Day One: Family
Summary: A new war is threatening to break, and the only way to prevent it from happening is to protect one man. The only problem is that one man is Ozai. How much will Zuko sacrifice to keep everybody safe when his mother is thrown into the mess as well? And will his advice for Katara's confusion make things better for her and Aang or worse?
AN: Firstly, happy Zutara Week everybody! I'm seriously looking forward to this one: I have a feeling it's going to be epic. Hopefully I add to that epicness instead of taking away from it. You can tell me if I won or failed in a review, thanks ;P
Anyway, this is "Family". At first it was much, much shorter than this, but it resembled another fic of mine too much. So I scrapped version one and did it over again. What appeared was thirty two written pages of… Well, I don't know what it is: I can't decide if I sort of like this piece or if I really, really hate it. *shrugs* I guess it's your call.
Edit: I started having a panic attack when I saw that we couldn't post the next day's fic before midnight EST, because I live in the bottom bowels of the earth and I didn't have a CLUE what EST was in comparison to my timezone. In a panic I went on MSN where a good friend helped me out. Thanks, Miss Awesome (you know who you are ;)). I promised I'd dedicate this one to you for your help, so here it is.
Disclaimer: I own nothing at all. Which is probably a good thing, considering how long and cruddy this is.
The silence within the Fire Nation was eerie and it made her shiver. At least the silence means all is well, she reasoned with herself as she walked along the long, empty hallway. Either that or they were all slaughtered before they could scream… She shook her head to rid it of the images and thoughts, and her companion noticed the gesture.
"You okay?" There was concern laced in his voice, and she felt him lean closer to check her for injury.
She nodded. "I'm fine. I just can't believe we only got a two-month break between the last war and the threat of this new one. And, as if more battles aren't bad enough, this time we're fighting to keep Ozai alive."
"It's messed up, isn't it?" He rubbed his pony-tailed hair and sighed. "But Aang's right: if Ozai is killed by these guys a proper war will start again, one that will involve the whole world."
"Yeah, I know," she said, frustrated. "It's just we're putting out lives in danger for that… that…"
"I know." His voice was heavy. "On the bright side, it could be worse. I mean, the egotistical masochist you have to protect could be your disowned father."
"Zuko has got the crap end of this one, hasn't he? As usual," she ended in a mutter.
They reached the huge double doors that led to the meeting room that been converted into their headquarters. Heads turned as they entered, but as soon as they were recognized the room relaxed.
"Toph, Sokka!" Aang's voice was highly relieved as he came over to them. "See anything?"
"Nope," Sokka replied, stretching his hands above his head. "Everything was quiet. Creepy quiet."
"That's what everybody's been saying." Aang sounded worn. "They know they have us trapped and hyped up and they're just waiting for an opening…" His teeth clenched together with an audible grinding noise.
"Are Zuko and Katara still on their patrol?" Toph asked, not feeling either of them in the room.
"Yeah. I wish they'd come back already, though…"
"Why? Is Lord Jerkness being a pain again?" She could feel Sokka shooting a dark glance over at the figure heavily chained to the furthest wall.
"Well yeah… But there's something else too…"
Aang gestured over his shoulder and Toph immediately focused on the person he was referring to. She was a stranger; somebody Toph had never met before in her life. She seemed tense like the rest of the people in the room, but it was a different tenseness. Her heart rhythm was both excited and full of dread, as though something life-changing was about to happen. Iroh came up behind her and placed a hand on her shoulder. It clicked in Toph's head the same time it clicked in Sokka's.
"No way…" he breathed. "Is that…?"
"Lady Ursa," Aang confirmed. "They found her two days ago and she arrived here about an hour ago."
"Does Zuko know yet?" Toph was curiously following Ursa's vibrations.
"Do you really think Zuko would be out scouting the gardens if he knew his mom was in here?" Aang asked.
"What a time for her to finally pitch up," Sokka muttered. "Right in the middle of another nightmare."
"Suki's here," Toph informed him, pointing to the door just before it opened.
Sokka hurried over to his girlfriend and kissed her in relief, forgetting about Ursa for the moment. Toph suddenly started towards Iroh, puling a surprised Aang with her. She wanted to know more about Zuko's mom, and so she had to get closer to 'see' her better. And Aang was her backup.
Ursa noticed Toph's stare and it took a lot for her not to stare back just as curiously. After getting over his shock and very long greeting, Iroh had introduced her to the Avatar and had then started to tell her about the rest of Aang's little 'family'. She had listened attentively as he described Toph, Suki, Sokka and Katara to her, but she had refused to let him mention anything about her son.
"I want to find out about him for myself, Iroh. Besides, I do not need you to tell me what he looks like: I will know my son as soon as I see him," she had told her brother-in-law firmly.
Ever since then her heart had leapt every time someone had entered the room. But she could tell none of the men that came in were her son, and disappointment settled into her gut each time. She'd gone so long without holding him that the compulsion was now almost painful. She saw Iroh glance at her again with that same look on his face as if he desperately wanted to warn her about something. She resolutely raised her chin and he sighed and let it drop for the umpteenth time. She briefly deliberated whether to let Iroh tell her whatever it was- maybe it was something very important she had to prepare herself for?- but decided against it. She would take things as they came.
