Hello again! Sorry for the totally unannounced hiatus... I realize that in my little Author's Note at the beginning of the last chapter, I mentioned that I had never stuck with a fanfic for as long as I have stuck with this, then I promptly went AWOL. I am still working on this fic, I promise! It's quite silly because I had most of this chapter written days after I had posted the last one, but something about it wasn't sitting right with me.
Long story short, I had been working on another piece of original fiction in the meantime and saw that some people had reached out to encourage me to continue working on this. I truly am a sucker for reviews/PMs. I read over what I had written, made some edits, and finished off the chapter in a matter of hours.
Needless to say, reviewers, I love you and you guys are the reason I have come back to this every time I get writer's block.
This chapter was inspired by the song 'Someone To Stay' by Vancouver Sleep Clinic from their 2017 album 'Revival'.
Hope you enjoy! (:
Chapter 28: Someone To Stay
You were alone, left out in the cold
Clinging to the ruin of your broken home
You were falling and lonely, cry out:
Will you fix me up? Will you show me hope?
The end of the day, I'm helpless
Can you keep me close? Can you love me?
We all need someone to stay
"Next summer? That's hardly a year!" Sokka exclaimed. "How are you supposed to master all four elements and defeat the Fire Lord in only a year?"
Suki elbowed him, "Not helping, Sokka."
"What? It's a serious concern," He defended himself, "We haven't even made it to the North Pole yet."
Zuko paid no heed to Sokka and Suki. He knew what this meant; his father would use the power of the comet to launch a full-scale attack and set the world aflame. Even if they were able to prevent the fall of the Northern Water Tribe, nothing could save the Earth Kingdom from Ozai's wrath at the comet's arrival.
"Maybe there's another way," Katara suggested. "I mean, what's so important about the comet anyways?"
"It'll amplify firebending," Zuko muttered under his breath. "What Roku said is true, the Father Lord will try to use it to finish what Sozin started."
"Don't you mean the Fire Lord, Princey?"
"That's what I said."
"Sokka is right, it's not enough time," Aang finally vented, his voice thick with anguish. "I haven't even mastered waterbending yet! It took previous Avatars years to master the elements and they were all older and more experienced than I am, too." His face fell into his hands. "This whole situation just seems to be getting worse."
Katara moved next to Aang, wrapping an arm around his shoulders, and Zuko looked away. He hated seeing them together. It was obvious that the airbender was smitten with Katara and the notion stirred an anger in him that he fought to contain in their presence. A kind of jealousy, perhaps, that she always rushed back to the Avatar's side.
"It will be okay, Aang," She sighed, "We will figure something out… we always do. You have all of us here to help you… you're not alone in this."
"Who actually said you have to master all of the elements?" Suki pondered aloud.
"What do you mean?"
"Well, I get that the destiny of the Avatar is to master the four elements and protect the balance and so on… but… what if you don't have to master all the elements just yet?"
Aang raised his head, lifting an eyebrow. "I don't think I follow."
"I was thinking, the Fire Lord is just a firebender… Maybe if you can just learn each of the elements enough to counter him, you don't actually need to master them all to defeat him…"
Sokka thoughtfully rubbed his chin. "Suki actually has a point… perhaps the versatility of being able to sufficiently control the other elements is all you need to defeat the Fire Lord. You have a waterbender, an earthbender, and a firebender right here."
"I can teach you earthbending," Toph shrugged noncommittally.
A glimmer of hope shone in Aang's watery gray eyes. "Really?"
"Of course, Airhead," The blind girl punched him on the shoulder and he winced. "I had never intended on getting involved in this war, but I can't exactly just sit back and watch you struggle. Plus, I've learned some pretty cool techniques lately that I wouldn't mind sharing."
"I- I did mean to ask you about that, when you broke my chains back there…" Aang rubbed his shoulder. "Was that… earthbending?"
"It's just a little trick I taught myself," Toph grinned with false modesty, "I call it metalbending. It's like an extension of earthbending, I guess."
"So that's what you did with the propeller?" Sokka sat up straight. "I didn't even think that was possible."
"Neither did I," Zuko mumbled.
"That's amazing!" Aang smiled, wiping his eyes dry. "Would you really teach me that?"
Toph nodded, "I can try."
"And we can keep practicing waterbending," Katara added, "I'm certainly no expert, but we can at least go over all the basics together so you're prepared for when we reach the Northern Water Tribe and you find a real master."
The airbender smiled at his friends with a sniffle. Then, everyone's attention turned to Zuko. He realized belatedly that they were waiting for him to also vow to teach the Avatar. He grimaced. His intention had never been to tutor the Avatar in firebending. Truthfully, he hadn't even considered that such a thing would be asked of him. But what else could he say under their expectant gazes?
Zuko shifted uncomfortably in reluctance, "I'll teach you some basics," He grumbled.
The airbender visibly relaxed then, taking in the assurance of his friends.
"See?" Suki grinned, "No need to worry, we're all here for you."
"Thank you, guys," Aang breathed, finding his serenity once more. "I'm so lucky to have friends like you."
"Not just friends," Katara rubbed his back, "Family."
The word struck a chord in Zuko and he turned away from the others.
"So… this has been a really touching reunion," Sokka noted, "But all this saving the Avatar and escaping the Fire Nation has made me realize that we skipped breakfast… and lunch." As if in agreement, his stomach groaned audibly.
The others laughed and joked but Zuko drowned it out, staring at the billowing cloud of ash in the sky. Katara had referred to them as family. Despite himself, he was feeling increasingly connected to the others, a strange sense of kinship that he had never got from his own family. Was this what having a family was supposed to feel like?
When they got back to the ship, Zuko ordered the kitchen staff to start preparing a meal at Sokka's behest.
"You're hurt," Iroh noted with a frown as he made his way towards his nephew. The old man held onto his shoulders as he surveyed the injuries. "Let me call the medics."
Katara cursed herself. Zuko hadn't made a big deal of his wounds, but looking at his bloodied, mangled hand that had been crushed by Zhao, she felt suddenly guilty. What kind of healer overlooked such injuries?
