a/n: help, i've fallen into this fandom and never ever want to get up.

i've been a fan of this series for a very, very long time, but i just now have been able to actually sit down and write something for it. i had planned on writing a oneshot centered on just zuko, but then i made the mistake of watching sozin's comet like four times in the same week and this happened. zutara, man. that is an otp if i ever did see one. anyway. not sure what this is or if i like it or not, so please leave a review telling me what you thought :)

disclaimer: everything belongs to bryke.

"And you have your choices
And these are what make man great,
His ladder to the stars."
—Mumford and Sons, Timshel

Most people say that stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. They are all wrong.

There is only before and after, and the event which comes between and changes everything.

Before Sozin's Comet, before Agni Kai, before Zuko's body curls around Azula's lightning and the world shines blue, things are simple. Katara loves Aang. Katara will always love Aang. Katara wants to be with Aang.

But then Azula's lightning is flying straight towards her and she is thinking that this is the end and Zuko is screaming, "No!" and jumping in front of her and it's beautiful in an awful, dreadful way, she thinks, the way the electricity courses up and down his body as it lands with a sickening thud on the cobblestones.

Things are not so simple after that.

"So what happens now?"

Zuko's eyes are sad as they watch the comet crest over the horizon. There is a flash of bright orange, and then it is dark. "I guess we just wait for the others to come back," he says slowly.

Katara is silent.

but what if they don't come back what if Aang didn't beat the Fire Lord what if they didn't survive what if they're gone and we're all that's left—

She settles for wrapping her fingers around Zuko's and squeezing. It says everything.

He squeezes back. "They're coming back." His voice is determined. "Aang defeated my father, and Sokka and Toph and Suki are safe and they're all coming back."

She's not sure whether his words are for her benefit or his.

Katara closes her eyes and sighs. Her hand goes lax and slips out of his. "What about Azula?"

"I don't know," he confesses. "We'll probably lock her up. Somewhere where she can't hurt people anymore."

"Like she hurt you?"

Zuko flinches.

Normally she would pretend not to see, but she doesn't this time. She doesn't pretend to not see his hand drift to his chest, to the scar that matches the one over his eye. She doesn't pretend to not see him glance at the same spot on her chest, where Azula's lightning would have struck her had it not been for him. She doesn't pretend because there is no use in pretending anymore. Maybe there never has been.

She turns to face him and gently takes his hand. "I'm sorry," she says. She doesn't have to say what for.

He smiles with the good side of his face and shakes his head. "Don't be. Please." Then without warning he leans forward and brushes his lips over the apple of her cheek, his scar rough against her temple.

Then he is gone.

They don't tell the others. Not the whole story, anyway. When Suki sees the bandage wrapped around Zuko's chest and asks what happened, he just shrugs and says, "Azula caught me unaware. I couldn't redirect the lightning in time." He can tell from the look on Toph's face that she knows he is lying, but she doesn't speak up.

He locks eyes with Katara. She is the one to look away first.

She goes to see him before she leaves.

He's in his office, hair pulled into a topknot, practically buried under rolls of parchment needing signatures.

"Zuko?" He starts, his paintbrush skidding across the scroll and leaving a jagged, black line. She smiles. "Sorry. I didn't mean to startle you."

He stands and hastily brushes off his shirt. "Oh, Katara. Hello."

She folds her hands almost primly as she turns to take in the view from his window. He comes to stand by her and she considers him from the corner of her eye. He looks kingly in his fancy robes and crown, which is fitting, she supposes.

[but he doesn't look like himself, which is not fitting at all.]

"I thought you would have been gone already," he says, crossing his arms over his chest.

[over the scar.]

She shakes her head. "We wouldn't leave without saying goodbye first."

He smiles crookedly, one side of his face lifting higher than the other, and ignores the fact that she said 'we' and not 'I'. She smiles back, but it looks slightly pained. "I'm going to miss you," he says. "Both of you," he amends quickly, scratching the back of his neck.

She closes her eyes. "Zuko..."

He touches her elbow. "What?"

She opens her eyes. His face is concerned, and very close to hers. It crosses her mind that she could lean forward, just a little, press her lips to his and forget about Aang. She could kiss Zuko and stay in the fire nation and trade in yellow robes for red and never leave. She could be Fire Lady Katara and she thinks she might be happy.

She blinks. Aang's hurt face is behind her eyelids.

