I swore up and down that I wasn't going to write one of these one-shots but clearly I have zero self control. OH WELL. I REGRET NOTHING. NOTHING.
And the arms of the ocean are carrying me,
And all this devotion was rushing out of me,
And the crashes are heaven, for a sinner like me,
The arms of the ocean deliver me.
And it's over,
And I'm going under,
But I'm not giving up,
I'm just giving in.
—"Never Let Me Go", Florence + The Machine
The only thing that had changed about Zuko since the last time she'd seen him was his beard. It was white now.
He was bundled up in the corner of her cozy hut, covered in parkas from head to toe. He was shuddering.
"Honestly, Zuko, it isn't that cold," she said, amused.
"Speak for yourself," he snapped. An irritated expression crossed over his face, and suddenly he was seventeen, not eighty-seven.
Katara snorted and then let out a chuckle. She stood up from where she had been crouched over a pot and then handed her old friend a bowl of stew. He accepted it, nodded once in thanks, and then tipped the hot contents into his mouth.
After they finished their meal they sat in silence for a long time.
Zuko finally placed his now empty bowl on the floor before looking up at her. Their gazes met and he sighed. "We have to talk."
She nodded in agreement. They'd been needed to talk for quite some time now.
Zuko got married first.
It was a surprise to everyone, but it surprised no one more than it surprised Katara. She had been nineteen, impatiently waiting for her Avatar to turn eighteen so that they could become properly engaged. She wanted to become the wife of the boy with the tattoos more than she wanted anything else.
So when Zuko announced his own engagement and then got married four months later, Katara had felt downcast. She was disturbed for reasons she couldn't put a finger on. Perhaps she was just worried that the woman Zuko had chosen to marry wasn't good enough for him.
That must've been it.
She watched her friend say his vows while cloaked in red and black.
The after party was quite a sight. Sokka and Aang both drank too much wine and spent the majority of the evening telling jokes and singing songs to the large crowd of people they had gathered around them. They were the evenings unpaid entertainment.
Then there was the dancing. Aang was light on his feet despite his drunken state but after awhile he let go of Katara's hand and trotted off to make sure that Toph danced with someone, despite the fact that she'd refused every other offer.
That's when Zuko had tapped on her shoulder. She turned around and then smiled at him. "Well, aren't you a sight for sore eyes."
He shrugged one shoulder, clearly out of place in all his fine wedding attire. "I can't wait to take it all off," he grumbled, crossing his arms over his chest.
"I'm sure your new wife would be happy to help in that regard," Katara said, quickly taking a sip of wine in order to hide her mischievous grin.
Zuko turned beet red and then gulped. "I suppose I walked right into that one."
Katara giggled before holding out her hand in an invitation. "Come on, Fire Lord Zuko. Let's dance!"
He shook his head. "I've already danced."
Katara smacked him on the shoulder playfully. "Yeah, with your wife." She batted her eyelashes at him. "Please?"
"Pretty please? With cherries and hot fudge and caramel and—"
She grabbed his hand and yanked him out onto the dance floor. She put her hand on his shoulder and gave him the evil eye until he placed his hand onto her hip. She soon came to the realization that Zuko was, in fact, rather clumsy. He stepped on her feet three times before she suggested that they just sway in place. That seemed easier.
"Sorry," he mumbled. "This is why I don't like to dance."
"That's all right, Zuko. I don't care if you're a good dancer or not. I love you either way." She had meant for it to sound platonic, but something still twinkled in Zuko's golden eyes at her words. Something boyish and hopeful that belonged entirely to her. It would take her a long time to understand what that twinkle meant.
Suddenly Katara felt flustered. They were close, too close, and even though no one was watching she felt as if a thousand eyes were upon her.
She stepped back, breaking out of his grip, before giving him a forced smile. "Thank you, Fire Lord Zuko, for that lovely dance. I'm going to go find Aang and I believe you have a new bride to attend to?"
The twinkle in his eyes disappeared and he looked confused. But he nodded slowly in acceptance.
Katara had a child first.
Her name was Kya and Katara said she had eyes as blue as the ocean.
Aang said that her eyes were as blue as the sky.
She was the child of the Avatar and one of the most talented waterbenders the three remaining nations had ever seen; she was instantly adored.
