She leaned back against the wooden pillar, one leg hanging over the stone railing that framed the walkway that wound around the abandoned Ember Island palace. Blue eyes closed as she inhaled the salt-laced breeze that swept in from across the ocean just a few paces away. In the humid night, the breeze was refreshing and welcomed.
Her hands rested across her lap as she turned back towards the ocean and watched thoughtfully as the ripples danced across the surface. It was calming, almost hypnotic, to the waterbender. It was almost enough to take her mind off of that night's events.
The play had disturbed everyone, especially towards the end. Was that the way it was going to end? With one fiery ball sweeping across the sky and empowering one man to destroy an entire civilization? Then there was Aang's reaction to 'her lines' on stage.
She was sure, more than ever, that now was not the time to be thinking of such things. The world could possibly end in a few days. They had bigger things to think about – she had bigger things to think about, than her love life. As far as she knew, she hadn't been lying when she told Aang she was uncertain about her own feelings.
What about after the war? What if they won - no, when they won, would everything happen just like in those Earth Kingdom folk tales she had heard while traveling? The hero saves the world and gets the girl? Clearly, Aang was the hero of this tale, but was she the girl? Furthermore, did she want to be the girl?
Cringing at the headache it was causing, she raised her hands and pressed her palms against her temples. She hunched forward, hovering over her bent leg as she gritted her teeth. Folk tales were just that; stories. This was real life and nothing was clear cut. Nothing was as simple as it was made out to be in that ridiculous play they had just watched.
If it was, they never would've failed so many times. Zuko would have joined their side early on and no one had to die. Not her mother, not all those Earth Kingdom people, not Jet …
She closed her eyes tightly at the thought of the charismatic young rebel. Sokka had been right…it was unclear . She had to admit, it had been embarrassing, abet somewhat amusing. She could still remember the butterflies in her stomach, the warmth that flooded her cheeks, and the swelling happiness that threatened to burst inside of her the first time she met him.
He was everything a naïve little girl from some backwater village could ever want. He was tall and handsome and a great leader. He was smart, with a killer smile and a tragic past that lured her in like a moth to a flame. He was a rebel fighting for an admirable cause. True, he didn't go about it the best way or even in a way she approved of, but at the time, for someone like him to pay attention to someone like her was flattering.
So, when he turned against her friend and nearly wiped out a village of innocent people, it hurt. Her image of him as heroic, brave, and righteous slapped her in the face. She had put her trust in him and he ripped her heart out. Her first 'love', sort to speak, ended with her freezing him to a tree.
At least, that's what she thought.
When they met up again in Ba Sing Se, she had been needlessly rough with him. Could anyone really blame her? He had taken advantage of her trusting nature and betrayed her. Toph had practically been spot on with the ex-boyfriend comment. It took him being struck down by a flying boulder for her to realize that he meant well and that he wanted to do good the right way.
As obviously fake the play was, it still triggered the same emotions in her that had occurred when the event actually happened. For a moment, she had tensed in her seat, ready to jump out and rush over to 'Jet' to heal him. It took a second for her to realize that they were on Ember Island, watching a parody of their lives in the past year, done by some terrible actors.
She had fought down the urge to rush the stage and maintained an expressionless face, though deep down, she wanted to cry. She wanted to cry for her failure to save him, her failure to keep him out of harm's way, and her failure to forgive him when she had the chance. Beside her, she had heard Zuko ask Sokka if Jet had died.
She had hoped that he didn't. He may have hurt her, but he had tried to redeem himself. The look in his eyes as she held her hands over him were apologetic, even as he smiled through the obvious pain. "I'm sorry," they told her. For nights afterwards, all she could dream about were those eyes.
The waterbender opened her own and leaned back against the red-painted pillar. She could feel the moisture collect and tried to blink back the warm tears. Even if she couldn't save him, it still made her heart ache to know he wasn't there with them now.
"You're still up," a voice said to her side. She sat up straight, immediately bringing her hands to her face to quickly wipe away any remnants of the tears from her eyes. "Sorry to disturb you."
"No, no," she murmured as she lifted her other leg over railing and then maneuvered herself over the walkway. "You're not bothering me, Zuko."
"Oh…are you sure?" The dark-haired prince stood at the doorway, hesitant to walk out to where she was now standing. "You looked like you were thinking."
"It's kind of hard not to after that play," she offered, trying to sound amused. "It was silly, wasn't it? The writer needs to get his sources checked."
Zuko remained in his spot, but narrowed his eyes carefully. "Yeah…that upset everyone. Especially, that last part."
Katara moved her eyes away from him and nodded. "That wasn't the part I was thinking about," she murmured. She lifted one hand and rubbed it over her other arm. "That part isn't set in stone…"
He took a tentative step forward. "You weren't the only one who remembered some painful memories."
