❯ Zuko Was No Coward – A Powerful Bender ( Chapter 3 )
The strength of her feelings when she saw him kneeling in that clearing was almost overpowering. The anger and hurt had strengthened the first attack and Zuko had done nothing to block. He tumbled back, dripping wet, only to kneel again to plead. She remembered Toph’s voice, rising above hers, testifying to the truth behind Zuko’s words, but she was too hurt to listen. How Zuko had the strength to put up with her animosity day after day, Katara hadn’t the faintest idea. She had remained tense and watchful long after the others had relaxed and then welcomed the former Fire Prince into their group and, gradually, she too accepted him. The sturdy columns of the old Air Temple had served as their camp for several months until Azula’s surprise attack. Now, they were on Ember Island, having barely escaped with their lives.
Katara was pulled from her musings but the sound of Aang and Zuko firebending in the courtyard. The sun was crawling up the horizon and soon Toph would appear for Aang’s earthbending. The sturdy earthbender packed quite a bit of power behind her punches. Katara had to heal more than one bruise Aang, and sometimes Zuko, would receive from Toph’s idea of bending practice. She studied the two firebending a moment before bending some water into the wash tub to clean up breakfast. Zuko had gotten stronger. Everyone in their group had gotten stronger. She smiled, splashing slightly and twisting shapes into the water. Aang had the best teachers. Three master benders and… Sokka.
A disturbing thought crossed her mind. Did they really think of Sokka as just a spare? No. She shook her head. Sokka was a powerful leader, able to put people at ease with a laugh while at the same time coming up with some hair-brained scheme that was half-mad and yet everyone seemed to follow. He had definitely improved on swordplay. She mused that perhaps he felt the odd man out since he was the only non-bender in their tight-knit group. She wondered what it felt like, surrounded by people who had so much power that you’d never be able to touch. Perhaps that was why he treated her meager attempts at waterbending back in the South Pole as a joke. After traveling across the world with him and facing the dangers they had, she’d learned a few things about the brother she thought she knew so well. It was when he was most fearful that the jokes increased. It was an attempt to calm himself. And, despite all his bravado and chauvinistic tendencies, he was really afraid that he wasn’t important. That he’d be left behind.
Katara’s hands dropped into the dish water, a sudden thought occurring to her. Sokka claimed to be over their mother’s sudden, tragic death but now she was having her doubts. Everyone he knew left him. Their mother was violently taken from them at a young age and their father left him behind when he’d taken the warriors to meet the others already at the war front. Sokka thought he was weak and that was why he’d been left when their father joined the war effort. It also explained his diligence protecting the remaining tribe from Fire Nation attack. Not, Katara realized now, they had any fear of that occurring again. The Southern Water Tribe posed no threat whatsoever to the Fire Nation. It’s ten families of mostly women and young children were all that was left.
Katara looked over at her brother. He had joined Aang and Zuko and was laughing over some story he was telling the other boys. Aang found great amusement in the tale but she couldn’t tell what Zuko thought. He appeared attentive and she thought she could detect a small grin but she’d never heard him laugh. Her gaze shifted from Zuko to her brother and then back. Perhaps he wasn’t so different from them after all. She had first begun to realize that back in Ba Sing Se and then refused to credit the realization after he joined Azula. Now, things were different. They had changed, matured. The failed invasion had taught their group that much and shown Zuko a clear path.
She let her eyes slide over Zuko’s torso, lingering on the defined muscles of his arms, chest and stomach. He was certainly much more defined than either her brother or Aang. A blush dusted across her cheeks and she looked away, biting her lip to keep the embarrassed grin from showing. She had witnessed the power in his body when he went with her to find her mother’s killer. She’d also felt it when he tackled her at the Western Air Temple. Her gaze drifted back to the three males, eyes focusing on the flex of the muscles in Zuko’s back. Zuko was�
�What’s got your attention and making your heart jump around like a rabbaroo?�
The voice at her elbow startled her, causing water to splash out of the wash basin and across her lap. With quick movements, she bent the water back into the tub before turning to look at the smirking earthbender next to her. Toph raised an eyebrow, her face smudged with dirt and, Katara’s eyes narrowed, berries? Toph nudged her when she didn’t answer right away. �Well?�
Katara blinked, turning away with a soft snort. �What are you talking about?�
Toph looked about to contradict her but Suki flopped down next to her, heaving a big sigh. �Are you ever going to get married?�
The question seemed to drop out of the sky and Katara stared at her, dumbfounded. Toph scoffed, joining the girls on the ground and folding her arms. �Nah. They’d just try to protect me or something stupid like that.�
Sukki looked skeptical. �I don’t think so. Besides, it’s nice to be protected once and a while.�
Toph just gave a sarcastic laugh. �Sure. Whatever you want to believe, Princess.�
The Kyoshi warrior tossed her short hair, leaning back on her elbows and turning her attention to the waterbender. �What about you, Katara?�
Katara felt her heart leap and she tried to keep the blush from her cheeks as she tossed the dirty dish water into a nearby plant. Out of the corner of her eye, she thought she saw Toph smirk but when she looked Toph was simply molding the loose stones nearby. �I don’t know.�
�Oh , please. Aunt Wu had you gushing for weeks about marrying a powerful bender.�
The boys had joined them in the shade and her brother was helpful enough to fill the other three in on their trip to the fortune teller. Katara felt heat explode in her face but, no matter what she said, Sokka was determined to tell the story. Sokka and Aang quickly took seats in the shade but Katara saw Zuko hesitate, gold eyes hooded as he glanced around the group.
