Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended.
Some dialogue quoted from episode 56 of Avatar, "The Southern Raiders"
"How simple a thing it seems to me that to know ourselves as we are, we must know our mothers' names."
- Alice Walker
Two nights had passed, and they still hadn't found the man responsible for killing Katara's mother. Katara herself had slept very little. On the first night, she hadn't slept at all, and didn't give up her spot at Appa's reins even when they began to become too heavy for her sleep deprived body to hold.
"You should sleep," Zuko had said.
She'd ignored him. Ever since that strange morning in which she'd recognized something she was still afraid to touch in the way he said her name, it was far easier to pretend not to have heard than answer and acknowledge the person who'd spoken it. It was for the best, she told herself. Since then, she'd avoided speaking to him in anything but insults. Especially if someone was watching. He'd responded with frustration, with clumsy attempts at kindness, or with insults of his own, but nothing had broken her resolve to make the words she'd said to Aang, "There's nothing between me and Zuko," true.
Nothing except this. This gift.
I know who killed your mother, and I'm going to help you find him.
A cool sunrise broke over the endless sea. As if on cue, Katara heard Zuko stir. I rise with the sun.
She hadn't slept at all the previous night. Though Zuko had asked her a few times to let him take a turn steering Appa, she refused each supplication, claiming restlessness from the impending full moon. It was only Zuko's sense of honor, she supposed, that kept him from outright forcing her to take her break. Now that he was fully rested, however, she expected his second onslaught to begin at any moment.
She was not disappointed.
"You should get some rest," he said, his voice still raspy with sleep. "We'll be there in a few hours. You'll need all your strength."
The leather of Appa's saddle creaked behind her, and she imagined Zuko shifting his weight onto one arm as he prepared to take the reins from her. She unconsciously gripped them tighter.
"Oh don't you worry about my strength," she growled. "I have plenty. I'm not the helpless little girl I was when they came."
There was a pause, in which things were so quiet that she could hear the cold wind ruffle her hair, her clothes, and Appa's fur. The leather creaked again, and Zuko's voice was slightly closer, but quieter somehow, as if he were asking his question in a temple instead of on the back of a flying bison.
"What happened to your mother?"
The story wasn't long in the telling. She'd gone over it so many times in her head that it was like reciting a poem she knew by heart. She and Sokka were children playing in the snow when the snow began to fall in warm black flakes instead of cold white ones. Sokka had run to join the warriors, she'd run to find her mother. There was a strange man in the tent when she arrived. He wore black armor and his eyes were like dead wood between the slits of his helmet. She remembered the thick air in the tent, the knives in the man's voice as he told her to go, and the final look of reassurance in her mother's eyes as she told her daughter to run and find her father.
"I didn't want to go," Katara said. "Mom said everything would be all right, but I knew, I knew if I left something bad was going to happen."
"You couldn't have known that," said Zuko.
"But I did. I did understand. Even when I ran for Dad I knew I was running to save her," her voice cracked. "I found him and brought him back home, but we were too late. When we got there, the man was gone. And so was she."
"Your mother was a brave woman."
A bloom of warmth lit in Katara's chest. "I know," she said, and she brought her fingers to the necklace at her throat.
The soft blue shell of the pendant was warm under her fingers. As she pressed it to her neck, she recalled the way she'd loved it as a child, how it would flash and catch the light when her mother would bend over her cooking, like ice sparkled in the midnight sun. She only got a glimpse of her mother's body after that monster had killed her (black and red and singed furs and a smell like smoked meat) before her father covered her eyes and held her to him, breathing hard, but she vividly recalled how he had mutely shoved the necklace into her trembling hands. It had been warm then, too. That, more than anything, drew a heavy line in her life between 'mother,' in which the world was full of light, and 'after mother,' where the snow was blackened with soot.
"What was her name?"
"What?" said Katara, startled out of her thoughts.
"Your mother's name. What was it?"
She turned to stare at him, her lips thin with suspicion. When he didn't break her gaze, she said, "Kya."
"Kya," he repeated. He shifted his weight. "It's a nice name."
All of a sudden, Katara felt something in her shoulders unclench. She hadn't realized that she was holding them so tightly. "Yeah. She was nice. She was my mom."
Her voice sounded unbearably childish to her own ears, but Zuko didn't laugh, or tell her she was being dramatic. Instead, he smiled in a very strange way, and the curve of his lips matched the one she felt in hers whenever she remembered the way her mother used to say she'd see her in the morning.
"I know what you mean," he said.
An involuntary warmth spread through her. She leaned over and placed her hand over his.
"Sometimes... I think you do," she said.
Zuko looked slowly from his hand to her face. All of a sudden, she felt weirdly embarrassed, and snatched her hand back as if she'd burned it. Her skin tingled where she'd touched him. In her lap, she opened and closed her hand. If the silence of her all night vigil had been lonely, this one was thickly crowded.
After about a minute passed, Zuko awkwardly cleared his throat. "Get some rest. Please. I promise I'll wake you when we're close."
Appa gave a great moan, then shook his head and dropped to an easier speed. Zuko shrugged as if to say, 'at least someone agrees with me,' and Katara suddenly found herself missing Aang, his sense of humor, his steady smile. She felt slightly ashamed for some reason.
She handed him the reins, grateful for this out he was offering, and carefully crawled into Appa's saddle. When she got there, she was surprised to find her sleeping bag laid out for her. How had she not noticed him doing that? She looked back to where he sat at Appa's head, one hand over his eyes as he scanned the horizon for signs of the Southern Raiders. She wondered why he hadn't asked her to thank him for making her a place to sleep. If it had been her, she would have demanded it. As she settled herself down on top of the squishy sleeping bag for a nap, it occurred to her that she couldn't remember him asking for thanks of any kind since he joined their group.
"Hey," she said.
"What is it?"
She rolled to her side, facing away from him. "Never mind."
There was a pause, but Zuko didn't press her. "I'll wake you if I see anything," he finally said.
