So...this is a little embarrassing: I don't remember posting the previous chapter. I remember writing it, but I could have sworn that I fell asleep on the last bit of dialogue...ugh. Anyway, Here you go! I'm continuing to work on this, but as of right now, I don't have a clear picture of when the next chapter will be up. I hope you enjoy (and as always, if you notice any glaring errors or typos, please let me know!)
To say that she was angry was a vast understatement. In fact, to say that it was a vast understatement was one in and of itself. Katara was livid. Positively steaming. If she was a firebender and it wasn't for the fact that she was soaring through frigid temperatures at a speed that Aang might even find himself envious of, the possibility of spontaneously combusting into flames would be almost too real given the magnitude of her rage.
In some ways, she was glad she was so angry—if she wasn't, she couldn't imagine that the icy sea spray that stung her arms through her long sleeves would be anywhere near bearable. As it was, though the waves fanned sharply at her side and the sound was near deafening, her mind completely focused and clear. She had only one goal and nothing—absolutely nothing—could possibly spur her from her course.
The iron ship slowly came up on the horizon in the dim light of the morning. From the distance, the men that bustled about the deck were but mere pinpricks of red and blue against the dark metal. Some went about their normal routines, practicing their firebending and fighting forms with one another as though they were out on the sea on a day like any other. The blasts of fire were faraway and bright, but with each splash of near frozen water that hit her face, the flames grew larger and Katara pushed herself towards the vessel, to the cover of the cold shadow it cast across the glassy surface of the sea.
With the sun glaring in her eyes, the edge of the ship came up fast upon her like a swiftly moving wall of darkness held by bolts in one large groaning mass. She was close enough, now, that as pulled the water beneath her, she ascended in an immense towering wave that cast a shadow across the deck. Mere seconds in the air stretched on as a spare few of the awakened crew members took notice, shouting to one another at the odd sight. Then, with her arms sweeping out around her, she crashed onto the deck, water coursing around the frantic soldiers as they rushed for higher ground.
Katara skated about on frozen strips, weaving between men and women in her search—later, she would find herself apologizing for shoving so many aside, but at the time she couldn't be bothered while her quest was so close to its end. The shouting had reached frantic levels, drawing out those of the crew that had remained below deck. The port burst open and men and women in all states of uniform burst out wielding fists of fire and raised blades, but Katara was only interested in one man.
Between the time Katara slid to a stop before him and his back connected solidly against the metal behind him, a dull thud resounding around the entire deck in the silence that fell. As though a frost had blown across his legs, ice suddenly encased him up to his knees, effectively locking him from moving as Katara's angry fists pinned his shoulders and restricted his use.
"How dare you?" She screamed right in his face.
"No!" She slapped him then, but it was half-hearted and fueled by hurt rather than the actual desire to cause him pain. Still, the physical attack stung against his skin. "Sokka, I trusted you."
"I didn't do it to hurt you—"
"You drugged me! How could you possibly think that was okay?"
She didn't get an answer then, though. Instead, two rough pairs of hands grabbed her arms, hoisting her off her feet away and causing her to drop her grip on her brother's tunic.
Forgetting only for a second about the ice that entrapped his feet, Sokka tried to step forward in her defense. He cursed under his breath, pulling his boomerang from his belt to chip away at the ice. "Let her go, guys," he said in a commanding voice.
The shorter of the two, a tall woman with a surprisingly strong grip, pulled Katara back a step. She cleared her throat nervously as Katara thrust her elbow against her. "But she was attacking you, Commodore."
Sokka met the woman's amber eyes with a faux shocked expression. "Was she? Wow, thanks for bringing that to my attention, I had no idea—I know that! I was kind of there," he snapped with unnecessary irritation. Sokka shook his head—it was embarrassing that he couldn't even stand against the wall while he chipped his way out of the pesky trap his little sister had caught him in. "Just let her go. I deserved it."
"You're damn right you did." The waterbender ripped away from the grip of the two soldiers and stalked towards her brother, landing another loud smack across his face. "You're an ass."
