For Courtney, whose birthday is soon! Happy almost birthday!
Okay. So, to all fellow Avatar fans, sorry in advance if I butchered any of the characters. This was a bitch to write, since I haven't written a fic for this amazing show since, well...ever. (Kingdom Hearts junkie, for the win) But I still love it, and I tried really, really hard on it. So here's hoping that you - and you, Courtney - like it. Oh, and this isn't in the Western Air Temple setting. I just threw them into some random place for my own benefit.
Please to enjoy.
Disclaimer: Don't own Avatar.
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The water writhed and tossed in her hands as she glowered at him, her fingers itching to send ice shards into his chest. From far off, as she matched his smoldering stare with her own, she heard a loud sigh of discarded breath and distractedly turned her head somewhat, watching as Aang was propelled several inches into the air and then fell back resolutely onto Appa. Blinking, she turned further around, staring at the group of four watching her with expressions of either amusement or resignation.
Sokka jumped, upon realizing that her glare was fixed on him. "Nothing, nothing." His hands flew up defensively. As her icy stare narrowed, he shifted his eyes away, sidling closer to Suki at his side. "Well…it's just…" His gaze hesitantly switched back to meet hers. "Are you really at this again?"
The water in her hands, the flow of which had momentarily slowed to a leisurely stream, roared back to life and stiffened into fragments of ice. "Excuse me?!"
Sokka gulped and hunched down slightly. Suki, in amusement, patted his hand. "Well, I mean…you two are always flirting."
Katara blinked, shocked to realize that two other voices had joined her own in outrage. Looking first back to Zuko, who was flushing with anger as fire sparked in his hand, and then to Aang, who was standing on his feet in wide-eyed indignation, she followed their gazes back to Sokka, who was rubbing the back of his neck sheepishly. As her glare turned frosty, she heard Toph mutter, "Smooth one, Sokka," a grin lighting up her face.
Frustrated, Katara moved her arms fluidly, reaching into the air as she threaded the water between her hands, and sent a sharp whip flying towards Sokka's face. For the most part he avoided the attack with a hasty duck, but the tail end managed to bite into his chin, and her brother yelped as she satisfactorily guided the stream back into the gourd at her side. Then, rounding on her heel, she stomped back over to the cooking pot, where Zuko was still standing, embarrassment coloring his face as he crossed his arms and eyed her uneasily.
Their gazes met for an uncomfortable moment of time, Zuko subtly raising his chin and she straightening her shoulders, when the moment was broken by the intrusion of Sokka's voice.
"Ow, Katara," her brother whined, and she tossed him another impatient look, arms crossed. Suki, at his side, was touching his jaw with one hand, another covering her mouth to muffle her laughter. "So uncalled for."
"Oh, shut up," she snapped, rolling her eyes.
"Sokka," Suki murmured to ease the tension, laughing softly still as she touched his face. "Just calm down. Here." Katara flushed and turned around as Suki began to lean closer, her brother's eyes softening as he tilted his face towards hers and waited to accept her kiss. "Let me--"
"Sokka! What's going on?! I can't see anything."
Katara, who'd at first jumped at the sudden exclamation, threw her hands up in frustration. "Nothing's going on! Would you all just shut up?!"
"Uh…yeah, Toph," Sokka remarked in confusion, and Katara looked back to see the blind earthbender clinging to her brother's arm, he yanked a distance from where Suki was sitting. "Nothing's really going on. Katara's just glaring at us and Zuko's off sulking in the corner."
"I am not!"
"Oh." Innocently, Toph blinked. "All right, then. Sorry." She then leaned back against the rock bench that she had earthbended for their comfort, whistling happily as her arms acted as a makeshift pillow behind her head and her toes nudged aimlessly at the dirt.
