Categories > Cartoons > Avatar: The Last Airbender > Rescue Me

Sickness and Health

by hootowl 1 review

legend is based on the vietnamese legend "the beach boy."

Category: Avatar: The Last Airbender - Rating: G - Genres: Drama - Characters: Katara,Zuko - Warnings: [?] - Published: 2013-05-25 - Updated: 2013-05-30 - 8723 words

0Unrated
It was decided that Iroh was well enough to start across the desert. They’d spent nearly two weeks in one spot and it was becoming more and more difficult to find food—and Katara really wanted a new skirt or something that wasn’t bloodstained. Katara made one last sweep of the small cabin for any items they might have overlooked during their packing before shouldering her back and stepping out of the cabin. Iroh stood, calmly watching Zuko saddle Feathers and strap their nearly empty packs behind the saddle. He turned from Zuko’s fussing to smile at her as she approached. “All ready, Miss Katara?”

Katara nodded, handing her pack to Zuko when he held out his hand for it. Iroh turned back to his study of his nephew. Zuko secured Katara’s pack then ran a soothing hand down the bird’s neck feathers, murmuring something too low for either Katara or Iroh to hear. Iroh’s thoughtful expression cleared when Zuko finally dropped his hand and cleared his throat, saying, “You should ride, Uncle.”

“Oh, no,” Iroh protested immediately, “I would not make a young lady walk when I am perfectly able to walk myself.”

Katara spoke up before Zuko could formulate a response, “Uncle, you are still recovering. You should ride. Zuko and I will trade walking times.”

Iroh gave his nephew a significant look and approached the ostrich horse. “Very well. Someone will have to help me up.”

With a put upon sigh, Zuko cupped his hands and allowed his uncle to use him as a mounting block. Iroh settled in the saddle with a low groan, patting Zuko’s shoulder to reassure he was fine. Zuko looked at his uncle for a moment longer before he turned to Katara. He held out his hand, moving to lift her into the saddle before quickly changing his mind and instead offering her a step up like he had for his uncle. Katara settled into the saddle in front of Iroh, missing the older man’s beaming smile. “I am pleased to see that not all of your manners are gone, Zuko.”

A blush rose to Zuko’s cheeks and he quickly turned away, muttering, “Let’s go.”

The first half of the day passed in silence. The sun made its way across the sky and they were fortunate their path was mostly in the shade of a canyon wall. When it appeared to Iroh that neither of his companions were going to offer a topic of conversation, he decided to broach one himself. “Did you know, Miss Katara, that that is a betrothal necklace?”

Surprised at the sudden topic of conversation, Katara’s hand automatically went to the pendant and she glanced over her shoulder at the retired general. “It is?”

Iroh nodded, ignoring Zuko’s quiet groan, and adopted what Zuko called his ‘lecture tone.’ “Oh, yes. They are a custom in the Northern Tribes. When a young woman turns sixteen, her suitor carves a necklace and presents it to his beloved as a sign of their union.”

A frown creased her forehead. “I didn’t know.”

“No?” Iroh queried, stroking his beard thoughtfully. “Not surprising, really. It is a custom for your sister tribe after all. I’m not aware of arranged marriages occurring in the Southern Tribes.”

Katara looked surprised, darting a glance at Zuko. “Arranged marriages?”

“Yes,” Iroh affirmed. “They are quite common among the royals and nobility of the nations. It is rather unusual that the Southern Tribes don’t follow the tradition.”

Katara’s expression soured and she scowled at the deserted landscape around them. “That’s barbaric.”

Iroh laughed. “I suppose it could be. It works well enough for the Fire Nation.”

“Are you saying all arranged marriages are happy?”

Zuko snorted, his own expression fierce. “They’re not.”

He fell back behind them and said no more. Iroh sighed sadly. “Not all arranged marriages work out and divorce is difficult to obtain.”

“Is Zuko betrothed?”

Iroh eyed her curiously. “Are you interested, Miss Katara?”

She couldn’t stop the heated blush that rose to her cheeks. “Just curious.”

He said nothing for a long minute until finally admitting quietly, “He was, but his banishment has no doubt nullified that contract. The young lady is most likely betrothed to another now.”

“Oh,” Katara said quietly, glancing discretely back at Zuko. “Is he upset about that?”

Iroh, too, glanced back at his nephew. “I don’t believe so. When he was banished he was still at the age where boys think girls are gross. He’s never mentioned it.”

Katara seemed to mull over that thought before finally asking, “Was she beautiful?”

“Who, Miss Katara?”

She blushed, quickly ducking her head to hide her cheeks. “Zuko’s betrothed.”

Iroh hummed in understanding. “I cannot say. She was very young when we left and I have not seen her in many years. Her mother was an attractive woman.”

Zuko was surprisingly silent during this conversation and Katara looked back to see if he was still following. The younger firebender had dropped back several paces, his eyes averted as he scanned their surroundings though she noticed a definite flush to his cheeks. Iroh seemed finished with that line of conversation and was back to contemplating his previous thoughts. “I wonder how you received it.”

She touched the stone, drawing comfort from it. “It was my mother’s.”

Iroh seemed content to ignore the explanation and raised his voice, addressing his nephew, “Zuko, didn’t you give Miss Katara that betrothal necklace?”

Zuko’s head whipped to look aghast at his uncle just as his food caught a protruding stone. He tripped, stumbling over his feet, arms flinging out in an awkward attempt to regain his balance. His voice came out surprised, cracking halfway through the word. “What?”

