gardens that never grow
Republic City was alight with celebration. Avatar Korra, their sparkling light in the dark times ahead, was entering her seventeenth year. In her honor, a cherry blossom festival was thrown. Even in the midst of the city's thinly-veiled terror at Amon's impending threat, they took the celebration seriously. Shops closed, offices closed, vendors shuttered their stalls, parade floats puttered down the main street.
And Fire Lord Zuko—even though he had passed the reigns onto his daughter many years ago, he still insisted on the Fire Lord title, yammering about respect and children in his day whenever anyone had the misfortune of asking why—accompanied by Master Katara, were also in attendance. The remaining members of the Gaang regaled Republic City's children with tales from the 100 Year War. They, of course, had already heard the stories, but clambered on each other and shoved each other out of the way to glimpse the pair sitting together in the Main Square, surrounded by tables of food and dancers, none-the-less.
The Fire Lord strokes his beard, telling one small earthbender on his knee about the time he had taken lightning for the woman sitting beside him. The seven year old earthbender's brown eyes widen, hands clasped over his mouth as the Fire Lord describes the pain and agony he had experienced as Azula's volts had shocked him, and Master Katara quickly scoops the scared child up, handing him off to his mother before she turns, glaring at Zuko. "What?" he questions, "I was only—"
"None of those stories, Zuko," she chastises, poking at him, "you'll give the children nightmares, and this is a day of happiness and celebration."
"Nightmares," Zuko snorts, settling into his chair, "what do these people know of nightmares?"
"Nothing." Katara's eyes shine at him, "And that's the point."
The old Fire Lord resists the urge to stick his tongue out at her, and instead asks, "Where is Korra, anyway?"
Katara turns away from him, looking out into the crowd in the square. She spots Korra digging through a plate of food, seated at a table not far from them. Her hair, usually pulled back, is braided tightly down her back, exposing her long, elegant neck and shoulders. The pale blue dress she wears was a gift from Katara. Katara sighs longingly, wishing for her younger days. "There." she points.
Zuko follows her finger, squinting, "Ah!" he laughs, "She reminds me of Sokka, always in search of food." they watch Korra shovel through her plate before turning to the handsome dark-haired boy beside her, stealing noodles off of his plate when he wasn't looking.
"She reminds me of all of us." Katara says, watching Korra reach across the table to show a small child how to properly hold her chopsticks.
"She is all of us." Zuko agrees.
"No respect for authority." Korra snatches Lin's plate away when the Chief isn't looking, slurping up her noodles.
"Positively enthralled by danger." the bender beside her, Mako, snaps his fingers over and over absently, his thumb lighting up with flames each time. Korra watches with interest.
"Willing to die for her friends."
The old pair falls silent, contemplating Zuko's words. "It is her greatest weakness. Like it was Aang's."
Katara eyes him, lips twitching, "You always were a cynic. I think you're wrong, Zuko. It's her greatest weapon, having those boys," she nods at the brothers on either side of Korra, "and that girl," she nods at Asami Sato, seated beside Bolin, "with her will lead her to victory."
The pair lapses into silence again. The children around them have dispersed, growing tired of the stories they've heard so many times. They leave the old pair to their own devices, wandering off to find their parents. The sun sets low in the sky, a cold wind chills Katara to her bones, and Zuko puts a wrinkled hand on her arm, instantly warming. She places her hand over his arm, smiling warmly at him, "How long ago was it, Zuko?" she asks, voice light, airy, like it had been so many years ago, when she was just a young girl of seventeen who fancied herself in love with a firebender.
"Katara." he says gently, because this is something they do not talk about. They do not talk about what happened before Aang and Mai.
"Oh, Zuko." she waves her hand, "It was so many years ago, before I settled with Aang and before you became Fire Lord. We were young."
"We were foolish."
Katara sighs, "We were in love. Or, we thought we were." she remembers the days spent in the Fire Nation, Zuko by her side, holding her hand. "There are good memories there, in the Fire Nation." she tells him, and he smiles then, looking so much like the boy she called her closest friend many years ago.
Zuko pats her hand, "I would not give up my time with Mai for anything." his eyes tell her, we were young, yes, foolish, yes, but we found our way.
Katara smiles wider, "Aang was good to me, and I to him." she looks up, "I miss him everyday. He visits me in my sleep, tells me it's time to go soon."
Zuko's hand tightens around hers. "He visits me, as well." he admits. He is not afraid of death, welcomes the idea of seeing his friends again after so many years, "We've had a good, long run, haven't we, Katara?"
Katara nods towards Korra and her friends, "It's their turn, now."
Zuko observes Mako and Korra, the way they unconsciously lean towards each other, the way Mako steals secret glances at her, eyes always widening when he catches her smile, the way their hands brush together underneath the low table. "Perhaps they'll get the chance we never did." he says, nodding towards Mako and Korra.
Katara shakes her head, "Not for awhile," she says, "Korra's stubborn."
Zuko chuckles, "She gets that from you." he tells her.
Katara's smile fades, "We won't get to see her prevail. We won't get to see her statue rise up beside Aang's."
Zuko slowly, with a little difficult stands, "No, we won't." he agrees, saddened. Katara stands as well, taking the elbow he offers her. Together, as always, they slowly navigate towards Korra, leaning against each other.
"Fire Lord Zuko! Master Katara!" Korra cries, jumping up, hugging them both. Zuko winks at Mako over Korra's shoulder, and the firebender blushes, "I have so many things to tell you." Korra gushes, "I have so many questions. So, how exactly does the Avatar State work? Will I be able to talk to Aang? Have you tried the noodles yet?" she rambles on, Mako behind her smiling wider as she talks, eyes transfixed on her. She prattles away about the food, and Zuko and Katara exchange an amused look.
"Definitly Sokka." Zuko mutters to Katara as Korra mimics an explosion noise.
Two moons later, in the dead of the night, when the moon is rising, Katara slips away in her sleep, holding Tenzin's hand. The next morning, nations away, as the sun sets in the sky, Fire Lord Zuko takes his last breath, surrounded by his children and grandchildren.
They wake up in a field of grass, together, seventeen and eighteen respectively. They stand, Zuko offers her his arm, and they follow the sound of Avatar Aang's laughter.