Katara rubbed her sore back as she stretched her arms up. After three days riding atop Appa's saddle, she had almost forgotten what it felt liketo walk.
The water-bender was still angry. She was annoyed at several people, but most importantly, she was angry at herself. She was tired of people lying to her, and especially tired of being thought of as naïve and foolish.
The air in the Earth Kingdom was cleaner than she remembered, although the breeze was a bit colder than she would have preferred. After living for so many years in the Fire Nation capital, she had grown used to warmer climates and found it strange that she – a native of the south pole – felt cold. Some days she missed the ice-covered summers of her birthplace, even after losing her tolerance for cold and had almost frozen to death when she visited Kanna half a year ago.
Those days, Katara had almost lost hope. Almost.
Then she had noticed things she had not seen before. She had started paying closer attention to words that were tossed around carelessly, words that ignited something she had believed long-dead inside her. A scar had once scared her, and now a scar had given her hope.
She turned to look at Appa, her trusty companion for the last year and a half. The sky-bison was shedding fur again, meaning the weather was turning warmer, bringing a nostalgic smile to the face of the blue-eyed girl.
She removed the scarf she'd been wearing around her neck, necessary whenever Appa climbed too far up the sky, where the air was thinner and cold. Katara liked to ride high above the clouds, keeping them hidden from prying eyes in the ground and –sometimes- low-flying devices and humans.
A shiver ran down her spine when she thought about the orange robes that would every once in a while show up far down the horizon. She thought she had made her intentions clear, but it seemed Aang was not ready to let her go. She loved him. She truly did, but such childish behavior made her think twice (thrice, even) about trying a meaningful relationship with the Avatar.
Katara slapped her cheeks. She didn't want to think about the lovelorn air-bender when she had more urgent matters to attend. Even if she didn't want to stay close to Aang, her association with the hero who had ended the Hundred Year War aided her on her quest. The fact she was the only living blood-bender in the world also made her interrogatories go far smoother than she initially expected.
After only four and a half months of asking, sometimes nicely, sometimes not-so, she had found a hot trace on her quarry. Her anger returned full force when the face of Iroh (not 'Uncle' anymore) showed up in her mind.
'The Spirit World is tricky,' he'd said, 'and my words were true. I did fail.'
Katara fumed. She slowly walked away from the sky bison, who merely looked at her back as red colored robes were discarded along the path. She was a woman on a mission, and even if he didn't fully understand humans, he knew when he was supposed to stay out of their way.
The clothes were a dead giveaway, especially if one was sure of what to look for. The earth kingdom-peasant-look was the surest way to blend in with the surroundings. The height and weight matched; the posture was similar; the hair color was the same. Yet the clearest sign was the way he walked.
Katara approached the man cutting wood with an old axe and chatting up a small child. Both of them wore similar outfits, different from the green outfits Toph used to wear, proof of their humble situation. A brown shirt, a green vest over brown pants and brown boots tried to cover the true origins of the man who lowered the axe and cleanly cut through a large log. The water-bender smiled when the small child clapped as the two halves of the log fell apart.
"That was amazing, Lee," the kid said. "You have to teach me how to do that."
"It's just practice," the man addressed as 'Lee' replied. "Nothing complicated."
"I could practice if you let me help you," the boy said as he crossed his little arms. "It's not fair. No one lets me do anything around."
"You have other things to worry about," Lee replied with a smile on his face as he turned another log upright. "Let the grown-ups worry about grown up stuff."
"Do the scars hurt?" The boy asked as Lee lifted the axe up in the air.
"Scars do not hurt," Lee replied, the smile on his face making the numerous scars more visible. "They're just reminders of the past."
"The past hurts when it's not acknowledged," Katara decided it was time to interrupt. The kid jumped when he heard her, but 'Lee' did not seemed surprised. "Even more when there is no closure."
"Who are you?" The kid asked as he turned around. "And why are you on my land?"
"Do not be rude to strangers, Rin," the man said as the axe swung down and cut the log in half. "You should always be kind to them."
"I didn't know we were strangers, 'Lee'," Katara said, trying to keep her voice even. "And I apologize, young Rin, I did not come with the intention of trespassing your land."
"Do you know her, Lee?" Rin asked, looking back at his friend.
"In another lifetime, I did," Lee said, the smile still on his face. "Run along with your mother, Rin. There are things I have to discuss with the fine lady here."
"She's wearing Fire Nation clothes," Rin said as he stood up. "I don't trust her."
"You don't have to," Lee said as he put the axe down. "Trust must be earned. But do not worry; she presents no harm to you."
"And to you?" Rin asked, genuine concern showing in his eyes. "Is she a threat to you?"
Lee smiled and placed his hand on the young boy's shoulder.
"That's what we're about to find out."
The two of them walked in silence, Katara with her arms crossed across her chest, and 'Lee' carrying two wooden buckets in each hand.
"Nice kid," Katara said, trying to keep the uncertainty off her voice. "Is he yours?"
