This time period has cars. Not the speedy, hovering type that was around the last time, but coughing rickety automobiles that teetered along on the cobblestone streets. There were still some horse and buggies, but mostly people were walking. Zuko scanned the area around him and sighed. He guessed he had jumped back - again - and it was clear in the quality of the air and the clothes on the people around him. He looked down at his own clothing - a three-piece suit and freshly-shined oxfords - and discreetly touched the skin on his cheek.
Okay. He glanced around and noticed a crowd was gathering at the corner, listening to someone shouting about the 18th amendment, and the cacophony of angry shouts that followed. So it was early 20th century, then.
"Isn't it sad?"
His ears perked up and he turned to see a darker skinned girl standing next to him, her eyes obscured by her cloche hat, but her visible frown unmistakable to him. He felt his heart race - just like it always did when he found her - and he fought the urge to hug this stranger tight to his chest.
It would only frighten her. She didn't know him.
She looked up and met his eyes - boldly, he noted - and he was floored by the brightness of the blue there. He always was.
"They're banning alcohol because they're scared of it," she claimed with a pout. "It's just a ploy."
He nodded and turned his attention back to the man shouting out the news. "It'll be lifted before you know it."
"How are you so sure?"
Zuko smiled to himself and shrugged his shoulder. "Just a hunch."
He woke with a start, jolting forward as he tried to catch his breath. A body shifted next to him, groaning at the sudden jerk in the bed and the shift in weight, and he turned to see her still sleeping soundly, face buried into the pillow as she cuddled it to her chest. He let his heart slow, just enough to take in his surroundings again, but when Zuko attempted to kiss her awake, he felt it.
A tug, right behind his navel - the sign of his inevitable departure. He knew when they would come, sensing it within his very being as it was ripped away from its host and thrust into another time.
So he kissed her soundly on the lips, enough to make her stir, and he nuzzled his nose against her jaw before pressing small, devoted kisses to her throat as the sensation grew stronger and stronger.
He dragged his teeth against her pulse and murmured, "Wake up, Katara."
She hummed as she rolled over and wrapped her arms lazily around his shoulders. "Keep going, baby."
He lifted himself up and kissed her desperately on the lips, to which she responded slowly before fully waking up. She broke the kiss and stared up at him with tired confusion, a frown on her full lips, and she murmured, "What's going on, honey?"
He kissed her soundly again before breaking away. "Can I tell you something?"
She nodded, concern growing in the depths of her blue, blue eyes.
"I'm going to miss this," he whispered as he brushed her hair away from her face and kissed her temple. "I'm leaving soon."
As he pulled away, he saw her eyes widen and tears gather at the corners. "Already? But you just got here an hour ago."
The pain grew more and more and he swallowed the dryness in his throat away as he tried to smile. He pressed his hand to her stomach with a gentle and loving touch. "I'm so sorry."
She sat up as her tears fell and she cupped his jaw, the touch of her fingers disappearing when she caressed the left side of his face. "Will you come back?"
"It's impossible to know." He kissed her again and said against her lips, "But nothing is impossible if you have love and hope. I will see you again. In this life or the next."
As she started to cry in earnest, Zuko felt himself get pulled away - the sensation deafening against his senses - and he let her despair imprint itself in his mind as he was thrust through time once more.
The stones hurt his feet, more than he cared to admit. The shoes he wore were uncomfortable, and the clothes on his back were itchy and immodest. He glanced over his shoulder, spotting the priestesses bathing behind him, and he sighed before turning his attention back to the entrance of the spring. It was his job - apparently - to protect these women from prying eyes, to keep them pure in the eyes of Aphrodite, and to ensure their safe pilgrimage to the sacred fountain at the foot of Olympus.
Zuko sighed again and shuffled his feet. Why did she have to be one of them? He glanced over his shoulder at her again as she bathed in the waters with her sisters, and she noticed him peeking. With a grin, she rose from the water and sashayed a little bit before turning around and laughing with the other girls. He felt himself flush as he turned back around and kicked himself for letting her see his vulnerability towards her.
Oh, how he loved her laugh. It was always the same.
"Excuse me. Sir?"
He bristled at how close her familiar voice had come and he tilted his head ever-so-slightly so she could see that he heard her but maintain her privacy. "Yes?"
A cool hand pressed against his bicep and he had to force himself to swallow. "Why don't you join us? The water feels great."
"I apologize, but I must maintain my vigil of protection," he managed to say. He could tell she wasn't having it, so she slid her hand down his arm and then jumped to the curve of his hip. He squeezed his eyes shut when she slipped her fingers under the fabric of his chlamys and he stated, "Priestess Katara, I must continue my duty as your protector, and you cannot sully your body before you present yourself to Aphrodite. I am sorry."
Quietly, she withdrew her fingers from his skin, leaving a hot brand against him, and she sighed, "Very well. We will be finished soon, so prepare yourself for the rest of our journey."
Lights twinkled above, strewn through bare trees and lighting the cobblestone sidewalk beneath his feet. His breath came out in frosty puffs, dispersing like clouds as he walked through them and passed yet another decorated storefront. His eyes went to his reflection, golden eyes staring back from a blemish-free face, and he sighed. It had been a while since he had seen the left side of his face without its trademark scar. Perhaps the witch had felt like giving him mercy at such a peaceful time of the year.
Perhaps she intended on ripping out the visage right from under him the next time he jumped. After all, it was the reason he was here in the first place.
