۵ ۵ ۵
"Stay your steps. Do not retreat from me . . .
This is the last time fate will let us speak."
THEY TRICKED HER. The gods had tricked her!
Katara was so angry right now she could scream, but making a single noise on this bridge could void the spiritual contract and send Zuko straight to Naraka, a realm of torment and agony. That thought alone kept her mouth shut. The idea of Zuko being sent to hell because of her terrified yet drove her forward all the same.
It wasn't entirely Varuna's fault, Katara eventually reasoned—actually, it wasn't the goddess's fault at all. It was her own. Katara was the one who was so confident in herself and her need to return Zuko to the living—to appease her own guilt—that she never once considered the consequences for him.
Avatar Kuruk warned her but she had arrogantly presumed the sacrifice would be hers and hers alone. But it wasn't; and it was her decision to try to bring Zuko home, a decision she made that entailed a sacrifice for him. The ultimate kind.
But why did he choose to come with her? Why did he allow her to bait him if he knew all along that he was just travelling towards a second death—no, a punishment far greater than death? He was willingly walking into a trap that she had unwittingly created. But to what end?
What had she done?
Taking in a deep breath, Katara carefully made her way onto the onyx-coloured bridge. She could hear the rushing waters below but she dared not glance down in case she somehow turned and looked back at Zuko. Varuna had told her she must always look ahead, always move forward, or else—
Katara shook her head. She didn't want to think about the consequences. Instead, she focussed on moving forward. She stared ahead but she could no longer see the stairs that Varuna had pointed out earlier, before they entered the archway.
The fog was so thick here that she could barely see her own hands in front of her face or the black stone bridge beneath her feet. She wondered what kind of images she would be shown. Would it be like how it was seeing Zuko's past? Would she see her own this time? Would he see as well?
She worried her bottom lip with her teeth. The latter thought shouldn't have bothered her. Why should she care if he saw her past? She had seen him at his most vulnerable; it was only fair that he got to see her at her weakest point too.
The memory of Zuko freezing when he saw his mother hugging him goodbye flitted through Katara's mind and she frowned. She was going to have to relive everything again, wasn't she?
Taking in a deep breath, Katara strode forward. This was her test, she told herself. To see how strong she was and how much she was willing to sacrifice for her enemy without condemning him to hell. But while Katara had stood beside Zuko on his path, her journey inevitably had to be travelled alone.
ZUKO'S EYES WERE trained on the waterbender in front of him, his gaze fixed on the chestnut braid that hung down the middle of her back. He knew all along that he'd be sent to Naraka should someone try (and fail) to bring him home. His conversation with Red-Sash informed him as such:
"On the off chance that a living being should descend here and petition for your soul, you run the risk of being sent directly to Naraka should that person fail.
"It is all about balance here, no shortcuts. And I should note that there have only been a handful of people who have managed to convince Varuna. You are unlikely to be a part of that exception."
Zuko didn't expect anyone to come for him, least of all the person who had killed him. But she had; she had come to him with tears in her eyes and he stupidly agreed. He still wasn't exactly sure why he did it. Maybe on some level he knew she'd fail and he'd be forced to spend his reincarnation cycle in hell. Maybe he wanted to be punished. Maybe.
But now things were different, somehow. Now he wanted her to succeed. He wanted to return to the living. He needed to.
KATARA SLOWLY MADE her way across the bridge. She was still unable to see what was directly in front of her, so she stumbled forward and reached out to balance her footing.
She glanced down at her feet to see gaps in the stonework below. Some of the gaps were easy to spot, missing chunks of mortar; some were tiny, some were several feet wide. Others were difficult to spot, slick cracks in the stone that crumbled the moment her foot touched them. What at first seemed to be a strong and sturdy structure was actually a weakened foundation.
How many hopeful souls have set foot on this bridge? she wondered. How many have made it to the other side?
The fog picked up, invading her space as it crawled along her skin and forced its way into her lungs as she breathed. It swaddled her like a thick blanket, suffocating her, and she tried her best not to choke on the air.
But the fog wasn't her only deterrent from running straight for the exit; the crumbling stone bridge groaned and creaked under their weight, cracking apart, and Katara swallowed her fear into the pit of her stomach. She held it there, coiling it tightly and refusing to let it surface. She really did have to lead Zuko out of here, and she had to trust that he would follow her every step or else—
Suddenly the fog began to lift, drawing upwards and parting like curtains for a performance. The bridge was visible to her now, though she still could not see the exit ahead. She thanked the spirits for the small favour that she could at least now see where she was going and began to walk more confidently across the bridge.
