Actions

Work Header

The Flame in the Mist

Chapter Text

The Beach - Final scene after Zuko and co. have left the house party and find themselves on the beach

“Who are you angry at?” Mai didn’t know why she was adding her voice to the chorus. She was mad at Zuko. She wasn’t meant to be talking to him. Yet, it was easier to follow Azula’s lead, as she always had.

And safer, so much safer. Just as her baby brother had been safer with the Avatar and his ridiculous gang, until those idiots returned him to her parents so he could be used against them again.

She spoke louder as Zuko backed away. “Come on, answer the question.”

Across the campfire, Zuko froze, eyes darting from face to face. She knew that look, knew what happened when he was cornered. So she didn’t flinch when he slammed his hands down and the fire burst high into the sky, his beacon in the void.

“I’m angry at myself!” he yelled over its roar.

Mai leaned into its warmth, then caught herself and pulled back before any of the stray sparks could find their way onto her. Away from the fire, the cold night air pressed against her back, creeping up her sleeves and her throwing knives, curling around her arms.

The fire burned down to smouldering embers, its heat spent. There was no longer anything to keep the cold at bay, keep it from seeping into her bones. She pulled the light shawl tighter as she stared at the now-shadowed figure pacing the sand.

What did Zuko have to be angry about? Like he said, he’d killed the Avatar, reclaimed his honour, and was the hero of the Fire Nation. He had everything someone of their status could ever want, and surpassed everyone’s expectations. What was his problem?

Zuko turned away and whispered, “Because I’m confused. Because I’m not sure I know the difference between right and wrong any more.”

Azula crossed her arms, her lip curling in disgust. “You’re pathetic.”

No, you’re the pathetic one. Mai bit back on those words, like she’d bitten back on so many others. This wasn’t her place. And yet, Zuko remained with his back to them, staring out at the waves. Was he thinking of the months he’d spent with his traitor uncle? Did he want to be anywhere but here?

She couldn’t deny that she’d been pleased when he’d pushed the guy away from her earlier that night. Despite being the hugest jerk known to mankind, there was something compelling about how passionately and freely he expressed his emotions. She’d never realised how painful feelings could be until he’d accused her of having none.

Mai stood up, still unwilling to forgive him, but also unwilling to let him walk away.

“What’s so confusing?” she asked, facing Zuko and keeping her voice flat so she wouldn’t have to see Azula’s contempt. Mai still heard it through her snort, but she willed herself still and focused her attention on Zuko. “You saved the Fire Nation, killed the Avatar, and exposed General Iroh for the traitor he is. That’s a good thing, Zuko, in case you hadn’t noticed.”

“Zu-Zu wouldn’t let stupid things like feelings get in the way of loyalty to the Fire Nation, would he?” Azula’s voice floated silky in the darkness, binding him.

Binding Mai.

It didn’t matter what she thought or didn’t think. It didn’t matter what was right or wrong or whatever nonsense Zuko was angry about, because Azula could—and would—crush them all without a second thought.

And perhaps Azula had a point about her mother. Only obedient girls will get what they want.

What did she want?

It was easier not to think. Not to want. Not to feel. Not to care.

Zuko spun around and glared past her to Azula. “I’m here, aren’t I?” Mai stepped back into the soft glow of the dying fire. But he didn’t notice, didn’t seem to feel the dying warmth as he continued, voice rising, “I gave everything to regain my honour and come back to where I belonged.”

His left hand reached for his scar, the other to his chest where a pendant would hang, if there had been one. What was he thinking of? What else, other than his uncle, had he sacrificed? His gaze was no longer on Azula but turned inward. Perhaps the question was, who else?

“Why would I possibly doubt you?” Azula said with a predatory smile that made even Ty-Lee shrink away. “After all, you’re the hero who killed the Avatar.”

Zuko flinched and retreated a step, his hands still locked on his face and chest. Mai reached out and grabbed one arm. His flesh was warm against her cold fingers. Come back.

Who was she, if she wasn’t his girlfriend? He was everything her parents would want for her. He was what Azula wanted for her. His warmth spread through her hand and up her own arm, and if she should want, then why shouldn’t he be what she wanted? Everything fit so neatly, it would be stupid to question any of this.

She wrapped her arms around him, kissed him on the lips and stole more of his warmth to herself. “You are where you belong. Right here, with us.”

Zuko’s hand lowered slowly from his chest, hanging by his side. Hanging between them as though they were separated by the walls of Ba Sing Se. Azula’s mocking laugher echoed in the now-silent night.

Mai didn’t reach for his hand. But she did find the courage to spit out her thoughts at Azula. “I guess you wouldn’t understand, would you, Azula? Because you’ve always been the perfect Fire Nation princess who gets everything she wants.”

Azula smirked, unfazed. ”Well, yes, I guess you’re right. I don’t have sob stories like all of you. I could sit here and complain how our mum liked Zuko more than me, but I don’t really care.” She kicked sand over the dying fire, burying the final glowing embers. “My own mother thought I was a monster.”

Mai recognised her passionless tone, the same one she used to show the world she didn’t give a damn. Under the stars and the cover of night, they four of them stood suspended in that moment, monsters all, jagged pieces held together by a nation that demanded everything they could give and paid in pride and honour.

A moment so delicate it was broken by Azula’s shrug. “My mother was right, of course, but it still hurt.” She glanced around at them and stood up. “Enough of this nonsense. You know what would make this trip really memorable?”

Chapter Text

The Day of Black Sun, Part 1 – Before Aang and the rest of the gang part ways on the sub

All around Katara, adults and children alike prepared for war. Fourteen or forty years old, they needed every man and woman they could transport to give the invasion the best chance of securing the Royal Palace—and Aang the best chance of defeating the Fire Lord. She choked back a sob mixed with laughter as she watched The Duke, who couldn’t be more than eight, wash out his vomit-filled helmet.

He should have been at school like the children from the Fire Nation, but instead he was fighting for a home he’d never known. Heck, the same could be said about her, and Sokka, and Toph, and Aang, and… if she kept listing names, she’d be here all day. She clenched her fists and glared across the stretch of ocean. The land beyond the horizon waited for them. Waited to be swallowed, or swallow them whole.

We finish this today.

She could feel the heat of the Gates of Azulon scorching at her back, at all their backs, pressing them relentlessly forward. Beside her, Sokka swung his sword in patterns taught by Master Piandao, while Toph sat with her head between her knees and grumbled about thoughtless spirits who put huge bodies of water between land. She glanced up at the sky, but Aang was nowhere in sight.

It was hard, though, to silence the voice that demanded they turn and run. She’d already lost her mother, and now she was reunited with her father, it wasn’t fair that she might lose him again. It wasn’t fair that she might lose anyone else she loved, and she wanted to curl up and cry at the unfairness of it all.

