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.

perfect places





( past )

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…or, she could reign in her fucking imagination.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He let out a breath.

That was getting him nowhere good really fast.

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

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


She didn’t miss that word, and how it mirrored hers. The same language was steeped in everything she said, touching any and every story about her mother because… because it was all in the past. 

Unbidden, and unexpected, empathy pooled in her chest and Katara forgot the lingering tension between them. He’d lost someone, like her. He knew the hurt of a broken family and she couldn’t help it; she slid her hand across the bed, searching for him the dark. Her fingers found his arm, and Katara felt her way down to his wrist. 

With a tender squeeze, she broke their momentary silence. “I would’ve loved to meet her. Anyone with a green thumb is special, I think… especially to those of us who kill everything we touch,” Katara let a slight laugh slip into her tone, hoping she hadn’t turned his mood heavy. “Even cacti.” 

“My mom tried with me…” She pulled her hand back and tucked in beneath her cheek, following a content sigh. “But, I was never one for gardening. We did a lot of baking. I probably could’ve been good at that, but she— she died when I was eight and I haven’t so much as touched flour since. It’s funny, the things that end up bothering you after someone’s gone.” 

A tired smile went his direction. The alcohol was settling in her blood, making her sleepy, making her talk too much. Katara supposed it was an improvement over the hot mess she’d been a half hour prior, but she berated herself inwardly at the damper she was becoming. For a girl with a respectful—attractive—man in her bed, she sure had a way of ruining even the best of atmospheres. Then again, that’d been the whole night for him— her crashing his study time, using him as a human shield, then as her fake boyfriend. Worst of all, she’d tried to fuck him. On her couch. 

Katara found it difficult to hold his gaze after that. Her eyes slipped down him, to the cut of her blue comforter across his waist, and she snuggled further beneath her portion of it as heat blossomed on her skin. “Well…” 

What did she say to him? Did she bid him goodnight? All her talk of her dead mom, the least she could do was inflect some humor into her tone. She tried for cheery.

“I hope you sleep alright… Zuko. Just wake me up if you need anything. And, uh,” Katara scoffed under her breath, “we can fake a break-up in the morning, unless you’re up for a fake proposal and fake wedding down the line.” 

“Only if you bake the fake cake for it,” he joked, without thinking. The moment the words left his mouth, Zuko winced, sending his gaze up above her head in the darkness. “I mean, I could be the one to do it. I kind of like cooking, so I could definitely fake baking pretty well. I just…” He exhaled, closing his eyes against his own inconsiderateness.

“I’m sorry,” he murmured. “That was a really stupid thing to say.” He rolled onto his back and looked up toward the ceiling. Here she had reached out to him–literally–and he’d made a dumb joke. His mouth always got him in more trouble than he was worth. His sister had only been a year younger when their mother vanished, and he a year older; he knew pretty well how she must have felt, by how much affection still threaded through her voice when she mentioned baking with her mother. He opened his mouth to say more, but decided against it. He’d ruined the moment with his ill-timed joke.

“Good night, Katara,” he said instead, taking the conversational out she provided him. For some time after that, Zuko lay awake, still staring up into the dark and listening to the way Katara’s breathing evened out as she fell asleep.

The brief thought of slipping out while she was asleep crossed his mind, but he stamped that down as soon as he had it. He wasn’t in a relationship where she could hold shit like his insensitive joke over his head five months from now, drawing it out like a little dart to throw at him when she was displeased, and he hadn’t been in that situation for nearly five years. Old habits died hard, he supposed, and his flight instinct had kicked in without warning. Zuko reminded himself that one thing didn’t mean the end of the world, and if nothing else, he might be able to chalk it up to alcohol and tiredness. It was pretty late, after all.

The thought of the time brought out a yawn, and blurred his vision. Beside him, Katara seemed to be solidly asleep. The adrenaline drop and alcohol could really knock a person out, he knew. Besides, she’d invited him to stay and he said he would. What kind of person would do all that and then slip out in the middle of the night anyway? Zuko didn’t want to be that person. He rolled onto his side, facing away from her, and steadied his breathing to closely match hers. It was a trick he used to use to calm himself down, or to help himself fall asleep when he couldn’t. While he wasn’t agitated, and was pretty sure he wouldn’t have any trouble falling asleep, it was comforting. Zuko hadn’t slept next to anyone for a while, so it was a little strange and exhilarating–he was really way more attracted to her than he thought he had any right to be–but it was nice, too.

Her mattress was also pretty comfortable, all things considered, and it smelled good. It made him think of a warm day at the ocean as he drifted off.

the villains that live in my bed



( past )

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

—this was hard. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

He nodded, dumbly, in response to her thanks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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