There was nothing definitively wrong with Zuko. It’s completely normal to miss your friends. Life as Firelord was exhaustingly boring, stifling, and too formal. Of course that’s the only logical reason why he looked forward to the GAang’s visits every few months. To be himself.. and relax.
Except… Zuko knew that he was lying to himself. He tried to ignore the gravity-defying flips of his stomach, the fireflies that danced at his core when she looked at him. Or the way the briefest touch of his arm in passing made lightning stretch across his entire being.
He tried to ignore how difficult it was to maintain his normal stoic expression when she regaled stories of rebuilding the Southern Water Tribe that left him in awe of her strength. Or that he looked forward to her letters more than anyone else’s.
At first, he thought it was simply because she was amazing, which she is. But after a while, it became too glaringly obvious to ignore.
Whenever those stubborn little fireflies drummed against his ribcage, demanding their release, he’d confine himself in his study to spill his feelings into poems. Writing had always been his creative outlet, something that made him feel connected with his mother.
Ozai thought it made him weak; “the heir to the throne should only write to sign his name on documents.”
In Ursa’s eyes, his interest in poetry made him unique; so, she nurtured that skill every chance she could. She’d read him her favorite love scrolls, take him to see good romantic plays (not just Love Amongst Dragons), and even read some of her own poems from her younger years.
Afterwards, he’d sit and practice for hours. He quickly mastered the technical elements of writing, but failed to replicate the emotions quite right.
“You are too caught up in how it should sound, not how it should feel. It will come to you when you are in love.” She had told him.
He’d groaned and rolled his eyes then, but she had been right. The words did spring to his mind easily, but they were words he could never say. Only write.
For the time being, the poems were his way of controlling the flames of an unbidden, dangerous fire. And when he finished writing one, he tucked it away safely in a special hiding spot beneath his desk; he always made sure of that.
Today he had more than five minutes to himself and he reveled in it by responding to Katara’s recent letter. She recently started a bloodhealing clinic, where she cared for newborns with uneven heartbeats and studied chi flow with Ty Lee to mend individual blood cells.
A small smile crossed his face as he thought of the first time Katara used bloodbending to heal him after the Agni Kai. She’d only asked if he was sure a thousand times, making him promise to stop her if he was in pain. Those healing sessions had been vulnerable for them both: Zuko trusting her fully with his life, and Katara getting to confront a part of herself she felt she should be ashamed of.
Abruptly as it came, his memory dissipated like steam due to a very present crushing sound.
“Toph…what are you doing here?” He flushed, trying to keep his voice levelled.
If anyone else caught him in such a personal moment, he’d have scattered to hide the papers as soon as possible. Instead, he concentrated on calming his escalated heartbeat from Toph’s tuned, all-knowing senses.
Why even bother locking doors?
“Sparky! I thought I was always welcome.” The girl with milky green eyes cut across the room and made herself comfortable in a chair she earthbended.
Zuko gawked at the distorted space where his doors had been with his mouth open.
“Firelord Zuko! There’s an emergency that needs your attention right away.”
The voice belonged to one of his advisors who strode hurriedly into the room. He was followed by three others who buzzed incessantly in his ears.
Why isn’t your topknot done? Where’s your crown? Your robes? Why do the doors look like this?
“Toph, can you mail off the letter on the desk?” Zuko managed to ask absentmindedly before he was unwilling pulled from the room.
It’s almost like they forget that I’m blind.
She felt around the top of the desk until her fingers closed around a very thick, starch scroll.
Sounds like a sheet of paper, which is good enough for me.
On her way out the room, Toph bumped into Iroh and explained the letter situation. Iroh scanned the scroll with a quirked eyebrow.
“Interesting. I’ll see to it that this gets mailed right away.” Iroh grinned.
(A Few Days Later)
“You mailed WHAT?”
“The letter…from your desk.” Toph shrugged casually.
“But that’s…that’s not…”
Color drained from his face as he remembered. He didn’t have time to put it away before Toph and the advisors burst in. It was right next to the letter he’d wrote to Katara. Every ounce of breath left his lungs. He wanted to float away in the air like smoke.
I’ll keep all my emotions right here, then one day, I’ll die.
She wasn’t supposed to see. To know.
How many days had it been anyway? How long did it take mail to reach the Southern Water Tribe?
Within thirty minutes, Zuko hopped on the first ship he could and set sail. The other passengers (two royal guards and one advisor who insisted on joining him much to his chagrin) made themselves scarce.
Zuko stood alone on the deck, hands grasping the railing so tightly that his knuckles turned white. His gaze transfixed into the expansive distance as he inwardly chided himself.
Why hadn’t he just kept all his emotions inside like a normal person? And Agni, have the tides always been this slow?
After the ship docked, the blood in his veins turned icy as the frozen ground under his feet. He hadn’t thought this through at all, what to do next. He hadn’t the slightest idea if the tribe had a central mailing system (
like the Fire Nation did.)
Shouldn’t he try there first? But he had no idea where “there” was or if “there” even existed, so his only option was to go to Katara’s. To see her.
And so, he was running again, passing blurred faces that looked on in confusion. But he didn’t care. And he didn’t stop until his knuckles hovered over the mahogany of her door.
Amber eyes widened and his heart deflated as he realized with dread that he was too late. The single window panel beside the door revealed Katara at the table reading scrolls… his scrolls. He knew from the purple ink, distinct from the red ink he used for official matters of the Fire Nation.
He turned away, firmly shutting his eyes to shield himself from her reaction. Those pesky fireflies were in frenzy, fluttering up into his throat and head making him nauseous. He had already begun to resign himself to the self-deprecating corners of his mind.
He attempted to leave unnoticed, but a glimpse of red on her front doorstep caught Katara’s attention. Her head turned unceremoniously towards where he was standing unconcealed, and though it was muffled by the walls dividing them, he heard her call to him. And then, she was shuffling across the room. So, he stood and waited until their faces met, no longer separated by the door.
Zuko swallowed hard, trying unsuccessfully to rid the lump from his throat. He was at a loss for everything; words, breath, thoughts. And in a way, there was nothing that he needed to say. She’d already read it.
The wind-stirred waves of her eyes held no turbulence, calming him despite his instincts telling him to flee to save face. He couldn’t even if he wanted to because she reached for his hand, and he let her, guiding it to her chest. Katara’s heart was loud enough for him to feel against the palm that rested there. His eyes held questions that his heavy tongue wouldn’t let him speak as they shifted from where his hand rested, to her face, to her cheeks that were now lightly dusted pink. Her eyes drifted ever so slightly to look at his lips, which were parted in shock.
Before his brain had time to catch up, her lips were pressed against his: affirming, but tender. He felt threads of electricity weave their way from the place where they were connected until it consumed him.
By the time Zuko became aware of his arms, they had already wrapped themselves around her. She melted against his lips and he thought he heard her say “Purple is my favorite too,” but he can’t hear anything over his heart beating in his ears.
A beat passed, they were separate once again, and Zuko thought he’d never felt colder in his life.
“Zuko,” she whispered softly.
Her hand came to rest affectionately on the marred skin of his left cheek, and just like two years ago in the Catacombs, his eyes closed in an instant. And then she pulled him to her again, like gravity. She claimed his mouth once again and he let her. He always would, as long as she wanted to.