War! What is it good for? blah
The Weight of Responsibility
The silence was deafening. Katara felt the breath catch in her throat, choking her. She stared at the still, prone body of the Fire Nation soldier at her feet. Shock swept through her, causing cold sweat to break out and a chill tightened the muscles in her back. In a moment of blind panic, she'd done something she'd sworn she'd never do. The skirmish around her had paused, eyes trained on her in a range of fear and horror. Her eyes rose from the body on the ground to meet the gaze of her friends. Toph's attacker had been encased up to his neck in stone but she'd allowed the stone to crumble as she turned blank eyes towards the waterbender in surprise. Sokka was pinned to the ground, his own opponent staring at her with the beginnings of uncertainty while Sokka expression was more ambiguous. Aang's expression was a little easier to decipher. Disappointment and more than a little anger twisted his young features. She darted a quick glance at the newest member of their group but Zuko's expression was carefully blank. Her heart twisted and she looked back down at the prone firebender. Movement from the corner of her eye made her snap into a bending position and the soldiers immediately recoiled, their terror almost palpable, before they turned and fled. Katara watched them flee, a small part of her crowing with victory.
They stood where the soldiers left them, the silence stretching tight. Toph and Zuko were the first to move. Zuko sheathed his broadswords as Toph folded her arms and her surprised expression smoothed out. "Gee, Sugar Queen, you're kind of scary."
Katara heard Zuko's soft snort and turned a frown in his direction only to see him shouldering their packs and gathering spilled supplies. Aang moved next, Toph's words seeming to propel him into motion. His gray eyes were fixed on the fallen firebender as he took a few hesitant steps towards them. "Is he..."
Toph's voice was flat when she spoke, "He's dead, Twinkletoes." Katara flinched but the earthbender continued. "He was dead before he hit the ground."
Aang reeled back as if struck, emotions flickering across his face almost too fast to identify. His eyes hardened and he turned to Katara, his voice cold, "You killed him."
Katara felt like the earth had dropped beneath her feet. "Aang, I—"
"No!" Katara recoiled. "You killed him, Katara. With bloodbending!"
"I didn't mean to!"
"All life is sacred, Katara! You just ended somebody's!"
Katara drew her scattered emotions together, trying to make sense of the whole situation, still struggling with what she'd done. "This is war, Aang, people die! It's kill or be killed. There's not a lot of time for discussion!"
A chilly silence descended on the group and Aang's eyes narrowed. "You're no better than Hama, using war to justify murder."
Katara gasped, hardly aware of the other's making protests. "That's not true!"
"You killed him in cold blood! What makes you think your actions are any different from Hama's or the Fire L—"
The quiet, authoritative voice demanded immediate obedience and Aang's mouth snapped shut. Zuko stood nearby, his expression stony as he took in both the airbender and the waterbender. There were times Katara forgot who Zuko was raised to be. Now that the argument had been interrupted, Katara could feel the hair's breadth hold she had on her emotions slipping. Aang seemed to be recovering from the surprise of being interrupted. "Zuko—"
"I said 'enough,' Aang. You know nothing about my father. Go back to camp."
Sokka placed a hand on his sister's shoulder and her composure shattered. With a sob, Katara turned and fled into the woods.
Katara was submerged up to her neck in a natural spring, half wishing she had the courage to drown herself, when she heard soft steps approaching. She tensed, clenching her eyes closed and hugging her arms around her stomach. If she was going to die she'd rather not face the one responsible. The water stung the raw skin on her hands and arms but it was a dull annoyance compared to the pain that wrenched in her heart. The footsteps stopped at the edge of the rocky bank with a soft scuff. "I thought I might find you here."
The voice was low and gentle and Katara finally turned to face him. Zuko stood casually on the bank, the red of his Fire Nation clothes standing out against the green of the surrounding forest. His head tilted to the side, a small frown pulling at his lips. "Are you okay? You've been out here for over an hour."
Once more, tears filled her eyes and she turned away, sinking into the water up to her nose and saying nothing. She heard him push air through his teeth and she quickly dashed the tears from her cheeks, turning to look at the former crown-prince. He'd removed his shoes and was gingerly lowering himself into the shallow pool, unmindful of the water weighing down his clothes. He waded out to her, reaching for her arm. "Come, Katara, it may be warm but it's not warm enough to stay in such cold water so long."
Glassy blue eyes turned up to him and a shudder ran through her limbs, her voice hoarse as if she'd been screaming. "No, I can't. It won't come off."
She jerked from his touch, scrambling for some of the rough stones that lined the bank. Zuko yanked her back. "Katara—"
She fought him, her voice rising with panic. "It won't come off. The blood! Oh gods, I killed him!"
Zuko seized both her arms—despite her struggles—and drew her closer, giving her shoulders a sharp shake. "Stop it, Katara! There is no blood!"
She screamed, becoming angry with her restricted movements. "Let me go! I could kill you! I could make your heart explode before you could draw your next breath! I'm a murderer!"
He forced her to him, trapping her in a tight embrace and murmuring soothing sounds. Katara resisted a moment longer before collapsing into his chest with a heart wrenching sob, her fingers digging into his back as she cried into his shoulder. "Spirits, Aang was right. I'm no better than Hama or Yon Rha or—or Ozai."
Zuko's arms tightened around her. "You are nothing like Ozai."
Her sobs quieted to hiccups and sniffles. "But I'm like Hama."
Zuko frowned, leaning back and pulling her away slightly to look down at her. "I don't—No. Never believe that. Aang was wrong. You are not a murderer."
"But I killed him."
Zuko nodded, absently smoothing disheveled hair out of her face. "The consequences of war. He attacked you, you engaged in battle and came out the victor. It could have ended the other way. You are no more a murderer than Uncle, your father... or I."
One of her hands fell from his back only to reach up and caress the scarred flesh around his eye. "You've killed someone."
The muscles in his jaw clenched and a hooded expression fell over his features. Katara could feel him tense and withdraw emotionally, trying to distance himself from the memories. Overall, it was an astonishing effect, one she might not have noticed if she hadn't been so close. "I was a soldier from a very young age. It was cruel."
The struggle for distance was obvious. He'd been exposed to his emotions for too long to fully disengage. Katara gently took his face in both hands, drawing his eyes back to hers. The pain, confusion, and loss in his gaze nearly made her gasp but she offered a shaky, understanding smile. "You are a good man, Zuko, despite this war."
Slowly, his expression cleared and softened. His eyes closed and his hands covered hers on his cheeks. A moment passed as he took a deep, calming breath before he allowed a small, sardonic smile. "And you are an amazing woman." His eyes opened and he brought their hands down between them. "But you do realize you're wearing next to nothing."
Thrown off by the sudden lightening in conversation, she could only blink in confusion. "I'm hardly naked, Zuko. You seen me in my wraps plenty of times before."
She could've sworn there a pale blush rose across Zuko's cheeks. His gaze drifted down her face to her chest before lazily meeting her eyes again. His gaze made fire erupt in her veins and a hot blush spread across her cheeks. "True, but they're usually not wet."
It was another minute before comprehension dawned with a squeal of horrified embarrassment. Zuko was half drowned by the time Katara had scrambled out of the spring, bent the water out of her wraps and was securely clothed in her robes again. She was pulling the remaining water out of her hair as Zuko splashed to the shore, shaking water out of his ears and steam rising from his clothing. Without being asked, she bent the rest of the water out of his clothes as he sat down to pull his shoes on. The walk back to camp was made in companionable silence, each content with the other's company. To Zuko's surprise, before joining the others, Katara slipped her hand into his, giving it a tight squeeze. "Zuko?"