Disclaimer: Avatar: The Last Airbender is not mine. My name is neither Bryan or Mike. To top it off, I'm a girl. Who owns nothing. And it won't magically become mine in future chapters, so I'm not going to repeat myself. This is a bona fide perpetual, carry-over disclaimer.
A/N: Welcome to my post-series Zutarian epic. Read, enjoy, and, as always, reviews would be love.
Beyond the Rising Sun
Zuko closed his eyes and breathed.
In days past, he would only have performed such a simple activity while meditating, and that was always for practice, to further his bending, to achieve that unachievable perfection. But now he was merely reclining in his chair, his arms loosely balanced on the sides, and he allowed himself to relax.
Being the Fire Lord, he realized, was not all it was cracked up to be. Ruling a country required time and energy, and trying to repair and restore a country required infinitely larger amounts of each. His nation—his once proud and indomitable and, yes, let's not sugarcoat, tyrannical nation—had collapsed into ashes. The economy had suffered horrifically following the end of the war, but when the entire industry was geared towards the production of battle machines, that was only to be expected. When he traveled the countryside, doing his level best to stay on top of absolutely everything, he would see farmers hoeing the rich volcanic soil with swords and pikes, women rocking their infants in empty breastplates, children hauling water in forgotten helmets.
The war had ironically been the life of the Fire Nation, and in its absence, the country had nearly died.
Zuko sighed, raising long, pale fingers to his face and massaging the ever-present furrow between his brows. Disabling the military had been his first priority—as had been enacted in the treaty between the three nations—but for the majority of the past three years, he had focused wholly on rebuilding his country from the ground up. The Fire Nation was innovative in their technology, and Zuko found it much more lucrative to sell the inventions as opposed to forcing them.
And there was peace. It was a fragile, tentative, time-bomb sort of peace, but it was still better than the war.
He owed it largely to his Spirit Brother—or so Aang had dubbed them long ago—because the Avatar was, after all, the Avatar, and people were not only willing to listen to him, but they also desperately wanted to believe in him. So they accepted Zuko and by extension his nation, and while it might have been something less than good will or faith, it was still something. Zuko considered himself lucky that Aang would never presume to collect this debt because the once-banished prince would have to fork over everything he owned and then some to equal the price.
The image of the last airbender still hovering in his mind's eye, the Fire Lord shifted through the scrolls littering his expansive desk, hunting for a short missive from his uncle. While Iroh had a tendency to wax on eloquently, his most recent letter had been brief, a fact explained by the fundamentals of supply and demand. Zuko smirked to himself: he understood that concept far better than he wanted. And it seemed Iroh had more customers than he had waiters, and the Jasmine Dragon was so successful it was ludicrous.
Finally locating the scroll, he pulled it out and scanned the columns of characters, searching for the part he wanted to read. There: Aang and Katara were currently in the Earth Kingdom capital and taking a well-deserved break from the never-ending task of rebuilding the world. Leaning his chin on one hand while the other supported the scroll, Zuko let his eyes linger on the collection of ink-slashes that formed her name.
It had been a very long time since he had actually seen Katara—but no, it couldn't be a year already, could it? Surely the Avatar would have had reason to visit the fledgling Fire Nation more often. He frowned faintly. He missed his best friend, a status that still surprised him on occasion. They had bonded deeper and more strongly than he ever would have dared to imagine, and sometimes he still found himself wondering if he had merely imagined it, that she had never actually forgiven him and they remained as mortal enemies. But then he would glance aside at the stack of messages written in her hand and signed with her name, and he would remember that everything was relatively well with the world, at least in their little corner.
But he missed her. A thought occurring to him, he smiled to himself. He could certainly supply a legitimate reason for journeying to Ba Sing Se, couldn't he? Politics of this delicate nature required constant care, and it had been some time since he had met with the Earth King.
A chuckle escaped him at that thought. It might've been the Earth Queen, except Toph had steadfastly refused the offer of the adoring citizens. They had had good reason to promote her, of course: a daughter of the wealthiest family in the nation, the companion and earthbending teacher to the Avatar, and she was considerably saner than, say, Bumi, who had regrettably passed. Apparently Toph had figured out that as a politician, she wouldn't be able to throw rocks at whoever crossed her. As the master of the most elite earthbending school in the Kingdom, though, she could throw rocks to her heart's content.
