Sequel to Steam
Disclaimer: I do not own Avatar: the Last Airbender
Katara's eyes were wide, unfocused, staring blankly as she scrabbled blindly at the front of Zuko's shirt. The air was bitter, whipping her face in mocking laughter and stinging her red-rimmed eyes, her lips chapped, her skin thrashed and dry.
"Don't cry Katara...it's going to be...alright..."
Zuko's teeth were chattering so hard he could barely manage the words from his throat. His arms held tight around her, embracing her from the winds with body and spirit, shielding her from the groping, clawed hands of her invisible monsters. His scar was stinging mercilessly but it didn't register in conscious thought; his mind was bent upon Katara, her terrified frame clutching to him desperately as she tried, in vain, to escape the reality of what had happened to them.
He could hear her chest heaving as she tried desperately to stop from hyperventilating, the tears falling from her eyes without her knowledge. He held her close and swallowed, though his throat was dry and sore; pulling her as close as humanly possible she buried her head into his chest and he gazed out into the freezing darkness, rocking her very slowly in his arms.
How could this happen?
"Hey - hey! Katara! Look - look what Zuko taught me -"
Aang pulled back his fist just as Katara emerged from below deck, carrying a large fishing net in her hands. The Avatar spun gracefully, and sent a stream of glowing, fearsome red flame from the edge of his fingertips. It soared towards the side of the ship and Momo, who was sitting on the railing, let out a terrified squeak and sprang on Sokka, who yelled and flailed around as the lemur climbed across his face.
"You - Momo - OW, THAT'S MY EYE -"
Katara laughed as the lemur leapt from the warrior's face and scampered over to her, sniffing at the net in her hands. At the familiar scent of dead fish its nose wriggled in disappointment and it leapt down the deck towards Appa, who was now a giant, permanent decoration that made the ship sink a little lower than might've been comfortable.
Zuko and Aang were standing a little ways apart as Aang hollered with joy, final a master of the fire technique both Iroh and the Prince had been teaching him. It was safe to say, however, that Iroh's lessons usually turned out to be something off-topic, like teaching the young Avatar how to play flute and instructing him on discerning the quality of an antique. Iroh knew ages worth of fire bending, but it was Zuko who ended up teaching Aang exactly how to perform it.
"That's really good, Aang -"
"Aang? Zuko? Are you still bending?" said Iroh as he followed Katara with a long line of rope. "You have practiced for hours! Come and help set up the net so we can catch something for tonight's dinner."
Sokka gave a loud, obvious groan and slumped down beside his sister, who was flinging the net over the side of the ship. He put a hand on his stomach and his face turned sightly green.
"Fish? Is that all there is to eat? More fish?" he moaned, sick of having the same tuna forced down his throat every night on board. Aang leapt to Iroh to unburden him from his load and Zuko sat down beside the warrior.
"You're the one who was so excited about fish, Sokka,' he said plainly as Sokka frowned and turned to the Prince with an exhausted expression.
"Yeah, well, that was before I was eating it every second...of every hour...of every day..."
"Oh, lighten up Sokka," said Katara cheerfully, tying a knot in the rope to secure the net. Zuko let a light grin escape his lips when Sokka's head sunk to his knees in frustration, his ears turning a frightening shade of red.
"Stupid fish…and their…fins…"
Katara always felt Zuko before he reached her, and it was by no trick of sound or sight. She knew exactly when his thought turned to her; the burning boundaries of his deep heart would soften, the fierce aura around his beaten body fade into gentle flame. She knew when he approached and what emotion filled him; knew when he was overjoyed, laughing at some joke of Aang's or some stunt of Sokka's. Knew when the loving yet confusing presence of his Uncle strained his nerves, when he was sick of half-cooked fish, when he was shivering from the artic air, unaccustomed to the bitter cold. Knew the moment memories filled his sight, knew when he saw his father's blackened face raging through the fog.
He put his arms around her and held tight to her warmth, his nose half-buried in the furs of her artic apparel. She turned, and he knew she looked at him with loving eyes…but once again, the obscure mess in his left eye kept him from seeing the world in true colors.
"We're almost there," she whispered gently. He felt her hand stroke the side of his cheek and he smiled despite himself. Then his hope faded and she heard a serious note enter his voice.
"I may not be welcomed with open arms, Katara," he whispered back. Behind them, Iroh was teaching Aang about aim and precision, the delicate curve and flick of a fire stream, the exact angles that fire benders used in battle. Also, they had decided to use Sokka as a target.
Katara turned and gazed at him; golden haze to sparkling blue, flame to ice, passion to peace.
"It doesn't matter what they think," she said, smiling gently. "You are a friend of the Avatar. You defeated the Fire Lord. You are a hero." Zuko leaned into her, his grin unrestrained.
"As long as I'm your hero," he whispered. Katara didn't reply, but she didn't need to. Zuko nudged her nose and she let out a soft giggle before his lips descended on hers.
A raging, unearthly cry filled the cabin. Fire erupted from flesh in a tremendous, vicious roar and the floor crept with red tongues, the flames licking greedily up the walls, the ceiling choked and stained with smoke. The guard in the room gasped in terror and stumbled to the burning carpet. The messenger quivered with fear beneath the hellish fire and flung his hands over his head; sweat dripped down his face as he gazed, completely petrified, into the flaming eyes of his leader. Zhao turned on him, teeth bared white as he growled in his wrath, the fire licking his scorched shoulders.
He leapt on the messenger, clenched his chin in a fiery fist, and let one final scream of pain echo through the red light of the flaming room. Then he let out a furious roar and snapped the man's neck with a sickening crack.
The body crumpled curtly to the ground and the guard, terrified, speechless, immobile, stared wide-eyed, crouching by the door. Zhao's skin was burning to black and there was a nauseous smell rising from the scorched corpse at his feet. But the Admiral's interest in the messenger died as instantly as the man had, and he stepped over the body, his fury unbound, raging through the wild fire that ran in rows up his back.
He grabbed the guard's chin in his hand and the man let out a muffled yell, fearing he too would be dispatched – but Zhao contented himself with the complete panic in the guard's eyes and his fingers clenched on his throat, burning the unresisting flesh.
"You will find him," he hissed slowly, the fire dripping from his fingertips and making long, deep burns in the man's neck. "He will not elude me. He has destroyed everything our Nation built. We will not fail when we are so close. Remember this, soldier -"
He threw the man to the floor and he land full on his back. The wind flew from his lungs and he struggled towards the door on one elbow, wheezing, clawing faintly at his wounded throat, desperate for escape from the demon above him. But Zhao was laughing, his face glowing in delight beneath the cackling fire around him.
He swooped down upon the man and the guard let out a tortured screech as the Admiral snapped his arm in an awkward direction and flung him out the door. The man rolled over in the snow, still gasping for breathe, his body screaming with unimaginable pain. As he cradled his arm to his chest, nearby soldiers froze what they were doing and stared, captivated with fear, at the flaming hut and the whimpering man. The camp became silent as ancient stone; the only noise was the soft crunch of Zhao's footsteps as he approached the whispered pleas of the guard.
"Remember...not even the Avatar has this strength. I will destroy you if you fail again."
He roared again and all the other men fell back, scampering to their huts to escape his hellish fury. As they scattered, the flames in Zhao's fists died ever so slightly and he glared at the man, grinning from two matching, deadly, golden eyes.
"I am death. Remember that."