My contribution to Zutara Week. Tried a different idea for the theme after reading several recent posts about Zuko & Katara bonding over their mothers being a strong plot point in ATLA and I wanted to go back and touch on that.
Post of firsts for me in this fic. Never written a slow-burn or hurt/comfort before so hopefully I didn’t butcher it too badly. Can also be found on FF.net & AO3
Day One: Fire Lady
She stared at the elegant crown; three flames carefully crafted from thin gold. Delicate filigree had been carved into the surface and in the center sat a single flawless ruby. It was beautiful.
“It was my mother’s.”
Katara jumped, nearly jarring the pedestal in her haste. “I was just-, it was so-, I didn’t mean-“ she trailed off lamely at Zuko’s knowing smirk. Wordlessly he joined her, removing the precious heirloom from the glass case. The sunlight caught the gold as he moved, bringing it to life in a way it couldn’t behind the thick glass.
He hesitated a moment, eyes trained on the gold crown, seemingly lost in thought and she knew he was remembering his mother. She touched his arm lightly, bringing him back to her, and offered a small smile. She knew his pain; she understood. He returned her smile, although it didn’t quite chase away the ghosts in his eyes, before handing the crown to her.
She cradled the precious heirloom in her hands, knowing it was as important to him as her mother’s necklace was to her.
Her fingers brushed over the delicate filigree, noting the fine craftsmanship. Each stroke had been expertly placed to create textures for the light to reflect. She shifted her hands, marveling as light caught in the uneven grooves, creating the illusion of dancing flames in her hands. It was a breathtaking work of art.
She turned slightly, allowing the sunlight to catch the flawless ruby, and the crown came to life. Brilliant reds glistened over gold, sinking into crevices only to burst free moments later. It reminded her of a sunrise, bursting over the horizon in a shocking moment of beauty.
It was truly a crown for a queen.
Suddenly she felt self-conscious. It felt wrong that she, a simple peasant, should be holding such an exquisite jewel in her hands. Peering beneath her lashes, she stole a quick glance at Zuko. He hadn’t moved during her careful examination and again wore that far-away look he often wore when he thought about his mother.
She offered him a sad smile, handing the precious heirloom back to him. “She must have looked lovely wearing this. It’s beautiful.”
Zuko nodded, accepting the crown as he was pulled from his reverie. “She did.”
Silence settled between them, but this wasn’t the comfortable silence between friends she was accustomed to. Unconsciously her hands tugged at her hair. It was a nervous habit; one she wasn’t even aware she had. To Zuko it was endearing.
He had the incredible urge to run his fingers through her hair, to let the silky strands slip through his fingers. He imagined the dark locks pulled into the elaborate style the noblewoman preferred, twisted around his mother’s crown. It’d look stunning against the gold and red. Temptation pulled at his fingers, urging him to reach out and pin the crown to her head, to tell her here and now exactly what she meant to him. Instead he ignored the itch, turning to place his mother’s crown back in the case with a heavy heart. His finger lingered on the glass a moment, remembering the woman he’d lost, envisioning a future with the woman he’d found.
He blinked, realizing there was something dangling in front of his nose. It smelled of leather and oil and…Katara. Shock jarred him from his thoughts as he realized what it was. Slowly he lifted his head. Katara had moved, now standing before him, her arm outstretched and from her fingers dangled her most prized possession.
He’d held that necklace once before, long ago when he’d stolen it from a young girl. He hadn’t known them what it meant to her. If he had he never would have taken it. Zuko knew all too well the importance of a mother’s keepsake.
She reached out, taking his hand in hers. The simple contact made him catch his breath and he prayed to Agni she didn’t notice. Turning his hand over, she placed the necklace in his hand.
He understood what she was doing. He’d allowed her to inspect his mother’s crown, knowing full well that to him it was more that just a crown or heirloom. Like her necklace, it was the last connection to a loved one taken much too soon. It was the memory of a mother’s love and a moment of peace and security, before their childhood’s had been ripped away from them.
His fingers traced over the carving he’d memorized years ago. Every line, every etching having been seared into his mind in perfect detail. He’d had a lot of time to waste on that old ship.
Zuko suddenly realized with perfect clarity they’d had this conversation before. They’d started it long ago, in a crystal catacomb beneath Ba Sing Se. “The Fire Nation took my mother from me.”
“I know.” He didn’t realize he’d spoken the words out loud until she’d answered him. She gave him a sad smile, parroting the words of comfort he’d offered all those years ago. “I’m sorry, that’s something we have in common.”
She was in his arms before he could stop himself. For once he didn’t second-guess himself, he didn’t give his doubts or rules of propriety a chance to stop him, he just reacted. He was suddenly sixteen again, trapped in a crystal prison with the only other person in the world who understood. She knew his pain because it was her pain too, and so he did what he should’ve done then, what he’d wanted to do but had been too afraid to.
He wrapped his arms around her, a promise that he wouldn’t let the Fire Nation hurt her again and cried. Cried for her loss, cried for his; cried because for the first time there was someone who understood what loss was, who understood the soul shaking pain that you never recover from. He cried because she knew that pain, understood the empty place it left inside that could never be filled, and she was far too young to have had to experienced it.
He cried for two young children left alone in the world, hollow and broken and forced to grow up too soon; two young children with a gaping wound no one could see that would never stop bleeding and would never truly heal.
“Her name was Kya. She was…” Katara’s voice trembled, her hands fisted in his robes. “Gran-Gran hated her at first. Dad said they threatened to elope so Gran-Gran finally relented and agreed to let them marry.” Katara let out a shaky laugh at that and Zuko could only imagine the drama that had ensued. She palmed away her tears.
