A/N: This is it, guys! The final chapter. =) This is set up very differently than the others, mostly because it's a sort of "full circle" type, where we get a glimpse of many of our beloved characters. Enjoy! Oh, and this is also set one year after the previous one. So Katara is now 17 and Zuko is 19. Enjoy!
"What a good idea, such a powerful and magic notion
This is exactly my idea of love." - This Is My Idea, The Swan Princess
Chapter 11 - The Edge of Forever
Ty Lee was a dreamer. She longed for the world beyond the blue water of the Fire Nation. She wanted to see the icy tundra of the North Pole, the green forests of the Earth Kingdom. Anything besides the hot, muggy Fire Nation. A bang from next door made Ty Lee jump, and their grumpy neighbor—Lady Fai, they called her—back out of her house, laundry tucked under her arms. She was a frumpy woman, drowning in wrinkles, with a permanent frown on her face.
"Good evening, Lady Fai," said Ty Lee cheerfully. "How are you doing?"
As expected, Lady Fai's only response was a grumpy sort of sound, but Ty Lee still smiled. It was unfortunate they lived in Jing Shing, an extremely tiny island fit with too many tiny houses. They were made of shabby materials and seemed to pile up on one another, giving very little privacy.
"Ty Lee!" called a voice from inside. A crisp, stern voice. Anya, of course. "Rally up the girls for supper and set the table!"
Living with six sisters was not something to be taken lightly, but Ty Lee was used to it. She had joined the circus two years back, only performing during the summer months, but she soon had to move back home. Being the second eldest meant certain responsibilities. Mouths needed to be fed, dishes needed to be cleaned, beds needed to be made. Ty Lee's mother, Lin, seemed to shut down and turn into a bitter woman when their father left, back when Ty Lee was eight. It was up to Ty Lee and Anya to take care of the rest of their sisters. And they did.
"Wash up!" Ty Lee said, poking her head into the twins' and Ren's room. "Supper is almost ready."
"Can I finish my picture?" Mari asked, looking up from a pile of colored pieces of parchment.
"Make it quick!"
The table was crowded, just like the rest of the house, as the family of eight passed around the bowls. Dumplings with steamed rice. Bread and butter. A very plain and simple meal, but still, it was food, and Ty Lee and the girls were grateful.
"What is that you're wearing, Tia?" Lin asked suddenly, speaking for the first time since they sat down. When Tia did not respond, Ty Lee looked up. At that moment she realized her mother was looking at her.
"I'm Ty Lee, Mother," she corrected gently, managing a smile.
"That's what I said." Lin waved a hand wildly. "And what is that ridiculous bracelet?"
"Azula got it for me," Ty Lee answered, rubbing the bracelet a little methodically. "She sa—"
"That spoiled princess!" Lin hissed. "Always trying to show me up, isn't she?"
"Paying for your schooling, like school 'round here aint good enough for you." Lin shoved a dumpling in her mouth. "You spend too much time 'round the Palace and not enough time here! You are sixteen years of age—"
"Seventeen," Tia piped up. Even though all the girls looked very much alike, Tia looked so identical to Ty Lee it wasn't a surprise their mother got them confused. Almost everyone thought they were twins. "Ty Lee is seventeen. I'm sixteen."
"Even worse!" Lin barked furiously. "Seventeen and unmarried! Anya here is already engaged and you are next in line. Who do you expect to take care of you the rest of your life? That princess of yours? Hah!"
Ty Lee's cheeks burned. "I could go back to the circus…"
"The circus! The circus, she says!" Lin shook her head, as though the idea caused her physical pain.
A knock at the door saved Ty Lee further torment. Kimi rushed to the door and Mica offered to fill Lin's glass with more calming tea. Lin patted her back, calling her by her twin's name, Mari, but Mica was just as much used to it as Ty Lee. When Kimi came back into the kitchen made dining room, she was staring a delicately designed scroll, trimmed in red. The Royal Seal was visible even from where Ty Lee sat. Kimi handed it to her.
Ty Lee unrolled the scroll, the sound of craning necks breaking the silence. Ty Lee scanned the contents, read it over twice, and leapt into the air with a little squeal of excitement.
