" NOT LIKE THAT "

01. CHAPTER ONE: KETSURAKU

Zuko watched as Hakoda embraced both of his children loving, but found that he could only keep his eyes upon the scene for a moment or two. He directed his gaze elsewhere, focusing instead on the exterior of his sister's war balloon as he attempted to quell the sudden pang of jealousy coursing through him. He reminded himself that this was where he was meant to be, where his destiny lay, but could not help but think of the strong possibility that his mother was alive.

He must have been scowling, for the Avatar's gaze was now upon him questioningly.

"I'm going to go change out of these rags," he told the boy, who nodded.

The former prince remained blissfully unaware of Hakoda's eyes following his form as he ascended the stairs that lead to his room, of the frown etched into the blind earthbender's features.

Once inside his room, Zuko quickly rid himself of the filthy rags that had been placed on his back at the Boiling Rock. They'd taken his clothes from him, but he'd packed an identical change of clothes when he'd left the Fire Nation--just in case something happened to the former, which was the case. He changed into the pants and set the tunic and shirt aside, wanting to rise the dirt and grime off his skin and out of his hair first.

Stepping out of his room, he moved into a much larger one that housed the fountain in this part of the temple. He knelt down on his knees next to it and after taking a deep breath, dunked his head in the water.

He kept his head under longer than he should have, opening his eyes in the water and staring down at the smooth, grey surface of the pool's bottom. It was amazing how something that had been created so long ago could remain so remarkably flawless. Yet himself, who was barely seventeen years of age, was already cracked and damaged beyond repair. He envied the pool then, glaring at that sleek surface.

The need for air forced him to rise, hands gripping the edge as he sat back up, gasping and taking in large, long breaths.

"Trying to drown yourself?"

Zuko turned towards the voice, peering through the dark, wet locks that stuck to his face at the form before him--feminine, swathed in blue. The waterbender. Katara.

Great, he thought. Just what I need.

"Sorry to disappoint, but no," he answered, using a hand to brush his wet hair back. "Getting clean. Prisons don't exactly have the best bathing facilities." Not that they even had them at all.

He saw her fold her arms out of the corner of his good eye. Her foot tapped against the ground's stony surface one, then twice.

"Sokka said you two disguised yourselves as guards," she said finally.

"We did."

"I thought even the Fire Nation would let their guards bathe."

Zuko snorted. "I wasn't a guard for very long, in case you missed the rags I was wearing when I stepped off the balloon." He'd been wearing the same rags as Suki and her father. How could she have missed that?

The scowl that seemed permanently etched into her features whenever she was around him stayed in place, but she tilted her head to the side in idle curiosity--a sign for him to explain.

He turned away from her, dipping his left arm into the water and scrubbing at the dirt that stuck to his skin with his right hand. "I got caught in order to prevent your brother from getting caught himself."

Katara's eyebrows shot up. "Sokka almost got caught?"

Zuko looked over his shoulder at her and nodded. "Yeah. He was...distracted by Suki."

"Oh."

"Yeah."

She got quiet and Zuko turned way from her and started scrubbing at his right arm. After a moment, she spoke up. Her voice was small, hushed, and hesitant. He barely heard her words.

"...thank you."

Zuko paused, thinking for a moment that he imagined her voice and slowly turned to face her once more. "...what?"

She looked away. "Don't make me say it again."

He frowned and rolled his eyes. "Whatever."

"What's that supposed to mean?" She snapped, her blue eyes on him again.

"Nothing," Zuko answered, turning away.

Katara made a noise of frustration and stomped over to him. "You would be acting like this if it were nothing. It's something and you are going to tell me what it is."

He grumbled under his breath, trying desperately to hold the temper that the waterbender seemed to enjoy igniting in place. If he lashed out at her, she would only use his anger as fuel to torment him further and declare him unworthy of their trust. Didn't she see that he didn't care about what she thought? Not everything was about her! Him being here was about Aang. And maybe Sokka, since he'd formed and odd sort of friendship with the other boy. But never, never was it about Katara.

"You think this is about you," popped out of his mouth before he could stop it.

His answer seemed to throw her for a loop, for she got quiet for a few moments, before stammering out, "W-w-what?"

