Day #2! Enjoy. (Be warned, this is a little angsty-er than the last one.)
Disclaimer: I don't own Avatar.
Prompt: Slippery When Wet
It was downright embarrassing.
She, Katara of the Southern Water Tribe, Sifu to Avatar Aang himself, Ambassador of the Water in the Capital and recognized Waterbending Master, whose prowess was becoming stuff of legends and fables, who was the idol to young girls the world over, most especially in her birthplace…
Had been bested by a wet floor.
She'd been running (she couldn't even remember the reason for it now. It was probably something important that she'd forgotten, and would most likely get yelled at for by Sokka later) down one of the grand hallways of the Fire Palace, skidding around corners by grabbing a hold of the massive columns of glided redwood that stood as tall and strong as sentries at each bend, suspending the roof far above her head.
She'd been in such a hurry she hadn't noticed the familiar tingling in her body that meant water was near, nor the way the floor felt like it was sliding beneath her shoes, or even the slight splashing sound that accompanied her footfalls. It wasn't until she came to the upcoming, and sped up with her hand outstretched to catch the pillar (and honestly, what did she care if it was childish behaviour? She hadn't had the grace of being childish in years, so she was going to indulge a little, nevermind what everyone else said) when the floor had suddenly gone sliding out from under her feet, and she was air born, staring up at the ceiling, feeling the same twist in her gut that she had felt the first time she'd tried walking on ice, and slipped.
Then warm arms wrapped around her middle and she found herself staring up into a mass of red.
" Don't tell Mai you're falling for me, alright?" A playful voice spoke from above her. " She might not take it so well."
" You're jokes are terrible." Katara laughed as she was righted. " Thanks Zuko."
Fire Lord Zuko, his hair loose and tumbling over his face and a bright grin light up the dim hallway, stood before her sans ceremonial robes or armour. He was dressed in a rich red dress shirt, with a gold, embroidered hem and a lowneck line that bares his collar bone before drawstrings laced the material together. Katara allowed herself to admire him, admire the changes and the completion he seemed to have achieved at long last, before returning his smile.
" Like your jokes are any better." He teased. " And you're welcome. Consider this my payback for catching me that day." She blinked at him. " When Azula attacked the Western Air Temple and I-"
" Plummeting to your doom below?" Katara finished, smiling slyly at him. " And I snatched you right out of mid air?"
" Yes, yes, all hail the mighty Katara, she who saved this lowly firebender." Zuko mockingly bow to her. " Pay tribute to her greatness!"
" Cut it out." She giggled. " What if someone saw you right now?"
" What?" His smile made her feel warm and set a strange fluttering feeling to her stomach. She ignored it. " Just because I'm the Fire Lord now it means I can't have fun with my friends?"
" That's exactly what it means." She brought a hand up to stifle her laughter as her giggled doubled at his forlorn look.
" I knew I should've made Uncle do this!" He scuffed the ground with the toe of his boot. " Darn it!"
" And deprived the world of its tea?" Katara shook her head. " Oh no, buddy. We wouldn't let you get away with that one."
Zuko's grin was just a little bit boyish, and it thrilled her somewhere in the back of her mind that she pretended didn't exist. In the dimly lit hallway of the depths of the palace, Katara looked up into the face she had once seen only as the enemy, and found that she couldn't even see his scar anymore. It was such a part of him, such a badge of his courage and strength and change, that when her eyes wandered to his face (the fluttering got worse), it didn't even register that the scar was there.
" What?" He asked finally, embarrassed by her staring. " Do I have something in my teeth?"
Katara reached up and brushed her finger tips along the rough edge of burnt kin. It felt the same, just as rough, just as painful, as it had months (what felt like years; what felt like lifetimes) ago in the prison cell. As the candles flickered, the light was cast onto his face, and she was suddenly back there, surrounded by glowing jade crystals and offering her most precious gift to someone who was no longer her enemy, but not quite her friend. Katara breathed in deep, and Zuko breathed with her, and she wondered if she'd ever felt so close to another human being before.
" Katara?" Zuko asked, but it was barely a whisper.
Impulsively, she darted forward, wrapping her arms around his neck like she'd done that day at the pier, squeezing his shoulders and feeling his heart ram against his ribs where their chests pressed together. He smelled of burning wood and smoke and radiated a heat that surged through her.
" You don't have to pay me back for catching you that day." She murmured in his ear. " You already paid me back a hundred times over when you helped me find that man."
Arms came up and coiled around her waist.
" I still wanted to catch you." His lips brushed her ear and she swore her heart stopped. " I'll always want to catch you."
" Promise?" She just couldn't seem to make her voice go any louder than a whisper.
" Promise." His one hand stroked her back. " I'll always be there to catch you, whether you want me to you or not."
