Author: Gray-Rain Skies PM
AU. They find an understanding in dark corners. Zuko x KataraRated: Fiction T - English - Zuko & Katara - Words: 5,965 - Reviews: 13 - Favs: 23 - Follows: 3 - Published: 07-11-08 - Status: Complete - id: 4388498
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
For Zutara Week. Prompt five: Mythology
Well, I like the beginning of this, and then it just...falls flat. As a source of mythology, I used "The Cave of Two Lovers" episode, and then just kind of manipulated it to fit my tastes. So, please no attacking me because it's not canon. It's an AU story, after all.
Anyway, sorry that this sucks. I think I'm becoming steadily worse as the week wears on...
-- - --
"Why did you drag me out into the woods again?"
Katara refused to answer, and so Toph helpfully piped up, "She didn't. She asked Suki to help her find this stupid cave, and so obviously you had to tag along, leaving me to follow your stupid ass through these woods. And, of course, Sparky and Twinkletoes couldn't be left out of the fun…"
With a sigh, she ignored the blind girl's sour comments and pushed low-hanging branches away with zeal, invigorated by the moon suspended brightly in the sky above. It was true that, in order to join her brother, Suki, and Zuko on this road trip, she'd had to promise Sokka that she'd keep to herself and not go off on half-baked adventures. Unfortunately for him, she hadn't been able to resist the allure of the "Cave of Two Lovers," which two traveling folk – admittedly high on something other than life – had sung about while swaying back and forth on the hotel restaurant's barstools.
"It's just a myth!" Sokka screeched now, throwing his hands up in exasperation as she, in turn, rolled her eyes. The sounds of her labored pants reached her ears as she hiked up the thrush-covered, twig-littered path, and she tossed a grin to her side when she became aware of Aang appearing at her left, his eyes sparkling with equal excitement. "It's completely preposterous to think that love will show you the way through a dark, endless, spooky tunnel!" To emphasize, he leaned forward and wiggled his fingers near her shoulder, tripping soon thereafter over something in his path. Katara grinned when Toph had to grasp him by the shirt to pull him back onto steady feet and then punched him in the shoulder for being so stupid.
"I think it sounds neat!" Aang chimed in, a beaming grin on his face as he slowly surveyed the line of the trees to their left. She'd known full well that she'd have his support in this from the start, and therefore she shot Sokka a triumphant glance. "Being able to find your way through a maze just by being in love…"
"Never mind the slight chance that it's a complete myth and we get stuck in a cave for all eternity." Crossing his arms, her brother nodded sternly, and Katara, bending back a tree bough to let Toph pass, let the branch fly; with a painful-sounding thwack it struck Sokka in the face, and he yelped and covered his nose irritably with his fingers as he glared. Toph, rolling her eyes, looked over her shoulder and grabbed his shirttail, hauling him along as she criticized him for not being a good seeing-eye dog.
"I think it sounds romantic," Suki helped out, gently touching Sokka's right arm as she leaned close and smiled at him.
When he began to lower his arms to his side and smile, however, Toph gave a brutal tug on his shirt, grumbling, "Yeah, if you're a mindless idiot, sure it sounds romantic."
"Yeah, I have to agree on Toph with this one." Suki stiffened, but Sokka didn't notice as he waved his arm grandly; secretively, the blind girl, who was ironically the one leading him through the cramped forest, smirked. "It's pretty impractical."
"You're impractical," Katara snapped, stamping her feet with more exaggeration as she climbed the shallow hill, twigs and leaves slowly gathering in her hair, which she'd made a mistake of wearing down for such an escapade. Glowering, she lifted her hand and touched her mother's necklace for comfort, sweeping her left hand out and thrashing a branch to the side. Accidentally it struck Aang, who emitted a soft, muttered "ow" as he rubbed his head and closed one eye in a wince. Half-turning, she lowered her fingers from her necklace and smiled apologetically. "Sorry, Aang."
