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02 October 2010 @ 08:56 pm
As Time Passes By : Part Two  
Title: As Time Passes By

Rating: T

Word Count: 10,000 +

Summary: “The dawn of your new nation will come as quickly as the sun has set on your father’s empire.” Zuko’s first year as Fire Lord does not go as he expects.

Written For: the All in a Year challenge, a very old challenge prompted by [info]nuitsansetoiles for [info]katara_zuko

As Time Passes By






Spring is supposed to bring new beginnings. The anteater sloths emerge from hibernation and the fire lilies bloom. The dull gray of winter livens into greens and reds and whites and browns and oranges. People begin living their lives outdoors again, no longer hiding from the oddly bitter wind. The sun rises to warm everything it touches.

And so, in a nation of heat and flames and color, the Fire Lord wonders how he can be so cold.

Standing before the carved box, intricately designed to bear her name and her family’s crest, the Fire Lord wonders why the sweltering eyes of the sun don’t burn him as they do the rest of the congregation. The sages read prayers, and he stands alone. She leaves behind a family—two parents, a little brother—and good friends—an acrobat, a chubby general—but they stand on the other side, even the royal guards retreating from him as he bows his head.

Holding a stiletto in his hands, the point spearing his fingertips several times, the Fire Lord wonders when she had the time to decide to jump in front of him but nobody else had the time to see the assassin. He remembers the energy in her movement—energy so rarely seen—and the way the light faded from her eyes after a week, no matter how the healers tried to stop the poison. He remembers chasing the man, the fool who had dared to attack but had armed himself with a single weapon, and he remembers seeing the man dead, but he cannot for the life of him—or of her—remember killing him. All he remembers is needing to get back to the palace, needing to hold her, needing her to sooth the numbness from his chest.

The sages burn her body.

It takes three days for anyone to dare to knock on the door of his office, and even then nobody enters the room. He sits, playing with her knife and making accidental cut after accidental cut across his fingers—and, still, even his blood seems to run cold. Wounded and tired, he sleeps in his chair. On the fourth day, he hears the door open from where he stands at the window, stiletto still in his hand. Footsteps pad softly across the stone floor, and he hears the distinctive creak of wood as someone sits on his desktop.

There is an hour of silence before he turns and finds his chair, still not looking at her. It takes another hour before her blue robes draw his attention, her thick outer coat discarded by the door. Her hair is down around her face. He twirls the stiletto again.

“I can heal those,” she whispers, taking his hands in hers and dropping the knife onto a stack of papers. Her skin is soft and warm. Warm, he thinks, warm, warm—why is it so familiar?—warm. She runs a single finger over the undamaged expanse of his palm. “I just need a little water. It’ll be no problem.” His face contorts, and he looks away from her perch on the desk. She maintains her grip, even as he tries to pull away. “Zuko—” He winces. “—if I don’t heal them, they’ll scar.”

“Let them scar.”

“You’re being ridiculous. Let me heal them.”

“I want the scars,” he insists.

She squeezes his hand. “Let me heal you.” She pulls him closer and he suddenly finds himself compelled to find her eyes. They’re blue, like her robes, like the water she threatens to pull, and he remembers ice and snow—and turtle seals—and what it means to be cold—swimming through underground tunnels, crossing a barren tundra, melting through foot-thick ice pipes with his bare hands . Weakly, as her legs fall on either side of his chair, he allows himself to be eased forward. Cradled between her knees as his arms fall limply around her waist, he cries into her stomach—because this isn’t cold, he knows cold, he remembers cold, and this is unwaveringly numbing pain. She runs her fingers through his hair, hugging him to her until he seems to fall asleep, and then heals his hands.






The blind earthbender waddles into his office clutching a pile of scrolls. “I’m not a pack-ostrich horse, and I don’t appreciate being used like one, Sparky. You’re about to owe me quite a few favors.” Zuko jumps back as she dumps the heap on his desk, spilling a cup of tea down the front of his one leg. Rolling his eyes as he moves to dry his clothes, he reminds himself once again that—though the small girl is often more trouble than help—she’s the closest—literally—friend he has right now. Prepared to scold her, his head rises and he spots a final scroll held securely in Toph’s hand.

It bears the seal of the avatar.

“Give me that letter.”

She grins. “You have to promise to read it out loud. I wanna hear what Twinkletoes and Sugar Queen have to say.”

“This mail is pri—” He starts. “How did you know who it was from? You can’t read.”

“Thanks for rubbing it in.” Plopping down into a cushioned chair, Toph begins to pick at her toes. “It came special delivery, your fieryness. I was told it had to be hand-delivered to you. I guess a little blind girl just seems super trustworthy enough to hand over high class mail to.”

“If only they knew you,” Zuko muses, unwinding the scroll and beginning to scan the words.

