A/N; Hello again, my friends!
This little ficlet was originally started as a present for the lovely Ace Please, who messaged me about my other ATLA fic "Of Stealth and Allergies." Mademoiselle Ace is one of the absolute coolest people I've ever met online, so when I got stuck working on her present, I decided to ask for help. xD
SO, this piece is a combined effort between our two brains. All the kudos go to my lovely friend and muse! (:
I don't own Avatar or any of the characters, etc., etc.
(Not) The Weakest Link
by Zola and Ace
To say it was raining was an understatement – the massive clouds that had been gathering for days had all but exploded, unleashing their wrath upon the thirst-stricken earth below. The grounds had initially soaked up the downpour with gusto, absorbing every drop of moisture within reach. But as the hours dragged on, the now-saturated earth began to slowly reject the cascade of icy liquid, creating sluggish floods that crept lazily over the flatlands.
Zuko watched the floodwaters sliding by and shivered, blinking his tawny eyes in annoyance as rainwater dripped from his ragged bangs.
"Stupid rain," he muttered.
"Complaining about it isn't going to make it stop," Katara chided from his left, though her statement was only a mild reprimand.
Zuko glanced over as she drew her knees to her chest and leaned back against the trunk of the willow tree providing them shelter. "You like this." His tone bordered on accusatory.
Katara shrugged complacently. "I'm a waterbender."
The Fire Prince rolled his eyes dramatically. "So of all the people I could get stuck with, I get Miss Positive."
"That doesn't even make sense," Katara replied, amused. "Look, Zuko, I'm not any happier about this than you are. But we're going to be here for a while, so it's probably better if we try to make the most of it."
Her upbeat attitude sickened him. Zuko shot a venomous glare in her direction before shaking his hair like a dog to dislodge the clinging water droplets. But the rain truly had put her in a better mood; none of his usual "obnoxious personality traits," as she had once called them, seemed to be bothering her at all.
"Why do you keep doing that?" Katara spoke up, automatically flinching away as water slung from Zuko's saturated hair. "It's not like it's going to keep us any drier."
Maybe not, Zuko amended his previous thought, taking in the annoyance creeping into her tone with a sense of vague triumph. "I don't like being wet," he shot back, shivering unconsciously. "It's not something I generally go for."
Katara didn't reply, only turned her gaze back to the seemingly-impenetrable curtains of rain surrounding their little dome. It wasn't raining as hard as it had been earlier, but the water just kept coming, thick and ubiquitous.
"They're going to have a heck of a time getting back to camp," she spoke after a moment.
She was referring to the rest of their group, scattered around the area as they were. Sokka and Toph had gone hunting, taking Aang and Appa with them so they could get back to camp when the clouds building overhead finally decided to give way.
Zuko and Katara had been charged to check out the surrounding terrain; they were several hours' walk away from camp when the storm exploded. The two adventurers had quickly taken shelter under a nearby tree, not expecting the rain to last more than half an hour, at the most. But they had been huddling under the sodden willow for more than an hour now, hoping against hope that at least the floodwaters would start to abate.
Zuko sourly tossed a stone into the slow current drifting by a few yards from their little embankment. "We're going to have a heck of a time getting back to camp," he replied.
"I guess we could always make a run for it?" Katara suggested half-heartedly, peering out past the floodwaters. "We could wade through the flood, then…" she trailed off, realizing the futility of her idea before it fully left her lips.
"Yeah. No." A sudden chill ran up his spine, and Zuko began to shiver violently.
"What's wrong with you?" Katara demanded, watching as Zuko pulled his knees to his chest and huddled in on himself. "You're in an even worse mood than normal, and that's saying something."
"I just don't like the rain. At all," Zuko muttered, throwing her an angry glance. He paused, shaking his hair again. "And I'm wet, and cold."
"So am I!" Katara threw up her hands in the beginnings of a tirade that died almost before it began. She crossed her arms over her knees and rested her chin on them, gazing out into the rain again. "I was hoping the tree would keep us drier than this, anyways." The young waterbender pulled her soggy hair over her shoulder and squeezed it out like a towel.
"Yeah." Zuko closed his eyes. "But I guess it is better than being out in the storm."
Katara glanced over at him in surprise. "Was that a positive comment?"
"No," Zuko replied without opening his eyes. "Never."
They were silent for a few moments, listening to the pattern of the rain as it drummed insistently against the ground around them. Water continued to trickle through the thin branches of the willow, soaking the two benders huddled beneath its leaves.
"Do all firebenders hate water, or are you just particular?" Katara ventured after a while.
Zuko was silent for a moment before replying. "All of us, for the most part. We don't do as well-" he trailed off, his eyes snapping open.
Katara could see he was annoyed with himself. "You what?"
"Nothing," Zuko snapped, then burrowed his face in the crook of his arm and coughed. Katara didn't notice until the coughing strung out for several seconds longer than it should have.
"Are you ok?" She asked when he finally stopped, breathing raggedly.
"Yes. Sure," Zuko snapped back, swallowing uneasily.
Katara watched him for a moment more. "You're seriously not that predictable, are you?"
