the villains that live in my bed

theadamantdaughter:

teaandcrowns:

theadamantdaughter:

teaandcrowns:

( begin, previous )

Every ounce of indignation that had Zuko on his feet and wanting to pace immediately fled. He froze in place, gaping at her. For several echoing beats of his heart, that was all he could do. Eventually, he recovered, pressing his lips together.

He’d… frightened her.

He’d only stood up, and that simple movement had sent her cowering.

In an instant, he crouched back down in place. His hands, concealed behind the rise and fall of his thighs, clenched into fists so tight they hurt.

“Don’t,” he began, but his voice was shaky. He couldn’t trust it. She thought he was angry at her, that he was going to hurt her. She thought he was going to–

Zuko drew in a breath to calm himself. It didn’t work. He was angry–angry at all the men who’d done this to her. Who’d bruised and burned her. He felt his inner fire swell inside him. He promised himself that he would make sure they regretted everything they had ever done to her and anyone else.

He released his breath and tried to steady his voice. “I’m not going to hurt you. I promise.”

Very intentionally, Zuko unfurled his hands and shifted them into plain view. It wasn’t quite a spreading of his hands to show peace, but it was reminiscent of that same intent. She watched him askance for several long, silent minutes where he held himself as still as he could. There was one time where he might have compared her to a wounded animal–but she wasn’t, and he’d learned the hard way that was a disingenuous point of view. She was a young woman who’d endured horrors he wouldn’t wish on his worst enemy. In fact, she was supposed to be his enemy, but working to help her back to health, watching her simply exist in this cave with him over the past few days, Zuko just couldn’t see her as the enemy. He’d gone through much the same as he traveled across the Earth Kingdom for four years. They weren’t the enemy, they were all just people. Just like the people of the Fire Nation. Just like him.

As he watched her hold back the tremors that threatened to overtake her hands, a sudden and strong desire to take off the mask surged within him. He’d always considered it necessary to protect himself, but was it really? She had no choice but to be who she was; she didn’t have the luxury of something to hide behind. His heart quickened a little. She’d already taken steps toward trusting him, hadn’t she? But the mask still was a physical barrier, a reminder that he had more control than she did in this situation. What if he did remove it? Would she really recognize him and use that against him, or would it be one step closer to true trust he could initiate? Zuko worried his lip as his thoughts spun wild. The wanted posters for him–for Zuko, Exiled Fire Nation Prince–were a few years old, and there were still Earth Kingdom people out there who assumed he was just a scarred refugee like so many others. This girl already knew he was a firebender, but she might not recognize him for who he was.

The only sound for a long stretch between them was his heartbeat in his own ears.

She was watching him intently now, but he couldn’t read the expressions that flitted across her face; he couldn’t guess at her thoughts. Did she think him a monster, as she’d called him before? He wouldn’t be surprised–for all that he’d tried to show goodwill, he still kept the mask of a spirit over his face. Maybe he should take it off, break down that barrier.

His left hand drifted up to the edge of his mask, just in front of his jawline.

Zuko hesitated.

He let his hand drop back down. He couldn’t do it. It was too risky. He hadn’t survived this long with bounties out on both his true identity and the Blue Spirit by taking unnecessary risks, and revealing himself to a waterbender who had a well-earned vendetta against firebenders was an unnecessary risk. She may not have killed him when she had a chance to so far, but that was shaky ground to base anything off of. 

He waited until she seemed to relax a little again before moving. She was still tense, that much was clear, but it wasn’t as bad as a few minutes ago. That was probably the best he could hope for in their current situation.

He looked away from her, turning his head so that she would know. “I’m sorry.” Whether he was apologizing for frightening her unintentionally, for all that had been done to her, or because it was his people who had hurt her, who’d hurt the entire world–Zuko couldn’t say. He silently decided he meant all of them.

Another expanse of silence filled the space between them.

Then, very quietly, he said, “I can show you where they raid the most. When you’re stronger.” Zuko didn’t think he needed to clarify who they meant.

She couldn’t call it a victory, making him stiffen, then sit down on his haunches. It wasn’t a victory. It was a testament— to how damaged she was, how wounded. He saw her as some sort of fragile being, if he, her enemy, could be convinced to back down with nothing more than a strangled plea. 

Of course, the thought crossed her mind: perhaps he didn’t intend her any harm. Perhaps his reaction was not to her igniting words, but to her history. Perhaps… he pitied her…? She didn’t want pity; Katara couldn’t even claim sympathy. She wanted her brother, her father, her freedom

She watched him, like the opportunity would some how appear. She watched him spread his hands like a surrender, watched him struggle for the correct words, watched his fingers pause between his lap and his jaw, heavy with trepidation. Her heart was pounding harder than his when he brushed the edge of the mask. 

This was it, the moment that marked her as his or his companion. Katara decided she’d stick by him, no matter his face, his name, his past, if the mask came off. That display of real trust wouldn’t go—gods damn him. His hand fell away and something like a shot of fury ran hot and liquid through her veins. A breath pulled sharp and loud through her nose. 

“You’re not letting me go.” 

Her statement drew the wraith’s attention. Even through the narrow slits, those golden eyes caught the firelight, holding a mix of alarm, uncertainty. It took everything within her not to cower against the wall, took a heartbeat for Katara to remember the rising moon outside. She was quickly gaining power, and with it, all her daring. 

“Do you think I’m naive?” Katara shot across the cave, her glare dark. His chances of surviving were growing ever dimmer. She was growing ever braver, now that she had his unwavering stillness. “You’re sorry. So what? You can take me to those men. So what?! What use are your apologies? What good are your promises?” she pressed. “You haven’t given me your name, you haven’t shown your face. Yet, you ask—demand—my trust. You tell me you won’t hurt me, you only have good intentions with me, but you refuse to trust me.”

She made a show of shaking her head. She didn’t have a mask to tuck her emotions behind— so be it. He’d have to see the anger, the rage, play out all over her face and know that his life wasn’t safe in her hands. She was furious. She was hurting. And, she was battling some twinge of betrayal at his insistence on wearing his mask. 

Katara shifted under that thought, uncomfortable with it. She had no bond with this man. She had… nothing. A growl broke the seal of her lips and harsh, blue eyes pinned the monster to the other side of the cave. 

“What intentions could you possibly have for me? Are you going to make me into your demon wife? Dress me up and drag me around?” she asked. “Or, will you keep me here? Have a warm body to fill your bed and prepare your breakfast? I might not be hurt by you, no. I might be in kinder hands, but I’m still a prisoner, firebender.”

Her words engulfed him like a tidal wave. They pressed his chest tight and he fought the urge to gulp for air.

I’m still a prisoner.

That’s what she thought of this? Anger rose in him, swift and hot and tingling his fingertips. “Intentions?” he echoed, unable to keep his voice from rising, unable to keep from rising to his feet again. “I don’t have any intentions–all I’m demanding of you is to not go and get yourself killed! You’d be dead now if it weren’t for me!” Some small voice in the back of his mind that sounded much like his uncle said that this was a bad idea, but he ignored it.

“I didn’t have to save you, and I’m not keeping you here! You could have walked out any time while I was asleep.” To punctuate his point, he gestured to the dark mouth of the cave with a sharp sweep of his hand. “You could have killed me at any time while I was asleep, too–how is that not trusting you?”

Without sparing a single moment to think before he acted, Zuko reached down and tugged the knife out of his boot–scabbard and all–and tossed it haphazardly against the cave floor. It clattered and spun on the rock near her. “Here,” he said, knowing that he was acting exactly like a petulant child and not caring. “In case I was wrong to trust you wouldn’t use it.” She lashed out at him just when he thought she was starting to believe him, and it hurt. He wanted her to feel the same connection that he did, and she didn’t. Zuko hated how much that stung him.

“And I’m not a demon!” he snapped, hiding his hurt behind his anger. The waterbender glared at him, her eyes furious and daring him to prove he wasn’t. “I just–I can’t.” Zuko hated how his voice cracked like the last remnants of wood breaking beneath the heat of a fire.  He couldn’t meet her gaze. Scowling at the hot prickling at the corner of his eyes, he glared at nothing in particular. She couldn’t understand. Her nature made her an enemy of the Fire Nation, but his father–his father–had exiled him from the very country he was supposed to inherit one day. His home. His father had put a bounty on his head, dead or alive.

All at once, Zuko felt like he was going to burst into flame if he stayed in that cave on second longer. It was all too much–the accusations she flung at him like shards of ice, the betrayal of his own father that still stung like a fresh wound seven years later–and a frustrated growl clawed its way up out of his chest. He whirled and stormed out of the cave without a glance back to her, and stalked several paces away from the opening before turning on the stone and punching it. He felt a bone crack and the warmth of splitting skin, but didn’t care.

Turning, he didn’t even bother to look at his hand, instead folding his arms over his chest and glaring out into the dark. The sun had set and full night settled across the sky.

She was angry at him for not revealing who he was–but she hadn’t either. The only difference was that he knew what she looked like. He didn’t know her name, and he didn’t have any immediate plans on asking her for it; he’d been too concerned with seeing her back on her feet to think about her name.

So what if he knew what she looked like? Her face was a little too gaunt right now, but she looked like any normal young woman would. She didn’t have a permanent reminder of dishonor and shame dominating half of it like he did. He couldn’t risk her seeing it and knowing who he was and trying to turn him in. He couldn’t.

But he wanted to. Zuko leaned his back against the rough stone wall and stared up at the sliver of moon that crested above a cloudbank. It didn’t matter what he wanted. He had to do what he needed to survive.

And so did she.

Though it was obvious, something he already empirically knew, it still stung him like a dash of ice water. I’m still a prisoner. Of course that’s how she saw this. She’d gone from being in one cave with firebenders all around her to another, with yet another firebender watching her. The fact that he didn’t have her tied up probably meant very little to her, all told.

His head fell back against the stone, and he closed his eyes. A gentle wind rustled the young leaves around him and sent a chill running up his spine. He let out a slow exhale and focused on his breath to warm up.

As soon as she was strong enough that he was sure she wouldn’t die–or get captured again–if left to her own devices, Zuko would go. It’d be better that way.

He tried not to focus on why that decision bothered him.

She remained frozen far too long in his absence, coiled with the expectation of fire and licking pain. Even after his footsteps disappeared around the bend in their cave and his heartbeat reduced to nothing more than a dull throb, she was still, tensed. So much for her display for fire and fight. 

A curse whispered off the rocks as Katara let go of a held breath. How great a fool she’d been; she wasn’t his prisoner? Any night, any time he was absent, she could’ve vanished, and she’d… stayed. For what? The shelter, the food, the company— Katara could argue for any, but the simple truth remained: she was afraid. 

Running may anger him. Fighting back certainly did, despite her only weapons being words. How much worse would he react to her disappearance, to her battling him should she be found by him? Katara shot a look beyond the cave. 

Demon or not, he was out there, hovering nearby. She felt the hot current of his blood— adrenaline, pain, frustration— as though it were her own. As if she could leave; he was hiding behind that mask, taunting her with promises of freedom and vengeance, but she hadn’t been wrong in calling herself a prisoner. What other reason did he have to keep so close? No— whatever he said, her only true escape would come with his death, with the marauders’ deaths. 

And she could find them on her own. She would.

Eyes closed now, Katara focused solely on him. The crackle of the fire faded, the hoots of owls and distant howls: all gone. She heard only his heartbeat; she felt only his breaths. 

There was this phenomenon, she’d learned, whenever she bent another’s blood. Her victim couldn’t move. If she willed it, they wouldn’t be able to breathe. But, beyond that, worse than that, her victims couldn’t think. They lost all autonomy. Their hearts would slow to match hers; they’d feel whatever emotion coursed through her veins. White hot anger. Cold apathy. Katara knew the exact moment her opponent knew: they were going to die. Fear dumped into their blood, made their throat tighten and eyes widen—  

She wondered how her captor would react, wondered if he felt the slight grip she had on his heartstrings now. At full strength, Katara could’ve killed him from this distance. A mere twitch and he’d keel over, dead before he hit the ground, but fatigue lingered beneath her skin’s surface and she knew she’d need the moon’s full power. 

