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The silk sheets weren't the heavy furs Katara was used to, but she had to admit that with a little time she could definitely get used to such luxuries. Toph was right – it was turning out to be a nice little vacation. Given how exhausting it was to try and make some progress healing Zuko every day, Katara was slowly letting herself not feel guilty in the least about it. Perhaps Aang and Sokka would be back soon, though she knew that flying nonstop on Appa to their destination would take a full week. There was plenty of time... plenty of time to relax, plenty of time for long conversations with Toph and with Zuko.
It seemed like it had been years since she had a decent conversation with Zuko... mostly because it had. She was still used to thinking of him as the determined fighter that it was an odd thing to see him as the stoic Firelord he had become. Clumsy anger had been replaced with dignified grace. The boy who couldn't even tell a joke properly had become the king who always seemed to have the right answer at his lips.
He still seemed to have trouble looking her directly in the eye. Katara had dismissed it as exhaustion still clinging to his mind, but now she was finally starting to wonder what he was scared she might see.
But in the meantime there were games of pai sho, and Toph's stories about her metalbending students, and plenty of cups of tea. Anything to distract Zuko so that he wouldn't be tempted to try and hold court in his bedroom and stubbornly resume all of his duties at once. Not everything was so pleasant; he still had missives to send to various officials, tempers to soothe, conflicts to avoid. And as soon as he could get out of bed for any decent length of time, he made a point of thanking the widow of former Captain Qian.
Even despite the sadness, at heart it was a pleasant respite. And that was why this morning Katara was content to let the sunlight come in the windows as she snuggled a little closer against the pillow and pulled the sheets nearer to her. One foot stuck out of the blankets, and she lazily wiggled her exposed toes in the air. When was the last time she had slept in? It had to be years... there was always one more thing to do, after all. But the servants were so eager to lavish attention on her, especially when they saw how she was helping Zuko, so when Toph joked that she would forgive all of Katara's debts from a few games of pai sho if Katara just slept in for a week solid... well... she wasn't going to argue. Any moment she was sure that a servant was going to walk in the door on light feet, sneaking in with a tray with fresh fruit, sweet-tart pickled plum slices and a rolled omelet, along with a small bowl of porridge drizzled with honey. A truly decadent way to start the day. And then -
A low rumble came from beneath her, and one of the decorative plaques on the wall clattered. The feet of the bed chattered on the floor like the teeth of a coward in the middle of a battle, and the water in the wide basin on the nightstand trembled as if threatening to splash out of the sides.
Katara did not think there was any other time she had been so very awake so very quickly.
The rumbling didn't stop, though it did quiet somewhat. This was no natural earthquake – this was something far worse that made her heartbeat ring hard in her ears. It only got worse as she opened her door and a quick arc of rock sprung up from the floor, barely blocked by the guard outside her door who returned a jet of bright flame. With one smooth motion, the water from the nightstand washbasin was at Katara's fingertips, snapping out into a whip that deflected another rock. The polished marble floor was broken into rocky crags and pock-marked with holes, but the small team of earthbenders at the other end of the hall didn't seem ready to give up, all marching forward in fighting stances... and all wearing dark olive uniforms coupled with bone-white painted masks.
Bringing his polearm up and panting, the guard posted at her door looked at her, eyes wide. "Master Katara! Please, you need to get to safety -!" He had to pause, knocking away another missile of stone with his blade.
"What's going on!"
"I – I don't know! They're everywhere!" The guard barely dodged another flying rock, and suddenly the marble floor beneath them gave way as the earthbending invaders found a gap where stone supports held up stone tiles. Katara screamed and the guard yelped, but quick-thinking as she was she let the whip of water in her hands become a gushing flood that cushioned their blow. The guard spluttered as he staggered to his feet and shook himself off. "Please, Master Katara! You have to get to the eastern tower, it's the most fortified!"
"And what about you?"
"I'll be fine!" It was a hurried answer but heartfelt, even if both of them knew it wasn't going to be true. "Go, please! I don't know if they've found the Firelord yet!"
The stone around them crunched as the trio of earthbenders jumped down, but this time the guard was ready for them, letting out a grunting cry as he spun his polearm in an arc and the blade flashed with fire. It hit one of the earthbenders square in the chest, making her stumble back and finally slump to the ground. Katara hesitated for only a few more seconds before nodding curtly and starting to run, heading for Zuko's chambers.
She could look down into the courtyard to see what could only be described as a small army. All of them were in the same sickly olive-green uniform, all of them wore the same stark white mask... though some were painted. Truthfully, Katara didn't take the time to look. This was an invasion. A direct, coordinated attack, one that had taken months if not years to plan, given how they were rising directly out of the floor from hidden tunnels... Toph was in the fray, leading the main force of palace guards, but they were obviously sorely outnumbered. She was still trying to stem the flood and rally those who were still fighting, even as reinforcements poured out of the crater the group had made in the very center of the main hall. Masked fighters were still leaping from ledge to ledge, and one nearly managed to get on the railing of the walkway Katara was running along before a tendril of red-hot glowing metal lashed out to drag him back down. Katara expected a scream. There wasn't one. And there was also no time for Toph and Captain Deshi, fighting side by side, to celebrate that momentary cooperative victory.
