Chapter 1: Night One
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.
Chapter 2: Night Two
“Okay, I’m helping you with dinner tomorrow night,” she laughed, prodding slimy vegetables with her utensils.
Zuko skewered a charred mushroom. “Yeah. That’s probably a good idea...”
Katara shoved a few more bites into her mouth before standing up from her seat and tossing the rest of her food into the fire.
“I’ll give you credit for trying.”
He flashed her a shy smile from across the campfire. “There’s that at least.”
“I’ll be right back,” she said, making her way towards the beachouse.
Zuko watched her disappear inside and then turned back to the fire. It popped, crackled and glowed like tiny fireworks- like the inside of his heart. I can't believe this is happening. This is actually happening. She’s here with you. Alone with you. Laughing, smiling, tossing food into the fire, teasing oh Agni teasing. Here. He ran his hands through his messy raven hair, an incredulous grin sweeping away the shadows on his face. How was this happening? Zuko was beginning to think Uncle was more observant than he looked. His eyes went wild. Shit. Who else knows? Hopefully not Aang. He reminded himself it didn't matter… Katara loved Aang. Or at least cared enough to stay with him. There was something she wasn't telling him though, perhaps something she didn't want to acknowledge herself; he could see it in her eyes when she was talking about her boyfriend, the way she hesitated to bring him up at all. Was he so crazy to think… no. No.
Her voice pulled him back to earth. “Hey.”
“Hey,” he echoed, voice soft.
“I found this in one of your cupboards. I think it’s some type of sparkling cider.”
He flicked his hand at the dusty old bottle, forehead wrinkling. “Can I-”
She tossed the possibly-cider through the air to him; he caught it without hassle. It reminded him of how they handled the telescope on Appa, way back when they were hunting Yon Rha. Warmth pooled in his stomach.
He popped out the cork and sniffed. “Smells like apples,” he shrugged, tossing it back.
She caught it and took a swig. “Tastes like apples too...strong apples,” she added with a quirk of her brows.
“Strong enough to knock out the taste of dinner?”
She giggled, eyes reflecting the glow of the fire.
“I for one think you’re doing an amazing job; don't listen to them. Old people can be stuupid. Horrible and greedy and bigoted and so stuuupid!”
“Tell me about it! This one guy…Tozen? I think his name was Advisor Tozen- wanted me to cut taxes on the nobility and-” Zuko shook his head “-and raise them on the working class! You know what I told him? I told him: ‘I didn't work in customer service for months just to do that.’”
Katara nodded fervently. “Uuugh. Good for you. Tozen’s a Jerk. Jerk who deserved it. Advisor Jerk.”
“I managed to get Advisor Jerk to cave, but it’s not always like that. Everybody's always demanding something of me, usually I don't mind ‘Zuko do this,’ ‘Zuko do that;’ but sometimes it’s ‘no don’t do that; we don't like that’...but what if I like that? What if what they like sucks?” he ranted, imitating his advisors. “Being Firelord is so fucking hard .”
Katara took another sip from the bottle. “Harder than this cider?”
“Harder than the cider,” he shouted, thrusting his arms towards the sky.
They burst into laughter. Laughed and laughed and laughed until their eyes brimmed with tears and their chests stung. The contents of the bottle had been cider alright, just not the type they were expecting.
Zuko was a surprisingly ranty and confident drunk; his walls were down, his pent up anger surfaced and his bravery extended well beyond his actions. He was downright gutsy.
He fiddled with his thumbs. “Earlier, I, um, asked you how Aang was, and you, well you just...skirted. Didn't say much. I can’t help feeling like there’s something I'm missing.”
She laughed humorlessly, and picked up her seat and plopped it down next to his.
Her hand found its place on his shoulder. “Oh. Oh I’ll tell you about Aang.”
The floodgates were open.
“I-I feel more like a mother than a girlfriend. I have to follow him around everywhere, cleaning up his messes, trying to teach him things and explain things he’s too immature to understand, I- how much longer can I do it?
“Well, he is thirteen. A young thirteen, too, and you’re 15. But also 23.” That makes no sense. He rubbed his temples. “Physically 15 but emotionally 23.”
“And-and. The girls! Him and his little tricks to try and impress the girls. I try so hard not to get jealous, but...he shouldn't want to do that. He has me,” she vented, eyes watering. “Why does he want to do that? Why am I not enough?”
Zuko sighed. “Maybe. Maybe you’re too much for him - in a good way. You’re this strong, beautiful, incredible girl, and he doesn't know what to do with it. He should feel honored!” Really? We’re dragging honor into this?
“I mean- he does, he idolizes me. I’m some sort of mystical being in his eyes, he thinks I’m an immortal benevolent spirit or something. And anything that goes against that vision he has of me isn't allowed. I feel like I’m not allowed to mess up, to get angry, to be... me!”
“At least he actually loves you.”
Her eyes fell to her lap. “I-I’m so sorry.”
“No-no don't be sorry.” Why am I so bad at thiiiiis? “ Thing is, it’s always felt like that with Mai, even before I knew she was, well, gay. It was always about her. What she wanted. Her feelings. Her life. Her...whatever. I never felt heard, or supported, or like she cared enough to even try and get to know me. She still had this obsolete picture of me from years ago… I’d changed so much. She didn't know what to do with the new me.”
“I kind of figured. From how much you reach out to other people, reach out to me.”
In any other situation he might’ve snapped ‘stop assuming you know what’s going on in my life;’ with any other person he might’ve gotten upset and said ‘that’s not your place.’ But it was her place. “Really? Agni, I must look so desperate.” Any other person wouldn't get it.
“No. You just look sad.”
“Our relationship was never that deep to begin with. We’d make out, fight, make out, fight more, make out some more,” he admitted. “Even with that, uh, kind of thing I couldn't please her.”
She whipped around, the blue and gold of their eyes bleeding together. “Is it weird I don't really like kissing Aang at all? It feels wrong somehow, like an obligation. Does that make sense?”
He shrugged. “Once again, he’s thirteen.”
“I just- I just really wish I had the guts to do it!”
“End it. Break up with him, move on with my life. I love him, I really do, it just- it just isn't working. Maybe- Maybe we can try again in a few years. Try again and he’ll be a man and I won't have to be his mommy anymore.” Her words were tinged with poison.
“Break up with him,” he blurted, shocked at his forwardness.
She blinked. “What?”
“Do it. Break up with him, I mean. He isn't treating you how- how you deserve to be treated and that isn’t okay.” His voice dropped to a harsh whisper. “No one gets to treat Katara of the Southern Watertribe like that.”
“Zuko, I can't just break up with him. It’ll crush him. Crush him… he’s such a sweet guy and so young and he deserves some love in his life after everything he’s gone through and done.”
“He saved the world, Katara, he’s got everyone’s love, why’s he need you? He’ll get over it,” he snapped. Too far, Zuko. What would uncle say? “Everyone gets their heart broken, it's a natural part of life until you find the right person,” he resumed after a deep breath.
“The right person,” she mirrored in a hush. The silence that followed said more than either of them ever could.
Katara snapped her fingers. “Yeah. Yeah! Like I got over Jet, and how you’re going to get over Mai.”
