His arrival is cloaked in the night’s mist and smothering, suffocating silence.
It’s the kind of darkness through which he could have crept if he’d wanted, wrapped in the unnatural quiet of a night which should’ve been bursting at its seams with light and sound and color. He could have stayed quiet and stolen the moment to watch the rise and fall of her slumped shoulders, listen to the rustle of the chilling wind as it tosses her curls about her back. More than nearly anything, he wants that, but he doesn’t dare reach - he has never been half the thief that she is. He would be caught.
(Maybe, he thinks, he should’ve asked her for pointers - he, the hapless neophyte, needed all the help he could get and she might’ve been the one to give it to him, if he had only asked. Maybe not. But he knows her skill is up to the task - she, after all, is the better thief, the one who’d stolen a heart that she had not even wanted.)
No, Zuko is no thief, and he won’t pretend to be one - not when there’s no need for pretense anymore, not when he’ll have to draw on every pretense he has in reserve tomorrow. So, though the night is muffling, he does not resist its downward pull, and he speaks.
“Katara,” he says - a statement, not a question (she has never been a question) - because when he opens his mouth to speak he finds that her name is the only word on his lips. They’re the syllables to whose rhythm his heart beats and the only syllables he can form now.
When she turns, her too-heavy saffron robes brushing soundlessly against their own folds, his name is a question, not a statement (he has never been a statement; that honor is reserved for another, or maybe for no one at all) on her lips: “Zuko?”
He says nothing. He wishes he’d thought to bring something to her - flowers, a book, anything but empty hands (what has she ever wanted of his hands?) - though a gift is not in order (he tells himself: this is not a celebration). He needs something to occupy his restless hands as he stands in front of her, half-obscured by mist and the messily overhanging willows that weep to the leaf-dusted ground of a garden less manicured than the ones at home.
“Come. Sit,” she finally tells him when she knows that he won’t be the first to break the silence a second time, gesturing to a bench at the meeting-place of two willows so close together that their branches whisper past one another in the breeze. Their foliage mingles, leaves brushing up against their neighbors, but they are forever rooted half a garden apart - adjacent, touching, not joined. He sits, and Katara leaves a few conspicuous inches between them.
(Adjacent, touching, not joined. Never joined.)
“Tomorrow,” he says, knowing she will pick up on his meaning. (She always does - it is a privilege he savors.)
“Tomorrow.” Katara’s replying laugh is hollow. “Big day, right?”
“Definitely.” He moves his lips to add ‘congratulations,’ but the word sours on his lips and he can’t bring himself to do it. “Are you…”
“Am I?” Katara prompts. She keeps her tone airily contented, but even in the dark Zuko can see that her eyes don’t light like she wants him to believe they do.
“Are you excited?”
“Of course I am. I’m getting married.” She drops her chin and her left foot absentmindedly swings along the ground below her feet, kicking at something she can’t quite see in the dark. “Why are you here?”
“I can go.”
“Why are you asking me this?”
“Do you want me to go?”
“Will you just answer my question?”
“Don’t.” A hand tugs his wrist as it retreats and he cannot stop himself from returning. “Please.”
“I’m here because I wanted to see you,” he answers. She gave him an answer; she deserves one in return. “And I’m asking you this because…” his hand inches closer to hers of its own will. “I don’t really know why. But it didn’t seem right not to.”
“You...wanted to see me?”
“You act like that’s surprising.” Zuko leans heavily into the cold stone of the bench’s backrest. “Why is that surprising?”
“Then why did you ask me why I was here?”
“We’re going in circles here, Zuko.”
“Well, we can’t go forwards, and we sure as hell can’t go backwards, so you tell me - where else are we supposed to be going? In what direction?” Zuko laughs humorlessly. “We’re not going up and if I wanted to go down, I’d have stayed in my room, alone with my thoughts. Circles are better than the alternative.” Zuko scuffs his sole against the cobblestones as he’d seen Katara do, too deep in thoughts he should be hiding but can’t to realize what he’s doing before he blurts out “what would be the point, anyway? This whole... thing is a circle. It’s always been a circle. Why else would every single direction lead me back to you?”
