It begins again at the Western Air Temple.
The sun is beginning to set, bleeding red and orange across the sky and the crumbling stone structures hanging from the cliffs. The atmosphere is quiet; the dust is settling after the commotion.
So sending a dangerous assassin to find the Avatar hadn't been Zuko's best idea. In truth, the choices he's made lately haven't been very good at all. But for all of the times that he stumbles, for all of the times that he falls, he always finds a way to rise once more, and so here he stands, dust and ash billowing around him as he faces a group of people he once considered his enemies.
Eyes as blue as the ocean stand out to him the most. Eyes full of righteous anger and suspicion. Katara stands the farthest from him, one hand settled on the pouch at her hip - ready for an attack. Mere weeks have passed since Zuko has seen her last and here she is, radiant and breath taking.
The loopies remain, but her hair has been freed of its braid, tumbling about her shoulders in a wild mane almost as alive as the element she commands. She looks like she did the last time he had seen her; furious and hurting. Nothing has really changed about her, yet everything seems different, and he knows it is because she stands so far out of reach, shielding herself from the pain she now knows he is capable of causing.
Of everyone standing before him, Katara is the most important. Zuko knows he has mountains to climb to earn everyone's trust. He is no stranger to the hard task of proving himself worthy. It's almost as familiar to him as breathing. But to earn Katara's trust once more, he knows he will have to swim to the very depths of the ocean to repair the damage he has done. But he is more than ready and he is more than willing.
It doesn't surprise Zuko that the Avatar is the first one to welcome him into the group. The monk doesn't have a mean bone in his body and isn't capable of truly shunning anyone. The warrior and the earthbender are complacent enough to follow in the Avatar's footsteps, and it is the warrior that shows Zuko to where he can stay. He feels the chill in the waterbender's gaze as he follows her brother and sighs quietly at the familiarity of it.
The stone room is sparse but spacious, and something about this inflates a small bubble inside of Zuko's chest that makes him feel light. He lays out what he little he'd brought with him, setting his crown beside his picture of Uncle Iroh. For a moment he studies the image embossed on the parchment. Staring back at him is the face of the most important person in his life, the one he'd hurt the most. I'll make you proud again, Uncle, Zuko thinks. I swear I'll make this right.
Zuko doesn't expect Katara in his door way when he turns around, but there she is, propped against the stone frame, watching him silently. The shadows place across her face, darkening her expression to that of a warning thunder cloud. She pushes off of the frame and slowly closes the space between them.
His throat runs dry. The threat unsettles him, but does not surprise him. He may have been invited into her good graces once, but he is not ignorant of the darker parts of this girl. His gaze drops to her lips briefly and he knows she does not miss this.
Just as quickly as she appeared, she is gone, leaving a heavy chill to crawl through the empty room. Zuko watches the space Katara had occupied and exhales unsteadily. His heart flutters behind his ribs with an anxiety he is a little too familiar with.
The sunlight beckons to him. He steps into the beam shining through the window and allows the bearer of his element to comfort him, to spread through him and chase away the chill threatening his bones. This won't be easy, but easy was the last thing he expected about this. He doesn't want easy. Zuko watches the rays of the sun play around the ruins of the Temple. He wants to earn his honor back, the rightful way. He wants his heart back, and he wants the keeper of his heart to come back to him with it.
This is how it goes.
It requires a lot of effort, but Zuko does not complain. He wins over the younger refugees quickly because they don't know him like the others do. He lets them drag him to their favorite parts of the Temple, participates in the impressive and frankly scary experiments they come up with. He cleans up after them when he can.
He helps the warrior, Sokka, hunt and forage for food, something Zuko is surprised to learn he isn't terrible at. He makes up for hurting the earthbender, Toph, by carrying her on his back when she pleases, even long after her feet are healed. The willingness to do such things wins the favor of both Sokka and Toph faster than Zuko expected, but he doesn't say anything, doesn't want to jinx it.
He begins to train the Avatar, Aang, by starting him with the basics that his own teachers had taught him. Those basics have kept him alive and grounded for years; without the meditations Uncle had taught him, his sanity would have slipped away long ago.
Aang doesn't mock Zuko when it suddenly becomes difficult to bend, and it doesn't take Zuko long to understand why he can hardly conjure a flame. For most of his life anger had been the fuel behind his fire, had been the aggression driving his bending. When he had decided to let that anger go, to take charge of his destiny by changing his path to the right one, he hadn't considered that he wouldn't be able to bend without it. It's unsettling - it's scary.
But Aang doesn't mock him as he witnesses this, and Zuko is quietly grateful.
Instead, he takes Zuko on the adventure of a life time.
They find more than the ability to firebend. They discover the secret to firebending - life - and they are brought before the keepers of the flame, the descendants of the sun itself - dragons. They are brought before the judgment of the powerful beasts, and gaining their approval nearly brings Zuko to his knees.
It is the most humbling experience of his life, and it changes Zuko forever - for the better. He returns the Temple with Aang feeling like a new man, feeling connected to the sun and his element in a way he didn't know was possible. It strengthens his bending, even opens up something inside of the Avatar that Zuko approves of. The experience has brought them closer and Zuko is very glad for it.
But he stays out of Katara's way.
Her hostility towards him has not changed. In fact, the acceptance from the others seems to have fed the embers of her anger. Katara refuses to look at him, refuses to go near him. Aang is the one to put himself between them and give Zuko his share of the food when it's time to eat; even he, the bridge between worlds, cannot mend what has been broken here. And Zuko doesn't want him to. He wants to repair the damage himself, and he knows the only way to start is to lay down the right foundation.
So he stays back in the shadows and watches. The workload Katara brings on herself always bothers him, especially because no one else even offers to help her. She does everything - she cooks, she cleans everyone's clothing, mends it when it tears, looks after the animals, even finds ways to fix The Duke's helmet and Teo's wheels. Zuko wants to help, wants badly to take some of the burden off of her shoulders, but he knows one word in her direction would earn him an ice dagger through the heart. So he remains in his place and waits. In regards to her, he can wait.
But it is harder at night, when he lays awake in his room, aware of the others tucked into their circle in the open space of the courtyard. He knows he is not welcome in that circle yet, and that he doesn't spend time dwelling over.
No, when he stares at the ceiling, surrounded by the moonlight, he can only think of her and of all that she gave him. His fingers curl in the blanket laying across his torso as he recalls the way her body had felt against his; how lucky he had been to hold her the few times he'd been allowed. He remembers the light in her eyes, the warmth of her smile and how it had soothed every broken part of him. He thinks of the softness of her mouth; the shape of her fingers between his.
He recalls the sadness etched into her round face as they'd confessed the pain surrounding their mothers. He remembers the horror swimming in her eyes when he had chosen Azula over her - the unbridled fury in her attacks, the intensity of her pain surrounding her accusations.
Zuko turns his head to the wall to avoid the light of the moon. He doesn't deserve to be near that light, not yet. Maybe not ever again. He only knows that he has to fix this, because Katara deserves so much better than what he has given her.
It shifts once again under the full moon.
Zuko sits beneath the open window, back straight, eyes closed, hands on his folded knees as he mediates. Today has been one of the more stressful ones to pass since his arrival at the Temple. Though he's a good pupil, Aang is a lot to handle, and Zuko has no prior experience with teaching. Or with patience. It isn't his strongest virtue.
His breathing remains measured and calm. How Katara and Toph have managed to teach Aang their elements is almost beyond him, because he's still struggling to get the boy comfortable with fire. But he does at least understand the hesitation; hurting a close friend in the first stages of learning can be scary.
A quiet breeze drifts in through the window and Zuko tilts his head to welcome the cool air. Though he's always been one with the sun and thrives during the day, he's learned to appreciate the night more and more lately.
It takes him only seconds to realize that someone is standing in his door way.
Zuko twists to his feet in a fluid motion and spins around -
and finds Katara leaning against the door frame again.
Tension settles between his shoulder blades. Zuko watches Katara, takes in the way her fingers are wrapped around her upper arms, the tilt of her head. Her eyes are pale like the moon itself. There is a restless air about her that makes him uneasy. A waterbender under a full moon is dangerous and formidable.
Zuko glances around, unsure of what to do. Of what to say. He can't fathom why she has sought him out, but he doesn't want her to leave just yet.
"Why did you do it?"
The question jerks his gaze back to hers. Her voice is quiet; even in the silence of the room he almost has to strain to hear her.
Katara pushes off of the stone frame and takes a step closer. He's reminded very much of the first time she had walked into his room. "Why did you do it?" She repeats, voice still soft. "After everything that happened, after all that happened between us, why did you do it?" Her jaw clenches. "I deserve to know, Zuko. I deserve to know why I've been losing sleep and torturing myself trying to understand why you betrayed us like that." She looks away for a brief moment. "Why you betrayed me."
His heart contracts painfully. Zuko looks away and takes one step back, then another, until his knees touch the stone frame of his bed. He sinks down slowly. He needs a bit of space, needs something solid beneath him in order to answer her.
"My father gave me this scar."
He hears Katara's sharp in take of breath, but he can't look at her. It's the first time he's said as much out loud and only the second time he's verbally acknowledged his scar. Both times have involved her.
"Your father?" She repeats. The shock in her voice rattles at something deep within him. "Why? Why would your own father do such a cruel thing?" She cannot fathom such a thing happening and he considers it lucky that her own father loved her so much that she can't conceive of such cruelty.
"I spoke out of turn," He explains. He looks at the floor, the window, the moon peeking inside - anywhere but at her. "I was thirteen. It was my first time sitting in on a meeting. The generals were planning to sacrifice a large amount of men and I couldn't grasp such a thing. I was outraged that they would willingly sacrifice men that were loyal to our country, to my father, for reasons I just couldn't understand. For my insolence, I was challenged to an Agni Kai, which is a duel of honor."
Zuko exhales slowly. His chest feels tight with the memory of the silence filling the arena; he can practically feel the silk of his shawl sliding off of his shoulders to pool at his feet. "I thought I would be dueling the general I spoke out against." He falls silent for a moment. The weight of Katara's gaze is heavy on him. "But I wasn't. It was my father at the other end of the stage."
