i. at the village of the southern water tribe
She's imagined this scene so many times. She's seen it in her dreams and in her nightmares: the return of the Fire Nation to her village. Sometimes she sees herself as the hero, raising a devastating wave to sweep over their ship and scuttle it to the bottom of the sea. Sometimes she cowers in her own head, a child again, crying as the firebenders take her mother over and over.
And now, here it is, the dream made reality -- the hulking ship of black iron looming above her, so hideously out of place in her subtly shaded, blue and white world. The armor of the Fire Nation soldiers is the color of old clotted blood.
In her dreams, this would be the time when she'd attack, flinging a spear or using her waterbending to wash them all away.
But all she can do is stand with the rest of the women and children, watching as Sokka -- brave, wonderful Sokka -- is knocked aside by the Fire Nation soldiers. She's never loved Sokka so much or been so proud of him, and never felt such disgust and loathing as she does for the Fire Nation dog, who never looks at her brother, just knocks him aside as if he's nothing.
How dare you come here, to our home, to our families; how DARE you screams a silent voice inside her head -- a voice that sounds a little like her mother, and comes from a part of herself that she dares not express, not yet. If only she dared fight -- if only she could fight, but what can she do against these grown men with their armor and their firebending? She does not know how to use a sword or spear or boomerang; she can't even really control her waterbending yet. She's just a girl who can barely raise a bubble of water above her own head. What can she do but sacrifice herself, gaining nothing for her tribe but her own death?
At least she will not cower. She will meet her fate like a true woman of the Water Tribe, so she raises her eyes to meet those of the Fire Nation soldiers. She is startled, then, to see that their leader is only a boy, not much older than Sokka. Perhaps the Fire Nation, too, has been forced to give boys the rights and responsibilities of full-grown warriors. But youth does not lend mercy; his face is harsh and cold, and when she remembers him later, she does not remember what he looked like at all. She only remembers him pushing Gran-Gran, and hitting Sokka, and shouting at the frightened huddle of old women and children.
She does not remember the scar, either. Katara is used to battle scars, and she knows many people who wear them proudly. To her, it is not his most defining feature at all, and it never will be. Mostly she remembers the anger and the violence and the blood-colored armor against the white snow.
ii. in the wastelands of the earth kingdom
After being chased halfway around the world, Katara thinks she's seen every side of Zuko that there is. She's seen him angry and spiteful and full of hate; she's seen him manipulative, seen him cruel, seen him in the hot throes of fury and the cold focus of obsession.
But in the sand-drifted streets of an abandoned town in the middle of nowhere, she realizes that she's never seen this Zuko before.
He's still the same guy: closed-off and hostile, unhealthily obsessed with Aang. And yet ... she feels as if she's never seen him before, this thin, tough desert nomad in loose, drab Earth Kingdom clothes. His hair is growing out, and it makes him look somehow both younger and older.
The old Zuko would not have teamed up with them against a common enemy. He certainly wouldn't have let them escape while he tended the wounds of a dying companion -- even if chasing them away with a blast of fire in the face was a necessary reminder that he's still just as much of an unpleasant, hotheaded jerk, even if he's a jerk with unexpected depths.
When she thinks of Zuko afterwards, it's mostly the same as it ever was -- I hope we never see him again, I wonder what that weirdo's problem is, and so forth. But also, every now and then, she remembers the look of desolation on his face, that day in the desert, and finds herself hoping that his friend is okay.
iii. on a ship leaving ba sing se
"How's Aang?" Sokka asks her when she steps on deck, and she can only shake her head and turn away, just like the last time and the time before that.
She has already told the bare facts too many times, for her friends and for the adults: Azula, Zuko, Aang's defeat, the fall of the city. But the shame is still just as hot and raw as the scorching moment when she realized he'd been playing her. She is sick with it, and with the knowledge that her own gullibility with Zuko cost them the war, and nearly cost Aang his life.
No one blames her, at least not to her face. In a way, though, that's even worse than open recrimination, because she must fill the other half of the conversation herself. She fears that she has proven all the Northern Water Tribe's prejudices about women in battle -- that she has let down not only herself and her friends, but every woman of her people who must come after her.
They don't think that. But she cannot quite convince herself, and the worst part is that she no longer trusts herself, either.
Spirits help her, she'd not only believed him, but she'd liked him, even after everything -- after all the times he'd attacked them and betrayed them and tried to hurt them. He'd seemed so terribly wounded, so terribly alone. She'd reached for that pain and wanted to heal it. And he had used that, and turned it against her, in the end.
