The sun dawns too early.
It washes over the bay first, then creeps over the city in inches. And then, just before it hits the mountain range, the hue changes from soft orange to a bright, bloody red.
Zuko hadn’t been able to sleep, but now he realizes he didn’t need to. His blood is singing. He can feel it rushing through him, energy dancing across his skin in sparks, and all it wants to do is combust. He’s itching to let it out.
He doesn’t. He watches the sun dawn as his blood grows hotter. He breathes deeply and thinks of cool water.
Katara wakes quietly just after sunrise. She says nothing to him at first, just folds her legs beside him and watches the city too.
Then: “How do you feel?”
Zuko flexes one hand, observing the lines of his palm as they stretch and move. It’s the same hand as always, and yet somehow he knows what it’s capable of now.
“Alive,” he says.
Katara’s gaze darts past the city, past the bay, out towards the horizon where he knows the comet flies, even if he can’t see it. It’s as if there’s a tether linking him to it, just below his navel.
“How long do we have?”
“A couple of hours still. They’ll coronate her in the courtyard. I want to catch her there so we aren’t arrested before we even get to her. It’ll be tight.”
Katara purses her lips, her gaze never leaving the faint patch of blazing brightness on the horizon. Absent-mindedly, she reaches out one hand and calls a tiny, perfect sphere of water to her. It hangs between them, glittering and tremulous, refracting the red light.
“I’ll protect you.”
“I’m supposed to be protecting you,” she says wryly.
“And you have.” He runs one hand along the opposite forearm, where there would be a scar if it weren’t for her. Instead, there’s no evidence of a debilitating burn. Not even an ache.
You have, and now it’s my turn. For her, for Aang, for his country, for the world.
Zuko stands. Katara follows, and the watery sphere crashes to the ground at their feet.
Before he turns to the balloon, though, he grabs Katara’s shoulder and pulls her into his arms.
She falls into him with no resistance. Her hands come up to rest at the small of his back, reassuring. His nose fills with sea salt.
He locks the sensation of her here, safe in the circle of his arms, into his mind, where nobody—not Azula, not his father, not even Sozin himself—can take it away.
Then he lets her go and heads for the edge.
The first time Zuko tries to start the balloon’s furnace, he nearly sets the whole thing alight. It’s a motion Katara’s seen him do a hundred times before: just a quick twist of his palm, but instead of the small spark she’d expected, a torrent of flame comes roaring out. She has to bend water from the lake to splash onto it while Zuko curses, trying to disguise her nervous trembling.
The second time, he catches it up in his palm before going anywhere near the flammable material.
The balloon rises fast, but the air is stale around them. Everything feels hot and dry, like a forest in a drought that only needs one spark to set the whole thing alight.
Zuko is silent, and Katara is too, but as they pass over the last of the caldera she reaches her hand out for his. She’s used to the heat of his palm, but right now, it feels like it’s burning.
She doesn’t let go.
The golden spires of the fiery city stand proudly against the red as they approach. No fireballs come careening at them, to Katara’s immense relief; she’s on edge enough as it is. In fact, as they descend towards it, what strikes her is how eerily empty the city is. There’s none of the clamor she would have expected from a city of this size—no rising voices, no hissing flame. The streets, shooting through the buildings like arteries, are all completely still.
“Where is everyone?” she asks Zuko quietly.
His mouth is set in a tight line. “All the benders, I’m guessing, will be on the frontline in the Earth Kingdom. All of the non-benders are hiding.”
“Oh.” A shiver ripples down her spine despite the heat.
Katara can’t find the sun in the uniformly red sky, but she thinks it’s close to midday when the palace rises in front of them like a phoenix in flight. Her throat seizes up at the sight.
Forty days ago, she’d fought there and lost nearly everything. And now she might be about to lose the one thing she has left.
They don’t stop, though. The fate of the world doesn’t have time for her fears. They descend until they’re nearly scraping the red-tiled roof, and a rectangle of brown separates itself from the architecture. Steps sweep up toward an imposing pavilion; beneath it is gathered a tight knot of red-clad figures. Zuko’s hand clenching around hers tells her everything she needs to know about their identities.
“Are you ready?”
Zuko sets his jaw, straightens his back, lifts his chin. He doesn’t let go of her hand.
“I’ll have to be.”
He can see Azula look up as they land. The balloon sets down at the foot of the stairs as Zuko quenches the flame with a closed fist. He locks eyes with her across the steps.
Above her head, a fire sage’s hands are frozen, clutching the crown. Her hair is jaggedly shorn. She looks, for the first time he can ever remember, imperfect.
His imperfect little sister.
Zuko breathes deeply and vaults over the side of the basket.
“Sorry,” he calls, “but you’re not going to become the Firelord today. I am.”
Her laugh slashes across the dead air of the courtyard.
“And you’re going down.” Katara’s boots thump to the ground next to him.
The fire sage seems to unfreeze from his shock. He lowers the crown toward Azula’s mussed hair again, but she holds up an imperious hand, stilling him.
“Wait,” she says, rising. The laughter is gone from her face now, and in its absence, he can see something else. He can’t identify it just yet, but it sets him on edge.
