Avatar Legacies: Chapter 1: Steps of Realization
Just hours after the end of the war, Katara contemplates her place in all that has happened.
How will she find consolation when so many have died?
How will she console those around her?
The answer comes to her from an unexpected place...
(Please note for future reference, Cast lists are only those who have lines)
"One may not reach the dawn save by the path of the night"
She'd long ago lost count.
In the Arctic, keeping track of one's own footsteps could mean the difference between finding your way home, and finding a slow, cold death. So it was only natural that when Katara first put foot to unfrozen earth she began to count her steps.
The number was long lost now.
Somewhere between their first trip to the Mainland and her bloodstained footsteps to the doors of the Fire Nation Palace she'd lost her adolescence in unnumbered footfalls. She had literally walked away from her childhood.
Her feet ached, and not just figuratively.
She was literally exhausted. Even laying on her back with surprisingly soft and clean sheets under her back and crumpled at her legs was no help.
And it was hot. The Fire Nation was always hot. She wanted to sleep, but she couldn't. Her tossing and turning only managed to plaster sweat-laden hair to her face all the better. It could be only the heat, but it was most likely the blasted noise filtering in from the streets still, and at this hour.
Sometime soon after the fighting came the celebrating – the streets had erupted from a riotous mess into a chaos of revelry. Those who needed to be subdued were dealt with and the rest seemed to either be genuinely joyous: or smart enough to play along with the spontaneous festivities.
Katara hadn't felt much like partying. But when cheers broke out for the new Fire Lord and then for the Avatar and so on and so forth… the others seemed to be able to find their second wind. It wasn't that Katara couldn't find enough energy to play along for even a little while longer – she just couldn't find the heart to.
It seemed that the blood hadn't even been washed from the streets yet. The ringing was still in her ears from a mixture of chaos and victory. Somehow all the shouts of celebration seemed hollow to her.
By the level it had managed to die down to she figured it was nearly the wee hours of the morning. Kicking herself free from the rest of the sheets, she rolled off the bed in the room that had quickly been designated as hers. The tall ceilings and walls were full of tapestries: all cinnabar and gold, like the fire etched into a sunset.
Pained feet complained up at her; weary blue eyes stared down between them to the polished floor and the finely woven rug across it. The new Fire Lord had been nothing but generous with their accommodations.
But they afforded her weary body little comfort.
Perhaps if she stretched tight muscles a bit by taking a short walk, she would be able to force her mind to shut down and sleep might come. Katara reached across the ground, her big toe searching for her lost sandals. She found one quickly but it took her a while to find the other and she almost decided to go barefoot altogether.
Through the long hallways of the palace she could still hear the echoing of victory songs from the outside. Perhaps it had been so long since these people had been allowed to sing of true victory, they were reluctant to let the party die down.
And as she came to think of it, the last she had seen of her companions were the random glimpses of familiar faces peppered between a sea of red and gold.
Images of Sokka with Suki hand in hand somewhere near food that had seemed, even in her opinion, to have magically procured itself just for him. At least, those had been Sokka's colorful words. He reveled in it, and managed to exclaim through mouthfuls that this was a type of supernatural activity that he could definitely get used to.
What was left of the Water Tribe Warriors had found a place together and looked a tad awkward and out of place. Katara somehow found this thought funny only now: her tribes' strongest men... sitting together in the corner like a bevy of BaSingSe wallflowers.
Toph was right where she'd left her. With Aang, almost as if keeping watch over the Airbender.
Katara had made eye contact with Aang only once then; his tired expression met her gaze as she placed a wondering hand on his shoulder.
"I'm not okay, but I promise I will be," he responded softly to her touch without the need of prompting.
She remembered nodding, knowing there was nothing else she could offer except what she'd always did. She remembered a hug – taking him deeply into her arms, and with his head on her shoulder, she squeezed him tight.
Suddenly he felt both more fragile than ever and made of more substance. He grew a bit more every day, even while fighting for their lives.
Pulling away was painful, but more so because she had to let it be at that. This was the new nature of them. She couldn't be everything to him, not anymore. He had to be everything to the world, and all she could muster from here on out was her utter devotion. Katara was still not sure about how she felt about that. They had never truly talked the way she thought they would. She'd just given into his needs; she was his – which was the way it was supposed to be. Wasn't it?
He didn't kiss her this time. She would have not pulled away if he did, but she felt a little more than a slightly ashamed at the feeling of relief when he didn't try. She was embarrassed of the others seeing, as it was still so new.
