Exchange the Experience
This is just a Zutara one-shot/drabble set after the Western Air Temple and The Fire Bending Masters. The title is from the lyrics for the song Running Up That Hill written by Kate Bush, but the Placebo version is what really gave me the inspiration for this. On another note, if you don't like the Zutara pairing please don't flame this just because of that. Also, don't take this as an anti-kataang piece. I like both ships, but this is just what struck me at the moment. Neither Avatar nor the lyrics for Running Up That Hill belong to me. Now, please read, enjoy, and review.
You don't want to hurt
But see how deep the bullet lies.
Unaware that I'm tearing you asunder.
There is thunder in our hearts, baby.
So much hate for the ones we love?
Tell me, we both matter, don't we?
Running Up That Hill, Placebo
Zuko lifted up his tunic to examine the burn along his ribs. He hissed when he saw the puss leaking from the raw, red wound. It was starting to smell as well.
Five days had passed since he acquired that wound in sparring with the Avatar. Aang never would have landed that punch if it hadn't been for her. Katara watched their training sessions to keep an eye on Zuko. Her threat was always at the back of his mind. The Prince had hazarded a glance at her, feeling her eyes boring into his back, and suddenly, the monk had taken the opportunity to send a fireball right at Zuko's chest. He had been able to dodge most of it, but the tail of the attack managed to catch him along his side.
After the fight was over, Aang had expressed concern over the injury, but Zuko shrugged it off. His pride would not allow him to show weakness in front of the younger boy and the water-bender. Especially the water-bender, she would have taken too much satisfaction in it. Things between them were still tense and hostile. The others had started to warm up to him, even her brother Sokka. Katara would not relent in her distrust of him. She remained convinced that he was just putting on an act.
He winced as he slid the tunic back over the burn. He guessed he couldn't blame her. Pain from betrayal could run deep, he knew that personally. Down in the caverns beneath Ba Sing Sei, they'd connected in a way he wasn't familiar with, and he had let it go in temptation for his long lost honor. Looking back on it, he realized how foolish the act was. Honor could not be given back by the likes of Ozai and Azula, but still, he had wanted so badly to return to his family. Three years away from home had helped him to forget what his sister and father were truly like.
He tried to stand up, only to slump back down on the bed as a wave of nausea hit him. The small room was suddenly boiling, sweat beaded his forehead. The air felt thick and heavy as he drew it into his laboring lungs. Pressing one hand against his forehead, he struggled to stand up again. This time he was able to get to his feet. He swayed for a moment before steadying himself by placing one hand against a wall.
He needed treatment, but the only way to get that was to ask the water-bender for help. He laughed at the idea, but stopped suddenly when the action caused the pain to flare up again. The Fire Nation would freeze over before he went to her. There wasn't even any guarantee that she would help him. She might just wave him off and leave him to fend for himself. You know that's not true, he thought as he pressed the side of his body against the stone wall. You know she would heal you if you just stopped being so stubborn and asked her for help.
"I'm fine," he wheezed half heartedly to himself. Zuko pushed off from the wall and took one staggering step towards the door way. Slowly, he made his way down the hall, one lurching step at a time.
"You know Zuko was lying about that burn, right?" Toph asked as she sipped her soup from the porcelain bowl.
"What do you mean?" Katara asked nonchalantly as she stared at the table and avoided looking into the earth-bender's face. Even though Toph was blind, her stare could be disconcerting. It was like she could see to the core of who a person really was, and she was never afraid to point out all the ugly things she found there.
"Don't play dumb with me Sugar Queen, that's Sokka's job," she replied drolly as she finished her supper.
"I really don't know what you mean," the Water Tribe girl answered innocently.
Toph scoffed at the response. "I can tell when people are lying, don't forget that. You know Zuko's worse off than he is willing to let on."
"Well, if he needs help I'm sure he'll come to me," the older girl said as she shrugged her shoulders.
"Yeah right, and tomorrow I'll wake up with the eyes of a messenger hawk."
Katara sighed, "Listen, Zuko is not my responsibility. If he needs help he should come to me. I don't owe him anything."