Giving up on the ice around his ankles, Sokka slumped forward and rubbed a palm across his red cheek. "That one actually hurt more. Do you feel better now?"
Katara crossed her arms angrily. "Not at all, but I'll stop slapping you because you're not reacting anywhere near as dramatically as you usually do and this is not as gratifying without you freaking out." He always had disliked the snappy way she spoke when she was upset—somehow, it made him feel guilty even if he wasn't the one at fault (though in this case, he was).
Sokka sighed. "I'm sorry, Katara. Will you let me out of this ice?"
She scoffed and turned her head away. "Fat chance. Now answer the damn question: why the hell did you think it would be even relatively okay to drug me, leave me under house arrest with your wife, and break your promise to me?" Her fingers were sharp when she grabbed her shoulder and pushed him back against the wall so that they were eye-to-eye.
Staring into her glaring eyes was like staring down a tunnel of ice that ended abruptly with sharp spikes and no hope of escape (had he been this scared of her when they were children or was it only a recent development?).
Katara shook her head in disbelief, maintaining her unwavering eye contact. "What did I do to you to deserve this?"
With another long sigh, Sokka screwed his eyes shut tight. "You didn't do anything, 'Tara. I did what I thought was the right thing to keep you safe."
"How could this have possibly been the right thing?"
"I never said it was smart, okay?" Katara finally let go of him and backed away, closing in on herself while she watched her brother with that look that made him squirm uncomfortably. Sokka raked a hand through his long hair (one of these days he'd get back to shaving the sides again). "I just thought that if I went out and found him for you, then it would be so much easier focusing on finding him because I wouldn't be constantly worrying about if you were okay. Letting you go out on your own isn't something I could ever do—we're family, and we do things together."
"You could have fooled me."
"Look, I know it was stupid and I shouldn't have spiked your tea." If he was being honest, he thought that the valerian would have given him more of a head start—it had taken her all of one full day to catch up to them, and he definitely wasn't prepared to explain himself to her so soon.
"No kidding. So, explain yourself."
He took a deep breath. "Katara—did you stop to think about what might happen if we find him and he…isn't alright? You know, how you might react?" She stilled, and though all he wanted to do was reassure her that everything would be alright, Sokka couldn't—he'd tried protecting her from the situation by keeping her away from it, but since she wanted so badly to be a part of it, he couldn't insult her intelligence by continuing to shield her from reality. "I can't even imagine being in your position here"—why wouldn't she just melt this spirit damned ice already—"but even more, if that does happen, I didn't want you to have to go through it. I wanted to do what I could to make the situation better, and in this case the only thing I could have done was deliver the news to you in person."
Her eyes hardened to steel. "That's stupid. I'm not a child and I'm not weak." At her side, her fists clenched. "You're acting like I can't take any bad news, but I can. Besides—you're the one who told me you believed he was alive and well. What happened to that? Or was that just another lie?"
Sokka looked away. "I'm just being practical. He's been missing for a while and we don't know how long it will take—"
"Shut up!" She threw her hands up, throwing the water from the sopping deck against Sokka's body, this time encasing her brother almost entirely, leaving only his hands and his head free. She stared at him, her chest heaving with emotion, and slowly Katara lowered her arms. It felt as though she could be knocked over by a leaf. "I don't want to hear it," she murmured.
The guards that had pulled her away from him watched on in with mixed emotions. When Katara turned to them, they nearly jumped.
"I would appreciate it if one of you would show me to the Commodore's quarter's, please." She turned and headed below deck before either of them could respond, and the greying man followed after, casting a confused glance behind him at the Water Tribe Warrior.
Sokka screwed his eyes shut with a pained, annoyed expression on his face. "Sumi, please melt me down from here."
The tall woman was glad his eyes were closed, because she was having a difficult time keeping herself from laughing. Nevertheless, she bowed respectfully in the traditional Fire Nation style. "Yes, sir."
