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The Space between Happy and Ending

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“Suki?” Katara’s small voice broke the silence. It’s been a few days since the end of the war— but it still didn’t feel like the end. They were still recuperating: Sokka was still in crutches because of his broken leg, Aang was still resting after his battle with Ozai, Toph was taking every opportunity to sleep, and Zuko…

Zuko was still unconscious, and Katara hadn’t left his side since. Suki wondered when she last had a proper night’s sleep.

“What is it, Katara?” Suki made her way quietly to her side, taking care not to wake the others. Even with the war ended, even after the Fire Lord and Azula were taken into custody of the White Lotus, even with relative peace in the world, it still seemed hard for their group to sleep in separate rooms. Still seemed strange not to have at least one person on watch.

“Katara?” Her friend had been silent for such a long time that Suki thought she’d finally drifted off, but in the dull moonlight filtering through the window, she could see her dark hands wringing in her lap.

“How do you know when you love someone?”

That was not what she was expecting. Then again, Suki didn’t really know what to expect in this new world.

And she could safely assume what— or who— this was about. Katara never really told them the details of Zuko and Azula’s Agni Kai, just that the princess cheated, struck Zuko with lightning, and Katara had to take over when Zuko went down.

“What brought this on?” She asked, because something happened between the Agni Kai and Katara’s question— something important.

“How do you know?” Katara pressed, ignoring her question, eyes never leaving Zuko’s prone form.  “Suki, how do you know when you love someone?”

Suki sat down on the stool beside her, chin in hand.

“I guess… I guess it’s when their well-being is more important than your own.”

Katara whimpered, and Suki instinctively reached out and hugged her. She heard her sniff against her shoulder before pulling away.

“Was that how it was, with you and Sokka?” Katara asked, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand.

Suki glanced at Sokka’s sprawled form on the floor, her heart thudding with just the memory of their kiss during the comet, of his outstretched hands as the airship exploded beneath their feet, of the sheer desperation to get back to him, any way that it took.

“Yes,” she replied softly, but her tone left no room for uncertainty. Katara nodded faintly, her gaze back on Zuko.

“I’m so confused.”

“About what?”

Katara sighed.

“About everything.”

 


 

“Love is like warm tea, Prince Zuko,” Uncle Iroh sat placidly on the stool by his bedside, sniffing the steam wafting from his teacup.

“Everything is like tea to you, Uncle,” Zuko said, almost amusedly, because for all the complaining he’d done in the past years over Iroh’s insufferable proverbs, he actually missed his uncle’s presence— and his uncle’s tea— by his side.

“That is because all the great things in life are like tea, nephew,” Iroh replied, pouring him a cup of ginseng tea. “Love, like tea, comforts you. It soothes your aches and heals all ails.”

“Why are you telling me this, Uncle?” He winced as he reached for his cup. He’d woken up to pain— followed shortly by Katara’s healing water and a lecture to stop moving so much— and while the pain in his abdomen had abated, the stiffness of his muscles had not.

“When have I ever needed a reason to say the things I say?” Iroh smiled, sipping his tea. Zuko rolled his eyes and did the same.

They drank in comfortable silence, and by the time Iroh was pouring him his second cup, Zuko had the courage to ask, “The war is really over, isn’t it?”

“Yes, I suppose it is.” His uncle paused mid-pour. “However, difficult times still lie ahead.”

Zuko sighed and slumped back on the pillows propping him up.

“I know. That’s what I’m afraid of.”

“Ah, but as long as you have tea, Prince Zuko, you have nothing to be afraid of.”

Zuko didn’t even bother asking if he meant tea or love, because for his uncle, they were one and the same.

 


 

“I love Katara.”

Sokka paused from eating to look at Aang— the hero of their world, the hope of humanity, the most powerful being in existence— before shoveling his pie into his mouth.

“I know you do, buddy,” he said, flicking crumbs from his tunic.

“I’m not sure she loves me back.” Aang slumped down dejectedly, cheek pressing onto the table. He looked so much like the twelve-year-old boy that he really was, not a thousand Avatar Spirits incarnate.

Sokka squirmed in his seat— damn, this cast is uncomfortable— and tried to channel his inner Wang Fire.

“Love is a complicated thing, my boy,” he stroked his imaginary beard, “Sometimes, love means patience— but sometimes, love also means courage.”

Aang rolled his head so he could look at him with tired, gray eyes. “I don’t know what that means, Sokka.”

“I was being Wang Fire, but I guess he’s not much help,” Sokka straightened up from his old man posture and reached for another slice of pie. “Look, all I’m saying is, sometimes you gotta fight for love, like I did with Suki, but sometimes you gotta learn to let go.”

Like I’m still trying to do with Yue.

“Oh,” the airbender sighed so heavily that some of the plates moved an inch across the table. “That makes more sense. But how do I know which one to do? I saved the world, Sokka. You saved Suki from the Boiling Rock—”

“Erm, technically, Suki saved herself— and the rest of us— when we were escaping,” Sokka still couldn’t get rid of the image of his girlfriend running up the wall and tackling the guards. It was the fiercest, non-magic thing he’d ever seen. She was the fiercest, non-magic girl he’d ever seen. “And she saved me and Toph during the comet.”

