Log in

No account? Create an account
02 October 2010 @ 09:18 pm
As Time Passes By : Part Four  
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






She follows him around the palace, falling into step with the two armed guards that constantly trail behind him. Her water pouch is always uncorked. “Someone’s going to think I hired you as a personal bodyguard,” he teases one afternoon as she bends the rain away from his head, and another when she freezes solid an overzealous visitor.

The only difference he notices is that when he sends the soldiers away in a request for privacy, she lingers in the room.

“I’m your friend,” she reminds him, crossing her arms. “I can’t be ordered away.”

He stands, pushing the chair back from his desk, and turns to the wide window in his office. “Would you like to see something?” She comes up beside him, peering out over the capitol city. “No, it isn’t here. We’ll have to go there.”

The disguises they come up with to sneak out of the palace unnoticed aren’t very clever. She wears a different Fire Nation dress, and he wears a large black hood on his head, the hairpin and topknot combed free of his hair. “I can still see your scar,” she admits, brushing a larger chunk of his bangs down over his eye. “But this will have to do.”

Keeping his head ducked, he leads her through back-alleys and dark streets until she feels the temperature growing cooler, and suddenly she realizes that they aren’t inside the volcano anymore. She can see out over the land—she sees more than rock on the horizon, she sees water, sweet water—and feels her feet sinking into soft dirt. He takes hold of her wrist and they trudge along with side of the mountain. When they arrive at a large square of solid rock, a platform seemingly formed by earthbenders, which juts from the side of the volcano, he touches her shoulders.

“The last time you were here, you showed me something that you hadn’t shared with a lot of other people. Now it’s my turn to reciprocate. This is my favorite time and place to be in the Fire Nation,” he confesses. “It doesn’t get cold like it does in the South Pole, so we don’t have snow, but the leaves on our trees change color. And when the sun sets just right—” He throws up his hand, directing her gaze out over the forest.

Her breath catches in her throat and she grabs his forearm tightly. “They look like they’re burning.”






Most people in the palace believe he is crazy to continue visiting his sister. But still, once a week, early in the morning just as the sun is rising, he disappears into the bowels of the highest security prison in the capitol city. The flame-retardant cell has padded walls, and the guards always remind her that she can’t escape because behind that padding all she’ll find is several foot thick steel. He tries to keep the room cold and has her arms bound behind her back, restricting her bending—he knows she can’t break out, he’s worried that one day she’ll hurt herself—but every time he arrives at the door to her cell she’s there, lying on her back and breathing blue fire at the ceiling—mid-scream, angry at everyone she sees in the empty room.

Some days, sitting and watching her struggle, he wonders how she got so lucky. After countless observations, carefully listening to her one-sided conversations, everything becomes clear to him and he tries so hard—Agni, he tries—not to be jealous. She sees their mother. Ursa comes to her—a year after the war has ended, a year into his reign as Fire Lord, his mother has still not come to him—and comforts her as she sits in jail. She sees Mai—she sees Ty Lee, too, and mistakenly assumes they’re both alive—and keeps repeating that everyone is always miscalculating, always underestimating. It takes most of his strength not to ask if the women who plague Azula’s mind can see him. She ignores him until her conversations with others are done, and he wonders if she does it deliberately to taunt him. He resents her, considers the option of leaving her to rot in prison—but saying that to yet another relative weighs heavily on his conscience.

Other days, with Katara sitting just outside the thick metal door, waiting for him, he tries to fix his little sister.

Once, he brings her inside the cell and guards her behind his body when Azula remarkably identifies her face in Fire Nation clothing. “Oh,” she cackles, her arms bound tightly around her torso. “Do you see that? He’s brought the Water Tribe whore.” A scowl grows on her face. “Mother!” Zuko’s head snaps up and he stares at his sister, watching her berate the air beside her. “Pay attention! Look who Zu-Zu has brought to visit. Is she to be our nation’s new Fire Lady, Zu-Zu? Is she to wear our colors and sleep under our flag?”

“I’m here to help you,” Katara says, offering her water-coated hands. “You have a nasty burn on your forehead. I can heal it.”

The fallen princess snarls.

“She’s trying to help you!”

“Help?” she screeches. “I don’t need the help of a peasant. I don’t need help from anybody.” She struggles against her bindings, but her balance is thrown off and she falls on the floor on her stomach, her nose slamming against the ground. She writhes on the floor, twisting to find her way onto her back. Eventually, she stills, and her brother takes tentative steps forward.

