Hark on the High
Genre : Drama, Friendship
Rating : PG
Time Frame : Late Season III
Characters: Zuko, Katara
Summary : Redemption is found in steps – both to give and to gain.
Notes : Okay, you know what? Zuko and Katara will always be the ultimate pairing to me, gosh darnit! No matter what cannon says! I started writing this the night of the finale, and now I have resurrected it from the dark depths of my hard drive to complete and share. It is shipper friendly, so no matter you preferences, you don't have to worry.
That said, enjoy!
Hark on the High
There was once a boy, changed.
When Zuko first came before their group, prostrate and humble, Katara saw red. Before her was not the broken yet oddly determined Prince on his knees, but the boy she used to know. She saw calm golden eyes, and saw only the anger that had clouded them before. She remembered trusting, and hoping, and feeling his pain as hers while her hands passed over ruined flesh.
She remembered, and she hardened.
She did not counter Aang's decision – after all, he is the Avatar and her best friend. She'd follow him to the ends of the Earth and back. She'd protect him – even from someone he was determined to trust.
Through the next few weeks she watched him – watched him smile and serve tea while telling bad renditions of General Iroh's jokes. She watched him and Aang dance with dragons. She watched him and Sokka risk their lives to rescue her father. She saw the gentle way he latched onto Toph – like a surrogate sister. She saw the easy way he taught Aang – stern yet constructive, like Master Pakku. It was strange, to see 'one of them' become 'one of us.'
And even beginning to accept that feels like a betrayal of everyone who fell to the fire's flames.
There was once a girl, conflicted.
When Zuko first told her the name of the man who killed her mother she saw faltered. She saw red - crimson and blinding like fire. She burned while her water seared like acid through her veins. She remembered the man in the hut, and the calm resignation in her mother's eyes. She remembered the suicidal gleam father gained after that – he did not care which fight was his last, so long as his wife was gone. It took her so long to gain her father back, but she did. And still that taught her nothing. Her mother's ashes blackening the virgin snow was something she could never forget – never forgive.
She saw the calm resignation on Zuko's face – like her mother's, and she knows that he understands. He lost a mother too, and his rage burns hotter than hers, so close is he to the flames.
Later they moved through night's shadows like water – strange how alike the flames and the floods were, both fluid and powerful - and she can feel something inside start to accept him. So when she cannot take the life of her mother's murderer, she doesn't feel on edge. She doesn't look up and expect to see disdain or disgust in his eyes. She just expects, and receives, his quiet understanding.
When they returned to Ember Island, she sat on the dock, trying to forget – the war, her mother, the broken man who killed her – and he sat down next to her. He has practice with this – forgetting, she knows, and she had the sudden irrational urge to ask him how he does it. Her hands are shaking as his shadow drapes over hers, even though the smoky air is warm.
He does nothing more than sit next to her, and slowly, one of his hands find hers.
And her shaking stops.
When mistakes leave their mark . . .
When she saw the markings on Zuko's face, she never once thought that they were anything other than an accident – a fluke of birth or the folly of not respecting the flames at his fingertips.
It's warm and musty in the attic. She and Toph were scavenging through the chests of family possessions, looking for anything that may be of use during their stay. It was strange, touching things that the Fire Lord himself had once touched, cherished even. There was a dagger there, one too large to have belonged to young Zuko, and she let her hand linger over the hilt – a glorious phoenix made from rubies and gold and too many precious things to name. Her thumb loitered over the emerald eyes, and she felt a chill go through her body.
There were dolls in one box. It was even odder to think of Azula playing with those. Most likely she lit them on fire for practice, she thought with a grim smile.
At her side Toph stood and held something out to her. "Hey, what's this?"
She looked questioningly at the blind girl for a moment before taking the scroll from her hands. She unrolled the parchment, not feeling really enthused she unwound the silk thread from around the scroll. A smile softened her face as she took in the baby painted in soft inks on the inside of the scroll. "Aw, it's Zuko."
Toph looked over her shoulder as if she could see it through sheer force of will. "You know, it's times like this when it really sucks to be blind."
Katara nodded sympathetically. "I'm sorry."
Toph shrugged before a rather evil smile split her face. "So . . . does Zuko know that this is here?"
Toph's grin widened before she snatched the scroll from Katara's hands. "In that case I can't wait to show him!"
Katara smiled and let her friend lead her away by the hand. Her eyes fell again to the child on the scroll. This time she noticed that his skin was pure, unblemished.
She has to remember to ask him about that.
. . . And forgiveness is just past you forgiving yourself . . .
When they entered the White Lotus camp, she felt the first twinge of hope stir beneath her breast. Here were so many respected benders, all banding together in the name of peace. For the first time since Aang's disappearance she felt her worry life as pride and anticipation bloomed bright and heady way deep down inside.
She had spent her time initially chatting with Master Pakku, and asking as to her gran-gran's health. She hadn't even noticed, at first, when Zuko slipped away. When she did see him, he was loitering outside of General Iroh's tent. There was such a haunted, pained expression on his face that she wondered why she had been unable to see past his flames at one point.
He had stopped his pacing after a moment, and instead he slumped down to his knees. His fists balled up against the ground, and the strong lines of his shoulders were quivering. Across the distance she could feel his turmoil as electricity on the air. Her proximity to it made her skin tingle, and her fingers twitch anxiously.
Taking in the broken sight he made, she felt something foreign twinge deep down inside. Without pausing to question just what that was, she went and did the only thing she could think to do. She knelt down on the ground next to him, and placed a hand on his shoulder. He quivered beneath her touch.
So she squeezed tighter.
"He must hate me," he whispered. His voice was a dry crackling of smoke and ash, as if he were fighting back tears.
"He doesn't hate you," she said.
