Katara has barely caught her breath, can hardly register the sobbing, thrashing mess that is Azula, when the unmistakable clatter of armor has her reaching with her entire being for the water running through the sewer beneath the courtyard. Her arms are shivering with exertion, she sways in her rooted stance and the water wavers under her shaky influence.
“’S’okay, Katara,” Zuko gasps. His arm lands sharply around her shoulders and the water she’d summon goes crashing back through the grate. “’S’not an attack.”
He’s heavier than she remembers him being at the beginning of his tenure with their little troupe, more muscle coupled with a considerable growth spurt. As he leans his weight on her, Katara has to hold back a grunt of surprise. She braces an arm around his waist and grabs ahold of the hand that hangs near her collarbone.
“They aren’t attacking,” Zuko repeats through gritted teeth. He’s pale, too pale. His hair is still crackling with static.
Katara rips her eyes from his pained face to glance around the courtyard. Scores of soldiers and guards are kowtowing to the banished prince. The Fire Sages who had been seconds away from crowning Azula Fire Lord are now bowing deeply to Zuko, their fists pressed to their palms.
“What’s happening?” she breathes on a whisper. Her cheeks feel hot and wet, her eyes sting.
“A ch…” Zuko’s knees buckle and nearly take both of them down. Katara has to redouble her efforts to keep him standing. “Change of allegiance.”
“Gave up the throne when he decided to rule the world.”
Katara hears the unmistakable grinding slide of her feet in the dirt as she struggles to hold Zuko up. “Where is the infirmary?” she asks him. “We need to—”
“I’m not going to the infirmary, Katara,” he growls. “I don’t need to!”
“You need to lie down,” she snaps back. “I’m sure there’s a doctor around here who can—”
Azula lets out a mighty wailing scream where she lays on the ground, her hands chained to the grate.
“I don’t need the Agni-damned palace physician,” Zuko says. She feels him right himself a little more, relieving some of the weight across her shoulders. Then he raises his voice to address the Fire Sages. “See that my sister is taken to the infirmary. She will receive only the best care. I want ten guards with her at all times.”
“Sir,” one of the Fire Sages stands up, tucks his wizened hands into his broad crimson sleeves, “surely you mean the prison infirmary.”
Zuko’s hand tightens around Katara’s and she feels his body sway into hers an infinitesimal amount. “No,” he says. “The palace infirmary will be sufficient.”
A second sage rises. “Prince Zuko,” he says, “your health takes precedence—”
“I don’t need the palace infirmary or the palace physician,” Zuko growls again. “I’ll have Katara and no one else attending to me.”
“She is the Avatar’s waterbending teacher!” His voice is thunder and Katara can feel her cheeks flush as he begins to list her credentials. “She is a master of her element. She is a master healer. She has saved the life of the Avatar and she just saved mine. If you are questioning her competence, you are questioning me.”
“Zuko,” Katara mutters, “the palace physician can do more for you.”
“Like hell he can,” Zuko replies. He steps forward and she has to follow in order to keep him steady on his feet.
They walk in tandem into the palace, Zuko leaning heavily on Katara. Though nobody in the courtyard makes to follow them, Katara can feel the weight of scrutinizing gazes and she holds her head high to deflect what she is certain is one-hundred years’ worth of indoctrinated ignorance.
“…Crown Prince saved her life,” someone whispers not-so-quietly.
“…saved a waterbender…”
“The waterbender saved the crown prince.”
Dozens of voices echo the same bare facts and Katara’s head and eyes swim with the frank summation of the fight for their lives and Zuko’s crown. Her eyesight has been blurry since she crashed to her knees at his side in the courtyard. Here in the dim, dark corridors of the palace she feels blind, relying on Zuko’s knowledge of the maze of hallways to get wherever it is they’re going.
A grunt explodes out of Katara’s chest when she is jostled into a corner.
“Sorry,” Zuko slurs out on a wheezing breath. “’S’just a little further.”
“Where are we going?” Her voice is high pitched and wobbly. She almost doesn’t recognize it.
“Mother’s room.” Zuko staggers around a corner, Katara in tow.
This hallway is well-lined with windows that let in the eerie red light of the comet. A knot of fear tightens itself in Katara’s guts as the possibility that this is a trap. Any moment now, Ozai will loom out of the red-black shadows, fists blooming with flames that will cut them both down. Thankfully, they tumble through a door and into a room draped with white drop cloths that loom out of the darkness like phantoms of the past. Zuko reaches out to light a torch on the wall with a groaning grunt of pain. The flame makes it to its destination, but barely.
Through her wavering vision, Katara sees a bed along the right side of the room. She deposits Zuko on it without much ceremony and kneels before him, ripping the remains of his tunic from his torso. With shaking fingers, she uncorks one of her waterskins and drenches her hand in her element. Before she can raise her healing hand to Zuko’s chest, he reaches out to grasp her wrist.
