They had somehow moved far, far away from the stones and hallways of the Air Temple. Katara felt spongy vegetation underneath her feet and maybe a tree or two in her field of vision, but none of it mattered.
All that mattered were Zuko's licking flames and the maneuvering of the deadly vice in her hands.
Aang had found Sokka and Toph, who had agreed to gather supplies for their dinner (which was on hold for now, indefinitely) and were hugging the corners of the battle. Toph occasionally jeered and encouraged them on.
"That all you've got, Sweetness? To think, I was actually starting to believe you were a master."
"Sparky, that was so weak. We all know you did that one on purpose."
Zuko was the only one to yell something back, "So says the girl with no pupils."
And Toph blinked. "Nice one." She blew at her bangs and rolled her eyes. "What happened to all the good comebacks?"
But it was mostly just Zuko and Katara and water and fire. They were twisting and missing and finding a rhythmical dance; not only rhythmical but fierce, intense, something close to magical. But not quite.
Then all of a sudden, Zuko's hands shot a current of something that was not fire, and it met a torpedo of water in a flash of speed. It convulsed, bright lights shocking the atmosphere while it electrocuted the air. The electron charged water touched the ground, sliced through it like a dagger, and the ground was suddenly shaking. A large crack formed, peeling away to form a black hole that grew faster, faster, faster, racing the ever blowing wind to devour the earth whole.
Katara looked away from the abyss, feeling her eyes about to pop out, screams lodged in her throat, and tried to find Toph and Aang and Sokka.
But all she saw was a dome of black, no sky, no trees, fading earth and...
Zuko. On the other side. He was trapped too.
"Katara!" He was waving frantically, eyes wide. "What is going on?!"
She opened her mouth, scared of what would come out. But more scared if nothing would.
She felt herself slipping and jumped away from the platform of rock she was standing on to another. Gaining her footing, she concentrated on not falling down. "How am I supposed to know? You're the one who shot lightning at me!" It came out as a gasping shriek.
She heard distant grunts as he mimicked her jumps. "I didn't mean to! I don't know where it came from!"
The wind picked up as he shouted, and made him sound farther away than he really was. "Well you should—" she interrupted herself with a scream. The wind was pulling her arms and bashing at her legs. She was losing her footing and couldn't keep up her balance.
Then she was face-planting with an empty spiral with black and white mixing into greys. Her scream died in her throat, but she closed her eyes. This isn't happening, I'm not falling, this is a dream, I'll wake up any second because a random black hole did not just eat me.
Her thoughts were broken through, and something laced her wrist with warmth.
And then she really face-planted.
She was woken up by the homey sound of crackling and a distant, perpetual glow on her face. She opened her eyes and felt a rush of pain up her side and on the left part of her face. She groaned, squeezed her eyes back shut and shakily pushed herself up, only to fall back down. "Ughh."
She heard a shuffle of footsteps. "Hey." It sounded slightly relieved. "You're awake."
She forced herself to blink a few times, trying to will her sight to focus. Her vision pieced together mirrored versions of red clothing and a vibrantly colored sky. "Urhh," was all that came out.
"Uh, here." She felt hands gently pushing her up in a seated position. She opened her eyes again, trying desperately to make the blurriness go away.
Her hands went automatically to her sides, touching the ground - which had a texture that wasn't of grass or dirt or anything that she had ever felt before - to help keep herself somewhat supported. "T-thanks."
He nodded, but she couldn't tell where his head was. She rubbed at her eyes as blood drained from her head and was finally able to piece the landscape together. Her breath hitched, taking in cerulean trees and pink lemur-hawks, giant apples and an opal sky that held a moon and a sun balancing side by side.
"Where are we?"
He looked around him also, almost taking in everything and anything, but not being able to. There wasn't a pattern, as if the environment was a mistake, a junk drawer of a misshapen imagination.
"Well, if we're dead, it could be the Spirit World..."
Katara shook her head and rolled her eyes. "Aang told me about the Spirit World before, and this doesn't match the description at all." She furrowed her brow and worried her lip. She shifted her hand, and it touched fabric. Looking down, she realized what the red clothing was. "Oh .."