Shaking her head, Katara sighed and cradled her forehead with her palm, exhausted. Their food wasn't going to be ready for another half-hour or so, and she was getting wearied out by the tension resounding from all members of the group. Therefore, upon setting the lid back onto the stew, she brushed her hands against her blue, water-tribe dress and headed off towards the path that would lead away from their little camp and off towards the woods.
"Katara, where are you going?"
Halting her progress, she looked to Aang, who had jumped up onto Appa's back and was now leaning against his air glider and beaming in excitement. Smiling fondly at her friend, she brushed a strand of hair from her eyes, kept loose about her shoulders for the day, and then moved to clasp her hands. "I'm just going to the lake to freshen up and replenish my water supply. I'll be back soon, though."
"Hey! I'll go with--"
Surprised, Katara looked to see Zuko unsheathing his twin blades and striding ahead of her, off towards the water. Glowering at his back, which was slowly fading into the shadows of the surrounding trees, she hurriedly spared Aang a farewell and ran after the firebender. In her haste, she missed the crestfallen expression on the airbender's face, as well as the suspicion on her brother's and the mischievous grin on Toph's.
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Tripping over loosened rocks and batting away low-hanging branches which now and again caught on her sleeves, she struggled to catch up with Zuko, who had taken it upon himself to be her personal babysitter. She hadn't asked for his guidance, though, and she hadn't asked for his help. She was doing her best to accept his presence in their group – for Aang's sake alone – but that didn't mean she accepted him into her confidence, and it certainly didn't mean she accepted his protection on one small excursion to the lake. It infuriated her that he thought she couldn't do such a simple thing on her own – which traced back to her previous ire at him, only making her rage at the moment skyrocket.
"I didn't ask for your help! Go back to the camp and watch over everyone, if you're so worried about our safety."
"The Avatar has it under control."
Further incensed at his dismissive attitude, she threw her arms out in front of her and savagely pushed tree branches away from her, hoping to quicken her pace and catch up to him. Unfortunately, combined with his head-start, Zuko moved with a fluidness that made her waterbending heart jealous, his feet side-stepping fallen twigs and upturned roots as he dodged branches and skirted around tree trunks. She remembered the day in the western air temple when he had come back with Aang, speaking of his dance with the dragons and his renewed wisdom towards firebending. Of course, the part about his returned power had made her nervous, but she'd laughed at the thought of Zuko twirling about on elegant feet and moving to the pulsing rhythm of flames.
Now, however, she had to admit that it suited his dark and enigmatic personality. The way he melded into the shadows and all of nature made him seem less like the Fire Prince and more like an ally of theirs. Strangely enough, that made her feel less wary than she'd thought she would.
Distracted by his progress, Katara forgot to duck under the branch she had previously pushed away. As it flew back and slapped against her arms, she yelped and crouched down, wincing as she rubbed at the sensitive skin. A throb of remorse resounded within her as she thought of her attack on Sokka, and she sighed in further irritation. She wasn't having a very good day.
"What? Where're you hurt?"
Glancing up with widened eyes, she was surprised to see Zuko crouching before her so suddenly – or at all – and reaching forward to take a hold of her hands. Bristling, she pulled away and promptly fell back onto the leaf-scattered ground, wincing again at the impact. At his expression of confusion and agitation, she stubbornly turned her attention elsewhere, chin raised.
She heard the sharp intake of breath from Zuko as he tried to suppress his growing impatience and also felt the wave of heat that rolled off of his shoulders. It was gone before it could worsen, however, and as the air cooled and she suppressed a shiver he grabbed her wrist forcefully and yanked her to her feet, dragging her further into the woods.
"What are you doing?" she snapped, outraged. She could walk just fine on her own.
"Night's falling. Do you want to spend your time sitting on the ground, or do you want to get to the lake and back before we get lost?"
Gritting her teeth, she looked away, refusing to dignify his comment with a response. She knew that he was right, but she wouldn't give him the satisfaction by telling him so. So she reverted to dragging her heels on the earthen floor, making his work all the more difficult as he marched further along the path and attempted to keep his head level and his fire at bay. The whole time, she tried to ignore the gentle warmth of his skin against hers – it contrasted too much with his hotheadedness.
