Categories > Cartoons > Avatar: The Last Airbender > Slowly

Slowly

by MistyKat 2 Reviews

After traveling days without food and water, Zuko traps the Avatar but falls from exhaustion and fever. Katara demands to care for him, which is a demand that tears her and her brother apart. Meanw...

Category: Avatar: The Last Airbender - Rating: PG - Genres: Action/Adventure, Angst, Romance - Characters: Aang, Katara, Sokka, Zuko - Warnings: [!] - Published: 2006/06/15 - Updated: 2006/06/15 - 8164 words

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I

Slowly, he came to consciousness.

The first thing he noticed was that his eyes burned. He wondered at how his eyes could burn so hotly, but the rest of him be so cold. Vaguely, he realized that he was sweating and shivering at the same time. A fever? Most likely. He idly began to wonder how long he had been out and where he was, if only to take his mind off his burning eyes.

The sound of footfalls took him away from wondering where he was and his burning body. Someone knelt next to him and placed something cool over his eyes.

It felt like heaven.

And then, he heard her voice.

"I wish there was some way to bring this fever down once and for all!"

From somewhere far away, he heard the reply of her moronic brother.

"He's lucky we're helping him at all. You're gonna regret helping him when he wakes up and turns us into crispy critters."

"Oh, hush, Sokka. I'm a water bender and he's weak. If it looks like he's gonna do anything, I'll just douse him and we'll be out of here on Appa."

"I'm just sayin'."

"Well, don't."

Silence. That coolness over his eyes made his senses sharper. He tried to recall just what had happened and slowly, it came to him. He remembered that he hadn't eaten anything worthwhile in days... or was it weeks? He hadn't had water for two days, that much he knew. But he had made it.

He trapped that damn airbender. There was nowhere he could run.

What happened next was a blur. He remembered feeling relief; he remembered running toward the Avatar, and then... that girl. That infernal waterbending girl had stepped in.

He remembered that he faltered. At the sight of her, he stopped.

And that was it. Now he was lying, sick and exhausted, at their mercy.

Blackness.

-----------------------------------

He woke again. He didn't know how long it was from the last bout of consciousness to this one, but he knew that his eyes weren't burning anymore. He also felt a strong breeze on his face. The ground seemed to move beneath him, and he realized that he wasn't on the ground. They were moving him on that flying beast. Where were they taking him? He decided to wait and see. His thoughts trailed off...

When he woke up this time, he felt much stronger and more like himself. He felt the welcome earth beneath him and sensed that he was alone. He could make it. He could get away to measure the damage for himself and come up with a new plan. His muscles tensed and he sat straight up, eyes open.

Bright!!

Stars exploded in front of him and he fell back again, laughing at himself softly as he passed once more into...

Blackness.

-----------------------------------

Cool water passed his lips. He was aware that his head was being propped in someone's arms. He heard quiet humming, and for a moment, he dreamed he was with his mother once more. His brave mother who knew more of honor and respect than any general or fire lord. A smile played at the corner of his mouth and then he realized the smell was all wrong. It was sweet, but not his mother.

His eyes opened without pain for the first time in... days? Weeks?

Slowly, her face came into focus. There was a smile of relief on her face as she lowered her water skin. That smile made him feel weaker, and he hated her for it.

She must have seen him grimace at that thought, because her smile disappeared.

"Shh. You're safe, whether you like your traveling companions or not. It looks like you're out of the woods, but you've still got a ways to go before you can fling your fireballs at us again."

He looked up at her face, hating her and not hating her all at the same time.

He ignored this strange feeling. For now.

"H-how long?" was all he could manage. By the Gods, was that his voice croaking in his ears?!

"Are you that ready to get away?"

"No." Slowly "How long have I been....."

She understood.

"How long have you been with us? You've been pretty much unconscious since... the fight. That was two weeks ago. It's lucky Aang knew of an herbalist, otherwise you might not be here."

"Where is the Avatar?"

He meant to sound intimidating. His question came out wheezy and barely audible.

"Don't worry where Aang is. You need to take this medicine and go back to sleep."

She flashed that look at him. That fierce-eyed look that said, "Don't mess with me and don't argue. Or else." The look that was stubborn and beautiful at the same time. The look that stopped him when he had the Avatar trapped.

He drank the bitter tea that she gave him and fell asleep almost instantly.

-----------------------------------

Her brother entered the cave to start a fire. He looked at her briefly. It turned his stomach to see her caring for that crazed lunatic. He dropped the firewood and ran his hands over his head to try and cool off before he spoke.

Things had not been peaceful between Sokka and his sister since they gained their newest party member. Come to think of it, everyone had been on edge since that day. Even Momo was strangely reserved... for a lemur.

"So... I heard voices. Did he wake up, then?"

"Yes."

"And?"

"And what, Sokka? He's barely strong enough to talk."

"Fine, I just..."

"Just what? What do you want me to say, that he tried to attack me? Would that fit in neatly with your picture of him?!"