“It’s so stupid, Katara. Of all the people in the world - of all the times and places for it to hit me-”
“Zuko.” Her voice, suddenly, has none of the strength it once did. It shakes, pitches like a ship in a storm. It’s said so much, meant so much, done so much for so many - but now, it seems, all it can do is grapple for purchase, every bit as desperate as every inch of her skin and every drop of blood in her body. “Zuko, please stop talking.”
He is nothing in the face of her gravity; he obeys.
“Zuko,” she says again, when her voice has the strength to speak over the wind again. “Why are you telling me this now?”
“I don’t know.” His head is in his hands and he lets out a sigh whose timbre is unmistakably that of a man whose actions are too little, too late. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have come here.”
“No. I’m glad.” Her hand covers his. “I’m glad you told me.”
“What did I tell you?” he asks, because some part of him still hopes she didn’t know what he meant, not fully.
(It’s a fool’s hope - she always knows.)
“That you feel it too.”
“Gravity.” She swallows around the lump in her throat and a helpless, unconscious whimper escapes with the air in her lungs. “Or whatever it is.”
She doesn’t need to know how to put it into words - Zuko knows the pull she’s describing like he knows his own name. “I feel it. Agni, Katara, sometimes it’s all I can feel.” He shakes his head, loose hair brushing his shoulders and the fabric of his sleeveless tunic. “Never thought it went both ways, though.”
“It’s...it’s not...I don’t think it’s love.” She bites her lip, squeezes her eyes shut tight. “If I did, I wouldn’t be here, getting married.”
I doubt that, he thinks, unrepentantly bitter, but says nothing.
“But it’s still...powerful,” she says cautiously. “Makes me feel pulled to you. Makes me think and do and say things I shouldn’t.” She breathes in but he can tell that the air isn’t reaching her lungs - his, after all, are just as deprived. “Makes me lie.”
Hands brush. “What about?”
“That question you asked me earlier.”
“When I asked you if you were excited?”
“I lied. I want to think I am, but I don’t know.”
“But...you love him.”
Tell me it’s true. Tell me that’s why you chose him. Tell me that I never stood a chance - that he had something I didn’t.
Tell me, because I don’t know if I can bear it if there was no reason at all.
“I do,” she says, careful and more certain than he knows she feels. “But there’s a difference between loving someone and...choosing to be tied to them.”
“You’re having cold feet.”
“Freezing.” That hollow laugh returns and it pains him as much as it did the first time. “What is it that I don’t have? I don’t know. Maybe it’s gravity. Maybe it’s not. I just...suddenly wonder if this is what I want.”
“Marriage?” Zuko prompts. “Marriage to him?”
“Not even just that.” She looks down to her hands, laid flat and facing upwards in her lap. “I...was reading the wedding words last night.”
“Water Tribe. The Air Nomads didn’t really do weddings.”
“I’ve heard them a thousand times but never really thought about them.” Katara shrugs. “I guess when I read them, it kind of hit me what I was getting into. What I was getting ready to promise.”
“How do they go?” Zuko angles his body towards hers and she finally raises her eyes. She closes them, though, as if it is too painful to say these words when all she can see is gold.
“Yeah.” He’s torturing himself and he knows it, but he insists anyway. “I want to hear them.”
“You...name of the person...are the one with whom I have chosen to share my life,” she says, shaky, purposely refusing to insert a name where one would go. It’s clear that she knows these words by heart and the knowledge that the moment she’s so afraid of now is one she’s probably dreamed about all her life hits Zuko like a poisoned blade. “And I will make that choice, every day that I am called to.” Katara’s eyes flutter open - a question (he is always a question) - and he nods. Go on. She clears her throat.
