Chapter 1 - Katara
After everything - after Azula is restrained and taken away - after someone from the palace comes out and helps Katara bind Zuko's wound - after one of the sages asks Zuko when the coronation will take place - after Zuko tells everyone to go home to rest and be with their families until morning - after he leads her through the long empty hallways of the palace, down dark corridors and through fire-lit chambers - they end up in Zuko's old room. As soon as they are there, he closes the heavy doors behind them, sliding three deadbolts into place. Katara seals the doors off with frozen water. Finally, they both feel they have locked the rest of the world out. Zuko leans heavily against the door.
Katara looks around. Now that they are here, she thinks perhaps she made a mistake. She stands awkwardly looking at the bed in the center of the room. It is huge. She is exhausted. It wouldn't be right for her to stay. She doesn't want to leave.
She doesn't want to be alone.
He comes to stand next to to her.
"I know what this looks like," he says. "And this is probably selfish of me to ask. But we both need rest, and I'm not going to be able to sleep if I don't know you're somewhere safe. It's a big bed. We can each take a side."
She glances at him. He is staring at the ground by his feet. She can't tell if he's nervous or numb or some combination of the two.
"Please Katara," he says, not looking up. "I don't wanna be alone."
His voice wouldn't have needed to be so heartbreakingly pitiful. She was already there anyway. But she doesn't say that to him. She answers by climbing into his bed. She thinks she hears him sigh in relief before she feels him climb into bed on the other side. She shuts her eyes.
"Thanks Katara," she hears him say.
"I didn't want to be alone either," she says. "Thanks for asking me to stay."
There is silence then. It is a loud silence. She can hear her own heartbeat in her ear and her breath, still quickened from the high tension of the day. For as tired as she is, she knows she isn't going to fall to sleep. Scenes from their battle with Azula are still running through her mind. The lightning flash. The certainty of her own death. Zuko throwing himself in front of her. Her running forward. Not being able to get to him.
The certainty that he was going to die.
Not being able to get to him.
She shudders thinking about it. The loud silence is mutual. She can hear him too. His breath. It should make her feel better to hear it. That is, after all, why she needs to be here. She needs to know he is safe too. Safe and breathing and alive. But the lightning keeps flashing behind her eyes.
She feels tears on her face. She hadn't even realized she was crying.
She hears ragged breath from the other side of the bed. She turns onto her side so she can see him. She isn't the only one fighting tears. He sees her look. He turns onto his side and smiles half-heartedly at her, wiping his eyes with the back of his hand.
Neither of them can control the outflow of emotion. It only takes a few seconds for the bed to become smaller. It's shared - this need to be safe together. To cry together. She tucks her head into the hollow of his shoulder. He curls his arm around her back and rests his cheek in her hair. She sets her free hand, the one that isn't folded under her side, on his chest lightly. On the place where the lightning struck. He sets his free hand, the one that isn't curved around her body, on top of her hand.
They are both still crying. They are shaking and sniffling and shuddering together. She thinks maybe they will cry themselves to sleep, but whenever he stills, she is still crying. When she stops, he starts up again.
And then she feels his lips in her hair.
It's subtle. Whispered. Barely there. Meant to soothe her or soothe him or maybe to soothe both of them at once. Her dad has kissed the top of her head the same way. Her brother has once or twice too. Perhaps Zuko kissed his own sister like this, once upon a time. But this doesn't feel familial to Katara. She freezes. Completely. Every voluntary bodily function she has freezes. She isn't crying. She isn't breathing. She isn't sure her heart is beating.
"I'm sorry," he says. The kisses had been warm in her hair, his breath comforting. She doesn't feel either anymore. His arm had melted around her, and now it's cold and stiff. He has frozen too.
She shouldn't let her emotions overwhelm her like this. She should know this is because they've been through something together that makes them raw and skinless in front of each other. But she will face the consequences of this when the wounds are healed and scabbed over. For now, she wants the warm, soothing comfort back. She nuzzles into his shoulder and scooches closer. Her knees brush his. He relaxes again, his arm closing tighter around her while his hand holds hers more firmly to his chest. Then she feels him crying again, and she is crying too. She buries her face into his shoulder again. He presses his lips into her hair again.
