Disclaimer: I don't own any of the characters.
Author's Notes: Wow, this is angsty. Not what I had been planning to write around this time of the year, what with the fresh supply of holiday cheer, but. What can I do? I haven't written anything in I don't even know how long because I knew that if I tried to juggle other stuff with this ficlet, it'd never ever be finished. So... Enjoy.
Originally Posted: 1/1/2007 on FFNET.
Musical Inspiration: "Treasure Falls" by David Nevue.
"I must be in some sort of hell."
Were it not for the dimly lit garden, complete with a small pond full of sparkling pebbles along the bottom and a small waterfall that bended gracefully over a tall stone ledge, she might have actually believed it.
Zuko narrowed his eyes, piercing her own with a purely hateful gaze. "The sentiment is mutual," he turned to the side and muttered spitefully, "I assure you."
Katara scoffed at his back, turning away as well. But her fierce expression quickly faded, and anxiety, fear, and worry mixed into something painful and suddenly plastered itself across her face.
But even through her unease, oddly enough, she was still able to notice the beauty of the cherry-blossom tree branches hanging down around her. Her eyes drifted down to her feet, which were nestled in a soft carpet of grass, and the ground before her was dotted with artfully-carved stepping stones. She became vaguely aware of the fact that some of the petals were falling from a nonexistent breeze. Statues of spirits watched them from along the stone wall; the carvings were astonishing, but their stares were too sharp to stand. She turned away quickly.
"Where is this?" she asked abruptly. Zuko sighed, annoyed, and Katara's glare deepened. "Where are we?"
"It's not so much of a where," he told her slowly, facing the cherry trees. "It's more of a what." He glanced back at her from the corner of his eye, noticing her confused expression. Another sigh, one that no was less condescending than the last. Zuko turned to her, watching as she crossed her arms indignantly with a scowl similar to his own, and continued. "We're in a purgatory of sorts."
Her fear grew.
"What are you talking about?" she asked, and yet for reasons that she didn't quite want to admit, with a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach, she already knew.
"They haven't decided if you survived yet."
Her eyes narrowed, though whether it was from the fact that there was something smug about his tone or because of the almost threatening edge in his voice, she couldn't tell. She suspected it was a bit of both.
"Who're they?" Katara asked, but in the question there was another one implied: Since when have there ever been powers interfering with the cycle of souls?
Katara laughed bitterly. "Of course," she spat. "Them." He was silent. How surprising. "Then you," she said spitefully. "Your fate hasn't been decided yet either."
He remained silent. Katara swallowed, suddenly finding it hard to breathe. She had no idea what was going on – how Zuko knew about any of what was happening to them… whether the words spouting from his mouth even held any truth. His motives in just about everything were unclear as of late, but there was still one perpetual truth to everything: Zuko could not be trusted.
And still, her panic grew. Where was Aang? Her brother? Where were Toph and the others? Were they still out in the fields, fighting a futile battle? Fighting to regain something that most had already lost?
"But," she started again suddenly. "It's not possible—I can't be here!" Her voice hushed itself into a harsh whisper as she stared at the grass at her feet. "I was only barely wounded… I even stood up and kept fighting –"
"You collapsed on the battlefield," Zuko said indifferently, staring off into the trees. Katara looked up, confusion clearly etched into her features. "Your brother found you in a heap of bodies and brought you back to the infirmary."
"What?" Katara exclaimed. "What are you talking—how? How could you know something like that?" Zuko remained still.
"Being here long enough allows you to know some things," he said quietly.
"You're not making any sense."
"I suggest you get used to it."
"I don't believe you." She tested the words on her tongue; they sounded off.
"I never said you had to."
Katara looked around, more on edge than before. Absentmindedly rubbing her arms, she took a step back. It was eerily quiet in the garden, their hell, their purgatory, and even the soft trickling of water intensified the restlessness of her nerves.
"Well, what now?"
"For how long?"
"Time is irrelevant here."
Katara sneered, scoffing again. "What is wrong with you?" She asked disbelievingly. "Don't you care at all about where we are?" She glanced around at the petals drifting to the ground. "Or what's going to happen to us?"
He remained silent, staring off into the trees.
"Right, then," she said, narrowing her eyes further. "Apparently not."
After still having received no response, she took a deep breath, inhaling the unfamiliar air. There was something off about it, something that smelled differently than any other air she ever remembered smelling, but she ignored it and turned to the pond. The statues continued to stare, but she wasn't about to let them keep her in Zuko's company. Swallowing a lump in her throat, she slowly made her way to the edge of the pond, sitting down on the grass.
Petals from the trees blew around her and for the first time, Katara thought she might be able to relax. That is, until she saw that the petals, when colliding with the surface of the dark pond, failed to create the slightest of ripples.
She suddenly had the inexplicable urge to create some herself and tried to do so by bending. Gently asking the water to move, she reached out with a finger and pushed it through the air.
Her brows knitted themselves together tightly as a sharp intake of breath passed her suddenly dry lips. She tried again, but the water would not yield.
"Maybe we are in hell," she whispered curiously, eyes transfixed on the motionless water.
"Why does it take so long for it to get light?" She asked, watching the oranges of the sky combine with the reds and pinks and blues. And why is it that while the sky can change, some things here never do? She remembered such sunrises with the others, her friends, her family, but they never seemed to pass by so slowly.
"Does it matter?"
"I'd like to know," she said indignantly, glaring at him. "Besides," she said, looking up from her unofficial favorite spot by the pond. "You seem to possess some infinite knowledge as far as this place is concerned," she played with a shard of grass, plucking it out of the ground. In its stead, another blade grew before her very eyes in a matter of seconds, but this trick ceased to amaze her long ago.
"I know what they allow me to," he said, obviously and openly irritated, sitting in the same spot that she had left him in what seemed like days before. She couldn't see his face, but from his position, she could tell that he had been trying to meditate. Oh, I've interrupted, she thought, rolling her eyes. How inconsiderate of me.