Iroh ignored him, tucking his hands into his sleeves. “I wonder what it means when a firebender gives a waterbender a betrothal necklace.”

Zuko sputtered, hurrying to catch up with the ostrich horse. “I did not give her a betrothal necklace.” Iroh smiled indulgently and Zuko returned a scowl, insisting, “I returned it.”

“Of course, nephew,” the retired general allowed.

They rounded a bend, coming upon a small settlement that grew up around a small oasis. They were greeted with some degree of suspicion, but were shown to a small inn with no further hostility. Katara looked around with interest. It seemed that every settlement they’d come across had the same weathered, dilapidated appearance. Iroh slid down from the saddle with a quiet groan, waving away Zuko’s movements to help. “We must find a way to pay for our stay.”

Zuko groaned. “You’re not going to sing again, are you?”

Interested, Katara looked at them. “You sing, Uncle?”

“Of course I do, Miss Katara. Zuko does as well, when I can convince him to overcome his shyness. It was a rare treat on Music Night—”

“Uncle!”

Katara laughed. “I didn’t know that. Did you sing with Boa and the others?”

Color spread across his cheeks and he brushed by her, roughly taking the reins from her hand. “No.”

He quickly made his escape and Iroh let a hand fall to her shoulder. “Don’t worry, my dear, he’ll sing for you one day.”

There was a commotion on the street, drawing their attention. A woman was hurrying after an elderly man, her hand grasping at a loose sleeve, begging, “Please. You can’t leave yet. What am I supposed to do?”

He sighed, pausing long enough to set down his bag and untangle her fingers from his sleeve. She latched on with her other hand and Katara could clearly see tears rising in her eyes. He spoke too quietly for them to hear over the buzz of whispers, but the woman’s exclamation of denial rose sharply, “You can’t. You’re a doctor!”

He finally managed to untangle her hands and grasp both of them in his. He looked weary as he spoke, sounding like he’d already said the same thing several times before, “I’m sorry, Yun. There’s nothing further I can do for the boy. I’ve left something for pain and a sedative…for the end.”

He released her hands and she let them drop listlessly to her sides, her expression lost. “But—That can’t be all.”

The doctor turned away, avoiding looking at her as he picked up his bag and started away. “There are others who need me.”

She followed close behind, defeat in every line of her body. “So you’re abandoning us?”

“There’s nothing I can do for a patient that is already dead.”

Yun stopped, hands fisting angrily, her head jerking as she snapped, “He’s not dead yet!”

“The infection is in the blood now,” the doctor said patiently, leveling her a resigned look. “He may as well be.”

Her mouth twisted bitterly and she didn’t stop him when he gave her a short bow, murmuring, “My condolences.”

Yun made no further attempts to halt the doctor’s departure. The onlookers resumed their own business and Iroh sighed quietly beside Katara. Katara turned, eyes immediately going to his healing shoulder. He smiled, shaking his head. “It’s a sad thing when a young life is cut so short.”

She glanced back at Yun where she lingered despondently. “Is there really nothing that can be done?”

Iroh shook his head, a frown marring his usually cheerful features. “No.” He paused suddenly, giving her a thoughtful look. “Unless—It’s possible you could find the infection, Miss Katara.”

She looked surprised, biting her lip uncertainly, indecision making her hesitate. Iroh’s hand fell to her shoulder and he smiled. “Go on. I’ll tell Zuko where you are. He’ll come find you.”

A final glance in the direction Zuko had taken and her jaw firmed. She nodded to Iroh and hurried after the woman, catching up to her before she had taken more than a handful of steps away. “I’m sorry, I couldn’t help overhearing…”

She trailed off, shifting awkwardly. Pale green eyes gave her a frank once over, lips pressing together. “I don’t see how that could have anything to do with you.”

Katara was momentarily taken aback by the obvious skepticism in Yun’s voice and the not-so-subtle glance around the street. Katara felt her ears burn, but she stubbornly set her chin. “I have some healing ability.”

“You’re kind of young and you’re not from around here.”

“My…group are refugees. We’re heading to Ba Sing Se. I’m a waterbender.”

Yun glanced once more around the street before sighing and motioning for Katara to follow her. “I suppose it can’t hurt. I live just around the corner.”

Katara followed nervously, surprised when the woman lead her to a small house, ushering her into the cool interior with a polite, “Do you need anything?”

She wet her lips, glancing around at the sturdy table and chairs and reeds drying from the beams in the ceiling. “Water, please.” Yun reached for a clay cup and Katara shook her head. “No, a bucket. If you have one.”

Confused, Yun did as she was asked then motioned to a room off the main room. “This way.”

Herbs and infection assaulted her nose as she stepped through the bedroom door. Yun was leaning over a small figure in the bed, brushing damp hair off a sweating forehead. Katara approached, her eyes scanning the prone form. It was a boy, no more than eight, seeping bandages wound around his torso and down his left arm. Her stomach turned at the sight, but she clamped her jaw and released a quiet breath through her nose. Pale eyes turned to her, waiting for instruction.

“First, the bandages have to come off. I need to see what I’m doing.”

They worked in relative silence, Katara only occasionally directing Yun to replace the water. The infection was deep in the boy’s body, infecting organs and poisoning everything it touched. Gradually, Yun told her what happened.

“It was a wild animal. Boys will be boys, you know, and without the older men around to provide a strong example, they get up to mischief. The boys decided to try their hand at hunting.”

