Zuko was used to the sun awakening beneath his skin before it touched the sky, but that didn’t mean he enjoyed dragging himself out of bed in the morning.
Getting up usually meant having to face meetings with an assortment of unpleasant people: advisors who were supposedly ‘on his side’ but still disagreed with all his decisions, former army officers too stupid to understand they were lucky not to be rotting in jail, and plenty of bootlickers happy to kiss up to him now, even though they’d likely turn a blind eye at a coup attempt.
That didn’t mean all the people he met with were a waste of time – far from it. He’d lost count of the doctors asking for money to build new hospitals and local leaders needing support for infrastructure in rural areas. Farmers, women’s activists, and groups of workers starting to unionize – they didn’t hesitate to remind him that his true duty was to serve, which was humbling in exactly the way it was supposed to be. He even appreciated the foriegn ambassadors who didn’t like him very much, but at least had the courtesy to say it to his face.
Despite the importance of his work, he usually couldn’t help but fantasize about closing his eyes and counting to ten over and over again, until he bored himself back to sleep...
… but he could never wish for that on the days that she was here with him, not only in the palace, but in his room.
He lifted himself unto his elbows, kicking away the blue bed sheets stuck to his sweating skin. His internal heat made the surrounding humid air almost unbearable, so like most mornings and nights, he lay bare except for his underwear.
His hands mindlessly searched over the bed while he tried to blink the sleep out of his eyes. He wondered if he’d dreamt up the day before, when she had arrived on a boat she’d commanded entirely with her own two hands. For some reason, she found him important enough to visit in between her travels to the south and to the north, and amidst all the Earth Kingdom ports calling her name.
The stories of Katara rivalled those of Aang, who was likely as beloved as an Avatar could be. In every corner of the world, a different part of her had grown mythic. The female waterbenders in the north talked of her feet, which stood so solid on the ground as she swung water above her head. The villages of the Earth Kingdom spoke of her hands, which healed the sick but also clenched into fists to summon waves tearing down prison walls. The people of her home talked of her eyes, which had seen and still carried the memories of her Tribe’s wartime losses – she was their end and their beginning, as the last waterbender, but also the first leading a new line of students.
And everywhere, people talked of her heart; how she was special to them because they were special to her, and they always felt it.
A part of him hoped he’d imagined her arrival. He could pine from a distance without bearing the guilt of stealing a part of her life she could have spent elsewhere, in a place where people treated her better, with a person who hadn’t hurt her like he had.
When he lifted his head and finally found her. All at once, he could breathe again, even as she stole the air from his lungs.
She was only a couple steps away, reclined casually on the seat beside the window, even though he felt she was entirely beyond his reach. She’d slipped into his red tunic, which was now hanging loose along her frame. Her dark legs stretched out in front of her, lazy and long, while she stared at the sunrise spreading across the sky.
Zuko was the first to admit he had done a countless number of stupid things, but in this moment, it struck him how utterly ridiculous he had been for saying the sun was his, when she was the one it clearly longed for.
In fact, the entire world was as desperate for her as he was. Flowers curled towards her feet when she twirled through their fields and dandelion fluff would always pass just beneath her nose to make her sneeze. Life bent towards life and she was as close to alive as anyone could be.
She turned her head and her eyes met his. Her lips curled into a smirk.
“It took you long enough. I was awake to watch the sunrise while the firebender was fast asleep.”
Each ray of light had found a different strand of her hair to kiss and he wished he could name all the hues of brown that he could see right now. Words caught in his throat. They weren’t enough to describe her and he hated them for it. He could only lie in his bed and helplessly watch the sun make love to her – slowly, deliberately, religiously – the way he wanted to, every morning and every night.
As he gazed at her without a response, her eyes softened, and her shoulders began to curl inwards while she blushed. “Zuko…” She extended her hand, palm tilted up. She was wrapped in his colors and cloth, but by Agni, how could he believe that she was his? “Come watch the sunrise with me.”
It took him a couple moments to understand what she was asking for. Her desire for him, when it was soft and aching, when it was fierce and raging – all of it was impossible to comprehend.
“Zuko…” She said again, her voice quieter, but more desperate. “Come hold me.” She didn’t lower her hand.
Slowly, he slipped out of bed, and three steps later, his chest was pressed against her back and his nose was breathing in her hair. It was too much like holding a heartbeat, only so much more precious, because he’d crush his heart in a second if it meant hers would beat on. She sighed, leaning back and lacing her fingers with his on her stomach.
