For Zutara Week. Prompt six: Stare

I'm currently dying. Every idea that I have turns into incomprehensible mush. My brain's going soft. That's all I can say to describe it. Because this story started off in such a promising way, and then got promptly run over by a frickin' bus. So thanks, bus that crushes dreams - you killed my fucking story.

(sigh) Ahaha, I'm good now. Even though this story isn't. Still, I hope you don't come after me with fiery pitchforks because I butchered Avatar. I gave a good, solid effort. :D

Disclaimer: Nope.

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Before her stood the Fire Lord.

She'd spent so many years wrapping her mind around the notion that Zuko, the banished prince who'd run them into so many corners and had come so close to stealing her sole hope for a peaceful world away, had become their most precious ally. Now, as Aang stepped forward and bowed his respects to the figure on the throne, she could hardly keep her knees from buckling, let alone fully acknowledge that this awkward firebender now ruled over the audience at their backs. As the crowds writhed and murmured and cheered, she found her place amidst her thoughts and dropped down to one knee beside her brother, hiding her confusion and her blush behind her hair as she bent her head in veneration.

Their group had once again been united under his vast shadow. Beneath her hand, which curled with disbelief on the carpet, she wondered if that was the world quaking or just the illusion she'd had in her mind of what he'd become shattering into a thousand pieces.

"Hey, Sparky," she heard Toph hiss, "I enjoy the earth and all, but I'd appreciate it if I could stretch my legs sometime within the next few hundred years."

Clearing his throat, Zuko pushed himself to his feet and descended the steps to where they were gathered, his hair arranged in its crown so that his scar was fully visible to all onlookers. Peeking up through her lashes, she carefully watched his expression, taking in the way he viewed their small group with an unreadable look in his eyes. A hush had descended among the crowd of onlookers, and she grit her teeth as her nails bit into the lavish carpet, wondering how long he would stand there and bask in their obligatory praise.

Thankfully, he nodded his head to them, summoning that they were allowed to rise. Sokka and she both released mingled sighs of relief as he rolled his shoulders and she pointedly brushed at the dress fabric covering her stomach, her stare still trained on his motions from beneath her lashes. Aang uncomfortably rubbed the back of his neck as a wave of tense silence crashed in amongst them, and her brother scratched absently at his cheek, tilting his head back as he surveyed the Fire Kingdom's palace with a mixture of awe and cynicism. He no doubt had gone back to the day of the comet's arrival.

It wasn't surprising that Toph broke the ice. What was surprising to the remaining three was that, instead of interrupting with a forced compliment in front of the eyes of Zuko's guards and adulators, she stepped forward and punched him in the shoulder with a smirk on her face, causing him to wince in surprise. A ripple of unease spread like a forest fire through everyone watching as she remarked, "I came here for a big party, Sparky. And it might just be because I'm blind, but I'm not seeing anyone having fun right now."

With ease that must have come with much practice over the years, Zuko smiled and batted her hand away, his palm then falling to rub at the back of his neck. "Right. If you'll follow me…"

Already, Toph was shoving past him with an impish grin on her face, and Sokka broke away from Katara's side to stumble and grasp her arm. Pulling her back, he muttered heated words into her air, but she playfully rubbed her knuckles into his head, embarrassing him in front of a large portion of the Fire Nation, which looked on with disbelief. Here they were, lauded saviors of the world, acting like children.

Aang and Zuko shared embarrassed glances, and Katara rubbed at her forehead in frustration. Closing her eyes, she muttered, "A grand tour would be nice, Zuko," brandishing her arm in a grand wave as she signaled her impatience. Then, remembering her place, she blinked in surprise and shot him a remorseful look. "Er, Fire Lord. I mean, if it wouldn't be beneath you give us a humble--"

He lifted a fist to his mouth as he bit back a laugh, amusement softening his dignified expression. "Zuko," he remarked simply, his amber eyes smoldering as he held her gaze, and as her face reddened he tossed a glance towards Aang, who was leaning against his airbending staff hopelessly, at odds at what to do in such a situation. So used to freedom from rules, he never had grown comfortable with royal proceedings. "I think you'll find it's a lot more comfortable than the Western Air Temple."

