Katara didn’t know why she was avoiding Aang.
She knew she shouldn’t be.
But no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t bring herself to go near him. Every time they were in the same room together, the tension was almost overwhelming. She couldn’t look at his face without his words crashing through her mind, her face tingling with a phantom of his touch...
So instead, Katara planned to adjust her daily routine in order to skirt around his. She’ll brush him off when he bounds up to her jovially, asking to spar, just as he always did. It will shatter her to see his face fall, but she’ll just lower her head and retreat into the shadows. She just wanted to get away from all of it.
Away from him.
For now, she was sitting on her bed, hugging her knees tightly to her chest. The heavy velvet curtains had been drawn closed over the window, forbidding the entry of light and concealing the lush landscape of Ember Island. The events of the past few days repeated in her mind like a broken record. She couldn’t stop it. Her eyes squeezed shut as it began once more.
It was the day of the invasion.
Everything had been in place. The submarines were prepared to launch and the Earth Benders stretched their muscles, warming up to power the tanks. Katara stood alone, mentally running over the plan one final time, when Aang suddenly landed beside her. She knew there was a good chance that she might not see him again after today, and one look in Aang’s stormy eyes told her he was thinking the same thing. Overcome by a sudden onslaught of emotions, she had told him how proud she was of him, of how far he had come. She had wanted him to know. But then, something in Aang’s face changed. She barely had time to process before it happened.
He kissed her.
It was short, but it was hardly sweet. In that split second, all her thoughts abandoned her, replaced by a blank panic. Katara was painfully aware of his hand gripping onto her shoulder, almost as if he was afraid to let her go on her own.
Aang didn’t stick around to see her reaction. He snapped his glider out and soared off on the wind before she could get a word in. But if he had stayed, he would have seen the look on her face.
Katara wanted to go back and erase the kiss from her memories. She now knew what he felt about her, that much was certain. But she was sure that she was supposed to be feeling something different… Joy? Excitement? Love?
All she felt was confused.
She pushed the incident into the farthest corner of her mind, focusing only on the task before her. She mounted Appa and dove into the sparkling sea.
Azula was attacking the Western Air Temple.
Katara had been watching as the bombs fell, unaware of the avalanche above her head, when something unexpectedly slammed into her side. She was on the ground in an instant, and it wasn’t until the air returned to her lungs that she realized what was on top of her.
Or rather, who.
“What are you doing?!” She screeched.
“Keeping rocks from crushing you.” Zuko seemed a little too calm for her taste. Her face flushed a magnificent shade of red and she could hardly hear the chaos over her heartbeat pounding in her ears.
“Well, I’m not crushed, so you can get off me now!” She struggled out from under him as fast as her body allowed her and darted away to where the rest of the group was huddled. She tried to calm her racing pulse and could only hope that her coloration had returned to normal. Only Toph noticed her flustered state, throwing her questioning looks that Katara shot down with a glare. She berated herself.
What was that? What is going on?
If she was confused before, this had only made it worse. Especially since she didn’t trust Zuko. Not one bit.
That same day, they ended up at a beach.
She still didn’t trust him.
When he came whining to her about how unfair she was being, she snapped.
“I was the first person to trust you, back in Ba Sing Se! And then you turned around and betrayed me.” Her voice quivered with rage.
Zuko’s expression had sobered.
“What can I do to make it up to you?”
She tried to ignore her heart beating out of her chest once more. She swallowed... whatever it was that was going on in her head and instead replied hotly,
“You could re-conquer Ba Sing Se in the name of the Earth King, or I know! You could bring my mother back!” She turned on her heel and stormed away to her tent.
She didn't want to see his reaction.
Katara had a fitful night of sleep, her dreams filled with unpleasant flashbacks and troubling thoughts. She didn’t know what was going on with her. She knew she was supposed to have feelings for Aang. He was clearly smitten, and he was so happy whenever she was with him. She knew the day was coming when Aang would confess what she’d known all along, and she didn’t know if she’d have the heart to turn him down.
When she emerged into the daylight, she was startled by the sight of a sleep-deprived Zuko sitting before her. Her throat constricted with white hot anger. He thinks after yesterday, he can just come and bother her like this? She’d made it pretty clear she didn't want to see him.
“You look terrible,” Katara spat, eyes narrowing.
“I waited out here all night.” She could hear the thick exhaustion in his voice.
