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28 October 2008 @ 11:40 pm
Lulling in the Moths  
Title: Lulling in the Moths
Pairing: Zuko x Katara, Zuko/Ursa
Fandom: Avatar the Last Airbender
Genre: Angst, Tragedy, Backstory (half of it)
Rating: R
Word Count: 4,347

**A/N: After years since writing this fic, I've decided to come back to it and do some minor editing. Oh and some very overdue explanations on the more confusing bits. This story was written for "6 cocktails," which is why each of the six sections are named after a drink. But the ideas and imagery were derived from a dream. So I sacrificed cohesive thought-process and narration to try to evoke that dreamy state. Nothing is supposed to make sense. Everything is supposed to be questioned. And ultimately, nothing is real. The characters are distorted because they're caught in a dreamworld where small, dark parts of them are stretched and aggrandized. It's like a playground of madness.

Warning: Oedipal connotations, experimental writing, discontinuous chronology, general WTF.



Lulling in the Moths

"WE are the moths and they are the firelight, the candlelight, the forever-light. The light that can never wane and calls to our blood."

01. Corpse Reviver

…my nerves have been screaming all these nights…
—bad and tried—
they've been writhing, short stop, in my skull

These are supposed to be the happiest days and times of his life. When nothing matters. And the expanse of the sky the earth the rolling breaths of force are stashed away (in secret) but available. At his fingertips. And he can just dig into himself, claw those secrets out and finally, finally, do something with himself.

With his life.

Because now, Zuko's been there and been the corpse, been dull and agonizing and thinking of fire and blood. He's dealt blows and had them suffered onto him. But now, Azula's slaps and stings don't resonate so much anymore. Her trenchancy's been truncated. Her―

Nothing matters. Except for himself (for once). He can think, can be and act and just live as himself. Not as a week-old carcass, piled one-by-one, on top of the others. Like royalty, even in death.

"To health!" Katara hugs him close (he feels weird, being so secure―and it shows).

"To wealth!" Toph adds (just because she could).

"Yes and yes," he agrees.

It feels nice (and weird but he's not thinking of that) playing the host. And watching them, observing them from his vantage point (his hallucination that comes creeping out in the dark). It is satisfying, is rewarding. In some strange, inexplicable sense.

And for the first time in what must've been forever, Zuko thinks this is life. Or what life is supposed to be.

Cheerfully, he takes another drink, the one that Sokka held proudly like a new papa or hunter. He has a glistening in his eyes that does not go away, and it's catching on quick. Zuko returns with a flourish of his own. They are happy, they are content. This is like their own happily-ever-after. There are no annoyances, no unwanted surprise.

"That's the first thing I'll ban, in my new position as Fire Lord."

Around them an uproar rises, a great laughter spreading wide. Like some zany muse had just come to life. The tension is sucked out and made into its very own noose.

02. Escape Router

it's like you can bend yourself over backwards
these are my mother's words
they resound from your mother too

Ursa thought she had just done a marvelous thing, an unconquerable thing, a thing that no one would ever discover and stab her with. She had covered all her weakest spots, saved Zuko for last (saved her dearest, most beloved treasure to be buried—where he will remain intact). And now, Ursa realized: she really did have it all figured out.

Better than Ozai, better than Azulon, better than any of them. Because Ursa escaped, untangled and ecstatic. Her fingers are spades, making rivers of silt and blooming flowers. Where they touch, Ursa can resurrect life.

And now that she's no longer "Princess", she can play as anyone she wants. The maid, the slave, the blade, the anything.

Ursa liked to think of herself as infinite—

Infinity that sought (and taught, numbers and riddles and twiddling thumbs to the children here).

"Where can I go to find a strong cup of tea?"

Ursa turned around and smiled at the stranger, her face twisting up benign and sweetly. (A reminiscence, she thought. But reminiscences weren't real and exact. They were little white lies people told to keep the lonely out.)

"Tea? Here, of course, best in town—only in town."

The stranger tossed her head back and barked out a laugh, a harsh, shuddering sound that blew like cold air. A chilliness that killed to the core.