"I know he's not your responsibility Katara, but he is in pain. You're the only one who can help him, and it is kind of your fault that he got hurt."
"What?" The water-bender asked as she swiveled her head towards Toph, her brows knitting together in a scowl.
The younger girl shrugged, unaffected by her friend's sudden anger. "I'm just saying if you hadn't been trying to stare a hole through him, he probably wouldn't have looked away, and then Aang would have never landed that hit."
"Aang would have gotten Zuko eventually either way. He's not as good as everyone thinks he is," she muttered underneath her breath as she went to take her bowl to the sink for cleaning.
"You're lying," Toph taunted.
The Water Tribe girl let out an incoherent sound of anger and slammed the bowl so hard into the wash basin that the delicate porcelain cracked under the force. "Ugh, you're ridiculous," she scolded the other girl as she set the shards of porcelain aside to be thrown away later.
"Why are you still so angry at him?" she asked, the earth-bender's voice suddenly soft.
"Hmm, let me think. Maybe because he stole my mother's necklace, he relentlessly pursued all of us for months on end, he hired an assassin to find us and kill Aang, and let's not forget that he betrayed us in Ba Sing Sei for that snake of a sister of his," Katara hissed.
"I know all of that, but why are you the only one who still bares a grudge against him? You even said yourself that down in the caverns he seemed really confused."
Katara let out a bitter laugh at the memory of that, "The only one who was confused was me. He's a good actor, I'll give him that, but I'm not going to fall for it again."
"What happened down there in the caves, Katara? There's something you're not telling us," Toph's voice was all but a whisper now.
She had never told any of them what had happened between her and Zuko. They didn't know about his apology or about his mother, and certainly not about her offer to heal his scar. She was such a fool to have believed his words. First it was Jet, and then it was Zuko. When was she ever going to learn her lesson? She sighed to herself and slowly shook her head as she replayed their encounter in her mind again.
"It doesn't matter now, Toph," she breathed as she finished washing the dirty dishes.
"But it seems like it's still bothering you-"
"Just drop it, okay?" she commanded in an angry voice. She didn't want to think about it anymore. Zuko wasn't her problem.
The blind girl said nothing more but continued to sit silently at the table. Suddenly, Toph's head lifted as if she were listening for something. Moments later Katara's ears picked up the sound of shuffling feet. Soon Zuko's bowed figure came into sight. He was supporting himself by pressing one shoulder against the wall, his jaw clenched in pain. Immediately, Katara could see the signs of infection. The pale coloring of his skin and sweat beading on his brow were a dead give away.
She silently cursed herself for letting her own anger blind her to his need, and his pride for preventing him from seeking her out. The water-bender turned away from the wash basin and started to make her way towards him. The Prince let out a groan as his eyes rolled into the back of his head, and he fell forwards. Looping her arms underneath his, Katara managed to catch him before his head hit the ground.
"Toph!" she yelled. "Help me carry him back to his room. We need to get back there as quickly as possible."
The blind earth-bender was already on her way over, having felt the abrupt shift in his weight. She helped the older girl turn him over and took up his feet. Gently, they carried Zuko back down the hall to his bedchamber and laid him down on the small pallet. Both of the girls wrinkled their noses as they detected the bitter scent of illness and sweat. The blankets were disheveled, and Toph did her best to smooth them out as Katara laid Zuko flat on the pallet.
The blue-eyed teenager knelt down in front of the Fire Nation Prince and took in his appearance. She hadn't realized how badly he was injured. Now, she could see it clearly. His skin was ashen, dark circles lay deep underneath his golden eyes. Black hair plastered to the white surface of his brow, his fingers gripping the blankets in pain. Even the scar across his left eye looked angrier than usual. She sighed and rested her face in her hands at a loss as to how to approach the situation.
"So what now?" Toph asked from Katara's right.
"Go get a bowl of water and clean rags. I'm going to have a look at it," she ordered as she reached towards his tunic.
"I can already tell you from the smell that it isn't going to be pretty," the earth-bender said as she headed for the archway.
