“I’m the one now,
‘Cause I’m still here.
I’m the one.
‘Cause I’m still here.
I’m still here.
I’m still here.
I’m still here.”
It seeped from her skin at the light of the rising sun – the moon’s strength in brittle bones, parchment flesh.
Her eyelids felt heavy and yet, she found that she could not look away. Clouds married between the gradient of the night’s blue to the brightest orange, making the silhouette of Caldera City’s skyline so much more prominent. She could see the curves and points of every rooftop, some still smouldering, in such stark contrast against the rising of the light.
This was a sight that was granted to these people every single day whereas in her tribe, they knew this light all but once a year. It was a special occasion, one not to be missed. Before Aang, she could count how many sunrises she could remember with both hands. Before the war, she’d never thought she would be standing where she was now when for so long, too long she had prayed for this nation to burn down to the ground in reparation for her people.
Katara had hated this place and these people for most of her life and yet, and yet, and yet… how beautiful and how full of splendour it all turned out to be.
This girl from the Southern Water Tribe could not be farther away from home, she felt, as there was no ice beneath her feet. There were no groans of whale walruses from the distance. There were no squawks of koalaotters or otter penguins as they hopped, skipped, and splashed around in the ice-cold water. She could not be farther away from home yes and yet, here, there was the merry little chirrup of songbirds she did not know. She could hear the crowing of komodo roosters, greeting the morning. When a cool breeze drifted, she could smell the wood smoke of breakfast coming from household kitchens. She could feel the palace’s staff start to wake with the sun’s light and a small smile reached her lips as she felt herself sigh.
It was a new day, after all, and it was in that moment of tranquility that Katara thought, ‘I could get used to this.’
That same thought made the mere whisper of guilt latch onto her back like an anchor. How could she want this after detesting it for so long?
She was dressed in bright red – for the most part. Upon her person was a silk night robe that was far, far too big for her to be comfortable in but when its sole purpose was to cover her war torn blue clothes, she could not really care less for her appearance. Katara found herself alone on this empty balcony, not too far from where Zuko was resting, and enjoying the fresh air, the quiet of the morning.
“Katara,” a voice said a few feet behind her. She turned around and saw the good General standing by the door. Panic nearly rose up her spine but she saw that his expression was kindly and at ease. He did not arrive to bear bad news, she saw. She blinked, her mouth agape. Iroh then said, “Do you have a moment?”
“General Iroh,” she greeted, giving a single low nod out of respect. “Is everything okay?”
Iroh approached her as he smiled and raised a hand – a calming gesture.
“Everything is just fine. My nephew is under Toph’s care for now,” he said. “And please, after today? Call me uncle.”
Katara smiled back. “I’ve never had an uncle before, not really. My parents didn’t have any siblings.”
“Enjoying the view, I see,” he said, placing his hands on the rail. “I have always liked this view too.”
Iroh closed his eyes and took a long inhale, taking in the smell of his homeland. She crossed her arms over her chest and leaned against a column, overlooking the picture that he could see too.
“It’s so beautiful,” she agreed. “I can see why Zuko fought so hard for so long to come back home here.”
“How are you feeling?” he asked, turning his head to look at her, raising a brow. His were eyes of piercing bronze, an earned wisdom in his irises that demanded truth and nothing else. She looked at him for a long while and licked her lips before responding.
“Tired,” she answered. “The healing, I… it takes a lot out of me.”
“You should rest a while, then,” he said. “Take advantage of our hospitality. After what you have done for us… for me? For Zuko? You will never want for anything in the Fire Nation ever again.” She looked down and smiled, a faint blush rising in her cheeks.
Iroh tucked in his hands in the sleeves of his robes as he faced her and continued. “While that is no reparation for the atrocities my people and I have committed against yours… I hope it can be a start on the path to helping make things right.”
“Thank you, uncle,” she said, still looking over the skyline and watching the sun rise over the Fire Nation capital. She let her shoulders drop. “To be honest, I was feeling a little ashamed.”
“Ashamed…” Iroh repeated, brows furrowing but for a moment. She glanced his way, trying to place his tone, hoping for some sense of comfort in the form of a tangible truth. No empty promises in the way she’d come to expect, to seek out from the young man this man had raised.
Iroh only nodded once, low and deep, as he stroked the hair on his chin. After a moment, he turned his head to her and asked. “What’s on your mind?”
It was almost unnerving, his unfaltering gaze when he looked deep into her eyes. It felt nearly magnetic. It reminded her of her Gran Gran and how she could never really hide any secret or shame from her either. In the back of her mind, she wondered if that was a thing that all old people learned eventually.
“I was just thinking of…” she trailed off, her voice quiet. A flock passed by them, greeting the morning. She swallowed. “Of that day. In Ba Sing Se.”
“Ah,” he said.
They both knew which day that was.
“Zuko and I were trapped in the Crystal Catacombs together,” she said. “I thought I hated him… I hated him so, so much for what the Fire Nation did to my family. To my people. And I told him how I thought it was in his blood… spreading war, and violence, and hatred. I blamed him.”
She knit her brows at the memory and she closed her eyes. In her head, she blamed the warmth she felt on her eyelids on the sun instead of the tears that had threatened to rise up to her eyes beneath the skin.
“For so long, I blamed him,” she repeated. She opened her eyes to the sight of the city, warm tears building up to her tired gaze. “But here we are. Here he is. And it’s all so beautiful.” She pressed her lips together, a hand against her heart. “And I’m ashamed.”
“Why is that?” he asked.
“I can’t tell you how many times I wished and prayed for the spirits to smite this whole country away for what the war has done,” she said, her lips trembling. “You spoke of the atrocities that the Fire Nation committed against my people, against me…
“That’s not on Zuko. That’s not on you. And it was unfair of me to… to judge him, to put all of that hatred on him just because he was Fire Nation,” she continued. “Zuko already spends too much time apologising for things he didn’t even do—people assume the worst of him at the sight of him. And so did I for a while. He’s constantly watching himself around us and he’s nervous and afraid because he’s so used to no one believing the best of him and that he started believing the worst of him too.”
Iroh gave a low hum as he listened. Thoughtful as if he waited for the trickle of words to flow into neat rivers in his mind instead of flooded emotions. He was a measured man of endless, learned stoicism. He never interjected, she found, and she noticed that Zuko had picked that up too – that patience, that understanding, that guiding light. Fire wasn’t always as kind, he’d said to her once, but it was; it could be – when you stoked it just right.
“I’m ashamed of that,” she said finally, her voice growing soft as the guilt weighed hard on her aching heart. “That I thought of him as the Fire Nation’s crimes before I ever considered him to be just another person… someone my age. Just a teenager like me.”
They both stayed in companionable silence after that, the soft chirrup of birds flying by their only music.
“That’s very interesting, Katara,” said Iroh after a while.
“You were right, of course,” he added. “It was in our blood… in a sense.”
“What?” she asked. Her blue eyes narrowed to slits, brows furrowed together, and voice raised a pitch higher.
“You must understand… the man who stands before you was a man who laid siege on the city of Ba Sing Se for six hundred days,” said Iroh. Her features relaxed then, her mouth open. Iroh smirked without humour, just a quirk of his lips as if it were some sort of cosmic irony. “You may see me as wise and venerable now but not too long ago, thousands of soldiers and civilians, both Fire Nation and Earth Kingdom, met their end… because of me.”
He said all of this without pride or self-pity. He stated it all as simply and as a matter-of-factly as he could. There was a sadness in his eyes as he said this, she could see that, and a deep, deep regret. Her heart ached though, then, she did not know for whom it ached.
The fires of war always changed those who were consumed by the flame; such was its nature. People oft separate the effect into two groups of people: some people rose from the ashes, greater and stronger than ever; some were burnt into dust, never to recover.
There was, however, a third group. The fires of war are something unique only to humanity. Anything else is a natural calamity – the cycle of life reclaiming itself in all its mysterious ways, without any such rhyme or reason. No tether, no one to answer to, no biases to this side or that. War was another thing entirely. It always started with a single spark, one with malicious intent to burn another.
So then, what happens to those lesser men who were the ones who fed the flames? To those who stoked the coals of conflict when they believe that their consumption was righteous?
What kind of men are those who’d helped set off the blaze?
Katara looked at him, new conflict born in her heart of hearts, and yet she could not think of him as just that man he’d confessed to being. Not entirely.
“Tell me, Katara,” Iroh asked. She had become quiet. “Does that change how you see me?”
“I—” she started. “I don’t know. I don’t know what to say to that.”
“Mmm,” was all he said next.
“Zuko once told me that… everyone has light and dark inside of us,” she started, breaking their shared silence. “And that nobody is exempt. You’ve chosen to do good now even though you chose to do so much bad before. I think that has to count for something, at least.”
‘Twas a conundrum to say the very least, this position that Iroh has put her in. Perhaps Aang was not the only one in the group who had been seeing things in absolutes of black and white for before her was another legend upon a pedestal he himself did not know if he could reach.
It was almost like looking in a mirror.
Iroh smiled fondly at her, a glimmer of pride in his eyes as she recalled his nephew’s words. The way his eyes shone and the smile on his face was one that she’d always seen from him – always so patient and so understanding. It was difficult to imagine him as anything else, let alone a self-confessed criminal of war.
Yet he was.
“My nephew is as wise as he is compassionate. And your good, just heart does you credit, Master Katara. You will do wonders here, I know it,” he said in reply, a flicker of a smile playing on his lips. “That is… if you choose to stay, of course.”
Her mouth twisted to a quick wry, amused grimace at the comment. Gallows humour, almost, but not quite. She arched a brow at him while his eyes glimmered with a telltale mischief, an old man’s meddling. Iroh smirked and shook his head. He bowed and continued, his expression sobering.
“Yet still, the good I have managed to do does not erase the fact that I was once the kind of Fire Nation man who deserved your hate—for back then, I believed in what my forefathers tried to instil… the lies of Fire Nation supremacy. Many of us did, though some of us grew wiser of their own volition.” Beneath his sleeves, he gripped his arms tighter. She did not see the action but there was a new stiffness to him. “I guess that my nephew never told you about Lu Ten?”
Katara shook her head. “No. Who’s Lu Ten?”
Lids closed over his bronze eyes and he sighed, wistful. His shoulders dropped and he bowed his head low. His gaze shifted to the cityscape as he spoke.
“Lu Ten… was my son,” he said. Iroh, for all his stoic nature, all his contained strength, was only human just the same. At the word ‘son’, his voice very nearly broke. She felt his sorrow and his grief, an open, bleeding wound that never fully closed over. Katara put a hand on his shoulder and gripped it tight before letting him go; he sighed at her touch. He then continued his tale.