Later. Midnight, Katara promised herself, catching a change in him. He was moving, coming back into the cave. Her eyes opened and flicked to the cave’s entrance, tracking the wraith’s return to the firelight. 

“Are you… better?” she asked as he took a seat. “Based on prior experiences, it’s unexpected to see my keeper so conflicted, but as long as you’ve made peace with your… moral dilemma… can we move on?” Katara knew she had to remain in his good graces if she meant to spend the night unbound and unguarded, and despite her refusal to apologize, the opportunity to make amends presented itself. 

The knife he’d flung in her direction lay forgotten in the dirt. She picked it up, fingers around the blade, and offered it handle first. “I don’t need this to fight. I can make sharper daggers out of ice.” Katara gestured for him to take it, but her attention fell to the way he cradled his hand, and the spike of energy thrumming in him made sense. 

“Idiot,” she muttered, dumping his knife in the dirt. “You hit something, didn’t you? Just like my brother— always punching things with no concern for the consequences, all to display his masculinity and strength.” Sarcasm leached into her voice, but Katara grabbed her canteen and approached her captor nonetheless. “It’ll make for a sleepless night if you don’t let me heal that.” 

It startled him, her mention of a brother. It made him frown down at his hand and remember his own sister. The brief mention of her sibling held more affection in it than he had felt from his own since they were children on Ember Island.  Lost to that thought so abruptly, he almost missed her coming closer, but an odd sense of warmth prickled the edges of his awareness, reminding him of her proximity. The prickling was similar to his fire sense, but felt different. Zuko lifted his face to see her standing before him, just outside an arm’s length away.

She–what was her game? He narrowed his eyes at her, suddenly suspicious. She’d yelled at him and thrown accusations at him, but now completely turned around and asked if he’d gotten over his own tantrum, and offered to heal his hand. Not only that, either, but she mentioned her family–something he would have thought she’d keep close to her chest, and not let an enemy know.

Maybe… What if she really was starting to realize he didn’t want to keep her against her will? Why else would she offer to heal his hand? Him having any sort of incapacity would only benefit her if she truly believed he wanted her captive. What if she was extending a peace offering? Why else would she talk about family to him? Something snagged in his chest.

Slowly, apprehensively, Zuko offered up his hand. He didn’t move to step closer to her, instead leaving the decision to close the distance or not up to her. Perhaps she would simply heal him from beyond his reach–he wasn’t quite sure how it worked. His gaze didn’t leave her as she took another step closer. She looked up at his mask for what felt like a long stretch of silence, then let her gaze fall to his outstretched hand, one of hers coming up to grasp it gently. Her fingers were cool against his own, and his heart pounded in his ears.

With surprising care, the waterbender turned his hand from side to side, examining the damage he had caused it. He winced as she moved it. At least two of his knuckles were red and swollen, with blood covering them and spiderwebbing down along his fingers and the back of his hand. He’d felt the distinct crack on the back of his hand near his wrist and knew the bones there were probably broken, but his whole hand since had melded into one burning throb of pain. It was impossible for him to determine any other damage that had been done.

Her head bent over his hand, Zuko felt something niggling at the edge of his senses again, but it was different than before. It felt almost like an unseen shifting nearby, but before he could focus on it properly, it was gone. Below him, he heard the waterbender murmur something about broken fingers and popped knuckles.

With fascination winning out over the dregs of apprehension, Zuko watched as she uncorked the canteen with one hand and used the other to summon a stream of water from it. She sheathed her hand in the water and grasped his hand again. Her touch was firmer this time and made him suck in a sharp breath at the sudden cold pressure on his broken skin and bones. The cold didn’t remain for long, however, as the water began to glow, and then began to warm to a level that was almost hot to him. At first, it was jarring and painful, and Zuko stiffened and had to force himself still so as to not snatch his hand back immediately. His other hand fisted tightly; his nails carved half-moons into his palm.

What came next was as terrifying as it was amazing.

He felt his bones and tendons mend themselves back together. He felt the scraped cuts of his skin close and become whole again. It hurt probably as much as causing the damage did, but it felt much stranger. Zuko had been hurt plenty of times, sometimes even fairly badly, but healing had always been a slow process, never this… immediate.

When the glow of the water finally faded, she released her hold on the water and it splashed ineffectually to the cave floor between their feet. She still held Zuko’s hand with her own, still partially covered in blood that hadn’t been washed away with the water, and commanded him to move it without looking up at him. He did as she asked, tentatively moving his fingers, then flexing the whole of it. Eyes wide, Zuko stared first at his hand, then at her with astonishment. She’d… completely healed it.

She watched him move his hand around a few times with apparent satisfaction with her own handiwork, then looked up at him. All at once, Zuko felt rooted to the stone when the blue of her eyes alighted on him. They were dark and glittering in the firelight, like the cobalt depths of the ocean beneath starlight. They stood closer than they’d ever been aside from him carrying her, and he swore he could feel the heat coming off her.

“I–” He swallowed, feeling heat flood his cheeks. “Thank you.”

Not waiting for her to respond, he was the first to move away, feeling awkward with his heart in his throat and not understanding why. He retreated to the fire–a safe place, near his element–and fussed needlessly over the rabbit on the spit.

“I don’t have a… moral dilemma, and I meant what I said earlier. I’m not your keeper,” Zuko said abruptly, still facing the fire, and his voice held none of the angry vehemence that it did before. Now he did chance a glance back at her, but she merely shrugged as if she may or may not have believed him. Well, at least she wasn’t shouting at him again.

Instead, she retrieved his knife from where it’d fallen to the floor and offered it to him a second time. He took it and slid it back into place in his boot, then in turn offered her more of the cooked rabbit. She took it and they ate in silence.

It was difficult to tell if the silence was strained. His heart rattled oddly in his chest, and Zuko couldn’t quite meet her gaze for too long. He could still feel her body heat–or at least, he thought he could–and it made him feel overly sensitive to anything he might say or do. So, the rest of the evening played out in relative quiet, with him unable to get a clear read on her mood. She’d been nice to him when he came back from his angry exit, and healed his hand. Her concern had been immediate and… genuine when she saw blood. And, much her anger seemed to come from her thinking he didn’t trust her. Maybe… maybe he should make a show of good faith. Maybe he should remove his mask.

He let the fire grow dim as the night deepened around his thoughts. It was late, he finally settled on, instead of any action. He could make his decision tomorrow, in the light of day, whether to take it off or not. Zuko wasn’t sure he’d trust his choice tonight to be the right one if he made it with his heart dominating his mood.

The waterbender was already lying down with some of her old clothing rolled up as a makeshift pillow, so he stretched out a few paces away from her. In the growing dark, he spoke quietly as he looked up at the cave ceiling.

“I wasn’t trying to show off or anything. I was just… frustrated. But my–” Here, he faltered for a moment, but it passed quickly and he went on. “My sister’s always the one showing off, reminding me and everyone else how strong she is. I always struggled to try and keep up with her.”

Silence answered Zuko, and he wondered if she had already fallen asleep. He listened for several beats to her breathing, trying to determine. Her breaths were still somewhat shallow, but that could have easily just been from still not being at full strength.

Still, his voice even softer, he said, “Thanks again for healing my hand.”

When she said nothing again, he pressed his lips together and exhaled quietly. Maybe he should still leave. Maybe he should take off the mask. Zuko closed his eyes. He’d decide tomorrow.

bleeding gold

theadamantdaughter:

teaandcrowns:

@theadamantdaughter


“There you are!”

Zuko nearly faltered, mid-form, but caught himself and used the fumbled momentum to turn his kick into a roll. He bounced back upright with a sweep of his feet, making the split-second decision not to stop his practice.

“Zuko.” He could hear the way his mother stood with her arms crossed. “Why haven’t you dressed yet?”

Still not turning to face her, Zuko shifted from the more aggressive spark katas to a smoother smoke stance. “Still practicing,” he announced shortly, breathing out and sending flames dancing along his knuckles through the forms.

Zuko,” his mother said again, sharp enough to finally make him stop.

He rolled his shoulders one by one and raked fingers back through his hair to his phoenix plume before glancing back at her. Yep. She was definitely displeased with him. Her mouth pulled into a tight frown, and though her hands were folded into the wide sleeves of her robe, Zuko could easily visualize her fingers drumming against the opposite arm. He turned to face her fully, then dropped his gaze to the ground at her feet.

The edge of her robes shifted a little as she moved, then filled his vision as she walked over to him. “It’s okay to be nervous,” his mother told him gently.

“I’m not nervous,” he denied, even though he knew she could hear it in his voice anyway. Zuko let out a breath. “This has been planned for years. I… can’t be nervous.”

Her hand reached out and lifted his chin so that he was meeting her eyes again. She smiled at him. “That doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to be nervous. No matter how much you prepare for something, it’s always different when the day arrives. I felt much the same way when I first came to the capital.”

“You did?”

His mother hummed her agreement, her hand moving to tug at his hair with fondness. “I’d only met your father twice before, and only once after my parents accepted the proposal. And I’d never met the rest of the royal family. It was all very imposing.” She tilted her head a bit, her smile turning a bit sly. “So, I’d be willing to bet that our arriving guest will probably be just as nervous as you, if not more.”

Tension didn’t quite leave Zuko at her words, but it eased a little. His mother always knew what it was he needed to hear, even having just celebrated reaching his majority. He was a long way away from the little kid who burrowed into his mother’s lap during a thunderstorm, but Zuko wasn’t sure he’d ever be too old to take his mother’s encouragement to heart.

A smile tugged at the corners of his mouth, and he tamped down the anxiety still jittering through him. “Well, I suppose I should make her feel as welcome as I can, then.”

“I think that’s a very good plan. Now, will you come inside and clean yourself up?” She made to poke at his side, which he nimbly avoided. “I’m not sure showing up sweaty and half-dressed will make a very good first impression.”

Zuko laughed. “Are you sure? It might make her feel more comfortable if I look sillier than everyone else.” He took a few steps back to her as if to drape himself over her.

She laughed, lifting her hands to keep him from leaning all over her. “Go clean yourself up and get dressed,” she chided him without malice. “You will have plenty of time to be a sweaty mess after the welcoming ceremony.”

Grinning, Zuko stopped and watched her smooth the front of her robes again. Without warning, she reached out and ruffled his hair, rendering it completely unkempt. His hands flew to his hair in protest, and she laughed.

“Zuko, you must do something with your hair. Honestly! It’s not befitting a Prince of the Fire Nation.”

She waved dismissively as she turned and headed back toward the eastern wing of the royal grounds where they lived, and he followed suit soon after. His uncle and cousin, as direct heirs to the throne, lived in the western wing, while his grandfather lived in the main palace proper in the Fire Lord’s official suites. Zuko’s sister constantly complained about having to be relegated to the east, the lesser side, as she called it, but Zuko liked it. He could go out of his balcony every morning with the sunrise and meditate with no interruptions, and he even had a clear view of Lake Hizari.

After he’d cleaned himself, dressed in semi-formal robes, and his hair was retied in a dragon’s knot, Zuko dismissed the lingering servants. He went to his wide balcony and leaned on the rail, looking at the spread of Lake Hizari. The mid-afternoon sun danced gold across the lake’s surface. Would she like it here? he found himself wondering. She was coming from such a long way, everything would probably be very different. Anxiety twisted itself into another knot in his stomach, and he was glad he hadn’t eaten anything that morning.

A soft knock came at his door, followed by a servant’s subdued voice. “My Prince, the ships are approaching the harbor and will be docking soon.”

The words hit him muffled, and after a few seconds of pain, Zuko realized he was gripping the rail so tight his knuckles were leeched white. He very consciously let go, only for his hands to tremble in the air. He felt like he was going to throw up.

“My Prince?”

All at once, Zuko snapped out of his thoughts and managed to contain a nervously high chuckle. He drew in a deep breath and released it, mustering any shreds of composure that he could. When he finally turned and crossed the room, the servant then led him the long and winding way out to a palanquin, which then took him down through the bustling Harbor City. Zuko normally would like to keep the curtains open to see the city, but that was the last thing on his mind. All too soon, it seemed, the palanquin came to a halt and he was expected to step out. His heart thundered in his ears and he just prayed that he would be able to keep his feet beneath him as he exited, joining his mother and the rest of his family.

