In Which a New Journey Begins
Zuko wasn't sure what help he had expected the spirits to give to Aang. Seeing the boy fuse with the Ocean Spirit and become a giant, glowing thing certainly hadn't been on the list. He watched in awe as the huge creature, which Sokka had dubbed Koizilla, swept the Fire Nation soldiers who'd made it inside the city up into its watery grasp and pushed them all right back to the shore. Only then, only once the soldiers were scrambling back to their ships, did Aang warn that the Fire Nation navy would be destroyed if they didn't retreat.
"Leave now and don't come back!" Aang ordered in a voice layered with a thousand other Avatars. "This battle is over!"
One of the ships dared to shoot a fiery projectile at Koizilla with one of its catapults. The lump of burning rock passed right through the creature and was stopped by a group of waterbenders who had been perched on what was left of the wall. Koizilla, in turn, used one massive, watery arm to ram the ship and almost flipped it right over. The other ships surrounding the damaged vessel lurched and swayed dangerously as waves rippled out from the impact. Zuko swallowed and balled his hands into fists.
"Surrender," he murmured. "You can't win against this. You'll all be crushed."
There was an eerie silence. A hush of held breaths. He knew that those who did not have the power to decide were awaiting their orders. His own sister would be the one to make the final call. Zuko exhaled in relief as a streak of blue flames shot straight up into the air from one of the ships. Soon, there were hundreds of the harmless blasts brightening the night sky. It was the call for retreat.
"They're leaving," Katara said, coming to stand next to him on the long bridge. "It's finally over."
Her brow furrowed.
"It's not over," he explained. "My sister isn't foolish enough to lead the entire navy to their death, but it's not over. This war won't end until my father and all the hatred he's spread is stopped."
Sokka gripped his shoulder. "And that's what we're gonna make happen. We're all in this together."
"He's right," Uncle said, now mercifully clothed in Water Tribe furs. "This will not be a struggle you will have to fight alone."
"Does that mean you'll be joining us, Teapot Man?" Sokka asked with a quirk of his lips.
Zuko elbowed him in the ribs. "Show some respect. That's my uncle you're talking to."
Uncle let out a good-natured chuckle. "It's alright, Nephew. I'm aware I've probably made quite the, uh, impression on your friends throughout our journey together."
"Pretty much," Sokka said. "I mean, you were a teapot the whole time until you became the naked, lightning direction man."
Katara whacked him on the head.
"Ow." Sokka rubbed the spot where she had hit.
"Don't mind my brother," she said, smiling up at Uncle. "We'll be honoured to have you join us."
Uncle bowed to her. "Miss Katara, the honour is mine. I am grateful to all of you for looking after my nephew so well."
Zuko's cheeks heated. "Uncle, please."
Now he was getting embarrassed. It didn't help that Sokka kept ribbing him or that he could see Tomoki and Jee watching in amusement from out of the corner of his eye.
"I guess this will soon be goodbye then."
Everyone turned at the sound of Yue's voice. She was trying to smile, but it was obvious that the expression was strained and her voice was tinged with sadness.
Sokka moved closer to her. "Hey, it's not really goodbye. I mean, we do have to leave so Aang can keep learning the elements and defeat the Fire Lord and all, but I—we'll be back to visit."
"Right," she said, lowering her head. "You'll visit."
Zuko nudged his uncle and Katara. "We should give them some space," he said in a voice low enough so only they could hear.
Uncle glanced from Yue to the equally subdued Sokka. "Ah," he said, eyes lighting up in understanding. "Indeed."
The three moved farther down the bridge with Jee and Tomoki. Both firebenders had gone back to watching the retreating ships and wondering aloud about what had happened to the rest of the crew. Zuko had since learned that Azula had interrogated all of them during her investigation. The crew had offered her plenty of speculation about Zuko and Iroh's whereabouts, but none of them—not even Jee or Tomoki who had actually witnessed the shirshu incident—had said anything that would have led her to believe there had been any betrayal.
"We followed you for almost three years while you chased the Avatar," Jee had said when asked why they had kept silent. "To see you fight to protect him didn't make any sense." Then Jee had shrugged. "We were curious. We wanted to know what had changed."
