of something fiercer
than the love with which
I gaze upon you
of something softer
than the tenderness
with which I hold you.”
― Sanober Khan
The walls Katara had so meticulously built up around herself slowly crumble. The anger and hatred that she had so callously thrown at Zuko to keep him away from her turn into something else- definitely not trust, not yet, Zuko knows he has a long way before he can reach that pivotal moment with her- but she no longer pierces him with a frozen stare every time they catch each other’s eye, she no longer crushes him with a biting malice every time he offers her his help with the chores. The dynamic between them has changed.
I'll never forgive him. But I am ready to forgive you.
They settle into an easy companionship in the days before the comet. Zuko rises with the sun and settles into his morning meditation. He brews the tea, leaving a small flame under the pot to keep it warm until Katara rises, a little later. She joins him sometimes, sitting in amicable silence, but more often sets about with the day, making breakfast and folding the laundry. By the time Zuko has finished his meditation, Katara has woken the rest of the gang ( kids , Zuko thinks , We’ve adopted a family of kids ), and has set out a bowl of jook for him. Then Zuko takes Aang for his firebending lessons, followed by lunch, Toph, and Katara later in the day. Zuko spars with Sokka, keeping his dao blades sharp, and trains with Suki in hand-to-hand combat.
Sometimes, late at night, he sits at the overlook beyond his house, staring out over the calm ocean. He thinks about the last time he’d been here, back when his heart was still troubled and his soul was still split between doing what was right and what he thought he wanted. Sometimes Katara joins him, and it’s so different from the last time they spent a night under the moon ( Maybe you can bring my mother back!). She sits with him, close enough he can almost taste the questions on her lips, but she never asks. He knows she’s desperate to speak, curiosity burning in those deep blue eyes of hers, but the thing he loves the most about Katara is that she always seems to know when he’s ready to talk, and so she waits until she knows.
It’s something he’s always loved about her- the easy way she simply waits until he’s ready, unlike Sokka and Toph and Aang, who talk and talk and ask and badger him with questions until he feels like he may explode. He loves the gang, he really does- the loyalty, the love, the friendship- but so much exploration into his personal life can be too much for him to bear sometimes.
But with Katara it’s different. Silence- which once held so much pain and fear in Zuko’s heart- becomes the thing he relishes the most with her. He finds peace in the calmness of quiet, tranquility settling in his soul in the heartbeat of Katara’s breaths. In the soothing serenity of Katara’s presence, Zuko feels his heart stitching itself back together, and every day that passes he feels himself falling a little bit back into the person he wants to be. He thinks he’s ready.
Ready to let someone in.
Zuko feels his peaceful world, the one he so desperately created around him, the one built on friendship and companionship, crumble around him at the weight of Aang’s words. “About Sozin's Comet... I was actually going to wait to fight the Fire Lord until after it came. I'm not ready.”
It’s his worst nightmare really. Of course Aang needs more time to practice firebending, and he agrees with Toph- his earthbending really needs some work as well. But he remembers with dreadful clarity what his father planned before the invasion, the cruelty of the plan and the morbid fear in his heart of what was to come.
“Things can’t get any worse,” Katara says, and the pain in Zuko’s heart weighs heavier on his chest.
“You’re wrong,” Zuko says, and even his voice sounds hollow with despair. “It's about to get worse than you can even imagine.”
He tells them about Ozai’s plan. The plan to crush the Earth Kingdom’s hope, to bury it’s very foundation under an inferno of ash and destruction. He watches the hope die in their eyes, replaced by a growing seed of fear. Sokka looks devastated, Suki looks terrified. Toph’s, for once, speechless, Aang looks hopeless, and Katara looks stricken, looking at him with eyes filled with terror and concern. She reaches out a hand, but one look from Zuko has her dropping it, stepping back with lowered eyes.
Zuko knows how much this hurts everyone, how much it hurts him. But as he looks at them, the brave Water tribe soldier, the Kyoshi Warrior, the Beifong Heiress, the Avatar, and the greatest Waterbender he’s ever met, he knows he’ll do anything to protect them. And right now, that’s making sure they defeat his father, no matter the cost. “I know you're scared,” He says, placing a hand on Aang’s shoulder. The boy looks up at him with scared eyes, and Zuko remembers when he looked at his father the same way. Only this time, Zuko is not his father, and he won’t hurt a young boy just for speaking his mind. He smiles encouragingly at Aang. “And I know that you're not ready to save the World. But if you don't defeat the Fire Lord before the comet comes, there won't be a World to save anymore.”