"Then I'll have the finest you have at hand."

"Why certainly, Stranger."

"Stranger? Me, no. I've been around. Old as the ocean existed. I've been on this earth since the days could remember. I've roamed over every pebble and weed."

"Is that so? What a coincidence then. So have I."

The two women looked at each other, pondering faces (blinking between eyes, the grave markers of their enemies). Ursa was the first to shift aside, let the tea inundate the cups and her open thoughts. Some memories (realizations) were better served dry and alone.

Unequivocally asked and unanswered.

Because there was something stranger than stranger about that woman. Like her gnarled hands caked with ashes and dust (when there was no fire) and the deeply-set blue eyes she had. And her skin. The slashes that interlaced over countless sores and stories, like a life that's been trimmed all too soon (full of hate and loss).

"What a small world this is," said the stranger. She winked, one last time.

--

Kya's journey had come to an end: she stopped and looked over her back, saw the picked-kicked swirling dust her feet left behind.

She was thrilled, it's been a journey of ten thousand miles. And now, there was time to rest, for a little while. And time to contemplate, to recall all that was lost and about to be—

Lost. In transition, in translation. Like how she grew a stu-tter sometimes.

Like her family, like her life (nearly). Her children were part of the perpetually unwinding and rewinding play-by-plays she had put aside, as were her husband and cousins and everyone. So it's peculiar, this sensation she had, sitting here in the desert and burning from the sun, and thinking of arctic winds and how refreshing they used to be.

Kya hoists her bag higher on her shoulder, digs out the last of the tea (that pale woman gave) and takes a long, long sip. Like some magician casting a spell, she is whisked away.

A journey of ten thousand miles, a journey finished: here, on the brink of Ba Sing Se. (Kya fumbles for her documents, just in case they asked.)

Subconsciously, she wonders what souvenirs to purchase (to take home) for her children. And consciously realizes: she's not a mother anymore.

--

"I can tell a person's past from looking at her feet."

Kya nodded slow and deliberately. She studied the speaker cautiously. The dress and robe were ornately sewn, by a master and designer, full of grace and gold. This was someone born and aged in wealth. This was someone looking for a reverie from the heat, someone who wouldn't remember Kya's face after the afternoon's sun had perished.

"Yes, so can I," Kya responded.

"I know, but I can really tell where you are from. Not just the general region. My daughter just began her earthbending lessons, and she relayed back to me a lot."

Daughter. "I had a daughter too, a long time ago. She's probably ten-years-old now."

"Really? Does she live here? Is that why you are in Ba Sing Se?"

"No, but she is happy. And that is all that matters."

"I'm glad she is okay. There have been many tragedies recently, some are blaming them on the Fire Nation's new Lord."

"Yes, I imagine it so."

And she left it at that. There was nothing more to be said, not when all the understandings and knowings had been made perfectly lucid. There was a tie lacing all the mothers into a neatly styled web, and Kya could tell: this woman was no fool (just the fabrication of one).

03. Liberator

…make what you will, of this ill
ugly-made mess
because I can see no wrong; not in this
not when I am reaching free

When he cannot sleep, which is often (especially now), he takes a sip and a gulp and drowns out the world's noise and joys in wine. He likes to think that he's become an epicure as of late, someone distinguished…someone more. Maybe his grandfather, the not-insane one.

And when his nerves fail him, he thinks that delirium is just as good. And orders the stand-by to list off some random praises. Befitting, he recalls, just like all of them—of that his lineage promised and more and much, much—that which never ends.

All of them (and him) Fire Lords, sovereign in the most degrading definition.

Like a shadow slithering across the floor (a charcoal, deadening, creepy thing) he's somehow managed to lock fingers with hers. And she is surprised, is bug-eyed at this, this advance.

Because it's something that's never been said, never been touched, never supposed to be let loose.

Her skin is radiating from the sweat, a dusk-red brown matted over by anticipation and white. He can see her eyes, blue and bottomless like an oceanic abyss. And in them, he sees his reflection and mania.

"I can hear your lips mouthing the words."

