i, ii, iii, iv, v, vi

@tatkresiwok

It was all very strange.

He was used to the Blue Spirit being unseen, unknown, a rumor. Just glimpsed of some dark entity in the middle of the night, gone as soon as it came. It was better if everyone thought it was an actual spirit, working for reasons of its own.

But, for Zuko, things never worked out the way he wanted.

He staked out a lone house just outside the edge of a village to the north of where the marauder’s hideout was located, intending to swipe some extra soap, if he could find it, and maybe, if he was very lucky, a handful of copper coins. Not enough to bankrupt a family, but enough for him to get by a little more easily. At least to start.

Zuko waited for cover of night, ignoring the hunger pains in his stomach, until he was sure the family was all asleep. He crept up to the wooden engawa and paused there, listening. No sounds came from within. The moon was close to half, and there were clouds in the sky; cover of darkness was not as good as it could have been, but it was decent enough. He wasn’t worried.

As he slipped along, he ran a hand along the door panels, searching for the best place to gain entry. There. His fingers found the barest crack where one of the panels hadn’t been shut quite all the way. Zuko gently worked his fingers in the opening and carefully, slowly, pushed open the panel just enough for him to slip in.

The interior was dark, but once his eyes began to adjust to the deeper shadows he felt sure enough to navigate through. It’d be easy enough for him to produce a small flame to see by, but that might alert someone. Instead, he moved cautiously, keeping one hand outstretched. He moved through the house like a shadow, picking up a few items here and there. Most people weren’t better off than him, so he long ago had taken to only stealing what he needed to get buy. Zuko didn’t have space for luxuries in his single pack, anyway.

The most important thing he found was in the small washroom: a bar of soap. It even looked unused. Zuko wasn’t sure what he’d done recently to grant him such luck (maybe his helping the waterbender was it, but he tried not to think about that much), but he wasn’t about to start questioning it. The soap went into his pack, along with a few handfuls of dried meat and fruit, and a couple of silver pieces. By the size of this house, it was clear the family was slightly better off than most others, so he didn’t feel guilty for taking more than he normally would have.

He crept back out of the washroom, pausing to make sure he didn’t hear a change in the steady breathing of the family sleeping down the corridor, then slowly made his way back toward the window he’d come in. He was nearly out when a growl cut through the quiet. Zuko froze, feeling his heart drop into his gut—which was what had made the noise.

Maybe he was far enough away from the bedrooms that no one would be alerted.

“Are you hungry?”

The voice of a little girl nearly made him drop his pack. He whirled, mind racing to try and come up with some sort of excuse that could keep her quiet and get him out as quickly as possible.

Disarmingly, she smiled up at him.

“We’ve got some extra food from dinner, if you want.” Without waiting for him to reply, she went over to the cooking pot still hanging by the embers of a fire, and spooned him out a bowl of what looked like juk with chopped vegetables in it. She came back over to him and offered it with one hand. “Here you go.”

Tentatively, guiltily, Zuko shook his head. “No, thank you,” he began. “I—”

Before he could finish, a crash came from behind him. Again, Zuko whirled to see another darkly clad person scramble to their feet, the shoji they’d just knocked down lying torn beneath them on the floor. Out of instinct, Zuko put his hand out to create a barrier between this new intruder and the little girl. The other’s face was halfway covered, with a cloth mask tied around their nose and mouth. Unlike with Zuko’s mask, it left their green eyes exposed.

“What, you some kinda house guardian?” the person snarled at him. They lifted their fists, preparing to attack. The glint of moonlight off a blade flashed like a firebug in the night.

Zuko said nothing, but surged into action. He didn’t let the new intruder get the first move, knowing that if he was fast enough he might be able to incapacitate them before they destroyed more of the house. Or, worse, hurt the little girl or someone else.

With his options limited and unwilling to resort to bending, he barreled toward them, then shot forward, knocking them back and grappling with them. The momentum sent both Zuko and the intruder back out the broken wall, tumbling down off the engawa and onto the hard earth. While he was quite a good combatant, Zuko wasn’t truly skilled at the art of grappling, and so simply did his best to try and keep the other’s limbs pinned. He didn’t want them to get up or be able to use that blade against him.

Distantly, the sound of footsteps on wood reached him, but it was unimportant next to subduing his opponent. He felt warmth rise in him, bolstering his will to win. But, while Zuko did not give in to the urge to firebend, he used its energy to gain a moment of overpowering the struggling intruder beneath him and knock them out.

Somewhere off to his left, a voice was calling to him, and growing nearer. Chest heaving from the fight, Zuko lifted his head from staring at the slowly groaning intruder on the ground to the voice. The familiar haze of a quick and unexpected fight slowly dissipated from his senses, and Zuko’s focus widened beyond that of his enemy.

The little girl was running up to him again, before an older kid caught up to her and grabbed hold of her—an older sibling by the look. Beyond them, two adults came into view, staring at Zuko with wide eyes. A quiet scrabbling just beneath him snapped his attention back down, thinking he was about to be stabbed, but the intruder was trying to scramble back away from Zuko.

“You—you fight like a demon!” they said, eyes wide and a bruise forming over one of them. They managed to get to their feet with a bit of stumbling, and Zuko let them run off into the night. It was a waste to try and stop them again.

“He saved me!” the little girl stated firmly, bringing his gaze back to the family. She tried to worm her way out of her sister’s grasp.

“Yeah, that was real lucky he was there,” her sister said, not taking her eyes off Zuko, plainly suspicious of him.

All at once, the younger girl stopped struggling, and looked up at her sister with a very serious expression. “He was just hungry. He probably smelled our tasty dinner from tonight. I heard his stomach.”

As if on cue, it growled again. Zuko was glad for the mask that hid his burning cheeks.

Their father came forward, standing just beside his children. “Listen, friend, times have been tough. We understand that, so we don’t judge you. But you saved Oriya, so…”

His wife stepped in. “We can heat up some food as thanks.”

Guilt clawed at his insides, and his cheeks burned hotter. Silently, he shook his head.

The father frowned, heavy eyebrows drawing together. “We can’t let you go without repaying your kindness. Just… we’ll make you a pack.”

Without waiting for him to reply—much like his youngest daughter had—he vanished back into the darkness of the house. Eyes cast down, Zuko slowly reached into his pack as their mother came over to join her two girls. His fingers closed around the bar of soap he’d stolen from them; his jaw tightened as he hesitated. After a moment and a sigh, he lifted it out of his pack and held it up to them. The mother’s eyes went a little wider with recognition. Then, to his surprise, her face softened.

