Title: Ever After
Summary: Zuko and Katara's married years, because happily ever after is vastly over rated.
Coupling: Zuko/Katara, obviously.
Warnings: Language, character death, slight sexual content.
Disclaimer: If I owned it, it would have been canon. The songs belongs to Pink and Saving Abel.
Slight AU Note: Iroh became Fire Lord before Zuko, because I do not believe Zuko was prepared to rule the nation when the war ended. Everything else is canon
When it's good, then it's good, it's so good till it goes bad
Till you're trying to find the you that you once had
I have heard myself cry never again
Broken down in agony
Sober – Pink
A bead of sweat trickled from his forehead, down his cheek, and lingered at his chin for the slightest of seconds before dropping. It didn't last long enough to land on his chest, dissolving from the heat that radiated from his body before it even had a chance. It wasn't safe, wasn't healthy; he was overdoing it, pushing it more than he should, and somewhere in the back of his mind, Zuko knew it, but Agni, he didn't really give a flying fuck. He'd never felt like this before, never wanted to hurt someone so much, never wanted to kill so much. He wasn't even sure who he wanted to kill, much less why, but he didn't question it at the moment. It was petty and barbaric, and as Fire Lord he should be above it, but didn't give a fuck. He had never been so angry before, so outraged, so…so hurt.
She had known it was going to happen. She had known that she wouldn't be there with him after, and she hadn't told him. Had decided to keep it a secret, so when he awoke and found her without a pulse, it would break him more than he could have ever imagined. A part of him was fighting it with everything he had – Katara would never do that. Would never hide something so crucial, so important, so incomprehensible from him. Not when she had to know how much it would kill him, too.
Would you get married if something were to happen to me?
I just want to know you'll be okay in case something does happen.
They said there's a slight chance I will have difficulties during the birth.
Katara had known that she was going to die, and hadn't uttered a word to him. A bigger part of him knew the truth, it that it was too obvious to believe otherwise. Too foolish for him to not acknowledge that she had lied to him, betrayed him, hurt him in a way that he had never imagined.
The other part of him was arguing that she was Katara and she would never do anything without thinking about how it would affect others first. She had probably been stupid and selfless, thinking that it was her burden to bare, not his. But she had to know how it would affect him in the end, going to sleep one moment and waking to find his wife not breathing the next. How it would kill him too. Because that's what he was now, angry and dead, without her and without a purpose.
Vaguely, he felt his legs give out from underneath him and he collapsed to the ground in a heap. His eyes burned with tears he hadn't dared to shed and he slammed his fist against the floor, cracking it.
I love you, don't you ever forget that.
"I hate you." Zuko cursed up to the heavens, his voice stronger than he felt. "You hear me, Katara?! I HATE YOU." He clamped his eyes shut, because, damn it, he was not going to cry. Not for her. Not when she had hurt him so. "I hate you so much."
I will always love you.
He didn't know how he could be so numb, yet so painfully aware of pounding of his heart. "Damn you, Katara." I hate you. "Damn you, damn you, damn you!" Flames erupted around him, dancing against his skin, threatening to burn him, but he didn't care.
When the fire died down, the tears finally fell from his eyes. Zuko didn't fight them.
I love you so much that it hurts, Katara.
His sense of time was completely gone. Zuko had no idea how long he had been in his training room – minutes? hours? it felt like days – but he was exhausted by the time he left, and everything seemed like a dream, a nightmare. Too real to be true. Yet, at the same time, he was painfully awake and aware of all that had happened. Too real to not be true.
His feet mindlessly wondered the palace. He had no idea where he was going, but did know where he wasn't going. He couldn't return to their – his, he corrected, it was just his now – chambers, he wasn't ready for that. Not now. Nor could he face his friends and her family, couldn't bear to see the pity, the sorrow, in their eyes. They didn't need to remind him that his wife was gone. So he let his feet lead him, almost wishing he didn't know the palace so well so he could get lost in it all.
That was how he found himself standing in front of the mahogany doors. His fingers idly traced the flower patterns etched into the wood, and the softest of smiles tugged at his lips before he opened the doors. It was his mother's study, where he dimly remembered playing as a child on rainy days. The room hadn't changed in the slightest since then, Zuko had made sure of it the moment he had stumbled upon it almost a year after the war. He had been so overwhelmed, so surprised that Ozai hadn't replaced its use (but he supposed somewhere in the back of his mind, Zuko acknowledged that his father had loved his mother, at least at some point). And Uncle had been more willingly to leave it for Zuko.
