The sun slowly fell toward the horizon. It gave everything a soft yellow glow—the color of a not-quite sunset. Her legs dangled over the edge of the dock, the tips of her toes almost meeting the water’s surface, her mother’s necklace laid in her open palm.
She rarely took off the necklace. She brushed her thumb over the pendant and felt the ridges where it had been carved with the Water Tribe symbol. If it wasn’t around her neck, she felt a little more lost than she should without that small connection she had to her mother.
She squinted her eyes shut as the memory of what had occurred just hours ago flashed through her mind. She could remember it all so clearly—the terror in his eyes, the adrenaline rushing through her veins, her fury over what he had done, her sadness over what he had taken from her all those years ago.
She opened her eyes just a bit, gazing at the waves in the water and watching the light dance on its surface. So still and peaceful. So unlike how she felt right now.
The whole adventure with Zuko was one big blur of rage, the only thing she could vividly recall was that moment—the moment when Yon Rha was lying on the ground, when she had those ice shards inches from his neck, inches away from taking away his life, inches away from returning the favor, inches away from giving him what he deserved. Or, at least, what she thought he deserved.
But...when it all came down to it, she envisioned her mother standing there, just watching her be so consumed with rage, so much so that she was prepared to kill a man.
No one would miss him. He didn’t deserve to be missed. He didn’t deserve to keep living, keep breathing, not after what he did. How could he not spend every waking day wallowing in misery? How could he go on when her life fell apart at his doing?
It was hard to recall what her mother looked like. Katara had been so young when she died after all; but standing there when the world seemed to hold its breath, she could see a vivid image of her mother standing on the sidelines, watching with wide blue eyes so similar to her daughter’s taking in the scene before her, taking in what had become of her. It was if she said, I sacrificed my life for you, and this is what you become? Is this really what you are, Katara, a killer?
The answer was no. And like that, her resolve weakened. She felt the horrible weight she had been carrying in her heart lighten, she no longer felt that overbearing pressure on her shoulders.
She no longer felt that anger—but what was left of that hollow shell of what she’d been holding on to for so long left behind a lingering sense of disappointment. You’re not strong enough to do it. Why didn’t you just do it—just take his life? Because it wouldn’t bring her mother back, that’s why. If she had taken that man’s life, she would’ve been no better than he; killing just because you had the chance, because you thought it could solve the bigger problem. Giving in to the hatred and the fear and taking it out on those around you.
She exhaled. She didn’t think she took a proper breath on that whole escapade. Her limbs had been tight with anticipation then, her heart beating furiously in her chest, her eyes blazing with a vengeance.
But now? All she wanted to do was rest, maybe fall into the water and let its gentle caress soothe her troubles away so she could never feel anything ever again. She was so, so tired. Her shoulders drooped, her hands dropped into her lap, her mother’s necklace seemed to weigh more than it truly did. She looked up toward the sky, toward the heavens. The sun was getting closer, the color slowly shifting to a warm orange. A slow transition. An imminent change.
She felt too drained to think anymore. She continued to let her legs dangle over the edge. She considered lying back against the wood but thought better of it—she would have to get up, they had to leave soon anyway.
The wood of the dock creaked with new weight. Footsteps sounded behind her. She could tell that they were hesitant footsteps, footsteps belonging to someone who wasn’t sure of whether they could take a few steps closer or not. Of course, she knew who it was, she expected she’d have to face him soon enough.
“You can sit down. It’s alright,” she said. The footsteps came closer, and Zuko appeared at her side. He lowered himself and settled next to her, making sure to keep a few inches of space between them. After what had just happened, personal space seemed like a trivial thing. However, deep down, she appreciated it. She appreciated more than he knew.
More than she could ever properly put into words.
They sat in silence for a few moments, both of them bathed in a warm orange glow, taking in the sight of the sunset and the water and the trees. There was no breeze. The world had been rushing by so fast earlier she could hear the wind whistling in her ears. Now there was only stillness and quiet.
He looked at her a couple of times, not daring to say anything before she did. She didn’t look up at him right away. She hadn’t looked him in the eye since the confrontation. She knew that if she met his eyes there would be something different in his gaze. After what he had witnessed, who could blame him? She had been so close to the breaking point—her self control had been spread so thinly.
They knew what they were both thinking about the same thing. Not that moment, but rather what happened after it. After Yon Rha realized he wasn’t going to die and scrambled away, Katara had fallen onto her knees and sobbed. She cupped her hands to her face and curled into herself, silently pleading for the mud to swallow her whole and take her. All her emotions had been building up inside of her, and instead of letting it out through killing Yon Rha, she let it flow freely then and there on the ground. Zuko stood and watched, unsure of what to do. So he watched as sobs racked her body and her sorrow slowly drained out of her. She had been so vulnerable then. She is capable of so much power but deep down she’s been scared, alone, afraid, and she seemed to bare those unfiltered emotions there on the ground as the rain poured.
It seemed like days had passed when Katara stopped crying. Zuko wanted to help—he wanted to do something, anything, but he was rooted to the ground. He felt that she needed space right now, she needed to sort out how she felt without any distractions.