“Keep it,” she said quietly. “It’s an easy price to pay for a life.”

The father came back out of the house with a small tied cloth. “There’s enough for a few small meals here,” he said. “Thank you again, stranger. Your mask is frightening, but it seems to have been in our favor tonight.”

Zuko left them with a series of conflicting emotions roiling in his chest. He’d stolen from them. They had to have known, or at least guessed, that he wouldn’t have taken just a bar of soap. Yet, still, they’d given him more. His pack, with the bundle of food, weighed heavily on his back as he traveled.

He didn’t stop until much later that night, when exhaustion overtook him and promised quick sleep.

_______

The involuntary good deed he committed seemed to set off a chain reaction of more.

As he traveled, he came across others he ended up helping. An old, nearly blind man’s cart was stuck in a ditch, with his ostrich horse’s leg hurt. Zuko dragged the cart out of the ditch while the man tended to his animal’s injury. As thanks, he got a small sack of rice. A young woman was shouldering far too heavy a pack for her—medical supplies, she told him breathlessly when she spotted him, for the next town. He offered to take it for her, since he was heading in that direction anyway. She nearly cried when she thanked him, and gave him a small bundle stuffed with medical herbs and a small pot of cooling salve. He also got a handful of coins upon delivering it, though he only took half. The rest he left for them to give to the young woman who would have gotten it originally.

On, and on, it went. Sometimes he helped out with the mask on, sometimes without. He started hearing rumors of a benevolent spirit helping strangers when he reached new towns, rumors of a Blue Spirit rising up from the countryside to help those ground down beneath the Fire Nation’s heel.

Of course, Zuko’s luck being what it was—namely, non-existent—those rumors came back to bite him in the ass.

He slipped out of the small town under the cover of dark one night a few weeks after the house intruder incident. There was a small gang in the area that was bullying some of the more vulnerable residents, so he’d donned his mask and given them a scare—and a beating—that would have them thinking twice about continuing. As he made his way out of town into the nearby woods, something prickled the back of his neck. He froze, listening and scanning the area immediately surrounding him. Zuko stood in a small grove of trees, their foliage now thick with summer leaves. It was probably just a passing animal, he told himself. Nothing to worry about. He started walking again when nothing presented itself as the source.

There was a single snap of a branch on the ground behind him. Before he had the chance to spin and face whatever was there, a sharp blow to the back of his head blurred his vision and sent him sprawling. He saw nothing but black after that.

________

The smell of brine and iron surrounded him, and regular undulations rocked his empty stomach into heaving. His arms ached, and his throat burned as if he’d swallowed mouthfuls of sand. This was a familiar place, the belly of a Fire Nation ship. The difference was that instead of commanding it, as he had years ago in the first few years of his exile, now he was captive.

When he tried to move, his limbs refused to respond. At first, he thought it was because he was weak, but then he realized that it was because he was restrained by shackles. The room he was in was bare, the metal walls undecorated and unforgiving. They didn’t even give him a strange sense of comfort, despite having spent nearly five years on a ship not too dissimilar to this one. Now, it just made his stomach turn.

Regularly, he heard voices around him. He was able to piecemeal together that he’d been a captive on a smaller vessel for about a week, in and out of consciousness, and was the primary talk of the ship. From that, he decided it must be a relatively low-ranked ship in the fleet. None of that explained why he was still wearing his Blue Spirit mask, however.

“I won’t be the one to do it,” one voice said, drawing Zuko out of his thoughts. “Are you crazy? I like my skin unburned and my life intact. The mask stays on until they dock. He’ll want to be the one to do the honors of unmasking before executing this peasant.”

Understanding slapped him like a bucket of icy water. There was only one Admiral he was aware of that took such personal pleasure in interrogating and disposing of people himself: Zhao. It sounded like they were anchored, waiting for Zhao to arrive and decide what to do with Zuko himself. If he waited until Zhao arrived and was discovered to be the Blue Spirit… Death would be the more welcome option, then.

He had to get out of here.

A plan began forming in his head as he scanned the room through the slits of his mask. Zuko shook his wrists a bit, gauging the weight of the metal shackles. They were the standard ones used for non-bending prisoners, which, he happened to know, were more easily softened by heat than the ones reserved for firebending prisoners. He allowed himself a small smile. Now, all he had to do was wait for the right moment. Living among Earth Kingdom citizens the past several years made him feel like he’d acquired the greater patience they could have for biding their time. A younger version of him wanted to strain against his bindings right away, but he knew that would do him no good but burn energy he wanted to reserve. So instead, he deepened his breathing and planned out what he would do once he cut through his chains.

It was probably about an hour after midnight when his chance came.

Zuko only was able to guess at the time from scraping the rust off his memory of ship guard rotations. He wasn’t heavily guarded at all. From what he’d learned from the quiet talk of the guards to one another, though the Blue Spirit was an irritating thorn in the sides of a few particularly ornery Fire Nation commanders, he wasn’t really seen as a threat now captured; they all assumed he was a non-bender. That gave him ample opportunity to take advantage of their underestimation of him.

Quietly, he focused and heated up his wrists and hands. Firebending comes from the breath. Zuko breathed flame and hot steam onto the taught chain binding his shackles together, pushing himself to make it hotter until the metal reddened and then began to soften. Not wasting any time, he tugged his arms sharply apart, snapping the chain in half. He repeated the process on the shackles binding his feet, and soon he was free.

The door wasn’t an obstacle, and he ignored it entirely, instead hauling himself up into the vent in the ceiling. Slipping off the ship and into the water was as easy as waiting for the patrol to pass and timing his movements to that. The ship itself was bigger than his old one had been, but still no fighting cruiser, so he was off it within a few minutes. After that, the tiring swim to shore was a welcome burn to his muscles. The moment he pulled himself up onto a wooden pier, he was free.

By the time the morning guard rotation would be around to give him the tasteless juk and egg bun for breakfast, he would be miles away from the port town the ship waited at. He would be out in the countryside again, and away from the ships under Zhao’s command and, with any kind of luck, any more chance of the Admiral catching him. This had been too close a call for Zuko’s liking.

________

Weeks passed, and turned into months.