"It wouldn't have surprised me. Not in the least."

He walked out of the cave again. Angry. He'd been in a constant state of anger for two weeks now.

"How's Katara?"

Sokka looked at the Avatar, biting back a thousand comments that would do him no good to say.

"The same. Doting over that scarred-freak and cutting down anyone who tries to talk some sense into her... and that 'anyone' just happens to be me 9 times out of 10."

Aang looked at the ground.

Uncomfortable silence. The group was falling apart over a boy that hadn't managed to move or talk in two weeks. They all felt it.

-----------------------------------

Slowly, the blackness subsided. He woke up fully, and for the first time in two weeks, Zuko pulled himself upright with his own strength. He was still weak, but his head was clear, and he knew there would be no more periods of sustained blackness.

He kept his eyes closed for a moment and felt the breeze on his face. It cooled his scar, and, for a moment, his rage. He opened his eyes.

Katara was building a fire. They were in the open, and they were alone. He smirked as he raised his hand to ignite the fire for her, but stopped.

Katara was crying. She was completely silent, but he saw the tears flicker in the sparks her flint made. They were like fireflies in the twilight. Here now, gone forever in the blink of an eye.

The fire wouldn't catch. He could see that from where he was. Giving in, she threw the flint across the river and screamed out her rage to the silent night.

Slowly, Zuko rose. He didn't want to care, but suddenly, he did. He wanted to know why this girl would lose control, yes, but mostly he wanted to know who hurt her like this.

He told himself it was so he could congratulate them... but part of him knew that wasn't the reason. That wasn't the reason at all.

He knelt beside her and she started. He didn't say a word; he just lit the fire. He frowned at how unwillingly the fire leapt from his fingertips and turned to her when it had caught.

He reminded himself that he was prince of the Fire Nation, and however strange and confused he felt, he knew he had to keep up appearances.

"So. What's your problem?"

She shrunk back from him, not speaking, eyes wide. He flinched, thinking how harsh his tone was.

"Look, I'm not going to hurt you. I'm not burning you to ashes like your dim-witted brother thinks I will... and I know you can speak... so what's the problem?"

Slowly, she regained composure.

"They left me."

Simple enough, but he didn't understand.

"What do you mean... they left you?"

"Exactly what it sounds like. Sokka couldn't stand that I was caring for you and Aang... well... I'm not sure why he was so upset. He's said over and over again that he thinks you two could have been friends in a past life."

She paused and looked at him, presumably to see how he took this last statement.

He had heard it before. Hell, he had even thought it himself. It wasn't a shock, so he didn't react. He just maintained his level gaze at her. Katara faltered for a moment, and then continued.

"Anyway, we saw Dad's ships anchored in a cove nearby and Sokka wanted to go see him. I didn't want to take you into their camp, and so I told him we would stay behind and wait. To make a long story short, Sokka didn't think I should have passed up a visit with Dad to nurse you back to health. What's worse, Aang agreed. We screamed at each other... Aang and I even threw some bending moves at each other. In the end, Sokka and Aang left me alone with you. I imagine they'll come back... but I don't know...."

She trailed off. Twilight turned to night and the silence between them grew. It wasn't uncomfortable; it was what it was. Silence.

"You should have left me."

"How could I..."

"I said, you should have left me. I'm not worth missing your father over. Especially not if he wants to see you, too."

"You were sick. I couldn't just...."

"You should get some rest. Go to your friends in the morning and leave me here. I'm well enough to travel on my own."

"You're not, and you know it. I can't just leave you here."

"Yes, you can."

-----------------------------------

Katara opened her eyes. She had slept well and felt quite rested. Of course, she always felt better after getting something off her chest. It was just her nature to bottle up frustration and scream it to the world every now and again.

And then there was Zuko to think about. The calm way he looked at her, waiting patiently as she told her story. His almost kind words, "I'm not worth missing your father over."

She smiled for the first time in the past few days and rolled over to see if he was awake.

He was gone.

She should have expected it. She knew he would leave as soon as he thought he was well enough. She also knew that, while he might feel fine, he was certainly not fine.

Katara hastily got up and packed her bedroll. She strapped it to her back, and then entered the forest to find him.

-----------------------------------

Miles away on Appa, Aang looked at the passing ocean dejectedly.

"We shouldn't have left her. I shouldn't have gotten so angry."

Sokka looked up from sharpening his blade.

"She'll be fine. Trust me. She needs time to blow off steam and we need time to... blow off our own steam, I guess. We'll go back and get her tonight, and then we'll hit the road again, all of us. Minus one Fire Nation prince..." Sokka finished, muttering the last statement under his breath.

Aang still looked upset.

"Look, Aang. I'm telling you. It will all work out. When you're family, you drive each other crazy and you sometimes you just want to kill each other, but you don't and you get over the crazies because you're family. We just need some space, is all. Appa's saddle isn't big enough for all of us sometimes..."

