Day Seven: Storm
Summary: The ride back to Ember Island after she'd faced Yon Rha meant much more to Katara than she would ever tell anybody. And when, years later, it's Zuko who needs help with his mother, she can do nothing except be the one to help him through the storm.
AN: Originally this was much shorter and, in my opinion, much crappier. Then my muse decided to save me somewhat and the beginning bit shot into my mind. It's still crappy, but it has its redeeming bits. Or maybe not? Review and tell all, pretty please =) Thanks to all who supported Zutara Week and, especially, my fic. I love you guys. And I'll see all of you next year, eh?
Disclaimer: I don't own Avatar or Zutara Week or anything remotely awesome that would make me squeal in joy.
The rain that had started when they confronted Yon Rha had steadily worsened until they were flying in an outright storm. At first Zuko had let Katara be, but as the lightning grew more dangerous he crawled onto Appa's head beside her and gently took the reins from her numb fingers. She didn't look at him, but she didn't protest either. Zuko flew them close to the ground until he spotted a large outcrop of rock. He landed Appa and the great best moved under the shelter at once, seemingly grateful to be out of the rain. Without a word Katara slipped to the floor, and she began bending the water out of her clothes and hair. Zuko steamed himself dry and then started on Appa, thankful when Katara helped him after a while.
He sighed at the look on the Waterbender's face. Before, he'd been so sure that taking her to her mother's killer would help her and make her hate him less. But now he wasn't so sure. Her eyes were so broken and so fragile, nothing like the points of blue fire they usually were. Despite his words and actions he'd known right from the beginning that she would not kill Yon Rha. She wasn't like that. She wasn't like him. But he'd thought that she would gain closure from facing him, not more pain.
The silence stretched on and Katara did nothing but watch the rain. Finally, Zuko could take it no longer.
"I'm sorry, Katara," he mumbled, very aware that all he seemed to do was apologize to her. "It was a bad idea to take you to the Southern Raiders…"
She didn't turn to him, but her head bowed even more. Silence returned, and Zuko knew that he wouldn't be able to break it again. He turned back to Appa but was stopped in his tracks by her voice.
"I needed this," she said quietly. "I needed to find him and put it to rest. But now… I have all this anger in me and I… I don't know what to do with it." Her voice broke. "I want to take it out on something. Anything. But you're the only one around and I… I can't be mad at you anymore. I just can't."
He slowly crouched down next to where she was sitting, and for the first time in a long while she looked at him. Her eyes were sad and angry, but the anger was not directed at him anymore. And he realized, with a jolt of relief and joy, that she had forgiven him. The mission had been a success; she would no longer hate him for his past. But the relief was short-lived because she was his friend now, and seeing his friend so hurt…
"What if I do something to make you mad?" he asked her quietly. "Then you'll have an excuse to let it all out."
Her gaze did not waver from his as she hesitated, searching his sincerity and her own feelings. Then her face hardened.
"Do it. Do something really outrageous; the most extreme thing you can think of. Bend at me mercilessly or… or take Appa and leave me stranded here or… tie me to something…"
She was searching desperately, the tears not far away. Zuko watched her rant while he thought. She needed something truly unexpected and wrong. But what could he do to her in a tiny little cave in the middle of nowhere that would be enough cause for her to completely explode? He glanced at the rock and saw an engraving two lovers had made a long time ago and an idea clicked into his mind. Uncle had always said that forcing yourself upon a woman was the best way to get their scorn…
"Or hit me!" Katara's gaze was on him again, and she was pleading him with fierce eyes. "Hit me really, really hard so that… I dunno… so that something breaks or…"
Pushing away all his fear, alarm, mortification and dread, Zuko gently caught her chin in his hand. She stopped talking out of shock. Before he had time to back out or think about the utter absurdity of what he was about to do, Zuko leant all the way in and placed his lips on hers.
As her flesh touched his he knew that what he had felt in Ba Sing Se had not been imagined or fleeting. He knew that there was no point in trying to deny any of it any longer; he liked the Waterbending peasant a lot more than he should. That was why he had been scared and confused enough to choose Azula over Aang. That was why going off to find the Avatar had been so easy. That was why her forgiveness had been one of the most important things to him. That was why kissing her felt like something had exploded in him, but in a way too glorious to even find in his imagination.
The kiss lasted an infinite few seconds, and then he pulled back again. "I don't hit girls," he told her stunned face.
The shock intensified, and then it started to change. The rage, mortification and humiliation that appeared in its place were so great that he actually felt his stomach clench in fear. Well. She'd have no problem getting her mounds of anger out now.
"How dare you!" Katara screeched, her face like black thunder. "You… You…" Zuko had begun to back away, smart enough to know that the anger that had her temporarily speechless would soon explode into physical violence. "You creep!" she yelled, sending the contents of her water skin at him in the form of a whip.
