“Do you have to save the world all by yourself?
Why don’t you trust someone to do it with you?” The Ocean and The Sun, The Sound of Animals Fighting
They are silent for most of the ride, holding each other close as Appa soars through the progressively reddening sky. Words wouldn’t do the situation any justice; what do you say to the person you love as you fly towards what could be your death? Tell her you love her. Katara buries her head in his shoulder, and his arms automatically come up to encircle her in his warmth. He feels her tears on his shirt, and he grimaces as he tries to hold back his own. He guides her face gently with his hand on her cheek so he can kiss her, their tears swirling together on their faces as they both pour all of themselves into the kiss. Tell her.
Their foreheads rest against each other, Katara having moved practically in his lap in an effort to get as close as they can before they’re consumed by the danger that awaits them. Tell her. She reaches up to cup his face with both of her hands, bringing him down for another long kiss, filled to the brim with emotion, his love spilling out from his lips onto hers. She gives him another quick kiss as Caldera City comes into view with the Royal Palace looming on the farthest side of the city.
“You’re not allowed to die on me.” Her voice wavers with the demand, betraying her deepest fears.
“I won’t.” He pulls her hands off of his face as they speed towards the palace, kissing her knuckles before he continues. “And you’re not allowed to die on me either.” A small, tired smile graces her face as she nods, and he burns the image into his mind, just in case.
As Appa lands in the coronation plaza, Zuko breathes in deep, feeling Agni bless him and the roar of the comet approaching set fire to his blood. Azula is on her knee in front of the Fire Sages, the Fire Lord’s headpiece hovering inches about her disheveled topknot. At the noise, the Sages turn and look at them in surprise.
“What are you waiting for? Do it!” Azula’s voice is far from its normal controlled manner, and Zuko and Katara hop off of Appa and land gracefully in the courtyard.
“Sorry Azula, but you’re not going to become Fire Lord today.” He stands tall, something inside of him filling him with an unknown confidence. “I am.” Azula laughs, but there’s something off about it, something strange and out of tune.
The Fire Sage continues to lower the crown before Azula stops him. “Wait. You want to be Fire Lord, Zuzu? Fine. Let’s settle this, just you and me, brother. The showdown that was always meant to be: Agni Kai!” Her eyes are wild, the amber of her iris’ shrinking with the dilation of her pupils. Something’s wrong with her.
“You’re on.” He hears Katara gasp beside him as a broken smile slides onto Azula’s face.
“What are you doing?” Katara comes to his side as Azula walks away to prepare. “She’s playing you, Zuko! She knows she can’t take us both, she’s trying to separate us!” Tears swim in her eyes, and he lays a gentle hand on her arm to comfort her.
“I can take her.”
“But you even agreed with your uncle when he said you’d need help!” she begs him to concede, but he can’t back down. He won’t.
“She’s unhinged, Katara. Something is wrong with her; I know I can beat her. And this way nobody else has to get hurt.” He wants to kiss her, but he can’t risk Azula recognising her as a weakness. If he were to lose, who knows what she’d do to Katara. Tell her. “I love you.”
“I love you too.” She must understand his hesitation, because she doesn’t reach for him. Her love shines through the blue in her tearful eyes as he steps away to face his sister.
Something inside of him ignites, his inner fire sparkling all colors of the rainbow in his chest as he breathes deep to prepare for the fight. He kneels in the sacred position, bowing his head and praying to Agni for his blessing. He rises and spins around, and brings hands up in a defensive position as he locks eyes with Azula.
“I’m sorry it has to end this way, brother.” She spits the last word out like venom, her smile demented and born of malice.
“No, you’re not.” Her stance is weak, her knees bent at an awkward angle, and he knows that today he’ll come out on top.
She spins and shoots a large plume of blue fire his way, and he retaliates with a jump and a sweeping motion, spouting brilliant multicolored flames out of both of his hands and sending them in a wave towards his sister. The fires clash together, creating a massive wall of flame in the middle of the plaza. As the flames die, Azula pushes herself into the air with her fire and kicks waves of blue at Zuko as she lands, catching the surrounding structures and setting them alight. The flames are gargantuan as Zuko shoots a powerful blast of fire to dissipate hers— the heat from Azula’s fire makes him sweat as it streaks past his face in a steady stream. He readjusts his feet to steady his stance and feels the power of the comet fuel his inner fire as his bursts of color mix with Azula’s pure blue flame.
The flames dissipate, both Zuko and Azula’s eyes drawn to the building burning across the plaza. Azula turns to him with a feral look in her eye as she blasts fire from her foot, launching her high into the air, and she uses the force to flip herself around so that she can come down in a kick, her heel generating a stream of fire that heads towards Zuko. He spins around, takes a low stance, and shoves with all his might in both directions— his fire splits hers down the middle in a huge burst of energy. Azula is kneeling on the ground on the far side of the plaza, her body heaving with the force of her breaths. Her confusion is evident, and no doubt caused by Zuko’s fire holding a spectrum of colors that haven’t been seen from a firebender in hundreds of years.
