Chimney falls and lovers blaze
Thought that I was young
Now I've freezing hands and bloodless veins
As numb as I've become
I'm so tired, I wish I was the moon tonight
Last night I dreamt I've forgotten my name
'Cause I sold my soul
But I woke just the same
I'm so lonely, I wish I was the moon tonight
—"I Wish I Was the Moon", Neko Case
Zuko's mouth is hot against her neck. Too hot, maybe.
But the heat doesn't stop Katara from pulling him closer, doesn't stop her from grinding her hips against his. Her heart is beating wildly, she can feel it pulsing blood throughout her body, and she's willing to bet that if she touched Zuko's chest that his heart would be beating just as fast.
She is sixteen and a whole new world has opened up for her, a world where heat and pleasure and screaming all coincide. A world that her fourteen year old Avatar is still too young to enter.
Zuko's fingers dip under the hem of her tunic and skim her belly. She shudders and bites her lip to keep herself quiet, but then Zuko is cupping her breasts—under her tunic, but over her wraps—and she has to will herself not to cry out.
His lips meet hers again and she concentrates on the feel of his body against hers, of the need that she feels deep inside of herself, and the desire to be so close to him, so close that she wouldn't be sure where she ended and where he began.
Something crashes outside of the door that's hiding them. Perhaps a servant dropped a plate. Zuko briefly pauses, but then continues on.
However, the noise was just loud enough to make Katara jump. Clarity rushes through her and she realizes with heaviness that she and Zuko can't do this. Not here, not now.
She stiffens and Zuko stops.
"Are you okay?" he pants. His hips are gently rolling against hers, so subtle that Katara wonders if he even knows that he's doing it.
"Yeah," she lies quickly. She pushes gently against his shoulders and he immediately steps back. He looks confused, but not angry.
Katara tucks a stray lock of hair behind her ear. "It's just, um, maybe we shouldn't do this in a supply closet?"
He gives her a shaky smile and nods slowly in agreement. "You're probably right. Do you…do you want to come to my room later, maybe?" He is hesitant and unsure, but hopeful. The look on his face makes Katara's chest buzz with a tender feeling that she's never experienced before.
"That would be good." She pulls him down for one last kiss and then slowly opens up the closet door. She glances around and confirms that no one is watching. "I'll see you later." She smiles at him, suddenly nervous and shaky, but her smile is real.
Zuko nods and let's himself fall back against the wall. He'll probably hide out in there for another couple of minutes. The last thing Katara sees before she shuts the door is his eyes gleaming at her.
She never comes to him.
Her misery is consuming.
It had come upon her slowly. It wasn't as if one moment she was happy and the next she wasn't, it started with the little things. Like when Aang didn't want to stay in the Southern Water Tribe longer than three months, or how he paraded her about on his arm like they were already married (they weren't), or when she missed Sokka's sudden wedding to Suki because Aang had to spend time in the Eastern Air Temple.
Eventually she had become the Avatar's follower instead of his teacher, his arm candy instead of his girlfriend, someone he told things to instead of his confidante. Katara started to feel like her input really didn't matter at all, and that was something she struggled the most with. Katara needed to be needed, but the people didn't need her anymore, not really. They needed the Avatar.
Aang himself is blissfully unaware. They say that ignorance is bliss, and every time Katara looks into his smiling face she believes it. He smiles at her like their life is perfect, like their relationship is perfect.
He's giving her that smile right now.
They're all sitting around an elegant wooden table in the Royal Dining Room: her, Aang, Sokka, Suki, Toph, Zuko, Mai, and Ty Lee. Everyone keeps saying that this feels "just like old times", but Katara doesn't really think so. She was happy in the "old times". She is not happy now.
A slightly tipsy Sokka is tapping his chopstick against his wine glass. He stands up, teetering a bit, and clears his throat, a happy grin on his face.
"So, our favorite jerk bender is getting married tomorrow. Tell me, who else thought that this day would never come?"
There is some laughter around the table and Toph punches Zuko in the shoulder. The reigning Fire Lord rubs the place where she hit him, his mouth tilting up. He looks…content. It's been awhile since Katara has seen him look so serene. Mai reaches over the table and takes Zuko's hand in hers. Katara has to look away.
Sokka sits down and Aang stands up, looking cheerful as always. "Zuko, you're one of my best friends and the best firebending Sifu that any Avatar could ask for. Congratulations to you and Mai! The wedding tomorrow will be amazing."
Zuko nods in thanks. Aang sits down and nudges Katara gently with his elbow. "Do you want to say anything?"
Katara shakes her head, picking up and sipping from her glass of wine in order to hide her frown. She has no desire to give Zuko a toast, and even if she did, she has no idea what she would say. She'd probably end up sounding insincere, and that's not what she wants.
A line of servants stream into the room from the kitchen and begin to set down trays of food in front of everyone. Katara picks up her chopsticks and begins to pick at her chicken-duck. She's not really interested in eating at the moment.
"Twinkletoes," Toph manages to articulate through a mouthful of food. "Are you and Sugarqueen staying for the festival and Mai's coronation?"
Katara glances at Aang curiously out of the corner of her eye. She doesn't even know the answer to this question yet.
The Avatar slowly shakes his head. "I don't think so. I have to take care of some business in the Earth Kingdom, so Katara and I will be leaving after the wedding tomorrow."
Katara bristles at the sound of her name. Aang had stopped asking her to come with him on trips a long time ago, so she shouldn't be surprised that he always lumps her in with his plans now, but still. Something ice cold inside of her chest snaps, and suddenly the room is too stifling and all Katara wants to do is get away.
She stands up sharply, knocking over her wine glass with her elbow.
Aang looks stunned. "Katara—"
"Don't." She turns on her heel and walks from the room as quickly as her feet can carry her.
It's raining in the garden.