Toph was a visionary. She didn't see like the rest of the world, but that didn't mean she couldn't see at all. Maybe that was what convinced her to go with General Iroh, to charter the unknown with nothing more than a sack filled of clothes. She had left her luxurious home in Gaoling two years ago and hadn't looked back since. Hearing the old man's proposal had given her a visionary of what could be, a life of freedom, a life of doing what she loved.
But fifteen was pretty young to be living on your own, which was why Iroh had insisted a helper to aid Toph in her newly renovated home in Caldera City. Toph knew what this helper really was, though. A babysitter. There was no reason to think otherwise. One of the chamber maids to the Fire Lady lived with Toph on a permanent basis, doing the cleaning, the cooking, anything Toph might need. Her name was Akira, and she was nice enough, but Toph was more than relieved when Aang moved in.
She stood at the door, watching Aang drag in his belongings. Well, she watched in the only way she ever could watch, that is.
"You could give me a hand with this," Aang said, breathing very hard.
"I could," said Toph measurably, "but I have servants for that kind of stuff now. Want me to call on them?" While Akira stayed day and night, the Fire Lady had also sent over three servants to help out during the day. Honestly, it was ridiculous but Toph wouldn't complain to the Fire Lady's face.
"I think—I've—got it," said Aang, and with one last suck of breath, he hauled in the last of his belongings. "Where do you want me to stay?"
"There are only three rooms so you only have one choice," said Toph. "No balcony, sorry."
"That's okay," said Aang pleasantly. "It'll be nice to stay in one place for awhile."
"I thought Air Nomads like to move around?"
"Sometimes it's nice to have a place you can call home."
Toph could understand that. "So you start training tomorrow, huh?"
"Yep." Aang took a deep breath. "It's either going to be Lu Ten or Zuko—Iroh didn't say in his letter."
"Good luck with that." Toph went over to the sofa and plopped down, like Aang's physical work had rubbed off on her. "At least you know neither will be as hard of a teacher as me."
"You got that right."
The door swung open once again, and the sound of light footsteps and familiar heartbeat was recognizable to Toph.
"What's for dinner, Akira?"
"A letter has arrived for you, Lady Bei Fong." It didn't matter how many times Toph had asked her to stop calling her that, the woman was ridiculously persistent. "I believe it applies to the Avatar as well."
Toph gave an irritated sigh and threw up her hands. Why did people insist on sending her letters when she was blind? "Well, give it to him to read, then."
Aang unraveled the scroll and began to read aloud. His voice rose in pitch with every line and by the time he finished, Toph was grinning from ear to ear.
Sokka was a warrior. That was something he couldn't change even if he wanted to. That also meant that he was determined to catch a fish for dinner tonight. He could hunt enormous beasts through the tundra and yet fish always seemed to thwart him. But no, not this time. He was going to catch one of those slithery little suckers.
"Got you!" Sokka cried, thrusting his spear into the water. Unfortunately his momentum was too much and he topped into the icy water. He came up spluttering and shivering a few seconds later.
"How's it going, Sokka?" Bato called, hiding the amusement in his voice rather well. "Bringing home a big catch?"
Sokka grumbled and marched past Bato, dripping with water. He'd need to change into something warm before he caught hypothermia. Inside the hut, Hakoda and Gran Gran sat around a kindling fire, the smell of something salty filling the air, making Sokka's stomach growl in hunger.
Hakoda surveyed Sokka's outfit with raised brows. "No luck today, Son?"
"Or any other day," Gran Gran added. "Get that girlfriend of yours to teach you."
"I know how to catch fish!" Sokka yelled, flinging water into the fire and causing it to flare. "And she's not a better warrior than me!"
"You want to prove that?" a voice called from the entry to the hut, and Suki came inside with a smug grin. She had a bucket slung over a shoulder, five silver tails peeking out. Sokka glared.
"Don't be so hard on yourself, Sokka," Hakoda offered reasonably. "It takes patience and practice to ice fish."
Sokka mumbled something under his breath when at that moment a fire hawk dove through the door, straight past Suki, and landed on Hakoda's shoulder, holding out a scroll. The fire hawk was larger than any Sokka had ever seen, its feathers bristled and severe, its talons exceptionally sharp. This was a very powerful fire hawk to make it from the Fire Nation to here.
