The Feel of an Unfinished Fight
written April 16, 2009
"What can I do to make it up to you?"
"… You really want to know? Hm. Maybe you could re-conquer Ba Sing Sei in the name of the Earth King! Or, I know! You could bring my mother back!" Katara clenched her fists and glared at Zuko. Her eyes felt hot and her throat felt tight and she blinked to keep the tears from falling.
Zuko stared back at her, brow furrowed, something different about his expression this time but anger pushed Katara forward. "Do you really think you can make this up to us? To me?" she hissed. "I – we gave you so many chances, and you threw them back at us and tried to kill us!"
"I never tried to kill you, I only – "
"You only what, Zuko? You only tried to capture my friend and imprison him for the rest of his life? You only chased us across the world? You only burned villages and sent pirates after us?"
"I – "
"Every time we thought we had escaped, you were after us again! We didn't see you for months, and then there you were! And you said you'd changed!"
"I did change, everything changed, I – "
"You helped you sister bring down Aang!" Katara stepped forward, narrowed her eyes. He flinched, took a step back; she followed. "You stood and fought me – distracted me – so your sister could shoot lightning at him. He was nearly killed! He was hurt so badly, he didn't wake up for three weeks!"
"Katara, I – "
"If I hadn't been there, he would have died! He almost did! I could feel him slipping away!" She brushed the back of her hand across her eyes and turned away. "He came so close to dying, and if I hadn't been there…"
"But you were there, Katara, and he didn't die." She heard Zuko step forward, tensed. "You protected him like you always have because you're strong – "
She whirled around, hair whipping around her face. "Strong enough to protect him from you!" Below her, the ocean lapped against the cliffs, gently tumbling small rocks across the shallow beach. Push and pull. She pulled, and felt water snake its way up to her. Zuko's eyes left her face to focus behind her, where she could feel the water pulsing in the air, waiting for her to send it out. The moon was nearly full, and she could feel its power bubbling up through her.
"Katara! I'm not going to hurt Aang! Everything is different!" He held out his hands, palms up. "I don't know how to make you understand that."
She pulled her arms up and with them the water, made it tower like the immense waves her Grangran spoke of that came from nowhere and destroyed the village decades ago. "I don't want to understand!" The water crested, started to tumble over, and she let it go, pushing it forward and over her head and into Zuko. The force of it slammed him backwards; he fell heavily on his back as the water washed over him. She stalked over the damp grass towards him, using the pull of the moon to gather the water back up. He lay sprawled, braced on bent elbows and staring up at her, like days before in the Western Air Temple, like months before in the Spirit Oasis, when he had been an enemy and the boundaries had been clear.
"I tried to understand you before, and look where it got me! Fighting you for my life despite your change!" She lunged, flinging her arms forward and pushing the water into another wave. Zuko scrambled backwards, made it to his feet just as water crashed into him again. "You'll forgive me if I don't believe you when you say you've changed, again, since it was such a change last time!"
Zuko crouched on hands and knees, coughing and spitting as Katara pulled the water back to her once more. "You even chased us down again!" She flung out her arms again and it pushed him up against one of the rock outcroppings that rose across the bluffs.
"You're not even going to fight back? What happened to the Fire Prince?" she taunted. "Where's your honor in this fight? Are you just going to let me push you around?" The water gathered over her head and she prepared to send yet another wave at him, too angry to bother with water whips or ice or anything but the force of the ocean, at her command. She sent it forward, crashing down on Zuko – except he wasn't there. She let the wave shatter on the rocks, used the power surging through her to bend it away into tendrils that coiled back to her. As they whirled around her, Katara turned, searching. "Are you scared to face me in a fair fight, with no crazy sister there to watch your back?"
"I'm not afraid of you!"