Katara had spent a lot of time with Hama during her stay at the strange inn in the strange town with the strange, twitchy people. More so than she'd even told Sokka. She hadn't seen another waterbender in so long that it was natural for her to want to get to know the old woman, from one Master to another. The fact that she came from the Southern Tribe, like her, was a surprise that made their time together all the more intoxicating. To learn Southern Style from an old Master? It was a gift.
Hama's best lesson was to be resourceful.
"A waterbender can find herself cornered anywhere. She is not always so lucky to be at home, surrounded by a bounty of snow and ice. It's easy to forget that water is everywhere."
Katara paused in her scrubbing. It was after dinner on their third and final night at Hama's inn, and she had volunteered to help her with the numerous dishes leftover from their dinner that night. Aang, Sokka, and Toph had excused themselves immediately after finishing, saying that they had Avatar business to attend. For some reason, Katara got the idea that they didn't like her teacher. She dismissed it as jealousy. After all, they were used to receiving all of Katara's attention all of the time. it wouldn't hurt them to be on their own for once. She smiled and tucked an errant strand of hair behind her ear.
"I remember. You showed me with the fire lilies, earlier."
Hama chuckled. "Yes, yes. But, what if you end up in a desert? Or a dry mountain top with no moisture in the air, or no plants from which to draw our element?" As demonstration, she pulled a few droplets of water from a bouquet of blue flowers sitting on her windowsill, and the plants went brittle and black. "You can't always count on your own sweat to save you. Though that was a good idea you had when you were in prison."
Katara drew the soapy water off the plate and set it in a growing stack next to the sink. "I could use my enemy's sweat."
"Very resourceful," Hama chuckled. Katara beamed. "But you're missing something. Something developed by hunters in our tribe if they are cornered by a polar-leopard and their spears have failed them. Watch."
Hama gracefully waved her gnarled hand over a leftover piece of picken meat that Sokka had somehow missed, then contorted her fingers into an ugly claw shape. The meat crumpled like a candy wrapper, and then several globules of glistening water rose from its skin. A brown husk was all that was left of the cooked picken.
"Water is everywhere" Hama murmured, passing the water to Katara. "One must be careful when using this technique, Otherwise the meat can be damaged. When one is fighting for one's life, however, mistakes such as this," she indicated the dried meat with a wave of her hand, "Can be forgiven."
They weren't speaking to each other again. After Zuko had awakened her as promised, they boarded the flagship of the Southern Raiders only to find the wrong man in command. This was not before Katara, suffused with rage and the power the full moon brought, bent the blood in his body and threw him around the cabin like a stringless puppet. The brief look of horror in Zuko's eyes kept flashing through her mind, even as she brooded on the name of her mother's true killer, the former commander of the Southern Raiders. He'd retired four years ago. Gone home to his mother.
Yon Rha. Yon Rha. She repeated the name in her head like it was a mantra. Yon Rha. The monster had a name. It was like a fire behind her. An enemy before her. She would make him pay for what he had done.
She took in a sharp breath, and saw Hama's old fingers, their tips coated in ice like gnarled claws. Make him pay? How, exactly? What was she going to do to him once she found him? It was still the full moon, and if they got there fast enough, she'd still be able to bend his blood like she'd bent that unlucky commander's. Would she make him kneel before her as payment? Would she stop his throat from opening? Would she tear the water from his body and use it to stab him through the heart? She looked down at her hands, felt how easy it would be to coax the blood in his veins backwards, how easy it would be to impose her will on his heart and squeeze. Hama's voice cackled in her head, and she could sea an animal carcass on a cutting board, black, dry, and empty. Her temples throbbed with exhaustion.
Good, child. Make him bow and scrape. Make him know what it is to go against a daughter of the Water Tribe.
She shook her head, trying to clear it. Had she heard something? No, she couldn't have, the only ones there were her and Zuko, Zuko, who had flinched at the sight of her bloodbending, who had not accepted failure and had thrown the man against the wall to extract the name and location of Yon Rha... her eyes swam in and out of focus.
"We're there." She heard his voice as if it were coming from a long way off. Groaning, she lifted her head and twisted around, trying to locate him.
"Zuko?" she licked her lips, tasting the unfamiliar way she said his name. "Where are you?"
She peeked over the edge of Appa's saddle to see Zuko busying himself with setting up a tent. When had they landed? She remembered the thump of Appa as he hit Earth, but after that, her world was a mess of memories, vows, and voices. She looked around and saw that they'd landed on a large enough island that she couldn't see the water on the other side. It had a slope leading up to the horizon to the West, and beyond that, she could hear the roar of the sea. The North and South stretched from grasslands into thick forests. They had landed on the West side of the island, close enough to the beach that she could still smell it, but still safely hidden behind an outcropping of rocks. It was a good hiding place.
"How long was I out of it?" she called.
"A while. Help me get Appa's saddle off."
The bison let out a grunt of pleasure. Though her head still swam with images, Katara nodded, and slid down to the ground.
"You can go to sleep after this if you want," he said, proffering her sleeping bag at her.
For some reason, the way he held her own sleeping bag at her annoyed her. Perhaps it was that he'd caught her in a moment of weakness, or perhaps it was the familiarity in his gesture, but all the same, it was enough to make bile rise in the back of her throat. She snatched it from him, and snapped, "Thanks, but I'm not lazy enough to make you do all the work for me."
He blinked. "Uh... I didn't mean-"
She cut him off. "Don't." Irritably, she sighed. The confusion of earlier had evaporated, leaving a tingling energy in its wake, an energy akin to a trapped river. She supposed the lack of sleep wasn't doing her any favors. The full moon wasn't much help, either. "Just help me unbuckle this stupid saddle."
