She heard him, but she ignored him. Better to keep quiet, than to return his gratitude and risk her voice breaking. It was guilt, this feeling that gnawed at her insides. He’d saved her, and the longer she spent cooped up in this cave, the truer his promises became: he meant to keep her safe.
But, why? Katara knew of the price on her head, on the head of every waterbender— The Fire Nation wanted them, was hunting them, at the decree of some pompous admiral who believed the Avatar was hidden among her kind. It was a folktale, in reality. The cycle ended with Roku, but gods be damned if the Fire Nation didn’t fabricate any and every excuse to kill off the remaining nations —and her keeper was a firebender. She could feel it in his veins.
No. She couldn’t do this. She couldn’t let the fucking ash maker walk free because her heart conjured up some debt owed to him. If he was due anything, Katara had made it up tenfold by healing him, by allowing him some peace and a dreamless sleep before she killed him.
Holding her breath for a moment, she listened for his. It was slow and steady, deep like she expected. She was stiff from lying awake for hours, but the moon called out to her—finally—and Katara knew it was time. She had her things ready. Her canteen and old clothes were beneath her head, hiding stolen nuts and berries, and scraps of the rabbit. And, she had the position of his possessions memorized. His dao were at his hip. His bag lay near his head. She’d snatch it, fill it with her clothes and few things; she’d kill him.
“Goodbye, demon,” she whispered, pushing up from her makeshift bed. A dark smile painted her lips, keeping at bay any doubts that she was doing the right thing. Who could say how many he killed? Even if it was no one, his element didn’t allow for his innocence. She’d heard too many die by flame; her family among them. She’d never sleep again without reliving their anguished screams.
And now she wanted to live his.
The shift to her feet was smooth and lithe. Despite her lingering injuries, the moon gave her new life. She was humming with energy. Her blood sang of power and dominance and Katara hardly needed to concentrate to feel the lull of his. Thump. Thump. His heart was so slow, so lazy; defenseless, as she crossed the few paces dividing their cave and glared down at him. If only she could see his face.
“Hah…” A shaky laugh tore from her lips, so quiet not even a ghost could hear it. Why couldn’t she?
Her breath coming quicker, shallow with sweet anticipation— How good would it feel to be vindicated? How alive would she be taking a firebreather from the land of the living?— Katara called on the moon’s deadly power and shifted her weight.
Slowly, maybe she was enjoying this surge of confidence too much, his body’s control slipped away. She began at his feet, plucking at the veins, following the arteries up his legs. Reaching his hips and his stomach, she felt the beginnings of him waking up. His head jerked. His arms flailed. A strangled scream rose and died, ending in a choked sob somewhere inside his throat. The pain was reaching him, setting off alarms in his head. His fingers made claws, scraping at the earth. She felt his muscles firing, fighting for purchase— He wanted to buck. He couldn’t. He wanted to run. He couldn’t. He wanted to drive a knife through her heart, but his heart was hers. His bladder let its contents go when she seized it.
“Did you think I was lying?” Her sneer rang off the cave’s walls. The only thing she let him have were his eyes, and they snapped to hers, so wide, so gold, and so frightened. Katara laughed. “Firebender. Ashmaker. You think you’re better, because you offered me a bar of soap and didn’t force your cock in me, but you’re just like all the rest of them.” Keeping her grip on him, she bent over, reaching for the lip of the mask. She ripped it away.
“You’re a nightmare!”
The painted wood clattered across the stone, but no sooner had her words echoed than recognition forced its way in. The scar. Even the faint red light cast by the fire’s dying embers, the stain of ruined tissue marked him. Her eyes danced across it; her thoughts danced back to four years prior. A steel ship. A hardened crew. An angry prince.
“You?” Her question was quiet, just a whispered breath. In her confusion, in the dilemma of seeing a boy, then blinking and seeing a boy all grown up—a man, now—Katara’s hold slipped. She felt him struggle, felt his heart stutter back into his own rhythm and a second cry tore from him, like a wounded rabbit.
Just like that, the mirage shattered. Boy or not, prince or not—she’d been a girl once, hadn’t she? His people had stolen that from her, beat it out of her. And now, he had her. Prince Zuko, the disgraced son of the Fire Lord responsible for her living hell. She was supposed to believe he meant her no harm?