At least this is what she told herself.
Motherly instincts had still made her take count on him and everyone else despite her weariness: and only this had given her a bit of rest from the anxiousness that was settling somewhere in the pit of her stomach. All of her charges accounted for; she had then managed to convince herself that she needed to get away from all of the noise. Somebody must have needed to be healed or something handled… or there just had to be somewhere she needed to be.
She needed to be somewhere. Anywhere but here…
Katara hadn't found her way to the healing tents though, or anywhere else where work was to be done for that matter. One of the servants who'd stayed had shyly offered to show her the way to a room to clean herself up and rest – Katara somehow knew this was either Iroh's or Zuko's doing.
She surprised herself to think that it might have been more the latter's orders.
She had accepted the room, and attempted to rest. But of course as a testament to her wandering the halls alone right now, none had come.
Her eyebrows furrowed, and she held one arm in the other while her sandals made a small hollow noise as she walked. She'd only managed to realize at that second that she'd probably walked too far when looking about she noticed where she was happened to be utterly unfamiliar. There was the pull of water nearby and the sounds of the celebration had faded so much so that she just might be able to relax here for the moment.
In what appeared to her to be a courtyard was a pond filled with clear water and the white noise of a fountain. She looked around at a loss for a moment, not sure if she should even be there. In doing so a bench came into sight, it enticed her to join it, and so her momentary uncertainty was washed away. She moved away from the path and sat on the stone bench, staring at the water whose pull was comforting. The moon reflected on its clear surface. And though she might not want to admit it, Yue's illumination in this small place was only part of what made it actually look...
"Beautiful, isn't it?"
She didn't jump back up: but only because she'd frozen in place.
Katara you silly girl, just go wandering into places that don't belong to you, why don't you?
Wondering if she should turn and face him or keep her face forward frozen there for many more moments. Between each internal argument she noted how childish she was for not just turning to look at him.
He didn't wait for her, instead quietly moving to stand beside the bench where there was a free spot. With a small flourish of his hand he moved his robes aside and sat quietly next to her – shoulder to shoulder.
There was a long moment of silence before he spoke again. "In the day time there are Turtleducks here…but they are not here now it being night and all." he sat silently for another awkward moment.
"It's peaceful, unless they try and bite you." He added wistfully, at this Katara didn't look at him but she did offer a smile.
"I hope your room is, adequate," he added formally after a momentary pause.
Katara could have put her palm to her face at this, but instead placed her hands together in her lap, her feet softly swinging back and forth under the bench. She was digging herself deeper into a hole with her silence and wasn't sure if speaking would dig her deeper or get her out. She didn't mean disrespect, but she was pretty sure her vocal chords were malfunctioning right now.
The arm of his sleeve came to rest beside hers when he placed his palms just behind him, leaning back slightly in a relaxed manner-looking to the water just as she was. They were not touching, but it did not matter. For all she could care right now it was as good as if he had his hand in hers. She tried to take in air to clear out the knot in her chest.
Everything that she'd been through since leaving the South Pole had seemed to lead her to this moment. Everything he'd had done in his life had lead him here to this spot.
Why was it that her greatest enemy now was the one standing beside her at the end of all things?
He continued to speak, and she continued in her silence.
"Everyone wondered where you'd gone... Aang, he...he was looking for you," he lied, and she could tell he was avoiding looking at her, even just from the corner of her eye.
She could also tell this was not about Aang searching for her at all. Aang was a curious boy and could entertain himself for a while, and though he hadn't let go of his tether to her, she was confident he could be okay without her for a while. He most likely hadn't been seriously looking for her at all. They could have just asked if they really wanted to find her.
Katara turned her face a few degrees to face him, finding only the marked portion of his face to look at.
"How does it feel?" she asked, her voice was soft from disuse, but it not weak. And he held his gaze on the water – or maybe beyond it, though she got the impression that he might have wanted to turn away completely.
He didn't look away thought, instead he leaned forward with his elbows on his knees and looked down.
Zuko's mouth opened to answer, but nothing came forth. Finally he shut it for good, and, for what seemed like ages, there was a painful silence.
The truth was, as strange as it sounded, even to herself in her own head, she knew exactly how he was feeling. The former Fire Lord Ozai was now defeated and imprisoned, and his sister was bound in a prison of her own mind. His Uncle was here after his own victories, but uncharacteristically quiet. Katara choose to attribute it to exhaustion they were all feeling.