"Ooh, nice comeback, Sugar Queen," Toph muttered as she continued to drag Sokka with her. Suki, who was still offended by the boy's thoughtless remark, tilted her head and glowered at the blind girl clad in baggy jeans, a loose-hanging shirt colored with different shades of green, and her hair also worn lazily down around her shoulder. With a quick glance, Katara noticed with unease that Toph was, yet again, barefoot. "How will Snoozles recover from such a blow to his self-esteem? He's only an arrogant meathead who doesn't listen to anything but the sound of his voice. Isn't that right, Sokka?"
"Huh?" Turning his head away from the thick wall of trees lining the right side of the path, he brought his hand to his neck and rubbed absently. Observing the expectation on the girl's face, though, he shrugged and grinned. "Sure, Toph. Whatever you say."
Katara rolled her eyes and heaved an exaggerated sigh as Toph shot her a triumphant smirk. "Well, there you have it, Katara."
"Zuko, you still back there?"
At Aang's question, Katara tossed a questioning look over her shoulder as she hiked further and further through the woods. In the darkness, she caught sight of the boy remaining a few casual steps away from the rest of the group, his hands buried in the pockets of his jeans and an overly large, red sweatshirt emblazoned with the words "Fire Nation" in jagged, black print hanging loosely over his frame. As distractedly he glanced up, his shaggy hair shifted from his eyes and a glaring scar swam into her view.
He was Sokka's tentative friend, someone who'd finally joined their group after a long time of adjusting to their more "peasant-like" style of living. His uncle had moved him from his rich and lavish residence on the other side of town, and he'd been bitter about that, avidly swearing that his father would welcome him with open arms if he just suddenly decided to return home. He never ended up taking that bus across town, no matter how many times he'd sworn to his uncle and them alike that he would, and for a long, struggling with his rage, he'd antagonized their small group and picked deliberate fights with Aang. That or he'd reject all means of friendship entirely, curling up in his sweatshirt, the one thing he still carried from home – besides his scar, that is – and shutting everyone out.
For those reasons, Katara still felt wary about him. It had surprised her so much when she'd realized that Sokka had invited him along on their trip, and it had greatly shocked her that he had been one of the first to volunteer searching out the cave to prove whether or not it was a myth. She'd figured that he'd simply flop back on the bed, rent a movie on the television, and sulk quietly about the home that had been ripped out from under his feet.
"Of course I am," he muttered quietly now, answering Aang's question as he ran a hand distractedly through his hair and tossed his glance to the side. Over his head, the branches of the trees hang down and interlaced their limbs into a loose canopy, the sky a gleaming, dark blue ceiling resting above. Blowing one of the loops of her hair out of her face, Katara turned back, rubbing absently at her arm as she continued to hike. In the silence that fell, the crunch of their footsteps across the ground provided background music, and the wind picked up in a soft, mournful howl.
"This gives me the creeps," Sokka muttered.
"What? You wanna hold my hand, Snoozles?" Toph drawled sarcastically, releasing her grip to hold out her arm in a teasing fashion. "Is the big, bad darkness scaring you?"
Awkwardly, Sokka tossed her a glance, and even Katara shot her a curious look. She didn't doubt that the girl's aggravation stemmed from the presence of Sokka's long-time crush, who was currently strolling along with her arms hugging close to her chest. All traces of her anger had fled, and now she just seemed lonely and scared, her gaze every now and then flicking back to the boy at her side in the hopes that he wasn't clueless. Unfortunately he was, and Suki was too proud to ask for his comfort.
"Sure, Toph…" he remarked hesitantly, and Suki drew herself up stiffly in surprise as Toph suddenly tripped. In haste, Sokka lurched forward and wrapped his hand securely around her wrist, jerking her back to her feet and then grasping his hand roughly in his own. "Don't do that," he muttered, and she watched him in open-mouthed shock as he dragged her along. Suki, her eyes narrowing, folded her arms in frustration and glanced away.
"Toph, are you seriously not wearing shoes?"
Recovering, the blind fifteen-year-old shot Aang a glare. "Of course not. Why would I?"
"There could be glass in this forest," Katara chimed in nervously. "And the ground is littered with twigs and sharp rocks…"
Rolling her eyes, she shifted her gaze back to Sokka. "I guess they make a good point, Sokka. Maybe you should--"
"I am not carrying you."
