They had been long weeks. Just two of them but time had crawled. Zuko's plans had been complicated by the fact that Azula was obviously plotting something. She was so obvious about it he had a hard time pretending he didn't notice her smirks. Just more reason to get out of there.
Talking to Mai had been difficult. She had put up every barrier she had at her disposal and spent the entire conversation making snide remarks about how boring he was and how she hadn't even noticed he'd been gone. She threw in a few comments about other guys, but Zuko actually found himself hoping there were other suitors for her rather than feeling jealous.
When they parted she patted him on the head as if he were pathetic, but as she turned away he saw the tears glint in her eyes.
He felt awful. He was trying to choose the path to good and the first thing he did was hurt the only person who accepted him unconditionally. One would think the affections of a pretty girl with no expectations would be liberating, but the reverse had been true. He found himself longing for the water bender's demand that he be better, and that longing wasn't always accompanied by romantic impulses. He needed someone to challenge him. To show him she cared.
He realized that Katara's demands carried with them encouragement, and that surprised him. She believed he could be better and expected him to do so. In that belief resided his destiny.
The Minister of Waste Management was a fat, sweaty, pasty bureaucrat who huffed about funding and regulations and Zuko stated his case in response calmly before asking the man if perhaps he might feel more comfortable if the Fire Lord were brought in on the discussion. When he left the man's office he had secured a commitment from the wheezing minister to modernize and overhaul safety measures at all the incinerator complexes in the Fire Nation for the benefit and continued prosperity of their beloved country.
It was his last chance to use his royalty to get his way and it felt good. He would miss the option.
And he had gone to see Iroh. As their earlier frantic conversations played through his head he determined to keep his emotions in check. He would offer his assistance to his uncle in any way the old man wanted, including helping him to escape the prison if he desired. It was the least he could do, he thought.
But when he'd entered the cellblock the guard told him his uncle had been moved to an unknown location. Emotions wildly not in check Zuko raced back to the palace to confront his sister. If Iroh had been executed in his absence, the prince was certain he couldn't live with himself.
"He wasn't moved." Azula had said dismissively. "He escaped. One morning a couple of weeks ago the guard brought uncle his breakfast to find him gone. A Pai Sho tile was in his place. Strange. But dramatic as usual." She had rolled her eyes.
"Why was I told he'd been moved?" Zuko asked, not trusting Azula as far as he could throw a komodo-rhino.
"That's the official story. It would be very embarrassing to have to admit your highest-level traitor had escaped from under your nose. You'd know that if you hadn't gone wandering about the countryside looking for clues of the avatar." She couldn't help chuckling at the end.
Zuko had left dejectedly. He understood the significance of the Pai Sho tile and he knew Iroh was probably in good hands, but it hurt that he hadn't been quick enough in coming to the old man's aid. He supposed he'd expected Iroh to wait for him to come around as he'd always done. It made him feel foolish to realize how wrong he'd been.
With no more reason to stay after his tasks were completed, Zuko packed a satchel, his swords, and a little bit of food and left the palace.
"Hey Sweetness, what's with you and Aang?" Toph had interrupted her friend one morning about a week following the rescue.
"What do you mean?" Katara looked up suddenly from the laundry she was folding.
"He's acting weird, you're acting weird. What's up?"
"Hmm. I didn't notice." Katara's brow furrowed. "I guess we've got a lot on our minds. You know… the invasion. Why are you acting so normal?"
"Normal? Do I normally care about your problems?" Toph grinned.
"No. I guess you don't." The water bender punched her friend in the shoulder and then rubbed her throbbing hand. "How is Aang acting weird? I didn't notice since I was so busy acting weird."
"He's just being quiet. His heartbeat's all over the place. Kinda like when Appa was missing."
"I'd better have a talk with him." Katara nodded. "He's probably nervous about the invasion too."
She left Toph to search for Aang near their campsite. He was gathering firewood with Momo and she found him pretty readily.
"Toph thinks you're weird." She joked smiling at him.
"What?" He asked looking around to see if the insulting earth bender was hiding and giggling.
"I'm just kidding. She thinks you're acting strangely. Do you want to talk about it?"
"You're acting more strangely than I am." He said defensively.
"How am I being strange?" She was shocked it had all been turned back on her.
"You're quiet. You don't notice when someone needs something and you usually get it for them before they even ask. You don't even hear someone ask for something the first time, they have to ask twice."
"So I'm being weird because you've had to get a few things for yourselves?" She raised an eyebrow irritably and Aang was reminded suddenly of his first academic tutor at the Southern Air Temple, Soon Fo. He shuddered.
"You've been distracted since you came back from the incinerator that night. Everyone's noticed." He told her.
