Fandom: Avatar: The Last Airbender
Summary: Zuko comes to Aang and Katara seeking shelter from the coming storm, or so he says. But a storm can do much more than provide a conduit for nature’s wrath. Sometimes the storm can conceal, masking your darkest secrets in sound and fury.
Notes: This was originally written to go along with this fanart. I’m also warning you ahead of time that this is Zutara at the expense of Kataang. If that’s not your thing, keep scrolling.
The rain pounded mercilessly on the small porch, drenching a pair of sandals that lay there forgotten and alone. Beside them was a welcome mat decorated with the traditional green and yellow of the Earth Kingdom, as well as a bowl that filled quickly with rainwater. Soon it would overflow.
A figure glided over the motley gathering of household items, moving down the single step and into the storm. The dark cloak fluttered in the wind, trailing behind him as he followed the walkway out.
He’d come here seeking shelter from the storm. That was what he’d told them. But sometimes the storm follows you wherever you go.
Above the porch was a second story window, round and patterned like a wheel, with another circle in the center from which four spokes connected it to the main sill. If the young monk crouched below it had bothered looking, he would have seen the figure in the cloak approach the gate at the end of the courtyard and leave. But he wasn’t. He’d seen too much already.
“What just happened, Momo?” the young Avatar asked his companion, who clung to his shoulder seeking protection from the thunder. “What did I do wrong?”
Momo couldn’t answer him, of course. But then Aang had told him long ago that just pretending to hold a conversation with the flying lemur made him feel better.
Sighing, he looked down and let his memory tell him what the lemur couldn’t.
“It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it Katara?”
The waterbender looked up from where she was stirring noodles without any utensils. She could move the water easily enough without them.
“Yeah,” she muttered noncommittally, without taking her eyes off of her task. “Looks pretty.”
“But you’re not even looking!” he complained.
“Sunny days aren’t really my thing,” Katara admitted, manipulating the noodles directly now that they had absorbed a sufficient quantity of water. She guided them into two bowls that already contained a variety of vegetables, then bent a little water into them to help stir the concoction around. “I’m more partial to rain.”
Aang raised an eyebrow at her. “Why’s that?”
“It’s my element.”
He stared out the window again, observing the garden that the two of them had cultivated. It was more fun when they worked on things together.
“Noodle soup’s done.”
“Yay,” he replied in a bored tone. Noodle soup was good and he would eat it, but he missed the times when Katara would cook blubbered seal jerky or stewed sea prunes. She was better at those. Of course, neither of those dishes were particularly common in the small Earth Kingdom town where they made their home during the spring, so she’d had to adapt to the local cuisine. She was getting rather good at it, but he still felt as though she was letting go of her culture.
Not that she was the only one, the last airbender admitted to himself as she ruffled his hair when he got close to the dinner table. He had decided to let it grow after he defeated the Fire Lord and brought balance to the world. He had come to realize that the only reason he insisted on keeping the bald look was because he’d always shaven his head in the past. It was one of the few connections he had to his life a hundred years ago, and he’d been reluctant to let it go.
But now he had a new future to concern himself with, not a past that would never return to him. A new life with Katara, the first face he saw when he emerged from that iceberg. The face he’d fallen instantly in love with.
And as Guru Pathik had once reminded him, love never truly died. It just took different forms.
“I got a letter from Sokka,” she informed him as they sat down. Momo had leapt up onto Aang’s shoulder, eyeing the soup hungrily. They ignored him. “He and Suki are expecting their first child in a few months.”
“We should go and visit them,” he suggested. “Appa should be up for a road trip.”
“Sounds like a great idea,” she agreed, bending some of the noodles into her mouth. They were out of chopsticks.
“Have you heard from Toph?” the Avatar asked, copying her technique. It tasted good.
“Well, she doesn’t exactly write,” Katara reminded him. “But Sokka mentioned in his letter that the Blind Bandit has been making a comeback on the wrestling circuit lately.”
He chuckled. “That sounds like her.” He tried bending another handful of noodles into his mouth, but missed the mark and sent them flying into Momo’s face instead. The lemur blinked in confusion for a moment, then slurped them up.
Katara laughed. “I always was the better noodlebender.”
He smiled. “Do you think we’ll have kids someday?”
The waterbender blinked, as though she hadn’t been expecting that question. “I… I don’t know, Aang. Do you want kids?”
“Maybe,” he answered. “I have to restore the Air Nomads somehow. I’m thinking I’ll name the baby Tenzin if it’s a boy, and… well, I hadn’t really thought of a girl’s name, but I could leave that up to you, right?”
“Um, right.” She looked away.
