Zuko’s girlfriend was a lesbian. She was a lesbian and she was leaving him for her best friend. Red robes swished as he stalked down one of the many long corridors of the Fire Nation palace. Of course Mai was gay. He always found it funny that when they walked down the streets of Royal Caldera City together, she stared at the girls with far more interest than the guys, that when she was interested in him, it was more his soft, gentle, dare he say pretty features than his soul. Now he knew why. And of course she was in love with Ty Lee. The sharp angles of her face softened whenever she came flitting over; something more than, well, nothing, crept into her eyes when they met Ty Lee’s; Zuko even caught her smiling a few times. Genuinely smiling. Shaking his head, he turned a corner and flung open the doors to his private chambers. “Am I really that oblivious?” he asked himself, flopping down on his bed. “So oblivious I couldn’t figure out my own girlfriend was a lesbian?” Zuko yanked his hair down from its top knot with a groan. “Ex- girlfriend.” He unceremoniously tossed his headpiece somewhere behind him. Normally, he’d treat the antique golden flame with more respect, tenderly placing it back in its box on his nightstand or at least setting it down rather than throwing it. But today was not normal. Nothing ever was. “Why does everything have to be so complicated?”
What he needed was a break. A few days away from Caldera to relax, de-stress, and let off steam without the weight of a whole nation resting on his shoulders. He hadn’t taken anything remotely resembling a break since his coronation, almost 8 months before. And before that… the three years before that were about as far from stress relieving as one could get. Zuko sighed. Sometimes he wished he could throw off his crown and responsibilities and run away to the earth kingdom; hide his identity, settle down with a nice person who actually loved him, and serve tea for the rest of his life… no, that would be wrong- for him and for his country. He stroked his chin. But a short vacation wasn’t necessarily off the table…
“I’ll only be gone for a week or so. Not much has been happening around here lately, you shouldn’t have to deal with many problems.”
“But can the Fire Nation deal with me?”
Zuko smiled. “Thank you again, Uncle. It means a lot, especially knowing my people will be in good hands.”
“Stay safe, Firelord Zuko,” Uncle Iroh said, nodding his head, “And remember, taking time to heal isn’t something to be ashamed of.”
“Good luck.” Zuko pulled his uncle into a tight embrace before stepping out the door, black clothing and duo blades disappearing into the balmy night air.
The Ember Island sand was just barely warm between his toes, sitting on the beach in front of his family home, basking in the moonlight and letting the roar of the waves drown out the chaos in his head. Running away to his family’s old vacation home probably wasn’t the best choice- it was likely the first place anyone would look for him if they were inclined to wonder what had become of their Firelord. Zuko didn’t care. Ember Island meant more to him than the risk of being tracked down. Another questionable choice: running away at all, disguised and alone, dodging responsibility and...life. Life was so confusing. One second your life could be falling into place for the first time, and the next… you end up sitting on a beach. Tears streaming. Questioning everything.
What was he going to do now? Mai had been the only part of his old life he didn’t hate. She was his stability, his comfort, his confidante (though not a very attentive one). At one time the only thing keeping him in the Fire Nation at all, (which, thinking back, was a bad thing.) His rock. A rock that felt like it was currently being flung at his head. His relationship with Mai wasn’t perfect, closer to awful, really, but it was the last familiar thing he had. Now, it was over. Over in a way that could never be repaired. And everything would be different now because of it. Again.
Zuko squinted up at the moon. “ What would you do? You were a person once.” He blinked. I can’t believe I’m talking to the moon. The moon . Even if she is Sokka’s ex… still not quite used to that. He shook his head. It was only a matter of time before they started pestering him about an heir, and by extension, a wife. He winced at the thought of a crowd of too-eager noble women, ogling him with greedy eyes that would never be filled with genuine love. At least Mai wasn’t in it for the crown. Becoming Firelord was the best thing that ever happened to him, but also the worst. With it went his (relative) freedom, one track minded ways, his childhood. He never had much of one to begin with. He let his mind drift away on the waves... what would his future firelady be like? Pretty, for sure. Rich, definitely. Strong of mind and heart, brave and compassionate, the love of his life? Probably not.
