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Story [A:TLA] "A Universe of Beaches" | 2021 FanFic Olympics | Zuko/Katara Decathlon

Discussion in 'Non Star Wars Fan Fiction' started by Mira_Jade , Jul 1, 2021.

  1. Mira_Jade

    Mira_Jade The Fanfic Manager With The Cape star 5 Staff Member Manager

    Registered:
    Jun 29, 2004
    Title: "A Universe of Beaches"
    Fandom: Avatar: The Last Airbender
    Author: Mira_Jade

    Genre: General (lil' bit of everything)
    Rating: PG
    Time Frame: Canon though post-Canon AU
    Characters: Zuko/Katara, Ensemble Cast

    Summary: Theirs was a tale as old as time, that of the sun and moon; fire and water; yin and yang; push and pull. In a world rediscovering its balance after a hundred years of war, two souls from opposite sides of that divide find harmony in each other.

    A story told in bits and pieces for the 2021 FanFiction Summer Olympics.


    Notes: Where to even begin with this? Avatar: The Last Airbender is a fandom near and dear to my heart. It was one of the first fandoms I wrote for outside of Star Wars well over a decade ago now, and Zuko/Katara is one of my oldest, dearest OTPs. The way these two characters challenge and support each other has always been a dynamic that I've adored - and that's not even mentioning how they literally embody the show's themes of balance and harmony as complementary opposites, in so many ways. That's really what I'm aiming to explore through this collection, above all else. I haven't written a story for this fandom in ages, but the ATLA revival has restoked my love for this entire world and this ship in particular. The Olympics seemed like the perfect place to take the plunge and free a few plot bunnies that have apparently been nibbling on my muse for years now. So . . . here we go. [face_mischief]


    Disclaimer: Nothing is mine, but for the words. :) My title is a nick from William Goldman's The Princess Bride, specifically: "Do I love you? My God, if your love were a grain of sand, mine would be a universe of beaches." Yep. Perfect. [face_love]







    Index of Events

    I. "As They Begin to Rise Again" | 1500 Word Dash

    II. "A Change of Place" | 4x100 Relay

    III. "A Blossom Remains" | 200 Word Freestyle

    III-II. "The Flower's Shadow" | bonus ~200 Word Freestyle

    IV. "To Light a Candle" | 400 Word Cross Country

    V-I.
    "Through Them the Sunlight Now Bursts" | Fantastical Fencing, Part One

    V-II.
    "Through Them the Sunlight Now Bursts" | Fantastical Fencing, Part Two

    V-III.
    "Through Them the Sunlight Now Bursts" | Fantastical Fencing, Part Three

    V-IV.
    "Through Them the Sunlight Now Bursts" | Fantastical Fencing, Part Four


    ~ MJ
    @};-
     
    Last edited: Aug 28, 2021
  2. Mira_Jade

    Mira_Jade The Fanfic Manager With The Cape star 5 Staff Member Manager

    Registered:
    Jun 29, 2004
    Author's Notes: We're going to kick things off with a Book Three missing scene that rather showcases everything that I love about this pairing and previews what, exactly, you can expect from the entries to come. My title for this event comes from a Matsuo Basho haiku, as all the titles in this collection will. [face_love]






    I.

    "As They Begin To Rise Again"
    (1500 Word Dash | Book Three Missing Scene)

    As they begin to rise again
    Chrysanthemums faintly smell,
    after the flooding rain


    ~ Matsuo Basho​


    The group had a tradition of thanking each other at the start of every meal, just after invoking the blessing of the spirits.

    “I’m thankful that Sokka is so bad at Pai Sho,” Toph began with a smirk. “And I'm extra thankful that he owes me his dessert for the next week.”

    “I'm thankful for us,” Aang spoke up over Sokka's grumbling something about cheating earth-benders. In response, Sokka's hand twitched over his chopsticks – whether impatient for the routine to be over with so he could eat, or to keep himself from picking a fight with the girl, also so he could eat, was anyone’s guess. Zuko hadn’t been with them long enough to know which it was, exactly, but he was learning, and learning fast. “All of us,” the monk added, looking at Zuko first with a smile that was too big (dangerous in the court of his Father) for his face, and then, significantly, at Katara.

    Katara . . . who was pointedly ignoring him. Of course.

    “I'm thankful that we're able to sit here in peace together,” Katara said. She narrowed her eyes, and a lifetime spent dodging Azula’s searing edges had him anticipating her blow even before it came, “without having to worry about the Fire Nation attacking us for one night, that is.”

    Silence fell in the wake of her words, awkward and strained. Aang frowned at Katara, his smile fading; Toph snorted and shook her head. Surprisingly, it was Sokka who then took his turn and said: “And I’m thankful that we’ve found a fire-bending teacher for Aang so that he can finally end this war.” He flicked his chopsticks in a salute. “Who would've guessed that, after all those times you tried to snuff us out, you’d someday be one of us?”

    For that, Katara blew out a puff of frigid air as the group echoed Sokka with a resounding, “Hear, hear!” that felt terrifyingly sincere. (Too sincere; didn’t any of them know how to look down and hide their eyes?)

    When he realized that it was his turn, Zuko couldn't think of anything to say. He didn't know the undercurrents here well enough to offer a compliment one way or another, not without unwittingly casting sparks over a power-keg. He struggled to think of something – anything, rather than stupidly gaping like a sloth-carp caught out of water.

    If he was back in the Fire Nation – home, right? – he couldn’t imagine Azula ever playing this game. I’m thankful for myself, she’d most likely say, while Mai would sigh and apathetically ask if they could just eat already and Ty Lee would spout something ridiculously cheerful to cut the tension that surely would have built by then.

    His father, unless it was a dinner of state where he had some guest of note in attendance, would never be caught doing something so casually mortal as sharing a meal with his children in the first place.

    So, as best he could (you are weak, brother), he told the truth: “I’m grateful for this meal,” he said simply, honoring the source of their sustenance. “Thank-you, Katara.”

    For a moment, nothing could be heard but for the quiet whispers of the Temple at rest. Somewhere in the distance, a bat-owl called out in welcome to the night, before: “Yeah, thanks, sis, you’re the best!” “Of course, thank-you – it’s gonna be delicious, as always.” “You know we’re grateful, Sugar-queen,” came rushing all at once. Zuko blinked for the sudden outpouring of praise, confused, before he suddenly realized that he’d never heard anyone thank Katara outright before . . . and she made dinner for them every night.

    Katara graciously accepted her due (though with a tightness to her jaw that he recognized as her swallowing a hundred thoughts she couldn’t rightly say aloud), and ducked her head to stare at her bowl. She did not, however, thank him, and acknowledged his words only in silence.


    .

    .

    Katara was tired. More so than from the rigors of traveling from one end of the world to the other and struggling to master her element in a matter of months rather than years, it was an exhaustion she could feel down to her very bones. It was a weight she shouldered in constantly worrying for her father and the men of her tribe, fretting over Aang and whether or not he’d master his powers in time to defeat the Fire Lord, and feeling as if the entire world pressed down on her as it held its breath for its fate. It was the exhaustion of fearing and fighting and hoping for a better future to come, day in and day out.

    It was also, she wanted to growl as she flicked her hair back over her shoulder, a weariness that came from constantly pushing herself to do more and be more for everyone, when, really, all she wanted to do was sit with her tea by the fire and wait for the moon to rise.

    But if she didn’t do this, who would? So she grit her teeth, grabbed another bowl, and started scrubbing with a vengeance.

    Maybe that was why (it had to be her exhaustion, her pain, her fury) she was so surprised when Zuko appeared by her side and started drying the dishes she'd just washed.

    “What,” she didn't hold back from snapping, “are you doing?”

    She didn’t have to pretend to be anything other than herself with him, at least. With Zuko she wasn’t the sister, the mentor – the mother, even. Instead, she could just be -

    “Uh, I'm helping with the dishes?”

    “Obviously,” she hissed. “I want to know why?”

    “Why wouldn’t I?” Zuko returned, his entire body tight with a question that he couldn’t seem to fathom the need to ask. Pointedly, she looked around in answer.

    She saw the second that he understood. Aang had flitted off not even a heartbeat after his bowl was empty to meditate, even if his and Toph’s laughter echoing through the Temple walls told a different story. Katara wouldn’t trust Toph's idea of cleanliness even if she ever did offer to help, and her brother had only smacked an exaggerated kiss against her cheek and said, “Katara, you’re the best!” before he dumped his dirty dishes in the bucket. No one ever stayed to help her clean up.

    “That’s just ridiculous,” Zuko huffed. “Kids, right?” and then he slanted a glance her way, daring to commiserate with her, of all things.

    For that, she felt her temper spike – because she was still furious and she didn’t trust him. She was not hurt, though – not hurt that she had once held his scarred face in her hand and offered to heal her enemy as she'd suddenly yearned to do, only to quite literally be burned in return. She wasn’t tricked like the others, so she most definitely wasn’t feeling a strange sort of warmth fill her then. (Stop it, heart, knock that off.)

    Zuko, after all, was dangerous.

    “This is my duty,” Katara stiffly returned, “and I’m happy to do it.”

    Somewhat pettily, she yanked the towel from his hands. Zuko didn't fight her, but he did stubbornly reach into the bucket for a dirty plate to scrub. What was wrong with him? she gaped, incredulous. No man from her tribe would ever make it a point to help with menial chores, from the lowest seal-skinner up to her father, himself. This had been Katara’s role since the day her mother was taken from her. So why was he, a prince over his entire nation, so insistent about this?

    “Your duty?” he frowned to echo, still not getting it. (It never even occurred to him that some things women just did, while other tasks belonged to the men. Then again, she tried to imagine Azula ever doing dishes before her mind balked for the idea.) “Well, I haven't really found my place here beyond training Aang, and I . . . I used to do this in the tea shop. You know, with my uncle.”

    . . . because he hadn’t always lived as a prince, had he? For a long moment he paused, and Katara hated that she recognized his pain, then. She especially hated that she instinctively wanted to ask about the source of his distress. She wanted to offer comfort, and be comforted in return. (Why, oh why, had Tui and La made them so spirits-damn kindred.) “Out of all my tasks,” Zuko continued, “I liked washing dishes the most. The water’s soothing, you know? I could just think, or forget. Whichever.”

    She'd never in a hundred years say that she did know, that she did understand. (Oh how she understood.) Instead: “Fine,” she snapped. “But don’t think that this changes anything. I've still got my eye on you.”

    He chuckled then, soft and low (and she was not thinking about the pleasant rasp of his voice, then, or how easily they fell into a rhythm together – she was not). “I’d expect nothing less.”





    ~ MJ @};-
     
    Last edited: Jul 14, 2021
  3. ViariSkywalker

    ViariSkywalker Jedi Grand Master star 4

    Registered:
    Aug 9, 2002
    YAAAAAAAASSS!!! [face_love]

    This was such a great missing moment. You really captured so many of the nuances of the characters and their interactions with one another. So much to love. [face_love]

    [face_rofl] Oh, Toph. Never change.

    I really liked the juxtaposition of Katara and Sokka's reactions to Zuko here, how Sokka's response to Katara's thinly-veiled barb is to try to smooth things over with Zuko, and in such a sibling, "ignore my sister, she's being moody right now" way. :p

    [face_laugh] Yep, spot-on there.

    This is also spot-on perfect, and I loved the phrasing "something so casually mortal". Doesn't this just sum up Ozai as a father?

    [face_laugh] I'm cracking up again, because I can so relate to the rushed "thank yous" that stream in after the first person remembers to thank the cook. :p

    This is so interesting to think about, and I can really see it being true. Katara so often filled a need - a role - for her friends, that she didn't often give much thought to her own needs. To just be herself sometimes, rather than what the world or anyone else needed her to be. And I do love the thought that, around Zuko, herself is all she has because they've never been anything else to each other.

