ZUKO LED KATARA to a place known as The Gates. It was really more of a stone archway than a gate, much like the portal that initially deposited her into the Spirit World. Except this archway was black and massive and, as far as she could tell, there was absolutely nothing on the other side. It was just blank white empty space, which terrified her more than she'd like to admit.
"You can't take me home yet," he informed her tersely, as they made their way to the frightening black structure. "You still have to bargain for my soul, so you'd better be up for it."
"What?" Her eyes were bulging out of their sockets. "Bargain? Nobody told me I'd have to bargain for your soul!"
"How did you think you'd get me out of here? Did you think you could just walk out of here with me the way you came?"
Yes, she thought to herself with a frown.
"I belong here," he said. "They're not going to let me go without some convincing."
"B-but what am I going to say?" She began to panic, walking slowly now as they neared the archway. "I'm the one who sent you here. Is that going to work in my favour or against?"
He shrugged indifferently. "How should I know? Just think up something."
"Think up what?"
"I don't know! I'm not exactly an expert here!" he snapped. "This is my first time being dead, as well as trying to raise myself from the dead."
"B-but surely there's been a precedent, aside from the Avatars."
She began to nervously chew on her bottom lip as she scanned her brain for stories. Was there something her mother and father taught her when she was young, something half-remembered from her childhood? Who visited the Spirit World and returned with a soul? Who succeeded in such a task?
"My uncle travelled to the Spirit World," Zuko remarked absently, and she was suddenly elated.
"He did? Why? How?"
"I'm not exactly sure." He shrugged uncomfortably as she pressed near him, or as near as she could to his incorporeal form. "I never asked and he never told."
"Well, what use are you?" She muttered a curse under her breath and he scowled peevishly. "I'm almost certain it's always a case of two lovers."
"I don't think my uncle came here to find his lover," he said slowly, although he seemed to be considering the notion.
Katara shook her head in frustration. "No, what I meant was that most of the tales that I vaguely remember as a child involved a lover pleading his case before the great spirits. Something about his grief over the death of his loved one made him vulnerable to enter the Spirit World. His undying love then convinced the gods to let his lover's soul return to the living. Or something like that," she added hurriedly.
"Yeah, I'm not going to be your lover," he said with an air of finality that made her pause.
"What? Why not? It's just pretend!" And then, as though realising she actually sounded disappointed by his proclamation, an angry blush crept onto her cheeks and she turned away. "I don't like the thought, either."
"All I'm saying is that it probably isn't wise to so boldly lie to the gods."
"Yeah, you're probably right." She brought her fingers below her ear and scratched. She couldn't argue with him on that. "Then what?"
"I dunno." He shrugged again. It was all he seemed to do when answering her. "You're the one who is supposed to plead my case, not the other way around."
Before long they reached the entrance to The Gates.
Katara got a kink in her neck when she tilted her head back to take it all in. The structure was massive, even bigger than the gate she came through (although she didn't exactly remember coming through the portal to begin with). A spirit guard stood beside the archway and asked them for their names and purpose.
Katara turned to Zuko for an explanation, thinking his lordly manners and appearance would somehow win over the guard, but the spirit refused to even hear him out.
"We don't listen to the requests of the dead," the spirit said in a monotone voice. "Only the living. State your names and purpose."
Sweat broke out on her forehead and she and Zuko exchanged apprehensive glances.
How could she be expected to plead their case and convince the guard to let them through? She had never been the persuasive type. That had always been Sokka's department. He'd think up something quick on the flash, win over this spirit as well as the gods themselves. But Katara was just Katara, not her brother, not someone who had a way with words. She was just going to have to cobble together something convincing if she wanted to get Zuko and herself out of here.
"Names and purpose," the spirit repeated mechanically.
"Katara and Zuko," she said. Her heart was beating so loudly in her chest that she could feel the vibrations in her ears. "I want to bring him back."
"To the living?"
"Yes!" she snapped. "Where else would I want to bring him?"
