Reunion (noun): the act or process of being brought together again as a unified whole
Listen, it's not that Katara wants to keep a tally of how many times Zuko's reunited with the gang. And even still, reuniting is a strong word, considering the fact that he's not even part of their group, yet somehow it's the only word that makes sense. Zuko's as much an integral member of their unit as he is an outsider, because he's the reason Team Avatar was born in the first place, he's the reason why they travel the world, and meet so many new people.
So even though it's not Katara's plan, she ends up keeping track of all the times Zuko finds them. All in all, there are ten times when he's found them, each one more confusing to Katara's heart, because she just knows that the chaotic spirit within Zuko's eyes reflects the inner turmoil he faces.
She knows he's not evil, despite what Sokka thinks. If he were evil, he wouldn't have left her tribe alone once he'd taken Aang. And if he were truly evil, he would've done what the Southern Raiders did in the raid and slaughtered her people just to kill one waterbender. He certainly wouldn't have lined his men up and simply questioned them for the avatar. And he most certainly would not have agreed to leave the rest of her tribe alone once he succeeded in his mission to seize the avatar.
It kills her, because she knows, if she just had a couple more seconds, a couple more minutes, Ba Sing Se might've gone differently. Maybe Zuko would have stayed, and Azula wouldn't have won, and she might still have the spirit oasis water. Perhaps Aang would have a firebending teacher, and maybe Katara would be able to explore the yearning in her heart at the thought of the fire prince, delve into the folds of her soul and determine what it is about him that makes her want to know more.
Katara counts the days going by in a continuous stream of 'maybes'. Maybe Zuko would be by her side. Maybe Aang could learn firebending. Maybe Sokka could have a sparring partner. Her life is made up of a broken string of maybes stirring her consciousness, and sometimes she wonders if Zuko's does too.
Zuko has followed them around for the past ten months, twenty one days, probably around eight hours, and Katara thinks the universe is mocking her. Because she's encountered him ten times, had tried to pull his heart towards her only to end up burned each time, and now here he is, as if all the spirits in the world have hand delivered him to her.
"Hi," he says, hand raised and eyes gentle. "Zuko here."
Their reactions, of course, are understandable. They're all a mixture of anger, and suspicion, and terror, but there's an added emotion to the pounding of Katara's heart. She looks at him, sees the genuine relief in his eyes, and feels a sudden wave of absolute heartbreak wash over her. Of all the people to show up, why him? Why, after dozens of times of trying to steer his heart in the right direction, does he choose now?
He tells them he's sorry for how he wronged them in the past. He says he's changed now, and, in a very awkward, fumbling attempt that's so completely Zuko and yet not Zuko at the same time, he gives them a very roundabout explanation that he wants to train Aang in firebending.
She tells him to leave, to get out of this sanctuary, because his presence is making her confused heart pound, her body tremble, and she can't let herself be betrayed once again. Even if she can tell he's sincere this time, even if she can look in his eyes and see the regret pooling there, the memory of his hand still burns in the back of her head, the sharp stab of his betrayal still fresh in her heart. She won't have a repeat of Ba Sing Se. She can't.
He leaves, with mournful eyes and a whispered plea on his lips, but she turns her back, refusing to meet his golden gaze. She can't let herself be lost in his eyes- that'll crumble her already delicate resolve. But when he disappears into the woods surrounding the temple, a little piece of her heart goes with him, and a little voice whispers in the back of her head.
And there are the maybes again.
He comes back a few days later, fighting off Combustion Man. That earns him Sokka's and Aang's trust, but something holds Katara back. And so she goes to him, finds him in his room, staring at a picture of General Iroh (one of the few firebenders Katara thinks she can actually trust).
She threatens him within an inch of his life if he decides to turn his back on them -her- again. His eyes widen, seeing the implication in her threat as clear as day. She won't let him hurt her. Never again.
She leaves him with a scar scored across her soul, and refuses to look back, see the hurt pooling in his gaze. Because if she looks back, everything she's worked for, the meticulous stitching together of her soul after his betrayal, the cautious walls she built up around her heart will crumble, and she'll be back where she started, with an open heart that's begging to be torn apart.
It's very strange to be around Zuko, without him trying to chase them down. He's very gentle, and very quiet, for starters. Katara's not sure how to deal with this Zuko, this Zuko who offers to do the laundry and help with the dishes. He fails horribly at both, somehow managing to destroy their bar of soap and scorch the plates, but he does it all with a quiet attitude and a sincere need to do good.
And when she finds the hollowed out boulder at the base of the temple, filled with hot water, she can't help but feel a slight flutter of her heart. She'd been complaining about finding a decent spot to bathe and bemoaning the lack of hot water lately, and now she finds she has the perfect bathtub. Later, Toph tell her that Zuko had her bend the boulder into a basin, and he himself filled it with water, by hand, and boiled it for Katara to find. She doesn't know how to feel, but her heart picks up and she finds she can't meet Zuko's eyes for fear of drowning in his solemn gaze.
He doesn't avoid her, which is something else that Katara doesn't understand. In fact, she's the one person he always seems to gravitate towards. He helps her with the chores, which is something none of the others are willing to do, he sits next to her during lunch, and he offers to spar with her.
They spar. A lot. She uses this opportunity to really analyze him, analyze his fighting style, his weakness, his focus.
Zuko fights like he talks: quick and disorganized, yet somehow fluid and powerful. He had a tendency to attack without a plan, but it somehow works for him, and he's quick to adapt to her moves. He's the best fight she's had in awhile, honestly, he's the best fight she's always had. No one fights her like he does. No one puts as much heart into the battle the way he does.
But then his bending stops. It simply disappears, and Katara doesn't know whether to laugh, or cry. Because he's lost the one thing that poses an immediate threat, but he's lost the one thing that Katara has come to rely on the most.