“During my siege of Ba Sing Se, Lu Ten was helping Earth Kingdom refugees sneak into the city’s walls, protecting them from my soldiers. He was killed in a raid that I sanctioned—a raid that turned into a battle.”
If she concentrated long enough, the wood smoke from the kitchens felt like the fires of battle at the back of her neck. From the scene of this tranquil morning, she could very nearly feel the turmoil that brewed in his memories, at how the sounds and screams of war had ignited in his ears. It would be a sound he would never be able to forget — men like him never did.
“Of course, many times before that…” Iroh went on. “He tried to talk to me about it. About change, about equality… but I would not listen. I thought him so young, so naïve. An idealist—just like his cousin. What a fool I was.”
He paused to take a breath, to sigh. He looked back to Katara, tears in his old eyes. He was smiling wide with trembling lips as he spoke of his son and yet, his eyes were swimming in a father’s grieving sorrow.
“I was not as unreasonable as my brother, yes, but… but we were not so different, once upon a time.”
“I didn’t know,” she said, her voice as soft as a whisper. “I never would have guessed, I… I’m so sorry for your loss.”
“Oh, one of the many pitfalls of age, Katara, is a certain kind of pride many those of my age are lulled into… one where you refuse to listen or learn from the mouths of babes, feeling that you are the one who should be teaching them. Thinking that you could never learn anything from someone younger than you by virtue of… you having have lived longer, therefore know more, when we all know equally less than each other,” he said, chuckling to himself but she could not feel any humour behind it.
There was a breaking in his voice, a heartache from way down deep, but Iroh was not an expressive man. He’d known diplomats and politicians for years and years; he knew better, for a man in his position could not afford to wear his heart so plainly on his sleeves. Despite that, however, his words held weight and she felt their pull all the same.
“But Lu Ten,” he continued, a smile appearing on his lips. She knew the look of a proud father anywhere. “Oh, Lu Ten was wiser in his lifetime than I could ever hope to be. He would have been hundredfold the man I am now.”
She felt herself start to smile for it was an endearing sight all the same. His story was both sad and yet, so beautiful.
A moment of silence washed over them as respect for the deceased. From the east came a gentle morning breeze that blew on his hair. Part of her liked to imagine that that was Lu Ten’s spirit joining them, watching over his father from where the spirits met the sky.
“I wish I could have helped my son. I wish I’d listened to him more. But it’s too late for that now,” he said finally. “I know I will never be truly redeemed for how I contributed to the losses suffered by so many in this war… but I try to make up for it and atone where I can… in trying my hardest to help Zuko.”
“Does Zuko know?” she asked. “About what happened to Lu Ten?”
“No. He knows that his cousin perished in the battle… but he doesn’t know why. One day, I will tell him of my stories of how I found my own way to redemption…”
“But why tell me?”
“Because you said you were feeling ashamed… to hate the Fire Nation for what it has done,” he answered.
Iroh stood straighter then and looked her square in the eye. She could not look away. He continued, “You shouldn’t be. The Fire Nation has done cruel and terrible things in this war. We must never forget that—we must never erase that past. It is crucial to learn from it so that it will never happen again. We, as a whole, then need to earn that forgiveness… even though some of us did not contribute to those sins, we still benefitted from it in one way or another. It is wise that you do not wish for the anger to consume you but you must allow yourself to be righteous in your rage, Master Katara. Transform that anger into passion. For good. For change. In your future, you will need to remember these things. Peace is not something you win once and it will stay that way forever—it is something you build.”
At that moment, she felt a weight lifted from her shoulders. He made sense. Righteousness took hold like steel at the base of her spine, making her stand up just that much straighter. She smiled at his comforting wisdom, eyelids heavy with lethargy.
“Oh, fixing this world from a hundred years of hurt is a burden the young have inherited, and it is our responsibility, to all of us who remain… to be better now than those before us. And no one knows how to prove themselves worthy of that grace, of that redemption more than my nephew, my son. Zuko understands that,” he said. “He will be a fine face for this new era of the Fire Nation and I could not be prouder. And with help… together, you could shape this world into a new world indeed. A better one.”
“Thank you, uncle,” she said. Out of instinct, she reached up for her bare neck where her mother’s necklace used to rest. With a nod to him, she went on to say, “It means a lot to me. And you’ve given me a lot to consider.”
A yawn built up from inside her and she covered her open mouth when she did. The sun had truly risen into morning now and this young woman of the moon was tired in ways she had never felt before. The bones of her back ached and as she straightened her stance, she felt the joints pop and crackle. When she tried to move her neck, she groaned. She had been standing and stressed for too long.
“I think I will rest a while now,” she said. Iroh chuckled.
“Good, good…” he agreed. “Tala has shown you your quarters?”
“Yes, it’s a great room. Thank you.”
“Then, off you go,” he replied. She moved to take a step back, but he interrupted her with one final note. “But first, Master Katara… may I?”
At first, she quirked her head to the side and raised her brow, trying to glean his meaning. Iroh had removed his hands from his sleeves and gestured for her with open arms. Katara grinned, said nothing more, and met him in the middle. She held him in a tight embrace and wrapped her arms around his neck. He hugged her tightly and she could feel the tears falling to her shoulder. Iroh smelled like lavender and freshly made dumplings—he was as warm as the tea he brewed.
“Thank you,” he whispered. “For saving him. There is nothing I will ever be able to say or do to repay what you have done for him, our family, and the Fire Nation.” He let her go then and put his hands on her shoulders. “You have saved us all.”
“I…” she said, her hands on his elbows, breathless. Katara could only blink and nod. “You’re welcome.”
Iroh nodded to her in return and let her be on her way. She started to walk away and when she got to the doorframe, she turned and saw that he was looking back to the horizon again, another gentle breeze billowing through his silver hair.
“And uncle?” she called out. He turned his head to face her, raising an inquisitive brow. “For what it’s worth… I forgive you too.”
When the formidable Leader of the Kyoshi Warriors returned to the Fire Lord’s quarters, the first thing she did was cross her arms over her chest and smirk. For a girl so accustomed to battle when she was in her war paint, oh how her features softened when before her was certainly an endearing sight to behold. The snoring, she thought fondly, could be heard all the way to the other end of the wing of the Royal Palace – and it was a significantly long hallway.
“How long has he been asleep?” she asked.
“Not long. About ten minutes, probably.”
“That much drool… in ten minutes?”
“He’s your boyfriend,” Zuko answered.
Her ward had been sitting up, propped up with an inordinate amount of red silk pillows, with half his body covered by his blankets. The new Fire Lord wore a matching red silk robe, embroidered with elaborate designs in gold thread of flames and dragons to drive home the point of where and who he was, that was somewhat undone, revealing the bandages that covered the scar on the middle of his chest. His dark hair appeared flat and almost wet, as if it hadn't been washed in three days – and it hadn’t been.
It was good to see him like this.
The colour had returned to his cheeks in the few days that had passed when he was diligently and dutifully looked after by his friends. Suki delighted in that knowledge, though to say that that was the sole reason for her smile was incorrect for Sokka, who had promised her that he would take good care of Zuko while she took a quick power nap in their quarters, was fast asleep by Zuko’s bedside table, a pool of drool dripping from the fountain that was his open, snoring mouth.
She laughed and sat by Zuko’s bed. “How are you feeling?”
“Good. Better,” he answered. His hands fidgeted by his lap and his gold eyes kept stealing glances at his open door. “Where is everybody?”
“Well, quick recap. Master Piandao just arrived with Appa so Aang’s there, greeting him,” she answered. While she spoke, she gestured with her hand to count out all the people she knew he cared for.
With one notable exception.
“Your uncle’s acting as regent, as you instructed but you probably don’t remember giving out the order so heads up, you did; and he’s facilitating the transfer of the Fire Nation soldiers from Earth Kingdom hold in your behalf while you recover, so he’s been in back-to-back peacekeeping meetings pretty much all day. While Toph is with Tala and the newly elected High Sage – I think his name’s Hakuho or something – and they’re screening your staff and security detail.”
Zuko blinked and waited while Suki remained simply staring at him, smiling. Teasing. His mouth open, his eyes darted about the room, hoping that his silence would press her on to continue. He raised a brow at her while her expression remained unchanged.
“And what?” she asked. “Who else do you want to know about?”
Suki knew exactly who Zuko wanted to know about. And he knew that she knew. He closed his eyes and exhaled through his nose deeply.
“Relax,” Suki finally answered. His shoulders dropped and expelled a breath he’d been holding, and he opened his eyes again to look at her. “Katara’s asleep. She has been for a few hours now, I think.”
“Oh,” he said. “Th-that’s good.”
“You needed a bit more healing after… well, you know. That. You kind of just passed out after you ate something. They gave you some special kind of milk that let you sleep for a while and help you heal but that really knocked you out. Katara says you may need a few more sessions after that and to call her immediately if you feel even the slightest bit bad but I think she’s just being extra careful, you know?” she said. “The last healing session was as far as she could go; she really needed the rest.”
“Wait—how long have I been out?”
“Two days, off and on,” she replied.
“You were pretty confused every time you woke up before, so I’ve had to catch you up on pretty much everything at least twice now.”
“So why are you two here?”
“It’s our shift,” she answered. “Well actually, it’s my shift to look after you but Sokka didn’t want to walk around and help with the arrangements and accommodations for the Northern and Southern Water Tribe delegates because his leg’s still messed up and he volunteered to switch shifts with me so I could rest a bit. We’re not exactly just about to let anyone watch over you after everything we did to save your life. Well, mostly Katara. And your uncle. But really, I think Sokka just wanted to take a nap too.”
At that moment, the other boy woke with a jump, dried spit near his lips a stark contrast to his dark skin.
“THE CACTUS MADE ME DO IT!” he yelled, delirious. Zuko and Suki looked at him with matching expressions of both disgust and endearment. His blue eyes darted between the pair, trying to regain his bearings. “Wait, what? What’s going on?”
“Good morning to you too, uh—” Suki tried too quickly, voice high in her jest. “Sleep—sloozer… sleepers… a lot?”
The two boys gave each other a look, neither of them wanting to comment on her attempt. They grit their teeth and grimaced at her, attempting to make it look like a smile that wasn’t forced.
“Okay fine, whatever!” said Suki, throwing her hands up in the air and rolling her eyes. “I’m not good at nicknames! Sheesh!” She groaned as she stood up. “I do one thing badly, I’m so sorry!”
Zuko and Sokka laughed. She quirked up the corner of her lip.
“But anyway, Zuko’s awake,” she said. “And properly awake this time, I think. I’m going to go get you some food—you haven’t had a real meal in days.” She looked to Sokka. “You okay to watch him for a bit while I go get his lunch?”