The guard was looking at her properly now and she stared back, holding her ground. She was putting on a convincing show, and she hoped he didn't notice how her fists were locked tight and trembling ever so slightly. Her bottom lip started to quiver, but she bit down on it so hard that she was almost certain she had drawn blood.
The guard scrunched his misty nose and eventually relented, standing to the side. "You may enter."
The gateway slowly opened and they both stepped inside. One hurdle down and who knew how many more to go? She would just have to come up with a plan to convince the gods to let her take Zuko back to the living on their way there. Somehow, she would find a way.
SHE DIDN'T KNOW exactly when they had passed through the portal because her eyes were shut tightly the entire time. Something about walking into a blank-white empty space with no sky and no visible ground beneath her feet made her stomach churn and her head spin with vertigo.
"You can open your eyes now," Zuko said monotonously, though she swore she could hear the eye-rolling in his tone.
She opened her eyes hesitantly, expecting to be disoriented by a canvas of white nothingness. Instead she was greeted with a deep blue sky and green pastures that stretched out towards an endless blue-green sea.
She smiled and looked to her right, spying a small stream that ran into a crescent-moon shaped pool no wider than twenty paces. Tiny green and silver fish darted to and fro, their silvery scales sparkling from the sun reflecting off the waters' surface. Beyond the stream was a field of fire lilies in bloom, blood-red orange like the setting sun. Their scent carried on the breeze and she inhaled, watching as broken petals floated in the air and settled onto the pond, creating ripples in the water.
"Where are we?" She turned around to see that the gateway behind them was no longer visible.
Zuko was silent, taking in the scenery with a mixed look of sad remembrance. She was about to ask how they intended to find where they needed to go while stuck in a lily field when a powerful yet gentle voice addressed them.
"Welcome, living and dead, to the road of the past."
They both spun around to see something two things that were not there before: a long cobblestone road cutting a path through the fields and a vibrant spirit dressed in Fire Nation robes, plum red. He was tall and pale with long white hair and a matching beard.
"Avatar Roku!" Katara and Zuko gasped in unison.
Why was he here?
Roku slowly inclined his head, his hands hidden in the folds of his sleeves. "I am your guide." He directed his gaze at Zuko. "And your link to the past."
Katara wasn't sure what he meant by that, but then she hadn't been sure of anything since she arrived here. Zuko didn't seem to understand either, because even though he was incorporeal she could see his brow furrowing in a vain attempt to decipher Roku's words. But neither had the time to ask questions before the Avatar was flourishing his arm, pointing to the stone path ahead.
"In order to reach your destination, you both must journey down the path of the past." His eyes were on Zuko again, who only looked away, but Katara could not remain as reticent as her companion.
"What's at the end of this path? What's our destination?"
Roku smiled, tucking his arms back into his sleeves. "At the end of this road lies the palace of Varuna, god of the underworld, and the only spirit who can grant a departed soul's return to the living world. However, keep in mind that you have but two options to consider before you take this path: to go forward or turn back. Turn back and you, Katara, will be returned to the land of the living." His gaze fixed on Zuko now. "And you, Zuko, will be sent back to the meadows of purgatory."
Katara let out a sigh of relief at this. That didn't seem so bad. Then she felt the Avatar's eyes on her again and she froze.
"You must decide wisely, for if you turn back now you may never return for him or any other soul." Roku's expression was grave, so grave that Katara's mouth had suddenly gone dry. "And should you decide to go forward down this path, you cannot turn back."
He paused, giving her a look that wordlessly asked her if she understood, and she nodded mutely.
"Good. I will give you time to discuss the matter."
The Avatar then drew away, drifting back into the fields. When he was out of earshot, Katara turned towards Zuko but he was already silently staring at her. He looked uneasy, almost ill, and she had to stop herself from biting her lip in worry.
Why was he so afraid?
"I don't want to face my past," he said lowly, his eyes darting to the stone path ahead. "And I don't want you to have to face it, either."
