“Thank you Katara.”
“I think I’m the one who should be thanking you.”
Katara looked down into Zuko’s golden eyes, her own vision blurred with tears. His gaze was warmth radiating up at her, and she was grateful for their friendship, which had been tested to the extreme today. There had been a time when Zuko would have been the last person willing to throw his own life in front of hers. There had been a time when she would have been the last person capable of thwarting the attacks of his insane sister, Azula, quickly enough to save his life. But today they had both been the best versions of themselves.
Katara helped Zuko back up, and the two watched somberly as Azula writhed in hysteria from her chained position.
“We won,” Zuko said, the dawn of realization in his voice. “Do you think Aang…?”
“Yes,” Katara said. “He had to.” She thought of the last time she had seen Aang and how confused he had been about what he needed to do. She thought briefly of how she had refused to let him kiss her, and an uneasy feeling of regret settled inside her. But her hope in Aang was infallible. The boy she had found in the ice a year earlier was different now, more confident and sure of himself. She knew in her heart he had defeated Fire Lord Ozai, and he’d done it his way.
Zuko nudged her gently with his shoulder. “Hey,” he said. “I have a good feeling about this. I think Uncle was right. Today, destiny was our friend.”
“I know,” Katara said, though she looked down. “For so long, I’ve worried more about Aang’s safety than anything else. I can’t even imagine a world without him.”
“I understand,” Zuko said. “He represents hope for us all. He’s the only one who can restore balance.”
Katara turned and studied Zuko. A hot summer breeze rustled his shaggy hair. His scar stood out in contrast to the handsome grace of the rest of his face. He looked to be at peace, settled and strong though there was a sadness in his eyes as they continued to watch Azula struggle in vain. Aang wasn’t the only one who had changed over the last year. The selfish prince that chased them around the world was gone, and in his place was one of the most honorable, brave warriors she knew. Katara felt confident the Fire Nation was in good hands.
“I think you underestimate your own role in this,” she said. “You are the one who will bring hope and balance to the Fire Nation.”
Zuko bowed his head. “All I can give my people is a humble servant.”
“Zuko,” Katara said, “that’s exactly what they need.”
The strange thing, Zuko reflected
as he struggled into his dress robes the day of the coronation, was how easy it
was to miscalculate destiny. A year ago, he would have done anything to capture
the Avatar and bring him back to the Fire Nation as a prisoner. Anything to
regain the honor he thought his father could restore. Instead, Zuko had joined
the Avatar and helped him learn the skills necessary to defeat his father, the
Fire Lord. Now Ozai was defeated, Avatar Aang was here in the Fire Palace as
Zuko’s guest, and Prince Zuko was about to become the new Fire Lord.
Fire Lord Zuko. The ominous title sat heavy on Zuko’s shoulders. It would be his duty to restore his country’s honor, helping his people rise from the ashes of their own destructive past to become citizens of a kinder world. The burden was lightened only by the strong friendships he’d made. Today when Zuko was crowned Fire Lord, the Avatar would be there too, along with his friends. Their mutual friends.
Zuko’s first act as Fire Lord would be to present Aang himself to the people of the Fire Nation as the true hero. But there were many other heroes. Sokka – who had somehow taken out a huge invasion force with Suki and Toph – would later make stupid jokes at Zuko’s expense. It would hearten Zuko because Sokka represented a true and reliable ally. Katara – Sokka’s sister and the girl who had stood between Zuko and Aang until Zuko had finally come around to the understanding that his role was to stand next to Katara and fight for Aang instead of against him – would be there too. Her friendship was almost too good to be true, as was the powerful way in which she had come to his aid in the end. To his country’s aid, really. Now it would be up to him to prove that his people were worthy of redemption.
Zuko grunted. He was the future Fire Lord. Why couldn’t he get into this damn robe? He wished-
“You need some help with that?” A melancholy voice came from behind.