He heats the water for their food, for their clothes, for their baths. He keeps the fire burning all day and night, keeping it well stocked, like the beating heart of their camp.
(And on cooler nights, she finds herself inching closer to the heat of his skin, losing herself in the warmth of his body next to hers, the heat in his eyes reflecting the moon's light.)
She still doesn't quite know how to act around him. She thought that maybe, threatening him with his life would solidify that fine line and finally push her over into hating him, but she can't bring herself to. When she watches him carry Toph around on his shoulder, or offer to show Sokka how to sharpen his space sword to keep it sharper for longer, or when he gently pushes Aang's arms to the correct position, she can't help but feel herself settling. There's something very peaceful about this Zuko, and she doesn't know how to deal with it.
She does know, however, that she'd like him to stay.
Zuko and Aang leave for the Sun Warriors. She sidles up to him when no one's looking, and watches as he goes shuffling through his things. He checks the blades on his dao and accidentally nicks himself on one, cursing quietly and sticking his thumb in his mouth. Katara can't help it, her heart stutters for him, and she clears her throat.
"Katara!" Zuko yelps, falling back comically onto his butt, eyes wide and thumb still partially in his mouth. She sighs and leans down, grabbing his hand and pulling some water from the air.
"Um," Zuko goes laughably red, and Katara can't help but smile. This is the boy she's always seen, the boy she yearned to break free from the cold husk he was trapped in. She's noticed that this Zuko is lighter, his shoulders relaxed and unburdened by the stressors of being Ozai's son, and his eyes glow a soft gold, whereas they used to burn with rage. This Zuko is softer, more of the boy-man he's supposed to be and less like the battle-weary prince who used to chase them around the world. Katara likes this Zuko, and realizes, in this quiet tangible moment, she always has.
"Take care of him," she says, not meeting his gaze. The cut on his thumb heals within seconds, but she holds onto his hand, and feels his burning gaze on her. "Bring him back to me."
Zuko sucks in a breath. His fingers, trembling, brush hers carefully, before turning in her palm and squeezing. His palms are rough, calloused, strength burning in his fingertips, but are gentle with her, cradling her hand and running his fingers over hers. His skin is pale, like the moonlight, and Katara's is brown and sun-kissed. They are a contrast of their nations; Zuko, a boy of fire who's skin looks like he was painted with moonlight, and Katara, a girl from the Water tribe with skin browned as if touched by Agni himself. Maybe that's what balances them out, a beautiful mixture of both their nations, all narrowed down to the blending of their skin as their fingers collide.
"I will," he rasps out, and Katara looks up. His gaze is undeniably warm, and his cheeks are rosy. He looks so much like a carefree, handsome boy, and it makes Katara's heart ache.
She stands up abruptly, cutting off the moment. She brushes at her skirt, feeling the blood rising to her cheeks, and turns her back. Zuko's gaze is still burning a hole in her back, and she needs to get away from the intensity of the moment. Zuko is a strange creature, so quiet and awkward, yet intense and attentive, and it unbalances her soul in the strangest of ways.
"Come back to me," she says, before she can stop herself. She hears Zuko's surprised intake of breath, the short stop of air, and she can imagine his eyes going wide. "I can't lose you either."
Then she's gone, and then they're gone, and the fire simmers in her chest.
Reunions with Team Avatar are rare and few between. Reunions with Zuko are many, each one unique in their own different ways. This reunion with Zuko is strange and tentative, the way his eyes seek hers out after the Dragon Dance, the way he offers her tea first before serving himself.
Katara finds herself waking up early in the days following Zuko’s return. Aang had been ecstatic, of course, but Katara found herself more drawn to Zuko’s reaction. As usual, he’d been quiet and mellow, but his eyes spoke a different story. Zuko is one of the few individuals who speaks through his eyes. Katara noticed this early on, when they first met the firebending boy. Even in the beginning, when his emotional outbreaks were physical and visual, Katara found that she saw more about him in his eyes than in his actions. It’s the same way with getting his bending back- he’s quiet and laid back, but his eyes are vibrant and alive, brimming with joy and vitality as he regained his bending back, for a better purpose.
He’s awake early today, sitting in the glow of the rising sun. Katara eyes his bare back, the lean muscles, scarred marbled skin. He turns around and spots her, eyes going wide, as she stretches and joins him.
“You kept your promise,” she notes. He blushes and turns away, eyes gazing into the bright of the sun.
“I told you I would,” he replies carefully.
They’re quiet, and Katara breathes in the fresh morning air. She's not used to being up this early, but she rather likes the gentle rays kissing her face. She can hear Zuko's steady intake of breath next to her, a quiet melody of the peaceful morning, and feels everything within her settle.
"Katara?" Zuko says, and she glances over at him. He's got a wistful look on his face, and he's staring at her as if she's a tiger-seal, a creature of beauty and grace, but terrifyingly powerful and dangerous.
"Do you think I'm bad at being good?" He asks, and she blinks. It's a question she'd never thought she'd hear, especially from his lips, but he's looking at her as if his life depends on it.
"What's this about?" She asks, hesitantly.
He sighs. "I just...when we got to the Sun Warrior's temple," he begins, and runs his hand through his hair. "When Aang and I got inside and saw the Sun Jewel, my first instinct was to take it. Just, take it. I didn't think of its importance, it's symbolism, just this compelling need to disrupt the peace. It nearly got Aang and I killed."
Katara coughs. "If it makes you feel better, I think Sokka would have tried to eat it if he got the chance," she says, and that earns her a short, succinct laugh.
"Seriously, though," he says, and she stops laughing. "I accidentally burnt Toph when she came to my camp. Why is it that everytime I try to do something good, something better than I've ever done in my past, I also have to go and screw everything up?"
She sighs. "I don't think you screw everything up."
She doesn't even need to see the eyeroll he throws her way, she can feel it. " Katara," he scoffs. "The first time you trusted me, I betrayed you and nearly got Aang killed."