There was something in his voice and on his face, a sort of resigned sadness that made her almost contemplate his words. But she had not travelled this far to turn back now. She would save him whether he liked it or not.
"Want to turn back now?" She folded her arms beneath her breasts. "Go ahead, Your Highness, but be prepared to face my wrath."
He studied her for a long, hard moment, his nostrils flaring with indignation. Finally, he shook his head. "No, I'd rather be lost at sea with two broken legs than deal with your anger."
"You're damn right!" She smirked triumphantly before pointing a finger at the path ahead. "Now let's get a move on."
"So you have made your decision?"
Roku was floating back towards them. Katara nodded with determination. She glanced over her shoulder at the grim and far less-determined Zuko.
"Yes, we have," she said. "We are taking the road to the past."
Roku smiled and his body began to fade. Well, it was not quite fading. It was almost like he was a pillar of sand disintegrating in a strong breeze. Katara's mouth worked soundlessly as she watched parts of the Avatar being carried off on the wind.
Wasn't he supposed to be their guide? And how far down this path were they supposed to travel?
Zuko was staring off in the distance, observing the stream that ran parallel to the stone path. Without any words exchanged, the two began their walk down the road. Katara still wasn't sure where this palace was. All she could see was a stone path cutting through a field that led towards the ocean. And that was when she noticed that the scenery had begun to change. It was not as vibrant as it once was. It was as though it had been misted over in a soft light. Everything around them was slightly muted, the flowers now dull and colourless.
"Aww." She found herself pouting. "Where did all the pretty go?"
Zuko didn't answer. His eyes were on the path, occasionally shifting to the stream beside them, which had now widened. She noted that it was only the stream that had retained some of its colour, a clear bluish-grey. White mist rose from the surface, swirling into distinctly humanoid features.
They were images—images of people and places drawn in the mist.
The mist suddenly took shape, becoming solid, and she saw a little boy with dark hair. He was barely two, maybe three years old, and he was holding onto a pink, crying baby. Their eyes were both golden-amber, and the little boy was smiling down at the baby with obvious affection.
Katara heard a woman's voice:
"Zuko, this is your sister, Azula."
The little boy smiled down at the pink baby who was no longer crying. She was holding onto his finger with her fist, gazing at it with utter fascination as she blew bubbles on tongue.
"Ahzuwa," the little boy whispered. "I'm your big brother."
The solid images then turned back into mist, settling back into the waters as though nothing had happened. Katara involuntarily shuddered, as though cold, and turned to Zuko.
"You looked happy," she said after a while, but he only frowned before forging on ahead.
THEY WALKED A little farther, gaining a few yards (she really couldn't tell, as it didn't feel like they're getting anywhere at all), when another series of images formed from the mist.
Young Zuko was sitting with a woman by a small pond. She looked to be his mother. They were smiling and laughing, feeding the little turtle-ducks that swam in circles, trying to catch the bits of bread. As his mother held him close, Katara felt a sudden pang of longing in her chest.
"Is that your mother?" He nodded, unable to tear his eyes away from the image, and she smiled. "She's beautiful."
Zuko didn't respond. He just kept walking ahead, allowing the misty images to return to the water. But as they continued onwards, new images began to surface from the stream, flitting by so quickly that she could barely register them all.
Finally, a much larger scene unfolded and this time there was a young girl with golden eyes like Zuko's standing in a green courtyard. Was this his sister, Azula? She was attempting a cartwheel but had fallen. Behind her was another little girl in pink with a long braided ponytail. She ran forward and performed the move with ease, topping it off with several somersaults. Azula pushed the girl over and laughed coldly.
Off to the side was another girl with jet black hair done up in odango twin-tails. She watched the other two girls with uninterested eyes, though her gaze surreptitiously flitted back and forth to young Zuko, who was watching the girls with boyish curiosity.