“So saving someone doesn’t guarantee that they’ll love you back?”

“Uh, no,” he scratched his head thoughtfully. There was no reason for Suki— or Yue— to love someone like him when there were other more amazing boys around, but they did love him. “They’ll love you back because… because they love you. No other explanation. Everything else you do is just a perk.”

Aang rubbed his eyes tiredly.

“Maybe you should just ask her, Aang,” Sokka said gently.

“I tried, but she’s always so busy healing the wounded, and I keep getting dragged off to meet people because I’m the Avatar , and it’s all so complicated because— because—”

He looked away guiltily, and Sokka was struck with the memory of Aang hiding their father’s letter, a long, long time ago.

“Aang,” he said, trying to keep his voice level, “What did you do?”

“I didn’t do anything!” He stood up, hands clenched on the edges of the table. Sokka just stared at him skeptically until he deflated. “I… I think… I think that time when I went into the Avatar State during the comet… I think it was just a fluke.”

Sokka inhaled the last bit of pie in his mouth.

“W-wha— what?” He gasped in between coughs. Oh man, I think I’m gonna throw up a lung… “But we saw you go all glowy-eyed against the Fire Lord! How could that be a fluke?”

“Because!” Aang balled up his hands and pressed them to his temple, face contorted in too many emotions for Sokka to pinpoint just one. “Guru Pathik said I needed to let go of Katara to access the Avatar State, and I couldn’t, but then I was falling and I thought I was going to die, and I didn’t think of anything else aside from wanting to live! I didn’t even think of her, Sokka! I just didn’t want to die! I didn’t even think of her—”

He collapsed into his chair, all the nervous energy gone.

“I didn’t even think of her, Sokka,” he repeated, cradling his head in his hands. “I’m so selfish. Shouldn’t she be the last thought in my head? Maybe I don’t deserve to love her.”

Sokka reached for his crutches and hobbled his way to the boy. He placed an arm around his shoulders. “There’s nothing selfish about self-preservation, Aang.”

He seemed like he was about to protest, but Sokka cut him off.

“Listen. You’re the bravest, most selfless dude I know. We’re all afraid of dying— of course you are, too, Avatar or not. And if being afraid of dying led you to save the world, hey, you gotta know, no one’s complaining about that— except maybe the Fire Lord. It doesn’t matter if you thought of anyone when you thought you were going to die— what matters is that you lived.”

“Did you think of Suki when you thought you were going to die?”

Sokka swallowed against the lump in his throat. “I thought of Dad.”

Aang nodded in understanding, head still in his hands. His voice was muffled when he finally spoke.

“You were still thinking about someone else. I’m the Avatar. I should have been thinking about saving the world, or at least saving someone — but I just thought about saving myself.

“It’s selfish and unfair.” Aang finally looked up, frowning. “Katara’s always thinking about other people, and I didn’t even think of her when it mattered the most. I didn’t fight for her or let go of her. I forgot everyone else but myself, and that’s when I unlocked the Avatar State. I don’t understand. It doesn’t tie up with what Guru Pathik said.”

“Was it the Guru who told you to let go of Katara?”

“Yes… no,” Aang scratched his head, brows furrowed. “He told me to let go of earthly attachments.”

“Maybe…” Sokka shrugged uncomfortably, because he didn’t know how the boy would handle his theory, “Maybe he meant something different when he told you to let go of earthly attachments. Maybe what you were attached to is the need to save people instead of yourself, because you feel so much pressure to be a good Avatar.”

He took a deep breath. “Maybe you needed to learn that you have to save yourself first before you save the world.”

“But saving the world doesn’t mean Katara will love me back.”

“No,” he let his arm drop from Aang’s small shoulders. “No, it doesn’t.”

Aang sighed. “It’s unfair that I love her like this. I thought if I unlocked the Avatar State, I would’ve already let her go. I thought if I saved the world, we’d be together. Love isn’t fair.”

“I know, buddy,” Sokka slid a plate of fruit tarts towards them and nudged one into his friend’s hand. “But so was war, and you survived that.”

 


 

“Ah, Katara!” The old man suddenly called out while Toph was contemplating on her next move. “Come, join us!”

Sugar Queen’s vibrations were all fluttery and disoriented. Toph wondered if she got any sleep at all. Since Sparky already woke up, she was sure Katara would finally get some rest, but her feet sensed there was still something bothering the girl.

“I… I’m afraid I don’t know how to play Pai Sho, General,” came Katara’s voice. Toph could sense her questioning glance in her direction. She grinned at her and claimed one of Iroh’s tiles.

“It’s perfectly alright, my dear. Toph here has been quite the opponent,” the firebender chuckled. He slid a tile across the board and Toph frowned.

“Are you sure she’s not cheating?” mused Katara quietly. Toph kicked her under the table. Hard.

“I’m blind, not deaf, Sweetness,” she told her, placing a hand on the stone slab and feeling for an opening. There. Can’t believe Iroh didn’t see that.

She laughed as she claimed another tile— but no, wait, her feet sensed that Iroh didn’t feel defeated— he felt smug.

“You play like my nephew, Toph,” he commented, placing his tile on the center and effectively ending the game, but Toph no longer cared because the moment he mentioned Zuko, Katara’s heart did the weirdest lurch she’d ever sensed in a human.

