Welcome to the final chapter of The Gift. Thanks for sticking around! Hope you enjoyed it!
In case it hasn't been made clear, I don't own Avatar or any of the characters or other awesome ATLA stuff. I just like to play with them.
Chaos. More chaos than a Firebender could unleash on his own. The oil braziers balanced precariously on Zuko's fingertips fell, splashing burning oil all over the ground and the prince's left arm. He screamed first in alarm, then in panic, then in agony as the green-yellow flames devoured his flesh.
The tumblers sprang into action. Two of them immediately rushed forward and wrapped their unfortunate "volunteer" in a blanket, tackling him and rolling him across the ground, smothering the flame. Others dashed forth with wet blankets and smothered the flames on the floor quickly. Apparently, they'd been ready for an accident.
Katara felt numb as she listened to Zuko's screams. The blood-curdling cries of a boy not much older than her brother were terrifying. She barely heard Chen at her side.
"Katara!" The kitchen captain shook her. "Katara! You have to help that boy!"
The Waterbender stared at the kitchen captain as if she had sprouted another head. Saving Zuko from a deadly fall at Ho'Wan Island was one thing, but this? This, she realized, was her chance to escape, to get Sokka and Aang and leave this weird day behind!
And suddenly her feet were moving of their own accord, propelling her toward the sounds of pain-filled hisses and moans coming from the young Firebender. His cries for help were overriding her logic; she simply couldn't leave him in agony, much to her chagrin. Katara felt as though her disembodied brain was flowing across that wide courtyard toward the disaster area, already mentally preparing herself for the healing process. Never mind that it was Zuko.
Oh please don't let him recognize me…
She pulled the face mask higher over her nose. Chen followed closely, carrying a pitcher of clean, cold drinking water.
"Stand clear! I've brought a water healer! Make way!" Chen bellowed, and the tumblers and assorted other staff gathered around the prince cleared at the kitchen captain's staunch command.
Zuko sat on the ground, clutching his left arm, sweating, gritting his teeth, tears squeezing out of his eyes. The teen's armoured forearm, right up the elbow, was soaked in oil and charred black. The flesh of his exposed had was covered in white oozing blisters, just like the chef's had been earlier that day.
Katara stared down at him for a long moment. It was the first time since Ho'Wan she had seen him, and at that moment she didn't know what to think. She just acted.
"Take off his armour," She said hoarsely, and several hands reached forward to help the young man out of the shell. The cuff around his left forearm came off with a sickening peeling sound and Zuko whimpered. The sleeve of the linen shirt beneath was ruined: a pair of hands deftly cut this away with a knife, exposing the raw, red flesh beneath – it was a good thing he'd been wearing that cuff, otherwise it would have been much, much worse.
The crowd swayed and jostled as someone pushed their way through. "Zuko!" A girl in a blue silk robe emerged from the forest of bodies and knelt by the teen prince's side.
"Shh, it'll be okay," the girl said soothingly. Zuko blearily looked at her as she touched his face, running a small hand across his scarred cheek.
Katara stopped and looked at the girl.
The girl looked back.
And at that moment, it was like the universe had collapsed in on itself. Two pairs of bright blue eyes against dark skin met. It was like an electric current of perfect understanding passed through them, and neither could tear her eyes away from the other.
Katara was suddenly reminded of a story her Gran Gran told her about doppelgangers – ghostly doubles of a person that, when seen, heralded an ill future for the individual. In Water Tribe folklore, a person might see themselves, and even talk to their ghostly counterparts. Sometimes the doppelganger would give misleading advice or plant ideas into the person's mind in an effort to do away with the corporeal version so it could take his or her place in the realm of the living. In other stories, the appearance of the doppelganger simply meant something bad would happen to the person.
Though Katara was wearing a face mask, she knew that if she pulled it down, as she was sorely tempted to do, she would meet a near mirror image of herself. The girl crouched on the floor before her seemed to know it too without even seeing her face. Reality pivoted on this axis where the two girls from opposite ends of the earth had intersected, and they both felt something within them flip. A chill raced over the Waterbender's skin; the girl across from her shivered.