She frowns. She can't argue that.
"I got Uncle hurt when we helped you against Azula. I got Jet arrested in Ba Sing Se because of firebending. And I stole an ostrich horse from a girl who helped me. I feel like it's an intrinsic part of me to completely screw up every good thing in my life."
He sighs, and she watches him. For such a quiet soul, he wears his heart on his sleeve and his spirit speaks through his eyes. She sees the conflict in his soul, the will to do good, but the darkness of his past weighing him down. Her heart goes out to him, and with sudden clarity she realizes that the Zuko sitting before her today is the same Zuko who sat with her in Ba Sing Se. The old Zuko is gone, and maybe never really existed in the first place. Just a facade, a shadow of a boy constructed from the sins of a father and the cruelty of a sister. And the absence of a beloved mother.
"I don't think you're bad," she begins, and he looks at her. "I think you were conflicted, and confused, and that led you to make some pretty dumb decisions. But that doesn't make you bad, that just makes you human."
He frowns. "All my life," he says, and her heart goes out to him. "I've always had to struggle and fight, and that's made me strong. It's made me who I am. But I can't help but wonder if it's made me a terrible person in the process."
She studies him, the elegant slope of his jaw, the proud tilt of his head and the somber look in his eyes. He's just a lost boy trying to figure out his place in this chaotic world. Her eyes narrow. He should have never been forced to struggle, she realizes. His father should have loved him, not abandoned him like a worthless piece of trash. Because he's not, and she wishes she could find the words to tell him so.
"It hasn't been easy for us, either," she points out. "Our mother was killed in a Fire Nation raid, and our father had to leave us for most of our childhood to fight in the war. Sokka and I grew up without either of our parents to guide us."
He looks at her. "But you haven't betrayed her friends and family."
She shrugs. "No," she agrees. "But just because we haven't done that doesn't mean we've been perfect either. I basically threatened the entire patriarchy of the North Pole, and Sokka, Toph and Aang were scamming people all through the Fire Nation. We all make dumb decisions, but they don't have to define us."
He sighs. "I just feel like I need to prove to the world that I can do something good for once."
"Help Aang with firebending," she says. "Help us defeat your father. That's how you do it."
He frowns, and glances at her, eyes dropping down to her throat before meeting her eyes. "And what about you?"
She coughs. "What about me?"
"How do I prove myself to you?"
She's not sure how to respond to that. She searches his eyes, finding no deception, no suspicion, just pure, honest sincerity. She feels warmth pooling in her soul, and feels her heart reach out for him, yearning to brush his hair out of his eyes and press kisses to his skin.
She coughs and looks away. If she keeps looking into his gentle eyes, she may never stop, and she can't let herself get lost in whatever she'll find if she keeps searching. His eyes are too open, too candid, and the longer she looks, the easier he'll be able to peel through her deepest emotions, burrow his way under the walls built up in her heart and settle in her soul.
"I don't know the answer to that," she says, and he frowns, looking away. She stands up, brushing off her skirts, and turns to face him. "At least, not now."
He looks back up at her, eyes hopeful, and she extends a hand. "Come on," she says, brushing off the topic for another time. "Let's spar."
He smiles hesitantly, and reaches up, taking her hand in his. Katara refuses to let herself linger on the warmth of his skin, the even beat of his pulse, the way his fingers brush against her like kisses on her skin. He grips her firmly, and she pulls him to his feet.
"Alright," he says. "You got it."
She knows what he's saying. I'm willing to wait.
"Meat?" Toph asks incredulously. "That's strange."
Katara can feel a headache approaching, her temples throbbing as she reads Zuko's neat scrawl on the slip of paper.
Apparently he took his job in redeeming himself a little too seriously. The meat is obviously a lie- Sokka and Zuko don't need a long trip and Zuko's war machine to get stocked, the woods surrounding the temple are rich in flora and fauna alike. Plus, their conversation still rings in Katara's ears, and she knows.
He's up to something. And of course she's left behind to wait, to pace and to fret, because her brother and her.... friend are off gallivanting to who knows where, and she doesn't know what to do. She doesn't even want to think about Sokka hurt, and there's a part of her, deep down, that would shatter if Zuko was hurt, but she can never know because she has no idea where they are.
She finds out a few days later when a gigantic Fire Nation airship comes soaring to the temple, rousing everyone from sleep. Flashes of bombs and fireballs race across the forefront of Katara's mind, and she and Aang summon a giant wave of water from the well, ready to fight.
The airship settles, and Katara prepares herself for an onslaught of fire, screaming soldiers, or a cruel girl with a malignant glee in her eyes and blue fire curling from her lips. But none of it comes, and when the airship doors open, Zuko comes out, in a tattered red outfit, followed by Sokka, and Suki, and-
"Dad?" She gasps, and feels her feet moving before she can even comprehend what's happening. "What- how is this happening? What's going on?"
Sokka goes on some random tangent about meat and fatherhood, but Katara tunes it out, opting instead to bury her face in her father's warm chest, feel his arms wrap around her in that way fathers do, and lose herself in finally having her family back again.
(It's all thanks to Zuko for the warmth welling up inside her, for the happy tears, her father's love, Sokka's boisterousness. A family reunion, Team Avatar back together, and her soul, stitching itself back whole thanks to a boy of fire.)
Later, after her father goes to bed for some much needed rest, and Sokka and Suki are off, with Toph and Aang leading Haru and the others around the convoluted halls of the temple, Katara finds the courage to wander over to Zuko, who's sitting by the fire, hands gently coaxing the flames to life.
"Thank you," she mumbles, settling down beside him. He looks over to her, lips pursed in concentration, and she gives him a tight-lipped smile. "You didn't have to do that."
He blinks. "Yeah," he says, voice soft. "I did."
She's not sure how to respond to that.
