And I did not mean to shout, just drive
Just get us out, dead or alive
A road too long to mention, lord, it's something to see
Laid down by the good intentions paving company
The smell of surf invades her nostrils; her toes made imprints in the sand. The air isn't nearly as humid as it is during the day, instead pleasantly warm on her bare shoulders and stomach. She recognizes the curve of Princess Yue's smile in the waxing crescent moon above her head, and she spreads her arms, reaching out and dipping her awareness in her element. She relishes in the possibility all around her; she cherishes the push and pull that is her constant companion, almost like a heartbeat. It's reassurance – the possibility. The knowledge that she could mold a thousand and one things from the water, the fact that she could mend any injury adversity sent her way.
The water gives her weapons and bandages and flight and life. It soothes her when everyone else has gone abed. She can do anything and defeat anyone and heal all wounds.
It's almost like the fairy tales her mother used to tell her during the blizzards, comforting lies to hold her upright, unattainable ideals to strive for.
(The water weaves around itself, forming an intricate pattern; a lattice above the sea.)
Katara misses her mother. Her mother had always known what to say. She would have known what to say now, at this moment.
But her mother is not here. There is no one here, no one but Katara and the ocean and the fireflies blinking in the distance.
(The decoration morphs and collapses into one long stream that moves and circles in the air.)
She feels silly for feeling so alone when there are five perfectly good people to keep her company and cheer her up back at the house. But she can't help it – because there is this immense dread growing inside of her and gathering in the back of her throat. She hates feeling helpless; hates how she watched idly by as a mockery of her friends were incinerated as an audience cheered. She tells herself that that's not going to happen, that she simply will not allow it to happen, but she can't ignore an ugly voice inside of her. A voice that hisses and insists:
You can't save them all. You'll panic and freeze up and someone, someone will get hurt because of you.
Or, she thinks bitterly, you'll run away, and your cowardice will only make it stronger and stronger. It'll grow into something you can't ignore anymore, but can't handle.
Katara exhales shakily, hot tears prickling the corners of her eyes. She had hurt Aang. She had damaged him when before she had promised that she would let nothing ever, ever wound him. All those times, all those awkward moments where she stubbornly remained quiet were now coming back to haunt her in the worst way. She should have talked to him. She should have not let it get so out of hand, out of her control.
(In contrast, the water is very much in her control as she goes through the standard forms she first learned only a few months ago.)
And now Aang thinks he is entitled to her; he seems to think she owes him something. Something more than an explanation of her feelings. He thinks she owes him kisses and embraces and grand declarations.
How is she supposed tell him that he had got it all wrong? How is she supposed to describe the responsibility she feels for him; how she never wants him to be unhappy and will do anything to keep him safe? How is she supposed to express how he had taught her how to have fun; how he had been the key to unlocking her bending and her confidence and an entire world of possibility? How is she to let him know that she loves him so, so much, but never in the way he wants her to?
Katara misses the simplicity of days gone by, those sun-kissed memories of koi fish and orange autumn leaves and coasting gliders. But now Aang's soured everything now with his unwelcome kisses and assumptions.
The worst thing is that she still hasn't confronted it. She hasn't yet set it straight. The urge to do nothing, to give in and just will it go away is so tempting.
(A few droplets escape; she doesn't notice.)
But she can't. It's too late now. He's already hurting. She's already failed from saving him from herself.
This is her breaking point; a frustrated cry escapes her. The water she has been bending splashes uselessly into the sea, foaming and cresting. She falls to her knees, her spine curls. Her hands meet her face, shielding them.
This is how Zuko finds her a few minutes later. One moment she is alone, the next there is a warm hand on her back and a concerned boy crouching at her side. She ceases her crying immediately and hastily wipes the evidence from her cheeks.
"I'm sorry for bothering you," Zuko says, "but you kind of looked like you needed to be bothered."
His voice has a roughness about it – like the crumble of scorched paper. It used to frighten her, but now she almost finds it comforting. It reminds her of camp fires and long talks into the night and…tea.
"Thanks," she says. Her voice is thick with tears. She sounds young and stupid and upset and she hates it. She hates feeling weak like this, especially in front of him.
There's a presence by her temple and she instinctively whips her head up. Zuko's fingers flood her vision. They hesitate for a moment before trailing down her face, sweeping across her cheek and barely brushing the corner of her mouth. Katara watches their course and goes a bit cross-eyed in the process. Zuko withdraws his hand and that is when Katara finally looks at him. He's blushing and shamefaced, but manages to meet her gaze.
"Do you want to talk about it?" he asks quietly.