She was raised to believe compassion a virtue, but now people have fought and suffered and died because of her willingness to forgive an enemy his sins.
War changes people, she thinks grimly. And if the price of victory is learning to distrust and even to hate, then she will learn that lesson and learn it well. The brave men of her tribe have stood firm against the Fire Nation's soldiers, and shown them no quarter on a flimsy, emotional pretext. She owes no less to her people, and to the world. In a world at war, she must be a warrior.
Standing at the rail of the ship, with the wind in her face and her element all around her, she makes a solemn vow to herself and to all those she loves: Never again.
iv. on ember island
On their first night in the beach house, they all sleep in the courtyard, huddled close, as they'd grown used to doing at the Western Air Temple. When Katara wakes and rolls over, rubbing sleep from her eyes, she sees that Aang's bedroll is rumpled and empty.
And so is Zuko's.
They're probably training down on the beach. Katara slides out of bed and rolls up her sleeping bag neatly, leaving the others asleep as she steals away in the dawn. There is clean water nearby; it calls to her, and eventually she finds the source, a fountain in a much smaller courtyard nearby. Though choked with dead leaves, the water still wells up and trickles away, the mechanism so cleverly engineered that it has survived all these long years. It's something that has surprised her, occasionally, in her travels through the Fire Nation: these people are excellent engineers, and when they build things to last, they are capable of doing it very well.
She uses her waterbending as naturally as breathing to lift water to her face and splash it just so. She's brushing her hair with a damp comb when there's a soft throat-clearing noise behind her. Katara very carefully does not jump, and looks over her shoulder to see Zuko standing barefoot on the damp leaves in the courtyard.
"Um, sorry," they both say together, and then Katara smiles sheepishly and Zuko, after a moment, does likewise.
"I didn't know anyone had found this spot yet," he says. "I can leave. There's a bigger fountain around back."
Katara sidles around the cracked stone structure, and uses her fingers to scoop dead leaves out of the basin. "No, please, don't let me chase you away. It's your house."
In silence, he dips a handful of water and splashes it on his face. His hair is sweat-damp, straggling down the sides of his face. She can't get over how long it is now. There are soot-smudges on his cheekbones; he's definitely been sparring with Aang.
She hadn't been at all sure what she'd say to Zuko this morning, after yesterday's catharsis and cautious reconciliation. Last night, it had been the whole group of them around the fire, and it was easy to join in the general banter without needing to have awkward conversations with any one person.
But, to her surprise, there really isn't anything awkward about this. It's been coming for a long time, she realizes now, as she's gotten to know him over their weeks at the Western Air Temple. It had become harder and harder to reconcile her memories of the enemy, the betrayer, with the person she's come to know here -- who makes terrible jokes about tea, and saved her brother's and father's lives, and tries so hard, so obviously hard, to earn their respect, to be wanted. It's almost a relief that she doesn't have to hold the two Zukos in her head anymore. There's just one Zuko, and he can be a total ass and he's done terrible things -- but he's not a bad person, and he's kind of likable in a weird, dorky way. It's oddly relaxing to acknowledge it at last.
On opposite sides of the fountain, they perform their morning cleaning rituals in a comfortable, companionable silence. When Katara has finished with her hair, she finds that Zuko's cleaned most of the leaves out of the fountain, and the basin is filling with clean, clear water. She lifts a little of it to her mouth with a hand that does not quite touch the surface, and finds that it's cold and tastes of leaves.
"I always liked it here," Zuko says. He's gazing up at the red tiles of the house's peaked roof.
"This fountain?" she asks. "Or this place -- the house, the island?"
Zuko smiles a little, the soft smile that he gets sometimes when he thinks nobody's looking. "Both, I guess. The main fountain in the courtyard was for everyone -- the servants and guests and so forth. The family would come back here in the mornings ... well, usually just me and Azula and Mother."
He looks at her, and opens his mouth like he's going to say something else, then lets it out in a slow breath. She realizes that he's just as nervous as she is, and that makes something inside her relax and let go.
Yesterday, she'd had the strangest feeling that the bonds which had held her imprisoned since her mother's death, and tightened since Ba Sing Se, had slowly begun to snap, one by one. Although there is still the spectre of war hanging over them, the long shadow of a coming battle they may not win, her heart feels lighter and freer than it has in years -- like she's shed a false identity and reaffirmed who she really is.
"Do any fruit trees grow around here?" she asks. "It's Sokka's turn to make breakfast, and I think that it might be a good idea to have some kind of backup plan, just in case."
