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Merits

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					Title: Merits
Category: Cartoons » Avatar: Last Airbender
Author: moor
Language: English, Rating: Rated: M
Genre: Romance/Humor
Published: 01-17-08, Updated: 12-25-10
Chapters: 38, Words: 124,635

Chapter 1: Chapter 1


Author: moor / beyondthemoor on LJ
Title: Merits
Genre: Romance/humour/vamp/Modern AU
Fandom: Avatar: TLA
Pairing: Zutara, Jetara
Length: approx. 900 words
Part: One
Rating: T/M
Disclaimer : "Avatar: The Last Airbender" and all related rights belong to their
original creators… I am not among their ranks.
AN: In response tohyperroo 's vampire/Zutara challenge on LJ, I present… the
following:



"Merits" – Part One

Another dish whipped across the room, smashing into the wall just to the right of his head
with a storm of shattered porcelain. The lightning outside the darkened windows
brightened the room at the same time, and a second later, a loud boom of thunder shook
the pair of snarling occupants.

Neither noticed.

"Of course not, why would it be important? I'm just 'some girl' right? I'm certainly not of
any consequence to you!" The effort of hurling plate number four at the offending man's
neck added a certain amount of emphasis on the last word.

"See this, this is why I didn't tell you! You're going crazy," he argued, dodging the
projectiles easily.

"Oh no you don't, don't you dare put this back on me, mister!"

"I was trying to protect you!"
"Protect this, you lying hippopig!"

A glass splintered a cabinet door.

"Would you listen to yourself?" this time, he caught the plate in mid-flight.
"Katara? Katara!"

It took Katara a second to realize it – she'd already launched another kitchen standard at
him in the meantime, a coffee maker – and then she saw him catch the second, the
blender, just as effortlessly. Her eyebrows furrowed slightly, though her anger
remained. How had he done that? Must not be throwing 'em hard enough, she decided,
ready to redouble her efforts.

Then her eyes went from the coffee maker in his one hand, to the ridiculously heavy
blender… food processor, actually… in his other.

What the…

It had taken all her might to launch them at him… and he was standing there as if she'd
just tossed him a couple of tennis balls? He was better than she thought if he could catch
them so easily.

Her chest heaved with the effort of controlling her temper and racing heartbeat. She'd
completely lost track of time when they'd started into their argument… But what had he
meant, a minute ago?

I was trying to protect you.

Curiosity warred with pride.

She clenched her fist around the knife block. One good shot at his heart, that's all she
needed. The jerk deserved a good beating, keel haul, and flaying- but she'd settle for
murder.

For his part, Zuko stood, waiting tensely a short distance away, but patiently.

And very, very, handsomely.

Damnit all to Hell…

Taking a deep, calming breath and letting it out slowly, she glared at him.

He glared back.

... protect you...
Curiosity won.

"What… do you mean?"

She lowered her arms and weapons as she spoke, and wondered what she'd do if she were
to actually believe him. What would happen… what would happen to… She kept her
eyes on him.

He waited before answering, his own eyes lowering away from her a moment. She felt
her heart tighten. He couldn't have been… There's no way he could have been telling
her…

"What did you mean, 'protect me'?" she asked, more forcefully. Putting a meager amount
of trust in him – and herself, considering how violent she'd been a minute before – she
stepped towards him, stopping less than a meter from his angry stance. Her feet made a
tinkling, crunching noise as she crossed the ruined linoleum. The victims of her
aggressive tantrum littered the entire room in a dangerous mess.

The storm continued outside, not yet ready to follow their tempering example.

Zuko's shoulders, so straight all the time with purpose and pride, lost their squared edges
for a moment as he exhaled lowly. To Katara, he looked… tired. Still tense, as though he
were controlling some unseen force within himself that threatened to break free and take
over, but… worn, somehow, too. Her heart pulled to him, sympathising minutely, before
returning to the protective cage of her chest.

This wasn't one of their comfortable silences, she knew it; but she didn't know if she was
ready for it to end with an answer yet, either. The things he'd said to her, the way he'd
said them…Unease snaked through her belly, and she finally started putting some
consideration into his confession - the trigger that had set off the tableware massacre.
While she reflected, topaz eyes flicked over her disheveled, wavy hair, her flushed
face…. All the way down to her smooth, graceful neck where her pulse beat visibly.

And stayed.

She noticed the movement of his gaze. And its focus.

Her heartbeat ratcheted back up again, though not in anger this time.

He swallowed very slightly, but she didn't miss it. His mouth tightened, and he placed the
appliances on the counter without a sound before turning back to her.

He knows.
The crunching noise was very soft, but it was loud enough to signal the first steps of her
retreat. She could smell her own blood from her feet, cut and scratched from the glass
shards everywhere.

His eyes never left her, and the corner of his mouth curled upwards.

For the first time, she noticed the slight indentation…

He hadn't been lying.

Oh… my… spirits…

Fear, icy cold, sprang from her stomach and flooded her every sense when his hungry
eyes met hers. And stayed.

Her heartbeat stopped when he leapt at her.


TBC.

Chapter 2: Chapter 2


Author: moor / beyondthemoor on LJ
Title: Merits
Genre: Romance/humour/vamp/Modern AU
Fandom: Avatar: TLA
Pairing: Zutara, Jetara
Length: approx. 1000 words
Part: Two
Rating: M
Disclaimer : "Avatar: The Last Airbender" and all related rights belong to their
original creators… I am not among their ranks.
AN: In response to hyperroo 's vampire/Zutara challenge, I present… the following:



"Merits" - Part Two

Three months earlier.

"You did."

"Did not."

"Did."
"Did not! Toph, would you stop it! People are staring…"

"Katara, please, do you honestly think you can hide something like that? From me?"

The darker-skinned girl grit her teeth as she fake-smiled at her friend (not that her friend
could see that, but the other patrons staring at them could), and tried to muffle their
quarrel between the campus library's bookstacks.

"Toph…" growled Katara in warning, putting the next book she needed on top of her
research pile.

"Oh my god, no! Staring at us! With their eyes! What should we do!" Eager to feed
Katara's paranoia, Toph grabbed the nearest book off the shelf and opened it randomly
before darting behind the massive cover. "Quick, act natural!" she stage-whispered, and
started pretending to read aloud in a pompous lecture-voice. "… which is why the
Genettian theory of adaptation of novel to film left much to be desired in the new age of
technology-influenced media interrelations…"

Sighing at her friend's antics behind the (incredibly poor choice of) reading material,
Katara rolled her eyes and decided to move on down the row to the next few items on her
list. Toph kept up.

"So, was he any good?"

"Would you stop it!"

"Heh, I can't see you, but I know you're blushing."

"TOPH!"

"Shhhh!"

"Sorry!" Katara went even redder as she whispered apologies to the people nearby who'd
hissed the warning at her. Fellow grad students, but luckily not from her department. That
was a small relief.

"So, you meeting him again?" wheedled Toph, now flipping absently through the book,
holding it high above her head. A man walking behind them caught sight of the
illustrations, paused, and skipped around them quickly, trying to hold his crimson-tinted
colouring at bay. Katara didn't even notice him.

"… We'll be out tomorrow night. Studying…"

"Way to go, Katara! Score!"

"Shhhhhh!"
"Hey, she's finally dating again! She's just had a 2-year dry spell- Come on, congratulate
her!" volunteered Toph, cheering her mortified friend enthusiastically.

A number of catcalls and whistles serenaded them as they walked through a corridor,
while others chuckled and a few even clapped. Two guys offered their phone numbers 'in
case things didn't work out'. Toph clapped the two brave guys on the back and confirmed
she'd pass the numbers along. For a fee.

Katara shook with embarrassed anger as they approached the self-check out and security
scan.

"Toph, I'm going to kill you…"

"So, do I know him?"

Katara nearly dropped her book in surprise.

Toph didn't know who? But she'd thought…

She handled the tome carefully as she waved it under the scan wand, thoughts racing as
the delicate 'beep' sounded, indicating the book was processed to her account.

"Oh, I've known him for a bit… I don't think you've ever met him, though."

"As long as he's got you in this good a mood, I think he deserves a medal. So, did I tell
you Sokka learned a new trick? The other day, when he and I were-."

Katara's stack of books flew off the counter, nearly knocking her friend down in the
process. "Toph!" Ohthisissonothappening. "We've known each other a long time, and
you're practically a sister to me; but Sokka is a brother to me. That is way too much
information. Way too much. Personal boundaries, ok? I don't need to know what you and
my brother are doing. Please don't ever tell me anything about my brother… like that.
Otherwise, I'm there for you whenever you need me."

She kneeled to pick up the books, leaving Toph to scratch her head in confusion.

"I meant a new trick with his car – but thanks for exposing another weakness for me to
exploit. Man, it's like Christmas today! You're the best, Katara!"

A few moments later, when they'd gained several pounds in reading matter, they made
their way to the security station to have their bags checked then towards the exit.

One of Katara's professors walked in, just as they passed the magnetic bars – and the
alarm started going off.
"Oh, hello, Katara! Already preparing for your presentation?" Her professor smiled
cheerfully at her with all… eight of his crooked teeth.

"Just about there, Doc Bumi," she agreed, already emptying her bag for the security
personnel to check. "These alarms always get me, though – how about you?"

"You mean they don't just go off for me to welcome me to this wonderful building? I'll
have to have them change the ringtone… I hear that Tustin Jimberlake's pretty popular
these days…"

Katara chuckled faintly, unsure if he was serious or not. Strangely enough, it wasn't hard
for her to imagine Bumi getting jiggy with it as he danced into the library to "Bringin'
Smexy Back"… It wasn't hard to imagine it, but it was definitely going to take a
considerable amount of brain-bleach to get it out.

She felt herself go pale.

"…Ma'am, you forgot to sign this one out," said the security guard politely, trying to
catch her disturbed attention. Something about the way he said it, though... He sounded
odd. She looked over at him warily.

"Would you like me to… scan this one in for you?" he offered.

Her palor dissolved, Katara went as red as her t-shirt.

"Toph!"

"Oh! Katara, that's an excellent book! I hadn't realized you'd changed your topic though.
Are you planning on giving a presentation with, ah, visual aids, too?" Katara wanted to
drop into a hole in the ground, right then and there. Her professor, of all people, had seen
her with this. She might as well have been walking around with a sign that read "Lend me
your pr0n!"

Toph caught on to Bumi's enthusiasm, and for the first time in her life, took an interest in
the written word.

"What did I pick up, anyway?"

"…The History of the Penis: Super Special Illustrated Pop-Up Version," said the security
guard in clipped tones. He was trying hard not to laugh. Really, he was. "Volume 8."

Katara suddenly realized why the man had sped around them earlier.

Covering her face with her hand, she waved at the security guard. "No thank you…"
"It's like Christmas and Hannukah together!" whooped Toph. "Hey, come on, sign it out
for me! Aang and Sokka and I can –."

"Only if you promise me you are not going to go corrupting minors with it again."

"… you know, I bet it looked fine on the shelf, too," sighed the younger woman in
disappointment.


TBC.

AN: Kudos to those who catch the "Dramacon" reference…


Chapter 3: Chapter 3


Author: moor / beyondthemoor on LJ
Title: Merits
Genre: Romance/humour/vamp/Modern AU
Fandom: Avatar: TLA
Pairing: Zutara, Jetara
Length: approx. 2500 words
Part: Three
Rating: M
Disclaimer : "Avatar: The Last Airbender" and all related rights belong to their
original creators… I am not among their ranks.
AN: In response to hyperroo 's vampire/Zutara challenge, I present… the following.


"Merits" - Part Three

The next night…

"See you tonight."

Smiling, Katara tucked the note back into her bag and waited by the tea house door.

An arm reached out from behind her, and took her by the elbow.

"Whoa, whoa, hey, it's me," the dark-haired man soothed when she jerked back,
surprised.

"Oh, sorry, you startled me," pushing her long straightened hair from her eyes, she smiled
engagingly. "So, you wanna go in?"
"Lead the way."

Ditching his toothpick in a standing ashtray by the door, Jet followed Katara into the
establishment's candle-lit obscurity.


(in another part of town)

"So she hasn't mentioned who yet?"

"Not to me."

"It's probably fine, Toph."

"Something's wrong, Sokka," Toph jutted her chin out stubbornly. "I can feel it."

From underneath the BMW's hood, Sokka's shoulders slumped. He was rolling around on
a dolly, so it was difficult to do, but he did it.

"Look, she knows what she's doing. As much as I hate to admit it, it isn't always my
business to know her business."

Toph's face darkened.

"She must have gotten really good dirt on you for you to give this up THAT easily," she
said. The young woman had spent many years at an all-girls' school and had mastered the
art of passive aggression.

Without thinking, Sokka rose up too quickly and ended up whacking his head on the
undercarriage when he reacted, "I'll have you know, that's a total—," BANG, "OW!"

He could practically hear her smirk from her leaning-against-the-hood position above
him.

"You did that on purpose," he groused, rubbing the tender spot. It was going to bruise, he
knew it, and he was supposed to have a date the next night. Now how was he supposed to
go? With a bandage around his forehead? Not cool.

"Oops, my bad…"

"It's more sincere when you aren't chuckling," he muttered.


The air was chilly when they left the teahouse, the ethnic musicians who'd been playing
for the patrons filing out just after them with their instruments.
"They were really good, weren't they?" remarked Katara as the talented group hopped
into their van in high spirits. She pulled her scarf tighter and burrowed into her jacket.
She really had studied a bit… until the music started. The meager effort buoyed her guilty
conscience and warmed her in the chilly outdoors.

"Yeah, the drummer had some solid beats." He put his arm around her and pulled her
closer, nuzzling her neck. "You cold?" he asked softly in her ear.

She shivered, and felt her face grow a bit warm. "I guess I should have brought my tea 'to
go'," she joked. The cold didn't usually get to her, but Toph's words had put her on edge
about everything. She must have worn herself out with worrying.

"My place is closer – did you want to stop in there? To warm up before heading home?"

She felt him take her hand in his, and twine their fingers together. He was very warm.
The night air around her embraced her suddenly, and felt much colder, almost more
dangerous, than it had a moment before. It wouldn't be so bad to stop in, for just a few
minutes… And I did study… I really did… I can keep this break up a bit longer. I earned
it.

And then she remembered the presentation she had coming up, and groaned.

Immediately misinterpreting her reaction, Jet stiffened and started removing his arm, not
saying a word.

"Oh, no, Jet, it's not you! I have a presentation due soon, and I know I have marking to do
before I turn in tonight," she said sourly, before grabbing for the front of his jacket and
facing him with pleading blue eyes. "I'm sorry, it's just bad timing on my part. I was
having such a good time tonight… with you… I kind of forgot about it until now…" she
stammered, and ended on a disappointed tone. She had been having a wonderful time.
She couldn't believe she was feeling so free, just from a date. How old was she? And
she'd completely forgotten about her work and the time—how often did that happen?

"No, no, it's ok, I get it. I'll take you straight home."

"Jet, I'm sorry! I really do have a-," he wasn't listening. She growled angrily in frustration
as he kept walking away in front of her. He was leaving her behind. It was getting colder.

Stupid guys and their fragile egos. There was no point in being honest with them if they
were going to take everything personally. Grumpy at her own reaction, she was torn – a
few more minutes of 'breaktime' or accomplishing all her work and getting to bed at an
almost reasonable time? Both would feel pretty good. Life or school? Life or school?
Lifeorschool?

Why was he making her choose, damn him! Life or school?
"Argh!"

She stopped walking, and after a few more steps, he came to a halt, too.

Taking a deep breath, she relaxed and put herself in his shoes for a moment. She knew he
was upset; she'd feel upset if someone had rejected her the way she had just done, too. He
didn't deserve that, not after how kind he'd been to her tonight.

"Jet."

He glanced back at her over his shoulder. His eyes were hurt.

She sighed in resignation. Another all-nighter…

Smiling ruefully to herself, she caught up with him and put his arm around her shoulder
again.

"So… what kind of tea do you have at your place?"

He couldn't help smiling down at her, and all the warmth came flooding back. "Whatever
we can find in the corner store on the way there."

With a playful shout, she punched him in the side. They were back on their way, cozying
up with every block they traversed together.

"Thanks, I'll take you out next time," she teased, getting up from the couch to put her cup
by the sink. "Want me to wash up before I go?"

A digital clock on one of the mis-matched end tables informed them both it was past
1am, far beyond Katara's usual bedtime. They'd fallen into a light sleep after cuddling up
with their tea.

"No, s'ok," Jet replied, still on the couch. He was the picture of relaxation, with his comfy
loose shirt and jeans, his socks kicked off, and a blanket placed carefully across his
middle. It was still warm from Katara sharing it with him a moment earlier. He leaned to
the side and yawned, stretching his legs.

"I'll make it up to you," she promised.

He propped himself up on his elbow, watching her. "…You don't have to go."

Katara paused on her way to the apartment door, considering his offer.

"I'll make it up to you," she repeated.

"Do you want me to walk you home?"
Wrapping her scarf around her neck and pulling her boots on neatly, she shook her head,
smiling. "No, I'll be fine. It's 1am on a weeknight – seriously, who else is stupid enough
to be up this late? And the way is well-lit. I'll be fine. You stay and rest! You have to be
at work first thing." She looked over at her boyfriend warmly. He'd worked so hard to
become a better person since their first encounter: he now held a steady job, he'd
straightened out his personal issues – or, wasn't hiding them from her anymore, at least, -
and had spent the entire night trying to relax and make her feel like she was worth a
million bucks. She promised herself to make it up to him soon.

"I can take a sick day, or head in late if you need me to-."

"You. Work. Morning." Or else, her glare reminded him severely.

He sighed, slumping down on the couch. She didn't doubt he'd sleep there that night.

"Yes, ma'am."

Blowing him a kiss, she grabbed her knapsack and bid him goodnight.

He was asleep before she closed the door.

She was nearly home.

A few more steps, and she would have been at her own apartment, safe and sound,
cuddling under warm blankets and drifting to sleep on happy dreams made of the pleasant
evening's memories.

A few more steps, that was all.

But it was too far, just out of reach.

"… Miss, you dropped something!" called a muffled voice from behind her, nearly
causing her to slip on the icy sidewalk in surprise.

"What?" she turned, and spied the young man, just as bundled-up as she was,
approaching her at a faint jog. He was holding out her pocketbook.

"You dropped this about half a block back, but I didn't want to startle you. Here you go,
have a safe trip home!" His wide frame blocked out most of the light from the nearby
streetlamp, and his dark green jacket and scarf concealed most of his face and body. No
wonder she could barely make out what he was saying.

"Thank you," she said politely, reaching out to accept it from him. "I didn't realize I
dropped it." Anxious to get home so she could get out of the cold, she took a step towards
him.
He held the book just out of her reach. "Don't I get to know your name?"

Her anxiety slowly uncoiled in her stomach, and gradually she felt her heart beat speed
up in warning. Something wasn't right.

"Sorry, I'm late already, my friends are waiting for me to get in. Thank you very much for
your help, I really appreciate it. May I have my book, please?"

He held it out towards her an inch. "Maybe another time."

Run, a tiny voice inside her called out. But Katara's stubborn side took over, ignoring it.

"Give me back my book. I need to get home."

He didn't say anything, but looked at her with dark, unsettling eyes.

Completely exasperated, Katara stomped her foot and glared at him now. "You can give
me back my book, or I am going to take it from you, and I'm going to report you for
harassment, Bucko!" she shouted, jabbing a finger at him.

He stood there, calmly, taking in her display of temper.

Still watching her.

"Ugh."

Katara snatched at the book, ripping it from the man's hands and marching away; she
threw him a murderous look as she started up the steps to her apartment building.

From behind her, the man chuckled lowly, just loud enough for her to hear.

She felt the hair on the back of her neck stand up.

Run,begged her inner voice, runrunrunrunrunrunrun—

She leapt forward to yank open the security doors.

He was faster.


Another night out with… what was her name? Jin? Song? He couldn't remember. He
went through them so quickly, he rarely bothered to learn their names anymore.

Not that it mattered, now that the interlude was over. (Or so he thought – who knew what
went on in human girls' heads?)
It hadn't ended as well as he'd hoped, but it had done wonders for building her trust in
him, which would pay off in the long run. In the meantime, he was left hungry.

He rolled the window down to listen for anyone else he could sate his thirst with, and
heard the distinct sounds of a scuffle from the side alley, a few houses up. He slowed the
car and pulled to the curb, hoping they would finish soon so he could choose the stronger
one to feed on temporarily. His personal philosophy was to never get truly involved in the
lives of his prey – gaining their trust to make them more willing was one thing, but taking
any kind of active role or influence in their day-to-day living was too much trouble, too
much risk.

So he crossed his arms in front of his chest, and waited for them to finish duking it out. It
took him a moment to realize it was a man… and a woman.

"You scum-sucking excuse for a man!" she screamed indignantly. "How dare you attack
me!"

Then came the 'oomphs' of a man groaning; he sounded like he was hunched over.

Must've been going for the balls again. Crazy women always do that, he thought to
himself as he sat behind his steering wheel.

Then came more sounds of a woman punishing her aggressor.

"Take that! And that! And that! And that!..."

"And if you ever think of touching another woman again, so help me, I'll…"

"Ugh, you bleed a lot…"

"Yeah, you better stay down!..."

From the car, the young-looking man couldn't help but smirk. Clearly, this man had
underestimated his own prey.

"Oy! Janes, that you!" A second male voice joined the chorus of grunts. He sounded
angrier than the first man, though.

"Miikei, d'j'you find'im?"

"Over 'ere, guys."

"Hey, who're you? What are you—hey, let go of me!"

The man in the car tensed. More sounds of a scuffle, and now jeers and deep-toned
hostility wafted over on the cool air.
Apparently, the stupid man had a lot of friends. No, he amended mentally as his hands
reached forward and gripped the steering wheel, accomplices. This had been planned.


"If you even think about—Argh!" Katara's voice was cut off as the new leader grabbed
her by the throat and started lifting her off the ground. She swung out and felt her kick
reach around the side of his knee, throwing off his balance; in retaliation, he smashed her
against the brick outer wall of a nearby garage structure. She saw stars, but continued
snarling at him.

"You, pick him up; you two, we're bringing her inside…" ordered the smarmy thug, his
grip tightening incrementally until her airway was cutoff.

"No…" she wheezed out, trying to claw his fingers off. Two men approached her and
grabbed her legs to keep her from struggling.

Glancing back at her confidently, he raised both his eyebrows, and said one word, very
calmly : "Yes."

The stars Katara had seen were joined now by encroaching darkness, and she fought to
stay conscious despite what she was sure was at least a minor concussion.

"Let… me… go…"

Her sight was gone; so was her sense of touch. She wasn't even sure she was still holding
on to his arm. She did her best to keep listening, refusing to give in.

The man tutted as if scolding a naughty child. "Tch-tch-tch-tch-tch, you nasty girl, this
isn't the way a lady behaves."

Panic flooded her as she counted the sounds of the thugs. There were too many people.
One she could handle—but how many were there now? Four? Five?

Jet, someone, help me, please!

"You're no man, either," she wanted to quip. She wasn't sure she'd said the words out
loud. The darkness enveloped her. Everything was blurring out.

She must have said something, though, since he shook her hard enough to snap her head
back against the wall again, and she fell to the ground.

She lost consciousness; as her senses abandoned her, the last thing she remembered was a
faraway car door slam.


TBC.
AN: I hope you guys are enjoying this new fic - feel free to let me know what you
think, I'd love to know! I've got a fair bit of this story written out already, so I'll try
and update once or twice a week. Thank you very much for reading!

Originally posted 18 Jan 2008.


Chapter 4: Chapter 4


Author: moor / beyondthemoor on LJ
Title: Merits
Genre: Romance/humour/vamp/Modern AU
Fandom: Avatar: TLA
Pairing: Zutara, Jetara
Length: approx. 1000 words
Part: Four
Rating: T
Disclaimer: "Avatar: The Last Airbender" and all related rights belong to their
original creators… I am not among their ranks.
AN: In response tohyperroo 's vampire/Zutara challenge, I present… the following.



"Merits" - Part Four

The next day.

Katara woke the next morning in her own room with a throbbing headache.

She was in her own bed, her own pyjamas, and her own ratty slippers were on the floor
beside the nightstand.

There were no thugs.

"Ugh," rubbing at her eyes, she tried to piece together her crazy dream. Failing miserably
and deciding sleep was the best medicine for nightmares, the med student rolled over for
another forty winks, mumbling to herself. "Just a few more minutes… And Tylenol 3…"
She snored faintly as she pulled the covers back up to her chin again.

It was amazing what a pleasant night out did to a girl's dreams, she decided fuzzily.
Armed thugs, dark alleys, gold eyes… Must've been an adventure dream, she decided.

Golden eyes…

Sharp teeth.
Panic exploded through her from her alarm erupting a moment later; she screamed and
nearly wet herself.

It stopped going off within a split second as she accidentally slammed it onto the floor
from fright, effectively ripping its cord from the wall socket. Panting and shaking
slightly, she glanced around the room.

She was alone.

Propping herself up on her elbows, Katara squeezed her eyes shut and held her head
together. It felt so awful, it must be trying to break itself into pieces.

"Ow…."

The outline of the gold eyes hovered in her mind for a moment longer, then dissipated
with the rest of the dream as the pain wiped it out.

Whatever Jet had put in that tea, she was never taking again, she decided. The images had
seemed so real she had a damn headache from it. She'd tell him off something fierce the
next time she saw him. Which just might be later that day, but so be it, it'd be fresher in
her mind anyway! -Katara couldn't help moaning again - what was left of it…

Taking another quick survey of the room, Katara listened carefully for any sign of an
intruder, any indication the dream had been more than a dream, any hint that what she
was remembering was real. She'd been almost certain there'd been…

"Ugh, wake up, Katara," she grumbled to herself as she ran a hand down her face. When
she turned and threw her feet over the side of the bed to sit up, she couldn't help pausing
and letting her feet hover before they touched ground. A tingle of unease prickled
through her, warning her that she wasn't alone. For the first time in years, Katara felt like
a child with night fears.

Gonna check under the bed next? Part of her inner-self mocked her childish behaviour.

"Get up and get to class," she ordered herself. "There's no such thing as monsters."

She moved slowly as she got up, and readied herself for class, thenclack-tchunk locked
the door behind her as she left.

Assured she'd make it through the day, the man with the golden eyes waited another
moment in the darkened closet to be sure she'd exited the hallway, then slipped out the
door after her to carry on his way.


"HEY KATARA, HOW WAS YOUR NIGHT?"
"Toph, please, just a little quieter today?"

"WHAT WAS THAT? I DIDN'T HEAR YOU. DID YOU SAY YOU WANT ME TO
TALK LOUDER?'

"I think a nuclear bomb went off in my head while I was sleeping – could you please shut
up? Argh!" Katara winced and clutched at her hair as her reaction got the better of her.
"You are so dead when I get over this…"

"Seriously, Katara, what the heck did you do? Booze usually hurts the front of your head,
not the back. I know you wouldn't go near the hard stuff, what with school and all…"

"I think it's just too much caffeine and sleep deprivation," Katara cut her friend off. "I had
tea at Jet's, and then I had this crazy dream when I got home – but I was so tired I didn't
even remember getting home – and then there were these weird gold eyes staring at me,
and then this big fight, and the next thing I know-."

Toph straightened a bit at Katara's last words. "Big fight? Are you sure it wasn't the radio
leaking in to your dream?"

"What do you mean?"

She facepalmed herself. "You really have been out of it today, haven't you?" The younger
woman groaned in frustration. Katara mimicked her, but for different reasons…

"There was this gang that was found just a few blocks from campus, in some kind of
grow-op house or something. They'd thought it was just a run of the mill student ghetto,
but somebody called the cops after a big fight in the middle of the night, and when the
cops got there, all kinds of stuff turned up."

"Neighbours reported them?" Asked Katara, a funny feeling settling in her stomach. She
was beginning to wonder if she was getting ulcers. Considering how hard she worked, it
wasn't entirely impossible.

"Nope, anonymous tip off," remarked Toph in a bored tone. She reached for some of her
snacks, spilling nuts over Katara's medical texts. The older girl brushed them off,
thinking her own thoughts.

"Well… that… was probably the radio, you're right."

"Apparently there was a woman who was involved earlier that night, and she beat the
crap out of one of the guys; but then he called in the rest. That's when the tip off came in,
and the cops showed up. No one's sure who she was." Toph leaned back in her chair
lazily, bouncing her foot in the air, her hands behind her head. "Heh, almost sounds like
something you'd do, huh?"
"Hahahahahaha…haha..haaaahhh…" Katara's voice trailed off as she looked to the side.
She'd lost track of when her head stopped hurting, but as Toph's words trailed off, she felt
it explode again, and reached up to support herself. "That must've just been some crazy
dream. Hey, next thing you know I'll be dreaming vampires came and saved me!"

Toph pulled at the sides of her mouth to show off her teeth. "Make sure he brushes first!"

"I'll be sure to pass that along…" Katara wondered how the Hell Toph knew so much
about the incident, but decided to tack it up to her & Sokka listening to the police scanner
for fun – and possibly profit – again. She prayed she wouldn't need to go bail them out of
jail again any time soon.

Moving to the next book on her pile, Katara glanced at her notes.

Her topic, the medical truths behind the legends of a group of supposed blood-dependent
creatures familiar in her tribe's old lore, stared back at her mockingly. It must be
weighing more heavily on her than she'd realised, if it was creeping into her dreams. The
tales and stories had been passed down for generations – and she'd decided during her
'elective' class to do a special project on the possible historical and medical circumstances
surrounding the legends. It had started out as a fun project. But in light of the previous
night's dream, it felt eerie, uncomfortable, … and familiar…

"Let's get coffee," she said, closing her book.

She needed a break.


TBC

AN: Thanks for reading! I'll try and have another chapter up this weekend. (BTW,
if you like this story, feel free to let me know - I really appreciate reviews!)
AN: Chapter posted 22 Jan 2008


Chapter 5: Chapter 5


Author: moor on / beyondthemoor on LJ
Title: Merits
Part : 5
Genre: Romance/humour/vamp/Modern AU
Fandom: Avatar: TLA
Pairing: Zutara
Length: 2000 words, approx.
Rating: T
Disclaimer : "Avatar: The Last Airbender" and all related rights belong to their
original creators… I am not among their ranks.
AN: In response to hyperroo 's vampire/Zutara challenge, I present… the following.



"Merits" – Part Five

In class

"Professor Kuruk?... Professor Kuruk?"

The inquisitive voice jarred Katara out of her reverie and she regarded the student who'd
called her attention. He stood in front of her raised lab bench with the handout she'd
distributed at the beginning of the class, wearing the most sympathetic, charming smile
possible for a brown-noser.

"Yes? Sorry Ken, I was a bit distracted," she smiled, a bit embarrassed she'd been caught.
It would be Ken who'd notice, too, of course.
"Oh, no worries – I just wanted to make sure everything was ok," he said, and smiled
back.

"Do you have any questions?"

"Nope! Just glad you're ok."

"Well… thank you, that's very nice. You can turn in the exercises when you're done."

"Ok."

The over-eager student sauntered back to his lab partner and they returned to the biology
experiment she'd outlined for them.

Katara's smile took a critical dive towards a grimace, but she forced herself to maintain a
professional façade. She was more than used to undergrads hitting on her to try and get
better marks. While at times flattering, it got on her nerves and she found it insulting
more often than not at this point in the game. Now that she had a boyfriend, she also
found it a bit awkward.
Well, sort-of boyfriend… Her shoulders sagged minutely as the recurring war-within-
herself renewed its efforts. The only thing she'd been able to come up with to explain her
complete lapse in memory of how she got home the other night was that Jet had slipped
something into her tea… And considering his past, it wasn't such a difficult assumption to
make. But why would he have done such a thing? He'd really straightened out – she'd
thought.

Katara went back to her mental war of attrition. Call him or don't call him? Was he guilty
or innocent? Was she justified in ignoring him, or completely insane at this point?
In her psyche, both sides battled to drive her to the brink of frustration, or madness,
whichever succumbed first. She'd been giving Jet the cold shoulder for the past several
days due to her own cowardice in confronting him. Every time she checked her phone she
found another few voice or text messages – he was getting agitated, by the tone of the last
few.

Well, good for him, he deserved it for whatever the heck he tried to pull with that tea. Her
head still smarted at times, and she hadn't had a decent night's sleep since the crazy
'dream' incident. (Whether from stress or pain, she wasn't sure anymore.) Her sleep
deprivation was making her edgy, and distracted; even her professors had remarked on
her decrease in aptitude. Not good for a graduate student who depended on every penny
of her scholarship…

Katara surveyed her group of lab students before starting on her usual 'walk about' to see
if anyone had any questions or needed help, her mind straying back to the argument she'd
had with Jet the week before.

"So, what are we doing for you to 'make it up to me' tonight?" Jet had teased when he'd
called her the day after their date.

"How about you never making me that disgusting tea again? What did you put in it? Do
you know what kind of crazy hallucinations it gave me?" She'd ripped into him without
even giving him a chance to answer between questions, forcing him into a defensive
position. "Jet, if I get caught with anything like that, my career, my entire life, is ruined!
What were you thinking!"
"Whoa, Katara, what are you talking about?" he'd asked, taken completely by surprise.

"Don't try to play me, Jet – I know what you used to do, and I believed you when you said
you'd changed for the better. But whatever you put in that drink that night, I could have
been seriously hurt. I really don't know what the Hell you were thinking, but I swear, it
better never happen again. And I really don't want to talk to you right now."

"Katara, wait, I don't know what you're talking about, really—."

"Screw you, Jet-I'll call you when I've calmed down."

"Katara-!"

She'd slammed her phone shut and been tempted to throw it at the wall, but had just
clenched her fist around it instead. Her angry tears had left her eyes red and sore, and
she'd felt like a fool. Everything he'd told her, all his promises, and she'd fallen for them
hook, line, and sinker. The only reason she hadn't dumped the louse was because she'd
believed in him when he'd said he was trying; and she couldn't turn her back on someone
who was doing their best. Her heart hurt that night and she'd turned her phone off to head
off his constant call-backs.
She'd been a mess the next morning. Her lab students had all behaved very well, though,
in retrospect – they'd likely picked up on her downcast demeanour. Then again, she'd also
threatened them with a pop-quiz if they didn't follow her directions to the letter… And
asking for volunteers for the surgical-demo when they ran out of bottled frogs probably
tipped the students off to her bad-mood, too…

Her students were a good group. There were the usual types: the 'smart' ones who
understood everything straight away, the 'followers' who were intelligent, but happy to
have someone take the lead as long as they could help, and the 'loners' who didn't want to
have someone mooch off their work, so ignored their partners and eventually did
everything on their own. They were good kids, and for undergrads they actually paid
attention and asked a lot of good questions. She enjoyed being their lab TA; their humour
and enthusiasm were wonderful for keeping her on her toes – and distracting her from the
occasions when her own problems bothered her.

It was the same group who were with her now, and they were a bit chattier again this
morning now that she must be returning to normal in their eyes. She heard one table
laugh a bit louder than the others and investigated, glad to let go of her feelings of guilt
for a bit.

At least this class is a nice constant in my life right now, she thought to herself as she
sidled up to the students to ask them how they were doing.


Thursday night, the week after the date with Jet.

Deserted. A condemned wreck, the factory had been abandoned until about three years
prior; the brick exterior had crumbled away in parts, the windows had been boarded up,
and the docking bays had been locked down for decades. It was surrounded by empty rail
yards and lots, on the waterfront by the shipping port. It was rumoured to have been used
by criminals as a hide-out, and the bullet holes in the wall leant plenty of support to the
claim that there'd been at least one shoot-out within its dingy confines.

Tonight, it was the hottest club in the northern hemisphere, and even celebrities lined up
to get in.

The city bylaw officers themselves ignored the violations the building presented,
following a silent order from the city's council to 'overlook' the blights… The revenues
the crowds brought it were greater than those of most of the biggest-name rock bands.

Lights whirled and glowsticks made neon streaks through the air as the city's best DJ
mixed tracks and noise together expertly into a layered blend of music the biggest-label
record companies would pay dearly to control. They had tried to pay her, of course – and
she'd laughed in their faces. The Blind Bandit worked for herself, and herself only.
Hands outstretched over the multitude of dials and switches, her multiple laptops and
other computer-related paraphernalia were arranged around her carelessly—or so it
seemed. In reality, everything was arranged to her specifications, her wants, her needs, all
at her fingertips. In order to better gauge the energy level and crowds' reactions, she went
barefoot to feel the rhythms of their vibrations. When their cries rose to a fever pitch, she
cranked the dials and drove them harder, before taking them back down again to a trance
state to recharge or flow on autopilot.

It was here, in Toph's natural habitat of the darkened depths of the Bomb Shelter club,
that Katara visited her friend and paid her a "Dear Abby" call... Just what Toph liked
best; not the girltalk, but the opportunity to rip into Katara— responsible, mature
Katara— for being a total ass.

"So have you forgiven him yet?" yelled the younger woman, preparing for the next set.

"No," Katara yelled back, frustrated.

"Did you talk to him?"

"No."

"Wow, Katara. You're really working hard on keeping this guy."

Katara's shoulders jerked and she jutted out her chin, her arms crossed in front of her. She
hated it when Toph had a point, especially at her expense.

"You just don't understand…"

"What don't I understand? You think he did something bad to you, you have no proof,
and you won't talk to him to find out what might have really happened anyway." Toph
enumerated each point on a slender, skilled finger with one hand, and continued segueing
the jungle-beat music with the other, instinctively. "I'm not saying you're wrong. I'm
saying you're not giving him a chance to be right. Or even a chance to defend himself."

"So what, are you saying I should go over and apologise? He's a jerk – he could be
dangerous!"

"Argh! Katara, look, it's up to you," conceded Toph, fed up with the circular argument.
"You were happy with him; you think the world of this guy otherwise, and yet you're so
stubborn and afraid to be wrong- and hurt- that you're stalling having any kind of
discussion with him." The music rose to a crescendo, and Toph moved to the next
computer, the one that controlled the room's effects. Bubbles and more mystic lights
ambulated throughout the room, calming the crowds down again as the electronic wove
into trance.
"Why don't you go talk to him? At least have the decency to end it cleanly. You're acting
like a coward."

"I'm trying to be safe and protect myself. After what happened-."

Toph whirled on her, gesturing wildly and clearly exasperated. "That's just it, you don't
know what happened! You're making assumptions," she threw her hands in the air for
emphasis.

"No I'm not, I'm… I'm…"

Looking at her friend for a moment, Katara stopped speaking and took in what Toph had
just said. Her eyes narrowed in speculation.

Damnit, she hated it when Toph was right.

Picking up her bag and putting her coat around her shoulders again, Katara rose to her
feet and brushed herself off. She mentally braced herself as her list of chores, work, and
school-related assignments loomed in front of her, and she realized she couldn't dawdle
any further avoiding things. "I've got work to do," she said and shrugged her jacket on
comfortably again.

"Yes, you do," assured her friend. Her voice was gruff, but confident and the vote of
support made Katara smile.
Doing up her zip, Katara leaned over and gave Toph a quick hug, in spite of the younger
woman's protests. "Thanks, Toph." She planted a perfunctory kiss on her round cheek out
of spite.
"Yeah, whatever. I'll put it on your tab." Extricating herself from her friend's grasp, Toph
shoved Katara lightly away. "Just don't forget your stuff. I have a business to run up here.
If I trip and break something, you're paying for it."

"I'll see you later," called Katara, heading down the steps to make her way through the
throngs of ravers to the door. Once past the security guards at the bottom of the flight of
steps, she disappeared amidst the pulsing life of the mob. Toph felt the vibrations of her
friend's feet fade into the pounding of the rest of the guests, like a raindrop falling into
the ocean's currents.

"Later!" waved Toph – until her arm stiffened and stopped in mid-wave in the air.
"Katara?" she called. "Katara!" Her voice was anxious – but the other woman had already
moved out of hearing. She was soon through the door, completely out of 'sight'.

Toph swept her feet over the floor again to be sure, but the unusual vibration she'd felt
was gone. It had been so strange, alien – but… it had almost felt like a ghost had tread on
the concrete floor of the old factory for a moment, and followed Katara out the door.
Frowning and shaking her head slightly, Toph turned back to her stations and starting
building the energy back up again. "Must've been something else…"


TBC.

AN: Thanks for reading, I hope you enjoyed! I'll try and get Part 06 up this coming
week, Tuesday or Wednesday.
AN: Chapter originally posted 26 Jan 2008.


Chapter 6: Chapter 6


Author: moor on / beyondthemoor on LJ
Title: Merits
Part : Six
Genre: Romance/humour/vamp/Modern AU
Fandom: Avatar: TLA
Pairing: Zutara, Jetara
Length: 2000 words, approx.
Rating: M
Disclaimer : "Avatar: The Last Airbender" and all related rights belong to their
original creators… I am not among their ranks.
AN: In response to hyperroo's vampire/Zutara challenge, I present… the following.


"Merits" – Part Six

Later that night, after her talk with Toph at the Bomber…

The last assignment was marked, the papers were written, and her readings were almost
up to date. Her desk was tidied, her alarm was set for the morning, and for the first time
in as long as she could remember, her Friday was looking like it might not leave her
completely wiped out for the weekend.

She should have been thrilled.

Instead, Katara was sitting on her bed in her pyjamas, toweling off her wet hair and
glaring at her cellphone as if it were about to eat her. It was her guilt and cowardice that
threatened the latter, however. Her insecurity was infuriating her, too. She was being
intimidated by a silver-and-chrome container of circuits with an antennae – adorned with
a sparkly-blue dolphin charm on it to boot. Oh, the indignity…

Glancing at the clock, she knew it should have been too late to call Jet, since he had to
work early the next morning; still, she wanted to get this over with, at least make a step in
the 'right' direction. All this indecision, all this waffling, all this uncertainty was wearing
her out and she wanted to just expel it and start over. She'd made a mountain out of a
molehill, and possibly ruined a really great relationship in the making.

"You can do this, Katara," she mumbled to herself, holding the phone in front of her.

It would wake him up, he could get mad, and if he wasn't about to dump her already, he'd
probably be ready to by the time she started talking to him and accusing him of drugging
her.

"Yeah right," she ran her hand down her face. Oh brother, this is already going well…

She stared at the small screen, hard, as if to make the phone decide for her.

Call him. See how he's doing! (Too friendly.)

Don't call him. Shun the jerk. (Too aggressive.)

Call him. Talk about what happened! (Too straightforward.)

Don't call him. Make him suffer. (Too vindictive.)

Call him. (No.)

Don't call him. (No!)

Callhim. (NO.)

Don'tcallhim. (NO!)

Callhimordon'tcallhim, just get a grip, Katara! (Arrrrghhhhhh!) She wanted to rip her
dark locks out from their soggy roots. Why was this so hard?

A second later, the phone in question rang and the vibrations startled her so badly she
dropped it with a muffled shriek.

"Hello?" trying to stabilize her voice, she grabbed at the phone and flipped it open before
the caller-ID had even registered the sender.

"Katara, is that you? Are you ok?" Jet's desperate voice jumped at her through the line.
"Oh thank god, I was so worried…"

The relief in his voice doubled her guilt… and relieved her at the same time. By the tone
she could tell he was doubled-over. Then came the sound of a light thud. Was he leaning
his head against a wall? Had she worried him that much? Had she even considered what
he might have been thinking this past week?...
She pulled the damp towel from her shoulders and felt her fingers dig into the terrycloth.
No, she hadn't thought about him all week, just what she thought he'd done to her. She'd
been so worried about herself, she hadn't given a second's thought to what he was going
through, or even considered the option that he may not have had anything to do with her
crazy 'dream'. From the receiver, on the other end of the line she heard Jet mumbling
relieved sounds to himself, over and over. She'd been completely wrong… One hundred
percent wrong. Oh… shit.

She really hated it when Toph was right. There went her alcohol budget for the month.

"Jet?" she asked, interrupting his mumblings.

"Yeah? Is everything ok? When you got mad at me and wouldn't talk to me, I thought
something had happened. I didn't want to bug you at work, and I know you've been really
busy, but I just…" His voice trailed off. "I'm just… I'm really happy I got a hold of you,"
he finished, and Katara could hear the smile in his voice.

"I… I think I got mad at you for something… and… I didn't understand what was going
on. I'm sorry," she said in a rush, eager to get the apology out of the way. Details would
come later.

"Hey, that's no problem, stuff happens!" Katara almost laughed at his swing back to his
usual easy, laid-back manner. She couldn't believe how worked up she'd been. Not that
she was letting herself – or him – off the hook that easily, but at least she didn't feel as
intimidated to do it. Feeling like an idiot, now that she'd have a hard time shaking.
"So… just to clear things up, and see what happened… do you have some time this
weekend?" She asked hesitantly. She didn't want to be the one to say, "Let's have a
talk."She knew guys got uncomfortable when girls suggested that. And it wasn't like they
were a serious couple. They hadn't been dating very long, really. But hopefully Jet
wouldn't run, wouldn't panic or avoid her, or would at least let her broach the topic, and-.

"Do you want to talk about things? Want me to come over?" he offered.

Wait,what?

For a second she was so surprised she pulled the phone from her ear and stared at it. Who
was this man, and what had he done with her Jet? Broody, laidback, but never-this-
sensitive Jet. He was as good as Toph with manipulation, if he was manipulating her.
Damnit, was she the only one around here who sucked at this relationship thing? Katara
felt her couple-confidence take a hit to the proverbial groin – yes, she realized, she was…

Jet was talking again, and she continued to stare at the phone anxiously.

No, no she wasn't ready to talk right now, she just meant to bridge the gap, make
arrangements, set things up for the weekend! Her conflicting emotions warred again. She
was beginning to hate both sides of the internal battle. Why was she being such a
chicken? It was just a talk.

Katara scrambled to find her voice.

"Jet, you have to work tomorrow," she insisted, noticing the clock. 10:45pm. He could
likely make it over by 11:00pm, but still…

"I took tomorrow off. I'll see you soon!"

"Jet!" She didn't want him to skip work because of her! Damn this impulsive man!

He'd already hung up.

Katara's pyjamas slid down her slumped shoulders as her hand fell to the top of the
comforter on her bed.

"Crap!" jumping to her feet, she ran to the living to collect the stacks of laundry she'd
been neglecting for the past two weeks.

In her haste, she stumbled over one of her piles of books. The top one fell open to a
bookmarked section entitled Porphyria. She ignored it as she reached under her couch for
a wayward pair of underroos. She figured she had about 20 minutes, max, before Jet
buzzed her from the lobby...


The morning light streamed in from the blinds and Katara rubbed her eyes and pushed
her hair out of her face to glance at the clock. She groaned; she was going to be late.
Thank the gods she was giving the kids back a quiz today and had already planned
another assignment they could start in-class after they finished reviewing the evaluation's
answers…

A dark, work-roughened arm around her middle shifted and pulled her closer to his
warmth under the blankets, and she tried not to give in and call in sick. Her students were
depending on her. It was so comfy under the blankets, though…

Scholarship…Squeezing her eyes shut and cursing the weekday light, Katara grumbled
out of bed.

"Work," she admonished, reaching up to pull the blankets away just enough to let her out
and still maintain the warmth under the comforter for Jet.

"Mmmph…"
"Look, I'm leaving this spare key for you so you can sleep in a bit and then lock up after
yourself, ok? I'll get it back from you later," she said. She washed up in the bathroom and
left the key on the kitchen table, just beyond the entranceway to her apartment.

Not wanting to be left behind, Jet hurried around the corner, still buttoning up his jeans.
"Hey, wait a second," he said, ducking into the bathroom, rinsing with mouthwash and
coming to join her by the door. His jeans were slung low on his hips. Her attention was
distracted when he reached into the pocket of his coat and handed her a tiny silver object.

"What's this… for?" she asked, and realized it was a key. She hadn't meant, when she lent
him hers, oh no, she hadn't meant…

She looked up at him, trying to decide how to convey the misunderstanding with tact.

"No, it's ok, I know you just mean to give me yours for today." He smiled. "This is mine,
though, for you."

"Jet, I can't."

"Yes, you can. I don't want you to think you can't trust me. And call me when your
classes are done, I'll come get you."

Katara glanced at the clock and decided she'd be putting her old martial-arts conditioning
to good use on her run to class that morning. "I need to go."

He slid a hand along her cheek, and hand-combed her hair behind her ear. "Call, ok? No
more scary trips by campus for a while by yourself. Even if you are Super Woman!" He
added when he saw her temper flare. His hand tightened in her hair and he pulled her
close and kissed her soundly before she pulled the door open and dashed out. "Have a
great class!"

Katara's cheeks burned as she flew past her neighbours who'd come to investigate the
sounds of her louder-than-usual morning routine. She couldn't help but overhear their
comments about her 'gentleman caller' who didn't look so bad without his shirt. She made
a mental note to remind Jet to dress himself before she'd let him see her off again. She
sped up as she exited the building and crossed the parking lot in leaps and bounds, the
snow on her usual shortcut barely slowing her pace. She was very grateful she'd packed
her bag the night before, but she wished she'd remembered to grab a hat & scarf.


From the driver's seat of his car, the vampire watched her hurtle over the chain link fence
with ease before sliding to a stop on the snow and dashing off again. She hadn't even
broken a sweat yet. Her dark hair flew behind her like a raven's wing in the wind.

She was strong, very strong. He already knew she was a fighter. Her opinionated attitude
could stand some adjustment, but still…
She was definitely worth a look...

The Audi's engine purred to a start, and he pulled away to head towards the university.
He was sure he'd find more out about her there, from the direction she was heading.

Zuko slid his sunglasses up the bridge of his nose as he smirked and wondered how she'd
taste.


In a faraway place...

"You've known your legacy from a young age. You've trained, studied, and prepared for
this role your whole life." The austere speaker looked at the young man kneeling before
him in the circle.
"Do you understand the career you are undertaking?"
"Yes."
"Do you understand the sacrifices and responsibilities?"
"Yes."
"Do you understand the cost, not only to yourself but to those around you?"
"Yes I do. I accept them as they are a part of who I am."

"Then rise and join us, Aang," his voice rose to a crescendo to shout to the crowds
surrounding them on the stone risers in the secluded amphitheatre. "Rise and join your
fellow vampire hunters. Protect the human, defeat the darkness; through these you will
preserve peace and light."

The young bald man accepted the accolades and bowed, covering one fist with the palm
of the other. The blue trail of tattoos curled over lean muscles and sinew, from wrist to
shoulder and down his back. The mark of the Guardian.

A pair of ocean-blue eyes materialized in his mind, and internally he smiled.

Triumph. Relief. Determination.

He felt a heavy breath flow through him and out, and his spirit lightened.

I'm going home.


TBC

AN: Well, we finally see where Aang's been, and a bit more about Katara's situation
(she's a grad student, medical field, and is dependant on her scholarship for
funding). Also, we find out Toph's 'dayjob'. XD From the first moment I saw Toph
bend, I've had the image in my head of her hands outstretched over a DJ rig.
AN: Thank you for reading, I hope you enjoyed!

AN: Originally posted 30 Jan 2008. (Just barely! Sorry, been working overtime and
nearly forgot to update! Actually, on that note… When we hit RRSP season, I may
not be able to update as often, but I'm going to try! Chapter 14 is currently with a
beta already, believe it or not…)


Chapter 7: Chapter 7


Author: moor on / beyondthemoor on LJ
Title: Merits
Part : Seven
Genre: Romance/humour/vamp/Modern AU

Fandom: Avatar: TLA
Pairing: Zutara, Jetara
Length: 1400 words, approx.
Rating: M
Disclaimer : "Avatar: The Last Airbender" and all related rights belong to their
original creators… I am not among their ranks.

AN: In response to hyperroo' s vampire/Zutara challenge, I present… the following.


"Merits" – Part Seven.

"What do you mean, 'evaluator'? I don't remember this being brought up at the last faculty
meeting," argued Katara. Her dark hair was tied back in a messy knot as she leaned back
in her chair to regard her supervisor and his unwelcome news.

Professor Bumi grinned down at her from the doorway of the double-office. Normally
there were pairs of graduate students assigned to each office, however Katara had been
lucky enough to get the office to herself following one of her colleague's early
graduation, the term before. Katara herself was the grad student rep appointed to the
faculty meetings, to report the major happenings to the rest of her fellow students. She
knew she hadn't missed a meeting – so she was more than just a little offended the
department had brought in an outside evaluator without notifying them through any sort
of official memo or announcement. 'Dropping-in' on her on a Friday afternoon during her
office hours did NOT count as official, in her book.

"Oh, it was decided before you arrived, my dear. Now, this is our 'little helper' as we're
calling him, Mr. Zuko Sozin. He has traveled to many institutions, and has a great head
on his shoulders. He's just here to observe the classes and the department runnings for a
while, and offer a few suggestions if he sees anything he thinks needs improving."
Taking a calming breath, Katara tried to look on the bright side. It would be good to have
someone come in and straighten out some of the tenured profs who thought the grad
students were slave-labour… And now they had an expert to do the reporting of this
problem for them…

Hmmm. The young woman perked up considerably at the potential uses for the new
member of the department. Not that she had any intention of exploiting him, but he'd
definitely need a tour from the view point of the graduate students, and who better than
she, the student representative, to show him the ropes? Definite possibilities. Putting on
her brightest, most welcoming smile, Katara nodded, inviting them in.

"Ah, Zuko m'boy, this is your new office-mate, Katara Kuruk."

Katara's daydream shattered. Wait, office-mate? As in, sharing her beloved personal
space?

Then her composure was stolen when she saw the handsome man… whose face was
marred by a gash that crossed the side of it, from ear to chin. She was too stunned to
react.No, not a gash – a burn. Looks like a chemical spill or…

"Hi, roomie," he said, extending his hand politely.

"I'll leave you two to get acquainted," said Bumi. The older gentleman skipped away
back to his own office around the corner, leaving Zuko and Katara staring at each other.
The room was quiet for a moment.

"Well, I'll just… put my stuff over on that desk…" pulling his un-accepted hand back and
picking up his laptop bag, Zuko turned towards the second desk in the tiny office – to
discover it was completely covered in Katara's work.

"Used to working alone, I see. Well, that'll be changing," said the intruder off-hand.
Katara's eyes narrowed. It wasn't what he said, it was the way he said it…

Her lovely mouth tightened into a thin line as she stood to clear the desk for the new
comer. There was something not right about this man… he'd been so polite a moment
before. And useful.

Ok, maybe this won't be as useful as I thought, she reflected. But it can still work.

"I'll be needing space on the shelves and in the filing cabinet by Monday."

Katara whirled around to say something back, but the bossy new 'roomie' had already
left, leaving the door open behind him. Irked, but trying to stay focused, she cleared her
own desk and packed her things to take home for the weekend.
"Just relax, go home, and read a trashy book in the bath," she mumbled to herself out
loud, already mentally perusing her bookcase for a good one to choose to settle in with
that night when she returned home. It had been a very long day already, and the thought
of dealing with another problem made her decidedly anti-pragmatic for the time being.
The new roomie issue could wait until after the weekend.

She spent the next half-hour clearing Zuko's desk off, and leaned down to grab the last
few books from underneath her neighbour's desk. Crawling forward on her knees and still
thinking about which trashy novel to pick up when she'd run her bath that night, she
mumbled to herself, "Elizabeth Lowell, Nora Roberts maybe? Something really-."

"I can see we'll need to set some guidelines on professional conduct around here."

Katara startled so suddenly she whacked her head on the underside of the desk and swore
audibly. (Her head was getting far too much abuse recently.)

The resounding crack didn't seem to deter the intruder-again from his original intent.

"I'll be bringing in a few things this weekend. I'd appreciate it if you didn't touch them, if
you come in to work before Monday," Zuko's voice addressed Katara's rear, the only part
of her visible to him from her station under the desk. His polite façade had disappeared,
and a rude, arrogant one had slipped into place. Unsure of whether it was her head-injury
or his personality, Katara squeezed her eyes shut and prayed it was her head injury – she
really didn't want to have to have to be partnered up with an asshole during her busiest
term so far.

Thoroughly embarrassed at her position, and insulted he hadn't even asked if she was ok,
Katara backed away from underneath the desk slowly. If the issue wasn't just in her head,
truth be told she'd appreciate it if he didn't come in to work at all if he was going to keep
being such a jerk.

"I was planning to work from home this weekend," and possibly a whole lot more often
from now on, she replied. She rubbed the sorest part of her head and tried not to glare too
hard at the newcomer. It was the same Zuko as before, just to be clear—and he was no
longer polite now that Doc Bumi had left for the weekend. Ok, maybe this guy's just
socially awkward and not used to working with people. If he's so into 'improving'
workplaces, he probably has to keep a professional distance and just doesn't know how to
interact with other colleagues anymore, she rationalized. Her Gran-gran had always
taught her to look for the good in people, and that it sometimes lay below the surface.
You couldn't always see the merits of an individual right away. Katara reminded herself
of this several times while she applied pressure to the already-forming bump and glanced
up at the 'socially underdeveloped' new 'friend'.

He continued before she could answer.
"You probably have a lot of catch-up to do, if you have so much work left out. I'm sure
you'll have it all done by 8:00am, though. Good luck."

With that backhanded compliment, he left her wide-eyed and kneeling on the floor of
'their' office.


As Zuko closed the door and walked away, he distinctly heard a feminine voice
utter,sonofab- behind him. Slipping his sunglasses on again, he smirked and went for a
tour of the campus' administrative records office.

TBC

AN: Thank you for reading!

AN: Congratulations, Castle Anthrax – You're reviewer 25! Please PM or e-mail me
with what you'd like your 'thank you' fic to be about. (characters/pairings involved,
genre, rating, topic or theme or suggestion, etc.). I'll try and write that for you over
February. (For those who don't know, I write a 'thank-you for
commenting/reviewing' fic for those who leave a signed/logged-in comment if they
are the 25, 50, 75, or 100th reviewer on a fic of mine. I'll write them for un-signed
reviews, too, of course, but I need you to leave me your e-mail so I can contact you
to get the fic details from you!) More details in my profile.

AN: Originally posted February 3rd, 2008.

PS: Just a heads' up : I'm currently battling a partial hard drive failure. If you
don't see an update mid-week, I'll do my best to do a double-update next weekend.
(It's a war of attrition around here right now… )


Chapter 8: Chapter 8


Author: moor on / beyondthemoor on LJ
Title: Merits
Part : Eight
Genre: Romance/humour/vamp/Modern AU

Fandom: Avatar: TLA
Pairing: Zutara, Jetara
Length: 1400 words, approx.
Rating: M
Disclaimer : "Avatar: The Last Airbender" and all related rights belong to their
original creators… I am not among their ranks.
AN: In response to hyperroo' s vampire/Zutara challenge, I present…


"Merits" - Part Eight

Amidst the wandering crowds, Toph and Sokka made their way to Gate 42. Their coats
were open in the stifling heat of the building, and they bumped along trying not to trip
over the luggage trailing after the departing and arriving passengers.
"So he's coming in today? You're sure this time?"
"Yes, I'm sure. He called when he was leaving the departure gates to wake me up,"
groused Sokka, blowing his long bangs out of his eyes. He hadn't been able to find an
elastic before he left, and refused the barrette Toph had graciously offered him in the car.
From beside him, the blind girl chuckled. "And you're sure it's 2:00 pm, not am, right?"
"You're never going to let that go, are you? Look, I already apologized to you three times
for that!"
"I had to close my show early that night and everything!" she complained, poking him
mercilessly. "And had you checked the schedule? Noooo…."
Hmph-ing grumpily, Sokka looked up at the signs above the luggage carousels to see
which one was to expect their friend.

"Come on, over here," he said, tugging on Toph's sleeve to keep her close. Had he looked
back at his companion, he may have noticed the faint blush on her cheeks – however he
was too stubborn and so continued unawares.

The pair spent a short time seated on some uncomfortable plastic chairs before Toph
jumped to her feet, pointing directly to a handsome young man with a rucksack. "It's him!
It's Aang! AANG! HEY AANG!" She waved wildly. "What took you so long, huh?"
"Yeah, she's been driving me crazy!" Added Sokka, giving a playful jab at Toph. The
young woman shoved him hard enough to send him flying backwards in retaliation.
Several chairs fell over, clattering to the ground. Toph ignored them, and Sokka's
surprised squawk of protest, and made her way to reunite with the clean-shaven, though
obviously happy traveler. "Hurry up, we've got a welcome-home party ready and waiting
for you!" yelled Toph with her hands to her mouth as a megaphone (not that everyone in
the airport hadn't heard her already).

Collecting his things, he turned toward his two friends and smiled warmly. He'd been
away far too long.


Spices, herbs, vegetable cuttings – the work of a master displayed on every surface;
coupled with tempting cooking smells to waft through the apartment.

Katara wiped the sweat off her brow with the back of her hand, and straightened up with
her other hand against the small of her back. It had taken all morning, but the salads, hors
d'oeuvres, and main dishes were ready. Toph had promised to collect some cakes from
the bakery, so all that was left was setting the table – and a batch of snacks just finishing
up in the oven. She'd even finished whipping the chip-dip.

Martha Stewart, eat your heart out, she thought to herself triumphantly.
"Jet, could you bring out those plates now, please?" she called, and her boyfriend popped
through a moment later with a stack of dishware from the cupboard.
"This enough?"
"I think so – Toph told me it was only for one more person. I wish she'd told me what
kind of food to prepare, but she ran off with Sokka like it was some big 'secret' I wasn't
supposed to know about. I swear, they better not be bringing home one of their latest
'friends' from the drunk-tank again… ugh…" Wrinkling her face in apprehension, Katara
appraised the table one last time. Layout out the chopsticks and silverware, she started
mimicking her friends' voices mockingly. "'Katara, we're having a party – make lots of
food!' 'Katara, we'll be back around 3:00pm, make sure everything's ready!' 'Katara, we
have a big surprise for you, but you can't peek!' Argh, and yet they leave me to do all the
preparation for it! I feel like I'm throwing myself this party!"

"It sounds like they depend on you a lot," remarked Jet, wandering over to her and
placing his hands on her shoulders. "Just wait; they'll bring you something fantastic, and
then you'll have the worst guilt-trip for doubting them. They're your friends, aren't they?"
he asked, and massaged her knotted back. She sighed and knew she'd already forgiven
them. She just didn't like feeling like she was being abused for her culinary skills.

"Yeah… and they wouldn't have asked without good reason, you're right. Thanks for
coming over to help, by the way," she smiled and leaned into his warm hands. "I can't
wait to introduce you to everyone."
"My pleasure," he grinned. Just then, the oven timer went off, as sounds of approaching
footsteps in the hallway trundled to her apartment door… accompanied by Toph's
bellowing laughter. Jet arched an eyebrow and looked down at her.
"You get the food, I'll get the door," she decided aloud. He nodded, kissed the top of her
head, and returned to the kitchen.

"Coming!" called Katara, and she left the kitchen.

"—and this one time, when we were at the club and her students found her, she was-,"
Toph was talking loudly as she entered without knocking, followed by Sokka who was
wisecracking as usual. Katara shook her head, amazed at how often loud noise always
seemed to follow her brother and friend. It was like they came with their very own
background settings…
Determined not to let the pair off the hook for her entire morning spent shackled to her
kitchen, Katara crossed her arms and waited for them to take their boots off. She
schooled her face into a mock-scowl, though she couldn't help the corners of her mouth
twisting up into a smile. It wasn't often enough, in her opinion, that they all got together
like this anymore, and she was happy to see them. "Well, finally! Welcome…," her voice
caught in her throat at the last face through the door.
"… home," said Aang softly, gazing back at her.
In the back of her mind, Katara reflected on how it was a good thing Toph had been
carrying the cake at that moment, since she knew she would have dropped it had it been
left in her care when she met Aang's eyes.

The entryway became very quiet as the two long-separated friends looked at each other.
Even the raucous duo of Sokka-and-Toph calmed at the tension that had iced the air.

From behind the Water Tribe girl, a pair of masculine, confident footsteps calmly
approached – and immediately drew everyone's attention, in part due to the apron he
wore over his shirt and jeans.
Sliding an arm around his girlfriend's shoulders, Jet gave Katara a quick squeeze and
nodded to the newcomers. "Hey, welcome to the party. Is this the big surprise?" he asked,
looking everyone over. His eyes rested suspiciously on Aang for a moment before
moving on to Katara's brother and girl friend. He put out his hand to Sokka first.

"Yeah, you could say that," Aang replied a bit coolly. The young man hadn't missed Jet's
appraisal, and he thrust his hand out to grasp Jet's before Sokka could. His tone changed
and warmed however. "Hi, I'm Aang. I'm a friend of -," Toph cut him off.
"Everybody," her voice dripped with sarcasm and she waved her hand dismissively. Her
boots landed with staccato slaps on the floor, and she tossed her jacket on the couch as
she made her way through the apartment, leading the pack. The cake-bearer does tend to
decide the course of action.

"That is true," added Sokka sagely, following her and leaving Aang, Katara, and Jet in
the hallway. The tallest among them, the big brother's nose picked up the warm scent of
the fresh goodies and his mood jumped ten points on the happy-scale. "Is that-."

"Yes, it's everything you guys asked for – who's hungry?" Katara forced herself to smile
cheerily as she hustled everyone to the kitchen where her hostess talents were praised to
the rafters. Most audibly by her brother; most loudly-chewed by her girl friend; most
competitively by her boyfriend and her ex-fiancé.


Late that night, after everyone had left.

In her bedroom, Katara sat curled up in her blanket, her phone to her ear as she spoke to
Toph.

In the loft above Sokka's garage, Aang sat on a spare futon, staring at the floor while
Sokka lay down nearby in his own bed.

No one slept.

The distance didn't matter anymore, though, as the lonely pair channeled the same
thoughts, and spoke the same words:
"You could have told me, you know…"
TBC

AN: Thanks for reading! (Chapter posted Saturday February 9th, 2008).
AN: Quick note: I'm sorry, I need to cut updates back to once a week, likely on
weekends until RRSP season's up (March or possibly April). Sorry, overtime calls!
(In good news, Chapters 9-15 are written and just need to be edited & posted.)


Chapter 9: Chapter 9


Author: moor on / beyondthemoor on LJ
Title: Merits
Part : Nine
Genre: Romance/humour/vamp/Modern AU
Fandom: Avatar: TLA
Pairing: Zutara, Jetara
Length: 2500 words, approx.
Rating: T/M

Disclaimer : "Avatar: The Last Airbender" and all related rights belong to their
original creators… I am not among their ranks.

AN: I do still refer to Katara as from the 'Water Tribe' (since, in this story, she is
from North America). As an aside, she is from a First Nation band casually referred
to as the 'Water Tribe' due to their reservation's close proximity to water in the
Northern Territories in Canada. I think the Water Tribes in Avatar are based on
the Inuit, a recognized group of First Nations people, so I wanted to try and keep
some of that in the story. I hope this helps clear up a bit of confusion!

AN: In response to hyperroo' s vampire/Zutara challenge, I present…


"Merits" – Part Nine

The morning was… rough.

An unusual silence welcomed her to her office on Monday morning, when Katara
returned from the lab she taught. It was quiet, but it was that kind of 'quiet where you
knew someone's there'-quiet.

Her new 'roomie' sat at his desk, reading over documents and professor-evaluations from
the past several years.

He didn't greet her when she entered.
"Morning," said Katara pleasantly as she put her things down on her own desk and started
her computer. While she'd woken up depressed at the thought of facing a week (and
longer) with Zuko as a working companion, she'd revised her initial opinion of him and
decided to do her best to give him a chance to make a better impression. Her Gran-gran
would be proud of her, she was sure.

At her expectant smile, Zuko barely glanced at her.

The corners of Katara's mouth dipped at his lack of interest, but she carried on.

Maybe he's not a morning person, that's ok, I'm not either.

Trading her lab books for her notepad, a faintly insulted, but still optimistic, Katara left
for her lecture.

"See ya later," she called.

He ignored her.

She closed the door after her, piqued. It didn't help that she'd noticed he'd cleared part of
her bookshelves and left her pile of books and knick-knacks on the floor, to make room
for his own things. Fortunately, she was looking forward to the day's lab with her usual
group of students and tried not to dwell on the snub.

And anyway, the afternoon still holds plenty of untapped potential, she told herself and
cheered at the notion.

For a few minutes, Katara deluded herself into thinking all would work out fine, and she
arrived at her lab with her usual sunny disposition.

In reality, she knew she was starting to hate having a roommate.


The afternoon was… worse.

"Have you met many people from the department yet?" Katara asked as she added
dressing to her salad. She often ate at her desk in her office when she wanted to fit in a bit
of extra reading over the noon hour. The cafeteria downstairs was too annoying to study
in during the lunch hour, for obvious reasons – it was packed solid with hungry, rowdy
students.

From his desk, Zuko looked up, surprised she'd addressed him again.

"No," he answered. "Are you… eating?" he asked awkwardly.
"Yes… it's lunchtime. Don't you eat lunch, too?" she teased, an eyebrow raised. He really
was odd.

"No." The comment did seem to rouse him from his position behind his stacks of files,
though. With that, he got up, walked to the window, and closed the blinds before
returning to his seat to go over more documents. Putting another dossier on top of his
pile, he worked away in silence.

"Was it too bright?" she asked curiously. She'd often sat at his desk while she worked and
had enjoyed the way the sunlight poured in over her work, warming her. It was just the
right angle to flow over the desk, yet avoid throwing glare in her eyes.

"No."

He ignored her for the rest of the lunch hour, including her offer to grab him a coffee
later that afternoon when she took her break – which she took early, mostly to get away
from him. Refusing to admit defeat, she decided it was simply time to regroup…
elsewhere. To her added shame, she found she had to physically restrain herself from
slamming the door shut behind her while she went 'regrouping'.

It was one thing to have material to review and peace in which to work away at it, she
fumed to herself as she stalked across the campus to a further coffee shop than usual,but
now he's just being outright rude. His manner of avoiding even simple courtesies and
interaction with her galled her tremendously.

