DISCLAIMER: I do not own Avatar: The Last Airbender.
A/N: A bit of a warning, this chapter deals with heavier stuff than what's usual for this fic. We're about to go into Zuko's complicated family, so it's bound to get a bit fucked up. It's not exactly graphic or too emotionally explorative— I didn't write it in a way that would trigger me, but still, the trigger warning stands because you never know what would push a person towards the deep end. If you have experienced or are currently experiencing symptoms of depression or anxiety, please seek professional help as soon as you can.
CHAPTER 19: Open Book
The house is empty when they arrive from Roku's Academy in the late afternoon.
"Did your brother text you where they went?" asks Zuko, rummaging through the fridge for a drink. Walking around campus in the dry island weather has left him parched.
Katara checks her phone with a furrow in her brow.
"Yes… no. He just said, 'Sis, Toph and I are gonna check out the sights. Or at least I will. LOL, get it? Anyways, good luck on the interview at the snooty place, don't yell at the dean and don't kill Zuko.'"
Zuko huffs, cracking open a bottle of water. "Glad to know he's concerned for my safety."
"So we all agree I can kill you, then?" Katara jokes dryly, leaning against the counter beside him.
Zuko snorts. "Sure, but not today. I think I've reached my daily limit on dealing with girls who can kill me."
His awkward joke falls flat and Katara's teasing look is replaced with concern.
"You know, if you wanna talk about what happened with Mai…" she shrugs, tugging on a lock of stray hair that crept over her shoulder. "I'm here."
Zuko sighs, shaking his head and averting his gaze. "What's there to talk about?"
"Look, I'm not going to pretend I know you that well," Katara steps hesitantly into his line of vision, "but you seemed pretty shaken up when you saw her, and you were quieter than normal afterwards, like you were thinking really hard about something." She holds up her palms appeasingly. "Maybe talking about it would help."
He frowns at his shoes before meeting her eyes resolutely. Soft blue meets hard gold and Zuko decides this is a conversation he wants to have, but…
"I don't know where to start."
"That's fine, Zuko," Katara takes his hand and sits him down at the table before settling down beside him. "Um. How long were you and Mai together?"
"Four years, give or take a few months," Zuko replies tersely, his hand curling into a fist under hers. "We worked in the family business together— she was in Legal with my sister."
She hums thoughtfully, smoothing her thumb over his knuckles. It takes her a few moments of speculative silence before she ventures another question.
"Before, you said you broke up with her because she wanted you to become someone you're not. Did… did that have something to do with you disagreeing with your dad?"
"I can't believe you remember that," Zuko says, impressed. "I thought you were drunk on game night."
"I was, but I wasn't as wrecked as Toph or Sokka," Katara rolls her eyes at him. "Anyway, was that what happened? Did she side with your dad?"
"Kind of," he runs a hand through his hair, "It's complicated."
"My sister was involved." His mouth curls into a bitter smile. "I guess my relationship with Mai just got caught in the middle of it all, but she was Azula's best friend, and the way she acted…"
Zuko shakes his head.
"Try to understand, my sister and I were brought up in a competitive environment. It was sort of expected that we'd all work for the company, but there was always some rivalry between my immediate family and Uncle's."
"Your uncle? Iroh was part of this?"
"He's my father's older brother. Before, Uncle was… just like him. He used to be the company chairman, and he was… strict, to say the least. He worked people to the bone, and he didn't tolerate the slightest bit of imperfection. But then Lu Ten…"
He gulps, and Katara tightens her hold on him. "Who's Lu Ten?"
"My cousin; Uncle Iroh's son. He was Chief of Operations when I was starting out at the company, and I worked under him. I… I don't think he wanted to. Work there, I mean. He was always applying for vacation leaves but they never pushed through, and he always complained that he didn't have a life outside the office anymore, but Uncle— Uncle pushed and pushed, and he didn't listen to his own son and even Father said Lu Ten was just looking for an excuse to slack off, but then—" a shadow passes over his face— "but then, well, Lu Ten died. Heart attack from stress and overwork. He was just a couple of years older than I am now."
"Oh, Zuko," Katara throws her arms around his middle. "I'm so sorry."
He doesn't even try to disentangle himself from her, too caught up in the wave of memories. Now that the can of worms has been opened, he doesn't seem capable of containing it, so he just lets the words flow.
"Uncle resigned after that, too heartbroken to even function— I was the only one who visited him at that time, not even his own brother could be bothered to check on him. I always told Uncle that Father was just busy, that he still cared but just had too much on his plate— see, Father took over after Uncle quit. It was only a few weeks after he became the chairman when he offered me Lu Ten's position.
"After that, I stopped visiting Uncle."
Zuko's mouth curls in apparent self-disgust, and Katara holds him tighter in response.
"I believed my father when he said Uncle's resignation was a sign of weakness, that quitting was the dishonorable thing to do. I believed him when he said it was Lu Ten's fault for not being strong enough. I agreed with him at the time— honestly, back then, I agreed with him on anything, just because I wanted his approval so much. That's why I was surprised that he even offered me the job; that's why I accepted it immediately. He always favored Azula, and to even be considered for the position… It was everything I wanted, but I still felt like I had to prove myself to him even more."
