A Warrior's Accord
Toph felt it first.
Attuned as she was to the stable, natural contours of the land around her, the dislodgement of so much earth, even distant, sent a trembling message through her feet.
She thought little of it. Landslides occurred frequently around the precariously designed Temple. The woody ravine below them was cluttered with jagged chunks of rock; its river clogged with stone and silt that tumbled down off the cliffside. Sparing it no more than a moment's note, she returned to picking tick-beetles out of Appa's fur, expertly flicking the largest at the back of Aang's passing head.
Zuko realised first.
It was utterly out of the blue. One moment, he was rhythmically sliding his whetstone down over the sword propped on his knee, silently occupied with the task and ignoring the passing hours of dozy, humdrum cacophony. The next, he lifted his head and asked no one in particular, "Where's the waterbender?" They were the first words he had uttered in half a day.
Sokka looked up from his engrossing toenail examination by the ostensibly napping Toph, and blinked in faint surprise. It seemed as if the hoarse, clipped inquiry had suddenly reminded him of Zuko's continued persistence in no longer existing only in moments they were actively running for their lives. Toph swore she heard the pause in Sokka's brain, and indulged in a languid eyeroll under the forearms folded over her face. "Didn't she climb down the canyon to pick berry-roots or something for lunch?" Sokka eventually replied unconcernedly, pulling himself to his feet and rubbing his grumbling stomach.
It took only moments. Her quick mind put the necessary pieces together with a speedy, horrible comprehension. Toph slowly sat up on her sleeping roll. All thoughts of feigned sleep cast themselves off with a sickening clunk.
"She did," Zuko replied tersely. He leaned out of his stone perch to view the sky from behind a shading hand. "Five hours ago," he clarified, not turning back to speak.
Sokka spotted her first.
His shrill, desperate shout brought Aang swooping down from the sky, and the other two running. Their feet slipped and stumbled awkwardly on the sloped, loose shale, ankles twisting painfully.
They pulled her out with all the gentleness that could be wrung from the art of earthbending. The rocks, freshly torn from their homes of millennium, ominous and unyielding, clattered away down the steep incline as she was prised from their cruel hold. Zuko, the closest and seeming to lack anything more appropriate to do, carefully gathered her up from the bed of sharp, shorn stone. Toph lowered her hands and turned to the airbender, hearing his first rush of tears breaking free.
"Aang?" she asked, her small whisper almost reverent. "Is it really bad?"
Zuko answered firmly when Aang seemed unable. "Yes. Of course it is."
Sokka bit down on his lip fiercely, turning and tightly shutting his eyes. He attempted to yoke his brain into remembering the context of the world around him, to not shatter into hopeless, unsalvageable pieces. Not yet. He forcefully thrust the picture of a mangled sister away - he needed to think, to focus.
"Water," he finally said. "We need to get her to water. She might be able to heal herself."
When he turned back around, Zuko had already started down the ruined hillside, commanding Aang irritably over his shoulder to find him the quickest path to the river. His light steps began to negotiate new paths through the debris as though demons harried at his back. Sokka and Toph scrambled after him, struggling to keep pace with the agile, fleet-footed boy.
Aang looked up at Toph knelt on the churned, wet bank, one arm plunged in the brown water. He could feel the stirred silt with a waterbending caress, and felt oddly compelled to sieve the river clean. He looked down at the barely recognisable, still infinitely familiar face by his side, supported only in the gently insistent current by himself and her brother. He wondered if the silt would itch her. The last rational corner of his mind raged at him for caring about something as wholly unconnected to this nightmare as dirt. But the rest of him that was not thinking about dirt was buckling and weeping, unable to stop.
He looked up at Toph again. He had to ask.
How could he not, though there was no answer to be had that wouldn't potentially raze his last shred of bravery?
"Toph... why couldn't you find her, when she was under the rock?" It was less a question and more of a statement, already designed for the reply.
The little blind girl shook her head angrily, wet hair flapping across useless eyes. "She's alive, Aang. We've just got to wake her up! She's healed worse before!" Her lips pressed together until they were bloodless, but even so, her jaw wavered.
Aang considered himself answered.
The dusty, waning sunlight filtered through the ceiling of tree branches.
"Katara? Come on, wake up now." Sokka tried again. The pleas were becoming progressively less coherent, and a great deal more despairing. "Please, Katara? It's not so bad, is it?" The questions were slightly breathless, teetering delicately over the wrong edge of panic. "You've got just to wake up."
She slept on, and on.
