He was born under a cursed sign. A bad star. Born on an unlucky day. Or someone had cursed him the minute he emerged from his mother’s womb. Something.
How else is Zuko supposed to explain this constant, life long string of bad luck?
No. Not just bad. Horrendous.
Bad enough that he’s so far away from home. Bad enough that he’s on the run. Bad enough that he has to resort to stealing just to get a scrap of food.
But to stick him with his former enemy? There’s just no other explanation for it. Some being in the universe has it out for him.
From the hostile looks the waterbender has been giving him, he wonders if maybe it’s her.
Zuko watches the ground ahead of him as he walks. He can hear her angry footsteps behind him, can imagine that she’s kicking up flurries of dust with each step, can imagine her ridiculously long braid swinging between her shoulder blades. Can feel the daggers she glares into his back.
Zuko sighs. Maybe he should have just left her there.
No. You’re better than that. Even if she is - was an enemy, you do not strand someone in such a situation.
He glances up at the sky, wondering once again why in Agni’s name she’s decided to follow him. Her group is rarely ever separated; the few times he had managed to get the Avatar alone had been by sheer luck and coincidence, and his friends were never far behind. So it begs the question - why is she trailing after him? And how did she end up alone?
Some colonies in the Earth Kingdom are sketchier than Zuko had realized. Until the Avatar emerged, a good deal of his time traveling had been spent on his ship. But on land, on his own, his feet have carried him over vast distances, bringing him to different towns and colonies. Each time he’s left more disgusted than the last at the behavior he’s witnessed. The soldiers stationed in these places bring shame to the Fire Nation, and their behavior has forced his eyes open, forced him to recognize something he had been reluctant to acknowledge for a long while now: his father had filled his head with lies about their nation’s greatness.
So when he had come across the waterbender fending off two despicable men, drunk despite the sun being high in the sky, there had been no question about whether or not he would help her.
She hadn’t really needed it, she rarely does, but it didn’t stop him from unsheathing his swords none the less.
At first she hadn’t recognized him under the brim of his straw hat, hadn’t known who was wrapped in the dirty and worn Earth Kingdom clothing. The grateful warmth in her voice as she had thanked him, once they’d dispatched the soldiers, was foreign to him; not once in any of their encounters had she used such a tone when speaking to him - with good reason.
Zuko hadn’t wanted to reveal his face, but she eventually ducked under the shade of his hat to properly thank him, and the warmth had drained from her voice with the color in her face. He’d never seen her look so pale.
The ice he was more accustomed to arrived with a swift vengeance.
So it hadn’t surprised him to hear her following him once he’d left, or to hear the demands and accusations she flung at the back of his head. Had her voice always been so shrill?
What had surprised him, though, is how long the waterbender chose to follow him. They’re miles from the first town now, closing in on the next, and she’s still behind him. Somehow, he's managed to tune out her voice.
It takes him a moment to notice that the footsteps behind him have stopped. Warily, Zuko turns to find the waterbender stopped in the middle of the path, arms crossed over her chest. Her eyes are as icy as the blades she is capable of forming.
“You haven’t responded to anything I’ve said,” She points out. “I’m not going a step further until you do.”
The eyebrow he has left climbs high on his head. “I never asked you to come with me,” He shoots back, the corner of his mouth pulling back in irritation. “You were the one that decided to follow me. Why don’t you tell me why, huh? Why aren’t you with your friends?”
The waterbender’s eyes tighten for a moment. She curls her fingers in the sleeves of her tunic. The reluctance in her is clear. Finally, she sighs quietly and lets her shoulders slump. “We.. Got separated. We came across a bad storm while flying. Sokka and I both fell from the saddle, and when I finally got to the shore, I found this town.” She looks away, then back to the boy across from her. “I thought - well - you always find Aang. I didn’t expect to find you here, but.. I figured if I followed you long enough, I could get back to them.”
Something in Zuko’s chest tightens briefly. He looks away. The girl doesn’t know it, but she has added a rather large lump to the weight across his shoulders; a reminder of his continuous failure.
But it isn’t enough to dismiss her and send her away. He supposes it couldn’t hurt to help her at least look; after all, that life is behind him now. And the idea of leaving her stranded when she could run into the same trouble from earlier unsettles him greatly.
It’s reluctant, very much so, but she’s choosing to place trust and faith in him to guide her back to where she belongs, he thinks. She said as much herself, and it’s making him feel... Odd. Uncomfortable. Zuko only knows of one person that would do that. The idea of this coming from anyone else, especially from someone that despises him so much, puts him on edge.
A soft voice in the back of his mind murmurs that Uncle would be proud. He dismisses it.
Zuko turns away from the waterbender and continues walking.
He doesn’t see the perplexed look on her face, but he does hear her footsteps continuing after his after a moment’s hesitation.
The sun begins to set before they reach the next town. Zuko watches the sky. His legs are aching, but it’s so familiar by now that he barely even notices.
But he supposes the same can’t be said for the waterbender.
Her discomfort is palpable, even with the distance between them. He supposes walking great distances isn’t necessary when there’s a flying bison at hand. Her steps sound slow and weary, as though she’s going to give up and collapse into the dirt at any moment.
Zuko begins to look around. They are surrounded by trees now, which must mean a source of water is close by. Perhaps, with a waterbender in his company, they can fish in a lake or river and have a proper dinner. His stomach growls at the thought.