He perched himself on the chair behind her desk and sank softly into it. He didn't come to the room often, actually he couldn't remember the last time he had. It wasn't that he didn't want to acknowledge it; it just made the moments when he did mean all the more. Amber eyes scanned the scrolls that were neatly piled on the top of the desk, slightly dusty, old records, history tales, and (he couldn't help but smile a little more) several children's stories, the ones his mother had read to him growing up. His fingers brushing against the paper of one.
You're going to be a wonderful mother, Katara.
That was how it was supposed to be. Katara was supposed to love Iroh, take care of him, because Zuko didn't know how. She was supposed to be the loving, nurturing one, the one their son would always favor. Iroh was supposed to grow up with memories of hearing stories in Katara's study, memories they would talk about when he got older, because, damn it, it was supposed to be different for Iroh. He was supposed to have the life that Zuko and Katara never had with their mothers, because she was supposed to be there for him!
Instead, Iroh would be damned to a fate far worse than either of his parents. He would never know the warmth of a mother's hugs, the safety of her presence. He would never know the greatest love he could ever have. Iroh would never know his mother.
Zuko buried his head in hands, no longer finding comfort in the room.
It was like that she found him. "Zuko!" She sighed, almost as if in relief. "Everyone is looking for you. We were all worried…" She trailed off.
He wiped his tears as discreetly as he could and glared at Suki. "I didn't go and jump off a cliff or something stupid like that." Part of him wished he had. "I just needed to be alone." He said, hoping she would take the hint.
"Oh." There was an awkward moment and Zuko was just about to inform her that now that she knew, she was more than welcome to go and leave him the fuck alone, when she spoke again. "I have something for you." He continued to glare at her, waiting. "I left it in your chambers."
"I'll get it when I go there then." Zuko turned the chair around so his back was facing her, all but kicking her out of the room.
So it startled him when she spoke again. "It's a letter from Katara." He spun the chair to face her. "She asked me to make sure you got it after…"
Suki appeared at the door behind Kanna. Her hair was pulled back into a messy bun, her clothes were ruffled, and she was sweating a little. A frown tugged at his lips when he noticed how swollen her eyes were and slightly reddened almost as if...
Almost as if she had been crying.
"You knew?!" The chair fell back from his sudden jump, but Zuko paid little attention to it and glared at Suki instead. "You knew the whole time?!" He clenched his fists, trying to convince himself that it was not a good idea to hit his friend.
She didn't flinch or break the gaze. "Not the whole time, but yes, I knew." Later he would acknowledge the shamed look on her face and that she was sorry for her actions. But in that moment, Zuko just saw red.
He didn't remember grabbing the scroll, much less throwing it. Suki barely had time to duck, before it missed her and slammed against the wall, leaving a dent. "Why the fuck didn't you tell me?! You should have told me!"
Her eyes narrowed at the scroll he was gripping. "Katara asked me not to."
"You still should have told me! I could have - "
"You couldn't have done anything!" Her voice cracked, and, for the first time, Zuko realized how fragile Suki looked. Her bun was doing nothing for holding her hair back, her skin was paler, and her eyes were swollen and red. It was then that he remembered that Katara had meant something to Suki too; she had been her best friend. "She was surrounded by healers, some of the best in the world, Zuko. They did everything they possibly could, but there was nothing that could be done."
There was a silence that followed and he could hear his heart pounding in his chest. "You still should have told me."
Suki glared at him like there was something she would very much like to tell him, and, in that moment, she reminded him so much of Katara, he couldn't bear to look at her. "You…" She took a deep breath. "The letter's beside your bed, when you're ready to read it." He heard her footsteps as she left the room.
Zuko bowed his head and clenched his fists as tears streamed down his cheeks.
There was a crying coming from his chambers when he finally entered. He mentally cursed, feeling like the world's worst father. He lifted the crying prince out of his cradle and rested him so that so that his head was at Zuko's shoulder and began to pace across the room, as he had once seen Sokka do with one of his children.
"Shh…it's okay." Zuko tried to sooth the baby. "Don't cry, I'm here now." He adjusted his hold on Iroh, so that he was cradled in Zuko's arms, but it was obviously not his presence that Iroh wanted, and he only cried harder.
It took Zuko half of a candle mark, three checks to see if his wrappings needed to be changed, and two attempted feedings before Iroh finally calmed his crying. He did not sleep, however, but simply gazed up at Zuko, his blue eyes (Katara's eyes) silently begging him. And in that moment, Zuko had never hated Katara so much.
