Funny, Zuko assumed after having his bending switched around twice now, the third time the sensation wouldn’t be nearly so strange. It was still pretty unsettling. But this time around, it was also comforting. The strange presence of the lightning he had been clawing at the back of his brain suddenly left him, and it was replaced with a familiar force. In an instant, Zuko became aware of Katara and Aang standing next to him, could sense their breathing, their heartbeats. And he could sense his own as well.
“So?” Aang asked anxiously once he’d pulled himself back from the Avatar state. “Did it work?”
Zuko and Katara both stared at each other, each of them too nervous to be the one to try out their powers first. It was Katara who finally caved. She motioned and pulled some water from the skin at her side, swirling it into same pretty-looking shapes before returning it to its place. Then she took a deep breath and pointed two fingers towards the ceiling. Sparks of light danced along her fingertips and she directed a small bolt of lightning out the open window.
Zuko grinned, feeling more confident now. He could sense all the muscles in his body, just as he could when he was a full waterbender, and now he had the experience to know how to use them. With considerable focus, he motioned with his fingers, causing one shaking hand to rise. He held it open to create a small flame.
“Incredible,” Katara breathed, her voice cracking a bit. “You’re doing it, Zuko! What about walking? Can you walk?”
As if that hadn’t been the first thought on his mind. Zuko extinguished the flame and flexed his fingers, turning his concentration to the muscles in his legs. He gripped the chair’s arms and slowly stood up, feeling like he was yanking a heavy weight out of quicksand. But he was succeeding. He started to put one foot forward, but quickly realized it was a bit too much. He stumbled forward, right into Katara’s arms.
“Sorry,” he said, cheeks blazing. “I guess a week of not practicing messed me up. I’ll get back into it in a few days, I’m sure.” He straightened up, still unsteady on his feet, and Katara held his hand as he sat back in his chair again.
“Right,” she said, and he could have sworn her cheeks looked just as red as his felt. “I’m sure you will. But it’s… it’s amazing, isn’t it? We’re the first two people besides the Avatar who’ve been able to bend more than one element.”
So what? That means some part of me is a waterbender again?
The thrill that had filled Zuko a few seconds ago was quickly starting to fade. “Okay, I hate to be the pessimist here–”
“What are you talking about?” Aang asked. “You’re always the pessimist. I think it’s part of your Fire Nation royal duties for something.”
Zuko rolled his eyes. “I’m not saying I’m unhappy that you did this. Aang, I’m thrilled.” He broke into a smile, quite without meaning to. “But how exactly do I explain this to the palace staff? Are they going to think I’m betraying them again?”
“Maybe you don’t have to tell them what really happened,” Katara said. “Maybe we can say you got healed somehow.”
“What? When none of you could heal me before? Don’t you think that will sound a bit strange?”
It would, and they all knew it. He could see it on their faces. But he could also see that Aang didn’t give into pessimism as easily as he did.
“Well, you could say you had a little extra help. Maybe some special healing water that you didn’t have before.”
“Katara told me the Spirit Oasis water wouldn’t work,” Zuko said. “That I’ve been injured too long.”
“Yeah, but no one else knows that.” Aang shrugged. “Look, all I’m saying is that officially you do have some representatives from the Northern Water Tribe here for peace talks. They could officially bring you a gift that could officially be water from the Spirit Oasis.”
Zuko stared, jaw slack at Aang for a few silent moments. “I can’t believe the high-and-mighty Avatar Aang is suggesting I lie.”
“It’s… been a weird week,” Aang allowed.
Zuko would give him that. It wasn’t the ideal solution. But he’d seen how much the concept of bloodbending had terrified Azula. Maybe it was something the world just wasn’t ready for yet.
“I’ll arrange something,” Katara said. “You can make one of your official Firelord-y announcements tomorrow.”
For a moment, she just stood and stared at him, her expression unreadable. She was happy, he could tell that much. But she might have been ready to cry or jump up and down yelling like a toddler for all he knew. Suddenly, she threw her arms around his neck. Zuko gasped. His fingers twitched, and slowly and carefully, he brought his arms around her and returned the embrace.
“What’s… this about?” he asked, fully aware of the fact that Aang was still in the room.