She couldn’t show fear or weakness now. She couldn’t be child Katara, crying over her mother, crying over having to leave her father again. Even if most of the army wasn’t looking to her, Sokka and Toph and Aang were, and she had to remain determined and confident for their sakes even if she was trembling inside. That’s what being responsible meant, no matter how much they complained about her about being a nag who didn’t know how to have fun.

 Which, she thought, bending some water to splash a fumbling Sokka, she was absolutely not in any way, shape or form.

“Hey!” Sokka sheathed the sword to give her a look protesting that particular injustice. “What was that for?”

She shrugged, gave him a grin she didn’t feel. “For luck.”

Sokka drew his sword again, grumbling about the trials of having a waterbending sister and how only his space sword and his boomerang could ever understand him. But now he was so focused on his complaints that he was no longer fumbling and nervous.

See? She could be responsible and fun.

Katara glanced up at the sound of fabric in the wind. Overhead, Aang swooped into view on his new glider, landing gently on the sub. The serious look in his eye could only mean one thing: They were in the clear and ready to start the invasion.

She didn’t miss Aang swallowing hard before he said, “So this is it, huh?”

No, not yet. She wasn’t ready for any of this.

Sokka stepped forward. “Are you ready for the Fire Nation to know the Avatar is alive?”

Katara wasn’t ready for that, either. Aang’s ‘death’ was the only thing keeping him safe from the Fire Nation. He’d nearly died at Azula’s hands once, and she no longer had the water from the Spirit Oasis to bring him back a second time.

Water that she’d almost wasted on that dirty traitor Zuko. How foolish of her to believe, however briefly, that he might possibly have changed. How foolish to let her guard down back in that crystal cavern, all because she wanted so badly to believe there was someone who would let her cry and be scared and be vengeful and be angry and just be.

Foolish, foolish, foolish. She’d show him vengeful next time she saw him.

“I’m ready,” Aang said, shaking Sokka’s outstretched hand.

It was all Katara could do not to stow him away somewhere to keep him safe. But he was the Avatar, and the world needed the Avatar, no matter what she herself needed. No matter if she needed her family around her. Around her like right now, in the large hug they pulled each other into, safe and whole.

She forced her fingers not to curl into a tight grip on their clothes, tried to project confidence instead of the deathly fear sweeping over her that this was the very last time.

“I hope you kick some serious Fire Lord butt, Twinkle Toes.” Who else but Toph, true to her Earth heritage, steadying them.

Before Katara could add anything, her father’s commanding tone rang out across the water to the entire invasion force. Everyone pulled apart, and she was left holding air. They all turned to look at her dad with the same hope she clung to even now. How desperate they all were, that one voice could carry to every one of their fighters.

“Everyone listen up,” he said. “The next time we resurface, it’ll be on the beaches. So stay alert, and fight smart. Now break time’s over, back in the subs.”

Sokka and Toph headed for the hatch, Momo not far behind. Katara remained frozen, unwilling to leave. Unwilling to step forward just yet. She stared at Aang’s profile from behind. Such small shoulders, to bear such a great weight. If she could carry all those expectations for him, she would. He turned, and his face lit up when he saw her.

“Aang, I…” she said, just as he said her name.

He stretched out an open hand. “You go first.”

Would he stay if she begged him to? Stay where she could protect him, where they could all protect one another and face their enemies together like they’d faced every other challenge so far.

Don’t you dare. He needs you to be strong, Katara.

“We’ve been through so many things together, and I’ve seen you grow up so much. You’re not that goofy little kid I found in the iceberg any more.” Empty words, but words he needed. To her, he would always be kid Aang first, and Avatar second, no matter what the world saw or believed. She found a smile for him, and words to send him off with. “I guess what I’m trying to say is, I’m really proud of you.”

“Everything’s gonna be different after today, isn’t it?” The words were Avatar Aang’s, but the fear and uncertainty were kid Aang’s.

Now more than ever, she wanted to assure him nothing would change when it came to their gang. That they would all be reunited after this. But she wouldn’t send him off with a lie. “Yes, it is.”

“What if… what if I don’t come back?” He whispered the words, as though saying them any louder would bring them into reality, and Katara’s heart ached for him.

He’s just a boy!, she wanted to yell at whatever spirits had chosen him to be the hope of the world. Why are you making him do this?

Instead she pushed the words down and gave him her sternest look. “Aang, don’t say that, of course you’ll—” She bit off her words as he leaned forward.

She knew what he was asking of her. But she could no more give that than she could protect him as he went to face the Fire Lord. She straightened and planted a kiss on his forehead as she wrapped him in a final hug, the only things she could leave him with.

“You’re the Avatar,” she said firmly, as much to herself as to him. “The Fire Lord has nothing on you. We’ll celebrate together when it’s over.”

She pretended not to see the hurt in his eyes as he stepped back and snapped his glider open. Pretended not to fear that as she let him go, he might choose not to return. She stared at his diminishing figure as he effortlessly bent the air to carry him away.

“Katara, what are you doing? It’s time to submerge.”

She dragged her eyes away at Sokka’s shout.  “Right. I’m on it.”

 

#######

 

The wind whipped at Aang as he set a course for the Royal Palace.

Focus. He had to focus on the Fire Lord, not on Katara and all the emotions twisting up inside of him. He loved her. Why couldn’t she see how much sense it made for them to be together? It killed him to think of days spent without her steady reassurance as he trained his waterbending, or faced the next disaster flung at them simply because he was the Avatar. He needed her.

Furious, his hands squeezed the handles in a white-knuckled grip. The left one twisted at the force, opening the newly installed snack compartment and blasting him with a face full of crumbled biscuits.

Just great.

It was the crumbs that irritated his eyes and made them water, he told himself. He let the tears flow, to wash away whatever crumbs remained, and turned the glider in a fast, tight loop. Laughter bubbled up despite the pain squeezing at him. Despite the fact that he was about to take on one of the most powerful benders in the world and a full-scale invasion was about to begin. Spiralling through the air, he felt free. He felt like… a child.

He pulled up and returned to a steady glide. Did Katara not take him seriously because he goofed around all the time? He could be serious, too. Or was it because of how he’d reacted after Appa was stolen? It was embarrassing to think back on it now, but he’d been angry, and rightfully so.

Fine, then. This time he’d be calm, and sensible, and mature. He’d defeat the Fire Lord and impress her. When he saw her again, he’d hide his feelings and treat her as though nothing had changed. He would show her he’d grown into the title of the Avatar.

Somehow, he’d show her that she needed him too.