II

Katara walked softly and swiftly through the surrounding forest. The morning light broke through the trees and turned the forest into a temple of green and gold. The forest's beauty fell on blind eyes as Katara continued to search for Zuko; she had no time to appreciate the glories of nature this morning.

Zuko wasn't hard to follow, which was a testament to how sick he really was. Katara saw his clumsy mistakes everywhere-a broken branch here, a bit of his hair there, footprints only half covered everywhere-and winced. She knew he wouldn't be making these mistakes if he were well.

-----------------------------------

Zuko was breathing heavily and sweating by mid-morning. He knew he couldn't make it much farther, but he wanted to put as much distance between himself and the waterbender as he could.

The waterbender. Would he ever use her name? He suspected he wouldn't. The moment he did, she would be real to him.

As he rested, unfamiliar voices brought him from his thoughts.

"We've got 'em trapped. They ain't goin' nowhere." A gruff voice stated.

"Good work, Lieutenant. The Fire Lord will be pleased that we are going to rid him of those waterbending nuisances. Where are they currently located?"

"They holed themselves up in the cove down the beach. The navy's comin' in to stop their ships, and we're gonna take care of the ones camped out on the beach, General."

"Good. We move tonight."

Zuko knew that they could only be talking about the waterbender's father. It looked like his entire fleet of ships was about to be obliterated. Normally, Zuko wouldn't have cared...

-----------------------------------

Aang and Sokka saw the ships ahead. Both sets of them. The Water Tribe ships couldn't spot the Fire Nation fleet so far away on the horizon, but from atop Appa, Sokka could clearly see that his father's ships were outmatched.

"Dad!"

Sokka ran to his father, but their reunion was short.

"You have got to get out of here! Now! The Fire Nation is on their way. You're a sitting turtle-duck here!"

"Sokka, son, don't worry! We know about their camp up on the cliffs. We've been planning to ambush them under the cover of night. Don't worry, they're only a few soldiers..."

"No, Dad, you don't understand. A whole fleet of ships from the Fire Nation is headed this way. They're waiting just outside this cove. You have to move, NOW!"

Aang approached apprehensively, looking from Sokka's face to his father's.

"Sokka, I don't know what you're talking about. No Navy could have tracked us... and who is this? Where's your sister?"

"No time, Dad. I'll explain in the air."

"The air?!"

"Yep. Yip, yip, Appa!"

Sokka grabbed his father and he, Aang, and Momo lifted into the air on Appa's huge back.

Sokka's father knew that his children were traveling with the Avatar, but it still came as a shock to meet the Avatar himself so suddenly. He wished there was time to learn from the youngster, but when he saw proof that the Fire Nation navy was practically in his lap, he knew there was need for quick action. His face was set and grim as he said,

"Sokka, Aang... please go find Katara and leave this place. I can't get you three dragged into this battle. You won't die in what will amount to a minor skirmish in the grand design of the war. I can't have that on my head in the afterlife."

"Dad... you... you can't be serious. Aang can help... I can help! I've grown! I can fight. You can't leave me behind again... not when you most need me!!!!"

Aang stepped forward, laying a hand on Sokka's shoulder.

"I understand, sir. We will do as you ask. We never should have left Katara alone in the first place. Sokka, your sister needs us now. We have to leave the war to the soldiers this time."

Sokka looked up at his father, pleading.

"I can't let you fight this battle by yourself. You have no idea how strong Aang can be. Dad... I... I don't want you to go!"

"I know, son. And I won't tell you it won't hurt to be without you again, but your sister needs your help. If she's in those woods, she may already have been caught by the fire nation soldiers we've been tracking."

A thought came to him, and his jaw set in anger.

"All this time! They've been the bait to draw us into this cove. And I fell for it."

Sokka looked at his father. He had a feeling it was his last look, so he took his looking slow, taking in every line in his father's brave face, trying to catalogue his father's very soul into his memory, so he would never forget it.

And then it came to him; a wonderfully brilliant plan worthy of Sokka. It was so simple, and it would solve everyone's problems. He grabbed Aang and ran toward Appa, smiling as he said,

"Don't worry, Dad! I'm going to get Katara and come back here as soon as I can. I have a plan."

Sokka's father scratched his head as he watched his firstborn fly away on a giant bison.

-----------------------------------

It was nearly twilight by the time Katara got to the end of Zuko's trail. It led her to a small clearing. She hid in the underbrush, making sure the coast was clear before moving into the clearing. There were several smoldering fires and evidence that an encampment had moved out not too long ago. There was no sign of Zuko anywhere, but there was also no sign of a struggle, so she silently thanked the water and moon spirit for that.

Katara carefully looked for signs of Zuko, moving methodically around the clearing's edge. She didn't expect to find him here. If he was trying to get away from her, he would surely have set out following the obvious path taken by the people who left the camp; his traces would be virtually lost in that confusion. She looked for him, anyway.