Another cool breeze drifts into the room. Zuko breathes it in, takes the fresh air into his lungs in an attempt to rid the fever threatening to break out across his skin. "I begged him," He says quietly. The silence around them seems to amplify his voice. "I begged, I apologized, on my knees, in front of his counsel and my sister and my uncle." A lump forms in his throat. He swallows past it. "An Agni Kai ends when one of the participants burns the other. My father said it was to teach me respect, and then he burned the left side of my face."
He swears he can feel the phantom flame rushing over his skin, ruining the flesh, changing his life forever. Zuko clears his throat quietly. "I was banished. The only way I could return home and regain my honor was if I had found the Avatar. Everyone else thought it was nothing but a wild goose chase, but I was so determined - so angry and so determined to prove them wrong. To prove that I could fix my mistakes."
"Zuko," Katara whispers, and he closes his eyes. It's the first time she's said his name in weeks. When he opens them, he looks up and he can't help the small smile that lifts the corners of his mouth. Sorrow has drawn her brows down over her expressive eyes, and anger has nestled into the crease between them. He wonders if she knows how beautiful her compassion makes her.
Finally he finds the strength to stand again. Zuko rises to his feet and moves to stand before Katara. There is a safe amount of distance between him, but when she lifts her chin to look at him, her gaze is so conflicted that he longs to take her into his arms, to soothe it away for her. He doesn't. Instead, he says, "I'm sorry, Katara. I'm so sorry for what I did to you. You were kind to me, and you treated me like no one else has. And I took that and threw it away."
A slow sigh passes his lips. Zuko glances at the ground. "For the last four years of my life, all I wanted was to regain my honor and go home. I thought it was where I belonged. I had my uncle, but..." He lifts his shoulders. "I wanted my father. I wanted his love and approval. I wanted him to see me as he sees my sister. She's a prodigy in his eyes and she can do no wrong for him, and I craved that. I wanted my family to accept me. I had begun to let go of that, I was changing - I had changed, I really had - but then Azula found me and told me that if I went with her, I would have all of that. I could go home." He shakes his head slowly. "It was like something erupted inside of me. I had to do it. I had to go with her. I thought I would break permanently if I didn't."
Katara is silent, but there is no judgment in her eyes. She simply listens, and it allows Zuko to relax a fraction.
"I went home and it was nothing like what I wanted, because I knew it was wrong. I had gotten there by breaking your trust, by betraying my uncle and everything he's done for me, and I knew right away that I didn't belong there. It wasn't home anymore. It probably never was. So, I told my father as much and I left."
She finally reacts with a loud gasp. "You did?" Katara demands.
Zuko nods once. "On the day of the eclipse, I found him in his chamber. It was the most terrifying thing I'd done since facing him when I was thirteen, but I did it. I told him exactly what I'd be doing, and I left."
Katara looks away, overwhelmed by the information he's given her. He can practically see her mind processing everything he's told her.
"I'm sorry," He repeats, and she looks up, meeting his gaze. "I will never be able to say that enough. I meant what I said, I am here to teach Aang firebending. I am here to take control of my destiny. But I am also here to make things right with you." A strong urge to reach for her hand bats at him, but he fights it down. "What I did to you was one of the biggest mistakes I've made and I will do what I can to make it right, for as long as it takes."
Katara is silent for a long moment. Her silence stretches for so long that Zuko thinks he can see the moonlight around them shifting as the moon moves through the sky. Finally, Katara looks up at him. The anger has receded from her face, which relieves him a bit. "Thank you for telling me this, Zuko," She murmurs. Her hand lifts from her side, as if she means to reach out and touch him somehow, but she doesn't. Instead, she lowers her hand and turns away, slipping from the room.
Zuko remains where he is for a long, long time. He feels light inside, as though on the edge of something delicate that could snap at any minute if he isn't careful. Exhaling slowly, he returns to his bed and lays down, staring at the door. His fingers curl in the blanket in an effort to feel grounded. It takes him a very long time to fall asleep.
In the morning, the tide turns in his favor.
He settles into his usual spot outside of the group, away from where the others are slowly waking up. Many are still groggy and surround Katara like hungry zombies waiting to be fed. She is patient with each one, fills their bowls with even portions. Zuko smiles to himself. He looks down when Momo hops over to him and reaches out to scratch the lemur's chin. He likes to think they've overcome their differences and have become comrades of sorts.
When he looks up, he finds Katara standing before him with a bowl of porridge, and his heart lurches in shock. She holds the bowl out expectantly. There is nothing hostile about her; her stance is calm, her eyes clear. They aren't warm, but they are no longer frozen and cold, either.
Zuko opens his mouth, then closes it. He takes the bowl, careful not to touch her. That isn't a boundary he feels either are ready to cross. "Thank you," He murmurs. The shock seeps into his voice.
Katara nods and returns to the pot to stir whatever remains. Zuko watches her, watches the way her hair slides across her back, and fights back the urge to follow her, to tangle his hands in her hair, to hug her until she relents and accepts him into her heart again. He looks down at his food. The steam curls around his chin and carries the scent of warm honey, fresh and enticing. Zuko looks up again and finds Aang staring at him. When their eyes meet, Aang grins at him, clearly happy with what he's witnessed. Zuko manages a small smile in response.
Momo peeks over the rim and tries to reach into the bowl for a handful of porridge, but Zuko catches his thin little wrist and shoos him away. He feels strangely greedy of this bowl; it is a peace offering from Katara, he knows, an olive branch of her own making, and he does not wish to share it. Zuko takes a spoonful and slides it into his mouth, sighs softly at the warmth and the taste on his tongue. Knowing that they are standing on fresh ground makes the porridge taste even better.
It continues to heal.
If Zuko had been told, the first time he happened upon the Western Air Temple, that the ruins of a lost civilization would become a refuge for him, he would have scoffed and walked away. But back then he had been angry and hurt, all of his wounds still so fresh and open.
Now, he is different. Is he healed? No, not completely. But his wounds are no longer open and raw. He is not as angry and unsure as he was. He is stronger, he knows himself now, and he knows his place in the world.
Now, he has friends. It seems almost impossible to fathom, sometimes, that any of these people would tolerate him given the history he has created with them. Their forgiveness and willingness to give him a chance to prove himself humbles him like nothing else.
And there is also Katara, who thaws towards him more and more each passing day.
She begins to include him with the others, collects his belongings to wash them, brings food directly to him, makes sure he's there in her head count. The relief these gestures bring is nearly overwhelming. For a while he had been uncertain about whether or not he could actually earn her forgiveness, but now he's seeing the progress they're making in the routines established here at the Temple.
He can wait. He is learning to be patient more and more each day, and for her, he would wait forever.
The evening is quiet and lovely. As the sun sets, faded colors streak across the sky beneath pale clouds. The sight is magnificent and steals the breath from his lungs. Zuko wanders as close to the edge as he dares to get, simply admiring the beauty of the world before him. The warmth of the sun is disappearing, but the fire inside of him is strong and helps dispel the chill settling in as the sun sinks below the horizon.
Behind him, the rag tag group he's growing fonder of by the day bustles about, more than ready to be done with the day. Zuko turns around to join them. He feels a bit tired himself; earlier today he had moved Aang on to a bit more advanced set of techniques. He still isn't quite sure Aang is ready to move on, but he knows time is of the essence, and it will have to be good enough.
Somehow, this had lead to a sparring match between him, Aang, and Toph when she'd found them to relieve Zuko of his teaching duties. It had been fun, he'll admit, but not without a price - like the welts and bruises settling across his legs and stomach. Still, the challenge had been wonderful. Toph's style is vastly different from his own, and from Aang's, and to fight against her had been a wild and rewarding experience.
Most of his experiences with these people have been wild, if he stops to think about it. He shakes his head to dismiss the thought. Now is not the time to get into that one.
The younger kids are stretched out before the fire, practically half asleep. Zuko watches Aang stoke the embers with a flame of his own creation and gives him an approving nod when the boy looks up, which earns him a lopsided grin.
Katara leans carefully over the fire to set up her favorite pot for cooking. She adjusts the set up to her liking, then begins the prep work for tonight's meal - a stew made of the duck Sokka had found earlier. Zuko watches the process. He's fascinated with how naturally the making of the meal is for her. Maybe it's a combination of skill and inherited knowledge. Maybe it impresses him because he always burns and chars anything he tries to cook. Maybe he's just in awe of every thing she does, down to every breath she takes.
When she's satisfied with the progress of the stew, Katara turns away and begins gathering the pile of dirty clothes amassing near the fountain. She lets out a little sigh as she reaches for her brother's socks, as though she's been dealing with his socks for years.
Zuko chews on the inside of his lip. He glances around the Temple. No one is batting an eye in Katara's direction; no one has even considered helping her. He looks back to where she struggles to hold everything without dropping it. Zuko takes a step, hesitates. Things have been relatively calm between them for a little while now. It wouldn't be too much to offer to help, right? He hesitates once more, then steels his spine and weaves between the bodies until he's at Katara's side.
"Hey, um." He clears his throat, rubs the back of his neck a bit when she looks up at him. "Do you - do you need any help?"
The ocean in her eyes is calm as she regards him, but his nerves prickle none the less. She nods. "Yeah, that'd be nice," Katara answers. Already she's turning to him, holding out the wad of clothing in her arms.
Zuko exhales a bit and takes the bundle. He shifts to get a good grip on it, waits for Katara to finish gathering the rest, then follows her further inside of the Temple. They remain close enough to the others to hear them, but it's dark inside of the ancient building.
"Can you make a light?" Katara asks.
Zuko shifts the bundle in his arms to balance precariously between his arm and his chest. In his free hand, he ignites a flame bright enough to shed light on the space around them and discovers that they've come to another fountain. Zuko moves forward and drops the clothing beneath the lip of the fountain, then takes a slow look around. He finds enough sconces and shoots off little flames to settle in them, illuminating the room properly.
The room is lovely. It holds the same air of antiquity as the rest of the temple that he's seen, full of dust and moss and cob webs. The fountain itself is the only sign of life, with the water somehow still flowing along the structure, not nearly as dirty as the rest of the room.
