A/N: Hello all, this is me. This story begins during the very end of Book two, episode 20 (The Crossroads of Destiny). Pretty much the theme of this fic is what could (in my opinion, at least) have happened had Zuko NOT betrayed Katara, Iroh and Aang for Azula. What if he had heeded the call of Good over the call of blood and family? Just an early warning to all shippers out there – I am a MAJOR Zutara fan, so this story will be a Zutara, the other shippings to be decided. Hell, I may even set up a poll. To start, I'll mainly be recounting the scenes in the Crystal Catacombs, because these will be the only scenes that have major changes. I'll skip over the others, because they're either unimportant, or they plain don't change. Anyways, onto the story!
DISCLAIMER: I don't own avatar: tla, but I wish that I did.... Dreams are dreams. All things created by Bryke and Whos-it belong to them, and the Nickelodeon corporation. And by things I mean characters, places, bending, etc...
BOOK 2: EARTH
CHAPTER 20: THE CROSSROADS OF DESTINY
Down in the glowing green florescence of the crystal caverns, there was a figure near the wall, pounding on one of the glowing crystals in exasperation.
"How could we have been so foolish?" Katara ranted
"I mean, we couldn't have taken ten seconds to greet the Kyoshians? I cannot believe this...."
Trailing off into silence, she started pacing back and forth. Not long after she started, she heard a grumbling coming from the entry tunnel, where the Dai Li had shoved her into this prison. A bright ring of light appeared, and she could see three figures – two Dai Li agents, she realised by their distinctive hats, holding the third figure, who appeared to be her new cellmate. One of the agents called out:
"You've got company",
The other agent then proceeded to toss his prisoner down the shaft. With a masculine yell, the figure tumbled down the shaft, landing at her feet. Her eyes widened as she realised who it was.
"Zuko!" she said, a moment before the reality hit her, and her face twisted in anger as the agents sealed the shaft once more as Zuko looked at her from his knees.
--- --- --- oOo --- --- ---
With Zuko's back to her, Katara started ranting at him, without even hearing his side.
"Why did they throw you in here?" when he didn't respond immediately, she half-turned away and said
"Oh, wait, let me guess: it's a trap" As she started walking away from him, she continued on her angry tirade.
"So when Aang shows to help me, you can finally have him in your little Fire Nation clutches." At this, Zuko looked over his shoulder at her from where he sat cross-legged on the ground, face set in a despairing look. As he looked at her (righteously) angry face, he thought to himself
"Agni, she's angry. If she's not going to listen anyways, I might as well not bother..." he then turned his head back and continued staring at the ground, lost in thought.
As Katara watched him look at her, then turn away, she angrily started up again.
"You're a terrible person, you know that? Always following us, hunting the Avatar, trying to catch the world's last hope for peace?" Looking away in disgust, she mutters
"But what do you care? You're the Fire Lord's son. Spreading war, and violence, and hatred is in your blood"
Not able to hold himself back any longer, Zuko angrily growls as he turns to look at her:"You don't know what you're talking about"
"What" she thought to herself. Whirling towards him with a furious expression on his face, she nearly yelled at him. "I don't? How dare you? You have no idea what this war has put me through, me personally" Crouching down, she turned away from him so that he wouldn't be able to see the tears that had already started to fall from her eyes. Reaching up and softly touching her mother's necklace, she confessed to him. "The Fire Nation took my mother away from me"
Unable to see her face, Zuko never the less heard the sadness and loss in her voice. He managed to rasp out a delayed "I'm sorry" as she stared to audibly cry into her legs. Feeling the strangest compulsion to connect with her, he turned towards her and told her one of the most painful facts of his short life: "That's something we have in common."
As she heard this, her heart suddenly felt heavy, and he wiped away her tears with her sleeve as she turned towards him.
--- --- --- oOo --- --- ---
"Tui's mercy.... I had no idea.... but he's the Fire Nation PRINCE, by La. Does that mean that the... Queen? Of the Fire Nation is dead?" Deciding not to ask about that clearly sensitive subject, they both stood and she bowed her head to him "I'm sorry for yelling at you before"
"It doesn't matter", Zuko said, his voice cracking with shame and grief, but he felt a mild thrill at her apology.
"It's just that for so for so long now, when I would imagine the face of the enemy, it would be your face" she said, beginning to feel horribly guilty, as she began to realise the truth. Had she really been so caught up in her hate of the Fire Nation that she had failed to consider that they were people too, not just tyrannical monsters? That they could have families, feel emotions other than hate and anger? She had horribly misjudged the young Prince.
"My face" Zuko stated, turning away slightly. Reaching a hand to his scar, he finished his sentence "I see..."