She knows this instinct. To kiss someone just to make sure they are there. To kiss someone because you are so relieved they are okay. She wanted to do the same to him, earlier, in the courtyard, when she helped him sit back up after she healed his injures. She wants to do it now. She tentatively kisses the shoulder she is pressed against. He breathes and kisses the top of her head again, twice in a row. She kisses his shoulder again. And again. Then they are both kissing each other. It's fast, frantic, needy and nervous. They're like puppies licking their owners after a long separation. These aren't kisses of desire. These kisses only say: "I'm here and you're here and I wasn't sure that's how today was going to end, so I'm kissing you because I'm so thankful we're both here."
He kisses her hairline. He kisses her forehead. He reaches up to stroke her hair and her ear and the side of her face. He kisses her temple. He kisses the hair above her ear.
She starts off kissing layers of fabric, but in desperation she kisses his collarbone and that's skin. She kisses the base of his neck. She kisses up his neck.
"I thought..." he begins, but he cannot complete the sentence. He shudders again instead.
"Me too," she says.
He lets go of her hand - the one that is resting on his wounded chest - and takes her waist instead. He pulls her even closer, trapping her hand between their bodies. She lets him. She feels the pulse in his neck below her lips. It reminds her again. He could have died. He almost died. She kisses harder, as if somehow this will connect her to him in a permanent way that will always keep him safe.
He takes a sharp breath in and stops moving. Stops kissing.
She opens her eyes, stunned. This just became something else. She accidentally turned it into something else. Deep, shameful regret washes over her.
"I'm sorry," she says. She has stopped kissing as well, and now she is waiting for him to push her away. She looks up and he is looking down at her, and the look he's giving her is one she never expected to see on his face. He takes her hand - the one trapped between their bodies - and weaves his fingers through hers.
"I'm not," he says.
Their lips are close. So close she can feel his breath warm on her skin. He leans in and she thinks he is going to kiss her mouth but at the last moment he swerves away. Instead, he kisses down from her ear along her jaw. Kisses back up again. Kisses her temple. Kisses all the way up her hairline and then rubs his nose softly against hers. She is not crying anymore. Neither is he. But she is quivering and so is he when his mouth grazes her cheek, and then more so when the corner of his lips touch the corner of hers.
"Zuko," she whispers.
"Katara," he whispers back.
But they are communicating better without talking tonight, and she doesn't know what else to say. She only knows that what she wants right now is to feel his lips on her own. That's what she needs. To know he's there. To know he's safe. And then it happens. His lips meet hers. The kiss is slow, soft, sure and steady. They both take time to breathe after. Then it happens again, and soon her legs are tangled with his and they're holding each other in their arms and the gasping, shuddering whimpering noises are of pleasure and desire and they make her feel alive. Very very alive.
They don't stop until she knows that if they keep going, she'll cross lines she isn't ready to cross. It seems as though it's mutual, too, though, because they pull away at the same time, rolling over onto their backs. He grabs her hand. She closes her fingers tightly around his.
"I thought you had a girlfriend," she says, the thought coming out before she can stop it.
"I couldn't drag her into all this," he says.
"You didn't want to see her get hurt," she says. "But you asked me to come with you."
"You're a much stronger person," he says.
"Do you still love her?" she asks.
"Not like I love you," he says.
She gasps while he smiles wistfully and looks sideways at her.
"Not that it matters," he says. "Since you have Aang."
"I've never kissed Aang like that," she says.
"He's the real hero," he says. "He's a much better person than I am."
"You're a much better kisser," she teases. "And I'm not a reward that goes to the guy who can beat the biggest villain."
"But don't you love him?" he asks.
"Yes," she says. "But not like I love you."
The bed is huge. They trade soft kisses until they fall asleep wrapped in each other's embrace in the middle.
And they are finally safe.
EPILOGUE: AND THEY ARE DYNAMIC, INTERESTING CHARACTERS WHO ARE NOT OBLIGATED TO STAY FOR THE REST OF THEIR LIVES WITH THE KIDS WHO HAD CRUSHES ON THEM AT AGE 12. SO THEY GET A HAPPY ENDING, WITH EACH OTHER, DAMN IT.