He understood that you had to face the person responsible to begin healing.
When she felt like she had cried all her tears and didn’t have the strength to cry anymore, she sat up a bit, her legs still folded under her, her body seemingly ten times harder to carry. Her eyes were swollen and red, it felt hard to breathe, it felt hard to think.
A few minutes passed. The once pouring rain had slowed to a drizzle, and they remained in the same spots they were before. Eventually, with some hesitation, Zuko noiselessly stepped forward, leaned down, and gently placed a hand on her shoulder. He was afraid she’d lash out and attack him, maybe see that fury flash in her eyes once again—only to have that fury directed at him, but instead she leaned into his touch, welcomed it even, and let him know that it was okay, that she appreciated that he was there without saying a word. Because of that, the tension he didn’t realize he was standing with dissipated, and he could feel her tension begin to dissipate as well, feel her strength seeping back into her body.
After this wordless exchange, she stood up on her own. She thought she would wobble or struggle to stand, but she was surprised to find a renewed strength within her and something else new...peace.
They then began the trek back to Appa walking side by side but not meeting each other’s eyes. It didn’t feel right to speak just yet. There was a tangible reverence in the air that prevented them from saying anything. They just needed a little more time and space to figure out how they felt.
Zuko immediately settled himself at the reins of Appa while Katara climbed into the saddle, falling asleep as Appa took off into the air back towards their friends. No way was she going to be the one steering them home. She was exhausted, that much was obvious. He marveled that she had the strength to make the trek back after all that happened. He wasn’t envious of her position, he didn’t think anybody would be, but he was glad that he could help her find closure. Beneath the exhaustion and all the other emotions piled on top, he sensed something new inside of her, something good.
And now here they were, sitting side by side facing the sun.
“Do you think I made the right decision?”
The question made him pause. She wasn’t looking at him, but she was tense with anticipation. She cared about what he had to say. He hoped that she knew that Zuko wouldn’t have judged her for whatever choice she decided to make, but he couldn’t resist feeling an odd sense of pride. It was a good decision—definitely not an easy one, but a good one nonetheless. He was proud that she let him live. Not even he was sure if he would’ve let a man like that walk free, not after causing him so much turmoil like it did for her.
“I don’t think about whether it’s right or not is up to me. If you think what you did was right, then it is.”
She stiffened at this. Even though she didn’t regret her choice, the lack of a concrete answer bothered her. It meant that it was all up to her and how she felt about it, and she still wasn’t entirely sure about it all.
Though his mind told him now wasn’t the time, he found himself studying her facial features, really studying them. He studied the curve of her nose, the shape of her chin, the wrinkle present between her brows, her beautiful hair, the color of her eyes in the light of the setting sun...he was seeing her in a new light.
“I don’t know if not killing him meant I was strong enough not to do it, or if it means that I didn’t have the strength to.”
“There are different kinds of strengths, Katara. You knew that killing Yon Rha wouldn’t bring you what you needed, and it took a lot of strength to battle the different opinions in your head.
What you did took a lot of courage. And I...I’m proud that you forgave him.”
She couldn’t help but smile half a smile. Her gut told her that she made the right decision, but she needed to hear a second opinion to quell the doubts in her mind.
“Thank you for being there, Zuko.”
“I’m serious, thank you for everything. It helped me a lot.”
“I’m sure you would’ve done fine all by yourself. You’re a strong person, Katara.”
She knew that was a lie, but she accepted the compliment anyway. She didn’t have to look at him to know that they had the same calm half-smile on both of their faces. With a renewed sense of vigor, she stood up, and Zuko stood as well. The sun was just beginning to dip below the horizon.
They both walked a few paces before Katara realized something and stopped walking. He walked forward a few more steps before stopping as well, curious to know what was going on inside her head.
“Earlier you said that you were proud of me for forgiving him.”
She paused. He had expected her to continue, but he eventually realized that she was awaiting some sort of acknowledgment from him.
“Uh, yes, I did say that.”
She hadn’t met his eyes before but she looked up to meet them now, an unreadable expression in her gaze. “I never forgave him, and I never will. I can never forgive him for what he did.”
He gulped. It felt like there was something she was leading up to, and he wasn’t sure if he would like it or not.
Then, her gaze softened. “However, I am ready to forgive you.”
Nothing could have prepared him for what happened next. One moment she stood in front of him, the next she leaped towards him, arms outstretched. Her arms wrapped around the top of his shoulders and her face nuzzled the crook of his neck. He stood there dumbfounded for a moment before getting over his shock and instinctively wrapping his arms around her waist, hugging her back. She was hugging him.
She...forgave him too.
They stood like that for a long moment, wrapped in that tight embrace before she pulled away much too soon. She took a step back but still kept her hands on his shoulders and looked up at him, observing his face of slight disbelief. She smiled an almost imperceptible smile before starting to walk again. His heart was racing, he could still feel her hugging him, still smell the pleasant scent of her hair. He turned his body to follow her direction as she walked back, but he didn’t walk with her. He let her go ahead. That meant he could replay that moment in his mind over and over and over again on his own.