    I loved this, with Zuko helping with the dishes and how different that already makes him from most men and boys she has known, and then linking it all back to Zuko's time in the tea shop. (With Iroh, who he also wronged, and doesn't that hurt to think about? :_|)

    Just take me right back to the season 2 finale and stab me in the heart, Mira. =(( :_| The betrayal she felt in that moment, after having experienced that connection in the cave and almost using the spirit water to heal him - which would have been such a huge gesture of faith and hope and... ugh, the feelings. Yep, I still ship it. [face_batting]

    This is off to a fantastic start, Mira, and I can't wait to see what you write next! =D= [face_dancing] [:D]
     
  4. devilinthedetails

    devilinthedetails Force Ghost star 5

    Registered:
    Jun 19, 2019
    @Mira_Jade I was so thrilled to hear you'd be writing a Zuko/Katara Decathlon for the Summer Olympics, because sign me up for any story about Zuko. (I have a major soft spot for Zuko, can you tell?[face_blush]) And this was a phenomenal start with your 1500 Word Dash!

    You are so clever with all the little parenthetical phrases you used throughout the story that I felt added extra meaning and emotion, really fleshing out what was in the minds and hearts of your characters. Especially this one made me smile:

    Because I suspect she might indeed be thinking about the pleasant rasp of his voice[face_laugh]

    And this part was another highlight for me:

    I think this passage does a great job showcasing the differences between Water Tribe culture, where roles and chores seemed to be more gendered (women are healers; men are hunters and warriors, etc.) and the Fire Nation, which to me comes across as very egalitarian overall. That is one of the things I actually admire about the Fire Nation: how their gender roles seem to be less rigid than in the other Nations. At least that was my impression, which helped show me there were some good things about the Fire Nation despite all the evil it did under Sozin, Azulon, and Ozai.

    Sorry for getting all rambly in this review, but great job with this opening entry, and I can't wait to see what you produce next for this Decathlon! Well done!=D=
     
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  5. Mira_Jade

    Mira_Jade The Fanfic Manager With The Cape star 5 Staff Member Manager

    Registered:
    Jun 29, 2004
    Canon can say whatever they want: you can take the perfect symmetry of this ship from my cold dead hands. So, that's what we have fanfiction for. ;) [face_whistling]

    Oh yay! Because, as much as I love my shipping, ATLA really has the best ensemble cast, and it's those friendships crossing the divides from all four elements that really provides the backbone of the show. That unity and harmony is its beating heart, so I really tried to include that here as I could. [face_love]

    Plus, I'm just a sucker for all the Team as Family tropes. Mmhmm, it doesn't get any better than that.

    Toph is the very best!

    Right? [face_laugh]

    I just adore Sokka and Katara's relationship; it's so real in how they each take turns being the mature sibling, so to speak. As much as we would like to joke and call Katara the mature one more often than not. :p They just take care of and are there for each other and I love it. So it was fun writing them in such a quintessentially sibling moment as this one.

    It felt right. [face_laugh]

    I loved writing that line! Honestly, this family is so much of a mess that it's sadly fascinating to explore - like, you want to look away, but you just can't. So, here I am. [face_plain]

    Right??? [face_laugh] I can definitely share that relating - as anyone who's ever been a caregiver can, I bet!

    THIS.

    Honestly, so many girls can relate to being forced into caregiving roles at too-young ages by matter of necessity. Without even getting into the Water Tribe's sexist views on gender equality, Katara forced herself to grow up too quick to fill in the void left by her mother. Once she started, she never really stopped. While I am all for partners who take care of and nurture each other (each other is the key there), that's one of the reasons Katara/Aang never really clicked with me. Her mothering instincts for Aang are just a bit too strong and played on in the show all too often for my tastes. It's just not a dynamic I prefer in my ships, personally.

    Now: Katara being able to be herself because that's all she's ever been with Zuko? He has no expectations of her and he asks nothing more of her than she wants to give, but then you throw in all of that mutual support and the strong partnership that grew between them and all of their chemistry as complementary opposites? Yep, that gets me right where I live. [face_love]

    SPEAKING OF GOD-TIER BONDS, I WILL NEVER BE OVER EVERYTHING THAT IS ZUKO AND IROH. So, you know, we're going to get into that more too. [face_mischief] [face_love]

    The S2 finale still guts me when I think about it, so you're welcome for sharing the pain. ;) VI, MY HEART!!!!!

    Thank-you so much! As always I can't tell you how much I appreciate your feedback, and hope that you continue to enjoy the rest of these events. [face_love] [:D]




    I know and heartily approve of your major soft spot for Zuko! There's just so much to love! [face_love] So, on top of thanking you for hosting this fabulous challenge to begin with, I also have to thank-you for stopping in to read and leave your feedback! I was so happy to see your review. [:D]

    Thanks! I love adding those parentheticals (because that's so close to how our minds work, isn't it?) and sometimes I need to remind myself not to add too many. I enjoy playing around with style, so it's always nice to hear when that works out for the best. :D

    Poor girl is stuck floating on a river in Egypt with no paddles, because she most certainly is thinking about it! :p [face_mischief]

    EXACTLY!!! I agree with your impression whole heartedly.

    There were terrible people in power over the Fire Nation that did terrible things with that power, yes, but the narrative went out of its way to show the good and bad in every element's governing system. Which is very true to life, isn't it? There are so many beautiful things - and not so beautiful things - in every culture. It's all those cultures then coming together in harmony that is really special. (Which of course is still a struggle in the real world, but I love that being a prevailing theme in ATLA.) It's all about balance. [face_love]

    Oh you never have to apologize for rambly reviews! Rambly reviews are the best reviews, for sure! [face_love]


    Again, I thank-you for reading and hope that you continue to enjoy this collection as it goes. :D [:D]



    ~ MJ @};-
     
    Last edited: Jul 4, 2021
  6. Mira_Jade

    Mira_Jade The Fanfic Manager With The Cape star 5 Staff Member Manager

    Registered:
    Jun 29, 2004
    Author's Notes: For the 4x100 relay, we are going back to B3 again. At first, I had a good dozen ideas for drabbles and had to hold myself back and remind myself that I wasn't retelling the story that's already been told, but rather just offering a few extra glimpses. :p Following that, as a disclaimer, the italicized text in the last two drabbles is taken straight from the dialogue of Ember Island Players. I'm just borrowing from TPTB for context.

    Thanks for reading and I hope that you enjoy! [:D]






    II.


    "A Change of Place"
    (4x100 Relay | Book Three Missing Scenes)

    With every gust of wind
    the butterfly changes its place
    on the willow

    ~ Matsuo Basho​


    post “The Southern Raiders”

    Charity

    She woke one morning, still groggy from the loss of the moon, to find breakfast already waiting for her.

    “I was up first,” Zuko explained, passing her a surprisingly good cup of tea, “and figured you’d want to sleep a little longer.” Afterward, Zuko was the one to press Aang into practicing – you rise with the sun now, Avatar; fire-benders start early. He heated water for the laundry and even took over mending while she bent the clothes dry – I spent three years on a ship with soldiers, not servants. He chopped vegetables for dinner, and somehow had a sixth sense for Toph’s antics when -



    Affection

    “ - I swear to Agni, Toph, if you don’t knock it off, I’ll - ”

    “ - what? You’ll ground me, Sparky? Don’t be mean, or I’ll tell mom - ”

    - with that, Katara may have flicked her fingers so that the girl’s tea spilled into her lap. Accidentally, of course. Toph cursed, but it served her right for insisting that her heartbeat did anything when the fire-bender was near. Zuko flashed her a small, knowing smile – one that she struggled not to return, before -

    “See? There it goes, thumping like a rabbit-roo!”

    - Toph!” they exclaimed in unison, which only made her cackle louder.



    .

    .

    post “The Ember Island Players”

    Friendship

    Attending that play had been a disaster in every way. Overreacting? If my chakra wasn’t blocked, I’d be in the Avatar State by now! she flinched to remember. She’d talked Aang down from his rages before, but rarely had his words stung so badly.

    I’m confused, she’d answered his temper – his expectations. Aang was her friend, her hope, and she loved him dearly. Yet, she didn’t know if that meant -

    - so, for him to ignore her words and kiss her anyway . . . her own temper spiked for the memory, and she focused on the waves to calm her suddenly furious heartbeat.



    Intimacy

    Of course that’s when Zuko found her, coming out to sit next to her on the sand.

    “Are you okay?” he asked, just before she could.

    “Shouldn’t I be asking you? That play hit a little too close to home for everyone.”

    (You didn’t really say that to your uncle?

    I may as well have.)


    “Eh, some parts were good,” he smirked at her dubious expression before mimicking: “All we have is hope!”

    He thought he was funny, didn’t he? Well, two could play that game: “My honor!” she exclaimed, and they both burst into laughter, for a moment forgetting everything else.



    ~ MJ @};-
     
    Last edited: Jul 7, 2021
  7. devilinthedetails

    devilinthedetails Force Ghost star 5

    Registered:
    Jun 19, 2019
    Great job with the 4x100 Relay!=D= I think that the 4X100 is a wonderful opportunity to explore all the different types of love, platonic and romantic and otherwise, with an ensemble cast, and you totally lived up to all that potential and more in this piece.

    I really enjoyed your expansion and elaboration on the Ember Island Players episode, an episode which richly deserved the expansion and elaboration you gave it here. It is nice to see Katara's relationship with Zuko evolving, and how Toph's teasing antics were dealt with brought a smile to my face.

    Aang kissing Katara in this episode did really annoy me and rub me the wrong way when it happened, so I was pleased to see that you dealt with the fallout of that. Of Aang disrespecting her boundaries and her in such a way. I can absolutely understand Katara's anger about that, and it felt very true to her character that she would seek comfort and calm from the sound of the waves.

    And Zuko coming to see if she is all right was just so sweet. Zuko did always have a compassionate and empathetic side to him, and it is good to see him sort of coming out of his shell and being able to show that softer side around Katara here. Very heartwarming.

    As to the ending. Well, this:

    was just perfection for me.

    Can't wait to see what you come up with next!
     
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  8. ViariSkywalker

    ViariSkywalker Jedi Grand Master star 4

    Registered:
    Aug 9, 2002
    Amen to that, sister. ;)

    Ha, I love this! Especially for siblings who are so close in age. My brother and I are less than two years apart, so I can relate. :D

    Oh, how I know those feels. This about sums up my fanfic interests of late... or maybe always... o_O :p

    *nods emphatically* And you know I'm totally with you on this. Aang/Katara honestly just baffled me in the context of the first show. I first watched all three books back-to-back, so the shift in their dynamic between B2 & B3 was especially jarring to me. (In a way... in some ways, though, things very much stayed the same, with Katara continuing to mother Aang, and that just didn't do it for me, shipping-wise.)

    I still love both characters so much! Together even... just not like that.

    YAAAAAAASSSS *GRABBY HANDS*

    I guess it's only fair, after what I've put you through with EtF and my own decathlons and all the other angst I've been throwing at you lately. ;) :p

    But still... :_| =((

    [face_laugh] This was perfect. Zuko's own brand of dry sass really was the best addition to this little family.

    [face_thinking] You know, that's a great point, and I love that you noticed that and used it to flesh out Zuko's character even more.

