Character(s): Aang, Zuko.
Beta: Moonglo, who's a dear for doing this on New Year's Eve.
Genre: Angst, one-sided romance, drama.
Warnings: No real spoilers, references to the storyline, but mostly speculation and my own imagination. For the shippers, hints of past (emphasis on past) Aang/Katara and mentions of past (very strong emphasis on past) Zuko/OC. Also, character death (OC).
Feedback: Very welcome, please!
Word Count: 3 950.
Summary: Things change, people change, yet Aang realizes, the hard way, that when everything has changed, nothing really changed at all.
Author's Notes: Third in the series. Direct sequel to 'Untouched' and 'Unbroken'. Before torches go up, this is Aang/Zuko, the other pairings are here just for spice. Please keep all bashing between pairings down, I respect all opinions, just don't make an idiot of yourself in public.
Screams tore at the walls of the Imperial Palace, the putrid scent of blood permeating every corner and crushing every soul with the peculiar finality that was palpable in the air. Servants cowed away from their lord's quarters, from the midwives and their rushed movements, not daring to interrupt or cause any disturbance to the morbid song of agony that obscured such bright day. Shenren had selected each servant personally, those who aided the failing Queen were of the highest trust and discretion, and yet, he still was wary standing outside the tall doors and awaiting news like everyone else. Occasionally, a pale and sweaty woman would come out of the room, struggling with a load of bloodstained clothes, but nothing would be said, and tension would go up another notch.
Shenren sighed, feeling impatient and frustrated with the world in general. His lord had locked himself up to meditate, once more consumed by that melancholic illness of his, that mix of despair and apathy towards everything around him. Shortly after the wedding, the already distant lord had become completely unreachable. His mind was always preoccupied with secrets he confided to no one, his eyes were always wandering away to the garden or the closest exit. His wife – such a precious creature, indeed – had faded to the background almost instantly and he treated her just as blandly as he treated everyone else. He wasn't cruel or ill-tempered, he simply refused to acknowledge anything beyond his own worries. Despite its Lord's issues, however, the Fire Nation strived on, struggling against the resentment and the consequences of their late glory as dominators. Strangely enough, their lord remained impassive, going on with his work and his worries about the welfare of his people was he had always done, except he became much more hermetic with his own plans… if he even had plans anymore.
No one ever got close to his lord anymore, Shenren thought sadly, he had isolated himself so effectively, no one ever dared to talk to him. The old servant blinked for a moment. Well, no one except for the Avatar of course. The old man had served the royal family for long and had seen much in his life, but he still couldn't remember anything remotely similar. Those occasional fights in the garden, followed by long conversations and even longer silences, all those half sentences that never quite made sense. For some reason, the Avatar was immune to his lord's anger, as if he knew the secret behind the Fire lord's wrath. But even so, just the Avatar wasn't enough to keep his master sane. His lord needed people around him, needed to love and be loved in return. Everything that his marriage had not been, he desperately needed from somewhere else. Anywhere else. If not for himself, for that sliver of himself that was attempting to survive beyond those closed doors.
Suddenly, everything stilled; Silence cast her wings over everything and it seemed as if Time itself was holding his breath. A heart wrenching screech threatened to bring the walls down, shaking the building to its foundation, but then it began fading away, slowly, until only a hurtful echo remained. The loud wail had managed to overcome a soft sobbing that Shenren couldn't hear until everything was over. Then, the great doors opened and the Queen's favorite maid stepped out, pale and bloodied, her eyes dead as her voice whispered the monotone.
"It's a boy."
Shenren caught the woman as she passed out from exhaustion, not minding the blood that was transferred to his own clothing, and raised his eyes to see through the ajar door. His own face paled to the color of bone, and he felt his hands shake terribly. Like in a dream, he placed the unconscious woman on someone's arms and fled towards his lord's meditation room. He didn't know what would happen next, how the Fire lord would react – if he would react at all – but the only thing the old servant hoped, was that he would feel any compassion for his own blood.