He takes advantage of her vulnerable position, and stretches out his left arm and punches down along it with his right, creating two streams of fire that twist around themselves and rush towards Azula. She just barely leaps out of the way in time, gaining her composure and using jets of fire from her feet to propel herself towards Zuko. She conjures two huge blasts of fire from her firsts as she approaches, and Zuko uses the power from the comet to launch himself high in the air on a plume of multicolored fire so that he can send a powerful kick down, channeling his fire through his heel to counter Azula’s attack. He brings his hands together and arcs them towards the ground as he lands, blasting her latest attack with a fire whip and splitting it, forcing the blue flames to streak past him on either side. Azula swings wide on her jets, sending her fire at his way as he creates a sphere of flames around him to act as a shield. He tries to get her with streams of brilliant color, but she’s too fast, jettisoning around him in a circle on her blue flames. He narrows his eyes and takes a different approach; he drops to the ground and spins his legs around above his head, conjuring fire from his heels and sending it out in a circle, using his momentum to swing back up onto his feet. This attack catches her off guard, and when his fire collides with the plumes propelling her around the plaza, she is thrown forward to land heavy and hard on the ground, and she rolls back with a series of pained grunts. She raises slowly, panting and growling, and his confidence swells in his chest, making him bold and fearless.
“What, no lightning today?” he taunts her, watching as her eyes flash and her lip curls in anger. “What’s the matter? Afraid I’ll redirect it?” He gets into the proper stance as he goads her, centering himself and breathing deep.
“Oh, I’ll show you lightning!”
Her voice is feral, her stance wonky as she swings her arms in messy arcs to generate the lightning. She focuses her eyes on Zuko, but they glance to his right, and he spins around to see Katara standing behind him straight where Azula’s rabid gaze had landed. No.
He sees her alter her stance. His legs move in slow motion as he uses all the energy in his body to propel himself to intercept the lightning.
“No!” Please let this be enough, please let me get there—
He catches the it; the raw power of lightning sizzles along his chi, burning up his veins as he attempts to redirect it while mid-jump. It’s too close to my chest, too close, too close—
He forces the lightning away from his heart, but not low enough into his stomach, and he feels it ripping through him as he wills it out of his other arm as soon as he slams to the ground.
The lightning is bright and sharp as it flashes in her eyes. Time slows to a crawl as Zuko hurls himself in front of the streak, before speeding up again as he falls. Lightning leaves his body through his outstretched hand as he skids along the hard ground. She sees him twitching, sees the sparks hanging onto his tense body as he rolls onto his back, and goes limp.
“Zuko!” She rushes towards him, her heart pumping wildly in her chest, her outstretched hand already covered in water, when a blast of blue flame cuts her off.
Azula laughs manically, her flame dissipating to reveal Zuko stretching out his hand towards Katara. Her eyes fill with tears as she looks at his prone form lying on the ground, twitching and stretching to reach for her. Azula blasts at Katara again, forcing her to jump and roll out of the way to avoid being burned. The princess powers herself onto the roof of one of the buildings lining the plaza using her fire as jets underneath her feet.
“I’d really rather our family physician look after little Zuzu, if you don’t mind!” Azula’s voice is light and taunting, and Katara reaches for her water as the princess swivels her arms to generate more lightning and strike at her. She blasts burst after burst of fire at Katara, forcing her to run and take cover behind a large pillar.
“Zuzu, you don’t look so good!”
Katara sees red as Azula continues to blast at her with lightning. She jumps out from behind the pillar just as Azula destroys it, exploding it into hundreds of tiny shards and splinters. She takes hold of the water in the nearby basin and pulls it to her, and uses a massive amount to drench the spot where Azula had been just moments before. Somehow Azula comes up from behind her, forcing her to run; she uses the water available to slide around Azula in an arc as she continues to shoot fists of fire her way, freezing the water as she surfs along it. She swivels around the plaza on the ice, evading the deranged princess as best she can. She slides along her ice trail, using it to propel herself behind some more pillars. In her haste to keep ahead of Azula, she trips on a grate as she runs over it and falls to her knees with a grunt. Water. There’s water running steadily under the grate, and as she looks up she sees a thick chain hanging on the building next to her. Katara gets an idea that she thinks just might work, and she runs to grab the chains.
“There you are, filthy peasant!”