With the attention redirected on him, a grin enthusiastically split his face. "I doubt that!" Aang remarked with laughter in his voice, and he patted the Fire Lord amiably on the back before he hurried along after Sokka, who was currently being dragged along by Toph despite his best efforts to keep her stationary. Zuko calmly watched with his arms folded across his chest and a smile dancing on his lips, not appearing too worried about the possibility that they might get lost.

As she drew herself up uncomfortably, painfully aware of the whispers sounding loudly at her back, she shot the Fire Lord a furtive glance, trying to see through his royal mask to find the boy who'd left their side to pick up the pieces of his fallen kingdom. And she could barely make him out, from the way he cocked his head to the side, from the way his golden gaze stared into space as a million jumbled thoughts racked his brain.

She wasn't prepared for that pooling stare to light on her face, however, and she found herself momentarily transfixed as time stopped and only they existed, his eyes capturing hers as his arms loosened and fell to his sides. But the blood began to pulse in her cheeks, and in embarrassment she jerked her head away, brows knitting in confusion as she hugged her arms close and stiffened the line of her shoulders. "Well? Let's get going, Fire Lord," she muttered, taking her frustration in herself out on him, just as she'd done when she was fifteen. She wondered if he was relieved to see that time hadn't changed her.

She certainly didn't miss the small grin on his lips as she hurried off after their friends.

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Katara found her reflection in the ripples of the palace's pond, and she sighed, fondling her mother's necklace with her fingertips.

Just as it had every year, Zuko's birthday had pulled her into the confines of the Fire Nation's walls, despite her lingering discomfort with the nation, despite the unease she felt in being met with the lasting effects of a war that hadn't left a single village untouched. And as always, the moment her stare had fallen upon his expression, one that was masked by stoic responsibility and impassive surveillance, the emotions had crushed her in a sudden rush and left her breathless. A year's worth of longing for his face, of seething frustration that he seemed just as callous as his father, of guilt that she would think to compare him to Ozai, of sadness that they hadn't kept in touch, and, most prominently, of love had all coursed through her veins, itching beneath her skin and throbbing within her heart.

In her eyes now, she saw the anguish shining bright, and angrily she swept her fingers through the water as her right hand curled around the stone at her neck, cooling it against her palm. Not for the first time, she wondered what it would be like to replace her mother's necklace with one made by his own hands – to feel the foreign, silky texture of a red ribbon around her throat, to finger a rougher, heavier stone that professed his love for her…

Closing her eyes, she groaned and slumped tiredly over her knees, her fingers dropping from the necklace and moving to sink into the damp earth around her knees. Both hands curling into the ground as she continued to peer into the water's depths, she wondered if she'd be able to keep this up – showing up for a week, leaving for a year, and not receiving any word from him in the meantime because he was so busy. Her heart practically broke at the concept.

"So you've found my favorite hideaway."

Startling with a strangled gasp, she raked her eyes across the water's surface, watching the way his shadow was distorted by the ripples. Gaze wide and incredulous, she jerked her head back and straightened, looking into his face as her lips parted wordlessly. Rubbing the back of his head, he smiled awkwardly for a moment, the moving to her side and falling to a crouch beside her, his elegant robe sweeping into the mud. Shaking herself, she snapped her attention back to the pond and stared determinedly across it, taking in the squawking turtle-ducks that had emerged from beneath the shade of the courtyard's towering tree.

"Where're Aang and Sokka and Toph?"

He shrugged and reached within the folds of his robe. Distractedly, she turned her head in time to see him withdraw a loaf of bread. In confusion, she lifted her eyes from his hands to his face, and she caught a smile on his lips. "Last time I checked, the Avatar was bouncing on his bed like he was twelve again. And Toph's currently wreaking havoc in my hallways – sometimes I wonder how your brother managed to tame her."

"Oh, they're not together," Katara replied simply, and her remark earned her a wide-eyed look of surprise on the Fire Lord's part. Grinning, she fell into a crouch beside him, wrapping her arms comfortably around her knees as she watched the turtle-ducks float. "You know how much of a hopeless idiot my brother can be."

"Then…he's with the Kyoshi warrior?"

Katara shook her head. "They never settled down. There was always some different excuse with Sokka. So, eventually, Suki grew tired and moved back to Kyoshi. The big idiot still hasn't realized what that something getting in the way is."