A knock sounded on the iron doors to his study, and Zuko jerked, his chin slipping off his hand as he was startled from his reverie. Blinking, he hastily composed himself and called out, "Enter."
A servant obeyed, approaching his desk and offering a scroll. "This just arrived by boat, my lord," he intoned, bowing low.
"Thank you," Zuko replied absently, grabbing the scroll and tossing it onto the ridiculous pile on his desk. "Dismissed."
Another bow and the servant silently exited, the doors shutting again with the resounding echo of metal.
Zuko eyed the newly arrived message wearily, not wanting to advise yet another town mayor on how best to deal with their economic crisis, but he lifted the scroll regardless and unfurled it, sitting up straighter when he recognized the sharp, efficient strokes.
It was from Mai.
He read it curiously but without much concern. Apparently his girlfriend was extending her stay on Kyoshi Island, but that was nothing new. Mai had first traveled to visit with her best friend shortly after the comet, and she had been voyaging more and more frequently as of late. He recognized it for what it was: they were drifting apart, a reality that came as no surprise. They had never been well suited for each other from the start, and their separation had been a long time in coming.
It wasn't official yet, but Zuko knew it was only a matter of time before they parted ways forever.
He set the letter down and sank back into his chair, elbows balanced on the armrests and fingers laced in his lap. Tilting his head back, he closed his eyes, snatching another sterile moment of rest. He had almost slipped into a doze when he jerked awake, something tingling in his memory.
Today was Tuesday. Why was that important?
His brow furrowed as he tried to dig through the avalanche of information clogging his head, and when he located the reason at last, he allowed himself a low sigh.
Tuesdays were the days he visited his sister.
The walk to the healing house was a long one, but Zuko enjoyed the activity. He had been cloistered in his office all day, and the fresh sea air lent a reinvigorated spring to his step. As opposed to former Fire Lords, he scorned the use of a paladin, insisting on getting around on his own two feet. When his advisors had protested, he had retorted sharply that the Fire Nation was no longer ferried around on a silver platter and so neither would he.
Unsurprisingly, they had been cowed into silence by that.
Pausing in the market—which was bustling, he was grateful to note—to observe some wares, he chose a mango from one of the merchants, who nearly tripped over herself in her effort to accord her ruler with the proper respect. He reacted with impeccable manners (of which Iroh would've been proud), and allowed her to keep the change. More money in circulation, after all, was better for the economy.
He rolled his eyes to himself. Dear Agni, would he ever stop thinking in terms of gold and silver?
Munching into the perfectly ripe fruit, Zuko diverted from the main avenues of the royal city—he had relocated the crown from the military fortress, both symbolically and for the sake of his head—and began ascending the steep slopes that overlooked the lake. It was quieter up here, almost secluded from the frenzy of the crater-dwelling metropolis, but the richest families had procured the land above the lake, undoubtedly for the sweeping, panoramic vista it provided. One of the mansions, though, had been converted into a hospital of sorts for the kind of patients who would be remaining indefinitely.
He brushed aside a stray strand of hair that had worked itself free from his topknot, probably the fault of the stiff breeze which existed at these heights. It was a fairly short piece of hair, but he had not resumed the traditional long locks, instead keeping his hair the length it had been during the comet: long enough to be gathered into the topknot, but short enough so that when he looked in the mirror he didn't see his father, scar or no scar.
Zuko paused on the smooth cobblestone path that wound through the outer courtyards, not sparing the patients or nurses taking advantage of the nice weather any glances. His father was still locked up in prison, the obstinate bastard; for three years, he had refused to tell his son anything about the disappearance of the former Fire Lady. Ursa's location still lay shrouded in mist, and Zuko was beginning to despair that his father would ever surrender the information.
He shook his head, derailing that train of thought. It would do no good to dwell on anything related to his father; such thoughts only brought a sharply bitter flavor to his tongue. And besides, he was here to see his sister.
The nurse behind the desk greeted him with a formal bow, and he smiled faintly in return.
"Lord Zuko, it is good to see you again," she told him, also smiling.
"How is she?" he asked, cutting to the chase. He had never been one for small talk.
