Disclaimer:I do not own Avatar the Last Airbender.
Suggested Listening: Brick by Boring Brick, Paramore; Destiny, Sunrise Avenue; Monster, Skillet; I Need You To Love Me, BarlowGirl
Notes: This story is for dancingqueensillystring who was the 101st reviewer on my story Timeline and therefore gets this piece of fanfic. Hopefully it will live up to your expectations. I tried for Canon!verse angst with a fairly Happy Ending.
Oh God, I felt like I was selling my soul to the Devil with this one, and I have no idea why. It was like…like the plot was there, and the characterization, and everything, all just huddled in my brain cells, but getting the stuff out was so difficult…and it became sooooo loooooong. Like, the longest one shot I have ever written ever. **dies**
Katara feels like a stranger in her own skin. She is sifu of the Avatar and battle hardened warrior and unparalleled waterbending master, but on the inside she is still just a fifteen year old child who's scared. Aang may be the world's last hope capable of leveling mountains, but Katara is sick with the knowledge that she can level people. It eats at her, underneath her layers of normalcy.
The injustices she couldn't fix before are suddenly twice as noticeable because suddenly she does have the power to fix and change things. She doesn't have to just sit back and bite her tongue anymore. She can fight, can manipulate. She has power that these horrible people can't even dream of. So the voices whisper, insidious and dark, clawing at her sanity.
You could make that fish merchant who cheated a poor widow three coppers on fish scream as you cut of the blood to his right arm.
You could make that woman hurting her child die as you let the blood drain from her heart.
You could make that soldier with cocky eyes and wandering hands and a reputation as a rapist a league long a permanent eunuch before he could even blink.
You could make them suffer. You could make things right.
The temptation is always there, pulsing and throbbing with her own steady heartbeat. One little slip, she knows, and justice will be served. It wouldn't be so bad if she didn't pray for her control to slip. If she didn't want to be a monster. Because that's what she's turning into: a monster.
Thicker Than Blood
my darling, why fight the forces that have led you here?
The rice is cooking in the communal pot. A pleasant steam wafts from said pot, carrying the faint smell of warming rice. Nearby are some vegetables and sliced meat that Katara will throw in after the rice is almost finished cooking. A good, solid meal that will line all their stomachs and keep them strong. She breathes in, focuses on not letting the rice burn.
Nearby, Sokka debates possible invasion strategies with himself. He does that every night, the group has learned to ignore him. In fact her ears can detect the sound of Aang and Toph playing yet another game of Rock, Paper, Knife―just showing how uninterested in Sokka's muttering they are. Momo chitters and begs for a morsel at Katara's side, Appa groans as he tucks in to his pile of tender willow branches. The dusk is calm and normal.
Katara takes a deeper breath and leans back. Her hands splay out behind her to keep her steady, but she lets her head drop back too so she can stare at the stars. They are brighter than usual. Or perhaps, she thinks, they only look that way because of the tiny crescent sliver of the moon. But she doesn't want to think about the moon.
The moon means power. Power that can pulse through her veins and arteries, power that can infuse her with dreadful strength. Power that can bring a man to his knees without a thought and kill him just as easily. Power to make things right or terribly, terribly wrong.
"Katara, the rice is about to start burning," Toph calls, just before Aang lets out another defeated groan as he loses for what is probably the eighteenth time. Katara snickers at Aang quietly and reaches out to stir the rice. Toph, after all, has a much more sensitive nose than any of them, and Katara doesn't want to think about the moon.
When they found out about the bloodbending, it wasn't any worse than Katara had expected. Sokka had held her close and promised that she would always be his baby sister. Aang had awkwardly hugged her and said he didn't mind so long as she didn't use it. Toph had punched her arm and told her not to listen to stupid pacifist Twinkle Toes who didn't understand just how useful bloodbending could be to their cause.
And a normal person would have taken those reactions as good, but Katara isn't normal. Not by a long shot. Katara accepts the hugs and the punches and smiles with watery eyes. They don't need to know about the monster crouched in her gut.
She practices at night. Not on humans, she's not that stupid. She starts small. Bugs, then birds, then small animals. Ever careful not to actually harm the creatures she's practicing with and not to awaken her sleeping companions. (She thanks Yue that Toph is a heavy sleeper.) At first she tells herself that its' just to test her abilities.
Hama could only control rats when there wasn't a full moon. How much better is Katara? It's an experiment. At first. But she waves a hand and watches a saber toothed moose lion bow to her will on the night of the new moon, she realizes that her abilities go beyond anything that Hama or she could have ever expected.
The day of the invasion dawns bright. It is almost blinding, in fact, and Katara closes her eyes and tilts her head up to feel the heat of the sun on her face. She breathes in through her nose, out through her mouth. A soft squeaking noise meets her ears, and without even thinking about it she twitches her hand. Moments later the meadow vole is sitting on her shoulder, apparently unafraid despite the control she is exerting over its tiny limbs.
"I could do so much today," Katara whispers. She does not open her eyes. "The moon will be in the sky during the day. A full moon. All that power pulsing at my fingertips, and I can't use any of it." She breathes in through her nose, out through her mouth, and with another twitch of her hand releases the meadow vole from its captivity.
It squeaks but otherwise remains motionless.
"I know," she says. "I know, I shouldn't even want to use a power like that. I can't help it though. Not really. It would be so easy to go charging in there, and I could throw those Fire Nation soldiers about like rag dolls. No permanent damage just…just out of the way. But…" But what happens when that small inroad becomes another inroad and another and another, till all she does is bend people's blood to her will?
Fuck fuck fuck, she thinks. She's like one of Sokka's bombs, a disaster barely contained in skin and waiting for the right wrong moment to explode.
She is not there when they confront Azula, and she thinks that's a good thing. If she had, she would have had that traitorous bitch on her knees, begging to be released from the torture Katara would have inflicted on her body. As it is, she is growling at herself for the slip ups she made with the regular soldiers. So caught up in the moment, so frustrated and angry and full of hate, she had just started throwing their bodies about indiscriminately, her eyes closed as she manipulated their bodies.
And in the end, everything is collapsing about her anyway. There is nothing she can do to help, to save. Not now. Their plan has crumbled 'round their ears, the Fire Lord lives and the Princess has run. The soldiers have their bending back and everything, everything is over.
