The City Sleeps.
[Part III; And Awakens To Chaos]
If you need to crash and burn—
you're not alone.
The eve of the comet, Aang disappears. They split into teams to find him, and eventually reassemble at the White Lotus base camp. King Bumi smiles at them with all eight of his teeth and salutes.
"Hello, there!" he yells. Sokka twitches and rubs his neck. "Glad you all finally showed up!"
"My ears are bleeding," Sokka deadpans. The solemn atmosphere Aang's absence had caused disappears entirely. Kairi and Toph snicker.
"Wait!" Bumi screams. "Someone's missing…" He inspects each of them carefully. "Where's Momo?"
Zuko groans. Kairi is giggling into her hand, and he's staring at her from the corner of his eye as best he can. "We have a slightly bigger problem, actually."
As he explains the situation, he's watching Kairi watch the others reunite with their mentors. He can see the expression on her face flicker between delight and something softer, something almost nostalgic.
"Well, I wouldn't worry," Bumi says. "Avatars like to up and run about for a bit when they're nervous! Iroh's in the big white tent."
Zuko chokes. Kairi touches his wrist and leans into him. Her body is warm against his side. "Zuko?"
Her fingers are gentle, light. He swallows hard and flits between her mouth and her eyes. "I don't think I can face him."
"You're silly," she scolds, and tugs him forward. She walks him through the gate, between tables and sleeping warriors, towards the largest tent in the vicinity. "He's your uncle – he will love you no matter what. And you've changed since you last saw him, right?"
"No," she says, with her back straight and facing him. The White Lotus symbol is stitched into the tent's flap. "You've worked hard to make him proud. Now show him."
He squeezes her hand. His lunch is lodged somewhere in his throat. "Okay."
She smiles brilliantly at him, like the sun, and he wants to kiss her. "I'll be waiting out here for you."
His lips curve, even as the knot in his stomach twists hard. "Thanks."
Her nails grazed his palm. "Knock 'em dead."
Zuko smirks, and walks forward.
"So," Iroh goes, after they've both wiped their eyes and straightened their clothes, "when do I meet the girl?"
Zuko makes a noise that falls between a splutter and a hiccup. "Who?"
"You think I haven't been keeping an eye on you?" Iroh grins. "Oh, nephew, you have much to learn. Is she pretty?"
A smile, and that familiar eye flash that means nothing short of bad. "That's a yes, then?"
Zuko splutters his way outside. Kairi is kneeling on the ground, petting Appa. He clears his throat; she turns and beams at him in a way that makes every nerve in his body pulse. "How was it?"
"It was…" He blushes, glances away. "It was okay."
She laughs. "Good. Sokka wants us to meet him by Bumi's tent. They think they've got a way to find Aang."
She stands and brushes off her skirt. Zuko's eyes linger on the smooth expanse of her legs. She grabs his wrist. "Let's go."
He inhales to steady his heartbeat; it doesn't work. "Okay."
The camp is bigger than he thought it'd be. Kairi leads him between the tents without pausing, and he wonders how she could've possibly learned the layout of the area so quickly. She smells like smoke and springtime and maybe a little like the palace garden.
Sokka and Hakoda are huddled around a sketch Sokka seemed to have drawn in the dirt with a stick. Katara and Toph are missing.
"Zuko!" Sokka grins at him, all teeth. "We're just going through the battle plan."
"Where is everyone?" Kairi asks. Sokka sees their linked hands and smirks.
"They went to find the bounty hunter," he says. "That freak show she calls a pet should be able to sniff Aang out for us."
Kairi cocks her head. Zuko sighs. "Don't worry about it. When are we attacking?"
"Tomorrow," Hakoda says, pointing at a spot on the map. "We'll strike here and here. Teo's been working on some new machines that should help."
"I'll take Azula," Zuko mutters, staring at the horizon. Kairi's fingers slide up his arm, curl around his bicep. He turns to her. "I need you to come with me."
She nods, and he knows he won't have to explain why. "Of course."