Ironically, Zuko's antisocialism had the opposite effect on Katara than he'd probably
intended, as instead it served to strengthen Katara's resolve to get through to him, or be
damned trying.

The Water Tribe woman dawdled in the library coffee shop twice as long as usual during
her coffee break that afternoon, stewing and trying to figure a way to get her new office-
mate to act human.

Little did she realise, she'd set herself unrealistic standards...


The evening was… unbearable.

Her night-class let out early, so Katara decided to return to her office to work on her
research paper on the 'vampires' of her childhood legends. She was just about done with
the last section, and wanted to finish it up before heading home to relax and get to bed.

It was another bitter night, and she was thankful of her warm office waiting for her.
Possible causes of porphyria in the native tribes of Northern Territories, was the title of
the section she mulled over in her head as she crossed campus back to the Medical Arts
building. Porphyria was the name of the (now debunked) disease that many authors and
scientists had once thought contributed to vampirism. Pale skin, recessed gums, and the
need to acquire outside sources of heme (blood) due to the incomplete synthesis within
the patient's own body were all connected to the disease. The heme-related problem also
occasionally left the victim very photosensitive – prone to extreme skin sensitivity under
bright light. She had explored causes of genetic mutation, family-hereditary transmission,
and was looking now at outside influences, like environment and diet.

A list of possibilities ran through her head and she plotted out in her mind the avenues to
explore in the dissertation. As she opened the door to her workspace, she was unsurprised
and doubly disappointed to see Zuko at his usual spot. Unknown to her, her forehead had
puckered with mild irritation at his presence.

While irrational, Katara was beginning to think the man was stalking her in her office.

Shaking her hair out of her jacket, the determined-to-be-professional young woman
settled in behind her desk with a polite, "Hey," to her co-worker, and got to work.

Environment, she wrote down on a piece of paper. On another area of her desk, she
retrieved her photocopied map of the Northern Territories, and on the areas where there'd
been considerable outbreaks of the disease she'd marked a red 'X,' along with the dates of
the outbreaks. Another piece of paper stapled to the map held a legend of the statistics
related to the outbreaks, including roughly how many people had been involved, the
specific legend-myth she thought related to it, and how long the legend had been around
and the outbreak had lasted.

In a way, she was beginning to feel like Dana Scully from The X-Files; searching for the
medical and scientific rationalization to these stories. It was kind of fun when she thought
of it from that perspective. This cheered her. So she was Dana Scully; yay!

She glanced over at Zuko a moment, when she realized this, and her face darkened. If she
was Scully, then Zuko was…

"Ugh," she muttered aloud, and went back to her plethora of theme-organised cue cards.

Jerk probably has sister-issues, too, she mused.

A large medical tome balanced upright beside Katara's keyboard, and she read softly out
loud to herself the list of environmental factors that had affected the European outbreaks
of the 'vampire disease.' She stopped as she came across one in particular, as it seemed
eerily familiar: mercury.

"Mercury," she repeated, louder this time.

She glanced at her map, an idea forming in the back of her mind, and she recognized the
name of a town that had had a large mining facility at one point, about a hundred and
fifty years ago. It had closed down due to mercury poisoning; and she remembered there
being a native reservation nearby which had nearly died out from anemia around the
same time, due to so many of the local animals falling ill from the mercury that had
leaked into the water source…

Excitement enveloped her and she hastily reached for her keyboard, noisily knocking her
medical text down with a bang in the process.

Zuko glared at her from across the room, but she didn't notice.

"'Mining town,' 'mercury,' 'Northern Canada or United States'…" she mumbled to herself,
typing furiously in her web browser's search engine. After clicking a few links, she found
exactly what she was looking for: the image of a scanned map, including dart-points to
illustrate a number of mining towns that had been affected by mercury poisoning between
1850 and 1925. Bingo!

It was not a complete list, but it was definitely a strong start – she could already see half a
dozen points of correlation between her map of vampire legends and porphyria outbreaks,
and the scanned map on her screen of mercury-poisoned mining towns. Eureka!

"Ha! Hahahahah, I've got it!" Katara exclaimed, laughing out loud. "Now, do we have a
copy of this book in our library?" she said aloud to herself and examined the web page
for any reference to an author, publisher, or ISBN; her reputation was fried if she tried to
list 'Google' as a reference on her annotated bibliography.

The first leg of the treasure hunt ended when she found the ISBN at the bottom of the
web page, and copy-pasted it into a new web browser window with the library's search
engine already up. She was soon rewarded: two copies, both on the stacks.

"All right, now to go get that…" she glanced harder at the screen, and lost some of her
earlier exuberance.

"Rats," she muttered. They were in the Rare Book Collection room. She'd have to go in
during the RBC's restricted hours tomorrow to go through one of the copies. Luckily,
Tuesday wasn't too busy a day for her, and she'd be able to head in first thing.

It was a great deal of encouraging news in a relatively short period of time; and after her
day of interpersonal stress dealing with Zuko Sozin, she felt she'd earned it. She smiled
and made a few more notes on her papers before starting to clear her things up.

Not a bad way to end the night, Katara decided, practically humming with
accomplishment: She was going to ace this paper, the presentation, and hopefully even be
able to get a publishable paper out of it! Triple-score!

Zuko glanced up at her triumphant sigh.
"No wonder your last roommate left," he commented, head already back down on his
papers.

And immediately ice water washed over Katara, stealing her happiness.

She'd completely forgotten about the man opposite her actually still being in the office,
she'd been so wrapped up in fantasizing about her success.

"What do you mean?" she asked, more sharply than she intended. Why had he said that?
How was it this man managed to goad her so easily?

"Too noisy," he said simply.

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to disrupt your 'quiet' time here in the crypt!" even her eyes
snapped and narrowed at his comment.

Zuko ignored her, infuriating Katara further. She felt her nose wrinkle as she clenched
her teeth and hands angrily.

You are such a jerk, Zuko Sozin! Being nice to you is going to give me ulcers!

Forcing herself to calm down and regain her composure, Katara watched him and slowly
unclenched her jaw and hands. You can do this – just like Gran-gran said, we don't
always see what's really there. In a moment he could realize just how miserable an s.o.b.
he really is, and apologise. Katara was ready to accept even false hope if it meant there
was an ounce of courtesy in her roommate – that would mean there was a chance that
their co-habitation would not be an insufferable term-long sentence. In her desperation,
and out of respect for her mental health, she refused to consider the possibility the
confinement may last longer than the current school term.

Putting a dossier back onto the 'completed' pile (Katara had figured out that much of his
system, from how the stacks on his desk had shifted through the day), Zuko shut down
his computer and started putting it into his laptop bag.

She waited for him to elaborate, to look at her, to acknowledge her in any way, but as
usual, he ignored her.

Without another word, he turned off his lamp and left, leaving the door open behind him.

Katara scrunched her eyes shut and refused to scream.

Day One:
Zuko: One.
Katara: Zero.
For his part, Zuko almost chuckled as he walked to his car, the auto-lock chirping as he
clicked a button on the remote.

"'Crypt,' hmph," he said to himself. He hadn't enjoyed a good crypt since the Victorian
era in jolly old England…

Satisfied his cover was securely established, Zuko went over what he'd learned that day:
He was already well versed in the department's members and focus through the
evaluations he'd reviewed, he'd memorized Katara's schedule, and was quite familiar with
many of the particulars of her employment and studies. He'd also managed to get under
her skin, from the moment she walked in the door that morning, likely until she'd go to
sleep that night. All she'd think about was him.

Quite a productive day indeed, he thought smugly to himself. He could see Katara was
intelligent, but she wore her heart on her sleeve. Obviously, she held her beliefs close to
her heart and had no hesitation in sharing her opinions.

He wondered for a moment if she'd be too easy, what with her transparency…

The moment was short-lived when he remembered her determination and obstinacy
during her encounter with the thugs.

No, definitely not an easy one, he realized with mild amusement, and was surprised at his
own eagerness to engage her; she will still fight. She will always fight.

Blue eyes full of conviction framed by a forehead with ribbons of dark hair sprang to
mind, and suddenly she became a warrior: brave, confident, and unyielding.

The lovely woman would be a challenge. A prize.

Casting aside his reverie, the vampire put his car in gear and drove out of the lot. He'd be
able to complete the full department evaluation within a few weeks, at most.

Toying with his new office-mate, however… The corner of his lips tugged temptingly,
and he felt his canines lengthen slightly in anticipation. Katara…

Growling throatily, the engine sprang to life as Zuko pulled smoothly onto the highway.
She was annoying at times, but definitely lively. She'd be divine.

He could hardly wait for the day she'd really lose her temper.

He'd take her then, and devour her.


TBC
AN: Please give a huge round of applause to renagrrl for all her fantastic help as
beta on this chapter! (Rena, I'm sorry I'm such a dash-and-hyphen ho!)

AN: Please don't take any medical / scientific remarks in this story as serious
scientific fact. I'm googling and abusing coincidence. ;)

AN: Chapter 09 first posted February 15 2008. Thank you for reading!


Chapter 10: Chapter 10


Author: moor on / beyondthemoor on LJ
Title: Merits
Part : Ten
Genre: Romance/humour/vamp/Modern AU
Fandom: Avatar: TLA
Pairing: Zutara, Jetara
Length: 1000 words, approx.
Rating: M
Disclaimer : "Avatar: The Last Airbender" and all related rights belong to their
original creators… I am not among their ranks.
AN: In response to hyperroo' s vampire/Zutara challenge, I present…



"Merits" – Part Ten

"—complete jerk! Anytime I said 'hi' to him, he ignored me; anytime I offered to get him
coffee, he pretended I wasn't there; anytime I-…"

Toph nodded at the indignant voice that spewed from the speakerphone, and continued
clipping her toenails peacefully.

Katara had been ranting for almost a quarter of an hour about her first week with her new
roommate, and didn't seem to be losing steam. From the moment she walked into her
office in the morning to the time she left it at night, Zuko Sozin was there. What had once
been a comfortable, even cushy arrangement for her to complete her readings, papers, and
labwork had become a kind of mental gauntlet she had to endure. Her office was being
'infected' with 'asshole', as Katara put it colourfully, and her personal space had become a
personal Hell.

In short, Katara hated having a roomie.

Furthermore, Katara was making sure everyone knew she hated having a roomie.
"—I mean, would it kill him to be polite? Does he think I'm being intrusive or nosy, or-
or-."

Unable to take her friend's– well, there was no other word for it –bitchingany more, Toph
cut her off.

"Yes. He probably does."

The line went silent a moment apart from Katara's worked-up pants of anger. A train
picking up steam as it chugged uphill sounded less arduous.

When the older of the two girls regained some of her composure and next spoke, icicles
could have formed from the coldness of her tone.

"Excuseme?"

"He probably does think you're being too friendly & outgoing. Maybe he's a loner and
just prefers doing his own thing. He doesn't have to interact with you, Katara," counseled
Toph reasonably. "If he's just there to evaluate your department, maybe it is best he
doesn't get to know you – it could sway his professional opinion." Wisely, Toph held her
tongue and didn't precise whether she thought the affect would be a positive or negative
one.

"Are you saying he thinks I'm trying to bribe him to get better results on our review?"

Sighing, Toph's shoulders slumped slightly; it was probably best not to answer that one
directly. Katara was getting defensive.

"I'm saying, let the man do his work. Does he interrupt you while you work?"

"No."

"Does he say things that make you uncomfortable? Harass you?"

Katara thought a moment: apart from the first day when he'd called her noisy, he hadn't
really said much of anything to her.

"...No," she replied, more slowly.

"Does he leave flaming bags of dog poop on your desk to rile you?"

"Of course not!" The mental image of the ever-professional, serious, cold loner pulling
such a juvenile prank made Katara almost smile. Before she could continue, Toph did.

"Did it ever occur to you that perhaps he feels just a little bit crowded with you constantly
trying to talk to him, distract him, and otherwise not let him do his job?"
"… but I'm just trying to be welcoming–," Dear Abby cut off her meager excuses again.

"No 'buts', Katara," the younger woman's commanding tone left no room for
disagreement. "You may feel like he's invaded your personal work space, but it sounds to
me like this guy feels like you're invading his personal space, too." Straightening up, she
wiggled her toes and stretched out her leg; yes, she had some fine feet. Time to move on
to the next one. Leaning down again, she started on her other foot, hearing and choosing
to ignore Katara's angry breathing on the other end of the phone. "You've had almost a
week with this guy, right?"

"Yes," bit off Katara through clenched teeth.

"So how about tomorrow, you ignore him?"

"But that's so rude" was about to roll off her lips, until Katara pulled up short and
considered her friend's advice more carefully. Ignore him? The idea held some pleasant
potential…

A feeling of warmth and opportunity filled her as she contemplated whether she'd be able
to get under Zuko's skin by ignoring him. Or, at the very least, feel more peaceful
herself.Ignore him, huh?

"Katara?" inquired Toph, a bit uneasy at the silence.

"I'll do it," decided Katara.

"Good for you," agreed Toph carelessly. She finished her second set of toes and sprang to
her feet. "Anything else, or can I get my butt to my podium where I belong?"

The not-very-subtle reminder that it was a Thursday, and ergo a work night for Toph,
chastened Katara for her earlier tirade. In a few short hours, Toph would be settled into
her raised stage, behind her tables of computer gear.

"Mind if I stop by later?" asked Katara a bit self-consciously. "Just to talk about other
stuff? I haven't caught up with what you've been doing recently," she realized aloud.

"Same old, same old; you know me. I just control the minions and make them dance,"
Toph tossed out, already choosing her clothing for the evening from her closet.

"God is a DJ," Katara's musical laughter rang out from the telephone speakers.

"I don't disagree," grinned Toph. "Well, my fans are waiting. I'll see you tonight. Are you
bringing your new man?"

"Zuko? Of course not!" cried Katara, taken aback.
Toph stilled, speechless for a moment.

"Haha, gotcha! Just kidding," the blind girl said jokingly after a surprised pause. "Ok, I'll
see you later, K."

"Dress warm, it's supposed to get cold tonight," warned Katara. "Don't forget a hat – I
know you hate wearing them over your hair, but you'll catch a cold if you don't, and then
you'll get sick, and then–."

"Yeah, yeah. Bye!" The line disconnected, and Toph cut off her friend's fretting.

She still stood in the middle of her room, face turned unseeing toward the floor, and
couldn't help the last bit of their conversation repeating in her mind.

'Are you bringing your new man?'

'Zuko? Of course not!'

Jet,thought Toph to herself as she shook her head sympathetically, you have some
competition.


TBC.

AN: Thank you for reading! (Sorry, a short chapter, I know... hence why you get the
first of the 'thank you' fics right after!)
AN: Part 10 originally posted Feb 22 2008.


Chapter 11: Chapter 11


Title: In your own company
Author: Moor (beyondthemoor on LJ)
Genre: Modern AU, high school
Length: Approx. 4400 words
Pairing: Zutara
Rating: T

Disclaimer: "Avatar: TLA" belongs to its copyrights holders.

AN: This is the 'thank-you' 'fic I wrote for AvatarAiris after she left me the
50th review on "Merits"! I hope you enjoy this break from the 'fic. (It will be
returning at its regularly scheduled update next week; same bat-time, same bat-
channel.) Just to be clear, this 'fic is separate from "Merits". I hope you like it,
AvatarAiris!
This fic is based on how the group would interact in high school... but if events
similar in nature had happened to them up to the season three episode, 'The
Firebending Masters'.

AN: Thank you all for reading so far!


(Late afternoon.)

"Uh... hi..." Zuko's voice was a bit hesitant as he opened the door and spied not one, but
four individuals waiting on his doorstep that Tuesday afternoon.

"Hey Zuko! I hope I'm on time!"

"Yeah, come on in, Aang... everyone..." He took a staggered step back as the unexpected
guests trouped into his spacious main hallway.

"Thanks, I'll just make myself at home," Toph made her way straight to the sound of a
large-screen TV blaring at a worn leather couch.

"Mind if I take a peek in your kitchen?" asked Sokka, already following his nose Toucan
Sam-style in a separate direction.

"Uh, that is, actually, I can–," it was a futile attempt, but the young tutor-turned-host held
an arm up as if to call Sokka back. The dark-skinned younger man had already found the
fridge, however, and was making giddy noises of contentment. "Ooh! You have my
favourite pie in here..."

Zuko's attention was brought back to the entranceway at the next individual's deliberate
words. They were sharp enough to nearly make him wince.

"Come on, Aang. Let's get this over with."

Last through the door came the one person in school who had yet to welcome him back
after the accident and his stay in a private school. Everyone else had forgiven him for
being a trouble-maker, especially after Aang had welcomed him into his group of
personal friends (and really, no one went against Aang) – but Katara Kuruk.

The tutoree in question gave his senior an apologetic look as he passed by, leaving Zuko
fumbling with the large door and watching everyone scatter like grains of rice on the
floor.

"Should I just set up at the library desk, as usual?" asked Aang, putting his coat away
neatly in the closet, and helping Katara next with hers.

"Yeah, that's great. I'll be right there."
"Ok!" Aang smiled and hopped off towards the rear room, leaving Katara to remove her
shoes with Zuko in the entryway.

"Right, sure..."

Even though she was on his partially-blind side, he knew the fiercely protective young
woman was at the same time keeping her back to him and still managing to keep an eye
on him. While it stung, he couldn't blame her for it, either. They didn't speak to each
other. Ever.

He left her and made a small wish that the afternoon not end in awkward hostility. Head
high and refusing to let his spirits swing low, he followed Aang to the den where his
laptop and school books were currently settled, ready and waiting to teach Aang the
intricacies of higher-level calculus.

...with Katara chaperoning for the duration...


Sokka and Toph decided to veg on the couch instead of hawk-eyeing the study-buddies.

"So, nice place? What's his dad do?" asked Sokka from beside Toph on the clean leather.
Instinctively, she smacked his hand away from the bowl of chips she held in her lap; her
feet were propped up lazily on a stack of magazines on the coffee table.

"This isn't his family home," she replied, and munched noisily on the snacks. "Ooh, you
added Crackerjacks, my fav. Thanks, Snoozles."

Sokka shrugged and leaned back, resting his head on his arms folded behind him on the
plushy furniture.

"How do you know this isn't his family home? Is he renting a room here or something?"
Inquisitive blue eyes glanced at the opulent surroundings. "Nice digs...seems like Zuko."

"The vibe. He's acting like a guest in this place, not like he's welcome friends to his
home. Granted, we aren't his 'best buds' or anything, but it feels like he's on his best
behaviour, and not just for us."

"Maybe he has some of his old buddies out in the garage, just waiting for us to get a false
sense of security before they jump us," muttered Sokka, and couldn't help alluding to
Zuko's dangerous past. The gang he had run with had been a terror on the city for months,
until some big underground gangwar had broken out and Zuko had disappeared to a
'private school' for over a year. He'd returned just a few weeks ago, and already was
gaining popularity for having turned his life around and trying to fit in. That didn't mean
he was accepted – but it did mean he was being recognized for making the effort.
Acceptance would take time, but being friends with Aang and his gang had improved his
reputation by leaps and bounds already. He hadn't gone out of his way to curry favour
with the intimate group, either – it had just sort of happened. Due to Katara's coldness,
however, Zuko mainly stuck to the other members of the group in the hallways, and
never joined them at their lunchtable in the cafeteria where she was usually present.

"No, this place is empty except for us. I think this house belongs to someone he respects,
and he doesn't want to mess things up for that person."

"And you're helping him achieve this goal by muddying his great patron's collection
of TimeandPeople."

"Precisely."

Curiosity got the better of him, and Sokka glanced around more seriously than before.

"...So who's house are we in?"

"How should I know? I'm just here for the eats."


Meanwhile, things weren't going as smoothly in the den.

"Yeah, you've got it!" coached Zuko, praising Aang's quick retention of the material
again. "I can't believe you asked me to be your tutor – you seem to catch most of this
stuff within a few examples."

The young student beamed up at him with thanks. "It really helps when you have
someone to go over it with one on one. They don't teach this at school since there isn't
enough interest, so when I found out you'd taken it at your private school, I couldn't let
the chance go by. You're a good teacher, too, 'Sifu'-Zuko."

For the first time in a long time, Zuko felt himself relax slightly. I'm good at something.
I'm good at something that helps someone else. "Just doing what I can," he answered.

"Well," broke in a cold, sarcastic voice, "why don't you two keep doing what you can and
finish this up. This is a week night and the rest of us have a curfew."

Any warmth he'd felt was doused. I'm never allowed to be right for long.

"Sure, thanks for ... I'll just go to the next example, which is right... uh..." stumbling over
his notes, Zuko accidentally knocked his laptop off the desk. It was only his lightning-
quick reflexes that kept it from smashing on the hardwood floor. He was breathing
quickly, nervously, as he picked the expensive computer up and tried to settle it safely on
the table edge again. "For the next example, just give me a minute here, I'll just put this
back and pull out the next chapter, which is... uh... it's... I have it written down, it's about
derivatives... uh..." Sweat broke out across his brow as his confidence shook and he lost
his place entirely in the lesson. Having her glaring at him always did that to him.
"Oh for the love of..." Katara rolled her eyes and hmphed in derision.

"Katara."

Aang was looking at her in surprise... and disappointment.

"What?" she snapped.

"It'll just be a second, I've got everything right here." Finally getting his things in order,
Zuko seized his lesson outline and notes from his old 'school' and tried to regain control
of the situation. Aang and Katara's stare-down was not making him feel very
comfortable; the hostility in the room was rising.

"That was rude."

Katara pretended to ignore her friend's chastising, and went back to her own homework.

"Katara. I mean it; apologise to Zuko. He's our host and he's my tutor. You're being
impolite."

Zuko had rarely seen any discord within the group at all (other than Sokka and Toph
ribbing each other good-naturedly, of course – and sometimes ruthlessly, but that seemed
to be their relationship), and the firmness in Aang's voice as he addressed his long-time
girl friend had taken him aback.

Going by Katara's dark eyes, it seemed to be taking her some getting used to, too. She
still hadn't replied or given any indication she'd heard him, other than her shoulders
tensing slightly and her brow drawing together.

"Katara," ordered Aang. She clenched her jaw.

"Look, it's ok, really – I'm ready to get back to work if you are, Aang." I don't want to see
any more fighting. I don't care. Let's just get back to work...

"No, it's not ok," Aang's patient, reasonable face was marred slightly by the darkness in
his own gray eyes as he looked at Zuko. "She doesn't act like this, and she should be nice
to you. Katara, stop acting like a kid. You're insulting Zuko's hard work and help, and
you're embarrassing me," he stood up, then, and faced her.

The room was quiet for a time, as Zuko watched the pair and their body language, and he
couldn't help but feel guilty. Why do I always screw things up? Why can't I just do
something right? I don't care if she apologises or not, it doesn't matter to me, she hates
me! If I were her, I'd hate me, too!

The self-loathing internal monologue assaulted his confidence for a few more minutes, as
Aang and Katara shifted and eventually faced each other.
Katara's eyes were hard. And red. She wasn't crying, she was angry.

"I hate you," she muttered viciously under her breath, and stuffed her things into her bag
before stalking out of the otherwise orderly room and slamming the door behind her.

Curios and knick-knacks on the bookshelves tinkled and clinked together at the force of
the shock. Aang's shoulders slumped and he sat down dejectedly with a sigh.

"Sorry..." he mumbled, and stared sightlessly at his notes. "She's normally not so..." Even
he couldn't come up with a nice way to describe Katara's behaviour since Zuko had come
back.

"S'ok," Zuko's forced his fingers to unclench from the notes he'd been holding.

Aang sighed again and considered his words carefully. After a moment or so, he
continued.

"Her father's, well, her and Sokka's dad, since they're siblings... he's a cop."

Oh.Zuko felt a headache start at his temples, and sickness roil in his gut.

"So, when all that stuff went down before, with your gang, and you..."

"Yeah, I get it. I'm bad news." No wonder she hates me. I could have been one of the ones
taking aim at her family. Shame, hot and filthy, burned his stomach and up to his throat.
His past was never going away. No one was ever going to let him let it go...

"No! Her dad is a cop – but he's one of the ones in the Organized Crime Unit assigned to
keeping the peace between the gangs... So he's the one the gangs call when they need
help and don't want to involve innocent bystanders... They get a lot of late-night calls...
Katara and Sokka don't see their dad much."

Aang continued in a rush. "Katara doesn't hate you, Zuko, she just doesn't trust you; she
thinks... geez, right now, actually, even Idon't know what she's thinking. But she doesn't
know if she can let you in past her own walls. She's normally really nice. I'm sorry, Zuko,
I don't know what her problem is right now. But I don't think it is you, exactly. I think it
is more what you used to represent."

He felt himself nod distantly, and sighed knowing it was going to be a long, long time
before he got to make a true 'fresh' start somewhere.

"It's ok, Aang. I think I get it, now. But thanks," it had been so long since he'd used it, he
felt like he'd forgotten how it worked; but the smile pulled just enough at the edges of his
mouth to turn the corners up and make a clear distinction that it was indeed a smile and
not a grimace. "Now, let's get back to work – we've got a lot to cover before you take off
with your, uh, friends."
The skinny younger man grinned cheesily back at his tutor and slapped him on the back.
"Hey, you're our friend, too! And you're right, let's hit these books..." He made a mock-
punch at the text book - and then winced when his hand hit it a bit harder than he meant
to. "Ow..."

Zuko couldn't help but smirk in amusement at Aang's antics.


It was noonhour at school, and Aang and Katara had taken a walk away from their usual
group of friends at their lunchtable to go for a walk. Bright sunshine, warm winds, and
the occasional waft from the shore breeze had turned the day into a picturesque setting
for an afternoon stroll.

"I just feel like getting outside for a bit, it's beautiful outside!" had been his invitation,
and Katara had accepted hoping that they would tactfully ignore her poor behaviour from
two days' prior. She was wrong.

"I know something's up, Katara. Why won't you talk to me?"

His sensitive voice made raised her hackles immediately and his warm gray eyes probed
her blue ones with concern. The day that had seemed too beautiful for words a moment
before chilled several degrees and she couldn't help but pull her blazer closer to her to
fend off the tendrils of cool air that cloyed at her, searching for chinks in her armour.

"I'm fine, Aang. Really," she insisted.

He stopped and grasped her sleeve, gazing at her face thoughtfully.

"You're not 'fine'. I know you when you're fine. Your eyes laugh and you smile. You
make jokes, and they're terrible, but you make smart-ass remarks about Sokka and Toph.
Lately, since I started hanging out with Zuko and tutoring, you're... something's changed.
What's wrong?"

His deep, storm-gray eyes held her sky-blue ones intently.

"I don't like Zuko Sozin," she said bluntly, not bothering to lie to him.

"Why?"

"Because he's a thug! A criminal!"

"No, he's not!"

"Aang, I know you like to give people second chances," she started, but he interrupted.
"And so do you, Katara. We all make mistakes. Zuko's doing his best to overcome his –
and he's even helping me when he doesn't have to. I'm not paying him; I'm not even
asking him, because I know he'd never accept it. He's trying really hard. And you're not
letting him move on. You're judging him for what he did, not what he can do. It isn't just
affecting you, either – it is making everyone around us awkward and uncomfortable."

"No it isn't," she protested; she hadn't noticed any change at all.

"Yes, it is!" his voice rose a bit with the insistence. "You need to grow up, Katara."

The blades of grass in the school soccer field where they had stopped rippled as the wind
blew, and Katara stared at the patterns a moment before she replied.

"Fine. So what do you want me to do? Throw him a surprise party welcoming him to the
'good' life? Not happening, Aang. Ever."

"NO!" His frustration was so obvious it came out in his yell and drew the stares of a few
students off in the nearby parking lot.

To her credit, Katara felt herself blush crimson when she realised how obtuse and
stubborn... and admittedly immature she was being. She bit her lower lip but refused to
back down. Her arms were crossed in front of her, and she looked once more at the green
carpet below her before facing Aang again.

"No," the young man repeated more calmly. "What I want is for you to give him a
chance. Talk to him. Be nice to him. You're my friend, Katara. My best friend. I want, no
I need you to be a friend to Zuko, too. Not because of me; because you want to."

The young woman flipped her hair and looked away. "Yeah, I'll get right on that."

Her voice dripped with sarcasm. For a moment, a brief, almost non-existent split-second
of time, Aang's face darkened and he seemed to grow older... Katara's eyes were riveted
to his and the change in his features, fascinated, and also a bit afraid at what she'd
inadvertently caused.

"Katara," he said slowly, "you really aren't who I thought you were."

With that, his grip on her sleeve loosened and he let it slide through his fingertips until he
brushed her hand with his.

Then he let her go and walked away.


She rejoined the other members of their group for the rest of the lunchhour. Aang was
nowhere to be seen.
"Yeah, so he did leave the gang. His uncle helped him out. He stays with him, it's his
house," explained Toph to their friend Teo at the table.

"Aah, that explains why Zuko felt like a guest. He doesn't want to lose his posh crib," the
unnecessary and exaggerated hand gestures Sokka made caused everyone to groan.

"No," corrected Toph again and elbowing Katara's brother in the gut. "They're close. You
could tell the way they teased each other over dinner last night. Speaking of, his uncle's a
great cook – Zuko's not bad, either! The apron was a nice touch."

"He was a good cook, wasn't he?" agreed Sokka, rubbing his tender belly.

"You guys stayed for supper?" asked Katara. The group fell artificially silent.

I really do make everyone uncomfortable now, she realised with astonishment. How long
have I been doing this?

"Yeah. You left early, but we stayed. It was a lot of fun, actually. I think Iroh liked
having us over."

Katara stared at her brother in confusion. "Iroh?"

"Zuko's uncle," explained Haru, who'd also been at the lunch table. "You know, Mr.
Sozin. The VP?"

"He's a fun old guy; knows his kitchen," added Sokka with a respectful tone.

"Oh,..." Katara went back to listening to everyone else discuss the rowdy dinner and
evening at their vice principal's house. She'd never known he and Zuko were related. She
wondered why he didn't stay with his own family. Now that she thought about it, she
realised he'd never actually mentioned his family, not that she'd paid all that much
attention to what he was saying, but that was a bit odd.

"... shame about his family, though."

"Yeah, completely disowned him. His uncle was the only one who'd give him a chance."

The words and thoughts broke through her reverie and she glanced up at her friends again
in surprise. After he got into trouble, they just abandoned him?

"Even his mother?" she asked aloud, jumping back into the conversation.

The group stared at her uncomfortably.
"Katara..." Haru looked at her meaningfully. He was trying to tell her something
important with his green, sympathetic eyes... She stared hard at him, trying to decipher it.
No luck. She didn't get it.

She looked next to her brother, Sokka; he was looking away, too. His face looked
thoughtful, reflective. It was so foreign on him that she wondered if they were playing a
joke on her.

She nearly laughed and called them on it – but something held her back.

Ok, there's gotta be someone here who knows what's going on...

Curiosity got the better of her. "Toph?"she asked, exasperated.

"His mom's dead."

The words were blunt, like a rock plopping into a still lake; the ripples reverberated
through Katara. "Rumour has it it has something to do with his dad and his work.
Rumour also states that the apple didn't fall far from the tree – until the apple rolled to his
uncle and begged for a second chance to grow up an oak instead of an fruit-loop bush..."
Toph shrugged as if she'd been commenting on the weather. "But rumours are rumours,
right?"

His father killed his mother, he was kicked out of his family for following in his dad's
footsteps, and his uncle was the only person who gave him a helping hand.

He's been doing everything to prove himself a good man... And I've been making a fool
out of him and his efforts to actually have a normal life.

The guilt dug into her with the force of a tide, slow at first, but building with each
wave. Aang was right. I've been a horrible person.

She didn't know what to say.

Without another word, Katara got up and left the lunch table.

When she was safely out of hearing, Toph picked up her cell phone and dialed.

"Yeah... We'll see. At least she knows now."

"Thanks, Toph," said Aang's disconnected voice.

"You owe me cheese doodles and Cobra Starship tickets. Preferably paid at the same date
and time."

"Consider it done," he chuckled, and hung up.
(Late afternoon... again.)

Let's see, Aang's tutoring is Tuesdays and Thursdays...

She turned around the last corner of the long, winding driveway and stared at the large
house. She'd told Aang that one of their teachers had called a last-minute student rep
meeting to go over something important to do with the next night's dance. Being a
student-council rep, Aang had been obligated to follow-up.

That left her with just enough time to see Zuko alone before the younger man showed up
for the tutoring. She was sure that in that meager interval of privacy, she could bring
herself to apologise to Zuko, dig a bottomless pit of a hole, and leap in to die of
embarrassment with plenty of time before her former best friend's arrival. And hey, if I'm
not done by then he'll probably kick me into that hole himself...

Shaking the cynical thoughts from her mind, she reached out and pushed the doorbell.

Zuko must have been waiting directly on the other side, as the door swung open eagerly –
then increasingly hesitantly– within seconds of her releasing the intercom button.

"... Uh... hi, Katara," his gold eyes looked at her curiously, and then glanced behind her
without meaning to be rude. "Are you with Aang?" His expression clearly indicated he
hoped she was.

"No, not today. He's... he told me to tell you he's going to be late," she lied.

"Ah. He can call, next time. Just so you don't have to go out of your way again, I mean!"
the words rushed out, and he raised a hand as if to try and calm her, to retract any insult
she may have taken from his carelessness. "Yeah, I'll just go wait for him, then. Did he
say how long?" The young male stood in the doorway in jeans and a t-shirt, obviously
having changed from his school uniform when he arrived home. It was the first time she'd
seen him in such casual clothing. It made him seem less threatening, in a way.

Katara's lips tightened slightly. He's trying to change; let him, she reminded herself.

"No, he didn't. Look, could I come in? Please?" she added, remembering her manners. "I
want to talk to you."

Zuko immediately went on guard.

"Uh..." White knuckles gripped the edge of the doorframe and he looked like he was
ready to panic and bolt the door from the inside.

Katara winced. Wow, I must be pretty terrifying if I can make a former gang-leader
cringe like that...
However, Aang's tutor's hesitation was also a bit endearing to her, and made the corner of
one side of her mouth quirk up in an awkward smile; offering a truce.

"I want to apologise, Zuko," she said. "If you'll forgive me."

The words hung between them in the gap, and neither reached out to grab or support
them.

Gold eyes looked downwards as the troubled young man took a step back as if to return
inside; she held her breath, and waited for the rejection to be official.

Lips thinning, however, he didn't ignore her.

"Come in," he replied softly, and opened the door wider.

Katara's eyes shone ocean blue with relief, and she took a step towards him.

I did it. Her breath came out in a quiet rush of happiness, and she relaxed and followed
him inside.


(The next day at noonhour.)

Zuko's class had let out a bit early, and he carried his lunch to the cafeteria to look for a
quieter corner to eat, away from the rest of the established cliques and groups since he
still didn't feel quite comfortable joining them.

He passed a bustling group and heard Aang's excited voice call out to him.

"Hey Zuko! We're over here!"

As he glanced that way, half a dozen hands were waving at him to get his attention
(Aang's most energetically, accompanied by his usual smile) from an already-crowded
table.

Without realising it, Zuko's mouth tilted in a rare, warm smile. "You look full–," he
began, but walked towards them anyway.

"Always room for one more," said Sokka, pulling up a chair from another table when
Toph elbowed him in the gut.

The chair settled between himself and Katara, and awaited his attendance

Zuko felt a twinge of nervousness shimmy down his core.

Glancing at the beautiful young woman, his eyes held a silent question. Can I...?
In return, Katara's solemn face held his gaze – before she cracked a rueful smile back and
said, "You're late."

Zuko nodded, still a little shocked, and murmured thanks. I'm forgiven.

As he accepted his new place within the group, Zuko Sozin finally felt he belonged. For
the remainder of the lunc hour, the table of teenagers laughed and joked with him as if
he'd always been among them.

"So Obi Wan KeNOOBie," Toph teased the newest inductee in their posse, "who're you
taking to the dance tonight?"

Zuko's mouth fell a little open in surprise. Dance?

"Uh, I ... don't dance," he mumbled, and took a big bite of his lunch to cover up his
embarrassment. All-male juvenile detention reform schools weren't exactly the best place
to go about receiving dance training...

Toph smiled... like the Cheshire Cat who'd already known his secret.

"... We can fix that."


TBC or The End.

AN: I hope you enjoyed this random one-shot! AvatarAiris asked for 'Katara'
'Zuko', and 'hanging out after school'. I did what I could – AvatarAiris, I hope you
liked it! (My apologies if it isn't quite what you had in mind...)


Chapter 12: Chapter 12


Author: moor on / beyondthemoor on LJ
Title: Merits
Part : Eleven
Genre: Romance/humour/vamp/Modern AU
Fandom: Avatar: TLA
Pairing: Zutara, Jetara

Length: 1900 words, approx.
Rating: M
Disclaimer : "Avatar: The Last Airbender" and all related rights belong to their
original creators… I am not among their ranks.
AN: In response to hyperroo' s vampire/Zutara challenge, I present…
"Merits" – Part Eleven

At the club.

The spotlights shone from directly behind Toph, projecting her slender shadow out over
the crowds and blinding anyone who looked too closely at her or her visitors that night.
The music shook the room, as usual, and the dancing throngs were ignorant to the
awkward hostility brewing on stage.

"I didn't know you were coming tonight," said Katara, emotionless, glancing at Aang.
She'd just arrived at the top of the plateau where her best friend worked her magic and
found she wasn't alone that evening. On one of the nearby armchairs (following Katara's
complaints of a sore rear during her last visit, Toph now insisted on having comfortable
surroundings when she worked), Aang sat relaxing and had been staring out over the
crowd until he recognized her head pop up at the stairs.

"I'm just stopping by to talk to Toph." He glanced at the DJ who was at that moment
revving the crowds with a jungle beat. It was still early, so she needed to warm her
spectators thoroughly before leaving them to coast on house for a while. Gauging her
fans' reaction, Toph experimented a bit with a new track she'd been working on; other
than a brief wave, she hadn't acknowledged either of her guest's arrivals.

"I'll come back another time," pulling her winter coat tighter around herself, Katara
turned and started back down the stairs.

"Wait!" he grabbed her sleeve impulsively.

Her heartbeat jumped and ran wild for a moment, before settling when she glanced at her
ex-fiancé with a wary look.

Letting go of her, he reached up and rubbed the back of his head a bit uncomfortably,
looking to the side for a moment before back at her again. "Sorry," he mumbled. "Uh,
why don't you stay for a bit? You don't need to go."

Katara's stubborn pride was telling her to turn her back on him and go; her heart told her
she knew better than to return his decision from several years ago back at him in childish
retaliation. The air was considerably less stuffy on the raised podium

"I'm already here," she sighed, and joined him on one of the padded stools. She was glad
to have a place to sit this time; the ground was clean where she'd settled the last time she
came to see Toph, but it had been uncomfortable.

She looked over him then, from the corner of her eye, and in the over-bright light realized
he had changed since she'd seen him last. Not the last time at her apartment, at the veiled
'welcome home' party – they'd hardly addressed each other that night. No, she was
thinking of several years ago.

Compared to their last encounter before he left the country, his frame was still lean, but
now toned with muscle; his face had formed a bit more, and hardened his jaw. He hadn't
shaved his head since he'd arrived back by the looks of things, and instinctively she
wanted to reach out and run her hand over the dark fuzz that now covered his skull like a
soft moss over a calm forest's rocky slope, the way she used to love doing when they'd
cuddle on the couch and discuss their wedding plans, and-.

She slapped the thought away irritably, but couldn't help but notice there was something
else behind the changes she saw. It wasn't just physical. There was something deeper
within him that had changed, too. His laughing, carefree manner was still there… but
there was a certain maturity and confidence within him now, too.

He's an old soul, she heard the soft whisper from her core.

He's an old soul with cold feet, she argued back sarcastically.

Needing to break the silence and her examination of him, Aang smiled and leaned
forward.

"She's gotten pretty good, huh?" he pointed at Toph.

"Yeah, she's had a lot of offers from major labels," replied Katara. They had to shout to
hear each other over the music.

"Do you come often?"

"Now and then."

The conversation remained vague and impersonal.

For her part, Toph listened but didn't interfere. She really did need to test the waters with
her new tracks to see which ones worked and which still needed work, and the Thursday
crowds were slightly smaller and more intimate than the desperate, wild Friday and
Saturday herds that threatened to burst the Bomber's seams.

Barefoot as usual, she felt the rhythms and stomping of her fans and basked in their
enthusiasm and praise. Though she would never admit it, Toph loved her job. She'd
always love the love. The glory of being the best didn't hurt, either.

It was closing in on eleven p.m. and the crowds were finally warmed up nicely.

She prepared to step away from her station to sit with Aang and Katara for a bit when she
felt the same ghost-step she had the last time Katara had visited.
Toph straightened like a bird dog on a hunt, and faced the direction she'd felt the odd vibe
emanate from.

What was that? She thought suspiciously, and 'scanned' the crowds with her feet.

A tremble, a slide, a step, she sent her senses out to detect anything that resembled the
ghost-walker.

She waited.

It came again, from a different direction.

Immediately, she turned to that source.

Same person. It has to be.

They're quick, she realized, or just very good at cutting through the crowd.

Keeping part of her focus on the strange vibe, instead of turning on the house so she
could relax with her guests, Toph put on a more industrial track. It was a harsher
transition than usual, but the crowd reacted as she expected.

The ghost-walker faltered before regaining his step.

You don't belong here. Who are you? She thought to herself.

As much as she wanted to charge down into the mass of bodies and yank the intruder out,
she knew it was too reckless to leave her dais.

I've got my feet's eyes on you, mister, she thought to the man fiercely. Just try and cause
trouble.

With that, Toph resigned herself to just listening and waiting to find out what the man
intended. She cut short the industrial, phased the house back in, and without a word of
explanation about her strange twists in playlist that night, went to sit with her friends.

The ghost-walker disappeared, then reappeared a few more times while she talked.

She didn't miss a single move.


Around midnight, Katara bid Aang and Toph goodnight.

"Lab first thing," she explained as she put her jacket on again. "It was good seeing you
both," she said truthfully. "We'll see if we can get together again soon." With Toph's
participation, the conversation had turned lighter and more inviting. Entertaining, too.
Katara was sorry to go, though her work demanded she must.

"Don't be a stranger," Toph grinned. "Unless you bring snacks after."

"Do you want me to take you home? I've got a car now…"

"Wait, you're going, too? I thought you were staying until 2!" exclaimed Toph.

"I'm fi-," Katara paused before she declined Aang's offer. Jet had told her to call him
instead of walking home on her own. She didn't know if he was still awake, though.

Aang looked at her while she battled her indecision. Stubborn pride was one thing, but
walking alone and making it home safely were another entirely.

Aang seized on her hesitation. "It's on my way," he added.

Grousing, Toph folded her arms in front of her and chewed the inside of her cheek. Fine,
leave her to work by herself. She'd just sit here, and play with her peons—er, 'patrons'—
and …

"Well, if it isn't a lot of trouble-."

But suddently the ghost-walker was suddenly at the base of the podium stairs, sending
Toph straight into red alert-mode.

"Hold it right there, Mister!" she hollered, leaping to her feet and pointing down the
stairway at the trespasser.

"What is it?" distracted from his talk with Katara, Aang looked at her as if she could
teach 'warped' to a crazy person.

"Toph, what are you – Zuko!" cried Katara as she peeped over her friend's shoulder; her
voice mangled his name with surprise.

"This is Zuko?" asked Toph incredulously. There was a distinctly disappointed note to
her voice. Katara glanced at Toph and willed her not to say anything about her earlier
rant; it was already obvious that the DJ was at least aware of who he was.

The man in question glared up at the trio staring at him.

"What?" he asked softly, and despite how quiet his voice was, it rose to meet them easily.

Katara wasn't sure what to ask first; she was too stunned to have recognized him to think
straight. She started with the obvious.
"…What are you doing here?"

"I heard it was pretty good. I came to see for myself."

Katara wasn't sure when he'd found time to socialize when he'd been so busy laying siege
to her at her office, but she was about to steam at the ears that he'd invaded both her work
space andher personal space now. The idea that he was stalking her flitted through her
head, but she pushed it aside.

Her fists clenched minutely before she released them again. She refused to let him see
how upset she was. Now was the perfect opportunity to start ignoring him, as Toph had
said.

"Aang, let's go," Katara ordered and took her friend's hand, hauling him up behind her.
Too confused to understand, Aang complied. She turned back to her other friend. "Toph,
I'll see you later. Thanks for tonight," she smiled and gave her a quick hug. "I'll-."

"You'll call me, I know. Oh, do I know…" teased Toph, suffering the hug with her usual
aplomb. Behind Katara's strong front, Toph knew her friend was a bit unsettled by Zuko's
presence. She kept her senses alert to him while she said her goodbyes.

"Thanks, Toph. I'll see you later."

"Night, Aang," Toph waved and listened as they walked down the stairs together to head
out a back door instead of trying to navigating through the crowds.

She felt the ghost-steps start to follow.

"Oh no you don't," she called to Zuko, and he turned his head towards her, scowling.

"What?" he demanded.

She wasn't sure.

Her hesitation was enough for him; immediately, he started turning away from her to
leave, too.

"Don't!" ordered Toph, stamping her foot; through it, she felt him pause again. She also
felt the people around her.

The crowds were getting restless, and horror of horrors she was beginning to hear them
trying to talk to each other. It was beyond time to switch the tracks, but something held
her there, rooted to the floor while she addressed the ghost-walking man.

Zuko glanced up at her one last time.
"I don't know who you are-," she started.

"You've said my name," he retorted.

"No, who you really are," corrected Toph thoughtfully. "But… There's something
different about you."

She sensed him still.

"Go hit on someone else," he said, and walked away.

"I'll hit on whoever I damn well please!" she wanted to yell. At the moment, admittedly,
all she wanted was to hit him, though-period.

Huffing angrily, she stomped back to her tables and livened up the crowds again.

Her hands moved deftly over dials and keys,and Toph lost herself in thought. She could
see why Katara disliked Zuko. Still, he'd been unnerved by her picking him out of the
crowd like that.

A smile slowly spread across her face; so he doesn't like being the center of attention,
huh? I'd hate to exploit that weakness.

...Without a bus full of witnesses.

With that, she made it her personal mission to get under his skin in retaliation; partly, to
vindicate Katara; mostly, however, for her own personal satisfaction.

She'd put a call through to her people that night and see what she could dig up about
mister 'Zuko Sozin'.


TBC.

AN: I hope you enjoyed the 'break' with the 'thank-you' fic last time, "In your own
company"! Was it too much of a break? Should I post the thank-you fics outside the
story? (Also, Castle Anthrax, you still need to let me know what you'd like in your
own thank-you fic!) (Thank you very much for all your reviews, btw - you guys're so
nice!)

AN: Part Eleven: First posted March 2nd 2008.


Chapter 13: Chapter 13
Author: moor on this site / beyondthemoor on LJ
Title: Merits
Part : Twelve
Genre: Romance/humour/vamp/Modern AU

Fandom: Avatar: TLA
Pairing: Zutara, Jetara
Length: 1600 words, approx.
Rating: M
Disclaimer : "Avatar: The Last Airbender" and all related rights belong to their
original creators… I am not among their ranks.

AN: In response to hyperroo' s vampire/Zutara challenge, I present…


"Merits" – Part Twelve

The night passed distantly by the windows as Aang handled the car only slightly
awkwardly through the streets back to Katara's apartment building. Obviously, wherever
he'd been over the past few years, he'd learned to drive but hadn't practiced it much.
Katara tried not to think about the past, whether her own or his, as they vroomed along.
Lights blinked and flashed on their faces as they passed by brightly-lit hotel signs and
restaurants. The dark-haired passenger let her mind wander before noticing her friend's
gray eyes glancing over to her every so often with curious concern.

It isn't going to kill me to talk to him, she reasoned. We both know things are over. We
can be 'adults' and be friends. He always was one of my best friends. I can treat him like
Toph and we can go back to being happy, just not 'with' each other. Pleased with her
plan, she felt a modicum of peace steal over her uneasy insides. We can finally be
friends...

"Thanks for offering the ride, I really appreciate it," Katara turned to look at Aang's
profile. Her Caribbean-blue eyes conveyed her gratitude honestly. Inside the sporty
Volkswagen Sokka had fixed up for Aang to use, the air vents blew warm air over her
cool hands and she and Aang listened to the faint static playing on the radio. The CD
changer was next on the list of Sokka and Aang's 'fix-it' list, Aang had assured her
proudly when he'd led her to the 1987 Jetta in the Bomber's parking lot.

The old soul took her comment as a compliment.

"Happy to help!" he replied cheerfully, and grinned at her before turning back to focus on
the road. "We haven't had much time to catch up together, anyway, since I got back," he
added softly. His grin faded slightly to a sad smile as they came to a red light.

Still wary from her encounter with Zuko, Katara couldn't help her shoulders tensing and
shifted instinctively in her seat away from him. "I think we should leave what's passed in
the past," she added evenly. Please, don't let this happen now, not after such a week with
Zuko and meeting up with him at the Bomber, too. I just want to get home...

Aang had known her long enough to recognize when she was feeling wary, yet refused to
acknowledge her last statement; it was as if she hadn't spoken at all. Her ex-fiancé had
other thoughts on his mind, and ignored her attempt to change the subject.

Looking straight ahead through the windshield as the car idled at the stoplight, Aang
swallowed and finally took a quick peek at her. His lips pulled into his mouth tightly for a
moment before he seemed to make a decision, and spoke.

"Katara, what happened, I'm sorry – it's just-."

Everything she didn't want to hear, he was trying to say. She wasn't ready for it. If she
had been in any position to physically push him and his earnestness away, she would
have done so; instead, she started to feel the warm air from the vents burn her, and the
past push on her heart, suffocating her slowly with memory. Glancing at the hem of her
coat, Katara tried to brush off the man's efforts and preserve the fragile friendship. "I
don't want to hear any excuses, Aang. Not now, not ever."

I don't ever want to remember... She tried to push the topic away, to make him see that
now, right that moment, it was the wrong time, the wrong place. Her tone was polite,
even warm in its own way, but Aang either didn't hear or chose to ignore her.

"It was something I had to do, something I'd been chosen to do a long time ago, and I
didn't have a choice-," as his words came out in a frenzied rush, Aang turned in his seat to
face her completely, his left hand still on the wheel while his right hand supported
himself as he leaned towards his passenger. The traffic light turned green, but Aang didn't
notice.

"Aang," warned Katara a third time, as the car became increasingly uncomfortable.

"You have to listen to me, Katara. I mean it... I loved you. I still love you, I wouldn't have
left if it wasn't something that had to be-."

The hot air from the vents was becoming unbearable, and Katara felt her hands and eyes
burn.

"The light's green, Aang, let's go."

The panic in her voice escaped Aang as his hands tightened into fists, desperately trying
to make her understand, to explain, to apologise. "I'm not going anywhere until you talk
to me!" He exclaimed. "I spent years there, and all I thought, from the moment I woke up
to the moment I fell asleep, was about you. You smiling, you laughing, you rubbing my
head, you teasing me, you kissing me, your arms around me, your eyes full of tears when
you cried hopelessly, you when you…" the description went on and on, until he realized
Katara wasn't listening to him, either. At least, not what he was saying to her right then
and there in the car...

His ex-fiancée was turned away from him, facing the windows, hunched in a tight ball,
looking downwards. In the passenger window's reflection he could see how tightly she
was clenching her teeth and trying not to lose whatever control she had left. For Katara,
the week was too difficult, the night was too awkward, the man across from her was too
close and the car was too small. Without meaning to, her heartbroken pride stumbled, and
stumbled from her like a sob.

Outside the vehicle, the traffic light above them was still green. Honking noisily, other
cars drove around them, some drivers shaking their fists, others gawking at the drama
contained within.

"Katara," Aang reached forward and tentatively put a hand on her back to soothe her –
she cringed in pain. "I want to say 'I'm sorry'."

The sound of his voice breaking on the last words shattered her resolve.

Unable to hold it in anymore, for it had been years since she'd faced her disappointment
and shame, Katara choked back a sob, sniffed. A moment passed, and foolishly she
thought she'd held it back in time... until she felt herself weeping angrily. It wasn't just
what had happened that night, it was a lot of things, she knew... but she had never healed
from Aang leaving her, not really, and his apology just made it worse.

"Home," she ground out through her teeth, rubbing her eyes with the sleeves of her coat.
She refused to let him see her tears directly.

"Katara…" he repeated gently, urgently, desperate to comfort her any way he could.
Noting the green light was flashing to amber, he put the little car in gear and drove
through the intersection, stopping just inside the first parking lot he came to. His seatbelt
came undone and he reached to bring the woman he loved into his arms to hold her, not
even waiting for the engine to turn off.

As the car came to a stop, the traffic light turned red; Aang's fingertips brushed her spine.

And pushed Katara over the edge.

"Don't touch me!" she spat, and whirled around to slap his arms away. Puffy red eyes and
a wild anger flared at him, and her body language was amply clear – she didn't want his
reassurances or happy endings.

"Don't you ever touch me again! Take me home right now or I swear I'm going to get out
and walk!" she yelled, still brushing tears away from her face.
His arms were still outstretched to help her, his heart open to share with her everything.
Her rejection had struck at him. Aang was too stunned to reply.

His mouth opened and closed a few times, but he couldn't seem to find the right words.

Breathing hard and rubbing her eyes on her sleeve again, Katara coughed and put her
hand on the door handle.

"Either you put this car in 'drive', or I'm getting my morning exercise done real early,"
she threatened, and could tell by the hurt in his eyes Aang understood the severity of her
words. Swallowing, sniffling, coughing again, but refusing to back down – the strong
Katara he'd loved and cherished roared forward to face him head on. Tears leaked from
the corners of her eyes, her cheeks were ruddy from the rubbing sleeve, but she was in
control of herself now and knew exactly what she wanted and what she didn't.

She wanted to go home.

She didn't want him.

Aang stared tight-lipped at her another minute, and slid slowly back into his seat, his
seatbelt snapping together with finality. They were on the road again at the next green
light.

It was a quiet ride.

The only words exchanged from that moment to the time he dropped her off at home that
night were goodbyes.


TBC...

AN: Thank you for reading – I admit, this was a hard chapter. So, we finally see a
bit of what happened between K & A...

AN: This chapter posted (early!) originally March 6, 2008.
PS: Castle Anthrax and I have a surprise for you... I'll be posting C-A's 'thank you'
fic later on; it is part of "Merits". Thank you very much for everyone who provided
feedback on the earlier fic, "In your own company"!


Chapter 14: Chapter 14


Author: moor on / beyondthemoor on LJ
Title: Merits
Part : Thirteen
Genre: Romance/humour/vamp/Modern AU

Fandom: Avatar: TLA
Pairing: Zutara, Jetara
Length: 4200 words, approx.
Rating: M
Disclaimer : "Avatar: The Last Airbender" and all related rights belong to their
original creators… I am not among their ranks.

AN: In response to hyperroo' s vampire/Zutara challenge, I present…



"Merits" – Part Thirteen

The next morning dawned cold, but clear, outside the windows of Katara's lab. Her
students plodded away at their latest assignment, deliberately keeping their eyes
averted from their lab TA. Some cast the occasional curious glance, and then looked
to his or her partner for direction, but the result was always the same – a shake 'no'
of the head, and an "I wouldn't do that if I were you"-caution in their eyes. It was a
subdued atmosphere, though Katara didn't notice even a moment of the tranquility
her students provided her.

At the front of the lab, the TA in question sat facing her students and not seeing a
single one of them.

She didn't signal the end of the lab when their time was up. After a moment or two
of indecision, one of the students just stood a little slowly, gave a meaningful look at
the others, and led them to her desk to hand in their lab reports. Even Ken
understood this was not the morning to bother their favourite teacher, though he
couldn't help but offer a "Take care this weekend, Prof. Kuruk," and a sympathetic
smile before he walked out the door.

A few minutes later, like an automaton, Katara picked up her papers and walked
out.


Zuko heard Katara arrive in their office that morning and readied himself to ignore
her thoroughly. He was sure she'd have at least some caustic remark about his
presence at her favourite hang-out the night before, and was almost looking forward
to goading her into an explosion of temper. He'd seen her bid farewell to who he
assumed was her closest female friend-Toph-while she left with a male companion of
some sort.
Aang, he reminded himself absently, she said his name was Aang. The young man
had obviously been in love with her, but Zuko hadn't been able to discern if the
feelings were mutual. There'd been something odd about him, he remembered, but
he hadn't been able to pinpoint what that oddness was.

In reality, Zuko's reasons for going to the club were two-fold: he had wanted to see
Katara again, in order to get a sense of her routine outside of work; however, he'd
also been hungry, and the club provided a buffet of potential volunteers. He'd
returned home fairly satisfied on both counts. He'd spent the time until morning in
a pleasant, well-fed haze.

So, after all his anticipation, he was quite disappointed when his new toy slid quietly
behind her desk, turned on her computer, and stared zombie-like at the screen.

She hadn't even said hello.

From the corner of his good eye, Zuko observed her carefully for any indication as
to why she wasn't her usual cheery, annoying self. A little surprised, he realized she
looked a bit like death warmed over: worn, gaunt, and lifeless.

Humming softly, the computers in the room were the only noise disturbing the
silence. Several minutes later Katara was still lost in her own thoughts – or so
consumed by them she couldn't escape.

Unreasonably upset at her lack of participation, Zuko felt cheated. His impatience
was prodding him to provoke her, however his pride rebelled and refused to lose
face by acknowledging her, least of all by indicating he'd noticed her change in
humour.

Pride overpowered patience; taking a breath to clear his head, he kept his head
down and went back to work.

There's always lunch, he reminded himself.

Katara eventually pulled out her labs, corrected them, and put them away again;
she flipped through her e-mail; she even tried to do her readings, but became so
restless and frustrated that she pushed them on to the floor beside her bag. They
landed with a mild clatter, spilling papers off to the side. She looked down at the
messy pile, but shrugged her shoulders and turned to stare out the window.
Seeing Aang last night had done something to her emotionally; some manner of
cruel, invisible, dreadful weariness had enshrouded her since she walked away from
his car.

Her bitter past had run up and assaulted her hard-earned present.
All her hopes and dreams, all the plans she'd made, everything, every where she'd
planned on taking her life since his departure had crashed around her shoulders
and crumpled to her knees… and left her lost in thought since she returned home.
She didn't remember sleeping in her bed last night, or waking, just going through
her routine motions to survive her day.

She'd spent several years ignoring her rejection and the heartless way she was cast
aside. With Toph and Sokka's help, she'd focused on her new goals and overcome
the shame and humiliation she'd felt the day she spent alone at the beach,
surrounded by loved ones. She'd even moved on to start seeing someone else,
someone she truly cared for… and now he came back and wanted to start up again
where they'd left off, as if he'd never left?

Her heart ached and felt raw; her head felt cloudy and tired; her stomach felt tight
and sick.

…She didn't eat lunch.


Zuko had to physically restrain himself from shoving his desk out of the way to
reach out and shake her. Instead, he kept his head down, pretending to ignore her.
An hour later she left again for her afternoon seminar.

She didn't say 'goodbye' or 'later.'

Zuko fumed as he contained his tantrum.

When she returned and showed signs of alertness – though still ignored him – she
moved on to her project and lost herself in legends for several hours.

Satisfied she wasn't as undead as he was, he went back to ignoring her.


The Legend of Yue the Moon Spirit

The legend wasn't as old as most of the stories she'd looked over; however, it had
been one of the easiest to compare to the maps and environmental references she'd
dug up, since it had happened so recently in comparison to the other events. It had
been fairly well documented, too…

In the mid-1800s, one of the First Nations tribes had been herded like cattle onto a
reservation in the Northern Territories. They'd lived in and around the area,
traveling back and forth for generations. Now their movements were restricted and
they were confined to the reservation and hunting within just a few miles of its
limits. The mining town erected nearby had prompted the reservation's
establishment, and while relations were tense, they were also relatively peaceful. The
local nations had even provided the new townspeople generously with food and furs
during a storm that had wiped out a supply train on its way to them. The miners
and their families never forgot the gesture. On Katara's maps, the mining village
and reservation were separated by a river.

The town itself gathered many travelers and drifters looking for work. Some stayed
and settled, others moved on. No one batted an eye if someone showed up for work
for a week and then disappeared the next—it was just assumed they'd gotten itchy
feet and felt the need to move on.

The mining town thrived for a period. Alongside it, the reservation started to feel
the pain of hunger and frost, as their hunting grounds were now subject to poaching
from the drifters who didn't know or chose to ignore the stories of the storm-gifts
from the Native band.

The tribe's people fell on increasingly harsh times; they prayed to the Spirits to send
them aid, or guide them to better lands. Within the tribe there were those who were
close to the Spirits, and they prayed all day and long into the night. The chief's
daughter, Yue, was among those spiritualists and, while young, her peace and
strength of will provided support for her tribe. The young men in the tribe all
followed Yue's advice, and the women, too. The tribe's warriors sought her wisdom
before setting off for war, and in times of peace to get the Spirits' permission to hunt
extra game for festivals and celebrations.

Yue did not work alone, however; she was complemented by the Protector, the
strongest warrior within her tribe. He was her guardian and looked after the tribe's
physical well-being and the other warriors' training. Yue was the heart and spirit of
the tribe; the Protector was its arms and legs. Together, as they were to remain
together through life, they made the Water Tribe band whole.

During this time of depression within the tribe, Yue spent a week drinking only
water and praying to the Spirits for guidance. At the end of the week, the Protector
found her collapsed and rushed her to a healing hut. He stood watch over her
bedside until she woke the next day.

Even before her clear blue eyes opened, she faced her Protector and spoke a
prophecy in a clear, emotionless voice: the tribe would be saved by famine and
disease, and would vanish when it was safe; dead arms would heal a broken heart,
appeased, and would reunite, like love, by fate.

That day, a drifter arrived at the tribe's reservation.

The drifter came bearing no weapons and no tools; carrying no canteen and no
bedroll; and was not a fellow tribesman, but seemed to be aware of the tribe's
customs when the individual made their way straight to the ceremonial outbuilding
and dragged a sled of animal pelts and meat to the chief.
In return, the drifter asked only for a place to sleep for the night. On the floor of
Yue's hut.

The Chief rejected.

The Protector threatened.

Yue looked at the visitor, and asked the individual to follow her; and then looked at
the Protector, and asked him to stand guard outside her door.

The starving village ate well for the first time in months that night, and sent
elaborate offerings to the Spirits in gratitude.

The visitor left early the next morning, before any others had woken.

It was the beginning of a cycle of visits from the visitor.
Coincidentally, it was also the time a rash of disease spread through the mining
town. It started close to the waterway, with townspeople falling ill to a mysterious
illness, but soon spread to nearly the entire town.

The Water Tribe people outside the town's limits on the reservation, a sister-tribe to
Katara's own people, also started falling ill, though not in the same numbers; their
numbers were restricted to those who found occasional work in the town.

Slowly, anemia and poisoning started dwindling the numbers on both sides of the
waterway.

A month after the first visit, the stranger returned, bringing fresh animals and
water. Too sensitive to the suffering of her people, Yue again brought the drifter to
her hut. The night was long and cold.

The Protector hated every minute he stood outside her door.

The starving people thanked Yue for her sacrifice; her father and Chief cursed the
Spirits for bringing such a plague upon them that they were forced to accept the
visitor's 'gifts.'

Each month, the illness spread, the people weakened.

Each month, the visitor returned.

After each visit, Yue's people regained their strength and forged on.

It continued for over a year before the Protector left his post at Yue's side and
followed the visitor home one morning, without Yue's or the tribe's consent. He
suspected the drifter was a demon, sent to poison the village and tribe in order to
indebt them to the demon's 'goodwill,' and was determined to find and destroy the
source of its power.

Few had noticed the change in Yue over the past year, but ever present beside her,
the Protector knew. He had seen the way her skin had become pale, her hair turned
white, her calmness turned to listlessness. She also had strange fits, her gums were
shriveling away from her teeth, and she'd become withdrawn, only going out in
early morning or at night. One day, she'd received terrifying burn-like lesions on
her skin when she went out to speak to a wise woman at noon…

Yet her drive had doubled, and so had her restlessness. It was like she couldn't hold
herself together between visits from the strange demon anymore.

She cried out for the demon in her sleep; its name fell soundlessly from her lips
when she was awake and her thoughts drifted away from her; she yearned for it and
wanted it.

The Protector knew the visitor was aware of this compulsion, too. Yue's desperation
tore at his soul, and he couldn't stand to see her suffering any longer.

So when the demon left before daybreak, he followed it.

He followed the visitor for hours, days, and through several nights, too. The demon
didn't stop for long at the town, and didn't sleep at all at night, as the Protector had
already realized and anticipated it would do.

The sun rose and fell, and the demon continued on. The Protector was never far
behind. They traveled into the wilderness.

On the fourth day without rest, even the Protector started to fatigue; by the end of
the fifth day, he fell to the ground, exhausted.

It was exactly what the visitor had been waiting for – and the Protector realized that
far, far too late.

The visitor returned some days later to the tribe, and again took its place within
Yue's hut.

The Protector never returned.

With the visitor's return each time, the Tribe prospered; the warriors, however,
distrusted the individual and were suspicious of the drifter's motivations in having
such access to their spiritual leader. Soon, the warriors started weakening and
disappearing. The Chief had noticed they, too, had started changing; becoming
fitful, their skin paling, their teeth becoming more prominent. He began to feel the
clutches of fear tighten around his heart, and couldn't help wondering about the
prophecy.

Without the warriors and hunters, the tribe became completely dependent on the
visitor.

It was like a kind of plague; soon, anemia overtook the tribe the way it had the
mining village.

The fingers of the death-spirits started reaching for the children and elderly of both
settlements.

No matter how hard Yue prayed, or how much she sacrificed, she could not reach
the Spirits to request guidance.

Finally, without the Spirits' telling, Yue spoke to her father and pleaded with him to
take the remaining Tribe and leave the area; she claimed there must be poison
about, as even the fish and game they consumed were now polluted. Devastated, but
understanding his daughter's pleading, the Chief nodded and within days the
survivors had gathered their possessions and set off.

Yue stayed to appease the local Spirits and beg forgiveness for her selfish desire to
save her people.
Years later, when a member of her tribe came back to the village to bring her to
their new encampment, there was no sign of the demon.

And not one, but two skeletons were found.
The Protector had returned to Yue's side.

The tribe would be saved by famine and disease,
And would vanish when it was safe;
Dead arms would heal a broken heart, appeased,
And would reunite, like love, by fate.

The famine ended and the tribe was saved, yet the famine had worsened it in equal
measure and the tribe –its departed members, its heart in Yue, and its arms in the
Protector— had vanished. Still, the tribe had prospered elsewhere; and Yue and the
Protector had traveled to the Spirit World together. The tribesman who'd come to
collect Yue returned to the new village, and relayed that their village was finally at
peace with the Spirits.

The prophecy had been fulfilled.


Katara's eyes moved despondently over her notes scribbled in the margins of the
legend she'd retold in written form.
The mining town had had very few survivors. The mine itself hadn't been properly
reinforced; mercury had leaked into the water supply. It had affected both peoples
tragically.

The reservation had been preserved by the 'visitor's' gifts of unpolluted food for a
time – but it looked to her like the band's hunters had gone out and tried to get local
game to supplement the lean times between visits and ended up poisoned,
regardless. The symptoms she remembered the victims having suffered from
matched up with anemia, and some with porphyria, too. Especially the Protector's
description of Yue – though to him, she was slowly turning into a 'demon' like her
visitor.

All because of the mercury.

Katara felt loneliness envelop her as she read through the story; partly from Yue's
self-sacrifice for her family, but mostly because it reminded her of her own people.
She missed her family and her own tribe when she remembered the legends and
myths she grew up with. She had done her best as she'd matured to write them
down, but the oral traditions were fading faster than she could write. She'd left for
school on a scholarship when she'd been eighteen, the hope of her people to come
back and help improve their poverty. She was terrified of disappointing them, but
just as scared of losing her own traditions while she was so far from them.

"Make your own traditions," the memory of Aang's voice broke delicately through
her daydream.

"What are you talking about? These are sacred legends, Aang, I can't discard them – I
won't!" she'd argued stubbornly as they'd sat at their kitchen table one afternoon, sun
spilling over both of them.
"I didn't say get rid of the old ones – remember them, they're important! But don't be
afraid to adapt the ones you can't entirely remember so that you can keep passing them
down to your own kids… Maybe our kids…" he'd said, taking her hand.

"I don't have any traditions, Katara." His normally carefree voice was serious. "I want
to know yours. All I know about my past is my name and where I'm from. I know one
story, and then I was sent off to live with my 'Uncle' Gyatso. I know he wasn't my 'real'
uncle, but he treated me great and he was the closest thing to a dad that I ever had…
but that's as close as I ever got to knowing 'family' and 'tradition.'" His gray eyes had
looked at her with so much compassion, she knew the lesson was coming next and
wasn't disappointed. "Don't let what you can't remember cloud what you can. Ok?"
Twining their fingers together, she'd looked back at him with a rueful smile.
"'Our kids,' huh? Planning a little far in advance, aren't we?" she'd teased, and had
laughed out loud at his resulting blush. He'd reached back to rub the back of his head,
as he always did when he was embarrassed, before looking away momentarily to
whistle Dixie and then offer to go get more vegetarian pizza…
"… phone…" the voice sounded far-off, and Katara felt wetness at her eyes.

"… Katara, phone… going off…" Damnit, she hated remembering her former
fiancé and how they'd been. And why the Hell was there someone talking to her?
Actually, where was she? Katara's throat felt swollen, as if she'd been crying
without shedding tears.

"Katara, your phone has been ringing for ten minutes. Answer it," growled Zuko
from across the room.

Startled, Katara glanced at the clock on her desk and read 8:38 p.m. on the face. It
was night in her office. Only Zuko's lamp was on, and the stars had come out in the
sky outside her window. The blinds were still open.

