Fandom / Pairing: Avatar: The Last Airbender, Zuko/Katara
Rating: T, for implications.
Disclaimer: My heart burns for you! laughs
Summary: You learn something every day if you pay attention.
Notes: For A. J. Rayne, who totally stole my idea. I still loves you.
She hates it when he kisses her.
She's the master of control, master of commanding her emotions. In her small world, she is dominant and sovereign ruler. When he kisses her, she isn't. She's an essence of herself she's not accustomed to being.
She feels his hands on the sides of her face, in the tangles of her hair, on the small of her back, and she wonders when she became this way. When stupid things like kisses from him made her lose everything that she held in esteem about herself.
Suddenly, as she feels the tip of his tongue sweep across her bottom lip, she understands the mechanics of these moments, the grammatical structure their odd little dance seems to be taking. Her head bends back further and her knees shake a little, but there's him solid and unmoving and it's something so she takes it.
But - then she runs her hands up across his shoulders, to clasp around his neck. She hears the catch in his breath, feels the shake in his shoulders and wonders if she isn't the first to show him absolution.
Two plus two plus two plus two equals eight, and they're a ragtag bunch if nothing else. There's the Airbender, a bald kid with a maturity beyond his years hidden behind the glee in his eyes as he rides his air scooter. There's the son of the chief of the Water tribes of the south, metal boomerang glinting in the sun against his hip. There's the blind earthbending master who can bend metal when she puts her mind to it and never seems to run into anything. There's the mythical creature that they ride, and the odd flying lemur thing that perches cheerily on the monk's head. There's the ex-Fire Nation general with the shorn edges of hair where his topknot should have gone, regal even in tones of brown and dust and earth, at home next to a pot of tea and in a nice chair.
There's the exiled prince, stripped of his finery and title and officially extradited from the family business. In his simple, worn robes he looks every inch the commoner save for the fierce look in his eyes and the set of his shoulders. The scar covering half his face adds an intimidating factor to the glare he sends to those who approach. Mostly, he hides the mark under a heavy hood in, gold eyes glinting against the darkness.
It's a cool summer night, breezy and clear. Iroh is the first to leave the circle, rubbing his stomach as he goes and complementing Katara for making dinner that night. He ambles off, unrolling his sleeping skin and turning away from the fire. Toph and Aang follow, stiff shoulders cracking as they stretch before retreating to Appa or crawling into an earthen tent. Momo settles on Appa's head, and soon a deep rumbling snore echoes softly through the glade. The crackle of the fire and the breathing of their compatriots is all that can be heard as the remaining three sit in companionable silence, evenly spaced from one another around the deep orange flame.
(Zuko's eyes flash every time the heat makes the wood crackle.)
Sokka yawns widely as the moon climbs over the tree line, then stands and crawls into his own sleeping bag, looking like a larvae when he's zipped it closed. The quiet lull of his breathing is loudest when she finds herself alone with the exiled prince in the middle of a dark forest. Somehow, eight became two. It was simple subtraction, really; six people fall asleep and then there's just two left to tend the fire.
Quietly, she stands and moves around the fire, taking slow, measured steps. The dirt beneath her bare feet makes hardly a sound, and she pads softly until she's beside Zuko, on the far end of the fire from the rest of the camp. With a soft rustle, she sits down beside him, and looks into the heart of the fire.
"Hello," she says, voice barely above a whisper. He doesn't reply, but his eyes shift towards her, acknowledging her. Encouraged, she continues. "We, uh, haven't really gotten the chance to talk. Or, really, much of anything."
Silently, he nods, but doesn't give any indication of doing anything. From here, she can see the texture of his scar, the dips and folds in his skin within the deep-seated burn. The healing instinct in her itches to use the water in her skin and fix it, but she clenches her fists and stops them from shaking too badly.
She looks at him sidelong for a long moment, then rests her head on her knees and smiles.
He looks at her from the corner of his eye. "Yes?" He's got that dour expression she's so used to seeing.
"Nothing," she replies, and the corners of her eyes soften. "I'm not used to you with hair, is all."
He sniffs and looks away from her. "My topknot was a symbol of power."
She laughs and turns her head back the flame. "So were those heavy robes, but I don't see you defending those." She leans back against the low earth walls Aang bended for them and shifts her gaze to the edge of the light. "I like you with hair better," she says after a long moment.
He looks at her, surprised, before a carefully blank expression settles over his features.
They watch the fire until the wolf-rabbits' howling drowns out the crackle of the fire.
It's about balance, she thinks, as the hiss of steam billows in the air between them.
Her hand reaches out and, in a sweeping motion, she freezes crystals in the steam, pushing them by sheer force of will to go after him. She sees a lick of fire move towards her and she gasps. The humidity in the air deposes around her skin, forming a thick coating of ice over the surface. Crossing her arms over her face, she grits her teeth and steadies herself against the onslaught of fire. She can feel the edges of the ice giving way to the heat, and she clenches her jaw and lowers the freezing point as far as she can to buy herself time.
