Denial

written November 16, 2009


Katara tried to be angry.

She tried to remember the rage, blazing green like the crystals that lit the caverns, the betrayal made more bitter by the hope she'd held for that instant before he'd chosen.

She tried to hang onto the fury that had sustained her attacks, tried to turn the embarrassment at reaching out to him into anger, justification for why he could never, ever, be anything but a traitor. Katara tried to be angry at Zuko, tried to hate him, tried to lock him out and deny him that acceptance he so clearly sought.

He made it damn hard, though, and Katara found herself watching him again, drawn by the balance of tension and desperate care visible in his hands, hands that shook slightly every time he glanced up to see her watching him. He made it damn hard by his willingness – determination – to be useful, to fit in; he firebent with Aang, hunted with Sokka, carried Toph around the Western Air Temple; not only helped her prepare meals but insisted that the others help as well. She hadn't washed a single dish since Zuko had appeared from thin air yet again, and Katara found herself increasingly unable to hate him.

After all, she'd forgiven before, and for wounds just as bad – and Jet was far easier to dislike than Zuko.

Speak of the devil

"Heya, Sugar Queen," Jet said, dropping two jackalopes and a basket of wild greens onto the stone ledge that served as a counter. "Look who brought home the bacon." He bounced a stalk of grass in his teeth and she tried to be annoyed, but found herself smiling instead.

"Bring back a cow-pig next time, and maybe I'll be impressed." He smirked and sauntered off, glancing back briefly over his shoulder, and she shook her head.

"I'll clean those," Zuko said softly, and Katara shrugged.

"I'll take one, and you can do the other." They worked closely, side by side at the narrow workspace, and this time she didn't flinch when their elbows brushed. His hand on the skinning knife was steady even as his brow was furrowed, and she stopped her own work to really look at him, to think about he couldn't even recognize the snarling prince of her memory in the awkward boy beside her.

He looked up, and something suspiciously warm rose in her throat at the expression on his face, in his eyes and in the hopeful set of his mouth, and Katara realized that she'd forgiven him a long time ago.


The atmosphere seemed to relax somehow in the following days, the tension of the war and the comet and loved ones absent or imprisoned present, but the here-and-now seemed somehow gentled, almost pleasant as their ragtag group worked towards a common goal.

Jet and Sokka spent their days sparring and planning, maps spread on the ground and diagrams scratched hastily into the sand. Jet couldn't read, but he more than made up for it with his experience leading guerilla attacks, and Katara found herself glad that Sokka finally had someone to strategize with.

She turned back to her own fight, glad the she finally had someone to spar with – really spar with, with no teaching or holding back or ducking Toph's sneaky, sneaky attacks. She countered Zuko blow for blow, water against fire, and matched his smirks with her own. She told herself that the heat in her belly was from the bending, from the exertion and exhilaration, and tried not to notice how Zuko's muscles flexed under his skin as they fought.


Then, a few days later, Sokka and Jet and Zuko returned from their "hunting" trip with Suki and their father (and some stranger), and joy overflowed in Katara as she hugged her father, soaked in his warmth and Sokka's, her family reunited at last, and she forgot for a moment about the war, forgot everything but her happiness for just that moment.

Toph and Aang looked on, and Jet and Zuko stood off to one side, Jet grinning and Zuko wearing an unfamiliar expression – a smile, so hopeful and beautiful that something inside Katara melted. She turned and hugged Jet first, fast so that he couldn't grab her, and stepped back with a grin. "Thanks," she said, and Jet winked.

Then she turned to Zuko, who watched her with that same hope even if his smile had faded into apprehension. They watched each other for an endless moment and Katara could see that he was holding his breath, then she stepped forward and hugged him, wrapped her arms around his shoulders and lay her forehead against his neck and felt him sigh as he hugged her in return. "Thank you," she whispered, feeling tears in her eyes as he relaxed against her; she released him slowly and he was still smiling, the apprehension gone, and then Sokka crushed them all into a hug, a knot of smiling, crying, happy people – a family.


The days following were almost idyllic; Suki joined Sokka and Jet's war councils and sparring matches, while Hakoda and Chit Seng formed an unlikely friendship, at times poring over maps and plans and at other times discussing, of all things, philosophy. Teo joined them at times; he had evidently read more than either of them, but listened eagerly to stories of their wide travel.

The benders often practiced in the same open chamber, Toph grilling Haru mercilessly beside Aang while Zuko taught Katara how to counter fire attacks. Katara worked with him on water techniques, too, after Zuko shared Iroh's revelations from watching waterbenders; together, they honed that ability and blended water and fire techniques to make both elements stronger.

Katara stood close in front of Zuko one afternoon, his hands guiding her arms as she followed his motions, her back almost touching his bare chest. They moved through the form together and she felt the stir of fire in the air even as she bent water. She felt the power as it arced through the air and cut through a crumbling stone column like it were sand, and realized that Pakku's instruction had been a mere introduction to the art of bending.