“Read it out loud, Sparky.”

“I haven’t even unrolled it yet.”


He shushes her, and surprisingly she listens. An awkward salutation is followed by beautifully penned letter.

The last time we corresponded, you swore that you would take care of Toph after she begged to stay with you. I trust that means she’s about knee-deep in promises of piggyback rides and sparring matches. We haven’t received any more letters from her parents here in the South Pole, so I assume the Bei Fongs have either figured out where she’s staying and have started bombarding you with threats of kidnapping charges for a change or you have successfully bribed them—with what riches I cannot imagine—into silence. Either way, I expect she is fully healthy or plotting revenge if otherwise.

Aang misses the both of you. Every night at dinner, he talks about how you made tea for us and told us bad tea jokes and saved our lives. He wishes you would bring Toph to visit soon, but I warned him not to get his hopes too high. Now is probably not the best time for world travel. Maybe in a few months, at the next Ambassador Summit, I’ll bring a few guests to stay for a while. Let me know if that sounds acceptable.

As much as I hope you’re keeping Toph in line—making sure she maintains some level of hygiene, making sure she doesn’t pick on the guards too much—I hope she’s keeping you in line, too. I want to help my people—that’s why I accepted the position as Ambassador when you offered it. I can look after their needs now. However, it means I’m not nearly as free to check up on you.

It’s been a long time since I was there to see you. I have no idea how you’re doing—your letters don’t say much about your health—but I can only assume that things have at least gotten a little better. And if they haven’t, listen closely. You may think you have no reason to trust my judgment, but I want to remind you of something. On our trip to find my mother’s killer, I had only one goal in mind: revenge. I didn’t really want closure or resolution or peace of mind. I wanted to make him hurt like he made me hurt. I carried that around for a long time before you figured out who he was, dreaming of taking out my anger on this man, this monster, this figment of my imagination. You told me it was understandable to want to find him. You said it was something I needed because I had loved my mother. You were right.

But you were wrong, too. There is a difference between remembering and being haunted. It took me a long time to learn that lesson. I had to look him in the eyes and see the fear that his life would end to make the fury go away. I spent years thinking of my own mother’s face and having it cause me only pain and sadness when I should have been looking back with pride at how brave she was. I won’t rehash what happened to you, but I will remind you that there is nothing wrong with grieving. Of all people, I know that. But I want you to promise me that you won’t let what happened destroy you. Zuko, you and I have shared heartache. You and I once shared the pain of believing our mothers to be dead, taken because they dared to protect us. Our pain comes from loss, yes, but guilt too. They died for us, and though it may be painful to think about they were honorable deaths. Mai’s death is no different. She sacrificed her life so that you might live another day. She loved you. Remember that. But do not let it haunt you.

We’ll be seeing you.


The earthbender feels the painful thud of his heart in his chest. “Is everything alright?”

“They’re fine.”

She ripples the ground beneath his feet. “That’s not what I was asking.”

“I’m fine.”

“You didn’t learn anything from traveling with us, did you? I can tell when you’re lying. It’s a gift.” He doesn’t speak, and she rolls her shoulders. “Is Twinkletoes coming to visit? Or is it one of those boring I-am-Avatar-hear-me-peace-keep letters?”

“It’s from Katara. Nobody’s coming.”

Toph crosses her arms, stamping her foot. Outside the window, an unsuspecting guard finds himself launched twelve feet in the air. “Why not? Don’t they miss us?”

“She says they miss us very much. Now is just not a good time.”

“It’s a perfect time. This palace is boring.” She smirks. “Without Sweetness here to boss us around, there’s no one to rebel against. And your guards won’t fight me anymore. It’s not fun to attack people who won’t fight back. Write back and tell them your royal assistant demands that they visit. And bring snacks. Fire flakes are getting boring, too.”

“I’m not going to do that.”

“I am the Melon Lord! You have to listen to me!”

“The who?” He blinks. “Never mind. They aren’t coming.”

“I demand it.”

“Enough. They aren’t coming.” She opens her mouth to object again, and he slams his fist down on his desk with a bang. Toph doesn’t hide her surprise. “I’m not ready to see them.”

“How can you not be ready? They’re your friends.”

“I’m just not. I don’t want to see Aang. I don’t want to see Katara. I don’t want to see Aang and Katara.”

She runs her foot along the floor. “Well, part of that is a lie.”






The ambassadors all come bearing good news. Cities are beginning to rebuild, pushing out the unwanted Fire Nation technology and returning to their elements. Metal is pried free from rocks, catapulted off mountainsides, and shattered with icy gusts. Borders are being negotiated in an attempt to return them to those of nearly one hundred years ago, rulers are taking their rightful places, and jails are slowly emptying of the wrongfully convicted. Though speckled with comments of lurking problems—a lack of food, a surplus of refugees yet to return home, whispers of an underground rebellion—each report is of a hopeful society looking towards the future.