It feels wrong to run away. She wants to scream that she can take the whole Fire Nation army on right now, that she can level this city with her will alone. But the look Aang wears stops her, because she realizes that to do what she wants would be to break him. And she is not that far gone. (Prays she will never be that far gone.)
The monster is growing.
The first time she kills with her bloodbending is to keep them fed. It has been barely forty eight hours, but they don't have any supplies to speak of. Sokka comes back empty handed after his hunt, and the nuts, berries, and roots that the other had gathered isn't quite enough. She looks at Sokka quietly, then stands and leaves the Duke with instructions not to let the boiling roots burn.
Then she walks from the group, already stretching out her chakra to search for a beating heart. She finds a canyon monkey almost two hundred yards away from the camp. Canyon monkeys, if she remembers right, are a large and very dangerous kind of canyon dweller. It's a predator, and it tastes good. She forces it to drop right in front of her, then cuts the blood supply to its brain. A quick, painless death, she thinks.
Nobody, not even Aang, questions her when she returns to camp with a dead canyon monkey that has no apparent wounds. The Duke has let the roots burn.
"He needs to suck it up," Toph says. She spits off to the side, something like punctuation for her sentence. "It's stupid that he's being such a wimp. Not having Firebending during the eclipse was no big deal, but now he's gonna need it if he even thinks he wants to defeat the Fire Lord."
The rock under Katara is pulsing with heat. Unusual, perhaps. The sun had warmed it long before Katara took up residence, but then again what sort of rock retains heat this well? She struggles to keep her eyes open, knowing that if she lets them slip shut then she will drift off into dreamland. Which she can't do. Because they're discussing Aang, and Aang's bending tutelage, and more specifically Aang and Aang's lack of Firebending tutelage. Right.
"Sugar Queen?" Toph questions. It sounds more like a demand than anything, really. That's just Toph.
"Mm?" Katara groans.
"What do you think about Aang and his Firebending?" Sokka prompts. He nudges Katara's knee with his foot.
She trains her eyes on the bright blue sky that is just beyond the stone ceiling. It is brilliant, brighter than any ocean that she has ever seen. Brighter than any other sky she has ever seen. Maybe it's something about the Fire Nation, but everything seems more alive here.
Somewhere out in that vast expanse of blue is Aang. Childish Aang who has grown up so much and yet…not. He has matured from the naïve child she found in the ice-burg, but she is not foolish enough to call him mature. He runs from his destiny, his abilities, his life. He complains bitterly, like he is the only one with difficult choices; he inspires mightily, like he will save the world despite it all.
Once Upon a Time, she could not understand him. Now she does, just a little better. He watches his Avatar Spirit and his firebending with the same sort of wariness she gives her bloodbending. They both have their monsters, and they both need to find a way to tame them.
But he is just a child still. She bites her lower lip in thought.
"It's something…something Aang needs…" Katara begins. She thinks it's a good thing she will never need to be a diplomat. "Firebending, I mean. But…we don't have a teacher for him, and no feasible way of finding one."
"Katara's right, Toph," Sokka says. "I mean, I guess we could try to find one. Or something. But right now we really have nothing to go on."
Toph's irritable huff echoes off the walls. "Fine, fine. I wish someone would've thought to grab a firebender when we had the chance."
Katara thinks of Zuko's buttery golden eyes and warm hands.
The sky is strewn with a thousand million stars and Katara dreams.
In her dreams Zuko chooses her, bursts into a crystal filled cavern that is all eerie green light and the soft lapping of water and the acrid burning scent of lightning-fire just in time to join her in fighting off Azula. In her dreams Zuko holds her, wrapping his man-boy arms around her in comfort as she tries and tries and tries to bring back the child that at some point she began to view as her own son. In her dreams Zuko loves her, giving her kisses and promises and golden eyes filled with warmth that even the sun cannot match as he fights away her fears and accepts her everything without a single question. In her dreams Zuko is there, always there, and she feels safe for the first time in forever.
The sky is strewn with a thousand million stars and Katara wakes up with tears on her face.
It is her worst nightmares and her best dreams, all packaged into one man-boy with a voice like flame catching wood. She has spent the past months futilely trying to banish him to the depths of her mind, locking away every memory that she can reach, even the bad ones, because every single thing he has ever touched in her seems to glow with understanding and some dangerously, dangerously close to trust. It's all for nothing, of course, because she was never able to do what she was supposed to and because now he is standing there, form silhouetted in daylight.
But now…now Katara's angry. Because him being here shouldn't be something shocking for Toph to say. He should be right next to Katara, his arm around her waist as he growls something biting but funny at Aang about echo chambers. Oh, she is angry, and it's easy to pretend her anger is about logical things instead of her own illogical musings.
Her mind races with could have been and should have been and why and please. It's stupid now. She chased him away. She told the group that he couldn't be trusted. She screamed at Toph. She muttered curses. She did all the right things.
Someday, she'll figure out why it hurts so much to do the "right thing".
When he is welcomed into the group, a part of her is afraid. It's not so much that she thinks he has bad intentions, though that's a definite possibility. It's not even really that she thinks he isn't sorry for what he did back then, because his sincerity is a difficult thing to doubt. It's more that if she's wrong, if he isn't sorry and he does have bad intentions…they're all so very fucked.
Sokka is a good warrior, Toph is the greatest earthbender in the world, and Aang is the Avatar. Not to mention all the other children are trained in some sort of fighting. And Katara is a waterbending master who can expertly use bloodbending even in the daylight.
But the monster in her purrs at the sight of him, purrs at his strength and his power and his heat, and in her darkest of hearts she knows that she will never be able to use bloodbending against him, nor waterbending. Not with the intent to kill.
That frightens her. She's logical enough to know that it might come down to Zuko or Aang―the love or the child―and she is terrified of that choice. The motherly rage that flows through her veins at the thought of being unable to protect the boy who is her son in spirit is startling in its familiarity.
"So let me tell you something right now. You make one step backward, one slip up, give me one reason to think you might hurt Aang…and you won't have to worry about your destiny anymore. Because I'll make sure your destiny ends, right then and there. Permanently."
He doesn't know how true her words could be. He is thinking of water whips and icicles―oblivious to the way she could torture him, using his own body against him. If he knew, she thinks, the look he would give her as she walks away would be frightened instead of regretful.
Then again, just because she could do these things to him doesn't mean she would. (He can never know the weakness in her that stops her from bloodbending him.)
