Korra thinks she sees him first as he comes down from the large Fire Nation vessel. She stands by the icy bay where his ship is docked, one among many to greet the former Fire Lord.
She steps forward; he should see her first, she thinks. She is the Avatar.
She recognizes him immediately when he walks towards her, old but regal, his steps steady and strong and his chin held up high. He gives off an air of royalty, true royalty, like the world is at the palm of his hands and he has the power to command anything. For a moment, Korra feels intimidated—but she is the Avatar. She is as important as he is. Maybe even more.
She makes a move to greet him, opening her mouth to speak—
That is not her voice. Korra turns to see Katara walking towards them; there is a small smile on the older lady's face. It is a soft smile, a quiet smile, a smile that she cannot read.
For a few moments, no one speaks. In the background, the noise of the other members of the Southern Water Tribe signal that they are approaching, but Korra feels like they are miles away. There is just her, Master Katara, and former Fire Lord Zuko.
She is the Avatar. She is important.
She feels strangely out of place.
The silence is broken when Zuko finally replies.
The look on his face is very familiar, but Korra isn't sure where she's seen it before.
She breaks apart in front of him, and she hates herself for it. She just falls, Yon Rha miles behind her, and the rain pours on her back and she can't even control the water. Everything crumbles down—all the defenses she put up—leaving broken walls in her heart and opened locks in her head.
"Katara," he calls, and she wishes she could hate him, she wishes she could blame him.
He scoops her up so tenderly that she feels broken. Suddenly she is in his arms, and for the first time the struggle isn't worth it; she is tired, so very tired; she thinks of losing her mother over and over again, of being weak and being strong, of trying to be the woman that Aang wants, but she cannot just forgive.
"I'm sorry," he says, and he holds her tight, and despite everything his apology makes her laugh and think he is so stupid. "I'm so sorry."
"Stop saying sorry," she tells him, because it is finally time to. "It's not your fault."
"I brought you here. For closure. But you're still hurting—"
"Zuko," his name finally sounds right on her lips (too right, she realizes, and she almost says it again). She rests her forehead on his chest and relishes in his warmth. Then, with much more clarity, she repeats, "It's not your fault."
His embrace stiffens. "You don't have to—I'm not expecting you to for—"
She clutches his tunic tightly and shakes her head.
"It's never been your fault," Katara says finally, and realizes she knew that all along.
Dinner is a celebratory affair, Korra realizes, as the Chief's household becomes busy preparing for their esteemed guest. Katara has taken on matronly duties and is quickly overriding the head cook's decisions.
"Zuko likes his sea prunes with a little spice," the older woman says, and instructs the kitchen staff to edit their recipes according to the specifications she gives them. Korra watches with curiosity as Katara enumerates how the former Fire Lord likes his soup, main dish, dessert and drink.
"You know him really well," the Avatar comments, watching a stressed kitchen boy run out to get spices from the newly docked Fire Nation ship. "Did he visit here often when he was Fire Lord?"
Katara laughs. "Oh, not as much as I would have liked him to," she answers, stirring an orange-colored soup Korra can only guess is made of squash. "Zuko was—is—a workaholic. As you can see, age does not deter him from doing honorable things."
"Age doesn't seem to be an issue for Team Avatar. You guys are all about being in the middle of things."
"Well, there was a time I was like that. For now, though," and Katara makes that smile again, the smile that cannot be read, "I am content in making Zuko's soup."
As the older woman begins to hum a song, the Avatar is hit with a notion that she is missing out on something.
Katara notices when Zuko isn't eating.
It happens more than once.
"He's getting tired of all these sea prunes, Sugar Queen," Toph has been lamenting over their meals for the past few nights and has been urging everyone to join her in doing so. She pushes her bowl of sea prune soup away and makes a disgusted face. "Can't we afford anything else?"
Katara gives her own sea prune soup a look of disdain. Love the Water Tribe as she may, it was getting quite tiring to eat the same thing over and over. "We can, but I don't know how to cook them without buying something else that's expensive."
"What do you mean?"
"For example, we can afford squash. But what in the world will we do with just squash?"
Toph snorts. "I'd take plain squash over these sea wigglers any day!"
"It's sea prunes, Toph, and plain squash would be unappetizing—"
"We could make squash soup," Zuko interjects. Katara glances at him and sees that his bowl is still untouched. She glares at him in the hopes it'll force him to eat, but he only has the gall to smile that small sheepish smile of his. "I know a good recipe." Then, if only to placate her, "It's also really cheap."
"Sparky's Squash Soup it is tomorrow, then!" Toph grabs her bowl again and begins eating her sea prunes with a new vigor. Mere seconds later, however, she chokes. Katara scolds her for eating too fast, but she blames it all on the sea prunes.
