Zuko winced as he pulled on his overrobe, tight pain lancing through his chest as it followed the too-familiar path Azula’s lightning had taken the day of the comet.
Had it already been a week? It seemed like only yesterday he’d challenged his sister to an Agni Kai, willing to do whatever it took to save the Fire Nation--the world--from the corruption and war that had plagued it the last hundred years. And now he was about to be coronated—crowned Fire Lord and looked to as the leader of an entire country. He had some experience with command, of course, but there was a little bit of a difference between captaining a warship and leading a nation. Everyone would be looking to him for guidance, now. Everything he did would be scrutinized, would set an example.
He was going to have to figure out how to make the entire country understand they weren’t inherently superior just because they were the Fire Nation. And, somehow, he was going to have to make reparations to the rest of the world.
The thought made his head hurt almost as much as his chest.
“How bad is it today?”
The soft voice coming from the door to his chambers made him jump slightly, heat rising in his cheeks even as he struggled not to react to the pleased jolt that shot through him. “Could be worse. I had a good healer.”
He was probably imagining it, but it looked like Katara’s cheeks were a little red as she stepped into the room. “Here, let me help.” Gently, she pushed his hands away, and it was all Zuko could do to keep breathing normally at the contact, and her proximity. There was a floral scent that clung to her, tickling the edges of his memory. Moon lilies, maybe. He tried to remember where he’d smelled them before.
Her voice brought him back to the present before he could fall too far down that particular rabaroo hole. “There.” She tugged on the sash at his waist, tightening it slightly. Then she stepped back to survey her handiwork. “You look…”
“Ridiculous?” Zuko supplied, speaking more to his nerves than anything else. He still wasn’t sure he was ready to step up in front of what felt like the entire nation packed into that courtyard.
“I was going to say ‘like a leader’. It suits you, Zuko.”
For a moment, neither of them said anything—he held her gaze, even as he felt the warmth creeping up his neck and over the tips of his ears. Her eyes were wide, and so deep a blue he thought he could drown in them. There were flecks of darker blue he’d never really noticed before. His breath hitched in his throat, and he finally looked away, coughing slightly to clear it. “I… thank you.”
“I should go.” When Zuko looked back at her, he noticed her eyes were focused on the floor by his feet. “Wouldn’t want you to be late for your own coronation.”
Something clicked. “Wait! Don’t go yet, I have something for you.”
Katara laughed, though she looked curious as Zuko darted to the other side of the room and started rummaging through his trunk. “It’s your big day, not mine. You didn’t have to get me anything.”
“Yeah, well, I found this and I needed- oh, here we go.” He emerged with a small box in his hands, and for a moment, Katara was struck speechless.
When he held it out to her, she found her voice. “Is that what I think it is?”
“Take it. It belongs to you- to your people.” Zuko held the box with one hand, rubbing the back of his neck awkwardly with the other.
Katara accepted the gift with shaking fingers. “I haven’t seen one of these in… ever. The last one was stolen…” She trailed off, her fingers tracing the Southern Water Tribe symbol—Tui and La, twined together above the waves—burned into the wood. Slowly, she lifted the lid, biting her lip against a gasp of shock as she took in the three scrolls nestled into the wood shavings that filled the box.
“Oh, spirits… Zuko, where did you get this? I thought they’d all been burned…”
Something in the way her eyes crinkled at the sides with unadulterated joy made his heart clench pleasantly. “There are a lot of rooms in the palace. Most I’d never been in, they were off limits, under guard… but no one was around to tell me ‘no’ this time. And I found a room filled with…” He stopped, swallowing back the shame that was clawing its way up his throat.
He hadn’t done it, but for so long he’d believed in the inherent superiority and righteousness of a nation that had spent a century plundering the other nations and stealing—and destroying—anything precious to them. The relief he’d felt--knowing that, at the very least, he’d be able to give some of it back--had made him weak in the knees. He’d been planning to present this particular relic to Chief Hakoda, the first in a long list of reparations he would need to make… but here, now, seeing the look on Katara’s face as she reverently ran her fingers over the water tribe history long thought lost forever, he was glad he’d given them to her.