That was why Tomoki and Jee had agreed to accompany Azula after Zhao had forced them to join the invasion force. Perhaps she had sensed they were holding something back from her, perhaps she just got a twisted sort of delight in using Zuko's own crew to search for him. Either way, the fact remained that the two men had chosen to follow their prince in the end.
"What are you thinking?" Katara asked, brushing his side as she moved closer.
He leaned his elbows on the rampart. "Don't really know."
A lot had happened in such a small space of time. It was difficult to get his thoughts or feelings straight. A part of him was filled with immense relief. The curse was broken, his uncle was back, and the battle for the Northern Water Tribe had ended with much less casualties than there could have been. But he was also burdened with the knowledge that there was no going back from tonight. To fix the mess his great-grandfather Sozin had created—and which his grandfather and father had done nothing to mitigate—Zuko would have to keep fighting his own nation. It hurt. Knowing that his own family had become his enemy hurt.
His fingers dug into his palms as he stared at the wreckage caused to the city and then out to the ocean beyond. Koizilla was still standing guard in front of the city walls like a glowing beacon in the night, but it was the ships that drew Zuko's attention. Somewhere on one of those metal vessels, his sister was probably stewing and thinking up new plans of attack. Eventually, they would have to face each other again. Eventually, Zuko would have to face his father as well.
"Hey." Katara placed her hand over his.
He glanced down at her. The moon was full and bright enough tonight that he could see her features clearly, including the smile that curved her lips.
"Come with me," she said.
He didn't protest as she tugged him away from the rampart. Tomoki began to ask where they were going. (Yue, as they all knew, had warned they shouldn't stray too far from each other until she could smooth over with her father the sudden appearance of three new firebenders.) An elbow to the gut from Jee had Tomoki fall silent. Uncle just smiled knowingly at them before drawing both men into conversation. The whole thing was about as subtle as a rock to the face. Zuko felt his cheeks warm. Ugh. Now he felt all self-conscious.
"Come on." Katara tugged on his hand again.
He did his best to ignore his uncle and crew as he let her lead him away from the bridge and into the adjoining courtyard. The area was open to the sky and rimmed with icy pillars. A fountain trickled softly in the centre. Still, the only thing he noticed was that he and Katara were now out of sight from the others and there was no one else around. Also, his cheeks felt frustratingly warm. Worse, his palms were beginning to turn a bit sweaty. Oh no. What if she could feel it? Was that gross? Should he pull his hand away?
"Finally," she murmured. "I wasn't sure when we'd get a chance to be alone."
His heart sped up. He made a sound that was supposed to be intelligent words of agreement, but it came out more like a grunt. That was embarrassing. His tongue felt like knots. Why was he even getting so nervous? It was just Katara. Katara who looked really pretty in the moonlight. There was also the fact that he wasn't in a child's body anymore and she had actually brought him here so they could have some privacy.
Zuko swallowed and dared to meet her eyes. She was smiling in that way that made him feel like all the breath had vanished from his lungs. He wished he could have been confident and said something smooth, something that wouldn't make him look like an inexperienced idiot, but all he managed was to stammer out a few "uhs" and "ums" before he gave up and picked an easier topic.
"Your bending got really good," he said. "I mean, you were kind of amazing back there."
"Thanks." She swung his hand a little, apparently not minding the clammy imprint of his nerves. "Master Pakku said I've advanced more quickly than any pupil he's ever trained."
"No surprise. I still can't get over what you managed to teach yourself with just that scroll."
She laughed and tugged him closer. "Zuko, much as I appreciate the flattery, I didn't bring you here so we could talk about my bending."
His heart was definitely pounding now. It was a wonder she couldn't hear it. "Oh?"
He repressed a wince. Yeah, real intelligent. Just say oh.
Katara's smile widened. "Don't tell me you've forgotten?"
He didn't trust himself to speak. Not that it mattered. She was already leaning up on her tiptoes, her free hand curling around the back of his neck. Their breath intermingled. He could feel the warmth of her like an invisible caress, so, so close.
"I like to keep my promises as well," she whispered.
Their lips touched. Zuko's eyelashes fluttered shut. Kissing her was nice. Her lips were soft and it felt even better when he tried pressing his mouth to hers from a different angle. Ah, so that was how this kissing business worked. It was less a mashing of lips and more like, well, just letting go and seeing where instinct took him.