He found himself across the narrow channel of water from where the marauder’s hideout had been, but, as always he made do with what he could. Once again, he began with nothing. The pack the waterbender had left behind was somewhere on the other side of the channel, and he mourned finding his uncle’s cup a second time. But, Zuko couldn’t dwell or dawdle. He had to keep moving. His flight across the channel was too close a call, even if he had eventually escaped. Zuko lifted his hand to trace the scar along his throat that a rope had left, hidden beneath the high collar of a plain tunic. In all his years of evading being caught, he never thought that particular demon of his past would come to haunt him again.

Zuko scowled and returned his focus to the task at hand.

The roughly woven dǒulì he wore shaded his face from the worst of the sun, but he still felt the heat of it against his back. Sweat rolled down his face and beneath his tunic, but he didn’t stop. A family had promised him a square meal if he helped them plough their fields, so here he was, pulling an unwilling and ornery ostrich horse row after row. He was nearly done, thankfully, though it had eaten up most of his afternoon and his energy.

When he finally went back to the farm after finishing and putting the animal back in its stall, he devoured the contents of the bowl set before him. Zuko’s stomach begged for him to ask for seconds—thirds, even—but he kept his mouth shut, instead only nodding thanks when handed a wrapped package of food to keep him going another few days.

The family offered a space in their barn for him, and he debated turning them down. But, as he stood to be on his way, exhaustion washed over him and made him waver on his feet. It wouldn’t hurt, he reasoned, to have a roof over his head and sweet hay to pillow him, for a night. It was better than the dusty ground, anyway.

Zuko thanked them again, and shouldered the pack he’d assembled over the last few months between honest work like this and stealing as the Blue Spirit. The barn wasn’t wholly dark, with plenty of holes in the rafters that birds or weather had made, letting the light of the stars and moon to trickle in. Not bothering to change out of his sweaty tunic, Zuko set his pack down on a thick pile of hay and lay down next to it.

He stared up at the gaps in the roof for a while, suddenly thinking about the waterbender. The moon was nearly full again. Zuko rested a hand over his heart. He wondered if she really was dead, or if she had somehow survived. It wasn’t impossible—he managed, despite the universe seemingly trying to do its best to end him. If anyone else he knew could survive as well, or better, than he, it would have to be her.

Wherever she was, he hoped she was doing better than he was.

the villains that live in my bed

( begin, previous )

Daylight filtered in through the young leaves of the canopy above him. It was mid-morning, and he’d been up for hours already. Rise with the sun, Zuko thought. He set himself a steady pace, just like yesterday, just like the day before, but he could feel himself flagging already.

It wasn’t that he was still weak—he felt fully recovered from the… ordeal during the full moon a few nights ago—but too much time had been lost.

The waterbender’s trail was growing colder, and with it, his uncle’s teacup slipped further away.

At first, she was easy to track, but she’d had a good few days’ head start on him. What she’d done to him had left him drained of almost all his strength for nearly two full days; it was all he could do to drag himself outside to piss and then drag himself back in to eat small mouthfuls of slowly spoiling rabbit. When he’d finally regained enough strength back to move around more normally, he’d been sick with what was probably food poisoning from the rancid meat. Well, the joke was on her, really—it wasn’t the first time he’d dealt with that, so he knew what to do, and it hadn’t held him up for long.

Once he finally had gotten himself and his clothing clean, or as much as either could be since she stole his only bar of soap, three days had already passed since the full moon. Two days of tracking her after that, and he was now starting to concede that he wouldn’t find her.

But, he wouldn’t give up. She had his uncle’s teacup, and if nothing else, he needed to get that back. Everything else he could steal again—even more dao. Zuko would follow in her wake to the ends of the world if that’s what it took to get that little porcelain cup back.

By the time the sun had reached its apex in the sky, Zuko realized where she was going. The trail she left was headed back toward where he’d brought her from the marauder’s camp. Had she been recaptured? Despite everything, a sudden sharpness clenched in his chest. For all that she’d been treated poorly before, he knew it would be so much worse if they’d caught her again. He picked up his pace and ignored the immediate pangs of hunger the exertion sent through his stomach.

So intent was he on reaching the hideout again, that he nearly tripped over the body.

It was a feat that the stench hadn’t hit him first, but now that he stopped, the reek of decomposing flesh twisted out any kind of hunger he might have had. With a hand clamped over his mouth and nose, Zuko crouched to peer down at the body, to try and identify it. The eyes were gone—they were a coveted part of any corpse, and quickly picked out by birds or other animals—as was a decent portion of the skin, but enough of the clothing remained that Zuko recognized the dead man as one of the raiders who’d been keeping the waterbender captive. He stood again.

A quick scan of the area revealed two more corpses, in similar states of decay. They must have all been killed around the same time, though, upon further inspection, Zuko could find no particular method of death for any of them. He walked a bit upwind of the bodies to get some fresher air and to keep from dry heaving, and it was from that different vantage point that he noticed all the foliage in a semi-circle was dead. Dried, as if it had all the water sucked out of it. His eyes widened.

The waterbender.

He’d seen her draw water from thin air—he should have guessed that she could draw the life out of any plant she wanted, too. She really was powerful. Whatever had stayed her hand from killing him, Zuko was thankful for it, because everything more he saw about her told him she was more than capable of doing it.

As he looked over the remains of firebenders and foliage alike, an out of place color caught his eye. He picked his way over to it, careful to avoid even the dead leaves, and discovered it was his pack. Not everything was still inside it, but when he withdrew a solid form his strips of bandages were wrapped around, he was astonished to find his uncle’s cup.

She’d stolen his things and yet… still kept the teacup? Immediately, he tried to quash the swell of confusion that rose within him. Maybe she just liked tea. Plenty of people did. He turned the cup over and ran his thumb over the stamp in the bottom of it thoughtfully. That didn’t explain why she’d wrapped it so carefully in the bandages. It was as if she hadn’t wanted it to break.

Unable to find any answers from the silent porcelain or the dead men around him, Zuko repacked his bag and sifted through the marauder’s pockets for anything of use or value to start bolstering his supplies again. He didn’t come away entirely empty-handed, but he didn’t find as much as he’d been hoping for.

He moved on, heading toward the marauders’ hideout. She’d killed three of them, but that still didn’t mean she hadn’t been recaptured. His pace was slow, ponderous. Why was he still going? Maybe she’d been able to kill the rest and his journey was for nothing. He got the teacup back, and she was clearly capable of handling herself now. Now, after he’d helped her regain her strength.

Yet still, the worry that she was back in that cave, facing worse than before, burrowed into him. He swallowed down the bitterness over her betrayal to the shaky alliance he thought they’d had, and continued on. If she was there, he’d find her and get her out again. Then they would be done.