“Mai!” Zuko smiled, surprised. “You’re okay!” He walked toward Mai with open arms. She smiled back and came to help him into his robe. Zuko had never been happier to see his sullen ex-girlfriend. She had proven that she too would stand by him when he needed her. “They let you out of prison?” he asked.
“My uncle pulled some strings,” she explained. “And it doesn’t hurt when the new Fire Lord is your boyfriend.”
“So does this mean you don’t hate me anymore?” he asked. She tied the robes and faced him, putting her hand gently on his chest.
“I think it means,” – she blushed – “I actually kind of like you.” Zuko thought happily back to the days he and Mai had spent together months before. Mai represented a part of his life that was easy. He’d never had to work to get her to like him. She just naturally did, and she was pretty when she was in a good mood. She lifted her hand to his face, placing it lightly on the unscarred side. They kissed. That was pretty great too.
Zuko broke the kiss in good spirits, thankful to have Mai back. “But don’t ever break up with me again!” Mai emphasized, her face turning fierce. Zuko grinned nervously. Mai was downright scary in a bad mood, although there was something attractive about an intelligent, frightening girl being into you. But then she softened again, and they held each other in a calm embrace. He’d have to remember not to get on her bad side again anytime soon.
Aang was meditating in the hallway when Zuko found him a little while later. The boy was barely thirteen, but he had the look of someone with an old soul. Zuko walked briskly toward him.
“I can’t believe a year ago my purpose was hunting you down,” Zuko reflected. “And now…” he hesitated.
Aang looked up at him with eyes full of light. “And now we’re friends.”
“Yeah,” Zuko said, glancing away. “We are friends.”
“I can’t believe a year ago I was frozen in a block of ice. The world’s so different now.”
“And it’s gonna be even more different,” Zuko said, putting his hand on Aang’s shoulder. “We’ll rebuild it together.” He gave the Avatar a quick hug, and they walked out to greet the citizens who had come to see the coronation.
The bells gonged and the crowd cheered as Zuko stepped out from behind the curtain. “Please,” he said, “the real hero is the Avatar.” Aang walked up next to him. Their friends cheered from the front rows and Zuko talked about building an era of love and peace. Zuko could see Mai fanning herself and looking royally bored near the front of a column of citizens dressed in red.
“All hail Fire Lord Zuko!” he heard the sage announce. He caught Mai’s eye and she rolled hers back at him, but she straightened her posture a little, like she was proud to be the Fire Lord’s girlfriend. He glanced over the rest of the crowd. Sokka was waving a boomerang and yelling things like: “All hail Zuko! Lord of all things that do NOT suck!” and: “Aang, Aang, he’s our man, if he can’t fix it no one can!” It was no wonder Suki had decided to stand with the Kyoshi Warriors. Toph was giggling and punching the air with her fist while some bulky guy hoisted her up and down. Katara was just smiling contentedly up at him and Aang. She caught Zuko’s eye and mutual affection passed between them while the memory of their fight with Azula flashed back to him. Uncle Iroh gave him a grin and a thumbs up from where he stood with the members of the White Lotus society.
Zuko had definitely miscalculated. He had thought returning to his father after taking down the Avatar would bring him honor and earn him his family’s love. Today, though, the Avatar and his friends were Zuko’s family. The bond humbled him.
Katara stood over Mai’s shoulder,
watching her pai sho match with Suki. She and her friends had gathered in
General Iroh’s new tea shop for a relaxing afternoon of doing nothing before
they separated for the rest of the summer. The tea shop included several pai
sho tables, and Katara had never learned to play. Still, she could tell Mai and
Suki were well-matched.
“See that,” Mai said to Katara, taking one of Suki’s pieces. “That’s called Crouching Tiger-Seal, Hidden Dragon.”
Suki frowned. “I can’t believe I fell for that.”
