“I am a question to the world
Not an answer to be heard
Or a moment that's held in your arms.”
It boiled beneath her skin – words unsaid, grief unspoken.
The others simply accepted how she had chosen not to do it, as if her mercy was so easily and heartily given. She was no angel, no saint, no infallible spirit or goddess – and yet, how they treated her as if she were. As if goodness were all she was capable of when darkness, when shadows lingered in her veins still.
Katara couldn’t hear what the others were saying over the roaring fire that flickered in the middle of their little circle. None of them particularly felt comfortable in the Royal dining room – with its too-long table and the large, ominous portrait of the enemy hanging over them.
They found temporary sanctuary in the home of the enemy; there was poetry in there somewhere.
She blew on her hot congee, the sad shreds of roasted turkeyduck seemingly drowning in the droll white seas of rice. The heat of the ginger wafted up to her senses, warm and inviting, and yet she found the thought of eating anything to be… unsavoury, to say the least.
“Are you gonna eat that?” Sokka asked, breaking her out of her reverie, his mouth still full while he continued to gorge on his second helping of the stuff.
“Hmm?” she felt herself asking, though she’d heard him. Her thoughts were simply elsewhere.
“I said,” he replied, swallowing his food with particular gusto, “are you gonna eat that?”
“How can you still be hungry after two whole bowls?” Suki teased as she mixed the contents of her bowl together.
“Yeah, Sokka!” Aang joined in, easy mirth in his voice. “You must’ve eaten more than Appa by now!”
Katara grit her teeth at the sound of his voice. She knew it wasn’t fair for her to be angry with him; he’d meant well, she knew. Rationally, she knew how irrational she was being for her irritation at him but he was just so young. And there was so much that he didn’t know and refused to understand.
There was fury in her – a quiet rage that she had bottled in. And it wasn’t at him, she knew that. Still, she felt herself go rigid at the sound of his humour and at the sound of their little group’s easy bickering. It sounded so much like old times that it sounded wrong, almost – like there was something missing.
“Where’s Zuko?” she asked them.
“Huh?” Aang echoed as the others mimicked the motions of the group looking up and around them to look for their missing new friend.
It was still difficult to think of him as such.
Katara knew now, of course, that there was no reason to mistrust him anymore. He’d more than proven his sincerity to the cause long ago – to her, specifically, more recently – and so none of them had any such particular reason to be wary of his disappearance. Yet, it felt strange to her that he wasn’t huddled around them during dinner.
“Sparky’s in his room,” Toph answered, her milky green eyes staring into nothing in particular, as she laid back against Appa and ate her own congee sloppily. “He always does this. He likes to meditate.”
“Why didn’t he say anything?” Katara asked.
“’Cause he always does this, Sweetness, in case you haven’t noticed,” the girl replied. A pause. “Huh. Guess you guys haven’t noticed. He’s been doing this since the Western Air Temples... meditating after dinner?” Toph shrugged. “He likes his alone time, I guess. Or he doesn’t want Snoozles stealing all his food.”
“Hey!” Sokka protested.
“She’s got a point,” Suki retorted.
“I’m gonna go check on him,” said Katara as she rose from her spot in their little circle. She left her untouched bowl of congee before her.
“I’ll come with you!” said Aang as he airbended himself up too.
“No, Aang,” she replied. “There’s something I need to talk to Zuko about… alone.”
A remark that, once, might have earned a joke or two from her older brother. It was in the way she’d said it, perhaps, that made them all know that this was no laughing matter. Aang pouted, his brows knit and his round, grey eyes wide.
“But you two were already alone for days…” he muttered.
Katara’s answering glare was enough for him to sit back down.
The group watched her go in silence. When she was out of sight, Sokka made a move to lunge for the bowl she’d left behind, but Suki managed to fend him off, saying that Katara might come back later on with a bit more of an appetite. They’d had a bit of a day, after all, and it only settled on them all when she’d left that none of them had asked about what had happened. Not really.
She hadn’t meant to sneak up on him.
Her quiet footsteps fell on smooth, even floors that didn’t betray her movements. These fire nation walls were anything but inviting and she could not forget to whom this house belonged. Ozai himself had walked around these hallways with cruel certainty and purpose, she knew that, and perhaps there was still something in her that feared being discovered by him.
Zuko had assured them all that this was a good place to hide – in plain sight, as it were, as the royal family hadn’t found themselves in this beach house for years. Not since they were happy, he’d said. It was hard to imagine a family that had Ozai in it to ever be happy.
Katara knew him to be in his mother’s old room.
“Your mom had her own room?” Sokka had asked. “I mean… didn’t your parents share?”
“You know who my father is, right?” Zuko returned. Sokka grimaced.
“Then how were you and your sister made?” asked Toph, smug with her wit.
“Duty,” he replied.
And that had been that.
Katara had gotten Azula’s old room – it, indubitably, had the second-best view. Aang had Zuko’s old room. Toph took a guest room in the ground floor while Sokka and Suki shared another guest room in the opposite wing, for the sake of privacy.
No one wanted to stay in the Fire Lord’s quarters.
When she neared his room, she could smell the smoke from the candles and the incense. The door was open and he was shrouded in faint light and shadow. He had his bare back turned to her as he was sat on the floor in a lotus position and, perhaps it was the candlelight, but it exaggerated the muscles on his body – but the sight of him like this made her breath hitch in her throat.
His back was not smooth – his pale, golden skin was marred with dark marks and smooth grooves that were the imprints of injuries from long ago. It wasn’t what she was expecting. He was a prince, after all; surely, his was meant to be a physique that was impeccable. Yet he bore more scars than he let on and when she saw it, she wanted to turn away for it felt too intrusive… like she’d stumbled across something too intimate, too sacred to witness for mere acquaintances.
She still didn’t consider herself his friend.
Not just yet.
That was a bit of a way away.
Still, she could not make herself turn around and run away. Katara needed to talk to him – to someone who could understand. Or, at the very least, just listen.
“Zuko?” she tried anyway – more unsure of herself than she wanted to sound like. She swallowed.
He turned around to her immediately, gold eyes wide and mouth agape. He raised his scarred brow bone at the sight of her.
“Oh,” he started. “Hi, Katara.”
She stayed by the door frame and they looked at each other for a while before either of them said anything.
“Is there something wrong?” he asked.
“No,” she answered. “I, uh—”
Zuko twisted just so, so that he was truly facing her. When she didn’t say anything and only looked at him, he was suddenly very aware of his bare chest that he took his discarded shirt from the side and put it on.
“Sorry, sorry…” he said. “I was just meditating, I didn’t realise—”
“Zuko, it’s okay. I have an older brother, it’s not like it’s a new sight.”
“Sorry,” he said again, a blush rising to his face even in the dim candlelight.
“I just wanted to ask…” she started, her hand behind her playing with the ends of her hair. He looked her in the eye, unwavering, and waited. “How come you’ve never asked about it?”
Zuko’s brows shot up and he blinked swiftly. He shook his head ever so slightly and, for a moment, he considered playing dumb – but he remembered who he was talking to. It wouldn’t be wise or honourable to be dishonest with her right then… or ever. Katara deserved better than that.
He knew what she meant. And besides, the truth always seemed to flow from his tongue so smoothly when it was around her – like the tide to the shore.
“It’s not my place to ask, I guess,” he said. “Everything you think I’d ask, I know you’ve already asked yourself. I don’t need to be another voice in your head.”
That certainly took her aback and she was nearly defensive at the suggestion. “How did you kno—”
“How couldn’t you?” he cut her off.
How couldn’t you have voices in your head when you can do what you can do and when you’re you, were the words unspoken and yet she heard them all the same. The cruel shadows beneath her skin raged at the thought.
“It’s you, Katara,” he said simply, as if that answered everything. “Of course you’ve already had this debate with yourself.”
“So you’d rather just storm off?” she barked. She didn’t know where this rage was coming from (but oh, she knew… she knew).
“I’d rather not waste my breath on a conversation when I already know how it ends,” he replied, dismissive and curt.
“You don’t know me,” she said darkly, her hands in fists. The air around her was humid and she could feel water around her; the molecules were practically calling out to her, beckoning for her to use her element. Begging for a fight.
He shrugged as he made a move to resume his old position. “I know enough.”
“You don’t!” she yelled, a water whip forming from thin air and lashing at his face. “You look at me when I’m talking to you!”
When he flinched after the whip hit him, she dropped the water. Anyone else might have missed the way his arms trembled, the way his back turned straight and stiff. His head was curled into himself just so that she could see how he’d clenched his jaw and grit his teeth in response. His breaths were short and laborious.
How hadn’t she noticed it before?
“Oh, Zuko… I—” she started.
“I don’t know what else it is you want from me, Katara,” he muttered, quiet and strained.
“Zuko, I’m so—” she tried again.
“I don’t—” he swallowed. “I don’t know what else to do to earn your forg—”
“No, Zuko,” she said immediately, not letting him finish that apology she didn’t deserve. Katara went to him and got to her knees and met him eye to eye. “I do forgive you. For everything. I do. I’m the one who’s sorry.”
The way his gold eyes looked into hers, so bright and lost… it was enough to make her heart break. She ached to touch him, to fold him into a comforting embrace, but she didn’t know if they were there yet. So, she settled for a hand on his arm.
“I lost my temper. For so long, when I was angry with you, we’d bend and fight and… no, that’s no excuse. That wasn’t fair to you. I’m so sorry.”
“It’s okay,” he replied lowly.
“No. No, it wasn’t okay.” She rearranged her limbs so she was sat on the floor with him, facing him. “I’m really sorry, Zuko.”
“Why are you here?” he asked her. “I mean—really. Were you looking for me?”
“You just snuck off and I—”
His eyes went wide. “I’m not double crossing you!”
“I never said you were!” she replied, both hands on his shoulders now. All of her anger had dissipated now – replaced by the shame in knowing that she had hurt him when he didn’t deserve it.
There was a small cut on his face, just where her whip had hurt him, and she motioned with her hand to capture the air around them and she gave his face a quick heal. The small bleeding wound returned to its scarred texture and he couldn’t quite look at her when she was touching his scar like that.
“I know you didn’t, but—” he started but then sighed. “Never mind.”
It’s a pattern with him that she’s just started to notice.
Something she hadn’t seen before.
His reaction to the sudden whip, to her harsh tone; in the way he bent to the fault of blame being assigned to him; in the way excuses dissipate from his tongue before he could even speak them, as if he’d already expected it wouldn’t matter. The grooves and scars on his back – he, a Prince of the Fire Nation, was so scarred all over when he should have been pristine.
Those weren’t burn marks from training. Those were scars too plentiful and too consistent to be battle scars.
His refusal of his own childhood room – and his father’s room.
Who else could harm a prince – but a king?
She’d forgotten that Ozai, the cruel and sadistic Fire Lord of the Fire Nation, was also a father. Zuko’s father. And it didn’t take her long to imagine exactly what kind of father he must’ve been.
“You still think we don’t trust you,” she said.
“I know you don’t.”
“I’m trying to,” she said. “It’s still so new and it’s—it’s hard for me.”
“I know. I’m sorry.”
“But you’ve more than earned my trust. I swear.”
“Why are you really here?”
“I—” Eyes downcast, she rested her hands on her lap and sighed. Quietly, she replied, “I wanted to talk to you.”
“You’re the first person to have seen what I did and you didn’t treat me any differently for it.”
“I’m hardly going to judge you for anything, Katara. I’m not exactly one to talk.”
“You didn’t ask,” she told him. “You weren’t curious. You just—you let me be. You weren’t scared of me—”
“I wouldn’t say that.”
Colour and warmth rose to her cheeks and he didn’t need a properly lit room to realise it.
“But it’s like I said. What you think I’d ask you—you’ve already asked yourself. And you’ve already given yourself the answers you want to hear.”
“But that’s just the thing, Zuko. I don’t want that. I don’t want the things you think I want to hear. I don’t want sweet lies and comforts. I get that from everyone else and I’m sick of it. I want the truth. And somehow… you’re the only one here who gets it.”
“I’m Sokka’s baby sister. I’m always going to be. And I love him, I love my brother. I do. But he’s never going to think I could ever be like Hama.”
“She’s an old waterbender from the Southern Water Tribe. We met her in the Fire Nation. She—she’s the one who taught me,” she said. “Unwillingly.”
“I didn’t want to learn it. From the beginning, I thought it was wrong of her to just—reach inside someone and control them. The water in other people's bodies. I couldn’t stand the thought of just... violating someone like that. And Aang thinks I’m perfect. He believes in me… in what he believes I am.”
“What does he believe you are?”
“That I’m good.”
That made Katara smile a little – the way he’d said it so matter-of-factly, without any hint of sarcasm or praise. She just simply was – and he believed it.
“Thanks,” she replied. “But Aang and Sokka and even Toph and Suki… they all think that I’m this goody-goody who’s only ever going to be saintly and unfailingly kind and good.”
“I don’t really see the problem with being thought of as good all the time.”
“The problem is that it’s exhausting, Zuko,” she practically cried out and her voice broke at his name. A tear ran down her cheek. “I don’t want to be good all the time.”
She bit back a sob and sniffed. Her lower lip trembled.
“I want to be selfish. I want a life outside of this… this… story of who they think I am. I want to be angry and wrong and just—just—”
“Human,” he finished for her.
A small, grateful smile appeared on her lips.
“Human,” she exhaled, her entire body relaxing at his understanding.
“Like I said, you are. You’re still good and kind, Katara. But you’re also ruthless when you want to be. I’ve seen that. When you stole that waterbending scroll way back when, you were ambitious and jealous. When you… you know… threatened to kill me? When I first joined your group? You were so angry and protective. But that doesn’t make you any less good.”
“I can’t believe you just brought up the fact I threatened to kill you and you can still call me good,” she joked as she brushed a tear from her eye.
Zuko smiled. “Where I’m from, threats against my life are how my family show affection.”
“You know how messed up that is, right?”
“Sure,” he shrugged. “But you’re never without that kindness in you. It lives with your darkness. And it’s in your choices that determine what kind of person you are. Uncle says that no one is ever wholly good or bad. We all have light and dark inside of us. And you’re not an exception to that. You still choose to be good – despite of all the bad things that you’re capable of, that everyone's capable of, you’re still a good person, Katara. I’ve seen both sides of you now. You’re still good.”
“I know you’ve seen me,” she told him. “That’s why I wanted to talk to you.”
“You… you see me,” she said. “Not as a teacher or a mother or a sister or anything else. You just—you see me.”
“I still don’t understand.”
“I want to talk. I want you to ask about it and I want you to listen. I want you to challenge me – not because I’m supposed to be anything else but because you think of another way. I want to feel human. And real.”
(And I’ve only ever felt that way when I was with you, she doesn’t say but the thought lingers in her head; he doesn’t hear it.)
“Okay,” he relented. “I—what’s it called? What you do?”
She took a deep breath and exhaled.
“It’s exactly what it sounds like.”
“Okay…” he said. He looked away from her as he pieced his thoughts together. She waited for his questions, her fingers fidgeting stiffly atop her lap. “Could you—could you show me?”
“I—” she started. “I don’t know, Zuko. It’s not something I want to do. And I don’t think I could do it right now. It’s not the full moon.”
“So, you need a full moon for that?”
“Hama said so.”
“What if you could try it on a regular night?”
“Zuko, I just told you that I don’t want to violate anyone—”
“It’s not a violation if I’m asking,” he said. “Besides, you asked me to be curious. I’m being curious.”
“Here goes…” she started. She lifted a hand and felt for the water in his arm. She breathed in and felt it – the rush of it in his veins, so swift. His pulse was ringing her in ears. When she motioned with her hand, his eyes went wide as he lifted his arm.
“That—” he started. “That feels so weird.”
“Are you fighting it?”
“I am,” he said, staring at his trembling arm.
Another motion of her hand and his arm went limp and went back down.
Katara could feel her heart racing in her chest.
“It’s easier with a full moon. Now, I have to really think about how to bend you without hurting you.”
“But hurting me… would that be easier?”
“That’s not a question I want to answer.”
Because it would have been – it would have been disgustingly easy to hurt him. And he didn’t look at her with fear – but awe.
“How does it feel? To bend someone’s blood?”
“Oh, uh—” she started. “It feels… alive. I know that sounds strange but with regular water, it’s just a push and pull. Water’s pliable. It flows easily and it's adaptable and it’s more like an extension of myself. Blood? Blood’s alive and pulsating and it… it resists.”
“Can you feel what I’m feeling when you bend me?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Because firebending sounds a lot like that,” he said. Zuko then made a small flame appear on his open palm and she stared into it – all reds and oranges and bright yellows. “Aang said it feels like a heartbeat and I guess it does. Because fire is alive, somehow. It can be volatile and all-consuming. It always wants to break free. Which is why control and meditation are so important for a firebender to regularly practise so they don’t get hurt… or hurt anyone else.”
“So, what are you saying?”
“I’m saying fire can be destructive. Monstrous. But when controlled, when handled by the right hands – it can be life. It can bring light and warmth. I think the same can be said for your bloodbending.”
“How could you say that? Hama—”
“Hear me out,” he started and put a hand up to stop her. “You can heal, right? Your waterbending—there’s a healing element to it, right?”
“Yes…” she answered, but her voice made it sound like a question.
“Have you ever considered healing using the blood?”
Katara’s shoulders dropped and she stared at him with wide, blue eyes. Evidently, no – she had not considered it at all.
“I didn’t think about it like that,” she admitted, rather sheepishly.
“What did Hama do that makes you so afraid of your own abilities, then?”
“She was a monster,” she answered simply. Sadly. “When the Fire Nation captured her and the other benders from my tribe, she developed bloodbending while she was in prison and used the technique to make a guard free her from her chains. Since then, she sought refuge in a little Fire Nation village near the coastline of the central islands. And every full moon, she would capture innocent Fire Nation citizens and imprison them beneath the mountain. She’d lock them in chains and leave them there to die.”
“Oh,” he said. “That’s—”
“Like I said. She was a monster.”
“How did she teach you?”
“She forced me to,” Katara admitted. “When she told me about the technique, I was against it. I told her that it was wrong. And she turned on me and bloodbent me—but my bending was more powerful than hers. She was old and it was a full moon. I was at my peak. But then Sokka and Aang showed up and they wanted to help me. So, she tried… she tried to—”
Zuko bowed his head in understanding. She didn’t have to finish.
“I bloodbent her to stop her. It was the only way.”
“I see,” he said, nodding slightly.
“I don’t want to be like Hama. I don’t want to be a monster. But when I bloodbent that soldier, I wanted to—”
“Katara,” he started. Zuko spoke her name like an anchor – to keep her from drifting off. “You’re not a monster. I don’t think you could ever be. And trust me, I’ve met enough of the worst of them to know one when I see one.”
“Is that what you’re afraid of? That you’re going to be a monster… that if you’re not good, you’d be just like Hama?”
Katara hung her head in shame; he did know her.
He couldn’t help himself when he reached out to touch her hand, to hold hers in his.
“Katara, you could never be a monster.”
“Yeah, but so can everyone,” he told her. “Everyone has the potential to be monstrous and evil and well… like my father. Like Hama. It doesn’t matter where you’re from or what nation you’re born into or what you bend. We all have light and dark inside of us – and we’re all capable of choosing our own destinies, of becoming the kind of people that we want to be. I had to figure that out for myself the hard way.”
“So you don’t think I could ever be a monster?”
“The fact that you don’t want to be one already says that you’re not one,” he answered. “You could be cruel but you choose not to be. You could hold a grudge against me for the rest of your life and I wouldn’t judge you for that… but you choose not to do that. You’re kind because you want to be. And that want speaks a lot on the kind of person you are.”
With the hand he isn’t holding, she wiped another tear from her eye. Katara gave him a watery smile and he returned it with one of his own.
“Wow, Zuko,” she said, her voice breaking but a lightness in her tone. “Who would’ve thought you’d be giving a peasant a pep talk?”
“I’m sorry I ever called you that,” he said, embarrassed.
“I’m just teasing,” she said. “It’s a thing friends do, you know?”
“Are we friends now?”
She wasn’t imagining the hope in his voice—the hope in his bright, gold eyes when he looked at her like that. Katara smiled and, instead of answering, she showed him just how much of a friend to her he was.
She lunged towards him – arms around his neck in a tight embrace. A better hug than the quick one she’d given him before. A proper one. Zuko went rigid at her touch but soon gave into it anyway and wrapped his arms around her middle.
They stayed that way for a while.
Katara imagined that he was smiling as she held him.
This is a problem. I genuinely can't stop writing this. I have other stories to work on! I have work to do! I have a life outside of zutara! But they just won't leave me alone! So, have an update, I guess.
Also, for those who don't know me, I'm a Filipina - born and raised. And since the Philippines is an archipelago that is positioned as such with the Pacific Ring of Fire, and the fact that Dante Basco is Filipino-American, I've taken the creative liberty of using both Japanese and Filipino inspirations for the Fire Nation, as you'll see in this chapter.
Truly though, I'm absolutely floored by the support this fic has gotten. I'm touched and so, so grateful for all of you and your kind words. I hope you continue to enjoy this little story that was meant to be a oneshot but has quickly become so much more than I thought it would be.
Your comments are part of this problem of me not being able to stop writing this.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“And what do you think you’d ever say?
I won’t listen anyway.
You don’t know me
And I’ll never be what you want me to be.
And what do you think you’d understand?
I’m a boy; no, I’m a man.
You can’t take me and throw me away.
And how can you learn what’s never shown?
Yeah, you stand here on your own.
They don’t know me ‘cause I’m not here.”
Militant and uncompromising – that was how she’d always seen him.
Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation, with his defining scar, was a man of whom she’d already had a strong picture in her mind’s eye. Yet, with him earning his place in her good graces, her opinion of him was a tapestry he was unweaving bit by bit. And he didn’t even realise it.
She watched him more closely after that night.
Come light of the morning that followed their conversation, nothing about him showed any such inclination of the significant change in their dynamic.
The others might have noticed that Katara found herself more relaxed and at ease in his presence now, but they didn’t say anything. When he was about to finish his meal during dinner, while the others were deep in discussion, she’d stopped to ask him if he wanted second helpings of boiled clam and oyster soup, which he accepted after a moment’s pause and everyone’s general surprise.
“Looks like someone’s finally made it out of the dog house,” Sokka said, clapping him on the back. “Good job, buddy.”
“All it took was a super secret spy mission against some Fire Nation ships that definitely didn’t recognise either of you two, for a personal vendetta just weeks before the comet comes so you two could finally be all buddy-buddy,” Toph teased, pinching rice with clam meat together in her hands and popping it into her mouth. “Real smart, Sparky.”
“Oh, leave him alone,” said Katara. “Zuko has more than earned his place here with us by now and if there’s any fault getting passed around for our little fieldtrip, it’s on me.”
“But it was my idea,” Zuko argued. “I’m sorry that—”
“I wasn’t actually telling you off, Sparky. Relax,” Toph said, still chewing and unapologetic.
“Anyway… to Zuko,” said Sokka, raising his glass. “For real this time. We’re real proud of you, buddy.”
“To Sparky,” said Toph, following Sokka’s lead. “Who I still have to get back at for burning my feet, by the way.”
“To Zuko,” said Suki, who picked up her glass and raised it with an easy shrug of her shoulders. “Probably the nicest guy in the Fire Nation I’ve ever met.”
“To Sifu Hotman,” said Aang, joining into it with particular enthusiasm that he nearly spilled the mango juice in his glass. Zuko rolled his eyes but there was no hiding that smile. “I told you we could’ve been friends. I’m real glad we are now.”
“To Zuko,” said Katara, looking at him from across their little dining circle. The reflection of the flames from the bonfire danced along his gold eyes and those eyes watched her – intently, expectantly, hopefully. Their little group was quiet as they looked at her. A small smile lifted the corners of her lips and she swallowed as she finished with, “For everything.”
With the toast concluded, he bowed his head to conceal the smile on his face.
“Thank you,” he said quietly.
“For welcoming me into your group. For giving me a second chance when I didn’t deserve it, when I’ve done so many bad things to all of you.” As he’d said it, he looked around their little circle to look each of his new friends in the eye. When he returned his gaze to Katara, he returned her smile with one of his own and said, “For everything.”
“Hear, hear!” They all cheered.
“Alright, alright—enough of the sappy stuff. We get it. Zuko’s great, hooray,” Toph interjected. “Is there dessert?”
Everyone laughed and by the end of their meal, Katara noticed that, for the first time, Zuko stayed until the end.
Three days later, Zuko was missing.
When Katara had gotten to firebending practise to watch and supervise, as she usually did for the young Avatar was not exactly too careful with this particular element, she found Aang grudgingly doing hot squats on his own at the courtyard – without his usually scowling, stern instructor.
“Hi, Aang,” she greeted him, already scoping the area for any sign of his jet black hair, telltale scowl, or angry scar.
“Hey, Katara,” he replied brightly, rushing over to her side. “Want to see a cool new move I just learned? Watch this!”
With overly elaborate and circular movements, Aang created a very thin fire circle around him. It wasn’t a whole circle either as there were gaps in between the line, but he grinned at her so widely and so expectantly that his eyes were barely visible as he showed her the trick. He looked to her for approval or applause.
Katara offered a small, tired smile in response.
“That’s great, Aang. But what are you doing out here on your own? Where’s Zuko? He’s not usually one to miss your training sessions.”
“Oh,” he replied, dropping his fire circle. “He went out really early this morning. Said something about the marketplace, I think.”
“The marketplace? Alone?”
“That’s strange,” she replied. “I wonder what he’s up to…”
“Why would he be up to anything?” he asked. “Maybe he just wanted a snack.”
“I don’t know. He doesn’t usually do shopping runs alone – nobody does – and we’ve done enough of it already. We might attract too much attention if we keep turning up to the marketplace with gold pieces,” she said. “And who knows how much money is even in their family vault here? We don’t want to waste it.”
He shrugged again. “Maybe he’s getting us all presents! You know… to thank us for being so nice to him!”
“Zuko doesn’t strike me as sentimental, Aang,” she deadpanned. “Still, I’m worried.”
“Nah, he’ll be fine!” he said. “Hey, since Zuko’s not around for firebending practise, and… I don’t know, maybe if you’re not—y’know, doing anything…” he started, pink colouring his cheeks. And her cheeks as well, as she soon got his meaning but dreaded him finishing his request. “Maybe we could, uh—I don’t know, uh—”
“Hey, Twinkletoes!” Toph interrupted from the side, moon peach juice running down her chin as she took another bite and quickly discarded it over her shoulder. Momo quickly ran towards it and conquered the abandoned fruit. “What’s that I hear about no firebending practise?”
“Uh…” he said, eyes wide. “I didn’t—”
“Great!” she replied. “Think fast!”
With a few quick movements, two large boulders were hurtling towards him that he barely had the time to leap up into the air to avoid them, a gust of wind helping him up. Katara had yelped and barely ducked away from the attack – finding herself practically face first on the ground.
“Hey!” said the waterbender, coughing up dirt and dust.
“No airbending!” Toph yelled at Aang. “Oh, and Sugar Queen? Sparky’s looking for you – he’s in the kitchen.”
“You could’ve told me that before throwing rocks,” she grumbled as she dusted herself off.
“It’s not like you got hurt,” the earthbender shot back, rolling her milky green eyes.
Realising that there wasn’t much point arguing in circles, Katara simply groaned and waved goodbye to the two as they started to train and spar.
Part of her will not admit the relief that flooded through her system as she ran.
There were a lot of things that she imagined would greet her upon arrival at the kitchens.
The most likely among her many, many imagined scenarios would be that there would be several fires that needed putting out. One of the worst scenes in her list was that he had somehow been captured and it was Azula, or worse, who would be greeting her once she got there. As unlikely as that worst-case scenario was, given that her summons was delivered by a human lie detector, the thought was infinitely more likely than the truth.
The last thing she expected was that smell.
If there were a word that could describe that aroma, it was not in her vocabulary.
She’d never smelled anything like it before but she knew it was absolutely delicious – she could tell from the way her stomach felt particularly empty, from the way her mouth watered at the idea of what was waiting at the other side of the door.
Katara wondered, momentarily, if Zuko had somehow gotten someone to cook lunch for them for he’d missed his princely creature comforts.
Nothing could have prepared her for the sight that greeted her: the Prince of the Fire Nation, concentrating on wok-frying a piece of komodo chicken oozing in dark sauce over an incredibly, abnormally large, bright fire. It sizzled and smoked, and the smell from the meat made her mouth water. What might have been more disconcerting was the lack of panic on the prince’s face. He was focused, driven, and utterly at home.
“Zuko?” she tried.
He turned his head immediately and the fire he was kindling quieted at the realisation of her company. The tension in the space between his brows relaxed and his gaze softened when he turned to her.
“Hey, Katara,” he greeted.
“You’re cooking?” she asked, incredulous as she approached him. “You know how to cook?”
“Surprise?” he tried, a sheepish smile upon him as he scratched the back of his neck with one hand as he continued to move the wok around expertly by the handle.
“You mean you’ve known how to cook this entire time and you’ve been having just me do it?” she joked.
Once, he might have taken that seriously but the grin on her face as she approached him told him everything he needed to know. He smiled and shrugged his shoulders.
“You never asked.”
“Jerk,” she said, lightly punching his arm. With the tip of her tongue darting between her lips, she leaned into the wok and sighed. “Spirits, Zuko! That smells so incredible!”
“Thanks,” he said, pink warmth steadily rising to his cheeks.
“So, Toph said you were looking for me,” she said, still smelling the wok as if she could devour the whole thing through scent alone. She felt her stomach grow emptier by the breath.
“Yeah,” he said. “Could you—could you try it? I mean—I’ve tried it already and, well… it’s not terrible or anything, but I—well, I don’t know if you’d like it too and—”
“Zuko, shut up,” she said. “You don’t need to ask twice.”
From the sauce, she waved her fingers lightly to summon a significant enough portion of what he was cooking to the air.
“Careful, it’s hot. And you might think it’s a little spicy, but—”
“Zuko,” she said pointedly and he got the implication and shut up.
She exhaled, allowing the liquid to slightly cool, and when she tasted it—the irises in her blue, blue eyes dilated as if she’d just had a gallon of cactus juice. She paused for a brief moment, savouring that mix of flavours dancing along her tongue in a harmony of tastes she’d never experienced before.
“You made this?” she asked, even more flabbergasted than before. “You?”
“I don’t know if I should be offended by that.”
“Tui and La, Zuko—this is so good! What’s in this—what is this?”
“It’s called adobo,” he said, finally taking the wok off the heat and letting the contents into a bowl. “It’s an old dish my mother used to have made for bad days—hey!”
He slapped at her bending hand lightly as she was already bending another spoonful for seconds. The drop of sauce plopped to the floor and she pouted at the spilled sauce, and then at him.
“Don’t spoil your appetite,” he said. “Besides, it’s still not quite right yet.”
“Tastes good enough to me,” she said, crossing her arms against her chest.
“You’ve never had it before,” he argued. “It can be better than this. And I want to try something.”
“What?” she asked.
With a flick of his wrist, the fire on the stove died, left the wok, and he led her to another, much larger bowl that had the rest of the whole, significantly sized komodo chicken inside it, still uncooked. It looked more like a stew then and it smelled similar to the dish he’d already made and, truthfully, she didn’t quite understand what he was doing – or what the difference was.
“So, you want me to try this too?”
“No, I want you to bend it,” he said. “This is still raw meat. There’s still a little bit of blood left in the bones.”
“Hear me out!” he said, holding a hand up. “It’s just meat and you wanted to see if your bloodbending could be used for… well, better purposes, right?”
“I guess, but—”
“It’s just an idea,” he said, shrugging. His gold eyes looked to her, earnest and without expectation. Bright. He only wanted to help. “You don’t have to do it if you don’t want.”
“Okay,” she said. He took that as a confirmation of her refusal and made a move to cover up the bowl when she said, “So—what do you want me to do to it?”
His brows shot up. “I want you to marinate the meat.”
“Mari—what?” she asked.
“Marinate it,” he repeated, as if that answered her question.
“What does that mean?”
“You—you don’t know how to marinate meat?”
“No?” she asked, angling her body just a touch away from him. Defensive. “Am I supposed to?”
“Don’t they marinate meat in the Water Tribes?”
“Considering I don’t know what that word means, I would guess not,” she deadpanned.
“Huh,” he said, considering it. He nodded. “Marinate is when you soak meat in a marinade for an hour, maybe a few hours or even overnight so that the meat gets more tender and it tastes a lot better.”
“Spirits, Katara,” he muttered under his breath.
“Sorry, I’m not a fancy, palace-raised princess, unlike some people,” she argued. Her tone made him swallow and he decided not to press it.
“It’s just—a kind of sauce made of different things that give the meat better flavor. Things like soy sauce and vinegar and stuff. It would depend on what recipe you’re doing.”
“Huh,” she said. She looked to the stew-like marinating meat and it did not nearly look quite as appetizing as the dish he’d already prepared. There were leaves and little black circles floating atop it, as well as small pools of grease and oil and fat from the chicken rising to the top. Katara made a face at it.
“No, we don’t do that in the Water Tribes. Our meat’s usually preserved and dried to make it last longer, especially during the winters when it’s harder to get out of the tents, let alone hunt.”
“I guess that makes sense,” he said.
“So you want me to marinade-bend… a komodo chicken?” she asked, pointing to it.
“We marinate meat for a long time so that the meat gets more tender and it soaks up the flavour. For adobo, it just needs to soak for about an hour and I’ve had that soaking for maybe ten minutes. I’ve already prepared the marinade so I just need you to try to bend the liquids for the meat to absorb it better and quicker, from the liquid and blood that’s still inside the meat.”
“That’s… actually not a bad idea,” she said after a pause, considering the proposal.
“I have a few good ones, sometimes,” he said.
“Sometimes,” she agreed, a small teasing smile on her lips. “Okay. Let’s try this.”
It was easier than she expected it to be.
