Memory of a Moment
I don't own ATLA, but I love it so much I am compelled to write more.
You may notice this is the first piece I've submitted in about five years. Crazy how time flies, huh? Prepare for some Zutara awesomeness. Eventually :).
Update: Thanks, hootowl - changed it to philia.
Five years didn't seem like all that long when it was spent cleaning up after a power-mad despot.
Gazing up at the large stone tower, the largest of three in the center of the city, Zuko grimaced at the fluttering red flag depicting a curved black dragon consuming a yellow circle. He could almost hear the evil laugh escape the dangerous mouth. The flag had been Ozai's standard for most of his reign. Now that Ozai had been deposed, it was one last charming vestige of a dead regime. Apparently in this remote Fire Nation village, named Hanoi for a reason long since forgotten, the people were unaware that the flag was out of date. Hopefully they would take the change in stride. Zuko wasn't in the mood for another rebellion.
This was the last in a series of 'personal calls' Zuko had had to make periodically over the last year or so. He had received reports that certain of his cabinet-members' subordinates had not taken kindly to the recent change of power. Zuko couldn't see why; in terms of trade, both the dual Water Tribes and the Earth Kingdom were much more open with him than they were with his father. Moreover, Zuko had made sure that all reparations for his father's horrific acts of war were paid with interest. The Earth kingdom wasn't quite as friendly as they hopefully would be in time, but they were at least shaking off their collective bedside manner. The Fire Nation was looking good for once in thirty years.
But some of his subordinates just never got past the idea that the Nation needed to rule all in sight. Zuko was traveling personally to convince them otherwise.
"My Lord, I think that may be General Wu, there. With the long beard? Stooped over? Hacking up a lung?"
"I see him, Sokka. He was a war hero in his younger days. Maybe show a modicum of respect."
"You say that, but an old war hero from the Fire Nation equals an old invader of the Water Tribe." Zuko quirked his mouth and gave Sokka an exasperated look.
"Alright, fine, I'll show respect…"
"…to his face, anyway." Zuko sighed, but let Sokka have his way. He knew Sokka was giving up a lot of his Water Tribe pride just accompanying him on this voyage. But Sokka, now General Sokka, was one of the best navigators the world over, and even after Zuko had relinquished all the lands Ozai had conquered, the Fire Nation was still massive. Add to that the thousands of little, tiny, impossible to find island villages, and Sokka was a necessity. If only his mouth was a little duller.
"You know, Sokka, you don't really have to attend the negotiations."
"Funny you call them that, Zuko. I think 86% of the previous negotiations you've attempted have ended with you stripping the local leader of his title and setting up a younger, more pliable counterpart." Zuko clenched his fists at that and growled.
"I've tried to negotiate with them! Every time I tell them they can keep their stupid leadership! But no, they have to be all 'Ozai was my king' and 'Banished princes don't tell me what to do' and 'blah blah you have a scar on your face!' They're lucky I don't banish them to the coal mines in the Earth Kingdom!"
"You know, I like you more now that you've learned to express your frustration without burning me to a crisp."
"Shut up, Sokka." The stocky water tribe peasant was rubbing off on him. Zuko composed himself and ignored the snickering of his two bodyguards before stepping forward into the courtyard that was now shadowed by the large tower. "General Wu. I am honored to finally meet you. I've heard much about your accomplishments under my father."
"Your father was a ruthless idiot. I hope you aren't planning on following in his footsteps." Zuko was taken aback by the stooped old man's bluntness, but grinned.
"I think we're going to get along just fine, General."
Hanoi was his.
"Mai! Mai, what are you doing? Your class is starting in five minutes!" Mai spun the hooked knife idly along her fingers. Why again had she asked this pushy female to help with her school? Ah, yes. Waterbender master. She had thought that the presence of a proficient waterbender on the teaching staff would draw more of the liquid-pushers to enroll. A month, and still no one. An on top of that, she had to put up with Katara's annoying tendency to boss. Everything. That moved.
"I know when my class is, Katara. I'm just finishing up my break." Only a trace of Mai's annoyance entered her bland delivery, but Katara had known her long enough to pick it up.
"Mai, it's not like I'm trying to push you around, I just…I just wish I had a class to teach, and you already do, and I'm feeling all…stressed. I guess. I'm…sorry." Mai raised an eyebrow at that. Apologies from the peasant, huh? She must really be stressed.
"Katara, it's only been a month. Just wait. The applications take a while. I'm sure you'll have some students in no time. In the meantime, just do what you do best. Organize and boss. Just don't boss me, okay?" She attempted a smile, which she knew only came off as a slight lifting of her cheeks, but Katara picked up on it and grinned.
"Thanks, Mai! You're always so nice to me!" Katara spun and swept into the main building, trusty clipboard in hand. Five years ago, Mai knew she wouldn't have heard that sentence from anyone. Five years was a long time, though. People changed. Relationships changed. And that, thanks to the universe for its unending sense of humor, brought Mai back to thinking about Zuko.