His smile vanished, and he tilted his head in concern. “Is something wrong, Katara?”
She sighed. “I don’t know, it’s just… you’re only sixteen, Aang.” Technically he was a century older than that, but he didn’t correct her. “Sokka and Suki are almost twenty. They’ve got the support of a whole island to help them raise children, while you and I can barely afford chopsticks. I don’t know if we’re ready yet.”
“But it’s been four years and we haven’t even gotten married.”
“I’m not sure if we’re ready for that either,” she replied. “Aang, you’re wonderful and I love you, but… marriage is a big step. It means promising to stay with the same person for the rest of your life, no matter what. Are you sure you’re ready for that commitment?”
“Of course,” he insisted, reaching across the table and gripping her hand. “You’re the only one for me, Katara.”
She smiled sadly and let go of his hand. “That’s good to hear, Aang. That’s really good. It’s just, I’m not sure if I’m ready.”
He stared at her. “Is there something you’re not telling me, Katara?”
“What? No!” she answered a little too quickly. “Just forget I mentioned it.”
“Okay,” he said slowly, dropping it for now. Katara had been acting strange around him lately. Almost as if she’d become bored with their quiet life. The world had adapted well to the peace they’d brought it, so adventures had been few and far between. Katara had told him she was happy to leave all the excitement behind them.
But she didn’t act like it.
The lightning pierced the sky like an assassin’s dagger, vanishing just as quickly as it had appeared. A roar followed seconds later, the death cries of the split air trying fruitlessly to locate the source of the hot blade that struck without warning and disappeared an instant later. But it had been slow to react, and now the only recourse left was to rumble furiously in lieu of a swansong.
He watched the next flash as it illuminated the young woman standing there unbothered by the rain. This time the lightning filled the entire sky like the wrath of an angry god. But she did not tremble. Its rage was not directed at her. When the thunder rolled over them a few seconds later, it shook their bodies to the very core. But it was a good vibration.
She heard him approach even over the noise of the storm, and her gaze turned back toward him, mischief dancing in her eyes. There was a triumphant smirk on her face, as if she knew that he would come. The storm continued to rage around her, but she paid it no mind. The rain felt good on her skin.
Strands of hair drifted back and forth in front of her eyes, the beads that usually kept them in place having been torn loose by the wind. She turned around fully, and saw him standing there. The smile remained on her face, and no amount of rain or wind was going to wipe it off until she decided to drop it.
He removed the hood of his cloak, affording her a closer look at the scar that covered the left side of his face.
Aang sounded surprised to find that the Fire Lord was making a personal visit to their very humble home. Even more so that he had chosen to do so alone. Even in peacetime, there were a number of factions in the Earth Kingdom that still held a negative opinion of the Fire Nation and would like nothing more than to repay him for the sins of his father. But she knew he was more than capable of defending himself.
He bowed slightly. “Hello, Avatar. May I come in? A storm’s approaching and I need shelter.” He was telling the truth, as raindrops had already started to fall, and black clouds loomed ominously overhead. Soon the lightning would begin to strike.
The young airbender laughed and clapped a hand over his shoulder. “You know my name, Zuko! You don’t need to be so formal with me.”
The Fire Lord cracked a smile. “Sorry. Habit.”
“Come on in.”
Zuko did so, removing his cloak and setting it aside. His eyes traveled instantly to where Katara sat in front of the fireplace, trying to use a pair of spark rocks to ignite the dampened wood. So far she had been unsuccessful.
“Let me help you with that,” he offered, then launched a small burst of fire from his palm. The water evaporated and the wood crackled and caught fire. Katara glared at him, annoyed.
“Hey, I already asked if she wanted me to do that,” Aang told him. “She wanted to do it herself.”
“Oh.” He stared awkwardly at her. “Sorry about that.”
She didn’t reply with words, but reached out toward a bowl that had been placed on the table to catch a troublesome leak. The water traveled over to the fireplace and extinguished the flames.
“She did that last time too,” Aang explained.
There was a time when Zuko would have exploded with fury, calling her an ungrateful peasant who should be glad for his help. But he had matured greatly since then, and was capable of understanding that sometimes she needed to do things herself. He nodded.
“You could at least try bending the water out,” he suggested, reminding Katara that he was still just a tiny bit stubborn. Deciding to indulge him, she called to the water and dragged it out of the wood before forming it into a ball, which Momo moved quickly to intercept. The sphere exploded into a million tiny droplets, soaking the lemur’s fur. Aang laughed.
Zuko cracked a slight smile, which was the closest he ever got to acknowledging that a situation was funny. Katara even giggled a little herself.