Zuko tells her he knows who killed her mother, and a part of her soul grows cold with hatred. Not hatred for Zuko (a part of her, deep down, knows she could never hate Zuko, not even at his worst) but hatred for the Southern Raiders, hatred for the man who ripped her mother's heart from her chest.
Aang pleads with her with pain and fear brimming in those soft grey eyes of his. "You need to forgive him," Aang tells her, and she nearly screams with rage.
"I don't need to do anything, Aang," she yells, loading up Appa's saddle. "Don't tell me how to live my life."
"You'll regret it, Katara," Aang cries, but Zuko comes to her rescue, gently shoving the Airbender back.
"Leave her alone," Zuko murmurs, and Katara's heart swells. "She needs to do this, whether you like it or not."
"But killing is never the answer," Aang argues, and he looks up pointedly at Katara. She refuses to meet his gaze, and she hears Zuko sigh.
"Maybe it's not," Zuko says. "But maybe it is. Either way, it's not your place to tell anyone what they can or cannot do. You're no better than my father, if you think so."
That shuts Aang up, and he backs away, giving Zuko enough time to settle into the saddle next to Katara. She shudders, and forces herself from shifting closer into his side. It's become a habit of hers to lean into him for support, and the more she does it the more she cannot seem to stop. So she pulls back, forces herself to stay still as he sits, and tries to suppress the longing in her heart.
"I just don't want you doing something you'll regret," Aang says, and Zuko sighs.
"Aang," he calls down, turning a fierce gaze onto the Airbender. "If your opinion of Katara changes that much because she kills someone, then maybe you should have a good, long look at yourself. Because if Katara doing this means you giving up her friendship, then you don't deserve to be the Avatar."
Aang's eyes widen, but Zuko turns. "Come on," he murmurs, and takes the reins from her. "Yip yip."
She lasts until the temple is far in the distance before breaking down, tears pouring from her eyes. Zuko makes no move to comfort her, for which she is grateful- she doesn't know what she'd do if he wrapped his arms around her, murmuring words of encouragement into her ear.
(Maybe she'd wrap her arms around him too, bury her face in the warmth of his neck and soothe herself on the spice and smoke of his skin. Maybe she'd press her lips against his, tasting him softly, and let him wind his fingers through her hair, part her tunic and imprint tattoos of fire on her heart.)
What he does is let her cry. It's only when she's she's reduced to a few hiccuping sobs does he turn to her, and his gaze is soft. "Don't listen to Aang," he tells her. "He doesn't understand."
"And you do?" She shoots back, and her voice is sharp and unforgiving. Zuko doesn't flinch at her harsh tone. He shrugs, and Katara feels a twinge of guilt sting through her, and she looks away.
"I won't even try to attempt to understand," he says. "Because even if I did, it would be nowhere near the level of how you feel. I just want you to know, that no matter what you choose, my opinion of you won't change."
"And what is your opinion of me?" she asks. Probably pretty terrible, considering how cold she's been to him, but he smiles at her, and his eyes are warm and filled with respect.
"I think you're an incredibly strong bender and a wonderful person," he tells her, and his candidness makes her heart skip. "I think you're courageous and not afraid to speak your mind, and you take care of the entire group as if they were your own children. I think this world has a lot to thank you for, for saving the Avatar and taking care of your family, and for giving a worthless fool more chances than he deserves."
He's talking about himself. Katara meets his sincere gaze, and he smiles. "I know you haven't forgiven me," he murmurs, and looks back towards the horizon, flicking Appa's reins. "I don't expect you to, not really. But I am grateful that you always tried to see the best in me, even when I treated you so poorly. I was a fool to betray you, and I realize that now. For what it's worth, I am sorry."
She looks away. "I know you are," she murmurs. She thinks, in a little untouched corner of her heart, the part that swells at the sight of him and flutters at the honey in his eyes, that she's already forgiven him, because he's become the only person in the group that understands her. "I just... Its hard for me to..." She trails off, unable to finds the words.
He smiles. "It's okay," he tells her. "You don't need to say it. I get it."
She wonders if he does, because how else do you tell someone that you forgive them when all you can do is stare in silence, unable to voice the feelings swirling within your soul, so close to the surface?. She wonders if maybe it is her that needs forgiveness, searching for redemption while Zuko has found his.
(She thinks her redemption comes in the form of shaggy hair and golden eyes, a boy cloaked in red who rubs the back of his neck when he's nervous, whose smile are like the sunlight and has firebending that heats up the dark corners of Katara's heart.)
The Southern Raiders don't have the man who killed her mother, so they go and find him. Yon Rha, with hair as white as snow and eyes as dead as her mother, he cowers under her while she bends a dome of water over their heads. Zuko is a quiet sentinel by her side, a dark column of fiery support, but when Katara sends the ice shards at the man who killed her mother, she feels a darkness settle in her soul.
Suddenly she can't do it, and she drops the ice, letting the water fall in a harmless puddle around them. "There's nothing in your soul," she realizes. Yon Rha is an empty shell of bitterness and cruelty, who is so keen to cling to life that he's willing to give up his own family to the clutches of death. If she kills him, she'll be no better.
They leave, finding Appa on the shore, and Zuko takes the reins. She finishes the journey much like she started it, in tears, trying to hold together the pieces of her soul. Only this time, Zuko lets go of the reins, and pulls her close.
She relinquishes, and leans into his warmth. He breathes in deep, holding her close, and whispers in her ear. "Breathe with me," he says, and she forces herself to listen to the raspy cadence of his breath, trying to soothe her heartbeat and settle it to beat to the same melody of his. It takes a while, but finally her sobs subside.
"I'm sorry," is what she says, but Zuko hushes her, pressing a kiss to her temple.
"Don't apologize," he murmurs, and she closes her eyes, burying her face into his neck. "Never apologize."
She huffs, but doesn't move from Zuko's embrace. His hands are rubbing soothing circles down her spine, and she memorizes the pattern, up and down , until she feels her soul quiet down.