He was a firebender. He was supposed to regulate his own heat with every breath, but that was wrong, so wrong. She could get up and leave right now, never to return, and he’d let her without a word of protest, even as he knew that he’d never be able to feel this warmth again.
He rubbed his cheek against the top of her head as she dragged her other fingers along his arm. Up and down she ran, like water droplets leaving burns.
“Why did you wake so early?” He finally whispered, tightening his embrace as she shivered.
“I always…” She whimpered when he nudged her ear with his nose. “When I’m at the South Pole, or anywhere else, I usually wake with the sun.”
Zuko pulled away to examine her face. “That sounds like it would be difficult for you.”
She smiled. “Sometimes. But you’re not there to hold me, so feeling the sun is the closest thing.”
“I… I’m here now.” Zuko stuttered. “I’m holding you now. So why didn’t you sleep?”
“You weren’t sleeping last night.” She rearranged her body so her cheek was pressed against the crook where his shoulder met his neck. “I could feel you get up when the moon was high. Why was that?”
“I…” He swallowed. “I’ve spent too many nights without you to not savor the ones I have.”
Heat washed over his neck with her open-mouthed sigh. Her hands stretched wide and pressed deep into his bare back.
They sat in silence for a couple moments. She began running her fingers through his long hair, which had grown past his shoulders by now, while he traced stars on her thigh.
“I was a little overwhelmed.” She finally said.
That jarred him out of his blissful trance. “What?”
She pulled away to look at him properly. Her hair streamed over her cheeks, in one of the rare moments when she was without her hair loopies. Seeing her so open and vulnerable in this way made his heart ache.
“I just…” She kept playing with a piece of his hair. “I woke up and you were holding me so close and…” He sucked in a breath, ready to apologize, but she noticed and rushed through the rest of her words. “It felt good! Oh La, good isn’t even the right word…” She dropped her eyes. “It was… divine...” Her voice fell even lower, “And I… I didn’t know how to handle something that perfect.”
Zuko was the opposite of a patient person, but he bit his tongue hard to avoid saying something. Katara wasn’t one to openly share her insecurities, and he couldn’t bear the thought of her tucking away any part of herself, away from his gaze, in fear of upsetting him.
“You look at me like…” She continued, “You look at me like I’m something great.”
“You are.” Zuko said, not understanding what the issue was, but still desperate to hold the knowledge in his hands. Maybe then he could fix it.
She tucked pieces of hair behind each of her ears, clearly unused to having conversations with the strands falling on her eyes. “You look at me like that even when I’m difficult. Or when I’m angry.”
“Oh…” He remembered her staring down the Fire Sages last night, eyes unimpressed as they babbled about the lack of room in the budget for her suggestions. It was the same look she wore when any of their friends complained about the chores. But he still didn’t understand what the issue was. “Do you want me to… should I stop looking at you?”
Her head snapped up. “No!” Then she blushed and looked down again. “I mean, obviously I don’t expect you to keep looking at me like that and I understand if you don’t want to anymore – ”
“I couldn’t just stop wanting you!” He felt a pang of pain that she thought him so inconstant. “I don’t know how I could do that.”
“I just don’t understand it sometimes, Zuko.” She sighed. “I’m hardly an ideal girlfriend and this is hardly the courtship anyone wants for you. I’m so far away all the time, leaving you all alone here – ”
“What?” He jerked away. “You can’t feel guilty for that!” He grabbed both of her hands, his heart racing at the thought that he was making her regret the life she wanted. “Please don’t feel guilty for that!”
“I’m not guilty, I just feel like… you’ll have to realize that there are people who would give so much more of themselves to you. I can only give you pieces, but you deserve so much from your partner… your lover…”
“Katara.” He shook his head earnestly, even as ‘ lover’ rang so miraculously through his head. “I don’t want you to be here.” He froze before realizing what he said, and how it absolutely did not communicate anything he wanted to say.
His girlfriend stared with wide eyes at his likely horrified face before bursting out into laughter. She laughed so hard that tears began to pour from her eyes.
He sighed, but he couldn’t help but smile again when he saw the sun shine against her wet cheeks. “See what you have to put up with?”
She dropped her forehead unto his shoulder as her back began to shake less. “I’m not putting up with anything.” She paused for a minute before offering, a little shyly, a term of endearment. “My love.”
Every time he thought he knew what warmth felt like, Katara made it a little bit more beautiful. He ducked his head as well before continuing.