Katara pulled back from the kiss and smiled up at him. Somehow, his arm had found its way around her waist. His pulse was also a fluttery mess and he'd completely given up on his heart beating normally, but that was fine. He thought he could handle these side-effects.
"I've been wanting to do that for the longest time," Katara admitted.
His mouth twitched. "You're telling me."
She smoothed her thumb along his cheek, the side that used to be scarred. "I want you to promise me something else, okay?"
His brow creased. "What?"
"Don't get turned into a kid again. Seriously."
He laughed and drew her closer by the arm he still had wrapped around her waist. "Believe me, I don't plan to."
Then he kissed her again. And it was really, really nice.
The mood in the Northern Water Tribe was an odd mixture of sombreness and cheer. It was inevitable that there had been deaths and many injuries after two days of fighting with the Fire Nation. Still, people were much friendlier towards Zuko. Only a few die hard grumblers seemed to mind Uncle, Jee and Tomoki's presence as well. The four had Yue to thank for that. True to her word, she had told her father, who had in turn told the council and the rest of the tribe, about how all of the firebenders had helped to defend the city. Chief Arnook had been especially grateful.
"I thought I was going to lose my daughter," Arnook confessed. "The spirits gave me a vision when Yue was born, but perhaps that destiny no longer has to be hers."
"Destiny?" Zuko said.
Arnook smiled in a sad way. "I saw her as the young woman she is now. She sacrificed her life to become the Moon Spirit."
Zuko's breath caught. He glanced across the plaza to where Yue was talking with Katara. Suddenly, the words she had told him no longer seemed so strange.
"I don't know how or why. I just know that our paths were meant to cross. Like my life is tied to you somehow."
He exhaled and turned back to the chief. "I can't take credit for that. You should really be thanking Katara and Sokka. They're the ones who defended the spirits from Zhao."
Even Azula had played a part, strange as it was. But perhaps it wasn't about who had fought or who had been the most persuasive. Perhaps things just would have gone differently had he not been involved. Perhaps that was why the spirits had allowed Yue to feel a connection to him. He guessed he would never know.
Arnook met his gaze. "Regardless, I am grateful. I'm sorry I did not tell you earlier about the Spirit Oasis. Master Pakku was right. I should have trusted you more."
Zuko didn't know how to respond to that, so he bowed and murmured the expected words he might have said back in the Fire Nation palace. The chief left him after that to go speak with Yue. Zuko found his gaze drifting around the plaza: first to where Master Pakku and Uncle sat huddled together like old friends, then over to where Sokka, Tomoki and a few other Water Tribesmen were talking and laughing about something. Jee lingered near the group looking a bit standoffish and wary, but he was soon dragged into the conversation as well.
"It's great, isn't it?"
Zuko glanced to his left to find Aang standing next to him. "What's great?"
"Everyone getting along. People from different nations being friends." Aang beamed and clasped his hands behind his head. "This is how it's meant to be."
Aang bumped him with his elbow. "C'mon then."
"Let's go join them."
Before he could respond, he was getting dragged off to where Sokka and the others were. It was kind of awkward—being social, just trying to make nice. He'd got used to being around Aang, Sokka and Katara, but dealing with other people still made him feel like he was standing on the wrong foot. Still, he found that he didn't mind. Aang was right: this was how things were meant to be. Then he noticed that Sokka was looking especially pleased about something.
"What's got you looking so happy?" Zuko asked.
Sokka picked up his cup of drink. "Don't know what you're talking about."
Katara came up behind her brother. "I think I can guess. Yue just told me the news."
"What?" Zuko said.
"Hahn," the siblings said in unison.
Zuko's brow creased.
"He's the guy who's engaged to Yue," Sokka explained. "Total jerk. Thought himself the best thing since seal jerky. He, uh, also went missing during the battle. I was just thinking it'd be such a shame if he didn't come back …"
"That's cold," Zuko said, raising his eyebrow.
"Hey, I'm not saying I wish the guy was dead." Sokka paused. "Okay, I kind of am, but you don't know him like I do."