    [face_rofl] TOPH! Omigosh, that was the best. You really do have the dynamics - and the comedic timing - of this team to a T. =D= [face_laugh]

    HONOOOOOR! [face_rofl] [face_rofl]

    I really love how you weaved all of this moments between the scenes we saw in B3. What a great way to flesh them out and deepen what was already there. And I appreciate that you're not rushing the OTP aspect of things but allowing it to grow organically, as it should have. Just lovely. [face_love]

    More? [face_batting]
     
    Last edited: Jul 4, 2021
    Mira_Jade likes this.
  9. Mira_Jade

    Mira_Jade The Fanfic Manager With The Cape star 5 Staff Member Manager

    Registered:
    Jun 29, 2004
    Aw, thanks! The event definitely opened up so many opportunities! Too many! My muse didn't even know where to begin at first, there are so many difference facets of love that you can explore in an ensemble like this. [face_love]

    I completely agree with you! Aang's childish temper tantrum over the idea that a fictional version of Katara didn't love him romantically, culminating in that unwelcomed kiss was just awful. (We're not even going to mention the Love Is a Battlefield comic, where Aang actually fire-bends at Katara because she wants to practice instead of talking about the invasion kiss. Putting all that together really shows a concerning pattern. [face_plain]) So it's always baffled me that his behavior was never brought up again onscreen. Aang and Katara never have a one-on-one moment together the rest of the show. None of the unhealthy tension between is ever addressed until Katara just comes out and kisses him in the last ten seconds of the finale, and suddenly everything's fine? That's always felt odd to me - like Aang is getting a prize handed to him because he's the hero and a nice boy, rather than through any agency on Katara's part. (And I love Aang! So it's doubly frustrating that the writing does such a disservice to his character. I think he's better than that.)

    But yes! Katara seeking solace with the rhythm of the waves felt so quintessentially right for her character. I loved adding that detail in the setting, and I'm glad you enjoyed it too. [face_love]

    Zuko really does! It's his empathy and compassion that got him scarred and banished in the first place. No matter how much he tried to squash his softer emotions and even his conscience to be the son he thought his father could love, he never completely lost his better self - even when he was at his worst. Now, after embracing who he really is and trying to become who wants to be, it just makes sense that he'd let himself show more and more of his softer emotions - especially around Katara, whom he relates to most of all in the gaang. [face_love]

    How could I resist such comedic gold as those lines?! [face_laugh] :p

    And, again, I can't thank you enough for reading and for taking the time to leave your kind feedback. I appreciate every word. [face_love] [:D]



    Times a hundred. [face_laugh] ;)

    How did I guess that? [face_mischief] Though I can also admit to something similar with your ETF 'verse. It just hurts in all the best ways. :p

    Exactly! I love Aang, but his worst moments are when it comes his romantic interest in Katara. And that's okay! The writing could have been so much better served with him learning to let go of his selfish idea of love and healing his chakra (instead of the Rock of Destiny in his final battle with Ozai fixing everything o_O) with letting Katara go. (Like I thought B1 and B2 were both leading up to?) That would have been a very mature part of Aang growing up, and such a great message for the actual kids watching the show - instead of, you know, pester the girl until she gives in, because nice boys deserve to be rewarded. Especially at twelve years old. Heck, I love Zuko and Katara together and think they could both do with a little more growing up before throwing romance into the mix - and they've both hit puberty, at least.

    Now, Aang and Katara separately and as friends? I am so there for that. :D [face_love]

    Ya know, I wasn't going to say it. ;)

    Wasn't it?? It was just what their little family was missing.

    I just remember in B3 when he had a hard time accepting any pampering from the servants once he was back at the palace - versus how cruelly Azula treated those beneath her, or even how Mai offered to order servants around as a fun pastime to distract him from being upset about the 'boring war meeting' he wasn't invited to. That wasn't him anymore, even though he was trying his best to fit in. To get to that point, Ozai clearly provisioned him with the bare minimum in his exile (and I'd argue a lot of what he did have came from Iroh's contacts), and then Zuko was literally homeless with nothing to his name before living in the Lower Ring of Ba Sing Se with a service job. Something tells me he's done his own mending, and even more! So of course he's going to help out and do his share now as he can! It just feels right.

    Anyway, that's something about his character I enjoyed considering here. Just imagine what an amazing Fire Lord he's going to make for his people going forward! [face_love]

    Thank-you! I had a hoot writing that line. :p

    Just as it should have - ain't that it right there? ;) [face_love] These slow moments growing the fertile soil of a friendship for a relationship to bloom from really are the best, so I thank-you so much for your kind words! And, speaking of, I really should share the next event now. [face_mischief] [:D]



    ~ MJ
    @};-
     
    Last edited: Jul 7, 2021
  10. Mira_Jade

    Mira_Jade The Fanfic Manager With The Cape star 5 Staff Member Manager

    Registered:
    Jun 29, 2004
    Author's Notes: Here we are next with the 200 Word Freestyle! I actually ended up writing two entries for this event, and instead of trying to figure out which one I like better I'm just going to post the second one as an unofficial bonus. ;)

    For this next event, we are skipping forward in time and veering off into AU territory. Let's just say that my ideal B3 finale would have been a group shot of the friends hugging in the sunset, with all four nations in harmony together, and no shipping whatsoever. To fill in the blanks from there going forward: Aang would apologize for his behavior during EIP and accept Katara's decision to love him only as a friend. Mai and Zuko too would have a mature conversation about their own incompatibility and part ways. Also, Iroh would never leave Zuko to rebuild an entire nation alone. There would be no nonsense about him staying in Ba Sing Se, no matter how much I still love the idea of his tea shop. :p From there, Katara would initially go back to the South Pole to help her tribe rebuild, while coming and going to give her voice to the peace summits and various things of that nature that are sure to follow. I'm ignoring all of the comics, for obvious reasons.

    Then, instead
    . . .






    III.

    A Blossom Remains”
    (200 Word Free Style)

    Temple bells die out,
    in fragrance
    a blossom remains


    ~ Kobayashi Issa​

    He’d only just arrived, resplendent in his full Fire Lord regalia to formally greet her father and make amends with her grandmother (who'd released him from his dogeza and insisted he call her Gran Gran), when Katara pulled him back out into the polar night. His boots slipped over the icy pathways, momentarily struggling for balance, and she paused only long enough to challenge him: “C’mon, Your Majesty, keep up!” He then gave chase more so than he followed, climbing up the glacial ridge as radiant curtains of jeweled green and amethyst danced with the starlight above them.

    They soon reached a field of piled stone monuments, somberly overlooking the tribe below. Katara knelt by one of the graves, and reverently bowed her head. “Mother, I’ve brought the boy I’ve been telling you about. This . . . this is Zuko.”

    Katara beckoned him to join her, yet Zuko hesitated. What right did he have to intrude on such sacred ground as this? After everything his nation had done, how could he ever be worthy of -

    “ - it’s okay,” she took his hand and pulled him closer, somehow forgiving him all over again. “She’s wanted to meet you for a long time now. I promise.”



    III-II.

    “The Flower’s Shadow”
    (Bonus ~200 Word Freestyle)

    Light of the moon
    moves west – flowers shadows
    creep eastward


    ~ Yosa Buson​

    For a time, her granddaughter thrived to return home to her tribe. There was much to be done in rebuilding, in reviving the ways of the Southern water-benders with help from the North. Yet Kanna knew that challenge would eventually stagnate; in time, Katara would need more. She would always be a daughter of the South Pole, but a part of her heart now belonged to their entire world.

    Kanna was far from a foolish woman, and she saw how her granddaughter happily flushed to receive letters from the Fire Lord. Katara advised and offered a helping hand for the young one’s rule, just as the boy gave her a shoulder to lean on in return from an ocean away.

    Now, the question was: how could they help Katara better achieve her destiny?

    “She’s growing restless, isn't she?” Hakoda sighed one evening, clearly troubled.

    Kanna hummed thoughtfully, knowing when her guidance was sought. “She has long since turned sixteen.”

    “You think a husband is the answer?” Hakoda scoffed.

    A wise son she had raised, but still just a son. “Hardly,” she slanted him a look. “More was I thinking that she is ready for a new challenge.” She paused. “Toklo -”

    “ - would perhaps enjoy having a junior ambassador to train?”

    “The words are yours, my son,” Kanna smiled demurely. “Not my own.”



    ~ MJ @};-
     
    Last edited: Jul 14, 2021
  11. devilinthedetails

    devilinthedetails Force Ghost star 5

    Registered:
    Jun 19, 2019
    First of all, I just love that you were so inspired by the 200 Freestyle that you wrote an extra one to share with us as a lovely little bonus@};-And it is truly impressive how much emotion you can pack into each of these 200 word stories. Well done!

    This part:

    was heartbreaking in the best possible way=(( Very cathartic.

    And this is just so healing and powerful. Amazing writing.

    In the "bonus" story you included, I must say that I love getting Kanna's perspective on things, and her conversation with Hakoda was a treat to read.

    That made me laugh[face_laugh]

    The fanfic world needs more stories written from the point of view of the Water Tribe women because they have some great sass.
     
    ViariSkywalker and Mira_Jade like this.
  12. ViariSkywalker

    ViariSkywalker Jedi Grand Master star 4

    Registered:
    Aug 9, 2002
    I loved these! (And bonus event FTW! [face_dancing])

    OMG Rock of Destiny [face_rofl]

    To say that I find the showdown between Zuko and Azula more satisfying than the battle between Aang and Ozai would be an understatement. Like, okay, there's some awesome visuals, and the music is top notch, (although not as epic as that Last Agni Kai music, which I could listen to forever), but the emotions in that scene just weren't what I was hoping for? And look, I don't know much about how chakras and pressure points and acupuncture are supposed to work in the real world - but in a fictional story, I want my characters to deal with their past and their trauma and their choices, not have everything fixed because they got hit in the right spot or got poked by some needles or whatever. o_O (Wow, I didn't even realize I was going to start throwing shade at LoK today, but apparently I am. :p)

    Anyway, you and I are on the same page here. ;)

    Aw, I love the playfulness in this moment, both for how it shows that they're still kids, but also for that hint of something more in their futures. And then the description of the southern lights was just... *chef's kiss*. [face_love]

    My heart. What a lovely and melancholy and yet hopeful scene to picture. There's such a quiet beauty to it, and it felt very real that Katara and Zuko would need this moment. Even though she already forgave him, that was in the wake of such pain and deflated fury; but this is stillness and peace and renewal. Just beautiful. [face_love]

    So very true! I can't imagine Katara would ever be content to spend the rest of her days in the South Pole, as much as she might sometimes long for her home. She belongs, as you say, to the entire world. And there's still so much good she can do.

    I'm going to overuse this emoji, but I don't care: [face_love] [face_love] [face_love]

    Yaaasss, get out there, Katara, and be your amazing self! (I also loved Hakoda scoffing at the idea of marriage and Kanna's wry, motherly patience, lol. :p)

    Oooh, I can't wait to see where this goes next! :D [:D]
     
    Last edited: Jul 8, 2021
    Mira_Jade likes this.
  13. WarmNyota_SweetAyesha

    WarmNyota_SweetAyesha Chosen One star 8

    Registered:
    Aug 31, 2004
    Superb interplay of emotions and tensions between Katara and Zuko. They understand each other better than they dare admit. [face_thinking]
     
    Mira_Jade likes this.
  14. Mira_Jade

    Mira_Jade The Fanfic Manager With The Cape star 5 Staff Member Manager

    Registered:
    Jun 29, 2004
    Oh yay! I was worried that I went against the spirit of the challenge's limitations, so I'm glad you approved of that extra little drivel.

    Perfect! That's just what I was going for. [face_love]

    It felt full circle - especially since Zuko was the one to help her gain closure with her mother's death. And, as much as Katara has already forgiven him, this just felt intimate and special. Yay for all of the healing, basically. :p

    Heck yeah it does! I love Kanna - from her, you can see were Katara gets a lot of her fearlessness and strength. And her ability to put the boys in their place when they're being silly. :p [:D]


    As always, thank you so much for reading! [:D]




    My muse WOULD NOT BE SILENCED. :p

    Vi, it was such bad writing that I just can't even! [face_laugh] :oops:

    AMEN TO ALL OF THIS.