“What do you want?” Truthfully, she didn’t care. She began brushing her hair and thinking about what she would do with Aang today. Maybe they could bring Toph to the-
“I know who killed your mother. I’m going to help you find him.”
She nearly dropped her comb.
She turned to him, a determined look hard-set on her features. They held eye contact.
Maybe she could trust him.
Just a little.
Katara didn’t know what she thought anymore, and she was an inch away from deciding to just not think. It was becoming quite a burden.
Zuko knew her better than Aang did, and she didn’t understand.
When Aang had tried to stop her from going multiple times, it was Zuko who had her back. He knew that she needed closure, and was willing to help her get it. She certainly never expected him to jump to her defense so readily.
When the time came, she couldn’t bring herself to take a human life. It just felt wrong to her. She felt like a coward. She hadn't brought her mother the justice she deserved. When she told this to Zuko, she couldn’t help from breaking down in tears.
He didn’t say anything for a moment. Hesitantly, he opened his arms, asking a soundless question. Katara thought for a moment. This was the boy who had been chasing them around the world for months, had stolen her mother’s necklace, betrayed her at Ba Sing Se, and almost killed them countless times. But he had shown her that he truly cared, and she was willing to give him a second chance. She nodded, and he wrapped his arms around her.
The wall Katara had built fell crumbling to the ground, her fists gripping the back of his shirt as she cried. She burrowed further into his warm chest, the harsh air stinging the nape of her neck as Appa flew through the night.
After a moment, he spoke, wiping the tears from her cheeks.
“Whether you had killed him or not, I would have supported your decision. It took a lot of willpower to hold back the way you did, and I admire you for that.”
He didn’t let her gaze drop, lifting her chin when she aimed it towards the ground.
“Not killing Yon Rha doesn’t make you a coward. It makes you brave. You didn’t stoop to his level, and that was the most courageous thing I’ve ever seen anyone do.”
She hugged him again, this time slightly tighter. The tears started to come again, and they both grew silent. Katara couldn’t think about anything else; she was just grateful that he was here.
They stayed like that, wordlessly, until the campsite came into view.
Maybe she could trust him.
More than just a little bit.
She told him so.
The embrace they shared was shorter than the others, but it meant so much more. She wanted to stay there forever.
Katara wondered what that meant.
They still had plenty of time to prepare for the comet’s arrival, so the gang decided to take a rest day.
Sokka and Suki dragged them all to a play about themselves called, “The Boy In The Iceberg,” by the Ember Island Players.
It was terrible.
Everyone (well, except Toph) was upset by their portrayal, especially Aang. Katara could understand why, since she wasn’t a big fan of hers, either. But he was in a foul mood all day, which was very un-Aang like.
Katara was sitting next to Zuko, which made the experience a little better. Their friendship had really grown, especially since the Yon Rha incident, and she didn’t think it would be a long shot to call him her best friend. Katara found herself wanting to spend more time with Zuko than with the rest of Team Avatar, and they just naturally got each other. They cracked jokes throughout the play and made fun of the horrible acting, but their demeanor changed significantly when the play took a few… creative liberties.
“I have to admit, Prince Zuko, I find you really attractive.”
“You don’t have to make fun of me.”
“But I mean it! I’ve had eyes for you since the day you first captured me.”
The voices of the actors faded away and were replaced by the sound of blood rushing in Katara’s ears. She willed herself not to look at Zuko, and they both edged slightly away from each other. She was vaguely aware of Aang scowling beside Zuko.
“The Avatar? Why, he’s like a little brother to me! I certainly don’t think of him in a romantic way…”
Katara didn’t catch the end of the actor’s sentence, and she didn’t want to. She sank as low as possible in her seat.
What bothered her was the fact that they were right.
Well, not entirely. She didn’t have a crush on Zuko… she didn’t think so, anyway. They were just best friends, and there was nothing else to it. But with the bit about Aang, they had hit the nail right on the head. She knew that she was supposed to be attracted to him. She didn’t know why; it just seemed that way to her. But no matter how much she tried, it just felt wrong. He was like a younger brother, and she took care of him like a mother. Katara inadvertently remembered how wrong the kiss they shared had felt. It wasn’t their first kiss, but she didn’t count the one in the secret tunnel; that was just a means of survival, and Aang himself had said ‘I’d rather kiss you than die.’
But knowing what she knew now, does that mean he saw it as something more?