Katara spun, searching for where his voice came from, but saw nothing but grass waving in the evening breeze, silvered with moonlight. The campfire burned in the distance, an orange-red glow against a blue-black sky. "You should be!" She heard wind stir the gnarled trees that stood a distance back from the cliffs, heard the whisper of leaves and needles. The sharp rock faces and bluffs were sentinels in the moonlight, placed randomly across the plain that plunged into the sea. "I've never lost to you, and I'm stronger than I've ever been!"
A hand clamped over her mouth. Zuko's arm wrapped around her neck from behind, and he held her immobilized. "I've never lost to you, either, and I'm stronger than I've ever been," he said, voice rough.
She dropped her hands and pulled the water in. One tendril hit him in the face, another slapped across the back of his knees and he stumbled. His arm loosened and she ducked free. "What about the North Pole?" she yelled, turning on her heel and bringing her hands up.
"What about the pirates?" he yelled back, crouching into a defensive posture.
"Oh, the pirates you had to hire to capture one little waterbender?" Katara sent water forward with a smooth gesture; it smacked him across the shoulder and she pulled it back. "And the bounty hunter! And the assassin!" She flung another coil of water at him, and he blocked it with his forearm. "You never fought fair!"
"I grew up with Azula! And under my father! Who was I supposed to learn fairness from?" Zuko ducked another blow; it splashed on rock behind him. It sounded and smelled of the sea she'd pulled it from. "And now, you aren't giving me a chance to learn!"
Katara gritted her teeth and pulled the water back; she parted it into two streams and whipped them forward with her hands, making a pincher. Zuko crouched on the grass, watching the water move towards him; at the last minute, he leapt free and scrambled up a rock jutting towards the sky. The water crashed into itself, freezing and surging upwards in a creaking glacier, cold pouring off its surface. "You want a fair fight?" she screamed up at him. "I'll give you a fair fight!"
Zuko felt the water coming at him and flung himself sideways as it crashed over the rock. He heard the sharp crack of ice as the last echo of Katara's scream died away and he landed on his hands and knees in the grass. He looked up as the ice melted back into water and she pulled her arms up. The water came with them and he watched her hands, waiting; as soon as they moved right, he shifted his weight to his left leg. Katara's hands moved forward and he leapt away, landed on his feet as the water became ice shards and crashed into the ground where he'd been crouched.
"I thought you wanted a fight!" Katara yelled. "I thought you wanted a chance to learn fairness!" Zuko watched her hands; the water swirled around her as she wove it over and around her. He kept his knees loose, ready to move once she attacked again. "I thought you wanted to prove you've changed!" A tendril of water detached itself from the intricate pattern and shot forward at him, hardening to ice and arcing towards his chest.
He threw himself into a roll and came up a few feet away. "I have changed!"
The ice spear melted back into water and spun back to Katara, joining the torrents surrounding her. She raised her hands and it formed back into another towering wave. "Then fight me!" The wave surged towards Zuko, faster than before, and he dropped to the ground and held his breath. Water washed over him, violent and bitingly cold. He remembered a long-ago Ember Island beach, tumbling over and over in rolling surf, not sure if he'd make it back to shore.
As in that distant memory, the torrent of water eventually stopped and Zuko breathed in again. He heard water pouring away behind him, like the waves on that beach. This time, though, he found himself not on smooth sand but staring up at an enraged waterbender. I guess I can't blame her, he thought.
"Zuko," she hissed. "The moon is nearly full. I have it and the ocean behind me." He heard water splash softly behind him and knew she was gathering it again for another blow. "I'm going to kill you if you don't fight back." The truth in her words sent a shiver down his spine, settling heavily into his stomach.
"I don't want to fight you!"
"Liar!" The wave rose behind her again, following the movement of her arms. "You followed me looking for a fight, and now you're going to fight!" Her arms came down and Zuko ducked his head again.
Katara slammed her arms down through the air, sending her fury into the wave and letting it pound down onto Zuko again. She could feel him brace himself against the water and she pulled it down harder. I hope it crushes him, she thought, even though she knew it was not that easy.