“You want to be Firelord? Fine. Let’s settle this. Just you and me, brother.”
Her voice is laced with ice, her golden gaze sharp and narrow.
“The showdown that was always meant to be. Agni Kai.”
He can hear Katara gasp, feel her eyes slide to him, but the world has narrowed to a single beam between him and his sister. This is the way it has to be. He knew it all along.
This way, he can be sure she won’t be hurt.
Her head fills with static.
“What are you doing?” she snaps. Zuko refuses to look at her, but her anger is rising inside her in a wave. “She’s playing you! She knows she can’t take us both so she’s trying to separate us!”
“I know,” Zuko says. There’s resignation settled into his face alongside the determination. He’s known for a long time. She wants to scream, shake his shoulders, throw him back into the balloon and get him far, far away from here.
“But I can take her this time. There’s something off about her. I can’t explain it, but she’s slipping.” His eyes narrow in the exact same way his sister’s had moments earlier.
“And this way,” he continues, his voice softer as he finally turns to her, “no one else has to get hurt.”
You don’t have to get hurt.
“Zuko—” she says, but he’s already stepped into the middle of the courtyard and knelt, his back to Azula.
He’s stupid. He’s stupid and reckless and Katara hates him for it. But at the same time, she thinks she understands: there are rules governing this place that she doesn’t understand, and Zuko has always lived by the code. There can’t be any doubt. He has to do this right if he’ll ever be accepted by his country.
It doesn’t make her any less scared.
Azula flings the cloak from her shoulders and stands at the same time Zuko does. “I’m sorry it has to end this way, brother,” she sneers, her disdain palpable throughout the courtyard.
Zuko extends one hand and moves into a familiar stance. The breeze riffles his hair. It’s still too long.
Katara chokes down a sob.
“No, you’re not,” Zuko says.
Then the Fire Princess explodes and the breath is knocked out of Katara’s chest. It’s a geyser of blue fire flying across the courtyard, straight at Zuko, and there’s no way he could block that much.
And yet, when he brings his hands together, the orange that bursts forth is a perfect mirror to Azula’s. They meet in the middle of the courtyard with the roar of a thousand suns. When the glare fades from Katara’s eyes, she sees Azula whirling toward Zuko, fire blasting with every movement.
It’s impressive. Even she can understand that. It’s impressive and terrifying and…reckless. Zuko parts the blasts easily with one well-placed wave; Azula continues her onslaught, impossible amounts of blue bursting from her hands and feet. It obscures the courtyard, momentarily obliterating Zuko, and Katara nearly cries out until a burst of orange pushes it away.
She sees now what Zuko had meant about the princess slipping. Katara doesn’t know Azula anywhere near as well as her brother does, but she’s fought her enough times to know Azula is precise and calculating. As she careens through the air now, landing a perfect somersault with a huge jet, Zuko just throws it aside with another splitting wave.
She’ll run out sometime. The comet heightens the firebenders’ power, but it doesn’t make them invincible. Zuko just needs one small mistake.
He can hear her heavy breathing in the void of silence. She’s flagging.
It’s all Zuko needs. He presses one hand forward and a geyser flows out, undulating across the courtyard.
He can’t stop to think.
If he does, then it’s over. If for one second he lets himself remember who it is he’s fighting, then he’s done. Because it might be the Azula who had taunted him, outperformed him, and outcharmed him time and time again, but it is also Azula, his baby sister. There was a time when she loved him. A part of him still loves her.
She ducks out from behind his blast riding a jet of blue, gliding across the scorched earth as she punches. Zuko steels himself and leaps.
The impact jars his bones, but he holds his hands steady, cutting through her onslaught again. He doesn’t need to outfight her this time. He just needs to outlast her. At the rate she’s bending, she’ll incinerate herself before he even has the chance to.
Azula circles around him on her jets, trailing blue like a comet, and Zuko counters her at every turn. One blast clips entirely too close to his head, and he drops down, his feet splaying out from under him.
For a second, he’s lost.
Then he remembers a move Katara had shown him, one she said was from Aang: a deft circle of the feet, a slight kick and a little heat.
It sends a crescent blowing across the dirt, and then a muffled groan.
Azula cries out as she tumbles across the ground. Zuko hopes—prays—that maybe this is it.
But no, she’s on her feet again in seconds, staggering wildly.
There’s something very wrong with her. He’d known it as soon as he stepped into that courtyard, but it’s even more evident now. The Azula he knows doesn’t move like this, so off-kilter. She’s teetering at a knife’s edge. All he has to do is push.
And he knows how to do it.
“No lightning today?”
He moves into position, Katara’s advice echoing through his head: relaxed, fluid. “What’s the matter, afraid I’ll redirect it?”
“Oh, I’ll show you lightning,” Azula growls, her hair whipping about her face.
There’s a crack, and then blue dances around her like a ribbon. Zuko doesn’t think about the last time he held lightning. What he thinks about is Katara’s hands on his arms, moving him into position. Katara’s calm voice as she guides him through the movements. Katara’s breath on his back, Katara in his arms.