It was a piece of dead meat and yet, with the sun so high, she knew she wasn’t at her most powerful. The blood in the bones wasn’t quite as enough to let her easily manipulate it – but it helped that it was raw meat and the blood felt like pliant water under her control. Her hands trembled as she struggled to manipulate the liquid to seep into the meat, as he asked.
Zuko said nothing and simply let her be – she decided that was just another thing that he was good at.
She let the concoction relax when her hand did and she let out a breath she didn’t know she’d been holding.
“I think I did it?” she said. A few circular movements of her hands, she mixed it up a bit more for good measure.
“Well, here goes nothing,” he said. Zuko flicked his wrist and fire erupted from beneath the wok. Within seconds, smoke rose from the metal and he transferred the contents of the bowl with a particular kind of easy finesse that suggested this was something he’s done before, and many, many times.
Katara watched him work, transfixed and starved, as the aroma grew tenfold.
“Could you make some white rice while I cook this?” he asked, not looking at her and simply manoeuvering the wok by the hand with a grace she’d not seen from him before. He added, “I got some new grains from the market.”
She went to the basket with the said grains and she sifted her hands through it, her dark skin a smooth contrast to the rice. “Something special about these grains?”
“They’re freshly picked,” he said simply.
“They taste better,” he answered, shrugging. His fire grew hotter and hotter and he remained completely unbothered. “They’re softer and they smell better and they’re kind of… I don’t know—sweeter? That’s what Toshiaki said.”
“Who’s Toshiaki?” she asked as she gathered the rice into a cooking pot. She bent some water and proceeded to clean it once, and then twice. With the right amount of water and rice in the pot, she set it atop the stove right next to Zuko’s dish. He lit a small fire underneath it without prompt.
“The primary cook on my ship,” he answered. Katara looked at him for a moment – a brow raised, her lower lip pouting. He gave her a pointed look. “You know... the ship I used to be on, back when I was chasing the Avatar?”
“Right,” she said, smiling now at the ludicrous thought that once, they were on opposite sides of this war – and now they were cooking lunch together.
Oh how he continued to surprise her.
“He taught you how to cook?” she asked.
“Not exactly,” he replied as he continued to cook – never missing a beat. The stew-like substance was slowly starting to reduce into something more concentrated, and it was turning into that sticky, sauce-like consistency of the first dish he’d made.
“He caught dengue fever at some point,” Zuko continued. “And Uncle told me to take over his duties because all of the other soldiers were working and he thought it might be good for me to have something menial to do.”
“I can’t believe you went along with that,” she said. “No offense, but younger Zuko doesn’t sound very reasonable.”
“He wasn’t,” he agreed. “I wanted to keep training and learning advanced firebending forms. Uncle said this was firebending practise too. I was so angry with him for so long when he basically locked me in there,” he recalled fondly. “In the end, I couldn’t say no to Uncle. And Toshiaki gave me his cookbook for a while and I followed the recipes. He was out for two weeks so I ended up learning a lot.”
“You can’t have gotten this good at cooking in two weeks, Zuko,” she teased.
“I did!” he replied, indignant. “I mean, my mother liked to talk to me about food and plants when I was younger so I know a few tricks that she told me a long time ago.”
At the mention of his mother, her heart softened all the more for this man—no, this boy before her. Much like all the rest of them, Prince Zuko was just as much of a child who needed to be raised – and loved and nurtured. She couldn’t imagine much of that in his life when he had a father and sister like the ones he had. Yet, he was showing exceptional kindness now as he prepared this food – a kindness she didn’t quite get from his Uncle Iroh either.
Katara recalled their encounter in the crystal catacombs in Ba Sing Se, the only other time he’d mentioned his mother to her. For before that, she’d been yelling at him and accusing him of horrid, horrible things while he did nothing to defend himself. He’d simply bowed his head and curled into himself, and ignored her.
At the time, she’d seen it as arrogance; now, she saw something else entirely.
She saw a boy who’d lost his mother too, somehow, and a task like this… made him feel closer to her. She could see it, for she knew it enough about herself to recognise the language of words unspoken. Katara smiled at him.
“So… what’s in this komodo chicken adobo?”
“Uh—the marinade’s made of soy sauce and vinegar,” he said, listing them off. “There’s some crushed garlic, some onions and bay leaves, black pepper, and peppercorns in it to give it more of a flavour. It’s pretty easy because you just put everything in a bowl, let it sit, and then you just… cook it.”
“And your mother liked this dish?” she asked, careful not to press too much.
“She did,” he replied easily. There was a small flicker of joy in his bright, lost eyes then as he looked at the wok he was handling. He was smiling without even realising it. “She used to always have the cooks make it for us whenever it was a really bad day because she liked it so much, and so did I.”
“Why are you making it now?” she asked.
“I was wondering when you’d get to that,” he replied, smirking a little.
“It’s a fair question,” she replied, rolling her eyes fondly and crossing her arms against her chest. “You don’t usually skip out on Aang’s firebending lessons for anything.”
“This is important,” he said. He gave the chicken in the wok a few rolls around the wok. “You remember that night—when we all had dinner, a few days ago?”
“Yes?” she said, though it sounded like a question. She could tell from the way he looked of which night he was speaking.
“I… I wanted to say thank you all for it,” he said. “Properly. But I—I didn’t know how. So, I thought—”
“Oh, Zuko,” she said. She rested a hand on his arm. “That’s really sweet of you. I’d say you didn’t have to do any of this but I’ll be honest… I’m really glad you did.”
She gave his arm a squeeze and leaned in closer to him to quickly tease, “Glad to know I can put you on cooking duty now, too!”
“I don’t mind,” he said, turning his head to look at her just so. His lips didn’t have to move for her to see the mirth in his eyes. Zuko turned back to the stove as he suggested, “If you want—I could teach you a few Fire Nation recipes. If—if you want to, that is? The marketplace has really fresh produce all the time and I know a few of them that don’t involve jerky or ocean kumquats.”
“I would love that,” she said with a laugh. The rice had started to bubble as the lid shook from the pressure, so she lifted the lid just so and half-covered the pot again.
“Now what do you want me to do?” she asked him.
“See those pineapples?” he asked, gesturing to the table.
“The what?” she asked as she looked at the numerous fruits on the pile.
“Agni,” he muttered under his breath. His eyes were focused on his dish as he tried to find the right words to describe a pineapple. “The thing in the fruit basket that kind of looks like a spiky head with a bad haircut.”
“You mean this?” she said, picking up the pineapple. But as he was so focused on the chicken, he could not spare a glance behind him.
“You know, I think it might be better if I do this,” he said and the fire under the wok became significantly tamer.
“You think?” she deadpanned.
“Come here, watch over the wok,” he said. “Keep it moving. Don’t let the chicken cook too much.”
“How?” she asked. “Where’s your mixing spoon?”
“Uh—I just kind of…” he trailed off, demonstrating how he simply just kept moving the wok around so that all sides of the meat would cook evenly.
“Oh, okay… I can do that,” she said, a hint of hesitation in her usually steady voice. She released a cooling breath on the handle as he handed it over to her.
“Are you sure?” he asked.
“I got it, I got it!” she replied, her hand on the handle and she tried, with great difficulty, to mimic what he’d been doing and found it to be much more difficult than he’d let on. That or he was simply that frustratingly skilled at it.
After he made sure that she could handle the wok well enough not to burn it completely, he checked on the rice and saw that it was cooked enough that he extinguished the fire with a flick of his fingers. He then moved to the fruit basket and took a chopping board from one of the cupboards as well as large, sharp knife.
Despite him saying he’d spent a significant time away from this place, he still knew his way around well enough that he didn’t have to think twice about where anything was. He never asked for help unless he well and truly needed it, she knew, and him asking for her aid made her feel lighter, somehow.
Katara concentrated on the wok, as he’d asked, and tried to move the wok around with great difficulty. The metal was heavier than anything she was used to, especially with a whole komodo chicken in it that she resorted to bending the sauce to help move the meat around instead.
SLIIIIICK, BAM! SLIIIIICK, BAM! SLIIIIIIICK, BAM! came the sounds from behind her.
She glanced over her shoulder and saw him slicing the pineapple with quick, powerful movements of his arms. The muscles in them flexed as he did and it nearly took her by surprise just how powerful he was, even without his fire. He was as much of a powerful man as much as he was a powerful bender, even. Katara blushed at the thought, furiously willed it away, and simply asked, “What are you doing?”
“Cutting up a pineapple, what does it look like I’m doing?” he answered, sarcasm dripping in his tone, and he didn’t even look up from his work.
“What does it taste like?” she asked.
“It’s really sweet and a little sour; it’s pretty tasty. The slices are great on their own when it’s cold.”
“Could I try some?” she asked, her wok-handling substandard compared to his as she was too distracted by the yellow fruit and the hands handling it.
“Keep your eye on the wok, Katara,” he said, not looking at her as he continued to slice the pineapple into little yellow chunks.
“Yes, Your Majesty,” she said, rolling her eyes.
“It’s not—” he said automatically but bit his tongue before he could finish. “Never mind.”
“What?” she asked. “It’s not what?”
“It’s not Majesty,” he grumbled as he sliced the pineapple into even smaller chunks. “I’m a Prince so the greeting is Your Highness.”
Katara burst out laughing.
It didn’t so much as bubble from within as much as it erupted – sudden, all consuming, and loud. Tears sprung to her eyes and she struggled to keep hold of the wok as her entire body shook with her laughter.
“Just forget it!” he said. His entire face was red as he furiously chopped the pineapple and pushed the chunks into a bowl.
Once her laughter subsided, she said, “I’m only teasing, Zuko.”
“Here,” he said, walking to her and offering her a little chunk of the fruit. “Cool it a bit so it tastes better.”
One hand on the wok, she took the piece of fruit and breathed it into a cooler state. She popped it into her mouth, closed her eyes, and sighed.
“Oh, wow,” she said. “I’ve never had anything like this before! It’s really sweet… and it’s got that bit of sour taste to it, just like you said.”
“Glad you like it,” he said, smiling. “Could you put the rice into bowls now? I need to get to the wok.”
“Certainly, Your Highness,” she said, making a mocking bow to him. He scowled as he extinguished the fire and carried the wok over to the table.
“Oh Agni, I regret ever telling you that.”
“Yeah, you do,” she said as she did as he asked. She was just about finished fishing out her first large scoop of steaming hot white rice when she saw that he was putting a whole bowl of pineapple chunks into the adobo.
“What are you doing?” she asked, almost offended at the idea.
“It’s part of the recipe!” he said, defensive.
“Meat… and fruit?”
“You’re just going to have to trust me,” he told her.
“Fine,” she said. As she plopped the rice onto a bowl, she asked, “Wait—what’s Aang’s lunch? He doesn’t eat meat.”
“I thought he could just have a pineapple,” he answered, shrugging his shoulders as he mixed the fruit into the food.
“So the rest of us get this really amazing, well-thought out meal and Aang gets… a fruit?”
“A rare fruit!” he said. Katara raised a brow at him and his shoulders fell as he said, “Okay, it isn’t that rare—but maybe it’s new to him, who knows? You didn’t know what a pineapple was!”
“Aang’s different – he’s actually been to the Fire Nation before this all started!”
“Maybe there weren’t pineapples back then!”
They looked at each other for a moment and she was the one who broke away from their unspoken staring contest first. He smirked at the unspoken victory and proceeded to mix his dish together. As she was finishing up plating five bowls of rice, she saw him reach for the fruit basket again where he got a handful of little, round, green fruits.
“And what’s that?” she asked as he started slicing them in half.
“Calamansi,” he answered as he squeezed the fruits over the dish. “It’s a little like a lemon except the flavour is… different. My mother said it helps take away the grease from the fat.”
A few more flips of the wok, a sprinkle of brown sugar and a bright show of sudden, flashing flames from his hands, and he declared the dish finished.
They rested some of the meat and sauce onto the plate and there was still plenty leftover – probably for Sokka. She noticed that he took the lone piece of chicken that he hadn’t thought to be good enough onto a single bowl; she could guess that that would be the one he’d take for himself. Naturally, he’d sprinkled a fair amount of fireflakes over that bowl and she knew for certain. It made her smile.
“Right. I think that’s it,” he said as he looked at his and Katara’s work – five steaming bowls of komodo chicken adobo over white rice, and bowl of white rice, quickly steamed vegetables (it helped that it was prepared by both a firebender and a waterbender that it was done almost instantly), and a splash of soy sauce, garlic, and calamansi juice over it. Zuko said it would help with the flavour – and she was inclined to agree with him. They prepared a seventh bowl filled with pineapples and assorted, washed, cool berries to match his bowl.
“I’m surprised Sokka hasn’t barged in here yet,” she said, admiring her work as she rested her hands on her hips. She nudged his elbow with hers. Sweat dripped from his temples down his cheek to his jaw, but he looked to his work with a sense of pride in his eyes.
“I thought about that. I convinced him to go sparring with Suki out back,” he said. Katara raised a brow. He shrugged and said, “I let her borrow my Dao swords. He’s teaching her a few moves.”
Her eyes widened and she blinked purposefully at him. Zuko pinched the skin between his brows and closed his eyes. “Listen, I don’t want to get into what that sounds like—”
“I’m not saying anything!” she retorted.
“But you’re thinking it!” he argued right back.
But before she could reply, two figures barged through the door, followed by two others right behind them.
“Hey, what smells so good?” Toph asked.
“Is Zuko cooking?” Suki added.
“MEAT!” Sokka cried out, as he looked transfixed and infatuated over the food in a way that was probably inappropriate. “Glorious, beautiful meat!” He made a show of inhaling it with the same kind of enthusiasm as Katara had when she first had a proper whiff of it.
He put his hands on Suki’s shoulder and peered over her shoulder as he said, “It… it… it smells so good!”
“Uh… surprise?” said Zuko, his hand reaching up behind him to scratch the back of his neck. He chuckled nervously. “Get ready by the stairs at the courtyard. I’ll serve lunch.”
The others didn’t need to be told twice as they rushed to follow his orders. Sokka tripped twice.
“Zuko, you really don’t have to go all out like this,” she told him, holding his arm and giving it a light squeeze. “You’re really not that hard to like.”
He looked at her, grateful as he smiled but his eyes drifted downwards.
“I—” he started. “I want to do this.”
“Okay,” she said, nodding. “Need any more help?”
“You could help me make pineapple-moon peach juice?”
“You are just full of surprises today, aren’t you?” she said, smiling.
Quickly, he flashed a grin at her. There was a playful mischief that glistened in his eyes. She ignored the split-second flutter in her chest; she was just hungry.
“Oh, I’m not done,” he said.
Not much could be said about lunch.
After their initial outbursts on the flavour of the food, nobody really wanted to talk. Not even Katara, who’d never thought to add pineapples to her meat and now wondered where the fruit had been all her life. They all only wanted to eat and see their bowls to the bottom. Everyone wanted second helpings – even Aang, who’d loved his quick, makeshift, vegetarian lunch. He even asked Zuko for a little bit of his fireflakes, after the prince had suggested it.
“Zuko, man—” said Sokka after licking his bowl clean. “You are not allowed to be good at anything else.” He set his bowl aside. “Firebending master, master swordsman, military dude… now you’re a better cook than my sister?”
“Hey,” Katara admonished.
“Deny it,” he dared her. Her eyes narrowed but then she sighed and shrugged her shoulders.
“Okay, fine. I mean, he’s also a really good tracker.”
“See!” said Sokka, gesturing at his sister. “Enough with the skills! It’s not fair!”
“Don’t mind him. This meal really was delicious, Zuko,” Suki said. As she was sat next to him, she put a hand on his shoulder and squeezed.
“Yeah—whoever thought Sparky knew his way around a kitchen?” Toph asked, to which she followed with a large, indulgent burp.
“And thanks for getting me these awesome new fruits, Zuko!” Aang chimed in.
“Thank you but—really, I did this to say thank you. Properly. To all of you,” said Zuko. “I know it took a lot for you to forgive me for my past actions and mistakes, but—”
“You already did this speech, Sparky,” Toph teased. “We get it. You love us.”
“I do,” he agreed. No one could tease him about that as he looked at his bowl and only his bowl. He continued to speak, soft and shy – not quite the militant, uncompromising man Katara had known him to be. At that moment, he’d never looked so young.
“I’ve never really had friends like this before…” he started. “Unless you count Uncle, but that’s kind of weird, so I—ugh, no. Never mind. Forget I said that.” They waited patiently for him to continue. “But growing up, I didn’t—Uh, I didn’t have a lot of friends.”
Quiet settled over the group.
“So this… this was just—thank you for…” said Zuko. He looked up and sought Katara’s gaze that was on him, unflinching and bright. “For being friends with me, I guess.”
“Best friends, buddy,” said Aang, across from him, grinning.
Everyone nodded and smiled at Zuko. He felt heat prickle behind his eyes and he coughed to mask it.
“Is everyone finished?” he asked and looked around at their empty bowls. He nodded and quickly rose from where he was sat. “Okay. Wait right here.”
“Katara?” Sokka asked his sister. She quirked her shoulders with her hands splayed open – the universal body language of saying ‘spirits, if I know’.
When he came back with two round, freshly baked, moon peach-mango pies at hand, everyone’s jaw collectively dropped. And they ate in near silence again, too enamoured by the food, as they devoured the surprise dessert. The only sound was the moans and sighs that came from their lips as well as the crisp, crunch of the crust as they bit into their pastries.
Sokka had to lean back against a pillar just to support his weight. He exhaled as if exhausted from eating – and he was, which was a surprising first.
“Suki, we’re breaking up right now,” he sighed. “I’m gonna marry Zuko.”
“Not if I marry him first,” said his girlfriend as she rested her head on Sokka’s shoulder.
“I think I’m going to hate you again for making me do all the cooking before when you can do this,” said Katara as she savoured the last bit of her slice of pie.
Aang was far, far too delighted to say anything. His eyes were closed as he munched happily on his piece, his head swaying from side to side as he savoured the sweet dessert.
“I think I hate him too, now,” said Toph, burping again. “You had us eating ocean kumquats when you could have been doing this?!”
“I was busy! I have to teach Aang firebending, remember?! I can’t just cook all the time!” Zuko said indignantly. He paused and calmed his breath as he took a bite of his own baking, chewed, and swallowed. He asked, “Do you guys… do you guys really like it?”
“Tui and La, Zuko, I’m going to make you a betrothal necklace just as soon as I remember how to walk again,” said Sokka and his eyes drifted to a close.
“Sorry, Sokka, but I won’t marry you,” Zuko deadpanned. “I wouldn’t be able to stand the snoring.”
Everyone collectively laughed.
“How dare you,” said Sokka, a single eye peeking up at him.
Despite the impending comet and the war that loomed over them, Katara thought, this was one of the nicest days they all had together. For a moment, it was like they were all just old friends, spending the day at Zuko’s dad’s beach house on an island.
It was easy to forget that they were only the children that they were.
And as Katara watched him grow slowly more comfortable around them, she saw a softness to the way his eyes lit up whenever someone complimented him. She saw how he was quick to apologise and flinch at the first inclination that he might have done something wrong, that someone he held in high regard might have thought ill of him for a moment.
She saw goodness in him – a peace he’d, for so long, tried to hide away for reasons she didn’t know or understand just yet. She saw that his was a gentle heart, raised and razed by fire, yet how his spirit still rose like a phoenix from the ashes of his suffering. She saw the scars she knew he bore and never spoke of – had yet to speak of.
Militant and uncompromising when he needed to be, yes, but compassionate and clever and kind.
A light, bright soul that had known all kinds of flames but had never been touched this kind of warmth before.
And she was starting to see him.
I'd like to thank my mother for teaching me how to make chicken adobo. Pineapple slander is not allowed in my house. Thank you.
When I say that it's a problem that I can't stop writing them, I genuinely can't stop. Send help.
Also, note the added tags and tread lightly.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
And you see the things they never see
All you wanted, I could be
Now you know me, and I'm not afraid
And I wanna tell you who I am
Can you help me be a man?
They can't break me
As long as I know who I am
It was only three weeks now before Sozin’s comet arrived.
Not that it mattered much at this point as Aang had approached them before with the idea of waiting after the comet. With the fall of Ba Sing Se to the rule of Princess Azula, it seemed Sisyphean to still proceed with the idea of attacking the Fire Lord when he was at his most powerful.
What was the worst that could happen?
The Fire Nation had already won the Hundred Year War, for the most part. Nobody wanted to address that elephant mandrill in the room. It was as if talking about it made their defeat all the more real – so nobody spoke of it.
Business as usual.
Still, Katara noticed that Zuko was not a teacher that allowed room for nonsense. Despite the change in their plans, he was as militantly assiduous in his teaching as ever. Methodical, firm, and uncompromising; yet, in casual conversation, he was soft-spoken and shy. He had trouble looking people in the eye. But he was thoughtful and sweet when he didn’t try so hard.
She didn’t know when it started happening for she was in the middle before she knew she had begun but more and more, she found herself seeking his opinions and his company. He spoke well and intelligently, after all, and they were in Fire Nation territory. Zuko was an intelligent, learned young man and had much to offer in terms of cultural and socio-political history as well as extensive knowledge of local cuisine, music, flora, and fauna. He was hopeless at foraging and hunting, but he was learned; that much, she knew.
That is to say, he had a lot to say whenever the conversation wasn’t about him.
It was fascinating and she reasoned that it was because of this knowledge that she sought him out so much, so often. He also taught her more recipes and most nights, they made dinner for their little family of friends together. He would still like to go practise his forms and meditate on his own but she noticed that he did this with less and less frequency over time. He spent more time with them all now and the thought made her heart feel lighter. He smiled more often and he didn’t hide as much.
It didn’t take long, she noted, for some of the others to notice their little dynamic.
It was later in the afternoon now that Katara found herself cleaning up the kitchen with Suki. They’d been cleaning for most of the day, just after lunch. Zuko and Sokka were at the courtyard, sparring and training with swords; the former more advanced in his training than the latter, thereby offering advice where and when he can, while the novice provided fresh insight at every opportunity. Toph and Aang were by the beach as the master tried to hone the Avatar’s seismic sense through the fine sand.
In hindsight, Katara thought that Suki had been waiting for an opportunity to speak to her on her own. Well, she certainly got that chance as Katara very nearly dropped the plate she was washing when Suki started off the conversation with a starter that, months ago, seemed impossible.
“So, you and Zuko…” Suki tried.
“What about me and Zuko?”
“Nothing!” the other girl said, defensive. “I just thought… you guys are spending a lot of time together, and well…”
“Trust me, Suki,” said Katara, forcing a chuckle. “We’re just friends.”
“Good,” she replied. “I mean—not that it would be a bad thing if you were, y’know… more than that or anything, I’d be all for it!”
Suki offered a small, forced smile and there was red colouring her cheeks. Katara felt her chest tighten and her breathing shorten, tingling warmth coming from the apples of her own cheeks. She took a measured breath.
“Suki,” she said. “Your point?”
“No point, really,” Suki replied, shrugging as she absentmindedly dried an already dry plate. “I just thought that it’s good that you two are getting along so well. Especially good for him.”
“What do you mean?” Katara asked, raising a brow.
“Haven’t you noticed?” Suki replied, setting the plate down. She backed up and found herself resting against the table just behind the sink. She moved to sit atop it, her feet dangling a few inches from the floor. “Sokka told me that Zuko said he’s never happy. And we’ve kind of been keeping track—we’ve never heard Zuko actually laugh. It’s usually just a chuckle or something, here and there. But ever since you started being friends with him? Like, really friends with him, he’s been—I don’t know. He smiles more.”
“Oh,” said Katara. A small smile appeared on her lips without her thinking about it. With the last of the dishes cleared away, they made off with the appearance of actually doing chores and simply talked. The waterbender crossed her arms against her chest and gave a casual shrug of her shoulders as she rested against the sink.
“I don’t think it’s just because of me, though,” she reasoned. “We’re all his friends.”
“I think it’s because he tried more with you,” Suki replied. “He tried really hard to get your trust back and Zuko’s not the kind of guy who takes things halfway.”
“He did,” Katara agreed, her gaze drifting as she thought about the progression of their friendship over the course of these last few weeks. “And he earned it.”
“I’m glad,” said Suki. A comfortable pause laid between them as Suki gave her a peculiar look, a bit of a smirk on her lips.
“I think you make him feel safe,” she added.
At those words, Katara’s face fell as different ones came to mind.
Where I’m from, threats against my life are how my family show affection, he’d said.
You know how messed up that is, right, she’d replied in jest and didn’t think about again until now.
And from farther away came another memory – an angrier one, a darker version of herself that nobody else except him has seen. Katara recalled her bone-chilling, unapologetic tone. From the outside, to anyone who has met her, they wouldn’t believe she could be capable of the words she’d spoken to Zuko that day at the Western Air Temple.
I’ll make sure your destiny ends. Right then and there. Permanently.
She remembered the look on his face – those bright, lost eyes she’d known so much better now had looked at her with a child-like fear.
At the time, she’d been proud of her resolve and thought – good; he should fear me. But now she recalled the scars beneath his clothes, the little things about him that she’s noticed in the time he’s spent with them. And he’d looked at her with parted lips, words caught in his throat he’d never gotten to say – excuses, apologies… things she didn’t want to hear from him back then. Zuko looked so young when he was afraid.
Shame replaced her pride so, so easily – all that changed was the light.
“What?” she ended up saying. “That’s ridiculous.”
“Think about it,” Suki argued. “His dad’s Fire Lord Ozai.”
The implication was clear between them.
“I have thought about that,” she said.
“And have you noticed the scars on his back?” Suki asked.
“You noticed too?” Katara asked in return, her voice turning quiet. Suki’s eyes turned downcast; her expression, sullen.
“I’ve seen something like it before,” she said. “One of my Kyoshi Warriors, Rini? She had scars just like them. She moved to Kyoshi with her father when she was 11, from a Fire Nation colony just north of Yu Dao. They ran away from her mother, Riona.”
Suki paused for a while. She swallowed and added, “Riona used to beat her almost every day.”
“What?” Katara exclaimed, incredulous, tears already at warm by her eyes at the thought. “Why?”
“Riona was a nobleman’s daughter but she was the only one who wasn’t a firebender. All of her siblings were married into great houses and she was the fifth of six children. They married her into Rico’s family – they were rich, Earth Kingdom merchants. And Riona grew bitter. No one really knows why because Rico’s family treated her very well,” she said.
Katara dared not bother the story but she had a hand on the pendant of her Fire Nation necklace. A muscle memory of comfort for her hand sought her own mother’s memory. Suki continued with the story.
“She had a son first but the baby passed away from a weak heart after a year. Then Rini was born and Riona put so much pressure on her to be great, to be this perfect Fire Nation daughter. When it became clear that Rini wasn’t a bender either, her mother became even more cruel. And every time Rini did something even slightly wrong? She’d get a beating. She’d make Rini strip down and then beat her with her father’s belt, a hard slipper—anything she could get her hands on. It started when she was 6.”
“That’s horrible,” Katara said, her hand now against her racing, bleeding heart.
“When Rico found out about the abuse—”
“Abuse?” she asked. “What does that mean?”
“Oh,” said Suki. She blinked at Katara for a spell with her lips agape. “It’s… it’s a word that means treating someone with cruelty. With intention to hurt.”
“There’s a word for that?” said Katara.
And for a moment, Suki envied that – that the younger girl didn’t quite know all this world’s dark secrets quite yet.
She recalled that Katara grew up with Sokka and he’d told her of the Southern Water Tribe. How they were but a handful of families left, a practically decimated population and barely hanging on to what they had left. No, Suki thought; they wouldn’t know what this brand of home-grown cruelty was when they were all struggling to keep each other alive.
“That’s awful,” Katara added. “Why didn’t Rini tell anyone? Maybe someone could have helped!”
“Riona taught her not to tell. And I think in the Fire Nation, that’s how a lot of parents were so they just thought that was how you should treat kids,” Suki replied. “’Til now, she hardly ever says anything when she’s in pain. She was always scared when she was just starting out with training and it took her a long time to trust us, even after her father asked us to take her in. We think he wanted to make sure that no one could ever hurt her like that again.
“She was 10 when her father found out about the abuse and he started plotting to get her out of there at the first chance they got. When Riona went away to visit one of her sisters in Omashu for a few days, they took what they could and they left. Rico knew Kyoshi had remained neutral throughout the war so far, it was far from Yu Dao, and the Kyoshi Warriors are pretty famous in the Earth Kingdom so he thought she’d be safe there,” she said. “Rini didn’t know there was any other way to live. She just thought this was how mothers were.”
“I can’t even imagine—” Katara started but could not finish the thought.
“And her mother was from a noble Fire Nation family,” Suki added. “She’s your age now and much, much stronger. But I still notice how she closes up whenever someone yells or even slightly raises their voice near her, how she jumps whenever someone tries to touch her from behind even just to tap her shoulder. It’s in how she always apologises first, even when she knows it’s not her fault. Always quick to defend and back down when being told off.”
From the older girl’s lilt, Katara understood rather quickly and another picture came to mind – not a young girl, but a scarred young man the pair of them knew rather well.
“Sound familiar?” Suki asked.
“You think Zuko’s father did something like that to him?” Katara asked. She’d guessed, that one time she saw him so vulnerable before her, but she didn’t have a picture that was quite that clear.
“You’ve seen his back too. The scars are too consistent and too similar to be anything else,” said Suki.
Who else could harm a prince – but a king, she remembered thinking.
“And you know how Zuko got his scar?”
“No,” Katara replied. “Wait—how do you know? Did he tell you?”
“No, I just know the common story and I don’t really want to ask him about it. It might be a bit of a sore spot, you know?” she said, shrugging and folding her arms into herself. “But rumour has it that Zuko disrespected his father at one of the Fire Lord’s war councils. And they’re really big on honour in the Fire Nation.”
“Yeah, no kidding.”
“As punishment, Zuko was put through something called an Agni Kai.”
“I don’t know,” said Suki. “We think it’s some kind of impossible training exercise for firebenders. He failed it when he got injured and got his scar. As a last resort, the Fire Lord banished him and said he could only return with his honour and birth right restored if he came back and captured the Avatar. And this was years before you and Sokka found Aang—no one had seen the Avatar in a hundred years. Zuko was only 13.”
Her blood ran cold at the thought.
Aang was only 12 when he’d run away from his home as he’d been given the responsibility of Avatar much too soon. He’d been afraid and reluctant to remove himself from the carefree comfort of his life under the tutelage of Monk Gyatso. Still, Aang’s responsibilities was something he was born into – it was a destiny chosen for him.
Katara always considered Aang’s past whenever she mothered him and absolved him of responsibility for there was already too much on him as it was. She’d not once given that same luxury to Zuko, whose childhood she’d only ever pictured as spoilt and privileged.
There was so much of him that she was only just beginning to see.
“The Fire Lord wanted Zuko to fail,” Katara realised. “Zuko was never supposed to come back home. His own father…”
“Exactly,” Suki said. “So, I feel sorry for him sometimes. And I’m also kind of impressed. I mean—that’s the kind of family he grew up with but he’s still so… nice.” A soft smile returned to the Kyoshi Warrior’s lips. “That speech he gave when we were at dinner the other night? I wanted to cry and give him a big old hug. He was so sweet.”
I’ll make sure your destiny ends. Right then and there. Permanently.
Katara swallowed the guilt that rose in her throat, acidic and vile.
“He…” she said quietly. “He is.”
“Back to my point, though,” said Suki, unaware of her companion’s turmoil. “You make him feel safe, Katara. I remember the day Rini finally started feeling safe with us. And I see it in how he looks at you. That’s something none of the rest of us have been able to do.”
“You really think so?” Katara asked, almost a whisper.
“I know so,” the older girl replied. She shrugged, her smile growing by the second. “I think you’re good for him.” A beat. “I think he’s good for you too.”
“Yeah!” Suki replied, bouncing from the table where she was sat and approaching the younger girl, an arm around her shoulders. “As much as he’s more open when you’re there, you’re a lot more relaxed when he’s near too.”
Katara didn’t know how to respond to that. All she knew was that she needed to talk to Zuko as soon as possible. She didn’t have the time to process the rest of what Suki was saying as they made their way out of the kitchen and towards the courtyard where the older boys were probably still sparring.
“The fieldtrip you guys took really did a number on you guys, huh?” said the older girl.
“I guess so,” she replied.
“Well, I’m glad you two went,” she said.
At that, Katara smiled.
It might have said a lot about him that he was often at his most calm when he was fighting.
When his arms and legs moved with purpose, when his mind and body were at perfect sync with each other so he could keep up with his opponent – there was no room for distraction when you were in the heat of battle, whether it be to the death or a simple game of pai sho. He liked activities like that, ones where he could disconnect himself from everything and everyone else.
For it was in the silence when his mind was the loudest; his weren’t pleasant thoughts. Zuko was never happy. Rare was the occurrence of good memories for there were so few of them, and so many of them had happened when he was young and foolish and still so innocent.
The sun, in the distance, was beginning to set and with it, he felt his inner fire starting to quieten. Sokka was still trying to catch his breath from their latest sparring session – he’d wanted to try Zuko’s swords and the prince was stuck with the space sword. Excellently crafted but he preferred his own wares — his preferred fighting method was aggressive, his greatest defence was offence, so he liked his twin dao swords.
He smirked at the Water Tribe warrior, and said, “I think you’ve had enough for today.”
“Aw,” Sokka complained. “One more and I would have totally beaten you!”
“Maybe tomorrow, buddy,” he said as he approached and offered the dark, night sword back to its owner.
“Hey!” Suki called out from inside the house, arm in arm with Katara. “Zuko, you cooking tonight?”
“Hope you like intestines,” Zuko tried.
“It’s really hard to gross us out after you’ve made us eat boiled turkeyduck embryos and we liked it,” said Katara.
“As long as it’s not sea prunes,” Toph piped up from behind Zuko, damp from the beach, and she walked until she could settle down atop the courtyard stairs to rest. “Hey, Sweetness—you mind?”
