Disclaimer: Avatar isn't mine. And how cosmically depressing that is!!
SPOILERS!! SPOILERS!! WHOAAAAA!! You've been warned. MAJOR SPOILERIFIC GOODNESS for Chapter 316, "The Southern Raiders", that aired on Thursday, July 17th. Yeah, I've got mad, mad uploading skillz. This story was eating at me when I saw the preview, so naturally it didn't take much to come into its full form after I saw the episode. Twice. Hooray for recordings!
A/N: Well, hello, Avatar fandom, long time no see! This week has been epic so far, and I'm hardly able to contain my giddy enthusiasm for the series finale! It's intense, and so, so EPIC. Needless to say, because it's been awhile, I might have tripped over details; i.e., how old is Zuko in the flashbacks in "Zuko Alone"? I don't know. I'm pretending he was eight. Pretend along with me!
A/N the second: If you don't understand that flashbacks are in italics or couldn't figure that out from a) context clues or b) without FLASHBACK scrawled in bold (and I deeply loath people who do that), then how are you literate? Seriously.
A/N the third: I'm a fairly ambivalent shipper (which does not mean I have no ships; it means I have multiple conflicting ones and don't care too much for the outcome!), but this episode made Zutara for me. It really did. Especially if the following had happened -shakes fist at Bryke- But I began shipping Zutara as of "Crossroads" (you know, when it actually seemed somewhat plausible...before his whole betrayal thing, anyway), but sadly, I've never really, really found any fanfics that I truly liked. None of them got at the aspects of the Zutara relationship that were so blatantly hinted at in "Crossroads". So I hope this lives up to my own expectations (ha ha), and I hope you fellow Zutaraians (and other shippers! I welcome thee!) enjoy this little romp. Enjoy so much, in fact, that you feel obligated to REVIEW the awesome epic win! REVIEW!! Before I sic ninja!Katara on you!
save me from myself
Zuko couldn't sleep.
Which was rather ridiculous, considering how many consecutive hours he'd been awake, not to mention how emotionally draining those hours had been. He rolled over onto his left side—again—and stared once more at the nondescript grays of his night-shrouded tent. The fabric ruffled in the stiff ocean breeze, not entirely blocked by the shelter of the lopsided boulders surrounding their encampment: Toph's contribution.
And as he stared absently at the rolling cloth, he could imagine it as water, as waves rolling across the ocean, as tears not disguised by rain rolling down her cheek.
He blinked, amber eyes shrouded by lashes and shadows.
He knew why he could not sleep.
Heaving a quiet sigh, Zuko pushed himself onto his hands and from there gained his feet, creeping with practiced silence from the confines of his tent. The wind was stronger here, teasing black hairs across his vision, and he shoved them away irritably; the lack of topknot might be necessary to prove his severance from his throne, but it made his shaggy hair annoying in these sorts of conditions. He ran his hand up his forehead, combing the thick locks back, and scanned the moonlit landscape.
The other tents were dark, no fires lit, and no voices issued from anywhere; only the mournful sighing of the wind slid through the slumbering camp. Hunching his shoulders against the chill in the breeze, he maneuvered around the ashy remnants of the cooking fire and halted in front of a blue tent. He stretched a hand out, long fingers fisting in the fabric of the entrance, but paused, unable to push the flap aside. It wasn't that he was unsure of the tent's occupant—he remembered well where Sokka's was, and he was not about to interrupt the two lovers again—but because he wasn't entirely sure if she would welcome the intrusion.
She may have forgiven him, but she hadn't declared them friends or anything. After that hug…
His eyelids slid shut involuntarily, the memory of her embrace washing back to him like lapping tides on the shore. It had been unexpected, but what he remembered most was how warm it was, how warm she was: her breath tickling his neck, the bare skin of her arms, the press of her slender body.
It had only served to reinforce how cold she had been before.
"And do you know who that last Waterbender was? It was me!" she yelled, cobalt eyes as cold and blank as the ice she manipulated in the suddenly-dry air. "She died protecting me!"
She shook her head, jaw tightening and teeth gritting, as if she could dispel the thought with a physical motion, as if she wouldn't be haunted by that truth forever. He could see her shoulders shaking, could see the tears leaking free as she squeezed her eyes closed.
And then her eyes snapped open, blue and blazing, and with an enraged snarl ripping from her throat, she launched the icicles at the hapless former captain.
Zuko had seen the impossible pain glittering in her tears, and he knew—suddenly, he knew—that the Avatar had been right and also that she would not stop the frozen spears before they impacted their rightful target. But mostly he knew that he could not let this vengeance come to pass.
