CHAPTER 15: DUTY AND HONOR
The next day came to soon, the sun beaming brightly into the large window of Zuko's bedchamber. He and Katara had spent the night wrapped up in each other's arms, crying, laughing, and talking. As long as the night endured, they could remain but the sun rose as it must. A cornflower blue cloudless sky and only mildly hot; a change from the usual searing heat of a Fire Nation summer day. A beautiful day, no, the perfect day for the announcement of the ending of a century long war. But for Zuko and Katara, that perfect sky and the brilliant sunlight only signaled one thing- the last time they would ever be together in this way. They clung tightly to each other until there was no way they could stay in bed any longer. Katara hurried across the hall to the room she was supposed to have been staying in. The laundresses had brought her Water Tribe tunic to her room and she changed out of her Fire Nation robes. Zuko tapped lightly on the door before letting himself in. He was still undressed with only his bandages covering his bare chest. They stared at each other for a few seconds, as if seeing each other for the first time. Then they slowly made their way to one another, as if they feared something bad would happen if they moved quickly. Finally meeting in the middle, hey caught each other in a long embrace. Zuko's chest was aching but he ignored the pain. They kissed each other deeply and then took a step back. A long drawn out goodbye would hurt the most.
"I love you Katara". Katara could feel the tears starting to form but she held them back with sheer willpower. "I love you too, Zuko". "Our lives are taking us on different paths, starting today", said Zuko. Katara nodded. "I know". There was such a heavy sadness in the air. Katara refused to acknowledge it. So did Zuko. "I don't know if I'll ever stop loving you", said Zuko. "But...I think it's best if we act like...nothing ever happened between us". The words nearly choked him as he uttered them. The most traitorous thing he had ever said in his life. The love between them, however short lived was the most real thing there ever was. And yet here he was wanting to deny it. "You're right", said Katara, struggling to keep her tone even. "It's going to hurt us both to act like we weren't...like we didn't...like nothing happened. But it's for the best". Zuko nodded. There was a huge lump in his throat. Life without Katara seemed unimaginable...but he would have to manage it somehow. "Let's promise...never to speak about it", said Katara. Zuko nodded. "I promise". "I promise too", said Katara. Silence. "Well...I guess I should get going", mumbled Zuko. "Okay", said Katara quietly. She held her breath as she watched Zuko turn and head out of the door, forcing herself not to breakdown and cry.
Zuko walked across the hall to his room quickly and closed the door behind him. He leaned against the wall and slid down to the floor, breathing rapidly. He growled and banged his fist on the wall. The worst thing was that he couldn't even be left alone today. The war just ended. He would be crowned Fire Lord. He had every reason to be happy...as far as everyone else knew. He sighed. He would have to put his best foot forward, as was expected of a ruler. He got up and grabbed his robe. The palace was moving from near silence to it's normal bustle and he would have to get ready for his coronation. Outside of his room, he stopped to look out of the huge open windows in the hallway. Rooftops had been singed in his duel with Azula. He made a mental note to start a restoration project on the area surrounding the palace. Azula. (Z) She really lost it yesterday. She was a monster and a terrible sister, but she was still his sister; he couldn't help but feel a little sorry for her. He sighed. Hopefully she would get the help she needed. He pulled on his robe...with some difficulty. He had nearly forgotten about the wound on his chest. Suddenly he felt someone's presence behind him. He turned and was surprised to see Mai standing in the doorway. "Mai! You're okay!". His face lit up.
Complications aside, he was still happy to see her alive and unharmed. Though it was still surprising to see her. He had negotiated the release of war prisoners and inmates charged with petty crimes. Mai had likely been charged with high treason. "They let you out of prison?", he asked as they headed toward each other. "My uncle pulled some strings", she replied cheerily as she helped him with his robes. "And it doesn't hurt that the new Fire Lord is your boyfriend". Zuko couldn't help but be taken aback at that, but his happiness in seeing her overrode that. A million thoughts were running through his head. Her sacrifice. Katara. Kissing Mai. Kissing Katara. The beach with Mai. The beach with Katara. Last night with Katara. (Z) I can't think of her anymore. We promised we would let each other go. He tried hard to banish every thought of Katara. Picnic with Mai. Ordering fruit tarts with Mai. Mai saving his life. "Does this mean you don't hate me anymore?", he asked finally. Mai looked away and blushed for a moment before turning back to him. "I think it means I actually kind of like you", she smiled as she put her arms around his neck and kissed him. As their lips pulled apart, she smiled for a moment before her voice took on a more aggressive tone. "But don't ever break up with me again", she said, jabbing her finger at him. Zuko felt his cheeks go hot and he smiled sheepishly and held her to him. She had no idea that just yesterday he thought he would have married someone else!
