Disclaimer: I do not own Avatar, I think that much is obvious, and I'm not gaining financially from this story.
Warning: character death
AN: So... I'm sure this has been done before but I really felt the need to write a zutara piece. If, in the future, I find that this story has fallen into the category of crappy zutara then I will take it down faster than you can say, "Aang." But for the moment I feel like posting it.
What Could Never Be
She died. Ozai cut her down while she fought Li and Lo. Aang immediately dove into the avatar state, while Zuko blocked out the sounds of Sokka's almost hysterical war cry to distract his father long enough for death to come on glowing blue wind. It was surprising when Aang simply dropped to the floor, calmed down without any assistance from her. Toph was there to catch him.
The funerals seemed endless. First was Ozai who Zuko spared only enough time on to prove to his people that the man was dead. They didn't exactly cheer and he didn't exactly expect them to. He burned his father's corpse in a rush of flame and anger. Iroh took Azula and Zuko was pleased to see that there were at least some cheers over her death. But the pleasure didn't last long. The war heroes would be burned that evening as the sun set and the moon rose. Her body was wrapped in a thin white cloth that still allowed those closest to it to see her features but that dulled the marks of battle and made her look like she was just sleeping. Aang just kept saying he was sorry -- to Sokka, to Hakoda, to her. Zuko didn't have the heart nor the courage to tell him the truth so he just let him keep on. He used his new status as Fire Lord as an excuse to eulogize her last of all. His speech was brief, focusing on her bending talents and her kindness. It was just long enough for him to steady himself on the raised dais. Someone remarked that the new Fire Lord had such compassion to be moved by the events of the day when his father would have stood superiorly by. Zuko would forever thank his days as the Blue Spirit for the slight of hand it took in that one moment of "compassion" to commit the crime he needed to. Aang burned her body and scattered the ashes in the sea.
Ten years later the world was a different place. Peace was slowly becoming the norm and the people of the Fire Nation actually liked their new ruler. It had taken some serious effort to get public opinion back on his side and Zuko doubted he could have done it without Iroh's help, but it was working. Zuko had been far too conflicted about his own bloodline to take a wife -- Mai had died fighting Suki -- and the people took well his decision to adopt the orphaned child of one of the noble houses. The boy was growing into a better teenager than Zuko ever was, but then he had the avatar for an uncle, not to mention the Blind Bandit, the master swordsman of Xiang Poh, and Zuko's own uncle who (in Zuko's not so humble opinion) outshone them all. The boy could even make tea.
There was a crash somewhere down the hall and Zuko's brush froze above the parchment. His attendants alternated between barely hidden smiles and worried glances. Zuko waved them off, finished signing his name, and stood.
"I know I have said it before, but I feel I must repeat: there is nothing General Iroh can tell you that I don't need to know!" They were all smiling now. "And him saying it's 'a surprise' in no way makes that fact go away." He walked steadily around the large mahogany desk and threw open the double doors. Down the red tapestry covered hall was Sokka, balancing the crowned prince of the Fire Nation on his shoulders and running in a strange serpentine pattern. Toph was beyond them, laughing on the ground as if she'd never get a steady breath again. Zuko smiled but quickly hid it. Instead he marched up the hall and pulled his son down.
"Having fun?" he asked.
Li -- the irony of the name had not been lost on either Zuko or Iroh -- smiled up at him and gave a breathless nod.
"Run along, you have studying to do," Zuko said, giving the boy a loving swat towards Toph.
"Aw, dad!" both Li and Sokka whined.
Zuko raised his good eyebrow at Sokka while Toph's laughter continued.
"I believe," Zuko said, "that if you finish your calligraphy lesson quickly enough, Master Finn will take you down to the kitchens for a lesson in custard making."
Li's face lit up and he was gone in an instant.
"You always did know how to ruin all the fun," Sokka said, but his words held none of the malice they had when they were children.
"Where's Aang?" Zuko asked.
Toph had finally recovered herself enough to stand. "There's a village in the central Earth Kingdom that's complaining of hauntings. He went to deal with it."
Zuko couldn't help but notice her tone. "And his loving wife is displeased?"
"It was supposed to be a reunion!" Zuko was not surprised that it was Sokka who cried out. "How can we have a reunion without the avatar?"
Sokka looked to his feet. "Helping Haru fight off some pirates."
"Uh huh," Zuko said slowly.
"Well," Toph said, linking her arms through theirs, "let's go!"
"Where?" both boys asked, letting her pull them forward.
"To the royal apartments of course! I want to see how a Fire Lord sleeps!"
"As if I would sleep with you in the room. I learned my lesson on the Bison."
"I only pushed you off once. The second time was Katara."
Zuko stiffened noticeably but Toph said nothing of it. She pulled them ever forward towards his room.
"My uncle told you the way."
Sokka shot him a smile over the girl's head, just as thankful as Zuko for the change in subject. "I think he enjoys torturing you just as much as we do."
"You have no idea."
Toph said, "He thinks everyone should see how their rulers sleep, it gives them a good idea of how their country is being run."
"You don't live in my country," Zuko argued. He was naturally ignored.