“And also Jet,” he reminded her, poking the ground with his foot.
“You too? Wow that’s funny- anyways I just don't know if I can yet, break his heart that is. I- I don't know,” she sighed. “It’s a hard decision.”
“Well if you do decide to end it, I’ll be here for you,” in more ways than one, he added in his mind, “If you want me.”
“I want you. I want you so much more than I'm allowed to say. You’re my best friend. My very best friend.” He swore he could hear her voice crack. Just slightly.
Like instinct, without thinking, without even noticing, Zuko wrapped his arms around her. “Sokka thinks it's him but it’s you, it’s you, Katara. You’re my best friend. My bold, brave, beautiful best bud.”
Neither of them knew what to say after that. Perhaps they didn't need to say anything. Perhaps nothing would be enough.
But words were said. “That’s a lot of words that start with b.” The moment was too dangerous to be left to linger.
He raised his eyebrow. “A little alliteration never hurts...”
“Tell that to my ears,” Katara smirked.
Zuko sighed, grinning up at the sky… “Is that why you cringe so much during my speeches?”
“Maybe I would less if you didn’t use so many metaphors! Is a simile really that hard to use?”
...and they sat together, waiting for the stars.
Zuko tossed and turned. His bed was comfortable and his body and mind were tired as he cursed himself in frustration, able to do nothing but lie awake, memories of the previous day racing giddily through his head, eyes wide and sparkling and frantic. Wow. Wow this is real. That actually happened. Almost happened. If things keep going the way they’re going… He grabbed his pillow and stuffed it over his face. No. They can’t keep going that way. She’s with Aang...He tossed....but maybe not for long. Or else she wouldn't be acting like that towards you. He turned. No. Don’t think that. Think about how sad Aang would be. And tossed yet again, a much more terrifying thought molding into shape. He’ll be even sadder if he gets cheated on. “No. Katara would never,” he reminded himself. But would she? Probably not- she loves him. You heard her, she loves him. Does she really? Yes, she does… but she isn’t happy…could she ever be happy with me? If that were by some miracle the case, that didn’t make it okay for Katara to cheat on her boyfriend, for Zuko to help her cheat on his friend! The worst part was that the thought didn't repulse him. As wrong as it was. As much as it could destroy the relationships he never thought he’d have in the first place. No. Push that away. You’re a horrible friend, even thinking that. A horrible friend and a selfish jerk. And-And you’d be an even worse boyfriend…even if you do love her. Tui and La, I love her so much…. But when has love ever meant anything? Katara loves Aang. An important detail he’d pushed out of his mind came crashing back in. None of that matters anyways... she doesn't love you.
Defeated, his eyes closed one after the other; his room turned into a kaleidoscope of swirling darkness... darkness. The moon. Rise with the- Katara. He groaned and rubbed his eyes. The edges of his vision sparkled green...green...green dress… green crystals under Ba Sing Se...Katara. He could have been under water. Water. Katara! My whole brain is KATARA! If she hadn't been sleeping in the next room, he’d have shouted aloud. So he crossed his arms and closed his eyes.
More tossing and turning.
Perhaps part of his trouble sleeping was that he didn't really want to. He knew and feared what his dreams would hold. Fingers intertwined, fingers tracing jawlines, tracing scars. Sleepy, narrowed blue eyes, closing blue eyes. Lips, soft and pink and places they weren't supposed to be. Words said in whispers the world would never hear. Her. Him. Them.
Zuko exhaled slowly as his lips parted into a grimace. He tossed off the pillow over his face, and stretched, arms and legs extending to their full lengths, back arched slightly, and tried desperately not to think of all the places she would fit perfectly.
A jagged breath filled his lungs.
Hours passed. Zuko didn't sleep a wink. The waves and his thoughts were too loud. The royal meteorologist said a tropical storm was coming, which would normally be a deterrent to someone going to the beach, but not to Zuko, one with the chaos and counting on it. He’d thought no one would be crazy enough to follow him into a tropical storm. He’d been wrong.
His body and eyelids were lead. The kind of heavy where you long for nothing more than to sleep, to be relieved of it. His mind didn't understand his plight - though his thoughts were barely coherent anymore, they still wouldn't slow down. Luckily, there was another way out of that sensation, and eventually, sick of being sick, Zuko took it.
“If I can’t sleep, I might as well wait for the sunrise,” he muttered, lugging himself out of bed. He yawned, stretching, and threw on the first thing he found in his bag: a simple gold tunic with black trim and matching black trousers.
“What time is it?” Zuko grumbled, fumbling with his shirt in the dark.
He tied it on and stumbled in the direction of the nearest candle clock. A tiny flame sprung from his palm. He held it near to see the time: 4:30 in the morning.
“Cool. I’ve got 3 hours. I guess I’ll twiddle my thumbs or something.”
A doorway came into view in front of him, and he slipped out, only hitting his head on the side frame once, before wandering around to the part of the balcony that would face the rising sun. The sight before him nearly knocked him off his feet. A billion stars stretched out over the world like light shining through a woven blanket, some streaking across the sky like embers shooting out of a fire. Thin, blotchy clouds wisping across the sky like cotton on the wind. The whole world had a delicate glow to it.
And so did Katara, hair loose and messy, silver dress shimmering with moonlight, staring out at the stars.
He melted, suddenly very thankful for the breath that inflated his lungs, the blood coursing through his veins, the rhythmic beating of his heart. The same rhythmic beat had almost stopped months before, in a cackle and the flash of blue lightning. If it had, if she hadn’t been able to save him... I’m so lucky. Something rose in his throat. So lucky.
His body walked over to her without consulting his mind. Luckily, the answer would be yes. Whether the question was jumping in front of lightning or merely standing by her side, the answer would always be yes.
Her head turned, moonlight spilling onto her face, turning her eyes silver. Had the railing not been there to steady him, he might be a puddle at her feet.
“Hey,” he echoed, trying not to meet her eyes for too long. He could feel her smiling at him nonetheless.
“It’s a beautiful night.”
He opened his mouth to speak, only to find he couldn't. Relegated to nodding, he couldn't care either. Not when what he wanted to say he wasn't allowed to. “Not as beautiful as you.”
Her eyes flashed up to him, taking him in, breathing in the full extent of the situation. The incredible, crazy, unexpected, impossible extent of the situation. The two of them, alone on a balcony before sunrise, staring out at the stars. His breathing faltered for what seemed like the 8th time that night.
“I like your shirt. It’s a good color on you.”
His chest deflated in shock. “I- wow-thank you? It was the first thing I found in my bag.”
She shrugged. “Lucky find I guess. Matches your eyes.”
He blushed, hand finding its way to the back of his neck. She held her eyes to his. Shit shit, she’s looking at you. And did not remove them. She’s still looking at you, say somethiiing…
“You-you’re wearing a dress. It’s silver,” bad start, bad start. We can still save this, “ Your eyes are kind of silvery.” Ugghhhhhdjfshhf
She blinked. “Yes. I suppose they are.”
He stared out at the night sky, thumb massaging his palm. That way, he wasn't tempted to reach out and place his hand on her cheek instead. Or cover his eyes.