Katara crossed her arms and stared at her feet, wishing that she was anywhere but here.
Aang was nowhere to be seen.
Katara found him sulking on a balcony overlooking the ocean. He was being overdramatic about the play, and nothing she said could console him. They stood quietly for a few moments, until Aang broke the silence.
“Katara, did you really mean what you said in there?”
“In where? What are you talking about?”
“On stage, when you said I was just like a… brother to you, and you didn’t have feelings for me.”
Katara felt panic rising in her throat.
“I didn’t say that. An actor said that.”
“But it’s true, isn’t it? We kissed at the invasion, and I thought we were gonna be together, but we’re not.”
She couldn’t do this. Not here. Not now. She took a shaky breath.
“Aang, I don’t know,” she muttered weakly. She didn’t have it in her to rebuff him completely. Not yet.
“Well, why don’t you?”
Katara was taken aback by his bluntness. She didn’t know he could be this pushy and rude.
“Because, Aang, we’re in the middle of a war! We have other things to worry about. Besides, now… now isn’t the right time.” Her voice was sharp.
“Well, when is the right time?
“Aang, I’m sorry, but right now I’m just a little confused!”
She didn’t tell him that she was growing less confused, day by day. She didn’t tell him that she was realizing that she might not have an obligation to return his feelings after all. She didn’t tell him that-
Katara was cut off from her thoughts when Aang suddenly grabbed her face roughly, planting his lips on hers. Her panic was replaced by fury, and she pushed him away. She couldn’t believe he just did that.
“What the hell, Aang! I just said I was confused!” Aang looked like a kicked puppy, but she didn’t regret her words. She turned and ran back into the theater as fast as she could, feeling more violated than she ever had in her life.
She sat back down next to Zuko, just a little closer than before.
When the flashbacks finally ended, Katara opened her watery eyes. It was just tonight that Aang had attempted to kiss her, and it had left her feeling empty. A tear rolled over her cheekbone as she forced herself to think about it; it was about time that she got her feelings under control.
She wanted so badly to love Aang. She should have wanted to kiss him. What was wrong with her? She may not have been guilty before, but now she felt horrible. Why had she spoken so harshly, and been so cold? She wanted to make it up to him, but she didn’t know if she had it in her to face him again. It was too painful to let her thoughts race anymore, so she left the matter undecided and let the sobs rack through her body. She buried her head between her knees, unaware that someone had come to the door.
Her head snapped up. Zuko stepped farther into the room.
“I heard you crying. Are you okay?”
“Yeah, yeah, I’m okay,” she mumbled, hastily wiping away her tear streaks with the heel of her hand. Zuko untied the curtains and they fell away from the window, bathing the entire room in moonlight. As he sat down across from her, she watched the way it spilled onto the floor.
You rise with the moon, I rise with the sun.
The line rang through her head as she focused her blurry gaze on his face, a concerned look spreading across his features.
“You sure don’t look okay.” His voice was soft. Katara shook her head.
“You’re right. I’m not.”
“Want to talk about it?”
She heaved a sigh. “It’s just… I don’t know. I feel like I should want this one thing, but I don't. And I really, really wish I did. I’m just… frustrated. I don’t know what I want.”
Zuko scooched a little closer so that their knees were touching. She was looking away, but she could sense him studying her face, trying to figure out the right words to say.
“It’s okay to not know what you want. We’re still young, and it takes time to figure out what the right decision is.”
She looked up at him.
“But what… What if I need to make up my mind? Like, soon?”
He shook his head. “You don’t owe anyone anything, Katara. It’s up to you to pick the path you want to take, and no one has the right to rush you or say you’re doing it wrong.” He stared out the window, his brows low over his eyelids. “Do…um, do you want to tell me what really happened?”
Katara hesitated. She trusted Zuko more than anyone, and she always did her best to be there for him. Now, he was repaying the favor, and she was forever grateful, but she didn’t know if he would be comfortable with the subject. Nonetheless, she decided to risk it.
“Aang kissed me at the theater.” She felt Zuko inhale sharply. He waited a moment, then replied slowly.
“Did you want him to?”
Katara didn’t answer for a long time. She looked up at him, her eyes welling with tears once more, and she let Zuko pull her into his chest. She wrapped her arms around him, her tears staining the front of his shirt. After many minutes of silence, she whispered her answer.
He didn’t reply.