She shoves his hand away and presses her fingers to the scar that spiders its way across his skin. Her emotions are too distracting. Her fingers don’t catch their signature glow. Frustrated, she sniffles the snot out of her nose and sends the water back to its container. She bows her head, resting it on Zuko’s knee, attempting to gain control. Her face is too damp and her eyes can’t focus on anything other than watering over.
“Why did you do that?!” she explodes.
“You’re crying,” Zuko says, voice rawer than usual.
“What?” She presses a hand to her cheek and finds that he’s correct. She hadn’t even realized, had assumed it had to do with the comet burning through the air or the intensity of Zuko and Azula’s Agni Kai.
“You’ve been crying since you helped me out there. Why—?”
“How could you?”
“Why are you crying?”
“How could you jump in front of Azula’s lighting for me?” she demands. “You shouldn’t have, Zuko. That was so stupid. You shouldn’t have done that. I don’t matter that much—”
“Of course you matter.” Zuko says it so quietly that she almost doesn’t hear it. The honesty in the statement cuts her to the core and silences her words. “You matter to me, Katara.”
“The Fire Nation—”
“The Fire Nation means nothing to me if you aren’t alive to see what it can become. The world needs your hope. The Fire Nation needs your hope. I need your hope. You’ve shown me kindness and…and goodness. The world needs that.”
Katara feels warm fingertips brush the sweaty strands of hair away from her cheeks, pulling them loose from the tracks of her tears. She squeezes her eyes shut and the moment Azula struck plays over in her mind, electric blue and twisting like a knife between her ribs. She sees Zuko suspended by lightning, hears his body collapse to the ground, a series of horrifying thuds against the stones and dirt.
“You could have died.”
“You could have died,” he counters.
“The world doesn’t need me as much as it needs you,” she says hotly, looking up at him with accusation in her eyes.
“I trust you,” Zuko shrugs. She sees the spasm of pain he tries to disguise. “I knew it would be okay in the end.”
“I didn’t. Zuko, we both could have died.”
“Well,” he gives her a grim sort of smile, “at least I would have died for someone I care about.”
Katara doesn’t know what to do with that, so she rises to her feet, bones in her knees and ankles popping from the exertion of the day. One hand reaches out to gently push Zuko back onto the bed and the other uncorks her waterskin again.
“You need to lie down,” she says. It takes a few deep breaths for her to find her center, to feel the tingle of the water as she prepares to heal her friend.
“So do you,” Zuko says.
“I’ll worry about that when you’re stable,” she says, placing a hand over his left pectoral.
“What are you doing?”
“Checking for heart damage.”
The steady thrum of Zuko’s heart beneath her palm is encouraging. Katara closes her eyes and sinks her water into his chest, sensing and reaching for anything she needs to mend. There is nothing. Not a skipped beat or a murmur, no collapsed arteries or broken capillaries. She can sense Zuko’s chi flowing through his heart chakra unblocked.
“I think I managed to redirect most of the lightning,” Zuko says when she opens her eyes and pulls her hand away. “Contained most of the damage.”
Katara frowns and divvies the water up between her hands. “It’s best that I check you over,” she says. She reaches for his face and he recoils with guarded eyes.
“Now what are you doing?”
“I need to check for brain damage.”
“Um.” Zuko’s eyes dart over her face. One of his hands reaches up reflexively towards his scar and then drops away. “Can you tell… Um… Can you see…” The hesitation is clear on his face and it tugs at Katara’s heart.
“Sometimes I can see how wounds are inflicted,” she says. “I’m still learning how to control that. But I won’t intentionally poke and prod, I promise.”
“Right.” Zuko swallows hard. “It’s just… If you’re going to find out about it, I’d rather tell you myself. So if you see anything or… Um. Just…”
“I’ll save any questions that arise for a later date,” Katara says. “I don’t think they will. I’m going to focus on your brain.”
Zuko is tense as she climbs up onto the soft mattress to kneel next to him. “Deep breaths,” she instructs. “Try to relax.” She slides her coated fingers under the dark strands of his hair and towards his temples, careful to stray as close to the edge of his scar as possible with her right hand. With a slow inhale, she sinks her consciousness into the water and allows it to reach out towards Zuko’s mind. Synapses are firing, nothing seems to be severed or fried. She catches a brief glimpse of her serene face through Zuko’s eyes, but nothing more.
“Everything okay up there?” the firebender asks once she pulls away.
“Seems to be.” Katara takes in the shadows under his eyes, the downward tilt of his lips. She wonders how may days it’s been since he’s had a decent night’s sleep.
“Did you…” He gestures wordlessly towards the left half of his face.
Katara shakes her head. “Nothing came through,” she says.
“Good.” He closes his eyes and she watches his breathing even out. “I’m exhausted.”