Katara tossed away dirty water, grimacing at its murky appearance and darting a quick look at the other woman. She was staring at the boy, deep lines of worry and fatigue around her eyes. Katara turned her attention back to healing. “What were they hunting?”

Yun’s lips quirked. “I imagine the usual things. Lizards. The occasional rabbit.”

Yun fell silent when she noticed Katara’s look of concentration, waiting until her brow relaxed and she pulled the water away to continue. Katara motioned to the gradually healing wound. “That doesn’t look like a rabbit or a lizard.”

“There have been rumored sightings of a rabid desert fox.”

Katara gasped, immediately turning her attention elsewhere, fingers probing the air over the boy’s head and working her way down his body. “How many days has it been since symptoms appeared?”

“Just a few. No more than three, but it’s gotten worse. We’ve had to sedate him”

They fell silent and Katara worked quickly, finally drawing out the last of the infection and healing the damage it’d done to the body. She did another sweeping check of his blood and organs before sitting back. “He’ll have to sweat out the rest, but I think he’ll be okay. It’s difficult to say until he regains consciousness. The doctor did the best he could.” She paused to let those words sink in before quietly adding, “You shouldn’t blame him.”

Yun pursed her lips, looking skeptical. Katara cleaned the space, dumping dirtied water out the window. When she turned back to the bed, Yun was stroking hair away from her son’s forehead. “He’ll recover completely?”

She hesitated, uncertain. “That is the hope.”

Yun smiled widely, tears in her eyes. “Thank you. Are you okay?”

Katara suddenly felt exhausted and she slumped in her chair. All she wanted to do was sleep. Her vision swam and she pressed the heels of her palms against her eyes. She hoped healing would get easier with time. Passing out after every session didn’t sound like a good way to spend her time. Yun hovered anxiously over Katara, but a knock at the front door took her out of the room. She left quickly with a concerned look at Katara. Alone, Katara watched the boy breathe quietly, his rest easy. He’d probably wake by morning though he’d be much too weak to get out of bed. The murmur of voices moved from the door to the bedroom and then a familiar voice greeted her, “There you are.”

Katara turned in surprise. “Lee!”

Zuko glanced beyond her to the bed, a slight frown pulling at his lips before gold eyes returned to her, taking in her obvious fatigue. “I came to tell you that we’re on our way.”

“We’re not staying?” she asked, disappointed that she wouldn’t be able to sleep in a bed for one night.

The firebender shook his head, his own disappointment clear. “No. Uncle was unable to entice enough people with his singing and he is not well enough to dance.”

Katara smiled, lifting a brow. “Did you help him at all or did you glower at everyone who glanced in your direction?”

He looked mildly affronted by her words before his eyes narrowed. He was on the point of replying when Yun spoke up, “Oh! Please stay. At least for the night. I know there are others who would like to see Master Katara. The herder’s boy broke his arm yesterday. I’m sure he’d appreciate you looking at it.”

Zuko looked surprised by the offer, stumbling on his response, cheeks reddening, “I—We are unable to rent a room.”

Yun shook her head, brushing off his concerns. “You may stay here. My husband and oldest sons are gone so there is plenty of room. My daughter’s about Master Katara’s size. I think we might have some spare clothing. It looks like you could use some.”

Katara blushed, fingering the frayed edge of her skirt. “We wouldn’t want to inconvenience you and your family.”

“Nonsense. You’ve done more than I could ever hope.”

Yun brushed a hand over the young boy’s head with a teary smile. Katara nodded her acceptance, turning to Zuko. “I don’t think Uncle should spend another night out in the elements. He’s still healing, after all.”

Zuko gave in with a sigh and a muffled cough, turning to retrieve his uncle from whatever corner he chose to stand on and assault the ears of passersby. Yun showed Katara to the bathhouse, leaving her to refresh herself while Yun returned to the house to prepare dinner.

.........

Katara had never thought a bath would be so wonderful. The water was wonderfully cool against her heated skin and she sank down in the water until it came up to her nose. She hummed happily, watching the ripples wave across the surface. It felt like weeks since she was last clean. When her fingers started looking pruney, she decided it was probably time to return to the house and see if Zuko and Iroh had arrived. Iroh needed his bandages changed and probably could use another healing session. She did a quick wash of her clothes—scowling when they appeared no cleaner than they’d been before—and pulled them on again. Katara returned from the bathhouse to find Iroh seated comfortably at Yun’s table, a cup of tea steaming in his hand and a broad smile on his face. He brightened when he saw her, setting the cup down and motioning to the chair next to him, exclaiming, “Miss Katara! Come, sit. You look exhausted.”

A quick scan of the room proved Zuko’s absence. “Where’s Lee?”

Iroh lifted his cup again, hiding a smile behind the rim. “He volunteered to accompany Miss Yun to the market to pick some things up. They should be back shortly.”

Sure enough, the front door swung open and Yun entered with Zuko trailing sluggishly behind. He was looking paler than usual. Katara frowned and opened her mouth to question him when he shot her a narrow look and scowled. Her mouth snapped shut and she scowled right back, ignoring Iroh’s stifled snicker. Yun bustled around her modest kitchen, settling various dishes on the table and glancing out the door. A moment later a young girl hurried in, flushing brightly when she saw that her mother had company.

“Sorry I’m late, Mama,” she trailed off, staring wide-eyed at Zuko.

Yun brushed her hands on her skirts, smiling. “This is Cam, my daughter. Cam, Mushu, Lee, and Katara are staying here for the night. With Katara’s help, Akamu will recover.”

