Updated December 4, 2019. I have fleshed this chapter out a touch and hopefully saved us all from the cringe!
Updated again July 21st, 2020. I cleaned up the love scene. It is one of the few necessary for plot love scenes, I hope it reads well!
This is the first non research paper thing I have written since high school creative writing and I am so excited to share it with you. I obviously own nothing, the world of the Avatar and all characters there in belong to Nickelodeon/Viacom, just playing in their sandbox.
I have finagled with the timeline a bit, spreading out the original year long journey to last at least two. By the story's start, Katara is 16, Zuko and Sokka are 18, Aang is almost 14, Toph is 14 as well. There will be what is considered by today's standards, underage intimacy and teen pregnancy.
This will be cannon up to the Southern Raiders episode with the exception of all Mai/Zuko plot. Enjoy!
Zuko sat unmoving on Appa's head as they flew toward the Capital, at once terrified and resigned. This fight with Azula, his only sister, had been raging for nearly their whole lives; the impending battle merely a destined grand finale with ultimate stakes. He was fighting for his throne, for his birthright, for his people. Still, in spite of their shared, miserable history, Zuko hated fighting his sister and honestly just wanted it to be over. Squinting into the rapidly darkening sky, he could just make out the faint glimmer of light from the Caldera and surrounding city at the edge of the horizon. They would have to stop for the night soon he supposed, not reaching his home until the next afternoon.
Recently, the concept had left him feeling conflicted. Ever since he'd been banished returning to the palace and his old life had been his all consuming goal. It was what had driven him to pursue Aang so desperately and what had still tugged at him just hard enough in the crystal caverns beneath Ba Sing Se. For the last several months though, home had been Katara. Every time he was with her, every late night conversation, every kiss, every passionate embrace stirred in him feelings of happiness and peace he hadn't known since he was a boy. Maybe it was reckless to have allowed it, to have opened himself up to her so completely, Zuko didn't care.
He hadn't intended to care so much for the waterbender, it had crept up on him in the months they stayed at Ember Island. After she had faced Yon Ra and finally let go of her anger towards Zuko, he realized they actually got on quite well. Instead of scowling every time she saw him, she gave him easy smiles and friendly conversation. Two weeks after their "field trip" and days of blush tinged smiles and poor attempts at flirtation on his part that he was sure even Sokka had picked up on, Katara cornered him. Fisting his tunic one afternoon in the kitchen of the beach house, she had kissed him soundly. It hadn't taken him long to overcome his shock and kiss her back. The next day they had volunteered to stay back and do the laundry while everyone else went to the beach for a swim. He still wasn't sure how they had actually gotten any of the clothes clean, kissing her against the washroom wall had been quite distracting. The next night she had snuck into his room. Neither one of them had slept much that night.
They never discussed what it was they were doing together. The future was uncertain and taking what happiness they could while it lasted seemed like the right thing to do. So they spent as much time together as their days would allow. They would volunteer to partner up for the menial tasks they all took turns at, sneaking in a kiss here or an affectionate touch there when they thought they were alone, and nearly every night they would lose themselves in each other. Wrapped in her legs, it was easy to forget the battles that loomed closer every morning. He could remember the exact moment when he had realized how attached he had grown. The first time she had stayed all night instead of sneaking back to her own room, Zuko had woken to a mess of wild hair and soft brown skin. As he kissed her awake, he wondered at the thought of waking up to her every morning for the rest of his life and he knew that he was falling for her.
A splash of water to the back of his head snapped him out of his reverie and he shouted at his attacker. He glared at her as she spoke. At least she had the decency to look remorseful.
"I have been trying to get your attention for the last five minutes, Zuko!"
Sighing heavily and shaking out his now wet hair he turned back towards the horizon as she came up to sit beside him.
"Sorry I kind of have a lot on my mind."
Bending the water out of his hair she put a hand on his shoulder in quiet support. "So do I, you know." She sighed as well before going on. "I was just thinking that we should stop for the night soon. Appa is probably tired and you should rest too…"
Already having come to the same conclusion and wanting to make camp before the sun set fully, he aimed Appa for the nearest clearing. Sliding off the bison, Zuko built them a fire while Katara laid out their bed rolls side by side and dug around in their packs for something to eat. After the fire was sorted, he sat back on his haunches and watched Katara. She was tense, he could tell, and a deep frown marred her face. He knew that she had even more to lose tomorrow than he did and all things considered, she was keeping it together rather well. Katara was the strong one after all, the lynchpin that had been holding their little group together through the last few stressful months. He promised himself that he'd be there for her if she finally allowed herself to break.
He took the jerky and bread that she handed him and moved to sit beside her. For several minutes they ate in silence, the only sound the crackling of the fire, before Katara stilled. Noticing her sudden heavy breathing from the corner of his eye, Zuko reached out and took one of her hands in his. At his touch she let out a choked sob and met his gaze, her eyes wet.
