My very first fanfic! And it is a Zutara nonetheless! This story takes place directly after the episode, "The Ember Island Players." Enjoy!
An awkward silence burdened the gaang. No one could find the right words to say after the dark note the play had ended on. Aang hung his head as he walked a few feet ahead of the group. Finally, Zuko broke the silence.
"That was… Not a good play."
"No kidding," Aang snorted under his breath.
As Sokka and Suki began to playfully argue about the special effects, Katara glanced sideways at Zuko. His expression was distant, like he was deep in his own thoughts. The play had made Katara do some thinking, too. The scene in which they had been locked up together in Ba Sing Se made her heart leap into her throat. Her character had admitted to the stage Zuko, "I've had eyes for you for quite a while now, and I really find you attractive…" Katara's cheeks had flushed and she began nervously playing with her hands. Out of the corner of her eye, she had noticed Zuko fidgeting uncomfortably too. Her racing heart and sweaty palms had confused her at the time, and she still could not understand why her body had reacted so strangely. And to something a stage representation said? Maybe she was just reacting to the overall awkwardness of the situation…
She had thought back to how the imprisonment had really occurred back in Ba Sing Se. It seemed so long ago now…
"You have no idea what this war has put me through, me personally!" Katara yelled through her tears at her guarded mortal enemy. She whipped around and sat on the cold floor of the crystal chamber, wrapping her arms around her knees. "The Fire Nation took my mother away from me…"
"I'm sorry… That's something we have in common."
Zuko's soft and genuine voice had taken her by total surprise. She had expected a harsh, hateful remark, but instead was greeted with his sincere apology. Katara turned to meet his vulnerable golden eyes from across the dimly lit chamber. They locked onto hers and she immediately regretted the hurtful words that had filled the room only moments before. She tried to apologize but Zuko cut her off.
"It's okay; you don't need to say anything… There's a lot you don't know about me."
Those quiet moments had changed her perception of him completely. No longer did he seem like a malevolent force; he had the capability to be compassionate and gentle, somewhere within him. This new image of Zuko conflicted with his actions, however. Only minutes later, he had betrayed the gaang and assisted in the near-death of the Avatar. She pushed the negative thought out of her head. We're past that now… It's been forgiven. He's one of us now, and he would never betray us again. She stole another glance at the changed young prince, smiling affectionately.
Sokka and Suki had managed to lighten the mood by the time they arrived back at the Fire Lord's vacation home. In high spirits, Sokka spoke through a yawn.
"Well, with all the excitement of a day at the theater, I'm beat. See you guys tomorrow."
He, Suki, Toph and Zuko each headed to their bedrooms, and Katara had started to follow.
"Uh… Katara?" Aang sheepishly called after her.
She stopped and turned to face him. "Yes, Aang?"
He looked down at his feet, holding back his words momentarily. "I'm… Sorry about… At the theater… I didn't mean to push you into anything-"
"Aang, don't. Let's just forget about it, okay? We've got too many other things to worry about. How about you get some sleep." She flashed a fake comforting look.
"Yeah…" Aang's tone had not changed. "Goodnight, Katara."
"Goodnight, Aang." Katara turned from him, trying to forget the intermission when Aang had kissed her. Something had just felt… Off. Her emotions were in a tangled mess, and she felt unsure about the young Avatar for reasons she could not put her finger on.
Katara lay in bed restlessly for what felt like days. Her thoughts kept her tossing and turning on the cold mattress. Why do I feel so confused? I know Aang is just a kid, but he is more than that to me… He's my best friend, and an amazing person… So why do I feel this way? And why did I get so nervous just because of that stupid play? Zuko is nothing more than Aang's firebending master. But… Zuko is more than that, too. He's deep, interesting, mysterious...
Giving up on sleep, she knew could no longer tolerate her thoughts in the dark, silent room. Katara slid out of the bed and decided she should do something useful with her spare time. She crept through the spacious house as quietly as she could, even though she did not really know where she was heading. Finding a secluded staircase, she gingerly climbed up to find a cluttered yet organized attic. Maybe I could find some old cooking pots up here.
Much to her surprise, Katara spotted a small flame flickering in the dark room. She could faintly see the outline of someone standing over an open box when she heard a sharp gasp.
"Katara?" said a startled and hushed voice.
"Yes, who are you?" she replied at the silhouette.
The small flame grew slightly to illuminate the face of its holder, Zuko. The firelight makes him look so handsome… Wait. Why did I just think that?
"It's just me. You really startled me. I didn't expect to see anyone else up here."
Whispering back, she said, "I didn't either. I couldn't sleep, so I thought I might look for some cooking pots. What are you doing up at this hour anyhow?"