By the time his knuckles touched the wood, he was already composing the letter in his mind.
"He's a stubborn one, isn't he?"
Aang turned to face his host, grinning wryly as Iroh's eyes lit with amusement. A few yards away from them, Zuko practiced a kata, leaving a sparkling trail behind his swift movements. He repeated the exercise, annoyed at the small miscalculations that caused him to seem awkward instead of graceful, and set about to correct it. The Avatar shrugged lightly, taking the Fire lord's teasing tone with a smile. Watching the man as he placidly drank his tea and watched his nephew practice, one could easily forget the sheer power Iroh was capable of unleashing, something Aang had been able to glimpsed on occasion during their short travels together. Iroh was a good Fire lord, almost exactly what was needed after the war… but he really didn't look the part most of the time.
"To put it somehow, yes," Aang chuckled when Zuko narrowly avoided falling on his face at his comment, "I suppose it can be endearing, but most of the time it's just annoying."
"My hearing, I'll have you both know, is in perfect shape."
"Indeed." Iroh grinned. "More tea?"
Zuko gave them a very unamused look, hating his uncle for greeting guests in the garden – his garden – and hating the Avatar for… well, for being the Avatar. He returned to his katas, tuning out the conversation when it drifted back into political banter and border disputes that were always keeping everyone on edge. The young Firebender focused entirely on his control, ignoring the world as he tried and tried and tried again, until each movement was flawless and graceful. So concentrated he became, that he never noticed when Aang left, calling out a short farewell.
"You know," Iroh told him with a smile, which widened when he blinked in bewilderment, "You shouldn't shut the world out, Zuko. You might not know how much it means to certain people when you open up to them."
"I don't need anyone," The young prince bit back petulantly, before adding snidely, "Much less that slip of a brat that won't simply leave me be."
"Ah, the joys of friendship…" The Fire lord smiled indulgently when his nephew choked on his own tongue at his words, "Just remember Zuko, even the Avatar might give up on something so untouchable after a while."
Fisting his hands at his sides, Zuko fought against himself to keep his temper in check. Really, it would do him no good to damage the garden in a fit of fury over something so moronic as his uncle's notions of the Avatar and his relationship – or lack thereof – with the brat. With a supreme effort of will, the young Firebender hissed between his teeth.
Iroh didn't laugh, but only because he thought the vein on Zuko's temple would explode if he did.
"Here, it's ready."
Aang smiled as Sister Mu set a platter with a freshly baked cake before him, inhaling the sweet scent with glee. The woman returned the smile, sitting across him and gently folding the long sleeves of her tunic. Through the wide windows they could hear the delighted laugher of children mixing with the soft whispering of the breeze into a melody only Airbenders would ever appretiate. The North Air Temple had flourished alongside peace in the world, quickly becoming the largest center where Airbenders gathered, monks and nuns, children and masters alike; and Aang found himself comfortable in it, much more than at the rebuilt Southern temple, since there were no memories to weight him down there, in the walls he never knew before.
"It's good," Aang's eyes glinted mirthfully, "But, someone once told me the secret," The woman blinked as the Avatar placed his hand above the blueberry pudding, "Is the fluffy cream."
The two Air masters shared a laugh as the tower of blue grew twice its original size.
"I enjoy your visits, Aang," The young man hung his head slightly at the quiet tone, feeling as if everything suddenly stilled to allow her voice be heard, "Yet something tells me this is not about my remarkable talent to bake cakes."
Mu watched as the young Avatar sat back, his hands resting on the wooden floor. Try as she might, she couldn't see the legendary guardian hiding behind that troubled face. Aang was a treasured member of the Air Nomads; the highest voice in every council and a tower of strength when they had slowly returned to their temples after so long, yet there was always something off limits to everyone that kept the Avatar, not aloof, precisely, but certainly distant from them.
"I have a friend…" Aang began tiredly, then stopped abruptly.