"You wanted something outrageous," Zuko couldn't help but defend.
"That wasn't outrageous! That was… That was…" She couldn't seem to find a word obscure enough to define his sin. "It was beyond outrageous! I… Aang! Oh! You…"
She turned to the falling rain and began to bend it towards her, and Zuko knew he would have to fight back if he wanted to stay alive. The battle was a long and intense one, and even though he used his fire to fend her off, he still got pretty bruised from ducking and diving away. She shot water at him in more forms that he'd ever even imagined before, and the stream of verbal abuse never halted either. He was nearly impaled by a shard of ice at least five times, and after the second near-miss Appa decided that outside was actually safer than under the rock. Zuko didn't blame him for leaving; Katara was worse than any storm he would ever face.
Finally she ran out of steam, and her last act was to smack him against the furthest wall of rock with a surprise wave. Zuko shook his head, slightly dazed, and then slowly got to his feet, watching Katara wearily in case she found her second wind. But the Waterbender seemed to be out of fight and continued to stare at the falling rain while he dusted himself off. He started to go and fetch Appa, but her hand shot out and grabbed his wrist. He turned in surprise, but she was not looking at him. There was a peculiar look on her flushed face, as though she was ashamed and guilty about something but that she wasn't going to stop doing whatever it was just because it was wrong.
"Again." She lifted her eyes to meet his. "Kiss me again."
Without question Zuko pulled her closer and placed his lips on hers again. She sighed against him and before he knew what was happening her hands were trailing up his arms and stroking his cheeks and neck and his hands were fisted into her glorious brown hair. And suddenly she was deepening the kiss, but it was not out of anger like he expected it to be. Instead it was a pure sort of desperation that had her pulling him closer and wrapping her arms more firmly around his neck. It was then that Zuko fully became aware that she was shorter than him. He longed to pick her up but he didn't want to push his luck, and so instead he bent closer to her, slowly and gently pushing them both to the ground, where they would be on the same level…
Appa seemed rather miffed at them as they flew back to Ember Island, but whether he was mad about having to sleep in the rain or about their actions neither could tell. They were both utterly silent, and they even refused to look at each other. But it went without saying that what happened that night would remain a tight-lipped secret. Both of them knew even the mention of what had happened to anybody else would make many people very unhappy. And although all they had done was kissed and fallen asleep in each other's arms they weren't naive enough to think that nobody would think something more happened.
Without a word Katara jumped to the ground, but Zuko did not follow. Instead he pulled Appa into the sky again and flew off. Katara watched him go with so many emotions in her, it felt like she would explode. It was as though a storm had started inside her chest, and it was billowing with emotions both good and bad in one twisting hurricane. Sadly she sat on the jetty and dipped her feet into the water and played over the few wonderful moments of the evening. The evening that had calmed the turmoil of her mother, but that had started another turmoil almost as quickly.
It was there on the jetty that Aang found her and praised her for not killing the man she knew she truly hated. And it was there on that jetty that she hugged the teen that had held her while she had cried and slept. And the private look they shared held more weight than any words she could speak.
Katara paused while closing the drapes to look in awe at the coming storm. It promised to be ferocious and very powerful, and even the sight of it sent shivers down her spine. She knew she was safe in the well-equipped Fire Nation palace, but the fear could not be rationalized away. As she pulled the last bit of the fine silk across the window, the clouds broke and the rain started to pelt down, swirling everywhere in the wind that had been slowly making its presence known in the last hour or so. She turned to the chest at the foot of her bed to fetch another cloak, but her actions were stopped by a frantic knock on the door. Before she could open her mouth the person entered, and her stomach instantly dropped at the look on Iroh's face.
"He went," the old general almost moaned. "In a single boat that we have no hope of catching-"
"I'll get him," she promised at once, already heading towards the door. "My Waterbending is faster than his sailing."
Iroh gave her a grateful look and she squeezed his shoulder as she slipped past. As she ran towards the Fire Nation harbor, she found she was not surprised Zuko had sneaked off. He had always been almost obsessive towards the things he really wanted, and she doubted he'd ever wanted anything more than to have is mother back. He had been so excited when Ozai finally gave up the information of her whereabouts. And then his uncle had told him that he couldn't go right away, because of the coming storm and the unreliability of the source. She knew Iroh was right, but she also understood Zuko's disobedience; she would have done the same thing.
Reaching the harbor she scanned the rough gray sea for a long while until she spotted his boat. It was a long way out, and it was already being tossed about dangerously. Fear gripped her; if she couldn't reach him in time… She grit her teeth and summoned a wave of water under her feet, making it roll towards Zuko's boat. But the going was slow; she was working against the current of the mighty ocean. Desperation kept her from stopping her onslaught even for a second, but it was still a long and exhausting time before she reached the little ship.
"Zuko!" She could barely hear herself over the raging storm as he hauled herself tiredly onto the rolling deck. "Zuko!"