Playfully she grinned and craned her neck to look behind her. "How about you, Sparky? Wanna make it up to me?"
Turning her head in the bare slightest, Katara caught the way Zuko shifted, his hand raising to scratch uncertainly just below his ear. He looked ready to refuse, but his expression remained torn as he undoubtedly replayed in his mind all the cruel things he'd said and done to them.
"Toph, c'mon, leave him alone," Aang remarked beseechingly, relieving Zuko of having to make a decision.
Rolling her eyes, Katara looked forward once more, and her interest suddenly piqued. "There it is!" Looking back to the five others, she excitedly pointed at the clearing up above, where the yawning mouth of a cave stood to meet them. Sokka came to an uncertain stop, his hand falling on Suki's shoulder to stop her and his grasp on Toph's wrist tightening; both girls, in response, jerked their heads to stare at him. "Come on, let's go."
"Katara, it's a stupid fairytale those people tell their kids so that they can sleep at night," her brother remarked tiresomely.
"We came all this way, Sokka. I'm not backing out just because you're scared."
"I'm not scared!"
"Then why are you still holding Toph's hand?"
As if he'd been burned, her brother released both girls from his grasp and lifted his arms in a defensive stance. Suki rolled her shoulders uncomfortably as Toph thoughtfully rubbed her wrist with her right hand. Then, letting his arms fall limply, he tossed Katara a glance and stated, "Look, this was fun and all, with all this talk of fancy love magic and maze-filled caves…" Katara glared at him. "…but we have to go. Now. It's getting late, and I'm sure Dad would have a coronary if he found out I let my baby sister walk through the woods at midnight and then get herself lost for all eternity in a cave."
"Only a coronary, huh? I say he'd club off your head with that precious toy boomerang of yours and mount it on a stick."
"It's not a toy!" Sokka yelled at Toph shrilly. "It's a precious family heirloom!"
"Whatever you say, Snoozles."
"You know what, Sokka? You stay. But I'm going."
Refusing to listen, she stubbornly stomped along the rest of the path, shoving pendulous branches out of arm's way as the rest of the group stalled and stayed behind. Her stomach flopped uncertainly when she crested the hill and realized that she was the only one willing to explore the cave, but before she could turn around and humiliate herself Aang yelled, "Wait up! I'm coming!"
With a smile, she whirled around and clasped her hands in time to see the boy eagerly swerve past her brother's reaching hand and race up the rest of the hill, a beaming smile on his face. With resignation, Sokka let his head hang miserably, and Toph grinned as she grasped the tail end of his blue t-shirt, one that said "Warrior" in icy writing, and hauled him along. That left Suki to follow with a frown on her face and Zuko to complaisantly bring up the rear.
"This is going to be so much fun!" she gushed excitedly.
"Yeah, just keep telling yourself that, Sugar Queen," Toph muttered as she took the lead and dragged Sokka towards the mouth of the cave. "With Sokka whining like a little schoolgirl, Zuko back there exhibiting as much personality as a twig, and you babbling on about lovey-dovey nonsense, it's gonna be super."
"The personality of a twig?" Zuko muttered skeptically as he came to stand beside Katara, crossing his arms. Distractedly, she turned to look at him, taking in the strong profile of his jaw and ragged line of his scar.
"You heard me, Sparky."
"Wait, you guys," Suki interrupted before Toph and Sokka, now followed by an enthusiastic Aang, could disappear into the darkness. "We all have to use these flashlights, okay? Just in case one of us gets lost. But I only have three…"
"Oh, good thinking. Don't know what I would've done without light to guide me. And the fact that we only have enough for half our group is--"
"Toph, stop acting like that. It's a good idea."
She folded her arms in exasperation and glowered as Sokka took a flashlight from Suki's hand, earning him a beaming smile at which he blinked in confusion. As soon as Katara had received her own, she grinned and grabbed Aang's sleeve, dragging him with her on towards the mouth of the cave. As he tripped and laughed excitedly, Zuko sighed and snatched his flashlight free from Suki's hand, sticking close behind. As Katara sent a confused glance from the corner of her eye, she saw the other three hurrying after, so as not to get separated.