She smirked in Sugar Queen’s direction. “How does Sparky play, Uncle?”

There. Another weird beat. This is going to be fun.

“Oh, Zuko doesn’t quite think things through,” Iroh replied pleasantly, as though they were just talking about the weather, but Toph sensed he knew more than he let on. “Much like your earlier gambit, he sometimes gets overconfident and forgets to see the consequences of his actions.”

Katara squirmed in her seat. Toph fought the glee in her voice as she drummed her fingers on the board as nonchalantly as she could.

“Uh-huh, we all know how cocky Sifu Hotman gets,” she said. “Don’t we, Sugar Queen?”

She was so fluttery that Toph wouldn’t be surprised if she suddenly flew away. “I-I guess. He doesn’t really think about what would happen after he… does stuff.”

“I hope my nephew hasn’t painted himself in such a bad light when he was with you and your friends,” Iroh said, his voice tinged with such regret and sadness that Toph almost forgot she was just making Sweetness spill the dirt on her and Zuko.

“Nah, Sparky’s just rough around the edges, but his heart’s as fluffy as Appa,” Toph assured him. “I told these guys he could be trusted when he followed us to the Western Air Temple, but nooo , they didn’t believe me.”

“I was the first one to trust him,” Katara murmured, so quietly that she had to be talking to herself. “Back in Ba Sing Se.”

Toph snorted. “You’re still not on that, are you? I thought you forgave him after your ‘life-changing field trip’, which I never got, by the way.”

“I did! I trust him now more than anything—but he was still so stupid— he really doesn’t think things through!”

“Whoa, there, Sweetness,” she felt around for Iroh, wondering if the outburst startled him— nope, he seemed as calm as ever. Huh. Toph forgot that Sparky’s outbursts were more… challenging than Katara’s sleep-deprived crankiness.

“What happened between my niece and nephew, my dear?”

Katara breathed in shakily, but she was still such a bundle of nerves that everything spilled out in one breath.

“We arrived just as Azula was being crowned— she challenged him to an Agni Kai— and he agreed and told me that he didn’t want anyone else to get hurt! It was so stupid, he shouldn’t have gone through it alone, and I shouldn’t have let him, I shouldn’t have let Azula separate us— but he acted like he was still trying to prove something— he shouldn’t have to prove that he’s good, because he is, I can’t believe he had to prove something so obvious, and it’s my fault, it’s all my fault—”

Her voice cracked and Toph gulped. She didn’t want her friend to cry— she just wanted to know why Katara’s heart did what it did, but maybe when you want to know why hearts beat, you have to listen to why hearts break, too.  

“Maybe you should’ve gone with him to defeat Azula, Toph, because you can take care of yourself and he wouldn’t have had to risk everything just to protect you!”

Toph stared dumbfoundedly in Katara’s direction, because she didn’t know what to do now that the avalanche of emotions happened. It was always Katara doing the comforting,  always Katara doing the mothering, and all Toph knew was that this was the kind of pain that the waterbender couldn’t heal on her own.

There was a shuffle of fabric, and Katara’s shaky form was engulfed by something warm and solid.

“My nephew owes his life to you, Master Katara,” Iroh said firmly.  

“No,” Katara said just as firmly. “I owe my life to him. Everyone gets it the other way around. If I hadn’t been there, Azula wouldn’t have directed her lightning at me. Zuko— Zuko wouldn’t have had to— he wouldn’t have— he shouldn’t— why did he—”

Toph grabbed one of Katara’s hands and gripped it tightly— it still felt like she would fly away, or disintegrate into nothing.

“He risked everything— his life, his throne, world peace— he risked everything to protect me, General Iroh,” Katara said. “I’m not the reason your nephew is alive— I’m the reason he almost died.”

“Katara,” Toph cut in, because she needed to stop this spiral before she screamed her own head off for the things she couldn’t do on the airships, “Did you fight Azula just because Zuko almost died for you?”

Sweetness swallowed thickly and pulled away from both her and Iroh.

“Yes.”

“Liar.”

“I’m not lying.”

“Yes, you are.”

“Toph, it doesn’t matter why—”

“Yes, it does, Madame Fussy Britches, and if you’re gonna act like human blasting jelly every time we ask you what’s wrong—”

“Ladies,” Iroh’s voice dissolved the fight into sullen silence. “The clarity of one’s thoughts cannot be forced through sheer will. Tea leaves must me allowed to steep in the right temperature; too early and you are left with scalding water with no flavor. Too late, and you are left with bitterness and cold.”

“What does that even mean?” Katara muttered as they left the old General’s suite.

Toph tucked her hands behind her head. “Beats me, Sugar Queen.”

 


 

“Hey, you’re up!”

Aang flew to his bedside on an air scooter while Suki and Sokka followed at a much leisurely pace, Suki carrying a tray with his breakfast and shooing a still-hobbling Sokka away from the food. Sokka crowed happily when he was fast enough to snatch a piece of bread.

Zuko smiled. He missed this. He missed a lot when he was drifting in and out of consciousness. And even though he didn’t approve of their playfulness before, he missed the way his friends goofed off around him, not a care in the world.

“Sorry it isn’t much,” Suki said as she laid the tray down beside him on the bed. “Katara still hasn’t cleared you to have an all-out feast.”