She's been here a couple of times; she knows that it used to be Princess Ursa's. She suspects that it has become Zuko's place of solace now, and perhaps that's why she picks this specific spot to sulk.
A part of her feels guilty. She knows that leaving during the middle of dinner was rude, but despite her guilt she just can't bring herself to care. She lets the rain pelts her skin, lets it soak into her Fire Nation style robes, lets it soothe her. Her element has always managed to clear her thoughts and make her feel a little bit more like herself.
She hears his footsteps; his feet make squishing noises against the wet grass.
She heaves a sigh and crosses her arms across her chest, but she doesn't turn around to look at him. She doesn't want to see the expression on his face just yet. "Please don't ask me if I'm okay."
"I wasn't going to." His low, gravelly voice is familiar and although she doesn't want to, she turns around and looks at him anyway.
His face is calculating. "I know that you're not okay."
Katara frowns. "Did you lose the draw on who got to come out here and console me, Zuko?"
He rolls his golden eyes. "Come on, Katara. Let's go back inside."
"I don't want to."
"Do you really have to be difficult tonight?" He throws up one hand in exasperation and runs his fingers through his wet hair with the other.
And now Katara feels really guilty. She's made her friend leave his fiancé during their special dinner the night before their wedding. Being miserable has made Katara selfish. "I'm sorry, Zuko." Her voice is small. "You should go back inside. I'll be fine out here. You know that I like the rain."
Zuko doesn't look convinced. He walks over to her until he's standing right in front of her. Katara has to tilt her chin up in order to look into his eyes.
"Are you ever going to tell me why you're so sad?"
The question punches Katara right in the gut. Suddenly she can't look at him. She backs away, frustrated tears forming in her eyes, but she blinks them away furiously. Zuko is the kind of person who would be able to tell the difference between teardrops and raindrops.
She opens her mouth to lie, opens her mouth to reassure him that she's not sad, that she's just not feeling well, or that she just has a lot on her mind. She's been saying these things for months to other people, after all.
But Katara can't bring herself to lie to Zuko. There has always been something different about their relationship, and for whatever reason she feels like she can't give him a fake smile and stow away her secrets. Zuko never accepts anything less than the truth from her. Maybe that's a good thing. Maybe it's not.
"I'm just not sure about…certain things." She bites down on her bottom lip and flicks her gaze back onto him. He's watching her steadily, face full of some unreadable emotion. But his eyes, they gleam.
And suddenly Katara is no longer twenty-two. She's sixteen again, and she and Zuko are trying to find quiet places to make out around the palace and hoping that no one catches them. Her heart beats a little faster at the memories. With the way that Zuko is currently staring at her, she wonders if he is remembering too.
She acts without thinking. She moves forward and kisses him before either one of them can speak another word. In the back of her mind she knows that she shouldn't, knows that he's getting married tomorrow and that she has a serious boyfriend. But she just doesn't care. She is aching all over and all she craves is his warmth.
She figures that he'll pull away instantly, and she realizes with a sinking feeling that their friendship will never be the same after this. But she still moves her lips against his, still fists her hands into the front of his shirt. And to her complete shock, he responds.
His reactions are frantic. His fingers tangle through her wet hair and soon Katara finds herself gasping against his mouth.
And then he's forcing her to move backward, and when Katara's back hits tree bark she lets her whole body arch into his. Her whole being is buzzing with excitement, and she briefly wonders why she never did go to him all those years ago. She should have, if only so that she could have felt this way this each and every day.
His lips move to her neck and she releases a little moan. She hooks her right leg over his hip, drawing him as close to her as she physically can. She wonders if he'll decide to move this somewhere else. Katara is content with staying in the rain and kissing under a gray sky.
She moves her fingers underneath his shirt, feeling the muscles that form along his lower stomach. She feels him shudder against her and she smiles to herself. She knows that this is dangerous, knows that this really isn't okay, but it feels right. Katara wants to care about something, so she'll care about this.
Zuko's teeth nip at her bottom lip as his hands wander over her breasts and then clutch at her hips. And then she's kissing his throat, snaking out her tongue to swipe it over his pulse. His body jolts and his grip on her tightens.
And then his body leaves hers and Katara is left feeling cold, so cold.
She's gasping for air, her eyes wide. Zuko's face is completely blank. He doesn't move to fix his disheveled clothes. He says nothing else to her; his hands form fists by his sides and he walks away.
Her Avatar comes and gets her an hour or so later. He seems concerned and doesn't stop pelting her with questions. She lies to him and he nods, accepting her answers.
She didn't think she'd ever live a life where she'd have to be so dishonest.
Aang leads her back to their shared bedroom. "I'm going to bed," he declares, trying and failing to hide a yawn. "You should get some rest too, Katara." His gray eyes shine with adoration for her, and suddenly Katara feels not only guilty, but she's filled with self loathing.
"Soon," she promises. She drops down into a chair sitting in the corner of the room and watches the candles as they slowly melt down.
When she knows for sure that her boyfriend is asleep, she quietly leaves the room.
Her feet take her right where she needs to be. Soon she's knocking softly on the Fire Lord's office and praying that Zuko is alone.
She hears him call her inside. His voice is gruff and when she opens the door she sees him sitting at his desk, a nearly empty bottle of wine in front of him.
Katara closes the door behind her and leans up against it. She can't bring herself to walk further into the room, can't bring herself to further intrude into his life.
"We should talk," she says slowly.
Zuko won't look at her. He glares at his bottle instead. There's a fire lit in the corner, and his golden eyes capture the flickering flames.
"You're angry with me." Katara leans her head forward, allowing some of her long, wavy hair to fall over her shoulders.
"Yes," he answers immediately. "But I'm also mad at myself." He grabs the bottle and swallows the rest of his wine. And then he laughs, but it's a bitter laugh that sends unbidden shivers up Katara's spine.
