Setting: The Southern Water Tribe, AG 172
Zuko reached out towards the roaring fire. He felt no warmth from it; only the sensation that the heat improved the circulation in his hands. Which, at his age, wasn’t a bad thing.
It was Chief Tonraq and his wife Senna who had opened their home to him on his visit to the Southern Water Tribe, but it was Katara who’d insisted on seeing him first. Not far down the hallway was Korra’s room. She was sleeping, of course. At least, Zuko sincerely hoped she was at his time of night. Or early morning, as it had happened to be when his ship had finally docked.
Katara slipped another log into the fireplace in silence. She’d insisted on starting the flames herself, even when the flint was proving stubborn. He was the guest, after all. Asking him to firebend for their convenience would have just been rude.
As Zuko watched the flames dance, his eyes fixated on the base of the fire. The place where, if only for brief seconds, he could see glimpses of blue.
“So,” Katara said, interrupting his wandering thoughts. “Is this a friendly visit or a diplomatic one?”
Zuko had to shake his head a bit to orient himself back in the present. His finger twitched, pulling his hands back to his lap. “Both,” he finally answered. “Officially, Izumi requested that I ask if Harmonic Convergence revealed any new benders in the Southern Water Tribe.”
Katara picked up the fireplace poker as he spoke, nudging the logs around without much rhyme or reason. “No new airbenders; Korra asked me that months ago.”
“I assumed as much.”
Katara seemed satisfied that the fire wasn’t going to spontaneously shut itself down and pulled the poker back from the flames. A log shifted, sending a splattering of sparks onto the hearth.
“One of our nonbenders did become a waterbender, though,” she added on. “Oh, and we got one… well, technically three earthbenders.”
“‘Technically’?” Zuko asked.
“Well, two of them can metalbend, so I guess you’d call them earthbenders,” Katara said. “But ask them to move even a little rock, and they just can’t do it.”
“Really?” Zuko asked. It didn’t totally surprise him. They’d found a couple new swampbenders in the Northern Water Tribe who were completely unable to bend water on its own. They were all wealthy kids who, when their abilities were confirmed, insisted there was no way they were going to leave their homes and travel to some disgusting swamp out in the Earth Kingdom. They had to be assured quite a few times that no one was actually asking them to leave.
“And what about the Fire Nation?” Katara asked, with a bit of a tease in that old voice of hers. “You have people who can make lightning but not fire over there now?”
“No,” Zuko answered, his eyes darting away from Katara and back to the fire. “We’ve got bloodbenders.” He tried to say the word quickly, so she didn’t get too upset with him, but he saw her, sensed her, stiffening all the same. He had to shift this conversion. “I also found… well, I’m not sure what you would call her. I was giving a talk in Hira’a, and… I encountered someone who could stop my bending.”
“Stop your bending?” Katara asked, her muscles relaxing as curiosity overtook her. “Like what Amon did to Korra and Lin?”
Zuko shook his head. “Nothing like that. She never even touched me. My bending worked when I was far enough away from her, and stopped when she got too close.”
Katara was giving him a look like he was going senile on her. As if he would let himself lose his wits before she did. “When you say your bending stopped…”
“I mean I fell face-down onto the stage. It was very embarrassing.” He intended it to be humorous, but Katara just stared straight-faced at him. He cleared his throat and continued, “Her name is Nanami. She calls herself a voidbender. And she didn’t have the ability before Harmonic Convergence.”
Katara cleared her throat as well. “You sure she’s not using some form of… that technique?” she asked.
“If it was, don’t you think I would have resisted it? I’ve been able to overcome chi blocking, and certainly no bloodbender has ever gotten the best of me. I think this is genuinely new form of bending.”
Any curiosity in Katara’s face was gone now. She’d always been like that. Bring up bloodbending, and she went from the happy and friendly woman he usually knew to someone he barely recognized at all. “Interesting. So what’s the other reason you came?” she finally asked.
Zuko groaned inwardly. If she was uptight before, his next words were hardly going to smooth things over. “I wanted to talk about Korra.”
She didn’t answer him. A bad sign.
“Katara, it’s been months, ” he went on, “and correct me if I’m wrong, but Korra isn’t seeing much progress. I know it’s not the ideal option, but maybe it’s time you let me–”
“I’m handling her healing,” Katara snapped.
