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i'm still here

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I am a question to the world
Not an answer to be heard
Or a moment that's held in your arms.

 


 

It boiled beneath her skin – words unsaid, grief unspoken.

The others simply accepted how she had chosen not to do it, as if her mercy was so easily and heartily given. She was no angel, no saint, no infallible spirit or goddess – and yet, how they treated her as if she were. As if goodness were all she was capable of when darkness, when shadows lingered in her veins still.

Katara couldn’t hear what the others were saying over the roaring fire that flickered in the middle of their little circle. None of them particularly felt comfortable in the Royal dining room – with its too-long table and the large, ominous portrait of the enemy hanging over them.

They found temporary sanctuary in the home of the enemy; there was poetry in there somewhere.

She blew on her hot congee, the sad shreds of roasted turkeyduck seemingly drowning in the droll white seas of rice. The heat of the ginger wafted up to her senses, warm and inviting, and yet she found the thought of eating anything to be… unsavoury, to say the least.

“Are you gonna eat that?” Sokka asked, breaking her out of her reverie, his mouth still full while he continued to gorge on his second helping of the stuff.

“Hmm?” she felt herself asking, though she’d heard him. Her thoughts were simply elsewhere.

“I said,” he replied, swallowing his food with particular gusto, “are you gonna eat that?”

“How can you still be hungry after two whole bowls?” Suki teased as she mixed the contents of her bowl together.

“Yeah, Sokka!” Aang joined in, easy mirth in his voice. “You must’ve eaten more than Appa by now!”

Katara grit her teeth at the sound of his voice. She knew it wasn’t fair for her to be angry with him; he’d meant well, she knew. Rationally, she knew how irrational she was being for her irritation at him but he was just so young. And there was so much that he didn’t know and refused to understand.

There was fury in her – a quiet rage that she had bottled in.  And it wasn’t at him, she knew that. Still, she felt herself go rigid at the sound of his humour and at the sound of their little group’s easy bickering. It sounded so much like old times that it sounded wrong, almost – like there was something missing.

“Where’s Zuko?” she asked them.

“Huh?” Aang echoed as the others mimicked the motions of the group looking up and around them to look for their missing new friend.

It was still difficult to think of him as such.

Katara knew now, of course, that there was no reason to mistrust him anymore. He’d more than proven his sincerity to the cause long ago – to her, specifically, more recently – and so none of them had any such particular reason to be wary of his disappearance. Yet, it felt strange to her that he wasn’t huddled around them during dinner.

“Sparky’s in his room,” Toph answered, her milky green eyes staring into nothing in particular, as she laid back against Appa and ate her own congee sloppily. “He always does this. He likes to meditate.”

“Why didn’t he say anything?” Katara asked.

“’Cause he always does this, Sweetness, in case you haven’t noticed,” the girl replied. A pause. “Huh. Guess you guys haven’t noticed. He’s been doing this since the Western Air Temples... meditating after dinner?” Toph shrugged. “He likes his alone time, I guess. Or he doesn’t want Snoozles stealing all his food.”

“Hey!” Sokka protested.

“She’s got a point,” Suki retorted.

“I’m gonna go check on him,” said Katara as she rose from her spot in their little circle. She left her untouched bowl of congee before her.

“I’ll come with you!” said Aang as he airbended himself up too.

“No, Aang,” she replied. “There’s something I need to talk to Zuko about… alone.

A remark that, once, might have earned a joke or two from her older brother. It was in the way she’d said it, perhaps, that made them all know that this was no laughing matter. Aang pouted, his brows knit and his round, grey eyes wide.

“But you two were already alone for days…” he muttered.

Katara’s answering glare was enough for him to sit back down.

The group watched her go in silence. When she was out of sight, Sokka made a move to lunge for the bowl she’d left behind, but Suki managed to fend him off, saying that Katara might come back later on with a bit more of an appetite. They’d had a bit of a day, after all, and it only settled on them all when she’d left that none of them had asked about what had happened. Not really.

 


 

 

She hadn’t meant to sneak up on him.

Her quiet footsteps fell on smooth, even floors that didn’t betray her movements. These fire nation walls were anything but inviting and she could not forget to whom this house belonged. Ozai himself had walked around these hallways with cruel certainty and purpose, she knew that, and perhaps there was still something in her that feared being discovered by him.

