The coronation ceremony itself became mostly a blur. The crowd loomed before Zuko, a mass of faces from Fire Nation, Earth Kingdom, and even Water Tribe. He spoke to them as openly as he could, and shared with them his vision for a brighter future. Though, for the life of him, if someone would’ve asked him later what all he said, he wouldn’t have been able to remember a word of it.
With the moon high in the sky, the coronation ended, and Zuko retired to the palace. Out in the garden, he found Iroh sipping a mug of tea.
“Congratulations, your highness,” Iroh said with a chuckle. “Looks like all your dreams are finally falling into place, eh?”
Zuko leaned against the wall. After bloodbending his body all day, he wasn’t sure how much more of it he could do. Especially without Mai and Katara, who’d both gone to their rooms for the night, he felt unsteady on his feet.
“You look tired,” Iroh observed.
Zuko smiled. “Yeah, well, I’m still pretty weak,” he said. “Azula hit me pretty hard.”
“Yes, I know,” Iroh said, setting the tea aside. He had a knowing look in his eye, like he was fully aware of everything his nephew was thinking and just playing a game trying to get him to drag it out.
“What was it you decided to do with her again?”
“She’s imprisoned for now until the Avatar removes her powers,” he said. “When we’ve tried to get near her, she’s gone a bit ballistic.”
“I see. Why don’t you come sit next to me and rest?” It was a welcome invitation, and Zuko took him up on it, keeping one hand on the wall to steady himself. Sitting he could handle. His hand flicked and he lowered himself down, feeling the smooth stone wall against the back of his head and neck.
“Tell me again, exactly how she injured you?” Iroh said.
Zuko narrowed his eyes. So, it was going to be a game of twenty questions now? He was smarter than that, he wouldn’t lose so easily. The less people knew about his condition, the safer everything was. “She shot me with lightning,” he summarized.
“And you redirected it?”
“Sort of. I was caught off guard. I started to redirect it, but I wasn’t completely successful. Katara… the Water Tribe girl, helped heal my wounds, but her abilities only work so well.”
Iroh nodded. “That seems a valid explanation,” he said, in a tone that indicated the complete opposite. “Well, then, I guess I should let our new Firelord get his rest, and I’ll get back to my tea shop.”
Zuko smiled. His uncle was probably still suspicious, no doubt there, but it was clear he had nothing but love and concern for Zuko. Couldn’t hold anything against him for that.
Once Iroh was gone, Zuko sat resting for a while longer. He kept meaning to make his way back to his room, but the cool night air on his face felt so refreshing. Suddenly, though, he became aware of someone walking along the top of the stone wall behind him. He whirled around, trying to think of the best way to defend himself, when he saw Toph taking a seat on the wall’s edge.
“Hey there, your majesty,” she said.
He lowered his fists and let out a huge sigh of relief. “Don’t scare me like that.”
“Aw, I’m sorry. Your Fire Nation capital is just so big and amazing, it’s easy for a poor little Earth Kingdom girl like me to get lost.” She leaned back and kicked her feet into the air. “Say, would you demonstrate some of that nifty firebending you people here do?” she asked.
Zuko narrowed his eyes. If she meant to mock him, but he didn’t get the joke. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It was supposed to make a point,” Toph said, slipping down from her perch on the wall. “The other option was to start earthbending in your face and see how you defended yourself, but I didn’t think you’d appreciate that.”
“Your concern for my well-being overwhelms me.”
“Don’t mention it. Look, you said yourself that if anyone finds out you can’t firebend, you’re off the throne, am I right?”
“So, it’s not too smart of you to go walking around with no way to firebend, is it? You need a back up. Someone who knows what’s going on and can do it for you in a pinch.”
“The only people who could fill that role are Aang and Katara,” he said. “And the Avatar’s a little bit busy… well, being the Avatar.”
“Well, looks like you and Katara are going to be spending a lot of time together, then.” She pulled herself back up onto the wall and started to walk back the way she’d come. “Oh, and for whatever it’s worth, you are walking better. Even if it doesn’t feel like it.”
