Categories > Cartoons > Avatar: The Last Airbender > Rescue Me

The Game

by hootowl 0 reviews

Recognizable quotes from "The Crossroads of Destiny" and Machiavelli's The Prince.

Category: Avatar: The Last Airbender - Rating: PG - Genres: Humor,Romance - Characters: Katara,Zuko - Warnings: [?] - Published: 2014-01-03 - 5656 words

0Unrated
Zuko let the tension drain out of him, concentrating on his meditation breathing. Katara hadn’t returned yet from taking the Creepy Old Ladies’ order and there were no other orders to fulfill so he didn’t feel the need to do anything except sit at the table and try to rid his imagination of C.O.L. flirtation. Yes, his meditation exercises allowed him to push the disturbing thoughts aside. He’d thought Uncle was bad. He was thankful when the kitchen door swung open as his uncle’s love-life was not something Zuko wanted to spend any length of time contemplating. He glanced up, hoping it was Katara and was disappointed when Iroh strolled in. Iroh’s eyes landed on him and a wide smile spread across his weathered face. “Lee! You’re needed at Table 7!”

Zuko eyed the other man warily. That kind of smile usually meant he was bound to encounter a situation he could’ve gone his whole life without experiencing. Iroh lifted a brow in challenge and Zuko had no choice but to do as his uncle requested. Resistance usually failed to achieve any kind of victory anyway.

Zuko pushed out of his chair and left the kitchen with a grumble, weaving between the tables to come to a stop beside Table 7. His dread grew when he realized just what kind of customer waited at the table. An old woman, dressed in Earth Kingdom green, was seated by herself, rheumy eyes squinting up at him. He shifted awkwardly and opened his mouth to go through the specials, when the woman’s hand shot out and grabbed his wrist. Zuko barely stopped his surprised yelp when she jerked him down to eye level. Faded green eyes peered at him for a long, awkward moment. “Sit. We talk.”

“I—”

She pulled on his arm with surprising strength, her voice commanding, “Sit!”

Zuko sat though it was clear he wasn’t happy about it. She regarded Zuko quietly and he looked away, folding his arms across his chest and scowling angrily. The woman didn’t appear to mind and instead turned to her teacup, saying casually, “Your uncle told me much about you, boy.”

Zuko still said nothing, his glower deepening. She laughed. “No need to be petulant, boy. He’s worried you’ll be alone.”

Zuko shot her a look, surprised when she simply stared back, completely unaffected. He turned her words over in his mind, stomach twisting uncomfortably as he came to a vague conclusion. She couldn’t possibly mean what he thought she meant.

“I’ve come to make you a match.”

His expression shifted from scowling to terror. Apparently it was. “I don’t want a match.”

She waved a boney hand, brushing his protest aside. “Nonsense. No one wants to be alone forever. Now, tell old Hui-ying about yourself.”

Zuko clamped his mouth shut. This was worse than the Creepy Old Ladies. He cast a furtive glance around the tearoom, hoping for some form of salvation. Perhaps Katara would rescue him before he died of humiliation. Hui-ying sighed, folding her hands. “I see you’re not going to make this easy for me. Not to worry, I can still make a match.”

His eyes snapped back to her, his mouth going dry. She wasn’t serious; was she? She gazed at him for several long moments before she muttered, “Yes; you’ll need someone strong. There was talk before about matching you to a girl in the Court.”

Zuko jerked in surprise. “What—”

Hui-ying laughed delightedly. “No need to look so surprised, Prince Zuko. She would’ve been a good match. She’s a strong girl.”

“You,” he started, but trailed off when he had no idea what to say further.

“Your uncle and I go a long way back. He was such a handsome man. Any girl’s heart would quicken. It’s a shame his wife was such—never mind. It’s bad luck to speak ill of the dead.”

She didn’t appear to notice his disgusted expression and she seemed perfectly content to reminisce about her past relationship with his uncle. Such as it was. The sound of the door opening drew his attention and his fists clenched when he saw the person who entered. He vaguely realized that Katara didn’t seem the least bit pleased that Jet was hanging around again. Their words were too low for him to hear from where he was in the back corner, far from the door.