"No, no, that's not what I meant." She said, walking towards him
"Its okay" he said, lowering his hand "I used to think that this scar marked me, the mark of the banished Prince, cursed to chase the Avatar forever. But lately, I've realised that I'm free to determine my own destiny, even if I'll never be free of my mark". He lowered his eyes, not in shame, but in remembrance of that terrible day, of the incredible pain that he had felt, with the image of his father, the Fire Lord, telling him that mercy is a weakness.
"Maybe you could be free of it" Katara said quietly, getting Zuko's complete attention.
"What?" he said, opening his eyes from his small reverie. "Could she really heal my scar? Is that even possible? But the healers at the palace..." he turned towards her as she continued.
"I have healing abilities" she said, hoping that she could help repair at least the physical damage, if not the emotional trauma.
"It's a scar", he said bitterly "It can't be healed"
Reaching underneath her tunic, Katara drew out a small, cone-shaped vial decorated in blue and white cloth "This is water from the Spirit Oasis at the North Pole. It has special properties, so I've been saving it for something important." Walking towards him until she was close enough to feel the heat of his breath, she continued. "I don't know if it would work, but".... she then trailed off into silence. Closing his eyes, Zuko thought that she didn't realise the burden of wearing this scar, this... mark that would forever brand him as a traitor to the Fire Nation, his homeland. Lost in his thoughts, he didn't realise that she had raised her arm until he felt her cool, soft hands touching his scar. Although surprised, he didn't pull away when she touched it. Until then, besides himself, only the healers at the palace had touched it, and only as long as absolutely needed. Not even Uncle had touched it, but somehow.... somehow it felt right that she was touching it.
As Katara felt the scar, she realised that it wasn't nearly as rough as she had thought it to be by its angry appearance. It was unnaturally smooth in the way that all scars were, except that the surface was pitted with small hills and depressions. She also began to realise that she didn't think the scar ugly – it was just part of Zuko, not some huge, red scar. After what seemed like an eternity to both teenagers, a rumble and crash came from behind Katara and they both turned and looked to see a huge dust cloud fly out from the wall as it exploded.
"Please let it be Aang" she hoped, and thankfully, her prayers were answered when from the cloud of sediment a familiar tattooed face appeared, accompanied by the old man who hung out Zuko. His... uncle, if she recalled correctly. She ran towards him with a smile on her face as she wrapped up the Avatar in her arms.
As Aang cleared the dust, he heard Katara's voice call his name and he was suddenly engulfed in a big blue hug. Looking over her shoulder, he noticed that from where she had come from, she had to have been standing awfully close to the other occupant.... which happened to be the exiled Prince. Shooting him a dirty look, (What's he doing, standing so close to MY Katara?) his line of sight was broken when Iroh ran up to Zuko and gave him a big platypus-bear hug. After Zuko's surprise wore off, he glared right back at the Avatar, daring him to call him out on whatever he had done wrong in his eyes.
--- --- --- oOo --- --- ---
As Zuko and Iroh separated, Aang and Katara followed suite, but she kept the Avatar at arm's length and pulled him in for another hug. "Aang, I knew that you would come" she said gratefully, realising now that she had perhaps enjoyed her alone time with the Prince a little too much. She immediately felt guilty and pulled him in for a tighter hug, put let go when he pulled away as Zuko started to speak.
"Uncle, I don't understand. What are you doing with the Avatar?" Zuko demanded, pointing at the boy in question.
"Saving you, that's what" Aang said with more than a hint of anger in his voice. Zuko growled and began to rush at the him until a firm arm caught him by the middle.
"Zuko... it's time we talked" his uncle said, giving him a serious look that also managed to convey a feeling of "not now". Adopting a pleasant smile, Iroh turned to Katara and Aang. "Go help your other friends – we'll catch up with you."
As Aang dashed down the hallway, Katara walked after him, giving a longing look at the former Fire Prince that she hadn't realised had so much in common with her. Wanting to finish their conversation, but knowing what her duty was, she eventually turned her eyes from the downcast firebender as she sadly headed down the darkened hallway after Aang.
"Why, Uncle?" asked Zuko of Iroh, sounding almost... defeated.
"You are not the man you used to be, Zuko. You are stronger, and wiser and freer than you have ever been. And now, you have come to the crossroads of your destiny. It's time for you to choose. It's time for you to choose... Good." As the words left Iroh's mouth, a tinkling rumble was heard and Iroh was captured in a prison of crystal. Zuko yelled in alarm as he dropped into a firebending stance and watched two Dai Li agents and her sister sprang out from a side corridor. Azula stepped in front of the Dai Li agents, and prepared to speak.
