They are holding each other in the aftermath, face to face, chest to chest, lips brushing in soft kisses. The sheets are sweaty and Katara’s inner thighs are sticky when she flings a leg over his hips. He wants her again. Maybe not right now, but later tonight or as the moon cedes the sky to the sun. He wants her every night possible for the rest of his life. He wants to put a crown in her hair and power in her hands. He wants to watch her shout down his ministers when they’re being impossible and win over the hearts of his people with her unfathomable kindness.
But most of all, Zuko wants to stand side by side with Katara for the rest of his life.
He’s thinking about how to convince the sages and his advisors to accept his decision. Truth be told, it’s an argument he’s made to them in his head multiple times a year for nine years. But he’s thinking of it again when she says it. The thing that takes that bright and shining hope and shatters it like a wave breaking on a rocky shore.
“At least we’ll always have this night...to remember.”
Zuko pulls back as the hurt begins to sink in through the scar on his chest and she rolls away, her back to him. The dragon comes roaring back to life in the pit of his stomach, wounded by her words and hissing streams of fire.
“You’re not… Katara, you can’t be… You can’t be serious . You’re not still going to...to marry him?” he asks, alarmed and incredulous.
“Zuko, I made a promise,” Katara says. She stands and begins weaving her bindings around her legs. “In the Water Tribe, a person’s word is all she has. If I don’t keep my promise, that will follow me. I’ll bring shame to all of us. To you and me. To Aang. To my dad and Sokka and Suki...”
“You’re willingly going to bind your life to someone you aren’t in love with?”
“What about your grandmother?”
“What about her?”
“You told me—”
“Gran Gran ran away to the other side of the world to escape an arranged marriage. She wasn’t freely agreeing to commit herself to the Avatar. There wasn’t another man involved, let alone the Fire Lord . And she still never saw her family again because of the shame that decision brought on them!”
“Then what in the name of Agni did we just do , Katara?” he thunders, scrambling out of her bed and to his feet. “Are my feelings for you some sort of joke to you or something?”
Her mouth drops open as she turns to face him. Her bindings fall from her hands, unraveling loosely about her thighs and hips. Tears waver in the corners of her eyes and her lower lip trembles. “Spirits, Zuko. No .”
“Then what ,” Zuko demands, “was that ?” He jabs a finger at the bed they’ve abandoned, feeling dangerously close to setting the thing on fire. He can still feel the spark of her touch on his body, the sound of his name on her lips like a prayer still rings through his ears.
“Are you in love with me?”
“Zuko, I love you. So much.”
She reaches out to touch his arm and he jerks away, wounded heart once more a smoldering mess.
“That’s not what I asked.”
She’s crying now, big tears that well up out of her eyes and roll down her cheeks. “I… Zuko. What do you want me to say?”
“Are you in love with him?”
“I don’t know.”
It’s all the answer the firebender needs. He begins snatching articles of his clothing from the floor and shoving them back onto his body.
“What are you doing?” she asks in a tremulous voice.
“What does it look like, Katara?” Zuko casts about for his shirt and finds it near the door. He can’t look at her. If he does, he’ll shatter into a hundred million pieces. “I can’t hold you tonight and watch you commit yourself to the Avatar in the morning. You’ve already broken me enough.”
“You’ll still be there tomorrow?”
Zuko freezes, his hand on the doorknob. “If I don’t show up,” he says to the wooden planks of the door, “it’ll raise questions with the others. I’ll leave immediately after.”
“Message received, Katara,” he bites out, wrenching open the door and slamming it behind himself.
The walk back to his room on the other side of the temple is lonely and cold. Zuko spends the duration of it fuming at himself for a lack of foresight and an over abundance of weakness, traits Ozai had always detested in him. Thoughts of Ozai, however fleeting, lead to thoughts of Aang and Zuko’s contempt for the Avatar’s decision to let the bastard live out the rest of his days in what amounted to relative peace. This leads to thoughts of the Avatar himself which leads to Katara. He can’t erase the feel of her lips on his, can’t burn the memory of her, bare-skinned and gasping, from his mind. He will never be able to unhear the sincerity in her voice when she told him that she felt the same.
But she hadn’t told him what he’d told her. Not really. She loved him. But Katara loved everyone. Loving and being in love were different. Surely ( surely ) she had to see that?