"I can heal him," Katara offered, stepping forwards and placing a hand on Zuko's shoulder.
The old General smiled at this, a look that veiled something else she couldn't name.
"Wonderful," He glanced between them before setting his gaze on Zuko. "Why don't you take Katara to your chambers so she can tend to your wounds? I'll send someone from the kitchen to notify you when the food is ready."
"But what about the blockade?" Zuko protested.
"We'll sail north to avoid it," Iroh replied, brushing off his nephew's insistence. "That's the direction we're heading anyways, is it not? Now, go get some rest."
Reluctantly, the prince agreed with a sigh as his uncle turned to Aang.
"I don't think we have been formally acquainted," The old man smiled genially at the Avatar, "I am Prince Zuko's uncle, Iroh."
Katara awkwardly turned to follow Zuko as he retreated below deck, leaving her friends to chat with the former Fire Nation General. A heavy silence hung in the air as they made their way through the iron corridors of the vessel, and she wondered what Zuko was thinking. Why did he seem so hesitant to be alone with her? Was he angry at her for healing that Fire Sage against his orders? Was he annoyed that she had hidden during the fight? Was he disappointed in her?
Of all the possibilities, that one hurt the worst. Everyone had been so brave when faced with the dire situation – everyone but her. The memory of her paralysis weighed heavy on her conscience, a load that caused her shoulders to slump in shame.
When they reached the prince's chambers, he held the door open for her, not meeting her gaze. She shuffled into the room which looked much like her own but for the larger bed and bathtub.
Katara could feel his eyes on her as she bent over the iron tub to start running the water. She grabbed a bowl from the dresser nearby and filled it.
"Do you, um… want to sit down?" She asked, turning to find him still standing in the doorway.
Without a word, he gave her a terse nod and closed the door, making his way to the foot of the bed before dropping down on the mattress. Katara followed wordlessly, setting the bowl on the ground as she knelt in front of him. He looked off into the distance, still refusing to meet her gaze. She tried to ignore the growing trepidation that gnawed at her; why was he acting like this around her? She thought that they were at least friends now, but the distance between them suddenly felt larger than ever before.
Gingerly, she took his mangled hand in her own and assessed the damage. The skin on his knuckles was torn and his pointer and middle finger were crooked, swelling and bruised at the knuckle. The nail of his middle finger was split, hanging loosely by a thin strip of tissue as blood welled under what remained.
"It looks like these two fingers might be broken," Katara sighed, "Can you bend them?"
"No." His answer was short and abrupt, as though he had already tried.
"Okay, well I can heal the tissue damage and bring down the swelling, but we're probably going to have to wrap these two fingers with a split to keep the bones in place while they heal."
Zuko gave no response, so she exhaled and coaxed the water to her hand.
At length, he muttered, "When did you get so good at this?"
His question surprised her, "At what?"
"Healing… I mean- you were good before, but now you seem to know more."
Katara tried to think back to her time at the Earth Kingdom fortress fondly; It was a futile effort – she was glad to be rid of that place. "I spent every day in the infirmary healing injured soldiers when we were at Fong's Fortress," She breathed as the water coating her hand began to glow an iridescent blue. "It was the only way I was allowed to do any waterbending since they don't allow women to bend."
"The Earth Kingdom doesn't allow women to bend?" He turned to her then, his eyebrow raised.
"Well, not in the military at least," She replied wryly, continuing to knit the skin of his knuckles back together.
"Hm," Zuko replied, shifting his gaze away once more, his expression impassive.
"I guess it was still a productive use of time, though," She reasoned, "I learned a lot from one of the nurses there."
Once the superficial damage had been dealt with, she gathered more water and probed further to the bruising and swollen tissue around his broken and fractured metacarpals. The Navy Commander had truly done a number on his hand and she was surprised he had managed to hold on to the ledge despite the two broken fingers. It did seem strange, though, how Zhao had been so intent on ending Zuko. He had allowed Aang to escape in his determination to kill the banished prince and Katara couldn't understand why.
"So, um… what is your history with Zhao?" She blurted out, "I know you said before that he hates you, but-… it seemed like he was even more intent on killing you than capturing Aang…"
"He probably was," Zuko muttered. "I honestly don't know why he hates me so much. He has for as long as I can remember. He was at the Agni Kai that day, smirking down at me before-…"
Katara chewed her lip. He didn't need to finish his thought for her to understand his meaning. She hadn't intended to bring this up again, knowing how painful a memory it was.
"I've always assumed it's because he thinks I'm weak… that I'm not worthy of the Fire Nation throne."
"You're anything but weak," She quickly replied, shocked at the notion that anyone could see him in such a light. "You saved me back there."
Zuko scowled, a churning mixture of emotions in his amber eyes. "It was you who saved me… Zhao would have succeeded in killing me if it wasn't for you."
"I'd die before I let that happen," Her tone was low, carrying a solemn vow.
"I'm supposed to be the one protecting you," He grimaced.
"You did protect me, Zuko…" She was annoyed now, mostly with herself, remembering how fickle her resolve had been in the face of danger back at the temple. "I was paralyzed with fear when Zhao cornered me. The whole place was crumbling around us and all I could think was that it was the end. I-… I was so useless."
"I was, though," Her shame was bubbling to the surface now, refusing to be ignored any longer. "I-… I thought I was ready to fight in this war… that I could handle the mayhem… but when the time came, I completely lost my cool. I hid while you and the others kept going. Watching you fight Zhao like that- keeping your composure in the face of all the madness… it made me feel like such a failure… a coward… like I should never have bothered leaving the Southern Tribe to begin with."
"Katara." Zuko's stern tone made her look up into his fiery eyes. "You've only just started waterbending. Zhao has been firebending for decades. The fact that you were even able to hold your own against him is an accomplishment in and of itself."
"I guess…" She sighed and averted her gaze, still not convinced.
"Staying calm like that when everything around you is falling apart… that's something that comes with experience." He paused and took note of how she still slumped in dejection. Gripping the bridge of his nose with his free hand, he continued, his tone a little softer. "That intense fear… it usually only happens once or twice."