She peeked through her lashes to catch Zuko's pensive stare. He moved his face around as soon as he noticed her eyes, but it only made her peek blow up into an unabashed stare. His face was freckled with cuts, deep and shallow alike, streaming down his neck to his pale, bare torso. He looked more of a Fire Nation Prince with the marks of his dark, rich blood than he did walking down the bridge of his ship.
She slowly blinked away, and her voice came out punctured and small. "You... well, you didn't have to .." Her fingers thumbed over the tightly bound stitches of his robe shirt.
He shrugged. "Your face was more swollen than Sokka's full stomach."
Terrified, she searched her face with her hands. Her eye twitched when she found a few soft spots, some nicks and a nonexistent bloated face.
She gave him a glower. "Jerk."
"I gave you my shirt."
She twisted away, red-faced.
"Just because you did one nice thing doesn't mean I'll all of a sudden consider you trustworthy." She crossed her arms and squinted at tree bark that looked conspicuously like chocolate. 'Eat me' was written all over it.
Zuko made a noise. "Yeah. I know."
"Or forgive you."
"Don't ask me to heal you either. Because I won't. And I don't want to."
He blew at his shaggy hair and rolled his eyes, a habit he had gained from Toph. "I get it, Sweetness."
There weren't any late rabbits with brass, handheld watches. There wasn't a girl with a twisted concept of would be's and wouldn't be's.
There was smoke, but maybe it didn't have an insect best friend. There were smiles, but they weren't attached to a chesire cat.
There was incendiary snow that rusted the ground. There was steam and there was fog.
There was something wrong.
He tripped on an overgrown mushroom, landing in prickly goo painted on the ground. He groaned in discomfort and slight pain.
Katara giggled from behind, tiptoeing carefully around him.
"This is your fault, you know," he pushed himself up, almost slipping. He tried brushing the goo off his pants, but gained splinters in his palms instead. "You see?" He held out his new injuries. "All your doing."
"Do I look like a mushroombender to you?" She placed her hands on her hips, leaning forward into his personal face-space.
Zuko shifted back. "What I meant was, if you hadn't whipped my face with water, we wouldn't be in this...this, uh," he held his arms out. "Place."
Her eyes grew wide and her hands sparkled into tiny flames. "So all of this is now my fault?"
Zuko's face became translucently ivory, incredulous, and he stuttered, "K-Katara what — how —,"
"What about you, Sparky? You were the one who initiated the fight in the first place!" The flames expatiated as the shrill in her voice got higher.
She was stepping foward after every other word and he was backing up two. "Don't." He ducked. "Swing."
"And then you pull out lightning from your sleeve! Lightning! What was that all about?" Her arm came down in a mighty swing, and the sun in her hand fried the five o'clock shadow on his jaw.
"I already said —" but he was cut off.
Because they were flying through the air from the nuclear mushroom cloud that exploded right beside them. And then they were screaming, just as their exponential flight started to reluctantly give way to gravity.
Then Zuko found himself clobbered in yet another goo. Except this time, it alluded a comforting, healing warmth through his limbs.
"S'mores?" Katara lifted up an arm of delicate fluff. She licked it dubiously, and her face cracked a grin. Obviously already forgetting she was mad.
"This place is starting to become really, really awesome."
Zuko tripped again, this time trying to wade through melted chocolate. He grunted, "Only because you can mushroom and firebend at the same time." A mixture of graham crackers and whipped chocolate shoved its way into his mouth.
Katara snapped her head to him, confused and bewildered, with a marshmallow beard smeared across her face and a mess of goo peeking out her ears. "What?"
Zuko smacked his face. "Nothing."
They soon realized they couldn't bend their inborn elements. Katara was leaning against a rock side, trying not to cry. Zuko slowly let himself sit by her, but she turned her head away.
Comforting words were hard for him, so he had to stare into the distance more than a few times. But when he looked at her, saw the strength of her will exuding out of her eyes, something else started to talk through his mouth.
He told her that she was the best waterbender he knew, the best the world had ever seen, and she shouldn't be so upset that she couldn't in such an upside down place.
She wouldn't say anything, so he punched the air to show her that he couldn't bend either. He lightly elbowed her side.
"You don't know how envious I am."
He elicited a small, watery smile. He felt a sense of pride, putting it there.
Giant apples started to take the shape of Mai and the acorns growing off of them had Sokka's name written all over.