"I'm just helping him and his mother get through a harsh winter," 'Lee' replied. "I have no relation to them."
"Winter's over, and it's been four years," Katara said as she saw the nearby lake they were walking towards to. "Not one word or any signal."
"There were no words to be said," 'Lee' sighed. "Who caved in?"
"No one," Katara smirked. "Not Ursa and not Iroh, if that's what you mean. But it wasn't the words they said, it was the words they didn't say."
"They sometimes referred to you in the present tense," Katara said. "And they were never in a hurry to reveal the true story of what happened that day at the Coronation Plaza."
"Ah, how the Avatar defeated the evil Phoenix King," the man with the scarred face said. "That was clever."
"It's a lie," Katara said as she stopped walking. She stared in silence when the man walking next to her knelt down and sank the buckets into the water. "A lie that has grown old."
"It has its uses," he chuckled. "Everyone is happy believing it."
"Do you see me happy?" Katara asked. "I would have never thought you'd allow a lie to go on for as long as it has, or that you would choose to stay hidden for so long."
"I'm not hiding well enough," the man replied as he lifted the two buckets now filled with water. "You found me."
"The Zuko I knew was no quitter," Katara said, her voice almost breaking when she mentioned his real name. "Why didn't you come back to us?"
"Why didn't I come back to you, you mean?" Zuko said, the smile disappearing from his face. "And do not say that name out loud. Someone is bound to hear you."
"There's no one around for miles and miles," Katara said as she uncrossed her arms. "I could shout your name and no one would hear me."
"You'd be surprised," Zuko said. "Many others have come close to finding me, even your dear Avatar."
"He had a couple of months when he took it upon himself to find your 'grave'," Katara clicked her tongue. "He believed it would bring me closure."
"I heard he asked you to marry him," Zuko said, his voice void of any emotion. "At a world summit, no less."
"He tries," Katara sighed. "He truly does, but sometimes he tries too hard."
"I'm not coming back," Zuko said as he started walking back the same road they'd taken. "I have no reason to come back."
"You don't want to go home?" Katara asked as she fell to step next to him.
"I don't have any home to go back to," Zuko replied. "I left that behind when I died."
"But Iroh brought you back, didn't he?" Katara smiled. "Even if he claimed he'd failed."
"He failed to bring my cousin Lu Ten back," Zuko said, his voice almost a whisper. "That is and has always been his greatest failure."
"Why didn't you let us know you were back?" Katara asked, her voice betraying her pain.
"At first I wasn't really back," Zuko said. "I'd been dead for over an hour. My body was stiff and my head was messed up. You can see the outcome in these scars."
Zuko stopped and placed the two buckets of water down. He slowly lifted one of his sleeves and Katara almost looked away. The traces of the battle were clearly evident, and the skin discoloration was proof that the former prince of the Fire Nation had died and stayed dead for a while.
"The bandages don't cover everything," Zuko said. "Some of these scars come from dead tissue, and I don't quite feel my left hand."
"It's better than any mask, isn't it?" Zuko smiled. He bent down and picked up the buckets and started walking again. "I sometimes wonder how I would look if you hadn't tried to heal me back then. If I'm a sight to behold right now, I guess I would have looked like a real monster."
"That's not funny," Katara said and walked again. "How long was it until…?"
"Until I recovered?" Zuko finished her question. "About a year, more or less. The memories are hazy and blurry."
"You asked me how I found out about you," Katara said. "Your mother has a scar on her right arm. You burned her when you woke up, didn't you?"
Zuko nodded. "Now we all have scars. Mother, Azula, Uncle and I."
"Azula is sort of good, now," Katara smiled. "Your mother really helped her."
"I'm glad to hear that," Zuko said. "What will you do now that you found me?"
"I don't know," Katara laughed. "At first, I thought about kicking your ass for not letting me know about your return. Then I saw you and…"
"You could do it," Zuko chuckled. "Don't have many nerve endings alive, and my reflexes aren't up to date."
The water-bender shuddered and tried her best not to stare at the numerous scars she could see that the clothes did not hide. She wondered how the rest of his body looked, and she felt a cold lump settle in her stomach. She knew she had to keep talking or else he'd grow quiet and would slip away.
"I don't know what Aang would do if he found out about you," Katara finally said, her eyes instinctively scanning the sky. "He's jealous of you."
"Because of the pendant?" Zuko was genuinely surprised. "Or because you kept looking for me?"
"Choose one," Katara shrugged. "He's jealous of a ghost, in a matter of speaking."
"Saw a picture of him a couple months ago," Zuko said, "When I was at the Southern Tribe. He's grown a lot."
"How did you… you know?" Katara asked and bit her lip. "I tried to make your heart work. I was about to cut your chest open and make it pump with my hands if I had to…"
"It's nice to hear that," Zuko smiled. "Uncle pulled me out of a pond. I don't really remember much after that."
"Didn't Iroh tell you anything about it?" Katara pushed, wanting – needing- to know what had happened that day in the Spirit World.
