By Lady Flick
The idea that someone out there might have killed him…
The mere possibility that someone had a hand in his death…
Was responsible for it…is blinding me, I know it.
But blinding me from what? Lies? The mystery consumes me.
A fire thriving on the desire for vengeance. A desire that I know Uncle would disprove…
But I'm not Uncle. No. He's dead.
And someone out there will pay.
The time it took for Katara to race after her friend and pick up the book gave the Fire Lord just enough time to reclaim control of his body and break from the initial paralyzing shock. "What—" Zuko managed to choke out, voice rasping with little air. "What makes you think that?" He demanded, turning to face the waterbender standing before him, a consuming darkness in his tone, a darkness that had abandoned him so many years ago. "Who?" His gaze was intense; the eyes of a true leader, a Fire Lord. Eyes that commanded, eyes that struck fear - his father's eyes. "Who could have—"
Katara shook her head, the motion evident even in the shadows. "I don't know," she answered dryly, the book held limply in her hands. "I was just skipping through the pages and this one passage caught my attention." She flipped to the marked section and stared at the characters, unable to see them. "It mentioned something about a decision he made a long time ago. I don't know what it was about," Katara continued, straining her eyes to see the page, the words that she knew revealed nothing more than what she had already read - which was to little to go on. "He just keeps referring to it as that decision—"
"Let me see," the Fire Lord said, gesturing for her to hand the book to him. She did so without hesitation, much to his surprise. Usually the girl went on and on about how he had no right to order her around (which he did find some amusement in doing, if only for her predictable reactions - though it was the palace's décor that paid the price). Her steps were deliberate, wary; the sound of her feet moving across the marble floor echoed about narrow hall, an unnecessary reminder of just how empty it was.
Katara held the tome open as he conjured a small flame, no larger than the faint light of a candle. Their heads neared as the duo peered solemnly down at the page; the elegant scrawl almost undecipherable with its the extravagant strokes. Their breathing stilled to a single unified hum, barely flickering their only source of light. "There are some things I can't make out," the waterbender whispered irately, brows furrowing as she read over the script. "These characters are…"
"Ancient Fire Nation symbols," Zuko finished, frowning as he searched back through his memory, trying to put meaning to the brush strokes. 'Every detail matters,' his instructor had told him, 'from every scratch and ink drop and smear. The simplest err can lead the reader to misconstrue the meaning of even the most basic phrase.' When he was younger, he couldn't have cared less about ancient Fire Nation manuscripts - he sincerely regretted not paying the subject its due attention. Azula was the one who had memorized the ancient text. Azula was the one who could read the very first documentations of Fire Nation history, if she so wished. Somehow, Zuko felt incredibly inferior staring at the characters he just barely understood.
"Well?" Katara pressed, eyes lifting from the parchment to his face, elongated shadows creeping across his features. "What does it say?"
He scowled, meeting her curious eyes with a fixed glare. "I thought you said you already read this," the firebender snapped, his inferiority complex grabbing hold and submerging him in memories of the past. "You know what it says, or else you wouldn't have come to the conclusion that Uncle was killed."
"I understand the gist of what he's saying," she replied, pursing her lips together in contempt. "But not the details and definitely not enough to be able to tell you what it all means." Katara straightened up, moving away from him and causing the already faint flame to dangerously waver on the brink of darkness. "Besides, I'm not exactly schooled in the Ancient Fire Nation script, in case you hadn't noticed," she huffed.
Zuko rolled his eyes, but swallowed the apology in his throat. "Right," he said instead, the single word nothing more than a mutter, but otherwise opting for silence. Four years into their friendship, and one would think the pair had resolved whatever qualms they had with each other —
"Well, what does it say?" Katara persisted impatiently.
"Maybe I'll tell you if you ask nicely," the Fire Lord cracked.
— Apparently not.
He continued to stare at the characters that punctuated his weaknesses and Azula's strengths, hoping they would magically unwind before him and form words he understood. It had been a few years - three and seven months, to be precise - and though Azula was locked away in a prison cell, banished, he could not free himself from his past. It was unchangeable, leaving him with permanent scars. The former prince frowned, understanding just the surface of his uncle's words.
"...it seems the night has decided to swallow the day, and the earth rises to consume what remains. The Little She-Bear runs from the destruction of her home. I have urged her into hibernation, until the sun rises, there is dawn once more. ...what the hell does that mean?"