"It's so big!"
Tilting her head back as she slowed her pace, Katara grinned and listened to the way her voice bounced along the walls. As something bumped against her shoulder, she startled and straightened, sending a confused glance to her left. Her eyes widened and she blinked in confusion as her gaze settled on Zuko, who was looking away from her and trailing his fingers along the rough lining of the cave's wall.
Toph, too, was enjoying herself. Instead of clinging to Sokka's arm, she'd scampered ahead of them all, brushing her feet along the pebbled ground and holding her arms out wide as his fingers tested the air and her hair fell loosely to the small of her back. Looking over her shoulder, she noticed the way that Sokka was protectively surveying the girl's movements, and she smiled.
The mixture of their heavy breathing and the rustle of their footsteps provided the only background noise as the group progressed deeper and deeper into the cave. As Katara strained her eyes, she became aware of the fact that the space surrounding them was slowly getting darker, signaling that she wouldn't be able to see for much longer. Fumbling at her side, she reached for the flashlight that she'd jammed into her pocket and pulled it out, flicking the switch. Just as a dusty beam of light flared from her implement, Sokka, somehow several feet away from her, powered his flashlight, as well. Their beams crossed, and suddenly all six of them were staring straight into three separate openings.
"Perfect." Turning around, Sokka whipped his light across the cave wall, catching her in the eyes accidentally before he turned completely around. Having lifted her forearm to shield herself against the glare, she glowered at him presently, taking in the way he thoughtfully stroked his chin. "I think we should head back. It was a nice walk, but it's probably around one in the morning now, and I want a good night's rest before we hit the road, and check-out's at eleven so that means--"
"Sokka, let's just split up," Katara suggested.
He stiffened and whirled on her. The flash hit her eyes again, and she sucked in a pained breath as she narrowed her stare and turned her head slightly away, aggravation etched into her expression. Thankfully, Suki knew enough to reach forward and gently lower his arm.
"Split up?" he screeched. "Split up?! We're the only ones in this godforsaken cave! We have no guides, we have no food, we have no directions! We're just here, on a silly little goose chase, frolicking through the tunnels to see if love will show us the way out! Real great plan, Katara! Do you honestly want to get us so lost that you have to test that theory?!"
"Sokka, come down," Suki replied gently as his shoulders heaved from exertion.
"I WILL NOT CALM DOWN!" he yelled shrilly, the sound of his voice striking against the walls and colliding against the ceiling, dislodging dust and bits of gravel from their places. "You don't think these things through. Ever. Now, we're going home, and I don't want to hear anymore complaining!"
"No! God, why do you have to be such a killjoy, Sokka? I just--!"
"I'm a killjoy! Are you, Miss Responsibility, Miss Prim and Proper Boss Lady--!"
"Prim and Proper…Boss Lady," Toph drawled as she walked away from the tunnels and opted to lean against the wall beside Zuko, her right foot scratching at her ankle as she arched an eyebrow. "Good one, Sokka."
"--trying to tell me," he carried on as if uninterrupted, "that I can't have fun? When you're the one who's always telling us what to do and how to behave and how to talk?!"
"I don't do that! How dare you say I do that!"
"You do. And I'm sorry to tell you this, Katara, but you are not getting your way this time! No way, no how are we walking through these dark tunnels, all right?! We are going home."
-- - --
"Let's split up, huh?"
"Would you shut up?"
"I really wish you didn't get your way all the time, you know that? Then we wouldn't be horribly lost right now."
"Look, I don't know why you had to come with me! I would've been perfectly fine with Aang!"
"Like that child would be of any help to you."
"And you're much better?!" Whirling on him, she struck a defensive stance and propped her right hand on her hip as she glowered at Zuko angrily. "We've been wandering through this tunnel for a half hour. What help have you been, huh? And I'll have you know that Aang's perfectly capable of watching out for me. He's very strong, and brave, and--"
"You know what? I liked it better when you didn't talk so damn much!"
He shot her a scathing glare, and she arched an eyebrow triumphantly, arms moving to fold across her chest. His lips slid back as he bared his teeth in a frustrated growl, but he didn't retort, instead tossing his head away and shining the light from the flashlight on their surroundings. Every corner looked exactly the same, much to her disappointment.