Her phone was indeed ringing, and about to fall off her desk; but she found she was
still frozen in place.

Making a frustrated noise, Zuko leapt up and grabbed her phone just before it slid
off the surface onto the linoleum.

"WHAT?" he barked at the caller. He paused a moment before shoving the phone in
Katara's face.
She looked at him, confused.

"It's for you," he ground out with forced patience.

"Ah…" She felt her arm move automatically to accept the offending instrument.
"Thanks… Hello?"
The second she accepted the phone was the same second Zuko turned on his heel
and stalked back to his desk. Katara stared at his back for a moment, trying to
make sense of the words coming through the speaker of the dolphin-charmed
handset.

"Katara, are you ok? Who was that guy? Where are you?" Jet's questions rapid-
fired at her through the cell-phone and Katara blinked and rubbed her eyes a
moment, as if it would help clear her jumbled thoughts. "I'm… fine. That was my
new roommate at work. I'm at work, in my office… still."

"You don't sound ok," he disagreed immediately. "Stay there, I'm coming right
over."

"No, it's ok, Jet. I'm fine, really!"

"No way, I want to meet this guy who's been harassing you all week, we need to
talk."
The hair on Katara's arms stood up slightly in apprehension; Jet was really worked
up.

"No, no, it's ok, I'm just shutting down. I'll meet you at the front doors, ok? I
promise, I'm just tidying up."

"I'll be there in ten minutes, stay put at your office, I want you to stay safe," he
ordered and hung up.

Katara pulled the phone away from her ear and stared at it incredulously… before
feeling the warm, familiar bubble of anger swell within her then passing like a wisp
of morning mist in the wind.
How dare he tell me to 'stay put'? she thought to herself. I am not a dog.

"Welcome back to the world of the living," remarked Zuko with disinterest.

Katara's head snapped up when she heard him speak, completely shoving her
insulted pride off the board. What was going on? Was Zuko speaking to her? Even
if he was being a pretentious prick… it was progress!

"… Thanks. I think…"

Zuko didn't say anything else as he started shutting down his computer; she did the
same, and together they packed up their things.

"Was I … out for long?" she asked him uncomfortably, as he fastened the clip on
his laptop bag.

"I didn't really pay attention."

Her blue eyes narrowed, causing a furrow in her brow, but Katara held her peace.

"Sorry about my phone going off."

As per Zuko Sozin's standard operating procedure… he ignored her.

The Water Tribe woman resisted the urge to roll her eyes at her roommate and
instead settled back in her chair again to wait for Jet.

It had been several minutes since his call. With the computers turned off, there was
no sound in the room. It was almost peaceful.

Finishing up the last of his things, Zuko slid on his jacket and made to turn off his
light – but his hand stilled above the switch, and he turned to look expectantly at
her. It was the only light in the room.
"Oh, right, thanks," Katara mumbled the words and fumbled to turn on her own
lamp. The light in the room temporarily doubled and made the room much more
inviting. "Thanks," she repeated.

Zuko turned off his lamp and made to leave. He made it as far as the door.

"Thanks again for, uh, waking me up," she repeated, trying to sound friendly. It
might be late, but even a last-ditch effort at 'ending on a positive note' was worth it
if it meant the rest of their term together could become pleasant. Katara waited with
wary optimism. Did she dare hope they'd finally become, if not friends, at least
'passable acquaintances'?

Zuko nodded a bit, one hand on the door. It swung partway open, and then stopped.

Katara's spirits lifted; this could be it, the moment she'd been hoping for!

Please Spirits, just let us get along; we don't have to be buddies, we just have to not
hate each other! … Ok, I'll admit, being able to chit-chat would be a bonus, but please
treat me sympathetically…

Then the scarred man did something completely strange: he looked her straight in
the eye and held her gaze.

Katara's mouth went dry… there was something uncanny in the look. She felt the
compass needle of her optimism start to swing south…

Zuko's good eyebrow rose as he stared at her a moment, and then spoke.

"Does he always tell you what to do?" he asked casually, pausing for her reply.

And in the split second that followed, her cheeks flushed and all Katara saw was red
as her temper flooded her; he had hit below the belt.

"That is none of your business, you condescending, insufferable jerk! How dare you
ask me that! That is none of your business!"

Zuko turned his back on her while she continued her tirade, and made his way
down the hall; he could still hear her envenomed sputtering when he reached the
stairs.

As she saw him turn the corner, Katara would have sworn she saw the warped
man's shoulders move as if he were laughing. She was practically stamping her foot
in anger.
"Definitely worth it," he sighed to himself with smirk, and headed to the parking lot
to grab his car. The weekend had definitely started on a good note… for him.

Inside the office, a very concerned Jet panted after arriving on a dead run, only to
discover his girlfriend had turned into a seething pit viper.

Oddly enough, at this, he felt relieved…


TBC...

AN: IMMENSE thanks to renagrrl for her beta-assistance with this chapter! Please
comment and give her a hand! XD
AN: Sorry, this chap's coming a day or so early since I'm away in Toronto this
weekend. I hope you enjoyed reading it!
AN: This chapter first posted to this site 13 March 2008. (PS: I'm working on
taffy0823's 'thank you' fic as we speak!... er, read!...er... well, you get the idea. Have
a super weekend!)


Chapter 15: Chapter 15


Author: moor on this site / beyondthemoor on LJ
Title: Merits
Part : Fourteen
Genre: Romance/humour/vamp/Modern AU

Fandom: Avatar: TLA
Pairing: Zutara, Jetara
Length: 3000 words, approx.
Rating: M
Disclaimer : "Avatar: The Last Airbender" and all related rights belong to their
original creators… I am not among their ranks.

AN: In response to hyperroo' s vampire/Zutara challenge, I present…



"Merits" – Part Fourteen

The night was calm, yet under her blankets Katara slept fitfully. Her dreams melted
together.

"You were accepted?" Aang's enthusiasm shone through the phone. "Katara, that's
amazing! Congratulations, I'm so proud of you!"
They laughed together happily and made plans to celebrate.

The scene shifted and they were outside a hospital room, Aang holding her close as
they waited for news from the doctor.

"He'll be ok, Katara. It was just a minor accident at the shop, and you know Sokka,
he'll be back on his feet in no time."

"He's my only brother, Aang. My only family…" She felt the tears well up and
threaten to spill down her reddened cheeks again. Her fingers were threaded
together tightly and her knuckles were white, but she didn't notice until Aang
placed a calm, reassuring hand over them to temper their trembling.

"So we better be prepared for all the belly-aching he's gonna give us when it comes
time for us to look after him," he joked and rolled his eyes comically. "Can you
imagine? It'll be, 'Katara, can you get me a glass of water?' or 'Aang, do you know
where I put the remote?' or 'Guys, I gotta go to the bathroom… Guys?'"

It took a moment to sink in, but Aang's imitation of Sokka's whiny voice was so apt
that the young woman couldn't help but snicker.

For a while, the snickering laughter and choking sobs alternated, but eventually
petered out to a calmed state of being.

"Thanks," she sniffled and felt her boyfriend place his chin on her head and nod.

"Anytime," he whispered, kissing the top of her hair. "You know I'll always be
there for you, right?""Mmmm," she smiled and hugged him back, grateful for his
promise.

The dream changed again and this time Katara was at the beach in her wedding gown
before all the guests, mostly family-friends and close acquaintances. Her stomach had
been in knots, but Toph had reassured her dozens of times, yes, she was doing the right
thing and yes, Aang loved her more than the Earth needed the heavens above.

Everyone was there. Everyone. Except the groom.

They waited 5 minutes… 10 minutes… half an hour…

Sokka couldn't reach Aang on his cell phone.

Toph couldn't trace any accident reports from the emergency services.

They waited three hours, inviting the guests to please help themselves to food and
celebrate first, they'd do the 'official part' later…
Katara's heart felt frozen; she'd been terrified something had happened to Aang.

Four hours later, a letter arrived from Aang.

He'd left in the wee hours of the morning by date of return.

No explanation.

No goodbye.

Toph had let her drink herself stupid that night, and when she was done screaming,
crying, and vomiting, brought her back to her hotel room and stayed until morning.

Not another word was spoken about Aang, the wedding, or the promise he hadn't
kept.

The bedsheets twisted around her and Katara felt heat burning her from the inside out.
It was too hot, too clingy, too wet, too suffocating, too—

She was swimming in warm water now, through beautiful twisting coral reefs;
around her, colourful fish in reds, blues, greens, and orangey-yellows darted
between the outcroppings. The scenery had the most ephemeral beauty she'd ever
witnessed and she wished she had a camera to remember it by. How elegant the
schools of the glittering fish fins looked as they wove around her in perfect harmony
and synchronization.

Suddenly, the multi-coloured companions shot away in a thousand directions, faster
than lightning; and Katara felt a chill settle in her spine as she was covered by a
shadow, the shadow that must have spooked the fish. When she glanced up she
nearly choked on a scream at the size of the shark that was prowling the water just
above her.

The prehistoric, white-bellied creature lurked gracefully overtop of her, taking its
time as it surveyed the seabed for food. It was huge; Katara estimated it must have
weighed in at over a ton, and it had to be at least twenty feet long from razor-
toothed snout to the whip of its tail.
As fear settled in Katara's gut, she prayed she could make it out of the water in
time, behind the shark as it moved away; to her horror, as she started towards the
surface the shark changed course minutely… and she realized that it had started
circling her.

The tropical reefs disappeared and the water blackened; in her dream, it became a
race against time between her desperate kicking to the surface and her pursuer's
powerful tail propelling itself towards her with gaping, massive jaws. The water
around Katara turned arctic and her breath scorched her lungs as it begged to
explode within her, and she reached the surface only to find it blocked by a ceiling
of solid ice. Air bubbles escaped her mouth and nose as she beat against the ice, no
longer bothering to look back at the beast closing in on her or thinking of the
suffering that would ensue.

Then she saw the outline of a person on the other side of the ice, as eagerly trying to
break through the frozen barrier as she was. A scream erupted from her throat, in
spite of her knowledge that the person on the other side probably couldn't hear her
anyway, but she had to do something to try and get to them, to get help, to get away
from the shark that must be just about to close in on her.

Katara felt the water currents around her shift and knew the horrifying monster
was upon her.

It was too late; water closing in over her head and dribbling down her throat as she
clawed at the wall of ice. Her nails scratched at it, she pounded it with her fist, and
all the while the air pushed at her lungs, bubbled from her mouth and nose and she
was swallowing it now, just trying to get the strength to break through the ice to get
to the precious air and safety above. But the water was too cold, her fingernails were
torn, her lungs were filling, she was choking, she was trying to push, to kick, to hit
through the ice, but she was taking in more water; she was drowning.

Spirits, help me! she cried despite her tears making no difference in the water
around her; she was dying. As she saw the rows of teeth of the shark's mouth
surround her, she glanced at the creature's side and saw it had gold eyes, just as the
ice above her shattered and she reached for the hand her rescuer thrust towards
her, and saw that the faceless rescuer's eyes were the same gold, gold like the sun
that shone in the darkness, just as the teeth grabbed hold of her and the blackness
consumed her whole.



Thrusting the covers away from her, Katara bolted upright in bed, panting, and
started sucking in deep gulps of air. Tears continued to stream down her face and
her body was racked with tremors.

The corner of the blanket still held in her hand shook… until Katara realised it was
her hand that was shaking from holding the material so tightly. Releasing each
finger, one by one, she forced herself to slow her breathing, and her racing
heartbeat.

Was that… a panic attack? she wondered, staring at the blackness around her room.

The sound of the refrigerator hum was the only thing she heard when she extended
her senses to take in her surroundings.
The clock beside her bed blinked 12:00 a.m. … and she remembered that she had
pretty much destroyed it the last time it had gone off.

For a few minutes, she sat there, calming herself and trying to settle her nerves.
Finally, she pushed her damp hair away from her face, and noticed that her pillow
was soaked… and that it was from her own tears, going by how sore her eyes felt.

"You're just stressed out, from work, from him coming back, from getting into a
fight with Zuko, then getting into a fight with Jet, then…" her words drifted off on
their own.

Wow, she really had a terrible week.

And now she was left sweating miserably in clammy bedding.

"Ugh."

Without further consideration, she climbed clumsily out of bed, disentangled herself
from the twisted cotton, and went to change the sheets.

                                          xXx

"What do you mean you want to come over?"

"Exactly what I said. Let's hang out," with her kitchen light on and clean bedding
on her bed, Katara dried her just-showered hair with a towel.

"Katara, I'm still at work." Toph's voice had a very patient tone to it, as if she were
speaking to a very developmentally delayed child. Or Katara when she was doing
something stupid.

"Oh, that's perfect – I'll go over and get things ready. We'll have a spa day! Er,
night!" volunteered Katara enthusiastically.

"When I get home, I go to bed."

"Then we'll save it until morning – it'll give the cucumber slices more time to chill,
and I'll make that really good avocado mask that you like, and – "

"Katara, whatever you're on, I hope you didn't get it from the club the other night,"
sighed Toph, though despite the music blaring in the background Katara could still
make it out. She could even tell when Toph put a tired hand up to her eyes to rub
them in frustration. "Remember the 'strangers with candy' talk?"

"Oh no, not at all, I'm not on anything; I just thought that it'd be fun to have a girls'
night."
"You know, Katara," started Toph, "it's one thing to organize a girls' night and
plan it for the evening; it's another thing entirely to foist it on me while I'm at work
and it's nearly 3 in the morning!" She heaved a heavy sigh, and felt her shoulders
slump when Katara paused instead of fighting back. "What's wrong?"

"… nothing."

"Yeah, yeah, 'nothing' my butt. What happened?" she asked in a long-suffering
voice.

Toph stifled a knowing groan, and resigned herself to smelling like cucumber-melon
stuff and fruity chip-dip in the near future; Katara's personal issues seemed to
become her personal issues once more, and she almost made a snarky comment
about how much easier her life would be if she'd left her friend to die of alcohol
poisoning on the beach several years earlier – but even Toph recognized the limits of
her insensitivity. And she had a feeling the events at the beach, along with Aang's
reappearance, had something to do with Katara's sudden desire for female
companionship.

"OK, Katara, you head over to my place and set things up, and I'll wrap things up
early and be back in a few hours. I'll send a car to get you in about 20 minutes;
there'll be somebody who'll take you shopping for whatever you need, got it?"

Still sitting at her kitchen table, Katara nodded, guilt-ridden but too grateful to
back down.
"Katara, you there?" asked Toph when her friend didn't reply. She plugged her ear
with a finger to better detect Katara's reply.

"Yeah, I'm here. Thanks, Toph. I'll see you later. Want me to pick you up from
work?" she asked eagerly.

"Yeah, sure, why not? But don't bring any goop with you in the car, got it? Leather
cleans up easy, but it's hell getting guacamole stains out of my clothes…"

The women hung up after quick goodbyes.

Toph turned to Aang who sat beside her in her crow's nest above the dancing
crowds, avidly trying to eavesdrop on the call.

"If this is your fault," she threatened, poking him in the chest heartily, "and I end
up looking like Rave Master Barbie, I swear you are going to pay dearly, Twinkle
Toes."

"Did she mention me?" he asked eagerly. Though she couldn't see it, his gray eyes
were huge with anticipation.
"Augh!"

As she smacked the lovesick fool roughly out of the way, Toph briefly considered
making them both pay, just for the Hell of it.



Several hours later, Katara was fidgeting within the towncar parked near the rear
entrance of the Bombshelter.

"Think she's done yet?" she asked the driver for the third time in the past 10
minutes.

"She'll come when she's done," replied the driver – also for the third time in the
past 10 minutes. He didn't even glance at her, too engrossed was he in the wrestling
news of the sports section of his newspaper.

Katara glared at him, clearly not getting the hint.

"Should we call her?"

Instead of wasting more words on his anxious passenger, the large, balding man
calmly pushed one finger down on the automatic window button and lowered the
glass. The familiar bmp-bmp-bmp of club music floated into the car for a few
moments. He released it and raised the window again when he recognized a scowl of
understanding cross Katara's face.

"Ugh, she said she'd be done by now!" Clearly miffed, Katara crossed her arms and
sat back on the leather seats and tried to find a way to pass the time.

Nothing came to mind other than dragging Toph physically from her turn tables.

So, that's exactly what Katara decided to do.

"I'll be right back with Toph," she explained in a rush as she slid out the door of the
car and tucked her jacket more tightly around herself.

Waving impassively, the driver just nodded as if he'd been expecting her to do
something along those lines anyway.

Outside the inviting warmth of the vehicle, the cold snap hadn't let up yet and the
night had turned particularly blustery. It was difficult to see the other, unoccupied
cars parked in the rear lot, though Katara could tell from the drifts there were at
least a few there. None had engines running, unfortunately, so it looked like no one
had started leaving yet.
Damn Toph and her phenomenal talents sometimes…

Burrowing into the collar of her sweater (it peeked up over her jacket's collar, and
she hadn't been able to find her scarf in the past few days), she scurried through the
low snow drifts to the backdoor. Of course, with snow comes ice…

Her reflexes were just quick enough to catch hold of an old crate as she slipped and
went down – however, her purse wasn't as lucky and flew a few feet away, landing
with a soft puff into a bit of snow just beside a snow-covered car to her right.
Mentally cursing the frozen element's audacity to trip a Water Tribe native, the
young woman detoured from her original path to the club's rear entrance and
stooped to pick up her wayward bag.

As she straightened, dusting the snow off her things, she realized the nearby car
wasn't unoccupied, as she'd originally assumed; the windows weren't covered in
frost the way the other cars' were, though they were opaque.

And then she heard… the noises.

Rolling her eyes, Katara backed away from the vehicle and hoped she hadn't
interrupted the lovebirds inside.

She was climbing the stairs to the rear entrance's door when she heard one of the
car's doors open behind her. Deliberately ignoring it, she was halfway up when she
heard the young woman giggle faintly and climb out, and the man's deep, smooth
voice speak some trivial thing to her in slow, persuasive tones. Katara could
practically hear the floozy nodding dumbly in acceptance to whatever he was
asking.

Katara's shoulders tensed the next moment as she recognized the male voice, and
her hand paused just above the doorknob.

No, it couldn't be…

Just go inside, Katara. You don't want to know. Right now, you really don't want to
know… Her inner voice pleaded with her to preserve her ignorance.

"Now run along," she heard him say clearly, as if he were talking to a small child.
The woman must've followed his instructions to the letter as the next thing Katara
knew, a dazed young female in inappropriate, flashy clothing was coming up the
stairs behind her.

Inside her stomach, Katara felt nearly ill.

I have to get away from this.
In her rushed effort to get away, she yanked on the door handle too quickly and
spun a bit, somehow ending up automatically holding the door open for the girl
behind her as if in courtesy.

As she looked back, she caught sight of the scarred man staring back at her from
the driver's side window.

Zuko's look held no warmth at her recognition.

Ducking her head and passing into the darkened club, Katara heard the Audi
engine rev as the driver peeled out of the snowy lot.



TBC...

AN: Many thanks to renagrrl for beta-ing this chapter for me! (Rena, the end-notes
were not lost on me, and I'll be referring back to them in a later chapter or two.)
AN: Thank you for reading!
(PS: Yes, I'm still working on the thank-you fics!)


Chapter 16: Chapter 16


Author: moor on this site / beyondthemoor on LJ & blogger
Title: Merits
Part : Fifteen
Genre: Romance/humour/vamp/Modern AU
Fandom: Avatar: TLA
Pairing: Zutara, Jetara
Length: 1600 words, approx.
Rating: M
Disclaimer : "Avatar: The Last Airbender" and all related rights belong to their
original creators… I am not among their ranks.
AN: In response to hyperroo' s vampire/Zutara challenge, I present…



"Merits" – Part Fifteen

"Not interested, thanks," the brown-haired young man barely glanced at the
gentleman who'd accosted him, and he walked away in no particular hurry.
Pretending to hide their disappointment at his departure, the group of young
women who'd hovered around him while he paid for his usual cuppa joe smiled and
parted as he nodded politely to them and stepped back from the mobile canteen.
I see… The dark-clothed man who'd approached the Water Tribe girl's boyfriend
watched him take a swig of coffee from his paper cup as he returned to the factory
where he worked shifts, clad in his standard-issue overalls and safety boots. A
supervisor of some sort gave the young man a look as he reached the door; Jet
deposited his usual toothpick into the smoking bin by the employee entrance before
stepping inside out of the cold.

"Hmmmm…."

Long Feng smiled genteelly and rubbed at one half of his serpentine mustache as Jet
returned to work. Noting one last time the tousled-haired man's affect on the young
women who worked in the nearby office building (and who went out of their way to
'bump into him' at the daily coffee-truck), his eyes narrowed faintly and his trench
coat swished in the snow to his car, his fingertips still thoughtfully caressing his
facial hair.

                                        xXx

It had not been a good day for Toph.

Katara had acted creeped out and secretive when they'd finally met – and had
forced her to shut down her show pronto; her head maid had called in sick; and
now her favourite assistant was not giving her good news. It was enough to make a
girl want to kick someone.

Preferably Zuko Sozin.

"What do you mean, 'there's nothing on him?' I told you, he's working at BSSU.
He's in the same office as Katara Kuruk." Another piece of her clothing went flying
as she gestured angrily, the speakerphone catching the sound as the shirt's buttons
clicked upon contact with the wall. "He has to have a resume on file with their HR
department; a parking slip with his car's make and model and license plate; for
gosh sakes', he has a giant scar on half his face according to Her Royal Sweetness –
the guy is the anti-definition of 'inconspicuous'. "

"I'm very, very sorry Miss Bei Fong," the troubled voice replied, "we did finds
leads but they were all false, but we're still trying."

"He had to come from somewhere," interrupted Toph with a grunt. "There's no
such thing as ghosts."

"Of course not. We'll call you again with an update."

"You have 5 hours."
An uncomfortable silence was broken by a half-hearted sigh. "… Yes, ma'am…" He
was used to his superior's bulldogged tenacity.

With that, Toph jabbed the phone button off and went to find something to wear
that wasn't fuzzy pajamas with guacamole stains.

                                          xXx

Later that day…

Katara put her coat away in Jet's closet and looked around his apartment.

She hadn't originally planned on just walking in, but when her hands had closed
over the little key he'd given her before, she'd decided waiting inside would
probably be more comfortable than waiting outside… particularly considering some
of the other tenants in the building.

And he did say I could trust him, she reminded herself eagerly when an overweight,
boxer-built man wearing a wife beater and a stained pair of jogging pants passed
her deliberately too closely for the third time in the hallway. The door clicked shut
behind her, closing off the noise from the other apartments…. Mostly.

She shut the deadbolt, just to keep every little bit of unwanted sound very securely
out.

Dust motes floated through the late-afternoon light in the apartment; as she glanced
around the slightly dingy apartment with a relieved breath, Katara felt her anxiety
lessen as she took in the dusty shelves and battered TV, the piles of odds and ends
scattered about. Without planning to, she found herself randomly picking up his
clothes, magazines, and video games and putting them away; she washed his dishes
and cleared the counters; she even dared to tidy the beat-up bookcase that doubled
as his nightstand, until she found herself rolling her eyes so often it started to hurt.

Men, with an internal groan, she dropped the 'reading' material with a flutter of
glossy pages and returned to her bag of books in the living room.

"Five forty five," she read aloud on the VCR clock from the couch. Jet would still be
another half hour, making up the day he'd missed when he was 'sick'.

"Might as well work," one book piled on top of another as Katara spread her
readings out on the freshly-wiped coffee table.

She was soon engrossed in her assignment on porphyria, and lost track of time as
the words flew through her head onto her laptop. It was the final copy, and she
wanted to touch it up and make it perfect.
Environmental changes... physical morphology... heme distortion... iron deficiency...
sensitivity to light... mercury poisoning... village decimated... reservation transplanted...
remains recovered...

It went on, until she read that last line. Something niggled at the back of her mind.

I wonder what happened to the remains? She thought to herself at one point. Were
they put to rest? Or were they considered Spirits by then and left alone?...

The notion that testing the remains would be one way of determining the cause of
death and adding more credibility to her paper flitted through her mind, and
brought her upright immediately. She ignored the morbidity and, admittedly, even
the spiritual desecration it would involve.

Wait a second...

A ghost of an idea hinted around her head and Katara racked her brain to catch it.
There was something about the legend that she was forgetting, something
important. And it had to do with the two main characters, Yue and her Protector,
and the way they were laid to rest.

Up until that point, Katara had been working the legend-story aspect from what she
remembered of her Tribe's oral storytelling traditions. Now, though, she raced
through her bibliography and then her bag, searching for the tome she'd taken out
of her bookcase weeks earlier to prove to Professor Bumi that the legend was 'true'
and that she hadn't been making it up. (Though he had told her at the time she
could go through with it anyway as long as she made it entertaining...)

How were they laid to rest?... She had to find out. And why did the Visitor choose their
village in the first place?...

The story within the book was definitely more detailed, but also more cryptic.

"Argh, stupid symbolism," she muttered, going back and forth between two pages
and trying to figure out the meaning of an ambiguous paragraph, to no avail. There
was something important about the story that she was missing – and now, when she
was just finishing up her assignment and putting the finishing touches on the final
draft, she was discovering she didn't know how it ended.

Slamming it shut with a satisfying snap, Katara glared at the cover a moment and
wondered how on earth she'd find her answers. Her Tribe's legends were hardly
documented at all, and her book had been a gift from her grandmother just before
she left. It was almost as old as her Gran-gran, as she'd had it since she was a young
woman.
'Master H. Pakku, Ph.D.' she read along the spine. The only person she'd ever heard
of documenting their own Tribe's legends was this Dr. Pakku, and he was known to
be an elitist, sexist recluse.

However, he may be the only person left who'd know the original stories, she admitted
to herself grudgingly. Gran-gran's having more and more trouble remembering things
these days...

From across the room, Jet watched the play of emotions across Katara's face, and
decided it was best to leave her be when she got that fierce look of determination in
her beautiful eyes. He leaned back and watched her fingers fly nimbly over the keys,
and continued to sip his coffee contentedly. The tired young man had been home for
twenty minutes already and hadn't had the heart to disturb her.

About half an hour later, he stretched and went to the kitchen to start making them
some supper, since Katara wasn't making any move to release her deathgrip on the
keyboard in the near future.

She looks pretty intense, he pulled a bag of spaghetti from the cupboard. A pot from
the next shelf followed.

If she keeps working away like that, she'll be here all night, Jet realised, his brows
furrowing. He went about making the simple meal, considering their options from
all the angles that suited him. It all boiled down to what he wanted for the time
being that night.

He decided to not disturb her.



TBC.

AN: This chapter first posted Sunday, March 30th, 2008.
AN: Thank you very much for reading!

AN: FYI (and I apologise in advance for this), I leave to go abroad this coming
week. I can't guarantee I'll have an update again until May. Sorry!

AN: If you haven't already seen it, taffy0823's 'thank you' fic is now posted! It is
called "L'Illusion Comique" and is based on taffy's request/prompt: What do I
think could happen during the upcoming episode, "Ember Island Players". Well, I
don't know if this is exactly what will happen, but I thought this'd be a fun way for
it to play out. (It is posted separately from "Merits" so this way it doesn't confuse
the plot in this story.) I hope you enjoy it!
Chapter 17: Chapter 17


Author: moor on / beyondthemoor on LJ
Title: Merits
Part : Sixteen
Genre: Romance/humour/vamp/Modern AU
Fandom: Avatar: TLA
Pairing: Zutara, Jetara
Length: 1300 words, approx.
Rating: M
Disclaimer : "Avatar: The Last Airbender" and all related rights belong to their
original creators… I am not among their ranks.
AN: In response to hyperroo' s vampire/Zutara challenge, I present…



"Merits" – Part Sixteen

"You looked pretty intense, you know, when you were studying," Jet murmured as
he slipped an arm around Katara's waist. It was very late, and he'd finally
persuaded her to go to bed so she could get at least five or six hours of sleep. She was
staying over, as he'd expected.

"Really?... Sorry... I guess I got... kind of into it..." Pulling the covers up closer to
her chin, Katara yawned and snuggled closer to her warm boyfriend in his bed.

"Something up?"

Katara shook her head no – though it was really more of a side nudge into the
pillow. She was exhausted from overwork and anxiety. "Just... stuff..."

"Mm? What stuff?" he hedged, and smiled into her hair. He nuzzled her ear,
bringing a smile to her face.

"Mm-mmm," she refused, and pushed away a bit. "Too tired..." Even the slightly
lumpy bed was a welcome comfort to her that night. Tendrils of sleep curled around
her mind and beckoned her consciousness to leave her be.

"Is it Zuko?" Jet meant it as a joke, after all Katara's complaining about her new
roommate, and expected her to shoot some sarcastic comment back at him about his
boss. Her reaction, however, stunned him for a moment.

"Hm?"

The bushy-haired young man felt her tense slightly, then relax again beside him.
Suspicions prowled the perimeter of his mind.

"It's Zuko, isn't it. He's done something. What did he do?" Blankets shifted as Jet
sat up a bit straighter and looked down over Katara's shoulder past her waves of
chocolate hair spread over her pillow.

Sighing, Katara pretended to be asleep. She really didn't want to think about Zuko.
She also didn't want another fight with Jet. One night without drama or nightmares.
Come on, brain, just one night, you can do it...

"Katara," Jet said seriously, and his grip tightened around her middle. "What
happened? Did he do something to you?"
Why is it that when I want him to leave me alone, he doesn't get the message? she
thought peevishly about her boyfriend.

"Katara, stop pretending to be asleep. I'm serious, what happened? What did he
do? I swear, if he laid a hand on you, I'm going to-."
"He didn't do anything to me," honesty is the best policy, she reminded herself
grumpily, and rolled towards him a bit to indicate she was paying attention. She
avoided his eyes even in the darkened room nonetheless.

Each word was measured and weighed as he heard it, and he couldn't help
calculating their meanings.

"But he did something?" he pushed, and instead of holding her tummy now, his
hand had flattened against the bed, effectively holding her in place. Preventing her
from avoiding him. Strong, tanned arms in spite of the winter weather faced her,
and she couldn't help but notice how well-formed they were. Heat welled off him,
warming her and reminding her she'd much rather be cuddling than arguing.
Conceding for the night, she gave a sigh and turned away again, embarrassed.

"Look, it was just... awkward. There was no harm done."

"What was it?"
Katara tried to turn further away, but found his strong arm blocked her escape
route.

"Jet, I need to get to sleep. I have work tomorrow, and class, and meetings..."

"Why won't you talk to me! Don't you trust me?"

"Jet!" Turning as much as she could to look at his angry face, Katara's eyes were
wide with surprise, and just as hurt as his.

"I trust you. I know you worked hard to get over your past," she forced herself to
calm down, and focused on his shadowed face. His oversize t-shirt that she wore
clung to her as it twisted with the sheets caught at her waist in her effort to bend
around to meet his gaze. "I know how much of a burden I am on Toph right now
calling all the time, with everything from my past coming back on me –everywhere!
- and I don't want to put any strain on our relationship, ok? Especially due to
something like work or school. That's stupid. I know how focused I get – I'm sorry, I
don't mean to ignore you. When I have my school & work life cross into my
personal life..." A flash of the intimate parking lot scene passed through her mind :
the easy co-ed, the sleazy co-worker. Katara's eyes closed briefly to erase the
memory.

"I just... I'm sorry, Jet. I'm not trying to keep something from you. I'm not keeping
secrets – I just don't want to have that much crossover right now. I want... I want
things to be uncomplicated." The way they were before Aang came back; before Zuko
Sozin showed up...

He didn't reply, testing her to see if she had anything else she wanted to ask. Sick of
the cross-examination, she grunted with frustration after another moment of his
silence, and promptly flopped down onto her back on the bed.

"I don't want to fight," she said quietly.

To her surprise... she heard his lips part and release a rueful sigh of their own.
"Well... we're still agreeing there," he admitted.

"Look, what happened..." Just get it over with... She took a deep breath and frowned
in the darkness.

"I caught Zuko fooling around with some skanky co-ed in his car at the Bomber. It
was just... He's gotta be 10 years older than she was! And it was so cheap! In his
goddamn car in the middle of a parking lot! Ew! What are they, horny teenagers?"

She finished with a disgusted noise and gestured uselessly with her hands. "Ugh!"

Pushing her hair from her face, her palm came back down her forehead and rested
over her eyes. "This is what was bugging me. As you can see, it was life-altering."

Jet took it all in with respectful patience. He considered her words very careful, took
in her upset state, and went over thoroughly what she'd confessed to witnessing.

...Then he burst out laughing.

"What? What are you laughing about? This was horrifying for me! Don't you dare
laugh!" she screeched, sitting upright and facing him angrily. "Hey! This was the
most disgusting behaviour I've ever seen a grown man engage in, and I hope I never
see it again! They should have at least gotten a private room!"
Jet collapsed on top of his girlfriend, laughing himself hoarse. Katara continued
ranting, regardless, and just went about trying to shake some sense into him. Or
move him off her, he wasn't sure.

"Would you quit laughing, I'm seriously pissed about this!"

Still trying to catch his break, Jet wiped the tears from his eyes. He'd have to meet
up with this Zuko Sozin and congratulate him sometime...



Elsewhere...

She knows.

The thought broke through Zuko's morning meditation as he sat in front of the
extinguished fire, the goals smouldering and flaring in time with his breathing.

How much does she know?

His eyes clenched closed and his fists tightened in his lap. He didn't know.

How much did she see? Did she see me take the girl? Or just see the girl leave?

The satisfaction of the easy meal in the front seat of his car had vanished the
moment his eyes had made contact with her blue ones.

While finding meals was much easier in warmer climates due to the more active
nightlife and throngs of constant tourists, Zuko had found the southern borders too
populated with vampires for decades. He'd deliberately chosen a wintry territory in
which to hunt, the poor weather preventing – for the most part – his interruption
and discovery by passers-by, usually.

And here he'd thought his luck would hold out while he seduced Katara Kuruk.

I need to find out exactly what she knows, he realised coldly. He opened his eyes and
stared at the ashes as the last ember went out and he made up his mind. Dawn
couldn't come soon enough.

I need to know now.



TBC...
AN: Congratulations, Zutara-vampirepirate, you're reviewer 100! Drop me a PM or
e-mail with what you'd like in your thank-you fic! (I hope the rest of you enjoyed
"L'Illusion Comique" - kudos if you are familiar with the original!)
AN: Ok, I'm sure I said 'no more updates until May' before. BUT since a few of you
didn't like the scene I left off on in my last update, here's one more update before I
flee the country. Seriously, no more updates now until May. Zuko's moving in for
the... (you can fill in the blank here...) ;)
AN: Happy April 2008, see you (hopefully) once the new episodes have started! The
action's starting now in this fic – thanks for sticking with me until now, I promise
we'll go further, faster, harder from now on. This IS a Zutara, after all.

Things are gonna get hot.

-moor
02APR2008


Chapter 18: Chapter 18


Author: moor on / beyondthemoor on LJ
Title: Merits
Part : Seventeen
Genre: Romance/humour/vamp/Modern AU
Fandom: Avatar: TLA
Pairing: Zutara, Jetara
Length: 2000 words, approx.
Rating: M
Disclaimer : "Avatar: The Last Airbender" and all related rights belong to their
original creators… I am not among their ranks.
AN: In response to hyperroo' s vampire/Zutara challenge, I present…



"Merits" – Part Seventeen

Noonhour in her office – the curtains pulled closed, as usual.

The rain beat hard against the window pane of her office, but not as hard as
Katara's heart within her chest.

"Not here," she breathed hoarsely as the dark, wild-haired man shoved her against
the wall, his mouth warm and possessive on her throat, and his hands rubbing her
skin sensually; one at the small of her back holding her to him as he ground closer,
the other moving slowly down her thigh. "Not now."
Her fingers dug so deeply in the material of his shirt the fine cloth would need an
hour of mending and ironing to return it to its prior shape. Not that she'd noticed.

Her companion was more intent on nibbling open the top button of her blouse.

"Yes," he growled, and nipped her gently, causing her to suck in her breath sharply
and then stifle a groan of pleasure. The paneling behind her was rough, and so was
he, but neither he nor she cared at that moment. She knew she was denying him; out
of impropriety, out of self-preservation, but mostly out of fear of the unknown. What
would happen after? Would this change things? She pushed at his chest, a mouse
pushing against a brick wall. They were in her office – what if someone walks in on
us, Jet?

"Please," she gasped desperately, as his hand moved from her back to her hip and
tugged at the hem of her shirt, teasing it from her skirt. His other hand grabbed her
leg and wrapped it around him, and he pinned her to the wall.

In her core she felt a strong pull, drawing them closer, whispering at her to give in
to the feelings, all good, and enjoy them.

As his hand brushed delicate lace, she finally accepted the rush of warmth and
promise. What had she been thinking before? Something about fearing... something...
something... ohmygoodness, that felt really good. She nearly winced with desire at the
way he'd touched her; her legs trembled and threatened to give way.

He drew another gasp from her and she realised her underwear had gone MIA. Oh,
enough is enough.

She freed her arms and started undressing him feverishly in return, embracing and
ravaging him madly with her mouth over his newly revealed torso. Screw the
Peeping Toms, screamed her hormones, we want this right now!

"At least close the door," the first wave of a mounting pressure building within her
spurred her on; up hopped her other leg and wrapped around his waist, and they
were joined.

Chuckling under his breath, he smiled into her neck and acquiesced.

"You're mine, Katara."

Katara's eyes closed in response to the husky voice and she felt herself nod into his
chest even while he shoved all the papers off Zuko's desk and lay her across it.

The door to her office clicked shut softly, and Katara glanced at her boyfriend's face
in the half-light.
And saw Zuko Sozin's golden eyes smirking confidently down at her through her
haze.



"I'm not sure I heard you right," Katara said evenly Monday morning as her office-
mate undressed- er, addressed her from in front of his desk, his laptop bag slung
over his shoulder.

Her eyes were red-rimmed and she had sea-worthy trunks, not simple bags, under
her eyes. The dream she'd had at Jet's apartment – in his bed - had not left her yet,
and she'd kept a wary eye on her office-mate since she'd arrived that morning as if
somehow he may try and seduce her at any moment. Not that she wanted to see if he
was as good as her dream, at all, even a little bit – and not that he could
have made her dream something so risque, she knew that was impossible – but
damned if she trusted him an ounce, either.

Speaking of Jet, he had not exactly been thrilled at her moaning in her sleep, either-
after she'd screamed Zuko's name, in rapture, at the top of her lungs. Repeatedly.

He'd been even less impressed when she'd woken herself up with horrified screams
as her subconscious realised on a conscious level what it had done and whom she'd
done it with. Katara and sleep did not mix anymore, it seemed.

Mending her relationship with her boyfriend would come later that evening,
though; for now, Katara had to contend with the sex-demon – er, colleague, in front
of her. And the first rule is you both have to keep your clothes on in the office, teased
her subconscious. Katara-the-Professional slammed the door on her subconscious
self's smirking, and turned her attention back to Zuko.

"I said I want to watch you. I'm coming to observe you & your classes."

"Why?" Even now her brain was stuttering, trying to keep the fantasy-dream safely
distanced from her real-time, pain-in-the-ass co-worker's words. He wasn't making
it easy. Worse, his decision to wear more casual clothes and sport a more trendy
hairstyle had kept her attention and distracted her at the same time. No wonder her
students kept coming to ask for 'extra help' these days, her office hours were being
booked solid with his admirers. Male and female.

"I'm here to review the entire department - you're part of the department."

"Right this way," she ground out through her teeth, and led him unceremoniously
to her morning lab. "Debauched slug," she muttered under her breath.
Unfortunately, she wished she was talking about him.
Noting her slightly haggard state, Zuko hid a smirk of his own and followed close
behind.



The handsome man shadowed her every move for the rest of the week. It became a
kind of mental torment for Katara, to see his level stare every time she looked up,
every time she sat down, every time she turned to answer a question. While
irrational, it also felt like he was trying to gather more than just information about
the classes and labs she taught. When he finds my breaking point, do I get a medal for
winning this endurance race? Or can I just throw his laptop out the window and say,
"Go fetch, good boy!" ?

And the questions Zuko asked her about the class, afterwards seemed ... ambiguous.
Sometimes Katara couldn't discern whether he was asking her the question about
herself personally, or whether it was about her teaching methods and how she ran
her classroom.

Things with Jet were smoothed over, mostly by Tuesday after some ego-heavy-
petting, but it had left Katara exhausted to deal with two attention-starved alpha
males. I need to find someone balanced to talk to again, she thought to herself as she
walked back to her office. Please let Toph or Sokka be free sometime this week...

That first nightmare had set a decidedly bad precedent for sleeping with her
boyfriend.

"Jet, believe me, I didn't want to have that dream! It was a nightmare!" she'd pleaded
to his cold shoulder.

(She'd realised too late a better reply may have been, "Come help me forget all
about it, big man," with bedroom eyes and an indecent negligee. Lesson learned &
filed for later...)

Zuko had just asked another borderline innappropriate question, and again she had
to wonder at whether he was being deliberately misleading. In and of itself, the
question was harmless; but something about the way he'd asked it had made her
second-guess her answer... Furthermore, every moment she was with him, she
couldn't help remembering what he'd done, what they'd done, in her dream the
night before. A therapist would have a field day and a lifetime income guaranteed
after her crazy dreams that week.

"Did you understand what happened?" Zuko observed her, a thoughtful look on his
face.

What are you getting at, she wondered suspiciously. "Yes, I understood the student's
question, and we talked through the situation so I could find out exactly where she
needed help," she'd replied slowly trying not to glare at him. Her jaw clicked from
clenching her teeth.

"Do you find you have what you need?" he'd asked.

"Are you satisfied?"

"Is there anything else you want?"

"Everything I need to teach?..." she'd chosen to expand on his first question, and
measured the look in his eyes; he was definitely reading her. "Yes, though it would
help if I had two projectors, one for my laptop and one for examples - that way I
wouldn't have to switch screens all the time..."

Morning, afternoon, evening he remained at her side. He even started joining her on
her coffee breaks, though he never bought anything.

The sudden change in his attention and focus on her was enough to drive her crazy -
after him ignoring her for 3 weeks, and suddenly sticking to her like glue, she just
couldn't figure him out. The shift in him also made her angry and frustrated that
she couldn't tell him off, exactly, either, since he really was simply doing his job.
After analysing his questions and actions, she'd (maddenningly) found reasonable
excuses for each and every one. Plenty of unreasonable ones, too, but the devil's
advocate was never completely absent from court.

Unconsciously, Zuko had become a demon to Katara and to top it off the dreams
had only gotten worse. And by worse, she meant the deepest, most satisfying...
'sleep' of her life, followed by waking to her own horrified screams. Staying with Jet
overnight had been suspended since the first incident, for obvious reasons: most
notably the preservation of their still somewhat strained relationship in the face of
her impending institutionalization... and really fantastic, mind-blowing sex dreams
he wasn't a part of.

Never had Katara felt so ambushed both internally and externally; she couldn't
shake the feeling Zuko was trying to corner her, from within her mind and from the
outside through their interactions at work. He wanted something other than data
for his analysis - he was after something specific from her.

"But what does the jerk want?" she'd wailed aloud in frustration in her apartment
one night, ready to tear her hair as she might, Katara couldn't nail down what that
'something' was. (She also couldn't nail down what the Visitor had wanted from
Yue in the legend, either; it was definitely a week defined by elusive answers.) Her
students' lab work had borne the brunt of her irritation that night; to the point
where she had to bell curve them as penance to make herself (and them) feel better
the next day.
Friday afternoon Katara feigned a headache and left her desk (and office-mate-
remora) for a bit just to get a break from the constant barrage of questions, leaving
Zuko on his own before he could get a word in edgewise. As she escaped, she closed
the door shut quickly behind her to prevent him from following, then hid in the
ladies room for a good fifteen minutes. Not her most dignified exit, but she'd take it
over incarceration for beating the man to death with a red Swingline stapler.

Her retreat ended up working in Zuko's favour.



Zuko looked up from his desk at the polite tap on the door.

"Hmm?"

"Hey, are you Zuko Sozin?" asked the outgoing man from the doorway. His usual
toothpick hung from his mouth carelessly, though its owner had complete control
over it at all times.

The vampire glanced casually at the newcomer, and replied "yes" after a quick
appraisal.

Jet took a step into the room, and extended his hand. "Hi, I'm Jet, Katara's
boyfriend. I've heard a lot about you, Zuko."

The hunter kept his composure, but felt himself tighen minutely. The man across
from him didn't convey a threatening demeanour, but that didn't mean he wasn't
looking for trouble. Zuko took the proferred hand and gave it a solid shake,
impressed with Jet's directness and strength of will; he exuded confidence and
assertiveness.

"You shouldn't believe everything you hear."



When Katara returned to her office (after her 8th coffee in half as many hours - no
wonder she was well and truly getting a headache; she could probably blood-dope a
horse into winning the Preakness Stakes if she were to tap into her java-bombed
veins that afternoon) on the tail of a lecture towards the end of the day... she heard
male laughter and the sounds of camaraderie floating from the opened doorway.

Familiar male laughter.

Ocean blue depths narrowed to slits as her mouth thinned to a line and she walked
through her door.
"Hey Katara!" greeted Jet with a wide smile. He was sitting in her chair, pulled up
to Zuko's desk, leaning back and relaxing while Zuko looked... relaxed, too,
actually. Curiouser and curiouser. "Good news. Zuko's going to join us tonight at
the 'Bomber. Hey, where are you going? Katara?" he asked as she whirled and
retreated speedily.

"Coffee." Fine, two horses, and they could have a tie. And damnit, would her hands
please stop shaking? Anytime now would be great.

"Stupid hands," she muttered to herself. "I leave for 20 minutes to have some 'me-
time', and what do I get when I return? MORE egotistical jerks infesting my office.
Stupid, stupid, stupid..."

Nothing would make her happier than to yell at the pair of them to clear out of her
workspace, but Katara-the-Professional had a reputation to up-keep. Even if she
was going to end up looking like a strung-out junkie by Bomber time that night due
to a severe caffeine overdose. It was better than going postal on her coworker and
boyfriend. Somehow. Had to be better than re-enacting that scene from "Office
Space" that ended in fiery burnination at any rate.

Without meaning to Katara felt a giggle escape her lips. And here she'd already been
thinking of beating the living daylights ouf of Zuko that week, with a red Swingline...

But she was still really angry with them. Just for being there in her office.

The door clicked shut with restrained fury (and giggles) as she left while both men
stared after her.



"Hey, Katara?"

While Jet stared pensively at the wood panelling Katara had just closed with
brusque finality, Zuko smirked internally to himself.

He was under her skin, and had practically felt her seethe when she'd returned from
her 'headache'. Jet's appearance had also proved beneficial, as Jet had confided that
Katara merely thought him a pervert and lecher, not a proper threat. Katara's
body-language had established that as fact early in the week, but Jet's off-hand
comment had sealed the deal.

Not that I shouldn't do something to correct at least part of Katara's assessment of
me, he remarked a bit belatedly, and realised he'd been so cheered by the fact she
hadn't picked up on his being a vampire that he'd neglected to acknowledge that the
reason was because she was blinded by his lack of morality.
Turning his attention back to his 'visitor', the young-looking man wondered vaguely
if Jet admired him for the same reason Katara initially despised him. There was also
the matter of whether or not the mussy-haired blue-collar was aware of his trespass
into his beloved's dreams recently at night... There was something in Jet's eyes that
confirmed to Zuko he should watch his step around the man across from him when
it came to Katara.

Well, the more to discover that night.



TBC.

AN: Thank you for reading through such a wordy chapter! (I hope it sort of met
expectations after such a long delay...)
AN: This brings us to the end of the first month, according to the story/timeline.
AN: If you catch any typos, errors, grammatical mistakes, characterization screw-
ups, please let me know! (I've re-written this chapter so many times I can't see it
anymore.)
AN: Will try and update again soon. ;

/moor, 21May2008


Chapter 19: Chapter 19


Author: moor on / beyondthemoor on LJ
Title: Merits
Part : Eighteen
Genre: Romance/humour/vamp/Modern AU
Fandom: Avatar: TLA
Pairing: Zutara, Jetara
Length: 2000 words, approx.
Rating: M
Disclaimer : "Avatar: The Last Airbender" and all related rights belong to their
original creators… I am not among their ranks.
AN: In response to hyperroo' s vampire/Zutara challenge, I present…



"Merits" – Part Eighteen

Ambient lights pierced the Bomb Shelter's dim interior that Friday night as Zuko,
Jet, and Katara wove their way through the excitable crowd to Toph's dais.
"I never knew Toph was the Blind Bandit," shouted Jet to Zuko, following behind
him. "We just met a little while ago. She and Katara have been friends for a long
time."

"How long?" asked Zuko, his hair slightly mussed in the current trendy style. His
black shirt was untucked from his casual slacks and, despite his scar, he was
attracting a fair amount of positive female attention.

Grinning a bit in recognition – or sly encouragement, Zuko wasn't sure – Jet's eyes
went a bit distant as he considered Zuko's question.

"I d'know. A while. It sounds like they've been friends since Katara started med
school anyway."

Ahead of them, the woman in question had already left the crowds behind and
started walking up the stairs to greet those who'd already arrived. Zuko could just
make out more chairs and even a few benches and small tables up on the platform –
Katara must've mentioned she was bringing company this time.

"C'mon," Jet led Zuko up to the stage, noting a bevy of appreciative, inviting
glances from the women they passed as they made their way. "Man, you must have
something they want," he said. Zuko barely glanced at the women, and continued
ignoring them while in Jet's presence.

"Zuko Sozin, this is my brother Sokka. Sokka, this is Zuko. Toph you already know
Zuko. Zuko, yadda yadda yadda…"

Katara's introduction held all the warmth of arctic tundra in midwinter, and she sat
down in the seat closest to her brother before the men finished shaking hands. The
padded cushions were comfortable and swallowed her whole, leaving no room for
either of her companions to join her. She didn't want anything to do with Zuko, and
she hadn't forgiven Jet for inviting him yet, either.

For their part, the men gave each other a round of "Heys" and casual glances
before returning to their previous conversations.

"—we did get the CD changer installed on the VW this week, so yeah, his car's
running almost as good as yours," assured Sokka as he stood beside Toph at her
tables. Occasionally he helped her fix them – but he was never allowed to touch
them when she was 'working.'

"I've told you, I don't ride in German cars that aren't BMWs or Benz," said the
young woman.
Her haughtiness made Sokka smile, but he covered by feigning hurt. "You mean
you don't want to ride in the beamer I just fixed up for you? I named it after you,
though – Schnookum Pookie Sweet-wheels – ow…"

Without missing a beat, one hand followed through and returned to the dials on the
table, while her other reached for one of her laptops. "Oh, did I hit you? Sorry
Schnookums…"

Deep in her seat, Katara ignored both her brother and her friend. Such obvious
shared affection made her uncomfortable in the intimate gathering of friends on
Toph's stage. This discomfort was compounded by the easy friendship growing
between her boyfriend and colleague. So she ignored them, too. Which effectively
left her alone.

Her features darkened as she fiddled with her coat a moment. What is this,
'Everyone blow off Katara night'?

On one side, her brother and her best friend bantered easily in their usual way,
backlit by the artificial lights that blinked and flashed and glowed on the rear edge
of the stage. On her other side, Jet was talking casually to Zuko and Zuko was … He
was watching her every few seconds.

Katara felt her shoulders stiffen. Was she just imagining it? Was it a trick of the
deceptive lighting, a misleading shadow that made it look like he was watching her
from under his dark-lashed, whiskey-coloured eyes? Wasn't it?

Creep, she turned away.

To break the hold, she pretended to do a sweep of the room but found her eyes
drawn back to his again. No, it hadn't been an illusion; they were caught in each
other's gaze once more. He was pulling her focus back to him somehow. A few
moments went by and their eyes were still locked on one another. The music became
fainter, the lights stopped whirling and became a constant glow, and she hardly felt
the vibrations through the floor anymore at all. The man across from her was trying
to tell her something, but his mouth wasn't moving. Everything was fuzzing out as
she tried to focus.

"Something wrong, Katara?" Jet's voice broke through the tractor-beam
connecting Katara to her enemy, and she saw her boyfriend shift, the buttons and
zips on his cargo pants catching the light sharply. The metallic glints distracted her
enough to glance over at him and fumble for an excuse.

"Just wondering if you wanted something to drink. I'm going to head down to the
bar."
"I can get it for you, or go with you –" he started, and moved to get up. Edgy and
itching to get away, she interrupted him, hopping to her feet and already grabbing
her purse.

"Never mind. I'll just go."

She could feel gold eyes burning into her back as she descended the stairs again.

Toph and Sokka were still at the turn-tables and didn't hear her leave.



"Tequila sunrise."

The heavily made-up brunette behind the bar caught Katara's eye and gave a brief
nod, reaching for the grenadine.

Why did Jet have to invite him? Her temper simmered angrily as she leaned against
the bar and stared at her reflection in the ring-stained countertop. He just couldn't
leave well enough alone and had to bring him along. What, are they buddies now?
Are we doing threesome dates? Like I need to see that face outside of work, too…

Katara felt her shoulders tighten again in irritation and forced herself to take a
calming breath. Not that her boyfriend wasn't allowed to make new friends, but
why did it have to be Zuko? The guy was a jerk to her and practically stalked her
these days, and it was obviously taking a toll on her mentally if the stress was
coming out in those nightmares every single time her head hit a pillow.(Are they
really nightmares, taunted a part of her brain. Yes, she countered. And I'm cold at
night because of them, so there.)

There was always the option of trying to be nice to Zuko again, she reasoned with
herself. It would make the evening less awkward. Chewing glass would be just as
pleasant and would probably leave fewer scars, her inner-bitch retorted.

The bartender topped up the chimney glass's contents and slid it across to Katara,
accepting the cash the troubled woman passed back.

"Thanks."

"No problem." The bartender paused a second, as if about to ask a question, but
another customer flashed some money. "Take care," she said sincerely, and
surprised Katara when she caught her glance with her own midnight blue eyes
before leaving to attend the newcomer.

The floors thrummed with the crowd's dancing energy, and Katara's chin rose while
she scanned the sea of faces to see if any of her students had come out that night.
Not that she was keeping an eye on them, really, she just made sure they were doing
well, taking care of themselves, and not overdosing on controlled substances they
weren't supposed to be touching anyway (outside of class)…

Nearly an hour had passed since she'd left the raised stage from where Toph
directed the pounding herds. The music had turned much harder that night, much
faster, and the Bomber's customers seemed to be feeding off it in frenzy. Movements
were wilder, noise was louder, and even the shadows cast by the sporadic spotlights
seemed to grow longer and sharper in the club. Between the atmosphere, her lack of
sleep, and her previous head injuries, Katara felt weariness weigh her down.
Careless patrons bumped into her repeatedly, the last one pushing right into a
support beam where her drink sloshed down her front.

"Mph," she mumbled, a hand at her forehead where the pounding was internal. It
had been stupid to come out that night. Even if her work load was under control,
she needed her sleep, and she wasn't going to get it while Toph was working out
some kind of fight with Sokka through interpretive mixing. She doubted her tequila
sunrise had helped her either – dehydration, no doubt. What had driven her to be so
stubborn? Proving she could handle Zuko? Proving she could ignore Jet? Big
whoop, she thought, as she rubbed her eyes. She was battling exhaustion, and
exhaustion was winning.

Ditching her drink she arrived back at the stage, climbed the stairs, and realized
Toph was there on her own.

"The others went to look for you a little while ago, Katara – where were you?"

"Sorry Toph, I think I'm gonna walk home. I'm just not –"

"Not in any condition to be here?" Toph's tone softened when she sensed Katara's
state.

"Could you tell them I'm taking off? I'm too tired to go looking for them…"

"I'll let them know. Did you want to send Jet a text message or something? He's
your boyfriend," hedged the younger woman, still intent over her laptops but
sending out feelers to gauge Katara's reaction. "He'll be worried. He was the first to
notice you didn't come back right away."

"Once I'm outside, sure. Thanks."

"Take care, Katara," said Toph, noticing her friend leave with shuffling footsteps.

She took out her phone immediately to try and reach Sokka, to no avail.
The night had turned cold, overcast, but not wet for once.

Zuko set off in the direction he knew Katara had taken, and noticed easily after a
short distance that she was being followed. He couldn't see her, but he could sense
her chaotic state and characteristic perfume as he walked as briskly as he could
without drawing attention to himself. He didn't know where Jet had gone, or when
exactly they'd split and lost contact with each other, but it had been a bad scene
when he'd arrived upon Sokka and Toph's argument and seen the Water Tribe man
backhanded by the petite woman. He didn't stay to get the details.

Outside on a noisy sidestreet, the figure ahead of Zuko kept his distance expertly
from his prey and used his surroundings to hide his presence the few times Katara
had glanced up. He stayed in the shadows, too, preventing Zuko from getting a good
look at him and earning the vampire's grudging respect as a tail.

They'd been stalking Katara nearly forty-five minutes when Zuko finally caught
sight of her sitting on a bus stop bench, her breath coming out in faint, slow puffs in
the night air. Under her rumpled jacket her shoulders were slumped. She must have
stopped to rest and fallen asleep, he realised. Or…

The stalker watched from behind the stairway leading up to a townhouse a half-
block away. Zuko, twice that distance from the man ahead of him, kept one eye on
him and the other on Katara. There were more streetlights here, and the vampire
hastened to memorize every detail he could glean from the person in front of him.
Long, dark coat over a tall, lean frame; slicked-back dark hair; and just as he
turned to walk in the open, a long, trailing mustache from each side of his face.

Zuko's knuckles went white as his hands clenched in fists at his side, angry at
himself for not realizing who it was sooner by the snake-like movements.

The stalker was Long Feng.



A blaring, beeping noise roused Katara.

"Hmmm?" she murmured and glanced around. She noticed immediately her face,
hands, and feet were very cold and sore; next, she realized that it was because she
was still sitting on the outdoor bench, several blocks from her apartment. A light
snow had started falling, blurring her visibility.

The wind picked up a bit, bringing with it the sound of footsteps crunching on the
freshly fallen snow. From her lap, her phone continued sounding its alarm.
Moving stiffly, she opened her purse and removed her phone, groggily wondering
what had made her so tired she'd passed out on the ugly bench when she could have
been home asleep under her covers.

She sat up, flipped open the phone and nearly dropped it the moment she heard the
voice yelling at her.

"Katara, RUN!"

"Zuko?"

"There's a man walking towards you – run away from him, Katara. NOW! DO IT!"

The steps came closer.

Katara's heartbeat came harder, faster, and picked up speed with each thud in her
chest. She heard Zuko panting now through the phone and distantly recognized the
sounds of pounding feet in the distance, from the direction she'd come from – but
they were in the far distance, and the slow, measured footsteps of the man she didn't
know were much clearer, much more distinct; they were much, much closer.

Zuko's voice broke through her scared haze. It was commanding and determined,
but desperate.

"I'm coming, Katara, but you need to start running! He knows who you are,
damnit, RUN!"

Going on instinct alone, Katara broke out in a dead run, still clutching her open
cellphone in her frostbitten hand. Snow fell around her and the cold air burned her
throat and lungs as she raced down the street towards her apartment building.

Behind her she heard the slow, measured footsteps stop. Unfortunately, she then
heard them pick up and chase.



TBC.

AN: Please give renagrrl a big round of applause for her fantastic beta'ing of this
chapter! (Thank you, Rena! I owe you one!)
AN: Also, related to this fic – the thank-you fic for Habit (who wrote the 125th
review!) will be posted shortly. I do hope some of you enjoy Avatar-verse Zutara
lemons…
AN: Thank you for reading – as always, love, adoration, and crit are welcome
additions to the Review pile…
/moor, 14 June 2008


Chapter 20: Chapter 20


Author: moor / beyondthemoor on LJ
Title: Merits
Part : Nineteen
Genre: Romance/humour/vamp/Modern AU
Fandom: Avatar: TLA
Pairing: Zutara, Jetara
Length: 600 words, approx.
Rating: M
Disclaimer : "Avatar: The Last Airbender" and all related rights belong to their
original creators… I am not among their ranks.
AN: In response to hyperroo' s vampire/Zutara challenge, I present…



"Merits" – Part Nineteen

The air in Katara's lungs burned like a wild fire as she pumped her legs and ran
madly down the deserted streets to her apartment. The puffs of air crystallized
immediately at each frantic exhale, but still she heard the man behind her gaining
ground quickly, quicker than any normal person should have. She didn't have time
to speculate on his inhuman ability, however, as she prioritized her survival over
being 'right' at that particular moment.

As she came around a corner-nearly losing her footing on some black ice, though
she righted herself with her natural athletic balance-she caught sight of her
apartment's parking lot, and then the edifice itself.

Home! She wanted to cheer, but knew she wasn't safe yet.

She made it almost to the walkway before she heard a car peel around the corner
behind her, tires screeching, and with a throaty growl skid to a slideways stop just
in front of her, barring her from crossing the last driveway before her own. Katara
felt her heart drop into her shoes; gritting her teeth in determination, she prepared
to leap over the trunk while still on her dead run.

The driver had a different idea, however.

"Get in!" called a distinctly female voice from the driver's seat. The voice was
familiar, but Katara couldn't place it. The passenger door swung open to reveal a
dark-clothed woman—but the overhead light was extinguished, and everything was
hidden in shadows.

Typical.

Breathing hard, Katara held her bag and cellphone tightly in her hands and
hazarded a glance behind her.

The man with the long mustache and the snake-like eyes had slowed and now closed
in on her, a smirk of arrogant presumed-success clear in the features of his sickly-
pale face.

Katara felt her stomach lurch and without another thought scrambled into the car
and slammed the door.

This angered the man.

As the driver put the car back in gear and pulled a particularly severe traffic
violation in the driveway, the man's jacket shrugged open and he spread his arms
wide to reveal a glinting, shining inner lining – knives.

"Hold on," grit the desperado behind the wheel; she had one hand on the steering
wheel, and the other hovered between the gear shift and the emergency brake. She
glanced at Katara from the corner of her eye. "I meant that – get your seatbelt on or
grab the holy-shit handles, but we're about to move—SHIT," she hissed, and felt a
distinct thud strike the car.

Long Feng had thrown a knife at one of the tires. It hadn't punctured it, but it was
very close. He smiled again and slowly drew another blade, held it up for their
examination, and waited.

"Stay here."

Before she could protest—or thank her, or do anything, really—Katara watched the
woman slip smoothly from the car and face the dangerous stalker head on. She
closed the door behind her, but Katara could hear the exchange that followed even
through the car's insulation.

"Finally come out to play?" asked the man, staring condescendingly down at the
small-framed woman before him. It was a bit muffled, but Katara forced herself to
calm her breathing so she could get her wind back and keep alert to the state of her
rescuer—at least, person-she-assumed-was-rescuing-her. She had no idea who she
was. Come to think of it, Zuko had disappeared, too.

Outside, the cool words went back and forth in the crisp night air.
"You call this fair play?" the dark-clad brunette shot back, arms close to her sides.
Katara saw her start to reach slowly behind her back, and realized the woman kept
several … sticks? tucked into her belt. It was too dark to see them clearly, but they
looked like sticks. Or folded up papers. Katara squinted, but it was too dark to see
them clearly. She thought for a second they'd been fans, but that was ludicrous.

What the heck is going on?...

"You're right, we haven't even introduced ourselves yet. What would you like me to
engrave on your headstone?" he asked solicitously, and smiled like a demon. "That
is, if you're lucky enough to die before I consume you."

"Take care to spell it right," said the woman sweetly, yet with deadly intent as she
shifted her weight slightly. But her words were what jolted Katara's memory."Take
care…"

"The bartender," she whispered to herself from the car's interior; outside the
woman went on.

"My name is Suki. Suki the vampire slayer."



TBC.

AN: Habit, I hope you enjoyed your thank-you Zutara lemon fic in "Silk &
Twisted" (it is number 11, "Tilt your head a little") ! Everyone, thank you for
reading! (I love you more the more you comment - yes, blatant bribery.) XD Hope
you're all looking forward to the 'final countdown' for the ATLA finale!

/First posted July 5th 2008.

/mm.


Chapter 21: Chapter 21


Author: moor / beyondthemoor on LJ
Title: Merits
Part : Twenty
Genre: Romance/humour/vamp/Modern AU
Fandom: Avatar: TLA
Pairing: Zutara, Jetara
Length: 1300 words, approx.
Rating: M
Disclaimer : "Avatar: The Last Airbender" and all related rights belong to their
original creators… I am not among their ranks.
AN: In response to hyperoo' s vampire/Zutara challenge, I present…



"Merits" – Part Twenty

Zuko rounded the corner to discover an unauthorized third party had entered their
mist and their battle.

The petite warrior seemed perfectly capable of holding her own, however, he noted
after a moment or so; she wielded a lethal wood-and-metal fan in each hand while
she and Long Feng circled each other in front of a car whose engine still idled. A
ragged-looking woman peeked out from the darkness—and Zuko realized Katara,
while a little worse for wear, was safe inside the vehicle.

The fans raised smoothly and their sharp edges pointed faultlessly at Long Feng's
neck.

Whoever this newcomer was, she at least had the right idea.

"My name is Suki. Suki the vampire slayer," he heard the brunette state proudly.

Of course she's a vampire slayer, he thought to himself, some of his initial optimism
going flacid. He prayed she had selective taste.

There was no more time for thinking or speculation then as Long Feng's face
twisted savagely and he flew forward with his unsheathed blade, slicing expertly at
every vulnerability he found in Suki's defensive stance.

But the weaknesses were an act. Suki dropped her wounded bird routine as soon as
the vampire was within her range; she swung gracefully, powerfully around with
her fans, slicing deeply into his chest and forearm, disarming him with a tight flurry
of efficient moves. Her storm of strikes in the cold snowy air was as breathtaking as
it was effective.

With a sucking hiss, Long Feng dropped one of his weapons and glared suspiciously
at her. The cuts on his person sizzled audibly and a faint trail of steam rose from
each seeping wound. He'd underestimated her, greatly.

"Dipped in holy water," explained the female warrior lightly of the fan's affect on
his seared flesh. Face tightening, the ancient monster looked vicious, and quite
murderous at the treachery and she who'd inflicted it. Suki shrugged and smiled
sweetly. "Oops, did I forget to mention that?" She snapped the fans shut to flick off
the crisped undead flesh, and then turned slightly to face him again. Her midnight-
blue eyes were as calm as a clear night sky, and just as unforgiving. "If you want
more, come and get it."

Each eyed the other a moment; Long Feng paused before smirking again and
raising his good arm.

Still approaching, Zuko knew immediately what the other vampire had planned,
and raced to prevent it.

"Get out of the way!" he yelled and crunched through the snow in his rush to the
match; his call distracted the fighting pair.

Suki glanced at him from the corner of her eye, but Long Feng whirled to see who'd
interrupted. Just as he turned, Zuko crashed into him and they both went down,
Long Feng's knife flying through the air to land, softly clattering, in the snowy
street.

"Get in the car!" holding down Long Feng's sharp, poison-tipped fingers from his
wrists, Zuko met Suki's gaze before looking back meaningfully at the vehicle where
Katara still waited—or had been waiting. Now she stood outside it, probably to see
if there was anything she could do to help.

Damn her and her good intentions. He wanted to tell her off, but had his hands full of
snarling, powerful vampire warlord at the moment.

"Get off me!" fangs bared, Long Feng's eyes now glowed blood-red with hate as he
regarded the man who'd tackled him to the muddy ground.

"No." He dug his hands deeper in the sleeves of the warlord's coat, and his knuckles
went white with the tension in them. "You will listen to me, or I will kill you where
you lie, Long Feng."

"Impudent fool, do you think you know who I-," started Long Feng, as he grabbed
Zuko's wrists and started to wrestle him off. Zuko felt the monster try to throw him
aside as if he were an unflattering garment.

Offended, and murderously angry at the attack on Katara, his own prey, Zuko
stiffened and shifted; and felt his own power bleed from him to seize the aristocratic
vampire he held at bay. Like an invisible, mental vice-grip, he started cutting off
Long Feng's life-channels within his undead body; soon, he controlled him.

"I am your Lord, Long Feng. You will bow down to me." Zuko spoke the slow,
measured words deeply, softly, and very, very calmly so the girls wouldn't hear
them. "Betray me and you will pay."

Long Feng sneered, but held still.
"You're no one's lord, 'your highness'," the man's eyes calmed from red to cat-
yellow, however, a clear indication he was at least aware of the power the full-
blooded vampire above him yielded.

"Since you're still someone's dog," Zuko said in the same soft voice, "Why don't
you lie down for a while?"

With that, Zuko released the man—and knocked him unconscious with a whip of a
thought.

Zuko dropped the miserable excuse for an aristocrat and stood a moment later.
Long Feng lay immobile, and unresponsive, in the slush at his feet. He faced the
women who waited by the car.

"Thank you," said Suki, eyeing him warily. She still held her fans lowered at her
sides, but had shut them.

Zuko was fairly sure she couldn't decapitate him with them closed, so he took her
conservative stance as a gesture of peace. Nodding back at her, he turned to the
source of the skirmish. His office-mate. His prey… His.

Katara stared at each of them in turn, wondering what was going on.

"Zuko," she said finally, to break the awkward, growing silence. "Thank you… I
think you warned me. In time."

Suki's head snapped around to look harder at the vampire standing alone and off to
the side in the darkness.

"'Zuko'?" asked the bartender curiously, her legs shifting slightly as she turned
herself sideways to him.

She knows…

"Yes." He met her eyes, and felt her stare at the area where his scar would be. Her
breathing remained even—he had to give her that. She knew her stuff. Or at least
had been around long enough to learn some lore.

Still keeping her sights on him, Suki tilted her head slightly, towards the escapee.
"Your name's Katara, right?" she asked. Katara made an affirmative sound. "Get
in the car."