That seems to be the right thing to say, and he sees the fire once again burn in Aang’s eyes. Sokka once again shines with the energy of his people, and he raises a fist in the air. “Team Avatar is back!”
Zuko smiles, and lowers his head as Sokka continues to crow with excitement. But a little part of him can’t help but be afraid, be afraid for the people he’s come to love and cherish as his own family. And when he raises his eyes once more, he finds himself being stared down by Katara’s watchful gaze, and knows she feels it too.
She finds him later that night, sitting under a sky full of stars. He makes no inclination that he’s heard her, but she comes over to him anyway, sitting down next to him. He blinks, then pulls his gaze from the heavens to look at her. She’s staring out over the water, hands folded neatly in her lap. Even under the pale moonlight, he can see the reds and golds of her silk robe standing out against the rich caramel of her skin, and he finds himself thinking that the rich colors of his nation suit her well.
(Red symbolizes passion and power, represents the Fire Nation. But Zuko wishes to tell the world that red symbolizes Katara, symbolizes the strength in her limbs and the power in her heart, the desire and will to do what is right and to never give up on people who need her. Katara may be of the Water Tribe, but her heart burns with the fire of a thousand suns.)
He turns his eyes back to the sky, and sees her do the same. They sit in silence for a moment, and Zuko finds himself unable to bear the silence (a silence that he’s always craved from her). “When I was younger, my mother used to tell me stories of the stars,” he begins, and raises a hand to trace out a constellation. Katara’s eyes trace his fingers, and he maps out the Azure Dragon of the Fire Nation. “The Azure Dragon is the guardian of all the stars,” he recites. “The dragon was created by Agni so that he could rest during the night. Under the watchful gaze of Tui and the Azure Dragon, Agni sleeps, and the dragon circles the night sky, ever watchful for danger against his master.”
Zuko looks back at Katara, then chuckles awkwardly and scratches the back of his head awkwardly. Katara’s gaze is too bright, too warm, too knowing , and he feels like she is taking him apart bit by bit. “Of course, that’s just a story my mother used to tell me.”
Her eyes soften, and she rests a gentle hand on his shoulder. “You must have loved your mother very much,” she says, and his shoulders sag.
“Yes,” he says, raising a hand to his face, touching the scar that mars the side of his face. “I loved her more than anything in the world.”
Katara’s gaze follows his hand, landing on his scar. She raises her other hand and cups his cheek, resting her palm over his fingers. “Your father gave that to you, did he?” she breathes.
Zuko’s heart stutters to a stop in his chest, and gasps, long and low in his throat. He meets Katara’s gaze, half expecting disgust, anger, hatred, to be swimming in the blue depths of her eyes, but he’s only met with compassion. She smiles at him, and he knows that she won’t press him if he doesn’t want to, that she’ll give him space if he needs it, but Zuko knows this is a story he has to tell. She deserves to know.
“Truth,” he says, and meets her kind eyes. He tells her the story of a young boy, a young prince, who stood up for the soldiers who didn’t have a voice, how he expected to face the general he dishonored in the Agni Kai- how it was his own father who maimed him. Suffering shall be your teacher.
By the time he’s finished there are tears pooling in Katara’s sky blue gaze. “Oh, Zuko,” she whispers, and leans over, pulling her into his arms. She buries her head in his neck and holds him tight, her shoulders shaking. “You should have never had to go through that.”
He buries his face in her hair, inhales the sweet scent of wind and rain, and Katara . She didn’t say I’m sorry , but she didn’t need to. Zuko has had enough pity in his life, and once again, Katara knows exactly the right thing to say to put him at ease. So he holds onto her, he clings to her, and relishes in this moment- this one fragment of time where everything feels right, where he is home and the person he cherishes the most is here with him, under the watchful gaze of Tui and the Azure Dragon.
They share another moment after June has led them to the outskirts of Ba Sing Se. They make camp for the night, and longer after Sokka and the others have turned in for the night, Zuko joins Katara to sit by the fire. He pokes at the embers and convinces the flames back to life, and Katara smiles at him, and places her hands closer for the warmth. They sit in the companionable silence Zuko knows all too well, until Toph appears in an explosion of earth, screaming, “Someone’s coming!”