She stared at the gouges for a moment, then looked back to meet Zuko's eyes, his triumphant smile, and his expression warmed as he looked down at her. Something twisted pleasantly in her stomach, lower than her stomach, and she leaned back against him – but then applause cut through the air and Aang bounded across the broad stone ledge

"Wow, Katara! That was amazing!" He grinned up at her. "Show me?"

She swallowed her disappointment as Zuko stepped back and together they walked Aang through the moves, and demonstration devolved into an eight-way sparring match as Toph stomped the earth and Suki and Jet and Sokka leapt forward with swords drawn. Katara ducked the coils of earth that Toph sent rippling her way and then grounded herself against the stone and then suddenly she was back to back with Zuko and he had his swords flaming in his hands and together they were unstoppable.

Jet launched himself at them with a grin, but Zuko blocked the swipe of tiger-head swords with his own dao; he glanced at Katara and smirked and she returned it and pulled water from the air, cracking it in a whip and freezing it so that it smacked Jet across the chest and sent him flying across the chamber.

He flipped in midair, though, landing against a column and leaping forward with a grace that almost rivaled Zuko's own, and they fought their own three-way battle as they ducked rocks and sword blows and the fire and air and water than Aang slung at Toph and Sokka and Suki. Katara distantly noted Haru sitting against a stone column, panting, as Teo handed him a water skin.

The fight finally ended when Aang summoned a massive whirlwind, drawing water up from a nearby fountain and somehow adding the fury of fire to it, flattening them all against the stone. Katara and Zuko held on longer than the rest, shielding each other, but then they fell, too, and Zuko landed heavily over her, his breath warm on her neck and one arm wrapped protectively around her waist.

Oh, Katara thought, and was glad for her dark skin and deep tan even as she worried that they must do nothing to hide the blush she felt spreading across her face. Zuko stirred against her, raised his head, and his hair brushed her cheek before he rolled off of her; he helped her to her feet with a shy grin, and she tried not to tremble at the feel of her hand in his.

"Good fight," Jet said from behind them, and they turned to look at him. He draped an arm over both of them and Katara fought down her disappointment to nod.


Katara tried to remember the contentment of a good fight a few nights later as their reduced party sat around the campfire. She hugged her knees to herself and watched the fire, half-heartedly joined in the toast around her, and forced herself to smile as the whole group laughed with Jet's witty follow-up.

She stood abruptly and left the campfire, making lame excuses and trying to smile for Aang, but her heart ached as she wondered where her father was tonight, if he was discussing philosophy with Chit Seng and Teo, or if he was watching the moon and thinking of she and Sokka. She walked slowly to the bluff and sat down to watch moonlight play on the sea below, and felt her sadness ebb just a little as Zuko sat down quietly beside her.

He didn't speak and didn't look at her, just sat, there, and finally Katara sighed and leaned against him. He stiffened for a moment, then hesitantly draped his arm around her and she relaxed into him, into his warmth and comfort. How could I ever have thought of him as an enemy?

"It's okay," he whispered. "You'll see him soon. You're still a family." Katara nodded against his chest, not trusting herself to speak, and just held onto him for a little longer. She woke the next morning with warm drowsy memories of being laid in her bedroll and a soft kiss being pressed to her forehead.


No no no no no… Katara chanted desperately to herself. Why didn't I learn from Yugoda when I had the chance? She pressed shaking hands down against Zuko's chest, trying to shut out his thin pained whimpers, praying to the ocean and moon and sun that he'd be all right, and the ragged flesh finally knit itself back together. She wiped sweat from her brow and sighed in relief and he smiled weakly up at her and the look in his golden eyes made her forget the fear, made her forget Azula's anguished screams, her worry for her brother and Aang and everyone, and she leaned down –

"Zuko!" Jet shouted, and his swords clanged against the ground as he dropped them and fell to his knees beside Katara. Zuko smiled up at them both, and Katara shoved down her disappointment and irritation at Jet, who might be smooth but had the worst timing sometimes. "I'm so glad you're okay – I saw the lightning, but those guards were more stubborn than we thought." He clasped Zuko's shoulder, then turned to Katara and enveloped her in a fierce hug.

Together, they helped Zuko to his feet, and he leaned on Jet for support as they walked slowly towards Azula. Katara lay her hand on Zuko's back and felt him tremble and she wrapped her arm around his waist. The three of them watched the fallen almost-Fire Lord in silence until Longshot and Smellerbee arrived, always Jet's loyal freedom fighters.

You have time, now, Katara told herself. You can wait.


And even though she had the time, in between meetings and treaties and ceremonies, between Zuko's coronation and Aang's proclamation, Katara didn't find the right time until months later, in Iroh's re-opened teashop with new friends and old and a weary joy that truly the war was over.

She stood on the balcony overlooking Ba Sing Sei, the sun setting over the distant wall, turning the city to something warm and beautiful, and then Zuko was beside her, hands resting lightly on the stone railing and redefining warm and beautiful for her. Katara studied his profile, watching him through her lashes, noting that the harsh set of his brow had vanished and instead he looked relaxed, regal, and. suddenly, everything she wanted. He turned towards her, a soft smile on his face and even the scar seeming less harsh, a mark of honor rather than shame, and she leaned towards him.

