It starts in kindergarten, when he is simply Zuko, not some elaborate nickname made up to taunt him, and she is Katara, not the halforphan.
It starts before fate decides to twist up their lives through fire.
by once upon a keyboard
It's the first day of kindergarten—when they're both hiding behind their mothers, blinking wide eyed at their surroundings—that liquid amber first meets pooling sapphire. It's the first day of kindergarten, when they're choking on soontobes and hopesanddreams, that it all blows up in their faces (without them knowing what was happening).
And it's only after their parents leave with blown kisses and encouraging smiles that they make their way over to each other and make the promise of being best friends—a promise meant to be broken—that it starts to be clear that mocha and vanilla have to go together.
It's the second day of kindergarten that they first laugh together—a harmony of rough and soft, broken and whole that turns the teacher's head. It's the second day of kindergarten when music begins.
And that's when they should be running, but they don't.
It's the second day of kindergarten that she gets home with her older brother to find ashes and a crying father.
It's the second day of kindergarten when her life becomes a rollercoaster ride.
The third day she doesn't show up, and he's worried sick because she had promised him that she would come and play with him at recess. The third day he falls slowly in love with the little girl who isn't there with him.
The third day of kindergarten she's at her Gran Gran's house next to her (dead) own, dressed in black. She doesn't remember promising anyone anything but still, all she wants to do is to talk to Zuko.
The third day he's lifting her up while she's falling downdowndown.
She shows up a week later (day eight) and she's still shrouded in black, hiding from the world, but she melts at his sad gold eyes and throws herself at him, whispering over and over and over I'm sorry. He doesn't ask her to explain herself, because in the two days he knew her, he found that she would never wear black without a reason, and so he just lets her cry on his shoulder, and starts to cry too.
They sit alone during recess, and no one tries to interrupt their silent conversation, because there seems to be some unspoken rule not to disturb them.
This goes on until his mother disappears and he comes to school withdrawn, not talking to anyone. Not even Katara. She almost chokes when he shrugs her off, because why would he do that? And she wonders whether he'd ever be the same.
He becomes a social outcast for a week, but then he comes back and apologizes to her and everything is (almost) alright for the two of them.
But he doesn't know that she cries herself to sleep, and she doesn't know where the bruises come from.
It's in seventh? eighth? grade that he doesn't come to school, and her sapphire eyes are darting around, searching every nook and cranny, as if he was hiding behind the math equations and famous literature, because she(only she, no one else)'d noticed that the bruises were getting worse, and she's beginning to figure out what was happening with him at home.
It's in eighth grade that their childish innocence tainted only by death shatters into a billion pieces.
It's in eighth grade that he ends up in the hospital and she doesn't know.
She doesn't see him for weeks on end, and he's not answering through any kind of communication, and she's impossibly alone and scared, because he wasn't there and he was always there when she needed him! So why wasn't he there when she was kept awake by horrific nightmares of him dying and burning and bleeding? Why wasn't he there when (s)he needed (him) to be!
And in her nightmares, he's always surrounded by fire because she still has memories of ashes and she's afraid that the flames would take him too.
She's terrified, because he didn't break his promises, even ones made in kindergarten.
She's falling deeper in love, because she misses him too much.
He finally gets out of the hospital weeks later, with a scar on his face given to him by his father. But she doesn't know that. He's sent away to live with his Uncle Iroh, his father's older brother, and he's expected to never come back.
She doesn't know that either. She doesn't know anything about what's going on, and, he thinks, it's better this way because she'd be repulsed by me. I don't want to have to see her face when I'm like this.
He's wrong, but he doesn't know that.
She waits and waits for him, because goddamnit, he's her best friend and she'd never give up on him! He'll come back, she promises herself. He wouldn't leave like that.
He'll come back!
She gives in when they graduate and they don't call out his name, even though she's screaming inside, he'll get here!
But he doesn't. And she's disgusted by him because he had broken the first promise they ever made. She almost hates him for it.
He's a loner, isolating himself (like she would never want him to) from everyone else, because he has some selfdilusion that no one could ever love him, when there's one blue eyed girl who loves him like the devil. It's halfway through ninth grade when he starts drowning in blood and knives and he hates himself and he thinks that she would hate him for it too, but he still can't stop because he sort of wants her to hate him, because she was always too forgiving and so he thinks that she should hate someone for once, and he deserved to be hated more than anyone else, because he left the girl (he loved) who was his best friend without a goodbye or anything!
So he keeps it up, because he wants to be hated.
She's the smartest girl in her grade, but only because she tries a billion times harder than the rest of them, because she thinks that maybe if she tried enough, all of her wishes would come true and he would come back and love her like he never did and then she'd get her very own happily ever after.
She's the smartest girl in her grade because she wants to be loved.
And stops sleeping three quarters into ninth grade, because she's too distracted by couldhavebeens and whatifs and whathadhappeneds to dream, (or maybe she's just too scared of the nightmares) so she only pays attention to the clutter of thoughts in her minds, and not the time on her digital clock. And even though she tries to keep her mind on homework or grades or anything but him, her thoughts always end up whispering Zuko, Zuko, Zuko, Zuko, Zuko, Zuko until she feels like she's going insane.
Except, she ponders, I probably already am.
The wastebasket in his room eventually starts to overflow with letters to her, but even though he's written dozens of them, he never plans to send them, because as much as he wants to be hated, he's terrified that she'll send back a piece of paper covered with the words I hate you! As much as he wants her to hate him, he couldn't stand it if she did, because that would only send him so much deeper into the hell he'd painted with blood and ashes.
And all of the letters in the wastebasket spell out I love you.
He graduates from high school the same day she does, somewhere across towns and streets and houses from him, and he doesn't throw up his hat in the air because he knows she probably will, and he doesn't want to do anything she would.
She doesn't throw up her hat in the air because she had always wanted to graduate with him, had (day)dreamed of the day, so she feels no need to celebrate in any way.
He walks home with his uncle, neither of them saying a word, because neither of them have anything to say. Zuko desperately wants to, desperately wants to thank Iroh, but he never was really good with words.
She walks home with her Gran Gran, because her father was away for a business trip and her brother was with him, and she talks about anything she can think of because with Katara, silence reminded her of Zuko and that was an unnecessary memory.
He shows up at her doorstep two years later, with despair in his (scarred) eyes, and she throws himself at him because she could never hold a grudge against him, and she's crying and he's choking and they finally untangle and she is ecstatic and he is too, because he could see her again, and they both pour out their soul until it feels like he'd never been gone, and it finally feels vaguely right again.
It feels like there'd never been fire.