Chapter Text

Boiling Rock Pt 2 (Scene 1) – When Mai finally corners Zuko in the prison

Zuko slumped in the chair, eyes firmly fixed on the ground. He couldn’t look to his right where Mai leaned against the wall, arms crossed. Or if he was being honest, he didn’t dare to look. He couldn’t blame her for being angry, or at least as angry as Mai would ever show, outwardly.

Her anger was in her silence that weighted the air between them, despite the door being wide open. It didn’t so much crackle as coil, pinning him against the cold metal with its tendrils and waiting to be acknowledged. He struggled to find some words, any words.

“How did you know I was here?”

“Because I know you so well,” came her dry response. He didn’t even need to look at her to know she’d be glaring at him with narrowed eyes.

Coming here hadn’t even been his idea. “But, how—”

Footsteps clicked against the metal floor, circled behind him. “The warden’s my uncle, you idiot.”

Zuko groaned, buried his face in his hands. Idiot. He should have remembered that.

He didn’t know how to deal with her cold anger. It would be so much better if she would yell at him, slap him, shout in his face. Give him something to react to and push against so they could drag their thoughts and emotions out into the open and do something about them instead of sitting here stupidly.

He could still hear Katara’s voice from the crystal caverns in Ba Sing Se, accusing him of spreading war and violence and hatred. His own raised voice, retorting that she had no idea what she was talking about. Her eventual admission of all the Fire Nation—his nation—had taken from her, including her mother. His own admission that they’d done the same to him.

If only he could yell at Mai like that, and they could sort their issues out. But that would hurt her even more, instead of fixing anything. He’d already hurt her enough with his abrupt departure, but he’d also known she could never understand. She was loyal to her country, and to Azula. 

From behind, there was a rustle of fabric and paper. He looked up to a familiar sheet he’d hoped never to see again.

“The truth is,” Mai said, “I guess I don’t know you. All I get is a letter? You could have at least looked me in the eye when you ripped out my heart.”

He’d known, of course, that he’d be hurting Mai when he left. He could hardly take her with him even if she’d been willing to go, not when her family might have been branded traitors and locked up like Uncle. Not when she cared about what happened to them despite the constant indifference she affected.

Not when she still didn’t know what it was she wanted.

His hands twisted against one another, and his voice cracked on the words. “I didn’t mean to—”

“You didn’t mean to?” Amazing how she could combine incredulousness and disdain so perfectly. “Dear Mai, I’m sorry that you have to find out this way, but I’m leaving.”

“Stop!” How could he make her understand why he’d had to leave? How could he make her see something that had taken him an uncle he didn’t deserve, and a banishment, and getting everything he’d ever thought he wanted, to see for himself? “This isn’t about you. This is about the Fire Nation!”

“Thanks, Zuko.” She flung the letter at him, and he finally found the courage to meet her gaze. “That makes me feel all better.”

He stood up and tried to close the gap between them, but she backed away. “Mai, I never wanted to hurt you.” He tried again, took another step forward. She took another one back. “But I have to do this to save my country.”

That got her attention. She stepped forward, hands reaching into her sleeves. “Save it? You’re betraying your country!”

“That’s not how I see it.” He met her gaze, willed her to understand. “Please, Mai—”

She withdrew her hands, and they were blessedly empty. He wouldn’t be stumbling out of here with stab wounds… yet.

“I know we were taught that the Fire Nation is the greatest civilisation, and the War was how we shared that greatness with the world. I believed it too.” He didn’t know why he was so desperate for her to understand, but the desperation drove the words out of him anyway. “We’re destroying the world instead. We’re destroying ourselves, chasing all this glory and honour, whatever the cost.”

Mai leaned back against the wall, nails tapping on the linen of her dress. She’d calmed herself enough to imitate Azula’s devil-may-care look, masking whatever emotions she was really feeling inside. Even now, Zuko still struggled to read her.

“My father’s entire political career that our family sacrificed so much for, and the provinces he administrated and took care of, that was all pointless?” Her hands tightened into fists. “That was destroying the world and the Fire Nation?”

“That’s what I’m trying to say!” Already he was on the verge of yelling, which would only make Mai shut him out completely. He pictured how Aang and Katara meditated each day, and took a deep breath to calm himself. “We’re weakening ourselves from the inside, so focused on our honour that we think it’s acceptable to challenge a thirteen-year-old boy to an Agni Kai, or, or…” He remembered what she’d told him of her own journeys with Azula. “Or trade off our own family member for a powerful king.”

Her arms fell limply to her sides, and he knew he’d hit her hard. He pressed his advantage. “I know you didn’t want to, but you did it because Azula said so and you knew what was expected of you and your family. But the Mai who would do that isn’t the real you. Just like at the war meeting, I was the perfect son, but I wasn’t the real Zuko.”

“Tell me then.” She tried to hide the tremble of her words with sharpness, but he could still hear it. “Everything we had before you ran off to save the world. That wasn’t the real Zuko either?”

“Aaaaaargh!” His frustrated yell echoed off the walls. “That’s not it!’

The guards at the door drew their weapons but were quelled by a gesture from Mai and quickly shuffled out of sight.

“Then what was it?” Her voice dropped dangerously low. “Because I’d rather like to know why you played with my heart.”

Zuko paced from one wall to another, his shadow stretching across the small cell. “I gave you everything I was at the time. All my secrets and my fears. I loved you.”

“Oh, that’s just what a girl wants to hear.” She stopped him as he spun on his heel at the wall, and pushed him roughly against it with one hand. “Not I love you, but I loved you.”

He had loved her, though, or at least he believed he had. It was easy to think yourself in love with someone within the comfortable confines of a ruling city; within the expectations of the upper classes. But standing here as a traitor and the Warden’s niece, he was forced to confront all the ways he’d changed.

“This is who I am now.” He gently pushed her hand aside and straightened, brushing his hair from his face so his scar was in full view. Daring her to look at all of him. “I know what kind of person I want to be, and what I want people to remember of my life when I’m gone, and damn anyone’s expectations of me.” She looked aside, and he shifted to catch her gaze again. “Forget who your parents or Azula want you to be, or what they want you to do, or—” He lowered his voice with his gaze, “—or who you’re expected to be with. Who are you, Mai, and what do you want?”

She slapped him hard enough to make his eyes water. “You thought I was your girlfriend just because you were Prince Zuko? Thanks for letting me know what you really thought of me.”

He wanted to blast some fireballs right now. Why couldn’t he say anything right?

“I didn’t mean that either!”

Mai glared at him. “No, because you don’t mean anything you say, do you?”

“All I mean is—”

He stopped, unable to find the words. He could hardly tell her what she needed. Neither could he tell her that he needed someone who wouldn’t just accept him but who would made him want to do be better. Someone who didn’t mind that he displayed his emotions so freely, and stood up to him with her own. Who showed him how to care for a nation, by how she cared for those around her despite the drudgery or lack of appreciation at times.