-----------------------------------

He watched the waterbender looking for him through a dull haze. The fever had returned as the Fire Nation soldiers were leaving the camp. He didn't have enough energy to run, so he idly hoped she would overlook him.

And then he thought of her tears the night before, of how crushed she would be if her father died tonight. With a sigh, he struggled to sit up.

"Hey. Waterbender. Over here," he croaked.

Katara turned, eyes wide with surprise. Not only was he still here, he was calling for her.

She walked to him, and as casually as she could, "I have a name. It's Katara. You can use it if you want, Zuko."

"I'll pass on that one. You should move. This was the camp of a small battalion of Fire Nation soldiers. They're after your father's group. They've got them pinned on the beach. The navy is waiting to attack the ships tonight and the battalion will take care of the waterbenders on land. You have to leave me and warn them."

"No way, you're coming with me. Where did the battalion go?"

-----------------------------------

Aang and Sokka had been looking for Katara for hours. They found the place where they had left her the night before, but she was nowhere to be found. They took to the air once again in hopes of spotting her from above.

Sokka fought with himself over leaving her the night before. At the time, it had seemed wise to split up for awhile, to let them all cool down. But now that she was in potential danger, he questioned his decision. He had, after all, left her alone with the one person who was the most successful at tracking them and nearly killing them. Sokka groaned at this thought.

"Are you ok, Sokka?"

"Oh, sure. I was just thinking that I'm about to lose my father for good, and the rest of my small family is wondering around in a forest crawling with firebenders. No wait, I forgot. She's probably already dead. I bet Zuko woke up and blew her away before joining up with his buddies. Other than that, I'm 100% perfectly fine. Never better."

Sokka's sarcasm was nothing new to Aang... but it still annoyed him. Aang sighed and fought hard to stifle the urge to roll his eyes, as well.

"Katara can take care of herself, you know that. Besides, I don't think Zuko would kill her."

"What makes you so sure?"

"It's just this feeling I have. I don't know why, but I think... I think there's something more to them than we see."

"Oooookaaaaay. What's that supposed to mean."

"It's what's been bugging me. More than the chance that Zuko could turn on us, and more than the fact that Katara was caring for him. I would have done the same. I... I think she likes him. I think she might even love him."

"Ugh... please, don't say that. It makes my skin crawl."

"I know you don't want to hear it..."

"No, it's not that. I've been thinking the same thing for a while now. And if you see it too, then that means it might actually be true. I can't have a FIREBENDER for a brother-in-law! How would that even WORK? What if they had kids? Would their kids be, what, steambenders?!"

Sokka shuddered at the thought of children... and what that entailed.

Aang giggled. Little Zuko's wandering around shooting off steam. Well, he always thought Zuko was 75% hot air, anyway.....

"Sokka! I see her!"

-----------------------------------

They had tracked the battalion further up the cliff that overlooked the cove where her father was camped. Apparently, the plan was to bombard them from higher ground while the navy was destroying their ships. They would pick them off, one-by-one.
When Zuko and Katara finally caught up with the soldiers, the sky was darkening. Zuko collapsed next to the underbrush and looked over at the camp.

"That's... only a few of them. These are all archers, and our archers have deadly aim."

Katara couldn't help but hear the note of pride in his voice and her nose wrinkled.

"Well, where are the rest of them?"

"They must be waiting in the trees near your father's camp, ready to pick off any of the stragglers that make it into the woods."

"Damn. What can I do now?"

"Nothing but take these guys out and hope your dad can handle the others."

"I can't believe that! There must be a way to help him more."

At the moment, Aang and Sokka stumbled right on top of them.

"We've been loo..," Sokka started, loudly.

"SHH!"

"We've been looking everywhere for you!" He finished in a fierce whisper.

Katara pointed at the archers, who were all preparing for battle.

"It's them! It's the soldiers your dad said he was tracking. We can take them out here, and all he'll have to worry about is the ships!"

"No, Avatar."

All eyes fell on Zuko, who was straining to speak in a voice that could be heard.

"This is only a small fraction of the battalion. The rest must be in the woods on the coast, waiting for the battle to begin."

Katara looked up at her brother.

"You have to go help Dad. I'll take these guys out. Don't look at me like that! There's only ten of them! You and Aang go take care of the rest of the guys. Dad'll have a better chance at sea if he doesn't have to worry about watching his back!"

"Katara. Look. I'm sorry about leaving you before. I've been dying of guilt at the fact that you could have run into Fire Nation soldiers. You're crazy if you think I'm going to leave you alone here with ten of them!"

A tired voice spoke up.

"She's not alone."

"How can I trust you? You're one of them! You've nearly killed us all a thousand times!"

"Sokka!" Aang said, "Do we have a choice? Your Dad needs us now!"

"Sokka, it'll be fine." Katara touched his arm.

"Fine. Once you've taken care of these guys, I want you two to wait here. We'll come get you after we clean up the rest of the Fire Nation trash."