Her hands stopped moving over his. "So… you've been afraid like that before?"
"When I was younger, yeah."
He turned towards the window, his lips a tight line. At length, his voice came in a raspy whisper. "It was the first time my sister Azula used lightning against me in training. She had only just learned how to create lightning and, luckily for me, she missed… but I felt the static in the air around me. I fell over and couldn't move, thinking I had been struck. I don't even remember my uncle stepping in to protect me."
Katara's eyes widened. A familiar sense of empathy swelled somewhere inside. "So… what changed? You don't seem to be scared at all when you fight."
"After that, I got angry. I was angry that Azula bested me so many times… angry that I froze in fear… angry that I was unable to do anything about it," His tone was low, almost menacing. He exhaled and turned back to her. The very anger he spoke of was flickering in his eyes. "After that first time- your first brush with death… every fight after gets easier. Instead of paralyzing fear, it's adrenaline."
Katara quickly looked away. The fiery wrath in his eyes, the bile in his tone, sent a chill through her. It was reminiscent of their first meeting and she immediately proceeded to remind herself that things were different now. He was different now.
Wanting to change the subject, she scrambled for something to say.
"I didn't know that bending lightning was possible…"
Zuko stiffened, turning his gaze away once more. "It's a level of mastery that few firebenders ever achieve. Though, prodigies like Azula make it look easy. Everyone says she's the greatest firebender of our generation… that's probably why everyone thinks she'll make a good Fire Lord."
His admission gave her pause. It carried a weight to it that made her chest ache for him and she rushed to reassure him. "You're a very talented firebender too, even if you're not a prodigy… but you're also more than that… I think you would make a good Fire Lord."
He scoffed. "What makes you think that?"
"Well, you're not a war-monger, for one. If Aang is going to defeat Fire Lord Ozai, his successor should be someone who wants to put an end to all the fighting… someone who cares about people, not power."
"And you think I do?"
"I know you do. You've saved me multiple times… if you didn't care about people, you would've let me die."
"That's not the same," He mumbled.
She huffed. "Okay, well what about when you stood up for those recruits in that war meeting? Was that not you caring for people?"
Katara continued, unperturbed. "And… I think you have the qualities of a leader. You led us back at the temple… even though your plan kind of went awry, you improvised and got us all out of there safely. You also inspire people."
"Inspire people?" His brief laugh was humorless, sardonic.
"You've inspired me. Watching you work so tirelessly motivated me to work harder and become a better waterbender. You lead by example. I would never have left the Southern Water Tribe if it wasn't for you. I wouldn't have spent so much time and effort getting better at waterbending."
After another drawn out silence, he mumbled, "I don't think I agree with you… but thanks for saying that."
"I said it because it's true," She simpered. "Anyways, I've done what I can with your hand… we're still going to need some bandages. Where else are you hurt?"
"My back and my shoulder. I got thrown into a column when Aang came out as Roku."
"Let me grab some more water," Katara stood.
Again, she felt the prince's eyes on her back as she walked over to the tub to fill up the bowl. Her dreams from the previous night came whirling to the forefront of her mind, giving her unseemly ideas. Flustered but determined, she arched her back and bent down slowly as she dipped the bowl into the water, the kind of posture she had seen Suki resume in front of Sokka. She hoped it didn't look forced, she had no experience with anything like this, but she couldn't help herself under Zuko's watchful gaze. She wanted him to notice her, to look at her. She wanted to kiss him again, to feel his hands roaming over her body.
When she turned back around, she saw Zuko's eyebrow raised appraisingly but he abruptly looked away, his face settling into its usual almost-scowl. Knowing that he had been watching her, heat rose to her cheeks.
Quietly, she cleared her throat, "Um, can you… take your shirt off?"
Keeping his eyes on the ground, Zuko pulled his shirt over his head and Katara couldn't help but hold her breath, becoming increasingly flustered. She took note of his physique, of the faint scars that dotted his abdomen, of the corded muscle that rippled powerfully beneath his pale, marred skin. When he unceremoniously dropped the shirt on the floor, Katara approached, climbing behind him on the bed.
Again, she brought the water to her hands, placing them on his back as they started to glow.
After a moment of silence, Zuko murmured, "Back there- after we escaped Zhao, you-… you called us a family."
"I did," She continued focusing on his injuries, despite the growing urge to caress the bare skin of his back, to run her fingertips over the little ridges of scar tissue and inquire about their origins.
"Because we are," She shrugged nonchalantly, "We look out for each other. We love and support each other through both the easy times and the hard ones. That's what families do." He stiffened under her touch and she cursed herself for being so thoughtless. Everything Zuko had told her thus far suggested his experience with family was nothing like what she described, and it clearly plagued him. "I didn't mean- I wasn't trying to say- I'm s-"
"Don't," He interrupted her. "Don't apologize. My family was never anything like that… but… I see what you mean. I've never felt like I really belonged anywhere. Even before I was banished, I always felt alone."
"Zuko… you're not alone… and I hope you never feel like that again. You have us now. You… have me."
He lifted his chin and gave her a glance over his shoulder before turning away.
"You don't believe me?" She asked.
"It's not that I don't believe you," She could hear the frown in his voice. "It's that… I don't really trust anyone… I can't. I don't know how to explain it."
"Would you try?" She whispered, leaning in. "I-… I want to understand."
At length, he exhaled, "The only person who has never left me, never betrayed my trust, is my Uncle… but I still think that it's only a matter of time… everyone leaves eventually and then I'm alone again."
His candor was breaking her heart. Katara thought of what he had told her about his mother. Of the treatment he had received from his father and sister. All the people in his life that he was supposed to be able to trust and depend on had failed him in one way or another.
"I'm not going to leave you," She said resolutely. "I promise." He watched her from the corner of his scarred eye as she removed her hands from his back and crawled to the edge of the bed to sit next to him. "I know that you've had a difficult past… that you feel like you can't open up to anyone… that you feel like you can't trust people… but you can trust me, Zuko. You can depend on me." She took his uninjured hand in both of hers.