Next, Azula was placing an apple on the top of the head of the girl with the odango hairstyle and set it ablaze. Young Zuko rushed forward, trying to knock the burning apple off the girl's head but tripped instead. Both children came crashing down into the fountain, landing on top of each other.
"Girls are crazy!"
Katara could barely suppress a giggle as she watched the younger Zuko storm off in a huff, water dripping everywhere. He really hadn't seemed to change much since then, except he was taller now—and scarred.
The next scene showed his mother reading a letter that caused the siblings to laugh boisterously, and then she was handing them what appeared to be presents. To Zuko she handed a pearl inlaid dagger. He was examining it closely, but Katara could not make out the inscription.
"What does it say?" she asked him, and his misty brow wrinkled.
"Made in Earth Kingdom."
She did a double take. "Did—did you just make a joke?"
When he didn't reply, she turned back to observe the scene. His sister received a pretty doll, much to her obvious displeasure. Azula and Zuko then began to argue, but the sound was garbled. Suddenly it cleared:
"How would you like it if cousin Lu Ten wanted Dad to die?" Zuko asked, and Azula merely shrugged.
"I still think our dad would make a much better Fire Lord than his royal tea-loving kookiness," she said off-handedly, before setting the doll on fire.
Katara swallowed nervously. She felt like she had just overheard something she wasn't meant to—but then she could say that about all of Zuko's memories thus far.
As the scene began to fade and the images returned to the stream, she turned to Zuko and said, "That's one special sister you've got there."
He grimaced. "You don't even know the half of it."
THEY CONTINUED DOWN the path, but the sea was getting no closer.
Brief images drifted here and there from the stream, but nothing solid or important enough to make them stop. Katara watched Zuko from the corner of her eye. He seemed different somehow. Distracted. Then mist began to lift from the water again, creating more images. Another solid memory.
Young Zuko was kneeling in a large room with his sister and mother. With them were two other men; one quite old, perhaps Zuko's grandfather, Azulon, and the other looked like an older, scarless version of himself. Zuko's father, Ozai. It appeared that the children were firebending for their grandfather.
Azula went first, performing flawlessly and gracefully.
"She is a true prodigy," Ozai said with a proud smile. "Just like her grandfather for whom she's named."
Azula resumed her seat next to her brother and whispered, "You will never catch up."
Looking eager to prove his sister wrong, Zuko rose to demonstrate his bending. The smile on his father's face swiftly turned into a frown.
Katara watched, cringing slightly as young Zuko stumbled with the same form his sister so effortlessly used. Azula smirked viciously from the side-lines. Zuko then tried again but fell to the ground.
She felt another pang in her heart. She didn't know why she felt so sad. This was Zuko, after all. Her enemy. But seeing a little kid try so hard and fail and believe he had dishonoured himself and his family just tugged at her heartstrings. No child should be put through so much pressure.
The scene changed and Zuko and Azula were now hiding behind a pair of thick red curtains. They were eavesdropping on their father and grandfather's conversation. Katara heard Ozai mention something about his brother, Iroh:
"Father, you must have realised, as I have, that with Lu Ten gone, Iroh's bloodline has ended. After his son's death, my brother abandoned the siege at Ba Sing Se and who knows when he will return home! But I am here, father, and my children are alive."
"Say what it is you want," Azulon growled.
"Father, revoke Iroh's birth-right. I am your humble servant, here to serve you and our nation. Use me."
Azulon leaned forward and pointed a gnarled finger at his son. "You dare suggest I betray Iroh, my first-born?" Fires rose from the trenches. "Directly after the demise of his only beloved son? I think Iroh has suffered enough. But you, your punishment has scarcely begun!"
Zuko ran to his room, leaving his sister behind. He threw himself on his bed with a whimper. Katara could only frown as she watched the young boy's entire body tremble with terror.
Azula finally entered the room with an evil smirk on her face.
"Dad's going to kill you," she sing-songed, and then stopped to leer at him. "Really, he is."
"Ha-ha, Azula. Nice try."
