Trombe: Here it is. The final ending to WIDLAY. It took so long to get here but we did it. And I know it's not the ending that many of us want (Authors included) but it's the ending that made sense to me and artsy. We will be continuing on the story of our beloved heroes in our sequel but for now… enjoy and read.
artsyelric: this ending was so tough for me. we intended it to be a good break up on both sides, and it is in many ways. They both learned what they needed from the other to make their own cannon pairings work, zuko to listen and understand an emotional relationship (because mai is weak in that area) and katara to have the confidence to initiate the physical part of her relationship with aang (because as a twelve-year-old he is completely pathetic at this). when we started we said the breakup would be more mutual and all, but as we look towards a sequel trombe broke my heart as he told me it wasn't mutual for Zuko. I feel terrible writing this, but also so glad to reach an ending. it will be a good ending, a strong one, and we hope to have a sequel to it too, but for now, i am so proud to have finished it.
i also HAVE to say the BIGGEST ever thank you to every fan who has ever read this, commented, or pmed us. this story started as nothing but a joke, just to see why so many zutaras at the time were so terrible and if we could do better. it was a laugh, but as fans fell into it, we began to take it more seriously, and together with each and every one of you, we created something truly beautiful. something more than paper. something that touched the hearts of both trombe and i and became one of the many things that changed us from friends, to dating, to married. perhaps canon says there will be tenzin and bumi and Kya (apparently that's how you actually spell it, our bad), but this fandom, all of you wonderful people, created a memory for us as a couple that will live with us forever. thank you all so much.
Trombe: Thanks for taking this journey with Zuko and Katara and I wish you all a brighter tomorrow.
What I Don't Like About You
Chapter 55: After Everything
Katara soared on Appa towards where the source of the light had come from. At first she had been flying blind, tears still in her eyes, trusting to Appa to guide her to Aang, but now her eyes raked the earth below her, filled with flames that had been put out by floods of no receding water. She knew she was close now, she could feel it and so could Appa. She had been looking for Aang for so long after he disappeared, wanting to explain things to him, to make it right between them, but now that she had almost found him, she realized she had no idea what to say. She knew that if it was Aang who had been with someone else, and she had learned about it, she would have been furious.
But not facing him wasn't an option. If she walked out on him, after everything they'd been through… Walking out on Zuko had been the most difficult thing she had ever done. Walking out on Aang, imagining a life without him in it, it just wasn't possible. She had to try.
Appa gave a roar pulling her out of her thoughts, and he whipped his tail, rushing them in a new direction. Katara looked up. She saw a Fire Nation airship straight ahead. For a moment her breath caught, but then she saw that it was moored above a large stone pillar, with a ladder dropping down. Her gaze fell to the small forms of people she could just make out on the ladder, and she felt her heart leap with joy.
It was Sokka. Sokka and Toph and Suki. They were all alive! They were all okay. With a shout of joy she urged Appa onward. She was almost there, so close she could make out their voices now. Suki was speaking. "So did you… you know? Finish the job?" Katara held her breath waiting for an answer.
"I'm still alive," a horrid, deep voice she had never heard growled back.
"I learned there was another way to defeat him and restore balance," Aang's voice answered confidently, and Katara hesitated, waiting to hear the rest. Appa pulled at the reigns wanting to go faster, but she needed to hear this first. "I took his bending away." Katara gasped, along with the others.
"Wow!" Toph gasped. "Who taught you that?"
"A giant Lion-Turtle," Aand said, with a lilt in his voice, and Katara knew it would all be okay, just by the sound of his voice.
She urged Appa forward to the pillar. "You have the craziest adventures when you disappear," Toph chuckled as she touched down. "WHAT!?" she cried out suddenly as Appa's feet hit the stone. "Who's there now?!" Everyone spun towards her, but Toph had already recognized her mistake. "APPA!" she rushed towards the beast.
"Whew!" Sokka breathed, dropping his fists. "Don't scare us like that, sis," he warned, holding out his arms for a hug as she dismounted. "I'm so glad you're alright. Did you hear about Aang crazy adventure?"