"Mama, look!" A childish squeal came from his left. He turned and saw a young girl with an oversized snowcap covering her entire head and a faded black coat draped over her shoulders. She was pulling her mother up to the storefront he had been looking at, almost running into him before he moved out of the way. Her gloved fingers pressed against the window as she looked at the display, and her breath smudging the glass. From behind her, Zuko could see her bright blue eyes in her reflection light up at the train display chugging along through the snow-capped mountains created from felt and shredded paper. They were wide with wonder, a sight that actually made his throat get tight. How long had it been since he felt the same sense of hope and optimism from something as small as a miniature train?
"I'm sorry about my daughter," the mother said to him, causing him to break his train of thought to meet her equally blue eyes. She older than he had ever experienced, and at first Zuko thought he knew who she was. His breath caught at her visage, but something was off about her this time. She looked right, but Zuko always knew when he was looking into the eyes of his love. This time, it was all wrong. And seeing her, so bedraggled and worn, his heart did a painful twist.
"It's nothing," he replied genuinely after gathering himself. "I, too, am enamored by the trains."
The woman smiled and looked back to her daughter, "Katara has always been fascinated with them. She wants to ride one to the city. I can only hope that I can give her that some day..."
Zuko's brow furrowed and he looked back to the little girl looking at the display. It was then that his heart lurched in his chest as he recognized her in the tiny girl's reflection. The same reflection that had an oxygen line in her nose and a gauntly look to her, how her cap covered her now-obviously bald head. Though her sickly appearance was clear now that he truly looked at her, the brightness of her blue eyes were still shining as she looked at the moving train.
His heart did another painful twist, and he looked back to the mother to see the same soft and pained look in her similar blue eyes. His hatred towards the woman who cursed him was increasing tenfold, making him witness something as heart-wrenching as this. Such was his curse, such was his fate.
But that didn't mean he couldn't make the most of it.
"Would you guys like some dinner?" he suddenly found himself asking. The mother and the daughter both looked at him, their matching blue eyes wide with surprise, and he shrugged. "There's a diner around the corner that serves the absolute best chocolate chip pancakes."
When little Katara's lips pulled into a wide smile, Zuko couldn't help but smile himself and lead the mother and daughter down the street to the diner he knew would serve them as much food as they could take.
Blood was splattered all over the field, staining the green grass with red like paint on a canvas. Zuko scrambled to his feet to avoid another strike of a sword, then thrust his into the chest of his assailant. As the body rolled off to the side, lifeless, Zuko struggled to his feet to find his bearings. He looked around, seeing hundreds of people wearing the same red-soaked clothing as him, clashing against each other with swords and elements and arrows. He coughed, feeling more of his blood erupt out of his mouth, and he staggered towards the next person he needed to kill.
"Not so fast, firebender." The epithet was spat with so much disdain it made his skin crawl. He turned towards the familiar voice, and his stomach dropped as glowing blue eyes stared him down, set in a scowl as water swirled around her body. He didn't have the strength to keep moving on, to fight her, not now.
Her frown deepened as she stepped towards him. "Not going to fight me back?"
He shook his head, ignoring the way his vision spun at the movement. "Not today, Katara."
Fury ignited in her eyes and she lashed out with a water whip to his stomach. He was sent sprawling back, falling over a body of one of his comrades and losing the little air he had in his lungs. She then straddled him, her water frozen and sharpened to a blade affixed to her arm, and she spat in his face, "How dare you?! This war is your doing! If you don't fight, I will kill you!"
Zuko's vision darkened at the corners, but an ache in his belly told him it didn't matter. Besides, he didn't want to stay here, not when her hatred for him was clear. Not when her eyes didn't look at him in love, but in rage and betrayal. These weren't the eyes he dreamt of, no. These were the eyes that would haunt his nightmares until the end of time.
Slowly, he reached up and gripped her wrists, then lowered them so her blade was pressed to his throat. With resolute acceptance, he whispered, "Do it."
A tear of all things fell out of her eye as she screamed out her fury, then as her blade sliced through the skin of his neck, he saw the white and was pulled away.
He opened his eyes and stared at the night sky above him. Millions of stars freckled the black, twinkling like the Christmas lights he just saw in one of his last jumps. How many jumps has he gone through now? If his internal clock told him anything, the physical amount of time that had passed for his mind and soul was at least four hundred years, but with his cursed soul and the frequent bouncing back and forth through time, it was hard to be certain.
Zuko sat up and scanned his surroundings. Woods to the east, a river to the west, and a village nestled in the valley to the south with a sea in the distance. He knew this place, from his original time, but he knew it was too late, too far in the future to know anyone who had lived in his time. The people he knew wouldn't know him here, not when it was the wrong time. They would look at him with unfamiliar stares, questioning his sudden appearance and different personality, sometimes even the scar on his face.
Luckily for him, usually no one noticed when he arrived. He would feel the tug as his vision went white, then he would be planted in a new time with a new body, but he would always see his same face in his reflection. He would quickly orient himself and continue on, like he always belonged, and no one would notice any change. People were naturally unobservant, unless it happened right in front of their eyes and his demeanor quickly changed. Luckily for him, however, he would only be transplanted when the person he was basically possessing was asleep or all alone. Always, he would find himself in a life with a person who shared his name - sometimes making him curse his situation even more, because it was a life he was intruding on when his soul came to a period of time. He would be familiar with the people, despite not actually knowing them himself, and he would be a part of that person's life until his soul decided it was time to move on once more.
Sometimes, he would return to a body he had inhabited before. Almost every time, there is an accusation or two of his behavior, which he always dismisses with excuses practiced for centuries.
And every single time he found himself somewhere new, he would find her.
Katara was her name almost every singe time period he went to. She would always have the same blue eyes and dazzling smile and warm spirit that made his insides melt. And every time, she would slip through his fingers like water and he would be tugged to the next life.
"Aren't you tired?"