Glancing over his shoulder, Zuko nods for the waterbender to follow him off of the path. He picks his way through the trees, dividing half of his attention to tracking her tired footsteps behind him, and the other half to listening for the sound of running water.
By the time they come across a lake inside of a small clearing, the sun is gone, replaced by a quarter moon. It’s a warm night, but dark none the less, so Zuko crouches down to gather a handful of sticks for a fire. He glances up, eyeing the waterbender.
She’s watching him, all traces of her anger and suspicion gone, wiped away completely by sheer exhaustion. It hits Zuko suddenly, how young she is - younger than him.
“Sit,” He says, voice quiet.
She doesn’t need to be told twice. The waterbender turns away and shuffles to the closest tree. She puts her back to the trunk and slides down until she’s settled into the roots. Her head falls back against the tree, mouth parting on a soft breath that expels all of the tension in her body, leaving her limp and boneless.
Zuko moves his bundle closer to her. He arranges it at a safe distance and conjures a flame. The fire spreads quickly, illuminating their small resting space. Zuko removes the hat from his head and rubs the spot under his chin where the string had been chafing at all day. He can feel the barest hint of stubble under his fingers.
For a time he contents himself with sitting before the flames. Now that he isn’t moving he can feel the exhaustion behind his eyes, can feel the persisting ache of the life he’s been living the last few weeks snaking around his spine.
He allows his eyes to wander to his right.
The waterbender has shifted into a more comfortable position. The exhaustion lingers on her face, but her eyes are trained on the sky. The fire light doesn’t quite reach them; they look pale, like some sort of odd, colorless jewel. It’s clear that she’s wondering where her companions are, if they’re safe.
Zuko allows himself to look at this girl, to really look at her.
When he had first arrived at the South Pole, he hadn’t expected the girl that followed the Avatar onto his ship to become the threat that she is, yet she’s turned out to be one of fiercest opponents Zuko has ever faced. He won’t admit it, not even with a knife at his throat, but this girl has challenged everything Zuko knows about fighting, has forced him to become better in order to keep up with her, because she is the one that has always provided the strongest challenge whenever he's faced off with her group. It's always her that meets him blow for blow, that has improved in spades whenever they meet again.
So it had never occurred to Zuko to see her as anything but a formidable warrior.
But now, out here in the wilderness, against the light of the fire, under the dark sky, she looks anything but. She looks lost, lonely, but what twists at his stomach is the exhaustion in her eyes. It isn’t simply the situation she’s in; this is the kind of exhaustion that’s been with a person so long it’s become a familiar face - a friend, even. An exhaustion Zuko is deeply familiar with.
He swallows past the lump forming in his throat.
Nothing is ever as simple as he wishes it to be.
Clearing his throat, Zuko asks, “Can you - do you know how to fish?”
The waterbender blinks, looks at him. The suspicion and disdain that seeps back into her eyes nicks at an invisible wound in Zuko’s chest, but he waits for her to respond. "Of course I do," She scoffs. She rises to her feet and walks to the edge of the lake, pausing to remove her boots. The waterbender rolls her leggings to her knees and wades into the shallow end of the water.
Curious, Zuko stands and follows her. He stops at the shore, a good distance away from her, and watches the way the waterbender coaxes the water apart. The motion is effortless, smooth. Zuko hesitates, then removes his boots as well. He steps into the water, faltering at the sharp look the waterbender gives him. When he extends his hand and creates a fire in his palm, she watches him for a moment, then allows him closer.
With the light, Zuko thinks he can see the shape of several fish on either side of the water. The waterbender lets it meld back together, watching the surface as she contemplates her next move.
“Where is your uncle?”
The question doesn’t surprise him; he had been hoping she wouldn’t bring it up.
“We went our separate ways. I’m on my own.”
She turns to look at him. The waterbender faces him, a frown on her face, her eyes critical as she looks him up and down. Zuko knows what she is seeing; his threadbare clothing, hanging loosely from his now malnourished body. The planes of his face, made sharper by stress and starvation. Her gaze lingers on his head, and only now does he feel self conscious. It’s been so long since he’s had a full head of hair that he still hasn’t quite adjusted to it, and he can tell it’s an odd sight for the waterbender to see as well.
“What happened to you?”
The honest confusion in her voice isn’t what he expected. Zuko looks down for a moment, watches the water around his ankles, soaking into the ends of his pants. He looks back up to meet her gaze. “It doesn’t matter,” He says, voice hardly above a whisper. “It - you don’t - you don’t have to worry anymore. About me. Chasing you. The Avatar.” He looks away again. “That part of my life is over.”
The silence stretches on for what feels like decades. For a long while, the waterbender watches him. Studies him. Then, she turns back to the water. Zuko watches as she twists her fingers above the air, turning her wrists occasionally. Her brows furrow in concentration.
He inhales a bit when she extracts a fish from the water, inside of a messy, moving bubble of liquid. She turns, carries it to the shore, and deposits the fish on the grass, where it thrashes desperately.
When she joins him again, she repeats her process, but this time, she says, “Katara.”
Zuko looks at her.
“My name is Katara,” She explains, lifting another fish from the lake.
Zuko watches the waterbender - watches Katara turn back to the shore with her catch. For a moment he lingers in the water, focuses on the coolness against his skin. When he steps onto the shore, he crouches and wraps his hands around his pant legs, drying them quickly.