He closed them. The air smelled of seaweed and crashing waves. A few months ago, the same smell might remind him of restless years at sea, ordering around sailors, chasing the avatar trying to restore his honor. Now it brought up memories of his friends laughing on a beach, inside jokes and shared secrets, him and Katara and a few late night conversations no one knew they had. He smiled, letting it all sink in. With the loss of Mai, his life had changed once again, seemingly for the worst. Yet, never one to give up easily, he wasn’t going to start now. Katara reminded him change wasn’t all bad. Sometimes, it was hope. Choices.
The Firelord took a deep breath. She was out here; he might as well talk to her. Something short. Sweet. Casual.
“You have trouble sleeping too?”
“No. It’s more that I don’t want to…”
His voice hollowed. “I know the feeling.”
“I suppose that’s what brought you out here?”
He only nodded. The truth was a bit more complicated.
The master waterbender took a staggering breath, eyes glazing over -wandering away- and leaned heavily against the railing.
Zuko cocked his head. “Are you-are you okay?”
“Yes. Just a nightmare, that’s all.”
“Do you want to talk about it? That always seems to work with mine…”
“I-I don’t know.” Katara looked down at her hands, anchored firmly on the railing. “It was pretty awful.”
“Katara...whatever it was about...just know you can tell me,” he said, “not-not that you have have to-“
She smiled up at him. “It was about my mother.”
“That’s what I was worried about,” he revealed, voice low.
The words ‘thank you’ pooling in her eyes, Katara took a deep breath.
“It-it was about the night she died. Everything the same…running back to the tent as fast as I could...everything burned...her just-just lying there. Necklace still around her neck,” her voice began to shake, “Except-except it was dad, and Sokka too. Not fire this time, just. Blood. And-and the soldiers, they took me...I’m s-sorry I can’t.”
“Don’t-don’t be sorry,” he said, gathering her up into his arms. Like instinct. Like memory. She nuzzled into his neck and cried and cried, her tears a soft rain upon his skin.
All it took was one broken sob from her for him to break. He burrowed into her unbrushed hair, hair that smelled like sea mist and rain and dewdrops with a hint of something sweet.
“We give so much to the world-so much and it just...takes,” he muttered, then let the tears overwhelm him.
Miles above them, Princess Yue continued her nightly dance across the sky. All the world was still and silent, save the ocean breeze that gently tossed their hair; the soft crunch of leaves as they spiraled from trees and met their final resting place upon the earth; the distant chirps and twitters of island birds waking up after a restful night. All the world was peaceful. All the world was new.
Katara’s hoarse voice became the only sound.
“Zuko? How did you- how did you get the scar?”
His heart cracked. He pulled out of their embrace, but kept their arms interlocked and their sides pressed together, not daring to let her slip out of his hands. If he did, he might lose her. The way he did over and over in nightmares of his own.
“I knew you’d ask eventually,” he said with a humorless laugh. 8 months-more than 8 months, two years, four years- and he still hadn’t told her. Told any of his new friends.
“It’s okay, you can tell me when you’re ready.”
He wished he had told her months ago, after the Agni Kai perhaps. Back in the crystal catacombs under Ba Sing Se. The moment he met her, the moment he first saw her when he… rammed his boat into her village. Agni, I wasted so much time, so much time. He just didn’t know how to tell her. How do you tell someone about something like that? “ I disagreed with my dad that murder was wrong, so he burned half my face off?” Unlikely. He settled on:
“I may not know what it’s from but I know it brings something up for you…”
The roar of the waves interrupted their conversation, all importance of their words drifting away on the breeze. All that mattered was his arm around her shoulder, her head resting on his. The steady rise and fall of his chest, the comforting beats of their hearts in unison. Her eyes, blue like sea glass touched by the moon. The world became them and them alone, even if just for a moment.
He finally knew what to say.
“I was thirteen. There-there was this war meeting, and my father-“ he shook his head “ -my father was going to sacrifice a division of soldiers. I-I spoke out and he,” took a deep breath, “challenged me to an Agni Kai. Challenged his thirteen year old child to Agni Kai-In public and for everyone to watch- Azula, Azula was smiling. Next thing I knew half my face was burned off and I was banished.”
Her eyes went wide. “I-I thought it’d be something like that, but… that’s just… I never thought that.”
“The thing is...it used to be a source of shame-something I hated about myself-hated myself for, but now,” he reflected, “It’s almost comforting... a reminder I’ll never be him.”
She hugged him. Tight.
“Zuko, I don’t know what to say...”
Say nothing. Nothing at all. He took his own advice, and just stared glassy eyed out at the rising sun.
But the moment ended, like all perfect things do.
“How long were you out here, before I was, I mean?” He heard the words before it registered that he said them.
“I rise with the moon, remember?”
And sometimes the memory of perfection is better…
Without planning, without understanding, without questioning - without thinking at all, they leaned in.
Her hand found its place cupping his left cheek, one of his own wrapping around her waist, the other coming to rest in her wavy dawnlit hair.
Her breath, surprisingly hot for a child of the ice and snow, drew closer and closer, as did her face, her smile, those familiar cobalt eyes.
He closed his, soft and amber…
The sun burst over the horizon; Ember Island burst into dazzling color...
Katara pulled away.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered into his mouth, lightly drumming her fingers on his shirt where his lightening scar would be...and pulled away.
A light, damp pressure found the scar on his face.
And then she was gone. Zuko stood in the sunlight and ran a trembling finger down the mutilated, folded skin under his left eye- the place her lips had just touched.
His reality shattered back into place.
Inhale. Exhale. Zuko’s mind was clear and focused. Only his breath, that steady inflation and deflation of his lungs, filled the sense of nothingness inside him. He’d never been that good at meditation; thoughts that weren’t easily pushed away would slip into his head, questions that weren’t easily answered would spin out of control. Does she really want me? Or am I just a rebound? His breathing always fell out of sync. Would she really get so desperate to use me like that? Or am I the one she’s wanted all along? The wind, which had picked up greatly since the night before, rustled his messy morning hair, distracting him. Could this actually happen? Or am I about to get my heart broken?
He took a shallow breath. What are we supposed to do if we love each other? We can’t. We can’t fall in love. His stomach sunk. What if we already have? Then-then-then... there was still time. He could leave. He could pack up his blades and his clothes and leave Ember Island and moonlit conversations with the girl he couldn’t love behind. Leave her behind.
His heart seized up with pressure. He didn’t want to leave Ember Island- he’d only just gotten there. (So much for my vacation.) There was still so much to do. So much to say...what if she took it the wrong way? What if she thinks I don't want to be friends anymore? What if-what if she thinks I hate her? He stooped over, clenching fistfuls of shaggy dark hair. As awful as both those possibilities were, at least they were safer-for everyone one involved. He could go back to admiring from afar, the way he had since Yon Rha. When she hugged him on the dock as the night met the day. Since the fight with Azula. When he reached out for her with the last bit of strength he had left, close to death on the cold stone floor; the moment he fell in love. That day at the Jasmine dragon. When, catching a glimpse through the window, he watched her fall in love with someone else.