Zuko shook his head, but decided not to press the issue. Everyone knew how much Sokka liked Yue. It wasn't as if Zuko could judge anyway. He'd probably have felt the same if their positions were reversed.
Katara shifted to take the seat next to Zuko and leaned against him. His cheeks warmed a little at the closeness. Not that he was complaining. In fact, he was quite happy to have her snuggled against him. It was Uncle's unsubtle wink that was more embarrassing. Still, at least he knew his uncle approved of his relationship with Katara. He could live with being teased a little.
Eventually, the impromptu feast began to die down. People were exhausted and had already fallen asleep on benches in the plaza. Aang was sprawled on Appa in the far end with Momo asleep on his stomach. Zuko was just beginning to doze off when he felt a light tap on his shoulder. He blinked and scrubbed a hand over his face before looking up to see his uncle.
"Walk with me for a bit," Uncle said.
Zuko carefully eased himself away from Katara and stood up. They weaved their way through the crowd and ended up on one of the balconies that overlooked the city.
"Destiny is a funny thing."
"Hrm?" Zuko looked at his uncle with a faint crease on his brow. Those weren't exactly normal words for starting a conversation. "What do you mean?"
"I had always hoped that one day you would see that following your father was not the right path for you." A wry smile curved his mouth. "To be honest, I thought I would be the one to guide you. I joined you on your banishment so I could show you there was another way, but it seems like you never needed my help. You found your way all on your own."
"That's not true. You taught me a lot." Zuko lowered his gaze. "I'm just sorry I didn't realise sooner what you were trying to tell me."
"There is no point in clinging to past regrets. Besides, you have apologised enough. I heard everything when you guided my soul here."
Uncle nodded. "It pained me that I couldn't respond."
Zuko bit his lip and looked the other way. His cheeks felt a bit too warm. Much as he had meant every word that he had said to his uncle while walking through Death's Blindfold, it did leave him feeling kind of exposed. He'd bared a lot more of his heart than was comfortable.
"Nephew." Uncle was smiling. "You don't need to look so embarrassed. This old man was greatly touched by your words." He placed his hand on Zuko's shoulder. "I've never told you this, but, well, ever since I lost my son, I have thought of you as my own."
Zuko let out a breath. So, that's how it was. A part of him had always wondered, but now it made sense why Uncle had been willing to put up with his bad temper and all his obsessing over capturing the Avatar.
"Truly," Uncle murmured, "I am so proud of you."
Zuko knew the hug was coming and didn't resist. He was still too shy to say the words aloud, but he hoped his uncle was able to understand his feelings through the embrace. Zuko loved his uncle. Over the years, there had been many times when he had wished that Uncle could have been his father instead, but that had always felt like a betrayal. A weakness. Now Zuko didn't have to feel guilty.
"I've missed you," Zuko said quietly.
Uncle hugged him tighter. "As have I missed you. Thank you for bringing me back." A low chuckle. "I must say, much as I enjoy a good cup of tea, I would rather not spend my days as a teapot while my soul is trapped in the Spirit World."
Zuko's mouth twitched and he pulled back from the embrace. "Well, I hope this experience has taught you something then."
"Uncle, you've really got to curb your shopping habits. You know none of this would have happened if you'd just listened to me and not gone looking for junk."
"My purchases were not junk. Besides, it's like I said, my nephew: destiny is a funny thing. Perhaps I was always meant to, uh, become a teapot and—"
"I can't believe you're trying to justify this!"
"But just think about what—"
Iroh let out another chuckle. Even Zuko found himself smiling after a moment. Many things had changed since the day they had got cursed and had been separated, but it seemed like some things would always be the same. Somehow, the thought wasn't such a bad thing. They'd probably still bicker and nag at each other, but at least they were together again.
Zuko was about to speak when the scenery changed. He found himself in a far too familiar swamp and listening to a far too familiar voice.
"Well, princeling, what have you got to say?"
Zuko spun around to see the frog spirit sprawled on a log. "Xiwang!"
"The one and only." The frog was smoking his usual pipe and blew a cloud of smoke towards the treetops. "So?"
"Aren't you going to thank me?"
Zuko's eyes narrowed. Then he sighed and forced the tension from his shoulders. "Thank you, I guess."