Katara waved a hand and dried the younger girl off in mere seconds. The boys rested their swords just by the side of the stairs.
Quiet settled for the gang as they rested along the stairs and watched the blue sky start to turn orange, to dark red. A few more minutes of sunlight, he thought—about half an hour, tops.
“I guess I should get started on dinner,” he said as he made a move to rise.
It was then that Aang dropped from the sky – rather, from his room on the second floor. In his hand was a small, brown ball that looked like it was woven together.
“Hey Zuko,” said the young Avatar. “I found this in my room. Well, I guess it was your room—” he threw the ball to him and Zuko caught it with one hand, with ease. He smiled while looking at it. “It looks like the ball we used to play with at the Air Temples for air ball but a lot smaller! I was wondering if you could… show me how you played with it?”
“Huh,” said Zuko, giving it a careful toss into the air. “I didn’t know I still I had this.”
“I found it at the edge of the bed, just beneath the cushion,” Aang replied.
“This is a ball for sipa,” the prince explained. He moved to the middle of the courtyard to demonstrate as he spoke. “You just bounce it around with your feet or knees or something and you can’t use anything from the waist up. The ball gets tossed around to another player—or other players—and the first one to drop it is out. Last one to keep it in the air wins.”
At the word ‘wins’, he kicked the ball high into the air. He leapt, hoisted his legs up to a backflip that kicked the ball straight to Aang. When he landed, he swished his hair to the left. He was smirking.
“Show off,” Sokka muttered.
“That sounds fun!” said Aang, airbending himself up.
“It’s a peasant’s game. Meant for non-benders,” Zuko replied.
“Well, you have a ball so you played it,” Suki joked, a teasing smile on her lips. Zuko shrugged.
“The Sages did think I was a non-bender for a while.”
“Oh,” she said, her face falling instantly.
“Besides, Aang, it wouldn’t be a fair game,” he said. “You’re an airbender—you could cheat. It’d be easy for you.”
“I don’t know, Zuko,” Aang replied, mischief in his grey eyes that he narrowed. “Cheating doesn’t sound very honourable and my Sifu Hotman is all about honour.” Zuko rolled his eyes, but Aang kept going. “He’d probably make me do a hundred hot squats if I cheat… but it’s okay, ‘cause I wouldn’t need to do that to beat him at sipa.”
“Oh, really,” said Zuko, taking the bait. His gold eyes squinted at the boy as he considered the unspoken dare. Aang grinned.
“Your footwork could use some work…” the prince considered. “You’re on.”
“What about dinner?” Sokka complained.
“Oh, hush,” said Katara, smiling as she lightly hit her brother’s arm. Zuko gave her a quick smile in thanks. It had been a few days since they last deviated from the schedule anyway. Really, he could use the break – she seemed to know it as she said, “You’re doing games now too, Your Highness?”
“If it works,” he replied, shrugging.
The match between the two benders started immediately. Their forms and footwork were immediately known to be exceptional, a spectacular show to behold.
Zuko adopted a form that had his hands held behind his back as he balanced and kicked the ball with his knees and feet. His brows knit together fiercely as he juggled to move the ball back and forth, only to kick it towards his opponent with particular ferocity.
Aang had a natural flair for defence as he received with ease but he had the tendency to linger, not used to attacking. True to his word, he refrained from using any of his bending skills. His light, high laughter rang abundantly as the two took turns to toss the ball between them. Zuko was even starting to grin.
“I don’t know what Zuko’s getting at,” said Katara as she watched the two play. “Aang’s footwork is great! He’s really fast.”
“Yeah, ‘cause he’s airbending,” Toph replied, unimpressed by the spectacle that mostly felt of fancy footwork and not much else. She shrugged. “Most of his moves are always defensive. Reactionary. And while that’s really handy, Sparky’s right—Aang needs to be a bit more aggressive. We’ve talked about it before.”
“Huh,” said Katara. “Good point.”
The back and forth went between Zuko and Aang for at least ten minutes before Aang overshot a kick by a quarter of an inch and missed. The gang clapped for the first win. The sky grew darker with each passing moment.
“No fair!” Aang called out. “I just closed my eyes for a second!”
Zuko chuckled. “Told you so.”
“Can I play?” Katara said suddenly, getting up to her feet.
“Me too!” Suki joined in. “Looks like fun!”
“Me three!” Sokka yelled, a touch too enthusiastically, not wanting to be left out.
Zuko assumed a stance, closed his eyes and took a long breath. He raised his hands up, brought them to the top of his head, and pushed down to his stomach; as he did, he exhaled. When he opened them again, he assumed a position and started firing fire darts sharply with quick precision at the lanterns that surrounded the courtyard. And while the sunlight died as night began to seep through, at least they were still in the light.
“There, you guys can play,” said Zuko. He sat down next to Toph. “Now, I need a break.”
“Great! Thanks for the light, Zuko!” said Aang. “So that’s me and Katara against Suki and Sokka!”
“Isn’t that a little unfair?” Suki pointed out. “I mean—you two are benders.”
“Technically, you guys have the advantage since it’s a non-bender game, right Zuko?” Aang tried. Zuko didn’t get the chance to answer that.
“Point stands,” said Suki in that commander’s voice that Aang stood just that much straighter. “Aang, you’re with me. Katara, you’re with Sokka. Any objections?”
There were no objections – nobody dared to, whenever Suki used that voice. The pairs assumed the position, facing each other against the dying sunlight and torches that their favourite firebender just so happened to bestow upon them. Zuko and Toph simply looked on.
“You’re going down,” Sokka said, looking directly at Suki.
“You wish,” Suki replied in a slow, menacing cadence.
The game was on and the little ball was bounced back and forth between the four of them. Grunts and groans came from both ends, peppered with laughter in between the frustration. The two benched along the staircase were quiet as they sat together and just watched their friends play.
“I know you’re lying, you know,” Toph told him. “You’re not tired. You don’t take breaks.”
“I know you know,” said Zuko simply, giving a casual shrug of his shoulders.
“Then how come you stopped playing? You were having fun.”
“It’s easier for them to play this way,” he answered. “Two on two’s a simpler game than one on five.”
Toph pursed her lips. She punched his arm and then brought it back to her as she crossed her arms against her chest. “You don’t have to sit here with me, you know. I don’t mind that I can’t play your dumb leaf ball game.”
“I’m not sitting here just to keep you company,” he said as he rubbed the arm she punched. “It really is better this way.”
“It just is,” he said.
At that moment, Aang hit Sokka directly on the forehead and he fell back, unable to balance back on his feet. Katara gave a loud laugh and Zuko smiled, his heart just a fraction of a second faster than before. Toph smirked.
“Sure,” she said to him. The four started playing again and the two sat in silence before she spoke again.
“She’s starting to like you too, you know.”
“What?” he said.
“You heard me.”
“I don’t—” A quiver of a heartbeat – telling.
“You can’t lie to me, remember?”
Zuko blushed, heat rising to his cheeks. He turned his head away and scratched the back of his head and looked at everyone else’s footwork as the small ball got passed around in the air.
“It’s just a phase,” he muttered. “It’ll pass.”
“Keep telling yourself that, Zuko,” said Toph, smug as she spat aimlessly to the side. Zuko made a face at the action but said nothing. “Keep telling yourself that.”
“I think I like it better when you call me Sparky,” he mumbled, pinching the skin between his brows.
The two onlookers’ heads whipped to the game, however, when they heard Katara yell in pain.
“Ow!” she said, rubbing at her eye. Her brother had accidentally kneed the ball right into it. “Be more careful, Sokka!”
“How did you miss the signal?” he exclaimed, gesturing wildly at her.
“What signal?!” she yelled back.
“The eye thing—it was so clearly a signal!”
“A signal for what?!”
“Obviously, I was going to fake throw at Aang and you were supposed to catch it!”
“How was I supposed to get that from your eye thing?”
“I don’t know—context!”
“Context this!” she said, bending water from the air, turning it to snow, only for her to throw it at him and it him in the face.
“Hey!” he said. “Oh, you’re gonna get it—hey! Stop that! Not fair! No bending!”
Katara kept bending snowballs at his face and he kept spitting snow out of his mouth. Suki and Aang watched the pair, laughing all the while. Toph was laughing with them. Zuko only smiled as he watched the siblings bicker.
“Oh, was that in the rules? Or was I supposed to get that from another eye thing?!”
“That’s it!” Sokka said, charging head first at his sister. He rubbed both of his palms under his stinky, sweaty armpits and held Katara in a headlock, forcing her to smell his stinky palm.
“Sokka, quit it!” she said, coughing, struggling to get away from her brother’s strong grip.
“Say uncle!” Sokka yelled. “Say it!”
“Quit it! Quit it! Ow—quit it, Sokka! Quit it, q—!”
“Quit it, Zuzu!”
His breath caught in his throat as his mind’s eye played a memory he didn’t know he still had.
Azula, not more than three years old; her silky, black hair tied up in a messy top bun, hairs out of place from playing with her brother. Her gold eyes, so much like his, had not yet learnt their father’s malice nor their mother’s fear of her. The perfect princess, still so young. And she called him Zuzu not for any kind of spite or mockery, simply because it was what she’d called him since she was two years old, unable to say the second syllable of her brother’s name so she only said the first once twice.
“Q-quit it, Zuzu!” she said again as she spat out sand that he kept kicking at her face.
Him, not more than five years old. He was laughing. His own black hair, wild but controlled in a tight phoenix tail. His face, still soft and pristine and unscarred. His gold eyes, bright as the sun. Zuko made a face at his baby sister as she continued to scrape sand from her tongue. He pointed and laughed without malice — just the simple teasing of children. Zuko playfully ran away from his sister but the sand was too coarse, too soft that he lost his footing and slipped.
He did not cry; it was all part of the game.
“I’mma getcha!” little Azula yelled, racing after him with her stubby little toddler’s legs.
Zuko smiled as he ran around the beach, goading his sister.
“Come on, Lala! Catch me!”
“I’m gonna—! Ahh!” cried the young princess as she fell onto something.
Where her brother had fallen on soft sand, her knee had grazed a hard, sharp piece of concealed driftwood. A small cut appeared on her knee and tears freely fell from her eyes. Azula grit her teeth and bit back the groans she wanted to make. Zuko still heard them.
“Lala!” Zuko shouted as he rushed to his sister’s aid immediately, a child’s arm around her shoulders as he held her to him. She had her knees up to her chest and when she looked up at him, it broke his heart to see tears just beneath shining gold. He asked her, “Does it hurt?”
“No,” she said stubbornly as sniffled, but her lower lip trembled and he knew she was lying.
Azula always lies.
But it wasn’t always like that.
The lies weren’t always that deep.
And when she lied, it wasn’t to him.
There was a time when she never lied to him, until the time came when everything she told him was a lie unless the truth hurt worse than any lie could.
Still, she was his sister. Still, he cared.
The memory played on and he was still and breathless, watching.
“It’s okay,” he’d said, trying to soothe her choked back sniffs. “It’s okay if it—if it does.”
Zuko moved to kneel before his sister. He had his hands around near her injured knee as he gently tried to brush off the sand that was still on top of it. It was not a deep wound by any means and it would not scar. Still, he saw blood where the tiny bit of skin broke, and his brows knit. He blew short, wet breaths on top of the wound.
“I’m gonna make it better,” he said.
“How?” she asked.
“Iunno, I just will,” he told her. “I gots to. Don’t worry. I’ll take care of you.”
“Zuko!” Ozai yelled. “Azula!”
The two children’s heads whipped to the side at the sound of their father crying out to them as he ran. He’d left them for but a few minutes to get them all cold fruit juice – they were just out there building sandcastles not more than half an hour ago.
“Father,” said Zuko, standing. His arms shook as he stood before his father and his small voice trembled. “We were—we were playing and…”
“I fell,” said Azula, quiet and so very young.
“There, there,” said the Fire Lord as he bent down to take his daughter into his arms. Azula wrapped her arms around her father’s neck and he carried her with one arm. He rested his other hand on top of his son’s shoulder. “Let’s head inside. Come along, Zuko.”
“Zuko?” Toph tried. He was still staring into space. She shook his arm and yelled. “Zuko!”
“Huh?” he said, breaking from the trance and saw that his new friends were all looking at him. “What—”
“I asked if there was any more of that pineapple left but you just—”
“What? Oh,” he said, his heart racing in both his chest and his throat. Sweat pooled to his brow, his temple. His knees shook as he stood up and he ran a hand through his hair. “Uh—I think so. Maybe. I don’t know.”
“Zuko, are you okay?” Katara asked.
The others had stopped playing and were slow and careful as they tried to approach him.
“Yeah,” he replied, quiet and curt. “If you’ll all excuse me, I should go get started on dinner…”
Zuko left without another word and he didn’t look back.
“What was that all about?” Sokka asked.
“I don’t know. He just started going all—” said Toph, gesturing around her head as if that answered anything.
“I hope he’s okay,” Katara said out loud.
“Just give him some time,” said Suki, a hand on Katara’s arm. “He’ll be alright.”
The gang agreed to leave him alone while he made dinner.
They reasoned that cooking had had a good therapeutic effect on him.
It was an hour later that they went to the kitchen after he left them on their own. They found food prepared – intestines and other assorted meat parts on a stick, grilled, smelt delicious, and was still warm – and white rice. For Aang, Zuko had simply put a few slices of ripe mango.
There was no sign of him.
“I’m going to go look for him,” said Katara, already making her way out.
“I could help?” Aang offered, though wary.
This was not an opportunistic offer, but genuine. They were all worried for him now. The others looked at her and mimicked the offer without words. It was her call; out of all of them, she knew him best.
Katara shook her head.
“No, I think—” she thought. “I’ll handle this.”
“Be careful,” Sokka said.
“It’s Zuko,” she told him. “He wouldn’t hurt me.”
“I wasn’t talking about him.”
Katara looked at her brother then – blue on blue, and saw the ice staring back at her.
She knew what he meant.
The gang watched her go and when her shadow melted with the darkness of the night, the rest of them ate in uneasy silence.
You've always thrown everything you could at me. Well, I can take it!
And now I can give it back!
You've never held back before!
The ocean and wind sprayed him with cool mist but he didn’t care. He couldn’t move. His toes were buried in the sand that was just as soft as he remembered.
He remembered that night – the storm, the rain, the lightning.
He remembered the stories that told of how when he was born, there was no firebender’s spark in his eyes. There was none of the ferocity in him that his father had wanted – a disappointment since he’d first been born into the world. He’d been born tame – soft and weak.
Still, Ozai was not quite that cruel just yet and for a while, he’d loved his son. Even when his daughter, Azula, was born – everything he wanted. For a while, they were happy. That was how Zuko remembered it, at least. There was a time when they were well and truly happy.
He remembered how Li and Lo told him of Azula’s birth and how extraordinary she was. Born too early, too eager to see the light of the sun. She was born on a summer sunrise, where he was born at an unholy hour of winter morning. Upon her birth, there was more than a fierceness in her young eyes. If Li and Lo’s were to be believed, sparks came from her fingertips when she first started to cry and they knew that a legend had just been born.
Zuko watched the ocean waves rise and fall and did not find himself comforted by their presence. He’d made peace with his destiny, yes, but he was still a son of fire.
It was in his nature to burn – and inside, the flames raged as fiercely as the waves crashed upon weathered stone.
“Zuko?” he heard Katara call out – soft, steady, and careful.
“What?” he spat out, his jaw clenched.
“You weren’t at dinner,” she tried. Even her footsteps were careful as she approached him. “I’ve been looking for you for half an hour. I was worried.”
“I’m fine,” he barked. He didn’t look back at her. “You don’t need to worry about me.”
“Are you okay?” she tried again, still in her footsteps as she saw him start to tense up.
“I said I’m fine, Katara! What part of that did you not understand?!” he cried out as he turned his head towards her but he never opened his eyes. Zuko hissed, “Just leave me alone.”
Katara stood there and watched him for a moment. He thought she would go and report back to the others how he’d gone bad again. That he could not be trusted.
Fine, he thought. Let her.
She’d be right anyway.
“No,” she said; her voice, firm.
“No?” he echoed.
“You’re not okay, Zuko.”
“You don’t know me,” he said darkly.
“Yes. I do,” Katara said with more certainty. “Cruelty doesn’t suit you, Zuko. It never has.”
“Stop talking like you know me!” he bellowed. “You don’t know anything about me, Katara! Just leave!”
Fire flared from his nostrils as he exhaled. He could feel his heart racing in his chest, he could feel the tautness of his arms. Would she bend him to submission, a part of his mind wondered. But he didn’t need to ask – he already knew that she never would. Not to him.
“No,” she repeated again. Calm but firm. “This isn’t like you.”
“Because you don’t know me!” Zuko yelled and he stood. Sand fell from his form and he stomped over to her, fire flaring from his ears and nose and mouth. A dragon made into man.
“Nobody knows me! And nobody cares. And everybody just leaves—just like you will! So leave me alone and just go away!”
“NO!” she said, standing her ground. “I care, Zuko, whether you want me to or not!”
With that, Zuko roared and threw a flaming punch. Sloppily, not aiming, just knowing that the fire was there and he could not stop it. Katara was fast, though. He didn’t hit her but his fire burnt bright. He punched and kicked without grace, he yelled and groaned without aim, and he fought and fought without reason.
Katara bent water from the ocean and extinguished every flame he tried to hit her with. He wasn’t trying to hurt her – he attacked like a wounded animal, simply striking at whatever was near. He knew she was trying to call out to him, trying to say his name, trying to bring him back to himself.
His fire grew more and more uncontrolled as he struck and in the sky, the clouds parted to reveal the moon. Not quite full but bright in its place in the sky.
“Enough!” she yelled as she summoned a wave from the ocean to wash over him.
He fell to his knees and coughed out the seawater.
“I’m trying to help you, Zuko!” she cried out as she fell to her knees too. As he coughed, she took his face into her hands. “Please let me.”
Her eyes, so bright and blue in the light, looking at him with a kindness he didn’t deserve – so much so that he remembered the first time she was this close to him, when they were surrounded by stone and sky.
I’ll make sure your destiny ends. Right then and there. Permanently.
No, he thought.
He shook that memory away.
She had the right to be angry with him.
He had no right to hold that against her.
His breathing started to even out as peace settled over his heart again. His ears stopped ringing and the rage within him quieted down. A steady, cool calm washed over him, with him in her hands. Katara looked up at him, concerned and afraid – not of him, but for him.
I’m not taking orders from you anymore, he remembered saying.
Not to her.
You will obey me or this defiant breath will be your last, rang his father’s voice in his memory.
Think again—I am going to speak my mind and you are going to listen, he’d said with such calm clarity that he almost didn’t recognise himself.
The memory soothed him somehow and he recalled how speaking to his father as such had cleared so many things in his mind. When he’d accepted his destiny and voiced it out, it was as if the stars finally aligned in his sky and he wasn’t quite as lost anymore.
Not quite found just yet, no, but at least now he knew where he was supposed to go – more or less.
“I’m sorry,” he said, taking her wrists gingerly in his hands to move them away from his face. I’ll save you from the pirates, he remembered himself saying to her but he could not bring himself to laugh.
His eyes were wide with apology as he looked to her and asked, “Did I hurt you?”
“You’re going to have to do a lot better than that to hurt me,” she said and let her hands drop. He nodded and twisted so he was sat back down upon the sand. She mirrored him and sat next to him on his left side. He didn’t move away.
“You know what does hurt, though? Seeing my friend hurting so much and not being able to do anything about it,” she said.
Zuko brought his knees up and rested his arms atop of them. Katara folded her legs to a lotus position and, for a brief spell of time, the pair of them only watched the sea. The light of the moon and stars reflected back into the inky black water, with just the barest hints of silver from the light and gold from the fires that were farther away.
“I don’t think I ever apologised to you,” she started suddenly. He twisted his head, confusion etched onto his expression.
“For that day you saved us from Combustion Man.”
“That’s not his name, you know,” he said, his lip quirked up in a humourless smirk.
“Not important,” she said. “When you joined us and I was so angry with you—I threatened to kill you, Zuko.”
He shrugged. A little stunned that apparently, she was thinking about it too. Still, he’d never begrudge her that. He deserved it, after all.
“That’s okay,” he said.
“Zuko, it’s not,” she said. “What I did was wrong. I know I had the right to be angry with you and that’s not what I’m apologising for. But threatening you like that was—”
“Where did this even come from?” he asked suddenly.
“I just thought a lot about what you said before. And what you’ve been like to us—to me. You’ve become so important to me in such a short amount of time and I never apologised for what I said to you then and I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, Zuko. You didn’t—you don’t deserve that.”
Zuko just watched her from the corner of his eye and decided to nod.
“And when I hit you that night with the water whip, I—”
“Katara, stop,” he said and exhaled. “You don’t have to apologise for any of that. I deserved it.”
“Zuko, please. You didn’t and you don’t,” she told him, exasperated. “You were finally trying to do the right thing and I tried to hurt you for it.”
“Don’t worry about it. You didn’t threaten me because I decided to join your group. You just threatened me because you were trying to protect your family from someone you thought would betray you again. I earned that distrust from you. It was well placed. I’m not angry with you for that. You had every right to think that of me then,” he said. “But for what it’s worth, I forgive you. That’s what friends do, right?”
“Yeah,” she agreed. “Thanks, Zuko.”
They sat in silence again with the melody of the ocean lulling them both to peace. He was content to sit there and watch the sea until he fell asleep but he could tell that there was something else that she wanted to say. And, perhaps, there were things that he wanted her to listen to but he didn’t quite know how to bring up.
“You said… you said everybody leaves…” she started. “Is that really what you think’s going to happen? That we’re all going to leave you?”
“It’s what I deserve,” he said. Before she could argue, he explained, “I’m not like you and the others. After the war… you all have places to be. Homes to go back to. People to hang on to. But I have no idea what’s going to happen to me.”
“Your uncle—” she tried.
“I don’t even know if he’d ever forgive me.”
“You’re not the only one I betrayed in Ba Sing Se, Katara,” he said and her shoulders dropped as she recalled the scene at the catacombs. He felt tears race down his cheeks as he told her the story.
“I tried to visit him so many times but he wouldn’t even look at me.” I think of you as my own, Uncle Iroh had told him once – at the North Pole, and Zuko was so unaccustomed to such care, he didn’t know what to do with it. What he’d give for the only man who’d ever truly been a real father to him now. But he’d lost that too. Katara watched him speak and cry, not saying a word. “I was so lost and confused. But I know I shouldn’t complain. He has every right to hate me after everything I’ve done to him. I know I hurt him too.”
“But I forgave you. So will he,” she said, so sure of herself.
“Well, you’re you, Katara,” he said matter-of-factly. “But we’re Fire Nation. Fire isn’t always as kind.”
“You forgave me,” she pointed out.
“There really wasn’t anything to forgive,” he said, shrugging. “You were justified. You were owed.”
“Zuko…” she started. “Your uncle’s not your father, you know.”
At the mention of his father from her – not as the Fire Lord, but as his father – he nearly jumped. His eyes were wide as he regarded her.
“What do you know about my father?” he asked carefully.
“I know he’s the Fire Lord,” she started. “And I know about how you got your scar.”
He grit his teeth and struggled to keep the anxious fire inside from burning up again.
“How—” he started to ask but she cut him off.
“Suki told me.”
“She told me about the training accident and—”
“Wait—” he interrupted, holding a hand up. “Training accident?”
“The Agni Kai?”
His gold eyes narrowed at her and when her blue ones looked up at him, he understood. She thought she knew. She didn’t.
“What exactly did she tell you about my scar?” he asked carefully.
“That you supposedly disrespected your father at some meeting. And how your father made you take some kind of test—”
Zuko barked a harsh, humourless laugh.
“Is that really the story that’s going around?”
“I—” Katara started. She averted her gaze and looked towards the sand. She traced patterns on the surface, figures that didn’t really mean anything. She spoke again, quietly. “I’m sorry we talked about you behind your back. I guess I shouldn’t listen to rumours.”
“It’s okay. I know people talk about it,” he said. “But if you’re going to say you know how I got my scar, you might as well get it right.”
He looked to the distance.
This was going to be difficult, as he had never spoken of that day to anyone. Anyone who should know already knew so there was no reason to bring it up. And nobody ever really did bring it up with him. There were whispers in the shadows, he knew; after three years, he’d gotten good at tuning them all out.
“An Agni Kai’s not a training exercise,” he said as his tale began. “When I was 13, I wanted desperately to be involved in my father’s political planning. I wanted him to be proud of me. Azula was already advanced farther than me in just about everything with firebending but even she’d never been invited to a war council before. And I was the heir to the throne. I was so excited to finally be part of something that she hadn’t gotten to yet. That maybe I could be the one who was good at this stuff.
“They wouldn’t let me in at first but Uncle Iroh made it work. He told me to not speak. During the council at the war room, one of the generals proposed a cruel version of Gemsbok Bull Horn manoeuvre. He wanted to put fresh recruits in the center for a first attack, with an elite team at the side flanks as the horns. The recruits would have been slaughtered as bait. And the generals were all for it. But I spoke out without thinking. I couldn’t help myself. I said it wasn’t fair for us to betray soldiers who’d pledged their lives for our country and use them so dishonourably.”
“And you were right!” Katara cried out, enraptured by the tale and enraged by the Fire Nation all over again.
“They didn’t see it that way,” he said, quietly. “Speaking out of turn against a superior officer was an act of insubordination. My father commanded me to fight in an Agni Kai to answer for my insult. I accepted the challenge, thinking that I would be answering to the general who suggested the manoeuvre.”
“But wait—what is an Agni Kai?”
“An Agni Kai is a sacred duel between rival firebenders,” he admitted. “It’s a fight to the death, usually. Only because living without honour is a fate worse than death.”
“Zuko!” she said, horrified. She placed a hand on his arm and he turned his head to look at her. “You agreed to that?”
“I thought I could take him,” he said with a shrug. “Refusing a challenge from a superior officer was as good as forfeiting your honour. And I was arrogant and I still wanted to make my father proud of me. But when the time for the Agni Kai came, it turned out that even though I spoke against the general during the council, I spoke out in the presence of the Fire Lord, in his war room. So it was him I disrespected when I spoke out of turn, not the general. So, when I got up to meet my opponent, it was my father on the other side.”
“Spirits above, Zuko.”
“I couldn’t fight him. Growing up, every time I tried to answer back to my father, to reason my way out of something, the beating was always worse and went on for much longer. I learnt soon enough that it was just... over faster if I just apologised.” He shrugged again. He didn’t see how her lips parted when he just so casually mentioned his beatings when he was a child.
He didn’t see how her heart broke for him.
“I begged for mercy, for forgiveness. There were hundreds of people there who were watching.”
“Even your Uncle?” she whispered.
“Even my Uncle. But even if he wanted to do something, there wasn’t anything he could do. Agni Kais are sacred and usually attract a crowd – especially between royals and nobility, and a fight against the Fire Lord is almost unheard of. But despite the crowd, the cheering... the only one I could see was my father.”
“You will learn respect and suffering will be your teacher. That’s what he said before he struck.”
Zuko remembered that moment with particular clarity.
He saw his father raise his fist and how his heart had nearly burst out of his chest. He prayed to the spirits, to any higher being who was listening, he begged and chanted no, no, no, no, no in his head but could not speak them aloud. But there was no mercy when the bright light was too late and all he could do was scream – and the bright light just as quickly turned to darkness, and he’d never been quite as able to see ever again.
“When I woke up, I was on a small ship with my Uncle and a few soldiers and crew. I had written instructions that had the explanation of my banishment. When I refused to fight, I gave up my birthright. When I lost the duel, I lost my honour. My father gave the condition that I could only return and restore my honour if I came back with the Avatar in my custody.”
“That’s why you were so obsessed with catching Aang,” she said. “But that was a fool’s errand. You were at sea for years, looking for… nothing.”
“For years, I thought I wanted my honour back,” he said. “Really, I just wanted to be with my family. I didn’t really belong anywhere else. I know I had my Uncle, but—”
“I get it,” she said. “You still love your father, don’t you?”
“Is that bad?” he asked her. Another tear fell from his whole eye and he made no move to stop it. She was crying too – he didn’t know when it was in his tale but as he ached, she ached for him. Zuko swallowed and said, “I know he’s evil and all, and I’ll never forgive him for so many things, but he’s still my father. Is that bad?”
“I don’t think so. But I don’t know,” she whispered, her voice breaking. “What I do know is he doesn’t deserve you as a son. You’re too good. And I know you deserve better.”
“Nobody deserves anything,” he muttered to himself.
“Why is it when it comes to good things you deserve, suddenly nobody deserves anything?” she asked him. “And you know what? Fine. Say that’s true. Say what you want. But maybe you’re owed. Maybe you’re owed better.”
He raised a brow at her as he wiped his face. She did the same. “Zuko, you were just a kid, just a little bit older than Aang is now. And younger than I am now. I can’t even imagine—I don’t know how you survived that. No child should ever have to beg their father for mercy. What your father did was monstrous and cruel and unforgivable.”
“He wasn’t always like that, if you can believe it,” he said. “And my family was happy once. The best memories I have of them are right here on this beach. One time, he rescued me from drowning because I was stupid enough to try to help a baby turtlecrab to get to the sea after it hatched. I didn’t want it to get left behind by all its brothers and sisters. And he jumped into the water to save me and I remember my mother holding me as I cried once I was safe.
“And when we were little, Azula and I were inseparable. She was my best friend and I was hers. We used to build sand castles right here with our father,” he said. Katara smiled despite herself – despite what she knew some of the characters in that tale of his eventually became. “I always wondered what it was that I did for me to lose all of that.”
“You and Azula were friends as kids?”
“We were. All we had was each other. Father didn’t like us playing with those lower than us. At least, that’s how it was before we were old enough to go to school and our bending abilities started to fully manifest.
“My father said she was born lucky and I was lucky to be born. Still, when we were kids? We…” he trailed off, wistful as he looked up at the stars.
“Do you miss her?” she asked.
“Kind of messed up that I do, right?” he said by way of answering. “I know she’s dangerous now, but—”
“She’s your sister,” she ended for him. Katara gave him a teary smile when he looked back to her. “You love her.”
“I was supposed to protect her,” he said, looking at her. “I was supposed to be there for her. If I were just—I don’t know? Better, stronger, more like her, maybe… Maybe she’d be on our side now. Maybe Aang could have had the most powerful firebender in recent history as his teacher instead of me.”
“Zuko, you can’t blame yourself for how your sister turned out.”
“Maybe things could have been different if I could have just been a better brother to her like the way Sokka is to you.”
“There wasn’t anything you could have done,” she told him. “You’re just as much of a kid as we are. You can’t blame yourself for all of this.”
He reached down for the sand and balled it up into his fist and then let it go. He grit his teeth.
“When I saw you and Sokka playing, something in me just…” he started. “I remembered how Azula and I were as kids. She couldn’t say my name right back then so she just called me Zuzu. She uses that name to taunt me now but it wasn’t always like that.”
He closed his eyes and fresh tears rolled off his cheeks. She reached up to touch his face and he barely felt her thumb on the scarred skin of his cheek. He didn’t mind, for once. And before he could stop himself, he was leaning into her touch.
“I used to call her Lala,” he said. “And she was a good kid, Katara. She was good once. Our father took that away from her.”
“You know, it says a lot about you that you can talk about your sister like this when she tried to kill you,” she said, her thumb gently brushing the skin of his cheek. His breathing evened out.
“Look, I know she needs to go down. I know that,” said Zuko, conviction in his tone – with a hint of regret married to his cadence. “But I wish I could’ve been a better brother. She might have turned out different if I just did my job.”
“You did the best you could. It wasn’t your job to raise her. You’re just a kid yourself.”
He bowed his head. The wind carried droplets from the ocean towards them. He shivered at the cool air. He took a deep breath and when he exhaled, steam started to emanate from him as his inner fire heated him up. The pair of them were comfortable in the quiet now, both of them exhausted from the events of the day.
When Katara rested her head on his shoulder, he mirrored the act and leaned against her too.
“I’m not leaving you, you know,” she said to him without turning her head. His lips turned up to a small smile she could not see. Katara added, “None of us are. We’re your family now too.”
“You’ll have to leave eventually,” he told her. “You and Sokka have to go back home to the South Pole at some point. Suki has her Kyoshi Warriors. Toph, well—she won’t stay with her parents but she’s going to want to be with her own people, her own element; and she’s an heiress, she has obligations to her family too. And Aang’s the Avatar—he’ll never be able to settle down in one place forever; he can’t.”
“You’ve thought about this a lot, haven’t you?”
“Like you said, I wasn’t at dinner.”
“I don’t know what’s going to happen to me after this,” he said simply. “After I teach Aang firebending and he defeats my father, I don’t know where to go. I mean, I could look for my mother, but—”
“Look for your mother—but you told me you lost her too,” she said.
“I did,” he amended. “Or at least, I thought I did at the time. When I confronted my father during the eclipse, he told me she was alive. Just banished, like I was. She helped kill my grandfather to get my father on the throne, because my grandfather ordered my father to kill me as retribution against my father wanting to usurp my uncle after my cousin died.”
Katara’s jaw dropped. And for a few seconds, she was completely breathless. But Zuko spoke the quick tale so simply, as if he wasn’t even fazed that multiple members of his family wanted him murdered.
It was almost as if he wasn’t even afraid to die.
“Zuko, your family is messed up,” she said. “You confronted your father during the eclipse? You never told me that.”
“We haven’t exactly been on speaking terms until recently. There’s a lot you don’t know about me yet,” he told her, quiet but a smirk on his lips. “But yeah, I did. He tried to kill me again. I’ve never seen anyone make lightning that fast before—not even Azula.
“But I haven’t heard from my mother in years. And I was banished for so long. I’m almost seventeen now; I haven’t seen or heard from her since I was eleven, and she’s been alive this whole time. Even when I was at sea, I didn’t hear from her. Why would she stay away so long unless she just—” he choked and swallowed as he tried to keep his voice level as he continued, “Unless she just didn’t want me anymore?”