Zuko watched Jet’s expression change from genial to surprise to annoyance and finally to anger. It was clear the conversation wasn’t going the way Jet wanted it and he finally exclaimed, “Why are you protecting them!”

“They don’t need my protection!” Katara shouted back.

The argument appeared to catch the attention of the rest of the shop, but neither seemed to notice. Jet reached for her and Zuko found himself on his feet before he realized it, Hui-ying’s hand the only thing preventing him from crossing the room and forcefully removing the former Freedom Fighter from the teahouse. Katara pulled out of his reach and Jet threw up his hands, snarling, “They’re firebenders and I can prove it.”

“Stop seeing firebenders everywhere you look, Jet. We’re all refugees here.”

“They’re obviously controlling you somehow.”

Katara sighed tiredly. “Go home, Jet.”

They stared at each other in silence for several seconds before Jet demanded, “What did I do wrong?”

“You attacked civilians—”

“They were Fire Nation! They were spies!” Jet defended hotly.

“A whole village?” she asked in scathing disbelief. “What did they ever do to you? They’d probably lived in that village since before you were born!”

“The Fire Nation killed my parents!”

“And they killed my mother,” Katara shot back, tears in her voice. “Murdering innocents won’t bring them back.”

Jet’s glare was furious. “We could’ve been good together.”

“No.”

“Fine,” he spat angrily, “you’re one of them. You’ve turned your back on your nation. You’ve become a Fire Nation whore.”

Katara’s hand collided with Jet’s face in a sharp slap before Zuko could even move. Jet stumbled under the blow, his hand rising to cover his stinging cheek. The Freedom Fighter looked momentarily stunned and the few low “ooohs” from spectators were quickly silenced. Katara’s hands clenched at her sides and her voice wavered under the steel in her words, “Leave, Jet, and never come back.”

For the briefest of moments, Zuko thought Jet would refuse but he straightened and let his hand fall from his cheek revealing a glowing handprint. He seemed on the verge of saying something else, but thought better of it and instead stormed out the door, slamming it violently behind him. The shop was wrapped in a thick silence after his departure, everyone holding their breath. Katara was first to move, her eyes finding Zuko’s. Even from where he was standing, he could see tears beginning to well though she tried to keep them at bay. An instant later, she turned sharply on her heel and made a swift exit through the kitchen door and up the stairs to their apartment above the shop. He almost followed her when the grip around his wrist tightened, drawing his attention. He’d nearly forgotten the hand holding him back. Zuko looked down into Hui-ying’s assessing gaze. Her gaze seemed to strip away all of his masks and left him feeling oddly vulnerable. Heat was crawling up his neck when she finally released his wrist looking pleased. “It appears you don’t need my help after all.”

His mouth dropped open. “What?”

She poured herself another cup of tea, lifting it to her lips, dismissing him, “Go tell your uncle that I’m finished with you. Off you go. Miss Katara appears unwell and your customers need attending.”

Left with no other choice, and not wanting to wait to see if she changed her mind, he turned toward the kitchen. He met Iroh at the door, his uncle glancing over Zuko’s shoulder at Hui-ying. “Miss Katara has a headache and won’t be down for the rest of the day, Lee. You’ll have to take her tables.”

Iroh steered him out of the kitchen and Zuko’s head twisted to look back at the stairs as if he’d see Katara standing there. The kitchen and stairs were empty. “Is she okay?”

Iroh hummed. “I think we’ll close early today. We’ve received some exciting news!”

He bustled off to speak to Hui-ying. A wave from the Creepy Old Ladies made him sigh and he forced himself to their table. They started speaking before he could ask any questions, keeping their voices low. “That’s Hui-ying.”

“Yes,” Zuko affirmed, unsure why they would choose to talk about the woman.

The women exchanged knowing glances. “She’s a matchmaker.”

“Did she give you a match?”

“I don’t need her help,” Zuko interrupted.

The ladies twittered and one of them gasped breathily, “I like a man who knows what he wants.”

Zuko stared before deciding to ignore the comment. “We’ll be closing early today. Is there anything else I can get for you?”