“It’s fine,” he said, reaching for the soup. “Where is she, anyway?”

“She’s with Dad,” Sokka plunked himself down carefully on the stool beside Aang. “Man, I can’t believe you’re gonna be Fire Lord in a week!”

“Neither can I,” murmured Zuko, the salty soup suddenly bitter in his mouth. Fire Lord Zuko. The title still left a strange hole in his chest.

Aang seemed to read his thoughts.

“Don’t worry, Zuko,” he said, clasping his bandaged shoulder. “We’ll always be there to support you, no matter what.”

Zuko gave him a half-hearted smile. “Thanks, Aang.”

“Come on, buddy, we survived a war,” Sokka said, thumping him lightly on the arm. “Everything after that is just cakewalk!”

“Somehow, I find that hard to imagine,” muttered Zuko, because it was true— he’d grown up in war, and war was all he knew. He just couldn’t imagine how peacetime looked like.

Then again, maybe it looked like this— his friends gathered ‘round, acting like the teenagers they were, never having to look over their shoulders again for potential danger. Maybe it would look like the home they’ve built for themselves in the Western Air Temple, or on Ember Island. Maybe peace would look like happiness— Zuko was never happy, not really, but he could count on his friends to remind him.

“You gonna eat that, buddy?” Sokka eyed the rest of his bread woefully, and he caught Aang looking doe-eyed at the egg custard that was supposed to be his dessert.

“Have at it,” Zuko waved his hand at the food, knowing it would all just come back up if he tried to stomach it all, as measly as the meal was. Aang dove for the custard as giddily as Sokka did with the bread, but a shrill voice almost made them drop the pastries.

“What are you doing?”

Katara stood by the doorway, glaring at them with her arms crossed.

“What does it look like we’re doing?” Sokka grinned and tossed a piece of bread into his mouth. “We’re relaxing. You should try it sometime, sis.”

She pinched the bridge of her nose. “You’re not relaxing, you’re eating Zuko’s breakfast! He needs to regain his strength otherwise he’ll fall on his face at his coronation!”

“I’m fine, really,” Zuko quickly intervened,  because it certainly looked like she would fall on her face. He pushed back Aang’s hand from guiltily returning the half-eaten egg custard to his plate and struggled to stand.

She opened her mouth— probably to retort that he clearly not fine since he couldn’t even stand — when a knock on the already ajar door interrupted her.

Chief Hakoda poked his head into the room.

Fleetingly, Zuko tried to remember when his room was as full as this.

(He couldn’t. He didn’t have enough pieces of one family to even come close to what he had now.)

“You’re all here,” the Water Tribesman said, frowning. His eyes landed on Sokka, who dusted himself hurriedly of breadcrumbs. “Sokka, didn’t you promise Bato you’d meet him to show the others to our quarters?”

“I was just doing that!” The Water Tribe boy grimaced guiltily at his companions and grabbed Suki’s hand on his way out. She shook her head amusedly and waved awkwardly over her shoulder at the others.

“Katara, Avatar Aang,” Hakoda addressed the two gravely, “I would like to speak with Prince Zuko alone for a moment.”

Aang nodded and stood up with a dignified air, surreptitiously wiping his sticky fingers on his tunic as he flew near the door. Katara looked doubtfully at her father.

“Dad—”

“Alone , Katara,” Hakoda repeated sternly. Katara’s eyes flickered to Zuko, who half-stood, half-leaned against his bedpost. She bit her lip.

“Make sure you eat all of your breakfast,” she told him before following Aang through the door and closing it behind her.

“Chief Hakoda—” Zuko began, but the Water Tribe man knelt and pressed his head to the floor.

Zuko’s eyes widened. He’d greatly admired the man back at the Boiling Rock for not kneeling to the Warden, for remaining defiant amidst all the brokenness that surrounded him, and yet here Hakoda was, kowtowing to him.

“Chief Hakoda…” Zuko began again, slightly embarrassed, “Please— please stand. You don’t need to bow to me.”

Hakoda glanced up from his position but did not move otherwise. His blue eyes, much like his children’s, were equally soft and fierce.

“I will bow to anyone who saved my daughter’s life,” he said severely, voice thick with emotion. “It is a debt that can never be repaid, Prince Zuko.”

“Sir, there is no debt to be paid,” replied Zuko awkwardly. “I was…” I wasn’t thinking. I don’t know why I did what I did. “I was simply doing the right thing.”

Hakoda appraised him silently and Zuko found himself intently examining his bare feet, unable to meet his intense gaze.

Finally, Hakoda stood.

“You are a good man, Prince Zuko. It was a great honor to have fought by your side. You will make a good Fire Lord.”

Zuko swallowed and met his eyes. Hakoda proffered his hand, and Zuko grasped his forearm tightly, as he had seen Sokka do.  

“Please know that you will always be welcome in the Fire Nation, sir,” Zuko said sincerely.

“As will you, in the South Pole,” Hakoda’s eyes crinkled as he smiled. “Although my mother might need more convincing, from what I’ve heard.”

