|The Chong Sheng Trilogy: Peace
Author: Dorkness Rising PM
Sequel to "War." Ba Sing Se is destroyed, and the invasion plans are in shambles. Aang and his friends must win back the stronghold of Omashu against nigh impossible odds if they are to have any hope of success. Zutara, MaiLee, Sukka.Rated: Fiction T - English - Adventure/Romance - Zuko & Katara - Chapters: 20 - Words: 84,642 - Reviews: 195 - Favs: 141 - Follows: 120 - Updated: 07-13-10 - Published: 05-12-08 - Status: Complete - id: 4252182
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Disclaimer: I own not, you sue not.
The Chong Sheng Trilogy
PART II: Peace
Chapter 20: Heir To the Throne
Sokka's shoulders slumped as he came back to the sitting room of the newly occupied Fire Palace, where the rest of his comrades sat around the hearth. Except for Katara, who was still in Zuko's room that he'd just come from. The hard part was over, at least.
Fire Lord Ozai was dead.
He didn't think he would ever forget such an announcement. They had come swooping in from the shrine, Zuko's unconscious body draped across Appa's saddle, Aang holding up the bloodied obsidian shard in one hand and Ozai's crown in the other. And every Fire Nation soldier on the ground staring up in a mixture of horror and awe, weapons slipping from their hands and fire vanishing into smoke beneath the settling blanket of ash from Mount Wolong's dying fury.
It was over. Everyone knew it. The surrender was swift once the situation was clear enough. They were surrounded on all sides, one of those by a volcano, and their leader was dead at the hands of the young man he'd cast out like an obsolete fashion statement.
And so now they were in the palace, desperately awaiting news on Zuko's condition. Sokka swallowed hard. He had some, only it was not what anyone wanted to hear.
Aang was the first to look up as he took a seat on the polished flagstone, frowning. "What...What did you hear?"
He leaned forward, sighing as Jin handed him a cup of strong green chamomile. "I... You know how I kept saying that he treated life like one big game of Pai Sho? ...Well I think...I think he might've bet the stakes a little too high this time." At their questioning looks, he closed his eyes, trying to keep his voice even. "Katara and even Master Pakku have done what they can for him. It'll be a miracle if he lives through the night."
The crackling of the fire filled what seemed to be a vacuum of sound from the entire group, as though that one simple piece of news had robbed them all of the ability to breathe, nevermind speak. His heartbeat thungered in his ears until finally, Toph broke the silence with an angry sniffle.
"That jerk! He can't die on us! He can't! I beat his ass if he even thinks about it!"
Aang slid an arm around her shoulders, quietly calming her. "He...He'll be okay. He's gotta be. I mean, he's pulled through way tougher scrapes than this, right?"
"Yeah, he has," Sokka winced. "But not nearly as bad as this. He was lucky enough to live through the duel itself." He sighed. "I know he won't give up easy. He never has and this would be a hell of a time to start. But still..."
"He'll be fine," Toph affirmed. "He's gotta be."
Sokka nodded, trying to convince himself more than them. "Master Pakku said to just...keep talking to him. Sometimes they can hear, even if they can't respond." He swallowed hard. "Katara hasn't moved from his side since we brought him in. I'm just as worried for her. I don't want to think about it any more than you do, but losing him...is something we need to be prepared for."
Aang shook his head, his own eyes welling up a bit in the firelight. "H-He can't... He's got to make it. If he doesn't, she'll..."
Sokka shook his head. "I saw him, Aang. He's dying. You can tell by the look on his face..."
The boy bit his lip for a moment, before venturing next to him and placing a hand on his arm, as though to steady both of them. Sokka pulled him close in a mutually comforting hug, rubbing Aang's back as he buried his face and the small whimpering sobs in the rough wolfskin of Sokka's tunic.
"He'll be so mad at me... He told me not to say anything... I promised I wouldn't..."