Unpacking was short work. After the saddle was safely removed, Appa shook himself off and took to the skies, foraging for food. Zuko made a fire and Katara unpacked their rations: rice, dried fruit, and smoked fish. Their meal was short and silent. The silence, however, was far from companionable. There was something lurking under the surface of their journey, now, something that their failure to find the right man had shaken loose. Zuko tried to focus solely on his food, but every so often the power of Katara's glare caused him to glance at her, his good eyebrow raised in question. Every time he looked, she pretended to be ignoring him. Then he would return to his food, and the cycle would repeat itself. It wasn't until they'd washed and stored the dishes and banked the fire that Katara broke the silence.
"Why are you doing this?" she blurted.
Slowly, Zuko looked from the sleeping bag he was carrying and back to Katara. "So we can sleep?"
Her eyes narrowed. "You know what I mean. This," she spread her arms as if to indicate their whole operation. "Finding the man who killed my mother. It's not going to change anything between us. So why do it?"
"It doesn't matter." Zuko laid his sleeping bag on the ground and began to smooth out the wrinkles. "Get some sleep."
"Don't avoid the subject! I asked you a question!"
He stood, dusting off his hands, and faced her, his expression mild. "You want to do this, don't you?"
"Of course I do! What does that have to do with-"
"Because I understand revenge."
She balked. "This isn't revenge! This is justice!"
He narrowed his eyes. "Justice, revenge, whatever you want to call it, it's still the same thing."
Hama's laugh reverberated again in Katara's head. "No! You're wrong! Justice doesn't hurt the innocent!"
Zuko's calm facade cracked. His brows furrowed, and he hissed, "They're the same damned thing, and they hurt anyone who happens to be standing in the way, innocent or not. Believe me, I speak from experience. And if you think anything else you're being naive."
"Don't!" she shouted and before she knew what she was doing, before she even thought to stop herself, she reached into him and was bending his blood. "Call me naive!"
His arms snapped to his side, or rather, she snapped them there, and he stared at her with the same disbelieving horror she'd seen on the face of the man she'd thrown around like a rag doll earlier that night.
"No. You don't get to call me that. You have no idea what I've been through since we came to the Fire Nation. No idea what I've seen, what I've done. Do you think I taught myself how to do this?" She curled her fingers in a claw-like motion and Zuko gasped as his spine lengthened under her invasive control. Her own blood burnt like poison inside her. "A woman named Hama taught me this," she said, and she couldn't stop a few angry tears from escaping her eyes. "She was a waterbender who was stolen from her home by your people sixty years ago and thrown in prison to rot. But she got out."
Another twist of her hands and Zuko's bones cracked as she forced him to the ground until he was on all fours. "What she did to get back at the Fire Nation was wrong. She used to force innocent people every full moon to march into a mountain, where she kept them in chains. Like her captors kept her. She didn't join the war effort, she didn't strike at your government, she trapped and starved people who knew as much about war as she did before the Fire Nation first started invading my tribe. She kept saying it was justice, but it wasn't. It was revenge. I stopped her because I knew the difference. I am nothing like her."
With finality, she relaxed her hold on him just as easily as she'd taken control. He slumped to the ground, coughing and massaging his throat.
Zuko looked up, and the ferocity in his glare almost made her step backwards. "How was I supposed to know this?" he rasped. "You haven't told me anything since I joined you!" He struggled to his feet, panting. "You've shut me out, you've-"
"Oh I don't know, Zuko," she spat. "Maybe if you'd joined us earlier you wouldn't feel so left out."
His arms shot out in great arcs of frustration. "I don't feel left out! It wasn't the right time! I was conflicted, confused-"
"You didn't seemed confused when you were shooting fire at us with Azula!" she shouted, nauseous with anger. "You almost got Aang killed! He almost died! If I hadn't have had the water from the Spirit Oasis, he would have! All because you were conflicted and confused!"
He was in front of her in three long strides, and in seconds, he was inches from her face, shouting, "Understand this! I would never hurt Aang. Ever. Even then I did all I could not to hurt him. I never wanted him to die!"
"That didn't stop you from sending an assassin after us!"
"Listen to me!" His hands clapped to her shoulders like claws. "Azula told Ozai that I'd killed the Avatar, and if he'd found out Aang was still alive, he would have killed me! I was desperate! You don't know my father, he would have made it worse than death, he would-"
"I don't care about your excuses!" her voice sounded guttural and foreign even to her. "Get your hands off me!"
"Not until you listen to me!"
"No!" She twisted, wrenching herself out of his grasp, and fell fluidly into a backwards somersault, uncorked her bending water and had a whip of it ready by the time she landed neatly on her feet. Without warning, she whipped it across his hands, and he snatched them back, wincing.
"I don't want to fight you," he growled. "I want to talk to you."
"We both know talking isn't going to solve this."
She raised her whip. "Don't you dare say my name."
He fell into a defensive stance, arms held stiffly in front of him, his back rigid but his shoulders loose and hesitant. She recognized it from her many sparring sessions with Aang, back at the Western Air Temple. Then, he'd always been carefully aware of his actions, training Aang like a polar tiger would train her cubs how to hunt, claws sheathed. She didn't want that. She wanted him at full power, like at the Spirit Oasis, mocking and superior and strong. She wanted to hate him. It would be so much easier if she could just hate him.
Uneasily, he glanced at the full moon which hung low in the sky above him, and she struck. There was no warning, no last taunt about the power of the moon, there was only the quick, explosive feeling of power that accompanied her strongest waterbending as she turned the water whip into a flurry of ice daggers and hurled them at him. He melted them with a blast of fire from his palms and dove through the veil of murky water, fire swords blazing from each fist. She smirked and spread her fingers and the water froze around him, trapping him mid-dive. She pulled water from the air and lifted her arms to bring it around her like twin waves.
"Stuck?" she purred, and brought the waves down.