Zuko looked back into the open box and pulled out something flat. "Couldn't sleep either. This house has never really felt like home. I was just looking through some old portraits."
Katara smiled, thinking back to the flash of vulnerability in him she had seen in Ba Sing Se. "Could I see one?"
He shyly handed her the one he had just gotten from the box. Katara could not hold back a warm smile at the sight of a young, scarless Zuko sitting peacefully next to his little sister. Behind them was a stern, fierce-looking man she knew to be Fire Lord Ozai. Next to him sat a strikingly beautiful woman wearing a gentle smile. His mother… What could have happened to her? Don't be nosy, just make conversation. If he's comfortable enough, he'll talk.
"She's beautiful, Zuko. You and Azula both have her eyes…"
He lit a nearby lantern and set it on a stack of boxes close to Katara. "Yeah…" He avoided making eye contact. "She was a great mother." He walked back to the box of portraits, head hanging a bit.
Her heart softened as she tilted her head inquisitively. She was so curious to know what had happened to her, but she did not dare to ask directly. "My mother was really great, too… She always knew how to make Sokka and me laugh when she wanted us to stop arguing."
"Mine knew just what to say to get Azula off my back." A half-smile briefly came to his face as he spoke, but it faded as quickly as it had come.
Katara could not hide her curiosity. "Tell me about her. What was her name?"
Zuko turned back toward her and sat on a box. "Ursa. She was strong and beautiful… And protective. I couldn't have asked for more. She even saved my life once."
Katara took a seat on the box directly across from Zuko. Finally, it looks like he might open up to me a little bit. "She sounds amazing. How did she save your life?"
Zuko took a long, deep breath. His eyes grew sad as he stared at the floor. "It's a long story. And it doesn't end very happily."
What in the world could have happened? Katara could see that it was upsetting for him to talk about. "I'm sorry, Zuko. I didn't mean to be nosy. I was just curious..."
"Let me just say this before I tell you: the Fire Nation is a corrupt place. And when this war is over, I vow to change that… But here's what happened. My cousin Lu Ten was fighting in the war when he was killed. He was my uncle Iroh's only son and the only heir to the Fire Lord's throne. Seeing an opportunity to seize control, my father" –he said the word with disgust-"went to Fire Lord Azulon, asking to revoke my uncle's birthright since his bloodline had ended."
Katara was clinging to every word, watching Zuko's eyes sparkle in the firelight as he spoke.
"Azulon was furious with my father, saying he had disrespected his own brother by even asking. His punishment was supposed to have been to feel the loss of his own son…" He trailed off.
"So your grandfather was going to have you killed to punish your father?" Katara's eyes grew wide with shock.
Zuko met her gaze and nodded. He continued, "My mother refused to let me be killed. I have no idea what she did or said…" His voice trailed again. He took a cleansing breath and finished the story. "But she came to me in the middle of the night and told me she loved me… And told me never to forget who I was. That was the last time I ever saw her."
Katara could feel her eyes trying to form tears. She reached out to put a comforting hand on Zuko's shoulder. She could not seem to find the words to express how deeply sympathetic she was. She felt his pain as if it were her own. It was all too easy to remember the pain of losing her own mother to the Fire Nation. Emotions swelled up inside her chest in a cloud of heartache, sympathy and affection for Zuko. She had never been able to imagine him so stripped of his guard. In his glistening eyes, she saw a faint glimmer of a child longing for his mother. He did not cry, but his pain was clearly deep. Katara's hand dropped from his shoulder.
"Zuko," she said soothingly. "I know how painful it is to lose your mother. But you are a legacy to her bravery. And I'm sure she would be more than proud to see you training the Avatar."
And then, Zuko truly, genuinely smiled. It was the very same smile Ursa had worn in the portrait… Gentle and beautiful. Katara's heart fluttered, sending little lightning pulses from the back of her neck down to her fingers. Her body seemed confused all over again. All he did was smile! Why is my mind playing tricks on me like this?
"Yeah. I think she would be proud." He lifted his eyes to meet hers. Katara felt her insides melt like wax. When she had first stepped into the attic, she never imagined she would be sharing such a touching and personal moment with her former enemy. There was so much more to Zuko than just being Aang's firebending teacher.
Catching her off guard, Zuko reached out and lightly laid his hand on hers. More lightning shot through her body and her cheeks flushed pink. His raspy voice broke the brief tension. "I know your mother would be proud of you too, Katara."
She could feel her heart pounding in her ears. Her stomach fluttered violently with glee. For reasons her mind could not comprehend, she hoped Zuko would never let go of her hand. She felt crestfallen when he did and stood in front of her.
"I think there are some pots and pans up here somewhere. I could help you look if you want."