"I'm a little worried about the invasion." Katara said, annoyed by his judgment when he'd been behaving just as strangely … according to Toph. Katara hadn't noticed. Which was strange, she had to admit.
"You think I'm not?" He snapped.
"What's your problem?" She bit back at him.
"I don't have any problems! I'm about to lead a bunch of people into battle with an eight-minute window where we assume fire benders can't bend! And when I look around for a friend to lean on, the one who's usually there for me is mooning around camp in a daze!" He shouted.
"I am not mooning." She said through clenched teeth then turned sharply and stomped away.
Zuko climbed the last few feet on the path to the abbey. He hoped the avatar's group had mentioned to someone where they were headed. It was his only lead.
"May I help you?" A large, ostrich-horse faced woman met him at the entrance to the cave. He could hear a large group of kids engaged in an activity of some sort back in the caverns, but the sister had stopped him well before allowing him even a visual of the area.
"I was hoping someone could give me some information about some visitors you had recently." He said as politely as possible.
"We haven't had any visitors." She shook her head.
"About two weeks ago. Four teenagers. Two girls and two boys. Ages twelve to about fifteen or sixteen." He said holding his temper.
"I'm sorry, we haven't seen a group like that." She was being nice, but she was lying and he was not in the mood.
"Look, I know you took in a bunch of kids from the incinerator work camp. The group of people I'm looking for rescued them. I was part of that rescue. I need to find them." He controlled his voice but he thought there might be smoke curling from his clenched fists.
"Let me ask Sister Oni if she's seen such a group." The homely woman looked him up and down and left him outside.
Zuko sat on a nearby boulder. The climb was tiring. He wondered how the kids had done it that night.
He sighed. It had been easier when he had been looking for the avatar in order to hurt the boy.
He heard voices come toward the entrance of the cave and he stood. He brushed his dusty robe thinking maybe his appearance had become disreputable during the long climb to the abbey and perhaps that was why the horsey woman had put him off so bluntly. If this new woman was the superior it might help to look a little neater.
"What can I do to help you?" A voice asked while he was concentrating on a bur in the fabric of his sleeve and he froze.
He'd recognize that voice anywhere.
For a split second he actually considered not looking up. Something inside of him wanted to hide completely. He fantasized about sprinting back down the mountain and never looking back.
Slowly his raised his head and looked her in the eyes.
Sister Oni stumbled back a step and caught herself. Her lips formed his name but no sound came from her mouth.
"Sister? Are you alright?" The larger woman asked worriedly.
The superior looked blankly at the other woman for a moment before jerkily nodding.
"It's alright Sister Lia." She whispered. "Please leave us. I'll be fine." She assured her counterpart who continued to throw suspicious glares in Zuko's direction as she returned to the cave.
Oni returned her gaze to the young man standing before her. He hadn't moved. Still stared at her as if studying a portrait.
Zuko stepped back when she reached a trembling hand to him. Who was this woman who had abandoned him for so many painful years? She wasn't taller than he anymore. Her forehead was lightly lined with permanent marks of stress. She wore the plain clothes of a sectarian peasant and her graying hair was tied back in a simple, practical braid. It was such a contrast to his perfectly preserved father he had trouble recognizing her.
But her eyes were the same. Behind the glittering tears and past the thin, weary wrinkles shone all the love he'd missed. She was real. He'd found her.
"Mother." He had stepped away from her touch and so felt a gap between them that seemed insurmountable. He bowed respectfully for lack of any better idea.
"Oh Zuko." She breathed. "I thought I was doing the right thing."
"It doesn't matter." He said. But it did. Whatever her intention, her decision to leave him had been the wrong thing, no question.
"Of course it matters." She strode purposefully toward him, her confidence returned and wrapped her arms tightly around him, physically pressing his forehead into the crook of her neck.
His arms stayed by his sides for a moment while his tense body fought the need to melt into her embrace.
But melt he finally did, his arms squeezing her just as tightly as she was hugging him. She felt wetness soak through the shoulder of her tunic about the same time he realized his own shirt was becoming drenched.
He never cried. Never. Rarely anyway.
"My beautiful son." She wept. "Can you ever forgive me?"
He didn't answer for a long time. His first thought had shamefully been negative. No, he'd thought. He couldn't forgive her. He could love her. He could need her. But he could never forgive her.
But that would be a lie. He of all people understood the bizarre twists that came with being royalty. The mistakes made out of devotion to a poorly defined purpose. The demand of perfection by those so far from perfect they've not even hit the scale.
Can you ever forgive me?
He had several people to whom he intended to present the same question. What answer did he hope to receive and why did he deserve it any more than she?
"Yes." He choked. "I already have."
From a rocky ledge he studied the small encampment. The group some distance from him seemed to work in slow motion. They were tired, he could tell.