The sound of the rushing celestial waters below was almost soothing to the ear, though eerie, and the brilliant silver-green waters rose up alongside of her like twisted banners spun of liquid silk. The waters then began to form their own patterns, reminding her of the mists in the meadows, and she waited for it.
At first there were only flashing images: a small girl with pale skin and milky green eyes, dressed like a boy with messy black hair in her face; then there were three slightly older girls around Katara's age, all three appeared to be chasing after Appa. The older girls looked familiar, but the images flashed by so quickly that Katara had no time to recall where she had seen them before.
Then she saw herself in a green-glowing crystal cavern with Zuko. His ponytail was gone, replaced with shaggy hair that fell in front of his eyes. He was dressed in Earth Kingdom robes and he was looking at her with such sad eyes. She was touching his scarred cheek, almost longingly.
The images shifted.
Next, she was kneeling in the water with a lifeless Aang in her arms. Katara swallowed hard, trying to chase back the visceral images that mocked her vision. Was he dead? No, the Avatar could not be dead! She wanted to scream out, to ask what was going on, but the scene was already changing, morphing into something else.
A fiery scene unfolded; the skies above were blood red, an angry storm of violence. She saw Zuko; this time he was crouching low with his arms extended forward. Blue and orange flames surrounded him, licking at his skin. Suddenly a jet of blue fire blasted past his shoulder. Katara could see a girl around her age with brown hair and amber eyes propelling herself forward with those same blue flames, aiming for Zuko.
Creating a large sphere of fire, Zuko managed to protect himself from the girl's attacks while returning his own volley of orange fire. But the girl was too fast for him. He crouched low to the ground and performed several spinning sweep kicks, creating a powerful ring of fire that expanded outwards. The girl attempted to block Zuko's attack with a shield of blue fire, but she was too late and Zuko's fire connected.
The amber-eyed girl fell forward and rolled across the ground, gasping in pain. She determinedly picked herself up, trying to steady herself. Katara could see that the girl was obviously in pain, but it was more than that, more than just physical torment that clouded her haunted, frenzied eyes. Her hair had come undone, wet strands sticking to her face, and she was staring up at Zuko through the flames, baring her teeth in anger and contempt.
"What, no lightning today, Azula?" Zuko taunted. "What's the matter? Afraid I'll re-direct it?" He shifted his stance and thrust his palm forward, as though daring her to try.
Katara held her breath. Azula? Zuko was fighting his sister?
"Oh, I'll show you lightning!" Azula screamed, waving her hands around in arcs, generating lightning from her very fingertips.
Zuko was breathing evenly, extending his palms outwards as though he was going to receive the lightning. Katara was still holding her breath, mesmerised by both siblings' actions; it was like watching two fencers circle each other in duel. Azula's lightning crackled in her palms and her eyes shifted, looking past Zuko at someone else. Katara's eyes widened when she saw that it was her there standing behind Zuko.
Azula smirked and extended her arm to the right of Zuko, releasing the lighting at Katara. Katara could only watch in horror as the lightning travelled towards the image of herself. She was going to die. Zuko's crazy sister was going to kill her in the future!
But suddenly the scene narrowed in on Zuko, an expression of shock registering on his face as he realised who Azula was aiming for. He pivoted quickly to the right, trying to get in between Katara and the lightning as it shot from Azula's fingertips.
"No!" he yelled, extending his fingers as he absorbs the lightning mid leap.
There was a blinding flash of light and Katara could hear her own vision screaming out his name, "Zuko!"
The images dispersed and Katara noticed that her own hand was reaching out through the green fog, as though she could save him, as though could stop the images from disappearing.
This was her future, to watch Zuko die?
She curled her fingers into a fist and lowered it to her side, setting her mouth in a hard, determined line. She could not question it now, could not say a word, could not turn back. She had to keep going forward, for Zuko's sake.
ZUKO'S EYES WERE on Katara's back but his mind was spinning, reeling in shock.
What did he just see? His future or hers? He saved this girl's life, fighting against his own sister, matching her every move? Him, the failure, the banished prince? He wasn't sure if these visions were glimpses of the future or some twisted sort of devilry.
The green water flickered and he bit his lip, concentrating on the task at hand. He found himself admiring the waterbender's resolve, her ability to keep going forward. Perhaps she wouldn't be so easy to break. But then it was still too early to tell.
