BY : Death_Rattle
Category: Avatar - The Last Airbender > AU/AR - Alternate Universe/Alternate Reality
Dragon prints: 5257
Disclaimer: I do not own the rights to Avatar: the Last Airbender or any of the characters. I do not profit from my writing.

Unlike her masters, Katara wasn't afforded the luxury of sleeping in inside a lavish canopy bed. Instead, the slave woke up at the crack of dawn as she always did from the cots that she and the other palace servants spent their nights in, below ground - out of sight from the nobility and royalty who didn't need to see such things. Speaking of seeing things: it was pitch black. Not even the slightest bit of sunlight filtered into what was basically a furnished cellar. She considered putting her head back on the coarse pillow and waiting - but just as she was doing so the waterbender was interrupted. A rustle opposite to her. She couldn't see it but she knew its source: there were only a few servants in here, after all. Those specifically assigned to serving the Phoenix Queen.


She called out into the distance.


She whispered harshly, an implicit call for the firebender to raise a light.

Ming had been awake for quite some time. Even when she could sleep in, she found herself unable to. Force of habit, she supposed. She rose with the sun, as did her Mistress, the Phoenix Queen.


A small, orange flame answered the waterbender's call, dancing alight within the firebender's palm.

"Did I wake you?" she asked.

Ming was quite possibly the only person around here Katara thought of as a friend. Though perhaps the term friend was used a little loosely. It would be more accurate to say that Ming was the only one who didn't treat the waterbender like she was some ugly statue that you had to walk around to get on with your life. Sympathy for the enslaved war prisoner. Though whether it was sympathy or pity she couldn't decide, only that either way it was a step up from disdain. Or maybe it was just that Katara was desperate for just a friend that she’d take anything as a sign. Not a Phoenix Queen who was a coin flip between punishing her and having her back, just a normal, simple friend. No giant power imbalance, no ugly history of war.

She hadn't woken Katara, indeed, she wouldn't have minded at all if she had. The opportunity to speak before their day of duties, before there would be nothing on their minds but the monotony of it all, was more than enough to lose a little sleep over.

"No" she answered, finally, before letting her bare feet silently hit the ground, before she gestured in the firelight for Ming to join her where their conversation could not be so easily overheard.

With that, the pair scuttled off toward a nearby washroom, Ming closing the door behind them. It had become somewhat of a routine... the washroom, hushed whispers, readying themselves for the day side-by-side. A routine which Ming was not at all ashamed to admit she'd become accustomed to, even looked forward to. However, she was rather ashamed to admit she'd had her prejudices, presuppositions in regards to water tribe people... how they looked, how they spoke, how they acted...

In just a few short weeks, Katara had managed to prove many of said presuppositions wrong.


Agni, she wanted to laugh. There was nothing savage about the kind-eyed, young waterbender, that much was for certain.

If only the others would just give her a chance-!

Never going to happen, Ming reminded herself as she attended to their only source of light - an oil lamp, hanging on that same old rusty nail as always (which in all honesty wasn't much in the way of lighting, but it was enough).

"Sleep well?" she asked.

The washroom they found themselves in was a far cry from the ones that had been at the beachhouse on ember island (and even that in the theatre). Though Katara didn't mind. Even the worst of the Fire Nation was, as hard as it was to admit it, far better than what she had experienced in her treks across the world. The small lamp didn't allow for much color, but it was more than enough to see around. In the small, somewhat dirtied mirror, Katara could see she was just about as disheveled as her friend to her side.

"No" she admitted, her sleep having been plagued with a certain nightmare of her master and her master's master. "How about you?" she asked, reaching out for a drawer and withdrawing her only possession - a jade comb that glinted in the dim firelight.

"Me, I slept just fine" Ming answered, honestly. She regarded the waterbender with equal parts concern and innocent curiosity. "What-?"

Amber eyes widened with express shock.

Is that a..?

Dear Agni, no!