Katara stood and tried to lighten the mood. "Yeah, I guess I'll let you keep me company for a while." She smiled playfully. They began going through boxes together, making light conversation as they searched. Zuko finally touched on the subject Katara had hoped they could avoid.
"So, how about that play?"
She froze momentarily, searching for a way to avoid awkwardness. "Yeah… It was… Interesting." Their eyes met in a knowing glance that made her heart surge.
Zuko broke the gaze and continued shuffling through a box. "It made me think…"
"…about how it feels like it was so long ago that we fought at the North Pole."
A small wave of relief washed over her. "Yeah. It still seems strange to me that that was even the same Zuko!"
Zuko stopped and half-smiled. "It's not the same me. I've changed a lot since then."
"You're right; the hair makes it seem like a totally new you!" She jabbed playfully, hoping to steer the conversation away from the play. She would do all she could to avoid talking about the crystal chamber scene in Ba Sing Se.
His smile widened. "It's strange to think that we were such bitter enemies back then. And now you're raiding my attic."
She laughed and thought of their dual at the North Pole's spirit oasis. He had been in such inner turmoil back then… Now he was the level-headed firebending teacher of the Avatar. A lot had changed. "Well, I definitely agree with you. You have changed quite a bit since the first time we met. It's kind of crazy to think that someday I would be friends with the hot head who invaded my tribe."
Zuko turned his attention to the young waterbender. "I'm really glad you consider me a friend, Katara, especially after all the horrible things I did. It means a lot to me to have finally earned your trust." He smiled. "Joining the Avatar- I mean Aang… Still getting used to that. Joining your group has been so much better for me than I could have imagined. It just feels… Right."
"I've been surprised at how easily you've integrated into our group! Except for me, that is." She smiled and shrugged.
"So, why did it take you so long to trust me?" Zuko looked at her questioningly.
She took a deep breath and turned to him, reluctantly recalling the details of such a painful night. "I guess what really got to me was how things happened in Ba Sing Se. You had seemed so vulnerable and compassionate… But only minutes later, you completely betrayed me. All of us." Talking about Zuko's betrayal brought back mild feelings of anger towards him. She quickly pushed them out of her mind.
The firebender exhaled and dropped his head, disappointed in himself. "That day is the biggest regret of my life. I should never have let Azula talk me into it… If only I had just-"
"Zuko, don't beat yourself up about it. Look at where you are now! You're training the Avatar. You're doing exactly what you should be. You're with us." She smiled and faced Zuko, putting a comforting hand on his bicep. He must do hundreds of push-ups a day to stay this fit… "And we couldn't be happier to have you."
In that moment, all the hardness in Zuko melted away. His harsh features seemed to soften and something in his eyes took Katara's breath away. "Thank you, Katara." As he breathed her name, she felt him close the distance between them. Her heart pounded in her ears as he gently pulled her into his chest. She wrapped her arms around his muscular waist and enjoyed his warmth for the few moments she was there. Pulling away, Zuko put a hand on her shoulder and looked deep into Katara's ocean-like eyes. "It means a lot to know I'm wanted here. I finally feel like I belong somewhere other than a cold, metal warship."
Katara's mind was on a wild trip of its own, separate from her body. She had a sudden impulse to wrap her hands around Zuko's neck and pull him into a kiss, but her logical mind refused to carry out the urge. Her raging adrenaline was clouding her judgment as she fantasized about what kind of kisser Zuko might be. Would he be as gentle as he is now, or aggressive like he is when he's firebending? Soft and sweet, or strong and controlled?
Suddenly, she snapped out of her thoughts when she realized Zuko was now on the other side of the attic, and in the middle of a sentence.
"Azula was always so overbearing, so it's nice to have a sister figure who is a little tamer."
See? He just sees you as a sister figure anyway. Stop thinking about him like you're just a crazy teenage girl! Katara's heart sank, but she tried her best to hide it behind a smile. "Well, you know. I try to make everyone feel welcome."
Zuko continued, "She seems to be like a sister to you, too… But she can be pretty hard on you sometimes."
"Who, Azula? Hardly!"
With a confused face, he turned to Katara. "No, I was talking about Toph."
Spirit renewed, she laughed. "Oh! Yeah, Toph and I have a unique relationship, that's for sure. Especially since she has such a crush on my brother!"
Zuko chuckled and made his way back towards Katara. "I got that feeling a little bit. So…" He seemed to get slightly nervous all of the sudden. "What about you?"
"What about me?" she asked, but she was pretty sure she already knew what he was getting at. Her heart rate quickened and her face felt warm.
He tried to hide his curiosity. "You and Aang, right?"
