbenders in the area in recent days. And there is your own reputation as a dissident and… what is the term? Conscientious objector? For years you've spoken out against the war, against the Fire Nation, against my father." She said it hard as she took the last step up onto the veranda, letting the righteous accusation ring. "How you must have leapt at the chance to help the Avatar when my traitorous uncle brought him here."
Piandao did not speak, did not even blink, but he did adjust his stance slightly as she approached. It was subtle, and most people would have overlooked it, but the servant behind him shifted his feet, too. He held the sword at the ready. The old man did not reach for it. But he would.
"Tell me where they went," she said, "and I will show mercy."
"I doubt our definitions of mercy share much in common," the old man said dryly. "All the same, I cannot tell you what I do not know. And I will not tell you what I do. Your mercy will have to wait for some other occasion."
For a beat, Azula felt her inner flames licking up her spine, a horrible, all-consuming rage shifting its embers. Then, she smirked.
"I know what you're thinking. You think you can withstand me with that sword. You were a famed war hero years ago, a swordsman the likes of which has never been seen. You defeated an army single-handed and won this life for yourself instead of the justice due to a deserter. You are a living legend."
She did not hear so much as sense Ty Lee behind her, and knew she was standing ready, poised to attack. The anticipation in the air was electric. Azula's smirk deepened.
"You think legends do not come to innocuous ends. But they often do. You are not the swordsman you used to be, Piandao. You've grown old, and soft from easy living. Oh sure, you train with some nebulous battle gnawing at the back of your mind, but practice cannot replace youthful vigor - and your youth is decades behind you now. In a moment, my friend and I will succeed where an entire army failed."
Most people did not hold up under Azula's assessments. They wilted to know their lives and their secret fears were so obvious. They would panic and lash out prematurely. But Piandao seemed immune. He watched her with the same steely resolve. His mouth even twitched upward in one corner. He still did not reach for the sword.
"I had heard you were a firebending prodigy and a ruthless sadist. Confidence comes easily to you. But I wonder at the cracks, Princess Azula. When you fail today, when I evade capture and you burn my house down out of frustration, will it soothe the wound to your pride? Or will failure follow you back to the capital? How long will it hound you, I wonder."
For an instant, Azula was all fire inside, spitting and roaring, popping uncontrollable sparks. Then it spewed out of her, and it was blue and clean and perfect - just as it had always been.