This was it.

Before him, three ships bedecked in rich furs and colorful bunting in every shade of blue he could have imagined loomed above them in the harbor. Great, long beams of wood creaked, and the sails flapped in the wind, and Zuko was sure he was going to throw up.

The Water Tribe had officially arrived.

Beyond the wooden walls of her shared cabin, the ship thumped against the docks. She could hear the scuffle of crew’s feet on deck, the clatter of pulleys and riggings, the muffled toll of bells. The ship itself was at peace within the harbor. Without the wind pushing and the currents pulling, a calm had settled, allowing a gentle sway and none of the violent tossing brought by the open sea. 

After three long weeks, twenty-one monotonous days, they’d arrived. They’d left behind the cold of the south and found warmer waters in the Fire Nation’s Harbor City. 

Katara wished for a blizzard. 

Her eyes burned and her reflection blurred in the small mirror of her vanity. The delicate features of her little sister, Takaani, melted together in a blend of fuzzy blue and chocolate skin. She couldn’t see the girl’s slim fingers anymore, but Katara felt as Takaani pinned the last braid into place with practiced care. 

“All done,” Takaani said, tracing the woven strands of Katara’s hair to the bun atop her head. Blue and gold beads were interspersed in the braids, and the pattern continued throughout the rest of the wavy locks that fell down Katara’s back. “Two braids for the Tribes.” There was a smile in her voice, a sense of awe for the fairytale it was to watch her sister marry a prince. Katara could only blame herself, as she’d filled the little girl’s head with such dreams. “And one for Zuko.”

Blinking, Katara turned in her seat and pulled Takaani’s fingers from her tresses. She tucked her sister’s hands under her own. “Prince Zuko, miki,” she admonished gently. Remember his title.” 

“Yes, sister. I will.” Takaani nodded with bubbling urgency, then pulled away from Katara with a grin. “I’ve practiced my futsuurei, too,” the twelve-year-old announced, bending at the waist. Her light blue eyes were focused on Katara, awaiting approval, but her head was bowed and her palms rested on her thighs in proper form. “See?” 

The tears she’d forced away returned, swelling with pride and love for her sister, with fear and apprehension for herself. Katara’s voice was strained, “You will impress everyone,and Takaani caught the tension despite Katara’s attempt to hide it. The girl straightened, concern pulling at her brow. Katara recognized the telltale signs and pulled her sister against her breast. “Don’t cry, miki.” 

“You are.” 

“Only because I’ll be so very far away from you,” Katara whispered. She nuzzled Takaani’s head, striving for an air of calm, even as it became harder and harder to let her sister go. “You’ll have Mama, and Father, too. Hama will help you become a master, like me. And, Sokka will be there, with Sesi. All too soon, you’ll have a niece or a nephew.” 

A cleared throat interrupted the moment. Katara released Takaani and looked to the door, finding her mother’s sad smile. “Your brother has managed to place bets with all the crew.” 

“Let me guess…” she pretended to ponder, rolling her eyes, “fifty gold pieces it’s a boy?” 

Kya’s expression lightened only slightly, and before Katara could protest, her mother shooed Takaani along, “My little snowflake, will you run up and find your father? Stay with him… and count all the gilded rooftops so you can tell Katara and I about them.” 

“You promise you’ll listen while we ride in the palanquin?”

“Yes, darling. You can tell us about everything you see.” 

Happy with that answer, and thrumming with excitement, Takaani dashed into the galleyway, footsteps pattering away. Her absence left a hole, one Katara felt so strongly her heart had to be missing from her chest, gone with her sister. She stared out the open door, wishing she could run along the wooden planks and laugh at the silly, sloped rooves and dive into the ocean… drown in the ocean.

“Katara, my love,” her mother vied for Katara’s attention, a hard-won battle that only ended when Kya approached the vanity and nudged Katara’s chin. “The crew has lowered the gangway. Everyone’s awaiting your appearance.” 

“Is it too late to run?” 

She met her mother’s eyes in the mirror, though Katara already knew the answer. It’d been too late for ten years. Since she was eight, since her first trip with her family to the Fire Nation’s capital and her first (and only) meeting with her betrothed, there’d been no chance to out-distance this day. It was coming… and now, it had come. In two weeks, she’d be a married woman, the wife of a man she didn’t know, a princess of a nation that wasn’t her own.

Katara’s gaze fell to the many pins and brushes that scattered her vanity—all of these, all of her belongings, would be left here. She’d be required to embrace the customs of her husband’s home— as her mother tried to calm her nerves with a gentle tone.

“I wish I could empathize with you, Daughter. I knew your father before we married. I loved him. I don’t know what it is to be in your position,” Kya murmured. “But, Katara, you are so strong.”

“Except for when it matters.” She stood to get away from her mother and shook her head. Her hands fisted in her silk garments to hide their tremor. “Except for right now.” 

“No one will fault you for being afraid. Prince Zuko… I’d be surprised if he didn’t feel the same. He said as much in his most recent letter to you, didn’t he?“

“From what I could decipher. His knowledge of Aisu-kei isn’t exactly comprehensive." 

"Mmm,” the disapproving sound made Kya’s lips pucker. “Learning our language isn’t his responsibility. How is your An-kadai? Have you been practicing? I know your tutor sent you off with a number of lessons.” Katara shrugged, prompting her mother to scold her. “You’ll have to master it sooner or later, Katara. It’s of the utmost importance that you communicate with and serve your husband. Your father will not be pleased if this match turns out poorly." 

“I’m not— my father—” Katara stammered in frustration, just barely holding her tongue. It wasn’t fair. None of it was fair, being sent away, being left behind.  But such was her duty, no matter her thoughts on it. 

She relinquished her bottom lip, then inspected her appearance for a final time. The braids winding ‘round her head framed her face well; the blush and kohl she’d applied made her eyes appear bright. The rich, royal blue silk wrapping her frame brought out lovely hues in her skin tone, which served to complement the simple, gold choker around her neck. 

Katara fingered the jewelry. Would her husband replace it? Would she wear something more intricate? She wasn’t sure of the customs to mark a married woman in this land, but whatever such customs were, she’d embrace them. 

Leaving her quarters, Katara climbed the steps to the top deck with shaky legs. Her mother provided some support, holding her hand until Takaani bounded to her, taking the other. Katara offered a hint of a smile. It quickly vanished when she joined her father, brother, and sister-in-law. They waited patiently in the center of the deck, all dressed in formal blues. 

Kya slipped into place beside Hakoda, her arm threaded through his. They led the small procession, followed closely by Sokka and Sesi, who took to the gangway with Katara and Takaani—the unmarried women, and therefore, the lowliest of the family—on their heels. Katara didn’t drop her little sister’s hand until her feet hit the dock. 

Don’t fall, she repeated, her tutor’s nasally tone echoing as she walked. Move slowly. Perform your futsuurei with Takaani, after your father and mother, and brother and sister. Speak clearly. Katara pulled her eyes up from the wooden planks, moving along the docks towards a half-moon of palanquins, and the royals who’d ridden in them. 

She looked, as quickly as she could while her father greeted the Fire Nation’s head family, for the man she was meant to marry— 

Sokka and Sesi bowed, prompting Takaani’s futsuurei. The girl was nearly seamless; then again, she didn’t understand the gravity of Katara’s position. She wouldn’t until it was her turn to marry. A smile adorned her plump cheeks. Takaani joined Hakoda and Kya to the right of Katara, leaving an unhindered view.

—she found him. Prince Zuko. 

Red robes draped around him. Strands of jet-black hair fell unruly and unwanted to his cheekbones and neck. His face was perfectly aristocratic: a thin, straight nose, high, arched cheekbones, a pretty, plump pout. And his eyes, such stunning golden eyes, watched her with undivided attention as she bent at the waist and cast her gaze down. 

“My Prince,” Katara said in near perfect An-kadai. She’d practiced these lines a thousand times. “Such a victory it is that Fire Lord Azulon and my father, Head Chief Hakoda, have allowed me this union. I have been blessed to have shown promise as a wife and mother that I may be matched with you. I pray to Tui and La, I will serve you well, Prince Zuko.” 

Hearing An-kadai come from his betrothed was a pleasant surprise, and Zuko couldn’t help the widening of his eyes. He recognized the Water Tribe spirits she named from his tutoring lessons, and the slight accent she had made his native tongue have a musical quality that it didn’t normally.

Her words, however, were a little off-putting, but his heart was pounding so much that he didn’t have the forethought to spare a moment’s rumination on them.

The young woman before him stood in a dress of various blues, with snow-white accents. Beads of gold and blue dotted braids winding through her hair, flashing in the sun. Distantly, Zuko wondered what they were made of. The only things more vibrant than the rich dyes of her robe–which looked similar to many ào dái he was familiar with–were her eyes. They tugged at him like the tide, set as they were against the rich, warm taupe of her skin. When he was ten and wanted absolutely nothing to with girls, their parents forced them to meet and greet one another. She hadn’t known any An-kadai then, nor he any inkling of Aisu-kei, but he remembered how he noticed how blue they were then, too. He tried to imagine seeing them every day, and wasn’t sure he could.

The welcoming ceremony continued on without any regard to Zuko’s internal convolutions.

Katara’s futsuurei was impeccable, and he returned one of his own, being careful to dip slightly lower than he normally would, in keirei. Even though his tutor warned that she may not comprehend the delicate intricacies of ojigi, Zuko wanted her to know that she was honored here. If she was going to be his wife, he would treat her as the equal she was, not some clueless foreigner. He straightened and, feeling eyes on him, risked a glance to the side. His father was looking at him, rather than any of their guests. Zuko felt the pit of his stomach drop and any confidence he might have felt frayed.

Taokha Katara,” Zuko began. The thought to reply back in Aisu-kei struck him, to show her the same open welcome she had by speaking in his tongue, but the look from his father made him doubt that choice. She spoke An-kadai so flawlessly, he was suddenly sure he would stumble over a word and shame himself and his family, not to mention her and her language as well. So he stuck to his own. “It is with the utmost honor that we welcome you to the Fire Nation. Agni himself smiles upon your arrival, and marks an auspicious beginning to our union. It is my greatest hope that you will be happy here.”

It was only by the grace of his formal etiquette that Zuko managed to maintain a formal façade. Next to her words, his sounded as if they fell short in delivery and elegance, and he knew he’d disappointed his father. That was one of the things he’d always been good at. His eyes fell to the ground.

A small nudge from his mother made him look up again, and he remembered himself. Zuko greeted the rest of her family with proper eshaku, the angle significantly less than the one he’d given Katara. He thanked them for undertaking the long journey and told them that every need or want of theirs would be seen to while they were in the Fire Nation. Then, finally, the brief welcoming was officially over and he could hide back inside his palanquin again on the way back to the palace.

He’d made a fool of himself, he was sure.

The trip back simultaneously felt like it took a hundred years, and still was over far too quickly. Zuko wondered for a brief moment if he could slip out the back of the curtains and hide himself in the city. No. His father would find him, and then his anger would be a terrible thing to face. And, Zuko sighed, it would disappoint his mother. So, he drew himself up and lifted his chin. He would make her proud of him.

When he exited the palanquin, he saw Katara and her family leaving theirs with a little difficulty. After a moment’s confusion, he realized–they must not have palanquins in the south. Of course they didn’t. Palanquins in the snow and ice didn’t make any sense. Watching his betrothed and her family from a mild distance, Zuko wondered what they used instead. Maybe that was something he could ask her sometime.

It was then it struck him–this Water Tribe woman, his betrothed, Katara, she was here to live. With him.

A wave of nausea ran through him.

“Are you well, my Prince?”

A servant’s voice came from his side. Zuko swallowed and schooled his face into a neutral one before straightening his spine and nodding. He didn’t glance over at the servant. “I’m fine, thanks.”