Sokka patted his shoulder, fighting to keep his voice even. "It's ok. He still got to defeat Ozai...and if he lives, he owes you his life. He'll understand."
It was a long few minutes before Aang finally calmed down to soft sniffling, and Toph joined them both in a group embrace while Jin stared forlornly into her tea. Sokka himself gazed into the heart of the flames, his own composure barely intact.
You were brilliant. I didn't have to be there to know that. You beat the odds and defeated the most powerful Firebender in the world. I know it's a lot to ask, but...we need you to do it again. To beat the odds stacked against you and come out shining like you always do. Please...come back to us.
We're waiting. The world is waiting...
The first thing she felt upon waking was pain. Blinding, excruciating pain of a calibre she didn't think was possible before this moment. Her hand twitched as she tried to move, despite common sense telling her that probably wasn't such a great idea right about now. She grimaced with the effort, straining to open her eyes.
Another hand, small and cool, pressed her back down to the blankets from the darkness above. "Take it easy, you shouldn't move yet..." The voice was soft, tiny and frightened and yet somehow familiar. She swallowed thickly, venturing the first guess that came to mind.
"Yeah. It's me. Just lay low, okay? You took a hell of a beating out there."
She didn't argue, just murmuring as she settled back down against the pillows. "I'm not dead, right? Being dead wouldn't hurt this much."
She heard Ty Lee's voice falter above her. "No. You're not."
Mai struggled for a bit, finally opening her eyes to see the girl's face, flushed and exhausted and her eyes glazed, the tracks of dried tears running over her cheeks. Her heart shuddered at the thought, that her friend looked like someone who hadn't slept right, if at all, in days.
"How...How long have I been out?"
Ty Lee wiped her face surreptitiously. "J-Just a couple days, but..."
Mai reached up as much as she could, touching her hand. "Please tell me you didn't drive yourself nuts worrying..."
The other girl took that wrist in her trembling fingers, kissing Mai's knuckles, her face reddening as she sniffed hard. "Like hell I didn't. You have any damn clue how close you came to dying? Don't you dare do that to me again!"
Mai swallowed hard, sighing and averting her eyes guiltily. "I'm...I'm sorry. It's over now, though. Right?"
Ty Lee nodded, letting out a shuddering breath. "Yeah. It is. And we won."
Mai smiled weakly. "Then that's all that matters."
She bit her lip. "I wouldn't say all."
Mai arched a brow, questioning. Ty Lee took a deep breath, before leaning down and sealing those trembling lips over hers. Gentle and timid, but still sweet and warm. Mai's initial surprise melted quickly enough, and she groaned softly under the contact, reaching one hand up to the girl's cheek before they each had to part for air.
Ty Lee blushed bright pink, swallowing thickly, though her face was no less serious. "You matter to me."
Mai felt her chest clench at that, but she just smiled wanly. "Well...at least I matter to someone."
"Don't sell yourself short. You've always mattered to people. You just didn't know it until now."
"I'll take your word for it." Mai sighed, looking around the room and noticing the distinct lack of even a cot to sleep on. "Where...Where exactly did you sleep while I've been here?"
The other girl looked away sheepishly. "Mmm. There were chairs. There's this really big comfy one that one of the servants brought me..."
Mai propped herself up a bit, enough to shift over and make some room in the bed. "Come down here, you. And get some proper rest. You know, the way normal people do." She smiled slightly, letting Ty Lee know she was joking about that last part.
Her friend smiled back, settling down against the sheets and snuggling carefully up to her. "Seriously, thank you for coming back. I don't know what I would've done if...if..."
Mai pressed a finger over her lips. "Don't worry about it, okay? It's behind us. It's over."
Ty Lee nodded, nuzzling close and closing her eyes. "I know."