"Fine, don't believe me." She shrugged nonchalantly. "But I heard everything. Grandfather said Dad's punishment should fit his crime." She imitated Azulon, "You must know the pain of losing a first-born son by sacrificing your own!"
Azula sat down beside him. "I'm only telling you for your own good. I know, maybe you could find a nice Earth Kingdom family to adopt you."
"Stop it! You're lying!" He held onto his blanket as though it could save him from her words. "Dad would never do that to me."
The images started to break apart, pooling around Zuko's feet, and he watched them with a blank expression. His back was to her and his head down. She had no idea what he was thinking—she wasn't sure she wanted to know. But the words tumbled out of her mouth, anyway. They always did.
"Was she telling the truth?" she asked.
There was no way she could be. No father, certainly no father of a prince, would kill his own son. This was simply sibling rivalry. Katara was fairly certain his sister was a few cards short of a full deck, but she couldn't have possibly been so cruel. She had to have been lying. And yet—
"Azula always lies," Zuko said in a distant voice. "Azula always lies."
Katara swallowed hard and frowned. His answer, meant to console her (or maybe just himself), only convinced her otherwise.
THEY TOOK A break in the middle of the road. Zuko sat off to the corner while Katara settled herself near the water, watching the tiny silver fish swim upstream.
Zuko didn't seem to want to go any farther, and the memories didn't seem to pop up when they weren't moving down the path. Katara wasn't quite sure why he had chosen now to stop, and while she normally would have considered having a discussion about it, the Fire Prince had proven to be the rather reticent sort. So the only thing she could do now was wait patiently until he gathered his nerves again—whenever that would be.
After a few minutes, she became impatient. She had never been one to dally. She was a firm believer in ripping the bandage off as quickly as possible.
"Why are we sitting here?" She absently poked her finger into the stream. It was cool to the touch but not wet. It was as though she was simply sticking her finger into foggy air. "Shouldn't we be moving forward?"
He ignored her, as usual, which only further aggravated her sour mood. So she stood up and quickly marched over to where he was sitting. Incorporeal or not, she wanted to slap him upside the head. But then she wondered how she would have felt being forced to relive her past and having her enemy watch it with her.
"I'm not ready to face some of these memories quite yet," he said.
She opened her mouth and closed it just as promptly. She hadn't really expected him to answer her, especially not so honestly.
"I just need a moment."
She let out a shallow breath and begrudgingly sat down beside him. With just a few short words he had made her feel like an impatient, unfeeling baboon, and it annoyed her immensely. He was right, but it still annoyed her whenever he played the morally superior card. It just didn't seem right coming from him.
"Take all the time you need," she finally said, placing her solid hand next to his intangible one. She almost felt like adding something smart like, We have all the time in the Spirit World or It's not like I can go on without you. But that was more of a Sokka thing to say, and it seemed wildly inappropriate to make jokes now. She imagined this whole ordeal had to be emotionally exhausting for the prince. Even she could feel the strain.
A few minutes later her stood to his feet. "Okay. I'm ready." He looked over his shoulder at her. "Never give up without a fight, right?"
She blinked, nonplussed by his sudden zeal. "Huh?"
"Made in Earth Kingdom."
She just stared at him, more confused than ever. Was he making another joke? If so, she didn't get it and she didn't get him. In fact, she was fairly certain she would never understand the male sense of humour in general.
He ignored her nonplussed looks and began leading the way. She got up and followed him, observing him from behind. His spine was ramrod straight and his steps were sure. He looked confident enough with his head held high, but she could see that his balled fists were trembling at his sides, and she worried her bottom lip with her teeth.
For a while nothing happened, just the long trek down memory lane with no memories. And then the mist began to rise from the stream, weaving its intricate patterns. The scene forming was huge and knitting directly in their path so that they could not move past it. As it fleshed out, Zuko had suddenly gone rigid, and she frowned.