Everyone had been saying that to her tonight; with a skeptical look, she gestured to
her apartment building. "Actually, I live right over…"
Her… friend now? took a step towards her, his arms outstretched—until Suki fell
into a defensive stance in the blink of an eye, fans raised and pointed at his throat.
Katara's voice trapped in her own throat in surprise. Why was Suki was poised to
attack Zuko?

"Not another step," the slayer instructed.

Against his pride, Zuko obeyed.

Putting up both his hands in a gesture of peace, he felt his shoulders slump tiredly.
"It's ok."

He looked at Katara again, his gold eyes glowing faintly in the night like the
occasional flicker of a firefly. "I think you should stay away from your place for a
little while."

"Agreed," snapped the warrior.

"But all my things are-."

"They can be retrieved by someone else," interrupted Suki again, her alert focus
never leaving Zuko.

"But—."

"Katara, please," insisted Zuko, and for the first time ever she recognized
weakness… or was it vulnerability?... in his voice. Perhaps it was just the real
'Zuko' beneath the veneer of snarky-stalker Zuko-from-work. But his sincere tone,
just like his frantic call to her cellphone earlier that night, reached inside her and
touched her spirit. "Listen to…," he paused for a moment before recalling her
name, "Suki."

"… Can I come back Sunday night?" asked the Water Tribe girl, knowing she had
work and clothes to prepare for first thing Monday morning.

"We'll see," started Suki, but this time Zuko interrupted.

"We'll check together on Sunday. Ok?" he conceded, eager to get her off the street
and concealed behind a closed door somewhere, anywhere—at least away from
Long Feng before he regained consciousness. The vampire warlord was still out
cold, but Zuko knew it was only a matter of time before he woke up again. He also
recognized Katara was stubborn, and some concessions would need to be made to
keep her cooperative.

Suki glared at him for giving in so easily, but he ignored her.
"We're going," stated Suki, and she opened her car door. For the first time since
learning Zuko's identity, she tore her eyes away from him and looked at Katara.
"We'll go to a safe place and we'll make arrangements, ok?"

Katara considered her options, and decided that there'd been enough weirdness for
one Bomber night. "Ok. But we're coming back-."

"Sunday," promised Zuko.

"Yeah," Katara stifled a yawn, leaning against the car door frame. "Ok. See you…
Sunday," she said, and glanced at him strangely.

He held her eyes, wondering what she wanted.

Suki slammed her car door shut, breaking the connection between the two. "We'll
call you," she informed the vampire sullenly.

He nodded and watched them drive off before his hands reached into his pockets.
From the bottom, he gently wrapped the soft scarf he kept around his fingers…



TBC…

AN: Thank you for reading! You guys really keep me going with this story! (I can't
believe you guys are still reading – I'm doing my best to bump up my update
schedule on this fic to try and make it up to you.)

AN: And now, for something I rarely do: Some Pimping, but only the good stuff!
I'm guessing you are already familiar with the 'greats' of the fandom (who basically
created 'Zutara' canon). If you are looking for good (mature) fic outside some of the
Big Names, I highly recommend the following:

-"College Daze" and "Dragons & Lotuses" by renagrrl (fantastic modern AUs!)
-"Cellmates" by solitary guard (mature Avatar-verse; I'd almost say a darkfic...)
-"The Vampire Prince of Fire" by Lady Mondragon (AU vampire Zutara-
exceptional!)
-Everything by hyperoo. "Maturity" and "Mindbenders" (a vamp Zutara!) are
fantastic mature fic, and "Spoils of War" is another Zutara with super storytelling.
(... "Sheets" is a personal fav...)
-"Hidden Strength Soap Opera story collection" by LoveroftheFlame. (modern AU,
various pairings) Just... Wow. Check out the LJ that's listed - that is where the main
story is housed. But LOTF's profile holds a great sampler and you'll get to dabble a
bit in really neat, unique interpretations of the characters and how they'd act in a
modern AU. It is based on a long-running RPG. I had a lot of fun reading it.
AN: Also, here's a list of some of the thank-you fics that I have completed for you
guys—I hope you've liked them!

-(review number) (reviewer) (request) (completed & title)

-25: Castle Anthrax (dedicate a chapter of "Merits", or write a prequel dealing with
the main chars, earlier in their lives.) (DONE; need to post later...)
-50: Avatarairis (DONE –Ch.11 of "Merits"! Modern high-school AU.) "In your
own company"
-75: taffy0823 (DONE –Posted separately; what I thought may have happened
during the "Ember Island Players" episode of ATLA. Written/posted prior to the
episode being shown.) "L'Illusion Comique"
-100: Avatargirl92 (?) Did you get back to me about what you wanted? I'm sorry, I
can't find your request! (I feel terrible about this!)
-125: Habit (DONE –Posted as Ch.11 of "Silk & Twisted" Zutara lemon.) "Tilt your
head a little"
-150: SgtHydra (COMING SOON—wants VampireHunter Suki on an earlier
mission; plotted, partially written) Will be posted as the next part of "Merits".
-200 : this is up to who writes the 200th review!

AN: Thank you guys again for sticking with this fic – and if you have suggestions,
please don't be shy; I always appreciate plot-bunnies. (They're great to prompt me!)
And some of you guys have really fantastic ideas, stuff I'd never have thought of. If
you want to theorize in comments, I'm not gonna discourage you... :-)

/this chap first posted 29 July 2008.

/BTW, yes, I saw the finale! Talk about an animation field day—wasn't the
cinematography amazing?


Chapter 22: Chapter 22


Author: moor / beyondthemoor on LJ
Title: Merits
Part : Twenty one
Genre: Romance/humour/vamp/Modern AU
Fandom: Avatar: TLA
Pairing: Zutara, Jetara
Length: 3000 words, approx.
Rating: M
Disclaimer : "Avatar: The Last Airbender" and all related rights belong to their
original creators… I am not among their ranks.
AN: In response to hyperoo' s vampire/Zutara challenge, I present…
Part Twenty one

A few weeks prior, in a city on the other side of the gulf…

Breathing evenly through the hard-racing pace, Suki grabbed the chain link fence
and vaulted easily over the barbed-wire that trimmed the top, her temporarily
exposed tummy clearing it with inches to spare. From the left she heard the sound of
casually retreating footsteps, and focused her attention on their rhythm so she'd
recognize its cadence in the crowd she knew he was trying to escape into. They were
approaching a very busy street.

"Not so fast, bloodsucker," she murmured to herself, and set off on his trail again.

The problem wasn't tracking him – he was recently turned enough that his
movements were still awkward, cocky, and thirsty – but rather trying to corner and
do away with him without an audience. Being mid-day in a busy corporate and
shopping district… was not ideal. There was something else about the young man
that bothered her, the way he moved wasn't quite right; the sounds he made weren't
quite in sync. Something was wrong but she couldn't figure out what. But he was
her target, and she was tenacious.

The stupid sucker was smart enough to keep to crowds. Her mouth turned down in
distaste. Or he was… hunting.

Sweeping him from the side streets, Suki went over the layout of the downtown core
she'd memorized from a map tacked raggedly to the gas station wall the last time
she'd filled the tank of her car. There were a lot of businesses and retail shops
coming up – but luckily the opportunity for several alleyways, too, or, if it really
came down to it, construction sites she could finish him in.

The gods were smiling on her that day it seemed, though, as soon enough she got her
chance. He was just passing a row of abandoned warehouses being duly renovated
into 'loft' condominiums when she made her move.

Rushing from his blindside, she pounced on him, the impact driving him behind a
fallen tarpaulin before he managed to make a sound. She made sure of it.

As they skidded to a stop, she didn't hear anything around her beyond the fluttering
of the tarp in the breeze; the workers were on their lunch break. Well, anything
beyond her prey's useless thrashing; she tied a formidable knot with wood-fiber
rope around his hands to immobilize them.

"You have one chance," she whispered darkly to the struggling vampire in her
grasp. "Who is your sire and where can I find him?"
The young man shook his head in terror, his eyes wide. He'd thought he'd been at
the top of the food chain up until a moment before, but this petite woman had
trapped him easily. Even as a human he'd never known such obvious superiority—
yet she could best a vampire? It was a chilling notion to someone who'd been
promised a quick ride to the top…

Still, she had asked the impossible of him. His eyes remained wide. He was terrified
of his sire.

"Who. Is. He?"

Again, he shook his head, and the effort cost him as he had to move his whole body
in order to make the gesture.

"Look, we can do this the hard way or the easy way. Personally, I like the easy
way," she said in a no-nonsense tone, tilting his head back with one hand and
placing a stake over his heart with the other. "Real. Easy."

She lifted her hand off his mouth for a second, and he gasped, though not too deeply
due to the stake's precarious position.

"I don't know where he is—."

"Could you bend a bit further back? I'd like a clear shot of your rib cage – I'd hate
to miss and shatter ribs before I puncture your—."

"OK!" he wheezed in terror. "Please, just-."

"I'm waiting-."

"Long Feng."

Suki went still as a frozen river – the surface unflinchingly smooth, beautiful, but
whose deadly torrents swirled icily underneath.

"Long Feng is dead," she heard herself reply, but from very far off.

At this, the man, vampire, in her arms barked once, in surprise and laughter. "He
wanted you to think he was dead." He struggled with his bonds, trying to buy
himself time. "But he'd been working in secret. He turned me less than a month ago.
Please, that's all I know."

"What did he look like?" demanded Suki, the new information swirling through her
reeling head. Long Feng isn't dead. Long Feng is out there again. Still. She wasn't
sure why the ancient monster had confided so much in the vampire she held, or if he
may even have been lying to her – but one didn't joke about Long Feng. He was one
of The Five.

And he's turning fresh recruits.

The young man in her arms whimpered as her ropes dug into them – particularly
hard when she yanked him one way and their sharp edges the other.

"Please don't make me remember, please, I've told you what you wanted…"

"Here comes Mr. Stakey again!" She puppeted the stake in a childish skip across his
torso.

"Would you stop that!" he cried, and Suki dragged him further back into the
building's ruined interior. There was construction equipment everywhere. The
workers would be back soon, she had to finish with her interrogation. Or risk some
very bad… publicity.

"Please, let me go!"

"Last. Chance. You talk, or you smoke."

Sniffling, he rubbed his eye against his shoulder to wipe away at a tear that had
leaked through. A part of Suki felt guilty of her rough treatment of the young man –
he looked physically younger than she was, in reality, and if he'd only been turned a
month before… he probably hadn't even finished high school yet.

"He…," shuddering, he shut his eyes. "His… his eyes went all white, right before
he… And he has a long black mustache. It looks like a snake died on his face. And
he has a long ponytail-."

"Braid."

"No, ponytail," argued the young man, and glanced up at Suki behind him – before
going completely pale.

It hadn't been Suki arguing with him.

His mouth opened and closed several times like a gaping fish sucking for air.

But Suki knew who'd spoken. Knew who was standing behind her.

"I would prefer you call it a plait, though," corrected the vampire warlord who
placed a delicate, long-nailed claw paternally on Suki's shoulder. It reminded her of
worms crawling over her skin.
"Please kill me," the young man in her arms begged quietly, his eyes not leaving her
face. "Please, before he does it. Please kill me, if you don't, he'll… he'll…"

Suki knew exactly what he'd do.

Her eyes still locked with one of the oldest, most terrifying monsters of her Slayer
Lore, she released the boy's head, slid the hand down his throat to his chest to feel
the odd-rhythmed heartbeat of the vampire. Contrary to popular belief, they did
have them, they were just different than a human's.

She pulled the stake back a few inches to get a good start.

"Mercy," he pleaded one last time.

And she gave it.

Long Feng's eyes didn't leave hers, even when she felt the body slip through her
hands to land with a thud on the floor.

There was a sound.

The bad feeling she'd had before, when she'd first observed the young man, railed
through her; her heartbeat raced to match the rushing in her ears. Something was
wrong.

He didn't smoke.

Why didn't he smoke?

"I didn't finish turning him," Long Feng said softly, a sparkle in his eye. "You just
killed…"

An innocent human, her inner voice filled in for him. Oh no, no no no no no…

A sick roiling began in her gut, but she forced it down, forced herself to keep her
eyes on the man in front of her despite the tears starting at the corners of her eyes.
Angry, guilty, self-loathing tears of frustration.

"What did you do?" She swore, her teeth clenched as she bit off each frigid syllable.
Her knuckles tightened as she clenched her fist tighter and tighter around the stake
in her hand until she thought it would splinter from the force.

"He thought he was turned; thought he was one of you; mimicked your
movements," Suki realized aloud, and started turning to face Long Feng proper.
She threw his gruesome hand off her shoulder, and he looked down at her
disapprovingly, as he would a child who'd misbehaved.
"Ah, the impetuousness of youth," said the monster. "So eager to believe." Then he
smiled at her, his reptilian eyes and green robes—how he'd worn something so
traditional and outstanding while he'd been travelling the city and remained
incognito, she had no idea—caught the shimmer of light that infiltrated the
building, like water on writhing, slimy scales; and she knew she was about to fight
for her survival.

"And you," he continued unconcerned by her vengeful focus, "so eager to punish
them."

So she'd killed more of his 'un-turned' kin. More innocents.

Stay calm, Suki, she told herself and refused to be sick in front of him. Stay calm.

"Are you done talking? Because I'd really like to get a head start on removing your
spleen," she said, and in the blink of an eye had traded the stake for her fans, now
aimed at his throat. She was perfectly willing to work her way down. Slowly.

"I have nothing more to say. Our guests, on the other hand, may require a word
with you," he remarked in a gloating tone, and pointed behind her.

The swirling, flashing lights atop several cruisers could be seen blinking through the
white plastic tarpaulins hanging around them. Through the not-yet-installed doors
and windows, where it let in daylight it also let in the local authorities.

Someone had called the cops.

Long Feng smirked smugly as he stood with both hands behind his back.

"Have a good afternoon," he said, and disappeared.

Rubbing the trails of frustration from her face with the back of her hand, Suki felt
her knees shake at everything that had happened within the last few minutes, its
severity and likely repercussions, and stumbled forward and down. Under her
fingers her hands touched a still-warm body that lay crumpled in a heap at her feet.

The young man.

No. The kid.

The one who'd been used as a decoy to draw her out and reveal her physical
identity.

And the double-edged sword, the bad news that was possibly the only 'good' to come
out of her encounter: The truth that Long Feng was indeed still… 'alive'.
Eyes closed tight for a moment. Breathe in, breathe out.

Bless the kid, the mantra played in her head as she repeated the prayer—spell—
she'd learned as a younger woman in order to protect the dead who'd been touched
by vampires.

As Suki heard the loud footfalls of the officers arriving on the scene, she said a final
word of thanks to the young man who'd given his life that day. And promised him
she would make things right.

For now she had to escape and let her Coven know that one of The Five moved
among them, again.



"We'll be safe here," announced Suki as she led Katara through the backdoor of the
enormous house. Mansion. Compound. Complex.

Its all-encompassing size was giving Katara a complex at any rate.

"You live… here?" Katara struggled to stay awake, and despite her awe she felt her
eyelids dropping and threatening to shut entirely. But she'd made polite small talk
until this point, so there was nothing to do but keep going forward. Like she could
really run from the woman beside her anyway.

The residence was amazing, from its gated entryway to the stone steps that led to the
rear multi-story garage, to the heavy oak doors that creaked softly in welcome as
they crossed the threshold. There wasn't a sound indoors otherwise, and Suki shut
the oak panels behind them with a muted swish. Katara glanced down and noticed
plush carpet that enveloped the soles of her booted feet in the semi-darkness. She
immediately started fumbling with her muddy footwear.

"I'll just leave these by the door, so I don't track any," more, "mud in," she
mumbled, and swayed when she bent over to kick them off. She nearly lost her
balance and threw her arms to the side, catching her hand on a pebbled tile mosaic
on the vestibule wall. The imprint dug into her palm slightly, but Katara paid it no
mind; there was already a strong hand around her upper arm.

Catching her easily, her rescuer smiled ruefully as she righted her new friend.

"I think we'll focus on getting you some rest first, not compound head injuries," she
teased, and led Katara across the wide foyer to a side corridor. Katara nodded and
followed, and forgot that Suki hadn't answered her first question.

"I love your entryway – do you entertain a lot?" she asked, her voice echoing
slightly as they passed through a small archway. They hadn't seen anyone else in the
building since they'd arrived, though there'd been the shadowy presence of other
cars in the garage and she'd seen the glow of lights spilling from the elongated
windows. They weren't alone in the… residence? Luxury bunker? Where were
they?

"Oh, that's actually the back door. I think the servants use it… not the, uh, main
household," clarified the confident tour-guide.

People these days still have servants? Wondered Katara, a bit unhappily. She
paused at what Suki had said, then.

Wait. That was the back door?

"Is the front one made of gold? No, wait, lemme guess—that's where they have the
milk and fresh Porsches dropped off. One of each for every day of the week."

Suki laughed beautifully, and wiped gently at her eyes. Some of the makeup still
smudged a bit around the corners.

Katara looked at her suspiciously, but hopefully. The ornate silver and gold metal
accents and trims on Suki's snug, military-like clothes caught the faint lamp light
they passed. They glinted sharply, lovely, a reminder of her stealthy, brutal prowess.

"I said something along those lines when I first came," she explained and pointed
her thumb back at the monstrous doors, trying to put Katara at ease that this
wasn't her usual environment either.

Together at their newfound common ground, they snickered as they walked to what
would be Katara's room. They said their goodnights quickly, with some warmth and
only minor hesitation, before Katara closed and locked the door behind her at
Suki's instructions. She heard her only acquaintance walk away, but only for a
footstep or two before the rich carpeting swallowed the sounds entirely again.

Katara took a step into her room and stopped to look around the open chamber, the
simple, elegant bed, the doorway that led to the washroom Suki had indicated, the
blinds which didn't completely hide the fact the windows were barred from the
outside.

"So this isn't her house, either…" she realized aloud, and swallowed.

Where am I and who brought me here?



"She's settled in," Suki announced to her host when she reached a more modern-
style sitting room. Thank goodness they'd provided her with a floor plan before
she'd flown in, otherwise she was sure she'd have lost herself several times over in
the gigantic home.

"Did she have any questions?"

Smiling from the corner of her mouth and raising her eyebrow, Suki couldn't help
but put a hand to her cocked hip. "She wondered about the goldsmith who worked
on the front door."

It was obvious Toph's head fell back by the delighted cackle that erupted as she
laughed. "We'll set her straight in the morning, Suki. Thanks," she said, and the
teasing tone was almost sensitive enough to convey how grateful Toph truly was that
she'd been able to save her best friend.

"Happy to help," replied the slayer, and she stretched a bit to cool down from her
evening's battle – and work. "I've had my eye on Long Feng for a while. I
appreciate having a 'sponsor' of sorts, for a little while. It was nice to be able to walk
in with a cover job already set up."

"Does Katara know where she is?"

"Not a clue."

"Breakfast is gonna be fun."

"Gimme a ring when the food's on the table?" joked Suki.

"You're free for the night now, yeah. Go sleep. I have my own people on
surveillance here at the main house," Toph waved her off.

"See ya in the morning."

"With silverbells on my toes."

Toph waited until she heard the door close behind Suki before turning back to the
man who'd sat in the corner, silently, through the entire exchange.

He sighed heavily, a sound of gratitude. She waited for him to speak first.

"…Thank you, Toph."

"Hey, this makes us even."

Opening his arms to hug her, he stepped forward to embrace her but she put up a
hand to his chest and held him at bay.
"I'm too tired to do you, but thanks for the offer," she said caustically, and elbowed
him towards the door. "Now get out of my living room."

Grunting a bit, he chuckled and rubbed his sore ribs.

"…I won't be hungry at breakfast…"

"Like I care," she retorted, and heard him chuckle again and leave through a
different door than Suki. "Hey, one thing."

"Hmm?" he murmured, half-turning to face her again.

"Her room is off-limits to you tonight." Mistress Toph Bei Fong commanded. "Stay
away from her."

Without a sound of acknowledgement, he blew from the chilled room in frustration.

A few minutes later she heard the car start in the garage and he drove away,
possibly to his own home, possibly out for another tour of the city.

The room was quiet, finally, and Toph flopped down backwards on a big,
overstuffed couch.

Only then did she put her hands to her face and rub the warm irritation from her
eyes.

"Damn you, Katara. What are you, cursed?" Mentally browbeating the closest
friend she had –and that she'd nearly lost that night-, the young woman growled
throatily and forced herself to regain her composure. She was Toph Bei Fong. Not a
wimpy nancy-pants. No more of this silly crying crap. She had an empire to run!

Without another pitiful thought, Toph thumped her fists down on the couch beside
her before hopping back to her feet, squaring her proud, haughty shoulders to head
to the marble-tiled shower.

If Katara was going to be a source of grief and stress for Toph, Toph could at least
plot ways to 'thank' her for it. With interest…

Truly, vengeance was such a soothing balm on her soul.



TBC.

AN: Thank you so much for reading! Here you go – nearly ten full pages of story, to
make up for that really short chap I posted a few chaps back.
AN: SgtHydra, here is your thank-you fic! (Suki on an earlier Vampire Hunting
mission.) I'm tempted to write another one, or create a sub-series for Suki-stories
after your prompt, though. Damn it was hard to choose which one to write! (The
others would have been too long to incorporate directly into "Merits", however…) I
hope this is ok!

AN: I hope you guys aren't too thrown by the BTVS, Producers, etc. references?...

/mm. This chap first posted August 15th, 2008. HAVE A GREAT WEEKEND!


Chapter 23: Chapter 23


Author: moor / beyondthemoor on LJ
Title: Merits
Part : Twenty two
Genre: Romance/humour/vamp/Modern AU
Fandom: Avatar: TLA
Pairing: Zutara, Jetara
Length: 3000 words, approx.
Rating: M
Disclaimer : "Avatar: The Last Airbender" and all related rights belong to their
original creators… I am not among their ranks.
AN: In response to hyperoo' s vampire/Zutara challenge, I present…



Part Twenty two

The morning after…

His hand rested in her hair as he kneeled beside her bed, giving it the most fragile of
touches as if testing to see if she was really there or another hallucination his
loneliness had conjured to torture him with. But it was dark, soft, and just a bit
wavy, as he'd always remembered it. Her skin was smooth and her mouth and
cheeks relaxed as she dreamed, and she looked so innocent and pure he tried to
memorize her just like that, for when he'd need to remember such hopeful things in
the dark comings.

Unashamed, he removed his shirt and trousers and ever so carefully slipped into
bed beside her, spooning in behind her sleeping form to hold her close to him and
bury his face in her hair and sigh with happiness, relief, and longing.

When she turned to him in her sleep seeking his warmth, he smiled almost sadly and
tucked her against him, resting her head on his shoulder. Her pleasant sigh
reminded him of so many mornings they'd shared before, and his heart ached for all
he'd lost.

He wanted it back.

Slowly he bent his head forward and lay the softest of kisses upon her forehead;
instinctively he continued, moving inch by inch down past the curve of her ear to
her jaw to rest at the skin of her throat, her pulse, suck it until it blossomed red
from his mouth's attentions. Under the blankets her fingers reached for him and he
clasped her hand in his and held it to his heart, too eager to have her fingers touch
him elsewhere and he too tightly controlled to risk her undoing him.

Then she stirred, and all too soon she woke and looked up at him, startled—but
aroused. With the slightest movement, she turned in his arms and brought her own
arms around his neck, pulling him closer. Suddenly she was kissing him back,
passionately, as if they'd never been apart and she needed him just as much as he
wanted her.

Together they undid her nightclothes and he pushed her shirt off while she pushed
his shorts past his waist, his hips, his knees…

"Aang," she whispered against his ear, and he groaned in pleasure. He'd waited so
long to hear her say his name that way. Days, weeks, months, years. Her voice
saying his name that way was the strongest aphrodisiac he'd ever encountered. Her
name fell lovingly from his lips as he reached for the swell of her hips. Too long, it
had been far, far too long…

"Aang," she said more urgently, and he moved faster, more desperately, fingers
digging into her flesh.

"Aang. Aang!" she called, and there was something different about this voice. He
struggled to see through the haze that had started filling his mind and sat up with a
start.

At the breakfast table.

"Aang, could you please pass me the margarine?" said Katara in exasperation.

"Huh?"

His world was crumbling. And all he could do was stare bleary-eyed at her in
confusion.

"Never mind, I'll just take the jam," sighed the frustrated young woman, grabbing
the small pot from her other side before spooning it in set dollops onto her toast.
Aang realized then that he had just nearly had sex with his ex… in his head… at the
breakfast table.

Sputtering hard he tried to down a glass of juice to clear his head, but ended up
choking on it.

"… so I got home after missing Long Feng and found an e-mail from Toph's
organization telling me to check my mailbox. They'd left me plane tickets and a
copy of the New York Bartenders Guide and told me I was needed in Ba Sing Se.
They'd already spoken with my Keep-er, my boss, so I was cleared. That's how I
ended up here."

Suki bit into her sausage & eggs and calmly looked at Katara as Sokka thumped
Aang on the back with a casual "You ok, man?".

"This Long Feng guy… I think you should stay away from him," Suki said
cautiously, and pushed her food to the side of her plate as she considered her next
words. "I think you should also stay away from Zuko Sozin."

The table quieted slightly as Katara looked suspiciously at the newest addition to
their group.

"You and Zuko both helped me last night," she replied evenly. "I admit, Zuko's…
difficult at times," Toph coughed loudly from the side, "But I think he's ok."

It was Sokka's turn to start choking from shock.

"Zuko? 'Ok'? What happened to the big monster you thought was stalking you?
Doesn't last night kind of prove he's been keeping more than just a professionaleye
on you?"

"Well it kind of worked in my favour last night so I'm willing to give him a chance
now!"

"How do you know they weren't in it together?"

"Zuko and Long Feng would never work together," Suki interrupted, sensing a
battle brewing between the siblings. Both looked over at her, startled. Everyone had
stopped eating at this point.

"And why's that, oh mysterious one?" retorted Sokka sarcastically, trying to regain
a foothold in the argument.

Katara narrowed her eyes at him in warning, but Suki ignored his tone.
"Because Zuko is banished from his clan for doing something dishonourable and
Long Feng is one of the ones who banished him."

Katara felt her face tighten in confusion before she felt another headache coming
on; Sokka's debate skills were roaring for the challenge, however, and her own
thoughts were drowned out by his conspiracy theories.

"So those two people, who are what? Mortal enemies? Just happened to be in the
same city, same street, at the same time? That's a lot of coincidence if you ask me.
It's too convenient. There must be something else," his curiosity and sense of
investigation piqued, Sokka leaned back in his chair and tilted his chin up as he
thought about the situation. "There's definitely something else. Something drew
them both here. They're looking for something, or want to decide something, or
need to prove something if they're both here together. I'm guessing they're both
bigwigs or this wouldn't be happening at all so openly. And why would they risk
doing it so openly in front of you and Katara?— "

"So, yes, Suki's here because I asked her to join us when I felt a disturbance in the
Force," interrupted Toph as she gave an exaggerated, long suffering sigh in Sokka's
general direction. "Lemme know when you come to some kind of conclusion with
your conspiracy theory, Meat Bag. Got that? Conclusion. You can keep the Intro
and Middle to yourself."

"But what did you mean about clans?" Katara broke in, rubbing the side of her
head. "Are they rich? This sounds… like …" Her headache splintered and pain
erupted in her skull; her vision went black and she grit her teeth to keep from
crying out. A hiss escaped her teeth, though, and she fought to keep herself upright
as her balance evaporated.

Aang and Sokka jumped up from their chairs and it was the younger man who
reached her first to steady her.

"Whoa, whoa, you ok, Katara?" he asked, his eyes round with concern.

"Boulder! Hee Po!" called Toph, and the two men appeared at her side on a run.
"See that Katara reaches her room and get her some water and Tylenol 3. Make
sure she's comfy as a spoiled princess, got that lugheads?"

"Yes ma'am."

"I'll go with you," offered Aang, but Toph shook her head.

"How about I go? I'm finished eating anyway," said Suki, and when Toph didn't
disagree the foursome left, Katara supported on both sides by the large, wrestler-
built bodyguards.
"Come back when she's settled," was all the hostess said as they exited the room.
Katara was in so much pain she didn't argue even as the bodyguards escorted her.

Aang still half-stood, watching them shuffle carefully along as Toph cleared her
throat and put her hands palms down on the large, solid wood table. Aang's anxiety
was still palpable and even Sokka looked a bit contrite as he watched his sister
leave.

But it was Toph who was most upset.

"People," she said calmly, and there was no question that her tone was rife with
gravity. "We need to have a talk."



In Toph's private rooms…

"Uh… I think I've already had this talk," said Aang, feeling uncomfortable.

Suki had rejoined them and Toph had sent her two closest bodyguards back to the
security station to monitor the surveillance set up in Katara's room. As much as she
wanted to have someone with Katara at all times, she needed everyone on the same
page as soon as possible more.

"You don't know the half of it," grumbled Toph to the group gathered around her
coffee table.

Suki set down a folder on the table and pulled out its contents. She held out a
picture of Long Feng and a picture of Zuko.

"What we couldn't say in front of Katara is that Long Feng and Zuko Sozin are
vampires," stated Suki. "I'm a vampire slayer. You're probably already putting two
and two together, Sokka."

"You kill monsters. Great. If that's what all this is about, I'd like to take this
opportunity to park my engine at Reality Station and go find something a bit lighter
than what you've all been smoking. Thank you, and please don't take it the wrong
way but I'll never recommend your dinner theatre to anyone."

"Sokka!" Aang grabbed his friend's arm as he got up to leave irritably. He stared
hard at him a moment before speaking. "They're not lying. I know about this stuff,
too. It's why I had to leave."

"Look, Aang, this really isn't the time to bring up the reason you left my baby sister
when she was at the most vulnerable point in her life," threatened the Water Tribe
man. "Now let go."
Sokka tugged his arm free and started towards the door again. "I don't know what
you guys are playing at, but leave Katara out of it. We've been friends a long time."
He kept the rest of the threat unspoken. "But she has worked too hard to lose
anything else. We lost our parents when we were kids. Her fiancé left her at the
altar," he glared at Aang, "She was nearly attacked last night," he faced Toph and
Suki. "And I don't even know what's wrong now, but she's had this stupid headache
for over a month now – and this is Katara. She who miraculously figures out how to
heal everyone. Who is a health nut most of the time. Yet she's sick, and she's getting
worse every day." He paused to calm down, realizing after the fact that he'd started
yelling. "She does not need whatever the hell is going on."

Unclenching the hands he'd balled into fists, Sokka let out his breath tiredly.

"Thanks for breakfast. I'm gonna go see my sister now and take her home." The
carpet muffled the harsh footsteps he took in the direction of the door, but it didn't
escape Toph's sensitive ears.

"No."

"What?" Patience dwindling, Sokka whipped around to look at the petite, blind
woman in the room who'd spoken back to him. She'd maneuvered herself around
the table and now she stood facing him, focusing on the direction of his voice, and
had stopped a few feet from the chair he'd vacated.

"I said no."

"Why you-."

"She will die if we don't start figuring out how to help her."

He gaped at her incredulously. "She's not that sick-."

"She isn't going to die of sickness, Sokka. At least, not yet." She obviously couldn't
see the man who was ready to hit her for her comment, but the tension rolling off
him was murderous. Good, she had his attention. "You aren't even willing to listen
to what we're saying! We're trying to tell you, Katara's in danger. If you want to
protect her, if you want to save her, you need to start working with us." It was Toph
now whose lovely, tiny hands were curled into fists at her side as she shook with
anger. Her normally pale, flawless cheeks had flushed and her eyebrows had dipped
and met in the middle of her prestigious forehead. The wrath of a Bei Fong was
legendary, and Sokka had incurred it in spades.

"How much do you know about those legends your Tribe taught you as a kid?" she
snapped, whirling on him and taking a step closer. "Did you ever consider that they
may not have been stories but histories, warnings and lessons instead? Did you ever
think about what would happen if they were to start repeating themselves now, in
the twenty-first century where we depend so much on science and so little on our
natural instincts? Katara's big project about those legends you always blew off and
joked about is about to start getting pretty damn real, and I'm doing everything I
can to bring in the biggest fucking guns I can carry, and I don't need YOU stepping
in dog shit and messing everything up. Katara is my best friend and I will protect
her with my last dying breath if that's what it takes, but so help me if you get in my
way you are going down, Sokka Kuruk. Katara is what matters right now. She
needs us." And we need her, but she couldn't admit that aloud yet. Knew Sokka
needed more time before that was spoken aloud, admitted, accepted.

Her shaking had calmed to a fine trembling, but it encompassed her small body.

And then she stomped her foot, and strangely enough Sokka almost thought he felt
the building shake.

It was quiet as he stood still, watching her. His Toph, who was smart ass and bold
and rude and had the biggest heart of any person he'd ever met. Who hit him and
teased him and cuddled with him in bed in the wee hours of the morning when she'd
finish work and collapse on top of him before spontaneously deciding he hadn't
suffered enough tickling in the past week and they needed to make quota. Her
strength, her vitality and her determination drove her, and while she may be
stubborn she was also invariably right. She faced things head on.

She was angry as a wild boar hound and that could only mean one thing.

She was terrified.

"Toph," his voice carried easily, softly in the quiet room. From their own chairs,
Suki and Aang watched, listening but not interfering.

She ignored his tempered call. "So," she growled and tromped up to him and poked
him hard in the chest to show she meant business. "I need to know right now. Are
you going to help us or are you volunteering for dog-dirt duty?"

"You know I don't want anything to happen to her, either," he said. He raised a
hand to touch her, connect with her physically, gently, but she shrugged him off.

"Good, you can beg my forgiveness later. For now, sit your ass in that chair." She
pointed ever so helpfully. "You need to start listening and learning a whole lot of
stuff that's about to scare the scoobies out of you."

Rant finished, Toph spun around and stomped back to her seat. "If we're all done
our drama, let's do this."

And they did. This was the morning Sokka began his education in the supernatural
world that co-existed along with his; the shape-shifters, the vampires and the
witches. There wasn't time to go into the other groups, the woven lore, their arcana;
but the struggle for power, the strengths and vulnerabilities of each group, and the
last battle for supremacy were all brought to light to an outsider for the first time in
generations.

Sokka's head spun from the knowledge and realization that his world wasn't what
he'd always thought it was. He was aware now of the precarious balance that existed
between the different factions that sought to control the collective underworld
nations.

And the war that had waged over a century earlier that humanity had nearly lost.

It was fought just outside a small mining town.

The heroine's name had been Yue.

And Toph's coven had a feeling that Katara was either Yue's direct descendant, or
worse: her reincarnation.

"Ok, ok, so that's the history," said Sokka, still reeling and putting things together
several hours later. He was glad he'd taken a seat some time ago.

The other three nodded; in truth, they'd been amazed that Sokka, the engineer of
their group, had accepted so much so easily, but they weren't about to look a gift
horse in the mouth. They needed him on board, and it would go a lot smoother if he
signed up voluntarily.

"But if Zuko's banished for some reason, what does he have to do with Katara?"

"That big battle, that your tribe fought?" said Suki softly, holding his gaze. "It was
Zuko who botched his duty to bring Yue to his father. Zuko was a prince;
sacrificing Yue at the Fire Court was incremental his coronation."

"Vampire society has an elaborately defined social hierarchy based on honour,
reputation and power," explained Toph. "Zuko wouldn't be fully recognized as
Crown Prince until he killed Yue in front of the court."

"He failed, and was banished by The Five," added Aang. A strange note in his voice
caught Sokka's attention, but he continued. "They gave him two options."

"In order to regain his honour, he needs to either annihilate the Slayers Keep, or
summon up Yue again," added Suki ruefully; in the next instant, her face paled and
her mouth dropped open in surprise. "That's it! That's why Long Feng was half-
turning all those teenagers in my last city. He was trying to lure out the slayers!"
Her fist pounded into her palm as she connected the dots. "How did I not realize
that?" She made a self-hating noise from the back of her throat and glared at the
picture she'd brought of the gloating, mustached man. "And in broad daylight,
too… I'm so stupid…"

"Why would Long Feng need to do that?" asked Toph; she had several ideas, but
they needed to brainstorm. If others came to the same conclusions she was…

They all hunched over the edges of their seats as they spoke, the energy sizzling
between them.

"I'm not sure… he may have been banished, but I don't remember hearing about
that." Suki's eyes flicked over to Aang. "Any ideas?"

Before he could speak, though, Sokka straightened.

"… wait… what if he's trying to stop Zuko from regaining his honour?" he said
slowly.

"Then why would he be doing that?"

"I don't know! I just found out there ARE vampires and all the rest of this stuff –
you're gonna have to give me a few minutes to figure out their motivations!"

"Miss Bei Fong," a charming electronic chime introduced the Boulder's rough voice
on the intercom. Sokka, Suki and Aang continued arguing so Toph picked up her
cellphone and dialed it into the intercom frequency for privacy.

"Yeah?" she asked heavily.

"Miss Katara is waking. What are your instructions?"

For a second Toph actually pulled up blank before she smiled to herself. Finally, a
comrade in arms…

"Suki!" she hollered, gaining the other woman's attention (meanwhile on the other
end of the intercom, the Boulder cringed and tapped his ear to see if it was still
functional). Suki looked up at Toph and felt her guard go up instantly at the other
woman's chuckling. "How do you feel about girly spas and guacamole?"



TBC.

AN: Thank you for reading! (And I apologise for the lack of Zuko-he will be back
soon.)
AN: I was going to add more to this chapter, sorry, but I wanted to make sure I got
an update in before the end of the month. (I start my new job next week; not sure
how that's going to affect my time for the next 6-8 weeks or so.)

/mm. This chapter first posted 11 Sept 2008.


Chapter 24: Chapter 24


Author: moor / beyondthemoor on LJ
Title: Merits
Part : Twenty three
Genre: Romance/humour/vamp/Modern AU
Fandom: Avatar: TLA
Pairing: Zutara, Jetara
Length: words, approx... forgot to count this time, sorry! Eeps.
Rating: M
Disclaimer : "Avatar: The Last Airbender" and all related rights belong to their
original creators… I am not among their ranks.
AN: In response to hyperoo' s vampire/Zutara challenge, I present…



Part Twenty three

Jet stared at his cell phone in irritation for the hundredth time since he'd woken
that morning.

Where is she?

Huffing under his breath, he accepted the coffee cup from the concession truck and
started back towards the plant for the second half of his shift Sunday morning,
taking care not to slip on the random icy patches hidden beneath the fresh snow.
Spring just couldn't come soon enough.

"Something wrong?" the now-familiar voice inquired from just behind him.

The shaggy-haired young man glared over his shoulder at the unwelcome stranger
who'd made a habit of coming to bother him at work for the past month. His face
conveyed his impatience and he tried to shake the man off.

"No."

He moved purposefully faster, not stopping.
"Are you sure? Perhaps I'd be able to be of some assistance. You're worried about
someone, correct? The lovely dark-haired young woman you spend your time
with?"

"What?" Jet whirled on the man now, and forced himself to reign in his temper. It
was a war to control the furious suspicions that suddenly raced through his mind,
though. How did this guy know about Katara? What does he know? Automatically Jet
scanned the street and vicinity for any indication this was a trick. Finding none, he
unleashed his anger on the man, his lips curling back from his teeth until they were
bared. "Where do you get off talking to someone like that? And how would you
know? Are you stalking me? Why are you constantly following me around?" It was
reaching a breaking point.

The man in the long, slime-green coat put his hands up in a peaceful gesture before
him, and looked down at the ground a moment, appearing almost contrite at his
preposterous behaviour. When he knew that he had Jet's undivided attention, Long
Feng hid a smile before schooling his face into an impassive, well-meaning look of
compassion.

"I am an old acquaintance, family friend if you will, of your lady's," the vampire
lord said and folded his hands together in front of him, inside the long, gaping
sleeves of his coat. "I am merely concerned about her well-being."

"Well you can go home, everything's fine," he barked the curt words bitterly;
clearly everything was not fine. Why was she not returning his calls again? He'd
checked her apartment and she hadn't been home since Friday; she hadn't gone to
his place in the meantime; he had no way of reaching her friends… His head
spinning with concern and frustration, Jet realized he was ignoring the man who
waited patiently for either an apology or a polite dismissal. You're in deep trouble if
he really is a family friend and you blew him off, a voice inside him whispered in
caution.

Biting off a growl, Jet ran his free hand through his hair and looked over the man
before him again.

"How long did you say you'd known Katara?" he asked with gruff curiosity, sizing
the man up in a glance. He didn't look like the type Katara normally associated
with.

"Oh, we've known each other since before she was born; it's been a while since we
talked face to face, though. I don't even know if she'd recognize me now compared
to back then," Long Feng's mouth quirked in a half-smile. "Our families have
known each other for generations."

Still unsure, Jet took a sip of his coffee and considered the man's words.
Bad news, screamed his inner-voice. Stay away!

Jet took another sip, feeling the steam warm his frost-reddened cheeks. Considering.

Feigning a chill from the cold, the vampire gave a shiver. "Well, I just wanted to
stop by to let you know I saw Katara leave that dance club Friday night with her
friends; I know how careless she can be sometimes and how she always forgot to call
her family when she was young to let them know she was staying out… So I'm here
to reassure you she is fine. She is with friends. They seemed to know each other well;
they were very… close."

With that bit of bait dangling behind him, Long Feng turned to bid adieu to his
prey.

"Have a good day," he said pleasantly, and with a short bow he started on his way
again.

The rabbit watched the fox walk away.

"Wait!" called Jet against his better judgment. His eyes narrowing, brow
tightening, he felt his heart squeeze at the possibility someone knew more about
Katara's whereabouts than he did; that they may know how to contact her. That the
person before him may be able to help him find her, confirm she really was fine.

"Yes?"

"Who… Who did you see her with again? The other night?" he asked casually, but
Long Feng recognized the desperate hunger in the young man's eyes. Really, this is
too easy, he thought to himself but his face was a mask of happiness at being able to
help a new acquaintance.

"Ah yes, I believe it was her new colleague from work."

"Colleague from work?" She doesn't have any new girlfriends from work, thought
Jet, not that she's mentioned. Unless it's…

His eyebrows lifted in understanding, and Long Feng clasped the opportunity to
plant the seed.

"Yes, his name was Zuko Sozin, I believe. Strange, I hadn't realized they were as
close as they were last night… Well, I suppose sharing an office, every day, does
bring friends—excuse me, colleagues—closer together. Is there anything else I can
do for you, young man?" asked the vampire, suddenly the model of concern when
he saw the emotions flashing across Jet's face. "You seem a bit-."
"I'm fine. Thanks for letting me know she got home ok." Headache. Headache. Spin,
dizzy. Where's the Aspirin? Jet's vision swam a moment and he stood very still to
calm the accusations his subconscious hurled at him mercilessly. What the hell…
they hate each other… Why would they?... But he could be lying… But what if he
isn't?...

Long Feng nodded and with another short nod in Jet's direction he departed in his
usual slow, deliberate stride.

The end-of-break signal blew and the workers around Jet tromped back inside the
factory, stomping out cigarettes and tossing their empty coffee cups in the trash bin
on their way in.

Within his fingers' grasp Jet felt the coffee he held slowly cooling, and the snow
begin to fall again, a heavy, silent blanket to smother the city.



The next afternoon.

Things were not going well.

Zuko stared at Suki with forced patience while she in turn glared at him with open
mistrust in the parking lot outside Katara's apartment building.

For her part, Katara pulled her coat tighter around herself and shuffled a bit from
one foot to the other. "Just lemme know when you two are finished your stare-
down; I'm ready to go inside any time now…" she muttered and blew warm air into
her hands.

The other two didn't move. In fact, they acted like they hadn't heard her.

"Ugh," shaking her head angrily, Katara stalked off on her own towards the main
entrance of her building. She had no idea why her friends were acting so strange—
or when exactly she'd started considering them both 'friends'—but it was ridiculous
how they were treating each other. And why were they so worried about her
returning to her apartment? Did they think it had magically grown booby-traps
overnight?

Well, over two nights.

Sunday afternoon was dark and overcast, her residence looming like a gray-
coloured doyen amongst the other dwellings of her neighbourhood. It had taken a
lot of negotiation when Zuko had called her the day before, but she'd managed to
convince Suki and Toph that Zuko wasn't the monster she'd originally led them to
believe (Katara was mature enough to admit ruefully most of that misconception
was due to her own string of complaints and allegations against him).

But the trio hadn't had a warm reunion at Suki's car that afternoon, and the
outdoor temperature was the least of the problem.

She was already at the elevator before Zuko and Suki arrived behind her in a rush.

Breathing harshly, they didn't speak to her or each other and simply waited coldly
for their ride to Katara's floor.

"Did you kiss and make up?" she asked, rolling her eyes as she boarded the elevator
at its familiar ding when the doors opened.

When she looked back at her companions as they stepped in behind her, she
couldn't help it, she laughed out loud at their evident suffering at being in each
other's presence. A nasty little part of her felt a teeny smidge of satisfaction at their
discomfort. Serves them right for treating me like a five year old who doesn't know her
way home, she thought to herself.

Zuko whirled and prepared to leap to Katara's aid when they reached her
apartment door and she turned the key in the knob and suddenly gasped.

"Oh my-!"

"What? What is it?" he demanded, pushing her away from the doorway and
putting himself directly between her and the panels. Suki automatically took up
station between them and the nearest exit.

Is she covering our flank, wondered Katara incredulously? But she'd had enough.

"I see overreacting people," she stage-whispered, and rolled her eyes again. "Really,
would you two quit it? It's getting old…"

With that she turned the key completely, nudged past Zuko and walked into the
apartment, leaving her bodyguards in the hall.

Zuko and Suki exchanged another look of suffering, though its cause had veered
slightly from the original trigger…

"Entryway, fine!" called Katara as they walked through the apartment. And it was.
The pair behind her were more cautious and observant as they followed her
through.

"Kitchen's clear!" she called next, slightly sarcastically.
"Living room & dining room – heavily infested with nothing!"

"Den, just peachy!" Her tone took a slightly pissed-off edge, but they'd been
expecting her to lose her temper at the babysitting by this point and weren't
surprised.

"Spare bedroom / office, absolutely great!"

"Main bedroom," she declared with finality, approaching it in angry stomps,
"wanna come see the main event with me?" she called in irritation, pausing with her
hand on the door. The other two were still peeking into each room making sure
nothing had been (obviously) disturbed. They were two rooms away from Katara
when Suki's phone went off.

Annoyed at the disturbance, the slayer answered it impatiently, "Hey, this is not a
good—."

Zuko could already hear the caller's panicked tone, though, and was already flying
down the hallway to stop Katara.

"DON'T LET HER IN THAT ROOM—THE WARDS HAVE BEEN TAMPERED
WI—"

Suki's eyes went wide as Toph's warning connected, and she was running to join
Zuko – until the explosion jolted the suite, ignited the walls surrounding her,
separating her from the other two and turning the entire hallway into an inferno.

"Zuko!" she called, already tying a handkerchief around her face to protect herself
from the fumes. The phonecall was completely forgotten. There was no answer to
her call. "Zu-ko!" she screamed louder, and tucked her head into her shoulder to
keep from coughing on the inhale.

She thought she heard him call back to her, but the noise of the fire was too loud to
tell for sure.

We need to get her out of here. We need to get out of here. Thinking rationally, Suki
remembered the exits and decided on an escape route before starting forward, an
inch at a time to try and help collect Katara—she wasn't surprised to find the
flames were enchanted, and rose higher and towards her as she approached the
fire's ignition point. As she fell back, the flames receded. She reached forward and
the tongues of fire leapt fiercely up her forearm towards her face. Definitely
enchanted flames. This fire isn't meant to hurt Katara, she realized, it is meant to
isolate her.

It isn't to kill her, it's a trap.
Her rapidly firing neurons then realized that if it was a trap, someone was coming to
collect the prey. Someone like…

Long Feng.

SHIT.

"Why hasn't the alarm started yet?" she mumbled, and backed away to the door to
keep a look out. The fire was real enough even if it was enchanted – some of the
hallway carpet had melted already and the walls were going black.

And then she saw the smoke detectors' wires were hanging limply from the ceiling,
their units completely removed. How they'd missed them, she'd never know, but it
made sense now.

The rest of the tenants, she realized again. The innocent people…

Smoke stung Suki's dark eyes and she felt the dampness on her cheeks as she grit
her teeth and came to a decision.

Zuko would have to protect Katara.

She had to evacuate the building.

With a final glance back towards the hallway to Katara's room, the slayer put her
faith in a disgraced vampire prince and plunged through the apartment door in
search of a fire alarm she could pull to physically summon the fire department. She
was dialing 9-1-1 on her phone at the same time, but wasn't sure which would get
through first. Finally, her call made it through to the dispatch and she told them
what was happening before hearing a crash from the apartment. There was no more
time. She flipped the phone shut and knew the brigade wouldn't get there in time if
the tenants didn't start moving now.

"Come on, Zuko, Katara…" she prayed, and yanked the first bright-red metal fire-
alarm she found. The raucous clamour erupted and filled her with relief, but she
knew her job wasn't finished yet. Ripping her make-shift mask from her face, Suki
ran down the hall pounding on the doors on either side of Katara's apartment.

"There's a fire in the unit beside yours! Get out!" she screamed, repeating it at
every door.

As some heads started peeking out she pointed the tenants in the direction of the
stairwells and ran to the floor above to do the same…

"No more innocents," she repeated the mantra to herself as her legs pumped up the
stairs of their own freewill, "no more innocents…"
"Katara!" Zuko yelled angrily, furious with himself he hadn't followed her more
closely. She'd gone down this hallway, her room must be just around the corner. He
wasn't sure what he'd find once he got to her. She'd been closest to the blast's point
of origin. His stomach curled faintly at his imagination and he stopped the images
cold. "Katara, where are you?"

He came across the door to her room and found her boot. But no sign of her yet.

She had crossed the threshold.

Growling deep in his throat, he kicked what was left of the door out of his way and
rushed in, hunched over to stay below the smoke in order to see as clearly as he
could.

He found her unconscious near the window, her hand reaching towards the
bookcase by her nightstand.

It only took a moment and a thought to crack the window, and then smash out the
top pane to let the smoke exit the room; in the next moment he scooped the
immobile woman into his arms and started carrying her bridal-style towards the
apartment door. Katara's eyes flickered and she moaned at the motion,
uncomfortable.

"It's Zuko," he said after a moment. "We're getting out of here."

"Book…"

"No time."

"… book…. Legends…" she insisted, and started struggling, half-consciously in his
grasp. "… need the book…"

Grunting viciously, he leapt back to the bookcase in a single bound and held her
upright, balancing her on his knee as he kneeled in front of it. "Where's the book,
we don't have much time," he demanded, and gave her a quick shake to revive her
as much as he dared. He wasn't lying, either – he could hear the roar and hiss and
popping of the flames as they licked ever closer.

"Very old book… Hardcover…" she coughed, her words breaking up to the point
he could barely make out what she said.

She's losing, she needs fresh air fast, he noted, and also took in her bruised temple
and the way one of her arms was held at a funny angle. She couldn't seem to open
her eyes enough to look for the book, however.
Useless. A bitter taste filled his mouth.

With a jerk of his head, Zuko looked at the first shelf and with the precision and
speed of a supercomputer read every book's title, condition, and placement. Some
had been knocked loose on to the floor, leaving gaps. He moved on to the second
shelf when he didn't find a tome matching her description. Still no luck. On to the
bottom, last shelf. Not there. With a frustrated noise he shifted Katara in his arms
and gave a last-ditch examination of the floor – and saw a tattered page peeking out
from beneath a stack of romance novels that had tumbled out of their shelves,
probably from the blast.

"Is it this one?" he asked, yanking the book of Water Tribe Legends from the stack.
But Katara was completely out.

Taking her silence as agreement he pulled her athletic frame tightly against him and
tucked her head into his shoulder.

"Hold on tight," he said, in case she could hear, and, gathering himself, he took a
quick crouch to ready and then launched himself into the hellish hallway.

"We'll be out soon," he promised into her ear, and raced into the main living room
of the apartment to the doorway. The flames had started into this room now, too.

"We'll be out soon.".

The parking lot was a mess of people when he emerged, but try as he might, he
couldn't find Suki.

Stopping briefly by his car for a moment, he beeped the doors open and lay Katara
down in the passenger seat to pull out his phone; he glanced at her, at the car, at the
people milling about, always scanning the crowd for an unfortunately familiar face.

"Zuko, what happened?" Aang's voice was calm, but tightly controlled when he
answered on the first ring.

"Katara's apartment blew up," admitted Zuko unhappily. "They knew we were
coming. The wards had been breached. How did Toph not know?" he demanded.

"How's Katara?"

"She's fine. How could they have breached the wards?" he insisted. Witchcraft
wasn't his specialty; they needed Toph's input on this one. She had set the original
wards; she was the only one attuned-enough to figure out why they had failed. "And
where should I bring Katara? I think she has smoke inhalation; her arm doesn't
look right… and she has a bump on her head," he recited, and glanced at her a
moment to see if he'd forgotten anything.
Which was when he noticed, after a moment or two, that she wasn't breathing.

"Katara," he said, and leaned down to give her (good) arm a shake. "Katara, wake
up. Aang's on the phone," he said tersely, and could hear the other man getting
panicky.

"Zuko, what's wrong? What's going on?" The young man's voice tightened.

"Katara," he repeated, firmly this time. "Katara, answer me." Long, sooty fingers
reached out to gently palp the pulse-point in her wrist. Waited a moment. Let go.
Her hand fell limply into her lap. She didn't stir.

Growing more concerned, his fingers focused on her exposed throat. Waited. Moved
to an inch in front of her nose and mouth.

Still nothing.

Aang was completely silent at this point, which surprised Zuko.

And he realized it was because he couldn't hear anything.

He glanced over at the ambulances and fire engines. The throngs of people. The
chaos. Not a single sound. Had the fire damaged his hearing?

And then he looked back at the woman who wasn't breathing, who had no pulse,
who wasn't responding to anything he did.

How bad is she?... She can't be gone yet, can she?...

A dread, desperate chill washed through the vampire.

Summoning a deep-rooted power, Zuko closed his eyes a moment and let his
peripheral sense roam. Dangerous, yes. Leaving him vulnerable, absolutely. But he
had to know for sure.

The sense extended, tuned out vision, touch, and taste; it reached outwards from his
body like an echo to bounce against the lifeforce closest to him.

Come on, Katara, keep fighting…

Still nothing. He tuned out his own heartbeat, slowed the flow of his own internal
states, and listened as hard as he could. He stopped breathing, and waited.

...A heartbeat.
Faint, and possibly just an echo of its last beats, but there it was. Relief flooded him,
but only briefly.

Because, at the same time, he'd heard the approaching footsteps of a dozen vampire
footsoldiers.

Long Feng was bringing his personal guard.

"Aang," said Zuko, finally swinging the cellphone back to his ear again. "You need
to get back-up for Suki. Right now. I can't find her." His voice was tense, but deadly
calm. This had been a divide and conquer retrieval couldn't keep playing into it.

Aang didn't answer.

"Aang," he repeated angrily. "Did you hear me?"

"… please…" there was a muffled sound, and Zuko realized Aang had been
covering the receiver. "Just tell me she's ok," he said hoarsely.

"She's gonna be fine," lied the vampire, "but Suki's dead if you don't get some help
for her here within the next…" he thought again about the sound of the equal,
methodical, military-precise footsteps of the guard. "Look, if she lasts five minutes
against them she's the greatest slayer in history. Make sure you write that on her
tombstone," he snapped, and hung up.

Really, the young man had completely let his personal feelings interfere with his job,
he thought of Aang, and Zuko was now alone and knew he couldn't take Katara to
the trained medical professionals on the other side of the parking lot since that was
where the foot' were expecting her, preparing to abduct her, lying in wait for her.
He wanted to scream and kick in frustration, but knew it was neither the time nor
the place. Katara was his priority. He had to get her someplace safe... But no one
had told him where Toph's compound was. He wasn't exactly a 'trusted'
acquaintance yet.

At least Toph hadn't let Aang join them that afternoon; the man would have been a
total liability, he realized as he was already strapping Katara securely into her
seatbelt. He slammed the door shut and vaulted overtop of the car to slide into the
driver's seat, ignoring the looks of surprise from a few stragglers who wandered
past.

Jamming his key into the ignition, he ignored all rules of traffic safety and gunned
the engine, tearing a strip out of the slushy parking lot as he burned away.

"Sorry Suki," he mumbled, "but good luck."
He didn't notice the chopper flying in to land at the far end of the parking lot, or the
other that hovered just on the horizon and sped full tilt to meet the first.

The sky itself had darkened further as Zuko steered onto the expressway and
floored the accelerator in the direction of his home.

Aang's (imagined) tortured face popped into his head again and he scoffed at the
image.

Really, he, Zuko, was the one who should be upset, he talked to himself as he drove,
weaving wildly between the cars that inconsiderately blocked the fast lane as he
happened upon them at a casual 140 mph. He was the one who should be allowed to
fall apart, or get sympathy. He was, not Aang.

Because he was the one who was about to lose his soulmate again if he didn't so
something drastic very soon.

Prying his hand off the shift knob he started unbottoning his shirt. He prayed she'd
make it to his place.



TBC.

AN: Thank you for reading!
AN: As always, I apologise for the delays - new job, new car, new everything kind of
had me hit the ground running through September!

/this chap first posted Oct 3 2008.


Chapter 25: Chapter 25


Author: moor / beyondthemoor on LJ
Title: Merits
Part : Twenty four
Genre: Romance/humour/vamp/Modern AU
Fandom: Avatar: TLA
Pairing: Zutara, Jetara
Length: 5500 words, approx...
Rating: M
Disclaimer : "Avatar: The Last Airbender" and all related rights belong to their
original creators… I am not among their ranks.
AN: In response to hyperoo' s vampire/Zutara challenge, I present…
History. Herstory. Our story.



Part Twenty four

"This is the one who's to become our Maiden? But…" the Crone's voice lowered
perceptibly, "how is she to have the visions?..."

"The prophecies told that someday the Coven would have a blind Maiden and she
would still have visions."

"But that was one of the doomsday prophecies – the oldest, the core of our Arcana!"
exclaimed another.

The young girl stood a little aside, listening but not speaking. She wasn't to speak
unless spoken to. How often they'd drilled that into her, along with her manners,
her schooling, her nannies constantly smothering her…

"It was said that when we'd face our darkest hours, a blind maiden would save us.
She will find those to stand with, she will protect the light, and she will know the
right path."

There were murmurs from the group, and still she stood alone, listening.

"Does she have the gift? Training? Can she learn?"

The little girl's hands clenched.

"Does she need help looking after herself? Should we get her an attendant?"

Her cheek twitched and her teeth ground together behind tight lips.

"Aunt Wu, you are our Crone, what will you have us do? Shall we send her back?
We don't even know if she understands her position, her role. Perhaps we won't
need a Maiden; we won't be impotent—."

That was the last straw.

The little girl's head tipped back and she stuck out her chin proudly. It was time to
teach these old bats a lesson.

The petite girl threw out her arms to either side, fisting her fingers, and then
brought them together fiercely before her as she lunged forward.
Every window exploded, lightning crashed outside thought it was a beautiful
afternoon, and the earth rumbled before a chasm erupted outside the front door,
effectively separating the building like a moat from the countryside beyond.

Above the shouts of surprise & a few screams of terror, Toph Bei Fong smiled.

"Now that I have your attention," she declared casually, standing again. "Perhaps
we can start talking about how you're all gonna start doing as I say."

Jun, the 'Mother' (though she had no children) of their Maiden, Mother, Crone
council, smirked and finally spoke for the first time that afternoon.

"She's the one." A few leisurely strides brought her before the tiny magical
powerhouse, and she leaned forward to take and shake Toph's hands. "Welcome.
You're Toph, right?"

"Yes."

"How about I call you Toph-inator?"

Toph smiled happily. "I kinda like that."

A friendship was born; and a legend was made.

Aunt Wu, for her part, brought a hand to her head as her own 'visions' filled with
how much trouble the new pair were no doubt soon to start unleashing…



"You need to learn not to expend so much energy," said Jun, and Toph thought it
sounded like Jun had her arms and legs crossed again in front of her. The younger
woman had overdone it in practice that morning and her arms and legs were numb
while her heart seared in her chest. "Remember," lectured Jun not unkindly but
with a hint of exasperation, "magic isn't unrooted, it is balanced. What you take to
use you need to replenish. Energy is everywhere, but you need to learn how to
balance what you take and what you use."

"Does everybody feel like this when they overuse their magic & energy reserves?"
she gasped, clutching at her shirt as if it would release the pressure on her chest
cavity.

Toph heard Jun chuckle slightly. "You're the only one I've ever seen survive to this
point; you have more raw talent than any witch I've ever met. You just don't
understand the sheer extent of your magical strength – you need to temper yourself
a bit and learn some control. Too much raw talent is just as bad as too little talent."
Still breathing harshly, Toph pushed herself up and felt her bangs brush the top of
her head. "So I need a deeper, richer energy source to really spread my wings, huh?
To see my full 'potential'?"

Jun glanced over at the young woman thoughtfully.



"Hi, I'm Katara, Sokka's sister. Sokka told me to look you up when I arrived here
for camp," the girl sounded about her age, and Toph felt someone with soft, but
strong hands reach out to grasp her hand in hers to shake it. "Sorry if I'm putting
you out of your way. Sokka said he was sorry he'd be at basic training when I'd first
arrive. He wants to follow our dad into the military. You made a real impression on
him when he met you last year," she chuckled. "Is it really true you tricked him into
armwrestling and won?"

The corner of Toph's mouth quirked up. "I couldn't let an engineering student
outdo a native wrestler. He was just lucky it was me instead of my old pal Jun. She'd
have made him buy her a drink."

"He was only sixteen!" gaped the visitor, and Toph thought she heard her spew out
the water she'd been drinking.

"Jun overlooks the petty stuff."

There was a pause.

Then Katara was laughing, and Toph joined in, and finally, Toph thought she'd
found a friend who'd like her for who she was, not what she was.



He kept a tight hold on her hand, threading his fingers through hers to make sure
they wouldn't lose each other in the over-sold bar.

"Stay close!" Sokka called back to her, and she could tell he was smiling, excited.

Jostled by the crowd, Toph nearly fell when a large man carelessly turned and
shoved her out of the way.

"Oomph," she grunted, and turned to 'glare' at him, feeling the familiar, warm
power rise within her and crackle down to her fingertips. "Hey, watchit you-."

"Uh, Toph, look!" interrupted Sokka, yanking her closer to him and up against his
chest while he pointed to a random spot in the distant crowd. "Sorry 'bout that," he
said to the man who was hulking over them. "My bad!" The man shuffled away and
Toph felt Sokka's breath whoosh out of his lungs.

"Sorry about that," he said again, but to her this time, his mouth against her ear so
she could hear him. "I should have been watching. I invited you out tonight!"

With that, he picked her up and carried her, moving through the herds of people
until he reached the very front of the stage where the metal fencing kept the crowds
a few short meters from the stage. Here he let Toph down and put her hands on the
fence in front of them, and stood behind her, encircling his own arms around her.
He'd come back from his basic training in perfect physical condition. It still
surprised her, pleasantly, though she'd never admit it. She couldn't let him know
what she really thought of him, now. He'd never speak to her again.

Just then, Toph's favourite bad, the Rough Rhinos, strode onto the stage causing the
crowds to go crazy and surge forward.

"Hold on tight and don't let go!" Sokka half-yelled, half-laughed in her ear, and she
realized he was bracing himself around her so she wouldn't get squashed by the
moshing mass behind them.

"I won't!" she hollered back, but it was lost in the cheers and screaming behind
them.

His warm arms surrounding her, her back pushed up against his chest, the feel of
his breath over her head & shoulders when he'd glance down to check on her, Toph
would never forget how amazing it felt that night. She felt the warmth flood her
cheeks and she bit her lip to keep from smiling too widely at all the excitement. She
was finally being treated like a real, normal girl.

But what she wouldn't forget, either, was the surge of magic, power, energy that
rocketed through the room when the band started playing the first riffs of their
latest hit song.

Her eyes went huge, a wave built and crested inside her, her back went rigid and
Toph screamed as the power filled her to overflow and explode, like a mega-watt of
ecstasy, deep in her core. If she hadn't had the fencing to grab hold of, she would
have fallen to her knees as the aftershocks rocked through her slight frame.

This power, she thought numbly, and leaned back against Sokka for support, this is
from the crowd's excitement… This feeling… I could do anything with my magic right
now…So powerful…

"Y'ok?" asked Sokka with concern. Toph wasn't one to lean on anyone. And… had
that really been what he thought it'd been going through her a moment ago?Holy
crow… Don't do anything, she's way too young, his conscience railed at him. At least
wait until she's 18 you horny toad…He couldn't let her know what he thought of her;
she'd never speak to him again…

"I'm fantastic," she sighed, and knew exactly how she was going to get the energy
she needed to seize her full magical potential.



"Great show tonight, Toph!" Sokka clapped her on the back as if she were one of
his buddies. "That crowd just didn't stop!"

Hiding her insulted pride behind a reciprocating slap that nearly sent him flying,
Toph grinned back. "Toldja I was good."

"I can't believe how amazing you are sometimes," he admitted sheepishly and
rubbed the back of his head. Her skill, and how many different things she was good
at, period, intimidated him more and more. "I feel like I'm lagging behind at times.
Or holding you back."

As Toph tossed her backpack into her car where the Boulder waited patiently to
take her home, she stopped a moment and turned her head towards her closest
friend, her energy high from finishing such a successful guest appearance as the
'Blind Bandit' wavering and clouding her mind. It always felt so good to load up on
the crowds' energy. And now here her best friend was, trying to pull her down?

"What are you talking about, meathead? You're the one in university. I'm the one
that has to catch up to you – and you know I'm not interested in the school-thing
right now."

Shaking his head, Sokka smiled patiently, and walked towards her to pull her jacket
shut.

"Nothing. You keep warm, they say we're due snow tonight." His hands rested on
the lapels of her coat a second longer than they needed to before he let go.

Planting a quick, decidedly paternal kiss on her forehead he turned to walk away,
footsteps crunching on the fallen autumn leaves. The air was sharp and cold and she
could feel the promise of snowflakes on it, just as he'd said. As he walked away from
her.

Anger exploded within the petite woman and her cheeks flared crimson.

"Now you wait a cotton-picking minute, Sokka Kuruk!" she screamed, and chased
after him.
"I'm not teaching you that," stated Jun coldly.

"It's not a big deal, I can handle it," insisted Toph.

"They never work out, trust me, and it is better to leave things like that to the
natural order. Magic should never interfere with personal feelings. You know that,
Toph. It's one of the first rules I ever taught you."

"Pssshht, you never taught me any rules," the young woman blew her bags up out
of her face and folded her arms in front of her.

"I taught you what was right and wrong," countered the experienced 'Mother'.
"Now don't ever ask me about this again. And I will find out if you ask any of the
others."

The threat was unnecessary, and they both knew it, since Toph would never be
comfortable asking anyone else about how to perform a love spell.



It hadn't been obvious, the first time they'd met.

More like a growing recognition over time, as gradual as when night dawned to
morning, the colours shifting and melting together before turning into a beautiful,
clear blue sky. Day comes, and in light one can see the world laid out before them.

You're the one, Toph felt it so deep in her bones as she listened to her best girl friend
laugh at her brother's ridiculous antics as he and her boyfriend tried to get the
Christmas tree righted in Toph's condo living room. You're the one who's going to
save the world. She knew it with complete certainty.

As the tree fell over again, this time pinning Sokka to the wall and Aang apologized
and tried to figure out how to lift the oversize conifer off him, Toph felt both peace
and anxiety war for dominance, before accepting peace.

Beside her Katara rose from the box of decorations and overflowing bowls of
popcorn she'd been turning into garlands, and she went to help brace the tree.

You're the one. And I'm the one.

The prophecy was coming true.



"So, this is my new place!"
Going by the way the air around them moved in a rush, Toph wondered if her
friend had thrown her arms out proudly to show how amazing the place was. Toph
owned the building and already knew – hence why Katara was getting such a
strangely fantastic rate for rent – but she thought it best to act surprised anyway.

"I love what you've done with the decorating!" the petite woman exclaimed.

"Yeah, it took me ages to get the wallpaper down, but the light-coloured walls have
totally opened the place up—," she stopped short. "I'm not Sokka."

"Heh, you still fell for it."



The others, Sokka, Aang, Katara and Jet, were in the living room chatting about
Aang's travels and how reassuring it was to finally be back in Katara's apartment
eating 'home-cooked' meals again.

Toph was on a 'bathroom break'; really, she was snooping in Katara's room and
grumbling about having to re-tune the wards to add another 'safe' person.

There was something about Jet that wasn't sitting right with her; but if he was the
one Katara wanted, she had to make sure she wouldn't accidentally kill him with an
over-protective ward charm.

She tilted her head to the side. Then again, she was getting a funny feeling off the
guy…

Katara will cry, her inner-voice warned her. That's time away from earning energy
that you have to expend on girly guacamole spa nights.

The ward was re-tuned, re-sealed and put back in place within a few minutes.

"Toph, are you ok in there?" Sokka called from the hallway. He sounded
awkwardly concerned. "Is something not, uh… sitting well?" he hedged.

"I'm just fine, meatbag," she called back in a huff. "Can't a girl get some privacy?"

"Sorry!" he called back quickly, and she heard him patter back to the living room
with his tail between his legs.

Checking all the wards one last time as she meandered back to her friends, she
flopped onto the sofa beside her boyfriend and gave him a loving kidney punch.
"The back-up's already on its way to Suki," said Aang, grabbing his jacket and
hers, too, as they strode towards the awaiting helicopter. "Zuko said the wards had
been tampered with, though, and that's why things went-."

"They couldn't have been tampered with," said Toph, grabbing her jacket from
him and shoving her arms through the wildly-flapping garment. The rotors atop the
chopper were already swinging 'round bringing up a strong wind that pushed
against them.