"I'm proud of you," he tells her. "It took a lot of courage to face him."
"I didn't kill him."
He shakes his head. "Even if you did, I still would have been proud of you. It's your decision to make, not anyone else's. You did what you thought was right, and that's what matters."
Katara settles into Zuko's side, cocooning herself in his warmth, and Appa flies them to Ember Island, where Zuko tells her they can hide out. Not once does his arm move from its place around her waist, keeping her secure and safe by his side, and Katara feels the last bit of walls in her heart fracture and break. In the heat of Zuko's eyes and the solid comfort of his arm against her, she surrenders her heart to him in its entirety.
When they find the gang, Katara feels numb. She's had good days and bad, dealing with the after effects of losing her mom, but dealing with Yon Rha has somehow thrown her entire equilibrium off. Aang greets her, telling her he's proud of her for not resorting to violence. She gives him a hollow smile, unable to feel the same way.
The only thing she feels good about is her relationship with Zuko. "I know I'm ready to forgive you," she tells him, although she's known for a while that her soul has already accepted him, that she forgave him a long time ago. His arms come up tentatively around her, then sure and strong, and she leans into the warmth of him.
(She's always going to associate warmth with him. Fire, something she'd always been fearful of, is who he is, and the flames he created stirs up comfort within her, not terror. It never has. Zuko's flames are warm and gentle, even in his angriest, and she finds she cannot get enough of his warmth.)
Later that night, they spar under the light of the moon. Zuko is fierce, gouts of flame spurting from his fists, and he twirls and whips his body around like the Unagi. Katara meets him strike for strike, raising her arms gracefully and distinguishing the flames with a flick of her hands. Where he's power, she's finesse, and when he moves, he hits hard like an earthquake. Her blows are like a typhoon, swirling around her in waves, using his brunt strength against him, until she finally wins, pinning him down with an elegant water whip.
They're panting hard, and sweat drips off Katara's shoulders, pooling into her bindings, and she watches Zuko's eyes darken. She's suddenly, painfully, aware of their position; he's down on the ground, and she's straddling his waist. His hands are positioned just so on her hips, and she's close enough to feel the pounding of his heart, the molten gleam of his eyes, the gentle rasp of his breath in her ear.
She sucks in a breath. Zuko’s fingers tense on her waist, fingers digging into her skin, and she finds herself leaning in until their breaths mingle, and their lips dance, featherlight brushes whispering against each other. She searches his eyes, seeking the answers to questions she doesn’t even know, and he leans up, pulling her head down into a scorching kiss.
(Later she’ll touch her lips and realize that kissing Zuko is like watching a new constellation form; awe inspiring and breathtaking, igniting a fire within her belly and making the stars dance in her eyes. Kissing Zuko is like finding a little piece of heaven, a boy whose kisses can take her breath away, but that's fine because breathing is of little consequence as long as she can kiss him again. Zuko kisses in a way that steals her heart from her chest, the kind of kiss that causes comets to race across the sky and set the world on fire.)
They steal away to his room, slamming the door shut with a resounding thud. Katara whines, deep and low in her throat, and Zuko comes to her, wrapping his arms around her waist and lifting her, pressing her body into his. She gasps into his mouth, clinging to his broad chest as they collapse to the bed.
Their clothes are gone, an impatient flurry of hands tearing at fabric, hungry for warm skin. Katara runs her fingers down Zuko’s chest, swirling around his navel and tracing the vee of his hips. He sucks in a breath when she takes hold of him, gripping him firmly, and he leans in, kissing her fiercely, cupping her face.
They roll over so she’s under him, and she cries out when he puts his mouth on her, harsh waves of pleasure radiating out from her core. Two fingers press into her, wide and thick, and she moans, gripping his hair and arching her back. It doesn’t take long, just a few minutes, before she’s coming, quiet and quick, gasping as she comes down from her high. Another few minutes, and he’s crawling back up her body, kissing a path up her skin, and she burns from his touch.
He kisses her, long and filthy, and she tastes herself on his lips. She moans, reaching down, taking him in her and stroking, making him shudder. He groans, biting down on her shoulder, and she aligns him with her. His eyes meet hers, and he takes her hand, fingers lacing through hers. He doesn’t take his eyes off her as he slides in, slow and gentle, and Katara feels her heart well up with her fondness for him.
“Thank you,” she breathes, and his eyes soften. She's not thanking him for this, she's thanking him for helping her find her mother's killer, for helping her find the peace in her soul she's yearned for, for letting her decide what justice is. She's thanking him for supporting her no matter what, for not judging her bloodbending in a moment of weakness, for not judging her hesitance to kill a man. But most of all, she's thanking him because he sees her, for who she is. Just a girl, trying to find her place in the world. Just as he is a boy trying to find his.
(She doesn't tell him this, but she thinks that maybe, their place is with each other.)
He leans in, kissing her, and she knows he understands. He's tender with this kiss, drawing it out and making the world tilt on its axis. She whispers into his mouth and he smiles against her lips, his thrusts slow and steady, making her hiss and see stars. He keeps the tempo slow, enough for her to get used to the feel of him inside her, and only speeds up once she digs her heels in the small of his back.
It doesn’t take long. Zuko’s panting, his thrusts becoming erratic and clumsy, and she feels him stutter and tense, a warmth flooding out inside her. He moans, long and low, pressing sloppy kisses into her neck and shoulder, before finally pulling out and falling limply beside her.
She heaves in a breath, flicking her hand and bending the essence of him away. He groans, stretching out next to her, and cautiously loops an arm around her waist.
“Was that okay?” he rasps, and she turns her head, meeting his concerned gaze. “Did I hurt you?”
She shakes her head, rolling over and meeting his warmth. “You were perfect,” she whispers.
He nuzzles her neck. “Good,” he breathes. “I only want you to be happy.”
She’s quiet, and he pulls away. “What?” He asks.
