A/N: Baahhh. Stupid inspiration-- it strikes at the most inconvenient times... It was midnight when I started this, and it is now nearly 3:30AM.
Anyways, I'm actually kind of proud of this; I used a sort of freewriting technique (one that I'd never used seriously before), so my apologies if some of this seems disjointed or strange. I've always wanted to do an Avatar: The Last Airbender fic, because I love Katara (and Zuko, and Zutara, but I digress) and I always felt that she kind of got kicked around a lot in the series. I know this sort of thing is overdone, but it was fun nonetheless and I hope you enjoy it.
Disclaimer: I own nothing. If I did, Zutara would be cannon.
"Even with truths that lie too deep for taint. I am the enemy you killed, my friend." Strange Meeting
I would have poured my spirit without stint
But not through wounds; not on the cess of war.
Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were.
I am the enemy you killed, my friend." Strange Meeting, Wilfred Owen
Bits and Pieces
Katara used to see things in small, round pieces, like a picture reflected by the frame of a looking glass. Her world was imperfect but simple—a vast, abandoned stretch of snow and ice where no predators would dare trespass (at least, not again… there was nothing left of her tiny village that would be of worth to an outsider). She learned how to take care of herself and others, learned how to let those she loved depend on her, learned how to be a hardy young woman by cooking and cleaning and simply surviving in such an unforgiving environment without anyone to protect her. Even then, Katara was a warrior in her own right.
Back then, she liked to think that the war was something that only took. The war was a parasite, like the leech-eels that lived in the harbor—a depriving entity that stole her mother and sent her father and the men of her tribe to far off lands to fight for a cause she could not quite understand.
It's been years since her father left, it's been ages since she and Sokka stumbled upon a boy frozen solid in a block of ice. Her world is no longer simple and whole, and Katara thinks that now she understands.
On the other side of the world, Katara finds that she can still find round little pieces of her past life floating around like lost bubbles in her new sharp, broken environment—she still cooks and cleans and takes care of herself and those she loves. Only now, she is a surrogate mother to a ragtag group of orphans, and for them she continues to draw from her humble beginnings, using hands that were now capable of stopping a man's heart in his chest to soothe and comfort and wipe away tears. She is their pillar, a brick and mortar woman to protect them from the greedy thief that is the war.
Dependable Katara. Gentle, kind, caring Katara.
Every day, she wakes up early to stoke the fire beneath their well-worn cooking pot, preparing breakfast because if she doesn't, no one will (and it simply wouldn't do to have the world's last hope to go hungry). And despite how her arms ache from waterbending practice and her eyes droop with fatigue, she muscles the last of the dough into a soft, malleable lump ready for baking, sore fingers working the bread with practiced movements.
The only one awake to see the heaviness behind her eyes is Zuko—he'd woken up before she did, he always does—and he is too desperate for her forgiveness to say anything about it.
She lifts her head a bit to shoot him a withering glare (she still doesn't trust him) when she notices him looking at her, his good eye half-lidded, and despite how he'll never mention it, she knows he can see the slight, deepening cracks in her sturdy brickwork.
Strong, resilient (terrified, tired) Katara.
Sometimes the Western Air Temple feels less like a sanctuary and more like a military barrack. Zuko and Toph work Aang relentlessly, waking him before dawn to begin training and refusing to let him sleep until long after the sun has set beyond the distant trees at the jagged edge of the jungle.
For his part, Aang accepts their onslaught with grace, never once complaining (after all, he is the Avatar, and he can't afford a scrap of weakness with Sozin's comet so close). It is his duty—no, his destiny to defeat Ozai and end this terrible, thieving war, and he must be ready.
But Katara can already see the brightness fading from his eyes, his precious youth slipping away with every push up, every offensive stance, every would-be fatal blow he delivers to the stone targets set up in the courtyard. The child that they'd found at the South Pole was dying, overcome with the same familiar hollowness that had been consuming Katara for months.
