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in the next life

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Zuko doesn’t know what he’s doing here, only that his heart had carried his feet to the outside of Katara’s door. And now he stands, with his hands empty, nothing to offer her, nothing to say for himself. 

She’s getting married tomorrow. 

In a restored Air Temple, far from the home of her snowy South. 

It’s not his place, this isn’t his place. He shouldn’t be here. He should turn from her door now, before he does something foolish. But he is rooted there, stuck in place, stuck listening to the desperate punching of his heart, the beating of it like a wounded animal; staggering and half-hopeless. 

His hand lifts. He knocks. The moment he does, he regrets it. I should go, I should leave, he thinks wildly, I should disappear and tomorrow, no one will find me. No one will miss me. He has the absurd notion that he truly is stuck to the floor, that he will suddenly merge with it, so that he will never move again. Like a tree, he will stay outside her door, never welcome in, only ever on the outside, curling his branches around–

When the door opens, she is there, in all her evening glory; soft and warm, wrapped in a silk robe that is patterned with moon flowers. Her hair is down around the slender line of her shoulders. 

Her eyes have always been the most brilliant shade of blue. Sparkling like stars, like sapphires. 

“Zuko?” she asks and he has never adored his name so much as when she’s spoken it. 

He swallows hard.

“What is it?” she asks, concern flooding her features because she is so painfully compassionate and observant, so willing to take care of everyone’s problems but ignore her own. “Is something wrong?” 

Don’t marry him, he wants to let it out, free the words from the cage of his teeth like a bird being set free into the unforgiving sky. 

He feels like he’s unraveling, standing at her door with empty hands. 

Don’t marry him, he wants to plead with her like a sinner at an altar. 

But what right does he have? What claim does he have on her to ask that? 

He doesn’t. And he never would. 

“I–” he tries but his voice is as rough as cliff sides, as hushed as a rumble of thunder. His shoulders finally drop, defeated, “I just wanted to see you.” 

There’s an honesty there, a rawness that is not supposed to be. But he’s here, isn’t he? Outside her door the night before her wedding. He feels transparent suddenly, with the way her face changes, the rounding of her eyes, the pulling of her brows. He feels as if she can see straight through him, into his heart, like she could read it’s desires clear as day, spread out before her. 

She wavers a moment, as if realizing letting a man into her room the night before her wedding might be unacceptable. Maybe it’s bad luck. Maybe it’s a curse, an omen, a superstition. Maybe that’s all he ever was, all he’ll ever be. A story of forewarning for children to learn from. Maybe all he’ll ever be is a culmination of fractured pieces, of desperation and longing. The Prince with an impossible task, longing for a life he thought he loved. The Fire Lord with an impossible task, longing for a woman he never got the chance to.

Maybe he’ll always only be a boy with bad luck, crawling the earth, looking for salvation that he has only found in the curve of her smile. That he can never have. 

She eases away from the doorway to let him in, a silent invitation for entry. 

He should refuse it. He should make an excuse, leave her here, where there is still a threshold between them. It would be the honorable thing to do. He could leave with his dignity intact. 

But damn his honor. 

Damn it all when it comes to her. 

And he has never run away from anything in life, pushed head first through flame and ire, so he won’t run now. 

He crosses that line into her bedroom. 

The door that shuts behind him is quiet, but it seals them away from the rest of the world. 

The twilight dark of her bedroom is garnet and plum, softly flickering candles casting shadows that reach and pull against the fading light of day. He stands there, taking in her room; her bed, which has a Water Tribe quilt atop it, the whale bone comb that rests on the vanity, the scrolls that litter the desk. There’s a large pack, tucked away into the corner, one that she puts all her belongings in, fits her whole life into as she travels with Aang. He doesn’t even think she’s filled the drawers in the room with her belongings. There’s no home for them here, in a place she will only stay for a few days. It’s a skeleton of a home, a placeholder for her, until the next and the next and the next. 

Don’t you want a home? He wants to ask, aren’t you weary from travel? 

He imagines a home with her for a split second, a place for her to call her own. He’d let her decorate it, fill it with all she has ever wanted. He thinks of a resting place for them, like lovers in a tomb. 

But the drawers in her room are empty. And she will move on again, riding on the back of winds, caught in the tide of the world, slipping through his fingers like water. 