    It's so weird to have the protagonist be such a static character, too. Like, all of Aang's conflicts were solved via Deus Ex Machina in the finale - Magical Lion-turtle and Rock of Destiny all. It was just very hand-wavy on the writers' part. Nothing was earned through his agency, dealing with his past and trauma and choices, like you said. Again, it was enjoyable to watch between the graphics and the music, but in the end Zuko and Azula's Agni Kai felt so much more satisfying because of the build up and the stakes and the resolution. At least for me, personally. (And don't even get me started on the lightning scene. [face_mischief])

    Because they are still just teenagers! These dear wee babes had to grow up much too quick.

    Yay! That's just what I was going for, so your reaction was everything. [face_love] [:D]

    &
    Oooh, but you better believe that my Katara is going to be in the thick of everything instead of fading into the background when she was always so determined to never turn her back on people who need her and wanted to fight and make a difference and confront challenges head-on. Move over comics and LoK, I've got it from here. [face_mischief] [face_love]

    . . . or at least I think I do. We'll see. :p [face_laugh]

    Also, writing Kanna and Hakoda was so much fun! I just love their entire family. [face_love]


    As always, I can't thank you enough for reading, and hope that you continue to enjoy the rest of this collection as it goes. [:D]



    That really is Katara and Zuko in a nutshell! They are such wonderful complements and narrative foils. These stories really just writes themselves from there. [face_love]

    It's so good to have you along reading, as always. Thank-you! [:D]


    ~ MJ @};-
     
    Last edited: Jul 14, 2021
  15. Mira_Jade

    Mira_Jade The Fanfic Manager With The Cape star 5 Staff Member Manager

    Registered:
    Jun 29, 2004
    Author's Notes: We're getting there. Baby steps and all. And the next Prime Time event will be more than one chapter, at that. ;) [face_mischief]





    IV.

    “To Light a Candle”
    (400 Word Cross Country)

    Lighting one candle
    with another candle
    - spring evening


    ~ Yosa Buson​

    He found his nephew sitting by the turtle-duck pond, a quill held in hand.

    Softly, Iroh smiled for the previous letters that Zuko had spread across the grass, noticing the familiar handwriting of his correspondent. Zuko slanted him a glance, but, having long since learned to tolerate his snooping, grudgingly left him to gather intelligence as he saw fit.

    There are so many women who’ve come from the North to learn to bend martially – and they want me to teach them, isn't that amazing? he read first. You'd hardly be able to recognize my tribe, at that; we've done so much rebuilding to restore what was lost.

    And, in answer: So much has changed here, as well. I’ve only kept the shell of my father’s rooms; tradition or not. The wall of flames is gone, too, just like we discussed. The moat, with the rocks and the water-lilies under the torch-light is much better – even if my advisers don’t agree.

    But Katara agreed. You’re still honoring your element – and I’d dare anyone not to fear disturbing that balance if those flames rise. It’s fitting for your rule. Symbolic, even.

    I'm happy to be home, she continued, but sometimes I feel restless. I've been blessed with so much; is it wrong to want more?

    I know what you mean: I’d rather settle more squabbles in my court as the Blue Spirit rather than the Fire Lord -

    - no one is my match for bending, either – not even Gran-Pakku. Father says I’m scaring off my suitors, but he also says that’s a good thing -

    - I miss how you never held back against me. I'm constantly undoing damage from my father's rule, and even my best soldiers hesitate to -

    - oh you’re on: next time we meet, consider your royal butt good and kicked.

    - which I hear might be soon?

    - very soon! You're writing the Southern Water Tribe’s official junior ambassador now, and I can’t wait -

    - to see you again. I’ve missed you so much.

    But, that, Zuko crossed out before crumpling the paper entirely.

    So, Iroh took it upon himself to compose a letter of his own: Master Katara, please allow me to express my most sincere congratulations on your appointment. While the Court of Agni has already extended its official welcome, it would honor me if you’d humor the sentimental desire of an old man eager to see old friends reunited once more . . .



    ~ MJ @};-
     
    Last edited: Jul 14, 2021
  16. ViariSkywalker

    ViariSkywalker Jedi Grand Master star 4

    Registered:
    Aug 9, 2002
    And the thing is, I was totally fine with Aang finding a non-violent solution to his problem and learning how to take away Ozai's bending. (That's one criticism of the show I don't share with some fans, because it seemed pretty clear to me that Aang was never going to kill the Fire Lord.) But still, it came out of nowhere - and don't tell me, oh, there was some lion-turtle imagery scattered throughout the show because no, that's not how foreshadowing works - and they tried to cram it all into the finale. That should have been something spread out over the entire last book, along with Aang learning to let go of his selfish ideas of love and open his last chakra. And it would have been nice if Aang had been the one to pursue the energybending thing, rather than just be told about it. (Or, more accurately, having the knowledge automatically imparted to him when a magical lion-turtle tapped him on the head, whatever.)

    ...um, what was I saying again? :p Anyway, YES TO THE LIGHTNING SCENE!!! Way to hit me dead center in my shipper heart, there, show. o_O

    Oh, I don't doubt it, especially given what comes next... [face_love]

    IROH!!! [face_love] [face_dancing]

    Ooooh, I love this idea! And the imagery is just beautiful. Katara's right, it honors his element while sending a clear message about the direction Zuko's reign will take.

    [face_laugh] Yep, I can see that.

    GRAN-PAKKU! [face_rofl] (I still smile so wide every time I watch that scene with Sokka. :D)

    I love how you zeroed in on that strangeness that comes with settling into a lifestyle of peace after living through a war, and that they've both become some of the fiercest benders of their respective elements, even though they're still teenagers. Even without all the other shared experiences, that alone would be enough to bond them.

    [face_laugh] I could so hear Katara saying that, excellent!

    I absolutely loved this whole pen pal back and forth, and I could have quoted everything, but this part right here... I could feel Zuko's hesitation and those tentative feelings that it looks like he's maybe starting to realize. [face_love] [face_batting] Oh my gosh, how did you get me to tumble right back into this ship and all these feelings, Mira? :p My heart!!! (And now this is really making me want to work on a certain pen pal AU with a certain pairing of mine... [face_whistling])

    Fantastic job, as always! I love it so much, and I already can't wait for more! [face_love] [:D]
     
    Last edited: Jul 14, 2021
  17. WarmNyota_SweetAyesha

    WarmNyota_SweetAyesha Chosen One star 8

    Registered:
    Aug 31, 2004
    Excellent exchange. They tease each other but also confirm each other's strengths as rulers. I love the image of a moat with water-lilies and rocks.

    Reminds me of Japanese style gardens, JUST. are the awesomest. :cool:
     
    Last edited: Jul 14, 2021
  18. devilinthedetails

    devilinthedetails Force Ghost star 5

    Registered:
    Jun 19, 2019
    @Mira_Jade Seeing you updated this decathlon makes me smile and brings warm feelings to my heart! I love the idea of Zuko and Katara exchanging letters, and the image of Zuko writing by a turleduck pond. He always had a soft spot for those turtleducks. And it is wonderful to see Iroh make an appearance as well. Snooping and interfering Iroh for the win[face_laugh]
     
  19. Mira_Jade

    Mira_Jade The Fanfic Manager With The Cape star 5 Staff Member Manager

    Registered:
    Jun 29, 2004
    I COMPLETELY AGREE WITH YOU! Having a twelve-year-old's only choice be murder was really just as awful as it sounds - as much as I think Ozai should still be executed after a trial for his war-crimes (and we'll deal with that in this collection, too ;)). It just would have been more fitting if the energy-bending (which is such an interesting concept) was a skill Aang actively sought out to learn and didn't have magically imparted to him by a convenient plot-patch in the lion-turtle. That would have been a hero confronting his problems and actively seeking solutions and forging his own fate while still holding fast to his beliefs. (Not by running away, again, and somehow having the answers fall in his lap?) It's so strange, as I know I've already said, how static Aang is in his own story-arc. And that's a writing issue; a huge writing issue. Who writes such a flat arc for their main protagonist??? (Don't even get me started on Team Bryke and their idea of good writing as a whole, that said. Just . . . no. o_O) If Aang did that and opened up his last chakra by dealing with his unhealthy idea of love (c'mon, let's be honest, he loves the idea of Katara) that would have been so much more fulfilling!

    . . . at least, that's my two cents on the matter. For what it's worth :p

    Yeeeeees, that fed my shipper heart something fierce, lemme tell you. I remember watching the show as it premiered back in the day, and that shook me to my core. It still does, even with every rewatch. [face_love]

    IROH!!! [face_love]

    Thanks! I loved adding that imagery.

    You can't tell me that there aren't some issues Zuko and Katara don't Blue Spirit and Painted Lady away together, too. Mmhmm, but that's my canon of the heart, yes it is. [face_mischief] [face_whistling] (C'mon, the flipping of the red and blue colors and taking imagery from each other's elements just kills me dead, and yet somehow TPTB still expect me NOT TO SHIP THIS SHIP??!! Ha, yeah right.)

    Right??? Because anything that makes Pakku twitch is a good thing. ;)

    I LOVED exploring that, so I am glad it came across so clear to you as a reader! [face_love]

    Because that's our girl with her fighting spirit, right? Plus, Mae Whitman's voice is just so much fun to channel. [face_love]

    Because: these two, Vi!!! I will always love them forever and ever and you can take a spot right next to me on this good ol' doomed ship of dreams. [face_laugh] 8-} [face_mischief]

    Also: PEN PAL AU! YAAAAAS. You have to get working on that one, stat. Plus, you know, all your dozen other AUs that are begging to be written. [face_mischief] [face_laugh] ;) [face_love]

    And, as always, I can't tell you how much I appreciate and value your feedback! Here we go with more! [:D]


    Confirming each other's strengths is such a good way to sum up Zuko and Katara, you're too right!

    And I'm glad you liked the idea for the throne-room! That's exactly the vibe of peace and tranquility I was going for. Instead of, you know, the literal wall of flames. :p

    Thanks for reading, my friend, as always! [:D]



    Warm feelings to your heart means I did my job as a writer! :D [face_love] (Also: everything Iroh!! [face_love])

    I can't thank you enough for all your kind words, as always, and I hope that you continue to enjoy this collection as it goes! [face_love] [:D]



    ~ MJ @};-
     
  20. Mira_Jade

    Mira_Jade The Fanfic Manager With The Cape star 5 Staff Member Manager

    Registered:
    Jun 29, 2004
    Author's Notes: Okay, so I fibbed a bit. My Prime Time event is still going to be a chaptered story, but first so is my Fantastical Fencing entry - which I am now more than happy to present to you in four parts . . . [face_mischief] [face_love]

    Enjoy! [:D]






    V-I.

    "Through Them the Sunlight Now Bursts"
    (Fantastical Fencing | Part 1 of 5)​

    how holy a place . . .
    green leaves, young leaves
    and through them
    the sunlight now bursts

    ~ Matsuo Basho​

    It had been two years since Katara last visited the Fire Nation. Home Island looked different when approached from sea level, rather than descending down from the clouds on Appa or invading from the ocean floor. After days of sailing, the seemingly endless expanse of the Earth Kingdom's waters finally gave way to the imposing sight of the newly established Dragon Gates, glittering in the sunlight to frame the island chain that had just come into view on the horizon. In the earliest days of his rule, Zuko tore down the statue of Azulon that had guarded the naval entrance to the Fire Nation, and in his grandfather's place now stood twin dragons depicting the likeness of Ran and Shaw from legend. One dragon was built from blue flecked granite, while its mate glittered with red. Their fanged mouths gave the illusion of grinning down at them as they passed between their outstretched claws, while their dark eyes seemingly held the secrets of their namesakes even when cast in stone. Katara turned back to stare at the dragons, even as they faded into the distance to be swallowed by the haze of the sea. It was only once they reached the breaking waves, crashing over the crest of the great reef surrounding the largest island in the archipelago, that she refocused her attention on the view ahead. She was more than eager to finally reach their destination.