The weeks pass with agonizing slowness. He keeps trying to talk to her, trying to help her with chores, for Yue's sake he even brings her flowers at least once a week. And he does it all with this look of contentment, like this is something that's natural and right to do. Like he didn't betray her.
The worst part is that she loves it. When she is with him, when he is touching her and looking at her and speaking to her, she doesn't feel like she's on the edge of implosion. She feels like herself. She feels like maybe the monster is not a monster. She feels accepted. This cannot end well.
He brings her father back. It means more than he could even comprehend. Katara falls just a little more in love with him. That night when they all sit around a fire for the first time, Katara is next to Zuko and it takes everything in her not to simply lean into Zuko's warm, muscled side. He would let her, she thinks.
Eyes closed but she can feel the exact moment she takes control of the body. Katara whips her arm to the side, a low growl building in her throat. Her eyes fly open, brilliant blue power. The charging raptor lion is thrown against the wall. It slides the ground with a low whine, then limps off into the depths of the temple once more. It won't be bothering them anytime soon.
"K-Katara?" Aang says. He sounds so young, she thinks distantly. So very young.
"Yeah?" she asks. Her blood is tingling in her veins, singing with the chi that still pumps along with her adrenaline. The raptor lion never stood a chance.
His soft hand slides into her more callused one. "Why…" he starts, fingers tangling in hers, "Why?" he says again. She squeezes his hand, to be reassuring. Even though it makes so very little sense to be reassuring now, at this moment.
"I had to," she says. It is more blunt than typical of her, but not as blunt as she wants to be.
"But, Katara…that was…you promised not to…" he stutters. Oh yes, so young.
Katara cannot bring herself to look at him, knowing that his eyes will hold that look of betrayal that will surely shatter her heart. "Aang, I didn't have any water," she says. Her tone sounds more placating than it should.
"B-but…" he tries. Then he gives up. She knows that it's giving up, not understanding, because his grip on her hand loosens. Not quite letting go, because he's still infatuated with her; not really holding on either, because he's frightened by her and the monster.
Zuko argues with Sokka about the validity of space metal versus regular metal in the crafting of swords. The rest of the group watches the argument for entertainment value, Katara simply focuses on the emotions that shift across Zuko's face.
Aang is frightened by the monster. Aang, who claims that he is in love with her, even though she thinks that they both know it's just a crush that will pass in the coming months. Sokka is frightened too. Sokka, who is her own flesh and blood. Toph is frightened as well, in her own way. Toph, who is never frightened of anything really. They all are frightened by her and her monster. No matter how much they love her, it is not quite unconditional. Not quite.
If Zuko knew about the things she is capable of, the things she has contemplated doing in the dead of the night, she wonders if he would still smile when he catches her gaze.
"Suki," Katara says. Slowly, softly, tentatively. She isn't entirely sure where she stands with her brother's girlfriend, mostly because they've never really interacted. Not unless you count surviving the Serpent's Pass together, which Katara generally doesn't. But. Katara has a Girl Question, and Yue knows that going to Toph―whom Katara does know―with a Girl Question can only end in tragedy. "I…uh…"
"Yeah?" Suki says, looking up from where she is sharpening the blades that serve as the boning of her fan. "Is there something you needed?"
"You…do you think that…that sometimes someone can do something, and you know it's bad but you forgive them because you love them…but you can't tell them that you love them or that you forgive them, because if you do something else bad might happen?" Katara mumbles. That whole sentence makes no sense, which she realizes as soon as the words finish tripping off her tongue. But she can't take them back, and she can't explain them better.
Suki's lips purse and her eyebrows furrow as she falls into thought. Maybe searching for an answer to Katara's question, maybe searching for what the hell Katara meant by the question. Finally, the girl sighs and rubs at her forehead. "To be honest, Katara, I have no idea what you said. Rephrase?"
A nervous giggle tries to fight its way out of Katara's throat, only to be squashed down viciously. Tui, Katara can be strong and confident. "I mean…let's say, hypothetically, someone does something terrible. And you love them, so you forgive them for that terrible thing, but you can't tell that person that you love and forgive them."
"And, uh, why can't you tell them?" Suki asks.
It's Katara's turn to rub at her forehead. "I'm not explaining this well, am I?" she says, though she knows the answer.
"It's alright. I think it's a Water Tribe thing. Sokka has the same problem," Suki says, not unkindly but not quite teasing either.
"Let's say you can't tell the person because you've been cruel to them, about things they've done. Except you're not perfect either. You've done bad things. And you're afraid if you tell them about the love and forgiveness, then at some point the bad things will come out too, and then maybe…maybe the person won't like you anymore because…"
"You're a hypocrite?" Suki guesses.
Katara nods once, twice. Then she looks to the side, blood flushing her cheeks though thankfully her skin is dark enough to disguise it.
"I don't know, really. I guess be honest. What's the worst that can happen?"
Katara blinks. Hardly the advice of champions, or even fellow girls. Perhaps, she thinks as she thanks Suki and begins to walk away, she should start discussing her feelings with Haru. Haru would probably understand. He is rather effeminate, after all, saving for that hideous mustache.
"You know, Sugar Queen, I heard your conversation with the Girlfriend. You suck at metaphors. And anyway, even a blind girl can see that Sparky is madly in love with you, so stop worrying. Seriously, stop. It's really, really annoying. Also, you need to get laid. Probably by Sparky. Preferably soon. So you'll stop acting so weird."
The days are spent in training and chores. Nobody can afford to slack off, but they do anyway. Except for Katara. Katara never slacks. If she slacked, everything would go to hell. She spends her days running from one thing to another―healing Teo's scraped arm before frantically dashing to prepare the canyon monkey Sokka had managed to kill for their dinner, all the while vocally guiding Aang through his waterbending katas. During the day, she feels like she might just fall apart.
The only reason she hasn't she guesses, is because of Zuko. Zuko is the one who lifts Teo back into his wheelchair after Katara has finished healing the scrape, Zuko is the one who butchers the canyon monkey to sort the good meat from the inedible, Zuko is the one who briefly rubs at her tensed shoulders with heated hands.
They don't talk really, and most talking devolves into arguments. That's okay, because their actions speak more than their words ever could. The fact that she doesn't send a water whip at him when he gently pushes her toward the hot springs for a well deserved break or ever so tentatively squeezes her hand for a moment speaks the fact that she is not truly angry anymore.