"Zuko said as soon as she touched them, they-."

"I know, I felt it!" she yelled.

"So who could have-."

"Only someone who was tuned into them," she explained in basic terms, to make
sure he understood, "could have even touched the ward without it killing them
instantly. As for who knew how to reverse their 'polarity'…"

They hauled themselves into the cockpit while Hee Po handed them each a headset.
Slamming the 'pit door shut, they were airborne in seconds.

"So you're saying it was one of us who messed with the wards?" asked Aang over
the headset radio. His voice held a great deal of incredulity – and just a hint of
suspicion.

"You didn't do it; I didn't do it. Zuko isn't tuned into it, so he couldn't have done it.
Katara doesn't even know about it, so she couldn't have done it; and Sokka hasn't
left the compound since our big talk, so he didn't do it, either." The list was fairly
short.

Aang was quiet a moment, considering.

"How many male witches are in the coven?" he asked quietly.

"Jet isn't one of them," she answered.

"But he's the only one left who was keyed into it, right?"

"He's not a witch. I don't know what he is, since I've gotten the not-human vibe off
him since the moment we met, but he's not a witch."

"…Can you make them not love each other?"
The headset crackled, and his words didn't come through without a great deal of
distortion, but even over the loud mechanical grinding of engine and rotors, Toph
heard the request clearly.

"I wish I could," she said, remembering Jun's words. "Believe me."



As he stood there watching the black and grey smoke billowing out of her bedroom
window in the bitterly cold afternoon, Jet wondered.

He wondered if Katara was ok.

He wondered why Long Feng had asked him to collect from Katara's room the little
decoration the older man had said he'd given Katara, and then why the same man
had asked him to go put it back later.

He wondered, most of all, why it had been Zuko who'd rushed from the building
with Katara, his girlfriend, cradled in his arms and why he'd raced away in his car
without taking her to see a paramedic first.

And he wondered why the other man wasn't picking up his calls now, either. Just
like Katara hadn't.

Jet kept his hands in his pocket and felt around for the familiar cellphone. He'd
gotten it after first seeing Katara at the centre, and wanting to have a way to contact
her, to have her contact him. He'd turned his life around for her.

And now…

He pulled it out and flipped patiently, one by one, through each of the numbers in
the phone's memory until he reached the one he was looking for.

Long Feng seemed to be the one in the know about Katara at this point, and Zuko.

"Hi, Mr. Feng?" he said, and turned towards his home. "Do you have a few
minutes?"



Suki's breath heaved in her chest, and she felt rather than saw the remaining
soldiers surround her.

She had taken out at least a third of them, but she was still outnumbered by a
discouraging margin.
Again, she sent out the silent prayer than Zuko had found Katara in time; that the
soldiers were trying to keep her busy instead of helping her charge escape; because
if they were fighting her they obviously hadn't retrieved Katara yet, or they would
have left.

That, or they had been told the slayer was their prime target.

Lifting the bloody fans back up to protect her front and side, both of which were
bleeding, Suki straightened as much as she could and tried to come up with a new
strategy to defeat the vampires around her.

In the background she heard the first helicopter approach but didn't dare shift her
attention to it.

The vampires around her circled tighter, and started closing in.

Suki took a deep breath; then she swept to the side like a whirlwind, slashing and
taking out another two soldiers before breaking through their perimeter and
running for freedom. If she could just space them out so she was fighting them one
on one instead of as a group, she had a chance to escape, to live.

But these soldiers weren't stupid; they re-formed their group and followed as an
organized unit, not a band of independent mercenaries like she was used to
engaging.

Her feet dragging in the slushy snow on the ground, Suki rounded a corner of the
building and gasped at the pain in her side. Unable to keep running full-tilt, she put
an arm around her stomach and another on the wall to steady herself. Her blood
was probably leaving a trail for them to follow, if not by sight then by scent. It
wasn't hopeless yet, but it was definitely approaching that desperate border.

Through her sharp blue eyes she looked up and saw another organized unit of
soldiers coming closer, at a dead run, but this time from in front of her.

"Vamp reinforcements?" she wheezed. She'd been wrong. It was definitely hopeless
now.

She turned to lean her back against the wall, breathing hard through her mouth,
ignoring the blood stiffening on her clothes. Raising the blades of her fans she noted
they weren't coming up as high as she wanted them to. And they weren't as steady
as they usually were. But still, she wasn't going to stop fighting.

The sound of footsteps from both directions got louder and louder, and Suki kept
darting her head from one side to the other, trying to figure out which side would
reach her first.
Just as the last group of vamps she'd been fighting rounded the corner, she caught
clear sight of the reinforcements who lifted their weapons – weapons? she wondered
– and pointed them.

Straight at the vampires she'd been fighting.

Her heart clutched in her chest. Could these be...?

"Suki, get down!" she heard Sokka yell, and she dropped to the ground as he led his
troops to engage the vampire guard. Hunched over she moved to the rear of the
guard to catch her breath before returning to the fight.

The last thing she remembered before she passed out from blood-loss was Sokka's
bright blue eyes smiling down at her while letting her know they'd won.

"But what about Katara?" she asked, but he didn't hear her.



In the meantime.

The Audi squealed to a stop in the garage, the automatic door already closing
behind him.

The vampire prince activated his security system on the keypad before he opened
his door, and before he heard it beep into activation had already flown around to
Katara's side.

Unbuckling and picking her up, he noted her heartbeat and pulse had both stopped.
She had ceased breathing a few minutes before. He refused to give up, though.

I'm not losing you again, he vowed.

He rushed from the garage up the stairs to his bedroom and placed her on the bed
before straightening & stripping the rest of his shirt off and taking a few deep,
calming breaths.

He lay down overtop of her, taking care to balance his weight on his elbows and legs
and not on her.

"Looks like we're back to this again," he whispered to her, reaching his hand up to
his neck. With a thought his nails sharpened to claws and he didn't bother flinching
to break the skin at the base of his throat.

Balancing his weight mostly on one elbow, he pulled her head up to him, and placed
her mouth over the wound on his neck when the blood seeped up.
"You'll forgive me later, right?" he wanted to ask her, but with his arm around her,
what he wanted most of all wasn't her forgiveness, it was just to hear her heart beat
again. Night fell outside the windows.

Downstairs in his garage, in his car, his cellphone buzzed again and again, unknown
to him.

When he felt he'd given her enough of his lifeblood, he bent his head forward and
held onto Katara, turning onto his side, and then his back and pulling her on top of
him. He pulled the blankets up over them both and closed his eyes, rubbing his hand
over her back to try and help move his blood through her cold body.

He didn't fall asleep, but the motions soothed him into a lull and he continued
through the night.

It was a long, long time… but he felt it the moment it started again.

Her heart beat.

Katara? His eyes opened again in the darkness and he sat up a bit, still keeping her
close to his naked torso.

Another beat.

She took a breath. It shuddered, then flowed smoothly into an exhale.

Wake up. He pleaded, gazing at her face.

She breathed again, and her heart beat stronger.

Wake. Up.

He felt her breath flow softly through her open mouth, over her lips that had been
cracked and blistered from the fire.

The lips were smooth now, her cheeks slowly getting their colour back, her skin as
clear as the day she'd been born.

Zuko couldn't pull his eyes from Katara's mouth.

The entire house was quiet, and he had no idea what time it was.

But the more he looked at her, the more he wanted her, and he felt longing grow in
his belly.
Slowly, ever so slowly, his hands moved to her sides, and he pulled her up higher on
him. He stifled a groan as her body slid over a particularly sensitive organ. Sitting
up a bit against the headboard, he held her close and let her legs fall on either side
of him, and buried his face in her hair a moment. He breathed her in, the way he
hadn't been able to do in generations. Even through the smells of smoke and fire, he
knew it was her.

His teeth lengthened in his mouth, and automatically his head turned to her neck.

No, no not yet…

Pulling back, he forced his teeth to behave themselves, even if he couldn't keep other
areas of his anatomy from obeying him.

He settled his head back against the headboard, thinking.

Over a hundred years… and she was finally back in his arms again.

He closed his eyes a moment and breathed deeply.

What would she say? Would she remember?

Would it come back to her, as clearly as his memories haunted him?

"Katara?" he said in a soft, low voice. He held her close and brushed a lock of her
hair from her face. "Katara, can you hear me?"

She stirred.

He sat up straighter and pulled back so he could look at her clearly, hopeful.

Katara's dark eyelids flickered then scrunched shut.

"Katara?" he repeated a third time, and brought a hand to her cheek.

Her eyes flickered again.

It was agonizing; he waited with baited breath for her to wake. Several minutes
went by, but her eyes remained stubbornly shut, and her breathing evened out into
sleep.

He couldn't stand it anymore. He brought his face closer to hers.

When he brought her mouth to his she moaned in her sleep, unhappy at being
stirred. His lips closed over hers, sealing them together. She stopped moaning
unhappily. It became the very opposite of unhappy.
Katara, he thought. Finally…

He felt her loosen in his grasp, soften, and her hands moved up, up along his still-
exposed chest, under the blankets.

He deepened the kiss when he felt her tilt her head slightly and accept.

Finally.



Katara slept and dreamed, but felt confusion, anxiety. It wasn't a restful sleep, not
really. She knew she'd been hurt but now she wasn't; she was in her apartment and
then she couldn't remember what happened next.

But wherever she was now, she was warm, and wanted to keep resting, but she knew
she wanted something else more. She felt something growing, a heat, an expectation
inside her, and she clung to it, fed it, did as it bid her to do to feel more of it move
within her. It was coursing through every part of her…

It was as this warm, pleasant urge filled every inch of her that she noticed she was
warm on the outside, too. Someone was holding her preciously; she was wrapped in
blankets. Someone was touching her, rubbing her back and squeezing her hips, and
kissing her like it was nobody's business.

A part of her brain figured out that much, but not who.

Jet sure doesn't treat me like this, she thought fuzzily to herself, and then felt
whoever it was growl in his throat and turn them both over, until he was on top,
pinning her to the mattress and sinking into her, his mouth moving from hers to
nuzzle at her throat.

This guy knows exactly what he's doing, and he's doing it all right. Her urge became
more primal, more base, and Katara felt her hips move against his of their own
volition. Oh crap, I need to wake up. I at least need to know who the hell can make me
feel so good, because if this is a crazy one-night stand I will kill this guy if I never see
him again. She thought this even as she found their hands suddenly both fumbling
for their trouser zippers.

Sighing, she pulled her head back and away from the man with the magic hands and
opened her eyes.

Even in the dark his scar was obvious.

She choked on her next breath.
"Zuko!"



Her hands were moving along his front and latched onto his fly. Breathing harshly
he groaned and ground against her before helping her undo his top button, then
moved on to help her remove her own pants.

Too long, far too long, he thought to himself. Just another few inches and we'll be…

He heard her suck in her breath, and gasp.

"Zuko!"

Yes, and? He thought to himself in frustration, eyes still closed. Come on, we were
thisclose…

The next thing he knew he was flat on his back on the floor, and he was almost sure
she'd punched right through his chest it ached so badly.

"Mph," he mumbled, and lay there a moment so she wouldn't attack again. He was
glad he'd landed on his back and not his front. The dull ache in his head disagreed,
but the throbbing in his still-attached, confining trousers insisted.

"What the—where am I—How dare you—Just what the—."

She couldn't seem to decide on what to think or do.

But he didn't want to attract her attention too quickly either and have her land a
second beating on him, so he moved slowly into a sitting position. And he stayed on
the floor.

Zuko waited while she ran through all the motions of an affronted female.

As she became increasingly incoherent, he closed his eyes. Laid back down on his
back on the floor. Put an arm over his eyes.

"What are you doing? How dare you go to sleep? Did you bring me here? What are
you thinking? What were you planning to do? Do you know who I know? Do you
know how much trouble you're going to be in when Toph finds out about this—."

"You keep the bed," he said finally, taking his arm from across his arms. "I'm
going to the guest room down the hall. There's a phone beside you. Call Toph."
He rolled to his feet and walked slowly to the door, holding onto it with one hand,
and turned to look at her. From where he stood, the way he was angled, all Katara
saw was the un-scarred side of his profile in the semi-darkness. Some memory? Part
of her imagination? superimposed that unblemished profile onto the other side of his
face, but he wasn't at a solid door, he was opening a tent flap and saying goodbye to
her; she was wearing animal skins and kneeling on a woven pad.

Katara tilted her head slightly to get a better look, but the image disappeared and
all that was left was a half-naked Zuko looking at her as if he wanted to eat her
whole… and deep down, she started and recognized that part of her wouldn't mind
that at all.

Of course he had to ruin it by opening his mouth, and it was back to normal-Zuko
again.

"I'm going to leave a message on Bumi's extension that I'm sick and you're looking
after me today, so we won't be in at the office for the next while. Go to bed."

With that, he turned away and she heard his light footsteps pad down the hall until
a door closed with a quiet, perfunctory click. The sound of his low, raspy voice for a
moment or two flowed down the hall to her, and then was silent.

Katara looked around and saw a clock that glowed 6:37 on the bookshelf across the
room.

She wanted to keep looking, but she felt like she was invading Zuko's privacy. He
brought me here, though…

She picked up the phone receiver and dialed Toph's number. It rang straight
through to her voicemail.

"Hi Toph, this is Katara. I'm with Zuko. I mean, at Zuko's," she corrected herself
immediately and felt her neck tighten in mortification. Slip. "I'm going to rest here
for a bit. I'll call you later. You'll have to get his number from your Caller-ID,
sorry, I have no idea what it is." Oh this is going to settle Toph's overprotective
feelings real well, she thought sarcastically. "I'm fine. I'll call you later," she
promised again. "Bye."

She hung up, feeling a bit more balanced. Not much, but a bit.

A little bit later she lay back down to sleep, staring at the ceiling and telling herself
her body did not still feel thrilling fires in every single spot Zuko had touched her.



TBC.
AN: Kudos to those who catch the LJ Smith references. ;)
AN: Also, thank you to Avatargirl92 for bringing up something I forgot to add in a
previous chapter - I hope this chapter helped clear up a few things.
AN: Thank you for reading!

/this chapter first posted October 4, 2008.


Chapter 26: Chapter 26


Author: moor / beyondthemoor on LJ
Title: Merits
Part : Twenty five
Genre: Romance/humour/vamp/Modern AU
Fandom: Avatar: TLA
Pairing: Zutara, Jetara
Length: 4000 words, approx...
Rating: M
Disclaimer : "Avatar: The Last Airbender" and all related rights belong to their
original creators… I am not among their ranks.
AN: In response to hyperoo' s vampire/Zutara challenge, I present…



Part Twenty five

She. Smelled. Terrible.

Katara wrinkled her nose and looked around the room for the hundredth time. She
could see every detail in the wood panels of the bookcase, down to their grain, could
read the titles of the novels within it, could count the threads of the sheets she'd slept
so soundly in, much to her surprise. She could smell the faint traces of Zuko on
those same sheets, and on herself.

And it wasn't just her sight and smell that had sharpened; Katara remembered,
now, how she'd thrown Zuko off herself effortlessly hours earlier. She could have
really hurt him if she'd gone after him a second time. (She stowed that knowledge
away for later in case he tried anything when her back was turned.) Her focus
landed on her hand. All the little hair-width scars that had criss-crossed her hands
from the rough work she'd done as a young teenager to earn money had
disappeared. In fact, she felt fantastic, like she'd never been sick a day in her life.

But it was her sense of smell now that made her stomach roil slightly. She really,
really needed a bath. Who knew that getting into some kind of accident at her
apartment and ending up having almost-sex with her co-worker and then sleeping
for 12 hours straight could leave a girl so less-than-fresh?

Overcoming the uncomfortable feeling she was snooping, Katara got up and started
looking around Zuko's bedroom for a shelf or drawer where her 'host' might keep
his towels. She saw his hanging on the door of his closet… but she wasn't
comfortable or bold (or desperate) enough yet to resort to them.

Maybe there's a linen closet outside, by the bathroom? She wondered hopefully, and,
after grabbing Zuko's robe from the end of the bed to cover herself, she peeked
outside the room into the hallway.

Now where is the bathroom?...



He heard her first cautious steps when she woke and explored his room; then as she
padded down the hall in her bare feet, quietly opening each door she passed.

She paused outside his door.

At the last moment, he closed his eyes and pretended to still be asleep.

Katara knocked lightly and peeked her head through the door a crack.

"… Zuko?" she whispered uncomfortably.

"Mmph?"

"Where do you keep your spare towels? And your bathroom? Please," she added as
an afterthought. She was trying not to look at him, he noticed, instead choosing to
study the floor and when she opened the door a bit more saw she'd wrapped his
robe around herself and tied it securely with what looked like a knot of nautical
proportions. The detailed, hand-woven area rug that led to the spare bed he was
pretending to sleep on seemed too enthralling to allow simple, boring him to distract
her attention.

Yep, she thinks the worst of me right now, part of his consciousness piped up
cheerfully. If she had a chastity belt, she'd be bolting it on…

Without a word, he pushed his covers back—almost chuckling when Katara turned
180 degrees around to wait in the hall and give him his privacy—and grabbed a pair
of jeans and sweater he'd collected earlier when he'd snuck back into his own room
while his guest slept on.
Yet the feeling he had from her, as much as she tried to bury them under the coat of
nonchalance she wore, was that she didn't find him repulsive… It was rather of
trying to deny, or avoid confronting her feelings of attraction to him. He knew, since
he could still feel enough of his own life-blood in hers and could still sense her
conflicting urges as they pulsed through her. The way her blood-pressure had
spiked when he'd pulled his blankets back had stirred him, too, he couldn't deny it.

But for the time being, she was his 'guest', and would see to her needs.

"Follow me," and he led her down the hall and around a corner.

He didn't pay much attention to the decorating as they walked, but Katara seemed
to get distracted by the simple, elegant furnishings and paintings that sparsely
adorned the walls.

"Where is this one from?" she asked, stopping in front of an ink-brush picture of a
lonely hinterland landscape. It stood out from the others not only due to its subject
matter, but also its…

Katara looked at it more closely. There was something about it, about this
particular picture...

Zuko stopped and glanced over at her steadily from his heavy-lidded eyes.

"My family travelled extensively," he replied evasively.

"Did they ever go up to the Northern Lands? Into the Territories?" she asked
eagerly, reaching a finger out towards the painting, drawn to it.

Automatically Zuko's hand shot out and circled her wrist, stopping her fingers from
connecting with the worn animal-skin parchment. Even if it was protected by glass
and frame, uneasiness rippled through him at the notion of contact between the
painting and the woman beside him.

"There's nothing of interest to them there," anymore, he said, and turned away,
releasing her when she looked at him in surprise. "The bathroom's over here, next
door on your right," he opened it and entered, not waiting for her to catch up. It led
into a second room from there, and he turned on all the lights and opened a few
cupboards for her. "There are towels inside on the shelves, and I'll bring you some
clothes to wear in the meantime. Use anything you need."

Holding the robe close and closed at her neck, Katara looked around and nodded.
"Thanks."
"I'll knock and leave clothes just inside the first door. Close this connecting door for
privacy," he was already preparing to leave. He stopped with his hand on the
doorknob, about to close the door behind him when he took a step back in again.

"This keypad by the door – you'll see it in every room. If you need me for anything,
press 1. It'll go to my cellphone. If I'm not there and something happens, hit 9-1-1."

He felt the surge in her blood pressure and tried not to shudder. Her feelings were
so strong, calling to him. Almost literally, she was pulling at him, drawing him to
her.

"What do you mean, 'if something happens'? Where are you going?" Her eyes
narrowed to slits for a second, suspiciously, but he didn't miss the way her jaw
worked a moment longer, the way she swallowed nervously and glanced away, brow
furrowed, before looking back at him in challenge.

It took everything in him not to rush to her and pull her into his arms to comfort
her and tell her not to worry, he'd take care of everything. But he was concerned it
would scare her more if he were to do so. If you only knew, only remembered, the
wistful thought surfaced briefly before disappearing again. Reminding himself he'd
waited a long time and could wait some more, he sighed.

"I'm going to go shower in the downstairs bathroom, and then I'm going to go get
breakfast. Er, lunch, probably, by now…" Zuko explained, glancing at the windows
and measuring their slant of light. "Do you need anything else?"

The mortified look on her face said, 'Yes, but I'm too embarrassed to ask' and was
promptly followed by an awkward silence.

He waited a moment longer in agony, but when she didn't volunteer anything he
growled and rubbed his hand down his face. "OK, how about I let you know when
I'm going? We'll go out together."

"I'll dial 1 when I'm ready," she promised immediately, and ushered him out of the
bathroom. Just as she was about to close the door on him, she glanced up, a bit
hesitantly, to look him in the face.

"What?"

"… um, it may take me a while to get all this smoke out of my hair," it wasn't fear
in her voice, or anger or frustration, but there was something behind her forced-
casual tones that kept him just outside the door, listening to her trying to ask for
something without saying it, that he couldn't ignore or walk away. "Could you just
stick around until I'm done? Not in here, I mean," she suddenly reddened, "but, uh,
it may take me a while. Just, if you could not go out, anywhere, until I'm completely
ready?"
"I need to clean the car and dump our clothes in the wash anyway. Just leave what
you have on now outside the door, and I'll toss everything in after my shower. Take
your time," he added, and with a quick look in her eyes tried to assure her he
wouldn't make a move without her knowing it. "I said we'd go together."

"… Thanks."

He gave a quick grunt in answer and accepted her nod of appreciation as she closed
the door gently between them.

Zuko waited outside the door until he heard the sounds of the shower alternately
sluicing off Katara's body or pounding the tile walls as she moved in and out of the
steady pressure. It was only when he remembered he had to go take his own shower
that he pulled his forehead back from her door, where he'd been resting it, trying to
calm himself, and let his hands unclench and drop from their iron grip on the
frame.

He didn't bother turning on the hot water for his own shower.



"… troops are either sleeping or recovering, regular watch has been established
around the perimeter of the compound, Suki's coming around in the sick bay. And
as far as we can see, Long Feng's little army have pulled back to their stronghold to
regroup and are staying quiet," the voice over the secure-transmission line informed
Toph as she sat in her private study with her feet on her desk.

"Keep an eye on Long Feng and let us know if we have any chance of getting our
spies out of his camp alive," Toph instructed. "I don't like going forward with no
intel, but we're gonna need every hand we can get ready if they spring an assault on
the main house."

"Yes ma'am."

"Good job, out."

At the coffee table before her, Aang and Sokka sat huddled quietly over their
lunches, exhaustion etched into the lines of their faces, both refusing her orders to
go get some rest until they'd heard the latest status reports.

"So we know she's alive, we know she's with Zuko, but why you won't give us
Zuko's address?"

Not for the first time that day, Toph let her head roll back against her oversize chair
and stared blindly at the ceiling.
"Because I think Long Feng's watching us all. The moment he sees us move, he's
going to have a dozen tails on us and he'll follow us directly to where Zuko and
Katara are. We'll be delivering them right into his hands. We don't have enough
people ready yet to protect them from that kind of onslaught."

"But you're sure she's alive and ok?"

"Yes, she's just fine. She called me when I was in the sick bay working on healing
Suki's fractures. I got the message when I left. She was coherent and everything,"
though the coherence and hesitation were questionable, but Toph wasn't about to
admit that to the men in her midst.

"How do we know Long Feng doesn't already know where Zuko lives?"

"Stop. Just stop," Sokka looked beseechingly at Aang for his latest outburst.
"Please, just stop."

Realising what his insensitive words had implied, Aang paled. "Sokka, I'm sorry, I
didn't mean it that way."

"Toph, could you call when you hear anything from her again? Please?"

"Sure. Door's open, go shower & get some rest," she waved her hand in the
direction of the master bedroom and heard him drag himself out of his chair and
through the doors to her room, pulling it softly shut behind him.

Toph shifted her feet on her desk slightly, and continued staring at the ceiling.

"I'm really sorry, Toph."

"Don't worry, Zuko's a man of his word. She's fine. I'll see if I can set up a
conference call with them so we can work out how to keep her safe. Now go to bed."

When he left and she was alone, Toph faintly detected the sounds of Sokka's feet
shuffling back from the bathroom and then him collapsing into her bed. She knew
he could use a bit of comfort, but her thoughts were confusing, and she didn't like
uncertainty. She'd no doubt end up kicking him in her angsting and tossing. A few
more minutes to herself wouldn't be a bad thing, to try and calm her most troubling
thoughts.

Mostly, how had Zuko brought Katara 'back' when Toph had felt her friend's life-
force leave her?

Because she knew it had; Katara had… passed. Of that she was dead certain. When
the young witch had felt Katara's last breath leave her lungs, as she could detect the
passing of life with people she was so emotionally attached to, she thought her own
breath had ceased. It had bewildered, then terrified her as the full meaning of that
absence had sunk in. A piece of her own self felt like it had been eclipsed or shorn
off, an indispensable part of her own being broken loose.

But then, hours later she'd felt a surge of energy, and her best friend's breath and
heartbeat had started again.

And then the call, the hesitant, attempting-to-be-reassuring-yet-failing call to let her
know she was 'fine'. Which was a total lie. Even over the phone she'd been able to
tell that much.

But… What had happened?

Toph had a bad feeling about what she was starting to think had transpired, and
how it had probably involved Zuko Sozin's vampiric intervention.



Zuko hated grocery shopping.

Katara loved it.

Zuko hated shoe shopping.

Katara loved it.

Zuko hated 'bargain' shopping.

Katara loved it.

Zuko REALLY hated 'pharmacy' shopping down aisles full of feminine hygiene
products.

Katara ignored him standing frigidly behind her, emasculated in a certain aspect, as
she hummed and hawed over which painkillers and tampons to buy. (She had no
idea if hers had survived back at her apartment, so she might as well stock up, she
figured.)

"Is there anything I can get you from any other aisles?" he finally asked, still
looking anywhere but at The Stuff on the shelves in front of them.

For a moment, her subconscious eagerly piped up, "The rubbers are at the far end
of this aisle, if you wanna pick up where we left off this morning." But she kept her
subconscious subdued and just shook her head. "I think I'm good, but is it ok if we
take a quick look around in case I forgot anything?"
Resisting the urge to drag her bodily from the pharmacy, Zuko forced himself to
nod (though tightly) and helped carry all her shopping bags out while she carried
her recent finds to the counter for purchase…



"What did you want for supper?" He pointed absently at the row of restaurants
nearby.

"We just bought food. I'll make supper."

"… are you sure?"

"What, you think I can't cook?"

"No! No, I just thought you'd want to rest after all that shopping, and-."

"I don't need to rest, I rested all morning, and I'm not letting all this food go to
waste!"

"Ok! Ok! Fine, we're going straight home."

"You mean you're taking me back to my apartment. Because I need to go back to
work tomorrow, you know, and so do you, and we aren't taking off more sick time
because it's wrong to make others take on our workload. So back to my apartment
now, please."

"…"

It was going to be a long, loud, argumentative drive back to his home. He could feel
it in his bones. And in hers, though fainter than he would have heard it had it still
been that morning.

Somewhat pained, Zuko finished loading the bags into the trunk and entered the
now-warm car that idled, Katara already buckled into 'her' seat, the front
passenger. A glance at her determined face resigned him to what he had to do.

"What's Toph's phone number?"



Some time later…

"Your mail has been forwarded here for the next while-."

WHAM.
"Your belongings and personal effects are being salvaged from the apartment, and
the restoration crews will be there by Tuesday next week-."

BANG.

"You can return to work next week; Bumi's allowed us both some 'stress leave' due
to the accident. By the way, he said he hopes we 'reconcile our differences' and are
ready to decorate our office for some kind of 'end of term theme party'…"

CRUNCH-CRACK.

"… And Toph said your property management company is looking into the gas
leak, and ."

FOOM!

"…Do you need any help with dinner?" asked Zuko tentatively as Katara hurled
another stainless steel pan viciously on the stove to simmer. On the next burner
over, the frying pan exploded with a burst of flame as she turned to it to flambé…
something. He couldn't remember what they'd bought that afternoon anymore.
After the murderous slicing Katara had inflicted on it with his chef's blades, and
then her blunt dumping of the contents from the chopping board into different pots
for boiling, steaming or frying, he was beginning to get the impression she hadn't
taken any of his updates as 'good news'.

"What, do you think I'm incompetent in the kitchen?" she snapped, brandishing a
cleaver Ratatouille-style in front of him.

"No, but hostile and dangerous are close contenders," came to mind, but he knew
better than to admit fear out loud around a caged animal.

"Call if you need me."

"Right, dial 1 on the keypad," she muttered sarcastically to herself, and went back
to stirring and stabbing the frying pan with a pair of extra-long chopsticks.



Some time later still…

"… Does it taste ok?"

Zuko glanced up at the chef from his place at the table, and nodded. He felt like
walking on eggshells around her, she was so temperamental that evening. Was she
always like this? "Yeah, tastes fine." He ducked his head down before remembering
his manners and adding, "thank you."
That wasn't the correct answer.

A slender, dark brown eyebrow arched over a blue eye. "Fine?"

Zuko vowed that night to somehow, someway, get Toph's direct number from
Katara's cellphone directory. Going through Aang wasn't working. And he could
really use Toph-scale reinforcements to deal with the 'Sugar Queen'…

Zuko racked his mind to find a way to salvage the situation. "Uh, would you like
some," calming, "jasmine tea?" he asked desperately, already jumping up and
moving to the cupboard.

The barrage paused.

"Yes, please…"

Uncle, someday, somehow, I will repay you for your guidance, the vampire vowed
silently in gratitude.



She still hadn't called him back.

Jet paced back and forth in the snow outside the park near his building. He'd felt
too claustrophobic to go home after work, and had kept walking since his shift
ended.

In the cold night air his nostrils flared and he felt a wildness creep in and overtake
him, fueled by his panic and anger. His breathing was harsh in the bitter chill, and
his lungs seared by frost, but still he paced, faster and faster, around and through
the park, searching for any sign of Katara.

Memories of his last conversation with Long Feng trailed through his mind,
enraging him further.

"Perhaps you shouldn't keep looking for her," the man had said sympathetically,
looking away from Jet. "She… may not want to be found… right now…"

Jet had whirled on him, so furious the hair on his arms stood upright.

"What does that mean!"

"Oh, nothing, nothing, please accept my apologies, I was just… thinking aloud."

Long Feng had watched him, slowly, before speaking again.
"How much does Katara know about you, Jet?"

"She knows all about my past," he'd spat back. "I've moved on, I'm a good person
now. Katara knows and accepts me, everything about me."

"She knows 'everything' about you?" asked Long Feng casually.

Jet's lips pulled back angrily as he bared his teeth at the man. "What are you
insinuating? Of course she does!" Tremors overtook his arms and he moved faster,
pacing back and forth through the meeting room, wearing a path down through the
carpet. His eyes raced back and forth from the doors to the windows and back again.

"How long has it been since you left your pack?"

The air rushing in and out of Jet's lungs stopped, choking him; his eyes bulged as he
staggered to a stop to stare at Long Feng's calculating smile. The older man's reptilian
eyes stared back, and his gold watch glinted like a snake coiled around his wrist.

Jet's heartbeat came to a sudden halt; then started again, jack-hammering inside him,
nearly to the point of pain. His pulse rushed in his ears, he could hear his own panic in
their rhythm.

Long Feng simply sat as cold-heartedly as ever, staring straight back at him.

"Did you think I didn't know?" the vampire continued disdainfully, propping his chin
on his hand. "Haven't you told Katara your little secret?"

At Jet's silence, Long Feng's smile deepened, his chin tucking in slightly as shadows
were cast under his eyes in the dim light. He stood, and took his turn pacing slowly,
circling Jet and appraising him.

"I bet she's never seen the 'real you', and that you'd do anything to stop her knowing,"
he said softly, playing on the emotions that Jet couldn't conceal quickly enough.

"You're lying. I don't have to listen to this," spat the young man, shaking himself free
of the vampire's trance and backing away towards the door.

"Sooner or later she's going to find out. She's going to see you for what you really are.
She'll either leave you out of disgust, or suffer from a wound your instincts will inflict
on her. I've known your kind a long time, Jet…," the smooth, cruel voice stopped
inches from his over-sensitive ear. "And I know a lone wolf doesn't walk alone because
he wants to; it's because he's been rejected, abandoned."

"Shut up." Jet fumbled for the door handle.

"It's because he was dangerous to those around him."
"I said, shut up."

"He's started going crazy and hurt someone beyond healing."

"Shut. Up!"

The door slammed behind Jet as he stormed from the room, already feeling the urge to
shift cascading through him in ever-increasing waves.

Not here, not here, not here…

He'd run the entire way home, and kept running until he'd burned his nervous energy
off and dragged himself to bed, half-dead with exhaustion.

Jet looked up at the night sky and took a deep, cleansing breath. He hated his other
form, found it vile-.

… the scents on the evening breeze brought with them the evidence he was
searching for; a hint of Zuko's car, Katara's perfume…

-but there were sometimes occasions when his other form was more useful,
practical, than his human body.

Closing his eyes and walking into the park's forest, Jet let his instincts take over and
felt the shiver of the change start to take hold of him. He'd never undertaken a shift
when he'd been so calm, so controlled, but the familiarity of the transition he
experienced was almost comfortable that night. He enjoyed it this time.

The pads of his paws touched the frozen ground with soft thuds, hardly disturbing
the patterns of now-silent wildlife around him. Hardly, but not quite. They could
sense when there was a predator in their midst.

Tempering the growl that rumbled in his throat, Jet shook himself and tilted his
muzzle to the air. I'll find you…

If he couldn't find Katara while he was a man…

… he'd find her...

... as a wolf.



TBC.
AN: My apologies for the long delay between chaps… I'm so sorry!
AN: Please enjoy the usual LJ Smith & Buffy refs. (And I hope you like this
chapter!)

THANK YOU for reading! This chap's dedicated to all of you who keep fav'ing this
story, putting it on your 'watch' lists, and leaving me such fantastic comments.
Hyperoo, I owe you for convincing me not to dump this fic in a back road ditch. 8)

This chapter first posted Nov 27 2008.

PS: If you find errors (spelling, grammatical, plot-wise, etc.) please let me know in
the Comments/Reviews or a PM! (You'll be doing me a favour since I keep missing
them, grr! It's embarrassing to me to find them later…like 2 months later when I'm
too lazy to go back and make changes…urk.)

Not sure if this matters, but… I'm coming up to my 2-year anniversary on this site
next week – I'm trying to post chaps for a few of my stories to celebrate. Expect a
new chapter or two in various stories, and a new VK fic, in December as another
installment of me 'celebrating'. See you in Dec!


Chapter 27: Chapter 27


Author: moor / beyondthemoor on LJ
Title: Merits
Part : Twenty six
Genre: Romance/humour/vamp/Modern AU
Fandom: Avatar: TLA
Pairing: Zutara, Jetara
Length: 4700 words, approx...
Rating: M
Disclaimer : "Avatar: The Last Airbender" and all related rights belong to their
original creators… I am not among their ranks.
AN: In response to hyperoo' s vampire/Zutara challenge, I present…



Part Twenty six

"I'm heading out."

Katara glanced up from her book of legends. Surrounded by piles of paperwork,
annotated bibliographies and medical texts, it took a moment for her to refocus her
attention on the speaker. She nodded distantly, her mind still processing… whatever
she was working on, as far as Zuko would tell.
"Uh-huh. Will you be back soon?"

"… I'll be back by midnight. I have an appointment."

Another 'appointment'?

Katara nodded, already turning back to her notes. She wondered briefly if he was
going to pick up a blond or a brunette to screw around with in his car that night.
Then she scrunched her eyes shut and tried to will away the next mental image that
popped into her head. Because it made her jealous, of all things, and she couldn't
figure out why.

She really had to do something about her crazy imagination these days…

Zuko was gone before she'd picked her book back up again. She was sure she could
fit in at least another few hours of work. And Zuko was a good alarm-clock when it
came to judging time. Whenever he'd come in, late at night and reeking of cheap
perfume, he'd always ask her why she was still up. And she'd always ask what time
it was, then groan and start tidying her table up, knowing it was time for bed. And
then glare at him for smelling like a trashy gigolo and presumably enjoying himself
while she was sitting 'home', alone, with nothing but her work. And yet she missed
him when he wasn't there. It was infuriating. Simply infuriating.

She knew she was perfectly capable of staying up late and doing the work… and
then maybe even going out, dare she humiliatingly admit, with Zuko the way she
wanted, to learn more about him. To try and figure out what it was about him that
kept fascinating her. Especially that week while she & Zuko were 'off work' from
the office, and without her teaching responsibilities (which luckily the other grad
students had helped cover for her), she finally had the time to spend… relaxing.

…Apart from her paper on the porphyria legends she was still trying to complete.

Katara leaned back in her chair and rubbed her eyes with the heel of her hand.
There was always something.

She'd sent a letter of inquiry to a historical and cultural expert from her tribe and
was still waiting for a reply. So far, nothing yet.

"Get back to work and forget about him," she said to herself in the now-quiet,
empty room. She wasn't sure whether she was trying to forget about the long-
awaited reply, or Zuko. It was hard, though. It seemed that since temporarily
moving in with Zuko Sozin, he'd filled her senses. She looked around, she saw him.
She worked, she could hear him. She went to sleep, and she could smell his scent on
the clothes she'd borrowed from him. When she cooked—now that she'd become
more familiar with his kitchen, she did all their cooking—she fantasized she could
practically taste him, licking the spoons she cooked with before cornering her
against the counter, pressing into her as he'd lean down and ask her if she wanted to
try what he could cook up…

"Get back to work and forget about him," she repeated again as she slapped the
colour from her cheeks.

Yet there was another person she was forgetting in all of this transition.

A few hours later, closing in on ten thirty, Katara noticed a scratching sound
coming from the rear of the house. From outside the rear of the house. She wasn't
familiar with that area of the dwelling, never having bothered exploring that far.
Was there another entrance?

"Zuko?"

Her call echoed down the halls of the sprawling residence.

"Zuko, did you forget your key?" Did he forget his key and the garage door
opener? Her mind questioned her suspiciously.

There was no answer.

After a moment or two of silence, the scratching picked up again, this time
accompanied by a high-pitched whining.

Whatever it is is outside the house, so it will stay there, she told herself firmly, and
proceeded to ignore it. Ferociously. Stubbornly… And partly in vain, as she spent
just as much time talking herself out of going to investigate it anyway.

Because you already have too many problems on your plate, Katara. Do you really
need any backyard monsters or boogeymen scaring the crap out of you alone in the
dark right now? No. You need it about as much as you need a sexy new skullett. Case
closed. Keep studying.

She pretended to ignore it for a good twenty minutes, reading and re-reading the
same page of her book a half-dozen times before finally dropping it on the coffee
table in exasperation when the sound adamantly refused to let up. It was difficult to
halt her teeth grinding together as she glared down the hallway the sounds
emanated from.

"Zuko, I swear, if this is a joke…"

The whining and scratching grated on her last nerve and forced Katara into action.
With a disgusted sound, she set off to find out what was haunting the rear of the
house.
She hadn't spent too much time exploring this area of the building, and she took a
few wrong turns before reaching the source of the noise. It always surprised her
how large the house actually was indoors. The exterior was very misleading.

As she made her way down each twist and dead-end in the maze of corridors, she
flipped on the overhead lights and stubbornly maintained her stomping, just to
make it clear how upset she was to anyone within hearing or vibration distance. If
anyone was wondering just what she thought of their prank and-or visit, by gosh it
would be pretty evident by her resounding warpath.

Stalking to the rear of the house, Katara found her way to a back door that opened
up onto a rear patio she had neither seen before, nor been aware of. Then, through
the window at the side of the door, she saw a bulky shadow fall across the doorstep.

It wasn't the shadow of a man.

…Which in her mind pretty much ruled out any notion it could be Zuko. And she
started wondering if she was in over her head…

The scratching of nails against the door clawed at Katara's nerves, and she heard
faint snuffling, whining sounds again, too. The hulking shadow stalked away, then
returned, passing by the window and Katara caught a glimpse of the animal's full
size.

It was the largest timber wolf she'd ever seen… and she'd grown up in the Northern
Territories. Wolves, while not a part of her every day childhood life, were common
enough in the denser woods she'd been raised near. But this one's sheer enormity
made the hair on her arms stand up and her pulse beat a warning in her ear.

What was such a creature doing here, in Ba Sing Se?

Then the wolf stopped, and as if sensing her presence on the other side of the door,
stood still as a frozen lake. Through the window, it observed her.

… and as Katara heard her pulse rushing through her and her breath releasing in a
gasp, something about the way the beast looked at her felt eerily familiar.



He'd found her.

Jet kept his tongue inside his mouth, though he was thirsty from exhaustion after
trailing her all day. He wanted to pant to get more air, but found himself immobile
as he gazed at her.

It was her, it was her, she was alive!
Narrowing his canine eyes, he noticed what he thought were changes, though. The
glass distorted his vision and he longed to see her properly. To touch her, to smell
her, to…

He paused.

But how to talk to her?

Don't pace, don't pace, you'll look like any stupid, stray animal, he reminded himself
in frustration, coming up with a plan while he watched her.

First, sit. She needs to think you're tame, or she's going to panic.

And with that, he turned, walked a few steps back, and went to lie down a few feet
away from the door, facing the window. It was then he let his tongue loll out and
crossed his paws in front of him. He could fake acting like a dog for a bit, if it meant
gaining her trust in this form.

Yes. He would wait for her. As long as it took.

Because he knew, despite all her skepticism, she was curious and inherently
trusting.

He'd always recognized how easily she trusted others.



The brunette under him giggled annoyingly, again, before pulling back in a tease to
dart away from his mouth. Again…

"So how come you're so mysterious?" she said, lifting a hand to toy with his hair as
it fell into his face.

Trying to school his face into a not-scowl, Zuko smiled tightly. Great, another one
who wanted to prolong the inevitable. All he wanted was a decent meal. Zuko felt his
teeth retract painfully; he was starving. He still hadn't fed that week, since Katara
had been attacked and then moved in with him. It was getting difficult to remain
even-tempered around her, and to look at her without sensing the beat of her pulse
beneath her dusky skin. Just thinking about her, waiting at home for him, made him
crave her more.

"I just work a lot," he replied, returning to the meal at hand. "It's hard to meet
people."

"So what made you want to meet me?" she asked coquettishly, twisting and
wriggling suggestively beneath him but ducking out of his mouth's reach once more.
Don't rip her throat out, you've dealt with more annoying idiots than this. It's been
days since you last fed, and you gave Katara your blood recently and you're just getting
a bit strung out and hungry. Zuko repeated this to himself for the fourth time, and
resigned himself to keep trying.

But his patience was wearing thin. It was time for his last-resort tactic: sexy-voice.
Lowering his tone, he smiled soulfully and said, "I thought you were special,"with a
capital 'S', added his cynical side. He made to lean over her throat again when she
gasped and her hand suddenly grasped her jeans pocket.

"Oh my god, that's, like, my phone! It's on vibrate!"

Zuko's teeth ground together hard enough to nearly crack a fang.

Of course she answered, and then became increasingly distracted by her friend's
"Oh my god, like, crisis!", and he wasn't surprised when she immediately asked to
be taken home to see if she could help her friend fix her devastatingly failed attempt
at doing her own highlights... while drunk.

His car wove neatly through the streets as she yammered away on her phone. He'd
be going hungry for another night, it seemed.



Katara stared at the wolf through the window.

It stayed exactly where it was, watching her with its head on its crossed front paws.

Puzzled by how disciplined it seemed, she moved a bit closer to the window by the
firmly closed, securely locked door.

The wolf remained where it was.

She was now close enough to touch her fingertips, then her full palm to the cool
glass that separated them, still fascinated by the beautiful, rugged animal outside.
Out in the elements, and outside his natural element, too. Something inside her
twisted faintly in sympathy, and she realized it was homesickness.

"What are you doing so far from home?" she wondered aloud, wistfully.

Outside, the wind gusted strongly and she saw the long, shaggy fur blow crosswise,
the large animal hunkering down and tucking his paws and nose further under his
body as a result. Even with his thick winter coat, he was getting cold, the poor beast.

Another strong wind blew, and the wolf shrugged into himself further, whining
slightly. He held her gaze with his own through it all.
He's suffering sitting so still in this weather, she realized. Why is he here? What is he
waiting for?

"You need to find your home," she said to the glass, as if he could hear and
understand her words. "Don't you have someone waiting for you?" Wolves mated
for life, didn't they? Katara tried to recall her elementary school lessons about
animals, nature, the seasons. Yes, the more she thought about it, the more she was
sure wolves kept to their families, their packs, their territory.

She remembered watching TV documentaries when she was younger about the
different animals common to the northern climate she was raised in. The wolves had
stuck out to her, partly due to their predatory nature, but also due to their collective
mentality. How close the animals were, how they'd run together, hunt together, stay
most of their lives together. Katara remembered wondering what it would be like to
have not a physical home, but a group of people she could always come home to, like
the wolves. Then she'd realized, even as a young girl that in a way that's exactly
what she already had. She had lost members of her family, been forced to move to
her grandmother's when her father's job had been transferred, but she'd always
known that part of her had belonged there anyway, as long as she was with her
family.

The most recent example still stuck out clearly in her mind: Having her brother so
close had helped her adjust to her new life in Ba Sing Se. But she'd always felt like
part of her was missing at the same time. Someone. She'd long attributed that
longing to homesickness.

The coolness of the glass and the familiarity of the animal suddenly made Katara
wish she had something of her home with her.

"If I open the door," she said, half to herself, "Will you be a good boy and stay
there?"

The animal's intelligent eyes gleamed back at her, and she could have sworn she saw
him nod.

Jet stared at her in gleeful anticipation. She was going to do it, she was going to meet
him!

The first lock clicked as she undid it.

Then the second, with a thud.

Outside, the wind gusted and the wolf half-closed his eyes to keep out the blowing
snow. His tail wagged as he heard the locks fall open.
The doorknob was cool and smooth under her palm, he guessed, since she held it
hesitantly, rubbed her palms together to warm them, then reached for it again.

As Katara gave a light tug, the cold air rushed towards her in a torrent and the
wind blew the door open far further than she'd meant to allow. The force of it
knocked her off her feet, and she lost her hold on the door.

It happened quicker than she could have imagined; with a gasp, Katara fell back a
step and just stared when she felt the cool muzzle nudge her hand, quickly followed
by a friendly lick.

The wolf had a paw on the doorstep and held the other up, as if offering it to her to
shake.

"… Toph is never going to believe this…" she said incredulously to the clever-
looking animal.

She could have sworn he grinned.



Tired, testy and fighting the hunger that gnawed at his stomach, Zuko sped home
and would have incurred a record number of traffic violations had he been caught
by a patrolman.

A hiss escaped his clenched teeth as he ran a hand through his hair as he turned a
corner. He'd hoped to avoid this, but it was getting desperate. If he risked more than
a few more days, he'd reach dangerous blood-lust levels and would start to lose his
reason. It was essential he remain in control of himself; essential to his survival, and
to Katara's. Things were too critical now for any margin of error.

He couldn't, wouldn't make the same mistakes he had, last time.

He roared into the driveway, his mind set.

That night, he'd explain to Katara that he was a vampire.

And that he really needed her to show some sensitivity and be his personal snack.

Er, blood donor.

Supper.

Whatever.
By now he was parked inside his armoured garage, the automatic door having
closed behind him long ago. Strangely, he didn't remember the rest of the drive
home. Another bad sign: lapses in time.

Zuko felt his mind cloud a moment and he rubbed roughly at his eyes. Inability to
think clearly was one of the first signs of bloodlust. He had to steady himself, to stop
the spiral.

Hallucination, diminished inhibitions, and finally blind, voracious bloodbaths were
other levels he had to be vigilant about, or risk the end result.

"Calm down. You're not going crazy. Everything is fine."

He repeated it to himself three times, calmly, before he stepped out of his car. He
just needed to practice what he'd say first. There, yes, that was a good idea. His
uncle had always said he needed to think things through before he jumped in blind.

"Katara, do you have a few minutes? We need to talk."

Yes, that was a good start. Ok, he could build on that.

"Katara, I have a big favour to ask, but you need to close your eyes first. And I may
need to bind you if you aren't cooperative."

No, no, that wouldn't do at all…

"Submissive."

Worse.

"Katara, you're a medical professional and I have a specific condition that… forces
me to drink your blood. But on the plus side, I promise I'll put you in ecstasy!"

The timer light in the garage blinked out above him and the desperate vampire lord
was plunged into darkness.

"Great."

Trudging in to his house, he wondered briefly how much gas he had left in his car
and where the nearest cheap motel was located, in case Katara kicked him out of his
own house that night…

… and walked into his living room to find Katara watching television on the floor in
front of the couch, curled up into a large animal fur. Then to his chagrin, the fur
breathed.
No, wait, he thought, and rubbed his eyes again. That can't be…

"Hey Zuko!" her bright, cheerful voice welcomed him home. Ok, so it wasn't a total
melt down. Thank the heavens, he'd started thinking…

"This is my new pet wolf. I found him on the back porch. Can I keep him?"

Oh wait, he was going crazy. Super. Then he might as well…

… open his mouth and step right in.

Opening both his eyes, he stared at her seriously. What was there to stop him now?

"Katara, I'm a vampire, I'm hungry, and I need to drink your blood. Please proceed
to my bedroom, take off your shirt, and hop on my bed where I will put you in
throes of ecstasy to quench my thirst. Promptly."

The TV continued blaring, but Katara—and her new pet wolf—stared at him
blankly.

It was kind of like an awkward silence he'd triggered when he was younger, when
his father had suggested killing one of their retainers and he'd opposed it because
the man was still useful as a food source. Hmmm… Actually, the more he thought
about it, the more he recognized some of the similarities….

"Have you been drinking?" asked Katara, eyeing him oddly.

No, that's the problem.

Then he mentally shook himself in realization of what he'd said. He would normally
never have said what he did. And what exactly had he just let loose out of his
mouth? He couldn't remember. But oh shit, this is bad.

"Yes," he lied.

"Oh, well OK." She glanced at him again in surprise.

"What?"

"I've never seen you eat, that's all. No wonder you're acting funny, you probably
have nothing in your stomach."

And with that she turned back to her show, giving her wolf a quick scratch between
his ears. He growled lowly in pleasure.

She had no idea how close to the truth she was.
The scent of her blood wafted over to him and his teeth lengthened in anticipation
and need, their prime directive ordering him to gorge themselves on the lifeblood
pulsing beneath her fragile skin. Calling to him. Making his gaze linger on her
throat. Causing his eyes to go half-lidded with desire and thirst…

He had to get out of there.

"I'm going… to bed…"

With that, the famished vampire turned on his heel and headed straight to his room,
ignoring the sickening smell of wolf, the confused look of Katara's eyes, and the
strong, healthy heartbeat that sang in her veins regardless of everything that was
happening around her. His head felt tight and soreness was overwhelming him; he
couldn't remain close to her any longer.

Through the haze of his dizziness, however, he didn't miss the wolf watching him as
he made his way through the house to the master bedroom.

He locked his door that night, not to keep them out, but to keep himself in.



The next morning…

"I can't believe this! That sexist old goat!"

Zuko peeked up from his laptop to glance at Katara, just in time to see her new 'pet'
place his head in her lap in sympathy. She was staring angrily at a letter she'd
received in the mail that morning

"Sorry Fluffy," she mumbled kindly, giving him a quick pat to reassure him she
wasn't angry with him in the least.

"What's wrong?" asked Zuko cautiously.

The beautiful young woman threw herself angrily back in her seat and waved the
offending correspondence at him. "This! I finally track down the author of the most
influential reference work I'm using for my paper, and he's refusing to talk to me.
Not telling me he's too busy – but lecturing me on what I should be doing!"

"Well, if it's in relation to your paper, then maybe he just thinks your approach is—
," started Zuko tactfully, confused as to her outburst. Katara didn't let him get very
far.

"Ooooh no, this has nothing to do with my paper! Listen to this," she said, clearing
her throat.
As if I had a choice, he thought to himself, but braced himself for her (no doubt)
highly colourful version of the 'sexist' man's reply.

"Miss Kuruk," she started nastily and making sure she had his full attention.

Zuko felt his insides roil slightly in discomfort. This was going to be ugly, he could
tell. But the nearest exit was too far away for him to be able to slip out without her
noticing. He hadn't slept well, too wracked by his hunger pains, and his patience
was wearing thinner by the hour.

It didn't help that Katara's anger had her blood, literally, boiling and smelling
absolutely divine to his famished senses. While his mouth watered, and his fangs
sharpened and pushed at the inside of his mouth in urgency, she continued reading.

"How different it is to hear from a young woman as educated as yourself. Why are you
wasting your most productive child-bearing years away from your people when you
could be supporting them and your husband here at home? I will gladly tell your
children many of our traditional legends and stories; however I feel your personal
inquiries do not warrant my immediate attention.

"Please let me know when you are in the area, I'd love to entertain your little whims
over your no-doubt pristine kitchen table in your lovely home. In return, you may
repay the honour by coming over to clean mine, at your convenience.

"Sincerely,

"Master Storyteller and Historian,

"Pakku"

There was a very pregnant pause as, red faced and huffing, Katara lowered her
letter and glared at Zuko, the only readily available representative-of-all-men
within reach.

The room became very quiet. She was obviously waiting for him to offer up his
thoughts on such a disgusting reply to her original inquiry.

But his focus was elsewhere.

Her anger-fueled veins strained against the skin of her neck, begging him to lean
forward, leap onto her to straddle her snugly, pin her down to the couch and sink
himself in to her beautiful exposed neck to drink her dry, listening to her excited
moans and gasps, feeling her offer herself to him…

Zuko swatted the distracting hallucination away and tried to think very carefully
about how to respond to Katara's fragile hold on her temper.
He glanced at the door. It hadn't moved any closer. But if he moved quickly
enough…

"I, uh… I didn't know you were married?" he ventured, his eyes flicking one last
time to the emergency exits. If he made a dash, he was sure he could get there before
….

Katara lost it.

Wolf streaked from the room to hide in the kitchen as Katara let loose a rant full of
feminist rights and patriarchal oppression on her innocent bystander's ears for the
next hour.

Yet all Zuko could think about through it all was how strange it was that he stopped
hearing her vitriolic rant and instead attended to nothing but the arousing sound of
her beating heart. Something inside him stirred at the thought of her, relatively
unprotected and so close, smelling so enticing she made him raw with need. That
morning he'd woken with a parched throat and physical pains from his hunger, and
yet he slept under the same roof as someone who could ease all that, make him feel
whole again, relieved…

The fantasies started anew, and became more real with each passing moment.

Standing in front of him, her fingers loosening her shirt and inviting him to come
closer as she walked slowly backwards towards his room; splaying her across fresh
white sheets to smooth her hair away from the graceful arc of her neck as he'd tilt her
head back; even the recent rushed meals he'd had in his car he now imagined vividly,
re-creating them with Katara in place of the previous girls, pushing her back into the
leather passenger seat as he'd feel her arms around his neck, pulling him closer,
wanting him to take her where they were and damn the consequences…

… and then, back to the first fantasy, where she was now standing in front of him, the
collar of her shirt gaping now and calling him. And he was responding, he could feel
it. His eyes were darkening, he was leaning towards her, his strong hands reaching to
touch the rushing pulse just under the mocha flesh before his eyes…

The agony in his teeth, his jaws, his raging thirst, he was about to sate them and take
her…

"… Zuko? Zuko, are you OK?"

Someone was snapping their fingers near his ears, annoying him. Had he been
dreaming?

"Zuko? Hey! Wake up!"
A pair of hands opened his shirt and checked his pulse. He moaned in
pleasure. Finally, she was joining in, after all his fantasies, she was really…

"Katara, I need you," he sighed to himself, still partially enthralled in his vision. In
this one he hoped she was about to slowly push down the waist of her skirt and offer
him her flat, smooth stomach to drink from.

He reached out again and was roughly pushed back.

His eyes flashed in surprise.

"Keep your hands to yourself, Zuko. What is wrong with you?"

An animal growled nearby and Zuko felt someone putting a cool, gentle hand to his
head.

She wasn't participating in what he wanted, what he'd imagined. It wasn't going
according to plan.

Frustration coursed through him like a wild river overflowing its banks; she wasn't
complying. She should be. She should be doing exactly what he wanted, what he
desired. She was his, his to do with as he pleased.

"It's ok, Fluffy," he heard her say off to one side, then she turned back to him. He
could hear her, but his other senses were shutting down. His eyes must have been
closed since he couldn't see anything. Even his fantasy had dissolved.

But the furious, starving inferno inside him was real enough. His fangs were fully
exposed, his mouth and jaw ached from the emptiness, and his breath shuddered
harshly from his chest. Had he been able to open his eyes, they would have been
terrifying.

He'd misjudged his bloodlust, and now it overtook him.

"You're burning up. I'll go make you some soup, you get to bed," ordered Katara,
already heading to the kitchen. "I'll bring this to you there."

Logic and reason had abandoned him, his hunger transforming him into the
instinctive predator he was. The prince of darkness, the demon, the one who fed on
the human society he lived alongside—that's what he'd become now. And that
hunger currently controlled him, turning his entire awareness towards achieving
one goal: satisfaction.

Strategy raced through his mind faster than he could have consciously thought.
"OK," was all he said around his engorged teeth, his intentions making his ideas
clear for a brief moment.

He could lie in wait there more comfortably anyway.



"Here you go," she set the useless food down on his nightstand, and nudged back his
clock to make room for the cold & flu medicine pills she'd taken from her own
brand-new first aid kit to share with him.

Fathomless black eyes watched her every movement with calculating quietude;
Zuko leaned against the doorframe of his room feigning lassitude. Letting her in,
allowing her to feel comfortable, safe, trusting in his company. In his trap.

His living meal bustled around the room, finished a ten-second tidy to make it more
pleasant for him to sleep in, and finally turned to look at him with a stern, but
concerned, look on her face.

Then her eyes softened, and her shoulders relaxed. She was worried about him.

His eyes sparked. How sweet… she would be.

"Is there anything else I can do?" she asked.

"Yes," was all he said.

Then he kicked the door shut behind him, flicked the lock and leapt on her.



TBC.

AN: A long time in coming, I'm sorry – but happy new year, all! Please let me know
what you think of this chapter!
AN: This chap first posted Jan 1st, 2009. /mm


Chapter 28: Chapter 28


Author: moor on / beyondthemoor on LJ
Title: Merits
Part : 27
Genre: Romance/humour/vamp/Modern AU
Fandom: Avatar: TLA
Pairing: Zutara, Jetara
Length: 2000 words, approx.
Rating: M
Disclaimer : "Avatar: The Last Airbender" and all related rights belong to their
original creators… I am not among their ranks.
AN: In response to hyperoo' s vampire/Zutara challenge, I present…



Part Twenty seven

"Here you go," she set the useless food down on his nightstand and nudged back his
clock to make room for the cold & flu medicine pills she'd taken from her own
brand-new first aid kit to share with him.

Fathomless eyes watched her every movement with calculating quietude; Zuko
leaned against the doorframe of his room feigning lassitude. Letting her in, allowing
her to feel comfortable, safe, trusting in his company. In his trap.

His living meal bustled around the room, finished a ten-second tidy to make it more
pleasant for him to sleep in, and finally turned to look at him with a stern, but
concerned, look on her face.

Then her eyes softened, and her shoulders relaxed. She was worried about him.

His eyes sparked. How sweet… she would be.

"Is there anything else I can do?" she asked.

"Yes," was all he said.

Then he kicked the door shut behind him, flicked the lock and leapt on her.

"Me."



Katara felt the wind knocked out of her the moment her back hit Zuko's mattress
beneath her. His mouth sealed over hers the next, kissing her breathless.

Eyes wide, she stared up at the man who'd pinned her to his bed: his were deep
gold, heavy-lidded and overly bright at the same time; his shirt had come loose and
gapped open revealing a well-defined chest that she would have surreptitiously
ogled had circumstances been different; and he was warm, hot even, and that
scorching heat spread from his body down through hers everywhere they touched.
With some embarrassment, she noted the warmth spreading through her body
wasn't entirely from sharing Zuko's body heat, though he was in part the cause.

Zuko stared down at her in return with a hungry look transforming his features
into something that made her insides twist in a surreal blend of anger, fear… and
desire. Something was very wrong with the situation, though. Something was off
about the man atop her. For one thing, he was, well, atop her.

But first things first, she realized as her temper started to flare. What was he
thinking? She was dating someone else. Physically attracted as she was to Zuko, this
was completely inappropriate and had to stop before it turned into something
embarrassing for both of them.

"Zuko, what the hell?" she exclaimed, yanking herself away from him and placing
her hands behind her to push herself up into a sitting position on the soft bed.
"You're not well, get off me, this isn't funny—ZUKO!" she gasped, but he
swallowed her protests with another searing kiss. She was loathe to admit it, but he
was a helluva kisser. And he didn't stop there.

Stretching out to his full length over her, he grabbed her behind the knees, settled
himself between her legs and yanked her back down towards him again. Strong,
capable hands then went to her hips to bring her pelvis in line with his and cradle
him when he rolled his hips forward, grinding into her. A moan of pleasure escaped
Katara's lips in spite of herself. It was humiliating, being so turned on against her
will. Great, what a time to discover she had a yen for rough sex. She was so beating
the jerk with a shovel when she got free…

… right after this kiss. His lips were the most intoxicating drug she'd ever
encountered.

"Look at me," he whispered, finally releasing her lips and lowering his head to
nuzzle her, cheek to cheek. He was warm, addictive and his cheek held just a hint of
stubble from missing his shave that morning.

"Don't you want this?" he murmured persuasively, trailing slow, languorous kisses
down her jaw. He nosed away a lock of hair, giving it a playful tug before tucking it
behind her ear. "You like this. You like how this feels." A quick suck on her racing
pulse.

"Fuck you," gasped Katara, breathing hard and struggling to inch away from him.
Why couldn't she move faster? It was like trying to run through molasses; he was
stuck to her.

"Later, I promise," his breath in her ear sent shivers down her spine. Katara bit
down hard on her bottom lip to keep from giving herself away. So what if she
wanted him? It was entirely physical. It didn't mean anything, plenty of people were
attractive and it was natural to want to –OH SWEET SWIZZLE STICKS, WERE
HIS HANDS ON HER—

A subtle squeeze and then his hands were cupping her breasts, his thumbs rubbing
cheeky circles over her pert nipples.

"Stop it, Zuko. I'm seeing someone." She was looking everywhere but at him, trying
to break whatever spell he'd cast over her, but the vampire was relentless. She
couldn't lift a hand to stop him.

"Look at me now," he commanded, and against her will she felt her eyes drawn up
to his. The moment their gazes met, the young woman felt her grip on her control
slowly slipping away. She was still aware, conscious, but unable to control or move
her body. Panic seeped in around the edges of her temper, and fear followed in its
footsteps as her heart beat pounded in her ears. Something was very wrong.

"Zuko?..." her voice rose high with concern before she felt him dip his head lower,
lower, from her mouth to her chin to her neck. Zuko! she thought in panic, her
thoughts falling into disarray. She'd lost her ability to speak.

As his hair brushed over the side of her face, she felt his mouth stop at her throat.

His warm, wet tongue gently licked at her pulse again, caressing her skin lovingly
before he breathed in her scent.

"Katara," he sighed, almost apologetically, before his control snapped and he sank
his teeth into her.

He didn't bother to stifle his moan of pleasure, rocking his hips into her as he
arched her neck back to drink more deeply, the weight of their bodies sinking
further into the bed's mattress to cushion them.

Inside her mind, Katara screamed.



Something wasn't right, he could feel it.

He looked up drowsily from his paws, his jaw cracking as he let out a yawn. But he
saw Katara still hadn't returned from serving Zuko his lunch. Lumbering to his
feet, Fluffy-Jet whined once curiously. No reply.

Pacing impatiently around the living room and kitchen areas, Jet wondered what
was taking Katara so long. They'd left a while ago; Zuko should have gone to sleep
by now; so where was she? Usually she'd call for him when Zuko wasn't around,
and then cuddle up to his furry side as she worked. It relaxed her to pet him and for
him to nuzzle her back. She didn't lounge around or spend time with Zuko in his
room, ever. It was the only reason he hadn't followed her when she'd gone to deliver
his meal to him in the first place.

He paused a moment to sniff the air.

It hit him then, faint but unmistakable: fear. A woman's fear.

Then he heard a door slam shut; his sharp hearing caught the sounds from the other
side of the house, where the bedrooms were. Ears pricking attentively, Jet swiveled
and paused, focusing on the direction the pair had gone in.

Then there was crashing, quickly followed by Katara's muffled cries, and then to
Jet's mounting concern, absolute silence.

And then the scent of freshly spilled blood permeated the air.

Large paws were already rapidly eating up the distance between the living room
and Zuko's bedroom as Jet bounded down the halls, teeth bared, claws scratching
and clattering on the floor and he hunched forward to drive himself faster.

If Zuko had touched a hair on her head, Jet wouldn't stop until he'd made him pay
pound for pound.



Katara's clothes were tossed carelessly on the floor around Zuko's bed as he
continued to imbibe.

They'd been fairly easy to remove as he'd gone about his first proper meal in days.
As she'd still had some of his blood coursing through her veins, it hadn't taken too
much energy to control her and subdue her. Not a course of action he took often, but
he was desperate and she was available and had proved, at least physically, willing.
If she'd been completely resistant to him, he'd never have been able to coax her into
submission.

It had been too long since he'd had such a pleasant, relaxing banquet; the fullness
had rushed to his head and made him dizzy at times, and he'd forced himself to slow
down to enjoy every moment. It bordered on a sexual peak at times, how frustrated
he'd been and how sated he felt, lapping at her thigh at the latest puncture-point.

The past years had been difficult on the vampire prince; he'd had to move around
so often and feed most frequently within the confines of his car, or occasionally a
companion's unclean abode. Rarely was he safe enough to risk bringing a meal
home to enjoy. It was a bit like eating out at a fast-food restaurant, he found: eating
out, hastily, was fine and would keep him alive, but being able to take his time and
feast in the safety and warmth of his own home, his own bed at that, was truly the
most satisfying.

He could nip any part of her he wished, and had: her neck at first, to calm his
craving; then a nibble down her shoulder; after relieving her of her shirt, he'd
continued downward to sip at her breast, and now, from her upper thigh. She was
physically beautiful, and tasted divine.

Unfortunately, it seemed like she was starting to suffer from his ministrations, he
noted as she seemed somewhat pale and wan. A pity, he thought, smoothing one
hand over her hip and eyeing the tempting undergarments she wore. It had been
even longer since he'd partaken in other pleasures…

Almost unconsciously, he had loosened his belt and the top of his pants and slid his
other hand inside. He grasped his member gave a few slow, deep strokes to bring
himself to full attention, the growing bulge no longer confined.

A new hunger started humming through his firm, hard body, from his loins to every
part of him.

Though he preferred his women actively participating when he was in them, if she
was already there… The vampire's gaze darkened as he took in Katara's dark hair
and silken skin, toned body and enticing scent as they all called to him. His fingers
tightened and he stroked himself harder, his breathing becoming harsher.

He was contemplating what to do next, his mouth inches from the lace she wore,
when he felt the hair on the back of his neck prickle and stand on end.

Zuko's eyes moved from where Katara lay splayed to sweep his locked bedroom for
signs of an intruder; all was silent, still.

He didn't trust it for a moment.

A vampire was most vulnerable when feeding; any otherworldly creature knew this
was the most dangerous time of their day. Every creature knew to keep its wits
about them when their flank was exposed, which was why Zuko didn't dismiss his
instincts.

It was then that his senses started to come back to him.

He blinked, and shook the satisfied haze from his head, glancing down at the warm,
soft body before him. And he suddenly realized what he'd done, and worse, been
about to do.

Zuko felt a spear of horror and disgust at his own actions lance through him, and he
stiffened up in a flash, breathing hard and eyes wide. His cock twitched in his grasp,
and he yanked his hands away guiltily before stumbling back away from her, fists
clenched.

Spirits, what had he done?

Another sharp sound caught his attention and distracted him, definitely from
outside his room this time.

He raised his head to listen closer—

-just as his bedroom door crashed open, cracking and splintering before it collapsed
under the crushing weight of a snarling beast.

The wild animal's gaze trained in on, and met, Zuko's incredulous one, panting
hard and growling low in its throat. Zuko stared right back, tense, rising up over
Katara to get a better angle to attack and defend her from whatever had just
decimated his bedroom door.

Ah, it was Fluffy. Her cute, cuddly, 200-pound domesticated wild timber wolf.
Fantastic.

The wolf who had just nearly caught him with his hands down his pants while he
hovered over its master.

The wolf who was now looking at him like he wanted nothing more than to rip his
throat out and chew out his liver.

…Shit.

Jet noticed first Katara's still form and undress.

The wolf's narrowed eyes shot back to Zuko, noting second the vampire's loose,
open-front trousers and exposed business. The wolf's growl was nothing short of
savage. No punishment would be too severe for the one who'd taken advantage of
his mate.

Lips pulled back to reveal long, sharp canines.

Feral howling filled the room as Jet leapt at Zuko's pale, exposed throat.

Their shared intention towards the prey that lay helplessly between them on the bed
was clear: Mine.



TBC.
AN: This chapter first posted 25th August, 2009. (Er, yes, nearly 9 months since the
last update – sorry!) For those who asked how I was doing and why this chapter is
so late: I'm fine now but was in a car accident back in January, and then had my
son in June; he was over 9 lbs, ouch!

AN2: Many, many thanks to Hyperoo for kicking my ass in gear & beta'ing this for
me. Four times. (It needed the swift fist of concrit justice!) All errors are of course
my own. Please let me know if you spot any! Also drop me a line if you have
suggestions for future chapters – I kind of owe you guys for sticking with this fic so
long!

AN3: To those who left comments, concrit & encouragement over the past few
months: Thank you. You have no idea how much it meant when I'd get home from
work or the hospital and see your notes to cheer me up. I appreciate and treasure
every one.