Zuko watches as Katara perches on the edge of the fountain and rolls her wrist to stir the water so that it's less stagnant. She lifts a small pouch and reaches inside for a bit of soap, crumbles it and sprinkles it into the water, then stirs the water once more to create a froth of bubbles.
It's easy enough to pick up on Katara's method, and soon Zuko finds himself elbows deep in sudsy water, diligently scrubbing away days' worth of dirt and grime. He smiles down at the water as he works, pleased with how well he's doing. It's a far cry from the days when he attempted to wash his and Uncle's clothing in rivers and streams and ponds before they had arrived in Ba Sing Se.
Snippets of conversation drift to them; the voices slip in and out of the room as if they're whispers from another realm. The light from the sconces is soft and faint, and mingled with the sound of the water trickling through the fountain, Zuko feels as though he's somehow wandered into into a different part of the universe.
He glances at Katara. She's focused on her task, picking thorns out of The Duke's pants in the middle of scrubbing them clean. He can see the corner of her mouth pulled down in concentration, her brow following its path. The soft fire light caresses the shape her profile and polishes her skin until it's glowing, as if lit from the inside. Her hair slips over her shoulder, thick and dark and inviting.
A soft sigh bubbles up in Zuko's throat. She's so beautiful that it makes his chest ache.
Katara looks up. "What?" She asks. "Tired already?" The smallest hint of a smile touches her mouth.
His cheeks heat quickly. "No, no," Zuko insists, turning back to the laundry. He lays the tunic out and leans over, taking a deep breath. He exhales hot air across the fabric and dries up any remaining water. "This isn't so bad."
Katara chuckles. She lays out the pants in her hands and removes the water from the material, an equally effective method of drying them. "Really? Everyone else always complains. Even in my village, almost everyone treats laundry like it's the most vile thing imaginable."
"It's not that bad." He shrugs, reaches for the next article of clothing. "It's tedious, sure, but it's not the worst chore to do. Personally, I'm glad to know how to clean my own clothes. It's a useful skill." He reaches up to scratch at his nose with the sock clutched in his hand.
Katara looks over at him. "Oh, you don't want to-"
The smell hits Zuko like a run away komodo rhino, and he drops the sock quickly, throwing his elbow over his nose to gag into the crook of his arm.
"-put that near your face. Sokka's socks are deadly."
Zuko stares at the offending piece of clothing like it had just made an attempt on his life. "What is wrong with Sokka's feet?!" He demands. He reaches out and pinches the sock between his thumb and forefinger and flings it into the fountain. The sock flutters to the surface of the water and sinks below it lazily. "Agni, that was foul!"
Katara's laughter rings through the room, pure and warm. She reaches into the pile and grabs the other sock, then reaches into the fountain for the discarded one, and drags them to her side. Zuko stares with wide eyes. "Brave," He exhales, "So brave."
She laughs again and then sound steals into his chest to wind around his heart. "I did grow up with him," Katara points out. "At this point I'm immune to just about everything gross Sokka does."
Zuko wrinkles his nose. He eyes the socks as Katara washes them and reaches for something far less dangerous - The Duke's little cape. He finds himself smiling as he washes it, feeling light and happy. Here they are, alone together, at ease. It's another bridge they've crossed since his arrival.
The stew is ready by the time they return with clean and dry clothes. Zuko distributes the clothes to the right people and drops Sokka's clothing onto his lap. "The next time you find a village, you need to see someone about your feet," He declares. Several bouts of laughter erupt around them, but Zuko is entirely serious - that stench could bring down a dragon.
Sokka makes an indignant noise and snatches at his clothing. He glares up at Zuko, but Zuko simply shakes his head and walks away, taking a place beside Toph. She hands him a small cup of tea that he thanks her for.
When the food is done, Katara begins to distribute the portions. Zuko rises to his feet and returns to her side, feeling emboldened by their time together with the laundry. He holds each bowl for her to fill and passes them to those waiting to be fed. Glancing down, he scoops up one of the last two and takes the ladle when Katara lets it go to grab a rag to wipe up a small spill. He fills the bowl, careful not to make another mess to be cleaned up, and holds it out when she looks up.
Katara blinks. Her eyes soften and she takes the bowl gently. "Thank you," She says. Her voice is quiet, almost shy. It twists at his heart.
Zuko nods and busies himself with filling his own bowl, watching Katara as she sits down. He thinks he sees her smiling at her food, and the sight fills his stomach with butterflies.
For once, Zuko doesn't react immediately to the rising sun.
As always, the fire inside of him flares in response, but this morning he is exhausted, thoroughly drained from the events of the day before. For a moment he simply lays on his bed and watches the rays of the sun slowly crawl through the room. Already the energy is filling him, seeping into his bones. This morning he is grateful for the sun and it's strength; this morning he is grateful to be awake.
Zuko sits up slowly and runs a hand through his hair. His muscles feel ridiculously sore, but he supposes prison fights, being forced into an actual ice chamber, and fighting his sister and her weird friends on a gondola can cause some lasting damage. Sighing, he moves the blanket off of him and stands, adjusting the waist of his pants around his hips. He steps into the light filtering in through the window and closes his eyes. The slow coming warmth feels good on the bare skin of his torso.
Exhaling, Zuko moves through his forms. His muscles protest loudly, but he pushes through, knowing he'll be better off for it later in the day. When he finishes, he lets out a long breath and runs a hand through his hair again. The gurgling in his stomach is motivating him to start breakfast, regardless of whether or not the others are up. Zuko rubs his shoulder, chews his lip thoughtfully. Do they have enough to feed three extra people? Chit Sang has a big appetite, he's willing to bet, and he knows neither Chit Sang or Suki or Hakoda had proper rations in the Boiling Rock. He also knows whatever Katara has decided for today's menu will be mouth watering to three people fresh from a prison known for it's cruelty. He sighs again. A foraging trip, and maybe a trip to a near by village, might not be such a bad idea.
Zuko rubs his mouth thoughtfully. Worth it. Difficult, but worth it. The look on Katara's face alone when she saw her father walk off of the air ship is worth all of this. Having the Chief of the Southern Water Tribe free is worth it. They'll get by. If there's one thing he knows about this group, it's that they can handle anything thrown their way.
Soft foot falls catch his attention and Zuko turns to the doorway to find Katara filling it once more. His heart stumbles in surprise. It's only the third time she's sought him out in his room, but he's afraid he might become too attached to the notion anyway.
"What you did yesterday was stupid," She starts, voice quiet. "It was stupid, reckless, dangerous, insane, and..." Her eyes finally might his, and they are so soft something inside of his chest tightens. "And I'm so grateful that you did it."
She steps into the room, releases an unsteady breath as she does. "I was terrified I would never see my father again," Katara confesses. Her voice is hushed, wrapped up in the quiet sunlight of the early morning. It falls on her like a halo, illuminating the intensity of the emotions in her glittering eyes. "After the invasion, I didn't know what they would to him. I thought he would-" She shakes her head, unwilling to finish that thought. "But you brought him back. Zuko..." She looks up at him and the sun light slides across her face in a loving caress. "Thank you."
Zuko lifts his shoulders self consciously. His heart rate is beginning to pick up. "I just followed Sokka so that he wouldn't get into too much trouble," He murmurs. "He was really the one that broke your dad and Suki and Chit Sang out." He rubs at his neck, rolls his shoulder in an attempt to get rid of some of the discomfort there.
"With your help," Katara insists. She tips her head to the side. "Are you hurt?"
"No, just sore." Zuko drops his hand with a shrug. A wry smile reaches his mouth. "I wasn't very popular among the prisoners or the guards."
She regards him for a moment. "Hold on." She turns and leaves the the room. Zuko frowns a bit, shifting his feet. He starts to debate on whether or not he should follow her when she returns with her water pouch. "Sit down," She instructs.
Zuko blinks, but he sinks to the ground and crosses his legs. Katara kneels in front of him and pulls the cork from her pouch. She coaxes enough water out of the pouch to coat her hands. Her eyes travel slowly over Zuko, making him blush. Suddenly he remembers that he's in nothing but his pants and that his shirt is far out of reach. He watches her hands, watches them come closer, and feels his heart begin to pound; he wonders if she will be able to feel it, or hear it. Her hands hover at his chest, close enough for the water to touch his skin. It is an odd sensation, and then the water begins to glow, startling him.
Immediately the ache disappears from his muscles. Zuko watches with wide eyed fascination as Katara slides her hands down his torso, then back up to his shoulders and his neck. It's a ticklish sensation, the water gliding across his skin, making him shiver. He sighs softly with relief as the healing water continues to remove the aches and pains from his muscles. Katara inches closer and moves her hands so that they hover outside of his neck. Her water moves along the length of it, slides over the back, and draws the discomfort right out of his skin. This close, he can see details he had memorized months ago; the sharp arch of her brows, the faint slash of a small scar on her cheek, the perfect slope of her nose.
Katara's eyes meet his. Something flickers through her eyes. Maybe he's imagining it, but he swears what he saw was longing - for him.
It would be so easy to lean in and kiss her. He wants to. He wants to so badly.
But he doesn't. He holds still instead, makes himself behave. He may not ever have that privilege again, and he will not push his luck. What she's given him so far is more than he could have hoped for.
Katara sits back on her heels and slips her water back into its pouch and replaces the cork. Zuko lets his shoulders drop with a relieved breath. "Thank you," He sighs.
She nods, stands and moves to the door. "I'll have breakfast ready soon," She tells him. Katara pauses in the door way with a hand on the frame. She peeks back at Zuko over her shoulder. "I found more mangoes, while you guys were gone. I can serve some today. If you'd like." She shrugs, refusing to meet his gaze for a moment.
His smile is slow and small, but the warmth of it reaches his golden eyes. "I'd like that," He tells her, "Thank you."
She peeks at him once and nods, then slips from the room, leaving Zuko to contemplate all that just happened. His muscles have been relieved of their pains; his heart is still fluttering behind his ribs. He remembers, suddenly, something Uncle had once said - with each new sunrise is a new day, and therefor a new opportunity to start again.
