As Time Passes By
"The dawn of your new nation will come as quickly as the sun has set on your father's empire."
Zuko feels his posture stiffening as his uncle continues the toast, but he forces his left arm to maintain his goblet's original height as the rest of the congregation smiles down the long table at him. To his left, Mai stabs the tip of a knife into the deep mahogany wood, twirling the handle between her fingers as she rolls her eyes, but she catches his gaze and lightly kicks at his foot. To his right, Aang cheerfully holds a glass of fruit juice in the air, his elbow teasingly bumping against Katara as she sits beside him, her eyes carefully trained on Iroh.
Everyone is happy, he realizes, but he fails to understand how it can be so.
The world had been on the verge of utter destruction, at the hands of his father, and these people have the faith—and, he supposes, the stupidity—to think that he can do better. Watching his uncle address a room full of dignitaries speckled with friends, he knows that he doesn't share their naiveté. Banishment had ensured a quick end to his royal tutelage, and he isn't fool enough to believe that wearing a topknot doubles for experience in ruling a nation. The tightness in his chest succeeds in reminding him that he barely made it out of his latest Agni Kai alive.
He wonders how long it will be before he needs to be bailed out of his next misstep.
The dinner stretches on before him as a new course is brought to the table. Steaming soup is placed before each of his esteemed guests, and he is among the last to tuck in to his meal, waiting for each to pick up their silverware and begin first. His spoon hesitates, his attention captured by the young avatar and the way he lightly closes his eyes and murmurs a few words before eating, a trait previously unnoticed. Aang's faith—each one, every one—is unwavering.
Zuko hates to be a disappointment.
A splash in front of him breaks his reverie, and, glancing down, curiosity grows in his mind as he observes his soup swirl in the bowl of its own free will. As the world 'hello' begins for form among the noodles, his eyebrows fall tiredly and he tilts his head to find Katara smiling at him. Spitefully, he dips his spoon into the broth and disrupts her bending, smirking at her. The moment he lifts it to his mouth, the liquid splashes up onto his face.
The avatar turns to him in surprise, wondering when his friend became so clumsy. Katara assures him that the Fire Lord has always been a lumbering hog monkey—but that's good, she swears, because he can rule as one of the common people—and for some strange reason Zuko smiles. This girl—this irritating, annoying, smug, master of a girl—believed in the avatar—a twelve year old bald boy who emerged from an iceberg swearing up and down that his bison could fly and begging to go penguin sledding—and he won. He defeated the Fire Lord. And this girl—this snarky, protective, mothering, turtleduck of a girl—believes in him. She fought at his side and she helped him win his throne and she trusts him to do a good job.
He will not lose her good opinion again.
Visiting in the South Pole in the middle of winter was not the Fire Lord's wisest decision.
Sitting inside the igloo that had been built to honor and welcome him, he finds that even breathing white-hot flames into his hands can't keep him warm in the middle of the icy tundra. It isn't surprising to anyone when he shows up in the healing ward, completely unable to hold his head up for more than thirty seconds without a massive wave of nausea slamming into his stomach, but only one waterbender remembers two days ago when he walked into the village, flanked on either side by her father and the avatar, soaked from head to toe.
With stifled smiles and repressed chuckles, she had been informed that he tried to stand in the canoe and slipped overboard.
His fever keeps climbing no matter how many iced compresses she eases across his forehead—a side-effect of being a firebender, he confesses—and she begins getting nervous as he loses consciousness more and more during the day and begins coughing incessantly throughout the night. She knows perfectly well that she cannot simply cure the natural disease running through his blood, but she hopes that relieving some of the symptoms isn't too far out of her reach. When he spots her heading towards the healing ward with a bucket of the cleanest water she could find, the avatar frowns slightly but offers to carry it for her. Upon depositing it beside the sleeping Fire Lord's bedside, the younger boy glances suspiciously at his scarred companion. Then, he leaves.
"You didn't fall out of Aang's boat, did you?" she asks once he awakens, her blue eyes dancing slightly as he avoids looking directly at her while her hands massage the base of his neck. The soreness oozes beneath her fingers, and she winces as another shiver ripples over his body. Even in sickness he maintains a regal air about him, and she knows for certain—she's seen him fight, after all, and been on the receiving end of many precise strikes—that he's perfectly agile enough to maintain his balance in a canoe. "You didn't fall out all of your own clumsiness, did you, your lordship?"
"Stop calling me that," he rasps, pulling the blankets back up to his chest.
She pulls the pain from his muscles, easing his sore throat. "Did he push you?" He shakes his head. "Trip you?"
She can't help the laugh that bubbles from between her lips. "An airbender sneeze." Brushing the hair away from his eyes, she allows her fingertips to linger on his scar for the second time in her life. "Oh, Zuko, you didn't stand a chance."
The letter arrives at the Fire Nation palace in the middle of the day, inviting His Royal Highness Zuko and a guest to attend a small wedding on the island of Kyoshi. A reminder, penned hastily in ink at the bottom, reminds the Fire Lord—in an expectant tone that practically leaps off the paper—that one quality gift per invitation will be expected no matter how exempt he may believe himself, because they knew him before he was royal. His uncle finds the letter first, and immediately plans for an airship trip. Mai watches with crossed arms, her eyes narrowed, as the two men walk up the bridge to the Fire Nation balloon. He tries awkwardly to wave to her, but gets only a glare in response.
"Perhaps it is best that she does not wave back." His uncle takes a small bite out of a tea biscuit. "With all the knives she keeps in her sleeves, it is probably safer for us that she does not flail her arms so near our balloon."
It takes several days before Kyoshi draws into sight along the horizon, and several more days before the wedding begins. After the ceremony, he loiters towards the back of the room, leaning against a thick wooden pillar. The bride looks beautiful, even without her face makeup, but he finds his attention drawn—oddly enough—to the sister of the groom and the way the skirt of her dress seems to be made of layers upon layers of clouds—white, billowing, and flowing. Her hair is drawn up, too, he observes, and from behind her he can see the smooth curve of her neck as it melts seamlessly into her shoulders.