Without waiting a moment longer, he continued on to the palace. He and Katara wouldn’t see one another again until the formal dinner to complete the welcome to the Fire Nation. She and her family were placed in a guest house separate from the palace, and given their own servants. Katara would, of course, have her own personal attendants after their wedding to see to whatever personal needs she might have, but some of Zuko’s family’s were appointed to the rest of her family for the duration of their stay. The guest house was used for all those marrying into the royal family, and was not placed too far from the main building itself, to the southeast still on the grounds proper. If Zuko stood on his balcony and leaned over it a bit, he could see the northern side of where Katara’s family would be staying for the next two weeks.

Though he was not Crown Prince by several steps of succession, Zuko’s wedding was still a royal one, and as such, held weight and pomp of its own. Despite not having any kind of direct hand in the planning of the ceremony or the two week-long celebration surrounding it, Zuko was well acquainted with most of the details of everything. Katara and her family would be given personal attendants each to instruct them and guide them through the ceremonies so that they were reading from the same scroll as he was, so to speak. Back in his rooms, Zuko frowned as he shrugged out of his robe.

So much weight was put on Fire Nation ritual, but he wasn’t marrying a Fire Nation woman, nor was she a commoner. He was sure the Water Tribe had their own traditions for marriages, and especially marriages of station. While he understood that the climate was completely different than her home, surely there could be accommodations made to blend in at least some traditions from the south? They were making this marriage to broker more connection between their two peoples, weren’t they? It would only make sense–and, Zuko thought, be polite–to have traditions from both their heritages used. He made a mental note to bring it up to his mother and the majordomos orchestrating everything.

He left the semi-formal robes he’d worn to welcome her and her family draped across a wide-backed chair, glad to be back in a simple happi and pants again. In the years since the betrothal was agreed upon, Zuko had been given a tutor to teach him the Water Tribe language, Aisu-kei, and of many of their customs and traditions. He’d learned, of course, but there had also been plenty of times he hadn’t paid as much attention as he could have. Until today, a wedding had seemed so… distant. Ten years distant. But, now it was here.

Zuko moved out to stand on his balcony again, feeling suddenly claustrophobic within the walls of his rooms. He leaned out over the rail, looking south and finding the guest house. From here he could clearly see the small forms of people milling about the house, carrying in the bundles of packed cargo Katara’s family had brought. There was a good amount of blue mixed in with the dulled red of the palace servants, and he realized Katara had brought her own entourage with her. The air plucked gently at the loose folds of his clothing and ends of his long hair. His mother had assured him he would have so much to do during the two weeks leading up to the actual ceremony that he wouldn’t have time to be worried, but here he was, finding time anyway. His stomach had never really untied itself from the knots it’d been in earlier, and he only felt more form.

How was he going to survive dinner tonight facing his betrothed for only the second time in their lives, let alone get ready to embark upon marrying her?

the villains that live in my bed

theadamantdaughter:

teaandcrowns:

( begin, previous )

Every ounce of indignation that had Zuko on his feet and wanting to pace immediately fled. He froze in place, gaping at her. For several echoing beats of his heart, that was all he could do. Eventually, he recovered, pressing his lips together.

He’d… frightened her.

He’d only stood up, and that simple movement had sent her cowering.

In an instant, he crouched back down in place. His hands, concealed behind the rise and fall of his thighs, clenched into fists so tight they hurt.

“Don’t,” he began, but his voice was shaky. He couldn’t trust it. She thought he was angry at her, that he was going to hurt her. She thought he was going to–

Zuko drew in a breath to calm himself. It didn’t work. He was angry–angry at all the men who’d done this to her. Who’d bruised and burned her. He felt his inner fire swell inside him. He promised himself that he would make sure they regretted everything they had ever done to her and anyone else.

He released his breath and tried to steady his voice. “I’m not going to hurt you. I promise.”

Very intentionally, Zuko unfurled his hands and shifted them into plain view. It wasn’t quite a spreading of his hands to show peace, but it was reminiscent of that same intent. She watched him askance for several long, silent minutes where he held himself as still as he could. There was one time where he might have compared her to a wounded animal–but she wasn’t, and he’d learned the hard way that was a disingenuous point of view. She was a young woman who’d endured horrors he wouldn’t wish on his worst enemy. In fact, she was supposed to be his enemy, but working to help her back to health, watching her simply exist in this cave with him over the past few days, Zuko just couldn’t see her as the enemy. He’d gone through much the same as he traveled across the Earth Kingdom for four years. They weren’t the enemy, they were all just people. Just like the people of the Fire Nation. Just like him.

As he watched her hold back the tremors that threatened to overtake her hands, a sudden and strong desire to take off the mask surged within him. He’d always considered it necessary to protect himself, but was it really? She had no choice but to be who she was; she didn’t have the luxury of something to hide behind. His heart quickened a little. She’d already taken steps toward trusting him, hadn’t she? But the mask still was a physical barrier, a reminder that he had more control than she did in this situation. What if he did remove it? Would she really recognize him and use that against him, or would it be one step closer to true trust he could initiate? Zuko worried his lip as his thoughts spun wild. The wanted posters for him–for Zuko, Exiled Fire Nation Prince–were a few years old, and there were still Earth Kingdom people out there who assumed he was just a scarred refugee like so many others. This girl already knew he was a firebender, but she might not recognize him for who he was.

The only sound for a long stretch between them was his heartbeat in his own ears.

She was watching him intently now, but he couldn’t read the expressions that flitted across her face; he couldn’t guess at her thoughts. Did she think him a monster, as she’d called him before? He wouldn’t be surprised–for all that he’d tried to show goodwill, he still kept the mask of a spirit over his face. Maybe he should take it off, break down that barrier.

His left hand drifted up to the edge of his mask, just in front of his jawline.

Zuko hesitated.

He let his hand drop back down. He couldn’t do it. It was too risky. He hadn’t survived this long with bounties out on both his true identity and the Blue Spirit by taking unnecessary risks, and revealing himself to a waterbender who had a well-earned vendetta against firebenders was an unnecessary risk. She may not have killed him when she had a chance to so far, but that was shaky ground to base anything off of. 

He waited until she seemed to relax a little again before moving. She was still tense, that much was clear, but it wasn’t as bad as a few minutes ago. That was probably the best he could hope for in their current situation.

He looked away from her, turning his head so that she would know. “I’m sorry.” Whether he was apologizing for frightening her unintentionally, for all that had been done to her, or because it was his people who had hurt her, who’d hurt the entire world–Zuko couldn’t say. He silently decided he meant all of them.

Another expanse of silence filled the space between them.

Then, very quietly, he said, “I can show you where they raid the most. When you’re stronger.” Zuko didn’t think he needed to clarify who they meant.

She couldn’t call it a victory, making him stiffen, then sit down on his haunches. It wasn’t a victory. It was a testament— to how damaged she was, how wounded. He saw her as some sort of fragile being, if he, her enemy, could be convinced to back down with nothing more than a strangled plea. 

Of course, the thought crossed her mind: perhaps he didn’t intend her any harm. Perhaps his reaction was not to her igniting words, but to her history. Perhaps… he pitied her…? She didn’t want pity; Katara couldn’t even claim sympathy. She wanted her brother, her father, her freedom

She watched him, like the opportunity would some how appear. She watched him spread his hands like a surrender, watched him struggle for the correct words, watched his fingers pause between his lap and his jaw, heavy with trepidation. Her heart was pounding harder than his when he brushed the edge of the mask. 

This was it, the moment that marked her as his or his companion. Katara decided she’d stick by him, no matter his face, his name, his past, if the mask came off. That display of real trust wouldn’t go—gods damn him. His hand fell away and something like a shot of fury ran hot and liquid through her veins. A breath pulled sharp and loud through her nose. 

“You’re not letting me go.” 

Her statement drew the wraith’s attention. Even through the narrow slits, those golden eyes caught the firelight, holding a mix of alarm, uncertainty. It took everything within her not to cower against the wall, took a heartbeat for Katara to remember the rising moon outside. She was quickly gaining power, and with it, all her daring. 

“Do you think I’m naive?” Katara shot across the cave, her glare dark. His chances of surviving were growing ever dimmer. She was growing ever braver, now that she had his unwavering stillness. “You’re sorry. So what? You can take me to those men. So what?! What use are your apologies? What good are your promises?” she pressed. “You haven’t given me your name, you haven’t shown your face. Yet, you ask—demand—my trust. You tell me you won’t hurt me, you only have good intentions with me, but you refuse to trust me.”

She made a show of shaking her head. She didn’t have a mask to tuck her emotions behind— so be it. He’d have to see the anger, the rage, play out all over her face and know that his life wasn’t safe in her hands. She was furious. She was hurting. And, she was battling some twinge of betrayal at his insistence on wearing his mask. 

Katara shifted under that thought, uncomfortable with it. She had no bond with this man. She had… nothing. A growl broke the seal of her lips and harsh, blue eyes pinned the monster to the other side of the cave. 

“What intentions could you possibly have for me? Are you going to make me into your demon wife? Dress me up and drag me around?” she asked. “Or, will you keep me here? Have a warm body to fill your bed and prepare your breakfast? I might not be hurt by you, no. I might be in kinder hands, but I’m still a prisoner, firebender.”

Her words engulfed him like a tidal wave. They pressed his chest tight and he fought the urge to gulp for air.

I’m still a prisoner.

That’s what she thought of this? Anger rose in him, swift and hot and tingling his fingertips. “Intentions?” he echoed, unable to keep his voice from rising, unable to keep from rising to his feet again. “I don’t have any intentions–all I’m demanding of you is to not go and get yourself killed! You’d be dead now if it weren’t for me!” Some small voice in the back of his mind that sounded much like his uncle said that this was a bad idea, but he ignored it.

“I didn’t have to save you, and I’m not keeping you here! You could have walked out any time while I was asleep.” To punctuate his point, he gestured to the dark mouth of the cave with a sharp sweep of his hand. “You could have killed me at any time while I was asleep, too–how is that not trusting you?”

Without sparing a single moment to think before he acted, Zuko reached down and tugged the knife out of his boot–scabbard and all–and tossed it haphazardly against the cave floor. It clattered and spun on the rock near her. “Here,” he said, knowing that he was acting exactly like a petulant child and not caring. “In case I was wrong to trust you wouldn’t use it.” She lashed out at him just when he thought she was starting to believe him, and it hurt. He wanted her to feel the same connection that he did, and she didn’t. Zuko hated how much that stung him.

“And I’m not a demon!” he snapped, hiding his hurt behind his anger. The waterbender glared at him, her eyes furious and daring him to prove he wasn’t. “I just–I can’t.” Zuko hated how his voice cracked like the last remnants of wood breaking beneath the heat of a fire.  He couldn’t meet her gaze. Scowling at the hot prickling at the corner of his eyes, he glared at nothing in particular. She couldn’t understand. Her nature made her an enemy of the Fire Nation, but his father–his father–had exiled him from the very country he was supposed to inherit one day. His home. His father had put a bounty on his head, dead or alive.

All at once, Zuko felt like he was going to burst into flame if he stayed in that cave on second longer. It was all too much–the accusations she flung at him like shards of ice, the betrayal of his own father that still stung like a fresh wound seven years later–and a frustrated growl clawed its way up out of his chest. He whirled and stormed out of the cave without a glance back to her, and stalked several paces away from the opening before turning on the stone and punching it. He felt a bone crack and the warmth of splitting skin, but didn’t care.

Turning, he didn’t even bother to look at his hand, instead folding his arms over his chest and glaring out into the dark. The sun had set and full night settled across the sky.

She was angry at him for not revealing who he was–but she hadn’t either. The only difference was that he knew what she looked like. He didn’t know her name, and he didn’t have any immediate plans on asking her for it; he’d been too concerned with seeing her back on her feet to think about her name.

So what if he knew what she looked like? Her face was a little too gaunt right now, but she looked like any normal young woman would. She didn’t have a permanent reminder of dishonor and shame dominating half of it like he did. He couldn’t risk her seeing it and knowing who he was and trying to turn him in. He couldn’t.

