❯ Zuko Was No Coward – Crumbling to Ashes ( Chapter 9 )

[ T - Teen: Not suitable for readers under 13 ]

The fire sputtered, sending up a cloud of smoke and ash. With a frustrated huff, Katara prodded the fire, attempting to coax it back to life. The air was cold and damp, penetrating bone and marrow and she wanted the damn fire to burn. She gave the dying fire one last vicious prod and it collapsed with a cough of ash. Knuckles whitened around the stick before it was cast down in exasperation. Katara rose to her feet, her eyes sweeping the campsite. She thought this was what she wanted. She thought she would be happy. Blue eyes rested on the pile of damp ash and tears welled. Maybe she was wrong. Maybe they were all wrong. The thought terrified her and she turned to flee only to stop short when Aang bound into the clearing, a bright smile on his face. He had grown over the years, filling out and maturing, but he was still carried by whims and games. He beamed at her and she felt her heart tighten and tears threaten. She closed her eyes to keep them back and Aang pressed a quick kiss to her lips, not seeming to notice there was no response.

�Did you get the fire going?�

She didn’t turn as he passed her. She wanted to choose her own destiny. They needed to talk. �Wet wood doesn’t burn.�

�Sure it does,� Aang replied cheerily. �I’m the Avatar!�

She turned at the wet splash just in time to see a small fire bloom. The concentration on Aang’s face would have been comical at any other time but Katara was in no mood to laugh. She folded her arms, watching as the fire grew smaller and gradually fizzled out. Aang tried a second and third time before Katara put a hand on his shoulder, speaking softly. �Wet wood doesn’t burn, Aang.�

Grey eyes turned to look up at her, brows drawing together in a small frown. �We just need to keep it dry. Waterbend with me.�

She looked away, avoiding his eyes. �And wear us both out? I can’t.�

A heavy silence fell over them and it seemed like hours before either of them moved. Aang rose, his face carefully blank and voice neutral when he finally spoke, �This isn’t about the fire any more, is it?�

Her fingers shook when she raised them to brush away a stray tear before turning to face him. She winced when she looked at him and dropped her eyes to her tangled fingers. �No.�

She heard him release a slow breath and recognized it as his attempt to calm his emotions and take a moment to gather thoughts. �How long?�

�I’m sorry, Aang, I tried��

�How long, Katara.�

She flinched, his voice hard and the words felt heavy. �Since�since the Reconstruction.�

�That was years ago, Katara!�

�Just two.�

�Just two? For La’s sake, Katara, you should’ve said something!�

�I didn’t want…� she trailed off, unable to find the right words. But Aang had no such troubles.

�Didn’t want what? Didn’t want to hurt me? Well, it hurts, Katara. Spirits. So what was this? A game? A chance to date the Avatar? A notch in your bedpost?�

�No! Aang, it was nothing like that!�

�I loved you!�

�I loved you, too,� she cried. �I loved you, don’t you understand? You were my best friend. You made me laugh. You were there.�

�Zuko was there, too! So were Haru and Teo! I suppose if Zuko had asked you would have gone with him instead?�

The gasp escaped her before she could stop it. �Don’t bring him into this. You loved me, that was enough.�

They stared at each other, Aang searching her face for something he didn’t appear to find. He frowned, grumbling, �Apparently not. You love him.�

She sniffled. �We go together like oil and water.�

Aang regarded her silently, his face flushed with anger and pain. Her tears seemed to pain him more and he looked away, fixing his gaze on the damp camp fire. �But oil on water burns.�

�If there’s a spark.� She offered a small smile. �Takes two to spark.�

He returned a halfhearted laugh though it ended in a grimace. �So what happens now? Do you want me to take you back?�

�Back where?�

�To your father.�

It was her turn to grimace and she quickly shook her head. �No. Take me to Ba Sing Se.�

�Ba Sing�are you running away?�

�Like you have any room to talk. I’ll see Iroh while I’m there.�

Katara bent to gather her pack as Aang turned to give the damp campfire a rueful look. He started when she turned to him, her eyes questioning and he flushed, wondering if she’d spoken. �I’m coming.�

She nodded slowly and shouldered her pack, watching as Aang turned back to the campfire. He released a sigh and, with a wave of his hand, drew water out of the ground and dumped it on the wood, turning away even before the task was complete. The wood hissed and spewed steam and smoke as solemn gray eyes met hers. �Let’s go.�

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The silence was thick and heavy as it stretched between them. Gold eyes watched each other, one frowning, the other apparently bored. With a steady hand, Zuko placed his cup back on the dining table and motioned for the servants to leave. Slanted gold eyes flickered with some kind of emotion too fast to understand before settling back into emotionless boredom. Mai calmly picked up a pair of chopsticks and resumed eating, unmindful of the young Fire Lord’s slow intake of breath. Another moment of silence passed before he spoke, �So, that’s it.�

It was more a statement than a question and Mai sighed. �What did you expect, Zuko?�

He scowled. �I expected more of an explanation that just…�

Words failed him and he made a sharp motion with his hand. Mai settled her chopsticks against her plate once more, apparently deciding that dinner was over. �You bore me.�

Zuko stared, mouth working soundlessly a moment before he found his voice. �I bore you? Are you ever not bored?�

Something like a smile tilted the corners of her mouth. �Yes.�

Just a single word answer, no other explanation. She folded her hands into her sleeves, back straight, posture perfect, waiting. Zuko rose, his movements rough as he tried to work out the energy building in him. After several minutes of pacing, he turned to her, starting abruptly, �You asked me once if I was cold��

She didn’t seem surprised that he wished to speak of something from so long ago. �I did.�

�I never answered.�

A thin eyebrow rose as she regarded him for a moment in silence. �It was a stupid question.�

He ignored her. �The answer is: Yes, I’m cold.�

�Firebenders don’t get cold, Zuko,� and the truth was, he had answered her then. She just hadn’t listened.

�They do,� he said sharply. He winced at his tone and softened his voice, �They do. You’re like heat lightning, Mai. One, bright flash of light in the dark and then nothing. No warmth, no comfort. Nothing. Heat lightning doesn’t even offer any light to see by.�

�Where are you going with this?�

He sensed he hurt her feelings and grimaced. He forced himself to breathe, to think. �You’re beautiful when you have emotion. You burn bright. You stir the fire in me. You stir it, but you don’t feed it.�

Silence descended on them, neither moving. Mai finally dropped her gaze to the table, reaching for her cup. She contemplated the contents of the cup before taking a small sip. Zuko watched in silence. She sighed, meeting his eyes once more. �Perhaps a better analogy would be the flash fire, then. Together, we burn hot and intense but, unable to feed it, we quickly end up a pile of smoking ash. The remnants of something that once was.�

He grimaced, looking away. �Perhaps speaking in analogies is more my uncle’s thing.�

She allowed a small smile, accepting the vague apology. �Perhaps. Zuko, I don’t love you. Not the real you, at least, and deep down you know it.�

It was brutal but she had never been one for beating around the bush. Zuko appeared to protest, but she quickly cut him off. �I’ve been told all my life that I’m to marry you. If you’re told something often enough, you end up believing it.�

His eyes narrowed. �So you’ve decided that because everyone says so, it must be a lie.�

�You know it is,� she snapped, her cool control on her emotions slipping for a brief moment.

�Five years, Mai.�

She took a deep breath, placing the cup back on the table and folding her napkin to place beside the nearly full plate of food, �I know.�

Zuko ran a hand over his hair, knocking the headpiece holding his hair in place loose. �I guess the only thing left is good bye.�

Mai nodded as she rose, gathering her skirts before smoothing them out again. She turned to leave, pausing at the door. �For the record, Fire Lord, I’m the one who broke up with you.�

Zuko Was No Coward – The Weight of Responsibility
Zuko Was No Coward – From The Ashes