It takes her twelve minutes to work her way over to him, smiling happily at the chant of "Snoo-zles!" that Toph has started. He greets her with a bow of his head, and she rocks back on the heels of her feet.
"Where's your tagalong?"
He shrugs his shoulders, a small grin tugging at the corner of his mouth. "No doubt critiquing the tea in the kitchen and offering to brew a fresh pot." It had been Iroh who chose the gift to present the happy couple with, and he had chosen—no surprise—a beautifully molded tea pot, stuffed to the brim with homemade teabags.
"You brought your uncle as your date to the wedding?" She doesn't bother to hide her laughter, and he feels his neck growing hot.
"The invitation said guest. It didn't say date."
Katara smirks, "Oh, honestly, Zuko…"
"Well, who did you bring, then?"
She blinks. "I…" Her hand rises to toy with the pendant around her neck. "I came with Aang."
A small group of local musicians strikes up a soft song. It begins and ends and they still haven't moved or spoken. The notes of a second tune trickle towards their ears. Reaching out, she curls her fingers into his palm. His posture straightens. "You have to save me a dance later, Fire Lord Zuko."
She shakes her head. "Don't even try to lie about being able to dance. You're very light on your feet. I watched you do that dragon dance with Aang."
"The Dancing Dragon," he corrects.
She nods. "Of course."
Spring is supposed to bring new beginnings. The anteater sloths emerge from hibernation and the fire lilies bloom. The dull gray of winter livens into greens and reds and whites and browns and oranges. People begin living their lives outdoors again, no longer hiding from the oddly bitter wind. The sun rises to warm everything it touches.
And so, in a nation of heat and flames and color, the Fire Lord wonders how he can be so cold.
Standing before the carved box, intricately designed to bear her name and her family's crest, the Fire Lord wonders why the sweltering eyes of the sun don't burn him as they do the rest of the congregation. The sages read prayers, and he stands alone. She leaves behind a family—two parents, a little brother—and good friends—an acrobat, a chubby general—but they stand on the other side, even the royal guards retreating from him as he bows his head.
Holding a stiletto in his hands, the point spearing his fingertips several times, the Fire Lord wonders when she had the time to decide to jump in front of him but nobody else had the time to see the assassin. He remembers the energy in her movement—energy so rarely seen—and the way the light faded from her eyes after a week, no matter how the healers tried to stop the poison. He remembers chasing the man, the fool who had dared to attack but had armed himself with a single weapon, and he remembers seeing the man dead, but he cannot for the life of him—or of her—remember killing him. All he remembers is needing to get back to the palace, needing to hold her, needing her to sooth the numbness from his chest.
The sages burn her body.
It takes three days for anyone to dare to knock on the door of his office, and even then nobody enters the room. He sits, playing with her knife and making accidental cut after accidental cut across his fingers—and, still, even his blood seems to run cold. Wounded and tired, he sleeps in his chair. On the fourth day, he hears the door open from where he stands at the window, stiletto still in his hand. Footsteps pad softly across the stone floor, and he hears the distinctive creak of wood as someone sits on his desktop.
There is an hour of silence before he turns and finds his chair, still not looking at her. It takes another hour before her blue robes draw his attention, her thick outer coat discarded by the door. Her hair is down around her face. He twirls the stiletto again.
"I can heal those," she whispers, taking his hands in hers and dropping the knife onto a stack of papers. Her skin is soft and warm. Warm, he thinks, warm, warm—why is it so familiar?—warm. She runs a single finger over the undamaged expanse of his palm. "I just need a little water. It'll be no problem." His face contorts, and he looks away from her perch on the desk. She maintains her grip, even as he tries to pull away. "Zuko—" He winces. "—if I don't heal them, they'll scar."
"Let them scar."
"You're being ridiculous. Let me heal them."
"I want the scars," he insists.
She squeezes his hand. "Let me heal you." She pulls him closer and he suddenly finds himself compelled to find her eyes. They're blue, like her robes, like the water she threatens to pull, and he remembers ice and snow—and turtle seals—and what it means to be cold—swimming through underground tunnels, crossing a barren tundra, melting through foot-thick ice pipes with his bare hands . Weakly, as her legs fall on either side of his chair, he allows himself to be eased forward. Cradled between her knees as his arms fall limply around her waist, he cries into her stomach—because this isn't cold, he knows cold, he remembers cold, and this is unwaveringly numbing pain. She runs her fingers through his hair, hugging him to her until he seems to fall asleep, and then heals his hands.
The blind earthbender waddles into his office clutching a pile of scrolls. "I'm not a pack-ostrich horse, and I don't appreciate being used like one, Sparky. You're about to owe me quite a few favors." Zuko jumps back as she dumps the heap on his desk, spilling a cup of tea down the front of his one leg. Rolling his eyes as he moves to dry his clothes, he reminds himself once again that—though the small girl is often more trouble than help—she's the closest—literally—friend he has right now. Prepared to scold her, his head rises and he spots a final scroll held securely in Toph's hand.
It bears the seal of the avatar.
"Give me that letter."
She grins. "You have to promise to read it out loud. I wanna hear what Twinkletoes and Sugar Queen have to say."
"This mail is pri—" He starts. "How did you know who it was from? You can't read."
"Thanks for rubbing it in." Plopping down into a cushioned chair, Toph begins to pick at her toes. "It came special delivery, your fieryness. I was told it had to be hand-delivered to you. I guess a little blind girl just seems super trustworthy enough to hand over high class mail to."
"If only they knew you," Zuko muses, unwinding the scroll and beginning to scan the words.
"Read it out loud, Sparky."
"I haven't even unrolled it yet."