She caught the water as it drained away, pulling it back to her for another blow. If she could have thrown him into the ocean, she would, but drowning him under one of its waves would do. Katara raised her arms over her head and drew back for the blow – but Zuko was gone. She pulled the water back down around her, making it whirl in a defensive shield; she kept her legs loose and flexible and turned slowly, scanning the landscape around her as she wove patterns with her hands. Again she listened to the small noises of the night as she waited for him to emerge. The whisper of wind through the grasses, the distant sound of trees stirring, waves crashing against the beach – they were quiet, but she knew that Zuko was quieter.
He doesn't even move like he used to, she thought. She remembered the arrogant prince who had stormed into her village, chased her and her friends across the world. He had moved with his shoulders then, all swagger and bravado under wickedly-pointed armor. Later, in the ruin of an abandoned town, his movements had been choppy, full of fury but lacking that earlier confidence. Then under Ba Sing Sei… but she didn't want to think about Ba Sing Sei, and how… lost he seemed. Just before he helped his sister try to kill Aang. She pushed away the brief memory of his face under her hand, the suspicion in his eyes before he surrendered to her touch.
She heard a rustle behind her and turned, throwing out her hand and with it a water whip that snapped through the air. She pulled it back just before it shattered against waving grass and silent stone, and continued watching the area around her. Everything about him has changed. He moved with confidence again, but with no trace of the old arrogance or internal conflict. His movements since returning with Aang from the Sun Warriors' ruins were graceful, powerful, and he stood with a slouch that spoke at times of self-consciousness and at times of self-assuredness. She hardly recognized him as the angry boy who stole Aang's limp body from the Spirit Oasis.
Katara straightened, keeping her water whirling around her while she looked up at the moon. It sat low in the sky, sinking slowly towards the sea as the night wore on. Exhaustion pressed down on her and she wished that she had ignored Zuko, ignored how he was here pushing into her life – their lives – and just gone to sleep at the end of a long, long day.
Everyone else seems to trust me now. What is it with you? Her eyes burned at the memory and she rubbed them with one gloved hand. What is it with me? Why can't I just –
A burst of fire struck the water swirling around her, dissipated with a hiss of steam. Katara whirled and threw her water in the direction the fire came from, sending it around the up-thrust rock that Zuko must be hidden behind. Found you! she thought – but then she felt her water complete its course around the rock and return to her, its trajectory unbroken by a body. She turned again – just in time to see the burst of fire coming at her from the opposite direction, and threw herself to the ground. The fire passed harmlessly over her back as she split the water, keeping part of it swirling above her and sending the rest towards where the fire came from. Before it crashed into the ground, she knew that Zuko had moved and she pulled the water back as she rose to her feet and searched the area around her.
She saw nothing but the grasses waving in the breeze, the rocks reaching towards the moon on the horizon, and she widened her awareness around her. She felt the water flowing through the grass stems, up from the earth and the shallow band of moist soil over rock beneath her feet. Farther away, she felt the comforting push and pull of the ocean's waves, and she concentrated between those two extremes, the tiny movement of water within the plants and the great motion of the sea.
She felt Zuko – felt the water moving through his veins, faster than that through the grass – just as he moved again and her water slashed out as he threw fire at her with a clenched fist. The two elements met mid-air and hissed as Katara pulled more water up and flung it at him, dodging the arc of fire he threw at her. She felt her water connect, pushing him over, but then he was rolling with its flow and using the momentum to land on his feet again. She pulled the water back and froze it around him, pinning his arms to his side before he brought them up for another blow, but he kicked out one leg and fire raced towards her.
Katara leapt backwards and heard – felt – her ice shatter as Zuko let himself fall backwards, and she pulled up water to block the fire that streamed from his feet. She whipped the water back at him, but he had already somersaulted away with a blast of flame that broke the force of her water. She froze the drops that flew outwards, shaped them to dagger-sharpness and flung them back at Zuko; his arm blazed with fire as he swept it down and blocked the shards. She melted the fragments and pulled them up around him, adding water pulled from the ground and freezing Zuko into a narrow column of ice; she saw it flash yellow and then it exploded outwards in a rush of steam.