"Why do this all for some stupid legend?"
"It isn't just some stupid legend," she snapped, staying put as he walked several feet and tried to search out some clue or hint that would lead them to the outdoors. Coming to stand directly in front of the rock face, he smoothed his palm along the craggy surface and knitted his brow, frustration ebbing back into his expression. "It's a tragic love story, one about two lovers who struggled with the fact that they couldn't be together because their respective nations were in war with each other. And they would use this cave to meet--"
"So, basically, you got conned."
Huffing out a breath, she straightened, the line of her shoulders stiff and rigid. "I did not get conned."
Rolling his eyes, he shot her a skeptical glance. "It just seems like another bad version of Pyramus and Thisbe, or Romeo and Juliet. He kills himself, she follows him in death, their families lay down whatever grudges they have…" Shrugging, he trailed his fingertips along the wall and took several measured steps across the ground, the flashlight trembling in his grasp. "That's not love."
"I'll have you know, he dies in battle – and then she uses her power to stop their lands from fighting." She flushed in embarrassment as he scoffed and tossed her a smirk. "Oh, and what's love to you, Zuko? Something that has to be earned? Something that you can buy at a store and gift wrap for your equally rich girlfriend? Or do you not even believe in it? Go on – tell me."
Whirling on her, he angrily pointed his flashlight in her direction. "Listen, you ignorant peasant," her eyes widened in indignation as the insult registered in her ears, and she dropped her arms to clench her fists at her sides, "I may not have grown up in the same hopelessly naïve lifestyle that you did, but I know what love is!"
Furiously, she crossed her arms and turned her head away as well, bottom lip stubbornly sticking out as she glowered at one of the walls overshadowed by the darkness. "Sometimes I really doubt that…"
In frustration he threw up his arms, a shout of aggravation loosed past his lips. Rolling her eyes, she whirled back to glare at him as he continued to mutter to himself, fingers trailing furiously against the walls as he paced the circular room. "You are the most infuriating, ignorant, naïve, hopeless--"
"It's not like you're a real picnic yourself! I have to put up with your sulky, brooding attitude, and it gets old real fast. I think this is the most I've heard you talk in the four years that I've known you!"
"I guess we should've kept it that way," he snapped.
"I guess so!"
Her heart gave a painful twist as she turned away from him, and with great fury she kicked a pebble near her toes against the far wall, listening to it smack against the rock and then skip further along the ground until it disappeared in the darkness. Sighing heavily, she let her shoulders stoop, and she tapped her fingertips against her elbows as she hugged her arms to her chest and peered into the half-darkness that enveloped them. In the hush that commenced, she listened to the way Zuko's sneakers shuffled carefully against the ground, and from the corner of her eye she watched as he circled into vision, working as diligently as ever to find an entrance other than the one through which they'd initially come. Sighing, Katara lowered her gaze to her feet and awkwardly curled her toes.
"It was a stupid story."
He hesitated, and then she winced as his light enveloped her in a soft glow. "Is that an actual apology?"
Sending him a frustrated glance, she lifted her right arm and flicked her wrist in an idle fashion. "Shut up. It's just…I know it was just a myth. And I know that coming here so late was stupid. But…I wanted to do something fun with Sokka. You and Aang always get to see him now, while I…" Uncomfortably, she shrugged. "I'm just the high maintenance little sister who gets in the way."
Zuko snorted wryly, and her sad expression contorted into one of anger. "Only in your mind would something like this seem fun."
"I was just trying to explain myself! I didn't ask for your criticism, so why don't you--?"
"You're fun in other ways, though," he remarked with a casual shrug. "I know Sokka, Aang, and Toph all think so."
After blinking away her surprise, she tentatively smiled, relaxing the fists still tightened at her sides. "They do?"
"Of course they--shit." Blinking, she turned to fully look at him, taking in the way he frowned as he looked into the flashlight. Instead of asking, she followed his gaze, and suddenly she knew the reason for his distress. "The batteries are dying."
