I am so nervous over this chapter.
I won't apologize for the long delay, since you've all done your very best to make it clear you don't mind (for the most part) so long as I keep going with this story.
But if you just happened to be frustrated with the wait, I would blame it all on a friend of mine who encouraged me in a shameless endeavor...Not that I would ever start planning another Zutara before this one was finished...*cough* :)
Yes, I totally mean that, but considering how this story went I think I'm going to try getting at least a buffer of chapters built up, if not arranging it so that the whole story is finished before I begin posting. Just to try something new.
Now, as though that weren't shameless enough of a plug. If you were to go to: theredoomouse(dot)etsy(dot)com (with actual periods instead of the (dot)s of course) you might find some jewelry I've been making which is inspired by the many fandoms I belong to. There's nothing avatar-related yet, but I do have some things planned.
I am going to stop now before I apologize for something and ruin all the good I did by avoiding it this time! ^_^
Katara had, for the first time since she decided to go after Aang and abandon her family, done something selfish, something just for her benefit and no one else's. One of the Acupuncturists from Omashu had come up to her—when she escaped the angry looks of everyone, disappointed that she'd hurt Aang like she had—and asked, at first, for her help in organizing the medical teams on their ships. Everyone would travel with their own supplies to help ensure nothing important was forgotten.
She'd spent three days helping them organize things, including courses for those willing to help but uneducated in medicine. She'd nearly forgotten about her fight with Aang, and the fact that no one seemed to want to speak to her anymore. She was, without the fear of impending battle, happy.
Then they had asked her to board the ship with them. To continue her lessons over the three weeks it would take them to reach the rendezvous point. She asked for time to think the decision over, reminding them that she was meant to travel with Aang and the others to keep an eye over everyone's progress from the air, and reminding herself how skilled she was becoming at lying.
She wanted nothing more than to escape the torture of being close to Aang—who surely hated her—and Zuko—who probably hated her more now than every before—Toph—who was surly enough and would only be worse—Sokka—who wouldn't understand....
But she didn't feel like she could abandon them all the same.
She had, in the course of wondering how she could still teach them and honor her duty to Aang, run into Zuko. But it was not the shaggy-haired, almost kind, even-laughed-on-rare-occasion Zuko that they had come to know over their travels. He looked like he had when he was still Prince Zuko, the one who wanted to kill them all and probably mount Aang's head on his wall.
They'd stared at each other for a long moment and she'd wondered at what to say. "I will fight by your side. But do not expect anything else of me." He snarled, storming past her. Katara had wavered on her feet for a moment, and a year ago she may have cried. But now she was a Waterbending Mistress, declared as such by Paku himself who never looked at women to be worth anything at all...
She took a breath that shuddered through her and found the Acupuncturist who was leading the healers in her stead. Aang had come as close to mastering Waterbending as he would before going into battle. They didn't need her anymore. "I will be leading you in the battle." She reminded him, trying to hide how her hands were shaking, "And I would be honored to sail with you as well." She instantly regretted being so selfish the moment the words spilled out of her, but she wouldn't let herself take it back.
Her mother had always taught her that you helped those who needed it, not just the ones you wanted to help.
She packed her things and moved into the healers quarters. They would leave port in three days, just a day after the warriors who would be following Toph and Sokka into battle. She considered not telling anyone of her decision, but knew the rumors would spread no matter what she wanted. So, after much procrastination, she hunted down Iroh and cornered him.
"I've decided to go aboard the Healers' boat. They need more training if they're to be of any use at all." She told him, trying to sound like her father did when he was commanding the people of the village, or like Yue had when she'd decided to give her life to save the Moon Spirit. She didn't want to leave room for him to dissuade her, mostly because she was terrified that he could convince her not to go. He'd blinked at her, stunned.
"Katara..." He started, and then he stopped himself and hugged her. "Maybe that's just what you need." He told her with a smile that was so sad it almost made her cry. "You remind me very much of Zuko's mother, you both spend far too much time trying to make everyone around you happy." He glanced down at the floor and then back up to her. "I cannot say if it is right or not, but I will support you if it's what you've decided."
She could have kissed him. "Thank you." She whispered, unable to find her voice. "Thank you."
