The last thing he could recall was Katara yelling his name off in the distance. He instantly regretted his over-confident request to his sister to release her infamous blue lighting that was headed for a different path. The path towards the vulnerable water bender from the Southern Water Tribe instead of his own. Zuko was unsure as to how long he had been out, but he awoke to Katara prepping for another healing session.
Zuko watched as Katara summoned water to her hands from the basin sitting beside them. This was the first time he was watching a master Waterbender performing their healing work since his first opportunity was missed when he had so rudely denied her help back in the Earth Kingdom when Uncle was in need, and the second he had been on the verge of death thanks to his sister.
She was sitting in a chair she had grabbed from his desk, and her face was void of what he had grown to like most about her; the fiery passion you could see in her too blue eyes for those she cared about. It was something he had noticed all those months ago when fate led his ship to their small village in the Southern Water Tribe. When he forcefully grabbed her Grandmother from her grasp, it was then he was able to get his first glimpse of those eyes; the eyes that were bluer than the clearest ocean and the ones that contained so much hope in the most dire situations.
But this morning, he was not seeing that. Perhaps it was her deep concentration that made her so different, but the visible bags under her eyes told him otherwise.
"How long?" His voice was raspy from lack of use.
"A couple days at least. You took a pretty nasty fall after I first healed you. I've been coming in on and off to heal you." She responded, still concentrating on the healing process.
He found himself mesmerized by the blue glow surrounding her hands. He couldn't help but watch, becoming on the verge of a deep trance. Her hands hovered over his wound, never once having skin to skin contact.
His brows furrowed, and a slight ache came to his chest and it wasn't because of his blatant injury. That's when he noticed her hands and how they didn't appear to be as smooth as he remembered. Fine wrinkles were forming on the tips of her fingers. For someone who was only coming in here and there, the signs on her fingers were saying otherwise. He suddenly felt indebted to her.
"I thought all my worries were over."
She was speaking again.
"After you stood, it wasn't too long after that I felt a light gust of wind rush past me. Before I knew it, you were laying on the ground again only you weren't responding at all. Zuko, I thought I was going to lose you."
He could hear her voice catching, threatened to cry as she continued to speak, the blue glow around her hands dimming.
"It was the second time I had to bring someone important to me, back from the brink of death, only I didn't have the help of the water from the Spirit Oasis."
"I'm sorry to have worried you so much," he started, "but you're a master Waterbender who was destined to help save the world. I knew you'd be able to handle Azula when I was struck down and I knew I was in good hands; I knew you'd bring me back Katara."
That was the first time she had heard her name in over two days, and it just had to be from the one person who made her question everything. Katara never understood it herself, but the way Zuko said her name always left her feeling flushed and hoped it wasn't too visibly obvious. She knew what this sudden rush of anxiety meant, why her stomach was consumed by fluttering butterflies, but she refused to even think let alone speak these thoughts that treaded on dangerous ground. It would disrupt this newly conceived balance, and she refused to let that go.
"Why?" Katara whispered, her voice just loud enough for him to hear. "Why did you do it? Why would you sacrifice yourself for me? Me, the person who admittedly made your life miserable after you joined us. The one who wouldn't accept you until my selfish wish was granted." She sounded on edge, fighting back the urge to cry uncontrollably.
"Because it was the right thing to do," he responded, watching Katara return the now non-glowing water back to the basin, "I shouldn't need a reason behind the things I do for the people I care about."
He looked away, suddenly feeling embarrassed for unknown reasons. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed Katara's head was downcast, hands clenching in her lap as an awkward silence filled the room.
"It's just, after you brought Sokka back from the Boiling Rock, reuniting us with our Father and Suki, and even bringing back people we didn't even know…and then the things you did for me when we were searching for Yon Rha. You risked your life multiple times for both Sokka and I. I don't understand you at all and it bothers me!" She was raising her voice, tears piling up as she looked at him.
Her eyes widened as she was not at all prepared for what he was about to do. It was nothing hasty or uncalled for, just unexpected. She hadn't realized the tears falling down her face until he was much closer than she remembered and his hand was cupping the left side of her face. And that's when he saw them. Her too blue eyes filled with the fiery passion she was missing not too long ago only her emotions seemed unclear. Was she shocked? Sad? Confused? A little bit of everything? He was unsure, but all he knew is that she needed comforting. They had come back from the brink of impossible and from what he could tell, she had been healing him ever since he made contact with the ground after their victory.
Her breath hitched in the back of her throat, unsure of how to respond to his chaste movements. When she realized there was nothing else she could do, Katara found herself giving into her tiredness as she leaned into his palm. The warmth from his touch gave her instant relief as she let her body slouch and a long breath was exhaled. It was then she realized how truly exhausted she had become.