Zuko makes quick work of cooking the fish. He passes one to Katara and they eat in silence, both far too exhausted from their day, from their exchange, from the sheer oddness of their situation, to do anything else.
When she is done, Katara lays down by the fire. She is asleep within minutes.
For a moment, all Zuko can do is watch her. Under the moonlight, while in the lake, she looked otherworldly, ensconced entirely within her element. Now, she looks soft before the light of the flames; young and gentle, nothing at all like the warrior Zuko knows she is. Her eyelashes are surprisingly thick, fanning across her cheeks, creating shadows that stretch about her face. Her shoulders are drawn in, one hand tucked under her cheek as she sleeps.
Entirely different from what he has come to expect of her.
Zuko sighs quietly and stretches out on his back. He watches the stars as he allows sleep to overcome him. As he drifts off, Zuko thinks about the expert flex of Katara’s fingers as she manipulated her element, and how similar it is to what she’s done to him all these months - forcing him to change tactics, to learn more, to better himself at every turn in order to keep up with her.
A formidable opponent, but more than meets the eye.
His eyes open when the sun begins to rise.
Zuko lays where he is for a while, content to simply watch the light begin to filter in through the canopy of leaves around them, and to think about what had happened the day before.
He glances to his left.
Katara is still asleep, settled onto her side. Her knees are drawn towards her stomach, arms tucked to her chest; a stray, broken leaf has tangled just above the metal in her hair, near her temple.
His fingers flex with the urge to remove it.
Zuko rolls to his knees. He stretches his back with a wince and rises to his feet, ignores the rumbling in his stomach. The sun is still rising, but already he feels warm, so he removes his tunic and lets it flutter to the ground as he stretches.
Practicing his bending forms has been the only thing keeping him sane lately. Zuko measures his breathing as he walks himself through the forms. He focuses only on the shift of his muscles, the warmth of the sun creeping across his skin, the steady simmer of the fire in his veins. Some days have felt as though his inner flame is gone, completely blown out by the despondency reigning over him as of late; those days it's a struggle to simply open his eyes.
Zuko loses himself in this ritual as the sun climbs to its resting place in the sky. When he finishes, he feels centered, calmer. Ready to deal with whatever comes his way today.
When he turns around, he finds that Katara is awake and staring at him.
A deep, embarrassed flush rushes across his cheeks and down his neck. She's staring at his torso, brows knit, eyes critical.
"When was the last time you ate?"
He blinks, his flush deepening. "Last night."
He turns away again to grab his tunic, eager to hide from her scrutinizing gaze. Still, he can feel the weight of her gaze between his shoulder blades. As he settles his tunic across his body, Katara moves around him. Her frown remains.
"Zuko, have you - you've barely eaten the last few weeks, haven't you?"
It isn't the first time she's called him by his name. He's suddenly transported by back to the North Pole - trust me, Zuko, it's not gonna be much of a match - but the sound of it in her voice is still odd to him.
Zuko doesn't answer, doesn't want to. Instead, he says, "We should get going. The next town isn't far away. Someone there might have seen your friends."
Katara opens her mouth to argue, but purses her lips and decides against it. Instead, she turns and moves to the lake. Zuko sits down to start the fire. He waits patiently, watching Katara as she fishes. It's fascinating; waterbending differs from firebending a great deal. Her movements, compared to his, are fluid and smooth, almost like dancing.
When she returns, she drops three fish at his feet, and nudges two of them towards him. "Eat," She commands.
Zuko blinks. A small part of him bristles - princes are not meant to be given commands by anyone, nor are they meant to take hand outs - but that part of him is overshadowed by the rest of him, by how dumbfounded he feels at the generosity and concern Katara is displaying for him.
It takes him a moment to find his voice. "Thank you," He murmurs, inclining his head.
The food settles easily in his belly. He eats quickly, faster than one should with company, but the need to satisfy his hunger overrides the etiquette he was taught. Zuko feels far less lethargic, far less sluggish now. He glances at Katara. She is watching him again, her own breakfast finished, the bones discarded beside her. The pity in her eyes makes his stomach churn.
Zuko stands abruptly, wiping his hands on his pants. "Let's go." His voice is a bit more brusque than necessary, but he cannot stand pity from anyone. Settling his hat on his head, Zuko heads for the trees. He can hear Katara muttering behind him as she follows him.
The sun climbs steadily higher as they walk. Katara walks beside Zuko. She seems to have come to terms with their situation and is treating him with far less hostility than he is used to from her. Instead, she is calm as they move along their path, face open to the light around them.
Zuko peeks at her often from under the brim of his hat. It is easy to recognize how lovely she is; her skin is a deep, rich shade of brown that the sun favors. The light plays in her hair, which is somehow darker than her skin, but shines with a healthy glow. Her face is beginning to lose the roundness of youth; she is becoming a young woman.
Zuko forces his eyes to the ground, cheeks hot. He isn't used to being in the presence of women. If Katara is aware of this, she doesn't say so. Instead, she tries to fill the silence intermittenly. Zuko never knows what to say, so he lets her ramble, listens to her instead. He comes to learn that she enjoys the warmth of the sun, but that she still misses the snow and ice of her homeland. Though she misses her companions as well, she is glad to have a break from mending her brother's pants, and from the lemur picking through her hair all the time. She tells him that she doesn't hate it but she could do without eating fish ever again in her life time. That one of her favorite things about her travels has been discovering the different types of flowers that grow in the places she's visited.
