Author: Krys Yuy
Summary: Months after making the decision to pursue his own destiny, there is one person Zuko has come to rely on more than anyone else.
Pairing/Characters: Usagi/Zuko (Avatar the Last Airbender)
Themes: #34 (embrace; cherish; beloved)
Warning: Spoilers for Season 3, Episodes 10-11: Day of the Black Sun for AtLA. You've been warned. Also, OOCness, methinks.
Disclaimer: I own none of the characters used. This fic is purely for entertainment purposes only.
Author's Notes: For the community 30houshin at LiveJournal. My portrayal of Usagi is how I imagine her matured. Established relationship fic. Born out of my love for Zuko after watching the events in AtLA: Episode 11. This is more like a snapshot into a future I dreamed up – so basically, it's a plot bunny. The mention of surviving air nomads is completely my own plot device, and not an element from the show. This is intended to be a one-shot simply because I'd rather not attempt a multi-chaptered fic, knowing my track record with that. (I am, however, interested in visiting this universe again – perhaps digging deeper into all the questions I leave unanswered. If you like it, please leave a review because otherwise, how am I supposed to know?) Besides, this was really a writing experiment that came out much longer than intended. Angsty, romantic, and perhaps a bit over the top, I originally just wanted to write fluff. And it came out like this. Heh. Please enjoy. Also, I admit I'm very rusty in terms of writing crossovers. Please forgive any over-sappiness. Ha.
Zuko jolted awake with a gasp, reaching out for someone who wasn't there. He only vaguely noticed the thin sheen of sweat covering his skin as he put his head in his hands. He was too preoccupied trying to stop the shudders that ran through his body, remnants of the nightmares that had been growing stronger the closer they traveled to the Fire Nation.
The place he used to call home.
Zuko grit his teeth and threw off his blanket. He glanced at the sleeping forms surrounding the now dead campfire – a sense of protectiveness and loyalty bubbled to the surface, and he knew that no matter what happened, he would fight for their cause. For them. Still, the certainty of his decision did nothing to quell the fragments of doubts his nightmares left behind.
Careful not to wake the others, he stood up and stole away into the night with the stealth and grace of a seasoned warrior. The eerie stillness of the forest did nothing to deter him. He breathed in deep, trying to calm his racing heart, needing to center himself. He stood unmoving in the midst of nature and his meditation was only working to a certain degree. There was something missing – or rather, someone.
The self-exiled fire prince closed his eyes, wanting to satisfy his yearning, but knowing he could only wait. Two years ago, he would have never been capable of such patience. Moments passed with only the quiet of the night surrounding him. He sunk deeper into his mind with each breath he exhaled, searching for that peace that always seemed to elude him without her presence. He floated in a sea of ebony before a sound fluttered at the edge of his conscious. At first, he ignored it but then it repeated again, closer and achingly familiar.
His name was a whisper on the wind, but he heard it all the same. A thrum of pleasure rippled through his heart at the voice he had waited for - needed - these past few weeks. He turned slowly, unsure if it had been his imagination, and braced himself for disappointment. Instead, his eyes were greeted with the most beautiful sight. There was a pause as his breath caught, but it was with a prayer-like reverence that her name left his lips.
She was clothed as she always was – a vision in pale yellow and silver threaded robes. Her hair, in its traditional style – long locks falling from two buns on either side of her head, nearly reached her calves. Moonlight spilled through the thicket of leaves to accentuate her delicate features and large guileless eyes. His fingers itched to touch her again, but there was an irrational fear that if he moved, she would disappear.
But her lips curved into that gentle smile he had grown so familiar with. "Hello stranger."
And suddenly he was across the forest floor, wrapping her in his arms, relishing in the feel of her, whole and alive and with him.
She laughed, and the genuine joy in it had him suppressing a contented sigh. "Someone missed me," she murmured against his collarbone.