But he wanted to. Zuko leaned his back against the rough stone wall and stared up at the sliver of moon that crested above a cloudbank. It didn’t matter what he wanted. He had to do what he needed to survive.

And so did she.

Though it was obvious, something he already empirically knew, it still stung him like a dash of ice water. I’m still a prisoner. Of course that’s how she saw this. She’d gone from being in one cave with firebenders all around her to another, with yet another firebender watching her. The fact that he didn’t have her tied up probably meant very little to her, all told.

His head fell back against the stone, and he closed his eyes. A gentle wind rustled the young leaves around him and sent a chill running up his spine. He let out a slow exhale and focused on his breath to warm up.

As soon as she was strong enough that he was sure she wouldn’t die–or get captured again–if left to her own devices, Zuko would go. It’d be better that way.

He tried not to focus on why that decision bothered him.

the villains that live in my bed

theadamantdaughter:

teaandcrowns:

theadamantdaughter:

teaandcrowns:

( past )

The way back to the stream was a little easier than the last time. He went more slowly, for one, to keep a better eye on her. They didn’t quite walk side by side, but he wasn’t five steps ahead like last time. Though it was full dark, later than when he’d taken her to the stream before, there was no need to worry about not carrying a torch–the moon was more than bright enough to light their way. It was just barely under full (one day away, Zuko reminded himself), and shone down through the spring leaves to light their path.

It made Zuko think about what had happened at the North Pole, how Zhao had tried–and succeeded–to kill the Moon Spirit. Had his uncle not intervened, the world might be in a far worse place than it already was. Though, it had not all been his uncle’s help from what he’d told Zuko. There’d been a young Northern Water Tribe girl who somehow had… revived the Moon Spirit? Or become it? Zuko wasn’t clear on what his uncle meant what really happened, but whatever she’d done, it’d kept the moon in the sky. It also had secured the surrender of the North to the Fire Nation, to prevent such devastation and imbalance from happening again.

He let out a controlled breath to release those thoughts. Now was neither the time nor the place to reminisce–he had to stay on the alert. Staying in one place for as long as he had was making him a little twitchy, and he felt the need to be constantly checking to make sure no one was following them, or setting up an ambush. A small part of him whispered he should still make sure the girl didn’t run for it, but a larger part reasoned she wouldn’t. She still needed to heal, and while he imagined how much she probably wanted to be clean and in better clothing, he wasn’t under the illusion that she would trade those for a chance of freedom. Not that he was keeping her captive; he was trying to help her.

By the way that she’d thanked him not once, but twice so far, he hoped that she might be beginning to believe he really wasn’t going to hurt her.

He paused for a moment at the top of the embankment that lead down to the stream itself, and glanced back at her. She still held the fresh clothes and boots to her chest, and kept frequently flicking her eyes from the trail back to him–not wanting to lose her sight of either, he surmised. When she had almost reached him, he started down the embankment, again moving slowly in case he needed to move quickly. She’d been all right the first time making it down, so he didn’t think she’d fall or anything. Getting back up… he might have to carry her again, he realized. She wasn’t quite as weak as the last time, but she was still nowhere near strong, and he wasn’t sure just how much another healing session would take out of her.

When he reached the bottom, he stopped and turned to watch her make her slow way down, tracking each of her steps. She made it down with no issue, though slightly out of breath from the exertion. Zuko walked to the water’s edge, peering down at the dark reflection of the mask he wore on its surface.

“Here.” He dug into the satchel he’d brought and held out the bar of soap as he took a few steps back from the water toward her. “’l’m staying close this time in case something happens.”

He was staying. Katara tried to hide her discomfort at that. She may’ve been wrong, anyway, hasty in her conclusion that this man didn’t have the same inclinations as all the rest. He was a man, nonetheless, and she was helpless, defenseless. Hell, she probably had the look of one who’d lay quiet through an unwanted fuck if it meant food. 

Or soap. Her eyes dropped to the creamy-white bar in his outstretched hand. It felt like submission to take it, but her skin crawled and her scalp itched and her nails had a black film beneath them. 

She snatched it from his palm and skirted around him. The stream greeted her with its cool current, tickling her toes and lapping up her feet. Going no further than ankle deep, Katara shed her threadbare tunic, then her trousers and the bindings around her hips and waist, too. What used to be blue was brown, caked with dirt and dried blood; what used to be white was ruined, stained with gods knew what: urine and semen and blood— blood. Fresh blood. 

A quiet, rushed sigh left her; relief, tainted with a note of… sorrow? Katara was quick to stifle any further sound, quick to stifle her emotions—she didn’t know if her captor was watching—and she took the soiled wraps deeper into the stream. 

Naked and submerged, covered by the noise of the stream, she let the faintest cry slip free. The nights of fretting, of lying awake, too weak to move after one or more of the raiders had his way… well, she didn’t have to anymore. The moons that’d passed without a bleed, whether from starvation or pregnancy, could go forgotten. She didn’t have to count the weeks; she didn’t have to wonder and worry, wishing she’d been better, fought harder, done something.

She could figure out what to do about her bleeding later, how to hide it and keep clean. Her old tunic and trousers could be cut into strips, stuffed inside her bindings… 

Katara would wash those last. She started with her undergarments, then waded back to shallower water and moved onto and up her legs. She worked the soap into a lather, spreading the white suds (they ran brown and dirty down into the stream) over her thighs, between them, across her hips and stomach and chest. The soap made the cuts and burns sting; a breath hissed through her nose, but Katara ignored the throbs of pain. As soon as she lowered in the water again, scraping dirt and soap from her skin, she focused her efforts on healing her wounds. 

Another round—rinse, repeat, heal. Katara felt clean; at least, superficially. In her limbs, in her soul, she’d probably never feel whole again. The fatigue seemed permanent; the memories were ever-present. 

She dunked her face under the water and tried to forget, scrubbing at scabs and caked mud, then moved onto her hair. The chocolate waves, or, what used to be waves, were a matted, tangled mess, clinging to her neck and cheeks, unsalvageable no matter how she worked at the knots with soap, water, and patience. 

That evaporated quickly. Her motions became jerky, frustrated. Katara tore at the snarls, whining in pain, then whimpering as wads of wet, broken hair fell apart in her hands; it wrapped around her fingers, pulling from her scalp and washing away in the babbling water. She bit her lip, hard enough to taste blood, then gave up.

“Do you have your knife?” The careful silence around them shattered beneath the strain in her voice. 

Her captor started on the bank, turning around—apparently, he’d allowed her some privacy—as she stood up and splashed towards the shore. Her fingers shook, extended out towards him, palm up. Her breath was heavier than she would’ve liked it to be, too heavy to feign full strength, but should he try anything, Katara thought enough power lingered in her veins to put an end to him. Maybe. 

She swallowed, insisting, “Please. I need it, and not for anything malicious. I won’t use a blade when I kill you.” 

Whatever his reaction, Katara couldn’t see it. He didn’t say a word, either. Stooping, the wraith pulled the knife from his boot and set the cool steel in her hand. She wrapped her fingers around the jade handle, squeezing tight as she marched back to the water. Facing him, bare and bruised, had been the easy part. 

This—

Katara gathered the mess of hair sticking to her back and pulled it over her shoulder. What was left was long enough that the ends reached her waist. Before she’d been captured, her hair had been silky, thick, and rich. Now… well, there really wasn’t a choice. She grunted and pulled the blade through the weak strands.

—this was hard. 

What little healthy hair she had now fell to her chin, the rest fell from her fist into the stream and Katara cried for her mother.

Her people spent years growing their hair after a loved one’s death. It was a show of mourning, a sign of respect. While her brother and father had moved on after several, Katara’s hair had grown and grown and grown… ten years later and she’d done nothing to it but the slightest trims to keep its life. Now it was gone, rinsed from her fingers like the last decade of her life was nothing.  

Maybe it was. Maybe she was. After all, she seemed to be everyone’s precious little prize. Even the firebender, who’d politely averted his gaze again, wouldn’t let her alone and Katara knew why— the bounty, the price on her kind. The Fire Nation hunted watebenders relentlessly. Now that he knew she was a healer, too… she didn’t see an ending in which she was free. He’d sell her. No matter anyone’s good intentions, they always did. She wasn’t stupid and she wasn’t foolish. 

One more day, Katara thought, wading out of the stream. One more day and she could stop pretending to believe in him. One more day and his blood would stain her face.

She clung to that promise like it was the last of her strength. It was, in a way. It kept her moving, despite her weary limbs, moving through the urge to sleep as she wrapped her sarashi around her breasts and cut her old tunic into strips. Katara tucked a few lengths between her legs, then pulled the water from her clean bindings and wound the white fabric around her thighs and waist. She dressed quickly after that, assuming her companion to be annoyed at the length of her bath, and stuffed wet, sandy feet into the boots. 

Her toes flexed inside the leather. “You guessed right,” Katara remarked, “on my size.” She did the laces up and straightened, drying her cropped hair with a flick of her wrist and collecting her spread of belongings. The soap and knife, she handed back to him. “I suppose I should thank you again, for bringing me back.” 

He nodded, dumbly, in response to her thanks.

Even at the sound of her voice, Zuko didn’t keep his eyes on her, instead sending his gaze to the ground between them. It was stupid not to, he knew that, but he couldn’t quite make his body obey. She’d cut her hair. He didn’t think he was supposed to see that; he felt like he shouldn’t have seen that. His own scalp tingled and he had to resist the sudden urge to run a gloved hand over his own short hair. It still felt like yesterday, not four years ago, that he’d used that very same knife to cut off his own phoenix plume. His heart leapt to his throat. There was no way he could know if the length of hair meant the same to someone of the Water Tribe, but the way her voice had wavered and her carefully muffled tears after told him it meant something.

Something private that he was intruding upon, and despite the fact that he couldn’t have known she was going to do that, despite the fact that he’d only stayed nearby because she’d collapsed last time, he felt like he shouldn’t have been here. He shouldn’t have been privy to something so personal.

All at once, he wanted to rip his mask off and be done with wearing it. He didn’t know if it was because he felt he had to bare a part of himself after she had, or because she hadn’t killed him with the knife like a small part of him feared. She could have, easily, but she handed it back to him instead. Was it that sliver of trust that made his stomach twist, or was it the desire to share vulnerable exposure that made him want to reveal his face to her?

Instead, he slipped the now-dry soap back into the satchel and sheathed his knife back in his boot.

She looked better in clean clothes that weren’t threadbare. Still too thin, he thought, but better. From the rhythmic sounds of the water while she was still in the stream probably meant she went through several bouts of washing, and he didn’t blame her. He hadn’t quite realized just how much dirt was caked on her until she stood before him now, clean. The sight of her short hair made his heart hurt a little, but he could also see now that she’d cut it off because the greater length had been badly damaged from whatever she’d been put through physically, and from lack of nutrition. Even what remained didn’t sheen with a good health, but it wasn’t matted or terribly brittle-looking.

Realizing he was studying her, his spine stiffened. “Were you able to heal more?”

She nodded in reply, but it honestly didn’t ease anything inside him. He should have felt glad she was regaining strength and healing and eating more, but her slow recovery just made him angrier at her captors. Even when he’d been in command of his ship and had to be a little rough with people to try and get answers, he made sure never to mistreat anyone. He’d lain awake the night before while she slept off her first healing session, unable to banish the memory of finger-shaped burns on her hips from his mind.

“Let’s go,” he said, breaking through his own thoughts sharply. He began walking back, unsure of how to sort through the rush and curl of emotions suddenly now within him. “You can finish eating.”

Reaching the embankment, he stopped, looking back and waiting for her to catch up. When she slowed as well, he motioned for her to keep going. He wanted to follow behind her in case she couldn’t make it back up again. Even though she seemed far better off than her previous time healing, he didn’t want to take any chances. What would be the point of bringing her here to get better if she fell down an embankment and cracked her head open right after?