The waterbender arched a brow, sparing him a fleeting look, poignant in the fire light. "I didn't read that far."
Zuko bit back a retort that would surely warrant a water-whip and opted for a far more amiable response, "Well, how far did you read?" His cynical tone thwarted the effort.
Katara let it slide, however, knowing that it was the firebender's anguish that shortened his fuse, "Up to the mention of Iroh having chosen his poison."
"What? What poison?" He gasped, eyes scrambling over the page.
"Here, it's...it's somewhere near the beginning," Katara offered, moving closer and lifting a part of the manuscript, finger shifting down the columns.
The firebender struggled with the memoir. "Wait, stop it, you'll tear the page—" he hissed as he tilted the book away from her sifting hand.
"—I can't see, just give it to here—" Katara huffed in disapproval. "Zuko, I'm trying to help—" she insisted, taking part of the tome into her own hands and urging him to let her see the page. "—why do you have to make this so difficult?"
"It's my uncle's memoir—!"
Zuko snapped the book shut just as a shadow crossed the threshold. The duo stood completely still, staring, with widened eyes, at the intruder who expelled an unassuming yawn. Katara squinted into the dark just as the small flame brightened, light stretching across the hall. Ruffled dark hair, tired eyes, and a disproportionately large mouth closing after the satisfying exhale. She blinked, "Sokka?"
The warrior rubbed a sleepy eye. "Rrm...grrmm...shhm?"
Katara ignored the firebender's rhetorical inquiry. "Oh, nothing, nothing, Sokka – I was just helping him clean up a bit here," She told her half-asleep sibling who probably wouldn't even recall their conversation come morning. "You should go back to sleep, Sokka, it's late." And with her motherly suggestion, the Water Tribe male shuffled on back down the corridor where he came, muttering incoherent nonsense in his wake. Once the disruption faded, Zuko let out a sigh. Katara turned back to her counterpart, whose expression was both cynical and sardonic. "Sokka's been waking up in the middle of the night lately," she said unnecessarily, "Nightmares, I think."
The pair fell silent, eyes falling onto Iroh's memoir, the title of which remained unknown. It was held in Zuko's steady hand, the gold leaf gleaming in the light of the flame, and their minds worked, the mechanics turning, gadgets spinning. Neither was oblivious to the fact that the threat of a third party stumbling upon the secrets of the book struck apprehensive fear in them – but why should it? The memoir was far from a secret, it was carelessly forgotten in the library, afterall, open pages to anyone curious or bored enough to find it. Clearly it was far from classified information...so why the discretion? Why the hesitance? The held breaths? Katara shifted uneasily as the anxiety lifted, and cleared her throat. "So...I suppose I should be getting to bed," she murmured, wondering if perhaps, Zuko should decipher the manuscript on his own. Surely it was a highly personal matter and she shouldn't intrude on something so—
"Are you kidding?" Zuko retorted dubiously, "We've got what might be treason on our hands, and you want to go to sleep?"
Katara frowned, dully insulted with his apparent attitude. He may as well have called her stupid. Oh, she knew that tone all-too well. "What? No, of course not!" She countered at once, "I just meant—"
"Come on, we need to go to the library."
And he swept away before the waterbender could refuse.
The late morning was harsh and unforgiving; bright rays of sun scorching through the thin gauze covering the tall glass windows of the study. Katara scowled as brightness intruded her slumber and she buried her face into her hair, smelling musty pages and the remains of burned oil and something else that she couldn't put her finger on. Her mind refused to kick into gear, opting to leave her powerless to respond to the far away yelling; distorted sound and nothing more. She shifted her arm to cover her eyes, blocking the sunlight from piercing her lids with merciless brightness, and she changed her position, stretching out her leg and her torso in a vain search of a more comfortable position - but she ran out of table and shifted herself straight out of her chair, landing with an unceremonious thud onto the hardwood floor. The fall jarred the girl out of her fatigue, and Katara found herself dazed and confused, staring up at the seat from which she so ungracefully tumbled. Soft snoring drew her attention to her fortnight companion, his own face buried amidst the wrinkled, torn, or drool-ridden pages of various books. Katara scowled, rubbing the sleep from her eyes, and picked herself up from the ground, massaging away the soreness from her posterior.
