It'd been six years since the end of the war. Peace had been fragile at best and was certainly harder to maintain than war, but Zuko, now a 23-year-old man, always up for the challenges, met each one head on. Mai had stood by his side for some time, but as childhood romances do, their romance faded as they found their desires varied greatly after the war. He had become briefly involved with several other women after her, but none were what he was looking for.
He was met that spring afternoon by his friend, the waterbender, who helped him get to where he was today. Katara. It seemed she got lovelier each time he saw her. She wasn't the awkward little 15-year-old anymore, now a beautiful 21-year-old woman in flowing blue silk robes and brown hair styled in a very elaborate fashion appropriate for her visit to his homeland. He knew that she and the Avatar, his friend Aang, held a romance, but as with he and Mai, their childhood relationship faded as well, discovering that their desires differed as greatly as the changes the rest of the world made around them.
As she approached, beaming her brilliant smile as always, Zuko put on his trademark scowl. "Typically one would bow before the Fire Lord."
She stopped in mid-step, confusion plastered over her face. Since when had she had to bow to him? As she tilted her head in confusion and began to bow appropriately, he rushed her and surrounding her with his arms lifting her into the air, whispering into her hair, "But for you I always make the exception." He pulled away and she wrinkled her nose at him, slapping his chest.
"You're such a jerk! I thought you were being serious," her pout quickly turning to laughter, slipping her arm into the crook of his elbow as he led her inside the palace. He motioned behind him for the porters to bring her chests to her rooms.
There was comfortable silence between animated conversations as they ate their early evening meal, strolled around the palace, eventually finding themselves walking throughout the grounds until they reached gardens. Katara took it upon herself to find the coziest patch of grass and have a seat there, with Zuko following suit. She plucked a flower from the ground, bringing it to her nose while Zuko leaned back and closed his eyes, letting the sounds and smells of dusk in the palace take him away for a time.
She poked him in the side, a playful smile on her lips, "So have you been sleeping okay? No more nightmares?" She teased him to this day about that night on the beach six years ago.
He shook his head and couldn't stop the chuckle that escaped, "You remember that?"
"Of course I remembered!" she laughed, "You said I was the Fire Lady. How could I forget?"
"Well, there is one, where I've been riding a red dragon-"
Her laughter interrupted him. He turned and frowned slightly at her inconsideration.
"Sorry. Sorry!" she covered her mouth with her hand, "That just sounded… dirty." She whispered the last word like she was a little kid afraid of getting caught by her parents.
Zuko had to admit it did sound a little "dirty". He smirked and poked her in the side with his finger, "So you know about riding dragons, huh?"
She blushed prettily, turning a shade Zuko had never seen before. "Perhaps," she smiled secretly, "No. Honestly, I don't. I suppose if one caught my attention, I might be willing to see what it could do."
"So one hasn't caught your attention then?" He lifted an eyebrow and narrowed his eyes at her very curious. "I figured with as long as you and Aang were together, that…"
The words hung in the air not finishing the thought that crossed his mind on several occasions. Zuko watched as her lips lowered slightly and her brow furrowed before she turned her gaze to the twilight sky, running the flower under her nose. Zuko watched her for a moment expecting her to answer his question but she remained silent.
"I've had these… dreams too. Lately," Katara finally spoke up. Zuko turned to face her, resting his cheek in his palm as she continued, "I'm flying on Appa at first that then turns into a turtle-seal and then I'm riding an ostrich-horse and I'm trying to go home where my family has been waiting for me. I keep getting messages that I need to hurry, they're really excited to see me, but for some reason every turn is the wrong one or the roads are so twisty that I get off course and I'm frustrated because I want to go home but the roads aren't letting me." She closed her eyes and bit her lip before continuing seeming to have a hard time choosing the right words, "Do you feel like since the war has been over, your purpose isn't as clear?"
Zuko brought his brows together and thought about this, "Well, I knew I was going to be the Fire Lord and here I am so no, not really, I guess."
Katara snorted lightly, "I guess you're right," she turned to look back at the rapidly darkening sky.
"What's wrong?" he asked, gently touching Katara's hand.
"I don't know. It's like everywhere I go, I feel like a stranger."
"But you've been all over the world and from experience everyone who meets you loves you."
Katara smiled at that observation, "Yeah, I suppose, but it's still so easy to feel like I don't belong anywhere."
"Do you feel that way here?"
She bit her lip again, "No. I don't. And I think that's what bothers me."