An uncomfortable feeling starts clawing its way from Katara's stomach up through her chest and into her throat. "Zuko," she breathes, "I am so sorry. I was completely out of line earlier today. I was just feeling confused—"
"You didn't stay."
And now Katara is too hot. Sweat prickles underneath her clothes. "I—"
"You didn't stay, Katara." He's shaking his head, still refusing to look at her. "I waited around for years, thinking that you might come back. You didn't," he points out. "You didn't, and as soon as I get over it, as soon as I think that I'm going to be happy, even though I didn't get what I wanted, you do what you did today. You did what you always do."
Katara is holding onto the doorknob for support. "What's that?"
"You made me want you again."
Tears spill down her cheeks and she quickly wipes them away. "I'm sorry, Zuko. I really, really am."
Finally he looks at her. His eyes reflect the same sadness that she feels back at her. "I'm getting married tomorrow," his voice is soft now. "And you knew that. You kissed me while knowing that."
Anger manages to rise to the top of her emotions. "You kissed me back," she snaps. "Don't put all the blame on me! I told you that I was sorry!"
"I know." His whole posture deflates in defeat.
Katara takes a natural step toward him, drawn to comfort him because he is in pain, but he shifts himself away from her.
"Don't," he warns. "Don't come near me."
The Fire Lord sucks in a breath and shakes his head. "No. I think you should leave, now. And…and I think it would probably be best if maybe you didn't come to the wedding tomorrow."
Katara opens her mouth to protest, hurt tears already forming once again in her eyes, but by the stubborn set in Zuko's jaw she knows that she won't get anywhere with him.
"Fine," she bites out, forcing her voice to be steady. "I'll leave."
The hallways back to her and Aang's room are dark, but she manages. When she reaches the room she hesitates at the door, but eventually forces herself inside. She gathers the few items that are hers, scribbles a note to her boyfriend, and walks right back out of the room.
She can't be here in this palace. She can't face her friends tomorrow. She'd have to lie and tell them that she is 'sick'.
Katara is tired of lying.
She told him that she'd leave.
So she does.
Katara can see the village from the deck. She's been to this village before, about a year or so ago with Aang. She had wanted to stick around longer than they had, since the beach and the sea and all the people were so beautiful and interesting, but an Avatar's life is always busy so they had had to move on.
"We'll be docking soon," the captain says from her left.
She nods, her grip tightening on the railing. Excitement is already coursing through her veins. She has no idea what she'll do when she steps off this ship and she couldn't be more thrilled.
The first thing she does is let the ocean lap at her feet. She immediately feels empowered, like nothing else in the world can overcome her in this moment. She breathes in the scent of salty air and lets the sea breeze whip her hair around her face. She rubs her palm over her arm and then her neck. Her skin is already lightly coated with salt and grime, but she couldn't care less. For the first time in ages she feels as if she is at home.
Eventually the moon rises over the ocean and Katara turns her back on the sea and makes her way into the village.
The marketplace is busy and filled with villagers, all enjoying the nightlife. Katara has no idea where to go first, nor does she know where the nearest inn is. She steps up to a florist stand, where there is an elderly woman putting away her beautifully colored flowers for the night.
"Excuse me," Katara says politely. "I was wondering if there was an inn nearby or a place where I could stay for the night."
The old woman pauses in her work and looks up at Katara curiously. Her skin is dark and she has light eyes. Katara feels a sudden pang of longing for her Gran-Gran.
"How long are you planning to stay in this town, sweetie?"
Katara shrugs one shoulder. "Just for the tonight, I guess. I don't really have any concrete plans—"
The old woman waves a hand and hushes her up. "You'll stay with me. I'll put you to work in the morning!" She sounds gleeful as she puts away the last of her flowers.
"Are you sure? I don't mind staying—"
"Quit your jabbering and follow me, sweetie." The woman puts a 'closed' sign on the countertop of her stand and then walks around to Katara.
Katara knows better than to argue with an old woman. She follows her down the bustling marketplace and eventually out onto a battered road that's covered with sand.
"Thank you for letting me stay," Katara calls out, trying to break the silence.
The old woman waves her hand again. "Don't be thanking me just yet, sweetie. You haven't done any work!"
Katara smiles to herself. Soon she and the woman crest over a hill where there's a small cottage by the sea. It's lit up by the moon.
When they reach the front door, Katara can barely speak because she is in so much awe of the simple beauty of this place.
By the way the old woman's eyes twinkle, she seems to completely understand. "You look tired, sweetie. Come inside. My name is Jia, by the way."
The waterbender nods. "I'm Katara."
One night turns into two nights, two nights turn into three nights, and the next thing Katara knows she's been staying with Jia for over two weeks.
Today it's lightly raining and if Katara squints her eyes she can see the churning sea from just beyond the marketplace.
Jia is humming as she arranges flowers. Most of the other venders have scattered for the afternoon in order to avoid the weather.
"You'd think that they thought they were going to melt," Jia jokes, happily tending to her flowers with more love and care then Katara thought one could have toward a plant.
"Some people just don't like the rain," Katara volunteers, keeping a sharp eye out for any potential customers.
Jia scoffs. "We all leave by the sea, you'd think we'd all be okay with getting a little wet every once in a while. There!" She leans back and surveys her work, clapping her hands together with glee. "I know that my flowers don't mind getting wet. The rain is good for their souls."
The two women sit together for a long time. Business is slow today, which is to be expected, so Katara takes the time to pick her caretaker's brain.
"Do you have any children?" she asks politely. She's been with her for two weeks, but Jia hasn't offered up very much information about herself.
The old woman's expression turns a little sad. "I do. I have a daughter and I have a son."
Katara smiles at her in encouragement. "And your husband?"
Jia winks at her. "Never had one."