KATARA CONTINUED TO carefully make her way across the bridge, wondering what she'd be shown next. Unlike the road to Zuko's past, where Zuko could run past the images, Katara could not. If she should run, she could fall. Then what would happen to Zuko?
Celestial waters rose high above her like dazzling columns, forming a pair of hands that were reaching into a deep pool of blue. It was Admiral Zhao. He grabbed the white koi from its sanctuary and it struggled in his hands. But eventually Zhao forced the flailing fish into a bag and pulled the strings tight. The moon above turned a blood red and Katara's eyes widened in shock as she remembered what Avatar Kuruk had told her about the moon and ocean spirits.
Admiral Zhao had just captured Tui, the Moon Spirit.
The scene then shifted to the northern city with a blood red light washing over it. The Northern Water Tribe's counter-attack against the Fire Nation soldiers faltered; without the moon in balance with the ocean the waterbenders had lost their power to bend. The Fire Nation soldiers advanced, burning the city as they went.
More images shifted by and Katara trembled slightly as she advanced down the bridge. Suddenly she saw Zhao again, standing under the blood red moon. He held a knife to the bag with Tui inside, and Aang dropped his staff in surrender.
"It's my destiny," Zhao said with a smug grin. "To destroy the moon and the Water Tribe."
"Destroying the moon won't just hurt the Water Tribe," Aang explained. "It will hurt everyone, including you. Without the moon, everything would fall out of balance. You have no idea what kind of chaos that would unleash on the world."
"He is right, Zhao!" A hooded Iroh stepped towards Zhao on the side of Aang, forming a triangle around the pond.
"General Iroh," Zhao said with a bored sigh. "Why am I not surprised to discover your treachery?"
Iroh lowered his hood. "I'm no traitor, Zhao. The Fire Nation needs the moon, too. We all depend on the balance." He pointed a finger at the admiral and thundered, "Whatever you do to that spirit I will unleash on you ten-fold!" He assumed a firebending stance. "Let it go, now!"
Iroh and Zhao locked eyes and, after a moment, Zhao faltered, finally releasing the koi back into the water. The red light of the moon vanished, returning to its normal colour, and Katara breathed a silent sigh of relief. But then Zhao's face contorted with rage and his hand came down, smiting the water with a hot blast of fire. The moon winked out of existence and Katara almost gasped in horror.
What had he done?
Iroh sprang into action immediately, crossing the foot bridge and attacking with blast after blast, effortlessly despatching Zhao's men. Zhao watched the general's blinding assault and quickly fled back towards the city.
With a defeated look on his face, Iroh turned back to the pond and knelt. The black fish was swimming frantically while the white koi floated lifelessly to the surface; there was a huge gash in its side. Iroh gently lifted the white fish from the water, an expression of utter sadness on his face.
"There's no hope now," Yue whispered. "It's over."
Katara's heart clenched in irrevocable sorrow. The Moon Spirit was dead? It couldn't be. But she could feel it, could feel the absence of the moon and the loss of her bending.
Was everything already lost?
She wanted to call out, to return to her world as quickly as possible. But that is what the spirits wanted. This was her test, the penalty she had to pay—forced to watch her friends and her brother face danger alone while she was helpless to intervene.
She had to continue on.
KATARA'S HEART WAS heavy, and she wondered if that was what made her legs feel so leaden. She felt like she was wading through molasses; each step was more labouring than the last. The fog had returned; no longer green but greying brown. Sepia. The colours of the celestial waters had changed too and that was when Katara realised every colour represented an interval in time: future, present and now the past.
The celestial waters, with their dying hint of green, began to weave a scene. She saw herself standing next to Aang on the river bank. They were practising waterbending.
"This is a pretty basic move but it still took me months to perfect, so don't be frustrated if you don't get it right away," she said to Aang with an encouraging smile. "Just push and pull the water like this." She began to bob gracefully back and forth, the water on the river edge moving back and forth with her. "The key is getting the wrist movement right."
Aang began imitating her. "Like this?"
"That's almost right. If you keep practising, I'm sure eventually—"
"Hey, I'm bending it already!" Aang began to move around a respectable-sized wave of water, and she opened her mouth in shock.
"Wow, I can't believe you got that so quickly," she said, looking a little unhappy. "It took me two months to learn that move."
"Well, you had to figure it out on your own," reasoned Aang. "I'm lucky enough to have a great teacher."