"I sure did," Katara replied, hugging her brother tight.
Sokka stepped back and her eyes came up to Aang's. He didn't say anything.
"So… um… How'd it go with Zuko?" Suki asked. Aang blinked, his face looking momentarily hurt. "Is he Fire Lord now?"
"Better," Katara replied. "I think he's Phoenix King."
"I am the Phoenix King!" Ozai insisted in his terrible voice, his glare angry and scornful.
"What's a Phoenix King?" Aang asked.
"No idea," Sokka replied, turning his attention to Ozai. "But I think now that your firebending gone I guess we should call you the Loser Lord."
"No, no," Toph insisted. "He said he's a King. We're sorry. Didn't mean to offend you, Pheonix King of Getting His Butt Whooped." She mashes her fists together as she mocked him.
Ozai drew himself up, clearly on the last of his strength, and opened his mouth as is preparing to say some cutting rebuttal. But no words came. Instead his strength failed, and he collapsed unconscious at their feet, causing Sokka and Toph to howl uncontrollably.
Katara took the moment to step closer to Aang. "Aang, I'm so proud of you. I can't believe you found a way to defeat Ozai without killing him. This is amazing!" She put as much pride and positive feelings, as much love as she could into her voice.
"Yeah, well… It all worked out." Aang glanced up at her. "So you went with Zuko to the Lhi Ming Dhu Shi? Did things go okay… with him?"
Katara reached out for Aang, and he drew slightly back. Once, what seemed a long time ago, she would have given up, but new Katara, the Katara that had dated a fiery, passionate prince, did not. She stepped forward and caught Aang's hands anyway. She heard his breath catch in his throat and a small blush creep up in his cheeks. "It went great," she answered directly. "He took a blast of lightning to the heart-"
"What?" Aang gasped.
"Turned his fire white-"
"And wound up defeating Azula squarely. He is, by all laws and opinions including his own, officially the Fire Lord, prophesied to lead his people into into a new era." Katara stated in a matter of fact tone, before scratching her chin in doubt. "At least I think that's what it means. "
Aang nodded. "Good, that's exactly what we needed to hear to win this war." He glanced down at his hands. "So… why aren't you with him then?"
Katara smiled softly. "Because I didn't choose him."
Aang sighed. "Katara… you don't have to… I can tell you cared a lot about him. And… and I forgive you. I understand if you want to… I don't know, stop travelling the world with me and become… Fire Lady? Phoenix Queen? I don't even know what you'd- Mah!"
His words cut off mid sentence as Katara pressed her lips firmly against his. For one startled moment he hesitated, then, cautiously, reciprocated. It wasn't like kissing Zuko. The carnal passion, the physical craving, the idea that she was doing something terribly wrong and so enticing was gone. Instead there was something more beautiful. She didn't just admire Aang as a person. She loved him, utterly and completely, exactly how he was. It was different, but comfortable, because she had always been beside him, but knew, because she was ready to turn over a new leaf, to put aside their spluttering attempts to make something happen, and to just confidently be with him. Because when she kissed him, she knew everything really would be okay.
She drew back. "I knew you would say that," she whispered, feeling all her worry and guilt fall away as she did so. "That you would always forgive me, forgive all of us. That's why it'll always be you."
Feeling that all was right with the world again, Katara turned to join in the mocking of Ozai, and behind her she was sure she heard Aang whisper "wow…"
"Yeah," Suki was saying half halfheartedly, "or how about… King of the guys who… um… don't win?"
"Okay, I think you need to leave the nicknames to us honey," Toph laughed. "That was… worse than Katara…" She kinda snorted she was laughing so much.
"Oh no," Katara answered the challenge. "I got a good one. Umm… Father lord King of the Crazy Daughters that… um… Also Lose."
Sokka laughed so hard he cried, and Suki gave Katara a grateful smile. Aang stepped up behind her and slipped his hand in hers. Suki's smile changed. "So I see you two have sorted things out?"
