The first time Zuko thinks it is when his eyes squint open after Azula’s lightning attack. He fights past the arresting pain, struggling his best to just breathe with only one thought on his mind, ‘Azula’s still standing. Protect Katara.’ But then the only thing that fills his vision is Katara’s terrified face, bathed in an odd glowing light, focused on nothing but him. So he focuses right back and allows the whimsical thought to finally settle at the forefront of his mind before slipping back into temporary unconsciousness.
The first time Zuko almost says it is when the gaang is all up at the Northern Water Tribe. He’s been having…issues. Sudden shortness of breath, a fluctuating heartbeat, muscles cramping, and nerves seizing. It’s beyond Katara’s limited knowledge of healing, and so they have all come here to both complete her training and to help Zuko.
It’s when he’s meditating in the Spirit Oasis, hours after being submerged in its water that Katara approaches him. They sit in silence for a while before Katara finally breaks; revealing the nightmares she has where she isn’t able to save him. Where he dies in her arms.
“The only reason I was able to save Aang after Azula attacked him was because I had the water from the Spirit Oasis.”
Zuko knows this. It’s why he carried such heavy doubt when he went back home the first time.
“And I didn’t think – I didn’t have anymore of it. When I went to heal you, I was so scared it wouldn’t work. But I couldn’t stop myself from trying. And it took so long for your body to finally respond…”
He wants to kiss her then. To brush away that worried, self-depreciating dip in her brow with his lips. To tell her how he feels. How he’s felt for quite some time now.
Instead, Zuko simply reaches out to place a hand over the trembling fists in her lap.
“Thank you,” is what he says instead.
The first time Katara thinks it is shortly after a grueling lesson on advanced healing, during which she tried to force the water a way it wasn’t meant to be forced, leading to what could have been disastrous results if she had been working on a living being. She is left feeling doubtful of her abilities, ashamed of forgetting the basics behind her element, and exhausted.
But rather than going to bed, she notices the doorway to the Spirit Oasis open and ventures inside. There, she finds Zuko, shirtless, with the exposed scar on his chest nearly healed.
She sits near him and watches him meditate, thoughts of her own swirling through her head. She had almost lost him all those weeks ago. If she had forced the water then, would it have really killed him or healed him better? Would he still be alive if that desperation wasn’t driving her then? Would her healing truly have worked if she had been able to stay calm and “let the element work at the pace it’s meant to”? Because if that were true, then how on earth was she able to even save Zuko in the first place?
The answer her mind provides her with is one that she feels should be more shocking than it is. But when he places his hand on hers, she understands why it isn’t.
The first time Katara almost says it is towards the end of when she loses her virginity.
It had hurt at first, just like her gran-gran had told her it would. But as soon as he noticed her pain, Zuko had pulled out and went right back to kissing her in all those places that drove them to this point in the first place. It wasn’t until Katara had begged that he finally lined himself up and pushed in once more, and this time it was nothing short of breathtaking.
She’s on her back in a pile of furs and Zuko is on top of her. They’re both sweating with exertion but have no intention of allowing an ounce of space to come between them.
The pleasure is overwhelming her, and she can tell Zuko is nearly gone with it as well from the way he seems stuck on muttering her name as his hips continue to heave mindlessly against hers. She has to bite her lip to stop from gasping out those words, knowing she can’t burden the new Fire Lord with her emotions.
Such worries are thrown out the window when her climax hits. No one ever told her about this part, and it leaves her back arching as she screams, her nails digging in to Zuko’s flesh as her body tightens and tightens and tightens around his.
“I love you.”
Zuko first says it when it’s time for him to leave. His men and ship are ready, but the tide will only wait for so long.
They haven’t spoken much since that night. Katara has been giving him the cold shoulder for reasons he just doesn’t understand. It has led to several disagreements and far too many fights that have left the both of them confused, hurt, and far angrier than they can ever remember being.
It’s on the tail end of such a fight (and really, he had only meant to tell her goodbye), that the words tumble from his lips, in hopes that they can convey everything about why he just can’t let this go. Why he’s been coming back for more. Why he’ll always come back for more.
The words don’t quite have the desired effect, because now Katara is crying and arguing that he can’t love her, that he’s supposed to still love his mopey ex-girlfriend, and that it’s not fair because they could never work–
“My Liege, the waterbenders seem to be growing restless.”
Finding no importance in the statement, Zuko ignores it and runs his hands up and down Katara’s arms. “But how do you know that? How do you know we won’t work if you don’t give us a try? Come back with me? Please?”
Katara wipes away her tears even as more pour down her cheeks. “You can’t just ask me–”
“I love you,” Zuko stresses, staring earnestly into her eyes.
She looks back at him, shocked out of her tears as she understands all he’s trying to convey. That this is real. That he won’t stop. That these feelings aren’t something he’s taking lightly. That nothing about this feels like a burden.
“Say you’ll stay with me.”
She steps closer to him, tugging him towards her by the white tail hanging off the front of his blue parka. “I’ll stay,” she agrees. “But only because I love you, too.”