A/N: I am so sorry. I've been promising an update around Thanksgiving and I kind of fell short on that. My humblest of apologies, but finals were a nightmare. There was literally a week from hell where I had 8 hours of sleep total. *shudder* It's Christmas Break now, so here's a Christmas present for you! I'm not entirely happy with it, but I feel you've waited long enough to find out how this all ends. It's been a hell of a ride. I hope you enjoy this last installment of Fragile (it must be Italian) and forgive my comma abuse! As always, this is unbeta'd.
Disclaimer: I do not own A:TLA. I don't. No, really! I know you thought I did but this is all for shits and giggles! I get nothing but pleasure from writing this.
PS: Props if you can name the anime I stole the Avatar names from! :)
Final Round: Loss vs. Opportunity
Zuko was, to say the least, confused. Or perhaps he was bewildered? Flummoxed? He stopped exploring his vocabulary and tried once more to take stock of the situation.
The first thing he noticed was a persistent throbbing ache in his head. Besides that, though the rest of him was sore, he felt far better than the last time he remembered waking up. That seemed to be the only part of his current situation he could be absolutely sure of, because it seemed surreal to the point of absurdity that the sky had become a ceiling of rock and the stars had morphed into two misty grey lights floating somewhere between the ceiling and him.
He blinked again and the floating lights resolved into a pair of milky white eyes. Dear Agni! The earthbender! Thinking she had come for revenge of some sort or to finish what she had started with that cursed rock spike, he threw himself to the side trying to get out of her range.
His stiffened muscles violently protested the sudden rapid use so soon upon waking as he awkwardly tried to crawl away from the small form in green frowning after him. He tried to apologize once more, to tell her he wasn't going to hurt her in an effort to stop her from hitting him again, but nothing would leave his throat.
He desperately tried to speak again, and still he was met with a maddening silence. He couldn't shout, he couldn't scream - he couldn't even whisper. Tears of frustration leaked from the corners of his eyes before he could stop them. He angrily dashed them away as his back hit the wall and he could withdraw no further from the source of his current wretched state.
"Hey, take it easy." Toph murmured as she felt the prone form tense up and skitter away. "You're safe here." She stopped moving towards the silent form heaving for breath as she noticed his heart beat faster each time she got nearer.
"I'm sorry I hurt you, you know," She said hesitantly. "I was just trying to make you stop coming after me. I was scared… I didn't mean to hurt you like that…" Toph scuffed the ground with her toe, eyes downcast. She waited for his response, the silence becoming more awkward as it stretched on with Zuko still pressed firmly against the wall.
"Um, alright…" She wasn't sure what else to say. He didn't seem to be accepting her apology and he wasn't moving. She decided to go and find Katara. Maybe he was still in pain and that's why he wouldn't respond to her.
"Just try to lie back down before you hurt yourself," she shot over her shoulder as she moved towards the entrance of the temple proper, some confidence returning to her tone. "Katara won't be happy if you undo any of her work!"
Katara, that was the waterbender! Was it she who had stolen his voice? Did it have anything to do with the insistent drumbeat that had begun to pick up speed in the middle of his head? He took the strange girl's advice and slid down the wall until he was resting with his back against it. She had apologized for hurting him so perhaps she didn't mean to pummel him again…His ribs twinged in remembrance of that night. He felt bad that she thought he hadn't accepted her apologies and that he could not offer his own again, but his voice was still not cooperating with him.
He let his head fall back against the wall and contemplated trying to leave, but this was what he had asked for. He was in their camp and maybe with time he would be able to convince them to let him teach Aang. Even if he had lost his voice, he still had his bending.
Lost in his thoughts he began to shiver. He felt too weak to make it all the way over to the blankets that had been covering him and back to the wall where he felt slightly more secure, so he summoned a small flame to his palm to ward off the chill.
At least, he tried to summon a flame. Much as when he had tried to speak, nothing came.
He centered himself and tried to bring his quickening breathing back under control, but though he could shakily form the motions which normally brought him in touch with his element nothing happened. Tears began to fall in earnest as his hand dropped lifelessly to his side, all of his energy spent.
This was the state Katara found him in when Toph led her out of the temple. Toph felt the silent, shaking sobs wracking his body from a distance. She bit her lip and pulled Katara along faster. "Katara, what's wrong with him?"
Katara approached slowly and knelt down at the sobbing exile's side and put her hand on his shoulder. "He's crying, Toph." At the sound of her voice, Zuko looked up at her and his face contorted into an expression of anger. His mouth began to move and he gestured wildly with the hand that wasn't wrapped protectively around his middle, but though he looked like he was shouting at the top of his lungs, he didn't actually say anything.