“What do we do now?”
His eyes darken. “What do you mean?”
She sits up, pulling the sheets around her, and looks down at Zuko, sleepy and sun-kissed, hair tousled and skin shining. He looks so at ease, so different from the angry boy she met in the South Pole. This Zuko has a light about him, a gentleness in his eyes and a heart of gold. The shadows can’t touch him anymore.
(Katara won’t let them.)
“What do we do now?” she whispers. He frowns, catching her implication, and sits up, touching her shoulder softly. She looks up, meeting his gaze, and his hand catches her chin, pulling her up into a sweet, gentle kiss. Katara loses herself in the kiss until she’s not sure if she’s breathing, or if he’s breathing for the two of them, but she doesn’t care. His mouth and tongue taste like cinnamon spice and liquid fire, and she loses track of the time. It’s just her and him, under the light of the moon, tangled in sheets and fighting a war his people started and that they intend to finish.
(When they part, and Zuko’s cupping her cheek tenderly, Katara keeps her eyes closed, already missing the taste of his lips on hers, the warmth of his mouth breathing life into her.)
“We figure it out,” Zuko says, and smiles, tucking her hair behind her ear. “Let’s save the world first.”
Sex with Zuko is like nothing Katara has ever felt before. It's like finding a little ray of sunshine amidst all the chaos, sex with Zuko is the only time where she feels her heart settle, where she can forget about the iminent doom of the world, where she can lose herself in the sweaty musk of Zuko's skin, the sharp pleasure aching through her core, and his lips branding tendrils of love across her skin.
If the house knows what they're doing, they're kind enough to not speak of it. Katara and Zuko tiptoe around the others, but they pay no mind, and she keeps up the secret meetings after everyone else has gone to sleep, giving in to the pleasure and warmth that Zuko provides. Katara spends her days taking care of the household, going with Toph and Suki to get groceries, training with Aang to perfect his waterbending, but at night, she belongs to Zuko, rejoining him in his bedroom, claiming his mouth with hers and letting him paint a world of watercolor across her soul. Nights are spent tangled around Zuko, submersing herself in pleasure and heat, and drowning in the intensity of his golden gaze.
Sokka brings the scroll to the house, and she can't help but giggle in fondness when Zuko groans in misery. "They butcher Love Amongst the Dragons every year," he complains, but the others pester him until he relents.
He sits down next to her in their booth, and she quietly slips her hand into his. "Hey," she whispers. "It can't be that bad, can it?"
His eyes betray him, and the look he gives her is filled with such suffering that Katara is actually a bit afraid. "Oh spirits," he murmurs. "You have no idea."
Zuko is quite right in this matter. Katara is appalled; the director made her to be a squalling, helpless girl who cries about hope and swoons over everyone. Aang is outright furious that he's being played by a girl, and it looks like the only happy one is Toph, who is thrilled that she's being portrayed by a hot, buff, extremely masculine man.
The scene between her and Zuko in the catacombs is what makes her blood boil. The director took their most pivotal moment, the moment where she and Zuko first traded private secrets in the lights of the crystals, and he changes it into a minuscule meeting of insignificance, boiling it all down to a heated affair. Katara is furious, and judging by the way Zuko's hand clenches in hers and the way his skin heats up, he's just as angry.
Intermission comes, and Zuko jumps from his seat, disappearing down the corridors. Katara frowns, getting up to follow, and she leave behind Sokka adamantly begging Suki to get him backstage. Toph is nagging Aang, who is bemoaning his rather feminine counterpart, and she smiles to herself.
She finds him on the balcony, overlooking the water. "Hey," she says, coming up to rest at his side, and he sighs, leaning into her. "You okay?"
He shakes his head. "I'm so frustrated," he confesses. "I know I did so many terrible things, but watching actor me up there, it's like taking all the worst things I've ever done and spitting it back into my face. How did you guys ever allow me to join you?"
She pokes him softly. "You forget," she chides, and he looks at her, gold eyes burning in the moonlight. "I did threaten you with your life if you so much looked at Aang the wrong way."
He laughs lowly, and his arm winds around her shoulder. "True," he murmurs, but his laughter dies in his throat as he takes a lock of her hair in his hand. "And you," he says, twining her hair through his fingers. "What they did with you, what they turned you into..."
She shrugs. "It doesn't make me happy," she agrees. "But you and I, and everyone that matters to us, knows the truth. It's not like I'm so whiny little girl that preaches about hope all the time."
He chuckles. "Still... I just don't want people thinking that you're like that. That we're like that. That I would just go for you because you were easy."
She nods, leaning her head into his shoulder. "I know you, Zuko, and even when we were bitter enemies I know you would never treat anyone else like that. When this is all over we can show the world how we truly are."
He looks at her, making her lift her head. His eyes are glistening in the moonlight, and there are too many emotions swimming in the golden depths of his gaze. "And what," he whispers, his voice husky and deep. "What exactly are we?"
She looks away, unable to face the sincere openness of his gaze. "I don't know," she confesses. "You mean so much to me, Zuko, but I really can't label what we have right now. Please don't be angry."
He shrugs, eyes dark. "I'm not," he murmurs. "I know how hard it can be when faced with decisions. Take as much time as you need."
She leans back in, presses a gentle kiss to the corner of his mouth, and he smiles. He kisses her, soft and slow, and she sighs into his mouth, surrendering to the gentle embrace and the softness of his lips, until the moon is high in the sky and her lips have swelled from the heat.
"Do you want to leave?" She murmurs. "Before they play starts up again?"
He smiles, and reaches for her hand, squeezing it softly. "I never wanted to be here in the first place."
They make it back to the house, Zuko's hands teasing the skin underneath the waistband of her skirts, and she pushes him into his room, shoving him down onto the mattress. He rises to meet her, hands grasping at her waist as she frantically rips off his tunic, and it isn't until they're naked and he's inside her does she speak.
