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THEY TRICKED HER. The gods had tricked her!

Katara was so angry she could scream, but making a single noise on this bridge could void the spiritual contract and send Zuko straight to Naraka, a realm of torment and agony. That thought alone kept her mouth shut. The idea of Zuko being sent to hell because of her both terrified and drove her forward.

It wasn’t entirely Varuna’s fault, she eventually admitted. Actually, it wasn’t the goddess’s fault at all. It was her own. Katara was the one who was so confident in herself and her need to return Zuko to the living—to appease her own guilt—that she never once considered the consequences for him.

Avatar Kuruk warned her, but she had arrogantly presumed the sacrifice would be hers and hers alone. It wasn’t. It was her decision to bring Zuko home; a decision she made that entailed a sacrifice for him. The ultimate kind.

But why did he choose to come with her? Why did he allow her to bait him if he knew all along that he was just travelling towards a second death—no, a punishment far greater than death? He was willingly walking into a trap that she had unwittingly created. But to what end?

What had she done?

Taking in a deep breath, she carefully made her way onto the onyx-coloured bridge. She could hear the rushing waters below, but she dared not glance down in case she somehow turned and looked back at Zuko. Varuna had told her she must always look ahead, always move forward, or else—

She shook her head. She didn’t want to think about the consequences. Instead she focussed on moving forward. She stared ahead but could no longer see the stairs that Varuna had pointed out earlier. The fog was so thick here that she could barely see her own hands in front of her face or the black stone bridge beneath her feet. She wondered what kind of images she would be shown. Would it be like how it was seeing Zuko’s past? Would she see her own this time? Would he see as well?

She worried her bottom lip with her teeth. The latter thought shouldn’t have bothered her. Why should she care if he saw her past? She had seen him at his most vulnerable. It was only fair that he got to see her at her weakest point, too.

The memory of Zuko freezing when he saw his mother hugging him goodbye flitted through her mind and she frowned. She was going to have to relive everything again, wasn’t she?

Taking in a deep breath, she strode forward. This was her test, she told herself. To see how strong she was and how much she was willing to sacrifice for her enemy without condemning him to hell. But while she had stood beside Zuko on his path, her journey inevitably had to be travelled alone.








ZUKO’S EYES WERE trained on the waterbender in front of him, his gaze fixed on the chestnut braid that hung down the middle of her back. He knew all along that he’d be sent to Naraka should someone try (and fail) to bring him home. His conversation with Red-Sash informed him as such:

“On the off chance that a living being should descend here and petition for your soul, you run the risk of being sent directly to Naraka should that person fail.

“It is all about balance here, no shortcuts. And I should note that there have only been a handful of people who have managed to convince Varuna. You are unlikely to be a part of that exception.”


Zuko didn’t expect anyone to come for him, least of all the person who had killed him, but she had. The waterbender had come to him with tears in her eyes and he stupidly agreed. He still wasn’t exactly sure why he did it. Maybe on some level he knew she’d fail and he’d be forced to spend his reincarnation cycle in hell. Maybe he wanted to be punished. Maybe.

But now things were different. Now he wanted her to succeed. He wanted to return to the living. He needed to.








KATARA SLOWLY MADE her way across the bridge. She was still unable to see what was directly in front of her, so she stumbled forward and reached out to balance her footing. She glanced down at her feet to see gaps in the stonework below. Some gaps were easy to spot, missing chunks of mortar; some were several feet wide. Others were difficult to spot, like slick cracks in the stone that crumbled the moment her foot touched them. What at first seemed to be a strong and sturdy structure was actually a weakened foundation.

How many hopeful souls have set foot on this bridge? she wondered. How many have made it to the other side?

The fog picked up, invading her space as it crawled along her skin and forced its way into her lungs as she breathed. It swaddled her like a thick blanket, suffocating her, and she tried her best not to choke on the air.

But the fog wasn’t her only deterrent from running straight for the exit. The crumbling stone bridge groaned and creaked under their weight, cracking apart. She swallowed her fear into the pit of her stomach and held it there, coiling it tightly and refusing to let it surface. She really did have to lead Zuko out of here, and she had to trust that he would follow her every step or else—

Suddenly the fog began to lift, drawing upwards and parting like curtains for a performance. The bridge was visible to her now, though she still couldn’t see the exit ahead. She thanked the spirits for the small favour that she could at least now see where she was going and began to walk more confidently.

The sound of the rushing celestial waters below was almost soothing to her ears, though eerie, and the brilliant silver-green waters rose up alongside of her like twisted banners spun of liquid silk. The waters then began to form their own patterns, reminding her of the mists in the meadows, and she waited for it.

At first there were only flashing images. A small girl with pale skin and milky green eyes, dressed like a boy with messy black hair in her face. Then there were three slightly older girls around Katara’s age. All three appeared to be chasing after Appa. The older girls looked familiar, but the images flashed by so quickly that Katara had no time to recall where she had seen them before.

Then she saw herself in a green-glowing crystal cavern with Zuko. His ponytail was gone, replaced with shaggy hair that fell in front of his eyes. He was dressed in Earth Kingdom robes and he was looking at her with such sad eyes. She was touching his scarred cheek, almost longingly.

The images shifted.

Next she was kneeling in the water with a lifeless Aang in her arms. She swallowed hard, trying to chase back the visceral images that mocked her vision. Was he dead? No, the Avatar couldn’t be dead! She wanted to scream out, to ask what was going on, but the scene was already changing, morphing into something else.

Then a fiery scene unfolded. The skies above were a blood red, an angry storm of violence. She saw Zuko—this time he was crouching low with his arms extended forward. Blue and orange flames surrounded him, licking at his skin. Suddenly a jet of blue fire blasted past his shoulder. The blue flame-wielder was a girl around Katara’s age, with brown hair and amber eyes. She was propelling herself forward with those same blue flames, aiming for Zuko.

Creating a large sphere of fire, Zuko managed to protect himself from the girl’s attacks while returning his own volley of orange fire. But the girl was too fast for him. He crouched low to the ground and performed several spinning sweep kicks, creating a powerful ring of fire that expanded outwards. The girl attempted to block Zuko’s attack with a shield of blue fire, but she was too late and Zuko’s fire connected.

The amber-eyed girl fell forward and rolled across the ground, gasping in pain. She determinedly picked herself up. She was obviously in pain, but it was more than that. It was more than just physical torment that clouded her haunted, frenzied eyes. Her hair had come undone, wet strands sticking to her face. She looked up at Zuko through the flames and bared her teeth in contempt.

“What, no lightning today, Azula?” Zuko taunted. “What’s the matter? Afraid I’ll re-direct it?”

He shifted his stance and thrust his palm forward, as though daring her to try.

Katara held her breath. Azula? Zuko was fighting his own sister?

“Oh, I’ll show you lightning!” Azula screamed.

She waved her hands around in arcs, generating lightning from her very fingertips, while Zuko breathed evenly, extending both palms outwards as though he was going to receive the lightning.

Katara held her breath, mesmerised by the siblings’ actions. It was like watching two fencers circle each other in duel. Azula’s lightning crackled in her fingers and her eyes shifted, looking past Zuko at someone else. Katara’s eyes widened when she saw that it was her there standing behind the Fire Prince.

Azula smirked and extended her arm to the right of Zuko, releasing the lighting at Katara. She could only watch in horror as the lightning travelled towards the image of herself. She was going to die. Zuko’s crazy sister was going to kill her in the future!

But suddenly the scene narrowed in on Zuko, an expression of shock registering on his face as he realised who Azula was aiming for. He pivoted quickly to the right and leapt, trying to get in between Katara and the lightning as it shot from Azula’s fingertips.

“No!”

There was a blinding flash of light and Katara could hear her own vision screaming out his name, “Zuko!”

The images dispersed and Katara noticed that her own hand was reaching out through the green fog, as though she could save him, as though could stop the images from disappearing.

This was her future, to watch Zuko die?