A gift for a friend, nothing more. (But there really were no words for the emotion welling up within him as he watched her face.)
“Zuko, this… this means the world to me,” she said, her voice slightly gruff as she finally closed the box and looked up at him. “To my people. I can’t even begin to-”
“No. Please don’t thank me.” There was an unflinching earnestness in his gaze that had Katara captivated in a way she couldn’t quite explain. “My people took so much from yours, for so long. It’s only right that I give back as much as I possibly can.”
“You could have just presented it to my tribe,” she countered abruptly. Zuko was a little taken aback by the force in her tone. “Made a show of it. Gotten a public pat on the back.”
His cheeks were so hot he was almost surprised he wasn’t on fire. “No. I don’t want a fanfare for this. I don’t deserve it.”
Something he couldn’t quite read flashed through her deep blue eyes, and it made him nervous. “So why give it to me? Why not my father? He’s out there right now, you could’ve taken him aside at the celebration and given it to him then.”
Katara was pushing for something, and for the life of him, Zuko couldn’t figure out what. “I… I just wanted…”
Her gaze softened. “What, Zuko?” Her voice was gentle, like she was coaxing a baby turtleduck out of its shell.
Maybe she was.
“I wanted to see that look on your face.” The words came out in a rush, and Zuko’s amber eyes widened in surprise, as though he hadn’t expected to actually say them. “I… I mean… I just…” But Katara was laughing, then, and his eyes narrowed. “What’s so funny?”
“You are.” Carefully, Katara set the box down on a nearby table, before moving into Zuko’s personal space; he swallowed audibly, but didn’t move away. “We could dance around this forever, you know," she continued, her voice pitching low as their eyes met.
He swallowed again, his mouth suddenly dry. She was very close. He smelled moon lillies, the scent even stronger now. Maybe it was her hair. “Around what?” He tried to sound confident and sure, but his voice came out as a rough whisper.
He really couldn’t think with her standing right there.
“Around this.” She rested her hand against his chest, where his scar was concealed beneath his robes. She had to tilt her head back to maintain eye contact, and her lips were parted ever so slightly. He could feel her warm breath playing across his skin. “You saved my life, Zuko. You almost died.”
“I… I had to…” There was a tremor in his voice, and he couldn’t keep his eyes from focusing on her mouth. Agni, but if he leaned down just a little he could touch her…
He wasn’t sure what she wanted to hear. He wasn’t sure it mattered. There was something here, between them, heavy but unspoken, and it would be so, so easy to just fall over the edge…
“I… I couldn’t imagine a world without you in it, Katara.” He was so quiet, now, he almost couldn’t hear his own voice—but the way Katara’s eyes widened and suddenly focused on his (was she looking at his mouth, too? was she imagining how it would feel-) said she heard him. “I couldn’t let her hurt you."
It happened before either of them could really register the act. Later, neither one would be entirely sure who moved first, but their lips touched and something between them exploded. Katara’s arms wound around Zuko’s neck, one hand stroking the hair at his nape—his hands immediately went to her waist, drawing her close, and then one arm looped around the small of her back as his other hand went to her face. He stroked her cheek with trembling fingers, as if afraid that if he pressed too hard the illusion would shatter and he’d wake up from this dream.
Except it wasn’t a dream. It was very real, and neither of them could seem to catch their breath when they finally pulled back—not far, though, tangled up in each other’s arms as they were (and perfectly content to stay that way). “I’ve wanted to kiss you for a long time,” Zuko finally murmured, placing another, gentler kiss to her forehead.
Katara giggled, and the sound sent butterflies stampeding around his stomach. “I know.”
Zuko drew back just far enough to look into her eyes. “You do?”
Her cheeks were flushed, eyes bright, lips slightly swollen from their kiss. She was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen. “Of course I did. I think I wanted that, too—just, I needed some time to work things out. And there was the war and everything.”
He nodded his understanding. “Do you, uh… I mean, would you like to stay for dinner?”
A wide grin spread across Katara’s face. If possible, she looked even more radiant than before. “Of course I would.”
“Good answer,” he said, a twinkle in his eye as he bent down to capture her lips in another kiss.