“That old woman was your mother?” Zuko blurted out, then promptly slapped a hand to his head. He bowed to the chief. “Chief Hakoda, I apologize—”

“Please, son, you’ve more than redeemed yourself,” Hakoda chuckled, raising his hand appeasingly. “You’ve saved half my family’s lives without asking for anything in return. I’m sure my mother will not make you beg for forgiveness, like my daughter did.”

Zuko blushed, remembering the chief’s brief stay at the Western Air Temple and wondered how much the man knew. “Oh… um, I— I kind of deserved it. After betraying her, I understand why— but her anger wasn’t directed completely at me. So, uh… once we— once we got past that—”

Hakoda nodded, tucking his hands behind him.

“She told me about confronting her mother’s killer. I wasn’t pleased to hear about it, of course, but I do understand the need for justice. Blind vengeance drove me to leave my children behind.” He looked wistfully out the window and spoke in a low voice. “I loved Kya with every fiber of my being that when she passed on, I was left without an anchor.”

“She was a brave woman, sir,” Zuko said softly, recalling what Sokka and Katara had told him.

Hakoda’s mouth twitched into a wan smile.

“She was my guiding star, always reminding me to take the right path. She gave me purpose, and made me want to be a better man. Without her, I did things that I am not proud of— things I regret to this day.” He shook his head and laughed to himself. “Look at me! I’m rambling like an old man! I’ll let you get some rest, Prince Zuko. The Water Tribes will see you at the coronation. Rest assured, you have our full support.”

He made for the door, self-consciously tugging on his wolf tail like Sokka always did, leaving Zuko staring dumbly at his retreating back.

The door burst open and Katara rushed in, looking suspiciously at her father with her hands planted firmly on her hips.  

“Relax, sweetie, he’s still in one piece.” The man raised both hands in surrender. “Give your old man some credit— I won’t assassinate the future Fire Lord.”

“Dad…” she huffed and rolled her eyes. “Ugh. You’re worse than Sokka.”

“Give your brother some credit…” Hakoda muttered as Katara ushered him out the door. She whirled on Zuko as soon as her father was gone.

“What did he tell you?”

Zuko sat down on the edge of the bed, suddenly tired.

“Nothing.”

“Don’t ‘nothing’ me. I knew Dad would be weird after—” Katara scowled at his unfinished soup and shoved the bowl into his hands. “Never mind. Finish your soup; it’s getting cold.”

Zuko brought the bowl to his lips, watching her busy herself with a basin of water and some bandages. His brows furrowed.

“You should get some rest.”

She looked pointedly at him. “I’m not the injured one here, Zuko.”

“No,” he replied levelly, “But I’m not the one working non-stop since the war ended. When was the last time you slept?”

“Last night, and I slept in until Dad and Bato arrived, so there.” She stuck her tongue out at him and reached over to untuck the end of his bandages. Zuko’s breath hitched at her proximity— he knew she’d done this every morning since the Comet, but this was the first time he was fully awake and sitting up, and with Katara standing in front of him, the position was bringing him very close to… certain... areas—

“Zuko?”

“Yeah!” He craned his neck up to see Katara looking at him with worry-filled blue eyes.

“You’re really warm…” She frowned, placing a hand on his forehead, and Zuko was sure he’d fall over and die from the way his heart was beating, “Does it still hurt? I thought I drew the infection out, but if you’re running a fever…”

“No, no! I’m fine!” He pulled back and Katara pursed her lips, hand still raised to the level of his forehead.

“Zuko,” she sighed and dropped her arm, “You have to tell me if something doesn’t feel right, otherwise I can’t heal you properly.”

Everything feels right when you’re here.

Zuko cleared his throat and shook his head.

“I’m fine. I was— I was just thinking about—” His mind landed on the only other topic he could think of, “Your dad… he, um, he kind of— thanked me. For, uh, for saving your life.”

The water she bent from the basin stilled in mid-air.

“Oh.”

“I— I told him not to! You saved my life— and defeated Azula, so if anything I should be bowing to you—”

“Zuko.” He snapped his mouth shut at her voice. She was shaking her head as she gloved her hands with water, a tired, tremulous smile on her face. “You risked your life for me first. And I only defeated Azula because— well—” she hurt you. She hurt you and she wouldn’t let me come near you and I had to know if you were safe. “She was unstable— you were right, something was off about her.”

Her fingers shook, and tears joined the glowing water she pressed to Zuko’s chest.

“Katara…”

Zuko cupped her cheek in his hand, the only thought in his head being please don’t cry, but a tear slipped out and everything else flew out the window for Zuko as he stood and wrapped his arms around her, holding her tight as she finally shattered into earth-shaking sobs.

“I’m— I’m so-sorry—” she gasped into his chest, hands curling into fists, water spilling between them— but he just held her tighter, hoping he could somehow put the shattered pieces back together— “I’m sorry, Zuko— I— it was my fault— if— if I hadn’t come with you—”

“I asked you to come with me,” Zuko murmured into her hair, “Katara, you have nothing to apologize for. I failed— I miscalculated. If I hadn’t, she wouldn’t have—”

He shut his eyes at the memory of surging lightning, and his hands clutched the back of her tunic, making sure she was real, that she was here.

Katara shook her head adamantly in his arms. “She would have attacked anyone you were with, because she’s Azula. You— I should have made you choose someone else— someone who could protect themselves—”

“There’s no one else I’d want by my side but you.”