Rocks had footprint labels, and the leaves became arrows pointing down, down, farther than down. Farther than down and into her heart.
Teacups had a suspicious way about showing up when turning around.
"Zuko," she said. "I want to go back."
He looked to her, face softening ever so slightly. In the moment, he knew she was seeing things just as he was. And he knew he had the same longing inside just as she did.
"We will," he said. "I promise."
His throat had never ever burned so much before.
It'd be safe to say that she did know how envious he was when he accidentally bent water.
But she was scowling mostly in part to the gash in her side than him flowing with her element. Or, hopefully something that resembled water. (It was the only thing they found that wasn't steaming or bubbling with an ominous odor.)
"Zuko, you don't know how-"
"I can handle this."
She winced slightly, but a smile quirked on her lips. "So it's like a total role reversal, huh?"
He would have smirked if blood didn't keep leaking and if waterbending wasn't so complicated and why wasn't the water glowing, it was supposed to glow right?
"Yeah. It is."
She managed to get her hand to move toward his, "You're supposed to —"
But her touch helped power the glow, so she left it there.
He made her stay lying after the cut sealed, and he was still flushed after she said thank you.
Time is an extinct concept in this place of wonder. It doesn't exactly matter like it should.
They found it hard to keep up with the date, never being tired and not needing sleep. The sun and the moon stayed in their places, unmoving and perpetually the same.
They pushed forward.
It wasn't surprising when they got sick of smelling sugar and chocolate mixed with everything foreign and familiar.
So when they bulldozed through an abnormally thick brush and landed in a neverending lake (which wasn't made of acid or tea or a combination of both), Zuko smiling shouldn't have made the ripples of the water multiply so fast.
She grabbed onto a sandy bank, which happened to be disorientating stripes of purple and orange, and felt ultimate refreshment — cool and incredibly satisfying. But she was burning, burning, burning all the same. Stupid newly acquired firebending.
"You smile?" Oh, yes, just bring it up. Next, why don't you point out that he's taking off his shirt?
He started gentle circles across the surface, throwing the aforementioned shirt over his shoulder. His eyes became thoughtful; steam started to rise around her.
"Yeah," he watched a rhinofly make its way to the sky. "Yeah, I guess I do."
He turned to her, with that crooked, almost-not-belonging faint smile tingling on his lips. She turned away, the clear liquid's bubbling making her want to hide.
"Then I guess you'll laugh soon, too."
Their feet were dangling over a precipice that should have been considered dangerous, except that it wasn't. Hippo-clouds were swimming in what looked like carbonated carrot juice, yawning, snoring, and making all around nonsense noises. Every once in a while, a rabbit would jump out and onto the cliff.
"I wonder what they're doing," Katara said, leaning back on her hands.
A pause. And then, "What?"
She stared at him, eyebrow quirking. "Uh, you know. Sokka, Toph, and the oh so forgettable Aang. Remember? The Avatar? Oh, and in case you were wondering, The Fire Nation-"
He scoffed, holding up his hands, "Yeah, yeah. Just a lot on my mind." He watched a hippo-cloud choke on a bubble, and his cheek twitched, "Sokka's really rubbed off on you."
She cut her eyes at him. "Actually, you just bring out the worst in me."
He brushed his hands through his shaggy hair, a bit agitatedly, but he remained impassive. "So Sokka's the worst in you?" He gave her a pointed look. "Don't tell him that. You might hurt his feelings."
"I'm serious, Zuko," she looked to the distance, a hard expression decorating her face.
"Never said you weren't."
Silence descended upon them, and it was anything but comforting and calming. Her anger was seeping out of her fingers, the golden grass becoming an unbecoming grey, powdery, ashen, dead. And she decided that firebending was a lot like waterbending.
Each technique could easily kill with a curl of a finger, a movement of a tongue, a puff of a breath. But fire could smother and water could choke, and these coincidences weren't going to evaporate. They would stay, they would linger. They would wait, and wait, and wait.
And they would wait for her to snap, to choke, to smother. They would wait for her to give in, to fall down, down, down. Farther down and into her heart. To jump in and stay there. And drown. To give in.
This land of wonder — this wonder of land — wonderland — it wanted to watch them find what they couldn't find anywhere else.
It was then Katara stood, tired of the bubble of tension and awkward loathing, and walked away with something of a false sense of determination and quiet confusion.