He sighed and glanced over his shoulder, to her. She was naked, as was he, and he realized he must have just missed the window of enjoying it properly. "I'm fine."
She scooted towards him and her cool hand pressed against his shoulder. "You know you can talk to me, right?"
He snorted at the impossibility and shook his head, feeling rather honest. "I do. But it's... complicated. I'm not sure it's even something you can wrap your head around."
"Are you calling me stupid?"
He turned and looked at her completely, relieved to see mirth in her eyes, but he merely kissed her hard before pressing her down against the nest of blankets they had around them. When he broke away, the mirth had melted into a glazed desire and he murmured against her lips, "Never. It's something I can't even explain."
"Please tell me, Zuko," she plead in a rough whisper.
He stared at her for a long moment, committing her face to his memory, and he thrust into her as he murmured his apology to her throat. And as he ground himself into her and her cries echoed into the night sky, he told her his story...
The woods were dark and empty, full of only dead leaves and silence and the sound of Zuko's footsteps on the weathered path. He had to go to the town on the other side of the Kane Forest, to fetch some herbs his mother needed to make a tincture for a sick patient. The herb itself was typically found in these woods, but the winter season came early and he wouldn't be able to fetch them off the branch. Luckily, the town on the other side was always in stock at their apothecary, so Ursa sent him with a burlap sack to stock up on their needed ingredients that would last them through the cold season.
But no one told Zuko how scary the woods were in the dark.
He was brave, he reassured himself, but even being almost twenty, Zuko didn't often travel alone. He had traveled this path frequently in the spring and summer, but never in the winter. It was always too cold to leave the warmth of his home and the forest was considered haunted once their henge of green was lifted to reveal the true, cragly nature of the woods.
Unfortunately, he was about to learn personally why people shied away from this place in the dark.
An eerie voice, disembodied and all-encompassing, reached his ears, murmuring his name louder and louder as he got deeper and deeper into the woods. He hastened his pace, but he could never outrun the voice. Soon, he was sprinting, stumbling over raised roots and rocks as he raced down the path. He was sure he heard footsteps behind him - or maybe it was the sound of his own echoing off the nothingness around him - and he started to feel his heart seize with fear.
That is, until he almost crashed into an old woman on the trail.
"Slow down, young man!" she chided with a frown. Her gray hair was pulled back loosely into a bun, her wrinkles harsh under the dim light. Yet her gray eyes glowed like two dying stars. "Why the hurry?"
Zuko tried to catch his breath, but the fear of being followed was swelling in his throat and causing his chest to freeze. "I'm sorry! But there's someone -"
"There's no one else but us in these woods, deary," she told him in her rough voice. Zuko met her eyes, freezing at the cheshire grin on her face, and he stumbled back. "In fact, that is a very good thing for me."
Zuko stumbled back and tripped over an exposed root, falling hard on his backside. He tried to scramble away from her, staring up in horror as the woman towered over him with that maniacal look in her eyes.
"You're Ozai's boy, aren't you?"
He wanted to lie, to shake his head and plea with her to spare him, but the scar over his eye was so distinguishable that it would be folly to even try. Ozai's name had been smeared long ago due to accusations of witchcraft. He was put on trial, and in the process ousted himself and his entire coven - people Zuko didn't even realize were mages of the dark arts. Zuko had been asked by the town judge if the people had frequently associated with his father, and he naively confirmed it. Unfortunately for him, Ozai's wrath could not be escaped, and that night Zuko was burned with enchanted fire for his insolence.
The fact that this crone knew who he was was terrifying. Perhaps she knew his father, and that only spelled trouble.
So, afraid for his own fate, Zuko nodded, hoping it would save him.
The woman inhaled deeply and her smile spread - if that was even possible - and she pulled out a talisman from under her cloak. "He sends his regards from the underworld."
Then she muttered words in a language he did not understand and blew against the talisman. A fire roared to life and immediately swallowed him up, burning his skin in a raging whirlwind he was certain would burn down the entire forest. As the fire consumed him, he heard the disembodied voice right in his ears, cursing him:
"For each life you live, you shall suffer. This is your punishment: never to die, never to settle. Never able to love nor truly live, cursed to jump back and forth through time. You will spend the rest of eternity repenting for your actions, living a half life with no purpose. So mote it be!"
The fires had burned him down to his bones, hot enough to boil his very soul, and Zuko shrieked to the trees as he was consumed to nothingness.
"... When I woke up, I was laying in a bed that looked so strange to me. I couldn't understand at the time, but I figured out later my soul had jumped to another time and another body. My first jump was the strangest, leaving me disoriented and completely confused. I'm in another life for as short as a minute to as long as a year, but it's frequent and never-ending."
Zuko met Katara's eyes and he sighed when he saw her conflicted stare. "I know it's hard to believe... but I'm not the Zuko in your life. My name is Zuko, but I'm a different Zuko than the one you know. Sometime soon, my soul is going to leave this body and find another time or universe to live in for a short period of time, leaving the man you already know."
"So..." she trailed off awkwardly, looking away as her brows furrowed with thought. "It's kind of like... possession."
He shrugged and looked to where their hands were joined. "More or less."
Their eyes met as Katara's eyebrow arched up and she frowned. "How long?"
Zuko looked away from her penetrating gaze, up to the stars and took a deep breath. "Four hundred years, give or take."
"You've been jumping around through time for that long?"
All he could do was nod.
"It must be lonely," she said, her voice cracking with sadness. Zuko looked over to her and saw the watery look in her eyes as she added, "There's nothing really tethering you to a certain time. You're just... existing. Nothing to anchor you and give you some familiarity."