Young Zuko was sound asleep on his bed. The door opened to his room and his mother drifted inside, gently waking him.
"Zuko, please, my love, listen to me. Everything I've done—" she hugged him tightly "—everything I've done is to protect you. Remember this, Zuko. No matter how things may seem to change, never forget who you are."
She hugged him one last time and got up, disappearing down a dark corridor. Then the images began to shift, showing the same young Zuko swiftly waking in terror.
"Mom?" He was running down the hallway. "Mom! Mom!"
He came across Azula, who was leaning against a pillar. She was absently playing with Zuko's knife.
"Where's Mom?" he asked.
"No one knows." She shrugged and then looked up at him like she had just remembered something vaguely important. "Oh, and last night Grandfather passed away."
"Not funny, Azula. You're sick! And I want my knife back, now."
He grabbed for the blade, but she dodged him and held the knife out in front of her. "Who's going to make me, Mom?"
He finally snatched the dagger from her clutches and sprinted out of the room towards the garden. His father was standing silently over the pond, staring off into the distance.
"Where is she?" Zuko begged.
But his father didn't reply. He didn't even bother to turn around.
The image of a devastated young Zuko then began to fade, returning to formless mist. Silence filled the air. Horrible silence.
Katara stood deathly still, completely shell-shocked as the misty-white clouds floated back to the stream. Perhaps she and the Fire Prince had more in common than she thought.
"Zuko," she began gently, as though her words could harm him, "I am so sor—"
"We're past the hump." He pointed at something gleaming in the distance. "Look, I can see the palace up ahead."
She cleared her thoughts with a shake of her head and glanced up ahead. She saw the castle, too; the white gleam of towers in the far distance. O at least she assumed as such. Her eyesight obviously wasn't as keen as Zuko's because all she could really make out were shapes that could resemble towers. But she did see the ocean and the sun brightly reflecting the rich, sea-green colour.
That was when Katara noticed that there was colour once again. Not just the ocean but everything around them held colour, from the fishes to the stream to the field of fire lilies renewing their vibrant shade of orange. Even Zuko had some colour in his cheeks that she was sure wasn't there before. In fact, he even seemed a bit more solid now, more alive. She was about to comment on this when the mist began lifting off the water in blankets, covering their path once again with fog.
Another big one, she thought to herself with some mild apprehension. She looked over her shoulder at Zuko to see that he had gone rigid again. She frowned. What could possibly be worse than losing his mother?
"Let me in!"
Zuko was barking orders at a pair of guards who were blocking his entrance to a room. He looked older, maybe thirteen or fourteen. His face was still free of its trademark scar, and Katara wondered exactly when he had received it—on the sea?
"Prince Zuko, what's wrong?" asked an older man, who she instantly recognised as General Iroh.
"I want to go into the war chamber, but the guard won't let me pass!"
Iroh led the boy a short distance away from the guards. "You are not missing anything, trust me. These meetings are dreadfully boring."
"If I'm gonna rule this nation one day, don't you think I need to start learning as much as I can?" Zuko countered, and his uncle nodded reluctantly.
"Very well, but you must promise not to speak. These old folks are a bit sensitive, you know." He winked, and Zuko bowed respectfully.
"Thank you, Uncle."
The scene shifted to a war chamber where Fire Nation generals appeared to have gathered around a map of the Earth Kingdom adorning the floor. One of the generals on the left was addressing the war council:
"The Earth Kingdom defences are concentrated here," he said, pointing to a spot on the map. "A dangerous battalion of their strongest earthbenders and fiercest warriors, so I am recommending the 41st division."
An older general interrupted, "But the 41st is entirely new recruits. How do you expect them to defeat a powerful Earth Kingdom battalion?"
"I don't," the younger general responded coldly. "They'll be used as a distraction while we mount an attack from the rear. What better to use as bait than fresh meat?"
Zuko was on his feet. "You can't sacrifice an entire division like that! Those soldiers love and defend our nation! How can you betray them?"
