A story by The Crushinator, written for the Avatar Big Bang. Beta'd by Michelle-ravel.
Five years after the end of the Hundred Year War, Fire Lord Zuko is hit with an assassin's dart while walking in the marketplace with Mai. It sends him into a coma from which he cannot wake. Nothing can revive him; not antidotes, not rest, not even Katara's healing. But Katara has begun to suspect that there is something else she can do. For all she hears when she closes her eyes is his voice calling out to her from the Spirit World. To save Zuko, Katara must seek out Aang, who is the only person alive who can act as a bridge to the Spirit World. There's a problem, though, and it's not just what Toph calls 'Aang's Law.' Katara and Aang haven't spoken in over a year.
A/N: This story took me about four or five months to write. I'll be posting a new chapter every Saturday as long as I keep up with my editing schedule. Thank you to the Avatar Big Bang for supplying me with such an inspiring prompt. Thank you to Michelle for encouraging me to go back and edit, and for her wonderful work helping me trim it down into something readable. If I can keep my editing on schedule, I should be able to post a new chapter every Saturday until it's complete (don't worry, the chapters get longer). A lot of it takes place in the Spirit World, where there's no bending but you can get hurt. It's a series continuation that touches on first love, second love, friendship, family, self-sacrifice, and eldritch horrors. I hope you like it. 3
-The Crushinator, 10/16/10
Katara dragged the sleeve of water up and down the back of Zuko's left wrist with efficient, practiced strokes. She was good at this. She could heal most injuries, even if she'd never spent much time in the healing hut with Yugoda. What mattered was what she'd learned on the battlefield. She could heal a knife wound. She could urge broken veins to link back together. She could ease someone's skin from blisters back to smooth flesh. She could draw out poison. Concentrating hard, she shut her eyes and let the water ease its way into the miniscule pinprick above his pulse. The water crept under his skin in search of something she suspected was no longer there. But every day for a week she'd tried to find it anyway. What was it that Zuko was so fond of saying? Never give up without a fight? She would have smiled if the situation hadn't been so tense. The anxious stares from Iroh and the attending physician were enough to quell any mirth on her part. She'd have to remember to tell Zuko about it when he woke up.
If she opened the web of her waterbending just a little, she could feel the blood within him like she felt water, though she couldn't move it without the power of the full moon behind her. Just sensing it, however, told her everything she needed. She eased the water back out of him and bent it into a nearby basin to be disposed of.
"Nothing," she said, dragging the back of her hand across her forehead. "There's nothing. No poison, no sickness, nothing. I don't know why he's still unconscious like this, but it's not related to the dart that assassin stuck him with."
Iroh let out a long breath. She hated to see his shoulders sag like that, like he'd been defeated. Even in his disappointment he had a smile for her, though, which made it much worse.
"You've done all you can," he said, patting her on the shoulder.
"I know I have," she snapped, then collected herself. "Sorry. I'm just frustrated. The poison's gone, and I know there's nothing wrong with him internally, but it's like he's not even trying to get better."
"You and I both know that my nephew does not give up so easily." He squeezed her shoulder. "Come. You have done more than enough for him already. It's time for you to consider some rest."
"It's not like I can sleep anyway," she muttered.
She shook her head and got to her feet. "Nothing. Rest sounds like a great idea."
"I am glad to hear it."
He placed his hand on the small of her back, evidently intending to escort her, but she pulled away to lean over and smooth Zuko's sheets.
"Someone needs to change these," she said.
"I will see to it," said the attending physician with a salute.
"And he needs a shave."
Iroh smiled at her a second time. "The barber will be in to take care of him tomorrow morning. Come. No more fussing. You must leave that to me."
She finally allowed Iroh to lead her away, though not before ordering the physician to perform hourly checks on Zuko throughout the night. It would be the first night since she'd arrived in the palace, windswept and determined, that she'd be sleeping somewhere other than next to Zuko's bed on a pallet of blankets.
"I'm still not used to seeing him like this," she said as Iroh walked her through the doors. "He's always been so... driven."
"That is a most polite way of saying high-strung."
She gave a weak laugh. The guards outside Zuko's room bowed to the both of them as they passed. The moment they entered the hallway she closed her eyes and took a long, deep breath. The fresh air was a great improvement over the incense the Fire Sages insisted on burning by their Fire Lord's bed at all hours. When she opened her eyes again, she spotted Mai across the hall, leaning against a pillar with her arms folded across her chest.
