Disclaimer: Avatar is obviously not mine, because if it were, then this would be a cartoon and not a fanfiction. And it will never become mine, sadly, so I shall not repeat myself needlessly in future chapters.
A/N: This is a sequel to my other Zutara story, Beyond the Rising Sun. In order to understand much of this story (such as, how Zuko and Katara became romantically entangled in the first place), you will pretty much have to read that story first; I hope you have eight hours to spare for that, aha! However, this story deviates at the very end of BtRS, because the timing of the epilogue doesn't really fit, I think, with what happens here. Or maybe it does. In any event, you kind of need to read that one first. Okay? Okay! I hope you enjoy reading this, and as always, reviews would be lovely!
[the ancient spirit wreaks its revenge, but when the Avatar's love is not the Avatar's lover,
innocent people are caught in the crossfire]
In the darkness, it waits.
It does not sleep. It does not dream. It does not hope. In the empty, everlasting, fractional spaces between seconds, it simply waits. It bides its time, and it watches, and it listens, alert for the moment when its goal (because it can have a goal, because a goal is less human than a dream) can be fulfilled.
Will be fulfilled, it corrects. Diction is important here. Years are nothing to an entity that has existed almost since the beginning of time itself—time is nothing to it, either. Time is something that happens to those mere mortals, scurrying around on their world of earth and air and fire and water.
This is but a matter of time, and that is the only way in which the concept matters.
It cannot die, not in the way humans conceive the idea; humans have tried, the Avatar has tried, but the Avatar is as human as the rest in the end. That Avatar has passed on, and the groaning wheels have turned, and now there is another. Different but still the same, still possessing that undying spirit that flits from body to body like an indecisive sparrow.
That spirit will suffer. It has vowed this. It has wrenched the heart from that spirit before, and it will do so again. It so longs to do so again, to cripple and to taunt and ultimately, in some sense, to destroy more absolutely than death ever could.
But what is this? It senses opportunity, a shifting of the two worlds, a thinning of the fabric in between. It can wrest an opening here, create a breach, slip through and perform its long-awaited vengeance. It can ply the fibers of space and time apart like a human separating woven cloth, and…
It is pleased.
In the darkness, lips that are not its own curve in a twisted smile.
And from the darkness, it strikes.
Aang gazed at her face, at its smooth and delicate contours, memorizing the curves of her lips and cheek and the exact hue of her eyes. In the next moment, he repeated the process, trying to force every particle of his being to know this, to truly know this. So that later, when his eyes were shut, these flickers of memories would reconnect and play back on the insides of his eyelids, a seamless replica of the occasion.
She looked so happy, blue eyes bright and shining with unshed tears, and he never wanted to forget that expression. Never wanted to forget how she looked, standing there in her native finery, draped in water-flowing robes of cerulean and indigo and azure. Never wanted to forget how her voice sounded or the way her wedding vows echoed in his ears.
Today she was a bride, and tomorrow she would be a wife, but she would always be Katara.
He swallowed against the lump of emotion in his throat, and he removed his near-reverent gaze from the sight of his beloved waterbender to glance sidelong at the Chief Sage. His chest tightened, and his gaze swept right back to her beaming face.
"If you would kneel, please," the Sage instructed, making a slight motion with one hand.
She obeyed, adjusting her layered gown to allow her to perform such an action without falling over. Her head bowed, and her long curls slipped forward, at least those not restrained by the intricate mesh of braids that coiled around the surmounting bun.
Aang could still see something of her face, and he saw her lips quirk, as if she were trying very hard to remain solemn and not grin like an absolute fool. On his part, he was glad that he was not facing the assembled guests because he knew he wasn't exactly the picture of solemnity himself.
He realized he couldn't remember how to breathe. Dear spirits, he was an airbender and he couldn't remember how to breathe.