The door opened again and her heart leapt to her throat as her eyes immediately focused on the entrant. It was the Kyoshi Warrior Iroh had called Suki, not her son. She slumped back and tried to stifle her disappointment by imaging what Zuko would look like for the hundredth time. He would be tall, and probably muscular. He would have her eyes (something she was highly pleased about) yet he would look more like Ozai, as he always had. She wondered if he would have long hair, but ruled it out quickly; he'd always hated letting it get too long. She imagined his smile, and her heart twisted. She'd missed him so much she could not express it in words, but she was also scared he would not be able to forgive her for leaving. Her fingers worriedly entwined as nervousness claimed her again.
The Earthbender and the Avatar came over and engaged Iroh in conversation, meaning she was free from his looks for a while. The door opened very quietly and, out of reflex, she looked over at it. Her interest perked as a dark-skinned girl entered. By the Water Tribe clothes she was wearing Ursa identified her as Katara, the Master Waterbender from the South Pole. Katara was talking to somebody and Ursa was just about to glance away again when her companion entered and her entire body froze.
It was Zuko. It was her son. He was turned mostly away from her, but she knew. She knew.
Some sort of explosion took place inside her and, before she was aware of what she was doing, she was suddenly walking towards him, her full attention focused on her son. He was handsome, she realized with a jolt of fierce of pride. And he looked so strong, and Katara was looking at him with so much respect… Then he turned a bit, and she stopped dead, feeling as though she'd been slapped and rolled over all at once.
His face… What had happened to his face? She now knew what Iroh had wanted to warn her about all those times. But no verbal explanation could have prepared her for… Horror and pain washed through her in tidal waves along with the desire to skewer whoever had hurt her son. When she found out who had done it… She took a deep breath to steady herself, suddenly wondering if just walking up to him was such a good idea. But the compulsion and desire to hold her son again was too strong to fight, and she started forward once more.
Out of the corner of her eye she saw Iroh glance next to him. Finding her gone he began searching the room until he found her again. Seeing where she was heading he froze, and all others following his gaze did the same until there were at least six pairs of eyes on her. She continued on anyway, but did not make any noise or attempt to break the conversation between the Waterbender and her son. When she was less than three meters away from Zuko Katara noticed her and glanced up. Her blue eyes widened in shocked realization and she stared at Ursa in awe. Zuko saw her look and glanced behind him in mid-sentence. He froze completely. There was one second of loaded silence.
His voice was soft and slightly choked, as though he couldn't bring himself to really believe she was there. A sob tore itself from Ursa's throat and she rushed forward and flung her arms around him. Zuko did not hesitate to return the embrace and Ursa crushed him closer, holding him tighter than she had ever held anything in her life.
"My baby," she cried, stroking his hair as he buried his face in her shoulder. "My baby boy. Oh, my baby."
Katara smiled at the sight and then turned away and headed towards her brother. Sokka had a strange look on his face as he watched Ursa and Zuko, and Katara squeezed his hand as Zuko got held by the once missing core of his family.
The attacking force sent a blow at them that made the walls shake. Zuko snarled at the obvious damage his palace was taking, but he could do nothing more than that. There were yells from outside and Aang turned to the young Firelord.
"We have to get him somewhere else!"
"Where, though? Where can we possible go that they won't see us going?" Sokka was beyond frustrated; his knuckles were white from stress.
"The wilderness," Zuko said without turning to them. "There are huge caves there we can use as shelters. Toph and Aang can make an underground passage from here to the middle of the wastelands."
"Good plan, but they'll still be able to follow us through the tunnels," Suki pointed out.
"Not if we make the entrance unstable so that it's easy to collapse after us," Sokka said slowly. "That way we can close off the entrance and they won't be able to follow."
"You go, I'll keep them busy here," Zuko said.
As Katara turned to follow the rest he caught her arm. She turned back in surprise to find him fixing her with a pleading glance. She smiled gently.
"I'll take care of her," she promised, squeezing his hand as she freed her arm.
Zuko nodded his thanks and she rushed down the hallways after the rest. Toph and Aang were in front with Ursa, Iroh and a very tough-looking guard in the middle keeping a close hold and eye on Ozai. Suki, Sokka and her brought up the rear as the possession sped silently down to the lowest levels of the palace, where the tunnels the Firebenders had used on the Day of Black Sun started. Toph blasted open these tunnels with ease and then took the lead, allowing Aang to fall slightly behind as he grappled with not being able to see so well in the dark. Finally she reached a spot she deemed perfect and she made the rest top. Iroh lit a torch and the light brought relief to those blind in the dark.
Even with the presence of light nobody made a sound and all eyes were trained on Toph and Aang. Both of them crouched back on their haunches, their fists raised in front of their faces. Then, in perfect sync, they separated their hands and the wall of the tunnel started to part. Toph stopped suddenly, her head jerking around in shock.
"Somebody's coming!" she hissed, and everybody but a chained and gagged Ozai fell into a battle stance.
Katara, nearest to the coming people, slowly sent her water up into the air and began to make ice crystals, ready to drop them on the intruders just before they came around the corner. Two sets of footsteps sounded and everybody held their breath. Then suddenly Toph straightened up.
"Wait! They're not enemies, they're-"
But Katara had already unleashed her crystals, and a very surprised yelp issued from around the corner. A yelp that Katara recognized at once.
She rushed around the bend to find Hakoda and Bato getting up from where they'd flung themselves to avoid the shards of ice. Katara ran and embraced her father, and he chuckled at her red-faced apology.
"You can never be too careful," he said with a smile.
"What are you guys doing here?" Sokka asked, grinning as he shook hands with Bato.
"We're part of a huge army that has, for the past three weeks, been planning an ambush on the people who are after Ozai. The ambush is planned, but it will take time to execute, so we were sent to help you guys keep him safe until the fight is over."