Zuko's chest warmed at her sentiment. He was surprised - yet not at the same time - that she so easily believed his story. As if she could see it in his eyes or his very soul, and she believed every word. She was always this thoughtful, no matter what lifetime he found himself in. Bless her. "That's not true. Somehow, I always find you."
Her blue, blue eyes widened and she gasped, "What?"
Zuko sat up and looked down to her, with her hair fanned out around her like a halo, and he smiled as he caressed her cheek. "It seems like I find someone who is you no matter where I go. I'm not sure how, but I know. My wife before I was cursed was named Katara, and I see her in every lifetime I find myself deposited in."
Katara sat up, tears falling down her slim face, and Zuko was stunned to see that she was sad of all things. "Is that why we did this? Because you think I'm your wife?"
He shook his head furiously. "I literally got here after the fact the first time around."
"But you never showed any interest in me before tonight," she insisted, her frustrated and angry tears falling harder. "Last week, you told me that you valued our friendship. And yesterday you were talking to me about picking up a different girl. And then this morning you called me and said you wanted to talk, and here we are with you telling me that you're not the Zuko I really know because he was possessed by a time-traveling soul that was cursed who-knows-how long ago because he keeps jumping back and forth through time with no consistent place except the fact that the person he takes over is also named Zuko and has some connection with a Katara-"
"Take a breath," Zuko cut in as he gripped her shoulders. Katara's eyes widened as her lip wobbled and her breath came in raggedly. "I know it's a lot to take in, but it's the truth. I don't know why your Zuko wanted to come out here with you, but he wanted you enough to initiate it without me intervening..."
Katara trembled under his hands and he slowly let her go. Vaguely, he could feel the tug in his stomach and he wanted to cry out and curse its timing. Why were they all so short now?!
"That being said, I'm about to leave," he stated as calmly as he could. Katara's eyes widened and he put his finger over her mouth to shush her. "Your Zuko will be back in control here in a few minutes. Maybe you can explain it to him and figure out what's going on, but in the meantime know that I love you, and every Katara I've met."
Her crying began anew and Zuko tried so hard to console her, but the pain of being ripped out of another body overwhelmed him until all he saw was white once more.
Izumi. That would be a good. Or maybe even Ryoto...
She was sitting across from him, eyes misty as she took a drink of a steaming beverage. Tea, he suspected, by the scent and the color. She was purposely avoiding his eyes, instead looking out the windows towards the street. The ache in his chest didn't lessen at the pained look in her eyes.
"Can you at least tell me why?" he found himself saying.
She shook her head and sighed, looking down at her drink before placing it back on the table. "Zuko... It's complicated."
A wry laugh threatened to burst bitterly out of his mouth. "Spare me the cliche answers, Kat."
She met his gaze, a tear spilling out of her eye and falling down her cheek, and she whispered, "I can't do this."
"You're already doing it." He felt like he was watching from outside his body, as if his reactions weren't his own and he was just witnessing the words leave his lips and the pain claw at his heart. Too soon after being so close and having to suffer through this? Perhaps his soul was finally blessing him with some mercy from the heartache of his eternal punishment. "Who is he?"
She set down her cup and leaned away from the table, as if the wood itself was what had made her cry. She sniffed again and looked back out the window, impatiently this time. "You wouldn't understand."
Fury burned hot in his chest. "Really? Because being told by one of our friends that she saw you with another man the day before our engagement party seems pretty clear to me."
Her eyes snapped to his and she scowled, the curve of her lips accentuated by the tear tracks that cut into her makeup. "What else was I supposed to do, Zuko? You've been so distant lately, no matter what I do it seems like you're some empty shell of the man I agreed to marry. It was all of a sudden, like a light switch being turned on, and you're a different person!"
Sadness made him sag and he lowered his eyes to the table. "I didn't know-"
"Know what?" Katara accused in her sharp yet quiet voice. "That I noticed you had changed? The reason I met up with Aang was because I was upset that you had completely blown me off when I had gone out of my way to surprise you. It's been constant and I'm tired of being ignored! He was there for me, which you haven't been."
"So you went to another man?" His voice was small, broken. And he cursed himself for ruining this Zuko's life because of his distracted and lost thoughts. She had to know the truth so she wouldn't leave. Not if he could help it. He's told her before, maybe she'll believe him in this life, too. "Katara, it's not like I don't love you anymore. I can explain-"
"I don't want to hear it," she muttered as she ripped her engagement ring off her finger and slammed it on the table. The sound made him jump and clench his jaw. "Aang is here to pick me up. I'll get my stuff from your apartment and you won't ever have to worry about seeing me again."
"Stop." Her voice was watery and quiet, and her eyes were full of remorse and regret. "I know you tried. But I think we both knew this wasn't going to work. We should have stopped before we got this deep."
Before he could retort, she stood and walked out of the diner, and Zuko watched as she strode out into the snow to climb into the old van her ex-boyfriend had driven to pick her up. Their eyes met right as the van started to pull away, and the tug on his heart was so quick and sharp that he barely had time to register the fact that he was jumping once more.
He woke on silken sheets, rolling over to look at a lantern on his nightstand. There, a scroll laid with his name in ancient script, and he sighed as he grabbed it and read its contents:
"Fire Lord Zuko-
Please meet me in the palace springs when the moon is at its highest. I will be waiting for you.
His heart lurched into his throat and he scrambled out of his bed before hustling out of the room and into the halls. He was met with dark red lit by the moonlight, and two armored men at the end of the hallway. Zuko calmed himself and started strolling forward as nonchalantly as he could.
"Fire Lord Zuko, you are up late," one of the men said as he bowed to Zuko at his waist.
Zuko swallowed the discomfort at the gesture and dismissed him with a simple wave. "Just getting some fresh air."