One of the ladies reached out, running a hand down his arm, purring, “Oh, what’s a nice guy like you doing with a body like that?”

He was saved from doing something extreme by the sudden appearance of his uncle who spoke up cheerfully, “I’m pleased my nephew has settled on the perfect match. We must congratulate him, ladies. I’ve never been so happy.”

Zuko cringed. Perhaps this wasn’t quite the rescue he wanted. Still, it silenced the ladies and allowed him the chance to escape while Iroh waxed poetic about true love and future grandchildren.

.........
The rest of the day seemed to drag by with increasing slowness. Iroh managed to usher the customers out the door several hours after noon with the promise of opening again the day after next. He hummed a cheerful tune as he lowered the curtains and turned over the open sign. When Zuko gathered the dirty dishes and entered the kitchen, he found Katara sitting at the table with a modest meal waiting for them. Her eyes were red and her cheeks flushed, but she didn’t appear as distraught as she’d been earlier. Iroh gave him a warning look as he passed him, settling down at the table and rubbing his hands together. “This looks delicious, Miss Katara. You’ve out done yourself.”

Katara’s smile was weak as she answered, “Thank you. It’s not much.”

“Nonsense. Zuko, sit down.”

Zuko dropped into the empty chair, only realizing he was staring when Katara ducked and focused intently on filling her plate. He forced his eyes away when Iroh cleared his throat. Katara toyed with her food while Zuko served himself, finally looking up when he picked up his chopsticks. “You said you had news, Uncle.”

Iroh beamed. “Yes. We’ve been invited to serve tea to the Earth King.”

Katara’s gasp of surprise was drowned out by the clatter of Zuko’s chopsticks and his exclamation of, “What? That’s crazy! We can’t—”

Iroh cut him off with a frown of disapproval, stating, “It’s a great honor to serve the Earth King tea. It will improve the reputation of The Jasmine Dragon and we might be able to eventually move into the Upper Ring.”

Zuko knew it was a great opportunity, but tea service wasn’t something he’d aspired to in life. “I don’t want to serve tea for the rest of my life!”

Katara frowned. “It’s not forever, Zuko. Besides, with the invitation from the Earth King, we’ll be able to pass the guards at the gate to the Upper Ring.”

Zuko turned to stare at her. She pursed her lips, giving him a hard look and he settled back into his chair, muttering, “Fine. Let’s hope he doesn’t discover that we’re actually firebenders. Prison’s not something I want to experience.”

Katara laughed softly. “Stop worrying.”

Iroh stroked his beard, looking thoughtful. “Right. We have nothing to worry about, Zuko. There’s no reason for the Earth King to suspect we’re firebenders. Neither of us have displayed such skill here in the city.”

Zuko gave Katara a cautious look, saying, “Jet seems to think we’re firebenders.”

Katara scowled, jabbing viciously at her food. “He has no proof.”

“It could still cause a problem.”

“Only if he succeeds in antagonizing you!”

“Miss Katara is correct, Zuko. Keep your temper and everything will be fine.”

Zuko subsided into silence and Katara addressed Iroh, “When are we invited to the palace?”

“Tomorrow afternoon. The Earth King wants to host a High Tea for some visiting diplomats. We will need to leave early so we can set up.”

A sense of unease settled on Zuko and he picked at his meal, hardly eating much of it. He wondered just where the diplomats were visiting from since the city held an almost blissful ignorance of the war that raged outside its walls. They certainly weren’t Fire Nation diplomats and the Water Tribes were barely clinging to their ice fortresses as it was. Zuko frowned at his thoughts. Maybe the diplomats were from another Earth Kingdom. There were at least two kingdoms within the Earth Kingdom. He’d always wondered why it was referred to the singular instead of the plural it was.

Conversation around him drifted to other things and then the meal was over. Iroh assisted in washing up the dishes before he bid the teen goodnight. They waited until they heard the faint snores from Iroh’s bedroom before Katara turned to Zuko, her face determined. “The king’s invitation will get us into the Upper Ring and then we can find Aang and start his firebending lessons.”