"What are you talking about?" she asks, suspicious.

"Why did you leave me?"

"What are you talking about?" all-the-more insistent.

"It's in the blood, I know. But it's your blood too! Doesn't that make a difference? I just…I just want an explanation."

"An explanation of what? I don't understand what you're…going on for."

He finds his hands tightening on her arms, thinking that the streaks he's leaving will be quite pretty in the morning. And he's got a hungry, yearning look on his face. And she is really, really scared now (the resemblance is uncanny and the noose has been taken out, out of the cranny and rabbit hole). And this is when she realizes she's breathing too hard.

"You're drunk," she says.

"I know, so are you."

"No, I'm not."

"I don't care either way anymore. If I let go, I think you'll disappear again."

So, it was a terrible collide when he drooped (looped and crashing in his stupor) his arms and his chest and fell into hers instead.

Her hair is mussed and therefore (thereby, thus) she can't think straight. The hair is down, rippling in patterns around her neck, and her neck—perspiring—is aching and holding down a momentous guilt.

Like mother (and a lover) she strips him of his burdens (and thoughts) and puts him to sleep. And wonders why the night is so long in the wintertime.

Outside the window, near the frosted fire, the moths are playing and dancing (they mock). Their grace is undermined by their commonness. She can relate all too well to something like that.

--

"Does it hurt?"

"No, and stop asking that. It's weird and embarrassing."

"Why? What have you got to be so embarrassed about?"

"Adultery."

The world goes silent at that.

--

Her brother spots them together one day, an incident—or accident that he'd like to have buried and skinned—and thinks about calling them out. But realizes that would be stupid, that would be suicidal, that would be telling the Fire Lord he is going to die.

So, the brother purses his lips and halts, and in his motionless seething, he spies another person walking. And like a sneering twist of fate, he is off the hook (someone's already done his dirty work).

I can attest to that, he remembers his father saying that, once, a long long time ago. And he remembers the color of his mother's thigh, and the texture, and the awkwardness in his face. And how every time she kissed him after that, it felt like betrayal (on his part).

But the kissing didn't stop and eventually, they felt right. Some here, some there, some gentle pecks on his chubby cheek. She is a mother through-and-through. (It's just weird of him to ask who she is and seeing her incarnated in his sister—that too, too chilling.)

--

The next day, there is an authentic suicide, and the villa is left shuddering in the wake. The person, it is said, can mirror a woman's curse.

04. Lady Killer

…I did something bad on this day…
(november the sixteenth)
I think I killed a lady
when she was walking away from me

He stuffs her of primroses at dusk and orange blossoms at dawn. He does this without hesitation, without discretion. They are desperate (his actions) and look like flourishes of sweeps of swipes of razing heat coming down.

The teas are made and drunk by twelve noon and remade to be bathed in by twelve at night. The ritual goes on, for days without stop.

She has grown immune to this, this torture, this strangling she calls love. Except, with him, it's an earnest to live, and so, she can at least reassure herself of that. If nothing more (if nothing really doesn't matter anymore).

In the heralding mountain that crawls closer inch-by-inch, scoot-by-scoot, every year, she and he can relax and live statically in content. The mountain tells of all things that happened and will, and it tells a deathly secret late in the twilight.

And she and he listen (as always) intently to the wisdom it brings. So, that's where the sacrifice comes into place, a stalking, lineal illusion her heart is sore over.

"My throat burns; stop it."

"Sorry," he remarks offhandedly (with a face that reeks concern), "You're just so damn pretty."

She shakes her head but smiles. "I am two hundred years old today. And you are almost a thousand. We are far past beauty."

"Beauty is like wine, the older it gets, the more exquisite."

"Well, well, aren't you feeling poetic tonight?"

"I see you have your daughter's strange sense of humor. She's very pretty too."

She frowns. "My daughter is too young."

"Then think of me as an incubus."

"I'll think of you as the devil, think of you as you really are."

"If that's what you want," he chuckles.

She laughs too, relents just a portion, a margin, just one slight at a time. And soon (maybe) she will be reduced to a particle, one in a million other dust-beads drying in the air.