Sokka's room was a decent size, much like Zuko's on his own ship. The large bed in the middle of the room was parallel to a small desk and chair, but otherwise the room was empty and cold. Appropriate, she thought, given the fleet's resolute mission. For Agni's sake, it wasn't a pleasure cruise. Katara decided she'd have a bedroll brought in for her later, but for now, she settled to flop down on the mattress, curling up near the top. From there, there was a small view out the porthole of the early winter sky.
She couldn't even let herself wonder where Zuko was right then.
When she departed from Kyoshi Island the morning before, Katara had been more than determined to get her answers from her brother. With Suki's help, she had tracked down the ship Sokka was on in little time at all and now that she had effectively caused mayhem throughout the crew and terrorized her brother for answers. Answers that she was not prepared for and that she did not want to hear. Now that she had them, she almost wished she'd never demanded them in the first place. She wished that instead she had just stormed the ship and punished Sokka for betraying her trust by not speaking to him the entire time they searched for Zuko.
At least then she could have continued to believe what he had told her back at his house, and not the truth.
His new truth only served to make her feel drained. More drained than she realized she'd felt after surfing on a chunk of ice for sixty kilometers of open ocean.
Tui and La, she was tired.
She would only let herself doze off for a moment. After a short nap, she'd have the clarity of mind to head back out on deck and get started with the search. No doubt Commodore Sokka already had a schedule planned. How had Sokka become the Commodore, anyway? How long had he known about the search party if they made him commodore of the entire expedition? Her brother was a tactical genius, yes, and a skilled tracker—but he knew nothing of conducting a search and rescue operation. Or did he? What if the entire mission failed because his facts were misplaced?
Her eyes closed of their own accord. It didn't matter right now. She'd only sleep for a few moments. After—that's when it would be dealt with.
Nothing could go wrong in a moment.
Something startled her into waking. When she opened her eyes, she was back in her brother's and Suki's house, her nephews seated across the table from her scribbling dutifully in their notebooks. Pian's nose was crinkled, eerily akin to Sokka's expression of frustration when they were younger, as he stumbled through the sentence before him and Umo's bright blue eyes darted quickly across the page as he transcribed number after number. Beside her on the floor, Kanna gurgled away as she chewed on a hand-carved rattle that Aang had given her as a gift at birth, apparently modeled after one that he had as a child.
Just as she knew—nothing could have gone wrong in a moment.
"But you weren't right, you know."
Katara turned sharply at the strange voice and her hand automatically went to the waterskin at her hip, ready to lash out and defend. From where she'd heard the woman, there was no one and nothing but Sokka's old space sward hanging in its place on the wall—oh the hours they'd all spent scouring the devastated coast of the Earth Kingdom in search of his beloved weapons.
"You are wrong, Katara. Everything can change in a moment. You especially should know that. After all, how many times has the world shifted while you were busy blinking?"
She whipped around to face the boys. Behind them, a figure knelt down, dark hair shrouding her face as she studied their work with a small, proud smile that she recognized but could not recall. Her dark blue dress shifted in the cold draft and the soft white fur along her collar ruffled as well. At last, the woman tilted her face and Katara found herself gazing into a mirror.
No, not a mirror. The woman she saw before her, though the similarities were striking, was different. Her face was rounder, her nose softer. And her eyes—
They were exactly as she last remembered them, serene and powerful like the night sky.
Her breath had abandoned her. Katara's knuckles turned bone-white as she gripped at the chair beneath her in desperation to keep her world upright. "Mom."
"Yes," the woman confirmed with a small, sad smile. "It's me."
Her first instinct was to run to her, to sob into her shoulder every lost moment and torn memory. But age and experience had left Katara with a cold sense of rationality, and she thought that maybe it was that rational position that kept her glued to her seat. "What are you doing here? How are you here?"
"I'm here because it's what you need." Kya looked surreal in the soft mid-winter sun that streamed in through the windows and as she walked around the table towards her, Katara mused that what she was seeing was but a mere flame of her mother; in an instant, she all but disappeared, only to return, seemingly unchanged. Kya sunk to her knees before her daughter and took her hands between her own gloved ones. "You called me here, Katara. Your spirit cries out for me while you sleep."