A groan from the prone body between the water girls brought Katara back to down to earth.
"It's okay, Zuko, I'm here." Sienna said soothingly, stroking his brow and scalp. She peeked up at Katara to see her reaction, but the Waterbender paid her no mind as she gathered a water snake into her palm and formed the healing glove.
Katara's brain blocked out everything around her as she worked on the prince's oozing flesh. Never mind that this was Zuko, never mind that this was a bordello, never mind her twin working as a who-knows-what in this place, and never mind that the prince was associating with her. Never mind all the weird coincidences Fate had decided to spin in the twisted web around her. Just heal the damn boy and get out of here.
The glow worked over his injury, dripping away as the wound disappeared. The pale flesh closed over, new and smooth as before. She looked at his hand, where the worst burns had been, and frowned at the damaged tissue in the webbing of his fingers. Drawing more water from the pitcher, Katara carefully laced her fingers with Zuko's and exhaled. His hand twitched and he squeezed her palm gently as the water dissolved the blood and left behind flawless skin. The water girl tried desperately to ignore the warmth of his hand as the healing water did its work. It's just the residual heat from the oil, she told herself as that alien warmth flowed down her arm. She kept her eyes downcast, hoping the blush was hidden beneath her mask.
The last of the healing water traced cool little rivulets twining down both their arms. When she let go, the prince sighed in relief, gazing at his miraculously healed forearm.
"Nephew, are you alright?" An old man in Fire Nation robes appeared at Zuko's side. The teen looked up at the old man's face, nodding. Katara took this moment to stand and escape back into the crowd before she was noticed.
"I'm fine uncle." Zuko flexed his reformed hand again
"Are you sure? Where were you burned?"
"Just on my arm." Zuko turned his head to thank the white-clad healer, but she had disappeared. The edge of her billowing white gown flickered between the forest of legs of the lookers-on, but he did manage to spot a long braid at her back.
It didn't register until much, much later.
"Good heavens, I cannot say how sorry I am for all this," Madame Mai practically kow-towed to the young man, who was being helped to his feet. The tumblers melted away, shamefaced. "Please, allow me give you a further discount to your rooms tonight. Anything you ask for shall be yours."
Zuko wasn't sure what to say. He was still dazed by the blinding pain, the still too-familiar sensation of burning, the smell of cooked flesh, and the sudden relief when it all went away with a simple touch.
"I will take Zuko to his room to rest," Sienna said promptly. She threaded her arm through the prince's and began to pull him away, but he stayed anchored to the spot. He looked at her as if he had no idea who she was.
"I'd like to thank the Waterbending healer who helped my nephew," Iroh rumbled to Madame Mai. "She did remarkable work."
Mai blinked. "Waterbending healer? We don't have any such person on our staff."
"That was my doing, Madame Mai," A stout woman in a billowing white servant's gown, mask and kerchief came forward. "She was just helping out in the kitchen for the day. She did the same for Chef Li earlier on when he accidentally spilled oil on himself. She saved us a fine chef as well as a guest."
"Where did she go?" Iroh asked.
Chen looked around.
"Katara? Katara, where did you go?"
Zuko's head snapped around at the sound of Katara's name. His eyes widened.
Aang and Sokka were easy to spot. She waved at them discreetly, pacing quickly toward the servants door and gesturing for them to follow.
"We have to get out of here," Katara said firmly when they met up about halfway to the kitchen door.
"But we didn't get paid yet!" Sokka hissed.
"Forget it, I made enough to last us a while."
"And how did you do that, exactly?" The water warrior asked suspiciously.
She opened her mouth to protest that she had no idea what this place was when she arrived, when they heard a cry.
"Katara? Katara, where are you?" Chen was calling loudly.
Their cover was blown.
"Katara! Come back here!" Chen shouted.
"The man wants to thank you!" Madame Mai sang pleasantly above the din.
"KATARA, STOP!" Zuko's command was full and forceful, and very nearly made her stop and turn around.
All three flinched, eyes wide.