    Here, the waters were an impossible shade of turquoise and so very different from the icy blue depths of the South Pole. Away from their massive brethren, the waves in the shallows were gilded with white froth as they butted almost playfully against their hulls, while spotted flying-dolphin-fish leapt in the wake they left behind. If she looked closely she could see brightly colored coral forests teaming with dazzling schools of fish in the underwater world below. Sokka, standing at the bow with Suki, said he thought he saw a manta-shark, and they definitely passed a family of green otter-turtles lazily bobbing in the currents. Overhead, sea-hawks soared and pelican-gulls squawked before diving to hunt in the calm waters. Even at noontide the ocean tugged and teased against her senses, brimming with so much movement and life in a dizzying contrast to the relatively still majesty of her arctic home. She inhaled the scent of salt as the breeze whipped against her hair and snapped the sails high on the masts above, unable to wholly resist the lull of the ocean as it called to her.

    If, once, a fleet of Water Tribe ships would have been an unusual sight making its way into the natural harbor of the island, they were now a common enough occurrence so as not to cause much of a disturbance – too much, anyway. Some of the other vessels on the water, mostly fishermen and tradesmen whose livelihoods had been enriched by the end of the war, happily waved to them as they passed. A few of her tribesmen waved back, and even called out greetings to boats they knew in particular. Others – like the sailors on the Fire Navy’s patrol cruisers – were more severe, though they were not as deliberately unfriendly as the private yachts that belonged to the nobility and elite. In their eyes they’d be outsiders to the end – and outsiders unworthy of their Fire Lord’s time and attention, at that.

    Thinking of Zuko, her gaze followed the red rooftops that clung to the base of the volcanic mountain range, all the way up to the crest of its tallest summit. Even across the distance she could see the imposing tiers of the palace, visible over the caldera rim that the royal city took its name from. Where, once, the sight would have only symbolized everything standing in their way for peace, now she couldn’t help but smile for the welcome she knew she’d receive within those walls.

    It was a smile that she then carefully schooled into a more neutral expression. She was doing her best to follow Toklo’s lead as the Southern Water Tribe’s senior ambassador, and the elder warrior's face was always so carefully serene. Such a countenance was, admittedly, hard for her to maintain for overly long. Her father had once compared her to the ocean itself: she smiled when she was happy and she frowned when she was not; she raged where rage was due and loved just as fiercely as she stood firm to protect those loves. Politics, to say the least, allowed for none of those emotions to be visible on the surface. But with her new title she was now more than just merely herself; she was now a symbol of her father’s authority from afar, and her behavior would reflect back on her entire tribe as a whole for better or worse. With that in mind, she tried to mirror Toklo's seemingly effortless tranquility – and leaning over the rails of the ship and grinning like a howling-hog-monkey to search for a familiar face in the crowd definitely wasn't the way to go about that.

    Still, her clasped hands fidgeted underneath the long sleeves of her formal robes as she waited for her turn to disembark. As she walked down the gangplank, her ears perked to catch the murmured refrain whispering through those gathered below. Apparently, just as she’d hoped, the Fire Lord had ignored tradition to come down from the caldera to greet his guests in person. There, standing at the head of the column of gathered court officials and ritual honor guards, leading a promenade that had just barely been cleared away through the center of the curious masses, was Zuko.

    He’d grown taller, was her first thought, in the six months since she’d seen him last – Tui and La, but had it really been that long? He was nearly as tall as Toklo now, or so she thought before he returned the ambassador’s bow with one of his own. His hair was longer, too, flowing black and sleek down between his suddenly broad shoulders but for what was gathered in the traditional knot required to hold his crown. The sunlight glittered off the gold twist of flames in his hair as he stood back upright again, casting a look around and then finding her.

    It was to her to bow first, as a guest seeking and accepting hospitality, and in that regard Katara was happy to do so. She had scripted lines that she was supposed to say, and she’d practiced them throughout the journey until Sokka had teased her so badly that she hadn't dared utter them again where anyone else could hear. She thought that she managed well enough, giving every word about honoring the friendships between our peoples and thank-you for your hospitality the full gravitas they deserved, before -

    “ - all right, all right - come on now, but that’s enough of that,” she felt a strong hand press against her shoulder before Sokka sauntered on by, crossing the careful line that had stood between their people in blue and the delegation in red until then.

    Zuko's mouth twitched in a way that made her think he was tucking away a grin, and he only had a second to slant her a commiserating look before his attention was fully taken by her brother. Zuko started to bow, just as he had to her, before Sokka waved his hand. “Nah uh, I'm not gonna let you go all stuffy on me,” he declared before clasping Zuko in a giant polar-dog-bear hug. “That’s how friends greet friends in the Water Tribe, and you're my friend.” Zuko wasn't the only one who'd grown over the years - though he wasn't quite as tall, Sokka had even more muscle-mass than the fire-bender, and Katara winced in sympathy as he squeezed obnoxiously tight. Finally, he pulled away, but only to boisterously thump Zuko on the back in a last parting gesture of affection. With his arms at last free to do so, Zuko waved off his miffed guards and muttered only for them to hear: “And to think we were doing so good, too.” Yet while his voice was half censure, the other half was all fondness.

    Well, if Sokka could – and then Suki as she followed her betrothed’s lead to happily take her turn hugging the Fire Lord – then she could too. Katara had felt a little stifled until then anyway – and, no matter all of her determination to the contrary since she'd received her appointment, that was exactly how long it took her to decide that if she was going to do this whole ambassador thing, then she was going to do it her way.

    Ignoring the stunned gasps and not-so-quiet murmurs her actions garnered – her brother was one thing, but an unattached young woman treating their exalted leader with such familiarity was something else entirely – she darted forward to hug Zuko. For a moment she felt him go stiff under her touch. He was painfully awkward as he looked around, acutely aware of the crowd. She held on long enough for him to come to a decision and then he wilted, exhaling deeply to hold her only a little bit more tightly than he had the last time they’d said goodbye. He was as warm as he ever was, which always made hugs from him something special to savor, but now, something about their embrace was different. Something was different, and she couldn't pinpoint exactly what it was. He still had that warm scent of sunlight about him, and while there may have been more of him to hug now, she still fit right there tucked in against him; she too had grown over the years, and matched him still. Though the summer's day in the tropics was warm and humid – stifling under the weight of her robes, even – she felt strangely bereft to let him go. For a heartbeat, she only wanted to follow him as he stepped away from her.

    Ah well, she had time to figure it out, she pushed the stray thought aside. They would be staying in the Fire Nation from now through the Dragon Days Festival that celebrated the summer solstice. As well as being an important cultural holiday now generously shared with outsiders for the first time in over a hundred years, this was also the first time that Zuko had extended an invitation for all the nations to meet in the Fire Nation, rather than through him travelling to the Earth Kingdom to discuss trade and borders and taxes and reparations – always reparations. Zuko's invitation had been a gamble, but one that seemed to be paying off so far.

    When she finally rejoined her tribesmen, she almost missed the raised brow Toklo turned her way. Yet: "I'd expect nothing less from Kya's daughter," was all he said when she'd first prepared herself for his censure. His words brought a pleased flush to her face, but she didn't have any more time to think about her own actions when, with just enough distance between them to allow her a better perspective, she noticed something that was even more concerning than the opinions of the crowd: Zuko looked tired. Not just tired, she thought, but enervated. There were dark circles under his eyes and something about his posture was just the slightest bit too sapped of vitality for her liking. He seemed to be trying too hard to hold up the mantle of his armor, and he was pale to her suddenly discerning eye – too pale. She’d seen Zuko wounded and holding himself up tall to hide a wound before, right after he'd survived Azula's lighting and had to act quickly to secure his rule, and this . . . though she didn’t think he was hurt in a physical sense, felt much the same.

    General Iroh’s letters hadn’t been exaggerating, then, had they?

    Katara felt her mouth thin as she narrowed her eyes. All right, then; making sure that her friend was taken care of as a human being first, and the Fire Lord second, was just one more task she’d see accomplished by the end of the meet. That couldn't be any more difficult than helping train a twelve-year-old Avatar to defeat an evil despot in order to end a hundred year war, could it? No: this was a challenge she'd see thoroughly conquered by the time the Dragon Days were over. Doing so would honor her duty to Zuko as his friend just as much as it would fulfill her obligation to the world: they could not afford to have a Fire Lord who was anything less than his best when the peace between their peoples was already a feather balanced atop a sword's edge as it was.

    But, she was drawn from her thoughts when her brother cut through the tension again in his own Sokka way. “So," he asked, "when do we eat?” Sokka slung an arm over Zuko’s shoulders, and there it stayed as they turned to depart for the palace. “All that sailing has me starving.”

    “You’re always hungry, Sokka,” gently, Zuko teased. "Sailing has nothing to do with it."

    It was as easy as a thought for her to come up and slip her arm through Zuko’s opposite arm. Suki mirrored her alongside Sokka, and, no matter the shadow in Zuko’s gaze or the murmurs growing around them, she couldn’t keep herself from smiling if she tried. Their group really had been scattered for too long.

    “What?" Sokka played at an offended tone, but Katara didn't miss the way his considering eyes took in the crowds as they parted. "I’m just a man who knows what he wants, and what I want are those barbequed meat on a stick thingamajigs we had last time. Remember those?”

    “I remember that your letters may have mentioned - ”

    “ - yeah, yeah, but did you remember remember? I wasn’t just reminiscing, you know. I'm expecting you to follow through."

    “Sokka,” Suki gently tugged on Sokka's arm to check his enthusiasm, but she, for some reason, found her brother endearing when he was at his most annoying. "I'm sure that whatever has been prepared will be to your liking. You're not exactly known for being picky."

    “Oh, but what's that pain through my heart? Look at that: betrayed by my own wife to be," Sokka mimed being stuck with an arrow, dramatically slumping over so that he pulled them all with him. Suki laughed outright, and swatted at his shoulder.

    "I'd just say that I know you well," she countered, her eyes glittering. "Can you tell me I'm wrong?"

    Sokka looked as if he had more to say, but Zuko chose to speak then and put him out of his misery: “You won’t be displeased by the feast, I promise you. What kind of friend do you take me for, Sokka?”

    “Ah,” Sokka sighed happily as he stood back upright, “meat on a stick.”

    “Some things never change, don’t they?” Katara shot her brother a look, willing him to not be so embarrassing once the rest of the Earth Kingdom officials arrived and the tension surrounding the meet turned even more strained.

    It took her a moment to realize that Zuko was watching her while she glared at Sokka – a decidedly unrepentant Sokka who only shrugged. For just a moment, something about Zuko's expression softened, obscuring the weariness that had settled over him like the sunlight breaking free from behind a cloud. “You're right,” he agreed, his eyes locked on hers. “They definitely stay the same.”



    .

    .

    Dinner that evening was an elaborate affair, even for hosting only a fraction of the guests who had yet to arrive in the Fire Nation.

    Zuko tried to keep their first meal back together as relatively private as he could, which really just meant that they were able to sit at one end of the massive table with Zuko and catch up as friends while General Iroh – whom none of them had resisted piling onto in a massive group hug when they first arrived at the palace – distracted the rest of the spokespersons who’d already arrived from the Northern Water Tribe and Omashu. (King Kuei's ambassadors and representatives from the rest of the Earth Kingdom's many individual city-states wouldn’t come until the very last minute, Toph had predicted, with none of them wanting to stay on enemy soil for a moment longer than was necessary) At first, Katara had taken her seat next to Toklo before her elder pointed out that it looked like her friend wanted to sit next to her at the head of the table.