“I’m sure that’s not true.”
“You don’t know that.”
“I know your heart, Zuko,” she told him. They were looking at each other again as Katara rearranged herself to be on her knees and she was at eye level with him from where he was sat. “From everything you’d told me about your mother, it sounds like you got yours from her. And your uncle. And anyone who knows you wouldn’t—couldn’t bear to see you like this, with you thinking that nobody wants you or cares about you.”
“If people cared about me, why do they always leave?” he asked her.
It hurt so much to see that there was no irony in his tone.
“It’s not always because they want to. Sometimes, you lose people because you have to.”
“Why does it have to happen every time?” he lamented loudly, towards the heavens. “Every time I think I can get close to someone, they don’t want to hear it, they don’t really want to know me. And if they do get close enough and I start to think that maybe it’ll be different this time, suddenly they’re just—gone.
“I just want to know what I’m doing wrong so I can stop doing it. So it can stop happening every time.”
“Not every time. Not now.”
Zuko held his head between his hands as he grit his teeth and his jaw clenched, the embers of his sorrow starving for a spark that would set them off again. And he was so, so good at setting them alight. But Katara didn’t stop—she would not let him burn himself out again.
“Hey,” she said, coaxing him out of his self-inflicted spell.
“Look at me,” she tried.
When he did, she held his face in her hands and he did not move away or flinch or fight. He was pliant in her hands – his blood, his pulse, his heart right at her fingertips and his life, under her touch, did not resist.
“I’m still here, Zuko,” she told him. “I’m with you.”
When he leaned into her touch, when trembling lips parted – she knew he was about to break open in her hands. Katara reached for him, her arms around his neck, and he wept into the crook of hers. He trembled in her arms as she held him, her hands at his hair as she soothed the rage inside him, just as he had for her.
“You don’t have to be alone anymore. You don’t have to close yourself off. It doesn’t matter how far away I go, I am with you,” she whispered to him as she hugged him tighter. He held her with just as much force, his hands desperately gripping at the fabric of her shirt as he held her to him just as much.
“Everything will be okay, I promise,” she whispered. “I’m not going to let anyone hurt you ever again. Not even me.”
“You don’t have to protect me, Katara,” he whispered against her skin as he started to relax.
Slowly, he parted from her embrace.
“Well, someone should. So I will,” she said as she was now facing him again, her hands on his shoulders as her knees were against coarse sand. His hands were on his waist and they looked at each other, something earnest in the air between them.
“I’m with you, Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation, now and always. I swear on my life.”
He smiled at the formality.
“Fine,” he said, his red rimmed, gold eyes sparkling in this light. “But only if you let me promise the same in return.”
“Deal,” she said with a chuckle. “But now you have to say it back.”
He smiled and his shaking hands went from her waist, to her face. She leaned into his touch and sighed at his warmth without meaning to. She didn’t know what that meant and said nothing. Her blue eyes looked into his as he spoke the vow she’d just given.
“I’m with you, Sifu Katara of the Southern Water Tribe, now and always. I swear on your life.”
“My life?” she questioned, raising a brow.
“I have to swear on a life that still matters to me, if you want that promise to mean anything.”
“Zuko,” she admonished, letting her weight fall back as she sat on her feet.
He laughed – properly laughed this time and she grinned.
“I’m not taking it back,” he told her.
“You did the vow all wrong!”
“You just made it up! I can say it however I want!” he teased in return. “Besides, it’s not like we’re getting married.”
“Whatever, Your Highness,” she retorted, grateful for the darkness that concealed the warmth she knew had risen to her cheeks. She settled back to her previous position of sitting next to him, only this time, it was he who rested his head on her shoulder and it was her who leaned against him as she comforted him.
“We better head back soon. We’re tired and you still have to train Aang come sun up.”
“Just a few more minutes,” he said.
This is a good memory, he thought to himself. It was one he intended to keep.
“You can head back now, if you want,” he added. “I’ll be okay.”
“What did I just say?”
“You didn’t mean that literally, did you?” he joked. “I need to be alone sometimes, you know.”
“I know, but it’ll ruin the moment,” she said.
“Whatever you say,” he said. “And Katara?”
“I didn’t really do anything—”
“You see me.”
You make me feel real. And whole. And somehow, that makes all the difference, he thought but couldn’t say.
She remembered the same words she’d spoken to him just before and knew what they meant. Katara smiled.
“Nobody really has before,” he added. “Not even Uncle, not like this. It’s… it’s nice.”
“Well, thank you for exactly the same.”
I live for comments so please let me know what you think as this got a bit real! They truly, genuinely make my day. Let me know if you spotted the twelveclara/Doctor Who references!
I think we've got one last chapter to go before I'm ready to put a close to this little tale. x
So, I lied. This is not the last update. I'm an idiot and I'm so sorry. Right now, we're probably looking at 2-3 more updates after this because I ended up splitting this chapter in two, but at this point, I don't trust myself with making promises about endings until I've written it.
Also, my apologies for how long this took (even though normally, it takes me months at a time to update anything; your comments and reviews and kindness have energised me so much, so this kind of regular updating is all y'alls fault). I was very sick for a week (we're talking Zuko-in-metamorphosis levels of sick) and I was bombarded with work for another two, just to pay for it.
Thanks for your patience! Hope y'all like this update! x
"They can’t tell me who to be
‘Cause I’m not what they see."
It was not often that Zuko was right about something, he thought to himself as he waited in the dark with only the moon, the stars, and the fire in his hand as his company.
The fact that he was right about that Agni-forsaken play brought him no joy. Then again, in his own words, he was never happy. Still, he’d been the only one to know what to expect.
He should have been more adamant with his dissuasion of going to see that wretched theatre troupe, he thought; perhaps he could have suggested that they explore the forests more, or even the marketplace. Told them that they had no time for wacky, time-wasting nonsense – they were in a war, for Agni’s sake. There was no time for reprieve, never mind that they were all just children. He might have said something else, so that they might not have had to witness that, instead of folding and going with them. But just like the rest of them, his were war-weary bones. His was, at the time, a curiosity intrigued.
Somewhere in his mind, he knew that it was not his fault. Yet, with the glum mood of his new friends around him, there was weight on his shoulders all the same. He wanted to fix it but he hadn’t the slightest idea how to do that.
By the time the gang made it back to his family’s beach house, nobody had felt particularly jovial. Zuko thought to himself that he had a few choice words for one Pu-on Tim, certainly, but he was not quite as shaken about the play as the others were. It was probable that it was because he knew more of the Ember Island Players’ atrocities that he knew how to tune it out afterward, but the others were not so desensitized. Even Toph, who had taken quite a liking to the play at first, fell silent upon their return to the house. That, or he was simply too used to people wanting him dead; for his friends, this was new and unsettling in a way they’ve never had to deal with before.
The cheers of the audience echoed in their heads in a way they could not forget.
It was difficult enough to process that someone wanted you dead – this was something Zuko had had years of experience with, certainly, so that it didn’t really bother quite him as much anymore – but it was another thing entirely to hear an entire room full of people rejoice at the thought of you burning to a crisp. His Agni Kai was like that, yes, but no one had cheered, he thought. It was macabre enough that someone from the Earth Kingdom romanticised their demise, it was another thing to hear that so many people wanted it to happen.
Those people wanted them to burn.
How do you live after that? How do you live peacefully when you know, when you’ve heard, when you’ve seen that there were so many people who wanted you to die in flames?
From his time in the Earth Kingdom as a refugee, he was no stranger to the more morbid fantasies of commoners – of those who had suffered many losses in this war – for the fall of the Fire Nation. In time, he’d come to realise the sins of his forefathers and would never begrudge them their hatred of him and his family’s empire. They were owed their musings against him.
There were daydreams of destruction on either side, as is what happens in war, and these are the stories that children will be told as they lay to bed at night. Don’t worry, little one, a mother might be saying as she tucked her child to bed – Fire Lord Ozai will soon destroy the Avatar and all will be well and we shall finally, truly prosper.
The idea was chilling as the Crown Prince of the Fire Nation thought it through, and he remembered how he used to laugh at the idea of entire enemy towns burning to the ground. What used to be a comfort brought him great shame now. He’d known that his Uncle must have felt it so many years ago. This was not new, he knew, but he’d only been recently awake to the grimness of it all. To the injustice of it, for it was now that he was grown himself.
How horrid must it be, that so many of the tales you told children had the death of other children be their happy ending? It was enough to send anyone on the side of good into a personal turmoil, he understood that, as stoic as he was. It was not fair that this was the world they’d been born into – all of them, these children who have never really known true peace. (With the exception of Aang, he thought, who’d been born into an entirely different world.)
Zuko thought of Aang then, as he sat in the quiet (alone in the dead of the night; crickets chirping and birds of the night flocking to their homes in the trees), and thought it was not fair for a child, even one as powerful as the Avatar, to have had to hear the cheers of people rooting for him to fall into flames.
After all, the prince was no stranger to being burnt. It was not a fate he wished upon anyone.
In the back of his mind, he decided that he will push Aang even more in training now, in this last fortnight that they had left before the comet came – if only in the hope to prevent that ending from ever happening. Aang will fight back; that boy will not burn or bear the same scars he did; he will not meet the same fate Zuko faced when he was but thirteen years old.
Still, those were tomorrow’s worries. And maybe, tomorrow will be kinder.
For now, they had deserved a bit of quiet. They had earned their rest. A war waged by men that had been long dead by now, a war that had been raging for a hundred years was still going on. The world was on the brink of burning to ash – but they were only children who never chose this life. Skilled soldiers and want-to-be, would-be saviours – but they were still only children.
Sometimes, they should be allowed to be just that.
Zuko sighed; bright, crackling flames passing from his lips as he did so.
Aang had retired to bed promptly upon their return to the house. The rest of them followed suit – with the exception of Katara, who opted to take a walk by herself, and him. She’d said as much when she left without another word, without turning back. While the others might have once protested this or have offered to go with her, hardly anyone had the energy to have to deal with the aftermath of that play so soon. They’d let her go off on her own, each of them understanding their own respective needs for some time to process this night on their own terms. When everyone else had opted to go to bed after a while, Zuko stayed behind to wait.
He sharpened his Dao swords and Sokka’s space sword. He kept the lamps lit, waiting and meditating and thinking about his place in this universe in silence, as the waxing moon shone brightly up in the night sky. The moon would be full upon the rise of Sozin’s comet, he calculated. It brought him a little bit of comfort, that. Katara would be fighting with them and once night falls, she’d be at her most powerful.
When a few hours had passed and he could no longer sit still, he strode out to where he knew she’d gone – to where he knew she’d be. The beach, in a way, had become their place now – with neither of them saying anything about it. It had been a week since his episode at the beach, after all.
The house, while already warmer with the presence of his friends, was still home to memories he’d rather not remember right then. The walls would always haunt him with memories of his father imprinted in his mind as if Ozai’s shadows billowed like curtains hanging on the windows in the night. But the beach was always a place that could bring him some comfort – or, at the very least, some semblance of peace.
He guessed, in his heart of hearts, that Katara might have felt the same.
Ember Island is a magical place, he remembered Li and Lo saying.
The beach has a special way of smoothing even the most ragged edges.
The moon shone brightly above her.
She’d lost all sense of time as she watched the waves rise and fall. Katara didn’t know how long she’d been there. The silence had become eerie and, while the cold never used to bother her, the chill from the sea breeze made goosebumps appear on her skin. A shiver down her spine. And by the time she was thinking of seeking shelter and warmth, he arrived.
“I thought I might find you here,” came Zuko’s voice from behind.
His footsteps were light upon the wood of the dock as she sat on the edge of it, her toes just barely touching the ocean’s surface. Katara hadn’t heard him walk to her until he’d spoken – he’d always been so stealthy that he might not have realised he was doing it.
How is it that whenever she would storm out on her own – he’d be the one to seek her out? It wasn’t unwelcome but it was certainly new; it wasn’t something she was used to. Before in their group, she’d simply returned to their group in calmer spirits, her anger unspoken and they’d supposed she’d just gotten over it. Zuko, however, did no such thing. He was never quite that presumptuous.
She kept her back turned to him, her feet swinging back and forth as she lightly bent small waves and splashes along the water.
“Not in the mood, Zuko,” she said, quiet and dour. A lie. Katara knew she could use the company.
“If this is the part where you throw the ocean at me, let me know so I can duck,” he tried to joke. She could hear it in his tone that part of him was as serious as he always was – and she supposed that this was an intelligent guess on his part. It wasn’t like it’d be the first time.
Despite her knowing all of this, she turned her head towards him and glared. Zuko stopped where he stood and only looked her in the eye. In the light of the moon, he looked so pale but the red and yellow of his clothes still stood out – and his eyes, those bright eyes that shone like twin suns, looked at her with some trepidation.
That made her stop.
Though she still frowned at him, her shoulders fell as she sighed. She turned her head back to look at the distant line where the sky met the sea.
“Are you okay?” he asked softly.
“No,” she replied.
“Do you…” he tried. “Do you really want to be alone right now?”
A splash of water from her feet as she kicked aimlessly. He waited, silent.
“I don’t know,” she said.
A measured breath. Katara didn’t look at him but she could feel him moving and she pictured him scratching the back of his head, looking for the right question to ask her at the tip of his tongue.
“Do you want me to go get someone you want to maybe talk to?” he asked, finally.
The softness in the prince’s tone made her lips twitch into a small smile that fell just as quickly as it came. He would leave if she asked him to, she knew. That was enough. Katara bowed her head just so and turned slightly.
“No,” she said. She raised her head to meet his eyes again and he stared at her, mouth agape as if he didn’t quite know what to do. A pause later, she whispered, “Could you stay?”
Zuko didn’t say anything in response.
He simply walked over to where she was sat down and sat down next to her. He rolled his trousers up to his knees and he let his legs dangle over the dock’s edge too. The cool saltwater kissed his skin with small splashes as the waves tossed and turned by the whim of the wind – or was it the pull of the moon spirit herself? Who knew?
The pair sat in comfortable silence for a while, witnessed only by the waxing moon and the stars in the sky. Already, she felt warmer – maybe that’s just what firebenders did, by virtue of their inner fire. He kept throwing shy glances at her, words at the tip of his tongue but he hesitated from speaking them for fear that they might be the wrong thing to say. So, he simply waited. She’d talk to him when she was ready. And she’d asked him to stay, so she wanted him there, he reasoned.
Perhaps being there was enough.
“What was that play you mentioned earlier?” Katara asked after a while. “The one you said you watched every year with your family when you were younger?”
That took him aback. He chuckled.
“Love Amongst the Dragons,” he replied, smirking. “It was my mother’s favourite play. Whenever a theatre troupe performed it nearby, she would always try to get us to go see the show at least once. So, the Ember Island Players ended up doing a regular performance whenever they knew the royal family was coming, because they knew she liked it enough to see it – no matter who was playing it.”
Katara watched him as he spoke. It cheered her, somewhat, to hear of his mother. That’s something we have in common, he’d said to her once. Hearing his stories made her feel better too, even just a little bit.
“What was that play about?”
“It was about a Dragon Emperor called Noren,” he explained. “A Dark Water Spirit cursed him to live as a mortal. The experience humbled him because he fell in love with a mortal woman. In the end, Noren defeats the Dark Water Spirit and breaks free from the curse because of his love for the mortal, who turns out to be the Dragon Empress. It took him losing everything he thought he wanted to figure out what it was he already had in front of him.”
How serendipitous. He licked his lips as he fumbled with his fingers on his lap.
“I remember my mother always loved the Dragon Empress’ last lines; she kept mouthing along to it.”
“You can’t say that and not tell me what the line is,” Katara teased, lightly elbowing his arm. The corner of his lip lifted into a small smirk. He made an amused noise and shook his head.
“Only with your glory hidden in false form could you finally recognise my devotion,” he said – though not begrudgingly in the slightest. There was a fondness to his tone and a softness in his eyes as he looked at the dark, splashing water beneath their feet. She smiled as she watched him remember.
“Do you know why she liked it so much?”
“No. I never got the chance to ask,” he said lowly. “I was only eleven when she left.”
Katara’s face fell but Zuko’s expression was one she could not read.
As difficult, as saddening as Ursa’s departure was from his life, there was hope in that tale. She was out there somewhere, alive. Which was more than the ashes he’d thought her bones had already become. There was some comfort in that. But it wasn’t quite enough, not for either of them. The aura between them kept shifting as the pair kept too many words unspoken; the grave truth begging to be set free from heavy hearts. They sat in the quiet despite this.
Soon, he spoke again.
“I found a hidden stash of masks a few weeks after that day—they’re the masks that the actors used for the different characters in that play. I don’t know for sure, but I think they were my mother’s. They’ve got to be hers. Nobody likes that play more than she does.”
He barked a quick laugh as a memory resurfaced quickly from this train of thought.
“I stole one, actually,” he admitted. “The mask of the Dark Water Spirit.”
“Why didn’t you take the Dragon Emperor one?” she asked.
“When we were kids, Azula and I played the fight scenes after we watched the play. It was one of our favourite games. She was always the Dragon Emperor and I was the Dark Water Spirit,” he explained.
“Do you still have it?”
“The mask? No,” he said. “I, uh—I lost it in Ba Sing Se.”
“How did you lose it?” she asked, brows knit together as she tilted her head. “It’s not like you used it, is it? Unless you have a secret Earth Kingdom theatre background you’ve never told me.”
“What do you mean I didn’t use it?” he asked in return. She was about to say something to that when she watched as he gave her a look. Katara could see the gears working in his head as he pieced it all together. He said, “Wait—you don’t know? Aang never told you?”
“Aang never told me what?” she asked, indignant.
Zuko gave her a look – brows furrowed, lips in a pout. She blinked at him and shrugged. But his lips slowly grew to a smile, then a grin.
And then she was graced with a rare spectacle indeed – the ever-stoic and perennially grumpy Crown Prince of the Fire Nation, doubled over in laughter. Her pupils dilated at the scene, and she was breathless at the sound. Sure, she’d seen him laugh before – quick, more like a chuckle that you’d miss if you blinked. This was a hearty laugh – one that made lines appear and protrude from the corner of his eyes.
“What?” she asked. His laughter had only begun to subside then and she nudged his arm with her elbow again.
“What is it?” she prodded again. He palmed his cheek as he caught his breath, grinning so widely she could still see his teeth. She narrowed her eyes at him, playfully pouting her lips. “Are you laughing at me?”
“No!” he said quickly, but the smile stayed on his lips. “No, I—I just can’t believe he never told you guys.”
“Oh, for La’s sake—tell me what?” she asked, her voice rising.
“Katara, I was the Blue Spirit!” he said, finally. Her jaw dropped and her eyes went so wide, it was like they inflated.
“In the play? In—I mean, in real life? That was the Dark Water Spirit mask. I never really knew why they called me the Blue Spirit. I guess the play’s not as popular as I thought,” he said, scratching the back of his neck. He shrugged. “But I thought my swords might have given me away.”
“But…” she started. Her blue eyes looked at every which way as if trying to piece the narrative together, but found that her mouth ran off before she could form a concrete response to that. “The sw—but—the—I…”
Zuko only smiled and raised his scarred brow bone.
“But… you were the one who captured Aang and locked him up!” she declared, gesturing with her hands as if she were displaying the sea on sale. “How could you be the Blue Spirit?”
“That play was mostly garbage and you know it!” he said, his voice rising to meet her tone, gesturing wildly as well. “I didn’t capture Aang. Zhao did. I set him free.”
“When did this happen?”
“I don’t know!” he shrugged.
“But it was your mother’s mask—how could you lose it?” she asked. Katara raised her hand and brought just by her chest as she gestured with her fingers, counting down her reasons as she tried to make sense of this new information. “If you’d gotten captured, people would’ve figured it out, and you’d be—”
“It was Uncle who convinced me to leave it behind, back at Lake Laogai,” he said, cutting her off. “I never told him where I’d gotten it and, really, the whole thing had just started to mean something else when I became the Blue Spirit. And who I was behind that mask – who I was back then? That’s not what my mother taught me to be.”
The waves rose and crashed along the wood, the rocks, and rolled towards the shore. Behind them were the ever-present but soft chirping of crickets. It was quiet again for a moment after that; she, unsure of how to respond, and he, trying to piece together what to say. She waited because she knew there was more he wasn’t telling her – more that he wanted to say.
And maybe, just maybe, she wasn’t quite ready to talk about her own woes just yet.
This was the default when one spent most of her life playing carer. Despite Zuko being the one who’d reached out to her and found her here to offer her comfort, here she was again – trying to piece him together into a picture more whole than the one she’d previously believed him to be.
When you’re a carer, she felt, you don’t know how to be when you’re being cared for. And she didn’t. This was still new.
He, on the other hand, found her gaze unnerving. Her blue eyes were earnest as they reached into his and she listened without selfish intent. She would not judge him for his sins he’d already repented for; she kept no record of his wrongdoings once she’d forgiven him. And she already had, he knew, but it was still something that he had trouble understanding.
Katara would not call him pathetic for his musings. She would not turn him away – she’d sought him out before and he’d bled out his breaking heart at her hands and she still did not turn him away. She’d stayed, and she promised to stay. Now and always.
So, he spoke, because he knew she would listen. She would understand. And when she was ready to speak to him, he would do the same for her.
“When I first saw Appa in chains at Lake Laogai,” Zuko started. “I wanted to use him to get to Aang and somehow bring him back to my father. I had no plan and I was desperate. Nothing mattered to me back then, when I’d found out I wasn’t just banished anymore – I was a fugitive. What difference did anything I do make? And if I’m being honest, that was when I started to put together that everything I’ve been taught about the supremacy of the Fire Nation was a lie. And it’s when I started to really question who I was or… who it was I’d become.
“For a long time after that, I didn’t know what to do with myself,” he said, bowing his head. His voice had grown quiet and the memories came to the surface for both of them. The memory was not pleasant – and yet, it was necessary to have brought them both here. She put a hand on his arm and squeezed – a gesture of comfort, a reminder of her forgiveness. She gave him a short, small smile. He continued.
“When Azula offered me a chance to go back home, where everything made sense to my old life and I thought everything would go back to normal, I couldn’t—” he tried to say but instead he took a deep breath and swallowed.
“I didn’t want to say to no,” he admitted. “I thought it’d be easier to get everything I thought I ever wanted instead of facing a new truth I’d been so blind to for so long.”
“I…” Katara tried. “I didn’t realise how hard it must have been for you to choose.”
“No, it was easy,” he said, a humourless smirk on his lips. “Living with it afterward was the hard part.” He sighed and steam passed from his lips and rose to the night sky. “I had everything I ever wanted but… my uncle was in my head. I didn’t know it then but it’s all so clear to me now.”
Speechless, she reached out to touch the back of his hand with hers. He looked at it and he smiled again.
“You know,” he started as his voice was reduced to a whisper. “The last time I was here, I remember being so… so angry.”
“Big surprise there,” she tried to tease as she withdrew her touch to lay her hands atop her lap. Zuko balled his hands then to a fist, suddenly cold.
“I was so angry with myself,” he said. “I was angry for being confused even though I was supposed to be happy. By the time I stood up to my father, I realised that it was because for so long, I’d just done what he wanted. I worked so hard to be who he wanted me to be. And what he wanted wasn’t—it didn’t feel like me, it wasn’t me. It—I don’t know how to explain it but the son he wanted was never the man I wanted to be. I found myself soon after that, I think. And I knew my destiny when I stopped lying about what it is I wanted.”
“And what do you want, Zuko?” she asked.
He looked up at the moon, then. He closed his eyes and breathed in the cool, ocean breeze and felt the fire in the pit of his stomach warm his bones. It wasn’t the first time someone had asked him that very question and for the longest time, he hadn’t known how to answer that. He thought he knew – he’d wanted his honour back, his claim to the throne, his father’s love and acceptance. But when he closed his eyes, those things weren’t what his heart desired.
He closed his eyes and saw the bright sun. He heard his little sister’s joyful little laugh as she tried to run after him with her stubby little toddler legs. He saw his mother’s gentle smile and bright gold eyes that looked so much like his and his sister’s. He saw the bright blue waves rolling and rushing towards the shore.
He remembered a time when fire did not consume him – when warmth meant the kiss of the sun, not an impending invasion. He thought of a time when he was truly nothing more than a child and he had no worries, no qualms, no seed of hatred in his heart.
And he knew then that that was what he wanted. That feeling. That bliss. That—
“Peace,” he answered simply. “For myself. For you and the others. For my people. For the world.”
To his surprise, Katara hummed with light amusement, her lips pressed together in a tight smile. When he looked, he could’ve sworn that he saw her blue eyes sparkle, mirth shining from them like moonbeams.
“What?” he asked, shrugging his shoulders.
“It’s just—I never would’ve imagined this from the boy who raided my village all those months ago,” she said.
Pink rose to his cheeks, even in the cast of silver glow from the moon that lit him up. He forced a smile, swallowed, and scratched behind his ear. Katara put a hand on his arm again and squeezed. “And I never would’ve thought that same boy would be one of my best friends now.”
“Really?” he said. He raised a brow. “I’m your best friend?”
“Well, one of them,” she relented teasingly as she rolled her eyes. She pursed her lips and considered it as she looked up at the moon. She knit her brows together, shook her head, and added, “Actually, no. You are my best friend now, I think. There’s nobody who I’d—I don’t know. There’s nobody I’d rather talk to than you.”
The smile Zuko gave her then was one she would always remember. Despite the scar on his face, the way his bright, golden eyes softened at the idea made him look so gentle, so young, so kind. And so beautiful.
“It’s weird, right?” she said, grinning.
“I know,” he agreed. He bowed his head again, and stared at his swaying feet, and said, “I think you’re my best friend too.”
A shiver went down her spine and she laughed, sitting up just a little bit straighter. She bent a small splash of water to hit his feet and he grinned as well.
“Don’t tell Sokka,” he added.
“Oh, I’m going to tell Sokka,” she joked.
“I guess I can’t help that,” he said.
Katara bit her lip and looked to the tranquil sea that bore witness to this friendship recognised between this prince of fire to this master of water – they who’d become so much together in such a short amount of time that it was nearly as natural as breathing. She supposed that that’s simply what happened when a seed was planted – roots would grow and latch on to the foundation, and something would sprout. Something would blossom.
Euphoric is what this feeling was called – ignorant bliss that she lived in, a distraction he’d offered her as a cushion from the hurt she’d also buried. Weeds still grew in gardens with good seeds, after all, and for a moment, she’d very nearly forgotten what it was they were doing there in the first place. She would have to remember it eventually, no matter how much she could try to push it aside and forget about it, and she thought, so would he.
He didn’t, though, and she knew it was coming before he even opened his mouth. It was in the way he kept throwing glances her way as he read her, trying to see if it was time. After a while, Zuko finally cleared his throat and asked, “So… one best friend to another… you want to talk about it?”
Katara grit her teeth but her lips showed a forced, pouting smile. There it was.
“Are we doing that now?”
“Sorry. You don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to,” he said quietly.
From how he spoke, and because of who he is, she knew it to be earnest. If she told him right then that she didn’t want to talk about it, then they wouldn’t. He wouldn’t force her into opening up to him. He would never overstay his welcome; he would stand there and let her process what she needed to do on her own, and only come to her when she wanted him to.
It was a power he’d showed her she had since Whale Tail island; no, since the Western Air Temple – it was the power of an agency with which she was unfamiliar. She could say no and he would accept it without question. They could stop at the laughter and drop everything, and he wouldn’t mention it. She knew that.
And who knew that this child of fire could be so patient? Fire wasn’t always as kind, he’d said to her once, but he was. Did he not know that? Perhaps, she should have expected that not all flames were raging destruction; some of them held the heart and warmth of home. He’d taught her that so many times by now.
Her eyes shone. Her lip trembled, truth still begging to be set free. And she couldn’t take it anymore.
“It’s that stupid play,” she admitted. “Obviously, I hate how it ended, but—” Katara swallowed, trying to put her thoughts together. “I hate that that’s what they think of me. What people think of me. What you guys think of me.”
“That’s not what I—” he tried to say but she cut him off.
“I don’t think I heard you stand up for me back there,” she said curtly, ice in her tone.
“How they played you out there wasn’t what I think of you!” he argued, heated. “Nothing they said about anything was true!”
“Then what do you think of me?”
“What does it matter?”
“What does it matter?!” she asked, incredulous and with a rage that rose as quickly as a tidal wave, with all the force of a hurricane. Zuko didn’t flinch but he looked to her with those big sad eyes, and he listened. Katara wanted to cry.
“They wrote me as if I’m some—some helpless little girl who does nothing but cry and flirt with boys and give stupid speeches!” She waved a hand forcefully and a large wave from the ocean darted outward. Zuko watched the water go and went back to the bender who was controlling it. Her voice started to break and he saw tears starting to fall from her eyes – ones she furiously tried to wipe away just as quickly as they fell.
“All those people want us gone and dead, and they want the world to burn and for what? What is this all even for?! And I’m so confused and angry about this war and everything it’s caused for us!” she said, her hands gesturing wildly as she did and the waves followed its master’s whims. He felt his trousers slowly getting soaked from the seawater and, with the whim of his inner fire, he let it dry and steam out slowly. “And all this fighting, and all of this, and I—Spirits above, what does this say about who we are and who we are to each other and what’s going to happen to us after this and who are we going to be after this, and I’m scared but I—I just—”
Her hands rose to clutch at her wild hair and the water, he saw, was slowly starting to freeze – and crack. He was still where he sat, uncertain of how to react. Part of him wanted to help her thaw out the ice he knew was in her veins; to fold her into his arms in comfort, just as she had to him when he was breaking. To help. He just didn’t know how; he didn’t know if he’d be welcome.
Katara yelled and put her head in her hands. The ice she’d made cracked open, with little icebergs now floating along the Ember Island shoreline. Tentatively, he tried put a hand on her shoulder and rubbed gently. She swallowed and her shoulders started to relax. She looked up at him with tear-rimmed eyes and trembling lips, and he did not hesitate this time. Zuko put his arm around her shoulders and held her to him.
She did not fight it. With a turn of her head, she cried against his chest and she could feel his heartbeat. She wrapped her arms around his middle and held him tightly. Throughout her rage, he remained silent. He let her be angry, offering only a warm, steady hand and embrace that anchored her back home to herself.
Her breathing started to grow slow and steady against him and he did not move. Her downcast gaze was upon the sea, little icebergs already starting to melt back into saltwater. The night grew darker as dawn approached and Zuko held her as if it were the simplest thing in the world. She felt him rest his cheek against the top of her head. She sniffled and sighed.
“There’s a war going on,” she whispered. With a deft, graceful hand, she summoned a whip of water to rise from the sea. For no particular rhyme or reason, and the same could be said for any war at all. She let it fall back to the sea in a careless splash. “We’re at war but we’re just—we’re just kids and I’m so tired.”
“I’m sorry,” was all he knew how to say.
It was enough.
She didn’t say anything back for a while and she let herself be held. He closed his eyes and sighed. They sat together like that in peaceful quiet. And then, Katara let out her final grievance.
“Aang kissed me again,” she said, out of the blue.
“Oh?” he asked with a start. She felt his arm stiffen as if he were about to jerk his arm away from her. But it was in the way she said it that he could tell this was just another thing that was bothering her. So, he asked.
“What do you mean again?”
“He did it before…” she answered, trailing off. “Before the invasion, on the day of Black Sun, just before the fighting started. And he did it again tonight. He said he thought we’d be together after that first kiss and I told him I didn’t know about that and that we’re at war and I was confused and he just kissed me like that’s supposed to do anything, and I—”
Words caught in her throat, she didn’t know how to finish that sentence. She leaned against him even more, comfortable and more content than she would allow herself to think about right then, and gestured as she spoke. With this predicament, there was more life in her as her voice was steady, though high, and this was an easier trespass to smooth over.
In the back of his mind, Zuko remembered their own little fictional dalliance in the crystal catacombs. He remembered the blush on his cheeks and the shiver up his spine as he recalled the actors talking about feelings he didn’t quite want to acknowledge. But when their Zuko had called Katara, ‘the Avatar’s girl’, he remembered how the young Avatar had given a stiff nod to the line.
At the time, he’d thought nothing of it. A minor detail, to which the airbender had promptly stormed out when the actors on stage shared an intimate embrace – quite like the one they were in together now. He tried not to think about that too much right then, though he felt his heart beat quicken at the realisation that Katara was leaning against him and that this girl – this girl, his newly realised best friend – he was only just beginning to recognise that he liked – really liked – was in his embrace. He swallowed.
“Are—are you guys… together?” he asked, wary.
“No,” she answered. “But he wants us to be.”
“Do you… want to be with him?”
“I—” she started. She raised her head up to look at him, the question in her eyes before she spoke the words from her lips. He blinked at her as she said, “I think I have to? I mean, he’s the Avatar. He’s the hero of the story. Isn’t he supposed to get the girl he wants?”
“That doesn’t really sound very much like you. It’s a little out of character,” he said. Katara felt him shrug as she returned to her position of her head resting against his heart. He continued, “And why should what he wants be the only thing that matters? He might be the Avatar but it’s your life. Has he even asked you about… about what you felt? About what you want?”
She tilted her head to the side and thought about for a few seconds before she answered, “No, actually.”
“Just because he kissed you doesn’t mean he gets to have you if that’s not what you want from him,” he said. “That’s not how this works. You don’t have to like someone just because they like you, or because you think you might not have a choice because they’re the Avatar, or… something. You don’t owe him. Katara, you don’t owe anyone.”
She offered him a small smile for that, her first one since she’d finally let the anger wash out of her. There was freedom in this truth she shared, she found, and she felt free with him – her best friend, as she’d now admitted to both him and herself. She felt real. And seen.