So she supposes, if he has become an integral part of her days, it is only natural that he become part of her nights. This time is supposedly only for her, but when he shows up like a silent spirit to lean against a pillar and watch her with hooded eyes, she is surprised to find she does not care. His eyes follow her, and she rejoices in it―skin buzzing pleasantly and blood singing a chorus.
Blue eyes are closed, she doesn't want to see the world. She thinks that she can hear the heartbeat of the whole world synching into her own, and thinks that if she were to dance the world would crumble thoughtlessly at her feet and be built anew to the swaying of her body. So her body whirls in complicated patterns, a dance to those who can't understand and so much more to those who do. Water follows her fingertips. Unbound, tangled hair flies about her as she thrashes her head in time with her movements. Moonlight makes the air glitter. Strong feet pound out a rhythm on the old mosaic floors. She is empress of the world.
He could be her emperor.
He was supposed to be waiting. Supposed to be on the edge of one of the buildings. Supposed to be easy to pick up on the run.
Not there. Not on that airship, ready to fight his sister. Not there.
She whirls water above her head to ward away the fire, but her eyes stay locked on him. So scared. So scared. He isn't supposed to do this to her. Isn't supposed to put himself in danger like this.
An explosion, he's flying off the edge of the airship. "No!" she screams.
No, no, no, no, no, no
She almost loses him, fingers just barely managing to wrap around his wrists in time.
(The tears streaming down her face are from leaving her father behind, she swears.)
It feels like her abdomen has become the site of a battleground. Forget butterflies in her stomach, she has a war raging in the region from her neck to her thighs. Everything is in revolt. Her heart beats too fast, her lungs breathe too slow, her stomach riots against the thought of dinner. Every time she closes her eyes all she can see is Zuko's frightened eyes as she reaches for him, praying that she will catch him before he plummets right past her to a gory death.
Yet everyone is laughing around her. Even him. Does nobody know how close she is to breaking? Does nobody notice how close Zuko was to dying? Does nobody realize just how very close Katara was to losing the one anchor she can call her own?
She's angry, and hurt, and confused, and she wants nothing more than to crawl across the loose ring of comrades and bury herself into his arms. She can't though, because she's stubborn and she's scared that when she lets go, he's going to realize just how broken she really is. And who wants the toy that is broken?
But even if she can't have him, she can't lose him either.
"I'm touched. I don't deserve this." He's not talking about today. He's talking of the past. But the words hit a chord in Katara. He had almost left her today. Had almost left her to shoulder the burden of it all on her own.
"Yeah, no kidding," she says. The words are unbidden. But once they are out, she doesn't even want to take them back. Why should she? They're true words.
Storming away, is, in retrospect, a bad idea. Of course he would follow. He always does. Always.
The moon above them is full, and she closes her eyes against the bright light. Power sings in her veins, power like most can only dream of. The electricity of his presence is behind her. She knows he's there. Still, his words catch her by surprise.
"What is it with you? Everyone else seems to trust me now," he says, following her again as she walks away. There is confusion in his voice, and hurt, and anger. She thinks irrationally that he shouldn't sound like that. For someone who wants her trust, he sure has a shitty way of going about it. He should never have gone to fight his sister. He should have stayed. Just like he should have stayed in Ba Sing Se.
(Why are you always leaving me? she wants to scream at him. Why am I not enough?)
And she is careful not to look at him. If she looks at him, if she turns from the ocean, she knows that he'll see just how scared she is.
"Oh, everyone trusts you now?" she snaps. But she can't stop herself, and she turns. There are tears in her eyes that she prays he won't see. "I was the first person to trust you, back in Ba Sing Se." Back in that ghost town in the Earth Kingdom, back in the North Pole, back in the pirate ship, back in the South Pole…fuck when didn't she trust him to some degree despite the utter stupidity of trusting him?
"And you turned around and betrayed me. Betrayed all of us" she says, sobs building in her throat. Left, gone, soul withdrawing from those gold eyes and they were fighting which seemed so very wrong because not a half hour before she had been cupping his cheek with the same hands that were whipping water at him and there had been a moment that almost felt like destiny. Why did he leave her?
"How can I make it up to you?" he asks. That hurt, that confusion, is still there, but the anger has faded. If she were in a better state of mind, she would wonder at that, but she isn't so she doesn't.
Her feet move without her consensus, taking her toward his body like a moth toward a flame. "You really want to know?" she snarls.
(Stay, stay forever. Don't leave. Never leave. Just stay and hold me. Stay, she wants to whisper.)
After that, she says ugly things. Terrible things. His face contorts and he looks so, so, so incredibly hurt. Something in Katara's gut twists up with guilt, but the cruel words keep coming. And when the words stop, she can feel the tears threaten to overflow, so she just walks away. Walks right past him, her heart rending into pieces and tears following down her cheeks for the second time this day.
If she cries herself to sleep that night, nobody really needs to know.
To be honest, she's surprised when he's there the next morning. Dreadfully so, actually. He looks like shit, which, if he's honest when he says he's been sitting there all night, is understandable. But she's even more surprised when he announces that he can help her find her mother's killer.
The monster inside roars with approval even and the little girl inside begins to cry.
"Zuko?" she asks. She is sitting cross legged on Appa's makeshift saddle as they fly through the night. Her body is exhausted and begging for sleep, but her mind demands she stay awake. It's stupid. Perhaps. The questions that rage through her are too demanding to be put off till later, though. "Why do you…" She can't bring herself to finish the sentence. Why do you look at me and decide to help me? Why do you have to be so helpful? Why do you stand up for me and my needs? Why do you understand?
He doesn't look from where he's steering Appa. "Everyone deserves a chance to make peace in their own way," he says. "I don't know what happened to my mother. If…if she had been killed, I would want revenge. As it is, I will never forgive my father for banishing her."
Katara blinks as she digests this new information. "So…so you're doing this because you think I'm right?" she says, tentatively. It's odd, to think of her and Zuko being on the same moral page. Strange to think that they could understand each other's contradictions when it seems no one else can.
He sighs and hunches over. "Not really. I just…I understand, is all. Some people, like us, want revenge. Some people can just let it go and forgive. It's not about which path is right, it's about which you need to take to find peace. Sometimes…sometimes it's just about figuring out how you're going to cope with the pain."
They fall into silence. Katara wants to says something to his words, but she can't seem to bridge the sudden gap. She wonders when he became so mature. She wonders when she started to care. The wind rushing by them presents a sort of lullaby. Her eyes begin to droop.