That night, after the others have settled down for bed, Zuko steps quietly into the open courtyard. His bedroll and blanket lay folded over his arms, the small bag of his belongings slung over his shoulder. The fire from dinner has long since died out, leaving darkness to settle over the Temple. Beyond the crumbling pillars the stars twinkle quietly above the cliffs.
Zuko watches the loose circle formed in the center of the courtyard. Everyone is sleeping the day off. He moves silently across the stones to the open space between The Duke and Hakoda. He lays his bedroll out and drapes the blanket over it, careful that it doesn't disturb the man and the boy on either side of him. Zuko sinks down onto the bedroll and looks around him once more.
Katara lays directly across from him, settled between Sokka and Suki. Her eyes are open, her head stretched back so that she can watch him. Zuko's heart stumbles in surprise. For moment he thinks she might sit up and tell him to leave, that he hasn't earned his place here among them yet. Instead, she adjusts her thick mane of hair, slides her hand under her cheek, and smiles at him. It's small, but it's warm and welcoming.
That bit of warmth in her smile steals into Zuko's chest and spreads through his bones. He returns the smile with a note of shyness and eases down onto the bedroll. Before he settles, he moves his bag closer and slides his swords under his bedroll; having them close by just in case is a comfort.
Zuko settles onto his stomach and glances up. Katara has closed her eyes to go back to sleep. Zuko watches her for a few minutes, sighing softly. He lays his head down and closes his eyes, feeling thoroughly content.
It fractures again with Azula's arrival.
Once again, she has ruined everything. Anger, true, legitimate anger has returned to Zuko for the first time in weeks and it feels like embers are stuck under his skin, steadily burning through him. He rubs his mouth and watches the stars glinting down at him. They seem to be watching him, waiting to see what he will do with the information he has been given.
Zuko sighs slowly, the sound lost on the wind carrying across the cliff side. Things had been going so well - they had all been making astounding progress, and then his sister found them and shattered everything. Her attack had been swift and brutal and forced them to separate from The Duke, Teo, Haru, Chit Sang, and Hakoda. The separation, Zuko knows, has caused Katara a great deal of pain, and he understands. She had only just gotten her father back, only to leave him so soon.
The most frustrating part, however, has been the blame Katara has placed on him. Not only for the current situation, but for what happened to her mother as well. It's practically thrown all of their progress out the window and Zuko isn't ready to let it crumble that fast - or at all.
To deal with the situation, he had sought Sokka's help. Who better to help him solve a problem with Katara than her big brother? The conversation had given Zuko more information than he ever expected; their mother hadn't disappeared, like his had. She had been murdered. The weight of this knowledge still sits heavily on Zuko's chest. When Katara had first mentioned her mother, Zuko had felt their bond deepening because he understood the acute loss Katara felt. But he hadn't considered the worst, no, that possibility had never touched his mind until he'd learned the truth.
So now here he stands, on the edge of the cliff, the edge of a new path. He has the information. So what does he do with it?
Zuko looks to Katara's tent. It's dark, like the others are. He hates thinking she fell asleep with such turmoil sitting in her heart. He exhales quietly and makes up his mind, then moves through the tents until he stands before Katara's. Barging in to her tent right now isn't the wisest choice to make, so he seats himself on the stone outcropping outside. He can wait. He will wait.
The sun is well on its way to it's designated spot in the sky when Katara finally emerges from the tent. Zuko lifts his head wearily, not surprised at the agitated look she gives him.
"You look terrible," She declares as she storms past him.
Zuko straightens slowly. "I waited out here all night," He responds, voice rough. His muscles shout in protest; he'd slumped over his knees at some point through the night, hardly able to keep his head up after a certain hour. As he follows Katara, he lifts his face to the sky and soaks up the rays of the sun. His cells absorb the energy gratefully.
Katara stands with her back to him, facing the ocean as she tugs her comb through her hair. "What do you want?" Her tone is dismissive and prickles at his skin.
Zuko regards her for a moment. The sea breeze plays in the ends of her hair. "I know who killed your mother and I'm going to help you find him," He answers bluntly.
Katara stiffens. She whips around with wide eyes and opens her mouth, anger already blazing across her face, but Zuko moves closer and explains, "I spoke to Sokka last night. He told me what happened, he told me he remembered seeing sea ravens on the flags of the fleet ships, which is the symbol of the Southern Raiders. The man that killed your mother is likely their leader. I know where to find him and I'm going to take you to him."
The ocean crashes against the cliff side behind them and Zuko is sure that it is Katara's element responding to everything raging inside of her. "Katara," He murmurs, "I meant what I said. I want to make things right with you. I can't bring your mother back to you, but I can take you to confront the man that took her away from you."
Katara stares at Zuko. The ocean in her eyes rages and roils in response to whatever she is thinking. The intensity of her gaze unsettles Zuko, but he doesn't look away. She nods once. "Let's go."
The world around them is muted, but Zuko knows that at any moment the storm will break.
A wall of thick, dark clouds surrounds them as Appa flies through the sky. Katara sits at the reigns, hunched and tense, and Zuko knows that when she breaks her silence, the storm will respond. He runs a hand through his hair and looks over the saddle to watch the waters churning below them. He sighs quietly.
The monster still lives. They had found him on Whale Tail Island after interrogating the current members of the fleet he once commanded, and what they found had been utterly pathetic. It's almost hard to believe that Yon Rha had once commanded a powerful fleet in the Fire Nation Navy. The man that had ripped Katara's world apart is nothing more than a worthless husk chained to his mother's ankle.
Zuko looks at Katara. A shudder runs through her and just like that, the skys open around them. Rain falls in a fine mist, but Zuko knows it is only the beginning.
When the rain begins to thicken, Zuko leans out of the saddle. He scans the choppy waters until he finds what he's looking for - a spot of land. "Katara," He says. He places a hand tentatively on her back. "There's an island just below us, let's land. We need to stop."
For a moment he doesn't think she'll listen, but then Appa leans to the left and heads for the island. He descends on the grassy surface with a low groan. Katara sits still for a moment, then slides off of the bison's head. Zuko climbs out of the saddle and drops to his feet. The rain is coming harder now, the drops bigger and heavier.
The minute her feet touch the ground, Katara sinks to her knees. Thunder cracks overhead in response. She shifts to sit back and draws her knees up, buries her head between her arms. The storm responds with sharp bullets of rain that bruise Zuko's skin. He doesn't pay attention. Instead, he moves to Katara and sits in front of her. This close, he can hear her muffled sobs, and the sounds are so mournful that they break his heart in two.
"Katara," He murmurs. The ache in his heart finds its way into his voice. She lifts her head and it's almost impossible to tell the tears from the rain running down her cheeks. Her eyes are so tormented that Zuko can feel the depth of her pain as if it were his own.
Mixed in with the pain is a rage that is deep seated and has been growing for years. "I hate him," She grinds out. "He deserves to die, I hate him so much! He stole my mother from me, he ruined my life!" She tips her head back, exposing her pain to the storm roaring around them. The tension bleeds out of her, leaving behind a bone deep sadness that fills every line of her body. "But I couldn't do it. I couldn't."
"Katara," Zuko repeats, shaking his head. He shoves his hair out of his eyes and moves closer. He isn't quite sure what to say; words have never been his strong suit. "You aren't weak." When she looks at him, opens her mouth, he shakes his head before she can disagree. "I mean it, you are not weak. This man caused you an unimaginable pain and you faced him! You confronted him and made him realize what a monster he is! Do you have any idea how brave that is?"
Reaching up, Zuko pries a lock of hair off of Katara's jaw and tucks it behind her ear. Her skin is cold beneath his fingers; it is the closest he has been allowed to be to her in so long that he can't quite pull away. "What you did was the right thing for you," He murmurs. His fingers caress her cheek, unable to pull away. "You made the decision that was best for you and that is all that matters. I don't care what anyone else says. I don't care what Sokka says, I don't care what Aang says, I only care about you and how this has affected you."
Katara lifts her eyes and the sadness in them cuts through him. "You saw me bloodbend," She mumbles. "It terrified the others the one time I did it. It terrified me - it still terrifies me. But I just - I wanted answers, any way I could get them. And you didn't seem bothered by it."
So there is a name for it. Zuko thinks back on the sight of the man contorting in hideous ways, bending to Katara's will through a mere twitch of her fingers. He can still hear the sound of the man's bones shifting and protesting under her pull. Zuko shrugs. "It's a part of you," He tells her quietly.
A soft sigh leaves him, lost beneath the sound of the rain around them and the thunder above them. "For a while, I was terrified of fire. I love bending, I've loved bending since I first learned the basics, but after what my father did to me... It was hard to be around it. Sometimes I couldn't train without flinching over a flame coming near me, and that made me so angry." He looks up, brushes his thumb across her jaw. "But firebending is a part of me. I don't know who I'd be without it." He lifts his shoulders yet again. "I'm not - saying you have to practice your bloodbending, but I don't think it's as bad as you do. Sometimes your waterbending is terrifying. To me, it's just another part of you."
Fresh tears fill Katara's eyes. Her lower lip trembles and she slumps forward, drops herself into Zuko's arms. His heart lurches, but he reacts immediately, enveloping her in a tight hug. Her hands curl in his soaked tunic, clutching at him as if she needs an anchor to hold her to this world. Zuko pulls gently until Katara is nestled against him, his legs folded around her. The cold has soaked through his body, just as the water as soaked through his clothes, but he doesn't budge. He holds her while she cries, holds her through the storm raging in her and around her. He rests his chin on her head and closes his eyes, lets the rain wash clean all of the ugliness this journey has brought about.
He stands at the end of the dock, watching silently. Aang's words irritate him, but he says nothing, knowing this is not his place to speak.
Katara sits on the edge of the dock. The setting sun paints her in a faint halo of burnished gold; her shoulders are hunched forward, still bearing the burden of all that she has been through. It pains Zuko like nothing else ever has. Katara is a light in this world, a beacon of hope; she does not deserve the tragedies she has suffered through. But he knows the pain has made her stronger, able to withstand whatever the spirits think to put her through, and his admiration for her knows no bounds.