She talks far more than anyone he has known, but it isn't as irritating as he might have imagined. In fact, her voice is rather nice to listen to. Through this he learns that she is an optimistic person, someone that can find a shred of good in any situation she's put in.
When they arrive at the town, the sun has reached its peak in the sky. There is a faint flush across Katara's cheeks. Zuko studies their surroundings as they pass the houses on the edge of the village. Many people are already out tending to their farms; others are milling about to chat with their neighbors. They earn plenty of curious looks as they continue on.
They stop when they reach what appears to be a market. Zuko studies the activity, eyes lingering on a stall selling what looks like a sweet drink inside of small black cups. He has no money, so he turns away, moving to study the bulletin board to his left. There are many posters nailed to the wood. Some read in the ancient writing, some in a less familiar font. But none mention anything about the Avatar.
One of them, however, is a wanted poster that has Zuko's face beside Uncle Iroh's. The familiar script details a great reward for their capture, labels them both as traitors to their nation. His jaw clenches. It's tempting to tear the poster down, but that would draw too much attention.
Katara comes to stand beside him and studies the posters. Zuko looks away when she reaches the one with his face, grits his teeth when she gasps softly. He can feel her eyes on him, wide with many, many questions.
"Zuko," She starts, voice quiet, "What happened?"
He turns his back on the board and instead studies the market. He refuses to acknowledge it. That life is behind him now. "We should ask around," He says, "See if anyone's seen your friends."
Katara's irritation at his dismissal is obvious, but she doesn't argue. She huffs, but she turns around with him and nods. Her eyes narrow when she spots a woman struggling to balance several baskets. "I'll see what I can do."
Zuko blinks, and she is crossing the path before he can comment. He crosses his arms and watches warily. It's too far away to hear, but he can see Katara's friendly smile and the way it wins the woman over. He thinks she's offering to carry half of the woman's load. The woman warms to Katara quickly, laughs loud enough for Zuko to hear at something Katara says.
He envies how easy it is for her to win others over. Her body language is open and friendly, no nerves or discomfort in sight, her smile radiant. What would it take for her to act so comfortable around him?
Maybe not trying to constantly capture her and her friends.
He looks up and finds Katara beckoning him over. Frowning, Zuko hesitates, then crosses the path. He stops to let a frazzled man with a surprisingly large crowd of children pass them, then moves to Katara.
The woman looks him up and down with a critical eye. "He's very handsome," She comments. "What's your name?"
Zuko blinks. His mouth flaps like a fish out of water for a moment, cheeks turning pink, before he finally mumbles, "Li."
Katara chuckles and places her hand on Zuko's arm. "I told you, he's so shy. But really, he's a good a man. I wouldn't have accepted his proposal otherwise!"
Zuko chokes on the air in his lungs. Proposal?! He shoots Katara a bewildered look, about to demand to know what in the hell she's talking about, but Katara pats him on the back aggressively, making him cough. "Poor thing," She coos, "He's had so much trouble with all the dust around us lately." She adjusts his hat and steps close, hissing, "Play along!" Zuko can only blink, dumfounded, when she turns back to the woman in front of them and takes one of her baskets. The woman pushes the other at Zuko. He barely manages to grasp it before it falls.
"Call me Qian," The woman says, crouching to grab her third basket. "My husband, Jin, will be happy to have to have the help."
Zuko glares at Katara as they follow Qian out of the market. "What did you say to her?" He whispers, nudging her leg with his knee to get her attention.
She shoots him an agitated glance. "I told her that we're traveling to visit my family to celebrate our proposal." Katara shrugs. "She wouldn't have believed we were siblings. And besides, she said we could stay with them if we help out as payment. We could both use the rest." Her eyes rake over him, critical and judgmental. "Especially you."
For a moment, all Zuko can do is stare at Katara as she follows Qian down the path. He exhales slowly, breathing out steam. He's tempted to refuse, to drop everything and leave the damned waterbender here with her new friend, but when he glances down, he sighs. It's been a while since he's had a mango.
Pursing his lips, Zuko shifts the basket higher in his arms and trudges after the women, trying in vain to tune out Katara's cheery voice.
The sun has set by the time they enter the barn.
Zuko is exhausted. It has been a long, long day.
Qian and Jin turned out to be two people easy to get along with. Zuko remained silent for most of the day, afraid he would do or say something to give away anything about his identity that would condemn him, but they never pressed, easily believing Katara when she referred to him as "the strong and silent" type. But because of that, Jin had declared Zuko would help him with his daily work. It was difficult, at first; Zuko has only ever used his hands for bending or for wielding swords, not for labor. But Jin's teasing was light, and he praised Zuko whenever he picked up on what he was doing.
Many times he had been tempted to quit, to throw his hat down and raze everything in sight - like when the damn ostrich horse had kicked him into a pile of mud, bruising the hell out of his stomach. Katara had come running, and while she'd probed his abdomen to check for internal injuries, she had struggled to contain her laughter.
Zuko thinks about the mirth in her eyes as he follows Katara into the barn. He studies her back, remembering the way she had bit her lip to keep from laughing, only to fail and double over with it. The sound still rings in his ears, loud and unashamed. Enamoring.
He swallows and turns away from her, moving to the pile of straw in the corner. His arms ache as he reaches up to finally remove his hat, rubbing at the top of his head, then at the underside of his chin.