She didn't understand. She simply did not understand, Ming rationalized. Here in the Fire Nation, it was not okay to just pick up something pretty and wander off with it but... in the Water Tribe..?

"Where did you get that?!" Katara was given no time to answer. "Nevermind, just put it back where you found it!"

The waterbender froze, the comb still in her hand, a confused look on her face. Did Ming think...? Katara wondered, looking at the jade comb in the firelight. She must think I stole it.

Which wouldn't be a totally unfounded assumption, Katara had to admit. One wouldn't expect a slave to have such a thing, especially not one who had been recently... possessed. She grimaced at the term, despite its accuracy. She never would have thought she'd be reduced to referring to people that way. As objects to be owned and traded. But that was how everyone around her was - it was contagious. Like a common cold she caught the language, and now she too thought of herself as a thing. And it made sense that things couldn't own things.

"Az-" a pause. "The Phoenix Queen gave it to me." she explained, choosing a to respond to her first question and not the second. "It's a gift."

Katara's response, although honest, was met with a blink of surprise. "Wha-?" Ming stammered, in disbelief.

"You're joking!"

The Prin- Phoenix Queen had never given her a gift (or any of the servants, for that matter) even despite all of her years of loyal service. She was simply flabbergasted.

A jade comb, really?! Agni, that's worth what I make in half a year!

Ming had known the Phoenix Queen for quite some time and well... she would never do such a thing. No, this was just not possible. Especially when one considered the fact that Katara had every reason to lie. Now that she understood she'd done something wrong, why would she just admit to it? Lying to protect herself was a natural response, she supposed. The waterbender was the 'odd man out' here after all.

"Look, I won't tell. Okay?" she reassured. "But... you can't just take things that don't belong to you and wander off with them. That's stealing. Please, just put that back before you get into trouble."

If only someone would tell that to the Phoenix King, Katara mused, setting the comb down on the vanity and taking a breath, looking at the firebender standing next to her. Again, it was a natural reaction that Ming wouldn't take Azula to be the gift-giving type. But did she just try to explain what stealing is? Any child who's ever had a brother learned firsthand the concept of stealing. Tui, anyone who had lived in the Southern Tribe long enough to have your family stolen person by person knew. And yet here she stood, talking down to her as if she was a little girl who had just stuck their hand in the bag of seal-jerky and needed to be told off. Like she was her mom explaining a life lesson.

"I know what stealing is" she said pointedly, her tone rising with anger and contempt, barely quiet enough to avoid carrying and waking up the others. She took a breath to calm herself. "I certainly don't need you to explain that to me"

Somehow, even despite the waterbender's assertion, Ming doubted that. Sure, she'd never been to the water tribe herself but she'd learned all about it in school. The men were barbarians who treated their women like property. There were no schools, no hospitals, anything of the sort. The lot of them lived in ice houses, slept on (and wore!) animal skins, and fought one another with clubs made of bone. No sense of order. It was all so... primitive.

Sure, Katara was nice (and surprisingly well mannered, to boot). But... her people were the enemy. She was here now, not willingly but because she'd been part of the losing side of a war. Only she couldn't see the war for what it was - the Fire Nation's way of sharing its greatness with the rest of the world. Perhaps she never would see it that way.

"Right. Of course." Ming finally said, after a moment of silence. There was no way of knowing whether or not Katara really and honestly understood the concept of stealing, she supposed. And if she didn't, that was hardly her fault. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have..."

"So, did you steal it?" she had to ask. "I won't tell, I promise."

Ming could certainly appreciate just how difficult the waterbender's situation actually was. She was a slave, for Agni's sake! An unwilling servant to her former enemies with little to nothing to look forward to. No, she wouldn't tell. That would just be cruel.

"No, you shouldn't" Katara affirmed, still perturbed at her friend's earlier questioning, but willing to overlook it. She couldn't be too choosy about her friends after all, and Ming did definitely seem willing to give her the benefit of the doubt, which (even though it was difficult to see sometimes) did mean something to Katara. Had it been anyone else, they very well may have wrestled the thing from her hand and taken her straight to the guards. She had to remind herself every day that to these people, she was the enemy. They had been brought up to think that her kind were savages.