"I know, I want her too." Her whispered, his fingers tracing the bit of black locks that peaked out from his bundle. "But I'm here now, Iroh. I'll take care of you. I promise." Zuko leaned over and kissed the boy on the head. A gurgled laughter escaped the baby and he finally smiled up at his father, seeming to understand what he had been trying to tell him.
It was only moments after that Iroh yawned in a high pitch, before drifting into sleep. Gently, he placed the prince back into the cradle. Zuko stared at him, amazed at how quickly he could change his mind, a smile brushed against his lips. He truly was Zuko's son.
And you're going to be a perfect father, Zuko.
He found the scroll resting on the stand beside his bed, just as Suki said it would be. His fingers brushed against the paper, wanting to (but not yet daring) to pick the scroll up. For a moment he considered taking it somewhere else, somewhere less intimate, but one glance at the baby sleeping in the cradle quickly silenced that idea. He was a father now, he had a responsibility. There would be no more random wondering off for him. His mind made, he sat on the bed, his back against the headboard, and took a deep breath before picking the scroll up.
First and foremost, I love you so very much. I know you have told me countless times that you love me too; I hope once you know everything you will still feel that way and will forgive me.
I lied to you and I'm sorry. Do you remember that night, all those months ago, when I told you the healers said there was a slight chance that there would be complications during the birth? When I promised you that it was nothing more than slight? I lied, Zuko and I'm sorry. They told me that because of the internal injuries I had from the war – do not even think about blaming yourself (Zuko half flinched, half smiled at how well she knew him) – there was a good chance that I would not survive if the baby did. They could operate so that I would live, but our child wouldn't, and I would be unable to having any more children. To give you an heir.
You love your nation, Zuko, I know you do. Yet you fought them when they challenged me as your wife, you were willing to give it all up for me. But if I couldn't give you an heir, the nobles would turn on you, you would lose your support. I couldn't ask you to do that for me, not again. I know you would, but I don't want you to. I know how much you love the Fire Nation. You are a wonderful ruler, and I would hate myself if you lost that because of me. So I chose our child, over myself and I know I made the right choice.
I know you're upset with me for not telling you sooner, but I was selfish, Zuko, and I'm sorry. I wanted to spend the remainder of my life with you, living each day as if it were a normal. Everything would have been different if you knew; you would have spent your time trying to fight it and it would have been a lost cause. I would have lost my last real moments with you, and I couldn't bear that. I was selfish and I'm sorry.
You told me that if you were to have another wife, you would resent her for not being me. Please do not resent Iroh. It was my decision and my decision alone. Take care of him, Zuko. I know you will be a wonderful father, and I know that he will make you proud. He is ours – yours and mine – and I will always be there if he is. Love him enough for the both of us. I know you won't let me down.
I hope you will forgive me. I love you Zuko, and I love Iroh. I don't regret anything.
He wasn't sure how long he sat there, how many times he read and reread the letter, hoping each time it would get easier. It didn't. Yet, somehow, it did. Everything Katara did, every moment they had shared in the past nine months was suddenly different, suddenly meant so much more. He could almost see how much more love was in her eyes, the closer the days got.
Iroh's cries broke his thoughts and Zuko was at the cradle before he knew it. It only seemed that the baby had wanted his attention, however, because the moment he held him, Iroh's cries died and he settled down. The Fire Lord couldn't help but roll his eyes, a soft smile spreading across his lips.
"Spoiled little brat, aren't you?"
Iroh gurgled another laughter and almost seemed to take pride in it. Before Zuko could even think, a tiny little hand crept out of the bundle and reached up until Zuko lowered his face so that the baby could touch him. He patted Zuko's cheek twice and when he withdrew his hand, it was wet. Zuko blinked. Was he crying? He hadn't noticed.
Zuko had always known there was a chance that he would have to choose between the Nation he ruled and the woman he loved. But he had shoved it to the back of his mind, saying that he would deal with it if it ever came. He had never realized how aware Katara had been of it, much less how ready she had been to make the decision he would never be able to. Zuko had never imagined that anyone could love another as much as he loved Katara, but now he knew that wasn't true. Never had he imagined that she could love him as much, but he was wrong. She loved him more than he had ever thought possible. Katara had given her life for him, for his heir, for his nation.
No, he corrected himself, smiling down at his sleeping son, our nation.
I love you, don't you ever forget that.