"Zuko," she muttered coarsely, voice rasping from lack of water, "Zuko."
The former prince regally snored.
She sighed, pushing against his shoulder with thin patience - lack of sleep destroyed her nurturing instincts. "Zuko—"
"Mmnn," was his eloquent reply, followed by a brushing away of her hand from his shoulder and a deliberate turning away from her nagging voice and morning breath.
"Zuko—!" She tried again, shoving him this time, perhaps a bit too hard, seeing as the Fire Lord flailed out his arms as he lost balance, his quick and ungraceful morning reflexes managing to keep him in his seat, hands clasping along the table's edge. Katara met his simmering glare with one of her own. "We fell asleep," the waterbender said flatly, dark circles under her eyes. Zuko blinked once, twice, the information processing in his brain. He said nothing. "I think they're looking for us," she added, the faint voices in the background growing louder and more distinct. "I have no idea what time it is or—"
Zuko simply stood, raking a hand through his hair that stuck up on one side and was flattened on the other, before pressing his wrists into his eyes to remove any sign of fatigue. "What time is it," he muttered, more to himself than Katara.
"I just told you," the girl answered impatiently, "I don't know."
He didn't seem to hear her, or else ignored her reply. Instead, the Fire Lord flattened out the wrinkles in his robes and smudged away the dried strings of saliva dotting the corners of his lips. Without so much as a word, he exited the library, not noticing the gaping waterbender he left behind. Zuko scowled as he trudged down the hall, sleep stolen from him so fully that he couldn't seem to walk straight. His temples throbbed with each step, every distant yell, and he paused, reaching out a hand against the wall for support. He had stayed up much longer than Katara - he remembered the exact moment she fell asleep. They were trying to translate the passage she read earlier, the one that hinted at a murder rather than natural death. The words echoed in his mind, over and over, a broken record to remain unfixed. Perhaps forever.
The betrayal was done so many years ago; The Little She-Bear has retreated into her unfamiliar den, a prison of rock, with no sign of spring. It is with a heavy heart that I admit I have removed her from her cave; negligent on my part to assume that only I will bear the consequences. I had chosen my poison with the decision made, and would willingly consume the hemp. If only I realized that such a decision would doom not only I, but the unknowing Prince, as well. Apologies a thousand times over, Prince Zuko - you may never come to know the treachery I have mistakenly woven into your destiny, and the poison that comes to finish what was begun so many years ago may not end with me. But I give my word as the Dragon of the West, that I will do what I can to prepare for he who bears the hemp—
He cringed at the sound of her voice, expecting a tirade for some reason or another.
"Are you alright?"
Sympathy, concern, uncertainty - not what he had in mind.
The Fire Lord glanced back to see Katara peering down at him. He managed to nod before straightening up, her hold on him surprisingly strong. "Yeah," he answered gratefully, "I'm fine." He could see that she was far from convinced, and shrugged away from her grasp. "Really," Zuko insisted, bleary-eyed, coarse-throat and all. "I am."
Katara scoffed, "Right. And I'm La." Her sarcasm didn't do much to coerce a reaction from Zuko, who only shook his head, resulting in a stifled groan and the squinting of his eyes as he pressed the bridge of his nose to relieve the pain.
It was then that Katara gasped and suddenly, her hands were on him, sifting through his robes, and Zuko was too startled to do much more than protest in surprise. "Alright, where is it?" She demanded harshly, quick hands moving from one pocket to the next.
"Where's what?" Zuko snapped, flushing a blooming scarlet as her hands swiftly grazed over his form,
"What in Agni do you think you're doing-?"
"Aha!" The waterbender exclaimed as she withdrew a flask from his inside pocket.
The former prince's eyes widened. Crap.
She waved the bottle in his face, eyes accusing. "I thought I smelled fire whiskey back there!"
"Katara, I can explain-" Zuko began, but she only raised a hand.
"Save it," she retorted, wagging a reprimanding finger at the bewildered and slightly hung over Fire Lord, "There's no explanation for this! Oh, someone's going to hear about this!"
"I'm the Fire Lord!" Zuko reasoned as she tucked the flask away and marched off, muttering about how he would be in so much trouble. "Who's going to lecture me?" Even so, he followed after her much in the manner of a guilty child.
"Fire whiskey, Zuko?"