Jia laughs out right. "Can't say that I ever wanted one. They always seemed like too much work."
"But…but you have two kids—"
"Yes, but those I wanted!" Jia grins at her and Katara notices that a couple of her teeth are missing.
"Where are your children now, if you don't mind me asking?"
The old woman is silent for a long moment before patting Katara's knee. "Perhaps I'll tell you about them another time. Now, tell me about that Avatar boyfriend of yours."
Katara, who had been sipping on a glass of water, nearly chokes. "Sorry? But I didn't—"
"Sweetie, I remember when the two of you visited this town a year or so ago. No one can forget eyes like yours. They're quite blue."
Katara feels a blush rise to her cheeks. "Everyone in my Tribe has blue eyes. They're really not all that special."
Jia frowns. "Everything about you is special!" she scolds. "Maybe everyone in your Tribe has blue eyes, but I've lived in the Earth Kingdom my entire life. No one has blue eyes here, so to us, your eyes are special. Haven't you ever seen a trait that strikes you as unique?"
Katara knows that the correct answer would be Aang's blue tattoos, or his gray eyes, since no one else on earth really has them, but instead she says: "Golden eyes."
Jia's expression softens. "Those are the most expressive." She reaches over and takes Katara's hand. Your eyes are beautiful, yes, but the reason I couldn't forget them was because they were so sad."
Katara is lying on top of her pallet, letting her body relax as she prepares to fall asleep. Jia silently slides the door to their shared bedroom open and then slides it shut behind her.
The old woman doesn't even ask if Katara is asleep. "I heard something about your other fella today."
Katara stiffens underneath her blanket. "Erm, I don't have another—"
"Sweetie, I might be old but I'm not stupid. If you were happy with the Avatar then you'd still be with him, not staying with some crazy old coot in a one horse seaside town. Plus, you mentioned golden eyes. It wasn't hard to put two and two together."
Katara will have to remind herself in the future to never underestimate elderly people. "Oh. Okay."
Jia climbs into her bed. It's sitting right underneath the window where the moonlight is streaming it. "Did you want to know about what I heard?"
Katara's stomach turns sour. She could probably guess what Jia had found out. It's been a little over a month since Zuko's wedding. It probably had something to do with Mai's coronation, or perhaps the new Fire Lady is already with child. The two would be encouraged to create an heir as soon as possible.
Katara squeezes her eyes shut at the thought. She is burning now, and in all the wrong ways. "No, Jia. That's okay."
"All right, sweetie." Katara can hear the old woman getting into a comfortable position.
Minutes pass and just when Katara thinks that she might be able to fall asleep, Jia whispers: "Are you in love with him?"
For some reason Katara knows that they aren't talking about Aang. "I don't know. Whenever I see him I always feel…muddled. Like I have no idea what to do, say, or how to act. And then I always get myself into trouble."
She hears Jia sigh. "That's how you know that those are the ones worth going after. It might not work out the way you want it to, but at least you won't spend the rest of your life wondering 'what if'. That, sweetie, is a truly terrible feeling."
Katara hands the boy his flower and he places a couple of coins into her palm.
The kid looks nervous; his face is sweaty and his breathing is erratic.
Katara gives him what she hopes is a supporting smile. "Just make sure to be yourself."
The boy stares at her for a long moment, then gulps. He shoves the flower back at Katara. "Ithinkyou'?"
Out of the corner of her eye Katara sees Jia slap her hand over her mouth in order to contain her laughter.
"Erm." Katara shifts between her two feet awkwardly, completely at a loss for what to say. Finally, she spots a girl, about the same age as the boy, wearing pigtails and serving tea to people at a tea stand.
Katara hands the boy back his flower. "I'll tell you what; I think you should give your flower to that girl over there."
The boy's head lowers in disappointment. "But she's not nearly as pretty as you are," he grumbles.
Katara has to resist the urge to smack her forehead and groan. "She could be. You'll never know until you give her a chance."
The boy looks over at the tea girl, then back at his flower, the back at the girl, then back at his flower. He sucks in a deep breath, squares his shoulders, and then walks over to the tea stand.
As soon as he is out of earshot, Jia lets out a howl of laughter.
"You asked me about my children a little while ago. I have a son and a daughter, which you knew. My son was older. All he wanted to do was join the Fire Nation Army, so when he was sixteen he enlisted. I didn't want him to go. War has always left a stain on my life, and I knew that my son didn't understand what he was getting himself into. It's not always about honor and glory. He deserted a few years later. He was a tender hearted boy and couldn't handle all the killing. They caught him and then threw him into the Boiling Rock. He died there, just three months before your Avatar defeated Fire Lord Ozai. My daughter…she married a firebender and lives with him in the Fire Nation with their children. I only see them about once a year, and that's if they can afford the journey. Katara, you're a spirited girl. You deserve a life filled with happiness, so don't end up like me."
"No, sweetie. We must all learn to stand on our own two feet. If we cannot be happy by ourselves, then how can we ever expect to be happy with other people? No, what I mean is, don't live a life filled with 'what if's'. Don't end your life filled with regret."
"I don't understand, I spent so long traveling and wandering all over the world, I thought that if I stayed in one place for sometime…" Katara trails off and glances down at her half packed bag. She's loved spending time with Jia, but she's feeling the pull to move on.
The old woman keeps handing her things to stuff in her bag, things that Katara doesn't really need, but would feel too bad refusing.
"You never enjoyed travelling with the Avatar because you never felt like you had a say in where you were going. Not having control over your own life and decisions is never fulfilling. Where do you want to go?"
It's a loaded question, and several options cross Katara's mind. The Fire Nation Royal Palace. The Southern Water Tribe. Ba Sing Se.
Another place comes to her, and it sticks. Katara buckles her bag closed and kisses Jia on the cheek. "I think I have an idea."
