Author's note: As of July 2017 this fic is now in the process of being re-vamped and re-posted on my profile. Feel free to read this still, but it will not be being updated beyond the current chapter 9. The new fic which will continue until the story is actually finished.
"I'm sorry it has to end this way, brother."
"No you're not."
"No lightning today? What's the matter? Afraid I'll redirect it?"
"Oh, I'll show you lightning!"
The disheveled girl twirled her arms in counterbalancing circles, a crazed grin plastered across her already-crazed face.
The scarred boy took his own position, steadying himself for the blow.
The blow that wasn't directed at him.
The icy-blue, electrifyingly hot blow that instead sped off towards another girl, this one surprised and unprepared for the bolt. Her blue eyes widened in fear and her mouth broken open in a too-slow cry.
"No!" he cried, launching himself into the path of the bolt. Launching himself to be hit directly in the chest. Still composed enough -or was it stubborn enough?- to twist his arms around in, down, around, out to release the energy into the sky. And to collapse to the ground.
Still fighting, he reached and struggled to get up, only to fall.
"Zuko!" the blue-eyed girl finally cried.
A fury she had never known welled up inside and the blue-eyed girl turned to face the amber-eyed girl, now cackling manically and weaving more bolts of destruction.
"You don't look so good Zu-zu," she laughed, launching herself up atop a building, lashing bolts at the enraged waterbender.
The next moments were of clashing water and electricity- of anger and maniacal rage.
Then, it was over as the crazed older girl made a fatal error and was swept up in a semi-fluid mass of water. The other bender wove chains around her arms, tying her down like an animal to the grate below her. When the water fell back below into the stream, the chained girl screamed, all traces of humanity lost as she bellowed cones of blue flame.
But the blue-eyed girl was already running towards him. The one who always fought. The one that she had once never wished to see, whom she now wanted only to see get up and be prepared to fight, just as he always had. Just like at the North Pole. Just like every time he insisted on capturing the Avatar to regain his honor. Just like every time he had called her a "water tribe peasant" in that rough, harsh, proud voice of his.
How she needed to hear his voice ring out in pride and determination.
"Katara," he said, not proud, but something else. Weak. Hurt. In pain.
She could barely stop her hands from shaking as she pressed the glowing water onto his chest; could barely believe it as he began to breath steadily again.
His arm grasped her forearm and golden eyes met blue.
The boy shakily stood up, supported by the waterbender. They stood together, the girl soundlessly wiping tears away from her eyes, the boy slowly catching his breath.
Then, one hand around her shoulder, he took his other hand and tipped her chin up, gave just the slightest bit of hesitation, and brought his mouth down to meet hers.
The chained girl continued to bellow in frustration, but the other two ignored her.
"So Ozai's not even dead?" The question sounded harsh and cruel, but Katara could not help it. She could have asked, "Was the Fire Lord -excuse me, Phoenix King- defeated?" "Was the world safe again?" "And how was your day?" But she didn't.
They were gathered in a loose camp just outside the Fire Nation palace. Earthbenders, waterbenders, sandbenders, firebenders, Kyoshi warriors, the Avatar, and the White Lotus Society- the troops of the rebellion. There were people everywhere. Azula had been taken away a while ago by way of the now-banished Dai Li. Katara was not sad to see the girl go. She needed some time to realize what kind of monster she had turned out to be.
They were all gathered in one of the extra Southern Water Tribe tents- Aang, Katara, Sokka, Suki, Toph, and Zuko. Team Avatar, Sokka still insisted on calling them. Zuko was lounging on a pile of tiger-dillo pelts, wearing one of Sokka's extra tunics. Sokka and Suki were together, holding hands, sitting on more pelts. Toph had earthbended herself a chair of sorts and was playing around with metalbending a dented Fire Navy helmet. Aang was seated on the only non-pelt covered cushion. And Katara was leaning against a tent pole, her arms crossed and her usually cheerful face turned into a grimace.
Aang wasn't looking at her piercing gaze as she repeated, "Why isn't Ozai dead, Aang?"
The airbender continued to look at the ground as he replied in a sharp retort, "Because I, unlike the Fire Nation, don't take peoples lives!"