"The Fire Lord! Drowning his sorrows in alcohol!"
"What does this say of the Fire Nation?"
"What would your uncle say?"
Zuko winced at the last one.
"You are barely of age—"
"—Fire Lord or not—"
"This is hardly conduct you should be—"
"—Taking part in!"
And yada, yada, yada, et cetera, et cetera. Zuko sighed. He really had to challenge Katara to find someone who would dare lecture him, didn't he? - how could he have forgotten his former keepers, Li and Lo? The most annoying twins to ever inhabit the earth. Their voices were screeching, old and piercing like knives on glass. Far worse than the wails of even the loudest screaming howlerbat. He sat in his room - the bed much too large for one, the decorations gaudy and overbearing. The family tapestries were taken down from the walls, stashed somewhere below ground. Any sign of the previous Fire Lord's reign was erased from the chambers, any sign save for the present lord himself, the boy who bore all the memories that would keep Fire Lord Ozai's sinister ideals alive.
"—it is your responsibility to restore the honor of the Fire Nation—"
"—in a time of crisis such actions are unacceptable—"
It had taken nearly four years adjusting to the bedroom at all, but he had his uncle's encouragement and assurance to help - now he was left with only his own will and conscience. He didn't think he was strong enough to face living in his father's room...
"—Fire Lord Zuko, are you listening?"
"Fire Lord Zuko!"
Could he do it? Could he endure without his uncle?
Somehow, he had his doubts—
"Are you even listening?"
He flinched at the shrieking and glared at the duo who should really just roll over and die. "Yes!"
The twins spotted the lie at once and only shook their heads, grumbling about how Azula would never need such lecturing.
Zuko stalked over to the door as they left, slamming it at their heels.
Azula, Azula, Azula.
Even after her banishing spree, after her horrible treatment of their nannies, even rotting in prison, she was held in higher regard.
"Go away," Zuko growled, staring angrily at the door.
"It's me," called her voice from the other side.
He only folded his arms across his chest. "Go away," he staunchly repeated.
The door swung open and Katara met his glare with a most exasperated expression. "Oh, stop being so childish," she berated, prodding him in the chest. "You shouldn't have resorted to alcohol in the first place." She ignored the former prince's act of irately massaging where she had so forcefully poked, and held up a book, brow arching as she gestured towards it. "Did you forget we had some translating to do?"
"I've translated enough," Zuko answered, avoiding her gaze.
"What are you talking about?" The waterbender pressed, "We haven't even—"
"Do you want to know why I had fire whiskey last night?" He interjected heatedly, "Because...because I actually started reading the memoir, not looking for ancient Fire Nation text. I started reading it, and started remembering and regretting. We've been through so much together, Uncle and I...and it's all in there, Katara - all of it. Down to every last detail!" He blinked away his misted vision before continuing. "I'm done translating it. Uncle died - there's no changing that."
The benders jumped at the cheerful voice and spun to see the Avatar poke his head in the doorway.
Katara offered him an endearing smile. "Yes, Aang?"
"What're you two doing in here? We're all going out to Ember Island! Come on!"
She nodded, glancing nervously back at the Fire Lord. "Yeah, I was just telling Zuko about it."
"So are you coming, Zuko?" Aang queried, eyes bright and unassuming. So innocent despite everything he'd been through - how did he maintain that sense of insouciance? How could he be so optimistic about everything? It wasn't fair. Aang had gone through so much - losing his entire family, the monks, his home, his lifetime. Struggling with mastering the elements, staying alive, dealing with the potential end of the world. And yet he was as childish and carefree as ever. And there was Zuko...life cracked so unimaginably that all images could only be seen through distorted vision.
Hesitance, and then, "Aang, I don't think Zuko wants to—"
The book was stolen from her hands in a most careless gesture, followed by his voice, low and certain,
"Yeah. I'm coming."
I CAN HAS MOAR FEEDBACKZ?
The process of this revision is taking much longer than I anticipated.
I'm really analyzing every paragraph, every sentence
and changing what I can to improve the overall writing
I've also lost the third chapter that was pre-written
so from this point on everything will be new!
now for the questions:
( 1 ) Who is the Litte She-Bear?
( 2 ) What does Iroh's passage mean?
( 3 ) What are Sokka's nightmares about?
( 4 ) What awaits them on Ember Island?