Chapter 10: Grace in the Aftermath
The tangy sea breeze was floating in off the ocean, teasing his skin and unlocking memories. With eyes closed, Zuko could almost feel, once again, the rocking motion of a ship beneath him, a feeling so natural and familiar that he was disappointed when, upon opening his eyes, he was brought crashing back into reality.
His fingers curled around a handful of the sleeping bag beneath him and clenched tight, his knuckles turning white. Ever since his little midnight rendezvous with Katara a couple of days ago, Zuko had felt a subtle shift in the dynamics of their group. Neither of the other two had let on that they knew anything, and Zuko still couldn't quite figure out if Katara had informed them of that night or not, but they were treating him differently, with a thin veneer of civility that churned with coldness beneath the surface.
Maybe they knew everything. Or maybe he was just being paranoid. Zuko willed his tense hand to relax, fingers loosening their death-grip on the thick cloth.
He wasn't averse to just asking Katara, but she had apparently decided to stop speaking to him. Oh, the silence had been welcome for the first couple of days, comforting armor that protected both of them, prevented them from having to talk about what happened. He'd been thankful that he didn't have to deal with the awkwardness and tension that clung to every electric glance, every accidental brush of skin between them.
But, all too quickly, her behavior had started grating on his nerves, making his blood boil in a mixture of anger mingled with resentment. She was ignoring him, dammit, and it made him mad. Mad because he was a prince and she was a peasant, and how dare she think that she had any right to pretend like he didn't exist, but more mad because he hadn't expected himself to care so much whether she talked to him or not.
Zuko shifted on his sleeping bag, crossing his legs and wincing as he brought his chin to rest in his open palm. Zuko had no idea what his face looked like, but he imagined that he probably had a small bruise on his jawbone. Absently, his pale fingers gingerly explored the patch of tender, aching skin.Of course, the anger had only been the surface emotion, a shallow, flimsy shell for everything he'd tried to ignore. He had successfully maintained the anger at first, but it was all too hot, too unstable and volatile to sustain for long. The flood of indignant self-righteousness was soothing, made him feel justified, but eventually, the anger had fizzled out, and all that he was left with was the guilt—ruins of the fortress he'd tried to build.
It lay on him like a heavy, heavy cloak he couldn't shrug off. He couldn't even pinpoint exactly what it was that was making him feel guilty. All he knew was that her silence just compounded the guilt, augmented it into a colossal wave he feared would swallow him whole.
At least Katara had finally consented to building a small fire. She still refused to come too near it or have anything to do with keeping it alive, but he was glad to have the light and warmth back, though it was meager compensation, at the most.
Zuko sighed and unfolded his long legs, stretching them out in front of him. He lifted his head with forced casualness, eyes coming to rest on Katara, who was sitting on top of her own sleeping bag, attention focused on a bundle of fabric in her hands.
The intensity of his gaze drew her, wrapped itself around her neck and yanked her chin up. The firelight played across her face, etching shadows into every plane and curve of her soft skin. Their eyes met over the crackling fire, locked in a gaze that lasted for two heartbeats. Zuko was struck by sudden longing—he realized he was starving for a word, a tiny upturn of the corners of her mouth, anything—
Maybe she'll say something this time. It's been a couple of days… surely she must be tired of this game…
Without a word, Katara broke eye contact and lowered her head, refocusing her attention on the cloth she held. Zuko kept his eyes trained on her dark hair, desperately hoping she would look up at him again, but she seemed completely intent on her task.
It was all useless.
Zuko growled, deep and low in his throat. He just couldn't win. She was irritating when she was speaking to him, but she was even more infuriating when she wasn't. He tapped his fingers against his thigh impatiently.
It was all eating away at him, nibbling on his brain and tearing huge chunks out of his rationality and sanity.
Ouch. Katara swore softly as she poked herself again with the blunt needle. It was all his fault. She could still feel his gaze on her, and it was unnerving. How was she supposed to focus properly on her mending knowing that he was looking at her like that, with an intensity and forcefulness that she had never quite felt before and didn't particularly like?
She refused to meet his eyes again, to give him the satisfaction of knowing he was affecting her. Katara jabbed angrily at the cloth and bit her lip to keep from crying out in frustration as the needle found its way into the sensitive skin of her fingertips again.
