A/N: How does one go about continuing a story which one has neglected for so long? Or more importantly, how does one apologize to readers who have been kept waiting almost two years for a new chapter? I will not try the latter, because there really is no apology for waiting so long. I could say that a lot of things have happened in my real life, both good and not so good, but even that doesn't account for two years. I just didn't know how to start again. It was the continuing flow of reviews, heartbreakingly lovely and encouraging, that finally convinced me that I just HAD to do it, no matter what. So this chapter wouldn't even exist without those reviews. Thank everyone of you who took the time to write them.
My writing muscles, which I haven't exercised for all that time, have gone limp and rusty, so this chapter isn't what it should be. Anyway, I will use those muscles again in the future and hope that things will get better again.
Chapter 25: Honesty
Katara had walked only a few steps in the direction of the camp when she heard Sokka's terse command. He stood with his back to her, not seeing that she had no intention of leaving him to do whatever he deemed necessary.
Over Sokka's head she met Zuko's questioning gaze.
Do I tell him, or do I fight him?
She shuddered at the finality of the question. It was not supposed to be that way. She had thought she might get Sokka alone somewhere, maybe reminisce about something funny that had happened back home. She had planned of breaking the news to him gently, although she had not even started yet to figure out how.
But the time for doing things the way she had planned was apparently over. Damn that full moon.
She nodded to Zuko.
Go ahead and tell him, she thought. Try to be nice.
"I truly appreciate your concern for Katara's honour," Zuko started, his voice mellow and missing the amused arrogance from before. "I honestly do. But you will have to admit that it is a husband's privilege to protect and defend his wife's honour. So you may put back your sword."
While he had spoken, Katara had walked back to Zuko's side, taking his hand.
Sokka didn't move. He still held his sword in an aggressive angle towards Zuko, his eyes blazing blue fire. It appeared he had not understood.
This isn't going well.
"What are you talking about?" Sokka finally asked in a terse voice.
"Katara is my wife," Zuko said softly.
Sokka's sword, still pointed at Zuko, began to tremble.
He glanced to her.
"Tell me that he lies."
She shook her head.
With a swift motion, Sokka sheathed his sword, turned on his heel and stalked away.
Katara didn't need a gift for seeing people's emotions to feel the hurt coming from him.
I have to go after him.
I'll wait for you back at the campsite.
He gave her hand a reassuring squeeze and then let her go.
She ran after her brother, who seemed not to be looking where he was going.
He didn't slow his steps.
"Let me explain."
At that, he spun to her, all the anger that had been directed at Zuko before now squarely hitting her. It was like a physical blow to see him so angry; she couldn't remember ever having seen him looking at her quite like that.
"I am NOT talking to you."
She squared her shoulders.
"Then let me do the talking," she said. "Yes, I did marry Zuko. I will not try to explain it to you, but it was my choice to make and I'm not going to apologize for it. But I am sorry for not having told you the moment we were back."
He set his jaw and drew himself even straighter upright.
"You've humiliated me, Katara," he said. "You've taken from me the one responsibility, the one right I have as your brother."
"To choose a husband for me?" she asked acidly.
"Yes!" he yelled. "Or at least to give my consent. How could you have done this without my consent? Without dad's consent?"
"I'm my own person; I don't need anyone's consent!"
"You're a child!"
"I'm sixteen years old and I haven't been a child for a very long time."
She saw Sokka flinch at her last words and was almost sorry for hitting him where he hurt just as much as she did. They had both stopped being children the day their mother had died.
"I don't mourn my childhood, Sokka," she continued quietly, lifting her hand to reach out to him, but letting it sink back to her side when she saw him stiffen with rejection. "But I should at least be allowed to be a woman."
His gaze was cold like a stranger's when he looked at her silently from head to toe as if he saw her for the first time in his life.
She took a deep breath and opened her mind to the perception of emotions she seemed to have developed, trying to see if that silvery bond of sibling love was still there, still intact.
She found it easily, still pulsing with vivid life, still strong and unharmed.
It was his pride, she concluded. His pride that had been injured today. By now she knew enough about male pride to understand that this was a serious injury indeed.
"And you decided to be with him. With a man who stands for everything that is wrong with this world."
He was deliberately unfair. He himself had accepted Zuko yesterday, but of course now all Zuko's motives had to be questioned again.
But she would not call him on his unfairness. Arguing with him in his current mood would only amount to a vast quantity of wasted breath. For once, she would take the high road and let him stew in his own anger.
"Yes, I decided to be with him. Destiny chooses strange things sometimes, and I haven't completely understood yet what it has chosen for me. But I have to follow this path, and I have to do so with Zuko."