Mai’s expression didn’t change, but Katara thought she saw the hint of a smile quirk up at the corner of the sullen girl’s mouth. She hadn’t expected to like Azula’s friends, but Katara found Mai sharp and witty and it was too funny the way Sokka was going crazy with Suki and Ty Lee (who had always had a thing for her brother) getting so close. Zuko walked toward the game table with a tray of tea, and Katara thought it was rather nice to see Zuko happy with a girl, too. Even one with a talent for throwing sharp knives. Though there was something about seeing Zuko with Mai that made Katara feel a funny combination of relief and regret.
“Zuko, stop moving!” Sokka cried, exasperated. “I’m trying to capture the moment.” He stuck his tongue out as Katara walked over to see what he was doing.
“That’s very thoughtful of you Sokka,” she said. Then she looked down. Had her stupid brother drawn her as a Rabaroo? “Wait!” she said, “Why did you draw me with Momo’s ears?”
“Those are your hair loopies,” Sokka explained, clearly somewhat offended.
Zuko, Suki and Mai joined to check out the painting. Zuko shot Katara a look from across the table that said something not entirely kind about her brother. “At least you don’t look like a boarcupine,” he said. “My hair’s not that spiky!” Katara laughed.
“I look like a man,” Mai said.
“And why did you paint me firebending?” Suki asked.
“I thought it looked more exciting that way,” Sokka defended. Katara shook her head and patted Suki’s arm. They were joined by Momo, Toph and General Iroh, but Aang just watched from where he had been relaxed on a mat on the floor, then left the room quietly. Katara followed him, concerned.
“Aang, are you alright?” she asked. Aang stood looking out across the city. It was near dusk, and the sky was a beautiful amber. They could hear many celebrations going on.
He didn’t speak for a long time.
“Aang?” Katara tried again.
At last, Aang turned to her. “It’s all over,” he said. “It’s finally over. And now we don’t have to run anymore. I don’t have to run anymore.”
Katara started to respond, but Aang stopped her. “No, wait,” he said. “There’s something I need to say.”
She thought of the last time they had been alone together and looked down. She had thought that after the war was over, her confused feelings about Aang would clear. Maybe she even thought they would turn into something romantic. But so far, when she thought about Aang’s romantic advances toward her, she only felt guilt and sadness. “No, Katara,” he said, taking her hands, “that’s what I need to tell you.”
“What Aang?” she said, looking into his sincere, trusting eyes.
“After I ran away, you were the first person to find me. You were the first person to free me and the first person to believe in me. The whole time, you never left. Even when you had better opportunities” – Aang’s eyes shifted back to the tea shop – “even when things were hard.”
“Of course Aang,” she said. “I would never leave you.”
“I know,” he said. “And I would never leave you. You’re also really pretty,” he rushed on quickly, his face flushing red, “so it would be stupid for any guy not to like you.”
Katara’s heart twisted inside her. “Oh Aang…” she began.
“Katara,” he said, squeezing her hand and looking her straight in the eye. “The thing is, I’ve started to think you’re more like a sister to me. I know we kissed, in the Lover’s Cave and before the invasion on the Day of Black Sun, and I tried to kiss you after the play. A lot has happened, though, and to defeat Fire Lord Ozai I had to understand myself completely and let go. I do love you, and I know you love me, but…”
“But not that way,” Katara said softly.
Aang nodded. “Not that way.”
A weight lifted from Katara’s shoulders. She pulled Aang to her for a tight hug, which he reciprocated. “I would do anything for you Aang, you know that, right?”
“I know, Katara,” Aang said. “That’s what family is for.”
“Hey, what’s going on out here?” Sokka said, coming to find them with Suki close behind.
“Group hug!” Toph said, barreling past Sokka. She flung herself around Aang and Katara.
Suki and Sokka joined in, and Katara felt herself squeezed from all sides.
“Where’s Zuko?” Aang said from somewhere in the middle.
“I know, I know,” Zuko said, approaching and stretching his arms around them. “Being part of the group also means being part of group hugs.”
“Um, I’ll pass,” they heard Mai say from somewhere nearby.
Katara felt Aang hug her tighter in the middle. “I know it sounds cliché, but I really wouldn’t have this any other way,” he said.
“Me either, Aang,” she said.