Summary: Five years ago, they lost the war. Now she's alone and trapped in an apartment in the Lower Ring of Ba Sing Se with him.
Disclaimer: I own nothing. Nick, Brain, and Mike others own all.
Pairings: Zutara, some Kataang
Genre: Angst. AU
AN: Okay, first off, this is my first Avatar story, so if the character's are terribly OOC, I do apologies. That being said, this is the first time I have ever written anything even remotely like this, which makes me nervous of putting this up. So, heed the warning, and if it's horrible, I appologies for that, too.
Leaning forward against the window frame, Katara watched as the rain poured off the opened wooden shutters in several steady streams. The wet night air drifted in from the darkness and caressed her skin like a kiss, but there was no freshness to it that should accompany storms. Whereas most places would be washed cleaned from the rain, here it never did. The Lower Ring of Ba Sing Se, as it turned out, always stank. In fact, if it didn't dry during the night, tomorrow's hot sun would make it even worse. One would think she'd be used to it by now, but Katara still scrunched her nose.
How long were they going to stay here?
It wasn't that she minded living in the Lower Ring -- the gods knew that Sokka had hidden them in some far worse places -- but the hopelessness of this area was almost as overpowering as the smell. She remembered during her tour with Joo Dee all those years ago how the Lower Ring had been a place of danger and fear. However, when they traveled with Jet to his home, there had also been an underlining sense of relief and hope from the numerous refugees. It might have been the slums, but it gave them protection from the Fire Nation and promised a new beginning.
She wondered when it lost that feeling. Was it when they failed, and Azula conquered Ba Sing Se? Or had it been the day of Sozin's Comet when they let the Phoenix King burn of path from the coast to the city?
Sighing, Katara laid her head against the wooden frame and closed her eyes. That had been five years ago, but the guilt and shame still weighed heavily upon her.
They had let this happen to their world. Each one of them had agreed that Aang wasn't ready to face Ozai and had decided together to wait. On the day of the comet, they had sat on the beach and watched it passed overhead like a bunch of stupid children who had no idea about the hell they were soon to face. Roku had warned them, but they had ignored him. The world was burning and all she had done was take Aang's hand into hers and whisper about how beautiful the comet was. She wondered if those who had died in Ozai's destructive path would ever forgive her for saying such a stupid thing.
Katara watched as the first strikes of lightening began to dance across the sky.
She wondered what Aang was doing now. For a second, she imagined him smiling widely as he promised he would take her to see the rabbaroo in the zoo he had helped create. He was still young and short and so full of life, but she knew that wasn't right anymore. He had been a fourteen-year-old boy when she last saw him. Now he would be a seventeen-year-old man.
Frowning, Katara tried to picture Aang now. Was he still bald? Did he have any new scars? Was he tall? An outline of a possible image of him crossed her mind, but it passed to quickly for her to grab hold of it. Aang was still that young boy to her no matter how hard she tried to think of him otherwise. He was still as innocent and sweet in her mind as he had been the day she broke him free from the ice. Even after they had lost the war, he would still smile and laugh and encourage those around him to keep up hope. He kept reminding them that he would be ready soon and would take on the Phoenix King. He was determined to bring balance to the world once again and promised he would.
Five years later nothing had changed except for the fact that her family wasn't together anymore. That's what hurt the most. Katara scoffed. There was so much suffering and death in the world, and she thought that the fact that her entire family wasn't together anymore was the worst part? She felt selfish and small for thinking such a thing, but it was the truth. That was how she felt.
Lightening struck overhead and the tormented spirits of evil men roared in the distance. Katara always hated that horrible saying, but there were men she could picture doing so; Admiral Zhao for instants. She knew he was out there screaming. The thought made a trail of Goosebumps crawl up her arms.
Her fingers tightened their grip on her crossed arms. She hated sitting there in the dingy little apartment that was hardly better than a one-room shack. She was useless here. She should be out there helping people. Helping Aang! He needed her. Katara knew he did.
Yet, she hadn't moved from her spot next to the window. What did that tell her?
