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It had been years since Katara had last properly panicked.
This had all been easier when they were just children, all fundamentally unaware of how huge the burden that they bore was, even if it seemed massive at the time. Adulthood had just made it larger. And even then she had been the one with the clear head who knew what to do when the rest of them fell to pieces, because somebody had to be that person. Even at Ba Sing Se, when Aang was dead in her arms and it seemed everything was lost. Especially then. And now she was underground, surrounded by the green glow of crystals, and Zuko was turning on her again - it was all happening again - her mind was flooded with brilliant white panic -
And suddenly all she could see was his eyes.
Such a peculiar shade of honey-gold. She'd never thought of that as fire. More like amber, ready to trap his thoughts and hold them there for display like some unlucky insect. You could polish it into a cabochon and set it in a necklace. It would still glimmer with realization or flash with anger for you. She'd paid them attention before, of course, but never this intently.
It was an eternity in the space between heartbeats. The slow glint of his swords - the wet, slick sound as he plunged them in to the hilt - all the while meeting her gaze, even and slow. His breath was hot on her face as he leaned in and whispered.
"Run," Zuko little more than sighed.
The world seemed to slowly unstick itself. Katara had been expecting pain - there was none. Blood spattered - none of it was hers. Zuko's amber eyes were wide and the glint in them bordered on feral, but they were his own. The grip the guards had on her slowly went slack as even in death they strove to keep her pinned into place. Her arms were numb - unable to bend, chi surely temporarily blocked - it would be easy enough to wrest her way out of their grasp -
And the world sped up and resumed its frantic pace.
The Prophet gave a short bark of a scream before starting to deliver rapid-fire orders. The first jagged daggers of rock started to lash out at them, and Katara ducked on instinct while Zuko batted another few away. He turned back to look at Katara, amber eyes wide, voice raising. "RUN!" Now his voice was a rasping roar. That split-second of attention to her instead of to the soldiers around him was a mistake - a boulder came hurtling towards him, and there wasn't time enough to dodge. Katara heard the visceral snap of crunching bone as it hit him hard in the side, but even as he grunted in breathless pain, he leaned into the force of the blow, turning on his heel, using the momentum it gave him to bring the twin swords up and around in another precise attack.
It was an eerily silent battlefield. None of the guards screamed as they went down - instead they fell silently to the ground, limp and lifeless. During all their time fighting alongside one another, back when they were children, there was an unspoken agreement to pull punches, to tread lightly. Subconsciously, they didn't want to kill anyone, and that restraint was made manifest in every blow. Not now, though. Zuko's cutting blows were ruthless and efficient. Blood spilled out onto the floor - black and tar-like? Katara's head swam - no, it must be a trick of the pale green light.
"Circle him! Circle him! We cannot let them escape, the Master will take out his displeasure on each of you -" The Prophet's clear, cold voice was easy to pick out as he backed up, soldiers trying to protectively surround him. But Zuko's injured and wavering steps were just irregular enough to be hard to predict. He dodged and weaved, leaping up onto a boulder rising at a soldier's call, before finally launching himself forward at the Prophet. The sharpened blades rested at the Prophet's neck for only a moment before snapping across in a scissor-like slash. Clean. Efficient. It left a jet of bloodstain on the wall as the Prophet's headless body swayed, gushing, twisting, and then finally fell onto the floor.
If Katara hadn't been so distracted by the pins-and-needles in her fingertips, she probably would have been disgusted. But she rushed forward beside Zuko, the numbness starting to fade from her hands. She flexed her fingers, anxious to feel chi flowing to them again. "Zuko -"
"Which way to the exit? There's got to be some way they keep coming in and out." He cut her off, tone dizzy, swaying on his feet. He looked exhausted and Katara didn't blame him in the least.
"...from what Toph and I saw, they earthbend their way in," she murmured quietly. "But... I think I might know a way." Katara paused, biting her lip, listening to the sound of footsteps coming up the hallway, closer and closer. "You aren't going to like it."
"Does it get us out of here?"
"Well, yes, but -"
"Then I already love it." There was absolutely no sarcasm in his mewling tone, just exhaustion. Anything was better than this. Absolutely anything. "Which way?"
"To the left -" Katara set her jaw as they started running. Feeling couldn't come back into her fingers soon enough. She was just lucky their chi blocking wasn't as efficient and advanced as Ty Lee's. A spear clattered over her ear, and she dodged; Zuko's swords whirled out to catch it, slicing it away. Another group of guards was bearing down on them, and it was too easy to get dizzy in the sickly green glow coming from the panels in the walls. Katara cursed underneath her breath, but in one smooth movement, Zuko pushed her aside. A rare lamp was on the wall - still carrying that same green hue - but he neatly popped it away from the wall, juggling it using the flat of his blades before batting it forward into the crowd. As the glass shattered it exploded into fire, the oil splashing and catching the first wave of the group on fire. The guards suffered with eerie muteness even as they tried to paw at their armor in desperate attempts to quiet the flames.
Zuko paused and blinked. "That... worked?" He sounded as shocked as the guards must have been, and then elated. "That actually worked!"