Katara frowned, remembering the envy she had felt at the time. She really did not want to watch this scene for some reason. It made her feel uncomfortable and she didn't care to discover why.
"So, what's next?"
"This is a more difficult move," she said. "I call it 'streaming the water'." She moved her hands and pulled out of a stream of water from the river and began to loop it around. "It's harder than it looks so don't be disappointed if—"
Her past-self stopped mid-sentence, seeing that Aang had already mastered the move. Begrudgingly, she showed him a new technique, a harder one and one that she hadn't yet mastered. But where she failed, Aang succeeded.
Standing on the bridge Katara could only frown while she observed the sour look on her own face. Was she that jealous back then, that insecure?
The images jumped around and Katara saw herself back by the river with Aang while he was holding open the waterbending scroll for her to read.
"The single water whip," she read aloud. "Looks doable."
She raised a stream of water and whipped it around, but it hit her in the forehead, leaving a bruise. Sokka, who was sitting cross-legged on a rock behind her, laughed.
"What's so funny!" she snapped.
"I'm sorry but you deserve that." He turned to look at Aang. "You've been duped. She's only interested in teaching herself."
Katara grimaced and a cold knot of shame formed in the pit of her stomach to accompany her temporary dormant fear. Sokka was right; she had only been interested in teaching herself at the time. She couldn't help but think how selfish she could be with Aang and Sokka. Since when had she become like this? Her mother would be so disappointed in her.
"Argh! Why can't I get this stupid move!" She stomped her foot in annoyance.
"You'll get it," Aang said reassuringly, but she only looked displeased with his pronouncement. Aang then formed the water whip correctly on the first try. "You just gotta shift your weight through the stances." He gracefully manipulated the whip for a few seconds and then dropped it back into the river. "There. See, the key to bending is—"
"Will you PLEASE shut your air hole! Believe it or not, your infinite wisdom gets a little old sometimes. Why don't we just throw the scroll away since you're so naturally gifted!"
Katara closed her eyes in embarrassment and shame, bringing her hands to her mouth to stifle any sound from coming out.
Did she really say that to him? Did she really look like that? Her envy and her insecurities were all laid out so brazenly before her. What must Zuko be thinking? He must believe her to be a total nutcase, if he didn't assume that already.
But she didn't have the time to dwell on such trivial matters now. Sure, she was humbled, but to dwell any longer meant she did only think about herself, and that wasn't right. That wasn't who she was.
She had to keep moving.
More images appeared and she took a step forward, and then another. It was hard to watch her past and now she was surrounded by images began to form a familiar pattern and, as the scene played out, Katara's breath hitched in her throat.
It was a piece of her past that she did not want to relive, something she did not wish to ever experience again, but had to. There was no turning back now. So she swallowed hard and watched the painful scene unfold, knowing now why Zuko had been so afraid to relive his past . . .
She saw a young Sokka popping his head out from a snow fort only to have a snowball smashed in his face. The culprit, a young Katara, giggled as she watched her older brother try to heave a snowball as big as his body. He was about to throw it, or have it fall back down on his face, when he looked up. Katara glanced up, too. Black snow was raining down on them like soot.
"I'm going to find Mom," she said, running past Sokka.
Young Katara weaved her way through the crowd. She was so tiny she was almost trampled on. But as the warriors rushed past her towards the icy shore, Katara soundlessly slipped inside her family's hut, pushing aside the curtains.
Her words died in her throat when she saw her mother on her knees in front of a Fire Nation soldier. The man turned to look at young Katara and older Katara felt the familiar fear return to her stomach, but this time it was accompanied with pure hatred. This was the man who had killed her mother.
"Just let her go," her mother pleaded, "and I'll give you the information you want."
"You heard your mother." The Fire Nation soldier motioned towards the exit. "Get out of here!"
Katara looked over her mother's shoulder, frightened. "Mom, I'm scared."
"Go find your dad, sweetie," she said. "I'll handle this."
A reluctant Katara looked up at the soldier, who stared down at her fiercely. Little Katara turned, pushing past the curtains and running out of the house as fast as she could, as fast as her feet could carry her. She stopped at the edge of a small hill and looked down, spotting her father.
"Dad! Dad!" Hakoda was throwing a firebending soldier hard into the snow but glanced up at the sound of his daughter's voice. "Please, I think Mom's in trouble! There's a man in our house."
Her father didn't even wait, letting go of the soldier immediately. "Kya!"
They both ran back home, Katara behind her father as he pulled back the curtains.
