So it begins!
Hope you all are ready! Because as of right now, I am not. At all. Oh well! Enjoy the Zutara goodness!
How had everything turned out this way?
Mounds of peacefully slumbering bodies huddled in the main courtyard of the Western Air Temple: The Duke, his head still curled in his helmet and his thumb sticking out of his mouth; Teo, his special wheeled chair parked parallel to his body; Haru, snoring softly in his green blankets; Toph, sprawled on her stomach with the earth for her bed; Sokka, flailing about as he fought a secret battle in his dreams; Aang, lying as still as a statue with a face just as serene and blank.
And then there was Zuko.
Zuko, the scarred and banished prince of the Fire Nation. Zuko, the heir to the throne of the battle-loving, conquering country. Zuko, the angry teen who had chased them across the globe and back again. Zuko, the fire bending teacher of the Avatar. Zuko, the big brother to the rough young earth bending girl. Zuko, the young man who made them tea and kept them warm and provided them with food and knowledge about his homeland.
When had he become a part of their family?
It must have been when Aang had said that he could stay. While everyone had protested, Katara most of all, what the Avatar wanted the Avatar got. So they had made the most of it, gradually showing him kindness, allowing him by their nightly fire, and including him in their general conversations.
As she watched him sleeping across the embers, his face free of the usual anger and stress lines, Katara thought of Ba Sing Se. Of the cave and the words they had left there. Of the dark mark she had almost removed. Of the ache in her chest when he had snapped back into his old ways like a habit he couldn't kick.
What would have happened if Aang had been a little slower? What if she had been faster? What if he had been stronger? What if...
What if they had kissed?
Katara sprang up, storming silently to the ledge overlooking the foggy chasm as images of that day flashed through her mind.
The glittering crystals. Her hand resting on his ridged-smooth scar. His emotionless face. The hand that had begun to rise, to rest on top of hers, holding her fingers to his cheek. How she had begun to move closer, inching towards him slowly as if pulled by a gentle but insistent current.
Angrily, she wiped the tears and images away. It didn't happen, she scolded herself, so stop worrying about the what-ifs. He's here now, so learn to deal with it!
"Aren't you cold?"
Jumping, she spun to see Zuko standing in the shadows, his arms crossed. As usual, she added. "No," she said out loud. "Why?"
He shrugged, pushing away from the wall. "You were shaking. Don't most people shake when they're cold?"
Or crying, she thought bitterly, biting her lip in anger. How was it that, once again, he had seen her at her weakest? "I'm a water bender," she said icily. "I don't get cold."
Zuko rolled his eyes. "That's why you all wear such thick coats, right?" He came to stand next to her, leaning down on his still-crossed arms as his eyes traveled over the dark expanse before them. Katara watched him, trying to decipher the thoughts that flashed so openly across his face.
"What are you thinking?" she finally demanded. His expression was too jumbled and she was too tired to figure it out on her own.
"I was trying to figure out what was on your mind." He peaked up at her from the corner of his good eye. "You know, before I snuck up on you."
She gave him her dirtiest scowl. "You did not sneak up on me! You just always walk without making any noise. It's unnatural. And very annoying."
"I'll try to remember that next time I come up behind you," he chuckled. They lapsed back into an almost-easy silence. "So what were you thinking about?"
Her eyes fell to her hands. "Ba Sing Se."
She had expected this; the tensed shoulders, the tightened eyes. "Oh?" was all he said through clenched teeth.
She nodded dumbly. Why was he so mad at her? He had asked. "About what we... said. In the cave." The kiss I wanted.
"Oh." His jaw loosened, but his shoulders were still tight as if he was ready for a verbal assault.
Any other night, Katara would have fulfilled his expectations. "I know I didn't say this back there, but I am sorry about your mother." She leaned on the rough stone next to him, their elbows not even an inch apart. "How did it happen?"
Only Zuko's eyes betrayed his surprise at the turn their conversation had taken. "I... I really don't know. She disappeared the night my grandfather, Fire Lord Azulon, died. Nobody knows where she is or if she's still alive. Not even my uncle."
"How old were you?"
He took a sharp breath. "I was ten."
Katara looked out at the empty gorge. "I was five when the black snow fell." She caught a glimpse of the prince's puzzled look. "It's how we know a Fire Nation raid is coming. The ash falls like dark flakes just before we spot the ships on the horizon. During the battle, I ran to find my mother, and there was a Fire Navy general in my house. My mother told me to find my father, telling me that everything was going to be fine. But by the time we came back, they were both gone. All that was left was her body."
He shifted closer. "You were so young." She blinked. "Can you remember her face?"
"Like it was yesterday," she rasped.
His warm arm snaked around her shoulders. She leaned into him, glad for the heat and support. "So what were you really thinking about before I surprised you?"
She tilted her head up to meet his steady golden gaze. "Do you really want to know?"
He flinched as if she had slapped him, but nodded. "Yes. I do."
Katara turned so her whole body was pressed against his as her hand rested on his scar for the second time. His eyes widened for an instant before fluttering shut. Zuko's right arm tightened around her waist. She felt his head lean into her touch, his left hand covering her right, and before she stopped to think she stood on her toes to press her lips against his.
Static jumped between them and they both pulled back, Zuko's eyes as large and bright as the sun itself. Her own personal suns. Katara's hand slid out of his and back to her side. "What if we had gotten that far under the city?" she whispered.
Zuko rushed at her, scooping her up in his strong arms and holding her tightly. "Do you have any idea how many nights I spent at the palace, sleepless, because I was wondering the same thing? How deeply I regret the damnably stupid choice I made after you showed me kindness and a way to be free of my curse?" His one hand was tangled in her hair, the other still across her lower back. Tentatively, she brought her arms up around his neck, pulling him closer still. "Katara." Her name escaped his lips as a sigh, sending a thrilling tingle up and down her spine. She wanted to hear him say it again and again and again. "I am sorry. I am so so so so-"
"Shh!" She jammed a finger over his lips. "It happened. It's over. This is where we are now."
He kissed her finger, and identical smiles spread across their faces. "I like it here." His lips traveled across the tips of the rest of her fingers, to the inside of her wrist, and down her entire arm. Once he reached her shoulder, she turned to rest her back on his chest, her head tilting away from his. As he nibbled at her neck, she ran her hand along his scar. "You were the first," he mumbled into her skin. "The first to ever touch it."
With a smirk, she twisted around and leaned up to touch her lips to the red flame. "There's another first for you," she giggled, her mouth reaching for his.
As they kissed, a thought crossed her mind: maybe Zuko would never really be a part of their little family.
Maybe he was, and always had been, so much more.