He pushes down the fear and opens himself up to the current he knows is coming.
Azula twirls her hand, the lightning following her every movement. It doesn’t have to go back to her. He can shoot it at her feet, right past her, enough to catch her off guard long enough. He’s got the discipline to do it.
She brings the lightning close to her chest and cradles it like a child. Zuko watches her evenly.
He sees her eyes flicker.
Something has caught her attention. Something behind him—
The mad princess releases the lightning with a crack.
It’s almost beautiful, the way it arcs across the courtyard. It throws everything into sharp relief. For a moment, the entire world is blue, and she swears she sees the moon in its midst – even as fire consumes the world.
Katara understands the moment Zuko begins to move.
Time slows around them, narrows to a single line with three points: Azula, fingers extended, perfectly still. Katara, frozen to the spot. And Zuko, his feet barely touching the ground as he sprints. As he cries “no.”
As he leaps.
It’s all he can think. Not her.
He hangs suspended for a moment, silhouetted in white, and then drops like a stone.
Katara feels her heart stop as if she was the one hit.
The sky turns blinding as energy gushes upward. The world disappears. When it returns, he’s huddled on the stone, curled into himself. He convulses once, twice. Flips onto his back. Moans in agony.
It’s his voice that stutters her heart back to life.
“Zuko!” His name rips itself from her mouth, desperate. She can’t tell if he’s moving. Lightning still arcs off him as he twitches, little licks of unnatural blue.
She’s diving for him when her world turns white.
Azula’s deranged laugh cuts through the crackle of electricity, and Katara forces herself to tear her eyes from Zuko’s still form. She has to get to him. She just has to get to him, has to—
Blue fills her eyes again, and she brings up a handful of water in defense just in time. It obliterates the spot where he lays, and Katara’s mind goes blank, everything else dropping away.
It’s all he sees. His ears are filled with booming.
He’s on fire, and it’s a betrayal of the worst kind. Too much fire, too much blue.
Then his name cuts through the haze, and he wrenches his eyes open, and he sees her, running toward him, before more of that agonizing, unnatural blue blocks the way.
If he moves, his chest will rip itself open, but if he doesn’t, then it doesn’t even matter because his heart will stop anyway. The pain narrows itself into a single, sharp, blinding point: she’s still in danger.
There’s no room in his head for words, but still his lips shape her name.
Azula leaps to the roof with too much ease. Katara crouches to the ground, breathing hard.
There’s a piece of her heart dying on the dirt feet away from her, and with that knowledge filling her head, it’s hard to think of anything else. But the Fire Princess is still standing. She seems completely unfazed by her brother’s agony, by the source of it.
Katara offers up a silent wish. I’m sorry, Zuko. Yue, protect him.
Then she banishes the thought of smoke and spice and warmth and gold from her mind.
“I’d really rather our family physician look after little Zuzu, if you don’t mind,” Azula taunts. That awful blue lightning is whipping around her again, and Katara drags herself to her feet.
There’s a long, still trough of water next to her. It strikes her as ironic, this pool of salvation in this place where nothing can grow. But Katara won’t question it. She flings up a wave and runs.
The lightning sizzles and pops as it makes contact and then the water evaporates entirely. It doesn’t slow Azula one bit. Katara dodges behind a pillar, feeling white-hot anger shoot past her face and singe her hair.
Then it stops, and Azula’s voice rings out again, almost songlike: “Zuzu. You don’t look so good.”
The words cut through Katara’s false determination, and the gold floods her vision again. She just has to know he’s alive. That’s all. As long as he’s alive, she can do this.
She edges around the pillar and looks out.
Little fires pepper the courtyard, blazing away in self-contained chaos. It takes too long for her to spot him among them because he’s still not moving.
“Please,” she murmurs, her mouth dry.
The pillar next to her explodes in a blaze, and Katara feints to the left, her heart beating double time. It’s agony not to know. But the only way she’ll find out is to subdue Azula—and Azula, drunken on the comet’s power, is too much to face head-on.
There has to be another way.
They’d ruled out tricking her because Azula is just too cunning. But Zuko’s voice echoes: There’s something off about her. She’s slipping.
He had waited for an opening and now he’s…
Katara swallows down the thought. If she can’t find an opening, then she’ll have to make one.
When he tries to summon fire, his body roars and his vision goes white. But he won’t leave her alone and in danger. He will drag his broken body to the ends of the earth if it keeps her safe.
He closes his eyes, bracing himself on the memory of her hand in his.
She slams a wave into Azula—but Azula isn’t there. Katara hears the hiss behind her and turns just in time to dodge Azula hurtling toward her.
Katara pulls the water up and freezes it, just like she had all those nights ago at the Capital City prison. There is no moon now, no comforting rasp of Zuko’s breath, just her and the princess.
She rides the momentum as far as she can and then tumbles off the icy wave. The fall has landed her far from the center of the courtyard, far from those two slim troughs, and this is it, she’s lost—
Until she feels it.
It thunders beneath her with the power of the oceans, primal, comforting, exhilarating. She lets herself sink into that untapped energy as she reaches for her chi.
Use the momentum. Don’t fight it, just shape it.