With a mocking gasp and a dramatic hand over his heart, Sokka replied, “You doubt me?”
“Yes,” she deadpanned without hesitation. “Constantly.”
“I’m hurt,” he replied, pouting. “Truly.”
She snorted and shook her head.
“I’ll be right back,” she said.
“Get me lunch too, please!” he called after her.
As Suki left the room, Sokka stretched his back. He heard the telltale crackle and pop of his spine as he did so as sleeping on top of a desk was not an ideal sleeping position. He yawned and tried to rub the lethargy out of his eyes.
“You two bicker like an old married couple already,” Zuko quipped.
While food had been the last thing on his mind when he woke up, now that Suki had mentioned it, he did feel the emptiness was slowly starting to make itself known around his middle. A phantom ache stung just by the centre of his chest. He held himself there to hold in the pain and winced.
“Woah, you okay?” Sokka asked, noticing his discomfort immediately.
“It’s fine,” Zuko answered quickly, his other hand in a gesture of stop, to ease the other man’s worry. “I’m fine. Just hungry. Aren’t you?”
“Always,” the other boy replied. “But anyway, I was actually hoping I’d be here when you woke up for real…”
“Well…” Sokka started. He slid himself down the chair ever just so, stretching out his injured leg, to reach for something in his pocket. “Katara told us what happened,” he continued as he reached for the stone and placed it on Zuko’s bedside table.
It was Kanna’s betrothal necklace – Katara’s necklace.
“What do you mean she told you what happened?”
“During that fight with your crazy sister?”
“Yeah? What about it?”
Sokka made a noise – half a snort, half a chuckle, and whole incredulity. His dedication to his sister was so ingrained already that it didn’t even strike him as something remarkable. ‘Man, this guy’s got it bad,’ he thought.
“What you did…” he said. “What you did for my sister, man… I don’t know if there are words, I—I just—”
“Sokka—” Zuko tried but he wouldn’t let him get a word in.
“No, shut up. You’re gonna let me do this,” said Sokka. “You risked your life to save my sister—no, you nearly died to save my sister.” A pause came as his blue gaze held his gold, an understanding borne between them. When this warrior from the Southern Water Tribe spoke, there was no stopping him. It was clear that he had been rehearsing this speech in his head for the last few days.
“Zuko, there’s no thanking something like that. That’s not something I can ever repay—pretty sure I’m speaking for my dad here, too. And I’m also pretty sure he’s gonna let you know on his own, ‘cause I’m definitely gonna tell him what you did. So, heads up, fair warning, you’re gonna get hugged probably. Like—super hard,” he said. “And no, I won’t be talked out of it.”
“Shut up for a sec, okay?” he said again, hands up. “I just—” Sokka took a long, deep breath. He closed his eyes and kept his hands up. “This isn’t easy for me and I’ve literally been practising this in my head for like the two days so here goes…” he said. ‘Pause for dramatic effect…’ he thought as he imagined an imaginary drum in his head filling up the silence.
Zuko raised his scarred brow at him and blinked, unsure how to react.
Finally, he raised his head and looked the Fire Lord dead in the eye and said, “I know you’re in love with my sister.”
It was nearly enough to get his new heart to jump out of his chest. He straightened up from where the pillows had kept him propped up so swiftly that his middle immediately ached at the movement. Zuko groaned and fell back to the comfort of them and winced. Sokka only watched, a knowing smirk on his face, while warmth and blood rose to colour the face of the new, esteemed Fire Lord.
“Zuko,” he said plainly. “Literally everyone knows how in love you are with her except Aang. But he’s excused, ‘cause he’s like, you know… Aang. I’m gonna leave that bombshell that to you guys.” Zuko swallowed, his eyes wide as his gaze darted from the still open door of his room to Sokka’s speech as he went on. “And, well, at first, I wasn’t all for it. I mean—I thought you guys were cute or whatever, but I didn’t… I don’t know, it’s a big brother thing, you know? I just never thought anybody would ever be good enough for her. Or I never wanted anybody to be good enough for her, I don’t know. She’s protected me for most of my life and it just kind of… kills me a little bit that I can’t protect her from everything.”
It was odd to hear Sokka’s voice get like this – dropped from his usual high, comedic pitch. He had the cadence of a man grown. While there was uncertainty in how he spoke, there was heart in there as well. There was a truth, a vulnerability that he was letting Zuko see. Sokka continued.
“But then you jumped in front of lightning for my sister. You burned from the inside out to save my sister without even thinking about it. And I know my sister doesn’t need any more protecting or to be saved or whatever because we both know she can take care of herself just fine—”
Zuko’s eyes stole a glance at the door.
“And!” he said, still not letting anyone interject. “And you came with me to Boiling Rock to save my dad and Suki—Zuko, what you’ve done for my family…” He stopped to look down. His good leg had started shaking, bouncing up and down in quick succession. He played with his hands and fumbled with his fingers.
“Look, I’m not gonna tell you to go after her or whatever. That’s on you guys—if that’s what she wants, what you want, yadda yadda yadda,” he continued. “But what I’m trying to say is… if you guys do, like, decide to be together? I want you to know I’m okay with it. You don’t have to worry about her family – namely me and our dad and Gran Gran – being okay with it. Because trust me, buddy—even if you and her don’t end up together for some reason, you’re invited to every Southern Water Tribe feast for the rest of your life.”
“Are you done?” Suki asked from behind him.
“Suki!” said Sokka, startled as he twisted his head to find her carrying a large tray filled with food and a pot of tea. “How did you get here so fast?”
“You talk a lot,” she said, setting the tray up over Zuko’s lap.
“And for a long time,” Zuko added, taking the ornate and overly elaborate porcelain chopsticks.
“It doesn’t take too long to go get food from the kitchens, you know. Everybody wants to get in on the new Fire Lord’s good side,” said Suki, propping one of the bowls to the bedside that Sokka had commandeered. She handed him another pair of equally elaborate chopsticks and he lifted the lid to reveal the noodles inside.
“Oooh!” said Sokka. “Fire Nation food is the best!”
When Zuko lifted the lid on his bowl, he frowned when he saw that it was only mostly water. Suki, an apology woven into the way she scrunched up her button nose, shrugged as she explained. “Katara said no hard foods for a while until you’re fully healed so I just got broth. But…” she said, lifting the lid to the woven steamer basket, just by the bowl. “I did also sneak in some dumplings. Said they were for me. Just in case you can handle it.”
“But yeah, anyway!” said Sokka, long noodles dripping out of his mouth as he chewed, broth dribbling down his chin. He slurped the noodles loudly into his mouth. “I said what I said and I’m standing by it,” he said as he chewed. He swallowed, lightly punched his chest, cleared his throat, and sighed.
Sokka straightened up his spine and looked the Fire Lord in the eyes and held his gaze.
“Thank you, Zuko. For saving her.”
“I didn’t have a choice,” was his reply, his voice soft and quiet. The blush on his cheeks grew redder by the second and he smiled to himself, tucking his chin into his neck. “And even if I did… I would have chosen her. Every time.”
Suki put a hand over her heart and Sokka rolled his eyes as he returned to his more natural slouch and helped himself to more of his noodles.
“Okay, sheesh, we get it, you’re in love,” he joked, blowing on the hot, still steaming noodles. “You gotta be so loud about it?”
“Thanks, Sokka,” said Zuko, taking one of the dumplings and dipping it lightly into the Ponzu sauce with fresh strips of ginger by the side of the basket.
“You didn’t deny it,” Sokka noted, his mouth full. “Kind of thought you would.”
“What’s to deny?” Zuko muttered, taking the dumpling whole into his mouth.
“Aww!” said Sokka and Suki loudly and in unison. Their eyes became comically large as they looked at him, both of them putting their hands over their hearts.
Zuko rolled his eyes and chewed his food.
“Shut up and let me eat my dumplings.”
In the hours that passed, Zuko had yet to see Katara. And oh, how he’d felt her absence.
After his meal with Suki and Sokka, he was passed about as if he were a child’s plaything. Servants were rushing to help wash his hair, his feet, even down to his fingernails. A servant had even offered to carry an obscenely large bowl of pitted cherries for him to enjoy while he was cleaned, which he then promptly denied. While these are comforts that he was used to, he found that his patience was thinner than he would have liked it to be; there was somewhere else he wanted to be, there was someone else he wanted to see.
Still, every time he asked, Katara was indisposed. She was sleeping, they would tell him. She was out of the Palace Grounds with Suki looking for fabrics in the marketplace, they would tell him. It did not do well for his new heart to be so far from she who’d grown it, held it, and – if he were to be honest with himself – owned it entirely.
When he found himself alone, finally, he was wearing his Fire Lord’s regalia just as the day was about to end and the sun was starting to set. He’d sent the royal tailor and his assistants away, citing that he wanted some time alone with the garment. At least half of that excuse was true.
There were pins in several places in the sleeves and in the torso, and the train was far, far too long for his liking. The servants would repair it all through the night to have it ready for his coronation by morning, he knew, but felt that even that would not be quite enough. His hair, freshly washed, was undone as he stared at himself at the long, ornate mirror before him. He looked like a child playing dress up in his father’s clothes, he thought. Like the role did not fit him quite right.
He exhaled through his nose and attempted to remove it by himself. He did not care to call for the servants coming in to dress and undress and redress him as if he were helpless. But, when he bent ever so slightly, to remove part of the regalia from his person, he groaned at the pain that pressed hard against his chest.
His muscles were still too new that any strenuous movement proved sore enough to sting.
“You should not be overexerting yourself, nephew,” said his uncle, walking briskly into the room and helping him remove the large, heavy cape from the robe.
“I’m fine, uncle,” he said, letting himself be helped. “I don’t need everyone fretting over me all the time. I’m not that fragile.”
“Understand, Zuko…” Iroh started, his voice measured and slow. “We saw you die.”
“I know,” the younger man replied, bowing his head. “And I’m so sorry for scaring everyone like that…”
“Katara was right,” said his uncle, putting his hands on his shoulders. Gold eyes met bronze, a familial stare. “I never saw it before… how you apologise… even for the things that are not your fault. Or need apologising for.” Iroh put a hand on Zuko’s face, the side without his scar, out of habit. “You did a good, admirable thing, Zuko—saving your friend at risk to your own life? I am so proud of you, my son.”
“Thank you, uncle,” he said. Iroh smiled but then, Zuko quickly pulled his head back as he processed his uncle’s words. “Wait, you talked to Katara?”
“Just before she went to go rest this morning, yes,” his uncle replied, a sly gleam shining in his old eyes as he helped his nephew take off the rest of the regalia.