Well, damn. That was not a path he wanted to explore right now, with his ex-girlfriend in front of him.

“I meant that we’re different people, Mai.” She didn’t look convinced. “We’re—”

He was cut off as a guard loomed in the doorway, though his menacing aura was diminished by the way he fidgeted with his sword. “Ma’am, there’s a riot going on! I’m here to protect you!”

It was time for the escape. He had to get to the prison yard and meet up with Sokka, Suki, and the rest. He growled under his breath. Again, he knew what he had to do, but he wouldn’t have time to explain it to Mai.

Zuko laughed and stepped aside to leave a clear space between Mai and the guard. It also conveniently left him standing closer to the door. He pointed at Mai. “Believe me, she doesn’t need any protecting.”

The guard strode toward her anyway. “I’m sorry, but I’m under direct orders from your uncle to make sure nothing happens.”

Which left Zuko with a clear line toward the door. He wasn’t worried about the guard getting in his way, but he was worried about Mai. She was a little too good with her knives for his comfort.

He aimed his blast of fire at the gap between the guard and Mai. The guard jumped in front of her with the intent of protecting her, but also blocking him from her line of sight as he raced for the door. She flung the guard aside and raced after him, but she was too late.

He slammed the door shut, a heavy iron wall between them. The guard had left the keys in the lock, and the tumblers clicked into place with an echoing finality.

“I hope you find what it is you really want,” he whispered, the only parting words he could think of.

As he turned away, the final glimpse of her glare made him certain that the only thing she wanted right now was to rip out his heart in return.

Chapter Text

Boiling Rock, Part 2 (Scene 2) - After Zuko locks Mai and the guard in the cell, and runs off to the prison yard to escape

 

Mai paced back and forth behind the imposing interrogation chair in the middle of the small metal cell. It was empty, when it should have held Zuko. Should have bound him here, where she was.

Instead she was stuck here with no one but a useless guard. He’d gotten them into this situation, blocking the only person in the room who could have stopped the stupid jerk who’d crushed her heart. It was only fair, then, that he pay for it by banging on the door and yelling through the slot until someone came to let them out. Considering how much she wanted to hurt someone as badly as Zuko had just hurt her, he was lucky she didn’t make him pay in blood.

From one wall to the other, she paced. As Zuko had paced…

She brought herself up short, settling into the chair instead. Not slumped, like Zuko had been, but regal. As though this empty cell, alone with someone who feared her but cared nothing for her, was her domain.

Mai pressed her hands flat against the chair’s arms, the metal’s coolness spreading through her, comforting her. Stiffening her spine.

Who are you, Mai?

She stared down at her freshly painted nails, black against pale skin. The only colour she didn’t despise. And hadn’t he told her she was beautiful when she hated orange; when she hated the world? So she’d hated the world, and loved him.

Look what that got her. A lecture from a hypocrite, about how the Fire Nation was destroying the world. Why should she care, if she had Zuko? She accepted him despite his angry outbursts, his weird sense of romanticism (who on earth thought a sea shell was beautiful?), his accusations that she didn’t show enough emotion. 

She stood up and yelled her frustration as Zuko would have, eliciting a fearful glance from the guard before he redoubled his efforts.

No. That didn’t feel right. She sat down again, leaning back and closing her eyes. Her anger didn’t burn within her the way Zuko’s did. It sat beneath her skin, always there. Always hidden beneath whichever version of Mai she had to be at that moment. Obedient daughter to her parents. Loyal servant and sometimes-friend of Princess Azula.

Girlfriend of Zuko. 

She flung one stiletto knife at the door, then another. They bounced off the metal to the left and the right of the hapless guard’s head, and his calls for help rapidly increased in intensity. It made her feel better. Not much different from being a teenager again, flinging far cruder knives at her bedroom walls out of sheer mind-numbing boredom.

What had she wanted then? Had it always been Zuko? There had been a childhood crush, but as a teenager she hadn’t really given him a second thought until Ba Sing Se. Until after it had fallen, when Azula set her up with Zuko.

She knew the Princess was using her to lure him back to the Fire Nation, she wasn’t stupid. But he’d been fun to be around, and she could believe that both everything and nothing had changed since the days as a little girl, blushing whenever she caught a glimpse of him around the palace. She could believe he liked her too. So why shouldn’t she obey Azula this time, too?

The Mai who would sacrifice Tom-Tom isn’t the real you.

There was a click as a key turned in the lock, and the door swung open.

Mai was on her feet and racing out before either guard could react.

“Where is the traitor Zuko?” she shouted back to them. When they didn’t respond, she stopped and pointed one of her knives at them. “Where?”

The guard who’d rescued them took a step back. “He’s with the escaped prisoners, and they took your uncle!”

Not only was he destroying her heart, he was also destroying her family? However her uncle treated the prisoners here, he was still the man who’d snuck her out to the local markets when her parents had forbidden her. He’d given her her first proper set of stilettos when she complained about being bored, and let her ride in the airships he used for travel when she needed to get away from her family.

Zuko was so dead.

“Where do I find them?” If they tried to ‘protect’ her, so help her, she would make them pay as well.

“They were last seen heading for the gondola, but you shouldn’t—”

Mai didn’t bother waiting for rest.

######

When Mai arrived at the gondola station, Azula and Ty Lee were already embroiled in a fight with Zuko and his new little friends. It infuriated her to think that they knew a part of him she didn’t, this strange person who’d abandoned her with a letter then had the nerve to lecture her about the sins of the Fire Nation. Who apparently was the ‘real’ Zuko, whatever that meant.

One of the guards observing the action by telescope yelled, “There’s the warden! I see him!”

Her uncle’s yell carried clearly to everyone on the platform, and there was no mistaking his words. “Cut the line!”

Mai started forward, then stopped herself. Surely he’d said that because he’d found a way to get out of the gondola.

She wasn’t the only one with doubts. One of the platform guards hesitated as well. “But if we cut the line, there’s no way he’ll survive.”

The guard who’d spotted her uncle placed the telescope on the ground, his voice full of respect. “He knows that.”

She didn’t stop them as they fetched their tools and got to work. The gondola ground to a halt, and two guards brought out a heavy-duty saw. Azula and Ty Lee were still up there as well, but there was another gondola headed their way. They would returns safely, but they wouldn’t be able to bring her uncle with them.

This was what he wanted, what he’d demanded himself. Who was she to oppose him? Ever since she was young, he’d tell her stories about all the prisoners who’d come to Boiling Rock in the months since he’d last saw her.