Ozai made a derisive noise behind his gag, but nobody paid him any attention. Toph, however, was frowning.
"Wait… You make it sound like we'll just be sitting quietly someplace else while your guys finish those pests off."
"Sorry, Toph, but that's exactly what it means. The ambush is almost completely foolproof."
"Where's the justice in that!" Toph threw up her hands angrily. "We've been stuck helping this jerk for almost a month and we don't get any part in the butt-kicking? Where on my forehead does it say I'm a babysitter?"
Hakoda chuckled despite himself. "If any of them manage to follow us, I promise we'll let you do the… butt-kicking. But for now we need to get to those caves Zuko briefed us about."
With a growled sigh Toph turned back to the wall and she and Aang again started to make the new tunnel's entrance. Sokka zipped in after them, placing four poles of wood under each other at the top of the entrance.
"These poles will hold the entrance open," he explained as they worked. "As soon as they're cut, though, this front part will collapse. Its collapse will cause the section behind it to collapse and, if we're lucky, the section behind that will follow. That way they have no way of following us."
Hakoda looked impressed, and Sokka flushed with pride.
"Sokka and I will stay behind to wait for Zuko and any other allies," Katara said. "You guys go ahead."
Her father squeezed her shoulder as he passed and Aang shot her a 'good luck' look before he and Toph began bending the rest of the passage. Ozai, still bound and gagged, was passed into the passage and his defiant refusal to move disappeared at the warning look his brother gave him. Soon the sounds of the rest of their group disappeared and Katara and Sokka were left in silence.
Time stretched on and on with no change. She was just about to suggest that they go and look for Zuko when sounds of a raging battle reached their ears. Both Water Tribe teens retreated further into the passage and took a battle stance, ready to fend off attackers before cutting the poles. Zuko came into view, fending off five warriors, two whom were Firebenders. Zuko narrowly avoided having his arm skewered to the wall, and he used his attacker's lack of balance to send him crashing to the ground, bringing two of his comrades down with him.
"Zuko!" Sokka hollered at him.
Zuko turned and saw the tunnel, but was forced to look away again as the remaining two warriors bore down on him. Katara knocked them back with a wave of water and Zuko scrambled towards the tunnel, his face grim as sounds of many footsteps started down the hallway. Sokka's breath suddenly caught as a realization hit him.
"The last two sections won't cave in fast enough…" he whispered in a kind of terrified awe. "They'll still have time to follow us…"
Katara stared at him in horror, her face paling at the thought. They would have to stay and fight, then. They had no other choice; they had to protect their family… Zuko stopped suddenly, even thought the footsteps and shouts were getting closer. He looked up at the poles and a calm yet determined expression crossed his face.
"No!" Katara understood and she launched herself towards him.
But Zuko had already sent a volley of fire at the poles, and with one big snap they all broke. As the rocks began to rumble Zuko looked down and caught a now still Katara's gaze for an instant. His eyes were calm and hers were horrified. Then the peace shattered as the rocks cascaded down and began to block the entrance to the passage. The last thing they saw was Zuko turning to face the coming horde.
As darkness surrounded them Katara started forward frantically, but Sokka's arms caught her and stopped her second advance.
"We have to go." His voice was hoarse. "This place is going to cave in soon. We have to go."
He tugged her and she followed him slowly and unwillingly, her heart breaking with fear and betrayal as she turned her back on her friend and instead hurried to safety. It took them quite a long time to catch up with the rest, and they walked in silence the whole way, even when they tripped over a stray rock in the total darkness. Eventually the sounds of shifting earth reached their ears, and as they rounded one of the many bends in the tunnel they were suddenly blinking in bright light.
"Finally! We were starting to get worried." Suki's voice was relieved.
"Where's Zuko?" Toph stopped her bending to turn and look in their general direction.
Sokka and Katara gave each other a long, sad look.
"He cut the poles," Sokka finally mumbled. "The people were in the passage and closing in fast and they would have been able to follow. So he… cut the poles. To save us."
Silence followed, yet Katara could almost hear the hearts breaking. Who knew what those people would do to Zuko when they caught him? Especially seeing as he was the son of the man they were after. They wouldn't care that Zuko was good; he was family of Ozai, and that was all that would matter to them. After a long pause Toph turned back and began to bend again. Aang followed suit after a while. Nobody spoke a word, and the only sounds that were heard were the sounds of shifting rocks and Ursa's unsteady breathing.
It had taken them nearly a day to finally reach the wastelands and they hadn't stopped to rest once. The morale in the group was at an all time low; everybody was tired, hungry, frustrated and worried. Toph finally felt caves above them and they started to ascend, looking forward to being above ground again. Finally they broke through to a very large, oval-shaped cave, and the fresh air seemed more wonderful to them than gold. But as soon as Aang had taken a sweeping look around the cave he turned to go back into the tunnel.
"Aang, where are you going?" Hakoda sounded shocked.
"I'm going back," Aang said steadily.
"That's crazy," Bato said, grabbing his arm. "It's dangerous down there, even without the horde of people waiting to slit your throat."
Aang ripped his arm free and turned to face them with a glowering expression.
"You don't get it," he growled, pointing harshly to the tunnel. "That's my brother back there. And he's probably hurt or captured or… I'm going back for him." His face was set.
"We're coming with you," Katara said quietly. Aang turned to argue with her but she shook her head firmly. "You'll need help and somebody to heal him. And he's my brother, too.