"Oh, I uh…" Aang dropped her hand, embarrassed.
Katara smiled. "Yeah," she stated. "We have." She took his hand back. Then she gazed at her brother. "I hope that's alright with you, Mr. Macho Big Brother."
Sokka appeared to consider for a moment, then said, "Well, I suppose he DID save the world and all…" Suki elbowed him in the ribs. "All right, all right! Seriously though Aang, I'd rather you than anyone else. So don't mess this up!" He gave Aang the stink eye.
Between them Ozai groaned. "I guess we better get this guy loaded up on the ship and head back to the capital," Aang stated. "I hear there is a new coronation to attend."
"Here here!" Sokka and Toph agreed, and the Gaang loaded up.
In the distance, the comet passed out of sight. It was all truly over.
Finally, after so many years, Katara felt that all was right with the world. So overwhelmed with joy that she could not notice the tiniest of voices inside her heart break, a promise unfulfilled.
The soon to be Phoenix King of the Fire Nation grumbled beneath his breath as his hands continued to fumble at the lowly task. Dressing himself had never been an issue before and he was not about to let it start now, yet every movement on his part was agony, even with the medicine. Reluctantly he had to admit it was not a good idea to try and do this alone. But what was he to do? Ba Sing Se was weeks still away, even if his uncle had left as soon as they had liberated the city. With such a hasty coronation there was no one he trusted enough to confide in, much less have someone see him in such a state.
He shook his head.
There was no way. No way he was going to let anyone see him in such a weakened state. Besides his order had already been given and the palace servants had been tasked in helping with the coronation.
Sighing to himself he gave up halfway of trying to put on his robe as he sat and gazed at the view his window could offer him. Now, as the most powerful man in the Fire Nation, there should be nothing to fear.
Then why is it he feared he might be trapped inside a gilded cage?
"You need some help with that?" a voice asked from his doorway, breaking him from a solemn and grim thought.
His initial thought was to immediately dismiss whoever dared approach him like this, and turned, hoping they hadn't seen him in a struggling with his robe, but immediately bit back the words as he recognized the girl posed in his doorway.
"Mai, you're back. And your arms, they're not shaking any more. Ar.e.. are you okay now?" Zuko asked, somewhat guiltily, knowing full well she bore those wounds from trying to save him.
The raven haired beauty shrugged off his concern. "They barely hurt anymore, and Katara gave me a healing session as soon as I returned from the prison." She rolled her eyes when he still looked concerned. "I'm fine, Zuko."
He nodded, finally accepting this. "So, is Azula's prison cell completely secure?"
"My uncle pulled some strings," she stated. "And of course, I saw to it that everything you specified happened."
"Good. I hope… I hope they really listened to you, My sister can still be very dangerous." He sunk back to the seat and she silently watched him as if she was studying him.
He had to break the silence - it was getting awkward.
"Do you remember when you and I used to play by the pond, in the palace garden?"
Stunned by her sudden question he hesitated before giving an assured "yes".
"Did you ever imagine, back when we were chasing turtle-ducks and turning cartwheels, that we would ever be standing here? Fire Lord Zuko," she grinned, "the prophesied Phoenix King."
For once he could feel the genuine sincerity in her voice. For a split second he was convinced it was the voice of Mai the child, the girl who had never been afraid to feel. He could hear that girl again, the one who had laughed with him, who, once upon a time, he had fallen in love with.
He couldn't help it, he chuckled. "Frankly, I imagined I would be taller…"
The sweet sweet sound of a girl's laughter caused him great distraught and confusion. Had… Had Mai just laughed?
"Really? After all this, After… after everything... THAT is what you want to say?" Mai's light shoulders danced as she tried to stifle still the incoming giggle fit she was having. "You thought you might be taller?" She covered her mouth and truly laughed at him "You're.." She paused as she had to wipe a single tear. "You're an idiot."
Zuko's lips smiled gently. The tension in the room had left. "Some have been known to call me that, but thanks." It had been ages, a lifetime really, since he had heard that laugh, and sometimes he had wondered if he ever would again.