The air clears for a long moment, and she can hear the whoosh of air and the rumble of earth moving as Toph and Aang spar a few hundred meters away. It's a game for the four of them, one Iroh concocted after noting that between their little group of eight they had the four elements.
It's about balance, she thinks, and shifts her stance to mirror his. Air and earth - the unstoppable force meets the immovable object, and it's less about power and more about agreement. The earth won't move and the air won't stop. So, instead, the wind picks up and dies down, and the earth erodes slowly. Everything cedes a point.
"My turn?" She calls, and he nods, shifting to a defensive stance. They're standing on large boulders in the shallows of a fast-moving river, the stones uneven and slippery. Neither of them has sure footing, and their bending is reflecting this as strikes miss their marks and trajectories that should be straight veer slightly off-center. It's the rush of the water and the burn of the noontime sun overhead.
She sends a tidal wave after him, and she sees the way his shoulders shift as he breathes in, exhaling in a huge burst of flame. She can see what he's doing - he's creating a pocket for himself in the midst of the wave by having the heat be so strong that the water is forced to go around him, and she tries adding ice to the wave. However, she's misjudged the temperature difference, and the icicles sublimate on contact.
There's a whooshing sound as the wave crashes and the last of the fireball dissipates. "Nice," he says, and smirks a bit. "I almost didn't make it."
She grins. "I'll remember that next time. Fifteen seconds was it?" He's just a few feet away and she moves to the edge of her boulder to gently shove his shoulder.
"Twenty three, thank you very much." He rubs his shoulder absently as she takes up a defensive stance once more. "Heads up." Now she's up against his fire whip. It moves to strike, and she jumps up to avoid the crack of the tip. Unfortunately, on her landing her ankle rolls on the uneven surface, and she loses her balance, falling forward.
The whip of fire strikes the surface of the water and disappears in a hiss of steam. "Katara!" He moves to the edge of his boulder and manages to catch her. His large hands wrap around her waist, and her momentum from her spill causes him to fall backwards, too.
In the blink of an eye, she finds herself on top of the exiled Fire Nation prince. And not just on top of him. Kissing him.
They break apart rapidly, backpedaling to put space between them, and some part of her registers that this whole situation would be funny if it hadn't happened to her. She turns a wide-eyed stare to Zuko, who's mirroring her expression despite attempts to school his features into his usual blank mask.
"Did-did we just...?"
"I think so?"
She blinks rapidly twice, three time. "Maybe we should...pretend that didn't happen?"
"That what happened?" His features visibly lose tension, and that spark of almost mischief that she's used to seeing is back in his good eye.
"Exactly." She stands and dusts herself off. "Thanks, though."
If she didn't know better, she'd swear he was blushing. "You're welcome."
There's a long moment of silence where she just watches his shadowed face (stupid bangs) before she snaps herself out of it. "So, I guess it's my turn."
She makes sure she's balanced.
There's records hidden away in the annals of the Fire Nation. The main archives always tell of the main branch of the Fire Nobility, of the associated brothers and sisters. However, they don't tell of the fate of those disowned by the head of the family, of the few who choose otherwise.
Once, many a century ago, there was a young Fire Nation prince, next in line for the throne. He had a younger brother who worshiped him as a god, an idol from his boyhood. The prince, Kaworu, chose to travel the world once when he was twenty, a means of escape from the capital after his father's death. He left the throne in the hands of his little brother, Keitaro, with the promise that he would return after nine or ten months of travel. Keitaro, the steadfast younger brother, swore to keep the kingdom in order until Kaworu returned.
Kaworu sailed across the vast oceans, stopping at small islands and meeting indigenous peoples along the way, people who bended differently and had never known otherwise. Eventually, he struck the Earth continent and journeyed on the back of an ostrich-horse across the great expanse, over mountains and across deserts. He saw the Great Library and offered his journal to Wan Shi Tong. Finally, he sailed to the edge of the Earth Kingdom and journeyed through a festival. There, he met a fellow traveler, a dark-skinned young woman with eyes bluer than he had ever seen. They quickly hit it off and, after a few days at the festival spent talking with her, he asked her to travel with him. He was four months into his ten-month journey at that point and he was growing lonely.
Five months later he arrived in a Fire Nation port for the first time in months. He was greeted by a crowd of people bowing before him and welcoming him back warmly. Behind him, his traveling companion stared at him wide-eyed.
Keitaro greeted him warmly in the Fire Lord throne room, running down the stairs to embrace his older brother, the brother who could do no wrong. Kaworu returned the embrace warmly, and then introduced Keitaro to Umi, his traveling companion of the last half of his journey.