Katara was perplexed. "Toph, did he say anything to you when he woke up?" At this, he seemed to deflate completely and resumed his motionless staring contest with the floor, refusing to meet her eyes.
"No, he didn't say anything. He just freaked a little and scooched over there."
Zuko glared at the shorter girl before him. He did not scooch.
"Well he seems to want to say a great deal right now. I think he's lost his voice…"
Zuko did meet her gaze at this pronouncement and gestured violently to his throat whilst attempting to scream, whisper, to make any noise at all. He then pinched his thumb and forefinger together as if grasping a brush and made writing motions.
Katara turned to Toph. "Could you make a stylus or something thin and sharp so he can spell in the dirt?"
"Easier than breathing, Sugar Queen!" She stomped her left foot down upon the ground and caught the slim stone that popped free, handing it over to Katara. She in turn handed it to Zuko with a warning look that promised pain if he did anything stupid.
What did you do to me? I can't talk and my bending is gone! he franticly scratched in the smooth stone before him. Katara relayed the message to Toph and then shot a piercing look at Zuko. "Your bending is gone?" He punched the air towards her and angrily indicated the air where his hand had been and no fire had formed.
"Can you fix it Katara?"
"I don't know Toph, I don't even know if I want to fix it. I need to talk to Aang." She abruptly stood and walked over to the breakfast fire.
"Zuko's lost his bending," Katara huffed out as she plopped next to Aang and helped herself to a bowl of rice.
Aang actually dropped his chopsticks as he stared at her in horror.
"Serves him right. Makes one less firebender we have to worry about anyway," came Sokka's satisfied response.
Toph clipped him upside the head as she sat down and Aang shot him a fierce glare.
"You don't know what you're saying Snoozles. It's never a good thing to take away a bender's ability. I would be dead if I couldn't bend and not because someone else had tried to do me in either. I never would have been able to handle being blind without the crutch my bending is for me. Being a bender is part of who you are as a person, and no one should have to lose that. The poor guy started hyperventilating after you said that, Katara."
She turned her milky eyes unerringly in Katara's direction. "If you can fix it, you have no reason not to. We've had this discussion already – he's changed and we need a firebending master. "
"Toph, what makes you think I would want to fix him?" Toph frowned, because while the words were aimed to make her angry, something about Katara's heartbeat didn't ring true… Yes, she still hated Zuko, but there was an undercurrent of – fear? Oh no.
"Katara, he didn't lose his bending until after you worked on him. Did you do this on purpose?"
"NO!" Katara's heartbeat had moved into the realm of truly pissed. "I didn't take away his bending, I am not like those fire nation monsters! I would never knowingly steal someone else's bending, I've lost mine once and I never intend to have that happen to me again!"
Aang chose this moment to step between his teachers. "Ok! Nothing will be solved if we just shout at each other. Please sit down."
As the two women sat down the airbender turned his wide grey eyes on Katara. "I know you wouldn't do this to anyone on purpose but Toph's right. It didn't happen until you started healing him. Do you think that had anything to do with it?"
Katara's eyes were downcast as she thought. "Maybe. I was planning on asking you what you thought."
"I'm not a healer, Katara."
"I know, but… you may have been one before…"
Aang slowly nodded as he realized what she was asking. "I can ask Roku about it. If he doesn't know, I'm sure someone else in the spirit world will have some ideas. Give me a bit of time and I'll let you know what I'll find out." He stood and walked into the temple to meditate.
It was nearly evening when Aang emerged again from the temple. He looked drawn and not a little put out. He drew Katara off to one side and they talked until the sun was poised on the edge of the horizon. Aang punctuated much of what he said with wild gesticulation and pointed thrusts of his hands. Near the end of the conversation, his movements began to slow and he dropped into several bending stances. Sokka and Toph watched with unabashed curiosity.
Finally they turned as one and began walking towards Zuko. The watching pair fell in step besides the two benders.
"So what's the verdict? Can you fix him?" Toph asked, breaking the silence. Katara and Aang quickly filled them in and all too soon they came to a stop in front of Zuko. He was still huddled against the wall, wrapped in the blanket Toph had found for him after his panic attack that morning. He didn't even look up at their approach, his eyes never leaving the small pattern he continued to trace in the dust.
Toph's anxiety levels spiked. She had never heard Katara sound this timid before. Whatever was coming was not going to be pleasant.
