Soon after Zuko’s coronation, everyone parts ways. Katara finds that the peace tips her off balance. Since her childhood, she has known nothing but war, as the raids on the Southern Water Tribe had started long before she was born. Now, everyone can move on. They can live without a never ending war looming over their heads, stealing from them their children, their mothers , fathers, brothers and sisters. No more fighting, no more heartbreak.
Katara should feel relieved. She finds herself restless instead.
Aang had run to follow the wind just after the coronation. You would think he’d grow tired of traveling eventually, but he had rushed off – his heart billowing on his sleeves and a smile stretching wide from cheek to cheek – to help the people all around the world settle into this new era of peace. The kind of peace he had been born into and learned to miss so dearly.
Surprisingly, Toph had lasted quite a bit longer, but she had never fancied sitting still and liked being pampered even less. Just a week prior, she had skipped town, punched a doorway through a wall in lieu of a goodbye, and they’d been hearing rumbles of an earthbending terror crashing its way to the Earth Kingdom border ever since.
Katara hopes that one little landslide stops in at her mother’s place eventually, even if just for a little while, so that they both might learn to build a new and better home from the arid, dry earth of their old one.
Suki’s duty as a Kyoshi warrior had stripped Sokka from her side where he had been glued to her for the entire month, and he hadn’t stopped pouting since. She was probably on Kyoshi Island now, missing them all terribly and trying to figure out what to do with a small army, a warrior’s mind and no enemies in sight.
Soon, Katara will board a boat that will take her far away from the life she has gotten used to. It will ship her and her brother back to the icebergs and cold ocean of her home – w here the nights are long and the whiteness of the snow is never-ending. Katara loves the Southern Water Tribe, she really does. She loves the smell of sea prune soup and the weight of a parka on her skin, and when the sun hangs low all day over the sea – but compared to the entirety of the rest of the world, it was perhaps a little boring, quaint, cute .
“So…” Katara starts, hands wringing in front of her, “this is it, I guess.”
Zuko stands before her to see her off from the Fire Nation in full Firelord regalia. His hair is a bit longer now, so he’s managed to pull it all back into a top knot with ease, and the gold headpiece shines in his hair, set alight by the sun hanging over the docks. “Mn,” he hums in agreement, chancing a smile at her – a small and crooked tilt of lips.
Katara’s heart skips a beat.
The thin cloth of her dress hugs tight to her waist. It's the same light blue she wore traveling during the war. Her sleeves and skirt wave in the ocean breeze – dancing to the tune of it. She’ll have to change into something thicker, she reminds herself, when the Southern winds start blowing and the air cools over to a freeze. But for now, she enjoys the warm wind on her bare arms, brushing against her skin and ruffling her wild, loose hair.
“I’m gonna miss you, you know?” Katara says. She doesn’t know how to handle the nerves gathering in her stomach and wringing themselves into knots. “I’m gonna miss your stupid face,” she teases, punching him lightly in the arm with her knuckles curved into a soft fist as she watches him laugh.
His eyes crinkle when he laughs – burning gold eclipsed into the folds of dark crescent half-moons. She doesn’t know how she hasn’t noticed before. It seems important, somehow. It seems world-shattering. Katara watches him, cheeks warm and chest tight, and swallows down the cotton suddenly budding in her throat.
“You ready?” sounds an excited yell from behind her, her brother running back down from the ramp connecting the ship to the dock. “I can’t wait to get home.” Sokka cheers, throwing an arm around Katara’s shoulder.
Katara nods, but her eyes never leave Zuko’s.
The pair are traveling back to the Southern Watertribe to return it to its former glory. Sokka has ‘big plans,’ he tells her, talking her ear off about some brand new architectural invention or other. They leave, and Katara watches the dock get smaller and smaller as they go, leaning up against the railing with her head pillowed on her hand. She doesn’t want this to be the last of it, of them – the last she and Zuko see of each other as their friendship grows.
Katara wants more – always wants more – has always wanted more.