Sokka walked to where Zuko lay and put his face so close to his that only Zuko could hear.

"If you hurt my sister... in ANY way... you will regret it. I don't care who you are and what power you think you might have. I will hound you to the grave, and beyond if I can. Am I clear?"

"You're pathetic. But don't worry. The waterbender is safe... from me, at least."

Sokka walked to where Katara was seeing Aang off. He hugged his sister.

"What was that for?"

"Nothing. Just... be careful, ok?"

"You, too."

And with that, Aang and Sokka took to the skies once again, leaving Katara alone with Zuko.

"When should we move?" she asked him as she knelt down next to him.

"No time like the present. We need to surprise them and get in close to make their weapons useless. If we can do that, we'll only have to worry about whether they can fight and whether they're firebenders."

She lightly touched his hand and flashed him a wry smile.

"What's this 'we' stuff, Sickie? I'm gonna take 'em out myself!"

She jumped over the brush and into the archers' camp unseen. He stared after her, the surprise on his face turning his features into those of a boy. He looked to the night sky.

The moonless night sky.

Suddenly, it all made sense. Why the fire nation would track a small fleet of waterbenders, baiting them to this cove. Why they would wait to attack at night. Normally, none of this made sense. But tonight, all the cards were in the hands of the Fire Nation.

It was the new moon. The water tribe camped below would have practically no bending abilities.

Which meant that the girl wouldn't either...

-----------------------------------

Katara had two of the archers in her sights. She didn't see any of the others, but she knew picking them off a few at a time made more sense than running headlong into the group. Two on one were better odds than ten on one any day.

She took a deep breath and stepped outside herself. She knew there was no other
way-she had to take them down and make them stay down.

The first one fell easily. Knocking him out was easier than Katara thought it would be. He fell silently, never really knowing what hit him. The second archer nearly made it to the edge of the woods before she struck him down with a well-flung rock. Her aim was deadly as well, it seemed.

She moved to tie the archers up and hide them, but heard footsteps and retreated into the brush, hoping only one or two more were coming.

Her stomach fell when she saw that not one, but all eight remaining archers had entered the clearing. Worse, they saw their fallen comrades and were immediately on the alert.

She knew it was hopeless before she stepping into the clearing, but she did it anyway, loosing the cap of her waterskin as she did. She would at least keep them from attacking her father and brother by distracting them here. She hoped she could stay alive long enough to be of some use to them as she said,

"I am here. Come for me. Kill me if you can!"

Zuko marveled at the girl's stupid bravery. Who in the world takes on eight Fire Nation soldiers head-on by themselves?! He was apparently looking at that person. Her eyes flashed dangerously as she challenged them, and he saw her hand lowered to her waterskin. He closed his eyes and took deep breaths. He couldn't let her die here, after all.

The first thing Katara noticed as she unleashed the ice spear that took out the closest archer was that the water was... sluggish. She could still bend it, but it was being stubborn and fighting against her.

But still, three down, seven to go. She had reduced the odds against her considerably. She grinned and ran towards the remaining group of seven, dodging arrows as she went.

Zuko saw it happen as he stood. As it turned out, one of the archers was a firebender after all. The archer directed lightening at the waterbender as she charged him. She brought her water up as a shield, but it was far too weak to block. The lightening, dampened somewhat by the effects of the water shield, struck her in the chest. She didn't have time to scream before she fell, momentum carrying her, over the cliff's edge.

Finding strength from some hidden reserve he didn't know he had, Zuko charged the group of archers, screaming. He was playing on the chance that the firebender would chose to strike him down with his lightening.

Praying for it, actually.

-----------------------------------

With the help of Aang and Sokka, the army of waterbenders had the small battalion from the Fire Nation on the run. They were wrapping up the small battle in the trees when the lightening caught their eye. A small flash, indeed, but it was a clear night, and it obviously wasn't natural.

As Aang and Sokka rushed to meet Sokka's father with the last of the prisoners on Appa's back, they saw an even brighter flash of lightening, and realized it was coming from the place they had left Katara. How long ago had it been since they left? Minutes? Hours? It was hard to tell in battle when 2 minutes seemed like 2 years.

-----------------------------------

As Zuko reached the firebending archer, his prayer came true. The archer unleashed another bout of lightening, and barely had time enough to regret it.

Zuko grabbed the archer's hand as the lightening was released and redirected it to the other archers. Unprepared and with no defense, each of the remaining six fell dead.

The lightening archer jumped back.

"That's a foul trick, boy. Who in the hell are you?"

"You should bow before me, you slime. I am your prince."

The light of realization sparked in the archer's eyes.

"Prince... Zuko? It is you! You filthy, honorless traitor. I'll be dead before I bow to you."

"So be it."

Zuko hit the archer with all he had in him, hoping it was enough, knowing he couldn't muster anything else with which to attack. The giant wave of fire that emitted from Zuko's punch knocked the archer off his balance for just a split second.