"We shall follow you," the second guard stated as they both straightened up.
"No, no," Zuko replied as quickly as he could. "I'll be fine. Just a late night stroll to the springs."
The guards both looked at each other curiously before nodding to him and resuming their place at the door. Zuko passed them and turned the corner before bursting into a run. He knew where the springs were - from another life in this very palace - and was quick to find them occupied by a very-nude woman who was moving the water with a wave of her arms.
He quelled the ache in his heart from her recent breaking of his heart in the last jump and took in the sight of her: tall and curved, with cut muscles in the long line of her back. Her thighs were shapely but strong, and her arms were sleek and strong like they had been carved from marble. In the steam of the springs, her body glistened and his yearned to touch it.
She whirled around, her smile wide, and immediately she launched the water she had been controlling right at him. He reacted quickly, deflecting it with a burst of flames from his hands, and he grinned when she started laughing.
"Clothes off, Fire Lord."
He smirked and shed his robe and trousers, leaving himself bare but proud to her keen eyes. Her grin turned hungry as he approached her, and soon her body was wrapped around his as he lowered himself into the steaming water of the hot spring.
Her kisses were eager and fervent, always hungry and demanding. She was quick to take advantage of his arousal by sinking down onto him and riding him like he was a komodo rhino. Her sighs and moans echoed off the walls, and Zuko kissed her hard as she quickly came around him. He was quick to follow, falling into the haze of satisfaction as she slowed her hips and broke out of the kiss to lay her head on his shoulder.
"Can I ask you something?" she murmured against his neck.
"Why does it feel like you're not here sometimes?" She sat up and met his eyes, her concern clear, and she added, "It just seems like you're disconnected, like you're not even here anymore. But then you come back like some blazing fire, only to be snuffed out just as quickly. Can you please explain what's going on in your head?"
He dropped his eyes to the water and tightened his hold on her. "You wouldn't believe me, even if I told you the truth."
He shook his head and hoisted her off of his lap. "I'm sorry."
Katara took his hand before he could flee and she pressed his palm to her chest. "Please, I need to know. If you disappear again, I won't come back."
He couldn't help the cold scowl that crossed his face when he glared down at her. He knew she wouldn't come back, because that's what happened when he left. She disappeared like dust in the wind, never to return. And the pain of her leaving him last jump seemed to fester deep in his chest as he said lowly, "What makes you think you deserve to know?"
Just like that, she let go of his hand and took a step back into the deeper waters. Zuko felt the tug in his stomach - another failure - and he quickly climbed out of the water and steamed himself dry before tugging his clothes back on. As he stepped into the hallway, the unmistakable pain twisted in his stomach and his vision went white again.
A ring of a phone woke him from his slumber and dreams of pairs of haunting blue eyes and cries of his name. He rolled over to see it lighting up his entire room from its perch on his nightstand, trying to shake the image of a child of his likeness holding his hand. Zuko rolled over and grabbed it, then saw her name on the screen. He couldn't help the lurch of his heart as he answered the call.
"Zuko?" came a masculine voice on the other end.
Zuko's heart sank and he fell back onto the pillows. "Yeah?"
Katara sighed and Zuko could imagine him fidgeting before saying, "I need your help. Toph won't talk to me and I don't want her to break up with me over this."
"Just tell her the truth," Zuko replied, fighting the sleep that was forcing itself on his eyes. He could feel the twist deep in his belly, telling him it was time to go already, and he rubbed his eyes. The scar tissue was gone this time, he realized sadly as despair seemed to wrap its sharp claws around his heart. But this jump was so short he wouldn't have been able to lament its absence.
"But she got upset when I did!" Katara shouted with the despair Zuko was feeling. "Please, man, I can't lose her like you lost Suki."
Before Zuko could get Katara to elaborate, the tug came without warning and his world spun into white once more.
"You're younger this time."
Zuko looked up from the book he was reading to see an elderly woman standing over him, a slight smile on her face. Zuko was instantly reminded of the witch that had cursed him, but he chose to push that thought away as he closed his book and scooted over for the woman to join him on the park bench.
"What do you mean?"
As the woman sat, he saw a glimpse of the the blue in her eyes and his heart lurched. Did he come too late? Why was this jump so strange? His body was much younger than he was used to inhabiting - a preteen by the feel of it - and she was old, much older than she ever had been. Sometimes she was a year or two or ten older, even sometimes a child when he himself was a teen, but not almost seventy years older!
She smiled, her weathered face pulling and showing much more of her age. "I know you anywhere, Zuko. Unfortunately, I thought you would have come back sooner, and not as a child."
Zuko felt his cheeks heat and he grumbled under his breath as he looked away. "So you've met me before?"
He knew she nodded as she sighed, "In another one of your jumps. You came to me as my Zuko a long time ago. And a few times since."
He turned back to her and frowned. "So you know everything?"
She nodded. "How long has it been for you? Since that night you told me your secret."
Zuko looked up to the fluffy clouds that floated in the sky, then shrugged. "Who knows? I've jumped at least a thousand times since then."
Her leathery hand laid itself on top of his and he fought the urge to cry. How much longer until this madness ends?
"I think we may have figured out," she said with a worn voice that knew as many years as he. "My Zuko and me. Once I told him what happened, he knows when you're coming, and after you leave. It's happened twice, and both times it was so brief that we couldn't quite get a few words in before you left again."
He dropped his head. "I don't remember it, Katara."
"It may have been a jump you made a long time ago, or not yet," she suggested with a slight shrug, her thin lips smiling when he said her name. "Regardless, we might have an answer for you."
He lifted his chin and saw she was smiling as the breeze hit her face. He waited for her to continue.