"Zuko, I-I…" With the renewed attempt to gain his attention finally brought Zuko's head up. Aang flinched as the lifeless golden orbs stared back at them. Zuko's expressionless face would not have looked out of place on a corpse.
Katara seemed to find her courage at last as she looked into the despair she had created. She swallowed and squared her shoulders as she finally said her piece. "Zuko, I'm sorry. Aang here has been consulting some of his past lives and the healers have shown us how to repair the damage I've done. You had a fever last night and it damaged your mind. I didn't really have the training to do any mind healing, but I thought I could do it anyway. I ended up melding with some of your memories and they scared me. When I withdrew from your mind, I was afraid and uncontrolled. While what I had tried to heal was fixed, my lack of technique ended up tangling some things and tearing others. Your mind will try to repair itself, but without the pathways being straightened and lined up properly, it will heal incorrectly."
Zuko continued to gaze at her listlessly as she finished her little speech. When it became obvious she was waiting for some kind of response, he nodded jerkily and scratched in the stone before him.
Sokka leaned over Toph and read the upside down characters. "I'm pretty sure Granna Kanna would have a fit if she saw his grammar right now, but I think he wants to know if you can fix it what you'll have to do."
Katara looked distinctly uncomfortable. "Well, I have to do what I did before. The previous Avatars, Kisuke in particular, seem to think Zuko's mind was trying to attack me by trapping me in memories it knew would frighten me because it knew I wasn't supposed to be there. I was an intruder – the enemy. In order to heal what I damaged, I need to find a way to trap the memories or to fool them into thinking they're still working as a defense. Unfortunately, memories are tricky things. Avatars Kyouraku and Toshiro helped create a solution, but I need Zuko's permission to enact it."
With those words, she dropped to her knees beside Zuko and, putting a hand on his shoulder, looked him in the eye. "Your mind knows me now. I was an enemy before and it will continue to regard me as such. Your defenses are going to keep trying to push me out, whether by fear or confusion. Avatar Byakuya warned that instead of fear, it may just be a deluge of memories – images and experiences – all at once trying to overwhelm my own defenses. Defenses I have no control over. If I try to connect outright again, I'll probably harm both of us."
Katara took a deep breath. "This is where it gets tricky. There is a way to contain the memories, but unless they're actually being viewed by someone, they'll rebound on me and push me out again. The only way to heal you is to have your defenses attack someone else," she finished in a rush.
Zuko made a wiping motion over the stone before him with a pointed glace at Toph. Before Sokka could say anything to her, Toph slid her foot to the side and the ground before him became smooth once again. With a nod of thanks, he began to write once more.
It fell to Sokka to translate once again. "So all you have to do is show the others my most private thoughts and moments? Is that all?"
Katara flushed an angry red and refused to look up, so it was Aang who answered. "Yes and no. You may have some control over the images we see now that you're aware of what will be happening, but we're trying to confuse your defenses, so you might not have as much control as you would like. There's going to be three of us sharing the work so Katara can focus – hopefully with that many minds to focus on, none of us will be overwhelmed."
What do you mean, three? Zuko scratched out.
"Me, Sokka and Toph of course!"
Zuko looked like he was going to argue, but thought better of it.
Aang relayed his message and Katara slid into a bending stance. She pulled a large globe of water from the fountain splashing on the other side of the room. She and Aang began to bend it back and forth. Soon, rivulets of color began to appear in the liquid. It almost looked spirit touched. They continued to bend it as it became smaller and smaller, until a dimly glowing sphere of solid ice the size of Aang's head had formed.
Katara gently guided it into Zuko's lap. To his surprise, the sphere wasn't cold at all. On the contrary, it reminded him of the warmth of the Spirit Oasis under the ice in the North Pole. "Keep a hold of that, skin contact will make the connection easier." Zuko nodded and Katara wreathed her hand in glowing water. She placed her fingertips on his temples and it looked like she was going to pluck out one of his hairs. When she withdrew her fingers it was not hair clinging to the tips, but golden strands of chi.
She pushed the chi strands into the warm lump in Zuko's arms. She repeated the gesture several times, each time gathering more and more chi. "Alright," she said. "Toph, Aang, Sokka – you touch the golden spots on this. Keep contact with it for as long as you can. I'll try to be quick, but I can't rush this."
The trio arranged themselves in a semi circle in front of the prince and placed a hand on the glowing orb. Everyone closed their eyes and Katara once again sank into the golden morass, searching for the damage.