Several winding red passages later they stood before the doors. The golden dragon emblazoned on the door was more than decorative, it was a lock that could only be opened with very specific firebending. It wasn't locked now, it rarely was, but it was still impressive.
"They're huge," Sokka gasped.
"No, they're not," Zuko said.
"Your doors are taller than my house!"
"Oh." Zuko put his hand to the back of his neck, shifting uncomfortably. What was it about these people that always made him feel sixteen again? "Well, they're not really my doors. Every Fire Lord for three hundred years has had them."
Toph had by now grown tired with the conversation and waltzed inside without so much as a "may I?" But then Toph had never actually uttered the words "may I" so it wasn't so unexpected.
"It's big," Toph said, giving the floor a tap with her foot.
"Yeah, it is!" Sokka cried, rushing inside. He stopped halfway to the large, red curtained bed and turned back to Zuko. "Your room is bigger than my house!"
Zuko had nothing to say to that and so walked inside with as much decorum as he could muster. The two began rummaging through his things, examining the contents of his dresser, his desk, his bedside table. It was not until Sokka had already been digging in this last for several minutes that Zuko realized just how dangerous that was. He was just about to make up some excuse for them to leave when Sokka froze.
"What is it?" Toph asked, noticing the change in both boy's demeanors.
Sokka slowly lifted his hand for Zuko to see. From it hung Katara's necklace.
"What is this?" he asked, barely contained anger evident in every aspect of his being.
"What?" Toph asked, her voice insistent. She absolutely refused to be kept out of anything because of her blindness.
"It's Katara's necklace," Zuko said, surprised at how steady his voice was.
"Oh," Toph said, turning back to the marbles she'd been playing with.
"Oh?" Sokka echoed. "Zuko stole my dead sister's necklace -- again!"
"She wasn't dead the first time," Zuko said. He was so used to correcting Li's grammar that he'd forgotten about the seriousness of the situation.
"You stole it before?" Toph asked.
"You knew he stole it this time?" Sokka said in the same moment.
"Of course I knew," Toph said as if is should be obvious. "That whole leaning on the dais for support thing was totally an excuse to get it off her."
Zuko took a seat on his bed. "I was hoping only Iroh noticed."
"Iroh knew?" Sokka demanded.
"Oh yeah," Zuko said with a mirthless laugh. "He kept spouting out these annoying metaphors about water lilies and how their beauty only shines for a short time and we have to let them go…." He fell back on the bed, wishing for the first time that his bed was smaller so that there would be a pillow within his reach that he could muffle a cry with.
"Yeah," Toph said, "Uncle is big on the metaphors."
"Why?" Sokka asked, his voice dangerously low.
Zuko turned his head to look in the boy's blazing eyes but it was Toph who answered. "Because he loved her."
Sokka's face froze. "What?" he asked, his voice barely audible in the massive room.
"Oh yeah," Toph said and Zuko shot her a glare he knew she couldn't see. If anyone should be explaining this it was him. "He was worse than Aang. Every time Sugar Queen came around his heart would start going like a rabbitoceros in mating season. Why do you think he was always bending?"
"He was training Aang," Sokka said, but his voice held no conviction. "You really loved my sister?"
Sokka met his eyes. "That's why Ozai killed her. He could see it in my fighting: the way I kept drifting back towards her, the way I lost concentration every time Li or Lo cackled. He knew and he wanted to hurt me."
"And Aang hurt him," Toph said.
"Yeah," Zuko said with a nod. He pulled himself up, feeling like he'd just trained for three hours with Iroh. He walked towards the door, turning back only when escape was a footfall away. "Nothing would have happened," he said. "She didn't even notice me except when I was messing up and I never would have forced the issue. Your sister was too good for that, too good for me," he added so quietly that only Toph could hear.
Their visit lasted three weeks. Aang showed up during the second. The anger of that first day had disappeared by nightfall and Zuko couldn't help but wonder what had happened after he retreated back into his office. He suspected Toph had told Sokka about every time Zuko's pulse had sped in Katara's presence (which was every time she was in his presence so that would have taken a while) and he also had the nagging feeling that Iroh was involved, though he didn't know how. He almost wanted to accuse the man of orchestrating the whole visit just so that Sokka would find the necklace. When they finally left on Appa he was sad. They were a part of his life that he would always treasure but that he could never truly get back. He went to bed early that night, eager for sleep that wasn't interrupted by an earthquake or a battle cry.
He was surprised to find the necklace on his pillow -- he had thought Sokka would take it with him since it was a symbol of both his sister and mother -- and even more surprised by the note beneath it.
"For what it's worth," Sokka's sloppy slanting handwriting read, "I think of you as a brother."
It wasn't a blessing, just a statement. If anything it was a reminder of his own words that day, she didn't see him as anything but the boy they'd once fought and run from. Nothing could ever have come from Zuko's feelings. But Sokka accepted that they existed, he had to. They were family in a way that defied reason and convention, and they would weather all storms.
Zuko put the necklace back in its drawer, his fingertips lingering for only a moment over the stone. He felt certain that somewhere in the spirit world she was looking down on him with pity and the same sort of brotherly love Toph felt for him. But that she was looking was enough, it always had been.
AN: You should always review oneshots, otherwise how will I know who made it to the end and who just clicked and turned right back around?