--

One morning, the village below the mountain is eaten up, shriveled up. The people are dying (and there is no reason—no massacring or revenging half-god anymore). And they are scared, shaking in their huts and whimpering day and day. There is no reason. The war is finished. But they are still dying.

"Pack up," he demands suddenly.

"What?" she responds, a bit shaky and listless (the morning after).

"We have to get going, unless you want to stay. Unless you want to wait for them to have your head."

"You tell me right now, what did you do?"

"Something bad."

She gulps the lump in her throat down (been there—known—all along). "It's the disease, isn't it? You were…who…"

"Shh! Yes, okay? Now hurry up and let's go."

"You really are a lady killer," she sighs and begins to dress.

--

They are caught on the third day, trying to sneak into Ba Sing Se. He is taken in for interrogation and she is told to find board somewhere (an accomplice, they explain, will be treated generously if she does not run away).

"Wait!" she yells out, is finally frantic enough to act at last, "I want to see my son!"

And the guards laughing. Silly, feverish (feeble) old woman. Who is her son? No one. Just some kid who died in the war.

--

Toph's mother is now a widow, a resigned one residing in the Earth Kingdom's capital. She has met an interesting man, a teashop owner a few streets away.

"The best jasmine tea in all the world, specially grown and cultivated. The best."

"Your boasts are getting more and more ridiculous by the day."

"Boasts? Bah! They are true. Try some yourself, and then tell me who is boasting."

She agrees and takes the cup from him, takes a sip, and is amazed and feels her mouth curling up in a smile. (However tentative, it's still a start.)

"Well, I was wrong. This is good, superb. The best I've ever tasted."

Iroh laughs heartily, with his belly rising along to the beat. "I told you so, madam."

She sits in peace and waits for someone to appear.

Cautiously, like a solider on a reconnaissance (a slick glance she's picked up during the war), she scans the room and Lo' & Behold, she sees someone interesting. Someone she's met years ago, back when they were both relatively young and pretty and thought the world was theirs for the taking.

"That woman over there, do you know her?" she asks.

Iroh turns and looks and a jolting shock spreads wire-like throughout his body. His veins are on fire, and his mind is whirring and rotating at a hundred-thousand rate. Mechanically, he nods slowly.

"It's been a while, Ursa."

One of them said.

--

A few weeks into her stay, Ursa decides to visit.

Her son is sleeping restlessly in not-his bed, and a stab is ripping into her heart. She smiles at his baby-soft breaths and murmurings. She takes her worries and regrets and packs them away. So he will never know, so he will think of her as some alternating spirit who had never been real.

His hair is growing in tufts. And that by itself makes her want to flee, makes some unfamiliar, almost vanquished feeling stir.

She leans over and touches his face. And watches as the skin is trapped and fogs under glass-tips.

--

In the deep reservoirs of his conscience, he can still picture her face. A perfect oval, a perfect mouth, nose, and lips. The lips—they were the most beautiful part. Round and supple and lush with blame.

And when Katara leans over to kiss him in the morning, Zuko remembers those lips.

"Hey," he whispers back, groggy and ruing the loss of dreaming in the place of day.

He puts away his nighttime musings. He likes how killing a memory is like killing the lady herself.

05. Damn the Weather

…these winterclouds and winterroars…
they deafen my thoughts
they murder my soul
they bring me the life-death
binding

She struggles in the water, her feet tripping and fretting for the next moss-covered rock. She cuts her toes, her heels, she grasps for a ledge (to hang-dangle from).

She is practically submerged to her knees when Sokka pulls her out.

"What are you doing, crazy lady? What're you, trying to drown?"

"Of course not. I slipped."

"Yeah, whatever, lady."

He releases his hold and shrugs and continues to walk toward the make-shift hospital.

--

"What's going on, eh?" Toph plops herself down on a spare chair and kicks her feet promptly onto the table.

Katara sighs, not bothering to look over. "I don't know. Some illness, I think. It's weird, too…abnormal. I've never seen anything like it. The symptoms, rapid and painless but not lethal. Which is weird. And the patients. They're just lying there."