“Is she okay?”
“Better now that you are,” Iroh replied. “How are you feeling?”
“Better,” he answered as he put back on the light robe over his form that was pretty much the only piece of clothing that he could somewhat put on himself without much trouble. When he stretched his arm into one sleeve, he winced. His uncle raised a brow at him and he simply shrugged the robe into place. “But it does still hurt a little when I do that…”
When it was finished, Iroh motioned for his nephew to sit by the ornate chaise longue just by the full-length mirror. They sat next to each other and Zuko sighed in relief.
“Growing a new heart is… unheard of. Nothing short of miraculous,” said Iroh, patting his nephew’s knee. “You and Katara will face many enemies and many challenges—those who are so easily frightened of what they do not know will judge you… or fear her. Or both,” — he said this with a quirk of his head, lips pressed together — “You may have just won a war, but you have so much ahead of you to fight still.”
“I know,” Zuko replied. He bowed his head, fingers twined between his spread legs. He then turned his head to face his uncle; his gaze, piercing. Unfaltering just the same. “But I’ll face it anyway. I’m not one to back down from a challenge.”
“You never give up without a fight,” said Iroh. “I know that.” With that, Iroh rose and collected the discarded garments. “I shall deliver these to the tailor and they should be ready by tomorrow morning. I have been arranging for your coronation and the ball afterward while you rested. We are expecting many guests, you know,” — he straightened the way he stood at that point, the glee of his excitement clear from the way his eyes shone — “Dignitaries from the Water Tribes and the Earth Kingdom should have already started to arrive.”
“There’s going to be a ball?”
“Of course! When have you ever known me to miss an opportunity to celebrate, nephew?” Zuko chuckled to himself and shook his head. Iroh continued, “And besides, it is the end of a hundred years of war and your coronation — such a momentous occasion calls for a big party!”
At the mention of his coronation, Zuko’s smile faltered. “I still can’t believe I’m going to be Fire Lord.”
“You already are,” his uncle corrected.
“And then…” He started. He licked his lips, words caught in his throat, and he looked up at his uncle. Iroh arched a brow and Zuko finished. “Then... you’ll return to Ba Sing Se?”
A hearty chuckle took hold of him then, his features softening. The smile he gave then was one that eased Zuko’s anxieties, and his words provided ever more so. “And leave my nephew alone to run a country by himself? What kind of father do you take me for? It’s like you don’t know me at all,” he teased. Zuko returned the smile, gratitude shining clear as day in his gold eyes. Iroh put a hand on his shoulder then and gave him a firm but gentle squeeze. “I will be here… with you. Helping you until you can run things smoothly on your own and even after that, I will be here any time you need me.”
“That could be years…”
“But…” Zuko tried. “What about the Jasmine Dragon?”
“My tea shop can wait,” his uncle answered. “Nephew, know that nothing will ever be more important to me than you. And I do not expect a boy of seventeen to be able to lead the Fire Nation without a little bit of guidance and support…” The boy nodded then, his shoulders relaxing finally as the tension was released from his bones. But his uncle was not quite done as mischief wove its way back into his knowing gaze.
“Though I suppose of support, you have plenty…” he said. That made Zuko snap his head up. “In the form of a very pretty young waterbender—”
“Uncle,” he groaned, closing his eyes. He felt the blush return to his cheeks, the tingling of marching soldiers run down to the base of his spine. Iroh could only chuckle.
“Of that, I have only one thing to say, and you will hear me say it,” he said, gripping his nephew’s shoulder just that much tighter. Zuko blinked up at him, his mouth agape. His uncle stared him down and paused and he could taste the anxiety rising to the tip of his tongue, but he could not speak. So, instead, he swallowed down the building acid.
Iroh’s eyes narrowed and finally, he said, “Do not mess that up.”
He let out a breath, some semblance of a smile returning to his relieved lips and nodded.
“I wouldn’t dream of it, uncle,” he replied.
“That’s my boy.”
The citizens of Caldera City could not recall a day in their lives when the docks were filled with so much colour.
Children begged and pleaded with their mothers to go run to the sight of the foreigners’ ships dropping anchor, pulling at the ends of their skirts and trousers’ pant legs in an attempt to drag them towards the harbour. Grown citizens of the Fire Nation clumped together and watched the foreigners enter their country, mouths agape, unabashedly staring at the new sight.
This was uncharted territory. None of them had ever seen such an explosion of new colours.
Tomorrow, they would have a new Fire Lord and the war will officially be over. Naturally, leaders from all over the world were making their way to the capital to mark the occasion. It was the beginning of a new era in their world’s history — one that hardly any of them had known. There were so few left who could remember what it was like before the Fire Nation attacked.
On any other day, she might have loved the sight, but on a day like today, all she wanted to do was see something comforting and familiar. After all, she had just spent the last two days healing this country’s new leader with her bare hands. Her bones were still exhausted and ached for warmth, for an embrace, for reprieve from the weight on her shoulders.
Yet, in every corner, was something new. Something she had never seen before. Something alien and strange, as if striking ever more the note that she was a foreigner here. As much as Iroh tried to make her feel welcome in the palace, being surrounded by so much of something so new was enough to rattle even the calmest of oceans.
Katara ran through the crowds, eyes never resting until she could find the dark skin and wolftail hair that was the sight that she’d known since she was a child, almost like a lighthouse helping to guide her ship to shore.
Or a watchtower, she joked to herself.
For most of the day, she had spent it all with strangers she barely knew. They had washed her hair, taken her measurements, fed her, and asked her questions at Iroh’s insistence that at her first chance of freedom from them all, she sought out a face, a presence that felt safe. Her sole reprieve was the request from Suki to help her run a few errands while she was out along the marketplace.
Unfortunately, the actual one she’d really wanted to see was otherwise preoccupied with things that did not quite concern her. Odd, it seemed, for part of him to be apart from her after everything that had transpired between them.
She came to the marketplace with Suki to seek out new fabrics, but the older girl had been taken by the news that her Kyoshi Warriors were just about to arrive by the docks, recently released from Fire Nation hold. At Suki’s separation, the same messenger informed her of her brother’s presence nearby.
So, that was where she found herself — so near the sea and yet never had the waterbender ever felt so lost in her life.
Just then, two children ran past her, a small, obviously handmade, paper pinwheel in their hands as they ran. Siblings, she thought. They delighted in the sight of their little makeshift toy turning in the wind. She had to smile at the sight, if only for a split second, as she tried to look for her own brother.
Finally, she found him waiting by one of the ports, hanging on to his crutch as he waited for the ships to make it to shore.
“Is he here?” she asked, holding his arm. Sokka turned his head to his sister with a jolt.
“What… no!” she said. “No, I know he’s not here—I mean dad!”
“Relax, I would have told you if he were here,” he told her. “So far, only the Earth Kingdom dignitaries and Northern Water Tribe delegates have arrived. Some of the Freedom Fighters are here too. They’re loving the Royal Fire Nation digs Zuko set up for ‘em.”
“Zuko set it up?”
“Well, not really…” he said, making a face. “Uncle did.” A beat later, he asked, “Wait, have you not seen Zuko yet?”
“No, not since I healed him last…” she admitted. “He’s off being prepared for the coronation tomorrow.”
“You’d think you two would be joined at the hip after your whole thing happened,” he quipped, gesturing as dramatically with his hands as he could, given his current injury. “Still can’t believe your boyfriend’s gonna be the Fire Lord.”
It was bait and he knew it when he said it.
She knew it when she heard it.
Yet, how he could reel her in with it anyway.
“He’s not my boyfriend!” she denied immediately while a faint, warm pink rose to her cheeks. A tingling came to the back of her neck, making the hair there stand on end. She swallowed and grit her teeth.
“Katara, please,” said her brother, rolling his eyes. He smirked. “He jumped in front of lightning for you—”
“That doesn’t mean I owe him anything, even he would tell you that.”
“You regrew his heart!”
“I would have done that for any of you!”
“But you’re in love with him, Katara, not just any of us,” he said, ‘any of us’ spoken in air quotes. His dedication to making the air quotes with his fingers very nearly made him trip over himself but with quick reflexes, he managed to steady himself on his crutch. When he did find himself standing upright, he simply rested his weight upon the crutch and shrugged his shoulders as if the display hadn’t happened. “Plain and simple.”
How she envied his easy certainty.
When you are taught a fact and are made to believe that it is true beyond a doubt and incontrovertible, accepting it is as easy as taking in a breath. A careless shrug of the shoulders, a nod of the head — a simple ‘well, that makes sense to me!’
But matters of the heart were not matters with easy conclusions that were so straightfoward; no, the spirits deemed that too easy and mortals and their frail, fickle hearts are far too much fun to play with, she thought they would think. Hers was a whirlpool heart that simply took everything else around it in. She wished for solace, for peace, for quiet safety of somewhere that felt like home.
She wanted to find Zuko.
The change in her expression made her brother’s playful nature soften. His icy gaze went from piercing to that of sympathy. A kind smile on his lips. Was it fear that shone in her eyes, he wondered. Worry? Anxiety? Her distress was clear to him.
“How can you be so sure?” she asked him, pleading in its softness.
“Because you can’t see your face when you look at him,” he answered in the same tone. “When we thought we lost him? Katara—I’ve never seen you that scared before. I’ve only seen that look on dad when he… you know.”
Her hands reached for her dark hair, the ends of her soft tresses against the skin of her fingers. She bit her lower lip and sighed.
“Do you love Suki?”
“Of course I love Suki,” he replied with no hesitation. No doubt plaguing him. A matter of fact.
“How do you know?”
She did not know whether she wanted to be aggravated by his candor or relieved by his genteel ease. If it were so easy to accept then why did even thinking about it feel as if a million different fires all ignited inside her stomach all at the same time?
Katara felt as if she were a thousand storms made flesh, doubts howling like godly winds in her mind. Despite how Iroh had settled her convictions earlier this morning, there was hardly anything that could quieten the distress of her heart.
Well, not hardly anything — just one thing.
“It-it’s… it’s different for us,” she tried. “He’s going to be Fire Lord,” — she spat this out like venom, as if it were something distasteful in her mouth instead of something she’s had time to consider — “He’s going to have to marry some… rich, snobby, Fire Nation noblewoman or something.”
“Says who?” he replied almost flippantly. “In case you forget, we won the war, Katara. Zuko’s the Fire Lord. We’ve been at war for a hundred years and for the first time, we’re the ones who get to decide what happens next. The old rules don’t apply.” He paused and stared her down. “What could you possibly be afraid of?”
“I—” she tried to start but the words were caught in her throat. “I don’t know.”
“You know he likes you, right?”
