I never heard of Avatar: The Last Airbender until I saw the movie in July 2010. While the movie was disappointing, it piqued my interest enough to watch the series. Summer Break + Netflix = Creation Of An Avatard. I am now completely obsessed with ATLA! I have never written fanfiction before, but I was so irritated by the end of the series that I decided to rewrite the ending the way I would have liked it. Be warned, this is packed with fluffy Zutarian goodness.
Details about the fire sages, and many spellings, taken from The Lost Scrolls: Fire. Viacom International Inc.: 2006.
Much thanks to the moderators of avatarspiritmedia .net because their episode transcripts have been invaluable.
I have no rights to the story or characters of ATLA. But if I did, this is how it would have ended…
A Marriage of Convenience, Chapter One: Agni-kai
Zuko's voice rang out in challenge. "No lightning today? What's the matter, afraid I'll redirect it?" He faced his sister confidently, assuming a defensive stance.
"Oh, I'll show you lightning!" Azula moved her fingertips in an arc, generating a massive field of lightning and extending her arm to strike at her brother. But at the last second, she altered her aim – sending the electricity surging directly at Katara.
"No!" Zuko leapt through the air, intercepting the wild energy and pulling it to his chest. He collapsed on the flagstones of the plaza, sending the lightning shooting out of his arm to flash in the night sky above the Fire Nation capital. Aftershocks ripped through his body, leaving him writhing and moaning on the ground.
"Zuko!" Katara raced toward him, only to be brought up by a blast of fire at her feet. With a wicked laugh, Azula stalked crookedly toward her dying brother. Katara pulled the last of the water out of her waterskin and sent up a defensive shield as she ran forward to protect Zuko from his monstrous sibling.
Azula shot a blast of searing blue fire, instantly vaporizing the last of Katara's water. "Get out of the way, dirty peasant. It's time I finished my big brother - once and for all." Looking down at where Zuko lay curled in agony, she smiled, and began to call the lightning again for a final blow.
"Not if I can help it." Katara reached out desperately for every drop of water she could pull from the air, her sweat, Zuko's pained form, and shaped them into a hundred tiny ice daggers which she hurled at Azula. Katara cursed under her breath as Azula easily sent another wave of blue flame to dissolve the ice.
"You want to go first, water girl? I'm happy to oblige." Azula was confident, almost giddy as she continued to approach.
If only the moon was full! As much as Katara feared the dark art of bloodbending, she would use it in a heartbeat if it would stop Azula. She extended all her senses, seeking water anywhere she could find it. If there had been any plants or trees in the plaza, she could have pulled out their fluid to use. With a gasp she realized that there was one other source, temptingly close, and she could feel the steady, rhythmic pulse of liquid calling to her. It was unthinkable to pull the water out, it was surely the darkest form of waterbending imaginable, yet what choice did she have?
"Now that I think about it, this is even better. Zuzu obviously cares for you, since he risked his foolish head to save you. And now, he can watch you burn in front of him. After hearing your screams, he'll be begging me to finish him. Yes, this is perfect!" Laughing, Azula pulled back a fist to build an intense fireball. But before she could launch it at Katara, she suddenly began to twitch and groan, her lovely features pulling up into a savage grimace.
"You're not going to hurt anyone. Ever. Again." Fingers clenched, hands twisted like claws, Katara reached toward Azula and then sharply pulled her arms back. Azula's body tightened and jerked, like a wooden puppet on a string, and then with a wet tearing sound, all the water was wrenched out of her flesh and blood to land at Katara's feet. The light breeze in the plaza caused her skin to flake away like fine powder, and her hair to fall in clumps, until her armor collapsed suddenly with nothing of Azula left inside but a pile of grey dust.
Katara fell to her knees, wanting to retch in horror at what she had just done. But Zuko's body had stilled, and as frightening as his moans of pain had been, his silence was far more terrifying. She pulled water to glove her hands – not wanting to think about where it came from – and leaned over his motionless figure.