The wood eventually ignited thanks to the efforts of Katara and her spark rocks, much to the waterbender’s delight. Confident that she could accomplish anything she set her mind to, she set them down in the kitchen and then moved to rejoin Aang and Zuko in the living room.
“So how long are you staying here?” the Fire Lord was asking when she sat down.
“Until Summer,” Aang replied. “Then we’re going to go live with Katara’s tribe at the South Pole. We’re thinking of staying on Kyoshi Island with Sokka and Suki in the Fall, and maybe getting a place in the Fire Nation next Winter.”
Zuko nodded, already aware of the Avatar’s habits as a nomad. He was accustomed to moving place to place, like they had that one turbulent year where the fate of the world rested on his shoulders. Now that things were settled down they no longer moved as frequently, thanks in no small part to Katara’s preference for settling down and cultivating a relationship with the surrounding community. She had persuaded him to compromise, so that they only changed houses once every season. Even though his Avatar status was great for scoring discounts, they still had to pay for their housing like everybody else.
“Well, if you ever want to stay in the Palace City, just let me know,” he told them, smiling at Katara, who looked away. She knew the reason he was suggesting that, and while their relationship had… changed in the last few years, she wasn’t sure that would be such a great idea.
“We’ll think about it,” she replied coldly, trying to encapsulate her thoughts in that sentence in order to send a message that she couldn’t outright say.
He nodded almost imperceptibly, getting the hint. That was one good thing about being raised around master manipulators: he knew how to interpret what wasn’t being said.
“So why are you in the Earth Kingdom all by yourself?” Aang inquired, changing the subject.
“I’m still looking for my mother,” he answered. “And I didn’t come over here on my own. Mai’s staying in Omashu with her parents.”
They both nodded. Even though the city hadn’t been under Fire Nation control for years, Mai’s parents had grown to like Omashu. King Bumi had permitted them to stay in the interest of promoting peace, to demonstrate that the Fire Nation didn’t have to conquer the Earth Kingdom in order for its people to live there. The decision had not been without controversy, but people seemed to accept it now. It had paved the way for the colonies to be converted into combined cities, where citizens from all nations were welcome. There was even talk of building a centralized city based on the same model, though it was still decades away from becoming a reality with the way the discussions were going.
“And you decided to pay us a visit out of the blue?” Katara questioned, giving her voice a slight edge to it.
Zuko shook his head. “Not really. I was traveling in the area because I heard my mother might have been sighted here. I only sought you out because of the storm.”
She had a hard time believing that, but didn’t say so.
“Well, you’re welcome to stay here any time, Zuko,” the Avatar told him, oblivious to the lie. “Do you want some dinner? Katara makes a great noodle soup.”
The Fire Lord’s eyes met hers, and they held a silent conversation in which Aang was not included nor aware of. Eventually he nodded.
“Sure,” he answered, smiling. “You know how I like home-cooked meals.”
Closer and closer, they hovered in front of each other for hours that were actually seconds, minutes that could feel like days if they rode the sensation for long enough. Her hands clasped his cheeks, pulling him closer to her smiling lips.
It was wrong, and they both knew it. But just as fire brings ash to the soil and water can engulf everything in a catastrophic flood, neither of them considered themselves to be paragons of virtue, nor sinners beyond redemption. They were simply humans giving into temptation like everyone else.
And it was temptation; neither of them had any illusions about that. Love was far more complicated than liaisons in the shadows, trysts in a palace or assignations in the rain. It was simple, human passion that kept them from admitting that they were doing more harm than good. The brief flashes of conscience that came on occasion were like the lightning that struck all around them: bright enough to illuminate everything, but only for a moment. Then it was dark again and any argument was lost to the ensuing thunder.
They didn’t speak. There were no words to justify this, nothing to say that would make it acceptable by any sort of standards. And so they didn’t mention it, silently agreeing that to talk about this would be to undo everything. No matter what the outcome of this would be, no matter who they hurt by staying silent, as long as they didn’t acknowledge the situation, they each believed that this moment could truly last forever.
And when they came together seconds later, there was no room left for words to come between them anyway.
“The storm’s really picking up,” Aang observed as he looked out the window. Outside they could see the deluge being visited upon the plains, intermittently illuminated by streaks of lightning.
“I’ll say,” agreed Zuko.
“It’s a good thing you got here when you did,” the Avatar decided. “I’d hate to think what could happen if you were caught out there all by yourself.”
“Same here,” said Katara with just a tiny bit of dread. Even though she liked the rain, there were times when she witnessed the fury of nature that struck her with an overwhelming sense of awe. It reminded her that for all the power benders wielded, it was insignificant next to something like this. Even the Avatar’s power paled in comparison.