"Katara? Are you okay?" Aang asked, sitting down next to her. Katara jerked, startled by his sudden intrusion into her thoughts. She laid down the shirt, at once relieved at the interruption and anxious about Aang's innocent question.
Was she okay? Had she ever been more not okay? Not for the first time, Katara wondered why she hadn't yet told Aang about what had happened that night she'd found him in the forest. It was something he ought to know about, but one look at Aang's grey eyes brimming with concern was enough to break her resolve. She knew how hopeful he was that Zuko's joining their group would work out, and she just didn't possess the heart or strength to tell him about their… encounter.
Plus, she reasoned, the Avatar had more important, world-changing matters to worry about. Katara didn't doubt that Aang would gladly comfort her, but that was just the problem. A nagging feeling told her that she'd already forced too much attention onto herself, and Katara was determined to not be troublesome anymore.
"I'm fine, Aang," she replied, trying to sound cheerful for his sake. She noticed that she was twisting a corner of the shirt tighter and tighter, and she quickly let go of it, hoping he hadn't noticed. "There was just… another attack by the Fire Navy."
Aang swiftly drew in his breath. "Shouldn't we go back and help?"
Katara shook her head slowly. The last thing she wanted to do now was go back. "Really, Aang, I think the best thing you can do for them now is to master the next two elements. They'll be okay. The attack wasn't that bad, anyway." He doesn't need to know. She kept repeating the thought in her head, a mantra that wiped her clean, purged her of the guilt of her half-truths.
"So… nothing really awful happened?" Aang asked, a note of relief creeping into his voice.
"No. That's all," Katara repeated, as if saying the words again would make them true. She wished Aang would just drop the subject. That's all. A whole room full of sick and injured people had been set on fire and burned to death. That's all.
"Okay…" Aang still looked a bit doubtful, but he didn't press for more information, and Katara was grateful. "I'm glad you're back with us," he smiled gently.
Here was something she could answer honestly. "Me, too," Katara said softly.
The two of them sat in comfortable silence for awhile, the fire burning lower and lower until it was nothing but a few glowing logs and random sparks that went out as quickly as they burst into life. Aang climbed onto Appa's tail, and after awhile his deep, rhythmic breathing told Katara that he'd fallen asleep. Katara yawned and was prepared to crawl into her sleeping bag when he spoke.
"Liar," he said, his quiet voice loud in the stillness of the night. Against her better judgment, Katara sat up and, drawing her knees up against her chest, looked at him. He was staring at her again, that same, disconcerting gaze that twisted something in her heart and made her acutely aware of every single nerve ending in her body.
One leg protruding from his sleeping bag drew her attention, and her eyes traveled up the long, sinuous limb, up over the curve of his hip and the smooth expanse of his chest, the shadowed column of his neck, and then finally, his face. The moonlight had overtaken the firelight by now, and it dusted his skin with a silver blush that fairly made him glow, piercing amber eyes in the midst of it all.
Katara swallowed thickly, her heart suddenly beating faster as her eyes found his, the two of them locked in a stare heavy with unspoken words. Her mouth suddenly dry, Katara wrenched her eyes away from his. Without saying anything, Katara slipped back into her sleeping bag and rolled over, ignoring him.
Rage and disappointment rose in Zuko, a tangled ball of gnarled and knotted anger, and he clenched his fists to keep from making any audible noise. He had hoped that his accusation would get a rise out of her, taunt her into talking to him, but she was still hiding behind her little games. Zuko idly wondered if he would ever let her know just how well her silent treatment was working.
It was maddening the way she was never far from his mind. How she managed to claim that honor when she never said a word to him was paradoxical, or perhaps it was because she didn't talk to him that he thought of her so often. She was driving him crazy, the way he kept recalling the swooping curve of her eyelashes, the teeth that bit so carelessly into the redness of her lip, the slender fingers sliding over a cascade of dark, dark hair. She was even coming close to challenging the Avatar.
It made him angry. Hell, it made him nervous. He could find no logical explanation for why his thoughts of her were bordering on obsession, and he hated that he had so little control over his own mind. It was his, dammit, and Katara had no right to intrude where she wasn't wanted. The whole thing was absolutely unacceptable.