"Some people have to stay behind…" Sokka said hesitantly.
Suki winced and raised her hand reluctantly. "I will." Just get him back to us, her eyes added silently.
Aang turned to Toph. "Toph…"
"No!" she said vehemently. "No way!" I'm not going to sit here doing nothing while Sparky-"
"If something happens here they'll need an Earthbender!" Aang said rather heatedly, panic making him touchy.
Toph screamed in frustration and sent three rocks into the cave wall.
"Fine! Okay, fine! Ugh Just… You'd better kick their butts good and proper, then!"
"Be careful," Hakoda told then sternly, worry on his face.
While Sokka reassured his father, Katara's gaze found Ursa and Iroh.
"He'll be fine, I promise," she whispered, and both of them smiled small smiles of thanks at her.
Then Aang, Sokka and Katara hurried back into the passage, carrying their single torch high and their one supply bag close as they raced back towards Zuko. They wanted to reach him in less than a day, but the journey was long and eventually exhaustion and hunger forced them to stop.
"It feels so wrong to be sleeping while Zuko…" Sokka trailed off as he stared into the impenetrable darkness.
Katara's hand found his and squeezed, and the Water Tribe warrior was pretty sure her other hand was holding Aang's. And that was how they slowly drifted off to sleep; linked as a family.
They had no idea what time of day it was when they woke up, only that they had slept for longer than they had intended. They set off towards the Fire Nation palace at a run, and they kept the pace as fast as they could the whole way. Eventually they reached the fallen rocks that marked the entrance and Aang quietly began to shift them aside while Sokka made plans.
"The outside passage splits into three. I'll carry on going straight, Aang will take the left and Katara the right. We'll meet back here as soon as possible, even if we found nothing."
Katara nodded and then blinked as she caught sight of Aang's handiwork.
"Aang, that's brilliant!" she whispered, a grin stretching over her face as Aang blushed in pleasure.
He had cleared a zigzagging path for them through the wall of rock so that from the front it would look like there was no path at all: the rocks would appear to form a solid wall.
"Pathway camouflage," the Avatar grinned.
And then they were serious again, holding their breaths and scooting down the passage and splitting into their separate forks of the passage. Katara was both relieved and horrified at the lit torches on the walls. They meant she could see where she was going, but they also meant she had a much better chance of being spotted. As soon as she'd had that thought she heard footsteps approaching around the corner in front of her. She froze in panic; there was no place she could hide. With a mental curse she backed up so that she was right against the wall and then she slowly uncorked her water skin. There was suddenly a slithering noise behind her and a hand shot out and covered her mouth. She struggled but warm arms pulled her back into a secret compartment in the wall that had been hidden just a moment before.
"Be quiet!" a voice hissed in her ear.
She nearly cried out in relief as she heard the voice, and she stopped struggling against the arms that pulled her right into the hole. The panel was slid closed again and Katara was plummeted into darkness. She held her breath as the people came around the corer, and sighed in relief when their footsteps echoed away. They hand disappeared from her mouth and she twisted to where she assumed her savior was.
"Zuko! Thank the spirits you're… They didn't catch you."
She heard Zuko snort. "Like they'd ever be able to capture me. Honestly."
Her hands groped for him and they found his shoulders.
"How badly are you hurt? Can you make it back to the tunnel?"
"I'm fine," Zuko responded, reaching around her to slide back the panel cautiously.
Katara was suddenly aware of how small the compartment really was and a blush crept up her face. Luckily it was too dark for Zuko to notice.
"It's clear; let's go," he whispered.
She folded herself out of the hole first and then stood in a bending stance while Zuko climbed out after her. She heard him groan very quietly, but before she could turn to assess the damage he'd grabbed her arm and begun to tug her down the passage. It was an automatic instinct for her to wrap her arm around him to support him, and he did not object to the action. It was when they slunk around the next corner that she felt her forearm become wet. She pulled it towards her in surprise and then felt her breath catch in her throat. Her arm was covered in blood, and it wasn't hers. In alarm she looked at Zuko but he just shook his head, telling her that then was not the time. She scowled but then took a stronger grip on him and the two continued their journey to the tunnel.
Zuko pulled back in surprise as they reached the seemingly blocked entrance, but Katara guided him forwards and swiftly navigated through the zigzags. They were the first back and she was slightly grateful; the space and light were bad enough for healing already without people crowding around. As she lowered Zuko to the ground he hissed, his face twisting from the calm mask he'd worn since she'd found him. She bit her lip and then gently swatted his hands away from his abdomen, finally noticing the darker splotches on his red shirt.
"Lift up your arms," she told him quietly.
After a second's hesitation he complied slowly, his ears turning red at the humiliation of being treated like a child. Katara ignored this and instead focused on removing his shirt gently. Her breath caught at the sight that greeted her. His ribs were swollen and black and there was a large gash from his hip to his back that was still oozing blood. His left shoulder was caked with dry blood and bruised, and his chest bore the scratches of a spiked metal ball.
She exhaled sharply. "This is going to take some time to heal…"
"Just do what you can for my sides and ankle," Zuko muttered. "I'll be able to walk fine then."
She barely heard the second part of his sentence, though, as her attention was now solely focused on finding out what was wrong with his ankle. She started with his left leg as it was closer to her, and she gently felt along it.
"The other one," Zuko said in a slightly sullen voice; he hated being sick or wounded. "It's near the- Aah!"
