“You had the nightmare again didn’t you?” Iroh asks.
“Yes! I was too slow.” Zuko says out loud. “Too slow.” He repeats almost to himself this time. It was only a nightmare, but it felt so real. He was a step behind, only a step behind and he was too late. One step behind and he was unable to stop Azula’s lightning. He tries to catch his breath but it’s a task that feels next to impossible when his rapidly beating heart will not go back to it’s normal pace and the sound of the blood rushing in his ears makes his head feel as if it’s ballooning in and out. If he didn’t know any better he would swear that he was having a heart attack. The thin layer of sweat that covers him almost feels like acid burning away at his skin. Stripping him of all comforting and rational thoughts. It isn’t real. It isn’t real. It isn’t real. He repeats to himself over and over in his mind. It isn’t real.
The image of Katara being struck by lightning while he could only stand there and watch plays through his mind over and over. Whether his eyes are closed or opened he can see her lifeless body falling to the ground. He can hear the thud as her body makes impact with the pavement. The sound in his head makes him feel sick. Makes him want to vomit but his stomach is too tight too knotted up for anything to come out. Not real. It’s not real. None of it is real. It’s just a nightmare.
Not once since the day he fought his sister has he ever had a nightmare about the lightning hitting him. Even when he tries to think about it all he can recall is a bright flashing light and the pain, and then Katara’s hands on him softer than a butterfly. As soft as the day she touched his scar in the crystal catacombs.
When he thinks about Katara on that unforgiving day it’s different. At night when he closes his eyes he knows it won’t be long before the nightmare begins. The memories of Katara saving him are soft warm and fuzzy. The thoughts about him saving Katara are cold, hard, and sharp. Like Azula’s lightning. Like her laughter. That shrill high pitched maniacal laughter that loops endlessly through his mind. “I’ll show you lightning.” Those words may as well be burned across his chest right along with the scar his sister gave him. “I’ll show you lightning.” She had shown him all right. She had shown him the price of his own arrogance. He knew that his sister was unbalanced that day. Still he had to mock her. Had to go for the hurt instead of the take down. He’d goaded her even though he knew her history of striking out at the very people that he loved most in the world. She’d done it first with their uncle and then with Katara.
“Drink this.” His uncle says and hands him a cup of jasmine tea. “You will feel better.”
He would feel better if he could see Katara. He knew she was all right but he still needed to see that she was all right not just physically, but mentally. What kind of scars that he couldn’t see had that final battle with his sister left on Katara? If he asked her about them would she tell him, or did she resent him as much as he resented himself for putting her in the position where a split second decided whether she lived or died.
He took the cup of tea from his uncle and the cup rattled against the saucer as his hand shook. He was still wound up and nauseous as the memory of the dreams worked their way through his system like a bad infection.
“She is safe because of you not despite you.” His uncle says. He always seemed to know what toxic thoughts were turning over and over in his mind.
“The war is over there is no need to still try and fight the battle.”
He wants to tell his uncle that it’s easy for him to say. He isn’t the one who has the image of holding a dying Katara in his arms. Her eyes looking up at him full of pain and sadness as she wonders why he didn’t save her.
“Why didn’t you save me?“ Katara says to him in his dreams. "I thought you would protect me. I thought you would save me the way that I saved you.” In the background his sister is still laughing.
“Strike me too!” He yells at her in his dream. “This isn’t fair. You have to strike me too!”
She doesn’t. Of course she doesn’t. This is a nightmare. His nightmare and to live in a world where Katara dies as a result of his carelessness is of course a nightmare.
“Have you ever talked to Katara about what happened that day?”
“Perhaps your nightmare and Katara’s nightmare are one in the same.” His uncle suggest. “Getting your feelings out in the open might do both of you good. You wouldn’t want her to keep feeling the way that you are feeling right now would you?”
“No. Of course not uncle.” He takes a sip of tea. It’s heated to the perfect temperature like always. His uncle knew he would have this nightmare again and was waiting near by and ready to deal with the aftermath. What would he do without his uncle? Besides his mother no one else had ever loved him unconditionally. He was an uncle only in name. In every other way he was a father. Zuko closes his eyes as the warmth of the tea flows through his body. It reminds him of a hug from his mother. From Katara. The thought about her having the same nightmares about not being able to save him unsettles him. He doesn’t want her losing sleep over something that is his fault.
“I think I’ll go for a walk.” He says. “Maybe it will help me clear my head.”
His uncle has set out a bucket of water for him. Probably to ladle out a glass of water for him should he need something to drink, but he takes the bucket and pours it over himself to wash away the sick sweaty feeling. To wash away the memories of his nightmares.
“Thank you uncle for always being here when I need you.”
“You are welcome Prince Zuko.”