The Chief Sage hefted something gold and gleaming into the air, raising it high for all to see, and he lowered it as he intoned, "May you have the blessing of Agni, and of Twi and La, in this appointment. I name you…"
Aang's throat was dry, and his eyes were pricking wetly. He thought it ought to be the other way around, but how could he not feel like this when Katara—of all people, why did it have to be her?—was just out of reach, was so close but was now—
"Fire Lady Katara!" the Sage announced, settling the golden flame in her dark hair. "Hail!"
"Hail!" the guests roared back, some more exuberantly than others; Sokka was particularly loud, and Aang could almost swear he heard Toph yelling something along the lines of Looks like Sugar Queen's official royalty now! He blinked rapidly, unable to vocalize his own acceptance of her coronation—because he didn't accept it, damn it, he didn't accept it!—and simply watched, now truly heartbroken, as she rose to her feet amid the tumultuous applause and laced her fingers through her husband's.
Zuko, on the other hand, was grinning like an absolute fool, and the love in his golden eyes when he gazed at his bride nearly made Aang's stomach turn. He felt deeply ashamed for this jealousy, for this real anger, but he couldn't stomp it out. He, Aang, was the one she had discovered in the iceberg. He, Aang, was the one she had striven so hard to protect. He, Aang, was the one she was so obviously destined to be with. And he, Aang, was the one she had kissed when the world was new and the burden of his birth fulfilled.
So why had she just gotten married to Zuko?
He realized, probably belatedly, that he was glowering, and he hastily reassembled his features into something distinctly less threatening. It wouldn't do for the newlyweds to glance at him and find his face in some sort of terrible death rictus.
Katara had raised a hand during his internal conflict, and he watched her curiously; she still seemed so somber, so…well…regal. The gathered people obeyed the gesture, quieting down, and observed her as attentively as the Avatar.
"As my first official decree as Fire Lady," she declared, and beside her, Zuko arched his good eyebrow, making it clear that she was improvising. "I order you all…to stuff your faces at the celebratory feast!" she revealed, much more jovially, and grinned broadly as she said it.
The crowd roared its approval once more—and again, Sokka's cheers were impossible to miss—and began moving away from the palace's steps, heading for the courtyards, where all the banquet tables had been arranged. Aang hesitated, uncertain whether he should follow promptly; being here, within arm's reach of her but unable to wrap her in those arms, was agony, but he should offer his congratulations…
"I think the power's gone to your head," Zuko remarked, smirking as Katara turned to look at him.
"The power's gone to my head?" she echoed, a sultry sort of purr in her voice, and Aang's cheeks flamed even though neither words nor tone was directed at him. "If that's the case, I wonder what…else…this power rush will compel me to do…"
Aang wanted to inch away—or bolt, that would also be acceptable—but he found his feet rooted to the stone steps, and he was doomed to eavesdrop to the end.
Zuko's voice was hushed, as if he were halfway aware that someone could conceivably still hear. "Now, now, darling," he murmured, the endearment almost taunting, "it's our wedding night. You are not topping."
Aang twitched. He was not hearing this, he was not hearing this…!
"Mm…we'll see about that, Zuko," she replied softly, devilishly. From the corner of his eye, Aang saw her pull her new husband into a lengthy and involved kiss, and suddenly escape seemed like the best idea he'd ever had. Neither member of the Fire royalty took notice of his departure, and he glumly set off for the reception as he wrestled with his now-traitorous memory and even more treacherous imagination.
He very nearly resorted to banging his head against a wall.
"To my li'l sis!" Sokka declared, rising to his feet and brandishing his much-abused sake dish. "The waterbending Fire Lady—who'da thunk it?"
General laughter greeted that observation, and the warrior grinned, flushed with success and flushed even more with alcohol.
"An'…an' to my new brother-in…in…in-law!" he continued, his arm swinging about haphazardly and nearly dousing Suki and Toph with the rice wine. "Now…really…who'da thunk that? I mean, Zuko…well…here's to the Angry Jerk! Long live—" he hiccupped and resumed "—the happy coup-couple! May you life toget'er be…steamy!"