"There's an orchard. It's probably completely overgrown by now." Zuko frowns. "In fact, I'm not sure if I can even find it anymore."
"Let's go look for it." Katara dips her hands in the fountain, and runs wet fingers through her hair. The day is already growing uncomfortably warm. "And you can tell me more about when you guys used to come here, when you were a kid."
"Why?" Zuko asks with instant, instinctive suspicion.
"Because I'm interested, silly." And it's true. Now that she's started glimpsing the human being behind the mask, she really does want to know more.
Besides, if growing up with a brother has taught her nothing, it's that blackmail material can totally come in handy. Zuko might be on their side now, but that doesn't mean she plans to squander an advantage.
v. in the fire nation capital
The palace is nearly empty in the still, echoing aftermath of war. Azula sent almost everyone away, and they are only now beginning to trickle back, as news and gossip spreads on hawks' dark wings. Azula is defeated, the whispers run, soon to be joined by other news yet stranger: Ozai has fallen; the Avatar has returned; the Phoenix King is no more. Most of the people around her are so stunned that they hardly seem to know whether to celebrate or mourn.
Katara is too busy to rest, because her healing skills are in demand everywhere, on everyone -- newly released prisoners of war and political dissidents; casualties starting to come in from the failed airship offensive. She does what she can for each and every one of them, closing her eyes to the color of their uniforms as best she can, and closing her ears to the gossip. She cannot stop and think too long, or she would never get up again. She must believe that Zuko is going to be all right because he apparently keeps issuing orders, so he must be conscious somewhere else in the palace; and she will believe Aang is alive when she sees him with her own eyes.
And then there is a cry of "Katara!", and arms are around her, familiar and beloved arms -- Sokka, Toph, and (o blessed spirits, o Sea, o Moon) Aang himself, smelling of sulfur and sweat, but alive, alive, alive.
At first all they can do is babble at each other: "Azula was --" "-- didn't know the Fire Lord --" "-- took out a whole fleet of --" until Sokka gasps, "Ow, ow, I have to tell you how awesome I was sitting down", and then suddenly they're all down in a giggling, hugging heap on the floor.
"How are Zuko and Appa?" Aang asks as Katara unwraps the rough bindings around Sokka's leg. "Everyone's saying Zuko's in charge now, so I guess he must be okay."
"He's mostly okay." She last saw him being hustled away with two of the palace physicians on one arm, and three upset generals plus one even more upset Fire Sage on the other. And she finds that she can't tell the story of Azula's lightning, not yet -- it's Zuko's story to tell, as much as hers. "Appa's down at the stables. Sokka, what did you do to yourself?"
"I jumped off a balloon, onto another balloon," Sokka says, bursting with happiness despite the pain pinching his mouth. "And it was awesome. You should have been there."
By the time she gets him properly splinted and tucked into one of the palace's many empty rooms, she's so exhausted that she can barely muster enough waterbending to wash away enough pain that he can fall asleep. Looking out a window onto the plaza below, she's startled to see shadows dancing in flickering firelight. Night has fallen, and she's vaguely disconcerted to realize that she's not sure which night. Was Sozin's Comet yesterday or the day before? When did she last sleep, anyway?
She leaves Sokka and Toph dead to the world, tangled together in a sprawl of limbs like two puppies. Through the halls of the palace she wanders, a girl in a waking dream, not even sure where she's going. Aang vanished off somewhere while she was tending to Sokka, and she's not sure how to find him again. Eventually she stops a harried-looking servant, one of the few who still seems to be around, and asks the way to Zuko's quarters. Despite her bone-deep weariness, she is spurred onward by the memory of charred cloth crumbling to ash under her hands, the heat of blistered skin beneath her fingertips. His wounds were bad, and if her last few hours (days? she wonders) have been any indication, he probably hasn't been resting like he should be.
She gets turned around in endless echoing corridors that all look alike: black-walled, gloomy, lit with hanging lamps that burn with no visible source of fuel. At one point she finds herself walking down a hall filled with giant floor-to-ceiling portraits of fierce, cruel-looking men. She's so tired that it takes her a moment to understand she must be looking at generations of Zuko's Fire Lord ancestors.