"An estranged relationship with your father, a relationship with a beloved mother now lost. We're more similar than you think," he offered, pulling away his hand in fear of making her feel uncomfortable. His golden eyes made contact with her blue ones before speaking again. "You were the first person to look past the barrier I had built around me ever since I was banished. The first person to see the real me despite how I had treated you previously. And I was the first person to break that initial trust and I'll never forgive myself for it. Helping you and Sokka and Aang, and everyone else for that matter, is the least I could do after what I did to everyone."
"Do you mind if --" Katara began speaking, hesitation written all over her face. "Do you mind if I confess something?"
He nodded from side to side.
"That day, when we were in jail together in the Crystal Catacombs, I saw something in you that made me want…want to save you." Katara looked away, her brow furrowing as she spoke again. "You were so lost and I wanted to help, but I too was lost. I didn't know how to save someone like you. You were no longer Prince Zuko, the one who chased us half way around the world. No, you were the boy in the cave who had to grow up too fast because of the war. You were just like me and it frightened me and I realized I didn't know how to save you because I couldn't even save myself."
"So when you betrayed us by aiding Azula, I had never felt so hurt. I remember wondering if that's what it felt like to be physically stabbed in the heart."
"There's nothing you could have done. As Uncle would say 'Destiny is a funny thing' and he couldn't be more right. I was messed up back then and needed to find my way to you guys through my own means. However, that does not make me feel any less regret for what I have done prior to joining your group."
The awkward silence fell upon them again. Zuko shifted in his bed, propping himself up against his bed post while Katara walked towards his bedroom windows. Her hands took safe haven to his curtains as she fiddled with them, distracting herself from the current situation.
Neither of them understood where this conversation was headed.
Zuko, now acting like the boy in the cave, continued to stare at her, wondering who should take the initiative next, while Katara knew where the conversation was heading but refused to think of what would come after. The butterflies in her stomach ceased to calm during their looming silence.
He looked towards her, her figure now a silhouette thanks to the incoming rays from the early morning sun. She was no longer fiddling with the curtains. She knew all too well that he couldn't see her face let alone any expression it was holding and she was okay with that. The war was now over but Katara felt anything but anxiety free. Ever since that day in the cave, her thoughts of the banished Fire Prince no longer appeared as nightmares when she slept but as dreams. Dreams about the boy in the cave that were nothing more than him sitting and sipping tea with his Uncle in their tea shop. The dreams were always innocent but she knew they were trying to tell her something more.
After he risked his life for them, and for herself a couple of times, the suppressed feelings of wonder threatened to consume her. This was a good time to bring this subject into light because the morning was still young and the others were still physically and mentally drained from their victories.
"You…" she started softly, her voice on the verge of a whisper, "You saved me. If you hadn't jumped in front of Azula's lighting like you did, I mean, I…" Suddenly, forming a coherent sentence seemed impossible. She started playing with the lose strands of hair that had fallen from her bun, nulling her anxiety only by a little. "I don't even want to know what would have been the outcome. You risked your life without a second thought and I am forever grateful for what you did."
"Everything is a blur, but I knew in that moment I had to protect you. I've hurt and lost enough people in my life and I wasn't about to let that happen ten feet away from me. The thought of losing you was so horrific, my body was moving on its own. Before I knew it, I was on the ground. I thought my destiny had run short but I was relieved if it meant saving someone important to me."
He gave her a slight smile, her cheeks glowing an undeniable rose color and her heart beating so loud she could have sworn it was waking up the morning doves outside. Katara thanked the sun gods that morning for casting such a bright light on her, preventing Zuko from seeing any of her visible flush.
"Zuko I--" Katara began, but was startled by two knocks on the door. A wave of regret came over her.
"Katara of the Southern Water Tribe? I have a request from Kyoshi Warrior Suki to aid your brother in some healing assistance. I've come with some fresh bandages to wrap Prince Zuko's wound so you're not burdened with all the healing responsibilities."
It was one of the palace's assistants.
"Thank you! I'll be out in a moment!" She shouted across the room.
Katara looked back at Zuko, finding herself even more embarrassed than earlier.
"It's okay," he assured her, "I'm not going anywhere."
She merely nodded and headed towards the bedroom's double doors. When she opened them, the assistant was standing outside, holding a hefty amount of new bandages for the wounded Prince. Katara felt a hint of…jealousy? Jealousy of what? The female assistant who was about to wrap the Prince's oh so toned body?
Perhaps, but the thought was soon shoved out of her mind.