"Sorry!" Katara immediately removed her hand. "Sorry…"
This time she did not squeeze but instead gently removed his boot, wincing when she heard his breath catch. His ankle was swollen and blue but it didn't look broken, a fact she was very thankful for. She covered her hands in water from her skin and gently placed them over Zuko's foot. She felt him relax as the glowing water brought the swelling down and healed the sprain. When she was done he rotated his ankle experimentally, and then reached forward to pull his boot back on. Katara's hands stopped him.
"I'm not going to let you hurt those any more than they're already hurt," she told him sternly, pointing to his ribs.
Zuko growled in frustration but let her dress him without a word. Katara had to work hard to hide a smile at his obvious dislike at being fussed over. When she was done with his shoe she took a deep breath and turned her attention back to his torso. There was a scuffling sound and her healing water turned into a weapon as both benders froze.
"Hey, you found him!" Sokka called quietly as he rounded the corner. Zuko and Katara both relaxed, but Sokka's eyes widened as he saw the Firebender's torso. "Jeeze… They really kicked your butt," he observed with a low whistle.
"Maybe, but you should see the other guys," Zuko grinned back, and Sokka laughed quietly.
"Stop talking," Katara scolded Zuko, placing her glowing hands on his abdomen.
Zuko sighed as the water began to heal him, and then he leaned his head against the wall and shut his eyes. Sokka watched silently as the bruises around Zuko's ribs faded to a dark blue and the gash around his side stopped bleeding. His shoulder, once washed, proved to be the easiest thing to heal on him besides his ankle and Katara smiled. After a long time of healing she sighed and let the dirty water fall into her skin again. Zuko opened his eyes and breathed deeply to experiment.
"It's all I can do for now," Katara apologized, glowering at his still-swollen ribs.
"Thank you," he said sincerely, and she couldn't help but smile.
Aang's return was announced by the sounds of the zigzagging pathway being filled with rocks again. He emerged carrying a sack with him, his clothes dirty from the rubble.
"I found some food for us," he said, holding up the sack. "But there was no sign of Z-" His gray eyes found the Firelord and they lightened in relief.
"Katara found him," Sokka explained, immediately digging into the sack.
"I'm glad you're-" Aang started to say, but he stopped short when he saw Zuko's torso. "Wow… Are you okay? Have you already healed him?" he asked Katara.
She nodded. "It's all I can do for now."
Aang frowned unhappily. "Maybe we should wait-"
"No, I'm fine," Zuko cut across him firmly. He reached up and gripped the wall with his right arm, using it to heave himself to his feet. Katara stood with him, her hands outstretched to catch him if he stumbled. But he stood firm and Sokka tossed him his bloody, torn shirt. He pulled it on slowly, wincing but otherwise silent. "Come on, let's go."
Sokka sighed but put the peach he was about to eat back into the sack and started after the rest. They walked for a long time before Aang's stomach started complaining rather loudly.
"We should probably stop for the night," Zuko agreed with a smirk as Aang's stomach gurgled.
"How do you know it's nighttime?" Sokka asked, tossing everybody some fruit.
"Firebenders draw their energy from the sun," Zuko explained, settling with his back against the tunnel wall. Katara was suddenly and forcefully reminded of the Spirit Oasis, and she shook her head to banish the memories. "We can track its position in the sky if we concentrate hard enough."
"How many days have passed since we made the tunnel?" Aang asked, curious.
"Two and a half," Zuko replied, biting into his peach. "I suspect that means the tunnel is long?"
"It is, rather," Katara confirmed. "So we should sleep to get some strength."
They ate the rest of their small supper in silence and then curled up on the ground where they sat. They didn't sleep right next to each other, but they lay so that a part of them was touching somebody else. The contact was reassuring in the darkness, and they had no trouble falling asleep.
Zuko woke with the sun the next morning and woke the rest of them up. They ate what was left in the sack in silence and then started towards their families and, as Sokka longingly pointed out, better food. Katara healed Zuko a little more before they set off, frowning in disapproval when she found that he'd torn open the gash on his side again. He shrugged off her scolding and refused to let her check his ankle again. As a result, she made up her mind to walk with him to keep an eye on him. But Aang caught her arm.
"Walk with me?" he pleaded, and she couldn't refuse.
She knew he wanted to hold her hand, but for some reason she could not bring herself to unclench her fists so he could lace his fingers with hers. The awkward silence between them grew with every step and the only sounds to break the stillness were Zuko and Sokka's occasional conversations. Time dragged by slowly and she found herself looking at the ground, even though the fire on Aang's palm cast enough light to see where she was going.
Finally she saw the Avatar take a deep breath, and as he opened his mouth her heart dropped. But Sokka beat him to it.
"Katara!" her brother yelled.
Both of them whipped around to find Sokka supporting a slumped Zuko. The warrior's eyes were wide with shock and surprise as he gently lowered the Firebender to the ground.
"What happened?" Katara asked, crouching in front of Zuko at once.
"I dunno! He just suddenly fell forwards! I mean I guess he got quieter and quieter as we walked but…" Sokka was gabbling.
"I'm fine," Zuko groaned, trying to push Katara's hands away.
But she would not be deterred and firmly pulled up the hem of his bettered shirt, searching for the cause of his collapse. She frowned as she found nothing different from when she had healed him that morning. Nothing except some gooseflesh that covered both his arms… Zuko yanked his shirt back down.
"I'm fine," he said, frustrated.
She was about to retort when she noticed that his eyes, which were usually full of gold fire, were dull and oddly shiny. With another frown she reached out and placed her palm on his forehead, holding his shoulder when he tried to jerk away.
