The crowd that met out on in the royal gardens was much larger than the one that had been inside the room. Everyone on the palace staff was watching, including about a dozen Fire Sages who stood in a line at the front. The Head Sage held the Fire Lord’s crown in his hands; the woman who had called out to Aang appeared to be second in command, and she stood by the Head Sage’s side. The garden featured a wide open field which allowed Druk to sit comfortably in the middle with Azula on one side of him and Zuko on the other. Azula was standing with her arms wide, as if to make a show of just how brilliant she was at standing, while Zuko had a high-backed chair brought out for him. He sat fidgeting with his hands, not quite sure how to position them before deciding to simply fold them in his lap. At least he’d changed out of the Water Tribe gear now. His hair was done up in a topknot, ready to receive the crown once again. He closed his eyes for a moment and tried to relax.
I am the rightful Firelord. I’m only going to prove to everyone else what I already know.
He heard the crowd of witnesses whispering among themselves and opened his eyes to see that Aang and Katara were already standing next to him. He smiled at each of them. Aang smiled back, but Katara leaned in close.
“Just to make sure…” she whispered. “You really want to do this? I mean, there’s no secret alternate plan you haven’t told me about or anything?”
He suppressed a laugh. “No, I’m afraid this is all I’ve got. Thank you, Katara.”
“For what?” She furrowed her eyebrows, almost looking irritated at him for saying something so confusing. “I can’t think of one thing I did worth thanking me for.”
He shrugged. “You kept me going. I think that’s more than enough.”
The doubt on her face hardly left, but at least she realized she’d been leaning over him long enough that it was starting to look awkward. She straightened again and stepped in front of him, with Aang in between them. The Avatar reached out, putting his left hand on Zuko’s forehead and his right on Katara’s.
“I need both of you to be calm,” he said. “When the energy starts to shift, you need to let it flow without resisting. Otherwise–”
“I’m not resisting,” Katara asserted. No one answered her. Zuko had a feeling that it was him Aang was worried about, not Katara. Yet she acted like the one who had more to lose here. It was almost like by taking back her bloodbending, she was admitting some kind of failure. He wished he could show her that it wasn’t her bending that had saved him. It was her support and her friendship. He’d never been that great with words. But maybe, when this was all over, he’d find a way to explain it that made sense to her. Maybe even tell her that a part of him wished their friendship was something more.
At that moment, Zuko felt Aang’s fingers growing hot. The Avatar opened his eyes, a blaze of white light, and his arrow tattoos emitted the same glow. Whatever hesitation or guilt Katara might have felt, she let it go as she promised, closing her eyes and letting Aang pull the firebending from her body. At the same time, Zuko could feel his waterbending abilities fade. His tense muscles slackened as the bloodbending left him. His awareness of the bodies standing around him became blurred. Yet at the same time, an old and familiar sensation filled him. He remembered dancing alongside Ran and Shaw, the flaming cyclone of beautiful colors. His fire had returned. And he couldn’t help but smile.
Across the field, Azula looked… for lack of a better word, completely unhinged. “It’s a trick…” she said. “You didn’t really switch back. It’s an Avatar trick!”
Katara responded by snapping a water whip in her general direction. It didn’t get anywhere near her and Druk blew a puff of smoke as if the display annoyed him. Azula yelped as if she’d been bitten by a rabid fox-monkey.
“Restrain her!” she snapped, pointing at Katara. A group of guards rushed up to Katara, one of them pulling her hands behind her back while another bent to tie her legs together.
“Hey!” Zuko yelled. On instinct, he tried to use bloodbending to jump up and run to her defense. Only his body didn’t respond. He gritted his teeth in frustration, while Aang turned on Azula.
“What do you think you’re doing?” he demanded.
Azula laughed. “You think I don’t see what you’re up to, Avatar? Oh, that was clever, very clever to actually give back Zuzu’s firebending. But I’m not letting that water peasant manipulate the dragon. She’s staying still as a statue until this is over.” Two more figures stepped up to Katara now, and Zuko realized they were Dai Li agents. Each one bent a chunk of earth around one of Katara’s hands, then they fused the chunks together, making sure Katara couldn’t so much as twitch a muscle in her hands.
“It’s fine,” she said firmly. “I’m fine.”
