Summary: The night after the events of "The Western Air Temple" finds two characters who don't get along but feel compelled to try to understand each other nonetheless. Zuko and Katara, not a romance or a friendship, but not exactly enemies.
Notes: my last short fic (see The Moon And The Sun, chapter 36) was from Zuko's POV, and while this one started based around his dialogue/rant, it turned into a Katara fic. I had a good time writing this; I listened to a lot of creepy/sad/dark music, and tried to constantly shape Katara's thoughts and character with water language, as well as inserting some culture. It was fun, and the fic is pretty dark as a result. As someone said to me recently, Katara's gone through a lot of trauma in the last four episodes, and we haven't seen any of those issues addressed on the show. She deserves a good vignette.
Timeline Spoilers: 3x12, The Western Air Temple, takes place that night, directly before episode 3x13.
Quote is from the film Serenity, written by Joss Whedon.
Soundtrack, in order:
"The Shankhill Butchers" by The Decemberists
"Seven Notes In Black" by Ennio Morricone
"In the House, In a Heartbeat" from 28 Days Later
"The Kiss" from The Last of the Mohicans
"Mercedes Lullaby" from Pan's Labyrinth
"Please God, make me a stone."
It was deep night, the night that happens after stars set and gods sleep. In the darkness, hours before dawn, Katara dreamed of ice flows, unaware of the young man turning in his bed several walls away. She dreamed as he rose and threw on loose clothing, and she dreamed as he slipped into the hall and set a straight path for the room where she slept.
Her dreaming lasted through the creak of her door, all the way until the impact of something small and light pulled her from frozen canoes and blood-tipped spears. It hit again—or another one did—skittering across her arm, and she blinked back into the world to brush at the disturbed skin.
"Wake up," the boy's voice said.
Awareness flooded her, cold and unwanted. She tensed up, hands invisibly combing the sheets for her water flask. Wandering fingers found it under the pillow.
"We need to talk," the voice said.
"No," Katara replied. No, you're not here. No, we don't need to talk.
"You're already awake, so just listen to what I have to say."
She sat up, swinging her legs off the mattress and stretching her neck as she stood. Every drop of blood inside her screamed for murder or sleep, and Katara was inclined to satisfy both. The boy, dimly backlit by the torches in the hallway, wore the same baggy red pants and brown over-vest he'd arrived in, but he had no belt to tie it and underneath the vest his skin was bare. In the hazy darkness she couldn't glimpse any weapons on him, but he had arrived with swords so who knew if he carried other blades hidden in his pockets. How like an assassin, Katara's mind whispered. The water flask weighed heavy and pregnant in her left hand. She surrepticiously nudged her thumb to loosen the cap, knowing he'd never see the movement in the darkness.
"It's the dead of morning, Zuko. I don't have to talk to you about anything, and the fact that you think you can barge in here says enough. Get out of my room before I make you regret being born. You're lucky I haven't attacked you already."
"No," he said. He filled the doorway as if the length of the room were enough to remove him from her sphere of attack, which might have amused Katara if she hadn't been woken up in the middle of the night by someone throwing pebbles at her. All that she could feel, it seemed, was a gradually pooling rage and a narrow rivulet of fear.
"You cornered me today, and afterwards I thought about it for a long time, and you know what I realized? I am not afraid of you."
"Yeah?" she replied. "What part of our conversation wasn't clear to you, Your Highness?"
Zuko's countenance, what she could see of it in the dim light, revealed vivid eyes and a tightly drawn mouth. His scar was a darkened blotch against the pale glow of his cheeks, more of a mark than a wound. He opened his mouth to show straight, white teeth.
"Maybe you can kill me," he began, and his frankness made Katara's eyebrows rise. "Maybe. Probably. But you won't because Aang needs me. And short of killing me, Katara, there's nothing you can do to me that hasn't already been done."
Katara's gaze flicked rightward to the scar, then over again. Her face remained blank, and she thought, I am the sea in winter. I am glass and glacier.