Zuko shrugs half-heartedly.
"I guess Azula felt the same need to prove herself. She wasn't used to being shoved to the sidelines— she was always at the top of her class and graduated early, whereas I wouldn't even have gotten into Roku's without Uncle coaching me. She must've felt cheated— Father never even paid attention to me before, unless it was to point out what a disappointment I was. Even I expected Azula would get a better position in the company than I would. So when she wasn't given the promotion— of course she blamed me and did everything she could to make my life a living hell at the office. I wasn't surprised, since she'd always been like that, but…
"But then Mai and I got together, and even though we didn't plan it and it just happened, it… affected Azula so much that it pushed her from fiercely competitive to just plain… manic."
He closes his eyes and brings his hand up to massage his temples.
"She threw herself into this difficult project— I guess she thought that if she could succeed in something that no one else could do, she'd get Father's attention and undermine me in one move. I tried to convince her not to go through with it, because the project was just too half-baked, but she's Azula— of course she'd think I was just trying to stop her brilliant plan. In the end, it didn't matter what I said or did."
"What happened?" Katara prompts when his silence stretched a little too long.
Zuko buries his face in his hands, the rest of his story coming out muffled.
"The project failed. Spectacularly. It shouldn't have even begun in the first place, but Azula managed to convince Father that the expansion was good for the company even though it was a clear failure from the get-go. And Father just allowed it to happen. And when I objected and suggested we hold a consultation with the stakeholders first, he didn't even intervene. It was as if he enjoyed pitting us against each other— like it was some test to see who would be better as the future head of the company."
His hands clench into his hair and he continues in a harried tone.
"I tried my best to mitigate the issues that cropped up afterwards— there was a lot of bad press, protests outside the office, shareholders and investors pulling out, the regulatory board conducting an investigation into our operations. It was so hard to keep it all under control— and just when things were starting to calm down... he fired Azula. Just like that. No prior notice, no administrative hearing. He just said she was no longer of use to the company because of how badly she miscalculated."
He closes his eyes, his mind filled with images of his sister's face, blank and betrayed and broken. He had never seen her so vulnerable since they were just children— but Azula was Azula, and she always lies, most of all to herself.
He snaps his eyes open at the memory of her bloody hands and her tear-streaked face.
"It was wrong," he breathes out, unable to stop barreling on. "It was sick and wrong, and when I told Mai how I felt about it, she just told me Azula deserved what she got— how could anyone deserve that? How could someone say that about a person they practically grew up with? It reminded me so much of how my father dismissed Lu Ten's death as a sign of weakness, how he didn't even visit Uncle when he was grieving. Would Mai do that to me, too? Cast me aside once I'm broken and tell everyone else that I deserved it somehow?"
He has the sudden urge to punch something, to destroy something, to just let all feelings take over, because there's that small voice in his head again telling him that he shouldn't have opened up like this, that he's just being dramatic, that no one had asked him to share his whole life story—
But Katara's arms are still tight around him, and somehow, inexplicably, that makes all the difference.
He lets his arms drop heavily on the table, staring straight ahead, beyond the patio and into the sea. He inhales deeply, unsure of how to continue.
Katara picks up on his hesitation.
"Where's your sister now?"
Zuko takes a steadying breath and lets it out slowly.
"She's… she's in a psychiatric ward. I... haven't visited her much since I left home, but I just take comfort in the fact that she's in a place where she can't hurt herself and she doesn't have to see Father."
Even though she still sees Mom everywhere.
He feels Katara nod against his shoulder and he internally flinches. Despite every ounce of compassion she's shown, he can't help but wonder if he'd said too much. She just asked about Mai— did she really want to know about how truly fucked up his family was? Had he rambled on too much and ruined things? Was she bored from his stories? He hadn't meant to talk so much about Azula—
"I'd love to meet her."
Zuko actually jerks out of her grasp in surprise.
"Sorry!" Her eyes are wide, scared. Why is she scared? "I'm sorry. I don't mean to overstep, I know I tend to meddle sometimes; Toph gives me hell for it, but— you really seem to care about your sister, even though your relationship was complicated— and— and, well, it couldn't be easy being around someone from your past, so if you ever need support when you visit her— um, all I'm saying is—" She groans into her hand, blushing to the roots of her hair, "Zuko, you shouldn't go through that alone. No one should."
Zuko blinks at her for a few moments as she fidgets, not really meeting his gaze.
Finally, he speaks. "You really think that?"
She meets his eyes with a slight furrow in her brow, her eyes soft, so soft that it sends flutters down his stomach.
"Of course, Zuko. It's what friends do, you know." She smiles at him gently, and the flutters in his stomach intensify as he feels heat spreading across his cheeks.
Is it possible to feel so vulnerable and so brave at the same time?
Katara slowly reaches up and places a warm hand on the scarred side of his face.
"I'm sorry your family had to go through all that," she murmurs, her fingers shaking a little against his scarred skin. "And I'm glad you left, even though it must've been so hard. If… if you don't mind me asking…"
Zuko releases the breath he didn't realize he was holding. He closes his eyes and places a hand over hers, leaning into her touch.