Please work please work...please Zuko open your eyes! Katara guided the water into Zuko's wound, willing it to seek out and heal the damaged flesh. The red star shape with its jagged, singed edges stretched across his ribs like a palpable reflection of Sozin's Comet blazing in the sky. She pressed the healing water to it, feeling his heart beat erratically beneath her hand as the electric charge continued to wrack his body. She would NOT let Azula win, would not let her take Zuko away, not now that she had finally started to see how brave, how selfless he truly was. Katara cradled his head in her other hand, bending her body protectively over his as she reached deep within herself for the focus, the control, she would need to save him. At last the water began to shimmer and glow, the blue light coursing between them as his seared flesh knit back together.
"Thank you, Katara," Zuko whispered.
He blinked slowly, as though waking from a strange dream, and Katara couldn't imagine any sight more welcome than his golden eyes. How could she have ever feared them? Ignoring the tears in her own, she tried to smile reassuringly, as if she had never doubted her ability to pull him back from the brink. "I think I'm the one who should be thanking you…even if you were a fool to take a lightning bolt to the chest just to protect me!"
"A fool?" Zuko repeated, raising his eyebrow.
"You shouldn't have put yourself in danger for me, Zuko. The Fire Nation needs you. You're too important to risk losing-"
He cut her off, quietly but firmly. "No, Katara. You're too important to lose." He sat up, reaching out a hand as if to stroke her cheek, but froze when a voice rang out.
"You there – girl! What do you think you're doing?"
Katara looked up to see a figure emerge from the shadows lining the ceremonial plaza. An old man wearing the distinctive tall red hat of a fire sage was striding toward them, with four other sages following behind. As he got closer, Katara realized he was furious.
"This is completely unacceptable!" he spat angrily as he came to a halt in front of her. "It is forbidden to interfere in an agni-kai! Only the two contestants are permitted in the arena."
"I – but – Azula attacked me! What was I supposed to do?" Katara demanded.
The old man ignored her protests. "You have tampered with the outcome of the duel! Fire Lord Azula's strike would have been fatal, if it weren't for your interference."
Katara leapt to her feet, shouting. "You're saying I should have let Zuko die? Just because of your stupid rules?"
Zuko stood carefully, cradling his injured chest. He wrapped an arm around Katara's shoulders, as much to prevent her from assaulting the old man as to help him stand. He bowed gingerly. "Great Sage, if you saw the duel, then you must have seen Azula strike the first blow against Katara. Surely you will concede that?"
The Sage frowned. "Perhaps the girl had the right to defend herself, but what she did to Fire lord Azula is more than a crime, it's…an abomination." He gestured to the pile of armor where Azula once stood, but Katara squeezed her eyes shut, turning her head into Zuko's shoulder. The evidence of what she had done sent another wave of revulsion through her.
Zuko quickly spoke up in her defense. "Katara had no choice. Azula was about to kill both of us, and you know it. Whether or not you approve of the outcome, the fact remains – she lost."
"Nevertheless, I cannot declare you the victor of the agni-kai, as you did not defeat Azula yourself."
Zuko stiffened suddenly, his voice hardening. "I am heir to the throne. You must declare – "
"You are not the heir any longer!" the Sage interrupted harshly. "You are banished, a traitor, with no more right to the throne than….than this peasant." He gestured dismissively at Katara. "Without a clear victory in the agni-kai, I cannot ordain you Fire lord!"
Katara gasped. "Zuko has to be Fire lord! He's the only one who can end the war!" One of the other fire sages stepped forward, and Katara realized that she knew him. He was Shyu, the lone fire sage from Avatar Roku's temple who had been willing to help Aang at the Winter Solstice.
"Great Sage, I may be able to offer a solution to this dilemma." He turned to Katara and Zuko, bowing respectfully. "Fire sages are dedicated to preserving rules and traditions," he explained, "but the Fire Nation has a long history, much of which has been forgotten. We may be able to find a precedent among the secret histories in the Dragon Bone Catacombs which will provide guidance."