I hope you enjoyed the chapter!


Chapter 29: Chapter 29


Author: moor / beyondthemoor on LJ
Title: Merits
Part : 28 or 29?
Genre: Romance/humour/vamp/Modern AU
Fandom: Avatar: TLA
Pairing: Zutara, Jetara
Length: 5400 words, approx.
Rating: M
Disclaimer : "Avatar: The Last Airbender" and all related rights belong to their
original creators… I am not among their ranks.
AN: In response to hyperroo' s vampire/Zutara challenge, I present…


"Merits" – Part 28 or 29

Zuko saw stars as the back of his head crashed against the corner of the desk, before
slumping to the floor on his back. The noise was incredible, part of the desk
cracking, papers, pens, heavy paperweights and decorations flying off the now-
damaged piece of solid oak furniture. They fell around the room in a disorderly
mess, scattering over the thoroughly disoriented vampire prince. A few pictures fell
from their nails in the wall and shattered on the ground. The racket was terrible,
and it didn't stop there.
Distracted by his realizations of a few moments prior, the wolf had caught him off
guard and seized on his advantage, rushing Zuko and tearing into him. The raging
animal had even managed to grab hold of him with his teeth and throw him a
certain distance, then followed and jumped on him before careening helplessly
backwards into his desk.

On the bed just across from the struggling pair, Katara lay motionless, an arm
listlessly dangling off the bedcovers, completely unaware of the fight waging so close
by.

Throughout the scuffle, still the vampire's thoughts whirled through his bleary
mind. What had he done to her? How could he have let himself prey on her, on the
one he'd waited so long to have again? How badly had he damaged things between
them?

In his haze, Zuko felt the heavy weight of the wolf's paws land on his shoulders
again and he looked up into bright, fierce eyes. The beast's snout was inches from
his neck, and Zuko could feel the rumbling snarl that was building in the huge
animal's chest reverberate through him. Canine lips pulled back to reveal vicious,
sharp teeth as spittle fell from the animal's mouth to drip downwards over him.

Deep inside himself, Zuko felt his luck sputter like a candle in a gusty wind. He
deserved this. He really deserved this.

The thought repeated itself in Zuko's head over and over, and shamefully he
accepted it. He wouldn't have bothered trying to fight the animal, but Katara hadn't
regained consciousness yet – would it turn on her next? It was her pet, but bloodlust
distorted a predator's perceptions, twisting them beyond reason.

He should know.

Closing his eyes a moment, Zuko took a deep breath and let it out slowly before he
looked up and focused on the animal's gaze above him.

"I would let you kill me if I thought you could protect her," he admitted ruefully,
patiently, to the animal that had him pinned. "But there are worse things than me
that are out to get her."

And Zuko could hardly believe it, but he'd almost swear he saw the wolf's eyes
widen in surprise, before narrowing at him.

"But she needs at least a human to fight off what's coming."

And with that, he was decided. Doubling his efforts, he raised his arms and grabbed
the wolf's forelegs, tucking his legs up under the animal to kick him off, but the wolf
was ready for him.
"Then you aren't needed after all," it snarled back in a husky voice. It was
distorted, and furious, but it was clear enough for the vampire to make out every
word. And the voice itself was unmistakable.

Zuko's eyes snapped open and his breath caught in his chest.

Was it really-?

It couldn't be, and yet, Zuko knew for certain it was. "Jet?" he said incredulously,
starting to rise.

The 'were had other ideas.



Jet felt the savage fury fill his heart and flow through every part of his wolf form.
He had the bastard right under him, neck exposed. It was the perfect time to end
him, to punish him for what he'd done, and been about to do. When he'd heard her
scream, when he'd smelled her blood, when he'd seen her splayed out for the
vampire, and Zuko looming over her about to… he couldn't even articulate it. He
had snapped. Nothing, he was sure nothing could have stopped him, calmed him,
halted his murderous actions.

And then the asshole had to go and open his mouth and talk.

Reasonably, at that.

Inconsiderate louse.

But it wasn't over yet, because what had Zuko meant by 'worse things'?

"Worse than you, Zuko? Really? That's gotta be pretty fucking awful then. Because
everything was going great between me and Katara until you came along," he spat,
panting harshly from his fight with the vampire. He had a feeling the only reason
he'd managed to best the well-fed predator a moment prior was because he'd caught
him by surprise. He wanted to press the advantage, but more than that, he wanted
the bastard to know why he should die.

However most of all he needed to know how to protect Katara, and from what.
Trying to get that information would expose her as his most vulnerable weakness,
unfortunately; and the cyclical dilemma made Jet that much angrier. In Jet's eyes,
Zuko was the cause of so many problems, yet may also be the only way he'd find out
how to possibly resolve things, since Jet had burned his bridge with Long Feng. He
may not trust Zuko, but he trusted the snake-like man even less. Which meant Jet
couldn't kill Zuko. Yet. Still, that didn't mean he was going to take it easy on the
subdued vampire for preying on his loved one.
With a snarl, Jet sunk his claws deeper into Zuko's shoulders, feeling the skin burst
and shred beneath them, smelling the blood that was released through the cuts.

"If it wasn't for you, she would have been safe!" he challenged, lowering his face to
Zuko's.

Beneath him, Zuko's mouth opened to protest this, but Jet would have none of it
and with his front paws slammed the vampire beneath him to the ground again.

"If it wasn't for you, I would have been the one who protected her!"

Another slam. Behind his eyes, Zuko saw stars and winced as the claws tightened
further into the muscles of his shoulders. While vampires healed quickly, they
weren't immune to pain.

"If it wasn't for you, she would have come to me for help, to me for sanctuary, to me
for everything she needed, wanted, loved."

Breathing hard, Jet felt his anger ebb and flow away from him, and his head
drooped, and his eyes closed for a brief second as he gathered himself and breathed
out, long and low.

"… but if it wasn't for you, she would have died, wouldn't she?... Back in her
apartment…"

Chest heaving, Zuko felt the grip on his shoulders loosen, and slip off as Jet stepped
off him and turned away to look at Katara. His tail swept slowly from side to side,
too relieved to hear her breathing normally to pay further attention to his revenge
for the time being.

"I want to kill you," he admitted calmly to Zuko, glancing back at the vampire still
laid out on his back on the floor. "… But I need her so much more. And she… needs
you."

Zuko closed his eyes and let out a long, low breath just as Jet had. Almost release
and consolation in one. It was a few minutes before he spoke.

"I'll look away if you want to change." I think we should talk, went unspoken
between the men.

Jet's wolf-form nodded.

Together, the men sat down.
"I've never met anyone like her," said Jet.

They were still in Zuko's room, both in human form again. The pair of otherworldly
adults had both moved closer to Katara, and by some unspoken agreement neither
touched her once Jet had pulled the blankets up to cover her. Officially he was still
her boyfriend; it was more than Zuko could claim (without getting into another
scuffle over who had the most valid, long-standing claim on the woman). And—
should Katara wake up during said argument—Zuko didn't see the object of their
mutual desire reacting well to either of them starting that quarrel in the first place;
the terms 'chauvinistic pissing contest' and 'I don't belong to either of you assholes'
would likely feature prominently in the subsequent rant…

For his part, Zuko wasn't sure how to respond to Jet's comment, so he waited for
the 'were to continue. He didn't feel it would go over well to admit he'd loved the
woman between them for over 150 years. It may come across as a bit obsessive or
stalker-ish. No, he decided internally while he rested against the broken desk, he
may need to finesse his situation a bit.

"I thought you were a pretty cool guy, when we first met. A bit of a chip on your
shoulder, but I'm the same way," Jet grinned a bit distantly to himself in memory.
"I guess I thought I'd found someone a bit like me. She was always pissed at or
about you, you know, and I wanted to see what it was you had that captivated her.
Maybe I'd see what it was that she saw in me. Common ground."

There was a pause, and Zuko saw a wave of emotions flow across Jet's face. "Unless
she was just looking for another 'fix-it' project."

"How long have you known her?" the vampire found himself asking Jet. He wanted
to know more about Katara, too – and speaking to the man in front of him, his rival
in a sense, was too tempting to pass up. Like Jet, he was comparing his own
situation to another, to try and determine the similarities. To try and figure out how
Katara 'ticked'.

"How did you meet?"

The look on Jet's face darkened; but it was the way his eyebrows dipped and
tightened, the way he clenched his jaw and swallowed, and looked away, that gave it
away. He was another who was ashamed of his past.

Zuko recognized the look, and the feeling behind it, immediately. So much like his
own.

Jet adjusted Katara's covers minutely, more as something to occupy himself than
anything else, before he spoke.
"You know Katara specializes in family medicine? She's really good. She did a lot of
volunteer work, even had a few jobs in different medical facilities as an assistant
and stuff to help pay her way through school when her scholarship didn't cover
her."

Zuko nodded, he knew through Katara's classes what her focus was. But what it
had to do with Jet…

"She's really good," repeated Jet. Zuko watched the man across from him closely as
he nodded to himself, as if convincing some inner part of himself it was ok, safe, to
divulge such personal information to the vampire. "I… You can see I'm a
werewolf."

Stating the obvious and stalling. Zuko was tempted to make a 'no shit, Sherlock'-
type retort, but held back. He really wasn't one to comment about stalling… He
schooled his features into one of patient understanding.

The look in Zuko's eyes must have convinced Jet he was trustworthy enough,
because he continued brokenly.

Jet looked over to Katara for a moment, as if gaining strength from her presence. "I
was a bit wild when I was younger. Even for a werewolf. I was always causing
trouble, at first nothing major, but then it got more serious. For a werewolf, where
control over oneself is so important, to deliberately taunt that balance, to join up
with regular thugs and gangs who pit themselves against each other and use us as
muscle to get their own way, it turned me into a target. For a while, no one cared or
really noticed. But when they did… it was like inviting even more trouble. It got
pretty brutal. Things escalated. And when I'd go home after those fights, the other
gangs would send someone to follow me."

"You endangered your pack?"

"I took care of it!" snapped Jet defensively, before he caught himself.

Rubbing a hand roughly through his hair, Jet pulled on it for a second as if to try
and calm himself. He swallowed again.

"My pack. Back around the turn of the twentieth century, there was a group of
wolves who lived near one of the native tribe reservations. We were a werewolf
pack, but at that time we spent a good deal of our time with the tribe, protecting
them, and they in turn shared their hunting grounds with us so we wouldn't have to
venture out close to the towns where the trading and hunting took place. We were
part of their totem. Game was getting more scarce at that time, and our
arrangement worked out to be mutually beneficial. The pack was trying to decide
whether to subjugate their wolf-forms, abandon their 'were-dom as it were, and
move into the new cities and towns; to conform and integrate into the human society
completely. The pack was dwindling in numbers, and it was getting harder to feed
everyone when there were fewer to do the hunting. Even with the tribe's help, they
weren't able to protect themselves the way they needed. Especially the really young
children, the pups, they just couldn't…"

His voice trailed off, and Zuko was shocked to see the emotion working around Jet's
mouth.

The werewolf tugged at his hair again, rubbed at his eyes.

"The pack had finally decided to integrate; they'd explained things to the tribe, and
the tribe had wished them well, and even given them some supplies and money to
help them get themselves established."

Around the two men, the house had settled and gone quiet. It had shifted to
afternoon by this time, and the still short days meant the sunlight was already
waning, the brightness shifting to darkness around the confining room. Their
shadows cast longer; the men sat very still as the story unfurled.

"It happened when I was away from camp, near one of the settlements, raising Hell.
It was fun for me, I was so much stronger than everyone else I could do what I
wanted. I always brought things back for the pack to help, but they thought I was
stealing. Then someone from one of the rival gangs realized I wasn't normal, that I
was a 'were, which meant I had a pack nearby."

Zuko had started putting two and two together, and listened grimly to the rest with
his hands closed into loose fists in his lap.

"They teamed up with some poachers. At first I wasn't worried. But then they
brought in some rogue vampire crest. They wiped out the pack. Traps, guns, poison,
ambushes, you name it, they did it. They hung the pelts out to dry, beheaded. Even
the pups, and it was illegal to hunt them. We were an endangered species of wolf,
but they didn't care. Even the innocent babies, the youngest ones, they couldn't even
fully shift yet…"

The vampire's fists slowly tightened, knowing all too well where the history was
leading.

"I tried. I tried to stop them. To save them. But I was too late."

Zuko looked away from the guilt-ridden man to give his grief some privacy. He'd
heard of such purges before, not just in werewolf packs, but in witch covens,
vampire enclaves, and other groups. They were outlawed unless carried out by the
Guardians, a group that tried to maintain a balance between the humans and
otherworlds. The Guardians were the ones to conduct the exterminations – but only
when the situation was irreparable and dangerous to all involved. This particular
genocide, on Jet's pack, was obviously personal and vindictive. And to think the
pack had been about to integrate themselves into human society… It sickened the
vampire lord, and Zuko felt the pressure build behind his own eyes in sympathy.
Everyone knew family, the pack, was paramount in werewolf society. The strike had
hit at the heart of the werewolf culture.

"I'm not actually a timber wolf like Katara thinks. I'm what's called a 'white wolf'.
We protected some of the north eastern forests, but not as high up as the Northern
Territories. We were declared extinct around 1911."

Zuko's eyes shot to Jet's.

"You mean, you're-."

"I'm over a hundred years old." A pause. "Like you."

Jet watched Zuko's reactions carefully, and finally smirked at the other man's
silence.

"I told you we had a lot in common."



Zuko's mind reeled at the admission, and he felt his head bang softly back against
the desk behind him.

"That's impossible," he argued in confusion. He stared at the ceiling and tried to
think through his bewilderment. "Vampires are the only immortals… and even
then, it isn't as if we're indestructible. We age. We can perish. The only way
someone else can benefit from our immortality is if they…"

His level golden eyes stared at the werewolf as the insinuation sunk in. But how?
Then it hit him.

"The rogues."

Jet gave the barest nod, and his eyes hardened.

"They deserved it."

A sense of revulsion nearly overwhelmed the vampire in that moment, but he forced
it back. No wonder Jet had gone for his throat when he'd discovered him feeding on
Katara. He was lucky to be alive.

It took some time for him to absorb the influx of information and history. Jet's story
wasn't unusual or, unfortunately, uncommon from the time period – Zuko had been
fully aware of such happenings while he'd travelled; he'd simply chosen to ignore
the rumours, preferring to remain independent of them. His decision, now that he'd
met a survivor from one of the illegal raids, no longer felt as honourable as it once
had. He hadn't participated in any of them, hadn't wiped any of the packs out in a
crimson-hazed bloodlust; but he hadn't stepped in to ever prevent one from
occurring, either.

"What did you do after? There's nearly a century-long gap between then and now…
How does Katara fit into it?"

"Drugs," Jet said simply. The emotion had drained from him by now, and he leaned
back against the bed. He still sat on the floor, but tilted his head slightly to check on
Katara again. He watched the rise and fall of her chest for a bit to calm himself. He
couldn't remember the last time he'd spoken of the raid with any lucidity. Drugged-
out rantings, inebriated fits—no wonder he'd ended up committed so often—but
never calmly with another. The tension in his chest made him want to clutch at his
heart, but he refused to show such weakness in front of Zuko.

"By the time I finished tracking down the last of the rogues… finishing him… their
'immortality' had started working on me. It isn't a pleasant process, FYI. I was so
sick I thought I was dying anyway. And crazy. I started taking drugs to try and
escape some of the memories, the nightmares. And physically, it hurt like Hell. The
drugs numbed everything. Eventually I learned to like the haze more than the
reality.

"I couldn't control the shifting for a while. I went mad. I spent some time in
institutions, but usually managed to escape and would run off again and back into
the drugs. Deeper, harder, more self-destructive each time. It was a bad cycle. And
yet I couldn't seem to kill myself. I think I…" He drifted off a moment, deep in
thought. "I did a lot of things I will never be able to make up for." The werewolf
found himself looking away from Katara as he admitted the latter.

"She found me in a rehab wing about 2 years ago; completely delusional. I found
out, as I sobered up there, that she'd been one of the volunteers assigned to help
look after me. I had planned on using her to get out of there, but the minute she
touched my arm, I felt something. A jolt. It was some kind of weird connection. It
was like forest rain and lightning and waterfalls all at once, and for the first time
since I'd lost my pack I felt at peace. I saw clearly."

Jet was back to looking at Katara again, and so missed the look of surprise, then
concern that spread across Zuko's face. That feeling, it couldn't be true, thought
Zuko… It must have been some kind of drug-related hallucination, or, or…

It couldn't be what he feared. What he dreaded. What he wanted for himself.

But Zuko would be wrong.
"It took months, but I finally cleaned myself up. Katara even came with me to my
trials to give witness testimonies about my character and improvements, and with
her help I managed to get most of my pending criminal charges dropped after they
saw that I'd been under the influence. Not all of them, so I do have a record, but the
worst ones, the assaults and things, were dropped down. She was there through all
of it," the awe and raw appreciation in his voice were unmistakable. Zuko felt his
heart tighten in his chest. He fought to keep his face impassive.

"When I finally got myself settled, I took a few courses, got an apprenticeship, and
invited her out to celebrate with my first real paycheque," at that, he smiled in
memory.

"I found out she works a lot with addiction and rehab cases because she saw so
much of it on her reservation growing up. It's a real problem up there. And she
made a huge difference at the clinic I was in. I really mean it, it was amazing.
They've been trying to get her to come back part-time since she left, but she's pretty
focused on finishing her studies. She wasn't even going out much at all until…" The
sentence went unfinished, and he looked back to Zuko again.

"When you moved in to the department, to her office, she changed. She became so
volatile, so angry. It was such a contrast; don't get me wrong, I love her fire," his
eyes flickered with amusement at some private memory, "but she has become so…
weak, overly emotional, and run down since you came into her life. She wasn't like
that before. She loved healing people before – it was what she lived for, to heal and
help those who needed it. She has a gift. Whatever she touches, whoever she reaches
out to, she can heal. She's like magic."

That was exactly what Zuko had been afraid of.

"It wears her out, though. I'm kind of glad she gave up her clinical hours for the
term and accepted a lab instead."

The vampire nodded at Jet's rambling. It was very good for Katara to have decided
that, though she probably didn't realize herself how important that decision was at
the time.

"You probably already know this," started Jet again, his dark eyes now focused on
Zuko. "But werewolves… our pack, our family is our most prized 'possession', if
you can call it that. We live for our pack. Everything we do is done for the pack. I'm
the only one left of mine. I thought my clan would die out with me. And while I
deserved to die, the rest of my pack didn't. They deserve to be remembered and
revered—they were so compassionate and such good people. And the only way I can
redeem myself is to honour their memory and traditions, to try again and this time,
to do things right. To become the best man I can. To show that I did learn what they
taught me, that I can represent my pack proudly."
Zuko's heart gave a solid thud in his chest. He didn't like the turn the conversation
had taken, and felt himself grow fractionally tenser with dread. It was sounding like
Jet intended to show someone specific. But he had no pack left. And if he had no
pack left, what was left for him?
Of course Jet had his own plans, and enlightened his host.

"If I have the chance, I want to make it up to my pack. I want to start over, to show
them I'm a better person now. I want to be the one that young wolves, pups, look up
to and admire. I want to be their role model, I want to provide for them, and I want
to show them how proud they should be to be who they are."

Determination and purpose filled Jet's voice, and he held Zuko's gaze.

His tone became hard as he stared at the vampire across from him.

"And I'd found the person who could help me achieve all that. Who could help me
settle, and come to terms with, the biggest mistake I ever made. The person I want
to spend the rest of my life with, to re-establish my pack with, to love and give my
name to and devote every part of myself to, is lying unconscious on this bed because
you took advantage of her compassion, you took advantage of her trust, and you
nearly fucked her while she was passed out after coming in here to help you."

Every word was true; Zuko didn't even try to deny it as he saw Jet nearly shaking in
anger. His behaviour had been despicable and disgusting. There would never be any
way to excuse it, and he didn't try. And unlike Jet, he didn't know how to go about
fixing what he'd done, either.

"So, I need to know, right now, what your intentions are and why the Hell you
thought what you nearly did was OK," the furious, though tenuously controlled,
werewolf demanded.

The dark-eyed man's fists were clenched tightly at his sides, and while he leaned
back against the bed he was anything but relaxed. He wanted to attack and enact
some divine-caliber retribution on the rival across from him, and in a way, the
intended recipient wanted him to do it, too. Perhaps that would help alleviate some
of his guilt?

But something in Zuko resisted. And something greater wanted to rip the werewolf
apart for daring to infringe on what he considered his.

Yes, Katara was his. Long ago, she had promised him she would wait for him, and
he for her; and while times had certainly changed he would never give her up, or
break their promise, without fighting for it.

The way she looked so much like she had before, the way she drove him to insanity,
the way she had automatically been drawn to him in their office—constantly trying
to get his attention, trying to offer him coffee, trying to ingratiate herself with him—
and when he'd resurrected her, the way she'd so actively participated with him,
until her consciousness overruled her subconscious instinctive reactions to him. She
was his still and always would be – she just didn't know it. But he would show her.

He just had to get rid of this irritating obstruction first.

"I'd appreciate it if you wouldn't build your plans revolving around my Katara,"
remarked Zuko coldly as he fixed Jet with a dark look. Possession dripped from his
words and he knew the werewolf's territorial hackles were raised when he stiffened.

"'Your' Katara?" growled Jet, leaning forward. "How is she yours?"

And it was a low blow, the prince knew it before it passed through his sneering lips,
but he said it anyway. "She stopped sleeping in your bed and moved to mine, didn't
she?"

"You son of a—!"

Their control snapped, and both men lunged for each other.

"I should have killed you when I had the chance," snarled Jet, grabbing Zuko's
shirt-front in his fists and yanking him to get him off-balance.

"You need second chances to do everything," scoffed Zuko, unconcerned that the
werewolf intended to tear him apart.

Neither noticed their position, other than trying to keep the other away from
Katara.

"You think you know everything, don't you? Well, you don't know me, and you sure
as Hell don't know her! Stay away from her, we don't need you."

"She does need me, she loves me."

What little hadn't been disturbed in the room during their last battle now smashed
and was destroyed under their wild swinging and lunging. The day, and room, had
darkened by now and no one had lit a lamp, but with their enhanced eyesight the
men didn't need it to see their environment – not that either was paying it much
attention. Most of the bedroom had been destroyed already. Still they raged at each
other, their blows escalating in cruelty as they taunted and struck each other,
tearing off strips of skin until each saw bone. Blood ran down both men's arms and
faces; one of Jet's eyes was swollen, while one of Zuko's hands was broken. Neither
let up. The bloodlust called to them, inciting more.
"No, she doesn't. She has a debt to you, an infatuation with you, but she will never
love you, and you will never love her the way I do!"

Back and forth they wrestled, punches flying and legs tangled as they tried to
subdue each other, oblivious to the girl stirring into consciousness on the bed.

"I do love her! I have always loved her, and she is everything to me!" yelled Zuko
wildly. The pair teetered precariously, wrestling and clawing at each other as their
otherworldly states started to overtake them both. Claws and fangs and strength
swelled and collided, and they staggered, edging towards one of the outer walls
which was lined with windows. The carpet was a wasteland of rubble and was slowly
soaking crimson as they staggered across it.

"You barely know her! You've worked together for barely a month," burst out Jet
incredulously. "So stay away from my future wife."

And it was upon hearing that again, that disgusting claim over his Katara, that
unleashed the terrible curse.

Zuko felt his heart constrict sharply, then release with a sudden spike; and at that
moment fire funneled through his veins to his hands as they sparked, then lit up
with flames, a long-dormant power finally re-awakening in his primal state. It was
never supposed to be used like this, in petty jealousy, but he didn't care anymore. In
his vision all he saw was Jet's interference.

"I do know her, and better than you do!" Zuko grabbed for Jet's shoulders and his
eyes locked on the rampaging werewolf's as he added, "and Katara will never be
your wife. She's always been mine." The fires leapt down his fingers and sizzled as
they found purchase again in the skin of Jet's shoulders; the flames licked down the
werewolf's ragged shirt and then flared as they reached his flesh, searing and
burning and turning everything they scorched black.

"How!" howled Jet, clearly in pain while his hand closed in around Zuko's throat.

And neither was sure whether Jet referred to Zuko's possessive statements or his
pyrokinetic control, but the vampire answered both regardless.

"We're soulmates!" Zuko roared, eyes blazing.

And with that, he shoved Jet backwards, plunging them both (though Jet first)
through the window. The pane exploded outward and both men flew over the snowy
yard, the shower of glass raining around them and tinkling as they crashed on the
frozen ground below.

"What…?"
And so neither man, then, heard the fairly weak voice. Feminine voice.

Blue orbs tried to focus in the dim room, the sudden chill stimulating her senses and
making her more alert; still disoriented, she brought the covers up closer around
her.

"We're… what?" asked Katara.



TBC.

AN: Happy Oktoberfest! This chapter posted Oct 8-9-ish, 2009. Ok, nearly a 2-
month wait…. But better than 9 months… sort of?

Also, I apologise; I have it on good authority this chapter is suck-tastic, but I will do
my best to write a lemon—or hell, commission one from someone who writes them
very well—to make it up to you later! (If anyone wants to help me write apology
porn, please submit resume to me via PM. XD)

As always, concrit's much appreciated.


Chapter 30: Chapter 30


Chapter 30

"See something familiar?"

Katara startled as Jet leaned across her lap to look through the small window.
"What?" she asked.

"You've been staring out the window for half an hour. I just wondered what you
were seeing." He smiled at her and she tried to smile back, then sighed.

"I'm just…"

"Thinking." He took her hand, stroked the back of it comfortingly. "I know. I told
you to take your time. I want you to be sure."

She nodded and turned back to the window, watching rolling forest and shining
lakes pass below the plane. Home, she thought, the late afternoon colors stirring her
memories. Her family's home, in the territories – she'd been away for too long, but
something felt wrong even as they approached.
"I guess I'm just worried," she said finally, not looking at her boyfriend. Fiancé, she
reminded herself, though technically she hadn't accepted yet.

"Don't worry – your family will love me," he said confidently, and she smiled.

"I know. I just…"

"Is this about your vampire novel again?" he asked, and she scowled.

"It's a scholarly research paper about a very real disease and very real
historical events," she repeated irritably. "And I'm sure Master Storyteller And
HistorianPakkuwon't refuse to talk with me once I explain what I'm trying to do."

Jet only smiled and squeezed her hand, and she returned to staring out the window.



He came the first time when the air held a promise of spring, the land coming back
to life beneath melting snow. Water that all winter had been held still and frozen
now roused slowly in drips and trickles, small motions that Lady Yue, Speaker for
the People, Beloved of the Moon, could feel stretching in all directions from her tent.

She tried to concentrate on the boy in front of her. "Remember to always test the
ice, no matter how thick it looks – especially this time of year."

"Yes, Lady," the child responded, and Yue smiled as she ruffled his hair.

"Get back to your mother," she said as the child scowled and ducked out of the tent,
and Yue pulled the furs back into place. The smile slipped from her face as she ran
her hands through her hair, settled back onto her heels and closed her eyes to feel
water flow with the return of the sun. Hungry season, she thought, apprehension
weighing her down. We'll make it to summer. We always do.

This year, though…

Yue felt the pinch of hunger in her own belly as she leaned forward to her offering
box, moved gifts and trinkets aside to slide the lid off, removed precious incense
thick with smells of the south.

Hear me, she thought as sweet smoke filled her tent. Our food is almost gone, the
land weakens with this foreign sickness, and we grow too weak to fight these little hurts
that never used to trouble us. You made the Water Tribe strong, but I fear not strong
enough if these trials continue.

Angry voices beyond the tent broke Yue's reverie; she startled, then stretched.
Outside, pale late afternoon sun held a whisper of coming warmth, but the shadows
stretched cold and blue across the snow, moving over the land with winter's early
dark. Yue slipped her parka the rest of the way over her shoulders and walked
towards the commotion. One of her status could never run, but she did hurry as the
voices grew louder, angrier.

Her father stood before his tent, arms crossed and defiant; beside him stood the
Protector, angry and growling in the way of his kind, belying the human form he
wore in the camp. Yue stepped around another tent, curious to see who they faced: a
man, his back to her, his posture proud, arrogant, demanding; one hand raised to
gesture angrily.

The other hand, Yue noted as she moved closer, was wrapped in bloody bandages
and cradled against his chest. He's here to see me, she realized, and sighed, slowing
her steps. Another outsider to buy my time.

He turned then, as if sensing her presence, his eyes finding hers as if he knew she
was there – yellow eyes, the color of sunset, and around him her spirit-touched
senses saw his aura, blazing to match and threaded with the shimmer of
immortality. Her blood ran cold.

He's one of the demons.

His stare searched her a moment longer before it slid away, returning to her father
and the Protector. Haggling, she thought angrily, but then she saw his sledge, laden
with bundles and pelts; the carcasses of animals from across the great river plain,
far from the sickness that stalked her tribe. She remembered the gaunt faces around
the evening fires, the thin wrist of the child she'd healed, bones too sharp beneath
dry skin.

Oh spirits, she thought wearily, but knew not to question when she had begged for
help.

Still her father and the Protector argued, gesturing away from the village, their
message clear: leave. Yue steeled herself and stepped quietly between them; she
raised her arms and folded them before her and they fell into silence, the Protector's
sharp breaths belying his anger.

She looked up to meet the demon's eyes again; he held her gaze without flinching,
the arrogance in his face matching that in his posture. Already she could hear the
village emerging, children staring at the food on the sledge with the desperation of
hungry season.

Yue nodded once, slowly, and watched his expression change briefly, understanding
and triumph.

"I will see you, stranger."
"Zuko!"

He lay outside, sprawled in the snow beside another man as Katara fumbled with
the door catch. "Spirits," she whispered as she saw the blood splashed around them;
she finally figured out how to open the lock, slide the strange door back. She felt
Zuko's irritation over the faint throb of pain and almost smiled to herself as she
waded through the snow.

The strange man's injuries were deep, though, and she wondered what had attacked
them – the mountain cats? Bears? Wolves certainly wouldn't have attacked travelers
through The Water Tribe's land. "What happened?" Katara asked as she dropped
to her knees between them. "No, never mind – don't speak yet."

She drew water from the snow and reached out to the stranger, who stared at her
with wide eyes. She smiled at him as the water began to glow, then looked quickly at
Zuko. "Hang on, my love."

"Holy shit," Jet breathed as Katara lay a hand across his bleeding arm where loose
skin dangled from the flesh beneath. "Katara, I can't understand you – I didn't even
know you spoke a foreign language – oh shit," he repeated as the water beneath her
hands began to glow. She looked at him and smiled, said something soothing, but he
saw no recognition in her eyes.

"Katara, what are you doing?" he started, but Zuko interrupted him, speaking in
the same language she'd just used. She shook her head and smiled again and Jet
would have given anything to know what passed between them in those moments.

"Katara, we'll be fine – you need to save your strength," Zuko told her, even as he
tried to dampen his joy at feeling her presence, her essence, her very mindbrush
against his again. She doesn'tknow, she doesn'tremember, hold it together, Zuko, you
can't lose her now...

The bond had surged back to life as he lay gasping on the snow; now as Jet's flesh
knit back together beneath her hands, Zuko longed to touch her, to gather her into
him and never again let go. He forced himself to remain still as he breathed in her
scent, remembered the taste of her blood and the sound of her sighs, though he kept
his face turned carefully away from her.

"You may not need my help, but he does," she answered, smiling at him and he lost
himself in her eyes, her vivid blue eyes that had haunted him for more than a
century, the years falling away as Katara – his Katara – looked at him across such a
short distance that –
– but Jet was there, turning Katara's attention from him as was becoming
an irritating habit. "Zuko," he hissed angrily, "What's happening? What's
she doing? Why isn't she answering me?"

"She doesn't recognize you. She doesn't even understand you," Zuko said softly, and
Katara looked up at him to quirk her brow at the "foreign" language; he shrugged
and she turned back to Jet, moving her hands to a gaping wound along his shoulder.

"The hell she doesn't – and what's with the glowing? Is she a witch? She never
mentioned anything about that, and this is more than just magic, this is –"

"Jet…" Zuko started, and met his eyes for an instant before turning back to
Katara. Wolves, he thought irritably, and sighed again. "She's not who you think
she is."

Jet, blessedly said no more, only stared as Katara turned her attention to where
Zuko had raked his claws across Jet's side. The vicious wounds were already sealing
over but she healed them anyway and Zuko pulled himself back to fully human
form before she patted Jet's knee comfortingly and turned to Zuko.

She touched his arm, studying the deep teeth marks there before healing them with
a pass of her hand, then reached up to touch his cheek. Zuko felt a cool tingle there
that made him shiver with memory as faint throbbing pain vanished. She tilted her
head at him and he tried to smile; she frowned and took his chin and turned his face
towards her fully.

Her eyes went instantly to the scar and she gasped. Her hands were on it before he
could turn away. "What happened, Zuko?" she demanded as he felt water spread
over it but no healing tingle followed. Her brow furrowed and she drew more water
up from the snow. "Who did this to you? When did it happen?" He felt her
exhaustion overwhelming her frustration, trickling into his mind through the bond
pulsing between them. "Why isn't it healing?"

Zuko caught her hand and kissed it. "It's fine, for now." He caught her eyes, too,
and nudged her focus to him, rather than the scar, and she smiled for a moment
before slumping forward.

Jet lunged forward as if to catch her but Zuko already had her in his arms. "Thank
you, my love," she whispered, and Zuko pulled her closer as he felt her heartbeat
beside his for an instant, the bond throbbing with it. Then she closed her eyes and
sighed and slipped into unconsciousness; the whisper of her mind against his
flickered and disappeared like a candle caught by a strong draft, and Zuko let his
tears fall on her hair.
Why is he here? Yue thought as she drew back her tent flap and allowed the
stranger entrance. Demons don't get sick. They hadn't even seen one in decades, not
since the raids that decimated the people in her grandmother's time.

Yue gestured for him to take off his boots, then at the healing mat, opposite the tent
from her private space. As chief's daughter and Speaker for the People, her tent was
spacious, richly decorated with furs and baskets, lanterns and beads as befit her
status, and allowed her to see those in need of healing in private. The demon sat
deliberately and watched as she fastened the tent flap, removed her own boots and
settled onto the furs that lined the floor. He didn't speak, didn't move; just watched,
his face smooth and expressionless and unnaturally handsome, like polished
ivory. Like the wraiths who lure women from their husbands, she thought,
remembering the old legends.

"Why are you here?" Yue finally asked.

He stared at her a moment longer, then shook his head and extended his hand, the
one wrapped in bandages. "I suffered an accident," he said, voice low and deep.

She glanced at him again but his face hadn't changed; she watched his face, then
took his hand, carefully unwound the bandages and tried to treat him like any other
who needed her help. The gash across his palm was deep and nasty, made with a
ragged blade like that of a scraping knife. It still oozed blood, but Yue could see the
edges already knitting together, healing with supernatural speed.

Demon, she reminded herself as she sought out the meridians, felt the pulses of life
flowing though his veins. Why did he come to me?

Her grandmother's tales rose in her memory again, stories of how the demons had
hunted their tribe through forest and tundra. She formed his face in her mind, the
way he had almost smiled; his teeth were very white and perhaps rather sharp but
weren't elongated to fangs. The hand she held lacked claws, the slope of his back the
leathery wings of her tribe's nightmares. He'd stared at her face, not her neck, and
his eyes had held intensity, rather than the empty hunger of nightmares past.

Healing, Yue, she chided herself, and released his wrist; she drew water to her hands
and smoothed it over the torn flesh. The wound was hardly worth healing, but she
let her water help the process already under way beneath his skin. She risked a
glance up at his face, then hastily looked back down and tried to focus on the
healing, rather than the interest in his eyes.



Jet watched her stare out the window again, trying not to worry. He hadn't meant to
ask her to marry him, but how could he have done differently, after that…
He tried to push aside the remembered anguish in Zuko's eyes as he held
her, clung to her like a drowning man. He's a vampire, Jet reminded himself. He has
no right to her – his kind lies and takes as it suits them.

He'd hoped that Katara wouldn't remember, that whatever past she had with Zuko
wouldn't resurface, and so far it hadn't. She'd smiled and kissed him when he
finally gave her the ring; had lain with him that night and tried to reassure him that
she just needed a little time to think about it before she decided.

The ring rested in his pocket now as Jet stroked her hand, but he couldn't help but
worry as she didn't respond.

She can't remember, he thought desperately. She can't.



Yue braced herself as she entered her father's great tent that night. He looked up as
she entered, worry creased on his brow, and she smiled tiredly. His expression
relaxed and he smiled in response before turning back to his conversation.

The Protector entered the tent soon after her and took his place beside her as she
ate. "He's resting," she said quickly.

"He shouldn't be here."

"He paid fairly for services we've given others."

"It doesn't matter. You shouldn't have seen him."

A warrior caught his attention and Yue suppressed a sigh as he turned away. The
Protector would see what he would see, regardless of what she tried to show.

She slipped away from the great tent during the evening's songs, pulling her parka
tight against the cold. Her own tent lay only a short distance away but she shivered
as she drew the flap closed behind her. The stranger slept, stretched on his side,
blankets still folded beside him. Yue bent to touch his wrist lightly, feel the currents
pulsing there; she nodded in satisfaction as she rose and stepped quietly into her
private space.

She tried to meditate, to listen for any advice from the spirits, but her mind felt too
scattered, her thoughts too tumultuous. She finally gave up and slipped off her
parka and settled into her sleeping furs.

I didn't know demons slept.
The stranger waited until Yue's quiet breaths deepened, her heartbeat slowed in the
still air.

He approached silently, slipping past the hanging panels that separated her space
from his, and slid through the shadows to her side. He shifted the furs pulled up
around her head to trace her cheek, the pulse in her neck, and she murmured in her
sleep, shifting beneath his fingertips.

He sat back on his heels, clenching his fists to keep from tasting her, this time. The
change took trust as well as blood, but the remembered teaching warred with new
desire.You're more beautiful than I expected, he thought, daring to stroke her cheek
again.

I should just leave, he told himself, the crucial first contact successful, but instead he
sat beside her late into the night, watching her. He saw the way her brow furrowed
even in sleep, the way her lips and eyes twitched as if haunted by the dreams he felt
in the air between them, and he reached out, trying to soothe her mind.

He finally tore himself away as dawn pulsed just beyond the horizon; he hadn't
meant to stay so long. The empty sledge bounced and shuddered through slushy
snow even as his own feet were silent, and he soon left the camp far behind. Her
sleeping face lingered in his memory and he tried to think instead about his
assignment, his duty and the rewards – his birth right – that waited for him after
completing this one small task. Soon, they'll see.

TBC.



This chapter originally posted Jan 31, 2010. I apologise sincerely for the cliche'd
suckage of that chapter.

We re-edited, re-uploaded March 9th, 2010. This chapter was written by sharkflip,
though all errors are my own since I edited & approved it. Please show her some
love when we upload the next chapter this weekend! (The next 2-3 chapters are
already written, too – we're just doing some last-minute spelling/grammar tweaking
so they'll be ready to go!)

Thanks! -mm


Chapter 31: Chapter 31


Chapter 31
He came back when the weather had turned clear and warm in the way of late
spring, the nights still chilly in the way of the north. The summer solstice neared,
bathing the land in sunlight and making him restless.

The village seemed livelier as he approached, the cluster of tents seemingly less
impoverished when surrounded by budding foliage and early flowers. He took care
to favor his aching shoulder and told himself that it was only natural to look
forward to seeing her; this Yue held the key to his future, after all.

He sensed the absence of the tribe's warriors, the beasts who walked in human flesh
beside them, and none stepped forward to challenge him until he reached the center
of the settlement. Yue sat on furs and blankets, children gathered before her; she
looked up to meet his gaze with surprise written on her face. He nodded at the
sledge behind him, tried to let his face show pain and exhaustion, and she turned to
the girl sitting beside her to speak quickly.

The girl nodded and Yue rose gracefully to her feet, gesturing for him to follow
through the winding avenue between tents. Finally, she closed the flap behind them
and stood for a moment to regard him, the light dim but her eyes sharp.

"Why are you here?"

"I…" he paused, and she quirked her brow.

"Suffered an accident?"

He hid his frown. "Of sorts." He started to shrug off his shirt, wincing dramatically;
he bit back a hiss just to watch her face crease with concern. "I took a fall –"

"Dislocated, I think," she said, ignoring him and examining the shoulder, the
bruising and swelling that marked it. He hid his smile this time as she pushed his
shirt collar aside, but her expression betrayed no embarrassment, no maiden's blush
at seeing a man's skin. Instead it held a healer's calm regard.

"Yes, dislocated." She sat back on her heels. "Lay down."

He frowned. Surely –

"It needs to be reset before anything else. It's easier and more comfortable if you lay
on your back." She waited, her eyes betraying nothing but patience, and he lay
back, realizing only after he'd settled that he should have winced.

"Good. Now." She leaned forward to take his wrist firmly in one hand, place the
other against his shoulder, as her hair spilled forward to frame her face. "This will
hurt, but I'm sure you'll be able to bear it. Just remember, it will feel much better
afterwards." She didn't wait for an answer and instead guided his hand up, then in,
then out.

He grit his teeth as pain – real pain – shot through his arm and back, then relaxed
as something slipped back into place and the discomfort ebbed. Yue sat back on her
heels again, her expression satisfied as she drew water to her hands. "This is the
easy part," she said reassuringly, and he closed his eyes as water washed soothingly
over his skin, her fingertips barely touching him through the fluid.

It ended too soon, a splash and a rustle of skins indicating she'd moved away, and he
sat up, pulled his shirt back on. "Did you need to rest?" she asked.

He nodded. "If I may."

Yue lay awake that night, listening to the demon's steady breathing, trying
fruitlessly to banish him from her head. He was baiting me, she realized, irritated to
find less immune than she would have liked. Still, he hadn't acted improperly, and
seemed genuinely grateful for the care.

She sighed and rolled over again, pulled her furs over her head to block out the
sounds of him. Are all demons like this?

The stranger again waited, listening as Yue's breaths finally deepened, her restless
turning ceased. He smiled inwardly, amused that he had affected her despite her
calm healer's demeanor, and rose silently. She lay sprawled across her furs, long
hair in disarray, bare arms crossed to pillow her head, and he paused to admire
her. What a prize you will be.

He smoothed the hair from her face with careful fingers, leaned down to breath her
in, listen to the pulse of blood through her veins, beckoning. Yes, he thought, his
teeth elongating, sharp tips sliding along his lips. Now.

Her skin parted easily, like velvet curtains slipping aside at his touch, and her blood
welled up hot and thick. He held himself back for a moment to admire the way it
streamed down her neck, pooled in the dip of her collarbone, then bent again to lap
at it leisurely –

– and sat back in horror. No, was his first thought. No, not her – it can't be.

The teachings echoed in his memory as he stared at her, hand raised to his mouth in
shock, her blood on his lips and his fingers and already pulsing within him. The
blood always knows, his uncle's voice said solemnly. The bond is inescapable once a
vampire has tasted his soulmate.

No, he thought again, but the taste lingered, heavy and evocative as her thoughts
now brushing against his – with an odd tang that made his stomach turn. She's ill,
he realized through the thunder of his own heartbeat, and forced himself to stand, to
turn away and escape into the night even as her presence followed.

Yue woke slowly, blinking at the light that filtered into her tent. He's gone, she
realized, and told herself that she should be glad, that she should hope never to see
him again.

You're the guardian of the People, she reminded herself. So what if he made you feel
special. He's a demon.

The winter village was empty when the stranger returned the next time, but he'd
expected this and followed the faint tracks through scrubby forests and into the
rolling plains. He found them camped along the wide river delta, the women and
children and old men fishing and gathering while the young men and warriors
chased caribou through the grass.

Those grasses flavored the breezes, fresh and wild in contrast to the stifling air
of home, but the stranger tried to push such thoughts aside as he approached. Does
she feel it? he wondered again. Does she know? But humans were blind, their
existence as oblivious and self-serving and fleeting as the insects that skated across
the river shallows.

He shifted the pack on his back as he approached; he knew that this was the time of
plenty, of rich harvest and bounty as the tribe roamed beyond their poisoned winter
grounds, and he rehearsed his explanations as the first children caught sight of him
and served to announce him in their eagerness.

She stood in the river shallows as he approached, skirt rucked up to her knees and
laughing with the other women, and the sight – the smell, the feel of her, brushing
against his senses – almost made him stagger as longing washed over him, the bond
pulling at his mind.

He forced his face to be impassive as she turned, following the silent gestures of the
other tribeswomen. Her smile slipped into a carefully neutral mask and its absence
hit him almost as a physical blow, even as the bond rippled. She waded out of the
water hastily, releasing her skirt to swirl around her ankles, and he tried not to
stare, to think of the shapely legs above them. He shifted his pack again and the
motion jostled his arm; the pain gave him something to hold on to as he met her
eyes.

Her brow quirked, humor in her expression for an instant, but she schooled her
features and waited.

"A few moments of your time, Healer," he finally said, and followed her to her tent.
The burns healed quickly under her water and her hands and Yue released the
demon's arm as soon as she properly could. Why are you so jumpy? she chided
herself, even as she smoothed her palms against her skirt as if to erase the feel of his
skin. It's just a burn, it's just an arm, he's just a patient, but his eyes had haunted her
since she'd awoken weeks before.

"I've brought other gifts this time," the demon said suddenly and Yue tried not to
startle at the words. He didn't look at her as he rummaged through his pack, pulled
fabric and tools from it as she watched.

"Why are you here?" she blurted, and he looked up. His sunset eyes were vivid even
in the tent's gloom and his aura burned around him so strongly that she could
almost feel him through the air.

He frowned. "I – "

Yue waved her hand to cut him off. "Suffered an accident, I know." His face held
irritation, but in her dreams she saw only his eyes, felt only his skin and his
fingertips until she woke every morning and tried to bury his memory.

Summer deepened as the hunters brought in meat and they feasted in the long warm
evenings. The women dried and smoked and packed the surplus away, proof against
another long winter on their impoverished land, and Yue allowed herself to hope
that they might make it through another hungry season.

I wish we could just leave, she thought again. It's just land and it's barely what was
once ours – but she pushed the notion aside: the winter grounds were sacred, home
to the tribe's ancestors and their very spirits. She refused, though, to think of the
government, the edicts and notices and agents that thought their power held the
tribe there.

The stranger came again and Yue realized that it was the new moon: he came
during the new moon of every month, when her senses were weakest. She wondered
at that even as he stood before her, clutching his side, his hand sticky with blood
even as he almost smiled at her, the expression so subtle she would have missed it if
she hadn't been watching him so closely. She tried not to smile in return, tried to
remind herself that he was here to be healed, but part of her jumped in excitement
as she swallowed her suspicion and ushered him to her tent.

Yue helped him remove his shirt, pulling the shredded material away from the
gashes on his side; he hissed as she ran her fingers along the deep wounds and she
tried not to shiver at the puff of breath on her skin. She forced herself to focus on
the water's glow, on the flow of blood beneath the skin, on coaxing the torn flesh to
smooth back into itself. The gouges were deep, the skin sliced cleanly away to reveal
raw flesh beneath – a sharp contrast to the ragged gaping scrapes she'd seen in
other bear attacks. The stranger's hands were draped across his lap, the long fingers
relaxed but they could easily match the spread of the gashes.

Yue looked up then and the stranger looked away too quickly and anger surged
through her. "You did this to yourself."

He didn't deny it, just met her eyes again and the weight of his gaze made shiver.
She held on to her anger against the surge of emotion.

"Why? Why are you even here?" He made no reply, only watched her, eyes blazing
like the dying sunset. "Is this some sort of a diversion? Are you just trying
todistract me while your kind hunts us again? I'll not have it, I –"

She stopped as he grabbed her wrist, his fingers burning against her skin and she
shivered again before she could stop herself. "Don't you feel it, Yue?" His voice was
low, husky, and this time she knew he saw the shiver ripple down her spine, pool in
her stomach and lower.

She steeled herself, pushed the feeling away. "All I feel is anger – you've
been using me and I'll be damned if I allow your kind to prey on us again!" He
frowned and opened his mouth and she pulled her wrist away. "Leave."

"But –" he started, gesturing at the wounds still raw and oozing on his side, but she
cut him off.

"Those will heal just fine on their own. Get out of my tent." She forced herself to
look away but instead found herself drowning in his stare, in the odd blend of anger,
arrogance, and desperation written in his features, the way she could still feel his
fingers on her wrist and how his light skin seemed almost to glisten in the dim light
as he leaned towards her, opened his mouth to speak or to –

Shouts sounded outside her tent, the warriors returning from their hunt and Yue
shut her eyes to block him out.

"Go."

He went.

The stranger glided into Yue's tent that night, moving silently through shadows, the
past month's longing too much to ignore. She's the one, he thought again – he'd tried
to put her aside, tried not to think of her and instead only his mission, his directive
to collect the Moon Spirit and return her to the Fire Nation for the ceremony – but
she was the one, his soul-mate, and he couldn't escape the memory of her eyes and
the way her mind slid against the edges of his.
She lay sprawled on her furs, a messy sleeper; he almost smiled at the sight before
he felt her heartbeat in the air, the blood moving beneath her smooth soft skin and
he closed his eyes against the longing that rose in him.

When it finally ebbed, forced into the background as he controlled the need,
the craving, he chanced reaching out to her, touching her lips and trailing his fingers
along her cheek and down her neck. She stirred in her sleep, made a small noise and
he paused, but she settled again and he bent to drink.

The tang of illness was fainter than in the spring, but there in the sharp taste of
blood and the sharper feel of her blood, unlike any he had ever tasted; he felt the
ache of it echoed as if in his own blood, the foreign fatigue of human illness and
something more, the whisper of her dreams soft against his mind.

The bond is strong already, he thought, and sat back, watching her, listening to her
breaths and her heartbeats and feeling the edges of her restless dreams. You have to
do this, he told himself, remembering his directive again, what had been promised
and threatened. She's only a human, spirit-touched or no.

He felt the sun's path nearing the horizon, the first faint blush of dawn moving into
the sky, before he finally moved. His fingernails sharpened to claws as he leaned
forward, slid his hand under her neck to cradle her head and draw her towards
him; he broke the skin at the base of his throat with his other hand and pulled her
mouth to the blood that welled up.

The bond between them surged and he burned with it, with the smell of her blood
mingled with his and the feel of her skin under his fingers and he knew that he had
never wanted anyone like he wanted her. Her emotions sighed and tickled,
deepening as his blood coursed through her, enticing him like no simple physical
attraction ever had. He closed his eyes and clenched his teeth until he felt his blood
respond within her, beginning to repair the damage in her tissues; he lay her back
on her furs and forced himself to leave before he drank her dry right there.

It's because I have to subdue her, he told himself as he moved swiftly away from the
camp, the sky changing from black to grey to the palest blue. The change takes time,
and trust, and blood, and I can't rush it if I'm to bring her back for the ceremony.

He told himself this over and over again as the sun rose and traveled across the sky,
and tried to ignore how he could still feel her despite the distance.

The nights turned cold even as the days remained warm and the tribe neared their
winter grounds, moving through the circle of the broad wilderness. Yue frowned as
she looked across the plains towards the distant seas; the land should be rich and
fruitful at summer's end, but it felt wrong this year – weak, sickly, like the illness
she felt growing in her own body.
She sighed and turned back to the camp where women cut meat into strips to be
smoked and stored, proof against winter starvation. She whispered a silent blessing
that these stores would last, and moved back into the cluster of tents. The Protector
and his warriors sat in human form around the central fire, cleaning and
sharpening the spears they sometimes used; he looked up as he approached, his eyes
questioning and she tried to smile as she made her way to her tent.

The stranger returned the next day and Yue steeled herself at the commotion that
greeted him, even as something inside her twisted pleasantly and painfully at the
thought of seeing him again. He looked up as she approached, standing taller than
the warriors who circled him, and she read unfamiliar softness in his expression, a
tilt to his eyes and mouth. He's sorry, she thought tiredly, and that rather than the
gifts he brought guided her decision to see him.

She closed the tent flap behind them and sat carefully on her furs, considering him
through the exhaustion and weakness closing in around her. The stranger settled
stiffly to the ground in front of her, eyes wary but hopeful, and they watched each
other for a long time in the tent's dim light. I'm too weak to fight right now, she
thought, and ignored the warmth that spread through her at his familiar presence.

"Why are you here?" she finally asked, and the stranger frowned, ripples of
emotion playing across his face.

"I –" he started, but Yue cut him off.

"No. No injuries, no accidents – you don't need my healing and you never have."
She held his eyes for a long moment, broke the gaze before she lost herself in it, let
out a long breath. "Why are you here? What do you want?"

He didn't answer as she knew he wouldn't, and finally she sighed.

The stranger shifted. "I'll go," he said quietly, his voice raw, and Yue closed her
eyes until long after he'd left.

He knew from her smell, from the aura of exhaustion that hovered around her, that
she wasn't well; the taint in her blood and something new, something ominous had
filled the tent as she stared listlessly at the wall. He tried to push down the worry,
tried again to think of his mission, but he forgot everything but her as he watched
her that night.

Her face had grown gaunt in the month since she'd sent him away, her smooth
features drawing away from sharp angles. He stroked her hair gently, threading his
claws through the strands and caressing her cheek. What are you doing? he asked
himself yet again, and gathered her into him to make her drink, make her take his
blood, try to heal her in the manner of his kind even as he told himself he did it to
start the change. His own blood smelled sharp in the tent's close air, smoothing over
the tang in hers, and he checked his desire for her until she lay back among the furs.

He smoothed her hair back again, bent his head and felt his fangs slip past his lips
when her eyes opened. She stared at him for a moment, surprise – and pleasure? –
playing across her face and he leaned closer. Her eyes widened, then narrowed in
anger and she swung too quickly for him to dodge the blow.

"What are you doing?" she shrieked as he scrambled backwards, his jaw stinging.
She fumbled beside the bed but he managed to duck the boot she flung at his head.
"Why are you in my tent?" The other boot caught him in the chest, but he barely
felt it against the rage in the air she projected, the hurt and betrayal that flooded his
mind through the fog of interrupted sleep.

He tried to ignore it, tried to shush her but she was too enraged, too confused, and
she batted his arm aside as he reached for her. "I told you to go!"

Outside, a commotion started, the warriors yelping and growling, then a howl cut
through the noise as the scent of her spirit-touched blood reached them.

"Yue!" the lead wolf shouted, and the stranger cursed, melted into the shadows at
the far end of the tent. The tent flap opened, revealing an angular face, the skin
seeming to ripple as he struggled to stay in human form. "Yue, what's wrong? I
smelled blood –"

The stranger watched her face contort, anger and concern and annoyance warring
across her features.

"I – I'm fine," she finally said, and the stranger relaxed. "I… it was just a dream.
And… I bit my tongue." She smiled faintly. "Thank you for checking on me. I'm
fine, though. You may go."

The wolf frowned. "But –"

"Please," she said softly, formally, her eyes on the floor in front of her. "My dream
has disturbed me. I wish to be left alone."

The stranger felt the wolf's frustration in the air, faint beside Yue's conflicted
thoughts tumbling against his own mind. The stranger kept his breathing slow, tried
to project calm; finally the wolf nodded and left and the tent fell silent again.

"I know you're there." Her voice was soft, strained – exhausted, and he slipped from
the shadows to settle a short distance away.
"I know," he said carefully, and she didn't flinch. Her eyes were dark gray against
richly shadowed black, drawing him in as much as the blood coursing beneath her
skin.

"Why are you here?" The weariness in her tone pulled at him, stretched his resolve
so thin he didn't know if it broke or just changed shape.

"Maybe… I just wanted to see you."

His words hung in the air for a moment as he held his breath, trying to predict how
she would react, but she surprised him with a soft laugh.

"Right. You, a demon, sneak into my tent in the dead of night because you wanted
to see me. Tell me another."

He frowned. "I'm not a demon."

She sighed, then, surprising him again. "Demon, wraith, nightmare, shadow-
stalker… whatever." Her voice was low, exhaustion creeping back into it. "Why are
you here?"

He surprised himself by answering. "I was sent. To find you." The words seemed to
lay in the air between them, heavy with truth.

"By who?" she said after a long time.

"It doesn't matter. I was sent, but now…" he hated the weakness in his own voice.
"Now I'm just here."

"Well, you found me." He could read no emotion from that quiet statement, but the
furs rustled around her, a restless question in the motion as his own blood roared
beneath her skin.

"I can't escape you," he whispered. It was true, he realized; every dream, every
thought, every taste of blood reminded him of her. Not of his mission – her, this
human woman who held the other half of his soul. He forced the terror at that
thought down, forced his voice to be steady, to sow the seeds that would convince
her to follow him. "I don't know what it is, but I can't escape you, even if I try."

She didn't respond but he felt the roil of emotions from her at his words; he closed
his eyes against the strength of them, against the desire to move closer, breathe her
in and drink from her and make her his. He could feel how fragile the moment was,
how close she –

"Go" she whispered.
TBC.

AN: Everyone please give a round of applause and a loving shout-out to sharkflip
for writing us this chapter!

This chapter posted Friday, March 12th, 2010.

PS: Expect ze pr0nz next Friday when I upload Ch.32. (Thank you so very much,
sharkflip!)


Chapter 32: Chapter 32


AN: Mature content ahead! (Thank you, Sharkflip!)



Chapter 32

The cold came too soon, the ground freezing and the rivers icing over as the first
snows showed what was to come. The tribe settled into its winter ground, the land
dead even under that light blanket, and the winter songs and dances were as much
plea as thanks as the days shortened.

The stranger came back again, as she knew he would, but Yue refused to see him,
looking away as he sought her gaze.

He surprised her by begging audience from her father, not buying her time but
following the old ways as a supplicant. Yue bristled but could not refuse the formal
request, and swallowed her intrigue that he knew the old ways.

The silence in her tent was awkward; she sat rigidly beside her offering box as the
stranger knelt before her, head bowed as was proper. Anger replaced the intrigue as
he waited, rage that he had forced her into accepting him, and she turned it back on
him. "What's your name?" she demanded, knowing that he couldn't refuse to
answer, not if he wanted to keep this truce.

The stranger sighed, almost a hiss before he spoke. "Zuko. Son of Ozai and Ursa.
Grandson of Azulon and Ilah." He looked up then to meet her eyes. "Crown Prince,
and heir to the Fire Nation Throne."

The honesty and the weight of the title startled her; the words were familiar and
Yue forced herself to smirk. "Ah, a chief's son. I should have guessed." She watched
anger spread across his face and knew he struggled to remain silent, as was proper
when in audience with a Speaker. Zuko, she thought, testing the harsh sounds, and
he seemed to flinch. She hardened her expression. "Why are you here?"

He shrugged, reluctant and defiant. "To see you."

"Well," she spread her arms wide. "Here I am. Is that all?"

He sighed again. "Yue, I –"

"Don't."

She saw the confusion in his eyes, felt it in the air between them as she shook her
head. "Don't think to address me like you know me. You don't."

He stiffened, anger in his posture now. "Fine. Lady Yue, Beloved of the Moon,
Speaker for the People." He withdrew something from his pack, held it out to her;
she didn't move and instead watched him warily. "I bring you this, to show myself
worthy of your regard."

She held his eyes for a long moment before reaching to take the package. "I thank
you for this offering," she said automatically, then set it aside on her altar.

He shifted uneasily, and she folded her hands to wait him out.

He didn't disappoint. He – Zuko – opened his mouth to speak and she glared at him;
he flushed and dropped his eyes. "Aren't you going to open it?"

"No."

She could feel his disappointment, and almost smiled at it – how like a child he was,
despite the weight of agelessness that followed him.

He finally sighed, folded his hands in supplication, looked up to meet her eyes. She
held herself steady, willing herself not to get lost in that sunset regard. "It would
please me to know if my gift pleases you."

She saw the sincerity there, rare and precious from a demon, and something within
her crumbled. She looked away, towards the package laying among shells and
feathers and tiny statues. "Fine." She picked it up, loosened the twine that held it
shut. The wrappings fell away and she raised her brow at the shimmer of blue
fabric within. She forgot herself for a moment then, shaking it out of careful folds: a
scarf, patterned with colors ranging from those of a frozen pond to the deepest
indigo of the night sky. Yue touched it carefully, wondering at the intricate patterns,
the smoothness of the fabric.
"You like it then?" He broke her reverie and she caught herself, forced her
Speaker's face back into position.

"It will do," she answered and bundled it back into the wrapping, forced herself to
lock away its beauty, to place it among the other gifts of her station. She forced
herself to relish the disappointment in his eyes; she felt it somehow in her heart,
almost as if the emotion were her own. She shrugged it aside and forced her voice to
be formal, cold, indifferent. "You may go."

Anger flashed across his face, mingled with the disappointment; frustration and an
odd desperation as well, and he stood hastily, almost hitting his head on the tent's
support beams. "Thank you for your audience, Lady Yue," he says, the words
courteous and correct but his tone conveying that anger, that frustration.

She sat for a long time in the gloom of her tent after he left, trying not to think of his
sincerity and his gift. Zuko, she thought, and shivered.

Yue woke up the next morning feeling lighter, better, the fatigue of illness lifted
despite the lingering annoyance. She stretched slowly, flexed her hands, opened her
eyes and saw the scarf entwined in her fingers. Her annoyance returned at his
arrogance: he visited her again in the night, for all his formal words and gestures,
but the fabric was soft in her fingers.

She stroked it against her cheek despite herself, lifted it to study it in the morning
light. The fabric was beautiful, like nothing she had ever seen or felt, the patterns
complex and variegated with a gentle sheen that reminded her of moonlight on still
water. It couldn't hurt to keep it.

This gives you no hold over me, demon, she thought, and then tried not to think of
him at all.

Hear me, Yue prayed as winter deepened and the daylight vanished and she
remembered the ruined food cache, decimated by rot and foxes alike. Spirits, I don't
know what we have done to displease you, but please, spare us further punishment and
show what we might to do earn your favor again. Please hear me and know that the
Water Tribe needs your blessing to continue.

She knelt on her prayer mat, burned incense and chanted and prayed throughout
the long dark night, but when the pearl gray of day stole around the horizon, she
knew not if they had heard – or if they had heard, if they chose to answer.

She finally rose reluctantly, wincing at the stiffness in her limbs as she lay out on her
bed, pulling the furs around her and curling into herself. Exhaustion dragged at
her, the illness and the dreams weighing her down.
Why can't I stop thinking about you? she wondered again. What hold have you taken
of me?

She tried to think of him as demon, as the terror that hunted her village in the
elders' stories, but could think only of sunset eyes and a reluctant name.

"Zuko," she whispered before slipping into restless sleep.

The separation felt as a physical pain, clawing at his innards and weighing his steps,
pulsing and fluttering against his mind as if she, too, were troubled, haunted by his
memory. Zuko tried to ignore the sensations as he trudged through dense forest,
careful to lay this false trail before taking to the trees. His sister's reavers were
relentless but stupid, easily misled if given the time to prepare.

Time is what I don't have, he thought, feeling the hunger pulse within him. He had
been running for too long, pursued too relentlessly to feed and he felt the blood-lust
at the edges of his mind, waiting and growing with every day. He stopped walking,
closed his eyes and forced it down, then forced himself to keep walking, keep leading
them away.

Away from her.

It's for the mission, he told himself. I need her to gain my birthright, my place in the
clan. The throne is only gained through sacrifice. If Azula succeeds and she falls, I'll
never gain what is mine. He repeated the words, the teachings, like a mantra; they
helped him place one foot in front of the other, even as they didn't drown out the
blue, blue eyes that haunted his memory, his dreams, teasing and taunting him as he
had once used dreams to tease and taunt other prey.

Yue, he thought, and forced himself to continue forward.

A second month dragged by and Yue tried to be glad, tried to be grateful that he
hadn't returned, that he'd finally obeyed and left. His absence nagged at her,
though, like the illness, like the hunger that already spread through the tribe as they
tried to stretch their remaining food into winter's depth. The Protector and his kind
returned too often with empty mouths and empty hands, the hunts unsuccessful as
the land, too, hungered.

The tribe looked hopeful as the solstice approached, even as Yue dreaded it; she
hated this Speaker's duty, the burdens it placed on her as a woman and as a person,
separate from her title. She spent the dark days before it in prayer and
meditation, hoping – but for what, she couldn't admit.

The night finally came and with it the dance, the elders sitting behind the fire, the
women opposite it, the eligible men standing in a loose circle around it – aroundher,
as Yue began the ancient steps to the women's chants.
It was supposed to be her choice, the moon spirit's choice of a lover to please her on
this longest night, when she needed the warmth of a man and in turn rewarded the
tribe with prosperity in the new year. It was supposed to be Yue's choice, as the
moon spirit's earthly voice, but all in the tribe knew her choice to be the Protector,
the act sealing the bond between their peoples.

He looked on from his place in the center of his warriors, his face betraying
eagerness and desire even as he made no motion and Yue continued the sacred
dance. He was a decent lover, passionate and reverent, but had always been more
engaged with her body, with the status it granted him to be chosen for this ritual.
Yue tried to think of her tribe and her duty to them, rather than of her own desires
– rather than of sunset eyes and long fingers and dreams that plagued her in the
night.

Few remained in the circle, the warriors retreating as she turned her back or shook
her head and the chants grew louder, more intense as quiet dread grew in her at the
Protector's proud smirk, at his heated gaze on her form. The last warrior stepped
down and he tilted his head to step forward when a ripple of murmurs joined the
chants.

Yue turned, unsurprised as the stranger – the demon, the shadow-stalker, Zuko –
stepped into the circle, firelight dancing across his features, revealing the same
weariness she felt in her bones. She ignored the Protector's rage, his outstretched
hand as he moved to stop her even as the chants faded into shocked silence and she
extended her own hand to place it on Zuko's chest. He stared at her, surprise and
understanding and desire pushing the weariness aside for a moment as his heart
beat strongly beneath her palm, then the Protector growled.

"Yue," he started, long teeth flashing in the firelight, but she held up her other
hand.

"It is not your choice," she said quietly and felt Zuko's pulse leap under her fingers
before she moved her hand to take his wrist. The Protector shook with rage but
remained silent as Yue led the demon from the circle and stepped into the shadows
beyond.

Her tent was dark and quiet in comparison and felt smaller than it had ever been;
her eyes adjusted slowly as she took her time fastening the tent flap and finally she
turned to face him. They watched each other in the darkness, his harsh breathing
the only sound until she finally spoke.

"Why are you here?" she whispered, but knew he had no answer, so she took a step
forward.
He stayed silent, eyes glinting even in the dark as she felt his sincerity beside his
torment and she took another step towards him. "I can't stop thinking about you.
All my dreams, all my thoughts… are you doing this?"

Still he made no motion, only stared at her as she closed the distance between them
until their faces were only a handspan apart; emotion warred in his eyes, clear now
that he was so close, and Yue saw for the first time his confusion, his hesitance,
his fear, all mixed with too-familiar desire and frustration. Yue lay her hand on his
chest again and felt him shaking, felt his fists clench as she stepped into him, turned
her head to hear his heart beat under her ear for a moment before something in him
seemed to break. He surged forward, his arms crushing her to him as she felt his lips
on her neck and her shoulders, kissing her skin with a hunger that pulsed off of him
and shivered through her.

She raised her head and he seized her face, pulling her mouth to his as she ran her
hands up his chest to feel his own blood pulsing through his neck. The kiss was
fierce, strong and overwhelming as they both took, both gave of themselves. Yue
shivered as he licked at her mouth, felt his fangs slide across her lips without
breaking the skin; she pushed up against him in return, arching her back and tilting
her head as he shuddered under her hands.

"Yue," he breathed into her neck, his teeth sliding along the skin so achingly gentle
that she couldn't feel afraid, just closed her eyes and savored the touch.

She slid her arms under his jacket in response, feeling hard muscle under his shirt
and he let go of her shoulders for just an instant to help her shrug it off. The jacket
fell to the floor and his hands were already on her waist, sliding under her tunic,
fingers warm against her skin and she gasped at the sensation, shivered in his arms
as their lips met for another kiss before he pulled the tunic over her head.

She fumbled with his shirt buttons as he slid his hands down her back, tracing the
contours as they kissed again, tongues meeting and breath mingling and finally his
shirt was loose, revealing moon-pale skin hot under her fingers as he shrugged it off
and bent to kiss her again.

"Why did you choose me?" he whispered, his voice hoarse and his fingers busy and
she gasped, bit into his shoulder as his breath washed over her skin. "It made your
tribe angry – it made your pet wolf angry – why?" His teeth dragged across her skin
again, but again she felt no pain, no tearing, no piercing – only his tongue and his
lips as she whimpered and fumbled with his belt. "Answer me," he hissed, but she
heard the plea in the command.

"I don't know," she whispered, tipping her head back for better access even as his
belt came undone and she pushed his pants down along narrow hips, ran her hands
along his flanks and the smooth muscle there. He shuddered as she pressed up
against him, rocking into him for an instant as a tiny sound escaped with his breath.
"I just know… there's something, and maybe…" but she didn't know how to finish
the statement and then his hands were sliding along her own hips, her skirt falling
around her ankles and she kicked it aside and struggled briefly to slip out of her
boots.

"I know," he whispered, pulling her closer, the embrace almost tender before his
hands glided over her shoulders again; she let him guide her backwards and they
tumbled back onto her sleeping furs, hands and lips busy. He moved over her then,
laying her back against the furs, but she stopped him with a hand on his chest.

His expression held confusion, a touch of hurt that made him look suddenly young;
she touched his

his lips and he closed his eyes for an instant, bit her fingertips gently, his teeth
flashing white for an instant as again they drew no blood. She dropped her hand to
rest on his thigh.