The pain was as immediate as it was soul-annihilating. It felt as though a knife had been plunged into her heart, twisted so that it would never heal. She never wanted to see this again, but here it was, frozen in time to be displayed in front of her. It was a reminder of her mother's sacrifice.
She wanted to turn away; she wanted so badly to escape inside herself and let the pain consume her, but she couldn't. Spirits above and below, she wanted to—how she wanted to—but such luxuries could not be afforded to her, not now. So with a broken and bleeding heart, Katara moved forward into the abyss.
ZUKO WATCHED AS Katara's shoulders trembled. But her head was held high and she stared straight ahead as she took a shaky step forward and then another.
He wouldn't admit it but he was amazed by her conviction. His mother had left him, yes, but he had never witnessed her death; never saw her burnt, lifeless body laid out bare before him. This was just plain cruel, and he now understood why she hated him, why when she thought of the Fire Nation she pictured his face.
He felt this unexplainable need to reach out to her, to put his hand on her shoulder and tell her it was okay to cry; to tell her that her mother had died for her and that was the greatest sacrifice a parent could ever make. But he couldn't. He couldn't do anything and he couldn't say anything to make her feel better. He was powerless and it angered him more than anything.
His dry eyes returned to her back, watching her shoulders square once more with that dogged determination that she wore like a trademark—no, like a banner. She was strong and tenacious; she was like him in some ways but stronger, so much stronger.
The Fire Nation took her mother away like they took his. It was something they had in common.
KATARA COULD SEE the light at the end of the bridge, a faint glow in the distance.
Her steps seemed lighter now and she almost raced towards the exit, still watching her footing as she went. But then the light went out and the fog lifted and lowered, curling around her; not the water but the fog. It invaded her, consumed her every pore, blurring her vision until she was blindly trudging forward.
And as suddenly as it had begun, it had ended. The fog once more parted like curtains, and a thin strip opened down the bridge. At the end she saw the soft glow of the exit and something else, something far more heart-stopping.
It was her mother.
Her body trembled. Of course it wasn't going to be easy. She wasn't just going to be shown images of her future, present and past and simply be expected to leave. She was going to be tempted, really tempted by the solid-looking image of her mother standing right in front of her.
She was so close that Katara could hear her breathing, smell the gentle fragrance of her hair.
"Katara." Her mother's voice was so soft and gentle, exactly how she remembered it.
Katara's own voice was strangled in her throat and she blinked back tears. It was a trick, she told herself. It had to be. Her mind screamed at her to not trust this image, that Zuko's soul depended on her actions. She could not break now when she had come this far. But her mother looked so real, so solid and alive. She could see the rise and fall of her chest, the wind blowing through her hair, and the wet tears welling in her eyes.
"Katara, come to me. It's so cold down here without you."
That did it.
A gasp and a whimper escaped past Katara's lips and she clamped her hands over her mouth, tears streaming with abandon. Did she speak, did she call out? She didn't know. But the look on her mother's face didn't make matters better. Katara could already feel her hands leaving her face, her arms reaching out towards her mother, her lips parting open to speak.
But suddenly she stopped.
Katara wanted this; she wanted this more than life itself. But it was not her soul she was gambling with; it was Zuko's. Her mother, her real mother would never want her to do this. She would never ask Katara to sacrifice someone else for her own happiness. Squaring her shoulders, Katara let her hands fall limply to her sides, along with her tears, and continued on.
Her bottom lip wobbled. She could feel the cold mist as she brushed past her mother's form, feel her own tears freely spill down her cheeks and neck.
I'm sorry, Mom. I love you. I love you so much.
She looked ahead, her vision blurred by tears, and continued walking until she could no longer feel her mother's presence.
That was when she finally saw the stairs, a set of white steps leading up into the clouds. And as she draws nearer, the exit began to glow brightly. She raised a foot on the step and then another, ascending, and suddenly she saw Yue bathed in white, floating down towards her.
The princess was reaching out and Katara dumbly lifted her own hand to grasp the young woman's. The touch was misty but warm, slowly growing solid. Katara studied the hand for a second, no longer seeing the lightly umber-tanned skin or the dainty slender fingers. Instead, this new hand was bigger, masculine and pale. Katara looked up and her eyes widened in shock.
It was not Yue holding her hand now but Zuko. He was above her, the white backdrop of the clouds surrounding his head like a halo. He was smiling sadly, and then he was gone.
HE WAS GONE.
Zuko was gone, sent to hell because of her!