The thin door that separated the main room from the apartment's only bedroom slid opened with hardly a sound. She knew he was there watching her. It was a hot night even with the rain, so he wouldn't be wearing a shirt. Not that he usually wore one to bed anyway. He would be frowning, too, because he was Zuko and that's what he always did.
His hair would fall around his eyes, obscuring them to the point where she was surprised that he could see. She'd have to remember to cut his hair soon. If it got much longer he would have to start pulling it back and that would be just as bad as having it too short. Either way, his scar would stand out, and they couldn't have that.
She had not seen him that night. He had gone out when the sun set, and the dark clouds were just starting to gather. She had retired to her own bed before he came back. Katara hadn't heard him come in but knew he was home. She'd seen his outline asleep on the bed across from hers when she had awoken a little ago.
Katara drew in another shaky breath. She shouldn't think of this place as home. It was only another temporary shelter on their never ending run.
The floor creaked as Zuko shifted his weight from one foot to the other. "Are you okay?"
Another flash of lightening illuminated the wide alley. "Yes."
She felt him move rather than heard him. Even with a nearly rotten floor, he was light on his feet, and the sound of rain beating against open shutters would have covered any noise he would have made. Still, she knew when he had crossed from the bedroom door to stand behind her just by the way his nearness caused the small hairs on the back of her neck to stand on end.
He once told her that he couldn't generate lightening, but sometimes she wondered if that were true.
Unlike Aang, who would have wrapped his arms around her and drew her into a hug, Zuko kept a small distance between them. They rarely hugged and only when she reached for him first. The comfort of hugs from friends remained something foreign and uncomfortable to him, but that was fine by her. There hadn't been much the past five years that made Katara feel like hugging anyone, anyway.
They stood in the silence of a storm for several minutes. He was waiting her out. The thought made her smile. For all his qualities, patients had never been Zuko's strong point, and yet there he stood. He'd break sooner then her, and would try to make some awkward small talk to try and get her to say what she was thinking.
Deciding to spare him, Katara said, "It'll be three years tomorrow since we left."
'It'll be three years tomorrow since the war broke up our family,' is what she meant.
It was a game they'd learn to play. The walls were thin in the city, and the Dai Li had hearing like a bat-wolf.
"I know," he said. "I wish your family would have come with us."
'I know you miss them.'
Katara gave a mirthless laugh. "That wouldn't have been a good idea. They're better off back home."
'They're safe, wherever they are. I'll be fine.'
'No, you're not.'
Again, the silence stretched. Across the alley, Katara saw a lamp flicker as it was lit. The young woman lighting it was only a few years older than her. From the provocative way she was dressed, she must have just gotten in from 'work'. A man that was clearly a Fire Nation solider wrapped his arm around her waist and kissed her neck aggressively. The girl grinned and leaned in closer to him. The solider flicked his wrist and the light went out. Correction, she brought her work home with her.
If Zuko saw what she had, he ignored it. She wondered if he had seen that sort of thing even when he and Iroh had lived in Lower Ring years ago.
"I went to the tea shop today," Zuko said coming to stand beside her. "There were some old men playing a Pai Sho game in the back."
I went to see our White Lotus contact.
Katara faced him with hopeful eyes. "Did you play?"
He shook his head. "I didn't feel like playing today."
No. Nothing yet.
Her heart plummeted like a rock that had been dropped down a dark well. She didn't know why she had been let down by the news. If there would have been any change, he would have woken her up as soon as he came home and told her. Still, Katara felt her throat tighten, and her eyes water.
Ducking her head, she turned away from Zuko and closed her eyes. Twin hot tears trickled down the sides of her face. She used to cry so much, too much if there was any truth to that stupid play. It was something that she had forced herself to stop doing. If she cried for all misery and sorrow in her life and in the world, she would never be able to get out her bed in the morning. There were moments like this, however, where she had been thinking too much and her emotions got the best of her. She knew she had to stop, though, or she never would.