"I know," Katara agreed as she lifted her head. "We all had to relive some pretty bad memories watching that stupid play. I'm not saying they were all accurate, but, admittedly, they weren't completely off, either."
The corner of his lip curled up slightly. "I never called Uncle stinky."
Katara chuckled softly and leaned back against the railing. She looked back at the ocean. A moment of silence passed between them. "I…" she began quietly as her eyes looked towards the distance. "I couldn't save him…"
From his position by the doorway, Zuko's brow furrowed. "Save who? Aang? You were able to save him, even after my sister's lightning. You can't always protect him, Katara, but-"
"No, not Aang," Katara cut in sharply. She whipped her head around to face him with moist blue eyes. " Jet ," she stressed. "I…I was too weak to save him…and…"
"And you loved him?" he offered. Katara's eyes widened. She jerked her head back as her arms dropped to the side.
"I thought we established that the play wasn't completely accurate," she stated as she frowned. "I… liked him…" she admitted as she crossed her arms over her chest. "And I trusted him…at least I did."
"Katara," Zuko began carefully. "Did Jet really…?"
"I don't know," Katara told him sternly. "And I don't know if I want to know…it was really bad, Zuko. I tried heal him, but what I felt inside of him…the damage that Long Feng did to him…" she trailed off and bit her lower lip.
Zuko narrowed his eyes. "You left him behind?" he asked, with some disbelief. "That doesn't sound like you."
"I didn't want to leave him behind!" Katara snapped. She stepped forward, hands clenched at her sides. "Did you think I wanted to leave him down there? Don't you think I wanted to save him!?" she asked as she shook. She could feel warm tears of regret sliding down her cheeks. "He told me to leave. He said he'd be fine …"
Worriedly, the scarred young man stepped forward. "He just wanted to protect you," he told her as he placed his hands on her trembling shoulders. "It was dangerous to stay, wasn't it? He didn't want you to risk yourself further…" he trailed off quietly. His eyes glazed over for just a moment. "He didn't want anything to happen to you…"
"I know!" Katara cried as she covered her face. "I know, but if only I had-"
"He wouldn't want you to regret it, Katara," Zuko insisted. "If there is trouble, you know you want to keep someone you care about safe."
"I'm not helpless!" she insisted.
"Neither is Mai!" he replied, automatically.
Her shaking slowly stopped. His eyes widened. The hands on her shoulders weakened until they finally fell to his sides. "Mai?" Katara asked. She recognized the name easily and took a step back. "Your sister's friend…" she recalled. "With the knives…" There was something else, something that had been mentioned recently in passing. Her eyes squinted. "Your girlfriend."
"Ex-girlfriend," he corrected quietly. "At least, that's probably what she is now, after abandoning her like that."
A haunted look graced his face as Katara stepped away from him. She remembered that look on her own face; hollow and lost, filled with regret. "Suki…told me what happened at the prison. I don't think she hates you."
He let out a bitter scoff. "I left her to my sister ," he hissed out. "That's a fate worse than death."
"She knew what she was doing," Katara insisted. "She saved you. She got that gondola moving and stalled them enough to let you all escape. That's not an act of hate."
"I wanted to go back for her," Zuko told her seriously. "She saved us…I couldn't just leave her with Azula. I could've and I just left," he said, disgusted with himself. "If only I had stayed…or gone back for her…"
"If that prison was what you all said it was, you may not have made it out alive," Katara replied. "She might've been put in more danger. It might've been safer if you didn't return and provoked another attack."
"I still regret leaving her…"
Katara stared at him for a moment. Her eyes narrowed determinedly. "It isn't like you can't save her, though," she pointed out. "Jet…I can't save Jet…I can't sneak off to some prison and snatch him back. Restoring the balance in this world won't bring him back …" she whispered as her eyes watered once more. "But you…you can still save Mai," she smiled hopefully. "Even if it isn't now…even if it isn't tomorrow or one some other heroic escape, once we beat the Fire Lord, you can save her."
Zuko met Katara's gaze. "What makes you so sure she'd take me back…?"
She nodded. "If she loves you, she'll forgive you. I don't doubt it."
The amber-eyed prince looked reluctant to accept her answer. "If you were my girlfriend," he said, suddenly. "And I had broken up with you through a letter, then locked you in a cell the next time we met, left you behind in the Fire Nation's most secure prison with my sister …would you forgive me?" he asked, challengingly.
Katara thought for a moment. "He took advantage of my affection. He took advantage of my trust. He nearly killed an innocent village, attacked my closest friend, and threatened my brother. I may not have known him that long, but still he broke my heart, Zuko," Katara told him. "…And I never forgave him."