Katara regained control, more brutal and cruel than before. This time, her voice was laced with poison and accusal. “You.”
The hold she regained on him was made even worse and more painful because it had slipped when she saw who he was. He felt the wet track of a tear slip down his right cheek—somehow, that bit of water had escaped her grasp when she grabbed hold of him again. Then again, what use did she have for his tears when she controlled the blood within him?
This is bloodbending, he thought distantly. This is how I’m going to die.
Spots formed in his vision and he had to remind himself to force in another thin mouthful of air. Her eyes bore into his as soon as he was able to focus on her face again, the syllable her accusation ringing clearly through his ears.
Zuko could feel everything, even as he could move nothing. The cold sweat running down the line of his spine, the warmth of urine clinging to his pants—he was almost hypersensitive to all of it. None of his muscles obeyed no matter how hard he tried to move them, and his chest hurt. His heart slowed to a rhythm of the waterbender’s choosing, and the brief instant where she’d lost it and it’d tried to resume its natural pace made it hurt all the more when she forced it back to her will. Even the breaths he took were labored, like he was fighting a losing battle just for air.
What was it she’d said? She’d gut him open like a fish? She didn’t even need to do that, Zuko supposed. She could just… stop his heart if she wanted. Maybe freeze the very blood in his veins. He squeezed his eyes shut—the only things he found he had control over—and more wet slipped from his right eye.
She’d promised him she’d do this, and he’d been careless. He hadn’t quite believed she could actually bloodbend, or that perhaps it meant something different than what it sounded like. He’d started to trust her. He was sorely mistaken, and if he somehow, somehow got out of this alive, he would never underestimate her again. He hadn’t thought he had in the first place, but he would be sure to never again assume, regardless of what he thought was or was not possible.
He felt a wave of nausea roll through his gut and he opened his eyes again to try and quell it. Zuko found her still staring at him, expectant and angry. She knew him, she knew who he was. He had been right, after all.
His chest burned as he dragged in another ragged breath. What if he had taken off the mask earlier? Would she have taken control of him then? Or would she have never done this, if only he had shown her his face?
No—she would have still done this. She’d promised, and he saw in the hurt in her eyes and the way it bowed her shoulders that she would have always done this.
Still, she hadn’t yet. She’d seen his face, knew who he was, and hadn’t yet stopped his heart or gut him from neck to navel. Perhaps… she was waiting? Her stance was steady, but her hands trembled. She was waiting for him to recognize her. Staring at her face, his eyes searching her features, Zuko frantically wracked his memory to place her. He’d never traveled with anyone in all the years he lived here in the Earth Kingdom as the Blue Spirit, had never encountered any waterbenders as the refugee Li–where could he know her from?
A memory resurfaced, from four years ago. Before he’d left his uncle and taken off on his own, before the Siege of the North, before Zhao killed the Moon Spirit. Before, when he had a ship. When he was still searching. His eyes widened. The girl from the village at the south pole. That’s who she was.
“Please,” he managed to gasp around her control, and his throat burned from the effort. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
He shouldn’t have manhandled that old woman. He shouldn’t have threatened her village when they couldn’t tell him anything about the Avatar. He shouldn’t have broken down their wall. But he hadn’t hurt anyone. He’d turned Zhao away from following the same course, because Zuko knew her village would have been destroyed then. He hadn’t wanted anyone hurt. He’d been such a fool, then, trying to search for the impossible to obtain something he would never get. He should have known better, he should have known better. Zuko wanted to lay all these words at her feet, but he couldn’t say them. He didn’t have the air or control left.
He supposed it didn’t matter anyway, if she was going to kill him.
He lowered his gaze from her and felt a fresh trail of wet run down his cheek. He was so tired, tired from struggling to breathe, tired from always trying and always failing. He couldn’t even do something good right.
“You’re right,” he rasped. “Me. I deserve this.” A wheeze rattled his compressed lungs, burned sharp like fire in his chest. His heart felt like it was going to burst. His voice turned small, deflated and beaten and too much like the broken boy he used to be, that he still was. “I’m sorry for what I did in—in your village.”