She leaves the next morning, right before the sun is supposed to rise. The moon is out in the sky to greet her, and as Katara looks up at it, she briefly wonders what it might be like to be the moon.
She turns back to Jia and waves. "Thank you. For everything."
The people of the Foggy Swamp accept her with open arms. However, Katara's first night there is a little bit of a culture shock.
She stares at the lump of brown food, served on a leaf, that's been handed to her. She sniffs it apprehensively. "Um, what is this?"
Huu waves her on with his hand. "It's fried frog legs! It's good!"
Katara, against her better judgment, takes a bite. It tastes…delicious. It's simple, but comforting and as she swallows and then takes another bite, she looks down to see what else is being served on her giant leaf.
"That is good! Not like ocean kumquats but—"
Huu tilts his head to the side. "Ocean whatwhat's?"
She's been bending for a solid two hours and no one has interrupted her. No one has told her that it's time to go to some meeting with a local major, or time to cook dinner, or time to discuss politics with the local townspeople, or time to go to sleep.
The only sounds that she can hear are the continuous buzzing of insects and the occasional splash of a creature jumping into the water. It's much more peaceful than Katara could've ever imagined.
"You sure look like you're havin' a good time."
She gasps and her water whip falls from her grip as she quickly turns around. She vaguely recognizes the young man in front of her. He had been eating with the group the night before.
She props her hands onto her hips. "Sorry, I didn't notice that you were there." It's humid, so her hair is sticking out in every direction, but for some reason Katara isn't too worried over her looks. She credits this to the nature of the swamp.
The young man shrugs casually. "It's okay. You seemed to be pretty into what you were doin'." He walks up to her and stretches out his hand. "Name's Stack."
His hand is warm in hers. "Stack? That's sort of an odd name."
He grins at her. "I guess I liked to stack things when I was little. Name stuck." He lets go of her hand and then drops his to the side. "I was wonderin' if you'd be willin' to show me some of your fancy waterbending moves? Like that whip of yours?"
A happy, warm feeling starts to run all over Katara. She had missed teaching; she'd always thought that she was good at it. "Sure!" She moves into her position, all grace and fluidity, and shows Stack how to form the perfect water whip.
He nails it in two tries.
It takes Katara a moment to pull her jaw up off the swamp floor. "Wow. You're, uh, practically as good as the Avatar."
Stack ducks his head modestly. "Naw. I'm just good at pickin' up on things. Now, show me how you make those ice daggers. Those were cool."
So she does, and once again her new bending student maneuvers the form perfectly after just a couple of tries. After half an hour she runs out of moves to show him.
"You're a really talented waterbender," she compliments, allowing her gaze to roam over his bare torso. He's well muscled with tan skin, and his raven black hangs across one side of his face. He's interesting and fresh, and Katara finds herself being drawn to him as the day wears on.
When night falls and Yue makes her presence known up in the sky, she and Stack wander back to the main area where everyone is gathering for dinner.
As Stack goes to grab them both something to eat, Katara makes her way over to Huu.
Pointing out her new friend to the swamp's resident waterbending master, she says: "He's insanely good at bending, did you know that? He was mastering difficult waterbending forms in just minutes!"
Huu blinks at her, clearly confused. "Well yeah, he should be able to. I've been trainin' him since he was a kid."
Katara feels her cheeks burn. "But, he told me that he wanted to learn—" She's cut off by Huu's chuckling.
"Stack is known for being a bit of a ladies' man," he explains.
At that, Katara whirls around and walks right up the ladies' man in question. He's sitting on the ground and holding out her plate to her, and any anger that Katara might have been feeling toward him drains out of her. Instead, she tosses her frizzy hair over her shoulder and clucks her tongue at him. "Huu just told me that you've been under his training for a long time."
Stack doesn't even look apologetic. He grins and rubs the back of his head sheepishly. "Ah, you caught me. Was just lookin' for an excuse to spend the afternoon with a pretty girl."
Katara slowly eases herself down onto the ground next to him. "It's okay. I take no offense," she jokes, eyeing the food on her leaf with interest.
Stack nudges her and hands her a cup filled to the brim with tea. Katara takes it with excitement; it's been a little while since she's had a decent cup of tea. She sips it, expecting scolding liquid, and blanches when she discovers that it's cold.
Stack laughs at her shocked face. "Welcome to the Foggy Swamp. Here, we drink our tea iced."
To Katara, if feels hotter here than it ever did in the Fire Nation, and that's because the Foggy Swamp is shrouded in humidity that makes the air feel thick and damp at all times. Her long hair is constantly sticking to the back of her neck, and soon Katara starts wearing it all piled on top of her head like the other women of the Swamp.
However, even despite the heat, Katara finds herself having more fun than she's had an ages, and it's all because of Stack.
She likes him.
And maybe it's not how she first liked Aang, and it definitely isn't how she first liked Zuko, but every time the boy from the Swamp smiles at her she feels warmth pool in her belly. She enjoys talking with him, spending time with him, listening to him tell stories, and watching him waterbend. He really is an incredible bender.
Soon, he has Katara taking pointers from him. He shows her how to make the plants move, and in a way it's a lot like blood bending, in that one has to find the water inside another living being, but it's also nothing like blood bending. She's not compromising her morals by doing so.
Today Stack is teaching her how to bend mass quantities of swamp vines at once. Katara's shoulders have grown stiff and sore from her constant, strenuous bending. She pauses in her movements for a moment, intent on rubbing her right one, when Stack appears behind her. His fingers go to work massaging the muscles in her shoulders and Katara's head falls back a little bit as she begins to relax. Soon, her whole body is leaning back as she enjoys the feeling of his fingers on her skin.
And then he is kissing her.
It's different than any other kiss that she's experienced, since it isn't shadowed by innocence or guilt like her other kisses have been. It's just nice. And maybe it's not exactly what she wants right now, and maybe he's not exactly who she'd like to be kissing right now, but Katara decides that nice isn't a bad thing.