The generals began to argue amongst themselves, clearly disapproving of the prince's sudden outburst, while Zuko's own father looked down on him with cold eyes. He then told his son that this matter was to be settled over an Agni Kai. And just as the words passed his lips, the images vanished.
Katara bit her lip. She had no idea what an Agni Kai was, but it didn't sound pleasant. Not at all. But then the images blazed back again with the intensity of fire, and she took a fearful step back, as if the mist might burn her.
Zuko was entering what looked to be an arena. There were large crowds on either side. He dropped his ceremonial cloak to the floor, exposing his bare chest, and turned to face his opponent. He froze in horror at the sight before him. He was not expecting to fight this man.
It was his father.
A cold fear churned in Katara's gut. No. This can't be how he gets his scar.
"Please, Father," Zuko begged. "I only had the Fire Nation's best interest at heart! I'm sorry I spoke out of turn!"
He looked so small; his father so big.
"You will fight for your honour," Ozai roared.
Stricken, Zuko abased himself on the ground. "I meant you no disrespect. I am your loyal son."
"Rise and fight, Prince Zuko!" Ozai taunted, but Zuko continued to lay prostrate on the ground.
"I won't fight you."
"You will learn respect," Ozai said, "and suffering will be your teacher."
His father then raised his hands and fire filled the arena. Katara turned away. She couldn't look. Zuko's screams of pain echoed throughout the valley and she clamped her hands down on her ears, biting back a sob.
Why? Why would a father do this to his son?
"You are henceforth banished, Prince Zuko," Ozai commanded, his voice filling the air even though the images were already gone. "Regain your honour and you may return."
"Regain his honour?" Katara removed her hands from her ears, glancing up at the fading mist. "How about you try regaining your honour as a father, you evil sack of—!"
"Hey," Zuko interrupted gently, far too gently. "He can't hear you. You're yelling at thin air."
She didn't care.
"He's a monster, Zuko! A monster!" She hadn't even noticed that she was crying. "No father, no parent, should ever do that to their child! Ever!"
She hiccupped back a sob, digging the heels of her palms into her tear-stained eyes. She couldn't believe she was crying for the prince of the Fire Nation, but she was. She couldn't stop her heart from breaking at the thought of what he had gone through or how he must have felt, how he must still feel.
She sniffed loudly, wiping at her nose with the back of her hand, before turning away. She didn't want him to see her like this, with her eyes swollen and bloodshot and her nose running. She didn't want to admit that his past had touched her.
"He did it to teach me a lesson, to learn respect," he said, and she wanted to ask him how his father burning his face had taught him respect. "I was banished because my refusal to fight was seen as a sign of weakness. I had lost my honour. The only way I could redeem myself was to capture the Avatar. He was my only hope."
"Zuko." Her voice was gentle and she moved a hand to his misty shoulder. "You never lost your honour. Your father let you down. He shamed himself."
"We have to keep moving," he said suddenly, shrugging off her hand as though she had actually touched him. "It's not much farther now."
By now he was running, and she was doing her best to keep up.
Images continued to flash in front of her, moving in sync with them: Zuko chasing after Aang, a storm, her being tied to a tree. She blushed in remembrance of the latter. And then there was a wall of images surrounding them. The only way she could not see them was if she closed her eyes, and for some reason she believed they would still get through somehow—still find their way into her mind.
A moment later, a vivid scene unfolded in front of her. It showed Aang being held prisoner by Admiral Zhao.
She frowned. Since when was Aang captured by Zhao?
A man dressed in black and wearing a scary blue mask released Aang from his prison, motioning for the Avatar to follow him. A fight broke out and the masked man drew twin blades and cut them a path. The fighting seemed to go on forever with the masked stranger and Aang working together to fight off their common enemy before they managed to escape the encampment walls.
Suddenly there was a massive rain of arrows and the masked man was hurt. The scene quickly moved ahead, showing an exhausted Aang standing over the injured man. He reached down and removed the mask, revealing the stranger's face, and Katara gasped.