Sokka shoots him The Look. Zuko glares. "We'll need a healer, Zuko."
"Katara is better than I ever will be," Kairi supplies, fiddling with her necklace. It hurts a bit to see her doing that and Zuko doesn't know why. "I don't have what it takes to save lives; I can only fix flesh wounds."
"You saved mine," Sokka says. They pause, think of slippery black bodies and twitchy antennae, of the gaping hole turned pinkish scar across Sokka's ribcage and all the blood that had pooled where he'd fallen. She smiles sadly.
"You're one person." Her fingers lace together, twist, fall apart. "I couldn't save three of you."
Sokka looks resigned – Zuko knows it had never been about healing. It had been about distance he wouldn't give her, about the attachment he'd been forming too soon. He doesn't think he needs to let go, though; he just needs to hold on a bit longer.
"Fine." Sokka shrugs and eyes them both. "Have it your way."
Zuko's shoulders relax. Kairi rolls her eyes. "Thanks, Dad."
Sokka grins and wags his finger at them. "You crazy kids don't go getting into any trouble, you hear?"
Kairi sniggers. Zuko sighs. "Idiot."
"Respect your elders, sonny! And just what exactly are your intentions with my daughter?"
Hakoda seems both amused and pained. Zuko is flushing when he turns to him and says, "Where did I go wrong?"
"Did you ever drop him as a child?" Kairi snarks. Hakoda looks thoughtful.
"Nope, not that I can remember."
She grins, mischievous. Zuko bites the inside of his lip. "Well there's your problem, then."
Sokka pouts. "My genius is so underappreciated."
"Or imagine," Zuko says flatly. Kairi and Hakoda laugh while Sokka tries to put him in a headlock and everything is alright, for just a little while.
When he climbs onto Appa's back the next day, he says, "Are you ready to meet my sister?"
"I'm sure she's wonderful," Kairi goes, "homicidal tendencies and all." Her fingernails graze his palm when she takes the hand he offers. He shivers. "Cold?"
"… Maybe I shouldn't bring you," he mutters, for more than one reason. Her skirt slides dangerously high up her thighs. He tells her a partial-truth. "Azula will go after you just to hurt me."
"I'm a big girl," she teases, and squeezes his side. He bites back a groan. "Worry about yourself, alright? I'll be fine."
"You don't know what Azula is capable of."
"And you don't know what I'm capable of, either," she says, soft. He thinks of the blood that was caked and dried under her fingernails that first night and how she never hesitated when she struck. "Zuko?"
"You're going to be the death of me," he says honestly and touches her knee. "Alright."
Appa roars and takes off into the sky – Zuko watches the camp fade into a speck below them and breathes. Kairi's fingers tangle in his shirt. "What was Azula like… before all this happened?"
"Arrogant," he replies. "Spoiled. Selfish. Manipulative."
"And you weren't?"
"I was… weak." She stiffens. "In some ways, at least. In others, I had the strength I wish I had now."
"I bet," she says, voice airy, "you were a total momma's boy."
He snorts. "And if I was?"
He feels her cheek curve against his back. "Then I'd say you're a very sensitive boy and I hope you don't cry when I kill your sister."
Zuko leans back into her. She doesn't say 'beat' or 'defeat' or even 'win'. She says kill, and means it, because she gets what this war is about. Because she understands what kinds of sacrifices have to be made to smile and mean it. She squeals. "What was that? I couldn't hear you over the sound of me throwing you off Appa."
"Hate you," she grumbles. He chuckles. "And you smell like sweat."
"Forgive me," he deadpans. "Next time, I'll be sure to bathe before going off to kill my psychopathic sister."
"You have another one?" Kairi head buts his neck lightly. "What is wrong with your family?"
"You're a complete moron."
"You love me."
He pauses. "Unfortunately."
"Jerk!" she laughs, and pinches him, and he wishes she understood just how much he'd meant it.