So she kisses him back.
Two weeks pass in serenity.
The evening is sticky, and a part of Katara feels as if she'll never be cool again, but she still leans up against Stack and lets him wrap his arms around her. A few of the Tribe members are singing around the fire, and occasionally Stack will join in. His voice rumbles inside his chest.
Huu approaches them with two cups in hand. Thinking that it's iced tea, Katara reaches for one, but Huu draws his hand back.
"Be careful with this stuff, little lady. It'll knock you off your feet if you ain't careful."
Frowning, Katara gingerly takes her cup and sniffs the contents. What she smells burns the inside of her nostrils. "What is this?" she gasps, yanking her head backward.
Stack is smirking at her. "It's okay, Kat." He takes a swig of his and winces. "I think it's supposed to taste like apples this time."
Katara looks back down at the clear liquid. She takes a sip. It's strong, potent, and basically awful, but she ends up taking another sip. And another one. And another one.
An hour passes, maybe. Katara isn't honestly sure how long it's been since she started drinking. Right now she just knows that she's dancing and dancing and dancing and that Stack is so close. But she wants him to be even closer, she wants him to be as close to her as he possibly can be.
She places open mouthed kisses onto his throat and his answering moan vibrates throughout his body. "I want to be alone," she whispers against his skin. "I want to be alone with you."
His hand slides along her lower back, making Katara shudder. He kisses her forehead. "Soon, okay?"
She nods, grumbling under her breath in impatience, and leans into his embrace. "This is fun," she says. "My old boyfriend never used to drink, so I never drank either."
She smiles bitterly. "A little bit." And then it hits her, and even though she's drunk she's still able to comprehend the importance of what she'd just uttered. She'd just referred to Aang as her old boyfriend.
"I never really did anything that I wanted. I just always followed his lead."
Stack's grip on her hips tightens. "That ain't cool, Kat. You should always follow your own lead. Sometimes, you just gotta say the hell with everything else."
Katara nods in agreement and then leans forward and kisses his cheek. Soon her lips find his mouth and Stack is leading them to where they can be alone.
Katara remembers what Jia said, that she should make sure to live her life without regrets.
Katara knows that she will not regret this night.
Soon she starts to feel an itch inside her bones.
She aches for the cold, for the snow, for ocean kumquats and smoked seaweed. She aches for the place that used to be her home.
One night she stays up late and stares up at the moon. She's starting to find that she does this often, and maybe it's because the moon gives her solace. She knows that the people who she loves can see the same moon that she sees, and she finds that this is a comfort to her.
The next morning she packs her bag. It's starting to feel fuller, from the scrolls that Jia had given her and the bracelets and necklaces that Stack had made for her.
"You're leaving." Stack's voice is observing, casual.
Katara finds that she's never tense around him; it's something that she's going to miss. She bites her bottom lip and turns around. "You could come with me," she offers.
His expression doesn't change. Katara knows his answer before he even opens his mouth. "I don't belong anywhere else, Kat."
Katara frowns. "But you've never really left the Swamp. How could you know that?"
He doesn't look offended. "The Foggy Swamp is my home. If I left, I'd just end up wantin' to come back. Besides," he reaches out and tucks a lock of hair behind Katara's ear, "there really isn't any place quite like the Swamp."
Katara smiles. "That's true."
Stack kisses her forehead. "We had fun. I'll miss you."
Katara nods in agreement. "I'll miss you too."
And in the coming days she'll discover that she does miss him, but in the way one would miss a certain type of food that you can only get in one place. She doesn't miss him brutally, like the way she misses another.
But she'll always remember him with fondness, and that fact sits well with her.
Chief Arnook throws a celebration feast in honor of her arrival. Katara sits next to him at the Royal Table and gorges herself on all the Water Tribe food that she had so dearly missed.
Finally, when she is almost too full to function, she sips on her glass of water and listens to Arnook ramble on about something or another.
"Avatar Aang was here a few months ago," he mentions.
Katara nearly spits out her water. "What?"
"He said that he was just visiting, said he wanted to see how we were all doing up here, but if you ask me it was pretty obvious that he came hoping to find someone." Arnook raises a questioning eyebrow at her and Katara finds herself blushing.
"I've been, um, a little absent as of late," she admits.
Arnook chuckles into his glass of ice wine. "You don't say?" He clears his throat and sets his glass back onto the table. "Would you like me to send a letter to the Avatar and let him know that you're here?"
Katara sits still for a long moment before shaking her head. "No, that's all right."
Chief Arnook nods. Then his blue eyes widen a little bit with clarity. "Speaking of letters, you have a few, Master Katara."
When I find you I'm going to kill you (accept not really because that's murder). But SERIOUSLY, how could you take off without telling anybody where you were going? You left Aang a letter and he's freaking out, thinking that you're breaking up with him or something. Tonight we're leaving for the South Pole, because that's where Aang thinks you'll probably go.
Zuko actually postponed the wedding until next week because we're all in such an uproar. That means that we're all going to miss his and Mai's wedding and Mai's coronation, all because you had to be a drama queen. I'm sending this letter to multiple places. I hope you get one.
Sugarqueen, Sokka is writing this for me.
We're all in Ba Sing Se, looking for you. Of course, I told the boys that we aren't going to find you because you clearly don't want to be found. Personally, I think what you're doing is badass. Take a little control!
Hope you're not dead.
(This is Sokka. I think Toph is wrong and that what you're doing is super lame. You should let us know where you are—Okay, Toph just punched me in the arm and now she's yelling at me. Gotta go.)
There's another one. It's from Aang.
Katara throws it into the fire before she can even open it. The thought of reading his heartbroken words makes her stomach twist. She knows it's selfish of her, but she just can't bring herself to open his letter.