"You heard me!" He spat, temper rising. Zuko turned around to face her, eyes narrowed. "You keep acting like everything I do directly affects you. I'm sorry Katara, but it doesn't. So stop being so selfish and just leave me alone! I've got too much on my mind at the moment to deal with you."

Katara's blue eyes went wide as she watched him--briefly--then narrowed. She sneered at him and took a dangerous step forward. "Now who's acting like this is all about them? My dad and Suki just got out of a Fire Nation prison. You may've spent time in a cell, too, but they were there for much longer! Have some sympathy."

Zuko balked at her. "What? This has nothing to do with them!"

"Yes it does," she countered. "You were rude back there. Walking off."

He looked away from her. "I'm not a part of that. And not everyone who should've came back did."

"...what do you mean by that."

"Nothing."

She made a frustrated noise and stomped her foot like a child who wasn't getting her way. "Stop doing that! Stop shutting people out!"

Zuko's head snapped back to her. "And just why do you want in!?"

Katara looked almost...hurt. Was it possible that despite her tormenting of him, that she was actually trying to...help?

"I'm sorry," he said. "I just...look, someone helped us escape. Someone who's now stuck in the Boiling Rock. And I feel like I should've--"

She cut him off, finishing his sentence for him, nodding in understanding. "--done something to help."

"Yeah."

"Who?"

"...Mai."

Katara's eyebrows shot up. "Mai? You mean that friend of your sister's who throws knives? Why would she help?"

Zuko made a defeated sound and walked away from her, pressing a hand to his forehead. He wasn't sure how to answer that. "I think it was because of me."

Her footsteps drew closer; she'd followed him. "And that's...a bad thing?"

"No. Yes. No. Uhg, I don't know!" Fire surged from a clenched fist at his side, his bending reacting to his emotions.

Katara walked around him so that she was facing him. If there was one thing he would give the waterbender credit for, it was her ability to read people. She really did have that motherly thing down, even if he was annoyed by it half the time. "There was something between you two, wasn't there?"

He nodded. "Yes." Was being the key word. She seemed to understand that without him saying it.

"You don't feel the same way."

Zuko swallowed the lump in his throat. "No, I don't. I love her, but not in the way she does--the way she wants me to. Not like that. If that makes sense."

It was Katara's turn to look away sadly. "I understand. Perfectly, actually."

He regarded her curiously, trying to figure out the meaning of her words. From somewhere in the temple, Aang's laugh sounded, echoing throughout the complex. Her sad look seemed to deepen and his good eye went wide. He knew the Avatar cared for her, but he always assumed that Katara reciprocated those feelings. He thought they were... "You don't love him like that either, do you?"

She shook her head. "No, I don't. He's like a little brother to me."

That made sense. Her protective demeanor. She was looking out for a sibling, not a lover. Zuko felt stupid for having assumed otherwise. He didn't know what else to say. It was weird, finding a common ground with her--something they had in common. It wasn't the first time, for it had happened once before in those caves back in Ba Sing Se, but it made him feel...uncomfortable. Not a bad sort of uncomfortable, but the kind that made him want to tug at the edge of his clothes and start talking about anything that wasn't that connection.

Sort of like when he was around that girl, Jin.

Which, of course, was ridiculous. Unlike Jin, Katara wasn't interested in him. And he wasn't interested in Katara.

At least, that's what he kept telling himself.

Katara seemed to sense the need for a change in subject, but unfortunately it wasn't one that was going to take his thoughts away from her. In fact, she only served to make him think about what he was denying more, for she suddenly came forward and placed a gently, chaste kiss upon one of his cheeks. It was the briefest of contact, but it made him feel hot all over. Kind of itchy, too.

His gaze followed her as she stepped around him and moved to leave. "W-what was that for?"

She stopped, but didn't bother to turn around. He almost expected her to say, 'for understanding,' but instead she said: "For bringing my family back."

Zuko wanted to say that Sokka did most of the work, that it was Hakoda's plan that got them out of there, but kept quiet. This...this would do. For now. For once, he and Katara weren't arguing. She wasn't throwing insults at him and he wasn't holding back the urge to throttle her. And he was beginning to understand, slowly but surely, just why she got to him as much as she did.

It would be a while, though, before he'd be willing to admit it.


TO BE CONTINUED...

"Avatar: the Last Airbender" is © Michael DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko.

06/01/2008