Zuko rolled onto his stomach and groaned into his sleeping bag. Figuring out that he was thinking a lot about the girl wasn't getting him anywhere. He'd already been quite aware of that part.
If only she would say something, then maybe he could just toss away all his guilt and worry, send them off wandering, and deprive them of the key that would allow them entrance into his heart again.
Katara cupped her hands over her mouth and breathed softly, trying to warm away the coldness of her skin. She sighed and rubbed at her eyes with her fingers. She couldn't seem to fall asleep, and his damn accusation wouldn't leave her alone or give her any peace. It flitted in her mind, fluttered and alighted on emotions she would rather not feel, and it wouldn't shut up.
She seemed to be pushing everyone away, isolating herself in a deep canyon of hurt she couldn't climb out of. She hadn't even told Sokka what had happened, though she knew he had his suspicions; it was painfully clear in the distrustful looks he reserved for Zuko and the way he seemed more protective of her than usual.
It wasn't about trust. She trusted Sokka. It was more that she didn't know what she would say to him because she wasn't sure about her own feelings. The questions would inevitably follow, and she didn't know how to answer them. Plus, the tension was so thick between the four of them that Katara was afraid to heighten the hostility between Sokka and Zuko.
Katara rolled onto her back, lacing her fingers behind her head. The night air chilled the tip of her nose as her thoughts wandered back to the night in the forest.
And the guilt attacked her again, hit her with such force that Katara's breath hitched. She gave in to it, let it seep into her veins and run through her body.
I shouldn't have hurt him like that.
She'd been so tired, and he'd looked so threatening—but that was no excuse. As impossible as it was, hindsight now told her that his intent had been comfort, not harm. She had used violence unnecessarily, and it weighed heavily on her.
Well, he'd hurt her first. Katara reached up and winced as her questing fingers softly pressed down on the bruises encircling her arm. She couldn't see them in the dark now, but she knew all too well what they looked like—purple-tinged skin that she was grateful she could hide under her sleeve so that Sokka and Aang's probing eyes couldn't see. The arm ached to move and bend, but, as neither of them had asked her about it, Katara was fairly certain that she'd hid the pain well enough.
Still. His hurting her first didn't give her the right to physically abuse him. The whole thing made her feel slightly nauseous.
If she couldn't fix the lies she'd given to Aang, then she could at least fix this.
Ignoring Zuko for the past couple of days was good enough punishment, Katara decided.
I'll apologize to him first thing in the morning. Then I'll feel better.
Conscience eased for the time being, she finally allowed herself to fall asleep.
Early morning found Aang shaking him awake while the other two were still sleeping.
"I need to talk to you," Aang said forcefully. Wondering what the hell this was about, Zuko followed him a short distance away from the campsite. They sat down, face-to-face.
Zuko studied the Avatar. The blue arrow tapered to a point on the boy's forehead, as if directing him to the Avatar's large, grey eyes. It occurred to him how utterly absurd this was. He was sitting a mere two feet away from the one person who had haunted his every waking thought for the past two years.
And yet—Zuko was surprised by the revelation that the Avatar was actually a real, living, breathing person. He had hopes, dreams, and he felt sorrow and pain. To Zuko, the Avatar had always been a prize, the key to everything he wanted. It had never occurred to him that the Avatar might have his own goals and desires.
"I've noticed," Aang began slowly, "that there seems to be some tension between you and Katara."
"Is that all?" Zuko asked. Was that what the Avatar had woken him up to tell him? Any idiot could see that there was tension between the girl and him. Even the Water Tribe boy had figured it out. Zuko folded his arms. "I don't have anything to say—"
Aang held up a hand, halting Zuko's tirade before he could gather momentum. "I don't want to know anything. Just, whatever it is, I was thinking it would be nice if you could…apologize," he suggested. At the look on Zuko's face, he hastened to add, "Or just try and be a little nicer."
Zuko bristled. Was the Avatar really trying to give him advice? He definitely didn't need anyone's help, especially not with how he chose to deal with some girl.