In the week that had followed his reunion with his mother he'd experienced the bizarre sensation of a temporary loss of his element while at the same time fending off a small group of attackers made up of guards from the incinerator complex. The oafs had lost their jobs in the wake of the escape of the work camp children and the sudden discovery of egregious safety violations and such poor working conditions that they cost the Fire Lord a good deal of prestige among his people. They'd been dismissed with no severance. They had to blame someone and so a peaceful, unofficial abbey seemed like a good place to start.
If Zuko had not been there, the louts might have actually hurt someone. As it turned out they were unprepared to actually face an accomplished fighter. When he'd dispatched the ruffians he was surprised to find the fifteen and sixteen year olds who had so recently been rescued had created a barrier across the mouth of the cave so even if the oafs had won their way past Zuko they would have to fight stick and rock bearing teenagers who had every intention of defending their new home.
People rise to the occasion if someone will only believe they can. Why had it taken him so long to understand that fact?
And now as he watched the camp, he hoped he too could rise to the challenge.
He heard the lightest rustle behind him and he quickly turned. His eyes went wide as he found himself face to face with the avatar.
"What are you doing here?" The boy asked him his body coiled for a fight.
Zuko felt the old urge to attack but quelled it, disgusted with himself for what he realized now was an involuntary reaction akin to an addiction.
"Trying to get my nerve up." He finally sighed.
"For what?" Aang asked him. "If you want to attack me, do it now. Leave them out of it."
"I'm not going to attack you!" Zuko snapped. It was as if the kid had read his mind.
"Then why are you here?" The avatar demanded, never relaxing his battle stance.
Zuko looked back at the group. He could see her working. Putting things away. Making things right.
"Why are you here?" Aang repeated impatiently.
"I didn't come for you." The prince spat back at him.
There was a long silence while both boys watched the water bender. Aang relaxed his stance and stepped forward. Not too close. He was young but he wasn't a fool.
"You know I've been thinking about kissing her like that since the day I met her. I've dreamed of it." Aang said quietly.
"She told you?" Zuko's brow furrowed.
"No, she hasn't said anything about what happened that night."
"Then how did you…" Understanding lit the fire bender's face. "You cleared the mist that night.
"She was taking too long. I was worried about her so I went back to make sure she was okay. I knew she was hiding somewhere in there."
"I'm surprised you didn't attack me." Zuko said seriously.
"I didn't feel like it."
"Does she know you saw?"
"No. I made Sokka and Toph promise not to tell her I checked up on her. That would have made her mad." Aang said as he too watched Katara from afar. "I told them I couldn't find her. It made Sokka worry, but I didn't want him to know what really happened."
Zuko looked at the boy. It had never occurred to him that there was anything other than friendship between the water bender and the avatar. That complicated things for him.
"If it makes you feel any better she didn't know it was me." He told Aang.
"Really?" For some reason it did make him feel better.
"Not until you did your little air bending trick and made the mist disappear." Zuko couldn't resist a jab.
Aang grinned. She hadn't purposefully betrayed him with his enemy.
"Why are you here?" He asked again.
"I want to talk to her." Zuko said, feeling uncomfortably like he was asking permission.
Aang didn't want Zuko talking to Katara. He didn't want the prince here at all. Not in this place that was peaceful for the moment. Where they were healing and trying to come up with their next strategy.
But he was not in a position to refuse. How could he? Katara would really be angry if he presumed so much. He hated when she was angry.
Katara drew water from the well outside the crumbling structure that gave them temporary shelter. They had been surprised to find the resource, shabby with disuse but abundant with crystal clear water. If nothing else they wouldn't die of thirst.
She heard him approach. She thought it was Sokka. When he actually spoke she instinctively water whipped him to his behind.
"What are you doing here?" She stood over him, her hands curled into fists.
"I came to talk to you." He replied rising unsteadily to his feet.
"To make peace." He said quietly, looking in her eyes for the first time since he realized he needed her. They pulled at him as no others had. How could he have missed it all that time?
"With you. With the avatar I guess."
"You guess?" She asked miserably. What was she going to do? She still wanted to kiss him!
"I don't know." He said distractedly. He wanted to touch her but he didn't dare. "Mostly with you, I suppose. I can't be your enemy."
"But you are my enemy."
"Yes you are!" She cried. "Zuko this is war. You can't just make peace with a handful of people here and there because they have something you want. Either you're my ally or you're my enemy. In all of it. There's no time left to stay on the fence. Can't you understand that?"
He stared at her. What did she want him to do? He couldn't remember exactly why he'd come or what he thought might happen. He knew that making peace with the avatar would mean betrayal of his father's goals, but he'd never thought anyone would expect him to say it out loud. And by announcing it did that make him an active part of the opposition to his country? He would truly be a traitor, not just by insinuation but also by declaration.