“I don’t know if I like Aang that way,” she started saying, quiet and thoughtful. “The more I think about it, the more I just… he is like a brother to me. Someone I have to protect and take care of. But to tell you the truth, I’m not really that honest with Aang. I don’t think I can be. I just feel like I always have to—I don’t know, go easy on him? He’s been through so much and he’s got so much responsibility and I—I coddle him, I know that. I do. Toph tells me off about it all the time but I can’t help it.”
“You’re like his mom or his older sister, the way you fuss about him,” he said. “But I could see how he’d think that means something else from you, I guess. He’s just a child.”
“And we’re only teenagers,” she argued.
“But we’re all different from each other,” he countered. “Your tribe struggled to keep itself alive and you had to grow up much faster than he did.”
“But he’s just lost so much—”
“So have you,” he reasoned. “So have I.”
“He doesn’t know any better,” she said. “He hasn’t known anything else. Monk Gyatso always took care of him and protected him. Who else would—”
“You’re not Monk Gyatso, though. And he can’t be taken care of forever,” said Zuko. “It’s not your job to do that. Being with someone shouldn’t be a job in the first place. You should be someone because—because… Uh—”
He swallowed, trying to find the words. He had a point, he did, but the words seemed to have floated away from his head before he had the time to speak them. He trailed off and his brows furrowed as she tried to think.
“Being with someone is…” he tried again. She turned her head to face him, looking him in the eye and he found that he could not look away from her even if he wanted to. And he didn’t want to. He said, “You’re partners. On equal ground – in mind and spirit. And you’re together, because… because you both want to be.”
At his last point, his mouth felt dry. He imagined that her eyes flitted to his parted lips then and he held his breath. His chest grew tight and he was certain that Katara could tell how his heartbeat felt different now. Too focused was he on his own reactions that he couldn’t quite tell that she mirrored his reactions almost exactly. And she thought he would be able to see it.
Eyes turned downcast, she spoke her thoughts out loud – not really thinking it through, and just letting them flow. She said, “When I imagine spending time with Aang—I see me trying to take care of him, or us sparring, or him trying to show off some new bending trick, or… or something. Something like that. There’s always something. But it’s—I don’t ever see myself with him when it’s quiet, you know? Or maybe not that, maybe just living life from day or day, or when… when it’s me who needs someone, it’s—”
Katara looked at Zuko, and he looked at her, and they each held their breath in their lungs and felt as if they would combust from the inside out. Him, all liquid fire burning in his veins that begged for reprieve; her, the whole ocean contained in flesh that pleaded for release.
He swallowed and tried to look away, but when his gold eyes found blue again, he could not deny this. And he knew what he wanted to do and thought of doing but didn’t, considering the scene and what she’d just said.
She looked up at him and licked her lips, and looked at his. She fought to speak the words at the tip of her tongue but when she looked up at him, there was only silence.
They weren’t idiots.
They knew what this was, what was happening – deny it in their hearts as they might try.
But they were still only kids, with heartbeats too loud and too fast when everything had just been rage and then quiet just a few moments prior. They were all hesitation and impulsivity at the same time. There was too much; this wasn’t the time for all of that so soon.
She sighed and looked up at him when she said quietly, finally, as a warm flush rose to her cheeks, “It’s not Aang I’m looking for.”
Zuko edged away slightly, as did she, and he dropped his arm. He rested his palm atop the wood of the dock, his arm still just behind her; just no longer touching, for he felt that his palms were beginning to sweat. He swallowed. She pressed her lips together and tried to ignore the creeping, crawling sensation at the back of her neck.
“When you kiss him,” he whispered. “What do you feel?”
“I haven’t kissed him,” she answered in a huff, crossing her arms against her chest. “He kisses me. There’s a difference.”
“Okay, and what do you feel when he does that?”
“I don’t know, confused?” she replied. “Weird, mostly.”
“And have you ever, uh—kissed someone else?”
“Uh…” she trailed off. Memories of another war-beaten boy with wild hair and straw between his lips passed through her mind’s eye but she shook it off just as quickly. But her eyes did go wide and she avoided his gaze before she answered with a forced smile. “Yes?”
“And… when you kissed… that person… were you confused then?”
“No,” Katara answered immediately. Clear as day. “No, I—I wanted to kiss him then. Not now, though. He was a jerk, and—but—”
“Doesn’t matter now,” he said. Not dismissive but in a way that relieved her from having to finish that thought. She threw him a look – a raised brow and parted lips as if she wanted to contest his interruption, but didn’t really want to. He continued, “But that is the kind of person who you’re supposed to kiss.”
“What is that supposed to—”
“People should kiss because they want to kiss each other, not because one of them feels like they have to do it,” said Zuko, trying not to look at her but his eyes were caught in her gravity. “It’s just kind of how it goes.”
“Have you ever been kissed?” she asked suddenly. He went red.
“Of course I’ve been kissed! I’ve kissed people!” he exclaimed. Brows raised, it was her turn to smirk and his face fell. His hand gestures were stiff as he tried to backtrack.
“Not—not a lot of people,” he tried. “I’m not that kind of guy or anything. Not that there’s anything wrong with—with kissing a lot of people, but I just—ugh, no. I’m just saying—”
She laughed and grinned as she looked up at him.
Shaking her head, she said, “Spirits, we’re at war and we’re talking about stuff like this and kissing.”
“It’s easier. This kind of stuff is what we have answers to. There’s a right way to—to, uh... see it through?” he said. “It’s the kind of stuff we should be talking about but we don’t always get that luxury. So, we take what we can – these moments when we can just be normal teenagers – when we can take it, and we hang on to them while they last.”
She smiled at him and said, “Thanks for coming to me so we could have this one.”
He returned the expression and licked his lips.
“You asked me what I think of you and I asked you why it matters,” he started, his eyelids feeling heavy. “I said that because… what I think about you? It shouldn’t matter.” He paused. “Azula had these mentors, Li and Lo. They took care of us while we were here a few months ago. And they said something to us and it didn’t make sense until we talked to each other and realised they were right. They’d said, ‘Like waves washing away the footprints on the sand, Ember Island gives everyone a clean slate. Ember Island reveals the true you.’”
“So, those Ember Island Players revealed the true me?” she deadpanned.
“No—” he tried but she cut him off.
“’Cause that’s really not what I want to hear right now,” she went on.
“You once came to me and told me you didn’t want what you wanted to hear,” he said, firm in his way. He was trying to make a point – the exhaustion made him braver and less polished. Or perhaps that was just an excuse to say what he wanted. The moon and her eyes had a tendency to pull the truth from his heart.
He continued, “I can give you the words you think you want but you can get that with other people. Empty comfort and things you’ve heard before and don’t believe anymore, sure. But you looked for me that night because I’m honest with you. Right now… can I be honest with you or would you rather I go get someone else?”
“I—” she started. Katara held his uncompromising gaze and felt her heart constrict in her chest. She swallowed and relaxed her shoulders, nodding up at him. “Yeah. I mean yes, you can. Be honest with me. Sorry.”
“I know it’s bothering you—how they wrote you in that play,” he said. “What other people think about you has been bothering you for a while. First, how Aang and Sokka think about you and how they think you’re all perfect. Now, this. And me. You’ve gone through so much and this… this is what bothers you? Why?”
“I don’t know,” she answered, shrugging her shoulders. Her tone was quiet as she answered him but it steadily rose and quickened as she got her point across. Throughout it all, Zuko remained patient and listened without interruption. “I’ve always just been—I’ve always been someone’s… something. I’m Sokka’s little sister. I’m the Chief’s only daughter. I’m the Southern Water Tribe’s last waterbender. I’m Aang’s teacher, his friend, and he wants me to be his girlfriend. And how that play wrote me as just this… this title, this weepy, pathetic girl, it… it made me wonder about what it is I am and what I want to be. Because even I don’t know.
“They basically forgot about me at the end of the play, as if I don’t do anything else after this war is over, and that made me think about… what am I going to be after this? I’ve never really thought about it before or talked about it. But even you think I’m just meant to go back to the Southern Water Tribe and help rebuild, and I will, and I want to! Yes! But… I don’t know if I could stay there the whole rest of my life after all of this. I don’t know what it is I want,” she concluded. With a sigh, she said, “I don’t know who I am.”
Katara leaned on him and he returned his hold of her, with an arm slung around her shoulders. She exhaled again and let them stay like that for a while. When she kicked, she felt the water by her feet now as the tide started to rise. Sunrise would come soon but for now, the moon shone brightly in the deepest, darkest of the night.
“Nobody can tell you what you want or who you are, Katara,” he said finally. “What I think, what Aang thinks, what anybody else thinks of you or of what you want… none of that matters. What you think for yourself about what you want and who you want to be—that’s the only opinion that should matter.”
She smiled and made a small sound – a mix between an exhale and a laugh. Relief.
He held her a bit tighter for that and before he could stop himself or think about it, he pressed his nose to the top of her head and breathed her in. Barely. An affection that came naturally to him, though the very concept of it had been nearly foreign to him before – only it hadn’t been.
He knew where this softer side of him had come from.
“I’m going to tell you something I think you need to hear,” he said softly. The way he’d said it – so seriously, and yet so gently – made her twist her head up to look at him. With a small smile, Zuko said, “No matter how things may seem to change, never forget who you are.”
“More words of wisdom from your uncle?” she asked.
“From my mother,” he said. Her eyes went wide again, mouth open. He added, “On the day she left. And I didn’t think much of it at first. At the time, I thought it was a dream.”
“Zuko…” she said, touched that he would share something so close to him with her.
“For the longest time, I’d forgotten what she said and I think that’s part of the reason why I was so angry with myself,” he said. “I’d forgotten who I was, just like how you’re trying to figure it all out now. So, ask yourself—what is it that you want? Who do you want to be?”
“Have you figured it out?” she tossed back at him. “Who you are?”
“Me?” he asked, incredulous. He dropped his arm from her and they edged away from each other again. His hands atop his lap, he flexed his hand and rubbed his sweaty palms against the fabric of his trousers.
“Right now, I just know I'm someone who never gives up without a fight,” he answered finally. “What about you? What do you think?”
“I’m—” she started and yawned.
She might have imagined the twinkle in his eyes when she did, as if he were endeared to her show of lethargy, as if he weren’t exhausted himself. Perhaps it was the impending rise of the sun, in just about an hour now, if she was right about the tides.
Katara lost herself in the thought and he added, “Dig deep. Search your heart for what feels true. Who are you?”
“I’m—” she tried again and closed her eyes this time.
As he’d asked, she dug deep. She listened to the waves of the ocean, almost as if it was calling out to her. Katara thought of Yue, who’d become the Moon Spirit – she who always knew deep down that hers was a borrowed life and aptly returned it. Yue was a young woman who knew her duty and held herself to it above all else, for her people and for the world.
Katara thought of her mother – brave Kya, who stared a Fire Nation Commander in the eye and lied to him to protect her, thinking she’d be captured and tortured as a prisoner and doing it anyway. Kya’s was a mother’s duty, carried with a Southern Water Tribe woman’s bravery.
Katara thought of her grandmother, Kanna – she who’d run away from everything and everyone she’d ever known for a new life… any life that meant she could make her own choices and not be held to a patriarchal standard of a woman should be. It had taken a lot of courage, she’d thought then and she thought now.
Katara thought of herself and she tried to think of a moment in her short life that she thought and felt most defined her, the way the women she’d known had been defined by one moment in her memory. And she remembered the mark she’d earned from Bato that day when Sokka finally went ice dodging – she’d earned the mark of the brave, a crescent moon between her brows, for it was her courage that inspires.
She thought of how when she was a child, and helpless, she’d turned her back and run from the site that would be her mother’s end. She thought of the ruthless, righteous rage she knew she was capable of. She thought of herself fighting to earn the right to learn and fight beside the others like her. She thought of her darkness and of her light, of her shame and of her pride, of her fear and of her courage.
When she thought of a single moment in time to condense it all, one scene that encapsulated everything she knew about herself, it wasn’t the cold that came to mind but a little Fire Nation fishing village, filled with the sick and starving and dying. Katara thought of the soldiers that threatened them and hurt them, and not once did she think that those were not her people or her responsibility. They were people who needed her to help them, heal them, and save them.
And while afraid, she’d stayed anyway.
If not her, who? she’d thought then. If not now, when?
And she knew her answer to Zuko’s question.
“I will never, ever turn my back on people who need me,” she said, somber as the realisation made to rest easy on her bones, the truth wrapping around her like a comforting fur quilt.
Zuko smiled. “Feels good, doesn’t it?”
“It does,” she said with a nod, grinning up at him.
“And just so you know, I think you’re incredible,” he said. “You’re so brave that it can make you a bit bullheaded and careless sometimes. But you’re still also the kindest person I’ve ever known. And you’re hardworking and smart and nurturing and funny and so forgiving and a little bossy that it gets kind of annoying sometimes, sure. And, Agni, you’re one of the most gifted benders I’ve ever fought and it’s terrifying, how good you are and how good you’ve gotten since I’ve met you and how ruthless you could be but how merciful you choose to be. You’re—you’re ambitious and clever and you never, ever give up and I respect that about you. I admire you a lot, Katara. You’ve never been less than a force to be reckoned with, with me.”
She only looked up at him with disbelieving eyes and parted lips, breathless and speechless.
His heart was racing in his chest and there was a nagging voice in his head that told him to stop – don’t do it, don’t do it… stop while you’re ahead.
He licked his lips and turned his head, the waging war inside him desperately trying to keep him from opening his stupid mouth.
“Can I still be honest?” he asked.
“Well, don’t stop now,” she said with a laugh.
No. Do stop. No, no, no, no, no. Just stop. Stop right now, something inside him was saying. Stop, stop—
“I like you,” he said finally and the pressure fell from him and he felt as if his bones had melted like wax. A buzz crept up his spine but he still couldn’t stop himself from adding, “I really like you.”
He’d frozen in place.
“Oh,” was all she could say.
Zuko cringed and scratched the back of his neck. More than anything, he wanted the ocean to rise and swallow him whole. He swallowed.
“I’m sorry,” he said quickly. “I—I know you probably don’t need this right now, I don’t even know why I said that. I—”
“Zuko, it’s okay. Really,” she said, a hand on his arm. “I—I think I may… kind of… like you too. I think.”
He turned his head swiftly. “What?”
“I’m not sure,” she told him. “We’re at war and there’s so much we still have to do but you’re so sweet, Zuko, and I like spending time with you, and—”
“No, I know, I know. You don’t have to explain,” he said quickly. “You don’t have to like me back. It’s okay.”
“But I do. I do like you too, I think,” she said, reaching to take his hand. His wide, golden eyes switched back and forth from her hand on his, and her own eyes looking up at him. His chest felt heavy, like something acidic was climbing up his throat. She continued, “It’s just—after everything I’ve just told you about Aang, I… it wouldn’t be fair to consider this right now. There’s just too much going on.”
He exhaled, almost in some strange sense of relief.
“I understand,” he said, nodding. “We can talk about it later—much later. After this is all over if you want.”
“That’d be great,” she said quietly, giving his hand a squeeze before she returned them to her person. She tucked a stray hair behind her ear and gave a nervous laugh as she tried to ignore the heat in her cheeks that felt sore from smiling too much. Katara pressed her lips together and licked them with the tip of her tongue. Zuko’s jaw was clenched as he grit his teeth, no doubt internally admonishing himself for saying what he’d said.
And he was, of course. But she’d also said she might like him back, so he wasn’t that entirely filled with regret.
Still, she clarified. “So, we’re not—we’re not… together. You get that, right?”
“I know,” he said. “Yeah, of course.”
“As long as we understand each other—”
“A mutual understanding,” he agreed, nodding.
“That’s what it is,” she said. “But really, though. Thanks for this, Zuko. For looking for me.”
“You don’t have to thank me,” he said. “You’re my best friend, no matter what happens. I like talking to you.”
“I like talking to you too,” she said, nudging him with her elbow. She tucked the tip of her tongue between her teeth as she gave him a cheeky, teasing grin and said in her best impression, “After all, Your Highness, I have to admit… I really find you attractive.”
“You don’t have to make fun of me,” he groaned with a sigh, throwing his head back and hating how natural it sounded from him. Pu-on Tim was going to be getting a very strongly worded letter once this war was over, he thought to himself. But surprisingly, he found himself smiling as he played along.
“But I mean it…” she said, hilarity loud as thunder and clear as rain in her tone.
“Stop, I can’t—”
The two friends laughed into the night – into the early morning light, both in considerably lighter spirits than before.
“La, that play was so awful,” she said.
“But I was wrong,” he amended. She raised a brow at him and he said, with a smirk and a look that was both sly and bashful at the same time, “Maybe it got some things right.”
“Not the end,” she argued, firm in her conviction. “Aang will win. And you won’t die horribly in a fire, yelling honour!”
“Azula uses lightning too so I might not die in fire,” he said with a shrug. “But if I die, I don’t mind. I just hope it’s honourable.”
“You won’t,” she said, punching his arm. “You’re not going to die. I won’t allow it.” A pause. “Now and always, remember?”
“I remember,” he said. “I’m with you.”
And in the dying light of the moon and the rising sun, the pair soon rose from the dock themselves and retreated to their temporary home to rest.
Their friends would note later on in the day that Katara had slept in much later than she usually did. Zuko himself had been a bit more sluggish than Aang was used to. Nobody wanted too much strain after yesterday’s events.
Despite the threat of looming, raging fire, despite the death and destruction of the uncaring war they were still soldiers in, there were always days in between, like today, that just deserved to be kinder.
So, this only took me like 500 years to update. Sorry. Hope this behemoth of an update makes it up to y'all! Belated happy zutara week 2018!
I also just want to take this time to say A MASSIVE THANK YOU ago everyone who has read this fic. Honestly, the response I’ve gotten since I last posted has been overwhelming and I’d never felt such appreciation for my work before in my life. I feel so humbled and so grateful for all of you. Thank you so much for reading and please, do tell me what you think of this update! Yell at me if need be. :)
We're going canon divergent, y'all.
“Yeah, the world is still sleeping
While I keep on dreaming for me.”
He should have known.
The day after they saw the play, no one was in particularly high spirits. Even Sokka was without his usual humour which reflected the group’s mood, really. The day after was more of the same, if a little lighter. He’d been lenient then, as frustrating as it was, but he’d been patient. Spirits, he had so patient. If his uncle didn’t completely revile his existence, his Uncle Iroh might’ve been proud.
In hindsight, he thought, his father would have called him a fool for not having noticed it sooner. Azula – always two steps ahead of him – would have picked up on it eons ago. Then, things might have gone so much differently just before the sun turned to darkness.
Things might not have gone this way and that, if only he’d seen it sooner. Sentiment had turned him blind and soft, his father would have said. Like his uncle. The Fire Lord would have disgraced him in front of his own council. See how soft this so-called warrior prince has become – how this dragon plays with his blades the way he plays at war.
‘After all, brother,’ he could hear Azula’s voice in his head; he knew the tone of her disdain whenever she called him that, the way a viper might spit out venom.
‘In all our games… the only thing you’ve ever been better at than me is knowing how to lose.’
Always a half-step behind, always just a little bit too late.
It took him a week to notice that something was off about Aang but said nothing of it. The kid had a lot to deal with, after all – and he was still the all-powerful Avatar. And Zuko tried to understand, despite his rigorous training methods; he did. Katara and Toph had started to train with Suki on non-bending combat, while sparring with him at every chance they got. Sokka had improved significantly with his swordsmanship after his regular sparring sessions with him. The routine of training felt safe; routine often does. It was comfortable. This was something he was used to. But Aang had seemed particularly distracted, even downright uninterested.
Zuko couldn’t begrudge him that, not really.
While the play had put their mortality into perspective, it also put the war’s intent into light as well. They were still soldiers of war – Aang most of all – and all of their training came to the same endgame as the enemy, albeit with very different outcomes for the world. Funny how millions of lives have perished in this great war only for its conclusion to be decided by two people – how many lives could have been saved if this conflict had only been resolved by politics instead of fire?
Still, this war would come to one or the other kind of conclusion. Ozai wanted the Avatar captured and left for dead without dying; Aang needed to kill the Fire Lord to restore peace.
To a prince who’d only ever known war, this was the only endgame he could imagine.
It was a lot to ask of a twelve-year-old to assassinate the most powerful political figure in recent history, especially someone like Aang. Zuko thought he understood that. He’d been so patient with them that the fact that they wanted to be patient too completely blindsided him.
And he should have known, he thought to himself.
He should have known.
The return to innocence had been an all-too sweet temptation that it shames her to admit she hadn’t been strong enough to resist. Wouldn’t you go back to simpler, more carefree times if you could?
Katara, but a girl of fifteen years, had reveled in the chance to be a child again, even for just a little while. There were tales about children like her, like them – they who had been lulled by the promise of warm meals at the table every night, tucked safely into bed.
In this paradise of privilege… it was easy to forget the sound of the screaming.
And, in truth, she had reason to resent the people who were before her for starting this whole war in the first place. Why should their wars be her wound to fix? But despite this bitter resentment, her heart remained steadfast and true to the cause. It was one of the greatest sins to suddenly be awake to such hardship and then choose to be blind to the suffering of others, to choose to have deaf ears at the sound of those who did not have the luck to tune it all out. For all of her resentment for the sins of her ancestors, she knew too well the resentment she’d deserve if she did not do anything to help when she could have.
And she could; she can.
But, for a while, she was lulled away from that conviction – until she wasn’t.
Three days before the comet arrived, they had decided to have a beach party of all things. That had been Zuko’s last straw.
Katara swam back as fast as she could, water bending beneath her capable hands, when she saw the flickers of flame struck on the beach. This was no campfire on the sand; she’d been on the receiving end of Zuko’s aggressive, offensive manoeuvres one too many times to know the difference. Upon reaching the shore, she and the remaining others ran as fast as they could back to the house. Fast as their legs could carry them and it still felt as if she was not quite fast enough.
(In three days time, her body would remember this exertion. And in three days time, it will feel too late all the same.)
By the time they neared the beach house, she heard a powerful gust of wind throttle Zuko from the wall and he crashed into the ground.
“What’s wrong with you?!” she chastised the prince as the Avatar delicately leapt and landed from the house. “You could have hurt Aang!”
Almost immediately, her chest felt heavy as he struggled to rise. Zuko had been thrown from a wall, two stories up, and into the ground with little cushioning. Though he’d struck first, no one offered him a hand up, letting him get up on his own. In hindsight, she regretted her lack of action. He hadn’t needed help, he never expected it, but that someone being there for him, she imagined, would have been welcome.
Instead, he was met with venom – so he spat it back like a wild beast, cornered.
“What’s wrong with me?!” he barked. “What’s wrong with all of you?! How can you sit around having beach parties when Sozin’s Comet is only three days away?!”
‘Oh,’ she thought to herself, guilt expanding in her core, weighing her down all the more. ‘He doesn’t know.’
Breath stilled on her lips and she knows by the silence of the others beside her that they thought the same thing. They gave each other a look – one of understanding, like chastised children who’d just been caught by their mother doing something that they shouldn’t have.
“Why are you all looking at me like I’m crazy?” he asked.
“About Sozin’s Comet…” Aang started. Katara braced herself for it and crossed her arms over her chest. “I was actually going to wait to fight the Fire Lord until after it came.”
“After?” Zuko echoed, incredulous.
“I’m not ready,” replied his student. “I need more time to master firebending.”
“And quite frankly? Your earthbending could use some work too,” Toph added.
“So…” said Zuko. “You all knew Aang was going to wait?”
Shame came – hot as blood in their veins but sharp as a dagger made of ice to the gut. Remorse washed over them in waves.
She knew it pierced them all – the guile in his tone, the betrayal it reflected.
They all knew except for him, as if he were still an outsider looking in on their little family once again. In her heart of hearts, she hoped that that’s not what he thought.
The reality of it was worse: he was used to it.
“Honestly, if Aang tries to fight the Fire Lord right now… he’s gonna lose,” said Sokka. He spoke it with a defeated nonchalance; a tone that said this was simply a fact he’d accepted long ago. Aang made a face – both of prideful but reluctant acceptance. “No offense.”
Zuko looked at them with lost, gold eyes. His brows furrowed.
Katara found her voice and it mellowed down, speaking to her friend with an apology laced in between the syllables. “The whole point of fighting the Fire Lord before the comet was to stop the Fire Nation from winning the war. But they pretty much won the war when they took Ba Sing Se.”
‘There it is,’ she thought.
It was the thought nobody wanted to address.
It was the truth nobody had wanted to say. But there it was, out in the open. Perhaps, they’d thought that by keeping it in silence and denying its existence meant that it could be a simple fever dream that they’d eventually wake up from. Truth, however, finds a way – it did not stop being the truth just because you did not believe in it.
“Things can’t get any worse,” she added.
“You’re wrong,” he said. His words, bomb-heavy. “It’s about to get so much worse than you can even imagine.”
He recounted that day with shameful, vivid clarity. He’d been the perfect prince his father had always wanted him to be – submissive to the commands of his elders and passively agreeing by the omission of his rebuttal. When you don’t speak out against an oppressor, he’d learnt that day, you side with him. Passivity in itself was a choice – you save yourself, falling asleep to the sound of the slaughter.
It was right then when he decided that he’d rather earn a hundred, a thousand scars like the one on his face than be a part of the blaze that turned the world to brimstone and bone.
A second genocide – with the Earth Kingdom as the target this time around. As if his people hadn’t committed enough atrocities as it was. With an already decimated Water Tribe at both ends of the earth, the entire world would spin into chaos. Everything would change, once again, if the fire nation attacks without resistance. There would be no balance left to restore for this Avatar or any other Avatar after him if the entire world turned to ash in the next three days—an entire world reigned by fire.
Nothing would ever be the way it was. There would be no recovering from fire like that. Balance as they knew it would cease to exist.
“I wanted to speak out against this horrifying plan,” said this Crown Prince of the Fire Nation. “But I’m ashamed to say I didn't. My whole life, I struggled to gain my father’s love and acceptance but once I had it? I realised I lost myself getting there. I’d forgotten who I was.”
He watched, helpless, as the weight of his tale made Katara fall to her knees in horror. Suki leaned into Sokka and he leaned into her – both of them against each other for balance, for comfort. Toph crossed her arms over her chest, steady as a rock – but even earth can be shaken. Her unseeing eyes betrayed nothing but he knew a stance of defence when he saw it.
“I can’t believe this,” said Katara, her voice low and raw, full of emotion.
“I always knew the Fire Lord was a bad guy but…” said Sokka. “His plan is just pure evil.”
Zuko said nothing, resigned, thinking that it seemed as if that that’s what he did best. Suki, stunned into silence, could only shake her head.
“What am I gonna do?” Aang asked himself.
“I know you’re scared. And I know you’re not ready to save the world. But if you don’t defeat the Fire Lord before the comet comes… there won’t be a world to save anymore.”
Ominous were the words that left the prince’s lips and such weight did they hold, as if he were some kind of seer. As if this were a prophecy. But this was no divination, no cosmic guessing game – these were the facts as he could see them.
The group looked to Aang as the words hung over him and held him by the neck like a noose.
“Why didn’t you tell me about your dad’s crazy plan sooner?!” said Aang, his voice raised in his panic.
“I didn’t think I had to!” Zuko retaliated, defensive. “I assumed you were still going to fight him before the comet. Nobody told me you decided to wait!”
Aang covered his face with his hands, fingers clawing at his skin as if he wanted to dig himself out of this existence. Just an hour ago, he’d been so carefree… his path and destiny to defeat the Fire Lord, temporarily shelved, as if he had the luxury to simply let it stew and resolve itself on its own. He did not have that luxury.
But he was still just a boy.
“This is bad…” he despaired. “This is really, really bad.”
Katara stepped toward him and spoke his name, bringing him back from drowning in his sorrow and panic like she was wont to do. “Aang,” she said. “You don’t have to do this alone.”
“Yeah!” said Toph, more spirited than she actually felt. “If we all fight the Fire Lord together, we’ve got a shot at taking him down.”
“Alright!” said Sokka. “Team Avatar is back!
“Air! Water! Earth! Fire! Fan and Sword!”
Sokka picked up leaves that he brandished about like a blade; he gave a fan-like one for Suki to hold as they all stood together as they all took who they were. They were just six children, trying to save the world.
“Fighting the Fire Lord is gonna be the hardest thing we’ve ever done together. But I wouldn’t want to do it any other way,” said Aang.
He, Katara, Toph, Sokka, and Suki all came together for a hug. Zuko stood where he was, uncertain of how to proceed, and happy to simply bear witness. Katara looked at him, however, and gave him a look that said he wasn’t getting away that easily.
“Get over here, Zuko,” she said. “Being part of the group means being part of group hugs.”
He huffed out a sigh, thinking that giving an argument would simply prolong the experience and they didn’t really have time to waste. He raised his arms to join in with the hug, not completely understanding the practise and not knowing the protocol for when it was time to break away. Suddenly, Appa joined and knocked them all to the ground.
So, really – they were six children, a flying lemur, and a ten-ton flying bison trying to save the world.
Who could ever have predicted this?
“There’s one technique you need to know before facing my father,” said Zuko.
Katara, who was sat by the steps, watching this training, took particular note of that. Knowing what she knew about Fire Lord Ozai, it struck her as odd that Zuko still cared about his father as much as he did – even to the point that he still called him father.
She said nothing and simply watched as she was sat there by the prince’s request, just in case of a medical emergency. He’d confessed that he hadn’t tried to conjure lightning – and he didn’t want to know how – but the practise of it might still pose some potential danger. And as Toph, Sokka, and Suki were busy trying make plans on how to train together as a group, training with Aang and Zuko was her best option anyway.
“How to redirect lightning,” Zuko continued. He moved with a grace and fluidity that she recognised but could not quite put her finger on. “If you let the energy in your own body flow, the lightning will follow it. You turn your opponent’s energy against them.”
“That’s like waterbending!” Aang exclaimed.
“Exactly,” he said. “My uncle invented this technique himself by studying waterbenders.”
Katara raised her brows at that. She had tried to learn waterbending by adapting airbending forms before, back when she was but a novice who had yet to find her master, and she thought the practise to have borne no fruit of any import. And yet, General Iroh had constructed a particular firebending form through studying waterbenders. She pondered on whether there was merit in that…
Maybe if she studied how firebenders fought…
“So… have you ever redirected lightning before?” Aang asked.
“Once,” Zuko answered. “Against my father.”
“What did it feel like?”
“Exhilarating,” he said without missing a beat. “But terrifying.”
Aang’s once excitable demeanour dropped at the thought of it as he continued to practise the redirection forms.
“You feel so powerful holding that much energy in your body but you know if you make the wrong move… it’s over.”
“Well, not over-over… I mean… there’s always Katara and a little spirit water action, am I right?”
She wanted to sigh but she only replied in a deadpan, “Actually, I used it all up after Azula shot you.”
“Oh,” Aang said, crestfallen.
“You have to take the Fire Lord’s life,” said Zuko. Katara noted that too – the switch between Zuko calling him both father and Fire Lord. He continued, ominous: “Before he takes yours.”
“Yeah… I’ll just do that.”
The rest of their training with lightning redirection was spent mostly in silence. Katara could read his face with her eyes closed for Aang wore his feelings not just on his sleeves but at his very fingertips. She could tell that Aang was truly letting the words stew in his soul as the gravity of what he was expected to do hovered over him. There would be no magic healing water to break him out of it this time. There were no excuses, there was no other way out that they could see.
She felt for him; she pitied her friend.
Zuko, however, was a stranger puzzle to put together.
He was home in the scent of incense and candle smoke. The softest hint of sage just about the room as he’d attempted to cleanse himself and his room in his meditation. Now, more than ever, did he feel that he needed a clear head – free of his demons. He had the rest of his life for guilt.
He dressed in his training clothes in silence, lips pressed in a tight line. He was methodical – humming and daydreaming were for peasant-folk. He kept to his tasks with such single-minded focus that he hadn’t even noticed when a wash of blue came by the door of his room. Katara, dressed in her Water Tribe gear, gave a shy knock to the wood and he turned his head.
“Hey,” she said, timid. Almost hesitant. She lingered by his doorframe. “We’re just about to go run Sokka’s training sequence. Toph and Aang already went to help set up. You ready?”
“Yeah, just about,” he said, tying his belt about his waist, securing it with a tight but simple knot. “You don’t have to wait for me—you go on ahead.”
“I… I actually wanted to talk to you about something,” she said, quiet. He raised a brow, taking one step to approach her.
“What’s wrong?” he said, voice full of concern.
“Why does something have to be wrong?” she replied, defensive. “We’re friends. Friends can talk.”
To his credit, Zuko tried to suppress his knowing but somewhat humourless smirk. To very little avail. Parts of his long hair fell to his eyes and he cocked his head, letting his jet-black hair follow the flipping movement.
“Because I know you,” he said. “I know when you’re using your ‘something is wrong’ voice.”
“I guess that’s fair,” she said with a shrug. She crossed her arms over her chest and refused to look him in the eye, her gaze affixed toward his still smoking candles. “Look, I—I just wanted to say I’m sorry.”
The statement took him by surprise.
“For what?” he asked, puzzled as ever.
“For not telling you. About Aang waiting until after the Comet to fight the Fire Lord,” she explained. “Aang approached us all one by one, I… I thought you already knew—I didn’t think that he wouldn’t tell you, I...”
“That’s okay, Katara. I didn’t tell you guys everything either. I should have told you the whole of what my father was planning way before today. We wouldn’t have lost so much time, then.”
“Maybe, but…” she started. “I just don’t want you to think that we don’t trust you. Or that you’re not one of us or something. We do trust you, Zuko, and you are part of this family. I hope you know that.”
“I know, don’t worry about it,” he said, nodding. She noted that he wouldn’t quite look her in the eye. He kept his hands to himself and shuffled his feet about, not sure which side to distribute his weight at. “You know I trust you too.”
“And when you fell earlier from the house, when you were fighting Aang… when I raised my voice at you and yelled, I—”
“Katara, stop,” he said, putting his hand up. “You need to stop with apologising all the time. You didn’t do anything wrong.”