Zuko had assured them all that this was a good place to hide – in plain sight, as it were, as the royal family hadn’t found themselves in this beach house for years. Not since they were happy, he’d said. It was hard to imagine a family that had Ozai in it to ever be happy.

Katara knew him to be in his mother’s old room.

“Your mom had her own room?” Sokka had asked. “I mean… didn’t your parents share?”

“You know who my father is, right?” Zuko returned. Sokka grimaced.

“Then how were you and your sister made?” asked Toph, smug with her wit.

“Duty,” he replied.

And that had been that.

Katara had gotten Azula’s old room – it, indubitably, had the second-best view. Aang had Zuko’s old room. Toph took a guest room in the ground floor while Sokka and Suki shared another guest room in the opposite wing, for the sake of privacy.

No one wanted to stay in the Fire Lord’s quarters.

When she neared his room, she could smell the smoke from the candles and the incense. The door was open and he was shrouded in faint light and shadow. He had his bare back turned to her as he was sat on the floor in a lotus position and, perhaps it was the candlelight, but it exaggerated the muscles on his body – but the sight of him like this made her breath hitch in her throat.

His back was not smooth – his pale, golden skin was marred with dark marks and smooth grooves that were the imprints of injuries from long ago. It wasn’t what she was expecting. He was a prince, after all; surely, his was meant to be a physique that was impeccable. Yet he bore more scars than he let on and when she saw it, she wanted to turn away for it felt too intrusive… like she’d stumbled across something too intimate, too sacred to witness for mere acquaintances.

She still didn’t consider herself his friend.

Not just yet.

That was a bit of a way away.

Still, she could not make herself turn around and run away. Katara needed to talk to him – to someone who could understand. Or, at the very least, just listen.

“Zuko?” she tried anyway – more unsure of herself than she wanted to sound like. She swallowed.

He turned around to her immediately, gold eyes wide and mouth agape. He raised his scarred brow bone at the sight of her.

“Oh,” he started. “Hi, Katara.”

She stayed by the door frame and they looked at each other for a while before either of them said anything.

“Is there something wrong?” he asked.

“No,” she answered. “I, uh—”

Zuko twisted just so, so that he was truly facing her. When she didn’t say anything and only looked at him, he was suddenly very aware of his bare chest that he took his discarded shirt from the side and put it on.

“Sorry, sorry…” he said. “I was just meditating, I didn’t realise—”

“Zuko, it’s okay. I have an older brother, it’s not like it’s a new sight.”

“Sorry,” he said again, a blush rising to his face even in the dim candlelight.

“I just wanted to ask…” she started, her hand behind her playing with the ends of her hair. He looked her in the eye, unwavering, and waited. “How come you’ve never asked about it?”

Zuko’s brows shot up and he blinked swiftly. He shook his head ever so slightly and, for a moment, he considered playing dumb – but he remembered who he was talking to. It wouldn’t be wise or honourable to be dishonest with her right then… or ever. Katara deserved better than that.

He knew what she meant. And besides, the truth always seemed to flow from his tongue so smoothly when it was around her – like the tide to the shore.

“It’s not my place to ask, I guess,” he said. “Everything you think I’d ask, I know you’ve already asked yourself. I don’t need to be another voice in your head.”

That certainly took her aback and she was nearly defensive at the suggestion. “How did you kno—”

“How couldn’t you?” he cut her off.

How couldn’t you have voices in your head when you can do what you can do and when you’re you, were the words unspoken and yet she heard them all the same. The cruel shadows beneath her skin raged at the thought.

“It’s you, Katara,” he said simply, as if that answered everything. “Of course you’ve already had this debate with yourself.”

“So you’d rather just storm off?” she barked. She didn’t know where this rage was coming from (but oh, she knew… she knew).

“I’d rather not waste my breath on a conversation when I already know how it ends,” he replied, dismissive and curt.

“You don’t know me,” she said darkly, her hands in fists. The air around her was humid and she could feel water around her; the molecules were practically calling out to her, beckoning for her to use her element. Begging for a fight.

He shrugged as he made a move to resume his old position. “I know enough.”

“You don’t!” she yelled, a water whip forming from thin air and lashing at his face. “You look at me when I’m talking to you!”