His name is the first thing off her lips, ripped from her throat in a breath moan. His golden eyes are nearly black in the darkness of the room, and he reaches up to grasp her, plucking at her breasts, and she gasps.
It doesn't take long- the summer heat and the frantic need for pleasure makes it easy. It's not long before Zuko is pulsing inside her, and then he pushes her off, putting his mouth to her until she's crying out.
Afterwards, she and Zuko lay nestled amongst the silken sheets, and she runs her fingers through his sweaty hair. He sighs, nuzzling into her hand, but doesn't wake, and Katara's heart skips at the sight of him.
She wonders when there was a time when she could barely stand the sight of him, when her blood held nothing but animosity and anger towards him. Now, she thinks, carding a hand through his hair, she couldn't dislike him even if her life depended on it.
(It's simple, she needs Zuko as much as she needs air to breathe. Living with Zuko, loving Zuko, is as necessary as life itself.)
She gets up, tying a robe around her and slipping down to the kitchens. She heard the others get back, but it's late, and none of them should be awake right now. But as she wanders into the kitchens, lighting a candle as she goes, she finds she is very wrong, as she stumbles across Suki, who is raiding the icebox.
"Hi," Suki says, frozen watermelon stuck between her lips. Katara smiles, wrapping her robe tighter around her waist, and goes to the water jug, pouring herself a glass and cooling it down. She sits, bringing the glass to her lips, and Suki closes the lid to the icebox.
"We missed you at the play," Suki says hesitantly, sitting down next to Katara. "Where did you go?"
Katara sighs. "Zuko and I didn't really like the play," she says. "We came back here."
Suki's eyes rove over Katara's shoulders, and she realizes that the robe is Zuko's, and her mussed hair could not be anymore obvious. "Are you guys...?"
Katara frowns. She wonders if she should tell Suki about her and Zuko, and whether that would be a good idea, but the sincerity in Suki's brown eyes is too tempting to resist.
"We're something," she says, and Suki's shoulders rise and fall in surprise.
"Oh," Suki says, but there's a smile touching the corners of her lips, a smile that erases the tension from Katara's temples. "I didn't know you guys were like that."
"Not at first," Katara tells her. "I was so angry with him, especially in the beginning when he first joined us. I threatened him. But then, well, I just found out that he just-he makes me feel whole."
The confession does not come with a shock of surprise jolting through her. Deep down, it's something she's known for quite some time, that she and Zuko were always meant to be something else. Like there's something binding her soul to his, and when he looks at her, she feels the pull of it tugging on the corners of her heart.
Suki smiles, and reaches for Katara's hand. "I'm glad," Suki murmurs. "I'm so happy you found him."
Katara smiles. The rest of the gang can wait until she reveals hers and Zuko's relationship to them, but she's glad that Suki- her sister in every way- is the one who found out first. Suki, with a warrior's heart and a penchant for bravery, would know what it's like for love to creep up on you and snatch you right when you least suspect it. To love someone which such a dichotomy in character and an ability to right their misdoings- that's something she and Katara have in common.
"Who knew it would come down to this," Suki muses. "That us, a bunch of random kids , would be tasked with saving the world."
"Fate," Katara supplies, taking another sip of water. "Maybe we were always destined for this."
Suki smiles. "Yeah," she agrees. "Maybe we were always destined to fall in love with princes of nations."
Katara coughs. Love ? She wonders, thinking about Zuko with his hair mushed and silver skin against red silk. About golden eyes, molten with pleasure, fingers digging into the skin of her hips and a mantra of Katara, Katara, Katara falling from his lips.
(Is love really that simple? Such a complex and intangible feeling, narrowed down to two souls aligning perfectly in sync with each other? Two people, reuniting countless times in this infinite thing called life? If it is, then Katara will breathe in its glory for all eternity, if it means she can surrender to the gentle boy of fire, with blood splatted across his soul but sunlight in his eyes.)
She rejoins Zuko in his room, dropping the robe and slipping back under the silk sheets. He mumbles, rolling over, and she presses a kiss to the smooth, unblemished skin on his chest. He throws an arm over her shoulders, opens dazed golden eyes still heavy with sleep, and smiles.
"Hi," he mumbles, pressing a kiss into her shoulder. "Where'd you go?"
"The kitchen," she murmurs. "Go back to sleep."
He agrees, quickly falling into the soft embraces of slumber, and Katara watches the gentle rise and fall of his chest, nestling herself into the crook of his arm, and lets the gentle cadence of his heartbeat send her off.
Aang disappears, but Zuko takes charge, leading the group into the unknown with a steady hand. Their group is broken, Sokka and Suki and Toph traveling to meet the Firelord head on until Aang returns, and she and Zuko traveling to take the throne. "We'll be okay," he tells her. "We'll have a Team Avatar reunion once this is all over. I promise you."
He takes her the night before the comet, a quiet union of whispered pleas and hushed moans in the confines of her tent. He moves against her, hard and unrelenting, and makes her come over and over, with his mouth and fingers, until she wet and needy for him. He kisses her, mouth swallowing her cries, and pushes in until he's flush against her body and seeing stars.
"Promise me," she gasps in between thrusts. She reaches up, tracing her fingers across the hard planes of his abs, glistening with sweat, and he grunts from exertion. "Promise me I won't lose you."
He kisses her, his hand reaching for her core, and she cries out as he touches her just right. "I promise," he groans, and she stiffens, moaning and arching into his hand. "You won't lose me. You can never lose me."
The next day, she sends her brother off with a tight hug and kiss to his stubbly cheek. "You better come back to me," she tells him as he climbs onto the eel hound. "All of you."
Toph laughs, and tells her of course we'll come back, Sugar Queen , and Suki smiles, her knowing eyes sliding over to where Zuko waits with Appa.