"Spirits…" She pressed harder, and the burning heat against her hand intensified. "You're burning up. Badly. And don't tell me it's a Firebender thing," she snapped as he opened his mouth. "I know it isn't."
Zuko heaved an irritated sigh, pinching the bridge of his nose between his fingers. Katara noticed that his hand was shaking.
"Can you heal him?' Aang asked, bringing the fire closer.
"Yeah, but fevers take longer to heal. They're not of the flesh, they're of the body itself. I can help his immune system fight it but he's going to have to get rid of it himself."
She gloved her hand in the only water she had and placed it against Zuko's forehead. He bit back a moan of pleasure at the coolness, but allowed himself to close his aching eyes. Some of the vicious pounding left his head, and he found it easier to think. When he opened his eyes again Katara was just depositing the now filthy water back into her water skin, her blue eyes still wide with concern for him. He pulled his legs underneath him and started to get up but halfway there his knees buckled and Katara and Sokka both had to grab him. Without a word the siblings pulled his arms around their shoulders. He tried to protest, but the words wouldn't come and it was getting harder to think again as the fog started to creep back into his brain. He wished he could stop the world tilting so much; it was very difficult to walk straight when the ceiling kept sliding to the left. As he had found with Sokka earlier, the more he walked the fuzzier things became and he was barely aware of both teens tightening their hold on him. He wished they would reach the caves already; he was cold and he hated being cold. And his vision was becoming more and more foggy… Damn it did Aang have to look at him as if he was about to collapse any second? He was stronger than that, by Agni…
Suddenly Aang raced ahead and Zuko saw, to his relief, that they'd nearly reached the end of the passage. He heard Aang telling everybody the short version of what had happened and he scowled when the Avatar told them he was sick. He tried pulling his arms away from Sokka and Katara but they pulled him back firmly, gripping him even tighter. They were halfway up the incline towards the cave when familiar hands took over from Katara.
"Uncle?" Zuko was surprised at how slurry his voice was.
And then his mother was blurrily there too, stroking his head with deliciously cool hands and helping Iroh and Sokka to half carry him into the cave.
"It's aright, nephew," Iroh's calm voice said in his ear. "We have you. You can sleep now."
Zuko gratefully let his eyelids flutter closed.
The fire burned happily in the center of the cave as the little group sprawled comfortably around it. Everybody was relaxed for the most part, except the three closest to the fire. Katara removed her hands from Zuko's forehead and smiled at Ursa, who was acting as a pillow for her son.
"He'll be fine in a day at the most," she said quietly, not wanting to wake Zuko.
Ursa squeezed her hand, her eyes thankful. "Thank you," she murmured sincerely.
Katara left the two alone and instead headed to where Sokka was lounging, eating nuts. A small smile played across the Waterbender's face as she remembered the previous night when Iroh and Ursa had both huddled around the sick Zuko. She could remember thinking that she was glad Zuko had gotten a family again. One that actually cared for him like the rest of the gaang did. Like she did.
She was pulled from her thoughts when Ozai was marched into the room. She bit her lip, remembering with a jolt that they were stuck alone with the man as Iroh and his guard were out on scouting duty that afternoon. As Ozai passed the place Ursa sat, compulsion and pure instinct made her hug her son protectively to her chest. She watched Ozai walk past with guarded eyes, and Katara did not blame her for her actions. Ozai was chained firmly to the opposite side of the cave and then Hakoda settled down next to his children. Ozai suddenly scoffed, making Suki jump. The man had hardly uttered a sound at all, let alone spoken. But now he was smirking at his son.
"He can't even fight off a fever," he sneered.
Ursa glared at him but did not answer. She also pulled Zuko closer to her, as though she was afraid Ozai would suddenly lunge at her son.
"Has he told you what he got up to during his years of banishment?" Ozai went on cruelly. "All his failures and mistakes?"
"He has, actually," Ursa answered coldly. "He told me everything about those three years. And I mean everything," she said, giving the gaang an apologetic look.
"He made up for it," Toph said, airily waving her hand.
Ursa smiled and then was silent for a while. "But he wouldn't tell me what happened in the palace after I left," she went on quietly, looking at Ozai with narrowed eyes. "And so I asked Iroh. He told me most of what happened, but I know he is keeping something from me too." She paused. "What is it, Ozai? What did you do that they want to save me from knowing?"
The cave went very still as eyes jumped from Ursa to Ozai, both of whom refused to look away from each other for even an instant. The ex-Firelord shrugged in a bored way, leaning back almost leisurely.
"I don't know what they wanted to hide from you. Iroh told you about the bonfire I made from your robes?"
"Yes." Ursa's face was impassive.
"The balancing lesson over the volcano?"
"The turtleduck soup?"
Her mouth formed a thin line and her eyes flashed. "Yes."
"Hmm…" He flicked dirt from his long and grimy nails. "They obviously told you of the Agni Kai… What about the-?"
"What Agni Kai?" Ursa's voice lost its calm, and there was an angry dread in it now.
Ozai's eyebrow raised in mocking disbelief. "Really?" He barked a sneering laugh. "Neither of them cried into your skirt about the war meeting or…? How pathetic."
"What Agni Kai, Ozai?"
The man gave her an infuriating smile, leaning further back.