That night, before the storm made landfall, he would creep out into the salty air, disguised and wielding his duo blades, ready to leave behind the best two nights of his life. He would do what was best for everyone, his friends, himself and his country… for Katara, even if the mere thought almost killed him.
He would let her go.
But not before saying goodbye...
...If he was brave enough to even approach her. Things had been...weird between them all day. Considering what had happened the night before- what almost happened - half happened, it was no mystery why.
It started the moment after she pulled away. They avoided each other entirely until breakfast, and even then, they ate in silence, several feet away, not daring to make eye contact, let alone address whatever was between them. He glanced up at her every now and then in between pretending to be hungry and twiddling his chopsticks. Her eyes were dull with exhaustion and dark circles had sprung up underneath them; her hair was in a messy bun and she was still in her silver gown like moonlight; he even had to admit she was drooling a little. (Small wonder- neither of them had slept in two days.) Whether by his own lack of sleep or undying love, he still found her beautiful.
After a few weary bites, and what could have been moments or minutes, she looked up from her bowl.
“You look tired.”
“You too.” Of all the things you could say, Zuko?
“I am,” she said, eyes darting quickly back down to her food.
That was the only thing they said to each other for a while.
For a few hours, until their paths crossed again at the beach. He’d been inside, polishing his blades, preparing them for the next morning, when he heard a commotion in the distance.
Waves, much larger than a few minutes ago, erratic and unpredictable in their timing. Wondering if something had gone strangely with the weather, he tracked the sound down to the beach, but only found Katara. She was experimenting with her bending, hair in a high ponytail and clothed in only her wraps. He almost fell over at the sight of her exposed legs.
Okay, only partially because of that. The other reason was that the mass of water she was currently molding into an intricate shape was slowly taking the form of a turtleduck. She was making a turtleduck...why was she making a turtleduck? How was she making a turtleduck-he’d never seen that before.
She carefully walked backwards from the literal waterfowl to admire it; a pleased grin spread across her face. Amazed, he let out a too-audible sigh. She whipped around to face him, stumbling downwards in the water, a look of terror in her eyes. The turtleduck exploded. Katara collided with the sea in a resounding crash.
“Heeeeey, Zuko. Funny seeing you here.” She picked herself up and blinked at him, clearly shocked and frazzled.
He blinked back. “Funny. Yeah. You’re-you’re doing experimental bending. You made a turtleduck.”
They exchanged an awkward stare.
“I am-I did. You-you could join me if you want.”
“I-uh. I can’t swim.” Zuko gave a lopsided smile.
Katara’s eyebrows crept up her forehead. “What? I swear I’ve seen you swim before...”
“Well...I forgot,” he said. Stupidly.
“Oh. Ok. Ok cool cool.”
“Well, I, uhhh, have to go-” the Firelord squeezed his eyes shut in pain “-clean the fountain... courtyard…” what? Then made finger guns and grinned painfully. “Have a nice day!”
Despite practically sprinting away he could still hear her groan; almost see her hands wipe down her face. He could definitely feel the embarrassment.
Their third and most recent interaction had occurred entirely by chance. They’d been walking around the perimeter of the property, neither of them paying particularly close attention to where they were going. Zuko had been lost in his thoughts; Katara had been lost in a story etched on a very long scroll. Zuko winced as the moment replayed in his mind.
She walked straight into him, knocking them both to the ground. The stone floor stung against his hip. He barely noticed.
“Kat-Katara...I’m so sorry; I didn’t see you there-are you alright?”
She laughed it off.. “Serves me right for reading while walking. And besides, I took you down with me.” Her forehead crinkled. “Sorry.”
Clutching his now throbbing hip, he forced out the words: “What are-were you reading.”
She smiled sheepishly. “It’s Love Amongst the Dragons- the abridged version.”
Love Amongst the Dragons...his mother’s favorite play. Giddy butterflies swarmed through his body, rising from his stomach and bursting out his mouth. “You’re amazing- the story is- the story’s amazing. Story that you’re reading - your story.” He fought the urge to smack himself in the face. “Words and sleep deprivation don’t mix apparently...”
“...I heard you talking about it a while ago and, well, I thought I might check it out,” Katara said. A gentle, rosy blush spread across her face. Focusing back to the unfortunate situation, she shoved the scroll under an arm and attempted to use the other to prop herself back up. He crawled over, standing up as fast as could to help her do the same.
“Here, here, it’s my fault, really- years of stealth and you’d never know it,” he blabbed. Once they were both on their feet again:
They resumed their awkward staring contest from earlier...then looked and walked away.
DINNER PART ONE
His world took an unexpected plunge into darkness; His memories and thoughts slipped away. The warmth of the sun. The smell of salty sea air, the feel of it in his lungs… his breathing slowed…
He felt a tap on his shoulder…the world became light again.
Zuko’s eyes tuned back in to the world a little too slowly.
“Hello…” He said, stretching and pressing his fingers into his temples.
“Does napping count as meditation?”
He rolled his neck. “Don’t know, don’t care. Too tired to think clear.”
She smirked. “Anyways, sleepyhead, I think we should start working on dinner.”
He was jolted awake by another swarm of butterflies. She called me sleepyhead. Ugh the teasing again- why the teasing? He squinted up at the bright cloud cover. “What time is it?”
“Isn’t it a bit early?”
Katara stalled. At first he thought her cobalt eyes were lost in nothingness, that she had zoned out or disassociated for a moment. But then: “Normally, it would be...” she said, sweeping her hands about the air in obvious concentration. Tiny droplets appeared out of nowhere, cohering as dripping moisture to her fingers. “...but the humidity is rising. I think the storm might be coming in a day early…”
“...and you want to be ready when it does,” he continued, understanding. She had been looking at the air. The moisture in the air. His breath caught. Even the tiniest things still amazed him.
She nodded; he without taking his eyes off her got to his feet.
“Good thinking. We’re still sticking to our plan from earlier?”
“Yep. And Zuko? This time you might try using the grill.”
His hand found the bridge of his nose. “Because I obliterated the mushrooms with my bending last night...yeah- also good thinking.”
“I’ll be inside making the sea prunes if you need a fire extinguisher.”
He pouted, wondering why he didn’t snap back . Part of it might have just been relief and shock they managed a coherent conversation.
Dinner that night was to be roast chicken with a berry-lemon dressing and sweet and spicy sea prunes on the side. It was the same meal they dreamed up that first day ( how was it only yesterday? ) on the beach, legs dangling in the vast blue water under a vast blue sky. Zuko was handling the chickengoose, and Katara was handling...everything else. Oh! And the drinks - he was also handling the drinks. Not cider.
Which left… rice milk. Where would I get that? A juice of some kind? There were a few fruit trees nearby...whether they bore fruit at the moment was another question. Tea? Boring. He made her that all the time. Water? Yeah, no. Looks like we’re going with tea. He made a mental note to rummage around in the cabinets for some later. The prospect irked him. It was their last night alone together, likely for some time- possibly forever, after everything that had happened… it had to be special.
He lit the grill with his bending, and tossed the raw bird meat onto its surface. “Here goes nothing,” he muttered through clenched teeth, “Please don’t burn, please don’t burn…if you burn, I’ll-I’ll set you on fire.” He rolled his eyes. Wow, it’s almost like I haven’t slept in two days!