"I- I really care about you… In a way that I haven't cared for another person before…" Her cheeks heated at the truth of the words pouring from her mouth. "I mean-… it's a different feeling-… you were my first kiss… and I- I'm constantly thinking about you…" She was babbling uncontrollably but thoroughly unable to stop. "And it breaks my heart to hear you say that you've always felt alone… But-… but you don't have to be alone. You'll never have to feel like that again, because I'm right here… I'll always be-"
He pulled his hand from hers and her heart sank, thinking he was about to push her away again.
"Katara…" The timbre of his voice stopped her and she looked up into his eyes.
The churning emotions she saw there were like pools of lava; desire that was ready to erupt. Her bottom lip found its way between her teeth under the intensity of his gaze, silencing her rambling.
The tension in the air between them was so thick, she thought she might choke. Zuko's lips parted, as though he was about to say something. He tentatively reached out, brushing his fingertips over her cheek. She shivered under his touch. A tingling sensation traveled down her spine and sent a wave of warmth rushing over her.
His hand snaked along her jawline, tilting her chin upwards, and continued around to the nape of her neck. Then he leaned in towards her. Her gasp was stifled by his mouth, covering hers in a soft kiss.
His kiss eradicated every thought, every doubt, and, after the initial shock, Katara began to move her lips against his. A groan rumbled in his throat and she matched the vibration with another shudder. Any worry she had been harboring about his feelings evaporated in that instant and she found herself fully present, savoring the feel of his mouth on hers. A heat radiated from where their lips met and seemed to travel through her veins, a pleasant warmth that engulfed her entirely. When he grazed his teeth lightly along her bottom lip, she responded with a soft moan, instinctively mirroring his actions as she pulled back slightly before taking his bottom lip between hers.
The kiss was gentle but insistent, bearing all the things he couldn't say; promises that could only be communicated through touch, assurances of his affection, and, underneath it all, an unmistakable lust. All of her senses were gradually overwhelmed, sending her spiraling into a state of pure euphoria as everything else fell away until it was only them.
He knew it was a bad idea. The little voice in his head that often spoke of duty was trying to invoke his sense of prudence, reminding him repeatedly of the risks of losing his head to the province of his heart, but the thundering in his ears drowned it out entirely. It was too late. He was already lost.
I'm not going to leave you… I promise… You can trust me… I'm right here… I'll always be…
Every word rang in his ears to the rhythm of his heart, a mantra that felt so true it was as though everything he had ever known and believed was suddenly nothing more than fabrication. She was true. And her empathy and sincerity released a truth within himself. She awoke a ravenous hunger in him; a yearning to be loved, a desire he had long kept at bay, locked away behind the walls he had built to shield himself from the loneliness of his world. But now, with each shallow breath that passed between them, those walls were steadily crumbling. In their togetherness, all his weaknesses and vulnerabilities were laid bare for her to see, and, for perhaps the first time in his life, he didn't care.
Katara parted her lips, inviting him in, and he deepened the kiss, taking her lower lip tenderly between his own, flicking his tongue against the satiny pink skin. Another muffled moan escaped her and it nearly drove him wild. He wanted to hear that sweet sound that she made for only him again and again. Shifting his weight to his elbow to avoid putting any pressure on his injured hand, he released the back of her head.
She gasped as their lips separated and she fell back down onto the bed, eyes widening momentarily at their parting. But Zuko wasted no time; he climbed on top of her, pressing her into the mattress with his weight as his free hand drifted down her side. Eyes half-lidded once more, she gazed up at him through the haze of desire and shivered as his fingers lightly brushed past the side of her breast before finding their way to her waist.
The sound she made was something like a whimper, the depth of her ocean blue eyes pleading for more. Zuko obliged, sinking into her with another passionate kiss. Katara's arms wrapped around his neck, pulling him further in. His fingertips pressed into her waist, the soft caress becoming more firm as he hungrily kneaded at the clothed skin there, pushing down further between her legs. The increased pressure coaxed another throaty moan from her that tickled his lips as she arched her back off the bed. Groaning in contentment at the reaction he drew from her, his hand glided down further, massaging her hip.
He was drowning in her, he realized, forgetting to breathe. Katara was like a drug, an intoxicating concoction that he craved, that he needed; his salvation and his torment. He was thoroughly addicted.
Her fingers played at the back of his neck, running through his dark hair and occasionally grasping onto it as though trying to keep herself from drifting away. A soft tug accompanied another muted whimper as he pushed into her again, involuntarily grinding between her legs. Soon they found a leisurely pace, a give and take that fell in time with the rhythm of their kiss. But time was merely an abstraction to Zuko now; seconds, minutes, and hours felt meaningless in the infinite sea of ecstasy that he found himself in. Katara melted into him and he into her, rocking together like the ebb and flow of the tide.
A distant noise echoed in the back of his mind, but he paid it no heed, too enraptured with his waterbender to give it any thought. The sound came again and Katara shifted under him, splaying her fingers against his chest.
"Prince Zuko," A voice called through the door. "Dinner is ready to be served."
Zuko frowned, annoyed at the interruption, and they broke apart. Not wanting to lose the moment, he rested his forehead against Katara's as they both caught their breath. Her chest heaved under him and she blushed when she met his gaze, a smile creeping across her lips. He inhaled deeply, closing his eyes as he committed the moment to memory. He opened them again when he felt Katara's hand cup the scarred side of his face, her thumb caressing the mottled skin of his cheek.
There was a depth to her eyes that drew him in, making him want to ignore the man outside his door and instead, return to blissful oblivion. Her smile grew and she tried to suppress it by biting down on her lip.
Katara giggled as Zuko grunted in irritation.
"You should probably answer it," She whispered, still breathless.
With a sigh, he nodded and stood, pushing his hair from his face as he made his way over to the iron door.
"Prince Zuko," The man bowed when he opened the heavy iron door, "Your uncle sent me to tell you and your…" He glanced over his shoulder at Katara, sitting on the edge of his bed, "Friend that dinner is being served."