After everyone has taken their fill, Katara rounds on Zuko and gives him her best motherly glare.
"Did you eat?"
He looks at anywhere but her. "Yes."
She's feeling pretty brave today, so she takes a step forward and pokes him on the chest. "Don't lie to me."
She feels more than sees Zuko body temperature go up; his chest suddenly heaves and his good ear goes pink. "I did eat. I like the seaprunes. Especially when its spicy and salty at the same time…"
"I really do. It's just…" Zuko trails off but his face gives this really honest, childlike expression; it catches Katara off guard because it's adorable. He scratches his nose and fumbles. "Uh, Toph is right, Katara. We're all getting tired of eating the same thing every night."
Katara thinks that if Zuko had admitted this to her at any other time, she would have glared at him so bad he would have wished she blasted him with a jet of water instead. Right now, though, she can't help but agree.
"I'm getting tired of the sea prunes, too," the waterbender admits, biting her lower lip idly. She sees Zuko gulp and wonders if it was because he was still scared she'd get mad. She tries to comfort him by placing a hand on his shoulder. He seems to grow tenser, but she knows just what to say. "All right, let's have your squash soup tomorrow. Tell me what you need from the market and I'll get it for you."
His face lights up and Katara is sure she has not seen anything like it. His tiny smile reaches his eyes and it makes her heart catch in her throat.
"Actually," he begins, and Katara is struck by surprise when she wishes she could memorize this moment: the way his eyes dart away from hers shyly, the way he scratches the back of his neck distractedly, the way he suddenly holds her gaze and steadies her, "I was hoping we could go together."
Fire Lord Zuko seems impassive as he lifts his soup spoon to his mouth. Korra has already tasted the squash soup—it is tasty but ordinary, nothing special—but she can see how Katara stopped eating to wait for Zuko's reaction.
The Avatar is surprised when the older firebender's countenance relaxes. He looks at Katara with that familiar expression, the one she's sure she's seen before but still cannot fathom where from.
When Zuko compliments the soup, he says something about fire flakes and his comment makes Katara laugh.
Something tight coils within Korra's chest. She resists breaking her spoon.
Katara isn't sure what she should be doing, now. The height of the war is over—Ozai has been defeated and Princess Azula is in chains. She had a dozen different expectations of what the aftermath of the final battle would be like, but never did she imagine this.
She cools the wet rag so that the water absorbed is just barely freezing before placing it on top of Zuko's forehead. His eyebrows scrunch upon contact of the cloth to his skin, but besides that, he stays asleep.
"Stay with me," was what he last told her, before the painkillers took him. He reached for her hand, weakly.
He was already sleeping when she took it.
Zuko is peaceful when asleep, Katara realizes. Even his scar seems kinder in the relaxation of slumber. She stares at the marred flesh, trying to call something to memory—something feather-light and painful—maybe I can heal it—it's a scar, it can't be healed—but then the memory of pain is replaced by fear, flashes of blue lightning and heinous laughter—this way, no one else has to get hurt—
Thank you, Katara.
Her gaze falls to his torso. Choking back her tears, she clutches Zuko's hand tighter—what can I do to make it up to you?—rings in her head, and she suddenly regrets it, regrets it more than anything in her life. With her other hand, she traces the new wound, star-shaped and raw, remembering the way his blood felt under her fingers, tingling and dying and no please don't go, spirits please let him live. She cannot bear the burden he has given her—this scar marks me, the mark of the banished prince—and her fingers shake at every corner.
I'm the one who should be thanking you.
When Zuko's eyelids flutter open, he sees Katara sobbing silently into her hands. He does not speak when he sits up and pulls her to him.
Korra finally gets to be alone with the Fire Lord after dinner. She observed him the entire night—he and Katara share some select furtive glances, a few small smiles and laughs—which, she rationalized, should be normal between friends, but she finds it suspicious all the same.
He is standing by a cliff facing the bay when she approaches him. She plans to cough to get him to notice her, but five paces towards him and he already glances at her.
"Avatar Korra," his voice is deep and raspy, scratched with age, but she imagines it might've sounded like General Iroh's baritone a long time ago. "To what do I owe this pleasure?"
His formality catches her off guard, but she doesn't let it faze her. She plans to reply to him with something equally as formal, something to show him that she is as important as he is, something to make her feel as if she were on his level, something to make her stop feeling so damn left out whenever he and Katara were in the same space—
"What's your relationship to Master Katara?"
She didn't intend to blurt it out like that. In fact, she wondered where that came from—she didn't intend to ask that at all.