Hours later, Katara found her brother in the crowds that were gathering in the coronation square. "Sokka!". "Katara!". The siblings embraced each other hard. "I'm so glad you're okay!", said Katara. "I'm glad you're okay too", said Sokka. "What happened to your leg?", asked Katara eyeing the crutch under his arm. "I fell from an airship", he frowned. "But I'm okay. How was the fight with Azula?". Now Katara frowned. She tried hard not summon images of Zuko on the ground writhing in pain. Zuko in her arms when she healed him. Zuko wrapped around her the night before. She shook her head. "Azula was...off when we got here. Like she was slowly going insane". Sokka looked puzzled and Katara shrugged. "Zuko fought her alone in an Agni Kai and he probably would have beat her fair and square but then she decided to try to attack me". "An Agni Kai? That's a fire duel, right?". Katara nodded. "She forfeit by trying to attack me". Katara looked away to scan the crowd. There were a lot of familiar faces. Most of them were the war prisoners that Zuko had released; the friends and allies they had made that were taken after the invasion plan failed. She looked back at Sokka. "In the end, she shot Zuko with lightning...he's okay now, I healed him and his physician came and bandaged him up", she added noting her brother's concerned face. "I tied Azula up in chains". Katara grimaced. "She was crying and screaming and breathing fire". Sokka whistled. "Wow. So she really cracked". Katara nodded. "How about you?", Katara asked after a pause. "How was it taking out the airship fleet?". "It went well but there was a moment where we thought we'd be goners, Toph and I. Suki saved us". He smiled. "It's funny...when I thought I was gonna die, I only felt sad because I thought I'd never see Suki again. I was wishing so hard that I could see her once last time". Katara gave a weak smile. Her heart was pained as she repressed thinking of Zuko. "You really love her, don't you?". Sokka nodded. "I do". "I'm happy for you", said Katara with a brighter smile. She really was happy for her brother.
"Oh look!", pointed Sokka. "More people are arriving. Maybe dad is with them. They made their way through the crowd, looking around as the new arrivals dispersed to greet their loved ones. Sokka spotted him first. "Dad!" Katara's heart lifted. "Dad". They ran over to him...well Sokka hobbled with his crutch. The three of them caught each other in an embrace. "I heard what you two did", began Hakoda. "I am the proudest father in the world...and your mother would be proud too", he added, causing Katara to shed a tear. Suki appeared with the other Kyoshi Warriors, all decked out in their uniforms and makeup. "There's my favorite warriors!", exclaimed Sokka. "I have to admit I kind of missed the face paint!". He smiled. "So how does it feel to be back in uniform again?". One Kyoshi Warrior burst through to the front. "It feels great!". Sokka rushed over and jumped in front of Suki, thrusting his crutch between her and the other warrior. "Careful Suki! Ty-Lee is pretending to be a Kyoshi Warrior again!". To everyone's surprise, Suki announced that she had actually joined them because she had bonded with them during their time in prison together. Katara couldn't help but giggle at how things turned out.
Inside the palace Zuko headed towards the entrance to the coronation square. An antique store owner in the capital had gracefully given Aang a ceremonial Air Nomad robe for the occasion. Aang sat on the soft velvet rug at the entrance. Zuko hardly knew what to say to Aang. He had grown to like him, even if he was still a little childish and irresponsible. And it grated on him that Katara would end up with him instead. But it had to be said that Aang saved the world...and he did it without killing the former Fire Lord. He was still trying to wrap his mind around the fact that Aang had actually taken his father's bending away. Who even knew that was possible?! Aang definitely had all of the potential in the world to be a great Avatar. "I can't believe a year ago my purpose in life was hunting you down", said Zuko ironically. "And now...", "And now we're friends", Aang finished with a smile. Zuko thought for a moment. 'Yeah. We are friends". Aang stood. "I can't believe a year ago I was still frozen in a block of ice. The world is so different now". Zuko nodded. He walked over and put his arm on Aang's shoulder. "And it's gonna be even more different. We'll rebuild it together". They hugged briefly before Zuko headed out through the red satin curtain with Aang following close behind.