It was nearly sunset by the time he reached the hideout, and he sat back away from it for some time, watching. He’d expected them to have changed things up once he’d taken their prisoner away, but now there were no signs of any movement at all. Had they moved on? Zuko drummed his fingers against the wood of the Blue Spirit mask, hesitating before putting it on again. He’d wait until dusk truly fell and would sneak in to investigate.

Patience was something Zuko had been forced to learn over the past few years. Once an impulsive teenager who barreled headlong into the fray, now he was no stranger to biding his time for the right moment. It was something earthbenders and even non-bending Earth Kingdom denizens did innately, and he wondered if all his time spent among them had helped him learn at least a little of their techniques. His uncle would have been proud.

Zuko frowned. His thoughts turned toward the teacup, which led him right back to the waterbender.

Why had she held onto it? Not only was it not immediately useful—unless she really was a tea-lover like Uncle—but it was clearly Fire Nation. Even if she hadn’t seen the stamp on the bottom, it was lacquered red and gold in Fire Nation designs. True, it was subtle and finely crafted, but it was still unquestionably from his homeland. So… why hadn’t she just thrown it away, or smashed it against a rock, or something?

He sat with unanswered questions until it was dark enough that he felt confident to move closer to investigate. While he waited, he watched a few bandits return to the cave, confirming it wasn’t abandoned. As he slipped through the shadows and along narrow ledges to keep out of sight, it was also clear that the only reason they’d changed up their sentries was because they were missing several men from the last time he’d been in their hideout. Zuko wondered how many of them were missing because they were on a raid, and how much of the lack of sentries was because some of them were lying dead nearby in the forest.

There didn’t seem to be much activity at all throughout the hideout. Surely, if the waterbender had been recaptured, there would have been— Zuko shook his head, dismissing any gruesome details it might have conjured. There would have been some sort of commotion.

Timing his movements against the remaining bandits in the cave hideout, Zuko made his way through the places he’d staked out before, searching for any sign of the waterbender.

There was none.

In the depths of his chest, a coil of something tight loosened a little. 

At least, Zuko thought as he changed course and began stealing back to the entrance, the waterbender hadn’t been captured.

And what if she had been? The thought sounded suspiciously like his uncle’s voice in his head. He pressed his lips together behind his mask and his body against a wall, waiting and counting footsteps. He’d have gone in and gotten her out again, he supposed.

And then what? And then he… would have figured it out. You never think these things through! Zuko gritted his teeth and squeezed his hands into fists. It didn’t matter if he did or not—she wasn’t here anyway. He couldn’t plan for something that wasn’t going to happen.

No matter what stray thoughts he might have, the truth of the matter was she wasn’t here, he didn’t have to worry about her anymore. All he had to do was get back out and be on his way.

Zuko waited a few breaths longer, then darted out from the nook he had waited in and over to the other side, laying out the route in his head as he went. A stack of crates half-filled with supplies provided enough cover for him to hide behind while he paused to make sure the coast was still clear. It was a pattern he kept to, stealing his way from cover to cover and evading the few bandits he encountered.

Every time he crouched in the shadows, or flattened himself against a wall behind a crate or sack of supplies, Zuko had to bite the inside of his cheek to keep his anger in check. They didn’t have any more prisoners left when Zuko had freed the waterbender, and it was because the rest were dead. She would have been in a few days, too, had Zuko not taken her out. These men were a stain on the Fire Nation, and it was difficult for several beats of his heart to not skulk back through their hideout and kill them one by one.

Zuko let out a breath, calming his inner fire. While he was certain he could do that if he really had a mind to, he wasn’t going to. He was weaponless, and honestly, he was tired. He hadn’t regained all his strength back after the full moon and the food poisoning, and he hadn’t stopped to hunt for a proper meal the entire time he’d been following the waterbender’s trail. And, as satisfying as it would be to remove these insults to firebending from the face of the world, Zuko just didn’t have it in him to kill them in cold blood. Perhaps that was why the waterbender had stayed her own hand; maybe that was something they had in common after all.

Voices suddenly came from nearby, startling him out of his mental reverie. Cursing beneath his breath, Zuko pressed himself as much as he could into the dark of the shadows of his hiding spot. He wished he had the cover of a crate or even a haphazard stack of supply sacks to get behind, but judging by the sounds of footfalls and nearing conversation, he didn’t have the time to find a better spot. The angle of the wall would have to be enough.

“… didn’t get her,” one was saying. That one had a slight drag to one of his footfalls.

“Why didn’t you send anyone after her? She was very…. useful.”  The other speaker had a deeper voice, and more even steps. Zuko guessed he might have been in the military at some point.

“Uh, well… she went off a cliff. I wasn’t going to send anyone to their death after a single waterbender.”

Zuko sucked in a sharp breath despite himself, and immediately froze as he heard both the bandits stop mid-stride.

“Did you hear that?”

The other bandit said nothing, and Zuko willed himself as still as he could possibly be. His heart rate elevated, but his breath had caught in his throat; his hands slowly tensed, just in case he had to fight.

“Fucking ratvipers all over this cave,” the first one continued. “Just leave ‘em alone. We’ll flush out the nest in the light. I don’t want to tangle with any in the dark, yanno?”

“Yeah,” the former military one said.

Zuko forced a slow, silent breath out as the two continued on their way. As soon as he felt the slightest confidence that they were out of sight or hearing, he bolted for the entrance and went out into the night.

He didn’t stop moving until he felt his lungs begin to burn, and his body protested so much energy without enough food to fuel it. Doubling over to brace his hands against his legs, it was all Zuko could do for a few minutes to breathe. She went off a cliff. The words echoed through his mind again, and he felt a strange sort of numbness settle over him as his heart settled.

Was she… did that mean she was dead? He’d seen her mend back to relative health, felt how much power she had even not at her full strength, only for her to fall to her death? It just—it didn’t seem right. It didn’t seem fair. Sure, she’d tried to kill him, but she said she was going to from the beginning, and in the end, she hadn’t. In-between those times he’d felt like he made a connection with her.

Zuko scowled at himself. That’s what he got for being too trusting. It was good she was gone, even if she wasn’t dead, though he didn’t see how someone could survive a fall off a cliff. He was on his own again, and that’s how he best survived all these years.