When he flinched after the whip hit him, she dropped the water. Anyone else might have missed the way his arms trembled, the way his back turned straight and stiff. His head was curled into himself just so that she could see how he’d clenched his jaw and grit his teeth in response. His breaths were short and laborious.

How hadn’t she noticed it before?

“Oh, Zuko… I—” she started.

“I don’t know what else it is you want from me, Katara,” he muttered, quiet and strained.

“Zuko, I’m so—” she tried again.

“I don’t—” he swallowed. “I don’t know what else to do to earn your forg—”

“No, Zuko,” she said immediately, not letting him finish that apology she didn’t deserve. Katara went to him and got to her knees and met him eye to eye. “I do forgive you. For everything. I do. I’m the one who’s sorry.”

The way his gold eyes looked into hers, so bright and lost… it was enough to make her heart break. She ached to touch him, to fold him into a comforting embrace, but she didn’t know if they were there yet. So, she settled for a hand on his arm.

“I lost my temper. For so long, when I was angry with you, we’d bend and fight and… no, that’s no excuse. That wasn’t fair to you. I’m so sorry.”

“It’s okay,” he replied lowly.

“No. No, it wasn’t okay.” She rearranged her limbs so she was sat on the floor with him, facing him. “I’m really sorry, Zuko.”

“Why are you here?” he asked her. “I mean—really. Were you looking for me?”

“I was.”

“Why?”

“You just snuck off and I—”

His eyes went wide. “I’m not double crossing you!”

“I never said you were!” she replied, both hands on his shoulders now. All of her anger had dissipated now – replaced by the shame in knowing that she had hurt him when he didn’t deserve it.

There was a small cut on his face, just where her whip had hurt him, and she motioned with her hand to capture the air around them and she gave his face a quick heal. The small bleeding wound returned to its scarred texture and he couldn’t quite look at her when she was touching his scar like that.

“I know you didn’t, but—” he started but then sighed. “Never mind.”

It’s a pattern with him that she’s just started to notice.

Something she hadn’t seen before.

His reaction to the sudden whip, to her harsh tone; in the way he bent to the fault of blame being assigned to him; in the way excuses dissipate from his tongue before he could even speak them, as if he’d already expected it wouldn’t matter. The grooves and scars on his back – he, a Prince of the Fire Nation, was so scarred all over when he should have been pristine.

Those weren’t burn marks from training. Those were scars too plentiful and too consistent to be battle scars.

His refusal of his own childhood room – and his father’s room.

Who else could harm a prince – but a king?

She’d forgotten that Ozai, the cruel and sadistic Fire Lord of the Fire Nation, was also a father. Zuko’s father. And it didn’t take her long to imagine exactly what kind of father he must’ve been.

“You still think we don’t trust you,” she said.

“I know you don’t.”

“I’m trying to,” she said. “It’s still so new and it’s—it’s hard for me.”

“I know. I’m sorry.”

“But you’ve more than earned my trust. I swear.”

“Why are you really here?”

“I—” Eyes downcast, she rested her hands on her lap and sighed. Quietly, she replied, “I wanted to talk to you.”

“About what?”

“You’re the first person to have seen what I did and you didn’t treat me any differently for it.”

“I’m hardly going to judge you for anything, Katara. I’m not exactly one to talk.”

“You didn’t ask,” she told him. “You weren’t curious. You just—you let me be. You weren’t scared of me—”

“I wouldn’t say that.

Colour and warmth rose to her cheeks and he didn’t need a properly lit room to realise it.

“But it’s like I said. What you think I’d ask you—you’ve already asked yourself. And you’ve already given yourself the answers you want to hear.”

“But that’s just the thing, Zuko. I don’t want that. I don’t want the things you think I want to hear. I don’t want sweet lies and comforts. I get that from everyone else and I’m sick of it. I want the truth. And somehow… you’re the only one here who gets it.”

“Me?”

“I’m Sokka’s baby sister. I’m always going to be. And I love him, I love my brother. I do. But he’s never going to think I could ever be like Hama.”

“Hama?”

“She’s an old waterbender from the Southern Water Tribe. We met her in the Fire Nation. She—she’s the one who taught me,” she said. “Unwillingly.”

“Oh.”