" I do want you to." It seemed very important she get this across. " I want you to catch me."
" I'm glad." He was trembling slightly. " I…I really want to be…to be the one who catches you."
The dim candles were making everything seem so remote and isolated. Katara wondered where the rest of the world had gone.
" But…" She bit her lip. " But what about…what about Mai? Do you…Don't you want to catch her too? If she was falling, I mean."
How else he would catch her didn't really occur to her, but the warmth Zuko was giving off was seeping through her clothes and into her skin and up to her head, and everything except for the boy she was holding seemed so unimportant.
" I…I guess." He was still shaking a little in her arms. " I mean…I'd feel obligated to, wouldn't I? It's…It's what she'd expect…it's what everybody'd expect…"
" But would you?" She felt as though she needed the answer very badly.
" I…yeah, I think so." For some reason, something cold spread through her chest. " But that doesn't mean I wouldn't be there for you any less."
He was insistent, but Katara was already pulling away, cold and trying very hard to understand why she was so hurt by his confession. It wasn't as if she hadn't expected it. Mai was his girlfriend, after all. That though made her even colder, and she strived desperately to try and shove it away, to try and regain some control over her traitorous body.
" Katara!" Zuko's voice was scared. " Katara, look at me. What is it, what did I do?"
She couldn't look at him. If she did…if she looked at him…if she allowed herself even that…
" Wouldn't you do the same for Aang?"
Her head snapped up before she could stop it, but Zuko was looking away from her.
" Wouldn't you?" He was whispering again, and Katara got the distinct feeling that they weren't talking about slipping on wet floors anymore.
" I'd…It would be the right thing to do, wouldn't it?" She twirled a piece of hair around her fingers. " I would be the bad guy if I didn't right? I mean, Aang would want me to, wouldn't he?"
" But do you want to?" He seemed stuck on this point.
" Do you want to catch Mai?" She countered, yanking her hand out of the tangle she'd gotten it stuck in.
His voice was soft, but there was something in his tone, something gentle and something sweet that was reaching out for her, but she couldn't take it, couldn't reach back, because if she did…if she did…
" Sorry." She muttered, trying to bring up a smile. " Just forget I ever said anything." She started past him without looking. " I gotta go, I need to-"
But whatever ever it was she needed to do was lost in the motion as Zuko grabbed her arm and whirled her back around to face him. Trapped against his body, Katara looked up into his golden eyes, burning deep with something she was too afraid to identify. All of a sudden, every warning, every caution, every whisper in the night that she'd ignored came rushing back to her, and it came to her why exactly she couldn't look into his eyes or accept what it was they were telling her.
And she realized she'd been the one trembling all along.
" I want to catch you." Zuko whispered seriously. " I want to."
" I want you to, too." She couldn't breathe. He was too close, much too close. She could feel his warm breath fan her cheeks, and see his eyelashes flutter together, and hear the thundering sound of his heart (or was that hers? Did it even matter at this point? When they were so alone?). He was close, closer than he'd ever been to her, even when she'd bent over his and pressed her healing water against the star shaped scar that his sister had burned into his abdomen; closer than when she'd thrown her arms around him on that dock and held him close, whispering her words of forgiveness; closer, even, than when they'd stood together in Ba Sing Se, amid light and rock and crystals, and dropped the mantles of enemy and ally and become just a boy and girl again, the lives they'd been denied for so long found in each other's eyes…
" Zuko?" Mai's voice echoed down the hall. Both teenagers froze.
" That's Mai." Zuko whispered; there was almost a reluctance in his tone. " I should…"
"Yeah, you should see what she needs." Katara pulled away, the coldness seeping into her from all over, freezing and biting and cruel.
" You wanna come with me?" Zuko's offer made the ice colder. " She really likes you, Katara, she likes talking to you…"
" Ah, no." Something in her was screaming. " I can't…I…Aang probably needs me."
It seemed very important that she show him that if he was going to walk away from her for Mai, then she was just as capable of walking away from him for Aang. She didn't even bother to question why it was important to establish this.
" Oh, right." He sounded disappointed. " Sure, yeah. Say hi to him for me."
" I'll be sure to do that." She started off.
" I'll see you later then?"
" Yeah. Tell Mai I said hello."
" I will. And Katara?" He called after her. " Watch out for wet floors?"
" Why?" She teased, feeling almost herself again as she forced the ice away. " Won't you be there to catch me?"
Something flashed in his eyes and hers widened as she realized her mistake. Muttering some flimsy excuse she darted off in a random direction, desperate to get away, and left Zuko standing in the empty hall, staring after her.
" Dear Spirits." Toph whispered to herself from behind a pillar once the hall was empty. " What a mess this is."
Yes Toph, yes. What a mess it is indeed.