Prompt: #35 Ashes to Ashes - In Zuko's Memory
Title: Ashes to Ashes
Word Count: 2119
Warnings/Pairings: character death, canon pairings implied. TEARBENDING! Also some tense-bending that I have yet to re-organize.
Summary: Zuko does not survive Azula's lightning strike. A year later, those who knew him are still haunted by thoughts of everything that could have been.
Author's Note: This was one of two stories that I wrote for the LJ community avatarbigbang mini-bang challenge of 2011. I highly recommend all of the stories submitted (they can be found on the community itself). The prompt that I chose was "Ashes to Ashes - In Zuko's Memory" by LJ user teamabodo.
Ashes to Ashes
by Etienne Bessette
In the Upper Ring of Ba Sing Se, a tea house lies empty and silent, collecting dust behind locked doors. It is said that the great General Iroh, the Dragon of the West, had been its owner, and that he had planned to spend the rest of his days there in quiet, dispensing ancient remedies within steaming cups and imparting gentle, wise words to any who stepped across the threshold.
Most people don't really believe it. The doors had only been open for a few scant weeks before they had closed forever. But even a year later, citizens of Ba Sing Se will sometimes pass it by, pause, and point at the darkened windows. "The Jasmine Dragon served the best tea in Ba Sing Se," they tell their companions. "Maybe the best tea in the world. And the old man who owned it-you could talk to him about anything. His eyes had seen the world, and he always knew what to say."
"What happened to him?"
"...no one knows."
After everything goes wrong and the ashes of your dreams settle like corpse dust at your feet, it's easy to dwell upon the what-ifs, the maybes. Even a year later, sometimes it's all that Katara can think about.
Maybe, if Zuko had been right about Azula, maybe things would have turned out differently. Maybe if Azula had been...
...a little more unhinged and a little less in control...
...a little more focused on the ghost of her mother's voice and a little less focused on murdering the child she knew that voice loved more than her...
...a little more dismissive of her brother's hidden strength and a little less sure of her own in the face of it...
...a little less angry and a little more scared of just being alone...
...then maybe her lightning wouldn't have struck with the full strength of Sozen's Comet screaming within its crackling arcs. Maybe-and this is the part that twists her heart and chokes her breath-maybe if Katara hadn't run onto the field and inadvertently drawn Azula's strike, maybe Zuko would have been prepared to redirect it, with his feet grounded to the earth and his heart and mind calm.
Or maybe if Katara had been just a little better at healing...
Maybe Zuko would have survived.
But maybes are just dead dreams that sit like ash in Katara's mind, clouding her thoughts with regret as she kneels on the grass next to her brother, staring at stone.
No one can change the past.
When the news had arrived, Iroh had been serving tea to Aang and his friends in the Jasmine Dragon.
Ozai was being held in Ba Sing Se under careful watch of the White Lotus. He would be transferred to the Fire Nation once Zuko had taken the throne, so they'd all been waiting for Katara to return on Appa and tell them it was safe. The Fire Lord had been defeated. Ba Sing Se had been reclaimed in the name of the Earth Kingdom. Ozai's fleet lay in splintered ruin. They had already won. So Zuko's victory against Azula had just been taken as a given.
But Katara never came. Instead, an Earth Kingdom messenger had arrived on the doorstep with a Fire Nation hawk on his shoulder and a message for Iroh in his hands.
Once Iroh had opened the scroll, he hadn't needed to say a word. Everyone else in the room had understood the moment they saw the slump of Iroh's shoulders, saw the cumulative weight of his years tearing his spirit down.
The moment they saw the fire in Iroh's eyes die into ash.
The days following had been disjointed, tangled with grief and shock, stuttering from moment to moment as they'd all struggled to function and deal with the chaos Zuko's death had left in its wake. With Zuko gone, Ozai defeated and imprisoned, and Azula lost in the shattered fragments of her own mind, it had fallen to Iroh to take up the throne and work with the Avatar towards reconciliation.
Iroh had done so, silently and without protest. He'd devoted himself entirely to his work, spending every waking moment in meetings, drawing up treaties, and travelling from place to place, restoring to the Fire Nation the honour that his nephew had died for. Those around him thought that perhaps it was because this was all that he had left, and it kept him from thinking about anything else. Perhaps he wanted to honour his nephew's memory. And although the latter was certainly true, sometimes it seemed like Iroh was just in a hurry to get it all over with.
Only Toph, out of all of them, had understood. Everyone else in their group would keep going; they had a new world to build, one of peace and love, one that they could all live in. They had each other to lean on, to live for. They all just assumed that Iroh would keep going, too.
But Toph knew that no amount of consolation or support would help Iroh. She'd known the moment that the news had reached them, and she hadn't needed her earthbending to tell her. She'd known from the way Iroh had talked about his nephew when they'd first met. She'd heard it in his voice, how much Iroh had loved him. Zuko was all he'd talked about because Zuko was all he'd had.
Iroh wouldn't survive the loss of a second son.
The lightning inside Zuko's body had consumed him, burning his core away to nothing. He'd never felt a cold like the one that had followed, not even when he'd been flung into the freezing sea after a bomb had blown away his ship. He'd almost died then, but his wounds hadn't been beyond healing, and Uncle had managed to save him. But this time the ache was too deep, and in the spreading numbness that followed, he knew that he was dying. He had managed to hold on long enough to witness Katara's victory against Azula.