So she does what she's supposed to do. She shakes her head, detaches herself politely from his grip and stretches a grin across her features. "Nothing," she says. "I'll — we'll miss you too."

Zuko comes to see them off later. She shakes his hand, doesn't let it linger, and lets Aang help her into Appa's saddle.

They fly away, and when she looks over her shoulder, she convinces herself that the longing on Zuko's face is just her imagination.

Katara marries Aang.

It's what everybody expects and what everybody wants. It's what Aang wants and if Katara tries really hard she can almost believe it's what she wants too.

She is the daughter of a chief and she is the last waterbender in the Southern Water Tribe; she defeated the Fire Princess and saved the Fire Prince, and she will not be the one to break the Avatar's heart.

Zuko comes to the wedding. She doesn't look him in the eye, not once.

Zuko does not marry Mai.

He proposes a year after the war ends and she refuses, saying that she couldn't stand to live a life as the Fire Lady, that she's tired of noble life and wants to live free and can't say yes, no matter how much she loves him. So she leaves and Zuko is alone.

[he supposes it's kind of funny that she was the one to break up with him, in the end.]

His advisers arrange a marriage with a young noblewoman from the Earth Kingdom, saying that it will be good to unite both nations after what happened during the war. He agrees, because the girl is pretty and kind and not entirely boring and he thinks that maybe one day he could learn to love her.

He invites Aang and Katara to the wedding. Katara is the only one who shows up.

["Aang's off settling a dispute between two Earth Kingdom villages; he sends his love."]

Zuko asks her for one dance. She says yes.

["I can't refuse the Fire Lord," she smirks.]

His hand is warm at her waist and if she closes her eyes she can almost imagine that this wedding is for them and they have been dancing like this all night, that her dress is a deep crimson and not sunshine yellow and screaming Aang's claim on her, telling everyone that she is the Avatar's girl and she is untouchable.

[Stop it, Katara, you're not supposed to think things like that.]

The dance ends and Zuko bows. "Thank you, Lady Katara."

She curtsies, bowing her head so he can't see her blush. "My pleasure, Fire Lord Zuko."

Later that night, alone, she climbs on Appa's back and blames the red flush of her cheeks on the weather.

i'll save you from the pirates that's something we have in common what's with you how would you like to help me put azula in her place i can take her this time

then a flash of bright cobalt-


Katara wakes with a gasp. She puts her face in her hands and tries to concentrate on breathing.

[and tries not to think about how many times this has happened in the past month and how many times Aang hasn't noticed.]

She looks to her left, where Aang is sleeping peacefully, one arm thrown carelessly around her waist. She sighs before slowly lifting his arm and sliding out of bed. She crosses over to the window and takes in the view.

[and when she inhales she can feel the full moon filling her with power and courage and determination, and she makes a decision.]

She leaves a note for Aang on the bedside table:

I'm leaving for a while. There are some things I need to take care of. Don't worry about me; I'll be back in a week.

Love, Katara.

"Appa, yip yip." She jerks the reins and they soar into the sky, to the Fire Nation capital.

[to him.]

She lands in the palace courtyard two days later, hungry, unwashed, and exhausted. The Fire Lady comes to greet them and welcomes them inside, making sure Appa has a place in the stables and Katara has a room.

She'd be easier to hate if she wasn't so wonderful, Katara [bitterly] thinks.

Zuko waits three days before he goes to see her. He knocks on her door after the sun's gone down and the moon is high in the sky and the fireflies are glowing softly outside his window. That's when he climbs out of bed and heads down the hall to her room.

She opens the door after he knocks twice. "Can I come in?"

Like she could have said no.

They sit next to each other on the edge of her bed, silent. They don't touch; it's an unspoken agreement between the two of them.

"What would we have done," she says suddenly, "if they hadn't come back?"

He smirks. "I would have gone down fighting."

She shakes her head. "I don't know what I would have done." Zuko's smirk is gone, replaced by something sadder and more thoughtful.

"I would have made sure you were safe, first," he says slowly. "And then I would have stayed with you." He clears his throat, folds his hands in his lap. "That would be the honorable thing to do."

She nods. "And what would have happened with...you know..." she gestures awkwardly between the two of them, "us?"

He sighs. "I don't know."

She considers him from the corner of her eye; his head is bowed and his eyes are closed. "Yeah," she murmurs. "Me neither."

Katara leaves the capital the next morning. This time, she does not look back.