She curled her fingers into her palm and lowered her hand to her side. She set her mouth into a hard, determined line. She could not question it now, could not say a word, could not turn back. She had to keep going forward, for Zuko’s sake.








ZUKO’S EYES WERE on Katara’s back but his mind was spinning, reeling in shock.

What did he just see? His future or hers? He would save this girl’s life, fighting against his own sister, matching her every move? Him, the failure, the banished prince? He wasn’t sure if these visions were glimpses of the future or some twisted sort of devilry.

The green water flickered and he bit his lip, concentrating on the task at hand. He found himself admiring the waterbender’s resolve, her ability to keep going forward. Perhaps she wouldn’t so easily be broken. But then it was still too early to tell.








KATARA CONTINUED TO carefully make her way across the bridge, wondering what she’d be shown next. Unlike the road to Zuko’s past, where Zuko could run past the images, she could not. If she should run, she could fall, and then what would happen to Zuko?

Celestial waters rose high above her like dazzling columns, forming a pair of hands that were reaching into a deep pool of blue. It was Admiral Zhao. He grabbed the white koi from its sanctuary and it struggled in his hands. Zhao forced the flailing fish into a bag and pulled the strings tight. The moon above turned a blood red.

Katara’s eyes widened in shock as she remembered what Avatar Kuruk had told her about the moon and ocean spirits. Admiral Zhao had just captured Tui, the Moon Spirit.

The scene then shifted to the northern city with a blood red light washing over it. The Northern Water Tribe’s counter-attack against the Fire Nation soldiers faltered. Without the moon in balance with the ocean, the waterbenders had lost their power to bend. The Fire Nation soldiers advanced, burning the city as they went.

More images shifted by and Katara trembled slightly as she advanced down the bridge. Suddenly she saw Zhao again, standing under the blood red moon. He held a knife to the bag with Tui inside, and Aang dropped his staff in surrender.

“Zhao, don’t!”

“It’s my destiny,”
Zhao said with a smug grin. “To destroy the moon and the Water Tribe.”

“Destroying the moon won’t just hurt the Water Tribe,”
Aang explained. “It will hurt everyone, including you. Without the moon, everything would fall out of balance. You have no idea what kind of chaos that would unleash on the world.”

“He is right, Zhao!”
A hooded Iroh stepped towards Zhao on the side of Aang, forming a triangle around the pond.

“General Iroh,” Zhao said with a bored sigh. “Why am I not surprised to discover your treachery?”

Iroh lowered his hood. “I’m no traitor, Zhao. The Fire Nation needs the moon, too. We all depend on the balance.” He pointed a finger at the admiral and thundered, “Whatever you do to that spirit I will unleash on you ten-fold!” He assumed a firebending stance. “Let it go, now!”

Iroh and Zhao locked gazes and, after a moment, Zhao faltered, finally releasing the koi back into the water. The red light of the moon vanished, returning to its normal colour, and Katara breathed a silent sigh of relief. But then Zhao’s face contorted with rage and his hand came down, smiting the water with a hot blast of fire. The moon winked out of existence and Katara almost gasped in horror.

What had he done?

Iroh sprang into action immediately, crossing the foot bridge and attacking with blast after blast, effortlessly despatching Zhao’s men. Zhao watched the general’s blinding assault and quickly fled back towards the city.

With a defeated look on his face, Iroh turned back to the pond and knelt. The black fish was swimming frantically while the white koi floated lifelessly to the surface. There was a huge gash in its side. Iroh gently lifted the white fish from the water, an expression of utter sadness on his face.

“There’s no hope now,” Yue whispered. “It’s over.”

Katara’s heart clenched in irrevocable sorrow. The Moon Spirit was dead? It couldn’t be. But she could feel it, could feel the absence of the moon and the loss of her bending.

Was everything already lost?

She wanted to call out, to return to her world as quickly as possible. But that was what the spirits wanted. This was her test, the penalty she had to pay—forced to watch her friends and her brother face danger alone while she was helpless to intervene.

She had to continue on.








HER HEART WAS heavy now, and she wondered if that’s what made her legs feel so leaden. She felt like she was wading through molasses; each step was more labouring than the last.

The fog had returned; no longer green but greying brown. Sepia. The colours of the celestial waters had changed too and that was when she realised every colour represented an interval in time: future, present and now the past.

The celestial waters, with their dying hint of green, began to weave a scene. She saw herself standing next to Aang on the river bank. They were practising waterbending.

“This is a pretty basic move but it still took me months to perfect, so don’t be frustrated if you don’t get it right away,” she told Aang with an encouraging smile. “Just push and pull the water like this.”

She began to bob gracefully back and forth and the water on the river edge moved back and forth with her.

“The key is getting the wrist movement right.”

Aang began imitating her. “Like this?”

“That’s almost right. If you keep practising, I’m sure eventually—”

“Hey, I’m bending it already!”
He began to move around a respectable-sized wave of water, and she opened her mouth in shock.

“Wow, I can’t believe you got that so quickly.” She looked a little unhappy. “It took me two months to learn that move.”

“Well, you had to figure it out on your own,”
he reasoned. “I’m lucky enough to have a great teacher.”

Katara frowned, remembering the envy she had felt at the time. She really didn’t want to watch this scene for some reason. It made her feel uncomfortable and she didn’t care to discover why.

“So, what’s next?”

“This is a more difficult move. I call it
streaming the water.” She moved her hands and pulled out of a stream of water from the river and began to loop it around. “It’s harder than it looks, so don’t be disappointed if—”

Her past-self stopped mid-sentence, seeing that Aang had already mastered the move. Begrudgingly, she showed him a new technique, a harder one and one that she hadn’t yet mastered. But where she failed, Aang succeeded.

Standing on the bridge, Katara could only frown while she observed the sour look on her own face. Was she that jealous back then, that insecure?

The images jumped around and she saw herself back by the river with Aang while he was holding open the waterbending scroll for her to read.

“The single water whip,” she read aloud. “Looks doable.”

She raised a stream of water and whipped it around, but it hit her in the forehead, leaving a red welt. Sokka, who was sitting cross-legged on a rock behind her, laughed.

“What’s so funny!” she snapped.

“I’m sorry but you deserve that.” He turned to at Aang. “You’ve been duped. She’s only interested in teaching herself.”

A cold knot of shame formed in the pit of her stomach. Sokka was right. She had only been interested in teaching herself at the time. She couldn’t help but think how selfish she could be with Aang and Sokka. Since when had she become like this? Her mother would be so disappointed in her.

“Argh! Why can’t I get this stupid move!” She stomped her foot in annoyance.

“You’ll get it,” Aang reassured her, but this only angered her more.

He then formed the water whip correctly on the first try.

“You’ve just gotta shift your weight through the stances.” He gracefully manipulated the whip for a few seconds and then dropped it back into the river. “There. See, the key to bending is—”

“Will you PLEASE shut your air hole! Believe it or not, your infinite wisdom gets a little old sometimes. Why don’t we just throw the scroll away since you’re so naturally gifted!”


Katara closed her eyes in embarrassment and shame, bringing her hands to her mouth to stifle any sound from coming out.

Did she really say that to him? Did she really look like that? Her envy and her insecurities were all laid out so brazenly before her. What must Zuko be thinking? He must believe her to be a total nutcase, if he didn’t assume that already.

But she didn’t have the time to dwell on such trivial matters. Sure, she was humbled, but to dwell any longer meant she did only think about herself, and that wasn’t right. That wasn’t who she was.

She had to keep moving.

More images appeared and she took a step forward, and then another. It was hard to watch her past and now she was surrounded by it. The images began to form a familiar pattern and, as the scene played out, her breath hitched in her throat.

It was a piece of her past that she didn’t want to relive, something she didn’t wish to ever experience again, but had to. There was no turning back now. So she swallowed hard and watched the painful scene unfold, knowing now why Zuko had been so afraid to relive his past . . .

She saw a young Sokka popping his head out from a snow fort only to have a snowball smashed in his face. The culprit, a young Katara, giggled as she watched her older brother try to heave a snowball as big as his body. He was about to throw it, or have it fall back down on his face, when he looked up. Katara glanced up, too. Black snow was raining down on them like soot.