The torches in the room were burning low, casting everything in heavy shadows as she sat up against the headboard above him, watching him sleep. He looked eerily peaceful. The most tranquil she had ever seen him, outside of meditating. He was bared to the waist, his ribs bandaged, another around his head. So still, the rise and fall of his chest the only clue that he was even alive. She held his hand between both of hers as she watched him sleep, firelight playing over the rough skin of his scar. One that would soon be joined by others peppering his chest and arms.
On the table beside his bed lay the empty phial.
She'd guided the magical water down his throat, not knowing what else to do for him other than hope. Maybe pray. Though he hadn't woken, his breathing had become deeper. Easier. As though he was actually asleep rather than merely unconscious and in pain. She squeezed his hand, not wanting to think about Master Pakku's grim prognosis, or even what her own healing skills had told her. Not as Iroh was already going down the list of the scroll Aang had given them, taking care of immediate matters of state as he'd intended.
As he wanted...
The thought that he had been planning for his own death made her viscerally, irrationally angry. Even though she knew it was prudent on his part, to have something in place should he not survive to take the throne, just the mere thought of it made her want to smash things. That wasn't how it worked. He was a hero. And heroes always lived.
Or at least that's what she thought before now. And it wasn't fair. He'd survived through so much. They all had. Was this the ultimate price they had to pay to get peace back to the world? A very bitter part of her wanted to say that if that was the case, peace was simply not worth it. Not if she had to give up everything she held dear in order to achieve it. The part of her whom even the horror she'd seen had yet to ruin knew that was folly. She would lose what she loved eventually if the war was to go on. Perhaps even sooner.
A low groan and the stir of movement interrupted her thoughts, and her heart leapt as she saw his lashes flit and his head move slightly. "Z-...Zuko?" she ventured, her hands tensing.
His eyes struggled open to tine dark slits, and she clenched his hand. "Please, Zuko... Move your hand if you can hear me..."
His fingers tightened on hers, and he struggled to turn his head to face her, groaning again with the effort. His lips moved, trying to speak, but only the most rudimentary of sounds came forth. Eventually his lips worked around the words.
She felt her eyes sting as they had many times tonight. But for an entirely different reason. She reached a hand down to touch his scarred cheek, as the other side of his face was nastily bruised and scratched. "Y-Yeah...I'm here." She swallowed thickly, her lips spreading into a thin smile. "Welcome back."
His eyes closed again with a sigh at that touch, and he squeezed her hand in earnest. "Wh-...Wh'rami?"
"You're at the palace. In your room." Her fingers drifted through his hair, carefully avoiding the bandage. "We won. It's okay. The war...it's over now."
His hand slid up to her wrist, carefully guiding her palm to his chest. She felt blood rise in her cheeks as she touched him, glad for a moment that his eyes were closed again. "I... M'alive...right?"
She nodded. "Yeah. We thought you...but you made it." She sniffed hard. "You're going to be okay now."
He smiled. "You know I'd never...give up without a fight."
"You've fought hard enough," she said. "Go ahead and rest now."
He nodded as much as he could, giving her hand a last squeeze before he slowly drifted off once again. She stayed for a few minutes, before suddenly realizing now that the elixir of worry and stress that had kept her awake for the last three days was wearing off just how exhausted she was. Ready to collapse on his bed in a puddle of relief.
Instead, she laid his hand back down on the bed, carefully pulling herself up and staggering out of the room, grabbing moulding and furniture for support as she hobbled over to the main sitting area. The rest of them had gone to bed, leaving no one at the hearth. She staggered over to the reclining couch, lying down on it and pulling the throw over herself. But as she turned over toward the fire, she startled back a little, not expecting the hazy figure in front of her, sitting on the cushion's edge.
The figure didn't answer. It was a silhouette, but not quite Sokka's shape. Not Aang's, either. Yet somehow familiar, especially as he rested a warm palm on her shoulder. Yet she felt no dip in the cushion where he was sitting. The sensation, mostly that she knew him from somewhere but couldn't pinpoint it due to being so tired and unable to think, made her uneasy. But at the same time, there was an overwhelming sense of safety, of warmth. That she was protected, and that everything really was going to be okay.