He didn’t need to.
He just held her until she fell asleep.
The next day, Katara tried to act like nothing happened. She tried to treat Aang just as she always did. But she couldn’t stop the scene from flashing in her head every time she looked his way. She knew she would have that scar in her mind forever, but thanks to Zuko it was already starting to heal.
Speaking of Zuko, she found herself spending more and more of her downtime with him. The two of them often sparred, and the other members of the gang watched as waves of fire and water burst in midair. They played… well, tried to play Pai Sho with Toph on an old board they had found in the estate, but none of them quite knew the rules and they kept cheating by telling Toph to move the wrong tiles. Occasionally Aang would ask her to spar or to do some activity or another with him, but she just created a lame excuse on the spot and turned away. She didn’t want to see his face fall.
Aang didn’t want to kill Ozai, which was a huge problem.
Katara was still embarrassed from when she cooed at a baby picture of Ozai under the impression that it was Zuko, but when Aang suggested that they use “gluebending” to render him immobile, she almost laughed out loud. Sometimes, Aang was too much of a pacifist. If it was her decision, she would murder Ozai in cold blood. He had brought too much suffering on too many people. She didn’t pressure him, though. She knew it was his decision to make, just as much as what she did to Yon Rha was hers. Sokka, however, made a snide comment about the universe forgiving him for killing Ozai in the name of balance.
Aang blew up and stormed off.
Katara started to follow. She knew it would be awkward and uncomfortable for her, but she figured he would listen to her more than anyone else. She was about to go after him, but Zuko grabbed her shoulder.
“Let him go. He needs some time to work it out on his own.”
She resigned and stepped back, watching Aang’s figure shrink in the distance. She had no clue where he was going, but she hoped he found a solution to his moral dilemma.
The comet was two days away, and Aang was missing. It was as if he had just disappeared.
They had searched all day to no avail. Although things were tense between them, Katara was worried about him. At the end of the day, he was one of her best friends. Everyone wanted him to come back. His absence was glaringly obvious, and their group felt incomplete.
They were starting to lose hope, but Zuko had an idea. That’s how they ended up at an Earth Kingdom tavern. She was skeptical of his tactics until she saw who was sitting at the table.
“June,” he pointed out as they entered. She remembered.
Katara listened to June and Zuko bicker back and forth, her eyes moving from person to person like a puppet.
“Oh, great! It’s prince pouty. Where’s your creepy grandpa?”
“He’s my uncle. And he’s not here.”
“I see you worked things out with your girlfriend.”
It took Katara a minute to realize June was referring to her. Both her and Zuko turned as red as a ripe tomato, sputtering and unable to form a complete sentence.
“She’s not my girlfriend!”
“I’m not his girlfriend!”
They managed to say it in unison.
Katara thought she must have smoke rising from her ears, given how hot they felt. Katara didn’t need this today. She was already confused about whether or not she loved Aang at all, and now this seed was planted in her head?
Thanks a lot, June, She thought angrily. She knew her thoughts would return to the subject later, but for now she banished it to the dungeon of her mind. She tuned back in on Zuko and June’s argument.
“Okay, sheesh. I was just teasing.” Katara glared as hard as she could. “So, what do you want?”
“I need your help finding the Avatar.”
June seemed disinterested, but the edge in Zuko’s voice suggested that he wouldn’t take no for an answer.
Several hours later, they were camping just outside of Ba Sing Se. Everyone except Toph, who was most comfortable in an earth tent, crashed on one of Appa’s big fluffy feet. Katara was reclining on hers, unable to sleep.
They hadn’t been able to locate Aang. June told them that it seemed he had somehow ceased to exist. This worried Katara beyond belief. The Avatar had been missing for 100 years, then he was found, then he was lost again? She believed in the saying, ‘too good to be true,’ but this was just too bad to be true. And worst of all, they had no way of telling where he was, if he was alive and safe, or if he could ever come back. But Katara would be lying to herself if she didn’t admit that she was just a little grateful for the predicament. It spared her from having to go out of her way to avoid him, and she definitely didn’t miss the crestfallen look she received so often. Maybe if...no... When he came back, she’d be brave enough to mend their friendship and apologise for giving him the cold shoulder.
They still needed someone to help them face Ozai, so Zuko had produced an admittedly nasty sandal of his uncle’s. They had traced the scent all the way here, and they had decided to enter through the wall in the morning.