“No,” she told him. “I’m going to keep doing this. Because you keep thinking you deserve it—being treated badly and left in the dark, and thinking everything is your fault and you just taking it.” His gold eyes widened at her, like a bull antelope in a forest fire. “It’s not fair to you and I want to help you see that. To be a better friend to you. Just like I know you’re trying to be better with me—with all of us.”
“This is all still new to me, Katara—” he tried.
“I know,” she said, approaching him, resting her armoured hand on his bare forearm. “But friends do that, you know? We don’t just… goof around and feel good. We’re there for each other when it’s hard too. We help each other with our demons. We try to help each other become better.” His gaze dropped to her hand on his arm and he looked into her eyes for the first time as she spoke. “Like… you have a bit of a temper, and I…”
Her eyes looked up, her mouth stayed open, as she trailed on… Zuko showed the tiniest hint of a smirk.
“We’ll just say so do you, how about that?” he said. She chuckled.
“So, please, just let me,” she said, a firmer grip on his arm, affirming the point. “Let me be better to you.”
He rested his hand on top of hers, never once looking away from her eyes on him.
“You’ve already been more than I deserve.”
“Oh, I’m exactly what you deserve,” she said, smiling. He smiled back.
It was at that point that she jumped up to hug him. He did not hesitate to return her embrace, just as tight with his arms by her waist. He could feel the ends of her long, thick hair tickling the skin of his arms. He buried his face by the crook of her neck—she smelled like open campfires by the ocean. He felt the muscles on his back relax. She was on her tiptoes so as to hug him properly, her chin resting against his shoulder.
“I never realised how hard this must be for you,” she whispered as she hugged him, her arms around his neck. Zuko sighed and she felt him push away gently.
“It’s harder on Aang,” he said. She shook her head ever so slightly.
“That might be true but it’s still hard for you in a different way.”
“What do you mean?”
“Whenever you talk about fighting him… you call him your father,” she started. “But when you were talking about taking his life? You call him Fire Lord. It’s like you’re separating the two things when they’re all the same person.” She saw him lick his lips and swallow. Her brows furrowed at the sight of it as she continued to speak softly.
“The Fire Lord is your father. And what we’re planning to do…”
“We’re at war, Katara,” he said solemnly, straightening up his posture, forcing himself into the stance of a warrior—not a son. “We’re soldiers. People die.”
“He’s still your father, Zuko,” she said. “You told me so yourself; you still love him.”
“I do what has to be done,” he said.
“And what about Azula?”
That took him by surprise.
Katara watched as the thought danced about in his head, as if he never really considered that before. Even if Ozai were to die in the war, Azula would still have the claim to the Fire Nation throne. The thought of Azula in charge instead of Ozai made her stomach turn. What would the solution be?
Was there any such thing as a solution to war?
And even then, when she considered it, Princess Azula was still Zuko’s little sister. No matter how difficult it may be for Aang to reconsider his values, hardly anyone truly knows what Zuko has had to give up to join them. At peace as he may be with his decision, this was still his family. Katara could not fathom what he was going through.
“I’ll do what has to be done,” he said finally, his mouth set in a grim line. His face showed none of the conflict that she could only imagine that he must be feeling. “Don’t worry about me.”
She sighed, reaching to give him a small pat on the arm. “Somebody has to.”
Training together was unlike anything that Zuko had ever done before.
They had fought with each other multiple times before. He had even trained some of them in non-bending forms of combat. And yet, truly seeing them all in their element was something magnificent.
Sokka, truly, had one of the most brilliant minds he had ever seen in his lifetime. The young man had a mind for strategy that would put generals in the Fire Nation army to shame and, despite his penchant for bad puns and poorly drawn… everything, he was far more intelligent than anyone gave him credit for. Zuko, of course, knew that already – when you didn’t have the privilege of bending, you had to learn how to be clever when it came to dealings of war; you forged new weapons with which to fight. His intelligence was rivaled only by Suki; where Sokka excelled in strategy and tactical planning, Suki knew how to command.
The Fire Lord would have tens of thousands of soldiers at his command and endless resources. They were only six kids, a lemur, and a flying bison – there had to be a way for them all to use their strengths and make six kids feel like a hundred. Suki incorporated splitting people up into complementary teams in order to make more of an impact against enemy forces. Where Aang had a very specific goal in this battle, Toph had the ability to be the team’s primary defense. That left the rest of them for Aang’s backup with Sokka and Suki being an ideal team for knowing each other’s fighting styles; the same could be said for him and Katara.
When he fought with Katara by his side instead of on opposing sides, he was surprised at the fluidity of it all. This was not like when they were looking for Yon Rha, when he chose to step back and gave her the room to fight her own battles. This was a dance – a balance. There was harmony in the way they moved – perfectly in sync. Where she favoured her left side, she went to the right. When the flaming rocks came at them, when the stone soldiers erupted from the ground, they knew how and where to move.
A perfect counterclockwise – a yin and yang made of fire and water.
It felt good to fight, to lose himself in the dance of battle. Though he was never home in violence, it was the shade of his childhood so much that he knew his way around. He could navigate through it in the dark. Fighting came so easily to him that the disconnect from thought became second nature to him; fighting by her said was as natural and right as his next breath. For a briefest of moments, he’d genuinely thought that they might actually have a chance of succeeding and defeating his father.
That was, of course, until Aang stopped at the most crucial point.
And he couldn’t do it.
He just couldn’t.
The fallout from training was unlike anything that he had ever witnessed.
After Aang ran off to go be by himself, the group mostly followed suit. A few weeks ago, he might have been compelled to seek solace in his self-imposed solitude. He was not one to seek out company—he always felt far, far too unwanted to just insert himself into spaces where he was not welcome or invited.
But there was every chance that these were some of his last days. He was not about to go to his grave wishing that he had spent more time on his own.
After everyone had eaten and the moon was high in the sky, just about full, he thought about Katara. The last he’d seen of her that day was when he stopped her from going after Aang, knowing that the young Avatar needed to solve his own moral dilemmas for once. When she’d brought out at painting of his father, he knew that Katara was only trying to help raise everyone’s spirits as the training had turned out so dire. Only, the fallout from the humanisation of his father had left everyone in even worse spirits than before.
After a few minutes of searching, he found her by the steps of the courtyard of his family’s beach house. She was sitting alone by the light of the moon, staring straight up at it, still in the quiet of the night.
“Did you really think that picture of the kid was me?” he said by way of greeting, attempting his best to lean against the column only to trip and miss it by a quarter of an inch. He caught himself just so and it was just as Katara was about to turn her head to look behind her and so, she’d missed it. He stood up as straight as she could, pretending that that hadn’t even happened. She addressed his existence and turned her head to look back up at the moon.
“Huh?” she asked. “Oh! Well…”
‘Well, that didn’t work,’ he thought. Levity was not going to be the way to reach her this time around.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“No,” she said. Zuko approached her and sat beside her along the steps. She kept her gaze up at the moon while he looked at her, concern over his features. She continued, “I’m worried about Aang.”
“Same here,” he said.
“I didn’t expect this. Any of this,” she said, still not looking at him. “I always knew that it was going to be hard to defeat the Fire Lord but… but this is something else. It’s… it’s never felt quite so real before.” Her voice came out in a whisper. She turned her head to face him and continued, “If we fail… that’s it. That’s the end of the world.”
A pause was borne between them – as heavy as the sky. They turned their gazes to the ground before them, stewing in their silence, before Zuko found it in him to speak.
“As we know it, I guess,” he said. “But nothing good ever dies, not really.”
“What do you mean?” she asked. “Is this one your uncle-isms again?”
“No, it’s just—” he replied. “Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to lose. I want to help restore balance to the world and stop the Fire Nation as much as the rest of you, I do.” A beat. He licked his lips, opening his mouth but having trouble figuring out the right way to say the words. “But… there’s a good chance we’re not going to be able to do it, Katara. I’ve always known that. There’s a good chance we’re not going to make it out of this.”
She nodded, sombre and resigned.
“Have you been thinking about this a lot?”
“Kind of,” he said. “It comes up a lot when I’m trying to meditate. I think it helps if you try not to put so much pressure on yourself, you know?”
“I know but it’s just that the Fire Lord has so many more resources, so much more time to plan everything…” she said. “If we lose, I…”
“Then we lose,” he said as-a-matter-of-factly, shrugging his shoulders and rubbing his hands together. When he pulled his palms apart, he created a small, warm fire between his hands. Katara watched the flames flicker at his command. “If we do, things will be horrible for a while… until the next people who want to try to make things right will try to do what we couldn’t. If we’re lucky, we’ll still be there, trying to fight again too. And that’s only if we lose. If we win… that’s a whole other battle.”
He manipulated the flame in his hands to settle in front of them like a campfire without wood. His steady breath and even hand movements kept it aflame. He continued, “Nothing ever stays the same for very long – good or bad. And we can’t always save everyone. I’m not even sure if we’ll all make it out alive this time around. But we can try to get it right. Right now, that’s all we can do.”
“Hope,” she said, putting her palms just by the fire he’d created, feeling her skin warmed by the flame.
“Exactly,” he said. “Don’t say we have to win—we don’t. It’s in everyone’s best interest if we win, yes, but… we don’t have to. The story will go on after us and long after we’ve been forgotten. What matters is what we do now.”
“That play really got it all wrong,” she said, playfully nudging his arm with her elbow. “It should be you giving speeches about hope.”
“I’m not the one who can tearbend,” he joked.
“Shut up,” she said, rolling her eyes. She felt a tear escape her eye and she wiped it away as soon as she felt it. Zuko pretended not to have seen it. A beat later, she asked him, “Aren’t you scared?”
“I’m terrified,” he answered without hesitation though his voice did not tremble. Steady.
“That’s good,” he said. “That’s the only way to be brave.”
For the first time since he’d sat down, Katara cracked a smile.
In the hours that followed, after they realised that Aang had gone missing, if anyone were to ask Zuko what had happened, he would not be able to answer. Panic had risen to his throat at the realisation that their plan was falling apart as the day wore on. For all of his talk, he’d been afraid of the aftermath of what would happen if they lost. Without Aang, there was very little chance for any of them – and this was not the first time that the young Avatar ran away from his responsibilities, even in times when the world needed him most.
While searching for the Avatar, Zuko felt as if he were watching the search from the vantage point of someone who was watching from the outside. He did not feel as if his body belonged to him. Despite Toph’s best efforts to engage him in conversation, he could not find it in himself to be what she wanted him to be. He reasoned that he would make it up to her eventually… if they all still lived after the war was won.
When they found their search to be Sisyphean, every inch of Ember Island having been scoured by them in their search for the missing Avatar, they looked to Zuko for guidance on how to proceed. He returned their trust with confusion, flabbergasted at the mantle of leadership that has been thrust upon him, but they had a point.
They packed up their belongings and made their way to the Earth Kingdom. The journey was mostly silent and uneventful, each of them too afraid to break the silence and address the elephant mandrill in the room. They had a plan—they were going to stick to it. They flew Appa as fast as the creature would go, seeking what he knew to be the only solution to their predicament.
Upon landing, they came across a clearing that housed a tavern in the middle of the woods. The stench of ale was very nearly overpowering. As Zuko opened the door for all of them to enter did the dim yellow light of the tavern bring everything to view.
“And the reason you’ve brought us to a seedy, Earth Kingdom tavern is what now?” Katara asked.
“June,” said Zuko, pointing his finger at a woman at a table, seemingly minding her own business with her tea until an unfortunate man stumbled into her and she rendered him useless with her legs, without ever spilling her tea. Katara remembered her instantly with her beautiful, shiny hair that was so pristinely kept with a top-knot secured by what looked like a small skull and flawless skin with the tattoo on her arm just by her shoulder, and the grace and casual, disinterested intent with which she moved with her body that she had only ever seen with other Kyoshi warriors.
June made it look so easy, so effortless.
“Oh yeah! That weird bounty hunter with the giant mole!” said Sokka.
“Mole?” Suki asked, incredulous. “Her skin is flawless!”
“No, she has this giant mole creature she rides around on,” he defended.
“The Shirshu,” Zuko clarified solemnly. “It’s the only animal that track down Aang’s scent anywhere in the world.” As he spoke, the gang watched as she blocked and fought with drunkenly folk who were trying to pick a fight with her for no reason. Not once did she spill her tea nor did a single hair move out of place. It was incredible to watch. “It’s the one shot we have at finding him.”
Just then, another drunk man went to charge at June. She launched her tea cup into the air and threw the man to a crowded table without breaking a sweat. She caught the hot cup without spilling a single drop.
“I don’t know who this June lady is…” Toph started. “But I like her!”
“Hey, I remember her!” said Sokka. “She helped you attack us!”
“Yep,” Zuko answered, approaching the bounty hunter who had settled back to a seat at her table. “Back in the good old days.”
The group approached her slowly and upon giving Zuko a side eye, she smirked into her tea.
“Oh great, it’s Prince Pouty,” she said. “Where’s your creepy grandpa?”
“He’s my uncle,” said Zuko defensively as she poured herself another cup of tea. “And he’s not here.”
“I see you worked things out with your girlfriend,” said June, taking a sip.
A blush rose to both their cheeks, hairs at the back of their necks rising on end. They stiffened, suddenly altogether too warm, and they denied it at the same time.
“She’s not my girlfriend!”
“I’m not his girlfriend!”
They didn’t see Sokka and Suki give each other a knowing look. Toph rolled her eyes and said nothing.
“Okay, okay! Sheesh, I was only teasing,” said the bounty hunter, her hands up in mocking surrender, still drinking her tea. “So, what do you want?”
“I need your help finding the Avatar,” said Zuko,
“Hmm…” she considered, taking a long drink. “Doesn’t sound too fun.”
Zuko frowned. He took a step toward her, gesturing dramatically with his hands as he spoke.
“Does the end of the world sound like more fun?”
It didn’t work.
Despite Nyla’s best efforts to locate Aang, he was deemed to have simply… ceased existing.
With nothing else up their sleeves, Zuko took the lead and suggested that they find his Uncle Iroh instead. When he ran away from the Fire Nation to join the Avatar, he had not planned for the journey. He had the same things that he had from when she was at the ship that he used to command. As a rule, he never truly unpacks in case he has to be on the run again – this was established when he was made a fugitive after Azula’s almost-capture of him and his uncle. The slipper had been when his Uncle Iroh had been captured by Earth Kingdom soldiers for his war crimes in Ba Sing Se and Zuko had had to go look for him. When Zuko was in the balloon on his way to look for the Avatar, he took advantage of the solitude and took inventory of everything that he had.
When he came across his uncle’s revolting slipper, he hadn’t thought about keeping it for sentiment’s sake. Perhaps it would come useful if he ever had to see him again and Iroh wouldn’t hear of it – Zuko could always use it as an excuse to see him, if only to return it. And by then, though he was not a sentimental young man, it was one of the only things that he had that reminded him of his uncle.
Upon smelling the slipper and capturing Iroh’s scent, Nyla launched into a run, carrying June on her back. They gang followed suit and it took them the rest of the day to cross the Earth Kingdom. The sun had already set by the time they reached the broken walls of Ba Sing Se. June left soon after, having done her favour for the prince (that he was certain would come up to some method of payment at some point, if he were to survive this), and the gang had decided to set up camp before they tried to look for his uncle.
They did not have much time to rest, however, as they were soon greeted by friendly fire – the members of the Order of the White Lotus. They were greeted by their old masters, much to their delight, and it was then that Katara could only notice that Zuko had gotten quite quieter since their elders arrived and escorted them to the White Lotus camp. Master Piandao pointed out where his uncle was and Zuko did not hesitate, though Katara could only imagine his inner conflict.
Finding his uncle and asking for his help to defeat his father were not parts of the plan. He’d had a plan. And it had fallen to ruin right before him and Zuko, ever militant and in control, could only do so much and be so much before he needed reprieve himself. Katara watched him leave, go to his uncle’s tent, and then stop just before entering and sat in front of it in hesitation. Despite her wish to go to him, she was torn between staying with her brother and her new grandfather or comforting her friend.
Her answer came in the form of a hand on her shoulder.
“Go,” said Suki. “We know he needs you.”
Katara nodded. “I’ll be back.”
She walked over to Zuko. It got darker and darker as the night crept up on them both. She stood over him as he was hunched over himself. He looked as if he were about to be sick.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
“No, I’m not okay. My Uncle hates me, I know it,” he said turning his head away from her in his shame. She got to her knees and sat beside him. “He loved me and supported me in any way he could and I still turned against him,” he continued, turning his gaze toward her. “How can I even face him?”
“Zuko, you’re sorry for what you did, right?” she asked, gentle and calm as the most serene sea.
“More sorry than I’ve been about anything in my entire life.”
“Then he’ll forgive you,” said Katara. Certain and steady. She shrugged her shoulders once as if it were the simplest fact in the world. And to her, it truly was. “He will.”
She watched as he took her words to heart and rose to his feet. He stopped just by the entrance, took a deep breath, and stepped inside.
“Uncle,” she heard him say.
She stayed just by the tent’s entrance for a while and heard nothing else but Iroh’s snoring. Zuko must have settled inside and refused to move, waiting until his uncle woke up.
Toph walked toward her as she looked at the lotus on the door of Iroh’s tent.
“Hey,” Toph greeted. “He in there?”
“Mhm,” said Katara.
“You’re gonna wait for him, aren’t you?” she asked.
“Not sure if Iroh will forgive him?” Toph teased.
“What? No!” she said. Toph gave her a look and she realised that her voice had gotten high in his defense. Warmth rose to her cheeks and she looked away, though the blind girl could not see her embarrassment. She softened her voice, nearly wistful, as she continued. “No, they’ll be alright. He’ll forgive Zuko—I know it. It’s hard not to.”
“Yeah, I know, I’m just messing with you,” said the younger of the two, a smirk on her lips. “Sparky’s really on edge, though. I can feel him just about to pass out from nerves from here.”
“I think we all are,” Katara replied. “We are kind of at war here, Toph.”
“Yeah, but… he was kind of a real jerk to me back at Ember Island.”
“Really?” she asked. “How?”
“Yeah. Really bummed me out, too. While we were looking for Aang, he was all…”
Katara looked up at Toph to see she was gesturing and frowning dramatically. It struck her as funny that Toph has never once seen Zuko frown and yet, as she was doing an impression of him, Katara couldn’t help but feel like the other girl had gotten him just right. She chuckled and shook her head.
“I’m sure he’ll make it up to you,” she said, her lips curving to a small smile. “There’s just a lot on his mind right now. You know how he is.”
“Yeah, probably. I’ll guilt him into baking me some of that pie that one time. That was real good,” she said. A beat later, Toph added, “You two are really something else, Sugar Queen.”
“What do you mean?”
“I can feel the way you guys are around each other, you know,” she said. “Kind of makes me wonder who’s actually the blind one between us.”
“Whatever,” she said, shrugging her shoulders. “You know we’re all just waiting for it to happen with you two.”
“I’m sure that’s not true,” said Katara, shifting her weight ever just so. She didn’t know if she imagined her heart skipping a beat at the insinuation as her thoughts went back to Aang.
“Eh,” said Toph. “Twinkletoes’ll get over it. He’s like—twelve. Literally.” A pause. “You’re good to him. He needs that.”
Her blue eyes went to the lotus pattern on the front of the tent—and the anxious boy she knew just to be on the other side of it. She felt herself smile—hopeful yet anxious just the same.
“He’s good to me too,” she said, finally.
“No, duh,” came the Earthbender’s remark. “Anyway… you sure you’re going wait out here? By the feel of Iroh’s snores, that guy’s out cold ‘til morning for sure.”
“I’m sure,” said Katara, nodding.
Toph considered it for a moment before she said, “I’ll bring you over some food later. I’ve got to go talk to Bumi about some stuff.”
As the sun rose and Katara felt her bones start to tire, she heard a loud groan come from inside Iroh’s tent.
The Grand Lotus’ tent had been uneventful and quiet for that night. Katara stayed outside of the tent, keeping silent support for her friend, and managed to peep through a small gap that she could spot by the door. Zuko spent the night in silent meditation as his uncle slept. She spent the night looking up at the moon and finding some form of serenity on her own.
At the sound of Iroh’s groaning, she went back to the gap to take a look at what was happening. Zuko hadn’t moved and Iroh kept his back to him. She had her hand against her heart and waited with bated breath.
“Uncle…” Zuko started. “I know you must have mixed feelings about seeing me. But I want you to know, I am so, so sorry, Uncle—”
She heard his voice break then and she knew that he’d started crying.
“I am so sorry and ashamed of what I did,” he said. “I don’t know how I can ever make it up to you, but I’ll—”
Iroh moved more quickly than she’d ever seen him move but he turned around and grabbed Zuko by the shoulder and pulled him into a tight embrace. His eyes were closed and she saw that he was crying too. Her breath hitched in surprise and she felt her own tears start to well up in her eyes at the sight of this happy, happy scene.
“How could you forgive me so easily?!” Zuko asked, incredulous. “I thought you would be furious with me!”
She stepped back at the sound of it and wiped away her tears. She dusted herself off and walked away from the tent, letting them have their private moment, now certain that Zuko would be okay. As she walked away now in search of her brother and grandfather, she started to smile to herself.
It was the day before the comet.
Zuko, Katara, Sokka, Suki, and Toph were all sat together in a circle with the Grand Lotus, Iroh of the Fire Nation. They all sat in front of a pot of newly cooked stew as they shared their meal, all of them fully aware of what tomorrow may bring.
It was the calm before the storm, they knew, and days like this always felt different. All of them in that circle, in that camp, knew that tomorrow—the world would be changed for all the rest of time. This was the day that history would forget for tomorrow carved out what would shape their future.
“Uncle, you’re the only person other than the Avatar who could possibly defeat the Father Lord,” said Zuko.
“You mean the Fire Lord,” Toph corrected.
“That’s what I just said,” said Zuko. Katara heard it, though, and she raised a brow at him. He returned her knowing look with one of her own.
“Hmm…” Iroh started, bowing his head and raising his bowl ever just so.
“We need you to come with us!”
“No, Zuko,” said Iroh, finally. “It won’t turn out well.”
“You can beat him! And we’ll be there to help.”
“Even if I did defeat Ozai, and I don’t know that I could, it would be the wrong way to end the war,” said Iroh. Despite the simplicity of his words, the way he spoke held a certain gravitas. He was, of course, a retired general—despite his current command being a bunch of kids. “History would see it as just more senseless violence—a brother killing a brother to grab power. The only way for this war to end peacefully is for the Avatar to defeat the Fire Lord.”
Zuko looked down and considered it for a moment.
“And then…” he started to ask. “Then would you come and take your rightful place on the throne?”
His gold eyes looked young. Anxious. As if he feared the answer that his uncle would say.
“No,” said Iroh. “Someone new must take the throne—an idealist with a pure heart and unquestionable honour.” Katara, Suki, and Sokka looked across from each other and gave each other a knowing smile.
“It has to be you, Prince Zuko.”
Zuko nearly jumped up in his shock, his eyes wide and mouth agape. His astonished expression very nearly broke her heart but it was all she could do to say nothing and look at him. Of course it was him.
“Unquestionable honour?” he asked. He shrugged his shoulders and frowned. “But I’ve made so many mistakes!”
“Yes, you have,” his uncle replied. Gold eyes met gold, earnest, wise, and true. “You’ve struggled, you’ve suffered—but you have always followed your own path! You restored your own honour! And only you can restore the honour of the Fire Nation.”
He bowed his head and kept a steady, unreadable expression on his face and said, “I’ll try, Uncle.”
“Well,” Toph started. Suki and Sokka turned their heads to look at her. “What if Aang doesn’t come back?”
“Sozin’s Comet is arriving and our destinies are upon us,” said Iroh, his voice louder now as he addressed the entire group. “Aang will face the Fire Lord.”
Iroh said this with no hesitation, as if he were sure of the fact and not simply guessing at a probable future. He continued, “When I was a boy, I had a vision that I would one day take Ba Sing Se. Only now do I see that my destiny is to take it back from the Fire Nation so the Earth Kingdom can be free again.”
“That’s why you gathered the members of the White Lotus!” Suki exclaimed, gesturing to the other members of the camp.
“Yes,” he confirmed. “Zuko… you must return to the Fire Nation so that when the Fire Lord falls, you can assume the throne and you can restore peace and order. But Azula will be there, waiting for you.”
Zuko frowned, his brows furrowed, his scarred eye very nearly a simple slit on his face with a speck of his gold eye peeking through.
“I can handle Azula,” he said, determined. A soldier, Katara remembered thinking, not a son—not a brother.
“Not alone,” said Iroh. His expression changed as his uncle said this. “You’ll need help.”
“You’re right…” he said and just as quickly did his gaze go from his uncle to—
“Katara,” he said. “How would you like to help me put Azula in her place?”
She straightened up and smirked. “It would be my pleasure.”
“What about us? What’s our destiny today?” Sokka asked, hands splayed as he gestured.
“What do you think it is?” Iroh returned, wisely combing through his stew with his chopsticks.
“I think that… even though we don’t know where Aang is,” Sokka started and he balled one hand into a fist and gestured slamming it into his palm as he continued, “we need to do everything we can to stop the airship fleet.”
“And that means when Aang does face the Fire Lord,” Toph added, gesturing as well. “We’ll be right there if he needs us.”
And the new plan was born.
Dusk fell and the moon was still bright in the sky when suddenly, the comet started its run—bright and burning red across the sky. An omen of blood, a warning of fire.
Appa was flying Katara and Zuko as fast as he could to the Fire Nation capital. The sky was a bright orange and red and it was as if the entire world was cast aflame.
The two of them were sat together on Appa’s saddle, single-minded and focused on the task at hand.
“Zuko, don’t worry,” said Katara. “We can take Azula.”
“I’m not worried about her. I’m worried about Aang,” he said. “What if he doesn’t have the guts to take out my father?” A beat. “What if he loses?”
“Aang won’t lose. He’s gonna come back,” Katara replied as she looked toward the horizon. “He has to.”
As they made their way through mountains and seas, crossing nearly half the world again just to make it to the Fire Nation capital in time, she never had the chance to truly process where it was that she was going. A young woman of five and ten of the Southern Water Tribe now, flying toward enemy lines, so her friend might claim his throne as Fire Lord.
She was beyond her scope of comfort, going headfirst into the belly of the beast. To the homeland of the enemy who, for so long, she had resented so much until she learnt that many of them had suffered just as much as anyone else has.
Soon enough, the silence between them grew to be too much to bear.
“You seemed surprised when your uncle told you that you’d have to be Fire Lord,” she tried.
“It caught me off guard, that’s all,” he said.
“How come?” she asked. “You’re the Crown Prince, right? You should have known it was your destiny…”
“Not at first,” he explained, turning his head to look at her. “Uncle is my father’s older brother. He was the rightful heir. Until I was seven, I was only fourth in line to the throne. And for so long, I wasn’t even considered eligible because the Sages had thought I wasn’t a firebender.”
“My cousin, Lu Ten, died during my Uncle’s siege of Ba Sing Se,” he explained. “Uncle wasn’t the same after that.”
“And your father… that’s when it all happened with your mother?”
“It was,” he said, taken aback. “I’m surprised you remember.”
“So, up until you were seven—you lost your mother and became Crown Prince all in a day?”
“A lot can happen in a day,” he said.
“I guess you’re right,” she agreed. “Do you want to be the Fire Lord?”
“Truth is, I don’t know,” he answered. He turned his head toward the horizon, seeing nothing but more sea as they flew over the water. “I don’t know what I want.” A pause. He looked down at her direction—not quite looking at her. He licked his lips and cocked his head. “Well, maybe I do. But I know my duty—my family started this war. We’ve hurt the world so much that whatever I do will never be enough to make up for it. If I were Fire Lord, I could start us on the right path, I guess. But I just know for sure that this hate and violence… it has to end with me.”
Katara smiled and placed a hand on his shoulder.
“For what it’s worth, I think you’ll make a great Fire Lord, Zuko.”
“I don’t know about that but I know I can’t let it fall to Azula,” he said.
“Why did you pick me to come with you?” she asked.
“Seriously?” he said, twisting his head and giving her a puzzled expression. “Katara, you do realise you’re a prodigy, right?”
“You mastered your bending element in less than a year almost all by yourself,” he said. “Even Azula can’t say that.”
“Toph is a Master Earthbender at thirteen,” Katara reasoned.
“Toph had teachers pretty much all of her life. So did Azula,” he said. “You’re a natural. Your instincts are unbeatable.”
“I’m serious,” he said. “I’m not saying that Toph isn’t a prodigy too because she is, anyone knows that; but Azula has fought more earthbenders than waterbenders since the North Pole was so closed off. You have her at a disadvantage and Azula knows how to hit Toph where it hurts. In every fight you’ve fought against my sister, you always had her on the defensive. Which is unlike her. So of course I’d pick you. You’re one of the most powerful benders I’ve ever met.”
For a moment, she was caught completely unawares. He’d stunned her speechless. Zuko may not have had a penchant for violence, though a gifted fighter he may be, but couldn’t he see that he was brilliant—born to lead?
He shrugged his shoulders at her expression and kept his gaze focused, eyes front and ready to see if they were just about to see where the line where the land met the sea and he’d know that he would be back home.
“I guess I never really thought of it that way,” she managed to say. “I’m honoured that you trust me, Zuko. I am.” A beat later, she asked, “How do you feel?”
“Like I’m about to burst into flame at any second,” he said, closing his hands into hists. He breathed fire through his nose to release some of the tension but he curled into himself as the comet affected him so. She reached up into the air and bent the water from a few clouds. She purified and cooled the water and gestured it to him. He drank it all without a second touch as she bent the water to his lips. Steam came from him as he finished it all and he exhaled deeply as he let the water give him a little peace from the burning within. “There’s just—there’s so much fire. Like the sun is inside of me and I just want to fight something just to get it out.”
“And that’s how every firebender feels right now?” she asked, voice soft. Concerned.
“The power of a thousand suns,” he said. He looked at her, his gold eyes near watering, she noticed. “Facing Azula will be more difficult this time.”
“You did say I’ve had her on the run before,” she said.
“I know. And you did,” he agreed. “But still. That doesn’t mean you should ever underestimate her. Don’t forget that she’s a born prodigy too; she always has been.”
“Is that why her fire’s blue?”
He nodded again.
“Nobody but her has ever been able to do that—not even any Avatar in known history. Nobody really has an explanation for it,” he answered. “She’s the most powerful firebender in Fire Nation history and she’s only fourteen.”
“More powerful than even your father?”
“He’d never admit it but he knows it’s true.”
“Just because her fire’s blue?”
He gave her a look and raised her brow. With a flip of his hand, he conjured a fire that floated just above his palm. It was brilliant and bright, and very nearly impossible to look at.
“See that?” he said, pointing at the very bottom of the fire. Where the flame was largely a mixture of oranges, yellows, and reds – she’d never noticed the tiniest bit of blue at the bottom of the fire. “It’s the hottest part of the flame. Apart from dragonfire, blue is the hottest, purest fire.” With another flick of his hand, he extinguished the flame.
“There’s so much raw power in her—but she’s also cold and calculating,” he continued. “Ever since we were kids, her forms were always flawless. She’s precise to a fault, and clever and cruel, and obsessed with perfection. She never misses her mark. She knows just how to hit where it hurts.”
With words or with fire, she never ran out of weapons in her arsenal. Zuko knew that all too well.
“Azula has no shame and she knows exactly who and what she is. That’s why her fire became so pure. Unapologetic.”
Katara considered this.
Azula was no ordinary firebender. This, she’d known long ago, but she never quite studied how to fight her any differently from any other firebender. Azula was also the only person she had ever seen generate lightning and she surmised that only the most powerful and most talented children of fire.
Looking to the red skies and thinking of that blue lightning, Katara got an idea. She recalled how Zuko mentioned that his uncle had developed a new form of firebending by learning from waterbenders. Perhaps there was something about Azula and firebending that would come in useful if she ever needed it.
“Tell me more about her,” Katara said finally. “How she fights—how we can beat her.”
“Well…” Zuko started, shifting the way he sat. “Uncle always told me to remember my basics. Stand my ground. Keep a level head. Break their root.”
She listened attentively as the prince explained. All the while, he kept himself level with long, steady breaths, as if he were trying to distract himself from the added heat that comet made him feel within himself.
“That’s the thing with Azula—if she’s not in control, if she’s not completely perfect… she can break. She can get too full of herself. But that’s why she’s so good. She’s spent her whole life working to be nothing less than perfect. But with so much raw power and a need for perfection—it’d be easy to lose control of fire that way, especially now,” he said. “Firebending comes from the breath, it pools in the stomach—you have to remember that. It’s why training with it is so much stricter than other bending forms. Control is everything.”
“From the breath?” she asked. Zuko nodded.
“All it takes is one wrong move before the fire takes over.”
“What about her lightning?”
“You don’t have to worry about that. I can redirect lightning just fine if she tries it on me.”
“Well, whatever happens—” she said, smiling at him. “I’m with you.”
“Now and always, I know,” he said, starting to smile too. His voice got soft and quiet suddenly at the reminder of their promise to each other. “It’s why I’m not worried about her.”
A large volcano grew larger and larger as they flew further and further into Fire Nation territory.
Rocky and forested grounds became houses and buildings.
The young Crown Prince had come home again.
‘You are no longer my brother,’ he remembered his little sister saying. ‘I’m about to celebrate becoming an only child!’
He remembered the play at Ember Island and how people cheered and hollered for his fiery demise. And yet, here he was, about to make a bid for the throne of Fire Lord against their beloved (though insane) princess. Zuko breathed deeply as more of the city came into his vision.
“There it is—Caldera City,” he said as Appa flew faster and above the near deserted urban area. “The Fire Nation Capital.”
“The streets are all so… empty,” Katara observed.