Silence stretches across the dock for several heartbeats. Katara rises to her feet. She turns and walks to Aang with her head down, brows drawn in. "I didn't forgive him," She tells him, voice low. "I will never forgive him."
Katara closes her eyes, the furrow between her brows deepening. And then her expression transforms. It blossoms with a soft smile, and when she opens her eyes, she looks up at Zuko, and the tenderness in her gaze robs him of his breath. "But I am ready to forgive you," She declares softly.
Zuko watches Katara move to him. He feels rooted to the spot, almost numb with shock. She stops before him and watches him for a long moment, and then she reaches for him. His response is instant, catching her waist as her arms circle his neck. He holds her tightly and closes his eyes, exhaling a quiet and unsteady breath. This is the moment he has been working towards for weeks. This is the moment he has been longing for, and it is everything he wanted and more.
Katara presses her face to Zuko's shoulder. "Thank you," She whispers, and his throat tightens, making it difficult to speak. He can only answer her by squeezing her waist. When she steps back, he lets his arms fall, though her hand lingers on his shoulder. She smiles up at him. The warmth he has been missing is there, filling the smile - filling him until he feels like he is overflowing. He turns with Katara as she heads down the dock and watches her go. Her head is up, her shoulders back; she is walking away from her pain, and the sight is beautiful to him.
Zuko stays where he is, not quite able to move yet. He knows Aang is behind him, studying him, but he doesn't care. He feels blessed and humbled. He feels lighter than air, knowing with complete certainty that from this moment forward, things will be better.
It begins to heal once more.
Their new place of refuge comes in the form of a house on Ember Island, the same house Zuko had spent many childhood vacations in. It unsettles him, being in this home again, so close to so many memories that feel like they belong to another life time entirely.
But he has formed a new family, and they make fast work of replacing the melancholy of the house with a warmth Zuko didn't know the building could hold. And he knows the privacy is appreciated; there is a room for everyone, complete with a bed and a blanket and as many pillows as they might want to let them sleep comfortably.
Training resumes. As Zuko guides Aang through what he needs to know, he guides himself as well, welcoming the chance refresh his mind with the knowledge he'd learned over the years. His bond with the Avatar grows, and it is a friendship Zuko didn't know was possible, but finds himself deeply grateful for. The others have accepted him completely into their ranks as well; they tease him, bicker with him, share with him. They make him feel cared for and loved.
And there is Katara. The hostility and anger are gone from her gaze, replaced with the warmth and tenderness he had so terribly missed. Zuko has taken to sharing her load of the chores she insists upon doing. He helps her with the laundry, sitting close enough for their shoulders to brush as they clean. He helps her cook, hovering behind her at times, longing to hold her while they do the most mundane of tasks. He helps her shop, risking their safety in doing so, knowing that anyone could recognize him and alert their presence to his father. It's worth it for the moments he gets to be alone with her; these simple things are helping to repair what he broke, forging a new bond where the old one had shattered.
She smiles at him more now, lingers to watch him train with Aang, even spars with him herself. Her hand often finds its way to his arm, to the back of his hand, to his knee, as if she feels free to touch him once more. It settles something inside of Zuko, something that had been rattling and crying for this, and for now, it is enough.
The sun is at its peak in the blue sky this day. Its heat is enough to practically melt even the plants that have grown under its guidance, but Zuko continues to drill Aang, disregarding the thick, oppressive air around them.
"Again!" Zuko orders. His voice is harsh as it rings through the court yard. Aang exhales loudly but does as he's told, twisting himself through the air with a trail of fire arcing after him. His eyes are intense, brows puckered into a frown. These training periods are some of the only times Zuko sees the boy as anything but the happy kid that he is. It's almost unsettling, knowing that a person so light is capable of such intensity.
When Aang turns to him, Zuko nods approvingly. "Much better," He concedes.
Aang slumps onto the courtyard floor with a dramatic groan. "Man, it's hot!" He twirls his hands through the air to create a current and sighs with relief as the air whirls around him.
Zuko rolls his eyes. "Go get something to drink," He says, catching Aang's hand and hauling him to his feet. "And while you're at it, go bathe. You smell almost as bad as Appa." The bison grunts in offense, but simply turns away; he knows the truth when he hears it.
"Yes sir, Sifu Hotman, sir!" Aang laughs when Zuko swipes at him, skating away on a wave of earth. He lands nimbly on the safety of the porch and jogs inside. Minutes later, he returns with Katara, both carrying drinks.
Zuko watches Katara as she emerges from under the protection of the awning. He's reminded suddenly of their date back in Ba Sing Se, how shocked he had been to see her in anything other than blue, because seeing her in red is all the more arresting. The darker shade of it suits her, matches well against her dark skin.
But it's the exposure of her stomach that draws his attention. He finds it difficult to look away, because he vividly remembers the last time he'd seen so much of her. Exhaling loudly, Zuko turns his eyes to the sky and forces his mind toward much less dangerous thoughts. Now is not the time for that.
Katara approaches him with a warm smile that melts his insides. "Here," She says, handing him one of the drinks in her hands, "You look like you could use this." Her eyes travel down his torso. "You've certainly worked up a sweat."
A faint blush touches his cheeks. Zuko smiles around the rim of the cup. "Thank you." He takes a long drink, sighing with deep satisfaction. The drink is cool and sweet and smooth as it slides down his throat, cooling his insides as it goes. He presses the chill of the cup against his cheek.
Katara glances across the courtyard to where Aang is. Toph has joined him in his attempt to make a mud pit among the fronds of the plants lining the stones. Zuko presses his lips together to resist the urge to protest. It was ingrained in him that any such behavior on this property meant no dessert and no beach time, so it feels instinctive to stop the kids from mucking up the place.
Smiling, Katara steps closer to him. "I heard Toph teasing you earlier," She murmurs. Her tone is conspiratorial as she pushes on her toes, leans closer to cup her hand around her mouth so that she can whisper in his ear. Zuko tips his head down, hands on his hips, curious. Katara's body presses against his lightly. He is acutely aware of where her skin meets his and his heart threatens to explode at the contact. "She's terrified of those leopard geckos that run around here. You can easily get her back with one of those."
Zuko snorts quietly, glancing at Toph. She's too absorbed in her mud pit to pay any attention to them. "Seriously?" He whispers. He turns his head, heart lurching at the severe lack of space between them.
Katara nods with a small grin. "One skittered across her foot the other night and scared the mess out of her. She almost brought the entire house down."
So that explains what he thought was a random earthquake. He smirks, nodding slowly. "Good to know."
Zuko looks down at Katara with a small smile. His eyes wander again, landing on the gold bands circling her upper arms, and he lifts a hand to touch one with his little finger. "These look great on you," He murmurs. His touch trails down her arm and he watches it happen, awed at the fact that he's allowed to do this at all.
"Yeah?" She looks away, cheeks tinted pink, a pleased smile on her face. "I wasn't so sure at first, but I do like them." Her gaze returns to his and she reaches across the small space between them, finding his little finger with hers. They link together and Zuko can hardly keep the smile off of his face. Warmth rushes through him to blanket every cell in his body.
For a moment he forgets all else around them, and then Sokka's shrill voice rings through the air for his sister. "Where are you?!" He demands from the door way. "I'm starving! I'm gonna waste away if we don't start dinner soon!"
Katara rolls her eyes. She sighs and lets her shoulders drop in irritation. "You're perfectly capable of starting dinner yourself, Sokka," She reminds him, turning towards the house. Her hand remains with Zuko's for a moment before the touch slips away and he's left feeling a bit cold despite the heat around them. He watches Katara go with a soft sigh.
Aang quickly abandons his project and shucks the mud from his thin body, then hurries after Katara, leaving Zuko alone with Toph outside. The sound of quiet laughter stiffens his spine. He turns to the earthbender, eyes narrowed at her mischievous smirk. She waits until the others are inside before she sighs loudly and dramatically.
Zuko squints. "What?" He demands, crossing the distance between them.
"Oh, Sparky. You've got it bad. You and Sugar Queen both." Her little nose wrinkles in distaste. "Both of your hearts were so wild while you two were gossiping over there, I was surprised Twinkle Toes couldn't feel it."
His heart jumps, completely betraying him to Toph's sensitive feet. She's a sneaky little thing, and she can't be allowed to get away unchallenged. Inhaling, Zuko reaches for Toph's shoulder. "Toph, watch out-" His fingers skitter along her shoulder, making her gasp and writhe away. "Hold still, I'll grab the gecko!"
"Gecko?!" Toph shrieks. She twists away from Zuko, batting at her shoulder with frantic hands. "Get it off, get rid of it! I want it dead! Where is it?! Get rid of it!" The ground beneath them trembles with the force of her anxious stomping.
Zuko cackles loudly, jumping away when Toph swings at him. "Be careful," He warns her, fingers dancing across her shoulder in a playful threat, "You say the wrong thing and you might find a real gecko in your bed."
"You play dirty," Toph accuses. She slugs Zuko in the arm, making him grunt in pain, and grins up at him. "I like you. Let's go get some food before Sokka inhales it all."
Huffing, Zuko rubs his arm and nudges Toph up the steps. He ruffles at her hair and ducks out of the way of another punch, laughing as he follows her inside.
For once, Zuko is sitting out, watching the others work instead.
Katara and Aang stand in the courtyard. They're at work filling the fountain with water for their sessions. Though he hasn't quite mastered firebending yet, all of Aang's teachers believe it's necessary that he continue to practice at his other elements as well, and Zuko himself doesn't mind sitting under the shade of the porch to watch. He's a native to this part of the world, but even he isn't immune to summers in the Fire Nation and the fierce heat of the sun.
And he's interested to see Katara's teaching methods. She's been teaching Aang the longest and he's hoping to learn something from her. Her approach is much different from his and Toph's; she's far more gentle with Aang than they are.
Katara steps back from the fountain and twists her hands to settle the water, then places them on her hips. The sun shines on her brown skin, dark against the starch white of her wrappings.
So maybe his intentions aren't quite so innocent.
Zuko leans forward to brace his elbows on his knees as the session begins. It's clear that Aang is secure in this element; his moves are easy and natural, his confidence clear. He has a compatible relationship with Katara that shows in how easily they match each other and flow back and forth out of the other's movements.