She met his eyes and saw her smirk mirrored on his face as she reached for the steam and chilled it back to water as he raised his arms and bent his knees. The condensed water raced to her hands and she gathered up as Zuko moved forward and –
"Katara! Zuko!" Aang's shout broke her concentration and she saw Zuko jerk as she turned to the boy running across the grass. Her water fell to the ground, soaking into the earth. "What's wrong? What are you doing?" He looked between them, worry in his expression. "We saw the fire…"
"It's nothing, Aang" Katara said, as Zuko said "We're okay." She glared at him, then turned to Aang. "We're fine. We're just having a discussion." Aang looked at her, then to Zuko as Sokka, Suki, and Toph arrived behind him.
"What's going on? Did something happen?" Sokka demanded.
Katara glared at him. "Nothing happened. We're just…"
"Aang, Sokka, we're fine," Zuko interrupted. "Just… getting some bending practice in."
Sokka looked at him, skepticism written across his face. "Riiiight. You two need to cut it out, it's really getting – "
"Sokka. Go back to camp," Katara growled. "I'm fine. I'll be back soon. I just need to finish our discussion."
"But – "
"Right Sokka, let's get back to camp." Suki cut him off and took his hand, steering him back towards the cluster of tents.
"But – "
"I'm sure they'll be along in a few minutes." Suki pulled Sokka away, not looking back. Katara sent her silent thanks, then turned to Aang. He looked back, worry clear across his face.
"It's fine, really. You can head back to camp, too." She purposefully didn't look at Zuko.
"But Katara, you and Zuko were – "
"Come on Twinkle-Toes," Toph broke in. "Katara's got it covered. She and Zuko are fine. They just need to blow off some steam with their bending practice." Katara saw Toph's wicked grin and felt a rush of embarrassment. She clenched her fists. "Let's get back to camp."
"But – "
"Aang, I'm fine. Zuko's fine. I'm sorry we worried you." She crossed her arms and looked at the ground. "I'll be back at camp soon."
She felt Aang's silence, looked up to see him still watching her with concern written across his features. She sighed. "Aang, really. It's okay. Please go back to camp."
He looked to Zuko and back to her. She missed what, if anything, passed between the two boys. "Please be careful, Katara. Zuko." He turned and started to walk back in the direction of their camp.
Toph followed, calling over her shoulder "Don't do anything I wouldn't do!"
Katara watched her friends disappear as they walked down the bluff. She felt exhaustion wash over her again and she blinked to clear her eyes. Across the grass, Zuko shifted. "Katara – "
"Don't talk to me!" she snapped. She reached for water, pulled a little of it back to her through the thin soil stretched over the bluffs. She saw Zuko lower into a defensive crouch, then he sprang away and ran up the bluff. She cast one look over her shoulder at the camp, then ran after him.
Zuko jogged away, heard Katara follow a few moments later.
He felt exhaustion drag at him, weighing down his legs and slowing his movements, but shook it off and kept going. His back and shoulder ached where he'd been wrenched from free-fall onto Appa's saddle that morning. Only this morning? It felt like a lifetime ago, and now after a day of running away he was still running.
Katara's footsteps sounded behind him; he paced himself to stay just ahead of her as they moved farther from the camp. Why are you doing this, Zuko? he asked himself. What are you trying to prove? He remembered her fury minutes ago and remembered the strength of her hands around his wrists as she saved him from falling to his death.
He slowed his pace as the bluffs rose in front of him, a narrow strip of grassy land between thin forest and rocky cliff. Behind him, Katara's labored breathing sounded rough against the waves. They were both exhausted and both unwilling to give up without a fight. That's another thing we have in common…
He reached the top of the rise and stopped, turning to face her as she followed; he dropped into a defensive stance, raising his arms before him. The wind blew his hair into his eyes and he blinked, shaking his head to clear his sight. He could feel the pulse of the distant comet, still invisible in the night sky but coming, feeling like the sun's warmth and filling him with focused energy. The pulse was still weak, but he could feel it growing with every day that passed, hotter and more powerful.
