Nine years after the war, four weeks before the autumn equinox Zuko reluctantly claws his way into consciousness feeling like someone has pummeled his head with a rather large hammer. The light streaming through the windows is ungodly . When he reaches for a pillow to cover his face, however, he hears only the distinct glassy rattle of a bottle rolling across the stone floor. He cracks open his eyes to find himself sprawled across the floor of the communication tower in the Royal Palace, surrounded by messenger hawks and bird shit.
“Ah, fuck ,” he groans, digging the heels of his palms into his eyes. When he looks at his hands, he sees that they’re stained with ink as vacuum black as his memory of the night before. “What the fuck .”
One of the hawks screeches as Zuko rolls to his hands and knees.
“Fucking shut up ,” he growls at the bird, flipping it off.
Grasping an empty perch with both hands, the Fire Lord manages to lever himself to his unsteady feet. Somehow, he’s missing a shoe. He stands there for a moment, stomach rolling, convinced that his heart has taken up pounding residence in his skull. Bile burns at the back of his throat and he swallows it down hard. The hawk at his right shoulder cocks its head and surveys him with inquisitive eyes.
“What in the name of Agni happened last night?” Zuko croaks. His throat is raw, his mouth feels like it’s been stuffed full of cotton, and his eyes feel oddly puffy. Given his sleeping accommodations, he can’t help but wonder if he’s having some sort of allergic reaction to the birds. The hawk at his right shoulder emits a questioning chirrup and Zuko groans. “I wasn’t asking you .”
Staggering for the door, Zuko scoops up the empty bottle and begins his un-lordly walk of shame back to his room, examining the label with aching eyes as he goes. It seems he’d gotten into the private whiskey reserves last night, and the highest quality stuff at that. The question of how much and what else he’d imbibed before the whiskey does not have an answer.
He makes it to the imposing double doors of his bedroom where he stares at his guards in confusion and they gape back, equally baffled before remembering themselves and hastily bowing in deference.
“Fire Lord Zuko,” the one on the right stammers out, “we hadn’t…we weren’t…” He clears his throat. “It’s a pleasure to see you awake, m’lord.”
Zuko squints at the guards. “Did I…” He pauses to scratch at the back of his scalp, knocking loose a few hawk feathers in the process. “Did I… start my evening in my room?” he asks.
The one on the left, Chen, always the more honest of the two, licks his lips nervously. “Sir… We, uh…” He and the righthand guard exchange a glance. “We weren’t… aware that you’d left .”
“So I was here at some point?” Zuko asks.
Chen nods. “Yes, sir.”
“Right.” Zuko frowns, rubs at his pounding forehead. “Okay. If I forget that you didn’t know, will you two forget that this just happened?”
Chen and Righty bow in unison. “Yes, sir,” they say.
“Okay,” Zuko says. “Good.” He opens the door to his room. “No disturbances for a while. I need to vomit in peace.”
He thinks he sees Chen smirk but decides to forgive it as his stomach lurches violently. Slamming the door closed, the Fire Lord nabs an empty, decorative, likely antique vase from a pedestal nearby and promptly hurls his guts into it.
When his stomach is empty and his eyes stop watering, Zuko shoves the vase away and surveys the chaos that is his bedroom. There are several large, damp ink spots on the rugs that cover the marble floors. Crumpled pieces of parchment litter nearly every flat surface from his bed to his desk to the top of the wardrobe. A bottle of wine has spilled across his desk. He finds two more empty whiskey bottles under the sofa in the sitting area.
“Why the fuck…?”
Zuko gropes for one of the balled up pieces of parchment and straightens it out, his good eye widening as he reads aloud the contents.
“‘Dear Katara, I love you.’ Oh no. Oh no, oh no, oh no .”
Cursing quietly to himself, Zuko picks apart another balled up piece of parchment.
“‘Dear Katara, Don’t marry him. I’m in love with you.’ Ah, fuck. Oh, shit.”
He nearly rips apart a third in his shaky attempts to open it.
“‘Dear Aang, Go fuck yourself.’ Oh, nice one, dumbass . Fuck up relations with the fucking Avatar . Oh, what the fuck.”
Zuko opens letter after letter, each along the same lines in terms of content and tone. Most are directed to Katara, a few towards Aang. And so this is how Ursa finds him: In shock on the floor of his room, surrounded by tear-spotted, wine-stained, whiskey-scented letters that are partially-written and clumsy in their attempts to revert a decision long made. Stuck to his bedpost with Uncle Iroh’s knife is a wedding invitation with the ticking time bomb of a date four weeks hence. Ursa pries the knife from the mahogany post and examines the invitation with a frown and a sigh.