The healer ignored her and rolled up the material of the shirt until she could clearly the wound. She drew in a sharp breath through her teeth as she examined it. "Oh, Zuko," she breathed. She touched it hesitantly. He grunted and flinched away. Katara sighed and wiped her fingers on her leggings.
Footsteps could be heard down the hall, and soon Toph entered the room carrying a bowl of water and a pile of clean rags. She set them down beside Katara, balancing on the balls of her feet as she listened to Katara getting the supplies ready.
The water-bender looked over at Toph as she wiped away the puss from the wound with one the rags and set it aside. "The infection looks pretty bad. This is going to take a while," she said casually.
"You want me to go?" the blind girl suggested.
"You know how Zuko is. I don't think he would be comfortable if he knew you waited around while I healed him. He doesn't like to acknowledge that he needs help sometimes," Katara said gently.
"You want me to go," Toph repeated resolutely. She sighed and stood to her full height. She turned and headed to the archway, but hesitated a second.
"He's not as bad as you think he is, Katara. If you'd just give him a chance I think you'd be a lot . . . happier," she said sagely before she exited the room.
The healer sighed at the words and their implied meaning. Shaking her head, she chased the thoughts away from her mind. She didn't have time for daydreaming. She had to get to work. Water flowed from the bowl to her hands, wrapping around them and glowing softly. Carefully, she pressed her hands to wound. Zuko emitted a grunt from the sudden contact but did not stir from his troubled sleep. In gentle circles she moved her hands, trying to draw the infection out and will the flesh to heal itself.
Healing was far more than just a physical act. Her mind entered a strange trance where it wandered between the physical world and the spirit world. Sokka told her that she always got this goofy looking expression whenever she was healing a particularly difficult wound. She imagined that she'd had that expression quite a lot after Aang's injury. She scoffed, temporarily breaking her concentration. If someone told me that someday I'd be healing the Fire Nation Prince I would have laughed in their face, she thought to herself as her mind slipped into the trance again.
Hours must have passed as she searched for the source of the infection, her hands constantly moving. Finally, she found the root of it. It was nestled deeper than she would have thought. An evil, foul little creature hunkered down in the deeper layers of tissue. She focused harder on it, envisioning it being washed away in a deluge of water. After another half hour passed before she was able to eradicate Zuko's body of the infection. She cleansed and scoured every inch of the area until she was certain no trace of it remained. Now she had to close the flesh, had to will the skin and muscle to stitch itself together. Slowly, the burn closed, pinching together until it was only a white, smooth scar.
Katara sighed in relief, withdrawing her hands from his side and emptying the water back into the bowl. Her shoulders slumped forward as the price of the healing began to weigh down on her. It'd been awhile since she'd taken on something so challenging, but it was worth it. Zuko now slept peacefully, his chest rising and falling with a gentle rhythm. She smiled at her own work.
She groaned and started to get to her feet when she saw his eyes flutter open.
"What happened?" he breathed as he sat up on his elbows.
"You passed out from the burn," she whispered.
He looked down at where the scar now was. His golden eyes widened at the sight of the newly healed skin. "Did you do that?" he asked.
"Why?" he questioned in disbelief.
"Because you needed my help. If I hadn't you could have died," her voice quickly slipped into a scolding tone. "Why didn't you ask for my help? Are you so stupid that you'd rather not risk your honor over your life?"
He frowned at her, "Well, you weren't exactly welcoming were you? Or have you forgotten that you threatened to end me if I stepped out of line? No offense, but when I think of asking someone for help you aren't my first choice."
"You're welcome. I thought you'd be a little bit more grateful to me for saving your life, but what should I expect from you? You're just an arrogant, stupid Fire Nation brat!" she shot back.
"You have the nerve to call me a brat when you've nothing but hostile towards me ever since I came here. I've come to help the Avatar, and all you greet me with is disdain and violence," Zuko yelled as he struggled to sit up.
"How do you expect me to greet you after what you did in Ba Sing Sei?" she shouted, tears starting to well in her eyes.
His eyes went wide again at her words.