Zuko grunted in response as he tore a piece of bread from the loaf and threw it onto the surface of the pond. Katara watched in delight as a small duckling broke away from its school and swam with haste towards the unexpected treat. A soft laugh was even loosed from her lips as it dove for a moment; Zuko looked to her with soft amusement as it emerged and fervently shook water droplets from his head.

"And you?"

Blinking, she jerked her head and directed her curious stare on his face, taking in the scar she'd come to love and the gentle purse of his lips. "What about me?"

Frustration drew his eyebrow downward, and, flustered, he shrugged and glanced away, tearing several more pieces of bread from the loaf. He tossed it into the pond, and this time two more turtle-ducks joined their sibling, quacking impatiently as they attacked the morsels of food. "Well? Do you have suitors? Have you settled down? It's not as if I know what you've been doing for the last year."

"Are you blaming me?" she asked in shrill accusation now, startling the ducklings several feet backwards. Hesitantly they circled the bread, and with a sigh Zuko tore a few more pieces, tossing them into the pond. The animals stall for a moment or two, swimming forward and then hastening back, until one brave one breaks out of the line and pounces on the bread, its siblings quickly following.

"Why're you so quick to jump to conclusions?" he asked, anger lacing his quiet tone. "Even after all this time, you haven't changed, have you? You're still irrational and completely impossible to talk to."

"Well at least I recognize myself. We don't even know how to approach you anymore – if we even get to talk to you, that is!" she snapped, not caring that her voice carried across the courtyard. No one was around to hear them, so why should she care? "But you – you're just cold and emotionless and--"

He grabbed her hand, which she'd been jabbing pointedly into his chest, and she caught her breath in a startled gasp as her gaze flew to his in an instant. With his brow furrowed in frustration, he bared his teeth in a silent growl as he silently deliberated what he wanted to say. She can't remember her aggravation anymore, however, so lost in his swirling stare and the beauty of his face.

Her eyes watering before she could help it, she apologetically lifted her fingers and brushed them against his chin. He startled, confusion sweeping into his expression as his eyes widened, but before he could ask one of the million questions flying through his mind she took his hand and ran her thumb along the palm, tracing the old calluses that still remained.

"There's no one," she murmured softly, lifting his hand and brushing it against her lips. He sucked in a startled breath, and remorsefully she squeezed his fingers and then dropped his hand entirely. Her own falling limply into her lap, she looked to her left, her loosened hair clouding her face as she lowered lidded eyes to the grass.

"Look, Zuko…" Her heart twisted at the sound of his name. "I didn't mean to fight with you. Maybe I'm just tired from the long journey. I haven't ridden on Appa in a while now." Smiling awkwardly at the thought, she brought her stare back into her lap, where she was nervously twiddling her fingers. When the silence persisted, her smiled dropped, and she sighed as she placed her hands on the ground. "So, I'm going to go freshen up. Maybe then I'll be more civil with you…"

She pushed off the ground, wincing when her knees cracked and her legs shook from staying crouched so long. Sighing as she wiped the mud from her hands onto the fabric covering her hips, she looked down and smiled at the Fire Lord, who was avoiding her gaze and staring intently out at the surface of the pond. Frowning in disappointment, she nodded to herself and turned to leave, listening to his clothes rustle behind her.


Hesitating, she glanced over her shoulder and watched him stand, meanwhile tearing the half-loaf in his hands into large shreds. He dropped them into the water for them to float away, and then his hand came to rest behind his neck as he turned to her, his stare hesitant and hopeful at the same time.

She met his eyes, playing with her hands as the wind picked up in the courtyard and the turtle-duck young squabbled over their impromptu snack. Brushing a lock of hair behind her ears, she turned her gaze onto the pond, smiling gently as she watched the mother in the background, calmly circling around, at ease with the lull of the afternoon. Her hands instinctively moved to the necklace around her throat, and for comfort she squeezed the stone tightly within her grasp.

She wondered if she'd ever get the chance to be a mother.