Katara did not know how to respond. Not only was she genuinely unsure about her relationship with Aang, she did not want to seem off-limits to Zuko. "Well… Honestly? I'm not really sure how I feel about him. It's… Complicated. Why do you ask?"
Zuko seemed caught off guard. "Oh… I was just curious. That's all." He avoided her eyes.
"Is it because of what my character said in the play?" Before she could even think, the words had left her mouth. When she heard her own voice saying them, she was surprised at her own boldness. I cannot believe I just said that! What in the world compelled me to put that out there? What was I thinking? Her nerves swelled and rushed to her head.
Shyly, Zuko smiled and closed the gap between them. Standing only a few feet from her, he said, "Yeah, actually. I always just assumed you and Aang were together."
Again, her boldness took over. With a coy smile she said, "Not exclusively."
"Well… I guess that's good to know." With a bit more assurance, Zuko walked past Katara, brushing shoulders with her as he went by.
She followed him over to a corner of the attic where a couple of old armchairs sat facing each other. Zuko casually sat in one while Katara leaned on the arm of the other. Katara felt a rush of confidence, realizing the logical part of her mind was no longer in control of her mouth.
"And doesn't the most honorable prince of the Fire Nation have a girlfriend back home?"
Zuko sat back, crossing his arms and smirking. "Not exclusively."
Flirting with Zuko. Really? This is complete madness! But I guess it can't really hurt anything…
There was an intense chemistry in the air. Could he feel it too? Their eyes were locked in a staring contest, neither daring to break the connection. Without shifting his gaze, Zuko sat forward in the chair and jokingly played up his ego.
"There were always plenty of girls in the Fire Nation who would scream whenever I went into public… You know, the typical prince's following." He cocked his head, shrugging like it was no big deal.
"No kidding! Screaming fan girls? Sounds like you're quite the heartthrob back home." She began feeling more confident in what her adrenaline was telling her to say, ignoring the panicky little girl in the back of her mind.
Zuko rose and spoke, coming within inches of Katara's ear. His warm breath sent shivers from one side of her body to the other. "Plenty to choose from… But I'm pretty picky." He lightly brushed her long hair over her shoulder and began to walk away. She stood and spoke, hoping to stop him.
"And what are some of your requirements, Prince Zuko?" She used his title flirtatiously.
He stopped in his tracks, turning back to face her. "Well, she's got to be pretty special." With each word he said, he took a step closer to Katara. "Opinionated. Bright. Beautiful, of course. But most importantly…" The gap between them was only inches. "She can't be afraid to go after what she wants."
As he looked down at her, stands of jet black hair fell into his eyes. Katara could hardly stand the tension, and she dared herself to take a risk. She lifted her hand and brushed back his soft hair, then traced his scar lightly with her fingers. Unknowingly, they were pulling into each other closer by the second. Katara had never felt her heart pound so uncontrollably. She slowly slid her hand down to Zuko's neck, then to his chest, feeling his heart beating just as quickly as hers. He softly placed a hand on the small of her back, gently bringing her body even closer to his. The little girl in the back of Katara's mind was screaming for her to pull away. This was Zuko, her former enemy! Not anymore…
Zuko lightly placed his other hand on her delicate neck. A minimal nudge in his direction sent her the message, and she slowly closed her eyes. As if in slow motion, the moments just before seemed to take hours. And then their lips brushed. Just barely, the first time. But she still felt the overwhelming surge. There was a tiny pause, and Katara lifted her chin, diving back in. Indescribable bliss took over what remained of her logical self as she allowed herself to truly feel the kiss. His lips were perfectly soft, and he kissed her tenderly. Feeling her knees go weak, she wrapped her arms around his powerful shoulders. She pressed her body against his in an effort to get even closer to him. She took control for only a moment, kissing Zuko with fervor. He moved his hand from her back up to her silky hair, letting it fall through his fingers. His lips caressed Katara's softly as he held her neck. Her mind was buzzing with euphoria as Zuko poured his heart into the moment. As the heated kiss began to fade, she wished she could capture those few seconds forever. Lost in a sea of war and confusion, Zuko was the perfect escape from her stress. As she began to fall away, he kissed her in short pecks, lingering only for an instant before pulling back. Katara's grip around his shoulders loosened, and Zuko ran his fingers through her hair a final time before he pulled away. Their eyes opened and met in the same moment. Their bodies had become two separate entities once again, much to Katara's disappointment. She smiled up at the beautiful golden eyes she had come to know fully over the past few weeks.
While there were no words that needed to be said aloud, Katara's mind was streaming thoughts constantly.
He said he wanted a bright and beautiful girl… One who wasn't afraid of going after what she wanted… And now I'm not.