It seems like his body will never adjust to manual labor. But maybe it’s not the labor that’s making his bones feel so heavy. Maybe it’s the knowledge that he is adrift, that there is nothing tethering him to the earth anymore. It sits in the center of his chest, stretched out across his lungs too snugly for comfort; he has nothing to keep his flame lit.
Rubbing his face, Zuko shakes his head once to banish the thoughts. It’s been too long of a day to think about these things. He didn’t spend all morning and all afternoon picking vegetables, tilling the ground, and hauling giant bags of grain around, didn't suffer the indignity of an ostrich horse taking him down, just to lay in the dark and poke around the saddest parts of his mind.
Katara shuffles ahead of him. She kneels beside a trough and takes her time scrubbing her hands and face clean. She glances over her shoulder to Zuko. “Come here.”
He hesitates, then lays his hat down on the straw and moves to kneel beside her. Katara faces him and lifts the water, but he flinches back out of instinct, eyeing her hands warily.
Katara purses her lips. “I’m not going to hurt you,” She insists, “I’m trying to help you get clean again. A little, anyway.”
His eyes narrow, but he says nothing. Instead Zuko holds still. It takes some effort not to dodge again when she brings the water to his face, but he manages. Her fingers are coated in the liquid, which is fascinating in of itself; the water distorts her knuckles, strips the color from her skin. It's an odd sight to see.
Gently, Katara moves the water around Zuko’s face. She doesn’t touch him with her hands, but with the water instead, carefully peeling off layers of dirt.
“You’re so pale,” She comments, “I’m surprised you aren’t red from the sun exposure.”
Zuko grunts. “I grew up in the sun. I’m a firebender. We don’t really burn.”
She blinks, then gives a slightly sheepish smile. “Right.”
When she’s done with his face, Katara eases the water down and around Zuko’s throat. The liquid barely trickles past the opening of his robe, and then it’s gone, moving on to his hands. He does feel better, cleaner; the dirt and grime he’s accumulated throughout the day might as well be a second skin.
When she’s done, Katara dumps the water. She dusts her hands with a satisfied hum. “Better?”
Zuko nods, feeling strangely shy, and looks away. “Thank you,” He murmurs, and stands and returns to the straw.
Katara watches him for a moment. Then she follows.
The prince is stretching out on his back as she kneels beside him, unsure of what to do, but he hasn’t noticed.
The length of Zuko’s back seems to breathe a sigh of relief at the gentle stretching as he settles. His muscles ache, but it’s become a familiar pain at this point. Zuko closes his eyes. He scoops up his hat and places it on his chest, and he listens to the sound of Katara shuffling across the straw beside him. It’s almost soothing, almost enough to lull him to sleep.
He is nearly asleep, but then the straw under him begins to rustle. Zuko frowns, eyes still closed. When it persists, he opens his eyes and looks around. It takes him a moment to realize that the source of the oddity is Katara, and it's because she's shivering.
Zuko glances around the barn. He supposes it's chilly in here; his internal heat often prevents him from noticing a chill unless it's snowing.
He hesitates, then reaches out and touches Katara's shoulder lightly. When she lifts her head to look over her shoulder at him, he murmurs, "Come here."
She gives him a confused look, but she turns over and slides across the space between them. When she is close enough, Zuko lifts his arm to her shoulders, but drops it when she pulls away quickly.
His cheeks flush with chagrin. "I - you're cold," He explains, pushing up on an elbow, "I just - I wasn't gonna try anything, I just - thought - maybe I could - help..." He trails off, letting himself slump back against the straw with a frustrated sigh. Does he always have to mess up everything he tries to do? "Nevermind. Sorry."
He begins to settle again, closing his eyes, but they fly open when he feels Katara settle against him.
She eases out on her side, hesitantly, her stomach lined against his hip, thighs against one of his, and her head comes to rest on his shoulder, against the crook of his neck, arms tucked to her chest. Zuko swallows down a sudden explosion of nerves. His heart jumps about in his chest, which he's positive Katara can feel. She holds herself stiffly for a moment, then gradually begins to relax. "Don't know how you can stand being so warm all the time," She mumbles. Her breath ghosts across his throat; the metal piece in her hair presses against his skin, surprisingly cold. Her hair brushes against the rough edges of his scar. It barely grazes the skin of her forehead.
Zuko doesn't respond. He doesn't think he can. His eyes are wide as he stares at the ceiling of the barn. No one has ever been so close to him. Especially not his left side. Most people can hardly stand to look at his scar, let alone be close enough to touch it like this. He swallows past the hard lump in his throat and releases a carefully measured breath. Zuko eases his arm around Katara's shoulders, fingers trembling as they come around to rest on his hat. He focuses on keeping his body temperature regulated, on not searing holes into his hat.
She fits against him so, so easily.
It takes Zuko a terribly long time to relax. To adjust to holding Katara. But the exhaustion wins out eventually, and his eyes slip closed. He can feel her breathing, can hear it this close, and he allows it to lull him to sleep.
When Zuko wakes up, he squints groggily at the ceiling, then at the closed doors. Sunlight seeps in through the cracks. The sun has been up for several hours now. He grimaces, lifting a hand to rub his face. It's not like him to sleep so long, but he supposes it was warranted this time.
Zuko glances to his left. Katara is still settled in the crook of his arm. She is fast asleep, warm and comfortable in his embrace. His stomach flutters as he takes in the sight. Something about this feels so natural that it claws at his insides, digs into his heart and demands that he acknowledge this, that he understand that this? This is a sight he could stand to wake up to every day.