Emotions welling up in her throat, she hastily shook her head and turned away from him. "I should really go. See y--"

Rough hands gripped her arm, and suddenly she was whirled around, her wrists caught in his grasp just as they had been those many years ago, when his stare hadn't been so soft and his mouth hadn't been so inclined to smile. Now, as she caught her breath in a rush of surprise, she lifted her chin and searched his face, finding beneath the Fire Lord's mask the same nervous boy who'd cried with them on the day of Ozai's demise.

"Stop leaving," he whispered, his voice sounding strangled in his throat. His eyes darted momentarily from her face as he something in the distance caused him to frown, but, deeming it as nothing perhaps, he shot his gaze back to capture her stare. Fumbling for words, she flinched when he released her wrists and cupped her cheek carefully in his palm, sweeping his thumb just beneath her eye as he gave an ironic smile. She let her lashes flutter to a close, reliving that day in Ba Sing Se, her heart stuttering when his thumb rested softly against her lips. "I haven't changed."

Smiling awkwardly at the words she'd never thought she'd be so happy to hear, she opened tear-filled eyes and pressed her hand to his heart, feeling its rapid staccato beneath her palm. "I guess not."

He drew her close, and she went limp in his arms as he captured her mouth in his, driving his fingers eagerly through her hair. As she leaned flush against his chest, she wrapped her arms tightly around his neck, eyes squeezed shut as she hungrily parted her lips and let his tongue delve into the dark corners of her mouth. A shudder coursed rapidly down her spine, and when at last her breath failed her she broke away and cautiously nuzzled her forehead against his chin, basking in his smoky scent. Here before her stood the Fire Lord, but all she could wrap her mind around was the fact that Zuko's strong arm was wrapped around her middle and his callused fingers were playing with her hair.

"Sugar Queen, I know you've been hopelessly in love with Sparky here since back during Sozin's comet…" Sucking in a breath, Katara twisted in Zuko's grasp, feeling his arm instinctively tighten around her waist as she did so. Against one of the columns near the facade leading back into the palace, Toph sat with a mischievous smirk on her lips, legs folded close and arms crossed over her chest. "…but imagine how bad it would look for our jolly ol' Fire Lord here if he was caught sucking face with a Water Tribe girl."

She colored indignantly as she tried to break free of Zuko's grasp, but he held her tightly. In frustration, she whirled on him, pointing in the earthbender's direction. "You knew she was there?"

Uncomfortably, he shrugged. "I may have heard her coming."

"Why would you encourage her like this? Why?"

"I still owe her a few things," he remarked simply. "Besides, how else would I realize that you've been in love with me?"

As blood rushed into Katara's cheeks, Toph remarked, "I'd say that kiss would've cleared things up a bit."


"All right, I'm going, I'm going. Sheesh." Stamping her foot, she vaulted back onto her feet and ran her fingers through her long, black locks, swinging around the column. "Don't be too long. Sokka's already chewing off the last of his fingernails thinking about you two. It's only a matter of time before he takes that stupid boomerang to your valuables, Sparky."

Katara watched with slight impatience as Zuko grinned. Leaning her forehead against his chest, she curled her hands momentarily into the cloth of his royal robe, and then she let out a sigh, nuzzling into his shoulder completely. He stiffened, only to cradle the back of her head with his palm.

"She's right," Katara muttered reluctantly.

"She normally is."

"I shouldn't be seen with you."

"You are only a peasant."

She stiffened and shot him a glare, at which he smirked. His eyes pooled happily, and with his left arm secure around her waist he leaned forward and brushed his lips against her forehead. Sighing, she relaxed into his hold for a short moment before pushing determinedly away, thereafter smoothing the wrinkles from her dress as she avoided his stare altogether. "You should go, almighty Fire Lord."

Zuko smiled and brushed the back of his hand against her cheek, encouraging her to lift her chin as he passed. Wide-eyed and still slightly flushed, she tucked a strand of hair behind her ear as his figure progressed further and further from where she stood, her feet shuffling on the grass restlessly. As her thumb brushed tentatively against her bottom lip, she shifted her gaze back to the pond of turtle-ducks and to the spot where Zuko had crouched, looking so innocuous as he fed bread chunks into the water. Her eyes softened.

She couldn't even wrap her mind around how much Zuko had grown into a man.

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WHEAHDPIHFFOAGHVL;J;KFLAJIHBA;L and various other garble. Please review.