Zuko gritted his teeth. First she refused to answer and now she was interrupting him? Fine. If she was going to resort to childish tactics, then so could he. “Oh, and that’s going marvelously well, isn’t it?”
She grunted at him. For the love of Sozin, why did she have to be so stubborn? Her failure to heal him after Azula’s lightning strike had been one of the biggest failures in her career as a physician. She’d called it as much, too. As if Zuko’s only shot at happiness was her performing a medical miracle. Katara meant well, but sometimes she thought far too highly of herself.
“Healing takes time, Zuko,” she finally said. “Don’t go pressuring Korra. She’s had enough of that.”
“If I wanted to pressure Korra, I’d speak to her,” Zuko replied. “But I’m speaking to you. You know it would help. And it doesn’t have to be permanent.” It wasn’t his smartest argument. Those words had been said before. Katara’s voice got quiet, and Zuko’s fingers twitched again as he leaned his body forward to hear her.
“‘Doesn’t have to be permanent?'” she whispered. “I said that to Aang right after Azula struck you. Seems like seventy years of you borrowing a bit of my bending is pretty permanent.”
Zuko wanted to answer that it was hardly borrowing. After all, she’d hated bloodbending from the moment she’d learned it. Probably would have just told Zuko he could keep it, even if there had come a point in his life that he didn’t need it anymore. But sometimes life just didn’t work according to plan.
Zuko shook his head. “Look, let’s not argue about how long Korra might need bloodbe–”
Katara coughed loudly.
“…might need that technique to help her get around. There’s defensive reasons to consider.” He brought his voice back up to normal speaking levels. As long as Katara was going to cough through anything questionable, no point in making his voice hoarse through all that whispering. “Let her learn it. It’s a useful skill for her to–”
“It will never be a ‘useful skill,'” Katara said.
Zuko gave up. Not that he’d expected the conversation to go anywhere, but he at least thought he’d be able to get a few words in. But this was the one topic he and Katara would never agree on. It broke down their friendship and brought them back to where they were barely speaking to each other. Like when Zuko first joined their team all those years ago.
Katara noticed it, too. He could see the disappointment in her eyes as yet another one of their conversations dissolved into this stupid argument. This was usually the point where she started talking about something like the weather, or how the latest litter of polar bear pups was doing, or–
“Pardon?” Zuko straightened, unsure if his ears were playing tricks on him in his old age.
Katara fingered the fur trim of her coat with her weathered hands. “I said that I’m sorry,” she repeated quietly. “I know you’re trying to help her. And I know my… feelings on that technique have hurt you. And your family.”
Well, that was disarming. Zuko didn’t even know where to begin with an answer to that. Every time this topic had come up, over all the years they had grown apart, his best moments of peace with Katara had come when they’d switched subjects as quickly as possible. He had no method planned for dealing with a straight-up apology. How could she put him in a spot like this? Now he just had to say whatever came into his head, and that was apt to simply come out sounding moronic.
“It’s… you did what you felt was right,” Zuko said. “I wasn’t exactly… empathetic myself back then.” Yes, Zuko mentally confirmed, “moronic” was the perfect description for his fumbling words right now. In spite of that, though (or maybe even because of it), Katara gave him a smile. It had been such a long time since he’d seen the expression on her, probably just as long since he’d worn the expression himself.
“You can… you should go visit her tomorrow,” Katara said. “Korra, I mean. I think it will do her good to see someone besides me. But please, please don’t bring up this topic with her. Can you promise me that?”
He wanted so badly to answer yes. That was all it would take to put their friendship back in place. Give Katara this one concession after all the times he’d yelled and screamed at her that she was wrong. Let her be right just this once. Daybreak was on the horizon; the first beams of light hit Katara’s back, making her look angelic against the world of snow beyond the windowpane.
Zuko smiled back at her, but he knew it was brief and insincere. Korra still remained in her room, struggling every day with her attempts to walk again. Failing every day. How did that affect a young woman like Korra, who was used to being so skilled with everything, with so little effort? If it hadn’t broken her already, it would soon. Zuko wouldn’t allow it. He’d go in to visit the Avatar tomorrow. Maybe he could reassure himself that he’d been overreacting, that she was clearly on the road to recovery. But somehow, he had a nagging doubt in his stomach.
“I’ll do my best,” he finally said and watched with a heavy heart as Katara’s smile faded.