He was about to point out that it was Katara who was the problem here, not him, but then he shut his mouth. Apologize? The very thought was laughable. But the Avatar was looking at him with such a hopeful, earnest look that he figured he should at least pretend to agree with him. "Sure," Zuko said tightly. "I'll try doing that."
"Good! Good," Aang repeated, looking relieved. He smiled at Zuko. "I'm glad we had this talk."
After the Avatar had gone back to sleep, Zuko tried doing the same, but an hour of restless tossing and turning was weakening his resolve to hold fast against apologizing to Katara. Zuko was beginning to wonder whether the Avatar's words weren't so ridiculous, after all. The guilt was simply overwhelming, and he was becoming more and more willing to try whatever crazy suggestion the Avatar had for relieving him of it.
So he made his decision. He wasn't one to just sit around and wait for fate to play with him, toy with his emotions at will. He was the master of fate, not the other way around. He controlled his own destiny—he always had.
The thought of waking up Katara so that he could assuage all his troublesome guilt right then and there passed briefly through his mind, but he figured he should at least plan out what to say to her. He winced at the thought of standing before her, mouth hanging open and looking like an idiot.
Zuko quietly crawled out of his sleeping bag and made his way into the trees, following the gurgling of running water. He could deliberate over what to say while taking care of some morning business.
Zuko flicked his hands, excess water falling in shining droplets back into the stream, and turned back toward camp. Words raced through his mind, and leaves crunched underneath his footfalls as he walked. Lost in thought, he was startled when a red-ribbon hawk soared through the canopy and landed in front of him, folding in its wings.
It turned, its beady eyes coming to rest on him. Zuko hesitated, unsure of what it wanted from him. The hawk ruffled its wings impatiently, and Zuko noticed a scroll tied to its leg. Cautiously, Zuko approached the bird and crouched down, hands shaking as he reached out and untied the parchment. Zuko stepped back from the gust of wind when the hawk, freed of its burden, suddenly flapped its wings and took flight again, rising out of the trees into the sky.
With trembling hands, Zuko pulled off the red ribbon around the paper and unrolled it, smoothing it out against his thigh. Steeling himself against whatever news the message held, Zuko lifted the parchment up.
He quickly scanned the letter, eyes flitting and cavorting over the dark splotches of ink. Then he read it again. And again.
The meaning of the letter sank in, and a sudden wave of lightheadedness seemed to sap him of strength, like the scent of ink and paper was a miasma, toxic and choking. Zuko stumbled back, giving his weight to the sturdy tree behind him. He caressed the paper as his mind raced, fingertips lightly tracing the dry, scratchy parchment.
What am I supposed to do now?
From the swirling mass of confusion and panic, Zuko plucked out and clutched at one thought: his guilt was absolutely ridiculous. He realized it now. Guilt was worthless, like sympathy and compassion and love. He was stupid—so stupid—to have let the guilt command him, mold his thoughts and actions. He had been planning on apologizing.
Zuko let out a laugh, short and harsh. It rang loudly, slicing like a knife that silenced the birds in mid-chirp. How blind of him. He had let the guilt weaken him, had fallen prey to Katara's infernal silence, but now... he saw clearly what had happened, and he had no intention of letting the guilt tease and flirt with him any longer.
His breathing and heartbeat slowing down in minute measures, Zuko pushed himself off the tree and walked back towards camp, unconsciously crumpling the parchment in his hand. He barely noticed when the red ribbon fell to the ground, a scarlet scribble etched into the soft soil.
When Zuko arrived back at the campsite, he saw that Katara was already awake, perched on one of the boulders that littered the beach. She was facing away from him, out towards the crashing waves of the sea.
The rising sun outlined her dark figure in pure gold, making her body fairly radiate with amber light.
Slowly, she turned her head and saw him. She didn't move a single muscle, but Zuko knew, without question or hesitation, that she was waiting for him.
Her long braid flew out behind her, a beckoning banner that called to him. Or a whip, he thought, that could strike with dangerous and deadly precision, smart open wounds and make them bleed.
Something possessed his body, forced his feet into stumbling steps that brought him ever closer to her.