He shushes her, and surprisingly she listens. An awkward salutation is followed by beautifully penned letter.
The last time we corresponded, you swore that you would take care of Toph after she begged to stay with you. I trust that means she's about knee-deep in promises of piggyback rides and sparring matches. We haven't received any more letters from her parents here in the South Pole, so I assume the Bei Fongs have either figured out where she's staying and have started bombarding you with threats of kidnapping charges for a change or you have successfully bribed them—with what riches I cannot imagine—into silence. Either way, I expect she is fully healthy or plotting revenge if otherwise.
Aang misses the both of you. Every night at dinner, he talks about how you made tea for us and told us bad tea jokes and saved our lives. He wishes you would bring Toph to visit soon, but I warned him not to get his hopes too high. Now is probably not the best time for world travel. Maybe in a few months, at the next Ambassador Summit, I'll bring a few guests to stay for a while. Let me know if that sounds acceptable.
As much as I hope you're keeping Toph in line—making sure she maintains some level of hygiene, making sure she doesn't pick on the guards too much—I hope she's keeping you in line, too. I want to help my people—that's why I accepted the position as Ambassador when you offered it. I can look after their needs now. However, it means I'm not nearly as free to check up on you.
It's been a long time since I was there to see you. I have no idea how you're doing—your letters don't say much about your health—but I can only assume that things have at least gotten a little better. And if they haven't, listen closely. You may think you have no reason to trust my judgment, but I want to remind you of something. On our trip to find my mother's killer, I had only one goal in mind: revenge. I didn't really want closure or resolution or peace of mind. I wanted to make him hurt like he made me hurt. I carried that around for a long time before you figured out who he was, dreaming of taking out my anger on this man, this monster, this figment of my imagination. You told me it was understandable to want to find him. You said it was something I needed because I had loved my mother. You were right.
But you were wrong, too. There is a difference between remembering and being haunted. It took me a long time to learn that lesson. I had to look him in the eyes and see the fear that his life would end to make the fury go away. I spent years thinking of my own mother's face and having it cause me only pain and sadness when I should have been looking back with pride at how brave she was. I won't rehash what happened to you, but I will remind you that there is nothing wrong with grieving. Of all people, I know that. But I want you to promise me that you won't let what happened destroy you. Zuko, you and I have shared heartache. You and I once shared the pain of believing our mothers to be dead, taken because they dared to protect us. Our pain comes from loss, yes, but guilt too. They died for us, and though it may be painful to think about they were honorable deaths. Mai's death is no different. She sacrificed her life so that you might live another day. She loved you. Remember that. But do not let it haunt you.
We'll be seeing you.
The earthbender feels the painful thud of his heart in his chest. "Is everything alright?"
She ripples the ground beneath his feet. "That's not what I was asking."
"You didn't learn anything from traveling with us, did you? I can tell when you're lying. It's a gift." He doesn't speak, and she rolls her shoulders. "Is Twinkletoes coming to visit? Or is it one of those boring I-am-Avatar-hear-me-peace-keep letters?"
"It's from Katara. Nobody's coming."
Toph crosses her arms, stamping her foot. Outside the window, an unsuspecting guard finds himself launched twelve feet in the air. "Why not? Don't they miss us?"
"She says they miss us very much. Now is just not a good time."
"It's a perfect time. This palace is boring." She smirks. "Without Sweetness here to boss us around, there's no one to rebel against. And your guards won't fight me anymore. It's not fun to attack people who won't fight back. Write back and tell them your royal assistant demands that they visit. And bring snacks. Fire flakes are getting boring, too."
"I'm not going to do that."
"I am the Melon Lord! You have to listen to me!"
"The who?" He blinks. "Never mind. They aren't coming."
"I demand it."
"Enough. They aren't coming." She opens her mouth to object again, and he slams his fist down on his desk with a bang. Toph doesn't hide her surprise. "I'm not ready to see them."
"How can you not be ready? They're your friends."
"I'm just not. I don't want to see Aang. I don't want to see Katara. I don't want to see Aang and Katara."
She runs her foot along the floor. "Well, part of that is a lie."
The ambassadors all come bearing good news. Cities are beginning to rebuild, pushing out the unwanted Fire Nation technology and returning to their elements. Metal is pried free from rocks, catapulted off mountainsides, and shattered with icy gusts. Borders are being negotiated in an attempt to return them to those of nearly one hundred years ago, rulers are taking their rightful places, and jails are slowly emptying of the wrongfully convicted. Though speckled with comments of lurking problems—a lack of food, a surplus of refugees yet to return home, whispers of an underground rebellion—each report is of a hopeful society looking towards the future.
People are trying to heal.
Day one concludes with applause and bows to the Fire Lord, praising the young boy for making reparations better than they could have hoped. They file out of the chamber, heading for courtyards and marketplaces and guest suites for naps. One lingers at the closed doors—the youngest of all—watching her friend tread weakly down the stairs from his throne. His eyes cast downward, he walks to her.
Why isn't he healing?
"Things are getting better," she states, following him through a back hall that leads to his private bedchamber. "It hasn't been that long, but things are already getting better. This is good. People are willing to try to heal." Her fingers dance over the smooth edge of his dresser. Playing with the water in a carefully arranged vase of fire lilies, she averts her eyes as he sheds his royal outer robes. The rustling of material echoes in her ears—if Hakoda could only see her now, maybe he would stop objecting to her simple Fire Nation wardrobe—and she finds herself sneaking peeks—small, innocent peeks at a bare chest quickly covered by a loose shirt—in a mirror just to her right. She turns as he ties a belt around his waist and moves to gently pull the topknot from his hair. "I always liked your hair down," she confesses.
"I hate wearing my hair up."
She smiles softly. "When I first met you, that was the only way you wore it."
"When we first met," he breathes, "I was a monster."
"You weren't a monster, Zuko. You were a boy and you were confused. And you were bald."