With a hiccup sob, she brushed away the tears on her right cheek, and then moved to the left. Zuko's hand caught hers as she did so. Eyes widening once more, Katara allowed him to hold her hand cupped to the side of her face. His thumb swiped across her cheek and took what was left of her tears with it.
Stepping closer to her, he softly said, "It's only a game."
Pressing her lips together, Katara looked to the ground and nodded. He meant it. She knew he did. He wanted out of that apartment and back into the fight against his father as much as she did. Probably more. Though he never said, she knew he blamed himself a lot for what happened. He had been in the palace for months. He should have heard about his father's plan, but thanks to his sister, Ozai had never trusted him. If only he had been allowed into the war meetings, then perhaps none of this would have happened.
If only. She wondered if there would ever be a time when those two little words didn't haunt them.
They stood there for a few seconds in silence, but Katara eventually felt him start to draw away. Whereas earlier all she wanted was to be alone, she now found that she couldn't stand the thought of it. Not tonight.
Before he could pull away, she pressed her lips against his. Somewhat surprised, Zuko drew in a sharp breath through his nose, but didn't push her away. In fact, he pulled her close and allowed her to deepen it. The kiss wasn't meek or gentle, but neither was it burning passion or lust either.
They both knew what this kiss was. It was just need. The need to feel connected to someone else. The need to forget for just a few moments that they were in the slums of an occupied city and so far away from everyone that cared about them. The need to feel something -- anything -- beside sorrow, guilt, and loneliness.
They also both knew what this sort of kiss lead to, but neither tried to stop it either.
No, he wasn't good at offering comfort with hugs like Aang, but Katara had long ago discovered that Zuko was good at this kind.
The storm had died somewhat as the night drew on, but neither of them seemed to notice. As the rain continued to beat against the shutters in a steady tempo, in the darkness of their small bedroom, she rocked against him at a slow pace like the lazy push and pull of a summer tide, while he held her loosely.
Katara drew in a sharp, shuddering breath as kissed him. One of her arms hooked around his neck, while her other hand's nails dug into his back. She pulled out of the kiss, but kept her forehead pressed against his. Nudging her nose against his, she hissed through it and let out a sigh. His own fingers flexed as he gripped her by her hips. Zuko was sure that he would leave bruises, but he'd never see them. Katara would make sure of it.
There were rules to this game, and Zuko knew them well.
Rules were nothing new to him. His entire life had been made up of different sorts of situations where he had to learn and abide by them. There had been rules for princely behavior. Rules for how he should act when he and his uncle had been evading Azula. Rules for how could behave with the Avatar and his friends. His entire life had been made up of nothing but different sets of rules. While he may have chosen to ignore them from time to time, he always knew each of them well.
Like her rules for what was happening now.
Rule number one: Katara had to reach for him first.
She drew her arm back from around his neck and touched the side of his face, before letting it fall away. The touch was feather light and barely grazed the skin as it drifted down the side of his arm. He moved and shifted the angle a bit. She groaned at the sensation and gripped his forearm to steady herself.
Rule number two: she took the lead.
Sitting up a bit straighter and adjusting herself, Katara placed both hands on his chest and pushed him back against the wall he was already slightly leaning against. It gave her a little more height so she could look down at him. Her hair fell around her face as she stared down into his eyes and then closed hers.
There was rule number three: she didn't have to look at him if she didn't want too.
Katara leaned forward and pressed her face against his neck. A bit of her long hair fell into his face, but she flipped it out of the way with a quick twist of her head. It left her own neck exposed to him. He bit off a groan and let his hands traveled up from her hips to her waist.
A strangled whimper rumbled from her throat just below his ear. Zuko could picture her biting down hard on her lower lip. She seemed to like to worry her bottom lip between her teeth for some reason.
That was rule number four: silence was golden.
Zuko didn't know why she forced herself to do that. He could tell she was holding herself back. That wasn't her. They both knew that, but she did it anyway. Perhaps it helped her pretend, though he didn't want to know about what.