Zuko frowned at that, and beside him, Katara arched an eyebrow. "What?" she asked, not entirely certain what to make of that remark.
Sokka attempted to fix her with a patronizing look, but he rather failed with his eyes unfocusing every other second. "'Cause of the fire," he explained slowly, as if she were a small child. "An' yer water. So, together, there's…steam, or-or-or somethin'. Steamy." And he spread his hands, sake dish wobbling precariously, in an explanatory gesture.
"I think you've made your point," Suki sighed, tugging her inebriated husband back down to earth, at least on a physical level. He slumped on his cushion, bringing his drink to his lips, but she snatched it away in a very businesslike manner and held it out of his reach, not deterred by his flailing limbs.
Toph, who had been lounging with all her customary lack of decorum, hopped to her feet and hoisted her own cup in Zuko and Katara's general direction. "I'm not one for speeches, so here's all you're gonna get: to Sparky and Sweetness! Sparky, you watch your step, 'cause she ain't all that sweet sometimes, and she just might kick your ass if you put a toe out of line! Live long, be happy, and some other nonsense! Yeah."
The petite earthbender threw back her dish amid more laughter, and she plopped back onto her cushion with her typical broad, cheeky grin.
"That was better than Sokka's," Katara observed as levelly as possible, but she couldn't quite swallow all the giggles welling in her throat.
"Well, that would be hard not to accomplish," Zuko pointed out dryly, and he tugged her a little closer, utilizing his arm slung around her waist.
"Kiss! Kiss! Kiss!" Toph chanted, pounding her fist in rhythm against the heavily-laden tables, and other nearby guests—especially Sokka—eagerly took up the cheer.
The Fire Lord frowned. "You know, for being blind, you sure do see a lot," he grumbled, although much of his exasperation was good-natured.
The earthbender rolled foggy eyes. "Spirits, just plant one on her already! Pucker up for something sour, Sweetness!"
Katara's eyebrow managed to rise higher. "We are just rolling in the wit today," she remarked with a decent helping of genuine bemusement. "I think we should provide less sake at the next party we host, Zuko."
"That's funny," he mused, "I thought we should provide more." And to the accompaniment of applause, wolf-whistles, and catcalls, he captured his bride in a very decisive kiss. When he finally pulled back, she was noticeably breathless, and that only caused the assembled guests to cheer louder.
Recovering a smattering of her composure, Katara looked around for her oldest friend. "Back to the toasts," she reminded everyone loudly. "I think it's Aang's turn. Aang?"
The airbender jerked, as if he'd been caught dozing in class, and leapt smartly to his feet. "I, er, right," he stammered, fiddling with his practically untouched drink. "To Katara and…Zuko. You're getting the best girl in the world," he said, nodding at the firebender, "and Katara, you're, um…well, you're stuck with Zuko."
"Oho, that's gotta hurt!" Sokka crowed, leaning back and throwing his arms up in the air.
With absentminded ease, Suki smacked him upside the head.
Aang's expression sobered, and while he was far enough away to make it appear that he was looking at both of them, Katara could tell she was bearing the whole weight of his gaze. But this was her wedding to Zuko, so she didn't give the matter a second thought.
"Really, though, I just want you to be ha…" The Avatar trailed off, brow furrowing, and he glanced around.
"Wants them to be ha? I don't get it," Sokka complained in a stage whisper.
"Aang, what's wrong?" Katara asked, straightening up from her lean against Zuko, real concern flickering across her face. It wasn't like him to lose his train of thought, especially not in the middle of such a sentiment.
He continued frowning in puzzlement for a distressingly long moment, but eventually he shrugged. "I guess it's nothing. I just thought I heard something…weird. Like when the young airbenders used bamboo stilts, something clicking like that."
"It was probably Snoozles gnawing on the sake bottle," Toph quipped as she picked dirt from beneath her fingernails. Beside her, Sokka guiltily set the glass container back down, looking properly chastised for his actions.