The vibrations against his skin made him shiver, but he just pulled her closer to him. He didn't say anything as he pressed his nose into her hair, breathing her in. He immersed in the feeling of serenity that washed over him.
Zuko, however, could feel her frown as she sensed something was not quite right. "What's wrong?" she asked, pulling away to take a better look at him.
He steadily avoided her blue gaze. "It's nothing," he replied, speaking in half-truths. While the visions and cruel voices of his father and Azula still echoed at the back of his head, they were a mere speck in Usagi's presence. She was the only one who could help him chase his demons away.
The feel of her eyes was piercing, and when she cupped his chin to turn his face towards her, he put up little resistance before suddenly her stare was boring into him. There was a pause before she softly asked, "The nightmares?"
He closed his eyes, ashamed.
He felt her place two hands on either side of his face, pulling him down slightly. He started at the touch of her soft lips on his scar – it was a gesture she often did, but he had yet to get used to.
"Don't hide from me, Zuko," she pleaded.
He opened his eyes once more when she drew his forehead down to meet hers. Reveling in their closeness, he knew he was only being a coward. Often his nightmares left him unsteady and questioning past decisions. That infuriated him because he knew his destiny now. There was never any doubt during the day as he brought Aang closer to mastering firebending. But it was when the stars came out that he was at his most vulnerable.
"It's… hard," he confessed. To lay myself bare. To trust after all this time.
Hard was perhaps too simple a word to describe the difficulties he had getting close. The bonds of loyalty and conviction had been tested many a time since he had followed the Avatar to the Western Air Temple in a bid to join his cause. The waterbender and her brother – Katara and Sokka, he reminded himself – had been the most vocal against him, claiming he was a spy. He wasn't to be trusted, it could be a trap, etc – they listed each reason with venom in their eyes and in their tone. He did not blame Katara for her suspicions. They had a tentative connection in the catacombs of Ba Sing Se but in doing what he thought was right, what he thought he needed to regain his honor, he had betrayed the first fragile seeds of trust.
The blind earthbender – Toph – had also been wary at first, but once he had been given the chance to explain things – after being trapped in an earth prison with a water whip aimed at him in warning – she knew he wasn't lying. Even if she hadn't been able to discern the truth through her earth vibrations, his sincerity could be heard in his voice.
But it was the Avatar – Aang – who had surprised him. Zuko had believed the boy's thoughts would follow those of his water tribe companions, and the fire prince had been prepared to prove his worth – if not by words, then actions. Aang had been on guard when Zuko revealed himself, had even spoken a few words, but when Zuko stated his purpose, Aang let his friends take over the interrogation. All the while, he stared at Zuko silently, and if the self-exiled prince had not had years of training, he would have surely fidgeted nervously under the airbender's soul-searching gaze. After he was allowed to explain in longer detail why he wanted to join the Avatar's cause, there had been a long pause before Aang had bended the earth prison so it fell away.
"Aang? What are you doing?" Katara protested, still wielding her water whip.
The airbender had only a simple reply as he reached out to clasp hands with one who was once an enemy. "Welcoming an ally."
Aang stated to the group that they could trust him, and Zuko was inwardly amazed. The young airbender had gone on to explain his vision with Avatar Roku.
"I'm giving you a chance, Zuko," the Avatar stated, suddenly seeming wiser beyond his years. "Don't blow it."
Zuko was humbled and once again reminded that he made the right choice. In the following months, he had proved his trustworthiness. While accepted as an ally, he still kept his distance for comfort's sake. It wasn't until the group happened upon an unconscious sixteen year old girl that 'ally' slowly became 'friend'. For it was the girl that drew Zuko in, inadvertently opening him up to everyone else.
Zuko was roused from his inner musings as a slender finger tapped his nose. He focused on the blue gaze staring back at him.
"What were you thinking about?" she whispered.
"Aang and the others. When I joined them," he answered just as quietly, for some reason, unwilling to disturb the hush of the forest encompassing them. "… when I first met you."