Turning his head, he pressed a kiss at the base of her neck. His teeth scrapped against her slightly damp skin, which caused her to shudder. He had to be careful not to leave a mark, or she would never forgive him. Not if it were on the neck for everyone to see. Never mind that she could heal it before anyone would. She would still make him pay if he ever committed that sort of sin.
The muscles in his back began to strain from the position she had put them in, so he shifted again with a roll of his hips. Their steady rhythm marked by the rain faltered for a moment as he did so. He expected her to push him back since she liked where they had been, but she didn't. She moaned instead.
Zuko grinned but turned down his head so she wouldn't see. Not that she would anyway since she refused to look at him. Maybe because he secretly loved the sound she had made or maybe to spite those stupid rules of her, he rolled his hips once more. Her fingers pressed hard into his skin. Instead of making that sound, he heard her draw a breath and gasp out, "Gods."
Zuko stilled and gripped her tightly to force her to stop as well. His good eye widened. If she hadn't said it next to his good ear, he wouldn't have heard her, but he had. He knew he had. Zuko didn't think he had been this shock when she had reached for him that first time two years ago. She was always so careful and always so in control. Now she had broken her own rules.
The storm that seemed to have been dying began to pick up. The rain beat harder against the shutters, and the sound of the thunder drew closer.
Katara leaned back from him. A confused look clouded her face as she panted lightly. She tried to move, but he held her firmly. He could feel her breath brushing against his face in small burst, but he didn't pay it any attention. She hadn't realized what she had done; that her rules had been broken. Zuko considered her for a moment and watched as her confusion was slowly turning frustration. She wanted to move, needed to move, but he wouldn't let her.
He wondered how well she knew them?
Rule number one: Katara always reached for him first.
Reaching up, he kissed her. She squeaked in surprise, but his hand, which at some point had moved from her waist to the back of her neck, kept her from pulling away. Not that she tried to fight it. In fact once the shock wore off, Katara deepened the kiss.
Rule number two: she took the lead.
Placing a hand on her lower back, Zuko twisted them. Again, she gasped in surprise and wrapped her arms around his neck to keep from falling. Her legs hooked around his waist, and he imagined that she looked like a sloth-squirrel hanging from a branch. Using his hand, he pressed his own weight against his bed and lowered her on to her back. He let his weight rest comfortably against her; however, Zuko still kept most of it on his forearms that rested on either side of her head. For lack of a better place to put them, Katara's own hands fell away from his neck and came to rest beside his.
Rule number three: she didn't have to look at him if she didn't want to.
Zuko met her eyes and held them in a stare as he reset the pace between them. It was a little harder and a little faster, but she had no problem keeping up. Normally, Katara's eyes would have drifted shut, but something kept her from doing so this time. He could see a swirl of different things twisting through those blue eyes, but it was hard to identify what they were. Comfort, passion, lust, need: they all seemed to be there in some fashion and staring back him.
Grabbing the back of one of her knees, he pushed her leg higher. A deep, throaty sound reverberated from her. It was the same sound she had made earlier. He made it his mission to make her repeat it as often as he could. Zuko knew that in doing so that this wouldn't last much longer, but he didn't care. Judging by her growing loudness, neither would she.
Somehow, Katara's hands managed to slid under his. She laced their fingers together and began to squeeze them on and off-key from their tempo. He gripped her hands. Her nails dug into his knuckles.
Leaning forward, he pressed his cheek against hers and against adjusted their position. She made the loudest sound yet. He could feel her tensing beneath him. He knew her and her body well enough to know she was close.
Rule number four: silence was golden.
His eyes closed and clung tightly onto her. "Katara."
Her back arched as she let loose a gasping moan. The grip she had on his hands tightened enough to be uncomfortable, and then went slack. Lightening flashed, and he followed right after and hissed her name out from between his lips again and again like it was some kind of pray her had only just learned.
A strong gust of wind cut through the alley and sent specks of rain in through the window. Something crashed. It might have been one of the merchant carts. Probably the one with the cabbages, with that merchant's luck.
He slumped against her, but was careful not to crush her. They laid that way in the darkness of their small bedroom and tried to catch their breath.
Through the floor or one of their walls, a neighbor's baby began to cry for its mother.