She looks at the rest of her letters. There are a couple more from Sokka, and one from Gran-Gran.
There are none from the Fire Lord.
The spirituality Katara feels as soon as she steps into the Spirit Oasis is practically overwhelming. She sucks in a deep breath and lets the cool, sweet smelling air wash over her.
She makes her way over the soft grass and to the pool where Tui and La swim. She watches them for a long, quiet moment before sitting down next to them.
It's been a long time since she's been to the Northern Water Tribe, and an even longer time since she's paid a visit to its Spirit Oasis. She discreetly reaches out with an empty vial and scoops up some of the precious water before tucking it back inside her parka. Hopefully she won't have to use the water for a very long time.
She hears someone enter the Oasis and she turns her head around to see who it is. Chief Arnook doesn't look too surprised to see her.
"Good evening, Master Katara," he greets. With his hands clasped behind his back, he stands next to the pool and stares into the water with an unreadable expression upon his face. Suddenly, Katara feels as if she's intruding.
"Do you want me to leave?" she asks softly, preparing herself to get to her feet.
Arnook shakes his head. "You're fine. It's just that sometimes I like to come in here and sit for awhile. I can feel Yue's spirit." His voice breaks a little when he utters his daughter's name and Katara can feel her chest tightening with emotion.
"Every time I see the moon, I think of her," Arnook continues. "I think of her sacrifice, and I think about how I wish that she had not done it, because then I'd still have my daughter. I'd still have my Yue." There is sadness in his blue eyes. "But then I have to tell myself to not be selfish, that sacrificing herself was her destiny." He sighs and continues to stare down into the pool.
Katara begins to feel sick. How many times has she looked up at the sky and wished, ever so briefly, that she could be the moon? She should be grateful that she is not the moon, and that she got a chance to live her own life.
But she cannot leave the Oasis without saying something to Yue's father. "Every time I see the moon I find a little bit of clarity, even if I'm not having the best of days."
Arnook gives her a small smile. "My daughter was good at making people feel hope. She was my own inspiration."
Katara stands up and places a comforting hand on the Chief's shoulder. "Now, she is everyone's inspiration."
And then she leaves.
When Katara steps off the ship, she looks around at all the chaos of people scattered about at the port. She's not really sure where she wants to go this time around. She's just happy to be back on solid ground.
She's back in the Fire Nation, but no one stops to give her a second glance, no one stops to gasp and point a finger at her. She goes entirely unnoticed. She is completely okay with this.
She decides at the drop of a hat that she'll go to the Western Air Temple. She needs to find Aang; she needs to settle things.
Maybe for the past year she's been selfish. Maybe Sokka was right, maybe she was being a drama queen.
But the important thing is that Katara doesn't really feel sad anymore.
He finds her before she's even halfway to the Temple.
He had been flying over her while riding Appa, and before Katara knew what was going on the Avatar had landed in front of her and had swept her up into his arms.
"I missed you," he breathes into her hair, and Katara realizes with a guilty jolt that he's crying. She reaches up a hand and strokes his head like she used to when he was a kid and would wake up from a nightmare.
She smiles to herself now, and maybe her smile is a little solemn, but she understands. Aang will always be special to her; she'll always have a deep connection with him, but not in the way that she once thought.
He pulls back and leans down to kiss her, but she places her hand over his lips before he can.
She palms his cheek and he leans into her touch. "I was trying to find you," she states, rubbing her thumb over his skin. It's still baby soft, even though she can see a peek of facial hair growing around his chin.
His gray eyes are wide. "I looked for you for a really long time, Katara. Where have you been?"
Katara shrugs. "Places."
Aang lets out a shaky laugh. "You can tell me all about it later, okay? Right now I just want to—"
"I'm not going anywhere else with you, Aang." It's one of the hardest things that she's ever had to say. She feels the sudden urge to cry, but quickly fights against it.
The way his face falls is heartbreaking, but hidden in his gaze is a look of understanding. He knows.
"You're an amazing Avatar, Aang, and an even more amazing man. Anyone would be lucky to have you love them, to be your companion. I just don't think that I can be that person. I don't want to be that person. You deserve somebody who is going to be completely committed to you, and that's not me."
He nods slowly and slides a step away from her.
"I love you, Aang. And I'll always be there for you whenever you need me. But, as your friend."
He doesn't speak to her for two hours. And not because he's angry, but because he doesn't really have anything to say to her.
Katara cooks them dinner over a campfire and they both eat it in silence. It's not until they're preparing for bed (each of them on opposite ends of their camp) that he decides to say something.
"Where will you go now?"
Katara hasn't figured out the answer to that question yet. "I was thinking maybe Ba Sing Se. I'd like to see Toph and Sokka."
"You're not going to see Zuko?"
His name makes Katara go still. Her hands fist into the blanket that she's lying on. She doesn't want to think about him, she doesn't want to even consider seeing him. He's happy with his wife, and she has no business interrupting his life. She doesn't think she could emotionally handle it. Plus, he doesn't deserve that. He doesn't deserve to have her waltz back into his life again. It would be unfair to him.
"No, that's okay." Her voice is shaky. "He's married now and running a country. I'll leave him be."
Aang is quiet for a long moment. "But, Zuko never got married, Katara."
It's like someone has punched her in the stomach.
"He kept postponing it," Aang continues. "And then he just called it off. Mai left and went to Kyoshi Island to hang out with Ty Lee."
Katara rolls onto her side and curls her legs up toward her body. It feels as if there's a heavy weight sitting on her chest. "Did he say why?" she asks.
"No. He didn't."
Soon after that Aang falls asleep, and Katara is grateful to her former boyfriend for pretending that he doesn't hear her tears.
She doesn't head toward the Capitol City. Instead, she hops back onto a boat and heads to the seaside village that she'd spent so much time in nearly a year ago.
