Unrequited (adj) – not reciprocated or returned in kind.
The sun begins to rise with its pregnant belly, throwing a dim blanket of rusty oranges and soft pinks across their camp. It is still early and dark enough to continue sleeping, but Zuko wakes early – too early – feeling the sun’s power lift him. Despite the dreamless night there’s a heavy rush of adrenaline singing in his veins, humming against skin with life.
He’s ready to rise when he becomes conscious of a comfortable weight saddled up against him. Glancing down, he sees Katara’s cheek pillowed on his shoulder. She must have moved in the night, seeking his body for warmth. She’s fast asleep with her arm draped across his chest. Somehow, his fingers have tangled with hers; the brush of skin on skin sets his every nerve alight and he needs to do a double-take, just to be sure she’s real.
She doesn’t love you, not like she loves Aang. And what if she does? What if she feels the same way you do? What will do? You’ll break her, Zuko. You’ll ruin her, take everything from her, and then what? Apologise?
He swallows hard and feels an unmistakable pain tighten in his chest. She looks so peaceful lying next to him, on him – too delicate and too lovely a woman for a man like him to wake up to.
June was right: she is too pretty for you.
The fire begins to burn inside him and he feels like running. But she is comfortable beside him, using his shoulder like a pillow, and he cannot seem to unfasten himself from her body. The fire in his veins tells him to wait a little longer. He likes the feel of her weight, the cool touch of her skin against his. It calms him, comforts him.
How long are you intending to pretend that this can go on, that you only care for her as a friend? How long before she realises how you truly feel? What then?
But when he thinks of pushing her away, he can’t. It hurts too much reaching for hands that are not there, like reaching for cool, refreshing water to slake his thirst and finding his cup empty. He tortures himself either way, being with her or being without her, and whatever choice he makes will just condemn him all the same. There is no answer that will not end in wreckage for them both.
She murmurs in her sleep, soft sounds against his skin that make him pull her close, despite himself, despite their situation. He will have to be content with the lot that life has given him, and even though he cannot have her, he will protect her from danger with all his being. He will protect her from himself.