She went slowly, but made it fine on her own in the end. He was three paces behind her, and they kept that distance back to the cave. Even though he’d made his fire further in to keep light from escaping, he could smell the cooked rabbit before they reached the cave mouth, and it made his own stomach rumble. He hadn’t had the chance to eat yet himself, and now that they were back and he was more sure of her increasing health, his own appetite came back, reminding him that he needed to have some of that rabbit, too. If he were still traveling with Uncle, he was sure they’d have some kind of pot handy to make a stew. As it was, all he had was his knife, so they’d have to make do with strips of meat instead.

He crouched by the fire and carved out several pieces for himself, setting them aside, then several more to offer to her. “There are more blueberries, too,” he said, motioning with an incline of his head to the satchel now lying not far from the fire.

She ate whatever she was given, and washed it down with half the canteen’s contents. To save the wraith a trip to the stream, she refilled it by drawing on the water in the air. Full and cold, another perk of being a waterbender, Katara handed the canteen back. It all earned her a surprised sound from her captor, but Katara shrugged him off. She was master; using what was around her came naturally… besides, it was fun showing off the power up against, even if her feats were small.

Ice cold eyes studied him into the night. He offered to stay awake, to watch the world beyond the mouth of the cave. Maybe he was trying to create an illusion of safety— no one else will touch you, his tone said— but Katara prayed he felt fear under her gaze. She watched him move, sure steps and long strides. His body was lean beneath his black clothes, strong and muscular. 

Hah. The private thought made her smile. What good would his strength do when she controlled it? One more night; she’d be free.

Katara pulled her attention from his post at the mouth of their cave. The moon had risen fully, high in the sky. The barest sliver was missing from it, the edge only faintly unrounded. La, if only she were at full strength. As the hour grew later and the white glow brighter, it was all too easy to find her captor’s heartbeat, to focus on it, to poke and prod at it until she fell asleep. 

She’d stop it, she promised, curling onto her side in the dirt. She’d relish it, savor what she couldn’t do to the men who hurt her but what she could pour out on him. Vengeance. Pain. She’d watch as the light left his eyes and she’d wish he were someone else, but perhaps… perhaps his death would satiate this growing thirst for penance. It’d been festering inside her, cutting through her like the knife through her hair. So much of her was angry, and the few pieces that weren’t… those were the pieces that’d been lost to the fire. 

Her mother. Father. Brother. Their faces followed Katara into her dreams. Their voices whispered sweetly to her, soothing her in her sleep; but, nothing gentle could ever last. She woke with a start come sunrise. 

The fire had died in the night. Katara stared at the red coals for a while, then rubbed sleep from her eyes and sat up. Whisps of smoke drifted towards the cave’s opening, where her companion slept against the wall. She wondered how late he’d been up, and if he’d stayed up to keep watch, as he said, or watch her. Either way, he didn’t wake until she jabbed his leg with her foot. 

“I thought your kind was always up with the sun,” Katara said smartly. Her chin jabbed towards the back of the cave. “Fire’s dead. If you give me your knife, I can skin the second rabbit while you restart it.” 

For several racing heartbeats, Zuko stared up at her through the narrow slits of his mask. The fog of sleep still clung to the edges of his mind, and he forced himself to reprocess what she’d sad to him. Fire’s dead. Skin the second rabbit.

Nodding, he drew out his knife and handed it to her with only the barest reminiscence of hesitation. She could have killed him at the stream yesterday with it, but hadn’t. He didn’t think she would now. If she really had wanted to, he’d been asleep, and she’d clearly seen where he kept it; it would have been easy for her to slip it out and slit his throat before he was fully awake.

Zuko frowned as she took the knife from him and went back into the cave to skin the rabbit carcass. He hadn’t meant to not be awake when she got up. The tolls of the last few nights were started to catch up to him, however, having barely slept during any of them. The predawn had not been far off when sleep had overtaken him, and he’d reasoned that his inner fire would be rekindled by the rising sun like it always had. He’d not banked on just how tired he was; even after a few hours’ sleep, he still felt exhausted.

His eyes widened. Wait. Your kind, she’d said. He glanced back toward her abruptly, watching her back and arms shift as she worked on the rabbit. Thudding against his sternum, his heart raced again. She knew he was a firebender. How? Was that all she knew, or did she suspect who he was? He hadn’t taken his mask off except for when he was well away for her, and even then had kept those times to a minimum over the last few days. If she knew, was she simply biding her time to subdue him? She clearly was regaining her strength and power, that much had been evident when he watched her draw water out of thin air.

With that thought, the worry that maybe she could do something to his blood during the full moon flitted across his mind, but he dismissed it. Every cave had plenty of moisture in it, especially with a stream so nearby. It was probably condensation off the stone that she’d bent, not the air itself. That sounded as impossible as bending someone else’s blood.

His bigger worry was whether she knew who he was or not, and what she might try and do with that information.

Zuko drew in a steadying breath, and exhaled it slowly. There was no indication she knew who he was beyond firebender. He knew he’d been careful with the mask. Maybe she was just assuming, since he kept it on all the time, or maybe she’d seen the color of his eyes. Maybe that was all she knew.

He got to his feet and went to crouch by to the embers of the fire, and stirred them a little with a stick. They were still fairly hot, and would catch light again quickly. It’d be easy as a flick of his wrist to start them up again, but not only did he not want to confirm he was what she thought he was, but there was no more fuel for his fire to feed off once he ignited it. He straightened and told her he was going to get more sticks for the fire and got a wordless grunt in response. She was intent on her task, and Zuko felt a twinge of respect for that.

As he gathered a small armful of sticks to burn, he rolled everything over in his head. There wasn’t trust between them, but there was something. It was fragile, at best, but it hadn’t been there at first and now it was. He believed that she wasn’t going to kill him with her knife, and he was thinking that maybe she was starting to believe he really wasn’t going to hurt her.

If his uncle had been there, he’d urge Zuko to think about what he was going to do next. It was all well and good he’d saved her from further mistreatment, but he had no real plan for what to do when she was healed enough to fend for herself. Still, he didn’t worry. Zuko would just… figure out that part when he got there. His uncle worried too much about him sometimes. Then again, if his uncle were here, the waterbender would probably trust him far more than she did Zuko. He had a way with people that Zuko just didn’t seem to.

Remembering his long-unseen uncle gave Zuko pause, and sadness threaded fingers through all the parts of his heart. Nearly four years had gone by since he’d last seen the older man, and no small part of him ached when he thought too long about it. He hoped to one day find him again, but Zuko wasn’t sure his luck would allow for that.

He picked up a few last sticks and returned to the cave.

The waterbender had finished skinning the rabbit and had skewered it on the spit, having removed the remains of the previous one. He also noticed that she’d carved off the remaining meat from the first rabbit and piled it neatly on a strip of cloth torn from her old tunic. It was from this pile she plucked a piece to eat as he was returning. Her head whipped around to follow his entrance as if she feared he had come to take something from her. Behind the mask, his mouth pressed into a thin line at the thought of how long she’d been treated as such for her reaction to be that.

Without saying anything to her, he walked around and stacked his armful of sticks above the embers, then relit it with a set of spark rocks. They didn’t exchange many words beyond the perfunctory ones needed to get the second rabbit set up and cooking over the new fire. The remaining meat she’d piled was split between them, as well as the rest of the blueberries he’d collected before. Zuko debated the wisdom of going back to the nearby town for more food; neither of them could live off rabbits and blueberries alone. His eyes lifted to her, watching her eat. Especially if she were to really start regaining her health again.

It could serve two purposes, he mused. He could get a few more supplies, and it would also give her the chance to escape if she knew who he really was and wanted to turn him in. He’d take her to the stream again at midday, and if he came back to find her not there or here in the cave, he’d have his answer. Of course, he’d have to be wary of an ambush, but that didn’t worry him, either. The Blue Spirit hadn’t been caught in any of the many traps set for him over the last four years, and he wouldn’t be caught now.

Once they had both finished, he checked on the rabbit. “Would you like to go to the stream again?” he asked, not turning his face up to her, though he looked with his eyes. He wasn’t sure just how much she would be able to see of his eye movement, this close to the fire.

A moment passed in silence before, “Yes.”

He pretended to fuss with the rabbit a little while longer, then nodded and stood, watching her until she got to her feet as well, and they left.

When they reached the embankment, he stopped. She didn’t realized until she was several feet down, where she then paused and looked back up at him.

“I’m going to get more food,” he told her, fighting the urge to do something with his hands, like ball them into fists, or worry his fingers against their palms. “I’ll be gone for a few hours. If you’re not still here when I get back, I’ll meet you in the cave.”

Without waiting for an answer from her, he turned and vanished back down the other side, headed toward the town again. He went at a quicker pace than he normally would have, trying to reduce the time it took to get there and back. He’d made this choice to leave her, to try and test this diaphanous semblance of trust he thought was forming between them, but it still made him nervous. If he was wrong and she did know his identity and set a trap for him, he’d have to fight back. He’d have to fight her. After having felt and seen her mistreatment intimately, that prospect did not sit well with him. He hoped he wasn’t wrong.

It only took him an hour and a half to make it to the outskirts of the town. He crouched in a familiar hiding spot to catch his breath, running a short list of necessities through his head as he waited for his heart rate to calm. Once he was ready, he moved a rock aside to reveal a bundle, wrapped canvas. It was easy to sneak in and take what he wanted as the Blue Spirit at night, but not so much in the middle of the day. The bundle contained Earth Kingdom clothing not unlike the ones he’d taken for the waterbender, and he quickly changed into the long brown changshan, strapped the dǒulì onto his head, and fingered a few copper and silver pieces from his small stash of money before slipping them into a pouch in the changshan.

He didn’t linger long in the town. To everyone there, he was a vaguely familiar face of a wandering refugee, so similar to many who passed through. Zuko purchased a modest pack of dried foods, a new whetstone, and, after much hesitation, another canteen. His nerves were stretched taut the entire trip, making him more on edge than he normally was and causing him to forget to even politely thank the shopkeep for their service. There wasn’t much else he thought was needed–he knew there was a lot more that they could use, but even if he had thought more items would help rather than arm a still potential enemy, he wouldn’t have been able to afford much else. The pouch of coins dwindled to a few coppers.

Finishing his business in town in short order, he hurried back out to his hiding spot. Nothing there had been disturbed, so he changed back into his black tunic and slipped the Blue Spirit mask over his face again. He set off at the same clipped pace he’d set earlier, and made it back to the stream in only a little longer than it had taken him to get to town. Zuko slowed well before reaching it, and scouted with as much stealth as his skills could provide him to search for signs of the waterbender and any kind of ambush. He found evidence of neither.

Approaching the cave in the same cautious manner was helped by the lengthening shadows of the evening. He’d been gone all afternoon, which gave the waterbender ample time to plan and set up whatever she wanted, if she was going to. His heart thudded in his chest despite himself, and he forced his breathing to be long, even, and quiet. The cave was much as he’d left it earlier, and even a quick trek around the area surrounding it yielded no signs of ambush. The tension in his chest lessened somewhat, and he made his way back to the cave entrance, supplies in hand. If she was here, and not waiting for him at the stream, maybe that meant she wasn’t going to try and attack him at all. Moonrise wasn’t too far off, but if she’d decided she believed him enough to come back here and wait, maybe that meant she wouldn’t carry through with her threat however she had planned to do so.

She was sitting not far from the fire, intently watching the rabbit cook. The remainder of the tension that was tight between his ribs went slack at the sight of her, more than expected. He joined her at the fire, slipping the pack off his shoulder and rummaging through it until his fingers closed around the canteen. Drawing it out, he held it out to her.

“Water will run out too quickly with just one,” he said. He also handed her half the dried goods, then carved off fresh strips of hot rabbit for them both.

perfect places

theadamantdaughter:

teaandcrowns:

( past )

The way she looked at him should have been admonishing, or withering, or disappointed–but somehow, it was none of those things. Zuko thought he was imagining the heat in her eyes, the way she lingered on his now-bare arms, the breadth of his chest, before finally reaching his face. She was… ogling him. Something taut and painful uncoiled a little in his chest, and it softened him. She looked and sounded just as off-kilter as he did. Not that he blamed her, but it did serve to make him feel just a bit better.