No, that wasn't exactly the truth, was it? He wasn't a friend… But he was the one he visited the most, the one he knew best now, the only one who knew better than to see him as the Avatar anymore. How long had it been since he stepped out of his self imposed prison in that iceberg? Seven years now? Eight? And steadily, almost from the start, he had been there. Not always welcome, certainly never friendly, just there. Aang closed his eyes, thinking of all the people he knew, had known and would know yet. All those friends he'd made, those lives he'd touched, and all those that had touched him in return. He thought of Sokka and their rocky friendship, which had eventually become true brotherhood. Of Toph and her rough encouragement, that stubborn smile that made him always try again, always give it one more shot. He thought of Katara and her broken smile, the sadness that he forged into her eyes, when he had made her see. He thought about all that would never be, despite their valiant efforts otherwise, and wondered if he had experienced anything close to the loss Zuko was suffering.
"I have a friend," He started once more, grateful for the woman's tact and her lack of pressing, "And he's lost someone recently. Someone important, I think. I don't know what I should do."
Mu smiled kindly, nodding in understanding, while a part of Aang rebelled and resented her; she couldn't understand. No one had any hopes of ever understanding. Nevertheless, he remained silent, awaiting her advice humbly.
"Has he asked you to his side?" Her eyes were bright, alight with a sharp intellect and at the same time softened by compassion. Aang felt his stomach twist uncomfortably.
"Yes… no, I don't know," Frustrated, the Avatar sighed loudly, "Someone," He chose his words carefully for some reason, feeling strangely guilty as he did so, "Someone sent me a letter, requesting me to go. I'm not sure I will be welcome there."
"We're never welcome where we're needed the most," Mu replied without spite, nodding to herself, "It would seem to me, that you should ask yourself, not if he will welcome you, but if you will welcome yourself there."
Aang absorbed her words in silence, knowing the answer already and hating his own nervousness. Mu cut a slice of the cake carefully, ignoring the thoughtful Airbender before her as she served two plates delicately. Her hands worked efficiently, with a grace and elegance that went beyond her own youth.
"He needs me there."
Mu didn't bother to look up after Aang spoke, the light breeze told her the Avatar was gone already. As she enjoyed her sweet treat with a cup of tea, she wondered why she had never thought of fluffing up the cream before.
The wedding had been magnificent, yet modest by royal standards. Big enough to sate tradition and the council nagging, but not nearly as elaborate as it could have been. Aang didn't wonder about it, much more interested in the participants than in the political repercussions. The Fire lord sat impassively at the head of the table, overlooking the feast with a bland expression that bordered on boredom at some point. The bride was donned in the finest silk, sitting to his right and on a slightly lower throne than his; she looked stunning and radiant, despite the faint melancholy in her expression. They looked exactly like they should have, though Aang thought they were miserable underneath the lavish decorations.
This was not a love affair, after all; Zuko had told him so, when he had grudgingly invited him to the celebration.
There was not much to celebrate, in Aang's opinion, but he kept his musings to himself, trying to be as pleasant as ever and generally pretending not to feel sick every two minutes or so.
"To the glory of the Fire Nation!" A particularly mirthful guest cried out to Aang's left, raising his cup high in the air, "To our Lord's health and his beautiful Queen!"
"To our Lord and his Queen!" Came the chorus from all corners of the table, loud and almost raucous in its intensity.
Aang met Zuko's eyes for an instant and saw a corner of the lord's lip twist upwards when he realized that the Avatar's cup remained untouched. The young Airbender felt the strange need to laugh and cry at the same time, though in the end he remained where he was, strangely absconded from everything and everyone, only attentive to the regretful stare of those golden eyes.
He didn't sleep that night, but the loud celebration had little to do with it.
