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The King's Pet or The King

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AN: Welcome to the sequel to Call Me Katto! If you haven't read that, probably should. This story will be better if you do. :)

Special thanks to Rhaetia over on ff.net, who suggested the song from which the title comes. You rock, friend.

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"When you catch the light
the flood changes direction,
and darkens the lens
that projects my disguise

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'Hey little girl, would you like to be
the king's pet or the king?'"

-Neko Case (from "Wild Creatures")

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Prologue

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Loska let her hands pass slowly over the glassy surface of the water in the steel medical tub and her patient swayed as the healing glow washed over her. The girl let out a little groan. A good sign. She would wake soon. Loska had never kept a patient in a recuperative sleep for so many days and she had been afraid she wouldn't be able to get this one out again.

Afraid - partly for the life of a fellow Water Tribe woman, but mostly of the Prince's temper. He stormed into the infirmary at least three times a day and Loska never got used to it. The Princess had rarely come to the infirmary since Loska was brought aboard, and she seemed to prefer to pretend the healer was a piece of furniture - which was fine by Loska. As long as she performed her duties to her master's satisfaction, she was invisible. She was safe.

But not from the Prince, with his contained rage and his horrible scar and his demands for status reports. It chilled her, the way he loomed over the medical tub, glaring down at the indecently-clothed girl floating inside. Glaring, and sometimes something else, something even more unnerving. Loska was afraid for the girl, and she was afraid for herself now that this angry young man had come aboard the Princess's ship. She avoided the Prince at all costs and did everything in her power to remain unnoticed.

And that meant ensuring that the girl lived, one way or another.

The risks of keeping her asleep had been necessary. With so much internal damage - broken ribs, bleeding in the organs - the healing had required complete stillness. Any excitement, and there could have been other problems. Even with the patient asleep, Loska had had a difficult time mending those bones. Yugoda had always said…

Loska swallowed and checked the progress of the knit as her trembling hand passed over the ribcage. It was not strong yet, but that would take time. For now, it was enough. Strong enough to hold while the patient was moved to a bed before she woke up. Then, the patient would cease to be a patient, which meant she was no longer Loska's problem.

But…

Loska sat back on her heels and glanced at the locked door that led onto the corridor. If she called, a guard would come to help her, or perhaps send for the ship medic. But either way, some strange Fire Nation man would be putting his hands on this poor girl's bare skin and that was unthinkably inappropriate. The Prince ogling her in her underthings was bad enough.

Loska knelt beside the medical tub and bit her nails. Her mother had always scolded her for biting her nails. Now she did it just to take comfort in remembering the way Kodera would huff and say, Nobody wants to be tended by a healer with slobbery fingers and raw nailbeds, Loska.

Perhaps that was exactly the point. Maybe, if she made herself unappealing, the Fire Nation would release her. Loska's thumb nudged the slim steel collar locked around her neck. There was no chain, no impediment against motion, but the collar carried a metaphorical weight that kept Loska's head bowed.

The girl didn't wear a collar, but she did wear a betrothal necklace. Loska had left it when she peeled away all the grubby, confusing layers of red and blue mens' clothing. Did all the Southern Water Tribe girls wear boy clothes and haircuts? Or was this one being intentionally deceitful?

Loska couldn't really blame her if she was. She knew what happened to pretty prisoners of war. She'd been spared so much because she wasn't too proud to yield at once. Not after she saw what happened to Yugoda.

The girl's secret was obviously out now, though. Loska had taken pity on her and at least provided her with a proper sarashi, but that did nothing to solve the larger problem. She might not be wearing a collar but Loska did not envy her. The Prince clearly had ideas about what was going to happen when she recovered. Loska shuddered at the thought. Poor girl.

It would be a small mercy to spare her any more degradation at the hands of their enemies. There was little in Loska's power to do, and she certainly couldn't save her patient from her fate, but she would do this one small thing. Carefully, she reached into the warm water and lifted the girl by her shoulders.

Loska was strong. She had what was referred to in the Water Tribe as a 'winter warm' build. Several suitors had admired her round face and general thickness. But slim as the girl was, she was heavy. Loska struggled hauling her limp weight out of the tub and had to settle her on the floor for a rest. The girl groaned and shuddered in her arms, probably because the steel floor was cooler than the pool had been.

Then, suddenly, the girl jerked out of Loska's arms and rolled on her hands and knees, quick as an arctic cat. Loska lost her balance and fell back on her rump, staring suddenly into fierce blue eyes.

Only they weren't fixed on her. They were locked on something behind her. It came to Loska suddenly - the Fire Nation tapestry hanging on the far wall, the steel room all around, the hot glow of electric lights.

The girl wasn't looking so good. Her eyes were glassy and her face was pale and breaking out in a sweat, probably a result of the pain she had to be in after moving like that and breathing hard like she was now. It was as if she didn't feel it, though. She bared her teeth at the tapestry and her wild eyes dribbled thin, unnoticed tears.

"Where is he? He's going to pay for this." She started to rise, bracing one bare foot on the steel. "I swear I'll-"

The strain to stand was too much for her exhausted body. The girl blinked hard, then collapsed, unconscious. For a long time, Loska sat staring at her, waiting for her heart to stop pounding.

She had seen that look on warriors during the siege. It had rattled her then, but it also made her feel good to know they were on her side, fighting to protect their people. But on this girl, this half-starved convalescing girl in a shabby boy's haircut and borrowed underwear, it was genuinely frightening. A true Water Tribe maiden, if she woke in such a situation, would cry out for help or turn to her fellow tribeswoman for comfort. She most certainly would have remembered her modesty and at least tried to cover herself.

But in this girl there was none of the grace and tranquility on which Water Tribe women prided themselves. There was only a warrior, boiling just under the surface.

Loska finally swallowed and climbed to her feet. She hesitated a moment longer, staring wide-eyed at the stranger sprawled on the floor before her. Then she went to the door for the guard.