Zuko wasn’t feeling as confident and shrugged uncertainly. Katara searched his face, biting her lip. “Are you having second thoughts?”

She didn’t sound accusing but he still felt his cheeks heat and he avoided her eyes. “I don’t know.”

“Is it Aang or your father?”

Zuko wasn’t sure how to answer that so merely shrugged. Katara watched him for a moment before she asked hesitantly, “Do you want to talk to Uncle?”

“I know what Uncle will say.”

She laughed. “You’ve got time.”

Zuko sighed, running a hand over his hair. “For some reason I don’t think it’s going to be that easy.”

“Why not?”

“Nothing is ever easy,” he said darkly.

Katara frowned, reaching over to pat his arm. “Don’t worry. What could go wrong?”

.........
Sunlight streamed through the crack in the shutters, spilling across his face and rousing Zuko from his morning meditation. He only continued the meditation because Iroh insisted on it and he didn’t want to hear another lecture about calming his inner fire and aligning his thoughts. Zuko completely ignored the fact that he did his meditation even without Iroh’s presence compelling him.

The apartment above The Jasmine Dragon was only a two bedroom, neither of them particularly large. Iroh claimed the smaller of the rooms as his own which left Katara and Zuko sharing the larger one. It would have been awkward if Katara hadn’t returned from the market one day with a dividing screen and a spare futon. A quiet groan from his roommate made him crack an eye open and turn toward the privacy screen. When Iroh slyly pointed out that Zuko and Katara had shared closer quarters and, indeed often shared the same bed, Katara simply gave him a disdainful sniff and disappeared up the stairs before they could see her cheeks redden. Zuko had quickly made himself scarce after that as well. The divider wasn’t quite long enough to completely hide the other futon, but at least it gave some semblance of privacy.

A low, sleepy groan gained his attention and he turned his attention to the divider. The blankets shifted and a moment later Katara appeared, sleepy-eyed and hair standing wild. She blinked at him, lifting her hand to shade her eyes from the bright beam of sunlight, scowling and muttering something that sounded suspiciously like, “Firebenders.”

She shuffled out of the room to the tiny washroom. She returned several minutes later looking distinctly more awake and put together. She dumped a bundle of clothes on her futon then pushed open the shutters before facing Zuko. “Good morning.”

Zuko grunted in reply which Katara accepting as an appropriate salutation. “Is Uncle awake yet?”

“Just before dawn.”

“Right.”

He could feel her eyes on him and he took a breath through his nose, releasing it slowly through his mouth. He sometimes wondered why she didn’t meditate since her element could be as volatile as his at times. “Are you nervous?”

Zuko’s eyes opened and he peered up at her. He sighed, giving up on meditation now that she was awake, and rose to his feet. “No. I feel like something is wrong.”

Her brow furrowed. “Like what?”

His gaze turned out the window. It was a warm sunny day with not a cloud in the sky. Certainly nothing that would inspire ominous feelings. “I don’t know.”

Katara looped her arm through his, leaning into his shoulder. Zuko didn’t flinch or pull away. After months being in Katara’s presence he’d grown used to her occasional touches. Sometimes he thought she needed another’s touch. Almost like it grounded her. He turned slightly and rested his chin on her head, releasing a quiet sigh as the riot of emotions that tumbled inside of him calmed. She hugged his arm a little tighter, murmuring, “It’ll work out in the end.”

Zuko allowed her closeness for a moment longer before stepping back and pulling on the formal, dark green outer robes Iroh laid out this morning. “We’d better go. Uncle is waiting.”

They found Iroh in the kitchen, packing several baskets with an assortment of cakes and biscuits. He hummed a cheerful tune as he worked and Zuko thought he recognized a childhood song though the words escaped him. Iroh clapped his hands together when he saw their arrival, pointing out a pot that sat steaming on the stove. “I made jook this morning. Eat up. We’ll be going soon as you finish.”

Both teens peered curiously into the pot. Keeping his voice low so Iroh wouldn’t hear, Zuko commented, “Looks like something the ostrich horse coughed up.”