It’s chaos, and suddenly their tiny camp is surrounded in a ring of flames. But just as quickly as the flames come roaring to life, they die down, and Zuko recognizes Jeong-Jeong, and Master Piandao, and suddenly they're surrounded by the order of the White Lotus. And his uncle is in the Lotus camp, waiting for him.
He finds himself standing outside the tent of the Grand Lotus. It makes sense that his uncle holds the title- he’s the most righteous individual the Fire Nation ever produced, and balance between the four nations was one of the things he stressed the most in life (that and tea). He sits in front of the tent, and he doesn’t know how to bring himself to enter. The last time he saw his uncle, he was sitting in a jail cell, left to rot. The last time he met his uncle’s gaze was at the crossroads of his destiny, of the avatar’s, of Katara’s, in the old city of Ba Sing Se. Shame courses his veins, shame from all those months ago, in the same place, rises up and threatens to overwhelm him.
A hand on his shoulder brings him back to reality, and he blinks while Katara sits next to him. She’s dressed in the blues of her nation, but her eyes still burn with that fire that threatens to set the world alight.
“Are you okay?” she asks quietly, the hand resting on his shoulder providing a quiet comfort that Zuko leans into. He turns his head away and sighs, eyes fixed on the lotus symbol painted across his uncle’s tent.
“No,” he says finally. “My Uncle hates me, I know it. He loved me and supported me in every way he could and I still turned against him. How can I even face him?
Katara sighs, and Zuko can feel her heartbeat pounding to the rhythm of his own. “You’re sorry for what happened?” she says, looking at him with her clear gaze. “In the catacombs?”
He’s more sorry than he’s ever been in his life. Of all the people in the world, uncle Iroh was the only one who saw him for who he was, who supported him no matter the cost, and followed him to the end of the world and back. He betrayed the only person who loved him, mistakes and all. Sorry can’t even begin to describe how Zuko feels.
(Shame, anger, frustration, disgust, guilt. Sorrow)
He looks at Katara. Another person who was willing to love him through the scars. Another person he’s hurt. Another person he’s betrayed. “More sorry than I've been about anything in my entire life.”
Another truth, about his uncle, about the Avatar, about her. Judging from the look in her eyes, she knows. She understands, knows how truthful he’s being (not just about his uncle). Katara smiles, and leans over, kissing him on the cheek, over his scar. He jolts, but she pulls back, and the fond look in her eyes is enough for Zuko (he thinks he can conquer the world on the sole basis of that look).
“Then he'll forgive you. He will.”
The strength she offers- the quiet, enduring support and kindness- is enough to send Zuko through the flaps in the tent. And later, when his uncle wakes and pulls him into a high, her strength is what brings him to tears, with how can you forgive me so easily? I thought you would be furious with me falling easily from his lips. Partially for his uncle, and partially for her.
Katara’s not the person who shows weakness easily. If it’s anyone, Zuko thinks it’s Sokka. He’s a strong, brave soul, but he’s still a teenager, and the idea of taking on the Fire Lord without the possibility of Aang there frightens him-Zuko can see it in his soul. But Katara’s always been such a solid, reassuring presence to the gang, and Zuko doesn’t really know what to do when he finds her overlooking the city, and she looks so utterly broken.
“Wherever he is, I’m sure he’ll be alright,” Zuko says, placing a hand on her shoulder. She looks up at him and smiles at him, though her eyes are watery and she looks so small.
“I know,” she says, sniffling and wiping her eyes. “I’m just so scared though. The whole world is relying on us, and I just don’t know what I’d do if any of you got hurt. Especially you.”
He blinks, and she laughs at his expression. “Yes, even you. That’s the truth,” she says. “I know what facing Azula means to you, what it means to me, but I can’t help but feel terrified.” She leans in and rests her forehead against Zuko’s chest, taking a deep, shuddering breath. “I can’t lose you. Not again.”
Ba Sing Se.
He closes his eyes and pulls her tight, wrapping his arms around the small of her back and holding her close. “You won’t lose me,” he breathes, stroking her hair. “I know you’re scared, and I’ve never been more terrified in my life. I have to face Azula.”
