PROMISES TO KEEP
Chapter 18: Caught in Crystal
A/N: Some of you have been waiting a long, long time for this chapter:
As they stepped out of the carriage that had brought them up to the palace gates, while still out of earshot of the guards at their posts, Uncle Iroh commented with a smile, "Many times I imagined myself here, at the threshold of the palace. But I always thought I would be here as a conqueror. Instead, we are the Earth King's personal guests, here to serve him tea! Destiny is a funny thing."
"It sure is, Uncle," Zuko said with a smile—his very best cheerful smile; he knew because he'd practiced it in the mirror a few mornings ago. For the last few days he'd been doing his very best to be the Good Prince, just as good princes were always described in the spirit-tale scrolls: patient and kind to everyone, working just as hard as the commoners they traveled with while in disguise, and always convinced that everything would turn out for the best. Because that attitude made his uncle happy, and after everything Uncle Iroh had gone through for his sake in the last three years, the old man deserved to be happy!
When they'd been informed yesterday that the proprietor of the Jasmine Dragon would have the honor of serving tea to the Earth King, his uncle had been overjoyed! And Zuko had been happy for him, and he would continue being happy for him. ...HAPPY, dammit! Unrelentingly Happy, even though a part of him was shouting over and over that this was really pushing their luck...
While they'd still been in the Lower Ring, back when Uncle had still been thinking up names for their Upper Ring teashop, Zuko had tried to warn him about the danger of being recognized as the Dragon of the West by one of the generals who lived among the nobility, but Iroh had dismissed the idea as soon as he'd brought it up.
"Really, nephew, do you think my face is that distinctive and memorable to total strangers?" Iroh had asked with a hearty chuckle. "I can assure you, the only Earth Kingdom general I have ever met face-to-face is the one who gifted me with that dagger upon his surrender, and so far as I know, he is still 'guest of honor' in that prison camp outside Yushu Colony made for prisoners of war. Nearly every other general I've dealt with during my long career of conquest either fled to the rear while their soldiers held me off just long enough for them to escape, or committed suicide during their capture, likely for fear of revealing further military weaknesses during interrogation."
Shaking his head, Iroh had continued, "Just as with all the noblemen who live in the Upper Ring, any generals we see there will only know me by descriptions that have been passed on to them by spies. It is possible that some spy who managed to infiltrate my armies far enough to get a decent look at me was also a consummate artist, capable of drawing a perfect portrait of me from just one sighting, but I sincerely doubt it. Oh, there might be a decent sketch of me on file in some general's headquarters, but I've changed a great deal since the height of my conquering days," as he ran one hand over his balding scalp and gray-white hair and the other over his wrinkled cheek and beard, before bracing both hands on either side of his ample torso, to show how much excess weight he had on his frame even after several weeks of insufficient food.
"And even if I had not changed at all since then... Something you should know already, nephew, is that people too often see only what they want to see, or expect to see," as Iroh had wagged an admonishing finger at him. "If they see a man wearing poor and travel-worn clothing, they think 'refugee' and rarely look further. Have we not used that to our own advantage in the last two months?"
Zuko had been forced to admit his uncle was right. And he drew on that memory now, while keeping that cheerful smile nailed to his face, as he and his uncle were shown to a guest house located within the palace walls, and informed they would wait inside for the Earth King to arrive. Once inside, they arranged the tea service in antiticipation, and settled in to wait. And they waited... and waited...
And finally Zuko could not hold back a worried and irritated, "What's taking so long?"
Uncle Iroh offered rather lamely, "Maybe the Earth King overslept."
But moments after he said that, a Dai Li agent walked into the room. Followed by another, and another; a full dozen Dai Li filed in and quickly formed a wide perimeter surrounding the pair, as the hairs on the back of Zuko's neck raised and he muttered, "Something's wrong." Ashes and soot, Uncle had been recognized by some military officer, and any second now they were going to be faced with an accusing general...
But instead, a teenaged girl wearing something like a cutesy version of the Dai Li uniform walked into the room, and then Zuko saw her face, and his insides froze solid with horror because this was so much worse than an Earth Kingdom general! Azula smirked at them as she declared, "It's tea time!"
After dragging him down a tunnel that led far below the palace, the two Dai Li stopped in front of a giant stone disk set in the floor. One Dai Li made an earthbending move to shove the disk away, revealing a large hole in the cavern floor, while the other peeled away the massive stone mittens they'd wrapped around his hands earlier, and the heavy stone weights wrapped around his ankles as well. But before he could lash out at them again, the Dai Li shouted downwards with dark humor, "You've got company!" and then pitched him into the hole.
He tumbled down a steeply sloping tunnel into a cavern lit by glowing crystals, as he heard the rumble of the entrance being sealed behind him... and in front of him, someone saying, "Zuko?"
He scrambled to his feet, to find Katara running straight at him. She gave him a quick but fierce hug, but just as he started to hug her back she pulled back slightly, looking him up and down with clear worry in her features. "Are you all right? Did they hurt you?"
"I'm fine," he said automatically, ignoring the pain from being tumbled down into the cave, while trying not to enjoy the sensation of having a beautiful girl in his arms—at least, not enjoy it too much, especially under their current circumstances. "What are you doing in here? Did Azula capture you?"
"Yes," she said unhappily. "She and her two minions got into the palace a few days ago, disguised as Kyoshi Warriors! And I was so busy with the generals that I never even tried to say hello to them until after I came back from… Oh, Zuko, I'm so sorry! It's my fault you were captured!" Katara's face was anguished as she pushed completely away from him, and began hugging herself out of guilt. "When they paralyzed me, they found the Jasmine Dragon tea coupon on me, and Azula recognized your uncle's handwriting!"
Zuko slumped, feeling incredibly weary. "Of course. …It's not your fault, Katara; it's just that the universe hates me."
"What about Uncle Iroh; was he captured too?" she said anxiously.
"No; Azula's trap got both of us, but we managed to hold them off long enough for him to escape. And I could have escaped too, but I decided I was tired of running from my sister. I challenged her to an Agni Kai, but she refused—it's dishonorable to refuse, but she did it with a smile! And she had the Dai Li agents throw me in here."
After a long moment of silence, in which a mortified Zuko could almost hear Katara asking silently why he'd thought for even an instant that his sister would honor the laws of the Agni Kai, she just gave a huge sigh instead. "Well, at least Uncle Iroh escaped. And now that you're here too, maybe we can figure out a way out of here."
But though they examined every inch of the cavern they were in, and discussed every option they could think of, they could find no way out. There was no water to use for waterbending, and the sounds made thumping the walls and ceiling proved they were too thick to be blasted through by firebending.
Bracing his hands and feet against opposite walls, Zuko slowly and arduously climbed back up the tunnel to the entrance he'd been pitched through, but the stone seal over the entrance sounded just as thick and solid as the walls. He braced himself and gave it his hottest fireblast anyway, but all the sustained burst of bending did was leave scorch marks and make the air there at the top of the tunnel uncomfortably hot. He glared at the stone seal, then called down to Katara, "Clear the area down there; I'm going to try something."
He slid several feet back down the tunnel to the midpoint, to give himself room; if this worked, there would be stone shards flying everywhere, and he'd need some distance to have any hope of dodging them. He put his upper back against one side of the tunnel and shoved hard with his feet on the other side, to wedge himself in place; his spine howled in protest, but he needed both hands free to even try this move.
He heard Uncle's words inside his head again as he paired his fingers and moved his hands in circular motions: There is energy all around us. The energy is both yin and yang; positive energy and negative energy. Only a select few firebenders can separate these energies. This creates an imbalance. The energy wants to restore balance and in a moment the positive and negative energy come crashing back together. You provide release and guidance, creating lightning.
He felt the energies start to separate—
When Zuko woke up, he was back on the tunnel floor with Katara crying and frantically begging him to be okay.
And as soon as he groaned and started to sit up, she went from frantically worried to furious. "Whatever you did up there, don't you ever do it again!" she shouted right in his face. "When I heard the explosion and you came crashing out of there, you scared me to death! I thought you were dead! So don't you ever, ever-"
"Don't worry, I definitely won't be doing that again," he groaned, as he began gingerly checking for broken bones. He eventually determined that one rib might be cracked, but he hadn't broken anything outright, though he was peppered with bruises and would be sore for weeks.
He limped over to the tunnel and looked upwards, sending a short burst of fire to illuminate the seal at the top. Still solid, dammit; he'd been too far away for the explosion to do anything to crack it. And even if he was in shape to try that again at close quarters, the explosion in an even more confined space would probably kill him before cracking the stone. "That's it," he sighed, "I'm utterly out of ideas. All we can do is wait and see if Uncle can find a way to free us."
"Uncle and Toph," Katara said hopefully. "She's a master earthbender, so good she can use her bending to hear things coming from really far away, and even the heartbeats of people close to her!. She's visiting her parents in the Middle Ring right now, but once the visit's over I know she'll come back to our house in the Upper Ring. If he finds her and they team up, I know they'll be able to find and free us in no time!"
The Earth King had assured them that everything was fine and Katara was just off having fun with the Kyoshi Warriors, but the vision Aang had seen while at the Eastern Air Temple stayed with him. And his sense of foreboding only increased when they reached the Upper Ring house they'd been staying in, and Katara was nowhere to be found.
He was about to insist they split up and search the Upper Ring, Sokka and Toph on Appa while he took his glider and Momo, when Toph pointed back outside and said warningly, "Wait, someone's at the door." Then someone knocked, and the warning note in Toph's voice changed to surprised pleasure. "Actually, I know who it is; it's an old friend of mine." And with that, she slid the door open to reveal—Iroh! Prince Zuko's uncle!
If Iroh was here, then Zuko was nearby, and—Aang didn't even realize what he'd been about to do until he felt Toph suddenly grab his arm, to keep him from lunging forward at the elder as he shouted, "Where did Zuko kidnap Katara to this time?!"
"He has not taken her again; instead, my nephew has been taken himself," Iroh told them gravely. "By a mutual foe, I fear; Princess Azula is here in Ba Sing Se." And while Aang was still flinching at the news, he asked politely, "May I come in?" Toph nodded to him, and he stepped inside. "If Katara is missing as well, I think it likely that she has captured them both."
Aang had a terrible sinking feeling that Iroh was right, and Katara was in Azula's cruel hands now. Sokka must have had the same thought he had; even as he opened his mouth, the Water Tribe teen pointed at Iroh with a grim expression as he said almost accusingly, "Let me guess; you want to team up with us to fight Azula, and to save both my sister and your nephew."
"You are correct," Iroh said with a nod.
"And you promise you won't try to capture the Avatar in the process again?" Sokka pressed with a suspicious glower.
"You have my word," Iroh said while nodding again. "And you know from his actions at our last meeting, that my nephew is a man of honor; he will not break the truce either."
"Yeah, I remember that bonking he actually asked for," as Sokka turned back to Aang and Toph. He asked succinctly, "Team up?"
"Team up," Aang readily agreed, and so did Toph.
Iroh gestured back out the door as he told them, "I brought someone along who might be able to help us." And when Aang went out onto the porch with the others, he was surprised again; he had a Dai Li agent sitting out there, bound and gagged! How had the elder managed to not only catch an agent of the Dai Li, but sneak him onto the porch without any passersby noticing?
"So... what shall we do while waiting for someone to rescue us?" Katara asked after over five minutes of increasingly awkward silence.
Zuko shrugged. "I don't know... play games?"
"What kind of games?"
"Um... how about 'I See, You Guess'?" Zuko looked around for a moment. "I see something... something green."
Katara rolled her eyes as she answered, "Green crystals."
"You guessed it. Okay, your turn."
"Zuko, there's nothing here but green crystals!"
Zuko flushed with embarrassment as he shot back irritably, "Okay, so what do you suggest we do ?"
Actually, Katara had several ideas for ways they could pass the time; her tribe had endured plenty of winter storms when the wind howled outside the igloos, when people were stuck inside their homes for days on end, and they had developed plenty of pastimes that didn't require playing cards or gameboards. But rather than suggest they start singing Water Tribe story-songs or playing memory games like 'Into the Cooking Pot', she asked, "Why don't we talk about what we'll do when we get out of here? What's the first thing you want to do?"
"Make sure my uncle is okay. What's the first thing you want to do?"
Katara hesitated for a moment—this was risky, and she knew it—but then she said, "Make sure my brother and friends are okay. And then introduce you to them properly; not as an enemy anymore, but as a friend and ally."
Zuko blinked at her, and hesitantly repeated, "F-friend and ally?"
"Mm-hm," Katara said as she deliberately turned her 'puppy-seal' eyes on him; the look her father had complained more than once that nobody with even an ounce of heart could resist, so strong that it could stop a charging arctic hippo in his tracks. "An ally who can really help us put an end to the war! Because you are now, aren't you? Don't you remember, from our talk in your tea shop?"
But instead of reluctantly agreeing with her, Zuko scooted away several inches from her, his already mismatched features warped with a mixture of outrage and horror. "I remember; I said that I had given up on trying to capture the Avatar. But I did not say I would start trying to help him! There's a big difference between doing nothing and actively committing treason!"
Well, there went her hopes for a quick and easy victory. But Katara was resilient, and she'd put a lot of thought into what she would say to Zuko if given the opportunity, long before he'd been tossed into the cavern with her. She asked calmly, "Treason against who?"
Zuko stared at her incredulously. "Against the Fire Nation! You can't be that dense!"
"I'm not. Let me rephrase that: Treason against the Fire Nation… or just against your father's will?"
"It's the same thing!"
Katara shook her head. "No, it's not. There are a lot more people in the Fire Nation than just your father. And from what we learned from Jeong Jeong, there are a lot of people in your country who are against this war. They'd like nothing more than for this whole war to be over right now, and the Fire Nation to go back to being at peace with the other nations. But your father doesn't want that. He won't stop until the entire world has been conquered … or until someone stops him. Zuko, you've been living here in Ba Sing Se, running a tea shop with your uncle. And before, that, you were wandering across the Earth Kingdom as a refugee; you had to have seen at least a little of what the war has done to this country. Do you really think that life here would be better—not just for you, but for the average Earth Kingdom native—if the Fire Nation conquered Ba Sing Se?"
"…No," Zuko finally admitted. "But I can't betray my father!"
Katara sighed, looking down at the floor and tapping her foot in thought. "I've been thinking about the best way to say this, ever since I found out how you got that scar. I think the best way to do it… is to just demonstrate."
For the first time, she was glad that she'd been captured alone, instead of having Sokka or Aang with her. She could well have escaped already, with Aang's earthbending or Sokka's incredible ability to come up with crazy ideas that somehow worked, but she might never have this opportunity with Zuko again. And if either Aang or Sokka were here, they would never in a hundred years agree to let her do this.
She stood right in front of Zuko, reached out and tapped his right hand. "Make a fist." He glanced at her warily, then did so. "Now, make it flame." His lone eyebrow went up, but he obediently made fire erupt from his knuckles.
She carefully took him by the forearm and positioned him so his fiery fist was on a level with her head, swallowing hard. If she was wrong about this…
But she couldn't be wrong. She knew Zuko was wrong and she was right, and this would prove it to him. "Zuko?"
"You're a big fat wuss, and you have bad breath!" and then she spat at his feet.
And dear Tui and La, his fist blazed, the flames leaping higher—
But he didn't hit her. Instead he stepped back, away from her, the unscarred side of his face showing his hurt, anger and confusion.
Tui and La, please let this work… "Well, what are you waiting for? Burn half my face off!"
"I just insulted you! I totally disrespected you! Why aren't you burning my face off yet?"
"I—I can't do that!"
"Sure you can! You're a firebender!" as she pointed to his still flaming fist.
The flames instantly quenched, and the fist flattened into a palm sweep, cutting between them in cold refusal. "I won't, then! What's gotten into you?!"
"I'm trying to make a point. I was pretty disrespectful, right? But you didn't burn me. You didn't even hit me without fire. Because we're… well, in a weird way, we're sort-of friends, aren't we?"
"I guess… I wouldn't know; I've never had any real friends," Zuko muttered, looking down at his feet.
Katara's heart almost audibly cracked. Poor Zuko… "I guess you haven't," she said, fighting to keep her voice steady. "Because a real friend would have made you listen and understand the truth long before now."
"That your father… no, that Ozai is the worst sort of monster, and you owe him nothing at all."
"How dare you—!" as he wheeled on her, his fists smoldering.
It took every scrap of courage she had, but she stood stock-still, and waited. One clenched fist rose… but didn't descend, and the flames gradually died, as the fist lowered to his side again.
"We're only sort-of-kind-of friends, but you won't burn me, even when my words hurt you. And I think you probably wouldn't burn my face off if I was a total stranger. Because you know that it wouldn't be right, or fair. Zuko, three years ago all you did was tell a heartless general that his plan stunk like ten-day-old fish. And your fa—Ozai tried to kill you."
Zuko trembled from head to toe, refusing to look her in the face. "I… I showed disrespect-"
"I showed disrespect! But you didn't hurt me at all. And I bet if I did the same to your uncle, he wouldn't hurt me either. …Except maybe wash my mouth out with soap, like Gran-Gran did to Sokka once when he used cusswords in front of her." That got a half-snort, half-chuckle out of him; encouraged, she went on. "Zuko, I know this hurts, but you have to face the truth. Your father—Ozai was just looking for an excuse to kill you. You should have faced that general in the Agni Kai arena, since it was his plan that you disagreed with. I'd bet three days' worth of meals that there had been plenty of disagreements before about tactics and stuff, and if any generals got all insulted, Ozai just let them fight it out themselves or told them to just shut up and sit down. That could have happened too, your father telling you that you weren't old enough to know what you were talking about, and to just shut up and sit down while the adults did the talking. But that's not what happened. When you insulted one of them, in his war room, that was all the excuse Ozai needed to get you into the Agni Kai arena; a place where he could legally kill you right in front of the Fire Sages, and get away with it."
"I… I couldn't fight him! I…"
"I read up on Agni Kai's at the University of Ba Sing Se, Zuko! After you talked about honor tiers when we were fighting at the North Pole, I knew I had to learn more, so I did. And by the rules of the Agni Kai, once a fight starts… If you'd fought him, if you'd raised a hand against him even once, he could have killed you in combat right there and then, and gotten away with it. Tradition says that no matter what stupid piddly little thing it started over, if an Agni Kai ends up being a fight to the death, nobody can say a word against the winner. Agni smiles on the victor, that's all folks, show's over, go home. But you didn't fight. You took one look at him, and surrendered."
"You did the right thing, Zuko! By surrendering, you were showing respect to your father and loyalty to your sovereign! But that's not what Ozai wanted, because the Agni Kai rules say that once someone formally surrenders, the fight is over; no killing allowed after a surrender. That's the real reason Ozai burned you so badly, when he claimed the victor's right to mark his opponent. A mark that's normally just a little burn on the shoulder or chest, some place that can be covered by clothes off the arena. Instead, he used his whole hand on your face; wayyy overboard! And he didn't do it to 'teach you respect'; he did it because he was angry that you hadn't given him enough of an excuse to kill you in front of everybody."
Zuko held his hands over his ears. "Stop it!"
But Katara refused to stop. "He couldn't kill you, so instead, he scarred you for life. He couldn't do more than that without getting the rest of the Fire Nation, from the Fire Sages on down, standing up against him in outrage for violating the sacred rites of the Agni Kai. And then he banished you. Oh, he gave you a way back; he had to do that, didn't he? Because just 'shameful weakness' in not fighting him isn't reason enough to banish someone for life, especially when there were witnesses in the stands who would know that you'd shown loyalty, not weakness. So he turned your banishment into a quest, and said you could come back if you found and captured the Avatar. But Aang had been trapped in that iceberg for nearly a hundred years by then; nearly everybody figured the Avatar would never return! Ozai never believed you'd actually find the Avatar, when he set the terms of banishment; he never wanted you to come back!"
And Zuko collapsed where he stood, sinking to his knees, and sobbing his heart out. Katara knelt with him and pulled him into a hug, letting him cry it out against her shoulder, while tears ran down her own face.
"I-I tried, I tri-ied so ha-ard," Zuko hiccupped between sobs. "I c-cou-couldn't…"
"I know you tried," Katara whispered as she hugged him fiercely. "I know you tried as hard as you could!"
"Buh-buh-but I was never good enough!" he howled, before dissolving in tears again. "Neh-never g-good enough-f-ff…"
"(sniff) Never good enough for what?" she asked, pulling him back enough to look him in the face. "Never good enough... to make him love you?"
Zuko nodded wretchedly.
"That is… that is a pile of polar-dog shit!" Katara said fiercely. (Knowing that somehow, at that very minute, Gran-Gran could sense that she was swearing and was getting a bar of soap ready for the next time they saw each other.) "You're more than good enough! The problem isn't with you, Zuko; it's with him! There's something inside Ozai that's just gone wrong, like Midnight Sun Madness, but it's all year 'round. I know that a real father loves his son whether or not he's perfect! Take Sokka, for example; Sokka sure isn't perfect! When he was eight years old, he took our father's favorite spear and went out pretending to hunt with it, and he broke it against a rock! And he doesn't get out of bed when he's supposed to, and he's always sneaking food… and our dad loves him anyway. When Dad was home, even when he was yelling at him, he still loved him; I could tell because before that day was over he'd give Sokka a hug or do something to make him smile again. That's what a real father is like! It's just a rotten stinking shame that you got stuck with Ozai, instead of a real father."
Zuko had jerked up to stare wide-eyed at her swearing, and he listened in silence to the rest of her rant. When she finally ran down, he just sat there, sagging against her arms, for a few moments more; then he asked quietly while wiping tears from his cheeks, "Why? …Why doesn't he love me? He loves Azula; she's always been his favorite…"
"Um…" Katara hadn't been prepared for that one. But a few moments' quick thinking gave her the answer. "Zuko, I want you to describe Azula to me in just three words."
Without hesitation, Zuko said as he ticked them off on his fingers, "Cruel, lying, vicious."
Yup, that summed up what she'd seen of Azula so far. Katara spread her hands as she said, "And there's your answer."
"Zuko, even if I ignored the whole cursed war, I could tell those same words apply to Ozai just from what he did to you. He was cruel in forcing you to face him in the Agni Kai, he made a lie of omission by not telling you who you'd be facing until it was too late, and every other person in the whole wide world would agree that this," as she pointed to the scar, "was nothing but vicious. That's why Azula is his favorite; she's just like him! While you're nothing like him at all! …Okay, you might get a little bit cruel sometimes, though a better word is probably callous; you focus more on your goals than what's right or good for everybody else."
"Uncle says I need to work on that more," Zuko admitted, rubbing the back of his head in embarrassment. Oddly, her finding something in him to criticize seemed to be reassuring to him—which was really sad, that he was more ready to hear bad things about himself than good things. Ozai should have been pushed off an ice floe to drown years ago, even before he became Fire Lord.
"So you get callous sometimes. But not cruel or vicious, and you've never really lied to me, even back when we were enemies. Zuko, the reason he hates you is because you're too good for him! You remind him of what he's supposed to be, instead of what he is. The only way to get your father's approval would be to become just like him; cruel, lying, vicious… is that what you want to be?"
"No," he whispered, his eyes wide. His expression was so odd, but at the same time it seemed familiar... Then Katara realized she'd seen that same expression once before, on Sokka after that time he'd stepped on a wickedly long thorn while chasing and catching a possum-chicken. He hadn't realized that the thorn had run right through the smallest toe on his left foot until after he'd swung the critter's carcass over his head in triumph; then his look as he'd limped over to her had said: how could I have not noticed something so wrong, for so long?
Katara nodded in satisfaction, and let the realization sink in for another few seconds before she put her hands on his shoulders again, demanding his attention. "Now I want you to repeat after me, okay?"
Emotionally exhausted, he just nodded mutely.
She said slowly and very clearly, "Ozai tried to kill me."
"Ozai…" Zuko paused, swallowed hard, and tried again. His voice quavered a little but he still said clearly, "Ozai tried to kill me."
"He is not my father anymore."
She tightened her grip on his shoulders. "Say it!"
"He is… not my father anymore."
"Uncle Iroh is ten times better than he ever was."
That actually make Zuko smile, ever so slightly. "Uncle Iroh is a hundred times better than he ever was!"
"Good!" as she nodded approval, before firming her grip on his shoulders again. "Now say it all again, and mean it! Mean it with all your heart, Zuko, because you know it's the truth! 'Ozai tried to kill me. He is not my father anymore. Uncle—"
Sitting up ramrod-straight, Zuko gritted out; "Ozai tried to kill me. He is not my father anymore! Uncle Iroh is a thousand times better than he ever was!"
It was working; she could see it in his eyes! Zuko was finally breaking free of that monster's hold on him; getting ready to defy the Fire Lord and come over to her and Aang's side! She crowed, "Yes!"
And then he slumped down again, shuddering slightly; utterly drained. She let him lean into her, both supporting him and leaning in for her own support. She felt emotionally drained herself, after all that. And after a few more moments of facing each other, she shifted and shuffled around until she was at his side once more, leaning shoulder to shoulder. Now that she'd confronted him with the truth and he'd accepted it at last, it was time to just be his friend again.
She said softly, "I know this was hard for you… But I knew you were tough enough to face it, too."
He looked at her sidelong as he murmured, "Even though I'm a 'big fat wuss'?"
"What?! Who told you that?" Katara said in outrage.
A corner of his mouth lifted in an almost-smile. "You did. Earlier, remember?"
"…Oh." Katara blushed a little. "Well, I take it back! You're obviously not fat, and since you chased us clear around the world, I think anybody would agree that you're definitely not a wuss."
"Thanks," he said softly as they sat together in companionable silence. Then he glanced at her again. "What about my breath?"
The Dai Li agent Iroh had captured had told them about Zuko and Katara being stuck in some crystal catacombs far beneath the surface, and Toph had used her earthbending to confirm that the catacombs existed, though so far down that she wouldn't have noticed them, at the very edge of her earthbending limits, if she hadn't been specifically looking for them.
Sokka and Toph had gone off to warn the Earth King of Azula's plans, while Aang and Zuko's uncle tunneled down to free the prisoners. After he'd been earthbending for several minutes, Aang decided to break the awkward silence between them with a tentative, "So, Katara and Toph both think you give pretty good advice. And great tea."
He could hear the mild amusement in the elder's voice as Iroh quipped, "The key to both is proper aging. What's on your mind?"
After thrusting forward to clear a few more feet of tunnel, Aang said hesitantly, "Well, I met with this Guru who was supposed to help me master the Avatar State, and control this great power. But to do it, I had to let go of someone I love, and I just couldn't."
"Perfection and power are overrated," Iroh commented. "I think you were very wise to choose happiness and love."
Was he just saying that because he was a member of the Fire Nation, knowing that an Avatar fully in command of their powers would be the greatest threat to their conquest? Aang almost said that out loud, but at the last instant turned the accusatory question into a more appropriate one: "What happens if we can't save everyone and beat Azula? Without the Avatar State, what if I am not powerful enough?"
"I don't know the answer," Iroh admitted. After a beat he went on, "Sometimes life is like this dark tunnel. You can't always see the light at the end of the tunnel, but if you just keep moving..."
Just then, Aang earthbent a few last feet of rocks out of the way, and the tunnel broke through into a massive cavern eerily lit by green crystals. Iroh smiled and finished his proverb, "You will come to a better place."
Aang gave the elder full credit for perfect timing, as they stepped out into the cavern. Now that they'd reached the catacombs, where were Katara and Zuko?
Sokka had complained more than once that Katara was an annoying, meddling busybody, among other things. And his rants always included the complaint that she "just can't leave well enough alone!"
Katara hated to admit it, but there was probably some truth to that. Particularly right now, when she was contemplating—what was it Sokka said sometimes? Poking the tiger-seal. Prodding something to get it to move the way she wanted, or even just move faster, when there was a good chance it could turn on her instead and all end in blood.
It was fantastic that she had finally gotten Zuko to see the truth about his father the Fire Lord, but she wanted him to go further than that. Aang needed a firebending teacher, and here was a powerful and now-friendly firebender right here in the cave with her; it was like Destiny was pushing them all together! Now if she could just get him to see that too, and agree to join their group…
They'd somehow ended up not just sitting together, but sort-of leaning on each other; Zuko because he was exhausted from being put through the emotional wringer earlier and Katara because… because she just was, that's all! After another little while of companionable silence she said softly while looking sidelong at him, "The offer's still open, by the way."
"Hm?" he murmured, his eyes half-closed.
"You could join us. Teach Aang firebending; help us beat Ozai, end the war and save the world."
The good eye that she could see snapped open, as he went stiff and upright. He might not have meant to pull away from her while doing so, but it felt like he had and Katara felt a twinge of rejection. It got worse when he said nothing for five long seconds before saying hesitantly, "I have to talk with Uncle first."
"Your uncle? Why?"
"Because he comes first, that's why. He's retired from the war, and running the Jasmine Dragon was his dream come true, and—I can't abandon him, Katara! Not even for you! Through all these years, he's the only one who was always there for me, who never left me; even when I tried to leave him behind once, he didn't leave me! You're right, I don't owe my fath—Ozai anything anymore. But I owe my uncle everything!"
Katara sighed, knowing there was no way she could argue against that, especially since she'd taken such pains to compare Iroh favorably to Ozai earlier. "You're right; you should definitely talk to him. And when you do, let him know that there's room on Appa's saddle for him too, and that Toph still swears that the tea he brewed for her once is the best she's ever tasted."
He shrugged, "Well, of course it was; Uncle made it! And I'll tell him that, too. But don't get your hopes up. Remember, he's retired; he's had enough of war."
She nodded. But she had to add, "He's not the only one. I was sick of this war even before we left the South Pole. It's taken so much from me already… And I know Aang hates having to fight, too. If you gave him a choice, he'd rather just go gliding and riding Appa and sliding down the mail chutes of Omashu and stuff like that. Sokka and Toph might not be so tired of fighting, especially Toph, but… The main reason we're fighting is because somebody has to do it. If we don't stop the Fire Lord and the war, the Fire Nation will eventually conquer the whole world, and there won't be any safe places for you and your uncle to run a tea shop."
He gave her an irritated look. "Katara, I said I'd talk to Uncle before making any decision; stop pushing!"
"Sorry," she said with chagrin. After a moment of uncomfortable silence, she admitted, "Honestly, you and your uncle aren't the only ones that will need persuading. I'll probably have to work on Toph, Aang and Sokka, too."
He snorted, "You think? After I chased you all clear from the South Pole to the North Pole, they're not going to want to have anything to do with me."
"At least it shouldn't be a problem to persuade Toph that you're okay," Katara mused aloud. "She's never actually fought you, and she likes Uncle already. And Aang… I should be able to talk him into letting you join us, if I remind him of that friend of his from the Fire Nation that he knew a hundred years ago. Aang would always rather make friends than fight. But persuading Sokka that you're okay is going to be really hard. Even after the honorable treatment you and your crew gave me, I think that whenever he pictures the enemy, he sees your face."
"My face. I see," Zuko said flatly as he turned away, one hand automatically lifting to cover his scar.
Katara winced and said hurriedly, "No, no, that's not what I meant!"
He gave a small shrug. "It's okay. …I used to think this scar marked me. The mark of the banished prince, cursed to chase the Avatar forever. But you and Uncle have helped me see that I can choose a different destiny, even if I'll never be free of the mark."
She said hesitantly, "Um… back at the North Pole, before the fight, you asked me if I could—"
He cut her off with a raised hand, shaking his head with a rueful smile. "It's okay. I shouldn't have asked that of you, and anyway, I know you can't heal scars."
She arched an eyebrow at him. "And just how do you know that?"
"Because when you did that healing on me just before the fight, this didn't go away," as he turned and tilted his head to show her a small white scar under his chin on the right side. "See the scar, there? It's from one of Azula's nastier tricks on me; her way of celebrating her ninth birthday. Anyway, you might not remember, but there was a bruise all around that scar from when my ship blew up; a bruise you healed that night. But the scar's still there, not changed at all. So if that small scar couldn't be healed, there's no chance of healing this one; don't waste your chi on it. Besides, you don't have your waterskin on you, and there's no water in here to use," as he gestured all around them at the cavern they were stuck in.
…There was water, just a little of it; water that Zuko didn't know about, not yet. Water that Katara had honestly forgotten she had until a few days ago, while dressing after taking a bath. Water that she'd been kicking herself over ever since, because it might have saved Jet… Katara swallowed hard and reached inside the neckline of her tunic to pull out the amulet that Master Pakku had given her when she'd left the North Pole. She showed it to him, saying quietly, "This is water from the Spirit Oasis at the North Pole. It has special properties, and I've been saving it for something important. I could try healing it with this…"
But to her surprise, Zuko turned away from her, his face contorted with pain; he looked almost in tears. "Stop it!"
"Y-you're just trying to sweeten the deal! Trying to manipulate me, and—don't do that!"
Katara felt like she'd been slapped. She knew that the rush of heat to her face was from shame; it hadn't been her only motivation to make the offer, but she had been thinking that it would help persuade him to join them. It was no better than when he'd dangled her mother's necklace in front of her, trying to get her to tell him where Aang was…
And while she'd been an honor-bound prisoner on his ship, he'd returned the necklace to her despite her still hating his guts at the time. Not to try to persuade her to do anything; because he knew she wanted it back, and it was the right thing to do.
She firmed her chin and stepped up to him. "This isn't a deal-sweetener. I'm offering to try to heal it because it's the right thing to do! Even if you said right now that you and Uncle are going to just leave and set up a tea shop somewhere else, I still want to do this. Because it isn't fair that, even now that you're finally breaking free of Ozai's grip on your spirit, you still have to wear his mark on your face. It isn't fair, and while there's a lot of unfairness that I can't do a darn thing about, I can at least try to put this right."
He stared at her with his good eye wide, swallowing hard, then slowly nodded. "Okay."
Her heart thudded inside her chest. Now that he'd agreed to it, she was incredibly nervous. "Just remember, I don't know if this will work. No guarantees, no promises," she warned.
He nodded and echoed, "No promises."
She hesitantly reached up to his face and lightly touched the scar, wondering how to begin. From the outer edges of the scar towards the center, or from the center outwards? He closed his eyes at her touch, trembling slightly.
They both held their breaths—
And then the wall behind Katara burst open in a crash of stone breaking.
She whipped around, wishing desperately for a full waterskin… then almost collapsed in relief when she saw who it was; Aang and Iroh! She ran up to Aang and hugged him happily. "I knew you would come!"
Iroh ran past her to hug his nephew, even as Zuko said in clear bewilderment, "Uncle, I don't understand. What are you doing with the Avatar?"
"Saving you, that's what," Aang said—no, Aang almost snarled at Zuko, from over Katara's shoulder. She pulled back to look at him in dismay; what had happened to make him react like that?
A horrible thought hit her; had Iroh actually captured Aang, in order to get his hands on a earthbender who could help him free his nephew? She knew Iroh would do anything for Zuko…
She made a fast decision; she spun around to face Zuko and his uncle as she held up the vial of spirit water and shouted, "Zuko! Later, I promise!" Zuko was frowning, probably having already resigned himself to the interruption and to a delay in healing his scar, but he gave her a short nod of understanding. Then she grabbed Aang's hand and started nearly dragging him into the tunnel he'd made. Aang was clearly surprised, but willingly followed her down the tunnel, away from Zuko and Iroh.
Katara wasn't worried about Zuko finding her again, not after hunting the Avatar all over the world. And she wasn't worried that he'd think she had changed her mind about healing him; she'd showed him the vial and promised 'Later', and he knew she meant it. He would hold his uncle back for at least a few minutes, hopefully while trying to persuade Iroh that they should join Team Avatar now, instead of sitting out the rest of the war. And the next time they met, she'd try to heal his scar, even if it turned out that all he could do in return is serve her a nice cup of tea. But right now, she and Aang had to get out of here. They had an Earth King to save from Azula, not to mention the whole city of Ba Sing Se…
Zuko frowned but stayed put while watching Katara run off with Aang instead of staying to use that special water on him. It was probably for the best; the kid had looked furious just now, and Katara should probably talk him into accepting Zuko and his uncle as allies before doing anything else. But speaking of talking people into doing something... he turned to Iroh and began, "Uncle, we need—"
He'd been about to say 'need to talk', but Iroh clearly already had something in mind, because he interrupted with a firm, "Zuko, it's time we talked."
Zuko honestly couldn't help the warning Uh-oh that came to mind, or stepping back a pace as he asked warily, "Talked about what?"
"You are not the man you used to be, nephew," Iroh said while giving him a downright challenging look. "You are stronger and wiser and freer than you have ever been. And now you have come to the crossroads of your destiny. It's time for you to choose. It's time for you to choose good!"
'Choose good'? Wait, did Uncle mean...? But just as Zuko opened his mouth to ask, the earth rumbled and massive shafts of crystal shot up from the cavern floor, pushing Uncle Iroh further away from him and trapping him inside a green glowing prison! Zuko readied his chi for combat as he whipped around, searching for the earthbending threat, and saw Azula and two Dai Li agents sliding down the tunnel from the cave entrance he'd fallen through earlier.
With the Dai Li agents at her heels and clearly braced for combat, Azula strode forward while saying archly, "I expected this kind of treachery from Uncle, but Zuko, Prince Zuko...you're a lot of things, but you're not a traitor, are you?"
To be continued!