"What is it?" Sokka asked, leaning forward. Hakoda blinked at the writing, smiled, and handed it to Gran Gran, much to Sokka's annoyance. "Well?" he demanded.
"I'm going to need some dress robes," was all Hakoda said.
Mai was a fighter. No, she wasn't a fighter in the war against the Earth Kingdom, but she had her own battles to deal with in her very own home. The walls of her household were like prison bars, locking her in with little escape. Mai's parents encouraged friendship with Azula at an early age—because there is no higher honor than marrying the heir of the Fire Nation, her mother would say—but even after Mai explained to them that Zuko was marrying someone from the Water Tribe, they persisted.
"Try harder, Mai!
"Think of your father and his position!"
"What about that handsome Prince Lu Ten?"
It grew so tiring she had developed a system for breaking out. She learned how to scale walls, drop from windows, move silently through the corridors. And yes, a little bribery for the servants helped a bit.
Mai supposed her parents loved her in their own way, albeit differently than they loved her brother, Tom-Tom. They wanted to make sure she was taken care of. Didn't all parents want that? But Mai was a fighter, not a noblewoman. She loved her knives, the way she controlled their destination, making them go wherever she pleased. Maybe the control was what she loved so much about it, rather than the damage the sharp daggers inflicted.
A screeching sort of sound came from somewhere beyond Mai's bedchamber, making the chamber maids jump. Mai didn't move from her spot on the balcony. She was lounged back in a sun chair, twirling a dagger, while several servants and chamber maids cleaned her room.
"Lady Mai," one of the servants said, warily. "I thi—"
"She'll bother us with her problem in no time, rest assured you needn't worry just yet," said Mai.
No sooner had she said the words did the screeching come into room. Mai's mother—a tall, willowy woman with beady grey eyes and long neck—swooped in like a vulture, picking up her skirts and doing her best not to look disgraceful as she tottered to the balcony.
"Mai!" she shrieked, making Mai cringe. "I have positively the most tragic news!"
"You spent all of father's money and he's leaving you with nothing?"
"This!" She thrust a rolled up parchment into Mai's hands before Mai could object. "This is horrible! How can this be happening to us!"
Mai read over the scroll quickly and passed it back to her mother with a careless shrug. "I guess there's nothing more to do, is there?" she said.
Mai's mother choked on a sob, muttered something unintelligible, and fled the chamber. Mai sat back against her chair, and once her mother's sobbing was out of hearing, she smiled.
Katara was a worrier. It wasn't something she could help—she'd always been this way. She worried her father and brother's ship wouldn't make it in time. She worried Toph wouldn't have anyone to read the message. She worried her dress was too tight. She worried she'd forget her lines. She worried this was all a dream.
Because reality was certainly too perfect to be real.
Katara stared at her reflection in a floor length mirror, watching the surrounding servants pinning, tying, steaming, working meticulously over layers of crimson and white fabric. Lady Cho had heated a narrow vase and used it to construct an array of curls bouncing and flowing down Katara's back. Pieces were pinned back, adorned with gold jeweled pins. She wore light make up, highlighting her large blue eyes and tan complexion.
She didn't know what her mother looked like, but she had a strong feeling it was similar to the face staring back at her in the mirror.
"Katara?" said a hesitant voice, creaking open the door. "Are you—Wow!" Aang swung open the door and stared.
"Is it too much?" Katara asked. "It's a lot of red, I know, but—"
"No!" Aang assured her, face burning red, "you look…you look…perfect."
Katara smiled softly. "Thanks, Aang."
"I know I'm supposed to be in my seat but it's custom to wear something old," he said. "I mean, custom for Air Nomads and I know you aren't one, but…I thought you could wear this." He handed her a piece of orange fabric and frowned. "It doesn't really match your dress, though. Sorry about that."
"What is it?" Katara asked. The fabric was narrow and long, soft under her touch.
"I tied it around my waist," Aang said guiltily. "I was wearing it when I…you know…fell into the ice. So it's pretty old…"
"It's perfect," said Katara, grinning. "I'm sure these ladies can work it into the outfit."