Caught in a weary fugue state, she stands and gazes up at the imposing images, lurid in flame-hues of red and gold. It takes a certain kind of person to immortalize yourself that way, she thinks, and then realizes that she's searching their faces, trying to see Zuko in these people. It's an odd effort, like trying to see the reflections in a pool of water and the pool's sandy bottom at the same time. After a minute or two, drifting half-asleep on her feet, she catches herself thinking that she's looking at possible reflections of Zuko himself: what he was, what he might be, but not what he is -- not the shy, awkward boy who makes bad jokes about tea, and gets flustered when people compliment him. She turns away, too tired to cope with figuring it all out. As she walks quickly away, she feels as if the portraits are watching her leave.
She finds, at last, the room that the servant directed her to. It's a huge, stark room, furnished with nothing but a few ornate pieces of furniture that look like they're meant to be admired rather than used. The only halfway functional thing in sight is a giant bed, ostentatiously raised off the floor on a dais in the middle of the room, and draped in heavy red curtains. Zuko's sitting on the edge of it, stripped to the waist while one of the palace physicians checks the bandages wrapped around his chest and shoulder. There's a sea of paperwork around him, documents and scrolls drifting off the bed like a spill of autumn leaves.
Katara's seen him in similar states of undress while he was training with Aang, but she still pauses, concerned that she's intruding. Then Zuko catches her eye and flashes her a quick grin. It's still a little surprising to her that he's genuinely glad to see her, and it takes her brain a minute to catch up and realize that she's grinning back, because she's just as glad to see him.
"Rest and fluids," the physician says, and Zuko dutifully echoes the instructions before the man leaves a jar of fragrant salve beside the bed and bows his way out.
Katara has stopped in the process of sitting down on the edge of the bed, because she's just realized who else is on the bed, hitherto hidden by the draperies.
Fast asleep, curled on his side, one hand tucked under his head. Right now, he's just an exhausted kid, and no Avatar at all. He still hasn't taken a bath, and he's leaving a visible soot mark on the rich brocade bedspread. Momo is wrapped around his neck; the little lemur's head rests on his cheek.
Katara can't help grinning; it's so unbearably cute. Zuko looks where she's looking, and flushes faintly. "Yeah. He wandered in here, said, 'Hi, Zuko', and then he fell asleep." As he speaks, Zuko looks vaguely befuddled and a little annoyed, as if he can't imagine how these things keep happening to him. "Well, okay, there may have been a bit more conversation regarding war repatriations and things of that nature, but that's the gist of it."
Still unable to stifle her grin, Katara sits down beside Aang. The bed dips under her, but Aang is too deeply asleep to notice. "How are you?" she asks Zuko quietly.
"Um. Tired." He tries to arrange himself comfortably, and gives up with a wince. "Going to live, I guess. Unfortunately." He picks up a scroll and shakes it ruefully. "I think they're trying to kill me with paperwork."
"What you did --" Katara begins, and then pauses, because there just aren't words for what he did.
"You already thanked me."
"And you thanked me," she says, and for a minute they just grin at each other over Aang's sleeping body in mutual triumph, because they won. Then Katara sees Zuko's smile falter, and hers does too; she remembers all those austere portraits in the hall, and wonders if he's thinking what she's thinking -- that their victory came at the cost of Zuko's sister and father.
She can't imagine losing so much of one's family that way. Just losing her mother, all those years ago, was trauma enough. In this huge bed, in this empty, sterile room, Zuko looks small and alone. Maybe she's just so exhausted that she's free-associating, but Katara thinks briefly of her own childhood, crowded in a too-small skin house with her family and loved ones clustered close around her. Even after her mother died and her father left, she never woke in the night without her loved ones in arm's reach. She cannot imagine growing up in this kind of lonely sterility.
Okay, if her thoughts are wandering like this, she's obviously much too tired to roam the halls for another eternity in search of an unoccupied bedroom.
"Is it, um, all right if I stay here for a while?"
Zuko frowns for a moment, but she can almost see the currents shifting in his head -- it's not as if he hasn't already got an Avatar sleeping on top of his bedcovers, after all. "Sure, go ahead."
Katara stretches out beside Aang. Inhibition holds her in its teeth for a bare instant, but then she firmly smacks it down, and flops an arm over him. As soon as her head touches the bed, her body reminds her loudly that it's been a long, long time since she's yielded to its increasingly insistent demands for rest.
Through her closing eyelids, she sees Zuko pick up one of the many documents spread around his side of the bed and bow his scruffy head over it. The strange thought that follows her down into blessed, wonderful sleep is that she feels safe, here at the heart of the enemy stronghold, with her one-time mortal enemy sitting on the other side of the bed.
She's safe. Everyone she loves is safe. The war is over, and they've won, and they're all safe.
And so she sleeps.