“Come on, Zuko,” she says softly, leaning down to help him up, her hands gripping his elbows.
Zuko allows his mother to walk him into his ensuite bathroom where she parks him next to the vanity and sets about filling the tub with steaming water and soothing oils.
“I think I did something terrible,” Zuko tells her as she works.
Ursa rises to her feet and reaches out to pat his scarred cheek, a sadness in her eyes. “Let’s not worry about that right now, sweet boy,” she says. “Clean yourself up. I’ll see that your room is taken care of.”
She sweeps out of the bathroom, a rustle of silk skirts, and closes the door behind herself, leaving Zuko alone with the jealous dragon in his stomach and a specter of regret in his heart. He turns to face himself in the mirror, hands braced against the counter. His puffy eyes make more sense when he adds in the bloodshot sclerae and the letters he obviously sobbed over. He discovers five further hawk feathers stuck in his hair and takes note of the fact that one of the birds apparently shit on him when he was passed out in the communications tower, as evidenced by the glaring white splotch on the front of his shirt.
“You’re a real fucking winner,” Zuko tells his reflection before he divests himself of his clothes and submerges himself in the bath.
While he’s underwater, a servant deposits a change of clothes and a fluffy white towel near the tub. He can hear his mother’s soft voice through the door as she issues instructions. Zuko floats through the water for a long time, allowing the heat to soothe his aching back and pounding head. He scrubs his hair clean and bends the water warmer when it cools off too much.
Afterward, he dresses himself in the fine, smooth clothes of his station and cleans his teeth. His mother sits in one of the two chairs by the south-facing windows, a pot of tea on the table next to her. The only trace of Zuko’s drunken letter writing frenzy is the crackle of the fire where a mound of parchment burns. He takes a seat in the empty chair and accepts the cup of strong black tea his mother offers to him. They sit together in silence for some time, eyes fixed on the city sprawled out before them.
“What do I do?” Zuko finally asks.
“You wait,” Ursa says.
“An answer. If Katara doesn’t want you there, she’ll be sure to tell you.”
“How can you be sure?”
A wry smile twists the corners of Ursa’s mouth. “Because I loved another man before I married Ozai and I received a letter not unlike the one you sent.”
“I’m not even sure I sent one,” Zuko says, ears burning hotly under the blanket of his hair. “And Katara doesn’t love me.” He rolls his tea cup between his hands, watching the liquid slosh around. “She’s marrying the Avatar.”
Ursa lets out a little hum and takes a sip of her tea. “Loving someone and being in love with someone are vastly different things, Zuko,” she says. “You know that. But sometimes it takes people a bit of a journey to figure it out.”
Hours pass in the following weeks at an exceedingly slow pace. Zuko’s temper and his attention span become so short that his advisors begin cancelling meetings on him and seem to spread the word to his ministers. When he does manage to find himself in a meeting, he spends the entire thing thinking about Katara and drafting letters of apology to her in his head. This seems to be an exercise in futility, however, because each day that passes fails to bring a letter of rebuke from either Katara or Aang.
The servants pack Zuko and Ursa’s belongings, an airship is readied, and the Fire Lord convinces himself that there is absolutely nothing to worry about because the lack of response must mean he never managed to send a letter at all. While the flight is lengthy and allots Zuko plenty of time to fret, what had seemed like the world’s worst hangover begins to feel much more manageable. And though he doesn’t necessarily want to watch Katara bond her life to Aang’s, politics dictate that he must and his fears rapidly dwindle to not looking like a wounded fool the entire time.
Until the airship lands and Zuko’s carefully crafted sanity takes several blows.
Rather than being met by Aang or Katara, Zuko and Ursa are welcomed by an acolyte with a cool, discerning gaze that reminds the Fire Lord alarmingly of Mai. She looks at them with calculating green eyes, greets them on behalf of Aang and Aang alone, and escorts them to their rooms while relaying the schedule for the days ahead in a very no-nonsense tone.
His mother doesn’t comment on the lack of propriety before she is shuffled off to the women’s quarters, but Zuko is left with a sour taste in his mouth and the distinct feeling that he isn’t wanted.
Things devolve from there.
