Word Count: 2155
Rating: T, for the last little section there. Otherwise E for everyone.
Summary: Takes place during CoD. Katara learns that Zuko is more human than she previously thought. Because someone asked for a vignette, and hell, I live for this sort of melodramatic angst. (Melodramatic—NEW WORD OF THE DAY! Thanks Mike and Bryan!)
A/N: I've been working on this since December. Uh, better late than never? Enjoy!
In truth, she doesn't know what to think when she sees Zuko there, kneeling before her like a peasant to his Queen. In some way—a lot of ways—she is glad it's Zuko and not Aang who has become the latest of the Dai Lee's prisoners. It means that her family, however small and breakable that it is, is still in tact, and is still safe.
It makes her blood run cold just looking at him. Him, Zuko, the dark figure that has plagued her nightmares for so long. It feels strange to see him like this, in peasant clothes and long hair, the face and body of a perfect stranger.
But there is no mistaking that scar, and for that she speaks:
"Zuko." She spits out, with more emotion than she expects. "Why did they throw you in here? Oh wait." She ponders bitterly, her words stinging and sour. "Let me guess: It's a trap. So when Aang shows up to rescue me, you can finally have him in your little Fire Nation clutches."
For some reason, the sight of her age-old enemy has brought out feelings in her that she has kept locked away tight, emotions that she has kept bottled up inside, and now seems to be the perfect time to let it all out.
When he doesn't respond, she continues her tirade, angered by his lack of response. Does he really think so low of her that he won't even bother to argue with her, to defend himself? How dare he. "You're a terrible person, you know that?" She growls, anger rising. "Always following us, hunting the Avatar, trying to capture the world's last hope for peace!"
The words flow out of her without warning, but she can't stop now. For too long she has kept it all inside, and if Zuko has to become the source of her hatred and frustration, then so be it. He has done nothing to prove he deserves otherwise.
"But what do you care?" She asks scathingly, not caring how deep her words cut. "You're the Fire Lord's son. Spreading war and violence and hatred is in your blood."
In his blood, yes. Because in her mind, she can't fathom the idea of an innocent firebender, cannot picture a son simply following his father's orders, cannot imagine that there is no blood on his hands. All she knows of fire is hate and destruction, pain and loss.
"You don't know what you're talking about!" He screeches at her, finally reaching a breaking point.
Her mind reels. "I don't?! How dare you."
She sees fire.
"You have no idea what this war has put me through!"
Blood in the snow.
Gone are the tranquil catacombs, her mind has transported her back home, to the place of her mother's death.
Suddenly, the caves which once seemed so impossibly big and inescapable are now too small, too close; she can't breathe. She falls to the ground, her heart racing a mile a minute as the most painful of all the things she kept locked inside of her escapes.
"The Fire Nation took my mother away from me!"
She doesn't want to cry, doesn't want to seem weak before him, but the tears have leaked out before she has a chance to stop them. Suddenly, she is sobbing, crying and crying and never stopping. All she can do is let it out, allow all the grief she has never shown to escape down her face.
Her mother is dead, and here she is, four years later, crying in front of her mortal enemy, the son of the Fire Lord.
What a fool she is.
She does not expect these words, not from him, not from anyone else. For a moment, she forgets he's even there. She turns and looks at him. To her surprise, his face holds not pity but shared grief, and pain.
"That's something we have in common."
His words shatter her world. Never once has she ever thought that even evil, Fire Nation princes can lose their mothers, too. The concept of Zuko being human, capable of emotions other than anger or spite, shocks her into quiet submission. Her gut wrenches: for a moment, she wonders if Zuko isn't such a terrible person after all, and perhaps she's the monster here.
Quietly, she stands. To her surprise, he does the same. Suddenly she is standing right beside her enemy, and for once, hatred and anger are nowhere to be found. Awkward silence ensures; she doesn't know what to say.
"I'm sorry I yelled at you before." She says weakly, anything to break the terror the silence brings. There are a thousand and one questions that race through her mind, but none of them seem appropriate to ask right now.
"It doesn't matter." He says, his voice surprisingly soft and foreign to her ears.
No, it's not okay. She wants to say but doesn't. "It's just—for so long now, whenever I would picture the face of enemy, it was your face."
Instantly, his hand reaches for his scar. "My face. I see."
She bites her tongue; what an awful thing for her to say! A voice that sounds strangely like her Gran-gran's chides her: You're a horrible girl. Apologize right this instant.
But this is Zuko, her enemy, the son of the Fire Lord, and the apology fumbles out awkwardly. "No. No, that's not what I meant."
But he's use to the remark; he understands. "It's okay," he says quietly. Again, the softness of his voice surprises her. "I used to think this scar marked me. The mark of the banished prince, cursed to chase the Avatar forever."
As he speaks, she listens. She studies him, notices things about him that she hasn't taken the chance to notice before. For one, he is young, much younger than she would have ever thought. He's Sokka's age, maybe older, but if he is, it's barely.