"I don't understand." Her chest ached the longer her mother was before her, but she couldn't help gaze longingly as she tried to rememorize every line and hue of her face—before she was gone again.
Kya sighed. "No, I suppose you wouldn't. Regardless, I'm here for you." Her hand, cold to the touch despite the thick fur cloaking them, reached up and wiped a small tear from her daughter's eye. "You must tell me what's troubling you."
"Nothing's bothering me." There was so much—so much, that she thought she might explode if she let it all out. Having her mother before her brought up tears she'd been suppressing since the days when she took the maternal role for Sokka, then for Aang and Toph as well. But never for Zuko—they were too alike, and she knew from the start in the dank light of the ancient crystals that he needed a friend, not a mother. In a world where she was constantly trying to parent a group of children and help them save the world, he had given her the chance to just be a girl.
Kya's flat look showed her disbelief. "Come on, Katara, I'm dead; I wasn't born yesterday. You're not sleeping nor eating and your mind is on a cloud half the world from here. Talk to me. Isn't that what mothers are for?"
It must have been, because it was what she had always been there for when Sokka or Aang needed to lament or yell about something
"I wouldn't know. I didn't have enough time to know." In fact, she could only remember a handful of moments spent with her mother—and the last had been more permanent than she had been able to fathom at eight years old.
Suddenly, Kya's eyes narrowed and a chill wracked through Katara's veins like she was being frozen from the inside. "And whose fault is that, Katara?"
"It was Yon Rha. But I fixed—"
"You're wrong." Sharp fingers sunk into her skin—Katara hissed out in pain.
"Stop it, that hurts." Katara tried to pull her hands out of her mother's grip, but to no avail.
Kya leant in closer and her breath smelled of mint tea and iceberries. "Killing him didn't avenge my death, nor was it his fault I was killed. It was yours."
Her pulse pounded in her ears. The world had shrunk in darkness, and all she could see was her mother's face and the hands that kept her still.
"What?" The words barely escaped her lips.
"You're the reason you and your brother grew up without a mother, and the reason your father was heartbroken for so very long. Do you know he couldn't even bear to look at you? He had to travel halfway across the world to escape the pain you caused him just from being there."
"How is it my fault? I didn't—I wasn't the one who killed you."
"No, but you sealed my fate yourself. If you hadn't flaunted your miniscule ability to splash water around to every sailor and mouse-cat alike, I could be standing here with these beautiful children. I could have known my grandchildren rather than been burned alive to keep our culture alive. To keep you—this cursed little husk of a woman—alive."
This was wrong. "This isn't real. My mother would never be this cruel."
Kya scoffed and at last released Katara's hands. The waterbender retracted immediately, cradling her hands against her chest as they ached where welts had begun to form (some had already started to pool with blood). "If it walks like a turtleduck and quacks like a turtleduck, it's probably a turtleduck. I may not be exactly as you remember me—always coddling you and kissing your wounds and praising you when you learned new ways to flood our home or freeze your brother until he was blue—but I am the part of your mother that you need to see. The part that your carelessness destroyed."
"I was a child! I didn't know any better."
"Perhaps. I suppose it isn't fair to blame a child's curiosity for a death—except that they were looking for you, and you alone. They were looking for you because you had given them something to look for. And the price was my life."
"You told me to run and I ran," Katara sobbed. "I trusted you and I loved you. I would have taken your place if you would have let me."
"Please, spare me your excuses. Nothing has changed—you're still just a lost little child running away from the things you fear. Running away and leaving the things you love to die in your wake." Cold lips pressed against her cheek like a vice as Katara choked on the words her mother said. "You've even stopped trying—poor Zuko, who you claim to love, is out there somewhere being thrown about by the ocean as it tatters his weak body and all he can think about is his love for you. So tell me, Katara…by being here, are you helping them or just hurting them?"
A chilling darkness spilled in the room and took her mother with it.
"All it takes is a moment."