“La-La…” His voice is soft when he addresses her, gently taking hold of her shoulder and rolling her over.

She blinks up at him. “Zu-Zu?” Katara gasps at how innocent and young her voice sounds. “Mommy loves you best.” Tenderly, the Fire Lord combs his sister’s choppy bangs away from her face and shakes his head. “Yes, yes, she does. She thinks I’m a monster, Zu-Zu. She takes me aside and tells me that I’m not a nice girl and that I have to stop being mean. She wishes it was just you. You’re her favorite. She thinks that you’re a good boy and that I’m a bad girl. I don’t want her to hate me, but she doesn’t want me. She lies to me about it. She says she loves me, but she always lies.”

“No, La-La, she loves you.”

She blinks again—La-La is gone to him, Azula lays in her place, hopefully not forever—and sneers.

“Father loves me best.” She spits fire, and he bats it away. “I’m the pride of the Fire Nation, and I should be the Fire Lord. But I don’t worry too much, because you’ll fail, brother, just like you always do. And then the throne will be mine.”

It isn’t true—Azula always lies, and no sane country would allow a certifiably insane princess to take control—but it stings just the same as he stumbles back, Katara pulling him from the room. His breath comes out short, stuck in his chest, and the waterbender eases a cool liquid glove around her hand and presses it to his forehead.

“Easy,” she murmurs.

He glances into the cell again, relaxing against her. “She’s in there. Underneath all that anger and hate and spite and evil that my father taught her, my sister is in there.”

“Then we’ll get her back,” she promises. “Somehow, we’ll figure out how to get her back.”






Iroh carries around a small material sack for two weeks before the ball that the royal palace will be hosting to celebrate the ending of another calendar year, and he believes his nephew does not notice. With all the necessary preparations to be handled—overnight boarding decisions to be made, meal plans to be finalized, seating arrangements—the small material sack could not possibly be even a blip on the Fire Lord’s radar. But the night of the party, as guests begin to trickle in, Iroh feels for the bag in his pocket and discovers it missing.

“Looking for something?” Zuko asks, coming up behind his uncle and holding out his palm. The sack sits, its knot perfectly intact, and Iroh pats his stomach. “What are you planning, uncle?”

Rocking back on his heels, Iroh averts his gaze. “You are more observant than I have given you credit for. Hopefully, you can forgive an old man for holding a petty grudge. I merely meant to return the favor of a—” He chuckles. “—rather hilarious joke. When I was a boy—”

“Take it,” Zuko says, rolling his eyes. “We don’t have time for stories.”

In his haste to greet his guests, the Fire Lord has overlooked the smirk on the face of the Dragon of the West.

After the dinner, Zuko notices his uncle following behind him, nodding with approval as he drifts closer to his friends and farther from dignitaries of ranging importance. The small group finds a space between pillars to convene, though pieces periodically drift away, and for a few minutes the Fire Lord just feels like a teenager. He hears stories of birthdays he has missed—the avatar’s, Ty Lee’s, and Katara is officially of marrying age in the Southern Water Tribe—and jokes he doesn’t know, but he feels happy—and content to remain so. Servants bring out food, and nearly everyone disappears to go grab their favorite—each dish specially planned for each friend—leaving a royal teenager and an of-age master.

He smiles at her. “I’m glad everyone was able to make it. It’s been a long time since we were all together.”

“Almost a year, I think.”

“Why, nephew,” Iroh chastises with a grin, appearing at his side, “It appears that you have stumbled upon my trick.” A sense of dread growing in his stomach, Zuko looks up, following his uncle’s gaze to the beam above Katara’s head where a few green leaves hang on a string, three white berries dangling in the core. The waterbender peers at it.

“I’ve never seen a plant like that before. Not even in the swamps.”

“It is something I picked up from a lovely group of travelers who stopped in my humble tea shop,” Iroh explains happily as his nephew and the waterbender look up at the small plant in horror—because nothing good can come from a group of mysterious travelers, and because a crowd is now gathering to hear Iroh’s loudly spoken words. “During the winter season, when two young people find themselves standing beneath the mistletoe at the same time, it is tradition that they share a kiss.”

“Plant one on her!”