It was only as she closed her eyes, in those fuzzy moments before drifting off, that she realized she could see the rest of the room through the young man's form. But she had no time to think more on it before sleep took her under its wing.
"I have to admit," Pakku said, stirring his tea as Iroh set about sorting state documents in the royal study next to the throne room, "you raised one hell of a boy."
Iroh nodded, looking much less ashen once the news came through that Zuko was going to recover. "I may have had a hand in it. But something must be said for his inner fire. Without it, nothing I did would have mattered."
"So...How long do you think until he'll be ready?"
"He should be let out of bed the week's end..."
"That's not what I meant."
Iroh arched a brow. "What, then?"
"The test," Pakku said simply. "You know which one."
Iroh sighed, taking a sip of his own tea. "I'm not sure."
"He'll need to pass if the rest of the White Lotus is ever to get behind him as a ruler."
"I know that. But at the moment...I don't know when he's going to be ready. He's been through so much. Physically, mentally, spiritually... Not to mention all the work that's going to go into rebuilding after this war. He needs some rest first, before we can even think about testing him."
Pakku gave a noncommittal sound. "I know. I just...wanted to make sure you wouldn't forget."
"How on earth could I?"
"You're as good as a father to him. While I've never had children of my own...I know how you think. He's suffered enough, and you want to protect him. It's every good parent's most powerful instinct."
Iroh closed his eyes for a moment. "Yes. But I know that I can't protect him forever. It's hard to watch your child - even if they are yours in no place other than your own head - have to make their own mistakes, and on occasion hurt themselves. But it comes with being a parent; eventually, you have to let go, and let them learn on their own.
"It's the hardest thing a parent can ever do. It hurts to watch them take those first shaky steps, to have to stand back while they fall on their faces and skin their knees. But in the end you'll know that you've done your best, and that no matter how hard they fall, they will be able to get back up because you taught them how... That's when you realize they're no longer walking. They can fly."
Pakku smiled. "I was foolish to have worried. Wisdom has never failed you, and this would be a hell of a time for it to start."
Iroh returned the look, but no less serious. "Oh wisdom has failed me many times. Fortunately, those times have merely been scarce of late."
"And for the sake of everyone, we pray they continue to be."
It wasn't too long after, once under Katara's and Master Pakku's care Zuko's ribs had healed enough that he was at last able to sit up and eat by himself, that Aang found himself standing outside the door of his friend's room, psyching himself up for the last conversation he ever wanted to have.
And if I don't return...take care of her for me...
It was not the words, but how he said them, that made his feelings so painfully obvious. And while Aang himself had come to the conclusion long ago that whatever he felt for Katara was not to be reciprocated, it was in the aftermath of Omashu, while he watched her sleep in Zuko's arms by the fire and come around to her senses, that he knew. And though a part of him was still hurt and wondering what he'd done to ultimately anger the cosmos and make them hate him so much, he knew without a doubt that if anyone was going to have this conversation with Zuko, it would have to be him.
He sucked in a breath, pushing the door open and stepping in.
Zuko was propped up on pillows, looking out to the gray skies as rain drummed against the window. His legs were still covered by the thick blanket despite it being a warm evening, typical for early Spring in the Fire Nation. Though Aang supposed it was more for comfort. He cleared his throat softly, making his friend turn his head with a grimace, which made Aang in turn wince in sympathy.
"Still can't move too far yet, huh?"
Zuko groaned. "It's getting better. But...yeah. My body still kind of hates me."
Aang came over to the bed, settling beside him and adjusting the pillows so he could sit up properly. "Mmm. It's gonna be that way for a while, I think. Though you should be well enough for the coronation provided you behave yourself."
Zuko chuckled. "I haven't been that much of a patient from Hell, have I?" He sighed. "What brings you in here, today? I mean, you look kinda shook up."