“I’m going to find Mom,” she said, running past Sokka.

Young Katara weaved her way through the crowd. She was so tiny that she was almost trampled on. But as the warriors rushed past her towards the icy shore, she soundlessly slipped inside her family’s hut and pushed aside the curtains.

“Mom!”

Her words died in her throat when she saw her mother on her knees in front of a Fire Nation soldier. The man turned to look at young Katara and older Katara felt the familiar dread return to her stomach, but this time it was accompanied with pure hatred. This was the man who had killed her mother.

“Just let her go,” her mother pleaded, “and I’ll give you the information you want.”

“You heard your mother.”
The Fire Nation soldier motioned towards the exit. “Get out of here!”

Katara looked over her mother’s shoulder, frightened. “Mom, I’m scared.”

“Go find your dad, sweetie,”
she said. “I’ll handle this.”

A reluctant Katara looked up at the soldier, who stared down at her fiercely. She then turned, pushing past the curtains and running out of the house as fast as she could, as fast as her feet could carry her. She stopped at the edge of a small hill and looked down, spotting her father.

“Dad! Dad!” Hakoda was throwing a firebending soldier hard into the snow but glanced up at the sound of his daughter’s voice. “Please, I think Mom’s in trouble! There’s a man in our house.”

Her father let go of the soldier immediately. “Kya!”

They both ran back home, Katara behind her father as he pulled back the curtains.

“Mom?”

The pain was as immediate as it was soul-annihilating. It felt as though a knife had been plunged into her heart, twisted so that it would never heal. She never wanted to see this again, but here it was, frozen in time to be displayed in front of her. It was a reminder of her mother’s sacrifice.

She wanted to turn away. She wanted so badly to escape inside herself and let the pain consume her, but she couldn’t. Spirits above and below, she wanted to—how she wanted to—but such luxuries couldn’t be afforded to her here, not now. So with a broken and bleeding heart, she moved forward into the abyss.








ZUKO WATCHED AS Katara’s shoulders trembled. But her head was still held high and she stared straight ahead as she took a shaky step forward and then another.

He wouldn’t admit it, but he was amazed by her conviction. His mother had left him, yes, but he had never witnessed her death. He had never seen her burnt, lifeless body laid out bare before him. This was just plain cruel, and he now understood why she hated him, why when she thought of the Fire Nation she pictured his face.

He felt this unexplainable need to reach out to her, to put his hand on her shoulder and tell her it was okay to cry; to tell her that her mother had died for her and that was the greatest sacrifice a parent could ever make. But he couldn’t. He couldn’t do anything and he couldn’t say anything to make her feel better. He was powerless and it angered him more than anything.

His eyes returned to her back, watching her shoulders square once more with that dogged determination that she wore like a trademark—no, like a banner. She was strong and tenacious. She was like him in some ways but stronger, so much stronger.

The Fire Nation took her mother away like they took his.

It was something they had in common.








SHE COULD SEE the light at the end of the bridge, a faint glow in the distance.

Her steps seemed lighter now and she almost raced towards the exit, still watching her footing as she went. But then the light went out and the fog lifted and lowered, curling around her; not the water but the fog. It invaded her, consumed her every pore, blurring her vision until she was blindly trudging forward.

And the as suddenly as it had begun, it ended. The fog once more parted like curtains and a thin strip opened down the bridge. At the end she saw the soft glow of the exit and something else, something far more heart-stopping.

It was her mother.

Her body trembled. Of course it wasn’t going to be easy. She wasn’t just going to be shown images of her future, present and past and simply be expected to leave. She was going to be tempted, really tempted by the solid-looking image of her mother standing in front of her.

She was so close that Katara could hear her breathing, smell the gentle fragrance of her hair.

“Katara.” Her mother’s voice was so soft and gentle, exactly how she remembered it.

Katara’s own voice was strangled in her throat and she blinked back tears. It was a trick, she told herself. It had to be. Her mind screamed at her to not trust this image, that Zuko’s soul depended on her actions. She could not break now when she had come this far. But her mother looked so real, so solid and alive. She could see the rise and fall of her chest, the wind blowing through her hair, and the wet tears welling in her eyes.

“Katara, come to me. It’s so cold down here without you.”

That did it.

A whimper escaped past Katara’s lips and she clamped her hands over her mouth, tears streaming down her face with abandon. Did she speak, did she call out? She didn’t know. But the look on her mother’s face didn’t make matters better. Katara could already feel her hands leaving her face, her arms reaching out towards her mother, her lips parting open to speak.

But suddenly she stopped.

Katara wanted this. She wanted this more than life itself. But it was not her soul she was gambling with; it was Zuko’s. Her mother, her real mother would never want her to do this. She would never ask Katara to sacrifice someone else for her own happiness. So squaring her shoulders, Katara let her hands fall limply to her sides, along with her tears, and continued on.

Her bottom lip wobbled. She could feel the cold mist as she brushed past her mother’s form; feel her own tears freely spill down her cheeks and neck.

I’m sorry, Mom. I love you. I love you so much, but I have to do this.

She looked ahead, her vision blurred by tears, and continued walking until she could no longer feel her mother’s presence.

That was when she finally saw the stairs, a set of white steps leading up into the clouds. And as she drew nearer, the exit began to glow brightly. She raised a foot on the step and then another, ascending, and suddenly she saw Yue bathed in white, floating down towards her.

Yue?

The princess was reaching out and Katara dumbly lifted her own hand to grasp the young woman’s. The touch was misty but warm, slowly growing solid. Katara studied the hand for a second, no longer seeing the lightly umber-tanned skin or the dainty slender fingers. Instead this new hand was bigger, masculine and pale.

She looked up and her eyes widened in shock.

Zuko?

It was not Yue holding her hand now but Zuko. He was above her, the white backdrop of the clouds surrounding his head like a halo. He was smiling sadly, and then he was gone.

Katara screamed.








HE WAS GONE.

Zuko was gone, sent to hell because of her!

She knew it. She could feel it in the bottom of her heart like a gaping, festering wound. She looked for him but could not find him. He was gone. The light was so bright now; it was blinding her. Everything had turned white and, against her own volition, Katara closed her eyes.

Just before slipping into the null void of unconsciousness she called Zuko’s name.








SHE BOLTED AWAKE, gasping.

Her tunic was soaked through at the back with sweat, trapped between her coat so that the cold tingled against her wet skin. She brought a shaky hand to her face and patted it gently, as if to test that she was real. Her fingers swept up into her hairline, running through the loose tendrils that had come undone from her braid. She breathed heavily, trying to slow her rapid-beating heart and collect her thoughts.

She remembered reaching the exit, the bright light and Yue’s hand reaching out for hers. She made it, she told herself. She made it back to the living world. But then another, far more worrisome thought surfaced: Zuko.

She turned, expectant to see the prince sitting up and regarding her with his trademark gloomy glare, but he was lying still on the ground where she had left him. His eyes were closed and his mouth was still open in that faint O of shock she remembered all too well.

He looked so young.

“Zuko!”

She was up on her feet, scrambling towards his pale, prone body. She yanked apart his coat, exposing his skin to the icy elements, and put her ear against his chest. There was barely any warmth left in him, no rise and fall of his chest. Nothing. He wasn’t breathing.

“This can’t be happening,” she whimpered, lifting her head as she put two fingers to the pulse of his neck. There wasn’t one.

She began to panic, feeling the wash of fire and ice swimming through her veins as if being pumped by a hummingbird’s wings hell-bent on destroying what was left of her fragile heart. Gathering her wits, she drew water from the snow and placed her palms over his chest. She could do this, she told herself. She just needed to restart his heart. No big deal.

Her hands trembled as she bent the water, watching it glow a pale blue. She tried to remember what Yugoda had taught her about healing but her mind had gone blank. All she could focus on was his pale, lifeless face staring up at her.

This was not what she wanted.  

