Breathing Exercises, a Zutara oneshot
Summary: After two years, Zuko and Katara meet again in the South Pole, and a confrontation quickly turns into a swim in the Antarctic sea. Or, Zuko learns the difference between drowning and being underwater. Rated T.
He looks in the mirror, and finds Ozai staring back.
The faucet runs, and he cups his hands under the water. He throws the water at his face, desperate to wash off his father’s eyes, his father’s grin. In the mirror, nothing has changed, so he claws at his flawless skin. The faucet continues to run, and soon the water is up to his waist. Then his chest. His neck. He continues to claw at his face until the water in front of him starts to pink with blood, until it rises up to his eyes.
Gasping awake, Zuko reaches for his cheek. Relief washes over him as his fingers brush the plastic smoothness of his scar. His room, too large for one man, is lit with early morning light, and he focuses his attention on the soft edges of the bed, and then the doorframe, and then the tapestry. He turns his head to the right and traces the window with his eyes. I’m here, he reminds himself, I’m here. He presses his palm on his chest, feeling a scar there too, as if to still his rapid heartbeat. Too many mornings he wakes up this way, gasping, jolted awake by his ghosts. Each time he wonders how much time has to pass before he no longer feels like drowning.
It has been two years since the war ended, two years since he assumed the position as Fire Lord. It has been two years of atoning for a century of terror and atrocities. It has only been two years, Zuko thinks as he begins his day as he usually does: getting dressed, having breakfast, reviewing newly arrived letters of requests and complaints. The work is tedious, but necessary, and Zuko is determined to bring honor back to his nation. There is nothing else he’d rather do. Some days, however, or perhaps too many days, he wishes he could just breathe without thinking about what his people will eat, about what to do with the remaining colonies. He can only imagine what it must be like to not worry about things often too big for himself on a daily basis. Even before becoming Fire Lord, Zuko lived with a pressure around his neck. As a boy, he had his prodigy of a sister to constantly catch up to. He needed to prove himself as a skilled firebender, and soon enough, a worthy heir to the throne. With the latter backfiring, he lived out three years of his life in banishment, forced to capture the Avatar no one believed was even still alive. Three years at sea, surrounded on all fronts with water that never seemed to end, has trained him to resist more than just pressure. Now, as the Fire Lord during the first era of peace in a hundred years, Zuko is expected to make reparations with other nations while keeping his own stable and satisfied. He has to quell rebellions, to be vigilant of assassination attempts. He worries, too, about his sister, who, in her recovery, refuses to civilly interact with Zuko. Underneath all that, the fear that he will turn out to be just like his predecessors runs deep: every day he struggles to cope with Ozai’s legacy, with being Ozai’s legacy.
It’s too early for this, he thinks, rubbing his temples. He closes his eyes for a moment and focuses on his breathing until he feels calmer. One day at a time. Picking up the next scroll, Zuko finds its contents pleasantly surprising. It’s an invitation to the inauguration of the Southern Water Tribe’s new town hall. As Fire Lord and friend of Sokka and Katara, who have become political leaders of their tribe themselves, Zuko had been regularly receiving updates regarding the state of the SWT. He knows that its sister tribe heavily assisted in rebuilding it, and that establishing a school for benders and non-benders alike, in order to preserve their culture, had been a priority. So too was reestablishing a political organization, a better one, since their population has been steadily increasing in the past few years. This inauguration, the letter says, is basically an opportunity for the Southern Water Tribe to present itself to the rest of the world as a political power. Having been one of the more heavily damaged nations during the Hundred Year War, the inauguration is their way of announcing that they are back on their feet, and they have invited the leaders of each nation—several from the Earth Kingdom due to its size—to witness it.
Politically, attending the inauguration would be advantageous: it would be an opportunity to meet and discuss with world leaders again, the last summit having been almost four months ago. It would also be a show of goodwill on his part as the Fire Lord: firebenders have not set foot on the South Pole in a hundred years without bringing fear and terror with them—and that includes him. The last time he was there was the same time he first saw the Avatar and terrorized the small village. He had been too busy as Fire Lord to pay a visit since then, and international conferences have so far only been held either in the Fire Nation or in the Northern Water Tribe. He had provided financial assistance, of course, but that was as far as his relationship went with the South Pole.
