In the Beginning...
He took her to hunt the Southern Raiders because he understood hate and pain and the confusion that surrounded these feelings perhaps better than anyone else. He understood the way the hate festered in your heart and began to turn to something ugly. Zuko knew his father, knew that his father would not easily or willingly disclose information about his mother. Zuko knew that he would likely never have closure. But Katara had that chance, and perhaps if she could face her mother's killer he could absorb some of her feelings. Perhaps it could be cathartic for him the way it was cathartic for her.
He took her to hunt the Southern Raiders because it was the only way he could think of for her to get out her aggression against the Fire Nation, and maybe if she hated others she wouldn't hate him.
Katara taught him that sometimes water trumps fire. Katara taught him to respect the other elements. Katara showed him that sometimes, hate isn't worth it. But if he didn't have his hate, he had nothing else. She didn't kill Yan Rah. Aang was right; violence isn't always the answer, but she needed to decide that for herself.
It was still raining, and Zuko steered Appa toward a cave on the face of a cliff. He unpacked the saddle and built a fire, used his bare essentials cooking skills to make jook. Katara was standing at the edge of the cliff, holding her elbows, not bending away the rain, and it brought back memories of his uncle imploring him to please come inside or risk infection or sickness when all he wanted to do was be alone.
He did not call to her. When she was ready, she would talk.
Zuko remembered how he had practically no appetite in those first weeks. He only spooned a little jook in her bowl. When she ate that, and sat looking into the bottom of the clay dish, he spooned in just a little more. Then he gave her some water to drink. Then he bothered her no more. He gave her more courtesy than so many had offered him. They never realized how that only made things worse.
"Thank you for taking care of me," she whispered to his back in the middle of the night.
Katara gasped. "I thought you were sleep. I didn't mean to wake you."
He shrugged, his back still to her. "I know how absolutely fucking frustrating it is to have someone constantly bothering you when all you want is to be left alone. Sometimes you…"
Zuko stopped talking. He hadn't meant to get angry.
"Sometimes you just don't want to talk," she finished.
This wasn't supposed to be his time for sharing. This was her time. But maybe he needed this as much as she did.
"Can I ask you something?"
He smirked. "You just did."
She scoffed, and he wondered if she was smiling. He wouldn't roll over and find out.
"When we were sparring last week at the Western Air Temple, I threw a jet of water at you, and you freaked out. Then you went off into the forest and were gone for the rest of the day. We couldn't find you."
Zuko noticed she left out the part where he'd responded with more force than was necessary, and she and Toph had to shield them all. He kept his back to her, but she must have noticed the tension. She put a careful hand on his shoulder. A light touch that made him shudder, and made that hate coil in his stomach because it made him think of his mother and just how much he could use her right then.
"You don't have to answer if you don't want to." She pulled her hand back.
She had shown him the darkness in herself, and it was the least he could do. Answer this one question, which he knew would lead to a hundred other questions. In the back of the cave, Appa regarded them with one eye. The rain had stopped, and he blew a gust of air from his nose that made the fire waver. He left, as if to give them some privacy, perhaps sensing the weight of the memories pressing against Zuko's mind.
"It brought back some bad memories."
Zuko thought that if he was going to face her, he should face her, and he sat with his back against the opposite wall of the cave, and he told her about fighting the Agni Kai against his father, only the barest of details because that's all he could manage. He tried to concentrate the sound and shape of the words, because to concentrate on their meaning was to invite the smell of his own flesh burning, the sound of it popping and crackling like pork skin over an open flame, and he felt the nausea that always followed those memories. He stopped talking and placed his hand over his mouth, the other hand against the cave wall in case he needed to bolt.
He breathed, and when he looked up, her knees were nearly touching his knees. This wasn't how it was supposed to go. He was supposed to comfort her, not the other way around. He resisted her when she tried to pull him forward, but she tutted and rolled her eyes, and he gave in. She made him rest his head on her shoulder while she rubbed his back. It helped the nausea go away.
"Sometimes I still have dreams about all the things I would have done different for her," she confessed.
"Sometimes I still have dreams about the night he… In my dreams, I always fight back."
They sat side by side in the cave, their arms touching, and they confessed their trauma to each other, all the ways they'd beaten up on themselves through the years. Each time he shared something, he was always afraid that she would tell him it wasn't his fault, or that there was nothing he could have done, or that he did the right thing. Those phrases had become empty to him. She didn't say those things, instead offering another truth about herself, and in time he learned not to expect her to justify his actions.
The truth was that there were other things they could have done. Zuko could have fought back. Katara could have found someone closer. They silently agreed not to play that stupid 'what if' guessing game, because there was no way to tell what would have happened if Zuko fought back against his father or if Katara had found one of the other warriors in the village to help. There was no way to tell if that would have only made things worse. Or better.
When they ran out of things to say, they said nothing, and they realized that was fine. Sometimes you just wanted to not talk. When Katara's head fell against his shoulder, he put his arm around her and pulled her closer so she would be more comfortable. He leaned his head back against the wall and hummed his mother's favorite song. It was the Love Theme from Love Amongst the Dragons.
"That's a beautiful song," she whispered, her voice barely audible over the crackling of the fire.
"It was her favorite."
He hated that damn play, but in his mind, there was nothing more her.
"Thank you," Katara said. "Thank you for not judging me. For letting it be my choice."
A/N: Ok, so this is totally because of snarkhunter. This is the story of how Zutara began in my little continuity. And I'll try not to go on a rant about what bothered me with Southern Raiders.
The most important line in this fic for me is "Aang was right; violence isn't always the answer, but she needed to decide that for herself." No one else was willing to give Katara the chance to choose for herself. It's fine to voice your opinion, to tell her she needs to forgive, and that anger and hate will only eat away at her, but she needed to see that and decide that for herself. Zuko was the one to give her that opportunity. This implicit respect and relationship is one of the reasons I started shipping Zutara. Because, of all the relationships in the show, Zuko and Katara's was the most complex. I also think Zuko would understand how it feels to make a huge decision like she made with Yan Rah.
For those interested, I've declared the Love Theme from Love Amongst the Dragons to be the Love Theme by Nino Rota from Romeo and Juliet. Seriously. Listen to it. It's amazing.