At least now Mai could think of him without the feeling of pain that had twisted her chest a few years back. It was annoying, though, to associate the idea 'relationship' with one that was failed before it started, an association of two people who barely liked each other, even though they loved each other. At least, Mai had loved him. But that was all in the past. Mai sighed and thought out loud. "I need a boyfriend."
As she said it, Mai knew Ty Lee was right behind her. Thank you, universe! She tried to recover her slip-up. "You didn't hear me say that!" Ty Lee just giggled.
"Matchmaker time!" Mai's face fell, sliding off her skull and landing with a plop on her lap. What had she gotten herself into?
Mai really was a good friend, Katara thought as she sped down the corridor, her divided skirts swishing against her legs and giving her an air of business to the passing students. And Katara knew that she would get her own students eventually. It was just frustrating to wait this long, especially because she had only agreed to help Mai start up this school because she thought she'd have the chance to apply her bending skills. She had been getting a little rusty up in the air temple with Aang, and this was the perfect opportunity to refresh her skills.
Of course, that wasn't the only reason she had left the temple for this shiny new school. But it was the primary one. It was! The other was slightly more subtle, and it grated on her to admit to it. She had needed to get away from Aang. There, she had said it, at least to herself. But it was the truth. Aang had loved her from the moment he had set his eyes on her, but Katara had known from the time she turned 16 that she could never love him back the way he wanted. But she had stayed with him for a year following that revelatory birthday because she felt guilty for her lack of feeling. She had tried desperately to feel for him some small amount of affection, but she just couldn't do it. He was like a brother to her, nothing more, nothing less.
But so what? So what if she couldn't love him? She could still stay with him because he was her friend, right? But Katara had slowly realized that although she could live with that arrangement, Aang could not. He had confronted her one day as she washed his clothes in an outside fountain, reveling in the feel of the water twisting at her command. He had spoken again his words of love and hope for their future, and when she only smiled, he had pressed his hand to her heart, looked down into her eyes – down! He had gotten so tall – and asked a simple question.
"Katara, do you love me?"
And try as she might, she couldn't force her lips to shape an affirmation, because she knew he wasn't asking about philia – brotherly love. He was asking about eros – passionate love. And Katara gave Aang the only answer she could give. She shook her head softly from side to side, feeling physical pain as Aang dropped his hand and lowered his head. "Then you can't stay with me."
She fought it, of course, but try as she might she couldn't get past the logic of his reasoning. He needed to get over her, and he couldn't do that if she was constantly around him. So that ended that. Aang was her friend, would always be her friend, but she couldn't stay by his side any longer. So she left.
She left the temple and headed to the Earth Kingdom. Toph was kind enough to offer her a place to stay. She didn't feel called to the water tribe, because neither her brother nor her father was there at the moment. Her father had been recruited as a temporary (but quite long term, now) member of the leading council of Ba Sing Se, as a demonstration of solidarity between the Water Tribe and the Earth Kingdom and the impartiality of the Order of the White Lotus. Her brother, strangest of all, was cruising around the world with Prince – or rather, Fire Lord – Zuko, acting as a sort of navigator. Katara was a little miffed that Zuko hadn't asked her to come instead. She was a much better navigator than her brother. Of course, she hadn't seen or spoken to him since a solitary letter she had sent four years since asking how he was received a four-word reply.
The thankless idiot. The least he could do would be to write about his Uncle, or his work, or something! She had saved his life! A-after he had saved hers. By jumping in front of a bolt of lightning. Katara remembered his golden eyes holding hers captive as he thanked her, her glowing, water encased hands still able to feel the sinewy muscles of his chest as he drew in shaky breaths. Something old and familiar rose in her chest but she fought it down. She noticed a few straggling students looking at her curiously and hoped to Yue she wasn't blushing. She hustled them off to class. This was ridiculous. He was a Fire Lord. And that had been about the last time she had seen him! Five years is a long time. And she was employed by his ex-girlfriend. Who was proficient with sharp objects. No need to rock that particular boat.
Katara sighed and tried to think of something else. Leaning against an open alcove a few feet from her office, she pondered again about how she had ended up at the Ba Sing Se Girl's School for Bending. A year into her stay with Toph, she had received the missive from Mai, and intrigued by the idea and longing for a way to feel relevant, she had decided to agree to the arrangement. Which had brought her here, to the sprawling blue-stone school in a suburb of Ba Sing Se. If she ever got any students, then maybe she'd feel more like the old Katara, the Katara who defeated firebending masters and stood toe-to-toe with rulers and never backed down from a fight. This new school-marm gig wasn't all it was cracked up to be.
So there's your first chapter! Swish it around in your mouth, take in the aroma. We have only just begun…