It wasn't long before the images began to appear. Zuko did his best to fight them, but the nightmares were all there, just waiting for the slightest provocation to come to the fore. He could actually feel the invasive presences in his mind. Three concentrated in one area, and another floating somewhere else.
His tactical training began to take over. Deal with the bigger threat first, not the one you can't even locate. His awareness of the situation slipped away as his attention focused on the three presences in the forefront of his consciousness. How dare they? How dare they enter here?
The nightmarish visions stirred in response. Memories of flames and pain, of cruel smiles in the dark and at the dinner table began to flood toward the offending intruders. He felt them tremble and he continued the assault. Two of them resisted, one let them flow past.
He simply unleashed hell upon the resisting attackers. The overwhelming assault soon forced them to flee. The remaining accessible signature was very different from the other two. Where they had tried to push forward or evade the attacks, this one had stood still.
He switched tactics and tried to drown the invader in a flash of images. Still it was unmoved. The images trickled to a halt and only then did the newcomer push forward. It was a slow push that stopped as soon as it started. Perhaps this wasn't an enemy? In his interest, he completely forgot the fourth presence that had entered his mind.
The presence that had sought his permission to enter could soon be seen walking through the mist that surrounded him. The girl appeared was tiny - a fragile shell drifting in the foam just like him. She didn't speak so Zuko simply took her hand and led her onward.
They stepped into what was once a tamed garden. Geometric paths made up of cracked and crooked paving stones that were missing every few steps wound their way through uprooted spice-berry trees and an enormous laughing willow overhung a pond full of turtle-ducklings that was surrounded by a ruined garden wall. A burnt shell now stood where a small temple had been. He pulled her down on the bank beside him and coaxed one of the tiny balls of fluff into his hand and held it out for her to pet. She smiled and he lost track of the time as they just sat in the peace of the garden.
After a long stretch, he noticed that the trees were suddenly back in the ground. The paths were complete again and the wall and the temple were standing. "It's time to go back," she said when she finally broke her silence.
"I know." He replied. "Thank you."
The garden dissolved into the mist once more and suddenly he was on his back, staring up at the misty lights that weren't stars once more.
"Welcome back, Sparky."
"I'm sorry I burned your feet," came his choked reply.
"IT WORKED!" Toph crowed. "Can you bend too?"
Zuko shook his head minutely. "I don't think I can summon a flame yet, but I can feel the sunrise." Indeed, where a full moon had been rising the last time he had looked, now Agni was preparing to grace the sky in all his wonder.
"If I can get into the sunlight, I should be able to bend soon. Firebenders don't do well without the sun."
Toph pulled the boys over to help Zuko and she in turn bore Katara up on a rolling stone slab and brought her to a room in the temple where she could finish sleeping. The marathon healing sessions had taken it out of her. She had collapsed into Aang's arms the moment she had disconnected from Zuko's mind.
Sokka and Aang stooped down and each threw one of Zuko's arms over their shoulders. They brought him out into the damp air that was just beginning to lighten. Zuko took a deep breath and felt the warmth settle into his bones and rekindle the inner flame that was the life of all firebenders.
Aang and Sokka turned to leave but Sokka turned around and dropped himself next to Zuko. "So…I just wanted to say…I'm, uh…I'm…sorry. I know you weren't very happy about us seeing your memories like that and, frankly, I can see why. You have got some scary-ass memories, man. And, for the record – if my dad did that to me," he said, gesturing vaguely in the direction of his face, "I would have told him to do something very uncomplimentary."
Zuko looked away. "You're a good son, Zuko. But you have got a rotten father. Sister too, come to think of it. Your memories of her actually scare me about as much as your dad does." Sokka finished philosophically. "Look, I'll stop giving you a hard time. I get why you're here now and so does Aang. I think if you offer to teach him firebending again, he'll accept. Toph seems to be on your side and I'm sure my sister will come around. Eventually," he amended whilst scratching the back of his neck.
"Well, this all worked out better than I had hoped, actually."
"Really? I guess I can see where you're coming from on that now, all things considered."
Sokka got up as if to leave again, but turned around one last time. "Zuko, if someone were captured by the fire nation, where would they be taken?"
A/N: And so ends our little adventure, jumping right back into the cannon timeline. I would like to thank each and every one of you who have read, those who have reviewed and those who have favorited. I get the warm fuzzies whenever I see an alert in my inbox! You are all wonderful, wonderful human beings and I love you all! Check out my profile in the coming months. Stories for both Merlin and Harry Potter are in the works. Merry Christmas and God Bless!