"I expected this kind of treachery from Uncle, but Zuko... Prince Zuko, you're a lot of things, but you're not a traitor... are you?" Azula gave him a questioning look as she awaited his answer.
"Release him immediately!" demanded Zuko.
"It's not too late for you, Zuko" Azula said, stepping back a step "You can still redeem yourself"
"The kind of redemption she offers is not for you" Iroh called out from his glass prison, hoping to help Zuko resist his sister's siren tongue.
"Why don't you let him decide, Uncle?" giving the man a harsh glare. She softened as she looked back at her elder brother "I need you, Zuko. I've plotted every move of this day, this glorious day in Fire Nation history, and the only way we win is together. At the end of this day, you WILL have your honour back. You have Father's love. You will have everything you want." (You'll have my love, brother.)
"Zuko, I am begging you. Look into your heart and see what it is that you truly want." His uncle implored from his prison (Please, Zuko, do not forget all that I have taught you, all that you have been through...)
"You are free to choose" said Azula, raising her right arm, dismissing the two Dai Li standing behind her. They raised short pedestals of stone and glided back the way they came as Azula walked down the hallway after the Avatar without so much as a backward glance, leaving Zuko standing there, head bowed in thought.
--- --- --- oOo --- --- --
As all this was happening, Aang and Katara had continued running and they eventually came onto this big, open chamber with a small but deep trench, filled with water.
"We've got to find Sokka and Toph" Katara managed to puff out to Aang as they ran through the room. Aang heard something and they turned, only to see a sheet of blue fire roll towards them. Thinking quickly, Aang raised a shield of earth from the ground and barely managed to hold back the blast, being pushed back about a half dozen feet. As the smoke cleared, they saw Azula standing ready in a firebending pose. With instincts honed by her encounters with Zuko, Katara charged towards the vicious firebender, collecting a massive wave of water as she ran. Tossing it at Azula with all her strength, she saw it crash down and she wondered if she, a mere waterbending peasant from the South Pole, could have possibly defeated the great Princess Azula with a single attack. Her hope was crushed when she saw a massive cloud of steam erupt from her wave. As her and Aang set into defensive stances, Azula came flying out of the steam cloud and started punching fireballs at them as she landed on a stone pillar. Working together, Katara and Aang pulled up a shield from the trench and blocked this initial attack. As soon as the shield was no longer needed, Aang earthbent to pillar into crumbling beneath Azula, enraging her and causing her to jump down and land near the two other benders. Pointing a hand towards them both, her eyes flickered nervously between the two. She knew that she was a match for nearly any other bender alone, but she respected the Avatar's power enough to doubt her victory when faced with him and the waterbending master. Out of nowhere, a giant orange fireball came and landed between the Avatar and Azula. Everybody turned and saw Zuko standing in a firebending stance, with a dangerous look to his eye. As he came closer, he half circled around the Avatar and Azula, his eyes flickering from one to the other. His eyes stopped on Aang, and his hand drew back, preparing to launch a fire blast. Aang conjured an air blast to propel himself back, but it wasn't needed. He swept his arm across his body and threw a sheet of orange fire at Azula. Her face, which had been set onto a smirk when he had focused on the Avatar, flipped to a shocked expression as she blocked the blast with her own blue fire. Aang, Zuko and Katara all started to advance on her, pinning her against the trench.
--- --- --- oOo --- --- ---
Azula was having a difficult time defending herself against the two master benders (Impressive how much you've improved, Zuzu...) and the Avatar. She managed to unleash a huge blast against the Avatar, making him hit the wall and get buried by rubble, but doing so opened herself to an attack by Katara, which she barely dodged. In fact, it sheared a few hairs from her long hair. She responded by dropping herself to her hands and doing a rolling kick back up, making a huge circular wave flow out towards the remaining benders. Zuko managed to dissipate the fire directly around him, but Katara couldn't draw enough water in time and was blasted backwards and hit a crystal formation.
"Katara!" yelled Zuko, but was nearly drowned out by the explosion of rock that Aang had earthbent. With a massive leap, the airbender flew through the ait and landed heavily, earthbending a crater and creating a rolling ball of rock to hopefully steamroll Azula. As he rode atop it, it picked up speed until nearly at Azula's position. Then a figure jumped in front of the rock and moved his hands as if parting a curtain. The Dai Li agent tore the sphere apart and made Aang fly to a stop not far from Zuko. Zuko, Katara and Aang looked around and saw Dai Li agents, dozens of them, jump from the walls and join in on the fight. A dozen jumped around Katara and she pulled water from the trench into her defensive "octopus" stance, with her tentacles whirling around, protecting her. Aang was about to go to her aid when Zuko grabbed his arm.