Zuko kept his hands fisted at his sides. He wanted to pull her back into his arms, to hold her there and tell her it would be ok; but it wouldn’t. This wasn’t a hurt he could fix. “So your father craved her a necklace.”
Katara grinned, eying him knowingly. “It is customary for men to carve women a betrothal necklace in the Water Tribe, as I sure your uncle told you when he spotted you toting my mother’s necklace around that old rusty ship of yours,” Katara teased.
Zuko’s face turned as bright as his robes. “I was-I didn’t-it wasn’t-dammit Uncle you promised!”
Katara’s laugher cut him off. “It turned out that Dad is a great warrior, but a terrible artist. Gran-Gran took pity and gave him her old necklace, the one Master Pakku had carved for her.
“Wait, what? I thought your Gran-Gran married Master Pakku?”
“She did, recently; but they were betrothed before and she ran away.” Zuko just stared at her. “Gran-Gran never told anyone and I guess Dad just never asked about the necklace, or if he did Gran-Gran just didn’t tell him. Either way, I didn’t learn the truth until I met Master Pakku in the North Pole and he recognized the necklace he’d carved years ago.”
Zuko looked back to the necklace in his hand, digesting this new information. “So Hakoda didn’t carve this for your mother.”
“No,” Katara confirmed, “but he did carve this.” She turned the necklace over in his palm, revealing a simple set of worn characters roughly etched in the back. He’d seen them years before and wondered about them, as they obviously didn’t match the craftsmanship displayed on the front of the necklace. Now he knew why.
Katara traced the faded characters lightly, a sad smile once again pulling at her lips. “As long as there is water in the sea, my heart will belong to you.”
His breath caught and he glanced at Katara, but her eyes were still fixed on the necklace. He realized she must have been reading the engraving, or at least what it had once said. He wondered how many times she’d sat alone, running her fingers over those words and remembering her parents.
“My mother’s name was Ursa and she loved those stupid Ember Island plays. Used to drag us to watch them every summer, especially ‘Love Among the Dragons’. It was her favorite.
“Is that how she met…” she trailed off, obviously uncomfortable asking that question, but Zuko could see the curiosity.
“No. They had an arranged marriage. I don’t think my mother ever loved him but my father…he loved her.”
“Really?” Katara couldn’t hide her surprise. Zuko chuckled, wondering if she realized how close she was sitting now. It was nice.
“It wasn’t a healthy love. He was always very possessive and controlling. Even as a child I knew it was wrong.” Zuko sighed, looking down at Katara’s necklace again. He couldn’t help the sting of jealously that shot through him, wondering what would it have been like to grow up in a house full of love instead of what he’d experienced. It was no wonder Katara was such a wonderful, loving person. She’d been surrounded by love from the very beginning.
He looked up. She was watching him, concern wrinkling her young face. He could see where the wrinkles would deepen with age, could imagine her old and gray like her Gran-Gran with those same caring blue eyes and realized she’d be beautiful even then. To him, she’d always be beautiful.
She reached out, wiping away the tears he hadn’t even realized were there. That was the second time she’d touched his scar, the second time he’d ever allowed someone to touch his scar. One day he’d tell her that, he’d tell her everything, but not today. Wordlessly he handed the necklace back to her, watching as she tied it around her neck. Instinctively her fingers went to her throat. He’d seen her do it a thousand times.
“Won’t you miss it?”
She frowned, giving him a curious look. “What?”
“Your necklace, I mean-well someday…that is-” He was stammering like an idiot and he knew it. It’d started off as a simple question. He really had been curious what she would do without her mother’s necklace; to him it and her were inseparable, but he hadn’t thought it all the way through and the thought of her wearing another’s necklace made his insides churn unpleasantly.
Katara smiled gently. “It’s an heirloom now.” She explained, her fingers fondly tracing the carving. “One day, I’ll give it to my daughter, and she’ll pass it to hers and so on. Gran-Gran broke the rules and started a new tradition.”
“So, no one will ever carve you a necklace?” The thought made him feel conflicted. She should have her own necklace. It was tradition.
“Did your father make your mother her crown, or did she inherit it?”
Zuko looked away, suddenly feeling nervous. “Uh, it’s the Fire Lady’s crown actually. He stole it when they were married. Grandfather was furious because she was only a princess not Fire Lady, but he didn’t take it back, and uncle always said she looked lovely in it so…”
“She wasn’t Fire Lady?”
“Uh, no. Not officially. She vanished before father was crowned Fire Lord. Uncle was supposed to inherit the throne after grandfather’s death but somehow father stole it instead. I still don’t know all the details.”
They sat in silence, Katara looking at the crown thoughtfully. Finally she looked back at him, a smile on her lips. “And one day your wife will wear your mother’s crown, like my daughter will wear my mothers necklace.”
He blinked. “I-…I guess so.” He wondered how she could say such things so easily.
“Our mother’s will live on, through us.” She squeezed his hand gently, before standing. He watched as she smoothed her skirts, floored by her simple statement. She’d always had that effect on him though. “You coming?”
He shook his head. “No, not yet. I just need…”
He nodded. She gave him another one of her sad smiles, and nodded. She understood that too; sometimes the pain required just a little alone time, even time away from your best friend.
He watched her leave, her words replaying in his head. His mother’s crown, no, not just his mother’s crown anymore. She was right. One day it would belong to his wife. “Maybe, it can be yours one day,” he said to the empty room.