Every time, he’d boast, “Your uncle’s record of zero escapes is the pride of the Fire Nation! That’s where they send the most daaaaangerous prisoners, because they know I’ll keep them locked up so everyone’s safe.” And then he’d tell her to try and escape from him, and she’d pretend not to be interested but find a way to slip past him anyway, and he’d catch her every single time.

“I saved my honour again!” he’d declare to her, swinging her in the air as she giggled. “I caught the most dangerous prisoner of all… Mai!”

We’re weakening ourselves from the inside, so focused on our honour.

“Shut up, Zuko,” she snapped to the air.

She’d grown distant from him as she grew out of his ridiculous games, but that didn’t mean she’d stopped caring. Even if that was the face she showed the world. Even if her ex-jerk accused her of being emotionless. The Fire Nation would lose a dedicated and capable prison warden because he was so focused on his honour.

She would lose her uncle.

Frozen limbs found strength, hesitation replaced by action. She targeted the guards sawing away at the line, single-mindedly loyal. Stupidly loyal. With her stilettos, the very ones from her uncle, she pinned them to the wall.

“What are you doing?” The cry from the guard was plaintive, an echo of her own when she’d first read Zuko’s farewell letter.

She swept her gaze over the guards on the platform, sizing them up. “Saving my uncle. Saving my country.” She glanced up at the gondola would carry Zuko away. Away to where, she was slowly beginning to understand, he was needed. “Saving the jerk who dumped me.”

Then it was a whirl of dodging, fireballs exploding around her. Instead of falling back she ran into them, drawing her stilettos as sparks singed her clothes. Let them burn. More guards, more knives, more dodging. She used one as a shield, another as a battering ram. Then she was close enough to the iron jamming the mechanism to kick it free, and the gondola started moving again.

Moving forward.

The guards wouldn’t stop coming and was down to her last knives. There was no choice but to switch to hand-to-hand combat, which she’d never been great at. What she wouldn’t give for Ty Lee’s chi-blocking abilities right now. Already she was catching a punch here and a slice there as she focused on avoiding the flames.

Mai fought with increasing desperation, not because she’d been told to but because the lives of everyone on the gondola depended on her holding this platform below until they reached the platform above. Azula and Ty Lee would arrive soon, and that would be the end, but only for her and not for everyone else.

A fist connected with her stomach, and her legs gave way. The guards finally saw their opening and pinned her hands to her back so she couldn’t reach her last knives. If caring about things was always this painful, caring sucked. She glanced up at the gondola, almost there, and looking back at her was Zuko. His gaze didn’t leave hers until the gondola crested the lip of the upper platform and disappeared.

The guards hauled her before Azula, who dismissed them. Mai straightened and glared at her with a defiance that, until now, she would never have shown to the princess’s face. But something inside her had shifted. She’d let Azula sacrifice Tom-Tom. She’d nearly let the guards sacrifice her uncle. She would not make any more sacrifices for a nation too obsessed with its own glory and reputation to care for its people.

“I never expected this from you,” Azula said. She tried to cover it but Mai heard the edge of hurt. “The thing I don’t understand is, why? Why would you do it? You know the consequences.”

Mai let her lips curl up in disdain, the very expression she’d wanted to make when Azula had reneged on the deal to trade the Earth King for her brother. “I guess you just don’t know people as well as you think you do.” It was both terrifying and exhilarating, saying exactly what was on her mind without any care for what others would think of her. “You miscalculated. I care about our people more than I fear you.”

Azula’s eyes went flat, almost lifeless, for a brief moment. But then she was back and every bit the daughter of the Fire Lord. “No, you miscalculated!” She raised her hands, fingers pointing in a pose that meant lightning would soon follow. “You should have feared me more!”

Mai reached for her two remaining stilettos. Before either of them could launch an attack, Ty Lee struck Azula, blocking her chi. Azula was no exception to any of Ty Lee’s previous targets. She topped to the ground, furious and helpless, as Mai stared in disbelief.

“But… why…” She couldn’t form the question, words eluding her as she struggled to understand why her friend would turn traitor alongside her.

“Come on!” Ty Lee grabbed her wrist and tugged, and Mai stumbled forward. “Let’s get out of here!”

They couldn’t escape, of course. Mai already knew that from the first knife she’d thrown. But she hadn’t expected Ty Lee to be caught up in this as well. The guards surrounded them, and once again she found her hands pinned roughly behind her back.

She glanced up at the lip of the volcano. There was a faint outline of a familiar silhouette for a few seconds, and then it was gone.

Tears rolled down her face, splattering on the metal platform far below. It seemed that, despite expectations holding them together, she’d truly loved the old Zuko in some way. Now he’d walked away and she’d let him go, and there was only her, this ‘real’ her who had defied all expectations and stood against Azula. Stood against her nation.

“Put them somewhere I’ll never have to see their faces again, and let them rot!” Azula snarled.

As the guards led her away, this time as a prisoner, Mai thought she’d never been more free.

Chapter Text

The Southern Raiders —Additional scene as Katara and Zuko travel to meet Yon Rha.

Zuko held Appa’s reins loosely, glancing up at the night sky to confirm they were heading in the right direction. It was harder to navigate tonight, when the light full moon obscured all but the brightest points.

He’d insisted Katara rest in the saddle to keep her strength up when she faced Yon Rha, though from the sounds of her constant shifting, she wasn’t able to sleep. Was it because of whatever she’d done to the current leader of the Southern Raiders? He’d never seen anything like it. Her movement was no different from waterbending forms as he knew them, but they’d controlled the man like a puppet.

Call him heartless, but it wasn’t the man’s jerky movements that left him with this lingering sense of horror. It was how Katara had stood shivering for a long while after she’d released him and her anger had passed. It was the disgust reflected in her eyes, directed not outwards but inwards.

He recognised that particular look all too well. He’d seen it after his triumphant return home, every time he passed a mirror.

“Katara.” He said her name tentatively, testing for a response. “Are you awake?”

There was a silence, and more shifting. “What do you want, Zuko?”

Might was well work his way up. “What was that you did to the leader, back on the ship?”

“Bloodbending.” A curt response, one she clearly wished to explain no further.

He pushed anyway. “That was powerful bending. Why don’t you use it more often?”

“It only works during the full moon. And…” A long silence. “It’s nothing. I don’t because I don’t, you got a problem with that?”

If she was this disturbed over controlling someone, how would she feel about killing them? Anger could only last so long and bear you so far. The problem was what happened after it passed and there was nothing but long silent nights where your only company was the insidious whispers of regrets and recriminations.

 “Are you ready to confront your mother’s murderer?” he asked instead.

Her voice hardened, shifting from uncertainty to cold determination. “My mother begged him for her life, and he showed no mercy. I’m going to do the same to him.”