Katara's leg drifted back down from where he had set it as their breaths began to return to normal. Her hands quickly slipped from his, and he lifted himself up to get off of her. When he looked down into her face, Zuko saw her eyes were angry at him from ignoring her rules, but also wet and sad. She blinked and a tear rolled down one of her flushed cheeks.
Again it thundered, and Zuko barely caught what Katara whispered to him from the deep roaring sound.
Katara sat on the edge of his bed as she finished retying her breast biding. It hadn't taken her long to clean up and reach for her clothes. Sometimes, when she was especially lonely or wanted to feel like everything would okay for longer than their coupling would provide, she would stay with him. Not tonight, though. Not after what he had done.
It wasn't just him, something that sounded far to much like Toph whispered in her mind. You were pretty involved yourself, and you started the whole thing.
Katara ignored the stupid little voice. Being angry at and blaming Zuko was something she was familiar with. She could easily wrapped herself up in it like her old sleeping bag and take comfort in those feelings. Everything else was just to complicated to deal with at the moment.
Hooking her fingers into the top of her bindings, she made sure that they were tight enough and then pulled them a little higher up her chest.
Zuko sat with his back pressed against the wall. He watched her back from beneath his dark hair that fell over his eyes. If she looked at him now, she would hardly be able to see the large scar on the side of his face. It would look like just another shadow in a room full of darkness.
Even though Katara didn't hear him move, she felt that same electrical sensation from his nearness crawl up from the small of her back. The heat from his fingers lightly caressed her like a light blow of air from a lover's lip across her tanned skin, but he held himself back from physically touching her. Zuko didn't say anything, and she didn't expect him too. Then again, he had already surprised her once that night, so there was no why to guarantee that he wouldn't do so again.
Maybe they should fight this out like would have in the old days. A good sparing match to clear everything between them. They would fight, get all their aggressions out, and then this thing between them could rebalance itself. It was a fantasy, she knew, but she wished they could.
Zuko's fingers finally brushed her back and caused her muscles to tense. Standing quickly, Katara said, "Leave me alone."
She took three quick steps across the bedroom to make her escape. The door slid open with only the slightest sound, and the humid glum of the other room opened up before her. Katara was about to step through when he said her name again. She closed her eyes and let her head tilt down. Why couldn't he stop saying her name? As long as she had known him, he had never spoken her name as much as he had that night. Maybe if he had, she would have realized earlier how much she hated the way her name sounded on his lips and all of this could have been avoided.
Against her better judgment, Katara looked back. Her heartbeat quickened a bit as his golden eyes seemed to glow from beneath the darkness of his long dark hair. It reminded her a bit of how he looked that time she stood between him and Aang at the North Pole; however, it was slightly different. Then she had been the person in his way. Now his focus was completely on her. If she were younger, he might have frightened her. Katara had known him for too long and too well to let him intimidate her now.
She turned back towards him to show him she was listening, but unconsciously crossed her arms over her chest. Somehow, she made it both a defensive and aggressive gesture. It didn't phase Zuko in the least.
"What do you want?" Katara asked. Her voice was barely above a whisper, but she knew he heard her just fine.
Those golden eyes of his seemed to flash, and for a moment she wondered if the storm had picked up again. Tilting his head, the shadows crawled up the side of his face and revealed part of his scar from beneath his hair.
"That's what I want to know," he said.
Katara blinked at him as if she didn't understand what he was saying. Silently, Zuko stood and crossed the room. He moved like a bearded cat that was stalking a particularly bright gerbil mouse (quickly, lightly, and with far more grace than a man should have) and Katara found herself standing toe to toe with him before she could react. That impassive, stoic look on his face stared down at her and would have caused men twice her size to cower, but Katara didn't even so much as flinch at the sight. After years of having to deal with both it and him, she was used to seeing it rest on his face.
"What do you want?" Zuko asked again. The tone was no less direct, but was somehow not as harsh as before. It contrasted oddly against his expression.