Azula is gone. Her eyes are wild and her bangs are crooked, and she is no longer four and asking him to help her steal cookies. She is his baby sister and he will have to kill her. He will have to kill this girl with the broken, painted face and quivering laugh, this girl he'd held as a baby and sworn to always protect, to always be a big brother to. His hands are shaking as they fight, and hers are too, but they don't say a word. His bending is better. He is better.
Blue fire rises up to meet his in a giant wall. Kairi is behind him, key drawn, ready to jump in at any moment. She knows this is more than a battle to them both of them, and he loves her for it.
"Such a pretty little thing you've brought home, Zuzu," Azula purrs. Suddenly, he is very glad Kairi hadn't come earlier, that she hadn't met him when they were on opposite sides. Azula licks her lips. "Is she Mai's replacement?"
"No," Zuko says, and the word echoes hard in his head. A line of fire twists across the ground, from his wrist. Azula flips back to avoid it, flames dancing across the tips of her fingers. "She's better."
"Oh, Zuzu," Azula smirks her evilest smirk and he is already moving, even as the flames begin to crackle and snap. "You should know better by now than to tell me things like that."
The lightning that shoots out of her arm was never aimed for him, but he rolls into it like he needs to. His heart stops; he can feel that much. The stones of the Agni Kai ring are cold under him. Kairi doesn't scream, and her footsteps are quiet and graceful around him.
"Stay alive, Zuko," she says, with thinly-veiled panic and her fingers sweeping over his cheek. "I'll protect you, this time."
He blacks out – when he comes to, she is touching his bare chest and bleeding. Her arm is burnt badly, flakes of blackened skin peeling off and revealing the angry pink underneath. Her lips are cracked and raw. She's crying. He sighs.
"What'd I do now?"
She hiccups. "You have another scar. I'm sorry."
He thinks of his answer for a long time, then goes, "You should only be sorry if you can't find them sexy."
She gives a watery bark of laughter and smoothes her hands up over his collarbones. Her fingers twist in the hair at the nape of his neck, and she's panting over him. Her eyes are too blue and glossy. He can't move, but he hopes she knows what he'd do if he could. "I can."
"Then don't cry." His eyes are on her lips. She leans closer, then stops, like she isn't sure what she should do. He exhales once, twice, stares at her necklace. "Azula?"
"Isn't recognizable anymore," she mutters, chewing on a strand of hair. She keeps looking to his left, so he lets his head roll that way and stops. Azula is leaning against one of the support pillars, sopping wet. There is a giant, bloody hole in her chest where her heart had once been. Kairi's keyblade is next to her, red all the way to the hilt and slightly bent. He looks back at her. "I'm sorry."
"Stop apologizing for doing the things none of us ever could," he grumbles, and wants to touch her face, run his hands through her hair, touch her cheekbones and neck, pull her down to him and just make her stop. "Thank you."
"I thought you'd died." Her eyes are tearing up again. "I thought she'd killed you and it was so awful, the things she said about you…"
"Azula always lies," he says, for what is hopefully the final time, and forces a half-smile. "It's okay, you know. I'm okay."
"I'm sorry," she sniffles. She moves in closer, and he can almost taste the salt on her skin. Her eyelashes are damp and long and sticking together near the outer corners of her eyes. He breathes her in.
"I love you," he says. She doesn't look surprised, and she doesn't move any closer.
He blinks once, twice, then closes his eyes and tells her.
His coronation ceremony is short and sweet. Kairi misses the first five minutes of it because she's in the backroom, locking up their world using his father's crown or whatever it is she had to do. She can only stay a few weeks longer, they both know. She has to do a final sweep and make sure all the Heartless are gone, and then she has to leave, go back to her own world and find another to save. He wonders if she falls in love with someone one every planet, or if he's just unlucky.
She sneaks her way onto the balcony just as he and Aang shake hands. Iroh is grinning so wide Zuko thinks his face might split, and then he does a double take and realizes that the maids have given Kairi a complete make-over. Her hair is pulled back in a topknot, and she's wearing an outfit similar to what Katara had worn while they were undercover, only with shorts and wrist guards. It isn't even fair.