She nods into his chest, and Zuko pulls away, but holds her by the shoulders and meets her gaze, gold boring into blue. “But this I know is true,” he says. “There is no one else I trust with my life than you, Katara. And you’re the one I want by my side when I bring my treacherous sister to her knees.”
Later, when they’re flying over the Fire Nation, Zuko turns to Katara with fear in his heart. He doesn’t know how to tell her that he wants her safe, that no matter what he’ll protect her, that he’ll die to make sure she survives, but he doesn’t know how. Katara makes eye contact with him and misreads his fear, saying, “Zuko, don’t worry, we can take Azula.”
He blinks, and shoves away the feelings simmering under his skin, looking up at the sky, Sozin’s Comet painting it bloodred. “I’m not worried about her,” he says, truthfully, after a moment. “I’m worried about Aang. What if he doesn’t have the guts to take out my father? What if he loses?”
Katara looks away. “Aang won’t lose,” she says quietly. “He’s coming back. He has to.” She turns her fierce gaze back on him, and smiles grimly. “And so will you.”
He almost doesn’t believe her, especially when he’s lying on the ground at the palace, his tunic in tatters and his skin painted red with blood. Lightning courses through his veins, and he laments in the fact that he broke his promise to Katara, that there’s no way he can possible come back, that she’s going to lose him too, again, just like last time-
And she saves him, glowing water gloved on her hands and tears of joy and love in her eyes. He whispers, “Thank you, Katara,” and when she says “I think I’m the one who should be thanking you,” he thinks he’s fallen in love for the first time.
When they stand over Azula, the broken princess, he almost doesn’t recognize her. He turns away, his heart turning to ash when he realizes that Ozai broke her as much as he broke him, Katara follows him. “I was so worried about you,” she breathes, cupping his face. “When you fell, I was so scared. I’ve never felt more scared for you in my life.”
He looks at her. “Me too,” he says, and takes her hand in his. “I was so scared for you. Katara, it wasn’t my life that I was worried about, but yours. I couldn’t let Azula hurt you.”
Her eyes fall to the burn scored across his chest. “You didn’t have to take lightning for me, Zuko.”
He breathes, and takes their hands, placing their entwined fingers on his burn. “I’d take the heat of a thousand suns for you, Katara,” he whispers, the truth of his words burning deep into his skin, deeper than his scars. “You must know that.”
Her eyes lower, and he leans forward, pressing his forehead into hers. “But you brought me back. You didn’t have to. Why?”
She smiles, tears pouring out of her eyes, and leans forward. “You know why,” she breathes, and kisses him.
(With sudden clarity he knows she’s telling the truth.)
And suddenly, just like that, peace is the new normal. Aang comes back, bringing Ozai in his custody, and tells everyone how a giant lion-turtle taught him how to spiritbend ( “Only you,” Toph says, and punches him).
Zuko is crowned Firelord. On the eve of his coronation, he finds Katara in his mother’s garden, feeding bits of bread to the turtleducks (he’s hit with such a wave of nostalgia that he stumbles under the weight of his mother’s love, of the memories of a young boy sitting with his mother feeding the turtleducks).
Katara looks over to him and smiles, beckoning him to join her. He sits by the water’s edge, taking the bread she offers and tossing it into the water. Lulled by the quacking of the turtleducks and the peace of Katara’s presence, Zuko feels his shoulders lift from under the burden of ruling a broken kingdom. There’s so much he needs to do, to restore the Fire Nation to its former glory.
Katara nudges him, making him meet her gaze. “What’s up?” she asks, piercing him with her blue eyes. “You look troubled.
(He wants to tell her he loves her. He wants to tell her that she is his Azure Dragon, that she’s the one person in the world he wants by his side.)
But what comes out of his mouth is: “I don’t love Mai.”
She blinks. “What?” she says, after a moment.
He sighs. “It’s the truth,” he whispers. “Mai, earlier, she came to me, right before the coronation. She told me she loved me, and wanted to be with me.”
Katara’s eyes are on him, but they’re not judging him, and he finds solace in the gentleness of her gaze. She rests her hand on his arm, and he wordlessly takes her hand, lacing his fingers through hers and marveling at the contrast of their skin color overlapping, brown and white. She smiles, encouragingly.