"Here, let me…" Mai offered, casually striding as she knelt beside him and began to fix his robes.
Her gentle eyes met his, a gaze he was still hesitant to completely match. "So does this mean you don't hate me anymore… er… afterall?"
"Don't be absurd, of course I hate you." She stated simply as she pulled on the sleeves of the robes hard to emphasis her point.
Well what was he to expect? After all the time she had spent with Azula, she had shut down emotionally a lot. This wasn't going to be at all like hanging out with Katara.
But then she continued, and he couldn't help but feel amazed by her bluntness.
"But… It doesn't mean I don't… kinda… like you… still."
And there it was. The one think he was still afraid of. The thing that bonded them together throughout it all.
She still cared for him.
And it shamed him greatly… to love another.
However he admired so much what it took for someone like Mai to open up like that. Right now he felt his heart breaking for her. He stared at her, with no way to put everything he was feeling into words, but feeling closer to her than he ever had before, afraid to take the next step. Katara was beyond his reach, but that didn't mean that he couldn't have happiness. He considered Mai, how much she had given up for him, and how hard she was trying to do what he had asked, to be more open and honest. He knew now that opening up was a two way street. So he took a breath.
"Mai… Listen, what I - what we have is complicated."
"Yeah, we are."
"But…" He took a deep breath. "But it doesn't mean I don't want to try. Maybe we can… start over?"
"A fresh slate?" Mai considered. She tapped her lip for a moment. "I don't know… We've known each other a long time to be starting over."
Zuko took a step back from her. "I think it goes something like this…" He cleared his throat. "Ahem, hi. I'm Zuko. Ah… Fire Lord Zuko. And um… I like your… knives?"
Mai snorted. "I think that went better in your head."
He glared at her. "Your hair. I like your hair."
"That's better." She glanced up and down at him as if taking him in for the very first time. "Fine. I'm Mai. And I'm terrible at this kind of thing."
"I had no idea," Zuko said in the most deadpan voice he could manage.
She punched him in the shoulder. "Hey, I'm really trying here," she insisted.
"I know. While we're trying…" He couldn't find the words, afraid to say anything to hurt whatever fragile connection he had left with Mai.
Maybe with time, but not right now. Never now. He was barely holding on. Mai's gentle presence filled his senses with ease and dread. He couldn't lose her too. But he wasn't ready to move on, not yet...
He pleaded with himself, was it not alright to be selfish for once?
Just… just let me have this moment… please...
As if Mai could hear his thoughts she answered for him. Softly she reached forward and her hands settled along his shoulders, running along them and fixing the creases on his robes. There was no obligation, nothing forced, just companionship. Someone who cared about him. So he didn't resist at all when she leaned in slightly towards him.
Before he knew it their foreheads touched gently, no exchange needed as both soaked in the moment, hoping for time to stand still. Only enjoying the company of the other.
A brief moment Zuko would cherish for all of his life.
Then she said the words that hadn't heard since he was a small child.
"It'll be okay, " Her eyes matching his. "You'll be fine…" she smiled as she pulled away from their intimate moment.
Somehow, after so many years of wrong, he believed that just maybe, this time, it might be.
The moment stretched, but eventually ended. For the first time in what seemed like forever the two were back in reality as Mai strode casually towards the door, her head arching to the side, beckoning him to follow.
"How about we get this coronation under way?" she gave a small genuine smile that would melt a man.
Zuko was amazed how much she had grown. Whether it was prison time, admitting to herself she still cared about him, or just finally being freed of Azula, she had found herself. Shy, and timid still, and perhaps only in private, but it was a start. One he could work with. One he was proud to stand beside.
With a scoff of mild disbelief at her newly returned attitude, and an arrogant stride to match hers, he joined her. The once comfortable strut of a prince in his own palace returned as he matched Mai's. It felt like an old friend, and a challenge stating I'm the only one who can keep up with you.
"You're right. I've got a Kingdom to rule…" For the first time today he could genuinely put up a smile.