The next day, Kaworu sat at the head of the throne room as crown prince of the Fire Nation, still uncrowned due to his sudden journey. To his right sat his brother, wearing the smaller crown of succession. Behind him, Umi knelt silently, the blue of her robes stark in the red and dark room. Before them sat the assembled court of the royal family.
"I want to marry her," he told them in no uncertain terms. The room erupted in cries of disbelief, shouts of protest, and the sole whimper of a younger brother whose image was shattered. Duty before all, and Kaworu had broken the cardinal rule.
"You cannot," bellowed the head adviser. "The people will never accept her as the Fire Lady."
"Then she won't take the title." Kaworu slammed his fist on the low table. "You cannot revoke my birthright!"
"Prince Kaworu, you cannot - we cannot - your people cannot - allow you to marry this...this--"
"Waterbender?" The room flinched. "Fine then. I will abdicate."
"Brother!" Keitaro gaped at his older brother, the flame in his hair glinting in the firelight.
Kaworu ignored him. "Find me a way for me to marry her. Or, I will step down."
The cabinet pointedly did not look at him, did not rise or bow to acknowledge his departure from the room with the water tribeswoman. The hall was silent in the wake of Kaworu's ultimatum.
"There must be some way," Keitaro looked desperately to the assembled wisdom of the Fire Nation before him.
"There isn't. He has three choices: he can leave her, he can marry her and risk a coup, or he can abdicate." Keitaro bowed his head and studied the reflection of the light against the lacquered surface of the table.
The abdication of Prince Kaworu would be stricken from the records of the Fire Nation. Kaworu would cease to exist, and the succession would fall directly to Keitaro.
In truth, however, Kaworu and Umi lived full lives, quiet and happy in the North Pole.
Sometimes, history lies.
The sun shines through the hazy white curtains, faint in the pre-dawn air. Her body is used to the endless night of the South Pole during this season, so the light, however dim, wakes her. Cream sheets and a red blanket meet her gaze, and for a long moment she's confused.
Then - the arm over her waist tightens slightly, and there's a long exhale of breath behind her ear. She feels fingers flex against her stomach and bites her tongue to keep from laughing at the absurdity of it all.
Carefully, she rolls onto her back. Her long hair catches under her shoulder, but she finds herself focusing on his face. For once, there are no lines, no brow furrowed in worry or jaw clenched in anger. Today, there are the planes of his face and the smooth ivory skin unmarred by tension. Softly, so softly, she traces the place where the scar once was, an uneven tan the only indication of there once being something else there. She can feel him breathing against her skin, and it makes her shiver in spite of the thick covers.
He mutters something unintelligible and bats her hand away, then shifts a little away from her. His hand slides off her stomach, coming to rest on her hip. It feels like a weight lifted, and she breathes deeply. Everything - the sheets, the pillows, her skin - smells like him, and she's feeling smothered. She moves gingerly to the edge of the bed, trying desperately not to rouse him. She wants a moment alone, wants one where she can contemplate the magnitude of her actions, wants one where she doesn't notice the darkness of her skin against his or the finery of the room she's in.
She pushes off the covers and stands, wrapping the heavy red blanket around her. The air is cool, almost cold, and the light is strengthening. The hazy white curtains line the large windows, and at the far end she spies heavy red hangings that, she assumes, would block out the light. It's quiet, and she is thankful for that much.
A hand reaches out to find the split in the curtain, running over the folds and dips in the fabric just as they traced over pale skin and taut muscles the night before. The folds give way and she pulls them aside just slightly, peeking out at the courtyard in the center of the palace. The image of the sun creeping over the scalloped roofs is breathtaking.
Then - there's the long arm that reaches out and pushes the curtain aside. There's the arch of his shoulder at her eye level and the sheet he's got awkwardly wrapped around his waist, and then there's him.
"Hey," he says softly, and the moment is vast.
She doesn't reply. Instead, she smiles up at him and rests her head on his chest. His arm falls across her shoulders, and they watch the sun rise together.
[1 You learn something every day if you pay attention. Ray LeBlond
[2 "Materias" is "subjects" in Spanish, and in this case refers to the school subjects as prompts.
[3 Katara's waterbending, this time around, was based on actual bending she has done on the show, as opposed to my fertile imagination. I think I gave Zuko Sasuke's fireball, though we can pretend it's an extension of Iroh or something. (Somewhere, a bunch of Naruto fangirls swooned.) Other than that, everything is a skill that they have demonstrated on the show.
[4 Part three contains two chemistry terms some of you may not be familiar with. "Deposition" is the transition of a gas to a solid state without an intermediary stage. An example would be frost or snow; vapor instantly freezes, skipping the liquid stage. "Sublimation" is the opposite transition - from solid to gas. A common example of this is dry ice (CO2).
[5 Originally published 26 May 2007.