"We've got bigger problems, Avatar" he said, motioning to the dozens of Dai Li agents surrounding them and Azula, who was now wearing a smirk on her face.
"...There's too many" whispered Aang, not believing that the good guys might possibly lose. Then Guru Pathik's word's came to him "The only way is to let her go". Aang lowered his arms in defeat, and let a single tear escape his eyes as he whispered to himself "I'm sorry, Katara". Turning to Zuko, he told him to hold them off as long as he could, and, without warning, stomped the ground and created himself a crystalline shelter. As Zuko launched wave after wave of fire at the Dai Li, they kept blocking with half their number and attacking him with those stone hands with the other half until suddenly, they all collectively took a step back. Even Azula stepped back when Aang's shelter began to glow with the pure white light signifying the presence of the Avatar spirit. A the glow intensified, Zuko turned around to see what all his opponents were looking at and managed an "Agni..." before the structure exploded, making him fly backwards and land near Katara, who promptly ran towards him, getting him into the centre of her defensive stance until he could get up. The Dai Li were momentarily awed at the sight of a fully awoken Avatar as he arose from the remains of the formation in a column of pure, blinding light. Katara looked upon with hope, and a little trepidation (what if he kills those Dai Li agents? What if I can't stop him...? Nonsense, he wouldn't have come back without fully mastering the Avatar State... right?) as his glory spilled across the room.
Then came the thing that nobody had expected. Azula struck Aang down with an expertly aimed lightning bolt, causing his eyes and tattoos to dim and let him drop to the ground. As Zuko rose, he and Katara watched Aang fall, and as her tears dropped, she gathered up all her water and created a wave to carry her and Zuko to Aang, knocking over the Dai Li agents who stood in their way. As Katara knelt on the ground, fallen Avatar in her arms, Zuko put a supporting hand on her shoulder. As she looked up, she could see the compassion in his eyes – not that the Avatar fell, but that it was one of her dearest friends. Azula walked towards them and Zuko stood between them and her, blocking them with his own body. As he managed to block the first blow, the second threw him back and he fell. Before the next blast could reach them, however, a larger red-ish fireball came from a side passage above them and Iroh jumped down, taking a defensive stance where Zuko had been not too long ago.
"Go! You have to get out of here! I'll hold her off as long as I can!" he cried; as he started throwing fireballs at not only Azula, but at the sopping wet Dai Li who had started to emerge from the trench.
"No! Uncle, I'll help you hold them off!" Cried Zuko, wanting to stay with his uncle. Now that he had chosen, he refused to leave the man who had made it all possible with his limitless patience and kindness.
"No! Zuko, your destiny lies with the Avatar now! Take Katara and Aang and get out of here! Go now!" Iroh yelled, the look in his eyes daring Zuko to defy him. "I order you as the Dragon of the West! Protect Master Katara and Avatar Aang!" Eyes shining with unshed tears, Zuko nodded and picked Aang out of Katara's arms. As he held the Avatar, he was again surprised at how little the boy weighed. As he and Katara dashed to the trench and to the waterfall that supplied it, Zuko took one last look at his uncle Iroh, bravely fending off not only Azula, but a dozen of the Dai Li as well. Katara raised a vortex of water around herself and Zuko, and she carried the three of them up the face of the waterfall, leaving Iroh behind, fighting to keep the path clear of pursuers. The last Zuko saw of Iroh, he got sealed by the Dai Li in a crystal coffin, with a triumphant Azula smirking at her captured uncle.
--- --- --- oOo --- --- ---
Not too long later, as the Gaang (now including Zuko), flew away on Appa. With Sokka driving, Toph, Zuko, King Kuei, Bosco and Momo looked worriedly upon Katara and Aang as she took the vial of spirit water from her tunic and pressed it into Aang's back, where Azula's lightning had hit him. When he didn't show any indication of life, Katara started crying over him, until his arrow glowed for a second, and he started to groan. She laid him down, and he gave her a smile as he saw her tear-stained face. She pulled him in for a hug, and everybody sighed with relief as he slowly fell back asleep. Sokka called for Appa to hurry away from there, and as they sailed towards the Outer Wall of Ba Sing Se, the King Kuei looked back upon his city.
"The Earth Kingdom... has fallen."
A/N P.S.: ...So? What did you think? The episode ended the exact same except for the fact that Zuko's now with the Gaang instead of Azula. Now Azula gets the glory of having "killed" the Avatar. So, my fellow Zutarians, this means that Zuko never reunites with Mai.... which means that I have to rewrite the entire Burning Rock episode... both parts.... damnit. Don't hesitate to call me out on anything, such as out-of character-ness, the wrong lines, incorrect information, etc.... this is my first "actual" fanfic, so here's hoping for the best.