It all came out in one breath, and for one spectacular moment, Zuko felt like he’d been hit by lightning in the chest again, suspended in mid-air by electricity.

Why didn’t I realize this sooner?

He pulled away and looked at Katara with newfound clarity.

“Katara.” He held her by the shoulders, unmindful of the emotions swimming in her eyes, because it suddenly seemed urgent that she knew—

“Katara, I think I’m in love with you.”

The words echoed in the seemingly too-small space between them, and she closed her eyes and shrugged away from his grasp.

“Zuko, you can’t— you only think that because— because you think I saved you or something, but that’s not—”

“No!” He snarled— either at her words or at the onslaught of pain that rivaled almost dying, he didn’t know— “I don’t know why I feel this way— I just do!”

“Well, I don’t know how I feel about anything!” Her temper flared to match his. “So if you’re expecting an answer any time soon—”

“I’m not expecting anything! I don’t even expect you to feel the same way, after all the horrible stuff I put you through! I don’t even know how long this has been going on— I just realized it now and I thought you should know!”

“You only realized this now?” She asked shrilly, throwing her hands in the air. “Why didn’t you realize this sooner!”

“That’s exactly what I thought three minutes ago before I told you!”

“You decided to tell me you love me when I was crying my eyes out ? What kind of confession is that?”

“I don’t know!” Zuko pinched the bridge of his nose and leaned against the bedpost. “And I didn’t say I love you, I said I think I love you. Is it— is it really so bad if I do?”

All the fight fled from Katara.

“No, it’s not.” She sighed, shoulders slumping, and she gently nudged him to sit on the edge of the bed. He did so with a groan and let his head fall into his hands.

“I’m sorry,” he said, voice muffled, “I shouldn’t have told you that way. It was selfish.”

“You just caught me by surprise, that’s all,” Katara brushed back some locks of his unwashed hair soothingly. “You have nothing to apologize for, Zuko.”

He snorted through his fingers. “You know I don’t follow my own advice.”

“Think of it as my advice, then,” Katara unrolled a length of bandage and tugged Zuko’s wrists from his face. He looked away, jaw clenched and a faint hint of pink still tinting his cheeks, and Katara sighed and set to work.

“I— I just don’t want to think of that stuff right now,” Katara muttered quietly as she secured his bandages. “For so long, it was about training Aang and surviving. Now, it’s about healing people and Dad’s talking about rebuilding the South— I haven’t had a chance to… you know… sort things out.”

“I understand,” Zuko leaned back and rolled his shoulders experimentally. “I still find it hard to believe the war’s really over and we won.”

“And you’ll be Fire Lord,” Katara added, her teasing voice not completely masking the somber tone underneath. Zuko glanced up at her.

“I’m not sure I can do it,” he admitted softly. “What if I end up like Ozai?”

“Zuko,” she placed her hands on his shoulders and looked him squarely in the eye. “You won’t end up like Ozai.”

“How do you know?” He met her gaze desperately, almost angrily, because how could she, of all people, tell him that he was nothing like his father?

What if I betray you again?

Katara smiled sweetly.

“Because, Zuko, if you start becoming like Ozai, I’ll waterbend your butt to the Spirit World and sic Aang’s Avatar State on you.”

 


 

“Katara!”

Katara closed the door to Zuko’s room behind her and beamed at Aang, who was decked out in traditional airbender attire, wooden beads clacking as he flew to her eagerly.

“Wow, Aang! Look at you! Monk Gyatso would be so proud.”

The Avatar blushed and scratched the back of his head sheepishly. “I really hope so. You look great, too.”

Katara looked down at the simple blue tunic she was wearing for the coronation; it was the only one she had left that wasn’t burnt or bloodstained. She tilted her head in question.

“I mean!” Aang laughed and stammered. “You— you always look great, Katara! Whatever you wear!”

“Oh.” She smiled. “Thanks, Aang.”

“So, uh…” He glanced at the closed door behind her. “How’s Zuko doing?”

“What do you think?” Katara snorted and rolled her eyes. “He told General Iroh he didn’t need servants to dress him for the coronation, but when I dropped by to wish him luck, he couldn’t even put his robes on. I tried to help him, but he wouldn’t let me do everything.”

“He’s lucky to have you looking out for him,” Aang said carefully, his gray eyes somber. Katara reached out and placed a hand on his shoulder.

“You know I look out for all my friends, Aang,” she replied, and Aang squirmed uncomfortably. She flinched when she realized what he was about to say.

“Katara…” Wide gray eyes held hers earnestly, and it was all Katara could do not to look away, “The war’s over… and I—”

“Aang.” She did look away this time, out into the plaza where crowds had gathered, “Now’s not the time. Please.”

“No, no! That’s what I wanted to talk about!” He hurriedly clasped her hands in his. “I-I still love you, and maybe I will for a long time, but I realized something recently.”

“What is it?” Katara’s gaze was searching, intent, and still confused. Aang smiled sadly.

“You love someone because you love them. Your heart doesn’t really give you a choice.”

He sighed and looked longingly at their clasped hands, his skin pale against her dark ones, and he let go.