Taking it from her hand, he regards the solid gold hairpin carefully and says quietly, "It makes me look like my father."
"I don't think—"
"It does. I only wear it because I have to." He sits, his free hand clutching one of the posts of his bed, and he speaks very slowly. "It gives me my father's face. When I sit on that throne, I can feel him. It's like he's sitting behind me, watching over my shoulder. He killed himself in that prison because it meant that he could haunt me closer than he ever could have from his cell. I listen to the generals talk and I know that all it would take would be a sentence—a sentence!—and the world would be right back where it was with my father as Fire Lord." He turns to her, his golden orbs shining in the light of the sconces around the room as he holds up the hairpin. "I have his power. People look at me and they don't see me. They see what he could have been—what he should have been. They see him." His breathing grows ragged. "They see him in my face. They see the mark he left branding me as his and I can't escape him. Not ever. And this—" He holds the metal tightly between his fingers, solid gold and molded into fire. "—this only makes it worse! This. This thing. This. This!" Before she can blink he is on his feet, hurling it at the wall so that the very tip sticks with a precision only a dead girl could have managed. "It makes me my father!"
He turns on her, pointing at the heirloom embedded in the wood paneling. "My father was not worth her life!"
She realizes he is nearly shrieking and it is not his father who is haunting him.
"You are not your father." She reaches for him and he snaps back, pulling ruthlessly at his clothes.
"My life was not worth hers!"
"She believed it was!" she argues back, terrified to see the steam he breathes mingling with the air before his face. The fire in the sconces flares, flashing blue before settling into a blinding white-orange. "Don't you understand? She loved you! A loved one's life is always worth your own."
"What have I done to deserve her sacrifice? I betrayed her. I abandoned her. And, still, she welcomed me back with open arms—"
"Because she loved you! Because you meant something to her!" She tilts her head, remembering the way he used to laugh—something he hasn't done in a while. "Because you made her happy. And she judged you. In her eyes, you were worth her life."
Looking to the balcony for solace, he slams through the doors and roars—really roars, and the column of fire makes her remember a darker time that seems brighter now when he demanded of a little boy, "Let me see you roar like a tigerdillo!"—while his hands grip the stone until his knuckles turn white. She braces herself—but she hates that she even considers doing this because she remembers the look on the captain's face and her friends' faces and her own horror—preparing to force his muscles to relax, force him to calm down.
She takes a timid step forward, but, suddenly, the column stops and only vapors appear. His shoulders shake and—somehow, someway, the firebender inside him just can't anymore because—he's crying silent, trembling tears that break her heart more than any heavy, heaving sob could. A slow spin reveals his face, shrouded in moonlight with streaks of moisture down his cheeks, and he tilts his head.
"Would you have done it?"
She hesitates—"Excuse me?"—but knows her answer.
"Would you have done what she did? If it was Aang, would you have chosen to die in his place?"
Words fail her.
But he puts on a bitter smile. "Of course you would have. He's the avatar. He's your… avatar."
"I would have," she agrees, holding her head high—honestly, the nerve of him to suggest she be so easy to understand—and crossing her arms. "But I would die to save any of my friends." Subtly gesturing at the red skirt adorning her body, she blinks. "Any and all."
Toph promises to cover for him with the generals and royal advisors if—he swears that at some point it does cross his mind that maybe it isn't a good idea—he gives her temporary control of the imperial firebenders. He sneaks out of the palace in commoner's clothes, leaving her in the throne room chuckling wildly, and walks down to the beach. As he dodges over boulders and around puddles of mud, he hopes that everyone under his employment won't have quit by the time he gets back.
She waits in the surf for him wearing only her simplest wrappings, confusing the tides by manipulating the waves, and for a long time he just watches her. The sun dips lower on the horizon, casting her shadow farther up the beach, and he smiles as she takes in the last few rays of daylight. She refuses to admit it to his face—she's too proud to acknowledge the beauty of his country—but he knows she likes the Fire Nation. She insists that a fresh bouquet of flowers be a staple of her room, and she likes to take midnight strolls around the gardens. No matter how she insists that it's only for the sake of the moon, he sees her from the windows, running her fingers along the bark of trees and the leaves of bushes.
She told him she was leaving soon—a Fire Nation balloon is already schedule to carry her back to the south—and that she wanted him to meet her on the beach alone. His curiosity overcomes him and he strips off his shirt and shoes, leaving them carelessly in the sand before trudging down to stand at her side. "It's about time you showed up," she chides, bending a globe of water at him. He disperses it with a quick burst from his fist, and she grins. "I have something to show you."
He glances at the ocean warily and remembers all the time he's spent in it as being only time he has spent being thrown from his ship. She extends her hand to him and he takes it, his footsteps at her side far more hesitant than her own.
"You can swim, right?" she asks, wading further into the water.
"Of course. I had to know how. I lived on the ocean for three years." She nods distractedly. "But I don't particularly like it."
"That's about to change." She bends another ball, but this one surrounds his head and he can breathe inside it. "Cool, right?"
"How…? This is…"
"Just wait until we get underwater. But stick close. The farther away you are, the harder it will be to keep the bubble around your head." She creates her own orb, and he follows her out into the waves. "Ready?" she asks, her voice warped—but still as melodic as always—by the rushing water. He nods slowly and watches in wonderment as she simply sinks below the surface. He follows as quickly as he can—certainly with far less grace—and they swim along the bottom of the ocean for quite a while before Katara nudges him to look up. A family of sea lions floats just above their heads, the baby nuzzling against his mother's side. They dance around each other, their flippers padding gently against the sea as they twirl. He grabs for her hand, his fingertips wrinkled by the moisture, and squeezes.
Briefly, she merges their bubbles. "It's amazing, isn't it? They're so beautiful." Her mouth is inches from his and when she whispers he feels her breath against his cheek.
"I've never seen anything like this."
