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.”
“You’re sorry?” A laugh tore through her, sick and demented. It rang off the stone walls, piercing the night like a siren’s call, as inescapable and uncontrollable as the myth itself. “Do you truly believe I want your sympathy? Zuko of the Fire Nation.”
Spitting his name like a foul curse felt good; it felt right. It felt like justification for this, for the rage igniting her frame and making her control over him all the mightier. She brought him to the edge, right to the brink of killing him. A broken sense of certainty slid down his spine, and Katara watched the realization dawn in his eyes—he would die tonight—as her own cut into him like razors through taut flesh.
She could see all of him: the purple tinge to his lips, the ash of his skin, the golden light in his eyes as they rolled back into his head. And beyond the physical responses, she saw him— Prince Zuko. Fire made up his veins, hot and wild and terrifying. It burned through him, searing at the edges of her control, and Katara remembered the same white-hot energy singeing the air when her mother died.
It didn’t matter his lack of responsibility. It only served to make her angry. She stooped over him, one knee burrowing into his stomach, adding to his pain and taking what little air he had. The other served to balance her in the dirt, while her fingers clawed at his chest and wrapped up in his drenched shirt. Katara yanked him up by the fabric; it wasn’t hard, with his inability to fight and her power over his blood. His face was a mere breath from hers, damp and glistening and contorted with fear.
This close, she could smell him. Smoke. Heat. The sweet musk of sweat clung to his hair and his skin. The stench of terror and fresh piss lingered like a putrid undercurrent.
This close, she felt like a goddess of death.
“Repeat it,” Katara hissed, spittle hitting his cracked lips. “Tell me you’re sorry, Prince.”
Tears leaked from the corners of his eyes. If she wasn’t bending him, she knew he’d be sobbing. begging. pleading for his life. He couldn’t, or so she thought. Somehow, between a keening gasp and shallow pants, Zuko managed:
‘I’m sorry. I am.’
She dropped him. She felt his body’s natural reaction to the crack of his skull on the floor of the cave, but she didn’t hear it. For a moment, she heard nothing— just her slow breaths and the reverberation of her heartbeat. It matched his.
Until it didn’t. Gods fuck him!
For all her screaming, aching, and bleeding, for all the horror the Fire Nation had inflicted, she couldn’t do it. She couldn’t end him.
A firebender took her mother, but Zuko wasn’t that man. Another took her brother, but Zuko wasn’t that monster. And as desperately as she wished to feel righteous and vindicated by his death, she couldn’t bring it upon herself to blame him for what the marauders did, not when he looked at her like this.
Like a boy. Like a beaten, broken boy.
Her grasp loosened, not enough to allow him any movement, but he could breathe again. Thready inhalations burst through his pale lips. His fingers twitched, curling tighter into his palms and leaving indentations. A sound like a dying animal echoed faintly in the cave as his heart stuttered and stumbled within his ribcage.
Katara left him like that, stepping over his body to collect his bag and the leather sheath that held his dao. Perhaps it was wrong of her, to threaten a man’s life and take his belongings, but she refused even a lick of remorse. She let him keep his life, his worthless, murderous life; that was enough kindness.
Slinging his things over her shoulder, Katara marched towards the cave’s entrance without a single glance back.
“You’re not forgiven,” she said, staring at the moon up above. “Live with that.”
With a short breath, she let Prince Zuko go; then, she stepped out into the night and she was gone.
Unconsciousness draped over him like a heavy shroud.
You’re not forgiven. Those three words echoed in the blackness surrounding him in a mantra. Zuko felt like there were more, but he couldn’t understand them. His heartbeat stuttered in his ears and drowned out everything else. The sounds of the world were muffled and combined in an indistinguishable mess.
Fleeting images crossed his vision. The waterbender had her arms full with his pack and his dao were strapped across her back; the firelight flickered against the cave wall, then was nothing more than a faint glow; his mother’s robes swayed above the floor in front of him; his uncle sat leaning over him and offered him a cup of tea; red and blue dragons curled around one another in the dark. Zuko couldn’t tell if he was dreaming or not. Were these the last dredges his mind could conjure before he died?
Would he wake in the spirit world?
He dragged a rattling, burning breath into his lungs. No, he thought blearily. He hurt too much to be dead.
Zuko slowly blinked his eyes open.