“I know. He told me so a few weeks ago.”
“Sure, that, and he took lightning for you. The guy’s made it pretty clear he would literally die for you.”
“I just don’t know if I’m ready.”
“Then don’t be ready, Katara; you don’t have to be ready,” he said. “You’re fifteen. He’d wait if you want him to; you know he would. It’s your choice.”
“It’d be so complicated.”
“So is being with Suki. She’s a Kyoshi Warrior, she lives on Kyoshi Island. I’ll have to go back home eventually too. We have so much going on right now,” he commented, his cadence developing a sing-song quality to it as he went on. “But wanting to be with Suki? Simplest thing in the world. She’s worth it. We make it work because we want to make it work, you know?” He took a moment then to wrap an arm around his sister’s shoulders. “And besides, technically… you’re a princess.”
“Pfft, yeah right,” she teased, pushing him back. “What does that have to do with anything?”
“No, seriously! Think about it...” he said. “Dad’s the chief—which is like, the King of the Southern Water Tribe, sort of, or whatever so…” — he trailed off, suggestion plain in his ellipsis — “If it comes to political stuff like that that keeps you guys apart, I’ll bash a few brains in to let you guys be together. If that’s what you guys want.” He felt her lean into him then. “If it comes to a fight, you won’t have to fight alone, sis. I can promise you that. It doesn’t have to be so complicated, you know.”
“How come you’re suddenly on Team Zuko?” she asked, throwing a playful smirk up his way.
“Listen, any guy who jumps in front of lightning and burns his heart out for my baby sister is okay by me,” he answered, shrugging his shoulders. “Plus, you like him. He likes you. And if you guys get together, he can make me dinner any time I want. At this point, the only people dragging this out longer than it needs to be is you two and it’s getting real old, real fast.”
That managed to break through her anxieties and she cracked a grin, a chuckle escaping her lips.
“I do love him,” she found herself admitting. Katara crossed her arms over her chest and sighed. When the words left her lips out loud for the first time, the truth centred her like the eye of a storm. She caught herself starting to smile and she did naught to stop it from happening. “I think.”
He returned the grin and angled his head away from her, his blue eyes that looked so much like hers shining with pride.
“See? I mean…” — he made a face as he continued, scrunching up his nose — “that’s super gross, but see?” said Sokka, squeezing her tighter against him. “It’s gonna work out, you’ll see.”
“Thanks, Sokka,” she said, wrapping her arms around his middle and holding her brother tightly. He returned her embrace and rested his cheek atop her head. The siblings stayed like that for a long moment as the silhouette of ships from the Southern Water Tribe broke into the horizon.
“So… that’s still a no on the using the blood healing on my leg, then?” he managed to quip.
Katara kept her eyes closed and grimaced.
“Don’t ruin it.”
To someone who did not know any better, they might have thought that it was an earthquake.
Zuko, however, did know better and he knew too well that earthquakes don’t last for prolonged minutes at a time. He knew what was happening.
As the sun set into night, life in the palace was starting to die down. He was allowed a bit of light walking on his own, at the very least, and that was when we felt the slight trembling of the earth beneath his feet. He followed the sensation and found himself by his mother’s garden.
Ursa’s garden, since her banishment, had been unkempt. Before his face had been scarred, his presence in the garden made the servants keep it presentable somewhat at the very least but it was hardly ever at the level of flourish that his mother was capable of when she was the one tending to it. Yet by the time he returned to the palace upon what he’d thought had been his redemption, it had degraded in quality. It had become a shadow of its former glory. Still, even then, it remained to be one of the most tranquil parts of the Royal Palace, despite its noticeable lack of care.
That was, of course, until the greatest earthbender of all time had anything to say about it.
The Fire Lord found the girl with her bare feet to the ground. With slight shifts of her steady posture, the earth bent to her will. She uprooted weeds and resurfaced good, volcanic soil onto the topmost layer. She arranged newly planted bushels around the small pond where he knew turtleducks liked to linger. It was empty now, of course, for the creatures were probably frightened of how the earth moved. He knew of their temperament. They were creatures so easily startled and yet, how they could fight to defend their own when necessary.
He walked down to where she was and he felt the earth stop moving as she did. He stopped too, standing just behind her.
“Your heart sounds different,” she said by way of greeting. Toph kept her back to him — not that it mattered but she still kept her head bowed down low. Despite her unseeing eyes, she could not quite look at him.
“It’s brand new,” he replied, a shy smile forming on hips lips. “Hey.”
She pouted her lips and turned to him, facing any other way except at him. Her voice was quiet when she spoke, her arms stiff as she crossed them over her chest.
“I’m okay,” he answered. He paused and then said, “It’s my coronation tomorrow.”
“No duh,” she said. Flippant and distant, gritting her teeth.
He could hear the words she did not want to say. He knew the language of repression well enough to tell when she was trying to keep herself from breaking — he was perfectly fluent in it himself. After all, the last time she had seen him, she’d felt him nearly die.
“Toph, listen…” he tried to say. “I… I heard about, well—” he licked his lips, paused, and went on — “When I was… you know…”
“You really scared me back there, Sparky,” she admitted, her voice as small as she felt. Near breaking. It sounded as if she were swallowing back the words before she could say them — as if it caused her physical pain to admit.
Usually so strong and so firm as the earth itself, there was very little that could move Toph Beifong. And yet with the young man before her, whom she’d known and loved like the brother she never had, all she could recall was his near-death… and how it had shaken her to her core.
She’d had the luxury of never having had to have dealt with death before him. It was not something that she could simply get over, much as she might have tried to pretend.
“I know,” he said. “I don’t want to say I’m sorry; two people have already told me not to be, but… I was just wondering if you were okay.”
“Yeah,” she answered quickly. “Better now.”
Zuko shifted his weight as he looked down and shuffled his feet. Toph stayed rooted to her spot, unmoving, and hardly even breathing. He could see that her shoulders were tense, and he frowned. He brushed his palms against the side of his robes.
“Do you...” he started. “Want a hug?”
Her expression shifted immediately, her unseeing eyes widening and her lips parting. She blinked. “Seriously?”
“I could use a hug,” he said with a shrug.
Apparently, she did not need to be told twice as she practically leapt into his arms and embraced him tightly around the middle. The force of it made his injury protest and he grit his teeth and swallowed down the hiss that threatened to pass through his lips. Instead, he simply groaned and held her right back, bowing as far down as he could.
Toph breathed him in, relief rushing through her bones. She closed her eyes and did not bother to try to escape the tears that ran down her cheeks.
When they parted, he noted that her posture had changed. She had assumed a more relaxed stance though she still held her chin up in that classic way that Toph often did.
“So, listen…” he said. “It’s my coronation tomorrow.”
“Yeah, you mentioned, we get it, you’re Fire Lord,” she said mockingly, rolling her eyes. “What about it?”
“I’d just appreciate it if you could… watch my back.”
“What do you mean?”
“I was wondering if you would like to head my security detail here in the palace,” he said. “Officially.” A beat and then he added, “At least for a little while.”
“For real?!” she asked, glee making her small voice just that much higher. Zuko nodded. “Of course!” she exclaimed as she jumped back to his arms. He made a small sound of complaint but did not mind it in the slightest. She did not let go of him either, uncaring for his discomfort for he was alive and that was all she would afford him. “I’m really glad you’re not dead, Zuko.”
He chuckled at her use of his name — so simple and yet, such weight did it hold.
“Thanks, Toph,” he said. “I still owe you a life-changing fieldtrip.”
The girl gasped and pushed herself away from him. She pointed a finger at him, mirth clear in her milky eyes, and gleefully yelled, “You called it a life-changing fieldtrip! No takebacks!”
When Katara left the docks to escort her father and the rest of the Southern Water Tribe’s representatives to the Royal Palace, Sokka went to find Suki.
She was not difficult to find as he could hardly miss a group of screaming warrior girls, ecstatic at their reunion after a short stint at prison. He might have loathed to steal her away from the group if they didn’t have important business to attend to — but after his conversation with his little sister, their mission became all the more imperative. So, when he came to her and told her that they had to go through with their plan, all it took was one look.
They had to do this, if only to soften the inevitable blow.
Together, they set off to where they knew the young Avatar would still be assisting in helping the ships reach the shore. The winds had been near nonexistent, which resulted in delays, and that made Aang busy — luring him away from a certain waterbender — all day.
By the time they found Aang, he was just about finished helping some elder members of the White Lotus off of Appa’s saddle. The young boy saw them arriving and jumped at the sight of them, lightly landing on the tips of his toes to greet them.
“Sokka! Suki!” he said. He then gestured for a large, wooden pendant that hung from his neck, attached by beads. Sokka thought he recognised it from where. “Check out this medallion! See?” — he held it up to them and the couple bent down to get a closer look at the item — “It’s got the Air Nomad insignia on it. It’s like the one Monk Gyatso used to wear!” The couple straightened their stance and nodded as the young Avatar explained. “You had to be pretty high up in the Air Nomad’s Council of Elders to get the honour to wear one of these.”
“Wow, Aang,” Suki remarked. “Where did you get it?”
“One of the Masters of the White Lotus recovered it from some black-market dealers,” he answered. “She gave it to me and said I should probably have it.” He looked up at them, beaming, though they could not miss that touch of sadness in his gray eyes.
“It’s one of the last relics of my people,” he said. “I’m gonna wear it to Zuko’s coronation tomorrow.”
“That’s great, Aang,” said Sokka. “I bet Monk Gyatso is real proud of you.”
“I can’t wait to show Katara!” Aang added.
At the mention of the waterbender’s name, Sokka’s mouth dropped open and he and Suki exchanged a knowing look. She quirked her head and grimaced quickly, an unspoken conversation passing through them at the speed of a breath.
“Listen, about that…” Sokka tried to start.
A frown was born upon Aang’s features immediately. Inquisitive grey eyes darted from left to right between the two of them.
“You guys… didn’t just come here to say hi, did you?”
“Weeeeeell…” said Sokka, the last vowel trailing. “No.”
Suki elbowed his side, her voice taking on a softer, more motherly tone.
“What he means to say, Aang, is…” she tried but his grey eyes widened ever more so, worry clear in them from when he had been so delighted just moment ago. Suki could not finish the sentence when she looked at him. “Well—” she tried again but then looked to her side and side, “Sokka, you go.”
“It’s not really our place to say… well, anything,” he said.
“Well good!” the Avatar exclaimed immediately. “Don’t say anything, then!”
“Aang, you need to listen,” Sokka said.
“Listen to what?”
“To someone other than yourself,” he replied. “Other than what you want.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“We just mean that it’s no secret that you…” Suki tried. She cringed as she continued, “You really like Katara,”
“I love her!” Aang declared.