The coronation rejuvenated the entire city. Jubilation and delight filled the air, as if the city could breath for the very first time. Zuko could feel it. The palace alone was buzzing as every single person that walked the halls walked with a purpose.
The bowing certainly made things more awkward, as it was a formality the former prince had left behind. Mai rolled her eyes dramatically every time Zuko paused to command his subjects to stop the act of respect, correcting them that he was not the crowned king yet.
"Oh let them have this Zuko," She chided as they continued towards their destination. "It's not everyday we get to celebrate the coronation of the once and future Phoenix King. Besides, in mere moments you will be the crowned king and you'll just have to get used to it then."
"Would you stop that already?" Zuko stated, genuinely perturbed at how high these people were placing him upon the pedestal. "This Phoenix King nonsense is totally not what I had in mind." Nervously he fidgeted with the long stylish robes which were a little bit too long on his sleeves. "I'm just the guy who sits on the throne," he stated his opinion of his position.
Mai pursed her lips in disbelief, but held back from speaking aloud. It was clear she thought he was much more than just a guy who sat anywhere.
""Well guy who sits on his throne…" she paused accordingly as they arrived at a junction, "Go get that throne." A simple request, from a very complicated girl.
Before he could respond she continued on, as if she didn't need to hear his answer.
"I've got to go and get ready myself. I'll see you out there, okay? I'll be the stick in the mud next to a really perky pink girl." The two shared a look meant only for them before both parting separate ways.
The open halls of the palace reverberated with his footsteps as he walked alone, casually observing every nuance, every crack, every pillar of the majestic center of his city. Home… he was finally home. Memories of childhood resurfaced as he continued his melancholic tour.
It wasn't until he heard the sound outside his colossal windows that he was pulled away from his reminiscing, his senses beckoning him to come and see the commotion.
Out in the courtyard he could see friends and allies mingle with laughter and joy. Fire Nation officials in formal garb, and rebel fighters, hugging and embracing loved ones still lucky enough to be alive. He spotted Kyoshi Warriors embracing a jubilant Ty Lee accepting her as one of their own. He eyed the three noble families that supported him during his Agni Kai being given their just dues, their families would be given seats of honor at his side. He saw the priests of fire wasting no time in preparing the ceremonies to come. Finally he saw her.
The vision of Katara and her brother, leaning heavily on a crutch, reuniting with their ecstatic father. His eyes lingered upon the heart warming scene. But part of him wanted to duck away, afraid her gaze would rise and meet his.
He hadn't spoken to Katara or anyone else after the battle. It had happened all so fast that afterwards they were all pulled apart to attend to many other things. He knew he would have to see her, for healing, but thus far he had been able to avoid it. From the bottom of his heart he thanked whatever spirit granted him some small mercy. He could not face Katara now. He didn't know how. Right on cue, as if to mock him for the thought, she took notice of his gaze. Zuko responded like any other young man in his position would do. He avoided her eyes and hastily created distance between him and the view. Enough of that, he told himself. He was needed for the coronation. He would stall no longer.
Making his way towards the courtyard he was surprised to find a guest calmly awaiting the former prince's arrival. A young air nomad he hardly recognized, dressed in the garbs of his people, sat calmly meditating in the middle of the hallway floor.
"Aang…" he stated, looking with mixed feelings at his former pupil… and quite possibly his former friend.
"Hello Zuko." The young Avatar greeted him warmly as the boy stood up next to him.
Was he always this tall, the scarred young man noted. A notion he quickly shook from his memory. The last he had seen of the last airbender was their fight upon the beach, resulting in their explosive argument. One more act to add to the many that epitomize his shame.
Yet a hand was extended.
A warm friendly gesture from the wide eyed Avatar. One he could not help but reciprocate in return with an unsure shake.
"Congratulations on being the new Fire Lord - or should I say Phoenix King," the bald headed boy jested.
Zuko groaned. "Not you too!" He didn't mean to slip into being so casual but Aang always had a way of making people feel at ease around him.