He straightened and continued until he found a decently secure spot to sleep for the night. He would head to the nearest town again to get some more supplies and be on his way; he’d spent too much time in one place the last few days caring for her, anyway.

Zuko fell asleep with his hand cradling the teacup in his bag, but it wasn’t his uncle his last waking thoughts were of.

the villains that live in my bed

theadamantdaughter:

teaandcrowns:

theadamantdaughter:

( begin, previous )

She heard him, but she ignored him. Better to keep quiet, than to return his gratitude and risk her voice breaking. It was guilt, this feeling that gnawed at her insides. He’d saved her, and the longer she spent cooped up in this cave, the truer his promises became: he meant to keep her safe. 

But, why? Katara knew of the price on her head, on the head of every waterbender— The Fire Nation wanted them, was hunting them, at the decree of some pompous admiral who believed the Avatar was hidden among her kind. It was a folktale, in reality. The cycle ended with Roku, but gods be damned if the Fire Nation didn’t fabricate any and every excuse to kill off the remaining nations —and her keeper was a firebender. She could feel it in his veins. 

No. She couldn’t do this. She couldn’t let the fucking ash maker walk free because her heart conjured up some debt owed to him. If he was due anything, Katara had made it up tenfold by healing him, by allowing him some peace and a dreamless sleep before she killed him. 

Holding her breath for a moment, she listened for his. It was slow and steady, deep like she expected. She was stiff from lying awake for hours, but the moon called out to her—finally—and Katara knew it was time. She had her things ready. Her canteen and old clothes were beneath her head, hiding stolen nuts and berries, and scraps of the rabbit. And, she had the position of his possessions memorized. His dao were at his hip. His bag lay near his head. She’d snatch it, fill it with her clothes and few things; she’d kill him.

“Goodbye, demon,” she whispered, pushing up from her makeshift bed. A dark smile painted her lips, keeping at bay any doubts that she was doing the right thing. Who could say how many he killed? Even if it was no one, his element didn’t allow for his innocence. She’d heard too many die by flame; her family among them. She’d never sleep again without reliving their anguished screams.

And now she wanted to live his.

The shift to her feet was smooth and lithe. Despite her lingering injuries, the moon gave her new life. She was humming with energy. Her blood sang of power and dominance and Katara hardly needed to concentrate to feel the lull of his. Thump. Thump. His heart was so slow, so lazy; defenseless, as she crossed the few paces dividing their cave and glared down at him. If only she could see his face. 

“Hah…” A shaky laugh tore from her lips, so quiet not even a ghost could hear it. Why couldn’t she? 

Her breath coming quicker, shallow with sweet anticipation— How good would it feel to be vindicated? How alive would she be taking a firebreather from the land of the living?— Katara called on the moon’s deadly power and shifted her weight. 

Slowly, maybe she was enjoying this surge of confidence too much, his body’s control slipped away. She began at his feet, plucking at the veins, following the arteries up his legs. Reaching his hips and his stomach, she felt the beginnings of him waking up. His head jerked. His arms flailed. A strangled scream rose and died, ending in a choked sob somewhere inside his throat. The pain was reaching him, setting off alarms in his head. His fingers made claws, scraping at the earth. She felt his muscles firing, fighting for purchase— He wanted to buck. He couldn’t. He wanted to run. He couldn’t. He wanted to drive a knife through her heart, but his heart was hers. His bladder let its contents go when she seized it.

“Did you think I was lying?” Her sneer rang off the cave’s walls. The only thing she let him have were his eyes, and they snapped to hers, so wide, so gold, and so frightened. Katara laughed. “Firebender. Ashmaker. You think you’re better, because you offered me a bar of soap and didn’t force your cock in me, but you’re just like all the rest of them.” Keeping her grip on him, she bent over, reaching for the lip of the mask. She ripped it away.

“You’re a nightmare!” 

The painted wood clattered across the stone, but no sooner had her words echoed than recognition forced its way in. The scar. Even the faint red light cast by the fire’s dying embers, the stain of ruined tissue marked him. Her eyes danced across it; her thoughts danced back to four years prior. A steel ship. A hardened crew. An angry prince. 

“You?” Her question was quiet, just a whispered breath. In her confusion, in the dilemma of seeing a boy, then blinking and seeing a boy all grown up—a man, now—Katara’s hold slipped. She felt him struggle, felt his heart stutter back into his own rhythm and a second cry tore from him, like a wounded rabbit. 

Just like that, the mirage shattered. Boy or not, prince or not—she’d been a girl once, hadn’t she? His people had stolen that from her, beat it out of her. And now, he had her. Prince Zuko, the disgraced son of the Fire Lord responsible for her living hell. She was supposed to believe he meant her no harm? 

Katara regained control, more brutal and cruel than before. This time, her voice was laced with poison and accusal. “You.” 

The hold she regained on him was made even worse and more painful because it had slipped when she saw who he was. He felt the wet track of a tear slip down his right cheek—somehow, that bit of water had escaped her grasp when she grabbed hold of him again. Then again, what use did she have for his tears when she controlled the blood within him?

This is bloodbending, he thought distantly. This is how I’m going to die.

Spots formed in his vision and he had to remind himself to force in another thin mouthful of air. Her eyes bore into his as soon as he was able to focus on her face again, the syllable her accusation ringing clearly through his ears.

Zuko could feel everything, even as he could move nothing. The cold sweat running down the line of his spine, the warmth of urine clinging to his pants—he was almost hypersensitive to all of it. None of his muscles obeyed no matter how hard he tried to move them, and his chest hurt. His heart slowed to a rhythm of the waterbender’s choosing, and the brief instant where she’d lost it and it’d tried to resume its natural pace made it hurt all the more when she forced it back to her will. Even the breaths he took were labored, like he was fighting a losing battle just for air.

What was it she’d said? She’d gut him open like a fish? She didn’t even need to do that, Zuko supposed. She could just… stop his heart if she wanted. Maybe freeze the very blood in his veins. He squeezed his eyes shut—the only things he found he had control over—and more wet slipped from his right eye.

She’d promised him she’d do this, and he’d been careless. He hadn’t quite believed she could actually bloodbend, or that perhaps it meant something different than what it sounded like. He’d started to trust her. He was sorely mistaken, and if he somehow, somehow got out of this alive, he would never underestimate her again. He hadn’t thought he had in the first place, but he would be sure to never again assume, regardless of what he thought was or was not possible.

He felt a wave of nausea roll through his gut and he opened his eyes again to try and quell it. Zuko found her still staring at him, expectant and angry. She knew him, she knew who he was. He had been right, after all.