“Nothing,” she said, pressing her face against his. “Just that I’m happy for you.” She pulled away, and Zuko observed that yes, her face was wet with tears. It wasn’t anything for her to be embarrassed about, though. His face was just the same.
Eleven years later (111 AG)
Zuko walked slowly down the narrow streets of Republic City, though “city” was a fairly generous term. A collection of buildings that he and Kuei had drawn an arbitrary line around felt like a better description. Every street had multiple names, and people often huddled together in their own little groups, despite the diversity of the city as a whole. Even so, the place breathed with potential, with hope for an amazing future. It was crazy how much could change in just a little over a decade. For first time since they’d become friends, Zuko felt like he had a tiny glimpse of what missing a hundred years of history must have felt like to Aang.
Most of the changes were good, of course. The founding of a new government, built in a space of land that housed peoples from every nation. The peace of Earth Kingdom and Water Tribe citizens seeing the Fire Nation as an ally, not a threat. And of course, the re-birth of the Air Nation. But that was the part that held bittersweet tones for Zuko.
He wasn’t quite sure how it had happened; how Katara had slipped so far away from him. He’d made honest efforts to stay in touch with her, and for years, she’d reciprocated just fine. Flames, even after his numerous attempts to ask her out, she still at least talked to him. Always the same answer to his question, of course. That their being together would endanger his position on the throne. She had only managed to push him away when she’d announced that she and Aang were a couple now. Soon after that, Mai had suggested getting back together. The timing was almost eerie. If Zuko didn’t know any better, he would have said the girls had plotted the whole thing behind his back.
So our lives went in different directions, he thought. That’s no reason for Katara to suddenly cut off contact with me. It had happened about a year ago, not long after Aang and Katara’s wedding, in fact. Zuko wracked his brain trying to think of something he had said or done that had offended her. Aang had assured him that he’d done nothing of the sort, but hadn’t invited him over, either.
Maybe the death of Hakoda is still weighing on her. Zuko stopped in front of Republic City Hall and sighed. The great symbol of everything he and Aang had helped build. And now here he was trying to interfere with the diplomatic process he’d fought so hard for.
It’s for Izumi, he reminded himself. And with that, he pushed the heavy doors open and walked inside. He found his way to the council room easily enough. Impressively, of all the people there, only Katara looked shocked to see him.
“Good evening, fellow councilmen. I assume you were all informed of my arrival?” Zuko said as he entered the large meeting room. He was met mostly with polite nods from the rest of the United Republic Council.
Katara got over her shock and narrowed her eyes. She looked like she’d aged a decade since he last saw her. “And why isn’t our regular representative from the Fire Nation here?”
“I seem to recall that as the ruler of the Fire Nation, I have the authority to reassign who’s representing it here.” He took a seat in the vacant chair and folded his hands, emanating calm. It couldn’t appear to the rest of the council that he had made this move out of emotion. No matter how true that was. “Now, you’ll be happy to know that I’ve already fully reviewed the law up for vote today.”
“Then, if you don’t mind,” the acolyte representing the Air Temple said, “please, summarize it in front of us.”
Zuko smiled, not out of kindness, but out of amusement. He’d read that law so many times the past few nights, he could recite it. Katara probably guessed as much too, but she sat back and said nothing, waiting for his summary. Zuko cleared his throat.
“Very well. The proposal is that any citizens under the authority of this council found to be bloodbending, either themselves or others–”
“Why would someone bloodbend himself?” the Earth Kingdom representative cut in.
Zuko had to bite his lip to keep from laughing. “I’m quite sure I don’t know, councilman. I’m simply stating that the wording of this proposal outlaws the act of bloodbending itself, with no specifications as to who is the bloodbender’s target.”
The Earth Kingdom representative conceded this and Zuko continued, “–should be immediately arrested and sentenced to a minimum of thirty years in prison.” It took everything in him to keep his voice calm on those last words. “So then, has the council discussed all the possible ramifications of this law in its current form?”
“We have,” Katara said, nearly cutting him off. “It would put a number of well-known criminals in prison. Including the man who killed my father.”
Hakoda was murdered? Zuko felt his blood run cold. It can’t be. Is that why she wrote this law?
“Please forgive my prying,” the Earth Kingdom representative said. “But I thought your father was killed in a fishing accident.”
