A/N: Even thought I hate Zutara with the passion of a hundred fiery suns, I think Zuko and Katara have really great chemistry as best friends/surrogate brother and sister. Also, making Zuko uncomfortable is always funny.
This takes between "The Southern Raiders" and "The Ember Island Players."
Katara found the first painting lying face-down on a table in what had once been a fine sitting room. It was of a little boy and a little girl, clearly brother and sister, neither of them older than six. She had her suspicions upon discovering it, but brought it out into the courtyard for confirmation anyway, waiting patiently to ask until Zuko and Aang were done drilling their firebending form of the day.
"Huh, I guess I missed that one," Zuko said when she asked about the kids in the picture. He plucked it out of her hand and held it between two fingers until it started to shrivel and smoke, burning out in a circle from where he touched it.
"What are you doing?" Katara demanded with a scandalized huff, quickly bending a stream of water from her pouch to put out the fire.
"Burning this picture," Zuko replied, frowning slightly. "What does it look like?"
He'd succeeded in destroying it, anyway. The painted children were mostly burned away, and what was left of the canvas was now irredeemably soggy.
"Why would you do that?"
Zuko sighed and pointed at the kids in the picture. "That's Azula, and that's me. Are you happy now?" Before Katara could respond, he threw the remains into an overgrown, flowering bush off to one side of the courtyard and turned sharply back to Aang. "No breaks, Avatar! Drill it again!"
Katara vowed that he wouldn't get away so easily the second time.
She had deliberately gone searching for another picture after telling the others that she was looking for some candles. Actually finding one was more difficult than she would have guessed—the house was bare of portraits on the walls, but shiny rectangles in the faded wood told her that there had once been more.
It took some snooping, but she finally came across a painting of a young man in an army uniform. Medals adorned his broad chest, and he looked cheerful even in his unsmiling, two-dimensional depiction.
Zuko didn't take it and burn it, to Katara's delight. "That's my cousin Lu Ten," he said around a bite of rice. He scowled a little when she didn't leave, obviously expecting a further explanation from the way she planted her hands on her hips and smiled with her eyebrows raised. "He was my uncle's son. He died in the war," he added, hoping that would be enough to make her leave. It wasn't.
Instead, she sat down next to him on the stair. "I'm sorry," she said with a tone of genuine sympathy.
"Um… I'm just trying to eat my lunch," Zuko said after a few awkward moments. "I don't really want to have a deep conversation right now."
The third painting Katara found was, in her opinion, a real jackpot. It had been wedged into a closet between some insect-nibbled sheets and a couple of moldy towels. And even better, when she went to find Zuko to interrogate him about it, everyone else was there as well.
A chorus of giggles filled the courtyard as soon as she presented the picture. Suki at least seemed to actually like the picture itself, not just as an excuse to tease.
"Aww, that's so sweet," she said while Sokka and Aang continued to laugh, mostly at Zuko, who had gone slightly pink. He looked like a turtle-duck retracting its head into its shell.
"What is it?" asked Toph, who was picking her nose, as usual.
"It's little Zuko and little Mai!" Katara said. "Look, you guys, they're holding hands! How cute is that?"
Toph's eyes widened. "You were childhood sweethearts? With Knife Girl?"
Zuko hunched lower, his mouth turning down at the corners. "We were betrothed, all right?"
If there was ever a way to get the rest of them to stop laughing, that wasn't it.
"You looked like a girl," Sokka said to Zuko when Katara brought yet another painting to the boys' communal shaving party one morning.
"I did not," Zuko replied, looking as menacing as it is possible to look with a soapy lather covering one's chin.
"I want to see!" Aang floated up behind them both to get a good look at the portrait, his head freshly shaved and shiny. "Yeah… I hate to say it, Sifu Hotman, but you sorta did look like a girl. You were kinda pretty."
"I… don't even know what to say to that." Zuko held out his hand, expecting the painting. Katara raised an eyebrow, but didn't budge. "Come on, give it here!"
"So I can burn it!"
"No! At least tell me something about it! How old were you? What was the occasion?"
"Why do you want to know?"