Katara halted a short distance away. She looked as exhausted as he felt, but he saw no trace of the brief camaraderie they'd shared earlier. Cold anger burned in her expression, telegraphed in her motions as she turned her arms towards the sea and swept them up. A stream of water followed them up and he watched as she coiled it around her arms. She braced her knees and waited, watching him.
Zuko sighed, releasing a trickle of flame through his teeth. He waited.
Katara watched him, silhouetted against the starry night sky above them. His arms were up and he looked ready to attack, but he made no movement and she saw no fire. She narrowed her eyes, willing him to move, to take the first shot. Water coiled around her arms, pulsing and moving like the dragon-snakes she'd seen at an Earth Kingdom traveling show. She relaxed her hold on the ends and the water stretched out into two long tendrils, seeking the ocean and the pull of the tides.
Above her, Zuko shifted; she saw his slight movement as he watched the water move. She took hold of the water again and kept it pulsating, elongating into ever-narrower strands that waved through the air. She saw him relax just a fraction and took the opening, whipping her right hand up and out. The water followed too fast to see and she felt it crack against his face, shattering into a spray of fine droplets. He staggered and she moved her left arm across her body and down, wrapping around his legs and knocking him off his feet. He tucked his shoulder in as he fell and rolled, legs flaming through the air as he steamed the water away.
Katara moved her right hand back to her center and caught him across the chest with another water whip as he came back to his feet; he leaned into the blow and stayed steady on his feet. She spread her arms back out and pulled the dispersed water back to them. Zuko stood with legs bent, ready to fend off another blow.
"What's the matter, Zuko?" she taunted. "Too tired to fight back?" She pushed her arms forward and the water followed the motion, surging towards Zuko. He brought his own arms up and created a shield of flame; the water crashed against it and both dispersed.
"I don't want to hurt you!" he yelled.
"That's never stopped you before!" She glared at him as she swept her arms out; water rose from the ground and flew outwards in twin waves, and she sent it crashing back towards him. She froze it just before it hit and sent a cloud of sharp ice shards at him. He hunched his shoulders, reminding her of a cornered alley puma, and steamed the ice away before it could hit him.
"You don't know what you're talking about!" Fire flared in his hands and he straightened his back. "I've never tried to burn you!"
Katara condensed the water back out of the air and drew more up from the ground, whirling it around her. "Oh, so all of the fire you've thrown at us was just for show?"
"No! You don't understand!" Water whipped at the flames burning in his hands; they sputtered and Zuko flinched. "I don't… I don't burn people!"
Katara drew her water in and threw it back at him. "What about Toph?" she screamed. "You burned Toph!"
At her words, Zuko froze. The water slammed into his chest and he staggered backwards under its force, pushed up against a twisted tree at the edge of the ragged tree line. "That was… an accident." She saw him shake his head, clench his fists as he levered himself back to his feet. "It was an accident! I apologized, made it up to her, and she forgave me!" He batted away the next blow of her water with a flaming fist. "She forgave me, and now she trusts me!"
Katara advanced, closing the distance between them. "Toph doesn't get it! Toph doesn't remember the chasing, and the threats, and the captures! She doesn't remember when your only purpose was to put Aang in chains and bring him back to the Firelord. To your father!" She snaked her water around, twisted it around Zuko's arms and yanked him back against the tree; he kicked his legs up and sent fire at her. She threw up her hands and her water sprung away from him and blocked the flames.
"I have a different purpose now!" he yelled.
"What, trick Aang into returning to the Fire Nation with you so that you don't have to fail at capturing him again?" Katara pushed her hands down and the water splashed into the ground. He watched her warily. "Convince all of us that you're only here to help, then slit our throats in the night and go home a hero?" She brought her hands up and water sprang up from between Zuko's feet, hitting him in the chin and knocking his head back. The water fell back to the ground, soaking into the thin soil. "Or are you just here to help Azula hunt us down?"
