A/N: This is a story that came to me a while ago. It takes a different look at a plot point that has been used quite a bit in the Zutara fics. A point to note, this story takes place thirteen years after the war. A lot of things have changed, some people have died and some have retired. All in all, this is a different world. A note of warning though, Aang wouldn't be cast in a very favorable light here. So if you're an Aang fan, apologies.
Special thanks to my sister, Mammai, for beta reading and helping me make this better.
Broken Hearts and Shattered Breaths
Several loud voices in the hallway distracted Zuko from the report Councilman Sho was giving. He turned his head a little and instantly, his bodyguard Mizu was next to him. "Go check what's the commotion outside."
The man bowed and left, silent as a shadow. Moments later, the doors to the courtroom was thrown open with a loud bang. Several things happened at the same time. Twelve imperial Firebenders flanked Zuko from both sides. The Fire Lord himself stood up and instinctively took up a battle stance. His Generals, Admirals and remaining courtiers had all either lit a flame on their palms or drawn their weapons. The intruder was surrounded before he could take three steps into the courtroom.
However, upon seeing the struggling man amid the guards, Zuko dropped his firebending stance and stood straight. "Guards, let him approach."
The harried man shook off the guards and began to take long, purposeful strides towards the throne. Zuko lowered the raging inferno in front of him and descended the steps to meet his friend. "Sokka of the Southern Water Tribe, this is an unexpected visit."
The formal address jolted Sokka out of whatever trance he was in and for the first time he took in his surroundings. His eyes widened slightly upon realizing how close he had come to being burned on spot, but then his dark face set into a grim line.
"Fire Lord Zuko," he said in a way as though every word he said pained him. "We need to talk. In private."
Seeing the normally jovial and affable warrior so serious and angry, Zuko knew this was serious. He gave his friend a nod and turned to address the court. "Ladies and Gentlemen, I'm afraid we will have to take a break from the proceedings. This is a personal matter. You will all be informed as to when the court will resume."
Without waiting to hear the inevitable complains of his courtiers, Zuko spun on his heels and marched out, motioning Sokka and Iroh to follow him. The trio walked in tense silence to Zuko's chambers, followed at a respectable distance by the imperial guards. Once inside the privacy of his chambers, Zuko turned to look at Sokka.
"What's wrong, Sokka?"
It was as though the words broke a dam in the twenty-nine year old warrior for he crumpled to the floor, sobbing. Zuko shared an alarmed look with his Uncle and crouched next to his friend, now seriously worried. "Sokka, hey, what's wrong? Sokka… look at me. What's going on?"
"Help me, Zuko," Sokka said, his voice trembling. "Help me. Katara is going to die."
It was as though an Earthbender had slammed a rock into his gut. Zuko felt the air leave his lungs in a whoosh. Iroh's gasp of horror sounded like it came from afar.
"What do you mean?" Iroh asked urgently. "What happened? Last I heard, Master Katara was perfectly healthy."
Sokka rubbed tears and snot on his sleeve. Absently, Zuko thought that the warrior looked bizarre crying like that. He also noticed that a clump of hair had come undone from Sokka's wolf tail. Part of him wondered why he was focusing on the mundane when his friend's life was in danger but he couldn't inspect his reaction further for Sokka's next words chilled him to the bone.
"It's not her health. Katara is to face a trial. She's been charged with adultery."
"What rubbish?" Zuko roared, sparks flying out of his mouth. "That's preposterous!"
"It gets worse," Sokka whispered, his head lowered.
Zuko shot up to his feet and began pacing, his hands trembling with rage. How could they accuse her of something so… so immoral? So dishonorable? "How can it possibly get worse?" He asked through gritted teeth.
Sokka looked up at him and with a sinking feeling in his stomach, Zuko knew. Sokka's words only confirmed his worst suspicion. "They think she had an extra-marital affair with you."
Zuko stood staring at his friend on the floor, his brain refusing to comprehend what he was hearing. He felt like he was falling from a cliff, with nothing to break his fall. It was only when Iroh placed a hand on his shoulder that the buzzing in his mind cleared. He looked from Sokka to his Uncle and back to Sokka. He opened and closed his mouth several times, but nothing came out. Finally, his voice caught up with the rest of him. And with it, came desperation.
"That's… that's insane. Sokka, Uncle, you have to believe me, this is... ridiculous. There's n-nothing going on between us, nothing. There was never anything. This is all just… this is… No. I would… we would never do something like this. I haven't even spoken to Katara since… since Aang died. I… I wrote to her maybe twice since then and she didn't even respond. I… we… this is… Agni!" He ran his hand through his hair, trying to rein in his incoherent mess of thoughts.
Iroh, however, seemed to have composed himself. His brows were knit into a tight frown as he appeared to be thinking something deeply. "What about the crystal catacombs in Ba Sing Se?"
Zuko spun to face his Uncle, his face scrunched in confusion. "What about them?"
"What happened there while you were with Master Katara?" Iroh pressed.
"Nothing!" Zuko threw his arms in the air. "And that was over a decade ago. I can't believe that you're bringing all of that up now."
"Zuko," Sokka's broken, low voice caught his attention. "I know. I know you wouldn't do something like that. I'm sure of it. And that's why I have come to you. Her trial is on the full moon. And if she's found guilty, she'll be killed. Help me, Zuko. You're the only one who can."
Even in the frozen tundra of the poles, Zuko had never felt his fingers go as cold as they were at that moment. His hands trembled as he reached up to pinch the bridge of his nose. His breath came out in short bursts, and his heart thudded so loudly in his chest, he felt that everyone in the palace could hear it.
"Zuko," Sokka called tentatively. "You will come with me, right?"
Zuko looked at Sokka. It took an enormous amount of effort for him to pull out his words. "Of course."
He shook his head, trying to think what his next course of action should be. The monarch in him took over, and he reacted purely on instinct, his voice measured and clipped. "Uncle, I need you to take over the duties of the Fire Lord for the duration I am away. Sokka, I would need an hour, at the most, to gather my belongings and get ready for the journey. Meanwhile, please do have something to eat."
Clapping his hands, he summoned his chief bodyguard. "Mizu, I'm leaving for the Northern Water Tribe urgently. I need a warplane fueled and ready. And my retinue as well, in less than an hour."
The man bowed crisply and walked out. With that done, the monarch slipped away and Zuko took over yet again. At that moment, he felt much older than his thirty years. "Uncle, I don't have time to meet Izumi…"
"Don't worry, Zuko," Iroh said. "I will take care of her. You go. Save Master Katara."