Zuko narrowed his eyes, gritted his teeth, and kicked his legs in a great circle as fire shot from his heels. Then he was swiping at her feet, forcing her to leap backwards and turn her waves of water into steps of ice, which he clawed at in an attempt to grab her ankles and knock her to the ground. At the top of her steps she turned them into a slide and skidded down, turning the slide into sharp projectiles as she progressed and shooting them at Zuko's sleeves in the hopes that she could knock him down and pin him to the earth. She partially succeeded; the sleeve of his left arm was pierced and he was hurled backwards, but he managed to dodge the rest of the ice. With his free arm, he pulled the ice dagger free and lunged at her, clutching it like a knife. She quickly leaned backwards and the knife passed just above her nose. For a moment she had a wild notion that they were dancing. Zuko was so close above her she could smell him; sweat and smoke and something sharp and metallic that she couldn't place.
She wove her hands into the front of his tunic and gripped him hard. Then, using his own momentum against him, sent him flying over her head. However, she didn't let go in time. She ended up being flung off balance along with him and the two of them spun in midair, fighting for dominance even as they landed hard on the ground. Sometime during their scuffle Katara managed to force him to his back, her hands still tangled in his clothing, and her legs on either side of his hips.
A hot blush rose on both their cheeks. Frantically, they scrambled away from each other until they were a safe distance apart. Katara began to slowly circle him, and Zuko followed in kind, his arms stiff and his shoulders squared.
"This is pointless," he growled. "You know I can't beat you when the moon is full. Why won't you hear me out?"
His left arm, she noticed, was hanging a little lower than his right. He's injured, she thought.
"Why should I?" she snarled. "You'll just run away again the second your sister shows up."
She dove at him, intending to bind him with a rope of water, but he leapt over her and then she was dodging a volley of flames. She met them with a water shield and they dissolved into steam.
"Were you paying attention when she attacked us a few days ago? She wants to kill me!"
"As if she hasn't tried that before!"
The absurdity of what she'd just said seemed to render Zuko incoherent. She took advantage of his lapse in concentration to attack again from the left side, the side on which she'd smelled blood, and this time her waterwhip met its mark. She hit him square in the left bicep, where her ice dagger had left a deep and bloody gash. Zuko cringed and clutched at it. "I don't run away," he said through gritted teeth.
"Liar! The second your father decided to pardon you, you'd be on the first boat home!"
"No! I wouldn't! Running away never works. It just makes things worse. My Uncle, Mai, you-"
She snapped the water whip at him again and this time he didn't doge it, but grabbed it with a hand coated in fire and pulled, hard. The tension in the water whip was still taut when he tugged, and she tumbled to the ground as surely as if he'd used a real whip to knock her feet out from under her. She landed face first on the dirt and got a mouth full of it.
While she spat the dirt from her mouth, he continued talking. "The last time I ran away, I didn't think I was running away. I thought I was getting what I'd always wanted. I got pardoned, my father welcomed me home as a hero, I moved back into the palace, I had my old life back. But it was wrong."
"What, did you get bored sitting in the lap of luxury?" she spat, wiping her gritty mouth.
"No!" he shouted. "It was all wrong. The war, my sister... my father."
The last word was almost a whisper. He seemed to sag. Katara stopped in the midst of preparing another attack. The wave of water about to come down on him instead hung suspended over his head.
He wasn't shouting anymore. "You've never met my father, so you probably won't understand this. Anything he thinks is weak, he destroys. He thinks I'm weak. He always has. Growing up, it was always, 'Azula was born lucky, and Zuko was lucky to be born.' He'd smile when he said it, like it was a joke."
"So you left home because daddy didn't love you?" she sneered.
"Don't belittle me!" he yelled, his eyes blazing. "I left him and I joined you because it was the right thing to do!"
"You should have done it earlier!"
She threw the wave on him like a gauntlet, then turned it to ice with the intention of imprisoning him there. However, faster than she could track, he leapt into the air aided by twin jets of fire from his heels. He landed at the top of the mountain of ice and shouted down at her, "Why won't you give me a chance to explain!?"
"Because I already gave you a chance, remember? In Ba Sing Se?" She melted all the water from her glacier and he landed catlike in the mud. "I was the first person to trust you and you threw it in my face!"
His mouth stopped moving in the act of forming a word. "Wait. You trusted me?"
"I won't be making the same mistake again!"
He took one last look at the expression on her face, and ran. Livid, she cast a road of ice before her and slid after him until they reached the base of the Eastern slope. Once faced with that, she turned her slide into stairs which she embedded into the hillside. Though this gave her considerable speed, Zuko was still too fast for her, and she was slowly losing distance. She began to sweat.
"I thought you said you didn't run away!" she shouted after him. "Or was that another lie?"
She shot more ice at him, which he knocked from the air with a curtain of fire. They were nearing the edge of what Katara now realized was a cliff, which ended in a sheer drop to the turbulent ocean. What was he planning to do, she wondered. Jump?
"I'm not!" he yelled, and abruptly stopped.
They had reached the cliff. Below her, far below, Katara could hear the rumbling of the sea. It was hidden in thick, smoky fog and the veil of darkness, but she could feel the water there, and what was more, could imagine the relentless waves pounding against jagged rocks. Zuko stood there facing her, his back to the cliff. And then he did something she could not have predicted, and when recounting the story to herself weeks later, could not have even imagined doing if it were her in his position. He knelt, lifted his arm, and held one of her ice daggers to his throat.
"You're right. I can't beat you right now. If you wanted to, you could stop my heart in my chest. So you have a choice to make. You either kill me right here, or we talk this out. I have no where left to run. Even you have to see that. It's your choice."
"Then take me as your prisoner."
It was the day he joined them. They'd said they could never accept him after all he'd done, and he had knelt before them then too, held out his wrists for them to bind him. The humidity had made her hair tangled and uncontrollable, caused sweat to break out on all of them with no relief. Sweat had pooled on the back of his neck. She remembered the surge of anger that had torn through her at the sight of that. How could he ask them to forgive him when he'd proven time and time again that he was too fallible to trust?