Katara’s thoughts kept going back to what June said in the tavern, just as she knew they would. It unsettled her because… well, because the idea of it didn’t unsettle her. If the same comment had been made about her and Aang, she would have been left feeling upset and confused, probably for the eightieth time that day. Something about the fact that it had been Zuko…
Katara shook her head.
She did not have a crush on Zuko.
She did not.
Denial is the first sign, chirped the annoying part of her brain, and she smacked it with a flyswatter.
She did not have a crush on Zuko, but he’d been a better friend to her in a couple of weeks than Aang had been in a couple of months. He respected her boundaries and her opinions, and made sure she was included in every activity and discussion. He didn’t coddle her and they matched in maturity levels, and that wasn’t even the half of it. Their personalities just clicked. She would be more than comfortable spending a week hanging out with only Zuko, but if Aang asked her to do the same she would feel awkward. Most of the time their conversations ended up with Aang talking and Katara staring off into the distance, and she often got shunted aside in favor of the Avatar. Zuko was her equal, and he acted like it. That’s where they fundamentally divided. The truth of the matter was, she enjoyed spending time with Zuko more than with Aang. She wasn’t sure if she still wished she felt the opposite.
She was still thinking when Zuko himself flopped onto the paw beside hers. He stared unblinkingly at the sky, his jet black hair sticking out at odd angles. He looked so serene that she felt almost guilty when she disturbed him.
He turned his head at the sound of her voice. His eyes closed and a feeble smile played across his face.
“Yeah, I guess you could say that,” he sighed, running a hand through his already disheveled hair. “Just some thoughts keeping me up.”
“Do you want to talk about them?”
Zuko looked almost surprised. Katara knew he was thinking of a few nights prior, when he had asked her almost those exact words.
“Yeah, that would actually help a lot, I think.” He paused. “I guess for some reason, I just can’t shake the feeling that Aang’s disappearance was my fault.”
Katara scoffed. “What? How could it possibly be your fault?”
“Well, right before he vanished, I was pressuring him to kill my father. I feel bad about doing that, especially because it reminds me of the way he pressured you when you confronted Yon Rha.”
“We were all pressuring him, Zuko. It wasn’t your fault alone. And, after all, it was Sokka who make him stomp away, not you.”
“Figures ,” Zuko mumbled under his breath, and Katara laughed.
“But seriously, you were just trying to be a good mentor and get him to step out of his pacifist bubble. He believes all people are good at heart, and that might be an issue when confronting Ozai. It’s practically your job to tell him he’s wrong in that regard.”
“I still feel bad though. It’s ultimately his choice to decide how he defeats my father, and I feel like a jerk for trying to tell him he’s wrong.” He rubbed his face.
Katara stared at the sliver of a moon surrounded by freckles of stars, and for a moment she felt breathtakingly insignificant.
“I see where you’re coming from, and your feelings are completely valid. It’s very honorable of you to give him the right to make his decision, even if he tried to control mine.”
Zuko was quiet for a few minutes before replying, and nothing could be heard except for the soothing song of the crickets.
“You think I’m honorable?” he said at last, almost inaudibly.
“Well, of course.” Katara covered the moon with her palm, her other arm crossed over her chest. “Against all odds, you made it out of your father and sister’s clutches. You always had good inside you, even when you were still at Ozai’s side. You actually care about people, not just power.” She dropped her arm and turned her head to look at him. “The fact that after all you were promised in the Fire Nation, you decided to choose which path to take for yourself… you’re the most honorable person I know.”
Even in the darkness, she could see the heat that rose to his cheeks.
“Thank you, Katara.” He sent her a crooked grin.
“Anytime.” She smiled back. A breeze rattled past, making them shiver. There were a few more beats of comfortable silence. “Do you remember what you told me that one time? At the North Pole?”
Zuko’s eyebrows scrunched as he thought back. His face finally lit up as he remembered.
“Ah. You rise with the moon, I rise with the sun. It was… not my proudest moment.” His fingers nervously combed through Appa’s fur at the memory.
“S’okay. You’re here now, and that’s all that matters.” Katara’s voice was soft. “My point was, the sun’s not out, so it’s not time for you to rise yet. You should get some sleep.”
“Goodnight, Katara,” he said with a yawn, rolling over to face the opposite direction.
“Goodnight, Zuko.” She curled up on her side, trying to hide the smile that was aching to spread over her face.