And it scares him.
But he doesn't move. Not yet. Katara looks so peaceful; her fingers have made their way to his chest, resting just under his heart, and the sight nearly kills him on the spot. He doesn't want to disturb her yet, and he isn't quite ready to let her go. His eyes wander over her face, struck once again by how long her lashes are. There's a natural arch to her brows; her hair smells like the straw they're laying on.
This is only the second chance he's had to properly acknowledge how beautiful she is.
Zuko tears his eyes away. He forces them closed and presses his lips together, recalling his meditations. It manages to calm the flutter around his heart, to settle him into a bearable state of being.
Katara sleeps for a while longer before she finally stirs. She exhales a soft noise as she sits up, and as soon as she does, Zuko rolls away and stands, putting a safe distance between them.
Katara blinks up at him and rubs the sleep from her eyes. "Sorry," She apologizes, voice muted. "I didn't mean to sleep so late."
Zuko shakes his head. "You didn't. The sun hasn't been up very long." He clears his throat, reaching up to rub the back of his neck. His skin feels warm and tingly with nerves.
Katara watches Zuko for a moment. Her face softens in understanding after a bit. She stands and brushes the straw from her robe, picks a few pieces out of her hair, then moves to him, placing a hand on his arm gently. "Thank you for last night," She says, "It was really nice of you."
He looks down at her, feeling his heart climb into his throat, and he nods. "Y-You're welcome," He mumbles, glancing away. He misses the small smile Katara gives him.
"I'm gonna go see if Jin and Qian are up so we can thank them before we leave."
Katara heads for the door, and as Zuko watches her go, he is suddenly, painfully aware of how lonely he has been, of how absent that feeling had been with her so close by. She slips through the door and lets it swing shut behind her, and as it does, the weight stretched across Zuko's chest threatens to cave in, threatens to trap him in this awful feeling. He's hit with the urge to run after Katara, to chase her down for an entirely different reason - to chase the way he'd felt while he held her, the security that came with it.
An unsteady breath escapes him. Zuko presses a hand to his middle for a moment and tries to center himself, but he feels so unbalanced he isn't sure if he'll be able to make it to the entrance without collapsing. What is happening to him?
Qian and Jin are insistent on giving them a few departing gifts. Katara takes them eagerly, passing Zuko one of the bags. He shoulders it and presses his fist to his palm, bowing as he says, "Thank you for your generosity. It is deeply appreciated."
Jin smiles and claps him on the shoulder. "Be careful out there. And bring your kids this way to see us when they come around!"
Zuko manages to stumble over nothing, choking on the air in his lungs once again. Beside him, Katara laughs, and the sound wraps around his heart, squeezing mercilessly. He turns away quickly and heads for the road, wanting nothing more at the moment than to leave. Katara trails after him, waving to their hosts as they depart.
The day is warm, but not unbearable. Zuko feels properly satiated for the first time in weeks, having had three proper meals while with Qian and Jin. Katara walks a pace ahead of him, a slight bounce in her step. He studies her. Watching the sun playing in her hair once again is a mesmerizing sight. Zuko sighs to himself.
"Where are you going?"
Zuko looks up. Katara pauses to let him catch up to her, then falls into step beside him. "I mean, after I find Sokka and Aang," She explains, shifting the bag on her shoulder. He reaches for it without thinking and slips it from her grasp, adding it to the weight he's already carrying. Katara looks at him in surprise, then gives him a soft smile that makes his stomach tighten. "You're headed somewhere, right? I know - I saw the poster, I can guess what that means, but.. You have somewhere to go, don't you?"
Zuko looks ahead. "I don't know," He confesses quietly. When he and Uncle had fought off Azula, had decided to cut ties to the Fire Nation, they hadn't had much of a plan outside finding the Earth Kingdom. Now, on his own, the most concrete plan he's had has been helping Katara find her friends. "I don't know where I'm going. I suppose it doesn't really matter."
Katara frowns at him. "Yes, it does," She insists. When Zuko glances at her, he notices that she has to tilt her head to look up at him. "You have to have somewhere to go, Zuko, you can't just wander around the Earth Kingdom forever. It's not safe for you. Someone could recognize you and then what?"
Zuko presses his lips together. And then that person would turn him in, hand him over to Azula, and he would finally go home, that's what. Except he would return with more shame draped across his shoulders than he left with. The idea alone threatens to steal his breath.
Katara is still watching him. "You could come with me," She offers. "Join me and Sokka and Aang."
Zuko looks over at her, bewilderment written across his face. He snorts and keeps walking.
"I'm serious!" Katara catches up to him, her hand wrapping around his upper arm. He is accutely aware of the shape of her fingers around his bicep. "Aang still needs a firebending teacher, and who better to teach him than you?"
He stops to look at her. She is so earnest in her offer, eyes wide and round with the possibility. They sparkle like gemstones in the afternoon sun. Zuko's knees feel a bit weak.
"Your friends would never let that happen." He keeps walking.
Katara huffs, jogging a bit to keep up with him. "Sure, they would! Aang is really reasonable, I'm sure he'd be open to the idea. And Sokka, well, he'll come around to it eventually."
Zuko sighs, lifting his shoulders. "If I say I'll think about it, will you let it go for now?" He glances at Katara, and she nods, giving him a bright smile.
Agni, what is he getting into?
They travel for three days on their own.