“Okay…” said Sokka, uncertainty clear in his lilt, with a dash of condescending.
“Is this the part where you tell me that if I hurt her when we get together, you’re going to hurt me, or something because I’ve heard about that talk, and—”
“Aang, no,” said Suki, cutting him off. “What we’re trying to say is… sometimes, you like people. You really like them and even love them so much, but…” she licked her lips, eyes looking up as she tried to think of how to phrase her words. “Sometimes they’re not going to like you back in that way and that’s okay.”
“I don’t understand—” said Aang, his young gaze lost. Hurt clear in the depths of them. “Did Katara say something to you guys? Because she can talk to me!”
“No, that’s not—” Suki tried. “No, she didn’t tell us anything…”
“Is this about Zuko?” he asked.
“No, Aang,” she answered. “This is about you.”
“Am I not good enough for her to you or something?” he said, voice loud and pitch rising. “I’m the Avatar!”
“Aang, buddy—” Sokka tried to interject.
“Don’t buddy me—”
“I don’t want to fight you,” he said.
“No, I’m done talking—”
“Aang.” Her tone, commanding. He could not help but obey but it was clear from the way his brows knit together that he was displeased with the way this conversation was progressing. Her features softened at the sight of his distress and yet, there was no stopping it now. “We’re trying to help you.”
“I don’t see how this is supposed to help me,” he remarked.
“Because you’re not listening!” Sokka said, frustration seeping out in his voice. “This isn’t what you want to hear and that’s really hard to listen to, I get that. But please, we’re just trying to help.”
“I love her,” Aang despaired again, pleading. “Does she not love me or something? I would be so good to her!”
“How?” Suki asked. Sokka nearly broke his neck from the speed with which he turned to face her when she asked that. She kept on. “How would you be good to her?”
“I—” the boy tried but the words would not come.
He did not know.
“What does she need?” Suki pressed.
“Um…” he said, the Avatar’s proud stance shrinking, his shoulders just starting to drop. “I—” he tried, “I’m happy when I’m with her.”
“Doesn’t answer the question,” said Suki.
“In situations like this, it can’t just be about you and what you feel,” Sokka added.
“When you love somebody, you want what’s best for them, right?” she asked. “Do you think you’re what’s best for her right now?”
“Is Zuko what’s best for her—” he spat out like venom, like a cornered beast.
“Aang, stop. We’re not talking about Zuko,” Suki repeated. “We’re talking about you.”
The airbender found himself breathless then, a flurry of letters rushing through his mind but none of them words. He thought of Katara, of her smile and her eyes and the way she looked at him – rather, the way he wished she would look at him. But, when he thought of Suki’s question, he found that he could not think of an answer.
In fact, the last time that he had spoken to her, before Zuko was shot with lightning, hadn’t he yelled at her? Took his frustration out on her when she hadn’t deserved it? The memory of his anger came rushing back, remorse burning like acid through his veins, like bile rising to his tongue, and he had never felt so small and so young and so naïve.
When you love somebody, you want what’s best for them, Suki had just said.
‘What’s best for Katara?’ he wondered and immediately, he thought of himself. He did not imagine her happy; he imagined himself happy with her, as if that were one and the same thing. And, perhaps, that said it all.
When confronted with these thoughts of introspection, the young Avatar was not entirely unreasonable with himself. Still, his spirit held him down and it felt heavy, this realisation. For he knew, in his mind’s eye, what Katara looked like when she was happy – and it looked an awful like her exuberance at bringing the Fire Lord back from the very brink of death. He’d dreamt of seeing that joy on her face but when she showed it, it wasn’t for him.
“She loves him, doesn’t she?” he asked, his voice nearly a whisper.
“We don’t know that,” said Suki. “Neither do you unless she tells you.” She paused and raised a brow at him. “Have you ever asked her what it is that she wants?”
“I guess not,” said Aang. “I just kinda assumed—”
“You know what my dad always says,” Sokka tried to joke. “Assuming makes an ass outta you and me!” Neither Suki nor Aang even so much as cracked a smile. Still, he kept his forced grin. “Get it?”
“Not the time,” Suki admonished.
“Sorry,” he said.
“How did you guys decide you wanted to be together?” Aang asked.
“Well, we talked about it,” he answered, wrapping his arm around her.
“A lot,” Suki added. “It didn’t just happen, you know. Sokka was kind of a jerk to me at first. It took time.”
“Yes, I was… a big ‘ol jerk,” he agreed. “But we talked about it and we… I don’t know, we met in the middle, I guess.”
“And right now, we’re at the same place with where we want to be and who we want to be,” she said, reaching up to hold Sokka’s hand that was hanging just by her shoulder. “Relationships are about… back and forth. It’s a partnership. It’s not enough to just imagine it’ll be great based on what you want out of it.” She paused when Aang looked away from her, his gaze turning downward as his lips pressed into a line. “Does that make sense?”
He nodded, somber. As if conceding defeat.
“And hey, remember,” Sokka tried, reaching for him with his hand that was precariously balanced atop his crutch. “There’s so many different ways you could love somebody, you know? You’ll always be family, Aang. Don’t forget that. No matter what happens.”
He managed to smile weakly at the thought.
“Zuko is a really great guy,” he admitted. “I think she does like him… the way I like her.” The couple gave each other a sly look, sharing a split-second smile. “Do you guys think he likes her back?”
Sokka bobbed his head – a gesture of vague, almost agreement. “I mean, he did jump in front of lightning for her—”
“We don’t know for sure,” Suki answered throwing Sokka a warning glance. “We can’t speak for them.”
“Right,” he agreed, nodding. “What she said.”
“What should I do?” Aang despaired. “I mean, Zuko’s my friend.”
“Hey, we’re not here to tell you what to do,” said Sokka. “That whole relationship thing… that’s a conversation between you and Katara. I don’t even want to touch on that. Gives me the oogies just thinking about it.”
“We just… wanted to talk to you about a little bit about it first,” Suki continued. “To help make it easier when it happens.”
“Thanks for talking to me, you guys,” said Aang. “And I’m sorry if I—” he swallowed, a faint blush rising to his cheeks – “got a little mad before.”
“Don’t worry about it,” said Sokka. “It happens.”
“Sure is a lot to think about.”
“Hey, for what it’s worth,” Suki tried. “You’re so young, Aang. You’ve got so much more to look forward to and discover about yourself.”
“You’re right,” he said. “Thanks, Suki.”
When Aang made his goodbyes and flew off in his glider alone, the pair of them watched as their friend became nothing more than a faint outline of a shadow in the sky. They stayed silent as they watched him go.
“Did we do the right thing?” Suki asked.
“I hope so,” Sokka answered. “Whatever happens next… it’s up to them now.”
The morning of his coronation, Fire Lord Zuko of the Fire Nation struggled to get himself dressed.
If he were to be honest with himself, he was delaying this isolation for as long as he could. He had no desire to be fretted upon by a multitude of servants and assistants, trying to get his hair right. He had had just about enough of well-meaning helpers trying to give him tips as to how to hide his scar.
He’d been hidden from the light for long enough already. His scar did not shame him, the way his father meant it to be; instead, it became the marker of his honour. He looked at himself at the full-length mirror he was afforded. It was the same room where he had been fitted in the day prior. He sat back down on the chaise longue and sighed. He reached up to his fingers through his smooth hair. In just a few minutes, it would be tied all the way back to accommodate his new five-pronged crown.
“Might as well get it over with,” he muttered to no one but himself. He took the silk robe he’d hung on the back of the chaise longue and struggled. Anything that involved bending his limbs from the waist up, at that point, was a struggle, and as he pushed an arm through a sleeve, he made a noise of complaint.
“Need some help with that?”
The voice was enough to startle him, and he turned with a jump. He saw her standing by the open door frame, leaning against a pillar. He straightened at the sight of her, his smile wide and all pain, forgotten.
“Katara!” he greeted. She grinned in return, her blue eyes unable to look away from him.
“Hi,” she said, approaching him as she helped him with the sleeve on his shoulder. As she did, she kept her head bowed low in her approach.
“I was wondering when I’d get to see you again,” he said.
She was standing so close to him now, the air in the space between them as thick and tense as a play. And this was, of course, the final act in this arc of theirs, wasn’t it? Theirs were rapidly beating hearts, adrenaline coursing through their veins like lightning.
“Me too,” she agreed, her fingers lingering by where the bandages were.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
The thought endeared her – he’d just been struck with lightning, he had nearly died, and yet this was always the question he asked her. She looked up at him and nodded.
“A little tired… but I’m okay,” she answered. “You?”
“I’m okay,” he said. “Are you okay?”
He heard himself just a second later, just a second too late.
“You just asked me that,” she said.
“Right,” he said, cringing.
He felt as if there were another comet passing through the sky with the way his blood boiled like there were a thousand burning suns just beneath his skin. Could she feel how he shook? Could she tell the staccato of his breath?
Perhaps she did for, though he did not know, she carried the same sentiments in her own heart.
They both swallowed, the silence in the air between them ringing in their ears. Every rapid heartbeat sounded like a choir of voices, yelling ‘just do it, just do it, just do it’.
“I didn’t think it would be this awkward…” he said, barely a muttered whisper.
“Yeah…” she said, daring to take a step closer to him.
“Has, uh…” he tried, licking his lips. His mouth had never felt so dry and yet so moist at the same time. “Has your father arrived?”
“He did, yeah,” she answered.
“Oh, okay…” he said. His chest felt tight, his toes wanted to curl in on themselves. Electricity buzzed with every fibre of his being that he wondered if he still held some of the lightning he’d taken. “So…”
“Uh…” he said. “H-how are… you… liking the Fire Nation so far?” Katara blinked. “I mean, Caldera City. ‘Cause I know… Ember Island is… y’know, part of the Fire Nation and we were there for a long time, and—”
“Zuko,” she said, cutting him off. “Why do you sound so nervous?”
“I’m not nervous,” he lied. “I’m not… nervous,” he tried to deny but the crack in his voice gave him away. “I… I just—I don’t know.”
His eyes darted around, nerves building up in the centre of him that he felt as if this must it what it be to be an active volcano, just about ready to erupt. So, instead, he stalled.
“Oh, thank you!” he said, eyes wide.
“For healing me,” he clarified. “Bringing me back.”
“We’re a little past that, Zuko, but you’re welcome,” she said through a voice that wanted to laugh. However much she’d been nervous about seeing him again after everything, he felt it tenfold. What a pair they made. “You were the one who gave me the idea, actually. Back in the beach house, that first night, remember?”