"So how is he?" she asked. Her face was placid as ever, but her hands were tight on her sleeves.
"He is much the same," said Iroh. "No better, but no worse. Perhaps if you went to see him-"
"No." Her silk robes rustled and she turned to Katara. "So is your water helping at all?"
Katara frowned. "It's keeping him alive, if that's what you mean."
"But he's still not awake. Great."
"Wow Mai. Your gratitude is overwhelming. I might blush."
Mai narrowed her eyes. Katara glared back. After a few seconds of this, Mai squeezed her eyes shut, pinched the bridge of her nose, and sighed.
"I know you're keeping him alive, and that you're doing the best you can to get him through this stupid coma. And I'm grateful for it. I'm just... stressed. My head's been throbbing nonstop since I got up today."
"That makes two of us," Katara grumbled. "Here." She uncorked her waterskin. "Let me see if I can help."
Mai raised an eyebrow, but bowed her head. Katara drew a thick stream of water from her skins and split it into two streams. Then she pressed the water to Mai's temples until it began to glow bright blue. Mai seemed to relax a little under the treatment. She at least stopped frowning.
"Thanks," she said when Katara drew back. "I feel a lot less awful now."
Iroh clapped his hands together, causing Katara to jump. "Astonishing. After I have signed tomorrow's mountain of paperwork, maybe I will ask you to remove the awful crick in my neck it gives me."
Katara smiled and eased the bending water back into its flask. "Sure, if Zuko can spare me tomorrow."
"It's been a week. It's not like he'll be waking up any time soon," said Mai.
"You don't know that."
Mai raised one thin, dark eyebrow. "Neither do you."
Katara put her hands on her hips. "This is ridiculous. He's going to wake up because there's nothing wrong with him. I know he's still in there somewhere. He's just... lost. It's up to us to show him the way home."
Mai snorted, and Katara felt the color rise in her face. "If he's lost, I'll have someone draw him a map." She straightened, and looked around the hallway, though for what, Katara didn't know. When she didn't find it, she tucked her hands into her sleeves and sighed. "This is dull. I'm going to bed. Send someone to come get me if he..." She trailed off, then shook her head. "Nevermind. Goodnight."
She nodded to Iroh and Katara, then walked down the hallway, her robes trailing behind her.
When she was out of sight, Katara turned to Iroh and shook her head. "I really don't understand her."
Iroh gave her a sympathetic pat on the back. "Mai is an efficient person. She is grieving for him in her own way, before what she sees as inevitable takes her by surprise."
"That's ridiculous. He's going to be fine."
Iroh paused for a moment. When he spoke again, his tone was delicate. "I believe my nephew will recover as well. But because both he and Mai have not lived easy lives, both of them expect the worst and have taught themselves never to hope for the best."
"They must be so happy together," she grumbled.
"Yes," Iroh replied, without irony. "They have been good for each other. They've laughed a great deal."
She raised an eyebrow. "Mai? Zuko? Laughing? I can't really picture that."
"You would be surprised." With a wide smile, Iroh offered her his arm. "Would you kindly allow this old man to escort you to your room?"
She laid her hand on his outstretched elbow. "You're not old."
"Tell that to my creaking joints. Getting up in the morning should not be so noisy!"
She laughed, then sighed, and tightened her grip on his arm. "I'm glad you're on my side, at least. I feel like you're the only other one here who doesn't think he's going to die," she said.
"Because of the war, there are more pessimists here in the Fire Nation than there once were. Those who suffered learned to not let themselves feel hope." He covered her hand with his and gave it a squeeze. "But you and I have not yet learned that life lesson, it seems."
In her mind's eye, she saw Zuko rise from the mists of the Western Air Temple on the top of a military blimp after he'd been thrown into the abyss. She saw him grip the guard rail of a balcony and heard him tell her his money was his to use as he pleased, and if he wanted to give it away he damned well would. She saw him hand her a bowl full of palm wine over a fire, saw her fingertips brush his in the passing and come away sticky with sugar. Then, she imagined him dead in white burial robes, his arms folded across his chest, being loaded into another kind of fire. She pushed the thought away as hard as she could.