"Feeling a bit under the weather?" Toph jokes.

"Ha, you can say that again. And His Royal Highness is getting real antsy about this."

"Yeah, no kidding. Well, how 'bout it? Whatcha gonna do?"

"Nothing. I'm at my wits' end."

"We're all at our wits' end, Sugar Queen."

"Will you stop calling me that?"

"Sure, once you stop being one."

Katara tosses Toph a frown and goes back to her secret work, pulling at bandages and scabs and digging deep into the roots of human tendon.

--

Ursa drags herself into the tented interior, shuffles on her feet, and begs for support.

"Help," she mutters and drops down dead (gorgeous). In misery, in sharp-smarting aches, she grabs onto the girl's robes and drags both of them down—into the gutter where the muck takes over.

The swaying silk turns into silt and carries their bodies into the rushing, lulling waters.

--

"Go get Zuko."

"Why?"

"Tell him…tell him his mother is dying."

--

The hatred of rain consumes like the vindictive saturation of a strong healing cleanse. The drops mix and churn and turn into humid solutions with rage and drape over the cities, the people, the sly, sleuthing movements.

Her steps become sluggish and tramp-like, trekking through the mud and incessant torrents and bodies of people sickening in on themselves.

"Don't worry. I'll be there soon. It'll be fine. You won't die. You won't die."

--

"I'll tell you who did this if promise not to hurt him."

Zuko glares at his mother. "You mean to tell me that it's been sabotage this whole time, that when I find the culprit I shouldn't punish him, that it's okay for a murderer to be let loose?"

"He is all I have left in the world."

"You should've thought of that before allowing him to do this."

--

The execution is brief and private.

On that night, Zuko drinks himself into oblivion and breaks every damn vow he's ever made.

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry."

But Ursa still doesn't get it. That he had to die.

--

The storms start up the next morning, washes away the bloodied streets (and cutting hands). They purge the city (the villa, the courtyard) of their drunkenness, their lassitude, their nonchalance, their anger and frustration and unforgiving turns-of-the-head.

They grow into a shroud that suffocates and preserves and turns the mortals immortal. In the post-series of a draining tempest, time stops and the ages of passing do not matter. In the post-series of un-caring, there are no real consequences.

Ursa curls into a fetal ball next to him. He wings his arm to cover their shaking shoulders and lets her cry rivers and puddles onto him.

She holds on tightly and scrunches her eyes and rambles out jumbles.

"I'm supposed to be the mother here," she laughs.

Her hand (left) cups his face and pulls him in for a kiss.

Zuko grins stupidly (and pretends they are both "someone else").

--

Katara jots down the events that occurred (as of late) and yawns as the light flickers and threatens to die out on her. And for the first time, she wishes she could firebend and set the world to flames. That would brighten the day.

She sees them down the hall, the sliding door ajar, a glimpse into a hideous, hellish sanctuary. Sweat streams down her forehead in grains and coats.

Her stomach rumbles like thunder and her eyes darken over in lightning flashes, and she topples over in hot-lashes.

Eleventh Month, the Sixteenth Day—

A mother, a lover, a boy &…etc.

06. Twice as Nice

…I've turned over…
I've become twice as nice,
doubly dubiously dubbed nice
I've really changed my ways
(I only lie now, half the time)

Ursa departs (planning to, at least) early when the household is still asleep, not yet waking to the world's brutalities. She gathers her things and slips out the door, slide—the screen goes shut, out—she steps to meet (what was once called) Future.

She's been emptied of any and all thoughts, been pardoned of any mishaps on her part, by the royal—by the bundle—by the boy she's unchained. Ursa takes her hand off her heart and places it onto the satchel (flakily assembled) and—

"You're Zuko's mother, aren't you?"

"What? Oh yes. And you must be Katara." Ursa tries to smile (at an implacable face, her courage wavers).

"Yeah. Where are you heading off to?"

"Somewhere I have to go."

"You'll break his heart…again."

"I know. But that can't be helped."

