i've loved you so terribly
Zuko's never had anything of his own. Not really. He's not really surprised that he didn't get to keep her, either. He stands, hands clasped behind his back—whether to stop them from shaking or to stop himself from reaching out to her, he does not know—and holds in everything he wants to say. Because he can't say anything, though the words are white hot, ice cold, molten lava, freezing rain, a hurricane in his veins.
I and love and you and I and wish and you and could and stay and don't and leave and with and him.
He swallows them down, pushes them past the growing lump in his throat and the bout of nausea, down until it's aching in the pit of his stomach and he just wants to turn away, away from her, away to his palace to hide in his grand room that's filled with red—
He wants it to be blue, wants her clothes to mingle with his in the floor, wants her water tribe grabs mixed with his fire nation garbs, wants her name signed on his papers.
He stays where he is, and her mouth opens, "Zuko?" she waits, with bated breath, heart jumping in her chest. Her eyes plead—
Ask me to stay.
He wishes he could, but he can't. He has to sacrifice this, his own happiness, to better the world. Aang cannot do this, heal the world, without her.
Zuko looks over her shoulder, knowing that if he looks into her eyes one more time, he will be gone. He will whisk her away into his palace and never let her go.
"Goodbye, Katara." he says stiffly.
She sucks in a shaky, shocked breath. She hadn't been expected that. "Until next time, Fire Lord Zuko." she breathes, and he feels her eyes on his face, searching.
I and love and you and I and wish and you and could and stay and don't and leave and with and him, he urges her to understand, forcing his eyes to hers again. His hands clench into fists, and he fights the urge to pull her to him, and show her how he really feels.
A moment passes, and she nods. It's a sacrifice on her part, too, he realizes, watching her walk away, towards Avatar Aaang, standing on the bough of the ship, waiting for her.
(Zuko does not want to think about how long he'll have to wait for her.)
Katara's long, lithe fingers dance up his spine, and she murmurs, "Tell me about Ursa."
Zuko twists his head around, scar facing her. She doesn't flinch. Doesn't stop her ministrations. He likes that.
His room is stifling, heat swirling in the air around them. She's in her wrappings, sweat pooling on her forehead, hair tied back. He swallows thickly as she slides her body against his, ignoring the heat he radiates. She traces his scar, smiles, "Ursa?" she questions, eyebrows lifting.
"She was beautiful," he starts.
He doesn't know whether he's talking about his mother or Katara.
He's always wondered what passion—real, true, fiery passion—would look like.
Zuko thinks it might be her. Her hair swinging over her shoulder, eyes lighting in anger, water whipping back and forth under her fingers.
Eyes sparkling in the moonlight, hand slipping into his, arm around his waist.
Lips on his, straddling him, hands tugging at his shirt.
Words whispered in the middle of the night, darkness fallen, words never to be spoken in the light of day.
She's an enigma, an entity, and he will never stop trying to discover each and every part of her.
"Why would you take lightning for me?" she asks one day, hands braiding the loose ends of her hair together. She lies on his bed, perpendicular to him. Her eyes are closed, lips curved into the hint of a smile, legs thrown over his.
He runs a hand up her smooth calf, stopping at her knee. His head hangs over the side of the bed, and he watches the sunlight pour into the room from his balcony. He contemplates her question, and even questions himself. He couldn't have watched her shake with Azula's volts coursing through her, couldn't have watched her fall to her knees, couldn't have heard her cry out, scream out, couldn't—
"I couldn't watch you die." he tells her simply, fingers dancing up her thigh. She laughs as he tickles her, and question and answer are—almost—forgotten.
"You're leaving." Zuko states, maybe accuses.
Her blue eyes fall to the floor, and she presses her clothing into her pack, "I can't stay here forever, Zuko. I have to get home. My dad, Sokka, and Aang are—"
He loses it. He loses it because he's this close to losing her. Can't he just keep one thing? Just one? "Forget your father! Forget Sokka! Forget Aang! What about me? Don't I mean anything to you?" he explodes, pacing, hands clenched into fists at his side.
Katara's eyes widen, "Of course you do—"
"Then why? Why are you leaving?" he snaps.
"Because. Because I can't hide out here with you, no matter how much I want to, when there are still people in the other nations who need our help. Even three years after the comet. I wish I could stay, Zuko, I wish—"
"Then stay." the anger is gone from his voice, replaced by pleading, "Please stay. Nobody ever stays."
Her arms wind around his waist, her head falls on his chest, and he holds her tightly. "I'll be back." she whispers.
They both know it's a lie.
"I don't want to leave." Katara whispers, hand finding his under the sheets.
"I don't want you to leave, either." he whispers back.
Twenty moons after her departure, he gets a letter from Aang. Katara has given birth to a girl, a waterbender named Kya.
Zuko does not cry. He does not lock himself in his room and tear it apart until there's nothing left on the walls. He does drink himself into a stupor.
He does not grieve.