She raised her arms. There was a great rumbling sound. A wall of water rose behind him like a waterfall in reverse. She shifted her weight and flowed through her stances; the needle, the snow-crane, then the ostrich-horse, letting the power of the moon direct the flow of energy within her. The wall of water split into two long curtains, which circled Zuko in opposing, concentric circles, Like Tui and La she thought, and they gained momentum with every pass. When the water became a silvery blur and Zuko's eyes became unable to follow it, and he looked at her instead, looking into her eyes and not flinching, she flowed like a snake into punch ears form, and everything stopped.
Zuko blinked. They were encased in a great bowl of ice with high walls. A light shower of snow drifted down on them like feathers.
Katara didn't look at him while she spoke. "After you took Azula's side in the cave, I didn't understand. I was so mad. How could you turn away from us when it was so obvious that it wasn't the right thing to do?"
The ice dagger fell from his hand."I'm sorry. I wish I could change what I did."
"I'm not finished," she snapped, and steel briefly glinted in her eyes. "What you did that day was so... I'd never felt anything like it. It hurt." She placed her hand in the middle of her chest, then let it drop. "How could you do that to me?"
He stumbled towards her and tried to put his hand on her shoulder, but she shrugged and turned away from him. "I had a lot of time to think about things after Azula- after Aang was hurt. I kept thinking, 'what if I'd healed him right away? What if I'd been nicer when he was thrown into the cave with me? Would he have come with us then?' I kept going over and over it in my head and every time I did something different and you fought with us. As an ally. Would it have made a difference?"
This time, she didn't fight the weight of his hand on her shoulder. It was hot, warming, and she felt it all the way down to her toes. "I don't know. Probably not. I was really messed up back then and I wasn't used to making difficult decisions. The hardest thing I'd ever done was let your bison go when I found him in the Dai Li's headquarters."
Katara made a noise between a laugh and a snort.
"Go ahead. I deserve it." She could hear the smile in his voice, and, cautiously, looked up at him. "When Azula said I could come home, it was like everything I'd wanted for three years was being handed to me in a lacquer box. I was going to go home. Fath-" he paused, frowning, then corrected himself. "Ozai was going to give me my honor back. I wouldn't have to chase the Avatar anymore."
"Aang. Chase Aang."
He shook his head. "That's not how I thought of him. Then he was just..." he paused, struggling for the right words. "...he was they way to bring things back to normal."
She frowned. "Normal? What, like helping your Dad conquer the world?"
"Look at me," he said, and in spite of a desire to look away just to be contrary, she raised her eyes to his face. Gently, he removed his hand from her shoulder and took her own hand in his. It was very warm, unlike hers, which had always suffered from poor circulation. His eyes met hers briefly, as if asking for permission. When she didn't pull away, he raised her hand to his face, placing it where his cheek and eyes were mottled pink and red scar tissue. His scar was smooth and hot under her hand, like river pebbles heated by the sun, or the strange places she'd found in the desert sands in the Earth Kingdom, fused together like polished diamonds in that unending heat. Her thumb rested at the corner of his mouth.
"Do you remember this?" he said, his voice low.
She could smell the damp air of the cave. "Yes."
"Ozai gave this to me for speaking out of turn at a war meeting."
Her fingers stiffened on his face. "What?"
"For speaking out of turn," he repeated. "I disagreed with one of his generals. So the general challenged me to an Agni Kai."
"Agni Kai?" repeated Katara with a frown.
"Sorry. A fire duel. It's an honor thing. Anyway, I accepted. I thought I was going to face an old man who was annoyed that he'd been called out by a kid, but when I turned around, it was my father I was facing. When saw him coming towards me I begged for forgiveness. I got down on my knees. But he didn't listen. He called me weak. And then," he said, pressing Katara's hand more firmly onto his scar, "he gave me this, and banished me. Said it would teach me respect."
Katara recoiled in horror, reflexively snatching her hand back to her chest. "How old were you?"
Zuko gave the barest hint of a smile. "Aang's age."
She tried to imagine an Aang on fire, an Aang with half his face burnt away by the person who was supposed to love and protect him more than anyone in the world, and she couldn't face it.
"He said I could come home on one condition:" he continued, though she was no longer looking at him. "If I captured the Avatar. Only then could I get my 'honor' back. At that's what I thought," Zuko added, half to himself. "I didn't figure out until recently that honor isn't something that can be taken from you. It's something you have to give yourself. But it wasn't honor that I wanted. Not really. I just wanted him to accept me. That's what I mean by 'normal.'"
"That's the kind of man he is. Good role model."
Despite herself, Katara choked back a laugh. "I see where Azula gets it from. But," she continued, still determined to speak her piece, "It's not an excuse for what you did. People have choices. They might have good motivations at the time, but that doesn't mean that they're not wrong. You can't turn away from doing the right thing just because it's hard."
"No. It's not an excuse. But I hope it helps you understand why I've done the things I've done." There was a note of pleading to his voice now. "I think about it every day. I wish so, so much that I could go back and fix things. Save Aang. Save my uncle. Save you."
She raised an eyebrow. "Save me from what?"
He shrugged, and took the hand that he'd pressed to his face into both of his. "I don't know. I sort of feel like I should have saved you, somehow."
This time, she did laugh, a tired, slightly hysterical sound. "I don't need to be saved. I'm perfectly capable of taking care of myself."
"Yeah," he said, squeezing her hand, "I know."
A fragile silence settled between then. Suddenly uncomfortable, Katara withdrew her hand from Zuko's warm grasp. The wall of ice that she'd built to keep either of them from running off began to melt, and as the fresh water ran over their shoes, she drew some of it around her hand so that it was encased in a luminescent envelope of water.
"Here," she said, reaching for the torn place in his shoulder that she'd hit again and again in her anger. "Hold still."
"Don't," he said. He tried to squirm away from her, but she held him fast.
"Shut up and let me heal you."