"The others won't be happy about it."
"I know." She admitted.
"And you're still going to do it? I am proud of you. Even a few months ago you would never have considered it for a moment."
"A few months ago I hadn't alienated my whole family." She murmured. Sounding far older and sadder than she ever had before. Iroh opened his mouth to dispense some of the wisdom he was known for, and then changed his mind at the last minute. She had done all she could, it was up to the others in her life to start being as responsible as her.
Sokka had found out just in time to see her off. He had walked there—more like dashed—ready to shout at her for being rash and demand she stay with them, but by the time he'd reached the docks he'd changed his mind and only hugged her tightly.
She would never stop helping. But after the argument with Aang and the awkwardness with Zuko she had become so miserable around the others. The only time she was still herself was when she was helping teach people to heal and leading others.
He knew he couldn't always help her, but she would always be his little sister and it was hard to watch her sail off into battle as he had once watched their father. "I'll see you there." He told her, and then twice more. She smiled and nodded.
"Of course. But don't rip your pants on the way because I'm not going to have the time to mend them for you." She told him, focusing on such mundane things was easier. They might never see their father again, they had known that when he'd sailed away that day so many years ago, and now they were parting and they didn't want to consider how this might be their last moment together.
"You're doing a good job." He told her, looking away and trying to swallow the lump in his throat. "I mean, they're women, and shouldn't be fighting in this war anyway. But you're going a good job all the same." he coughed into his hand and spun away with the motion, trying to discreetly scrub at his eyes. Katara sniffled loudly and launched at him, hugging him hard enough to make his bones creak.
"Sokka, you're my big dumb brother and I love you. Please, take care of them all for me. Make sure Toph doesn't overestimate herself and Aang...just try to understand him." She snuffled again and rubbed her eyes in the soft cotton tunic he wore. "And do what Iroh says, he really does know what he's doing." She told him, pulling away but refusing to let go of his shoulders as though he might vanish then and there.
"And Zuko?" Sokka asked, and Katara looked away then. He sighed and reached out to tug her hair loopie. "I told you before. I don't mind. I mean. I don't want you with anyone 'cause you're my little sister. But if it has to be someone, I don't mind him." Sokka reminded her, sounding almost serious. Katara didn't like that. He was supposed to be her dumb brother, he wasn't supposed to be a serious leader who knew just the right thing to say. He even had a shadow of a mustache growing and it just hurt to realize how much they'd really grown up. She didn't feel anymore grown up than she had when she'd first met Aang and explored the ancient Fire Nation ship.
"I'll miss you." She told him, not knowing what to say about Zuko, she wasn't certain herself. For so long she had mistrusted him, and then when she'd seen how others were so quick to turn on him it was hard not to take his side...but to call him more than a companion? She wasn't certain she could reconcile the two sides of him that she had seen.
"You're doing the right thing." He told her. Nodding once and then turning and leaving. No use letting her see her respectable big brother sobbing like a little girl at the thought of being so distanced from his sister.
Aang, so busy still combating his desire to remain angry with Katara for her betrayal, and the fact that he knew he should forgive her, did not know she had gone with the healers until she'd already left.
He paced in front of Appa's stall for a long time, trying to decide if he should go after her or not. And if he went after her, should he be angry when they met up again? Or should he beg her forgiveness? In being without her suddenly after having her as so true a constant in his life for so long...it was painful, but worse by a thousand times to realize that she was gone because he had driven her away.
He knew, even being furious with her, that she felt like he didn't want her around anymore, and so she'd left. She'd been trying to help him. She was always trying to help him.
He made up his mind, then and there, that when they met up on the shores of the Fire Nation he would forgive her for everything, and apologize himself for how he had acted. He wasn't ready yet to admit that it was partly his fault, but to be so clearly faced with losing her, he knew it could not wait in times so dire as these.
Katara was feeling better than she had in months. It was true that she worried for her life and the lives of everyone she cared for, but she could focus—now--on something she knew. Healing came so naturally to her and suddenly people were looking to her to lead and she found that the position suited her well. More than a few men from Water Tribes hiding in the western swamps and eastern bays had come up to her after a few days on the boat and even asked for her help. They were warriors and had been selected from all those willing to fight to defend the healing tents specifically, but if they were not directly needed for fighting, they said, they wanted to help. She couldn't teach them enough tricks to make them healers or even assistants. It was one of the women who suggested putting them to work cleaning bandages and sheets or even cooking.