Katara remembered praying to the spirits everyday that she would grow up to be a waterbender.
Kya was two months old when Aang decided that they should visit the Fire Nation. They arrived on Appa with the air whipping about them and Katara clutching her sobbing newborn to her chest. The child didn't like to be up in the air. Katara took this as a good sign.
Zuko and his wife walked out to meet them in the royal courtyard. Zuko's own wife was just starting to show; she was due in six months.
At dinner Katara tried to calm down her fussy daughter on multiple occasions, but the child wouldn't stop crying. Aang had the rest of the table laughing and was currently sharing a story with Iroh. He didn't even seem to notice how loud his daughter was being.
Katara was exhausted, emotionally and physically. She ached to her bones and there wasn't anything she wouldn't do for one night of uninterrupted sleep.
Everyone around her was laughing, completely unconcerned, and why shouldn't they be? She was a mother now, caring for her child's well-being was her responsibility.
She glanced over at her husband. He was using his airbending and waterbending to make everyone's drinks dance in midair. It was an old party trick he'd learned years ago, but it'd never failed to impress.
Katara stood up so fast she knocked over her chair. "Sorry," she said, voice sharp, before she quickly exited the dining room.
She walked down the hallway, chest heaving, arms quivering, before finally leaning against a tapestry covered wall.
Tears streamed down her cheeks and she found that she had no desire to fight them.
Kya was still crying and guilt washed over Katara in thick and heavy waves. Everyone had always said that'd she'd make an excellent mother, but lately she could barely find the will to dry her own tears, much less her baby's.
There was a small but exuberant part of her that occasionally wished that she'd never had her daughter to begin with. But those thoughts only ended up making her feel worse.
"Please stop crying," she said through gritted teeth, voice hoarse from a dry throat.
Kya's wails only grew louder.
"Are you all right?"
The voice, though it was soft, made Katara jump. Zuko walked up to her. He had taken his crown out of his topknot, allowing his hair to fall about his face. He looked familiar, less stately, and Katara found herself finding comfort in this.
She sniffed. "She won't…hush up."
Zuko smiled and then gently pried the baby from her grip.
"She cries all the time," Katara continued, sagging against the wall.
Zuko cradled Kya with one arm. He tilted his head and gazed down at her. "Isn't that what babies are supposed to do? Cry, shit, and eat? All at the same time?"
Katara laughed and shook her head. "It's just, I thought it would be easier. What if I don't get any better at this? What if I end up being a terrible mother? I don't think—" Fresh tears fell from her eyes.
A warm hand cupped her face and a thumb swiped away her tears.
"You're going to be a great mom. Hell, you already are one."
Katara managed to smile. "You shouldn't curse around the baby."
Zuko returned her smile and quickly handed Kya back over to her. The baby was sleeping, face peaceful.
"How'd you do that?" Katara gasped, eyes bulging.
Zuko grinned. "Magic firebender hands. Babies like to be warm, I guess."
Suddenly they heard footsteps and moments later Aang walked up to them. "Everything all right?" he asked, looking cheerful. He noticed Kya. "Hey, you calmed her down!"
Both Katara and Zuko rapidly gestured for him to keep his voice low and the Avatar immediately looked sheepish. "Sorry," he whispered. He walked right up to Katara and peered at Kya from over her shoulder. "See, Zuko? This is what I was talking about. You have something amazing to look forward to."
Katara wasn't sure if the smile the Fire Lord gave the Avatar was real or fake. "I guess I do."
Zuko had a grandchild first.
All of them were gathered on Kyoshi Island for a big family reunion. Katara was forty-four.
Zuko's daughter had gone into labor on the island a few weeks before she was due, and Katara, Suki and a couple of the locals helped deliver the baby.
After the birth, Katara walked out onto the beach where everyone was waiting.
Zuko's son-in-law was instantly in her face. "How is she? Is she okay? How's the baby? Is it a boy? A girl? Are they—"
Katara held up a hand in order to shut him up. "Mother and daughter are fine."
The son-in-law broke out into a grin. "Daughter?"
Katara nodded and the young man jumped up and down in excitement.
Zuko let out a low chuckle from a few feet away. "Prepare yourself."
Everyone in the group laughed, but no one harder than Toph.