He shook his head, and then looked back at her with deliberate coldness.
"Fine, you've made your choice and I can't do anything about it anyway."
She tried to smile but his expression turned even grimmer when she did.
"Just don't come running to me when this... this marriage, turns out to be the worst mistake of your life."
With those words, he turned and walked away from her again. This time, she didn't follow him.
On her way back to the campsite, eager to draw some comfort from her husband, she stumbled over a rock that had suddenly appeared in her path.
"Not so fast, Sugar Queen."
Katara strained her eyes and finally found Toph perching atop a square boulder that had probably been a makeshift lookout.
"Did I hear right that you are married to his Royal Sparkiness?"
"Yes, you did."
"So, getting tied to trees is part of the whole experience?"
Katara felt blood hotly rushing into her cheeks.
"That's... private," she said, after having battled down the worst of her embarrassment. She had seriously hoped Toph hadn't seen that part of last night's events.
"If he abuses you—"
"He doesn't!" she cried.
Toph shrugged, her expression bored.
"More's the pity," she said. "I was so looking forward to having an excuse to kick lil'sparky's royal behind."
Katara plastered a grin to her face that she hoped looked genuine and turned to continue on her way.
Which all of a sudden was blocked by a rather massive stone wall.
"One more thing."
She spun around, glaring at Toph, who stood directly behind her, arms folded.
"I think we both agree that you screwed up royally..." Toph said, then snickered. "No pun intended," she continued. "You screwed up royally, where Sokka was concerned. You should have told him the truth yesterday."
Katara opened her mouth to reply, what exactly she was not sure, when she was silenced with an impatient gesture.
"Spilled milk," Toph said and then lowered her voice in a menacing way that was neither funny nor reassuring. "But if you're planning on doing the same with Aang..."
She stretched out her left arm, fingers of her left hand spread wide. Then she slowly curled her fingers into a tight fist.
Behind Katara, the stone wall crumbled to dust.
Back at the campsite, Zuko found himself somewhat at loose ends. He was alone. Katara was off somewhere talking with Toph, which he could feel was less than an emotionally uplifting experience. Sokka, the one person he badly needed to talk to about plans of the invasion, had slunk off somewhere to sulk, and his uncle and the Avatar had gone to the river for firebending lessons.
With little else to do but wait for someone to come back, he started sharpening his swords, usually a task which gave him time to think and to relax, while he drew the sharpening stone in even, slow movements over the blade of his swords.
Today, however, calm seemed to have deserted him. At first he thought the most obvious reason was the extraordinary experience he had had with Katara last night. Strangely though, even given the scene with Sokka this morning, he felt that things had never been more right, more clear between them. Even more than that, he thought he finally understood the purpose and the nature of their bond. This understanding, he knew with crystal clarity now, was the key to using the full power of their gifts. He also knew that those gifts were not given for personal joy and gratification, but for a greater purpose. That with them came a responsibility that he could no more deny than the Avatar could deny his.
But even he knew that this responsibility would eventually lead him to actions and decisions he would much rather avoid, this thought was not what made him restless and had him looking around him and over his shoulder every other minute.
A sense of lurking danger crawled over his skin in regular intervals, a premonition of some impending disaster that he was unable to shake. He almost sighed with relief when he finally felt Katara approaching the campsite – alone.
"I have to tell Aang," she said as soon as she was in hearing range.
He waited a while for her to elaborate, but when she kept staring at some unseen point somewhere, he cleared his throat.
"A very smart decision," he said.
Katara threw him a look that told him without any words at all where he could put that sort of remark.
Another shiver of fear shuddered threw him that had nothing to do with her angry glance.
He got up, hand on his sword handle.
Katara turned to him and even if he wouldn't have been able to read her emotions, he could see how preoccupied she was, probably rehearsing what she would tell Aang.
He hadn't quite completed the thought, when there were indeed two people noisily approaching the campsite, one of them excitedly chattering while the other smiled and nodded and looked very pleased.
Zuko sighed with relief and let go of his swords. Beside him, Katara tensed even more, if that was possible. Her nervousness kicked up his edginess another notch.
Aang and his uncle where just about to reach them, when something crashed through the undergrowth of the wood behind them.
Before he had even turned around, while the others froze with shock, he knew.
He recognized the ear-splitting cries of the great riding lizards and he felt the malevolent presence of his sister. He briefly wondered why none of them had felt it before.
"Brother," she greeted him with an amiable grin on her face. "How nice to see you again. And Uncle, too, what a happy coincidence."
