but zuko needed someone to hold his hand

Zukaang: Language.

“I don’t know why you hate it so much,” Aang said with a shrug. “Everyone said it in the Fire Nation when I was a kid.”

“A hundred years ago,” Zuko snapped back, a little more sharply than Aang thought was probably needed. He took that as a sign that maybe Zuko wasn’t joking about being annoyed about the use of the word, which only made Aang find the reaction more ridiculous. And maybe a bit more funny.

Thankfully, Zuko hadn’t been annoyed enough to pull away yet, and he still lay close enough that Aang was able to nudge him and wink.

“It’s just a word, Hotman,” Aang said and the glance Zuko shot him by his side eye made the effort worth it. Aang laughed, patted Zuko on the chest, and said in his best (but always a bit tinny-sounding) attempt at the Fire Nation language, “Back then, everyone was a Hotman.”

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I’m Not Wearing That

“I’m not wearing that.”

The words slipped out of her mouth before she had a chance to really stop them, and she regretted them immediately. Hurt appeared on Aang’s face in tiny fractures that expanded to include confusion and surprise. She thought briefly of the many times she had made ice crack in the same way. Except this was different; she could always melt cracked ice and bring it together again. She had no guarantee of putting Aang back together.

“What do you mean?” he said, “You have to, otherwise people won’t know that you-“

“I don’t.”

A little more, Katara, I don’t think you crushed him enough just yet.
“Aang,” she said, and hated the pity in her voice, “You can’t expect me to- I mean, we’ve only just-“

“You love me.” he interjected.

“I do.”

“I know it’s not the prettiest,” he said, examining the roughly carved pendant in his hands, “But Sokka said I wasn’t allowed to ask for help, or it wouldn’t count.”

Katara bit her lip. She had childishly hoped that this wouldn’t have come up again. Despite it never having worked for her in the past, she clung to her strategy. Smile, brush it off, he’ll forget about it. He’s young. There are other girls.

Fantastic strategy, she thought. Now she not only had to deal with a kiss; she had a boy in front of her, offering forever. He loved her, surely, more than anything else in the world. She could not hope to find anyone more devoted to her than Aang was. He would spend the rest of their lives worshipping her, and she couldn’t stand the idea.
He was everything she had asked for so many years ago, in Aunt Wu’s dark room. I hope he’s tall, she’d added, as if that would’ve made a difference. Well, she’d gotten the most powerful bender on the planet, so why didn’t it feel like enough?

Aang waited.

“It’s beautiful, Aang,” she said carefully, “I just can’t wear it.”

He frowned, “You mean until we tell everyone…”

She closed her eyes, “I mean at all, Aang…”

His silence prompted her to open her eyes. He stared at her with wide gray eyes, his brow furrowed. He wasn’t quite angry, that much was evident. He looked confused.
“You’re saying no,” he said it like an accusation.Unwelcome tears stung the corners of her eyes, “I’m sorry, Aang, I don’t think I can…”

His face softened, and his voice took the tone it did when they trained together. He could’ve just as well have been asking her to repeat her instructions.
“I love you, Katara,” he said, “that’s not ever going to change.”

She fixed her gaze on a crumpled corner of her dress, watching her hands straighten it again and again. Still, the fabric wrinkled. “I need heat.”

“What?”

She looked up to see the hurt on his face and chastised herself, “For the dress, Aang… it’s all wrinkled. I can’t go to a palace with a wrinkled dress.”
His eyes watered, but his voice was steady and firm, “I can help steam it for you.”
She shook her head, “That’s ok, Aang. You have plenty to do. I’ll ask Uncle when I see him,” she placed a hand over his, “It’ll be alright.”
He smiled a sour version of the smile she loved and stood, quickly shoving the necklace in his pocket. The necklace she was supposed to be wearing.
“I’ll see you in there,” he said, searching her face for something that wasn’t there.
She forced a smile, “Yes, Aang. See you there.”

—-


His hands caught her roughly around the shoulders.

“That is a wall, Katara,” he said, “we don’t walk into those.”

She looked up to see that there was indeed a very solid wall in front of her, and she sighed, “Thanks, Zuko.”
She shrugged off his hands and turned sharply to the right, resuming her pace. The Royal Wing of the Fire Nation palace was confusing enough without inconsiderate walls popping up in her path.  

“Wait!”

He caught up with her and they walked together in silence, occasionally kicking a pebble on the ground. Katara kept her eyes on the lush gardens that the Royal Wing surrounded, trying hard to shake the image of the sad, gray-eyed boy from her mind. Instead, she pictured a child playing with the turtle ducks.“Do I have to ask, or are you going to tell me?”

She frowned. Zuko was the last person she would’ve ever described as observant, had anyone bothered to ask. She felt his hand on her shoulder again, and stopped.

“This is your room,” he said, turning her in the direction of the door, “let’s talk.”
Maybe she was still upset about Aang or maybe Zuko had always been a good listener, but Katara walked in and sat on the floor while Zuko closed the door. In the back of her mind, small details registered; there was a Water Tribe symbol hanging directly over a Fire Nation emblem on the wall. The covers on her bed were a deep navy blue, which clashed horribly with the bronze bed frame. Her room was a mess of mismatched decorations.