“I meant to say that… there are no pieces of you. There’s only you, and that’s… that’s the person I love, ” Her hands curled around his at that, and he could feel her smile rather than see it. “There’s a whole world that needs you and… you’d never be you if you kept yourself in one place. I just… I just love you and want you to be you . Besides,” He shook his head. “This place would be a prison for you.”
“That’s a little dramatic.” She remarked.
Zuko shrugged. “I’m a dramatic person.”
“Well it’s nice to know you’re okay with that, because if I’m kinda really into how intense you get about things.” Her eyes danced with mirth.
“Now you’re just making fun of me.” He grumbled, but he wrapped his arms around her again and pulled her closer.
“No, not at all.” She extended her neck to drop a kiss along his jawline. “You have no idea how much of an effect you have on me when you make a speech.”
“When I make a speech?” Zuko snorted. “You mean the ones where I stumble over my words even after practicing for hours in front of the turtleducks? Even the turtleducks think I sound ridiculous.”
“The turtleducks are very hard to please.” Katara admitted. “But I’m not talking about the speeches when you’re trying to impress someone important. I mean the speeches you make when you just…” She began fiddling with his hair as her voice grew smaller. “When you just care so damn much. You just… you just believe in things like hope and compassion and honour – ”
“I’m pretty sure most people think the world would be a better place if I talked about honour less.” But he could feel how tender this moment between them was growing. He could feel too much of her love – her completely unwarranted adoration.
“I mean, we all know you could have toned it back by a lot when you were sixteen, but,” She exhaled. “You’re so good . You talk about justice and peace and your people listen to you because you care about them and they can see that! You just see a better world so clearly and you when you talk from your heart it just… it’s so beautiful to me.” Her voice had fallen into a whisper.
He opened his mouth to argue, but he couldn’t find the words when all he could see was her face, believing in him so easily.
“I’m not very good at words.” He still said stubbornly.
She rolled her eyes but her lips were clearly trying to hold back a smile.
“You rise with the moon, I rise with the sun?” She countered.
“That was just stating a fact.” He was starting to enjoy the adorable way her nose scrunched up and her lips pouted. “An observation on bending.”
“Tui and La!” Katara turned away from him. “Fine! I’m into you when you’re a hot mess too. You trip over your own feet and I swoon. Are you happy now?”
He leaned forward to drop a kiss upon her neck, but when he began, he found it impossible to stop. “More than I can ever possibly deserve.”
“Oh!” She gasped as he began sliding the robe off her shoulders so his mouth could reach more skin. “Please don’t make this about deserving. We’re not – hmmm – we’re together because we want to be, not cause…” She sighed again. “Not cause someone won a prize.”
He paused his attention. “No… no you’re not a prize. I just don’t understand why you want to be sitting here now, when you could anywhere in the world.”
Katara stiffened, and Zuko immediately stilled. “If I was closer, maybe I could convince you.”
“No!” He shook his head. “No no no, you don’t exist for that! That’s not what I meant, I can’t believe I’m making you think – ”
“Zuko,” She placed a calming palm on his chest. “You’re not making me think anything.”
“I’m so – ” I’m so pathetic and pitiful and it’s trapping you here and one day I might be the reason you give up everything –
She silenced his thoughts with a kiss. He – selfishly – still fell into it.
After a few moments, she broke away, but she kept her forehead leaning against his. “I’m not saying this because I want to give up my life Zuko. I don’t. I’m saying this because… because I miss you.” She let out a broken chuckle. “I miss you dammit. And everytime I come back I just feel so… so loved by you. More loved than I thought possible. Then I can’t help but wonder how much better I could be loving you. All the ways I could be making you feel as good as you make me feel.”
“Love me better ?” The disbelieving laugh tumbled out of his mouth before he’d comprehended it. “You… how could you…” He tried a couple more times to create words, but they failed him, so he took her face in her hands and kissed her, as truly and honestly as he could.
Her eyes were lidded and she was breathing heavily when he pulled away. His heart was begging to go further, to throw himself into the task of worshipping her, but he held the desperation at bay.
“It’s hard for me to feel I’m… worthy of things. It’s hard for me not to hate myself. But...” He cradled her crumbling face. “But I love who I am when I’m with you. You, well, you make me...” She released a breath and he wanted to capture it with his mouth. “Feel like the me I always wanted to be.”
“That has nothing to do with me.” She argued. “Everything you’ve become is because of you.”