A sunny morning on the Air Temple terrace, the scent of tea, and Zuko’s laughter.
She knows what to do.
The ice curves around him, and the blaze in his mind recedes. She’s holding her own.
Of course she is. The strongest waterbender—the strongest person he’d ever known. His Katara.
The chain glints at her, silver on gray, and she gets her fingers around it just as Azula’s voice pierces her ears.
“There you are, filthy peasant.” She’s not laughing anymore. She’s spitting, sparking, roaring mad.
And all she has to do is step into position.
She advances, but Katara holds her ground. The water rises beneath her feet and bolsters her fraying nerves. Just a little further. Three steps. Two steps.
Katara narrows her eyes and throws out a fistful of rivulets.
Azula dodges, flips, and the fire is coming—
Katara leaps, and the water leaps with her, defying gravity as it spills upwards. She flexes her fingers and thinks of home.
It’s freezing, suddenly, like the first day of a new winter, like Sokka’s boots slipping across the ice. Azula isn’t moving. Her eyes dart frantically, but the rest of her is frozen solid.
For this to work, Katara needs complete self-control. She closes her eyes and blocks the world out and thinks of Zuko’s breathing exercises, the flame curling at his nostrils.
She breathes out.
The swath first her, and then Azula, in lightness, the tiny bubbles almost tickling. Her hair tangles about her neck. Slowly, slowly, she brings Azula’s sharp, dangerous hands together with the chain. Azula squirms, but there’s nowhere for her to go. Katara locks them to the grate and lets the water fall around her.
And then she’s running.
Footsteps. A choked sob.
A gentle hand on his face.
He groans as Katara touches his cheek, and she can feel her heart judder.
He’s here. He is still here with her.
He’s groaning in pain with every movement, and Katara cradles his neck like the precious thing he is. A prince now.
More than that.
She sets his head gently on the ground and moves her hands to his chest. There’s an angry red burst like a seven-pointed star, and she can already tell that no matter what she does, this will be another scar that she can’t heal. But this time, it’s because of her. Because he nearly gave up his life to save her.
Katara can hear—feel—the blood pumping unevenly below the skin. He’s still groaning, and the first tear slides onto her cheek as she coats her hands in water, lays them against his body. She wants to reassure him but she can’t find the words.
He stops moving as she bends. All the energy drops from his body. He goes limp, his hands sprawling across the dirt.
No, she thinks. Not like this.
She reaches deeper, into the network of veins and his brave heart.
Zuko feels it the moment it works. Something in him knits itself back together. He opens his eyes.
They are glowing.
That’s what she sees first when she pulls her hands back. Gold, peering up at her through dark locks.
“Thank you, Katara,” he breathes.
A sound halfway between a sob and a laugh tears itself from her throat. “I think I’m the one who should be thanking you,” she answers.
She helps him to sit up, studying his movements. He’s pliant in her arms. Her eyes never leave his. The eyes of a prince now. Of a king.
“That was stupid of you,” she whispers. “You put the whole world in danger. Your throne.”
He reaches one hand up to brush against her cheek, wiping away the tears.
“It wouldn’t have meant anything without you.”
The world stops moving again, frozen in a bubble around them. Only them.
He runs a thumb over her lip.
And then she’s in his arms, kissing him, finally, and it feels like coming home.
She’s so solid against him, so real, that he’s sure he’s not imagining it.
Her fingers tangle in the hair at the nape of his neck, and he leans into Katara, breathes her in, tries to pull her closer even though she’s already warm against his body. So many times, he had dreamt of this, and yet somehow none of it lives up to her, to the way she cups his neck with gentle hands, her fingers in his hair and tears on her cheeks and warm and radiant and Katara.
She’s here. She’s real. She saved him.
They had saved each other.
She pulls back and leans her forehead against his, breathing heavily. “Zuko,” she says.
“Katara,” he answers reverently.
And in that moment, that’s all they are.
The moment is shattered by a roar of agony, and he turns, refusing to let Katara out of his arms. Azula is belching fire across the courtyard. It rips upward like a ghost and then tapers off into violent, shuddering sobs.
Zuko hangs his head. Katara’s hands roam over his back, his arms, his cheeks, strong but hesitant. He’s supposed to feel better. He’s gotten everything he wanted and more.
“She’s still safe. She’s alive.”
He nods against Katara’s palm, turning his cheek into it, pressing a kiss to the base of her wrist.
“You’re safe, too.”
“Thanks to you,” she murmurs.
There are so many questions still left to be answered. But for now, for the first time in a long time, there’s nowhere to run, nobody to fight. Zuko leans into Katara, enfolding her in his arms as his knees dig into the dirt. Her breathing is hard, her hair knotted as he strokes it, and she’s perfect and here with him.
The rest of the world can wait for a little longer.
The thing is, they don’t actually know whether he’s Firelord.
The sages mill about the courtyard, seemingly befuddled by the same question. Two have taken Azula away, her hands still chained together, and Zuko hadn’t protested. Even if they let her go, she lost; her claim to the throne is dead. At least that’s what Katara thinks. For all she knows, she could be the new Firelord.