She thinks, perhaps, that it's the most cowardly thing that she's ever done.
But all she really wants to do is talk to Jia again. And then after she does she thinks that maybe she'll head back to the South Pole. She misses her father and her grandmother, and even though it might not be where she belongs, she thinks that she's out of other options.
She walks into the marketplace, nodding occasionally toward people that she recognizes. She spies a woman she doesn't know running Jia's stand. Katara suspects that perhaps the old woman took in another wayward young woman. It seemed like the kind of thing she'd do.
She walks right up to the stand and places her palms on top of the counter. That's when she notices how alike the woman is to Jia. They have the same nose, and their hair curls in the same way. Katara's face lights up. "You must be Jia's daughter!"
The woman's smile fades a little. "Yes."
Katara grins. "That's great! I'm sure she's happy that you're visiting. I was actually wondering if I could speak to her—" At the stricken expression on the daughter's face, Katara finds her heart sinking.
"You must be the Water Tribe girl that my mother talked about. She liked you." The woman clasps her hands together. "My mother died about a month ago."
Katara's whole body turns to ice. She watches stone-faced as the woman quickly places a 'closed' sign on top of the counter. "Do you want to see her?"
Katara nods, fighting back tears.
She walks behind Jia's daughter for about half a mile until they reach Jia's seaside cottage. That's when Katara sees the headstone.
"My mother wanted to be buried," the daughter explains. "Some people around here like to be cremated, but mom was always one to march to her own beat."
Katara bends down until her knees hit the sand. The daughter's voice eventually fades away, and after a moment Katara realizes that she's left her alone.
Jia's words to her ring throughout her mind. We must all learn to stand on our own two feet. If we cannot be happy by ourselves, then how can we ever expect to be happy with other people? No, what I mean is, don't live a life filled with 'what if's. Don't end your life filled with regret.
Katara's hands clench into fists and she starts to cry, and as soon as the tears start they don't stop for a long, long time. She's twenty-three years old now and the one thing that she wants, the one person that she wants, she's too afraid to go and get.
How can she be such a selfish person? She disappeared for a whole year, abandoning her family and friends, and for what? To be a coward? To not do anything with what she's learned? To go back and hide in the South Pole?
Katara knows that she can't do that. She thinks of Jia, who warned her to make sure to live a lift that she wouldn't regret. She thinks of Stack, who was so content with who he was and where he was.
Katara wonders if maybe the goal isn't to be blissfully happy each and every day, because that's impossible. She wonders if the goal is to be content, with not only your surroundings, but with who you are as a person. Maybe those are the most important things.
Yue ascends into the starry sky and basks Katara with her moonlight.
That's when Katara starts to feel completely sure, for the first time in her life.
The palace looks the same.
Katara isn't sure what she should be expecting, it's not like a lot should have changed in a whole year.
Because that's how long it's been. A whole year.
The servants know that she's here, but she hasn't stopped and allowed them to announce her arrival to Zuko. She realizes that that will be seen as rude, but she doesn't really care what they think. She has to find him.
She has to tell him that she's sorry.
She finds him in the exact place where she knew he'd be: in his mother's old garden.
Her throat seems to close on its own accord, so Katara makes sure that her footsteps are loud and squishy against the grass. Zuko's head whips toward her and his golden eyes go wide with astonishment.
He stands up quickly, jaw set. Katara isn't sure what to expect. She just knows that right now she can't say anything. She has to let him speak first.
He stares her down. "Are you real this time?"
A dozen questions form in her mind, but she ignores them all in order to answer him. "Yes." Her voice comes out in a croak and suddenly she feels like crying again. "I'm here this time."
He doesn't walk up to her and wrap her in his arms like she wishes that he would. Instead, he says: "Why did you leave, Katara?"
She closes her eyes briefly at the way that he says her name. "It didn't feel right to stay."
He nods slowly, accepting her answer in a way that Aang and Sokka would never be able to.
"You didn't come looking for me," Katara points out.
Zuko shakes his head.
"I'm glad you didn't." And Katara realizes that she really, truly is.
Zuko takes a step toward her. "Everyone else ran off to look for you. But I stayed behind. I knew that you left for a reason, and that you needed to figure out certain things. Besides, I knew you'd come back eventually."
She frowns. "How?"
His smile is small but genuine. "You're Katara."
Choking up a bit, Katara looks away before changing the subject. "I thought you loved Mai, Zuko. Why didn't you marry her?"
"I did love Mai. That's why I couldn't marry her."
Katara looks back up at him, confused.
"I loved her, but I knew that if I married her that I'd eventually regret it. She's amazing but…I felt like I'd never be able to fully commit to her the way she wanted me to, the way that she deserved."
The Fire Lord steps right up to her, so close that Katara can smell him. He smells good, just the way that she always remembered.
"Why?" she breathes. "Why couldn't you commit to her?" But she already knows the answer.
"Come on, Katara." Zuko reaches up and trails his fingertips over her brow and then down her cheek. "Isn't it obvious?" He leans down and kisses her forehead. "You don't look sad anymore."
She leans her head against his shoulder. "That's because I'm not."
And Katara knows deep within her bones that she is exactly where she needs to be.
And this monster of a one-shot is finally over.
I've actually been wanting to write this story for over a year now, but it wasn't until it coincided with one of the prompts for Zutara Week that I actually decided to buckle down and write it. Granted, I'm a couple of days late in posting this, but I hope that everyone had a great Zutara Week! It was a lot of fun, reading the stories and looking at all the wonderful art. To be honest, a part of me isn't wholly satisfied with the way this piece turned out, but at this point I'm just happy to have it completed and out for everyone to see.
Fun Fact: In case you didn't catch on, Stack is actually Tahno's grandfather. :D
Please review and leave me your thoughts!