"We don't need to examine the scrolls!" scoffed the Great Sage. "When the Phoenix King returns from conquering the Earth Kingdom, he will have his traitor son arrested!"
"You're wrong." Katara's voice trembled with emotion as she challenged the old man. "The Avatar will defeat Ozai, and you will regret insulting your future Lord!"
Zuko nodded and looked back at the Great Sage. "You will search the Catacombs tonight and find a resolution to the agni-kai. But, one way or another, I assure you," Zuko stated firmly, "I will be the next Fire lord."
The Great Sage seemed to bite back a response, acquiescing for now. He stalked off with the three other sages, leaving only Shyu behind.
"I thought you were arrested!" Katara whispered. "How did you come to be here?"
"After Admiral Zhao was killed during the Siege of the North, there was no one left to pursue charges against us. The Great Sage was outraged at the arrest of the fire sages from Crescent Island, and demanded Fire Lord Ozai release us all," Shyu explained quickly.
"I am grateful for your help," Zuko said, leaning tiredly on Katara.
She tightened her arm around him. "Shyu, I need to get Zuko somewhere safe, where he can recover. I thought there would be servants or guards around, but it's like the palace is deserted."
"Azula dismissed or banished all the staff. She seemed convinced that everyone was plotting against her," Shyu explained as he wrapped an arm around Zuko's other side and guided them across the plaza.
Within minutes Zuko was carefully moved to his former quarters in the Royal Palace. Although Katara was focused on his painful progress, she gasped with surprise when they entered his chambers. His room was large enough to fit half of the igloos and tents from her village, yet it was nearly empty. Aside from a few small tables scattered around the edges of the room, it was dominated by a monstrous bed centered against the far wall, raised up several steps on a dais. Despite the size of the room and the high ceiling, the dark crimson draperies gave it an oppressive feeling. The bed itself was framed by heavy wooden bedposts with an elaborately carved dragon snaking over the top, overhung with a dark curtain. Zuko climbed into the shadows of the bed to lie on his back and Katara shivered involuntarily as she followed him into the darkness, sliding across the blood-red silk sheets.
Shyu bowed. "I must go to the Dragon Bone Catacombs to help the other sages find the relevant secret histories."
"Were you just making that up to buy us some time? Or do you really think there's a precedent down there?" Zuko asked.
"I have personally recopied many of the scrolls relating to royal succession. I promise you, I will find a solution that even the Great Sage can't deny."
Katara shook her head. "I don't understand why he thinks he can decide who will be the next Fire lord."
Zuko laughed dryly. "A long time ago, the Fire lord was a sage – the leader of the council of sages. But at some point in history a Fire lord got tired of that arrangement, and seized military control of the Fire Nation for himself. Since then the sages have had more of a ceremonial role."
"Fire Lord Sozin went even farther, demanding that the sages be loyal to him above the Avatar." Shyu shook his head sadly. "Now the sages have lost any spiritual authority. That's why Avatar Roku destroyed the temple at Crescent Island."
"Then why do we even care what the so-called Great Sage thinks?" Katara scoffed.
"I don't care. Being Fire Lord is my destiny. I'm not going to let some bureaucratic snag get in my way," Zuko said grimly.
"Yes, but the road to peace will be a hard one," Shyu warned. "The people mistrust you, and the Generals will have no interest in ending the war. Having the law, and the sages, on your side will give authority to your claim. I'm sure I can find a way."
"Will the other sages follow you?" Katara asked.
Shyu nodded. "I had to disavow the Avatar and pledge loyalty to Ozai before the Great Sage would support my release from prison. It's a good thing I've had years of practice hiding my true mission. I lied well enough to be entrusted with Princess Azula's coronation. But you know my duty is to aid the Avatar, and those who serve him."