Green eyes hardly moved from Zuko to acknowledge the other two and Yun quietly cleared her throat to regain her daughter’s attention. Cam blushed brightly, hurrying past Zuko to help her mother in the kitchen. The table was soon set and dinner was served in a friendly manner. Iroh pretended not to notice his nephew’s uncomfortable expression as Cam stared avidly, flushing brightly when they made eye contact and quickly looking away again. Katara watched the interaction uncertainly, her stomach twisting uncomfortably when Zuko eyes would linger on the other girl. Yun didn’t seem affected by any of the activities at her table, chatting amiably about events of the day.

“You’re good looking. Even with that scar. Are you married?”

The sudden question caught everyone by surprise. Yun gasped, quickly reprimanding her daughter, Zuko choked and immediately reached for his tea, Katara could only stare in astonishment, and Iroh snickered. Cam protested the reprimand, insisting she meant nothing by it, but Yun excused her from the table and sent her off to begin washing the dishes.

“I’m so sorry. I don’t know what got into her.”

Zuko shrugged, but Iroh smiled, assuring the flustered woman. “That’s quite all right, Miss Yun, she was merely curious. It is fortunate for Master Katara’s presence otherwise I’d have no hope for the boy.”

Zuko made a choking sound, gasping out a strangled, “Uncle!”

Iroh waved him off, chortling. “There’s nothing to be ashamed of, Lee. Miss Katara has been good for you.”

“But—”

Iroh interrupted, “I’ve not seen you so happy in years!”

Katara felt the tell-tale heat of her cheeks that let her know she was blushing. Zuko sent her a beseeching look that she quickly ignored by rising to her feet and gathering a few of the empty dishes from the table. “I’ll go help Cam.”

Katara found Cam pouring hot water into the sink. She glanced up when Katara entered, motioning to the counter next to her. “You can put the dishes there.”

Katara joined her at the sink, scraping left over food into a slop bucket and stacking them neatly to wash. “I can help. It’ll be faster with two people.”

They worked in awkward silence—Katara uncertain of how to interact with a girl her own age since there weren’t any girls her age back home and Cam how the waterbender would react to her flirtations at the dinner table. Katara focused her attention on drying dishes with far more concentration than the task probably deserved so was startled when Cam cleared her throat, saying, “Mama says you’re a master waterbender.”

Katara nearly dropped the plate, quickly stacking it safely with the others and darting a quick glance at the other girl. Cam’s eyes were focused on the soapy water, but Katara caught the curious glance when she handed Katara another plate to dry. “Um, yeah.”

The girl nodded, shifting awkwardly. “I’m glad. I mean, she said you helped Akamu. He’s annoying, you know, but he’s my brother. I’m glad he’s not going to die.”

“My brother’s annoying, too.”

Cam grinned, looking up. “You have a brother?”

Katara rolled her eyes, grinning back. “Yeah, he’s older and thinks he knows so much more than me. He claims it’s because I’m a girl and so he can do some things better.”

“Boys,” Cam scoffed. “Where is he now?”

Katara frowned, drying the last of the dishes with a sweep of her hand. “I don’t know. We got separated a few months ago and then I met Lee again.”

“Really? How did you meet?” Cam asked eagerly.

Katara opened her mouth to tell her that Zuko had crashed his Fire Navy ship into her village, but thought better of it. She hesitated, choosing her words carefully. “We met in my village. He was looking for someone.”

“Did he find them?”

Katara shrugged, answering vaguely, “In a manner of speaking.”

“And later,” Cam prompted, “how did you meet again?” At her surprised look, Cam rolled her eyes. “You can’t tell me that’s the entire story. I know there’s more. How did you get here? Mama said the waterbenders live in the poles.”

“Oh.” Katara blinked, wondering how much she should say. “He—I was captured by firebenders. Lee rescued me.”

Cam gave a high pitched squeal of delight, clasping Katara’s hands and squeezing them tight while exclaiming, “That’s so romantic! Did he have to fight a whole bunch of them to win you back? Is that how he got that scar? He’s so brave! You are so lucky!”

Yun entered the kitchen, interrupting further questions, and Katara sighed with relief. The older woman glanced around and seemed satisfied with their work. “Cam, you’re staying with me tonight. Mushu, Lee, and Katara are going to stay in the boys’ room and I’ve moved Akamu to your room. I’m going to need you to stay around the house tomorrow, Cam. We’ve got work to do before the merchants come.”

Cam groaned in protest, whining when her mother pushed her out of the kitchen with instructions to get ready for bed. Katara followed her and Cam leaned over, whispering, “Mama weaves baskets and makes pottery to sell and trade with the merchants.”

“Enough complaints, young lady. Now, off with you. I’m going to show our guests to their room.”

Cam slouched off with one last eye roll that her mother, fortunately, didn’t see. Yun lead them to a room at the back of the house, motioning into the room with an apologetic smile at Katara and Zuko. “I’m sorry. I only have the one room. My sons shared when they were younger.”

Iroh laughed, clapping Zuko on the shoulder and giving it a friendly squeeze. “That is quite all right, Ms. Yun. My nephew and niece are used to sharing. I’m sure they won’t mind an old man infringing on their privacy for the night.”

“Oh!” Color dusted across Yun’s cheeks and she darted a quick glance at Katara and Zuko. “I can make up a pallet for my daughter and I in Akamu’s room for the night if you and your wife would like some time alone.”