“It’s unfair to expect you to be with me just because I love you. I just want you to be happy, and if you’re not happy with me, then…” He squeezed his eyes shut and Katara couldn’t help it— she rushed forward and hugged him tight. His grip on her almost hurt, but she didn’t care— what was a little pain compared to what Aang had to go through?

He sighed against her shoulder. “I love you, Katara. So, so much. But— I… I want you to listen to your heart, too. And if your heart tells you it’s not me you wanna be with, then I’ll try to be okay with that. Really.”

“Thank you, Aang,” Katara murmured, arms still around him. “I’ll… I’ll think about what you said.”

The door opened behind them and Katara turned, discreetly wiping the tears from her eyes. She appraised Zuko with a weak smirk.

“Finally got that shoulder plate on, huh?” She teased half-heartedly, and he raised his eyebrow at her.

“You’re still here?” He quipped, equally half-heartedly, as his eyes flickered between her and Aang. She raised her hands in surrender.

“I was just leaving, Your Highness.” She glanced between the two of them and beamed shakily. “Good luck out there, you guys. You’re gonna do great.”

“Thanks, Katara!” Aang called out after her, her clattering footsteps echoing in the stairwell.

Zuko took this time to observe his friend— The Avatar, The Last Airbender, The Bringer of Balance, The Bridge to the Spirits— and it struck him how much this child had grown in the span of a few months.

“I can't believe a year ago my purpose in life was hunting you down,” he blurted out, and Aang turned back to him with eyes full of mirth. “And now…”

“And now we’re friends,” he finished for him, and Zuko nodded.

“Yeah, we are friends.”

“Zuko?”

“Yeah, Aang?”

The boy tilted his head thoughtfully.

“I hope you know… you don’t have to repay the world for every good thing that comes your way,” Aang said, and it suddenly occurred to Zuko that maybe Aang’s spent a little too much time with his uncle. “Everyone deserves good things, whether or not you think they deserve them.”

Zuko only nodded in reply, not trusting the words that might come out of his mouth, bitter words that entered his mind unbidden; there was still a part of him that resented Aang for not killing the man that scarred him in more ways than one, but…

He had to acknowledge that the boy’s words spoke to another part of him— to the small child inside that still hoped Ozai would someday look at him with something akin to love— and he wanted to kneel before the Avatar and thank him for sparing the monster that once was his father.

“The world’s so different now,” Aang continued contemplatively, looking towards the balcony and into the waiting crowd of red, green, and blue below.

“And it's gonna be even more different. We'll rebuild it together,” Zuko said softly, placing a hand on the younger boy’s shoulder. “It’s like what you said. We’ll support each other, no matter what.”

Aang beamed at him and threw his thin arms around him, and for a second, Zuko allowed himself to feel peace, whether he thought he deserved it or not.

 


 

Everything’s normal, Katara thought as she sipped her tea. Nothing was amiss. Nothing strange was happening.

Notes from Iroh’s tsungi horn filled the cozy upstairs room of the Jasmine Dragon, clacks and cackles came from the corner where Toph was mercilessly teaching her and Suki the intricacies of Pai Sho, and Momo’s incessant chittering was punctuated by Sokka’s whines and Aang’s laughter.

“Zuko, stop moving!” Sokka cried out, waving his brush in the air. “I’m trying to do a painting so we always remember the good times together!”

Zuko spared him an exasperated glance. It was only a few days after his coronation, but here was the new Fire Lord, hair unkempt and falling into his eyes, dressed in muted Earth Kingdom green, handing out tea to their little gang like he wasn’t the ruler of a country.

Yes, everything was normal.

But why was Katara’s heart jumping around like a caged rabaroo?

“I look like a boarcupine,” Zuko complained, setting down his empty tray and appraising Sokka’s painting, “My hair’s not that spiky.”

Sokka smeared ink on his nose as he agitatedly added to his masterpiece.

“I wanted to capture the moment,” he explained in a tone that suggested he was with uncultured company. Aang peered over his shoulder.

“Why did you draw Suki firebending?”

“I thought it looked more exciting that way,” Sokka shrugged.

Momo flew from his perch on Aang’s head and landed on the table, took one look at the drawing, and hissed.

The Water Tribe boy glared at the lemur. “Oh, you think you can do a better job, Momo?”

Katara giggled at the interaction— it had occurred to her before that Momo could probably draw a better picture than her brother— but then Zuko glanced up at the sound of her laughter and smiled at her briefly with one of those rare smiles that softened his molten gold eyes.

Oh.

Katara’s giggle died in her throat and her rabaroo heart jumped erratically to match the  rioting sparrowkeets in her stomach.

She watched as Zuko poured more tea into his uncle’s cup without prompting, watched as the tension in his shoulders faded when the old man thanked him, watched as he scratched Momo affectionately behind the ears when he thought no one was looking.

Why didn’t I realize this sooner?

She yelped when Toph flicked her head with a space stone from her bracelet.

“Your move, Sugar Queen.”

She wasn’t sure if Toph meant the Pai Sho game they were playing.

Taking a deep breath, she moved one tile across the board, hardly paying attention to what her move would do, because now she understood why Zuko told her he loved her the way he did and if she didn’t go to him now she might go crazy with all the things she left unsaid—

Toph’s milky green eyes widened.