I wish I could empty a drawer in my dresser for you, he thinks, and the ache in his chest blossoms into something fierce and stinging. 

He wants to double over with it, he wants to fall to his knees in front of her. He wants to let out the sob that’s getting lodged in his throat. He wants to shatter to pieces, let all that heartache seep through the cracks and flood the floor, her room. 

But he doesn’t. He squares his shoulders. She owes him nothing. His feelings are not hers to shoulder. 

She is marrying someone else. 

And that is okay, he tries to tell himself, it’s okay, it’s okay, he tries to soothe himself, but each time he thinks about it, the brag of his heart gets harder, heavier. 

“What did you want to see me for?” Katara asks, gentle, almost as if she can sense his fragility. 

But it’s a loaded question and the silence that hangs between them is knowing. Consuming. 

Zuko wills his voice to work for her, and before he can think, he blurts out, “I wanted to spend time with you.” 

“Okay,” Katara breathes, like she knows that’s not the only reason.

She still moves to sit at the low table in her room, gracefully taking her place amongst the cushions on the floor beside it. It’s a neutral place in the room. One where there can be the distance of the table between them, one that is safe. 

He takes his place opposite of her and when he does, he notices her wedding dress, hanging on the outside of her closet.

It’s all blue silk, shimmering like the waves, but light, airy, for the balmy spring weather here. It’s stunning. She’s going to look beautiful tomorrow and he doesn’t know if he’s going to be able to stomach seeing her–

“You know,” she begins softly, tentatively, “Most people are excited the night before their wedding but I–” 

Zuko’s eyes fall to her face now, which is suddenly vulnerable, suddenly sad. 

“All I am is terrified.” she admits, and when she does, she chokes on a laugh, one that could’ve been a cry. 

Like there’s a joke somewhere in there, like there’s something ironic about all of this. 

But Zuko’s not laughing. 

“Why are you scared?” he breathes, and he wants to reach out to her, but he doesn’t. He keeps his hands tucked into his lap. 

Katara lifts her shoulders and then drops them unceremoniously in a shrug. She seems resolved, if not for the furious touch of tears in her eyes. 

Don’t cry, he wants to tell her, please don’t cry. 

Katara shakes her head, tears loosening from her lashes. One escapes to rush down her cheek, which she swipes away quickly, as if she could stop him from seeing it, as if she could stop herself from falling apart, too. 

“I don’t know,” Katara chokes out, “I don’t know.” 

She says it again like she’s trying to convince herself of it, the same way he’d told himself it’s okay, it’s okay. 

She does know and she won’t say it. 

It’s not okay and he won’t say it. 

So they sit there, in silence, with their hearts all torn to shreds in the cavity of their chests. 

He lifts his hand, then, when he doesn’t know what to say. He offers it, palm up, open to her, across the table. 

The fact that she doesn’t hesitate to take it– places her hand into his like it belongs there, like it’s her last lifeline– single handedly guts him. He feels like his heart has fallen away, like he’ll never recover from this blow. A new scar on the inside of his chest, another for her.  

And their fingers are tightening around each others’, palm to open palm. They’re both leaning forward slightly, the table digging into them, stopping them from going too far– from doing something irreversible. Unforgivable. 

He looks at her and wishes this wasn’t the night before her wedding to another man. He looks at her and wishes he would’ve said everything he needed to when it counted. 

Can I be forgiven for this, too? He asks himself as he watches the tears fall from her eyes. 

“Don’t cry,” he begs of her, but his eyes are stinging, too, and his throat is tight. “Don’t cry, you’re getting married tomorrow.” 

  She chokes out a noise, a sorrowful thing, traps it by biting her lip so hard he fears it will bleed. She swallows down the sound so that it’ll forever live inside of her, caged behind her ribs. 

Zuko’s other hand comes up, covers their hands, clutching at her, keeping them together. He leans forward, presses his forehead to their clasped hands. He tries to breathe through his feelings, through all the pain that is making a home of him. When his eyes flicker back up to find her face, she is crying silently. 

“Katara–” 

It’s just her name, the rough consonants softened by his longing, made heavy with his heart. 

It might as well have been a confession. 

Might as well have been an admission with the way he says it, with the way he’s looking at her– like she’s the beginning and the end, like she’s the world. 

He shouldn’t, doesn’t think, just lifts his head, lifts his lips to brush against her knuckles. Feather-light, so they could deny it. Gentle, because he can’t stand to be anything else with her. 