Her whole face brightened, and Zuko lifted his eyebrows, not expecting such a stellar reaction. "She is doing much better, my lord! Yesterday, she awoke from her lethargy and inquired into the art of tea-making! It is the first subject she has shown any coherent interest in, my lord, and we believe this marks the beginning of her real recovery."
Zuko nodded curtly, not absorbing the information all the way but not about to dillydally at the reception desk. "Show me to her, then."
The nurse escorted him to a familiar door and excused herself with another bow; Zuko remained motionless in the corridor for long minutes before he finally managed to raise his hand to the knob. Every week was the same; it was such a struggle to visit her, to see the quiet, broken soul his sister had become.
The door glided inwards on silent hinges, and he crossed the threshold, closing the portal again behind him. He lingered, fingers cradling the knob, feeling the familiar sensation of trespassing, and simply glanced around the room. He had been here hundreds of times before, but sometimes it surprised him that nothing ever changed. The décor remained fixed, the furniture in the same places, and it seemed whenever he entered, Azula was sitting in her wheeled chair before the huge curtain windows and gazing out over the lake; as the Fire Lord, after all, he could afford one of the best rooms in the place.
He approached her quietly and reclined in the chair positioned next to the window; she continued staring at the water for a minute or so before she slowly turned her head, once-sharp golden eyes traveling almost lazily over his face.
A slight smile drifted across her lips. "Zuzu."
The once-hated nickname bore no malice, and Zuko remembered, as he always did, the far-off days when she had been innocent and he had been, too, and she had called him Zuzu because Zuko was just too hard to say. A sad smile twisted his own lips, and he replied, "Azula, it's good to see you."
She looked at him a moment more, and he would have described the action as studying if there had been a hint of analysis or calculation anywhere on her face. But there wasn't, and her eyes slid to the side again, resting once more on the sparkling surface of the lake far below.
He dropped his gaze to his hands, absently reviewing the lines on his palms, and tried not to look at her chair. Her legs were fine, not crippled or broken: she simply lacked the will to stand or walk or run. The once-acrobatic princess had degenerated into a frail doll who spent her days staring out a window.
After minutes had slid by in awkward—for him—silence, he raised his eyes back to her face and noted the ever-calm set to her features. "I hear you asked about tea-making yesterday," he ventured, aware that carrying conversations was no longer an ability of his sister's.
She sharpened momentarily: there was no other way to describe the almost-alertness that overcame and then abandoned her face. "Yes," she agreed. "I like tea," she added after a beat, as if such a thing were unimportant in the study of brewing the fragrant leaves.
"I'm sure Uncle would be happy to teach you," Zuko continued, so glad she had actually replied.
Azula simply stared at him uncomprehendingly. "Uncle?" she echoed, looking faintly curious.
He remembered the sensation of her lightning striking him in their Agni Kai. Sometimes he thought it was ironic that the same feeling struck him whenever she revealed her lost grasp on reality.
"Yes, Uncle Iroh," he told her as he had told her every time she reacted this way. "Short, fat, likes to say wise but ambiguous things, loves tea more than life itself. You remember."
She nodded as she always did, but there was no recognition in her dull amber irises. And then a vaguely thoughtful expression washed over her, and she murmured, "Mother visited me today."
Zuko glanced at her sharply, hope swelling in his chest until she continued.
"She braided my hair," Azula mentioned, and Zuko tried not to stare too pointedly at the raven-black locks that fell loosely around her thin shoulders. "It was nice."
"I'm sure it was," he whispered sincerely, almost unable to take the prodding ache in his heart. Azula had been cruel and ruthless once, but no longer, and now in this pitiful state, he could only feel painful compassion and a pointless, fervent wish for better days for her sake. He wiped the tear from his lashes as unobtrusively as possible, even though she never would have noticed.
More silence dragged on between them before Azula spoke again.
"You have to be careful about how long you steep the leaves," she remarked with a soft sort of voice, as if she had been discussing tea for the past few minutes and hadn't just pulled the topic out of the blue.
"Mm, so I've heard," Zuko agreed, leaning his forearms on his knees.
"And the water has to boil," she added, her fingers quivering slightly where they gripped the arms of her chair. One hand loosened, and she made a meaningless gesture. "You pour it, like so."