The first letter Katara receives from Zuko makes her laugh so hard her ribs ache, and Sokka stares at her open-mouthed as if, of all times, now is when she’s finally gone and lost her mind.
Monsoon season is upon us. It’s been raining.
Katara’s worries melt as sure as seafoam dissolving against the shore. She can tell what Zuko had thought between the cursive, scrawling lines, but was perhaps too timid to say.
‘I’ve been thinking of you.’
She pens her response, hoping he knows that she’s been thinking of him too.
Katara sends the letter off easily, having made up her mind not to dwell on it. It takes five days for a messenger hawk to make it to Caldera and four to make it back if the winds are with them – though it takes a little over twelve days to sail.
Katara misses him. All of him. She keeps thinking of his penmanship, fancy curves and smooth vowels running from one to the next and thinks about teasing him for it. She thinks about his half-smile and the teeth that peek through the corners when he finds something funny. She thinks of the way his eyes burn when he turns his gaze upon her, dipping her in beneath the waves of golden, fiery warmth.
Katara misses his calm, and his temper too.
She misses how he can never tell a joke right and the awkward way he handles praise. She misses the scar that takes up half of his face and the feel of it beneath her fingers – hard ridges ringing his eye in red. She wants to see him. She wants to hear him laugh, to know he’s doing well without her and everyone else around to keep him from thinking too hard all by himself.
A small, crueler part of her wants him to miss her too. For all her virtues, Katara thinks that she is perhaps a little impatient – and maybe selfish too.
Should I ask you to throw over your duties and take your quickest ship to the South, would you come?
It feels like a confession and Katara hates it – this nervousness in her chest pounding at her ribs. She hates the birds she must have swallowed for her stomach to ache and flutter so.
Every day she checks the post, heart beating in her chest as she holds her breath. It’s too early for her letter to have reached him, she knows, and too early for a response to have made its way back. But hope sits and thaws foolishly on her tongue – in her stomach, between her ribs, from the tips of her ears and to her toes – nonetheless.
A week passes, then two. The messenger bird has returned. She knows because she checked a nd, since then, made a conscious effort not to think about how he hasn’t responded yet.
He’s busy , she tells herself, all the while struggling to make her peace with it.
Katara throws all her nervous energy into rebuilding the defensive guard tower at the edge of the tribe that Sokka has insisted upon.
When it’s done, she stands at the top of it, wind whipping at the tower and singing through its windows, blowing her hair into her face. She frowns at the wild ocean before her and feels its waves echo deep within her belly.
A storm’s coming, and a bad one at that; she’s felt it building for days. The feeling turns in her gut, and the air is thick and frenzied, clouds rolling above her head just as the ocean twists below.
“Sokka!” Katara yells down to the ground below, leaning out the empty, icy window. “It won’t be much longer now!”
They are the Southern Water Tribe and they know what to do – they know how to hunker down and weather a storm; they know how to survive.
The entire tribe packs into the communal hall where lunch is often served. For the last few days, Katara has been fortifying the main building at night after working on the defense tower, but she is only one bender, and she worries that it won’t be strong enough.
The wind starts roaring just as they close the big driftwood doors, and it blows snow into the air, stinging her face as she and Sokka seal the doors shut.
It is only when everyone sits in the hall, buried in tense silence, that Katara lets her mind wander back to Zuko and her letter. She counts the days that have passed on her fingers and finds herself whispering them under her breath.
The wind rages outside, battering against the building as if to shake it apart at the seams, and Katara pouts. She should’ve heard back from him by now, but every morning that she checked the aviary for a letter, it was empty.
The whole tribe sits huddled together for hours. Katara busies herself by making the rounds, healing scrapes and bruises, and comforting children scared of the ghastly, shrieking wind beyond the doors.
After checking that everyone is safe, Sokka decides to light up the large bonfire in the middle of the hall to warm up the room. He calls Katara over to help ignite some kindling by dragging an old and weathered set of spark rocks together.
The rocks don’t flare up easily and the wood piled up in the firepit is a little wet, even after Katara pulls all the water she can from them, so it takes a couple of minutes to kindle – and when it does, it peters out quickly.