"Zuko…if I didn't want revenge, if I'd just told you this morning that I didn't care…what would you have said?" she asks as she lays down. Appa's fur is soft and plush, but she misses her sleeping bag. Her eyes seem to slip closed of their own accord.
"I would have told you that was okay."
"Really?" she wonders.
"So you're not…this isn't just some sort of…of thing to make me forgive you?"
He laughs, and it's like logs catching fire. A crackling, scratchy, dark sound that sends shivers racing up her spine. An answering smile lights up her lips. "No," he says. "I think that this might help you and me figure things out…but this is about you, and you finding peace."
Sleepiness makes her bold enough to ask a question she never would've otherwise. "Zuko…why are you doing something like this for me, if you don't know that I'll forgive you?"
"You know they say that the purest love begins when nothing is looked for in return," he says. It is the last thing she hears before she drifts into sleep.
From the distance, it doesn't look like her nightmares. It looks innocuous. Just a ship. Her eyes feel gritty from too little too much sleep, and through the spy glass as she can see is the ship. Just a ship. But her nightmares don't lie.
(This time, though, she's not facing the nightmare alone.)
She thinks it's almost funny. They've been fighting for so long, on opposite sides, on the same side, that now as they move through the ship, they know exactly how the other person is going to move. Dispatching enemies with efficiency, never having to wonder about a threat coming from behind. It's been a while since she's been able to fight without watching her own back. From the look in Zuko's eyes, it's been a while for him too.
The door, this last obstacle between her and a man she will never forgive, gives way. Zuko is instantly in the doorway, blocking the fire and giving Katara time to try to compose herself. She watches his body move and thinks that it's good to have someone to protect her sometimes.
Zuko sends a flare of fire toward the captain's feet, making the man jump back a couple of feet. Katara walks into the room behind Zuko. Not really behind him, more to the side of him. (She doesn't always need protecting, after all.)
It's as if it suddenly connects with the captain that there is a Water Tribe girl (her skin tone and eyes are unmistakable) working with a Fire Nation boy. Unheard of. Until now. "Who are you?" the man asks, his tone more animal than human.
Zuko slips out of his firebending stance to look over the man. "You mean you don't recognize her?" he snaps. "You will soon, trust me."
The captain sneers and starts a firebending punch. Katara is quicker though. Without even really thinking, she synchs to his heartbeat and grasps his blood. He has a stronger will than most, fighting her hold on him as best she can. But Katara is stronger―Katara is her own form of judgment day.
The monster roars as she slams the man to his knees.
Out of the corner of her eye, she catches Zuko staring at her, his eyes widening as he connects two and two together. But then he looks away, apparently over it.
"Think back, think back to your last raid on the Southern Water Tribe," Zuko growls. She is glad that Zuko is taking care of the interrogation. Her chest is heaving with contained sobs. Coherent speech is an impossible dream at the moment.
"I don't know what you're talking about," the man says, sounding more frightened than angry now. "Please, I don't know."
Zuko sounds furious. "Don't lie! You look her in the eye and tell me you don't remember what you did."
Katara forces the man up onto his knees. The captain looks into her eyes―scared, but guiltless. "It's not him," she whispers. Her hold on the man's body drops abruptly. "That's not the man."
They're both frustrated as they walk out the door. The captain lies on the floor, knocked out cold. As are most of the bodies strewn about on the floor as the two unlikely allies pick their way down the long metal hall toward the hatch and the cool night air.
Zuko grabs the dao he had used to lock a doorway just before they reach the hatch, and Katara's spine stiffens at the screech of metal against metal. Neither of them say anything, or even stop walking.
Not until they step out onto the deck. Appa is standing there, looking at them questioningly. Katara wants to bury herself into the large, warm animal's fur and cry all of her fears and disappointments out. She doesn't though. Not because she's too proud, but rather because Zuko finally sees fit to speak.
"I'm sorry, Katara," he says softly. "I'm sorry that this didn't work. I'm sorry that I can't give you Yahn Ra. I'm just…I'm sorry."
Katara squeezes her eyes shut and bites her lower lip. The tears she's been holding at bay for what feels like forever finally spill over, streaking down her cheeks and dripping off her jaw. The sobs that had been so hard to control earlier don't come now. She feels like this sort of crying is almost worse. Like she's shattering instead of exploding.
"Katara?" he asks. She starts when she realizes just how close his voice is. Right behind her, really. Without even thinking about it, she turns to face him. Her eyes open slowly. His face is drawn, tired, full of guilt and sorrow and what seems like a thousand other things. She wants to touch him, to cup his cheek and brush her fingers across his scar and tell him that it's not quite okay, but it will be.
(But she doesn't.)
"Zuko," she breathes out. Her eyes flutter closed.
"I'm sorry," he says again. Unnecessary, she thinks, but sweet. As if it is his fault that her revenge is turning out to be more complicated than normal. (Whatever normal is, when it comes to revenge.)
She finally finds the right words. (The wrong words.) "It's okay, Zuko. I guess Aang was right. I'm just not meant…not meant…" Not meant to what, exactly? Kill her mother's murderer? Confront the man with his past misdeeds? Find whatever passes as contentment in this world? Her tongue trips up, because she is not sure how to finish.
But she doesn't have to. Zuko reaches out slowly to brush away a couple of tears. "We'll find him, Katara. We will."
And she believes him, because he's Zuko and Zuko doesn't lie.
They find Yahn Ra in a small town. The next hour is a blur.
"Did I…" she asks shakily, staring down unseeingly at her hands. Hands that are shaking. Why are her hands shaking?
He shakes his head, says, "No."
"Oh," she says. She is strangely uncaring about it. "Why?"
"I'm not sure," he says. "But I'm proud of you."
It seems stupid that he should say something like that, she thinks. "Why?" she whispers. Her voice is hoarse, scratchy. The tears burn as they leave her eyes, though it seems silly that they would do so. They mix hot and salty with the cold rain.
His arms wrap around her. Tentative. Testing. She does not bolt, cannot bring herself to bolt. She is supposed to, of course. She has not forgiven him yet, except she did the moment he chose Azula because he is Zuko and she will forgive him anything even as her heart shatters. (Because he will always be back to pick up the pieces, not matter how the shards slice his fingers.)