A face popped into Zuko’s mind. Wavy dark brown hair, soft skin the color of new earth. Wide and determined blue eyes. His heart burst alight with dancing embers. Then sunk. Never going to happen. We’ve been over this before. She loves Aang, not you. Avatar Aang. His chest caved. The nobility would never let it happen anyways...we’d find a way, I know we would. His thoughts burst out of the constraints of his mind. “Stop! She chose him! You-you were never even an option.” Stupid fantasies. Stupid hopes. Stupid dreams. You have so much now, why can’t you be satisfied?
Stupid and Impossible.
Zuko’s eyes flickered open. Rustling branches. Behind him. He whipped around silently as a weasel-cat, arms extended and poised to fire, his duo blades back at the house, yards away and hopefully out of the intruder’s reach. Heart pounding in his chest, eyes focused, he stood up and surveyed his surroundings. They had gone silent, but he knew better than to think the intruder had gone too. A flash of motion to his left proved him right. His eyes traced its path, arms following in perfect precision. More motion, and then… laughing?
“I know you’re there. Come out into the open, I command you.”
A figure emerged from the bushes. Shorter than him, dressed in blue and grey, head cocked, hands on their hips and frowning, he could tell who it was from here.
“ Ka-Katara? What are you doing in my bushes?”
Katara stepped into the starlight. An awkward smile spread across her face, and heat across Zuko’s from the way the moon gave her an ethereal glow.
“I went to Caldera to surprise you and distract you from Firelord stuff, but when I got there, there was no Firelord to distract! Your uncle thought I might find you here.”
His hand flew up to his neck. “I guess I forgot to tell him I was going here to be alone…”
“Heh. Sorry. I can leave, if -”
“- No, really, it’s fine - please stay,” he ushered. Then made a mental reminder to slap himself in the face for how desperate he sounded. “You just surprised me a little. Did you have to sneak up on me, or…”
“I was going to scare you.”
“You were going to get roasted like a Komodo Chicken! Be more careful!” He replied with a scornful frown.
“Says the guy who blasts fire first and asks questions later...a little grumpy today too.”
Zuko smirked, and held out his arms. She flew into them, laughing.
“It’s been too long.”
“So, how's the restoration of the Southern Watertribe going?”
“Great! Buildings other than igloos are going up everywhere, people are always coming and going...we have a new waterbender actually. She’s just turned two, which means she was born before the end of the war...I suppose I wasn’t the only one they missed. They don’t usually show abilities so young, either; I’m willing to bet she’ll be powerful.”
Zuko tilted his head slightly, allowing his chin length hair to paint shadows across his face. The midday sun beat warm on his back as they sat inches apart on the aging dock. “And you’ll be there to teach her everything you know.”
Katara’s eyes drifted off. “Maybe not everything, and only if she wants me too…”
“You’re the most powerful and skilled waterbender in the world… she’ll be honored to have you.”
“You really think so?”
“Agni, you took down Azula...I’m surprised every waterbender in the world isn’t clamoring to have you as their teacher.”
Katara smiled at her feet, dangling over the side of the dock, just barely skimming the water. “I did have a little help...”
“If getting hit by lightning counts as help.”
“You saved my life.”
Zuko’s gaze dropped to the same stretch of water as Katara’s. “And you saved mine.”
She smiled up and scooted towards him, tossing her arm around his shoulders. Despite being a child of the ice and snow, she radiated warmth. Warmth and familiarity.
“So...Mai and Ty Lee?”
Zuko took a deep breath, eyebrows rising and falling with his chest. “Mai and Ty Lee.”
“I’m not that surprised.”
“Because they were so obviously in love with each other you could tell even while they were trying to kill you.”
“...no.” Her mouth twisted up in concentration, “But in the last 8 months where they've been nicer to me… It must be so hard on you. ”
Zuko shrugged. “It’s fine. When has my life ever gone the way I wanted?”
“You want to talk about it?”
“Not really. Change of subject?” he sighed. She smiled in confirmation. “How are the others?”