His eyes drift back to Katara. He takes great notice of the way her muscles shift and flex beneath her skin, how nimble her fingers are as the manipulate the water, of the beads of sweat rolling down her skin. Her hair is as wild as ever, eyes bright with exhilaration as she guides her pupil from the basics to more complicated techniques, and there's something very attractive about the sheer amount of focus she uses.
Perhaps the most alluring part is the smile she wears. It is as radiant as the sun and wraps around Zuko's heart each time it appears, squeezing without mercy.
Eventually Katara releases Aang from her tutelage, and he flops his way to the sanctity of the house, worn out for the moment. Zuko watches him go with a small smile and turns his attention back to Katara.
"You're a great teacher," He tells her.
Her answering smile is pleased. "Thank you. It did take me a while to get the hang of it, but Aang is a really good pupil." Katara wrings her hair out, then gathers the water on the stones and flings it into the fountain. "I'm feeling restless, though. Aang is a great student, but not so good to spar with." Her eyes meet Zuko's. They dance with mischief, with something else he hasn't seen in weeks and is hesitant to identify. "Wanna spar with me?"
He looks around. The courtyard is empty; the door is shut. They are entirely alone. "Alright." Zuko stands and glances up at the sky. He remains under the shadow of the awning while he bends to remove his shoes, then sets them aside; the stone is cool beneath his bare toes. He unties the sash around his waist and slips out of the robe, laying it neatly behind him on the porch.
Katara is watching him. Her eyes are riveted on his hands, where they rest on the edges of his tunic, ready to open it. A faint smirk curves his lips. He tugs the tunic open and slides it off of his shoulders, letting it flutter onto the porch behind him. Katara's eyes burn across his skin as she drinks him in; warmth spikes in his stomach beneath the heat of her gaze.
Zuko moves down the steps to stand before Katara. He lets his gaze travel over her as she slides into a combative stance, eyes lingering appreciatively on the toned muscles of her thighs. He looks up, meets her eyes, and takes his own stance. His only warning before a geyser of water rushes at him is her grin.
He has faced Katara as an enemy and knows that she is powerful beyond belief, so to go against her with their elements still unsettles him a bit. But there is no malice here, no ill intent; it is merely as she said, a sparring match, and it is good for them both. Here, Zuko is challenged, and this forces him to be creative, something he appreciates. He slices through a wave with a sharp whip and watches Katara closely, trying to track her movements. But it's like trying to predict the way the ocean moves; nearly impossible. The water splashes over him and distracts him by momentarily blinding him, makes him sputter - a fatal flaw.
Katara has him flat on his back in seconds. The air rushes from his lungs in a disgruntled huff and he shakes his hair out of his eyes, stares up at her in shock before he laughs breathlessly. She grins down at him, and he is acutely aware that her knees are on either side of his hips, that her chest is heaving already, that her wrappings are becoming more and more damp the longer they go on. He knows it would be so easy to pull her properly into his lap, to grab her wild mane of hair and guide her mouth to his, to -
Katara leans closer, dangerously close. "You look even better with your hair this long," She murmurs. Her voice is low, husky, and she reaches up to move his hair off of his forehead, to drag her fingers through the locks at his temple.
Zuko inhales quietly. His hands hover at Katara's waist, fingertips barely grazing her skin. "I couldn't cut it," He confesses softly, "I couldn't stop thinking about how much you liked it grown out." The words tumble out of him before he can stop them. He lets one hand wander down, just a bit, just enough graze the curve of her hip.
Above him, Katara's eyes soften. Zuko tips his head, and then he grins and grips Katara's waist and tosses her into the air, rolling out from her. She yelps indignantly and quickly gathers her water into a wave beneath her, then huffs down at Zuko. "Fowl play!" She insists.
Zuko's grin widens. He kicks out a lash of fire that breaks through the middle of the wave, but Katara is ready. She catches herself in a blanket of water and lands nimbly on the ground. The water moves to coat her arms and Zuko remembers very clearly just how dangerous she can be with that move. He creates two long whips in response. The flames are hot against his skin but they never burn; he is in control of his element.
Katara smirks. She strikes out first and Zuko meets it easily. The steam that results is loud, tumbles quickly throughout the courtyard. Sweat drips off of his skin; adrenaline courses through his veins. Not once do his eyes leave Katara. If he could think straight, it would be because she's a formidable opponent that could behead him with a sliver of ice at any second, but in reality, he's very distracted by the beads of sweat rolling down her stomach and the way her wrappings cling to her, practically see through. Her hair is plastered to her neck and her cheeks and her eyes are bright with her own adrenaline rush.
They continue to cut through each other's weapons until they are inches apart. Zuko stares down at Katara, his heart pounding harshly in his chest. He feels as if he is on the edge of something fragile, but he can't stop himself from pressing forward. Katara's gaze wanders. Her eyes trace the contours of his stomach, his chest, his shoulders. When her gaze lands on his mouth and she bites her lip, his resolve breaks. Zuko reaches for her, takes her face in his hands, and kisses her.
Katara responds immediately. She locks both hands around Zuko's wrists and kisses him as though she has been waiting eons to do so, and it turns his insides to liquid. He walks her backwards until her back touches the wall. Katara makes a soft noise, a sound that his body responds to almost wildly, and tugs him closer, presses flush against him until he cannot tell where he ends and she begins. Her hands slide along his arms to delve into his hair, her mouth opens under his, and he knows that there is no going back now, that he will drown in her and do so gladly.
"Katara," He breathes against her lips, voice aching. She moans, a faint bubble in her throat, and presses closer still, as if trying to burrow through his chest to get to his heart. He wants to tell her that it's pointless, that his heart has been with her this entire time, but instead he drops his hands to her hips and presses against her, feeling suddenly desperate for her touch. He needs to know that this is real, that she really does want him, needs him with the same intensity that he needs her.
Her fingers tug at his hair and she kisses him again, hot and full of need, her tongue sliding across his. He moans into her mouth, hips shifting against hers. The fire inside of him is raging, fighting the heat in her touch for the right to burn him alive from the inside out.
A loud crash inside of the house bursts the bubble around them. Katara jumps as Zuko flinches. She blinks a few times, then deflates, closing her eyes. Zuko hangs his head. His heart is thrashing wildly against his ribs, still frantic because of her touch. Every part of him that she touched feels alive, as if she has somehow introduced lightning to his blood stream. Inside, they can hear panicked shouting; some sort of fight over whatever had been broken.
Katara sighs slowly. She drops her hands, starts to step around Zuko, but he catches her gently. "Wait," He whispers. He doesn't know if he's imagining the desperate note in his voice, but he lifts his hands to circle her shoulders with his arms. "Don't go just yet."
For a moment, he's afraid she'll pull away, that she'll leave him here in the dissipating steam. Instead she slides her arms around his waist and pulls him in close. Relief crashes over him. Zuko buries his face in Katara's hair and breathes in deeply, inhaling the scent of the ocean that clings to her. Her hands press against his spine, his ribs, as if she too is afraid he'll suddenly slip out of her reach, and the thought soothes him. To know this is soothing to the wounds he'd inflicted upon himself.
Zuko holds Katara long enough for their hearts to settle, for the steam to completely disappear. When the shouting inside becomes louder, he reluctantly releases her, brushing a kiss to her hair before he steps away. Katara exhales and twists her hands between them to remove the water from their bodies. She drops it onto the pavement and steps away from Zuko. Her cheeks are rosy, her mouth a bit swollen from the force of his kisses. Zuko smiles softly as he watches her head for the door.
Katara pauses just before she opens it. She looks at Zuko and smiles at him, and the warmth in it sinks into his bones. Then she opens the door and steps inside. "What happened?" She asks with a sigh. "Who broke what?" Instantly the voices begin to overlap one another, eager to absolve themselves of the blame. The doors shuts behind Katara and muffles the sound.
Zuko drops his head back and releases a slow breath. He's aware of the heat of the sun, but it is nothing compared to the heat Katara's touch has left behind. He touches his lower lip with a trembling finger. Shaking his head, Zuko stays outside long enough to regulate his breathing. When he feels like he has a semblance of control back, he heads inside to help investigate the accident.
They come together again beneath the rising sun.
Zuko sinks onto the edge of the bed after he finishes his forms and his meditations. There is no one else up right now, this much he knows; he rises with the sun. Everyone else prefers to sleep in. Scratching at his bare shoulder, he hums thoughtfully to himself. Should he get up and start breakfast? If he did, Katara wouldn't have so much work to do and the others wouldn't have to wait for the food. The down side is that it could potentially grow cold before the others get up, but he can fix that easily enough.
A soft knock at the door startles him. He looks up as it opens, and his heart leaps when Katara peeks inside. She is never up this early, yet here she is, slipping into his room.
Zuko straightens immediately. Katara shuts the door behind him and turns around, leaning against the frame for a moment. She stands there in only her wrappings, her hair completely free and unruly in the early morning sun. It is a breath taking sight. For a moment she lingers there, hesitant, and then she crosses the room. Zuko watches her with wide eyes. His heart is in his throat and the pounding is drowning out every other noise. She rounds the bed and stops before him.
"Morning," Katara whispers, and the shy notes in her voice melt him completely.
Zuko shakes his head a bit. "What are you doing here?" He asks quietly. His hands reach for her of their own accord.
She takes his hands and steps closer. "I've missed you," She confesses. She lifts one leg and braces her knee on the bed, against Zuko's. "I can't stop thinking about yesterday. I had no idea just how much I've missed your touch until you actually touched me again."
The breath rushes from his lungs in a soft exhale. Zuko shakes his head again and lets go of Katara's hands. He takes her waist, pulls her closer. "Come here," He mumbles. The same intense need that had overcome him yesterday is rising now, demanding that he touch her before it's too late, before they are interrupted again.
Katara climbs into Zuko's lap and cups his cheeks, tips his chin up, and kisses him. Her mouth is soft and pliant against his, her kisses slow and gentle. Zuko sighs into her mouth and wraps his arms around her middle. He holds Katara close, relishes in the way her body fits so perfectly against his.