"Yeah, I bet that was it," Aang agreed, although he didn't look entirely convinced. He shook it off, though, and finished his toast. "So…that's it, pretty much. I just want you to be happy." Cloud-gray eyes searched ice-blue ones, almost as if he were begging her to show him some sign that she was not so that he could properly whisk her away.
Her forehead pinched slightly, but her soft smile was sincere. "We are," she confirmed strongly, hopeful that such a reassurance would lessen the blow—at least he knew she was happy, and he continuously professed that as his deepest desire.
Toph snorted. "Way to dampen the mood, Twinkle Toes. Whoever's up next, you better make it hilarious."
Iroh rose to his feet, still holding his plate of custard cake, and his face was nearly lost in all the wrinkles caused by his head-splitting smile.
"Oh, this better not be about tea," Zuko muttered, though he was smiling, and Katara laughed and cuddled back into his side.
The former general cleared his throat and beamed at the groom. "I would like to tell you all a story. Twenty-one years ago, I found myself blessed with a nephew…"
Zuko groaned. "It's worse than tea," he lamented as Iroh continued his lengthy tale with all the pomp of a proud papa. "It's my life story!"
"Shh," Katara shushed, even though he hadn't been speaking loud enough for anyone but her to hear. "I don't want to miss the part about how bright-eyed and bushy-tailed you were!"
He grimaced theatrically, but he didn't interrupt his uncle and merely pulled his wife closer, dusting a kiss onto her hair.
Zuko slumped, unable to keep his weight on his hands, and rested his forehead against the side of her neck. He felt her relax as well: her body sinking more into the bed, her fingers unclenching and sliding from his back down his arms, her legs loosening on his hips. And it might have only been because he was pressed so heavily—but comfortably, achingly so—against her, but for all the tension melting from their limbs, it seemed as if she were just as close to him as before.
He exhaled, his breath cooling the sweat on her throat, and let his eyes shut. He was tired, a warm, muddled kind of exhaustion, but he did not want to sleep and miss an instant of this precious night. There was still so much, even now, that she needed to know.
"I love you," he mumbled, his lips shaping the words on her skin. "Agni, Katara, I love you so much…"
She shifted ever so slightly, almost cradling his stretched form with her curled one. "I know," she breathed in reply, and the fingers of one hand sifted through the dampened hair at the nape of his neck. "I love you, too. More than anything." Her voice was nearly raw with sincerity.
He summoned the strength to raise himself up, and he traced a hand reverently down the curve of her cheek, his eyes following the motion as if mesmerized. "How did I get so lucky?" he wondered aloud. "I don't deser—"
"Don't be self-deprecating," she chided gently, stealing a slow kiss. "It's obnoxious."
He chuckled, the sound as soft as the shadows. "Yes, my lady."
She smiled at that. "I suppose that's right, isn't it? I'm really the Fire Lady."
"You're my Fire Lady," he corrected, a shade possessively, and he nuzzled into her neck, tilting her head back into the pillow.
"I can accept that," she acquiesced, eyes closing involuntarily as he explored the subtle pounding of her pulse. "Because…ahh…we need to do this again."
"In due time," he replied nonchalantly, even as his hand settled on her waist once more. "I'll do whatever you want in an hour."
She moved her arm, tugging on the hair she still had fisted between her fingers and lifting his lips from her collar. She fixed him with a stern look and a raised eyebrow. "I'll give you half an hour, Zuko, and that's it."
"Someone's insatiable," he teased, unable to keep a smirk from flitting across his refined features. "Is it the same someone who thought we shouldn't be having all this fun?"
She rolled her eyes but grinned. "Remind me again why I thought not sleeping with you was preferable," she murmured, drawing him close and sealing his lips with hers.
"It had something to do with having a genuine relationship, I recall," he said musingly as her lips followed his jawline.
"We all make mistakes," she purred into his ear, her breath tickling the back of his neck. A shiver raced up his spine. "I intend not to be able to walk tomorrow, which, of course, would leave me stuck here, with nothing better to do…"
He matched her smirk for smirk. "Damn straight there's nothing better," he declared. "Although, come to think of it, I do have a country to run…"
"Work later, play now," she rebuked. "Your hour's up."