Katara had turned him on his back, and for that he'd been grateful-he'd wanted to see her face, the face of a friend, so he wouldn't be alone.
The healing water on his chest had felt warm rather than cool. Some part of his mind had dimly registered the wrongness of that. He'd thought he glimpsed tears in Katara's eyes, but he hadn't been sure. He couldn't seem to focus on her face. Then she'd spoken, but her voice had sounded so far away, like an old memory almost forgotten.
His last thought had been of regret. He'd tried to speak, and somehow found the strength to do so. The water on his chest had glowed, the only bright point left in his darkening sight, but it hadn't been...it wasn't...
"It wasn't enough," he'd whispered. "Everything I...it wasn't enough."
In the end, it never is.
Firebenders don't have graves. When they die, if their bodies are recovered, they are given back to Agni. The fire that had flowed through them in life is gifted back to them one last time in death. Afterwards, it is said, the fire will use the energy of its former master to spark a new life, a new firebender. Eventually, that spark would be given back again so that it could continue on to another.
Ashes to ashes.
Sokka didn't know much about Fire Nation culture, but this much had been explained to him before Zuko's funeral. Later, while he'd stood amongst his friends and watched Zuko's body burn, he'd wondered if somewhere a child had been born with the same fire-the same passion and strength and honesty-that had burned within the prince.
Maybe there had.
But there would never be another Zuko.
Iroh had Zuko's memorial stone placed in the garden by the turtle-duck pond. He knew Zuko would have liked that. He had debated for a long time whether he should have Azula's stone placed nearby as well. She hadn't outlived her brother by very long. Iroh had made preparations to send her to a mental institution where she could be cared for properly, but the day she was due to depart they'd found her body in her cell, cold and pinned with a dozen tiny knives.
In the end, Iroh decided to place Azula's memorial near her brother's. They'd never really been a family in life. At least they could all be together in death.
Iroh worked hard in the following months to find someone he could trust to become Fire Lord. He found such a person eventually-a distant cousin with a quick mind and a smile that almost reminded Iroh of Zuko's: bright and as pure as the sun itself. Iroh trained him as well as he could under the circumstances. The boy got on well with Aang, and perhaps together they would manage to heal the wounds the war had inflicted upon the world.
But the boy wasn't Zuko. He didn't understand the true nature of honour. He'd never fought as hard as Zuko had just to find himself. Zuko had earned wisdom that most men never learn in a lifetime of hardships. Zuko had understood what the Fire Nation truly needed.
This new boy didn't understand. He didn't have the spirit.
But neither did Iroh, anymore. His spirit had gone with Zuko's, and soon his body would follow. The day that he first tasted ash in his tea was the day that he realized it was time to let go.
Iroh's memorial stone was placed next to Zuko's in the garden.
People die in war. Sokka knows this. He'd known ever since the day he'd first seen the black snow fall gently upon his village from a pale sky.
So he'd known, logically, that there had been a chance one or more of them wouldn't be coming back on the day of Sozen's Comet. He'd been afraid mostly for Aang, and then for Suki as she'd fallen away with half of a burning airship, and finally for himself and Toph. But he'd never worried for Zuko or Katara. Zuko had survived despite the best efforts of the most terrifying people Sokka knew. He had begun to think that Zuko was indestructible.
All of the logic in the world couldn't have prepared him for the writing on the stones in front of him.
Katara and Aang had taken Zuko's death the worst out of anyone in their group, save for Iroh. They still blame themselves-Aang because it's his nature to do so, and Katara because the maybes that haunt her all lead her to believe that it's her fault. Even a year later, the pain hasn't lessened.
Katara stands abruptly after half an hour and flees from the gardens, chased by her own thoughts. Aang goes after her.
The worst of the pain, he realizes, is not so much due to how well he'd known Zuko, but rather how well he hadn't known him. Even after Zuko had joined Team Avatar, Sokka had taken a while to warm up to him. Then, after the Boiling Rock, when Sokka had finally been able to label Zuko as Not A Jerk After All, he still had never gotten the other boy to open up to the rest of them. Zuko had kept mostly to himself, hiding his own pain beneath stoic determination. If they'd had more time, maybe Sokka could have really gotten to know him. There had been a good friend in Zuko, he was sure of it. Sometimes, when Zuko had flashed a rare smile, Sokka could see a brother in him.
Sokka leans forward and brushes his fingers over the indented inscription in the cold stone. Zuko's memorial reads "Ashes to Ashes", but Sokka wonders who is left to remember what the fire had been like. He wishes that he could have been one such person.
Sokka bows his head and weeps.
In the Upper Ring of Ba Sing Se, the Jasmine Dragon lies empty and silent. Somewhere, amidst all of the maybes and should-have-beens, there is sunlight, and the sweet smell of tea that Zuko serves to his friends, and laughter as Iroh tells the full version of his tea joke, and teasing when Sokka tries with hilarious inadequacy to capture the moment on paper. There is joy and a bright future where no one is left behind, and where they all have each other.
But maybes are just dead dreams that sit like ash, dusting unused tables that lie forgotten behind the locked tea house doors.