"Spirits - come on, we've got to keep moving!"
Zuko nodded and then stumbled after her, nearly slipping. She caught a glimpse of his face as they dashed down seemingly corridor after corridor, relying on Katara's vague instincts of where things were. He'd certainly had better days. Something about his expression still reminded her uncomfortably of Azula, reeling on pride before her downfall. Nobody would argue that he was currently using the line between bravery and foolishness as a jumprope. But even if he was moving on instinct, even if he seemed to be very near some break where humanity would be forgotten in feral rage, it was him, and not the Prophet's direction. That was at least comforting. ...Somewhat.
It was slightly more comforting that she had enough feeling in her hands again to waterbend the contents of one soldier's canteen out from his belt. She held it out in front of her, a ribbon of familiar and comforting water at the ready as she ran.
Katara jerked up a hand, causing him to stop, and motioned for him to be quiet. The observation catwalk was familiar to her - it was the same vantage point from where she had watched his torture. But now guards were starting to amass around the outlet to the ocean. A blockade of masked faces milled below them, not yet realizing they were above.
"Katara?" Zuko's voice was very soft, and she immediately turned to look at him. The look in his amber eyes was oddly distant as he seemed lost in taking account of the forces below him. She saw the subtle movement of his split lip moving as he ran his tongue along his front teeth in thought. "You're probably going to be angry at me for doing this."
"Doing what?" Her voice rose in immediate worried anger. "For doing WHAT? Don't you dare do anything stupi- mmph!"
And then she was cut off by Zuko kissing her hard on the lips.
It was the second time, after years of perfect cognizance, that her mind went completely blank. The wheels spluttered to a stop, the gears failed to catch, and whatever else she had been thinking floated neatly away into the ether. She couldn't even formulate a proper response, just letting her mouth hang open gormlessly. The water she had been bending at the ready hit the floor with an undignified splash.
"For luck," Zuko said after pulling away, coupling it with a dizzy, cheeky smile.
Katara attempted to say something back but managed only a very indignant "ppffhhthgzhh".
The splash had been enough to capture the attention of the guards, and with a reckless grin, Zuko launched himself off of the edge of the walkway down into the crowd below. Katara was left blinking rapidly to collect her thoughts before giving a strangled noise of irritation. The water was at her command instead of on the floor, and she managed to immediately whip it out, knocking one of the guards off-balance as it came to land a blow on Zuko. The Firelord himself was a maelstrom in the middle of the mob, flashing steel driving the guards away and apart. From her vantage point it was easy enough to see the small tunnel out to the ocean. Katara swayed on her feet, causing the water to swell and rise - the cap crested over with ice, and there was the shrill scream of distorting metal as she ripped away the bars that had kept Zuko from washing out into sea and the cruel metal collar and chain that had kept him in place. The small opening seemed to almost spit the metal out, guided by Katara's hand, one guard falling and then another. Even then Zuko was getting overwhelmed, and she could easily see it. With a grunt she called the water to her, pulling it up and unfurling it like a cloth - Zuko ducked down on instinct, and the wave split neatly in the middle to allow him to go untouched before closing up again. It hit the remaining guards, full of ice and desperate fury, slamming them with a tsunami's force against the wall. Bones cracked and crunched. The water retreated, and the bodies were still.
Which left Zuko standing in the middle of the room, panting in exhaustion.
Katara carefully lowered herself down, using her bending to make a winding slide of ice. When she reached the bottom, Zuko looked at her expectantly, his hair falling into his face. "Where to now? Down that corridor?" He pointed off in the distance, down the hallway where she could already hear more guards mustering.
She shook her head no and mutely pointed down into the small pool of water. And he immediately froze in fear.
Katara had never known him to be a fearful man. If anything, Zuko was the opposite - stubbornly going beyond common sense into recklessness. But all she could see in his eyes then was blind, animal fear. A child terrified of the darkness. No, that wasn't quite right. It was the dumb terror of an ox being led to slaughter when that ox alone out of the many knew exactly what the abattoir was for.
Couldn't really blame him, she supposed. He'd already died there once.
With a wave of her hand, the opening to the water calmed, formed itself into ice-slick stairsteps. It would be simple enough to forge a pocket of air and push their way through. The water was brackish - she could feel it - and the influx of freshwater meant that there had to be a way out nearby. And if not that, then there was the vast sea they could hide in.
She tried not to think about the Prophet's words, or about how water was always destined to snuff out flame.
Zuko's shoulders were starting to shake - tiredness? Anxiousness? She wasn't sure. But his head whipped around to look down the opposite corridor. Definitely the marching footsteps of soldiers. His gaze remained distant, and he blinked rapidly, a drop of blood falling from his brow into one of his eyes.
Katara took one step down into the water and offered her hand out to them. "Zuko. ...Do you trust me?"
She had a longer speech to convince him in mind, but some of the cloudiness in his eyes seemed to fade as he turned back to look at her. He nodded yes mutely and took her hand after letting the two dao swords snap together as one. She didn't let go of him, one icy step after the next, water lapping around them.
And then they sunk down into the darkness, leaving the clatter of the guards and their armor behind.
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