"Ah, here we are," said Iroh. "The Princess' Room."
They stopped before a tall set of red-lacquer doors flanked by one guard. Normally, Katara would have argued about having someone guard her while she slept (she could very well take care of herself, thank you), but the past few days had taken their toll. She'd argue about it in the morning.
"It still feels weird to stay in Azula's old room," she said as she stifled a yawn.
"The room doesn't care who sleeps in it. I think the guard does, though. It will be nice for her to watch over someone who is unlikely to set her on fire."
The guard coughed into her fist and blushed. Iroh grinned and raised his eyebrows at her.
"How is Azula?" asked Katara. She wasn't just saying it to be polite. In a strange way, Katara felt sorry for the mad girl who used to be her most dangerous foe. Knowing that the once proud Princess of the Fire Nation had been reduced to chains, drugged tea, and strait jackets didn't satisfy Katara like she once thought it would.
"The doctors have written that she is showing signs of improvement. She has been sleeping through the night for the first time in five years. She has also started collecting moonflowers. And you know what? She hasn't set a single one on fire! I am thinking of asking them to set aside a garden for her. Perhaps the exercise will teach her caring where my brother taught her hate."
She thought of Azula's pointed nails as she shot Aang with lightning and severely doubted that. "Maybe so," she said.
"Now, are you certain that you won't be joining me for an evening snack? I could use the good company."
She shook her head. "I can't. Right now I really need to sleep. Thank you for inviting me, though."
Iroh squeezed her hand. "Then I will see you at breakfast. Sleep well, Miss Katara."
Before she could go, Iroh surprised her by engulfing her in a spine-cracking hug. She could feel his heart beating slowly in his chest. If she held still, she could feel him trembling a little.
"My nephew is very lucky to have you as his friend," he whispered in her ear.
A stone settled on her shoulders. "Yeah. Lucky."
The air of the swamp was a hot, wet shroud. Her hair clung to the back of her neck and her arms where her skin was bare, and it itched where it touched her. All over, she felt the slow trickle of sweat that couldn't evaporate in the saturated heat.
There it was. She whipped around to find the source of the call but only saw a flock of strange, dark, misshapen birds take flight in alarm. They shrieked as they wove around the floating clumps of leaves that hung in the strange, yellow sky.
"Zuko!" She shouted. "Zuko! Where are you?"
"Katara!" His voice was muffled now, as if it were coming from behind a wall.
She began to run towards his voice, stumbling on unseen rocks and twisted tree roots and wading through pools of water when she could find no footholds. A thick fog rose around her. Before long, she couldn't see more than a few feet in front of her. Somewhere just beyond the fog, though, she thought she could see someone.
"Don't move! I'm almost there!"
The fog swallowed her words. A twig snapped, and with cold horror, she realized that there was someone behind her. It wasn't Zuko.
She opened her eyes as suddenly as if a firecracker had gone off in her room. Just like in her dream, her hair clung to her skin where she'd perspired in her sleep. She groaned and pushed it out of her face. Her throat was scratchy and dry. What time was it? She sat up, took a deep breath, and reached out with her bending. There were no windows in the princess' room, which Iroh had explained was a cautionary measure against would-be kidnappers or assassins. This wasn't a problem in a culture that revolved around the cycles of the sun, but for Katara, who lived by the moon, it took a bit of concentration to determine its position in the sky with no visual reference.
There it was. Near the horizon, very bright and low in the sky. She groaned again. It was well past midnight. She hated waking up before dawn. It meant hours of moon-induced wakefulness followed by maybe an hour or two of fitful sleep. And with Iroh's breakfast scheduled so early, there wasn't even a chance of the sleep part.
"Why do firebenders have to rise with the sun?" she grumbled, pulling on the blue silk robe Iroh had given her. She tied it at the waist and slid on some slippers. If she was going to be awake, she might as well be comfortable, she thought. And comfort started with some water and a light snack, followed by bending practice.
"I'm going- oh."
That special awkwardness that only comes at three in the morning when there's nothing to distract you slid into the pit of her stomach and coiled there like a fat worm. It had been more than a year since she shared her bed with Aang, and they'd stopped being intimate even longer before that. She still remembered the shape of his head on her pillow, round as a snowball and five times as big, and the way he'd rest his hand on her waist like he couldn't believe she was actually there. Only now, she wasn't. And neither was he.
