dedication: to Emily for reconstruction and late-night conversation. to Beth for hour-long long-distance phone calls. to Chloe for serial shipping and always-offered couches. to Sonya for wide-eye innocence. to Les for everything else.
notes: this is number four on my to-do list.
title: the space between seconds
summary: Am I keeping you awake? If I am, then just say. — Zuko/Katara.
The moon wasn't full that night.
Even waning, the sliver of silver that light poured in through the window splashed into merry puddles along the creases in Katara's blankets. It was late—so late—but the air hummed around her with built-up tension. It sung along her nerves, dripping nightmare-promises into her ears 'til she kicked the sheets away and jumped away from the bed. Skin sweat-slick sticky, she moved molasses-slow and silent to avoid disturbing the other occupants of the room.
It wasn't supposed to be like this.
The roaring in her ears was supposed to have stopped by now. The blood rushing through her friends was supposed to be a faint, faint memory. It was supposed to have gone.
She wasn't supposed to be able to feel it anymore.
But she could.
Bloodbending was taboo for a reason, Katara thought grimly. It ate away at a person. It ate away at their soul. Give it an inch and it would take a mile, only to keep reaching and clawing and eating 'til there was nothing left of the person underneath but bones and haunted glowing holes for eyes.
It would keep eating and eating until it consumed a person, entire.
Katara cringed away from the thought.
It wasn't late enough for that kind of thing. The darkness had settled in deep inside and stuck in her throat, all smoke and low-eyed grace. It wasn't something she was proud of, and she'd thought it would have gone, by now.
But no. It hadn't.
And her head was left all over the place, fingers trailing along the cool stone of the walls of the Western Air Temple. She was faded and quiet as the ghosts that haunted this place; the moon drove her to walk among them, and sometimes she wondered if that wasn't the point in the first place.
She was going to stay up all night again. When the other asked about the dark circles beneath her eyes, Katara would only smile.
It was better that way.
The air was eerie clear, that night. Katara breathed it in—it was the kind of air that hung about before a thunderstorm, thick with promise and rage and a strange sick sort of possibility.
She traced runes in the air, and half-expected them to glow.
(After all, Yue did have a strange sense of humour.)
Katara skipped over fissures and dead leaves. It was only the crack of foot against dry wood that had her suddenly alert, and she stared towards the communal campsite. The water in her waterskin gloved her hands.
There was a person there.
She'd thought she didn't have it in her to kill, but she could feel the rush of his blood beneath his skin. It was a heady thing. She could snap his neck, and he wouldn't even ever have to see her.
"Who's there?" she demanded.
"It's just me," came the tired reply.
Katara peeked around the corner, and blinked at Zuko. He was sitting by the glowing fire pit, looking up A spark danced between his fingers, rolling the same way a coin would, flickering in and out of existence. She watched it for a moment before she spoke.
"I—sorry. I didn't realize anyone else was awake," she said.
Zuko shrugged, and tilted his head towards the spot next to him. "Sit down. Can't sleep?"
"Obviously not," Katara snorted, but sat anyway. She wrapped her arms around her knees and pulled them to her chest. She stared straight into the fire, eyes turning glazed and far-away. "The moon's not even full."
He blinked. "What does the moon have to do with it?"
Katara rested her chin against her knees, and looked at him. She was very small in the shadow of the fire. "Remember the Spirit Oasis?"
He didn't like to. "Yes."
"It's like that," Katara said and shrugged a little. "Waterbenders are ruled by the moon. I almost never sleep when the moon's full."
"But the moon's not full," Zuko said.
"No, it isn't. It's dumb," Katara huffed. She tucked her hair out of her face, irritable—Zuko had never seen her without her braids (hair-loopies echoed in his head in Sokka's voice, for a moment, but he shook it away before he did something stupid like say it aloud), and she looked so young and so old all at once that he gulped and had to look away.
"So why can't you sleep?" he asked.
Katara bit her lip. She couldn't look him in the eye—but then, she thought, he would understand. He'd been there when she'd nearly killed someone. He had let her make the choice.
(It was worth more than she was ever going to be able to tell him.)
"I can feel everyone's blood," she said.
She tried to sound casual.
And she waited for the disgust, because this was bloodbending—she was disgusted with herself for even thinking of it, much less being able to do it. Zuko's disgust would make sense.
(Yue, she thought, please let him understand.)
He tilted his head back as he stared at the sky, and for a minute, Katara looked at him in profile. He was pale as the ghosts that haunted them all, the angry red scar around thrown into high relief in the firelight, the sharp line of his nose, thin lips, the jut of his chin to the bump of his throat—he looked older than she remembered.
They all looked older than she remembered, probably.
"I dreamed about my mom," he said, simply.
"Yeah?" Katara asked.
Zuko caught her gaze. There was nothing malicious in her face. Just curiosity and sorrow, and that was good enough for him.
"She was walking away," he said. "I kept trying to catch her, but…"
"You couldn't," Katara finished the statement for him. "I don't like those kinds of dreams. They hurt."
"Yeah, they do," Zuko replied.
Sometimes, they both thought they had too much in common. Dead mothers, absent fathers, possibly-insane siblings (although the insanity was different and better, in one case)—their elements different, but opposites always did attract. They just had bad luck, and things were still settling.
"Are you going to sleep at all?" Katara asked very softly.
"I don't think so," Zuko replied.
"Oh. Okay. Me neither."
Katara and Zuko sat side by side, and waited for the sun to rise.