He pressed his lips together in a thin line, but nodded and let her continue. She let the water wrap all the way around his arm and sink into the wound. He hissed, but didn't pull away, which she appreciated. During her short time in the healing hut, Yugoda had impressed upon her students that while waterbending was a wonderful tool for healing, many patients would not appreciate the necessary invasiveness of it, and subsequently become uncooperative. Especially for such deep cuts as the one she'd given Zuko.
"I wasn't trying to draw blood," she muttered, concentrating. "I only wanted to pin you down."
"Don't worry about it. Call it payment for all those times I hurt you when I was chasing the Avatar." He paused, and suddenly looked extremely distressed. " I never... burnt you, did I?"
Satisfied with her work, she straightened, and dusted off her hands. "No. Not that you didn't try plenty of times."
He looked even more distressed. "If you think I ever-
"Stop, stop. I know what you meant. How does your arm feel?"
Though he still looked a little upset, he experimentally moved his arm back and forth. The area where he'd been wounded was shiny and pink, but his muscles didn't cause the skin to break. "It feels fine. You did a good job."
"Well, I am a master."
A long, low groan sounded above their heads, and they both looked up. Appa, apparently finished foraging for food, was approaching the camp in slow circles. They exchanged glances.
"I guess it's time for bed," she said.
"Yeah," said Zuko, rubbing the back of his neck. "Bed. Do you want to-?"
"Yes! I mean, yes, let's go."
Slowly and awkwardly, they picked their way down the hill. Katara hadn't realized how steep it was going up, a feature that had been lost to her in her eagerness to chase Zuko. The horizon was a lighter blue than the rest of the sky, and it was so cold that her fight with him didn't seem important. The sun would be rising soon. She still had things she wanted to say to him, still had things that it would take years, maybe, to sort out, but now there was a damp emptiness inside her that had nothing in it anymore, and she was too tired to find something to fill it with.
When they arrived back at camp, Appa snorted in greeting and then settled in for sleep. Katara patted him on the nose, then plucked her sleeping bag from their supplies and laid it down a few feet from Zuko's. Once she was settled, Zuko sat gingerly down on his.
"You're sure this is okay?" he asked.
"This. What we're doing. Is it okay?"
"Yeah," she said, rubbing her eyes. "It's okay. I don't think you'll kill me in my sleep."
He raised his eyebrows at her, and she half shrugged, half smiled. "Well, I might kill you. But you're just going to have to trust me."
"Trust you," he said, slowly, as if trying out the words. "Trust is kind of hard for me."
"Me too. It didn't used to be, though."
His steady eyes seemed to pin her to the ground. She shifted uncomfortably in her sleeping bag, wishing she could take the words back.
"I'm sorry," he said, his voice low. "I'm so, so sorry I took that away from you. I'm sorry for everything."
"I... appreciate it," she said. His gaze made her skin prickle. "But I'm going to need time, Zuko. You can't clap your hands and make it all go away because you're sorry. And it's going to take more than helping me find the man who killed my mom to fix things with us."
"But things are better?"
"A little," she yawned.
"You're tired. Sorry. We can talk later. That is, if you still want to."
"Later," she agreed.
Zuko began to lean toward her, then pulled back, his eyes apologizing for something Katara didn't understand. She tilted her head, confused, but he just shrugged and crawled into his own sleeping bag, settling down with his back to her.
"Hey," she said, unwilling to let him go so easily. "There's something I meant to ask you."
"What is it?" His voice was muffled.
"Why didn't you ask me what I did when I..." she moved her hands like she was pulling the strings of a marionette. "You know. When we found the Southern Raiders."
And earlier, she mentally added, but couldn't say it.
There was a short pause. Then, with a hint of something Katara couldn't describe in his voice, he said, "I figured you'd tell me when you were ready."
She blinked. "Oh."
They didn't speak after that. Though sleep eventually came to her, it was not easy in coming. The silence was a revelation.
Katara swallowed her nausea and bent the water into the sink, where it slid gently down the drain. "This is for animals, right? You said hunters developed it. Not for people."
A strange smile spread across Hama's face. "Of course. The use of the technique on people has long been tabooed. Help me drain the water, would you dear?"
"Sure. So this technique is for if the person attacking me is riding a komodo rhino or something."
She couldn't keep the nervous tremble out of her voice. Hama noticed this, and gently ran a pointed finger down Katara's cheek.
"They're only animals, dear. Don't worry about what happens to them."
Katara nodded. Only she couldn't shake the feeling that Hama wasn't referring to komodo rhinos when she said, 'animals.'
Morning passed to noon, and Katara was the first to wake. Appa was curled nearby with his head tucked between his front paws. When she checked to see if Zuko was still asleep, she found him sprawled on his back with one arm curled across his chest, his mouth slightly open. She was surprised to find him like that, especially considering that she'd spent most of the night practically trying to kill him. She cocked her head and looked at him lying there. He stirred in his sleep and turned over so that his arm rolled under him and he squashed his face into his pillow.
He doesn't look scary at all, she thought. Actually he looks sort of... ridiculous.
A strange rush of tenderness threatened to overcome her, and she shook herself, frowning. That feeling, that sense that her heart would curl in on itself if she looked at him too long, was unfamiliar and wonderful and confusing all at once. Most of all, it was scary. Therefore, she wasn't gentle when she woke him. He took it in his stride, though, and didn't argue when she grumpily ordered him to gather wood for their morning fire. After a quick breakfast and planning session, they continued on their journey.
When they arrived back at the Fire Nation, the sky was thick with clouds. Zuko made a face when he saw them and muttered something about monsoon season, but when Katara caught sight of those angry pillars of lightning and fog, her face went hard. The two situations in which he worked best were nightfall and rainstorm. It would be near dusk when they reached Yon Rha's village, and only a day after the full moon. If Katara had needed any other sign that she was working the will of the spirits, that was it.
They found him gardening. Digging in the dirt. Katara wanted to go after him immediately, but Zuko held his arm in front of her and a grating, high-pitched voice erupted from the shabby wooden house where Yon Rha lived. An old, toothless woman appeared in the doorway. Though frustrated, Katara nodded. Better to watch and wait.