When it looked like Zuko was about to say something, Iroh moved his arm over his shoulder and brought him into a tight side hug. Zuko grunted, but it achieved Iroh’s goal of keeping him quiet. “That’s all right, Ms. Yun.”

Iroh ushered them into the room, pushing them toward one of the beds. Yun hovered in the door, looking uncertain. “Are you sure? It would be no problem.”

Zuko looked mutinous as he glared at the narrow beds and pointedly ignored Katara. Iroh nodded cheerfully, waving away Yun’s concerns. “You’ve done more than enough for us.”

“Well, good night.”

Yun closed the door behind her and Iroh turned to the two teenagers. “Well, it looks like you two are sharing a bed. I don’t think there’s enough room for Miss Katara in my bed and I think she’d rather stay with you.”

“Uncle!”

Iroh settled on the bed on the far side of the room, looking at Zuko innocently. “I’m sorry, did you want to be alone with Miss Katara? You should have said something.”

Katara blushed. Zuko’s jaw clenched and his cheeks took on a furious shade of red. “That’s not—She thinks we’re married! She thinks we—but we don’t! We never! That’s—with her—that’s gross!”

Katara scowled at him in indignation even as her blush deepened. Iroh shrugged, unconcerned. “You take life entirely too seriously, Zuko.”

With a final growl of frustration, Zuko stomped to the bed and dropped onto it without looking at Katara. Iroh chuckled quietly and Katara put out the candles before crawling into bed beside Zuko, carefully keeping a discrete distance from the irritated firebender.

.........

Katara woke with a jerk, shooting upright with a gasp. Beside her Zuko rolled from the bed, landing with a thump on the floor and scrambling for his dao swords. Katara swung her legs over the side of the bed, reaching for her waterskin and the candle before realizing she wouldn’t be able to find the spark rocks in the dark. In the other bed, Iroh pushed back sheets and stood, a small flame appearing in his hand. For a moment Katara wondered what woke her and then a loud banging on the front door reminded her. The pounding was followed by a frantic voice, “Yun! Yun, please!”

The other bedroom door opened and hurried footsteps approached the door. Iroh quickly lit the candle, extinguishing the small flame in his hand. Zuko swung their bedroom door open, peering out in time to see a sleep rumpled Yun lift the bar from across the door and open it. A frantic man stood on the other side, dark brown hair standing wildly around his head. He paid no attention to the curious looks he was receiving from the others in the house, instead gasping out, “Yun! We heard you had a healer staying the night. You’ve got to come quick.”

Yun clutched her thin robe closed around her, looking surprised. “Tuan! What’s wrong?”

“It’s Hieu. Something’s wrong. We thought it was just a fever. It wasn’t anything that would normally alarm us, but then he started convulsing. He screams any time there’s water. We don’t know what to do any more.”

Yun put a calming hand in Tuan’s shoulder, turning away as she spoke, “I’ll wake Master Katara—”

“I’m awake.”

Katara stepped around Zuko, slipping her waterskin over her shoulder and giving Zuko a reassuring smile when he frowned at her. Tuan looked surprised when he saw her—no doubt expecting someone older—but quickly dismissed his thoughts and motioned her to follow. “It’s this way. Just down the street.”

There was a flurry of activity behind her as Zuko stumbled after her, pulling on shoes and adjusting his swords on his back. They nearly had to jog to keep up with Tuan. Katara glanced at Zuko, saying, “You could have gone back to bed.”

The firebender shot her a disgruntled look before looking away again. “I’m coming with you.”

“Zuko—”

The glare he sent her stopped her short. “I’m coming.”

They could hear the animalistic yells before they entered the house. Inside, several young children peeked out from darkened bedrooms, eyes wide and fearful. Tuan pushed them back in, ordering them back to bed and closing the door tight. He continued through the house to the back room where a woman stood with her hands clasped over her mouth, tears rolling down her cheeks. Katara couldn’t prevent the gasp that escaped her at the sight that greeted them. A young boy was tied to the bed, screaming and writhing against his bonds. Katara felt her stomach roll and chills raced down her spine. Behind her Zuko cursed quietly, drawing back to allow her to enter. Tuan hovered over the bed, his expression stressed as the boy lunged for him, snapping like a wild animal. Words passed between Tuan and his wife though Katara didn’t hear what was said. She was jarred from her horrified stare by a soft brush of fingers on her arm and Zuko’s hushed whisper, “Katara.”

She moved forward in a daze, clutching her waterskin with a white-knuckled grip. She knew what this was and by the expression on both the parents’ faces, they did too. There was little hope for a happy diagnosis. She swallowed back bile, stuttering weakly, “I—I’ll need you to hold him still.”

Tuan’s wife drew back with a harsh sob, fiercely shaking her head. No amount of pleading or ordering could induce the woman to holding down her son. Desperate, Katara turned to where Zuko lingered in the door, asking, “Lee?”

Zuko hesitated for only a moment, grimacing to himself, and then he approached the bed. A quick glance at Tuan, and he received a curt nod. Zuko’s hands hovered over Hieu’s shoulders a moment as he swallowed thickly before firmly pressing the boy’s shoulders to the bed. Tuan leaned across Hieu’s legs to keep them still, his face pale and drawn. Once the boy was pinned, Katara went to work, drawing water from her waterskin and running it over fevered skin. She found the wound on the boy’s leg, red and inflamed but showing no other signs of obvious infection. She sank her awareness into his blood, searching desperately for something she knew she wouldn’t find. Withdrawing from Hieu’s blood, Katara moved to stand at Zuko’s shoulder, coating her hands with water. When she stretched to place her hands on Hieu’s head, the boy snapped at her fingers, saliva foaming on his lips. She jerked back as Zuko hissed, “Careful.”