“You should try to rest,” Katara suggests again. “I can work on your chest while you sleep.”
Zuko’s eyes snap open and he props himself up on his elbows. It lasts for all of ten seconds before he recoils into the mattress, a fist over the spidery wound. “You don’t need to do that,” he grinds out.
Katara snorts. “You just told half the Fire Nation that you want me to heal you. If I don’t, you’ll bring the wrath of your people down on me. And your chest will scar worse than it probably already has.”
“I don’t care if it scars.”
“You’re being absurd.”
“I don’t,” he insists. “I made this choice and I’m fine to live with the results.”
Katara places her healing hand over the lightning wound and he glowers at her. She glares back, eyes icy and unforgiving. “Just focus on your breathing and trust me,” she tells him.
“I do trust you,” Zuko grumbles.
“Good. I’ll start with the easier stuff.”
“No poking or prodding,” he says.
“No poking or prodding,” she agrees.
Katara traces her fingers across the lighter marks, the ones that would probably heal fine on their own given time. She soothes the blisters that are starting to form and does a brief sweep of Zuko’s internal organs to ensure that he didn’t fry any of them. With her focus on the task before her, she almost doesn’t notice the darkening of the sky outside or the way Zuko slips into sleep with a suddenness that belies his deprivation. As she delves further into the wound, Katara sets to work on the nerve damage.
It’s when her fingers brush over the center of the wound that it happens.
An overwhelming wave of something akin to affection paired with a heavy dose fear ripples throughout her body, seizing her heart and sending her adrenaline into overdrive. Zuko’s protesting yell echoes through her mind and she lets out a startled gasp, inadvertently sinking deeper into the memory.
Lightning crackles through the air, she’s lunging across the courtyard, attempting to catch the blue-white flash with her long, pale fingers. There’s blackness and something is sizzling. Her name is a mantra in her mind chanted in that deep, gravelly voice she’s come to know so well.
Katara Katara Katara Katara—
Something unknown and unspoken is entombed underneath it all. It’s calling to her, daring her to burrow deeper, enticing her with the temptation to unbury something well-hidden and deeply felt. And Zuko has long been such an enigma, such a beacon in her life that Katara dares, just for one moment, to reach out and touch that unknown emotion, brushing the edges of it with her subconscious.
It sends her reeling away from the firebender, a fist clamped to her gasping mouth, tears pricking at the corners of her eyes once more.
“Of all the stupid things to do, Zuko,” she lectures the sleeping teen. “Of all the stupid, noble, selfless things to do…”
She sits up for most of the night, knees drawn to her chest, back pressed to the headboard, not daring to reach out and heal Zuko again when he isn’t awake to hold her accountable. The emotion buried in his chest sings out to her and she doesn’t trust herself to not discover the whole truth of it, to not dive in and let it consume her.
There is another boy half a world away who is waiting for her. Someone she knows is woven into her destiny. Katara unfurls her fist and studies the lines that cross her palm, looking for what Aunt Wu saw, attempting to decipher the mysteries etched into her skin.
“A great romance,” she murmurs, tracing one of the lines. “A powerful bender.”
Squinting at the lines, Katara searches for the meaning she once saw, digs deep for the memory of starry gray eyes and innocent kisses. Somehow, all of it pales in comparison to the intensity burning underneath Zuko’s newest scar. That one small touch has crumbled the pillar supporting Katara’s belief in her destiny. And it’s not fair, she thinks, because Zuko and Aang are such different people. She’s certain that Aunt Wu had meant Aang.
Zuko lets out a snore and rolls towards her in his sleep, one hand curled against the angry red wound on his chest. She reaches out with a shy hand to brush the hair from his eyes, feeling the slide of the strands between her fingers, the ridges of his scar against her unblemished fingertips. The ghost of that mysterious emotion is a tickle at the edges of her soul. Katara can feel the all-consuming burn of it, the temptation to lose herself in its true depths.
“I hardly know you,” she whispers to him. “Not like this. We’ve had so little time. How can that be enough to throw everything into question? Aunt Wu told me it was Aang. She told me.”
Except she didn’t. Katara knows it. And Sokka had told her. He’d warned her about self-fulfilling prophecies and reading too much into Aunt Wu’s ‘mumbo jumbo.’
“It’s a bunch of hooey, Katara,” Sokka said. “You need to make your own decisions and figure out what you want for yourself. Don’t let some batty old lady ruin your life for you.”
The waterbender stares at the creases in her palm, studies the mottled lines of Zuko’s scar, learns the fine, sharp features of his face in a new way that is entirely unrelated to enmity or friendship. And when she finally stretches out beside him on the plush mattress, it’s only to fall into a fitful sleep punctuated by confused thoughts of why didn’t I see it, how didn’t I know, on an endless loop.