The Imperial Palace always inspired a certain awe when it appeared almost suddenly from behind a hill. Its walls, elegant and forbidding at the same time, looked even more somber than usual as the sun glinted weakly in the distance, already sinking away behind the mountain range. For the first time in what seemed forever, Aang wasn't sure about entering the intimidating building. Over time, it had become familiar, welcoming even, as the memories and the occasional laughter made it less sharp, less harsh. However, the unexpected invitation had thrown him off the floor. Especially considering the matter at hand, and who had requested his presence in the palace.
"I'm glad you came," Shenren gave him a small smile, looking pale and worn out as he brought Aang back from his thoughts.
Hopping off Appa's saddle, the Avatar watched warily as Momo fluffed up and remained where he was, instead of scurrying out to find something to eat as he usually did. That was not a good sign.
"I'm not sure this is a good idea," Aang told the old man honestly, shifting his weight subtly as he felt the heavy air around everything.
"I didn't know who else to call."
Not waiting a response, the tall man began walking down the corridor, away from the patio where Aang usually landed, and taking the familiar path towards the garden. There were no visible marks anywhere, but everything seemed darker, sadder, somehow. The Avatar found his own steps slower, falling behind Shenren as they navigated the maze of corridors almost smoothly.
"Shenren?" Aang's voice was soft as the servant stopped abruptly, his eyes staring at the wide corridor that lead outside with an unreadable expression. When he didn't receive an answer, Aang tried again. "Why are you doing this?"
"I'm Lord's Zuko's most trusted servant, Avatar," The old man smiled, torn between pride and sorrow, "It's my duty to care for his best interests… even against his wishes."
Bowing respectfully, he left the silent Airbender in the corridor, walking as fast as he could without making it seem like he was fleeing.
"Milord Zuko is currently unable to entertain you, Lord Avatar."
Aang nearly jumped out of his skin at the sound of the quiet voice. Whirling around, he found Huo smiling gently at him, one of her hands resting gently against a wooden beam. She was a beautiful woman, there was no doubt about it, but she was always so strangely fragile, so miserable underneath all the glorious paraphernalia that came with being a Queen. It didn't take much for the Avatar to realize that through she was the wife, she was not the lover.
"It's alright," Aang smiled at her, nonetheless, "Zuko is never particularly happy to see me, anyway." Huo didn't follow along his little laugh, and he dropped it after a moment. She wasn't looking at him. She never looked at anyone in the eye. "Would you keep me company while I wait? Come sit here with me, the cherries are blooming already."
Tentatively, the poor girl that had been sold over to be the Fire lord's wife edged closer to him, step by step, before she folded herself neatly and gracefully at his side. She didn't love her husband, she didn't love her homeland, she didn't love her home. Beneath the polished manners and quiet words, Aang saw a caged creature that wanted to fly away and be free. Despite his own feelings – complicated things that just made life more difficult – he didn't wish her ill. Zuko ignored her most of the time, leaving her free to do as she pleased; even if she spent her days with her attendants or entertaining guests, even if she shared her nights with him, she was perhaps even more lonely than the stoic Fire lord. Aang knew better than anyone how cold Zuko could be, how utterly alone he could make someone feel, simply by standing next to them. No, Aang didn't hate Huo, even if she was the wife. He felt pity for her clipped wings and the shadow behind her eyes.
They sat in the garden for long hours, silent. At nightfall, when the fireflies raised from the grass and the Queen fled, unable to keep her tears – frustrated, saddened, angry tears – at bay, Zuko found Aang catching the glowing insects, delicately handling their small bodies, before letting them go and starting all over again. The Fire lord didn't pretend to understand what the Avatar was doing.
"It's better to free them," The Airbender told him in a conspiratory tone, as if he were sharing a terribly important secret, "They are prettier when they glow in the distance. From up close, they are quite the ugly bugs, aren't they?" He raised a captive to demonstrate his point.
"Indeed." Came the dry reply as Zuko took his usual place under the trees.
"Things that were born free shouldn't have to withstand cages."