Zuko started laughing at something she said, and she can't remember what it was anymore because Zuko is laughing. And it wasn't a condescending laugh, and it wasn't a snarling laugh. It was a laugh that made him sound like he was happy.
And in this light that they were under, she saw a shine that was unique and different, and she couldn't help but gravitate with it.
"You're laughing," she stated it unnecessarily.
He looked at her face, and it did nothing to help him stop.
"Yeah," and she didn't remember his teeth being so shiny. "Yeah, I guess I am."
He gave her a strange look, and she didn't understand why she had to turn away from it.
"You were right."
"I was kidding," she said.
She started, the practice flame sizzling in her hand snuffing out. She quickly turned to where his voice projected to find him standing with unsure balance on his feet. She slowly stood and he continued.
"Maybe it's long overdue, but I've tried to make it up to you. You just never...you always reject it." He looked up to her, and his eyes stung her irises. He breathed in, stood straighter.
She retaliated and took a step forward. "You bet it's overdue Zuko. Do you understand how much grief — "
"Do you not think I do?" Zuko flared, water condensing on his pearly forehead. "What do you think I've been doing this whole time? I'm trying, Katara." His chest was heaving and her eyes were blinking. "I'm trying. And you're not even lifting a finger to accept it."
She took a step back.
"And why is it that everyone else has forgiven me — even Aang — and you ..can't?" His breath was in her ear and she could see the vein pulsing in his neck. She could see the marbled flesh surrounding his left eye, every detail he couldn't hide. She could hear the desperation of his question, the tolling of a verdict wrestling in his eyes. And waiting.
Waiting, waiting, waiting.
"Someone can't trust you." The rocks and grass were pushing her feet; the bushes and insects were pleading; the wind was pulling the air out of her lungs.
"I can't trust you." His face was blocked with too much emotion.
"I can't trust you because I love Aang." It was the truth. A weight was lifted from her shoulders and a sigh was coming out of her mouth.
And the rocks, the grass, the bushes, and the insects — they became suspended in silence, fluttering, fluttering, falling back. But the wind was still pulling, sharp and dry, making her say things she wasn't meant to say.
"And if I forgive you, Zuko, if I stop hating you and become your friend...it makes me —," her breath was getting uneven while his face was growing larger. And why couldn't she feel the ground anymore?
"...makes you what?" It felt frosty. Her body reacted with goosebumps, and she realized she didn't like this at all.
She shook her head, honestly not knowing the answer.
"It'll. It'll hurt even more when you betray me."
She ripped her arm out of his grasp and ran as fast as she could.
The tears were coming and they were floating through the wind that was stinging her skin. It seemed to have a relentless agenda against her, and all she wanted was for it to stop screaming in her ear.
"I had a girlfriend."
She looked at his side profile, away from the tanning sky. She lifted a mocking eyebrow, "Oh, r-"
"Her name was Mai." He swallowed, dislogding cotton and glue. "I think I loved her."
He said it like it didn't matter.
"What happened?" Her voice came out thicker and not so mocking.
His stride became faster. "You found Aang."
She matched it. "So you let her go."
Faster and faster. "No."
Matching and matching. "Then?"
Stopped, halted, boom. "I haven't."
Skid, swerve, crash. In his chest and through the heart.
"But I will." Push, nudge, shove.
And she tripped, tumbled. Fell.
He couldn't say sorry this time.
She hated that he was able to catch her so swiftly.
She hated that he grabbed her around the waist.
She hated that he turned her toward him.
She hated that he pressed her up against something warm, sweet, out of reach.
She hated that he let his body pin her.
She hated that he held her face in a damp, shakey hand.
But the thing she absolutely hated? The hate that ends all hates?
She kissed him as hard as she could.
"How come you never said anything?"
It should be night, probably. The glow of the fire she made was bright in the darkened canopy.
"I didn't know it mattered." He had put his hood over his head, staring straight into nothing.
"Of course it did. Does."
His stare stayed the same.
"If you're going to be apart of our family, you should open up more."
His liquid amber eyes penetrated right through the crystal of her blue.
"Who says we're apart of a family anymore?" Almost menacing. "I'm sure you know that we may never see them again."