    “Don’t worry,” his polite mask broke for a mere moment's distaste as he glanced to where Grand Counselor Hino of the Fire Nation was already getting into quite the heated discussion with First Secretary Cao of the Earth Kingdom on the rice tax debate. “You’re not missing anything of much importance.”

    Still, Katara had hesitated. She really did prefer sitting next to her friends, but she didn't want to shirk her duties when they were still so new. Yet, Toklo only had to usher her away once more before she caved completely. If she paid special attention to every narrowed gaze and ruffled feather that their seating arrangements inspired, well then, couldn't that be construed as part of her duties as well?

    Even well after their meal was served, Zuko never wholly relaxed in the official setting – and not for a lack of trying on their part. He was constantly distracted to look down the long expanse of seats, carefully listening to what was said and what was not said from too many facetious mouths to count. What was said, Katara thought, was already infuriating enough as it was. They should have been using this unprecedented time of peace to make things better for the people who’d been hurt most by the Hundred Year War: the common people who made up the bulk of the population on every side of the debate. But if Katara had learned anything in the summits she’d attended in the Earth Kingdom over the last two years, these meetings had a way of seeing private and petty grievances aired and personal interests put in the forefront, first and foremost. The Fire Nation wasn’t alone in that, she wanted to grind her teeth as she caught a particularly obnoxious statement from Minister Shi about the mixed-element families in his coastal province of the Earth Kingdom, all as Elder Anup of the Northern Water Tribe refused to even acknowledge Lady Sunan of the Northern Fire Isles sitting across from him when she tried to start up a conversation and -

    - Katara wanted so very badly to bend all of their soup into their laps.

    So, she was surprised when it was Zuko who noticed her rising ire and said: “Let them get it out of their system.” His eyes were still narrowed as he stared down the table, but with a sense of finality, a stubbornness and determination that, if asked, she would say that defined Zuko as a whole. (For a moment she thought he was going to reach out and take her hand, before he picked up his cup of tea, instead.) “They know they won’t be able to take their squabbles any further than this, and their words are only words.”

    “The empty water-gourd makes the most noise, right?” Katara said, the corner of her mouth twitching. Resigned to not bending – yet – she picked up her chopsticks again. (Zuko really had gone all out for them as far as dinner was concerned, she had to admit – much to Sokka’s bliss.)

    “You’ve been listening to Uncle, too,” she got a smile – a real smile – out of Zuko in response. It was easier, then, to ignore all of the ridiculous words being spoken and smile too.

    “Iroh may have mentioned that this is a court of spider-vipers and rattle-scorpions,” Katara pursed her mouth to agree. “And I can see why.”

    “I want to say that it gets better, but,” Zuko sighed out a hot breath – and there was that shadow again, "you know that this is everyone on their best behavior."

    For that, she acted before she could think and reached over to cover Zuko’s hand with her own. Briefly she squeezed. “It’s okay – that’s what we’re here for. You don’t have to charm all these snakes by yourself.”

    Knowing that she shouldn’t have – she heard her name spoken from further down the table, along with an unflattering question – didn’t stop her from letting her hand linger for just a moment longer before she pulled away.

    Sokka looked at her, and then down the table – his jaw squaring as if he wanted to get up and confront whatever what was just said about his sister, before he shrugged. “They won’t be able to bicker for much longer," his voice lost its usual jovialness to state with grim satisfaction. "They’ll at least have to pretend to get along once Aang gets here. Which will be . . .” he looked between her and Zuko, unsure as to who was the most up-to-date on the Avatar’s whereabouts.

    Katara couldn't answer him, not when she first thought that Aang would have been here already. The last she’d heard he was picking up Toph to come to the Fire Nation for the Dragon Days Festival directly, but keeping tabs on Aang was like trying to track a zephyr. He was a nomad at heart who embodied the very spirit of his birth-element; if something distracted him on the way she wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t show up until the very last day of the meet, or even afterwards entirely.

    Instead of her, it was Zuko who answered, “He sent a hawk from an Earth Kingdom port right after he got Toph. He said that something was calling to him from one of the Fire Islands, and he had to look into it before coming here. But he promised to arrive before the solstice.”

    “He’ll have to,” Katara said, hoping that Aang wasn't facing anything too serious without them there to back him up. Fully realized Avatar or not, he was still just Aang to her in some regards, and she couldn't help but worry. “I know that he was looking forward to meditating in Roku’s Temple on midsummer's eve; he’s been talking about that for a while now.”

    “Air-benders,” Sokka rolled his eyes, but with no small amounts of affection for their friend turning at his mouth, “you gotta love them. Until it comes time to plan around them, that is.”

    “You know, just because you’re the super-scheduling-man-with-a-plan doesn’t mean everyone works that way, Sokka,” Katara couldn't resist an opportunity to tease her brother.

    “Say what you will, sis: plans and the way we structure our time around those plans are integral elements of civilization. Without them, we’d all fall apart,” Sokka turned his nose up to hold his ground. “We can’t all just follow our hearts without - ”

    “ - darling,” Suki interrupted with no small amounts of amusement. “You’re dripping sauce on your shirt.”

    Sokka bit off a curse when he realized that the chopsticks he’d been jabbing to emphasize his point had made a bit of a mess. Furtively, he looked down the table to see if anyone else had noticed his gaffe. “Not again,” he despaired. “I was going to do better this time. But, I guess, spots on a polar-leopard-seal and all that . . .”

    Although Sokka was quick to recover with a quip at his own expense, Katara knew the weight that was on his shoulders as their father’s firstborn and successor as chief. This meet meant as much to him as it did to her to impress their contemporaries and elders, with the Southern Water Tribe having been hit so hard by the war and now struggling to catch back up with their more powerful neighbors. Sokka wanted nothing more than to do well and present the best face he could for their people. She understood; it was a matching impetus she felt deep in her own bones.

    “Here,” discreetly, she bent the water from their glasses and with a flick of her fingers the water sluiced through his robes and took the stain away. Effortlessly, she guided the water to one of the ornamental planters lining the massive dining hall, thinking that was that.

    Her stunt, however, didn’t go as unnoticed as she first would've hoped. The representatives from the Earth Kingdom didn’t blink, but she did notice a frown from Elder Bayar of the Northern Water Tribe, whose son Maluk had recently been selected as Chief Arnook's surrogate heir. More than a few of the Fire Nation councilmen and women had stopped their conversations to stare, as well – most of them, Katara reminded herself, had never seen water-bending before. And their eyes went especially wide when, for her actions -

    - Zuko laughed; and not one of those small half-smiles or stolen grins he’d flashed since they’d arrived, but rather a deep from his belly, delighted laugh. It was a sound that compelled her to join in and laugh along with, and so she did. A thrill fluttered and flitted within her to see her world-weary friend so happy, even if just for a moment. Sokka – who could never be down on himself for too long – joined in too, and then they were all laughing together. For a moment Katara felt light and breathless and good, as if anything and everything were possible again, just like back during the war when all they had was each other to lean on and trust in and hope with -

    - carefully, though, she gathered herself enough to notice who was frowning and who was smiling for the Fire Lord’s unexpected burst of good cheer. Some of the delegates pursed their mouths; most maintained some semblance of neutrality; and a very small few seemed pleased to see their leader relax like the teenaged boy he still truly was. Iroh’s expression, in particular, was openly beaming, and she could have sworn that she saw gratitude shine in his eyes when he looked between her and her brother.

    “It hasn’t been the same without you guys,” Zuko said as he finally gathered himself – all too quickly as he too looked around the table and realized the attention he’d garnered. He wouldn’t say I’ve missed you, she knew, even if he felt the sentiment, and so -

    “ - we’ve missed you too,” Katara was brave enough to say when the words tangled up for Zuko. She felt more weightless than the sky and stronger than any storm for the thankful smile he turned her way, and wanted nothing more than to reach out and take his hand again. So, she did. Let anyone look and say what they wanted to say about her; she didn’t care. She was back here with her friend, and her friend needed her – he needed them. In that moment, that was the only truth that mattered.



    TBC


    ~ MJ @};-
     
    Last edited: Jul 26, 2021
  21. WarmNyota_SweetAyesha

    WarmNyota_SweetAyesha Chosen One star 8

    Registered:
    Aug 31, 2004
    Exquisite description of the setting. Wonderful teasing and caring amongst friends. I love Katara's keen observations and caring for Zuko and Sokka and Suki are too sweet.
     
  22. ViariSkywalker

    ViariSkywalker Jedi Grand Master star 4

    Registered:
    Aug 9, 2002
    I actually really love the energy-bending concept, too, and I'm one of those people that loved the way the lion-turtles were used in the Avatar Wan episodes of LoK. (I didn't mind the retcon, and felt it still made sense with what came before, and when you consider it's been ten thousand years and legends take on their own shape over time...) Yeah, those two episodes are actually my favorite part of LoK, and possibly my favorite two episodes in all of Avatar. Which is not to say that I think A:TLA is somehow lesser; but something about the style of those episodes and the world-building and the self-contained story and characters and the voice acting... gaaah, I love them so much. [face_love] (We're going to have to discuss LoK one of these days, too... talk about missed potential. o_O)

    WELL HOW HAVE I NEVER THOUGHT OF THIS?! Please tell me we're going to see some of that in this collection? Pleeeeeease??? [face_batting] [face_batting]

    You better believe I will go down with this ship. [face_mischief] :D

    Yes, ma'am! [face_laugh]

    And onto the update, where I realized I was quoting just about everything. :p So I tried to control myself in the back half, but just know: it's all excellent, and I'm so excited that this is a multi-chapter response! :D

    I love this whole passage; such beautiful imagery! The level of detail in the description of the dragon gates... *chef's kiss*

    Speaking of incredible descriptive writing, I want to go to the Fire Nation now, omigosh. Talk about a gorgeous ocean/island combo! Plus, I love the comparison between it and the waters of the South Pole that Katara is accustomed to. That's a really excellent comparison that I don't think I'd have thought to make!

    I could feel this, and yep, I'm ready for a beach vacation, pls thx. [face_laugh]

    Aw, this strong, dutiful girl is trying so hard, but she's still just a girl who is so excited to see her friend. [face_love]

    Atta boy, Zuko. ;)

    Look at Katara noticing. ;) And of course, he's looking for her. [face_love]

    Sokka! [face_laugh] You've really captured his voice perfectly. I could picture this whole reunion as clearly as if it was in the show. (And it made me imagine Sokka and Zuko greeting each other over the years as they grow older, and oh look, those are my feels lying in a puddle on the ground. :p I love their friendship so much!)

    I'm using this emoji way too much, but: [face_love] [face_love] [face_love]

    Meat on a stick. o_O [face_laugh] Never change, Sokka.

    I so love how you've captured their sibling relationship. Just spot-on.

    Also, everything about all the representatives from the other nations and their interactions with one another and its effects on Zuko and how Katara reacts to that... just excellent world-building and characterization, truly.

    Great insight here. For all that Sokka was the meat and sarcasm guy, he did take his responsibilities just as seriously as Katara did, and I could see that perfectly here.

    [face_love] Aw, yay! After all his weariness throughout this chapter, it felt so good to read this part.

    THESE TWO, MIRA! (And also their whole friend group, obviously. But still... these two!!!)