For the first time since the meeting had begun, Sokka spoke up. His voice was quiet, and Zuko was surprised at how steady he was able to keep it. “We have reason to believe foul play was involved. But if, as we suspect, the bloodbender controlled our father into making a careless move on that boat… well, there’s not much we can do to prove our theory.”
Zuko gritted his teeth. So this was it. The piece of information he’d been missing. Of course she’d stopped talking to him. She knew he would try to argue her out of this ridiculous law. He might have been able to even now, if he could get her alone. But now, with all these people around, he was helpless.
He had to move forward with care. Professionalism. He was the Firelord, and he would still do what he came here for. “The death of your father is certainly tragic,” Zuko said. “You and your sister,” he nodded in Katara’s direction, “have nothing but my deepest sympathies. But, if I may offer to the council, murder is already quite illegal. This villain could be prosecuted under our current law just as–”
Katara stood up and pounded the table. “Bloodbending is what allowed it to look like an accident. Bloodbending is what let him get away!”
The harshness of her voice snapped something inside him. Everything he’d planned to say instantly faded from his mind. “And you’ll let your anger blind you to what you’re about to do here! Have you considered that this law not only places no limits on the bloodbender’s target, but also on his or her age?” He narrowed his eyes. She had to get it. Had to understand what was at stake here, even without him spelling it out. “You would seriously put a child who used bloodbending behind bars until they’re middle-aged? How does that honor your father, Katara?”
For a moment, the meeting room was covered in a deathly silence. No one moved. The air acolyte cleared his throat. “I think perhaps we should take a short recess before we vote,” he said. “We certainly have a lot to think about.” He looked to the other representatives for approval. Sokka nodded, as did the Earth Kingdom representative. They both exited quickly, probably anxious to get out of the tense room and into the fresh air. The acolyte, however, hesitated before leaving.
“I notice your hands twitch quite a bit,” he said to Zuko. “Every time you move, it seems. Are you all right?”
“Just fine,” Zuko replied. “It’s a nervous habit I picked up some time ago. I certainly hope it doesn’t offend you.”
The acolyte shook his head and finally, he too walked out the door. No one remained in the silent empty room but himself and Katara.
“So…” she said quietly. “It’s been a while.”
And whose fault is that? “It has,” he agreed.
Katara shifted her feet. “How is everything going with the dragon preserve? I heard good things about–”
“Ren’s doing a brilliant job. Sends me updates now and again. Pictures of the dragons. Or Sien.” He wanted to say so much more. Not the least of which was, why is someone I only met once keeping in better contact with me than you? But none of that would help heal things.
“I’m sorry I yelled,” he finally said. “That was out of place.”
She nodded. Probably as much of an admission that she was also in the wrong as he would get right now. “What do you want?” she asked.
Where do I start? “I want a lot of things, Katara. I want to know why you stopped talking to me for a year. Why you lied to me about what happened to your father.” His throat tightened, struggling to imagine all the pain she must have felt the past twelve months. His fingers flexed as he used bloodbending to lift his hand towards her. She jerked away.
“You know why,” she said.
He was about to answer then no, he obviously didn’t have a clue why, or he wouldn’t have been asking her. Then she watched her eyes fall to his hands. He moved his fingers, releasing the bending’s grip and letting his arm drop to his side. Katara shuddered at the sight.
“It… bothers you, doesn’t it?” he said quietly. “Watching me bloodbend reminds you of him?”
She nodded, pressing a hand over her lips, closing her eyes as she willed herself not to let any tears fall. For a brief moment, Zuko felt pity for her. But then that pity turned to anger.
“So, what? Now I should be thrown in jail for three decades because someone else used bloodbending to hurt your family?”
“Zuko, stop it!” she scoffed, as if he was the only one being dramatic here. “You know perfectly well I don’t want anything to happen to you.”
“Then strike this stupid law down.” He held his wrists out as if expecting her to bind them. “Or arrest me right now for the heinous crime of walking across the room.”
Katara glanced around. They were still alone, and he’d used the word “bloodbending” several times already. If someone was listening in, they would have reacted long before now. “You’ve hidden that secret for years,” Katara said in a hushed tone. “And everyone’s seen you firebend countless times. No one could possibly suspect you of being a bloodbender too.”