Zuko, relegated to the mens’ dormitories with Hakoda, Pakku, Sokka, Uncle Iroh, Kings Bumi and Kuei, Chief Arnook, and dozens of male acolytes he can’t keep track of, doesn’t see hide nor hair of Katara at all within the first forty-eight hours of his arrival. It isn’t until the third night when a massive dinner is held that Zuko finally sets eyes on the waterbender. She sits at a table packed with female Air Acolytes, her face closed off in a way that Zuko has only ever seen on the faces of his family members. The women chatter and laugh, but he can’t help noticing that none of them draw her into the conversation. It strikes him as odd that one of the kindest, most caring people he’s ever met should look so alone and friendless amongst people she has come to call her own.
Aang is goaded to stand up and make a short speech at the end of the meal. He does so, rising from his seat, goblet of the odd banana juice provided with the vegetarian dishes in his hand. The Avatar’s soliloquy is accentuated with a wide grin and several chuckles that might be meant bashfully, but to Zuko come off cocky and inadvertently ignorant. No doubt due to the jealousy burning in his blood.
“I’ve gotten a lot of questions in the past year or so,” Aang says near the middle of his speech. “And it’s always nice to know that the Air Acolytes want to learn how to accurately acclimate to and represent Air Nomad culture. Especially because what I’ll be doing the day after tomorrow doesn’t follow the traditions of my people.”
Across from Zuko, Sokka grumbles something under his breath and scowls at his plate of mostly-untouched vegetables.
“To clarify,” Aang says with one of those strange chuckles, “the Air Nomads never practiced marriage. We were a people of free and unbound love. But my intended is Water Tribe. And she’s been so understanding and so kind as to meet me halfway. At the end of the week, we will be participating in the first ever Air Nomad commitment ceremony.”
This is punctuated by applause from the many guests and acolytes in the hall. Next to Sokka, Hakoda sits with a straight face, his arms crossed over his burly chest.
“How delightful,” Uncle whispers to Zuko under the applause. “New customs are being forged and we will bear witness!”
“My favorite question,” Aang continues, “is why I chose this temple for such an auspicious moment. It’s been the hardest to renovate and is really nowhere near what it used to be. The thing is, this temple has a lot of significance for me.
“What people don’t tell you about being the Avatar is that you’re required to do all of this really difficult stuff in order to be the ultimate arbiter of balance in the world. During the war, I traveled here to spend time with my friend Guru Pathik, who sadly passed away earlier this year. He sought to help me on my quest to master the elements and guided me through the unlocking of all my chakras so that I might master the Avatar State. But when we got to the last chakra, Pathik told me that I needed to let go of my earthly attachments. By that, he meant that I needed to let go of Katara.”
“Oh, dear,” Iroh murmurs.
Iroh shakes his head. “No Avatar has ever forgone mastering the Avatar State, Nephew.”
This exchange takes place under the cover of several loud gasps and sighs that Aang quiets with a dismissive gesture of his hand and a bemused smile.
“I chose Katara,” Aang announces, “the strongest, most perfect woman on the face of the planet. And I would choose her again were I to be given that same choice. Here’s to commitment and the next generation of airbenders!”
Many of the acolytes lurch to their feet, applauding and whistling raucously. Zuko’s eyes seek out Katara and barely have time to register her stricken face before she leaves the room in a blur of blue fabrics. Suki hastily follows after her. Their departure goes unnoticed by most everyone else.
“Uncle,” Zuko says, “what the Avatar just said… What does that mean for the world?”
Iroh clears his throat and shifts in his seat. Across the table, Hakoda and Pakku lean in to listen, their lips taut lines of tension. Sokka, having caught his wife and sister leaving the room, looks torn between listening in or pursuing them. Hakoda, apparently sensing this, weighs his son down with an arm around his shoulders.
“As I said, Nephew,” Iroh says quietly, “this is unprecedented. I do not know what it means for the state of the world. But I think that maintaining positive relations with your fellow world leaders will be of the utmost importance until Aang learns to master the Avatar State.”
“Iroh,” Sokka says, “Aang is stubborn and avoidant. When he doesn’t want to learn something, he just doesn’t.”
“Then we must all do the hard work of learning how to come together to maintain balance if we cannot rely on a fully realized Avatar to help us.” Iroh and Pakku exchange a significant look. “This will be no easy task.”
None of them see Ursa leave the room.
Zuko is filing out of the dining hall in a mass of people when a pale, short-fingered hand shoots out of the shadows between two pillars and tugs him into the dark depths. Alarm bells ring in the back of his mind until he realizes he’s staring down at Toph in all of her grimy glory.
“Where have they been keeping you, Sparky?”
“The westernmost dormitories,” Zuko says.
“With Snoozles and the other men?”
“Swell,” Toph says. “Your room have a balcony?”
“Is that a fact or a question, Zuko? I need accuracy, not dawdling.”