She thinks about his scar, wonders how he got it. Wonders how he can wake up every day and look at it in the mirror. She thinks this not out of spite but compassion. He is young; with youth comes vanity. People are petty; they judge by what they see. She knows this because she too is guilty of it, is guilty of thinking he is a monster because of a mark on his face.
"--But lately, I've realized I'm free to determine my own destiny," he finishes his thoughts sadly. "Even if I'll never be free of my mark."
"Maybe you could be free of it." She speaks before she thinks, but does not, cannot, regret her words. Here in the underground catacombs of Bai Sing Sei, Zuko is real to her, a real boy with a good heart and in a lot of pain. She's never been good at dealing with people in pain. She cares too much--for her family, for strangers, and even for banished princes who've become her sworn enemy.
He whips his head around and stares at her. The look on his face is priceless, torn between disbelief and fragile hope. The look is so human, so fragile and breakable—she'll heal him just for that. Because she is starting to learn that he is human, that he is capable of feeling fear and love and envy and every other emotion that she can feel.
"What?" He asks, with frailty. There is an unspoken plea in his words: don't give me hope. Please. I've had my heart broken too many times, and I can't bear to have it broke again.
She strengthens her resolve: "I have healing powers—"
He shakes his head; she can feel the walls around his heart shoot up with a simple movement. "It's a scar," He says, his voice hardened and sort of afraid. "It can't be healed."
Gently, she pulls out the sacred oasis water. A million thoughts—don't do it, don't waste the water, you aren't strong enough, he's the enemy—race through her mind, but she ignores them. Something beyond her control is moving her, stirring her with blind compassion and faith in simple human goodness.
She can make him whole again, she knows. She can make him whole, and good, and—
"This is water from the Spirit Oasis at the North Pole." She tells him quietly. "It has special properties, so I have been saving it for something important."
Does Zuko count as something important? –She thinks that maybe he does.
"I don't know if it would work, but..."
She wonders, for a moment, what will happen if she does manage to heal him. She wonders if he will still be her enemy, wonders if he could not instead become an ally, or at the very least, a friend.
She wonders if they could start over.
He looks over at her cautiously. When they're standing this close, she finds his face easy to read. There is disbelief, (why would she heal him he's her enemy,) and gratitude, (thank you, thank you,) and hope, fragile and breakable hope.
He closes his eyes, and she steps closer.
Suddenly, she realizes that she's never been this close to him before, not when she hasn't been overrun with emotions, or fighting. Her senses suddenly heighten, almost to the point where she wants to fall down. Suddenly, she can see him, can see the sharp shape of his jaw, the gentle curve of his nose, and the catlike nature of his eyes. She realizes that he smells like fire, like charcoal and ash, and she finds she isn't afraid. She can feel the warmth of his inner fire radiating around him, and she wonders if firebenders ever get cold.
She raises her hand slowly and touches his face. She notes that the burn isn't as bad as it initially looks. Softly, she places her hand on his scar. She studies the contrast in their skin tone, the dark coffee color of her own skin compared to the white-pale of his. She studies the ridges between the burnt flesh with her fingers, and notices how soft the rest of him feels compared to the scar.
Her thumb accidentally brushes his lips; she notices how soft those feel, too.
Being this close to him feels intimate and sensual. It sends shivers down her spine, but she isn't afraid. Now that she's been this close to him, has seen how human and flawed he really is, she doesn't think she'll ever be afraid of him again.
Here, in the dwindling darkness of Bai Sing Sei's catacombs, she is starting to realize that Zuko is human, has realized that his heart beats just as her's does, that the blood that runs in his veins is no different that the blood in hers. She is starting to realize that underneath his tough exterior and mile-high walls is just a boy: a broken boy whose deepest and most painful scars aren't the physical ones she can see on his face.
She wonders if she can't heal those scars, too.
Weeks later, when she is far from Bai Sing Sei and Aang is still unconscious, she begins to burn herself.
She only does it at night when there is no one around, save the moon, but Yue is use to keeping her secrets now. And while she burns herself intentionally, she does not do it for the thrill of pain. No, she burns herself for a purpose. They are only small burns, unnoticeable to all but the trained eye. Each night, she gives herself a larger burn, lets the fire melt her skin for a little longer, and waits until she cannot stand the pain any longer before she heals it. Then she studies the way the water soaks the heated flesh, noticing how long and how much water needs to be used for each mark she removes.
This is only practice for her.
After all, none of her marks, no matter how fearsome they may seem at the time, can ever compare to his. Which is why she practices her healing art nightly, until she feels she can relieve him of his scar, can heal him of his wounds, both physical and spiritual.
In spite of everything he has done to her, in spite of every wrong he has committed, of every sin he has made, she cannot hate him. She believes too much in simple human goodness, and knows too well the frailty of the human spirit. And he is too human in her mind. She has felt his flesh beneath hers, has listened to his heartbeat, and knows that he shares with her a simple human sorrow. She is disappointed in him, yes, is disappointed in the decisions he's made, but he is human—he makes mistakes. In time, he will realize he's made a mistake.
In time, she will forgive him, wholly and unconditionally, and when that time comes, she wants to be ready.
So she practices.