"No!" Zuko brought his hands down with a whoosh of flame. "It's not like that! It's not like any of that!" He turned his head, spat blood off to the side before facing her again. "I'm just… trying to make up for what I've done in the past."
Katara raised her hand and clenched it into a fist, ignoring the way it trembled with fatigue. She stepped forward, leaning towards him. She bared her teeth and sneered. "Well it's a little late for that, Zuko."
"I know!" He clenched his fists and glared back at her. "I know I was wrong, I know I should have stopped chasing you a long time ago." He closed his eyes and slumped a little. "I should have joined you at Ba Sing Sei, I should have joined you after Azula struck down Uncle, I should have joined you at the North Pole, at the South Pole… all along the way. I was supposed to be here all along and I was so stupid to not see it! Me and my stupid destiny and my stupid honor… All those times, I was wrong."
He opened his eyes, looked at his feet. She pressed her mouth into a thin line and stood her ground. "I was so stupid not to join you in Ba Sing Sei. I almost did, if Azula hadn't come and suddenly offered me everything I thought I wanted with no time to think about it. I knew as soon as the fighting stopped that I'd made the wrong choice, but I couldn't admit it to myself." He looked up at her, met her eyes. "Standing in that cave with you…"
Katara cut him off. "I wanted to trust you then and part of me wants to trust you now, but…" His eyes widened, brow lifting, but she forced herself to continue. "But the rest of me knows that you'll just wait for the opportunity to stab us in the back again." She narrowed her eyes. "I should just end you now."
She lunged forward, hands raised and curling into claws. He looked as exhausted as she felt; if she could…
Zuko caught her wrists in his hands, inches from his throat. She struggled against him as he held her hands away from him. She could feel the tremble of fatigue in his arms, but he stayed steady and looked at her.
"I wanted… I've kicked myself every day since Ba Sing Se. I thought I wanted what Azula offered, but I hated what it made me and I hated it so much I couldn't admit it." He looked down at her hands, inches from his face and still straining against his grip. "I hated what it made me do to you, Katara." Her eyes widened and she stopped struggling for a moment. "You offered me so much – and not just the water from the Spirit Oasis, you offered me compassion for no reason except that you could see I needed it and then I –"
"How dare you?" she cut him off. "You don't know what you did! You don't know what you did to me, and to Aang, and to all of us!" To her horror, she felt the sting of tears in her eyes. "You don't know what you did to me! I trusted you, and then you just – " She stopped, her throat burning. She looked away, and tried to pull her wrists back; she pushed them out, testing his resistance; he pushed in, keeping them immobile. He closed his eyes and lowered his head.
"I'm sorry Katara. I'm so sorry. I – "
Katara slammed her hands together, loosening his grip and sliding them against each other. She twisted her hands into a form she swore she'd never use again and reached for Zuko's blood. She felt the nearly-full moon behind her, nearly to the horizon, and used it to pull against the fluid running through his veins. His head snapped up and his eyes opened wide, but it was too late.
"What are you – " he started, but she pulled the blood in his throat forward just a little and he choked. She tried to lower her hands but Zuko's stiff grip stopped her; she concentrated and sensed the currents running below his skin, found the ones that controlled his hands. Katara pulled at his blood and felt his hands clamp down harder on her wrists, hard enough that she felt the bones compressing under the pressure; she hissed in pain and pushed back at the streams within Zuko's arms and felt the pain lessen, then his hands opened and her arms were free. She stepped back and pushed his arms down and stared at him. He stared back.
"I said I'd never use this again, that it was wrong to reach into someone and control them." She could feel him twitching, struggling against her hold, and she grit her teeth at the effort it took to keep him still. She felt the moon sinking lower in the sky and knew that she was near the end of her strength even without the struggle. "But you… you've tried for so long to control us, maybe this is how it should end."