"Since when did you become so vague and philosophical?" she asked, only half interested. "Last I knew, you were the general of the Earth kingdom regiment," she flicked a discarded piece of grass into the pond and watched it sink quietly below the surface. At first, her brows furrowed in disappointment when it didn't float, but she was startled to realize but a moment later that she honestly couldn't remember what should've happened to the blade of grass, were it that she were, well, back where she was supposed to be, as she liked to refer to it.
She shook her head, suddenly ashamed of her minor distraction and her moment of absurdity, before continuing. "And as far as I know, the position doesn't require a talent for being ambiguous or any sort of thoughtfulness." She sat for a moment, contemplating. "Though you do seem to have the sense of pompousness down pretty well, I have to admit."
Zuko, in choosing not to take the bait, decided to continue with his meditation. Katara, in becoming increasingly annoyed with her lack of entertainment from the grass and her overall growing agitation with the fact that Zuko was, indeed, being far too vague and altogether difficult, stood from her unofficial favorite spot by the dark pond and marched over to his still form. She stopped in front of him, looking down at his face for the first time since she'd arrived. Zuko, unfazed by her action, breathed deeply and pretended that she wasn't there.
"What are you planning?"
Katara sat down in front of him, staring at his face. Under her gaze, Zuko found himself in an interesting predicament; he wasn't uncomfortable under her intense scrutiny, per se, but he was finding it becoming progressively harder to concentrate. She repeated her question, this time with more conviction.
"What are you planning?"
"What are you babbling about?" Zuko said at last, though he kept his eyes closed. He wasn't going to give up on his meditation completely, after all.
"I know you didn't join Aang out of the goodness of your heart," she whispered viciously, not knowing where the sudden spout of venom came from. "Why then?"
"I have my reasons."
"Oh, of course," she said exasperatedly and sat back to look above at the cherry blossoms. "Naturally." More silence. "Why are you taking our side?" she asked, finding herself genuinely curious and suspicious all at once.
"I am on no side," he said and returned to his breathing exercises.
"That's not possible anymore," Katara whispers softly, suddenly worried about her friends. "There's no such thing as neutrality in this war."
"There's also no such thing as a happy ending," Zuko said simply. "But none of you seem to grasp that concept either."
Katara found her eyes narrowing instinctively, sensing the insinuation of a threat somewhere in his tone. "What are you implying?" She already knew what he was going to say, and part of her, deep inside, knew that there was some truth to what he was going to tell her. Zuko can't be trusted…She reminded herself. Unless it's to bring misery about.
"Aang and the world do not have the strength to win this war."
There he goes.
"They have hope." She claimed. She spoke the words clearly, loudly, and with more sincerity than she'd ever managed before in her lifetime, but she knew with a terrible sense of despair that it was a lie. "That's all they need."
"You are foolish. And naïve."
I am a liar. "You are ignorant," she retorted, impulsively leaning in. "You have no idea what really goes on inside the minds of those who actually care for the welfare of others—of those who care for anyone besides -."
"You know nothing," Zuko said suddenly, his eyes opening in less than the time it took Katara to blink, and were so intense with a fiery hatred that Katara stopped instantly, despite her better judgment. "Nothing of my weaknesses, so don't presume that you have any semblance of comprehension of them."
Katara was silent for a moment, too shocked to be quick to reply. When her initial fear died down and her familiar courage returned (as well as the arrival of a sudden ball of scorching hatred of her own, welling up inside her chest), she stood and took a step back towards the pond. She hesitated and turned to him, but he had closed his eyes again, preferring to see darkness instead of cherry blossoms. Katara studied him for a moment, maliciously, taking in the severity of his posture, the rigid lines of his neck and shoulders, the strong, determined curve of his jaw. She wondered if she should apologize—her current behavior seemed so unlike her—and yet… She turned away, towards the statues and spirits that kept her pond company.
"Aang may trust you," she spat. "But I don't."
"I never said you had to."
She left him for the pond then, and didn't bother to turn back.
"What determines the amount of light here?" she whispered once, when it had been so long since she'd heard anything but the sounds of trickling water and the faint rustling of leaves and when it was actually very, very dark. The pebbles still sparkled at the bottom of the pond and small tiny fireflies graced the ever blossoming cherry tree with their presence. She wondered if they were real. Katara supposed they weren't.
"Would it change anything if you knew?"
Katara turned from her spot by the pond, and tried to make out his form in the shadows.
"Where are we?"
"You already know."
Katara was silent for a moment, staring up at the tiny replicas of stars that dotted their imitation sky and supposed that she finally believed him. Never mind the fact that she would never admit it out loud (and never mind the fact that he already knew, nor did he seem to care). She'd been holding out for so long, hoping that he was wrong, that it was just a dream, some ludicrous nightmare, but had finally come to discover that it was not.
She really had been hurt badly, hadn't she, then?
"I don't want to die," she said, though the fact that she had spoken it out loud struck her as peculiar. She turned and saw a dark figure out across the grass, but found it hard to remember what the details of the features looked like. In fact, she was finding it very difficult to remember much of anything, especially from the place where she was supposed to be. Sometimes, when it would get dark in the garden like it was now, she would stare at the statues and silently wonder if they would answer her if she asked them questions about the others or the war or what a blade of grass was really supposed to do when it was dropped into a small pond.
"How can you say that so simply?"
"It gets easier with time."
"I don't understand you," she whispered. Her eyes never adjusted to this kind of darkness, so the words are lost over the expansion of air between them. Nonetheless, he responds.
"That never bothered you before."
"No," she said, pondering the thought. "I guess it didn't."
Katara swore she could hear crickets, but she wondered if her mind was just playing tricks on her. She wasn't sure what was real and what wasn't in this garden anymore. Then again, she supposed, nothing was. Not even them.
"Zuko?" she asked, without any venom, for what might've been the first time. Ever.