So she focuses on what she does know: Zuko, steady as a heartbeat beside her. She helps him over to sit on the stairs beneath the pavilion. He still groans when he moves, and every sound sends guilt piercing through her, but she still snaps at any sages who try to come near. The only thing she accepts from them is clean water and bandages to heal him with.
As she bandages his chest, silence spreads over them, the only sound the gentle splash of her water against his skin. She helps him pull a robe over his scorched tunic, covering the scar from sight. When she looks up from knotting it at his waist, their eyes catch, and she is just as transfixed as she was the first time she noticed their beauty.
“How long?” Katara asks quietly.
Zuko sighs, a soft smile painting over the wince of pain on his face. “Since the channel, I think.”
“I’m surprised it wasn’t sooner, honestly.” He lifts a hand, even as Katara protests that he’ll hurt himself further, and twines the end of her braid through his fingers. She notices the way his gaze dips down to her lips every few moments, and it fills her with warmth. “Why didn’t you say anything earlier?”
“I was worried I was going to lose you,” Katara says. “I couldn’t lose you. If I had told you and then you had—had died—”
“But I didn’t,” he says, his smile growing. “I didn’t, and I’m here, and you’re here.”
They could still both die, she thinks. Firelord Ozai could come over the horizon at any moment and turn them both to ash. But rather than say it, she kisses him again, thinking instead of how gentle his mouth is, of how she could get used to this sensation, of how no matter what comes next, they will face it together.
And then it’s a game of waiting.
Zuko curls one arm around Katara, cautious of the burn on his chest, and she leans into it as much as she can. She needs him now, in this in-between. But they need to be ready, too. There are still too many moving parts. Any one of them could have gone awry. If Ozai comes blasting over that horizon, then—
Then they’re actually out of options. But for now, the space between eras hangs before them, limitless and agonizing.
The red is gone from the sky by the time they hear the noise.
It’s a rushing like wind, familiar to Katara in a way she can’t place, and Zuko tenses next to her. She steadies him with a hand on his stomach, a reassurance in his ear.
The twilight stretches long. They coil to strike.
And the moment that Katara realizes where she knows that sound from is the moment the white form passes over the red-tiled roof.
The sky bison lows as it lands in the center of the courtyard, shaking the pillars. Katara’s up in a flash and running before he can tell her to wait, it might be a trap—except there’s a gangly, blue-clothed boy jumping from the saddle to embrace her, followed by two short figures.
His mind, bogged down by the exhaustion of the day, races to keep up. The Avatar. Here. So—
So it really is over.
For the first time in three years, Zuko lets himself breathe. His shoulders slump. Even the ache in his chest has faded slightly, the flames in his stomach rising, reaching up to fill him with warmth.
No more running. No more searching. He can come home.
He watches Katara as she’s engulfed in three sets of frantic arms, their voices rising over each other in a joyous babble. It’s sweet, the scene. He knows how happy she must be right now.
Zuko smiles wistfully. Soon, he’ll be there with them. He’s sure. They’ve got forever to become friends. There’s still a little empty spot in him, though, that aches for his own reunion.
That is, until he sees a fourth figure descending from the top of the bison, graceful and dark. There’s a lemur resting on one shoulder; she wears tight pants and a vest, her hair tied back, and no matter how different she looks, he’d recognize her anywhere.
Her head jerks up.
She reaches him before he’s closed even a third of the distance between the steps and the bison. Just before they make contact, she stills, looking up at him hesitantly.
“Azula,” she starts. “Did you…”
“So you’re…Firelord, then.”
He takes a deep breath. The moment the bison had touched down, he’d assumed, but this is the first confirmation he’s gotten. The first time anyone has said it to him.
“Is my father…” He trails off, suddenly incapable of talking.
“Alive. But his bending is gone. Permanently.”
There are so many questions attached to that statement—to Mai arriving with the Avatar, with that lemur on her shoulder—but he pushes them all down. He’s got all he needs for now.
Zuko pulls her against him. She’s stiff for a long minute, but then she returns the hug.
“I still don’t forgive you for breaking up with me like that,” she says, her words muffled by his shoulder.
“Yeah. I suck.”
“You do.” Mai pulls back. She’s smirking at him, a mischievous expression that he hasn’t seen on her face before—but beneath her bangs, her eyes glow with contentment. “But hey, I’m not gonna pass up the chance to be friends with the Firelord.”
“How’s everyone doing over here?” The voice cuts through their conversation, and Zuko looks up to see Katara’s brother striding toward them, Katara following with the Avatar and the earthbending girl.
“Hope I’m not interrupting.” He sticks out a hand, his expression wary. “I’m Sokka. Nice to meet you, New Firelord.”
“Uh…just Zuko. We’ve met before.” Zuko looks at Katara, shocked, but she’s staring at her brother as if he’s grown another head. Zuko follows her gaze to see his spare hand is resting at the small of Mai’s back.
Huh. That’s new.
“Thanks for taking care of Sugar Queen,” the earthbender—Toph—pipes up. “She can be a handful.”