“That’s not fair! Why did you win!” The earthbender shouted, hands firmly on the stone slab, “You didn’t even know what you were doing! I want a rematch!”

“Looks like she won fair and square, Toph,” Suki shrugged, rearranging the pieces for a new game. “Fire beats air, you told us that.”

“No, no way! She was about to move the air tile before she got all distracted! Sweetness! Come back here!”

“Oh, give her a break, Toph,” Suki glanced over her shoulder. Katara was making her way to the balcony, where Zuko was. “She’s made her move.”

“Huh,” Toph pressed her feet onto the floor and grinned. “Guess Gramps was right. Pai Sho is more than just a game.”

“Should we distract those two idiots?” Suki jerked a thumb in Aang and Sokka’s direction, both of whom were poorly disguising their attempts at eavesdropping on Zuko and Katara.

“I like how you think, Fan Girl,” Toph leaned back lazily on her chair and called out, “Hey, Gramps! Y’know how to play that Secret Tunnel song?”

“Do I ever!” Iroh started the lively tune on his tsungi horn. “Two lovers, forbidden from one another…”

Sokka’s eyes went wide as saucers and he clamped his hands over his ears; Aang laughed and flew gleefully to Iroh’s side.

Suki and Toph grinned at each other.

 


 

“Should we stop them?”

“A mountain divides them apart!”

Zuko rolled his eyes.

“There’s no stopping Uncle and his tsungi horn.”

“Built a path to be together!”

Katara laughed and laced her fingers with his. Zuko looked at her, startled.

“I guess there are a lot of things we can’t control,” she said with a small smile.

“SECRET TUNNEL!”

“Yeah, I know,” Zuko nodded, and there was that crooked, soft smile again. Katara’s breath hitched, and the rabaroos were back in her chest.

“Zuko—”

“SECRET TUNNEL!”

“Katara?”

She swallowed, trying to still her heart— she was sure Zuko could feel her heartbeats with how close they were, and none of it was making her think clearly, especially with those golden eyes looking at her so intensely — can firebenders burn someone with just their gaze?

“Through the mountain!”

“I— I think—”

“Katara,” he sighed and gave her hand a squeeze before letting go. “You don’t have to say anything you don’t want to. I already said— I’m not expecting an answer.”

“Zuko, that’s not—” The rabaroos in her chest were falling one by one into a heavy heap in her stomach, because this was the exact opposite of how she imagined this would go— she didn’t know what she expected, really, but it wasn’t the guarded, hurt look on his face or the sudden coldness in her hands from the lack of his touch— she just listened to her heart and it led her here, and she’ll be damned if this journey led to nowhere—

“SECRET, SECRET, SECRET—”

She cupped his face with her hands, scarred skin and unblemished cheek both fitting perfectly in the grooves of her fingerprints.

“I think I’m in love with you,” she murmured, just as—

“SECRET TUNNEL!”

Zuko looked at her in confusion.

“What?”

“I love you!” She blurted out over the raucous end of the song, and Zuko’s confused look turned into a mix of incredulity, amazement, and barely-contained glee.

“What?”

Katara dropped her hands from his face but Zuko caught her wrists, one corner of his mouth lifting higher than the other.

“You heard me,” she said, half-heartedly trying to tug herself free, heat spreading across her cheeks.

“Maybe I heard wrong.” He was smirking fully now, and Katara didn’t know whether to slap him or kiss him.

“If you make me say it again, I’ll freeze you to a tree.”

“You tell me you love me in the middle of the Secret Tunnel song, and then you threaten me with waterbending? What kind of confession is that?”

“Oh, shut up. Like your confession was any better.”

He laughed his light rasp of a laugh, and Katara no longer cared about how embarrassed she was, because why should she be? He’d already seen the worst parts of her— and she’d seen the worst parts of him— and  yet here they were, still bickering as though nothing’s changed, as though realizing they loved each other was just the natural next step, as though it wasn’t a fairytale ending or a momentous beginning—

She reached up and kissed him, and she felt him smile against her lips as his strong arms wrapped around her waist. For a few glorious moments she wondered if this was what it felt like to bend lightning— electricity surged through her entire body and she was sure there were sparks where her skin met his, because wherever he touched, she burned

“Ew! What are you two doing!”

Zuko groaned and Katara pulled back with a laugh, because of course her brother would try to ruin this for her. She turned awkwardly, her hands still clutching Zuko’s hair, his arms still tight around her. She expected to see only her brother, but—

The rest of the gang was watching them: Sokka red-faced and sputtering, Aang tight-lipped but resigned, Iroh smiling with a twinkle in his eyes, Suki and Toph wearing identical smug grins.

The retired general cleared his throat.

“Lunch is ready,” he announced simply and led Sokka and Aang away from the balcony. He winked at his nephew as he walked away and Zuko slumped his head on Katara’s shoulder with a groan.

“What’re ya waiting for?” Toph stomped the ground impatiently and turned on her heel, following Suki inside. “Food’s waiting. You two can suck face later.”

Katara blushed and reluctantly peeled herself away from Zuko. He held on to her hand almost automatically.

“You ready for this?” He asked quietly.

She smiled warmly at him, her blue, blue eyes dancing in the glow of the sun.

“I’m always ready to face anything when I’m with you.”