“I didn’t want to learn it. From the beginning, I thought it was wrong of her to just—reach inside someone and control them. The water in other people's bodies. I couldn’t stand the thought of just... violating someone like that. And Aang thinks I’m perfect. He believes in me… in what he believes I am.”

“What does he believe you are?”

“That I’m good.”

“You are.”

That made Katara smile a little – the way he’d said it so matter-of-factly, without any hint of sarcasm or praise. She just simply was – and he believed it.

“Thanks,” she replied. “But Aang and Sokka and even Toph and Suki… they all think that I’m this goody-goody who’s only ever going to be saintly and unfailingly kind and good.”

“I don’t really see the problem with being thought of as good all the time.”

“The problem is that it’s exhausting, Zuko,” she practically cried out and her voice broke at his name. A tear ran down her cheek. “I don’t want to be good all the time.”

She bit back a sob and sniffed. Her lower lip trembled.

“I want to be selfish. I want a life outside of this… this… story of who they think I am. I want to be angry and wrong and just—just—”

“Human,” he finished for her.

A small, grateful smile appeared on her lips.

Human,” she exhaled, her entire body relaxing at his understanding.

“Like I said, you are. You’re still good and kind, Katara. But you’re also ruthless when you want to be. I’ve seen that. When you stole that waterbending scroll way back when, you were ambitious and jealous. When you… you know… threatened to kill me? When I first joined your group? You were so angry and protective. But that doesn’t make you any less good.”

“I can’t believe you just brought up the fact I threatened to kill you and you can still call me good,” she joked as she brushed a tear from her eye.

Zuko smiled. “Where I’m from, threats against my life are how my family show affection.”

“You know how messed up that is, right?”

“Sure,” he shrugged. “But you’re never without that kindness in you. It lives with your darkness. And it’s in your choices that determine what kind of person you are. Uncle says that no one is ever wholly good or bad. We all have light and dark inside of us. And you’re not an exception to that. You still choose to be good – despite of all the bad things that you’re capable of, that everyone's capable of, you’re still a good person, Katara. I’ve seen both sides of you now. You’re still good.”

“I know you’ve seen me,” she told him. “That’s why I wanted to talk to you.

“Why me?”

“You… you see me,” she said. “Not as a teacher or a mother or a sister or anything else. You just—you see me.

“I still don’t understand.”

“I want to talk. I want you to ask about it and I want you to listen. I want you to challenge me – not because I’m supposed to be anything else but because you think of another way. I want to feel human. And real.”

(And I’ve only ever felt that way when I was with you, she doesn’t say but the thought lingers in her head; he doesn’t hear it.)

“Okay,” he relented. “I—what’s it called? What you do?”

She took a deep breath and exhaled.

“Bloodbending.”

“So you…”

“It’s exactly what it sounds like.”

“Okay…” he said. He looked away from her as he pieced his thoughts together. She waited for his questions, her fingers fidgeting stiffly atop her lap. “Could you—could you show me?”

“I—” she started. “I don’t know, Zuko. It’s not something I want to do. And I don’t think I could do it right now. It’s not the full moon.”

“So, you need a full moon for that?”

“Hama said so.”

“What if you could try it on a regular night?”

“Zuko, I just told you that I don’t want to violate anyone—”

“It’s not a violation if I’m asking,” he said. “Besides, you asked me to be curious. I’m being curious.”

Katara sighed.

“Here goes…” she started. She lifted a hand and felt for the water in his arm. She breathed in and felt it – the rush of it in his veins, so swift. His pulse was ringing her in ears. When she motioned with her hand, his eyes went wide as he lifted his arm.

“That—” he started. “That feels so weird.”

“Are you fighting it?”

“I am,” he said, staring at his trembling arm.

Another motion of her hand and his arm went limp and went back down.

Katara could feel her heart racing in her chest.

“It’s easier with a full moon. Now, I have to really think about how to bend you without hurting you.”

“But hurting me… would that be easier?”

“That’s not a question I want to answer.”

Because it would have been – it would have been disgustingly easy to hurt him. And he didn’t look at her with fear – but awe.

“How does it feel? To bend someone’s blood?”

“Oh, uh—” she started. “It feels… alive. I know that sounds strange but with regular water, it’s just a push and pull. Water’s pliable. It flows easily and it's adaptable and it’s more like an extension of myself. Blood? Blood’s alive and pulsating and it… it resists.”