“It’s just, Mai was in love with someone who I used to be,” he confesses. “Someone I once was, back when I let anger and hatred fuel me. She was in love with a boy who was scared of his sister and weak against his father, who turned on his friends and the family who actually loved him. I’m not that person, not anymore. I can’t be with her- I don’t love her anymore. Not that way.”
Katara’s eyes soften. “I think that was very brave of you,” she whispers. He turns and blinks at her, and she smiles, looking back down at the pond. “Think of it this way. When you disturb the water-” she dips a hand in the pond and ripples spread out from where her fingers danced across the tranquil surface “-it creates chaos, and imbalances the real support that lies under the surface. But once the ripples fade, then the pond can go back to being what it always has been, peaceful, still, and sure.” She waves a hand and the water stills, turning back into a clear, shimmering pond that reflects the moon, Katara, and Zuko. She smiles and leans forward, pointing at Zuko’s mirror image reflected on the water. “This is who you are, Zuko.” She says. “ This is what you’ve always been.”
He stares at the quiet reflection of himself. “You wouldn’t have been happy with her,” Katara continues. “And that doesn’t mean you don’t love her, because you do. But there’s a difference between loving someone for what they were and loving someone for who they are. And you’re not the person you used to be, Zuko. I know that to be true.”
He turns and pulls her close, placing a gentle kiss on her forehead. “Oh, Katara,” he breathes. “I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
It’s not what he wants to say, but he doesn’t know how to tell her his true feelings, at least not yet. And luckily, she is Katara, and he knows she’ll wait until he’s ready. Just like she always has been.
She smiles. “For the record,” she says, squeezing his hand. “I’m glad you’re not in love with her either.”
That pulls a laugh from him, and he pulls her close, feeling his soul stitch together under her healing gaze.
They’re walking through the marketplace when Aang spots a flower vendor. He drags Katara over, and Zuko and Sokka, followed by Toph, creep over as well. Zuko stands passively while Sokka oogles over the variety, finally settling on a bouquet of sun roses to bring to Suki. Toph sulks next to him, and when the vendor tries to woo her over with some flowers, she silences him with an “I’m blind,” and a smack in the face with a pebble. He shuts up quickly after that, and Zuko stifles a chuckle (the last time he didn’t, he too got wacked with a rock, and he’s not rushing to repeat that again).
He ends up hovering near where Aang is gushing over the panda lily display. “Look, Katara,” he says. “They’re beautiful, just like you!”
Zuko bristles, because Katara isn’t Aang’s, she doesn’t belong to him, she can’t. But Katara is her own person, and she looks at the lilies with distaste. “They’re fine, Aang,” she says in her most dismissive tone (and Zuko cannot be any more prouder). She turns away from Aang, not seeing his shoulders slump, and continues to browse the flowers.
On a whim, Zuko turns to the display and picks out his favorite, a small fire lily, the rich ruby a reminder of Katara’s fierce passion. He drops the vendor a few coins and turns, walking over to where Katara stands. She looks up, eyes widening up Zuko’s arrival. “Here,” he says, reaching forward and placing it in her hair, right behind her ear. “This suits you.”
Her eyes widen, and she reaches up, touching the flower reverently. “Zuko,” she breathes, leaning up and hugging him. “I love it.” She leans in. “These are my favorite .”
He smiles, and nuzzles her hair softly, before stepping back. He catches a glimpse of Aang’s sad eyes in his periphery, but then Katara’s smooth hand slips into his, and the Avatar is forgotten.
The moment Katara comes to him, tears falling from her eyes, Zuko is ready to drown whoever hurt her in an inferno of his rage. He’s in his mother’s garden (hiding from his advisors- they would never bother him here), when she comes storming in like a tsunami and throws herself into him, tears cascading down her rich brown cheeks like a waterfall. Zuko drops what he’s doing immediately- composing a letter to King Kuei, that can wait- and wraps his arms around her, rubbing her back while she lets out choking sobs.