"RUN!" And they broke into a mad dash for the kitchen doors.
The Waterbender felt her heart rise to her throat, hot adrenaline coursing through her veins. Her feet slapped hard across the slate-paved courtyard and she tore the mask from her face so she could gulp air down more readily. The hair kerchief came undone, freeing the carefully tucked in hair loops. The bit of white linen flew out behind her as she slammed the double doors to the servants' area open.
"Get Appa here, NOW!" Aang cried to her.
"We're indoors! He can't hear us!" Sokka screamed. The servants looked at them quizzically.
"Out the back!
"No, there's no way out of the garden!" Katara said. She stared around, wild eyed, trying to think of an escape route. She stared at the open dumbwaiter.
Zuko struggled forward. The Avatar! Katara! They were here all along, right under his nose, and he had missed them!
"Get out of my way!" He shouted, shouldering by the hovering bystanders. He broke into a dead run, feeling oddly unbalanced with only half of his armour on.
Clowns. Of course, the Avatar and the water boy had been clowns. And they had made a complete fool of him! They had humiliated him on his birthday by parading around and tricking him! They had probably even set up the burn and healing. And he had been flirting with a whore the entire time right in front of the girl he had been crushing on!
"I will make them pay dearly for this," he hissed at himself, though his mind was roiling in mortification. Katara, please don't think this is what it looks like, I really wasn't doing anything with her…
He burst through the double doors, the servants staring at him quizzically. He scanned the faces, but recognized none, and moved on into the kitchen.
"WHERE ARE THEY?" He demanded.
Everyone stood baffled for a moment as Zuko ran out through the scullery, but no one was out there. Either they had managed to scale the incredibly tall stone wall, or they hadn't come this way. He ran back in and noticed an open hatchway. The rope and pulley system within was running phenomenally fast.
The Firebender wrenched the door open and stuck his head into the long shaft. The platform was already several storeys up. He could hear three panicked voices shouting at each other.
"Sokka, stop eating the food and help us!"
"What? I haven't eaten since lunch and we don't want to waste it by standing on it!"
Zuko contemplated setting the rope on fire, or shooting a long tongue of flame up the shaft, but that would send the three plummeting to their deaths, and that wasn't what he wanted.
"Where does this thing go?" Zuko barked at the nearest kitchen hand.
"Fifth floor. This one ends up in suite number three." He pointed at the sign above the door.
Zuko raced out, pushing past more bewildered people, and dashed into the small elevator, pulling the counterbalance lever that would bring him to the topmost floor.
C'mon, c'mon, c'mon! He stared up at the shaft through the bamboo lattice, watching as his head broke through each level. Finally, the elevator stopped and he practically ripped the gate off its hinge getting out.
Suite three was at the exact opposite end from where the elevator was, so Zuko had to run around the level to reach it. The door was locked and he threw his weight against it, but the solid carved oak doors did not budge, and bruised his unprotected shoulder.
"DAMMIT!" He looked at the lock and widened his stance, breathing deeply. He threw his fist out with a roar and focused a jet of hot white flame at the door.
"He's trying to burn through the door!" Sokka shouted. He began piling things in front of the entrance.
"C'mon Appa, where are you?" Aang blew the whistle for the third time from the balcony, long and hard.
Katara stared at the door apprehensively. How did this happen? Why was it whenever she went out on her own, the day ended up with the three of them being chased by the Fire Prince?
She looked about. There had to be a way to stall for more time until Appa got here. If Zuko threw any more fire, the whole place might go up in flames.
She suddenly remembered the bathroom. Drawing up a snake of water from the tub faucet, Katara threw it against the door, but the door was so hot from the Firebender's assault that the liquid hissed right off, evaporating into steam. So much for freezing the doors shut.
She thought fast. The doors… when Chen opened them earlier, she had pulled them open, meaning they opened out.
"Sokka! Get away from the doors!" She said, gathering up as much liquid as she could hold, wrapping the sluice around her, straining at the sheer volume of water coursing in that donut torrent.