“As you are mine alone, I will be yours alone; as you care for me, strengthen me, love me, I will care for you, strengthen you, love you.” Her eyes drift downwards; he doesn’t realize, in the dark, that they come to rest in the exact center of his chest. “What you need, so must I; what I reach for, I will reach for with your aid. This I promise you today and all days, until the day comes when...when…”
“You don’t have to go on.”
She does. “When you are called from my side, or I from yours. And on that day, beloved, it will be I who releases you, and…” something splashes against stone, but Zuko doesn’t feel raindrops. He wonders, in the beat between pause and completion, if it has started to drizzle and he simply hasn’t felt it yet, but he needs only to look at her face, even downturned, to know that it is not. “...I will wish only for you to hold me in the dying light.”
“Beautiful,” he murmurs, not sure if he’s really taking about the vows anymore, and it takes all he has not to reach across the six-inch chasm between them to brush the tears from her eyes. Those words were not meant for him and he will not take the liberty of comforting her as if they were.
“Tell me,” Katara stammers. She angles her face so as not to let him see her cry, but he knows from the drip of her tears on the stone of the bench that she is. “Tell me why tomorrow is supposed to be ‘I will be yours alone’ and it feels like ‘the dying light’ instead.” She fists her hands in the fabric of her robes - yellow has never been her color, but she wears it anyways, dutiful to the end. “Tell me why I’m marrying a man who adores me and all I feel is trapped.”
“I wish I could.” They’re the most truthful words Zuko has managed in ages. I wish I were the answer, if only to give you something to rail against. I wish gravity was all you were missing. I wish I could tell you how to live without it.
I wish I knew how to live without it.
“Tell me why,” she says, just as shakily, “in spite of all of that, this is the first time I’ve cried since the engagement.” Katara pulls at the yellow satin band around her neck as if it’s choking her. “Tell me why I’m numb. Tell me why I made myself that way-”
He wishes he could be unselfish, say the words she needs to hear without ulterior motives, but he is so, so weak. It’s half confidential honesty and half a selfish fool’s hope in his heart when he tells her, “if it hurts you like this, maybe it isn’t right.”
“Maybe it isn’t.” Katara shakes her head helplessly. “But no one would care. To the rest of the world, I’d be the girl who broke the Avatar’s heart, and that would be the end of it all.”
“You, of all people, have never been one to let what anyone else wants stop you,” he says, and this time he doesn’t resist. It almost seems as if she leans some infintesimally tiny distance into his touch as his thumbs brush the tears from her cheeks. “Don’t let that be the reason that you choose to be unhappy.”
“What would you have me do, then?”
Choose me. Let me love you as well as I - as anyone - could.
“Whatever feels more right than you do right now,” he says instead.
“It’s a nice dream.” She swallows hard. “Doing what makes me happiest. Flinging off the expectations I’ve been carrying around for so long.”
“ Yes.” He takes her hand - little, soft, cool - and squeezes it, though he wants to press it to his lips, gently open her clenched fingers and trace every line of her palm, learn the language of the way each joint moves when he takes it in his own. “It’s...it’s what you deserve. It’s what you’re owed after all this time thinking only of what other people want or need.”
“But it’s just that,” she sighs defeatedly. “A dream.”
She shakes her head emphatically and takes back her hand as she stands. “Don’t follow me,” she says, her back turned, as she leaves.
“Don’t follow me,” she repeats. “I don’t know if I’d have the strength to turn you away.”
If she’d been counting on those words to punch his gut thoroughly enough to still him while she escaped, she’d been right. He’s so shocked that he can’t take a single step towards her, nor one away.
“Wait,” he says, soft, helpless, as she picks up the skirts of robes that have always been too long for her and runs. But she doesn’t.
It’s only when she reaches her room, cavernous and silent and empty, that she can breathe again, and there is no one around to hear her sobs burst as she presses her face to the cold windowpane. I can’t do this, she thinks, half-frantic, and her heart thumps at her ribcage insistently. I can’t, I can’t-
Duty has always, after all, been the loudest of the voices in her head.