From there, it’s back to remembrances of Ozai spitting vituperative vitriol about his failure of a son and Zuko is caught in an angry, hurtful circle of misery that he cannot break free from.
He doesn’t bother sneaking back into his room the way he left it. He storms up to his door, an inferno of fury that allows for no snarky remarks or jesting exchanges.
“Chen!” he barks as he approaches. “Alert the airship’s captain and crew. Send a note to my mother. We are leaving immediately after this infernal ceremony tomorrow!”
Zuko blows through the door and slams it shut without waiting for a response. Heart pounding and eyes blurring, he sinks to the floor, forehead pressed to his knees and hands fisted in his hair. He spends the night in that spot, attempting to get a grip on his frenetic emotions and let go of Katara.
He wants to let her go. He wants to unburden himself of this lifelong, torturous love he’s somehow signed on for without the permission of his sense of logic. He doesn’t want to be in love with her anymore. It can be over and done with.
But she’s buried herself deep in his heart, roots grown tight around the craggy, rocky soil there. He can’t rip her free without destroying what is left of himself and she will never leave on her own.
If anyone notices the red rims of his eyes or the dark circles beneath them in the morning, they don’t let on.
Yellow isn’t really Katara’s color. Neither is orange. But she looks disarmingly lovely in her traditional Air Nomad robes nonetheless, a crown of wild daisies in the waves of her hair. And now she’s married. Or something like it. The official partner of the Avatar.
Zuko had refused to let himself look away from her. Forcing himself to watch the ceremony was his self-inflicted punishment for allowing himself to worship her body the night before. Toph had hovered at his side the whole time, the ever-loyal little sister he’d always wanted but never seemed to deserve. His mother had stuck close to his other side, a sad, serene presence. He knew without asking her what his situation made her think of. Never before had he been more thankful than ever for her reappearance after the war. The furtive looks of concern Suki had cast his way as the acolyte had performed the rites hadn’t gone unnoticed either. As he stood there, face unemotional and drawn, he found himself astonished by the gratitude he felt for those three formidable women and their unwavering concern for him. It granted him the power to maintain a carefully crafted mask of calm through it all.
He’s just finished hugging his uncle goodbye after the ceremony and is making his way towards the door when Hakoda meanders over. Though Zuko has had to look down into the chief’s eyes for some years now, he still finds his friends’ father an intimidating force and quails slightly at the odd, hard look on the man’s face.
“Leaving so soon, Fire Lord Zuko?” He pounds his fist to his palm in a bow that Zuko returns before he extends the same gesture to Ursa. “Princess Ursa.”
To Zuko’s shock, his mother throws out a hand and Hakoda meets her midair, hands clasped around each other’s forearms.
“Always a pleasure, Chief Hakoda,” she says with a small smile.
Hakoda turns back to Zuko and quirks a questioning eyebrow.
“There’s a, uh...a pressing matter. Back home,” Zuko lies terribly. “Uncle is here, so I left my advisors in charge. Apparently I’m needed.”
The chief gives a sort of affirmative grunt that doesn’t sound like he is entirely convinced and levels the firebender with a calculating stare.
“Well,” he says finally, extending his hand. “I hope we meet again soon.”
Zuko wraps his hand around the chief’s forearm and is surprised when Hakoda uses this to tug him sharply into a one armed hug, a hand reaching to thump him on the back.
“Whatever you need, kid,” Hakoda mutters in his ear. “A drinking buddy, advice, a friend… The South Pole is there and my home is always open to you.” He pulls away and nods gruffly, mouth a grim line.
Zuko’s eyes narrow. “Sir?”
But Hakoda just claps a hand on his shoulder and then walks away into the throng of celebrants without another word.
The Fire Lord turns questioning eyes to his mother who shrugs and loops her arm through his as they walk through the door and towards the dock where the airship awaits. Guards walk behind them dutifully, armor clattering.
“He’s a good man,” Ursa says. “Kind. Understanding.”
“How do you even know him well enough to make that judgement?” Zuko asks, bewildered.
“We’ve met a few times. Summits, peace talks. There are some things we agree upon.”
“Like what? ”
“The things most important to us, Zuko,” is all she says before patting him fondly on the cheek and stepping lightly up the ramp onto the ship.