This was not what she wanted!

“Breathe, Zuko! BREATHE!”

Fresh tears stung her eyes as she concentrated, dripping down her cheeks and mixing with the healing water. Trembling fingers coated with ice caressed his skin, but there was nothing, no reaction, just her cold fingers on his equally cooling skin.

“I was supposed to save you,” she whispered. “I was supposed to—”

Her fingers suddenly jumped as a pulse beat rhythmically beneath her fingertips. She could feel his chi, the fire reigniting within him. His throat wobbled and he began coughing hoarsely, shifting beneath her. Golden eyes struggled to open, peeking out through long lashes, and he managed another broken cough before shakily sitting up, his palm covering his throat.

Katara released a breath she hadn’t known she’d been holding and lunged forward, wrapping her arms around his neck. “You’re alive!”

Zuko was thrown back, knocked down by the sheer force of her weight, and he cried out in pain. She quickly disengaged herself and helped him back to a sitting position. He stared at her, confused and mystified, his hand still caressing his bruised throat.

“Where am I? What happened?”

Katara’s eyes widened in surprise first and then worry and suddenly she was lunging forward again, her hands on his face. But this time her lips locked onto his and his eyes bugged open in abject shock, staying that way for a half second before lazily drifting shut.

His long lashes fluttered against her cheek as her lips bruised against his with an incessant pressure. After a few seconds she slowly broke off the kiss, nudging her nose against his as she pulled back. His eyes were still closed and his mouth opened. Soon eyelashes began to flutter and his eyes opened. A look of bewildered recognition registered in his burnished gold eyes.

“Uh,” he rasped hoarsely, trying to find his voice, “nice to see you, too?”

His good eye was as wide as a saucer plate and his hands were on her shoulders, keeping her back at arm’s length in case she should pounce again. Katara wasn’t sure how or when his hands got there, and Zuko didn’t seem to know either because suddenly he was staring down at them in dawning horror before abruptly pulling away as though she had just scalded him.

“You remember me?” she asked, biting her swollen lip in anticipation.

He regarded her with a baffled expression, as though she had just asked the stupidest question in the world. “Of course I do. You killed me and then hauled me out of the Spirit World.” He then eyed her warily before leaning even farther back. “Why were you kissing me just now?”

“Agni said—” she was speaking quickly, too quickly for him to fully comprehend “—Agni said that you wouldn’t remember anything when you returned to the surface and that I’d have to kiss you to make you remember and—”

Realisation hit her as subtly as a lobbed brick. Her face instantly drained of colour and just as quickly flushed a bright pink.

“That sneaky little bas—”

“Ah.” Zuko put a finger to her lips. “No cursing the gods. It’ll bring you bad luck.”

Katara blushed several more shades of pink and he lowered his hand, an effulgence of colour blossoming on his own cheeks.

“So that’s what Lord Agni wanted to speak to you about in private?”

She nodded shyly. “Yeah. I guess gods like to play tricks, too.”

They both turned their heads and sat on the hard, cold ground in silence until Katara finally worked up the courage to look at Zuko’s face again. She noted the ropey scar on his neck with a slight frown.

“I can heal that for you, if you want.” She pointed to his throat and made a motion across her own neck when he gave her a look of utter bewilderment.

“Sure,” he said gruffly, but she could still see the slight tint of blush on his cheeks.

She had him lie back down and she gathered the water to her palms. She placed the healing liquid over his neck and let her fingers do their work. She could already feel his chi responding to hers, the torn skin knitting itself back together, weaving over and over until the pattern was whole again.

She then brought her hands away and smiled proudly. She had to admit she did a rather good job. There was barely a noticeable line on his throat now.

Zuko sat up and put his hand to his throat, examining it. A faint smile surfaced on his lips when he could no longer feel the ropey bump that was there before.

“Thank you,” he said.

“You’re welcome.” She smiled and rose to her feet, and he stood with her.

There was an awkward tension between the two of them now, not animosity but something else entirely. Katara wondered if they should talk about what just happened but reconsidered, thinking maybe it was best this way. They both talked enough at Varuna’s palace and they had both seen enough of each other’s pasts to last a lifetime.

Soft rays of sunlight suddenly then peeked their way through the opening of the cave and both of them turned towards the light. The storm appeared to have passed. It looked clear outside and the rising of the sun enticed them, tempting them to leave the comfort of the cave.

Once outside, Katara could see the moon still hanging in the sky, paling in the brightness of the overshadowing sun. Aang and the others must have saved the day somehow. She smiled at the thought, knowing she should have never doubted her friends. The moon still existed, cohabiting with the sun in the same sky, if only for a little while—much like her and Zuko.

She took in a deep breath of the fresh air and grinned at the thought.

“Do you think we could have been friends?” she blurted out, and Zuko looked down at her with eyes that seemed to glow in the reflecting sunlight.

“Is that all you good guys care about—friendship?”

“That and saving the world from pompous princes who think they’re above everyone else.”

“Meet a lot of those types, huh?”

“All the time.”

Both tried to hold a straight face for as long as they could but eventually gave in with the ghost of grins before turning away. There was tension and embarrassment and definitely awkward silence, but it really wasn’t all that bad, she thought. But then she could feel Zuko’s eyes on her and the back of her neck became unbearably hot.

“No.”

She looked up, nonplussed. “No, what?”

“No, I don’t think we could have been friends,” he answered truthfully. “Not before you killed me, anyway.”

“And now?”

“Now?” He contemplated the idea for a moment and nodded slightly. “Maybe.”

He smiled a tiny, private smile and she felt a sudden jolt inside her heart. There was a glimmer of appreciation in his eyes, and she returned his smile with a curt nod of understanding.

“After all, you did risk your eternal karma for me,” he said, trying to restrain a smirk. “I’d hate to have to come fetch you from the Spirit World later on down the road.”

She stared up at him slack-jawed for a moment before slapping his arm. “Good to hear you’ve gained a sense of humour through all of this, Your Highness.”

Zuko shoulders began to shake with repressed laughter. “It’s all thanks to you, Water Peasant,” he said with a chortle, as he dodged her tiny fists and spun away.

A dark shadow fell across the tundra and both Katara and Zuko stopped their struggle and glanced skywards. A large white object was streaking across the sky and Katara let out a sigh of relief at the all-too-familiar sight of Appa coming into view. The giant sky bison dove towards the ground and landed on the snow with a grunt. Aang had already floated off Appa’s neck while Sokka leapt out of the saddle, accompanied by a surprisingly nimble Iroh.

“Katara!” the airbender cried happily, running towards her.

“Aang!” Katara’s arms were already wrapped around the Avatar, pulling him into a tight hug before she moved onto her brother, smiling into his neck. “Sokka!”

The three pulled apart and glanced over at Zuko in surprise. Aang had a goofy grin on his face that Katara was sure wouldn’t disappear any time soon while Sokka’s brow had furrowed so deeply it seemed to have disappeared into the bridge of his nose.

“Isn’t he supposed to be dead?” He hooked his thumb in Zuko’s direction and Katara swatted his hand down.

“Sokka!”

“Nephew!” Iroh exclaimed with great relief, finally having caught up.

He threw his arms around a half-protesting Zuko, who finally gave in and returned his uncle’s embrace. Finally, Iroh released him, holding the young prince back at arm’s length, examining him for any serious signs of injury before smiling.

“Praise the spirits you’re alive!”

Iroh pulled Zuko in for another hug and the prince smiled softly, awkwardly patting his uncle’s back before pulling away.

“Uncle, what happened? Where’s Zhao?”

Iroh’s expression darkened. “Admiral Zhao is dead. His fleet is retreating as we speak.”

Zuko shook his head in disbelief. “But how?”

“This young Avatar here.” Iroh turned, motioning to a now crest-fallen Aang. The airbender looked both sad and guilty. “It’s a long story, and I will have to tell you over tea sometime, and hopefully you will tell me your story.”

He spared a brief glance at Katara before turning back to his nephew, offering him a knowing wink, which only made Zuko frown.