“If you want to kill him, go ahead.” He couldn’t decide what Katara needed. By serving Yon Rha the justice he deserved, would she find peace? That had been his hope when they set out. Now he wondered if she would find only nightmares. “But don’t forget, it’s something you have to live with the rest of your life.”

Her words whipped and landed with crackling anger. “Don’t you dare give me a lecture about revenge and forgiveness now.”

“I’m not Aang. I think the man who killed your mother deserves to die.” His hands curled around the reins, the leather biting into his palms. “All I want is for you to be sure that you won’t regret this.”

“Don’t worry about me,” she snapped. “Worry about getting me to that murderer.”

 

##### 

 

The Southern Raiders —At the beginning of Katara and Zuko’s confrontation with Yon Rha

Vengeance served cold was a disorienting beast. In Katara’s memories, the man who’d killed her mother was all sharp gleaming edges, carrying out his task with malicious efficiency. He was not the old man cowering on the ground before Zuko’s outstretched fist.

Even so, overlaid on the sagging skin and wrinkles were the distinctively etched features of the murderer. Yon Rha had killed a kneeling, unarmed woman and no doubt her mother had not been the only one. Katara had remained outside the tent that day, had heard the pleasure in his voice when he declared he wasn’t taking prisoners.

This man didn’t deserve to live.

She strode toward him and pulled down her mask. Beneath it, her mother’s necklace dangled heavy around her neck. It was a necklace she shouldn’t have been wearing, not yet.

“Do you know who I am?” He wouldn’t die until he knew why death stalked him. Until he was terrified and begging for mercy. He would be shown none.

The man shook his head, words stuttering over one another. “No, I’m not sure.”

This worthless piece of scum couldn’t even show the same grace as her mother when faced with the same situation. He could try to play innocent, but she knew better.

“Oh, you better remember me like your life depends on it.” Katara leaned in so close the foul stench of his ragged breaths enveloped her. “Why don’t you take a closer look?”

His eyes focused on her, then fell to her mother’s pendant. Realisation dawned, hand in hand with horror, his eyes widening as he scrabbled back against the rock. “Y… yes, I remember you know. You’re that little Water Tribe girl. The daughter of the last waterbender in the south.”

The rain continued to beat down on Katara, weighing down her clothing and soaking her skin. She welcomed the steady drum beat, every drop a weapon. She no longer needed to hide behind the final protection her mother had left her.

“My mother lied to you!” Her yell set the water matting his face aquiver. “She was protecting the true waterbender!”

He sucked in a breath, whether from shock or fear she couldn’t tell. Not that it mattered. “What? Who was it?”

Fury, dark as the ocean depths, drew her down. She raised her arms and the rain obeyed. It froze in the air, globules of water held together by the thinnest of tension on the surface.

“It was me!” Together with her voice, the water roared into an enclosure surrounding all three of them.

She spun her hands, twisting the water.

“I did a bad thing!” he cried, arms shielding his face in a futile gesture. “I know I did and you deserve revenge, so why don’t you take my mother?”

The pressure at the very depth of her anger crushed Katara, heavy and cold and so very black. It flowed from her, solidifying water to icy spears that demanded blood. It hurled them toward her target with the full force of its release.

In that shifting of instants, the last voice she wanted to hear echoed in her mind.

All I want is for you to be sure you won’t regret this.

The words brought warmth, and she surfaced from the depths. Her icicles stopped inches from the murderer’s flesh, quivering to close the last gap. She stared down at him, dark tendrils creeping through her veins.

Kill him, they demanded. Give your mother justice.

It was Zuko’s voice which responded again. Don’t forget, it’s something you’ll have to live with the rest of your life.

The words took her anger and drew it into a steady flame, transforming it. No longer cold, no longer dark, but blazing bright. In the clarity of this clear-burning anger, she could feel the metallic tang of the bloodbending from last night coating her arms. Coating her soul.

What would happen if she took another’s life?

She closed her eyes and let the flame’s warmth radiate through soaked clothes, through the water she bent, through the ice hovering around Yon Rha. She let it all go. The torrent of water descended on the man with a resounding smack.

She stared at the cowering man on his knees. Her anger pulsed, but instead of weighing down her emotions, the fire purified them. “There’s nothing inside you, nothing at all. You’re pathetic and sad and empty.”

He scrambled forward and would have grabbed at her shoes if Zuko hadn’t grabbed her arm and pulled her back.

“Please!” Yon Rha’s plea held no remorse, only fear. “Spare me!”

Was she weak or strong, to spare this murderer? “As much as I hate you… I can’t do it.”

The smile that spread across his face was neither grateful or relieved. It was the smile of a man who knew he’d gotten away with his crimes yet again. She yanked her hand from Zuko’s and fled, hating herself for letting an unrepentant murderer walk away.

#######

Zuko found Katara sitting by Appa. Her back was pressed against his furry side, and she hugged her knees tight against her chest. Her face was buried in her arms, and he hovered to one side wondering what he should do.

He cleared his throat gently. “Katara?”

She glanced up at him with red-rimmed eyes. “Was I wrong to let him live?”

Zuko sighed, and sat down beside her, his left arm brushing lightly against hers. She tensed but didn’t pull away.

“I can’t tell you if what you did was right or wrong, because I don’t know.” He fumbled for words. Uncle would’ve had some wisdom for her right now. “I’ve done things I’ll never be able to take back. Even if I spend the rest of my life redeeming myself, I’ll still know I’m someone capable of such actions.”

His hand reached for hers, and finding it, he wrapped his fingers around her palm. Her hand was cold and stiff in his.

“I would have killed him.” Her words were soft, but the loathing in them was clear. “If you hadn’t said what you did last night, he would be dead and I…” She turned away. “You were right. I don’t know if I could have lived with that.”

He squeezed her hand. “The important thing is, you didn’t. Sometimes, we need someone else to remind us of who we are. Like Uncle was for me after I was banished.”

Katara’s fingers finally curled around his. “I nearly lost myself, and you pulled me back.” Her grip tightened with the fear of a child lost in the night. “I can’t keep blaming you for what you did in Ba Sing Se. Not after facing my own darkness and losing to it.”

“You didn’t lose. Yon Rha is still alive.” He couldn’t keep the bitterness from his voice. “Losing is when someone reaches out to you, and you stab them in the back instead.”

She lifted her hand and ran her fingers lightly over his scar. Even though he’d lost most feeling there, a tingly coolness lingered where she’d touched him. “You said once that this was the mark of the banished prince. I think it’s the mark of the fire that burns inside you. The fire you struggled to understand and control, but which now drives away the dark.”

Oh.

