Disclaimer: I don't own Avatar: The Last Airbender, its concepts, or its characters. No money is being made out of this.
The night was quiet and only the ocean mirrored the restlessness Katara felt bubbling inside her. Ember Island was oddly quiet during the off-season, and even the Fire Lord's presence was no longer a novelty to the nobles that spent their holidays there. There, he was just another noble, and Katara suspected their blasé attitude towards him was itself carefully planned.
Nothing in his world was genuine or truthful, but it had been years since it had last bothered her. Plus it was clear why he had chosen to invite all his old friends to spend some non-political time in his beach house when he did: aside from the Fire Lord's own entourage, they were practically alone.
Katara left her husband and daughter asleep in their room, moving quietly until her bare feet touched cool sand. She couldn't explain why it was that the beach – the crunchy sand that gradually surrendered into the ocean – felt like home to her; why that salty, sharp scent felt so comfortable on her skin. The South Pole had no beaches – the ice fell straight into the ocean, and she had never even seen one until they had landed on Kyoshi, a few days after meeting Aang. But it did, and she buried her ankles until her entire body felt comfortably cooled and grounded.
She sat on the sand, content to watch her element from a distance instead of touching it. Its gentle calling felt like foreplay, like playing with her desire and heightening it until they finally met and she could bend the release out of her limbs.
Revenge expeditions aside, however, Katara had no ninja experience to speak of, so it was all she could do to hide her surprise when another pair of feet stepped towards her on the sand. He wasn't even trying to be quiet, but there was a natural silence about him that she would recognize anywhere.
She felt the sand chillier than a few minutes before, her sea slightly less comforting. She had hoped to be alone, and if she couldn't have that, she wanted to at least be away from him. In all the years since the end of the war, when the Avatar had had to work so closely with the Fire Lord, Katara had somehow managed to keep their contact to a bare minimum, at times even sacrificing the health of her own relationship to accomplish it. She told herself it was necessary; the negative effect of spending time away from Aang was negligible when compared to the damage it would suffer if she spent too much time around Zuko. Or any time, really. She wasn't sure where that line was, and was scared to death of finding out.
So she mostly ignored him. Sometimes she wondered what he might think of her; if he thought he had done something to upset her, or if he hadn't even noticed her distance. Either way, he hadn't attempted any kind of atonement. She knew it was because they didn't have to work together anymore, and therefore her behavior wasn't getting in his way. It smarted a little to know her affliction was so one-sided, but she knew things would be a lot worse if it wasn't. So she mostly continued to ignore him.
When he sat barely three feet away from her, though, she knew her maneuvering had to become much more skillful, and quickly. They hadn't been alone together in years. She looked up first, a small smile ready on her lips.
He was staring ahead, and only his good side was visible to her. The first thing she noticed was the delicate sharpness of his jaw. The second thing she noticed was the intensity in his eyes as he stared at the sea. And the third and final thing she noticed before he turned his head toward her and offered a smile of his own was the way his shaggy hair brushed his cheek with the breeze.
Katara decided at that point that she wasn't going to look at him anymore.
He spoke first. "Couldn't sleep?"
"I slept, just not very peacefully. So when I woke up, I decided to stay up."
"What made you wake up in the first place?"
"I dreamed of tiny tsunami."
"Then you came out here to check if they were real?" His tone was delicately playful.
"I came here to bend some. But I couldn't bring myself to do it."
"You were going to just bend tsunami onto the island and its inhabitants?" Incredulous, now. But half-hearted as always.
"I would bend them back before they reached anything! Spirits, Zuko." She instantly decided she wasn't going to say his name, either.
His stare prickled her neck. "You sound like Toph." When it became apparent she wouldn't respond beyond a quiet snort, he continued. "She's always annoyingly confident about her bending."
Katara shook her head. "Toph's confident about everything except a few select areas of her life. I'm only confident about my bending." She paused. "It's all I've ever been good at."
"You're good at parenting."
Katara sighed. He went there. Perhaps there was hope of steering the conversation elsewhere.
"Have you ever had the urge to bend tsunami?"
He snorted. "I'm not a Waterbender."
"Don't be dense. Whatever would be equivalent to a tsunami for you. An explosion, maybe."
"Lightning," he said, after a brief pause.
Katara turned her head toward him then, silently cursing herself for breaking her resolution two minutes into it. He was staring at the sea, his arms around his knees. She directed her own gaze forward as well, finding she had no comment to make.
"And yes, I have the urge to bend lightning. All the fucking time, in fact."
She realized with some surprise that she was afraid of continuing on the subject. She did it anyway, feeling a jolt of recklessness in her stomach. "Do you ever give into it?"
A sad sigh. "I...still can't bend lightning."
Katara hesitated. "Why not?"
"I don't know. Uncle once said you need to be clear about who you are and what you want in order to do it. Of course, you also need to be powerful enough."
This time, her snort wasn't that quiet. "I don't think the latter would be a problem." It took her a couple of seconds to realize she implied the former was the reason he couldn't do it. She felt suddenly inappropriate, like when she'd laughed at his losing his bending, years ago, at the Western Air Temple. As if she had pointed out he was falling while she herself was hanging by less than a thread.
But he only offered a vague smile. "Yeah." A pause. "There's an old saying…that those who can bend lightning have known madness."
Katara waited, but he didn't say anything else. "Do you think it's true?"
"I don't know. But if it is, it makes me question how I see a lot of my life."
"Maybe it's a different kind of madness. A…focused madness. Madness without a conscience, not madness because you're fighting with your conscience." She cringed inwardly, wondering once again if she had gone too far. She knew him like she knew her own element, but they were no longer close enough for her to flaunt that knowledge. He was silent, however.
Then: "Maybe. I don't think Azula had a conscience. Or my father. Uncle does, but I don't know if he ever fought with it." The breeze picked up a little. "Maybe it's just referring to the madness that you feel while you're actually bending lightning."
"How do you know how it feels?"
"I know what it feels like to redirect lightning, and if bending it gives you even half of that feeling, I think it's pretty fitting to call it madness."
She was thoughtful for a moment. "How does it feel?"
"Like…like you can do absolutely anything. Like your chest is about to explode. It's almost painful, but not quite. I don't know, it's hard to describe. But it's possibly the best thing I've ever felt in my life."
"The best thing? Really?" Her meaning was clear between them.
Zuko laughed. "Yes, the best."
Katara didn't answer. Her mind was full of the madness of tsunami.
She felt him get up and dust himself off. It was only then that she noticed how much his heat had been keeping the cool breeze at bay. She shivered.
"The western side of the island is particularly empty this time of year. It's probably the best spot to bend tsunami."
Katara laughed through her nose. "Thanks. I don't even know if I can bend one, though; I never have." The waves kept crashing and he didn't leave. "You should just practice bending lightning more; you're probably closer than you think."
She looked up at him when he didn't reply. His eyes were intense and on her. "No, I don't think so." She frowned. "Good night, Katara."
He was already gone when she thought of replying. She could almost feel her carefully constructed complacency seeping out of her and into the sand, leaving only cold fear behind. She needed to be with her family, she decided, getting up – it was the only thing she could possibly need then.
The domed moon provided her only light as she hurried back to the house, praying she wouldn't meet him again that night.