Rage built inside Zuko. It was not at all fine. This wasn’t the plan they’d agreed to. But he couldn’t cause a scene here. Azula was already teetering on the edge of insanity. If he let himself slip too, then what? He was here to show he could control himself better than that.
Save it for the breath of fire, he reminded himself. The air he exhaled from his nostrils stung with a smoky heat.
The female Fire Sage glanced hesitantly between the two royal siblings, but stepped forward nonetheless. She bowed to Zuko first, then Azula. “Lady Azula,” she said, extending her hand. “Would you please display your firebending for us?”
Azula was all too happy to do so. She shot a quick barrage of blue fire blasts into the air, coupled with a spinning kick that sent out a circle of flame. It extended to Druk’s feet before it faded, and several people in the audience had to step back to avoid being singed. Finally, with an extra-wide grin, Azula sent bolt after bolt of lightning into the sky. Its white hot glow reflected off the walls of the palace as if the whole place was trapped in a storm cloud. Finally satisfied with her performance, Azula yanked her hands back and the lightning stopped. She panted with the effort, but the maniacal grin never left her face.
“Okay… Zuzu…” she said through short breaths. “Looks like… it’s your turn.”
The Fire Sage extended a hand to Zuko to indicate he should begin. Zuko pressed his lips together feeling genuinely afraid for the first time since he’d made his challenge. Druk had hardly turned away from Azula’s display. The dragon had actually cocked his head curiously as lightning had lit up the sky. What if he changed his mind and rejected Zuko after all?
No, I can’t think like that, Zuko reminded himself. There were too many people counting on him to give up now. Besides, this display wasn’t a contest. Not directly, anyway. He didn’t have to upstage Azula, couldn’t no matter how much he wanted it, and it was going to end badly for him if he tried. He inhaled deeply and breathed out again, recalling the first time Iroh had taught him about the breath of fire. They’d been hiking up a mountain, Zuko still on his hunt for the Avatar, his scar fresh enough that he still turned his face when he knew people were looking at it. Azula had never felt cold like he had felt on that mountain. The fire hadn’t been a weapon then. It’d been heat and life. Zuko smiled, merging these happy memories with the memories of all the dragon’s beautiful colors of fire. He could do this.
Once more, he drew a long deep breath, then blew out a blast of fire. The flames were bigger than he ever expected. And there was not only orange fire, but hints of green and flecks of purple, too. His face felt warm and the taste of smoke lingered on his tongue. He felt like a dragon.
“Um… that was…” the Fire Sage stuttered. She didn’t get to say much else. Druk gave a fantastic roar and walked over to Zuko’s side. He circled the chair several times, like he was thinking of making a nest there and finally laid down with his body circling the chair’s legs. His long, lean muzzle reached up and nudged against Zuko’s cheek before he put his head down to relax on his crossed arms.
“This… this is impossible!” Azula yelled. “It’s another trick! You can’t possibly pick Zuko over me!” She ran towards the dragon in a jagged, uncoordinated motion. Druk lifted his head and snuffed a warning plume of smoke in her direction. She stopped and coughed, waving it off.
“You’re just like Mother!” she shrieked. “Why would you take a weakling like him? Are you afraid of me, is that it? Am I too strong for you, you stupid beast?”
Druk narrowed his eyes. Done with warnings, he stood up and lowered his head. He charged at her, his head colliding with her side and threw her up into the air. She screamed and just barely managed to use a fire blast to stop herself from face-planting in the garden grass.
“I think we’ve seen enough!” the Head Sage announced. He walked up to Zuko and lifted the crown above his head. “Long live Firelord Zuko!”
The phrase echoed throughout the crowd. The entire group of them bowed low. The soldiers who had restrained Katara backed away as Aang broke her hands out of the stone bonds. Then she and Aang joined in with the applause of the crowd. Azula collapsed into a heap, crying and moaning, but this time, no one turned to listen to her.
The next few days were far from easy for Zuko. Katara could read it all over his face. For one thing, he ultimately had to have Azula restrained and sent to an asylum. He told Katara that giving the order felt like cutting his hand open. Azula was his family. His father was imprisoned, his mother was who knew where… it felt like he should have been able to do something to save his sister. But until he could do that, he had to at least keep for safe. For now, that meant keeping her safe from herself.
