Year 0, Late Summer (Coronation Day). The Fire Nation Palace.
In which Zuko’s stoicism outdoes him and Katara nearly despairs of healing him,
while Iroh wrangles peace and the Team is dispatched.
“…with the Avatar's help, we can get it back on the right path, and begin a new era of love and peace.” The Zuko that Mai had always imagined was at last standing before his people—before the whole world. Good, strong, and finally free. He was the true phoenix.
“All hail Fire Lord Zuko!” As the Fire Sage placed the golden diadem into Zuko’s topknot, the crowd below roared. Fire Lord Zuko. Mai’s protective shell split with an exquisite pain and something golden that she could only assume was hope began to seep through.
After a final wave, Zuko and Aang turned and made their stately return through the curtains to the antechamber where Mai was waiting. Zuko made three steady steps into the room, then crumpled. One of the Fire Sages darted to his side, and with Aang on the other, they kept him from collapsing on the floor. Mai ran to him, hands darting over his chest, purposeless. “Zuko! What’s wrong?”
“A litter!” the sage ordered. Aang gestured for a guard to hold Zuko up, saying “I’ll go get Katara!” He made a dash for the platform, presumably to fly straight down to the plaza, but the Fire Sage, exhibiting impressive reflexes, snagged Aang’s robe to stop him. “No. No one must know of the Fire Lord’s weakness.” He turned to another guard: “Fetch Master Katara discreetly and bring her to the Fire Lord’s chambers. Do not reveal his condition.”
“Not Ozai’s rooms!” Mai’s voice cracked. “Take him to his own.”
Zuko was carried from the room on a litter, barely conscious, servants clearing the corridors of witnesses ahead of him. Mai’s shell snapped shut again.
Katara stood beside the enormous, canopied bed, hands bathed in a blue glow that turned the red curtains black, as if she were casting shadows instead of light. She probed Zuko’s bare torso. His eyes were closed, but his grimace of pain suggested that he was all too conscious.
“Why did you say you felt better, Zuko? You shouldn’t have been out of bed, much less giving speeches to thousands. What is wrong with you?”
“I’m no healer,” he forced out, “but I think it’s probably the lightning strike.”
“Was that a joke? Are you joking about this? Hold still!” He had winced in response to something she did, and in truth she wasn’t quite sure what. She was out of her depth. She had been overwhelmed when Azula had struck Aang, too, but at least she’d had the Spirit Oasis water. And she’d been calmer. That didn’t make sense—Aang had literally died for a moment. Aang was the Avatar, arguably the most important person in the world, and certainly one of the most important people in her world. She had been worried and exhausted, tending to him around the clock in the midst of their frantic escape from Ba Sing Se.
But Zuko’s wound seemed to have knocked her off her bearings. She didn’t know what she was doing, very nearly panicking, and she was lashing out at whoever was there—namely, Zuko. But it wasn’t his fault. It was Katara’s. He had thrown his life away to save her.
“I had to, Katara.” (Not for me, you didn't!) “I had to claim it, the throne, to end the war.” (Oh, right, the coronation.) “Before there was any doubt.”
“It’s no good becoming Fire Lord if you die the next day.” She was curt. “What is there to doubt, anyway?”
As she took a centering breath and closed her eyes, she barely heard him say on a strangled exhale, “I didn’t take her down.”
Her eyes popped open. “Zuko! Please. She cheated. Now shut up.”
She brought her focus back to his injuries. He had succeeded in partially redirecting the lightning, and in keeping it clear of his heart, which was why he was alive at all, but it had burned deeply into his organs, primarily his stomach. She had begun to reconstruct it from tatters, but damage had also been done to his intestines, pancreas, spleen, and even a bit of his lung. She did not have the medical knowledge to do this methodically and was following the flow of his qi purely on instinct, trusting it to restitch its former paths and hoping for the best.
She wanted to bloodbend Azula into the depths of the sea.
Iroh debriefed them over breakfast every day. They saw him rarely the rest of the time, as he presided over the transition, dismantling Ozai’s regime and initiating the peace process. He was everywhere, commanding more respect than they would have imagined, no longer an avuncular tea sage but the Fire Lord Iroh that would have been.