"Fine! I was thirteen, and it was painted for no real reason, a couple of weeks before I was banished. Is that enough information for you?" Zuko swiped his razor violently across his face, inadvertently splattering Sokka with foam. Katara crossed her arms and tapped her foot.
"Not yet. I want to know more."
Zuko said nothing. He stared into the mirror, apparently very interested in shaving, as if ignoring Katara would make her go away. When it was clear she wasn't going anywhere, he sighed and continued in a much more civil tone. "That was the last picture of me before I got my new look," he said, indicating his scar.
Katara opened her mouth, but closed it again when she had second thoughts about asking the question that had been on her mind for a long time. Zuko noticed her expression and raised his eyebrow.
"Because my dad's a psychopath who likes to set kids on fire," he said casually, answering her silent inquiry. He took advantage of her (and Sokka's and Aang's) stunned silence to take the portrait from her and reduce it to a pile of fine white ash.
"Where are you finding these things?" Zuko demanded, scowling, as Katara presented the fifth painting. He snatched it and incinerated it before she could do anything to stop him.
"I'm not going to tell you, because you'll just burn them all!" she said righteously, gesturing at the remains of the particularly adorable picture she had unearthed in one of the bedrooms.
"Why do you care?"
"Because you're the only one out of all of us who has pictures of you as a little kid! Everyone likes seeing things like that!"
"Yeah! I'm sure they love seeing pictures of me playing at the beach with the girl who shot Aang in the back with lightning! I know I do!" He flung the scorched frame across the kitchen, followed by a wet pile of used tea leaves. Angrily, he poured a steaming cup and offered it to her. "Here! Have some tea! Just cut it out with the pictures!"
Katara looked a little hurt, and Zuko immediately regretted his outburst. If there was anyone who could make him feel guilty, it was her.
"I just want to get to know you," she said, taking the tea and setting it down on a nearby table.
"I spent so much time hating you while everyone else…" she looked down.
"It's all right," Zuko replied. "I… kind of thought all that was behind us."
"I still hardly know anything about you."
"I like to burn things. Pictures of my childhood make me uncomfortable. I was betrothed to Mai. I had a cousin named Lu Ten. There, now you know things about me." He poured some more cups of tea and arranged them on a tray to serve to the others.
"That's not what I meant. I want to talk to you."
"Um… well, I'm not very good at talking. I even feel like an idiot when I'm talking to Mai, and we've known each other forever."
"Well, I didn't know that about you," Katara replied with a triumphant smile.
"Ugh. Will you just…" He picked up the tea tray. "I'm going to serve tea. Are you coming, or are you going to sit in the kitchen all night?"
Zuko heard her walking up the path before she even said anything.
"Are you all right?"
"So… are you all right?"
Zuko sighed and tilted his head back. "Yes, Katara, I'm all right. I always meditate at sunrise. It's a firebender thing." And it had been really relaxing, too, until she showed up—the point of the cliff just beyond the house faced due east, the perfect place to sit and feel the sun's warmth first thing in the morning.
"Can I sit here?"
"If you have to."
There was a long silence, and then Katara spoke. "So… who's this a picture of?"
"Are you serious? I thought you weren't going to—" He trailed off when he looked at the picture, and then looked down. "That's my mom."
"Oh." Her fingers brushed her necklace. "She's beautiful," she said at length.
"Yeah. She was."
"What was her name?"
"…What happened to her?"
Talking to Katara about this was easier than Zuko would have thought. Maybe it was because, as he had said all those months ago, it was something they had in common. "I… actually don't know."
"How can you not know? Doesn't anybody talk about it at all?"
"No. My father said she was banished for treason, but I don't know if I believe him."
"I wouldn't." She paused slightly. "But still. If there's a possibility she could be out there somewhere…"
"I'm going to look for her, after this is all over."
"I'll help you."
Katara decided to take this as gratitude, and not a dismissal. She set the portrait of Ursa down next to her and held up a smaller one that she had found in a dresser. "So… this other picture. Is this you playing the tsungi horn?"
Zuko immediately snatched it, stood up, and threw it as hard as he could off the cliff.