He slips into his dress robes and shoves his feet into his boots and steps out into the cool night air. No one save for him is about the palace grounds and for that he is extremely grateful. He doesn’t want to be seen by anyone right now. He enjoys the way the shadows swallows him up whole. Nothing to see. He makes his way towards the Royal Gardens. The Royal Gardens were always a favorite place of his. His father thought it odd that a boy his age would want to spend so much time among the flowers, but his father never learned to appreciate the beauty of the world. His father didn’t care for art beyond collecting it as a show of power and wealth. The Royal Gardens were no different. He only tolerated them because they were home to some of the rarest flowers in the world but beyond that he could careless about them.
Zuko on the other hand appreciated every single flower in the gardens and the skill and care it took to grow them all. The gardens weren’t just a display of power and wealth. They weren’t merely a display of beauty either. The gardens were also a display of love. Just the smallest touch could have the biggest effect upon a flower. One touch could cause a flower to wilt or bloom. Every time Katara touched him Zuko felt like he was blooming because every time she had touched him it had been with the utmost care. It shamed him that he could not claim the same. He thought about all the times he’d handled her roughly not caring if she wilted or not. He had tried to do everything in his power to make up for the times he had not handle her with care but he offend wondered was it enough?
He had risked his life to save hers but he felt it was the very least that he could do. She owed him nothing but still she stayed here in the Fire Nation to ensure that he healed from his wounds properly. Was it duty keeping her here or perhaps something more? Stop it. Zuko said to himself. It was foolish and selfish to even think that way. She was here to heal him and nothing more. Aang was the one she wanted to be with and he couldn’t fault her for that. Katara would never be his girl and he had no one but himself to blame.
He sighed. This walk was supposed to be clearing his head but it was doing anything but. He should have been focusing on the flowers. He walked along the rose section of the gardens. The fire ember roses were the first to be displayed. They were a favorite of his. The huge blooms were double ruffled like angel face roses, but their petals glowed like burning embers that sparked a fire. Azula had like to step on the roses. Crushing the head of the flowers so she could watch them stop glowing like that of the embers of a dying fire. Like Katara’s eyes in his nightmares. When he held Katara in his nightmares it was her eyes he could never tear himself away from. Watching the light go out of them was like having his soul slowly being siphoned from his body. In his nightmares her eyes stared at him but he knew they couldn’t see him. There was nothing behind them. No signs of life in them. Her mouth still open asking the eternal question.
“Why didn’t you save me?”
It isn’t real. It isn’t real. It isn’t real.
“She is safe because of you not despite you.” Why couldn’t he just listen to his uncle’s voice? It had never lead him astray before. Somewhere on the palace grounds Katara was alive and well. She was safe and that was in some way ;even if was the smallest way, was because of him. He sighed if only he could get his mind to fully commit to the idea.
He walked further into the garden trying to shut his brain down so that maybe he could get a few hours of sleep. For a moment he pondered which way he should go left or right when he heard someone weeping. It was faint but it was definitely weeping. Who was out in the garden this time of night? And why were they crying? Zuko turned left towards the sound of the weeping.
“Why did I freeze? If I didn’t freeze he would have never had to-.”
Katara jumped startled by the sound of his voice. “Oh, sorry.” She says. “I didn’t think anyone would be out here this late.” Quickly she wiped her tears away.
“You rise with the moon.” Zuko says under his breath. “Are you all right?” He asks out loud.
“Its nothing. I couldn’t sleep.”
“Oh, well that usually doesn’t lead to tears.”
“What are you doing up?” Katara ask ignoring his question completely. She pats the stone bench she’s sitting on.“You can sit down if you want to. I don’t mind the company.”
“Bad dreams.” He says before he can think to stop himself.
Katara looks up at him. Her face is beautiful etched in the moonlight. Her white nightgown stands out against the back drop of the dark red ember roses. Her blue eyes seem darker but they are still full of light full of life. She’s like a master piece painting. She is a work of art. Her hair is down free from it’s usual constraints. It cascades down her shoulders in soft ripples. Zuko resist the urge to reach out and run his fingers through her hair.
“I’ve been having bad dreams too.”
“Want to talk about it?” He asks remembering his uncle’s advice.
Katara shrugs. “I don’t know if that’s such a good idea.”
“Why not? I mean if you don’t mind my asking.” He amends.
“It’s about that day.” She says. “The day we fought your sister. We never really talk about it so I just figured that you wouldn’t want to.”
“Oh. No.” He says.
“No! I meant I do want to talk about it. It would be OK if it’s OK with you.”
Katara swirls a strand of hair around the ends of her finger and then lets it go only to repeat the whole process again. “I keep having dreams, she shakes her head, no nightmares, they’re nightmares about not saving you in time.” Her voice is so quiet that Zuko has to lean in to hear her. “In my dreams you- I have to watch you-.” She shakes her head again. “I can’t.” She says and gets up from the bench. “I can’t talk about this out loud.”
“I’ve been having the same nightmares.” He says. He walks up to Katara and puts his hands on her shoulders. “I think it means something that we’re having the same nightmares. Bottling up what we’re feeling isn’t helping. It might even be what’s causing our nightmares.”