Katara sticks her tongue out at the girl. Zuko’s only half-watching her, though, because from behind the rest of the group, the Avatar is stepping forward. His clothes are ripped, his skin dirty, and his face is solemn.
“Firelord Zuko,” he says, and bows.
Zuko’s mouth is dry, but he manages to return the bow. “Avatar Aang. I’m glad you’re safe.”
“Me too.” The Avatar stares up at him with huge gray eyes. He’s so young, and yet there’s something ancient in those depths.
“I, uh…have something for you.” Zuko winces as he reaches into his tunic. Miraculously, the pendant is still there, in an inner pocket where it wasn’t incinerated by the lightning. It sways evenly from his fist in the fading light. “I found it in an Air Nomad shrine. I’m hoping this can be the first step in repairing the damage my country has done.”
Aang takes the pendant, his fingers brushing against Zuko’s. “Do you know what this symbol stands for?”
Zuko shakes his head.
The Avatar’s face crinkles into a smile. Zuko feels a hand slip into his, and he glances next to him, where Katara now stands.
Peace. He’s never heard a lovelier word.
The moment that Aang produces Ozai’s crown from what’s left of his ragged tunic, the Fire Sages descend. They seem more relieved to finally know who it is they serve again than angry about their former lord’s fate, even after Aang assures them that Ozai will return on a Fire Nation steamship manned by Zuko’s uncle as soon as possible. Even stranger is the way that they accept Aang’s explanation that the nation’s last lord will no longer be able to bend fire, their faces remaining placid even as Zuko stutters out his confusion. Katara supposes they’ve seen worse things in the history of the nation, especially in the last handful of years. Maybe they’re just as thankful for peace.
It seems, too, to finally sink in that that their new leader has an angry burn crawling across the majority of his chest, and that the burned and limping members of the group around him are his allies as well. Aang is whisked away in a whirlwind of red. Katara barely catches sight of the re-enflamed skin at his back, a star to match Zuko’s, and the way he can’t seem to stand straight. Toph’s forearms are lacerated, her palms spiderwebbed with cuts and burns; even Mai’s pale skin has been turned an ugly red in spots along her shoulders, arms, and legs. When they come for Zuko, Katara stands too, rushing to keep up with them as they pull him across the courtyard.
“Stop! I can heal him! Please let me—”
“It’s okay, Katara.”
Zuko breaks out of their grip for a moment, turning back to her before they usher him inside. He trails his knuckles along the side of her face, his fingers hot, and then, with half of his country’s advisors watching, presses his lips to her forehead. Katara resists the urge to throw her arms about him and never let go.
“You already saved me,” he whispers into her hair. “We’re safe now.”
She lets him go, watching him as he recedes into the depths of the palace. He doesn’t turn his head to look away from her until he’s out of sight.
The rest of the Fire Nation doesn’t seem to know what to do with her. While they waited, more members of the palace – everyone from staff to advisors, it seems, by the range of ages, clothes, and expressions – have emerged, likely curious what the fate of their nation would be. Katara feels the weight of all their eyes on her. Suddenly, more than she ever has in the past six weeks, she feels hyper-aware of her dark skin, the way her hair curls in the heat, the vivid blue of her clothes.
Finally, a pair of older women dressed in the neutral gray of what she imagines must be staff emerge from the crowd and guide her inside the palace. Their hands are gentle at her back; one of them coos over the rough skin at her forearms, the burns nowhere near as bad as her friends’ injuries were but still intense enough to sting. Katara hadn’t even thought to heal herself while she and Zuko waited. It had been the furthest thing from her mind.
They sit her down on a bed in a big, light-filled bedroom, though, and press damp cloth to the burns and hands to her forehead and ask her how she feels. The question gives Katara entirely too much pause. She has no clue how she feels—she feels everything, all at once, one great huge rainbow of it arcing across her vision, joy and excitement underscored with confusion and worry at her father’s still-unaccounted position and for her friends’ injuries. The women nod, their eyes kind, but they don’t seem to understand.
They leave a few moments later. Katara understands one thing: she doesn’t think she wants to be alone right now.
She doesn’t have to wait long.
Before she sees him, she hears him, his voice ringing down the long hall, cracking jokes in a tone that nearly hides the panic beneath it. Katara only recognizes the nervousness because of how well she knows her brother. He’s shaken. She has no idea what he’s seen, what he’s just been through.
But when a group of stony-faced healers push him into the same room as Katara, she sees his face soften the moment his eyes land on her. A grin spreads across his face – the exact kind she’d spent months dreaming about.
“Fancy seeing you here,” Sokka says, and Katara feels a matching grin slide across her own.
He tries to join her, but the nurses hustle him over to another bed, separated from Katara by a hastily strung-up curtain. She turns to watch his silhouette through it, hating the way he winces as they begin to bandage the cuts along his arms.
“I can help,” she says, but nobody seems to hear her. Nobody except Sokka.
“You gotta rest, Katara,” he says. He turns his face so that she can see his profile through the curtain. “You’ve been through a lot today.”
“So have you.”