Then her hands begin to wander, fingers trailing down his chest, and it awakens the fire that resides deep within him. He tugs her lower lip gently between his teeth as her hands press against his waist before wandering back up. The touch is feather light, yet it sends bolts of electricity through his blood, awakening him properly. He places a hand against her back and holds her closer, presses kisses along the curve of her jaw, trailing down her neck with fast burning embers.
Katara moans, a soft breath of sound that seeps through Zuko's skin to arouse him further. He pulls her closer, presses his hips against hers, letting her feel the evidence of it. Her breath catches in her throat and she presses down, grinds against him in a way that robs him of his breath.
He presses kisses along her shoulder, reaches beneath her arm for the knot that holds her wrappings together. His fingers tremble as he plucks it apart, as he unravels the material. Katara is patient; her hands wander along his back and shoulders, little touches that both tease and soothe him. He's missed her so much that it's been a physical ache in his chest, one she's ridding him of by the minute.
Zuko drops the material in a pile behind Katara. His eyes follow his hands as they map out her sides, her waist, her ribs, relearning the shape of her. The soft light of the rising sun plays across her brown skin, stealing his breath with sight. She is glowing, here in his arms, looking entirely otherworldly. The bearer of his element caresses her skin as lovingly as he does; she shimmers as though she is made of the finest gold known to man.
He lets his hands travel once more. His fingers follow the curve of her breasts, heart pounding as his thumbs brush over the sensitive peaks of her nipples. Katara inhales, arches against his hands, moans softly. She shifts in his lap and lifts his head to kiss him. Her mouth is warm and demanding, her tongue sliding across his lower lip to meet his. Her hands tangle themselves in his hair as his busy themselves with removing the lower half of her wrappings. They are a bit more complicated, like he remembers, but the memory allows him to make quick work of the extensive pattern hiding the rest of her from him.
The white strips unravel steadily until they sit in a heap around Katara's thighs. She pushes them away and exposes herself completely to the stark hunger in Zuko's gaze. His fingers trail over her thigh to slide between them, and he groans softly when he finds her already wet - wet and ready for him. The knowledge makes his head spin. He takes it a step further by circling her clit with his thumb, just enough pressure to make her moan and rock against his hand. Zuko closes his eyes. He is painfully hard now, trapped beneath the confining material of his pants, and he is aching to be buried inside of her, to be joined with her in the most intimate of ways.
Katara shares his sentiment, because she lifts up enough to tug his pants down his hips. Zuko obliges her by lifting his hips. He sighs with relief when the offending material leaves his body and joins Katara's clothing, scattered somewhere behind them. The air feels cool against his heated skin as it brushes across him and he's thankful for that extra relief. Katara's gaze devours him, her hands moving hungrily over his hips. Zuko gasps when her fingers find his cock. She strokes him once, twice, three times, and makes him feel as though his blood has been replaced with molten lava.
"Now," She whispers, shifting closer, "Now, Zuko, I don't want to wait any longer. I need you inside of me."
Something inside of him tightens to the point of pain. He's wanted this, wanted her, for so long now that he's almost afraid he's dreaming. Zuko adjusts himself as Katara shifts so that her entrance is poised over the head of his cock, a blatant and open invitation that he has no intention of wasting. Slowly, he slides into her, inch by inch, until he is buried inside of her, just as he wished to be. Her gasps mingle with the hiss of air that escapes between his teeth. His hands tighten around her hips, basking for a moment in the sensations swamping him.
Katara is not so patient. She rolls her hips with a soft whine, head falling back to expose the brown column of her throat. She finds the rhythm she wants, a steady and constant rocking of her hips, a movement so fluid that it robs Zuko of any air left in his lungs. He kisses every inch of her that he can reach, relearning the shape and taste of her, memorizing it all once more.
Katara laces her fingers against the back of Zuko's neck, rests her forehead to his. Her eyes are wide and dark with the desire running through her; her hair is a wild veil falling around her shoulders, sticking to her cheeks and jaw. Zuko has never seen a more beautiful sight.
He groans softly. "Agni, I've missed you so much," He breathes. The words tremble in the air between them. He slides his hand along her back and presses her closer, wanting no space between them. His mouth wanders across her shoulder and closes over the crook of her neck, teeth nipping gently to leave behind evidence of his affection.
Katara cries out quietly. She arches against him, hips moving faster. "I've missed you, too," She whispers, "So much - just as much."
Her nimble fingers untangle to travel into his hair. She tugs lightly, twists her fingers in the damp locks, and Zuko groans against her neck. The fire in his belly is growing, growing, growing. He removes his mouth from her neck to kiss down her collar bone, down her chest, and Katara arches once more to accommodate him, eager for more of his touch. His lips graze the swell of her breast, slow enough to make her whine, before his tip of his tongue traces her nipple. She inhales and he closes his mouth, teasing her with slow scrapes of his teeth until she whimpers. He vividly remembers how sensitive this part of her body is to his touch and takes his time lavishing her with attention, wanting her hot and wild and bothered for him, only for him.
"Zuko," Katara moans, tugging at his hair. The breathless need in her voice burns him up to the point that he thinks he might shatter into a million pieces at any second. She rides him faster and curls one hand around his shoulder, as though she needs him to ground herself to this earth.
He lifts his head to watch her. She is beautiful in the throes of pleasure, her skin flushed, hair unruly and untamed, chest heaving with in an attempt to catch her breath. He presses his hands to her back to hold her up, perfectly happy to support her while she takes what she wants from him. Just watching her like this is arousing; he can feel the pressure beginning to build inside of him. It's beginning to threaten to drag him under and he thinks he'd be happy to go like this.
Katara presses her cheek to Zuko's temple. Her hips are undulating now, rolling quickly to meet the tide preparing to overtake her. Her arms circle Zuko's neck and he buries his face in her shoulder with a low moan. He doesn't bother fighting the feelings inside of him, doesn't bother trying to slow anything down, but instead welcomes the heat boiling through his veins. He reaches between them, slips his fingers between her legs, and rubs her clit in time with the rocking of her hips.
"Oh, La, yes!" Katara gasps, head dropping back. Her hair tumbles around her, the ends of it brushing along his thighs. "Yes, Zuko, yes!" She bites her lower lip, arching, and Zuko cannot look away. He obliges her, gives her exactly as she wants, and watches as her back arches further, watches as her gasps become louder and louder. With his free hand, he grabs a fistful of her hair and tugs her down so that he can kiss her. He swallows her cries as she comes, thrusts his hips up twice to make her gasp into his mouth and arch into his chest. Her nails dig into his flesh, and it's all he needs to follow her over the edge. Zuko moans into Katara's mouth as he comes, thrusting into her almost helplessly as the pleasure breaks and crashes over him.
Katara falls into him and Zuko holds her up easily. She trembles against him, little after shocks running through her body. Zuko closes his eyes. He buries his face in her neck, struggling for a moment to believe that the moment is real, that he hasn't dreamed it up. When Katara lifts her head, she exhales unsteadily and pries her hair from her neck and shoulders and face, then pushes Zuko's hair off of his forehead. Her eyes are soft and drowsy. Her mouth curves into a slow smile and she leans into him, kisses him slowly. Zuko sighs into her mouth, his hands falling to her waist to pull her closer.
"Mmm," Katara hums. She lays her head against Zuko's shoulder. "I might have to wake up early for more of these visits."
Zuko laughs softly. He pulls out of her gently and kisses Katara's nose, then lays back against the pillows, holding her against his heart. Here, in the privacy of his room, wrapped in the light of the morning sun, a sense of peace settles over him. He feels properly satiated, as though her touch alone can banish any dark shadow in his mind.
Katara reaches down to pull the blanket over their hips. "I'm staying here," She mumbles, "I have a while before I need to do anything."
"Good." Zuko kisses Katara's forehead, strokes her hair tenderly. "I'll make breakfast today. Whatever Suki tried to make yesterday was awful."
Katara snorts her agreement. She settles into Zuko's arms and lets her eyes drift closed, satisfied and happy. Zuko, however, is far too awake to sleep. So he contents himself with holding Katara while she does, allows that contentment to wash over him and blanket him in a way he has never felt before. He turns his gaze to the light streaming in through the window and silently thanks Agni for the blessing he's been given this morning.
The market isn't terribly crowded, but it makes Zuko uneasy all the same. He touches the edge of his hood to make sure it's still covering his face. It isn't his first trip to the market, but if anyone were to recognize him, there would be hell to pay.
It's a necessary trip; Katara needs a new pot to cook with, since the old one had been broken in some game between Sokka and Toph. Sokka had insisted they all go to get out of the house, and while it had seemed like a bearable idea at the time, now Zuko just feels uncomfortable. He pulls the cloak tighter about his shoulders and trails along after the others with his head down.
At the head of their group, Katara looks over her shoulder to find him. When their eyes meet, she offers him a warm smile. It settles his nerves enough to allow him to breathe. He slips between their friends until he's standing behind her, following her lead through the market. His gaze wanders as they go. He had never been allowed to a market growing up, but almost everything out for sale is very familiar to him. Zuko allows himself a small smile. He recognizes many of the foods in the stalls, many of the fabrics and trinkets and toys and instruments. Despite the ever present discomfort during each of these visits, he finds he enjoys them to some degree.
The others begin to wander off, but Zuko stays close to Katara. He holds the bag open obediently as she selects the fruits and vegetables she deems worthy and watches as Aang introduces Toph to a young messenger hawk across from them. She yelps when the bird flutters his wings, and Zuko looks away with a smile. He's careful to keep the left side of his face away from the vendor busy tending to Katara's wants. She's perfectly charming, holding on a full fledged conversation while she selects and pays for the food. Zuko inclines his head to the man as they leave. He's very impressed with her people skills.
Katara wrinkles her nose as they pass by a stall selling komodo chickens, but she stops and purchases three. Zuko's responding smile lights up his eyes. She detests komodo chicken, but he adores it. "Thank you," He says sincerely, taking the birds with a bow from the vendor. He places them carefully in an empty bag so as not to contaminate anything else.