Her breath was coming in shuddering gasps and she could already feel tears burning. The next chance she had, she seized Hieu’s head, concentrating on keeping a firm grip. Her hands glowed a bright blue for several long seconds before she withdrew, muscles shaking. She stumbled away from the bed, sending her water out the open window before she collapsed against the wall and slid to the floor, burying her face in her knees. She took a quivering breath, speaking as loud as she could around the lump lodged in her throat, “You can let him go.”

“Katara?”

Zuko knelt in front of her, brow furrowed uncertainly, a frown forming when she merely sobbed. He hesitated before scooting closer, tentatively putting a hand on her arm. She shuddered. Her throat worked to speak, but no words came, instead she choked on a sob. Forcing herself to swallow past the lump in her throat, she looked up, her gaze sweeping the small room before settling on Zuko. Tears ran down her cheeks and she forced her voice out, “I can’t—there’s nothing I can do. I—it’s too late.”

Zuko’s mouth twisted, but he didn’t look surprised, asking the question that was on everyone’s mind, “How long?”

Her lip quivered and she bit her lip to stop it, eyes drifting to the writhing boy on the bed. “Any day. His lungs will—”

She cut herself off, shaking her head vigorously. Tuan cleared his throat and avoided looking at her. “Is there anything you can do…to make it better?”

“I,” she paused, wetting her lips. “I can sedate him.”

Tuan’s wife whimpered, her hands tightening. “What if he wakes? What if he wants to say good-bye?”

Zuko helped Katara to her feet, steadying her with a hand under her elbow when she wavered. She straightened her shoulders and approached the bed, trying to put strength behind her words even as her hands trembled. “His mind is gone. The…infection took that first. He is not himself.”

Tuan paled, his face grim. “It’s best if you can sedate him then. We have other children to look out for now.”

Katara nodded firmly, brushing tears from her cheeks. She lifted a hand and, with a tweak of her fingers, Hieu quieted and slumped into the bed. The sudden silence was deafening and the four of them simply stared. Tuan’s wife sank into a rickety chair by the bed with a keening moan, clasping Hieu’s limp hand. A tense moment passed and then she burst into tears, throwing her arms across Hieu’s body with a wail of grief. Katara retreated a step, backing into Zuko. Tuan couldn’t bring himself to raise his eyes from his son, speaking dully, “I think it’d be best if you left.”

She was vaguely aware of Zuko’s hand wrapping around her elbow, his polite bow, or the words he murmured—“We’ll see ourselves out.”—but the shock of night air when he guided her out the door and into the darkened street jarred her back to her senses. They stood outside the house; Katara taking great gasping gulps of air and Zuko keeping her on her feet. Zuko dragged her through the streets back to Yun’s house while she swiped uselessly at her tears.

“I couldn’t save him.”

Zuko glanced at her, his face cast in shadow. “You did what you could.”

No words of comfort, just fact. She knew Zuko wouldn’t blame her when Hieu died, but…

“It hurts,” she whimpered.

Zuko nodded his understanding, ushering her into the house. Yun, Iroh, and Cam were seated at the table and looked up expectantly when they entered. Yun rose when she saw Katara and opened her mouth to ask a question before thinking better of it. Iroh sighed, motioning for Zuko to continue on to the bedroom. Without a word, Zuko put Katara to bed, taking her waterskin, pulling off her shoes, and tucking the blankets securely around her shoulders. She drifted into a restless sleep as Zuko climbed onto the bed next to her. He could feel the headache building behind his eyes and hoped it’d be gone by morning. Iroh entered ten minutes later, noticing his nephew sitting up in bed and watching Katara sleep. He sank down onto his own bed, watching him quietly. “I take it things didn’t go well.”

His nephew’s gold eyes frowned at him and he answered shortly, “No.”

.........

Zuko’s eyes felt like they were filled with sand when he woke shortly after dawn. It also hurt to move, his joints protesting when he finally forced his body out of bed. Katara was still asleep, her cheeks still bearing tear stains. Iroh wasn’t in his bed which meant he was mostly likely meditating somewhere. The thought of sitting upright for any length of time nearly made him groan. He wanted nothing more than to crawl back into bed and pretend he wasn’t alive, but Iroh was probably waiting for him.

Breakfast was torture like he’d never imagined. The sight of food turned his stomach and the conversation at the table was grating. He was almost relieved when it was over and he was able to escape outside, away from the noise. His relief was short-lived, however, when the other joined him. Yun and Iroh went to the small, open air shop near the house and Cam settled under the awning nearby with a loom she’d dragged out of the house. If he hoped she’d be content to work in silence, his hopes were soon dashed.

“My elder brother is getting married soon,” Cam offered by way of conversation.

Zuko grunted, closing his eyes and letting his head fall back against the side of the house. His head was beginning to pound and the sunlight hurt his eyes. His lack of verbal response didn’t seem to deter her and she passed the shuttle again before saying, “I am weaving a tapestry for my brother’s house. It’s tradition. What do you think?”

She fell silent and he felt her looking at him expectantly. Zuko forced his eyes open, squinting against the light. Cam motioned to her work and he followed the motion, mind working sluggishly. He stared at the incomplete tapestry, trying to make sense of the scene and failing. Feeling like he was back under the strict gaze of the palace tutors, Zuko muttered, “I’m not familiar with the subject.”