As soon as Zuko stepped outside, one of the Fire Sages rang a gong and Zuko was greeted with thunderous cheers. It was a struggle for Zuko not to think cynically of how once his people had cheered at his death in a play. He held up a hand. "Please! The real hero is the Avatar". He motioned towards Aang, who stepped forward. Katara watched Aang's humble expression with a doting look on her own face. He probably was the sweetest kid in the world. Although she may have wanted something else, staying with Aang, guiding him, and keeping him on track with his duties to the world, was not the worst she could do. And she did love him. Maybe she could grow to love him romantically too. She turned her attention to Zuko as he made his speech. It was a short but powerful speech and afterwards he knelt as the Fire Sages placed the crown in his topknot. He rose as Fire Lord Zuko.
A week later, Team Avatar found themselves back in Ba Sing Se, at the newly re-opened Jasmine Dragon tea shop after a meeting with Earth King Kuei. Zuko was once again serving tea to everyone and Uncle Iroh was displaying his skill on the Tsungi horn. Suki and Mai were engrossed in a game of Pai-sho. Katara was leaning over Mai's shoulder, giving her advice. It was hard, but Katara was trying to befriend her as much as she could to show Zuko her support. Zuko walked over to Katara and handed her a cup and she smiled broadly at him before checking herself. He looked down at the Pai-sho table quickly. He had probably smiled too broadly at her too. It was strange. They both found themselves jumping whenever these things happened. For whatever reason, it always felt like they were being watched although they knew it was just their imaginations getting the best of them. Luckily, Sokka caught everyone's attention. "Zuko! Stop moving! I'm trying to capture the moment", he exclaimed frowning. "I wanted to do a painting so we always remember the good times". Katara smiled and made her way over to him. "That's very thoughtful of you Sokka-", she cut off abruptly and frowned. She leaned in and pointed to what was supposed to be her on the page. "Wait, why did you give me Momo's ears?". Now everyone else wanted to take a look at the so-called piece of art. "Those are your hair loopies", Sokka explained. Katara rolled her eyes. She wasn't even wearing hair loopies now! "At least you don't look like a boarcupine!", exclaimed Zuko. "My hair's not that spikey!". "I look like a man", said Mai. Suki wrinkled her nose up. "Why did you paint me firebending?". "I thought it looked more exciting that way", said Sokka with a shrug. Even Momo seemed to have a criticism! "Oh you think you could do a better job Momo?!", asked Sokka. Aang smiled at seeing his friends enjoying themselves and headed to the balcony. "Hey", said Iroh. "My belly's not that big anymore! I really trimmed down!". Toph threw her hands in the air. 'Well I think you all look perfect!". Everyone laughed at that.
Katara looked around for Aang and noticed him standing outside. The sky was a kaleidoscope of rich pinks and purples and blues. The sounds of merriment from the city below wafted up to the balcony. For the first time in a long time, Aang felt completely at peace. Katara took a breath and walked to meet him. She had made up her mind. It was hard to tell if she was making the right decision. Maybe she just wanted someone because now Zuko had Mai. Maybe somewhere deep down she did love Aang romantically. It was all so unclear, especially with her love for Zuko burning faithfully inside her and her regret for their ended destiny threatening to overwhelm her at any minute. But she decided that she would guide the Avatar. She would stand by Aang as more than just his friend. The night they had gone to see that awful play, she had told him that she would figure things out after the war. Well now that it was "after the war", he had been dropping not so subtle hints urging her to give him an answer. Not just any answer, the answer he wanted. Now she would. She didn't know what would come of it but she was diving headfirst. Telling him that she wanted to be with him wasn't really an option. She didn't know how to say it in words, because it wasn't exactly the truth. But she could show him.
(K) I guess Aang and I are about to figure out what we mean to each other. Just knowing that she was going out there for the purpose of kissing Aang made her cheeks blush red and rosy. Especially because, despite her best efforts, all she could imagine were Zuko's lips. She and Aang just looked at each other for a moment, smiling. She had seen him grow up so much and he had saved the world, just like she knew he would. Now it was up to her to make sure he continued keeping the world safe. The two embraced; a warm hug filled with feeling. He was her best friend after all. They let go and looked out at the city for a moment. Katara readied herself and turned to him. Aang moved his face closer to hers but hesitated. Katara filled the space between their lips quickly and kissed him full on the mouth. Her hand touched his face as the kiss deepened but Katara withdrew it quickly to throw her arms around his neck. With her hand on his face like that she half expected to trace her hand up and feel the rigid skin of a four year old scar. (K) No. I can never think about Zuko again. There can only be Aang. Struggling, Katara tried to release every memory of Zuko. Memories from the past year with Aang flooded through her. All the happy times. The times he made her laugh. Teaching him waterbending. His good nature. His bright smile. Katara smiled in her head. It would take some time, but she would have to grow to love Aang the way he loved her. It was her destiny.