Aang was beaming when he left, and the servants huddled together, discussing what to do with Aang's addition. Since Katara's dress was a little big around the waist, it really was useful as a belt-like sash. It was tied securely, letting the access flow down her back like a train. Lady Cho stitched an intricate gold pattern along the fabric as well. The orange complimented the red perfectly, like a flame in the blood red sun.
"Finally! I've searched this entire damn palace looking for you!"
Katara turned—as much as she could from the podium she stood on—to see Toph sulk into the room. She was dressed uncharacteristically nice in a robe of emerald and gold. Her hair was stiff and shiny, but held a sort of messy look, like it had been styled one way and shaken free of its confinement.
"Toph, what are you—"
"Aang told me what he did," she interrupted, "and I can't help myself. Something old? How ridiculous. It's tradition in the Earth Kingdom to give you something new."
More traditions, Katara thought warily. "Something new, huh?"
Toph didn't look very happy about this as she took off a thin gold headband. "Yeah, and I literally just bought this today. So this is as new as it gets. Good thing the shop has more." She handed it to Katara. "I can't see to put it in, you know."
"Thanks, Toph," Katara replied, running her fingers over the smooth surface. It was a plain band of gold that would fit nicely in her curls. She smiled. "It's beautiful."
"I wouldn't really know, I guess," said Toph with a shrug. "I better go take my place before those cranky sages yell at me again."
Katara tried to shout to Toph not to yell at the sages but the Earthbender shot out of the room and out of hearing range too quickly. Katara had no choice but to hand the gold band a little dejectedly to one of the servants, letting the lot of them get back to work. It wasn't even a half hour when they were interrupted again.
"Leave us," a voice said, dismissing the servants at once. Katara looked up as Azula swept into the room. Her blue eyes widened as she took in the princess's sleek gold gown, her hair left straight and down, flowing like black water.
"You look…" Katara started.
"I know." Azula waved a flippant hand, avoiding Katara's gaze. "Different."
"I was going to say pretty, actually."
Azula looked up, and for the first time since Katara had known her, had the most blank and curious look on her face. "Pretty?" Her voice was unusually quiet and uncertain.
"Yeah." Katara placed a hand gently on Azula's bare shoulder. "Very pretty."
Azula's lips turned up slightly and Katara smiled at her. The moment died nearly as quickly as it started, and Azula pulled free with a shake of her head. "I came to give you something borrowed."
Katara could barely believe it. "What now?"
Azula glowered at her. "If you bothered to read any of your assignments you would know it's tradition in the Fire Nation that we give you something borrowed."
"Of course," said a new voice, a sing-song voice filled with warmth. Fire Lady Ursa came into the room, looking every bit as grand as a Fire Lady should, dripping in reds and golds. "Azula had a suggestion but I had a better idea."
Katara wasn't sure what she expected but this certainly wasn't it. Lady Ursa reached up and unclasped her headpiece. She walked over to Katara and gently placed it on her head. Azula helped pull back the curls, and when they stepped back, Katara stared at her reflection in awe. The headpiece was a single flame, the gold catching every fractal of light: the headpiece of the Fire Lady. A sliver of gold could still be seen below the crown. Toph's headpiece.
"Beautiful," Lady Ursa said gently, also staring at the reflection.
"I can't wear this." Katara turned to look at both of them. "It's—"
"—yours," Lady Ursa finished with a smile. "Someday, at least. Today it's simply borrowed."
When Katara found her dad waiting for her outside the plaza doors, she leapt into his arms, not at all worried about messing up her outfit. Hakoda held her as tightly as he could without damaging her attire before pulling back, planting a kiss on her forehead. "I'm so proud of you," he said.
"Why?" Katara asked, blinking back tears.
"Because you have found happiness," he said gently, "and that is all I've ever wanted for you. You grow more and more like your mother every day. I know she's watching, and I know she's proud, too."
Now Katara was crying. Hakoda wiped the tears away with a surprisingly happy smile on his face. She was so scared of what waited beyond those two wooden doors. She was scared for what the future held. But wasn't that part of the fun? Not knowing what was to come, but knowing you didn't have to face it alone?
Katara slid her arm into her father's. "Don't let me fall, Dad. I love you."
"I love you, too. And if you fall, I'll be right there to catch you." He held her tightly. "When you see Zuko, tell him he was right."
"What are you talking about?"