His smile changed, a question in his eyes, and she loved him even more in that moment, that gentle hesitance that made him Zuko, and she closed her eyes and reached up to cup his face.

A hand wrapped around her wrist. "Poaching, Katara? I'd have expected this from Mai, but from you?"

She opened her eyes to find Jet smirking at her, Zuko staring at his feet as red crept across his face. "What do you want, Jet?" she asked, even as embarrassment surged through her.

"Jet," Zuko started, but Jet released Katara's wrist to drape an arm over the Fire Lord. He held up his other hand.

"I want," and his smirk deepened, "For you to keep your hands off my boyfriend."

Zuko sighed and looked at her with helplessness and exasperation in his smile, and Katara thought longingly of Azula's lightning, wished that it would zap her now and end this conversation. Zuko shrugged off Jet's arm, took his hand and squeezed it, and looked at Katara questioningly.

Katara stared at him, finally shook her head in denial. "No. No – I thought you had a girlfriend, I thought you were pining away for her, and then I hoped – " but Jet simply smirked. "– Oh, my gods, I am such an idiot!" She raised her hand to point at Zuko. "All this time! I thought – but you hugged me, and you helped with dinner, and you touched my hair, and… " Zuko opened his mouth, but she cut him off. "How long?" she demanded.

"How long what?" he asked, genuinely confused, and that just made her more embarrassed.

"How long have you… have you…"

"Been gay?" Jet broke in, still with that damnable smirk that she wanted to smack off his face, and meanwhile Zuko's expression changed from puzzled to horrified.

"Katara, I –"

"Do you realize how you've been coming across?" she leaned forward to prod him in the chest; Zuko leaned back, his eyes dropping to her fingers, then coming back to her face. "You can't just… and then you… Agh!"

She turned away, intending to find her rooms with all possible haste and try to forget this whole night ever happened – but there was Toph, grinning insufferably, and her brother, and Suki, and Mai, and Aang, and… "Agh!" she screamed again. "You all knew!"

"Knew what?" Aang asked, but Toph smiled like a leopard-shark and made Katara wish she could bend earth rather than water so that she could make the ground swallow her up.

"Hate to break it to you, Sugar Queen," Toph started, "but Sunshine here has been rainbows and unicorns gay for a looong time."

"You think his servants picked out that outfit?" Mai asked, gesturing at Zuko's immaculate robes, and Katara felt herself flush even hotter as she tore her gaze from Zuko's lean frame. "The man dresses better than anyone I know." She snorted. "When he's not dressing like his sister."

"Mai, I told you that that's the traditional royal armor," Zuko started, but broke off, flushing scarlet himself at Katara glared at him. A pleading look crossed his face. "Katara, I'm sorry, I didn't realize…"

"You jumped in front of lightning for me!" she shrieked, and he flinched as if he'd been struck. "I thought you loved me!"

"I do love you, you're my family, I –" but Katara looked away, unable to face him any longer – but then her eyes met Aang's, and suddenly the situation grew worse in ways she hadn't realized possible.

"You… love Zuko?" he asked, eyes wide and lower lip quivering, and that protective urge rose in her, but he had turned away and leaped into the air before she even realized he clutched his glider.

She raised a hand after him before remembering that everyone was still watching her. She pinched the bridge of her nose and groaned, a headache blooming already. "I can't believe this."

"Katara," Zuko started, and stepped towards her, but she held her other hand out.

"Not. Now," she hissed and he stopped a few feet away, hurt clear in his posture and her heart twisted suddenly, but she ignored it like she tried to ignore Jet's grin where he stood with his hand still in Zuko's. She turned away, pointed accusingly at Mai. "You," she started, but Mai shrugged.

"We've been friends since we were three years old. I realized before he did."

"You." Katara pointed at Toph.

"Blind, Sugar Queen, and I saw it way back."

"You." Katara pointed at Sokka.

"Hey, don't look at me – but didn't you smell something whalrusy when they were always sneaking off to 'spar' together?"

"I thought they were sparring!"

"That's one word for it," Jet purred.

"You," Katara hissed, but Jet just grinned and she hated him even more than she had when it was just a reservoir. She ignored the pained look on Zuko's face and stormed from the balcony, wishing that her footsteps echoed like Toph's and that they were near the ocean so she could walk into it and drown. She settled instead for throwing herself onto the broad Earth Kingdom bed and burying her head under the cushions.

Suki followed her quietly, so quietly that Katara didn't even realized she'd been followed until Suki sat down on the bed beside her and Katara turned her head just a smidgeon. "I suppose you knew, too."

Suki shrugged, even that casual movement enviably graceful, and Katara wanted to die. "Don't be too hard on him," she said gently, and Katara groaned.

"I don't see why I shouldn't be," she said into the cushion, then turned at Suki's chuckle.

"Because if you aren't nice to him, they won't let you watch," Suki said so seriously that for a moment, Katara could only stare dumbstruck at her.

"Agh!"


Author's Note: Time for this one to come off the harddrive and out of JetHeartsZuko. Honestly, I love mocking the good ship Zutara almost as I love writing it.