Yet another prize claimed by Ozai's damnable war.
But Aang isn't the only one preparing for the end. Now that Hakoda has been returned to them, Katara no longer has to act like a parent.
Instead, she has to act like a soldier.
They're a sad little army, comprised of one old man (her father) and a group of kids (her children), but they still have a role to play in the final battle. Sokka, Teo and The Duke slave over battle plans, drawing lines and arrows and x's with charcoal on scrap pieces of parchment. Sokka's jaw is set in a way that reminds Katara too much of her battle-hardened father, and even though she knows her brother is no longer the boy he once was it still unnerves her to see him so ready to fight, to defend, to kill. No matter who he becomes he is still Sokka and Katara cannot bear to lose him as well, not to the war and not to the emptiness left in its wake.
(Part of her fears that it might be too late)
When they're not drilling Aang, Toph and Zuko hone their own skills with rabid sparring. They prepare themselves to do whatever it takes to ensure the Avatar fulfils his destiny. They don't hold back. They fight dirty.
Already Katara has had to heal four broken fingers, two twisted ankles, a dislocated shoulder, a broken nose, and countless burns and bruises.
Occasionally, Suki will join them and the all-out brawl becomes a battle royal, leaving Katara to bend away the bloodstains left in the aftermath.
Her waterbending skills have improved phenomenally since she'd lost that safe, intact life at the South Pole. Under Hakoda's instruction, she destroys row after row of statues, carves holes in stone walls, utterly obliterates the east wing of the temple with large, violent displays of her skills. Despite his grim expression, she can tell he is proud of her. She had always been a warrior, she was born for this—soon, her waterbending will fell living, breathing, evil men instead of granite monuments.
Bloodbending would be vital in combat against Fire Nation troops, Hakoda knows, but he only asks her to demonstrate once.
Katara feels ice condensing in her stomach as she adopts the stance, hands flat and making sharp angles against her body. She was born for this, she reminds herself. Aang will be depending on her, and when the day comes that he needs her to kill for him, then she will do so without hesitation.
The gaping void in her chest expands as she slices her arms through the air. One of the roosting sparrowkeets in the rafters above them falls dead at their feet, its blood ripped clean from its body and hovering between Katara's outstretched hands. She closes her eyes and stills her form. She feels nothing.
Yes, bloodbending would be a crucial tool in battle, but Hakoda never asks her again.
Ozai is dead. The war is over, and yet it is still stealing from Katara.
Her father is dead, as is Zuko's uncle and hundreds of Earth Kingdom and Water Tribe soldiers that had fought along side her until the bitter end. The war is over but now there is cleaning up to do—the bodies overflow the pyres and they cannot find enough marble for grave markers.
Sokka's jaw has yet to return to normal—it's still squared and probably will be for the rest of his life. He lost full mobility of his sword arm when one of the Dai Li caught a lucky strike at his shoulder, and despite all of Katara's healing abilities, it will never be the same.
But these physical differences are nothing compared to the weight in his eyes, the darkness that always seems to cloud the place on his face where a smile once lived. Katara misses that smile more than she misses their dead mother, more than she misses their lost father (but she accepts it as another casualty, one more loss to add to an already lengthy list of losses).
Toph has lost a foot to the war (her favorite one, she claims). She hobbles around the newly liberated nation with a crutch and a sour expression, half-blind and angry at the world. Katara doesn't blame her, and her sympathetic heart pushes her to reach out, to comfort, to be depended on.
Toph hurls a rock at her head and Katara stops trying.
Suki now sports a burn scar around her throat where a firebender had tried to choke her to death. It's mottled and ugly against her pale, pale skin, less elegant and precise than Zuko's scar and far rawer. But Suki is a warrior woman from Kyoshi, and she wears her battle scar like a badge of honor. She'd killed that firebender with her bare hands, and her mark is a testament to the service she gave to aid the Avatar's last stand.
