Hello my lovelies! Yup, this is it, this is happening...THIRD BOOK IS OFFICIALLY STARTED.
I hope you enjoy! I'm doing a new thing with this story, in that each chapter will be inspired by a song from my Youtube playlist (see last chapter of Earth:Bring it Down for details).
Song Inspiration: This first chapter (and the title) are inspired by the song "Fear of the Water" by SYML.
Author Warning: be warned, this story has a M rating for a reason. I'm delving into some more mature material this Book, such as mental illness, violence and some sexual stuff (I'll warn y'all ahead of time, don't worry!). I don't want to be afraid to push the boundaries, because this Book is more challenging and emotional for our beloved characters and I refuse to shy away from the pain and sadness that awaits us. It will still contain the fluff and humor of the original series, but yeah...shit is getting real and I hope you all stick with me!
This is BOOK 3 in the series, so if you're new here...you know what to do =P
If you like it and want more ASAP...
Fire: Take A Breath
a Avatar: The Last Airbender fanfic
Chapter 1: Last To Know
Dakota tried to convince herself that she didn't feel the chill of the night from her position on the ship's watch post. Sneaking out of the healer's cabin after dark and sequestering herself while wearing nothing but a thin dress and thick bandages around her wrists wasn't smart, not by a long shot, but her mind was so many miles away that basic comforts didn't seem all that important.
Had the gyspy healers known she was awake when they started speaking just outside her door?
The burns on her wrists stung terribly. Dakota forced herself to examine the bone-pale bandages in the dim light of the moon, forced herself to swallow back the bitterness.
No matter where she went, no matter how hard she tried to forget about it, Azula's mark would always be there. Not just in her thoughts and nightmares but on her skin.
"The scouts got back a few days ago with news from the Fire Nation…"
Dakota bent forward to cradle her head between her knees. A crisp breeze blew, then, and it felt like ice against the exposed skin of her neck. Her stomach rolled and churned uncomfortably.
Maybe she should stop fighting the urge to vomit. Doing so would be a welcome distraction—albeit a temporary and unpleasant one.
"The prince was the one who…who killed the Avatar, wasn't he?"
She couldn't breathe properly, her heartbeat speeding up and her body tensing in preparation for battle against an enemy she couldn't see. Hopes and fears battered the walls of her brain until all that reached her was the thick rasping sound of of her breaths.
It couldn't be true. It couldn't be true that Zuko, her Zuko, had—
"Yeah. Shot him with lightning when his back was turned."
Dakota shoved a fist into her mouth to muffle the sob that escaped her throat. She wouldn't let anyone know that she had cried; she couldn't let anyone know because that would make the gypsy clans think that she was on his side. It would make them doubt her loyalties even more than they already did.
The red shell necklace she wore guaranteed sanctuary, not trust.
She wasn't stupid enough to imagine that she wasn't a prisoner—yeah, they would totally let the girl who lied to the gyspies about her origins and traveled with the infamous Fire Nation prince for more than half a year just walk away!
The Lelino Chief's ship was her cell and the waters that stretched for hundreds of miles in each direction were the immovable bars that stood between her and freedom.
Dakota sucked in a shaky breath as she stared down at the smooth darkness of the sea. It felt like a lifetime ago that the ocean had glowed electric-blue and dragged her under. Zuko's desperate shouts hadn't echoed underwater like they did in the earthen chamber under Ba Sing Se.
The Avatar was dead. Gentle, young Aang—the only hope for defeating the Fire Nation—was gone and Zuko was the cause. Dakota must have done something, must have changed something, because Aang hadn't died in the original series; Henry would have told everyone within hearing distance if he had.
The war was lost and it was all Dakota's fault. She shouldn't have stayed with Zuko and Iroh. She should have stayed far away from the main characters of the story.
And now, thanks to her choice, an innocent boy was dead.
It would have been painful enough if Zuko had simply decided to leave with Azula and return home to the Fire Nation—it would have gutted her but she would have understood it—but he had taken it a step further. She had done something by befriending Zuko, something terrible.