Personally, attending the inauguration would be a chance to see his friends again. He does not need more motivation than that.
A week later, Zuko sights the South Pole.
It hadn’t been too long since his last voyage. Last time, almost four months ago, the North Pole had been his destination for the biannual summit. He came with his uncle then who served as his adviser shortly before deciding he wanted to settle down and return to managing the Jasmine Dragon in Ba Sing Se. Taking this voyage reminds him of that fact, of his uncle, and the reminder is a knot in his chest. He had been happy for his uncle, he is happy for him, but he is still adjusting to not having the wise man to regularly turn to.
Attendance during the last summit was complete, with each nation-state represented, but Zuko noted that, despite his expectations, Katara was not there. She was present at the first one in Caldera, representing the SWT along with her brother, so he was surprised she wasn’t at the second summit. Sokka explained that she had projects she needed to focus on back in the South Pole, but he had the inkling that there was more to her absence than that. He didn’t pry, though. He didn’t really have a reason to.
It is for this reason, perhaps, that Zuko is incredibly excited and nervous that he is going to be seeing her this time around. They have not spoken much since the war ended, exchanging only small conversations at the first summit, and mailing each other mostly business letters sprinkled with a couple of pleasantries. He has been secretly disappointed at how their friendship turned out since then. Zuko tries not to think about it too much, but Katara was one of the few people he could confide in that he knew would empathize, not just sympathize. Their short time together in the days leading to Sozin’s Comet had been comfortable, no, more than that. Like I were at ease. Not completely, of course, as those were days of war, but in the midst of the worry and anticipation, Katara’s company put him at ease. She understood him, respected him. She saw him at his worst, and forgave him twice. He felt like a person in her presence, not the prince of the Fire Nation, not a firebending teacher. Just Zuko, the firebender.
“Hey Fire Lord,” Zuko hears from a distance, snapping him out of his thoughts. “Are you going to get down here or what?”
He notices just now that the ship has docked at the South Pole. The soldiers he traveled with are lined up by the railing, already ready to disembark. For a moment he feels embarrassed, thinking that someone probably informed him of their arrival and that he must not have heard it. He thanks his crew anyway, and makes his way down to the pier. A small group of people in Southern Water Tribe garb are waiting to greet them, and he squints through the cold air to see their faces. He immediately sees Sokka waving, and realizes it is him who must’ve called out. Beside him stands Katara, and he tries not stare. He tries not to reveal his anxiety as the cold begins to register in his body.
“I forget how cold the Poles can be,” is how he starts his greeting. Sokka laughs, drawing him into a hug.
“Says the guy who swam in Antarctic waters.” He sees Katara’s bright, smiling face before she tackles him in a tight embrace. She smells like warmth, and the sea, and her arms around his torso feel like safety. “It’s been a while.”
Pulling away, he regards how Katara has changed since he last saw her. Her face is sharper, and her blue eyes still carry the same fire he remembers. She is taller, too, and fuller.
“I, uh, we missed you at the last summit,” he says, hoping they did not notice his error.
“Yeah, well, I was busy,” Katara says with a small smile. Then, gesturing to the other people around them, she introduces them to Zuko one by one. They are officials, he learns, and he tries to remember their names. He loses them in a minute, but he maintains his composure throughout the introduction.
“You’re two days early, so we’ll have plenty of time to catch up,” Sokka says as he pats Zuko’s back, pushing him further inland. Drawing his eyes away from the small group, he looks up and is awed—the South Pole is unrecognizable to him. Gone were the tents of animal hide and small fences of snow, replaced by large, intricate ice structures creating an incredible skyline. On their walk towards the old town hall, where he will be housed for the meanwhile, he learns the following: He is the first foreign dignitary to arrive, Sokka and Suki are finally engaged, and the recently renovated school is successfully operating. He and Katara do not speak the whole time, but he is hyperaware of her presence beside him.
After dinner, Katara invites him to take a walk.
“I’d love to.” He is telling the truth, but he doesn’t tell her how nervous she is making him.
It’s still bright out, to his confusion, and then he remembers that, half the year, the South Pole does not experience nights at all. Not being able to approximate the time based on the sunlight disconcerts him. Among other things.
“So,” he begins as they pass by the small school behind the town hall. “What were you up to at the last summit?”