"Zuko was… what? Thirteen I think… The little pest wanted to be allowed into the war meeting for Agni knows what reason… As if he could have learned anything to make him less of a failure in one meeting! But my simple and soft brother let him in. Then he had the audacity to speak out against an esteemed general's plans, just because some weaklings had to be sacrificed for the good of the Fire Nation. He agreed to an Agni Kai as his punishment, but once again his idiocy showed through: he thought he would be fighting the general."
Ozai scoffed in disgust. "When he saw it was me he began crying and begging for mercy. He refused to fight, and in doing so he dishonored himself. I sent him to look for the Avatar. It seemed like a fool's errand, but it would get him out of my sight and if he did somehow manage to catch him, the Fie Nation would benefit." Ozai purposefully let the silence stretch before he feigned casually remembering the end bit. "Oh yes. And I ended the Agni Kai by giving him a good lesson on punishment and honour. And yet, he's never thanked me for the scar…."
Shock hit everybody like a brick wall.
"You…" Ursa's voice was choked with shock and the beginnings of rage. "You were the one who…"
Toph suddenly let out a yell and launched herself at Ozai. Aang and Sokka tackled her to the ground and held her, even though they both looked like they actually wanted to let her go and join her in her quest. Toph fought their half-willing hands with gusto, trying to crawl over to the ex-Firelord.
"You… bastard," the Earthbender growled, tears in her eyes. "If you ever hurt my brother again…"
Ozai just smirked at her and was about to answer when Ursa suddenly stood up. Making sure not to wake Zuko, she gently laid him down on the ground. Then she walked right up to her husband and crouched down until they were eye to eye.
"I should let that mob have you," she whispered, her voice full of cold rage.
"But you won't. None of you will. You're all staring at me with petty hate in your eyes"- he smirked at Katara who was glaring daggers at him- "and yet you won't let them kill me. What, are you going to do it yourself, Ursa?"
"Oh no, Ozai." Her voice was a deadly calm as she faced him. "But by the time I'm done with you in years to come you will wish I had killed you. And you will rue the very moment you even thought of touching my son."
Her face was inches from his, and her eyes burned with fire that was brighter than the flames in the middle of the room. Sokka actually felt himself becoming scared of her, and he remembered his father's warning to never hunt a baby animal while its mother was around. Even the most docile of animals could turn deadly when you threatened their young. And with the way Ursa looked, towering above Ozai now as she returned to her son, Sokka was glad he didn't have to fight her. Ursa pulled Zuko back onto her lap and hesitantly traced the air half an inch above his scar. She couldn't seem to bring herself to touch it, however, and instead she planted a kiss on his forehead. Sokka let Toph go and saw the look on Katara's face as she glared at Ozai. He knew she approved of Ursa's earlier threats, and he shuddered. Women were dangerous when it came to their families, alright.
Katara was brought out of her brooding by Zuko's groan. She glanced down at where he lay next to her and saw him slowly start to stir. She reached down to feel his forehead and smiled when she found it normal again.
"Welcome back," she greeted him, careful not to be too loud in case he had a headache.
Zuko blinked up at her and then instantly pushed himself into a sitting position. Katara sighed and was about to push him back down when he stopped rubbing his head and looked at her.
"Where is everybody?"
"They're all out either exploring or on guard duty or bathing or something. It's just you and me."
"But they're all alright?" he pressed.
"They're fine, Zuko. Relax, okay? You were really sick for a while."
Her ignored her last two sentences and rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands before shaking his head slightly, as if to clear it.
"So you decided to stay with me while everybody else went off?" He raised his eyebrow at her.
"Your mom refused to leave you alone, but she really did look like she could deserve a little pamper break. So I offered to stay with you."
"Oh." Zuko looked abashed. "Thank you."
She smiled. "No problem. You were a very good patient, surprisingly. I was expecting you to be worse than Sokka when he's sick."
Zuko snorted, looking a bit offended. "I've never been a bad patient. I-"
"Chill! I was kidding." She laughed. "You know, I kinda missed you when we parted after the war. Aang hardly ever gets riled up so I can never have a decent bicker with him."
Zuko laughed. "I missed you, too. Bending with you kept me on my toes."
She grinned at him. "You do look like you've gone soft," she teased.
"Want to test that theory?"
She pushed him back down. "Not yet; you're still recovering."
He scoffed. "Scared you'll be beaten by a 'sick' guy?"
"No. I'm more worried about what your mother will do to me if I spar with you. Now stop trying to stand up or I'll freeze you to the floor."
Zuko leaned back with a scowl, and she smiled at her victory. Suddenly he frowned at her, a speculative look on his face.
"Did staying with me have anything to do with you avoiding Aang?"
She stared at him in open-mouthed shock. "Avoiding…? What do you…? Why would I want to do that?" she spluttered.
"I don't know; you tell me." He stared straight at her. "Katara, I may have been slightly out of it but I could still tell you really didn't want to walk with him. What's going on with you two?"
There was a curiosity in his eyes she could not place, but she ignored it and rubbed her temples.
"I don't know," she admitted in a small voice. "I just… Sometimes I wonder what I'm doing with him and other times I know I love him so much and… I'm just so confused…"
"You don't know if you like him or not?" Zuko's eyebrow cocked.
"No, I know I love him. I just… don't know if I love him as a guy or as a brother… I don't know if I could start a family with him…"
"Katara… You're barely fifteen. You don't have to think of a family yet," he soothed
"I know, I know… It's just that… Ugh how do I explain this… I know I want a family," she said, and he couldn't argue at all; Katara was a born mother. "I just… I can't picture him in ten years with our kids no matter how hard I try…" She heard Zuko sigh and she flushed horribly. "You don't get it, do you?"