He could almost feel her with him. "I won't, Katara, I promise. Never again." He wiped the tears that had fallen from his cheeks onto Iroh, and kissed his forehead. "I love you."
I will always love you.
You show me what it means to live
You give me hope when I was hopeless
As my days fade to night
I remember that state of mind
18 Days – Saving Abel
Zuko had just signed the bottom of a document and rolled the scroll back up, when the knock came to his door. "Enter." He put paper in pile on the top left corner of his desk.
A guard entered followed by young boy. His dark hair was pulled back into a high ponytail, he was dressed in red robes, and his arms were crossed over his chest. He kicked the dirt that didn't exist and his blue eyes glared at the floor, not yet looking up. "Your son, Fire Lord." The guard said.
"Prince Iroh." Zuko's voice was slightly hard.
Iroh's eyes widened as if he had suddenly remembered something important. He scrambled to stand straight and his eyes locked with his father's before he put a fist to an open palm and bowed. "Good afternoon, Father."
Zuko nodded. "Good afternoon."
I know that he will make you proud.
He smiled and motioned for the boy to come closer, formalities dropping once the guard had left. Iroh did so, dragging a chair behind him. Zuko waited until he was seated before continuing. "Your instructor tells me you started a fight with another student." He didn't bother to ask if he was alright. Iroh had shown signs of being a prodigy from an early age (something he had probably inherited from his mother, although Zuko would never admit it out loud), so that combined with his temper (something he had definitely inherited from his father), Zuko assumed that it was the other child who he needed to worry about being alright.
Iroh crossed his arms over his chest again and glared at his feet. "He deserved it."
Zuko fought the urge to smile at how much the boy must have resembled him in that moment. "You know that is no excuse. As Prince you have to be an example - "
"He said Mom was a peasant!"
He is ours – yours and mine.
Memories of when he first met Katara ran through his mind. Zuko couldn't help it, he laughed. It was loud and completely undignified for a Fire Lord to do, but he did it anyway.
Iroh's eyes widened and his jaw dropped slightly. "Dad?"
It died down to a chuckle. "You know, I used to call her that when we were younger."
Iroh stared at him as if he had just told his son he secretly wanted to be an Earthbender. "…what?!"
I suppose it's time to tell him, Katara. He could almost feel her smiling at him. "I never told you how your Mom and I met, did I?" Iroh shook his head, still slightly shocked. "You've learned about the war in you history class? We met one hundred years after it started, the day the Avatar, Aang, came back. At the start, we didn't like each other very much. In fact, we weren't on the same side…" And so Zuko began the story that had started it all.
I will always be there if he is.
Note: I can't believe this is over. I've been working on several version of this story since December, and now it's finally done. It's relieving, but almost depressing at the same time. I'm not sure what I'm going to do with myself now, lol.
I'm sorry if you didn't like this ending, but it was the whole reason for this story being written. I couldn't just not write it. Ever since I first started writing fanfiction, over eight years ago, I have wanted to do something that touches someone, that sticks with them. There are a handful of stories that have stuck with my over the years, because they effected me and my writing so much. I wanted to see if I could do something like that. I think I might have gotten close with Condition of Love, but I'm not sure I got there (probably because it was written about Kataang, which I do not ship). That being said, I felt like Katara's note wasn't as great as it could have been, but I hate writing in anyone but Zuko's point of view and I absolutely despise first person, so that was incredibly hard for me to do. At the end, Iroh was about eight in my head, so I was trying to imagine an older, wiser Zuko. I tried to aim for him to be a bit like Uncle Iroh, but still holding onto Zuko, so I hope I was successful.
For a couple of moments, I thought about writing this story in Katara's point of view as well, but I'm not comfortable enough to write her. I tried to draw a couple of scenes too, but that was just a major failure, lol. (But I'd be overjoyed if someone else could/would.) Anyway, I hope you enjoyed reading this and Happy Fourth of July to all my American readers!
Update 7/17/09 - MoonlightSpirit has written a companion to this called Stories of the Past in which Zuko tells Iroh about how he and Katara met.
Update 11/4/09 - I am offering a free Zutara oneshot to anyone who will make me a Zutara fanart from Ever After, Where We Belong, or Surmount.
I want to give a special shout out to my friends Topaz and Muffintine. They've helped me along this whole fic, and Ever After would not be what it is without their imput. They helped me from everything to brainstorming idea to picking out songs lyrics to making sure everyone was IC. You guys seriously rock. I love you.
Review, please. =]