At that something broke inside of her. Or, maybe something lifted. It felt the same. Something so much like sympathy bloomed inside of her, and she reached out both hands to cup his face. She turned his eyes towards hers, watching the tears that swam inside of the flames. They captivated her, and she moved a finger to wipe an errant one away.
She thought then of everything she had suffered by his hand, and it didn't matter. All she could see now was how much he had suffered by his own hand; how much he was still paying for.
And in that moment, she forgave him. "He'll forgive you," she said. A steady truth lingered in her voice, making it stronger than usual.
"How do you know?"
"Because I forgive you."
Just like that something lifted in his eyes. A shadow passed, and sun and star blazed past the paltry flames she was accustomed to seeing there. She smiled, and let him go. When she got to his feet, he did too. He pushed open the hangings, and did not look back.
Somewhere, Katara was sure her mother would have been proud of her.
Then there are no smoke screens . . .
When they sat around the fire the next morning, she could see something different in him. He carried himself higher. His shoulders were straight, and his step was light, as if he was no longer weighed down by the burden of guilt. General Iroh watched these changes in his nephew with such an unmistakable pride in his eyes, and it warmed her heart to see it. In a small way, she was proud that she had been apart of that.
A little voice inside of her head softly whispered that she could have done more. And for that only was she shamed. But this too passed when Zuko locked eyes with her across the fire, and asked her to battle Azula with him.
There was a split second of 'what about Aang' in her mind. She had promised to follow him to the end, and she would, she'd give her life . . .
But she saw the steady trust, and silent question in Zuko's eyes, and her concerns about Aang passed like the spray of mist before a storm.
"It would be my pleasure."
Something like approval flashed in his eyes. It was too quick for her to follow, but what she saw warmed something deep down inside. And that scared her.
. . . only flames.
The Agni Kai was rough and violent.
A passing onlooker would not have never though the two contestants to be brother and sister. The demonic flames falling from the shrieking harpy at one end of the ring spoke of one who was finally shattering around the edges, while the brilliant golds and reds of the young man spoke of a calm and focused determination.
It was awe inspiring to watch.
The courtyard was awash in living bands of electric blue and flame gold, washing over the burning buildings around them and lighting up the features of the boy – no, man, whom she has come to respect and care for so, so much. Here he was raw and open; completely one and the same with his element.
It is one of the most beautiful things she has ever seen.
When he steps between the lightning and her, she feels a part of herself go numb with horror. A blood freezing dread swam through her – the likes of which she had not felt since Azula struck Aang in the bowels of Ba Sing Sei.
He was okay though – minus the scar that was spidering across the pale skin of his chest. Relief choked with her fury, and she tasted rage as brimstone and ash on her tongue. When she turned and faced Azula, there was no doubt on her mind that she would come out the better.
And she did.
And at the end you find yourself harking on the high.
"Just a year ago I would have never seen us here."
The words fell from the boy's mouth like a whisper, and Katara looked up from where she was helping him fix his robes to better digest them. She tossed them around in her mind, images of a younger him – hot and angry and so so determined, with a prince's armor, and a lord's arrogance. The young man before her was not far off from that now – save the calm gleam about his eyes.
She thought of herself then too – of the little girl fumbling with her loose tongue and trying to understand the water swimming at the tips of her fingers, to the young woman standing on the edge of adulthood now.
How far they had both come.
The change that had come over him, she was hesitant to call it peace, but when he locked eyes with her, that was exactly what she saw.
"Me either," she admitted, the corners of her mouth turned up ruefully as she remembered. "You had very far to go," she teased.
He rolled his eyes. "It's not like you made it easy for me."
She raised an eyebrow. "Now, what would be the fun in that?"
Zuko made a face. "Technically, you aren't allowed to tease the Fire Lord."
She snorted. "Technically, you aren't the Fire Lord yet."
He waved a hand. "It's just a few minutes in the making. You may want to start practicing now."
She pretended to look thoughtful, tilting her head to the side, and fingering her chin. "On second thought – no. You need someone to keep you in line."
"I'm not going to get around this, am I?"
She grinned rather evilly. "Nope. But really now, I don't think you'd like it any other way."
He shook his head, and took a step back from her. The sounds from the crowd gathering past the large double doors were growing louder. They only had a few more minutes. He flicked a look towards them before turning back to her. "On a serious note, I'd like to thank you."
He scratched the back of his head, looking decidedly awkward. "Everything, really – for giving me a chance, mainly."
She smiled softly. "Thanks for not disappointing."
He looked at her oddly for a moment, his eyes filling with an emotion that she was hesitant to name. It send low shivers through her, and made her heart tap dance in a funny little way.
There were horns sounding outside, and when Aang appeared to accompany Zuko out, she knew it was time. With a quick good-luck, she made her way outside to where Toph was saving a spot for her.
A moment latter Zuko appeared before the assembled Fire Nation, the Avatar at his side, and swore to protect his country and unite the world again. He locked eyes with her as he took the crown from the Fire Sages, and she felt something suspiciously like pride bloom inside of her.
Cheers erupted all around them at the end of the ceremony – a happy, rapturous thunder that spoke of a turning page and a new era, and she joined in with them with a joyful shout. She felt like she was flying in that moment, and she knew that he felt the same way.
Over the crowd, he had yet to break her gaze, and she finally mouthed 'thank-you' into the wind.
He nodded, once, and repeated her words back to her.
She knew after that they wouldn't speak of it again – bygones be bygones, and the past in the past sort of things, but more importantly, she wouldn't want to speak of it again. That was then, and this is now, and now she has never been more proud of one single person.
After the celebrating is done, she waits for him, and he smiles a little her.
This may be dangerously close to a friendship of sort, and moving on of other sorts.
But it is perfect.