They have separate helmets again. She gestures for them to head back up. As they break the surface, the globe around his head dissolves.
"Do you always get that close? What other kinds of animals have you seen?" He bombards her with questions and peers back down, his hands pawing at the water as though he can move it aside and observe the gentle beasts once more. She answers each one, making sure they continue to stick close together—because firebenders are well-known for drowning—and watches him closely.
Floating by her side far off shore, surrounded by nothing but the rhythmic up-and-down of the water—and the blue, it's so blue—he feels a smile on his face. It falters briefly, as he glances over his shoulder at the massive volcanic island that suddenly seems to shudder against the sky, but she touches his arm and turns his head back.
"It's okay, you know," she says, "To be happy. You're allowed to have fun."
He hums thoughtfully, his face falling back to seriousness as he brushes a sopping clump of his bangs away from his forehead. He doesn't want her to go—not ever, because running a down-trodden country is so much less awful when she's around. He hears her sigh quietly and catches sight of her focusing on the waves behind him. Taking her distraction as the perfect opportunity, he splashes a fistful of water into her eyes. She lets out a shriek, blinking rapidly and wiping her face, and then smirks.
"Antagonizing a master waterbender in the middle of the ocean was not your brightest idea, Fire Lord."
Suddenly, the crazy three-foot earthbender in his palace doesn't seem like much of a problem.
Acting the part of a commoner hasn't sat well with him since the days of a failed beach party attendance, but he's growing steadily more nervous at the way advisors seem to be assuring him that everything is fine—it can't be fine, it hasn't been long enough for everything to be fine, people cannot possibly be fine—and that he needs to start focusing more of his attention of external affairs.
He wonders daily if everything is truly fine, and one day he finds himself donning a plain pair of clothes—"Just in case," she had said, holding out the gift-wrapped box to him, "You never know"—and ducking out the servants' entrance to the palace. He had forgotten how hard it used to be to blend in with a scar marring half his face, but he finds it scarier now that his scar his royal and nowhere near as easy to hide as an arrow tattoo or a blue necklace.
Keeping his head bowed low with a hood shadowing most of his face, he wanders the streets and eavesdrops casually on conversations. The woman at the fruit stand whispers softly to another customer that the Ember Island Players are putting on a special, secret, underground performance—they haven't notified the Fire Lord yet, still making rewrites to history—just for the people in the capital city. He listens carefully for the location and the time and then buys three ash bananas, thanking the vendor with a crooked smile.
The Players have never been his preferred form of entertainment—though they run circles around being forced to play the tsungi horn—but he finds himself curious. Love Among the Dragons was butchered every year without fail, as was his own story, but then—sitting in that dark theater, between a girl who didn't hate him anymore and a boy who was starting to—he had been an outcast, a traitor.
The Fire Lord roams the streets until dusk and then follows a small crowd into a smaller theater.
The curtain is drawn back, and the play begins.
Some of the actors are different—her actress is younger and slimmer at the waist, the avatar is played by a boy still crying "Yip yip!" in a falsetto voice—and some small things have been corrected—her brother's jokes are taken straight from the improvement cards offered last time, his scar is on the proper side and his hair is less embarrassing—but much of the play remains the same. She doesn't see the avatar as a little brother, and there's a scene where she outright loathes the boy who has tied her to a tree, but she still embraces him with a foot kicked high in the air in the catacombs.
The big changes come at the end.
He no longer shrinks behind a tower of flames, crying in agony at the thought of his un-reclaimed honor. Instead, he twitches in pain on the ground, wrapped in a blue ribbon of his sister's lightning, crying out for the avatar's girl. She fights a good battle, but he winces when she drowns his sister without mercy, cackling manically for a moment.
"Oh, how I hope I can save you," she shouts, falling to her knees at his side. Her hands shine in a spotlight for a moment and his chest tightens up in the stands as she appears to smear jelly over his fake wound. Suddenly, he pops up with an agility he can't recall having and thanks her. "I think I'm the one who should be thanking you."
Her inflection is different than he remembers, but her words are the same, and she leans forward with a smile—he doesn't remember there being a kiss, her lips never touched his, but there it is on the stage, his hand cupping her cheek, her mouth moving against his, their limbs tangling around each other—and his eyes go wide. The audience hoots around him, several people clapping, and he takes deep, bracing breaths. He looks away quickly, finding other things to look at—a balding man who looks like his uncle, a little girl dipping her hand into three different bags of Fire Flakes, a boy sticking his tongue out at his mother.
Still, on the stage, he lays there kissing her.
His muscles all feel strained, pulled taut beneath his skin, and he wonders how his lungs are still drawing in oxygen. The girl on the stage isn't her, he knows, and even if it was it isn't him she's kissing, he knows, but he feels it. He feels her touch against his cheek, scarred and unscarred alike, her breath against his ear, her skin under his tongue.
A full year after the fall of his father, the people of his nation have seen what nearly was destroyed the day of Sozin's comet, seen how the world was nearly sentenced to sudden death, and cheer as the avatar wins, but boo as the play curtains close with the same avatar wrapping his arms awkwardly around her neck.
After her letter, he does little other than to wait for the flying bison to appear on the horizon.
At the pleading of his advisors, he signs a law into order and presides over a public trial, but he finds his mind wanders with every syllable uttered in his direction. The days seem to grow longer, the sun crawling across the sky with half the speed of a snail sloth, but finally the day comes and he stands anxiously at the airship docks as the creature soars over the ocean, tail flapping against the clouds.
She leaps off the saddle as the beast touches down, landing on the planks in sync with the avatar, but charges ahead of her companion and into his arms. He hugs her for a long time. "Zuko? Where's Toph?"
"She left. She's in Ba Sing Se visiting my uncle," he mumbles into her hair, "And I have been very lonely."