Korra sees the Fire Lord's eyebrows scrunch together, his mouth setting into a thin line. She was expecting him not to answer, or maybe to give her some proverb that translated to 'mind your own business'—but instead he visibly relaxed and put his hands behind his back.
"We're friends," he answers at last, and Korra almost huffs. Almost—she manages to just cross her arms instead, trying not to look too indignant. Fire Lord Zuko sees her unease, and he has the nerve to chuckle. "I see you're not satisfied with my answer."
"I'm not," Korra says, and the words leave her without her permission. She doesn't know where her frustration is coming from, only that it is irrational, powerful, deep.
Zuko gives her a look she doesn't understand. "You never were."
Aang and Katara decide to get married in the Fire Nation. It is a political move as much as it is a personal one; this way, they show the world that the nations are unified, and Aang gets his wish to pay homage to Roku and Sozin's—his and Zuko's—friendship. It also doesn't hurt that no one throws a better wedding party than Iroh.
Katara spends the eve before her wedding in the palace gardens, with Zuko, feeding the turtleducks. They sit in companionable silence, mere centimeters between their shoulders, but for some reason Katara feels that every second to tomorrow brings them farther apart.
From the corner of her eye, she sees Zuko absentmindedly run a thumb at the spot where his stomach and chest meet. Katara holds her breath in hopes the thumping in her ribcage will go away.
She doesn't need to ask to know that he's touching his scar.
There is something else she's been meaning to ask, however.
"They said… that the Spirits show you something important before you die," she begins their conversation with this statement. Zuko – Fire Lord Zuko, now – arches his good eyebrow at her, but doesn't comment. He shrugs and she takes this as a cue to continue. "That time… with Azula's lightning." She swallows; when had her lips gone dry? "Did you think you would die?"
A turtleduck attempts to get bread from his hand; it nips at him and they watch it quietly first as it acquires a crumb for itself. The turtleduck is already on its way back to the lake when he replies.
"I was prepared," he admits simply, like it didn't mean everything.
Katara forces the lump in her throat to go down. "Did the Spirits show you anything?"
Before answering, Zuko moves backwards, resting his hands on the grass. His eyes close. "I saw a girl," he confesses.
"A female Spirit?"
He shakes his head.
"Did you know her?"
"I still do. She offered me a second chance when I thought I had none." Zuko opens his eyes and deliberately meets Katara's gaze. "But I betrayed her."
I thought you had changed!
I have changed.
She remembers the overwhelming disappointment, the budding anger—I was the first person who trusted you, remember! Back in Ba Sing Se! The recollections flood her like an unending wave and her fingers curl. She bites her lips and tries not to think of how hard she is holding back her tears. "Did she… did she forgive you?"
Zuko nods. Then, slowly, he takes her hand and unfurls her fingers one by one. His touch is burning and it sends electricity up her arms and down her spine, but she doesn't think of pulling away. Without breaking eye contact, he moves their hands and places them over his scar, her thumb slightly grazing over his lips. Katara's heart constricts and she makes a choking sound.
He closes his eyes again, and he looks so much like that boy illuminated by the crystals—lost, desperate, sad. If she wanted to save him, all she had to do was reach.
Quietly, then, like he is whispering a secret, "I think I loved her."
Katara's world stops, and she almost says she loved you, too.
Katara finds the young Avatar walking back towards her igloo, looking pensive.
"How was your talk with the Fire Lord?" She asks, and there is amusement in her inquisitive tone. "Aang and Zuko used to have very long talks, too. It usually ended with Zuko trying not to burn something and Aang making him tea."
The nostalgic tone of her master somehow placates Korra's earlier uneasiness. She sighs. "It was fine," she replies, leaning down to fix her boot. "He told me to do everything with honor."
Katara laughs at this. "Zuko knows a lot about honor," she says, as if explaining; but at this point Korra feels it doesn't explain anything at all. Then, with soft eyes, the older woman continues, "He and Aang were very good friends."
Everyone knows that, Korra wants to say. But instead she goes with, "He's better friends with you."
She doesn't know what she means when she says it. She expects Katara to deny it, to chastise her for sounding so accusing—but her master simply smiles. Something goes through her eyes, and for a moment Korra feels like she is on the verge of a vision, a memory of glowing green and cackling blue, but it fades instantly.
"You know," Katara begins, and her hand reaches out to help Korra up. They lock eyes, cerulean against cobalt, and it is at this moment that the younger waterbender realizes she will never get the answers she wants. "Some friendships transcend l—"
"—Lifetimes. I know, I know." Exasperated, Korra blows away a strand of hair that has fallen to her eyes. "Tenzin tells me that all the time." She takes Katara's hand and pulls herself up. Then, too casually, "I think I'll go to the ports, Mako and Bolin might've arrived."