He was colder than he'd ever felt before in his life. Even swimming through the ice caves in the North paled to the bite and the sting that enveloped his entire body from head to toe. It was dark and his frozen limbs provided no assistance as he crawled along the cold surface beneath him blindly, searching for a source of light to illuminate his location. Clattering noises sounded all around him but his frozen hands could not make out the shape of anything that he touched.
"This is no good," the croaking voice of a woman said through the eerie still that had surrounded him as long as he could remember. "I don't know what you're thinking, your highness. Crawling around on the ground won't help you heal."
Two cold hands slid under his arm and pulled up on him to his numb legs. Zuko moaned in pain as he was guided through the dark and lowered down to what resembled, by his numb touch, to be a bed covered with blankets of fur. He felt the weight of a pelt laid over him and heard the sharp strike of spark rocks to his left. A minute later, he felt the welcoming warmth from the fire brushing against his exposed skin.
"Where—" Zuko closed his mouth, his scratchy voice sounding foreign to even his own ears. The single word burned his throat.
"Don't try to talk yet. It will only hurt you," spoke the woman. A bowl was being pressed to his lips. "Drink this tea. It will help." The warm liquid spilled into his mouth, a welcome relief from the dry that had taken residence.
"Where am I?" he rasped.
"You're safe and you're healing." A warm, wet cloth brushed against his temple, brushing away the hairs that had stuck there.
"Why can't I see?"
"You have suffered many injuries. When you were found, the skin of your face had frozen straight to the ice that kept you afloat. Our healers have been tending to you while you sleep. They're very good—aside from the scar you already had, there shouldn't be any noticeable marks. You are a lucky man, your highness." The woman's bony fingers ran along his bare shoulder and Zuko flinched away in pain. The woman made a noise that conveyed disappointment. "If Luuvik hadn't found you when he did, the spirit La would surely have claimed you for his own."
The spirit of the ocean. The memory of the circling koi in the spirit oasis of the north swam through his mind in their glowing pool. He was in the Southern Water Tribe.
"Your men were not so lucky."
Zuko's chest stuttered. "How many survived?"
"Luuvik tells that the sea was red with blood and bloated bodies. He found only you and one other alive—a stocky young man with only one hand." Huan. "Sadly, he lasted no more than a week before the cold took him." As disturbed as he felt by the news, even more unnerving was the nonchalant tone that the woman spoke of his death with. "We returned his body to the spirits soon after his passing, so do not fear for his soul."
If the time had passed that Huan had died and his passing was already old news, Zuko feared for how long he had been there. When they disembarked from the western port, his trip was planned to be completed in two weeks—just enough time to return to the palace and join Katara on her trip to Kyoshi.
"You are quite resilient for a firebender, your highness. Many of our people believed you would perish soon after your friend. I saw strength in you, however, and here you lie—healing and perfectly alive despite the sun itself sleeping for the dark months."
When he had left, the dark months weren't to come in the south for almost three months.
He had been missing for months.
Zuko shot up on the bed, his movement stopped only by the woman's hand against his chest harshly holding him back. "Stay down. You must rest, Fire Lord. Moving so quickly will only hurt your healing."
"I can't rest." He clawed at the cloth with the cold, numb stubs that were his fingers, trying to escape the darkness it insured. "I have to see Hakoda." It wasn't as good as going straight to Katara, but the chief was the only sure way he knew to find his way back to her.
"Chief Hakoda?" Sharp fingernails scraped against his skin as her skeletal hands forced his own down and away from his face. "Hakoda's village is two weeks' west of here, by foot or boat. You have long to go before you would be well enough to travel so far." The women's voice cut out and she held the bowl of tea to his lips once again. The suspicion in her tone was unmistakable when she asked, "What business have you with the Great Chief?"
"His daughter is my betrothed. I have to get to her." He lurched forward.
"Lie back. There's nothing you can do in your state."
"I have to see her. She thinks I'm—dead." Zuko's stomach flipped on itself and he found himself falling back against the furs, his limbs as lifeless as though they had been cut from his body.
"Hush now, your highness. That is a matter for another day." He tried to speak, but the weariness in his tongue stunted his efforts. "That's it. The tea will help you rest. You must rest now. When you awake, everything will be—"