"No, it's not…" he began protesting, but then he paused and reviewed that statement. Surely he didn't actually want to delay… "Oh, yes…I suppose it is," he revised, sliding his hand down the curve of her hip and following the smooth line of her thigh. He had only just kissed her when she pulled away from his questing mouth, a peculiar expression on her face.
Zuko studied her curiously for a moment before feeling compelled to prompt, "What? Did I hurt you?"
"No," she replied quickly, but she maintained her odd look. "Did…did you hear something just now?"
"Yes, I heard you moan my name," he answered smugly.
She spared him a brief glare. "Oh, ha ha," she grumbled. "I'm serious. I really think I heard something that…well, I feel like I shouldn't have…"
He bowed his head, biting back a sigh, and then studied her face. She did appear worried, and he shelved his vague annoyance in favor of concern. "Alright, Tara. What did you hear?"
She shrugged, her shoulders barely moving. "I'm not really sure," she admitted, eyes darting around the shadows of the royal suite. "It was like…tapping. Or drumming. Fingers? On glass, maybe?"
They looked as one towards the floor-length glass doors leading to their expansive balcony. Zuko could see nothing beyond the transparent panes; the moon was full and bright, and the night was empty and still. And it wasn't as if there were any trees high enough to strike the windows and produce such a sound.
A rapid succession of clicks, as of fingers drumming. But Zuko could almost swear that he hadn't actually heard them at all; it was as if awareness had originated in his mind without his ears contributing a thing. From the way Katara shrank beneath him, hunkering deeper into the mattress, he knew she had sensed it, too.
"It's so loud," she whispered, and he made no mention of the pain her fingers caused as they bit deeply into his arm and back. He was too preoccupied with the conviction that for him, at least, it hadn't been any more than a distant sort of sound—certainly not remotely close to loud.
"I heard it, too," he mumbled instead, and he rose lithely to his feet. He located his pants without too much difficulty and tugged them on before sneaking towards the balcony doors, utilizing the black shadows in their room for cover. He was peripherally aware of Katara rising also and draping her silk robe around her slender form, but he had reached the windows and peered out…
And time seemed to slow, seconds dragging on and out until any pendulum would appear immobile and silent. He was continuing to move—he knew on some level that this was true—but his consciousness had slowed with his perception, and all he was aware of was this frozen sensation: limbs locked in place, eyes focused on one point, heart lodged mid-beat.
Trapped in the space between seconds.
A sudden clattering, thunderous and terrifying, echoed in his mind's ears without needing his body's. It was as if a hailstorm had broken out, but he was staring out the window, and the sky was clear of clouds. The clacking swelled, without any obvious source, to a deafening volume, and his very soul cringed in reflexive pain.
Somehow he identified her curtailed cry above it all.
Equally sudden quiet that was more horribly deafening than the noise descended on the room, and Zuko nearly tripped as his foot impacted with the floor before his mind could catch up with everything. He whirled, slamming his back against the wall and bringing up his hands in a traditional firebending stance, his harsh breathing now the only sound. But nothing stirred at all in their bedroom; Katara stood with her back to him as he had seen her rise, and she was the sole person he could see.
"Katara, what…" he began to inquire, but she moved then, causing him to swallow his question.
She fell backwards with unnervingly perfect grace, her slim body not so much crumpling or collapsing as undulating, as if riding an invisible wave. She impacted almost gently with the mattress, bouncing up but once before settling, supine and still.
He darted to her side, leaping onto the bed and crouching beside her, one hand reaching to shift her long, tangled hair from her…
His sharp inhalation hissed through his teeth and slammed into his heart as it jerked up his throat, and the collision turned his shocked and agonized roar into a strangled, impotent half-yell. As much as his mind rebelled, screaming over and over again that this was a lie, that this could not be, he could not tear his eyes away from the gut-wrenching sight.
Katara no longer had a face.