The longer she remained in this world, the more she poisoned it.
Dakota blinked back tears as she pushed herself to her feet and staggered to the edge of the platform. The barrier was low enough for her to swing her legs over and have a clear view of the ocean directly below. The cold didn't reach her anymore; a wild, panicky hope took its place as she sat herself on the precarious railing.
Maybe the only way for the timeline to resume its usual course was to take herself out of it. Aang would still be dead—that was too late to change—but what if her being gone removed the foreign influence and gave this world a chance to find its happy ending?
What if the glowing river back home had been waiting for something else, someone else? Had she ruined any chance of the show following its intended path by giving in to her curiosity and touching it?
Iroh told her that she had been placed in their path for a reason; that fate was impossible to fight.
He had also advised her to follow her heart, but her heart felt broken. It ached with every breath because Zuko had left her. Sure, he didn't know that Azula had intended to kill her and that Mai had watched it happen, but he had still made the decision to walk away. The reason for his leaving didn't even matter because after all of it he chose to kill Aang, chose to leave Iroh to rot in a dungeon like some sort of criminal.
Dakota didn't know if she could trust what her heart was saying because even after all that had happened, it urged her to believe in Zuko.
Her fingers tightened around the railing as her lower half inched closer to the edge.
She wouldn't be scared this time.
A deep breath, and then—
Her eyes snapped opened and she jerked around to see little Maya stepping onto the watch-post. The tension behind Dakota's forced smile must have showed because the girl didn't smile back right away.
Dakota cleared her throat. "What are you doing up here so late?"
"Are you okay?" Maya asked, honey-brown gaze flickering to the ocean before returning to its original target. The older girl quickly swung her legs back to the platform before replying.
"Just had some trouble sleeping, that's all."
Maya relaxed as soon as Dakota was facing her—a flash of guilt sparked at the sight of the worry etched across the young child's face.
She isn't wrong to worry, a small voice slithered from the back of her mind.
"Do they hurt?" Maya inquired as she approached, nodding to Dakota's heavily bandaged wrists. A fresh wave of self loathing washed over her at the sight of them, along with glimpses of Azula's rage-filled eyes and the delighted twist to her perfectly painted mouth as she lunged forward—
"A lot," Dakota bit out. She probably should have sugarcoated it a bit, at least for Maya, but the lingering anxiety she felt didn't lend itself to responding rationally.
"I'm sorry," the gypsy child quietly replied. Dakota shrugged, looking back at the sea in order to escape the rising melancholy in the air. The rasp of the water against the sides of the boat seemed a bit too loud, now. She grimaced as her wrists throbbed. It was too soon for her to be putting weight on them, or so the healers said.
"Don't be," Dakota muttered, unsure of what else to say.
Things had been easier when she had first come to them, hidden under the disguise of someone else. Maya had loved the idea of a playmate that she could introduce to the gypsy way of life and Tali had clearly enjoyed mothering the girl who had seemingly lost so much. But now, with all pretenses ripped away and the truth an ugly weight in the air, Dakota was unsure of where she stood.
"Mama will be back from the big trading mission tomorrow," Maya suddenly announced, leaning next to Dakota and twiddling the end of a braid between her fingers.
"Is that a good thing?" Dakota asked, trying and failing to inject some teasing into her voice.
"Mama's one of the best healers—besides Luka, anyway. She'll know what to do to make your wrists stop hurting," the gypsy explained, her eyes unwaveringly earnest. The honest concern in the child's voice made Dakota's throat swell with unexpected emotion.
"I doubt that either of them would want to help me," came out of her mouth before she could stop and consider the words.
Maya's brow furrowed. "Why not? You helped us!"
Dakota scoffed. "I helped Luka push one boat. I hardly—"
"You saved me and you helped rescue Papa!" Maya interrupted with a scowl. "And even if you hadn't done that, you're one of us!" she impatiently declared, reaching forward to tap at Dakota's red shell necklace as well as the three pearls nestled at the base of her throat.