Keeping a watchful eye on the chicken, he let his mind wander. Because of the imminent storm, his plan to leave that evening was effectively obsolete. Tomorrow would be his best bet, assuming the storm had passed by then. His stomach clenched. He didn’t want to leave. Not even a bit. He would spend a hundred sleepless nights right where he was, staring up at the stars with Katara, crying about the things that haunted their nightmares, moonlight bathing them in hope for a better future. There was certainly enough to say. But he couldn’t say it. And he had a sneaking suspicion: neither could she.
He reminded himself that they both had work to do at home; she had a person at home. A person who loved her and who she might love in return. A person who wasn’t him. The saddest smile crept into his eyes, drew across his face like a curtain at the end of a tragic play. He remembered Ember Island Players’ unsettling rendition of his friends’ adventures, wincing at the image of an overly sexualized Katara rejecting definitely-not-Aang and spouting sunshiny speeches every other minute. Contemplating life, he watched her run into the waiting arms of a simplistic caricature of himself. And wondered for the first time if that blasted play had been right. Well, almost right.
He glanced back at the grill. Oils were bubbling. He grasped the tongs, twirling them once around his fingers (for show, not that anyone was watching) and flipped over the chicken. The underside was still raw. How long does it take to cook a freaking bird? Zuko exhaled sharply and frowned.
Once again he imagined Katara’s reaction to him leaving. She’d lecture him about taking too short a vacation, that was guaranteed, but what else? Would she worry about his mental health and try to convince him to stay? She probably would. Not that she had any say in the matter, her being the one who snuck up on him in the middle of the night on his property and all. But she also had more say than he would like to admit.
Why did it have to be Katara? Why couldn’t it have been Sokka or Aang showing up at his door for some brotherly bonding, or Toph, demanding that field trip she’s always wanted. As sad as it was, he’d take Azula over the literal love of his life at this point - she was good enough company. When she wasn’t burning down mental hospitals… Agni I almost miss her. Who she used to be...could be again.
He sighed and closed his eyes. The hearty smell and gentle crackle of chicken sizzling on the grill grounded him. Another night, possibly another whole day, with Katara. This’ll be interesting.
Chapter 3: Night Three
Warning in advance: this chapter is kind of an angsty chaotic trainwreck...hopefully the prose makes up for it. Enjoy!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
DINNER PART TWO
Not wanting to reach over the table, Katara tried to waterbend her berry lemon dressing onto their heaping plates of chicken. It lifted an inch and then... “Oil base. I forgot,” Katara mumbled, watching the liquid glop back down into the bowl. She reached for a spoon.
“Wait, I’ll get it; you made most of dinner anyway,” he said, moving faster. She shrugged. He gestured to the table. “Katara, you made a salad. That wasn’t even in the plan.”
“Well maybe Sokka doesn’t let me eat greens as much as I want…”
His mouth cracked open, words failing him. Again. He took a deep breath. Say something-anything. But he could only prod at his seaprunes. Stare at his seaprunes. Not even eating them, just staring.
She saved him.
“You haven’t touched your food. Eat too many fireflakes before dinner again?”
“No. I’m just not hungry.” How was she still so eloquent after all this?
“You okay?” He shrugged.
Katara’s face softened. “You sure?”
Zuko’s hardened. “I’m fine. Just because I made half the dinner doesn't mean I have to eat it.”
Her gaze found an insect on the wall. “The tea - the tea turned out well. It’s a perfect brew, and green tea is... you know.” She twisted a lock of hair between her fingers. “Uncle would be proud.”
“I don’t know if Uncle would agree…”
“Well, I like it. It’s not too bitter, or too strong. Just earthy enough...sweet...leafy.”
Zuko nearly choked on his tea, quickly taking back all thoughts of her being eloquent. And all his inhibitions.
“What - what does the chicken taste like??”
“It’s an improvement from last night.” She raised an eyebrow. “You have some too, you know; you can be the judge.”
“I know. I heard somewhere that stuff tastes better to those who didn’t cook it.”
“I suppose it does? I’ve never really thought about it.”
“The sea prunes are good by the way.”
Katara squinted. “Was-was all that a set up to compliment my sea prunes?” He shoved one into his mouth.
“Tui and La, you’re such a dork.” Her blue eyes crinkling, she tried in vain to keep the corners of her mouth from rising into a grin. A hot tingling rolled through Zuko’s body.
Golden light crept in through the windows, slinking around corners and slipping into every dark crevice of the beachouse. Katara’s hair absorbed it all. Shimmering highlights sprung up and disguised her as the moon; she burst alive with stolen sunlight. As they did on the balcony, her eyes shone silver. The room melted into shades of pink.
He fought a desperate urge. The urge to reach out with trembling fingers and glide them through her hair like molten metal. To bury his face in the glowing spot between her chin and neck, to draw the warmth from her lips. To steal back the sun.
With every moment the urge grew. His soul itself was a magnet drawn to hers, one that no matter how far it was thrown would always find its way back. Terror dawned in his eyes as he realized no place, no matter how distant, no distance, no matter how far, would ever be safe. His very soul was hers. Forever.
But there was still time to run. Time to run, but never to hide. Never to tell her how-how he felt. But always to say goodbye…
His fingers curled tightly under the table, his knuckles turning white.
Pink and gold faded back into muted gray. “Hmm?” His head rose as if pulled by some invisible string.
“I asked if you were done eating.”
“Oh. I am, yes.”
“Were you thinking about something?”
His face turned red. “No, not really, nothing you need to worry about anyways.”
She gave a puzzled look, and stacked her empty dishes on the table. “If it’s the Fire Nation healthcare system again, believe me, I have plenty of suggestions.”
He smiled sheepishly. “No-no it’s not that. I would like to hear those sometime, however.”
“Oh good. What you have right now is a trainwreck,” she said, reaching for his plate.
He scrambled to his feet; his legs, half asleep from sitting so long, tingled painfully. “No-no-no let me.”
“...thanks.” Katara blinked.
He swiftly swept their used dishes into his arms, juggling wobbly silverware and mugs, stacking and lifting with agile precision.
“That’s that’s some impressive plate juggling there, Firelord,” his houseguest remarked.
“I worked in a tea shop - two actually - I still do sometimes. Only like a day a month now though .”
“Really? I always thought the guy from The Jasmine Dragon was your evil twin.” She cringed at her own joke. “We should probably get some sleep soon.”
He yawned on cue. Then walked out the dining room, plates locked in precarious balance.
She followed him. “You want some help with the dishes?”
“No-honestly, I’ve got this, go… make an ice sculpture or something.”
“Zuko, are you sure you’re alright?”
“I’m great!” He exclaimed with just a hint of sarcasm. At the top of his stack, a cup wobbled. Teetered. Fell. Zuko caught it on the point of his shoe.
Katara flipped up an eyebrow, teeth just grazing her bottom lip. She swung her arm with an echo of “You’re great,” shook her head, and walked away.
It can’t go on like this.