His chest burned as he dragged in another ragged breath. What if he had taken off the mask earlier? Would she have taken control of him then? Or would she have never done this, if only he had shown her his face?

No—she would have still done this. She’d promised, and he saw in the hurt in her eyes and the way it bowed her shoulders that she would have always done this.

Still, she hadn’t yet. She’d seen his face, knew who he was, and hadn’t yet stopped his heart or gut him from neck to navel. Perhaps… she was waiting? Her stance was steady, but her hands trembled. She was waiting for him to recognize her. Staring at her face, his eyes searching her features, Zuko frantically wracked his memory to place her. He’d never traveled with anyone in all the years he lived here in the Earth Kingdom as the Blue Spirit, had never encountered any waterbenders as the refugee Li–where could he know her from?

A memory resurfaced, from four years ago. Before he’d left his uncle and taken off on his own, before the Siege of the North, before Zhao killed the Moon Spirit. Before, when he had a ship. When he was still searching. His eyes widened. The girl from the village at the south pole. That’s who she was.

“Please,” he managed to gasp around her control, and his throat burned from the effort. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

He shouldn’t have manhandled that old woman. He shouldn’t have threatened her village when they couldn’t tell him anything about the Avatar. He shouldn’t have broken down their wall. But he hadn’t hurt anyone. He’d turned Zhao away from following the same course, because Zuko knew her village would have been destroyed then. He hadn’t wanted anyone hurt. He’d been such a fool, then, trying to search for the impossible to obtain something he would never get. He should have known better, he should have known better. Zuko wanted to lay all these words at her feet, but he couldn’t say them. He didn’t have the air or control left.

He supposed it didn’t matter anyway, if she was going to kill him.

He lowered his gaze from her and felt a fresh trail of wet run down his cheek. He was so tired, tired from struggling to breathe, tired from always trying and always failing. He couldn’t even do something good right.

“You’re right,” he rasped. “Me. I deserve this.” A wheeze rattled his compressed lungs, burned sharp like fire in his chest. His heart felt like it was going to burst. His voice turned small, deflated and beaten and too much like the broken boy he used to be, that he still was. “I’m sorry for what I did in—in your village.”

“You’re sorry?” A laugh tore through her, sick and demented. It rang off the stone walls, piercing the night like a siren’s call, as inescapable and uncontrollable as the myth itself. “Do you truly believe I want your sympathy? Zuko of the Fire Nation.” 

Spitting his name like a foul curse felt good; it felt right. It felt like justification for this, for the rage igniting her frame and making her control over him all the mightier. She brought him to the edge, right to the brink of killing him. A broken sense of certainty slid down his spine, and Katara watched the realization dawn in his eyes—he would die tonight—as her own cut into him like razors through taut flesh. 

She could see all of him: the purple tinge to his lips, the ash of his skin, the golden light in his eyes as they rolled back into his head. And beyond the physical responses, she saw him— Prince Zuko. Fire made up his veins, hot and wild and terrifying. It burned through him, searing at the edges of her control, and Katara remembered the same white-hot energy singeing the air when her mother died. 

It didn’t matter his lack of responsibility. It only served to make her angry. She stooped over him, one knee burrowing into his stomach, adding to his pain and taking what little air he had. The other served to balance her in the dirt, while her fingers clawed at his chest and wrapped up in his drenched shirt. Katara yanked him up by the fabric; it wasn’t hard, with his inability to fight and her power over his blood. His face was a mere breath from hers, damp and glistening and contorted with fear. 

This close, she could smell him. Smoke. Heat. The sweet musk of sweat clung to his hair and his skin. The stench of terror and fresh piss lingered like a putrid undercurrent. 

This close, she felt like a goddess of death. 

“Repeat it,” Katara hissed, spittle hitting his cracked lips. “Tell me you’re sorry, Prince.” 

Tears leaked from the corners of his eyes. If she wasn’t bending him, she knew he’d be sobbing. begging. pleading for his life. He couldn’t, or so she thought. Somehow, between a keening gasp and shallow pants, Zuko managed: 

‘I’m sorry. I am.’ 

She dropped him. She felt his body’s natural reaction to the crack of his skull on the floor of the cave, but she didn’t hear it. For a moment, she heard nothing— just her slow breaths and the reverberation of her heartbeat. It matched his. 

Until it didn’t. Gods fuck him! 

For all her screaming, aching, and bleeding, for all the horror the Fire Nation had inflicted, she couldn’t do it. She couldn’t end him. 

A firebender took her mother, but Zuko wasn’t that man. Another took her brother, but Zuko wasn’t that monster. And as desperately as she wished to feel righteous and vindicated by his death, she couldn’t bring it upon herself to blame him for what the marauders did, not when he looked at her like this.

Like a boy. Like a beaten, broken boy. 

Her grasp loosened, not enough to allow him any movement, but he could breathe again. Thready inhalations burst through his pale lips. His fingers twitched, curling tighter into his palms and leaving indentations. A sound like a dying animal echoed faintly in the cave as his heart stuttered and stumbled within his ribcage. 

Katara left him like that, stepping over his body to collect his bag and the leather sheath that held his dao. Perhaps it was wrong of her, to threaten a man’s life and take his belongings, but she refused even a lick of remorse. She let him keep his life, his worthless, murderous life; that was enough kindness. 

Slinging his things over her shoulder, Katara marched towards the cave’s entrance without a single glance back. 

“You’re not forgiven,” she said, staring at the moon up above. “Live with that.” 

With a short breath, she let Prince Zuko go; then, she stepped out into the night and she was gone. 

Unconsciousness draped over him like a heavy shroud.

You’re not forgiven. Those three words echoed in the blackness surrounding him in a mantra. Zuko felt like there were more, but he couldn’t understand them. His heartbeat stuttered in his ears and drowned out everything else. The sounds of the world were muffled and combined in an indistinguishable mess.

Fleeting images crossed his vision. The waterbender had her arms full with his pack and his dao were strapped across her back; the firelight flickered against the cave wall, then was nothing more than a faint glow; his mother’s robes swayed above the floor in front of him; his uncle sat leaning over him and offered him a cup of tea; red and blue dragons curled around one another in the dark. Zuko couldn’t tell if he was dreaming or not. Were these the last dredges his mind could conjure before he died?

Would he wake in the spirit world?

He dragged a rattling, burning breath into his lungs. No, he thought blearily. He hurt too much to be dead.