A smile unbidden came to her lips then. "I'm sure I made quite the first impression," she said wryly. "Though I do remember a certain arrogant, brooding individual attracting my interest once I finally woke up."
"Hmph." Zuko felt only the slightest irritation, but blinked when her fingers came up to trace his lips.
"Finally. A smile," she said triumphantly. "Albeit a small one, but one nonetheless." Her eyes were trained on his mouth as her thumb gently pressed against his lower lip. "You should smile more often, Prince Zuko." Slowly, her gaze lifted and they met in an electric clash of blue and gold.
Zuko met no resistance when he tightened his hold and leaned down to capture her lips. It was as if she had been waiting for him the entire time. She accepted him wholeheartedly, a fact that he marveled at time and again. Passion hummed just underneath the surface of their touches, tearing at the edges of their control. Three weeks apart left them drinking each other in hungrily, and Zuko was about to sweep his lover into his arms when she pulled back.
Pride kept him from following the path of her lips. Instead, a growl of impatience let loose at the back of his throat.
Usagi was still out of breath from their reunion kiss, but she didn't allow Zuko to intimidate her. She brought his head down next to hers, so they were cheek to cheek. "Let me in," she murmured. "I can see the turmoil in your eyes." She hesitated. "And the fear." He stiffened and she shook her head. "Don't do that – don't close yourself off from me." She ran her hands up and down his back in soothing strokes until she felt his muscles relax.
Silence settled over them before Zuko finally chose to speak, his voice a husky whisper in her ear. "I dreamt of my past choices, of the Fire Lord, of Azula… of Uncle." He almost cracked then, but continued on as he felt her arms wrap around his neck. "I dreamt of a future where I… where I betrayed Aang." The word left a sick taste in his mouth.
"You're not that person anymore," Usagi reassured him, running her fingers over the back of his collar in a calming gesture. "Who you are now – Aang is your friend and you would never do that to him or the others."
Dark thoughts swirled in his head and he scowled unintentionally. "You don't know what I'm capable of."
"You don't!" His exclamation tore him from her arms as he started to pace. "I watch the others burn in my dreams. I set them on fire and I laugh." His lips curled into a disgusted sneer at himself. "Then the Fire Lord takes you from me and I let him have you." His fists clenched until they shook and his knuckles turned white. "I do nothing."
Usagi reached out tentatively to wrap her hands around one of his fists, turning it over in her hands and ever so gently prying it back open until the tension released. "It's just a nightmare. Those things will never come to pass. That's not who you are. You're stronger than this." Her fingers skimmed along his palm and he suppressed a shiver. "Have you been having the same one every night?"
He nodded, not trusting himself to speak.
She frowned. "It's gotten worse."
"The closer we get to him –" It was never 'father' – he only ever referred to him as the Fire Lord or by nameless pronouns. "– the more they persist. It won't end until he's defeated. Until the war is finally over," Zuko stated, hating the hypothesis he had come to a week ago.
"I shouldn't have left. You needed me –"
"Aang needed you to deliver the messages to the scattered air nomads. You were the only one who could do it," Zuko interrupted firmly, unwilling to let Usagi feel guilty about something that she clearly had no control over. He wrapped an arm around her waist before swinging her back into the circle of his embrace. "Though now that you're back, I will sleep better," he said, something he would only ever admit to her.
"I'm glad to be of service, my liege," she stated teasingly, and her expression revealed how pleased she was to be back.
His eyes fixated at a point above her shoulder and he laid his head against the side of hers. "I don't want to lose myself to the darkness again."
"You can't be sure of that." Hearing the resignation in his usually confident voice made her heart ache.
She drew his gaze back to her, unwilling to let him move backwards when he had struggled so hard to be the man who he was now. Only utter conviction could be heard in her next words.
"I believe in you, Zuko."