"He'll know what you mean." Two guards stationed outside the plaza doors were about to open them when Hakoda held up a hand. "Hold on, I almost forgot something."
"You've got to be kidding me," Katara sighed, "another tradition?"
Hakoda blinked at her. "Tradition?" He shook his head like she had lost her mind. "No, I just thought you'd want to wear this." He withdrew Kya's necklace and placed it gently around Katara's neck. "You needed a little blue."
Katara looked up at him and smiled. Now she had a piece of everyone she loved. She wore a handcrafted gown designed by Lady Cho and her chamber maids, gold and red and white, with long layering skirts and flowing sleeves. A sash of orange around her waist, trailing down her back, with the gold pattern of flames embroidered into the fabric. A head full of curls, nestling a gleaming headpiece and crown. And lastly her mother's necklace, a touch of familiar blue and piece of her soul.
She was still smiling at her dad when the doors opened. She turned and blinked into the brightness of the setting sun, the sound of a roaring applause ringing in her ears. Hakoda led them onto the large balcony of the plaza, overlooking thousands of cheering citizens. But Katara didn't see them. Her eyes had found him. He was standing there waiting in the brink of the horizon, on the edge of forever, outlined in an iridescent glow of falling sun.
The sight of him sent a flash of memories straight through Katara and suddenly she was back in the palace, standing on Zuko's balcony.
"For as long as I remember, we've been told we'd someday wed," said Katara.
"Every June until September," Zuko agreed.
"And I've been thinking," Katara said reasonably, "about what you said to me."
"Oh?" He was staring at her with crossed arms, leaning against the rail of the balcony. "You're going to have to be a bit more specific than that."
"You asked me if I wanted what you did," Katara clarified. "To call the Fire Nation my home. To rule by your side as your wife."
Katara walked over to him. His body was very still as he watched her intently.
"And I don't want anything else," she said, gently touching his cheek. "Than to call the Fire Nation my home. To rule by your side, and to marry you. Not because of the Earth Kingdom. Not because of a contract between our parents. I want this because I want you and whatever comes with it."
"Good, because I wasn't going to let you go this time." And with that he pulled her close, brushing his lips against hers.
After the ceremony Katara and Zuko walked hand in hand in the corridors of the palace. The celebration reception was to start soon, but they were finally able to squeeze in a little alone time. It was a little surprising to Katara how little time she had had with Zuko so far, on their wedding day, of all days. She thought he looked more handsome than ever, dressed in a new gold and black armor suit, his messy hair pulled up in a crown. Pieces hung in his eyes, obscuring his scar slightly.
"I like the way that looks on you," Zuko told her, tapping the Fire Lady's crown lightly with a finger.
"I don't think I'm quite ready to wear it, yet," Katara replied. She looked up at him and smiled. "But I look forward to the day that I am." They walked a little ways further when a thought occured to her. "My dad told me to tell you that you were right. What does that mean?"
Zuko threw her a sidelong glance. "I went to the South Pole and asked your father permission to marry you, officially. When he asked why, I told him because I was the only one meant for you. Guess he agrees now."
The way he spoke was so casual, so factual, but Katara was more surprised by what he had done. "I didn't know you went to the South Pole. That was...you didn't have to do that, Zuko."
He held her stare with something lingering in his gaze. He was very serious all of the sudden. "Are you sure about this? A palace. A nation to help run. A throne. Power and authority. Me." He looked down at her with a raised brow. "Is this your idea of an ideal life, Princess?"
"No," she said, grinning at her new title. Princess Katara would take some time to get used to. "This is my idea of love."
A/N: Aww. Yes, we all had to aww a little with that last line. :P Only appropriate since this fic is based off the song. To my readers: Thank you so much for reading and sticking with me. I did not plan on writing past six chapters, but this story became more detailed than I had anticipated. Without you readers and your amazing feedback, this story might not have made it all the way. So I can say proudly, this is a wrap! :D What does the future hold for these characters? Well, I MIGHT write an epilogue five or ten years down the road. We'll have to see. Or maybe I'll let your imagination do the work, hehe.
For more Zutara fics of mine, check out Eclipse (post season 3) and The Black Games (AU based off The Hunger Games). Thank you again for reading!