At last he released her, shoving her ahead of him so that she tripped, stumbled, and landed on her knees in front of the lake. Exhaling angrily through her nostrils, she sank her fingers into the mud and simply breathed for several seconds, managing her temper. As the heady scent of wet earth and quiet lull of water lapping the shores finally calmed her down, she opened her eyes and sighed more easily, leaning back on her heels. Deciding that she didn't yet want to get up, she uncorked her water gourd and then raised her arms into the air, watching as water sitting a few feet in the lake bubbled up into the air, combined into a small arc, and flowed with the movement of her hands into the small opening. Then, upon corking her supply, she pushed herself to her feet and walked forward, striding ankle deep into the lake.
As she moved forward, Zuko voiced his concern. "What're you doing?"
"Washing the mud off my dress," she shot back in a clipped tone, glaring over her shoulder. "And don't worry – I can manage myself in my own element. You don't have to jump in and rescue me."
Even in the fading light of the day, where blue descended upon their surroundings and the sun glimmered weakly from behind the trees, she could see the glint of anger in his stare. His eyes were such a striking melted gold – even the left one, which was smothered by the scar on his face.
"You can't do everything on your own."
"I can do it without you!" she snapped, turning around in the water, waves disturbed by her motions and heightened by her anger. "And I can take care of myself, thank you! I've done it before. I'm a great waterbender, despite what your opinion may be. So don't tell me that I can't go on missions because they're too dangerous."
"This mission was for Aang and myself. We both agreed that we weren't going to get anyone else involv--"
"So you just sneak off into the middle of the night without telling anybody. You know how worried we were?! Something could've happened to Aang! Then where would we be? We can't defeat the Fire Lord without--"
"Something could've happened to me, too, Katara." She stiffened. His voice was cold. "You want so much for me to respect your strength. So why don't you respect mine? I've changed. I've proven that," he interrupted when she opened her mouth to retort. "And I've chosen to protect the Avatar – just as you all have – with my life. So if something happened to possibly hurt your last chance for peace, then something would've happened to me first."
The water around her swilled as she let the waves crash back onto the lake's surface, and she felt goosebumps pepper her skin as wind wove its way about the clearing and the cold emanating from the waters finally wrapped around her legs. Sighing, she turned her head away to survey all that surrounded the premises, taking in every sleeping tree and withdrawn rock and bird that stared down at them from the branches. Finally, drawing a dripping hand down her face to rest at her neck, she looked back to Zuko, who was watching her angrily with his swords at his sides.
"Look," she tried, chin lowering and gaze slowly sweeping the shore as she guiltily tried to grope for words, uncertain what to think through the anger, distrust, and remorse roiling about in her chest. She had purged him once of his sins, and he'd betrayed her; he'd betrayed them all. She still hurt from that. She had touched his face, had looked in his eyes, had believed every word that had fallen from his lips. And she wanted to believe him again.
That, more than anything, terrified her.
Hands clenching uncomfortably at her sides, she mumbled, "I appreciate--"
"Appreciate?!" Zuko threw down his swords, and her attention snapped up as she eyed him in surprise. "That's all?! I've been breaking my back for you all, and you only appreciate my efforts?!"
She could see the sparks of fire lacing his fingertips, despite his efforts to not rely on anger for power, despite the miraculous control he'd had of late on his temper. His twin blades lay pathetically at his feet, half-submerged in grime, yet still glinting maliciously as the light from the water reflected in their mirrors. He looked menacing, glowering at her, the wind brushing his bangs back and forth in his eyes.
But she was furious, too.