Now, Katara gives a smile. Not big and hearty, not wide and cheery. Just a little up-tilting and some dimple-dents.

And Ursa leaves (finally and relieved). They've come to a mutual understanding: one was enough, for anyone to have on his plate.

--

"Where is she?" he whispers, only it's leaking venom.

"I don't know. She went somewhere, didn't say where."

"Is she coming back?"

"No."

A guilty pleasure rises in her throat when she sees his fall. Now they're even, now his mother is forever-gone too. She's no longer—even—ideally there.

She takes him into a long embrace and feels a tear drop—and feels her heart racing from remorseless joy. Slowly, she comforts both of them.

--

She wants to say that it has been years, too long since that fateful day when that lady walked out the door (his life). She wants to say that the years have been good to her, have nourished and replenished and satisfied her. But that would be a lie, and Katara doesn't lie (not much) these days.

And so, she prepares for the celebration in the evening with a half-hearted delight. She strings the lanterns and ices the water. And when she passes her reflection in the pond, she does not flinch, does not beg to turn back time.

She has come a long way in her understanding.

Katara knows her arteries are boiling underneath the thinly disguised cover of skin and sees the squirms and jumpiness in all of them (especially in Zuko and herself). And, best of all, knows there's no way to stop it.

Not with all the healing in the world. They are fighting a losing battle, but at least they know it.

This one needs more red…

--

They sit by the fire, that night, and tell stories and jokes from Long Ago. Toph's are the funniest by far, mainly because they are true insults. And Sokka comes in a close second, even though his aren't really that hilarious.

And they drink—

To everything this time (not just health, to wealth) but to all the sorrows and tribulations and retributions and stunning seconds that have come their way.

After all, tonight is a wedding night, more than a decade overdue.

"Better late than never, right, Sugar Queen?"

And they laugh, for old times' sake. And for letting go (that was the important part).





 
 
 
kaoriz on October 29th, 2008 07:09 pm (UTC)
This was... incredible.
I'm not sure if I fully understood all of it, but it was so amazing.
~Amaterasu~okami_no_yume on October 30th, 2008 06:11 am (UTC)
Wow...this is one of the most disturbingly beautiful things I've ever read.

It was very...ambiguous. I think I got it though, mostly. It's both horrible and beautiful at the same time. I can't quite explain it.

But this is an incredible piece. Like a piece of art that probes at the deepest, darkest depths of one's psyche.

Bah. Words fail me. It was strange, but amazingly well done. I'll just leave it at that.
Y U no auto-translate?lye_tea on October 30th, 2008 10:25 pm (UTC)
Thank you. ♥

I like writing dark undertones, haha.
temp: bug-eyed shocktinisaurus on October 30th, 2008 06:41 am (UTC)
You know you never know what you'll find when you click a link-- and this fic totally left my mind warped. No joke.

I really have no words... maybe 'cause I need to reread this when it's not so late at night and my mind can only understand so much -- but same with the two above me-- I'm pretty sure I comprehended it well enough.

Aside from how... disturbingly gorgeous this was, I gotta say I loved the theme of sacrifice in this; no matter how small the actual sacrifice, there was an immensely huge impact on the character, and seeing how backstory shaped the character in the present-tense was amazingly done.

Also loved how each of the characters have this dark and somewhat perverted and perturbing pleasure inside them-- now that really did me in and made me widen my eyes at how real you made the characters. I was speechless in the twist of Katara's nature-- first time ever experiencing that, thnx 8D

I'm not a certified critic so I don't know if you wanna take what I say to heart but if you want, take it from a satisfied and shaken reader-- this. was. brilliant.
Y U no auto-translate?lye_tea on October 30th, 2008 10:23 pm (UTC)
I'm grinning ear-to-ear reading at your review. Thank you very much. :)

(I tried my hardest to take a different approach on the characters.)
temp: thumbsupbabetinisaurus on October 31st, 2008 04:57 am (UTC)
XD you're welcome! Comments full of fawning are the least you deserve for this rawkin' fic ;)

(and i can tell! Kickass job-- your effort was well worth it)