This is the way it is between the two of them now. When before she had barely tolerated his presence and he was tense and pensive around her, they have evolved into the sort of people who sit together on beaches and tell each other things. Distrust has mutated into secret-telling, resentment has givenway into a mutual respect. She struggles to remember her hatred; it slips away from her along with all the anger she harbored. And in that spot inside herself she had previously dedicated to despising him, something new is blossoming.
Something unsure and frightening yet oh so genuine and she doesn't know what to do with it. She isn't sure how to trust it.
Katara considers brushing him off and insisting that she's fine (like she always does) but decides against it. She reminds herself that he's already seen the ugliest parts of her and hadn't judged her. It won't hurt to entrust him with this part of herself, either. He's already told her about his mother and his uncle and his father and his cousin and it's only fair to let go of something of hers. The only thing he hasn't told her about is his scar, but really, she's not so sure she's ready to learn about that yet.
And so she braces herself, tugging her arms around her knees and closing her eyes.
"It's Aang. When I went to talk to him during the second intermission, he asked me why we weren't together."
"Yes. Like, romantically together."
She opens her eyes and casts him a sidelong look. He is watching her apprehensively, seemingly unsure of what to say.
"Then he kissed me—" Zuko's eyes widen at that, "—and I ran away pretty quickly after that."
Katara sighs, lowering her head. "It just," she says into her knees, "he never asks me how I feel about things. He just kisses me out of the blue like it's okay. Like whether or not I like him that way or not shouldn't even be a question."
She closes her eyes in frustration. "I don't know how to tell him that I just don't feel that way about him. Because it's going to crush him and he really doesn't need that now. He needs all the confidence he can get before the comet. And if I tell him – he might, he might…He might run off. He does that, sometimes."
"Wait, he just abandons you sometimes?"
Katara lifts her head to nod. "Yeah. He flew off on his own after we lost Appa. We were in the middle of the Earth Kingdom desert." She opens her eyes and sees Zuko bristling. "Don't be mad, he's just a kid."
"I know that!" Zuko snaps. She glares at him and his expression softens. "Believe me, I know. It just that he has a responsibility to the world. It's one thing to blow off twenty fire squats in his morning training and another thing entirely to abandon you guys in the desert."
"Calm down. We were fine. Master waterbender, remember?"
"Master waterbender in a desert," he says pointedly.
It's her turn to bristle. "Yeah, whatever," Katara says, gesticulating a bit angrily. "The point is Aang is just a kid, and so is Toph and Sokka's my brother. It's my job to protect them. And so I don't blame Aang for running away once in a while. He's got the whole world resting on his shoulders."
"Besides," she says after a moment, "he always comes back."
"But what if—"
She crumples; tears are welling up again. "Stop! Whatever it is, just stop it! I don't need it. I am perfectly fine on my own, thank you very much. I can solve this whole thing with Aang on my own. God, I should have never told you, why did I think you could—"
She stops shouting when she glimpses the look on his face.
Fuck. She can't handle this. Oh spirits, what has she done? Wasn't she just resolving to trust him?
Katara struggles to her feet and is almost all the way upright when his hand finds her forearm and tugs her back down into the sand. He pulls her into an embrace, his arms wrapping around her shoulders. Her head is squished into his shoulder, and she can feel his shirt dampening at the place under her face.
"I'm sorry," he whispers into her ear, "I'm sorry I'm so bad at this. I'm trying – I'm trying to listen. I know you don't need me. You're know you're capable and a master waterbender and everything. But I'm not like you. I'm bad at saying the right things."
She brings her hands up to hug him back and gives him a squeeze. "Stop apologizing. I'm the one who should be sorry. I'm new to this, too, you know. I'm not used to just telling people things. I'm not used to trusting—"
"Me?" he questions softly.
"Anyone. Not this completely." She pulls away a bit to look in him the eye. "You're the first person who I told the whole story about my mother, you know. You're the first person who's seen – you were there when I –"
She takes a deep breath.
"You're the first person who's seen the worst of me and stuck around for more and I'm not sure how to react to that. It's never happened before. I've…never let it happen before."
It slowly dawns on Katara that this is the closest they've ever been to each other. His eyes are wide – nervous, possibly? She is too. Her breath is coming quicker than usual. She finds her gaze lured to his mouth. His lips are parted ever so slightly, and—
She withdraws from his embrace, shifting away from him before she does anything rash. This isn't the time for this. They're at war.
But, Tui and La – she wants to think about that. She wants to pretend that she's just a girl living in a fancy house by the beach with her five best friends and has the time to think about boys and kissing and everything normal girls think about.
But she doesn't have the luxury of normalcy or time. Instead, Katara focuses on Zuko's breath, the quiet and steady sounds of inhalation and exhalation. It tugs at something inside her.
It's a different feeling from the protectiveness she feels about Aang. She feels responsible for the life of the boy with the tattoos. His life is hers to defend.