"Why?" she asks again. Her voice is weaker this time. The single syllable catches in her throat and struggles to free itself.
The arms tighten just a fraction. She can feel his heat now. "Because I understand. Because you just proved yourself stronger than anyone will ever realize."
"Zuko," she sobs, turning in his grip so she can properly slump into his hold. "Zuko." She feels so weak.
"Shh," he murmurs. One of his arms remains wrapped around her waist, but the other moves upward so his hand can stroke her hair tenderly.
She cries herself out minutes after the rain finally stops. They are both soaked, which she thinks is a good thing. At least there will be no mocking wet spot on Zuko's shoulder when she finally pulls away. (If she ever pulls away.)
"Zuko?" she asks quietly.
"Hmm?" he murmurs. She feels him drop a soft kiss on to her hair. The action soothes her enough for her to continue with:
"We never talked about my…my bloodbending…" she whispers. Her heart clenches.
Zuko stiffens, but she is gratified that his arms don't let go. She doesn't think she could deal with that now. Maybe, just maybe, there's hope. (Stupid hope, so stupid, but she's the hopeful one.) His voice is strangely hoarse when he says, "Is that what it's called?"
"Yeah," she says. Her quiet nods end up rubbing her forehead against his black shirt. She can feel a flash flood of tears building up again. (She wonders how she can even have more tears to cry. It feels like she's always crying nowadays.) "I'm sorry that…"
"Shh," he says, stroking her hair quickly and dropping several kisses into her hair. "Shh."
"How can you?" she asks.
"It's a gift, like your healing. It's all about how you use it. And I know, I know that you're strong enough not to fall into the dark." The words make so very little sense, but she huddles into the comfort they provide anyway. Huddles into his body as well, and the safety that it can give her. "Shh."
The week that follows their return and her forgiveness doesn't allow for talking. Her still watches her practice her bending at night, and she still watches his dao and firebending training during the day. They circle each other―unsure of their standing but not willing to leave―and she dreams of the koi fish at the North Pole.
All of their unsure dancing around each other comes to an abrupt end when Aang screams at her. Aang has never been angry with Katara before, not really. Not enough to yell and accuse and generally act like he did. The words haunt Katara when she tries to sleep. So.
Her feet are silent as she pads down the wooden and paper hall toward Zuko's room. Her pillows and blankets are already in her arms, though she's sure he probably has enough for both of them. For some reason it seems impolite to simply invite herself in without even bringing her own sleeping equipment. Maybe her exhaustion is making her so ridiculous. (Hopefully.)
The sliding paper screen door opens with a small creak. She pauses to see if the sound woke him. It's silly, because it's not as if she is purposely trying to sneak in without waking him. With that thought in the forefront of her mind, she finishes opening the door enough to slip through. Then she turns, closes the door behind her, and breaths in through her nose.
(The room smells like him. Warm, musky, safe.)
"Katara?" Her eyes close and a small smiles tugs at her lips. He sounds so tired, but there's also a note of hope in his voice.
"Yeah," she says, turning back to face the room. "I couldn't sleep," she offers before he can ask. As explanations go, it's fairly weak. But he's Zuko, and she's Katara, and they understand each other enough that extra explanation would almost be superfluous.
"C'mere," he says then, patting the space next to him on the luxurious mahogany bed.
She obeys without question, trotting over to the bed and hopping on. Only once she is atop the bed does she notice that she left her pillow and blankets over by the door. She grimaces, remembering now that she had put them down in order to properly close the door.
"What are you waiting for?" Zuko grumbles. Katara blinks and looks down at him. There is just barely enough moonlight in the room for her to make out his exasperated expression. A blush steals over her cheeks at that.
"I…um…my stuff…" she starts, then yelps when an arm wraps around her lean waist to yank her down onto the bed.
"This works," he tells her. She crawls under the light blankets and pillows her head on his bare chest and has to agree with him.
"Zuko?" she asks.
"Yeah," he says.
"Um, do you think…"
"Aang is being a child. He is a child. He didn't mean what he said, so there's no particular need to feel guilty or betrayed."
"But…he said he loved me, once."
"Did you believe him?"
"No. He's just…just a child."
"So are we."
"Not so much, anymore."
"Do you believe him?"
"No. No. There's a proverb in the Fire Nation that to in order to claim that you know someone completely, you must meet them as an enemy and as a friend. You must see all the parts of their soul. And you can never claim to truly love someone until you know them completely."
"What does that even mean?"
"It means a lot."
"Well, what does it mean for us?"
"I don't know."
"Yes, you do."
"Yeah, I do."
"It means…" Long sigh. "You have to love all the facets of their soul, or your love is pointless."
Two days. Two days spent in a blur of worry for the boy who passes as her son and for the fate of the world. Two days spent running around, trying desperately to figure out what exactly is supposed to happen now that the world's last hope has disappeared. Two days.
Her hand grabs for Zuko's as they run toward Appa, hopefully for the last time. If this Jun can lead them to Zuko's uncle, maybe there is hope. (But her heart is still crying for the boy who is supposed to be by their side.)
She is surprised when Sokka pulls her aside at the campsite. The sky is a brilliant summer blue, not even a hint of the horror to come in the next few hours. The camp bustles around them as people prepare for the invasion (the saving) of Ba Sing Se that will take place tonight.
"What is it?" she asks, because he should be with Toph and Suki, making sure that everything is set for their journey to the Earth Kingdom. And she should be with Zuko, talking through possible strategies of defeating Azula.
Either way, Sokka has never been one for platitudes. He gets straight to the point. "Why him?" Sokka asks, for once in his life serious. His blue eyes train on Zuko's semi distant form and his mouth quirks downward.
"Sokka," Katara says. She waits until her brother's eyes flicker back to meet hers. "Sokka," she starts again, "Do you even need to ask…" The look Sokka gives her clearly says 'why?' though and Katara finds it almost sickly amusing that she must explain this all.
"Sokka, do you remember when Zuko and I went after the Southern Raiders?" He nods once, twice. Her lips quirk into a smile. "Do you know, Zuko never told me I had to go after Mom's killer. He just told me he could help me find that man. I wanted to, so Zuko helped. That whole trip, he never told me how I was supposed to feel, or act. He never judged me, just helped. And do you know, that was all I needed?" Her voice catches. "I didn't need revenge or forgiveness, I needed to know that he would be there, just within arm's reach. I needed someone who would be willing to help me find my peace, no matter what that required."