Shyu bowed low and backed out of the room. Katara could hear his sandals slapping against the marble floor of the corridor as he hurried away. Otherwise the immense palace was eerily quiet.
"Let me check your wound again," Katara said, sitting on her knees at Zuko's side. She carefully smoothed aside the burned fragments of his robe to inspect the angry red burn that reached from his navel to just below his heart.
"Am I going to live?" Zuko teased.
She placed her hand on his chest and smiled at the strong, stubborn beat under her palm. "I don't think your heart was damaged, and the skin will only scar slightly. But you need rest to complete the healing process."
Zuko clasped her hand where it lay on his chest. "Stay with me." His long fingers absently stroked her knuckles, down the back of her hand to the tender inside of her wrist.
Her breath caught at the gentle touch, but she masked her reaction with a look of false indignation. "Is that an order, My Lord?"
He didn't rise to the bait. "A request. Please, Katara. I hate being back in the palace again. It's not a home, it's a mausoleum. I can feel the bad memories roaming the halls like vindictive ghosts."
"I thought you wanted come back here? You said it was your destiny."
"It is my destiny - to end this war, and restore balance to my people. But it won't be pleasant, or easy." He smiled grimly. "Nothing about my life has been easy."
Katara leaned onto one elbow, moving her other hand from his chest up to stroke the tension lines that crossed his forehead. "Sleep, then, Prince Zuko. I'll stay by your side to keep the ghosts away. I won't leave you," she promised. His eyes closed and his breathing gradually became deep and slow, as if his body had instinctively obeyed her instructions.
Katara lowered her head to rest next to his on the silk pillow. From this side his scar was hidden, and her gaze traveled from his unruly black hair, across the regal lines of his nose and cheeks, to his thin lips. It was rare that she saw his face relaxed, and she realized that his features were actually quite handsome. For so long she had seen only the arrogance in his fierce scowl. Now that she knew him better, she understood how much pain and fear had hid under that mask. She wanted to soothe the raw edges of those wounds, find a way to heal the hurt inside just as she healed the flesh outside. Unconsciously, she traced a finger lightly along his bottom lip, down his chin, to the steady pulse at the hollow of this throat.
The gang liked to joke that she was the mother of the group, fussing and bossing and taking care of everyone. But the way she felt about Zuko was nothing like the safe affection she felt for Sokka or Toph or Aang. Zuko wasn't safe. He was tormented, confused, stubborn, and she knew first-hand the pain his bad choices had wrought. When they first met, he had blazed like the fire that he called so easily to his hands, full of violence, bitterness, and anger. But in the months since then he'd tempered that flame into a steady glow within, achieving peace and purpose on his own. She was awed by his strength, his determination.
It wasn't until those few terrible moments when he was dying and she feared she wouldn't be able to save him that she began to grasp how important he had become to her. Somehow he had gone from being her enemy, to being a friend – or more. He challenged her, defended her, but never held back. He gave as good as he got, not afraid of her temper. That's what made him different from Sokka or Aang, she realized – he didn't try to placate or please her, like she was a child. No, Zuko treated her like an equal. Like an adult. Like a woman.
Katara felt a surge of anger at the thought of all the things he'd had to overcome. He'd never known the love and loyalty of a father, or sibling, or tribe, like she had. Instead, he had been betrayed by the very people who were supposed to protect him. Only his Uncle truly cared for Zuko, but Iroh was stuck in the Earth Kingdom indefinitely. She didn't know anything about his mother except what he'd told her in Ba Sing Se: she had been taken from him by the Fire Nation. He deserved so much better – he deserved to have someone love him unconditionally. To have someone he could trust completely. Someone he could count on to always watch his back. The righteous anger coursed through her, swelling until she felt something inside her crack and shift, like an ice floe breaking away from the shore.
She could be that someone. To hold him, defend him from his enemies, protect him from his memories. He could trust her, count on her. Love her.
"I won't leave you, Zuko," she promised again.