She knew it. She could feel it in the bottom of her heart like a gaping, festering wound. She looked for him but could not find him. He was gone. The light was so bright now; it was blinding her. Everything had turned white and, against her own volition, Katara closed her eyes.
Just before slipping into the null void of unconsciousness she called Zuko's name.
KATARA BOLTED AWAKE, gasping.
Her tunic was soaked through at the back with sweat, trapped between her coat so that the cold tingled against her wet skin. She brought a shaky hand to her face and patted it gently, as if to test that she was real. Her fingers swept up into her hairline, running through the loose tendrils that had come undone from her braid. She breathed heavily, trying to slow her rapid-beating heart and collect her thoughts.
She remembered reaching the exit, the bright light and Yue's hand reaching out for hers. She made it, she told herself. She made it back to the living world. But then another, far more worrisome thought surfaced: Zuko.
Katara turned, expectant to see the prince sitting up and regarding her with his trademark gloomy glare, but he was lying still on the ground where she had left him. His eyes were closed and his mouth was still open in that faint O of shock she remembered all too well.
He looked so young.
She was up on her feet, scrambling towards his pale, prone body. She yanked apart his coat, exposing his skin to the icy elements, and put her ear against his chest. There was barely any warmth left in him, no rise and fall of his chest. Nothing. He wasn't breathing.
"This can't be happening," Katara whimpered, lifting her head as she put two fingers to the pulse of his neck. There wasn't one.
She began to panic, feeling the wash of fire and ice swimming through her veins as if being pumped by a hummingbird wings hell-bent on destroying what was left of her fragile heart. Gathering her wits, she drew water from the snow and placed her palms over his chest. She could do this, she told herself. She just needed to restart his heart, no big deal.
Her hands trembled as she bent the water, watching it glow a pale blue. She tried to remember what Yugoda had taught her about healing but her mind had gone blank. All she could focus on was his pale, lifeless face staring up at her.
This was not what she wanted.
This was not what she wanted!
"Breathe, Zuko! BREATHE!"
Fresh tears stung her eyes as she concentrated, dripping down her cheeks and mixing with the healing water. Trembling fingers coated with ice caressed his skin but there was nothing, no reaction, just her cold fingers on his equally cooling skin.
"I was supposed to save you," she whispered. "I was supposed to—"
Her fingers suddenly jumped as a pulse beat rhythmically beneath her fingertips. She could feel his chi, the fire reigniting within him. His throat wobbled and he began to cough hoarsely, shifting beneath her. Golden eyes struggled to open, peeking out through long lashes, and he managed another broken cough before shakily sitting up in pain, his palm covering his throat.
Katara released a breath she hadn't known she had been holding and lunged forward, wrapping her arms around his neck. "You're alive!"
Zuko was thrown back, knocked down by the sheer force of Katara's weight, and he cried out in pain. Katara quickly disengaged herself and helped Zuko back to a sitting position. He stared at her, confused and mystified, his hand still caressing his bruised throat.
"Where am I? What happened?"
Katara's eyes widened in surprise first and then worry and suddenly she was lunging forward again, her hands on his face. But this time her lips locked onto his and his eyes bugged open in abject shock, staying that way for a half second before lazily drifting shut.
His long lashes fluttered against her cheek as her lips bruised against his with a gentle pressure. After a few seconds she slowly broke off the kiss, nudging her nose against his as she pulled back. His eyes were still closed and his mouth opened, as though he could still feel her lips on his. Soon his eyelashes shifted open and a look of bewildered recognition registered in his burnished gold eyes.
"Uh," he rasped hoarsely, trying to find his voice, "nice to see you, too?"
His good eye was as wide as a saucer plate and his hands were on her shoulders, keeping her back at arm's length in case she pounced again. Katara wasn't sure how or when his hands got there, and Zuko didn't seem to know either because suddenly he was staring down at them in dawning horror before abruptly pulling away as though she had just scalded him.
"You remember me?" Katara bit her swollen lip in anticipation.
Zuko regarded her with a baffled expression, as though she had just asked the stupidest question in the world. "Of course I do. You killed me and then hauled me out of the Spirit World." He then eyed her warily before leaning even farther back. "Why were you kissing me just now?"
"Agni said—" Katara was speaking quickly, too quickly for him to fully comprehend "—Agni said that you wouldn't remember anything when you returned to the surface and that I'd have to kiss you to make you remember and—" Realisation hit her as subtly as a lobbed brick. Her face instantly drained of colour and just as quickly flushed a bright pink. "That sneaky little bas—"
"No cursing the gods." Zuko put a finger to her lips. "It'll bring you bad luck."