Zuko hm'ed to himself, brow furrowing as he caught a strange undertone in his uninvited guest's voice. The Avatar gave him an unseen smile, but didn't say a thing when the Firebender caught a firefly himself, holding it within his cupped hands for a moment, before slowly letting it go.
Aang stopped, taking in a deep breath. All around him, the garden was silent, lulled by the soft breeze and the strange somberness that hung around the entire palace. He didn't notice the fading sliver of the moon in the distance, or the thin clouds that spread themselves over the night sky. He didn't notice the dull colors of the mediocre flowers that seemed to mourn alongside everyone else. All he could see was Zuko sitting under a lemon tree, cradling a small bundle of clothes to his chest and looking pensive. All the words in the world would never suffice to explain the sadness lingering in the Fire lord's eyes, to describe the despair pooling along each strand of hair. Zuko sat immobile below his favorite tree, commanding a deep respect for sorrows no one would never really understand.
And then Aang spoke, softly, because he felt like an intruder.
"Did you love her?"
His question hung in the air, like another sliver of moonlight, seeming as if it had always been there.
"No." Zuko held his son closer, his voice strong and unwavering, causing the Avatar to flinch slightly. But then he smiled thinly. "But I could have."
As Aang stepped closer, he realized that yes, he was needed there, that perhaps there was no other place where he was needed so urgently than in the quiet garden, next to the Lord mourning an unloved Queen. When Zuko raised his eyes to meet his, Aang felt something within him crack horribly. Awkwardly, he sat down next to his reluctant friend, not knowing what to say. What was there to say, anyway? He couldn't know exactly, but he was sensible enough to understand that losing someone you had spent so much time with, even if you didn't truly love them, was a big blow to take. If she was the mother of your child… Aang shivered slightly.
"I don't need to love her to mourn her loss," The small baby in Zuko's arms twitched slightly, making the cloth rustle with his movements, "She didn't deserve this."
During their meetings, it was usually Zuko that remained silent while Aang talked about whatever came to mind; the Firebender even suggested once that the Avatar was simply incapable of remaining quiet. But in that moment, feeling helpless and useless, Aang sat back and said nothing. His eyes traced the lines of tension that appeared in that too young face and he forced himself for once to not ignore the scar that marred the handsome face. No, Aang thought mournfully, Huo didn't deserve to die, nor to live the life she lived… and certainly Zuko didn't deserve what he was going through.
There were no tears in the golden eyes when Zuko carefully placed the bundle on Aang's arms, and there were no more words exchanged between them.
Silence, their perpetual friend, said all that was needed to be said.
It was rare to be allowed down the temple and into the world below them while being so young, but Aang was given permission, a special treat after he proved his worth as a true Air Master. Though the town he and Gyatso visited wasn't the largest or the most glorious, it was so very different from the temple, that Aang could only stare enraptured by the different people around him. But just as they were leaving, they caught sight of a fighting couple. The man, visibly older than the girl, yelled unkind words at her, then stepped back from her, glaring, and stormed away. Gyatso had to place his hand on Aang's shoulder as he felt the boy shudder.
"Why is she crying?" Aang asked, brow furrowed as he watched the young girl fall to her knees, sobbing miserably.
"Because her heart is broken," The older monk replied, grave and compassionate at the same time, though his eyes were fixed on Aang, rather than her.
"Her heart? How did her heart break?" The young Airbender tilted his head to the side, curious and touched by the misery in the girl's face. He didn't understand how something so solid as a heart – always beating and alive – could be broken.
"She loved a bit too much," The monk began walking away, towards the gate of the small town, yet Aang held back, wanting to do something for her, not really understanding the burning need to set things right somehow.
"How do you mend a broken heart?"
Monk Gyatso stopped, turning slowly as his eyes fixed intently on the young boy's, and then smiled. A sad, kind smile that made Aang feel uncomfortable for the first time in a very long while. Aang trembled and felt every nerve in his body light up as his mentor spoke words he would never forget."By loving a bit too much."