"Always so grudging. Need I remind you that I don't go out of my way to help humans? You should be bowing on your knees and showering me with gratitude."
"Yeah, that isn't going to happen. I'm pretty sure the only reason you helped me and Uncle was because you got ordered to, right?"
Xiwang shrugged. "True enough. Some of the higher ups weren't so happy when they found out you and the old man had got trapped in one of my curses. Kept moaning about destiny and the Avatar and how I'd ruined everything." He waved his pipe in a manner that was almost reminiscent of Sokka at his most defensive. "But let me ask you this, kid. How am I supposed to keep track of all my cursed objects and all the foolish humans who get their hands on them, eh? How?"
"Uh, maybe just stop creating cursed objects."
The frog snorted. "Please, there's no fun in that."
Zuko rolled his eyes. "Then I guess you'll have to figure it out on your own."
He glanced around the swamp and found no gateway that offered an escape. It looked as if this was more of a dreamscape, much like the time when Xiwang had brought him to the swamp to give him the beans. Great, so he couldn't leave on his own.
"Anyway," Zuko said, "I'm kind of tired, so if you could just let me go back to—"
"You'll be returned when I'm ready. Don't be so hasty."
Zuko gritted his teeth. Annoying frog. "Fine. Then what do you want? The curse has been broken. Everything is sorted now. So what is there left to say? Isn't it the Avatar's job to deal with the spirits?"
"Hey, bub, you've been spirit-touched now. That means a part of you will always be connected to this world."
"Great." Zuko's voice was drier than a desert. "I can't contain my enthusiasm."
Xiwang actually smiled. "Look, I don't plan on meddling in your life anymore if that's what you're worried about. The higher ups would just get grumpy again."
Zuko almost sighed with relief.
"Truth is, I'm here on behalf of my gran," Xiwang admitted.
"She's the one you really need to thank. It's she who grants the real wishes out of the two of us. She fixed everything all up for you—gave me the advice to pass on, looked into ways to get your destiny back on track." The frog looked him up and down. "Personally, I still think you're just a human brat, but Gran seemed to think you earned it. She's into the whole learn by suffering thing."
Zuko's brow furrowed. A suspicion was beginning to take root. "Your, uh, gran wouldn't happen to be the spirit I met inside the Fields of Between, would she?"
The frog spirit smiled. "Got it in one. Anyway, be sure to show your respect. Give her a proper offering. She hands out favours even less than I do, so you better count yourself lucky."
"I … I'll be sure to do that."
"You'd better give me an offering, too. I like pickled cucumbers, marbles, and very small teacups."
Zuko scrunched his nose. "Uh, okay." He didn't like the idea of giving anything to Xiwang, but better to just appease the spirit to shut him up. "So, can I go now?"
"Yeah, sure." Xiwang waved a hand. "I'm sick of looking at your face anyway."
Before Zuko could respond, he was back to standing on the balcony near the plaza. His uncle was also frowning at him.
"Is everything okay, Nephew?"
Zuko blinked and reoriented himself. "Sure. Uh, do you happen to know where I could get pickled cucumbers, marbles and some tiny teacups?"
Uncle's eyebrows disappeared into his hairline. "I didn't realise you were interested in such things."
"It's for an offering. Xiwang's request. He just spoke to me."
"I see." Iroh stroked his beard. "Well, if we went back to that market where—"
"Ugh, never mind."
Zuko headed towards the plaza. He didn't plan on going shopping with his uncle any time soon. In fact, he was really going to have to keep an eye on his uncle whenever they ventured near markets. He'd rather not get cursed a second time. Once was more than enough.
Yay, we have reached the end!
For those who were hoping for a sequel, I'm afraid you will be disappointed. However, as some of you know from PMs we have exchanged, I do plan to write a companion collection of one-shots. These one-shots will feature various "missing scenes" from other characters' perspectives, as well as some future events. I might even do a pre-story one-shot about the time Zuko first visited the Northern Air Temple with his "brothers" if I'm super inspired. I won't be following a particular update schedule, so they'll just get written when I'm in the mood.
In any case, I hope you have enjoyed the story! Big thanks to everyone who reviewed! I loved reading all your comments!