Maybe some good moments came out of the bad ones, after all.
As it turns out, they didn’t sleep for long.
They had been woken up by the timely appearances of Jeong Jeong, Piandao, Pakku, and Bumi, and they were overjoyed to see them. They couldn’t have come at a better time. Sokka and Katara were ecstatic to see that Master Pakku was engaged to Gran Gran again. She was filled with joy that they’d finally get to spend eternity with their other half. Their love truly ran deep, and she hoped she’d find a love like that someday.
The four old masters also revealed their membership in the Order of the White Lotus, and that they were in Ba Sing Se on Iroh’s summons. When the gang admitted that they had been seeking Iroh out, the masters agreed to take them to their camp to speak with him.
When they arrived Team Avatar dispersed, each checking out a different section of the campground while they waited for Zuko to have a private talk with Iroh.
Katara was the only one who noticed Zuko kneeling dejectedly outside the tent.
“Are you okay?” She asked, approaching him.
“No, I’m not okay. My uncle hates me, and I know it.”
She sat down across from him. He kept his head down, and she watched his tousled hair hang down over his eyes.
“He loved and supported me in every way he could, but I still turned against him. How can I even face him?”
The sadness in his voice felt like a shard of glass in her heart. He looked so desolate it was hard not to scoop him into her arms. She wanted him to believe he was worthy of forgiveness.
“Zuko, you’re sorry for what you did, right?”
He looked at her, his eyes burning with a kind of solemn intensity that she’d never seen before.
“More sorry than I’ve ever been about anything in my life.”
“Then he’ll forgive you.” She gently placed her hand on his shoulder. “He will.”
Zuko smiled sadly at her before rising and entering the tent. Katara remained close by, and for the record, she totally didn’t peek in and see them in the tightest embrace possible, tears running down their faces. And it totally didn’t make her cry, either.
They discussed the plan with Iroh over a hot meal. Iroh adamantly denied their requests to bring down Ozai himself, insisting that was the Avatar’s job alone. Katara chewed her thumbnail. There was no reason to believe Aang would come back, and the comet got closer every minute. She didn’t think it wise to rely on a plan with such a low chance of success, but she also trusted Iroh’s judgement over her own.
When Iroh told Zuko that he would have to become Fire Lord, she remained sitting at his side, silently supporting him. Just as Iroh had said, Zuko had unquestionable honor. He was the perfect option.
Katara took another sip of her tea while the conversation continued.
“Zuko, you must return to the Fire Nation, so that when the Fire Lord falls, you can assume the throne and restore peace and order. But,” his expression turned grave, “Azula will be there waiting for you.”
“I can handle Azula.” Zuko feigned confidence, but Katara noticed his hand shaking around his teacup. He shouldn’t have the sole responsibility of defeating his sister.
“Not alone!” Iroh exclaimed. “You’ll need help.”
He looked almost relieved. “You’re right. Katara, how would you like to help me put Azula in her place?”
Katara was a little surprised when he picked her over Toph, Sokka, and Suki. But then again, when she and Zuko collaborated, they were a formidable team. Her healing powers were also a plus, just in case either of them got injured. A slightly sinister smirk sprawled on her face.
“It would be my pleasure.”
She could hardly wait to fight at his side.
As Appa flew through the burnt amber sky, Katara’s nerves only increased. It could all be over today, one way or another. The war could end… or her life could. Worse yet, her friends’ lives could. She tried to block the thought, but it remained, pounding constantly at the back of her skull. She stole a glance at Zuko, who was staring at the horizon and fiddling with Appa’s fur again. Seeing him worried certainly didn't help. He was one of the most powerful benders she had ever met.
“Zuko, don’t worry. We can take Azula.” She tried to sound reassuring.
“It’s not her I’m worried about.” He looked at her. “What if Aang doesn’t have the guts to kill my father? What if he loses?” She’d never seen him so vulnerable, so afraid.
“Aang won’t lose. He’s gonna come back.” She shifted her stare to the coral tinged clouds. “He has to.” She only half believed her words.
When they arrived at the courtyard, Katara did her best to calm down. She tried to convince herself that Aang was back, and that all her friends were safe. She just had to focus on their mission. Azula was moments away from being named Fire Lord, but she looked like she was on the verge of a complete breakdown. Zuko jumped off Appa and confronted her right away.