"Excuse me! Could you also perhaps send some bandages? Two of Zuko's fingers are broken and I need to wrap them."
Incredulity passed over the crewmember's face at Katara's refusal to refer to him properly as Prince Zuko, but the look disappeared when Zuko muttered under his breath, "Do what she says."
The man bowed again and left as quickly as he came.
"We should probably go," Katara offered, a faint hue still coloring her cheeks as she brushed through her hair.
Forcing down his disappointment, Zuko nodded and stepped aside to allow her to pass through the threshold. He closed the door to his chambers behind him and followed her to meet with the others.
"There you are!" Suki exclaimed when they entered the Prince's dining room.
Katara tried her best to quash the heat in her cheeks and the silly smile that tugged at the corners of her lips in front of her friends. Part of her still couldn't believe what had just occurred. Zuko had kissed her. It wasn't like their first kiss where she had been the one to awkwardly initiate; he had pulled her to him, pressing his lips to hers in a kiss that was both sweet and hungry. Her head spun at the very memory.
Aang smiled up at them as innocent as ever, "We were going to wait for you guys before we started eating, but… well, we were all really hungry."
"Don't worry about it," Zuko mumbled, taking his seat, "It's been a long day."
The table had been set with steaming bowls of rice, vegetables, soup, and a massive smoked sea slug cut into thin slices as the centerpiece.
"Did you guys run here or something?" Toph laughed, tapping her chopsticks to the edge of her bowl.
"N-No," Katara swallowed thickly, praying the girl would make no further comment. The blind earthbender was sharp for her age, and Katara knew she had probably noticed that her heart was pounding so hard, it threatened to break free of her ribcage. Thankfully, she just smirked to herself and returned to her meal.
"You should try this sea slug, Katara," Sokka said around the food in his mouth. "It's not too spicy, just smokey."
"How is your hand, Zuko?" Suki asked, flashing Katara another knowing smile.
"Two broken fingers," He lifted his hand to show them.
"Ouch," Aang furrowed his brow. "It's a good thing we have the most talented healer among us!" He flashed a grin at Katara.
"I don't know if I would say most talented," She smiled back, "I'm still learning and I can't heal broken bones with just water."
"You're too modest," The airbender replied, "I saw you save so many Earth Kingdom soldiers back at Fong's."
Serving herself small portions from each dish, she poked at a clump of stewed greens. "What are these?"
"Ocean kumquats," Zuko replied, not meeting her eyes.
Plopping one in her mouth, she furrowed her brows before raising them once more, swallowing. "Strange… these kind of taste like sea prunes, just… spicier."
"Really?" Sokka looked up.
"Mmhm," She nodded with a content smile, chewing on another. They were more savory than the dish she had grown up with, but she enjoyed them nonetheless.
"Sea prunes?" Suki glanced between them, "What are those?"
"A dish we eat a lot in the Southern Water Tribe. They're our Gran Gran's favorite."
"Have some, Sokka! It tastes kind of like home."
"You like them?" Zuko asked, surprised.
"I actually do," She sounded just as shocked. "Maybe I could get used to Fire Nation food eventually… It's definitely an acquired taste."
"I'm starting to think Water Tribe food is too," Suki chuckled, sniffing at an ocean kumquat and crinkling her nose, "I'm not sure what you guys enjoy about these."
Aang also tried one and immediately spat it out onto his plate wiping his mouth with a napkin. "I'm not a fan either."
"I miss Earth Kingdom food," Toph pouted. "No offense, Princey."
"None taken," He shrugged. "I like Earth Kingdom food too."
"Yeah, I actually think my favorite food originates in the colonies though… It's like a blend of Fire Nation and Earth Kingdom food, a mixture of cultures just like the colonies themselves."
"Now I'm craving turtle-duck dumplings," Toph sighed wistfully.
"You've been to the colonies?" Aang asked, turning to Zuko.
"I have a couple times. My mom grew up there, so she would always insist that the palace kitchens prepare meals in the cuisine of the colonies."
"Zuko, I didn't know your mom was from the colonies," Katara's eyes widened. It surprised her that he not only seemed to be joining in the conversation, but felt comfortable enough to bring up his mother.
"Does that mean your mom is actually from the Earth Kingdom?" Aang asked with a tilt of his head.
"No, not really. She was born in the Fire Nation capitol but after a riot in the colonies, Fire Lord Sozin made her father, my other grandfather, the Governor and sent their family there to quell the unrest."
"That's actually really interesting," Aang thought aloud. "I guess I don't really know much about your family beyond well, you know, the Fire Lord and I guess your uncle now too."
"There isn't much to know," Katara could see that Zuko was starting to regret mentioning his mother.
"But there is! So your mother is the Fire Lady-"
"Was," Zuko corrected, the bitterness in his voice cutting through the conversation like a knife through a stewed ocean kumquat. "She was the Fire Lady."
A pregnant silence filled the room then. Even Sokka stopped chewing for a moment to glance across the table at Suki. Aang's eyes widened as he realized his error.
"Oh- I-… I'm sorry, Zuko," The airbender's gaze drifted down to his hands. "I didn't know."
"It's fine," Zuko rasped, though his tone indicated it was anything but. He stood abruptly with a muttered, "I'm full," and left them to exchange awkward looks amongst themselves.
Katara wanted to get up and follow him, but then she saw the hurt in the Avatar's eyes.
"Well, that was awkward," Sokka said after another long stretch of silence.
"I- I really didn't know that his mom-" Aang's eyebrows curled upwards.
"It's not your fault, Aang," Katara sighed.
Suki offered him a sympathetic look, "None of us could've have known."
"I mean, I knew," Toph shrugged, "But I also wasn't living in an iceberg for the last one hundred years."
"I'd heard about it from dad back in the day," Sokka breathed, looking to Katara, "That was the year he came back to visit for the first time since leaving with the fleet, remember?"
Katara nodded; she did remember, though no one had told her about it at the time. Probably to save her from the painful reminder of her own recently deceased mother.