“Yeah, I know. But just knowing I have your love… it reminds of the person I have become and am and can be if I stay true to myself.” Zuko sighed. “I just need to try harder so you aren’t affected by my insecurities.”
“I don’t want you to hide them from me.” She leapt to make clear, while placing her hands on his, which were still resting on her face. “I want every part of you. I know your father taught you to hate yourself, and I know it’s your journey to grow beyond that, but I want to walk as much of it as I can with you.”
“Thank you Katara.” He said. “But please know… please know my self-doubt doesn’t have anything to do with you not being physically here. I’m proud you’re doing so many important things. I don’t want to be the center of your life. I just want to… do my part to make you happy. And I only get sad when I wonder if I’m capable of that.”
“You do Zuko.” Her voice cracked. “You make me so happy.”
“Okay.” He nodded to himself. “I can figure the rest of it out then. I can work through the doubts. Just as long as you’re happy.”
“You’re crying.” Zuko said stupidly, his alarm growing.
“It’s just…” She wiped her face. “Only you would love me so well and then wonder why you have my heart. I…” She leaned her forehead against his again. “No matter where I go in the world, you’re my home.”
Zuko held back his desire to argue this time. He couldn’t tarnish something as beautiful as her love, even if it was him she was choosing to give it to.
“I spent years wanting to come home.” He rasped. “I used to dream of it constantly, to the point where I had no idea what it meant, only that I wanted it so badly that I’d forgotten who I was. But now when I think of home, all I have to do is look at the moon and I remember exactly who I am.”
She was crying openly now. “I’m overwhelmed.”
“Sorry, I’ll stop.”
“No, I don’t want you to stop! I just want you to know how much I love you. When it’s hard to be brave I think of you and when I’m lonely I think of you and when I wonder if I should trust my heart… I think of you.” She shook her head. “You’re just always with me. I need you to know that.”
He was crying now too.
She reached up and pressed a kiss against the edge of his scar. That was what broke him. He collected her into his arms and held her as close as he could.
They lay there for some time, in each other’s embrace, while watching the sun melt into the sky until neither of the two could be separated.
“We do have meetings soon.” He finally said, his voice still rusty.
She groaned, wiping away the remnants of tears. “You know, there were much nicer ways to kill the mood.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” He attempted some humor. “There is nothing more arousing than you intimidating my advisors into agreeing with me.”
“Hmmm…” She flicked her hair back and adopted a lazy smirk, “So basically you’re turned on by me doing your job for you.”
“Well that just makes me sound lazy.” He said.
“If I’m the one who’s going to convince your ministers to pass your bills – ”
“ – now who’s exaggerating – ”
“Then I need to get something out of it, don’t you think?” His robe had already mostly fallen away, but she pulled the rest of it off, leaving herself entirely naked to his gaze. The sun still burned in the background, but it dimmed in comparison to her glow. Every curve on her body, from the slope of her cheek to the swell of her breasts, seemed to call for his attention. He grabbed at the last strands of logic that were quickly slipping out of his reach.
“Something tells me the advisors…” He forgot for a second why he was bringing them up. “They… they won’t appreciate us being late… maybe we should – ”
“Probably.” She dragged a finger down his neck. “But maybe you should worry less about pleasing your advisors and more about pleasing me.”
“I think I pleased you pretty well last night, didn’t I?” He sighed while she began drawing patterns on his chest.
“So well…” Her eyes glazed over and she began to breathe heavier, “So well that I only want more.”
At that moment, he decided nothing else mattered.
“Well, you could have just said that.” He moved to stand and in one move, picked her up with him, one arm under her knees and one under her back.
“I missed this so much.” She sighed. “I wish I could have this every morn – oof!” He dropped her, a little unceremoniously, unto the bed. “Zuko!” But she still laughed.
He fell beside her and reclaimed his hold while pressing a smile into her skin.
“I take everything back.” She huffed with a laugh. “You’re awful.”
This happiness made him delirious. “I’m yours.”
She blushed. “I know.” Then she pushed him unto his back, before seating herself comfortably on his hips. “But you’re still going to have to prove it.”
He ran his hands along her legs. He stared up at her and realized that he never, ever wanted to stop.
“Every day Katara. If you’ll let me.”
Her eyes shone, and Zuko didn’t know if he would say they looked like stars or the moon or the sun – he only knew that she eclipsed them all. “Only if I can love you back. Because – ” She leaned down to kiss him – not deeply. She barely brushed his lips, like two butterfly wings. Nothing could have made him want her more.
“Because I’ve been waiting so long to love you.” She said.