Katara sits back on her legs and sighs, looking up to the chimney hole in the ceiling. Ash filters down from it, falling slowly, softly to the floor.
That’s odd , Katara thinks, the fire was lit only for a moment, it shouldn’t have coughed up any ash yet . She expects the ash falling from the roof to dissipate as she starts striking the spark rocks again, but it starts falling harder and thicker instead.
Sokka notices too and frowns. “It’s like the black snow,” he notes curiously before pausing, “but there shouldn’t be any Fire Nation ships nearby, should there? Especially not in this weather.”
Katara knows very few things with absolute certainty – but one of them is that if anyone were stubborn enough to ride a coal-burning ship somewhere in the middle of a wind storm, it would be Zuko. Stupid, brave, self-sacrificing Zuko.
She pales. “Oh… oh no. I’m sorry Sokka, I need to go.”
Sokka freezes for a moment before letting out a “ what ?”
“It’s Zuko !” She says, already running towards the doors. “Don’t worry, I’ll be fine, just take care of things here!”
Her brother lets out an unmanly, pitchy shriek. “Ah-But-Uh,” he stutters as she heaves open the doors. “Katara!” He shouts as she parts with a wave, shoving the wide doors back closed against the wind.
Katara runs. Hair, wind, and snow whip at her face and hope flutters in her chest. The air is cold and her breath frosts as it leaves her mouth but she is smiling all the same.
What an idiot , she thinks, and she can’t wait to tell him that – that he’s an idiot, that she’s selfish and impatient, and that she’s so, so happy he’s here, that he came.
She reaches the dock at the edge of the town and, sure enough, there’s a ship pulling in. The Fire Nation’s mechanical monstrosity chugs to a stop and a figure swings down over the side. The ship is smaller than most Fire Nation vessels, with a thin, sleek build made for breaking smoothly through the waves, so the figure doesn’t have to jump far.
Katara hopes that Zuko has crossed the seas to meet her, that he is waiting to see her and has been missing her just as much.
When she can finally make out the sailor’s features and sees Zuko walking towards her, she thinks she’s dreaming, and she is still pinching her arm to wake herself up when he reaches her.
Zuko walks up to her in a thick, dark red coat that still looks too thin for the weather and clears his throat, bending into a low bow. “A message from the Firelord, Master Katara,” he says, pulling an envelope from his heavy sleeve.
Katara quirks an eyebrow at him, and would tell him to stop being so formal among friends, but then she sees that his ears are red and that the hand holding the letter is shaking and she blinks, heart thumping in her chest. She reaches for the letter slowly, cautiously, and unfolds it with as much delicacy as she can manage.
He rubs the back of his neck bashfully and smiles dashingly, charmingly, perfectly crooked. “I thought it would be better to receive in person.”
Katara runs her hands over the paper softly, tracing its edges, and her heart and cheeks ache from smiling.
Katara throws herself at him, laughing and tackling him, enclosing him in her arms so that she may bury her head into the crook of his neck – a shield from the wind and snow.
Zuko’s hands come to hold her waist on impact, pressing warm, five-fingered stars onto her hips -- just as they always do. He smells of ash and wood and smoke, and she can feel the heat of his chest beneath hers, emanating that signature firebender warmth through his clothes. Katara can feel the brush of his hair, loose from his royal top knot, tickling her forehead
Katara thinks she’ll never get enough of his touch – she thinks that she would spend forever standing on her tiptoes at this dock in a storm, buried in his arms. And he would let her, she knows. Zuko would rest his chin on top of her head and let her hug the daylights out of him for the rest of his life.
But this is not their end – not the final destination in their crooked, messy lives. Katara’s heart settles and she lets go of the death grip she has on the heavy cloth at the back of his neck. They have all the time in the world.
Katara will wait for him, and he will wait for her; and they will both wait for the world to catch up to them. She will wait patiently until they can have their forever with nothing standing between them – and she will long for him and miss him every step of the way.
Katara will love him and she will wait.