What Katara didn't know that day, is that fate would not be on her side. At least, not for the one moment she wanted it to be. She had confided in her friend Suki for advice since what she was feeling currently, felt foreign and to some extent, unwanted. The fluttering butterflies. The rapid drum beats of her heart. The feelings that made it almost impossible to speak with the one person she had grown to like more than she had anticipated.
Katara had expected Suki to be somewhat shocked towards her confession, but instead, she was granted with an understanding friend who was telling her to go with her initial gut.
Upon her return to Zuko's bedroom, it was then she came the realization that these feelings she had suppressed were becoming more real whether she approved of it or not. What was at first innocent intrigue, was now evolving into something far deeper than she had ever hoped for. Physical attraction was no longer in front of her. Sure, she had found the Prince more attractive than she liked to admit ever since he stepped foot in their sorry village all those fateful months ago, but it was how they were able to bond on a much more emotional level. The shared relationships with their families and the mutual understanding that sometimes, shared silence is a wonderful thing.
Now that the war was over and after confiding in her friend, Katara knew more than ever that she needed to talk to Zuko. About the future, about what all of their next steps were and about them. She needed reassurance from the other side as to whether she was merely crazy from all the events that lead up to this day or that maybe perhaps there was something there. Something more than just a bond of friendship so newly won over.
When Katara reached his large double doors to his bedroom, she was shocked to find them still open. Maybe Zuko's wound had worsen in the time she was gone, and wrapping it was taking longer than expected. In a panic, she opened one of the doors to make sure everything was okay.
"Zuko, is everything--" she quickly stopped herself when she heard someone else walking into the room. It wasn't the assistant and it wasn't Uncle Iroh. Katara grabbed the door handle and pulled it behind her, her back now facing the door. Katara heard someone talking.
"You need some help with that?"
"Mai! You're okay! They let you out of prison?"
I've never heard him sound so excited…
"My Uncle pulled some strings. And it doesn't hurt when the new Fire Lord is your boyfriend."
"So does this mean you don't hate me anymore?"
"I think that means I actually kinda like you."
When the sound of lips against lips were heard, Katara quietly closed the door behind her, her heart beginning to ache. She brought her hands up to her chest, hoping to ease the pain she was feeling but nothing subsided. Maybe she had been too ambitious. Katara suddenly felt stupid for thinking she could bring up such a topic with Zuko, especially when he was about to be crowned the new Fire Lord. Being Fire Lord meant marriage, and marriage meant bearing children who would be heirs for the next generation of royal family.
Her body collapsed to the carpeted hallway below her. She took note of its soft texture while tracing the intricate patterns of the design with her finger tips, oblivious to the fact both Iroh and Toph were approaching her.
"What if the one you want, isn't the one you're supposed to be with?" she whispered to herself, as she brought her legs up to her chest, her head now burrowed in her crossed arms.
"Sugar Queen! You there?"
"OH! Iroh! Toph! I'm sorry, I didn't see you guys standing there!" she finally responded, quickly picking herself up from the ground. "I was just uh, leaving Zuko's room from a healing session."
"Master Katara, you really should get some rest. You've been healing my nephew on and off ever since he was struck. A person needs their rest."
"Thank you Iroh, in fact, I think I'll head to my room and take a quick nap before the day gets started. Can't heal the wounded without some shut eye!"
"You sure you're okay Sugar Queen?"
"Yes, I'm fine Toph I'm just tired is all--"
"Because you know, I don't need the earth for me to tell you're feeling off right now." Said the blind Earthbender as she crossed her arms, an eyebrow arching in Katara's direction.
"I'm fine. Really. I'll see you guys for lunch, alright? I'll be sure to request something especially delicious for Zuko's coronation this afternoon!" Katara replied as she headed in the direction of her room down the hallway.
Iroh merely nodded and sighed, his head downcast. He knew all too well what the Waterbender was feeling because he saw a little bit of himself in her, back when he was younger man. The way she always knew the right thing to say to Zuko when they were at the White Lotus camp and how she always wore the biggest smile when she was around him and how she was by his bedside day and night to assure he received the best healing possible. Iroh knew it was more than for the sake of friendship. It was young, but the affection she was developing for Zuko could not go unnoticed by the ex-General.
"She's lying." Toph muttered, somewhat annoyed Katara would lie to her face. "So Iroh, what do you do when the one you want, isn't the done you're supposed to be with?"
"What do you mean, my dear Toph?"
"It's what Katara said. Right before we approached her. These carpeted floors don't lessen my top notch hearing abilities you know."
"Ahh yes. Well, Katara is still young. You all are, but with time, love shall find a way."
For the first time since she joined their team, Toph felt a tinge of sadness for the master Waterbender from the Southern Water Tribe.