She spotted him wrestling with his sail and she rushed over to help without another word. He jumped in surprise when he saw her, but after giving her a long, hard look he just went back to trying to get the sail under control. The boat's deck rolled again, and Katara knew they were fighting a losing battle.
"It's no use!" she yelled right in his ear. "We have to get back to the shore!" He stiffened, but she spun him around to face her firmly. "You'll do no good to her if you're dead!" she yelled.
Another staring contest began, and this time she won. Zuko's shoulders slumped and he let go of the rope. Gently Katara took his hand and led him to the side of the frantically rolling boat, where she pulled up another wave for them to ride on. If Zuko was nervous about stepping off solid ground onto pure water he didn't show it, and soon they were on their way back to shore, this time riding with the current.
They were about three meters away from dry ground when the roaring wave caught her by surprise and knocked both of them into the thrashing sea. She tried to stay calm and put a bubble around herself but her hands got entangled on seaweed and her panic and disorientation just made things worse. Desperately she tried to swim upwards, tugging at her hold as she did. But she didn't move an inch and blackness finally closed around her.
Zuko saw her thrashing and he struck out for the surface, gulped down a huge lungful of air, and then dived under the ferocious waves again. The current battered him to and fro, but he kept striking out towards Katara until he finally reached her. His numb fingers pulled out his ever-trusty dagger and he cut the unconscious girl loose before beginning a slow yet frantic assent. His first gasping breath nearly drowned him as a wave broke directly on him, but he managed to find the surface again and coughed out all the water as he gulped in oxygen. Holding Katara firmly to his side he began to swim with the towering waves towards the beach, being dunked every now and then but never giving up.
Finally he dragged them both onto the wet rock, utterly exhausted. For a few moments he lay there and breathed, but then he forced himself to his feet to help Katara. Pulling her wet hair away from her mouth, he checked her breathing and sighed when he found it was still there. Gently he scooped her up into his aching arms and then carried her towards a cave he knew was just up the shoreline. Inside he instantly steamed both of them dry, and then looked around for something to burn so he could start a fire. There was nothing in sight, and so he created a flame on his palm instead and then sat beside the Waterbender, trying not to stare at her anxiously too often.
At last she stirred and sat up slowly, confusion on her face. Then she started to put two and two together and she felt her dry clothes with a sort of awe. Zuko watched all of this from the corner of his eye; he couldn't bring himself to look directly at her. She finally stopped her scrutiny and turned directly to face him. The silence stretched on.
"I'm sorry, Katara." His voice was raw from the salt water.
In reply she wrapped her arms around him tightly and rested her head on his shoulder. He resisted for a second, but then slumped down into her with his head on top of hers. He would not cry, but he knew she felt his sorrow. After a long time of them just sitting and watching the storm she suddenly punched him on the shoulder.
"You could have killed yourself!" she scolded him hotly.
"I know." He used his free hand to rub his face tiredly. "I just…"
"Didn't think things through. As usual."
"And I was ready to face the storm," he added quietly, staring at the falling rain. "It was just another obstacle keeping me from her. I'd be able to fight it, to get rid of all my anger while facing it…"
She silently moved to the mouth of the cave and, bending the rain away from her, rummaged around outside. She dragged back a branch of a tree and bended it dry before placing it in front of Zuko. He lit the sturdy wood and she sat next to him again, watching the flames as he was.
"You know, the spirits seem to think we like meeting in caves," she said suddenly. "While in a storm. And talking about our mothers."
The tiniest ghost of a smile appeared on his lips. "And in every time I'm the fool."
She looked at him steadily. "If you want, I can do something to make you mad. That way you can take it all out on me."
He looked directly at her, and her eyes seemed to gleam in the fire. Before he could give his consent her lips were on his, and he felt the emotions he'd locked far away tear back into his body. And, like on the first night all those months ago, they couldn't seem to get close enough to each other. Their lips were bruised when Zuko finally managed to pull his mouth away.
"This isn't making me mad," he gasped at her.
"It helped heal the storm inside of me," she explained quietly.
He stroked her cheek lightly. "But it just creates another in me. Katara… you're more to me than just-"
She placed a hand over his mouth. "I know. I love you too. I've lived with that since the first time you kissed me and… and I'm sick of keeping it bottled up."
He was kissing her again, feeling the turmoil and pain inside him lesson as the girl in his arms held him. And this time he did not fight the urge to lift her right off the ground so that she was crushed gently to his chest and nothing else. The thunder and lightning went unnoticed as they healed each other with their lips and touches, but the end of the storm made them stop and stare outside in muted awe.
Katara looked at him with a question in her eyes: were they keeping this one silent too? In response Zuko grabbed her hand firmly in his and then tugged her into the light drizzle and under the brilliant rainbow that marked the ending of more than one storm.