"What?" he asked, though his voice couldn't seem to return the favor. His brows twitched as his concentration faltered; he hadn't heard his name spoken aloud in a very, very long time.
"Are you afraid to die?"
More silence and Katara turned back to the pond, expecting as much. At least, she turned in the general direction of the pond – it wasn't as if she could make out what was land from what was wall or water.
"No," he said, surprising Katara so much that she almost jumped. "We'll be reincarnated again soon anyway," he said slowly. "So it shouldn't matter." He paused. "Might be able to get more use out of the next one."
Katara turned her head from her spot on the grass, and looked towards his voice.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean this life didn't accomplish much."
"You wouldn't care at all?" She asked, disbelieving. She shifted her body so that it was facing the sound of his voice.
"I believe I just answered that question," In his voice the annoyance had returned, impatient and condescending once more.
"But," she ignored the tone, still unable to really believe what he was saying (though really, she thought, I shouldn't be surprised). "What about…" she hesitated, remembering her earlier words and suddenly feeling a twinge of remorse. "Those that care about you?" There has to be his family, at least.
"Your uncle," She said, remembering the first time she met the old man. A pause.
Katara sat silently, shocked to hear his announcement. And shocked even more still to notice the absence of any inflection to his voice, or any hint of sadness; just complete indifference. She opened her mouth to say something, somehow feeling angry that he didn't feel the need to express anything over such an event, but quickly shut it.
There was silence then. It wasn't thick or uncomfortable, as Katara assumed it should have been. It was just plain, simple silence.
It's this place, Katara mused, moving her arm to hover over the small pond to her side. It's taken us out of our different worlds and thrown us into one. She dropped her hand down into the still water.
"I'm sorry," Katara said, though her tone felt foreign. Yes, it had its ring of sympathy and concern, but something sounded unfamiliar. Then again, she supposed, it could have just been the fact that it was him that she was apologizing to—and that she actually was sad to learn the news. She wanted to know what had happened—and when—but he didn't respond. She didn't want to push him too far, but…
"You know," She said, gliding her hand through the water, which remained virtually motionless except for the small parting that took place to allow her hand to pass through. "I never really gave this whole process much thought until my mom died." Zuko remained still. She turned towards the place where his voice had been again to see if she could detect any sort of reaction, but there was none. "I never knew that a place like this existed." Katara paused, her brows furrowing together in thought. "There's nothing like this mentioned in any of my tribe's stories." Katara looked at the stars. "Is there anything in Fire Nation legend that mentions something like this?"
"Not that I can recall," Zuko said. He sounded strained.
"I wonder if anyone's ever learned about a place like this." Katara said, the crease between her brows deepening. "Or if they have, why they've failed to explain it to anyone else."
"They probably were withheld and drawn into the spirit realm," he said, his voice sounding tired and annoyed. "Or they just assumed it to be a hallucination if they were released." She saw a figure lying on the ground. "Honestly, you're wasting you're time babbling away about all of this." Katara narrowed her eyes.
"Forgive me if I'm curious about my surroundings," she said shortly, glaring up at the sky. "Or if I have any desire left in me to live." No response. Katara, unsurprised for the most part, released a silent sigh and turned to face the pond, withdrawing her hand from its depths.
"Would you have done anything differently?"
"Would it matter?"
"That's a yes, then?"
"There's no point in dwelling on the past."
"What if they give you a second chance?"
"There's no point in hoping, either."
Katara scoffed, staring hard at the darkness that was the rocks on the other side of the pond. "Well, what is there a point in?" She shut her eyes, resting her cheek on the soft grass.
"Nothing," she heard from the other side of the clearing. The voice was annoyed, as usual, she could tell. She sighed again. "Just… remembering."
They spent the rest of their time in the darkness with silence.
"Are these real?"
They felt real. They came off the branches easily and felt smooth and silky to the touch, which seemed real enough. They blew away in the calm breeze that seemed to come from nowhere and be everywhere all at once and they smelled glorious, which seemed as real as anything she could remember.
"Would you mind if they weren't?" he asked. "Would it make any difference?" He was beside her, plucking one of the petals from the trees. A replacement grew back instantly.
"No," she said, staring at them. "I suppose not. But I still wish they were." She plucked one off, herself. "Do they let you know anything about it?"
"No, they don't." He let the petal blow away in the wind. "It wouldn't change anything," he said, crossing his arms in that bored yet almost defiant sort of manner that she'd come to notice. "None of that matters here. There is no difference." Katara shook her head.
"It makes all the difference."
"No," she said, turning her head to look at him. "There is a difference. There is a huge difference between this place and… well, I just want to remember what it is." The breeze, the ever moving breeze, flew a strand of hair into her eyes. He said nothing, only watching. "I remember almost everything about myself. About my family, my friends, who I was—who I am—but…" She turned back to the cherry blossoms, which seemed to be blissfully unaware of her worries and as bright as ever. "But I'm rapidly forgetting how things worked there." She suddenly felt him tense.
"We don't need to bring that up." He said. Katara raised a brow curiously.
"Bring what up?"
"What I said before," he scowled. "There's no need."
"Why not?" Katara asked, turning to face him. "You even said yourself that all you wanted was to—"
"What's the use in ignoring our memories? We're both trying to cling onto things that are slipping away so easily—"
"Shut up —"
"Why wouldn't it make sense to work together to try to stop whatever it is that—"
"Can you even hear yourself?" He turned on her, snarling. "Why wouldn't it make sense?" He shook his head, scoffing at the trees. "Just listen to yourself! Talking about things that aren't supposed to happen, that shouldn't even have the chance to happen."
"What are you talking about?" Katara asked, feeling her own anger starting to rise. "All I'm saying is that we could compile our thoughts and memories, share them, just to keep reminding ourselves of what it's like back, well, where we're supposed to be, and to make sure that we don't let go of it."
