Though inland far we be,
Our souls have sight of that immortal sea
Which brought us hither.
~William Wordsworth, Intimations of Immortality
"You had another nightmare last night," Aang observed during training.
Zuko by now had long since known how to push down reactions. You have to learn to let go, Prince Zuko, or your past will consume you his uncle always used to say. But Iroh was gone now, and he was the only firebender around for miles.
"It will pass," Zuko replied after a long moment. He continued the kata and was pleased to see that Aang executed it perfectly. "It always does."
"What is it about?"
Did he want to talk about it? Did he want to explain the terror of golden eyes and an Agni Kai gone wrong? Did he want to tell anyone how alone he felt, how lost and terrified sometimes? He knew that Katara could feel it in him. She was water, fluid and sinuous, deep and understanding as the sea. She was his calm blue ocean, and the thought of her at night usually helped to bring him back to center. If Azula ever did anything to her... No, he couldn't contemplate that. He didn't want to think of it.
Zuko began another kata, lost in thought. "This wasn't supposed to happen, you know," he began slowly, testing the waters between them.
"I know. I should have died a hundred years ago. But I didn't."
Zuko stopped and looked at Aang, who had made the pronouncement so calmly. He was executing another kata flawlessly. He was a better student than Zuko had ever been. It was like watching Azula as a child. The prodigy. The one that was better, the one that was perfect. Everyone loved Aang right away, just as everyone had praised Azula. It was simply how it was. There was no changing that.
"You don't care?"
"Of course I care. Everyone I've loved is dead." Aang stopped and looked at Zuko. "I never wanted to be the Avatar. I only wanted to be me. I just wanted to play, I wanted friends, I wanted to grow up in the temple. I didn't want to fight a war. I didn't want to balance. I didn't want people arguing over me."
"How did you move on, then?"
"You just do. You have to. There's no other option."
Zuko nodded and took a deep, cleansing breath. "She was better than me. She was always better than me. I don't know if I'll be of any help to you."
Something in Aang's face softened. "You're worried about Katara, aren't you?"
"She's killed everything I ever loved. She's destroyed everything I've ever wanted." Zuko took another breath, letting it out slowly. "Wouldn't you be afraid, too?" he asked, voice barely above a whisper. To live without his ocean...
"You fight back, then," Aang replied, mimicking Zuko's breaths. "You fight harder."
"She's better than I am."
"We've defeated her before," Aang countered. "And you have something to fight for."
"You really think we can do this, don't you? You have the same faith Katara does."
"There's no other option," Aang said, voice hard. "No one else can do this but us, and the world is worth saving. I won't leave it to die." He looked at Zuko, his face stern. Zuko could see the lines of Avatar Roku's face in his. "This is not the time for doubt, but for action. This is not the time for running away, but to move forward and make the precision strike. They think we are weak because we love. But it's our love that makes us strong. It gives us the motivation to move forward and do what needs to be done."
"It's not going to be easy."
"Worthy things never are."
They moved in sync, fire swirling around them. Aang had learned quickly, and was certainly as good as Zuko was now. Iroh would have been proud of Zuko, that he was able to teach another how to firebend, that he had been able to keep himself under better control.
But it had been a hard lesson to learn, and he had lost so much to learn it.
Azula's laughter was cold and cruel, and she stood over Iroh's fallen body. There was a large scorch mark on his chest, and his eyes stared up at the sky. Beside him, Katara was sprawled face down in a pool of water, her hair spread out about her. Somewhere beyond her, her brother and Toph were sprawled amongst broken rocks. No one was moving.
"It's only a matter of time, dear brother," Azula told him. "Don't you know? I'm better than you. You can't run from me. You can't hide from me. You're a lost and pathetic little boy. I'm the one that's fit to rule, and I'm the one that can lead us to victory. You're a waste of time. That's why Father can't ever love you. You're not a worthy son, and you never were. You never found the Avatar, and you're not worth the effort in killing you."
Zuko gasped, snapping awake. He couldn't breathe. He was drowning, they were all dead, Aang was gone, and there was nothing but the sound of Azula's laughter in his ears.
"Zuko," Katara whispered, kneeling beside him. There was a worried look on her face as she looked at him. "Are you all right? You've had another nightmare."
He blindly reached for her, aware that he was having difficulty breathing. He was going to drown. He was going to cry. He was losing the battle for his dignity, and he no longer even cared. Nothing mattered but the feel of her in his arms, that her chest moved with breath and there was the sting of tears in her eyes.
"She can't kill you," Zuko whispered against her ear, his arms wound tightly around her. "I won't let her." He threaded his hands through her long, loose hair. He pressed his lips to her neck, desperately kissing her. "I can't live without you."
"Sh, Zuko... I'm not going anywhere." She rubbed his back, calming him. Her motions were like the ebb and flow of the tides, and it felt as if she was the ocean transported inland. "It's going to be all right."
He kissed her on the mouth, desperately, pulling her close. He needed her calm and her trust, the waves of peace that moved within her. He needed to feel that peace himself, and he didn't know how to reach it without her.
"I can't live without you," he repeated, his voice a hoarse whisper. "I can't."
"You'll never have to," Katara whispered. After a moment, she detangled herself and undid her mother's necklace from her neck. "Here."
"But it's your necklace..." He remembered taunting her with it, threatening her. He had been different then, but it made him almost ashamed now to remember that.
She wound it around his wrist, the blue stone charm pressed against the inside of his wrist. "It's my mother's. It was my grandmother's before that. Did you know that at the North Pole, men had to make a necklace like this for the one they were betrothed to? It's a symbol of their love and commitment to each other."
"I didn't make you anything," Zuko whispered, his voice breaking. He didn't have anything else but himself to give at this point.
"I'm giving you this," Katara continued, calm as ever, "to show my commitment to you. That we'll always be together. That you'll always have me. Whatever happens, whatever lies she tells you, this will be proof. This will help you remember." She smiled at him, and it was like sunrise over the ocean. "Trust me."
He returned her smile and stroked her cheek. "I do."
And surprisingly, he meant it.