Katara watches her student walk away. She wonders if she should say that though she believed it true, 'lifetimes' was not what was she was about to say.
It is the day of her wedding.
She sees Zuko in the corridor, waiting for her. She wonders if it is a blessing or curse that they see each other now, before everything ends (begins, she corrects herself). He has the honor to pass her on to her father before being brought to the ceremonial altar for Aang. "What…" she feels shy; she doesn't know what to say to him after last night. "What do we say to each other now?"
Zuko doesn't even flinch. He stares her down, impassive and normal. "Hi."
Katara looks at him incredulously. "Hi?"
"Yes. Hi," Zuko says again. He looks at her with a sudden intensity and Katara is reminded of the days back in Ember Island, when he would hold her gaze while they talked in hushed voices, bodies close, almost touching. "Nothing has changed, Katara. We're friends. When we see each other after a long time, we say 'hi'."
Katara closes her eyes. We're friends.
Memories swirl in her head.
I think I'm ready to forgive you.
The "Hi," comes out of her painfully, but she tries the word on her lips anyway. It sounds almost comfortable. But when she's with Zuko, comfort is not what she wants, she realizes; she wants the pain in her chest and the lump in her throat and her heart that constricts—I forgive you—she thinks suddenly of his warmth, I forgive you.
The gong rings outside.
"Are you ready?" he asks, holding out his arm. "I better get you to your father in time."
Katara nods silently and loops her arm with his.
Walking to the altar, she thinks she should be filled only with thoughts of Aang and their future together.
But she can't help it.
Somewhere at the back of her mind, a thought consumes her—
Korra practically stomps her way to the ports. She walks up the plank of a newly docked ship and sees Mako and Bolin fixing some ropes. She has barely grumbled anew when they turn to her.
"Korra!" Bolin exclaims, dropping the ropes and rushing forward. "How'd you know we were here?"
"Gut instinct," she mumbles, stuffing her hands into her parka. Her gaze turns to Mako, who is approaching her with a grin.
"You're a sight for sore eyes," he says, and his smile is different and somehow it makes her feel better. She knows he only reserves that look for her. Then he notices the scrunch of her eyebrows and the stiffness of her shoulders. "Is there something wrong?"
Korra sighs. "Ugh, its nothing," she tries to pass it off as nothing; she doesn't want to admit that it's bothering her more than she wants it to. "I – I just don't know. I don't understand. Fire Lord Zuko is here and he and Master Katara make me feel left ou—"
The Avatar finds herself stopping in mid-sentence. She turns to Mako and his face has gone tight. He looks concerned. "Wait," and she puts both hands on his cheeks, "Don't make that face. Make the one you were doing earlier."
She doesn't know how to explain it. "The face. Your smiling face. The one you made when you saw me."
To her annoyance, Mako doesn't make any other face except one that is looking at her as if she's grown another head. "Korra, I don't know what you're—"
"I know that face!" Bolin volunteers. He clasps his hand together and bats his eyelashes. "Watch this."
He tries to copy it—it's the same but not really—the soft smile, the tender gaze, the projection of words never said—
Mako sputters. "I don't make that face!"
Bolin breaks out of character and waves a finger. "Yes you do! You only do it in front of Korra. It's your look of lo—eh, Korra?"
Their bickering fades into the distance as Korra runs. She's seen that expression before.
When the wedding is over, Aang lifts Katara up to ride Appa—they are set to have their honeymoon traveling, and a crowd gathers for their departure.
Katara tries to be happy as she waves to everyone. She laughs as Aang presses a kiss to her cheek.
"I love you," the young airbender says. His eyes are bright and shining, full of hope, and Katara is reminded of why she cannot break his heart.
Katara smiles and reaches out to touch his face. When her hand touches his cheek, she hesitates; eventually she stops and puts it down.
"I love you too," she says, and hopes the feel of a scar under her fingertips will fade away.
When Korra reaches the cliff overlooking the bay, former Fire Lord Zuko is still there, and Katara is walking towards him.
Korra stops to watch.
Katara reaches out her hand and touches his face, fingers over the scar, thumb over his lips.
The moon hangs overhead, its light a soft blue, and Korra sees Zuko smile. It is a soft smile, a quiet smile, a smile she will never be able to read. She can tell now—he's been giving Katara that look for years.
"Hi, Katara," he whispers, like an age-old secret, like it's something he keeps to himself.
And suddenly, Korra understands.
FIN – 031413 / Edited - 112113