Zuko did not take Toph’s advice lightly. Mostly because he had no good argument against it. It had been almost a week since the coronation, and Katara had rarely left his side. Today, they sat down by the pond. The large tree at Zuko’s back provided the perfect amount of shade, and Katara had suggested that the fresh air would do him some good. She’d been right. Zuko closed the scroll he’d been reading, set it down in the grass, and picked up a new one from the pile. It wasn’t exciting work, he’d readily admit that. Still, he wished Katara wouldn’t keep reminding him just how boring it was.
“Geez, don’t you need a royal mental break or something?” she asked.
Zuko took a extra long pause before answering, just to annoy her. “The Fire Nation is vast and complicated. It’s my job to know every detail about it. My father was twice my age when he took the throne.”
“Yeah. And someone’s totally going to stop you on the street and quiz you on,” she looked over his shoulder, “the price of cabbages five years ago.”
“I’m studying the fluctuating market prices of common goods.”
Katara groaned and leaned back against the tree again. For at least five minutes, she didn’t say anything. Then, she went at it again full force. “Seriously, just tell your uncle what’s going on. Then you’ll have a firebender to hang out with you who actually knows something about Fire Nation history.”
Zuko’s grip on the scroll tightened. If he could actually firebend right now, it probably would’ve gone up in flames. “I was hoping you’d understand walking up to my uncle and saying, ‘Hey, could you follow me around just in case I have to firebend in front of anybody?’ doesn’t sit well with me.”
Not to mention telling him I’ve betrayed our country by giving up firebending. He wasn’t quite Katara would understand that part of his frustration at all. Still, she lowered her head, looking sorry that she had upset him, even if she didn’t agree with his logic. “Okay, okay, you made your point,” she muttered. Then she flicked her fingers in front of her, a small flame appearing in the air for a just a second. If Zuko hadn’t been so irritated at her, he might’ve laughed. He’d done the exact same thing as a kid whenever he got bored with his mother’s lessons.
Zuko went back to his scroll, though in truth, he had to admit the price of cabbages did not make for exciting reading. And Katara continued to entertain herself by tossing little flames into the air. It distracted him to no end, but he couldn’t ask her to stop either. It brought back so many memories he didn’t want to ignore just yet.
Just then, Katara brought one of her flames just a tad too close to the open jar of ink sitting in the grass by his feet. While this shouldn’t have been a problem in theory, the liquid inside suddenly caught fire and an orange flame flickered inside the jar’s rim. She yelped in surprise and scooted backward.
“What the-? Who filled the ink jars?” Zuko demanded.
“I think it was Sokka.”
“Your brother can’t tell the difference between ink and lamp oil?”
“Oh, excuse me if we aren’t versed in Fire Nation menial labor!”
Zuko rolled his eyes and reached down to move the jar away from the dry grass, only to have Katara yank his hand back. “What are you doing? Don’t burn yourself!”
He pulled his hand away from her, staring at his fingers. “It’s… hot?” he asked quietly. I was about to touch it, and I didn’t notice anything.
“Yeah,” she said back in a low monotone. “I could feel the heat just from when I was near it.”
Zuko nodded. “I see.” Then, still not wishing to see the grass burst into flames, he motioned at the pond. A ball of water floated out and positioned itself around the jar. Then he used the water to lift the jar and carry it over to the pond. The jar was impressively buoyant and when he sat it on the water’s surface, it floated like a little glowing boat.
“Oh, wow,” Katara breathed. “Zuko, that’s actually really pretty.”
Zuko watched as the little jar bobbed its way back and forth in the gentle water, carrying its golden flame with it. It did look kind of nice. Not that he was ever one for aesthetics.
“Hey, go ask a servant to bring us more ink, would you?”
She did and one of the maids came back with ten jars of it. Once he was sure they were alone again, Zuko lay each jar of the pond’s surface, commanding the water to hold them in place while Katara set a small flame atop each one. Then, he moved the water currents to arrange the jars in all sorts of patterns – a swirl, a crescent, a teardrop. Katara kept making suggestions and he kept trying to meet each challenge. He barely noticed the sky above them turning to dusk or the first couple stars starting to come out. They had, quite by accident, discovered their own personal set of stars right on top of the pond. The pathetic thing was that while Katara stood there in wonder at the whole thing, all Zuko could think about was just how much he’d lost.