He is about to follow her, when a feminine voice calls out his name and he turns to see two blurs of green sprinting over the bridge to the airship dock. Toph and Suki have caught him leaving. Because of course they have. He shouldn’t have expected a clean getaway with the two of them watching him the way they did throughout the entire commitment ceremony. They hurtle to a stop in front of him, their eyes wide and their chests heaving for air.
“What happened, Sparky?” Toph asks in a much gentler tone than she’s ever taken with him in the last nine years.
“It’s best that we don’t talk about it,” Zuko replies. He steps off the ramp of the airship, waving his guards on without him. With the Blind Bandit and the captain of the Kyoshi Warriors as company, he’s positive there’s no reason for him to be worried for his own safety.
“You’re leaving,” Suki says. It isn’t a question, but she does seem at a loss.
Zuko sighs. “Yes,” he says, rubbing at the back of his neck. “Since Uncle is here, I left my advisors in charge. They need my presence to resolve an urgent situation.”
“Sparky,” Toph says, voice laden with disappointment at the blatant lie.
“I’m fine, Champ,” the Fire Lord says. He reaches out to gently sock her shoulder.
“Zuko,” Suki says, shaking her head, “I’m sorry, but there’s no way you’re fine.”
He looks at her, golden eyes sharp and unyielding. “What’s done is done, Suki,” he says with finality. “She and I talked. It didn’t change anything.”
Suki and Toph exchange a look and Zuko is struck again by the immensity of his gratitude for these two women, one a surrogate sister, the other an unexpected friend who, he realizes, under better circumstances would have been a legal sister in her own right. These two women, one whose home he destroyed in his youth and the other whose feet he had burned in a frantic moment, have freely given him their friendship and their affection. They have rooted for him and encouraged him and bolstered him when he needed it most.
And so it’s a strange moment and a strange gesture, but Fire Lord Zuko opens his arms wide and beckons them in for a group hug. The three of them stand there, clustered together, arms squeezing tight as the winds of the Eastern Air Temple swirl around them.
“You’re not so bad, Sparky,” Toph says affectionately into his chest and Suki lets out a watery laugh.
Zuko pats them both on the back and then steps away, offering a small, rare smile. “You two aren’t half bad yourselves,” he says. “ Thank you. ”
“What now?” Suki asks. She wipes the hem of her sleeve under her eyes.
Zuko shrugs. “It’s time to move forward, I guess.”
Not on , he realizes. Never on . Just... forward .
Two months after the autumn solstice, Zuko walks back to his office after a rather lengthy meeting with his advisors. One they had been anticipating for years and pressing at any available opportunity. He is resigned to it now. It is a necessary part of moving forward. Still, the words had not been easy to say as the advisors knelt around the table with him. His tongue had been dry, the dragon in his stomach had wailed, high and keening.
“Gentlemen,” he’d finally ground out, “it’s time to find a Fire Lady.”
They’d been disturbingly prepared for this, pulling out dossiers and counseling him for hours. This stop at his office is meant to be nothing more than a brief moment on his way to bed. He wants to leave the stack of files on potential matches on his desk before he calls it a night.
He sees it just as he is about to leave, a letter sticking out from underneath a plethora of missives he is to look over. It’s sealed with blue wax and imprinted with the image of Katara’s necklace. Zuko hasn’t heard from her since the night before the ceremony and hasn’t tried reaching out to her himself. It’s his way of deferring to Aang and attempting to give the newlyweds a shot at their relationship. It’s his way of moving forward.
The night is growing into early morning and Zuko is tempted to set the letter aside until he has a free moment in his day tomorrow. But he has missed her. He has tortured himself every night for a long succession of nights with thoughts of her. Her smile, her laugh, her mouth pressed to his.
So he breaks the seal, chips of blue wax fluttering to the polished surface of his mahogany desk.
Zuko , she writes. I know I hurt you. I know you’re furious with me. I’m furious with me, too. I never wanted to cause you pain. (Here, there is a large swath of words that have been scribbled out and cannot be deciphered.) And I wanted to give you time. Honestly, I did. But, Zuko…
He has to read the rest of her letter several times for it to really sink in. His world staggers to a jarring halt.
She hasn’t yet told the Avatar.
It might be his. Or it might be yours. But there’s no way to know right now, Zuko. Oh, La, I am so sorry. But you needed to know, Zuko.
You needed to know.