the_codex: (Angst)
[personal profile] the_codex
Title: The Safest Way Into Tomorrow
Fandom: Avatar
Pairing: Zuko/Katara
Rating: G

Disclaimer: I own not, you sue not.

Notes: Set between "The Boiling Rock" and "The Southern Raiders"

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The Safest Way Into Tomorrow

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It had been three days since he'd started with the illness. Mild at first, a slight chill and body aches and a heavy, sluggish, sleepy feeling. Nothing some warm soup and hot tea and good rest wouldn't fix, as far as she could tell. But over the course of two nights it had grown worse instead of better, until a red flush dusted his cheeks and sweat coated his brow and he shook and whimpered in his sleep, body caught in the throes of a raging fever.

Despite every fiber of her being making its protest known she'd been at his side most of that time, bathing his chest and neck and face with cool water and forcing him to drink despite him being so weak and unaware that he could barely sit up without her arm behind him for support. It was always worse at night, for some reason. He would be doing relatively well during the day, but as soon as the sky went dark his fever would soar, sending him into soft, whining agony.

Tonight seemed to be no different. Like clockwork, he lay curled in his bedroll as she came in with a bowl of ice-cold water and clean rags to bathe him with, kneeling at his side. Only this time, there was an added desperation to his tiny cries, and he visibly flinched at her hand as she swept his hair from his face.

Her brow furrowed, hesitating a moment before venturing to touch him again. "...Zuko?"

He shrunk away from her hand, biting his lip and gripping the corner of the blanket, in a way that made her insides squirm just watching. The sound that passed his lips a minute later didn't help matters. A tiny, terrified mewl, the likes of which she didn't think it was possible for a human to make.

"Zuko...Zuko, it's me," she murmured, prodding his bare shoulder and biting her lip. "Wake up, you're dreaming..."

He tensed further at that, gasping for only a moment before bolting upright with a strangled shriek. He shivered, staring wide-eyed and straight ahead, panting and wheezing and his hands clenched in the blanket as sweat glistened on his shoulders.

She gave him a few moments to get his bearings before resting her hand on his back. He whipped around to face her, shoving himself away and out of the bedroll, the scar over his eye looking as close to alive as it could get. Her own hands wavered a little in answer, concern tugging at her heart. "Zuko, it's ok. Just get back under the covers. You're si--"

"Please," he whispered, voice hoarse with panic. "Please don't..."

Her brow creased, but she didn't advance any closer. "Don't what?"

"Don't... I...I'm sorry... Whatever I did, I'm sorry... Just please don't..."

She shook her head, forgetting herself and moving closer. "Zuko, what on earth are you talking about? You didn't do anything, you've been in bed for the last three days with a fever..."

"He shuffled back further, body stiffening as the stone met his back. "I...I've changed, I swear... I don't know what else I have to do to prove it... Just please, don't do this..."

She let out a hard breath, deciding it was time to stop being cautious. She rose just enough to walk over to him, dropping back to her knees in front of him and resting her hands firmly on his shoulders. "Zuko...stop it. You're ok. You're safe. Nobody's going to hurt you, not even me. Whatever you think was happening, it was a bad dream. You're awake now, and I have to give you a bath to bring your fever down. So come back to your bedroll and let me take care of you, ok?"

He winced as she touched him, flinching almost on reflex at her solid grip. "Don't..." he whispered. "D-Don't waste your time..."

Her brow lifted, despite the twinge it gave her. "What do you mean? I'm not wasting my time. I'm making sure you get better so you can finish teaching Aang..."

He shook his head. "Please...just...let me go. Go back to bed..."

She palmed his forehead, took his hands with a hiss under her breath and started pulling him back toward his bedroll. "For heaven's sake get back under the covers. You'll catch your death like this..."

He went along with tangible reluctance, curling up and shivering under her touch as she finally started the task she came for. Silent the whole way through it until she laid the cloth on his brow. "...Why are you doing this?"

She stroked the side of his face with another damp cloth, frowning. "Doing what?"

"This. Caring for me like this. I...you don't have to. And it's not like you want to, either."

She sighed, pursing her lips. "I wish it wasn't the case, but yes, I have to. Someone has to at any rate. We need you well enough to teach Aang to firebend so we can end this war before that comet hits. You can't really do that when you're too sick to move."

"Do you really...need me for that?" He swallowed thickly. "I know he said that I was meant to train him, but...but there's gotta be someone else who can do it if I'm unable. Hell, I'm not even that good at it..."

"Even if that were the case," she said, "Aang invited you on board for a reason. The rest of us agreed to it for a reason. You have a place here, even if you don't realize it yet."

He averted his eyes. "I just...don't know why you're here. You don't really need me for anything. So...why bother making sure that I'm okay?..."

She could not explain the pang that went through her chest at that moment. Not so much at what he was saying but the way he said it. The way his voice faltered and broke on that last part in a way that had nothing to do with being sleep-clogged or dry-mouthed. The way his eyes glistened in the light of the fire and the scar on his face seemed to sear right through her heart.

"Zuko...what are you driving at?"

He swallowed hard, again. "Don't waste your resources on me. I'm not worth your time or your trouble."

She smoothed the cloth over his scar, unable to say anything for a moment. "Zuko..."

He let out a shaky breath, slowly raising himself up so he could look her in the eye. "Do you...hate me?"

She hesitated. He didn't look at her, but he didn't have to. She could tell as surely as if he was saying it aloud that he genuinely believed she did, he just wanted to hear her confirm it. And yet, as much as the last few months of running from him and fighting him and being betrayed by him made her want to say yes...she couldn't. Not when he had the look in his eyes of someone who was two breaths away from begging her to make good on her threat.

Is that what he's looking for? To be punished?

She set the cloth down, taking his hand gently as she met his gaze. "No. I don't hate you. You've done a lot of things that I probably should hate you for, but...I can't. They were mistakes. Bad choices. And if I'm going to hate you for making them, then I have to hate myself, too. And my brother, and Toph, and even Aang. We've all made mistakes, and we've all made bad decisions. And that's ok, as long as you learn something and try to come out a better person for it.

"Am I giddy and thrilled that you're part of our group? Definitely not. Maybe we don't need you, but...Aang asked our input. And believe me, if we didn't want you here, you wouldn't be."

He held still, just looking at her as she brushed the sweat-soaked hair from his forehead with the cloth. His shoulders trembled, as much from chill and fever as something else. Carefully, she wrapped a second blanket over them, inching closer and gently guding him to rest against her shoulder, burning forehead pressed to her neck and his cheek over her heart. "Shhhh, it's ok. Don't worry about it anymore tonight. I'm here, we're all here. Just rest and get well."

He nodded absently as she stroked his hair, and they stayed like that for what felt like hours. She stared into the fire as she continued to soothe him, feeling a tightness in her throat and burning in her chest and eyes that was altogether completely unfamiliar when coupled with thoughts of him. She couldn't pinpoint what exactly it was that disturbed her so deeply about what he'd said. Only that she'd never seen or felt another human being in that much pain without a fresh mark on him, and she never wanted to again.

His breathing started to slow and deepen after a while, and she looked down to find his body slack and his eyes closed, sound asleep against her chest. Her first impulse was to lay him back into his bedroll, but she felt something catch inside her at the thought. After a moment's consideration, she settled back against the rock, drawing him protectively into the crook of her shoulder.

She turned back to the fire, watching the flames dance against the dark sky. It was going to be a long night. But even the darkest of them ended. And dawn was always waiting on the other side.



END

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