"You already have," Zuko said, narrowing his eyes, his voice suddenly dropping to a level that she'd never heard before. "This hell is making you forget our places—nothing has changed between us by being here—you can't act as if you think I'm someone you can trust."
Katara clenched her fists. "What are you implying?" She leaned in, her eyes burning with suspicion.
"What is it with you and your constant belief that I'm still the enemy?"
"Is it not justified?" Her eyes remained sharp. "You, yourself just admitted that you're untrustworthy."
"That doesn't have to mean that one is an enemy," he spat.
"It's a fine line." She whispered just as harshly. "So what is it?" She asked, taking a step away from the trees; they seemed too overbearing. "Are you still secretly planning Aang's downfall?" She scoffed at the branches. "Going to continue on with your façade, supporting his idea of infiltrating the palace and then leading him to your father, so you can—"
He grabbed her chin, not gently, and turned her towards him, ignoring her cry of outrage. "Don't you ever say anything about that." She gritted her teeth in frustration as her nails dug into his hands, trying to pry them away from her face, but to no avail. She glared at him up above and resisted her urge to cry out when he tightened his hold. "Don't you dare."
After a moment, which for all she knew, could have actually been forever, he dropped his hands from her face and turned away, moving towards another side of the clearing. Her chin felt sore and she almost moved to rub and ease the tenderness away, but she refused to do so until he was gone. Her glare sharpened. "Where are you going?" She demanded.
"None of your concern." Was the icy reply.
"So that's it, then?" She yelled at his back as he continued towards the other side. "You have no desire to retain any shred of knowledge that you actually existed—no shred of hope that you'll actually be given another chance?"
He continued walking.
Katara sneered. "You don't deserve one."
He paused at the edge of the trees and glared at her.
"Fate doesn't care about what you think."
And he was gone.
It didn't take her very long to realize how much of a mistake it had been to let him leave.
Faces became blurry around the edges, their faded features slowly meshing from one into the next. Almost familiar voices singing in her head began to overlap until it was almost impossible to distinguish one from the other.
When he returned after however long (if she'd had any real method of keeping track, it would've been too hard to tell just how long that had been), they didn't mention anything of the words that had been said. They pushed the incident to the back of their mind, where its clarity still stung, but its importance was hidden behind the mess of faltering memories, which undoubtedly took priority for both of them (no matter how hard Zuko was trying to resist admitting it). Only one question was asked in reference to the incident ("…did you find any others—like us?") and only one short answer was said in reply: "None that I could see."
As time passed on in some unspoken truce (as Katara thought that "truce" was the only word capable of decently describing what was occurring), she and Zuko realized that their memories, whether they were destined to continue on in these lifetimes or not, were far too important to them to just let go of.
Zuko never once apologized, nor did he ever give the slightest inclination that he was going to admit his revelation out loud.
Katara didn't think that it really mattered.
"What's the thing that you miss the most?"
"You know better than to ask that particular question. It'll just hurt more."
"It's worse if I don't."
"You're insufferable. Now, answer the question. What do you miss the most?"
"Agni, you're impertinent. Nothing, I suppose. What I would have missed the most is already gone and anything else I might have missed was never mine for very long, anyway."
"What do you mean?"
"Oh, for – look, you can't lose something you never had, so you can't miss it, either."
"That's a cliché."
"Clichés are usually true."
"I don't know if I believe that. You don't have to actually know what having something is like to at least have it a little bit—"
"You're babbling again. And still not making any sense."
"Don't interrupt me. You can still—"
"Interrupt you? All you ever do is—"
"As I was saying, you can still lose something the same way as if you had really had it, I suppose. You can still miss the idea of something, at least… No, I don't agree with your cliché at all."
"You don't believe a lot of things that are as clear as day to the rest of humanity—that's your own choice."
"Is there anything wrong with that? In this particular case?"
"Many things, but you'd choose to ignore those as well."
"Will they make me start to know things? I mean, will they start to have me see things differently? Like they've done to you?"
"…I'm surprised they haven't done so already."
"How long do you think we've been here?"
"You know I can't answer that. There's no way to track time or relate it back to time, well, there, back on that plane."
"So we're not on the same plane?"
"What do I keep telling you? Agni, you never listen—why do I even bother?"
"Just explain it to me, will you? You complain more than my brother does."
"Don't ever compare me to that bumbling idiotic mock of a soldier again."
"Hey, don't you say things—"
"I've told you—we're everywhere and nowhere all at once. It's as if we're in every corner, every crack of the universe and yet we're in an abyss of nothingness. We're every paradox, seeping into every contradiction, and beyond comprehension in every possible or impossible aspect whether—"
"—I know, I know, you can stop now, I get it."
"They're probably trying to fill your foolish mind with all sorts of knowledge this very moment and you're just too stubborn and ignorant to pay any attention or acknowledge any of it."
"My point exactly."
"Why do you think we're here—you and me—shouldn't there be others who share the same fate as us? That are… waiting?"
"…they must have reasons for the lack of any others, I'm sure."
"I wonder what's happening."
"No use in wondering, or worrying for that matter... Now what?"
"You know, I can't ever remember you being quite so… apathetic."
"Well, for one, your memories are slipping. And even if they weren't, you still wouldn't remember. You haven't paid attention to anything that doesn't give you an excuse to be suspicious or give you a reason to throw ludicrous conspiracy theories into the Avatar's face and I, likewise, haven't ever paid any attention to anything that didn't help me in kidnapping the Avatar, which was fairly pointless and altogether finished rather quickly."
"It's Aang, you know, you can call him that—it is his name, after all. And well, I suppose that's true, though justified… A little. But still—it doesn't seem like someone would be able to change so quickly."
"You'd be surprised."
"Do you think anything will change? When we return?"
"We have no idea if that will even happen."
"But say it does… will anything be different?"
"…maybe, maybe not. We'll be reinstated in our old roles with our positions clearly sketched out in front of us again. And who's to say that we'll even be able to remember any of this?"