Katara snorted, quickly muffling a snicker. “That’s not very nice. It doesn’t smell bad.”

Zuko raised an eyebrow, taking another look into the pot. He took the bowl Katara handed him, watching as she ladled a portion into her own bowl before holding out his to accept his share. To Zuko’s surprise, it actually tasted pretty good and he scraped his bowl clean.

After breakfast, Zuko’s doubts once again pushed themselves to the front of his mind, but at Katara’s curious look shrugged and turned to take one of the baskets Iroh was holding out. Iroh hurried them out of the teashop and locked the door behind them. Zuko was sure his uncle made some comment about returning in the evening, but he wasn’t listening, too much dwelling on his own thoughts.

The streets of the Lower Ring felt as narrow and crowded as they always did despite the early hour of the morning. A small crowd of merchants were gathered at the gates to the Upper Ring and several guards were scrutinizing wares and papers. Zuko swallowed thickly, falling back a few paces. Katara noticed his lagging and dropped back to walk beside him, asking in a low voice, “What’s wrong?”

Zuko glanced at her, shrugging uncomfortably and muttering, “It’s nothing.”

Katara frowned, but further questions were prevented by the guards stopping them. A severe frown was passed over them, lingering for several seconds on Zuko before they demanded, “Names and purpose?”

Iroh smiled brightly, holding out the king’s invitation. “Good morning! I am Mushu and this is my nephew Lee and…his fiancee Katara. We’ve been called before the king.”

One of the guards snatched the papers from Iroh’s hand while the other narrowed his eyes in suspicion. Katara’s chin rose and she met the guard’s stare unflinchingly. Zuko resisted the urge to cringe under the examination. He wasn’t sure if his activities in Lake Laogai had spread among the city guard, but he didn’t want to take any chances and hoped they’d let them pass without any awkward questions. He still hadn’t explained to Katara where he’d been or what he’d done that night.

Seconds seemed to crawl by before the guards finally waved them through. Relief flooded through him and the muscles in his neck loosened once they were out of sight of the guards. A low sound of wonder escaped from Katara and drew his attention. She was gazing around at the streets, her eyes wide. She blushed faintly when she saw Zuko staring at her. “I didn’t expect it to be so different in the Upper Ring.”

He pulled his eyes away from her to look around. She was right. The streets were different. They were wider, cleaner, and in better repair than the Lower Ring, but the differences didn’t end there. The houses and shops didn’t have that rundown, depressed feeling to them and he was sure he caught sight of an extensive flower garden down one of the streets they passed. The people were better dressed and Zuko felt slovenly in comparison. Two young women watched them pass, disdain clear on both their faces before they exchanged giggles behind fanciful fans. Zuko felt his neck warm and he heard Katara mutter something about painted tarts that she didn’t explain when he looked at her.

Iroh walked several lengths in front of them, a spring in his step and still humming the jaunty tune he’d been humming during breakfast. Katara adjusted the basket on her hip, asking quietly, “Any ideas on how to find Aang and my brother?”

“No.”

The sharpness of his answer made her look at him, concern bright in her blue eyes. “Are you still worried about that?”

He couldn’t really say what was bothering him, only that the further they progressed through the streets the more an uncomfortable awareness buzzed along his nerves. Zuko still felt tense and uneasy and he constantly looked over his shoulder. He could feel eyes watching him though he couldn’t see any obvious observers. The stopped before the palace gates and Iroh gazed up at the Earth Kingdom seal above them. The hummed tune faded away as Iroh fell into a reverent silence. Katara put a hand on his arm and he seemed to shake himself, smiling at her. “Many times I imagined myself here, at the threshold of the palace. But I always thought I’d be here as a conqueror.”

The gates swung slowly open and another guard led them up to the doors where a servant waited to take them inside. Their invitation was once more closely examined before the servant executed a short bow, drawling, “This way, please.”