“Really?” he said, brows furrowed for a moment as he tried to think about that fateful night. His features relaxed when he remembered, and he gleefully remarked, “Oh yeah!”
“Yeah,” she said, returning his smile.
“I’m glad I could help.”
“And thank you, actually.”
She made a face at him – a smug, knowing expression with a smirk on her lips. Amusement danced in the blue of her eyes.
“You jumped in front of lightning for me,” she said.
“Oh yeah,” he said. No embarrassment to him when he confirmed it, no pride. A simple matter-of-fact. Just a shrug of his shoulders and Katara could not help but marvel. He said, “It was no big deal.”
Reverential did her expression turn, how her eyes shone when she looked at him then because he meant it. He meant it.
To him, giving his life for hers was not even a question. There was no doubt, no hesitation, no regret in him. It was instinct – it was easy. It was so easy, in fact, that it was absurd. People run from the things that might cause hurt; it is a person’s basic instinct to keep themselves alive. And yet, and yet, and yet. Death would have been preferable to losing her, his actions spoke. Her heart heard the declaration and it ached.
There were no words to respond to something like that.
“It never used to be this hard to talk to you,” she tried. Her knuckles grazed along the lining of his robes. She looked at her hands then and felt them shake. “Why is it so weird now? I can’t even look at you without—” she choked on what she was meant to say next for she’d made the mistake of looking up at him again, his gold eyes earnest and fixated. Only on her. She swallowed and said, “I don’t know.”
“Why?” he asked. “What’s changed?”
“Nothing,” she answered, daring to look up at him. Her every heartbeat sent her body shaking and she could feel the tremors of the beats to the very tips of her fingers. “Nothing has changed.”
“But everything has.”
“There used to be a war. Now, if… if we want it, we could have it,” he said, his hands daring to rise up and take hers. Their touch, electric, but he could not bear to let go. His voice dropped low; she did not know if she could imagine that what she felt was the warmth of his breath on her skin. “That gives us something to lose.”
“I can’t lose you,” she admitted. “Not again.”
They stayed in that moment, frozen and enraptured in the company of each other, and neither knew how to proceed. They were both breathing too hard and not enough. Theirs were hearts in chaos, in conflict with themselves. Each of them as nervous, as anxious, and as impatient as the other. Still, they knew not how to proceed.
There was no instruction for this, there was no one to manage the tale. Theirs was not a story that a single author had crafted where they followed a set narrative now; theirs was a story that did not abide by anyone else’s rules but their own. And yet, what were the rules? They themselves did not know. No one could write this story for them and so, they lingered in this ellipsis of uncertainty, prolonging the inevitable for fear that the reality might not be as good as the dream they dreamt.
Every second felt like a lifetime and this, this was how a moment went by too fast and at the same time, lasted forever.
“I…” he tried to speak. “I don’t… I-uh…”
“Yeah?” she pressed on, hoping it might help. He still held both her hands in his grasp.
But he broke away first.
“Oh, I have your necklace!” he exclaimed. A coward’s delay and, the second he did it, he regretted it. He was no coward and he knew it, but it was too late to take it back. He stepped back and reached into his pocket for the necklace that her brother had left on his bedside table just the day before. “Sokka gave it to me yesterday. I don’t, uh—I don’t really know… I mean, here.” He handed it to her and she accepted it, for lack of reaction. He asked, “It was your mother’s, right?”
“It was,” she said. “Thank you.” She held the pendant in her hands and ran her fingers through the carving. She handed it back to him and asked, “Could you?”
“Yeah, of course,” he said, taking the necklace back. She turned her back to him and stood still as she moved her long hair to cascade over her right shoulder. Zuko placed the necklace just by her neck and tied it to her. He chuckled to himself, remembering this position between them.
“Well, this is familiar,” he joked.
“No pirates in sight though.”
“I promise not to tie you to a tree this time.”
“I’ll hold you to it, Your Majesty.”
He tied a knot by the nape of her neck, securing the necklace.
“There you go.”
She turned around again to face him and she reached up to touch the carving with the tips of her fingers. Katara looked up and into his eyes and spoke carefully. “I used it to tie the letter to Appa.”
“What letter?” he asked.
“The one I sent to Aang and Iroh, telling them about what happened to you,” she said. “I didn’t know what else to do.”
“Your necklace?” he asked, dumbfounded. “It could’ve gotten lost.”
“It was your mother’s.”
Zuko stared at her then, his mouth open. There was so much, too much in that action alone that he could not quite piece it out into words. She might as well have punched the air out of his lungs.
‘See what I would risk for you,’ she might as well have said. ‘See that there is nothing I wouldn’t give up for you.’
“Uncle said…” he started to say, eyes cast downward as he shifted his weight, resuming where he was stood before he’d been too afraid. Perhaps of the possibility that he’d, just a few seconds ago, still entertained that she might not return his affections. Her actions could not have been louder and he knew; he’d be a fool—no, not just a fool, it’d be an insult not to recognise what she’d risked and what she would still sacrifice to save him. “Uncle said we’d have… a hard time,” he said, reaching for her hand again, and she met him halfway. “People might be afraid of you.” His thumb grazed the back of her hand while hers ran against his. “Might make some enemies.”
“We already have enemies. We’re always going to have enemies,” she said. “The question is… are you afraid?”
“Of you?” he asked. “Never.”
“Then I don’t care,” she said.
“I’m going to be Fire Lord,” he said, licking his lips.
“It’s a lot to deal with.”
“Then we’ll deal with it.”
“Are you sure?”
“Sure of what?”
“I do know,” she said, a certain kind of knowing sparkling in her eyes. Anticipation made her toes want to curl up and her stomach felt as if it might be turning over on itself. “But I want you to say it.”
His mouth felt so dry so suddenly.
“Are you…” he tried. “Do you… I—” he felt short of breath – “I like you,” he confessed. “So much. And it would be complicated and hard and difficult and—”
“Zuko,” she cut him off, lips trembling as she grinned. “Those all mean the same thing.”
“I just don’t want to screw this up,” he admitted.
“I won’t let you.”
“I’m just really nervous,” he said. Katara held his hand tighter when he said it. “I think I’m going to be sick.”
“Come on,” she encouraged. He could see the water shining in her eyes as if she might cry but she was smiling too. “Just keep going. You’re doing great.”
No matter how much his chest ached from his new heart, it was nothing compared to how out of breath he was in this moment. Never had he ever been quite so exhilarated and terrified all at the same time.
“Do you want to… be with me? Maybe?” he asked, finally, before he could convince himself to back out of it. “’Cause, I, uh—” he licked his lips and swallowed nervously – “I’m pretty sure I’m in love with you, Katara.”
Her watery smile turned into a tearful grin, the widest he has ever seen it be.
“Yes,” she breathed out.
Relief released, an explosion in the very depths of her. The heat rising to the tip of her tongue tasted like finally, finally, finally. And suddenly, she wondered how in the name of all the spirits she’d ever been so anxious, so worried, and so afraid over something that she’d wanted. When she’d thought she wasn’t ready, she knew then that there was no such thing as being ready for something like this. For all the emotions she felt, she saw it reflected in the way he looked at her and she could only hope he could see it mirrored in her.
And he did.
“Yes,” she said again. “I want to be with you, Zuko. Whatever it takes, whatever it costs—you’re worth it.” She reached up, her fingers light upon the roughness of the scar on his face. He closed his eyes at her touch and felt her fingers shift and she cupped his cheek with the palm of her hand. “You’re worth everything.” She paused while he stared, unable to remember every word he’s ever known. “And I’m pretty sure I’m in love with you too.”
“Really?” he whispered.
“Really,” she answered.
“Is it—” he started. “Is it alright if I kiss you now?”
A breathy laugh passed her lips and she thought of a million ways she could have responded.
‘Zuko, I swear, if you don’t kiss me right now, I’m going to lose my mind,’ she might have said in another life.
‘You’d better,’ came another imagined response.
‘You have to ask?’ she might have replied with a snarky, almost sarcastic tone.
But such honesty, such honour that he’d displayed only deserved the same from her in return.
“Please,” she consented—heartily. Happily.
For all the tension that anxiety could cause, it was to say nothing of the earthquakes made by anticipation.
With light, trembling fingers, he brushed some of her hair away from her face. The soft, blades of her fingertips barely touching the surface of the skin of her cheek, yet the proximity of his touch was damn near electric.
There was hardly anything quite as unnerving, as nerve-wracking as the waiting. Perhaps it was because in the lingering, there was the possibility to improve; perchance, to dream. In the mind’s imagination, a moment might always be better than the reality that followed, and it was the fear of disappointment that could cause the ache in the anticipation.
Zuko and Katara had been two creatures trapped in anticipation’s web for too long.
And, for too long, had they been dangling just feet away from the security of solid ground. Floating only felt good when you still knew how to land; spend enough time in the air and sooner or later, you’ll tire of never feeling the weight of safety and of home. Stretch as they might to touch the floor, it was the anticipation that kept them from it. They were still children, after all, and children had a tendency to make every moment feel as if it might shape the rest of time or shift the course of history. Not all children were right in this regard, of course, but they were.
And so it was that when she’d given her yes, Zuko leaned down to her, the barest lift of her chin up by a gesture of his fingers, and when their lips met, there was no raging fire, no all-consuming hurricane. When she reached up to him and their kiss met halfway, the pair of them descended to the gravity of finally.
She sighed against him – every muscle that she’d felt tense in the build relaxed. Nothing could be simpler, nothing could be sweeter and she smiled as she kissed him, her earlier echoes of heart’s symphony of finally, finally, finally ringing as an encore in her ears.
Her knees felt weak and yet that did nothing to dissuade her from lifting herself up to the tips of her toes to reach him better.
For Zuko, all memories of pain simply vanished in the lifetime of a kiss.
His new heart rejoiced, though rapidly beating still, and he felt as if he might be able to withstand a thousand blasts of lightning for this, for her. Always for her.
When she tried to lift herself up, her arms around his neck, his hands were by her waist, keeping her steady, keeping her firmly to him. The storms inside of them passed and, instead, their skin thrummed as if they could feel the kiss of each molecule of sunlight mingle with theirs like a fire that burnt but did not consume. A lightness of being that they had never felt before. It was almost as if they could feel the turn of the earth itself move beneath their feet. Like they could feel every atom of water in their veins and the flow of air in their lungs.
Together, joined in something as simple as a kiss – they had never felt more complete.
When they parted, their foreheads separated just by a breath, the tips of their noses just barely apart, they grinned in a shared glee.
“Hi,” he said, breathless. Dreamily.
“Hi,” she replied in much of the same way.
They stayed in each other’s arms and might have found themselves content in the frozen moment if not for the presence that dared to enter at the open door.