She found the channels in his throat, found their edges, and squeezed. Zuko choked and she heard the air rasp through his throat as he struggled to breathe. Her eyes stung, but she held her grip on his blood.
"Is this… how… it ends? Katara?" She closed her eyes and felt wetness run down her cheek, but kept squeezing, curling her hands back toward her. She shook with the effort, fatigue rolling over her.
"How… are you going… to… tell Aang?" Katara's eyes snapped open and she stared at him. Zuko's face was flushed red with the effort of breathing and she watched in horror as his eyes lost their focus. She felt him start to go limp in her grip and –
– she uncurled her hands and released his throat and pushed. He choked as air flooded back into his lungs and she dropped her hands as his blood surged back to its normal courses. Zuko fell to his hands and knees, inhaling deeply between wracking coughs. Katara watched him, then turned away and walked back towards the edge of the bluffs overlooking the ocean. She crossed her arms over her chest and hunched her shoulders, feeling cold inside as tears rolled down her face. I nearly…
Behind her, she heard Zuko's breathing slow, then hitch as he staggered to his feet. She turned as she felt him step closer to her, stared out across the water. The black of night had faded, replaced by indistinct blue-grey light. Katara saw Zuko in the edge of her vision and shut her eyes.
"I can't change what I did," he said into the silence between them. "I wish I could. I wish I knew then what I know now, and I wish I hadn't been so stupid." She said nothing, and he continued. "All I can do is work to redeem myself, to prove to you and the others that I'm worthy of –"
She cut him off by turning and punching him.
In the face.
He rocked backwards, then slid to the ground. He was still for a moment, then she watched as he stretched his legs out in front of him.
Katara took in a deep breath, held it for a moment, let it go, and sat down beside him. She bent her knees and curled her arms over them and she heard him settle back against the rise of the bluff. Together, they looked out over the ocean as the deep grey twilight slowly brightened. The moon rode low in the sky.
Katara turned to look at Zuko. His eyes were half-shut, the un-scarred one beginning to puff and swell. Where I hit him, she thought with a sting of guilt. He had scratches across his face from shards of ice, a welt on his cheek from her water whip, and she could see a nasty bruise forming on his chin where her she had hit him with water.
"Here," she started, unsure of herself. "Let me… your face." She scootched closer to him and reached her hand out towards his swelling eye. He stiffened, and she paused. "Only if you want," she added, trailing off and not meeting his eyes.
She felt his stare, then, surprisingly, she saw him close his eyes and relax, hands at his sides. She pulled water from the ground and from the dew condensing on the grass around them and brought it gently to his face. Around them, the dawn brightened as the wounds on his face stitched back together and faded away.
She pulled her water back and was about to flick her fingers to disperse it, but Zuko stopped her by raising his arm. She blinked at him. "You forgot those," he said, pointing at her arms. "Heal those." She looked down at her wrists, saw vicious bruises purpling under her skin from where she had made his hands tighten around them. She flushed, suddenly ashamed.
"You healed me – heal yourself, too," he insisted. She pulled the water over her forearms and heard him settle back beside her as she finished, skin smooth again.
Katara looked back out at the ocean as the moon slid below the horizon. Overhead, lacy clouds turned purple against the pale blue sky as the sun rose.
"You looked so different in Ba Sing Sei. I was used to you hunting us down and screaming at us, threatening to steal Aang away, and then there you were, just sitting there in a cave with me." She blinked, remembering. For the first time since it had happened, the memory didn't sting. "You looked like someone I might be able to trust. Someone I might be able to like. You've been connected to me for almost as long as Aang has, and it suddenly didn't seem so far-fetched that you might join us."
Katara watched the clouds overhead turn fiery red, then pink.
"Then ten minutes later, we were fighting and I was furious at you."
"Katara, I'm –"
"No, let me finish. I was furious at you, but I was also furious at myself for starting to believe you. I really thought for a moment that you might be on our side."
She paused, glad that he didn't speak again. She wasn't trying to force an apology.