"I should go talk to him and apologize," Aang frowned, moving to get to his feet but Sokka stopped him with a hand on the shoulder.
"Maybe give him some time to calm down first."
"Yeah," Suki agreed, "I know he's part of our group now, but he does have a fiery temper. Give him some space."
"But-…" Aang glanced around with a dejected expression. "I can't just-… I can't not do anything. After all this time, he finally joined our side… he offered to teach me firebending, he saved me from Commander Zhao twice now. And I just-… I'm so stupid." He covered his face, plainly distressed.
"We're not suggesting you don't do anything about it," Suki added, "Just that you should give him some time first."
Katara knew how the airbender was feeling. Everything had been going so well, they had all been getting along and having a good time. Aang, being the effervescent and charismatic person he was, had clearly been excited to learn more about Zuko, to make him feel welcome in their group. And the realization that he had unwittingly caused him pain with his thoughtless blunder was weighing down on him.
It was at that point that one of the crewmembers – a medic, based on his attire – arrived. Katara had nearly forgotten that she had requested some bandages for Zuko's broken fingers.
"Where is Prince Zuko?" The man asked the room, scanning the guests around the table.
"He uh- stepped out," Katara stood, "I can take those. I need to wrap his fingers."
The medic eyed her skeptically but obliged, handing her the roll of linen bandages before turning to leave. When the man was gone, she looked to Aang.
"I'll go see how he's doing," She offered. "I'm sure he knows you didn't mean to hurt his feelings."
Aang was still frowning but he nodded.
Zuko paced back and forth in his chambers, battling an amalgamation of emotions; anger, humiliation, despondency. His fists clenched and released as each crashed over him in turn. For an instant, he had felt a sense of belonging, casually conversing with the others, exchanging stories and jokes, and it had been a relief. In those moments after Katara's declaration – you don't have to be alone – he had started to believe her. But, as seemed to be the case with everything good in his life, it was short-lived.
He didn't know how to belong. So much time spent in solitude had done little to prepare him for the social circumstances that came with having friends- acquaintances, he corrected himself – that weren't bought with his title and royal heritage to tiptoe around him and follow his every order. Zuko didn't know how to navigate pleasant social gatherings; to make jokes, to have friendly idle chat, to open up to those around him. He had tried to open up – though, he cursed himself for whatever inclination made him mention his mother – and had utterly failed.
Part of him hated the Avatar for putting him in such an uncomfortable situation, despite knowing that the boy was entirely oblivious until it was too late and the damage was already done. But, truthfully, it wasn't really hate that he felt towards the airbender. It was much more akin to envy. It was a resentful admiration for the Avatar's ability to make the people around him feel good, to garner hope and trust. He envied his confidence; the ease with which he could offer Katara a compliment, the way he made her smile in front of everyone, even the way he had initially made Zuko himself feel like he was included.
Zuko almost laughed at the absurdity of it: he, the prince of the Fire Nation, was jealous of a thirteen year old boy. And not for being the Avatar, not for being a powerful bender in the making, a force to be reckoned with – no, he was jealous of the boy making Katara smile. What was he becoming?
There was a soft knock on his door, so quiet, he almost didn't hear it over his own thoughts.
He paused. Even through the heavy iron door he could pick out Katara's voice.
"I brought bandages for your fingers."
A part of him didn't want Katara to see him like this, didn't care if his fingers mended crooked if it meant he could maintain his cold, uncaring exterior. But it was too late for that and he knew he couldn't leave her out in the hallway.
Zuko opened the door but kept his gaze to the floor. She lingered in the corridor for a moment before entering his chambers and making her way over to the bed. He followed her and sat at the foot of the mattress.
"Do you… want to talk about it?" Her voice was gentle.
"Talk about what?"
Katara nodded and began unravelling the roll of bandages. At length, she spoke again. "For what it's worth, Aang really didn't know. I think he was just trying to make you feel welcome by asking about your family."
Zuko already knew this and hearing it from Katara's mouth didn't lessen his frustration with himself.
"I shouldn't have said anything about my mother," He grumbled.
"I was surprised you mentioned her," Katara took his injured hand in hers, "You haven't really talked about your mother much up until now…"
Zuko felt his frown soften a little as she placed his hand in her lap and started wrapping up his broken bones with nimble fingers. "To be honest… I haven't even really thought about her much in years. I think I must have repressed memories of her after I realized she was actually gone… it was too painful to think about."
After a moment, she tilted her head to the side in question, "So… what changed?"
He met her eyes then, but only briefly. They were swirling pools of blue, filled with empathy.
Something had changed. The closer he got to Katara, it seemed, the more he thought of his mother. Why, he didn't understand.
"I-… I thought I saw her back when we got separated in that swamp…" He murmured. "Ever since then… I've been having these weird dreams that feel more like memories."
"That's odd," Katara thought aloud, "What kind of dreams?"
"Dreams about my childhood… things that happened at the palace."
"Do you think the dreams mean anything?"
"Do dreams ever mean anything?"
She opened her mouth to reply but closed it again, a pink hue coloring her cheeks. Zuko raised his eyebrow.
"I-… I guess not," Her voice was no more than a mumble as she turned her gaze back to the task at hand, carefully wrapping bandages around his broken fingers.
"Why?" He probed with a smirk, remembering how she had called his name in her sleep before, eager to redirect the topic of conversation. "Have you been having more dreams about me?"
Her eyes widened momentarily before she frowned and crossed her arms. "Pfft, no," She vehemently denied, but her tone betrayed her.
Zuko's lip curled further. He wondered what exactly her dreams of him were about. The way she had moaned his name in her sleep before suggested they were anything but wholesome. The anger he felt previously was gone now. Somehow, she was able to placate him with just her presence alone.
Katara brushed it off and quickly returned to their previous topic of conversation. "Just… just don't be mad at Aang for his mistake, ok? He's really worried that he hurt your feelings and wants to apologize. He didn't mean to bring something so painful up and… well, he's under a lot of pressure right now."