It's a different feeling from the protectiveness she feels about Toph and Sokk and Suki. She knows that they are all capable, that they can take care of themselves. She has faith in them. But they are family, and she always takes care of her family.
This feeling about Zuko is selfish. Her desire for his safety seems entwined in some other desire. He won't die until Katara sorts out this overwhelming feeling. He just can't die when she feels so much. How dare he die and leave her all on her own?
(She remembers the panicked look in his eyes as he fell helplessly from the airship, and how she pulled him to safety because there was no way he was dying on her when she was still so mad at him.)
No, he has to stay around. She simply won't allow anything otherwise.
He asks her what she plans to do about Aang. She sighs a little. Nothing, I guess, she admits. Her hair falls around her shoulders, obscuring his view of her expression. Zuko feels the urge to claim a lock and play with it – or maybe grasp her hand, but quickly dismisses this as a Bad Idea.
He's been playing a game of sorts since he joined the Avatar. Having challenged himself to stop being so impulsive and actually think his actions through, he is sure to label everything he does as a Good or Bad Idea before he does anything.
Securing the morning training session with the Avatar? Good Idea. Rise with the sun and all that.
Indulging Toph in whatever tyrannical punishment she saw fit for burning his feet? Good Idea. It had been her way of getting him to pay attention to her and he found that she was the most accepting of him in the beginning. She had been willing to try to understand him like the others hadn't been.
Sparring with Sokka? Bad Idea, but somehow a decision he has made again and again. But every single time Sokka manages to get a lucky hit and he has to go crawling to Katara for a healing session.
(But really it isn't like he complains or anything when she puts her hands on him.)
Developing feelings for Katara had been the worst idea at all, but it wasn't like he chose to do it. The most embarrassing thing is how everyone seemed to know about it. It's like as soon as he joined this group all of his secrecy and dignity and privacy went out the window. Suki and Toph delighted in teasing him about his fumbling and blushing around her. Even Sokka pulled him a few days after they arrived at Ember Island and basically said: If it you had been anyone other guy, you'd be dead. But since you're kind of cool, I'll let it slide.
At the time Zuko had attempted to point out the illogicality of that statement but was hastily shushed by Sokka.
Zuko had then tried to get the warrior into a headlock and things had quickly escalated and in the end he was faced with an irritated Katara telling him there wasn't much she would do about his black eye except reduce the swelling. She then proceeded to hit Sokka several times over the head.
(Why are you always injuring him? Just because I'm a healer doesn't mean to have a free pass to beat up on Zuko!)
He smiles at the memory. The two of them have been sitting in a comfortable since for a few minutes now. Katara still looks despondent. He searches for something to say to her – or, something to do for her. After all, he had won her trust with actions rather than apologies.
"I could talk to Aang, if you want," he offers.
She looks up sharply at him, her hair swishing. "No!" She says emphatically, almost chuckling at the absurdity of it.
He swallows. "Sorry," Zuko says quickly.
Katara stares at him for a moment, and then grins. She's so beautiful. He's reminded painfully of the almost kiss earlier. "Thanks for the offer," she says, "but I'm just going to ignore it."
'It' obviously being her code word for the kiss between her and Aang.
"Aang has too much on his plate right now," Katara continues, "I'll talk to him about it later. But right now, you and I are going to have some tea."
Zuko nods and stays close beside her as they walk back to the house. He decides not to mention the very real possibility that there might not be a later for them.
Really, he doesn't blame Katara for backing down. It stills hurts, though. Because there's a very real possibility he will die in a few short weeks and can she blame him for wanting to claim some happiness before then?
But how could he do that to her? Make her care for him and then die on her? No, that's impossible. Katara is right. It's better to just see this war through and try to survive, try to protect the ones you love.
She must know how he feels, anyway. He's so obvious about it. The thought reassures him. Even if he won't (can't) say it, she must know. And that's enough.
After their tea they do the dishes together. He flicks a soap bubble at her and she splashes him, not with her bending – just a normal manipulation of water. There's a small splashing fight which Katara wins by threatening to drown him. It ends with the two of them grinning stupidly at each other, and Zuko wondering where this girl has been all his life.
Her blue, blue eyes laugh at him and he knows he'll die to save her, if he has to. Her life is so important. Her life is more important. Because she is so good, and he is not. Really, what has he done to this world except try to kill its last hope for peace? But Katara is another story. She makes everything better. She made him better. She just has to live.
And she will live. He'll make sure of it.
A/N: Just gonna say here that this took forever to work out, but I've just gone and posted it now so I focus on later parts. Yep, that's right. This will be a three or four-shot, I think.
Stayed tuned, because later we will see the Last Agni Kai, Mai's return, and much more.
In other words, I am rewriting canon with my wily Zutarian ways.