Before she could stop it, Katara's mind raced through several different things that she wanted. A world free of Ozai's rules. Her family together and happy. To be free of this damn little apartment and this messed up life. Aang.
Katara turned her head to the side and focused on the floorboards as the thoughts crossed her mind. It had been so long since anyone had asked her what she wanted. It was a stupid thing to ask, really. What they wanted meant very little to anybody anymore.
Besides, she didn't deserve anything now. Not after what she had done: giving up the fight, cheating on Aang and using Zuko, convincing Aang to wait until after the comet to fight Ozai in the first place. How could she ask for anything when she just destroyed everything in her path like a flood?
Drawing in a deep breath, she held it for a moment and then blew it out with a sigh. Sadly, she said, "Not this."
Not this life, she meant. Not this guilt and anger and hatred towards so many people. Not these crushing feelings of uselessness and failure. Not this longing for her family and friends and a life that she could probably never have now. Katara didn't want any of this, because it wasn't who she was. She was kind and forgiving and happy and always stood up for what she believed in. She wouldn't sit by and let others suffer. She wouldn't cheat on Aang just because she was lonely and sad and wanted to feel connected to for just a moment or two with someone else who understood. She wouldn't use the only friend she had left for her own selfish needs and get mad at him because for once he dared to say her name and remind that she was actually doing something that the good, moral, real Katara would have been shocked at and pitted the woman who would have sunk that low.
She didn't want any of this.
Katara could feel his eyes boring into her, but she couldn't make herself lift her gaze. Wariness had settled over her again and for a second time she stole a glance at her unused bed. She was so tired of everything, but she knew she couldn't rest yet. It was beginning to look as if she never would.
When Zuko didn't say anything, she turned once more from him. His hand caught her by the upper arm and forced her to stop. His pale skin stood out sharply against her tanned, and she could see where one of her fingernails had cut into him just below his knuckle. Slowly, Katara lifted her eyes and met Zuko's gaze. There was something there just below the stoicism, fluttering and hiding like a phantasm in a shadowy cave, but it wasn't the anger she expected. It burned just beneath and Katara found herself unable to turn away.
Zuko leaned forward a little as if he were about to whisper something in her ear. "You're not the only one."
Katara's eyes widened from the tone. It wasn't said with malice or anger or bitterness. It was just a simple statement said in a way that held just smallest hint of tiredness that told so much more. This life wasn't just weighing heavily on her.
Her throat tightened, so Katara swallowed hard. She had known that on some level, but she never allowed herself to think about it for too long. It usually only lasted long enough for her to realize that it was okay to take comfort from him because he understood what she felt and wouldn't judge. She come to that knowledge years ago when he had helped her find her mother's killer. He had stood by her as she twisted the rain into deadly icicles and hurled them at the old solider. She hadn't killed him, but Zuko would have let her.
That was partly why she reached for him instead of some stranger, because he let her indulge in that darker side and never said a word. He never told her she was wrong or should stop or any sort of thing because they shared this pain, too, just like the pain they shared over their lost mothers. He would go with her. He would indulge her. He wouldn't judge.
What he didn't understand was that she needed him to.
After the silence had gone on for too long, Katara tilted her head forward and allowed some of her hair to fall around her face. The corners of his lips turned downward. As he drew in a breath to speak, she cut him off.
"Just leave me alone," she said. Her words cut through the wet air like one of his Dao swords.
Zuko stiffened, but his grip on her arm slackened. Turning away, Katara hurriedly stepped through the opened door into the other room and closed it behind her. She stood with her back against it and leaned her head back. Only a dark ceiling and a badger-dog barking in the distance greeted her.
Damn. What a mess.
Going back to the window, Katara watched as the gloom slowly began to lighten as the sun rose behind the ominous gray clouds. The storm had begun to wane, but the damage had been done. Carts had been overturned. Small potted plants had been knocked from windows. Clotheslines between buildings had been snapped and some unlucky soul had lost a shirt and socks and under clothes. There would be a mess to clean up. It seemed like that was all they ever did, but for some reason the job was never finished. In fact, everything just seemed to get worse.