Even as she ran along the hallways and corridors she had to fend off small bands of the earthbenders. Fortunately she had the slim advantage of the fact they all seemed to be going the same way. Often all they knew was the sensation of her water-whip grabbing them before slinging them off the railing edge, or how they stumbled as she locked them in place with ice. There was no such thing as quiet as all the sounds of battle bounced off the walls. Smoke was starting to rise from where mis-aimed and redirected fire blasts had caught the palace itself on fire. The ground shook beneath her. And yet, as she grew closer -
Katara could tell these were more than mere footsoldiers as she neared Zuko's rooms. This squad, with dark grey circles painted around the eyes of their masks, were obviously more adept earthbenders. Yet one of their rocks still was deflected back to them, and hit one hard enough to make the earthbender shake his head dizzily. The squad leader looked up to see Katara and gestured to the group, and for at least a blessed moment, they retreated, scrambling around the corner.
Zuko panted, reaching out to steady himself on the wall, but he ended up sliding down onto the floor inch by inch, fingertips catching on the wide windowsill beside him. Katara kept up her sprinting pace even as she watched him slide down. Mei Lien clung desperately to him, hiding behind him and sobbing haplessly. Sweat was clearly visible, glistening on Zuko's shoulders, and his hair hung stringily in his face. He shouldn't have even been out of bed, much less fighting tooth and nail with his swords in his hands...
"Are you all right!" Katara called out, panting as she skidded to a stop. If anything this made Mei Lien cry harder, clinging to Zuko's arm.
He raised his head with a small, somewhat bitter laugh. "As much as could be expected, I guess." She offered an arm to help him up, but he stubbornly refused until she grabbed his elbow and dragged him to his feet. Mei Lien scrambled to cling to his leg as he panted, letting one sword drop to the ground as he reached down to affectionately lay a hand on Mei Lien's head.
Noises down the corridor. The squad was regrouping. With reinforcements.
"Katara." His voice was rough and unexpectedly serious, and it genuinely startled her when he met her eyes so intensely. "Please – you have to take Mei Lien and get to the eastern tower - "
"And leave you here alone? There's no way -"
"Please!" His voice was nearly a shout and it shook with emotion that made her pause. Something intensely vulnerable was there, but he quickly covered it up before she could pry it out with a keen glare. "I'll be right behind you. It's just practical. You can run faster and can waterbend with one hand in a pinch where if I'd be bringing her directly into melee combat."
Even as Mei Lien sobbed, Katara admitted she couldn't fault that logic. Zuko kneeled down, prying his daughter off of his leg, putting down his swords to grab her gently by the shoulders. "Go with Miss Katara for me, little duckling, okay?"
"B-buh – but I d-don't – I don't wanna – Daddy!"
"I know," he soothed gently even as she sobbed so hard she was reduced to hiccups. "I'm coming, too." Gingerly, he leaned in to kiss her on the forehead, lowering his voice to a whisper that he surely thought Katara couldn't hear. The tone his voice took on made her stomach go into a hard knot. "Whatever happens, know that I love you, Mei Lien. And promise me you'll never forget who you are."
She looked at him with wide brown eyes and nodded, more tears spilling onto her cheeks. And Katara gulped around the lump in her throat and wondered why it sounded so very much like Zuko was telling his daughter goodbye.
Down the hallway, the marble floor cracked and split, starting to rise in terrifying and jagged spikes. They had reinforcements. There wasn't time to ask Zuko or to argue – his swords were in his hands, and she struggled to scoop Mei Lien into her arms. The child screamed and kicked but she was obviously terrified and as soon as the first daggers of rock whipped past them, she settled for clinging desperately to Katara, mostly tugging on her long hair. A sore scalp was fairly far down on Katara's list of worries, though. Zuko deflected one of the rock spikes, and it hit the blade so hard the sword seemed to sing with vibrations for a few moments.
Katara was already starting to dash ahead. The ground crumbled beneath her, and the sounds of the main battle in the courtyard echoed up as she ran to the main tower, spiraling up the walkways before finding a corridor to the eastern block. The fighting was fierce and haphazard – even more so with a screaming child in one arm. Katara ran on instinct, one stance flowing into the next, the water hovering by her side, her constant companion, as ready and willing as it had ever been. With ruthless efficiency, she cleared the way, right until she stumbled to a stop at the large gated doors into the heavily-fortified eastern tower.
Mei Lien had sobbed herself into exhaustion and when her nursemaid finally came for her with a relieved cry, she went willingly, much to Katara's relief. The guards scrambled around to protect her, standing nearly shoulder-to-shoulder, halberds outstretched to meet any enemy foolish enough to try and make a charge on the eastern tower now.
"Master Katara -" One bobbed in a small half-bow, the best that he could manage under the circumstances. "Did you find the Firelord?"
"Yes, he's right behind me!"
She looked down the corridor, panting, the water hovering just beyond her fingertips. Any moment now. Any moment he would come running. He would surely be staggering, adrenaline rush only going so far. He would collapse as soon as he saw Mei Lien safe, and perhaps she would catch him, but she would surely have days and days of grueling healing work to redo, but she would see he was all right before going to leap into the fray alongside Toph...
They all anxiously waited. Any moment now, he would round that last corner. Any moment now.
In the far distance the sounds of battle started to fade. Katara wasn't there to see how Toph, as confused as she was, rallied the remaining palace guard, chasing the retreating troops back into their wide entrance hole. Everything was exhausting reverberation, and she knew they were using multiple entrance points, but more to the point, they were retreating. Down in the main entrance hall, Toph was screaming about how it was a victory.
Meanwhile, Katara just stared down the empty marble corridor as her breath slowed back to normal.
"But..." Her voice shook far more than she expected, and she didn't understand why. "He was... he was right behind me."
And Mei Lien's sobbing started anew.
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