Katara wants to ask him what it is, exactly, that he’s been through, but she doesn’t want to make him relive all the details of it here, with all these strangers surrounding them; she realizes, belatedly, that her brother probably feels the exact same about Katara’s ordeal. Instead, she lies back, not realizing how tired she was until the mattress takes the pressure from her bones.
The nurses work in silence that grows tenser by the moment. She is so full of questions she could burst. She wishes they would just leave, except of course she doesn’t, because they’re helping Sokka and anything that will heal those horrible raw scratches up and down his arms is worth it.
He doesn’t seem to have the same reservations about breaking the tension, though.
“So…you and Zuko.”
Katara starts to speak, a thousand different denials on the tip of her tongue, and then stops. It’s no good. Everyone had seen them anyway. Everyone will know soon enough. She doesn’t want to lie to her brother.
And besides, she realizes, she doesn’t want to hide it.
“Me and Zuko,” she says in a small voice.
She’s not sure quite what she expects from Sokka – anger, maybe, or worry, or even teasing. But not—
“That’s good. I was a little worried that he might try to incinerate me.”
“For what?” Katara asks slowly. Then she thinks of Sokka’s hand at the small of Mai’s back.
“For sort of, uh…stealing his girl.”
“You and—” It’s stranger hearing it out loud. It makes it into something Katara has to conceptualize, her brother and the knifelike girl as a unit, as a team. She still doesn’t even know how Mai had found her friends, or why.
“It’s a long story,” Sokka says. Through the curtain, she sees him run a hand through his wolf-tail, pulling out the leather holding it back. But his voice is light, happy. “Suki figured it out before either of us did, really, and she understood. We rescued her from the Boiling Rock. Her and Dad and all of the Water Tribe warriors, actually. It was crazy, Katara, Mai threw these knives at Azula and nearly knocked her into this caldera—”
“Wait.” Her head is spinning, even though she’s lying down. “Slow down. This is—”
“Yeah, it’s a lot. I know. I bet yours is too.”
“Dad is safe?”
“Yeah.” Now she can hear the smile in Sokka’s voice, practically feel the warmth of it radiating across the room. “Yeah, he’s safe.”
Katara lets the information sink in. They’d done it, all of it. They’d made it through with everyone they love intact. She had nearly stopped thinking it was possible.
“He’ll be back with Iroh soon. We’ll be together again soon. No soldiers to worry about, either.”
She sits up again, despite the blood pounding through her temple, and slowly shakes her head.
“My brother, the lady killer.”
Sokka laughs. Spirits, she had missed that sound. “We’ve done pretty well for a couple of Water Tribe peasants, huh?”
There is nothing she wants more than to hug her brother right now. But she’ll have time. She knows she’ll have time now—all the time in the world, if she wants it. All the time she could ever need to make amends and learn the stories she’d missed and rediscover her friends and their new allies. To learn what the world looks like when it is at peace.
It almost scares her to think about it. Katara’s never had that luxury before—and it does feel luxurious, to think about the years stretching away from her filled with all the laughter and love she could ever want. It scares her, but she’s eager to start it as soon as possible.
“There wasn’t a day I didn’t think about you,” she tells Sokka, and she hears her brother sigh.
“I’m glad you’re safe, sis.” He shifts to peek around the curtain. “I’m so proud of you.”
The sages don’t want him to get up from the bed in the royal wing, but Zuko insists on it. He’s too antsy to be laid up as anxious nurses flutter around him, tending to the wound that’s already been bandaged and re-bandaged a hundred times. At this point, it’s only a reminder of what he already knows—the scar will never look any better than it does right now, and it will always be a part of him, just like the one on his face.
He thinks, though, that he would be alright if this one never healed.
Zuko finds them in the garden. Sokka and Katara are sitting close together, heads bowed in conversation; at Sokka’s feet, Toph is laying in the grass, a circlet of rock lazily orbiting her head. Mai sits a few feet apart, at the edge of the pond. He nearly would have missed her if he hadn’t looked for her.
Their heads all swivel around to peer at him, even Toph’s, when Zuko clears his throat. For some reason, it’s her that he can’t stop staring at, the little earthbender’s blank eyes seeming to penetrate his soul.
“Hi,” he says, “Zuko here.”
As soon as the words have left his mouth, he realizes how dumb they sound, but Katara and Mai are laughing in unison and it’s absolutely worth every second of embarrassment to hear that sound. He smiles shyly and offers everyone a little wave, which Sokka returns enthusiastically before gesturing him over. Zuko sinks down onto the cool grass with gratitude.
“How are you feeling?” asks Katara. She reaches for him, pulling him back to rest against her legs, her hands fluttering over his chest as if hesitant to touch him too firmly. He leans back into her and closes his eyes.
“I feel good.” It’s not a lie. It hurts, sure, but it’s barely an afterthought to the calm he feels.
“Katara says you got hit with lightning,” Toph says, sounding almost jealous.
He chuckles. “If I’d done it right, it wouldn’t even have hurt me.”
Behind him, Katara tenses against his back, her hands suddenly stilling at his shoulders. Zuko reaches up to take hold of them.
“But Katara saved me,” he says. “I’m alive because of her.”