"Uncle says he managed to convince a higher spirit to let me come back," Zuko said, his eyes taking a faraway look. "He said he got the chance to bring one of us back. I'm not entirely certain he's completely happy with the choice he made."
"What do you mean?"
"Uncle was Crown Prince before father was," Zuko replied. "He was meant to become Fire Lord, and in turn, Lu Ten would have become Fire Lord as well. Who knows what would have happened if they got the chance to rule?"
"Uncle Iroh loves you," Katara said. "He went looking for you, Zuko, not your cousin."
"And yet he failed to bring him back," Zuko sighed. "Twice."
"Do you feel guilt?" Katara chewed her lower lip, almost to the point of hurting herself. "Because you came back and he didn't?"
"I feel guilty about a lot of things," Zuko chuckled. "But coming back is not one of them. I got the chance to make up for so many past mistakes. I'm a walking corpse, but I will do my best to help everyone in this world."
"Is that what you're going to do?" Katara asked and stopped walking. "Are you just gonna wander the world chopping logs and forgetting who you were?"
"Who I was, is dead," Zuko laid the buckets down. "Dead and buried. The world does not need the Prince of a nation that doesn't exist anymore. The Avatar brought the four nations together, and all it took was the death of the entire Royal family."
"If it's your safety you're worried about, we have the White Lotus to…"
"The White Lotus Society is responsible for millions of deaths," Zuko suddenly said. "It didn't occur to me before, but how come many powerful men were willing to do nothing to help, and sat down waiting for a boy to save the world?"
"A boy did save the world," Katara softly said. "You."
"My uncle is a very powerful man," Zuko said. "So is King Bumi, and Master Pakku, and Jeong Jeong and the others. Why didn't they do a thing when they have powers that rival that of the Avatar? Why would they all wait for a savior when they could have ended the war themselves?"
Katara remained in silence. She knew there was no correct answer to such a question. It was something she had pondered before, and had not come with any reason as to why the world kept waiting for one man to save them all.
"You can't stay angry at the entire world forever," Katara finally said. "I won't lie to you, Zuko. I need you."
"You need me for what?" Zuko asked.
"I don't have any reason," Katara smiled. "I thought about this moment for a long time, and I decided I wouldn't lie to you. I need you because I want to spend time with you. Because I want to talk to you. Because you took my pendant and used it while you saved the world."
"I'm not giving it back," Zuko said as he touched his wrist. "It's mine now."
"Maybe someday you'll give it to me," Katara said, and blushed as the words left her mouth. Zuko noticed, and caught the hidden meaning of her words.
"So you won't marry the Avatar?" he asked.
"I'm only seventeen," Katara shrugged. "I'm not ready to start planning the rest of my life."
"The Avatar will be very disappointed," Zuko smiled. "I hear he doesn't handle disappointment very well."
"If he wants to beat you up, he'll have to get through me first," Katara said as she flexed her arms. "I'm tougher now. I'll blood-bend him if I have to."
"Wouldn't want to be on your bad side," Zuko laughed.
"Then don't you dare to walk out on me again," Katara said as she took a step closer to him. "You can't make me feel new, different things and then die on me. In fact, I forbid you to die for the next, say, sixty or seventy years."
"That's a lot of time," Zuko said as he touched the side of Katara's face. "You could grow tired of me long before that."
"That's for me to find out, isn't it?" Katara mimicked Zuko's actions and touched his face. "That's something else I need you for, to let me grow at my own pace, and being by my side even if I'm messing things up."
Zuko pulled Katara into an embrace, and he sighed as he placed his cheek against her head.
"I thought I would never see your eyes again," he whispered into her hair. "I don't remember much of the Spirit World, but there was a pond the same shade of blue as your eyes."
"Really?" Katara whispered as well, feeling as if she had finally reached the last stage of a journey she'd started when she found the Avatar in the ice, all those years ago.
"It was warm and it felt good," Zuko continued. "When Iroh found me, he asked if I thought I was finished."
"What did you tell him?" Katara held Zuko closer to her.
"That I wanted to see mother again," Zuko replied. "That I wanted to talk to her, and that I wanted him to know that he was a father to me. I said that I wanted to tell Azula I was sorry, and that I wanted to make you not hate me again."
"I didn't hate you," Katara whispered.
"I wanted to see your eyes again," Zuko chuckled. "Tell you that you couldn't have your pendant back."
"Keep it safe for me," Katara smiled and closed her eyes. "And if you want to give it to me again someday, I'll probably say yes."
"I have no idea where I'll be tomorrow," Zuko said. "I have no clue what I'll do in a year. This is a journey I have to walk through."
"Funny," Katara sighed. "It's sort of the same way I'm headed, and I happen to have a sky bison at my disposal."
Zuko smiled and closed his eyes as well. He was finally certain he'd made the right decision four years ago. There were still a lot of things he had to do. A lot of stuff to do right.
This time, he had everything he needed in his arms.
A/N: Thank you all for your patience and your words. It took me several years to finish this story, and I appreciate you still being there and reading these words from the very beginning to the end.