"Tonight is not for you..." she whispered and leaned forward, pressing gently on his
chest. He moved back, watching her, and she smiled. "Tonight is a night of
reverence, of celebration for the moon spirit." She followed him as he braced
himself back on his hands and she put her hands behind his, leaned forward and
watched expressions play across his face. "When we give her thanks and honor her
with this gift, to ensure prosperity for the coming year."

Their chests touched now as she pressed him back into the furs and he reached up
to place his hands up on her hips, stroke his thumbs against the thin skin there. She
shivered at the touch, leaned forward to kiss him deeply. "It is considered the
greatest honor to be chosen to please the moon spirit," she whispered, and he gasped
as she straddled him, rocked back to sit astride his hips; he shuddered as she
reached back to stroke him but he was ready and they gasped together as he slipped
inside.

"Oh," she sighed, feeling herself stretch pleasantly as she took him in; she arched
her back and lay one hand on his ribs to steady herself as she slid along his length
and he writhed beneath her, his breath hissing as he clenched his teeth. He tried to
pull her closer, faster, but she set the pace, long and slow and deep as she moved
over him, hair tumbling loose around her shoulders and hips as he dragged his
fingers across her skin.

She soon shuddered and cried out, clenching down on him and he grit his teeth and
pushed up into her, but she forced him down again, keeping the pace slow as his
fingers clutched at her thighs and he tipped his head back and bit his lip. She smiled
at the sight then gasped as he rolled his hips and she slid forward, panting and
moving ever so faintly faster.
She cried out again soon and leaned forward and he could feel her, taste her in the
air even as the distance between them still felt so great. He felt her shudder, delicate
muscles rippling around him and he bucked against her and whined, hating the
sound but needing her so desperately, the bond pulsing so strong it felt almost
painful. She finally let go and he surged up into her, fast and hard and fingers
gripping her hips until they cried out together, drawing out the sensation into a
long, aching climax.

She stayed astride him as the aftershocks faded, breathing heavily and brow sweaty.
He just watched her, watched how she ran her hands through her hair, pulled it
back only to have it fall forward again. He traced the curve of her hip with one
hand, held her close against him with the other, and finally she looked down at him.
Her smile was soft, knowing, and he felt himself flush at that regard.

"Did that please the moon spirit?" he heard himself ask, surprised at how low his
voice sounded, cracked and almost broken, and she laughed. She leaned forward
and he slipped out of her; her hair tumbled around her shoulders again and he
reached up to smooth it away from her face. She closed her eyes as he stroked her
cheek, then she moved her legs, draping them over his and laying out atop him. Her
hair fanned out over his shoulder and he reached one arm up to pull her closer. She
settled her head against his chest and her hand atop his other arm and sighed
deeply, the sound of a contented woman.

"The moon spirit is pleased," she said with quiet humor, and Zuko smiled.

He woke early the next morning with her still in his arms and part of him – the part
of him like humanity, feelings and emotions and a conscience – felt unbelievably
satisfied, content to stay there, watching her sleep and tracing patterns on her bare
skin for the eternity that was his birthright.

Another part still hungered for her, though; Zuko knew it hadn't been enough, he
wanted so much more and a distant part of him that he tried so hard to ignore
whispered to take her, mesmerize her and turn her and bring her back to make his
destiny. Yet another part of him could feel the illness in her, growing and spreading
and it pulled at him like an old wound.

He gathered her into him and made her drink from him; she murmured as he
settled her back into the furs, sighed as he tipped her head back and traced the line
of her carotid with his tongue and finally bit gently into her. She murmured again,
the sound surprised and pleased though she didn't wake up and he closed his eyes to
concentrate on making her feel good as he lapped the blood from her skin.

He drank his fill despite the tang of illness and the tiny punctures soon sealed over,
healing quickly as his own blood surged within her. He forced himself to draw the
furs around her, to stand and dress and leave the tent before she woke; Azula's
reavers would only follow a false trail for so long and he had risked so much by
coming, but he couldn't regret seeing her – not this time.

Yue woke alone, tucked carefully into her furs and feeling warm, satisfied and
wonderfully relaxed. She stretched luxuriously, smiled – then realized that he was
gone.

You should be glad, she told herself. You've had your night together, your questions
answered, and you should be relieved he's gone.

The words were empty solace, though, and she buried her tears in her pillow.



TBC.

AN: Everyone please give a round of applause and a loving shout-out to sharkflip
for writing us this wonderful chapter!

This chapter posted Friday, March 19th, 2010.


Chapter 33: Chapter 33


Chapter 33

Snow held the land prisoner, the people barely hanging on as hunger deepened with
winter.

Yue watched another family leave the sacred land for the towns, abandoning their
people and their history for a promise of survival and work in the processing plants
that sprawled along the coasts. She felt tears course down her cheeks as they
vanished into the dusk, but could not begrudge them their choice. The land is dying,
she thought. And my time grows short.

He – Zuko, for she could no longer think of him simply as a demon, not after that
night – hadn't returned with the new moon and she tried not to feel disappointment.
The dreams continued, intensified, images of blood and passion and his eyes
drawing her in consuming her until she imagined she could feel him, roaming the
darkness and waiting – for what, she didn't know.

She picked at her meal that evening, the food somehow unsatisfying despite the ache
of hunger, and excused herself early. He tent was dark, silent as she lit precious
incense and tried instead to immerse herself in prayer for her people, but his eyes
haunted her even then.
Zuko dragged himself through the snow, concentrating on putting one foot in front
of the other, on clutching his arm across his injured side to avoid leaving a blood
trail. He'd killed the last of Azula's reavers, but there would be more and he only
hoped he could recover before she sent the next pack.

Yue, he thought desperately, feeling her close and distant all at once, the bond's ache
growing with every day that passed between them, worse than the ache of hunger.
The memory of her eyes haunted him, the way she had sighed into his mouth and
the way she tasted as he took of her; the visions disturbed his days and nights alike.

He spent that night – or perhaps day; time blurred together in the grey northern
winter – under a rock overhang beside a lake that stretched into snowy distance. He
stripped off his shirt and stepped carefully out onto the frozen surface, padded away
from shore and finally stooped to melt ice into clear, cold water. The wound stung as
he irrigated it, the water splashing pink onto the ice with the reavers' filth, but he
could feel their poison seeping into his blood, already burning through his veins.

He finished washing, shivering despite the fire than simmered within him as he
stepped back, raised his arms and melted the blood-stained ice into open water,
threw his shirt in after it and watched it sink into black depths. Reavers were drawn
to blood like the sharks that swam the seas, but even their senses would be hard
pressed to trace his blood scent from a spring-thawed lake.

He risked no fire that night and huddled into himself, pulling his coat tightly around
him and trying to think of her through the cold and pain, through the bloodlust that
crept up again as he felt himself begin to starve.

Yue, he thought again, and slipped into uneasy dreams of warm blue eyes and
smooth brown skin and blood spilled across fresh snow.

The freezing air seemed heavy that evening despite the perfect cloudless sky. The
full moon hovered low on the horizon, green and red lights dancing before it as Yue
watched from the edge of the village. Hear me, she prayed. Our food is almost gone,
the land is dying, and we grow weaker with every passing dusk. You made the Water
Tribe strong, but –

She broke off mid-prayer as a figure stumbled from the barren woods. Zuko! she
knew even before he lifted his head, and she dropped her arms and hiked up her
skirt to run to him. He finally looked up as she approached and she felt something
ripple between them, but his eyes were empty and fear replaced her sudden joy.

He snarled, or whimpered – she couldn't tell which – and leapt at her, shoving her
into the ground beneath him, pushing her into the snow almost too fast for her to
feel afraid – but then his teeth sank into her neck and she almost screamed before he
clapped his hand over her mouth. She felt him bite into her again as she lay helpless,
felt clawed fingers dig into her cheek – the terrors from her Gran's whispered
stories and Yue felt so stupid for trusting him, for thinking he might different.

She struggled against him but he pinned her wrists above her head and continued to
drink, his tongue and lips hot against her neck and his breath ragged on her skin,
too fast and too sharp, strained as it hadn't been when she had ridden him to the
heights of passion. She smelled blood in the air – his as well as mine, she realized,
and tried not to think how she knew that. He's injured, she thought instead, feeling
the confusion from him, the raw need that was nothing like their night
together. This, too, is healing, she told herself, and forced her body to relax.

Soon he released her hands and pulled her parka open, bit into her shoulder as his
breathing evened and she shivered because it almost felt good. Part of her screamed
at her to run and part of her enjoyed the sensation, his weight over her and how
close they pressed together and she tried to swallow the fear. She slipped her hands
into his hair and he almost purred, deep in his throat, and started to bite into her
again when he shook his head.

Awareness surged from him then, replacing the delirium, and he looked up at her.
His eyes held surprise, then horror, the irises again wide and sunset-gold. "Oh
spirits, Yue," he whispered.

He reached up to touch her neck with shaking fingers, claws now barely scraping
her skin, and suddenly she didn't know what to say except "Shhhh." She touched
his face with her own hand and he closed his eyes and clutched at it. "We'll go back
to my tent," she whispered. "I can finish healing you there."

He didn't respond but released her hand as she struggled to her feet in the snow,
fought dizziness as she pulled her parka closer around her. He blinked up at her
through the moonlight and she was struck suddenly by how beautiful he was.

"Come on," she said, reaching her hand out to him again. "I don't know if you can
freeze to death, but I can."

Her tent was almost bright with the full moon and the wounds on his side were
shallow, less serious than those self-inflicted in the summer, but her healing water
seemed to burn. "There's something…" She grit her teeth and pulled and he gasped.

"My blood – it's in –"

"There." The tainted water seemed dark, sinister somehow as she bent it away into
a jug. She ran her hands over his skin, smooth and flawless where it had been raw
and mangled. Yue sat back on her heels and watched him, but he stared at the
ground between his feet as the moments slipped by.

"How can you touch me?" he finally whispered. "I –"
She cut him off. "You needed me."

He said no more but allowed her to lead him to her bed. She pulled the furs around
them both and curled against him and listened to his breathing slow and his heart
beat beneath her ear. At length, she slept.

Zuko woke slowly the next morning, struggling up out of rare deep sleep. Yue lay in
the circle of his arms and he pulled her closer, savoring her feel and her scent before
he saw the teeth marks on her neck, her shoulder, deep and ragged from his need.
The sight – his lack of control, the way they hadn't healed, unlike his usual careful
bites – sickened him and he cut the skin on his throat and made her drink deeply of
his own life blood. The punctures healed as he watched and eventually she stirred.

She blinked up at him, then smiled softly and he bent his head to kiss her hair.

"How are you feeling?" she whispered. He leaned back and considered how to
answer for a long moment, stroking her shoulder idly.

"Better," he finally answered. "Yue," he started, but she silenced him with a finger
to his lips.

"You needed me," she repeated, and her conviction soothed the lingering doubts.
She smiled at him again, reading the expressions on his face, and he kissed the
finger that still lay across his lips. Her smile deepened as he rolled her atop him and
soon they moved into each other, rocking softly together.

When they had both shuddered their climax against the other, they lay together
quietly, Yue lightly stroking his chest while he held her close.

"Are you leaving soon?" she whispered into warm silence and Zuko tightened his
arms around her.

"Not yet."

He stayed for more than a week this time, sharing her bed and her life and earning
the tribe's grudging respect when he returned from the nearby town with a sledge of
meat and dry goods, food to see them through weeks of the hungry season in thanks
for his care. Yue went with him on the long walk, earning the Protector's ire once
more.

"He doesn't belong here," he hissed, glaring as Zuko sat in the Chief's tent, talking
with her father and other elders who watched him warily but conversed easily
enough.

"It is not your choice," Yue replied simply, and turned away.
Their nights were divided between passion and tenderness, exploring and learning
each other. Zuko could feel the illness retreating as he shared his blood with her
every morning in dawn's grey and he could feel how her body attuned itself to him
as he took of her before she woke. He learned more of her tribe, too – her people
and her history, her love of their land and her fear for their future. He didn't know
how to answer her questions, though. The Fire Nation, his clan and his lineage, the
sacred fires and high court and ancient thirsts – all seemed so very distant when she
lay shuddering in his arms.

"How old are you?" she asked one night.

Zuko considered how to answer, staring at the skins stitched together overhead.
"Young, for my kind," he finally replied.

"That's not an answer."

"I don't have any better one."

Yue huffed in annoyance and he pulled her closer, kissing her neck and her jaw and
sliding his hands along her back. She allowed herself to be distracted from the
question, but when they again lay quietly in her furs she asked again.

"How old are you, really?"

"Does it matter?"

She didn't answer for a long time and Zuko hoped she'd accepted his answer, but
she finally sighed. "I'm dying," she said softly.

Her words hung in the air as shock coursed through him at the idea, the thought of
their connection severed by death.

"I've always known," she continued. "The last Speaker made a prophesy as I was
born. That I would save the village but live in darkness – bear a great burden but
rise again to stand in the sun." She sighed again. "The elders interpreted that to
mean that I would die, and I can feel that I will." She rolled over to face him and the
calm sorrow in her eyes made his gut clench. "I'm ill, Zuko. I can feel it creeping
through me and I know it to be true and only hope that the village will be saved."
She sighed again. "It's never bothered me, but now…"

She didn't finish and Zuko tried to speak through the cold pressing down on him.
"But now?" he asked. His voice sounded broken, but she smiled weakly.

"Nothing."
He knew it for a lie but let the silence blanket them both and eventually she
slept. You saved my life, he thought as he held her close. Maybe I can save yours.

The idea grew and when the new moon arrived and Zuko bid her farewell again, he
knew what he had to do. Father sent me to find you, he thought as he moved silently
over the snow. To take you and bring you back in order to claim my birthright. The
flame roared in his memory but he refused to let it control him. I'll do as he ordered,
but you'll be no sacrifice.

He smiled to himself, remembering her passion, her strength and her will, as strong
as any daughter of fire.

You will make a fine queen to rule by my side.

The winter snows now seemed less a prison and more a blanket as the hunters
ventured far to finally return with untainted meats and Zuko's gifts sustained them.
Yue allowed herself to hope that the tribe would survive through the winter, that the
moon spirit had indeed been pleased with her choices and turned her favor on them
again.

He returned soon, a small eternity passing before he walked back into the camp,
more food on the sledge he dragged. He smiled at her as she approached, the
expression making his features beautiful, unearthly, and she ignored the Protector's
protests again.

"Your women," Zuko asked one night. "And you – you all wear this." He touched
the pendant where it lay against her collarbone, the only garment left to break the
contours of her skin. His claws were out this night and they clicked gently against
the stone. "What does it mean?"

"It's a betrothal necklace," she answered, reaching to touch it in the familiar,
comforting gesture. "It's a tradition. When a man chooses a wife, or a woman's
family chooses her husband, the man is to carve one to signify his promise to her.
The woman then wears it for the same reason."

He traced the leather band with one gentle claw and she shivered as his touch
moved to her neck, too. "And yet you are not betrothed." He quirked one eyebrow
and leaned towards her. "Unless…?"

Yue blushed, touched the necklace again. "This is my mother's. And her mother's."

His hand worked into her hair, stroking gently and she sighed. "But not yours," he
said softly, and she tensed.

"I am the Speaker for the People. I am not to wed."
She turned away from him but he followed, kissing the back of her neck as she
shivered. "Then no one will protest when we do this."

She smiled despite herself, then gasped as his claws raked her flanks, too lightly to
pierce the skin but hard enough to make her shiver. He moved atop her and she
arched back against him and allowed him to again stroke her into passion. His
hands remained gentle on her hips, belying his nature as they moved together, and
he whimpered into her shoulder as she cried out. She heard him whisper something
against her neck as they lay still joined, but the words were meaningless and she
slipped into sleep.

He dozed beside her when she woke and she savored the opportunity to watch him.
His features were sharp, narrow, unlike the Water Tribe's broad strength and
wholly different from the Protector's angular grace. She traced the curve of his
cheek bone, the strong lines of his brow and jaw, and he stirred and pulled her
closer but didn't wake.

I wish… she thought, but didn't know what she wished for. You have so much time,
she thought instead. Would I have that time, if I became like you?

But she was Speaker for the People, Beloved of the Moon, and she could not so
easily set aside her duty. Yue lay her head against his chest and tried to savor what
little she could claim as hers.

He returned again as the air held a hint of spring. The hungry season would stretch
longer, but now Yue's tribe held hope rather than despair as winter's end neared.

"Yue," he breathed as they lay together that night, still shaking with shared passion,
but she shook her head.

"No," she whispered. "That's not my name."

She felt his confusion and smiled. "Yue is the name the last Speaker gave me, when
she saw that I was Beloved of the Moon." She curled deeper into his embrace. "But
it's not my name."

Zuko kissed her neck, teeth scraping her skin in the familiar tender gesture. "Then
what is your name?"

"Katara," she whispered, and held her breath.

"Katara," he sighed, and she smiled.

"I have something to tell you, too," he whispered the next night.

"Oh?" she asked, rolling over to face him, but his eyes held unexpected mischief.
"It'll keep 'til next time," he said, biting at her jaw, and she frowned.

"You can't just tell me you have something to tell me and then not tell me."

He grinned, the expression still unfamiliar on his features, and she scrambled up on
her elbows to glare at him. "Tell me!"

He didn't tell her and she allowed him to distract her, but she didn't forget even as
they moved together and he whispered her real name when they climaxed as one.

Zuko lay awake through their last night together, stroking her gently as she lay atop
him, her face pressed into his neck and her soft breathing almost a snore. The illness
crept forward, sapping her strength even as his blood fought it within her. Soon, my
love, he told her silently, tracing her cheek with gentle fingers, his claws sheathed
this time. Soon we will be bound together for eternity, and nothing will ever part us.

The snow melted slowly, the land slushy and muddy and raw as it appeared. The
hungry season stretched too long, the tribe's food stores running low as spring was
late to return and the animals still hid from the cold and their traps. The Protector
was missing, even his pack bewildered by his absence, and Yue saw ill omens in the
land around them.

She fingered the pendant around her neck yet again, the carving now familiar
beneath her fingers. She had studied it in sunlight and candlelight and moonlight,
the way the stone sparkled with all different shades of blue, the way the swirling
patterns could be waves, or flames, or somehow both. She hadn't realized she wore
it until she woke alone, saw her mother's necklace draped carefully across the scarf
he'd given her. This pendant had been hung on a fine gold chain that glinted like
sunset; she had packed it away and strung it on a leather cord instead.

She sighed, affection mingling with the irritation. Damn you, Zuko, you should have
just asked.

Zuko roved directionless across the landscape; he felt Azula's reavers coming, felt
the tribe's pet wolf who fancied himself a defender slink through the bushes
following him, but beyond that he felt something far more terrifying approach.

I can't let them find her, he thought desperately, and hoped he could hold them for
long enough to make the change, to bind her to him for all time.

The wolf finally slinked from the darkness a few days later as Zuko paused to rest in
the bones of an abandoned village. He and Zuko stared at each other, two predators
fighting over a prize, but Zuko finally sighed and looked away.
"I would let you kill me if I thought you could protect her," he said quietly, and the
wolf's ears flicked forward. "But there are worse things than me that are out to get
her."

The wolf stared at him, too-intelligent eyes gleaming in the dying light. Zuko looked
back at him, trying to project sincerity, and finally the great wolf dipped his head.
He slipped from the form with a tearing sound and glared at Zuko as he unfolded
himself into the shape of a man.

They spoke no more but silent agreement passed between the two unearthly
men. We both have something to protect.

Yue pulled herself awake, gasping as the dream faded but its message pulsed in her
memory. She reached automatically to touch her mother's necklace but found
chiseled stone instead. She clutched it anyway and tried to think of sunset-gold eyes,
warm hands on her back, though that brief comfort now held pain.

I understand, she thought. My time has come, and it's time for me to save my people.

He smelled them on the wind as they approached, stood hopefully when he
recognized their scents, smoke and lilies and blood.

"Mai!" Zuko called, even as the wolf growled beside him. Relief flooded him, hope
for allies in the coming battle, but that hope died at her icy expression.

"What, Zuko – you want me now?" Beside her, Ty Lee's expression wavered
between frown and friendly smile.

"Mai, please, I –"

"You what, Zuko? I haven't heard from you for over a year! You could at least have
left a note!" Her glare deepened, generations of hunters frowning at him through
her eyes. "And a human, Zuko! The dessert course, you called her! You said we'd
share her blood before you took your place on the Dragon Throne!"

He winced, remembering the time before, how he'd been, how it warred with how he
was now, even as Mai continued. "But it doesn't even matter anymore, Zuko –
Azula's on her way to that pathetic little village now! Your father sent her to do
what you couldn't!"

No… Feeling drained from his body as he heard the truth in her words, felt his
sister's distant presence. I'm a fool. He started running, dodging the blades Mai
flung at him. Behind him, the wolf howled, answered by other wolves, his brothers
and wild beasts alike. Please, he thought as he ran through the snow. Please…
The howls turned angry, the snarls of battle not masking the wolf's anguish, the way
his voice followed Zuko as he fled.

"It wasn't supposed to be you!"

Yue stood alone, holding tightly to the necklace and trying to breathe deeply as the
shadows reached long over the snow, dark skeletal fingers seeming to reach for her
as the light began to fade.

Her father had protested, the Protector's warriors had vowed to stay and fight, but
in the end they had to accede to her wishes as Speaker for the People and Beloved of
the Moon.

"I'm so proud of you," her father had whispered as they embraced. "I've always
been proud of you. Your mother is, too." Yue had nodded against his chest,
swallowing her tears and nodding as he stepped away. She had turned to face the
shadows so as not to see her people leave, the tribe walking through snow as she sent
them away. As she saved them.

Zuko, she now thought wistfully as she waited, darkness creeping towards her as
had been prophesized. I wish I could have bade you farewell.

The sun slipped below the horizon and a form stepped from the shadows into the
snow before her. Yue's heart leapt briefly, hopefully, then she forced herself to calm.
The stranger approached, its gait a confident stalk – a woman, Yue realized, with
eyes like tawny summer grasses and lips like blood and the shimmer of immortality
in an aura shot through with black. The woman – the demon – smiled, revealing
sharp teeth, and Yue straightened her spine.

"Funny," the woman said, voice arrogant and careless. "You smell like my
brother's whore, and yet you're still human." She cocked her head. "How odd."

Yue let the words flow over her as she raised her hands, reached for the river that
flowed nearby. Forgive me, she thought, drawing it to her in tendrils and snakes –
not to heal, this time, but to fight. And please help me.

Zuko arrived too late, the land churned and muddy with both water and blood and
he barely glanced at the frozen wave, at his sister caught in its depths.

"Katara," he breathed, gathering in his arms, and she tried to smile even as she
gasped for breath.

"I'm sorry," she whispered, reaching a burned and bloodied hand to trace his
cheek. "It had to be this way – it always has."

"No!" he snapped. "I can help you, I can save you – you can still be mine!"
"Shhhhhh…" she soothed, her blue eyes warm even as her skin grew cold, more
ashen than brown. "It's too late for me, my love."

Behind him, he heard ice crack, a faint hiss of steam, and he clutched her to him.
"Your sister?" she asked breathlessly, and he forced himself to nod. "She said you
were to take me, to bring me back – to give me to your lord and bind the moon spirit
to him forever."

"Katara, I didn't – I did, but then –"

"I know." She stroked his face and he felt his eyes burn with tears. "But you can't
let her take me. She will, if she can, and I won't die fast enough to prevent it." Ice
cracked again and her expression hardened, determination beside the pain and love
there. "You have to help me protect the moon spirit."

"I can't – you don't know what you ask." His voice broke and he tried to close his
eyes but she held him with the strength of her gaze.

"You have to."

"I can't…" he whispered again, but she took his hands and moved them to her
throat, gasping with effort as she held herself up. The smell of her blood, her life
draining away so slowly, too slowly, filled the air around them and he felt the tears
slip down his face.

"Zuko," she whispered. "I'll wait for you." His hands shook and she tilted her face
up and he bent to kiss her. "I love you," she said against his lips, then pulled back.
"But next time…" he met her gaze again as she fumbled at her neck, slipped the
pendent she wore into his hand, held it with him. "You have to do it right.
It's my choice, too."

"Anything," he sobbed. "I'll do anything you want. Just come back to me."

She let go of his hand again to touch his face. "You'd better." Another hiss of steam
cut through the air, then another sharp crack, and her expression turned pleading.
"Zuko, you have to."

"I'm sorry…" His voice was broken he pressed down, thumbs in her carotid and
jugular, claws concealed behind flesh and bone. "I love you," he whispered, and she
closed her eyes, a peaceful smile on her face as he shook with anguish.

He felt her slip away and he screamed aloud and pulled her empty body to him.
"I'm sorry," he whispered over and over as her spirit fled, the brightness leaving his
mind and cold emptiness in its wake.
Behind him, the ice finally cracked and melted away and too soon he heard his
sister's footsteps as she stopped behind him.

"Oh Zuzu," she sighed. "Always a moment too late." She lay her hand on his
shoulder, the feel almost comforting, the bond between them for a moment stronger
than what she had become, what he almost became. "Better luck next time, I
suppose – at least you tried."

Danger lurked behind her words, but he couldn't think beyond Katara cooling in
his arms as Azula stepped away. "Mai and Ty Lee will be here soon," she said, her
voice again cool and brusque. "We will accompany you back to the Fire Nation, and
help explain your failure."

It was not an offer and he would have snapped at her, told her to leave like he did
when they were children, but his heart had been torn in half and he couldn't find
the breath.

Zuko left her body beneath a cairn of rocks, guarded by wolves who growled at him
as but kept their distance. Her Protector lay there too, joining her in death – her
faithful wolf, to the end, even if he had failed.

Not as badly as I have failed, Zuko thought. Water lapped gently at the lowest stones,
as if the river itself rose to pay respects to her grave.

He struggled not to add his tears to its volume as he finally stepped away. Terrifying
emptiness echoed in his mind where the bond had been, a faint ribbon of connection
to her spirit he would later feel only when the full moon shone over the land. Zuko
fingered the necklace looped around his wrist and felt his eyes burn again as he left
the territories and her home behind.

You're a fool, he thought, much later as he surveyed the rolling plains and thin
forests stretching before him again, a lake spreading in the distance. Azula always
lies.

His ruined face still burned with phantom flame, the shame of failure and
banishment pale beside the horror of how alone he truly was. Her dying whispers
echoed behind his father's voice in his memory.

"If your folly is finally over, Zuko, you can try to regain your honor. She will return,
and you will have your second chance."

He closed his eyes, remembered her eyes, her skin beneath his hands, her laughter
and her gasps and the way her mind brushed against his.

I'll wait for you, he promised. I'll wait for you as long as I have to. And next time…
The promise was to himself now. Next time I'll do what I should have done.
Protect you.



TBC.

AN: This ends the 'backstory' to Katara and Zuko's history for the legends portion
of the story. The next chapter will return us to the modern-day storyline again, and
that *may* take a bit of time, as Real Life rears its ugly head to bite me in the arse
again. XD

I really can't thank sharkflip enough for helping me out and writing these last few
chapters. She has written a few 'bonuses' for me to add in in later chapters, too, so
you'll see her wonderfulness again before this story has run its course. (And in the
meantime, go check out her profile! She writes beautiful, moving, (erotic) Zutara
stories!) Yeah, I bet you're already clicking away from this fic at that last adjective,
aren't you? XD

Thank you for reading – and if you could, please, PLEASE leave a comment for
sharkflip to let her know how much you appreciate her! (She wrote Ch.30-33! Oof!)

Thanks!

This chapter posted March 19-20, 2010.

-mm


Chapter 34: Chapter 34


Chapter 34

Jet slipped his jacket on over his torn clothes, and turned back to look at Zuko. The
vampire hadn't moved from his position of solemn vigilance over Katara's prone
form since they'd moved back inside, two hours earlier. The house was still littered
with blood and glass, but now it was quiet.

It wasn't quite silent, but it was a very particular kind of quiet.

That deathly quiet that always preceded a great change or shift.

They were in her room now, and Jet had packed her things into a few boxes and
cases – not that she had much.
Zuko had dressed the unconscious woman in clean clothing, and stayed by her side,
a silent, remorseful shadow. His grief at having hurt her, having assaulted her, was
plain on his face; it was almost painful to watch. The way the vampire would reach
his hand out to stroke hers, but pull it back just before it dared touch her, curling
his fingers into a quick, tight fist before releasing it down again to the covers beside
her, made it obvious to Jet how hard Zuko found it to reconcile his actions and
emotions.

"I know there's more going on here than you're telling me," began the 'were as
Zuko's hand advanced, tensed, and retreated once more, and he waited until he had
Zuko's attention, as much as the former prince was willing to accord him in his
strange, near-mournful state. "But it has to be obvious, Zuko, that Katara isn't safe
with you, at least right now. You lost control, man. She got hurt—she's the one who
paid the price for it. You clearly can't take care of her if you can't take care of
yourself." Zuko's hand twitched. "Leave her with me, just for a few days. I'll take
her to see her family in the Territories. She'll be safe there." He moved closer, and
put a broad hand on Zuko's shoulder, giving him a firm shake. He continued in the
same persuasive tone, compelling the vampire's attention. "If there's one thing I
know, it's that the Tribes have their own protective magic; maybe that's just what
she needs right now. We'll make up the excuse that it's for her paper. I'll take care
of her. I promise. We'll figure something out once you're better."

Still the vampire couldn't help the growl that resonated deep in his throat, his fangs
sharpening at the insinuation that he, a vampire prince, could not take care of a
lowly human.

… and yet, watching the beautiful woman he loved before him, breathing softly in
and out, still unconscious from the stress of the forced soulmate bonding and her
sudden momentary regression to her past self, he had to admit to himself that he
was indeed at fault for harming her. Again.

If only he'd…

His guilt-ridden thoughts trailed off, spiraling again into depressive musings.

"Zuko?" Jet eyed him warily, his body taking on a cautionary stance that would
allow him to react and defend himself, if necessary. He removed his hand slowly-.

But it wasn't necessary.

The scarred man lowered his head as he made his decision.

"Take care of her for me," Zuko said hoarsely. "I'll… I'll wipe her memory, she
won't remember any of her stay with me. You'll need to make sure she's kept calm
for the trip. Any strong emotional reaction could trigger a memory, or fabricate
memories to suit the emotion, and that could be dangerous, since we wouldn't know
what her mind made up to protect her psyche." Hesitantly, then with more
confidence, and finally love, he reached a long-fingered hand out to Katara's pale
cheek, stroking it once before he moved closer, over her, and brought his lips to her
forehead. With his eyes closed, he held his fingers to the side of her head as he kissed
her brow, and waited for the memories to filter through to him through the
pathways that connected all things, living and non-living. It took a few minutes, as it
tended to, with Jet watching patiently beside them. He felt her emotions as he sifted
through each piece, felt the tug as she tried to hold on to some, even in her
unconscious state, and had to force himself to rip them from her mind, apologizing
to her over and over again. It'll only make it worse if you remember this, if you
remember what I did to you… again…

It seemed he was always begging her for forgiveness. Still he continued in his purge.

But there was one moment Zuko faltered.

"Thank you, my love," she whispered, and Zuko pulled her closer as he felt her
heartbeat beside his for an instant, the bond throbbing with it.

That instant of pure love, that connection between them. The only one they'd had
since she'd been reborn, that one time their heartbeats had beaten as one, that single
moment they had been completely in tune…

He couldn't bring himself to remove that memory from her. That spark of joy,
simple, pure contentment. It was everything they'd ever wanted, but could never
have or hold.

And he'd promised Jet to wipe her memories of the entire stay…

"… my love," it played again before him, his heart beating along with the memory
of hers. How could he destroy that single moment?

So Zuko buried it, deep within Katara's psyche.

When he straightened, he moved away from Katara, refusing to look at her any
further. Jet scooped her up and held her, bridal style, as he left the room.

"Don't worry," he assured the vampire as he settled Katara's head into the crook of
his shoulder and neck, "I'll take good care of her."

"She'll wake in a few hours. Make sure she remains calm and doesn't receive any
emotionally shocking or trying information. It could… influence her."

"I'll make sure she's ok. I promise," Jet smiled widely and left.
Alone, Zuko turned back to the bed where Katara had lain, before he, too, took his
leave.



The candles flickered in the darkness that night, the wine still warm on their
tongues.

"You don't need to give me an answer right now," Jet slipped the ring over her
finger, looking meaningfully into her still-clouded eyes, capturing her attention as it
flickered into focus and out, like the flames that surrounded them. "But I want you
to know I want you beside me for the rest of our lives." His fingers massaged her, up
her arms, down her side. "We're going to visit your family for a few days," he
nuzzled her hair away from her chin as he led her back, back, towards his bed.

"Family?" she mumbled in confusion, swaying a bit as his strong hands settled at
her waist.

"Mmm-hmm," he murmured in her ear, kissing his way to her throat. "Marry me,
and we'll make a family together, and be with your family. That's what you want,
isn't it? To be near your family again. Because you miss them."

"Marry you?... Family?..." For some reason, she couldn't clear the fog that had
settled in her head. His kisses filled her senses, though, and his warm hands warmed
her sides, and his comforting, compelling tone enticed her. Yes, she did want to see
her family again. And she had always wanted a family of her own, children, her
career… all with the man she loved.

The man she loved…

"I love you," he stopped when her legs bumped the edge of his old bed, and he
gripped her firmly, his fingers teasing the hem of her shirt. His eyes flared gold for a
moment in the dark, catching her blue ones and hypnotizing them.

"I… love you…" she repeated, and he smiled. "But marriage?... I need to think
about it."

"Of course, my love."

… my love…

Those words… They triggered such overwhelming, indescribable happiness in her
heart in a way she'd never be able to explain. With that, she kissed him back,
ardently, and they tumbled onto the bed together, hands and mouths eager.

He had her on the plane by the next morning.
"Jun, when you get in, could you please call me back," growled the Maiden at her
Mother. Or rather, her Mother's voicemail. Toph hadn't been able to reach her for
several days now. She must be occupied with her 'man', the one she hid from the
rest of the coven. Jun always had been her own woman, and was an insanely
talented witch—but she was also intensely private, and had never even mentioned
her lover's name to her apprentice. Correction, thought Toph sarcastically: Jun
referred to him as Kaiser Sousei. The man who didn't exist. So when Jun was off
with Mister Sousei… she 'didn't exist', either. Which made it very difficult for said
prodigal apprentice to locate her.

The cellphone beeped closed as Toph laid it back down on her desk with a thud.

Right now, the young woman could really do with some mentoring.

"Toph, we have bad news. It's confirmed: Zuko is the exiled vampire prince from the
legend, the one who was sent to collect Yue. We think he's after Katara again, probably
for the same reason. She must be the Moon Spirit."

"Toph, we're getting reports of 'were activity around Zuko's home."

"Toph, we think there's a connection between Long Feng and either Zuko or Jet.
We're looking into it."

"Toph, tell me what's going on with my sister!"

"Toph, how can I help?"

"Toph, why won't you tell me anything? Don't you trust me?"

"Look Toph, this isn't working out. And Suki and I… It was fun, ok? And a part of me
does love you. But these past few days, I've gotten to know Suki, and…"

"Toph, if you want, I can help you."

"Toph, you need to tell us what's going on!"

"Toph-."

"Toph!"

"TOPH!"

"Argh, shut up all of you!" she screamed, holding her head in her hands.
The empty, dark room echoed with silence.

She knew something had happened at Zuko's—again. She'd felt it. And worse, she'd
'seen' it. 'Seeing' things was rarely good news, for her.

Hell, when a blind girl starts having visions-'seeing things', was always crazy-talk.

The visions didn't happen often, but when they did, they packed a helluva punch.

Toph debated a moment before sliding a drawer open and taking out the small
plastic container. It rattled as she popped the top and shook out two pills into her
hands, then re-sealed the tube and placed it back in the drawer.

"So, Sugar Queen and Ghost Walker are soulmates? Perfect," she grunted, settling
the drugs on the top of the desk. She rubbed her temples with a tired hand, and
leaned back in her chair, propping her feet up on the ink blotter, but not close
enough to disturb the caplets.

Seeing and feeling what Katara had seen and felt—there had to be a reason this had
been shared with her, Toph thought to herself.

Katara trusted Zuko implicitly. That much had been obvious. The way Toph had
felt the other woman's emotions, the love, the understanding, it was almost cinema-
worthy in its grandness. Katara had apparently not even noticed that there had
been another person present with her and her soulmate.

But Toph had noticed.

There was a reason Jet had been in the vision she'd seen, there had to be; but why
hadn't Katara noticed him? It was so plain to her: there had been Katara and Zuko,
and Jet had been on the periphery, watching them.

It was one of the problems with her 'visions'. She often got absorbed into what one
of the participants felt, or what they saw, but rarely was there such a disconnect – as
if someone was wanting her to see, truly see, what had happened, and also show her
what Katara had missed. Because Katara hadn't been paying any attention to Jet;
Toph knew so. She'd been a part of Katara as Katara had stared up at Zuko who
was holding her as she'd fallen unconscious again. (Which reminded Toph, she'd
have to ask Katara to do that nifty healing thing on her elbow; she'd jammed it in
the side of a table by accident the other day.)

Toph sighed, rubbed her head one last time, and swiped the pills from her desk as
she stood up, swallowing them dry. She needed rest.

She closed the door to her office behind her and nearly ran into Aang, who'd been
waiting for her in the hallway outside her door.
"You ok?" he asked, watching her.

"I'm fine," she pushed past him, intending to ignore his oversensitive concern. He
always was a little too touchy-feely for her tastes. How Katara had put up with him
for so long was beyond her-.

He surprised her by grabbing her arm, and holding her still.

"I know how much you loved him, and still love him," he said quietly, and felt her
stiffen. "And he loves you, too. But not in the way you feel. He doesn't want to hold
you back."

"No, he wants to sleep with Suki. I'm fine, Aang, really. What he does is his
business."

"Toph, that's not it," he began, but she twisted her arm from his grasp.

"Yes, it is. His feelings changed. That's fine. Whether I like it or not, it doesn't
matter. The fact he's barely known her for 2 weeks, I don't care, whatever. I'm
going to bed."

"Sokka loves you, Toph," repeated Aang as he paced behind her a few steps.

"Not the way I loved him," she muttered, ignoring the pressure building behind her
sightless eyes. Honest to goodness, she was having the worst night ever. Was Aang
PMSing or something? She really wasn't up for a girls night—ugh, Aang would
probably eat half the 'cosmetics' anyway. The angry young woman's internal
diatribe distracted her, as much as she could let it. She continued down the hall to
her personal suites, and stepped into her room.

Aang followed.

He shut the door behind him, and waited a moment.

Sure enough, his very presence irritated the powerful witch.

"I'm fine, get out."

Still, he stayed.

She whirled on him when he didn't answer.

"What are you still doing here? I told you go to! I don't want to be near anyone! I
just want to go to sleep!"

"Toph, talk to me-."
"Hell no!"

"Toph."

"Get out, Aang. I've had the worst day,"—apart from when Katara died & Zuko
resurrected her, but Toph certainly wasn't sharing that particular gem with the
Guardian. He was a trained vampire hunter. It wouldn't end well. Toph didn't need
her 'second' (hah!) sight to deduce that much. That thought almost made her giggle,
and she realized that between her stress and her self-medicating, she was probably a
bit hysterical. Great, now she was having fits because of her visions. She wondered
how fast she could grow a hundred cats to live on her parents' porch. "Whatever
you're up to, or looking for… can it wait until tomorrow?" she rubbed at her still-
aching head.

He was watching her, she was sure of it. She could 'feel' him.

… and soon she could just about feel him physically. The warmth emanating off his
body was close enough to her back to make the fine, dark hair on the back of her
pale neck raise slightly in awareness.

Fed up, the petite woman whirled on the much taller man, poking him hard in the
chest.

"I believe I told you to leave."
"I'm not leaving you."

A smile cracked across Toph's face, baring her teeth. Electricity crackled down her
arms.
"Oh, yes you are. Believe me."

She raised a hand.

"Still like to fly, Twinkle Toes?"

Green light shimmered at her fingertips.

His arms raised—she could feel the air as it moved around them—and settled his
warm hands on her shoulders.

"Whenever you need me, no matter what for, I'm here, Toph. I want you to know
that. I want you to rely on me, on our friendship. I want-."

"Well, I don't want this! I don't want any of this! I just want things to go back to
how they were! I want Katara to be safe, I want Sokka to be my best friend, and I
want… I want…"
Her breathing became harsh and shuddery, and still he held his ground.

She coughed, and hiccupped. And coughed again.

"I want…"
His arms slid down until they circled her, and the green light petered out from her
fingertips.

"… a hug?" he ventured.
"Oh fuck you, Aang."
He laughed at that, but quietly.

And by the time her tears had started, she'd felt warm arms surround her, a warm
chest that let her beat her small fists until she felt numb with fatigue, and an
accepting existence that held her close and rocked her to sleep on her own bed.

"You aren't the only one who lost someone," he whispered to her, kissing her on top
of her head with careful tenderness. "And you don't need to do everything on your
own. Toph, you're so strong. Strong as the earth. You can draw from our strength,
too."

As the Guardian lay down beside her, he pulled the covers up over both of them,
still fully clothed, and rubbed her back until he drifted off.

For her part, in her dreams, Toph wondered why, over and over again, Katara
would need to watch out for Jet…

… And how the Hell she was supposed to deal with the fallout when she woke in the
morning. Because it was one thing to wake up beside someone, and another to wake
up alone.



"So, you really expect me to stay in the guest room…" started Jet incredulously.

"Yes."

"While you stay… in your own room…"

"Yes."

Then followed a very pregnant pause.

"Or I could go track down Bato and see if he'd mind if you stayed with him? He's
the only person I know well enough to ask. He's a family friend."
She turned to look at Jet with a quirk to her lips.

"How old is he?" he asked suspiciously.

"My dad's age."

He considered a moment.

"They were in the navy together."

"I love the flowery wallpaper in here… It's so leafy and floral…"

Throwing a set of clean sheets at her guest, Katara smirked and left him to make his
own bed.

"You need to understand, Jet," she called from the hallway as she found her own
bed linens, "I'm the Chief's daughter. I am expected to lead by example. We may be
living in modern times, but there are some things, such as a young woman's honor,
which are respected here. Typically I'd be expected to call a chaperone in to keep an
eye on us-."

She couldn't help laughing at the look of shock and disgust that crossed Jet's face.

"—But, we're adults, and I think that would probably make any other adult laugh
or feel uncomfortable anyway."

"So, for the entire time we're here, we can't…."

Katara rolled her eyes. Men.

"I'm sure you'll manage."

"I can be very quiet."

"No."

A pause.

"What if we-."

"No."

"Third base?"

"Jet!"
"A guy can try, can't he?" he teased suggestively, sneaking up behind her and
grabbing her around her middle. Katara bit down on an exasperated sigh as he
tried to sneak a hand around her front to cop a feel. But she knew better than to
play along.

"We're expected to go to the Main Lodge to pay our respects and introduce
ourselves to the Elders by the end of the day," she explained, slipping out of his
grasp like a current of water through rocks. "We also need to get some groceries. It
looks like Bato arranged housekeeping while we were all away, but he didn't know
to expect us so we'll have to grab our own food."

She picked up her sheets again and made her way to her own room, calling over her
shoulder,

"If you're finished in there, you can start a grocery list!"

"Yeah, yeah… First thing we need: C-O-N-D-O-M-S."

"Jet!"

"What?"

Huffing angrily, Katara nearly stomped back to the guest room. He just doesn't get
it. And ever since the explosion at her apartment, she'd been without her pills (since
they'd been so graciously destroyed). She really, really couldn't risk... anything.

"I mean it, Jet," she glared at him now, no longer amused. "You need to understand
my position here. You cannot insinuate things like that about me here. The minute
you do, that makes it ok for every other guy out there to treat the women here like
that," she snapped, good humour forgotten. "And you probably won't find any here
on the rez anyway," she muttered for good measure.

This time the young man quirked an eyebrow in her direction.

"Really?"
"Yes."

"Why?"

Katara's face pinched in distaste.

"Katara? Seriously, why? Ok, I'm sorry, I was acting out to get a rise out of you.
But really? They're considered contraband or something?"

Her expression darkening, Katara turned back to her room.
"I'll explain in full later… but let's just say that it's the men who are in charge, and
they believe a woman has a very specific place and role around here."

His sharp eyes didn't miss the way her shoulders had tensed, and subsequently
slumped as she returned to her room.

"I'll get that list started," he offered, leaning against the door frame to the guest
room.

When she looked at him over her shoulder, her eyes didn't meet his.

"Hey," he leveled a look at her. His patented charming grin.

"I don't think you have 'a specific place and role', ok?"

The young woman sighed again, but eeked out a small smile in return.

"Thanks."



As Jet poked around downstairs, Katara walked slowly from her room to the room
at the end of the hall, the one whose door remained almost always shut.

It's just to make sure everything's ok in there, she reminded herself. It's not like I'm
expecting anything…

Yet still she hesitated when her heartbeat sped up, her slim fingers curled around
the antique knob, her lower lip slipping gently into her mouth where she nibbled it
unconsciously in an old, forgotten bad habit. Almost giving in to the trained
response to knock, she grimaced to herself. No need, remember?...

She didn't realize she held her breath as she turned the glass in her hand and
opened the door, inch by inch to peek inside.
And therein, all was as it had been, for over a decade, almost two.

The drapes were drawn against the afternoon light, what was left of it, and a few
dust motes swirled in the cracks where the limp fabric met. The bed set and
comforter, with its neatly folded home-made quilt on top, were the same as when
her Gran-Gran had given it to them on their wedding day, though now significantly
well-worn; the second-hand lamps by each side of the bed; the bookshelves
overflowing with novels and history books and nature treatises. Over the bed hung a
few traditional weapons, secured in place with hooks and wire; and on the walls
hung a series of watercolours her mother had painted of the tundra and wildlife in
different seasons and locations. A few family pictures were interspersed here and
there.
On the small end-table between the two windows, the dried flowers sat beside a
small silver urn and an unlit candle.

And between them, the picture of her parents, in a laughing, loving embrace, on
their wedding day.

"Hi Mom," Katara whispered from the doorway, proud her voice was more happy
than apologetic this time. "I'm home."



"You weren't kidding about the geezers, were you?" muttered Jet under his breath
as he pushed the old, rusted-metal cart through the small grocery store. The young
man made sure to smile politely and wave to all the residents who were gracious
enough to stare unashamedly at him and Katara as they shopped for their supper.
"Don't get many out-of-towners on this particular rez, huh?"

"The Elders," she corrected absently, looking over their list again. "Dried goods
and freezer section are that way," she pointed. "And no. We're far enough north
that only the occasional hiker or hard-core 'outdoor adventurers' come our way.
Usually with hypothermia or frostbite."

"I couldn't actually tell if they liked me or not," he began again, chewing on a
swizzle stick from the mediocre coffee he'd drank earlier from the Lodge. "What do
you think? Should I sleep with one eye open?"

"I'd recommend watching your back while we're here, regardless of what they
thought of you," the alert young woman said quickly, recognizing some of the men
who were 'casually' leaning against the freezer section they were searching for. In a
silent group. A very grim-looking, disapproving, silent group.

Her blue eyes narrowed and went cold. "Stay behind me, and let me handle this,"
she breathed to Jet, her eyes not leaving the pack ahead of her.

Jet flicked his eyes up and followed her gaze.

"I mean it," she said tersely, and continued on her way as if there wasn't a lynch
mob blocking her from the frozen peas. Already she could smell the alcohol, among
other unsavoury things, that emanated from the gathered men.

"Good afternoon, good afternoon, excuse me, good afternoon," she chirped
pleasantly, trying to squeeze through the wall that blocked the better part of the
frozen goods.

The men feigned ignorance and remained where they were, arms crossed in front of
them, staring at the walls, the floor, the ceiling, anywhere but at Katara and Jet.
Refusing to be daunted, Katara smiled brightly at them and continued her overly-
cheery greetings.

"Hi Koro, how're your wife and kids? I bet the youngest is about ready to graduate
now, isn't he? Does he need a reference letter getting into university or college?"
She turned to another. "Why Luka, fancy meeting you here in the middle of the day
during working hours. I remember when Mom had to rush out to your place that
one time when I was a kid to help take care of your wife after she ran into a
doorknob-again. How is she these days?" And another. "Why Paf, I didn't even see
you there. I didn't realize you guys got together to have meetings of the Big Man
Club here at the Valu-Mart! Is it ok if I go get a strap-on and join you all?"

That got a reaction, as she'd expected.

"Why you little-," one of the men, Koro, made a grab for her jacket, but Katara
slipped out of his reach.

"You always were uppity, thinking you were too good for the rest of us," spat
another, one who hadn't received a 'greeting'. He seemed to consider the disregard
an insult rather than a blessing.

"You think just because you're the Chief's daughter, we won't teach you a lesson?"
sneered Luka, who did grab Katara's jacket this time, yanking her to him until they
were nose to nose. So focused was he on Katara, who'd grabbed his hands and
glared right back at him, that he didn't see Jet moving away behind her. "Little
bitch, if you knew what was good for you, you'd have stayed away at your fancy
'university' and never come back. We don't need you here. We need women who
know how to help their sisters and brothers and family. Who want to stay and make
the Tribe stronger. Not rile the women up, starting arguments and breaking up
perfectly good homes."

"You mean the perfectly good home you made for your wife, Luka? The one you
make her clean everyday in those rags for clothes, while you're out gambling and
drinking your allowance? How's that 'winning streak' you keep saying you're
waiting for? Has it shown up yet?"

"You should keep your mouth shut, you little whore-," the man's face turned
furious as his thick, heavy hand reared back to smack Katara's unapologetic face.

He didn't get the chance, though, as the next thing he knew, he was laid out flat on
his back on the dirty linoleum floor, and another tall, broad, long-haired man held
his shoulders down.

"Now, that's no way to treat one of our daughters who has been gone so far away
for so long," came a deep, patient voice. "Sounds like everyone needs to take a few
minutes to themselves and carry on their way."
"Bato!"

Hardly leaving her saviour a moment to regain his full height, Katara leapt at him,
her arms tightening around his neck as she smiled into his chest. The corners of his
normally stern mouth crept upwards a bit as the tall man hugged her back warmly,
too. "Welcome back, Katara."

There was much muttering and cursing under breath as the other men glared back
before Bato gave them a look that clearly said, "Move along."

"I was going to visit you tonight! I can't believe you're right here!" her blue eyes
shone happily, excitement bubbling in her words.

"And just in time, too," he said slowly, eyeing her with a thoughtful look on his face.
"Katara, I know you mean well, but please don't antagonize men like them."

Some of her original enthusiasm faded at his chastising. "But Bato, you know what
they're like-," she started, but he cut her off with a look.

"And so do you," he retorted, watching her meaningfully.

They were both silent a moment, until Katara dropped her gaze and crossed her
arms in front of her like a petulant child. "Sorry. I know. Habit." Had she still been
a child, her look could only have been described as a pout. "But they had it
coming."

Bato smiled, unbeknownst to her, then gave her another quick hug to his side.
"Luckily, you have a smart young man here to help look out for you."

"Oh, Jet!" Katara suddenly looked around, and when she found her boyfriend,
waved him over. "Bato, this is-."

"We've met," smiled the older man, reaching out a hand. "Well, it's nice to have a
name to go with the face."

"Likewise," Jet added respectfully as he firmly shook the offered hand. "Sorry to
drag you into this, but when I saw you outside, I recognized you from the pictures in
Katara's living room. Katara's spoken well of you. Thanks for watching out for
her."

"Anytime." Bato glanced down at the groceries in their cart. "So you're here for at
least a week or so, with all that. Remember to stop by my place for supper before
you go. It'll be nice to catch up. Bring your…new friend."

Katara couldn't help the slight blush that crept across her cheeks.
"Bato, it's ok. He's a good guy."

"We'll see," he smiled back like a benevolent, overprotective uncle. "I admit, he's
made a good first impression, though. You take care now, see you later. Jet," he
nodded, and Jet waved in return.

The pair waited until Bato had bid farewell to the cashier and left the store before
turning to one another; then Katara nearly wilted in relief.

"Technically, I did let you handle it," reminded Jet, rubbing her back as she rested
her head on her arms on the cart.

"I'm in sooo much trouble when Dad comes home," she muttered under her breath.

"I'm sure Bato will take your side; and I've got a feeling your dad already knows
what guys like that are like."

"… oh he does…"

He couldn't resist teasing. "And what you're like."

"Screw you."

Jet glanced down at her, amused at seeing his usually indomitable girlfriend cowed
by a family father-figure's disapproval.

"So, I think he liked me." He couldn't help the smug tone that enveloped his words
as he watched Katara's eyebrow tick in annoyance.

"Let's finish the groceries and go home. Wanna watch a movie tonight?"

"Sure." He paused, curious. "Do you have cable at your house?"
Katara paused next. "We'll have to see what we have on tape in the cupboard."

"On tape? You mean VCR?"

She punched him in the arm. "There's nothing wrong with VCRs, thank you very
much."

"Oh no, not if you didn't outlive the '80s. Like the rest of the civilized world. Do you
have a CD player there?"

She hit him again. Harder.
"Ow!" he laughed, rubbing his newly-forming bruises. "Ok, ok, I'm sorry. Let's go
watch… Wait, the Power Rangers came out in the '90s, didn't it? What did they
have that was good in the '80s?"

"…My Little Pony, the full-length animated feature."

Jet stopped in his tracks and stared at his suddenly deeply sadistic girlfriend. She
wouldn't….

Katara grinned innocently back.

His eyes narrowed. She would.

His Whiskey Tango Foxtrot expression did not emit any form of acceptance of her
suggested viewing material.

This time it was Katara's turn to look smug. "She-Ra, Princess of Power."

He couldn't help it, he winced.

"Possibly some Jem? How do you feel about pink hair?"

All Jet's previous enthusiasm left him, and the poor man was left looking like a
soggy sock had slapped him in the face.

"Oh all right. Fine. And Transformers." She rolled her eyes at him as his lit up with
excitement. "Possibly some Ninja Turtles and Thundercats, but we'll have to see
what's there. It's been years since I last checked."

"Really? Well that's ok. So, what's for supper tonight?..."

As they squabbled over what to get for their meal, Katara smartly kept mum about
the fact that the VCR's remote control had been sacrificed to one of Sokka's
'inventions' when they were children, and that they would no doubt have to spend
hours rewinding the tapes that night, one finger on the rewind button of the
machine, before they'd be able to watch anything.

Well, it would keep her boyfriend busy for a while, at least.

Men, she thought to herself, automatically slapping one of his hands when it dipped
below her waist.

"Sorry, forgot," he mumbled lowly.

Men, she sighed again.
"This is cruel and unusual," Jet muttered through clenched teeth, his hands clasped
tightly in his lap as he leaned forward tensely on the couch.

"This is necessary," corrected Katara with a sigh, lounging out full length. On a
separate couch.

"I promise, I will keep my hands to myself," started Jet again, barely looking at his
girlfriend as Shredder and his Foot Clan terrorized New York on the small screen.

"Uh huh, right."

"Come on!" he whined, finally turning to her with a pained look on his face.

"Lead by example, Jet," she reminded for the hundredth time. "Pretend there are
small children in the room."

"Small children would be in bed by now," he groused, then perked up. "If we had
small children, I could still-!"

She gave him a non-plussed look.

"Top on?"

She remained impassive.

"…If I promise to keep my pants on?"

Katara rolled her eyes and sighed a much aggrieved, "Lord love a duck," under her
breath, before standing up and glaring at him.

"I'm going to shower."

Her boyfriend suddenly took on the demeanour of a national lottery winner.
But Katara's sadistic side made a comeback and she wallowed in his downcast face
when she added, "With the door shut, locked, and curtain drawn. Good night, Jet."

"Good night," he mumbled, and sulked in front of the television as she made her
way upstairs.

"Don't forget to rewind the tape when you're done!" she called down.

"I hate leading by example," he mumbled, and out of sheer spite jammed the
buttons extra-hard to turn off the TV.
Then sat quietly, still pouting, with his finger on the rewind button for ten minutes
as the tape wound-back.

"Stupid VCRs."



Another knock, another patient few minutes spent waiting at the ever-impenetrable
closed door.

She tried again, for the sixth time.

"Master Pakku! Are you there?" Katara called, her nose red and her knuckles raw
from rapping on the blockage in front of her. Over the past few days, she'd learned
she hated closed doors.

"The neighbours said he hasn't left his house other than to check his traps," Jet
informed her as he trudged up the snowy walkway. "They wished us well and gave
us a thermos of hot chocolate. They were really friendly."

"They'd have to be, to put up with this jerk," Katara muttered blisteringly under
her breath as she warmed her hands with said breath. It was bad enough that it was
frigidly cold out of doors at the moment, but the fact that her mittens had muffled
her knocks to nothing had meant she had to do without as they tried to get through
to the man who had sealed himself away from the better part of the Tribe. If he
wasn't dead on the floor inside his reclusive little fortress, she was damn well going
to put him there by the time she finished with him…

"Master Pakku!" she called again, adding a less polite thumping quality to her
knocking now. "My name is Katara Kuruk, I'm here to talk to you about your
work! Could you please spare me a few minutes of your time?"

Forcing himself to be patient and supportive, Jet stood back, knowing it was useless
to talk Katara out of something she had her heart set on.

… Though after three visits so far and not even a hint of acknowledgment from the
reclusive old bastard, he was beginning to sympathise with her thoughts of
manslaughter.

Apparently, Katara was losing her patience, too.

"You shitty old man, open up!" she suddenly screamed, reaching her boiling point.

Kick-kick-kick-kick-kick-kick-!

-…Crack!
Jet's mouth dropped open.

Katara's eyes bulged.

"Run," was all she said, and they high-tailed it back to the truck.



"Solid oak," mumbled Jet incredulously to himself again. "Solid oak…"

"Shut up, I'll figure something out," muttered Katara, steering the old four wheel
drive vehicle as fast and as carefully as she could down the slippery road.

Away from the scene of the crime.

"And you'd just announced who you were, too…"

"I said, shut up, Jet!"

"I'm still on probation!" he countered, his face sinking into his hands.

"I said I'll think of something, you crybaby! Now shut up and let me drive!"

With a resigned sigh, Jet peeked up over his fingers. "So where are we headed while
we're on the lam?"
"The retirement home."

At this, Jet's head nearly swiveled like an owl's. "What the f-…" Then his eyes lit
up. "Actually, that's a great idea! They'll never think to look for us there! That's my
girl!"

For her part, Katara merely growled as she suffered his enthusiastic side-embrace,
downshifting noisily.

"Hey, don't take it out on the ride! This is our only getaway mobile!" he protested,
rubbing the scuffed, peeling dashboard in a soothing manner. "It's ok, she didn't
mean it, please keep working, even if you are older than I am…"

Gran-Gran, please be lucid when we get there, prayed Katara as she swerved to avoid
a patch of ice. Please, please be lucid…

"Hey, have you ever tried to do donuts in this thing?" asked Jet, interrupting her
mental appeal for divine intervention.

"I SAID SHUT UP AND LET ME DRIVE!"
"… yes, ma'am!..."

... please, if you love me, you'll be lucid today...

TBC.



AN: Thank you so much, again, to sharkflip for her contributions! (For those of you
who haven't caught them yet, check out drisela's illustrations (of sharkflip's
chapters) on deviantArt and the zutarotica LJ comm.! OMG, they're so hot! Thank
you, drisela!)

-mm (17 April, 2010)


Chapter 35: Chapter 35


Merits 35

"Nightmares again?"

Katara blinked through her itchy, exhausted eyes at her boyfriend. "More like
weird dreams." She yawned widely, not missing his skeptical look. "Ok, maybe…"

Keeping his curiosity well contained, the 'were sipped his coffee and smiled at her
reassuringly. "Probably just all the upheaval of being home again. Sometimes you
just need to relax a bit. We can pick up a sleeping aid in town later, if you want. At
least it'll help you get through the night?"

Nodding faintly and suppressing another yawn—poorly—Katara stumbled over to
the fridge to collect some eggs for her breakfast.

"I hate those things, but at this point, I'll take anything," she confessed, putting a
pan on the stove.

Still watching her with thoughtful brown eyes, Jet drank the rest of his coffee.



That night, the house was nearly silent as its occupants slept. Or tried to.

It was a restless sleep for one.
Katara's dreams were back again that night, but this time it felt like someone was
sitting on her chest, holding her down so she couldn't get up—or wake up.

"There's more to me than you think, Katara. We need to…"

The words faded out in her dream, and she struggled to catch them, feeling like she
was physically struggling against something.

Why was the voice familiar?

It was deep and resonated within her, but was it Jet's voice… another's voice? Both
their voices? Could it be two voices, speaking to her?

Her mind's eye conjured an image before her, of ice she clawed and thrashed at as
she tried to breach the surface of a frozen lake; the water sucked at her too strongly,
though, and she felt a rush of currents around her, signaling a hunter was closing in
on her, the prey.

"Katara, hold on, I'm coming back for you…"

The voice again.

Why couldn't she place that voice?

"Help me!" she wanted to scream, but the sleeping pills made her too groggy to
articulate or control her vivid imagination. "I can't… I can't move!"

"Sleep, love, and remember. Remember me."

It shushed and tried to calm her, but the nightmare took over her once more.

Down she looked and saw the golden-eyed shark closing in on her.



Jet stood at the door to Katara's room and watched her with worried eyes.

She was obviously stuck in a nightmare again, but whatever was bothering her, she
never remembered it. He doubted the sleeping pills would remedy that. His throat
closed over as she moaned and trembled, unable to thrash as she had the past few
nights because of the sleeping pills she'd taken that night, always fighting her
dreams and hallucinations.

He was just turning to go back to bed—he'd never been able to rouse her, and it
bothered him he couldn't help her—when her dream started to change.
Subtly, Katara's moans changed in pitch, her tremors shifted into shudders, and her
mumblings took on a different tone altogether.

It took the werewolf less than a split-second to realize what the shift meant, how her
dream had changed; and he was about to finally allow a bit of relief to seep into and
dispel his worry…

… when he heard her mumbling and murmuring in that language.

The one he'd only heard once before.

The one she had shared with Zuko.

The werewolf's eyes narrowed.

Before him, slowly, her agitated writhing slowed, then ceased; her voice softened,
then drifted off; and her final words… he remembered where he'd heard those
before.

A few minutes later, he was watching her quiet breathing, in and out, indicating
she'd finally succumbed to a restful sleep.

But his heartbeat thundered in his tight chest, his breathing was harsh now, and his
lips pulled back as he snarled aloud once, his frustration reaching a meteoric high.

She was dreaming of him!

The realization made him see red, and before he realized it, he was moving forward
towards Katara, stripping his housecoat off his shoulders to hurl to the floor.

That vampire scum! When he, her fiancé, was in the next room!

He forced himself to calm down, to slow down, but he'd had enough. He was tired of
being in a three-way relationship; especially one with a blood-sucking noble.

One of them had to leave, and it wouldn't be himself.

Decision made, he took the last step and stopped in front of his fiancée. Her cheeks
were slightly rosy, and her face was finally peaceful.

… but it was because of that thing. That vampire.

Well, it was stopping, now.

From now on, he, Jet, would be the center of her attention.
His heartbeat slowed as his eyelids lowered, his brown eyes shifting to cold,
glittering gold as they raked over his lover's blanket-covered body possessively.

Jet would make her remember him, dream of him, think of nothing but him; he
would make sure that by morning, there would be nothing left of Zuko in his lover.

Not a single feeling towards that intruder, not a positive thought, not even the
minutest attention would she pay to him.

He would make sure of it.

And he'd leave his own brand on her. All over her.

A small, self-assured smile slid across his tanned face as he shook his shaggy dark
hair from his eyes. She was his, not Zuko's.

Always.

Loosening the drawstring on his pyjama trousers, Jet reached for the blankets that
he'd just a few short hours ago tucked lovingly around Katara's chin.

He would make sure she would never be able to leave him again.



"How did you sleep?"

"… better… I think…" the young woman shook her head a bit as she made her way
to the bathroom. "But it felt like something was holding me down."

With his back to her as he made them coffee, Jet nodded. "It didn't sound like your
nightmares were so bad last night. Maybe you should keep taking those pills for a
bit? See if it's just a temporary thing."

Still fuzzy-brained from the sleep that yet clawed at the fringes of her consciousness,
Katara tipped her head in a maybe-yes, maybe-no kind of way. "I'm going to take a
shower."

"Coffee'll be waiting."

As she closed the door behind her, Katara brushed her teeth and stripped off her
pyjamas. She'd felt… strange, when she woke that morning. But the remnants of the
sleep-inducer left it difficult for her to focus, and she couldn't quite figure
out why she felt strange. It was probably just the dreams again, she decided.
Nightmares, dreams, whatever.
But when she rose from the toilet to slip into the steaming shower she'd run, she
noticed it.

It had been so long since she'd gone without protection, it took her a moment to
recognise it for what it was, but then it clicked in.

Her heart stopped, and her throat went dry in disbelief.

She wasn't sure whether to scream in fury, or cry.

No wonder it had felt like someone was holding her down.



"Hey, it took you a while. Were you trying to use up all the hot-water—ow!"

Katara slapped her boyfriend in the mouth. Hard.

And again.

And again.

And again…

"How could you do that to me! You asshole! You jerk! I'll never forgive you! That's
rape! That's…"

And again.

And again.

And she kept hitting him, and kicking him, and knew all the while it was futile, but
did it anyway.

Because there was no way she could hurt him the way he'd hurt her.

And there was no way she could go to a pharmacy that wasn't a 6-hour drive away
without putting all the women of her tribe at risk.

And 6 hours was just too late.

As Jet watched her, her small fists hitting him (hard, for her, but for him, hardly
noticeable), he saw the way she was curling in on herself; the way she was giving in;
and how she still hadn't said she hated him.

He didn't deny it, there was no point.
But he would make her see.

He would definitely make her see how it was for her own good. He'd done it for
them.

Because he loved her, and she needed to stay with him. He'd hoped he would never
have to bind her the way he had…

Her fists had stopped hitting him, and her tear-stained cheeks sobbed against his
shirt as he tried to hold her close.

… but he wasn't sorry. Not one bit.

In his arms, Katara struggled to free herself but he held fast, and she eventually
gave up completely, her knees buckling as she sobbed.

If all went well, she would be dependent on him soon for much, much more.



"What is the link between the girl, the Slayer, and the Bei Fongs?"

Speaking aloud to himself, his hands loosely held behind him as he stared out over
the glittering nightline cityscape, Long Feng contemplated the possibilities.

The girl had been rescued by the Slayer; the Slayer had been rescued by the Bei
Fong syndicate's grunts…

And everyone in the underworld knew the Bei Fong Group. Though they were
rarely as active in… certain activities… as they once were, they were still a
formidable, established presence. In truth, he'd considered offering them an
invitation to partner up for a new project. Not that that partnership could happen
now, now that they had hindered him in his plans.

But to take sides? It was very un-like the Bei Fongs. Normally they sought to
distance themselves from politics, seeking only financial gain. They were perfectly
happy to be an independent, free agent.

But something had shifted within the Bei Fong Group. While always an underworld
power, they'd never exerted their 'other' skills much before, even if they were
recognized as being a magically endowed clan.

And to have the power of such a strong witch within their ranks?

Because Long Feng knew there had to be one; he'd felt the magic resonating around
the soldiers who'd taken down his retrieval squad. Whether a Maiden, Mother, or
Crone, he wasn't sure, but one of them had interfered every time he'd tried to
collect the girl, Katara.

And it wasn't a dime-a-dozen street conjuror who'd made the ward that had
protected the girl in her apartment.

He'd had a remarkably difficult time re-tuning it to reverse its polarity. It had cost
him the lives of some of his most faithful servants, getting enough life-force to
counter it. A pity, but necessary. Good help was so hard to find; but the Moon Spirit
was a rarity worth it.

No, there was something odd about the situation, and he needed to understand it all
as soon as he could. He would be playing host to a very important guest, soon.

"Dai Li," the authority rang through his voice as an agent dropped to his side in a
kow-tow. "I want you to investigate the Bei Fong family. Find out why there is a
slayer with them; and find out the connection between them and the water tribe girl,
Katara Kuruk."

"At once, sir."



"I just wish you were awake, Gran-gran," Katara said to her grandmother's still
form. She'd left Jet in town as she'd made her way to the retirement home that
morning, and while a very clear day, it was bitterly cold, with no cloud cover to help
hold in the warmer air that may have otherwise circulated. She'd needed time away
from him.

She needed to figure things out.

So she found the wisest woman she'd ever known.

Even if this woman held her wisdom from the rest of the world, now…

"I came here to see you, to see that 'Great Historian and Master Storyteller Pakku',
to try and get my research done so I can go back and finish my school work… But
everything has blown up in my face. And now… "

The young woman sighed as frustration made tears warm her eyes. She was so tired
of crying. It felt like she'd been crying all day. Actually, she had been crying all day.
No wonder she was exhausted. The tightness in her chest wouldn't ease at all,
though, no matter what she did.

"Now I feel like I can't make my own decisions at all—I keep failing. Because
obviously I can't choose the right person to love, and I can't make my schoolwork
work, and I can't help you… I don't even remember when I last saw Dad… and
when we next meet-up, I know I'm in trouble and he's going to be disappointed in
me. Again." How was she going to face that disapproval? "I keep feeling like there's
something out there for me, Gran-gran. Like if I just keep looking, a little bit
harder, I'll find my place. I'll be where I belong. I'll become who I'm meant to be. I
worked so hard, Gran-gran, I… I'm making all these mistakes, though. And I don't
know how to make them right anymore. I used to be so good at everything. Really
good! And now..."

The old woman, well into her eighties, didn't make a sound, or give any indication
she could even hear her beloved granddaughter. The instruments and machinery
which helped keep her alive—a relative term—beeped softly or made the occasional
muted whoosh as it helped pump palliative medication into her dying system.

But she didn't wake.

With another sigh, Katara looked up and smoothed the wiry gray hair from her
grandmother's wrinkled brow.