“Soup’s good,” the Fire Lord complimented.
“It’s a good thing I brought my own chopsticks,” he added after another mouthful.
“Wasn’t expecting company,” she remarked snidely. “Besides, our chopstick budget is a little low this month.”
“Not that we really need them since both of us can waterbend,” Aang supplied, then demonstrated by making a group of noodles rise from his own bowl into a threatening serpentine shape. “Look out, Momo! The noodle snake is coming after you!”
Momo cracked an eye open from where he had curled up next to the fire to see the culinary monstrosity towering over him, then shrieked and began flying uncontrollably around the room.
“Uh-oh, looks like the noodle snake can fly too!” the Avatar continued to tease, sending his creation into the air to terrorize the lemur some more.
Momo circled around and ducked low, nearly colliding with Zuko. The noodle snake wasn’t able to dodge so well, and splattered against the Fire Lord’s face. Momo landed on his shoulder shortly afterward and began devouring the carcass of his persecutor.
“Ah… heh heh… sorry about that, Zuko.”
Zuko sat there stoically for a few moments before replying. “Don’t worry about it.”
Rolling her eyes, Katara sighed disgustedly. “Thanks, Aang. I appreciate you wasting the food.”
The Avatar frowned. “I already ate earlier.”
“Then why did you ask for another bowl?”
He shrugged. “I thought I was hungry again. Besides, I didn’t want Zuko to feel left out.”
“That would be fine if we didn’t have to pay for all our food, Aang, but we do so if you’re just going to make noodle snakes then don’t even bother asking for seconds.” She glared at him until he started to cower.
The look on his face almost made her lose her resolve, but she stuck with it. Zuko threw off her concentration a moment later.
“It’s fine, Katara. I can give you some money to buy more noodles.”
She turned the glare toward him instead. “I didn’t ask for your money. Besides, we have plenty of food. I just think Aang should be better about rationing it.”
Zuko rolled his eyes. “Still a control freak, I see.”
Something started to boil inside her and before she knew it Katara was on her feet. “’Control freak?’”
“You heard me.” He stared at her impassively, still sitting.
“I am not a control freak,” she insisted defensively.
“Of course you’re not. Thanks for letting me help you light the fire, by the way.”
“Hey! That was… I’m not…”
“You’re still trying to be his mother after all these years,” he accused, standing up.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” she retorted, trying not to pay attention to Aang as his eyes darted back and forth between the two of them. He looked hurt and confused, as though he couldn’t comprehend how a pleasant situation could suddenly turn so sour.
If only he knew what was really going on.
“Maybe that explains why I haven’t seen you kiss since I got here,” he explained, which really set her blood on fire.
“Take that back! Aang and I are really private people!”
“Right. And Mai loves sparkling unicorn-fairies.”
She glared at him. “Hey, speaking of Mai, why’s she staying back in Omashu anyway? Unless you’re not that close either?”
“So you admit it then.”
“I’m not admitting anything!” she bellowed, then pointed to the door just as a flash of light filled the room. “Get out of my house!”
The thunder punctuated her words a moment later. Zuko started to leave.
“No, wait,” insisted Aang. “I’m sure Zuko didn’t mean those things.”
Katara gave him the most baleful expression she could muster, then stormed past them both.
“Fine,” she muttered as she forced open the door. “I’ll go.”
“Wait!” he shouted, not comprehending what just happened. “Katara!”
Zuko flashed Aang a look of sympathy before following Katara out the door.
“Do you think he fell for it?” she asked him as they took shelter under a tree. Just because she enjoyed the rain didn’t mean he had to endure it. They avoided getting too close to the tree because of the lightning, but were still relatively covered under its branches.
Zuko nodded, frowning. “I still don’t think it was right to hurt him like that. We should go apologize.”
“I could have found some other excuse to sneak off, you know. You didn’t have to call me a control freak.”
“Well, you kind of are.”
She bent her wrist just enough to make the rain slap him across the face. A smirk was his only reaction.
“Okay, maybe a little,” she conceded a moment later. “It’s just… he acts like such a child sometimes that I can’t help treating him like one. I need someone I can be an adult around.”
“Well, that’s why you have me, isn’t it?”
She smiled. “Yeah, I suppose it is.”
The distance between them disappeared as they moved in for another passionate kiss.
From behind the window, a pair of eyes watched the two lovers as they sheltered each other from the storm. There was an understanding in those eyes that left no room for words, and none were spoken. A wave of rolling thunder shook the walls, but that paled in comparison to the fury that caused those grey eyes to suddenly glow brilliant white.
The storm had only just begun.