Both thrown beneath the city of Ba Sing Se, Zuko and Katara face each other and for the first time aren't really enemies. This is my attempt to recreate one of the brief scenes in book 2 chapter 20...
Not that it mattered.
They were both left down there to rot - to die, forgotten and unfound. Zuko knew that if they were lucky something would come along from the depths of the caverns and eat them first.
If they were unlucky, they'd simply starve.
The would-be Prince tried not to think about that, just like he tried not to think about anything else. He just stood there staring ahead at the glowing stones and trying to ignore the way that the shadows curled inward on themselves in the darkest corners. He could hear his own breath, quiet and slow. He could hear his own heart beating at the same, steady rhythm.
He could also hear Katara behind him; her crying had stopped at his last words, and her breathing wasn't as ragged as earlier. But she still hadn't yet said anything else.
He hadn't either, but he didn't have anything else to say.
"..I'm sorry I yelled at you before."
Zuko was almost surprised to hear her say that so soon. Almost. He looked down at the floor.
"It doesn't matter," he murmured. He half expected her to not even catch the words.
But maybe she did. "It's just that.. for so long now, whenever I would imagine the face of the enemy.." Zuko couldn't help but feel that .. odd stab, somewhere in his gut, in his chest, when she says the word. Even if it were true. He tried to not look back at her. "...it was your face."
There was a lingering ache somewhere deep below the skin's surface, but otherwise Zuko couldn't even feel it when he reached up to touch the scar. It was an automatic gesture. It was one he'd never get rid of, not after living with it - with its curse - for so long. He knew that his fingers were calloused from years of sword practice, and from years of exposure to the high heats of fire bending. He knew that they were rough, but except for that light pin prickling he couldn't even feel their press. The dead, scarred skin gave him nothing but a memory.
He heard Katara step forward, then, even though he still kept his back turned. Only.. this time her voice had changed. She wasn't angry, like earlier, She wasn't quite apologetic, either. She almost sounded.. guilty. "No, no-- No, that's not what I meant."
"It's okay," he just, letting his hand drop back to his side. "I used to think that this scar marked me - the mark of a banished prince, cursed to chase the Avatar forever. But lately.." Lately a lot of things have been happening. Lately a lot of things had been changing. Lately.. "I've realized that I'm free to determine my own destiny."
It was hard to continue, but he had to. Things always seemed more real once he'd said them out loud. "Even if I'll never be free of my mark."
Zuko hadn't expected her quick response.
"Maybe you could be free of it!"
He finally turned toward her, not quite understanding - or not quite willing to believe - what she meant. "..What?"
Hands outstretched, she explained, "I have healing abilities." The way she said it, it made it sound like that would solve everything. That she could fix everything that had gone wrong in the past. That she could wash away the pain and the memories and the mark within that was even worse than the one on his face.
He couldn't let himself hope for all of that so easily. His mark had come at a very high price; it'd take something just as strong, just as significant, to remove it. "It's a scar," he said, his voice flat. "It can't be healed."
But then Katara pulled something out from underneath her tunic, something small and hung on a thin tether. He couldn't make out what the necklace was in the dim lighting, but it seemed to be important to her. Somehow. It glimmered in the ambient light as she stepped toward him - and for once she did so as if he weren't some horrible enemy that she ought to kill on sight, as if he were anyone, or maybe even as if he were a friend.
"This is water from the spirit oasis at the North Pole. It has special properties.." Katara stopped just in front of him. The pendant dangled from her hand, held outstretched so that he could see it. He only watched her face. "..so I've been saving it for something important."
Zuko felt his breath catch; he just managed to keep his eyes - no, really, it was just his one good eye - from widening. It was too much to hope for, too much to think that the girl who had every other time tried to kill him on sight might actually.. just this once.. want to help him. Help him.
Or someone important.
Katara kept talking, either oblivious or uncaring of his hesitation. "I don't know if it would work, but.." And then she trailed off and just stood there looking up at him, too. It was dark in the underground city, and the viridian glow let off by the luminescent stones was faint, but in spite of it all Zuko could still make out just how blue her eyes were. Everyone from the Water Nation had those azure eyes - or so Uncle Iroh had told him once, some time long ago before he'd been banished - but he'd never seen any that were bluer than hers. Especially right then.
The pendant still dangled from her hand between them. Zuko caught one last glimpse of it - and even its blue paled in comparison - before he closed his eyes.
She'd shown him trust in the way she had looked at him earlier - and in the way that she had offered to use her special water to heal him. To heal his /scar/. It was hard, but he knew he also had to show her trust in return.
Trust that she'd help him. Trust that she could. Trust that he really wanted it, deep within.
Zuko's cheek prickled, and for a moment it felt like the scarred skin around his left eye was just asleep. There was the dull, icy stick of pins and needles, like long-cut off circulation was just being restored. He'd felt that a million times before, whenever he reached up to touch the mark himself, but it never really felt quite like this. Never this.. gentle. Never this careful.
He wanted to open his eyes, to step back, to pull her hand away and tell her, 'Stop.' He wanted to do any number of things to get away from this, except-
Except that he wanted to think that things had changed - really changed, for him and within him. He held still, feeling but not quite feeling the light brush of Katara's fingertips on his cheek, and the low heat of her palm beside his jaw, and the accidental brush of her thumb against his lip.
And - for just the span of a breath - time stood still.
It was almost like that one night, not a few weeks earlier, when he'd lit every lantern in a forgotten corner of Ba Sing Se, just so that Jin could see the fountain reflect flame and stars alike. Only now their forgotten courtyard was deep below the city, instead of down some seldom-used road, and instead of stars and lanterns, they had a ring of hewn stones sharing their soft glow. And instead of a fountain, they had shadows playing in the corners, and water swirling within Katara's pendant.
It was almost like that one night.. but not quite. That had been.. /nice/, but this was..
This was even nicer.
This was what he had really wanted - what he had always wanted.
Zuko could still feel Katara's hand pressed against his cheek when he took his next breath. He started to speak-- he had to tell her, because it was /important/, but right then the spell was broken and time crushed forward.
The wall to their left exploded inward, and - as one - the two turned while dust swept in and rocky lights shattered, and neither of them knew if it were friend or foe until things started to clear in the gloom, and then-
Zuko felt a jab of pain in his cheek when he heard her say the Avatar's name, even though her hand had long since fallen away. It only grew worse when he saw how she smiled, and how she rushed forward to hug him- to hug Aang, the Avatar/, the one who Zuko's entire honor had rested on and who always had evaded him. And the way that Aang smiled and hugged her back only made the pain worse, and /somehow he also felt it much deeper within.
He barely even registered his uncle as Iroh rushed forward to embrace him, too. All Zuko could see was the way that Aang glared across the chamber at him, and at the way that Katara had so quickly turned away. And forgotten.
It was almost too much.
It was too much.
Zuko glared back. Right then, he knew that being unlucky had nothing to do with starving to death - just as he knew that no sunlight was needed to show him his path in this forgotten city. His fire would be more than enough.