"A Monk can only speak the truth, Zuko." Aang smiled as he placed his hands together in prayer and in good spirit, but the gesture was made with the merest hint of sarcasm.
Before he knew it both King-to-be and Avatar were sharing a laugh together and all the weariness in the world seemed to have vanished.
It only seemed right to clear the air between them.
"Hey Aang, back there on the beach, I didn't mean-"
"It's okay," The young Avatar placed a hand upon his shoulder. Tiny he may be but Aang dwarfed his presence with his own. "I know what you meant. You were always looking out for me. I never thanked you for that… so thanks for that."
Everything unspoken faded away. Aang's warmth, his honest caring even after everything between them, was overpowering, and any semblance of malice between the two had vanished.
A gentle breeze swayed around the two as both opted to be still for a moment, enjoying the fleeting instant. The wind played upon Aang's beads and danced around Zuko's robes, providing the final touches to a memory both would never forget.
"I can't believe a year ago my purpose in life was hunting you down," Zuko reflected. "And now…"
"And now we're friends," Aang concluded.
"Yeah," Zuko agreed, weighing the words as he spoke them. "We are friends." He knew as he said it that it became true, and always had been, even if he just now recognized it.
"I can't believe a year ago I was still frozen in a block of ice. The world's so different now."
"And it's gonna be even more different," Zuko confirmed, now his turn to place a hand on Aang's shoulder, "when we rebuild it together."
They concluded upon the promise with a hug and an embrace to a brighter tomorrow. "Hey Zuko, I just have one small request," his friend started as they parted from the gesture.
"Can you… You can be…" Aang was fumbling with his words before finally giving a decisive look as he stood equal to his friend. "Please be the man this country needs."
A request Zuko was more than determined to make a reality. "You can count on it."
"...Well, shall we?" Zuko grinned, as if challenging the Avatar to follow in his footsteps.
"I thought you'd never ask," Aang curtly replied.
Zuko and Aang passed through the entrance, The ringing of of a thunderous gong signalling their arrival, along with the applause and adulation of the crowd present. All manner of people from different paths in life, dressed in red, blue and green, turned as one, to focus attention on the platform where Zuko now stood. The cheering was deafening.
Aang stepped up beside him, a slight blush on the airbender's face, and the cheering increased. Zuko saw Aang grin shyly, and followed his gaze to Katara, who was cheering with the best of them, her eyes locked on Aang's, shining with pride. He took a breath, looked away in case she looked at him next, and began his speech.
Beyond the palace, beyond the Capital, beyond the continent everything was at peace for the first time in over a hundred years.
It was some long weeks later when Zuko could finally break away from the incredibly arduous process of rebuilding the Fire Nation, the capital, and all the harm the colonies had done. Nightmare after nightmare had been heaped on Zuko's plate, but for the first time in weeks, he was due a small break.
Visiting Ba Sing Se had political reasons too, meeting with the Earth King, the Dai Li, traveling the earth colonies… But for today, he had managed to slip away from all his guards, and priests, and pretentious meetings.
Today he did not need to be the Phoenix King.
Today he did not need to put on a mask.
He just needed to be a boy who could serve tea.
Garbed in simple Earth Kingdom clothing, and surrounded by a humble restaurant which he would have gladly traded the royal palace for, he never felt more at home. The Jasmine Dragon Tea House never suited him more than it did now.
He placed a steaming tea pot onto the delicate tray and swung round to share it with the room, which was full of all his favorite people.
His uncle was playing a mournful but peaceful tune on the sungi horn, and Toph was lounging on the table beside him, her filthy feet sprawled across it as she kicked back her chair and listened to the music. On the floor below her Aang rested on the floor, teasing Momo with a ball of air the little monkey couldn't catch. Katara leaned over a table trying to help Suki out as Mai walked them through the basics of Pai Sho. Behind them Appa gave a giant huff that ruffled the papers on Sokka's table.
"Zuko, stop moving!" Sokka shouted as he served the girls' tea. "I'm trying to capture the moment!" Everyone stared at Water Tribe boy as if he was… well, more mad than normal, and he could not help but elaborate. "I wanted to do a painting, so we all remember the good times together."