"No!" he barked, lunging for her with speed born of desperation, pinning her arms to her sides and her back to his chest, not allowing the waterbending form to follow through to completion. The ice melted in mid-air, no longer under her control, and harmlessly splashed against the old soldier.
"Zuko, the hell?" she demanded, fury pitching her voice into an angry keen, even as sorrow roughened the edges of the words. "Let me go! He has to die!"
"No, Katara, he doesn't," he said firmly, his old tone of command flavoring the phrase.
She writhed against him, but he was stronger than her in terms of brute muscle, and he held her as still as he could. Bucking and jerking like a woman gone mad, she strained at his hands on her arms; he did not loosen his grip, even though he knew his iron fingers would leave purplish stripes on her tan skin.
"He has to die!" she repeated relentlessly, a mantra that was her last tie to sanity. "He murdered her in cold blood, without a thought, without a care that he would destroy a family! She died for no reason!"
"She died protecting you," Zuko rejoined, trying very hard to keep his voice calm and level. He had to be the voice of reason here; he had to stay strong lest he lose her to herself.
She choked on a sob, her body trembling in his grasp, and she slumped somewhat. "Oh, spirits, Zuko…" she breathed, low and hoarse and frail. "She died protecting me…if it wasn't for me—"
"Do not finish that thought!" he commanded, nearly growling the words directly into her ear; her wet hair tickled his cheek. "Never think that again, never! She was your mother, and mothers do not sacrifice their children to save their own necks!" He paused, only too aware of the truth in those words. "It wasn't your fault at all; the only one at fault is this worthless excuse of a man," he added, nodding slightly at the terrified Firebender.
"Then let me kill him!" she seethed, her frame tensing again, slim muscles bunching beneath his hands.
"That won't bring her back!" he said curtly. "Killing him won't ease the pain of loss, Katara! It'll only make you hate yourself for becoming the same sort of monster. Please…" he whispered, voice softening. "Please don't do it, Katara. What would Aang think? Or Sokka?"
"I don't care what they'd think," she spat, renewing the struggle his words had somewhat calmed.
He drew a deep breath and changed his grip, until he wasn't restraining her so much as embracing her gently, tenderly. And he voiced one final question.
"What would your mother think?"
She hiccupped, the tears finally getting the best of her, and he felt her crumple in his arms as that sank into her heart. Her weight was suddenly heavy, as if she were waterlogged on top of the burden of pain and loss, and he sank to his knees in the muddy road, guiding her half onto his lap. She buried her face in his chest, hands fisting in his tunic, and wept bitterly as the rain pounded down.
Zuko held her tighter, pressing his cheek against the crown of her hair, and could not get over how terribly cold she felt.
The boy glanced towards Appa; the sky bison resembled a rounder boulder, and the Firebender's sharp eyes identified the slight figure sprawled against the many legs. Aang was asleep, and he felt somewhat comforted by that fact. He perceived the bond between the Waterbender and the Avatar, and it would not do to threaten the younger boy by visiting the girl at all hours of the night…at least, if he were aware. But the last monk slept peacefully, unaware of Zuko's intentions.
Drawing in a deep breath and letting it out less steadily than he wanted, he finally eased the fabric aside and stepped halfway into the tent, ducking under the flap.
"Katara?" he queried, but the name had scarcely escaped his lips when his eyes adjusted to the darkness of the tent's interior and confirmed her absence. He sighed almost inaudibly and surveyed the rumpled blankets before he emerged into the open air, a frown settling onto his face.
It wasn't that he didn't trust her—on the contrary, he probably trusted her far more than she did him—but he was concerned. Like he had told Sokka, her opinion mattered to him, and that was only because she mattered to him. They had formed a curious bond back in Ba Sing Se, one his betrayal had not entirely severed on his end. She wouldn't have returned to wreak her vengeance; Appa was still here, and he was certain he had gotten to her, but that didn't stop him from worrying.
Running on light, silent feet that would nearly have Toph dubbing him Twinkle Toes, Zuko abandoned the camp, his eyes roving the rolling hills around them. It didn't take him long to find her, as his feet had apparently known she would be on the pier again, however oblivious his head remained.
He did not bother to disguise his approach, wanting her to be fully aware, perhaps to give her time to compose herself, perhaps just so he wouldn't frighten her—he never wanted to do that again. She made no motion or sound to acknowledge him, but he knew instinctively that she knew as he strode down the aged wood and finally reclined by her side. His legs dangled off the edge further than hers, and without any greeting or comments, he simply slid off his boots; submerging his feet was fine, but puddle-filled boots were never desirable. The water reached to his ankles, and he leaned back on his hands, gazing out across the water.