Katara waited anxiously as Zuko picked his way through the rocks. Slowly, she slipped off the boulder she'd been sitting on, her feet seeking the solidness of the ground. Katara thought she saw a piece of parchment clutched tightly in Zuko's hand, but as he neared, the paper disappeared.
He came to a stop in front of her, his eyes raking across her face.
Heart thudding madly in her chest, Katara looked him full in the face for the first time in days. She saw, with a stab of guilt, that there was a dark patch of bruised skin along his jaw. Instinctively, her fingers curled as her hand clenched, fingernails biting mercilessly into her palm.
"Finally decided to talk to me?" Zuko asked, folding his arms across his chest. Katara cringed at the sharp and stringent tone of his voice. His face was impassive, his eyes unreadable.
"Yes," she said simply. She was running, lost and wandering, in the contours of his face, every dip and swell, desperately searching for a clue to what lay behind the stony, stoic visage.
"What makes you think I want to talk to you?" He spat the words out from between gritted teeth; they were clipped and unforgiving, poison-tipped arrows that penetrated straight through to her heart. Katara tried to tear her eyes away from the bruise that taunted her with every movement of his jaw.
"Nothing," Katara said. She shifted her weight to her other leg and bit her lip. Why did he have to make everything so damn hard? So maybe she'd been a bit childish in ignoring him. Well, she was here talking to him now, wasn't she? Why couldn't that be enough?
"Well?" he asked with an air of impatience, tapping his foot. "What did you want to say to me?" Hard eyes and disdain engraved in every line of his face. Had her silence really changed him this much? A flash of memory: he had been kind that night, almost gentle, wanting to comfort her and make her warm—
"Just—just that I'm sorry, Zuko," Katara forced the words out. Relief immediately flooded through her, and she felt a little unsteady on her feet. She reached out for the boulder she'd been sitting on, finding the hardness and solidity of the rock reassuring. "For hitting you. For not speaking to you."
And maybe her apology would spark his, and they could go back to the way they were before, before the tension and uneasiness, the hostility and edginess that was so mentally draining and made her heart ache.
Surprise splashed across his face; a single word dripped out of his mouth: "I…"
Hope was a faint, flickering candle, slave to the wind's whims—
"Like it matters to me if you're sorry or not?" he smirked.
—and utterly vulnerable, in the end, to a Firebender.
The silence stretched between them, the wind blowing a strand of hair into her eyes. She watched his chest rise and fall with each slow breath he took, avoiding meeting his eyes.
"Anything else you want to say?" he said coldly, breaking the silence.
Katara looked up into his dispassionate eyes. Unthinkingly, she reached out a trembling hand for his cheek; she wanted to touch the bruise on his skin, make sure it wasn't some hole through which his humanity and compassion were leaking away, because if it was, and she had created it, she was responsible—
He caught her hand and knocked it away. "Haven't we learned anything, Katara?" His expression hardened, and there was an almost savage bite to his mocking question.
His words stung and Katara reeled from the blow, but she quickly recovered, belatedly throwing up her own defenses. "Fine," she said coldly, with as much venom as she could muster. "Forget this conversation ever happened." She pushed past him and stalked away, resisting the urge to turn her head back to see if he was looking at her and what, exactly, could be read from his expression.
Zuko watched her go, all the while berating himself for not being able to tear his eyes away and cursing himself for hoping that she would turn around, spare him one glance.
Spent from the fight--for it had been a fight, a desperate struggle to maintain the cool composure--he sank onto a nearby rock and rested his elbows on his knees, not caring when his arm scraped against a jagged edge. Zuko leaned forward until his forehead rested in his palms.
Traveling with them—with her—was definitely messing with his mind. Zuko couldn't believe that he had doubted, even for a second, his original plan to capture the Avatar.
His hand slipped into his pocket, fingers closing around the dry parchment.
The letter had been his savior. It had set him on the right track again, reminded him of what his duties were.
Once they reached Earth Kingdom shores, he would find the Fire Nation soldiers, find them and lead them to the Avatar. He had come too far to stop now.
A/N: I wonder what that letter said…
In other news: two weeks? I am utterly disgusted with myself. Next update will come much faster, I hope.
What do you guys think? Am I going way too slowly? Reviews are the breath of life! Keep me alive, please.