Theme # 93 - Choices
by yanocchi for the Zutara100 C2
"Katara, it's time to go," Sokka said sympathetically.
Katara didn't look up. She didn't want to go. She wanted to stay. She wanted to stay forever. They had PROMISED.
But that was then. They were childish promises made in the throes of a fleeting puppy love. It had all been an illusion; a fleeting diversion. The cold nights bundled up in the same blanket, stifling their insular laughter... The lazy days by the lake, feet shriveled and cold, bodies slick with sweat and mottled with dried sea salt... The rainy day in spring when she had stood in the garden, trying vainly to save even a few of the fragile plum blossoms he liked so much from the violent onslaught... His smile that day had been so sweet and gentle, when he had toweled her hair dry briskly... Everything about that day had seemed magical to Katara.
The sweetness had turned sour, and the tenderness had hardened to cold indifference.
What else could she have expected? Those days after the war had been like a dream. As the dream faded and reality began to sink in, things had started to change. Of course he was more busy; he had a nation to run. He wasn't free to do as he pleased. No more waking up late together. No more impulsive trips to visit friends across the globe. No more spontaneous gatherings. Life became so regimented. He spent more time with ministers and officials than her. But she could endure. Things would settle down. Maybe they would never be as good as that first year after the war, but they would get better, surely.
Then he had told her.
"I can't marry you."
Katara had stood stock still. A buzzing began in her ears, as though something inside was trying to drown out those words.
"It— it's all politics," Zuko had said in a choked voice. His hand was clenched into a white-knuckled fist. He sat slumped over an empty desk of dark wood, one hand up to support his head. The headaches had been getting worse lately, Katara remembered. She should get more of that special tea... "They— they told me you're not important enough for me to marry." His voice sounded furious, sad, disgusted... The emotions came fast and intense for him, as always. Katara couldn't manage to feel anything. Numbly, she reached for an ewer of water and filled a teapot.
"I tried to convince them it had to be you. You're the only one— For the past two months, every single day..." Katara heard something that sounded like a sob catch in Zuko's throat. "It was no good. Nothing I said, nothing Uncle said, nothing Aang or King Bumi or anybody said made a difference. I don't know what to do anymore." It had been a long time since Katara had heard despair in his voice. Over a year. Would it be two years now? How time flies...
"The earth kingdom princess is arriving within a week," Zuko stated dully. The buzzing in her ears intensified. It seemed to do something to her vision, since the world went dim and blurry as though she was seeing it through the wrong end of dirty telescope.
"It's a devil's deal," Zuko whispered forlornly.
Vaguely Katara heard a crash. Numbly she glanced down at the shattered ewer. When had she picked it up? Why did she let it fall like that? How clumsy of her... She fell to her knees, disregarding Zuko's cry of alarm as she knelt on the broken shards of pottery. She had to pick it up... She had to... Had to...
"Katara, forgive me," Zuko gasped. He reached for her shaking hands. But Katara turned and ran. She ran out of the room. She ran out of the palace. She didn't stop running until she reached the harbor. She ran to the end of the pier and dove in, heedless of the alarmed shouts of the dock workers or Zuko calling after her.
She didn't remember how she had made it back to the room she had shared with Zuko, but she woke up there the next day. She spent that day in bed. Sokka arrived the day after that.
He had punched Zuko. Katara had heard about it from whispered gossip. She had listened to the two of them argue and fight, but hadn't seen any of it.
"You—! You—!" Sokka's vocabulary failed him. From the other side of the closed door Katara heard things being thrown. "Why CAN'T you marry her!" he raged.
"You think I don't want to!" Zuko had roared back. "If I don't marry this stupid earth kingdom girl I'll be deposed!"
"So what do you think would happen without me keeping the generals on a tight leash? Do you know who would take over if I abdicated? General Yi! He's the most bloodthirsty of the lot! And where do you think he'll look first? He'll find me wherever I am and kill me, and her. And her..." There was a long pause. "Sokka, I can't do it," Zuko had said pleadingly. "I want to, I want to live the rest of my life with her, but not if it only lasts a year. And if at the end of that year I had to watch her die. I can't."
That had been the day before yesterday. Katara hadn't seen Zuko since he had told her the news. Now she stood on the pier, steps away from the boat that would take her away from the home she had come to love and back to the home that had once been the only home she had ever known.
"Katara," a low and mournful voice said behind her.
She turned slowly. Zuko stood there, flanked by Iroh and the odious General Yi. Sokka snarled savagely at the general, who fell back a step nervously. Iroh, who had spoken, stepped forward with open arms. Unthinkingly Katara stepped into that embrace.
"Uncle Iroh," she murmured, "I'll miss you."
"And I will miss you," he replied solemnly.
He released her then and Katara found herself facing Zuko. His eyes were sad. The faded remains of his scar tugged his left eye into a slight scowl, but even so he reminded Katara of a kicked dog. She could never stay mad at him.
"Promise me you'll take care of yourself," she told him softly. Zuko looked startled. She loved doing that to him. He was always surprised by the littlest things, and his expression always made her laugh. She couldn't laugh now, but she could manage to smile. Just a little.
She reached up and stroked his cheek fondly. "Don't let those generals bully you too much," she advised. "Remember, you're in charge. And don't skip meals, it's not good for you."
Zuko pulled her into a friendly hug. "You take care too," he said. He did a very good job of restraining himself, and only the slightest tremble betrayed his emotions. He gave her a brotherly kiss on the cheek, then released her. Katara stepped away and boarded the water tribe boat.
There was a slight jolt as the deck hands shoved off from the pier. Two waterbenders in the stern began to slowly bend the craft out of the harbor. Katara glanced back once. Iroh was waving extravagantly, but Katara's eyes were drawn to the tall lean figure of her prince.
But he wasn't hers anymore.
Sadly, she turned away and looked over the bow. Then she let her tears fall.
ATOGAKI: I had a sudden horrible feeling that, despite all the predictions I've made that HAVE come true and all the excellent signs to the contrary, things would not turn out well. An image popped into my mind of Katara leaving Zuko behind, and both of them have tears in their eyes. It's really a very unpleasant image, in one of those bittersweet/melancholic/dark joy sort of ways. How Byronic...
I wrote this in one sitting, no beta, no edits. Just raw vision. Wow, that's a lot of ego... I have another idea for the "choices" theme, but this one popped into my head and before I knew it it was written, so here we are. The other idea I had is part of my BDF (ie Big Damn Fic) and is gonna be put off until a more ahem "opportune moment." ;3
I COULD continue this for a happy end, but it wouldn't have a theme, and I kinda like it ending like this, since the perfect "and they lived happily ever after" is just a little too syrupy for me sometimes. But only sometimes.