He thought back to what the Avatar had told them about his meeting with Roku – the realization that he would have to learn to bend all the elements within a year's time. "I bet he is, with what Roku told him."
"What do you think about what Roku said?" She asked quietly, gazing down at his hand in her lap.
"What do you mean?"
"That we have to defeat the Fire Lord before that comet… Do you-… do you think we can?"
Zuko leaned back on his uninjured hand with a long exhale, his brows furrowed. "Honestly," He said at length, "I don't know. A year isn't a long time to master one element, let alone three. It took me over a decade to get to where I am with firebending… and I'm still no match for my father."
Katara chewed on her lip again, dejected by his admission. "Is he really that strong?"
"He's one of the best firebenders out there, along with my sister," Zuko sighed, still frowning, "Even my uncle believes he wouldn't be able to best him in a duel… I think that's part of the reason he never challenged him for the throne."
"So Iroh was supposed to be Fire Lord?"
"He was the crown prince before my grandfather died," Zuko confirmed.
"What happened then?"
"My memories from that time are still kind of a blur," He admitted lowly. It wasn't something he really wanted to talk about, but he could deny his waterbender nothing. With a drawn out sigh, he began. "I think it had a lot to do with my cousin Lu Ten dying outside the walls of Ba Sing Se."
"Your cousin? Iroh had a son?"
"He did. Lu Ten was thirteen years older than me. He was the pride of the Fire Nation back in the day… He was an exceptional firebender, but more than that… he was a brilliant strategist- military-minded just like my uncle." He paused, looking off into an empty corner of the room. Zuko had often felt like he was living in Lu Ten's shadow whenever his uncle tested him on military strategy; Though the old general would never dare suggest such a thing, Zuko always felt like he was comparing the two of them, and he knew he would never amount to half the prince Lu Ten would have been.
She was watching him expectantly now, waiting for him to continue.
"At the start of the siege of Ba Sing Se, everyone believed that after the fall of the Earth Kingdom capital, it would be Iroh and Lu Ten that led the Fire Nation to greatness, expanding the reaches of our influence to become an empire."
"But they didn't succeed in breaking through the outer walls, did they?"
Zuko turned to her, eyebrow raised.
"We used to get messages from the Southern Fleet about it," She explained, "It was shortly after our mother died and our father left. Sokka used to read them to me whenever I cried about dad being gone… trying to cheer me up, I guess."
"And you were told that the Fire Nation never broke through the outer walls?"
She nodded, "I can't imagine what might have happened if they had…"
"But they did," Zuko corrected her, not understanding why she had heard otherwise.
Katara frowned. Though she knew little of the siege of Ba Sing Se beyond the infrequent updates her village had received from the Southern Fleet, she did know that it had ultimately failed. The Fire Nation's failure had been much to the relief of the Water Tribe when they heard the news.
"Are you sure?" She asked.
"They did break through the outer walls," He nodded, "One of the Earth Kingdom Generals surrendered to my uncle after nearly a year-long siege. I remember because it was when he sent me this dagger," He pulled out the familiar weapon and handed it to her – the one that Katara had tried to kill him with in the not-so-distant past. Though, it felt like so long ago now. "The General that surrendered gifted him this and he gave it to me."
"I wondered why it said 'Made in the Earth Kingdom'," She noted, unsheathing the blade.
"After that, I only know what happened from reading accounts of the siege with my tutors and what had been talked about in court," He said, "The city was apparently starving inside those walls, having to depend solely on their own resources. Supposedly, the farmlands outside of the city's inner walls had caught fire during the siege, aided by drought, and days later, they surrendered the outer wall."
"How do you remember all this?" Katara questioned, surprised at the level of detail with which he was able to describe the series of events.
"Like I said, it was part of my schooling. Before my father became Fire Lord, I was expected to join the military and work my way up the chain of command. Members of the royal family – those not destined to rule – are often given high-ranking military positions to consolidate power. My tutors used to grill me on details of military operations and strategy when I was a kid, preparing me for command."
Katara watched him, trying to imagine another world in which Zuko was not a banished prince, but a decorated military strategist. The image of him from that decree she had found in the drawer drifted to the forefront of her mind. She couldn't see it.
"But you said Iroh and Lu Ten were both in the military, despite being in line for the throne?"
"They were breaking with tradition," Zuko nodded. "My uncle always believed that a good ruler should be out on the battlefield with his men, not sitting on a throne on the other side of the world giving orders."
She found it equally difficult to picture Iroh – the pudgy, tea-loving, peaceful old man she had come to know and care for – as a stony-faced military commander like Zhao.
"So, if they did break through the outer walls, what ended the siege?"
"Lu Ten's death." His reply was abrupt and it caught Katara off guard.
"H-how did he die?"
"There was a fire… his whole battalion was camped a few miles west of where my uncle was. The night after the outer wall's surrender, the whole encampment was burned to the ground. There were no survivors."
"Who would have done that?" Katara sat back, shocked. "How could there be no survivors with so many firebenders present?"
"I still don't understand it," The crease between Zuko's brows deepened. "Everyone assumed that it must have been rebels – perhaps from the colonies – who were retaliating against the inevitable occupation, but it still doesn't make sense as to how no one survived. Even if they were all drunk from celebrating, surely some of them would have been able to get out of there."
"Poor Iroh," She breathed. Months ago, she might have rejoiced at hearing such a story – serves them right, she would have said, that's justice – but that was before she had gotten to know Zuko and Iroh, before she had started to see that not all firebenders were monsters like their leader. Now, she wondered how many sons and fathers had been lost, caught up in a war that was much larger than them.
"Lu Ten's death started a chain of events that changed everything. My uncle didn't deal well with the loss… he spiraled into depression. And then, less than a week later, my grandfather Azulon fell ill and died."
"And so your father took power because Iroh couldn't?"
"Supposedly," His tone was dark, "And not long after, my mother died from the same illness."
"You didn't tell me that your mother was sick…"
"I never saw her while she was ill. I-… I still don't want to believe that it's true."