He turned his head and she dropped his hand, but her gaze remained fixed on his. And in that gaze, her mist encased him and absorbed the stray sparks and radiant heat from his flame, so he could let it burn larger and brighter than Sozin’s Comet.

It was Katara who looked away first. “Let’s get back to everyone. We have a Fire Lord to defeat.”

Chapter Text

The Ember Island Players – When the play shows the events Crystal Catacombs at Ba Sing Se

Zuko very much regretted finangling his way to the seat beside Katara right now. If he could cover his ears and completely block out the actress on stage, he would. Ideally he’d cover Katara’s ears as well.

“I have to admit, Prince Zuko, I really find you attractive!” Her high and pitchy voice carried clearly to their box seat.

Shut up already! His face burned and he tugged his hood further down.

“You don’t have to make fun of me,” his stage counterpart said.

Which would have been an accurate reflection of his problem with the entire show, if the actor hadn’t been pouty. He didn’t pout, dammit. He struggled with his feelings and he could be expressive, but he didn’t sulk like some petulant kid.

Fake Katara wasn’t done yet. “But I mean it! I’ve had eyes for you since the day you first captured me.”

This did not please him. He’d certainly wondered about her feelings in the time since that encounter. And lately, he'd even hoped. He’d held her hand after the Yon Rha incident, and there’d been the gaze they’d exchanged and her hug on the pier.

But hearing the words from this overwrought, exaggerated version of her made him wonder if he’d been reading too much into her words and actions. He was, after all, the guy who’d chased them around the world and tried to kill them for the better part of the year.

He snuck a glance at Katara, though he wasn’t sure what he was hoping for. A shy smile? But what would that even mean, if anything? He wanted to pound his head into the box’s barricade. Then she glanced back at him, and a hot flush shot up his neck.

He sat there frozen as the actors continued with their disaster, and only Katara wriggling uncomfortably away reminded him that he should be doing something instead of staring. He tore his gaze away, but left his hand resting awkwardly in the space between. Meanwhile, the ‘them’ on stage were holding hands as though it were the most natural thing in the world.

The actor playing Uncle came back on stage, and Zuko cringed. He didn’t want to relive his choices, didn’t want to be reminded yet again of how in that moment of indecision he’d chosen the father who’d exiled him over the uncle who’d willingly gone into exile with him. He willed the actor on stage to make the right choice despite knowing how events had to play out.

Sure enough, the boy shoved ‘Uncle’ aside and yelled, “I hate you, Uncle! You smell, and I hate you for all time?”

Katara nudged Zuko with an elbow. “You didn’t really say that, did you?”

He couldn’t look at her, his hands clenching into tight fists. “I may as well have.”

Regret flared within him, blazing heat that blinded him and sputtered at his frayed edges. He wanted to throw fireballs at the Zuko and Azula back in Ba Sing Se. He wanted to disavow their cruelty and erase the heartbreak on Uncle’s face. He wanted to replace his last memory of Uncle in prison, back turned to him, as though he too had finally given up on Zuko.

He wanted to burn it all.

A gentle hand prised open one fist, fingers threading through his. Katara didn’t look at him, staring fixedly at the stage, but he could feel his flame steady at her touch. While regret still burned bright, he could control it instead of letting it sweep through until his soul was nothing but bitter ashes.

You’re not alone any more, the firm grip of her hand said. We’ll help you find your way home.

 

#######

Katara found Aang on the balcony during intermission. He stared out into the night, in a stillness that wasn’t peace. He had every right to be upset about being played by a lady, but she hadn’t expected he’d be this angry.

She leant on the balcony beside him, the humid summer breeze weighing heavy in the air. “Are you all right?”

“No!” Aang snapped, flinging his hat to the ground. “I’m not! I hate this play!”

It was terrible, there was no doubt about it, and the actors went well beyond cringe-worthy, but was it really enough to lose his head—well, hat—over?

She tried for calm and reasonable. Responsible. “I know it’s upsetting, but it sounds like you’re overreacting.”

He glared at her. “Overreacting? If I hadn’t blocked my chakra I’d probably be in the Avatar state right now!”

That was a terrifying thought. Not only would it blow their cover, but they were in the middle of enemy territory and there was a good chance someone would get in a lucky hit and kill the Avatar for good. For tonight, discretion was the better part of valour. She remained silent and stared out at the stars, ignoring the sweat forming in the damp heat.

Minutes passed before Aang asked, “Katara, did you mean what you said in there?”

She hadn’t said much to him since they’d entered the theatre, at least not that she could remember. Something about not spending all their money on fire flakes, maybe?

“In where? What are you talking about?”

Aang pressed his face into his hands. “On stage, when you said I was just like a… brother to you, and you didn’t have feelings for me.”

Oh. So that was why he was so worked up. But what would he say if she gave a truthful answer? The night’s heat pressed down, squeezing tight. She retreated into evasion. “I didn’t say that. An actor said that.”

He didn’t buy it. She’d never truly expected him to. “But it’s true, isn’t it? You only kissed me on the forehead during the Invasion, when I wanted…” He looked away. “…more.”

“This isn’t the right time to talk about it.” She was such a coward, avoiding the words that needed to be said, eventually. “We’re in the middle of a war, and we have other things to worry about.”

He grabbed her shoulders and turned her to face him. “Well, when is the right time?”

Her gaze fell to her feet. “I don’t know.”

“Then let’s make it now,” he said, and there was no hint of the boy but a glimpse of the man.

The man who shouldn’t be coddled, who wouldn’t forgive her if she tried to protect him.

“I can’t give you the more that you want,” she finally said. The words choked her throat but she forced them out anyway. “I’m sorry, Aang, but I can’t suddenly see you as, as, you know, when I’ve been the boring responsible one during all our travels. You admitted as much.”

“I was wrong.” He grabbed her hand, and it was small around hers. “You came with me after freeing me from the iceburg, you’re my waterbending teacher, you looked out for me after Appa was kidnapped, you saved my life after my fight with Azula… I need you, Katara.”

His hands trembled, and she covered them with her other hand. “I won’t be gone, not even after we defeat the Fire Lord. I’ll still be there for you, so you don’t need to be scared about losing me. We’re family.”

He yanked his hands from hers and glared at her. “You think I’m saying this because I’m scared of things changing in the future?”

“I don’t know.” She sighed. “Maybe.”

“Well, maybe you thought wrong. I like you, Katara. I really, really like you and not as family. I can be less goofy. More grumpy like Zuko, if that’s what you like. I can be someone you rely on. I have all the past Avatars to for advice if I don’t get anything. I swear I’ll make you happy. I’ll do anything you want me to do and be anyone you want me to be.”