This beautiful, strong, wonderfully capable woman who'd been her mother longer
than her own mother had been able to be…

Was this how she was going to spend her few precious hours together with her?

Katara immediately felt contrite at her selfishness.

"I'm sorry to complain, Gran-gran. Thank you for listening. If you know of anyone
who can help me, please, pass them my way? I could use a blessing right now. Even
a blessing in disguise." She smiled at her grandmother, then, even though the
receiver couldn't see it. "Maybe I'll talk to the nurses to see if we can have a
brushing-off ceremony in here, for both of us. We could both use some clarity right
now, huh?" She chuckled. "You hold out for me, ok, Gran-gran?"

The young woman squeezed her grandmother's hand warmly before lying it back
down beside her sleeping body on the bed, and kissed her cheek before she left.

"Love you, Gran-gran," she said as she closed the door softly behind her.



For the third time, someone knocked something off his table.

He'd been minding his own business as he waited in town for Katara to get back
(he'd refused to stay at her home, and she'd dropped him off on her way to see her
family). But the nudges to his elbows were annoying, the 'accidental' spills too close
to his lap were insulting, and the way that last pissant had flicked his knife over the
edge of the table was the last straw.

This wasn't coincidence anymore.

Glancing up from his coffee and muffin, Jet looked over the entire diner, assessing
the other patrons.

As they always had done, they ignored him—all except for that pair of trouble-
makers, the ones with the longish hair, toques, and the plaid, insulated jackets. They
were always smirking at him, taunting him. Trying to see what he'd do, how far
they could push him.

He knew that while they were in the village, Katara would not speak of what had
happened between them; so whatever these jokers were planning, it looked like it
didn't involve her current (hopefully for him) state.

Feeling the slightest twinge of guilt (not for what he'd done, but for how upset it had
ultimately made her), Jet considered his options, and how much more stress Katara
could handle.

Then one of the jokers tilted his head at the door, and he and his friend gave him a
look and left.

Knowing he really couldn't put things off anymore, Jet stood, left some money
beside his small plate, and made his way outside to where the pack was waiting for
him.

That frigid, bitter wind cut straight through his clothes and hat as he walked up to
them.

"You could have joined me for coffee inside," he said casually with a nod of his head
at the door. "A lot warmer in there." He didn't take his dark eyes off the group of
young men who were aiming to surround him. He wasn't stupid, he knew what this
was. Or, rather, what they intended it to be.

"We're not here for coffee," said one.

"We think you need to understand how things work around here. We're just being
friendly."

"Like a welcome wagon."

Snickers and chuckles rippled through the ranks.
"That's very hospitable of you, I feel more welcome every minute I'm here," replied
Jet, not missing the sound of predatory paws pit-patting closer. From behind the
building several wolf-dogs approached, teeth bared and eyes sharply focused on
him.

"So what can I do for you and your pets?"

One of the wolves growled in warning.

"Hi again, Luka, how's your face?"

The wolf stilled, its gold eyes suddenly widening.

Jet let a sliver of a smile pull at the corners of his mouth. "Oh, I know a lot more
about you than you know about me."

With that, he started unzipping his jacket, stuffing his hat inside as he tossed them
on the ground.

"By the way, your new alpha's name is 'Jet'," he said cockily as he felt the electric
thrummings of the change zip along his sensitive skin.

"Nice to meet you, bitches."

His own change had barely completed when the entirety of the assembled pack
sicked on him in a mad dogpile.



Katara had poked her head into the diner on her way home; and checked the gas
station, grocery store, and even library (knowing the last was a long-shot, but maybe
they had a porn historical section her boyfriend could have looked through); and
had even made a quick round of the convenience stores within walking distance.

When she hadn't been able to find Jet, she'd headed home (with the groceries she'd
picked up), and had just pulled into the drive when she noticed the blood trail
leading up to the door.

"Oh my spirits…"

Sprinting from the car, the medic-side of her automatically sprang into action as she
raced through the garage to the connecting door, the morning's tirade and its
catalyst gone from her mind only to be replaced by the urgency to heal whoever was
hurt.
She'd just entered the living room when she heard the male laughter from the
kitchen. It brought her to a dead stop; laughing?

Curious now, she jogged down the hall and looked in.

Her eyes bugged.

"Hello, Katara," said Koro respectfully.

"How is your grandmother?" asked Luka, getting up and taking his hat off in her
presence.

Her jaw dropped.

"The guys just dropped by to see you for a few minutes," explained Jet from beside
the coffee-maker. She noticed that all the men had bruises and abrasions on them,
and was starting to get an idea of what had happened, and why everyone was
suddenly so… amenable.

Meanwhile, the others nodded quickly at Jet's lead-in.

"They have something to say."

As one, the group of men stood, removed their hats, and looked at the floor.

"We're very sorry, Miss Kuruk," they chorused lowly.

Completely floored, she nearly fell against the doorjamb. She shook her head a
minute, and then looked back at Jet. Unlike the others, he watched her openly,
waiting for her reaction.

"It's…"

The men before her shuffled awkwardly.

"It's… apology accepted, boys. Thank you very much."

There was a whoosh of relief as the men sagged and chuckled a bit to themselves,
then they all turned back to the table and their previous conversations.

"Um, Katara, if you have a minute, would you mind arranging a time this week
we'd be able to talk about my… gaming problem?"

Gambling, she realized fuzzily.

"Yes, I'd be happy to."
"And I've had a problem with my foot for a while," said another, the one who'd
listed to the side a bit when they'd all stood.

"I'm sure I can make time for you over the next few days."

"And I have this thing that's been…"

With that, their hesitation vanished; it was as if a dam had burst.

The requests for help, as if they respected her expertise and opinion, flooded in and
inundated the young almost-doctor.

She knew she should be referring them to another, proper physician, but the nearest
one was hours away. It was no wonder they just lived with their problems. She knew
she'd been needed in her tribe before… but she'd never expected the men, these men
at that, to accept her as their medic.

As one finally asked if he could speak to her about his 'private' condition, she
nodded and put her hands up.

"All right – I will start seeing everyone starting tomorrow morning, bright and
early. And I'll talk to my dad to see if he can arrange a regular visit from a
physician and counselor to the Tribe, to help write and replenish prescriptions, too,
over the next few months."

The men quieted a moment as her words sank in.

"What do you mean, 'next few months'?" one asked, suspiciously.

"Just until I finish my last course or two for my degree. I've done my residency
concurrently, so as long as I'm affiliated with a clinic nearby, I should be allowed to
practice on my own within 2 years. And… if you'll have me here… there's no where
else I'd rather be."

There was a moment of silence again as they considered her words.

Across the room, Jet straightened and smiled openly.

"That's good news for the tribe. One of their daughters will be coming back to settle
in permanently. Maybe this will encourage others to come back."

Their leader had spoken.

That was when they cheered, and after a few pats on the back—Jet's back—the men
gathered their things and made their way to the door.
"Where did they all park?" she asked quizzically. Katara was still quite stunned at
the entire display.

"Oh, down the road. We wanted to surprise you," replied Jet, slipping an arm
around her waist as they watched everyone depart. He didn't mention how far down
the road—in fact, all the way back in town, because he'd made them all walk to
Katara's home—but she didn't need to know that.

"How… how did you… ?"

Grinning, he realized she was so floored by this situation she'd completely forgotten
about the events of that morning.

"You should know that a lady never asks and a gentleman never tells."

She raised an eyebrow at him. "Isn't it the other way around?"

"Is it?"

Huffing at him in frustration, Katara rolled her eyes.

"Come help me with the groceries, they're still in the car…"

"You know you're not out of trouble," said Katara that night as she dried the last
dish and put it away in the cupboard. Just outside the window the full moon shone
brightly down on the frozen landscape, though the kitchen was still illuminated by
the single light above the stove.

But Jet stayed silent.

It was the first time they were discussing the incident, and it was a quiet
conversation.

"And I will never trust you again." She stood with her back to the counter now,
glaring at him with her arms crossed in front of her.

"If… anything comes of this, I don't want you to have any part of it." Her fingers
tightened and her voice choked for a moment, as she thought of the specific
consequence that worried her. It hadn't cost her everything, exactly, but… she
thought of the women of her tribe, how the ones who were unmarried with children
were treated… she was not going to have an easy, pleasant time of things.

If it happened.

"I don't want to ever see you again, when we get back to Ba Sing Se." Her face was
tight, remote.
"And I don't know what you did this afternoon." She stopped herself, raised an
eyebrow as she noticed the cuts and scrapes that covered him—though she would
have sworn they'd seemed much worse earlier, when she'd first come home. The
dark-haired woman reconsidered her words.

"All right," she said as his lips quirked into a faint semblance of his cocky smirk, "I
actually have a pretty good idea of what happened this afternoon. BUT!" she glared
at him harder, "I don't approve of that, either."

"So where does this leave us, then?"

"There is no more 'us', Jet. If I need to be a single mother, so be it. I will return
here, to my home, and at least know that you can never hurt me again."

From where he leaned against the fridge, Jet's dark, smoky eyes watched her brittle
posture. She had agreed to come home, and that was the first step.

It was time to put his plan into action.

"Do it," he said softly.

"What!"

"Do it," he repeated, his eyes never leaving hers. "You've already told the men here
you'll be returning here sooner than expected, since you'll be finishing up your last
residence requirement in the tribe if you can swing it with the local medical
association. So come back here. Work here. Live your life here. Raise your son here-
."

"Stop making assumptions-."

"I'm not."

They glared at each other.

"But in case you hadn't noticed, I helped get you accepted here. I got those dogs to
apologise to you. And I will be your child's father." He paused, watching her angry
expression darken further. "And I will be the only father to your children, and I will
be part of their life."

"Not a chance."

"Tribe law is different from judicial law, Katara," he said quietly.

Katara felt her stomach tighten in apprehension.
"You wouldn't…"

Jet held her vision.

"I would. And I will."

"You can't do this to me," she whispered hoarsely. Not hoarse from fear, but rather
fury. How dare he threaten her.

"Katara, I'd already asked you to marry me. I love you. The reason I…" he felt his
eyes bleed from brown to gold, held her attention as his words took hold of her, "…
went into your room last night was because you were calling for me."

"I thought you said I didn't have any nightmares last night?"

Her voice changed incrementally as his gaze gathered hers in its focus; it was
shifting from the righteous anger of a few moments ago to confusion, hesitation.

"You called for me to come to you. You wanted me to sleep with you. You wanted
me to join you, Katara. Don't you remember?"

"… but I'd had the sleeping pills. I couldn't have…"

Jet started stalking closer to her, slowly, never letting her eyes drop from his.

"You did, though. Don't you remember? You pulled back your covers, you took off
your clothes for me, you told me to get undressed."

"… but I don't remember any of this. I thought I slept all night."

Now only a few feet from her, Jet reached out and put an arm on either side of her,
pinning her to the counter. Slowly, achingly slowly, he leaned further in, never
breaking eye contact. Hers were cloudy again, he noted in satisfaction.

"But you do remember. You told me to touch you, remember?"

"Touch… me?..."

"You took my hands and pulled them to your hips," he said, his breath warm
against her cheek; his palms squeezed her sides. "You arched your back and rubbed
your breasts against my chest." He closed the distance between them and backed
her up against the counter; he didn't miss her sharp intake of breath as their bodies
met.

Never letting their gazes waver, he pursued her further.
"You told me to lie with you, and you opened yourself to wrap your legs around my
waist," he whispered against her mouth.

"… but I don't remember… are you sure?"

"Oh yes, baby, I'm sure. You wanted me."

"I did…?"

"You touched yourself waiting for me."

Katara's cheeks blushed.

He rolled his hips into hers, dominating her. "You were so ready for me, when you
lifted your ass off the bed, you took me in in one thrust. It was so smooth, baby. You
wanted it."

"… I did…"

"Oh yeah," it was getting difficult for him to control himself, with trying to convince
her and maintain the eye contact. He was affecting himself with his persuasion, Jet
knew, and he had to make sure she was fully under, and soon. He had to finish
within a day of starting, or risk repeating everything at the next full moon. The
ritual was almost forgotten in modern times, but someone like him, who'd lived for
so long and so closely tied to nature, knew it by instinct. The mating ritual, the urge
to reproduce, to raise offspring. Wolves mated for life.

And the werewolf had finally found his mate.

His breath was coming harsher, thicker as he brought his forehead to hers. Pure,
brilliant gold orbs focused on her blue ones with the force of intent behind them.

"You begged me for it, Katara."

"I begged you…"

"You took me in and called my name louder than you ever have before."

"I did…"

"You said you needed me, and loved me."

"I did…"

"You fucked me so hard. You said yes when I asked you to be my wife."
"I… did…"

"You want a family with me. You love me. You want my baby. You want me to take
you every night."

"I do…"

"What did you just say, baby?" Oh spirits, he could hardly hold himself back. Too
eager, he'd taken her breasts in his hands, fingers eagerly creeping under her shirt
and massaging them under her bra and tweaking their erect nipples with his
calloused, rough thumbs. He just wanted to take them in his mouth, pull up her
skirt and take her right there on the counter. His penis was throbbing against the
tight confines of his jeans, and he could smell her reacting to him, responding to his
dirty talk like a Pavlovian test subject. Without warning, his hand slipped under her
waistband, popping the button open while the zipper slid down, his fingers easing
into her welcoming warm folds. He grunted with pure male appreciation, his fingers
commencing a stimulating rhythm. His little gift of persuasion was a wonderful,
wonderful thing, he decided as he waited for his partner to speak over her heated
breathing.

And when she replied, he nearly lost his control.

"I do."

A winning smile broke out over Jet's face.

"Oh Katara, I'm gonna make you the happiest woman on Earth!" He was grinning
so hard, and he was so aroused he could feel his pheromones pumping wildly
through him, indicating he was more than ready to mate with his fiancee.

"Tell me you want me."

"I want you."

Her eyes had dimmed so significantly as the blurriness clouded them that they
would have appeared lifeless had she not been speaking; but it was exactly what Jet
had intended. He had her completely mesmerized.

"Tell me you need me."

"I need you." Her voice was dull.

"Tell me to take you right here on your parents' counter."

"Right here, I want it, you, now. Inside me."
"Oh baby-."

Finally he broke eye contact and gave a hoarse cry.

Reaching down, he undid his belt buckle and zipper in the blink of an eye, freeing
himself.

Katara's clothing was shoved out of the way, her lower garments dropping to the
floor and her shirt pushed over her shoulders.

The kitchen was then filled with grunts and gasps as the werewolf lost himself in his
carnal pleasure, burying himself in his lover.

He praised Katara and her body long into the night, never letting up.

Across her body he bit her lightly, many times, marking his territory.

Over and over he spent himself in her, heard her moan his name and cry out in
ecstasy as he instructed her to, eventually carried her limp, used body upstairs to
sleep in his bed with him.

It was only the beginning, but to him, it was the greatest victory.

And now, he could look forward to having her by his side forever.

A loud, satisfied howl broke over the village that night, and carried for miles with its
message.



Zuko's heart seized as he felt the bond zinging with painfully splintering sparks.
Something was happening to Katara again, but he couldn't grasp what. The
uncertainty was infuriating. And worrisome.

He'd managed to connect with her several times in her dreams, recently, to make
sure she was handling the memory-erasure safely; but he was sure now that
something, or someone, was tampering with her emotions and triggering her bad
dreams. She was under some kind of outside stress or mental assault; it was the only
thing he could think of. The distance made the bond tremulous at best, but he was
sure something was up. She was in danger.

But Jet had promised to look after her, hadn't he?

And Zuko knew Jet loved Katara; it was obvious, as much as it pained him to admit
it.
But…

Growling deep in his chest, Zuko pushed the heels of his palms against his eyelids
until he saw colours swirling.

He'd promised he'd step back until he got control of himself.

But whenever he meditated, all he could think of was her.

What she was doing.

How she was feeling.

What she was thinking…

… who she was thinking of…

And when he caught her thinking of him, or at least, that's what it felt like, he
couldn't help reaching for her through the bond. It was always at night, as if it was
an unconscious searching on her part to find him, any way she could. The way he
had searched for her, for decades, over a century and a half. Every night.

Something was wrong.

Something was so very, very wrong.

But these feelings, like something was physically shearing apart their bond—it was
unnatural. It felt like she was obviously struggling and trying to reach out for help,
but so erratically…like she had no control over her situation.

…She didn't have control over what was happening.

The realization hit him with the force of a tsunami.

It was against her will.

But what? Who?...

The only person who knew where she was was-

It crashed against him, like a wave of concrete.

Jet.

Everything fell into place.
The vampire prince wanted to destroy something.

But who could he contact to check about Katara's condition, without calling her
directly? He had no way to reach her-!

The blind maiden sprang to his mind immediately.

Of course… she's in tune with her, too.

Tired of feeling so impotent, Zuko leapt up from the ground and stalked to the
suite's office, where he'd left his phone.



TBC.

AN: Updated June 3 or 4th, 2010.


Chapter 36: Chapter 36


Merits 36

.

Zuko glanced down at his phone's text-screen and rubbed a hand over his tired face,
pulling his long bangs away from his eyes.

All it said was, Tonight, and the address of the Bei Fong compound.

He ignored the stewardess as he slumped against the plane's window.

Just a few more hours…



"Miss Kuruk?"

"Speaking, how can I help you?"

"I represent Master Pakku."

"You have my sincerest condolences."

From the phone's receiver came the sound of chuckles muffled by coughing.
"Yes, thank you, I appreciate the sentiment. However, I understand you are
interested in meeting with my employer and wish to make an appointment
regarding his historical research involving the Water Tribes, is that correct?"

Katara tried to swallow, her stomach lodged in her throat.

"Miss Kuruk?"

"…Yes…"

"I'll assume I heard a 'yes', as your voice was quite faint. Well, Master Pakku has
agreed to an appointment with you this afternoon, at his residence in North Woods
around lunch time. Is this convenient with you?"

"You bet your-! I mean, yes that would be wonderful. Thank you very much."

"It is my pleasure, Miss Kuruk. Master Pakku also noted you are welcome to invite
a companion, if it would make you feel more comfortable."

"Really?"

"Ah yes, really."

(…)

"Miss Kuruk? Do you have any questions I can answer?"

"No… No, that's… that's just wonderful. Thank you very much!"

"Again, a pleasure. Have a good visit."

She didn't miss the faint sarcasm on his last words.



The crack was still quiet noticeable, Katara thought to herself as she and Jet stood
on the doorstep at eleven fifty-five that morning.

"Want me to knock?"

"I'd prefer if you'd drop-dead, but no, I can do it myself."

"It's cold. Anytime, Katara."

"It isn't lunch time yet."
Her companion blew out a long, low breath, but didn't say anything further.

They'd stood there for a good ten minutes already.

In the biting cold.

So what if his bits were about to fall off?

He buried his head a bit further into his collar and kept quiet. She'd been 'off' since
that morning, and he wasn't about to irritate her further.

"If you're going to fight, you can fight in here where it's warmer," called an
irritated voice from inside the house.

Katara stiffened, but Jet surged forward, one foot already inside.

"Hi, I'm Jet, pleased to meet you, sir. Would you mind if I made us all some coffee?
And lunch?..."

The old man sent a still-shocked Katara a clearly unimpressed look, before he
turned back to Jet and nodded with a passive-aggressive mutter or two.

Eyebrows furrowing in annoyance, Katara determinedly stepped inside.



When Katara had finished preparing the soup, slicing the bread, setting the table,
and pouring water for them all, Master Pakku settled his elbows on the table and
watched her while his chin rested on his folded hands.

She tried to suppress her temper as she suffered the scrutiny.

"Why are you standing all the way over there? We're ready to eat," he said blithely.

Spirits, please give me patience, she prayed as she took her seat.

Surprisingly, apart from the rather chauvinistic attitude and comments (which
she'd expected), Master Pakku was quite knowledgeable. The concerns Katara had
had prior to arriving – that he'd not taken the time to actually research his stories,
that he'd embellished the more important details, that he'd manufactured certain
parts of his stories in order to make them more entertaining – were proven false,
and the depth of his understanding of their tribe and its history was so rich it
rivaled, if not surpassed, that of the Elders she and Jet had visited earlier on. It
hadn't taken long for Katara to dig out her digital recorder and notebook, to make
sure she didn't miss any of the details her lecturer bestowed upon her. Fortunately,
his ego was stroked by this gesture instead of insulted, so he made no comment on
the technology's intrusion.

Within a few minutes of the interview's commencement, the young woman
completely forgot Jet was there, though he was thoughtful enough to refill their tea
and coffee, and washed the dishes while she and Pakku spoke. He was never far, but
he made himself as invisible as he could, for her sake… mostly.

For his part, the storyteller was rather enthusiastic in some of his recounting, and
never failed to keep her attention. His manner, his retelling of certain events, was so
realistic Katara almost felt like she'd been living them herself, or at the least that
he'd lived through them himself, over a century and a half earlier. Some of the
details felt almost uncanny.

Though she knew it was impossible, in the back of her mind something niggled at
her consciousness telling her she'd met him before, though she couldn't place it, or
him, in her memory.

As night fell, the discussion moved to the living room, and Katara returned to the
kitchen—not quite as begrudgingly as before—to prepare their supper. That left Jet
and Pakku together in the rustic setting, without their censor.

Pakku's self-indulgent expression settled on his young-looking counterpart
thoughtfully.

"So, I hear you're the young man everyone's talking about," remarked the grey-
haired man as he leaned back in his worn, old, hand-carved rocker. "And is it true
that congratulations are in order?..."

Jet grinned, but didn't reply for a moment; he hadn't lived as long as he had
without learning a few lessons. One of which being to watch your back when you're
seen as being young and inexperienced…

"Congratulations for what, sir?"

Pakku's intelligent eyes narrowed slightly, though he maintained his cocky smile.
"Oh, many, many things, if rumours serve to tell."

"I'm not one for rumours, Master Pakku—is there anything I should be worried
about?" he joked in his usual laid-back fashion. "I hope I'm not in trouble."

"Perhaps it is just an old man hearing things, then. I thought there was a new howl
about town these past few days… and perhaps a territorial skirmish or two, on top
of an alpha's mating call. None of which we've had around here for a long, long
time. I just thought it was a strange coincidence that it all matched up with you and
Katara coming to visit."
The man's cold, faded blue eyes watched him carefully, and Jet knew, somehow,
that this man was more than he appeared to be—and he knew that he himself was
more than he appeared to be, too. Which gave their interaction a subtly dangerous
overtone he wasn't oblivious to.

"Well, I have proposed to Katara, and she has accepted," Jet confessed,
strategically, to test the water. "So yes, that rumour is true. We're making plans to
return and settle in the tribe as soon as her current school term finishes. I'll be
looking for work come summer, and hopefully we'll be able to get Katara set up
with her own practice. If things work out well, maybe the Tribe can sponsor a few of
its members to take their nursing certification? So that Katara will be able to tend
to more patients with the trained assistants she'll need? But that's for future
planning. What do you think?"

"I think you're up to something."

"Oh, well I'm sorry to hear that, sir. I've been doing my best to pave the way for a
happy homecoming for Katara."

"Perhaps I have misunderstood, then. Rumours can be so misleading. I'd heard that
you were 'paving the way' to make your entry into the tribe smoother, not hers.
Again, rumours. One should never put too much faith in them, you're right."

"I appreciate that, sir." Jet watched the man across from him a moment, and they
sized each other up. "Would you mind answering a question for me, sir?"

"If I can."

"If Katara's father is absent, whose permission should I ask in order to receive a
blessing to marry her?"

"An Elder, a trusted family friend, or someone with high regard amongst the tribe,
hypothetically speaking, of course. I'm sure Katara would be able to answer your
question, if she's truly agreed to marry you," hedged Pakku, his gaze never leaving
Jet's.

"I was hoping to make it a surprise."

"Ah…"

"Is there something I'm missing, sir? Have I offended you? It wasn't my intention.
I'd like to apologise if I have."

"Oh no, not at all. It's just that a man would need to prove himself to the person
whose permission he sought, and prove his commitment to the tribe, since he would
be an outsider to the tribe. What would that individual be giving to the tribe that
would make it stronger, more successful, more prosperous?"

There was a weighted pause, as the challenge sank in.

"What would you be bringing, Jet?"

Well, that was surprisingly blatant.

"Would you mind if I ask a few questions before I answered that, to make sure I
understand the tribe and its traditions, sir?"

Looking amused now, Pakku nodded. "Of course."

"When I lived within a tribe, some time ago, there was still an element of… magic."
He looked meaningfully at the historian, whose expression remained neutral. "The
tribe itself had magic, and that magic extended over the tribe to protect it from
external intrusion and interference. It received magic by protecting the land, living
in balance with nature, and sharing with its neighbouring tribes… but they had to
remain healthy and strong themselves. If the tribe started to dwindle in numbers,
the strength of the magic would dwindle with it."

Pakku nodded once in agreement, and expanded upon Jet's theory.

"One reason that the magic has dwindled in our northern tribes is that starting with
Katara's generation, the babies were no longer born within the tribe's boundaries.
The expecting women moved to the larger cities with hospitals to give birth with
doctors and other medical professionals present. The magic and power these births
used to bring to the tribe was lost, and so the tribe was left supporting these young
families with less and less magic, fewer spiritual resources to expend on them and
bless them with. It has truly hurt the tribe."

"Is this why you had hoped Katara would become a midwife, instead of an addiction
specialist? So that she would be able to support the women of the tribe, and help the
tribe regain some of its 'magic' or 'power' losses?"

"In part, yes."

"Mind if I ask what the other part is?"

The sounds of Katara making supper in the kitchen, pans on the stove, water
running, and the smell of the meat and vegetables wafted over to the two men.

Satisfied the woman in question would be occupied a bit longer, Pakku nodded
slightly to himself.
"Katara herself needs to come back."

"May I ask why?"

Pakku's smile and 'jovial' demeanour faded so smoothly to seriousness that Jet felt
his insides twist; Pakku knew.

"Because she is needed here," he stated meaningfully. "Her children need to be
born here, or the tribe will die by its next generation."

"That's a fair bit of pressure on a single woman, sir… Is it because she's the Chief's
daughter? The 'leading by example' lifestyle she needs to encourage her fellow
tribeswomen to follow?"

Pakku stared at him hard.

Jet didn't back down, and didn't bother to keep up his amiable front any longer.

"I feel like you already know why it is important she returns to us, as soon as she
can," said the old man softly. "And she needs to have children as soon as she can, in
order to protect this tribe."

"Any reason why it needs to be so soon?"

"Young man, you are asking many, many questions, and I think you already know
the answers to many of them…"

A tense silence fell between them.

They both knew why.

Something big, and dark, and dangerous could be felt on its fringes. The tribe was
being hunted.

Again.

The demons were coming back.

"Would you give your blessing if you knew she was already expecting? If she was
already making plans to return within the next 3 months? Sir?" asked the older of
the two men.

"This is an entirely hypothetical conversation, Jet." Pakku leaned forward and
spoke even more softly in his gravelly voice, hearing Katara's mumblings in the
kitchen as she dished out the meals onto the kitchen table. "Isn't it?"
"Dinner'll be ready in 5 minutes you two!" Katara poked her head through from
the kitchen for a moment to get their attention. They perked their heads up politely
in her direction. "And Master Pakku, I have a few more questions, if that's ok?"

"Of course, Katara," he said in a long-suffering tone—though his expression had
softened considerably since she'd arrived that morning. Jet was tempted to hazard it
akin to 'grandfatherly', except when it was turned on him.

Which it was, as soon as Katara ducked back into the kitchen again.

"Young man," began Pakku in a cold, warning tone, once more. "I hope you aren't
insinuating what I think you are about our Chief's daughter. Engaged or not, you
are not married yet."

"All we need is your blessing, sir."

Pakku's expression turned frosty, and hard.

"Is that blackmail, young man?"

"Like you, sir, I'm only looking out for Katara and the tribe."

"Once again, I question your motives and whether they are in anyone's interests but
your own, Jet-."

"Supper's ready! Come on over Master Pakku, Jet, I have lots here!"

Still eyeing one another in distrust, the men rose as one and made their way to the
kitchen.



Katara dried the lash dish, passed it to Jet, and stretched her back as she turned to
smile ruefully at her lecturer.

"Done."

"Katara, I must say, you outdid yourself in the kitchen today. Thank you very
much, I haven't eaten that well in ages."

"You're very welcome, Master Pakku. Thank you for taking the time to speak to
me. And, uh, about the door…"

He glared at her a moment.

"Yes, the door."
"If you can just give me a few months, until I finish up and school and move back, I
promise I'll be able to replace it this summer."

He watched her a moment, his thoughts hidden from her.

"Well," he began slowly, and didn't miss the way she writhed in discomfort a
moment under his sharp gaze. "We'll see. I'll speak to someone in the morning, to
see if he can rig something up to at least staunch the drafts. My old bones can't
handle the cold the way they used to, you know."

"How about I call Bato tonight, and we'll see if we can make it out tomorrow to fix
that up for you?" she offered in a weak, but optimistic voice. "And then I'll replace
the door… this summer?"

"That would be acceptable."

Her shoulders sagged in relief when he turned to lead them out. At her side, Jet
remained silent, thoughtful.

As the small group gathered their things and shuffled to the front door, they passed
through the entranceway again and Katara's eyes swept the small anteroom with
new appreciation. The entire house was full of antiques, all meticulously well cared
for; the more she looked around, the more she noticed the 'little' details – like the
fact that the pictures on the wall weren't from the early twentieth-century, they
were from the mid-nineteeth… the artwork wasn't reproduced, it was original, as
were the handicrafts and weavings and ceremonial accoutrements… and the maps
that hung in their protective glass frames weren't modern—at least not in this small
room. They were old, some as much as two hundred and fifty years old.

Katara's eyes fell once more on the maps.

And her footsteps slowed to a halt.

Something inside her, very deep, stirred.

Instinctively, she felt her eyes reading the terrain and finding errors; though she
didn't know how she knew the maps were wrong, she knew they were.

Something in her spirit whispered the answer in her ear, but it was too muffled to
make out.

Frustrated she didn't understand, Katara stared at the map.

She pointed.

"This map… it's of the tribe's territory, isn't it?"
"Yes, though unfortunately we've lost most of that land. This map is over a hundred
and fifty years old. I'm surprised you recognized it."

"The water-ways are wrong," she remarked, stepping closer and letting her finger
hover over the glass where the river now ran. On the yellowed, faded map, however,
the river ran in a different direction, and the lake wasn't there at all.

Pakku stood beside her and watched her, waiting to see if she made the connection.

Katara felt her head pound as the blood gradually started to rush in her veins.

She was close.

So close.

What was wrong?

She closed her eyes a moment when her vision blurred, and opened them again.

"Why is the water wrong?"

From behind her, Jet inched closer, suspicious. Something about her voice was off.

Her voice.

The hair on the back of his neck raised in apprehension.

He recognized when it took on that dream-like character.

"You know why it is wrong, Katara," said Pakku persuasively, softly. He watched
her every move, her every expression. "Think. Remember."

"I think Katara's getting tired," began Jet, trying to break the trance Katara was
falling into. "We should really get on the road…"

"Not yet…" she said quickly. Her finger traced a line on the map, where she 'felt'
the water should have run. "This map… the water… why is it wrong? Water
doesn't shift this much by accident, does it? It would have had to have been a man-
made canal or something that would change the entire direction of a river…
Why…?"

The pull inside her became stronger, forcing her to block out the sounds around
her, to focus on nothing but the map, the water, the reason it had shifted so
drastically.
"Remember," whispered Pakku, close to her ear, so close Jet couldn't hear his exact
words. "Remember the battle. Yue, your people need you. Remember."

Katara's head pounded harder, the words suddenly pulling taut a cord she'd
forgotten existed.

A cord someone else had tried to sever.

A cord that connected her to her past.

"Remember."

To something else, from her past…

To someone else, from her past.

The pain started in her temples and spread, rapidly, and before she knew it, it had
engulfed her mind.

"Katara?... Katara, are you ok?..."

A man's voice.

"What is going on? She was fine a minute ago—what did you say to her, old man!"

A young-sounding voice, but there was something else behind that voice, something
older, stronger.

"I did nothing, merely pointed out on the map that this is the territory our tribe
used to live on. Here is where they used to spend their summers—."

A pair of pale hands around her waist, holding her to him, bare chest to bare chest-.

"That we used to spend our winters camped here, beyond this small forest-."

Where he first came to her, wounded, with a sledge of animal pelts and food for her
people…

"And that the story she's been focusing on ended here, near this bend in the river,
where Yue tragically fell in battle protecting her tribesmen."

And the water rose, the river changed course, the spirit of the moon and water pulled
the river and it came to wash her away and purify the land when she died.

She had died.
She had died.

Katara-Yue felt her memories flooding back to her in flashes and torrents, too fast
to understand, overwhelming her.

"You're right, she does look a bit peaked. Perhaps she should return home for the
night. It's been a busy day."

"If she were conscious, I'm sure she'd thank you," Jet's angry voice cut through the
deluge of sights, sounds, images, feelings that inundated Katara, and she felt herself
being lifted up from her slumped place on the ground. She hadn't realized she'd
fallen down.

"I don't know what you did, old man, but she better be ok."

"She will be fine… and didn't you mention earlier she may be… in a delicate
condition? Perhaps this is a manifestation of that stress on her body?"

Jet paused, and Katara thought she felt some of his tension ease, but she couldn't be
sure; nothing was making sense.

What delicate condition?

What were they talking about?

What was going on?

Where was her tent?

Wait, no, she lived in a house, didn't she?

But she was still with her tribe, so her tent with her offerings and sleeping furs
should be nearby, shouldn't it?

The conflicting thoughts raced and collided in her head, and Katara moaned at the
physical pain that accompanied them.

Remember….

Remember what? Remember who?

Who could help her?

There was someone she needed, someone who felt like part of her.

Someone who should be with her, always.
She barely noticed the sounds of booted feet crunching through snow, or the door
creaking open in front of her.

Where was he?

She murmured something unintelligible, and Jet brought her mouth closer to his ear
as he slid over in the driver's seat. The trudge from porch to vehicle had been bitter
as the temperature had dropped further, the weather taking a turn for the worse.

Small whorls of snow ripped around them, tearing at their clothes and biting their
skin. Katara didn't feel any of it.

As he slammed the door shut, Jet felt his insides tightening. This was no ordinary
storm. Something, someone, was causing it.

And the timing… Why now?

Beside him, Katara muttered something familiar, though Jet couldn't place it.

"What is it, Katara?"

She murmured again, but he still couldn't make it out.

As Jet started the engine, Pakku stood on his porch wrapped in his jacket, and
watched them with a smile, his eyelids low over his knowing eyes.

"Katara, honey, what's wrong? Are you sick? What happened?" Jet's voice turned
anxious, and he realized how serious the situation could become. He laid a hand on
Katara's head and felt her burning up, and desperately wondered what to do. They
were hours away from the nearest hospital… and he had no idea where it was.
Katara had only mentioned in passing that their tribe relied on local first-aid
providers since the hospital was so far.

And he had no idea who he could ask for directions to get there—because he
certainly didn't trust the smug old bastard on the porch. HE was the one with the
agenda.

Jet's concern over Katara's safety reared again: Did he risk taking her on the road
at night, in a place he barely knew, to a hospital or medical facility he'd never been
to?

As he sped down the icy road towards Katara's family home, Jet felt the old vehicle
protesting at his rough handling. The night was black, the wind was howling, and a
storm had erupted, seemingly out of nowhere.
"What the hell," the 'were muttered, glancing down at Katara's unconscious body
beside him. "The weather was supposed to be clear. Since when do storms like this
roll in so quickly up here?"

As the car careened around a corner, the tires slipped, at first just a split-second,
then gripped again, then at Jet's angry kick to the accelerator pedal, slid once more,
sending the car into a fish-tail slide across the road into the opposite lane.

Jet cursed and fought the wheel, desperate to right them even as he saw the lights
coming from the opposite direction.

He swore again.



The heavy doors were sealed, both by conventional lock and also by magic. The
wind whipped the unnatural storm outside into a frenzy; the entire mansion shook
on its foundations at times, and yet the two shamans who sat knee to knee in their
lotus positions, facing each other, did not stir.

They'd been focusing for over an hour, and the outdoor conditions mirrored their
internal states.

Unfortunately.

And sitting knee to knee with them was their link.

Even he was starting to show signs of wear.

In the hallway outside the room, Sokka, Aang and Suki glanced up as another gust
rocked the building on its foundations.

Aang, who fully understood the severity of the conditions and had some idea of what
had prompted them, felt his concern rise, his emotions heavy.

Sokka, still learning the meaning and causes behind the phenomena, complained
occasionally about not being allowed to participate in the 'seeing', but held his peace
with Suki by his side. Suki said nothing at all, a hard, knowing frown on her face
through the entire ritual. She had met Aang's eyes once, seen the same
understanding in his, and they had mutually decided to keep quiet until they had
more details to work with.

It had shocked them all when Jun had shown up on their doorstep.

But even moreso had been the unannounced arrival of Zuko Sozin, who'd been
immediately ushered into the private room where Toph and Jun awaited him.
Then, the storm had built outside.

Another quarter of an hour of agonizing uncertainty passed before the blizzard
outside slowly quieted, the door latches clicked to indicate they'd been unlocked.
Sokka flung them open…

… to find Toph unconscious on the floor, and her Mother, Jun, staggering to her
feet, wearily heaving the petite young woman over her shoulder, and pushing past
them all to return her wiped apprentice to her rooms to recuperate.

Shock and concern marked the small group's face as the witches passed.

It was soon replaced with the leaden tang of fear.

No one knew what to say.

But one thing was clear.

If Toph Almighty was down for the count… where did it leave them?

None approached the room. Almost like children afraid of a superstition that would
befall them if they entered, they stayed away.

But inside, alone, unmoved from his own lotus position, Zuko's head bowed low, his
chin meeting his chest with his eyes closed. Then, slowly, his shoulders slumped and
he was nothing more than a man beaten, his hands rising to cover his face in defeat.



TBC

AN: Posted 14 August 2010.


Chapter 37: Chapter 37


Merits 37

He'd wandered the halls when he finally woke, and followed the trail of their voices
to find the rest of the group sitting around a large breakfast table.

-or, that's what it sounded like, at least. He hadn't set foot inside. Yet.

Unsure if he should trespass upon their family meal, he waited, debating whether or
not he should simply leave the compound and return to his own home.
Brow furrowed, Zuko glared self-consciously at the door.

But suddenly found himself thrust through the doorway with a massive shove to his
back, and nearly lost his footing as he tumbled ahead of his manhandler.

"If I have to sit through this, so do you," Toph hissed through her teeth just loud
enough for him to hear, a wide smile on her face as she strode through behind him.
Then, in a louder voice, "Rise and shine, Sparky! What're ya havin'?"

"Um, that is, uh, I was just-."

"Eggs & bacon are on the left, fruit's in the middle, pancakes are on the right, and
the syrup's probably all over Sokka's sleeve by now," Toph's authoritative voice
rang out as she pushed the reluctant vampire further into the room towards the
spread. When his feet dragged, she zapped him and couldn't help smirking at the
wounded yelp he tried to suppress.

"Hey, it is not!" Sokka yelled indignantly around a mouthful of bacon. And
sausages. And sea-cucumber quiche.

"Uh, Sokka,…" Suki started in hushed, diplomatic tones, "maybe you should roll
them up a bit…"

"No need! This bathrobe is big and manly and these sleeves are a sign of my-."

"Want me to do it for you so you don't have to put down your fork?"

"Yes, please."

"Psht, all men are babies," snorted the hostess, taking up a seat. She turned back to
Zuko, who still stood apart from them.

He looked on at them, painfully unsure of his place.

"Oh for Pete's sake," she muttered under her breath. And with that she brought her
hands together in a single, loud clap that broke the air – and sent a minor
earthquake along the floor, which suddenly rippled and launched Zuko into the seat
across from her.

A tap of her foot bumped him snugly up to the table.

"Now eat before you offend my sensitive hospitality," she snapped at him, croissant
crumbs flying from her mouth.

"Yes, ma'am," he stammered, and reached for a glass of water.
Conversation around the table resumed, and Aang broke the ice with Zuko by
offering to share his pomelo with him.

"Hmph," was all Toph replied, but inside she felt relief.

It was a start.

TBC.



This chapter posted Dec 10, 2010.
Yes, I am working on a chapter for your for Christmas. Please forgive me my
delays.


Chapter 38: Chapter 38


Merits 38

"Hi, can I get either of you something to drink?"
"Sure, two coffees, please-."
"Tea for me, actually."
Jet froze a moment, maintaining his casual smile at the stewardess. "My mistake.
Coffee for me, please, and a tea for-."

"Milk and two sugars, please. Thank you," Katara reached across her ex's lap and
accepted the steaming beverage gratefully.

"Thanks," he said, and the stewardess, sensing the tension between the pair of
attractive young people, smiled vapidly and moved on hastily to the next row of
seats.

Jet blew lowly from his nose in anger, while Katara continued writing in her
notebook, a few of Master Pakku's texts (on loan to her) piled on the seat between
herself and Jet.

"You're ignoring me now? Is that it?"

"I have work to do, Jet. I'm already behind," because of you, went unspoken, but
was evident from her tone. Her eyes and pen never strayed from the page before
her.

"We can still talk. I can help you with-."
"No, thank you."
"Later, I mean. When you finish your-."
This time she raised her eyes to look at him, and their ice-blue depths were cold and
hard.

"No, Jet. There is no talking. No apologizing."

We're through, her look clearly emphasized, and she glared at him momentarily
longer before slowly turning back to work with renewed focus.

And her very deliberate action made him see red.

For a moment, Jet nearly thought he'd finally lose his temper with her, once and for
all.

Couldn't she see? Didn't she understand? He railed internally, the fury boiling higher
as it choked him. Everything he'd done, he'd done for Katara! He'd protected her from
those chauvinistic males in her hometown, instilled a sense of respect in them so they
respected her in return, promised to provide for her and the family they would build
together, and this was how she treated him? After everything he'd done!

He seethed in recollection.

And who did she think of? Who did she want? Who had she thanked?

Not him, but-

The reminder of whose name she had murmured earlier in her delirium at the
hospital nearly made him snap.

Ungrateful bitch!

The force of the epithet shook him inside, and he felt his jaw clenching tightly, his
canines lengthening as the urge to shift and destroy something, anything, especially
anything of value to her, nearly overwhelmed him there on the plane, 35, 000 feet in
the air. She was his mate, his chosen one. She would never belong to another ever
again, he swore it.

He would do anything to prevent it, too.

Calm down, calm down, his internal voice soothed, there's still time.

Reflecting on what was still to come, he knew it was true.

There was still time.

So for now, he would just wait. She would come around soon enough.
Yes, he thought to himself, sipping his too-hot coffee, soon enough.

Beside him, Katara wrote on, completely unaware of her companion's conspiracy.



"You are always welcome back here, Katara," said Bato. The tall, rangy man swept
her up in a bear hug as if she were still a little girl. Desperate for comfort, for the
feeling that reminded her so much of family, of home, she held on tight to him in
return, burying her face in his chest. He smelled like snow, conifer trees and cooking
scents, and she clung to that sense of being grounded, that reality. It helped clear
her confusion, her doubts, her…
Even as her senses were enveloped by the present, a half-remembered image flashed
through her mind again—they kept coming at the most random times—of a sledge
of furs being drawn to her tent, someone holding out a hand to be healed-.

A part of her, deep inside, suddenly tugged at the memory. As if it were reaching
out to find… something. The longing thrummed through her, as if she was missing
something vitally important. As if a part of her was lost and trying to find its way
home, back to where it belonged.

She shook her head to clear it.

"I miss you already, Bato."

"You take care of yourself on the trip home, ok?"

Katara's smile was faint, forced, and he watched her casually as she faked her
emotions.
He didn't miss the stress that lined her young face, the dark circles under her eyes.
She must still be having her nightmares. Daydreams. He refused to call them
hallucinations.

Something was keeping her up at night, still, and it was taking its toll. She wasn't
the little girl he remembered anymore, had helped raise. She wouldn't confide in
him anymore, and he couldn't make her. But at least he could let her know he
would, if he could. If she needed family, he was there. He always would be.

"I will."
He gave her a long, meaningful look. "I can see worry in your eyes, little one," he
said gravely, quietly, for her ears only. "All you need to do is call."

Wavering slightly, she took a deep breath to steady her insides. "I know."

He nodded, and walked her back to where Jet was waiting in line for their security
check at the airport departure gate.
"You take care, too, Bato."

He waited until they'd cleared security, passed the gate, and walked across the icy
tarmac to climb the stairs that would lead inside the plane.

It was only once they'd taxied and taken off that he turned away from the large,
floor-to-ceiling windows and found his gaze meeting that of a wily, ancient shaman.

"Master Pakku," he said respectfully, stretching out an arm in greeting.

"Bato, it's been some time. I hear you'll be coming to pay my door a visit soon."
"Seems like."

Their conversation died, neither wanting to broach the topic first.

But Pakku could only be silent for so long.

"It wasn't him."

"No," agreed Bato. "But it is coming."
"It is. And that boy, the wolf, is involved. But that wasn't The One I was expecting."



"We're going back tomorrow."
"Where? To Master Pakku's?" Jet turned to look at her in confusion. "Are you
sure you're ok to go back there, Katara? I really don't think-."
"To Ba Sing Se," she said dully. "I re-arranged our flights. We can pack up tonight.
The… Bato will take us in his truck, since we don't have a vehicle anymore."

Wariness spread across Jet's features as he watched Katara leaning against the
doorframe; she was still having some trouble moving around, but refused to actually
sit. Pride, stubborn, pig-headed, pride, he was sure that was all that was keeping her
upright.

Little did he know.

"Ok," he said slowly.

"And Jet?"
His eyes widened.

"I'll be staying at Bato's tonight."
Jet stilled.
"And what about me?"
"Do what you always do, Jet. Whatever you want. But I won't be part of it
anymore."

His heart beat faster, harder, as anxiety at her insinuations set in.

"Katara, we can talk about-."
"No, Jet. We can't. I… I don't want you to be part of my life anymore."
"Katara, listen, we're just having a rough patch, we'll work things out. I know I've
overstepped my bounds on a few things recently, but there's been so much going on-
."
"'Overstepped your bounds'?" Katara asked softly, her shoulders tightening as she
straightened up in the doorway. Her eyes blazed. She took a step inside.
"'Overstepped your bounds!'"

Her fists shook.

"You call assaulting me in my sleep, when I'm pharmaceutically sedated, with the
intention of controlling me like a dog and ruining my fucking life, 'overstepping your
bounds'!"

Jet was raising his hands to calm her as he strode to her, but heard the sound of
rapid footsteps ascending the stairs and paused.

"Katara, is everything ok?"

She swallowed hard and forced her fists back down by her sides.

"Yes, Bato. Sorry, I'll be down in a few minutes."

"I'll come help," he replied, obviously not trusting her trembling voice. His tone
brooked no argument.

The two young people looked at each other a moment longer, until they heard Bato
crest the stairs and turn their way.

"It's over, Jet," Katara said quietly, and turned away.

"It's over."

Her feelings shimmered along the tight spiritual cord that resonated within her; and
it reciprocated, like a warm, strong arm around her shoulders.
They waited together, both in wheelchairs, at the front entrance lobby of the small
hospital, as Bato pulled his truck around to meet them.

Patients, visitors, medics and a myriad of other employees milled around or walked
straight past them; they pretended to ignore the two young adults, but whispers had
been following Katara for days now. They knew who she was; and it didn't take a
genius to figure out she hadn't come home for any form of happy reunion with her
family. Her father hadn't even shown up at the hospital to see her, which spawned
even more gossip. Still, she had smiled and cooperated—most of the time—with her
attending physicians while she'd been admitted. Mostly. There was the occasional
intern or orderly who'd deserved the cussing out she'd given them…

She had held up a convincing front, for the most part—but she was sure there were
at least a few nurses, those who'd been her friends or friends of her family since she
was young, who could still read her well enough to know that all was not well on the
home front, in particular with her self-appointed 'fiancé'.

That gossip could be heard in bits and pieces as she and Jet waited, side by side, for
Bato; Jet with his hand outstretched from the arm of his wheelchair to hers; she
with her hands tucked neatly in her lap.

When Bato finally arrived to help them outside, the air that hit them as they exited
the hospital was wickedly cold, and sharp. It was a quiet ride home.



Spirits alive, not that stupid story again, Katara thought to herself as she roused
slowly from her sleep. Was it the third time that day she'd heard it? Fourth?
Fourhundredth? It felt like it.

Inside her, she felt a tightening of the cord, and she wondered again if it was a
reflection of her own feelings, or someone else's reaction to them. It fed her seething,
at any rate.

"—yeah, we were really lucky the lights on the truck caught the paramedics'
attention," Jet recounted to the nurse who was supposed to be checking her vitals.
The uniformed woman seemed quite content to gaze, enraptured, at Jet's face as he
earnestly relayed the details of their 'horrific accident'. Not that Katara
remembered all the details herself, but she could probably re-tell Jet's version—
with his exact words and intonation—by memory at this point.

Ass, she thought to herself, and fought the urge to roll her eyes. Fought it hard.

"Well, to hear the ambulance techs tell it, you'd think that there was some kind of
miracle!" gushed the nurse. Katara was pretty sure her name was Sandy. Or Cindy.
Nancy?...
"That the northern lights were so bright above us, they led the way, huh?"

Oh, he's rolling it on thicker than marzipan for this nurse, she thought to herself. Was
her name Candy?

Her 'connection' thrummed inside her, and Katara gave a mental nod in thanks to
the… presence's confirmation.

"And to think your engine was still running enough to power the batteries for the
headlights, oh, it was just something! The firemen who pulled you two from the
water were amazed; they thought you'd been underwater for some time. No vitals at
all, they said."

She could hear the blasé smirk in Jet's voice when he replied, "Well, we're made of
pretty tough stuff. It'd take more than that to stop us. We're recently engaged, and
we've started making plans to return to the Rez to settle down, actually, this
summer…"

Katara glared outright at the pair chatting just off the end of her bed, ("Oh, that's
wonderful! How romantic!" exclaimed the nurse, and her shrill tone stabbed at
Katara's eardrums) but neither noticed the actual patient in the room.

-until she threw her bedpan at them and declared she really needed to take a shit,
because something wasn't sitting well with her.

It was most likely the pity and attention Jet was currying with the staff who were
supposed to be taking care of her. (Not that she needed much attention at this point,
mostly just observation to err on the side of caution, but it was a matter of
principle.) With that, she threw her legs over the side of her bed and made for the
small door that led to the only privacy she had.

"Is everything ok?" Jet asked her when she eventually hobbled out of the
washroom.

"Just peachy," she muttered. "Are my books here?"

"Of course not, you're supposed to be resting-."
"Why are you here?"

Jet stared at her, confused.

"Why are you here?" she repeated, irritated.

Uncrossing his arms slowly, Jet watched her carefully. "I'm here with you because I
love you, Katara. Proposal, spending our lives together. Marriage, family. That
whole 'deal'. Remember?"
She scoffed.

His brow furrowed, visibly hurt by her dismissal. "Katara, what-."

"Get out." She lay back down on her side, her back to him. "I have nothing to say to
you."

"What has gotten into you?"

She ignored him, and he stepped closer to her bed.

"Katara."

Her back offered no answers, and he pressed on, feeling some irritation himself at
her behaviour and lack of explanation.

"Katara," he demanded, more firmly, and her back twitched.

"I know what you did. I remember, and I know what you did."

Her voice was hollow, but there was more understanding in it than he'd ever heard
in her words before. Not a pleasant kind of understanding, but rather a thorough,
complete, dark comprehension of exactly what he'd been trying to do.

Her spirit was dark, and roiled around the cord; and it was faint, but there was a
reflection of feeling along it that she held out for, that she needed. It came, and it felt
like acceptance. She may still feel ashamed of herself, but the strange connection
that now seemed to be part of her didn't judge her, didn't make her feel like a
victim. It made her feel strong, like she would pull through as long as she held
herself together. And it would help, wrapping itself around her again like a
protective shield.

Jet watched her carefully, realization dawning.

She knew.

She knew what he was.

She knew what he'd done to her.

She wasn't supposed to remember, but she did.

Jet felt the air leave him, his gut cave in as if he'd been punched. Quickly he shut the
door to keep out the prying eyes and ears of the nursing staff.
"I can explain-."
"Get. Out."

"Katara-!"

"I said get out of here, Jet! I never want to see you again!"

"I was going to tell you, I swear," he pleaded now, his voice tight, choked with
emotion at the realizations that she knew. He had no idea how, other than perhaps it
had to do with the accident, but she did. And hell if he wasn't absolutely screwed
right now because of it. This was not supposed to have come to light—not now, at
least. "I've always been what I am, and I had planned on telling you—while we were
here, actually, it's just that I didn't want to bother you while you had your school
work and your family stuff, and-."

"You just needed to rape me and bind me to you, first?"

"I need you, Katara, and it wasn't right, but I was worried if I didn't-."
"What, Jet?"

"…"
"What would happen if you didn't coerce me into…?"
A very pregnant pause, before Jet replied with his worst fear.

"… you… you might leave me."
She laughed darkly.

"Backfire, Jet."

The cord tightened almost possessively around her, and she tugged back in
recognition. Someone or something was with her, supporting her.
She would make it.



"Ms. Kuruk, we need you to cooperate," sighed the radiologist over the intercom

"I am cooperating," you're just being an ass, her tone implied.
"I apologise if I am making you uncomfortable, but I am required to ask these
questions. Now, is there any chance you could be pregnant? It's a standard
question."

It didn't help that he was right, and she knew it.
"No," she lied, and her fist clenched tightly. She was alone in the room, no one but
the tech would have heard her if she'd spoken the truth, but she still had a hard
time admitting it to herself. How had she let herself be so…

Her heart panged and her throat closed off a second, but with the next heartbeat
came a reassuring presence that filled and relaxed her, like someone standing
alongside her and holding her hand.

It's going to be all right, it seemed to try to relay. She could almost physically feel the
light touch of lips to her forehead, calming her. Which was impossible, in the
claustrophobic confines of the tube.

Swallowing and trying not to think too much about the implications of her…
hallucinations… visiting her while she was undergoing her CAT Scan, Katara let
out a low breath and, for the first time, reached out herself, mentally, to the silvery,
sentient line that seemed to connect her to something else.

Thank you, she breathed.



She may have woken from her coma, but she wasn't entirely free of it.

At night, she seemed to be more vulnerable to her memories, and to the things that
had transpired while she was… unaware.

Certain memories more than others.

The feeling of warm arms holding her close, or of quiet, inspiring words, or
complete trust and acceptance… Flashes of dark hair or pale skin on her own, or of
thick woods and dark nights and hungers of all manner and kind.

Once or twice, she was sure she'd seen gold eyes, full lips, angular features, but the
veil would always close over her again, preventing her from seeing everything. Even
when she tried to remember the dream-memories later, they were withheld from
her. They seemed… old… as if they'd happened so long ago they were fraying at the
edges, incomplete. But they were part of her. She knew they were.

And some part of her confirmed they were true… just as much as it confirmed that
she had once been someone else. And that she had existed in multiple realms or
spheres, the natural and the supernatural, the living and the spiritual.

She was more than she realized.

And there were more creatures on earth than simple humans.
Her modern self had pushed this away at first, but something had brought them to
the fore and rammed them sickeningly home.

There were also the memories of more recent events—things she was now sure had
happened to her.

Been done to her.

-And by who.

Katara woke up crying through the night for days as more and more came back to
her.

Of becoming dizzy and falling onto a bench on a walk home from the Bomber. Of
some kind of explosion in her apartment; of being… sick? Drugged? Drunk? When
Jet 'proposed' to her, and whisking her away from her friends and family on a
flight. Isolating her from her circle of support.

At that, she'd been angry: at him for taking advantage of her, but mostly at herself
for not seeing through it at the time. (Why had she been so distractible?
Vulnerable? Impressionable? What had happened?...)

But the worst was remembering what Jet had done to her.

The mental, emotional, physical, sexual abuse.

There was no other word for it.

And… when she'd remembered his howling as he'd taken her from behind, bitten
and marked her, mated with her, so many pieces slammed into place. Her 'old' self
supplied the explanation when her 'modern' self balked at the signs.

He was… a wolf.

A werewolf.

And she'd been… He'd… Jet had tried to turn her. Turn her into a werewolf.

Own her.

Seal her.

Destroy her.

She threw up more than one morning, as each time, each dream—no, each
memory—more filtered through to her.
She had never been so ashamed, humiliated, embarrassed.

At least you're yourself again, now, some voice or feeling tried to wiggle through her
haze of indignity, to remind her she was neither defined by events that had
happened around her, nor by assaults that had suffered. It was a male voice, she
realized.

You are defined by your actions and reactions, by how you fight back, by how you
never give up, and always strive to conquer that which challenges you.

I don't know if I can do this, though; she felt herself mentally crumbling.

You don't have to do it alone.

How?

For one thing, the Katara I know would have de-balled any man who ever treated
her like he did.

Against all reason, she laughed at the logical voice in her head, her heart, her soul.

See? Where's the legendary, take-no-shit-or-prisoners, callous, vengeful bitch of a
woman we all know you can be?

Her spirits brightening, Katara took a shine to the inner (outer?) voice which had
popped into her dreams.

She is coming back. She is gathering her strength, she assured him and herself, and
she is coming back.

Good… I've missed her.

Without even realizing it, Katara sighed happily and replied, I've missed you, too.

And when she'd wake she could never remember who it was.



There it was again.

Katara left her eyes shut as she tried to open her senses up to the strange… feeling.
It ebbed, flowed, and retreated.

Then ebbed, flowed, and retreated again.

It was… trying to get her attention?
Relaxing her breathing, she focused on the lingering pull that seemed to tug at her
spirit. It was such a strange thing; she'd noticed it after the accident. More often
than not, it felt like a cord that led away from her to… somewhere else. A
connection. She hadn't been able to figure out where, yet. But she would. She knew
she would. Somehow, someway, she knew this for certain. It was there for a reason,
she just needed to uncover it.

It stretched outward from her, invisible; sometimes, it almost felt like a cloak that
shrouded her. At other times it felt thin, frail; and occasionally it had nearly
vibrated in its intensity.

Jet hadn't made any mention of it, so he hadn't noticed it, or any change in her; and
she couldn't find any medical way to explain it. Though she had had it out with her
nurses and attending physician when she'd first become aware of it.

"What do you mean you haven't run a CT Scan yet?"
"There was no sign of serious trauma to the-."
"Your definition of 'serious' and my definition of 'serious' are obviously divergent,
Doctor," she snapped, reviewing her own chart under his resigned supervision. The
doctor at her bedside chewed the inside of his cheek at her derisive tone. His
expression veered very clearly towards, Fantastic, a back-seat driver.

"Now look at this, it says we were found without vitals – how long were we without
vitals? We were underwater! Do I really need to explain to you what happens when
a human being goes without oxygen? In winter? Under water! Brain death,
hypothermia, sound familiar? Get me a CT Scan, a visual acuity assessment, and for
spirit's sake some decent coffee. Also, I'll be needing the results back from my most
recent blood tests."

"Anything else, doctor?" he asked blithely.

"Actually, yes," Katara looked him in the eye, her gaze assessing. "A tooth brush.
Hospitality may have one."

"Yes, they may."
She narrowed her eyes at him, and he threw his hands up in the air.

"All right, all right, we'll get you a tooth brush."

"And a CAT Scan!"

"And a CAT Scan…"

The doctor left as she huffed.

Ebb, flow…
Ebb, flow…

Ebb, flow… ripple?

Katara's eyes widened.

Was this feeling… the cord… had she done something to… amuse it?



There were children laughing at the side of a lake, chasing and splashing each other
in the shallows…

The scene changed, and she was now looking through the trees of a thick forest, the
sounds of birds and wildlife surrounding her and her party of foragers. She'd joined
them to collect more of the fresh herbs and flowers she needed for her altar. One of
her companions called to her, laughing, and she turned to look at a woman with
long, dark hair, almond-shaped eyes, and beads woven into her hair…

And then she was the one at the river bank in the sweltering summer heat, her arms
lifted, her sleeveless tunic twisting, and shifting gracefully around her, calling and
flowing with the water where she wanted it to go. A deep breath, a low exhale, and
she'd created a perfect ice ramp for the children to slide on—into the water, with a
tremendous splash. She laughed along with them, making a few more of different
heights for them to play with, including a few small pucks for them to skim across
the water. While she was a priestess, she was still a child at heart, sometimes, too.

When the next scene faded into focus, she felt male flesh mending together beneath
her fingers, the healing glow spreading deeply into his tissues. Pale skin, dark hair,
gold eyes stared back at her, piercing her, and she felt her breath catch. This man,
who was-

Katara? Katara, are you there?

The voice broke softly through the scenes and while gentle, it demanded her
attention.

You need to wake up soon, my love. We miss you.

Maybe later, she thought drowsily, wanting to return to the happiness she'd felt as
she'd enjoyed the memories. She wanted most of all to return to that last one, to
what she'd been about to remember. It drifted further out of reach, and she felt
frustration, and strangely, longing, mounting within her.

There was a small sigh, and another attempt by the intruder.
Would you like to see your old home?

Yes! She replied cheerfully. Would the golden-eyed man be there? She'd hardly had
a chance to look at him, but he seemed so… familiar… important to her.

And her summer dwelling, the light canopy, the altar, the offerings and beautiful
fabrics that surrounded her rose to her senses. The smell of the incense, the feel of
the pelts under her feet.

I've missed this, she smiled.

Are you ready to come back yet?

No, not yet, she replied.

What about your family?

Yes, please! Can you show them to me?

So he did, and her father, smiling gravely at her as he patted her hair, appeared
before her, still in the summer camp. A group of hunters were returning with their
catch, and he went to meet them so they could present their bounty, and she gave a
small nod of welcome to the men.

But then the scene changed, and different people, an entirely different scene
appeared.

Her heart beat harder at the unfamiliar familiarity that arose within her.

Who are these people? She looked at the petite, dark-haired woman; the two tall
men, one pale, with tattoos, the other darker-skinned, with longer hair.

These are your family, too.

She swallowed, and her heart struggled to understand. She felt the truth of it, but
it wasn't making any sense. What about her family, her father, from her village?

They miss you, too, the voice said. They're your family, too.

I don't want to go back yet.

I know, he sighed sadly.

Who are you?

I'm waiting for you, he replied instead. I will always wait for you.
There was a pause, and the voice seemed to be further off. It's coming time.

Next there came a tremor, and her peace and contentment started to fray at the
seams.

What's going on?

A bad feeling was closing in on her, and she mentally… reached… for him,
instinctively seeking him out.

There was a flare of feeling around her at that, and she startled.

You're getting there, he encouraged, proud of her. You're almost there! You can do
it!

I don't like this, she admitted, suddenly feeling sharp, cold fingers snatching at her,
dragging her away.

Focus, you'll be ok. I'll stay with you. I promise.

Who are you? She begged now, the tearing at her person frightening, terrifying her.
She couldn't see anything anymore, only feel.

You are needed where you are—but I'll stay close.

Wait!

I promise I will be with you. Always, my love.

No!

There came a rushing, high-pitched wailing, and suddenly she was dropped from a
very high place.

Her eyes flew open.

"Katara!"

"Ms. Kuruk!"

"Katara, my child, you're awake!"

Completely disoriented, Katara stared around her as the room swam starkly into
focus.

White walls, thin bedding, green uniforms; a hospital room?
And then, expectant expressions on each of the faces that loomed over her.

She was the patient?

A pair of strong, warm arms suddenly embraced her, pulling her up against a firm
chest where a heart beat wildly against her cheek. "You're ok, you're really ok! Oh
thank god, thank god…"

A name floated to her lips. "Jet?..."

And then the strangest thing: though she couldn't figure out why, she couldn't help
the feeling of disappointment that crashed down upon her at the realization.

Tears streamed down Jet's face as he rocked Katara back and forth, oblivious to her
regret.

Even stranger still, though, was the slight hum and warmth that resonated from
within her… outwards. Just saying hi, and welcome back, it seemed to casually
imply. Then it faded into the background—or was pushed there, as she was
swarmed by medical personnel, Jet, and Bato, too.

"What the Hell just happened?" she demanded, looking wildly at those gathered
around her. Had anyone else felt that… hum-thing?

"Oh, it'll be ok now, honey," shushed a nurse, completely misinterpreting her
words.

"The fuck it will," she muttered, -still unnerved by the 'hum-thing'- glaring at her.
"And what are you doing?," she snapped next, coming back to herself and her
medical instincts. "That pressure cuff needs to be a lot snugger if you want an
accurate reading; you, over there by the drip, you can turn that thing off right now,
get me some real food. And where the hell are my notes? I have work to do. I'm
going to need a much sturdier side-table, and at least another lamp…"

"Oh, she's definitely fine," assured Jet with relief as he smiled brilliantly at the
perplexed medical staff.

"Is this a freaking bedpan under my ass!"

"Juuuuuust fine," repeated Jet. He was so obviously on cloud nine, he simply
ducked when she hurled the offending object out of the way.

"Somebody get me a coffee! And my research!"

And a psych assessment, maybe, if this hum-thing didn't go away within the next 24-
hours, she decided to herself. But she wasn't going to share that concern just yet.
She felt a shiver go up her spine when the hum-thing seemed to… tingle at her in…
was that, 'anticipation'?

"What was in that stupid drip?"



Jet looked up at Bato, the doctor hovering nearby, and then returned his bruised
gaze to Katara.

"She's going to come out of this soon, right?"

"We just don't know, son."

"But… we were going to get married… We were planning our family… She was so
excited about coming home…"

He hadn't left her bedside since he'd regained consciousness, and the entire staff
had waited and watched his suffering, unable to console him without filling him
with false hope.

Squeezing her limp hand for the thousandth time that day, Jet shook his head, his
eyes glowing fiercely. "She's strong. She'll pull through. I know she will."

Behind him, Bato and the doctor exchanged concerned looks.

So much hung in the balance, so much depended on her, so many of his plans rested
on her shoulders. He'd put so much time into her, she had to come through.

Without her, he was dead.

He needed her like he needed air to breathe.

Literally.



The truck came out of nowhere—the white-out conditions having hidden it perfectly
until the moment of impact.

And the worst part was, it was so big compared to their vehicle it probably hadn't
even registered the side-swipe that sent Jet and Katara careening back across the
road, through the guard rail and down the embankment into the water.

Already unconscious, Katara hadn't noticed when they'd plunged through the ice
and started sinking into the frigid waters.
But Jet had felt it all.

The first hit had thrown him sideways, when he'd hit his temple; the crash through
the rails had him grunting; but the slow drowning had been terrible. His lungs had
screamed for air even as he'd shivered from the rising waters. The engine had
sputtered and died, the lights had gone out, the fuses blown, the battery and engine
bay flooded. Their vehicle had become a tomb, cold, dark, impenetrable and
inescapable.

Physically, he wasn't faring much better than their SUV.

Immortal werewolf that he was, it didn't mean he was impervious to pain.

The doors were jammed shut, dented from the multiple impacts; as the water had
engulfed them, he'd thrown himself over and over at it, pulled Katara into his lap
and tried to revive her, smashed at the windows, screamed for help (more for her
sake than his) all to no avail.

Soon, her pulse had fluttered and died, as the water reached the ceiling.

He'd passed out not long after.

And the next thing Jet remembered was a bright blue light.

"K-k-ka-t-t-a-a-r-r-r-a?"

Shuddering uncontrollably from the cold, he'd struggled to open his eyes, but could
only catch glimpses of the scene.

Firstly, they weren't underwater anymore.

Secondly, there were lights—or at least a bright blue glow all around him.

Thirdly… it kind of felt like they were floating.

"K-k-katarrrra," he tried again, and his eyes opened enough to look around him…

… out over the forest treetops.

"—the f-!"

Still trembling, he'd pulled himself up from his slump across the front seats—and
realized Katara was gone.

He was in a floating car, and his fiancé was AWOL.
Ohhhhhhhh, this was a bad night, all right.

"Katara!"
"Here."

The voice hovered from outside the cracked window.

Slowly Jet turned and felt his eyebrows raise into his still-dripping hairline, while
his heart dropped into his stomach.

Oh.

So that was the source of the blue glow.

And that also answered where Katara was.

And that probably confirmed he had a serious head injury.

Hat trick.

From atop a cyclone of water that stretched from the lake below all the way up to
wrap around her legs, Katara floated beside him in the air, exuding the azure light
which wrapped around her, around the car, and himself, too. Her hair whipped
around her in the wind, the snow obscuring Jet's visibility, but he could see she
was… breathing.

He was going to ignore the floating-over-a-column-of-water thing for now, he
decided.

It was then Jet noticed he wasn't severely hurt at all – a bit bruised, perhaps, but…
he was able to breathe again.

"What's going on? Katara? Can you hear me?"
She nodded, her eyes seeing right through him.

It gave Jet an eerie feeling when those ancient, knowing eyes passed over him.

Those were the eyes of more than his Katara.

Those were the eyes of a Spirit.

"Hang on," she mouthed to him.

And then dropped the car back onto the icy ground.
Jet blacked out again a moment at the impact (why she'd done that after reviving
him, he had no idea; it almost felt… petty), but when he awoke again, it was to a
blazing blue-green glow that blinded him.

Reflexively he snapped his eyes shut against it, and after a few moments it petered
out; it was then he heard the sirens in the distance.

Looking to the side, he noticed Katara's door was gaping open, mostly hanging off
the side of the SUV. He crawled toward it, and tumbled free of the wreck, searching
for her.

In his still-weakened state, he didn't make it far.

But he'd seen Katara, sitting lotus-style on the top of the embankment, just as she'd
tumbled forward.

Then he'd blacked out again.

TBC.



Many thanks to sharkflip for being a sounding board for this chap. (It is unbeta'd,
though, so please let me know if you catch any mistakes!)

This chapter posted December 25, 2010. Have a great holiday, all!

				
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