“Sorry, but you’re not going to become Fire Lord today. I am.” She got a chill down her spine at the words.
Azula just cackled, her shrill laugh piercing through the haze. “You’re hilarious!”
Katara steeled her nerves and stood beside Zuko, a sudden burst of adrenaline surging through her veins. “And you’re going down.”
They watched the Fire Sage lower the crown over her head. It was inches away when Azula stopped him.
“Wait. You want to be Fire Lord? Fine. Let’s settle this. Just you and me, brother. The showdown that was always meant to be. Agni Kai!”
Katara’s face paled. This wasn’t supposed to happen.
Zuko, being the hotheaded fool that he was, accepted the challenge. Katara’s thoughts stopped swirling and she was granted a moment of clarity.
“Zuko, what are you doing? She’s playing you!” She stepped closer despite the look in Zuko’s eyes that told her to stay back. “She knows she can’t take us together, so she’s trying to separate us!”
“I know. But I can take her this time.” He sounded too confident for his own good.
“But even you admitted to your uncle that you would need help facing Azula!” For the hundredth time that week, tears pricked in the corners of her eyes. She didn’t want him to do this without her. Together they were so much more powerful, and she would have been able to protect him. She didn’t know what she would do if she lost him.
Katara was dimly aware of Azula staggering forwards behind them.
“There’s something off about her. I can’t explain it, but she’s slipping. And this way, no one else has to get hurt.” She couldn’t read his expression. That bothered her. She could always read his expression.
She kept her focus trained on Zuko’s face, inadvertently memorizing every detail. She wanted to remember him if this was the last time she saw him-
Don’t think like that.
She had a bad feeling about this, but Zuko wasn’t taking no for an answer. Protesting further would have done no good, so she just nodded, eyes brimming with tears, and stepped as far back as possible.
Katara felt so helpless watching from the sidelines while the great fanning waves of red and blue sliced the courtyard into pieces. The heat made her sweat, but she didn’t have the energy to waterbend it away. She could only watch, powerless, as the person she cared about most purposefully put himself in harm’s way. Katara heard most of the words they exchanged as muffled jeers, but at a lull in the battle Zuko’s words rang out loud and clear.
“No lightning today? What’s the matter, afraid I’ll redirect it?”
Katara blanched. He was being too cocky, and now he had just invited her to strike him with lightning. She considered using her waterbending and going against the rules of the Agni Kai, but she didn’t even get a chance before Azula let loose a madwoman’s shriek.
“Oh, I’ll show you lightning!”
Everything seemed to move in slow motion.
Katara could only stand, frozen in panic, as Azula whipped the electric blue bolts around her body. She wanted to run, shout, waterbend, grab Zuko and escape, anything . But her feet were rooted in place and her mouth was clamped shut. She realized too late that Azula wasn’t aiming for Zuko.
Azula was aiming for her.
And yet, she still couldn’t move or make a sound. The lightning flashed in her eyes, her face washed in cobalt blue, and she knew it was the end. She closed her eyes tighter, tighter, tighter…
Then she heard the scream.
She snapped her eyes open to see a figure, his figure, laying still on the ground, smoke curling up from the scorch mark in his chest.
Her blood ran cold. She looked up at Azula, and hatred filled Katara from head to toe. Malice and adrenaline pumped through her system. She had had enough.
She didn’t fully remember what happened.
She remembered shouting his name so loudly that her throat went hoarse.
She couldn’t get to him without Azula blasting her, so she dodged blow after blow until she was tired of dodging.
They fought, but the way Azula’s fire mingled with her water was different from the way Zuko’s did. The blue against blue was colder and crueler, somehow.
She tripped over a grate, and caught a glimpse of the water beneath it. She looked up and saw a link of chains. A plan sprang fully formed from her mind.
She managed to lure her right over the grate. Just when Azula was about to have the last laugh, Katara summoned all of her strength that remained and froze them in a chunk of ice.
It was a terrifying few seconds, and for a moment she forgot what she needed to do. When she caught a glimpse of Zuko laying on the pavement, she remembered. She unfroze only the water around herself and secured Azula to the grate with chains. She let all the tension leave her body, and gallons of water came crashing to the ground. As she caught her breath, her senses began coming back.
Azula flailed and breathed fire, and it was one of the most terrifying things Katara had ever seen. To think that they were the same age… it felt so unreal to her. But she only gave it a second’s attention before immediately rushing to Zuko’s side.