Sokka is looking at her with curious eyes. She feels herself getting choked up and the words can't seem to string themselves into a coherent sentence anymore. How can she explain to Sokka just how much Zuko's gift of unconditional love means?
In the end, she doesn't have to explain. Sokka merely nods with an extraordinarily thoughtful look on his face, then says, "I think I get it. You chose well, Katara."
And her world is on fire. The buildings are burning and Azula's mad laughter fills the air and Zuko is on the ground so very far away. Maybe he's dead. Katara wants to scream. The acrid smell that signals lightning begins, and Katara focuses on the bitch who did this. Azula is going to pay.
Pay for what she has taken from Katara. Pay for what she has done to Zuko. Pay because Katara cannot do this without him. Never.
The monster roars and claws at her sanity, and with a sigh Katara lets the monster loose. Die bitch, the monster and Katara think as one. Azula never knows what hits her. Chained to the ground, and Katara wants more, wants to make Azula cry with the utter agony, but she wants more to run to Zuko's side.
It almost doesn't feel like her feet are touching the ground. So surreal. She turns Zuko over. There is no blood and he is still breathing (thank Agni, thank Tui, thank Yue, thank you thank you thank you). Katara doesn't know if she's strong enough to heal this but she will be for him.
It will not end like this.
The Comet disappears beyond a horizon that they can't see, throwing the world into beautiful, wonderful darkness; and Azula's hateful cries quiet into pitiful whimpers; their façade of the adulthood cracks.
"Did we…" she wonders aloud. Her fingers tighten, gripping the fabric of Zuko's red shirt. She can't bring herself to finish the sentence. Did we win? Is it over? Does it even matter?
Zuko doesn't answer with words. His arm wraps around her shoulders instead. He pulls her closer to him, until she is pressed against his chest. She lets her head drop to his shoulder, tucking her head under his chin. Callused, warm fingers rub soothingly over her bare skin. Katara breathes in, Zuko breathes out.
It is almost enough.
"Prince Zuko…" A Fire Sage steps from the shadows, not a difficult feat with how dark the courtyard is without the deadly light of the Comet. He is a younger Sage, the wrinkles not as deep and the hair not as white as many of his companions. His voice is tentative, but strong. "What is going to happen?"
Katara places a hand on Zuko's chest, right over his heart. It is just barely above the barely healed scar that now (and always will) adorns the center of his chest. His body is trembling. From stress, from fear, from anger, from pain, from memories, from dying, from living.
"We put her in solitary confinement," Zuko says quietly. "We keep her locked up for now. So she's not a danger to anyone…including herself."
The Fire Sage looks toward the fallen Fire Princess who would be Fire Lord. She is still crying, and her jaggedly cut hair is a terrible knotted mess. Chained to the ground like an animal, whimpering like one too. She doesn't look the part of a dangerous enemy. But the Fire Sage merely looks back at them, something very close to relief in his tawny golden eyes, and says, "As you wish, Prince Zuko."
As if on cue, more Fire Sages come walking from the shadows. They unchain the Princess and escort her away. She stumbles and does not fight. It is pathetic to see someone so controlled brought so low. Katara wonders if Zuko is hurting for this creature that his sister has become. She will not ask him though. She will not be so cruel.
"Zuko," she says quietly. Just loud enough for him to hear. He flinches and pulls her reflexively closer. (Her heart breaks and bleeds for him in that moment.) "Zuko, we should go rest."
He swallows convulsively then says, "Okay." She realizes he is breaking too.
So she wraps her arms around his middle, and she leads him haltingly toward the Palace steps. She isn't sure if it's safe, isn't sure if Azula's servants are still traipsing about. But Zuko needs to rest, and Appa is not a suitable resting place.
Katara doesn't know the Fire Nation palace. The halls are buzzing with activity, servants and nobles and Tui only knows who else scurrying through them with harried looks on their faces. She thinks briefly about asking them were to find guest rooms, but dismisses it. They don't give her or their Prince a second glance, too caught up in their own problems. Eventually though, she finds a room with a large futon bed. It is in a nearly empty wing of the palace. They stumble to bed and Katara finally releases her death hold on Zuko. He falls onto the bed, mercifully landing on his side instead of his front. Katara quickly walks to the door, closing it and locking it. She repeats that with the door that leads to the bathroom, the door that leads to an outdoor garden, and all of the windows she can manage. Then, mostly out of paranoia, she creates ice walls that blockade all possible entrances into the room.
"Katara…" Zuko says. She turns to look at him. He is still on the futon bed. His eyes are half closed and have a distinctly glazed look about them. For several long moments, neither of them say anything. Then, "C'mere," he says.
So she comes. She walks to the futon bed and sits down next to him. Almost without thinking her hand reaches out to tangle in his already messy hair. She rubs her fingertips against his scalp. It's slightly greasy, and gritty from dirt. She doesn't care, because he's alive and she's alive and they're together.
"'tara," he says. His eyes drift shut. "'tara…"
"Sleep, Zuko," she whispers. "Sleep."
Zuko closes his eyes and breathes. The smell of stale lightning still hangs heavy in the air, but Katara can almost make out the musky smell of smoke and fire under it. His new scar is strangely smooth under her palm. "Hey," she whispers.
His lips tilt into a smile then. "'tara…" he says. Breathes really, just a fleeting rush of air shaped into some syllables of her names.
"I…I had thought…" Katara says slowly. She is surprised at how shaky her voice sounds, how scared. "I had thought…when Azula…when she shot…when…I just…" Her hand draws away from his body and Zuko's eyes open. "I…I just…" she whimpers. Then she is crying, the scent of her tears salty and bitter while the sound of her sobs is wretched and pitiful.
"'tara?" he tries.
"I'm sorry," she says. "I'm sorry. It's just so stupid but I…I thought I had lost you. I was so, so, so scared I had lost you. And I was so angry. I couldn't even think. So scared, so angry. I wanted her to pay. I wanted to make her hurt, but then I couldn't because I need to try to save you more. Yue, I make no sense now…"
His hand reaches out to brush against her leg. It's the only part he can reach, but it surprises her nonetheless. "Hey, 'tara, stop it, okay?"
She sniffles and wipes her nose. "Sorry. I told you it was stupid. I mean…I just…for a few minutes…you left me, and I suddenly…I just wanted the world to hurt as much as I did."