Katara stepped up next to Zuko and playfully bumped her hip against his. "Well, you finished first in the grandchild department."
He smiled and ducked his head. "I suppose I did."
"Don't be modest! You were egging them on the entire time."
Zuko blinked at her innocently and then gave her a full on grin. They both laughed.
"I would've been first if someone had decided to get herself in gear." Katara turned her head and threw her words to her daughter, who was sitting on the sand next to her own husband a few yards away.
Kya rolled her eyes and gave her mother a very inappropriate gesture with one of her fingers.
Katara lost her spouse first.
Katara had found that she no longer had any tears left to shed.
Hundreds of people from all over the world attended his funeral. She was standing next to her brother when they set fire to his body. That was the way of the monks, Aang had said, to be burned and then to have your ashes released into the air.
Afterward there was a feast with music and singing. People were encouraged to banish their sorrow.
But Katara didn't see how she could wash her own sadness away. Her husband, the father of her children, and one of her best friends was gone. Her chest squeezed and she wrapped an arm around her torso.
Then Zuko was there, standing next to her but not touching her. He was companionship, something solid to lean on when all else had faded away.
She turned and threw her arms around his next and held him close. Her face was against his neck and she murmured things into his ear, things that were to mournful to ever be repeated.
He wrapped his arms around her and let her speak. He held her upright long after her knees buckled.
Soon she realized he was also holding her together.
Zuko said I love you first.
She had been a widow for fifteen years, he a widower for eight, when she got the letter.
The ink was smudged and the handwriting was fairly poor, as if Zuko had scribbled out the message and sent it before the ink could even dry so that he couldn't second guess himself.
Katara had placed the letter off to the side before folding her wrinkled hands over her lap. She had plenty of other things to worry about—Avatar Korra's earthbending training, for example—but perhaps those things could wait for just a little while.
She remembered being fifteen and asking her Gran-Gran how she could marry Master Pakku when she had claimed to love grandfather so much. Gran-Gran had simply kissed her head and told her that some people were rewarded two great loves in their lifetime and that, if they were lucky, the Spirits gave them the chance to have them both. Katara hadn't understood what she was talking about then.
She understood now.
Aang had given her freedom. Freedom from a confined life in the South Pole, freedom to travel the world, freedom to become the waterbender she was always meant to become, freedom to do whatever she wished.
Freedom, Katara knew, was a precious gift.
When she had first known Zuko she had always been afraid that he would burn her, that he would leave her as nothing but a pile of embers. But Katara soon realized that Zuko didn't burn her, couldn't burn her. He simply ignited her, and in doing so he had given her life.
With Zuko, she wouldn't have turned to ash. She would have smoldered.
Zuko looked worried.
The icy wind was howling outside, so the retired Fire Lord had started a fire. There was a nice, orangey glow being cast against the walls of the hut.
She had said I love you, too in her own letter. She just hadn't had the courage to send it until three months ago, until after Korra had left.
They sat next to each other, hands clasped. He rolled his thumb over her knuckles.
Sometimes she could look at him and see the teenage boy who had taken a lightning bolt for her. She wondered why she hadn't been able to see it all those years ago. He had loved her enough to die for her, even all the way back then.
She knew that they probably wouldn't get married. She was old and she could feel death creeping into her bones.
She wasn't sure how much time she had left in this world, but she figured being in Zuko's company was enough to make her end days as happy as they could be.
"You look scared," she pointed out, gently bumping her shoulder against his.
He frowned, and she smiled because his frown had not changed in eighty-seven years.
"When we are in the Spirit World, I just wonder, whose hand you will decide to hold?"
Him or me?
Katara brought Zuko's gloved hand to her mouth and kissed it. His eyes softened and there it was, that twinkle. She let go of one hand and patted his cheek affectionately. "It's a good thing then, Zuko, that I have two hands."
He gave her a very small smile. But it was real.
Katara leaned her head against his shoulder and allowed her eyes to drift shut.
For this life she had chosen freedom over life. In the next one she was determined to choose life over freedom.
For the record, I don't necessarily think that anything like this is going to happen on The Legend of Korra. I think we'll get a couple of nice friendship scenes at best. But it would be totally awesome if there were romantic undertones. A Zutara fangirl can dream. *sigh*
Hope everyone enjoyed and please review! :D