Over a delectable spread of rice, noodles, various smoked fishes, and a colorful array of tropical fruits each morning, they discussed the next steps.
“The hawks have been sent, with the order to all Fire Nation troops to stand down,” Iroh was saying. “They should be received within the next couple of days. But we must be prepared for the likelihood that the order will not reach all forces immediately, that some may be forced to continue fighting in self-defense, and that some may even actively disobey.
“Then we need to get out there and stop them as quickly as possible.” Aang looked as if he might bound out the door that very moment to get started.
“Indeed, Avatar Aang, I had hoped you would see the need for that.”
“And it needs to be you, Aang,” Katara leaned towards him earnestly. “Backing the order with the Avatar’s authority.”
“I thought Fire Nation soldiers were taught to hate the Avatar,” Sokka said through a mouthful of mango.
“Yes, and for that reason, we will have a Fire Sage or two accompany Aang to demonstrate our newly united purpose.”
“That sounds like a great idea, Uncle Iroh,” Aang said with a firm nod. “I’ll leave tomorrow.”
Iroh’s eyes crinkled at the corners, though he did not quite smile. “Let’s give the hawks time to reach their targets and our commanders time to respond. I believe your bison might outpace them.” He turned to Katara, grave once more. “How is my nephew faring today?
“Better. Every day’s a little better.” She tried to sound cheerfully confident, but she wasn’t. It had been a week, and Zuko was still entirely bedridden and rarely conscious. She twisted her hands in knots beneath the table.
“Still can’t believe that idiot was walking around giving speeches with soup for guts.” Toph’s concern was written on her face, if not in her words.
“He had to,” said Sokka grimly. “It’s where he was needed.”
“I can’t do it.” The words erupted before she could stop them, but she dammed the tears welling in her eyes—“tearbending.” She would not be the soppy Katara of that stupid play. She could not keep her voice from quavering, though. “I’m trying so hard, I’m doing everything I can think of, using all my power. But I don’t know what to do! He’s so damaged, and I’m afraid I won’t be able to fix him!”
Suki reached over and put her arm around Katara, holding her till she she stopped shaking with the sobs she wouldn’t release.
“He can’t die! But I’m not strong enough. I wish Yugoda were here.”
“Who’s Yugoda?” asked Toph.
“Just the best waterbending healer in the world. Katara’s teacher. Sort of,” Sokka answered, watching his sister with concern. “Wait, why can’t she be here?”
“We must ask her.” Iroh made no effort to hide his own worry. “It is not strength that you lack, Master Katara. You are among the mightiest benders I have ever known. A waterbender who bested Azula under the power of the comet! But you are correct that in healing, there is no substitute for wisdom born of long experience.”
“I can go get her on Appa!”
“Do you think she’d come? To save the Fire Lord?” There was such a disconnect in Katara’s own mind between that title and the friend she tended all day, but the rest of the world was not even aware yet that there was a distinction.
“I’ll just explain how it is. I’m the Avatar, she’ll believe me. Better not take a Fire Sage on that trip, though.”
“Yes, please do go, Aang. The Palace will spare no expense to bring Master Yugoda here. Impress that upon her.”
“Of course, Uncle Iroh!”
“Ok. That would be great.” Katara sniffled her dignity back. “Thank you. And I’m sorry.”
“Oh, Katara, you are not only blameless, the Fire Nation holds you in its debt. Zuko is still alive.” She was a little comforted by the sincerity in Iroh’s eyes. “But meanwhile, we have still other crises to attend to. We cannot ignore the home threat of those still loyal to Ozai and Azula. It may take months for Toph and me to work our way through the entire palace staff, government officials, and members of the court to screen them for the sincerity of their allegiance to Zuko. The guards have already taken out one would-be assassin.”
“Let us help,” Suki offered. “My warriors can protect Zuko, too. They need work after all those months in prison.”
“We would be honored by your service, Suki. The martial skills of Kiyoshi Island are legendary, particularly in hand-to-hand combat and stealth, which is exactly what is required here. I will see to it that you have the training facilities you require, and we will set up a meeting with the other heads of palace security forces to coordinate.” Iroh penciled a note on the roll of paper he was carrying everywhere now, scribbled with cryptic reminders
“I should go with Aang. He needs someone to watch his back.”