She shook her head. No. She wasn't going to waste her time dwelling on it.
She padded across the room, and the floor loudly creaked with each step. Another security measure, Iroh had told her. Another annoying security measure, she'd added to herself. Her guard saluted her as she opened the door to the hallway.
"Evening, Lady Katara," she said. "Anything I can get for you? You shouldn't be out of bed at this hour."
Katara waved her hand. "No, I'm fine. Just going to the kitchens to get a bite to eat. The moon was full yesterday, so when I'm up, I'm up."
The guard looked politely puzzled.
"Waterbender," she explained.
The guard bowed. "If you say so, miss."
She bowed back and continued on her way, down the hallway and around the corner until she reached the intersection that would take her to the kitchens. A warm night breeze drifted in through the huge courtyard windows. At least there was some ventilation in the royal quarters, she thought. Through the partially opened slats, which were stained a dark red-brown and covered with cracks, she could see silhouettes of ancient pines and young buds on the sun-cherry trees stirring in counterpoint to one another in the dim pre-dawn glow. Spring was always early in the Fire Nation. It was a beautiful night, even if she wished she could be sleeping through it.
She turned towards the kitchens and nodded sleepily to a group of servants with armfuls of bedsheets. A few nodded back, though some were too preoccupied to reciprocate. Her path took her past the quarters of the rest of the royal family: Iroh in the Crown Prince's room, Mai in the Fire Lady's, and Zuko in the Fire Lord's. Warm yellow light shone through the crack under Iroh's door. She remembered him saying to her at lunch that day that being the Fire Lord was a true full time job.
"And by full," he'd said, "I mean that it occupies your every waking moment, and most of your sleeping ones. At least the Jasmine Dragon can be trusted in the hands of my staff if I wish to take a well-deserved vacation."
Since it was Iroh, though, she fully expected him to be the first person at the breakfast table, as bright and refreshed as if he'd slept nine hours. She smiled to herself and passed the Fire Lady's room, which was dark, and began the trek past the Fire Lord's, when she stopped.
A very strange sound tickled at the edge of her hearing. It was as a great wind were causing a forest of trees to bend, except that there was no whoosh of wind, only the creaking and groaning of old wood. Frowning, she took a few steps forward. Yes, it was definitely stronger. There was also another layer to the sound. She couldn't quite place that one, though she knew she'd heard it before. She took a few more steps forward and concentrated. Dread welled up in her chest like hot lead. She was running now, full tilt, the train of her robe flapping behind her.
"Get out of the way!" she shouted to the two men guarding Zuko's room.
She pushed past the guards, who offered no resistance. She cursed herself for not having any bending water on hand. What had she been thinking? Concentrating, she drew water from the air around her until both her hands were coated in glowing blue gloves.
"Open the door," she ordered.
One of the men looked as if he wanted to argue, but he bowed his head, and carefully unlatched the door.
The minute she stepped over the threshold, the other noise, the one she couldn't identify, stopped, and the wood sound became a cacophony of ugly, wet groans. She clapped her hands to her ears and her water splashed to the floor. Then, it was utterly silent. No noise, no movement, just the steady drift of incense smoke.
"Lady Katara, are you well?"
"I- I thought I was. Didn't you hear that?"
She looked to her left, then to her right, and saw nothing out of place. Iroh's flowers were still on the night stand, the papers that Zuko had laid aside just before his last walk were still in the same half-disheveled state, and the drawn curtains around the bed hung still.
Behind her, the guards shared a glance. "Hear what?"
Katara frowned. "Don't move. I'm going to check on Zuko."
She gently pushed the curtains aside, only to find Zuko as she left him, sleeping peacefully, his breathing low and deep. She checked his pulse. It was normal. His sheets weren't even wrinkled. Simultaneous senses of relief and confusion flooded through her. Nothing had happened. Everything was fine. But what had she heard, then?
"Everything seems okay," she said, trying and failing to keep the skepticism out of her voice. "Could you let me know if you hear anything later?"
But as she stood, something odd tickled her sense of smell. While the elder of the guards clicked his heels and saluted her, she stepped away from the bed, took a deep breath, and gagged.
There was no mistaking it. Under the smoky-sweet scent of incense was the sickly odor of a rotting meat.