They didn't dare shake her. They didn't dare touch her with anything but a feather-light anchor on the upper arms. It wasn't sleep; rather, a macabre substitute from which no one could be sure she would awaken.
The scabbed blood that had stood as a weak barricade between her and the permanency of her slumber was swiftly coming loose, releasing little eddies of precious red water downstream.
Aang and Sokka began pressing their hands to where her skin no longer did its job. But they only had four hands.
Sokka shut his eyes again. "Toph?"
"Her heartbeat's still there. It's.. really weak. I think she's bleeding somewhere inside."
Sokka moaned, a wounded, indistinct sound. "Why won't she wake up! Katara!"
Aang inched closer to her again, grim and determined.
"Katara, you can't just leave us. We need you." Aang's voice cracked, eyes and nose streaming now. "What would we do without you? You - you're everything to us. There's no way I would've learnt what I needed to about bending, or helped all those people, or even considered facing the Fire Nation if it wasn't for you." He swiped hopelessly at the steady well of tears impeding the sight of her broken body. It looked ridiculously small, here in the water. She'd always seemed so sturdy. Bigger than him. "How can I face the Fire Lord if you're not there with me?" He spoke in a half-whisper almost directly into her ear now, urgent and pleading. "I need you to be here to tell me what to do. You're my best friend, aren't you? Wake up! Please!"
She was silent.
And then, Aang was abruptly heaved out of the water by the back of his robes, a keen Earth Kingdom knife pressed to his throat in the same heartbeat.
"Waterbender!" Zuko's shout pierced the hushed fug, like strong hands tearing linen. "I've been waiting for this!" The airbender felt his robes being wound tightly within a fist, as the blade angled expertly to tap along the join of his neck and jaw.
Blank shock reigned over a stunned silence. Katara's head lolled in the water where Sokka's grip had loosened, and the firebender's mouth curled into an ugly sneer.
"The Avatar is mine, now." Aang's slack, teary face tightened in a wince as a strong arm crushed his ribcage. Slowly, confusion melted into a dawning horror.
Sokka's mouth dropped. "What... what do you think you're doing!?"
Toph's feet righted themselves under her, and she dropped into a half stance. "Talk fast, Hotman!" she warned.
Zuko threw Aang to the wet grass, levelling him with Katara. She bobbed gently in the water, boneless, like a puppet with cut strings. A swiftly planted knee in Aang's back knocked the breath from his lungs. The well-honed royal dagger slipped under his throat again as his head was roughly wrenched upwards, four fingers buried hard in his brow bone.
"I'm taking what is rightfully mine." Zuko spoke with an almost alien calmness, seemingly oblivious to the panic practically tangible in the air around him.
Katara's head twitched.
He spoke again, louder, his glare burrowing holes in Katara's slack, bruised face. "I'm taking what's mine, and no one can stop me. The Avatar's watchwolf has finally gone to sleep." He laughed sharply. "Look at you, waterbender! Lying stupid and senseless while I steal the Avatar right out from under you!"
Sokka gritted his teeth, his face a mask of misery. He began wading towards the bank, Katara drifting from his arms.
"Stay where you are, Sokka!" Toph's hand was still plunged in the water, her feet flat on the ground. "I've got this covered. Just keep holding onto her and don't let go! Got it?" She pinned him with a tight, sightless glare, as though daring him to disobey in such a moment.
Whether it was the shock of hearing her use his true name, or the iron in her voice that brooked no argument, Sokka stayed where he was. He gathered his limp, cold sister more closely into his chest.
Toph suddenly sucked in a sharp breath. "Her heartbeat… " The commanding tone had evaporated, the conclusion of her sentence seemingly with it. Toph's face lowered, her mouth contorting. "Sugar Queen?" she asked quietly.
And she whimpered. Like a little girl being buffeted in a crowd of strangers. It was very soft, but Aang heard it. The sound, emanating from Toph, was nothing short of terrifying.
Aang was half-blind with intense, surging fear. "Katara?" She was slack, and perfectly still.
His head slumped. Zuko's knife sliced a delicate red line into the soft skin of his neck.
"I had hoped for a rematch, you miserable peasant! I had thought the protector of the Avatar would be worth fighting!" Zuko spat with practiced, imperious venom, once familiar but now oddly foreign on his raspy voice. "Are you good for nothing but idle threats, then? Even I, your enemy, expected more than this!" The prince's sweaty hand turned slightly on the handle of tooled pearl. "My father will roast his body and display it before the palace walls, you know," he concluded with a malevolent, biting whisper, leaning as far out towards the brother and sister as he dared.