"We're going to be ok, Katara. So will Sokka and the others. We have to believe that, worrying about it won't help them and it will only distract us tomorrow."
"I know, still… I can't not worry. We have everything to lose, I have everything to lose." She wiped a stray tear with the back of her free hand. "What if Aang doesn't come back? What if he fails? I am terrified for him as well as Sokka, Suki and Toph. I have no idea where my father is. And you, Zuko," She brought her hand up to cup the scarred side of his face as more tears slid free. "I'm scared I might lose you too." He pressed his forehead against hers. "I could lose everyone I love tomorrow and I don't know how I could survive it."
His eyes widened when she seemed to include him among the people she loved. Setting aside his food he wrapped her in his arms and drew her into his lap. She straddled his waist and settled her cheek against his neck, her warm breath tickling his skin. He wasn't sure if she had meant to declare her feelings for him, so he didn't mention it as he tried to assuage her of her worry if only long enough to get some rest.
"First of all, I don't think we need to worry about Sokka. He's capable all on his own, but with the greatest earthbender probably ever, and the leader of the Kyoshi warriors by his side? He'll be fine." Pausing, he thought about his own biggest fear. "I know Aang will show up to defeat my father, I have to believe that." Pulling back so he could look in her shining blue eyes he continued. "And I know that I am going to be ok tomorrow because I have you. There's no one I'd rather face this with."
She kissed him softly before she responded. "You may not use confusing tea metaphors, but sometimes you can be as wise as your uncle."
Chuckling, he thanked her for such high praise before he kissed her again. When she pulled back, she looked unsure, picking at the collar of his tunic instead of meeting his gaze.
"Zuko, I know we haven't actually defined what it is we are doing here… or discussed the future at all. It hasn't ever felt tangible what with the war and all of our planning and fighting. What I am trying to say is, well I just wanted you to know that no matter what happens tomorrow, I…" She paused and finally looked into his eyes for a long moment before she finished. "I love you, Zuko. I love you and.."
He cut her off as his lips crashed into hers. She loved him. If he died tomorrow, he would die happy. That was something he never thought he'd do. Though now, more than ever, he desperately wanted to live. His hands cupped her face and he pulled back just long enough to respond.
"I love you too, Katara."
She gave him a wide, happy smile before kissing him back in earnest. His hands carded through her long hair, catching on the wind blown curls as they slid down her back to draw her into his lap. Soft, breathy gasps became drawn out moans of pleasure, and Zuko found himself taking his time. Skin on skin, he wanted to memorize everything about this moment, about her. The smooth expanse of her taut stomach, a small scar on her wrist from a recent spar, the softness of her breasts and the sweet lilt in her voice when she whispered his name...he would treasure all of it. Unlike every other time before, as Katara's long legs wound around his hips, her lips on his, nothing could dislodge the sudden and painful thought that this might be their last night together. Seeing his own emotions reflected back in her tear rimmed eyes, Zuko resolved to ensure she knew just how much he loved her. When she came, her cry rent the still night air, his own voice joining hers moments later as he followed her over the edge, filling her with himself.
Loathe to separate himself from her as she was from him, they clung to one another for several minutes in the silence that followed. Eventually though, he rolled onto his back, pulling her to his chest. Covering them with one of the discarded blankets, Zuko savored the feel of her sweat slicked skin against his as he stared up at the night sky. Katara was so still for so long that he thought she had fallen asleep until she whispered something he had to strain to hear.
"Sokka is going to be OK, we are going to take care of Azula, and Aang is going to defeat the Fire Lord. We're all going to be ok. Whatever comes after, we'll face together."
Kissing her forehead and holding her just a little bit tighter, he murmured into her hair.
"I love you, Katara."
She squeezed him tighter and he could feel her tears and her smile against his chest as he drifted off to sleep.
The next morning, Zuko was awake with the sun as usual. He looked down at the naked waterbender in his arms and prayed that Agni, and even the moon and water spirits that she honored would keep her safe. Zuko was intimately familiar with just how dangerous his sister was and they were meant to face her together. He knew how powerful Katara was too though as he remembered their trip to the Southern Raiders. Katara's bending had been beyond impressive, and then what she had done to their captain… Truly her power was amazing and he knew she could normally handle herself just fine, even against his sister.
Today though, he could feel his inner fire roar with more power than he'd ever felt already and the comet had only just breached the horizon. It would be at least 3 hours flight before they reached his sister and by then it would be high in the sky. Even though he hadn't told her so last night, he too was terrified he'd lose everyone he loved. He wouldn't say he "loved" Aang or Sokka or the rest, but he truly cared about them. After all he had never had any honest friends before and they were certainly that. Of course there was his uncle too. Katara though, Zuko was not sure if he could face a world without her.
She stirred in his arms and their eyes met, both relaying the fear they felt in that moment. They reached for one another, sharing one last searing kiss, one last embrace. Then they rose and dressed in silence; packing up their things and climbing Appa, they flew towards the capital and a waiting Azula.