In a fit of dark, bitter humor, Zuko hoped she never poured tea as she'd just demonstrated: up.
Her hand continued making idle loops in the air, as if she were no longer controlling it, and then fire spurted from her fingertips, orange flames licking in her palm. She regarded it without interest, frowning only slightly when it would not extinguish.
Zuko reached over, closing his hand on hers and eliminating the fire. She had firebent several times in his presence, always accidentally and always with the same blank look in her eyes.
"It's so sunny," she observed, her attention fastened on the distant lake. "Bright."
He merely nodded, releasing her hand. "Today is a beautiful day," he agreed.
"Beautiful," she echoed, her eyelids sliding closed as she relaxed more into her chair. "Mother is beautiful."
"Yes," he murmured, "Mother is beautiful."
"I saw her today."
"She braided your hair," he said tonelessly; he had been wondering when the conversation would take this turn.
"Mmhm," Azula hummed sleepily, cuddling into her chair like a cat basking in the sun. Without opening her eyes, she continued quietly, "I saw Zuzu today, too."
Zuko stiffened, his jaw tightening, and he lowered his forehead to his hand, gritting his teeth against the pain that bore so much deeper than her lightning ever had. "It was nice of him to come," he whispered hoarsely, trying to trap his tears behind his lashes.
"Yes," she agreed, her voice trailing off into silence. "It was…"
He raised his head, watching his sister sleep from behind a blurry veil, and he slowly, stiffly stood up and somehow managed to swallow past the constricting thickness in his throat.
"Sweet dreams, Azula," he said, bending low to press a soft kiss to her smooth forehead.
She did not stir.
The long walk to the palace was never as nice the second time, and he slumped into his office chair with strained relief. Visiting Azula and seeing her in that condition was so emotionally draining, and it felt as if all the energy had been sucked from his limbs. Everything felt too heavy, and he leaned his crossed arms and head on his desk, exhausted.
Another knock sounded on his door, and he answered without lifting his head. "Enter."
The servant from before halted in front of his desk, another scroll balanced in his outstretched hands. "A message, my lord, just arrived by hawk."
Zuko merely grunted, unable to gather the strength to reply properly, and accepted the scroll limply. He received so much mail these days, and none of it was ever good. Some of it was on the indifferent sort of level, but he hadn't gotten anything non-political or that wasn't an update from Mai—discounting Iroh's one recent missive—in a very long time.
So he ignored the letter for awhile, trying to ease the unbearable pressure in his skull by shrouding his face in shadow and pretending everything was the way it should be, that Azula was a decent, coherent human being and that his mother was here and that his father hadn't been such a despotic bastard and that Katara was visiting because it had been far too long and she had always been good for him.
Eventually, though, he knew he could ignore the news no longer, so he grudgingly raised his head and rolled out the scroll. He scanned it without any of it registering until his eyes lit on the signature at the end, and then he sat up so straight so fast that his spine cracked and popped with the motion.
It was from Katara.
He read avidly, unconsciously muttering the words under his breath.
"Hey, Zuko. I'm sorry that it's been so long since I've written—no kidding—but I've been busy, and not just taking care of Aang! Taking care of Aang? Who talks about their boyfriend that way?" he grumbled, somewhat confused. Katara had indulged in the increasingly more common habit of referring to the Avatar in a patiently maternal sort of way, and he wondered idly if it meant anything concerning their relationship. Shaking his head, he read on.
"Guess what? Sokka and Suki are getting married! Whoa, really? I know this isn't really an official invitation, but I thought maybe you'd prefer a more personal touch. The wedding has me crazed, but it's going to be so exciting! I'm so happy for them!" He smiled at that statement: as if Katara would be anything but for her elder brother and his bride-to-be. "So the wedding will be held on the Summer Solstice down on Kyoshi Island. That gives you three weeks to get your country in order, so you better be there. Otherwise I'll come up myself and waterbend your pompous ass to the ceremony. Love, Katara. Love, huh," he echoed musingly, staring at the inked character. Mai ended her letters similarly, but he found himself believing it less and less lately.
He eased back in his chair, still holding the scroll, and gazed distantly at the ceiling. "Guess this means I need to buy a wedding gift."