Zuko slowly blinked his eyes open.

It was still dark out, but he had no idea how much time had passed. The fire had already been in embers before she—before she’d attacked him. Sunrise was still a long ways off; he couldn’t feel the stir of fire in him that dawn always brought.

His throat seized for a moment. What if what she’d done to him had cut off his bending somehow, he thought frantically. What if dawn was swiftly coming on and he simply couldn’t feel it anymore?

Zuko’s shallow breaths increased in speed of their own accord, and he had to squeeze his eyes shut and command himself to breathe more slowly, more deeply. In, pause, out. In. Out. It was a rhythm he’d practiced more often than he would ever admit throughout his childhood, and his body eventually responded to the familiar, even pace. That wasn’t possible, he told himself, his mental voice calm. No one can take bending away. Once he regained his strength back, he would be able to bend just like before.

When he felt more in control again, he opened his eyes and took mental stock of himself. His clothing was soaked through from sweat and other things, his heart felt like he had been running hard for an entire day, and the rest of his muscles had a bone-deep ache that he didn’t think would go away any time soon. Otherwise, he felt intact. He curled his fingers, testing his ability to move himself, and a little choked sound escaped him when they responded. Having bodily autonomy was something one took for granted and didn’t ever think about until it was taken completely away. He swallowed thickly. Zuko had been restrained before, but having his blood bent like that was… something entirely different. He couldn’t even struggle against it because no part of him responded the way it should have.

With even more hesitation, he opened one hand and focused. His heart fluttered in his chest again, and for a moment, nothing happened. Then warmth bloomed in the form of a small, weak flame cradled between his fingers. Zuko released it with a heavy sigh deflating his chest. He felt more drained of energy after bending immediately after waking, but at least he knew it hadn’t been blocked or taken away. She hadn’t been able to do that.

Line formed across Zuko’s brow as he thought about the waterbender, what she’d done… and what she hadn’t done.

She’d told him she was going to bloodbend him—that she was going to kill him. He’d underestimated her, and then he’d paid the price for that. It had been terrifying.

And, what’s more, he’d been utterly certain he was going to die. He was sure that she was going to kill him—he remembered the exact moment he knew with brutal clarity.

But, then, she hadn’t.

Still he lay on the cold stone ground, breathing, feeling his heartbeat thud against his ribs. Why hadn’t she killed him? She’d made good on her promise to bend his blood, and he was sure—he was sure—that she was going to stop his heart. Zuko could see it in her eyes when her face had been inches away from his; he knew the anger and hurt he saw there, and he knew that she desperately wanted to make good on her full promise to him. He had felt the complete control she had over him, the pressure between his lungs and in his veins.

But why hadn’t she?

He would get no answers staring up into the dark, and so rolled onto his side to push himself up. At least—that had been his intent. Zuko was only able to manage rolling onto one side, wheezing and gasping for air. Everything hurt, and he felt his muscles shaking and spasming from the effort even that small change in position took. Still, he pressed one hand to the stone and attempted to push himself up. He only got a few inches off the ground before he collapsed, only barely able to hold himself on his side.

For several moments, Zuko just stayed like that and breathed, shaking and trying to gather his strength. There wasn’t much to gather, and he didn’t think he’d be able to do much more right now. While he tried to recuperate, he glanced around the cave. The waterbender was gone. So, that much of his feverish imagining had been real. A few more moments showed him that everything else was gone with her, as well, aside from the rabbit carcass over the remains of the fire. She’d taken his bag and his dao.

Zuko sucked in a breath, a thought coming to him quick as a slap. His uncle’s teacup had been in there. It was the only remaining possession he’d had, and the realization that she’d stolen it from him hurt almost worse than all the pain from the bloodbending. A strangled growl scraped through his throat at his utter inability to run out after her and get it back; he could barely move. One hand clenched into a fist—the one she’d healed, something distantly reminded him in the back of his mind—and he ineffectually hit it repeatedly against the stone ground.

The rest of the items in the bag, they were all replaceable. Zuko didn’t even spare them another thought. Even the dao he didn’t mourn too long; he could find another pair somewhere without too much trouble if he needed to. But, his uncle’s cup—he had to get that back from her. For all he knew, his uncle was dead, and had been for years. That could be all that was left of him.

Vision wavering from exhaustion and pushing himself too much after such an ordeal, Zuko stared out toward the mouth of the cave. As soon as he was able to walk again, he was going to track her down and get that cup back. He couldn’t lose that last thread to his uncle. He couldn’t.

the villains that live in my bed

theadamantdaughter:

( begin, previous )

She heard him, but she ignored him. Better to keep quiet, than to return his gratitude and risk her voice breaking. It was guilt, this feeling that gnawed at her insides. He’d saved her, and the longer she spent cooped up in this cave, the truer his promises became: he meant to keep her safe. 

But, why? Katara knew of the price on her head, on the head of every waterbender— The Fire Nation wanted them, was hunting them, at the decree of some pompous admiral who believed the Avatar was hidden among her kind. It was a folktale, in reality. The cycle ended with Roku, but gods be damned if the Fire Nation didn’t fabricate any and every excuse to kill off the remaining nations —and her keeper was a firebender. She could feel it in his veins. 

No. She couldn’t do this. She couldn’t let the fucking ash maker walk free because her heart conjured up some debt owed to him. If he was due anything, Katara had made it up tenfold by healing him, by allowing him some peace and a dreamless sleep before she killed him. 

Holding her breath for a moment, she listened for his. It was slow and steady, deep like she expected. She was stiff from lying awake for hours, but the moon called out to her—finally—and Katara knew it was time. She had her things ready. Her canteen and old clothes were beneath her head, hiding stolen nuts and berries, and scraps of the rabbit. And, she had the position of his possessions memorized. His dao were at his hip. His bag lay near his head. She’d snatch it, fill it with her clothes and few things; she’d kill him.

“Goodbye, demon,” she whispered, pushing up from her makeshift bed. A dark smile painted her lips, keeping at bay any doubts that she was doing the right thing. Who could say how many he killed? Even if it was no one, his element didn’t allow for his innocence. She’d heard too many die by flame; her family among them. She’d never sleep again without reliving their anguished screams.

And now she wanted to live his.

The shift to her feet was smooth and lithe. Despite her lingering injuries, the moon gave her new life. She was humming with energy. Her blood sang of power and dominance and Katara hardly needed to concentrate to feel the lull of his. Thump. Thump. His heart was so slow, so lazy; defenseless, as she crossed the few paces dividing their cave and glared down at him. If only she could see his face. 