In that time, Zuko learns to be comfortable around Katara. He learns that, for all of her bending prowess, she is full of her own flaws, and it endears her to him all the more. But more than that, she is unfailingly kind, and to be on the receiving end of her kindness this time around is not something he's quite grasped yet.
They split their rations carefully, evenly, and forage for other food. Each night, Katara tucks herself into Zuko to sleep, and Zuko learns to adjust to this, to allow himself to enjoy the close proximity of someone that no longer hates him, but sees him as an ally, maybe even a friend.
Maybe something more. But he is too afraid to properly entertain that thought. The possibility of becoming friends with the waterbender seems too good to be true as it is.
On the fourth day, Katara insists they stop for lunch under the fifth tree they pass. They're closer to the next town, maybe twenty miles from it. There are thick clouds in the sky; they're gray at the edges, but not dark enough to cause worry for a potential storm.
When they reach the tree, Katara exhales loudly and drops to her knees. Zuko eases down beside her and removes the bags from his shoulders. He rolls them, easing the ache out of them, and watches Katara stretch. She lifts her arms above her head and rolls her neck with a soft hum, body arching in one long, lean line. Zuko swallows and looks away. He fumbles for one of the bags to distract himself.
The bags are half way empty. Zuko fishes for the container of rice and sets it out. He passes the canteen to Katara and grabs the other bag, peering inside to see what fruit they have left. "Qian and Jin were really generous," He comments, rummaging through the contents.
Katara closes the lid after she drinks, nodding. "I hope we can thank them properly for this one day." She holds her hands out and Zuko extracts his arm from the bag to place a papaya in her open palms, then reaches back in for the mango he had been looking for.
Katara grimaces, making a disgusted sound. "I hate papaya," She mumbles.
Zuko looks up, and immediately regrets doing so. Katara is pouting at the fruit in her hands, nose wrinkled in disgust. She sighs and her lower lip juts out further, soft and pink and terribly inviting. Everything about the look is horribly endearing, and it's wreaking havoc on his heart.
Zuko can't help himself. He stares at her for a moment, and then he leans in, pressing his mouth to Katara's. He takes the papaya from her hands and replaces it with the mango as he does. It's a chaste, uncertain kiss, but when Katara opens her mouth to gasp, Zuko jerks away. She stares at him in shock, but he turns away, dropping the papaya as he staggers to his feet.
His face is hot, his heart is pounding. He wants so badly to flee the scene, to run and run and run until he doesn't exist and everything about him is forgotten. What the hell was he thinking? His chest is threatening to collapse under the panic that's taking over his system. He feels sick, Agni, that was such a stupid thing to do, she's going to hate him again now, she's going to remind him of how vile and unworthy he is, she's -
Katara moves around him, her fingers grazing his shoulder as she does. She comes to stand before him, and the pink tint to her cheeks weakens his knees.
"I'm sorry," Zuko mutters, looking away, "I shouldn't have - I don't - I don't know what I was thinking, I-"
"Was that - have you ever kissed anyone before?"
Zuko blinks, caught off guard. He stares at Katara for a moment, and then he blushes harder. He starts to move away, wanting to go to the other side of the tree so that he can dig a hole to die in, but Katara stops him. She places a hand on his shoulder and steps closer to him. "It's okay," She assures him, watching him. "I'm not mad. I promise." There's a light in her eyes, making them sparkle in the sunlight around them. His mouth feels so, so dry.
Katara takes another step towards Zuko. She places one hand on his cheek, lifts the other to the left side of his face as well, but he flinches away, and she stays her hand. After a moment, she tries again, and Zuko holds still. Katara lays her hand across his cheek carefully. Her fingers fan out across the rigidity of his scar, her palm resting against the unmarred skin under it, and he feels sick with nerves, feels breathless. He expects her to recoil in disgust, to shove him away and leave him out here in the dirt.
Instead, Katara tips her head up and presses her mouth to his, and Zuko goes still yet again.
Her kiss is firmer than his was, is shy but sure, and for a moment all he can do is simply stand there and let it happen.
Katara kisses him again. She coaxes his mouth open gently, just enough, and she teaches him. She teaches him how to move his mouth against hers. She teaches him to place his hands at her waist, and she teaches him to recognize the feelings breaking through the anxiety - the desire, the warmth bubbling through his gut, the cautious happiness rising in his chest.
One of her hands slides down his chest, and Zuko is overcome with a sudden, fierce need for her touch. He presses a bit closer, kisses Katara again, and she responds with a gentle enthusiasm that steals every bit of air in his lungs. When she pulls away, he follows her mouth, his eyes opening slowly. The sun is beating down on them, but he couldn't care less. He wouldn't care if the sky fell down on their very heads right now.
Katara bites her lower lip. Her cheeks are tinted pink, she's breathing just a bit heavily, and it takes all of Zuko's strength not to fall to his knees, takes everything in him to resist the urge to offer her the mangled mess that is his heart.
Katara strokes her hand down Zuko's cheek, fingers grazing his scar. He can barely feel it, but the touch resonates through him. He closes his eyes and inhales slowly through his nose. Gently, Katara lets her hand fall. When Zuko opens his eyes, he sees her taking his hand. She leads him back to their small camp. Zuko sits down carefully, feeling tremors run through his limbs. He watches Katara settle across from him, watches her fidget with their things, and he picks up the mango once more and takes one of her hands. It looks so small compared to his. He places the fruit in her hand again and sits back, scratching his fingers over his jaw.