“No time for celebration,” he guessed as he looked toward the primarily abandoned streets himself. “Every available firebender must be on the Fire Lord’s invasion force. But over there, do you see it?” He pointed toward the largest structure that could be seen, which Katara knew to be the royal palace. There was a conglomeration of sorts that they could see, even from where they were flying.
“It’s a coronation ceremony,” he said. “Azula.”
“Let’s go get her,” she said, nodding at him.
“Come on, Appa,” he said, brandishing his reins. “Time to get back my throne.”
“By decree of Phoenix King Ozai,” said a Fire Sage, a kneeling young Azula just before him. “I now crown you Fire Lord—”
“Phoenix King?” Katara muttered next to him.
“And you guys thought I was dramatic,” he said. “Appa, yip yip!”
Appa groaned loudly and all of the Sages’ eyes went skyward to see his arrival. Then, so did Azula’s.
“Sorry, but you’re not going to become Fire Lord today.” ” said Zuko as he jumped from Appa to the bottom of the staircase, just beneath where his sister was being crowned. “I am.”
Katara followed suit from behind him, though her entrance was not quite as theatric. Azula laughed, high and condescending.
“You’re hilarious,” said Azula, flippant and disinterested.
“And you’re going down,” said Katara, standing by Zuko’s side.
The Fire Sage, not knowing what to do, was still holding on to the five-pronged headpiece, dangling it above Azula’s head. He nearly lowered it to her top knot, continuing with her coronation, until Azula raised a hand and gestured for him to stop.
“Wait—you want to be Fire Lord? Fine,” she said, rising. The Fire Lord’s cloak that she wore was ill-fitting and far, far too large for her smaller frame. It nearly swallowed her whole. From where Katara stood, she already knew that the princess looked rattled. Her usually pristine hair stuck out in odd places and her posture, usually so composed and graceful, now skewed and the way she shifted was uneven.
“Let’s settle this. Just you and me, brother. The show down that was always meant to be,” said Azula. “AGNI KAI!”
The two of them frowned at the princess, Katara certain that Zuko would ne—
“You’re on,” he said before she could even finish thinking. Katara’s heart dropped as she turned to face him in her concern. She did not then see the cruel twist of Azula’s lips into a smirk at the sight of it.
“What are you doing?” she whispered at him. “She’s playing you! She knows she can’t take us both so she’s trying to separate us!”
“I know. But I can take her this time,” he replied, steady in his rage and even in his deliverance.
“But even you admitted to your uncle you would need help facing Azula,” she argued. Before the both of them, Azula only smirked more, feeling haughtier with every passing moment.
“There’s something off about her,” he said as he kept his eyes on his sister. “I can’t explain it but she’s slipping. And this way…” he trailed off and looked at Katara. “No one else has to get hurt.”
She considered it… and nodded.
The fight was on.
The fight that was about to transpire between this brother and sister was one that would build a nation.
One of these siblings would raise the nation higher in honour, allowing peace and love to reign in his stead. The other would raze it to the ground until she was queen of the ashes – where nothing could ever hurt and leave her heart again.
As the two of them took their positions, Katara waited by Zuko’s corner in the event that he might need her. He’d once explained to her that, sometimes, an Agni Kai might be lethal—and there was no chance that she would let him die on this day; not if she had anything to say about it.
The stands were practically empty at this historic battle between siblings, all but for Katara and the other Fire Sages who kept to themselves. From the other end of the court, where there was no one to wait on her, Azula rose and took off the Fire Lord’s robes with a theatric flourish of her hand.
“I’m sorry it has to end this way, brother,” she said, no remorse in her voice.
As he rose and assumed the fighting stance, he exhaled deeply and looked at his sister and said, “No, you’re not.”
A cruel smirk was born on her lips and as the two siblings were poised against one another, there was a split second of absolutely nothing—and then, an eruption of everything.
The fire they created was unlike anything that Katara had ever seen before. It was brilliant as it burnt, heat coming from every edge, and the flames were fiercer than anything she had ever seen. It was as if she were standing close to two suns—just about ready to explode and consume everything else that surrounded it.
Her blue fire met a defensive wall of his red, both towering like tidal waves before them.
The siblings moved with a dancer’s grace but a dragon’s ferocity. Where Azula kicked and leapt into the air, creating flame after flame after flame as if hoping that one of them would land a strike on him, Zuko kept to his root. While Azula’s fires may have shifted him further back, he was as good as unshakable. Immovable.
The young princess allowed her fire to move her where she willed and she flitted about the court like a blazing blue hurricane. Zuko anticipated her every attack and met it blow for blow. All the while, the intensity of the flames they produced have rendered many of the surrounding buildings aflame. It was all the Fire Sages could do to tame these casualties as they sprung, but the royals’ fire knew no end.
Try as Azula might to strike her brother, she found that nothing of hers was landing where she wanted. He blocked and defended her every move. When his fire reached the staircase behind her, she leapt into the air and spun a large tail of blue flames at him that he met with a shield of his own that he surrounded himself with, met with her blue, and let it extinguish around him.
She started taking swift, heaving breaths as she took her pause. Zuko did not stop, however, as he moved and mimicked a punch to the ground, creating two intertwining comets of his own that were aiming straight for her. She jettisoned her way out just in time and only barely made it out by the skin of her teeth. She punched wildly at him, her flames following suit, but he launched himself high into the air and kicked a shield of fire at her attack that he anticipated. Carried by her flames, she circled him like a vulture to try and catch him unawares, but he was too alert and he knew her too well to find himself off-guard.
He had been fighting Azula nearly all of his life—he knew to watch his back when he was fighting her.
But her spinning had given him a quick idea. He dropped to the ground and spun a wheel of fire as she jettisoned toward him. She hadn’t been prepared for his sudden offensive and so, she was knocked to the ground. Her hair had come undone and her laboured breath had turned practically feral.
The way she looked at him looked as if she were about to strike a lethal blow. Katara ran a bit closer, ready to offer aid at the first chance she could get.
“No lightning today?” he taunted, the adrenaline superseding his rationality for he should know better than to taunt his sister. “What’s the matter? Afraid I’ll redirect it?”
“I’ll show you lightning!”
The thing about lightning redirection is that it is based in a simple principle: you turn your opponent’s energy – their strengths – against them. And you should never, ever let it hit your heart. So, he didn’t.
As clever as he might sometimes be… he was often just a half-step behind. Always a little bit too late. That was the case then.
It was not often that Zuko was right about something. Miscalculating Azula is one of the many things that he gets wrong all the time. And this was no exception, though he might get partial credit. Because Azula… always knew where to hit where it hurts.
You turn your opponent’s strength against them.
When Azula aimed for Katara, Zuko didn’t think. He simply ran.
When the lightning hit him, he did not yell for his lost honour.
He did not yearn for his crown or mourn for his country, his people, or his family. When he catches Azula’s strike in his heart instead, he yelled out no.
No, he thought.
It practically happened in slow motion; though, in hindsight, it took nearly no time at all.
Zuko fell to the ground, shaking from the electricity of Azula’s lightning hitting him in the chest when he drove in front of her. He’d gone as limp as an electrified thing could be – like a rag doll, like a corpse. She did not have the luxury of going into shock and, immediately, she bent water to coat her hands as she ran to him.
“Zuko!” she exclaimed, but Azula’s blue fire got to her first. She jumped away as lightning struck where she stood. She didn’t see Zuko try to lift himself up, his hand reaching out to her, wanting to help her. Azula struck lightning at Katara again and she ran toward the columns to shield her from the blows.
“I’d really rather our family physician look after little Zuzu, if you don’t mind!” she yelled.
More fire rained down at her from above and she felt the heat of it on her sides while the pillar protected her somewhat, for Azula had managed to get herself on top of the roof. Katara saw, at the corner of her eyes, the Sages almost want to approach and stop the battle from going on but they were too fearful of the young princess to go through with it.
“Zuzu, you don’t look so good!” she taunted at her brother as Katara peered from behind the pillar.
Azula struck lightning at the pillar again and it exploded at the force of her strike. She ran to another pillar that was near a large container of water. She bent that into a large whip to try and knock Azula off the roof but she was already gone by the time the water struck. The next thing she knew, Azula was propelled on blue flames behind her, coming after her. Her hands bent water into frozen waves that she bent herself to surf through—she bent waves as swiftly and as furiously as she could, as if her life depended on it.
And it did.
She stumbled into the sewer drains and saw the water and the chains.
‘What did Zuko say about her?’ she thought to herself. ‘What did he say?’
Don’t underestimate her, he’d said.
Firebending comes from the breath, he’d said.
Break her root, he’d said.
Suddenly, she knew what to do.
She took the chains into her hand and waited for Azula to come back. She stood right above the drains as the princess made her approach.
“There you are, filthy peasant,” said Azula as she walked leisurely toward the waterbender, lethal in her rage.
Breathe, she told herself—and then, Katara struck with four simultaneous water whips. Azula jumped forward to shield herself, not seeing the chains Katara was holding, and just as she exhaled a breath and assumed the stance to inhale again and generate lightning to deliver a killing blow, Katara inhaled deeply and moved her hands up and covered the pair of them in solid ice, breaking the firebender’s root.
She exhaled, making the water around herself into liquid, as she moved about the block of ice to manipulate the chains around Azula’s hands, chaining her to the drains beneath them. The princess is pliant in her hands, unable to fight back, and by the time Katara brings the ice down, the girls both cough as they try to reclaim air back into their lungs.
Making sure that Azula was secure and defeated in the chains, Katara ran to Zuko.
Zuko was still trying to crawl his way to her despite his weakened state and she rolled him to his back so as to rest her water-covered healing hands on top of the injury on his chest. Her hands glowed atop his wound and he cringed at the sensation but soon relaxed under her touch.
“Thank you, Katara,” he whispered weakly. Tears welled up in her eyes at the sound of his voice.
“I think I’m the one who should be thanking you.”
Zuko got to his feet with Katara by his side and they both looked at his defeated sister. Azula roared like a broken, wounded animal, fire erupting from her mouth as she breathed fire. Her cries were sounds that would haunt the both of them for the rest of their lives—so terrible were her wails as the young, unbeatable princess had finally fallen.
He thought that she had never sounded so young. He looked at her as she started to lose her mind well and truly, rolling about and exhausting herself as she was chained helplessly to the ground. He started to limp and walk away when he and Katara were greeted by the Fire Sages.
“Your Majesty,” the Fire Sage addressed him. “By rights, Azula has forfeited the duel, her honour, and her claim to the title of Fire Lord by firing at a civilian. You have won and the throne is yours, Fire Lord Zuko.”
“Thank you,” he replied, nodding once, already assuming a regal stance. He cringed, coughed, and covered his middle with his arm. He nearly stumbled and Katara helped him gain his balance, worry in her features. She watched his face as he continued to give his orders.
“Take my sister to isolation. Let her calm down and cool off. She, uh—” he said, coughing again and swallowing it back. “S-she will be given her proper sentence for her war crimes when—”
He started coughing again, more violently than before, doubling over. He rested his weight on Katara’s shoulder and another Fire Sage came to his other side to help him up.
“Zuko!” she said, trying to keep him upright.
“Your Majesty!” the other Fire Sages exclaimed.
“Get the medic!” said another.
“I’ve got it!” Katara yelled at them. Her blue eyes met his gold and she saw that he was afraid. Her voice softened as she regarded him. “Zuko…”
“I don’t—I don’t feel so good,” he said. He coughed up once more, darkened blood on his palm now, charred and congealed blood on his lips. Upon seeing the blood, his teary gold eyes looked at her and she saw him shake his head ever so slightly.
“Katara…” he whispered.
His eyes rolled to the back of his head as he coughed once more and fell.
“Zuko!” she said as she caught him in her arms and she fell to the floor with him, cradling his head on her lap. Her heart was racing as she bore witness to this harrowing sight. Time practically stopped. She brushed his hair out of his eyes, as she muttered, “No… no, no, no, no, no—”
No, she thought.
I couldn't leave y'all hanging with that cliffhanger so I worked hard to give you all an update as quick as I could. Hope you all enjoy it!
“And their words are just whispers
And lies that I’ll never believe.
And I want a moment to be real.
Want to touch things I can’t feel.
Want to hold on and feel I belong.
And how can you say I’ll never change.
They’re the ones that stay the same.”
Gran Gran always told her that people forget pain all the time.
It’s why mothers could stand to bear so many children despite the labour it took to bring them into the world. It’s why so many people could break their bones or be burnt and still, at the end of the day, could not fathom the pain beyond the words of ‘it hurt’ once that pain transforms from present into memory. There was no way to feel another’s past pain until you have felt the same kind of pain yourself.
Pain, she said, was always the easy part; it was fear that demanded to be remembered.
Katara met fear for the first time when she was eight. At the time, she was helpless and unskilled. Her head couldn’t have been taller than his hip. He looked down at her with molten eyes that would haunt her for all the rest of her days and he wore armour as dark as the blood he spilled.
When her mother was killed that day, it was the worst pain that she had ever felt—and yet, she could not remember it. All she knew of it was that it hurt. If she tried to conjure the memory of how the pain felt, she could not tell you in words that anyone in any language could understand. But the fear remained. The fear that latched onto her back as she ran back to her home after the soldiers had gone… the fear of the closed door and the room without a fire and the silence that responded when she called out ‘Mom?’.
Now, she met fear again and it wore a different face. A kinder one—one with a secret smile that was hardly ever difficult to win when she was the one trying to win it, one with bright and curious gold eyes that lit up when he got someone to laugh at his jokes or someone enjoyed the meal he’d prepared. It bore the sharp features of a boy so gentle, so warm, so scarred with eyes that would not open. Fear sounded like the unintelligible whispers of panic all around her. Fear sounded like his silence, as he was laid almost lifeless on her lap.
And as the fear took hold, Katara thought…
‘I can’t go through that pain again.’
She moved more water from the nearby reserve to her hands and she rested them against his chest to try again. Her healing hands glowed, cool against his skin—but he didn’t feel as warm as he usually did. Almost as if the fire inside of him was dying out. His heartbeat was slow. Colour was draining from his pale, golden face, like the light was seeping out of him.
“Is he breathing?” said one of the Sages.
“He’s not breathing!” declared another.
One of them knelt near her and put a hand near his nostrils. He waited and when he felt that small puff of breath exhale from him, he rose again and said, “He’s breathing!”
“But what’s going on?” said another Sage – to Katara, they were all one in the same. “What’s happened to him?”
She could not bear to pay attention of any of them. They were hens aflutter and in a panic. There were more important things that demanded her attention so she paid them no mind, her eyes focused on any twitch or cringe upon his face, though he remained as lifeless as a doll on her lap.
“What is the waterbender even doing?” asked a Fire Sage, the one holding Zuko’s headpiece.
Katara gave them no response. She looked only at Zuko’s unresponsive face, her blue eyes pleading for his piercing, gold gaze to stare back at her. But they remained shut.
“Don’t you dare die on me, do you hear me?” she told him. “’Cause if you die, I swear, I will kill you.”
All the while, the Fire Sages argued on.
“We need to get him inside, quickly!”
“The servants have already fetched the gurney.”
“Why is this even happening?”
“Just Azula,” said the High Sage. “During the Agni Kai, the new Fire Lord dove in front of a lightning blast to protect a civilian.”
“We saw it pass through his heart, yes, though we believe he managed to intercept most of the blast when he attempted to redirect it. He hadn’t assumed a proper stance, however, and it can be assumed that he suffered significant internal damage…”
“We need to send word out immediately! Get a medic!”
“There are no medics left!”
“And to whom will we send word? No one has jurisdiction! We don’t even know if Phoenix King Ozai succeeded—” the High Sage started to argue.
“General Iroh,” said Katara finally, her voice loud, clear, and full of emotion as she looked up at them with tears cascading down her big blue eyes. The Fire Sages stopped and looked down to her where her hands were still trying to heal Zuko’s chest. “General Iroh and the rest of the Order of the White Lotus worked to reclaim Ba Sing Se from the Fire Nation Administration. You can send word there.”
“With all due respect, former General Iroh still stands as a fugitive—” the High Sage reasoned, his disdain hardly hidden in his pleasantries.
“What he means to say is that the war’s not yet won… we think,” said another Fire Sage. “We cannot communicate with any of the other fleets. We do not know what’s going on beyond Caldera City. We don’t have orders. There is no protocol for this.”
“No protocol?!” Katara asked, furious.
“Fire Lord Zuko, by rights, won the claim to the throne, yes,” said another, immediately defensive, hands up—not wanting to anger the young woman who’d bested the most powerful firebender in their history. “But his father still outranks him. We are at a standstill.”
“This is ridiculous!” she said. Her hands were still on his chest. “This is the man you serve now and you’re still arguing about politics? Who even cares?!”
The servants rushed in with a gurney. They rushed to help Zuko onto it, several of them carrying him onto the cloth, and lifting him up. He groaned ever so slightly, suggesting life, but said no more. They rushed to get their Fire Lord inside the palace. Katara, who quickly followed suit, yelled after them.
“Are you all just going to stand around all useless and let him die?!”
At that, she did not bother to turn around to see how she had stunned them. She ran and ran, until the blue of her dress was no more than a speck turned to shadow in their line of sight. The Fire Sages stood amongst themselves, mouths agape, as they watched the scene before them.
“What should we do?”
At that moment, a faint blue light shot up at the sky. It was barely there, as the light stretched from miles and miles away, but they knew what it signified. They could feel the swift change in the air. Soon after, Sozin’s comet passed through the sky and the red sky bled back into the blue of the night and the bright moon reigned supreme.
The High Sage, still holding the five-pronged headpiece of the Fire Lord, grit his teeth and nodded. Though he could not confirm it, he knew. That light, faint as it was, meant that the Avatar had succeeded.
The war was won.
“Deal with the former princess,” the High Sage finally conceded. “As Fire Lord Zuko instructed.”
“What about the waterbender girl?”’
The High Sage raised a brow and frowned. When he spoke, his tone dripped of contempt. “It seems as though our Fire Lord is in capable hands.”
“What if he dies in her care?”
“Then the title would pass to someone more worthy of survival,” he said. “I believe in the current hierarchy—that title would fall to me.”
The other Fire Sages looked to each other, a knowing look passing among them. In a quick motion, the High Sage was incapacitated by his own hat as one of the other Sages pulled it down over his eyes and held his hands behind him.
“What is the meaning of this? Unhand me at once!”
“Shyu was right about you,” said one Fire Sage – one who now held the five-pronged headpiece. “Get him and Azula into isolated holding. I’ll get this to Fire Lord Zuko and his companion. Recall the servants that Azula had banished to help care for the Fire Lord and to get these fires under control—don’t let Caldera fall to ashes.”
At that, the Fire Sages nodded with each other, their mouths coated with the bitter film of shame and regret, as they carried out their Fire Lord’s orders. Azula, exhausted from her tears and the fight of her life, offered no resistance to the men who carried her in chains. The High Sage struggled in their grasp but was no match for his peers holding him down.
With that, he ran.
In the dark, the halls all looked the same.
Labyrinthine in nature as the walls were seemingly endless and every door looked the same. Fear accompanied her still as she ran after the servants who carried Zuko.
The Fire Nation Royal palace was very much unlike the beach house on Ember Island. Where those walls and floorboards were made of wood, the cool and inviting scent of the sea carried with every breeze, these halls were practically blood soaked from the way the walls and curtains draped over every inch of the space with a deep red. The faint glow from the fires in the torches did not help that illusion.
In her blue garb, she had never been more out of place than in this palace. But she would be damned if she left him right when he needed her.
“Where are you taking him?” she called out to them.
“To his quarters, ma’am,” said a servant.
“Is there anything you can do? A Fire Nation cure for lightning blasts or something?”
No answer came to her as they rushed him into a large, ornately decorated room. She had no time or interest to marvel at the splendour as they quickly transferred him from the gurney to the large bed. She went to his side and sat down beside him, hands reaching for her water skin and coating her hands with her healing glow once again. The servants who had carried him stepped back and allowed her to work, too fearful of the consequence if they were to ask what she was doing.
Zuko cringed as she tried to heal him again but calmed just as quickly; she felt about the injury on his chest, there was no change from when she first tried to do this. The best she could do was try to maintain him as he was—but that was no way to live. He was not healing because the wounds, the damage were too terrible and far too deep inside.
Child of fire as he might be, he was no phoenix to rise up from ashes—he was a man, flesh and bone, and he could be reduced to dust. There was only so much water could do to heal that. Katara choked back a sob and swallowed her panic down. This was not what Zuko needed.
It was then that a Fire Sage entered the room, holding the five-pronged headpiece of the Fire Lord. He set it upon a special holding case by what she assumed to be a closet and he came around to her. The servants stood by the side, awaiting instructions.
“We’ve arrested the High Sage and Azula; they are both being sent to isolation, as the Fire Lord instructed,” said the Sage. Katara furrowed her brows.
“Zuko didn’t say anything about the High Sage,” she replied.
“I know,” he replied. “That was my doing. The High Sage spoke of treasonous things once the Fire Lord was incapacitated.” A pause. Katara looked back to her unconscious patient and tried to heal him still, hoping that the power of the moon would make her healing stronger somehow. The Sage cleared his throat and continued, “We believe the young Avatar has succeeded in his quest against Phoenix King Ozai.”
“What would make you think that?” she asked. “Have you heard anything?”
“No, miss, but a bright light – blue, faint, and very far away – came from a distance, where we could only assume is the edge of the Earth Kingdom by the sea. Only the Avatar could have that much power to have it be seen from all the way across the world,” he answered.
“So Aang came back?” she asked.
“We don’t know the details,” he answered. “All we saw was the light and what we can assume.”
She looked away, thought carefully, and sighed.
“Then help me with what you can see up close,” she said. “Help me save him.”
“What would you have us do?” he asked. “As much as we would like to help… there’s nothing we can do.”
“What do you mean there’s nothing you can do?” she asked. “You’re firebenders! You should know how to heal this better than even I can!”
“Lightning is a specialised practise, miss. Instruction is reserved for nobility and the royal family. Even former Princess Azula’s instructors were non-benders—the knowledge was passed down in their family. The Fire Sages were not even privy to the practise. There is no protocol for injuries like the ones Fire Lord Zuko has sustained.”
She sighed, shoulders falling back in exasperation.
“Then get word to Iroh. Maybe he knows something,” she told him. The Fire Sage looked as if he might argue that point and she cut him off just as he took a breath. “You know Zuko. He’ll pardon his uncle of any war crime and, given the circumstances, it’s in his best interests. Iroh should know what to do.”
“How would we get word out?”
“Don’t you have any of the hawks left?” she asked. “You have those—to share information with the fleets.”
“All available resources were taken with Phoenix King—”
“Stop calling him that!”
The Fire Sage nods, humbled, and licked his lips. “As it stands, no. None of the hawks are left with us. None have been sent back from outposts either.”
Her eyes flitted about, looking at nothing, but busied themselves with the way the floors looked as she racked her brains for what to do next. She looked up suddenly then, and asked, “What about Appa?”
“The Avatar’s bison.”
“The bison refuses to be handled…” he answered. “We cannot control the beast.”
She closed her eyes and frowned. Looking upon Zuko’s face with his closed eyes, while everyone else in the room looked to her for answers, she had never quite felt so alone. She knew that her heart was racing in her chest, acidic panic slowly rising up her throat.
“I can’t leave him…” she muttered mostly to herself.
“I may assign servants to watch over him,” the Fire Sage tried.
“No, I can’t leave him for that long and my friends are too far away,” she said. “Appa can fly himself after I tell him what to do. We can write a letter, address it to Iroh, tell him that Zuko’s been badly injured and needs to come to the palace straightaway…”
The Fire Sage nodded and went to the writing desk. From inside its many drawers, he picked up parchment, ink, and a red candle. He wrote swiftly and never once questioned what she asked of him. Just as he was about to roll the paper up, Katara stopped him.
“Wait,” she said. “They might think it’s a trap… here, let me.”
She walked to the writing desk and left a signature at the bottom of the letter… a mark that she knew Sokka would know as her signature. When she rolled it up, the Fire Sage sealed it with wax seal through melting the candle with his firebending. He handed it to Katara and she nodded once.
“I won’t be long,” she said. “Watch over him. If you let him die, I will kill you myself.” He nodded. She looked among the servants then. “Can one of you take me to Appa?”
The servant nearest the door – a young woman who had just come in just a few moments prior – stepped forward and nodded. Together, they ran from the room and through the hallways once again. Neither of them spoke to each other. Time was of the essence.
By the time she reached the steps toward the entrance of the palace, she saw several guards pointing spears at Appa, who’d already backed away, feeling threatened but refusing to leave his friend. Upon her emergence from the palace, they pointed their spears at her. The attending Fire Sage nearby, having witnessed what Zuko did for Katara, told them to stand down. She swallowed at that and told the servant to stay where she was stood. Then, she went toward Appa who raised his front paws in greeting.
“Hey buddy,” she said, attempting to calm him. Appa nuzzled her outstretched hand with the tip of his moist nose. “I need you to go on a solo mission, okay? Zuko’s in trouble… big trouble. You understand?” Appa groaned and nodded once. “I need you to find our friends—go to the campsite of the Order of the White Lotus at Ba Sing Se. Get them back here as soon as you can.”
She climbed up to his saddle and noted that there was nothing she could tie the letter to… she could not trust any of the guards or sages to steer Appa… she looked about and tried to formulate a plan. And that was when she decided to go near Appa’s head. She took off her mother’s necklace and used it to secure the letter onto Appa’s horn with the most secure knot that she knew.
“That should do it,” she whispered. Katara jumped from Appa’s head and looked up at the bison. Tears streamed down her face as she looked up at him and she could see the worry in the bison’s large, intelligent eyes. Her voice was gentle, though honest in its desperation. “Fly fast, okay? Zuko needs you now more than ever.” Appa exhaled through the nose at her and licked her once, as if in comfort. She cracked a smile and nodded at him.
At her command, Appa rose and lifted himself high off the ground, his large tail inching him further and further up the sky as he flew toward the Earth Kingdom. She watched as he flew as fast he could, intelligent creature that he was, and she watched until Appa was nothing more than speck in the night sky.
Once he was out of sight, she ran back with the servant girl, right back to Zuko.
The night was always the darkest before the dawn but with all the campfires lit at the campsite of the Order of the White Lotus, it might as well have been early. Time felt slowed and unreal. No one felt that they could sleep just yet. Adrenaline was rushing through their veins and while the fear had dissipated and the panic was no longer there, it was difficult to come to terms that they had won the war.
Peace did not come overnight despite the fighting having finished. You did not just finish a war this long and stop looking over your shoulder for danger at every turn.
All the while, members of the Order of the White Lotus, the Water Tribe warriors from the South and North Pole who had also arrived, and the Earth Kingdom military were still ushering the defeated, surviving Fire Nation soldiers into prisons that would hold them.
Toph, Suki, and Sokka – being the children that they were – did not have to do anything right then. The responsibility had not fallen to them, their elders having decided that they’d already done enough. They were sat by themselves in front of their assigned tent with an open campfire before them, an empty but still warm bowl of stew resting just by it. Aang had just left their little circle moments before as his attention was called.
Toph was resting on a pile of rocks that she arranged to meet her comfortably. The rumble upon the ground as thousands of feet shuffled on the ground made it so that the actions of everyone around her were just so loud. More than once did she wish she wore shoes so that she would be properly blind. Her bones were still restless and aching for a fight. She put her hands up to her ears and groaned in her frustration.
“Yeesh, what a mess!” she complained. “Somehow, I thought winning would feel… I don’t know… better than this.” She gestured all around her. “More… victory and celebration, less… arresting a bunch of losers.”
“It is pretty messy,” Suki agreed, Sokka resting his head on her lap. Her hands were absentmindedly brushing Sokka’s long, unbound hair from his eyes. His broken but bandaged laid upon the ground, supported and raised by a pile of Toph’s own making. Suki adjusted the blanket that was resting on her shoulders as she looked about the campsite, realising Toph’s point.
There were many campfires lit up all around them and they were lit by the light of the moon, no clouds hiding her majesty as she shone high up in the sky.
“I don’t know how many Fire Nation soldiers have been captured by the Earth Kingdom militia and the Water Tribe warriors who just came but the White Lotus camp seems to have a pretty good handle on things.” A beat later, Suki continued, “Maybe the feeling of celebrating will come after everything is done and cleaned up.”
“Nah, I’m with Toph on this one…” said Sokka. “We won but… we don’t really know what happens next, do we?”
“Heck, we don’t even know what’s happened to Sugar Queen and Sparky!” Toph exclaimed.
“Ooh, ooh!” Sokka said, rolling to the side to face her. Suki looked down to him with a fond little smile on her face as his blue eyes widened with mischievous glee as he teased, “Maybe they just got lost staring into each other’s eyes!”
Toph let out a hyena’s cackle and Suki chuckled.
“Oh, stop it,” she said. “I think they’re really sweet.”
“Never gonna work out for long, though,” said Sokka. Suki bopped him lightly on the temple with her palm. He looked back up at her with offence written all over his features. He gestured wildly with his hands up in the air as he spoke indignantly.
“What?! Zuko’s a good cook and all, and yeah he helped me rescue you… and my dad from that prison up at the Boiling Rock… and sure he’s got that cool, dreamy, bad boy appeal or whatever…”
“Bad boy?” Toph challenged.
“Cool?” Suki added.
“Dreamy?” Toph challenged again, mocking in her tone. “Have you met Zuko?!”
“No, no—I’ll give him dreamy,” Suki argued. “Zuko is pretty… well… pretty.”
Sokka rose up then, his broken leg still outstretched, but he gestured with his hands still. “But anyway… come on! Guy’s… a prince.”
“So?” Suki challenged. “What’s wrong with princes?”
“Those guys don’t get their hands dirty,” he said, shifting his weight carefully to inch closer to Suki’s side, resting an arm over her shoulder, holding her close to him. “My sister needs a man who would like… provide for her and stuff! Someone she could rely on, you know?”
Suki gave him a look, a smirk on her lips. With a flourish did she remove his arm around her and push him away playfully. “First of all, Katara is the last girl in the world who needs any sort of guy.”
“And second, again… have you met Captain Hotpants?” Toph interjected, leaning toward them and closer to the warm fire. “Dude would give his life for Katara any time, any place faster than he could find his honour! No questions asked.”
Sokka was just about to argue his point again when they heard a high young voice approach them, running as he held his glider.
“Hey, you guys talking about Katara?!” he asked, full of excitement and curiosity, as he sat by Toph. “Have you heard from her and Zuko yet?”
Sokka and Suki looked at each other and Toph simply shrugged her shoulders, keeping her features carefully stoic.
“No, Aang,” Suki answered, veering the question away from what they were talking about. “We were just hoping that they’d both be okay. We’re getting kind of worried.”
At that moment, a shadow of a speck flew against the light of the moon…
And a load groan, almost a roar, came from up high.
“I’m sure they’ll be alri—wait, is that…” said Aang, looking skyward and watching as his bison dove down to the campsite. “Appa!”
“They’re back!” Toph exclaimed, jubilant and relieved.
Oh, little did they know…
“What are you doing to him?”
The question came after an uncomfortable silence.
Katara went back to Zuko’s side after she sent Appa on his way to their friends and upon her return, she resumed to healing his chest to help him breathe and to keep his heart beating. Yet, for whatever reason, his heart was in a weakened state and nothing she did could help him for very long.
She threw a look at the Fire Sage over her shoulder and she saw that his question was not malicious, simply that of curiosity.
“I’m healing him… as best I can, anyway,” she replied. “I’ve healed a lightning strike before… back when Azula shot Aang in Ba Sing Se but I had water from the spirit oasis in the North Pole then. It had special healing properties. I don’t know what I can do about this now.”
“Is… is it working?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” she answered. “He’s not looking any better than he was when we brought him in. His injuries are internal—I don’t know how to fix this.”
The last of her statement was uttered in an almost whisper, defeat carrying her voice that weighed her words down.
“I didn’t know waterbenders had healing abilities,” he said.
“I didn’t know either at first,” she found herself admitting, her voice small as she felt right then. “We have been at war for a hundred years. The only masters left are at the North Pole—I didn’t learn how to fight properly or heal until about a few months ago.”
“You mean to tell us that Azula was defeated… by a novice bender?” Katara frowned at that.
“No, I’m a master too,” she clarified.
“No one can master an element in but a few months. It’s preposterous! Unheard of!”
“Is this really what you want to talk about with me right now?” she snapped. “You’re questioning the only person who can keep your Fire Lord alive?” Her piercing blue eyes looked him up and down, her rage as clear as the moon on a cloudless night sky. “Know your place.”
With the glare she threw at him, the Fire Sage swallowed nervously and took a step back. She returned her eyes to Zuko, whereupon her features immediately softened at the sight of him still so lifeless and pale.
“I trust the full moon is assisting your abilities?” the Fire Sage tried. “Sifu Katara?”
“No, it’s not quite full just yet. It’s full tomorrow,” she answered. “Now, give me some space.”
“Call upon us if you need anything, then,” he said, finally. “We shall station a servant here to remain with you and tend to your needs.”
He pointed at the girl who ran with her to go to Appa. She nodded immediately at the instruction while the other servants took their leave of the room without further instructions.
“You mean keep watch over me,” said Katara.
“Nothing of the sort, Master Katara,” he said. “We shall send General Iroh and the others straight to you immediately upon their arrival.”
“Good,” she said. “Thank you.”
He left the room and the door to the Fire Lord’s quarters shut tight. It was only then that she was able to absorb the empty space in this place. The windows were open, keeping the room cool as it could be, while the red curtains billowed gently as light winds breezed through them. She sat by Zuko on the bed, still, and healed him quietly for long periods of time. Though she rested in short bursts, she could not quite figure out how to reach deep enough inside his chest to fix what Azula’s fire had burnt through.
“Master Katara, you should rest a while.”