Zuko though was to be Fire Lord, and even that Fire Nation woman Mai had seemed to prove her loyalty to him healing whatever hurt that was between them. Despite all the things he gained, she knew it would not be enough – not yet.
So much blood spilt for this cause… and now he was responsible for the reconstruction and rehabilitation of an entire nation. This was everything he'd wanted, wasn't it?
Despite everything he'd earned, he was in pain.
He was confused and he was guilty about not being happy for their victory. His own victory seemed hollow to him. How she could know this was simple: she felt the same way about it all. After she managed to look beyond her own bitterness and past his stinging betrayal, it was clear to her just how simple it was to read Zuko's intentions.
They were so damn similar.
And it sometimes frightened her. If she had been in the same situation, would she have turned out any differently?
She couldn't even lie to herself and say no.
Staring at his frown in profile, Katara wanted to say that she regretted having had to be a part of this war. But she realized just what that would mean.
The mass of people she had met along the way, so many of them now like family. Suki, Toph... Aang.
What would she be without any of them? No better than what Zuko would be without them either. Empty. Scarred, without redemption, without a path.
She didn't even know where to begin when it came to what she felt about this person now. It was so different now than it had been only days ago. He was a going to be a ruler, and he had accepted his once ago lover back into his life during his time of need.
It didn't seem proper to take his hand right now, or to hug him as she had only so many hours ago. Now he was something so much more significant to these people, and that title held so much meaning for what you can and what you cannot say or do… or feel about a person.
Her hand subconsciously clenched. Her fingers against her palm were remarkably smooth for someone who'd spent the last year training them to the bone.
The sensation left them numb for the most miniscule second, but this discipline in holding back wasn't right for this moment.
Her arm reached out to take his hand, the hand that had seemed to have almost come to belong to her these last few days. The hand she'd gripped to catch him midair, the hand she'd tugged to get him to follow her lead on multiple occasions – and he had, suddenly and so loyally. That hand that had aided saving her father, and that had also helped to save the world.
But instead of what had become a sudden and familiar sensation of his rougher palm sliding around and between hers... only her pinky found contact. She used her smallest digit to take a hold of his own on his left hand.
His wrapped around hers and squeezed.
It was enough. It had to be, just for right now.
As if he could transfer everything he wanted to say and do right here and right now through that contact, he squeezed just light enough not to hurt her.
His breathing became rigid, and though she couldn't see it, she knew he was on the verge of loosing his fight with his emotions. Zuko didn't turn to hold her in his pain: it wasn't one of those fairytale moments that ended a chapter of an epic tale's main antagonist's journey.
No romantic hug or passionate kiss for this ending… or anything else that came to mind in those kinds of dark and intriguing stories.
He just sat there, awkward and angry and hurt.
He stood there and let out his frustrations and losses: even gave her the honor of letting her witness his tears, though silently as he rested his forehead in his right hand. Uncrowned hair covering most of his face, she didn't need to see it to know.
He gave way in a relatively quiet sort of manner, because that was who Zuko was.
She just stood there with their pinkies intertwined. Long ago having lost the feeling in hers, but holding on all the more tightly because of it, she let him softly sob and knew she didn't need to search for words to say. Because there was just nothing that could be said, and only her presence was needed.
All because that's who Katara was, and that's who Zuko needed her to be.
It wasn't that either of them forgot about anyone else in that moment. Not about those who were still unfound, or about the others they'd lost all too quickly. They didn't forget about Azula –or about Ozai, both imprisoned either in a cell or more by the confines of their own thoughts.
Or countless soldiers lying over in the infirmary, or the hollowed look in Aang's eyes after he'd come out of the Avatar state and stared down at the body of the first person he'd ever had to inflict such pain upon.
They didn't forget about enemies who'd become friends. Katara didn't forget about how she'd in a beat of a heart become Aang's Waterbender, nor Zuko forget Mai's sacrifices and the promises he'd made to her.
It was more that they remembered all of this at once, and jointly who they each were and why it could only be each other that could understand. And they remembered what all that meant now more than ever, and what it now could not come to mean.
They remembered just how many steps it had taken them to get right to this place in time.
Katara knew she'd never remember the number of exactly how many steps she'd taken –and she didn't want to.
And though he didn't want to either, Zuko knew he'd never ever forget.