“Nephew, I—” said Iroh, just about to knock until he saw the scene to which he’d walked into. “Oh,” he said in realisation and his smile grew. “I’ll come back later then… postpone the coronation… five more minutes?”
“That’s not necessary, uncle,” he told him but never taking his eyes off her. “I’ll be there in a second!”
Without having to be told twice, Iroh made his careful, silent exit.
“Go get your crown,” she told him.
“I’ll see you later?”
His new robes felt weird.
The very first thing that he thought when he put them on and saw himself in the full-length mirror in his room was that he wished Monk Gyatso could be there to see him. He wished Monk Gyatso was there, period. Yet, it had been a hundred years since he’d last since his mentor and there was very little that dreaming could do when there was so much life to look forward to.
He waited at his designated spot while Zuko was dressed and prepared for his coronation. By the time the new Fire Lord walked to just behind the curtain where a crowd awaited him, there was only the Avatar to receive him first.
“I can’t believe a year ago, my life’s purpose was hunting you down,” he said. “And now…”
“Now, we’re friends,” Aang completed.
“Yeah, we are friends.”
“I can’t believe a year ago, I was still frozen in a block of ice!” he said. “The world’s so different now.”
Zuko reached to put a hand on his shoulder and gripped it firmly. “And it’s going to be even more different,” he said. “We’ll rebuild it together.”
In all truth, part of Aang wanted to hate him in this moment. It would be easy to covet, to desire for him to fail so that he could get what he want. The temptation of trespass always sounded sweeter as it whispered to the darkest parts of even the brightest souls. Yet, Aang’s was a purer heart than most and no matter how much he wish he could detest his friend, he couldn’t. And he didn’t.
Despite knowing what he already knew.
Aang could only smile up at his friend and delighted in the glow of accomplishment, of pride, of contentment that he radiated. For a young man who had suffered for so long in his life, Aang could not help but be happy for him all the same.
Zuko bent to fold his friend into his embrace and Aang was only too happy to return the gesture.
They let go of each other and, with a breath, Zuko stepped out to greet the waiting crowd. Immediately, there was thunderous applause from the citizens of the Fire Nation, Earth Kingdom, and Water Tribes.
“Please,” he said. “The real hero… is the Avatar.”
Aang took his cue to walk next to Zuko and the crowd cheered for them again. In the crowd, there was Katara, who looked to the two of them with an unspeakable pride in her heart, near bursting for them both. Beside her was her brother and Suki, grinning as widely as they could as they watched. In attendance was also Toph, Haru, Tyro, the Mechanist, and Teo. Even some of the Freedom Fighters were in the crowd too.
With a powerful, level voice, Zuko gave his first address. None who heard him that day would have ever thought him as nervous as he felt. Looking upon the young man, anyone would think that he was, simply put, born for this.
“Today, this war is finally over!” he declared, to the immediate delight of his audience. “I promised my uncle that I would restore the honour of the Fire Nation. And I will.” He paused as he took in the eyes of everyone on him. He sought out Katara in the crowd and she gave a subtle, approving nod. “The road ahead of us is challenging. A hundred years of fighting has left the world scarred and divided. But with the Avatar’s help, we can get it back on the right path and begin a new era of love… and peace.”
And with that, he knelt before the crowd and bowed his head down low. The High Sage then raised the five-pronged headpiece of the Fire Lord high for all to see and declared him, officially. He secured it in Zuko’s hair and proclaimed it to be so.
“All hail Fire Lord Zuko!”
To say it had been an interesting few days would be an understatement. For it was on this day that, after a hundred years, that the four nations lived together again in harmony… for everything had changed when the Fire Nation attacked and the Avatar, finally, was there when the world needed him most.
Immediately after his coronation was the ball that celebration of the new Fire Lord and the new era of peace in the world that he had inducted.
There was only so much of the crowds that she could take. And, given that the one she wished to talk to the most was then-preoccupied with entertaining nobility and politicians and the like, Katara decided to traipse off to find a bit of peace and quiet, away from it all. After all, in the darkness of night, a waterbender could find no better solace than in the open light of the moon.
Earlier that evening, Toph told her how she had remodeled the gardens in the Royal Palace. When asked if Toph had secured permission to do that, Toph told her that nobody dared question her if she didn’t. Katara only laughed. Despite being blind, the earthbender had a certain eye for style, for when she managed to get to the gardens, it was a perfect little haven. It was reminiscent of the spirit oasis up at the North Pole. The fact that there was a little pond in the middle there helped as well. It was no wonder that she gravitated to the water and sat by its edge and planted herself along the soft grass, looking up at the light of the moon.
She enjoyed the break, here in the quiet, breathing in the fresh, open air.
“Thought I might find you hiding out here,” said a voice from behind her. He was almost too predictable.
“I wasn’t hiding,” she said, not even turning to look at him but she could tell that he’d made a face at her that challenged her bluff. It was that face of his in her mind’s eye that made her turn and when she did, what she pictured in her head matched the reality exactly. She shrugged her shoulders and added, “… that much.”
Zuko approached her then, his arms hidden in the large sleeves of his regalia, and he promptly planted himself beside her, uncaring for the fabric of his robes. After all, neither did she, for she was dressed rather similarly. The fabrics that she and Suki had looked for just the day before at the marketplace were turned into the garments that they were adorned with tonight; the seamstresses at the Royal Palace should really be commended for their labours.
Hers was an outfit of the deepest blue that looked as if she wore the shining, starry night sky as a coat. Her thick, long hair flowed freely and cascaded over her shoulders; where the Fire Lord’s headpiece was a five-pronged crown, the headpiece that she’d been given resembled a crescent moon. Turned the other way, it looked like the mark of the brave; Sokka had picked it out for her.
“I like your robes,” he said. He rested his hand just behind her and she leaned into the support offered by his almost embrace. He leaned to her and kissed her temple. “You look beautiful. I don’t think I’ve said that yet.”
“You could stand to say it a bit more often,” she teased, grinning at him. “Thank you,” she added as she shifted her weight to be nearer him. She was practically resting against his chest; he welcomed her presence there. Katara asked, “So how does the new Fire Lord even slip out of his own coronation ball? I bet everyone’s dying to talk to you.”
“It was pretty easy, actually,” he said. “You’d be surprised how many of them are really just waiting for their turn to talk and hear themselves sound important.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised,” she said, making a face at him as she scrunched her nose and pouting her lips. It was enough to make him laugh.
“I think my uncle’s doing a pretty good job at keeping them entertained,” he said. “And nobody’s killing each other yet so that’s a good sign.”
He reached up and winced as he scratched his head; the tip of his new headpiece grazed a little too forcefully against the skin of his scalp. She heard him inhale sharply and saw him fiddle with it.
“Does it hurt?” she asked.
“What, this?” he said, pointing to the headpiece. “Nah, it just takes some getting used to. It’s a little tight.”
“I’m not used to seeing all your hair pushed back out of your face like this,” she commented.
“Do you not like it?”
It wasn’t a tease – it was a serious question. So serious, in fact, that she gathered from his tone that he would have shaved his head if she asked. And she knew for a fact that he would have. She pressed her lips together in endeared amusement and shook her head.
“I didn’t say that. I’m just not used to it!” she teased. “It’s like back when you were hunting us with your shaved head and wolftail—”
“It was a phoenix tail!” he argued, pink rising to his cheeks almost immediately. “And it’s what was expected of me!” He huffed; she laughed into his chest. Zuko rolled his eyes and moved his arm to wrap around her shoulders, pulling her to him. Mostly to himself, he grumbled, “I’m going to outlaw that haircut tomorrow.”
“A fair ruling, Your Majesty,” she said, reaching up to kiss him on his unblemished cheek. At the action, she felt him straighten up and her features softened. “I’m really proud of you, Zuko,” she told him. “Your speech was incredible. You were born for this.”
“Thanks,” he said. “I have no idea what I’m supposed to do now, though. It’s the first day in a hundred years that there’s been no war. Officially.” He looked toward the sky, not a cloud in sight, and he sighed. “I don’t know the first thing about being Fire Lord in this… new world. I don’t know the first thing about being Fire Lord at all.”
“We’ll figure it out,” she said, taking his hand that was dangling by her shoulder. She cocked her head to the side as she eyed him. “Besides, you’ve got your uncle to help you, right?”
“Yeah, he’s sticking around.”
“And I’m still here, aren’t I?” she said, keeping up her smile; it wasn’t difficult when she was around him. He leaned forward to kiss her forehead and she closed her eyes at the action. “I’m still with you.”
Katara then pushed herself and leaned up to kiss him. He was only too happy to return it; she could feel the curving of his lips against hers.
“Yeah, you are,” he muttered. She did not pull away and her big, bright blue eyes took all of him in.
“I’m with you, Fire Lord Zuko,” she whispered so that not even the spirits themselves could be privy to this confession; these were words reserved for him and him alone. “Now and always. I swear on your life.”
“I love you, Katara,” was his reply. “Now and always. I swear on your life.”
A disbelieving little smile, all teeth and parted lips, she looked at him with a giddy sort of glee that she could feel tingle all the way down to the tips of her toes. She shook her head, out of breath and speechless.
“You just had to get it wrong, didn’t you?” she teased, unable to stop herself from feeling perfectly and incandescently happy. “You just had to one-up me.”
“I’ll get it right when it matters,” he replied with a smirk.
Her mouth fully hung open at the boldness of his proclamation. She did not miss the way heat rose to her cheeks at the insinuation and she couldn’t help but notice the same colouring in his cheeks just the same.
“I’m going to hold you to that,” she teased.
“I’m counting on it.”
Just because she wanted to, just because she could, Katara pulled him by the front of his regalia and kissed him again. The force of her pull was very nearly enough to have them stumble over, if only the Fire Lord were not a trained, elite warrior with truly incredible balance – he was able to keep them from stumbling over by only a hair, only a fraction of a second, and a heap of luck. And, in the end, is that not how all of life was lived?
They laughed at the stumble as they kissed, unimpeded by things left unsaid, by worries they could not control. For this stolen moment in a remarkable day in this world’s history, they lived solely for themselves, for the desire that they craved, that they wanted. And for once, they were allowed to do just that.
“And by the way,” she said as she pulled away. “I love you too.”
She moved to settle against him, her head rest just by the crook betwixt his neck and his shoulder. He wrapped her in his embrace and her presence anchored him to this calm, to this sense of wanting to simply be.
“What happens now?” he asked.
The pair of them looked up to the night sky. Above them, a single star ran across the dark canvass, trailing a single streak of light behind it. She sighed and answered simply.
“Guess we’ll just have to wait and see.”