Across the pond, he notices Mai staring, her inscrutable dark gaze dropping from his face to his hands covering Katara’s. His heart drops. They should have talked about this. Zuko had broken up with her, but that stupid letter had been so sparse with information that he wouldn’t blame her for being confused, and now to see him and Katara like this—
He lets go of Katara’s hands, but before he can move away, Mai has stood and is walking over to join their loose circle. “Looks like you two got close,” she says, gesturing a pale hand at Katara.
And then she smiles. And then she nestles down next to Sokka. And then she says, “I’m glad you could take care of each other.”
She isn’t looking at Zuko as she says it, but at Katara. Zuko cranes his neck to see that Katara is holding her gaze. Something seems to pass through the air between them, some secret language of girls that Zuko could never hope to understand, before Katara smiles as well.
“I guess we’re not the only ones,” she answers, and Sokka goes as red as the sunset.
From the open-air hallway behind them, footsteps ring out, echoing against the stone. All of them shoot to their feet. Katara keeps her hand in Zuko’s, small and soft.
Aang is standing at the end of the hall, flanked by sages. He no longer wears his singed tunic; instead, he is swathed in soft white and pale yellow, the pendant from the temple heavy around his neck. His face is tired, his eyes huge and bright.
“Hi, everyone,” he says.
Katara pulls forward as if she wants to run to him, but she doesn’t separate fully. None of them move—it feels as if Zuko has forgot how to breathe as he watches the boy who had become the savior of the world tread slowly down the hall toward them.
He pauses before them.
“Anyone got some moon peaches? I’m starving.”
Katara makes a sound halfway between a laugh and a sob and then lunges for him, enveloping him in her arms. A moment later, Sokka joins her, pulling Toph behind him, the four of them melting into each other.
Zuko glances at Mai. She shrugs, and then nestles herself into the space beside Sokka.
When he joins them, the circle opens seamlessly to include him too, the warmth of the embrace unlike anything he’d ever felt. Four nations, benders and non-benders alike, all of them so much younger than they are—all of them still children, with the world in front of them, theirs for the taking.
They settle onto the grass, shoulders pressed together, the light gloaming around them. Food appears before them—a small feast of fruit and bread, tasting more like home than anything else Zuko had ever eaten. Overhead, a huge shape passes over the moon as it flies by, temporarily eclipsing the light and throwing them into shadow.
When the moonlight returns, Zuko notices Katara staring at him. He leans over, pushes back her hair.
“Is everything okay?”
She nods and takes his hand.
“I guess you’ve all noticed by now,” she says to her friends, worry lines spreading across her forehead as she speaks, “but Zuko and I are…”
She pauses, glancing over at him again, before settling on the word “together.”
The lightness that fills him is so intense that he feels as if he could float away were it not for Katara’s hand holding him there with her. There is no other way to put it—they had been together, and they will be together, and that’s where they belong.
Katara continues to speak, filling her friends in on the details of their long journey, and as she does, he notices where her attention is fixed—squarely on Aang’s expression. She hesitates when she sees him hang his head.
But when Aang looks up at both of them again, he isn’t angry. His young face is wistful, a light sorrow in his gray eyes, but Zuko knows that he understands.
“What will we do now?” the airbender asks.
They all look about at each other, the question rendering them all temporarily speechless. What will they do? There’s so much opportunity and so much to be done; none of them, besides Aang, have ever seen a world at peace. Zuko can barely begin to envision it.
Finally, Sokka breaks the silence.
“I don’t know about you all, but I’m going to finish dinner and then I’m going to sleep for about eighty years. We can figure everything else out after that.”
Their laughter flies up and across the courtyard like so many birds in flight, spiraling into the night sky to coil around the stars.
Later that night, after they’ve all settled into their big, dark Fire Nation rooms after hours of patching up scrapes and swapping stories, Katara lays in the dark. It had been such a long day—one of the longest of her life—and yet, now that there’s no direct threat for the first time she can remember, she can’t calm her racing thoughts.
Her friends are all alive. The evil in the Fire Nation has been deposed. Iroh is on his way. And yet she still can’t sleep in the oppressive silence, the huge room far too empty after months of cramped saddles and inns.
Silently, she pushes the silk sheets back from her legs and stands, feeling her way to the door. The hallway beyond is flooded with moonlight.
She hesitates only slightly before knocking on Zuko’s door.
It doesn’t take long for it to crack open. Zuko smiles gently when he sees her, running a hand through his already-mussed hair.
“I couldn’t sleep,” she says by way of already-obvious explanation. “It was too quiet.”
She steps into his arms, holding herself carefully so that she doesn’t put pressure on the wound on his chest. Zuko presses his lips to her forehead. The moonlight pours over his skin, making him glow.
He pulls back slightly to look her in the eyes.
“Thank you for saving me, Katara.”
She wonders which time he means—the lightning, the avalanche, the canyon—but as he watches her, she thinks maybe he isn’t thinking of any of them.
There are still so many questions. There’s a whole world to reshape, loose ends to tie. But here, as she reaches behind Zuko’s neck to pull him down for a sweet, searing kiss, she isn’t thinking of those.
The rest of the world can wait. For now, all she needs is right here.