"Yes," he had followed her glance, "And worse than that. You may be able to intimidate others, and for a moment today I was nervous, but then I remembered my sister, and my father. Did you know, I can shoot lightning now? I see by your expression that you remember the lightning. I know Aang does."
"You're proud of that?" Katara seethed. "How dare you. You're exactly the same. You haven't changed."
"Do you want to know how I learned?" Zuko went on as if he hadn't heard her. While he talked the prince stalked across the ever-shrinking room, abandoning the safety of the doorframe. The air within the chamber felt stifling now that she was forced to share it. "I'd been practicing fruitlessly for months, since the North Pole, but never a glimmer of progress. Nothing, until three days ago, during the eclipse, when I felt his lightning bolt shriek through me."
He leaned down slightly, in Katara's space. Zuko's eyes were wide with memory and bright with feeling. His tone slipped into something desperate, something broken and hardened and broken again. He said, "My father tried to burn me alive."
Katara met the golden stare and found herself speechless. The wellspring had disappeared, because there was no reply she could give to such a confession. There was just… nothing to say.
As if hearing himself pronounce the words aloud had changed something inside the young man, the momentary wildness left Zuko's gaze, and he retreated a step. "I was able to divert the bolt," he continued, "and channel it back. That's how I learned the technique. That is the reason that I'll be able to teach Aang to bend lightning when the time comes."
Katara absorbed that statement, turned it over and over like a piece of manta-whale bone discarded on the tundra to be picked up by a curious child. He didn't wait for her to reply, of course, but pushed forward. She reflected, It's all he knows how to do, to push and push no matter who he has to force out of his way.
"Do you understand why I'm telling you this, waterbender? Katara? You can threaten me tomorrow morning, and the next day, and the next, but you will never be as frightening as Fire Lord Ozai. Never. Next to my family, you're a child with your first torture toy set."
Katara wasn't a good enough actress to keep from flinching at the mention of torture—not with her own people, her own father, currently trapped in Ozai's prisons. But she hardened her expression to make up for it, and this time Katara was the one to step forward and invade his space, catch and hold his stare.
She whispered, like a glacier gently carving rock into dust, "You don't take my threat seriously. You don't think I'd do it."
Zuko looked away, to the window. "You'll do anything to protect him, I recognize that." He looked back, "But I want you to understand that I am here and I'm not going away. I have to make sure Aang is strong enough to defeat the Fire Lord and survive to stop the war. You can threaten me, but it won't matter."
In answer Katara crossed her arms, a declaration without need for language. Zuko lifted his chin, determination tightening the muscles in his neck. His next words barreled past her armor and directly into her chest, where they wriggled and wormed at her heart.
"I won't live in fear anymore, of you least of all."
Katara felt her control slipping, sliding, running away from her like the rain through leaves. He was calling her out, pushing for her bluff, and as he said the final line something within Katara warped into a crack. This was the moment. If she was going to stop him before he hurt anyone else she had to do it here, now, because she'd never have him so close and so willing again. Her father's image floated before her, while Zuko's blood tingled at the edge of her senses.
"Get out of my room."
She measured one step in his direction, then two. He was close, and it would be easy. Easier than the boy could ever know. A slow thrumming began in her ears, and next her mind took up the beat: one-two, one-two, one-two. The drumming echoed louder and louder around Katara. It was a heartbeat, and the thundering river was blood surging behind pale skin. For the Avatar, for the world, she repeated her command.
The prince dipped low into a bow, spine parallel to the floor of the temple and hands clasped in the fashion Aang had copied for weeks. He stood tall again, a mast in the gale, and backed out until he passed beneath the door. Zuko looked into Katara's eyes the whole time, and his words reverberated beneath clamor of his rushing blood.
There's nothing you can do to me that hasn't already been done. I won't live in fear anymore, of you least of all.
She slammed the door against his gaze, rested her forehead on the wood panels, and counted until the sound of Zuko's heartbeat was drowned by the endless cascade of her mother's words.
"I am the sea in winter. I am glass and glacier. You are foam on my fingertips and you will disappear with a wave. I am the sea in winter. I am glass and glacier. You are foam…"