The servant led them through a maze of corridors to a large, high ceilinged room before giving them another sharp bow and leaving. Iroh moved to the low table in the center of the room, unpacking the basket he’d carried. Soon, a tea service was set up and an assortment of teacakes and sandwiches joined the spread. Zuko worked mechanically, though the hair on the back of his neck refused to lay flat and he flinched at every small noise. A quick glance at Katara revealed she too had an unsettled expression on her face. A small bell chimed the hour and the doors slammed shut. Katara spun, her hands reaching for the waterskin that had been at her side for most of their journey to Ba Sing Se. They closed around nothing and Zuko thought he heard a soft swear. Katara edged closer to Zuko, keeping her voice low, “So, that bad feeling you had?”

Zuko glanced at her from the corner of his eye. “Yeah?”

“I think I have it, too.”

The doors opened and guards spilled into the room, circling Zuko, Katara, and Iroh. Zuko recognized their uniforms. He’d seen them in Lake Laogai. What was that phrase he’d heard before? That’s right. “No good deed goes unpunished.”

“Which good deed are we being punished for now?”

Zuko didn’t respond to her whispered question, his attention focused on the doors that led back into the main part of the palace. A high, girlish laugh echoed through the chamber and he ground his teeth. If that laugh was who he thought it was then he knew he should’ve never gotten out of bed. The guards parted and a slim figure approached. “Hello, brother.”

“Azula,” Zuko ground out.

She grinned, though it wasn’t a very pleasant grin. That grin had changed from what Zuko remembered when she was a small girl, before he was banished. She didn’t seem at all concerned about the situation, placing a hand on her hip. “Have you ever met the Dai Li? They’re earthbenders, but they have a killer instinct that’s so firebender. I just love it.”

“What did you do to the Earth King?” Katara demanded.

Azula’s grin stretched as she turned her attention to the waterbender, giving a little laugh. “Oh, Zuzu. You’ve got a pet. You should keep better control over her.”

Zuko stepped between Katara and his sister and Azula’s eyebrows rose.

“Azula,” Iroh spoke up, “what are you doing here?”

“I have done what you spent years trying to achieve, Uncle, and then you failed. I have conquered Ba Sing Se in less than a week. You were always weak.”

Iroh picked up a teacup, tracing the design with his fingers. “Did I ever tell you how I got the nickname ‘the Dragon of the West’?”

Annoyance crossed Azula’s features. “I’m not interested in a lengthy anecdote, Uncle.”

Zuko reached for Katara’s arm, taking a firm hold of her elbow. The retired general calmly took a sip of tea. “It’s more of a demonstration, really.”

Iroh took a deep breath and Zuko dropped to the ground, dragging Katara with him. Fire and heat rushed over them and he heard Azula’s outraged shout. Zuko pushed Katara away, rolling to avoid one of the Dai Li’s cuffs. He lost sight of Katara in the fray and only the blasts of fire told him where his uncle was. An outer wall collapsed and Iroh’s voice rose above the melee, “Let’s go, Zuko! Katara!”

Zuko automatically turned to follow, dodging another blow, when a fearful shriek made him swing around. “Zuko!”

The Dai Li had managed to trap one of her ankles in the stone floor and, in the brief time it had taken her to call for him, another had managed to get a cuff around a wrist and drag her to the floor. Katara fought off a guard that approached her, her bending severely limited. Zuko hesitated, torn. The decision was taken from him a moment later as several cuffs slammed into him from different directions. The fight ended not long after and Zuko knelt at the feet of several of the Dai Li agents, panting against the pain of his bruised ribs. The hard soles of Azula’s shoes struck the floor with a mocking sense of accomplishment as she stopped in front of her brother, smirking down at him. “He who hesitates is lost, brother.”

One of the Dai Li moved away from the collapsed wall, reporting to Azula, “The other got away, Princess.”

Azula snorted, dismissing them with a careless wave. “He’ll be back. Take these two away. Put them somewhere I don’t have to look at them.”

.........
Zuko and Katara hit the stone floor with a thud, falling in a tangle of arms and legs. The cave sealed again before they came to a rolling stop. They didn’t even get the satisfaction of hearing the door slam to announce their incarceration. For several minutes they lay where they fell, regaining the breath that had rushed from their bodies and assessing injuries they might have missed during the fighting. The stone floor was cold and Zuko groaned beneath Katara. “I think I may have broken something.”