FIRE AND ICE
The dishwater was slimy against his skin. Blegh. I forgot how disgusting this was. He winced. The kitchen staff is certainly getting a raise when I return. His heart plummeted; he had almost forgotten how soon that would be. A sigh escaped his lips, and he clutched the dishrag tighter in his hand, scrubbing it even harder against the plate. If only he could wash away the grime inside him. All this confusion and frustration and sadness and...guilt.
In the background, wind whistled around the sharp edges of the building. The storm ever advancing, his whole world was water. The rain pelting the roof like arrows, his hands swishing around in the warm basin, the disorienting thoughts in his head giving the sensation of drowning...water. He pulled his hands out of it, used them to prop himself up as he leaned over the counter. Water. Carving grooves in his fingertips. Pooling in his eyes. Spilling down his face.
Katara. He whipped around at the sound of her voice.
“Are-are you crying?”
His reddened eyes crinkled, a small smile drawing up the corners of his mouth. “No. It’s just dishwater and a little sleep deprivation; I rubbed my eyes and forgot to dry my hands off first.”
“Just making sure…” Something flickered in her eyes as they found his.
“To be fair, it is something I do a lot.”
She shook her head and they darted up to the ceiling. Outside, the rain beat down hard, colliding loud against the roof.
“I was in your room, for...reasons, and I noticed your clothes were folded on your bed next to your swords - which appear to be freshly sharpened and polished...It almost looks like you’re packing.”
She knows. He grimaced, not daring to tear his eyes off the wall. “Because I am.”
Katara blinked. “You’re-you’re leaving? When? Why?”
“Tomorrow morning, if the storm’s passed and there isn’t too much carnage to deal with. I have work to do at home and people are probably starting to wonder where I am.”
“You've been gone 2 days, I doubt the Fire Nation’s in a state of panic,” she jested, thick brown eyebrows receding up her forehead, “Besides, your uncle’s taking care of everything - what happened to taking a vacation?”
“I changed my mind, but you’re welcome to stay. Also, should I be wondering why you were poking around in my room?”
She smiled awkwardly. “I-um wanted to see the sky. And the windows are bigger in that room?”
His nose scrunched and vision darkened, eyes squinting almost shut. “Why didn’t you just go outside?”
“ But you’re a waterbender?”
She crossed her arms. “Zuko, what is it? You’re changing the subject.”
“It’s nothing. I’m fine,” he said. A shallow sigh parted his lips.
“You’re acting strange.” Of course she wouldn’t buy it.
“So are you! We haven’t slept in two days…”
Katara’s neck assumed a sharp angle. “No...it’s more than that. If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were running away from something. But the Zuko I know tends to face problems head on.”
“Well - well maybe the something I’m facing would only get a lot more complicated if I did that,” he said, swiping hair out of his eyes.
“See, this is the whole reason you need a vacation. You’re trying to solve your problems by throwing yourself back into your problems.” Her voice softened. “Zuko, there’s nothing wrong with taking a little time to heal. Spirits, I’m doing it right now.”
“You sound like Uncle.”
“Well, he’s right,” she scoffed. He is…you’re just missing some information.
“ What’s going on here?” His voice came out warped and frantic.
“You’ve been giving mixed signals since you got here!” The Firelord had lost his cool.
Katara’s mouth popped open. “Me? Look who’s talking! You’re acting like a different person!”
“What are you-“ He took a deep breath. “What are you talking about?”
“Really?” She snapped, “One second you’re laughing - genuinely laughing - and happier than I’ve ever seen you, and the next you’re all broody and grumpy and won’t even look me in the eyes. And now you’re leaving all of a sudden?”
Zuko crossed his arms. “Then I guess that makes us even.”
“Even for what? What exactly are the mixed signals you’re referring to?”
“The scar! What about the scar? Earlier on the balcony you - you kissed my scar! No one’s ever done that before, okay, not even Mai, and - and what’s so confusing is that honestly, I thought you were going for my lips!”
Would you have preferred it?” she seethed, “Would you have preferred it if I had gone for your lips?”
“What? I don’t know - what kind of question is that?” Calm, Zuko, calm. “It just- it kinda seemed like you were trying to um, make a move on me, which you shouldn’t even be doing ( calm), not to tell you what to do, but you have a boyfriend - a boyfriend you love and I’m not him!” The last words stung in his mouth.
Katara’s hands flew to her forehead. “I don’t know what’s going on either, okay? Everything’s so complicated, confusing, and things I don’t understand keep happening and -“
Zuko’s hands flew into the air. “‘Things keep happening?’ That articulate explanation’s going to keep him out of the Avatar State for sure! He’s going to be pissed, Katara, he’s going to be pissed if he learns even a fraction of what’s been going on out here!!!”
“You seriously think I don’t fucking know that?!” She hollered.
A terrible explosion crashed through the room; on the floor lie the jagged shatters of a flower vase, its water now spines of ice on the wall, its flowers flash frozen a violent gray. Wide eyed, Katara picked one up. It subsided into a cloud of dust at her touch.
Zuko took a faltering breath. “I - we need to…this has gone too far.”
“Yeah. Yeah I think it has.” His houseguest collapsed to the floor beside the shattered vase. “I don’t want to yell at you any more; I can’t stand it.”
“Me neither,” he whispered.
She rubbed her hands up and down her thighs. “I think I’ll go get some fresh air…”
“It’s pouring out there...you’ll be miserable.”
Half a smile seeped into her eyes. “I know.”
“But you said a minute ago…”
“Well, maybe I like the rain sometimes.” She pulled herself up, a heavy, gentle breath lifting her chest along with her.
“Katara, I’m -”
He stopped himself. She had already walked out the door.
CENTER OF THE TEMPEST
The room flashed sporadically between dark and light. Rain struck the roof, a million tiny explosions.
Wind pounded at the windows, yelling to come in, never to be allowed. In the center of it all, Zuko paced, feet leaden, breath quick and shallow, pain welling up inside his heart, begging to flood out. Unlike the wind, it was a welcome company. Who even was she anymore? She was still Katara, headstrong, fierce and compassionate. A healing voice for the silent and weary, a warrior armed with hope and love...a scarred, broken child forced to grow up too fast. But she was changed. Her eyes clouded over with more emotions than she could profess, darted around aimless yet searching. Unbalanced. Her feet clamored for stable ground but found none, arms reached helplessly for answers. Different, but not in a way he couldn’t understand. He’d felt the same way before. Zuko pled to whoever would listen that understanding be enough.
He found her sitting, head in her hands, on the rim of the courtyard fountain. Though the rain pelted down so hard he could scarcely tell the difference between land and sea, she didn’t bother to bend it away. She let it seep into her ocean blue kimono, mess up her carefully styled hair, linger with the tears he could tell were streaming down her face. Suddenly, he was back on the ground at the Agni Kai, convulsing and bleeding out inside, heart burning and barely beating, reaching out for her with no way to help. Whispering “Katara” under his weakening breath. He wanted nothing more than to run to her, murmur every secret, apology and answer he ever could into her ears, hold her tight in his arms as she cried and never let go… He didn’t. He couldn’t. Whether it was out of fear or something else was anyone’s guess.
