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Beyond the Spirit Portal

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A rustling sounded from ahead of him, and Zuko raised his hands in defense, tired of giving everything in the Spirit World the benefit of doubt. So far, he had been teased, outright attacked, and led astray twice. He was starting to see the benefits of closing the human world off from the spirits so many millennia ago.

Spirits were damn annoying.

He never would have bothered to venture to this world if not for the urgency of the matter at hand.

Years back, Korra had once admitted to him that his uncle was here, happily running a teashop of giving council to those in need.

Zuko had long since learned how to live without Uncle Iroh’s constant council, but with news of Katara’s passing, he was now consumed with the need to seek his relative out.

He just needed someone to talk to for a bit. Someone who remembered the early days. Someone who remembered Katara the way he remembered her. Someone who understood exactly why he was feeling the way he was now.

Out from the bushes on the path ahead popped a cute little blob with wings. Upon sighting the old Fire Lord, it smiled, revealing far too many sharp teeth.

“You’re going the wrong way,” it rasped out in a young voice.

“I think I’ll be the judge of that,” Zuko challenged, refusing to lower his guard.

“Your grief and desperation are clouding you from reading the right auras,” it explained.

“I don’t care about auras. I just want to find the teashop.”

The thing flapped its wings and began to hover in the air. “Suit yourself. Follow me.”

Zuko had half a mind to ignore it and continue down his own path. But in the end, he decided to listen, following at a sedated pace, hands still raised and ready for anything.

Much to his surprise, the spirit actually led him out of the forest and into a peaceful meadow. Well, almost peaceful. The giant, towering mushrooms were a bit disconcerting.

“Follow this path. Always stick to the right. You’ll find the teashop soon enough.”

Zuko turned, ready to demand what path, seeing as how he had been led off the path, but the spirit was already gone. Grumbling, he turned back around only to have his eyebrows rise in surprise at the wide dirt path he was now standing in the middle of.

Heeding the spirit's words, he took a large step to the right before continuing on.

Time seemed to be a hard concept for the Spirit World to grasp. After what had to have only been ten steps, Zuko suddenly felt like he had been walking for hours. He hadn’t felt this weary since he had been a boy, wandering lost through the Earth Kingdom during the war. The second he stopped to take a breath, he felt fine, and suddenly time snapped itself right.

Gritting his teeth, Zuko stomped forward. So what if everything in this world was against him? He had faced such odds before, and he was nothing if not determined.

It wasn’t long until the mushrooms thinned out and he spotted a building in the distance. Hope spurring him faster, Zuko hurried forward, something deep within him telling him he had finally reached his destination.

“Uncle!” he called out, breaking out into a run. “Uncle!!”

There was no answer, but several spirits faded into sight, all staring at him curiously.

“Uncle!! He slowed down and turned to one of them. “This is the teashop, isn’t it?” he asked.

“Iroh isn’t in right now.”

“But he’ll be back soon enough.”

“Usually.”

Zuko huffed out a chuckle. His uncle would be out picking plants in the wilderness for tea the one time he decides to visit.

Looking around, Zuko spotted a nearby table and sat down.

“That chair is reserved!”

“What are you doing?”

“What’s it look like I’m doing?” Zuko snapped, feeling very much done in dealing with spirits. “I’m old and I was once the Fire Lord. Now let me rest while I wait for my uncle.”

The wait took several hours. Normally, Zuko would have dozed off several times by now, but for some reason he felt far too awake. Probably from anxiety.

After all, what would Uncle have to say to him? It had been so long. Did Uncle even keep up on news from the Human World? He was a pretty terrible gossip, so he must have picked up on a few things here and there…

“They’re back!”

“He made it!”

“Quickly!”

“Get the tea ready!”

“I’ll get the biscuits!”

In a flurry of activity all around him, spirits began dashing around, running in and out of the shop, setting up the table he was at with cups, plates, teapots, sandwiches, the works. Zuko felt an odd urge to help them, but fought against it and looked out into the distance instead, where sure enough, there was his uncle being accompanied by a younger girl.

“Uncle!” he shouted happily, jumping up from his seat and moving to greet the man.

“Zuko?” He watched as his uncle’s shock melted into happiness. “Well, this is certainly a pleasant surprise. Wouldn’t you say so, Miss Katara?”

Katara…?

Eyes wide, Zuko’s gaze shot to the girl at Iroh’s side. Her hair was done in the style she often used to wear when visiting the Fire Nation, with most of it flowing in loose brown waves and a small topknot on her head. The wrinkles on her face were gone,  and she was far slimmer than she had been in years, but her eyes, which were just as wide as his, were still that same shade of blue and still had just as much kindness.

“Katara? W-what…?” What was she doing here? Why did she look so young? So beautiful?

Another round of sharp pain entered Zuko’s chest as he recalled the reason as to why he was here in the first place.