"We can't have been in here more than an hour, though!"
He sighed. "They probably weren't replaced," he stated bitterly, and half-heartedly he shined the light along the wall. Katara watched with a grimace as the brightness immediately dimmed, the stream of brightness fading as it flickered intermittently. "This isn't good," he muttered, rubbing absently at the back of his head.
Hopelessly, Katara drove her stare around the room, her braid whipping against her neck as it flopped over her shoulder from the intensity of her search. She didn't want to think about what would happen if they lost their only source of light. They were so far into the cave that, even when the sun rose, they would have no way of knowing that it was morning. They'd both be desperately lost, and it was all thanks to her.
She sent a frantic glance back towards Zuko as he growled and struck the flashlight against his palm. "Stupid piece of crap," he muttered, and his ease with the situation momentarily calmed her down.
Brushing her sweaty palms against her shirt, she observed through her lashes as he looked away in frustration and tilted his head back, eyes raking the ceiling as his hair slid from his face to reveal his scar. When she'd been younger, she'd always had the most insatiable desire to run her fingertips along the ridges of his burned skin. Once, he'd even let her, but after that moment of peace between them he'd pushed her away and shut her out, claiming that he didn't need anyone's pity, least of all hers. She'd already been entertaining notions that the two could patch things over, that they could all be friends, and so it had hurt her when he'd rejected her – more than she'd ever imagined she could be hurt.
And yet here she was, ensuring her safety in his hands, trusting him to be her pillar of strength while her courage waned. After all these years, she hadn't changed.
In aggravation, Zuko finally through down the flashlight, and with wordless shock she watched it spin, the light swirling over and away from her ankles as it twirled in a seemingly endless circle. The shadows had grown more defined, and she looked to Zuko with an expression of disbelief as he huffed out a ragged breath and sent his hands through his hair, his lip curling into a snarl.
"Why would you do that?"
"Well, what good is it now?" he snapped, and suddenly her gaze clashed with smoldering amber. "It'll go out any second now! It's not like it's any good!" Furiously, he delved his hands into his pockets and hunched his shoulders as he glanced away, scuffing his sneaker against the ground. Crossing her arms angrily, she turned her back on him, her heart skipping several beats as the flashlight stopped spinning and darkness ebbed closer and closer. The dusty beam sputtered, struggling to cling to life, and she curled her fingers desperately into her palm as she braced herself for pure darkness.
She was surprised, though, when Zuko's hand closed around her arm and he wheeled her back to face him. Her feet stumbled somewhat on the ground, but she caught herself before she crashed against his chest and gained her bearings. Then, chin jerking up questioningly, she blinked when he produced from his pocket a lighter as red as his sweatshirt.
"What's that for?" she remarked blankly. Sighing, he flipped the top off and watched her expression with a dry look as he ran his thumb against the catch and ignited a flame. As if to prompt her realization, he arched a brow wordlessly, and she rolled her eyes at him. "How's that gonna help us, Zuko? It's only gonna cover a small space, and you'll just have to keep relighting it."
"It's something," he snapped, his eyebrow drawing downward as he glared. So close up, she was able to clearly see how much he had matured since he'd first arrived with his uncle. He no longer wore that dignified ponytail, instead leaving his hair shaggy and mussed, and his features seemed softer. He didn't seem so cruel anymore. "That flashlight's about to go out. To you want to stand here in complete darkness, or do you want to remain calm so we can think of a way out of this gigantic screw-up?"
She looked uncertainly to the flashlight, its glass face holding nothing more than a weak, orange glow, and in defeat she sighed and nodded. "Fine," she muttered, relaxing her shoulders as he released her from his grasp. "So what to we do?"
Weakly, he shrugged, surveying the room that they'd been lost in for an hour now. She wondered if the rest of the group was as lost as they were, or if they were waiting outside, frantically trying to call her cell phone to ask where she was. Closing her eyes, she groaned and rubbed impatiently at her forehead, wishing they had a better game plan at their disposal.
Looking up from under her lashes, she watched the flame, transfixed for a moment, and then she sighed. "You're going to burn your hand."