"Shh. It's okay."
"No, no it's not. I let the monster out. And…and I shouldn't…"
"'tara, it's done. I'm alive. You're alive. And the monster is back where it belongs."
And she thinks she loves him more than she's ever loved anyone anywhere ever before, which is mostly ridiculous and slightly true. She lays her head on his chest like she somehow belongs in his arms, because even if she doesn't really belong it is still right. Exhaustion makes he want to voice those thoughts but something else reels the words back in.
His mouth is turned into a soft, complacent smile in sleep. It's the most beautiful sight in the whole world.
"Zuko, I think I love you," she says, and it sounds like a promise.
Later that night, Katara finally collapses the massive ice walls that had blockaded their room. Zuko watches from the bed as she does so with a methodical precision that is almost hidden behind the grace of her movements. While he still looks like hell, Katara looks like she would any other day. A day long nap had rid her of the bags under her eyes, a quick face wash had similarly erased the tear tracks, and a through finger combing had rid her hair of most of its wildness.
Zuko doesn't look half as put together. He's shirtless which means that his black and blue body is out for perusal. His hair is messy and greasy and one side is smooshed against his head while one side sticks up wildly. His eyes are mildly bloodshot and he looks like he hasn't slept in weeks even though he spent most of the last eighteen hours passed out on this bed.
It's okay though, Katara looks good enough for both of them.
She finishes collapsing the last wall and turns toward him. The water from the collapsed ice walls swirls around her aimlessly. "Zuko," she says quietly.
"Hmm?" he asks, standing up slowly.
"We need to get food," she says, by way of explanation. She fidgets a bit uncomfortably. "And news."
"Yeah," he says, as though he's not entirely sure where she's going with this.
"You're too weak to really move though. At least, not enough so that if we're attacked…" she trails off, looking to the side. "I know, it's probably stupid…I mean, I wouldn't think…"
"Inspiring true loyalty has never really been Azula's strong point," Zuko points out. "Now that she's gone―"
"―they don't have anything to really fear from her. They have no reason to attack us."
"Other than the fact that I'm a Water Tribe peasant and you're the banished, traitorous Prince?" she says, not a little sardonically, but a great deal of the fear hidden in the tension of her shoulders disappears.
"Other than that," Zuko agrees casually. "Other than that."
Katara looks at the main door, then back to him. "Well, here's the plan. I get food, you stay here. I'll try to make sure that no one sees me."
Zuko blinks. "Good plan, but why did you collapse all the ice walls? They at least would slow my attackers down."
She blinks back. "Good point," she says, brow furrowing. A casual wave of her hand, and the water swirling aimlessly about her form goes to reform those implacable ice walls of earlier. Soon, the only unguarded entrance is that of the front door. "Okay," she says, surveying her work. "That should hold fairly well. If they, uh, attack."
"Alright…" he says slowly. "Just…"
"I'll be quick," she says.
"And safe," he whispers.
She smiles at him. "I will be, Zuko," she says.
She returns unscathed with reports that the palace is still in total uproar, that Azula is locked away, and that there had been no news from the invasion force. The look she gets when she departs this last piece of news is a cross between worry and hope. He imagines that he probably looks much the same. They eat then, not talking because there's nothing left to say.
Hours pass, the food is gone. Still, neither of them speak. To voice what's racing through their heads has at some point become a taboo. Like if they whisper, "Maybe we lost," then it will be true and the world will be doomed and that means they are just sitting here waiting like little sitting turtle ducks while the end of the world continues to hurtle toward them.
Days pass. They go through the same routine again and again and again. They are left unbothered. Most of the nobles have fled, as have most of the servants. Surprisingly the palace is left intact, none of its great valuables stolen. Maybe the people were too afraid. Katara is afraid, and she knows Zuko is afraid, but she tries to shield him from the outside world where the capital city is in utter chaos as people clamor for news of what happened during the Comet Campaign.
She knows that he thinks she can't hear. And she can't, not with her ears. But her eyes watch his lips move and her soul provides the rest. "Agni, let Aang have been able to finish it. Let him have overcome his pride and used that final blow," he whispers. Prayer. But then she sees him add, "Agni, let my father have turned good. Let Aang have not used that final blow. Let that show of mercy converted my dad…"
Her hearts breaks and bleeds for him for what seems like the thousandth time. She wonders if it will ever stop.
It doesn't matter that she is sifu of the Avatar and battle hardened warrior and unparalled waterbending master, because on the inside she is still just a fifteen year old child who's scared and more than a little broken. That is something she will never admit. But with Zuko, she doesn't need to admit anything. Zuko just knows. Because he is sifu of the Avatar and battle hardened warrior and unparalled firebending master, but on the inside he is just a scared and broken as she is. They are both just children, hiding under the façade of adulthood. The world is falling apart around them.
"Avatar Aang defeated the Phoenix King."
"We have lost Ba Sing Se."
"The colonies are being evacuated."
"The Phoenix King is alive but powerless."
"Our princess is insane."
"Nobody knows where Prince Zuko is."
"The Avatar has the power to bend souls."
"The refugees from the colonies claim that the Avatar is angry."
"What's going to happen to us?"
The first kiss is a fluke. Perhaps that is not the right word. Misjudgment? Accident? Mistake? A momentary insanity? Whichever of those, any and all. That does not change the facts. These are the facts:
she is standing in the doorway, whipping away the tears that slide down her cheeks slow and steady, tears that a result of the fear she had practically been able to taste when she had ventured out into the palace for food, because she is realizing that her savior is not their savior, that they are just as afraid of her as she is of them, that peace is a very very very long time coming no matter how the war was won
he is standing by the bed, eyebrows furrowed with confusion and mouth turned down in a frown that is not quite a scowl, worry clawing at his throat but the words not coming because he knows from experience that she is finally figuring out that the Fire Nation has real people too, real people who love their country and aren't sure what is going to happen now that everything has been turned upside down
they are so very far apart, a gulf between them that seems leagues instead of feet, but then they are not so very far apart because she steps away from the doorway and toward him, one tentative foot, then another, then she running and colliding and they are not apart at all
the lightning that burns through them when their lips meet is so very different and yet so very similar to Azula's blue fire
she is a girl who bends blood, empress of the world, goddess and destruction, judgment day in a human body; he is the boy who loves her, anchor to the earth, healing with a touch and honeyed eyes; they are together and they will find a way to keep the world