"You—" She stopped dead in her tracks, her eyes wide and fixed on Zuko. "You saved Aang's life?"
He couldn't even reply—not that he would have—before another series of images blurred past them. His half-solid form reached out and tried to take her hand, to make her run with him, but his hand slipped through. But still she continued to run alongside him as they neared the palace gates.
More images were hurled at them as they ran.
First she saw Zhao and then Zuko standing alone on a ship as it exploded. She watched as a bruised and bloodied Zuko swam through the icy cold waters of the North Pole. She saw him at the Spirit Oasis, fighting her and then taking Aang away.
Next he was trekking through the icy tundra with Aang on his back. He took a step and the ice beneath his feet began to crack. His eyes widened in shock but he never let go of Aang. Instead he ran faster, carrying the Avatar as the ice splintered and broke apart beneath his feet.
The impact of the ice threw him off balance and launched him in the air. He lost his grip on Aang and fell. As the cloud of snow dissipated, Zuko raised his head and crawled towards the young monk lying unconscious in the snow.
He really doesn't give up, she whispered to herself, watching as Zuko dragged Aang into a nearby cave.
"I finally have you," Zuko said to an unconscious and bound Avatar, "but I can't get you home because of this blizzard." He stood up and looked outside the cave. "There's always something. Not that you would understand. You're just like my sister. Everything always came easy to her.
"She's a firebending prodigy and everyone adores her. My father said she was born lucky. He says I was lucky to be born. I don't need luck, though. I don't want it. I've always had to struggle and fight and that's made me strong. It's made me who I am."
She turned to look at Zuko, but he was already forging onwards through the mist.
Finally, it was the last scene of Zuko's past. The one Katara did not want to see again. It unfolded clearly in front of the pearly gates for all to see.
It was Zuko's death.
The first image she saw was herself, her hands raised in an offensive stance. Zuko was launched up into the air on a pillar of ice and snow. The all too familiar sensation of peril seized her at once as she watched the ice break off into a dozen shards, spinning in and slicing across his throat.
This time she forced herself to watch his pain and suffering; the suffering she had caused. She swallowed back bile when she saw the blood spurt from his neck like a fountain, staining the snow crimson beneath his feet. He fell to the ground with a listless thud, his body twitching for only a moment before it stilled. Forever.
"This is it," Zuko said, oblivious to the re-enactment of his own death. "Just past these gates and we're at the palace of Varuna."
Both walked through the archway with one spirit guarding either side. Neither guard said a word but watched with keen eyes as the teenagers entered.
Katara raised her head, looking up at the beautiful palace with child-like wonder. The structure seemed to sparkle in the overhead sun, as though the walls themselves were decorated in diamonds. If she were to ever envision the palace of a god, this would be it.
"Hey, Zuko, do you think—" Her question died in her throat when she bumped into something solid, tall and warm and with hands that reached out to clutch by her shoulders.
She slowly turned towards that solid object and gasped. Zuko was flesh once more, and in colour. He was alive. He was tall and substantial. His face was pale and perfect with his strong chin and piercing golden eyes. His hair—his long, inky black hair tied in a ponytail—swayed in the gentle breeze.
He was alive.
"Zuko, you're real! You're solid again!" She reached up to touch his face but he caught her by the wrist.
"You think you could stop doing that?" He gently lowered her hand and she blushed profusely before pulling away.
He stared at her for a moment, watching her blush. The characteristic gloomy anger no longer gleamed in his eyes. Instead it was replaced with something else—something she couldn't quite put her finger on.
"Let's go," he said, turning towards the entrance way.
She happily followed suit, an undeniable bounce to her step. For some reason she was happy, inexplicably happy.
"Have you thought up what you're going to say to Varuna?" He glanced over his shoulder at her and she paused.
Suddenly a smile rose to her lips and she nodded before pushing on ahead of him.
"Yeah, I think I have."