“Wait,” Katara suddenly cried out, circling in the snow. “Where’s Yue?”

She wasn’t on Appa. She hadn’t come with them.

“She sacrificed herself so that Tui could live.” Sokka’s face was pale with sorrow. “She’s the Moon Spirit now.”

Aang put a hand on the older boy’s arm and looked up at Katara with sad grey eyes. “It probably doesn’t make a lot of sense, but—”

“No, it makes perfect sense.” It was Yue who had reached for her at the end. It was Yue who brought her and Zuko safely home. “Sokka, I’m so sorry.”

Her hand was on his other arm, caressing it gently, and he lowered his head for a moment and sighed before regarding his sister with eyes as blue as hers.

“I’m just glad you’re safe.”

“Me too,” Aang added, and Katara smiled sadly.

“Prince Zuko?”

Katara turned to see Iroh addressing the already retreating prince.

“What’s the matter, Fire Prince?” Sokka taunted. “Not going to try to capture Aang here now that you know what my sister can do to you?”

“Sokka!” She felt a blush of anger and shame settle on her cheeks.

“No, we’re even for now.” Zuko nodded back at the city behind them. “You go back to your victory celebration. I’m sure they’re waiting for you all.”

He was about to turn to leave when Katara broke away from her brother and Aang and took a bold step forward. “Zuko, I—”

“We’ll meet again, Waterbender,” he said.

There was a hint of that private smile on his lips, and she was unable to stop her own smile in return.

“Yeah.” She nodded. “See you soon, Your Highness.”

She raised her hand in farewell and he returned it briefly before finally turning away. She lowered her arm and watched him leave with his uncle—to where, she did not know. Would he try to capture Aang again? She didn’t know this, either. She didn’t really know anything right now. But she remembered the glimpses of her future. She remembered the lightning he would take for her, and because of that she smiled.

She couldn’t explain why but she knew the gamble she took was worth it. She just knew that she had made the right choice. She would see this lonely prince again, in this lifetime or the next. For in both life and death, their souls were now inextricably bound.











THE WHITE-HAIRED GODDESS smiled as she watched the scene unfold in the celestial waters.

“The ocean meets the sky and worlds collide,” Agni said, leaning over Varuna’s shoulder as he watched the teenagers part ways. “Do you think it was wise to allow this girl to return with him to the living?”

The pale-haired goddess lifted her chin to meet her companion’s gaze. “The moon would be very bored indeed without the sun constantly vying for control, my dear Agni. You above all should know that.” She reached out and lovingly caressed his cheek. “Let the worlds collide, I say.”

Agni smiled, pressing his soft lips into her palm. “Forever and ever, my queen.”











“The gates of hell are open night and day;
Smooth the descent and easy is the way.
But to return and view the cheerful skies;
In this the task and mighty labour lies.”
The Descent :: Chapter 6

Chapter 6 (ending) of my 2012 Zutara Secret Santa gift for jesterry. ^_^

Prologue
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6


-

AtLA & Characters ©Bryke

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IF KATARA WERE to describe the palace of Varuna in one word, it would be resplendent. Built into the face of the Mount Meru and surrounded by the celestial waters of Rasā, it was a wondrous structure in itself to behold. Slender ivory towers banded in lacy stonework, snowy domes capped with gold and topped with golden spires gleamed brightly in the dying sun. It was truly a palace built for the gods by the gods.

Awestruck, she and Zuko slowly make their way up the white stairs until they were in the entrance hall of the palace. Their every footfall echoed on the ivory floors. It was intimidating. The guards here seemed to be solid like herself but their eyes were ghostly, watching as the living entered the palace in silence.

Katara tried to keep her features guarded. Every line on her face was blank, yet inside she was a maelstrom of emotions. Fear, worry, anticipation, irritation, wariness and impatience bounced over each other and washed through her. She wasn’t quite up to the task and she knew it. But she couldn’t help but feel proud as she entered the enormous chamber with its high-vaulted ceilings. Her every footstep echoed assertively as she approached the throne of Varuna, goddess of the underworld.

The first thing she noticed was the goddess’s hair: it was as white as snow and long, spilling over the back of her throne and pooling onto the ivory tiles below. Her skin was just as pale, almost translucent and glowing. Even the gown she wore was crystalline, like shimmering waters cascading down every fold and curve of her body. She was a beautiful ice sculpture, perfect and cold.

The goddess slowly lifted her head, her mane of snow shifting down her bare shoulders, and regarded her audience with the most brilliant blue eyes Katara had ever seen. Liquid pools of sapphire, deeper than the oceans. Beside her Zuko let out a tiny gasp that sounded something like a prayer while Katara openly gaped in awe. She simply could not turn away.

This was a god.

But Katara would not be so easily intimidated, not even by a god. Or at least this was what she told herself. She had a mission to fulfil. So she squared back her shoulders and set her lips into a grim line of determination. She would win over this beautiful goddess, she convinced herself with a blind confidence that she didn’t even know she possessed.

Like Zuko, Katara would never give up. But it was not bravery that worked her limbs to move or her mouth to open; for in truth, she really wasn’t all that brave. She was scared out of her wits, to be honest. She was scared of everything and everyone around her. But she had strength. She had the strength of her convictions, and that made her as strong as steel.

“I am Varuna,” the white-haired beauty announced, her voice as strong and calming as a heavy rain. “God of the celestial waters and ruler of the Spirit World. What is it that you want?”  

Katara swiftly pointed to Zuko. “I want him.”

She wasn’t pleading or demanding. She was just answering a very simple question with an equally simple response, hoping the goddess didn’t notice how badly she was trembling.

“I want to bring him back to the living.”

“What is he to you?”

She was impassive, this icy goddess, and Katara wondered how anyone had bargained with her before.

“He was once my enemy,” she said evenly, and the goddess lifted a pale eyebrow in curiosity.

“And now?”

“I don’t know, exactly.” She shrugged uncomfortably. “But I do know that he is not the person I once thought he was, and I have come all this way to petition for his life—a life I took.”

Varuna’s pale eyebrow rose a fraction of an inch higher. She seemed intrigued by all of this. Perhaps this was the first time a living soul had requested the return of a conquered enemy.

“How did you find your way to him?”

“Guilt,” Katara answered without hesitation. It was, after all, the truth. “Luck, I guess. And determination. But mostly—mostly it was he who found me.”

“And why do you believe he deserves to return to the living?”

“Because he didn’t deserve to die.” She paused, swallowing hard. “His death was my doing and its undoing should also be mine to petition.” The goddess regarded her dubiously and Katara struggled to keep from babbling. She closed her eyes and took in a deep breath before continuing, “Because I believe everyone deserves a second chance, and this man can do good things, if given that chance.”

Varuna slowly shook her head, her long white locks cascading down her bare shoulders. “That is not reason enough to allow his return.”

“Isn’t it, though? I thought life and death was all about balance. What balance does he serve down here?” she protested. “Maybe he can help turn the tides and bring balance to our world above.”

“But you cannot guarantee that he will balance the scales,” Varuna said. “You cannot simply bet on off-chances.”

“Why not?”

“Because as a living soul, you have nothing to bet with.” The goddess frowned. “You risk nothing.”

Katara puffed out her chest with indignation. “Then I will bet my own karma on the off-chance that he will.”

The room went silent at this and Zuko stepped forward.

“Now wait just a—”

But Varuna raised a pale hand and effectively silenced the prince. Her blue eyes seemed to dance in the pale moonlight that spilled into the throne room. Those same eyes narrowed on Katara.

“You would wager the karma of your eternal soul on a hunch?”

Katara inwardly winced. Well, when she put it that way, it did sound rather foolish. But Katara had always been known for thinking with her heart, not with her head.

“I have seen his past. I have seen him help others, placing strangers and even enemies above of himself. I have seen the welfare he has for his people.” The scar on his face proved that. “I believe he can do good, if you will just give him that chance.”