Beside him, Katara remains quiet, but he doesn’t push her. They just continue walking, and Zuko pays attention to his surroundings first instead. Patterned textiles hang outside many of the ice structures. He reminds himself to ask Katara about them, but perhaps not today.
It takes a while before she speaks again. In a soft voice, she says, “I owe you an apology, Zuko.”
He stops in his tracks and faces her. She keeps her eyes down, avoiding his gaze. “Why would you owe me an apology?” Zuko asks, confused.
“Let’s keep walking,” Katara says, and he follows.
He respects her silence, but the longer she kept it, the more anxious Zuko became. He could not think of a single transgression that he could fault her for. If anything, there are many things to thank her for. So what did she mean?
They reach a quiet part in the outskirts of town, away from curious eyes. The nearest structure is a small house that does not seem to be housing anyone at the moment. Nearby, he could hear the sea, and they seem to be walking towards it. Of course she would take us to the sea, he thinks.
Then, “I shouldn’t have left you.”
Again, Zuko stops. To this, he does not have anything to say. He’d be lying if he said that it was okay that she did. He understands why, he understands both their circumstances. Katara had obligations elsewhere, and he had his. Personal and political ones. He has gone through this in his head many times. But he’d be lying if he said he was okay when she did.
“You had no obligation to stay, Katara.”
Katara exhaled heavily and sat down on the snow. “I know. I just—you needed people, too. I didn’t know Iroh would move back to Ba Sing Se. Or that,” she pauses, “Mai would join her family back in Omashu. I’m sorry.”
That everyone left, you mean.
He sat down beside her, focusing his gaze on the horizon. “Katara, none of that’s your fault.”
“No, Zuko, I just mean”—she takes a deep breath—“that you’re my friend too. And that I didn’t treat you like one these past few years. And, I’m sorry for that.”
This time, Zuko was the one who kept quiet. Neither of them looked at each other.
“You might have noticed,” she continued, “that Aang and I aren’t, uh, together.”
“I’ve been meaning to ask, but I wasn’t sure if it was in my place to do so,” he replies, trying not to sound embarrassed. “Are you okay?”
Hugging her knees, she answers, “I am, I suppose. I broke up with him. This was right before the summit, so it was a big reason why I decided to stay behind, to be honest. I hated that I did, I hurt him, you know?” She sighs, turning away. “But I had to. I felt like I was losing myself along the way. I just knew that the life he needed to live as the Avatar couldn’t involve me. I was miserable, to say the least.” At that last sentence, her voice drops almost to a whisper.
Zuko was shocked. To him, and perhaps to many people, Aang and Katara were the perfect, happy couple, leading the world’s transition into an era of peace and equality. It surprised him, and made him sad, to discover she wasn’t happy at all. “I’m sorry, Katara. I didn’t know.”
She went on, “I just followed him around. I didn’t get to pursue what I wanted. I barely corresponded with my friends, even with Sokka. I barely talked to you, after everything you’ve done for me,” she trails off. “You didn’t deserve that.”
His chest keeps tightening, as though he’s about to burst. He feels consoled by the apology he didn’t know he needed, but he still doesn’t see it as her fault, or anyone’s fault. “Katara—“
“And then when Sokka got home from the summit, he told me about how you’ve been doing, all the work you’ve been doing. And then he told me Iroh was officially retiring, and in Ba Sing Se, and I couldn’t help but think of difficult it must be to be the Fire Lord and be alone.”
A pause. “I could have been there,” she says, turning her head to face him this time.
Zuko presses his lips into a line. He couldn’t articulate what he’s feeling at that moment. Everything Katara is saying is true, but he has tried not to think of it that way, that he’s alone. It shouldn’t matter, he thinks. I have my duty as Fire Lord. It was always going to be difficult. And it is.
Instead he says, “I wish I could have been there, too. Given you support when you needed it. It must’ve have taken a lot of courage to stand up for yourself when it comes to someone you care about. I get that, and I’m proud of you.”
“Now you’re just being too nice,” Katara laughs, and Zuko is relieved when the air around them becomes lighter. “But thanks, Zuko. That means a lot to me.”
He shrugs, smiling at her. “Friends should be there for each other, right?” He sighs. “I try not to think I’m alone. It makes the job much more difficult, but you’re right. It’s there. Sometimes…” He bites his lip, trying to find the words. “Sometimes I can’t breathe, and I don’t know what to do about it.”