After a short conversation which revealed that the woman was Yon Rha's verbally abusive mother, Katara's frustration evaporated. She would make the beast pay for what he had done, but she would not do it in front of his mother, no matter how she degraded her son. (Was that what made it so easy for him to kill her mother? Did he think all mothers were like that?)
He took a rocky dirt road into the village, which rested at tiers carved into a mountain, in order to buy soft vegetables for his mother to gum. Several people walked by him, but none stopped to pass the time or nodded in greeting. The oppression of the oncoming thunderstorm forced people to hurry to their homes. Yon Rha, however, was not thinking of the rain. Occasionally he seemed to feel Katara's eyes on him, and he would glance nervously from rock to tree to shadow, his fingers twitching around the basket they clutched.
She liked it. She liked his fear. She wanted him to understand what it felt like to be completely helpless to stop the thing he feared. Zuko, she thought, sensed this, and aided her in deliberately skirting the edge of Yon Rha's vision, taking her just close enough at times to make him feel as if the shadows had come to life.
Yon Rha shook as he accepted his change from the greengrocer. Sweat dripped off the end of his nose, useless in the swampy humidity that charged Katara with so much strength. He turned and began his long trek back home, looking over his shoulder every few seconds. Rain began to fall in tiny drops.
Zuko touched her elbow and indicated Yon Rha with his head. He had just attacked a bush in a desperate attempt to flush them out. She nodded, Zuko vanished, and then Yon Rha was sprawled in the mud. Zuko said something to him, but she didn't hear it. It was as if she'd stepped underwater and opened her eyes to see everything bent and twisted. She revealed herself and asked the monster if he knew who she was, and he stared up at her with huge, terrified eyes, saying no, he wasn't sure, until she growled a threat at him and his eyes narrowed and he remembered, mumbling something about duty and honor and war and then calling her the last Southern waterbender's daughter.
Everything spun into icy clarity.
"She lied to you," she found herself saying. "She was protecting the last waterbender."
Yon Rha blinked. His mouth hung partly open. "What? Who?"
"Me!" she shouted.
Her arms snapped to level lines, palms out, and the rain froze.
Animal, thought Katara. Picken. Trash. Mother-Killer.
Yon Rha squeezed his eyes shut in fear and rain and sweat mingled with tears. She glanced at Zuko, but he didn't flinch, didn't shake his head. He watched, and he waited.
Katara raised her arms and water pooled over her head. She rolled it like dough, splitting it with a twist of her arms into spears of ice, and pointed them at the prone body of her intended prey. He shook like a child. No, she told herself. Not a child. How could he have ever been anyone's child? He was the beast who killed her mother. A creature who had no remorse for what he had done to her, but an excess of pity for himself.
Hollow, she thought, and she could hear the sound of his mother's voice. She could see him kneeling in the dirt, tending to his meager vegetable patch, even the things he grew himself rejected by the person who birthed him. Wasted.
Mud squelched under her feet as she rocked backward and forward and threw the volley of ice at Yon Rha. Then, as if she were throwing something out, she let her hands fall, and the spears could no longer hold their shape. They splashed uselessly onto the man's cringing face.
The storm raged for an hour. Or more; Katara couldn't keep time as well during the day as she could at night. But Zuko said it had only been an hour, and Zuko could be counted on to keep time accurately as long as the sun was in the sky. They and Appa had taken shelter in a cave one village over from Yon Rha's. While Zuko busied himself with packing their supplies and getting Appa ready, Katara sat at the entrance to the cave and watched the rain.
It was a long time before she spoke. And when she did, it was to voice the question that had rolled over and over in her head ever since she'd left Yon Rha sobbing in the mud with his spilt vegetables.
"Why didn't you stop me?"
Zuko tightened the last strap on Appa's saddle, dropped it, and dusted off his hands. He was dressed in his usual clothing, and though it was a little wrinkled from being stored for so long, Katara was relieved to see him back in it. It was an ending, somehow. She plucked at the black fabric of her own tunic and wished she was back in her usual blue.
"Because it wasn't my choice," he finally said. "You did what you needed to do. That wasn't up to me."
She sighed and hugged herself. Outside, the last drops of rain splashed onto the black and grey stones. Appa immediately bolted out, shaking himself off and snorting with delight to be out in the open again. "I was going to kill him. Up until I stopped the rain, I was so sure that I was going to kill him. Aang would have done everything he could to stop me. Even Sokka wouldn't have liked it."
"They knew what they were doing when they let you go."
She rolled her eyes and leaned against the entrance to the cave. "They didn't 'let me go.' They couldn't have stopped me if they tried."
He half smiled and joined her at the entrance, squatting beside her in the new sunlight. "So they didn't. They knew you'd make the right choice."
She glanced at him. "Did you?"
"I knew you'd do what you needed to do."
Idly, she picked at a few pebbles beside her, letting them fall through her fingers, then picking them up again. "I felt like Hama," she said. "I was so angry. I kept calling him 'monster' in my head, like that made it okay to kill him."
"But you didn't do it. You're not like that."
She shook her head. "Yes. I am. I understand her now. I never wanted to understand her. What she did to those people was wrong. When I found out that this brave, amazing war hero was capable of something so horrible, I felt sick. I didn't understand. I'd admired her, and she turned out to be a monster. Now I know that the monster was inside of me, too."
Zuko picked up one of the pebbles and rolled it around on his palm. "Sometimes... sometimes time... does things to people. Especially people who don't have anyone." He threw the rock and it bounced and clattered over the stones before them. "After I was banished I was so angry, all the time. If Uncle hadn't been there I don't know what would have happened to me. I mean, even with him there, I made a lot of mistakes. It's hard to be good when you're that scared and hurt."
She couldn't help herself. "You weren't even that good in the first place."
"No. I wasn't. I thought I was good, but I was wrong, or at least I figured out I wasn't good after finally listening to some of the things Uncle said." Zuko groaned and ran his hands through his hair. "I'm really bad at this kind of thing."