Katara tried to deflect the attention. �I thought you didn’t believe Aunt Wu, Sokka.�
He shrugged. �But you believed her. And Aang believed her.�
He seemed to add the last as an after thought. Sukki suddenly sat up, leaning closer to the Water Tribe boy. �You guys visited a fortune teller?�
�You guys did some crazy things before you met me, Snoozles. And you had the nerve to complain about my gambling, Sugar Queen.�
�Oh, and you’re a saint?�
Suki hushed them. �So Katara’s going to marry a powerful bender?�
Sokka leaned back, twirling his boomerang. �Yup, and we all know it’s going to be Aang.�
Aang seemed to puff up proudly and Suki looked between waterbender and airbender wide-eyed and speechless. Even Toph was silent, her brows furrowed in apparent confusion. The blush already on Katara’s cheeks darkened and she opened her mouth�whether to protest or scold her brother, she knew not�but Zuko had stiffened at Sokka’s declaration, his eyes darting from her to Aang. An odd look settled over his features and his mouth worked soundlessly for a moment before he snapped it shut, cleared his throat, and tried again. �I’m…I’m going to find some fire wood.�
Nobody else seemed to hear the strained quality of his voice or bother to point out that it was way too hot for a fire and he didn’t wait for an acknowledgement of his announcement. Zuko, master firebender and former prince of the Fire Nation, turned and almost stalked away from the group without a second glance back. A deep stirring of emotions was warring inside of Katara as she watched him walk away but Toph had started an argument and soon she was dragged into it.
The sun had set hours ago and Zuko hadn’t returned to the beach house. When Katara had expressed some concern, Toph had simply waved her hand and said he was probably off brooding somewhere or setting fire to someone’s beach house. Sometimes Katara wondered what kind of stories the plucky earthbender had managed to pull out of the quiet firebender. When the others had finally settled down for the night and he still hadn’t appeared, she slipped out of the beach house, certain that only Toph would know she had left. Surprisingly, it hadn’t taken long to find him. He was in his typical meditation spot, on an outcropping of rocks overlooking the ocean and facing the eastern horizon. He was just sitting there, his arms wrapped loosely around his knees, staring at the moon. He didn’t turn when she approached but she had no doubts that he knew she was there.
He didn’t turn to face her but his eyes dropped to his knees. She stood next to him, watching the waves roll in and sink back. It was mesmerizing during the day, at night with the moon reflecting on it, the waves were soothing and almost hypnotic. Finally, she pulled her eyes from the water, gazing down at him. His hair tossed gently in the breeze and Katara released a quiet sigh. �May I sit down?�
He shrugged but moved over on the rock to make room. �Sure.�
She settled on the rock, squinting through the dark in an attempt to read his expression. �Are you�� she changed her mind, �Did you know I met the moon spirit?�
Gold eyes turned to stare at her and Katara looked away, finding the moon as it hung on the horizon. He said nothing to stop her, so she continued, filling the silence with pointless words. �At the North Pole. Princess Yue��
He interrupted, �The white-haired girl.�
She turned in surprise, a startled laugh escaping her lips. �So you did see her. She was�is very beautiful. My brother was in love with her.�
�He told you?� she gasped.