Katara shakes her head fractionally, the slightest movement. She’s crying now, really, truly crying. Tears track down her cheeks and Zuko feels his own brim there on his lashes, ready to fall. 

“Don’t–” she begs him and it’s a plea, rough and desperate, pulled from the most vulnerable place inside her, “ Please don’t say it, Zuko.” 

Those tears of his fall now, too. Silent. Resolved. 

 His lips settle into a kiss over her knuckles. Fleeting. Apologetic. Desperate, because he knows it’s the closest he can get. Closest he’ll ever get to–

“I won’t,” he promises, his voice barely a whisper, “I should’ve, though.” 

Katara’s sob is a weak thing, like it’s all she can manage, all she can bear. She squeezes his hand, holds him like it’ll be the last time she does it. 

And the next thing she says is an admittance, too, one for just the two of them, one whispered;

“I wish you would’ve.” 

Zuko’s head falls forward at her words, hangs between his shoulders, defeated. Now it’s his turn to keep in the sob, to hold it all back and swallow it down so it will sit inside him and rot. His shoulders shake with the effort, with the force it takes to keep himself together. He is splintering, though, especially when she detangles her hand from his, when she reaches out to touch his cheek, to lift his face to meet her eyes again. 

“I wish you would’ve, Zuko.” she tells him, her eyes fluttering like she’s imagining them, what it could’ve been. Imagining him saying those words. Imagining a life where he isn’t too late and the drawers in his room are filled with her things. 

Her thumb swipes through a tear on his cheek. Her palm is cool against his feverish face, against the warmth of him. 

When she opens her eyes, she smiles at him, sad and soft and wavering. It breaks his heart. 

“Maybe in the next life,” she murmurs, like it’s supposed to soothe them. 

Like it’s a promise, a declaration. 

Zuko’s lip quivers and he’s shaking when he breathes, “Maybe in the next life.” 

And they sit, with a table between them, with the weight of what will never be spoken pressing into all the tender spots of their hearts. 

When they’re calmer and their cheeks dried with tears, Zuko finally leaves her. As if nothing has happened. Tomorrow she will get married to his best friend. Tonight he might as well have given her his heart to bury. 

Tomorrow she will get married in an Air Temple, in a fluttering dress made for warm weather when she is from the snow and ice. She will gather her quilt, her whale comb, all her scrolls, and pack them away. They will never know the home of a drawer or dresser. 

He will never know a home with her. 

Tomorrow she will get married. Tonight he let himself pretend it was him she’s marrying. 

Maybe in the next life, he tells himself over and over again, maybe in the next life. 

He has to say it twice, the same way he’d told himself it’s okay, it’s okay, the same way she’d said, I don’t know, I don’t know. 

Tomorrow he watches her get married in a restored Air Temple, the stained glass window casts her in a cacophony of shining color, brilliant and otherworldly. Rose and violet and aqua splashing across her face, illuminating her eyes like sparkling gems. When she takes Aang’s hands, she is smiling, tears caught in her eyes. 

She does not squeeze his hand, does not hold him the way she’d held Zuko last night. 

Zuko sets his jaw and breathes deep. 

There are wind chimes like a birdsong, musically clinking, tumbling with the gentle wind. 

There is an ache in the center of his great, broad chest, but he keeps his face strangely serene. He tries to let go of her. He has no claim on her. His feelings are not for her to shoulder. 

At the reception after, when there is food and sweet, sparkling wine, and love and joy, Zuko smiles. He congratulates Aang and means it. He holds his friend close. 

And when he gets to Katara, she hugs him. Perhaps a little too tightly. He has to slam his eyes shut, has to suck in a sharp breath to keep all of his carefully placed longing inside of him. Maybe they hesitate to part. Maybe there is regret there. 

When he pulls away, he reaches down to catch her wrist, press his fingers to her fluttering pulse as if to feel her heart. He catches her eyes, which are teary, rounded out with a pain only they’ll know. 

He leans to press his lips to her cheek, lingering; it’s a confession, an apology, everything he couldn’t say but wishes he had. Everything she wishes she could’ve heard. And then he murmurs, a secret for them, only for her to hear, his admittance, forever hers; 

“I hope you’ll be very happy in this life, Katara of the Southern Water Tribe.”