"How could you do that after what you said to me, after what I offered you?" her voice was shaking with her own pent up fury and anger.
He sat there speechless for a moment, unsure of how to answer her. "I'm sorry," he whispered, resting his hands in his lap.
She rolled her eyes and scrubbed away the tears streaming down her cheeks, "I've heard that before."
"I mean it now, and I meant it then. I'm sorry about your mother, and I'm sorry that I hurt you in Ba Sing Sei. There is no excuse for my actions, but if it helps, I was going through a lot then. I didn't know who I was, or who I wanted to be," he cast his eyes down in shame as he spoke. He was not proud of the way he had acted, but he could not change it.
"You're right there is no excuse."
"Thank you," he murmured.
"For what?" she asked cautiously.
"For healing me, and for offering to heal to my scar. It meant more to me than you know." Instinctively, his fingers reached up to touch the damaged skin underneath his eye.
Katara stiffened at his words. She composed her face and put her hands in her lap, "You're welcome."
Zuko nodded at her reply.
Several awkward moments of silence passed before the water-bender finally got up the courage to speak. "I could try again if you wanted me to."
"Thank you, I would appreciate that very much," he mumbled politely.
"How did you get it anyways?" she inquired, meeting his eyes for the first time.
"It's a long story," he replied lamely.
She stared out of the window. Twilight filled the sky now. "It's almost night," she said. "I doubt the others are around, and I have a lot of time."
He sighed and sat up straighter, following her eyes to the window. "I was thirteen when it happened," he started. From there on he recited the whole story from the war council to his subsequent banishment. The words were not as painful to say as they had once been, and she watched him with solemn blue eyes. He'd never noticed before, but her eyes were the same color as a spring sky. Something stirred in his chest, both frightening and wonderful at the same time.
When the tale was told, Katara sat there in the quiet that enveloped the room. "That's very sad," she finally said.
"I don't want your pity," he responded defensively.
"I don't pity you, Zuko. I just have a greater understanding of you now. When I lost my mother I had my father and brother to lean on. We grew closer and drew strength from each other, but you never had that."
"I had Uncle," he said wistfully, his thoughts to turning to the old man.
"Yes, you did," she said in a distant tone. "But it's not the same. To have your own father give you that scar is horrible. It makes me realize how much of a monster the Fire Lord really is."
He nodded in agreement.
"You shouldn't be sitting up," she chided. "You still need to regain your strength." She pressed her hands against his shoulders and shoved him back onto the pallet.
She started to remove her hands, but let one hover over his scar. Her fingertips trailed over the skin, marveling at how smooth it was. From the looks of it, she expected it to be rough and leathery. As if realizing what she was doing, she withdrew her hand quickly, a blush suffusing her cheeks.
Zuko's hand reached out and caught her wrist, not wanting to break the contact. Their eyes locked. Unspoken thoughts and feelings passed between them. She felt her heart racing in her chest as she stared into golden depths. She could feel them burning away at her, uncovering every secret, hidden thing.
A voice suddenly broke the reverie. Immediately, he let go of her wrist, and she snatched it back to her chest.
"Katara-what's going on here?" Sokka said from the entrance.
They whipped their heads around to see the lanky teenager poking his head into the room.
"Nothing," she responded too quickly.
Her older brother scowled, shooting a dark glance towards Zuko. "Okay," he answered slowly. "Well, Aang wants you to help him master a new water bending move."
"Alright, I'll be there in a minute," she said hesitantly.
The Water Tribe boy cast one more menacing look over his shoulder at Zuko before he left the room.
She nodded to Zuko one last time before she got up and stumbled to the door. Then she left, and the moment was gone. The connection broken. The fire-bender sighed and turned onto his side to sleep.
Come on, baby, come on,
come on, darling,
Let me steal this moment from you now.
Come on angel, come on, come on, darling,
Let's exchange the experience
- Running Up That Hill-Placebo
Well that's it! I hope didn't ruin the song or the show too much for you. I tried to make everything as in character as possible. Tell me what you think. This is the first Avatar piece I've written so I'd like some feedback on how I did. Thanks for reading.