"Afterwards, I started wondering. If Aang and your uncle hadn't come just then, and I'd healed you, would you have come with us? Did you join Azula because you thought we were stringing you along? Or worse, did you join her because I'd yelled at you before?" She squeezed her eyes shut. "I started worrying over all these little things, like if I'd healed you and then Aang had died after Azula hit him with lightning, but then maybe if I'd healed you, you wouldn't have joined Azula and she wouldn't have hit Aang with lightning, and everything might have turned out differently." She sighed, feeling the shudder of a sob at the back of her throat. "It was so much easier to just turn all that off and blame you than to face the idea that I had done something wrong, but I'd never know what."
She lapsed into silence and watched the sunrise paint the clouds overhead.
After the clouds had faded from pink to orange to yellow and finally to white against a clear blue sky, and the sun had started to peek through the scrubby trees behind them, Katara rose to her feet. She stretched, arching her back and reaching her arms over her head, she groaned a little and exhaled sharply at the aches running up and down her body.
Zuko sat up abruptly. "Huh? What?" He blinked sleepily, looked up at her.
He trusts me, Katara thought. I tried to kill him, and he fell asleep beside me. The thought warmed her. She reached out her hand to him. Zuko stared at her, still blinking. Then he took her hand and let her help pull him up. She released his hand and they stood, facing each other, and then she stepped forward, wrapped her arms around his shoulders, and hugged him. She felt him stiffen. "I'm sorry," she whispered, and he relaxed.
"Me too," he said, his arms circling around her waist in return. She relaxed against him and he sighed into her shoulder and they stood together for a long moment.
They stumbled back into camp just as the sun rose over the forest, lighting up the surrounding rocks. Zuko's arm was draped over Katara's shoulder, and she steadied herself with an arm around his waist. They leaned against each other, both exhausted from the long walk back from where they had ended their fight. Zuko limped a little, favoring the hip that had broken one of his falls the night before, and Katara stumbled as her feet dragged across the ground.
Appa saw them stagger into the circle of tents and raised his head, groaning a greeting. Aang's head popped up from the flying bison's neck. "Katara!" he shouted. "Zuko!" He slid down Aapa's foreleg and ran to them. Zuko stood up straight as Katara released him, just before Aang crashed into her.
"I was so worried about you, Katara," Aang said softly, hugging her. She returned the hug. "I wanted to help, but I realized there wasn't anything I could do."
Katara smiled at him. "Thanks, Aang. I had to work some things out for myself."
Aang released her and turned to Zuko, hugging him as well. Katara almost laughed at the expression on Zuko's face as he stared down at Aang, hands extended in surprise. Aang stepped back. "I was worried about you, too."
Zuko's face softened. "It's okay, she went easy on me."
"Ha ha," Katara replied. She would have continued, but a piercing scream cut her off.
Sokka stood at the entrance to his tent, pointing at Katara. "You… you spent the night out there with him!" he shrieked. "You…"
"Oh, shut up, Snoozles," Toph emerged from her rock tent and looked Katara and Zuko over. "So, who won?"
Katara looked at Zuko and he looked back at her. They turned to Toph and shrugged. "I did," they said in unison.
Author's note: I loved how the Southern Raiders opened and hated how it ended. Katara and Zuko's relationship though the series is so wonderfully complex that condensing it down to "the Fire Nation killed my mother" and "I know how to find him" and "but I'm ready to forgive you" was a travesty. Then there was the poor storytelling and clichéd flashbacks and muddled POV (how did Katara know that her mother was protecting the last waterbender? she didn't see that little scene with Yon Ra) and out-of-character bits ("okay mr goody-goody" – seriously? seriously? way to assassinate Zuko's character for half an episode) and… and... bah.
The journey from enemies to allies to friends deserves more than a ninja field trip and trite dialogue, even if my version wouldn't make as good a twelve-minute cartoon segment.
I wrote this before Catching Shadows and long before Enslaved, and I like it enough to finally get it off my harddrive and into the world.