"That's not enough for you?!" Throwing her arms out, a wall of water formed behind her, frothing at its summit, lurching forward and falling back as her chest rose and fell with rage. "You've always been our enemy! Chasing us, hunting Aang like he was some prize that would make you a man. We were terrified. Always. You never gave up. And now we're supposed to welcome you? Because, hey, you're doing your best!" The wall surged at her back as her hands clenched. "Sorry, but that's not good enough for me!"
Flames roared to life in his hands as he cried out in outrage. They sent shadows across his countenance, which danced across his skin and invoked a fire in his eyes that ripped through her body. Shivering from the cold that was still creeping up her legs – and perhaps from that looks, as well – she took his stance as one of battle, and in fury she sent water rushing towards him. His eyes widened, and he leapt back to avoid on the onslaught, but he slipped in the mud and was doused absolutely by the wave, much to her satisfaction.
As she smirked and stepped confidently forward out of the water, she watched Zuko struggle to his feet, his boots without traction in the mud. Therefore, he continuously slipped and landed with a gruesome squish, so that after three tries he let out another frustrated shout, ground his teeth together, and then fell back, his hair mixing immediately with the grime. Still walking forward, Katara waved her hands and threaded water out of the skirt of her dress, letting it fly behind her and into the lake as she continued her progress forward. Finally, stopping at his side, she grinned triumphantly.
"I think I like this side of mighty Prince Zuko much better."
Huffing out an indignant breath, he glowered at her. "Listen, you unbelievably obnoxious Water Tribe peasant--"
Irritated, she sent the water she was still gathering from her skirt splashing into his face. He choked and spluttered, vaulting up off the ground as he spat the water into the mud. From there he glared at her, shaking filth from his fingers and then struggling a forth time to get up; this time he succeeded, and he moved to stand proudly in front of her, shoulders rolled back and chin lifted haughtily.
"You have no idea who you're dealing with."
"I know exactly who I'm dealing with."
She matched him glare for glare, felt the heat of fire rippling along his skin just as the comfort of cool water began to soothe her own. She was prepared for his attack, for him to rush for his swords or shoot fire at her feet. She could handle him, she knew it – she'd beaten him time and again. He was a powerful bender, and so was she.
What she wasn't prepared for, though, was the way he gingerly moved his feet through the earth, the way he edged his face closer to hers, the way he sent fire flaring at her back so that she had to jump closer to him for fear of getting burned. And she wasn't prepared for how warm his skin felt as the flames coursed through his veins, so hot that it sent heat rushing into her cheeks.
"What're you doing?" she demanded, stare darting over his face, taking in his calm expression and the molten amber of his eyes which poured forth into her vision. The fire in his hands flared at her back for a moment, and she winced, waiting for its white-hot bite to sink into her skin. All at once, however, its fury died down and extinguished, so that the wind swept over her once more, raising goosebumps to her skin.
"Don't you think," he remarked slowly, closing his eyes with a sigh, letting his arms fall, "that, if I wanted to go back, I would have taken the Avatar and just gone?" Eyes opening to reveal a hard stare, he continued. "That, if I hadn't changed, I wouldn't have defended your group against Azula? That I wouldn't have hesitated in hurting you?" Here, his voice softened, and she held her breath as he held her eyes. "You're so stupid, Katara. Here we are, alone by a lake, without the Avatar or your brother to protect you. If they didn't trust me, do you think I'd be here?" Sighing, he drew his hand down the whole of his face, flecks of mud slipping from his hair and clinging to his nose. "And don't even think they'd let you go off on your own. You're such a fool."
Indignation flared within her chest as he crouched down and picked up his swords, pulling away from her so dismissively, as if he hadn't at all been affected by their proximity while she'd struggled to breath through it all. Then, sheathing his blades at his back, he waved his hand and called for her to follow, already headed towards the forest.
But she wasn't done.
Before he could take another step, she was rapidly pulling water through the air and sending it towards him. The whip struck him in the back of the neck resolutely, and he immediately whirled around, nearly losing his balance again as he glowered at her.
"I'm not weak."