It was amazing how, coming from her, those simple words seemed to have an otherworldly power. He pulled her impossibly closer and whispered what he could only ask once. "Be my anchor, Usagi."
Her fingers threaded through inky black hair as she pressed an assuring, understanding kiss on his lips. "For as long as you need me."
Zuko wasn't one for romantic ideals, and yet he found himself wishing he could promise forever. But he also thought of the fights to come, of the losses that were sure to mount against their group, of the final battle that was coming closer with each setting of the sun – a severe reminder of the fear that always lingered at the back of his mind. The words left his mouth before he even had a chance to stop them. "Then you'd better not die."
The insinuations of that statement were not lost on her, but she said nothing, knowing that she couldn't make him such a promise, having wordlessly vowed months ago to protect him even at the cost of her own life. But it didn't mean she wouldn't fight like hell to survive. She tucked her head under his chin and closed her eyes, a faint smile gracing her lips as she felt his arms tighten around her imperceptibly.
Hearing the small note of desperation in his usually cool voice had her pulling back to look at him again. Words unspoken passed between them. He wanted to hear her say it. He wanted her to take a vow. She shook her head slowly, a sharp pang in her chest at the pained expression that flitted across his face before he closed it off.
"I will see this to the end. I will help Aang take down your father." Her gaze was steady against the storm of emotions beginning to gather behind Zuko's countenance. "I will see you ascend the throne." She ignored how his fingers dug almost ruthlessly into her sides. "And I will not lie to you."
"Then you mean to die?"
His biting retort had her looking away, and she stared at the golden threads bordering the red material of his outfit. She traced the design intently, biting her bottom lip and taking a deep breath.
"I mean for you to live."
Her utterance barely had the chance to leave her lips before he was jerking her head back to face him, his eyes sparking like an explosive inferno as he heard the unspoken implications.
"Don't ever say that!" he exclaimed furiously.
She was calm on the surface, though her own feelings had begun swirling inside as well, and it was with a certain difficultly that she found herself quietly replying, "I only speak the truth."
He had stepped away to pace restlessly in front of her. "No! I refuse to let you speak like that! I refuse to let you say that as if you've accepted death. As if it's inevitable!" He kept ranting, his voice turbulent, tearing into the calm night. "Of all the stupid, idiotic – you will not die, do you understand?" He gripped her shoulders. "Do you understand?!" But he never allowed her to answer. "It will all be for nothing if you're not –" His jaw clenched as he forced himself to remain still. "Don't you see? Don't you see that I- I –" Zuko's voice finally broke at the end, an anguished whisper.
Usagi read in his golden gaze what he had yet to voice aloud, and it was more than enough. She reached out for him and there was only a moment's hesitation before he stepped back in her embrace, her arms immediately encircling him, but she could feel the tension vibrating through his entire frame. She cupped the back of his head and drew him down so she could whisper fiercely in his ear.
"I cannot promise you that I will live." She felt him try to break away from her then, but Usagi held Zuko steady against her with a strength born from love and unwavering conviction. "But I can promise that I will fight. I will fight to the end, for however long I can, and I will fight by your side." Her lips brushed the shell of his ear as she murmured, "I'm not one to go down easily. Never forget that."
The knot in Zuko's stomach unclenched slowly, but when she moved away from him to start toward camp, he grabbed at her to bring her flush against his chest. He barreled past the emotional barricade he had built since his long ago banishment, something the blonde in his arms had already begun to chip away, his murmur a fervent admission that left her breathless.
"I would see you as Fire Lady."
Usagi trailed her fingers along his face, just skirting the edges of his scar, exhaling softly as she felt her heart swell. There was only one true certainty in the face of their ambiguous future. "Wherever you go, I will follow."
He could ask for nothing else. Zuko clutched her tight against him, his lips grazing her forehead in a feather-light kiss, the intimacy of so small a gesture conveying more than words ever could.
I love you.