“The nightmares are just so awful.” Katara says. He feels a shiver pass through her and he shivers himself. “If I hadn’t of froze you would have never had to take that bolt of lightning for me.” She breaks down into wracking sobs.
“It’s not your fault Katara.” Zuko says and pulls her into his arm. “It’s mines.”
“What?” Katara ask. Her eyes are still full of tears. They remind Zuko of forget-me-nots after a rainstorm.
“I taunted Azula and to get back at me she went after you. She knew it would kill me if anything happened to you.” It was on the tip of his tongue to say that he loved her but he couldn’t. She was the avatar’s girl. What kind of friend would that make him if tried to come in between their relationship?
“That still doesn’t make it your fault Zuko. Azula’s plan from the start was to separate us.”
“And I let her.” Zuko said. “You said she was trying to play me and I let her.”
“Only because you were trying to protect me, Zuko and you did.”
He was still holding her and her arms were still wrapped around him. He may have been the firebender but she felt warmer than him. He never wanted to let her go. He wanted to whisper in her ear how much that he wanted to be with her. Every time they were together they worked so well together.
"You protected me too.” Zuko reminded her.
“So your sister failed. She didn’t separate us she brought us closer together.”
“Maybe too close.” Zuko said and stepped out of Katara’s arms.
“I’m sorry.” Zuko said and stared at his boots. He could feel a blush creep up his face and he hoped that the darkness of the night would cover it up. “I should go back to my room.”
“Why? If I upset you I’m sorry.”
“It isn’t you Katara it’s me. I like you. A lot. More than I should. More than a friend.”
“Oh.” Katara says and sits back down on the bench.
Zuko can’t bring himself to turn around and look at her. He feels so embarrassed and ashamed. This is not what she came out here for.
“No, please don’t say it. I already know. I just hope I haven’t ruined our friendship.” Just because things hadn’t worked out between him and Mai didn’t mean that Katara and Aang weren’t working out. If she was happy with Aang then he was happy for her. The truth was that he’d rather see her with someone else than not see her at all. It didn’t matter to him if she was the avatar’s girl. He’d still risk his life for hers in a heartbeat. Even if he knew he wasn’t going to make he’d take a bolt of lightning for her again and again and again.
“I’m not with Aang. I told him I was confused.”
“About my feelings. For you.”
“Oh.” Zuko says and sits down next to Katara. “Aah. What uh w-would those feelings be?”
“I like you as more than a friend, but I’m scared. We’re so much alike but were also very different. Our cultures. Our families. Our status in life. I like you but I have to think about more than just my feelings.“
"Of course you do.” Zuko felt his heart unravel like thread and fall somewhere in the vicinity of his boots. He stared at his feet as if he could see his heart lying there. he might was well kick it across the garden floor for the good it was doing him to have it. “You should. We both should, but we also shouldn’t live our lives with any regrets. If there’s one thing almost dying taught me it’s that. I don’t want to make up your mind for you Katara and I couldn’t even if I tried.”
“But you wouldn’t. I know you wouldn’t because I know you, Zuko. The same way you know me. Every part of me. Even my darkness.”
“No I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t change a single thing about you, Katara. My feelings for your aren’t going to change, but that’s not your burden to bare it’s mines. I’ll respect your decision, and I hope after all of this you’ll still want to be my friend.”
“Good because I want to be your friend and I want to be something more. I want to be your one and your only. I don’t want to live with any regrets either, and if I don’t take this chance with you I know I’ll regret it for the rest of my life.”
“It’s weird isn’t it? How the universe keeps putting us together after every time we get pulled apart. It’s like were magnets once we stopped facing off against each other and turned around and actually faced each other we came together.”
“I never knew you were so poetic Zuko.”
Zuko found himself turning red again. “I’m not. Not really. Just when I’m around you.” He would hardly call comparing a relationship to magnets poetic but he was glad that Katara thought so.
Katara stood up and Zuko did to. “We should go back now before someone discovers we’re missing. She slipped her hand into his. “Walk me back to my room?”
Zuko swallowed hard but nodded. He would have walked her all the way back to the South Pole if she had asked him to.
They made their way out of the garden stopping occasionally to look at the flowers. Katara’s long gown came down to her toes and gave her the illusion that she was floating on air when she walked. He could relate. He felt like he was floating on air and might never come back down.
The couple came upon Katara’s door way too soon for Zuko’s liking. He didn’t want this night to end.
“Will you be OK?” Zuko asked.
Katara nodded. “I don’t think I’ll be having any more nightmares.” She stood up on her tip toes and kissed him softly on the lips lingering there for a moment. They were still holding hand and he gave hers a squeeze.
“What about you?” Katara asked. “Will you be OK?”
“Yes. I won’t be having any more nightmares either.” Zuko said. “Because my dream just came true.”