That was enough for Zuko.

He barreled toward the archer through his own wave of fire and landed a fireball punch in his stomach. The archer screamed and went over the cliff to the rocky water below.

Zuko fell to his knees at the edge of the cliff and realized that she was gone, too. The waterbender who had nursed him back to life. The girl who had moved his hardened heart. She had died fighting to protect her family, not to uphold any abstract or misguided sense of honor. Just to protect those she loved.

Again, Zuko was reminded of his mother and hot, steaming tears began to flow down his cheeks. He was scared of them at first; it had been so long since a true emotion other than anger had permeated him, but then he accepted his grief and looked down to where he imagined Katara had fallen.

-----------------------------------

Aang and Sokka flew as swiftly as Appa could carry them to the place where they had last seen Katara. They all feared the worst.

In the horizon, the first sparks of the sea battle lit the blackness of night.

-----------------------------------

Zuko stared in shock. This girl must have a god looking over her, he thought.

Katara hadn't fallen, as he thought. By some miraculous twist of fate, the bedroll that she kept on her back had caught a stray root. It had kept her from falling... but it wasn't going to hold.

Zuko saw that she was breathing, and he called to her, desperate for her to wake up before it was too late. She had saved his life; he couldn't watch her drop to her death.

"Hey!! GIRL!! Wake up! Wake UP, dammit!! OPEN YOUR EYES!!!"

She stirred, but didn't move or open her eyes. To Zuko's horror, she began to slip further down the branch.

"Waterbender! WAKE UP! You can't die here...... KATARA!!!"

She heard her name, and thankfully, opened her eyes. He saw the fear in them and called to her.

"Calm down, Katara. Look up. I can reach you if you hold out your hand. Just reach."

Their fingers touched as she reached up, and then their hands gripped. He started to pull her up, but he felt her grip slipping almost immediately.

"Katara!! Don't let go... use your ice!!"

She looked at him quizzically for the briefest of moments, and then guided her reluctant store of water to join their hands together in a large block of ice.

Zuko pulled her with all his might, but exhaustion had taken its toll. He was running a fever and hadn't eaten the entire day. The stores he found to fight the archers had all but disappeared.

Just as Zuko was preparing himself for a long drop and a (hopefully) quick death, a welcome blast of strong wind shot them both straight into the air. He found himself face to face with her... with Katara.

Just as Katara was preparing herself to melt the ice and fall to the rocks, she felt a blast of wind from below and thanked Aang. She and the prince were pushed far above the ocean, amongst the clouds. For a moment it felt like she was flying and she found herself face to face with Zuko.

III

"I see her, Aang! There! On the cliff. Hurry!"

Sokka's eyes widened in terror as he saw his sister dangling above the rocky coast below. Terror melted into shock as he saw why she hadn't fallen yet.

Zuko was pulling her up. He was actually trying to save her. But even from his distance, Sokka could see that Zuko was fighting a losing battle with gravity.

"Aang...!"

"I'm on it, Sokka!"

With a wave of his arm, Aang sent a giant column of air to lift them away from the cliff and hold them there until Appa could reach them.

High above the earth, the two benders looked at each other. Just a few weeks ago, they would have happily fought to the death of one or the other. Tonight, they suddenly found themselves risking everything to protect one another. It was all too strange.

Katara was the first to blush and break their gaze. She coughed nervously and looked down.

Bad idea, she thought, and decided up was the best direction to look after all.

Katara felt water run down her arm and realized that Zuko was melting the ice she had made to keep her from losing her grip.

Of course, she thought, he doesn't want to spend more time with me than he has to.

They both watched the ice melt silently away. When it was gone, Zuko dropped Katara's hand. He reached up and let his fingertips glide over her cheek. It was a softness Katara never expected he had in him.

Slowly, Katara met his gaze. He still hadn't said anything, so she felt the need to fill the void with anything... something.

"Zuko... so... th-thanks for... "

"Katara, shhh. Save it. Consider us even."

Zuko pulled Katara close. Her heart was beating so hard that she knew he could hear it.

"O-oh. Ok..."

"Didn't I tell you to be quiet?"

Zuko leaned in towards Katara. Katara met him halfway.

To Zuko, the kiss was cool and represented everything that was right in the world. In it, he saw happiness and a serene life. He didn't want to let go.

To Katara, the kiss was fiery. She felt the thrill of danger and going outside the lines of convention. She saw a greater life than she had lived, and wanted more. She didn't want to let go.

Sokka and Aang watched this as they rapidly approached Katara and Zuko. When the two kissed, Sokka's face twisted in anger and Aang pulled back on the reins. Appa came to a stop, and so did the column of air that was supporting the two once-enemies in the air.

Their kiss was cut short as they plummeted down toward the violent sea.

They were caught unceremoniously on Appa's saddle.

"What... in.... the... HELL... were... you... thinking?! I ought to kill you where you stand you insignificant... little..."