Dakota flinched at the girl's sudden movement, immediately embarrassed by how easily she was pulled back to her time in the Ba Sing Se prison—someone harmlessly reaching for her left Dakota gasping and her heart thudding painfully fast. Maya was innocently ignorant of her reaction in the way only children can be; too busy proving her point to be aware of much else.
Dakota closed her eyes and sucked in several deep breaths. When she opened them, Maya was staring at her still. Her gaze was both very young and very old all at once.
"I don't want you to hurt," Maya said, and her voice broke a bit at that. Her gaze went back to the spot where Dakota had been sitting just a few minutes before. Then, very suddenly, she flung herself into Dakota's arms.
Maya was a bit taller than she had been the last time Dakota had held her like this, but the eagerness to cling to comfort was the same. Careful not to jostle her wrists, Dakota put her arms around the girl and rested her chin atop the girl's head.
Even in the midst of such an embrace her gaze was drawn to the dark depths of the ocean. It continued to sway and shift with the currents, tempting in a way that should have scared her.
Dakota hastily closed her eyes and hid her face in Maya's braids.
Zuko stared numbly down at Fire Nation citizens chanting his name, trying his best to smile. It felt forced, though, and so he soon abandoned the effort. Why bother smiling when the people below were so far away that they couldn't even see it?
His hands tightened around the balcony's gold-plated railing as he sucked in a deep breath. The air smelled of ash and spice; a unique blend of scents that only the Fire Nation Capital possessed and one that should have soothed him. After all, he had gone three years without it, had reluctantly begun to accept the horrible possibility that he might never smell it again.
Now he was home again and on paper it was perfect—taken almost directly from his once fervent dreams of returning home—but that's all it was: a fantasy.
The reality was that his uncle was locked up in a grimy jail cell and Dakota was wandering alone somewhere in the Earth Kingdom. Zuko had pretended to kill the Avatar and now was playing along with the lie so that he could secretly deliver information about the Fire Nation's war plans.
Even with that seemingly noble goal in mind, Zuko wasn't able to shake the guilt.
I made the right choice, he told himself for the tenth time that day. As always, the guilt seemed to almost chuckle in response before burrowing itself more deeply into his chest.
After what felt like hours, Zuko's moment in the spotlight finally ended and he was directed to retreat back into the palace halls. Zuko's personal servant—a thin, sharp-featured man named Fao —sent a confused frown in his direction upon seeing how hastily Zuko exited the balcony. Zuko walked past him without so much as a glance, as was expected of the royalty when dealing with lower ranks.
"The Fire Lord has commanded that the Prince join him in the War Room for the weekly collaboration—" Fao began, his voice toneless in a way that signified his reading the information word for word from his schedule scroll.
Zuko froze, the movement so sudden that the servant just barely avoided colliding with his back.
"What?" he interrupted. His tone was harsher than he intended but he couldn't bring himself to care.
The last time his father had invited him to the War Room, it was on his thirteenth birthday. He had spoken out of turn, thinking himself safe from reproach as a member of the Royal Family, naïve and unaware of just how much the moment of defiance would cost him.
Zuko's fingers twitched, itching to reach up and touch his scar, but he managed to control the impulse. The shock was fading and he was able to think clearly enough to remember that he couldn't show uncertainty. It had been so long since he had been forced to remember the rules of the palace; so long since he had needed to be on guard from the moment he left his rooms in the morning to the moment he retuned to them in the evening.
As a child and a teenager, he supposed it had been natural as breathing—explicitly explained by his tutors and subtly encouraged by his mother and uncle. More than three years had passed since that time and now Zuko was being thrust into that same world as if nothing had changed.
Fao cleared his throat. "The Fire Lord has commanded your presence in the weekly collaboration. You are to report to the War Room in two hours."
Zuko forced his expression to smooth into one of indifference, sending the servant a short nod before continuing on his way.
"Understood. I'll be taking lunch in my rooms today."
"Of course, Prince Zuko," Fao said, giving him a deep bow and hurrying in the direction of the Dining Hall.