The Fire Lord believes he sees the young avatar’s eyes glow and reminds himself to permanently fire Toph as his assistant.

Apparently, his Ambassador does not notice the same troubling fact. She steps forward and raises a hand to cup the side of his head in her palm. Fingers tangling themselves into his hair, her lips touch his scarred cheek—he had forgotten how good it feels—and his eyelids flutter shut. He finds himself holding her hand against his face, leaning into the cushion it provides, and her breath lingers around his jaw for a moment, her forehead pressed against his temple. She pulls back and he feels a shiver race down his spine.

“Lady Katara, that is not the kiss of tradition.”

She smiles at Zuko and speaks only to him. “Right now, it has to be.”



As the Clock Strikes Twelve



Standing out on the terrace with the young avatar—the frown embedded in his face makes him look older, years older—the Fire Lord wonders if he’s about to die for his uncle’s trick. But Aang takes a shaky breath and turns his back, peering out into the blackness of the night sky. His robes flutter in the brisk breeze, and Zuko finds himself anxiously rubbing at the scar on his chest.

“I used to think nothing could be worse than the pain I felt when I lost my people.”

Talk of Air Nomads is rare with the avatar—that pain is bottled up, hidden in his heart—and Zuko knows that this conversation is not merely for the exchanging of pleasantries. He thinks back to all the times he has fought the boy, and he doesn’t particularly like his chances of escaping unscathed, but beneath the yellow and gold robes the avatar’s shoulders are slumped.

“Do you love her?”

Zuko starts, his head pulling back. “She’s your girlfriend. I would never—”

“You know exactly who I’m talking about. You love her, don’t you?”

Glancing back into the palace, the scarred ruler watches a few of his guests dance by. “You’re my friend, Aang. I wouldn’t do that to you.”

“But do you love her?” he demands again, and his voice cracks. He sounds wounded, completely and utterly shattered, and Zuko knows he has to fix it. “I see the way you look at her sometimes when you think nobody’s paying attention. I saw your face when she kissed you. Tell me. Do you love her?”

“Aang, listen to me. She is your girlfriend. I would never touch her.”

“That isn’t what I asked you! You can love her and promise not the touch her at the same time!”

Zuko exhales shakily. “She loves you, Aang.”

A wave of nausea seems to crash down over the avatar’s head. Stumbling backwards, he leans against the railing and braces his hands against the cool stone. The Fire Lord will not dream of touching the avatar’s girlfriend, but of Katara herself—once free of any ties, once free to make the choice—he cannot make promises. If the time was to come and she was to seek him out, he cannot promise that he would turn her away—he cannot promise that he won’t take her into his arms and make her his queen, let her take the pain away, revel in the beauty of making her smile—and he knows it is a suffocating thought.

“Why should you get to care about her?” the boy demands quietly of Zuko. “After everything you’ve done— You betrayed her! She trusted you, and you turned your back on her! I never did that. I was always there. She loves me. Why should you get to care about her like I do?” His voice trembles. “After everything that has happened— How could you take her away from me?”

“I’m not taking her away,” Zuko insists. “I don’t even—”

“Stop lying to me!” Aang seethes. “I’m not a child! You love her and you want her and—”

“Even if I did,” he interrupts, “She’s not mine to want! You are my friend, and you love her. Believe me when I say that I respect the both of you enough not to meddle in your relationship. If you chose to be with her forever, I would never stand in your way.”

Silently, the avatar looks away.

Three apologies later, two young friends are heading back towards a crowded ballroom. As the youngest seeks out his friends once more, the Fire Lord finds himself wandering along the walls, re-greeting guests and shaking hands he has already shaken. The group across the room gets along fine without him, and he doesn’t return to them for the remainder of the evening. His uncle comes up behind him while he watches the avatar’s girlfriend make a bouquet of flowers dance. The airbender joins her game, manipulating the nearby punch to swirl above everyone’s heads before plopping back into the bowl. She laughs, and her eyes twinkle.

“It’s selfish of me to look at her like I do, isn’t it?” Zuko heaves a sigh, but his eyes never stray from her.

Iroh hums to himself. “Love has always been a little selfish, hasn’t it?”


As Time Passes By




- Part One (January, February, March)

- Part Two (April, May, June)

- Part Three (July, August, September)

Current Mood: excitedexcited
Current Music: Lose Yourself - Eminem