Katara blushed several more shades of pink and Zuko lowered his finger, an effulgence of colour blossoming on his own cheeks.
"So that's what Lord Agni wanted to speak to you about in private?"
Katara nodded shyly. "Yeah. I guess gods like to play tricks, too."
They both turned their heads and sat on the hard, cold ground in silence until Katara finally worked up the courage to look at Zuko's face again. She noted the ropey scar on his neck with a slight frown.
"I can heal that for you, if you want." Katara pointed to Zuko's throat and made a motion across her own neck when he gave her a look of utter bewilderment.
"Sure," he said gruffly, but she could still see the slight tint of blush on his cheeks.
She had him lie back down and she gathered the water to her palms. She placed the healing liquid over his neck and let her fingers do their work. She could already feel his chi responding to hers, the torn skin knitting itself back together, weaving over and over until the pattern was whole again. Katara then brought her hands away and smiled proudly. She had to admit she did a rather good job; there was barely a noticeable line on his throat now.
Zuko sat up and put his hand to his throat, examining it. A faint smile surfaced on his lips when he could no longer feel the ropey bump that was there before. "Thank you."
"You're welcome." She smiled and rose to her feet, and he stood with her.
There was an awkward tension between the two of them now, not animosity but something else entirely. Katara wondered if they should talk about what just happened but reconsidered, thinking maybe it was best this way. They both talked enough at Varuna's palace, and they had both seen enough of each other's pasts to last a lifetime.
Soft rays of sunlight suddenly peek their way through the opening of the cave and both of them turned towards the light. The storm appeared to have passed; it was clear outside. The rising of the sun enticed them, tempting them to leave the comfort of the cave.
Once outside Katara could see the moon still hanging in the sky, paling in the brightness of the overshadowing sun. Aang and the others must have saved the day somehow. She smiled at the thought, knowing she should have never doubted her friends. The moon still existed, cohabiting with the sun in the same sky, if only for a little while—much like her and Zuko. She took in a deep breath of the fresh air and grinned at the thought.
"Do you think we could have been friends?" she suddenly blurted, and Zuko looked down at her with eyes that seemed to glow in the reflecting sunlight.
"Is that all you good guys care about—friendship?"
"That and saving the world from pompous princes who think they're above everyone else."
"Meet a lot of those types, huh?"
"All the time."
Both tried to hold a straight face for as long as they could but eventually gave in with the ghost of grins before turning away. There was tension and embarrassment and definitely awkward silence, but it really wasn't all that bad, Katara thought. But then she could feel Zuko's eyes on her and the back of her neck became unbearably hot.
Katara looked up, nonplussed. "No, what?"
"No, I don't think we could have been friends," Zuko answered truthfully. "Not before you killed me, anyway."
"Now?" He contemplated the idea for a moment and nodded slightly. "Maybe."
He turned his head to catch her eye and smiled a tiny, private smile. She felt a sudden jolt inside her heart, noting the glimmer of appreciation in his eyes, and she returned his smile with a curt nod of understanding.
"After all, you did risk your eternal karma for me," Zuko said, trying to restrain a smirk. "I'd hate to have to come fetch you from the Spirit World later on down the road."
Katara stared up at him slack-jawed for a moment before slapping his arm. "Good to hear you've gained a sense of humour through all of this, Your Highness," she congratulated through gritted teeth, and Zuko shoulders began to shake with repressed laughter.
"It's all thanks to you, Water Peasant," he said with a chortle, as he dodged her tiny fists and spun away.
A dark shadow fell across the tundra and both Katara and Zuko stopped their struggle and glanced skywards. A large white object was streaking across the sky and Katara let out a sigh of relief at the all-too-familiar sight of Appa coming into view. The giant sky bison dove towards the ground, landing gracefully on the snow with a grunt. Aang had already floated off Appa's neck while Sokka leapt out of the saddle, accompanied by a surprisingly nimble Iroh.
"Katara!" the airbender cried happily, running towards her.
"Aang!" Katara's arms were already wrapped around the Avatar, pulling him into a tight hug before she moved onto her brother, smiling into his neck. "Sokka!"
The three pulled apart and glanced over at Zuko in surprise. Aang had a goofy grin on his face that Katara was sure wouldn't disappear any time soon while Sokka's brow had furrowed so deeply it seemed to have disappeared into the bridge of his nose.