It was that, or have eternal fury with the world, which Katara had no stamina for. Finding light in the night kept one sane, looking for darkness would consume her. The only people around here that were evil were the likes of Ozai, who committed crime after crime with no remorse.

"And I didn't steal it. It was a gift. Honest." she said, looking her in the eye and hoping somehow the truth showed. "You can use it too if you want."

Ming wanted to believe her, she really did. Katara seemed sincere enough after all, and if she was being honest with herself, the waterbender didn't strike her as the thieving type. Even still, it was unthinkable! The Phoenix Queen simply did not go around giving gifts (be they expensive or inexpensive) to those she deemed unimportant - the fact of the matter remained everyone was unimportant, save for herself and her 'ever-loving' husband of course.

"Thank you" Ming said, managing a small smile despite her conflicting thoughts. It just wasn't worth the fight. Truthfully, she didn't care whether or not the comb had been stolen. Her only real concern had been potential consequences. "Katara..?" she began.

"Do you know the punishment for stealing? This isn't an accusation, mind you."

Katara paused for a moment. Despite having been here for some time, she knew very little about justice in the Fire Nation. (Why, she always kind of assumed there wasn't any). But of course, that probably didn't make much sense. There had to be some kind of law, even if it was a bunch of thugs walking around and keeping the streets clean as they deemed fit. Though it had always been invisible to her, what with her experience actually amounting to either hiding out in caves or in the royal palace as a slave.

In the Southern Tribe, these things were generally just... forgiven. The tribe couldn't afford to fight itself what with the struggles of keeping everyone fed, let alone dealing with the Fire Nation. People admitted their wrongs, and everyone just... moved on. Katara definitely had seen some other forms of justice though, what with her travels in the Earth Kingdoms. Wheels of punishment to people outright being disappeared and brainwashed. Seeing things like that really just made her want to go home.

Tui, she'd do anything to sleep in an honest-to-tui, honest-to-la Igloo again.

"No. I guess I don't" she answered finally.

"Look..." Ming began. "I'm not sure how things are done in the s-" the firebender hesitated, momentarily.

southern, yes, that's it

"southern water tribe..?" Did Katara's village have anything resembling a court of law, formal trials or legal proceedings? Despite having no knowledge of the subject (save for racially biased textbooks) Ming very much doubted it.

"But here in the Fire Nation..." she continued. "...when you're accused of a crime, it goes to trial. The trial determines whether or not you committed that crime, and what your punishment should be. The nobles can just buy their way out of things, of course, but people like me? If I'm found guilty...," she grimaced. "...for stealing, it'd be a public flogging. Most likely."

"You on the other hand? Well, you're not a Fire Nation citizen. If you steal something, who's to say what they'll do with you," she explained. "They could forgo the trial altogether! And Agni-only-knows what your punishment would be!"

"I guess what I'm trying to tell you is... be careful."

Katara listened to Ming's stuttered explanation as she continued to comb out the kinks in her sleepy head of hair. She remembered I'm from the south, she thought to herself, almost touched. Half of the people she met didn't even know there were even two water tribes to begin with (which was ironic, since they were the ones to have practically wiped hers off the map anyway. You'd think they could remember their own atrocities).

A public flogging, she repeated the words in her head, imagining Azula lashing her with azure flame in front of everyone she knew. All of the sudden she felt an appreciation for her previous punishments being administered privately. The shame of following her Master around, serving her every whim was bad enough. The last thing she needed was for everyone to see her being disciplined, not fighting back against the people who had destroyed her community, her family. It would show everyone just how weak she was in the face of her. How she had been reduced from Katara, woman warrior to Katara, spineless servant.

She looked back up at Ming, this time in a different light. She had just been trying to help her friend out. To warn her of the dangers. Even if she had a bit to learn about the so-called water savages, her heart was in the right place.

"Thank you"

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