The Water Tribe warrior looked at the enormous water whip his sister had drawn and scrambled out of the way. Katara curled the water around her and shifted her weight through the stances.
With a swift lashing out of her arm, the water coiled out and struck the doors, slamming them open and knocking the prince squarely in the jaw. Zuko stumbled back, reeling from the strike, right into the banister, which shook, snapped—
And then the Firebender was precariously balanced on one foot, arms windmilling, hanging over the edge where the banister had been knocked out and was now suspended in mid-air above the court five stories below.
Zuko's wide gold eyes latched onto Katara's face, pleading.
The Waterbender thought about letting him fall. She'd already saved his life twice. She didn't owe him anything else. But her arms whipped out and she grabbed Zuko around the waist with a snake of water. The liquid flowed down past his hips, knees and ankles. An icy breath froze him so he was still hanging awkwardly backwards at a thirty degree angle, his feet firmly attached to the lip of the floor.
Zuko gulped, leaning forward so that his torso was at least perpendicular to the ground. He looked up at Katara once more, gritting his teeth.
"Katara, c'mon!" Sokka yelled. Appa had finally arrived, and Aang was already seated on his neck.
Katara took one more look at Zuko, smirking, and jumped up onto Appa's litter.
They took off, sailing away into the night, her white clothes billowing out behind her.
Zuko clenched his fists, fuming but keeping his body temperature carefully regulated. If he heated the ice around his legs and torso at all, it could crack and drop him.
A few minutes later, Iroh, Mai, Sienna, and a host of other bordello workers arrived to hoist Zuko out of the precarious ice prison. Mai was practically blithering, caught somewhere between a state of panic at the horrors her guests had endured, and the damage her property had incurred. Iroh melted the ice off around Zuko's body while two strong men kept a firm hold around the prince's angled form. They pulled him back safely onto the landing.
Sienna stood quietly to one side on the hall landing, looking out through the open balcony in suite three.
"The Avatar?" Iroh asked solemnly. Zuko glowered at his uncle and snorted a gout of smoke.
Mai pursed her lips, wringing her hands, restraining herself from touching the sooty oak door.
"Do you want to pursue?" The retired general asked quietly.
Zuko stared at his left hand, flexing it.
"No." He said lowly. After a moment, he swept past the others, not making any eye contact. "Can I take this room?" He pointed at suite three without addressing anyone in particular. Mai nodded mutely.
Zuko slammed the doors behind him.
He wrenched off his remaining armour, kicking his boots off, ignoring the hot tears of disappointment and humiliation streaming down his face. He pulled his tunic over his head, still soaked in the remnants of the lamp oil, half the left sleeve gone, and felt the cool night air brush him. The balcony doors were still open, letting in the wan light of the crescent moon shine in. He looked out, unable to spot the flying bison in the night sky, then snorted with disgust at himself.
He turned to fling himself into bed. All he wanted was to sleep now, and forget this day had ever happened.
The prince jumped. Sienna was standing by the door, hands folded demurely in front of her. She watched him with questioning eyes.
"Go away Sienna. I don't require your services."
"I know," she said. "But I was wondering… I wanted to ask you something." She stepped into the light, watching him warily.
Zuko turned his back, roughly wiping his tear-stained cheeks as he poured himself a glass of wine from the decanter on the side table, splashing some onto his trembling hand. He desperately needed the drink if he was going to sleep at all tonight. "What?" He asked crossly.
"That girl… the one who healed you. I think you said her name was… Katara." She said hesitantly.
Zuko stiffened. "What about her?"
The heartbeat of silence was deafening. "You're in love with her," she said slowly. "Aren't you?"
"Get out." Zuko said. "You're just a whore. What would you know about love?"
Sienna swallowed the stinging remark and slowly approached him. "I know that look you gave me when you first saw me, and all the sidelong glances you kept giving me all day; the way you kept flinching, like you kept remembering something about me. I know what I heard when you screamed her name; it was the sound of a boy desperate to have a girl look at him and listen to him. And I know what it means when you keep your back turned so you don't have to look at someone who reminds you of her."