"I don't think we'll be able to completely forget."
"Oh, for—your naiveté is resurfacing. If—"
"I resent that!"
"—If anyone was ever able to remember any of this, then why aren't there more stories or legends about it? You asked those questions yourself."
"And you had your own answers, if you remember correctly."
"I give up. Think what you want, but know that the chances of having any sort of recollection of this place are close to nothing."
"No wonder Aang made you general—your sense of optimism is inspirational."
He gave her a strange look.
He was sure that the spot on the rock wall was very mind-boggling and perplexing and all that, but really, he hated being ignored. Hated it. Unfortunately, it seemed that some of his quirks from living out the first fourteen years of his life as a Prince had remained, he concluded with a frustrated sigh. And he was feeling particularly strongly about that notion at the moment.
"Wake up," he scowled, raising his voice. "Didn't you hear me?"
And there she was, still staring blankly at that blasted rock wall. What, did she zone out? He scoffed—I swear, sometimes this girl is clueless—and considered shoving her into the pond to wake her up, before thinking better of it. What am I—twelve? In the midst of chiding himself for such childish ideas, he failed to notice the lack of any venom in his line of thoughts. That is, of course, until she chose to remain still. His scowl deepened.
"I asked you a question."
He scoffed again, his annoyance clearly visible. Being too oblivious to hear him was one thing, but flat out disregarding him? His eyes narrowed.
"I don't know what your problem is right now, but if you—"
"What's his name?"
Surprised, but not completely thrown off guard, he raised an eyebrow, a little curious and very irritated. "What?"
"His name," she said, never drawing her eyes away from the spot on the rock wall. "What is it?"
"How am I supposed to know?" He asked, rolling his eyes. "Honestly, you're getting to be more of a lunatic every time you open your mouth. What's wrong with—"
"My brother," she whispered, hollow. "His name…"
Zuko stopped and looked at her, his mind screeching to a halt. Still motionless, she continued.
"I can see his face," she whispered, her words mixing together from the rapid speed at which they were being produced. "I can see his face and his eyes—eyes like mine, they're blue, blue like the water of the oceans, we lived near oceans, near ice—and I can see his weapons, his faithful boomerang, his clothes, his tribal necklace, I can see all of it." A sharp, panicked breath. "But I don't know his name."
Feeling a little stunned, Zuko opened his mouth. He couldn't think of anything to say, to be perfectly honest, but he felt like he needed to say something. He closed it quickly and swallowed, looking around the garden. The trickling of the waterfall was deafening.
"Look," he said, crouching down at her side. "What if—"
"What if, what?" She breathed. "What if it's only temporary? What if this isn't like the rest of my memories that have been slowly fading away?" She shut her eyes. "What if this is a memory that will actually come back?"
He turned away, looking at the cherry blossoms. This isn't right, he thought. This can't be right at all. He was sure of it. I haven't actually lost anything important to me—this isn't right.
"But you still remember everything else about him," he spoke quietly, trying hard to find the right words. "You can hold onto those—you can use those things to help bring his name back. It could—" He cut off at the sound of laughter, sharp and pained and filled with something that could never be mirth.
"And how long will I have those to hold on to?" she asked. "How long will I be able to hold on to anything else?"
He didn't have an answer for her.
Zuko sat down on the edge of the pond, resting his elbows on his thighs and watching the water drip down the statues from the stones above. He vaguely remembered hearing Katara complain one day that the water from the rocks was the only thing that could make ripples in the pond. He hadn't paid much attention then (how long ago had that been?), but he was suddenly curious about it now.
"Zuko?" she asked quietly, still as transfixed on that spot as he was on the pond, and he suddenly turned to her, almost startled from his thoughts.
"You," she swallowed, lowering her eyes to the water. "Do you remember it?"
His brows furrowed slightly at the question, but he nodded. "I do." He opened his mouth again, as if to say it, but she shook her head violently, abruptly turning and swiftly taking a hold of his shirt.
"No," she said desperately, her blue eyes pleading. "No, I have to remember on my own." She was still shaking her head. "I have to find him again, I have to do it." She tightened her hold on the fabric and stared up at him, unblinkingly. "I won't ever forgive myself if I don't."
Zuko covered her hands with his own, surprised at the transition in her demeanor and nodded silently in an attempt to calm her down. Her grip didn't loosen for another moment, but they soon fell away, along with her gaze, slipping limply back into her lap.
"Promise me that you won't tell me," she said, her voice even. "Promise me that you'll let me remember on my own."
Zuko wanted to argue further, but from the empty look in her eyes, held by the glassy pond, he muttered a word of acceptance and hoped that if the time came, he'd have the decency to do what was right.
He managed to dodge the rock just in time, hearing the splintering crack of it having contacted the extravagant stone wall rather than his skull. The wall repaired itself in an instant.
She cried out in frustration, dropping to her knees with her face in her hands. Zuko didn't need to be beside her to know that there were no tears, despite the small tremble of her frame and the way the she seemed to gently rock herself back and forth.
"I'm sorry," she said, muffled by the presence of her worn fingers.
He slowly made his way to the other side of the garden, kneeling on the grass before her. He tentatively placed a hand on her shoulder, waiting for her to calm down.
"I didn't mean to," she whispered. He believed her, as he always did, and nodded.
The shaking stopped, but she didn't bring her hands away from her face, or sit up to look at him. It usually took awhile for her to do so, he knew, and it took longer every time something else happened.
"I really don't know why I did that," she would say later, truthfully, and he wouldn't know either.
He grew more worried as her unexpected fits of violence became more frequent, more unpredictable. Every act was always followed by the same routine of her collapsing to the ground, hiding her face from him and the same muttered apologies. He'd accept, as always, but even still, he wondered how long it would take before he really was injured in some way or another.
"What happened?" he asked. She shook her head. Zuko sighed and swallowed. "Katara," he whispered, still unused to saying the name. "What happened?" Her fingers slowly dropped onto the grass, but she did not look up.