Again she sent water flying towards him, but this time a wall of fire dissolved it into steam. Letting out a frustrated huff of breath, she skipped several feet across the ground and, landing on her lead foot, propelled a heavy stream of water towards his body from the lake. Again, fire roared in a whirlwind around his body, sucking the life from her attack and then falling into embers towards his feet.
"No. Just stupid."
In outrage, she leapt again and with both hands pushed a wall of water towards Zuko, her body turning to the left with the effort. Fire rose again, but this time her attack was strong enough to push through, and he was soaked through and through with water, washed clean of mud and filth as he forced out a frustrated breath, hair matted to his eyes and glare burning through the strands. With a confident smirk she took several steps to the right, and he, shaking wet locks from his face, followed her motions. In a predatory circle they walked, her arms angled off to her left, his fists raised in a fighting stance.
And then, together, in a rush of movement, they ran for each other.
A collision of elements resulted from their joined attack, as her wall of water and his wall of fire met before they could. From the force of the explosion both were forced off their feet, falling into the mud, the wind momentarily knocked out of them. Zuko recovered first, shaking his head dizzily, clambering to his feet, and hastily Katara jumped up, swaying for a second before she regained her ground and her initiative. As Zuko hesitated, however, eyeing her like she was insane and this was completely pointless, she kicked off of the ground and rushed for him, sending forth a spray of water that send him sprawling backwards. As his guard remained down, she skipped forward again and slammed him with more water, and he teetered away, nearly falling but never quite doing so. Again and again she slammed him with her attacks, the sky growing dark, the cold growing more pronounced. Still, she could see the haunting glimmer of his eyes and the glint of her water crushing him, and she was encouraged to continue.
Somewhere amidst her impressive offense, however, Zuko regained his ground. Feet shifting to anchor himself and win him more balance, he brought his arms upwards and in a circular movement produced a fan of flames, which he pushed towards her to dispel her attack and force her back. And he rushed for her, leaping into the air, pushing her back again towards the water with every shot of fire towards her feet. It infuriated her, and with a desperate kick of her feet she vaulted off towards the side, running to the left and then rounding about in an arc to head back towards him.
But he was ready for her.
In a surprisingly gentle brush of skin, he caught her arms just as she raised water to the sky, and, with her attack halted, it rained down onto them both, so that the flames at his feet were doused and she was shivering just as he was. His grip was firm, but that didn't matter, because she couldn't even think to move away with the way his eyes were boring into hers and how he looked so breathless and exhilarated at the same time. Blood pulsed in her face, and as she was examining the line of his jaw and the way water trailed from the matted tendrils of his hair down along his nose, she found herself being thrown roughly away, to where she fell in a heap into the mud.
Spitting in disgust and pushing herself up on her forearms, she growled and made to kick her feet to get up, when all of a sudden two blades sank into the ground at to her sides and he was crouching over her, hands on either side of her head and body slightly angled away from hers. Sucking in a surprised breath, she stared at him against the backdrop of a darkening sky, taking in his drenched frame, the royal red of his clothing, the brush of his hair against his face, the rawness of his scar. Surprisingly enough, he didn't seem hostile at all.
A calm hush descended between them. She couldn't think to argue, and he didn't seem to have any words to say. They just held each other's eyes, her deep pools searching his melted gold, her chest rising and falling as her breath mingled with his.
"You're so stubborn, water peasant," he finally whispered, breaking the quiet between them. Still, the smallest of smiles warmed the line of his lips, and she couldn't summon her anger.
Instead, tentatively, she reached up and touched her fingers to his scar. He winced, perhaps self-consciously, but didn't pull away. Rather, he seemed to lean closer, his own hands curling into the mud, his breath shuddering past his lips as she traced the line up to his ear, brushing the tip of her thumb against its mangled shell.