When she pointed out the stuff on her counter, he stared at it blankly for a few seconds before his memory caught up. Wincing internally, he now recalled the flimsy excuse. The fact that she’d actually… at least pretended to believe him and put things out for him was… it was really nice. Really nice of her. A faint thread began wrapping around the bottom of his heart, and he gave her a smile.

“Thanks,” he said distantly, and stepped over to the counter to look over the array. He cracked open a ginger ale and picked up a few crackers, then looked up at her, listening with mild amusement to her start to ramble a little.

He still couldn’t believe she was inviting him to sleep next to her–it was like his mind had gotten stuck on that and had to keep coming back to it, to keep reminding him just how novel a thing that was for him.

The first thought that crossed his mind was of course he would take the couch. But then he caught her eyes with his own and saw the uncertainty and nervousness there. The thread around his heart tightened a little. So, he balanced another ginger beer in the same hand as his, popped the few crackers he’d already picked up into his mouth and took the pack in hand, then made his way over to her.

“The couch would be a bit cramped,” he said when he reached the mattress, pausing to very noticeably drag his eyes from her to the frame leaning on the wall, “even if this was put together.”

Holding out the hand that held both ginger beers, he canted his head a bit, expression soft. “In case you need it after all that vodka, too.”

When she tentatively took it from him, watching every move he made and making him feel a little self-conscious, he sat down on the exposed portion of her mattress. It sank a little beneath his weight, and instead of glancing back at her, he busied himself with setting his open drink and the crackers off to the side on the floor and taking off his shoes and belt. He emptied his pockets–keys and phone and wallet all went into one of his shoes so he wouldn’t forget them in the morning–and Zuko realized that his heart was beginning to pound again. The idea to sleep in his boxers crossed his mind, but he dismissed it as soon as it had. He could see that escalating quickly in some half-asleep state.

Before turning back to her, he drew in a breath and released it slowly, quietly. He shifted and settled himself on her mattress, still sitting and feeling about three kinds of awkward–her proximity again most certainly being one of them.

Get a grip, Zuko. Act like a normal human being

He tucked his chin a bit and angled his head to glance over at her. “I’m pretty sure I don’t snore either, and I promise I’ll do my best to keep to one side.” He meant it as a joke, but realizing that he was used to sleeping alone in a bed, Zuko really wasn’t sure if he actually could keep that promise. Especially since his heart was already fluttering back up in his throat just from sitting near her again. Maybe he wasn’t as calm as he’d thought.

“If you… if you can’t…” Her brain was short-circuiting, replaying the playful lilt to his voice and the I’ll do my best to keep to one side. Nothing– not the pop of her soda can’s top, not the satisfying hiss that followed– could keep her from the edge of impropriety. She slipped, with his tiny smile, with the shift in balance as he swung his legs onto her bed.

With: “I wouldn’t mind… if you end up on my side.”

Color spread across her cheeks in an instant. Zuko’s eyes flew wide, gold flashing in surprise, and her heart jumped into her throat, beating wildly. Katara bit her lip like it’d keep her from thinking about his. Willfully, forcefully, she drew air into her lungs, but her eyes were already sliding over him, following the trajectory in her head that ended with his mouth marking up her neck.

Over his chest, down to his hips— want coiled tight and hot when she remembered the scrape of rough denim on her skin. She barely had the willpower to look away, to ignore that insistent ache between her legs and the overwhelming wish for him to leave bruises on her waist. She could say she was more than willing to pick up where they left things. If he wasn’t sure, if he pulled back because he needed her explicit permission, she’d tell him yes. God, she’d say it over and over, again. She could point him in the direction of condoms beneath her bathroom sink, pull him down on top of her…

…or, she could reign in her fucking imagination.

How much time had slipped by? She’d been silent for too long, ogling the shape of his hipbones and thighs. Of course, it wasn’t entirely her fault. Katara had yet to recover from the feel of his mouth and his hands and his cock. But, fuck, she couldn’t sit here and gawk at him.

Painting her face to be aloof, Katara stammered— for the umpteenth time that night— as warmth flared across her skin. “I mean, I… I can just give you a shove. It’s not a deal breaker or anything.”

She felt his eyes on the side of her face, even as a flighty, nervous laugh tickled her mouth and she looked away. Her fingers made circles around the lip of her untouched soda, then Katara forced a sip down her throat and left the bed.

Better to do something, right? Than sit there giggling like a deranged idiot?

Ditching the ginger ale on the floor beside her mattress, Katara rummaged through the box where she’d found her sleep set. A mix of t-shirts and sweats filled it, but she didn’t stop her search until she found a pair of grey pants with a worn-out NAVY written down the side.

“Even if you don’t bother me, your jeans will bother you,” Katara said. She tossed the sweats to him, providing him the chance to change by going to the kitchen. “If they’re too big, I can find a pair of my brother’s,” she called over her shoulder. “It’s just… you stand less of a chance being pummeled by my dad since he’s overseas until May.”

She collected the items on her countertop, talking as she put them away. “He leaves for two months every year, whenever he can take the time off.” There was really no need for her to explain, but she did, finding it tamped down on her jitteriness to ramble aimlessly. “My mom had this bucket list of countries she wanted to visit. Since she died, my dad’s been finishing it, as best he can. I go with him sometimes… when I can afford it. We went to Munich last year. So far, it’s my favorite.”

Smiling back at him, Katara let the fridge door swing hut and flicked off the kitchen lights. Darkness shrouded them, and she tiptoed lightly towards her bed. Most of her apartment she had memorized, despite the short time she’d been living there, but Katara still managed to stub her toe and stumbled.

“Fuck me…” The curse hissed into the air as she tumbled onto her side of the mattress, nursing her offended foot. “I’ve been so smooth all night and a box screws it up.” Katara chuckled lightly. Her eyes had adjusted by then, and she found Zuko smirking at her from his place on the bed.

She rolled her eyes and flopped down on her pillow. “Asshole,” she grumbled, feigning annoyance, “finding amusement at my pain.” Katara pulled the blankets up to her chest and rolled onto her side, scowling in Zuko’s direction. “I just moved in! Maybe you could click on your phone’s light next time. Save me the embarrassment of tripping over more than just my words, hmm?”

“Oh–I didn’t realize you needed a light,” Zuko apologized, his jeans bunched up somewhere around his knees, too late reaching out for his phone and fishing it out of his shoe. He flicked up on the screen with his thumb and tapped the flashlight function, sending a beam of light up toward the ceiling between them. “Too little too late, huh?”

Zuko cracked a smile at her. “At least you’d be in good company. In dying from embarrassment, and all.”

Instead of changing quickly while she was in the kitchen, he’d been listening to what she was saying about her father and mother, thinking that it was sweet of her to accompany her dad on her mother’s bucket list. He wondered if there had ever been a time when his father cared enough to have done that if his mother had left behind something like that.

Once she’d turned the light off, he figured he had a second chance to get into the sweats without seeming indecent–sure he was keeping his boxers on, but they weren’t always reliable on what they would or would not accidentally show. He really didn’t need her to turn around and be surprised by him unwittingly flashing her. Zuko would probably die from embarrassment at that point. He’d already nearly done that tonight, and didn’t care for a repeat.

He quickly pulled off his jeans the rest of the way, and tugged on the sweats. Admittedly, it felt a little strange wearing her… father’s sweatpants at a completely impromptu sleepover situation in which he had nearly fucked her half an hour ago, but at least they were as comfortable as Zuko’s own. And about the same size, too. His hips were a little leaner, so he tied the ties in the dark to keep them from slipping off in the middle of the night.

She shimmied back up to her previous spot on the bed and pulled up the covers, and he felt the mattress shift just a little from her movements. It didn’t bounce as sensitively as it would have normally on a frame, but there still was a little give with a body’s shifting. The thought of her splayed out on the mattress, legs wide and hair fanned out flit through his mind and send his pulse dropping straight to his cock like a stone to the bottom of a lake.

His face and neck burned with heat, and he felt for sure she would be able to hear the thundering of his heart an arm’s length away. What she’d said only minutes before replayed through his mind–I wouldn’t mind if you ended up on my side. An old knee-jerk reaction made his first fleeting thought one of passive-aggressiveness: was this her way of telling him she thought he was stupid for stopping? But, time was a good balm on that old wound, and he quickly dismissed the worry of accusation. She’d sounded a little breathless and a little nervous, but not condescending or miffed. His pulse skipped a little in his throat. The explanation that she could just give him a shove to get back to “his” side, such as it was, did nothing to even it out.

Beneath the covers with her again, Zuko’s thoughts went immediately back to when they were on the couch earlier, and the blanket there had slipped off their laps. If he slipped his head and shoulders beneath the comforter here, would her scent be headier than it was before? If he ran his hands along both her knees and up the outside of her thighs, would she part them for him? He could let them crook over his shoulders and splay his palms across her hips and belly, then nose against the satin junction of her until he was drunk off her smell and then he would slowly inch her shorts to one side and let himself taste her and–

He let out a breath.

That was getting him nowhere good really fast.

Even though Zuko was pretty damn sure he could do all that and more, and that she’d encourage him, he’d made his decision. After everything that’d happened earlier in the evening, he didn’t feel right doing any of it. It felt too much like a pity fuck and too-long-ignored hormones in his head, and if he was going to do anything, he didn’t want it to be a quick lay with an almost stranger. Well–that was a lie; he did want it, but only with his cock. He wasn’t about to give in to its demands just because he hadn’t fucked in a long while. Despite how difficult it was to bite back the urge.

Switching off the phone light, he set it back into his shoe and leaned back on the pillow. After a moment’s hesitation, he shifted so he was on his side as well, facing her in the dark. “My mom had a thing for growing all kinds of things,” he said, quietly. “In the backyard, she had a big garden with a pond we used to sit at when I was a kid. It’s not quite as fancy as going to a bunch of different places, but whenever I see a little plant that reminds me of her in a store, I pick it up and keep it in my kitchen.”

the villains that live in my bed

theadamantdaughter:

teaandcrowns:

( past )

The way back to the stream was a little easier than the last time. He went more slowly, for one, to keep a better eye on her. They didn’t quite walk side by side, but he wasn’t five steps ahead like last time. Though it was full dark, later than when he’d taken her to the stream before, there was no need to worry about not carrying a torch–the moon was more than bright enough to light their way. It was just barely under full (one day away, Zuko reminded himself), and shone down through the spring leaves to light their path.

It made Zuko think about what had happened at the North Pole, how Zhao had tried–and succeeded–to kill the Moon Spirit. Had his uncle not intervened, the world might be in a far worse place than it already was. Though, it had not all been his uncle’s help from what he’d told Zuko. There’d been a young Northern Water Tribe girl who somehow had… revived the Moon Spirit? Or become it? Zuko wasn’t clear on what his uncle meant what really happened, but whatever she’d done, it’d kept the moon in the sky. It also had secured the surrender of the North to the Fire Nation, to prevent such devastation and imbalance from happening again.

He let out a controlled breath to release those thoughts. Now was neither the time nor the place to reminisce–he had to stay on the alert. Staying in one place for as long as he had was making him a little twitchy, and he felt the need to be constantly checking to make sure no one was following them, or setting up an ambush. A small part of him whispered he should still make sure the girl didn’t run for it, but a larger part reasoned she wouldn’t. She still needed to heal, and while he imagined how much she probably wanted to be clean and in better clothing, he wasn’t under the illusion that she would trade those for a chance of freedom. Not that he was keeping her captive; he was trying to help her.

By the way that she’d thanked him not once, but twice so far, he hoped that she might be beginning to believe he really wasn’t going to hurt her.

He paused for a moment at the top of the embankment that lead down to the stream itself, and glanced back at her. She still held the fresh clothes and boots to her chest, and kept frequently flicking her eyes from the trail back to him–not wanting to lose her sight of either, he surmised. When she had almost reached him, he started down the embankment, again moving slowly in case he needed to move quickly. She’d been all right the first time making it down, so he didn’t think she’d fall or anything. Getting back up… he might have to carry her again, he realized. She wasn’t quite as weak as the last time, but she was still nowhere near strong, and he wasn’t sure just how much another healing session would take out of her.