Varuna was mute for a moment, silently calculating. Her gaze was intimidating and terrifying, but Katara held her ground. Then the goddess descended from her throne and stepped towards them. She was feather-light; her bare feet did not make even the slightest whisper on the ground, nor did her watery gown that seemed to magically float along the floor.

“Your plea is heard,” she said, “and your petition is granted. You may return to the living world at dawn—together.”

Relief flooded Katara’s heart all at once. However, before she could thank the goddess, Varuna was already gliding down the steps, trickling like water.

“Follow me,” she commanded.

Like sunlight hitting water, she shimmered and then disappeared out of the main chamber. The teens quickly followed her down a series of hallways that grew dimmer and dimmer as they went, with only the goddess herself for light.

Zuko was ahead of Katara, leading the way behind Varuna, when Katara suddenly lost sight of them both. She called out Zuko’s name and inwardly cursed herself for how frightened she sounded. She made a full circle, lost in the darkness, until she bumped into something solid and warm. Hands reached out and latched onto her shoulders, and she had to stop herself from shrieking.

“I’m right here.”

Suddenly there was a flame lit in Zuko’s palm and Katara could finally see. She was grateful that he could bend here and she absently wondered if she could, too. But now was not the time to test that theory.

They quickly caught up with the goddess who was glowing like the pale moon outside. Her gown seemed to be made of the same celestial waters that surrounded the palace, and Katara absently wondered if it was wet to the touch.

“Just around this corner is your room,” Varuna said softly, pointing up ahead with a pale finger.

“Room?” Katara furrowed her brow in confusion. She thought the goddess was leading them out of the Spirit World, not to a bedroom—certainly not one to be shared between her and Zuko.

“You will leave at daybreak,” the goddess informed them. “I imagine you both have much to discuss—to say your goodbyes.”

She smiled benevolently at them both, inclined her head, and then turned to leave, gliding down the hallway that now shimmered like moonlight.

Goodbyes? Katara chewed on her bottom lip. This goddess didn’t seem to have much faith in them, or her specifically. She must have believed that Katara would not succeed. Deciding not to dwell on the confidence-killing issue any longer, Katara followed Zuko down the hall.

Once inside the room—the only one she could spot around the corner, at least one with a door—she couldn’t help but grimace. The room itself was rather spacious with a large bay window that overlooked the moonlit waters below, but there was only one bed and one chair. Nothing else. For a bedchamber in a celestial palace, it was rather sparsely furnished. She couldn’t help but wonder where she and Zuko were supposed to rest.

They both eyed the bed greedily and Zuko pointed a determined finger at it, glaring over his shoulder at the waterbender. “You are not getting that bed!”

“Why shouldn’t I? What makes you so special?”

“I’m dead,” he answered simply, and Katara glowered at him. That was his answer for everything.

She wanted to say that she was the one who was freeing him from the Spirit World, but then she was the one who had sent him here in the first place. It wasn’t exactly a winning counter-point. So instead of bickering, she decided that a compromise was in order.

She walked past the Fire Prince and circled the canopied bed, taking in its size and inviting plushness. She glanced at the chair and its noticeable lack of comfort and turned back to the bed, suddenly feeling very sleepy.

“This bed is big enough for the both of us,” she reasoned, and Zuko took an apprehensive step back.

“I’m not getting into bed with you,” he said quickly. The back of his neck and ears were already flushing a bright pink.

“I didn’t—that’s not what I meant,” she said, exasperated.

“Then what did you mean?”

Katara’s mouth worked soundlessly before she dropped her shoulders in defeat. “Ugh, that. But it’s not like I want to cuddle with you or anything,” she quickly added, and Zuko stared at her like she might as well suggested that they fornicate. “You stay on your side and I’ll stay on mine; never the twain shall our bodies meet.”

Zuko kept his gaze warily fixed on her for a moment and then nodded reluctantly. “Fine.” He pointed to the right side of the bed. “This is my side and that’s yours. And this—” he picked up a pillow and laid it down the middle like a vertical divide “—this is the line that separates us. Don’t even think about crossing it.”

She rolled her eyes. Whatever. “I’ll try my best to resist, Your Highness.”

Both carefully folded back the blankets on their respective sides of the bed and climbed inside. Backs to each other, separated as far apart as possible, they sighed in unison and waited for the weariness of sleep to take over.








ODDLY ENOUGH, KATARA found that she couldn’t sleep. How could she begin to find peace in a strange bed in an even stranger place with such a strange boy sleeping next to her?

Zuko didn’t seem to be faring much better. He was tossing and turning, trying to shift himself into a comfortable position before settling on his back with a sigh.

“Can’t sleep?” He didn’t answer. “Neither can I.” She folded her hands behind her head and took in a deep breath. “I can’t wait to return home, back to the land of the living.”

“I have no home to return to.”

Katara brought her arms back down under the covers. She suddenly felt rather uncomfortable. She forgot that he was a banished prince; not just banished but deprived of his ship and crew. He was as alone in the living world as he was in death.

“You have your uncle,” she said, regretting the words the moment they slipped out of her mouth.

He muttered something unintelligible in response and she didn’t bother to ask him to clarify. Then an uncomfortable silence settled between them. Katara twiddled her thumbs underneath the sheets. She felt as though she should say something, but this was Zuko. Anything she said he was either going to ignore or guffaw at. But she couldn’t ignore him. There was this unmistakeable unease weighing on her chest. It had been there ever since she turned down the path to arrive here, experiencing Zuko’s past as he relived it.

“I know how you feel,” she said quietly.

He snorted derisively. “How could you possibly know?”

There was bitterness and condescension in his voice, and though she knew she should try to be patient and sympathetic, something inside her snapped.

“Would you just listen to what I have to say for once!” She sat up in bed and smoothed her hands down her tunic, trying to calm herself down. “I know—I know what it’s like to lose a part of your family. I lost my mother when I was very young.”

This confession was met with silence.

After a while, she thought he had fallen asleep, but then there came a soft, “How?”

She paused for a moment. “The Fire Nation came to our village looking for a waterbender. A soldier entered our home, demanding my mother tell him who the waterbender was.” She stared at her hands, digging a nail underneath her thumb. “It was just me and my mom and I was so scared. But my mother, she told me to go fetch my dad, and when I came back—” her voice faltered “—it was already too late.”

“Your mother told him that she was the waterbender.”

“Yes.” She nodded sadly. “My mother died protecting me, so I do know how you feel.” She lifted her chin and looked at him directly. “I know what it feels like to blame yourself.”

His mouth worked open, but no sound came out, not at first. He turned away, exhaling hotly through his nose, and then forced himself to meet her eyes again.

“But what happened to your mother wasn’t your fault.”

Katara smiled sadly. “What happened to your mother wasn’t your fault, either.”

Both went silent again and Katara rubbed at her tear-stained eyes in vain before wiping her nose with the back of her hand. This was the second time she had cried in front of him. Whatever had caused her to become so emotional in his presence?

“You know—” she settled back on the pillow “—I used to hate you.”

“Really? I would have never guessed, what with you killing me and all.”

She almost laughed. “No, I mean I decided to hate you before I even knew you.” He raised his good eyebrow at this. “Part of it had to do with you chasing after Aang, tying me to a tree.” He shifted uncomfortably at the mention of the Avatar. “But it was more than that.

“I had always associated everything evil with the Fire Nation, especially soldiers and the royal family. Even you. No, especially you. Because of what that man did to my mother, I assumed that you were just as capable.”

He shook his head. “Sadly, we are all capable of doing what he did.”

“You’re right. We are all capable of horrible things, but you’re not a murderer.” She pointed to herself. “I am, but you’re not. You tried to capture Aang so many times but you never hurt him, not even close. In fact, you saved him.”

“What are you trying to say?”

“What I’m trying to say, Zuko, is that I’m sorry.”

“Don’t.” His fingers were on her lips. “Don’t apologise.”

Her eyes widened and she almost went cross-eyed trying to look at his fingers. They felt rougher than she imagined, calloused. Hot. He was gazing at her mouth and then hastily pulled away as if her lips had scalded him. He unceremoniously cleared his throat and she thanked the spirits that it was just dark enough in the room for him not to see her blushing.