"Because this shouldn't be home. The South Pole should. Or the North Pole. Or one of the air temples. But I'm most comfortable here and that's just weird to me."
Zuko sat up and rested his arms on his bent knees, sitting in a very unroyal position, "If it makes you feel better I didn't feel at home here for a long time. Sometimes it feels like it's just been the past year or so before I was truly home."
"Yeah," he replied, grabbing a stalk of grass and twisting it in his fingers, "But it's still very lonely here by myself."
Katara laughed gently and leaned in, "How can you possibly be lonely? You have throngs of girls thrown your way, thousands of subjects who adore and admire you, a palace chalk full of people. How can that be lonely?"
"I guess since Mai and I broke up, I've been lonely in that way."
Katara laughed again heartily, putting on a fake sad face and mocking him, "Oh, poor little Fire Lord isn't getting any and that makes him sad?"
Zuko flung his grass blade at her then ripped up several more tossing them at her, in mock anger. "Who you calling little, waterbender?"
She began ripping up the grass also and throwing it back at him, "Oh, excuse me, your royal heinie-ass." Finally after several minutes of throwing grass and flowers, covered in clippings, he lunged at her and they wrestled in an extremely unroyal fashion, until Zuko had her pinned beneath him, breathing heavily, her hair flowing like a halo around her face.
"Do you remember that night?" she asked, blue eyes sparkling up at him.
"Always," he answered, not needing a clue as to which night she referred to.
"Me too," her breath was heavy and her eyes darkened in a way Zuko had only seen once for the briefest moment on a beach a long time ago. Normally he was an idiot when it came to women and when to get a clue when or when not to make a move, but for some reason it was all so easy with her. Leaning down as best he could without squishing her under his weight, his lips slowly lowered to hers, half expecting Katara to push him away, instead her lips rose up and met his half way, her arms wrapping around his neck and bringing him the rest of the way to her.
That electrifyingly excitement, that moment, that feeling that he had searched so long for was right there and this time there was no pulling away, no stopping for uncertainty because the uncertainty had been left on that beach so long ago. They only pulled away to catch their breaths, to gaze into the other's eyes asking, pleading, if this was real. Was this the remaining path, that second crossroad, they needed to follow? The second kiss gave them that answer.
He had just arrived at the beach house after endless meeting after endless meeting; he was finally able to leave. Zuko stood in the foyer listening for voices but all he could hear were the sounds of the ocean below. His eyes found the painting on the wall, déjà vu overwhelming him as his finger traced the family in the picture and the three little handprints in clay still wet from earlier. The siren's song of the ocean called to him as it had before. Smiling in anticipation, he walked down the steps to the beach, his red robes flapping in the salty breeze. At the edge of the beach he gaze fell on the two little girls as they raced the tides while a woman sat beside an even smaller little boy in the sand making sandcastles. The little family's laughter filled his ears over the gentle lapping of the waves against the shore.
That swell of pride and belonging filled him in a way that made his heart soar each time.
Zuko didn't think it was possible for those smiling faces to get brighter but when they looked his way, they did.
"Daddy!" both girls screamed out at once. As fast as their little legs could carry them, they rushed towards him.
The woman and baby slowly rose from their sandy perch and followed the little girls, smiling just as brightly.
Zuko gladly bent down and lift the littler of the two girls into his arms, instantly getting her little arms around his neck. The other hugged around his waist burying her face into his stomach.
As the woman and baby approached, recognition swept over him and he smiled.
It was that girl who traveled with the Avatar all those years ago. The cursed waterbender who through fate's design was now his beloved wife and the mother of their three children.
He slid a hand past her hip to her lower back pulling her into him as well he could with the child she held and the child he held. He leaned his head down as she tilted her head up. As their lips came closer and closer until they finally pressed together, he felt it.
Love. Devotion. Security. Safety. More than anything though, he felt love.
It was so wonderful and he knew in his heart of hearts he would not lose this feeling ever again.
"I'll make lunch?" Katara offered as they separated.
"Please," he answered lowering the girl in his arms to follow her mother, watching Katara smile again, and herding the children up to the house.
Before following his family, Zuko turned to look back over the beach, half wondering if he would see his younger self feeling as if now he was the viewed rather than the viewer. He smiled knowingly out at the sand, hoping that if history repeated itself, his younger self would be this happy. Heading up the stairs to follow his family Zuko thought to himself that some nightmares can happily come true.
Well that was a fun little one shot that kept on going. I hope you enjoyed it too. I'd love to hear what people think, good or bad, it's all good. Thanks for reading!