She stayed hunched, her forearms crossed on her thighs, the toes of her boots skimming the ocean's surface as her legs swung back and forth pendulum-fashion, less from conscious thought and more from inertia. They remained in companionable silence for some time before she barely broke it.
"I would've killed him," she breathed, the words riding a shaky exhale. "If you hadn't stopped me…"
"Don't think on it," he murmured, idly moving his feet in the cold waves.
She raised a hand to her face, and he absently realized she wasn't wearing her gloves. Her hands seemed somehow smaller, weaker without the warrior's attire; even though he knew such implications were far from reality, he couldn't help recognizing the truth in the observation. Strong she was, warrior she may be, but she was still a vulnerable girl who had lost her mother far too soon.
Her hand dropped again, slim fingers curling around the edge of the dock. "Thank you," she offered at length. "For not telling Aang or Sokka what really happened. I don't…I don't want them to think of me that way…as a killer."
"You're not a killer," he reprimanded swiftly, moving until he mirrored her earlier pose, elbows on his knees; it provided him with a view of her inclined profile. Tearstains still marked her cheeks, or perhaps it was again and not still, as the rain, after all, had washed away the previous evidence.
"I would've been," she mumbled, obstinate as always, even in her self-recrimination.
On impulse, he seized her hand in both of his, his larger hands dwarfing hers, swallowing it in the grasp. She looked up at him, the surprise slow in working onto her face, the path too riddled with obstacles of other emotions for the reaction to be instant. Her eyes finally met his, and he gripped her hand a little tighter.
"But you're not," he emphasized, and he cracked a small smile. "And as long as I'm around, I won't let you become one. I promise you that."
She smiled faintly in return, and he felt her fingers curl around his as she accepted his gesture, his words. "Never thought I'd be glad to hear that," she teased, laughing softly, a breathy, breezy sound.
His thumb wandered across the back of her hand, brushing her knuckles. "We both may have been misguided at the time, but you did believe in me in Ba Sing Se. I guess you ought to know that I believed in you, too. And, while events may have suggested otherwise," he continued with his own quiet chuckle, "I never stopped."
Her smile flickered, broadening for a second, and it might have been a trick of the moonlight and shadows, but he thought she flushed. "I guess I never did, either. That would explain why it hurt so much," she added, glancing away, and he saw her bite her lower lip. "I wonder if that's why it all hurts so much."
He didn't need to ask what she was referring to.
"My mother left to protect me," he confessed, his voice another layer in the wind. "I haven't seen her since I was eight years old. No one knows exactly what happened to her, but it's commonly accepted that she's dead. And all because of me," he concluded, his smile twisted and sad.
"I'm sorry," she offered, looking back at him, but this time his gaze had dropped.
"I'm sorry for you, too," he replied, and he loosened his grip on her hand, expecting her to draw hers away, but she only tightened her fingers.
"I haven't thanked you yet," she began, but he interrupted.
"No, no, you did," he reminded her, shadowed amber fire meeting shadowed cobalt ice as their eyes locked.
She shook head slowly. "No, Zuko. I haven't thanked you yet for stopping me…for saving me from myself. For…for keeping me the girl my mother would be proud of. So…thank you. More than I can properly express." And she squeezed his hand.
He smiled at her, more grateful than he could say, either, and so he merely drew her into a wordless embrace, longer than when she'd offered her forgiveness, warmer than when he'd cradled her in the rain. Her head fit easily under his chin, her shoulders easily within the breadth of his, and he closed his eyes, drifting in a touch so different than Jin's or Mai's. Something about her seemed more real, as if her slender frame, as it molded so effortlessly to his lean one, would leave a lasting impression on his body, his heart, that only she could fill.
He blushed, bewildered at the direction his thoughts were wandering, when he noticed the gentle press of her chest against his as her breathing slowed and evened. He rested his cheek against her thick hair, using it as a pillow, and let his own eyes slide shut as he focused wearily on the girl slumbering in his arms.
This was understanding, he realized, as he carefully balanced himself against her. This was a bond, one of those bonds that lasted forever. This was new but somehow old, as if she belonged here, and even as he mocked the idealism of the thought, he loved how soft and smooth her hair was against his scar.
Maybe in time, he recognized, this could even be love.
He drifted to sleep soon after her, the smallest of smiles still curving his lips.