“Can we start over?” he asked. Katara swallowed and nodded, her blank gaze still plastered to the floor. “How - how about we sit down and work this out together...you say what’s bothering you; I say what’s bothering me?”
“Okay,” she said, voice small. Her head glided upwards, tear stained eyes glowing.
“No more explosions?”
She sniffled out a smile. “No more explosions.”
“Good, I’ll try not to light anything on fire…”
“Thanks for that,” she sighed. “I’m just - I’m so confused...and worried. I feel like you’ve been all over the place lately, being so sweet to me, listening to me, doing all those nice things...but then, you’ll act so distant, frantic, cold almost...I haven't seen you this frantic since, well, you remember.” The wind moaned in agony, the ground trembled in fear. In the distance, a palm frond careened towards the sea, ripped off a tree like a petal from a flower.
“I’m sorry. I don’t know what’s gotten into me.” It was a lie. He knew exactly. Yet, that small lie was far safer than such a massive truth. “If it seems like I don’t care, or like I don’t enjoy your company...I promise it’s neither, because I do. I do care, and I’d spend every day with you if I could.” Every day of my life.
“But you can't. And that’s fine...but Zuko, I know you, and I know when something’s wrong. I’ve never seen you closed off like this. Please tell me what it is, so at least then I’d know if I could help you.”
His voice hollowed. “Believe me...your help is the last thing I need right now.”
“Then what do you need? Even if I can’t help, I still want to know what’s going on.”
“ I need -” breathe “ - I need answers. Why are you doing all the little things? Why do you care if I leave so much? Why are you acting… like that.”
Her eyebrow twitched. “Like what?”
“You know. Being all weird with the teasing, and the smirking, and the...and the - I think you might be flirting with me, and it’s freaking me out because Aang and…” His voice shrunk into his throat. “...Are you trying to use me to distract yourself from Aang?”
Lightning flashed, and for a half second, night became day. She reached out and took his hand in hers. “What? Zuko, I would never do that to you. Either of you.”
“Then what’s going on?” he grilled, “You don't just - something’s happening between us - with the dock, and last night, then dinner and what on earth has gotten into you, I used to think you’d never even think of betraying Aang like that- he’s my friend too - but now I don't know anymore!”
Katara clenched her fists. “Because I’m not thinking, I’m not! All this anger and confusion, and emotion is coming up and I don’t know where it’s coming from or how to deal with it...I don't even know who I am anymore!”
“You know what? Me either! I don't know who you are either!” He shouted, rising from his seat on the fountain. “I don’t know who I am! I don’t know anything!”
“ Really, Firelord Confusion Face? I would have never guessed!” she snapped, following him upwards. Lightning streaked across the sky, a white hot knife slashing through a masterful painting. “You know, earlier, I was hurt by you trying to sneak off without saying goodbye, but now I'm wondering if that's a good thing and I should just let you go on your merry way!”
“I was going to say goodbye! I didn't expect you to go rummaging through my stuff!” The wind howled, a lost monkey-wolf in the night. “And why do you care so much about my leaving? You were the one who showed up on my property unannounced in the middle of the night! Shouldn't you be back at the restoration, anyways?”
“Sokka and I got in a fight, okay, not Azula level, but worse than normal sibling squabble! I needed time to process!”
Icy rain stung his skin. “It would have been nice if you’d told me that, we could have talked about it.”
Katara raged on. “You never gave me the chance! Decided you’d leave instead!”
“Why do you care if I leave so much?”
“Again with that damn question? Well, if you really want to know, I care because I’m not sure it’s what you really want!”
Had it been anyone else, he would have blown up at them. He might've stormed off in a tempest worse than the one above their heads, might’ve screamed “stop assuming you know me!” Might’ve caught the roof on fire. But she did know him, possibly better than anyone. So he held his tongue.
“Is that really what you want? You really want to leave so soon?” He held his tongue.
Lightning exploded across the sky. Lightning terrorized the beach, shocking sand into violent glass, the resulting sound roaring loud over the waves. And above his head, lightning burned hotter than the kindling flame inside him.
He held his tongue until he broke. “ No. No - no I don't! I don’t want to leave at all! That’s the whole problem! I don’t want to leave, I want to stay here forever and cook terrible food and play in the water and stare at the stars and -”
“Then why are you leaving?”
“I already said I can’t tell you!”
“I don’t care!”
“Katara, why are you...?”
“Please tell me,” she pleaded, voice deep in her throat.
He clutched his head; steam rose from the floor beneath his feet, the ground danced to the amelodic tune of thunder. “I-I-I can’t.”
“I just can’t!”
“I love you.”
She stumbled backwards. “What?” Everything turned to stone.
“I just...I love you Katara. I’m in love with you and I don’t know what to do. You’re so confident, and inspiring, and you , and I know I’m not the Avatar, or some perfect guy, or even who you want, but…” His hands drifted to his face and began massaging his forehead. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have told you that.”
“I-I cant...” Her voice shook; her jaw wavered. “I love you too.”
No. Trembling, his hands fell. No. Curled under his chin. No. This isn’t happening; this isn't real. It can't be. Dropped and folded across his chest. The world doesn't-she doesn’t... His voice blended softly into the storm: “But not the way that I love you...”
A flash of lightning illuminated the wildness of Katara’s face, shocking the look in her eyes into Zuko’s mind forever. Katara may have been a child of the ice and snow, the most powerful waterbender alive, the wild card who in icy precision took down Azula, but her eyes were filled with fire. Primal, lawless fire. She blazed towards him, loose hair streaming out behind her like seafoam wind-whipped off the waves, dark blue kimono heavy and stained the color of midnight with rain, each step she took rooted into the stone beneath her as if earth itself was pulling her to him. Then she came to rest: Inches away, hands gripped firmly onto his collar, their foreheads tenderly pressed together, her nose gently depressing his cheek.
The world froze.
”Don't you get it?” she whispered into his mouth. “I love you more.”
The world became a tangle of arms and legs, a blur of fire red and ocean blue, of the rising moon and setting sun, of past, present, future and calm, harmonious chaos.
Because the fire in her eyes wasn't anger. It was love.
And when she kissed him, tears streaming down both of their faces, they became the world.
AFTER THE STORM
Dawn seeped in through the windows; early morning sunlight spilled into the room. Zuko’s eyes fluttered open. He was lying on a sofa, one of the many new furnishings he’d put in the beach house since his coronation, not being able to bear the thought of such an important place falling any farther into disrepair. He’d picked it out from a selection of couches brought to the palace a few months after the war, secretly wishing he had the time to search for one himself. Mai had observed from the corner, looking up from her chipped black nail polish on occasion to remark “I don’t understand why you care so much about a couch. Just pick one already,” to which he’d respond “None of them are right. It has to be right.” “ It has to be what mother would pick.” Now, warm, heavy pressure pushing his body into the red velvet cushions, it finally felt like it fit. Now that the world was back to pink and gold.
“Did we fall asleep?”
“Yeah,” Karara murmured from on top of him, face buried in his neck.
He let out a groggy yawn. “I don’t think I’ve ever talked myself to sleep before.”