He averted his eyes, deciding he'd better take the opening before his resolve evaporated. "It's...It's about Katara."
His ears perked, instantly alert, and there was no mistaking the concern in his voice. "What about her? Is she okay?"
"Yeah," he said quickly, trying not to stammer. "It's...more about you and Katara."
A hot flush dusted his cheeks. "Mmm. Wh-What about us?"
Aang sighed, deciding it was going to be easier on both of them if he just skipped right to the point. "I know how you feel about her. It's no secret." He paused, thoughful. "Well it is to her, but..." He swallowed hard. "You should say something. Let her know."
Zuko looked away, visibly ashamed and awkward. "I'm...not so sure that's such a great idea."
He looked back at the window, stammering and tripping over the words, as though he wasn't quite sure if they were the right ones. "Just because the war's over doesn't mean the danger is. I've probably made more enemies than I had when I was first banished. And with all the cleanup and rebuilding...I can't ask her to get involved in that." He swallowed thickly. "And that's even assuming she feels the same."
"She does," Aang said, his voice muted because he didn't trust himself to speak any louder without it breaking. "She was frantic when we couldn't find you after the battle. I...I told her where you went. I know you made me promise, but..." He held back a sniffle, biting his lip. "Three days, Zuko. She sat here three days, in the exact spot I am, because she was afraid you were going to die."
The other boy's shoulders hunched, as though under a great burden, before he turned back to face him. The look on his face was nothing less than pained. "The way you feel about her isn't exactly a secret, either. I...she knew you first, and as a friend, even. It'd feel like...like I'm stealing her from you..."
Despite the sharp twinge in his chest and the powerful desire to agree, he shook his head. "She was never mine in the first place. I figured that out long ago. This isn't like deciding who gets the last handful of tsampa. You can't call dibs on people's feelings." He covered Zuko's hand with his own. "I want her to be happy. That's all. Even if it's not with me." He paused, smiling wistfully. "And you're my friend, too, yanno. It's not like I wouldn't want to see you happy, either."
Zuko swallowed thickly, looking utterly humbled. "...Thank you."
Aang let out a breath, moving closer and reaching up to hug him. Zuko returned it without even thinking, pulling him close and tight and resting his chin on his shoulder. "I'm sorry..."
"Don't be," Aang said, spiting the tears in his voice. "...I'm not."
He felt the other boy let out a shaky breath. "Then at the very least, I owe you."
Aang shivered, nuzzling carefully into his warm neck. "Just...make her happy, ok? That's all the reparation I could ask for." Zuko nodded, seeming unable to find words.
Not that Aang minded. For now, none were needed.
It was a few days later that Katara found herself in the main kitchen, preparing a tray of rice congee to take to Zuko, along with a cup of Iroh's finest ginseng tea. He was at least able to eat something a little thicker than broth, now, a sign he was getting stronger and possibly over the worst. She ladeled the thin porridge into a bowl, sprinking the top with shaved dried skipjack.
She whirled on one foot, startled, but smiling sheepishly when she saw her father's towering form in the doorway. "Hi. I...figured I'd get Zuko something to eat."
He smiled. "How's he doing?"
"Better. He's not in quite as much agony. And he's starting to get an appetite back..."
He nodded in acknowledgement, coming in to sit at the small table where the servants would normally take their meals. "How are his spirits?"
"Good," she said, trying to keep her voice even but for the life of her not knowing why she was so nervous. "zhe's just bored out of his mind because they won't let him out of bed without help yet."
"Mm. Yeah. I'd imagine being bored also means he's got a lot of thinking to do. He must appreciate you doing so much for him."
She joined him at the table, folding her hands and biting her lip as she fought the rising heat in her cheeks. "What are you getting at, dad?"
"You were at his bedside for three days before he woke up. You didn't eat or sleep. You were a wreck. And now you're running yourself ragged taking care of him, spending every ounce of free time you have in his room. If there's something you need to tell him...don't put it off."