“You did what you had to do in order to protect your friend,” he said. “You have every right to hate my country and my family, especially me. I’ve been chasing you all across the world. I must have looked mad to you.” He paused thoughtfully. “But what that man did to your mother was unforgivable and wrong. And I—I’m not really even sure anymore if this war is right anymore.”

“Zuko?” She watched him closely. It felt like she was looking at him for the first time. Was this the real Zuko?

“Never mind.” He shook his head. “Let’s just call it a truce for now. Okay?”

He extended an arm to her and she stared at it dumbly for a moment before some half-remembered speech from Sokka on the manly tradition of grasping another man’s forearm sprang to mind. She extended her own arm in return and grasped his with a firm shake.

“It’s a deal.”

After a moment they let go and settled back onto their respective sides of the bed with Zuko’s pillow still acting as a natural divide.

Katara felt temporarily recharged. Her senses were piqued to a degree of wakeful readiness. Goodnight, then was what her brain wanted to say, but her mouth seemed to have other plans—ones mainly involving babbling. And so she unwittingly attempted to liven up the atmosphere with tales of sucking on frozen frogs and telling horribly unfunny jokes, most of which she forgot to properly deliver the punchline for.

When Zuko didn’t so much as smile, she nervously rubbed at the spot behind her ear. “Uh, Sokka’s usually much better at telling jokes than I am.”

“You don’t say.”

She sucked on her bottom lip, feeling the tips of her ears burn with heat. Yeah, she wasn’t exactly good with the telling of the jokes, but he wasn’t exactly good with the hearing of them, either. They had reached an impasse in their conversation and she had no idea where to go or what to do.

“How about we try to get some sleep,” he suggested dryly. “Who knows what sort of craziness we’ll face tomorrow.”

She nodded in tired agreement and settled back into bed, pulling the covers up to her chin. She watched as Zuko turned over on his side, facing her with his eyes closed, already falling into a deep slumber.

Sokka’s the same way, she thought. He’d fall asleep at the drop of a hat and be completely dead to the world. He would tell her it was a warrior thing, but she was convinced it was really just more of a guy thing.

Her eyelids suddenly grew heavy and she realised that she was indeed tired and no longer fighting the urge to sleep. As her eyes began to flutter shut, her gaze once more drifted to the Fire Prince’s sleeping form. She watched the rise and fall of his chest as he breathed and the way his face relaxed in his sleep, giving him this gentle boyish look. Then her eyes focussed on the ugly scar on his throat, the one she had given him, and she frowned. She did this to him—she did.

Could he trust her to rescue him from here? Could she trust herself?

Her eyes finally slid shut and she let out a soft sigh in relaxation. She didn’t have all the answers and she wouldn’t know for sure if she could return Zuko until she tried. But she would try. She would. For the both of them.








SHE WOKE IN the middle of the night or what she assumed was night (it was hard to tell down here) and rolled over onto something solid: Zuko’s chest.

Like something out of a nightmare, she slowly turned her head to look up at his face, to see if he was still asleep. Instead she was met by two bright golden eyes staring down at her quizzically.

She let out a scream of terror that ended up sounding more like a squawk and jerked herself off his chest. The top of her head connected with his nose in the process before she promptly fell off the bed. Quickly getting back up on her knees, she cautiously peered over the edge of the mattress.

How did he end up on her side of the bed?

“What did you do that for?”

His hand was covering his mouth and nose, smothering multiple expletives. After a few seconds he removed his hand and sniffed. Katara didn’t see any blood, so she didn’t think he really should have been complaining this much. Really, were all men such babies?

“Why are you on my side of the bed?” she asked.

“Your side?” He blinked and looked to his left, seeing the empty expanse he had travelled across to get to her side. “Oh.”

He quickly shuffled over as an apology and she hesitantly slipped back under the covers, eyeing him suspiciously the entire time. She had no idea why he would want to get close to her. She wasn’t exactly a running warm sort of person. In fact her body temperature had always been rather cool. It would have made more sense for her to be on his side, seeking the natural warmth of his body—and it might have explained why her head was cradled on his chest.

She brought the sheets up over her nose at the thought, trying to hide her blush.

Several moments of silence passed and she drifted back to sleep only to be awoken by a gentle dip in the bed. She opened her eyes and turned her head to see golden eyes eerily glowing in the darkness.

“Did you really mean what you said?” His voice was surprisingly soft, so much so that she wasn’t sure she had heard him at first.

“What?” She yawned, turning over on her side as she tucked the blankets underneath her chin. She had said a lot of things today.

“What you told Varuna—that you thought I could do some good in our world.”

She paused. She could see the outline of his face in the moonlight. She had never seen him look so earnest, so vulnerable.

“Yes, I did,” she said, and then corrected herself, “I do.”

He seemed unsure of her answer.

“You said it yourself: we’re all capable of bad things. And I had once thought I could only see the bad in you, but coming down here and seeing you—the real you—I now know that there is good in you, too. Real goodness.”

What she didn’t tell him, though, was that she respected him and, much more frightening than that, she trusted him. But she couldn’t be sure he felt the same about her. Any why should he? It was probably hard to fully trust the person who killed you.

“Look, I don’t know if anything will change when we return or if we’ll just go back to being enemies. But right here, right now, you have my trust. So much so that I’m willing to risk my karma.” She offered him a lopsided grin. “Consider it intuition or just plain craziness, but I have faith that you’re a good person, Zuko.”

He was silent for a moment, mulling over her words. “So you think I can be like you, one of the good guys?” She nodded and he paused thoughtfully. “I don’t know. I don’t think I’d be good at being the hero.”

“I think you’d do fine,” she murmured sleepily into her pillow. “You just need to believe in yourself—” she yawned loudly “—and allow others to believe in you.”

Her eyes were already closed when she said the words, so she couldn’t see the way he was staring at her or the shy but proud grin that had surfaced on his lips.








VARUNA’S GUARDS CAME for them at daybreak.

They were already awake and ready to go. Katara was hollow-eyed and yawning while Zuko looked pale—paler than usual, anyway. They weaved their way through the empty hallways and stumbled down the stairs until they reached the entrance hall. Beyond that was the throne room.

When they stepped inside, they expected to see Varuna. Instead there was a man, a beautiful young man dressed in golden armour that shone as brightly as the sun. In fact he was so bright that Katara had to shield her eyes at first.

His skin was pale but healthy, glowing with radiance. From chest to feet he was draped in brilliant gold armour; the light from his armour was so blinding that she could not make out the insignia on his broad chest. Atop his mane of raven-black hair was a crown of gold shaped like the sun, fitted perfectly in his topknot.

He was standing next to Varuna’s throne, his hands held behind him at the small of his back, legs only slightly spread apart, at ease but coiled at alert. That hair of his, black like ink, sleek and long, was almost as long as Varuna’s snow-white mane. And while Varuna was haunting like the moon, this man was blinding like the sun.

Katara offhandedly wondered if this stranger was Varuna’s husband. He was handsome and boyish, a bright contrast to the timeless and surreal beauty of Varuna. Though opposites, they somehow seemed like a perfect fit.

“Who are you?” she suddenly asked, unable to stop the words from tumbling past her lips.

“Who are you?”

“That’s Lord Agni!” Zuko hissed in her ear. “The god of fire.”

“Oh.”

Zuko was already abasing himself on the ivory tiles while Katara stared at this magnificent god with a slacken jaw. She was shamefully embarrassed for a moment, but the fire god didn’t seem to mind her lack of recognition or respect. It was then that she noticed the hard slant of his cheekbones, the bow of his mouth, the slight raise of his eyebrows and the gentle glow of his golden eyes. He reminded her of Zuko—an older, non-scarred, shining brighter than the sun version of Zuko.

“I am Katara,” she finally said, bowing lowly, “daughter of Hakoda and Kya.”