"Isn't he supposed to be dead?" He hooked his thumb in Zuko's direction and Katara swatted his hand down.
"Nephew!" Iroh exclaimed with great relief, finally having caught up. He threw his arms around a half-protesting Zuko, who finally gave in and returned his uncle's embrace. Finally, Iroh released him, holding the young prince back at arm's length, examining him for any serious signs of injury before smiling. "Praise the spirits you are alive!"
Iroh pulled Zuko in for another hug and the prince smiled softly, awkwardly patting his uncle's back before pulling away. "Uncle, what happened? Where's Zhao?"
Iroh's expression darkened. "Admiral Zhao is dead. His fleet is retreating as we speak."
Zuko shook his head in disbelief. "But how?"
"This young Avatar here." Iroh turned, motioning to a now crest-fallen Aang. The airbender looked both sad and guilty. "It's a long story," his uncle continued. "I will have to tell you over tea sometime, and hopefully you will tell me your story." He spared a brief glance at Katara before turning back to his nephew, offering him a knowing wink, which only made Zuko frown.
"Wait," Katara suddenly cried out, circling in the snow. "Where's Yue?" She wasn't on Appa; she hadn't come with them.
"She sacrificed herself so that Tui could live." Sokka's face was pale with sorrow. "She's the Moon Spirit now."
Aang put a hand on the older boy's arm and looked up at Katara with sad grey eyes. "It probably doesn't make a lot of sense, but—"
"No, it makes perfect sense." It was Yue who had reached for her at the end; it was Yue who brought her and Zuko safely home. "Sokka, I'm so sorry."
Her hand was on his other arm, caressing it gently, and he lowered his head for a moment and sighed before regarding his sister with eyes as blue as hers. "I'm just glad you're safe."
"Me too," Aang added, and Katara smiled sadly.
Katara turned to see Iroh addressing the already retreating prince.
"What's the matter, Fire Prince?" Sokka taunted. "Not going to try to capture Aang here now that you know what my sister can do to you?"
"Sokka!" She felt a blush of anger and shame settle on her cheeks.
"No, we're even for now." Zuko nodded back at the city behind them. "You go back to your victory celebration. I'm sure they're waiting for you all."
He was about to turn to leave when Katara broke away from her brother and Aang, taking a bold step forward. "Zuko, I—"
"We'll meet again, Waterbender," he said, a hint of that private smile on his lips, and she was unable to stop her own smile in return.
"Yeah." She nodded. "See you soon, Your Highness."
Katara raised her hand in farewell and he returned it briefly before finally turning away. She lowered her arm and watched him leave with his uncle—to where, she did not know. Would he try to capture Aang again? She did not know this, either; she didn't really know anything right now. But she remembered the glimpses of her future; she remembered the lightning he would take for her and because of that she smiled.
She couldn't explain why but she knew the gamble she took was worth it; she knew she had made the right choice. She would see this lonely prince again, in this lifetime or the next. For in both life and death their souls were now inextricably bound.
THE WHITE-HAIRED GODDESS smiled, watching the scene unfold in the celestial waters with alert blue eyes.
"The ocean meets the sky and worlds collide," said Agni, leaning over Varuna's shoulder as he watched the teenagers part ways. "Do you think it was wise to allow this girl to return with him to the living?"
The pale-haired goddess lifted her chin to meet her companion's golden eyes. "The moon would be very bored indeed without the sun constantly vying for control, my dear Agni. You above all should know that." She reached out and lovingly caressed his cheek. "Let the worlds collide, I say."
Agni smiled, pressing his soft lips into her palm. "Forever and ever, my queen."
"The gates of Hell are open night and day; smooth the descent and easy is the way.
But to return and view the cheerful skies; in this the task and mighty labour lies."
~ fin ~
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Author's notes: And that's all she wrote, folks! I had a blast writing this and hope you all enjoyed it, too. I'd like to thank jesterry for her inspiring prompts and hope she liked this humble Zutara gift o' mine. (Sorry, I just couldn't write a lemon for this one.) ღ
* Some of the dialogue from Katara's flashbacks and flashforwards were taken from 'Sozin's Comet: Part 3', 'Siege of the North: Part 2', 'The Waterbending Scroll' and 'The Southern Raiders'.
✼ HAPPY HOLIDAYS EVERYONE❢ AND A FABULOUS NEW YEAR❢ ✼
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