She wouldn't let herself look away. But now she couldn't fight back all the questions she had wanted to ask from rushing into her mind.
She found a mirror.
They were inside a castle, the opposite of the Fire Nation palace perhaps. And she was lost in a room of mirrors that laughed and pointed. They made her stare at herself.
She couldn't remember the last time she was allowed to look in a real mirror, and not some reflection of water. She would have given anything to have one on a daily basis on their journeys.
But not today. Not this prolonged, never-ending day.
She stared at herself, long and hard. She analyzed every little tidbit of herself, tried to remain emotionless and secure.
And then the mirror turned foggy, and it wasn't in front of her anymore. All she saw was the floor.
Sooner or later, she felt a hand and a question that might have been frantic. He took the floor away, and her vision was obstructed by a blur of amber.
"I betrayed him," she gasped. "I gave in."
She was enveloped by coolness and soothing arms.
"But...but I don't hate you."
Maybe he could have smiled, and maybe he could have cried.
But his heart wouldn't stop pinching, and all he could do was hug tighter.
Falling was metaphorical here. It could also be figurative and literal. Kind of like the real world was. Perhaps that was how they were connected, parallel.
But somehow, Zuko and Katara made it — falling — a threesome.
When it happened, he was looking at her differently. His mouth was opening, so mesmerizing in an unhealthy way that her eyes would not leave. If she could, she would notice the moon and sun, watching with rapt attention.
But how could she look at the things she sees, saw, every day when something was happening — in her body, in the ground (which she would realize wasn't actual ground because — ), the sky (was that lightning?), the dirt, the water (freezing freezing freezing), everything and anything (nothing and nothing) — between her and him, him and her, the world blurring with her eyes focused only on him and nothing else.
She doesn't know how it happened. Why. Did there always have to be an explanation to things like this?
His mouth, it didn't know what to do. He didn't know what was happening, here and now, except that something inside of him wanted to speak. To say.
To give in.
What was the opposite of iron and nickel?
Because gravitating towards one another shouldn't have happened without the work of muscles, without a breath to push forward.
Yet, here he was. Here she was. Standing before themselves, not understanding. Not understanding, but knowing. Knowing what was happening before they knew what was happening.
They would realize that the ground wasn't actually the ground because —
They would realize that lightning was stabbing, stabbing, stabbing. The water was freezing, freezing, slickslickslick.
Why was there steam?
They would realize that the sun and the moon were eclipsing. They weren't in their perpetual stances, side by side. Yin and Yang was...Ying.
What do they have now?
It's only after you've lost everything that you're free to do anything. Even if it isn't on purpose.
And then they fell through the ground that was never really the ground.
In the midst of this, the wind was laughing, never to scream again.
He had only scared her once before. She remembered when she first saw him, standing on the bridge of his ship with the vicious burgundy armor and horned helmet. He had a fiery outlining against the crisp sky of the South Pole. So intimidating, so fearful.
Now, stripped away from the armor, from his title, from almost everything he had, he still shouldn't have retained the intimidation. He shouldn't have been...scary.
And she realized that it wasn't truly him that scared her. It wasn't his eyes, his scar, what he had done and what he could do.
He was playing with coconut milk, a tiny faraway smile on his face.
She held out her hand, developing a small ball of a flame. She looked at it, into it. She felt her eyes start to sting.
She was scared of herself.
"Wow, that was far."
They woke up in a more than compromising position: Zuko with his legs holding Katara's hips, chest against chest, breath whispering to a neck, her hands on his face, his hands scalding the flesh stretched across her back.
"GET YOUR HANDS OFF MY SISTER!" Sokka was having an aneurysm.
"Katara!" Aang was pulling her up, eyes brimming with concern.
And the reunion was followed by a massive reprimand from Sokka, to Aang, to Sokka, directed in Zuko's line of fire. Toph was cackling.
Katara should have been proud, happy, beyond relief that she was with her family again, seeing them. Able to hug them, tell them that she loved them without the fear that she would never see them again.
But they weren't asking any questions, only blaming the cut she had on her right cheek on Zuko.
She was confused. "How long were we gone?"
Aang's eyes widened in confusion. "Gone?"
"Yeah...," Katara wasn't sure about continuing. She looked at Zuko.
"What are you talking about?" Sokka took his accusing eyes off of his prey.