As far as Katara could tell, that conversation had been the most honest talk he’d had with her since re-taking the throne. And it drove her insane.
Today was no different. It was late evening, and Zuko had been having meetings with mayors and chiefs and waves knew who else without even so much as a syllable being gruff or short. It was a huge act, and Katara knew it, but she had no clue what to do about it.
“Hey there,” a voice said from behind her.
Katara yelped. She’d hadn’t even noticed anyone standing nearby, let alone anyone walking up to her. “Mai?” she said when she whirled around to see who had spoken. “What are you doing here?”
Mai turned her nose up in disgust. “Seriously? You think just because Zuko and I aren’t dating that I don’t care about him anymore?”
“No, no,” Katara said, desperately holding up her hands in defense, “I just thought… I’m sorry.”
Mai sighed. She was hugging herself, watching Zuko from afar as he chatted up the various dignitaries. There was a pained looked to her eyes, but Katara didn’t immediately think it came from any romance woes. “Listen,” Mai said quietly. “Does Zuko talk to you? I mean, really talk?”
“Huh?” Katara blushed. “Well, yeah, we talk to each other, but–”
“Don’t beat around the bush with me. It’s annoying.” Mai nodded towards a quieter corner of the room, where they would be out of earshot. “Listen,” she said. “I’ve met with Zuko twice since the group of you took down Azula. He talks to me just like he does all those idiots from the Earth Kingdom and the Water Tribe.”
“Oh, really?” Katara said, crossing her arms so that her Water Tribe necklace looked even more prominent than it usually did. “And how does he talk to ‘those idiots’?”
A look of pain flooded Mai’s face. “Like nothing is wrong.”
Katara felt instantly uncomfortable. “I don’t see why I would be any different,” she said. “I mean, if anything he’s worse with that around me. He knows how guilty I feel about not being able to heal him.”
“Then snap out of it and stop being so selfish.”
“Selfish?” Okay, this conversation had left Katara officially confused. She’d given it her all trying to heal Zuko. It ate away at her that she’d failed him. How in the cold, icy tundra did that make her selfish?
“Selfishness doesn’t mean you don’t care about others,” Mai said. “It means you think too much of yourself. Right now you’re thinking how much you want to be this great hero for Zuko. You’re not, and you’re upset about it. You’re not thinking about what he really needs right now.”
Katara had had enough of this. Things around here were frustrating enough as it was without Mai rubbing all of Katara’s raw emotions right in her face. “Okay, then, if you’re so insightful, tell me what he needs right now.”
She kept the snark level high, but in truth, she mentally begged Mai to give her an honest answer. Because she could tell as well as anyone that Zuko was putting up walls. And because she feared that if someone didn’t break those walls down soon, they’d be up for the rest of his life.
“He needs someone he can be honest with,” Mai said. “Someone he can cry in front of.”
Katara’s hands tightened into fists. Of course, she wanted Zuko to be honest with her, but she also wanted to give him his space. If this conversation was just going to be her and Mai exchanging statements of the obvious, she might as well walk away from it right now.
“You know,” said Mai. “He wanted so much to hide everything from me. Tried a bunch of different excuses to get me to walk with him during the coronation without actually telling me what was wrong.”
“Oh.” Katara wasn’t sure what to reply. “That’s rough”? It sounded moronic. Thankfully, Mai kept talking without any more prompting from Katara.
“To be honest, when my uncle got me out of prison, I was thinking of getting back together with him. I knew that everything he’d done, he’d done out of his love of the Fire Nation. And even if he was an idiot for leaving me with a note…”
“He broke up with you with a note?” Katara said.
Mai rolled her eyes. “He’s not the brightest spark when it comes to romance, all right? The point was, I was ready to forgive all that. But then he kept trying to keep his secrets from me again. And I knew then it wasn’t going to work. He loved his secrets more than me.”
The silence between them was painful. Katara could start to hear some of the dignitaries talking, even though they were far down the hall.
“So… how did you get him to explain?” Katara asked. “About the bloodbending, I mean?”
To this, Mai smiled. “Trust me, there’s ways of getting Zuko to talk. And right now, I’m just about desperate enough to give you some pointers.”
Katara nodded, fully aware of how much it had to hurt Mai to be talking to her. Even so, she’d take all the advice she could get.