Katara heard the tears he was holding back, and in any other situation she would have told him things would be okay. If she lied, it would make him feel better. But in the long term, it would also permanently ruin any trust between them.

Don’t forget, it’s something you’ll have to live with the rest of your life.

“I don’t want you to be anyone else,” she told Aang, turning back to the balcony to stare out at the stars dotting the night. “I like goofball Aang who makes me laugh and does things his own way. Who’s the best flyer in the world and takes his responsibilities as Avatar seriously and lectures me on forgiveness. You changing to become what you think I want, that’s not love.”

His fists slammed down on the balcony’s railing, which shook beneath her forearms and nearly set her off balance. “You still don’t think I don’t understand my feelings. Is it because you don’t think I’m mature enough? Too much of a kid to understand them?”

She mentally slapped herself with a whip of cold water for not taking him seriously. To him, he was in love with her, and who was she to decide if those feelings were real or not?

“Aang, I…” She hated this, hated making him angry and sad. “Thank you for loving me, but I can’t return your feelings.”

His face crumpled. “Don’t you need me too? I need you.”

“Love isn’t just about holding on.” She thought about her mother, telling her to run. Her father reminding her that splitting up again wouldn’t be forever. Zuko, giving her the information on the Southern Raiders and backing up her choices despite his own reservations partway through. “Love’s also about letting go.”

“What are you, a monk?” There was no teasing, only bitterness. “Thanks for telling me something I’ve been taught since I was a kid.”

It was Zuko’s words that responded, “Sometimes, we need someone else to remind us.” She withdrew toward the light of the doorway. “I know I hurt you, Aang, and I’m sorry.”

He was silent, his hands gripping the rail and his back to her so she couldn’t see his expression. She waited, but he didn’t speak, didn’t move.

“I’m going in,” she finally said. “I’ll always care for you, and I’d do anything to support you. Even stay by your side for the rest of your life, if that’s what you truly need.”

He turned then, hope shadowing the tears tracking down his cheeks. “You mean that?”

She nodded. “Yes. But Aang, you say you love me more deeply. Do you mean it enough to let me find my own happiness?”

Anguish tore at his features, warred on them as he clenched his teeth. “No. Stay with me. Don’t leave, be my girlfriend because I don’t know how I’ll survive without you there and I’ll find a way to make you love me back.” He sucked in gasping breaths and shook his head so hard she started forward. “I want to say that. I want to hold you tight for the rest of my life.”

Then he turned back to the night sky, but she heard the words whispered so quietly they were barely more than a breath.

“Go, Katara.”

Chapter Text

Sozin’s Comet, Part 3 – Zuko and Katara are travelling on Appa to face Azula

Katara glanced over at Zuko. Reuniting with General Iroh had completed him somehow, filled in the gaps and cracks in his sense of self from his violent struggle against the guilt that bound him. There was a calm to him now—no, calm was the wrong word, it was more like a blazing flame that no longer flickered from the drafts that crept through the cracks.

Despite that, the orange sky lent a sickly cast to his frown, highlighting the puckered scar in vivid red as though it was freshly made. Was he thinking of the battle ahead, brother against sister? Of a family, divided?

“Zuko, don’t worry.” There was so much more she wanted to say, but she wasn’t the one with a psychotic sibling and a megalomaniac father. She chose the safe path instead. “We can take Azula.”

He was silent for a moment, eyes squinted against the constant dry heat that assailed them.

“It’s not her I’m worried about,” he eventually said, turning to meet her gaze.

There was some pain, yes, but also acceptance. He knew what had to be done, and he’d do it even if some part of him ripped to shreds.

He sighed. “I’m worried about Aang. What if he doesn’t have the guts to take out my father?” The hardness in his voice wavered. “What if he loses?”

“Aang won’t lose,” she replied with more confidence than she felt. Where family could restore him, it could also destroy him once more. There was one thing she did know for certain, however. “Aang wouldn’t run away. He’s gonna come back.”

“The Avatar will face my father.” His whisper breathed hope and hurt, scorching like the air.

She wanted to reach out, wanted to clasp the hands that clutched Appa’s fur tight against the trembling. But Zuko was already looking ahead, his gaze fixed on the horizon.

She’d been wrong. Family could never destroy him again. He stood firm on a foundation laid by his uncle through the long, painful years of banishment. Perhaps she’d had the notion of confidence wrong all this time. Perhaps confidence wasn’t about knowing you would win.

Perhaps it was about knowing that whatever happened, you had the strength to push on regardless.

#######

Zuko caught and held Azula’s stare as Appa landed at the foot of the Royal Palace stairs. Her hair, always perfectly coiffed, hung in draggled, uneven strands about her gaunt face. She was alone save for the attendants who’d been ready to crown her Fire Lord.

He had friends holding off the invasion on the front lines. He had Uncle, who’d forgiven him against his wildest hopes and was fighting to re-take Ba Sing Se and their tea shop home. He had Katara, in whose presence he could let his flame burn brightly enough to drive away the dark; enough to drive away the cold fear that gripped him every time he stood against his sister.

Who did Azula have?

“Sorry, but you’re not gonna become Fire Lord today,” he announced, leaping off Appa. “I am.”

#######

A/N: And now I’m going to suggest you break and rewatch the Zuko/Azula fight in this episode because it is a triumphant, heartbreaking masterpiece no matter how many times it’s been viewed. The music, the choreography, the emotion… everything.

 

#######

Lightning crackled blue in the air as Azula gathered it about her. Zuko shifted into the stance Uncle taught him. Calm. Ready. Able to take whatever she could hurl at him, and let it pass through.

Her lip quirked in a smile he recognised. One that meant she was about to take something precious from him. Something…

Her eyes flickered to his right. He didn’t need to think; he leapt in the same direction as she loosed the lightning. He knew who she was aiming at, knew he couldn’t properly redirect mid-air but knew all the same that he would choose this course of action over and over.

Without Katara, he would be nothing more than a banked fire.

He met the bolt, embraced it. He pulled it into his centre just as Uncle had taught, pulled it all until he was full to bursting and there was nowhere to go but out, ripping through every fibre of his being, returning his embrace with its own deadly one. But despite how his body was torn from his control, despite the pain of it all, he let it go.

The bolt lit up the sky, and was gone.

Katara yelled his name as he twitched helplessly on the ground, his body claimed by the remnants of the lightning. He heard her footsteps racing toward him, and felt the bolt Azula drove between them.

When Azula cackled and turned her full attention to Katara, however, it wasn’t fear that claimed him. It wasn’t even anger. Instead it was a grim certainty that whatever Katara had to endure, she would never lose to his sister.

While her mist could let a flame burn to its full potential, it could also do the opposite. Turned against an enemy, it could snuff a flame out.