“Well, we were awake for 48 hours straight...and there was a lot to talk about.” Her fingers lightly traced the shape of a starburst through his shirt. It’s real; she’s real...she’s here. She’s really here. He wrapped his arms around her, his lips just grazing her forehead.
“There still is...”
Lying there like that, wound together as one, feeling her breath as if it were his own, their hearts slowly drumming in unison, should have sent alarm bells ringing through the Firelord’s ears. Instead, it felt more natural than sleep. They could have been lying there all their lives for all he knew. The current ones and all the lives before. All to come. Outside, the rain had tapered to a drizzle and the gale had slowed to a breeze. The sun, though still shrouded by cloud cover, was persistent in trying to break free. No lightning burned scars in the sky. No thunder made the ground tremble in fear. The storm was over.
“I’m sorry I yelled at you yesterday. I know it’s a trigger for you and I hated every minute,” Katara said, pulling her head down to rest over Zuko’s heart.
“I know you didn’t mean it maliciously; besides, I wasn’t exactly whispering. You didn’t deserve that either.”
Her eyes squeezed shut. “And I’m sorry I blew up at you for wanting to leave. You got spooked and I don’t blame you for it.”
“You're not the one who should be apologizing... The way you found out - it wasn’t fair and it was never how I wanted you too...between Aang’s flightiness and your abandonment issues-“
“My what now?” She smirked.
“If it makes you feel better, I have them too?”
“If you didn’t just read me like a scroll, I’d be quite offended.”
Their eyes met. Fierce cobalt swirled with soft amber.
“How are you so beautiful?” he breathed.
She wove her fingers into his - dainty fingers like rain in the desert against his dry skin. He flooded with life. His mouth found hers, hesitant, savoring and new. He drew a sharp breath as she skimmed her tongue across his lower lip. Breathed in color. Hands unraveled and wound into hair, slipped under shirts, searched for starbursts etched into skin. Ached for warmth but moved no further.
“I’m so sorry,” Katara‘s voice was a fragile whisper. “Sorry for everyth-”
He silenced her with another kiss. She softened in his arms.
Then pulled away, bringing her head back to rest on his chest, but hugging him even closer to her body. “I can see the headlines now,” she sighed, “Firelord Zuko spotted making out with Avatar’s girlfriend after own girlfriend leaves him for former circus performer.”
An ironic chuckle rose in Zuko’s throat and he kissed the hand still on his chest. Were it anyone else, it would be awkward, self conscious, need getting used to. But it wasn’t. It was Katara. “You’re more than the Avatar's girlfriend, you know.”
“It doesn’t always feel like it.” Her eyes melted into glass, a sad smile falling over her face.
Zuko inhaled slowly. “What are you going to tell him?”
“I don’t know.”
“What have we done?”
“I don’t know,” she said.
“Why can't something in life be simple for once?”
“Because nothing is simple. Everything is…”
“Complicated?” he asked.
The dulling metal was cold as he spun it around in his hands, watching shades of every color emerge from its reflective surface. It had belonged to his mother - one of the only things he had left of her - a simple golden headpiece shaped into a delicate curving flame. Someday, it might sit atop the head of the person he would marry. For now, he was content with keeping it tucked away in his room where he could touch it, hold it, or merely look at it whenever he pleased. His father had kept it hidden in the bowels of the palace, far out of reach for either him or Azula. Perhaps the next time he went to visit her he’d bring it with him. She deserved to hold on to something more than a memory. Even if just for a moment. He’d begun wondering if his mother’s crown was still out there somewhere about two months ago, or six months into his ill fated second try with Mai. The hopeful thoughts that had crossed his mind then now only brought laughter. He’d confronted his father about it, and much to his delight, had it in his hands by the next afternoon. He ran his fingers from the base-clip to the pointy end. What would the eventual wearer of this crown be like? If the nobility had a choice in the matter: she (and it would be a she) would be elegant and polite, gentle and cultured, beautiful beyond words at least on the outside...a companion but likely little else. If he had a say, lying on his four poster bed, an hour late for his duties but only half dressed, feeling lighter than he could ever remember...he couldn’t help noticing how much it resembled the crescent moon.
How would that even work? She certainly wouldn’t be staying here full time. Perhaps she could travel back and forth, spending half her time with him in the Fire Nation, reimagining society by his side, and half off changing the world in different ways, whatever that meant for her. She could have chambers in the palace, with waterfalls and fountains and hanging plants...or just share his if she preferred. Either way, the palace was sorely lacking cooler colors. He could add blue curtains and trim, gray stone statues and sculptures - Toph could handle those - really anything that wasn’t red or gold. He carefully placed the crown back in its box and flopped his limbs out around him like a starfish. She could also make a wonderful ambassador… Ambassador Katara. Better than ‘Ambassador Sokka,’ he should be an architect or master bladesmith or something like that...I wonder what she would think… “Maybe she can be both! Is that allowed?” It should be. Zuko rubbed his forehead and laughed. “Don’t get too ahead of yourself. She and Aang aren’t even broken up yet.”
An unexpected darkness seeped in. What if they don't… “What if she wants to give it another try? Like how I did with Mai.” Her name felt odd in his mouth. Not in a bad way or a good way, nor tinged with hidden bitterness or tainted with betrayal. Just...different. His heart filled with warmth at the memory of running into her earlier that day. Hand in hand with - and being dragged down the hallway by - an overexcited Ty Lee, her eyes caught his, just for a second. Her eyes, bright and sparkling and alive . She was happy. And he was set free.
Another, more painful thought resurfaced and trapped him, sent him crashing back to the present. Katara was still with Aang. Perhaps for not much longer...perhaps forever. Perhaps that was it for us, he thought, staring up at the ceiling. Perhaps it was better that way.
Hurried footsteps outside his room launched him off the bed. He smoothed his hair and scrambled to slip on his regalia, climb into his boots, slide on his crown. Straightening up and practically flinging himself into the hall, he was greeted not by a concerned servant or scowling advisor, but by a small package resting in the doorway. Zuko furrowed his brow. What the… He stepped back and rolled an empty vase at it, rightfully cautious. Last month one of his new advisors had an unnervingly close encounter with a homemade bomb. No explosions. It’s probably not an assasination attempt? He nudged it with his shoe. Nothing happened. Intrigued, he picked it up. Zuko’s heart fluttered. Sealskin. His hands trembled like autumn leaves as he fumbled with the packaging. Sick with desperation and urgency, his stomach twisted into knots. The sealskin slipped open.
A tiny sculpture of a turtleduck, expertly shaped in ice. And a letter. Tears welled in his eyes as he read the neat and looping script scrolled across the paper:
When all is over and clear with the sky, the moon and the sun at last can collide.
... you know who it’s from.
And with that, it ends! I hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it! Hopefully I did them justice and kept it mostly in character and consistent with the material. Also the formatting got a little wonky oops.
And my formal apology:
Readers, I’m sorry, the angst got a bit out of hand. (I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t fun.)
Zuko and Katara, I’m sorry I made you yell at each other. It was hard to write, but man do I love mid-fight confessions.
Aang, I’m sorry I made Katara cheat on you and treated you like a child...which you kind of are. You did not deserve it. Most of it.