But Katara had touched Zuko's arm, and Zuko cut his tirade short.

"I'm sure it was an accident, right Aang?"

"Sure, Katara. An accident."

Katara didn't like the sullen tone in the Avatar's voice or the way her brother hadn't looked at either of them yet. She knew that they had to have seen the kiss (she blushed just to think of it), and she knew that neither of them would be happy with it, but...

Sokka scared her more when he was quiet than when he was yelling. She knew that when her brother was quiet, there would be hell to pay for it later.

"Anyway, how's Dad?!"

"Sokka and I wiped out the firebender soldiers that were on land, so that's a plus. There's still the navy to worry about, though. From here, it just looks hopeless, especially with the new moon."

"It's not hopeless, Aang." Sokka spoke in a menacing growl, "I'm gonna give them their prince back in exchange for leaving us alone. That's the plan."

"Sokka, no!" Katara cried.

Zuko cut her off.

"You really are pathetic! What makes you think they'll take me and just go away? What do you think I am to them? I'm not a hostage to be negotiated for! To them.. I'm just... a traitor, that's all they see. They'll laugh in your face and stick a fireball in your gut for your troubles."

"We'll see, won't we?"

"I won't let you take him!"

"You don't know what you want, Katara. He's going to be our bargaining chip. Aang!"

Aang hesitated, looking from Katara to Sokka.

"Sokka, are you sure?" Aang asked.

"YES! Now DO IT!"

Aang swayed his arms gently from side to side and pointed at Zuko to direct a gentle breeze toward him. The breeze stole the air from Zuko, and he fell unconscious.

"Is he dead?!" Katara asked frantically.

"Not yet." Sokka responded. Katara saw Zuko's breathing resume as Aang jumped to bind him with rope.

"Sokka, this is low. This is beyond low. I didn't think you were capable of... of... this! You're sending him to his death if this works and you're walking to your own if it doesn't!"

"I don't want to hear anything from you. You're calling me low? You're in... in LOVE with a filthy firebender. His people KILLED our mother and they're working on finishing off our dad RIGHT NOW. How can you even look at him without wanting him dead? But no, you... you KISSED him!"

"Zuko didn't kill our parents. Sokka, this is ridiculous. Let him go. He can hide in the woods, get better, and leave. He can get away from the Fire Nation and we can go help Dad fight. Sokka, please!"

"Katara. Do you want our father dead?"

"No, Sokka!"

"Then why don't you want to help him? You think this is cruel? I think it's war. When you have the upper hand, you use it when you can. The ends ALWAYS justify the means, Katara."

Her brother wasn't moving. He was a solid as an earthbender in his conviction. She realized that, at that moment, she was more afraid of her brother and what he was capable of than any firebenders. His last words, the ends always justify the means, rang in her head as they flew silently towards the Fire Nation ships ahead.

Aang met Katara's gaze briefly, but couldn't hold it for long. He was just as ashamed of himself as Katara was angry at Sokka.

-----------------------------------

The Fire Nation general saw the flying bison well before it landed. Its riders were an interesting crew. Two of the Water Tribe and the Avatar. They were flying the flag of truce. Apparently, they had something to say for themselves.

"Sir? Should I shoot them down?"

"No. I want to see what they have to say for themselves. This could be amusing. I never mind a good laugh before a nice slaughter."

The bison landed with surprising agility on the deck. The Water Tribe boy jumped off the saddle and the Avatar stayed on the bison's head, presumably covering him.

"Hi there. Hey everybody. Who's, ahhh, who's in charge of this whole death machine?" the Water Tribe boy asked with a frustrating level of impudence.

"I am. Say what you have come to say before I lose patience and kill you all." The general expected to see fear enter the cool eyes of the Water Tribe boy, but he was sorely disappointed. This wasn't as amusing as he thought it would be. If they didn't scream before they died, they weren't any fun.

"Look. I know that there's this whole war thing going on, and your objective is to, oh, kill off the other guys. I respect that sort of dogged warrior thing. The only problem here is that this time, the other guy is us, and I have a serious issue with dying. So, I think I can solve this whole hostile takeover thing pretty easily for both of us."

"On with it, boy. You're working my nerves!"

"Ok, I see you're not into long negotiations. The short of it is that we have something I'm sure you want. We'll give it to you if you go away. Say the Avatar overpowered you or something. We all know he can."

The Avatar used a bit if airbending to lower Zuko to the deck of the ship.

"The Prince! Oh, you have brought me quite a lovely gift, boy. The Fire Lord will appreciate his son's return."

The girl, who was still in the beast's saddle called down, "What'll happen to him? What are you going to do?!"

The general's eyes narrowed into slits.

"Relax, little girl. He's in no danger... from me. Until we reach the Fire Nation, he'll be treated with... civility."

The general laughed at that.

"Boy, you have a deal. We'll retreat and wait to tear the Water Tribe apart another day. In the meantime, we have precious cargo to tend to."