She giggles lightly. "We missed you, too." He releases her and turns to shake his friend's hand, clamping a palm down on the boy's shoulder as he leads them back to the palace. Aang is taller now, and he's letting his hair grow in—the style looks familiar, Zuko thinks, reminiscent of Ba Sing Se—but his smile and enthusiasm are the same.
Dinner is a wide array of food—he remembers her cooking, he teases, and this is drastically different—but he barely has time to eat anything between the stories and the laughter. Halfway through the meal, Aang takes her hand the threads their fingers together, and suddenly the Fire Lord isn't hungry any more. He watches them eat their dessert—ice cream, in a cone shaped like a bowl—rather excitedly, and then asks softly to be excused.
He sits on the edge of the roof outside his room.
He hears the footsteps before the voice and lets out a soft sigh. "It's isolating, isn't it?" Aang asks, taking a seat beside him. "Ruling the world?"
Zuko smiles in a half-laugh—because if anybody rules the world it's the avatar. "Yes. It's very lonely."
"I'm gone a lot," the boy admits, swinging his feet out over the short drop to the balcony. "I feel bad for leaving her behind, but it's not fair for me to drag Katara away from her family all the time. If she wanted to go, it would be just like old times again, but she always wants to stay and help them rebuild. Plus, she's an Ambassador now, so she has a job to do."
"She's very good at helping people."
"Yeah." Aang shrugs his shoulders. "I think I'd like to settle down one day and have a family one day. Roku had a family. He had a wife and a baby and a house. I think I'd like to have that."
"You're still a kid, you know," Zuko reminds him quickly. "You don't have to worry about that yet. You have plenty of time to grow up before you need to start thinking about babies and wives."
The avatar frowns slightly. "I don't feel like a kid. I used to. I used to want to go penguin sledding and ride the elephant koi and invent new ways of windsurfing. Now, all I ever have time for is keeping the peace. I'm always moving, going from one place to another. I've been everywhere and anywhere. Twice." He traces a finger along the blue tattoo on his arm. "One day, when things aren't so crazy, I want to stay in one place." He lets out a deep sigh and shakes his head. "I'm glad Katara is going to live here for a little while. You can keep each other company."
"We can try."
Aang hasn't been around very long before he has to leave. He manages a few breakfasts, a solitary lunch, and several sparring matches before he packs his only bag. Appa lumbers carefully up to the palace so that everyone can see him off. His new height allows him to press a soft kiss to Katara's forehead without stretching—much, the Fire Lord muses, because he still has a good four inches on the avatar—and he smiles.
"Take care of her."
"I think I'm mature enough to take care of myself," she objects, straightening his collar. "I am a master waterbender, after all. If anything, I'm here to take care of Zuko. After all that time with Toph, I'm sure he has a few exciting wounds for me to work on. Internal bleeding, a fractured rib, a self-inflicted burn from a moment of confusion…"
Aang chuckles, brushing a strand of hair from her face, and looks over her head. "Take care of her, alright?"
"I won't let her get herself into too much trouble. But even if she does get arrested, I'm sure I can pull some strings and get her off with only some community service." Katara sticks her tongue out at him, and he chuckles. "Oh, yes, you're very mature."
Waving until the bison disappears into the clouds, she turns to him. "So, Fire Lord, what do you want to do first now that you're responsible for babysitting me?"
"I was thinking about taking over the world today. Maybe we'll feed some turtleducks tomorrow."
She rolls her eyes. "That's not funny."
"I'm glad you're back." He grins. "I missed you."
She follows him around the palace, falling into step with the two armed guards that constantly trail behind him. Her water pouch is always uncorked. "Someone's going to think I hired you as a personal bodyguard," he teases one afternoon as she bends the rain away from his head, and another when she freezes solid an overzealous visitor.
The only difference he notices is that when he sends the soldiers away in a request for privacy, she lingers in the room.
"I'm your friend," she reminds him, crossing her arms. "I can't be ordered away."
He stands, pushing the chair back from his desk, and turns to the wide window in his office. "Would you like to see something?" She comes up beside him, peering out over the capitol city. "No, it isn't here. We'll have to go there."
The disguises they come up with to sneak out of the palace unnoticed aren't very clever. She wears a different Fire Nation dress, and he wears a large black hood on his head, the hairpin and topknot combed free of his hair. "I can still see your scar," she admits, brushing a larger chunk of his bangs down over his eye. "But this will have to do."
Keeping his head ducked, he leads her through back-alleys and dark streets until she feels the temperature growing cooler, and suddenly she realizes that they aren't inside the volcano anymore. She can see out over the land—she sees more than rock on the horizon, she sees water, sweet water—and feels her feet sinking into soft dirt. He takes hold of her wrist and they trudge along with side of the mountain. When they arrive at a large square of solid rock, a platform seemingly formed by earthbenders, which juts from the side of the volcano, he touches her shoulders.
"The last time you were here, you showed me something that you hadn't shared with a lot of other people. Now it's my turn to reciprocate. This is my favorite time and place to be in the Fire Nation," he confesses. "It doesn't get cold like it does in the South Pole, so we don't have snow, but the leaves on our trees change color. And when the sun sets just right—" He throws up his hand, directing her gaze out over the forest.
Her breath catches in her throat and she grabs his forearm tightly. "They look like they're burning."
Most people in the palace believe he is crazy to continue visiting his sister. But still, once a week, early in the morning just as the sun is rising, he disappears into the bowels of the highest security prison in the capitol city. The flame-retardant cell has padded walls, and the guards always remind her that she can't escape because behind that padding all she'll find is several foot thick steel. He tries to keep the room cold and has her arms bound behind her back, restricting her bending—he knows she can't break out, he's worried that one day she'll hurt herself—but every time he arrives at the door to her cell she's there, lying on her back and breathing blue fire at the ceiling—mid-scream, angry at everyone she sees in the empty room.