"You told me your wife was me, or similar enough to me, yes?"
He nodded, the twinge of sadness when he thought of her returning deep in his heart. "Yes."
Katara sat back and took a deep breath before tilting her chin up to the sky again. "You were cursed because you turned your back on a family member. We figured you may need to prove your love to another in order for the time hopping to stop."
Zuko's voice cracked when he asked, "How?"
"Find a Katara that is your age, single, and willing to fall in love with you sincerely," she stated. "Prove your devotion and loyalty to her, enough to solidify your love, and that may do the trick."
"But my jumps are never long enough for that to work," he argued, feeling the hopelessness of his life seeping back into the cold crevice of his chest. "It's impossible."
A cool hand cupped his chin and he felt tears fall out of his eyes as she turned his face towards her. Their eyes met and more tears fell at her cloudy gaze. She couldn't even see him, not really. Not anymore. "Nothing is impossible if you have love and hope. You told me this yourself the last time you were with me."
His stomach started to twist painfully and he started crying harder. Katara's hushes were drowned out by his cries, and he didn't care what a passerby may think of a blind old woman hugging a small boy to her chest as he sobbed and sobbed. When his vision started to spin and turn white, he heard her say one final thing to him:
"Find me again. I know you can."
It had been a week since his last jump, putting Zuko on edge. As of late, his jumps would only last a few days at most. He couldn't remember the last time he inhabited a time as long as he had now. How long has it been since he was cursed? A thousand years in his time? Two? Who would even know? It was an endless cycle, crippling and agonizing to the point of hopelessness. He was certain he would die - after all, over a thousand years with a million different times he's jumped. Over and over, back and forth like a rag doll in the middle of a tornado.
And now, as he stared out toward the rolling waves of the warm sea, he lamented the lack of progress towards Katara's solution. Find her in this time, make her genuinely fall in love with him, and prove his love to her before he jumped once more. And he could only hope that was enough to break the spell. Without the witch, he couldn't confirm or deny its ability to bring him back home to her.
He was so tired.
With a sigh, he turned from where he was standing on the beach and started walking back up towards the boardwalk. Not many people were out on the beach today, for it was cool and the clouds overhead told of a storm about to roll in from the sea. A perfect metaphor to the turbulence in his heart.
At least this time he jumped into the body of an adult. Unfortunately, he was scarred this time. He pondered over how this Zuko was scarred: was it an accident? Was it by the hand of his father or another family member? Was he born with it? It was a shame, regardless. Having to suffer through the disfiguration again, no matter how used to it he had been in his original time, made his heart ache.
Perhaps a drink would soothe his storm of remorse.
A bar was on the boardwalk, not far from where he decided to endlessly stare into he abyss of the sea, and he quickly rinsed the sand from his feet before sliding on his shoes and practically stumble aimlessly to it. He walked in, was greeted by the bartender, and he quickly held up two fingers: two shots of whatever was going to get him drunk and quick.
The last jump as a child made him thirst for the wiles of spirits, only for him not be allowed to even take a sip. Cruel, it had been, and now he was going to make up for it by drowning his sorrows.
Two completely filled cups were placed in front of him, an amber swirling liquid that smelled of a higher proof and price tag. Without hesitating, he picked one up and drank its entire contents, only to pick up the other and chase it down in rapid succession. The honeyed burn barely fazed him.
"Easy there, tiger."
His heart stuttered in his chest at the sound of her voice and he quickly snapped his head to her. She had been to his right, blind to his scar, but her wide eyes only opened for a split second at the sight of it before she met both of his eyes and grinned. "You're going to be on the floor at that rate."
Zuko snorted and gestured to the bartender to give him two more. At least he could be a gentleman and give her a shot. Maybe.
"It's been a long week." The bartender set down the shots and left the bottle, and Zuko quickly handed one to her. He had not been exaggerating.
She nodded as she accepted it, and they clinked their glasses together before they each downed their drinks. Not even a wince on her part. "What's your name?"
"Zuko," he grunted as he filled up his glass again. "Yours?"
"Katara." He already knew it. "Are you from around her, Zuko?"
He met her eyes and saw the glittering blue that always made his heart thud against his chest. He sighed and shook his head, then filled up her glass for her. "Just visiting for a while."
Something mischievous made her eyes darken and his mouth went dry at the way her lips pulled up into a smirk. "How long are you visiting?"
Zuko licked his lips and downed his shot without taking his eyes away from hers. When his glass hit the bar, he leaned towards her slightly and murmured, "As long as you'd like."
When he woke up the next morning, bare naked with her draped over his chest, his hangover was a distant thing in his mind. The softness of her skin was always apparent to him, smooth and supple as his calloused hands dragged up and down the length of her back. He pressed a kiss to the crown on her head and took in the scent of her hair: smokey from the bar, but the undertone of salt and something flowery made his head spin.
She hummed and snuggled closer to him, then pressed a light kiss to his chest. "Morning."
He couldn't help but smile. "Morning."
He waited for the tug in his stomach, but it didn't come. Usually, after he's had his fun with her, his soul was yanked out of the peaceful moment and he was left bereft of her warmth and loving touch as he woke up in a new life. But not today. Today, he watched the sun rise through the window, over her messy hair and the sea outside, and he felt peace for the first time in a millennia.
"What are you thinking?"
Zuko blinked and looked down, meeting her groggy eyes and thoughtful smile. He felt his own smile tug at his lips as he leaned down and kissed her forehead. "Just that you're even more beautiful in the morning light."
When he pulled away, he saw her cheeks had gone ruddy and she bit her lip before saying under her breath, "Smooth talker."