Sokka looked triumphantly up at his sister.

"In the Fire Nation, we shake on our deals."

Sokka practically strutted up to the general, he was so proud of himself.

The general took his hand, and to his shock, pulled Sokka forward.

"Like we'd turn tail just for this whelp of a prince!" He shouted and shot fire directly into Sokka's torso. The blast was so sudden that there was nothing anyone could do.

Sokka fell to the deck.

"SOKKA!" Katara screamed.

Faster than could be believed, the Avatar leapt to the deck and shot Sokka's body to Appa's saddle.

"Take care of him, Katara." That voice was Aang's... and it wasn't.

Katara held her brother's body and looked at the Avatar. His arrow tattoos were glowing. She couldn't see his eyes, but she knew they were glowing white as well.

He was in his Avatar state. There was no turning this rage until it had gone its course. Katara gathered the reins and yelled, "Appa! Yip, yip!"

On the ship, the general looked at the Avatar with surprise and mounting terror. He hadn't believed the stories; he had been too proud to believe this could happen to him.

"So... you think it's fun to burn people?! You're gonna love this then!"

The Avatar leapt into the air, rising on a column of fire.

The Water Tribe and the Fire Nation stopped their battle at the sight of this awesome power. The Water Tribe, thinking it was a new weapon against them, lowered their heads. The Fire Nation soldiers, thinking this power was sent by their general, cheered.

The column began shooting out giant waves of fire at the sea skirmish. The Fire Nation soldiers didn't realize it was attacking only them until it was too late to fight back. In moments, the entire fleet, save one ship, was obliterated. The screams of the dying soldiers were horrible to witness, enemies or not.

The Water Tibe pulled back to the shore to tally their losses and get away from that horrible, cruel fire. They watched it die down to nothing and vanish.

The Avatar, still in the Avatar State, landed neatly back on the general's deck.

"Did that amuse you, General, Sir? Did it make you smile? Remember this day; take it back to the Fire Lord with you and let him know that I am coming swiftly behind. Tell him to say his goodbyes!"

Before the general could comment, the Avatar had taken to the skies again.

-----------------------------------

Back on shore, Katara was trying desparately to heal her brother through her tears. His breath had become ragged and shallow and he was bleeding badly. The wound was so large that she couldn't cover all of it with her power alone. She couldn't stop the bleeding.

He was dying.

Silently, the Avatar landed beside her. He placed his hand with the still-glowing arrow tattoo over hers.

"Concentrate, Katara. We can both save him if you do."

Katara nodded and her tears ceased. A bright light eminated from their joined hands and spread to cover Sokka's entire body. The wounds disappeared, and, gasping for air, they both fell back.

Katara looked over at Aang, who was, for now, just Aang again.

"He's still not breathing! It didn't work!!"

"No, look." Aang said tiredly.

Indeed, the rise and fall motion of Sokka's chest became deeper and more regular. She watched in happiness as her brother coughed, weakly at first, and then more strongly.

Katara held Aang and wept, tears of joy this time, as Sokka sat up and asked groggily, "What happened?"

Katara and Aang both laughed out loud. That sound was music to their ears. There hadn't been much laughing in the past few weeks.

"We'll explain later. Aang, where's Zuko?" Katara asked.

"Still... on the boat."

Katara jumped to her feet and ran to the edge of the shore. She looked out at the one Fire Nation ship that had escaped the Avatar's fury. It was already setting sail. She scanned the deck, looking for Zuko, needing to make sure he was alive.

"We can still go get him, Katara." A weak voice called out to her. Sokka's.

"No. He has to face what he's been running from all these years if he's ever going to become... complete."

"But... you love him, don't you?"

"Yes... Well, I think I do. But I don't think he can love anyone back until he's tested himself against his father. He has to heal his wounds before he's ready for that."

-----------------------------------

On the deck of the ship, Zuko awoke to the hustling of the crew as they rushed to leave the place of their downfall. Someone had stopped long enough to remove his bindings, so he stood, shaky at first, and then, when he was more sure of himself, he walked to the bow of the ship.

He coud see her from where he stood. She was getting smaller and smaller on the horizon as the ship brought him the first few feet towards his destiny.

"I will come back for you. When I have regained my honor on my own terms, I will come for you. Wait and see!"

Zuko shouted this so everyone could hear. They stopped for a moment and all eyes were on him as he shot flames into the eerie light of early dawn.

-----------------------------------

Miles away, on the beach, Katara heard his cry and saw the flames; she knew he lived. She knew he would overcome his father, no, himself and come back to her. What happened after that was still unknown, but she looked forward to finding out.

Two sets of eyes stared at each other over the quickly-growing expanse of ocean. One set belonged to a Water Tribe girl, and the other belonged to the once-prince of the Fire Nation.

Both sets of eyes were clear and dry, sure in the conviction that they would overcome their destinies and see each other once again.

Slowly, the sun rose on a new day.
>>
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