"It was the water," she said softly, almost dazed. "I tried again." She looked to the side, as if out of shame. Zuko sighed again.
"You know it won't move, Katara," he said, sliding his hand down to her elbow. "You shouldn't try to change something you know you can't." She didn't move.
They sat in silence for awhile, Zuko waiting for her to speak again, for anything, and Katara merely looked at the small blades of perfectly crafted grass. And still, Zuko couldn't stop the feeling at the bottom of his stomach that told him that something was most definitely, undeniably wrong.
"It's how it works here," she said, suddenly.
"This place," she whispered, plucking a shard of grass, just as she used to do when she had just arrived. In its stead, another perfect blade grew. She turned to him and he almost gasped at the color of her eyes—they seemed illuminated, brighter somehow, but he couldn't exactly place the transformation. "It keeps changing us, but no matter how we try, we can't change anything back." He was silent for a moment, still stunned by the look of her eyes. Or maybe, he thought, it was the look in them.
"Did they tell you that?" he whispered, still held by them.
"No," she looked at him. "They didn't have to."
She turned away and the image of her bright, captivating eyes was gone.
The next time she looked at him the vividness of the blue wasn't there. To his great surprise, he couldn't remember what it had been like.
Something shifted behind him and at once he was on guard, his fist clenched and prepared to create whatever flames necessary. Zuko's brow furrowed as he heard noises, tiny movements in the air, quiet footsteps on the grass. His fist tightened, ready to strike.
It took a moment for his hand to relax, for him to register where he was… and who he was with. He opened his eyes, used to the unbelievable similarity between the darkness around him and that behind his eyelids.
"What?" he asked. He hadn't meant for it to sound so gruff, but he was tired and disoriented, still thinking that he had been out in the campground, still in the midst of battle, still equipped with his firebending abilities.
She knelt down a few feet away from him and as he turned over he could barely make out the shape of her silhouette against the rock wall. He knew that stance however, and knew that her hands were in her lap, fisted against the old fabric of her clothing. She didn't speak.
"What?" he asked again. This time he managed to be softer, but not without effort. He could hear her swallow, before mumbling something incoherent. "I can't understand—"
"I need," she whispered, so quietly that it barely qualified as a whisper at all. "I need to know." He waited, but she didn't say anymore.
"Know what?" he said, softer this time even still.
"I can't," she released a small, shuddering breath. "I just—please… please, what's—" she cut off, and he could her the quiet slap of her hand covering her mouth. Zuko's brows furrowed together again.
"His name," she whispered, almost completely inaudible. Zuko said nothing.
He felt something plunge into his stomach and he wondered vaguely if it could have been his heart.
"It's Sokka," he whispered, almost equally inaudible, and waited.
Zuko could feel her nod and return to her side of the clearing. He waited for her to say something else, but after it was made clear that she was done for the night, he turned back around and tried to convince himself that he had done the right thing.
She never asked him again.
"I don't understand."
He remained still, waiting.
Katara turned to him, her eyes filled with a look that he hadn't seen before—it reminded him of confusion, of hurt, of betrayal.
"Is this—" she stopped, taking in a ragged breath. "Is this some sick form of punishment?"
"I have no idea," he muttered, staring at the ground.
"Does this mean that I'm not going to make it? Is this one last shred of torture before I go—for something I did wrong when I had the chance—why are they doing this?" She was staring at him, he could feel it, but he kept his eyes on the ground. "Why?" She asked, her voice breaking. "Why am I still losing my memories? And you—" she broke off, closing her eyes for a moment. "And yet you haven't lost any since."
"I don't know."
"…you don't know," she turned, echoing the words again and again. "You don't know."
"I don't," he said, almost pained.
"But you're supposed to," she cried softly. "They tell you secrets, they let you understand things, things they've never explained to me." She shook her head, her eyes glazing with unshed tears. "But you don't know this."
Zuko bit his cheek, a habit he had not done since long ago as a young Prince in the Fire Nation palace. He didn't know what to say, regretting the fact that he had even told her what had been happening to him.
"I guess you were right to not care all along."
His head snapped, almost painfully, in her direction at the sound of her words. "No," he said, clearly, as if finalizing the matter. "I was wrong—I've always been wrong, so very wrong." She shook her head.
"Ah, but you're the one who still has their memories," she whispered, her voice suddenly taking on its familiar even tone.
"But for how long?" he asked quickly, moving towards her. "How much longer will I still—"
"Don't try that, Zuko," she said, her eyes on the faithful grass and her voice steady. "We both know that if you were to lose any more memories, you would have done so already."
"No," he said, his voice turning angry, but he couldn't understand why. "No, we don't. We don't know that!" He moved in front of her, kneeling as she did. "How much do we honestly know about this place?"
"We know enough," Katara said, her eyes focused on nothing in particular.
"Stop this!" he said, taking a hold of her shoulders. "You're talking about nonsense again, you stupid girl. You're not this person, you don't give up—look at me, Katara." He shook her slightly. "Katara, please look at me—look at me."
He had had the perfect words to say for when she did, but at the sight of her eyes, intensely bright and brilliant with that same dazzling vividness, the words were lost. Before he had time to do anything else, time to change his mind, time to reconsider, or time for her to pull away, he leaned in and kissed her.
If they had had any trouble relating time from one place to another before, it was nothing compared to the amount of time that seemed to transpire before he pulled away and it was surely nothing compared to the time that passed before anything was said.
"I'm sorry," he said quickly, moving to pull his hands away.
"Don't be," she said, holding onto them. She looked at him and still, there was that translucent, lucid blue in her eyes.
"I wasn't thinking," he said, staring at his hands, prepared to retrieve them at a moment's notice. She squeezed his hands reassuringly.
"You should think less often," she whispered, the tiniest trace of smile just barely playing at her lips. He shook his head.