Zuko furrowed his eyebrows. Guardedly, he asked, "Predictable how?"
"I thought only children caught colds in the rain," Katara chided, sounding almost amused.
"I'm not—" Zuko started, but was cut off by a sneeze which he smothered into his shirtsleeve. Involuntarily, he shivered.
"You're not…?" Katara prompted.
"I'm fine," Zuko insisted. Carpingly, he added, "I'm just cold."
Another bout of coughing came over him, and when he was finished, Katara said, "Sounds like you have one, too."
Zuko sneezed again, twice, contradicting his previous claim and satisfying Katara's suspicion.
"Come on," she incited, "we're going to be stuck here for a while anyway; you might as well just admit it. You told me a while ago that dousing you with water would get you sick. This isn't any different."
Zuko exhaled dejectedly. "Just… leave it alone, okay? You worry too much."
Katara frowned. "I'm not usually one to ignore it when one of my friends is sick. Besides, it's kind of cute how vulnerable you're turning out to be, considering how tough you try to act—"
"It's only in the rain," Zuko punctuated, "I don't usually get sick otherwise."
"So you admit you're sick?"
Katara exhaled in an annoyed huff. "Of course. Stubborn as always."
"What's admitting anything going to change?" Zuko demanded, suddenly angry. "I'm fine, it's not like putting words onto something makes it any more or less real!" He broke from his seated position and paced to the farthest corner of their dry space, crossing his arms over his chest.
Katara watched with growing concern as his pose was interrupted by a quiet sneeze that he tried unsuccessfully to mask. "Zuko, being sick isn't anything to be ashamed of. It's not like we're going to throw you out of the group," she joked half-heartedly, watching his tense shoulder muscles. Amazingly, they were beginning to relax, to loosen ever so slightly.
"Yeah," he finally replied. "I know."
"You don't sound like it," Katara muttered, just loud enough for it to reach his ears. She watched his back and shoulders tighten again; she was surprised when they suddenly relaxed.
"I know," he repeated, his voice barely above a whisper, and coughed once more. Quietly, Katara ambled closer to him.
"I just… don't like feeling weak," he elaborated once he caught his breath. "And I don't like looking weak either."
"It's not like a virus is permanent," Katara reminded, and Zuko jumped at the realization of her closeness. When he turned to face her, she slid a dark hand under his ebony bangs and frowned.
"You're a little warm," she remarked.
"No warmer than usual," Zuko assured with a quick sniffle. "I'm a firebender, remember? I'm naturally warmer than you are."
"Still, getting drenched will probably give you a fever." Katara predicted. "Oh!" Enlightened, she abruptly stilled the water falling above them, so the area surrounding them was dry, like an umbrella.
Zuko blinked. "You couldn't have done that before?"
"It's not like I could think very well with all of your complaining!"
Zuko had opened his mouth to protest when his expression abruptly changed into something much less angry, much more vulnerable. He quickly ducked his head into his shoulder and sneezed forcefully.
Katara's argument died on her lips. Impulsively she crossed the no-man's land between them and pressed her hand to his forearm. Zuko jerked and pulled away, shooting a surprised glance in her direction.
"What?" he demanded.
"I'm bringing down your fever, hold still," Katara replied irritably, replacing her hand and closing her eyes in concentration. An outline of faint blue light began to show around her fingers.
Zuko watched her with a mix of wariness and curiosity. "Did it…work?" He asked after a moment, tilting his head like a bird.
Katara's eyes slid open. "Do you feel any different?" She countered, pushing the back of her hand against his forehead again.
Zuko flinched but kept from pulling away. "I don't think so." He paused almost apologetically. "But I'm sure it…helped?"
Katara exhaled in a frustrated huff. "No, it didn't. I didn't think it would, but I wasn't sure."
"Oh. Sorry," Zuko added awkwardly.
Katara shot him a glance that was half amused, half annoyed. "Yeah. Anyways." She stepped away from Zuko, moving to the outskirts of her invisible umbrella. "The rain's died down a little bit."
"Really?" The firebender perked up and followed her example. "Yeah! Yeah, it looks like the floodwaters are going down a little."
"Ebbing," Katara supplied automatically. Her eyes didn't leave the gray sky cloaking the soggy afternoon.
"What?" Zuko's reply was distracted. His calloused fingers traced the length of a willow branch hanging down by his face, brushing the rough scar tissue on his cheekbone. The water actually felt kind of nice now, soothing. He remembered the icy grasp of the cloths the healers had pressed to his face after his father had scarred his face; the sensation rose to the memory of his facial nerves, rippling in a quiet shiver.
"Ebbing. The floodwaters are ebbing," Katara explained, glancing over at her companion. He didn't respond. She cocked an eyebrow.
"Let's…head back to camp. Sound good to you?"
"Yeah, most definitely." Zuko snapped back to the present. "Let's get out of here." He brushed by her, ignoring the rainwater that began to soak him the second he left their bubble.
A/N 2: Let us know what you think! Hit that adorable little review button hanging out down there! You'll have two people that will love you forever (: