Disclaimer: ATLA is the property of Nickelodeon, VIACOM, Paramount, Mike, Bryan, and Night. No profit is made by me for this story.
Notes: Please see the end of the story for my final notes and thanks.
'Twas in another lifetime, one of toil and blood
When blackness was a virtue and the road was full of mud
I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form.
"Come in," she said,
"I'll give you shelter from the storm." – Bob Dylan
FROM THE PERSONAL COLLECTION OF THE BEI FONG ESTATE AT THE BA SING SE UNIVERSITY ARCHIVES:
Happy birthday. I hope you enjoy the coat. Uncle says that komodo hide and koalamb's wool should keep you warm. Mom says I should have given you more jewels.
That was what, four lines? FOUR? That's all you can manage? Nothing about Toph or Teo or how things are going? Are your royal proclamations this vague?
PS: I really like the coat. It's already winter here, and the Northern Water Tribe men weren't exactly familiar with how to slay or skin polar tigers so…we're all a little chilly.
I had this strange idea that you might actually be too busy rebuilding your country to read my letters. But apparently not.
Everyone is fine. Teo has his own factory, now. (We built it on the grounds of the one you almost destroyed.) Toph is whipping the militia into shape. Ty Lee seems to enjoy community service. (She works at the zoo.) Xiao Zhi has taken to her captain of the guard position very well. Mom is trying to teach Uncle the zither. He claims to be too old.
I lowered taxes. The price of rice is up. The soldiers are coming home.
You know, when I tell you that everyone's a little bit cold, that doesn't mean you have to send a whole boatload of coats. (But thank you, because Aang is really outgrowing everything and the cloth is just not warm enough at all and I know he hates wearing something made from animals, but we lost his winter clothes somewhere along the way and it can't be helped.)
So, Ursa and Xiao Zhi are in the same house with Uncle Iroh, huh? How's that going?
Suki says she misses Fire Nation food. I miss it, too.
What, are ocean kumquats not enough for you, now? Have your tastes changed?
Uncle is either very brave or very stupid. Or he has a death wish. I haven't decided. I've always wondered a little bit about his sanity, but I thought he was just a clever eccentric. Now I'm not so sure. My mother killed his father. I'd hate to see her repeat history.
They're sea prunes. SEA PRUNES.
Thank you for the sparkseed. And the honey. And the candied ginger, which still kind of reminds me of Ozai and is a little bit creepy.
The guards you sent keep calling me Fire Lady Katara. It's kind of strange. And everyone else here does it, too, until I tell them that I'm just Katara, I was born here like a lot of other people, but then Aang starts up with how special I am, which is nice, but I'm not the Avatar's waterbending teacher anymore – I'm just trying to be me.
The women here are jealous of my necklace. Sokka says the men are annoyed that I've raised the standard – now everyone wants pearls.
The guards will continue referring to you by your title until you no longer hold it. The sages are still working out how exactly to proceed with the divorce. Technically you were married as a war bride, and there wasn't much precedent set for that kind of separation.
It still frightens me down to the bone when someone refers to me as the Fire Lord.
Aang is right. You are special. But you were special before Aang woke up. Toph says you were the only waterbender left in your village. If history had unfolded differently, you still would have been something rare. They still would have looked at you that way. It's part of who you are.
Your necklace – well, my necklace, I guess – keeps slipping off. I had Toph bend me a wristband for it the other day. It's a sort of cuff. She likes working with gold because it's so pliant, but I really just chose it so I wouldn't have to worry about tarnish. That and it was a good use of Ozai's crown. I've since had a new crown made.
And thank you for the boomerang. I'd practice with it more, but Ty Lee's pets seem to think it's meant for games of "fetch."
Are you growing your hair out? I thought all the Fire Lords had to have long hair. The portraits made it seem like it, anyway. I don't know why I thought of that just now – probably because Sokka is trying to grow a beard. (Suki hates it.)
I guess you're right – I was always a little bit weird, here. I used to think it was just being the daughter of a chief, or one of the only girls left around, but there were no other benders around, and that was worse. At least you had firebenders around.
I had firebenders who outshone me at every turn. Azula was a prodigy. Or, as Ozai liked to say: "Azula was born lucky. Zuko was lucky to be born." Think of it this way: at least you had no clue how awful a bender you were until the Avatar showed up.
My barber keeps bothering me about a beard. He thinks I need to "lay in a foundation" now. I think he's just lazy and doesn't want to give me a proper shave.
You let someone else shave you? Do you have any idea how dangerous that is? He could slit your throat while your head is under the towel! I don't like it.
I don't like beards, either. And if you get one of those funny Ozai-style beards, I will freeze it off. No one wants a big elbow-leech hanging off his chin.
(And don't grow your hair out too much. I refuse to be married to someone with prettier hair than me. You can grow it out when the divorce is final.)
You can't have been an awful bender.
I was awful. I was worse than awful. I was an embarrassment.
I have to wake up earlier just to shave, you know. Your oppressive regime has extended further than Azula's dreams of empire ever could. You should be proud.
I don't have prettier hair than you. Yours curls.
Curls are annoying. Especially in the morning, when I have to comb them out. (Don't send that hair-combing tub! I mean it!)
Hey, at least you never took your resentment about your bending out on the Avatar.
My whole journey was about my taking out my resentment on the Avatar.
Mom sent these combs, and some coilnut oil to soothe your tangles.
I like your hair best before you've combed it.
Don't make me send my uncle. Write back.
I'm sorry I was so late writing back to you. (Don't send Uncle Iroh.) It's whaling season here, and there are always a lot of injuries, which means a lot of work for the healer. So I've been busy.
Aang is having a hard time with it, too. We split open the first whale of the season, and had our usual feast and festival, and I didn't notice he was gone until too late. (Some friend I am, huh?) I found him sitting next to the whalebones, just touching them and crying.
I don't know what to do.
Send him here. There's always room for him. And Ty Lee's zoo is progressing – he can spend time there. Besides, I know Toph misses him. She dictates all her letters through Ty Lee, of course, but she asks me what you say about him. I think Aang isn't telling her much.
He never writes to me, either.
I told Aang about your suggestion, but he just sighed and asked me if I wanted him to leave. Of course I don't want him to leave! In fact, I was surprised he wanted to come with us – he said he wanted to come back to "where it all started," but I don't think it's working the way he wanted.
I know he doesn't write to you, but he asks about you. A lot.
You shouldn't have to be the messenger between the two of us. If he wants to ask me something, he can. Be firm with him. Toph says it works.
Today I helped inaugurate the first war memorial since Ozai's defeat. It's for foreign soldiers who died defending the Avatar's Peace. Uncle's Pai Sho friends had warned us, but there were riots. Toph nearly bent those people all the way into the volcano.
I still have a lot of trouble controlling my temper, too. Today an arrow whizzed right by me and it was all I could do not to start bending lava straight out of the ground. (It was right over Toph's head, too.)
Do you need us there?
That's it. We're packing.
No. Don't. I don't want you here.
Hey, thanks a bunch. I'll keep that in mind.
That wasn't what I meant and you know it. Things are dangerous here. Too many soldiers came home unable to work, and the price of rice has risen exponentially since we left our colonies in the Earth Kingdom. The colonists are trickling back, too, and they're finding everything different from the way they left it. Some of those families have been in the Earth Kingdom since the war started – they've never seen the Fire Nation. Everyone is unhappy. The whole city is a powderkeg.
If I have to worry about you, I will lose focus.
You don't have to worry about me. I'm a master waterbender, a bloodbender, a stormbender, and the Fire Lady. (Where exactly are our divorce papers? Have you checked the vault?)
The Fire Lady should be there, I think.
No. She should not. There is more anti-foreign sentiment here now than there was during the war. The Fire Lady would become an instant target.
I check the vault on a frequent basis. I like to see how much Toph has cheated out of the palace guard.
You know, half of the "anti-foreign sentiment" might be Toph's gambling habit. You know she was wanted, right? There were posters.
But seriously, is it really right for me to be gone? Maybe if people saw that you're committed to…good foreign relations…they would give up?
"Good foreign relations?"
Well, I suppose you are still technically a good foreign "relation," and I am still committed to you under law and in the eyes of the Fire Nation…
I have seen the wanted poster. Ty Lee has one framed in her room.
I told Aang about what's been happening, and he's angry he didn't learn about it sooner. I guess Toph didn't want to worry him, so she never said anything in her letters. He's on his way. He says it's the Avatar's job to uphold the Avatar's Peace.
I love my mother, but when I tell her that no, Aang will not eat meat, she gets this funny look and says: "Not even fish?"
This conversation is twice as frustrating when I have it with the kitchen staff. I'm the Fire Lord! I pay these people for their service, not their opinion!
Oh, no, is Little Lord Jerkbender having a hard time with the hired help? I'm crying for you.
(Do try to get him to eat, though. There wasn't much for him here in terms of foods that never had a face, and he hates sea prunes.)
Of course he hates sea prunes. He's a smart kid.
He's also really thin, and he's here, now, and he's buzzing around my office on that air scooter thing and disturbing all my papers and making my secretaries panic.
It feels right. I don't know why.
He sounds happy. I'm glad. Do you think he'll be able to help the situation?
Is it warm there? It's the dead of winter, here. Tell me how warm it is, there, or I'll go crazy.
It's so warm here that when I took Aang sailing today, I didn't need a coat. Or a shirt. It was nice.
We used an old-fashioned wooden boat this time. I told Aang that after the North Pole, Uncle and I were stuck on a raft for weeks. I told Aang it was nice to cheat, because he can bend the air around the sails. He had a lot of questions – what we ate, how we lived, what it was like for me not to be chasing him. I told him things I haven't told anyone. And it felt good.
I swear he's taller, now. And he eats like a rhino. My kitchen staff can now prepare egg custard tarts in their sleep. It doesn't help that my mother is spoiling him rotten, and he loves every minute of it.
He is helping. I know he's not as happy as he could be, but once he finds something to do, he's a fish in water. It's hard, because he can't just go in and change people's minds. But he's Aang. He grows on people.
He brought a girl home, today. Her name is On Ji. My uncle's people are investigating her.
You don't need to "investigate" On Ji. She's an old classmate of Aang's. They danced together at a party. (Which I thought was a little strange, but only because she already had a boyfriend.) What was she doing in the capitol?
Maybe I don't want to know, but what did you tell Aang that you couldn't tell me?
On Ji was in town to meet her father's ship. He was injured in the Earth Kingdom, and now he's finally home.
Master Piandao came to visit us, today. He says he has sent a copy of the companion volume to "The Consummate Wife" to Sokka as a wedding gift. It's called "The Complete Husband," and Sokka should be receiving it soon.
Toph has been challenged to a re-match by the Boulder to benefit a charity for widows and orphans. Tickets are thirty gold pieces each. I think Uncle plans to buy up the entire stadium.
I'm happy to hear that Master Piandao is doing well, and that Sokka will be learning even more about…swordsmanship.
That'll be a great match. (Sit up high in the back.)
You didn't answer my other question.
I've done a lot of things I'm not proud of. You don't need to know about all of them.
But I want to know. (It's very boring, here. I had forgotten how boring the winter is. If I hear one of Gran-Gran's stories about Master Pakku again, I might just bend her jaws shut.)
I do want to know. Not just because I'm bored. I'm lonely here. Sokka is always with Suki and Dad is with Akna. (I can't remember if I told you, but they had a little ceremony here when we got back. Dad asked for my blessing. Sokka had already given his.) And Gran-Gran's thinking of "retiring" to the North Pole. She wants to live again in the city she knew growing up.
Maybe I'm just jealous of Aang. I thought I knew all your secrets.
I stole an ostrich-horse from an Earth Kingdom girl and her mother, after they healed my uncle and gave us dinner.
I lied to the first girl who ever asked me out on a date. Then I ran out on her.
I wrote Mai a note when I left. I didn't even say goodbye. I couldn't. I was too scared.
I stole from people just to get the nice things I missed and couldn't earn. I stole from them just to scare them.
Part of me still misses the mask.
Surely there's someone there who wants to help you with your loneliness problem.
If by "help me" you mean "gawk at me," then yes. Some of my dad's sailors are good at that. Then one of the guards you sent coughs, and they run away. Which is probably just as well – I kind of don't have time for anyone who's intimidated by your guards. (Sure, they look mean on the outside, but I've gotten to know them. They're big cuddly polar mice on the inside.) Besides, I'm still a married woman.
I really wanted Jet to like me. I really wanted Hama to be good. I badgered Aunt Wu about telling me everything about my future.
I stole a lot of things.
I yelled at Aang when he was a better bender than me. I yelled at Toph when she had more fun than I did.
Deep down, I blamed Dad for what happened to Mom.
Your dad's sailors are all men twice your age. And so are the men I sent.
What did Aunt Wu say about your future?
She said I would marry a powerful bender and die surrounded by my grandchildren. She left out some of the important details. (She couldn't have warned me about Azula? Or General Fong? Or the Serpent's Pass?)
Today we saw the first evidence of thaw. It was a little purple lichen flower struggling up out of the frost. I crouched down just to get a better look, but Sokka panicked. It means spring is coming. He realized today that he doesn't know how to build a house with anything but ice.
So Suki survived winter at the South Pole? Are you an aunt, yet?
Tell me when exactly I should make it to Kyoshi, and if I should send Teo early as a gift. I'd hate for Suki to die under the beams of a hastily-constructed house.
No, I am not an aunt. (Which means you're not an uncle, either. And where in Koh's ninth coil are those divorce papers? Should we just burn the marriage contract and have done with it?)
Please do send Teo early. Sokka will need all the help he can get.
PS: Ask Suki for the exact date. She's planning this wedding like the takeover of a city.
The sages are at work on our divorce, I promise. But burning the marriage contract is out of the question. It's printed on the skin of a rare golden dragon. The vellum itself is hundreds of years old. It's priceless. The only scroll more valuable, in terms of materials, is the one we read our vows from. Both are ancient, and only the sages have access to them.
I will send Teo, and possibly Toph. There's no sense in having a bunch of laborers dig a foundation when a single earthbender can do it in one move, and better. How many extra rooms should the house have?
I'm sorry. I was just teasing about the contract. You know that, right? I'd never burn it. It's a piece of history. We can't just get rid of it.
The house should have a lot of extra rooms. I think Sokka wants to breed a whole sailing crew.
Done and done. Teo is drawing plans as we speak. Aang is trying to help…it's not going well. I may send them together. I have a lot of work to finish before the trip, and I think he could help Teo and Toph on Kyoshi. The builders will listen to the Avatar, at least, if they're foolish enough not to obey Toph's orders.
I am going to miss Aang, though. I like our sailing days. My mother says that Aang just needs someone else's undivided attention for a little while. She says he's had to share everyone in his life – even the monks were supposed to look after all the children, not just a few.
When I first met Aang, I told him he would know nothing of fathers. And I was right. But I think my mother and Uncle are helping him make up for lost time.
Are your measurements the same as before?
I'm glad you still take Aang sailing. He should take you gliding, or at least flying on Appa. The two of you could trade off.
I think your mom is right. Aang needs someone to be gentle with him, just as much as he needs the opposite. It's like his bending, I guess. He just needs all his elements in balance.
Why do you need to know about my measurements? I think they're basically the same. I did eat a lot of sea prunes and seal blubber, though, so maybe not…
Enjoy the fruit. It's dried, but it's better than nothing.
We tried gliding, and going up on Appa. But Aang is the last airbender, and I'm the Fire Lord. The sea is where we can meet. It's neutral. And it's something we both love.
Thank you for the fruit.
And thank you for my robes. I'm so tired of fur I think I have a rash.
I guess you grew up on the ocean, didn't you?
This is jasmine cream straight from my mother's apothecary. Fire Ladies don't get rashes.
I'm packing. Or watching my things getting packed. My tailor says I need formal wear. I don't think he's ever met Sokka.
The journey is longer for me, and I won't know where to send letters. So you'll just have to read the old ones. If they haven't all been burned for fuel, that is.
PS: I'll have more papers with me for you to sign. Then that should be all.
I know you won't get this, so I'm not even sure why I'm writing it. Maybe it'll be a nice thing for you to receive when you get home.
I delivered a baby, today. And I learned that another woman is pregnant, this time by one of the guards you sent. There was a big fight and Dad had to mediate, but I think things are going to be okay. At least, I hope they will be, because Dad is leaving Bato in charge when we leave for the wedding.
Suki is going crazy over the details. Sokka tries to avoid her a lot, which means I see more of him. He asked me if I was moving to Kyoshi, or if I would stay here. I told him I didn't know. I think Sokka and Suki should have their own space for a while – nobody wants their baby sister hanging around during their honeymoon. I'll probably have to visit in nine months anyway, just to help Suki with the first of what Sokka hopes is a whole vessel's worth of kids. (I hope they're all girls. He's hoping for a boy first off and it would serve him right.)
I haven't been burning your letters.
Now we're really leaving. Things have been crazy around here. Suki's going mad. Remind me, if I ever get married again, not to try to plan every single little detail. Now I think Sokka knows what it was like for us when he tried pushing that whole schedule or itinerary or whatever it was.
I know you won't get this until you're back home. But at least if you see it and you don't see us on Kyoshi, you know that we got eaten by the Unagi.
Wait, are you burning my letters?
Everything about this seemed eerily familiar.
The candles. The dancing. The clapping. Her and Toph, sitting at a table in the corner. If they weren't for the smell of cedar beams and her nagging worry about paper walls in the giant longhouse meant for Kyoshi Islander activities, Katara would have sworn they were nestled deep in a Fire Nation cave, staging their own little renegade dance party. Only this time, the Fire Nation contingent had failed to show up.
"I've been stood up," Katara said. She took a sip of her drink. "By my own husband."
"Relax, Sugar Queen," Toph said. "He'll be here."
"He promised," she said. "He promised Sokka and Suki. And he's already missed the ceremony."
"Sparky probably just got tied up. He's fussy about stuff. That or Pops put too many presents onboard…" Toph picked dirt from one fingernail. "And if that happened, then who knows how long he'll take?"
Katara's brows knit. "Toph, you're not exactly helping."
Toph blinked. "Hey, you don't think the Unagi nabbed his ship, do you?"
"You know what? Forget it. Forget I even mentioned anything." Katara crossed her arms. She sighed and tried to steer the conversation elsewhere. "Hey, who knew Ty Lee was such a good dancer?"
"I did," Toph said. "Twinkletoes can barely keep up."
Katara watched as Ty Lee swung from beam to beam, her body twisting in mid-air before bouncing off yet another groaning joist and causing the crowd below to gasp. Aang scooted circles around her; he bent two whips of wine around her and lit them ablaze, but she dodged them. They were both, she realized, born performers. Wasn't it on this very island that Aang had shown off to her on the elephant koi?
Aang drifted down from the rafters and landed delicately on one toe. He made an elaborate bow. "May I have this dance?"
Katara grinned. "Sure."
The Kyoshi had their own music, which seemed to involve a lot of stomping of their heavy shoes. It made finding the rhythm easy. As Katara took her place on the dance floor, she heard Sokka's boisterous cheering from the family table. She looked up to see both her father and Suki shaking their heads a little sadly. Sokka himself was standing on the table, weaving on his feet, and holding out a full, foamy mug of mek-ju.
"It could be worse," Aang said. "It could be cactus juice."
"You said it." She made a bow. "Are you ready?"
He bowed, too. "You bet."
They danced. It was the same mock-fighting dance that they had invented in the Fire Nation. She held her arms in a defensive posture, and they circled around each other before making sharp movements across the floor. The little "attacks" were a lot messier, now, and she found herself giggling as they veered hopelessly off-course. The last time they had done this, there was no drinking involved. And even though Aang still kept the Air Nomad customs regarding alcohol, he seemed to soak up the inebriation of those around him like a sponge. Maybe he was just drunk on their happiness, she thought, as they stumbled around each other and she laughed until she coughed.
"Okay, okay, hold on," Aang said. "Just run at me and a take a flying leap."
"I'm going to fall!" She was already on the floor.
"No, you won't, I won't let you fall," Aang said. "Come on. Just one try."
She got up and dusted herself off and tried not to think about the stories that would be told – The Fire Lady got drunk and fell down, the Bloodbender can't dance – and raised her chin. Then she took that flying leap. She ran at Aang and he flipped her over, sent a little skid of air under her toes so she flipped over, completely safe but still shrieking, in the embrace of those warm currents of air. She landed and the guests clapped.
"One more time!" Aang said, and the crowd cheered.
Katara held up her hands. "Okay, okay."
She tightened her crown on her head and made sure her necklace was fastened, bit her lip, and charged. This time Aang lifted her higher – she felt her stomach flip as she came nose-to-nose with the rafters – but she fell slower, buffeted by cushions of air that made her feel light as a feather…
…and deposited her straight into a waiting pair of arms.
"Thank you, Aang," Zuko said from behind her. "I was just going to ask if I could cut in."
Across from her, Aang tilted his head. He smiled softly. "Sure." He made the Fire Nation bow, then turned around, and promptly bumped into one of his admirers. Behind her, Zuko laughed low in his throat. And she was doing the same. She turned around.
He was in his good black armor. Someone had repaired it. He was cleanshaven and had kept his hair relatively short – just long enough to keep the crown in place. I like your hair, she wanted to say, but instead she held up one finger. "You're late."
He smiled and looked from her finger to her face. "I know."
"Really, really late."
He sighed. "I know. But I showed up." His smile deepened. "I always show up, sooner or later."
"Right when we least expect you," Katara said, trying not to smile, too.
He was staring at her necklace. "Sometimes it takes me a while to figure out where I'm going." He swallowed. "Sometimes I get lost."
She licked her lips. "Is that what happened tonight? Did you get lost?"
"No." His eyes rose. And her heart turned over. "Tonight I knew exactly where I was going."
She took a deep breath. "Is it…is it too loud in here for you?"
"Yes. Let's leave."
"Okay." That was easy.
They pushed their way out of the longhouse and into a mostly-deserted Kyoshi village. The remnants of the wedding were everywhere – twisted paper blessings hanging from re-purposed clothesline, the pink paper wrappers of too many rice cakes. Wind shivered through the pines. The last taste of winter was still on it, and she hugged her arms. "Let's go see the house."
Walking to the house required going down a gentle slope and turning west. There was no one on the road, and the lanterns had gone mostly unlit. Zuko had to spark up a fire in his palm to light their way. He doused it, though, when Katara led him up the tree-shadowed path to Sokka and Suki's new home. Toph had bent a new road into the earth, but it was still a little steep, and the trees' boughs still hung low, and finally Katara closed her eyes and stuck her hand out behind her and tried not to like the immense wave of gratification that washed over her when he took it and didn't let go.
He didn't let go when they were standing before the house, either. He merely lit a fire in his other palm, and surveyed the house's long lanai. "It's good," he said finally. "I'm glad I sent Toph and Teo."
"So are Sokka and Suki. They like having a level foundation. And indoor plumbing." She tugged him. "Come on. The view's better from the other side."
He balked. "It's someone else's house."
She arched one eyebrow. "Since when has that ever stopped you?"
He looked a little rueful. "You know, I try so hard to be good, and you just ruin it."
"He's my brother. I'll take all the blame." She grinned. "Besides. It takes two to short-sheet a bed."
He rolled his eyes. "If I don't keep my eye on you, you'll probably make off with all the gifts."
She gave him a scowl and sauntered up to the front door. "I'll have you know I haven't stolen anything in almost a year."
"A new record. I'm astonished."
She stuck her tongue out at him, and they entered the house and slipped off their shoes. In the dark, the house was a maze of shadows. Zuko lit a fire in his palm, but Katara quickly waved it away. "Stop! Someone will see us!" She made for the stairs.
Behind her, Zuko said: "Have you been drinking?"
"Only a little bit." She felt for railings and pushed herself up the stairs. She heard the sound of wood snapping and jumped. "We broke the house!"
"…It's the house settling. New floors make that sound."
"Yes. They do. I had to put in a whole new dining room after that stupid bear destroyed it."
She turned on the stairs and almost slipped. She held up one finger. "Bosco is a very smart bear, and you-"
"Are we going to the bedroom, or not?" She heard him gulp. "I thought you had things you wanted to do."
Her face burned. "Yes," she said. "More like one thing. A prank."
"Well, we should get to it, then," Zuko said. "They could show up at any minute."
"Right." She turned around and trudged up the stairs. She led him down the hall to the bedroom. Zuko lit up a single flame on his finger. It was a corner room. Someone had strewn it with flowers. From here, they could see the black expanse of the harbor. Katara wondered if the Unagi ever sang - would the screeching wake her brother and his new wife up, every morning? Despite herself, she giggled.
"What's so funny?"
She turned. Zuko was looking a little forlornly at the bed. "Oh, just Sokka," she said. She looked down at the bed. It too was covered in little petals. "I guess it's too pretty to mess up."
"Yes," Zuko said. "That would be wrong."
"Really wrong," she said. "And mean."
"And they could find us."
"Yeah, like any minute."
"We'd have to be quick." He coughed. "You know. Not really do a quality job."
"And that's just a waste of a good opportunity." She forced herself to breathe. "Did you want to see the rest of the house?"
"Are there are a lot of other rooms?"
"Yeah. But they're not really, um, furnished. Finished. I mean. Finished."
"Oh." Zuko nodded. "Well, let's not go see those, then."
"Have you been burning my letters?" The question came out before she could stop it.
"What? No." A pause. "Have you been burning mine?"
"…No." She looked out the window, then back at him. He was just a shadow, now, and she was grateful not to see his face. "What should we do?"
"I should… I should check on the tents. They're on the beach. The ones I'm staying in."
"Okay. That's a good idea."
They moved slowly down the stairs and carefully exited the house. Zuko held her elbow while she dug her toes back into her slippers. They nearly lost their footing a couple of times on the way down the hill, but they eventually found their way to the beach. Red tents had been set on the beach, in full view of the narrow little ship moored there. Katara squinted. "Hey, is that…"
"Same model. Different ship."
"Oh." She smiled. "I used to think it was so big."
He snorted. "What, it's not big enough for you, now?"
She shrugged. "I've seen bigger."
"What about the tents? What do you think of those?"
Katara turned. The tents were pretty impressive. They looked like a little mobile palace cut out of red canvas and flags. "I like them."
"Good. One of them's yours."
"But I'm staying up in one of the guesthouses."
"You're the Fire Lady. I had to bring one for you."
Katara eyed the tents. She looked at his wrist. He was rubbing the back of his neck. She caught the glimmer of gold there when he let his hand fall, saw the hint of the blue stone in the center of his new cuff. She closed her eyes. "You said there would be papers."
He sighed. "Yes." She opened her eyes. He was looking out at the ocean. "About those. They didn't quite make it onto the ship with me."
"No." He bit his lip. "I think a crafty old dragon might have hidden them from me."
Katara laughed. "A crafty old dragon, huh? Are sure a little runaway bandit didn't help him?"
Zuko beamed. "Maybe."
She stepped closer. There was no real reason to whisper, but it felt easier that way. "You know," she said, "I'll bet your uncle has them hidden in a secret place."
"Of course he does. But he has so much stuff, he just buys everything he sees, and-"
"You might need help looking." She was toying with her necklace. "I mean, especially if he's hidden them really well."
"Like in his office," Zuko said. He was catching on. She could tell from the way he could barely speak. "Or the vault."
"Or the bunker," she said.
"And there are all kinds of White Lotus hideouts. All over the capitol."
"But, you know, we'd have to sneak around. In. Sneak in. Secretly. It would have to be a secret mission."
"And undercover. Because, you know, I'd have to use my being Fire Lady as an excuse. To go through his things." She looked up at him. "That would give me access to everything, wouldn't it?"
"Yes. Everything." His eyes had gone wide. "Whenever you wanted."
She brushed imaginary dirt from his shoulders. "It, um… It might take me a while to figure out a plan."
"We'll do it together." He swallowed. "The planning. All of it."
The smile wiggled across her lips before she could stop it. "I can't wait to get started."
He linked their little fingers. "That's something we have in common."
Welcome to the end of Stormbenders. For the purposes of this afterword, I will assume that you have seen the finale for Avatar: The Last Airbender. If you have not, please stop reading now.
First, I would like to thank you all from the bottom of my heart for making this story such a special experience. To those of you who have encouraged me from the beginning, way back at A Girl's Drink (like Misora), I want to thank you. For those of you who have read Ozai's Vengeance, who read and believed and stuck with me, I want to thank you. For those of you who have drawn art, promoted the story, talked about it, and sent me private messages and emails and told your friends, I want to thank you. You are the reason for the success of this story. It has been an amazing journey of self-discovery for me. And it would not have happened without your encouragement.
Writing this story has, for me, never been about winning a 'shipping war. Instead, it started with these desires:
To tell a story about the Fire Nation.
To tell an adventure story – an action/comedy/romance about two of my favorite fictional people who I happen to think have great chemistry.
To give Katara the same treatment I had given Zuko in Ozai's Vengeance, but with a much different tone of voice. I was worried that I couldn't reproduce the success of that story, until I realized that I shouldn't try to repeat myself. I should instead do what I wanted to do, and hope that other people enjoyed it. Moreover, I thought it unfair to three stories and a large fic about Zuko, and only three stories about Katara. She needed her own large fic, too. To make things fair.
But along the way, it became about a lot more.
I had always had issues with the Avatar State problem. During late-night conversations with RachelTheDemon, I constantly said that I wished Sokka or Zuko or Katara or Toph would pipe up and tell Aang that the fact that he could not let go of Katara was holding the group back – and holding the world back, because it meant that Aang's defeat (and the Fire Lord's success) was assured. In Ch. 5, when Sokka tells Aang that it's his limitations that put his father and Suki in prison, I was expressing my own views about Aang's failure to hold up his end of the Avatar bargain.
For me, Aang is not the hero of ATLA. Zuko is. Zuko is the one who has change and growth and development. Conversely, all of Aang's views get validated and he doesn't have to change his ways at all – he gets his druthers and never has to make a decision that might sacrifice his personality or identity. He remains insulated from the world and its problems, and rewarded for his weakness. Does he defeat the Fire Lord? Yes. But does he conquer any of his inner demons? No. And it's sad, because while the others have grown up, he has not. He is Peter Pan, and the Lion-Turtle's back is his Neverland.
Katara never struck me as particularly heroic until the second and third seasons of the show. In fact, she struck me as self-righteous, inconsistent, and selfish. She was a thief who hadn't made peace with her "the end justifies the means" attitude, and within the scope of the series, she actually gets an opportunity to learn more about herself, especially from the people that challenge her: Pakku, Hama, the leader of the Southern Raiders, and of course Zuko. In life, our enemies are the ones who become our greatest teachers, not just for what they show us about the world's cruelty but for what they show us within ourselves. I had wanted to express this same sentiment within Stormbenders, and I hope I did a good enough job.
Granted, Katara did not make the same choice as I would have by series' end. But she is fictional and I am real, and I am happily married to someone who can make difficult decisions, and who doesn't run away and hide from problems. The best thing any story can teach us is that our own world – the real world, with all of its flaws – is better and richer and more satisfying than anything anyone can dream up, no matter how grand or epic. ATLA has done that for me. Despite how fun waterbending looks, I wouldn't trade places with Katara. Or any of them.
I wrote Ozai's Vengeance as a commentary on both the "capture" and "arranged marriage" phenomena within a lot of stories about Zuko and Katara. The same sentiment informed this story, although it was primarily a chance to be fair to Katara in a way that I had not been, before. Writing Katara was actually very difficult for me. I found her perspective hostile and thorny. I write Zuko with my heart. I write Katara with my brain. But in writing about her, I had to reach back into my own experiences as a fourteen-year-old girl – my own insecurities, my own pride, my own flaws. In my own life I am much more like Toph – blunt and dirty, but (hopefully) loyal. Katara made writing about "girly" girls much easier for me. And I am profoundly grateful for that.
That said, you can read Stormbenders as both "capture" (for they certainly are captured) and "arranged marriage" (because, after all, Azula and Zuko arrange one, and Katara goes along). Both Rashaka and VickiSo have expressed the view that one of the strengths of SB is its use of fanfic tropes as a method of subversion – turning the cringe-worthy bits of some romance narratives on their heads by using the same tactics as those same romances. I feel odd commenting on this, because I'm not entirely sure it was a strategy on my part. If anything, it was a vague goal. I wanted to be fair to Katara. I wanted to give her all the information (the series didn't) and give her the chance to choose for herself (and not out of sympathy to either Aang or Zuko). This included being both captured and married on her own terms, then deciding that she wanted to live her life that way – on her own terms. The epilogue that you just read is, in many ways, a capsule version of the whole story at first: Katara is disappointed in Zuko, he arrives "late" (as he arrived late to the group in canon), they share a little bit of sneaking together, and then she agrees to go on a "secret mission" with him. But this time, she decides for herself.
ATLA, and in particular the Fire Nation, is a wonderful place rife with themes that demand further examination. Writing this story allowed me to explore things that were buried in the subtext. Aang's failure to achieve the Avatar State was only one of them, for me. Here are some of the others:
-Katara and Zuko's shared history regarding their mothers (and in Katara's case, her father). It was important to me that we see Hakoda and Ursa's "abandonment" of their children for what it was – a huge sacrifice for the good of the family. I wanted Katara and Zuko to repeat this process with Aang, not only because it would teach Aang self-reliance (in the same way that it taught it to Katara and Zuko) but because it would show Katara and Zuko the depth of their parents' love. The series seems to have backed me up on this, to some extent: in training Aang, Zuko becomes something of a father to him. By the end of the series, they share the same scar (as they do by the end of Ozai's Vengeance, I might add). At the end of Stormbenders, Katara, who has twice before given Aang life (first "hatching" him out of his shell, then healing his wounds), shares her healing gift with Zuko. Together, they give him life.
-The Fire Nation's dominance in areas of technology, and the ravages of imperialism. While ATLA has always been about the sanctity of the natural world and individual freedom, for me it has also been about how deeply wrong it is to invade a country without cause. During Sozin's time, the Fire Nation had no direct evidence that the Air Nomads or the Earth Kingdom were going to hurt them, and the Earth Kingdom and the Air Nomads had not asked them to "share their prosperity" or their style of government. In this story, Katara is a woman of color who thoroughly understands that her race and her nationality mean she will soon be colonized or killed by the Fire Nation unless she stands and fights now. She understands the pettiness and ignorance (for these are the primary ingredients of all racism, in addition to fear) that make Ozai and Azula what they are, and refuses to allow the same impulses to rule her. She learns to love the Fire Nation, despite its history. But she also colonizes it for herself.
-Stormbending as a metaphor. In ATLA, different styles of bending and elements correspond to who a person and what a nation is. Fire is destructive but powerful (like Azula), earth is stubborn and unyielding (like Toph), and so on. In stormbending, I discovered a great metaphor for two people working together, and two nations healing. I didn't see why one should have to be the Avatar to combine the elements, not when the freedom of the whole world depended on it. Of course, stormbending is also a metaphor for more than just nations joining, and there's a reason that stormbending brings Aang to life at the end of the story, why Katara calls it "a team effort."
A few of you have asked me specific questions about the story, and I'll try to answer them here:
-All the innuendos were intentional.
-Toph is gay. (And I daresay the series agrees with me, there.)
-Katara and Zuko didn't have sex in the "finale" chapter. She's fourteen. (Nothing happens to Katara in this story that wasn't happening for me at around fifteen.) And more importantly, she didn't want to.
Here are some places I went wrong:
-I made things too easy on Zuko and Katara. They were never truly "discovered" until a point at which it no longer mattered, and they should have been. There were two places that they could have been discovered: in the Oyster District, Part II, when the Dai Li are on the roof and they're inside talking about the scheme (the Dai Li could have been listening), and when Katara ditches the map scroll during a dressing sequence (technically I didn't write her losing it, but only because I myself forgot that she had it – it's still physical evidence).
-Clearing up Li and Lo. I had never truly decided whether Li and Lo were on Katara and Zuko's side. But then, the series also found a suitably-ambiguous end for Li and Lo, so I don't feel too bad.
-Not giving Aang more of a chance to say simply "thank you" for all that Katara and Zuko have done for him.
Well, that's all, folks. It's over. There won't be a sequel. There may, however, be comics, and a Spanish translation.
Once again, I want to thank you all. But especially, I want to thank the people who saw this through with me: my husband, Rachel, Misora, AKAVertigo, RedBrunja, LemonyLoyce, Manonlechat, BelleFavrielle, EVERYONE AT CAPSTARA, Rashaka and everyone at KZ, all my friends at LJ and especially OrePookPook, who went above and beyond the call of duty in designing costumes, answering questions about everything from culture to canon, and helping me plan this epilogue you just read.
See you in the Oyster District.