Azula emerges from behind a pillar, and Katara hides the chains behind her back and positions herself on top of the grate. The deafening beat of her heart pounds mercilessly in her ears. She flings a handful of well placed water whips at Azula to force the other girl on top of the grates as Katara gets into the right position. Azula moves to conjure her lightning, and Katara swings her arms wide above her head, pulls all of the water under them through the grate, and freezes it around them. Azula’s fingers are an inch from her face as Katara breathes out through her nose to melt the ice around her with her breath. Azula’s eyes follow her as she continues to melt the water around her body, which allows her to manipulate the chains around the princess’ hands and feet and pull her down to weave the chain through the grate. She unfreezes the water and slams it back down to the ground; Azula and Katara both fall to their knees on the grate, gasping for breath and soaking wet. Azula coughs, and Katara checks the chains one more time— she tightens them even more to be sure that Azula can’t disentangle herself.
Once she’s sure that the princess is subdued, she sprints towards Zuko, who is still lying on the ground, muscles twitching as he groans with what must be an immense amount of pain. She reaches him and drops to her knees to flip him over onto his back. He groans through gritted teeth, and she gasps when she sees the wound. The burnt and bleeding starburst on his solar plexus is raw and no doubt paining him more with each passing moment. Tears flood her vision as she cloaks her hands in water and brings them to his chest. He winces with the pain, but as the water begins to glow, his features relax and he opens his eyes.
“Thank you Katara.” His voice is a quiet rasp, and her tears flow freely to combine with the healing water she uses on his chest.
“I think I’m the one who should be thanking you.” He smiles, and she gives him a watery, wobbly smile in return.
The wound fades from a burnt black and red to a softer mauve and pink, and when she’s satisfied with her work, she cradles the back of his neck in hers and kisses him. He cups her cheek in his hand as her tears fall onto his face, all of her terror and shock at seeing him risk his life for her leaking out through her eyes.
“I told you that you weren’t allowed to die,” she says as she helps him to his feet.
“I didn’t.” He smirks at her.
“You’re so dumb, and I love you so much.” His smile lights up the sky ten times brighter than the comet had, and he leans over to kiss her on the crown of her head.
They turn towards Azula, who is writhing and screaming, her blue fire spouting from her mouth like some sort of deranged animal, rabid and chained for its own safety. She lays her hand on Zuko’s back— the look of concern and pain on his face is one only capable of someone who’s seen the worst of their sibling and wants nothing more than to save them from themself. Azula eventually stops writhing and slumps over into a ball, her uncontrollable sobs ringing out uncomfortably loud in the large space. Zuko’s lip trembles as he hears his only sister come unhinged, chained to the floor, a wounded animal in a gilded cage. They turn away and begin walking towards the palace.
Zuko is crowned the next day. The crowd is formed by people of every nation; stripes of red, blue, and green fill the plaza to hear Zuko make his speech and officially end the war. The crowd cheers as he emerges dressed in formal Fire Lord regalia, looking every bit the leader that Katara knows he was always meant to be.
“Please.” He holds up a hand to silence the crowd. The awkward young man Katara has grown to love stands with confidence and gentle authority above the crowd, his visage reminding her of how far he’s come since the last time he was here. “The real hero is the Avatar!” He motions behind him, and Aang comes out to stand beside him. The crowd roars with a resounding cheer at the sight of the Avatar and the Fire Lord standing together as allies for the first time in over one hundred years.
“Today this war is finally over!” His voice rings out clear as the crowd quiets, only for them to cheer again at his declaration of peace. “I promised my uncle that I would restore the honor of the Fire Nation, and I will. The road ahead of us is challenging; one hundred years of fighting has left the world scarred and divided. But with the Avatar's help, we can get it back on the right path and begin a new era of peace and love.” The crowd goes wild with cheers, only to quiet again as Zuko kneels and the Fire Sage holds the royal crown above his head. The Sage lowers it slowly, and gently puts it in its rightful place in Zuko’s topknot. Zuko stands, and Katara’s eyes fill with tears at the journey the man she loves has taken to get here today.
“All hail Fire Lord Zuko!”
The crowd erupts into another cheer as Zuko stands. He motions to Aang to follow him down the stairs towards the crowd, and towards where she and the rest of their friends stand in solidarity. Katara runs towards him and throws her arms around his neck, uncaring about the huge crowd behind them.
“I’m so proud of you Zuko,” she whispers into his collar, and she feels him take what may be the deepest breath he’s taken in years.
He wipes her tears away with his thumbs before guiding her face up to his and pressing their lips together. They haven’t talked about what they’ll do from this moment on; what a relationship between the Fire Lord and the (technical) Princess of the Southern Water Tribe would entail, or how the people of either nation would feel about it, but Zuko’s very public display of affection makes his intentions clear. They will be together, come hell or high water, no matter what the Sages or the council or anyone else says. Katara thinks back to all those months ago when Aunt Wu had read her fortune and told her of her destiny. Once the union is made, it will usher in a new era; one of peace and love. The twin flame energy binds two people to each other, their destiny as undeniable as the stars in the sky. Everything in her life has changed in the last year, but based on where things are now, she wouldn’t have it any other way.