“No.” Katara cut off her brother. “You will stay here and stay off that knee until it is fully healed!” He had shattered it in the airship battle and fractured his leg. “If you want to have full use of it the rest of your life, that is. My healing only goes so far. The rest of it is rest.”
“Yes, Mom,” Sokka groaned. She glowered back.
“Have you had a chance to explore the Palace libraries yet, Sokka? Perhaps you would enjoy spending some time there as you recuperate. You may find some quite fascinating treatises on the engineering and architecture of the Four Nations. Not to mention a most excellent collection of maps. I imagine the information might be useful in rebuilding the South Pole.”
Sokka’s eyes lit up. “You know, a year ago, I never would have imagined that a piece of paradise could be found in the Fire Nation.”
Iroh did smile then, and collected himself to go. “I believe that covers our business for now. Master Toph, do I have you with me again today?”
“Of course, Uncle. Let’s catch those liars at their game.” Toph gave a wicked little smile.
Two days later, when Katara brought in Zuko’s breakfast, as usual (she had been preparing all his meals personally, by consensus of the group—and to the ire of the palace cook—to guard against assassination by poison until the staff was entirely screened), she found him sitting up in bed in a fresh tunic, alert. Someone had opened the window to the garden and a floral breeze passed through as she entered the room.
“You must be feeling better!” The weight on her heart began to ease, cautiously.
“Thanks to you.” He smiled fully, such a rare thing that it struck her as beautiful.
Katara smiled back and brandished the tray. “I have a surprise for you.” She lifted the cover with a flourish. “Solid food!”
He peered into the bowl. “It’s congee.”
“Well, it’s got rice in it, so it’s solid. And there’s a banana, too!” She held it up proudly.
He took up the spoon and began to eat, slowly and with care. “So how do you like the palace, now that you’ve learned your way around?”
She laughed. “I wouldn’t say I have. I’ve only seen your room, our rooms, the kitchen, and the infirmary. And an awful lot of endless red corridors.”
“Then the first thing I’ll do when I’m back on my feet is give you a tour. Of my home.” He rolled the word around in his mouth, as if it were a new concept.
“If Iroh and your advisors don’t get to you first. Or Mai.” She shook her head doubtfully. “What would you show me?”
“Oh, I don’t know. The galleries—do you want to see gigantic portraits of all the Fire Lords? The treasure chambers—our spoils of war? Maybe not. The gardens. There are secret passages, but I don't know many of them. I only lived here for three years, you know, before—. But I’ll show you what I know. I’d like to,” he added shyly.
That was the most Zuko had spoken since the coronation. “All right. I’d love to see it all.” She fell silent, watching him eat, each bite a reassurance.
“Today might be the last day I’ll be in charge of your care,” she announced softly. He looked up with surprise, and she thought she saw a flash of disappointment in his eyes. “Aang should return from the North Pole with Yugoda today, assuming he managed to convince her that the new Fire Lord was worth saving. She knows far, far more than I do and can make sure my stupid patchwork will hold.”
“That’s…good, then.” A pause. “But you’ll still be here, won’t you?”
She looked down, realizing just then how much she would miss him. “Aang needs to fly to all the hotspots where there’s still fighting to personally enforce the peace. And I’ll go with him, to watch his back. He needs me. I don’t know how long that will take, but I’ll come back.”
“I see.” Katara saw the old, familiar tension creep back into Zuko’s jaw and he frowned into his empty bowl.
“Your uncle seems to think it’s best if we don’t linger too long here. Something about too many foreigners around delegitimizing you in the eyes of, uh, ‘xenophobic sycophants whom we nevertheless need,’ I think he said. And we do need to go back to our own homes. To rebuild.”
“Right. Of course you do. And I need to prove my Fire Nation credibility after all this exile. We are all needed somewhere.” His scowl deepened.
Impulsively, he seized her hand and held it tightly in his, looking her straight in the eye. “I—thank you, Katara. For my life. For my throne. I hope I am worthy.”
“Zuko, I owe you my life. Thank you.”
“You owe me nothing. Maybe it is balanced out between us.”
Katara looked down at their clasped hands, pale and dark, yin and yang.