Cam looked surprised and she turned to give her work a critical look. “You don’t? It’s a common legend.”

Zuko shrugged, shifting uncomfortably. “I can’t recall it.”

His inner flame seemed to be fluctuating more than usual, at times burning almost too hot and then suddenly going cold. It was making it difficult to think clearly or even follow the conversation. Cam didn’t seem to notice, more than happy to garner his attention. She touched one of the carefully stitched figures, dragging her finger across the fabric. “This is Lien, the beautiful daughter of a wealthy king. She swore to never marry. She just wanted to have fun and travel. Her father let her do as she wished for she was his favorite.

“De was the only son of a poor fisherman. His father died and left him with no inheritance. To honor his father, De buried him in the only clothing they had. One day, when Lien and her friends were passing by, De hid himself in the reeds since he was naked. It so happened that Lien decided to bathe there and discovered the unclothed De among the reeds.

“Lien declared that she would take De as her husband since it seemed by the will of the Spirits that they would be naked together. De refused since he was a poor man and not worthy to be her husband. She persisted and he eventually agreed. When her father heard that she took a poor man as husband, he declared her ruined and sent people to kill her.”

“Doesn’t sound like much of a love story.”

Cam laughed, giving him a playful smile. Iroh looked up from where he knelt, moulding jars with Yun, speaking with good humor, “My nephew doesn't appreciate the subtle romance and culture in the old stories.”

Zuko grumbled, folding his arms and sinking into silence. Yun laughed, carefully moving her jars to the furnace. “Be nice to the boy. He's probably tired.”

The clay crumpled under Iroh's hands and he frowned at it, turning to peer curiously at Zuko. The young firebender ignored him, trying to shake off the chill that raced up his spine. Cam returned to her work, chattering about old stories, but Zuko wasn't listening. His head and neck were aching and his eyes burned. A clatter sounded from the house and a moment later a sleep rumpled Katara appeared in the door, blinking owlishly. Iroh beamed, greeting her cheerfully, “Good morning, Miss Katara!”

Yun stood, brushing her hands on her apron and approaching Katara, smoothing a hand over Katara's hair and looking a her closely. “You still look tired. Are you hungry?”

Blue eyes glanced over the others, taking in the various activities. Her eyes landed on Zuko and her brow furrowed when she took in his slouched position. Yun gave her arm a gentle squeeze, drawing her attention back to her question. “Oh, yes. A little.”

Yun firmly steered her back into the house and Katara just heard Iroh say, “If you don't feel well, Lee, you should tell Miss Katara.”

“I’m fine, Uncle.”

Katara try to pull away, twisting to look back at Zuko, but Yun kept a firm hold, clicking her tongue. “Boys always want to be tough. You've got to let them learn that it's okay to ask for help.”

“But—”

Yun cut her off, pushing her into a chair and setting a plate of food in front of her. “None of that. He's not about to die this instant. Eat.”

Katara nodded, picking at the food and suddenly finding her stomach rolling at the thought of eating. Yun took the seat next to her, watching carefully. When Katara hadn't taken more than three bites, Yun sighed. “I went by Tuan's house early this morning. They don't blame you, Katara. You did your best.”

Katara pushed her plate away, shoulders slumping and tears blurring her vision. “So he’s,” she choked, unable to finish her sentence.

“No,” Yun conceded. “But it’s only a matter of time.”

They fell into a respectful silence, allowing Katara the chance to swallow her tears. Several moments passed before Yun cleared her throat. “Now, about that young man of yours.” Katara flushed and Yun smiled knowingly. “He’s just being stubborn. He's a proud one and doesn't want to admit to a weakness, especially in front of witnesses.

“I’ll tell you a secret, Katara. You may be his wife, but everyone wants their mother when they’re sick. I’m sure Lee is no different.”

Katara felt her cheeks heat and her mouth worked soundlessly to deny her marriage but failed to find the words. Yun merely patted her on the shoulder and drifted back outside where Katara could hear her praising Iroh’s ability to form a jar. Katara followed once she was sure the blush was gone from her cheeks. She found herself standing over Zuko before she even realized she’d made the decision to approach him. He had his eyes closed and the steady rise and fall of his chest showed he was most likely dozing. Ignoring Cam’s watchful eyes, she gently brushed her hand over his hair, unable to prevent the smile that rose when he stirred and lifted his head to look at her. He was bleary-eyed when he met her gaze and his already pale skin had taken on an unhealthy tinge. She frowned but refrained from commenting, instead saying, “Thanks for coming with me last night.”

Zuko snorted, rolling his eyes and turning away, mumbling, “It was nothing.”

The day passed quickly. Yun pulled out several of Cam’s old clothes, passing them to Katara to try on and then returned to her own work while Katara darned a few holes. Cam looked as if she were going to protest, but kept her silence at the sharp look her mother gave her. By late afternoon, Akamu woke. Katara put aside her sewing and joined Yun at the boy's bedside. Akamu was groggy and weak, but coherent enough to respond to a few questions. Katara was pleased with his recovery—even through her heart clenched at the thought of another boy who was not so fortunate—but warned both mother and son to take it easy for a few weeks.