"You must have hit your head a little too hard, Sugar Queen. Sparky pulled out the big guns and almost flashed you to oblivion!" Toph punched him affectionately in the arm, smiling with excitement. "I always knew you had something worth our while."
"You guys were only knocked out for a few minutes. We had to come find where you were blown to," Aang was cautious, watching every movement of her stance. "Are you sure you're okay?"
Katara took in the information, keeping her eyes from growing. She looked to the ground.
"Don't worry, Aang. I feel fine."
The first time he held her hand was when they explored a cave. It was dark, dreary, and in a place like this, what wouldn't happen in life would.
In a place like this, they needed to rely on each other, trust each other.
But neither was willing to comply first. Except now.
He grabbed her hand slowly, deliberately not looking at her.
She pulled away, eyes wide at the connection, but his grip was firm. "Zuko — "
"We've got to stick together. Anything can happen." He nodded at her hand. "Lead the way. You have fire now."
So she did, reluctantly, almost stubbornly not wanting to. She felt her heart stutter with nerves, scared of the cave but letting determination show.
But she couldn't concentrate on what was inside, the raggedy rocks that might have been there, or perhaps a peppermint fountain in a corner of a deadend.
She wasn't sure if her palm was the first one to become sweaty or his was. But they both caught each other's hidden glances with the glow of her hand consuming their thoughts.
There was something about his hand that was much too comforting, and she realized that she liked it. Like it was luke warm water. The thought made her drop his touch instantaneously, concentrating on the fire a foot away from her nose.
The ground shook, raggedy rocks tumbled. She started running on impulse, going nowhere with dusty gravel piercing her feet. He followed, wishing Toph fell here with him instead of her.
He saw the rock fall before it happened. He lunged, grabbed her hand and pulled her faster.
Then, everything stopped. There were no more stones, earthquakes, or waves of clouding fear.
He held her hand the rest of the way, a thin glove of trust waxing glue between their fingers.
Sleep wouldn't come to either of them that night. There were blinks, shuffles, aggravated pulling of blankets, bloodshot eyes, and something close to light insomnia.
She heard his soft footsteps mingle with the cracked pavement of the temple. When they were far enough away, she followed.
The first time she realized, they were sitting in a field that reminded her of hate. It was rubbery and hard, with slippery texture and sinking spots full of sand.
She remembered the hard glint in the eye of her mother's killer, the sand dunes they had almost lost themselves in, how, when it counted the most, she tended to slip.
And the rubber...she couldn't place it. Not yet.
She looked to Zuko, who was examining the outer obstacles the environment made, trying to find something — anything — with a doorknob to lead the way home.
The first thing she noticed was his scar, facing her from the angle he was turned to. It reminded her of the rubbery, hard ground. She jumped a little.
She let her feet tap the ground. It was bouncy, flexible, but sturdy. It would probably give her deadly blisters if she rubbed against it roughly, but it would probably act like a trampoline if she could somehow fall just the right way. And she realized.
Zuko looked her way, giving her a questioning glance. She turned away, almost blushing and almost frowning.
Maybe this field wasn't made of hate.
Maybe this field, with its sand and traps and soft spots and hard spots, maybe it meant so much more.
Their feet were dangling from the edge of the Air Temple. It had an uncanny resemblance to an edge found in another dimension. A misty fog was overtaking the trench made from the cliffs, and she could have sworn a shape of a hippo was being made.
"I wonder how it happened," she said, softly breaking the air.
A pause. And then, "Me too." He threw a loose rock into the abyss. "I wonder if it was meant to happen."
She leaned backward onto her hands and turned her face to him. He looked over too, his eyes becoming a liquid gold in the moonlight. "Destiny," he said. A soft smile appeared.
"Yeah...," her fingers pressed harder into the rock. "Destiny."
She looked down, thinking, wondering, and knowing. She caught his eyes again, and she placed her hand over his. His eyes widened slightly, but he intertwined their hands together all the same.
She smiled back, small at first, then growing with the glow of the moon.
There was something right found in that world full of wrong.
author's notes - GAH THAT WAS LONG...ER than anything i've written. but wonderland + katara + zuko makes me happy. in character = i hope so.
i also hope somebody enjoyed this as much as i did writing it. :)
REVIEWS ARE LOVE.