Everyone became very silent and the tension of the little tent jumped up another notch. Katara's eyes flicked towards Zuko, now sole sane heir to the throne of the Fire Nation. He suddenly became very interested in the striped pattern of the ceiling above him, his eyes locked on the empty air above him.
It was silent for a few more moments before Toph said matter-of-factly, "You took his bending away instead. Bending a person's energy and all that who-ha." She flippantly waved her hand in the air before returning to her metalbending.
"Exactly," the not-so-little monk said. He gripped his glider tightly in his hands and looked up at the group around him. "I said I wasn't going to kill anyone and I didn't. Ozai wasn't worth it."
Katara huffed and stormed out of the tent. She could hear the boy's voice as she walked away, asking, "What did I say?" She kept walking, weaving her way through the tents, blindly looking for someone, anyone to talk to besides the Avatar.
She stopped as soon as she reached the edge of the encampment. She was in the middle of the Fire Nation. Where did she think she was going to walk off to? It wasn't like she was in Ba Sing Se anymore and could go and sit in the nearest tea shop. Frustrated, she whirled around and nearly fell onto a surprised Zuko. He grabbed her wrists to stop her from crashing into him. I'll save you from the pirates. But his hands weren't tight with crushing strength. They were gentle and guiding, letting go as she dropped her hands to her sides, taking a step back.
"Whoa!" he said, surprised. "Sorry, I snuck up on you."
Katara's heart was pounding, though she had long broken her habit to stabilize herself in a bending position whenever she saw him. "No, it's fine," she said, relaxing her shoulders. That's when she realized she'd been holding them stiffly ever since Team Avatar had regrouped. Ever since she was no longer alone with Zuko, the proud, brave one.
She started to walk again, though this time far less hurried. Zuko fell into step beside her and for a few minutes they just walked, weaving a haphazard path through the cluttered camp.
He kept quiet, waiting for her to speak first. And she did, stopping suddenly next to a thick stone "tent." "Why am I being so judgmental to Aang about this? I mean, I couldn't even kill the man who had hurt my mother. Why can't I accept that Aang couldn't kill Ozai?" She stared at the ground, glaring at it as though the rough rocky earth was to blame. She felt so conflicted inside, as though a raging hog-monkey was jumping about in her stomach.
Zuko didn't reply at first, his piercing golden eyes watching hers. Then, he said softly, "Katara." She didn't look up from her gaze on the ground. "Katara," he repeated and this time she looked up at him, a deep confusion in her eyes. "Aang couldn't kill Ozai for the same reasons as he cannot willingly enter the Avatar State: he will not confront the parts of himself that he is too afraid to consider. He can't let go of earthly attachments, just as he can't let go of his constant belief in a good in everyone."
"He thinks there is something good in Ozai?" she asked weakly. It wasn't possible. Even the gentle, wouldn't-hurt-a-wasp-fly monk would have to agree that a person as undoubtedly corrupt and evil person as Ozai had nothing good within him, wouldn't he? But no, her mind told her, he could think that. He was just mature enough to recognize the dangers the ex-Fire Lord presented but he was still young and juvenile enough to think that true evil couldn't overpower a person.
"Yes," Zuko said, "he does." The taller youth sighed, looking around at the crowded tent-city. Even now a runner dashed past him, clutching some scroll tied with a white ribbon. An important message from the White Lotus, to be sure.
Katara sighed as well, feeling the crushing weight of exhaustion and fatigue. She wanted to just sit somewhere and never stand up again. "It's just so…hard to believe, you know? That everything is over."
Zuko nodded, beginning to walk again. Katara followed, moving close enough that her hand just barely brushed his as they walked. "You realize you've finally finished what you set out to do?" he asked her, glancing at her in the corner of his eye.
"I suppose that is true," she replied slowly. "But then again, I originally intended to set out just to help Aang find a way to master his elements. I didn't realize I would be helping to end the war." She looked over at Zuko. "You finally got what you wanted too, Zuko. You've got your honor back, just in a different way."