Katara rolled off of him, kneeling at his side and scanning him to see if there were any obvious injuries. “You can move, right?”

Zuko pushed himself upright, grimacing and rotating a stiff shoulder. “Yeah. Did you see what happened to Uncle?”

Katara shook her head and glanced around, but all she saw were strangely glowing crystals. “I think he managed to get away.”

He stared at the smooth walls of the cavern. It certainly was an effective prison. There would be no easy escape. Help would have to come to them. “I knew I should’ve stayed in bed this morning. Azula always ruins everything.”

Katara shivered in the coolness of the cave, drawing her knees to her chest and wrapping her arms around her legs. “How do you think she got in? I can’t believe the guards would betray their king.”

“Azula was always able to convince people to see things her way.”

Katara gave a snort of disgust, pushing herself to her feet and chafing her arms to warm herself. “More like she terrifies people into seeing things her way.”

“It is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both,” Zuko quoted dryly.

She looked down at him in surprise. “Until the people’s fear turn to hate and they seek to overthrow you.”

Zuko nodded, rising to his feet next to her. “It is a dangerous position to be in.”

Katara breathed a breath of laughter, motioning to the wall that had closed behind them after the guards tossed them in. “See if you can find any weakness. I’m going to check the back.”

A thorough search of all walls revealed it completely smooth and free of cracks. No matter how much Zuko pushed against the walls, they stood firm. Pounding with his fists didn’t achieve anything except painful bruising. Katara grew quiet as time passed and he could see the tenseness in her expression. Being trapped in a room with no escape probably brought back bad memories and Zuko pretended he didn’t notice her fretful fidgeting.

Zuko gave the walls another pass before he returned to the center of the cavern and dropped to the floor, gazing moodily at the high ceiling. Katara spent several more minutes examining the walls again before she dropped down next to him with a tired sigh, stretching out and resting her head on Zuko’s stomach. Zuko grunted, his hand finding her hair and letting the strands slip through his fingers. Silence fell around them, broken only by the steady drip of water in a far corner. At least they wouldn’t die of thirst. His hand gradually slowed and Zuko finally spoke in a low voice, “Maybe they’re right. Maybe I am a failure.”

Katara twisted to look up at him but he remained gazing up at the ceiling. She rolled onto her side, propping herself up on her elbow and regarded him with a serious expression. His eyes flitted toward her, shuttering quickly and hiding his emotions away. She smiled compassionately, brushing the shaggy hair back from his eyes and resting her hand against his cheek, fingertips brushing the edge of his scar. “You’re not a failure. We’ll get out of here. I believe in you.”

His eyes locked with hers and Katara felt her breath catch. The world around them faded away. Zuko’s hand traveled lightly up her arm to pressed against her hand on his cheek. Katara wet her lips and his heart skipped a beat and his other hand rose to rest on her shoulder. Her breath whispered across his lips and his fingers convulsed against her skin. “Katara…”

Her eyes fluttered closed and he could feel the heat of her mouth nearly upon his. Zuko exhaled a shaky breath, his heart racing. A loud explosion startled them and they scrambled away from each other, wide-eyed and blushing. Another explosion rocked the cavern, toppling crystals, and cracking stone. A small hole opened in the stone wall that had closed behind them after their imprisonment. Voices rose from the other side and Zuko and Katara hurried to their feet, anxiously watching the stone crumble away. Another blast and the wall collapse inward with a cloud of dust and coughing. A young voice spoke, “Someone would have heard that.”

“I am counting on your friends providing an appropriate distraction,” a familiar voice responded calmly.

Zuko started, taking an unconscious step forward. “Uncle?”

Iroh stepped through the settling dust, his expression melting into relief. His assessing gaze swept over both of them. “You’re uninjured?”

Zuko mutely shook his head. The air cleared and Zuko caught sight of a small girl standing just outside the demolished wall. She shifted, her head tilting as if catching a sound just out of earshot. “We should go. Sounds like Twinkletoes and Sokka could use some help.”

“Of course,” Iroh agreed. “Lead the way, Miss Toph.”
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