It was still dark out, but he had no idea how much time had passed. The fire had already been in embers before she—before she’d attacked him. Sunrise was still a long ways off; he couldn’t feel the stir of fire in him that dawn always brought.
His throat seized for a moment. What if what she’d done to him had cut off his bending somehow, he thought frantically. What if dawn was swiftly coming on and he simply couldn’t feel it anymore?
Zuko’s shallow breaths increased in speed of their own accord, and he had to squeeze his eyes shut and command himself to breathe more slowly, more deeply. In, pause, out. In. Out. It was a rhythm he’d practiced more often than he would ever admit throughout his childhood, and his body eventually responded to the familiar, even pace. That wasn’t possible, he told himself, his mental voice calm. No one can take bending away. Once he regained his strength back, he would be able to bend just like before.
When he felt more in control again, he opened his eyes and took mental stock of himself. His clothing was soaked through from sweat and other things, his heart felt like he had been running hard for an entire day, and the rest of his muscles had a bone-deep ache that he didn’t think would go away any time soon. Otherwise, he felt intact. He curled his fingers, testing his ability to move himself, and a little choked sound escaped him when they responded. Having bodily autonomy was something one took for granted and didn’t ever think about until it was taken completely away. He swallowed thickly. Zuko had been restrained before, but having his blood bent like that was… something entirely different. He couldn’t even struggle against it because no part of him responded the way it should have.
With even more hesitation, he opened one hand and focused. His heart fluttered in his chest again, and for a moment, nothing happened. Then warmth bloomed in the form of a small, weak flame cradled between his fingers. Zuko released it with a heavy sigh deflating his chest. He felt more drained of energy after bending immediately after waking, but at least he knew it hadn’t been blocked or taken away. She hadn’t been able to do that.
Line formed across Zuko’s brow as he thought about the waterbender, what she’d done… and what she hadn’t done.
She’d told him she was going to bloodbend him—that she was going to kill him. He’d underestimated her, and then he’d paid the price for that. It had been terrifying.
And, what’s more, he’d been utterly certain he was going to die. He was sure that she was going to kill him—he remembered the exact moment he knew with brutal clarity.
But, then, she hadn’t.
Still he lay on the cold stone ground, breathing, feeling his heartbeat thud against his ribs. Why hadn’t she killed him? She’d made good on her promise to bend his blood, and he was sure—he was sure—that she was going to stop his heart. Zuko could see it in her eyes when her face had been inches away from his; he knew the anger and hurt he saw there, and he knew that she desperately wanted to make good on her full promise to him. He had felt the complete control she had over him, the pressure between his lungs and in his veins.
But why hadn’t she?
He would get no answers staring up into the dark, and so rolled onto his side to push himself up. At least—that had been his intent. Zuko was only able to manage rolling onto one side, wheezing and gasping for air. Everything hurt, and he felt his muscles shaking and spasming from the effort even that small change in position took. Still, he pressed one hand to the stone and attempted to push himself up. He only got a few inches off the ground before he collapsed, only barely able to hold himself on his side.
For several moments, Zuko just stayed like that and breathed, shaking and trying to gather his strength. There wasn’t much to gather, and he didn’t think he’d be able to do much more right now. While he tried to recuperate, he glanced around the cave. The waterbender was gone. So, that much of his feverish imagining had been real. A few more moments showed him that everything else was gone with her, as well, aside from the rabbit carcass over the remains of the fire. She’d taken his bag and his dao.
Zuko sucked in a breath, a thought coming to him quick as a slap. His uncle’s teacup had been in there. It was the only remaining possession he’d had, and the realization that she’d stolen it from him hurt almost worse than all the pain from the bloodbending. A strangled growl scraped through his throat at his utter inability to run out after her and get it back; he could barely move. One hand clenched into a fist—the one she’d healed, something distantly reminded him in the back of his mind—and he ineffectually hit it repeatedly against the stone ground.
The rest of the items in the bag, they were all replaceable. Zuko didn’t even spare them another thought. Even the dao he didn’t mourn too long; he could find another pair somewhere without too much trouble if he needed to. But, his uncle’s cup—he had to get that back from her. For all he knew, his uncle was dead, and had been for years. That could be all that was left of him.
Vision wavering from exhaustion and pushing himself too much after such an ordeal, Zuko stared out toward the mouth of the cave. As soon as he was able to walk again, he was going to track her down and get that cup back. He couldn’t lose that last thread to his uncle. He couldn’t.