At first they had approached the task with as much distaste as Sokka would have. But soon, confined among so many women and Earth Kingdom men who saw no problem taking orders from women they changed.
They learned how to wash things in boiling water and how to make stews which could keep on low fires for hours and be added to if more were needed. But most of all, they learned that women knew their realm as well as men knew theirs.
"I hadn't realized. Cooking and cleaning...it can be as hard as fighting. Only if you get hurt it's generally not a sword to the gut." One of the men confessed to Katara after a meal. He had seven children and a wife—the wife had died in a Fire Nation raid—and he'd considered trying to help her with things. Fighting was the only life he knew. "I've been hurt in battle, and given as good as I got. But I never saw what you healers do trying to put us back together again." He explained, swallowing hard and looking away. His hands were bound tightly, he'd assumed that if he could handle warfare he didn't need potholders to life a kettle from the fire.
"Your wife would be proud of you." She told him and he laughed, turning it into a cough. For a moment Katara pretended to be interested in a guttering lamp that hung above her while he wiped tears from his eyes.
"She would be disappointed that two weeks of being surrounded by women and trying to listen and I still can't make a decent pot of tea and all the things I clean come out stained still." He told her. "My youngest daughter is your age." He told her, suddenly changing his whole demeanor. Katara had gotten used to knowing just what to say and knowing all the answers, she was suddenly thrown off balance and so just blinked at him. "I know you can be trusted. I've seen you practice fighting and you're..." He swallowed and plowed onward, "You're better than I am." His voice pitched low so that only Katara could hear him, but her heart still fluttered at the compliment. He reminded her so much of her father that it seemed—for just a moment—that it was her father offering the compliment instead. "I feel like I've failed you. You kids, even the Avatar's just a child, none of you should have to shoulder our burden."
"It is all of ours." Katara told him, trying to imitate Iroh. "I choose to help, not because I feel like I have to, but because I want to be a part of the solution." The man snuffled into the sleeve under his armor and nodded.
"If my daughters turn out to be anything like you, I will be a very proud man." She smiled at him.
"Hopefully my father will feel the same way."
The first few days aboard the boat she had longed for shore and strained her eyes staring at the horizon, looking for even a white speck which might be Appa. As time went on, however, she settled into thinking little of herself and focusing solely on the people around her. They depended on her, not like Aang and the others did, but they looked to her to lead them, and teach them, and even to comfort them that this was the right thing. They would win this battle.
Katara had thought that Aang would inspire hope in a hopeless people, but aboard the ship she learned differently. People saw Aang as their chance, a weapon which might give them the edge they needed. It was Katara who inspired them to hope.
So she stopped thinking of Aang, of Sokka, of anything beyond these people and what needed to be done here. When they landed on the shores of the Salt Flats then, she had almost forgotten how much she longed to see her friends. Instead she set straight to work commanding the people who were working the unload and setting a few women in charge of erecting the tents. She wasn't taking care of her older brother and people who knew they needed her help but looked at her like an annoying, stick-in-the-mud nag. These people, they looked to her like a leader, and that earned her attention.
"We're going to need the largest tents for the injured, those of you acting as healers will sleep in shifts so the tents for us will be smaller." Katara explained, using a stick to draw in the dirt a rough outline of how she wanted the campgrounds to look. She'd planned it to back them up as much as possible against the ocean to keep as small a front open to attack, and she wanted the patients tents to be close enough to the water that if need be those skilled at Waterbending could defend them—and she had a steady supply of water to heal with.
She was laughing and helping two older women hold up the interior of the largest tent—with little skill—while a scattering of others tugged at the cables and tried to pull it taut when she first heard the shouting. She couldn't make out what they were saying but even through the heavy cloth of the tent she saw the shadow of Appa flying overhead.