"What?" Zuko spat out. He scowled as he stomped across the walkway and threw his arms in the air. "How can you say all those things and then tell me you never even forgave Je-"
"I didn't have a chance to," Katara reminded him coldly. "I will never have the chance to…" She added. "I lost him before I had the chance to forgive him. She almost lost you! She knows how it feels to know that you might not make it. She'll forgive you!"
He swallowed the lump in his throat as he looked across the walkway at the red clad waterbender. She seemed so sure of her decision. "You…regret it that much?"
"He may not have been the one, but he was, in the end, a friend…if only I had more time…I would've told him that I forgave him," Katara offered him a bitter sweet smile. "If you care about her, don't lose her. Go and save her when you can."
He gave her a small smile. "Thank you, Katara…"
"Same to you," she nodded as she began walking back to the house. "For listening to me…"
"So…was Jet like your first crush or something?" Zuko asked as she passed him. She fumbled in her step a bit before quickly regaining her composure.
"Well…I hadn't really met any other boys around my age outside of Sokka and Aang…Haru…is Haru…" she trailed off, blushing sheepishly. She met his gaze as she paused by the doorway. "Is Mai your's?"
"Yeah…" he smiled stupidly. "I guess so…" Katara grinned slightly.
"That's kind of romantic, Zuko," she chuckled as his face reddened. "Who knew that the guy who chased us around the world was big softie still with his first love?" She turned back to the entrance and stepped inside. "Good night! See you in the morning!"
"Yeah…" Zuko blushed as he lifted his hand and gave her a small wave. "Good night…" The waterbender disappeared into the house and Zuko leaned back against the pillar, a small smile on his pink tinted face as he stared at the spot where she had been standing. He could feel a familiar flurry in his stomach and hear the quickened heartbeat pulsating in his ear.
Slowly, the thought dawned on him and the smile on his face slowly melted off. For that short moment he was smiling and blushing, his thoughts hadn't been on his imprisoned ex-girlfriend. They had been completely focused on the waterbender simply wishing him goodnight.
Several Days Later, Fire Nation Royal Palace
He hadn't seen Katara that morning, which was rather odd. Usually, as soon as he woke up, she'd be knocking at his door, telling him it was time to change his bandages and check on his wound. Honestly, Sokka had been right that she was mothering. While preparations were underway for his coronation, she had remained at his side.
The only times she had left his side during the waking hours was to spend time her friends or her father or grandfather. Zuko cringed at the thought of the white-haired old man and his critical glares. He looked at Zuko as if he wasn't good enough to be taken care of by his precious granddaughter.
As far as Zuko was concerned, he was just an overprotective parent, not that it mattered. After all, he and Katara were just friends. Even if she did give him daily healings over his wound with her soft, warm hands or gently changed his bandages, not once flinching at the scar that had been left behind. It was what friends did, especially when one friend took a bolt of lightning for the other.
Which was yet another reason why he found it odd. Where was Katara and her bowl of water? Where was Katara with that basket of fresh bandages? Instead, he had found the basket by his bedside, along with a ceramic bowl of water and a sponge. A sponge . Did she have any idea how much a mere sponge irritated his wound? He'd have to talk to her about that the next time he saw her.
It took him three times longer to simply put on the bandages by himself and he hoped that she had a good reason for abandoning him to his mediocre bandaging abilities that morning. No man should have to bandage his own wounds, especially when his body ached with every movement.
Hissing to himself, he finally managed to get an arm through his shirt sleeve after wrapping the bandages around himself firmly. It had taken him four tries, but at least they wouldn't fall apart when he moved. He heard the door open beyond his bed chambers and thought it was Katara come to check on him. She probably didn't trust him to bandage himself after all.
Before he register that it was someone else, another familiar voice rang out. He snapped his head around, ignoring the pain that shot up his neck as he did so. His eyes widened. "Mai?" Stupidly, he asked how she got out of prison. It sounded like something Sokka would say.
The young woman circled him and wrapped her arms around him. She easily answered his question and then kissed him. It was warm and familiar…but not longer as fulfilling.
"I'm still angry," she said as she helped him with his over rove. "But you sent for me…" she smiled, looking up at him warmly. "I thought that maybe you had forgotten about me…but my uncle got your letter."
"My letter…" Zuko trailed off as he nodded blankly. He never wrote a letter.
It would make sense later, after his coronation. Mai was at his side, chatting with the excited acrobat-turned-warrior, Ty Lee, while they mingled at the post-coronation "reception party", as Sokka called it.
It was then that he passed her. It was a fleeting moment and nothing but their clothes brushed against each other. A warm breath whispered in his ear.
"You can thank me later…"
His eyes darted to the owner of the voice, only to meet two smiling blue eyes before they disappeared in the crowd. His heart rate began to quicken as he stood there, stunned. He was sure of it now and was unsure what to do.
There he was, hand in hand with his first love…but staring after his second.