Sokka let out a noise somewhere between a growl and a hiss, his tears flowing freely now. "You worthless, worthless firebender scum! You cowardly bastard!" He pounded the river's surface with a fist. Zuko ignored him.
A brief, minute pulse of blue light. Toph's eyes widened under her wet fringe.
"You've failed him." His face twisted into a horrible mockery of a grin, brows drawn into an ugly, deep furrow. "You've failed the Avatar. His only defense, and you've fallen. How predictably pathetic." Aang tried to shake his head, but stopped with a hoarse cry as the keen blade dug into him anew. "The world is at the mercy of Fire Lord Ozai... and his heirs."
A flutter, this time. The weak light faded after a few moments.
"Don't listen to him, Katara! Please, please, just heal yourself! You've got to h - mmph!" Aang's voice was muffled as a hand clamped roughly over his face.
Seconds lengthened with painful precision as all eyes glued themselves to the floppy, paled form in Sokka's arms.
When nothing occurred further, Zuko dragged the still dripping Aang to his knees, both of them smeared with river mud. The prince stood behind the boy, his mouth now a grim, taut line. "Stand and fight, 'guardian!'" He shouted angrily into the clearing. His voice seemed to swell beyond the capacity of the little copse, forcing all who heard him to cringe in deference. "Stand and fight me, or I'll cut his throat right here and drag his corpse back to my father!"
A minute pulse of the water.
A faint wreath of light wrapping her hands.
Then nothing. No one breathed.
The soft sounds of the gurgling, oblivious river seemed deafening.
And then, Toph gasped into the silence. She felt what no one else could see - a slow, creeping current. It seemed leeched from the water, moving towards its master with an unnatural pull, tangling on her clothes and skin. It attached itself to her bare feet, the glow hardly visible in the dark murk. Weak at first, but steadily gathering speed, the translucent fluids trailed up her body, encasing each limb in sequence.
Sokka began reciting breathless encouragement, his voice still occasionally broken by a stray sob. "That's it, Katara, that's it... just keep going."
"I can hear something!" Toph cried excitedly. "Hold her head up so she can breathe, Snoozles!"
"I am, I am!" They both laughed in a choked, panicky way.
"Come on, Sugar Queen, keep it up!"
Aang fell on his haunches, his hands coming up to his eyes.
"It's getting stronger! Her heartbeat's getting stronger!"
"Look, her left arm! It's straightening!"
The dagger fell from his throat, coming to rest uneasily at its owners' side. With bowed head, the Avatar fervently mouthed silent praise, blessing and gratitude under Sokka and Toph's continued cataloguing, and offered it to whichever spirit had just granted him such a precious mercy.
Zuko's vicious golden stare had not wavered from the face of the waterbender for an instant.
The swirling mass of soothing, probing energies inched up her neck and swarmed quickly, gently over her face. The swollen flesh deflated back into the original curves of her brow and jaw, most of the small bruises shrinking into nothingness. The steady ooze of blood issuing from her nose ceased.
Her eyes opened.
Sokka let out a jubilant whoop. "Kata-"
A thick mass of water rose from the river. Before any of them could move, or speak, or think, it had elongated and frozen to a wicked needle tip, hard as folded steel, and plunged without preamble towards Zuko's chest with violent, inhuman speed.
Zuko leaped to the side, barely avoiding his death.
"Katara, wait!" Toph reacted first. A second coil of water was already rising, albeit far more slowly and sloppily. "He was lying the whole time! I could feel it!"
Aang crept forward on his hands and knees, sliding into the water and propping her up from the other side. Her eyes had not peeled themselves from Zuko; they were equal points of sharp, electric fury on her otherwise sagging face. The prince, chest heaving, was returning the stare with no less intensity. But she was already losing the battle to keep her eyes open; it seemed she was willing to bend again on sheer, bloody-minded will power.
Briefly looking from one to the other, Aang leaned forward and made hushing noises in her ear. "It's okay, Katara. I'm alright, see? You just need to rest now." She turned slightly at his voice. Her eyes left the wet, muddy boy standing on the bank with a knife in his hand only with great effort. She looked Aang up and down, her readied weapon already sinking back under the water. Apparently satisfying herself that he was in one piece, she passed out.
The ensuing shouts of panic were cut through by a quiet, authoritative tone.
"She's asleep, that's all. Get her out of the water."