She rejoins Zuko by Appa once her brother has disappeared over the horizon. Iroh finds them, giving his nephew a hug, and turns dark eyes onto her. She stares into the amber depths of his gaze, and he tells her take care of him, the intensity of his gaze narrowing down this message in an instant, a quiet, brief, meeting of the eyes. She nods, tersely, and he smiles. "Destiny is on our side," he says, as she and Zuko prepare to take off. "I know it."
Somehow, they do it. Somehow, Zuko and Katara take down Azula, and Aang strips Ozai of his bending. Katara and Zuko receive the news via messenger hawk, and it’s somber. Zuko’s still reeling from his wounds and his sister’s mental breakdown, and Katara’s struggling to cope with holding Zuko’s life in her hands.
They reunite under the stars, in Zuko’s massive bed, a tangle of limbs and stolen kisses, living on borrowed breath and borrowed time, scars of the past painted on Zuko’s skin and etched over her heart. It takes just a few minutes for them to join together, mouths collided in a quiet frenzy and hushed groans. Katara makes out her name on his lips before she kisses his pain away, and afterwards, when they’re lying in a tangled mess, She places a gentle kiss over the scar on his heart.
“You could never be bad at being good,” she whispers through the dark, and his fingers find hers. “Never.”
He presses a kiss to her forehead. “I’ll never stop trying,” he promises. “To be good. For you.”
It’s enough to get her through the night, and through the next couple days waiting for Aang, Sokka, Suki and Toph to return. Zuko works on solidifying his council of ministers, reinforcing the palace guards and placing his sister in a cell, far away from others so she can’t hurt anyone, but comfortable enough so she doesn’t hurt herself. It makes his skin go pale and the hardness in his eyes return, but he always comes back to Katara’s bed, where she’s able to kiss the pain away and smooth out the stress trying to make its home under his skin.
“Do you think I made the right decision?” He asks her one night, one arm wrapped around her shoulders and the other clinging to hers over his chest. His fingers run soothing circles over her skin, and she places a gentle kiss to his shoulder.
“What do you mean?”
“About Azula, about the war, about everything really. I don’t know- a part of me feels like I’m gonna make a mistake, do something absolutely screwed up, and fail everyone.”
He’s not meeting her gaze, and she pushes herself up, rising so that he can’t avoid her. “I was the first of us to believe in you,” she tells him firmly, and he wordlessly winds a curl of her hair around his fingers. “Even after you betrayed me, I never once lost faith in you. And after you joined us, I watched you every day doubt whether you’re worthy of forgiveness, worthy of your honor, your crown and country. But I’m telling you right now, you are one of the bravest, most resilient, most determined soldier I know. You don’t need anyone to give you your honor back. Not when you never lost it in the first place.”
She kisses him, a gentle brand of love seared into the seam between their lips, and pulls him close. "I love you, Zuko," she murmurs, and he smiles, holding her close until she's not sure where he begins and she ends.
He pulls back, his shoulders loose and his heart pounding. He whispers I love you, so quietly that Katara isn't sure he actually says it, but he reaches for her hand and squeezes , and she knows. Words sometimes just aren't enough to convey what the heart feels.
"I'll be with you," she murmurs, kissing him. "Every step of the way. You'll never be alone, not anymore."
He’s quiet. His eyes seek hers, and she sees them filled with hope, with passion and a need to set the world right. He’ll be the best leader for the Fire Nation. All that unbridled passion and honor will lead his country into a new era, filled with peace and love, and she’ll make sure that happens. She’ll be by his side.
(Maybe they were always meant to be. A girl of water and a boy of fire, from the opposite corners of the world, drawn together by fate and a little boy who dances on air. Call it what you will, an act of divine decree, a sharp tug of predetermination, or a quiet collision of destinies, but Katara’s soul is tied to Zuko’s, and she will never let go.)
Team Avatar’s homecoming is a beautiful mess of sweet chaos. Toph crushes everyone in a hug, despite Sokka’s squeals and Aang’s coughing. Katara buries her face in Sokka’s chest, pulls Aang in a warm hug, breathing in the fresh air that clings to his skin. She holds Suki close, clinging to her spirit sister and cries, thanking her for watching out for her brother. Toph smacks her on the shoulder, but pulls her in for a hug, shoulders trembling and a quiet I’m glad I didn’t lose you whispered in her ear.
Zuko isn’t present, which means their union is incomplete. But he’s getting prepared for his coronation, so their reconciliation will have to wait. Katara feels empty without him there, like a part of her soul is missing, and the absence of their final member fragments the delicate balance.
But his coronation goes smoothly, and Katara feels tears pool in her eyes when the crown is placed in his hair. He looks perfect in this moment, with fine robes flowing down his shoulders and the golden flame of his people adorning his hair. But when she looks at him, when he meets her gaze with those warm honey eyes, she sees the boy at the Western Air Temple, the boy who’s soul speaks through his eyes and stitches her soul back together with the warmth of a thousand suns.
Later, once the sun has gone down and Zuko has replaced his formal robes with a casual red tunic, he finds the gang in the courtyard, looking up at the night sky. Suki and Sokka are arm in arm, Toph is picking the dirt out from between her toes. Aang and Katara are speaking quietly to each other, but when Zuko walks up to them, everyone turns to him, and goes quiet.
“Uhm,” he says, eloquently, as usual. “Zuko here?”
They laugh, and he feels a tugging on his tunic as Katara reaches out, latching on his shirt and pulling him in close. They pile together, Team Avatar, a group of children who saved the world, in the middle of Caldera City under the light of the moon, and Katara smiles, burying her face in Zuko’s chest. She’s got Sokka on her right and Aang on her left, and Suki and Toph are behind Zuko, pressing them all together.
She places a kiss on his sternum, right over his scar, and feels his heartbeat flutter under her fingertips.
This time, it doesn’t feel like a reunion. This time with Zuko, and the rest of Team Avatar surrounding her, it feels like coming home.