"You," he grumbles later, hands on her bare hips, "are a filthy cheater."
She giggles. "Shall I show you just how dirty I can get, Your Majesty?"
He chokes. She snickers into his neck, so he bites her ear and runs his fingers over her ribs. "Go right ahead."
She dances away from him, eyes bright. "You have Fire Lord duties to attend to, Zuko. I can't keep distracting you, or else your people will have my head."
"Among other things." He scowls when she heads for the door. "Where are you going?"
"To see if they've found my ship yet," she replies blithely. "Sora and Riku are probably worried sick about me."
He pretends that doesn't hurt, even after she's left the room. He wonders if there's any room left in her heart for him when it already seems so full. He touches the letter on his desk, from Bumi, and accidentally sets it on fire.
"Even when she isn't here, she's messing you up, isn't she?" Sokka leans in the doorway, looking both smug and pitying. "You've only got a few more weeks, bud. Are you sure you should be letting her get under your skin like this?"
Zuko frowns. "Do you not like her, or something?"
Sokka shakes his head, backtracks. "No, no, man, she's cool and hot and all that, but I know she's just temporary. We can't ask her to choose between the life she was given, and the one she chose to save."
"I don't think," he stops, starts again. "I think I love her… and I don't think she gets it."
"Most girls don't," Sokka deadpans. "Girls from other planets, especially."
"Thank you for those kind words of wisdom, Sokka. Any other advice you wish to impart upon me?"
"Yeah," Sokka goes, "stop reading the dictionary. You sound like an old guy."
Zuko throws a book at his head.
This is eventually what happens; they find her ship and she makes plans to leave in three days. Zuko drops the Fire Lord façade, changes into his old clothes, corners her in the hall, just behind the statue of his great-grand father, and pins her to the wall with his hips. "Do you love me?"
She blushes hot. "I don't know."
He grits his teeth. "Have you ever been in love?"
"Yes," she goes, without hesitating. He growls.
"Then why are you doing this to me?" His fingers press into her hips, hard. She doesn't flinch. "Why are you leaving me behind?"
Something in her face shifts, like she's remembering something she never thought she'd need to, and her lips part. "I'm sorry," she breathes, and buries her face in is neck. "I'm sorry, I forgot what it felt like to.. I never would've.. if I'd just –"
"Stop babbling," he mutters, "and just talk to me."
Her tongue swipes at his jugular. He kisses her collarbone, open mouthed and slow. She inhales hard. "The person I loved left me behind without saying goodbye, and it hurt a lot, but it made me a better person. He died, though. I never…"
"You never associated dying with this?" He snorts into her hair, pushes his thigh between hers. "You are a complete and utter dunce, sometimes." Her fingers run over his bare shoulders, nails grazing lightly. She kisses the dip in his clavicle. "Don't go."
"I have to." His hands slide upwards and squeeze. She arches into him and wraps one leg around his waist. "Zuko."
Her skin is hot and slick against him. The hallway is empty but there are servants chattering just out of sight, and it makes him press harder, touch her where it makes her scream silently into his chest. They're too fast and rushed for it to be anything but desperate, but every roll of his hips makes her hold onto him tighter, and she's saying his name over and over like it'll change something.
When she jerks up against him, he bites her breast and she says, "You're everything," like he's never heard it before. Her fingers slide over him, clumsy and rhythmic, and he knows he will love her for a long time after she leaves, because he just can't shake her anymore.
The day she leaves, he finds a note on his desk and the charm she always had attached to her belt. Her ship is just a puff of smoke in the sky, and he can't look at the stars without thinking of her smile and her laugh and the way she said his name like she loved him. Her writing is smooth and fluid and slants to the right.
I know I'm worlds away to you, now, but just remember that we all share the same sky.
So whenever you look up at it thinking of me, know that I'm doing the same and thinking of you.
P.S. This is my favourite charm; don't you dare lose it. I'll be coming back for it!
He laughs, and knows he will wait forever.
(because she was everything, too.)
NOTES. finito. (:
DISCLAIMER. i own nothing.