Some days, sitting and watching her struggle, he wonders how she got so lucky. After countless observations, carefully listening to her one-sided conversations, everything becomes clear to him and he tries so hard—Agni, he tries—not to be jealous. She sees their mother. Ursa comes to her—a year after the war has ended, a year into his reign as Fire Lord, his mother has still not come to him—and comforts her as she sits in jail. She sees Mai—she sees Ty Lee, too, and mistakenly assumes they're both alive—and keeps repeating that everyone is always miscalculating, always underestimating. It takes most of his strength not to ask if the women who plague Azula's mind can see him. She ignores him until her conversations with others are done, and he wonders if she does it deliberately to taunt him. He resents her, considers the option of leaving her to rot in prison—but saying that to yet another relative weighs heavily on his conscience.
Other days, with Katara sitting just outside the thick metal door, waiting for him, he tries to fix his little sister.
Once, he brings her inside the cell and guards her behind his body when Azula remarkably identifies her face in Fire Nation clothing. "Oh," she cackles, her arms bound tightly around her torso. "Do you see that? He's brought the Water Tribe whore." A scowl grows on her face. "Mother!" Zuko's head snaps up and he stares at his sister, watching her berate the air beside her. "Pay attention! Look who Zu-Zu has brought to visit. Is she to be our nation's new Fire Lady, Zu-Zu? Is she to wear our colors and sleep under our flag?"
"I'm here to help you," Katara says, offering her water-coated hands. "You have a nasty burn on your forehead. I can heal it."
The fallen princess snarls.
"She's trying to help you!"
"Help?" she screeches. "I don't need the help of a peasant. I don't need help from anybody." She struggles against her bindings, but her balance is thrown off and she falls on the floor on her stomach, her nose slamming against the ground. She writhes on the floor, twisting to find her way onto her back. Eventually, she stills, and her brother takes tentative steps forward.
"La-La…" His voice is soft when he addresses her, gently taking hold of her shoulder and rolling her over.
She blinks up at him. "Zu-Zu?" Katara gasps at how innocent and young her voice sounds. "Mommy loves you best." Tenderly, the Fire Lord combs his sister's choppy bangs away from her face and shakes his head. "Yes, yes, she does. She thinks I'm a monster, Zu-Zu. She takes me aside and tells me that I'm not a nice girl and that I have to stop being mean. She wishes it was just you. You're her favorite. She thinks that you're a good boy and that I'm a bad girl. I don't want her to hate me, but she doesn't want me. She lies to me about it. She says she loves me, but she always lies."
"No, La-La, she loves you."
She blinks again—La-La is gone to him, Azula lays in her place, hopefully not forever—and sneers.
"Father loves me best." She spits fire, and he bats it away. "I'm the pride of the Fire Nation, and I should be the Fire Lord. But I don't worry too much, because you'll fail, brother, just like you always do. And then the throne will be mine."
It isn't true—Azula always lies, and no sane country would allow a certifiably insane princess to take control—but it stings just the same as he stumbles back, Katara pulling him from the room. His breath comes out short, stuck in his chest, and the waterbender eases a cool liquid glove around her hand and presses it to his forehead.
"Easy," she murmurs.
He glances into the cell again, relaxing against her. "She's in there. Underneath all that anger and hate and spite and evil that my father taught her, my sister is in there."
"Then we'll get her back," she promises. "Somehow, we'll figure out how to get her back."
Iroh carries around a small material sack for two weeks before the ball that the royal palace will be hosting to celebrate the ending of another calendar year, and he believes his nephew does not notice. With all the necessary preparations to be handled—overnight boarding decisions to be made, meal plans to be finalized, seating arrangements—the small material sack could not possibly be even a blip on the Fire Lord's radar. But the night of the party, as guests begin to trickle in, Iroh feels for the bag in his pocket and discovers it missing.
"Looking for something?" Zuko asks, coming up behind his uncle and holding out his palm. The sack sits, its knot perfectly intact, and Iroh pats his stomach. "What are you planning, uncle?"
Rocking back on his heels, Iroh averts his gaze. "You are more observant than I have given you credit for. Hopefully, you can forgive an old man for holding a petty grudge. I merely meant to return the favor of a—" He chuckles. "—rather hilarious joke. When I was a boy—"
"Take it," Zuko says, rolling his eyes. "We don't have time for stories."
In his haste to greet his guests, the Fire Lord has overlooked the smirk on the face of the Dragon of the West.
After the dinner, Zuko notices his uncle following behind him, nodding with approval as he drifts closer to his friends and farther from dignitaries of ranging importance. The small group finds a space between pillars to convene, though pieces periodically drift away, and for a few minutes the Fire Lord just feels like a teenager. He hears stories of birthdays he has missed—the avatar's, Ty Lee's, and Katara is officially of marrying age in the Southern Water Tribe—and jokes he doesn't know, but he feels happy—and content to remain so. Servants bring out food, and nearly everyone disappears to go grab their favorite—each dish specially planned for each friend—leaving a royal teenager and an of-age master.
He smiles at her. "I'm glad everyone was able to make it. It's been a long time since we were all together."
"Almost a year, I think."
"Why, nephew," Iroh chastises with a grin, appearing at his side, "It appears that you have stumbled upon my trick." A sense of dread growing in his stomach, Zuko looks up, following his uncle's gaze to the beam above Katara's head where a few green leaves hang on a string, three white berries dangling in the core. The waterbender peers at it.
"I've never seen a plant like that before. Not even in the swamps."
"It is something I picked up from a lovely group of travelers who stopped in my humble tea shop," Iroh explains happily as his nephew and the waterbender look up at the small plant in horror—because nothing good can come from a group of mysterious travelers, and because a crowd is now gathering to hear Iroh's loudly spoken words. "During the winter season, when two young people find themselves standing beneath the mistletoe at the same time, it is tradition that they share a kiss."
"Plant one on her!"