She shook her head, fingers trembling. "There's nothing, ok? He's just my friend..."
"Dad, please. I don't want to talk about this now."
Hakoda reached across the table, covering her trembling hands with his own, which only made the panic in her chest tighter.
"Katara, it's okay. You don't have to deny it."
She shook her head. "It's...It's more complicated than that. He's been through enough. We've been through enough. He's a good friend... We have something special and I really don't want to strain that. It's been difficult enough to get even this close to him, I don't want to make things worse. He doesn't need it right now."
"Why do you think it'd be straining?"
"You're assuming he wants the same. What if he doesn't? It'll just be awkward...we'll never have what we have now. I just...things are good. They're simple. I don't want to complicate it."
Hakoda sighed, taking her hands between his own and thumbing her knuckles. "Something tells me that assumption isn't far off." He was silent for a moment, before continuing. "You remember back at Omashu, when I first arrived after the battle?"
She nodded, biting her lip and willing away the stinging in her eyes.
"When I first met him...he was by the fire, with you. Holding you while you slept and stroking your hair. He was exhausted, and utterly terrified when he realized who I was. But before he knew I was there...he had that look on his face. It's a look I'll never forget the rest of my life, because it was the same look I gave your mother that night at the Moon Dance Festival." His eyes were serious. "Trust me, I know a young man in love when I see one."
She sighed, letting out a shaky breath. "I"m just...scared. Not of being hurt, but of...messing up what I already have. I feel like I'm tempting fate by asking for more..."
Hakoda squeezed her hands. "I know. It's way too easy to feel that way, especially with what you two have been through. But...he almost died. I know he's going to be fine now, but what if he hadn't been?"
She clenched her eyes shut, willing away the strangled sound in her throat. "I don't want to think about it."
"I know you don't. Nobody does. But it's important."
You'd think Jet would've taught you that, her inner voice chided. For a moment, she could swear she felt a warmth on her shoulder, comforting and encouraging. Like a hand, but not.
"I'm not saying you tell him right this minute. Just...don't let fear stop you from doing it at all. You have way too much life ahead of you for that." He paused. "Like I told you before, it's not how we leave this world that's important, but what we do with the time we're given."
She smiled weakly, wiping her eyes. "Yeah. I just...hope I've been given enough."
It took longer than expected. Many weeks of becoming progressively more stable on his healing legs, being able to grab furniture and the arms of his companions for support without looking like it. At least the combined efforts of Katara and Master Pakku had healed his ribs and collarbone so he could breathe without wanting to scream.
But here he was, standing at the grand balcony under his own power. Dressed in deep crimson and gold robes, hair pulled up into a meticulous topknot, with a sprawling crowd of waiting citizens below filling every inch of the Fire Palace's largest courtyard.
Just as the Ferryman had shown him.
He smiled nervously as Iroh stepped up behind him, barerly listening as the Fire Sage beside him recited the traditional blessing, the wishing of long life and good health, of wisdom and righteousness. He responded with memorized lines, all the while his mind on the four companions behind him. Sokka and Katara on either side of Iroh, Aang and Toph flanking them.
It seemed to take forever until finally, Iroh himself fitted the crown headdress over his hair, and a great cheer erupted from the crowd below.
Normally, this would be the point at which the dancing and festivities would begin. Where baijuu would flow freely as the entire nation celebrated until the following sunrise. But this was, of course, no ordinary ceremony. Zuko cleared his throat, and felt the weight of a million pairs of eyes on his shoulders.
"The Hundred Year War has ended. A long and bloody chapter in not just my nation, but our world's history, is finally closed. And with it we can finally begin to rebuild all that we've destroyed. Our homes, our families, our spirits, and our lives. It is going to be a difficult time; of this I'm already aware. Just because the fighting is over does not mean the desire for it is.