Zuko's face twisted in a curious way and he closed his eyes, shaking his head no slowly. "I got my honor back when I was finally accepted by people that really mattered." He opened his eyes and a rare smile spread across his usually grim face. "People like Uncle, the Avatar, and, of course, you, Katara."
She stopped dead in her tracks, and he did too, his smile gone. "Me?" she asked confusedly. "How could I really matter? I'm just a water tribe peasant." Her eyes were filled with confusion and she looked more fragile than she had in days, the hard exterior of a rebel finally torn down to show the tired, emotional, fifteen-year-old-girl she was.
Zuko crossed the short distance between them and took her hands in his, his eyes never leaving hers. "Katara, you are the person that I had hurt the most, betrayed the worst, and longed for the most terrible to be able to explain myself to. And you took all that I had done and forgave me. Me, the one who tied you to a tree, who turned on you in Ba Sing Se, who chose to go back to Azula and the Fire Nation instead of the Avatar." He let go of one of her hands to push aside a lock of hair that had fallen in her face. "You are so important to me," he whispered fiercely.
This was different. This was new. Zuko was not the emotional type. Yeah, he might carry Toph around and joke with her like she was a sister. Sure, he had trained Aang and sparred with Sokka to keep their skills sharp. True, he had helped out with more than his share of chores in the Western Air Temple and the Ember Island beach house. But he wasn't caring and protective, was he? Yet here he was, opening himself up to her, just as she had opened herself up to him during their expedition to find her mother's killer.
Then, just as quickly as it had come, the moment was gone, and he had stepped back, tucking his hands into his pockets and looking away abashed. "I'm sorry if that came out wrong," he said hoarsely.
"It didn't," she said quickly, before she wrapped her arms around him, pressing her face into his chest just as she had done only a few weeks ago. And he was hugging her too, clinging to the small girl with all his might. "You said it just right."
Katara kept her eyes squeezed shut, her arms still hugging Zuko. She was glad that he didn't try to shrink away from her. Finally, she loosened her arms and moved back a step, a flush creeping up her face. Since when has he been able to make me feel this way? She wasn't quite sure how he was making her feel, besides the wave of moth-flies that had taken up residence in her stomach.
"Katara, I'm sorry if I'm making things awkward between you and me," Zuko said, rubbing the back of his head with his hand. "With, well, me…kissing you before." He was looking away now, much like the reserved and reclusive boy he usually seemed to be. "I don't know how you feel about me and I know that you and Aang seemed to be something, so I could understand if you wanted to tell me off right now." He trailed off, looking at his feet now, his hair falling over his face.
She turned back to stare at Zuko. "Zuko," she said, ducking her head to look him straight in the eyes. "I'm not going to tell you off." He tipped his head back up, staring right back into her deep blue eyes. She touched a hand to his shoulder. "Whatever feelings Aang held for me, they don't matter. I…I don't think I could ever return those feelings to him. I'm still my own person." It hurt her to say it, but she felt it was true. And she needed him to hear her say it.
Zuko brought his hand up and wrapped it gently around her fingers. "I'm glad that you don't want to tell me off and I'm happier still that you can be your own person. It took me a long time to make that decision for myself." It had taken him years, he realized. Years of suffering and exile, as well as terrible moments that even now he could not stand to believe he would ever make happen again.
Katara opened her mouth to say something, but Zuko spoke first, saying, "We'd better go back. They'll be worried if you don't come back." He dropped his hand from hers and Katara dropped her hand from his shoulder as well.
They started the slow walk back, walking seemingly even slower than before. Zuko draped an arm over Katara's shoulders and she wrapped hers around his waist, her head tipped comfortably into the niche of his neck and his shoulder. He was really warm, Katara realized. Like a komodo-lizard that had been laying in the sun.
"I'm glad you're your own person too, Zuko," she murmured.
He grinned, a true, wide smile spreading across his face. "That means the world, coming from a waterbender like yourself."
"Master waterbender, you mean, Zuko."
"Its Prince Zuko, you mean, Sifu Katara."
"Oh, you mean Prince Jerkbender?"
"Obviously," Zuko said, as he watched the moon's bright light outshine the fading burst of light that was the departing comet.