People are trying to heal.

Day one concludes with applause and bows to the Fire Lord, praising the young boy for making reparations better than they could have hoped. They file out of the chamber, heading for courtyards and marketplaces and guest suites for naps. One lingers at the closed doors—the youngest of all—watching her friend tread weakly down the stairs from his throne. His eyes cast downward, he walks to her.

Why isn’t he healing?

“Things are getting better,” she states, following him through a back hall that leads to his private bedchamber. “It hasn’t been that long, but things are already getting better. This is good. People are willing to try to heal.” Her fingers dance over the smooth edge of his dresser. Playing with the water in a carefully arranged vase of fire lilies, she averts her eyes as he sheds his royal outer robes. The rustling of material echoes in her ears—if Hakoda could only see her now, maybe he would stop objecting to her simple Fire Nation wardrobe—and she finds herself sneaking peeks—small, innocent peeks at a bare chest quickly covered by a loose shirt—in a mirror just to her right. She turns as he ties a belt around his waist and moves to gently pull the topknot from his hair. “I always liked your hair down,” she confesses.

“I hate wearing my hair up.”

She smiles softly. “When I first met you, that was the only way you wore it.”

“When we first met,” he breathes, “I was a monster.”

“You weren’t a monster, Zuko. You were a boy and you were confused. And you were bald.”

Taking it from her hand, he regards the solid gold hairpin carefully and says quietly, “It makes me look like my father.”

“I don’t think—”

“It does. I only wear it because I have to.” He sits, his free hand clutching one of the posts of his bed, and he speaks very slowly. “It gives me my father’s face. When I sit on that throne, I can feel him. It’s like he’s sitting behind me, watching over my shoulder. He killed himself in that prison because it meant that he could haunt me closer than he ever could have from his cell. I listen to the generals talk and I know that all it would take would be a sentence—a sentence!—and the world would be right back where it was with my father as Fire Lord.” He turns to her, his golden orbs shining in the light of the sconces around the room as he holds up the hairpin. “I have his power. People look at me and they don’t see me. They see what he could have been—what he should have been. They see him.” His breathing grows ragged. “They see him in my face. They see the mark he left branding me as his and I can’t escape him. Not ever. And this—” He holds the metal tightly between his fingers, solid gold and molded into fire. “—this only makes it worse! This. This thing. This. This!” Before she can blink he is on his feet, hurling it at the wall so that the very tip sticks with a precision only a dead girl could have managed. “It makes me my father!”


He turns on her, pointing at the heirloom embedded in the wood paneling. “My father was not worth her life!”

She realizes he is nearly shrieking and it is not his father who is haunting him.

“You are not your father.” She reaches for him and he snaps back, pulling ruthlessly at his clothes.

My life was not worth hers!”

“She believed it was!” she argues back, terrified to see the steam he breathes mingling with the air before his face. The fire in the sconces flares, flashing blue before settling into a blinding white-orange. “Don’t you understand? She loved you! A loved one’s life is always worth your own.”

“What have I done to deserve her sacrifice? I betrayed her. I abandoned her. And, still, she welcomed me back with open arms—”

“Because she loved you! Because you meant something to her!” She tilts her head, remembering the way he used to laugh—something he hasn’t done in a while. “Because you made her happy. And she judged you. In her eyes, you were worth her life.”

Looking to the balcony for solace, he slams through the doors and roars—really roars, and the column of fire makes her remember a darker time that seems brighter now when he demanded of a little boy, “Let me see you roar like a tigerdillo!”—while his hands grip the stone until his knuckles turn white. She braces herself—but she hates that she even considers doing this because she remembers the look on the captain’s face and her friends’ faces and her own horror—preparing to force his muscles to relax, force him to calm down.

She takes a timid step forward, but, suddenly, the column stops and only vapors appear. His shoulders shake and—somehow, someway, the firebender inside him just can’t anymore because—he’s crying silent, trembling tears that break her heart more than any heavy, heaving sob could. A slow spin reveals his face, shrouded in moonlight with streaks of moisture down his cheeks, and he tilts his head.

“Would you have done it?”

She hesitates—“Excuse me?”—but knows her answer.

“Would you have done what she did? If it was Aang, would you have chosen to die in his place?”

Words fail her.

But he puts on a bitter smile. “Of course you would have. He’s the avatar. He’s your… avatar.”

“I would have,” she agrees, holding her head high—honestly, the nerve of him to suggest she be so easy to understand—and crossing her arms. “But I would die to save any of my friends.” Subtly gesturing at the red skirt adorning her body, she blinks. “Any and all.”




- Part One (January, February, March)

- Part Three (July, August, September)

- Part Four (October, November, December)


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