The Fire Lord believes he sees the young avatar's eyes glow and reminds himself to permanently fire Toph as his assistant.
Apparently, his Ambassador does not notice the same troubling fact. She steps forward and raises a hand to cup the side of his head in her palm. Fingers tangling themselves into his hair, her lips touch his scarred cheek—he had forgotten how good it feels—and his eyelids flutter shut. He finds himself holding her hand against his face, leaning into the cushion it provides, and her breath lingers around his jaw for a moment, her forehead pressed against his temple. She pulls back and he feels a shiver race down his spine.
"Lady Katara, that is not the kiss of tradition."
She smiles at Zuko and speaks only to him. "Right now, it has to be."
As the Clock Strikes Twelve
Standing out on the terrace with the young avatar—the frown embedded in his face makes him look older, years older—the Fire Lord wonders if he's about to die for his uncle's trick. But Aang takes a shaky breath and turns his back, peering out into the blackness of the night sky. His robes flutter in the brisk breeze, and Zuko finds himself anxiously rubbing at the scar on his chest.
"I used to think nothing could be worse than the pain I felt when I lost my people."
Talk of Air Nomads is rare with the avatar—that pain is bottled up, hidden in his heart—and Zuko knows that this conversation is not merely for the exchanging of pleasantries. He thinks back to all the times he has fought the boy, and he doesn't particularly like his chances of escaping unscathed, but beneath the yellow and gold robes the avatar's shoulders are slumped.
"Do you love her?"
Zuko starts, his head pulling back. "She's your girlfriend. I would never—"
"You know exactly who I'm talking about. You love her, don't you?"
Glancing back into the palace, the scarred ruler watches a few of his guests dance by. "You're my friend, Aang. I wouldn't do that to you."
"But do you love her?" he demands again, and his voice cracks. He sounds wounded, completely and utterly shattered, and Zuko knows he has to fix it. "I see the way you look at her sometimes when you think nobody's paying attention. I saw your face when she kissed you. Tell me. Do you love her?"
"Aang, listen to me. She is your girlfriend. I would never touch her."
"That isn't what I asked you! You can love her and promise not the touch her at the same time!"
Zuko exhales shakily. "She loves you, Aang."
A wave of nausea seems to crash down over the avatar's head. Stumbling backwards, he leans against the railing and braces his hands against the cool stone. The Fire Lord will not dream of touching the avatar's girlfriend, but of Katara herself—once free of any ties, once free to make the choice—he cannot make promises. If the time was to come and she was to seek him out, he cannot promise that he would turn her away—he cannot promise that he won't take her into his arms and make her his queen, let her take the pain away, revel in the beauty of making her smile—and he knows it is a suffocating thought.
"Why should you get to care about her?" the boy demands quietly of Zuko. "After everything you've done— You betrayed her! She trusted you, and you turned your back on her! I never did that. I was always there. She loves me. Why should you get to care about her like I do?" His voice trembles. "After everything that has happened— How could you take her away from me?"
"I'm not taking her away," Zuko insists. "I don't even—"
"Stop lying to me!" Aang seethes. "I'm not a child! You love her and you want her and—"
"Even if I did," he interrupts, "She's not mine to want! You are my friend, and you love her. Believe me when I say that I respect the both of you enough not to meddle in your relationship. If you chose to be with her forever, I would never stand in your way."
Silently, the avatar looks away.
Three apologies later, two young friends are heading back towards a crowded ballroom. As the youngest seeks out his friends once more, the Fire Lord finds himself wandering along the walls, re-greeting guests and shaking hands he has already shaken. The group across the room gets along fine without him, and he doesn't return to them for the remainder of the evening. His uncle comes up behind him while he watches the avatar's girlfriend make a bouquet of flowers dance. The airbender joins her game, manipulating the nearby punch to swirl above everyone's heads before plopping back into the bowl. She laughs, and her eyes twinkle.
"It's selfish of me to look at her like I do, isn't it?" Zuko heaves a sigh, but his eyes never stray from her.
Iroh hums to himself. "Love has always been a little selfish, hasn't it?"
As Time Passes By
Author's Note: I am a Zutarian, and this is my first bit of Avatar: The Last Airbender fiction. (Actually, that's a lie. I played around with some drabbles for my LiveJournal for a while, but then they sort of fell to the wayside when I stumbled upon the prompt for this piece.) I am relatively new to this fandom—literally, I discovered the awesomeness of it years after the cartoon ended. The movie-hype spiked my interest in the show, and I was just perusing LJ when I stumbled upon the community katara_zuko. The post I found that lead me there was old (I'm talking 2006/2007 old) and it was a master list of challenges and contests. User nuitssansetoiles had posted an All in a Year challenge to write one drabble about each month of one year (chronologically, of course). And I did it. (Even if I cheated a little and snuck in one last section.) And it was fun. (Even if it isn't so much a Zutara drabble series as it is a Zutara Angst drabble series.)
I would definitely appreciate feedback on this piece. I'm very nervous about posting this because accurate characterization is important to me and even though I tried to keep everyone as in-character as possible I don't have much (any) experience writing for Avatar. I know I bent some of the facts of the Avatar World—Katara's healing (I wasn't exactly sure how healing works on, say, the common cold), travel time between nations (I only had a year to work with: people needed to get places a little faster), the flora of the Fire Nation (I know, I know, the Earth Kingdom is supposed to have all the forests), etc. I spent a lot of time on the A:TLA Wiki pages trying to get everything right, but some stuff probably slipped in under my radar. If you notice something major that needs correcting, please feel free to let me know!
At the risk of the author's note being longer than the piece, I'd just like to say that over the past couple of weeks this piece has owned my life, and as happy as I am to have finished it I'm also a little sad that I don't get to look forward to working on it every night. So, I hope you enjoy reading it.
Constructive criticism and comments are always appreciated! Let me know what you liked/disliked/thought could be better.