Zuko didn't know what possessed him to do it. Everything had turned out so badly today that he just wanted something for himself, something that would make him forget, something to make it all go away. He turned and grabbed the girl roughly by the arms, dragging her toward him. She gasped but did not struggle as he closed in on her, her wide eyes fluttering closed as she waited to be taken. He brought his face a mere centimeter from hers, trembling, breathing in her scent, like lilies and camphor; a scent that was so not Katara's.
The alien smell jarred Zuko from his sudden fervor, and he blinked. The prince looked into that smooth brown face, cool and serene in the moonlight, and felt a surge of guilt and remorse well inside his throat. He let go.
"No." He said hoarsely, turning, resting his palms on the side table. "I won't."
Sienna stood a moment more, waiting to see if he would change his mind. When he didn't, swallowing a big gulp of wine, she took a step back from him.
The prince turned his head slightly to watch her out of his peripheral vision. She placed something down on the table by his hand. "Goodnight Zuko. Happy birthday."
Sienna said nothing else. Zuko heard the door open and shut quietly. He downed the rest of the warm red wine in one gulp and wiped his mouth, feeling the hot burn spread down his throat and down into his gullet.
He looked down at the object Sienna left behind. He picked it up off the table.
It was a white linen hair kerchief. Probably the one the Waterbender had been wearing as part of her disguise.
Zuko stared at the crisp piece of linen. He held it to his bare chest for a moment, feeling the roughness of the fabric, but refrained from sniffing it. He carefully folded it into a small triangle and tucked it into his pocket.
Then he went to bed.
Exhausted and still rather hungry, the trio flew on through the night, haggard, each lost in his or her own thoughts. Aang was still trying to figure out how Zuko had caught up with them; Sokka was wondering, with a bit of a snigger, why Zuko was hanging out in a bordello; and Katara – well, she had lots on her mind.
Even so, the three decided not to speak. Katara didn't mention her doppelganger; Sokka didn't mention Zuko's association with the doppelganger; and Aang didn't mention anything about the bowl of fruit he'd managed to swipe from the suite before hopping onto Appa's back – that would be a surprise for later, when the dark mood had dissipated.
A silent pact was formed. No one spoke of that day, or what they saw, ever again. What happened in Madame Mai's Court of Joy stayed in Madame Mai's Court of Joy.
No one disturbed the prince in the morning. When he woke up, it was close to noon. He bathed, found his armour had been cleaned, his clothes laundered and his ruined shirt replaced, and put them all on before exiting his room.
The banister had not yet been repaired, leaving a gaping hole in the intricately carved woodworked railing, which felt oddly inviting to step through. Zuko walked down the stairs instead of taking the elevator, staring straight ahead, his lips pursed in a thin line. In the main courtyard, he met Iroh, calmly sipping a cup of jasmine tea.
"Are you ready to leave?" Zuko asked flatly.
Iroh nodded once and stood. The bill had been settled the night before.
The prince paced smoothly out the double doors. He did not look back for the Water girl with the bright blue eyes. He would never look at her again, if he could help it.
The two Fire Nation men descended the stairs, not saying one word to each other as they walked down to the harbour where the ship was moored. Everyone else had embarked from their shore leave, patiently awaiting the return of their leader. None of them greeted the stern looking Firebender as he boarded. No one bothered to wish him a happy birthday. And they didn't dare ask how his trip to the Court of Joy went.
They cast off, leaving the town behind them, and pointed the ship north.
Zuko stood at the prow, staring at the wide blue ocean, his mind blank and numb. He felt his uncle sidle up next to him, but the old man didn't say anything to break the teen's mood.
They stood like that for a long time, watching the horizon. The prince decided it would be best to simply forget yesterday had happened, and never go back to that port where he might be tempted to seek out Sienna's company.
No, never again. He had an Avatar to catch, his honour to restore, his throne to regain. No more distractions. But first…
"Uncle," Zuko croaked quietly. "Thank you for the birthday gift."
Retired General Iroh blinked. A small smile spread graced his lips.