“It’s a fact,” Zuko snaps. “I’m just not sure why you need to know.”
“Fantastic! Round up Snoozles. Suki and I will be along in a bit. We’ll bring the booze.”
“Why the need for a balcony?” Zuko asks.
“It’s this stupid ‘no-fraternization’ rule. We’ve gotta be sneaky. I think Suki’s going to kill one of Aang’s savants if she doesn’t get some time with her husband soon.”
Toph shoves him back into the crowd without ceremony.
Bewildered, Zuko makes his way back to the mens’ dormitories, roping in Sokka along the way. His guards, baffled by their lord’s abrupt disappearance and reappearance make sure to stick closer to Zuko’s side for the duration of the walk.
“What’s going on?” Sokka mutters, glancing sidelong at the Fire Nation guards.
“Do you want to see your wife or not?” Zuko asks and the tribesman claps him on the back.
“You’re a gentleman and a scholar, Zuko, my man.”
The girls arrive shortly after Zuko and Sokka, sneaking over the balcony’s railing like catowls. Zuko, knowing exactly how high off the ground his room is, is thoroughly impressed with their stealth tactics, a feeling which quickly fades when Sokka promptly launches himself onto his wife.
“Not on my bed!” he protests, accepting one of the bottles Toph pulls from the bag draped over her shoulder.
Sokka and Suki surface from their loud, sloppy kiss with twin grins of satisfied shame. They settle side by side on the mattress, a tangle of limbs and love. Zuko’s gut twists as the dragon rears its ugly head in the pit of his stomach.
“Get a room,” Toph grumbles.
“We would like to,” Sokka says. “ Believe me.”
“You know, we all complain about Katara and Aang being gross,” Toph muses, her frosted gaze drifting towards Zuko. “Why have we never commiserated about these two?”
Zuko uncorks the bottle with a grunt. “They have no shame, Champ,” he says before taking a swig of what turns out to be Earth Kingdom rum.
“Just a whole lotta love,” Suki says with a grin.
Sokka is the first to address what Zuko feels must be the elephant in the room. “How’s Katara?” he asks.
Toph digs into her bag, passes out bottles to the others, takes one for herself, and then throws herself onto the stone floor with a sigh of delight. Zuko takes the only chair in the room, eyes on his bottle, but ears alert.
“I don’t know,” Suki says. “It’s more of the same. She seems really frustrated about things, but she keeps talking in circles. I left her with Zuko’s mom.”
Zuko looks up. “You did?”
The warrior shrugs. “Your mom has a wonderfully calming presence. It’s the kind of gentleness of spirit that only a mother can have. I think Katara needs that...particular comfort right now.”
“You’d think she’d be all excited,” Toph muses.
“She isn’t?” Zuko asks, peeling his feet off the floor. He tucks them onto the chair in the hopes that Toph will have less of a read on his heartbeat. Not that it matters. She, like Azula, probably knew before Zuko himself did.
“She hasn’t mentioned it to you?” Sokka asks. “ Sheesh . Tell me your trick, man. I can’t get her to shut up about all of it.”
Suki elbows him. “Don’t be such an insensitive pig, Sokka.” She cuts her eyes to Zuko. “She’s upset about the way Aang views the wedding. You heard his speech in there. He would only settle for a commitment ceremony.”
“What does that even mean?”
Sokka sighs. “I guess it’s an airbender thing. He didn’t want a Water Tribe ceremony because he wants to stay true to his culture.”
“And what about Water Tribe culture? Is that not important?”
“To be fair,” Toph says, “it’s not an entirely unreasonable ask on Aang’s part.” When Sokka opens his mouth to protest, she holds up a hand to silence him. “It’s not an unreasonable request on either of their parts. You would think that they’d be able to meet in the middle to find a compromise that makes them both happy, but they’re both so avoidant that they’ve ended up with this .”
“Katara is the least avoidant person I’ve ever met,” Zuko says.
“Where you’re concerned,” Toph says. “Where I’m concerned. Where literally any of us in this room are concerned. But we’re all different people than Aang. And Katara is a waterbender. She adapts. So where Aang avoids the difficult things, so does she.”
“She really hasn’t mentioned any of this to you?” Suki asks.
The bottom drops out of Zuko’s stomach, a sickening plummet that he hasn’t felt since waking up to find a hundred desperate letters scattered across his bedroom. “I haven’t even seen her since I arrived,” he says.
This is when the world’s worst hangover truly begins to reveal the consequences of Zuko’s whiskey drinking frenzy a month before.