Disclaimer: nothing, do I own

Teaser: spawn of the nothingness, child of dirt, son of the abyss... despair and, therefore, die

Author's Notes: and now the story ends, my friends. And just in time, too, seeing as how Season 3 is starting up ad this will now be AU. And am I worried Maiko? No, I'm not. Zuko's seventeen, ya'all. This relationship will not last. It wouldn't be realistic. Plus, being seventeen you know he's going to be amking tons of stupid-boy mistakes. I'd rather have him do them with Mai than Katara. That way, when they do get toegther, Zuko will be a mature man! There's my faulty logic!

Part XIV: Love/
"What wound did ever heal but by degrees?"

There is a certain stone in Zuko's heart—not stomach, heart, always heart—when he prepares to leave the Southern Water Tribe. It is strange, because he has never felt more compelled to stay before, even knowing that he is called away.

There is a certain stone in Zuko's heart—not stomach, heart, always heart—when he prepares to leave the Southern Water Tribe. It is strange, because he has never felt more compelled to stay before, even knowing that he is called away.

Katara no longer talks to him and he thinks it is partly that, and partly that this place is more his home than anything else has ever been.

"Why do you have to go?" she asks him the day before he plans to leave. Her face is bright and fierce and heartbreaking. "Sokka can't keep you from staying. The villagers won't let him. I won't—"

"I can't—Katara, there's something I need—need to do." The words are hard to form. Words that have always been easy for him to say. He has always been able to say he is leaving. Yet, here, he falters.

"What? I thought… I thought you had done all that."

"No. I—I couldn't go there." He looks at her to see if she understands and he thinks that, yes, she does. That is why he can say the rest. "I need to go to the Fire Nation. I have to be there. Uncle and Azula and Ozai… they need to be there."


"Katara, please, I—I don't want to. I have to. Don't you under—understand…?"

They stare at each other, and Zuko wonders why he doesn't feel a wall between them like he should. Katara looks ready to say something and Zuko almost wishes she would because he so desperately wants to know what her eyes have seen in him. But leaving is already hard enough and if Katara speaks now he might never go.

And that would defeat the purpose.

"I can talk to Aang, he'll see that the Fire Lord lets you on the council, gives you a job there," she offers and it looks like she is oddly pained.

"No, I'm not staying. That's not who I am anymore." He wants to touch her, just run his hand down her face once, to remember, but he resists. "But I need to go back. Back to the very beginning. Do you understand?"

She has an odd look on her face and he thinks that she will say something that will change everything. And he braces himself for it, his fingers are firm and taut on his rucksack, and he is ready for what she will say.

But she darts out of his tent and he never sees her again and Zuko suddenly knows why igloos are so cold.

When he leaves, the villagers watch him go. He has returned the clothes that Katara has given him because they belong to Sokka more than anyone else. But he isn't cold from the wind. The chill is inside him.

Then someone hands him a new parka. He can't see, he's blind with heaviness, but he thanks whoever it is and the parka is slipped over his back. A group of children give him warmer pants and he puts them on. Then someone—an older man—gives him sturdy snow boots.

Sokka tosses gloves into his face.

"You'll need them," is all he says and Zuko nods, slipping them into the pocket of his parka. He starts to walk past the young man and then Sokka says, "I can't forgive you, you know."

Because he senses Sokka needs to say this, he stops and turns around, ready to listen.

"You didn't—not directly—I know, but you… your sister. You killed her and I saw… what you did to her." Sokka face is so unmovable with his grief that Zuko knows there is something on the inside crying out in raw pain. "She did things—to her."

The Kyoshi Warriors. Zuko remembers. He remembers very little of what Azula had told him in Ba Sing Se, but he remembers that.

He was meant to.

Zuko looks at Sokka and sees himself.

"I know," he answers, feeling like here is how he can apologize to Sokka. By doing this.

"Aang said we had to—to forgive. That the war was over and we weren't divided anymore," Sokka goes on, crossing his arms over his chest and looking right down into Zuko's eyes. "But I don't know if can."

"You can't. Not yet." Zuko walks a little closer, until his shoulder nearly brush Sokka's. "Give it time. It… it takes a lot of time."

Yes, time. Time couldn't heal all wounds. Sometimes it couldn't even dull them. But with time understanding came and with understanding came the peace. That settled peace that eases men and women to sleep.

"You—it'll—it'll get better." Not easier. Because it is never easier, but Zuko thinks that it will get better. Because a man has to hope it'll get better. That is all he has when he has lost everything. When everything he loved and cared for is gone without so much of a word or a cry.

"I—I couldn't even hold her when she—when she died," Sokka says but Zuko understands he is not looking for comfort from him. He just needs to tell someone, someone who isn't connected to him. Who won't try to comfort and soothe and say everything will be all alright.

They both know that some things will never be alright.

"Would she want you to suffer?" he asks him and he thinks this is why he met Jin again. For this purpose.