“Can you feel what I’m feeling when you bend me?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Because firebending sounds a lot like that,” he said. Zuko then made a small flame appear on his open palm and she stared into it – all reds and oranges and bright yellows. “Aang said it feels like a heartbeat and I guess it does. Because fire is alive, somehow. It can be volatile and all-consuming. It always wants to break free. Which is why control and meditation are so important for a firebender to regularly practise so they don’t get hurt… or hurt anyone else.”

“So, what are you saying?”

“I’m saying fire can be destructive. Monstrous. But when controlled, when handled by the right hands – it can be life. It can bring light and warmth. I think the same can be said for your bloodbending.”

“How could you say that? Hama—”

“Hear me out,” he started and put a hand up to stop her. “You can heal, right? Your waterbending—there’s a healing element to it, right?”

“Yes…” she answered, but her voice made it sound like a question.

“Have you ever considered healing using the blood?”

Katara’s shoulders dropped and she stared at him with wide, blue eyes. Evidently, no – she had not considered it at all.

“I didn’t think about it like that,” she admitted, rather sheepishly.

“What did Hama do that makes you so afraid of your own abilities, then?”

“She was a monster,” she answered simply. Sadly. “When the Fire Nation captured her and the other benders from my tribe, she developed bloodbending while she was in prison and used the technique to make a guard free her from her chains. Since then, she sought refuge in a little Fire Nation village near the coastline of the central islands. And every full moon, she would capture innocent Fire Nation citizens and imprison them beneath the mountain. She’d lock them in chains and leave them there to die.”

“Oh,” he said. “That’s—”

“Like I said. She was a monster.”

“How did she teach you?”

“She forced me to,” Katara admitted. “When she told me about the technique, I was against it. I told her that it was wrong. And she turned on me and bloodbent me—but my bending was more powerful than hers. She was old and it was a full moon. I was at my peak. But then Sokka and Aang showed up and they wanted to help me. So, she tried… she tried to—”

Zuko bowed his head in understanding. She didn’t have to finish.

“I bloodbent her to stop her. It was the only way.”

“I see,” he said, nodding slightly.

“I don’t want to be like Hama. I don’t want to be a monster. But when I bloodbent that soldier, I wanted to—”

“Katara,” he started. Zuko spoke her name like an anchor – to keep her from drifting off. “You’re not a monster. I don’t think you could ever be. And trust me, I’ve met enough of the worst of them to know one when I see one.”

“But—”

“Is that what you’re afraid of? That you’re going to be a monster… that if you’re not good, you’d be just like Hama?”

Katara hung her head in shame; he did know her.

He couldn’t help himself when he reached out to touch her hand, to hold hers in his.

“Katara, you could never be a monster.”

“But I—”

“Yeah, but so can everyone,” he told her. “Everyone has the potential to be monstrous and evil and well… like my father. Like Hama. It doesn’t matter where you’re from or what nation you’re born into or what you bend. We all have light and dark inside of us – and we’re all capable of choosing our own destinies, of becoming the kind of people that we want to be. I had to figure that out for myself the hard way.”

“So you don’t think I could ever be a monster?”

“The fact that you don’t want to be one already says that you’re not one,” he answered. “You could be cruel but you choose not to be. You could hold a grudge against me for the rest of your life and I wouldn’t judge you for that… but you choose not to do that. You’re kind because you want to be. And that want speaks a lot on the kind of person you are.”

With the hand he isn’t holding, she wiped another tear from her eye. Katara gave him a watery smile and he returned it with one of his own.

“Wow, Zuko,” she said, her voice breaking but a lightness in her tone. “Who would’ve thought you’d be giving a peasant a pep talk?”

“I’m sorry I ever called you that,” he said, embarrassed.

“I’m just teasing,” she said. “It’s a thing friends do, you know?”

Are we friends now?”

She wasn’t imagining the hope in his voice—the hope in his bright, gold eyes when he looked at her like that. Katara smiled and, instead of answering, she showed him just how much of a friend to her he was.

She lunged towards him – arms around his neck in a tight embrace. A better hug than the quick one she’d given him before. A proper one. Zuko went rigid at her touch but soon gave into it anyway and wrapped his arms around her middle.

They stayed that way for a while.

Katara imagined that he was smiling as she held him.

He was.