“Hey,” Katara gently places her hand on his scarred cheek and tilts his face toward hers. He tries not to quiver under her touch. Her eyes are bright, glistening with concern. “I want you to know that you can talk to me, Zuko. That’s what I wanted to get at, basically. You can tell me.”
“Trust me, you wouldn’t want to hear about the failing trading policies between the Fire Nation and Omashu,” he half-joked.
“I would actually,” she corrects, her eyebrows raised. “I could even give you advice. You may be Fire Lord, but you’re not the only leader around here.” She grins playfully, and Zuko feels a weight leave his chest, replaced with something electric.
“Maybe tomorrow,” Zuko says, taking her up on her offer. “Today, I am not going to think about that.”
He feels Katara’s eyes on his face but he doesn’t return the gaze. Katara seems to understand and sighs, looking towards the horizon again. She gently places her hand on his shoulder instead, and squeezes.
“Do you want to hear a terrible idea?” Katara asks, breaking the silence.
Zuko perks an eyebrow. “What?”
Standing up, she says, “Let’s take a swim, like you once did.”
Zuko stares at her incredulously. “I barely survived the last time, and last time I was just desperate.” He laughs. “And why would I willingly subject myself to that if I could stay warm up here?”
“I don’t know, for the fun of it, come on,” Katara urges, all traces of their previous conversation washed away from her face. “I’ve only ever accidentally fallen into the water, so this’ll be a first for me. Sort of,” she smiles.
Amused, Zuko shakes his head, but agrees anyway. “Fine,” he looks up at her, locking their eyes. “Remember that this was your idea,” he says, standing up, secretly excited by the rush of adrenaline he knows he’ll get upon falling into the frigid waters. He removes his shoes and outer robes, leaving on his tunic and pants. The wind pierces into his thin clothing like needles.
Katara, looking fierce and almost victorious, also takes off her parka, leaving on as much as Zuko did. “I will regret this in a minute.”
“I know. Let’s jump for it. Are you ready?” Zuko prompts, bracing himself. He’s not too worried about himself, knowing that he can breathe warmth through his body like last time. He’s more worried about Katara, who, despite having lived in the South Pole all her life, would probably not be resistant to the biting cold of the water.
She grabs hold of his hand, and for a second the heat between their hands is sharper than the Antarctic wind on his face, and in another, they are jumping into the ice-cold sea.
The cold registers like a shock, and his body automatically regulates its heat. Focusing on his breathing, he exerts a bit more effort to make himself warmer, until he is almost comfortably so.
“Terrible idea,” he hears Katara stutter through chattering teeth. “Terrible, terrible idea.” She’s laughing, though, as she embraces herself for warmth. Without a thought, Zuko pulls her shivering body to him, and shares his warmth with her. He laughs, too, to hide his embarrassment and awkwardness. Katara, still shaking from both the cold and her laughter, breathes a warm sigh on his shoulder and puts her arms around his body.
They stay like this for a moment, pressed up against each other as they tread in the water. Zuko feels light, as though nothing waited beyond the ice and sea. Extending all around him are just the whites and blues of water, and in his arms, Katara breathing against his skin. He runs a hand slowly down the back of her head.
“Zuko,” she looks up at him, her lips pale.
“Do you trust me?” He asks boldly, resting his hand on her cheek. She nods, then tilts her face towards Zuko’s palm, sending a rush of heat through his body. What cold, he thinks to himself.
“Hold your breath, then.” He has already been holding his, he realizes.
Her eyes, inquisitive at first, light up when she realizes what he has in mind. Slowly, then, he pulls them both underwater, holding Katara close to him, keeping her warm. In his ears, he hears the static of water. He keeps his eyes closed and focuses on their connected bodies, regulating both their heat. Katara clings to him, to his warmth, moving her hands around the plane of his back. Underwater, she is weightless and tender, and warm, despite it all. He keeps one arm around her waist, and another at the back of her neck, pressing her head gently against his chest. He feels her long hair floating behind her, and he imagines what they must look like, their bodies tangled like that. She nuzzles her face in his neck without warning, as if digging for more warmth, and did it feel like warmth. Like being at ease. Holding his breath like that, in the arms of someone he begins to realize he has always loved, he feels like he’s breathing for the first time in a long time.