“I don't know about Toph; I haven't seen her in a month. Last time I checked she was trying to sue her parents - whether that’s legal, I don't know… Sokka’s been with me, working on the restoration. The builders are incorporating some of his designs! I never would have guessed he had such a flair for ice architecture,” her forehead scrunched up as if remembering something painful. “Suki came over last week… she and Sokka are being insufferable, as usual, and well, you know how Mai and Ty Lee are.”
A loud silence passed between them, an unspoken name, an awkward truth.
Katara sighed heavily. “Aang- Aang is fine. Or I think he is; There’s some scuffle in the Northern Water Tribe about fish and I haven't seen much of him these days. It’s hard and I miss him a lot,” she said with half a smile. “I’d accompany him, but…”
“You’re needed elsewhere.”
“...yeah. So how's Azula ?”
“She burned down a building last week, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“She, excuse me, what? ”
“It’s a bit of a long story…”
SEA SALT AND LAUGHTER
They talked for hours, until the sun was low on the horizon and the sky breathed with color. Until the air was fresh and crisp with a late afternoon breeze, their voices were hoarse, and the water was a swath of blue silk. About everything. Life, turtleducks, trade propositions, the weather. Roasted chicken with berry-lemon seasoning and sea prunes on the side, bending techniques, fears and hopes for the future. War and peace.
“You’re going to find your mother. I know you are. And I’m going to be right there beside you the whole time. Even if it takes years and years and everyone else has given up hope,” she said, hand steadily on his shoulder, teary blue eyes burning into his own. “I’ll be there. You helped me get my closure. I won’t rest until you get yours.”
I’ll be there. Her words echoed in his mind like thunder. She would be. She would be there. And he would be there for her. Until the sky came crashing down, until his heart gave out, until the world stopped spinning and the sun stopped burning. He would be there.
“Katara? I... there's... ”
His mouth went dry. No. He couldn't do this. Not now. It wasn't the right place, it wasn't the right time, it wasn't the right anything. Except the right person. No… he’d mess it up, mess her life up. It was wrong.
He swished his hair out of his eyes and said simply: “Nevermind...just- thank you. Again.”
Katara’s cheeks turned the same delicate pink as the clouds above her head. Neither of them said a word.
Until...Zuko felt a shove on his back and a jolt as his body left the safety of the dock. Water rushed up and overcame him; the smell and taste of sea salt overwhelmed his nose and mouth.
“Hey, what was that for?” He gurgled, spitting out seawater and throwing his hands in the air, losing his temper for the first time in hours. Laughing, she jumped in after him. Her hands found their way back to her hips, and she smiled a smile that was so uniquely Katara, so uniquely for him. An unexpected grin crinkled his eyes, and he splashed her with water, partially out of anger, and partially so she couldn't see his face had turned redder than hers. Redder than his fine silk travel clothes, now plastered to his body, sopping wet and ruined. He didn't care - she grinned back at him, wider than ever.
“Smart move, Zuko, splash a waterbender.”
“You’re gonna make me regret that, huh?” he said, instantly shocked at how flirtatious he sounded. This wasn't like him! What was she doing to him?
“Yep.” She bit her lip.
Katara’s arms moved around in a swift motion, elegant, practiced, and graceful as in dance. All around them, a wall of water rose in the shallows, cleaving away from the shore and rustling the weeds until it towered above their heads. Then came crashing down, dousing them both. If his clothes were not ruined before, they certainly were now.
Zuko erupted into laughter. Laughter so intense his mouth hurt from smiling, laughter so real he felt like he had been reborn, laughter that seized up his chest and grabbed his heart and squeezed it.
Katara stared, shock etched upon her face.
“I-I’ve never seen you laugh like that before.”
“That’s because it doesn't happen very often,” he breathed.
That's-that’s because it’s never happened before.
Slowly, cautiously, she waded towards him. Her hand rose once again, this time not to summon a giant wave or command a wall of water, but to delicately sweep a lock of hair out of his eyes.
Zuko flushed. His heart raced. Fear came creeping in. He took a step back, breaking away from her touch he so desperately craved. From Katara.
“I-I’d better get going. It’s getting late and- and food. Dinner,” he blurted, straightening up and promptly wading back towards the shore.
Katara stood dumbfounded in the shallows, staring after the boy she had finally gotten to laugh.