The disgust remains on her face, but her eyes are warm. "I don't know how you can stand those things," She responds, shaking her head. "They're so chewy. And the spices everyone recommends for them never taste right."
"So I shouldn't kiss you after dinner, then?" He questions, his arm winding around her waist. He leans down and places a kiss on her cheek, grinning against it when she huffs and pushes at him.
"Absolutely not." She pushes against his chest again, turning away dramatically when he lets her go to stick her pert nose in the air. "You shouldn't even come near me if you're thinking about that gross food."
Zuko chuckles softly. A quiet bubble of happiness fills the expanse of his chest. To be able to show her his affection so openly is a gift he will not take for granted.
Zuko follows Katara with a small smile as she winds through the market to find what they really need - a new cooking pot. She sighs as she surveys the selections. "I loved my old pot. It was so reliable."
"Still can't believe they were dumb enough to toss rocks at each other in the house." He still doesn't understand why Sokka had bothered challenging Toph, an earthbender, when it was obvious she'd win whatever game they were playing. Zuko looks around at the selections available. They all look acceptable to him, but he can't say he knows much about kitchenware, only what he's picked up in the last few weeks.
Katara takes her time with her selection and Zuko remains at her side without complaint. He holds their purchases for her while she studies each pot, giving his opinion here and there when she seems indecisive, but is otherwise a silent observer.
Eventually Katara settles on a black pot that's a size or two bigger than the last one. She inspects it carefully, tests the weight in her hands, runs her fingertip along the rim. When she's satisfied, she pays the vendor for it and sweeps the pot into her arms with a decisive nod. Zuko places the bags of their other purchases inside of the pot and takes it from Katara. It's a bit on the heavy side, but nothing he can't handle. He follows her through the market, watching as she collects the others from various stalls and stands.
Zuko falls to the back of the group once more. He listens to everyone chattering, drawn in by Suki's argument with Toph about whether or not apples are better than mangoes. He snorts his disagreement. Mangoes are clearly better. Katara turns around to gape in horror at Suki. She catches Zuko's eye and grimaces with him in solidarity. He listens to her side with Toph with a small smile.
Sokka's insistence leads them to a small tavern. It's dark inside, quiet thanks to the lack of people. Still, Zuko ushers everyone to a table in the back. He takes up a chair closest to the wall, adjusts his hood, and watches as Katara and Suki find whoever is in charge to get their drinks. He can't seem to pull his gaze away from Katara.
Even now, her Fire Nation disguise is a little too distracting; it doesn't seem fair that she can pull of every color available. His eyes trace the generous expanse of skin exposed between the two pieces of the outfit. The urge to span her waist between his hands is a strong temptation. He studies the way her hair tumbles down to her lower back and longs to bury his face in the softness of it. Zuko sighs quietly. Doesn't matter what she's wearing, really, he'd find her beautiful in a brown paper bag.
Beside him, Toph chuckles quietly. "Oh, Sparky," She sighs, "You are so entertaining."
Zuko rolls his eyes. He tugs his hood further over his head to hide the flush creeping under his skin. "Careful," He responds airily, "I've been seeing quite a few geckos running around the house. They're big, too."
Toph inhales quietly. She swings her head in Zuko's direction at the same time she swings her fist at his arm. He grunts and laughs, grinning as she props her dirty feet up on the table, crossing her arms. He can hear her muttering about him under her breath.
Katara and Suki return to them with a tray of drinks. Suki nabs the last open chair, the one beside Sokka, and sticks her tongue out. Katara scowls playfully and sets the drinks down. Her eyes scan the area around them, looking for an empty chair, then land on Zuko.
Zuko glances around too, preparing to stand to offer his chair when he doesn't see any others available. Aang is already on his feet, vying for Katara's attention, waving his hand at his now open seat, eyes round and hopeful. Katara spares one look for Aang and gives him a sweet but absent smile. "I've got a seat," She says, "But thanks, Aang." She moves past the disappointed look on his face, rounding the table to get to the other side of it.
Zuko, perched on the edge of his chair, takes another look around. He still doesn't see any available seats open. When he looks up, Katara is before him. She motions for him to sit back in his chair, so he obliges, scooting back, brows furrowed in confusion. The second his back touches the chair, she sits down in his lap. His spine stiffens, his heart lurching loudly against his ribs. Katara settles comfortably, brushes her hair off of her shoulder.
Zuko stares up at her in shock. He hears a ripple of surprised noises echo around the table, but Katara simply reaches for her drink and sips from it calmly. She shifts around until she's settled comfortably across his thighs, drink in hand, and reaches into the cooking pot on the table to study the contents tucked away inside of it. Zuko looks around the table quickly, eyes wide, face beet red. Everyone is staring at them in open shock - everyone but Aang, who looks stuck somewhere between hurt and anger.
The silence finally grabs Katara's attention. She looks up at everyone and furrows her brows. "What?"
"Um," Suki answers. Her eyes flit to Sokka, who looks ready to combust. "We just - we didn't know you two were that close?" Again she glances at Sokka and lays a restraining hand on his arm, unsure of how he'll react.
"Oh." Katara shrugs. She looks down at Zuko. This close, he can see the blush coating her cheek bones. Somehow, it allows him to relax. He gives her a small smile and touches her lower back lightly. "Yeah, I guess we are. He's okay most of the time."
Zuko chuckles softly. "Okay enough to be your chair," He points out. He lets his fingers skitter along her side, the touch light enough to make her shiver and squirm. Katara laughs softly and catches his hand. She surprises him once more by holding his hand in place against her hip. He looks down, his cheeks warmer now, and leaves his hand beneath hers. Butterflies beat at this stomach, but his heart feels like it's flying through the sky.
Beside him, Toph cackles quietly. "And I'm supposed to be the blind one here," She scoffs. "You guys just don't pay attention."
Immediately the table breaks out into a loud argument. Their voices are loud and overlapping, amplified by the silence of the otherwise empty room. The noise earns them a few annoyed looks from the owner, but they're left to their antics.
Katara shakes her hair out, careful not to hit Zuko in the face with it. She returns their bags to the inside of the pot for safe keeping and passes Zuko his drink. He thanks her and takes a sip, then sets it on the table. His other hand settles on Katara's thigh beneath the table top.
"Are you sure about this?" He asks softly. Uncertainty fills his voice; her move was bold and open, a blatant display of how she feels.
Katara tips her head. She laces her fingers through Zuko's and pulls on his arm until it's settled completely around her middle. "I am," She assures him. Her voice is just as soft, filled with a tenderness that makes his throat tight. "They would have found out eventually. Better to get it out of the way now."
His chest tightens as well. She intended for everyone to know because she intends to stay with him. Zuko's heart feels so full that he's worried it might burst. He places a light kiss against Katara's shoulder and squeezes her thigh gently, unsure of how else to reciprocate with words.
Toph sighs dramatically. "And so it begins," She says, shaking her head. "You two are gonna be worse than Snoozles and Warrior Queen. I'm doomed."
It settles inside of him, this sudden sense of peace, beneath a sky painted the color of blood as Sozin's comet makes its appearance.
Zuko stares up the shades crimson staining the clouds, streaks of fire left behind in the comet's wake. He can feel it; the fire within him is responding, hot and fierce and demanding to be released. It is power unlike anything he has never known before and it is exhilarating.
Katara sits beside him. Her eyes are trained on the ocean now, where the sky is warped and distorted as they fly across the water. Her stalwart faith in Aang has helped to settle his nerves, and her presence is the reason for the serenity residing inside of him. She looks like a warrior crafted lovingly by the spirits of the moon and the ocean, standing out in sharp relief against the fire in the sky around her. Zuko knows deep within his soul that he would never be able to conquer this monumental task without her by his side. She is right; they can handle Azula. Aang will defeat his father. She is right. She has to be right.
Zuko runs a hand through his hair and looks at Katara. He watches the wind tug her hair out behind her shoulders, studies the sharp cut of her jaw, the sheer determination on her face. She has no intention of losing today. She has no intention of letting any other outcome happen. He has never felt more blessed in his life than he does right now. Beside him is one of the fiercest warriors the world has ever known. Katara is powerful, a true master bender, and here she is, at his side, ready to change the history of the world with him.
She turns her eyes to him when she feels the weight of his gaze. They are vividly blue, piercing and intense. He knows she is reading him, picking up on the thoughts and emotions tumbling around inside of his head. "Zuko," She says. Her voice is soft, almost stolen by the wind, but he hears her anyway.
There is something in the way she says his name that makes everything inside of him grow still. He reaches for her hand and kisses her palm. "Thank you," He tells her. "Thank you for being here with me today. There is no one else I could have trusted to do this with me. You're the strongest person I know."
Something sharp sticks against his ribs as he watches her, drinks in all that she is, and his fingers tighten around hers. "Thank you for giving me another chance," He continues. "I didn't deserve it, but you gave it to me anyway, and I will be grateful for it for the rest of my life." He shakes his head when she opens her mouth. "I mean it. I need to say this in case - just in case. I'm grateful for everything you've given me. If nothing else, know this. You mean the world to me, Katara, and I can't ever properly express how glad I am to have you by my side."
Katara watches him. Her mouth softens at the edges, and tears glisten in her eyes. She shakes her head and lets go of his hand, grabs his tunic to tug him close. Her mouth meets his in a kiss so intense it steals his breath. "We can handle this," She insists, but a small tremor in her voice betrays her. She rests her forehead to his. "Tell me again later, when we're in your room in the palace, with all of our friends there, and the world is safe."
Zuko nods once. He kisses Katara again, much softer this time, another attempt at conveying how he feels. When he pulls back, he finds Katara's hand. His fingers lace through hers and hold on tightly. Her strength is beginning to seep into him, filling the cracks and fissures in a way that only she can.
Capital City comes into view. There, in Royal Caldera City, is where history will change forever. Zuko is acutely aware of everything that could go wrong, of each way a disaster could happen. Still, he holds onto the calm inside of him. He knows himself now; he knows what he is capable of, and he knows what he can accomplish. He knows that he has the power to help bring about the change the world so desperately needs.
And he is not alone. Katara holds tightly to his hand, a reminder that he will never be alone again.