Then that is all that needs to be said between them. Sokka nods to Zuko and walks off, his shoulders proud and square and unbending. Zuko watches him go for a moment, sending a small prayer out that he is not lying.

He turns and looks at the icy village that has become his home. It started out as the stepping stone to returning home and now, in his heart, Zuko knows that it is home. It will be the place that comforts him when he goes back to the place that is no longer home.

There are memories here that make him warm and wistful and grateful to be alive. If Iroh knew, if Iroh could see, Zuko somehow knows that the man would be happy for him. That he would smile and nod and wave.

"Good job, Zuko," he would have said. "Good job."

His heart is light and heavy at the same time. Zuko has grown used to it. And he walks away from home.

When he reaches the opening of the ice wall that guards the village, Katara is waiting for him. She is propped against the frozen snow, her hood drawn low over her face and she is looking away from him.

Somehow, though, Zuko knows what she wants.

She turns when he approaches her and Zuko sees that her face is bright and fierce and passionate, like it had been the moment he had walked into the village. Like when she had held out her hand for him.

They stand facing each other, the wind ripping at them. With everything to say and no way to say it.

Then, Katara finds the words. "Maybe you'll come back."

Zuko wants to tell her that, yes, yes he'll come back but he can't be sure. He touches just the tips of her elbows because he isn't sure how much he is allowed to touch. But he wants to grab her and hold her tight because he knows now why he doesn't want to leave. But he's a not finished man, and he can't come to her unless he's whole.

Wordlessly, she presses herself against him and stands on her tiptoes and her mouth moves easily over his. Zuko wraps his arms around her waist, shivering against her, and pressing his open mouth fully into hers. And they are kissing and it is wonderful. It is a promise and a maybe. Because maybe he'll come back and in this world all they have is maybe and it has become good enough.

She tastes like something he should know, but he can't quite grapple the meaning behind it. His mind struggles with words and meanings as Katara filters out everything else and for this one moment his soul is off the ground because in this special reprieve, it is only them. And it is wonderful.

It is strong and powerful and it sweeps over him and he is gripping her hard, not ready to let go, not nearly ready. Yet he knows he must because he has to go so he can come back. Because Katara deserves nothing less than a complete man. Even if the kisses are hot and ready and don't leave me please he knows that they will both regret it if he does not finish what he has started.

Her thumb rubs over his scar and Zuko thinks that this is what it would have felt like if she had healed it. Cool and gentle and perfect.

He breaks away and he looks into her face and feels his heart burn. "Maybe I'll come back."

Then, because Katara understands—she always understands—she backs away and lets him go. And Zuko leaves without looking back. Because Zuko and Katara do not look back, they only look forward, and perhaps, one day, they will see each other in.

As he walks away, he prays that his journey will take him back here, that he belongs with her. He cannot be sure, but he can be sure that he feels her eyes on his back, watching him and waiting for him and always, always, always understanding him.

And he knows that wherever he goes he will feel her eyes on him and it will soothe him. Make the aches and pain go away. Katara's eyes are beacons in the night and he follows what they promise. Tomorrow. He trusts her to wait and he trusts her to lead him home. And he knows that she will never, ever stop watching for him.

Zuko licks his lips and realizes Katara tastes like tomorrow.

notes: I had such trouble finding a good why to end this thing... argh, it was such a hard ending to write. But ending's have always been mine weakness. I always want to give them a happy ending, but I don't want it to be cheesy. XD It's a very ambiguous ending, I know. It's basically up to you to decide if Zuko ends up with Katara again or not, or if she was just another stone in his path to finding himself. Personally, I like to think Zuko made it back to her sometime in the near-distant future and had lots of adorable Zutara babies. But KoN isn't about happily ever afters, it's about Zuko growing up and finding himself so... you choose what's best for him.


kamena thanks. I never meant this thing to go so deep, but I'm quite pleased with how it turned out. XD

Hollywoodland: you don't suck. I forget to review stuff all the time. :P And, no, don't hate Sokka. I mean, could you forgive Zuko if you knew it was his sister you killed your girlfriend? Not to mention that his father was killed by the Fire Nation, and his mama, too. Wow, actually, it sucks to be Sokka.

Story Weaver1 Sokka's overprotectiveness of Katara actually seems really out of character for him. As much as Sokka doesn't admit, you know he knows she can take care of herself. He didn't seem too worried about her crushing on Jet, did he? He was more concerned about Jet's morals. Sokka knows that Katara's more than capable. Plus, if he was so darn protective of her, would he have let her come on the adventure in the first place? No. The "break her heart, and I'll break your neck" speech is alright, since I'm pretty sure all male relations give that to the guy who's going to be joining their family through marriage, but that's really the only time.

Kitty East I don't blame Sokka. How can you? His hate of the Fire Nation, and its ruling monarchs, has had over fifteen years to fester. It take more than a few choice words from your Friendly Neighborhood Avatar to change that. And what happened between Katara and Sokka...? You'll have to decide. XD Because I'm evil.