"Zuko, seriously, look at the way--"
"I'm usedto burns," he snapped, and immediately she clamped her mouth shut, looking uncertainly into his eyes. At her wide stare he thrust his attention away, gritting his teeth as he refused to look at her.
"So, what's the next step?" she murmured quietly.
Groaning, he lifted his hand and pinched the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger. "I don't know. How did that myth couple--"
"Oma and Shu," she sternly corrected.
He shot her a withering glance, at which she only glared back. "Fine," he finally said through clenched teeth. "How did Oma and Shu find their way out?"
Her shoulders stooping, she shook her head from side to side. "The legend didn't say. It was just a love story – not meant to be taken seriously…"
With a sigh, he awkwardly rubbed at his head, his dark locks growing more and more disheveled. "So we're stuck."
Katara's expression fell. "I'm sorry."
He shot her a startled glance, his eyes momentarily widened. Then, awkwardly, he shrugged. "There's nothing we can do. Just--ow!" Katara jumped when he hissed and jerked his hand away. Her heart racing frantically, she stood in confusion as the lighter fell from his hands and clattered against the ground, complete darkness sweeping in to replace the light. Her heart thundered in her chest for a moment as she realized she couldn't see at all – only Zuko's cursing and rapid breathing reassured her that everything was still all right. In an instant, however, a surprisingly bright, ethereal glow appeared above their heads, and suddenly she was staring into Zuko's eyes once more, watching as he tilted his head back in surprise.
"Crystals," she murmured in awe, slowly following his gaze and turning her head to follow the route they directed. Then, in a sudden rush of understanding, her eyes widened. "That's our way out." Looking back to him excitedly, she pointed to a smaller tunnel leading uphill, which they'd missed somehow. "We'll just follow them, and they'll lead us outside."
Eyeing her skeptically for a moment, Zuko finally gave a slight grin and lowered his gaze, shaking his hand to ease the pain of the burn. "Well, let's just hope everyone else is as unlucky as we are…"
Cocking her head, she observed his casual demeanor and soon felt a grin tug at her lips. Reaching out before she could stop herself, Katara gently grasped his hand, and his eyes widened in surprise. Jerking his chin upwards to stare at her, he stuttered incomprehensible sounds when she lifted the burn to her mouth and brushed her lips comfortingly against it, just as he mother had done when she'd received small injuries. Then, after squeezing his hand gently, she released him and turned away, stating over her shoulder, "You're used to burns, huh?" He remained speechless, and her grin softened as she glanced over her shoulder at him. "Come on, Sparky. Let's go."
She watched as he snapped to, running his fingers absently through his hair. After crouching down and retrieving his fallen lighter, he straightened and looked to her expectantly, waiting for her to make the first move. Her smile remaining on her lips, she held out her hand, and as he started in surprise he stared at it for a long moment.
Then, with a small smile softening the line of his lips, he placed his palm in hers, and their fingers linked together.
-- - --
"Sokka was about ready to send the police force in after you. It took you both an hour and a half to get out of there, you know that?"
"Yeah, guys. It's not like it was all that hard. The tunnels were pretty straight-forward." Sleepily, Aang rubbed at the back of his head, stumbling behind them as they all made their way back down the hill. "What took you so long?"
Katara rolled her eyes. "We got lost."
"I hope you know…" Sokka grumbled, shifting slightly under the added weight of Toph resting against his back. As she watched her brother in anticipation, she took in the way the blind girl preciously cradled him close, even in her sleep. Her soft, even breathing beat against his neck as they trod over the forest path. "…that you're so, totally grounded."
She stiffened. "You can't ground me!"
"Shh!" he hissed back. "Toph's sleeping."
"Oh, sure, just hide behind the blind girl. Real brave, Sokka."
"I don't know what you're talking about," he said innocently, stomping on, sticking close to Suki as they headed down the hill back towards the hotel.
Still, Katara couldn't help but smile, watching as Aang mumbled incomprehensible words and stumbled ahead, his hand continually rubbing at his eyes. And, suddenly thankful for cover of the darkness, she squeezed Zuko's hand, which remained comfortably secure in her grasp.
-- - --
BLEH. Please review.