“Zuko, what are you doing here?” Katara asked, with a disbelieving shake of her head. “You’re still healthy as an ostrich-horse! You shouldn’t…How did you get here before me?”

“You…you died,” Zuko explained bluntly. “And I came here…to mourn.”

From his side, Iroh raised an eyebrow. “I thought you came to see me?”

Zuko’s brow knotted in confusion. “I…yes. They told me Katara died and I couldn’t…I needed someone to talk to.”

Katara’s gaze turned sad. “Oh, Zuko.” Her hand reached up to caress the side of his face. “I don’t think that’s what happened.”

Zuko’s eyes snapped open from where they had slid shut at the soft touch. “What? What do you mean?”

“Come, nephew.” Iroh placed a hand on Zuko’s shoulder and led him to the teashop. “You should probably see this before we continue.”

Rather than enter the building, Iroh led him up to one of the windows, where he was able to see their reflection. There was his uncle, looking just as he remembered. But next to his uncle was a young man, with a shock of dark hair on his head, a scar covering half of his face, and a simple red tunic wrapped around his body.

“That’s me,” Zuko breathed out, his eyes glued to his young image.

Katara moved beside him and placed a gentle hand on his arm. Zuko hardly noticed as his memory finally began to catch up with him.

He had been hurrying through the palace, knowing Druk would be outside waiting for him. He had just received word that Katara had fallen ill, and that things weren’t looking too good. He had been seconds away from mounting his dragon when a guard came chasing him down.

“My Lord! We just received a call from the Southern Water Tribe! It’s from Kya!”

The name alone was what allowed Zuko to pause and fix the guard with a cold stare.

“It’s Lady Katara, sir. She’s gone. She passed away less than an hour ago.”

Despair had welled through Zuko, so strong that it brought him to his knees. He had ordered her to wait for him! He had sworn to her he would be there and she was supposed to wait!

Pain had blossomed through his chest, and at the time, Zuko had thought it was from a broken heart. He didn’t really remember much after that. There had been some alarmed shouting. The need to spill all the secrets he carried consuming his last thoughts. The feel of the wind against his body as he rode on Druk’s back.

“I…died?”

“Welcome to the club,” Katara joked, a small smile on her lips.

A frown marred Zuko’s features. “You know, maybe I wouldn’t have died if someone had waited for me like I commanded.”

Katara’s jaw dropped in outrage and she stepped back to cross her arms defensively. “Excuse me? Not once have you ever been the boss of me.”

“So, what?” Zuko turned to face her head on. “You decided to move on before I could see you one last time just to prove a point?”

“What about you?!” Katara shot back. “You had to follow me here just to tell me off for it?”

Zuko shook his head. “I didn’t…Katara, the only reason I lived so long was because I knew you were there.” He stepped forward. “And then I was told that you were gone and it was like there was nothing left to keep me there.”

The shock that covered Katara’s face reminded Zuko that he had never told her the truth. That he had always kept it close to his heart, his most treasured secret.

He cleared his throat and stepped back to an acceptable distance. “Did you come here to see Aang?”

A blush stained Katara’s dark cheeks. “Aang’s gone.” She looked away. “He’s been gone for years.”

“What? But he’s the Avatar! They never really go away.”

Katara shook her head. “His spirit would have been forever tied to the current Avatar, but all the past reincarnations were destroyed. The cycle was broken with Korra.”

Zuko was unsure how to digest the news. He felt like he had just been told his best friend had died all over again. “…I’m sorry.”

His hand was picked up by an old, weathered one, and he looked to his uncle.

“As sad as that news is,” Iroh spoke as he took both their hands, “perhaps, Miss Katara, it is time you told him the reason why you are here as well, instead of having moved on like you should have?”

Katara’s blush increased.

“Once,” she began, “when I was a girl, I met this fortune teller. She accurately predicted my future down to every last detail, including how and when I would die. The thing is, one of the first predictions she had made for me was that I would marry a powerful bender.”

“Aang was a powerful bender,” Zuko helpfully provided.

“Yes, he was. But so are you,” Katara admitted, her gaze rising to meet his. “There were many times in my life where I wondered if he was the one I was truly meant to be with. Sokka always argued that people turned such predictions into self-fulfilling prophecies, and I always felt conflicted with the idea of having such a choice. In the end I ignored the notion of being able to choose and went with the guaranteed bet, but not a day went by since then where I couldn’t help but wonder.”

From beside them, Iroh grinned and brought their hands together, firmly clasped between his. He moved back as Zuko once again stepped forward.

“Katara, you…” Zuko’s whispered question trailed off at Katara’s nod. “All this time?”

“I’m sorry. For never saying anything. Or giving you a chance.”

The apology barely registered over the sound of Zuko’s pounding heart. Unable to find the appropriate words to respond verbally, Zuko allowed instinct to guide him.

He dropped Katara’s hands to cup her face instead, leaning down to finally finally learn just what her lips tasted like.

And it was just like heaven.