"That's very thoughtful of you, Sokka," Katara mothered, coming over to look at her brother's artwork. The moment was instantly ruined by the way her face scrunched in disgust as she came to grips with what she was looking at. "Wait, why did you give me Momo's ears?"
"Those are you hair loopies," Sokka explained in an offended voice.
"At least you don't look like a boarcupine," Zuko chimed in casually as and the others gathered round the mockery of a painting. "My hair is not that spiky."
"I look like a man," Mai added dryly.
Suki snorted. "Why did you paint me firebending?"
Sokka shrugged. "I thought it looked more exciting that way?"
"Then why aren't I firebending?" Zuko asked pointedly.
"Psbth," Sokka dismissed him. "That's not exciting. You're the Fire Lord or Pheonix King or whatever. You're supposed to firebend." Momo cooed at the gathered crowd, clearing adding his input as he jumped up on the table and sat on Sokka's work. "Oh, you think you could do a better job, Momo?" Sokka demanded sarcastically, and Momo chattered back incoherently.
"Hey, you're right little lemur," Iroh put in. "My belly's not that big anymore. I've really trimmed down."
They all snorted at this. Life at a tea shop had done anything but trim Uncle Iroh down., After a moment, Iroh laughed too.
Toph's chair banged to the ground as she came over to take a look. She tilted her head as if considering the artwork, the declared, "Well, I think you all look perfect!" The laughter doubled.
But Aang wasn't laughing. He had slipped out of the room almost completely unnoticed.
Except by one.
Sighing, Zuko stepped out after him. Lately the King had found his friend's calm demeanor suited him just fine. Yet it was obvious even to him that Aang was still holding on to something.
"Copper for your thoughts, Avatar?" Zuko joked as he casually placed himself beside his young Avatar, with forearms resting upon the balcony railing.
"Heh. Hey, Zuko," Aang greeted, his voice slightly cracking, indicating the puberty his body was undergoing.
From a boy to a man… how fitting, Zuko thought.
He gave a little sniff as if the hide the vocal spasm. "Man, things are going to be so different now. There's so much work to be done…" Aang's voice trailed away.
" Yeah and so little time to get it all done in..." Zuko finished for him.
The Phoenix King took a deep breath. It was time to open the proverbial Pandora's box one last time.
"Hey, you and I are going to be okay, right?" Zuko placed it out there.
"What? Of course we are. Why wouldn't be?"
"Because of who we are, Aang. There's so much to do between us. So much responsibility. I mean come on, just look at us… we're two of the most powerful men in the known world! And we're barely grown men."
Aang smiled slightly at the notion. "You make it sound like we're super villains or something like that."
"I just mean we have an obligation to the world…" Zuko resigned as he climbed upon the railing and sat upon it, enjoying the heightened view and the gentle breeze. "...and to each other…"
Aang nodded in agreement. But it would be the next question of Zuko's that would throw him for a loop.
"Do you love her?"
A tense feeling came over Aang's face instantly. "I uh… we really don't need to talk about this…"
"Yes." Zuko turned to face his friend. "Yes we do. Because… I love her Aang." And there it was. A sentence he would never admit to anyone else. A phrase that cut through the Avatar at his core. "I love her more than you will ever know…"
The Phoenix King then stood, towering over the young Air Nomad as if to prove a point. "But I know that you love her too… probably as much as I do." Zuko didn't hold back this time, it was fair that Aang see him the way he was, so his words carried true weight.
"There's just one thing though," Zuko continued. "That… is not going to be good enough for me." His tone changed to a warning. "You've always been clever Aang. I've always admired that about you. I even respect that you found a way around killing my father, but you can't be like that around Katara. I know you're just a kid. But you gotta man up. You gotta find a way to be the man she deserves or you're going to lose her…" He glanced away. "You… you have to love her more than I do."
"Zuko-" Aang started.
But Zuko lifted a finger, indicating he wasn't finish yet.