"What's wrong with me?"
"What makes you think this is wrong?"
"It's supposed to be wrong," Zuko said. "This is supposed to be wrong."
"Things that are supposed to be have no meaning here. You should know that."
"This isn't even real," he looked around, before turning back to Katara. "We're not even real." She looked at him differently, another gaze he had never seen before and she slid her hand down his arm and up towards his face, passing the base of his neck and coming to rest at the line of his jaw.
"It's as real as we make it to be."
Before either of them could reconsider, they leaned in again, and were lost.
He sat down beside her on the edge of the pond and stared at the water as he had done so many times before.
"You can't say that. You're usually not this bad of a liar. Something is obviously wrong."
She stared at the pond.
"We've gone through this routine too many times before," he said, his voice tired and annoyed. "You can tell me."
"I did tell you," she said, her voice natural and almost amused, just like her old self. "Nothing's wrong."
"There can't just be nothing." She laughed, and as much as he loved to hear it again, he couldn't stop the nagging suspicion that it was covering something.
"You have a habit of searching for things that aren't there, you know," she smiled and he was momentarily distracted by the effect it wrought on his stomach. "Or looking for hidden meanings that might not even exist." He scowled and she laughed again.
"What are you implying exactly?" he asked under his breath, enjoying the way that hers seemed to shorten as he moved closer.
"Nothing that I don't normally do," she said, with impressive steadiness. She leaned back slightly and gave him a wry smile. "Why, Zuko, I'm beginning to think that you've grown sensitive to my insults—you seem to take such things so personally."
"It can't be helped," he whispered, gently pushing her down onto the grass beneath him, where she smiled happily up at him. "And I don't appreciate you using your pseudo methods of seduction to divert me from the topic at hand."
"Psuedo methods?" she asked, a sable brow rising inquisitively. "Really, Zuko, you obviously lack suitable comprehension of the fine arts." She laughed again, softly. Zuko's smile however, faded.
"You have to tell me if something's wrong," he told her seriously, taking her hand and tracing patterns along the lines of her palm with his thumb. It took him a moment to realize that he was writing out her name. She cocked her head to the side in the grass, her smile faltering the smallest bit, causing Zuko's stomach to inevitably tighten.
"Zuko," she said, and the word sent an inexplicable shiver down his spine. "If there is, I'd tell you." Her brows furrowed as she turned her eyes down to stare at his chest, where she too traced patterns with her fingertips. "I promise." He stared at her.
"Promises can be broken easily, you know," he whispered gently, and almost regretted it when her lip started to quiver the slightest bit. He leaned down to press his lips to her forehead, brushing a strand of hair away from her cheek. "Please let me know."
She nodded only once, but Zuko could sense that it was all she was going to give him for now. He squeezed her hand gently, as they laid there in silence.
"The sun's out," he muttered sometime much later with a rare, sleepy smile, feeling enigmatically satisfied for once. Or, at least, as satisfied one could be in their position. "I don't remember the last time it was." He turned to look at Katara, who should have been in his arms, only to realize that she wasn't. He looked around, still slightly hazy with sleep, but far more alert at her absence.
"I'm right here," she said softly from her favorite spot by the pond, staring at her not-so-well-appreciated statue friends. He nodded, slightly confused. He always got up before her—it was in his nature.
"That's strange," he commented almost lazily, crawling over to her side. "Couldn't sleep?" She bit her lip and shook her head. Instantly, Zuko's sleepy haze had dissipated. "Why not?"
Katara stood suddenly and walked a few steps toward the cherry blossoms, Zuko's eyes following her intently as she did so. She hugged herself, rubbing her arms absentmindedly as if she was cold. It was then that Zuko noticed that there was no breeze. Strange, he thought.
"Katara?" he said, as evenly as possible. "What's going on?"
"I heard from them this morning," she said, her voice unfamiliar to him, foreign even. It was cool, stable, and… something he couldn't place. He quickly stood.
"What'd they say?" he asked, his breath suddenly hitching in his throat.
"They've decided what's best for us."
There didn't have to be a breeze for the chills that crept up his spine; her words did fine with sending shudders through it all on their own. He couldn't seem to hear the water from the cascade to his side, but it was a vague notion and far less important than what she was telling him. He swallowed.
"And?" he asked, louder than he thought he could have managed.
She turned to him and offered him a sad smile. He shook his head.
"No," he shook it again. "No, what exactly did they tell you?"
Her smile didn't waver. "It's better if you return alone."
His heart stopped.
"No," he said, moving towards her. "Impossible." She stepped back.
"It's already been decided," she reasoned, holding up her hands, as if placing a barricade between them. He was appalled at the action and moved closer, taking a hold of them with his own, gripping them tightly.
"The hell it has," he said, squeezing her hands again. "They'll review our cases again, make another decision." He started speaking too quickly. "They can't decide this, this is nowhere near where our best interests lay—we'll appeal this case, take our destinies elsewhere."
"Will you listen to yourself?" she asked, laughing quietly, her eyes bright. "You're going mad—talking about appealing—appealing to whom? It's Fate that decides, what else would do it?"
"I don't know," he said quietly. "I don't know." He suddenly took her face in his hands, feeling the curve of her jaw line and cheek. She covered his hands with her small, bronze ones, her sad, knowing smile always intact. "Stop that," he said. "Don't you dare give me that smile."
"I beg your pardon?" she asked, looking amused, and he had to turn away to keep from crying out. "I've never seen someone so worked up about a smile," she said with another laugh. "I guess your sensitivity level really has grown, hasn't it?"
"This isn't happening," he said, shaking his head again.
"But it is," she replied quietly, her laughter fading. "It started long ago." He swallowed.
"What did they say would happen to you?" His pounding of the blood in his ears was more deafening than any silence that had ever occurred between them or any performance by the waterfall could have been. She rubbed her thumbs over his fingers.