"What kind of thing?"
"Making sense. I think what I'm trying to say is that everyone thinks they're good, even when they're being bad. It's when you think that you're always good that you're actually really bad. Like Azula. Or Ozai."
He paused, and looked at her, and a strange expression was on his face, one that made her feel suddenly shy.
"You're..." he struggled for a moment to find the right words. "You're not like Hama. Not at all. You're always doubting yourself or working hard or worrying about everyone. You're really... not like me. You're good because that's who you are."
Heat rose in her face. "You don't know me very well," she muttered. "I can get pretty self-righteous. Toph can tell you all about some of the fights we've had because I was so sure about what 'the right thing to do' was."
"No. I do know you. You told me yourself that the right thing to do isn't always easy. That's something my family will never understand. Well, most of my family," he added.
She scooted in a circle so that she was facing the inside of the cave, then laid down so her body was sticking out in the open, under the warming rays of the afternoon sun. Zuko raised an eyebrow at her, then, with deliberate slowness, did the same thing, pillowing his head on his arms. She laid her arm across her stomach.
"What was your mom like?" she asked, turning to look at him.
He closed his eyes, and Katara didn't know if it was because a ray of sunlight had just peeked out from a distant cloud and hit him full on the face or if it had been so long that he couldn't quite remember. She knew the feeling.
"Kind. She never got mad at me when I wasn't as good as Azula at firebending, or when I really embarrassed myself trying to show off. She never made fun of me like Azula. Or Ozai, when he was there. We used to feed the turtleducks in the garden."
She smiled at the mental image of little Zuko throwing breadcrumbs at turtleducklings and sulking when they wouldn't eat his food. Her picture of him was off, though, because she couldn't imagine him without a scar.
"The thing is," he continued, "I don't think I really knew her. I remember this gentle, funny, sad woman who would get mad when Azula scared the turtleducks, and I don't understand how she could have done what she did."
He stopped, apparently unready or unwilling to say it, and though Katara was dying to know what his mother had done she kept her mouth shut. Zuko had been so careful not to demand too much information from her that she thought she should return the favor. After a few minutes had passed in total silence, however, he couldn't contain herself.
"What did she-" she blurted, at the same time that Zuko said, "When I was-"
They closed their mouths at the same time.
"Sorry," said Katara, sheepishly shrugging. "I couldn't wait anymore."
For a second, she thought she saw a ghost of a smile on Zuko's face. "It's fine. What did you want to say?"
She shook her head. "Nevermind. Go on, please."
"When I was a kid, my grandfather Azulon ordered Ozai to kill me."
Cold horror hit Katara like an arrow to the chest. How could a grandfather do that to his grandchild? How could a father even consider it? She tried to picture Gran-Gran ordering Hakoda to kill Sokka, but the idea was so repugnant and unimaginable that she couldn't fit it into her head.
"It's why Ozai's Fire Lord instead of Uncle. When Uncle's son Lu Ten died Ozai took us all to see Azulon and showed us off like livestock, trying to convince Azulon that since he had living descendants he was a much better choice for successor." Zuko couldn't keep the disgust out of his voice as he spoke. "Azulon didn't like that. So he ordered Ozai to kill me to teach him a lesson about the pain of losing a first born son."
"Your family seems to like teaching lessons."
Zuko shrugged. "That's the way they are. He was going to do it, too. So my mom killed Azulon. The next morning, Ozai was Fire Lord, and she was gone. I never saw her again." There was a long pause in which Zuko's breathing became harsh, then slowed. When he spoke again, his voice was strangled. "How could she do something like that, just for me?"
"She was your mom," Katara said, propping herself up on her elbow so she was staring Zuko in the face. "She loved you. She did what she had to do to save you. My mom did the same thing. What she had to do." She touched the pendant at her throat as she said that, and Zuko followed the progress of her fingers with half-lidded eyes. "I could never kill for myself," she quietly said, and as she spoke, even though her voice shook, she knew what she said was true, "But I think I could kill to protect the people I love. I think you could, too."
"The people I love..." he said, and his eyes trailed over her face. "Yeah. Maybe I could."
He reached up with one hand and took a lock of her hair in it, then ran it through his fingers like sand. She held stock still. Then, with a great sigh, he let her hair fall, and with the same hand pinched the bridge of his nose and rubbed his face. She flopped back down on her back, her skin tingling, both relieved and regretful.
"She's alive," he said.
"My mom. She's alive. I thought she was dead for years, but when I left the Fire Nation for good Ozai told me that he'd banished her, and that she was alive somewhere."
"But that's great!" she cried, sitting bolt upright. "Your mom's alive! We could go look for her!"
"Would you really help me find her?" he said, his eyebrows so high that they disappeared under his hair.
"Of course I would," she said, "I have to pay you back for helping me, right?"
The disclaimer did nothing to help her. Without sitting up, Zuko glanced at her hand, and then took it in his own.
"Thank you," he said.
She felt a blush begin on her cheeks and pulled her hand free. "Don't mention it. Think of it as my way of saying thank you for doing this for me. And for not taking away my choice."
"Does this mean you trust me now?"
She rolled her eyes. "No. You still have a lot to make up for. I haven't even decided how you're going to pay me back for tying me to that tree."
His eyes widened. "You could tie me to a tree."
She shrieked indignantly and pushed him. He obligingly rolled onto his stomach and let her pummel his back until she tired herself out and collapsed on top of him. Huffing, she propped herself up and rested her chin on her fists, her elbows digging into his back.
"That hurts. Your elbows are sharp."
"You can take it," she huffed, pleased with herself. "So... what's your mom's name? In case we run into her or anything."
"Ursa," she repeated, then bit her lip, released it. "You'll find her. I don't know anyone who's as good at you at finding people who don't want to be found. You did it with us all the time. It'll be the same with her."
"We'll find her," he said. "We won't give up."
"No," she agreed. "We won't."