The prince stood to the side with a grave, inscrutable expression as Sokka and Aang pulled her up onto the bank. She was laid amongst the driest grass they could find, the patches of bare dirt they walked on swiftly turning to mud. Sokka promptly turned on the firebender with a malicious glare. His mouth opened to unleash an enthusiastic stream of invective, noting the prince moving to crouch down.
Toph, in her infinite wisdom, sensed it. "Don't even start." Sokka redirected the glare to her, open-mouthed, which she returned only with an exhausted, uncharacteristically airy smile. "He can explain when there are less important things to worry about, idiot. I'll put him in a big rock vice while he does, if it'll make you feel better."
Sokka glanced back at Katara. He merely grumbled that it had better be a tight one as he returned to his sibling's side.
Zuko, ignoring them both, cast a critical eye over the steadily-breathing, supine form. "She needs blankets, and warm food. I don't think she should be moved far until she wakes up; there could still be wounds inside the body."
Toph seized Sokka by the arm as he began to protest. "Come on, Meathead. That's us."
"We can't leave her - "
"Sure we can. She's with friends. And I think you and I need to have a heart-to-heart before you decide to enact 'Water Tribesman Revenge' on Aang's only firebending teacher." With a firm, earthbender grip, and only the smallest and briefest of nods to Zuko, Toph steered a still gesticulating Sokka up the path towards the cliffside. The sounds of their ensuing argument faded into the dense forest.
Aang removed his wet outer robe, and gently lifted Katara's head to pillow it beneath her. "She's so cold," he whispered.
Zuko knelt down, and shuffled closer. He held his hands out, and Aang watched their colour deepen to an unnatural red. When they smoldered, he lowered them and began to make passes up and down Katara's limp body. They hovered a handspan above the surface of her clothes, and steam began curling upwards in ropey tendrils.
Aang rubbed his throat where the blade had nicked him.
"What should I do if she, uh, tries something when she wakes up?"
"You don't do anything," Zuko responded quietly. "If she needs to cross elements with me, I will accept."
Aang crossed his arms. "What if she never forgives you? You told me you wanted to earn her trust. She'll hate you."
Zuko sat back, a pained kind of frustration evident on his mud-spotted, sweat-damp features. "I know!" he snapped. "But I did what was necessary!" His words were bitter, oddly desperate.
Aang jumped back at the flare of temper. It died quickly; even as he watched, Zuko seemed to dissolve rapidly into taciturn silence, his shoulders slumping slightly as he continued to wring the damp from Katara's tunic. His expression was blacker than Aang had ever seen it. He looked completely forlorn.
Aang bit his lower lip. "You didn't know it would work," he tentatively offered. "It was pretty brave, doing..." he trailed off, uncertain. "Well, whatever it was you did. Maybe if we talked to her, and explained what happened... ?"
"She won't trust me again, Aang. Even if she wanted to."
The younger boy shook his head, frustrated by the impossibly knotted web his dearest friend and his former pursuer had weaved between themselves, and seemed so reluctant to untangle. "I don't understand! Don't you two want to stop fighting?"
Zuko was silent. Then, he said, "I know you don't understand. But she does." He looked over Aang's shoulder, eyes travelling down to the chattering, peaceful river behind him. His voice hardened. "She'll do what's necessary. She's got no choice."
His hands glowed brightly for an instant as he turned back and gave the sleeping girl a resentful glare, as though she had suddenly and quite unreasonably denied him something he had long hoped for. What it was, Aang couldn't guess.
Katara stirred slightly under the new warmth. The younger boy took up one of her hands. Her eyes opened a fraction, just wide enough to see her recent quarry gazing intently back. At her weak start, Aang made forward with the intention to comfort, but was surprised to find Zuko already there, a rapidly cooled hand gently pressing her shoulder back down to the damp ground.
"Rest easy, warrior," he said in a low voice. "Your duty is done." Aang, slightly confused by the odd choice of words, heard his quiet admiration. Even a strange sort of.. resigned pride. It was such a foreign sound in the mouth of the firebender.
The old enemies regarded each other evenly for a moment, a poorly concealed hatred even now lingering on the corners of her mouth.
Yet still, to Aang's further astonishment, she closed her eyes again without a struggle, and went back to sleep. Zuko folded his legs under him to sit crosslegged on the grass. He kept diligent watch.
Aang realised there was a great deal he couldn't comprehend about his dearest friend and his former pursuer. But he was glad that perhaps, though reluctantly, they seemed to understand a little of each other. He hoped it was enough.
And thus, the Avatar saw it first.