"No," he agreed. "But that's just because I'm not half as sure about having a family as you are."
She stopped blushing she was so shocked. "You don't want to be a dad?"
He winced. "I guess I want kids. And I need an heir but…" He looked at his feet. "I won't make a good father. I'm too much like Ozai and he… I don't want to…"
Katara remembered Ozai's casual sneer as he admitted to scaring his son, and the left side of Zuko's face looked more painful than it ever had.
"You are nothing like him," she whispered fiercely. "You will be a better father than him by just breathing!"
He blinked, gave her a wan smile and changed the subject. "So you can see yourself with kids, but not with Aang's kids?" She couldn't look at Zuko as the blush stained her cheeks with embarrassment and guilt. He was silent for a long while. "There's a way you can get rid of your confusion, you know."
Surprise covered her face. "How?"
"You make yourself aware of what you have. You know how people who have had their houses destroyed appreciate their old house so much?" She nodded. "Well it's the same concept, just no destroying. You just kiss a random stranger and the kiss will revolt you so much and feel so alien that you will appreciate Aang all the more and you'll stop being confused."
She blinked at him a couple of times, and he shrugged uncomfortably under her look. "Where did you hear that one?"
"My uncle. Where else?"
She laughed. "It sounds crazy… But I'll try anything by now. Who do you think I should kiss?"
He turned his face away from her, hiding his expression. "Haru, maybe?"
She shuddered. "How about not? People already think we had a thing." She frowned. "Are you okay?"
He took a deep breath and turned back to her with an expressionless face. "I'm fine."
She raised an eyebrow skeptically but didn't push the point. "So who can I kiss? I suppose a random stranger could work…" She bit her lip. "I'd just feel much more comfortable if it…" She looked at him with widening eyes. "You!"
Zuko's eyes grew large. "Me? You want to… Me?"
She shrugged, self-conscious. "You suggested it."
"But… I… I said it had to be a random stranger!" Zuko spluttered, his face curiously red.
"Come on, Zuko! You're my best friend! Best friends help each other out." She scowled. "What's the big deal? It's just a kiss!"
Zuko looked at her so strangely then. His eyes flared with an emotion that froze the breath in her chest and made her heart thud. His look was more intense and more powerful than anything she had ever seen or felt… He blinked and his eyes stopped burning.
"Yes," he agreed. "Just a kiss."
"Well then." Her voice was hoarse. "Could you… just…?"
Slowly Zuko lent in towards her and she found that she could not look away. Her mouth went suddenly dry as her heart began to thump louder and quicker. An inch away Zuko stopped and she found herself closing her eyes in anticipation. Then all of a sudden his lips were on hers, and they were warmer and stronger and softer than she'd thought they would be. For a second that lasted for forever she was caught up in everything that was Zuko, and then he pulled away. When his lips were two inches away from hers her self-control broke and she swerved in and kissed him again, hungry for more. Zuko did not hesitate to kiss her back, and she was suddenly floating in a very warm bubble in a very, very pleasant place…
Zuko leaned away from her again and the two sat, breathing heavily and staring at each other. It was only after a few seconds that Katara realized they were both blushing.
"Well." Zuko's voice sounded squeaky, and he cleared his throat. "I guess now you won't be confused any more…"
There was something strange in his eyes again; he was looking at her as if she was the earth's gravity, the sun's heat and the moon's power all at once. In his eyes there was also hurt at the words that came from his mouth; he did not want them.
"Zuko, you're awake!"
They both jumped and turned to Ursa at once. Zuko smiled at her, and Katara excused herself, hoping Ursa could not hear her frantic heart as she slipped away to go and find Aang. She could feel Zuko watching her go.
He was alone when Katara came back.
He jumped and turned in surprise at her voice. He was shocked to find she was crying.
"What…?" He was alarmed and confused as he tried to figure out what she was talking about.
"You told me kissing somebody else would make me unconfused about Aang!" she accused, tears flowing down her face. "But it didn't! I kissed him just now and… You lied!"
He winced and swallowed. "I'm… sorry. I'm sorry, Katara. I didn't know…"
"What do I do now? Now everything's worse!" she sobbed.
"What do you want me to do?" he asked her desperately.
"I want you to turn back time and make it not happen!" she yelled, throwing her hands up. "I want you to… to make me forget…" She took a shuddering breath. "I want you to… I want you to kiss me again! I want… I don't… I…"
She was silenced by his lips. And again came the swooping sensation that she had craved while kissing Aang. And her heart told her clearly that she wasn't confused. Because as hard and potentially wrong as kissing Zuko was, she wanted it. And he does too she realized as her mind put his looks and questions into perspective. All this time… She wrapped herself more firmly around him.
In the opening to the cave stood Aang, frozen in place with wide eyes. He couldn't seem to catch his breath, and there was a hollow sound in his ears. A hand punched his shoulder, and he looked dazedly at Toph.
"Do you want… me too break the kiss up?" she asked hesitantly.
It took a while for him to remember how to speak. "Are they happy?"
She wavered again. "Yes."
"And it's not just… elemental attraction or…" His voice caught. "Or lust or something?"
"No. Sorry, Twinkles."
Aang shook his head, blinking hard to keep back the tears. "Then don't… don't break them up. They're… family. I want them to be happy." He was crying now, crushed but accepting. "Family comes first," he whispered, turning away from the sight. "Family comes first."
I congradulate you for reading 9400+ words. If I wrote 'family' in there one more time I would have shot myself. Lol