“Hah…” A shaky laugh tore from her lips, so quiet not even a ghost could hear it. Why couldn’t she? 

Her breath coming quicker, shallow with sweet anticipation— How good would it feel to be vindicated? How alive would she be taking a firebreather from the land of the living?— Katara called on the moon’s deadly power and shifted her weight. 

Slowly, maybe she was enjoying this surge of confidence too much, his body’s control slipped away. She began at his feet, plucking at the veins, following the arteries up his legs. Reaching his hips and his stomach, she felt the beginnings of him waking up. His head jerked. His arms flailed. A strangled scream rose and died, ending in a choked sob somewhere inside his throat. The pain was reaching him, setting off alarms in his head. His fingers made claws, scraping at the earth. She felt his muscles firing, fighting for purchase— He wanted to buck. He couldn’t. He wanted to run. He couldn’t. He wanted to drive a knife through her heart, but his heart was hers. His bladder let its contents go when she seized it.

“Did you think I was lying?” Her sneer rang off the cave’s walls. The only thing she let him have were his eyes, and they snapped to hers, so wide, so gold, and so frightened. Katara laughed. “Firebender. Ashmaker. You think you’re better, because you offered me a bar of soap and didn’t force your cock in me, but you’re just like all the rest of them.” Keeping her grip on him, she bent over, reaching for the lip of the mask. She ripped it away.

“You’re a nightmare!” 

The painted wood clattered across the stone, but no sooner had her words echoed than recognition forced its way in. The scar. Even the faint red light cast by the fire’s dying embers, the stain of ruined tissue marked him. Her eyes danced across it; her thoughts danced back to four years prior. A steel ship. A hardened crew. An angry prince. 

“You?” Her question was quiet, just a whispered breath. In her confusion, in the dilemma of seeing a boy, then blinking and seeing a boy all grown up—a man, now—Katara’s hold slipped. She felt him struggle, felt his heart stutter back into his own rhythm and a second cry tore from him, like a wounded rabbit. 

Just like that, the mirage shattered. Boy or not, prince or not—she’d been a girl once, hadn’t she? His people had stolen that from her, beat it out of her. And now, he had her. Prince Zuko, the disgraced son of the Fire Lord responsible for her living hell. She was supposed to believe he meant her no harm? 

Katara regained control, more brutal and cruel than before. This time, her voice was laced with poison and accusal. “You.” 

The hold she regained on him was made even worse and more painful because it had slipped when she saw who he was. He felt the wet track of a tear slip down his right cheek—somehow, that bit of water had escaped her grasp when she grabbed hold of him again. Then again, what use did she have for his tears when she controlled the blood within him?

This is bloodbending, he thought distantly. This is how I’m going to die.

Spots formed in his vision and he had to remind himself to force in another thin mouthful of air. Her eyes bore into his as soon as he was able to focus on her face again, the syllable her accusation ringing clearly through his ears.

Zuko could feel everything, even as he could move nothing. The cold sweat running down the line of his spine, the warmth of urine clinging to his pants—he was almost hypersensitive to all of it. None of his muscles obeyed no matter how hard he tried to move them, and his chest hurt. His heart slowed to a rhythm of the waterbender’s choosing, and the brief instant where she’d lost it and it’d tried to resume its natural pace made it hurt all the more when she forced it back to her will. Even the breaths he took were labored, like he was fighting a losing battle just for air.

What was it she’d said? She’d gut him open like a fish? She didn’t even need to do that, Zuko supposed. She could just… stop his heart if she wanted. Maybe freeze the very blood in his veins. He squeezed his eyes shut—the only things he found he had control over—and more wet slipped from his right eye.

She’d promised him she’d do this, and he’d been careless. He hadn’t quite believed she could actually bloodbend, or that perhaps it meant something different than what it sounded like. He’d started to trust her. He was sorely mistaken, and if he somehow, somehow got out of this alive, he would never underestimate her again. He hadn’t thought he had in the first place, but he would be sure to never again assume, regardless of what he thought was or was not possible.

He felt a wave of nausea roll through his gut and he opened his eyes again to try and quell it. Zuko found her still staring at him, expectant and angry. She knew him, she knew who he was. He had been right, after all.

His chest burned as he dragged in another ragged breath. What if he had taken off the mask earlier? Would she have taken control of him then? Or would she have never done this, if only he had shown her his face?

No—she would have still done this. She’d promised, and he saw in the hurt in her eyes and the way it bowed her shoulders that she would have always done this.

Still, she hadn’t yet. She’d seen his face, knew who he was, and hadn’t yet stopped his heart or gut him from neck to navel. Perhaps… she was waiting? Her stance was steady, but her hands trembled. She was waiting for him to recognize her. Staring at her face, his eyes searching her features, Zuko frantically wracked his memory to place her. He’d never traveled with anyone in all the years he lived here in the Earth Kingdom as the Blue Spirit, had never encountered any waterbenders as the refugee Li–where could he know her from?

A memory resurfaced, from four years ago. Before he’d left his uncle and taken off on his own, before the Siege of the North, before Zhao killed the Moon Spirit. Before, when he had a ship. When he was still searching. His eyes widened. The girl from the village at the south pole. That’s who she was.

“Please,” he managed to gasp around her control, and his throat burned from the effort. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

He shouldn’t have manhandled that old woman. He shouldn’t have threatened her village when they couldn’t tell him anything about the Avatar. He shouldn’t have broken down their wall. But he hadn’t hurt anyone. He’d turned Zhao away from following the same course, because Zuko knew her village would have been destroyed then. He hadn’t wanted anyone hurt. He’d been such a fool, then, trying to search for the impossible to obtain something he would never get. He should have known better, he should have known better. Zuko wanted to lay all these words at her feet, but he couldn’t say them. He didn’t have the air or control left.

He supposed it didn’t matter anyway, if she was going to kill him.

He lowered his gaze from her and felt a fresh trail of wet run down his cheek. He was so tired, tired from struggling to breathe, tired from always trying and always failing. He couldn’t even do something good right.

“You’re right,” he rasped. “Me. I deserve this.” A wheeze rattled his compressed lungs, burned sharp like fire in his chest. His heart felt like it was going to burst. His voice turned small, deflated and beaten and too much like the broken boy he used to be, that he still was. “I’m sorry for what I did in—in your village.”

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.

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

( 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.