Agni’s eyes were both light and hard, and his soft lips lifted, curling at the corners with a fetching smile. “So you are the mortal that killed this boy here and petitioned for his return to the living.” He motioned to Zuko, who was already back on his feet with his head bowed lowly.

“Yes, I am.”

“I see.” Agni’s eyes curved with a hint of mirth. “The guards outside will escort you to Varuna. She will show you to the door that will return you to your world above.”

Both Katara and Zuko bowed in unison, expressing their thanks. They were about to leave when Agni called out to them.

“One moment. I would like to speak with you.” His eyes were on Katara. His mouth opened again and this time his bright shining hand was reaching out to her, blinding her. “Alone.”

Foolishly, Katara looked back at Zuko for support, but his eyes were bulging, silently demanding that she submit to Agni’s request or else be smote with fire (by his or the god’s). She then squared her shoulders back and began walking up the short steps, ready to hold palaver with the god of fire.

Hey, why not?








OUTSIDE THE THRONE room in the entrance hall, Zuko waited. And waited.

They had been gone for a long time, or at least it seemed so to him. Maybe it was because he was curious what the god of fire had to say to a water peasant. Zuko would have given his good eye to hold court with the lord of all firebenders.

Finally, Katara came outside, slipping out of the throne room like a thief in the night. She was red all over and trembling, not once taking her eyes off her feet.

“What did he say?”

“Nothing!” she whispered hurriedly, refusing eye contact. “Just drop it!”

She brushed past him, making a beeline for the two guards who were patiently waiting outside to escort them to Varuna. Zuko peeked back inside the throne room. Agni was no longer there. Vanished. Gone. His mouth pulled downwards into a disappointed frown.

He turned back to Katara, who was fidgeting with her tunic. Stopping, she turned around and snapped her fingers at him before slapping at her thigh like an owner calling for her pet to follow. Her eyes widened in shock, as though finally realising the absurdity and degradedness of the act, and her cheeks flushed scarlet before she promptly swivelled around.

Zuko scowled at her back. This blushing idiot was the one who would damn him, he told himself resignedly with a sigh. But then she might very well be the blushing idiot who would save him.








THE GUARDS LED them outside to the shores of the celestial waters where Varuna was already waiting.

The goddess looked almost corpse-like against the backdrop of the rising sun. The night was definitely Varuna’s time to shine, whereas the day was for Agni. Still, the goddess was hauntingly beautiful no matter what light she was in.

Varuna lifted a pale arm, signally for the guards to leave and the teenagers to come forward. She then guided them along the golden-white sands to another stone gateway, not unlike the one Katara came through. Although this one was much bigger, opening up into a long arching bridge and a set of stairs that ascended into the clouds.

“This is the bridge to the living,” she said softly. “At the end of this bridge are a set of stairs that will return you to the living world. Go gently.”

Katara and Zuko stepped forward together and were about cross the threshold when Varuna called out to them. Both turned expectantly, faces wearing identical quizzical expressions.

“You must go first,” Varuna said to Katara. “You must walk before him and trust that he will follow you. It is your mission to guide him to safety.”

Katara swallowed hard and nodded in affirmative. Varuna opened the gateway for them and they walked forward again. Suddenly the goddess was standing directly in their path.

“Before you go, Katara, daughter of Hakoda and Kya, you should know that you alone will be tested on this path. At no point can you turn around, nor can you call out to him. If you do, he will be lost to you forever—sent to Naraka, the hell of the underworld, where he will dwell until his next reincarnation.”

“W-what?” Katara felt like she had been punched in the gut. The wind was knocked out of her lungs. Hell? Her world turned black and she took a step back, panicking. “No one ever told me that! I-I didn’t—I didn’t know.” She turned to Zuko. “Did you?”

He failed to meet her gaze and she felt her heart plummet into her stomach. She felt nauseated. He knew. He knew all along and he let her convince him to come here. Why? For what purpose? Did he want to punish himself?

“The road taken here was Zuko’s trial alone,” Varuna explained. “It was a quick balance of karma, a short-cut to reincarnation or internment.”

“But the sacrifice—”

“The sacrifice has always been his soul, to free it to the world of the living or to banish it to the fires of Naraka.” The goddess’s blue eyes darkened. “Your penalty was to suffer humility; to know that you chose yourself over another. It never crossed your mind that your acts could only further punish him.”

Katara’s knees buckled. She tried to breathe but found no air. Varuna was right. She had never once thought how any of this could harm Zuko. She had never bothered to listen to what he wanted.

When she finally caught her breath, it was only to have bile rise to her throat. She was going to be sick. What had she done?

“With all due respect, I disagree.”

Katara turned in shock to see Zuko standing beside her. His eyes were level on the goddess.

“I do not believe that she chose herself over me,” he argued. “She’s not that sort of person. I think it’s true that she feels guilt for what she did, but I believed her when she told you she thought I could serve a purpose greater than myself. I believe her still. That is why I think her goals are selfless. She will not fail.”

Zuko.”

“Don’t let it go to your head!” he snapped, but there was a hint of a smile on his lips. “I need you to be that sickeningly hopeful girl I once tied to a tree.”

“Tied to a tree?” The goddess was once more intrigued, but Zuko ignored her.

“Can you do that?” He turned to face her. “Can you lead me out of here?”

“I-I c-can,” Katara stammered, momentarily at a loss for words. She felt fear, of that there was no doubt, but it was small and tightly contained, swallowed whole now by sheer determination. “I will.”

Zuko’s Adam’s apple bobbed nervously in his throat but he nodded, pleased enough with her answer. He squared his shoulders with her and she smiled thinly but appreciatively. Both of them were playing the hero now, depending on one another, and it was now up to Katara to validate her promise. It was up to her to bring this prince back to the land of the living.

“Goodbye,” Varuna said, quietly smiling. “And good luck.”

Katara craned her neck to look up at the intimidating bridge beyond the arc. She could feel Zuko staring at her back but she did not move. Her limbs were twitching and her body was aching to turn around, but her spine had turned to steel and she took in a deep breath.

She strode forward.

She could do this, she told herself, hoping against hope that Zuko would follow. For there was no turning back now. In both life and death they were inextricably bound, and she would bring him home.
The Descent :: Chapter 5

Chapter 5 of my 2012 Zutara Secret Santa gift for jesterry. ^_^

Prologue
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6

PS: If you’re re-reading this story and think I have expanded it two years later with two more chapters, I’m afraid to say that this is not the case. I simply divided two sections that were rather long into two shorter chapters for easier reading. :)

-

AtLA & Characters ©Bryke

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Not much of an artist but a writer. Visit my ff.net or AO3 profiles if you're interested.



To participate in the Zutara Secret Santa, simply go to our LJ site and sign-up between 1-15 November. The deadline for the gifts themselves runs from 22-31 December.

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SelenaMarieG Featured By Owner Jan 2, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
I am such a huge fan of your writing! La la la la 
(Coincidence that I found your dA through my Faves w00t! )
I hope you have an amazing 2014, happy new year! :3
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chromeknickers Featured By Owner Jan 3, 2014
Aww, thank you so much. :hug: You have an amazing New Year, too! :highfive:
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IloveLOK Featured By Owner Aug 31, 2013  Student Artist
Happy Birthday!!!!!!!!!!!
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chromeknickers Featured By Owner Aug 31, 2013
Aww, thank you. :hug:
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:iconilovelok:
IloveLOK Featured By Owner Aug 31, 2013  Student Artist
Welcome! hope your day was happy and to be happy every single day! :hug:
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mtindoll Featured By Owner Jun 16, 2013
Do you take requests by any chance?
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chromeknickers Featured By Owner Jun 17, 2013
Drawings?
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:iconmtindoll:
mtindoll Featured By Owner Jun 17, 2013
Yeah. :nod:
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:iconchromeknickers:
chromeknickers Featured By Owner Jun 20, 2013
What did you want drawn?
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suiseiusagi Featured By Owner Feb 12, 2013
Congrats on the DD you lovely lady! <3
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