A rush of lightness went through his head and he chuckled as he pushed some of her wayward hair away from her face. "That's what you'll get with me."
Something glittered in her eyes again and she pulled herself up so she was leaning over him, giving him an ample view of her naked body. His reacted immediately, jolting to attention as she swung her leg over his hips and straddled his growing erection.
"And I'll get this, too?" she asked in an almost-innocent voice.
Zuko's hand latched to her hips and he ground himself against her center, feeling the wetness of her arousal start to lubricate his length. "And more, if you want it."
Her gasp was his answer as he took himself in his hand to guide into her entrance, and as her hair fell around them in a protective curtain, he thrust up into her just as he had done the night before.
Though the fear of being pulled out lingered in the back of his mind, Zuko decided he wanted to keep seeing this Katara, regardless of the consequences to this Zuko's life.
Katara left with a sated smile on her face and a hickey on her breast, which was barely covered by the tank top she had pulled out of her purse to avoid the "morning after" look. She gave him her number and told him to call that evening so they could go out again, to which he was incredibly pleased. This Katara, so like his wife, was spunky and headstrong, and never put up with his shit, frequently calling him out when he was lost in his despairing thoughts. He was smitten already - not that it helped she was some sort of incarnation of his wife - and he wanted nothing more than to spend as much time with her as he could.
Almost two months into seeing her, Zuko stopped worrying about the jump. He figured that when it happened, it would happen. The time he spent with her was to precious to waste worrying over the inevitable departure his soul would have to make with this life. He determined it would be best to savor the time he spent in her arms or between her sheets, never letting his thoughts wander to when his soul decided it was time to go.
And tonight, he would tell her how he felt. Truly, sincerely this time. Not lingering feelings of the past life or of memories of his wife, but real true love for the Katara that swam in front of him, glowing in the soft sunset.
He had a surprise for her back at his place- a bottle of her favorite wine and a dainty diamond necklace - and after their swim in the sea he would shower her with the love he knew she deserved. It was all going according to plan: her smiles, her laughs, her sultry kisses and fleeting touches under the water.
Zuko couldn't have planned a more perfect night.
At least, until they returned to the boardwalk to return to his apartment. At first, Zuko had thought it was strange there weren't that many people lingering around. The sun was still out for the most part and the stores were open. Yet, no more than a few stragglers were walking around. He didn't voice his unease, but Katara could feel it. She took his hand and squeezed it, and he met her concerned gaze with a frown.
"What is it?"
"Where is everyone?"
Katara looked around and then down at her phone. "The festival is this week on the other side of the island. Not many people will hang around here when the festival is on the ocean side. The water here is warmer, but no one is swimming now that the summer season is over."
"Ah." He still couldn't shake the uneasy feeling in his gut as they walked hand-in-hand down the boardwalk towards his apartment building down the block.
Unfortunately, someone had different plans for them.
Something cold was pressed to his temple the second he passed a seemingly abandoned alleyway. An experience in a past life told him it was a gun, based on the pressure and the fear that trickled down his spine. Katara started to scream, but another person came up behind her and covered her mouth with their gloved hand. Her wide eyes met his and they silently let themselves be escorted into the dark alleyway that their attackers had been hiding in.
"Well, well, well. What do we have here?" a silken voice came from the gun's owner.
Zuko grit his teeth and let himself be manhandled up against the brick wall. The stones dug into his damp shoulders and he scowled as the men let themselves finally be seen. Or at least, their masked faces. All Zuko could make out with the low light from the setting sun and the street lamps were the brown eyes that both of the men owned.
The second man - the one who had silenced Katara - pulled out his own gun and replied, "Seems like some well-off people to me."
"We're not," Katara insisted. "I'm just a lifeguard. And he works at a body shop."
Which wasn't true. Katara knew he worked at the local dojo as an instructor on kung fu. If these thugs knew that, they'd look for a fight. Better for him to play it safe and keep it a secret until he could disarm them and keep Katara protected.
The first one gestured with his gun towards Zuko's face. "Give us all your money."
"Don't have any," he replied earnestly. The last of his cash was spent on their dinner and her gifts. He wouldn't get paid again until the next week.
Vaguely, he felt something sink in his stomach and he swallowed against the discomfort that lingered there.
The second man stepped towards Katara and his gun was pressed to her temple. "What about you, sweetheart?"
Though her eyes were hard, Zuko could see the fear lingering there as she stared the man down. "Nothing."
"Check her, Long," the first man said.
"You got it, Fen."
Long began groping her, his hands searching her pockets and her small handbag that held her phone and keys. No cards, no cash. She chose not to because most of the fun things she liked to do were free. Zuko tried to fight his anger at his girlfriend being molested by the grungy man, but Fen's gun pressing to his temple stopped him from acting. Long cupped Katara's breasts - likely to "check" for hidden money - then his dirty fingers trailed down her stomach towards her legs. Zuko's heart rate picked up considerably, and he decided there was no more time to lose.
Right as Long's fingers trailed the waistband of Katara's shorts, Zuko grabbed Fen's wrist and knocked the gun away from his head. The man was too stunned to act as Zuko bent his wrist and stole the gun away. Right as he did, he acted and shot Fen in the leg, then moved to disengage Long. Zuko's actions tore Long away from Katara, and he quickly acted by pulling out his own gun and pointing it at Katara's head. Zuko froze, his hands trembling in time with Fen's pained whimpers, and he scowled.
"Let her go and I won't have to hurt you."
Long pressed the gun more to her head, causing Katara to gasp at the discomfort. "Naw, man. You shot Fen! Give me all of your shit and I won't kill her."
"Not going to happen," Zuko muttered, aiming his gun at Long's face. "When I shoot you, you won't have time to pull your trigger."