The voice of the servant girl came almost as a surprise to Katara as the girl had been quiet for so long that she’d forgotten there was anyone else in the room with them. She turned her head and saw that the girl had her hands clasped just beneath her stomach in a demure, almost vulnerable fashion. She had her head bowed, her long black hair flowing down to her hips, and she would not look up at the waterbender at all.
“I could… I could keep watch over you both while you sleep…”
“No offense but I don’t know you,” she answered. “Zuko is my best friend. I can’t risk anything happening to him if I’m asleep.” The servant girl nodded her head while she kept it bowed still. Katara added, “Besides, the moon gives me strength.”
“Could I at least bring you some tea?” the girl suggested. “Maybe some food just to keep your strength up?”
“Why do you even want to help me?” Katara asked.
There was no spite in her tone, no edge or sharpness in it—a simple curiosity. Still, the girl edged away ever so slightly all the same. It reminded her of Zuko… just before they became friends. She knew that aversion, that barest shake of her hand, that instinct to take defense. Sympathy filled her heart for this girl just then, her suspicious stance relaxing somewhat.
“I…” the girl started. “There was a pit in… in Princess Azula’s cherries just before her coronation. It was my fault. She… s-she, uh—” she paused to swallow though her hands had started shaking more noticeably. “I was banished for… for my recklessness… and I was just about to flee the palace when His Majesty fell and many of the servants were recalled and… and, well, the princess’ banishments were reversed.”
“That doesn’t answer my question, though. I already know that Azula’s a monster,” said Katara, sympathy growing for the girl more and more as she spoke. “Why do you want to help? You didn’t have to come back when you were banished… you could have run away from here.”
“I…” said the girl. “Well, as a prince, Fire Lord Zuko was always very kind to us. He’s… sweet.” A blush rose to her cheeks then as she looked away when she said that, even the waterbender could see it in the limited, dim light of the night. “We… we hope that—well… those of us who returned… we hope that he stays in charge.” She paused as she swallowed nervously. “It would... it would be a welcome change. And I don’t… my mother is a guard with the fleet, you see. She’s all I have. I don’t have anywhere else to go.”
The entire time, the girl did not raise her eyes to Katara once. Her heart ached for the girl before her. Perhaps, she was simply awaiting an opportunity to make herself useful, afraid of being made redundant and banished for a simple mistake. She did not know this young woman – not by a long shot – and yet, how her heart went out to her all the same, despite her panic over Zuko’s state.
“Hey… look at me, “ she told the girl. The servant girl followed, fear clear in her dark eyes. Katara asked, “What’s your name?”
“Tala, Master Katara,” she answered.
“There’s no need for that,” she said. “You can just call me Katara.”
“But thank you, Tala. I think some tea would be good,” she requested. “Maybe some more fresh water for my water skins would help too.”
“Right away, Mast—Katara,” Tala replied. Katara managed a small smile and nodded. Tala followed immediately and left the room leaving her alone with her patient.
In the light, she realised that she’d never quite seen Zuko asleep before.
No frown lines between his brows. Though the lines of his face were sharp – his jaw, his chin – she saw that his features softened underneath the moonlight like this. His breathing was slow and so was his pulse. Her hand slowly reached for his. The tips of her fingers sliding up his until she took his hand and twined their fingers together. His palms were coarse and almost rough from being worn. His skin, normally so warm against hers, felt too chilled.
Now, in the quiet and they found themselves alone, she felt herself start to sob. Tears freely fell from her blue eyes as she inched closer to him, her feet dangling over the edge of his bed.
“Come on, Zuko,” she whispered, raising his hand in hers up to her face. She brushed the back of his hand against her cheek and sobbed. Her lips trembled as she wept. “I’m right here with you. I’m not going anywhere, I promise. I’m still here.”
She lowered their hands, still clasped and twined together, over her heart. Her chin was atop where their knuckles were bridged together. Her tears dribbled down to her chin.
“Just stay with me,” she begged him—her voice breaking, her lips trembling.
“Please, please stay.”
Aang airbended himself up to stand and greet his friend. Appa landed with a loud, heavy thud; immediately, he groaned. Even to those who did not know the creature, the sound of distress was universal. The whole camp looked to the clearing where the bison had landed, all of them eager for news from the prince and the waterbender.
Suki helped Sokka up to his feet and he leaned onto her for balance. Aang saw the necklace bound to Appa’s horns immediately and lifted himself into the air.
“Hey buddy, what’cha got there…” he said, slipping the letter off his horn. After the letter was delivered, Appa rested on his middle with his legs splayed out in exhaustion.
“Poor Appa’s so tired… he’s flown so much in the last few days,” said Suki.
“But where’s Katara and Zuko?” Toph asked. “I don’t hear them…”
“What’s going on?” Suki asked. “Why aren’t they with Appa?”
“That’s Katara’s necklace!” Sokka exclaimed as Aang landed back on the ground and he saw the letter in his hands. The younger boy gave him the pendant to confirm that it was, indeed, their grandmother’s old betrothal necklace. He’d recognise it anywhere. Sokka felt his heart drop upon the recognition, his mind already imagining the worst. He pocketed his sister’s necklace then, keeping it safe. Suki put her hand over his heart, keeping him at bay and from hurting himself.
Meanwhile, Aang unfurled the parchment and read the letter. He remained silent as he read through it, his expression going from anxious to downright terrified. Even in this light, she could see the colour drain from the young Avatar’s face.
“What? What is it, Aang?” Suki asked. “What does it say?”
“Oh no…” he said, his grey eyes glued to the words on the page. “I need to go get Iroh. Stay right here!”
Without another word, he dropped the letter to the ground and took off on his glider and launched himself high in the sky in search of the Grand Lotus.
“What?!” Toph asked, frustrated and growing more afraid by the second. They knew the war was won… but they never once considered what they might have lost. Or what they might be losing. “What’s going on?!”
“Let’s see…” said Suki as she reached for the letter with her foot and nimbly reaching for it with her hands, without ever letting Sokka drop. She read the letter aloud. “Dear General Iroh, Fire Lord Zuko has been…” she stopped to gasp, her heart feeling as if it had dropped to her stomach. “Grievously injured…” she finished. She looked up, horror clear on her wide eyes. “Your assistance is required straightaway.”
“Maybe it’s a trap!” Sokka tried, desperation in his voice as he grabbed the letter from Suki’s hands. “Who knows who sent this… my sister would never use words like grievously and—”
He stopped as he recognised the mark at the bottom. At that moment, he wished that the ground would swallow him whole.
“What?!” Toph asked. “What is it?! Stop stopping midsentence like that!” Sokka said nothing, shock still in his system. Suki could only look at her helplessly, still trying to keep Sokka upright. “What does it mean grievously injured? What’s wrong with Zuko?”
“It doesn’t say what happened but it looks like Zuko’s the Fire Lord now,” Sokka replied, his cadence serious as a grown man’s but his fear, as evident as a child’s. “But right there at the bottom… that’s the mark of the brave of the Southern Water Tribe, the one she earned when we went ice dodging with Bato. And Katara sent it wrapped with our mother’s necklace to prove that it’s from her; Appa wouldn’t have followed anyone else, especially if they’re still in the Fire Nation. She may not have written the letter but the message is definitely from her. They must have written it in a rush.”
“We need to get to the Fire Nation… and fast!” Toph declared, pounding her fist to her other palm.
“I don’t think Appa can make the trip back… look at him he’s exhausted!” said Suki.
“We’ll take the eel hounds,” he said, determined and trying to step forward using his injured leg. He yelled as the pain took hold and Suki kept him from falling on himself.
“Sokka!” she said. “You can’t make the trip on the eel hounds in your condition…”
“Yes, I can,” he said, determined as ever, his blue eyes looking up at her as dark as night. “My sister needs me—I’m going.”
“We are all going,” said Iroh from behind, riding one eel hound, with Master Piandao riding another one just behind him. “Where is the letter?”
Master Piandao slid off the eel hound and Sokka gave him the letter. Piandao then reached up to show Iroh the letter and he read it quickly, his expression never faltering. He nodded once and gave it back to Piandao.
“I’ll take care of the bison and stay here. Avatar Aang has already taken his glider, flew off alone...” said the swordmaster. He looked to Sokka, concerned. “Are you sure you’ll be able to make the journey? It’ll be long and very painful for you.”
“I have to,” Sokka replied. “Katara needs me.”
“Very well,” he said. “Suki, take the reins. Toph, assist Sokka from the back.”
Toph nodded and, without warning, she wrapped Sokka’s bandaged, broken leg with a layer of solid earth. Sokka hissed at the pain and but nodded, welcoming the support. The three of them then did as they were told and were soon saddled up on the eel hound.
“Hurry now…” said Iroh. “My nephew needs our help!”
Every minute that passed felt like an eternity. Despite her insistence of staying up through the day, Katara fell asleep from exhaustion almost as soon as the sun rose. It was in Zuko’s favour, then, that the sun gave him the strength to allow him to rest for more prolonged periods of time. But the sun could only do so much and he’d already become much, much paler in the time that passed.
And so it was that Katara was afforded almost a whole day’s worth of sleep before she woke up at a start to see Tala wiping sweat off of Zuko’s brow with a cool, damp cloth. The sun was already beginning to set, the sky already the tinge of orange slowly fading into the blue of night.
The moon would be full this night.
“Is he okay?” she asked. “Did he wake up?”
“No. But he groans in his sleep,” Tala answered. “I thought the cool water might help.”
“How long was I out?”
‘Half a day,’ Tala wanted to say but she only chewed at her lip and said, “Just a few hours.”
“Why didn’t you wake me?” she asked, making sure that her voice never rose.
“You looked like you needed it,” she replied. “Perhaps I could… fetch some food for you now?”
At the mention of food, Katara’s stomach turned and growled. She managed to chuckle as she wiped the sleep from her eyes. Tala smiled and bowed her head low, moving backward from the bed to make her exit.
Katara resumed her healing stance with the water from her water skins still. She needed more fresh water but she assumed that Tala would return with more, as she had the night before.
“Katara?” he whispered, his eyes still shut but she saw movement behind his lids. She brushed hair out of his face and sighed. There was nothing else to do except try to continue to heal him, as Sisyphean a task that it looked to be for nothing she did rectified the situation. She might have healed all she could at this point but it still had not saved him.
And, perhaps, there was no saving him at all.
Suddenly, she heard a commotion outside the Fire Lord’s quarters and the sound of heavy footsteps. Running, running, running toward them. Too exhausted to fight but too desperate to let anyone hurt her friend, her bones tensed at the sound. As soon as the doors swung open, her shoulders relaxed.
“Master Katara is in there, sto—” Tala exclaimed. “Wait!”
The sight of his orange robes and the blue of his tattoos made her want to cry.
“Aang!” she cried out, rushing to him with arms wide open.
“Katara!” he said, reaching out to meet her embrace as tightly as he could, his eyes closed. When they separated, his grey eyes went to the unconscious firebender on the bed and saw the rip in his clothes where the lightning had hit and the scar on his chest, just by his heart. Aang approached him and stood over him, helpless in a way that he had never felt before.
“What’s wrong with him… what happened?”
“Where’s Iroh?” Katara asked, going back to sit by Zuko’s side. He stirred at the commotion and groaned but stayed asleep. “Why isn’t he with you?”
“He and the others are on eel hounds,” Aang replied. “They’re trying to get here as fast as they could—they were just behind me. They shouldn’t be long. Appa was too tired to make the journey back.”
Just then, the doors opened again and the former General came bursting in to his nephew’s side.
“Zuko!” said Iroh. He sat by his nephew’s head while Katara was by his hip, her hand on top of his. Aang held his glider tightly in his hand, his stomach turning at the sight of his friend like this. The airbender was restless where he stood—desperate to do something that could help, though his arms were exhausted from being extended for so long.
Soon after, Sokka, Suki, and Toph were quickly ushered into the room. Suki helped him to the other side of Zuko’s sick bed where he sat, looking down at his unconscious form, while Toph shadowed their movements and found herself at the foot of the bed. They saw the scar by his heart and felt theirs tighten.
“How is he doing?” Suki asked.
“Not too good,” Katara replied. “I’m doing my best but… we think a lot of his heart was damaged by the lightning. Fried. That’s not something I can heal.” She looked to the man in front of her, his old eyes quickly filling with tears as he brushed his nephew’s hair with shaking fingers. “Iroh, how do we heal lightning wounds?”
“But he knows how to redirect lightning. I taught him myself,” Iroh muttered under his breath. “How did Azula…?”
“She… she aimed for me,” Katara explained. “Zuko, he—” her words caught in her throat. She swallowed as she struggled to keep going. “He just jumped in front of me and I didn’t—and I don’t—”
Her breath hitched again and she felt her chest tighten. Aang put a hand on her shoulder in comfort. Sokka reached over for her hand, brows furrowed together. All of them feeling as helpless as each other while Zuko lay before them, dying.
“I-I don’t know what to do,” Katara confessed. “I can’t just keep doing this forever and I can feel him slipping; he’s getting weaker and weaker.”
“I can fly to the North Pole,” Aang suggested, voice high and hopeful. “Get some of that magic spirit water! That helped last time, right?”
“It’s too far for you to fly alone, Aang, and I don’t know if he’s going to make it that long,” she said. “He’s so weak as it is.”
“Katara, there has to be something we can do!” Sokka exclaimed.
“I’ve tried everything I know how to do…” she said, despair known in her cadence as her voice was full of emotion. “My healing abilities won’t work. Water won’t help.” Begging still, she looked up at his uncle and cried. “Iroh, please. There has to be a way to save him. Right?”
“The lightning…” he said, words as quiet as death. “His heart… did he…?”
“He wasn’t thinking when he jumped. He redirected some of it, yes, but the lightning passed through his heart anyway. He held it in,” she said. “He saved me.”
“Then…” said Iroh, a single tear falling from his kind, old eyes of molten bronze. He bowed his head and put a hand over his nephew’s forehead, brushing through his dark hair. He shook his head and whispered, “Zuko…”
Her eyes widened. “No,” she muttered.
Katara raised her trembling hand to her mouth and cried, holding Zuko’s hand as she did. Aang stood beside her, his hand on her shoulder.
“Oh, my son…” Iroh lamented. “Surely… the spirits… would not be so cruel… to take my only other son from me…”
“So there’s nothing?” Suki asked, the calmest of them all. Sokka wept into her arm, his nails digging into her skin as he held onto her. Toph, at the foot of the bed, looked down—no one could see her face but her hands were balled into fists so tight that her knuckles were white.
“I’m so sorry, Iroh,” said Suki finally.
“Could you leave us for a moment?” Iroh asked. “I need some time alone… with my son.”
“Of course,” Suki replied as she tried to get Sokka up from the bed. Toph raced out of the room as swiftly as she could while Aang had his arm around Katara’s waist as he helped her out of the room. She wept into her hand still, muffling the sound of her sobs with her palms.
As they left, Suki could only hear the soft singing of a father, already in mourning. A song of melancholy that made her stop by the door, her own tears dribbling down her cheeks at the thought of her fallen friend, as she listened.
“Leaves from the vine…” Iroh sang. “Falling so slow… like fragile, tiny shells… drifting in the foam… little… soldier boy… come marching home… brave… soldier boy… comes marching… home.”
By the steps of the Fire Nation Royal Palace, the gang found themselves sitting together, watching the last of the sun dip further into night as the darkness took over. The night sky looked too beautiful for anyone to die as the stars twinkled without restraint, not a cloud in sight.
The full moon had never looked so refulgent in her resplendence.
“He’s…” Toph started, the only one of them still standing—far enough away from everyone that they almost didn’t catch what she’d said. “He’s not really gonna die is he?”
Her voice had never sounded so small just then… so young. It was easy to forget that she was only thirteen-years-old. There was hope there—a naïveté that they had never quite heard from someone as strong as her. It broke their heart all the more when she turned her unseeing eyes toward them, red-rimmed from tears she could hold in no longer.
“I don’t know what else to do, Toph. I don’t know if there’s anything else that I can do,” Katara confessed, exhausted and worn. “There’s only so much that water can heal.”
“Aang, is there anything the Avatar can do?” Suki tried. “Maybe there’s some special healing abilities that you have when you’re in the Avatar State?”
“My past lives have all said the same thing…” he said. “I don’t know how to save him either.”
“I don’t want to give up, but…” said Katara, despairing as she gestured with her hands. She covered her face, wishing nothing more that she could claw herself away from this reality.
The war was won—oh, but at what cost.
“Katara,” said Sokka, pulling his sister toward him with an arm around her shoulder. “You’ve done everything that you could.”
“I’m really sorry, Katara,” said Aang. “I feel so useless.”
It was then that they heard a sound they never thought they would ever hear in their lives. A sound that would, Katara thought, haunt her to her grave.
A wail as powerful as an avalanche—a little girl who had never known death to now be faced with what it would be like to truly, truly mourn. Today, she met fear too. And she was just as helpless. Katara thought that it reminded her of Azula at her defeat, almost; as if the earthbender were weeping for the brother she never had. Toph bellowed and cried as she fell to her knees. Suki rushed over to her side, her arms around the younger girl.
“He can’t die!” Toph bawled, an unbroken stream of tears coming from her eyes. “He can’t! I won’t let him!”
“Hey, hey, hey…” Suki said, trying to comfort the girl but knowing that there was no fixing a broken dam; there was only letting the river flow where it will. She rubbed circles on her back as Toph started coughing from the tears as she bawled loudly, holding the girl close to her as she cried for Zuko too. “I know, I know. It’s okay—let it out, Toph, let it out.”
The siblings watched and Katara could only lean more into her brother’s embrace, her body weak at the thought of their defeat.
“He sacrificed himself to save me, Sokka,” she said. “He helped you rescue dad. He found the monster that killed mom. What he’s done for me—for us… and I can’t save him?” she looked up at him then, her bloodshot blue eyes pleading up into his own. “What good are these stupid healing abilities if I can’t save him?”
“You did save him,” Aang tried to say, kneeling in front of her, putting a hand on her knee. “You forgave him and… maybe taught him to forgive himself.”
“It’s not enough, Aang! We didn’t have enough time!” she cried out. Sokka held her that much tighter then. “It’s not fair,” she added. “It’s not fair!”
Just then, Tala’s soft footsteps came from behind them as she approached the grieving group together.
“Excuse me?” she said. “I… I’m sorry, but… General Iroh is calling you back inside.” They all turned to look at her then, trying to read her face as to why they might be requested back. She bowed her head low, her hands clasped before her in subservience, as she delivered the news.
“His Majesty is… awake. He says it’s time to say goodbye.”
Zuko was still alive by the time they got back to his quarters, his head propped up by many pillows. Even in the moonlight, his golden skin paled as the blood drained from his face.
The lightning that struck his heart had charred the muscle to the point that it was weak. Katara had healed him as best that she could but the water could not make his heart grow back to its size or repair the valves that had been reduced to ash. His heart still beat but they were numbered. He could feel his heart struggle to beat and his every breath was laboured and heavy. He did not have long left. This, he already knew by the time he woke up and saw his uncle’s crying face over him.
He was dying and he knew it and, for the first time, he found that he was not angry. And he was not afraid. Peace settled over his exhausted bones, his muscles feeling limp. He managed to smile at the sight of his friends, however, and he delighted in the feeling of his uncle’s fingers running through his hair.
They gathered around him – Sokka, Suki, and Toph on one side; Katara and Aang with his uncle on the other – and he had never been so happy.
“Hi, guys…” he managed to say, his voice raspy and weak. “Did we win?”
“Yeah, buddy. We won,” Aang replied as he caught a tear just as quickly as it had fallen. “Your dad’s still alive, though. I took away his bending instead.”
“Wow,” said Zuko. “Everyone okay?”
“I broke my leg,” Sokka managed. Zuko’s eyes darted to the sight of his bent, bandaged leg and he chuckled.
“That’s rough, buddy,” he managed. Sokka cracked a tearful smile that Zuko returned. He coughed then, a harsh, rough sound, a blood dribbled from his lip. He licked it away with the tip of his tongue.
“Everyone’s okay, Zuko,” said Suki.
“You gotta keep fighting, okay?” Toph interjected, her voice raw from crying. “We still have to go on that life-changing field trip, remember? You owe me.”
Zuko smiled at her, his lips trembling. He whispered, “Oh, I remember.”
“We’re all here for you,” said Aang.
“Good. That’s… that’s good,” said Zuko. “Where’s Azula?”
“In isolation, like you said,” Katara replied. At the sound of her voice, Zuko’s eyes met hers and she wanted to weep all over again. With considerable effort, his hand crawled and inched its way to hers where she held it.
“Is she okay?” he asked.
“She’s okay,” she answered. “She’ll be alright.”
“Good,” he said, closing his eyes and sighing. He coughed again before he turned his head to look up at Iroh.
“Uncle? Take care of her too, okay? Don’t let her be alone,” he said. Iroh could say nothing and he only nodded, tears silently flowing into his long beard. His lips trembled, unable to speak. Zuko added, “You’re all she’s going to have now. She needs somebody.”
Iroh bent down to kiss his nephew’s forehead then, nodding just so.
“My son,” he said. “You have made us all so, so proud.”
“Thank you, uncle,” said Zuko, smiling as wide as he could. His breathing grew shorter and shorter. Katara swallowed and grit her teeth together, her lips in a tight line; doing everything she could to stop herself from crying.
“For what it’s worth… I’m glad it’s me,” Zuko whispered. There was not a dry eye in the room. “If anybody had to go, I’m glad it was me.”
“Zuko, don’t—” Katara tried, but he cut her off.
“Katara…” he said, licking his lips as he sighed. Not so much as defeated as much as he was tired.
With his hand that she was holding, he tried to raise it as best he could—she helped him and she held the back of his hand against her cheek. She felt his finger gently brush against her skin, as if he were trying to wipe her tears for him away.
“Why did you do it?” she asked in a hollow whisper. “Why did you have to do that?”
“You know why. It was you or me,” he answered. “I made you a promise.” He coughed again and swallowed back the blood that tasted like ash on his lips. “Swore on a life that mattered to me…”
“Don’t you know how much you matter to me?” she countered, crying more openly now as she did. “You big jerk.”
“Hey,” he said. “Don’t cry.” His eyes looked about the room, weeping for him as he approached his end. “Don’t cry for me—any of you,” he tried to say. “We won. You should be happy.”
“How could any of us be happy without you, man?” Sokka asked.
“You stay with me, you hear me?” Katara commanded, clutching his hand and holding it over her heart. “Whatever happened to never giving up without a fight?”
“I gave it my best shot,” said Zuko, managing to chuckle weakly. “Y-you remember that first night at the beach house?”
“Yeah?” she said. “Yeah, of course.”
“That was…” he started. He swallowed but he was starting to choke on the air that his lungs were rejecting. “That was the night we finally became friends.”
“Hey, save your strength,” she tried, panic starting to rise inside her body. “We’re not through with you yet, okay?”
“I…” he started, stubborn as ever.
“Choose your own destiny, okay?” said Zuko, approaching his final goodbye. His eyes were starting to flutter close, his gold eyes starting to roll back to his head. He struggled to get the words out, darkness creeping over him as death started to bid hello.
“And thank you… all of you… for everything.”
With that, he exhaled a dying breath. His pulse was dangerously slow.
“Hey, you’re saying goodbye—don’t say goodbye…” said Katara, pulling at his arm. His seemingly lifeless body was pulled by the effort and when she let go, he bounced back to the bed. Motionless.
“Zuko?” she tried. “ZUKO!”
‘Think, Katara, think…’ she thought. ‘No, this is not how I lose you.’
“What’s happening, what’s going on?” Toph cried out.
“Oh no…” said Sokka, looking at his lifeless friend in the moonlight. Suki cried into his shoulder and he reached to pull her into his embrace.
“I need water, I need—” Katara tried.
“He’s gone…” said Aang in a whisper, disbelief in his tone.
“Somebody help! Help!” Toph tried to cry out. “He’s dying!” She slammed her hands on top of her head. “Come on, Sparky, you can’t leave now!”
“Toph!” Aang tried to say, to keep her back.
Iroh could only weep over his nephew’s body, ears deaf to the rest of them. They may mourn but they do not know a father’s grief. He had known this pain before, he could remember it so vividly, and he did not have the words to describe how it felt—to be so full and yet so hollow all at the same time.
There was only so much that water could heal, she remembered thinking as she looked at Zuko with his eyes closed. And she refused—she simply refused to let him go.
“Katara…” Aang said, attempting to pry her away from the body.
“No, no—shut up!” she said.
His last words rung in her head and she remembered then—that first night at the beach house. Her head snapped up as she stared at the bright full moon and she felt the sheer, pure power fill her veins. The spirits must have been looking out for her because just then, she heard Zuko’s voice in her head again… his words ringing in her head from her memory…
That first night at the beach house…
There was only so much that water could heal… but…
‘Have you ever considered healing using the blood?’
Katara gasped, her eyes wide.
“Everybody stop!” she yelled. “Be quiet!”
Her entire body was shaking and her blood was ringing in her ears.
She knelt over his body and she raised her hands over his heart as she felt for the rush of his blood, for the water in his system. Her hands started trembling as she felt the rush of his life in her hands—how pliant it could be and yet, how it resisted. But there was a different kind of power in her now and where bending his blood before to her will was monstrous before, this felt like something else entirely. Empowered by the light of the full moon, she exhaled through her mouth, and started to heal.
Zuko’s face immediately cringed and contorted at the sensation. Katara, not knowing exactly what she was doing and operating simply on instinct, raised her hand and felt for his heart, for the epicentre of his pain. Her trembling hand mimicked a heart’s pulse, keeping his steady and going.
“Ah!” Zuko cried out, jolting out stiffly from bed.
His chest glowed a vibrant red just then and as Katara started healing him from the inside, a blue tinge mixed with it took. A purple glow took hold. Her eyes glistened at the sight of it but she knew and she felt it in her bones.
It was working.
“Katara…” Iroh started as he watched with wide eyes.
“What is she doing?!” Toph cried out. “What’s going on?”
“She’s healing him…” Suki realised.
“Using his blood!” Aang finished. “She’s healing him with his blood! She’s bloodbending! Go Katara! You’re doing it!”
“Is it working?” Iroh asked, hovering over them.
Zuko groaned all the more and ground his teeth together. His face betrayed the pain that he was in that his arms were starting to twitch. Zuko reached for Katara’s arm without thinking and held on for dear life, his nails digging deep into her skin.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry—” she whispered. Then, she looked up to Suki, who was watching the spectacle with her jaw dropped. “Suki, tie him down. Get him something to bite.”
“On it!” she said, holding his hand down. Iroh mimicked the action and took the hand that was clutching at Katara. “Toph, give me your headband!”
Quickly, the other girl snatched the cloth from her head and handed it to Sokka, who was sitting by Zuko’s body. He gagged Zuko with the headband, keeping him from grinding his teeth into dust. His groaned turned into screams then as Katara continued to heal him.
“Sokka, don’t let him choke. Toph, Aang—hold down his legs!” Katara ordered. The two of them did as they were told and held down his convulsing legs.
“Is he gonna be okay?” Toph tried, her voice high through the noise.
They all looked to Katara, her pulsing hand over him starting to shake. Zuko coughed and started to choke and wheeze. She felt that his blood was seeping into his lungs as it travelled to repair the tissues there that held him together. But his breathing suffered for it.
“Aang, keep him breathing!” she said.
While keeping his leg down, Aang blew air with his mouth and bent fresh air from all around them into his lungs and helped him inhale and exhale.
Now unimpeded by any distractions, Katara focused and prayed to the moon as she did. In her heart, she reached out to Yue to give her strength, to let her save him. As she tried to imagine a life with Zuko, it filled with such a rage, such a fire that she had never known before, that she simply said, no. She would not let him slip into the darkness. She would carry him back into the light with her bare hands if she had to.
She was not that helpless little girl anymore when the Fire Nation came when she was eight. And no, she would not let them take away anyone else she loved. Because she did, she knew then; she already had for a while now and it came stronger than ever.
And he would live long enough to hear it.
“Come on, Zuko,” she said, closing her eyes in concentration, putting all of her power into healing his heart. She felt his blood stitch the damaged muscles back together, the cells of his heart regenerating as she commanded them to heal him. It was slow going and she knew that it hurt him, but this was a necessary suffering.
Anything would do if it meant keeping him.
“Stay with me. Stay with me now…”
“Katara?” said Suki, the concern almost enough to break her concentration. Almost. “Katara, stop! Your nose is bleeding!”
“No!” said Katara as she felt Suki’s own blood almost let go of Zuko’s arm to reach over to her.
She felt that trickle of her blood over her lip but it was not enough to get her to stop. A pain came from the centre of her head as she tried and she knew she was overexerting herself. If she tried any harder, she felt as if her own life force might give out and leave her lifeless. But she had to try—by all the spirits, she had to try.
“I’ve almost got him…” she said, muttering to herself. “I’m almost done…” Tears starting to fall from Zuko’s tightly shut eyes as he screamed through the gag.
“You don’t get to save me and then just leave me here!”
Servants and Fire Sages started rushing in at the sound of the commotion. They all simply stood there, awestruck at the sight that greeted them – the bright purple glow that came from the Fire Lord’s middle – and Katara couldn’t care less. The only thing she could see, feel, hear, and care about right then was him.
“Come on, Zuko…” she said, her hand on his chest. She could feel his heart string itself back together, the charred pieces discarded and passed through his body as dead cells do. “Come on… come on… come on!”
At that, Zuko jolted up finally from the bed to the point that Katara fell back. He spat out the headband from his mouth and coughed violently. Iroh and Aang managed to catch Katara and hold her up as her arms felt overexerted and exhausted. Her breathing was laboured but she was quickly able to regain her balance and rest upon the foot of Zuko’s bed. Suki rushed over to Katara’s side and brushed the hair out of her eyes.
“Are you okay?” Suki asked as Katara’s eyes glossed over. She shook it off and blinked away the vertigo that had suddenly hit. “Katara, hey… look at me, are you okay?”
She swallowed and nodded weakly. “I’m fine, I’m fine.”
Zuko, however, was doubled over and coughing charred blood—remnants of the damaged tissue inside him that had been repaired. Iroh rubbed circles over his back to try to calm him as he coughed over and over again.
“What did you do?” Suki asked as she turned her head to look at Zuko. They all looked to the new Fire Lord and they saw some colour rising back to his face and his breathing started to become steady. He wrapped his arm around his middle and shook the stupor out from his eyes. Suki asked again, “What just happened?”
“I felt his heart,” Katara explained as she exhaled. She was parched but the worry in her bones had not yet been released, not knowing if her work had held up. Iroh looked to her, eagerly awaiting to hear what had just transpired. “I healed his heart from the inside and the water in him… the blood… the blood healed to repaired the damage. I felt it… like it was making his heart new again from the inside.”
“Nephew…” Iroh asked as he looked to Zuko. “Are you okay? How are you feeling?”
“Dizzy,” he admitted, brushing the blood away from his lip. “A little lightheaded and my… well, everything hurts. But I’m fine.” He breathed in slow and steady for a while, eyes looking at nothing and he looked as if he would retch a little. “I’m gonna be sick—”
With reflexes as quick as lightning, Aang reached for the water bowl just by his bed and handed it to Zuko where he retched out what looked to be all that remained of his charred heart. All of the bad blood in his system, now gone.
After that, he handed the bowl to Iroh. Before Iroh could even ask for a servant, one of the men stepped forward and took the bowl wordlessly and rushed out with it.
“How do you feel now?” Iroh asked.
Zuko put a hand over his racing heart, his brows knit together as he felt for the pain that the lightning brought, but found that it was no longer there. The scar was still on his skin but inside, he was fixed. Healed.
“Good,” he answered finally, his voice getting stronger by the second. “I’m okay.” A pause. “Starving… thirsty… tired… sore… but I’m okay.”
“I’ll go to the kitchens straightaway, Your Majesty!” Tala declared as she, too, had bore witness to the miraculous sight.
Toph went to Sokka and he put his arm around her in comfort as she listened to the relief that everyone in the room expelled. Aang and Suki stood by Katara’s side as she was sat on his bed and she inched closer to him.
“We almost lost you, nephew,” said Iroh.
“I know,” Zuko agreed, nodding. “I thought… I thought I was a goner.” He looked up, gold eyes wide and open and alive, and saw Katara. He stared at her, his disbelief apparent.
“You brought me back,” he told her.
“I had to.”
“Why?” he asked. Katara managed to smile, wide as she would, and she shook her head.
With teary eyes, she replied, “You know why.”
Her hand reached to take his and Zuko’s jaw dropped. He looked at their hands and back up at her and returned her smile with a grin of his own.
“But what’s happened? What’s going on now?”
“Well, you are the Fire Lord now, Zuko. Your father was defeated—you’ve done it,” said Iroh, beaming as tears still fell from his eyes. He looked at all of them then, a father’s pride radiating from him to all of them who he now loved as children of his own.
“You all have done it.”
“We did it?” Zuko asked, incredulous.
“We did it,” Katara confirmed. “We won.”
“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.”
Holy shit. It's been a full calendar year and on this fic's first birthday, it's also this fic's conclusion. I really, truly hope y'all enjoyed this story! Please do let me know what you think! There will definitely be some companion stories to this tale (e.g. some Aang stories, what happened to the fire lesbian trio, Azula's redemption, etc.) but that's far into the future and are, again, companion stories. I also have some other AUs I'm so excited to finally start working on! (Zutara + dogs, anyone?)
A huge, huge thank you to everyone who has read this story, everyone who has commented, and everyone who has shared/recommended this story. I see you and sometimes, that makes all the difference. Thank you for being a part of this journey and for being part of this story's lifetime, no matter when it was that you discovered this little tale. I love and appreciate you all the same.
I hope that some of the lessons in this story resonated with you as well! Live well, work hard, have courage, and be kind. Never give up without a fight and don't turn your back on people who need you. Eat your vegetables, stay in school, abolish the patriarchy.
Until next time... flameo, my dear hotmans,
P.S. Bryke still ain't shit and I'm gonna fight them.