    Another excellent update, and I'm so looking forward to the rest of the chapters! (And seeing how Fantastical Fencing plays into it... [face_mischief] )

    =D= [:D]
     
    Last edited: Jul 21, 2021
  23. Mira_Jade

    Mira_Jade The Fanfic Manager With The Cape star 5 Staff Member Manager

    Registered:
    Jun 29, 2004
    Aw thanks! I love this entire cast of characters and how much they care for each other, so I am glad that came through strong. As always, I can't thank you enough for reading! [:D]


    Honestly, it's because of that missed potential that I never made it all the way through LoK. And I really wanted to like it! But, in the end, It didn't have the heart or energy that drew me to A:TLA - probably because my favorite writers were gone and Team Bryke were left to their own devices. [face_whistling] ;) I disliked the futures they gave the characters I loved so much: making Aang such a terrible husband and father (except to his one air-bending child), and reducing Katara to so little. I hated how they wrote Toph being unable to find balance as a mother; how Sokka was brushed aside in an off-screen death to make way for a new chief and a new conflict between the Tribes, while Suki was just never mentioned at all. Then, at the same time, I had a hard time investing in the new characters. I never really took to the rapid modernization of the world-building or the super-powered benders as opposed to how things needed to be earned, more so, in A:TLA. Most of what I don't like is just a matter of taste, I fully admit, but LoK is just not a show I enjoyed. But it did have some great ideas that could have been developed into a much better story than what we were given, and now I think I need to give these two episodes a watch, at the very least. [face_thinking]

    You better believe we're going there. I'd be remiss as a Zutara shipper if I didn't! [face_laugh] [face_mischief]

    Yay! That makes me so excited to hear!! :D

    *fist pump* Success!

    And, you know, all the clues for the fantastical fencing aspect we're going to get into are kinda already here. [face_mischief]

    Right??? I'm ready for a tropical getaway myself, as soon as the world heals a little bit more. And, it really is funny how the Fire Nation is a paradise that would appeal to a water-bender as much as a fire-bender. There's water everywhere, even if it's different than the South Pole.

    THEY'RE ALL STILL SUCH GOOFY KIDS! And I love that for all that Katara is putting so much on her shoulders - again - she's still just a teenage girl who hasn't seen her friend in so long. [face_love])

    That's our Zuko. [face_love]

    Zuko was handsome as a youngster, we can all agree. It's safe to say he's going to grow up good. :p Gotta let Katara notice that, of course, not that she's noticing, how dare you imply as much . . . [face_mischief]

    I LOVE Sokka. He's such a great character with his balance between wackiness and duty and that fierce desire to protect. I just loved writing him grow more into his role as chief-to-be here! [face_love]

    (Also, why did you have do that to my feelings? There are going to be all the huge polar-dog-bear hugs over the years until - gaaaaaah, but that thought hurt. =(( Angst squared strikes again. :p)

    [face_love] [face_love]!!!

    [face_mischief]

    Oh, never. [face_mischief]

    Because you know how I love me some good sibling banter! [face_love] [face_laugh]

    Thank-you! I loved including all those little details, so I'm glad you enjoyed them.

    EXACTLY!

    It felt good to write this part. Again: these kids have been through so much, and are still being so strong as young adults! As such, it felt so good to give them these moments of levity. They deserve all of this and more. [face_love]

    THESE TWO!!!!! I will love them forever and ever; dear goodness, but I will never be over them. [face_love]

    Oh, you better believe that I can't wait to get into the fantastical part of this one. [face_mischief] It's epic in my mind; let's see how it plays out in actuality. :p

    As always, I can't thank you enough for reading, and for taking the time to leave such awesome feedback! I'll be back with more soon! :D [:D]



    ~ MJ @};-
     
    Last edited: Jul 27, 2021
  24. Mira_Jade

    Mira_Jade The Fanfic Manager With The Cape star 5 Staff Member Manager

    Registered:
    Jun 29, 2004
    Author's Notes: Well, this is going to be five parts now. (I know, who's surprised? :p) This entire chapter was only supposed to be a scene of a thousand words in my outline, but then it finished at 4.3k words. I'm trying to keep all of these chapters under 4.5k if I can help it, so, um, here we are. Apparently I had thoughts on world-building to share, some of it in AU defiance of the comics and LoK. So, here we go. ;)

    [:D]





    V-II.

    "Through Them the Sunlight Now Bursts"
    (Fantastical Fencing | Part 2 of 5)​

    From her last stay in the palace, Katara remembered an ornamental courtyard filled with tranquil ponds. A myriad of white lotus-lilies floated on the surface of the water, where a family of turtle-ducks had made their home and koi fish glided below. Graceful, red-leaved momiji trees grew nearly as tall as the palace walls, while shoots of bamboo and purple creeping liriope and night-blooming jasmine were planted with a deceiving wildness around the elegantly tumbling rock formations and whispering waterfalls. Nothing about the Fire Lady’s gardens had changed over time, even when so much else about the palace was different now.

    Back then, she remembered keeping Zuko company while he healed from his sister’s lightning strike, discussing their plans for the future and memories of the past. That was how she learned that, even as a princess, his mother had once arranged these gardens to her liking, with no Fire Lady then reigning by Azulon’s side to do so instead. Other times, they kept each other company in silence. When her thoughts overwhelmed her, she found it easy to meditate alongside the rippling of the pond and the steady cadence of the waterfall. On nights of the full moon she even stayed up late enough to catch Zuko when he came down for his morning communion with the sunrise. By the boundaries of the courtyard, they’d teased each other to say that the sun and moon had crossed, with Katara unable to understand how anyone could get up so early and Zuko flummoxed that she had still yet to sleep.

    That next full moon, however, he’d sneaked down from the caldera to the oceanside with her, and watched in awe as she danced with the waves as if she was the tide itself.

    That night, there was a waxing moon above, just swollen from its half-moon phase. Even though they were days away from the full moon, she still felt restless to feel its light – and thus its promise of power – steadily grow. After she said her prayers to Yue, she sat down on the rocks lining the pond and drew a spout of water into her palm. She twirled the water between her hands, challenging herself to see how many complex shapes she could make before sending the water back down as a delicate mist of rain. The turtle-ducks who'd gathered in curiosity for her bending quacked and fluttered their wings, and Katara grinned in delight for their vocal responses. She’d have to remember to bring them treats next time.

    Yet, with that thought in mind, she knew exactly when Zuko arrived in the gardens for how the turtle-ducks abandoned her to swiftly paddle over to his side. Zuko never forgot treats for the little ones, and, as such, Katara and her bending were summarily forgotten. That was okay, though. She was more than happy to watch him kneel and toss bits of the leftover steamed buns from dinner into the water. He even addressed a few of the ducks by name, and admonished the bolder ones to share with those who were more timid as if they were a pack of komodo-hounds who'd heed his command.

    Until: “It’s late for you,” she finally stated in greeting – even though this was exactly what she’d been hoping for all along. I didn't know if you'd remember, almost bubbled up from a shy, uncertain place deep inside her, before she caught herself and said: "I didn't know if it was too late, I mean."

    “What can I say?” Zuko held up his hands to show the turtle-ducks that he was out of treats. “I have an appreciation for the moon now.”

    But the moon wasn't full yet, was it? He slanted her a glance from his scarred eye, and, curiously enough, she found herself flushing. She didn’t say anything in response to his words, but he didn’t seem to expect her to. Instead, she spent a moment in silence just watching him, taking in how the moonlight caught in the black of his hair and highlighted the line of his shoulders as he stood. Here, more himself as Zuko in simple clothing and without his crown, he only added to the serenity of his surroundings.

    Katara inhaled, waiting for that feeling of . . . something to fade between them. But it didn’t; instead, it merely shifted. In answer, she couldn’t help but smile at her friend, thinking that was all it was. She had missed him, she allowed herself to feel the emotion fully then. Letters just weren't enough.

    “Actually, I was hoping to find you here,” Zuko was next to break the silence. “I have a gift for you.”

    “A gift for me?” she repeated, taken aback. “Isn’t that a little early?”

    She knew – or she thought she knew – that gifts were traditionally exchanged between friends and family on the eve of the summer solstice in the Fire Nation, which was still well over a week away. She fretted, thinking about the gift she had waiting for him up in her chambers. Should she go and fetch that first? Or should she -

    - but Zuko’s voice was strangely solemn when he answered in all seriousness: “No, it’s not too early. If anything, it’s far too late.”

    Katara paused, her thoughts shifting to concern. She looked at him, then – really looked, and though Zuko may have had practice concealing his emotions, she knew him. She didn’t like the little lines that had gathered at the corner of his unscarred eye, nor did she care for the slight furrowing of his brow. He’d never tried to hide any of his thoughts from her before, even when she'd wished he had back when she was trying so hard to remain his enemy. Then more apprehensive than curious, she followed when he gestured to a chest that had been waiting on one of the benches further up on the grass.

    “Oh,” she said. “You really were planning this, weren't you?”

    But Zuko's expression didn't soften for her teasing, and Katara warily looked at the chest, looking for an answer to his strange mood.

    With that, it only took a glance for her to realize that the box was not Fire Nation in design. Instead, it was carved from white poplar wood – the same as which grew on the Fire Isles just north of the South Pole. Her people used to trade for this wood to use in their ship building, exchanging pelts and finely crafted bone weapons and walrus-whale oil in times bygone. But such camaraderie between their peoples had long since ceased. As far back as even her grandmother could remember, raiding parties from her tribe instead sneaked onto the islands and felled wood in secret like thieves – though it had never felt like theft to take from those who'd taken everything from them.

    Further telling, the chest was carved with symbols dedicated to the moon and ocean spirits, and even to the Watasumikami – long extinct water dragons from her people’s lore whom she only knew from her grandmother’s songs. Black pearls, abalone shells, and even shark’s teeth were inlaid as ornamentation, and the handles were carved from the antlers of a moose-wolf. “Zuko, is this . . .” she couldn’t find her words as her heartbeat turned quick and drumming in her chest. She was surprised that the water in the pond didn’t start to ripple as she sucked in a suddenly sharp breath.

    This, she instinctively knew, was a piece of home.

    Zuko’s grim countenance only confirmed it – even if there was something cautiously pleased about his expression as he took in her obvious excitement. In the first month of his reign, he’d ordered an audit of his great-grandfather’s vaults for the sole purpose of returning treasures that had been taken as spoils of war to the other nations. The first time he visited the Southern Water Tribe as Fire Lord, he’d gifted her with what was currently her most cherished possession: a single scroll detailing a Southern water-bending form called the Flying Seahorse. Though it was only one form, she'd practiced it beyond mastery and invented every single variation she could think of from there. That form was her heritage, in its purest sense, and she treasured it.

    It was a fact that had haunted her for years, now: that she was the last Southern water-bender, but she only knew the Northern forms. She only had the Northern forms to pass onto the children of her tribe, all the while their numbers were newly infused with tribesmen from the North, who, while they were invaluable in helping them rebuild, built in the Northern style while singing the Northern songs and cooking their Northern foods and living their Northern way. For so long, Katara knew that she was witnessing the death of the South with her own eyes. By the time the next generation was born, with more mixed Northern blood than Southern, what would be left of them and their ways? Her people were slowly fading into nothingness, even in a time of peace.

    Her people were dying, and there was nothing she could do to stop it.

    Chief Arnook, she grit her teeth to remember, had even proposed having only one chief over both tribes to better help the crippled South recover – though she knew that was more his Council of Elders talking than him; Arnook only truly wanted to help. With Elder Bayar’s pressing, he’d even offered his heir Maluk to her father as a husband for her to see that dream come to fruition – completely overlooking Sokka’s birthright in the light of assimilation suddenly being such a needs must to bolster their dwindling strength. It was so easy for the North to step in and offer help now rather than decades earlier, completely ignoring everything the South had done for the war while the North remained so safely isolated behind their lofty walls. The North even had the audacity to offer Sokka the choice of remaining on as their spokesperson in the South if he wished, but they would offer no more power than that to him or any of his sons yet to come.