"But this is where I tell you that I will make no pretenses. That I take full responsibility for all that my nation and my people have done. All the hurt and horror and pain that we have caused the world in our misguided belief that we were somehow better. I am sorry. And I want to set things right as best I can, to rebuild the trust and harmony that the world enjoyed before the thought of war ever entered anyone's mind."
He swallowed thickly, fighting to keep his voice even. "But I can't do it alone."
"I need you. I need you all in this effort. Not just my own people, but all those in the world still living. I need you to help me put all this horror and bloodshed in the past, and focus on moving forward. To eliminate that which causes war in the first place: poverty, class disparity, fear, insecurity. I need you to work together, to help me ensure the welfare of even the least fortunate among us. So that we can move on, and never again have a need to revisit this dark time."
He bowed his head, legs shaking, and not from weakness. "I can't replace the lives lost. I can't give back the parents, brothers, sisters, sons, or daughters. But I can make restitution for everything else. All that I ask, all that I ever will ask, is your forgiveness. Not for my sake, but for everyone's. Because harboring bitterness and grudges has never and will never beget peace. If we are to coexist and make this era better than the one we're leaving behind, we must let go of the past, and look to the future. It's all we have left."
At the silence, he lifted his head. "And to this, I wish to make my first act as Fire Lord."
He raised his hand, and a pair of soldiers escorted a chained, scowling Azula to the dais in the courtyard's center. He carefully descended the balcony's staircase to meet them, pulling the dagger that Iroh had given him from his sleeve.
The soldiers forced her to her knees, as Zuko held the dagger straight up in front of him. "Princess Azula. The Tribunal has already found you guilty of many crimes war, including but not limited to the murder of civillians, and the wanton destruction of cities, towns and villages, and any devastation not justified by military or civilian necessity. There are many, I know, who would see nothing less than your head on a pike in front of the Palace Gate to serve as an example.
"But giving in to those demands will do nothing but stoke the bloodlust of those you have hurt. It will not correct what you've done, and would even serve to provoke more violence. Revenge is a dish that, whether eaten cold or hot, never truly satisfies.
"But this does not mean you can escape punishment, as you always have. It means that if I am going to make an example of you, it will be one that I actually wish to have imitated. As someone who was in your place once, who has committed acts of his own that he is not proud of and never should be, there is but one way that I think you can ultimately pay for your deeds: by experiencing that which you have caused."
He bent down as best he could, pulling her head up by the topknot, catching her horrified expression for only a moment before slicing through the tightly bound tresses with a vicious slash of the razor-sharp dagger.
She lowered her head again to face the ground, eyes wide and lips trembling. He held the piece of her hair aloft.
"From this day on, you are a princess no more. Nor are you welcome anywhere on Fire Nation soil, or in any territory in which the Fire Nation has sovereignty. If you are seen or captured anywhere in these lands, you will be arrested, and dealt with accordingly under the laws of exile." He looked to the guards. "Take her away."
The two men saluted, dragging her through the crowd, pausing only long enough for her to shoot the glare of an angry viper back at him.
He turned back to face the balcony above. "And with that, I wish to conclude this ceremony with the hopes and dreams of not just those in attendance, but all over the world. We will do this. We will rebuild. We will move on. Today, we celebrate. And we remember all the heroes who have made this day, the end of this war, possible. Go forth, to love and serve each other."
He watched as the guards and the Fire Sage knelt in reverence, everyone on the balcony following suit. Sokka. Toph. Aang. Katara. Iroh. All starting to drop to their knees in unison, in a way that made his chest clench with the definitive knowledge that this was not right. He shook his head, waving his hand to stop them.
"My comrades," he said. "You bow to no one."
He ignored the pain, closing his eyes as he folded to one knee, head down in reverence.
There was a heavy, tense silence. Before the rustle of silk gowns and leather breeches and the scrape of cork soles on marble told him that the entire crowd had taken his lead.