All the worries she had pushed aside to focus only on this duty came flooding back. Her heart leapt into her throat and fell into her toes all at once as she realized she would have to face Aang and Zuko both. She knew that what she decided here would say a lot about her, and the person that she had become. She glanced at one of the two women with her, and then to the tent above her, listening to the people outside shouting cadence to try and organize their pulling.
She did not leave.
Later, she decided, when things were more settled she would of course go and see how they were all doing; make certain they were eating well and Sokka's clothing was all mended. But for now, she chose, instead, to be a leader to the healers instead of a mother to her friends.
She was helping set up beds and worktables within the tent when she heard the women gasp and saw, out of the corner of her eye, two women beat a hasty retreat from the tent. Dropping the sheets on the bed and curling a full pitcher's worth of water around herself she spun to find that Zuko stood in the opening of the tent. With an annoyed sigh she urged the water back where it had come from and settled her hands on her hips. "You should be preparing. Tomorrow everyone will be here and once that happens---"
She stopped talking, so surprised was she by Zuko's reaction to her annoyed lecture. With several long strides he was standing in front of her. He stood there, silent for a moment before he swallowed hard. His hand twitched at his side, almost raised, and then fell back into place. "I don't know how you feel, or if there was any...merit, to Aang thinking you...cared about me. But...But I wanted you to know that I care about you. I don't know if that's worth much to you, but it's true, and you should know." He told her, sounding more like a man about to be killed confessing his sins than a boy telling a girl he liked her.
She didn't know what to say to him. She hadn't allowed herself to eve entertain thoughts about her situation, even after the argument with Aang. She had always been too concerned with something else, or she had specifically pushed it aside, thinking that maybe if she ignored the feelings she wouldn't have to hurt Aang.
"Aang..." She started, trying to find some way, any way, to explain the tangled mess of what she felt.
"Is not here. I care about you Katara. Not your brother or Aang or anyone else." His fingers twitched again and this time moved, grabbing her hand in his and just holding it. She could feel the callouses from using his swords and the internal heat of him. She had noticed that when he and Iroh had been injured. They were both always so very hot. "You don't have to feel the same about me, but tell me how you feel. Not how everyone else might respond."
She bristled slightly at that. Whether it was true or not she was getting awfully tired of people treating her as though she were only a worry-wart and a nag. She could do other things besides take care of everyone else.
So prove it. That little internal voice urged. As a child Katara had always pretended it was the voice of her mother, speaking to Katara from her place in the sky and trying to impart the wisdom she'd never been able to in life.
Katara swallowed hard and glanced down at the packed earth between their feet, then back upward to meet Zuko's eyes. "You shouldn't say things like that." She whispered horsely. Zuko's hand stiffened against hers and his eyes narrowed as he tried to pull away. She clung fast to his hand though and smiled even though he'd looked away from her. "We have a tradition in the Watertribe, that if you have unfinished business someone when you go into battle, it means that you will always return to them." She explained, remembering how her father had promised both she and Sokka that he would take them to see the Northern Watertribe City when he returned. "And," She swallowed another lump in her throat and blinked back tears. Some Waterbending Master she was, sniffling like a little girl with a crush. "And I don't want to think about what I would do without you." She admitted quietly.
Zuko turned back to her and offered that little smile he had, the one that only turned up a corner of his mouth. "Does that mean you care for me too."
"I'm not telling until you come back to me." She told him, but she couldn't stop smiling, nor crying. His smile grew and his other hand lifted to cup her cheek.
"You are terrible at keeping secrets." He told her.
"Maybe I'm just very good at lying." She suggested, her heart humming in her chest so quickly she feared she might die of the giddiness.
"You suggest a peasant like you could lie well enough to fool someone who grew up with Azula?" He scoffed, almost managing to school his face back into the stern look he'd always worn when he was nothing more than Prince Zuko who hunted them. He couldn't stop smiling either.
Okay, so we had Katara doing stuff for herself without thinking of the others first and Zuko confessing his feelings all in one chapter! (AAAH) Seriously though, be brutal. I want to improve you all know that, and I can't improve if you let me make the same mistakes over and over again. I do think I supported Katara's actions and made Zuko's confession fit, but I want to hear from you. This story wouldn't have gotten half so far without you guys and I really want you to be happy. Of course I'm going to be happy with it, I wrote the dumb thing. ^_^