When he reached the bottom, he stopped and turned to watch her make her slow way down, tracking each of her steps. She made it down with no issue, though slightly out of breath from the exertion. Zuko walked to the water’s edge, peering down at the dark reflection of the mask he wore on its surface.

“Here.” He dug into the satchel he’d brought and held out the bar of soap as he took a few steps back from the water toward her. “’l’m staying close this time in case something happens.”

He was staying. Katara tried to hide her discomfort at that. She may’ve been wrong, anyway, hasty in her conclusion that this man didn’t have the same inclinations as all the rest. He was a man, nonetheless, and she was helpless, defenseless. Hell, she probably had the look of one who’d lay quiet through an unwanted fuck if it meant food. 

Or soap. Her eyes dropped to the creamy-white bar in his outstretched hand. It felt like submission to take it, but her skin crawled and her scalp itched and her nails had a black film beneath them. 

She snatched it from his palm and skirted around him. The stream greeted her with its cool current, tickling her toes and lapping up her feet. Going no further than ankle deep, Katara shed her threadbare tunic, then her trousers and the bindings around her hips and waist, too. What used to be blue was brown, caked with dirt and dried blood; what used to be white was ruined, stained with gods knew what: urine and semen and blood— blood. Fresh blood. 

A quiet, rushed sigh left her; relief, tainted with a note of… sorrow? Katara was quick to stifle any further sound, quick to stifle her emotions—she didn’t know if her captor was watching—and she took the soiled wraps deeper into the stream. 

Naked and submerged, covered by the noise of the stream, she let the faintest cry slip free. The nights of fretting, of lying awake, too weak to move after one or more of the raiders had his way… well, she didn’t have to anymore. The moons that’d passed without a bleed, whether from starvation or pregnancy, could go forgotten. She didn’t have to count the weeks; she didn’t have to wonder and worry, wishing she’d been better, fought harder, done something.

She could figure out what to do about her bleeding later, how to hide it and keep clean. Her old tunic and trousers could be cut into strips, stuffed inside her bindings… 

Katara would wash those last. She started with her undergarments, then waded back to shallower water and moved onto and up her legs. She worked the soap into a lather, spreading the white suds (they ran brown and dirty down into the stream) over her thighs, between them, across her hips and stomach and chest. The soap made the cuts and burns sting; a breath hissed through her nose, but Katara ignored the throbs of pain. As soon as she lowered in the water again, scraping dirt and soap from her skin, she focused her efforts on healing her wounds. 

Another round—rinse, repeat, heal. Katara felt clean; at least, superficially. In her limbs, in her soul, she’d probably never feel whole again. The fatigue seemed permanent; the memories were ever-present. 

She dunked her face under the water and tried to forget, scrubbing at scabs and caked mud, then moved onto her hair. The chocolate waves, or, what used to be waves, were a matted, tangled mess, clinging to her neck and cheeks, unsalvageable no matter how she worked at the knots with soap, water, and patience. 

That evaporated quickly. Her motions became jerky, frustrated. Katara tore at the snarls, whining in pain, then whimpering as wads of wet, broken hair fell apart in her hands; it wrapped around her fingers, pulling from her scalp and washing away in the babbling water. She bit her lip, hard enough to taste blood, then gave up.

“Do you have your knife?” The careful silence around them shattered beneath the strain in her voice. 

Her captor started on the bank, turning around—apparently, he’d allowed her some privacy—as she stood up and splashed towards the shore. Her fingers shook, extended out towards him, palm up. Her breath was heavier than she would’ve liked it to be, too heavy to feign full strength, but should he try anything, Katara thought enough power lingered in her veins to put an end to him. Maybe. 

She swallowed, insisting, “Please. I need it, and not for anything malicious. I won’t use a blade when I kill you.” 

Whatever his reaction, Katara couldn’t see it. He didn’t say a word, either. Stooping, the wraith pulled the knife from his boot and set the cool steel in her hand. She wrapped her fingers around the jade handle, squeezing tight as she marched back to the water. Facing him, bare and bruised, had been the easy part. 

This—

Katara gathered the mess of hair sticking to her back and pulled it over her shoulder. What was left was long enough that the ends reached her waist. Before she’d been captured, her hair had been silky, thick, and rich. Now… well, there really wasn’t a choice. She grunted and pulled the blade through the weak strands.

—this was hard. 

What little healthy hair she had now fell to her chin, the rest fell from her fist into the stream and Katara cried for her mother.

Her people spent years growing their hair after a loved one’s death. It was a show of mourning, a sign of respect. While her brother and father had moved on after several, Katara’s hair had grown and grown and grown… ten years later and she’d done nothing to it but the slightest trims to keep its life. Now it was gone, rinsed from her fingers like the last decade of her life was nothing.  

Maybe it was. Maybe she was. After all, she seemed to be everyone’s precious little prize. Even the firebender, who’d politely averted his gaze again, wouldn’t let her alone and Katara knew why— the bounty, the price on her kind. The Fire Nation hunted watebenders relentlessly. Now that he knew she was a healer, too… she didn’t see an ending in which she was free. He’d sell her. No matter anyone’s good intentions, they always did. She wasn’t stupid and she wasn’t foolish. 

One more day, Katara thought, wading out of the stream. One more day and she could stop pretending to believe in him. One more day and his blood would stain her face.

She clung to that promise like it was the last of her strength. It was, in a way. It kept her moving, despite her weary limbs, moving through the urge to sleep as she wrapped her sarashi around her breasts and cut her old tunic into strips. Katara tucked a few lengths between her legs, then pulled the water from her clean bindings and wound the white fabric around her thighs and waist. She dressed quickly after that, assuming her companion to be annoyed at the length of her bath, and stuffed wet, sandy feet into the boots. 

Her toes flexed inside the leather. “You guessed right,” Katara remarked, “on my size.” She did the laces up and straightened, drying her cropped hair with a flick of her wrist and collecting her spread of belongings. The soap and knife, she handed back to him. “I suppose I should thank you again, for bringing me back.” 

He nodded, dumbly, in response to her thanks.

Even at the sound of her voice, Zuko didn’t keep his eyes on her, instead sending his gaze to the ground between them. It was stupid not to, he knew that, but he couldn’t quite make his body obey. She’d cut her hair. He didn’t think he was supposed to see that; he felt like he shouldn’t have seen that. His own scalp tingled and he had to resist the sudden urge to run a gloved hand over his own short hair. It still felt like yesterday, not four years ago, that he’d used that very same knife to cut off his own phoenix plume. His heart leapt to his throat. There was no way he could know if the length of hair meant the same to someone of the Water Tribe, but the way her voice had wavered and her carefully muffled tears after told him it meant something.

Something private that he was intruding upon, and despite the fact that he couldn’t have known she was going to do that, despite the fact that he’d only stayed nearby because she’d collapsed last time, he felt like he shouldn’t have been here. He shouldn’t have been privy to something so personal.

All at once, he wanted to rip his mask off and be done with wearing it. He didn’t know if it was because he felt he had to bare a part of himself after she had, or because she hadn’t killed him with the knife like a small part of him feared. She could have, easily, but she handed it back to him instead. Was it that sliver of trust that made his stomach twist, or was it the desire to share vulnerable exposure that made him want to reveal his face to her?

Instead, he slipped the now-dry soap back into the satchel and sheathed his knife back in his boot.

She looked better in clean clothes that weren’t threadbare. Still too thin, he thought, but better. From the rhythmic sounds of the water while she was still in the stream probably meant she went through several bouts of washing, and he didn’t blame her. He hadn’t quite realized just how much dirt was caked on her until she stood before him now, clean. The sight of her short hair made his heart hurt a little, but he could also see now that she’d cut it off because the greater length had been badly damaged from whatever she’d been put through physically, and from lack of nutrition. Even what remained didn’t sheen with a good health, but it wasn’t matted or terribly brittle-looking.

Realizing he was studying her, his spine stiffened. “Were you able to heal more?”

She nodded in reply, but it honestly didn’t ease anything inside him. He should have felt glad she was regaining strength and healing and eating more, but her slow recovery just made him angrier at her captors. Even when he’d been in command of his ship and had to be a little rough with people to try and get answers, he made sure never to mistreat anyone. He’d lain awake the night before while she slept off her first healing session, unable to banish the memory of finger-shaped burns on her hips from his mind.

“Let’s go,” he said, breaking through his own thoughts sharply. He began walking back, unsure of how to sort through the rush and curl of emotions suddenly now within him. “You can finish eating.”

Reaching the embankment, he stopped, looking back and waiting for her to catch up. When she slowed as well, he motioned for her to keep going. He wanted to follow behind her in case she couldn’t make it back up again. Even though she seemed far better off than her previous time healing, he didn’t want to take any chances. What would be the point of bringing her here to get better if she fell down an embankment and cracked her head open right after?

She went slowly, but made it fine on her own in the end. He was three paces behind her, and they kept that distance back to the cave. Even though he’d made his fire further in to keep light from escaping, he could smell the cooked rabbit before they reached the cave mouth, and it made his own stomach rumble. He hadn’t had the chance to eat yet himself, and now that they were back and he was more sure of her increasing health, his own appetite came back, reminding him that he needed to have some of that rabbit, too. If he were still traveling with Uncle, he was sure they’d have some kind of pot handy to make a stew. As it was, all he had was his knife, so they’d have to make do with strips of meat instead.

He crouched by the fire and carved out several pieces for himself, setting them aside, then several more to offer to her. “There are more blueberries, too,” he said, motioning with an incline of his head to the satchel now lying not far from the fire.

Team Ehasz: The Iroh in the Writing Room

araeph:

If there is one message that stands out in
Zuko’s character arc, it’s that who your biological parents are does not
determine who your family is or who
you are as a person. Ozai may have produced Zuko, but it was Iroh who was Zuko’s
true father. It was Iroh who encouraged him, comforted him, supported him, taught him,
and helped him develop into the character he became in the finale.

But was there an Iroh in the A:TLA
writing room as well?

Let’s have a look at the unaired Avatar pilot, before writing
on the series truly began. Sofie
from The Agony Booth
gives us a breakdown
of the original canon personalities of Aang, Katara, Sokka, and Zuko, in what
is essentially the Bryke demo reel for Nickelodeon.

Aang is basically the same airheaded avatar, only in the real
cartoon show, he was toned down quite a bit and made more human. You understood
why he acted like he did and he was a very sympathetic character from day one.
Where here, he is out of control and acts like an asshole.

[Katara’s] traits seemed to have been dialed up to eleven, or
rather, she hasn’t been dialed down yet, which means that she becomes obnoxious
and annoying.

And Sokka, I always thought he was rather sympathetic in the show
because he always gets the shaft, and it’s the same thing here.

So Aang is the same character, just toned
down, Katara likewise, and Sokka is still Sokka. We can credit Bryke with
creating, if not the nuances, at least the basic personalities of these
characters.

Then we get to Zuko.

Zuko here is a completely different character entirely. He is
nothing like the lovable, conflicted, socially awkward person we ended up
learning to know and love. In this demo reel, every single trace of his
conflicted character is gone and we are left with a very standard issue villain
with no real redeeming traits; and nothing stands out about him other than the
design and the voice acting. Had this been the final Zuko, he would have become
a very forgettable one-note villain. Even his uncle Iroh has completely
vanished from this scene,
which probably means they hadn’t even come up with
him at this point, and probably hadn’t even figured out that Zuko would become
much more than just a villain.

So what changed Zuko from the one-note
villain we saw in the pilot to the most complex character on the show? What made them
introduce Iroh as a mentor figure and turn him into a beloved staple of A:TLA?

It wasn’t until the premiere episodes that we thought the story
would be more interesting if Zuko’s sifu was actually his uncle, though his
personality didn’t evolve much. It was Aaron Ehasz who brought a softer side to
the writing of Uncle’s character.

—Michael Dante DiMartino, The Art of the Animated Series

Join me on an epic life-changing field
trip through Zuko’s character arc, using only
the episodes written by Aaron and Elizabeth Ehasz, head writer and staff
writer for the series.

Keep reading