"I need you to fully love her. And mean it. I want you to think of her everyday. I want her to be in your thoughts as you wake up in the morning and I want her to be the last thing you think of when you go to sleep at night. " Zuko's fist shook with unbridled emotions, he could barely hold it in. "I want you to remember every feature, every hair line. I want her laugh to light a fire in you. I want your heart to burst with pain when she cries. I want her wonderful blue eyes to shine like no other when she looks at you, like mine does when I look at her...And maybe... maybe then… because of how much you love her… Maybe I can find some peace about it…" Zuko turned completely away, shaking off a tear he hadn't meant to let fall.
"Zuko, I-" Again Zuko cut him off, this time shaking his head, and Aang nodded, seeming to understand he was at his limit.
He had said all that he needed to say. All that was could be said. Once more he placed a gentle hand upon his brother of another lifetime. "I know. You'll take care of her. And I wish you well, my dearest friend." Zuko smiled one last time as he patted the young man's shoulder heavily, then turned to make his way back to the party.
Before he could take a few more steps Aang's voice rang loud and clear. "I do love her… and I will take care of her. You don't have to worry about that!"
Zuko smiled sadly. That was all he could ask. Without turning around he signaled a friendly gesture with his fingers to show that he heard Aang and continued to walk on.
He had said what he meant to. He intended that would be it, and he would be done. He had never meant to run into her alone.
Both awkwardly shifted apart, eyeing each other uncomfortably, a swirl of feelings bottled up inside both of them.
"Hey." Zuko was the first to break the silence.
"Hey, yourself." The waterbender responded in kind.
Her voice was welcoming and inviting, as if seeing a friend again for the first time in years.
But whatever words he wanted to say to her, he just could not. The words and thoughts had drained from him. He had nothing else to say between them. And so with a smile he replied humbly with, "You look beautiful in that dress."
"Oh… um, thank you." Katara blushed.
"And I do like the new hair loopies," he added, thinking of Sokka's picture.
She laughed a little. "Yeah, Aang… Aang does too."
Another silence fell between them before it fell to the raven haired youth to fight against the awkwardness between them. "He's uh… He's over there. By the third balcony. If that's who you're looking for."
Again he intended that he would bid Katara farewell, and yet again she wouldn't let him. "Is… is everything alright?" Her voice filled with concern.
"Everything's fine, Katara," Zuko half lied. It was easier to conceal the lie within a truth. "We did it. We finally won in the end." He masked his inner thoughts with a small laugh. "But you gotta take care of our boy over there. The most powerful man in the world and he still thinks he needs to do everything on his own." She stared at him, clearly indicating that she had no desire to laugh this off.
He sighed and realized this was the last thing he needed to do to truly move on. He had to take his own advice, and man up.
"I don't regret a single thing about us, Katara. No matter how we are now, I don't ever regret being in that stupid prison with you." Something in what he said must have resonated with her because her hand reached out and balled up, holding his robe, afraid to let go as if he would disappear forever from her life.
It took everything in him to not pull her into his arms.
"Take care of yourself, okay? You can do that for me at least," he teased as he gently took her hand off his person and into his own.
He held it firmly for a moment before finally letting go.
Before he could walk pass her a strong pair of arms engulfed him into a tender embrace.
"I'm glad… I'm glad to have met you Zuko… I will always - always - be so proud of you. Thank you… thank you for understanding."
Had he not been King and could afford such a stance he might have broken down right there and then, but his royal pride would not allow him such a weakness.
He nodded meekly, accepting her feelings.
"I will always, always love you…" She whispered so quietly the words that were only meant for him before finally breaking the hug as she ran past him to race towards Aang.
Towards her destiny.
Zuko could feel his relations shift there and then. He would always be tied to her, no matter what. She would always be around, a friend, even if it hurt, and they would always share a past, but it was possible that he might be free of her too.
As the fleeting image of Katara passed finally out of his gaze, he whispered softly to her phantom, "Do you know what I don't like about you, Katara?"
Not a single thing at all.