Katara pursed her lips, deep in thought. Something seemed off about this whole story, particularly the death by fire of hundreds of Fire Nation soldiers. The fact that even Zuko seemed frustrated by the uncertainty of the whole situation – one that was so pivotal in his ascendance to the position of crown prince – only bolstered her suspicions.
"Three members of the royal family dying in a matter of weeks…? Something about that seems… fishy," She pondered aloud.
"You think so too?"
"Doesn't everyone in the Fire Nation?"
"No," Zuko scowled. "Or if they did, they've just accepted it… along with my father's rule."
"Do you think… that…"
"That it was my father who did it?" He cut in, "I've suspected that. If he did, he covered is tracks well… no one will talk about it, not even my uncle."
"You think he would really kill his own father, nephew, and wife?"
Perhaps without realizing it, Zuko reached up to his face and brushed his fingers along the mottled skin of his scar. Katara's heart ached at his reaction, following his train of thought.
"I wouldn't put it past him," He muttered at length, his voice quiet and scratchy, thick with emotion.
A sudden anger welled in her gut, an indignance at Zuko's torment, at the entire world's suffering at the hands of Fire Lord Ozai.
"He won't get away with it," She promised, her tone dark. Zuko looked up to her, surprised by the change in mood. "We are going to defeat him," Katara continued with a newfound confidence. "Even if Aang is just a kid, I've seen how quickly he can learn. With all of us helping him, I'm sure we can find a way."
From the corner of her eye, she caught a smirk play across Zuko's lips.
"We better start training, then," He mumbled.
"Let's start tomorrow," Her sense of conviction renewed, she straightened. "You said that we could keep training together… we could all use the practice. There's no time to waste."
He nodded, the corner of his mouth turning upwards ever so slightly, "And to think you'd ever doubt yourself."
She turned to him, fighting the smile that pulled at her mouth. "Like I said, you inspire me, Prince Zuko." Her grin broke free.
By the time she had finished securing the bandages around Zuko's broken fingers, it was dark outside. They sat side-by-side on the edge of the bed and Katara nervously chewed on her lip. She didn't want to leave him yet but she also didn't want to overstay her welcome.
"It's late," She sighed, glancing out the window. "I guess I lost track of time. I'm sure the others have already gone to bed."
"Yeah," Zuko agreed, examining his bandaged hand. "Thanks for, you know, fixing me up."
Katara smiled at him, "Of course. Be careful with it for the next week or so, especially when training."
Pausing, she chewed on her lip and straightened her tunic in her lap, before getting to her feet. She turned when she reached the door to offer him a shy sidelong glance.
He looked like he was about to say something, but then his jaw set and he gave her a terse nod.
Zuko watched the door close behind her and cursed himself. He had wanted to ask her not to leave. He knew he wouldn't sleep much that night, with thoughts of her swimming around in his mind, and was not ready to be without her again. Rubbing his hand up his face and through his hair, he fell backwards onto his bed.
"Why am I such an idiot?" He asked the ceiling, "I should have just done it! I should have asked her to stay."
Clenching his hands into fists, he rolled over and groaned into the mattress. It was going to be a long, restless night. He tried to convince himself that she likely would have rejected his invitation. Though they had slept in close quarters before – they'd even shared a bed back in Daiyu Village – he figured this would be different. They weren't out in the wilds anymore or traveling on their own; they were on his ship with her friends. They were surrounded by people who knew them both – people with expectations – and he doubted that Katara's brother or the Avatar would be pleased to know what was going on between them, despite the fact that he was on their side now.
The disloyal, amorous part of his brain, however, chose then to play the devil's advocate. It had, after all, been Katara who had kissed him in the woods. Her friends had been asleep at their camp, not far away. It had been her who offered to share the bed with him in Daiyu Village, even when he was prepared to sleep on the floor. His uncle had been in the next room. He was also quite certain that Sokka and Suki, despite having been given separate rooms aboard his ship, were not staying separated.
It didn't take him much convincing. Even if she rejected his offer, he figured it was worth a shot. He got to his feet and stalked over to the door, thinking of what to say when he got to her room. When he pulled at the heavy iron and stepped into the hallway, he nearly ran right into her.
Wide blue eyes met his and her mouth dropped open. Zuko just stared, dumbstruck.
"I, uh- I'm sorry. I know I said I was leaving, but… well, I thought- I-…" Her eyes darted to the ground. "I should go."
"Katara, wait. Is- is this… real?" He asked, equally flustered. He couldn't wrap his head around why she was here, standing at his door.
"Is it… what? Yes?"
"You came back."
"I did…" She bit her lip, looking like she might still leave.
Something unfamiliar blossomed inside him, a warm feeling that started somewhere deep down and came bubbling up to the surface. Before he could stop himself, a chuckle escaped his throat.
Katara's jaw dropped, likely because he must have looked like a maniac – he never laughed. Surely thinking that he was laughing at her, she crossed her arms incredulously.
"What?" She frowned. "What's so funny?"
"Sorry, it's just-" He ran a hand through his hair, still trying to suppress the giddy feeling that had stolen his sense of indifference. He managed to stop laughing, but a smile still pulled at his mouth.
"Okay, I'm just going to leave."
She turned to go but Zuko was fast; he stepped out into the hallway and grabbed her wrist. Katara whirled around, but before she could say anything, he had her back pushed to the iron wall next to his door.
"Katara," He breathed, bracing himself against the wall with one arm. Zuko glanced down at her and noticed that her chest was heaving as she looked up and met his gaze. "Don't leave."
"Wh- what do you mean?" Her voice was small, tremulous.
"Stay," He rasped in almost a whisper, "Please, stay with me."
Woo! I was very critical of this chapter and I still am... I might go back and make some more edits later.
What did you think about their second kiss? Too much? Not enough? What about Aang's little blunder? The stuff about Iroh and Lu Ten? Zuko's mom being raised in the colonies? Like I said in the last chapter, this is sort of an AU - I always thought Ursa's story was kind of a missed opportunity... so I am changing some things.
Also, the romantic moments are just beginning ;)
Please feel free to review! Pretty please?