Zuko slowly traversed the familiar halls of his childhood home, both surprised and unsurprised at the sameness of it all. Unsurprised because his father was nothing if not rooted in the maintaining of traditional architecture and surprised because how could nothing have changed?
"It's just me, then," Zuko muttered bitterly under his breath as he paused to watch the turtle-ducks bathe themselves in the clear pond that decorated the Western Courtyard.
The courtyard's position in relation to the sun as well as the plentiful gardens made it perfect for afternoon strolls. His mother had told him once, a few weeks before her painfully permanent farewell, that his father had built the courtyard for her as a wedding present.
"During your father's and my courtship, I would always stop and pick flowers and skip stones in any ponds I passed, much to your father's confusion. I had seen the Royal Palace before and knew that there weren't any gardens like there were in my family's estate. I knew I wanted to marry your father, but I was saddened by the idea of living in a place without gardens," the Fire Lady mused.
A younger Zuko looked up from his drawing in order to better focus on her words. He would never admit it, but he craved stories of his father as someone other than the Royal Prince.
Ursa's eyes softened. "Little did I know, your father had ordered this courtyard to be built, even before I accepted his proposal."
Zuko frowned. "But why?"
"Oh my dear boy," his mother murmured, reaching over to pull him into a tight hug. He pretended to struggle for a bit but settled into the warmth of her embrace quickly enough. She sat with him in silence for a time before leaning down to press a gentle kiss to the crown of his head.
"Love," was her quiet answer, her voice heavy with an emotion that Zuko was too young to recognize.
Zuko blinked rapidly as he stared into the waters of the pond. His younger mind hadn't known what the feelings behind his mother's words had been, but his current mind was more than capable of guessing.
"Hey," Mai's voice came from beside him, and his shoulders jerked in surprise. He turned to face her and found her giving him an almost-smile.
"A thin little bird told me you were taking lunch in your rooms today," she drawled, standing close enough that their shoulders were touching.
Zuko didn't reply, too intent on examining her face as she stared out into the gardens. He had only seen her a handful of times since the catacombs of Ba Sing Se, mostly in passing because the past week and a half had been so busy and nearly always as a result of Azula's meddling.
His sister seemed intent on pushing them together, as she always had, and for once Zuko didn't mind; he had missed Mai in the years he had been gone. Seeing her was a welcome buffer between him and the sore tenderness of having to deceive Dakota and his uncle.
"My father requested my presence in the War Room," Zuko explained, trying his best to imitate the advisor's bland tone. Mai's gaze snapped to his face and her mouth pursed ever so slightly. Zuko recognized the worry there, even when most would classify her expression as merely pensive.
"And you're remembering the last time that happened," she replied, the concern almost entirely hidden behind an equally bored tone. Zuko sent her a small nod before turning back towards the gardens. The turtle-ducks quacked excitedly as they played and raced through the water. Zuko could almost feel another girl beside him, could almost see the pink flowers falling from the trees and dark eyes staring up at him.
"Would you go home if you had the chance?"
Mai's touch on the unscarred side of his face was gentle. He instinctively leaned into it, closing his eyes to better imagine that it was Dakota standing beside him. He knew it was wrong, cruel to Mai and cruel to himself, but he couldn't bring himself to pull away.
"If he challenges you to another Agni Kai, I think we both know who would win, this time," Mai whispered, her voice unexpectedly fierce as she stared up at him. Zuko wished that he were as confident, that he was still that headstrong boy who didn't hesitate to stand up for what was right.
Mai was watching him, beautiful and poised, her golden eyes so familiar and yet they weren't, not really.
"Thanks, Mai," he said quietly as he took a small step back. The girl's hand fell and with it fell the smile that had been tugging at the corner of her mouth. She didn't look angry, no, she looked sad.
Zuko lowered his gaze, shame washing over his body and leaving it bereft of warmth.
"I've got to go," he mumbled before turning and hurrying away. He told himself that he didn't hear the slight hitch in Mai's voice as she said goodbye.
It was a lie.