"But I'll still shoot your girl," Long insisted with a shaking voice. "Lower your gun and give me all your shit."
Zuko met Katara's eyes and she shook her head, a sign for him to not be stubborn. He saw it in her shining eyes as Long moved the gun to her cheek. A tear fell, and as it rolled off her jaw and down to the ground, it broke his resolve into a million pieces. Slowly, he lowered the gun and held his hands up in a surrender.
"Good boy," Long murmured, almost as if he was talking to a dog for sitting when told. "Now give me your wallet. Don't care if there's no cash."
Zuko did as he was told, taking it out of his back pocket and tossing it at him. Long caught it effortlessly before silently pointing his gun in Zuko's face. His stomach dropped and his heart stopped. He could tell Long was smirking under his ski mask, all smug and haughty as he shoved Katara back to his side. Before he could wrap his arms around her, Long moved his gun to her direction and his finger pulled on the trigger.
Vaguely, he remembered moving in front of her as he fired his gun back and hit Long in the stomach. All he could see was Katara's eyes as he fell to the ground and how her screams echoed through the entire alleyway as Fen managed to stand and pull Long out of the scene of the crime. The pain never manifested, not truly until he met Katara's eyes as her hands pressed against the wound in his chest.
"You idiot!" she cried as she tugged off her shirt and wadded it up on the wound. "Why would you do that?"
Behind the pain, Zuko felt the familiar tug - more prominent now than ever before - and he sighed. Did he miss his chance? Was this not how it was supposed to be? Was he to die here and then jump to a new life again?
"Zuko! Stay with me!"
He blinked and looked at her again. With a cough - feeling blood trickle out of his mouth in the process - he said as resolutely as he could, "People do crazy things when they're in love."
Her eyes widened, causing more tears to fall and crash against his bleeding chest, and he vaguely remembered a time where her tears would have healed his wound. But not here, not now.
It was too late.
"I love you, too, you dummy!" she sobbed as she pressed harder down on his wound to staunch the bleeding. "That's why you can't go and die on me now!"
He couldn't help but chuckle as the tugging pain increased tenfold, drowning out the pain of the bullet wound. "I had to save you."
As her tears increased tenfold and the sounds of sirens started to fill the alleyway, Zuko took her bloodied hand and squeezed it as hard as he could. He tried his best to convey his remorse over their ending, his everlasting love to her, and his acceptance. The pain was overwhelming now, and as he finally closed his eyes he felt the all-too-familiar sensation of his soul being ripped out of his body to deposited into the next.
It was nothing compared to the agony on Katara's face as his body died.
The woods around him were familiar - too familiar. Zuko sat up with a start, gasping for air as if he hadn't breathed any in years. He coughed and doubled over, and his chest and stomach heaved so much he emptied whatever contents had been in his stomach when this body first arrived in the forest. Usually the arrivals weren't this... bumpy. Rather, they were like waking up from yet another dream - silent and soft, yet swift and a little disorienting. This time, it was like he was dropped from the sky after swimming in the clouds.
Never had he woken so dizzy.
He spun around, trying his best to reorient himself, and he suddenly realized what woods these were: the Kane Forest. Where he had been cursed. Without thinking, he scrambled to his feet and sprinted back to where he knew the path would take him. He ran as fast as he could, leaping over roots and rocks as if insignificant. Some branches brushed against his face, but he ignored the slight pain.
It was nothing compared to what he had endured for the past millennia.
The entrance to the woods was like a breath of fresh air. He almost cried when he stumbled through the threshold and recognized the buildings in the village. There was only one way to be sure...
He quickly ran to the hill where he had once made love to a Katara different than his own, one that he told his secret and saw time and time again. One that he held almost as reverently as the one he married and the one he sacrificed himself for.
On the hill, sitting on a dark red blanket and clothed in a warm blue dress. Her curly hair billowed in the soft wind, eyes softly gazing towards their village and the sea in the distance. Breathlessly, he ran to her as if she were his lifeline.
But wasn't that true? Every life he inhabited, she was there: anchoring his soul and giving him a purpose in that time. She had been the one who gave him direction when he felt lost, gave him love when he felt alone, gave him hope when he had none. She was the one who came up with a way to break his curse, and if he had hoped correctly, then it had been successful. He was free, all because of her.
As if he had beckoned her with his thoughts, she turned to him when he reached her and smiled widely. "Hello, darling."
His breath caught in his throat. This was his Katara. He was home.
Her smile fell and a concerned look crossed her face. "Are you alright, Zuko? You look ashen."
Zuko quickly shook his head and fell to his knees in front of her before taking her hands. "It just feels like I've been gone for a very long time."
Her head tilted with mirth and she took his scarred cheek in her hand, caressing it fondly as she said, "You're silly. You've only been gone a day."
Zuko fought the urge to laugh, because in his reality it had been much, much longer than just a day. Instead he laid down on the ground and placed his head in her lap, to which she was happy to start stroking his hair fondly. He kissed her stomach, for the life he remembered was starting to grow there, and he sighed, "It feels much longer than that, my love."
Katara hummed and pushed his hair off of his forehead. "Did you get the supplies your mother needed?"
Suddenly struck by that errand he forgot, Zuko sheepishly looked up at her and shook his head. "I think I'll go to the other town across the river to get it."
She gave him that knowing grin and tugged on his ear slightly. "Did you get lost in the Kane Forest again?"
Unashamed, he nodded and nuzzled his face against her stomach. "That's why it felt like I was gone for so long."
As she stroked his hair and started humming a song that Zuko thought he had long forgotten, he let himself fall into the first peaceful slumber he had in four thousand years.