This time, he sees the sweet smile crossing her face, and he thinks that maybe he doesn't have to worry about giving her his heart, because she might already have it.
For a while, they eat in silence. Zuko lets the food settle his nerves. When he's done, he fiddles with the skin he had peeled off of the papaya, and he says, "I'll do it."
Katara looks up at him, pausing in her process of re-packing their bags. Zuko meets her gaze. His heart stumbles against his ribs, but he says, "I'll come with you. I'll teach the Avatar - Aang, I'll teach Aang firebending."
The answering smile he earns is radiant enough to put the sun to shame. Katara wiggles over to Zuko on her knees. She throws her arms around his neck, making him yelp in surprise, but he holds her waist, returning her hug hesitantly after a moment. When she pulls back to smile at him again, he isn't sure if he could have said no to her at all.
Katara touches his cheek again. "You're doing the right thing, Zuko," She murmurs. Her eyes are as soft as her voice, but they shine brightly.
Zuko stares at Katara. He wonders how she is capable of this steadfast faith, wonders at how she can hold to this conviction without wavering even once. But he manages a small smile in response, and he drops his head to her shoulder, allowing his shoulders to slump for a moment. Katara hums quietly and runs her hand down his hair. The touch is soothing, like a balm to his wounded soul. She turns her head, pressing her lips to his temple, to the scarred skin there.
Katara lets go first, and Zuko drops his arms, reluctant to let go. But he helps her pack their food up, and he stands with her. She gives him a small, gentle smile before leading him onto the road. Zuko lingers behind her for a moment, watching her as they head for their next destination. How did it come to this? Weeks ago he never could have fathomed that this girl, once his enemy, would be offering him such kindness, would ever consider getting as close to him as she has. And yet, in a matter of days, she has managed to worm her way under his skin, has cracked open his rib cage and has begun to patch up the endless amount of wounds on his heart.
Zuko glances down at his feet for a moment. He supposes Uncle is right; destiny is a funny thing, indeed. Maybe this is where his path is meant to take him.
The others find them two days later.
It is the uproar Zuko expected. Sokka's voice is as shrill as his sister's when he's indignant.
Zuko stands back, watching the exchange. Katara stands between him and her friends, her hands on her hips. She is fiery in her defense of him. Zuko represses a smile. Sokka glares at him over Katara's head, his boomerang clenched in his fist. Zuko doesn't begrudge the suspicion; he has yet to prove himself to these two.
"He's coming with us," Katara declares. She lifts her chin impudently. "Besides, Aang is the one that needs a firebending teacher, so he gets the final say. Aang?"
The siblings turn to the Avatar. The entire time he has been silent, watching the exchange with round, thoughtful gray eyes. Zuko looks to him as well.
Aang watches him, and when he starts to smile, Zuko suddenly knows what his thinking of. The boy is thinking of an exchange between them, of an early morning that feels like a life time ago. If we knew each other back then, do you think we could have been friends too?
Aang's smile widens into a grin. "I'm okay with it," He finally says, and Sokka groans loudly, throwing his hands into the air. "But only if Appa is, too." Aang reaches up to the lemur on his shoulder, scratching his chin. "Momo will be easy to win over." The lemur purrs, closing his eyes.
Zuko glances at Katara, who smiles encouragingly, then to the bison. Appa eyes Zuko with a massive brown eye, studying him in a way that makes Zuko feel incredibly tiny. He lumbers closer and sniffs at him, and it's all Zuko can do not to put as much distance between them as possible. Then, Appa groans, an intimidatingly loud sound, and opens his mouth to lick Zuko. Zuko yells as the bison drags his tongue across him, coating him in a disgusting layer of slobber. He stumbles to the ground and bats the saliva off of his cheek, glowering at the sound of laughter from Katara and Aang.
"Appa approves!" Aang declares. He steps forward to help Zuko to his feet, offering him another grin. "Welcome to the group, Sifu Zuko!"
Zuko attempts a smile, but it comes off as a grimace. "Just Zuko," He insists. Aang chuckles and pats his arm, then creates a current of air to lift him onto his bison's head.
Sokka turns and stomps to the bison, hands poised to climb up as he glares over his shoulder at Zuko. "I'm watching you," He warns. His bright blue eyes, so similar to his sister's, are filled with a suspicion Zuko is very familiar with. "And don't touch my jerky!" He turns back to Appa, muttering to himself as he climbs into the saddle.
Zuko adjusts the sheath on his back and glances at Katara. She rolls her eyes and waves a hand at her brother. "He'll come around, don't worry," She insists. She reaches out and takes his hand, and once again Zuko is found marveling at the contrast, at how natural the touch seems to feel. Katara folds her fingers around his and pulls him to the bison. She shows him how to climb up and helps him into the saddle, where he takes a seat against the back, a safe enough distance from the others. Katara seats herself close to him, near enough to her brother that she can push his knee when he continues to grumble.
"Appa, yip yip!" Zuko inhales as the bison rises to the sky. He reaches out to grasp the saddle, and Katara glances over, making sure he's settled as Appa finds his rhythm on the air currents. Zuko watches the waterbender. She looks happy, glad to be with her family, and maybe, he thinks, glad that he's with them. With her.
Zuko tips his head back to watch the clouds as they pass them by, feeling an odd sense of excitement settle over him. A new chapter is beginning in his life. Destiny is a funny thing, indeed.