He lets her cry, holding her close while she buries herself in his chest and releases her misery to the world. He’s got half a mind to find whoever hurt her and have them tried for war crimes, but then she pulls away, and he finds that he can’t rip himself away from her sad gaze. There’s a fire lily in her hair and the words they’re my favorite float around in his mind, but he focuses on the tears falling from her eyes and tries to figure out who in their right mind would do this to her-
“Aang,” she whispers, and in choking, heaving breaths, she tells him that Aang kissed her, that he told her he loved her, and wanted her to travel the world with him. Zuko grows cold, feels his heart come stuttering to a halt, and thinks his world is about to be destroyed.
She can’t go with him , he thinks, heart tearing into pieces. Agni, she can’t go with him.
“I can’t go with him,” she wails, interrupting Zuko. “I can’t go with him and I’ve hurt him and it hurts so much, and I don’t know what to do!”
He cups her cheek and holds her close. “You don’t have to go with him,” he whispers (he begs). “You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do.”
“But I broke his heart! I told him I didn’t love him!”
A part of Zuko rejoices at that, but he pushes that wave down and concentrates on soothing Katara. “Katara,” he says firmly, and she hiccups, looking at him with wide eyes. “You don’t have to do anything that you don’t want to do,” he repeats slowly. “It’s your life, your love to give out. Never let anyone take it from you. Only you have the power to give it. Even Aang, as young as he is, does not have the right to take your love. He’s twelve years old, Katara, he doesn’t even really know what love is. He’ll be fine.”
Katara’s eyes lower, and a single tear runs down her cheek. “I wanted to love him,” she confesses. “I wanted to be his, I really did. But I just...don’t.”
Zuko runs his finger over her cheek. “And that’s okay,” he whispers. “But it’s okay to know exactly what you want, and if you know you don’t want to be with him, then don’t. You’re your own person, Katara. Aang will respect that.”
She shudders, and closes her eyes. “I don’t love him,” she whispers, and the truth of it seems to sink in. She opens her eyes, and although there’s still sadness, Zuko also sees resolution and tact in her gaze. “I don’t love him.”
Something pushes at the edges of Zuko’s consciousness. He remembers all those moments with Katara, the moments of shared silence where she waited, patiently, until he was ready to talk. He remembers how she pulled each little truth from his lips with just her gentle gaze and her willingness to listen without judgment. He remembers how they learned to trust again, in the simple breaths where truth became reality, where he talked and she listened. He looks at her again, sees the gentleness in her eyes, and knows it is time. He’s ready.
“I don’t want you to be with him,” he blurts out, and her eyes widen. He takes her by the hand and pulls her close, drowning in the blue depths of her eyes-eyes which had never held him in contempt (once sadness and anger, but
contempt)- and has never felt more sure in his entire life. “I don’t want you to be with him, Katara, because I want you to be with me.”
Her mouth opens. “Are you serious?” she breathes, and Zuko nods, clarity in his heart and serenity in his soul.
“I’ve never been more sure in my entire life,” he says. “Katara, there is no one else I want by my side. Please, say you’ll stay with me. Please.”
She looks at him, really looks at him. She’s quiet for a moment. “I don’t love Aang,” she says. She rests a hand on Zuko’s cheek, caressing his scar lovingly. “Because I love you. I’ve always loved you, Zuko,” she whispers, and it feels like coming home.
It's always been you.
There are fire lilies at the ceremony. They adorn the throne room, sit in bouquets in Suki’s, Toph’s, and Ty Lee’s laps, fill the vases at the dinner tables. Sokka has a fire lily pinned to his tunic, and Aang has a necklace of them ringing his neck. Zuko has one pinned to his robes, and there are fire lilies in her hair.
They are joined as one under the eyes of Agni, and Zuko pins the crown of the Firelady to her topknot. She’s wearing the reds of his-their-people, but the blue of her homeland hugs her throat. She kisses him, hands clasped tightly to his, and the nation cheers at their joining.
During the celebration ball, he spins her around in the courtroom, her dress billowing out around her, her joyful laugh tinkling like bells. Zuko is the happiest he’s ever been, surrounded by family and friends, in the arms of a woman who loves him.
And later, when they’re out by the turtleduck pond and he’s tucking a loose fire lily behind her ear, she looks up at him, love burning in her blue eyes. This is all he's ever wanted- peace in the world and love in his arms. This is what he needs, his beautiful Azure Dragon, and nothing else. She leans close and cups his cheek.
“You love me,” she whispers.
He leans in, kisses her softly, tasting their future on her tongue.