She healed until her arms ached, and then she healed more. Her tears dripped down her chin. She couldn’t lose him, not after all they’d been through. If there was one person she needed to stay in the world with her, it was him. That was all Katara could think at that moment. The water shone like a slice of the night sky as it whirled over his new scar. When it began to fade, she panicked.
But then he opened his eyes.
“Thank you, Katara.”
The tears came, heavier and heavier.
“I think I’m the one who should be thanking you.”
She gently helped him sit upright, and then embraced him closer than she ever had before, almost as if she was afraid he’d get taken from her. He held her just as tightly. She felt his nose buried into her shoulder, and she drank up the fact that he was still here. He was alive. Azula’s anguished wails pierced the still, silent air, but Katara couldn’t hear it. She let everything else go, except for him.
They stayed there for a long, long, long time.
The war was finally over. After so many years of suffering, they had won.
Aang had, in fact, returned from whatever plane of existence he had been on. He defeated Ozai, not by killing him, but by removing his bending. Katara had never heard of such a thing before. Toph, Sokka, and Suki had taken down all the Fire Nation airships. And she and Zuko had started the restoration of peace to the Fire Nation by winning the Agni Kai.
Although she was proud of him, she still kept her distance from Aang. Things were still rough between them, but she was hesitant to give up on him completely. She hadn’t seen him in a few days, and she wondered if he’d changed at all. She seriously doubted it. Still, though, she would have felt so guilty to break his heart. He was still her friend, and she wanted him to be happy, especially in the wake of their victory.
Things didn’t exactly turn out how Katara had planned, though.
Shortly, Zuko was to be crowned Fire Lord. Katara headed up to his room to see him before the coronation. She found him struggling to put on his new Fire Lord robes because of his chest scar, and it made her heart ache. She knocked softly on the door frame, and he paused, looking up.
“Hi,” she said softly. Zuko looked startled, then smiled tentatively.
“Oh, Katara! Uh, come in,” He continued to struggle with his robe.
“Need some help?” There was a hint of playfulness in her tone, and Zuko scoffed.
“Oh, not really. It just hurts when, uh-” He tried to poke his arm through the sleeve with no success. He gave her a deadpan look.
“First of all, let me help,” Katara insisted, easing his arm through. “Second of all, are you sure you’re feeling ok? If you’re still in pain, I’m sure the Fire Sages would be happy to postpone.”
“Katara, I promise I’m fine. You’re an amazing healer.”
Katara looked away, her cheeks flushing at the compliment. “Thanks.” After a beat, she looked back up and met his eyes wordlessly.
They held eye contact for a little longer than usual.
Katara was the one who broke it. She looked down at her palms. “You know,” she began, “It’s gonna be a hard transition. Everything will be so different. Especially with you as the Fire Lord and all…”
“We won’t be able to see each other as often.” He finished her sentence. There was a moment of silence before he spoke again. “I’m really gonna miss spending time with you.”
The silence returned, but the air felt thicker than last time. They both stared at the ground.
Katara wanted to say something, but she didn’t know what. She already missed the days when they were able to see each other on a regular basis. She was going to miss him even more than she thought she would, and she thought she would miss him a lot.
They looked up as they both tried to speak, and after a silent agreement they collapsed into each other's arms. They held each other steadily, her arms around his neck and his around her waist. She buried her face into his shoulder, willing herself not to get any more emotional, but a few tears escaped nonetheless.
When they drew apart, Zuko hesitantly cupped her face with his hand, brushing her tears away with his thumb. He lifted the corner of his mouth into a smile, and she returned it. She couldn’t quite tell what emotion his eyes expressed. He let his hand fall away, but their eyes remained locked on eachother.
Katara placed her hand on his cheek. When she looked at him, she remembered all the little moments they had spent together that had snowballed into an unbreakable bond. So many different emotions swirled around in her chest, one she couldn’t place rising to the top. On an impulse, she did something she would never have done a month ago.
She kissed him.
It was only brief, but it felt as if something had clicked. Fireworks exploded in her head.
When she pulled away, he looked shell shocked. She softened her expression, letting her hand remain on his scarred cheek.
“See you later, Zuko,” she said shyly, glancing over her shoulder as she left the room.
Once she was out the door, she grinned from ear to ear. She wasn’t confused anymore.