Zuko suddenly looked embarrassed and he dropped his eyes back to the water. �Yes. When we…rescued your father.�
A bitter snort escaped her before she could stop it and he turned to her, raising a questioning eyebrow. She blushed, picking at her pants to avoid looking at him. �You and Sokka go on a field trip to rescue people. You and Aang go on a field trip to learn firebending secrets,� she paused, frowning. �You and I go to kill someone. I feel shallow.�
She was surprised when she saw the soft, understanding smile directed at her. Zuko rarely, if ever, smiled. It looked a little awkward at first, but it was genuine. �Their needs were different. Aang needed to learn firebending. Your brother needed to regain his honor.�
�What is it with guys and their honor,� she grumbled, folding her arms. �I blame you for that line.�
To Katara’s delight, Zuko gave a soft, rasping laugh. First the beginnings of a smile, now a laugh. She felt like her heart would explode. He was relaxed though something was clearly on his mind. �Aang is a very powerful bender.�
So that was it, was it? Katara took a quiet breath, trying to keep her voice neutral, �So he is.�
Zuko seemed to mull over the statement, twisting words each way in attempt to discover any hidden meanings. Her heart broke a little at the sight and not for the first time she wondered what kind of family Zuko came from. He took a deep breath, he had turned back to the moon. �Do you think you would marry him?�
She gave the same answer she’d given the others earlier. �I don’t know. We’re both kind of young.�
He straightened and his fists clenched in frustration. �But there’s no one more powerful than the Avatar.�
She acknowledged the statement but couldn’t help pointing out: �But then there’s only one Avatar.� He scowled at her. �I think you’re a powerful bender.�
He scoffed, grumbling, �I’m weak. My sister always beats me.�
A smile came to her lips and she placed a hand on his arm, feeling the warm skin beneath her palm. �Azula defeated Aang, too. Strength lies in more than just bending, Zuko. You are a strong person.�
His throat worked and the muscles under her hand tensed. �But I�In Ba Sing Se��
She cut him off, �In Ba Sing Se you were confused. I was confused. Azula offered you everything you ever wanted. Everything you tried so long to get. You had to figure things out on your own. I have the feeling you never do things the easy way. You were dumb enough to send Sparky Sparky Boom Man after us.�
The tension in his arms and shoulders relaxed and he gave her an amused grin. �I can’t believe you guys called him that.�
She folded her arms and gave a toss of her hair, giving a mock disdainful sniff. �Well, if we stopped to get the name of everyone who chased us, we wouldn’t have made it this far. I seem to remember a particularly annoying, banished Fire Prince�� She dropped her arms, giving his shoulder a sharp poke. �You’re changing the subject.�
His grin faded slightly, though his eyes remained on her. �I still don’t see your point.�
With a roll of her eyes, she blew out an exasperated breath. She had never pictured Zuko having so little self-esteem. �The point, Zuko, is that what you’ve seen as weakness has really been your strength. Everything you’ve done, everything you are, has made you a stronger person. There is a…strength of personality about you. You have the strength of leadership yet step down for Sokka when you could easily take over. And you’re willing to step aside for the Avatar, a twelve year old kid.�
He looked shocked and she heard him suck in a surprised breath. �But the prophecy��
�Was made by an old woman who drank too much tea.� She took his face in her hands, ignoring the slight flinch when her fingers curved under his scarred ear. �Zuko, you are a powerful bender.�
Gold eyes mirrored the moonlight and she felt his throat work. His hands rose to wrap gently around her forearms and her name came out in a trembling whisper that spread warmth out from her heart. �Katara…�
She smiled, making the same observation she’d made at the beginning of the day, �Power is a funny thing. There’s more to power than strength in bending. There are strengths in weaknesses that Azula and Ozai will never understand.�
His hands slid up to cover her hands, following them when she moved them down his neck and across his shoulders before holding them against his chest. She was grateful for the darkness since she knew her cheeks were red. She’d never touched a man without the barrier of healing water between their flesh. His hands tightened gently around hers and her breath caught, making her words come out in a whisper, �I believe I’m the one in charge of my life. Besides, she said I would marry a powerful bender, not the most powerful bender.�
Warm hands released hers to cup her face, pulling her closer to the firebender. He searched her face, uncertainty coloring his voice, �Katara?�
Her throat dried and she licked her lips, her heart hammering when his eyes dropped to follow her tongue. �Y-yes?�
Words were lost in the heat of each other’s mouths. Neither knew who moved first. Katara’s arms slipped around his chest, fingers splayed across his back, and Zuko’s hands were tangled in her hair, bringing her closer and more firmly against him. She collapsed against his chest, fire erupting in her veins as he deepened the kiss, and a moan built in her throat, escaping when he pulled back. He gave a soft laugh at the sound and pressed a kiss to the spot below her ear, causing her to shiver. Beneath the silver moon, they held each other close and prayed that together they could stand against any opposition.