It’s not me I’m worried about. Zuko bit his lip. She hadn’t picked up on his hint earlier. Time to try the direct approach.
“Katara,” he said, his voice just as quiet as hers. “My daughter can bloodbend. She inherited it from me.”
Her eyes widened at first, then immediately narrowed. “You’re lying. Izumi’s four years old.”
“I’m not lying. I’m telling you, she’s done it. To the servants, to her mother.” He clenched his fists. “She can’t do it to me, though goodness knows she’s tried.” Katara’s expression became more and more hardened, her sympathy more and more faded as he went on. Zuko tried desperately to backtrack. “Look, she doesn’t mean anything by it. I don’t even think she does it consciously. She just… she wants someone to do something, and instead of trying to grab them by the arm or the leg like any normal child would do, she bloodbends.”
Katara’s voice came out stiff and quiet. “Full moon only?”
“For now, yes.”
He didn’t like the hardened look on Katara’s face. Still, he held out hope. She had to understand. If Aang had not switched their powers, it could be one of her children going through this. Surely she could see how dangerous this law was, how many people it could hurt.
“Zuko,” she said, genuine sympathy to her voice. “I’m so sorry. The last thing I wanted was for my bending to hurt your family again. But you’re not thinking clearly. If you’re telling me the truth, Izumi is dangerous. She could really hurt you–”
Zuko raised his eyebrow.
“Fine, she couldn’t hurt you. But what happens when Mai tries to discipline her? What happens if Bumi comes to visit and steals a toy from her? What happens when she gets angry at them?”
Zuko’s throat tightened. This wasn’t how this conversation was supposed to go. Katara was just supposed to see that he was right and let the matter drop. Her making a convincing counterargument hadn’t factored into his plans.
“The law might need some work, I admit,” Katara went on. “But you can’t pretend that Izumi can be around normal people with a power like that. It’s asking for a disaster.” She placed a hand on his shoulder, voice even lower now. “Come back to Air Temple Island. Maybe Aang can help her–”
“Make her a nonbender, you mean?” Zuko yanked his shoulder out of her grip.
Katara looked insulted. “Well, yes. What’s wrong with that? Sokka is a nonbender. So is Suki. So is–”
“Do you know how many assassination attempts there have been on me, Katara?”
She opened her mouth and stuttered a bit, clearly not expecting him to take the conversation in that direction. “I don’t know,” she finally said, looking uncomfortable. “What’s that got to do with it?”
“There’s been fifteen. Do you know how I’ve avoided most of them?”
Katara rolled her eyes. “I guess you’re going to tell me that it’s with that… whatever you call it.”
“Bloodsensing. And, yes, it’s saved my life many times. Someday Izumi’s abilities might save her.” His throat tightened. The thought of anyone trying to hurt his little girl always made it hard to breathe, but as the Firelord, he had to be aware of the possibility. Surely Katara could see that. “You’re a parent, too. If you knew, knew for a fact that someone wanted to hurt Bumi, wouldn’t you want him to be armed with whatever he could use to defend himself?”
She didn’t answer. Whether because she was too frustrated or too proud, he couldn’t say. So he kept pushing her. “Arrest people for real crimes, Katara. If someone hurts or steals or kills using bloodbending, then by all means, prosecute them. But don’t drag innocents into–”
“Bloodbending violates a person’s free will,” Katara snapped back. “It’s a crime in every sense of the word.” She turned her back on him. “Or at least, it will be after I vote today. Don’t say I didn’t offer my help.”
“Fine then!” Zuko yelled. Anger and disappointment filled his thoughts, barely letting him think straight. Let Katara do what she wanted. His family came before her. He would help his daughter learn to control herself. He would keep her and himself out of the public eye as much as possible. He would make it work. “My only defense is to keep my family as far from Republic City as possible,” he said, his voice just as cold as hers. “Consider the Fire Nation your ally in name only.”
Katara didn’t answer. He hadn’t expected her to, at this point. Not when she’d already made her position so perfectly clear. The old relationship he’d known with Katara had faded away. But somewhere, something in him hoped that the tension between them would fade, too. Maybe, some day, they could be friends again.