Both jumped, and her hand fell with a splatter back into the mud as Zuko yanked himself away as if burned. Hurriedly grabbing his swords, he sheathed them just as Aang flew over the treetops, and he extended his hand to help her up as Sokka, Suki, and Toph rushed forward through the trees. Aang, landing and running through the mud, finally reached and embraced her just as Katara was helped to her feet, and, with a bewildered laugh, she hugged him back as Zuko stepped into the background.
"Katara, don't you ever disappear on us for so long again!" Sokka yelled shrilly, moving to stomp forward. He was yanked back, however, as Toph grabbed the bottom of his shirt – and he, of course, was no match for her earthbending balance and stubborn will.
"Yeah. What were you and Sparky doing out here for so long, Sugar Queen?" Toph remarked slyly, pushing Sokka away from her. He fell with a high-pitched wail into the mud.
"And all covered in dirt," Suki piped up in confusion. "Your clothes are ripped."
Katara reddened as Aang pulled back, eyeing her with concern. "What happened, Katara? Did you fall?" For assurance, he looked to Zuko, whom Katara saw flush and scratch idly at his cheek.
"It was nothing," Katara piped up hurriedly, looking from Aang to Suki to Sokka, who was slowly pushing himself to his feet with a suspicious look on his face. She avoided Toph's expression altogether, because the girl knew already that she was lying. "My clothes got ripped in the forest, and I just spent most of my time swimming in the lake to relax."
"But…you're covered in mud," Aang remarked in confusion.
"And so is Zuko," Suki piped up, eyeing him with a slight smirk on her lips.
"I slipped," he muttered in embarrassment, rubbing the back of his neck and avoiding their stares. Katara, flushing, turned her head away and tried to suppress her smile.
"Uh huh." Toph crossed her arms, one brow arched beneath her veil of hair. Sokka, brushing the remaining dirt from his shirt, looked to her in confusion.
"What do you mean by 'uh huh'?" Frowning, he pointed imposingly at Katara; she rolled her eyes at him in turn. "What were you two doing?"
"Nothing. I already told you that. I mean, in case you hadn't noticed, Sokka, mud is everywhere around here?" Eyebrow arched challengingly, she waved her hand at him. "It's kind of hard not to get covered by it."
He still looked unconvinced, but luckily Aang piped up. "Well, I guess we can go back now, guys – right? Now that we've found Katara and Zuko safe and sound."
Muttering, Sokka crossed his arms and moved his doubtful stare to Zuko, who remained distant from the group, airily surveying his surroundings to avoid confrontation. Suki, thankfully, touched his arm and with a smile encouraged Katara's brother to follow Aang back to camp. As he began to walk, too, Toph grabbed Sokka's arm, yanking him towards her and complaining about how she didn't know this area at all and needed him to be her eyes. Katara smiled as she watched Suki send the earthbender a distempered glare and Sokka rub the back of his head awkwardly, grinning in assent.
Lingering behind, Katara pushed her hair out of her eyes and looked to Zuko, who had finally relaxed and was now staring at her appraisingly, a stoic expression on his face. She colored under his attention, standing a little straighter, a little prouder, and as she did so he shook his head and grinned, striding forward, moving to follow their band of friends. She followed his movements with her eyes, and as he passed her she felt his fingertips brush along her hand. A trail of fire seared her skin as his touch fell away, and then he motioned for her to follow, heading as he did so towards the forest pathway.
Grinning herself, she followed his lead, leaving their upturned battleground in her wake. Those long moments ago, when both had been on the ground, sharing breaths, sharing stares, sharing seconds, something in his eyes had told her that he'd truly changed. And she knew in her heart that she'd changed, too.
Something had shifted between them in that one fight, that one dance shared, where both had been in perfect harmony and their eyes had been only for one another. And as she followed Zuko now, ducking beneath the branches he held away for her, brushing against the line of his chest accidentally and hurrying her step to hide her blush, she knew exactly what was different.
She was falling for him.
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I think the ending's stupid. But whatever. Please review!