The salty sea air seemed to breathe a life of its own into the bustling port, where the delegations from the Earth Kingdom and Water Tribes who were headed back to their own lands were preparing to depart. She stood at the dock in the same formal blue cheongsam she'd worn at the ceremony, feeling so very very sheepish. Like she didn't belong there. Zuko stood beside her as the dock-workers loaded the provisions and cargo onto the waiting ship, a Water Tribe corsair decked with the banners of Chief Arnook. The ship that would take her back to the North Pole, where she'd promised she would go to finish the training Master Pakku still had in store.
For a fleeting moment, as Zuko's arm circled her bare shoulders, she regretted making such a promise. But she knew, much as she dared not admit it, that Master Pakku finally accepting her as an equal worthy to pass on his knowledge and title to was a dream she'd had long before she'd met and felt things for the young man standing beside her. She could not rescind her decision, she knew, without even greater regret.
"I swear, I miss you already," she said, turning to him. He smiled. That adorable grin that she didn't know whether to smack or kiss off his face.
"I'll come to visit as soon as I get things settled here. I'm sure I can drum some kind of political excuse to drop by."
She chuckled a bit. "I don't doubt it. Just...don't drive yourself too insane, here."
"I'll be fine," he said, rubbing her shoulder. "Up to my neck in work, but fine."
She laughed again, before her face melted into a frown. She still hadn't managed to muster the words to tell him, no matter what her father had said. And now may be the last time she would get the chance. The last time she would see him for God knew how long.
"Katara?" he asked. "Something wrong?"
Don't let fear stop you...
She took a psyching breath. "I...I have something I wanted to tell you. Something I was afraid to say before now because...because I wasn't sure if..." She bit back the rest of it, shaking her head. "But the war's over, and I...I don't when I'll get another chance..."
He licked his lips, and she could practically feel his breathing and pulse chasing her own. "Another chance to what..."
She swallowed thickly, reaching both arms up to the back of her neck and undoing the clasp to her necklace, holding it in her hand and murmuring to him. "It was my mother's...Master Pakku carved it for my grandmother as a betrothal token. It was passed on to my mother, who gave it to me. It's all I have left of her. Wearing it makes me feel like I'm never alone, that she's always there with me no matter what." She looked up at him, smiling despite the stinging in her eyes. "I...want you to have it."
His eyes widened in disbelief as he stammered uselessly, tripping over the words. "W...what? But it's yours! You... I... I can't... Are you sure?"
She pressed it into his hands, clasping them between his own. "I want to be with you, Zuko. Even if I'm so far away."
He just looked at her, dumbfounded, like a man who's just been given the most sought-after revelation of his life and can't decide whether to pinch himself or not because if he's dreaming, he doesn't want it to end. He swallowed hard, running a thumb over the blue stone for a moment, before tucking the necklace into his cloak and pulling her into a tight, desperate embrace. "...Thank you."
"You're welcome," she stammered, nuzzling her cheek against his neck so he wouldn't see the tear on it. He would have none of it, pulling away and lifting her chin on his finger into a firm, needing kiss.
She leaned into it, not caring for anything in that moment but his warmth and closeness and his hand on her cheek. Her fingers slid through his hair, making him moan softly against her lips, the sound and sensation sending a shiver down the length of her body. His arm wrapped around her waist, pulling her in tight against him. As if to memorize the moment.
It could have been minutes or hours before they parted, unable to say anything for a moment, and not just for lack of breath. Though as far as she was concerned, no words were needed. He agreed, settling instead for pressing his forehead to hers and rubbing a second tear from her cheek with his thumb.
With a sharp pang of reluctance she stepped back, finally turning down the path to the waiting ship and ascending the gangway, stepping up beside Master Pakku at the stern. Zuko waved from below as the crew released the moorings, and she smiled through tear-blurred vision as they began to pull away.
Her mentor's arm circled her shoulders, giving them a comforting squeeze as Zuko's figure vanished into the horizon.
END OF BOOK II