Still, even with her pride, whenever Katara's brother looks her way, Suki the warrior woman from Kyoshi cowers and ducks her head to hide the wound.
Zuko has reclaimed his throne (suffering only a few broken ribs and a partially-collapsed lung—all of which Katara has fixed). With Iroh dead and his sister missing he is the sole heir to the Fire Nation crown, and immediately he has begun to make reparations to the other nations as well as his own. The curse over Zuko's bloodline has yet to lift, as he is swiftly met with opposition from his own counselors at every turn—it appears as if the new Fire Lord has a long, tiresome road ahead of him, for his nation is in ruins and his family name will take the brunt of the blame.
He'd last met her eyes right after his coronation, gold irises that once smoldered now flat and dull as old brass, and she knew that he could see the clawing emptiness in her chest and the fissures in her soul. She knew he could see her dead mother and dead father and his dead uncle, he could see Toph's foot and Sokka's arm and Suki's neck and Aang's childhood. And she knew that he was wondering if all of their sacrifices were worth the delicate gold crown he now wore around his topknot.
He's since stopped looking at her altogether.
And Aang… Aang now has a scar on his chest to match the one on his back (a testament to Ozai's wretchedness, even at the verge of death and defeat). Katara had mended the lightening burn with shaking hands and her own tears as conductors, pulling the skin back together just like she had with all of the other wounded on the battlefield, just like she would with all of the wounded in the wake of war. It had felt good, piecing things back together. She could pretend it was the world she was mending, sewing the broken pieces back into the round, safe place she remembers from home.
Aang, like Zuko, cannot look at her anymore—he needs to be level and in-control and he can't do that when she's around. He's no longer the boy that kissed her under Omashu, no longer the boy that danced with her in the midst of the most dangerous country in the world, no longer the boy that fell in love with the girl who released him from his icy tomb.
He's taller, emptier. There's a sadness to him that she'd give her own life to erase. She's his guardian, his protector, his caretaker and his friend. She's followed him around the world, aided him in his quest for peace, she fought for him, she killed for him—she is loyally his and he can no longer afford to depend on her. He is the Avatar, which transcends the boy named Aang. He is brick and mortar, completely impenetrable. He has a world to rebuild, and peace to restore.
He has his mission, and he doesn't need her anymore.
The last remaining piece of Katara's heart falls into darkness and is lost.
The world around her is a far more fucked up place than it had seemed when she was still a girl on a glacier half a world away from the nearest battle. Now that the war is over, three remaining nations no longer fight but have not yet found peace with each other. The world-weary, destroyed part of Katara thinks that it may never happen.
There is still something wrong with the world, and there is still something wrong with her.
She likes to pretend that it's only a fracture, that it's fixable, like a bone needing to be reset or a wound to stitch together.
But Katara's world is so completely shattered when it used to be whole and small and round and simple—there are pieces of her everywhere, lost to the four corners of the earth. They are raw and sharp and impossible to reassemble, despite how adept she has become at putting things back together.
The war has taken everything, just like she had thought it would when her spirit was intact. She is no longer a warrior, no longer a monument but ruins instead, chipped and eroded like the side of a canyon wall.
But the war has also given her a gift to wear like Aang's arrows, like Zuko's scar. She's a grown-up now with her own battle scars, the biggest ones to be found in the depths of her eyes—she sees the world not in small round pieces but on a larger, fragmented scale. The world Katara sees now was once one whole piece, splintered like a bone under the weight of war.
Somewhere in the charred recesses of her broken heart, Katara finds the slightest comfort in this new vision. She knows that, with time and care, bones can heal themselves when people (even healers, puzzle-piece assemblers, liker herself) cannot.
She has learned how to take care of herself and others, learned how to cook and clean and depend on herself and let others depend on her. She knows how to live and survive in a world that's too fucked up for her to fix and she's earned her battle scars.
The war has taken everything and given back only one small token in return.
And so Katara simply gathers her broken pieces and finally, finally understands.