Dinner that evening was a cheerful affair, Iroh keeping everyone entertained with amusing anecdotes and Yun chiming in with stories of her own sons. Zuko kept silent as usual though he looked more exhausted than he should have after napping for most of the day and ate sparingly. Cam had tried to gain his attention, but failed and so eventually joined the conversation with her mother and Iroh. After dinner, Zuko mumbled an excuse and took himself off to bed. Katara followed him half an hour later, her own body feeling the pull of exhaustion.

Zuko was curled under the covers of their shared bed when she arrived and she noted the subtle shiver that passed through his body when she crawled into bed beside him. She wasn't sure if he was awake or not so she instead focused on finding a comfortable spot and relaxing. She found herself waking some time later, not even aware she'd fallen asleep, to Iroh quietly settling down in his bed across the room. Behind her, Zuko shifted restlessly, grumbling quietly before settling again. Making sure to keep her movements smooth, she rolled over to face Zuko, squinting through the dark. The rest of the house was settling down for the night and a peaceful silence descended. Zuko coughed quietly, quickly stifling the sound and Katara knew he was awake. Across the room, Iroh was already snoring faintly. Katara closed her eyes, focusing on the steady sound of breathing around her. A frown marred her brow and her eyes opened again. Zuko’s breathing sounded a little off. It’d been off for weeks though he denied he was feeling bad. His actions throughout the day and at dinner proved he was feeling even worse.

“Zuko?”

His shoulders hitched and a moment later he rolled over to face her, eyes finding hers in the dark. “What?”

She scooted closer, keeping her voice low so as not to wake Iroh. “You’d tell me if you were sick, right?”

“I’m not sick.”

“Would you let me look?”

A long moment passed before he sighed. “Are you going to get your water or something?”

“No. I just want to check.”

“Fine.”

She shifted closer on the narrow bed, ignoring his surprised flinch when she wrapped her arms around him and tucked her head under his chin. His arm draped over her after a moment of indecision. While she could bloodbend without the full moon, it was more difficult and in her sleepy, exhausted state she didn’t think she’d have the energy to do difficult bending. Surrounded by the source she was trying to bend would be much easier and already she could feel the pull of blood in his veins.

“You’re warm.”

Zuko grunted. “Firebender.”

“I mean more so than usual. I think you have a fever.”

Zuko said nothing to that and Katara turned her attention to the blood flowing through his body. Her brow furrowed. Nothing seemed unusual. His breathing was raspy in her ears so she turned her attention to his lungs, pressing her palms into his back, just below his shoulder blades. Zuko tensed and made a sound of protest which she ignored. There was something in his lungs. Not quite fluid, but enough that it moved when she prodded it. He coughed, attempting to pull away. She tightened her grip, hissing, “Would you relax? I’m not going to kill you.”

Across the room, Iroh snorted in his sleep and turned over. They stilled—Zuko unsuccessfully stifling a cough—glancing over at the other bed. When it was clear that Iroh had settled down and wasn’t going to wake, Katara frowned up at Zuko. Zuko scowled right back. “What was that?”

“You have fluid in your lungs. I was going to clear them so you’ll be able to breathe easier.”

“I’m fine.”

“It won’t hurt.”

She actually wasn’t quite sure if that was true, but the firebender was already wary enough without her adding to it. Her reassuring words caused him to bristle and he snapped, “I know!”

“Good. Now hold still.”

She pressed her palms to his back and was focused on moving the fluid in his lungs before he could protest. The effect was immediate. Coughs shook his entire body and he tried pulling away but she stubbornly hung on, concentrating on the fluid that stubbornly clung to the walls of his lungs. Suddenly, it broke loose. At the same time, Zuko finally managed to get away from her, rolling out of bed, stumbling as his feet hit the floor, and then falling to his knees to curl in on himself. It sounded like he was about to cough up a lung. Katara scrambled after him, her hand making contact with his back with the intention of helping him when his cough suddenly turned into a gag. He fell onto his hands, body heaving as it attempted to dislodge whatever was now blocking his breathing. Katara worked quickly to help, relieved when it hit the floor with a wet plop and Zuko was coughing again. Eventually, the coughs turned to gasps and he slumped against her, unresisting as she run a hand over his throat and chest, checking for damage she may have caused.

“Is everything all right?”

She jumped, startled by the sudden question, looking up to find Iroh gazing down at them. Zuko leaned heavily against her, eyes closed and breathing even. She brushed a hand over his forehead, frowning as she responded to Iroh’s concern, “There’s no damage to his lungs or throat, but he has a fever. At least, I think it’s a fever.”

Iroh stepped around them, careful to avoid the mess on the floor, and bent to place a hand against his nephew’s forehead. A moment passed in relative silence, only interrupted by the occasional cough from Zuko. Iroh’s hand fell away and he sighed. “I thought something like this would occur. Come, I’ll help you get him back into bed and clean up.”

Katara awkwardly rose to her feet, tumbling a mildly protesting Zuko back into bed with Iroh’s help. Zuko groaned faintly, curling in on himself as Katara tucked the blankets around him and brushed his hair out of his eyes. Iroh gently touched her shoulder to draw her attention. “I’ll be back in a moment. I’ll sit up with him tonight. You need your rest.”

When Iroh returned he was surprised to find Katara in bed next to Zuko instead of taking the bed Iroh had been sleeping in. He pulled a chair up to the bedside, settling down for the night. Katara stirred, turning to look across Zuko’s chest, speaking quietly, “You knew this was going to happen?”

Iroh nodded, placing a damp cloth on Zuko’s forehead. “He’s been in conflict with himself for too long.”

“Will he be all right?”

“Time will tell.”
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