She hopped from her saddle and walked toward them, hips swinging and smiling victoriously.
"Quite a nice little family reunion, wouldn't you say?"
Zuko put his hand on his sword and Azula stopped in her tracks, her smile vanishing.
"Don't even think such un-brotherly thoughts, dear," she said icily, while she signalled to Ty Lee, mounted on another beast. Ty Lee dismounted and drew a bundle from behind her saddle that fell to the ground with a heavy thump.
Beside him, Katara gasped.
Azula smiled again.
"If that's his name, yes. He was out there in the woods, doing a lousy job of keeping watch and we thought we would oblige him by giving him a ride back to your camp."
Azula gave another signal and Ty Lee drew a knife from her belt and held it to the unconscious boy's throat.
"Just to ensure the conversation will stay civilized," Azula said, her smile so sweet that it made his stomach turn.
She turned a little and bent the full force of her acid charm on Aang.
"Congratulation to your speed recovery, Avatar," she said, "I have to beg your pardon for causing you so much unnecessary pain. You see, I was trying my very best to kill you as quickly and painlessly as possible."
Aang, visibly seething, drew to a fighting stance, while Iroh beside him was looking for all the world as if he was just an curious bystander.
"You can try again right now," he said and Zuko was surprised for a moment at the note of steel in his boyish voice. This is the real Avatar speaking, he thought.
Yes it is, a voice in his head said softly, you haven't really believed it until now, have you?
Azula waved a dismissive hand.
"Ah, I didn't came for violence, not when we have something so momentous to celebrate."
Again she turned to him, favouring him with a smile.
"Congratulation Zuko, to your wedding," she continued, all smiles. "I have to admit to being a bit irritated at not having been invited, but I am so happy for you and Katara. I always wished for a sister."
It was cruel, it was clever and it was horribly effective. Even without a gift for sensing people's emotions, Zuko could feel how those words hit Aang more precisely than any firebending move could have done.
Nooooooooooo. How could she? Katara's anguish was like another precise blow. How could she even have known?
"What?", Aang croaked, arms hanging limply at his side, his voice that of a hurt little boy.
"Oh, they didn't get around to tell, you, did they?" Azula asked with feigned shock. "How remiss of them. Well, they had a very romantic wedding at the City of Flowers and the greatness of their love is still the talk everywhere in Tang-Ma-Hal and I'm sure the owner of the hotel where they spent their wedding night would…"
"Enough," Aang said with a helpless gesture. "I get it." Then he looked pleadingly at Katara, who in turn lowered her head.
"I'm so sorry, Aang," she whispered. "I really wanted to tell you today."
Zuko started to feel the drain, the loss of energy between them and stepped to Katara to take her hand. It was cool and clammy in his grip, but he felt at once the reassuring pulse of strength flowing between them.
"All right," Azula cut in the momentary silence. "We're all busy people and as much as I would like to let you sort things out, I'll have to leave and I have to do so with our dear Avatar."
"If you think we'll just let you waltz out of here with Aang in your clutches, you are sadly mistaken."
Azula looked at him, unperturbed.
"And if you think, your brother-in-law will see another sunrise if you don't let me take the Avatar, you are equally wrong."
"Don't give them Aang."
The slightly slurred words had all of them turn their heads in Ty Lee's direction. Unnoticed by them, Sokka had apparently reached consciousness again and struggled to his feet. Ty Lee's knife was still firmly pressed to his throat, but in his eyes shone resolve and bravery.
"Sokka…no." Katara's words were broken and thin.
Pain sliced through him, so excruciating it almost forced him to his knees. He had known that she loved her brother deeply. He had just never really understood this kind of sibling love. He did so now.
Sokka turned his head to his sister, risking his skin while he did so.
"Katara, you know it's the only option. You can fight them easily, they have no chance."
"You'll be the first who's dead," Azual pointed out.
"I know," Sokka said, his voice steady and icy cool. "And you'll be the second."
Zuko's head was ringing with the wailing NO Katara kept screaming silently. He held her hand more firmly, trying to restrain her from whatever she decided to do to save her brother.
Azula was still smiling, but her smile seemed somewhat forced now, as if she had lost some of her conviction that her cruelly clever plan was going to work.
"I am going to count to three," she said. "One…"
Katara started forward, as did Aang, but Sokka shook his head, his eyes ablaze with resolve, Ty Lee's knife grazing his skin.
Zuko wondered fleetingly, where Toph was, maybe she could…
Azula slightly lifted her hand to signal Ty Lee, while Katara turned to stone next to him, her eyes wide, all her attention trained on the knife at her brother's throat.