“Why is my room different?” she asked.
Zuko looked around and shrugged, “You’ll be here for a while, I figured you’d get homesick.” he sat next to her, their backs against the edge of the bed, their hands almost touching.

“He did it, didn’t he?”

Katara nodded, not quite trusting her voice.
“He came to me, you know,” he ran a hand through his hair, “He asked for my blessing.”
Katara hugged her knees to her chest and rested her head on them, “What did you say?”
He looked at her carefully, “What did you say?”
“What do you think?” she turned her head to face him, “I broke his heart, of course.”

“Oh, Katara,” he sighed and she had to turn her head to face him. He rested his head against the foot of the bed, and he was pinching the bridge of his nose. He looked…amused?

For a second, Katara felt as if they were back on Appa’s saddle, sitting in the back and holding hands when they thought no one could see.They’d laugh quietly and whisper details of their lives under the cover of the wind. That had been when she’d first heard about Zuko and the turtle ducks. She’d never realized how much she needed someone who would listen to her until Zuko sat down next to her and stayed, no matter how bad the stories got. If she were to be completely honest with herself, she liked that he didn’t flinch when she said she blamed her father for her mother’s death, or that sometimes she wished Aang wasn’t a better bender, or that she had been closer to killing Yon Rah than she realized.

She had a feeling he was rather fond of the story of her first waterbending attempt, too.

“So Sokka starts crying-”

“He cried?”

“He thought it was Nimi!”

“The ghost?”

“Mhm. So he runs to tell Mom and I stomped my foot-”

“NO. You? I don’t believe it.”

“Shut up. I stomp my foot and the snow turned to ice, and he just ATE it. His boomerang ended up knocking his front teeth out, and he whistled his words for months.”
——
Out of wonderful reflex, she reached over to him and laid the tips of her fingers over his. His fingers curved lightly around her hand. 

“He really loves you, you know.”

“I know.”

“You love him, too.”

“I do.”

He winced.
——
“But not in the way he wants.” 

It wasn’t a question. Zuko’s eyes were narrowed and his jaw tight as he studied her face. Katara played with the frayed ends of her hair to avoid looking directly at him.

“No, not exactly that way.”

She had a feeling this was somehow wrong. The brick courtyard where the boys usually trained had become a sort of meeting place for Katara and Zuko. Despite being the center of the entire structure, it was kept private by rooms with thick walls that only looked out into the ocean. It was where they made jokes and played broken games of Pai Sho (Zuko didn’t have a complete set and neither of them entirely understood the rules), not where they talked about Aang.

Katara stretched out her legs and rested on her back, “What am I going to do, Zuko?”

He folded one leg under the other and looked at her for a long time, “What do you want, Katara?”
She frowned and closed her eyes. She knew what a life with Aang would mean; she had pictured her father beaming with pride at the news, and the world rejoicing in this magical love story between two heroes. That was how the story was supposed to end; the hero saves the world and gets the girl. They live happily ever after.

“I don’t want to be the girl.”

“Sorry?” 

She leaned up on her elbows, “I like this, Zuko. I like talking to someone who listens and doesn’t try to fix things for me.”

His eyebrow rose, “I like it, too.”
——
“He’s going to ask again,” he said softly, tugging on her hand. Katara curled herself up against his chest and screwed her eyes shut.

“He wouldn’t,” she said, trying to convince herself, “I said no…”

“He told me so, Katara,” Zuko said, his voice dropping the way it always did when he said her  name, “He’s going to keep trying.”

She hated the tears that stung at her eyes, “Why?

“He loves you,” he said simply, “and I think you’ve ruined other girls for him.”

Katara’s mouth curled as if she’d eaten a bitter fruit, “How did I ruin girls, Zuko? Am I too matronly for even the Avatar?”

“You’re too good,” he said, picking at a blade of grass that grew in between the bricks, “You can’t expect him to spend three years with you and then settle for an average girl.”

When she didn’t answer, Zuko looked down at her, “You’re a pain, Katara, but you’re an amazing bender and you care about other people more than you care about yourself. You can’t blame the kid for trying more than once. I’d probably never stop asking.”

It was on the tip of her tongue to correct him, to let him know about all the different women she’d met in her life who put her to shame. Every comment about how overbearing and, well, dull she was popped up in her head, mostly spoken in Sokka or Toph’s voices. She tried not to think of all the times when she had “bent” the rules only to end up breaking them and usually hurting someone in the process. She tried not to think about the time she’d yelled at Aang just for being better than her, or the time she’d gone through Toph’s things just to find something to yell at her for. She didn’t even have enough fingers to count off the times she’d complained about doing all the housework just because carrying the burden made her feel superior and important.
She pushed all of that to the back of her mind because the sight of Zuko picking grass and talking about her this way was somehow more important than Aang’s proposal. She reached up and grabbed at the hand that was around her shoulders and relaxed when he squeezed back.

“I’m not wearing it, Zuko.”