He was here to make peace. For himself. He had not been thinking about his nation.
"This isn't about you Zuko." She continued as if he'd spoken his thoughts aloud. "It's not about me or the Blue Spirit and the Painted Lady or even the avatar. It's about nations surviving. Even yours."
"I won't hurt Fire Nation citizens." He said gruffly, stubbornly.
She let out a bitter laugh.
"Do you honestly think we would purposefully hurt innocent people?" She asked him incredulously.
Memories clamped down on him. The avatar saving him from Zhao at the fortress, the boy risking his life to put out the flames of Kyoshi Island, waking up on the back of the avatar's bison instead of in the wasteland of the North Pole. He remembered her offer to rid him of his scar.
"No. I guess you wouldn't." He admitted softly as he took a deep breath, trying to cleanse some of his guilt and finding it impossible.
"So why are you here?" She squared her shoulders and looked at him sternly. She expected an answer. She would not be put off with platitudes.
"It's a simple question." The brother approached, his sword drawn but his body at ease.
"Is it just Sweetness you came for or are you ready to do the right thing?" The blind girl appeared and stopped in a support position behind Katara, her arms crossed over her chest.
Zuko swallowed. He hadn't wanted to talk to these people. He'd only wanted to talk to Katara. He longed for their clearing in the woods and their disguises. He wanted to go back to the time when he didn't know.
The avatar floated down from his perch and stood in support of his friends. He didn't say anything. He'd already asked the question.
"I came to talk to Katara." Zuko finally said lamely, feeling his face heat.
"But that's not enough." The Water Tribe boy said. "You came all this way. Why?"
"It's time nephew." A familiar, beloved voice said quietly as the old man stepped from the shadows.
Zuko looked up sharply. "Uncle!" He said, both relieved and ashamed.
"Why have you come?" Iroh asked.
"I don't know." He did know his decision couldn't be based on a girl. And it couldn't be based on his disappointment with his family. It couldn't even be based on the cruel exile his mother had been forced to endure.
He had to do what was right.
The group tensed as the prince stepped toward the avatar. He stopped a few feet short of the boy and looked down at him. Studying him. How many important life choices could a sixteen-year-old be expected to endure in such a short time?
Zuko pulled his swords from their sheath as he dropped to a knee before the avatar, laying the weapons on the ground before him.
"I'll serve you. It's the right thing." He bowed his head in obeisance.
A childlike cheer went up from the group while Iroh stood back and grinned, fighting embarrassing tears of joy.
The prince was awkwardly patted on his shoulders. Still not trusted or liked enough to be embraced, but welcomed nonetheless.
Later, after Zuko had spent time alone with his uncle and laid out his bedroll near the old man's sleeping space, the prince looked out over the vast mountain range below. He knew he wouldn't be alone, so he wasn't surprised when the avatar sat down beside him.
"I love her." The boy didn't mince words. "I'm not going to give up just because you got the kiss I wanted."
Zuko looked over at him. He wished he could concede to the avatar. He wished he could promise to back off and never pursue a relationship with the water bender.
But there was no way he could do that.
"I said I'd serve you, but that doesn't change how I feel about her." He said carefully. "I didn't come all this way for a crush."
"Neither did I." Aang said meaningfully.
They were silent for a long time.
Finally Zuko opened his bag and took out his mask. He handed it to Aang who inspected it with interest, even held it up to his face to look through its eyes. He handed it back to its owner, wondering what in the world the prince's plan could be.
Zuko placed the mask on the ground, pulled out a sword and clove the laughing face in two even pieces. He handed one to Aang and put the other one back in his bag.
"May the best man win." He smirked.
"Thank you, I will." Aang said cheerfully as he accepted his half of the mask.
As the days went by their training took a very serious turn. The comet was approaching and the future of the world hung in the balance. The day of reckoning rushed toward them at a mind-numbing pace.
But at least once a day blue eyes would meet gold eyes and for an instant they would be transported back to that moment in the mist. And the world would open up like their moonlit clearing and they would see the possibilities of peace.
And they would always smile.
A/N: Thanks to everyone who has been reading this story. It was incredibly enjoyable to write.
And thanks especially to all the wonderful people who have left a review. It's been great to hear from you and we hope you liked it.
There has been a lot of spoiler information going around and we've been seriously trying to avoid it. For that reason we sort of skipped over the invasion and straight to the aftermath. If you've seen the hacked or UK episodes, please don't write any spoilers if you leave a comment. We are on the US air date schedule, so keep in mind that we're only up to The Puppetmaster.
If you haven't read the story Parts of a Whole (written by MacFie alone) please consider checking it out.
Thanks again for taking the time to read Mask and Veil. Have a great day!