    Her father, after consulting his own council, had thankfully put an end to that. Any aid they now received from the North only came unsolicited through those who wanted to leave their home and become true Southern tribesmen and women – and there were plenty who felt stifled in the North and wanted a fresh start of their own with their sister-tribe. The South's water-bending school – though Pakku had been grudging to lend his assistance, at first – primarily taught female healers from the North who wanted the freedom to learn martial bending. Over the years, Katara had finally mastered her own healing abilities by learning from them in return.

    Our women are free to marry where their hearts lie, Hakoda had laughed for Arnook’s suggestion. My daughter as an unwilling bride is not something young Maluk is capable of handling. After that, Hakoda had refused to ever turn to Arnook with a begging bowl in hand again. As a result, relations between their tribes remained strained to this day.

    When she first raged to him in a letter, venting feelings she could hardly share with her family when they were struggling with their own rage, Zuko had jokingly offered to invade the North again – no matter that he'd apologized for his poor taste in humor in a subsequent letter. At the time, his umbrage on her behalf had only soothed a wound she hadn't realized she'd been nursing. It had helped to have a friend understand when Aang had tentatively asked why joining the tribes together was such a bad idea to begin with. He'd even advised her father to consider Chief Arnook's suggestion in all seriousness. The Air Temples had only been separated by distance; even the true nomads of his people answered to the unified wisdom of the Abbots and Abbesses, he'd reasoned. Aang meant well, and as the Avatar he hated any sort of division and wanted only to promote harmony, but he didn't understand.

    Yet, now . . . Katara looked at Zuko, and let her breath out slow.

    “We found this only just recently, when Admiral Isao’s property was seized,” Zuko explained as she processed her thoughts. She looked up from the chest, and caught the way he pressed his mouth in a thin line so as not to scowl.

    That was fine: she could scowl enough for the both of them to remember the odious old admiral who’d been responsible for an attempted coup just that spring – a two-pronged attack that had attempted to free Ozai from prison and replace him on the throne after seeing Zuko executed as a traitor to his nation. She’d felt chilled to the bone when she’d heard from Aang, more so than Zuko, just how close Isao and his followers had come to succeeding.

    “Hey, it’s okay,” Zuko saw the anger that flared in her expression (the fear) and took a small step forward. For a moment she thought he’d reach out for her, before he folded his hands together instead. “I’m still here,” he gave a crooked grin to assure her. “You know better than anyone that they’d have to try harder than that to get rid of me.”

    “You're like a lobster-roach when someone wants you out of the way, it’s true,” she tried for levity, but her voice sounded strained to her own ears. “Be that as it may, you’ve become way too matter-of-fact about things like assassination attempts for my liking.”

    “What can I say? They lose their novelty over time,” Zuko shrugged. “If you’ve seen one assassin, you’ve seen them all.” But, at the very least, his smirk and flashing eyes was all the prince who had once chased them from one end of the world to the next. Let the world do its worst: Zuko would always find a way to not only survive, but to claw his way into thriving.

    Katara shook her head, but she allowed herself to be placated – for the time being, at least. Instead, she returned her attention to the chest. She ran her fingers over the lid, hesitant to open the latch.

    “There’s more than just this, too,” Zuko spoke into the silence, his voice quick and earnest – awkward even, the same as when he'd been first been allowed into their group as an ally, but nevertheless kept at arm’s length while they judged his sincerity. “We found a dragon’s horde of information on the Southern Water Tribe as it used to be in Isao's vaults: city schematics and notes on infrastructure and maps to the tundra villages that used to exist even beyond your main harbor settlement – they were all part of the battle-plans that Isao's grandfather used back in the first raids. There’s a whole series of journals from a man named Lord Nake, even – one of our historians who’d lived among the South as an honored guest before the war. Nake wrote essays on everything from ship-building to more stewed sea-prune recipes than you can ever imagine to sketches of what the South used to look like in its prime. It . . . it’s so much different from the North; I couldn’t even believe what I was looking at when I saw it. Your home was . . . is beautiful.”

    Her eyes flew wide with shock, and she stood there, slack-jawed under the moonlight as Zuko, in just a few miraculous words, returned to her people their culture. She couldn’t even open the chest, as stunned into motionlessness as she was. It was the irony of the spirits to give them the tools to rebuild through the very same means that had once been used to tear them down. Her eyes burned with overwhelmed tears, but she wanted to laugh and laugh and laugh in such giddy, bubbling delight. She wanted to dance and leap about and crow in joy. But instead she could only stand there and breathe. How, she wondered, was the sky not whirling or the earth not churning beneath her feet for just how momentous this was?

    “That, though, is something I think you’ll appreciate even more personally,” he nodded towards the chest. “The rest of what we recovered I was hoping to present to Sokka in place of your father. But . . . um, I kinda couldn’t resist telling you first?” he added, still somewhat awkwardly. Almost three years of sitting the throne as Fire Lord, and he still couldn’t wholly hide his blush.

    “Appreciate even more?” dumbly, she parroted. “Zuko, do you understand what this means? What this means for my people, what this means to me?” She took a step forward, and would have darted to throw her arms around him when -

    “ - no, please don’t,” Zuko held up a hand, stopping her short. Where she couldn’t seem to decide between tears or laughter, his voice was oddly strained, as if he too was pulled between two great emotions. “Please . . . I can’t handle you thanking me, not for this. There’s no gratitude that you should ever have to extend for this. So much has been lost . . . so much has been taken from the world, and this is one small thing I can give back. It’s not nearly enough; it won’t ever be enough.”

    “Zuko,” she said in a soft, small voice. She had a hundred things she wanted to say – a hundred things that needed to be said then, and yet . . .

    “Please,” Zuko exhaled deeply and held himself up tall again, “it would honor me if you looked in the chest.”

    All right then . . . all right. The matter wasn’t nearly settled between them – not in the slightest, but Katara could give him this. She could allow herself this.

    This time, she undid the latch of the chest without hesitating. There, within, she found . . .

    . . . dozens and dozens of scrolls, each wrapped in oiled leather skins, protecting them from the elements. These scrolls had to be at least a century old, and when she carefully unlaced the throng on the first scroll, she unrolled it to reveal . . .

    The Water Dragon,” she read the characters describing the name of the water-bending form that the painted figures demonstrated below. Not just any water-bending form, she realized with a jolt, but the Southern water-bending form.

    Suddenly, her fingers couldn’t seem to move fast enough. Breath of the Unagi, Panlong’s Whirlpools, Blades of Rain, Sanna's Dance, and the Sky Lights Ribbons – one scroll after another showed form after form after form. This was a treasure-trove of information, a glance into her people’s past, and, suddenly, their future -

    - Zuko couldn’t hold her back then any more than he could the tide. Still holding that first scroll in hand, she turned and threw her arms around him in an exuberant embrace. “Thank-you!” she knew that tears escaped her eyes, but she couldn’t seem to help herself. She was just so spirits’ blessed happy. She felt so full of joy to almost be glowing, matching the luminescence of the moon above. In that moment, she felt as if she could move every ocean that ever was and ever would be. “You don’t understand how much this means to me.”

    For a moment Zuko was just so Koh-cursed stiff in her arms. Then, just slightly, he relaxed. Gently, as if somehow still expecting to be turned away, he returned her embrace. She heard him sigh from right above her ear, as if he was exhaling to release some great weight, pushing down on his lungs.

    “We have taken so much from the world,” he muttered into her hair. “If we can give anything back -"

    “ - there’s no we about it, Zuko; they destroyed; they took,” she fiercely insisted, refusing to let him pull away when he tried. With another meet full of people ready to call him and his nation every vile thing imaginable in reference to the past, this was something that she needed him to understand. She needed him to know this in his heart. “Your sister and father and grandfather and great-grandfather, they are the ones who are responsible for - ”

    “ - does that really matter?” Zuko sighed, as weary then as if he were the proverbial lion-turtle holding up the weight of the world. In may ways . . . he was.

    So: “Yes,” bluntly, she proclaimed, “it does. It means everything.”

    You mean everything, she only just kept from bursting. Because . . . those words were huge, weren't they? They were so much bigger than anything she could say just then. So, Katara, even with all her bravery, swallowed them when she wasn’t exactly sure what they meant, herself.

    “You need to hear that said more,” she declared instead. She pulled away from him only so that she could look him in the eye. Her arms remained draped around his shoulders, with her hands meeting behind his neck. Zuko's hands, in return, had dropped to settle on her waist. It was, she told her then stupidly fluttering heart, still just a friendly hug. Friends hugged each other, didn't they? It was no big deal.

    After all: a friend was exactly what Zuko needed then, first and foremost. Who did he really have to talk to in the Fire Nation, except for his uncle? Who encouraged him and built him up and let him lean on them as he stood strong for so many people in his turn? The answer was sadly singular. “So, I’ll just say it over and over again until it breaks through your thick skull, okay?”

    He shook his head, but when he snorted, his amusement felt genuine. Yes, Katara nodded to conclude all over again: letters certainly weren’t enough.

    “Whatever you say,” Zuko finally inclined his head and let her go. Mutually, they took a step back from each other.

    “You say that like you don’t really mean it,” she arched glared at him in an exaggerated version of the stink-eye she usually reserved for Sokka. “The sooner you accept that I know what’s best, the happier you'll be.”

    “As you say, Master Katara.” No matter how formally he spoke, Zuko was very clearly teasing her as he gave a mockingly deep bow. She huffed, and was half tempted to call up a spout of water from the pond to drench him when she had an even better idea.

    “You should be careful, you know,” she said sweetly, holding up her scroll again for emphasis. “You just gave me a whole new bag of tricks, and now I’m itching to see if your Dancing Dragon is any match for my Water Dragon.”

    “Is that a challenge?” Zuko’s eyes glittered to return. There was something dangerous – but kindred – about the anticipation in his voice then. Suddenly, she could feel the draw of the moon searing through her veins like the fire he wielded instead.

    “You know, I think there was a letter where I promised to wipe the floor with you,” she found her own teeth baring to say. “If Your Majesty is brave enough to face me, that is.”

    “We are honored to accept your challenge,” Zuko just had to use the royal we to get her going with yet another bow – he knew how much she hated that. She rolled her eyes, even as she itched to call forth every drop of water she could suddenly feel tugging against her senses. “Try your worst, water-bender,” his voice sharpened to take on a tone he hadn’t used in years, not since he was that young prince blazing with fury to invade the sanctity of the Spirit Oasis, incensed that she stood in his way and refusing to back down even when she had the full moon on her side. She felt a shiver – a spark wanting for flame – race through her in reply.

    “But,” he added grudgingly, his tone suddenly reverting to the warm, raspy timbre she now better knew as Zuko the man. “Maybe not here. We’ll ruin the gardens.”

    “I guess you’re right,” she agreed, still grinning as she straightened from the bending stance she'd unwittingly fallen into. It was amazing that the Spirit Oasis hadn't been absolutely ruined in the wake of their duel, she thought, and she didn’t trust the gardens here to be quite so study. With careful hands she tucked the water-bending scroll back into its sleeve, and waved away Zuko’s offer to carry the chest for her as they turned to leave for the sparring rings in the adjoining courtyard. “But that’s okay,” she let her eyes sharpen to challenge again, “I can kick your butt anywhere, anytime.”


    TBC



    ~ MJ
    @};-
     
    Last edited: Jul 28, 2021
  25. WarmNyota_SweetAyesha

    WarmNyota_SweetAyesha Chosen One star 8

    Registered:
    Aug 31, 2004
    Beautiful setting with the water and the moonlight.

    Marvelous musings on the historic/cultural losses.

    Katara's joy at getting the scrolls and her feelings for Zuko made for a scrumptious read and I personally am glad this one event has so many sections. [face_laugh]

    [face_dancing]