"That I'm going with them," she said, looking him directly in the eyes. For once, he wasn't distracted by the lucidity of them. Instead, he was frightened. "Right after you return… It's where I'm meant to be."
"No," he said, and began kissing her face rapidly, in any place he could find. "I'll bring you back to me—I'm not going to lose you." She pulled back slowly and his hands dropped to her shoulders. She lifted her hand, with painful slowness, to his cheek, where it stayed.
"But Zuko," she said softly. "You can't lose what you never had." She traced his cheekbone to his ear, where she found a lock of hair. "And you even said," she watched herself play with the dark strands. "We're not even real here."
He stared at her, disbelievingly. "Don't do that," he said. "Don't repeat me, stop it." He could feel his heart starting to beat even more rapidly. "I was wrong."
"Zuko," she sighed, releasing his hair from her grasp and bringing it down to rest on his chest. "I'm meant to die… everyone is."
"Not now," he whispered desperately.
"You need another chance."
"I used all of the time that was given to me," she nodded rationally, tipping her head to the side slightly, thoughtfully.
"It's not enough."
"Whose job is it to determine that?" she laughed and he wanted to scream, to cry, to do anything to stop her from accepting her fate and yet he wanted to savor every sound that escaped from her lips. "Yours?"
"They can't have you."
"I'm already theirs," she said, matter-of-factly. "I belong with them."
"No, I won't believe it," his voice turned angry. "This is ridiculous—why you? Why not me? Your death won't solve anything!"
"It'll help the others."
"You can't know that." he said. "You're not leaving."
"But I've already gone."
He could feel himself beginning to panic.
"I can find you, then."
"It can't be."
"I thought you said that there was no point in hoping."
"I didn't mean it."
"Yes, you did."
"I told you," he cried, pulling her to him. "I was wrong—I didn't know what I was talking about—it was before I had you."
"I've lost, Zuko," she whispered into the crook of his neck. "You have to understand that."
"Zuko, you've been given another chance—"
"One that was supposed to belong to you!" he cried, holding her tighter against him. "One that should have belonged to both of us!"
"This isn't supposed to have belonged to anyone," she said calmly against his skin. "They decided on what would be best for the world."
"Forget about the world—there's no way that this will help it! This is just going to make things worse!" He suddenly pulled back to look her in the face. "I'm not going to let them do this." The seriousness of his tone sounded frightening, even to his own ears. He saw something shift in her eyes and knew that he had found his chance.
"You have to go back to Aang and the others—you have to help—"
"I won't," he said, and he started to smile, irrationally, madly. "I refuse." Zuko started stroking the line of her collarbone, still smiling as her face began to fall. "Not until you're—"
"Zuko," she cried suddenly, painfully enough to stop him in less than an instant. Her fists pounded into his chest, once, twice— "You fool! Don't you dare waste this!" Her eyes began to glaze and Zuko couldn't bear the sight. "How dare you—"
"You don't want this," he said, his throat becoming tight and thick. "You know this isn't how it's supposed to be." He shook his head. "You don't want this."
"You know you're not meant for this," he urged her, his arms tightening their hold.
"Stop it!" she cried, burying herself in his chest.
"Why?" he started shouting into her hair. "You know it's true, Katara!"
"Stop," she managed to say, as her throat grew ragged and the tears began to fall, seeping into the folds of fabric. "I can't start hoping again," he tried to wipe them all away with his thumb, but there were too many. "I can't," was her broken whisper. "I can't."
"You can, Katara," he urged, his voice saturated with desperation. "I know you, you can do this."
"No, don't you understand?" her voice broke, causing a sharp pain in his chest. "You told me," she said, catching her breath. "You told me, you said I shouldn't try to change something that I know I can't change and I can't, Zuko." The words broke him. "We can't."
"Please," he said, stroking her hair. "Don't say that, don't say it. I didn't know what I was talking about." He closed his eyes, bringing his forehead to meet hers.
"You knew exactly what you were talking about," she whispered, unnaturally quiet.
"I'll find you," he said gently. "I'll do it."
"You can't," she whispered, determined again. Katara pulled away. "I'm untraceable." She began to stare at the rock wall behind him. "I'm beyond lost."
"I don't care. What am I supposed to do—being back in the goddamn place where we're supposed to be—what do they honestly expect me to do without you?"
"To go on… do what I could not… Help Aang, defeat your father and your sister, and make sure that the world is safe. Take your throne. You already know the story."
"How?" he asked, his voice cracked and torn. "How?"
"You already know what has to be done," she said simply. He cried out in frustration.
"How dare you start going cryptic and vague on me now! You've never had a problem with speaking your mind before, dammit, so why now?"
He was met with silence.
"I have to leave now, Zuko."
"No—don't you dare!" he squeezed her arms so tight that she winced. "Don't you even think about it, do you hear me?"
"I can't help it, Zuko. This is how things have to be."
"No, Katara—you can't do this—this isn't right!"
She turned to him, slowly, and smiled.
"Fate doesn't care about what you think."
She started to fade.
"No," he whispered, watching as the lines of her face grew blurry. He tried to reach out for her, but his hand passed right through. "Katara!" he screamed, feeling his throat go raw. "Katara, come back!" Her smile was barely visible through his unshed tears.
Wait, he thought, suddenly looking down at himself. What's happening?
It was then he realized that he was the one fading. He turned to Katara, his neck cracking from the rapid movement, and saw her shaking her head, a faint glimmer of tears in her still bizarrely clear eyes.
"No, stop this!" he screamed, but his voice was getting harder to hear; things were becoming unnaturally quiet. "Katara!" He screamed again, but it sounded no louder than a mere whisper. "Stop this right now! Katara!"
"Don't look for me."
He could hear her voice surrounding him, but her mouth never opened. He tried to scream again, to tell her that he loved her, for Agni knew he never had, but nothing came out. Extreme panic took over; Katara was almost completely out of sight.
"You won't be able to find me."
She was gone.