"I told you my father doesn't like it when people went against him. So when I confronted him about Azula…" He closes his eyes and squeezes her hand. "He took it as a sign of utmost disrespect. If I was weak enough to defend someone who was clearly not fit to be in the company, then I might as well join them. Apparently, it also meant I wasn't fit to be part of the family, either."
Katara gasps, her other hand reaching up as well to frame his face. "Zuko— he disowned you?"
He just nods and closes his eyes, not wanting to elaborate any further on the topic with the bile rising in his throat, but he continues doggedly, "He's always been abusive. It's why Mom left. He always took out his anger on us— made us feel like everything that went wrong in his life was our fault somehow— so when he… when he… When I confronted him, I expected him to lash out. I thought I was prepared, I thought I could handle him, but…"
"Zuko," Katara's hands tighten around his face. "You don't have to tell me if you don't want to."
He locks eyes with her resolutely. There's that feeling again— like he's split his soul wide open and he couldn't stop until he's dug through every crevice.
"No— no, I want to," I have to. I have to, otherwise it would eat me up inside and I'd become as rotten and hollow as him. "He— he was drunk when I confronted him— doesn't excuse what he did, but everything's a blur— he called me ungrateful and told me if he had his way I never would've been born— I told him what he did to his own daughter, what he did to all of us, wasn't strength, it was just plain cruelty— but he just laughed in my face and asked me if I have ever seen true cruelty before."
He's shaking. He's shaking and the smell of burning hair and the feeling of blister-riddled skin makes him want to vomit.
"I should have fought him— I could have fought him, but I was so afraid I froze— it was like I was a child again and he was beating Mom up in the next room. Except I was in Mom's shoes and I finally understood why she never fought back." A deep, shuddering breath. Don't throw up. "Next thing I know he'd pressed my face against the embers in his fireplace— I snapped out of it enough to throw him off me, but—"
"It was too late, I was always too late, I couldn't protect anyone, not Mom, not Azula, not even myself— because he always wins, and nothing I did could ever change how he is—"
"Zuko, look at me—"
"He was right, I'm just weak and useless and nothing I do could ever matter—"
He doesn't know how his face ended up mashed against her shoulder, hands clutching the back of her clothes like a lifeline. Distantly, he feels one of her hands tracing soothing circles over his back, the other cradling the back of his head. His heart has yet to slow down, and every word from her sounds muffled, as though she's talking to him when he's underwater.
"It's okay, it's okay. You're here, I'm with you. He's not here, he won't hurt you now. It's going to be okay, Zuko."
The whole situation feels familiar, the dull sense of panic washing over him, but he doesn't feel like he's drowning this time.
"Breathe. Just breathe, Zuko. It's going to be okay. You're not alone in this."
Part of him wants to tell her he's always been alone in everything he did, that maybe it's better that way, but there's a lump in his throat that makes it hard to speak, so he just holds her tighter before pulling away almost painfully.
She searches his face carefully, her blue, blue eyes filled with so much emotion that the lump in his throat dissolves against his will and a single tear leaks out of his eye.
"Sorry," he mutters, wiping it away almost angrily.
She just smiles at him again with that soft smile.
"You have nothing to apologize for, Zuko."
She lightly traces the tear track with her thumb.
"You don't have to apologize for being human."
Zuko blinks at her. What in the world does he say to that?
"How…" he stutters. "I'm sorry. I— I don't—"
"It's no problem." Katara brushes his hair from his eyes, still smiling gently. "I'm really glad you trusted me enough to tell me all of this, Zuko."
"Sorry," he says again. Why can't he stop apologizing? "I don't know why I did, but…"
She nods to his unsaid words.
"I hope you know… what you did was the opposite of a weakness," she tells him earnestly. "I can't imagine how traumatizing it must've been for you, but I hope you never think of yourself as useless or that everything you do won't matter. Because it does. You stepped up to someone who abused you all your life, you saved your sister from a harmful environment, and you got out of a difficult situation all on your own. You're not weak, Zuko. Don't ever believe anyone who tells you that. Not even yourself. And if you can't see that on your dark days, we'll be here to remind you. Okay? Being part of the group means having people to lean on. I know both you and Toph have a hard time dealing with that, but we're still here for you, alright? You don't have to be alone anymore."
He just nods, words caught in his throat— he doesn't know how to deal with this brand of kindness, this kind of compassion that he doesn't even allow his own uncle to give him.
He still doesn't know how to act now that the torrent of emotions have passed, but then Katara leans in and kisses him lightly on his cheek— his scarred cheek— and his mind just grinds to a stop.
She smiles as she pulls away and stands up. He just stares at her, dumbfounded, the ghost of her lips still tingling on his skin.
"I'm gonna go freshen up,"she tells him, unmindful of his muddled thoughts as she smooths down his hair. "Just tell me when you're ready to go meet Toph and Sokka, okay?"
He nods dumbly, his throat dry.
He resists the irrational urge to hold onto her hand and ask her to stay.
A/N: I'M FINALLY DONE WITH THIS! This was so effin' hard to write; this was the chapter that almost made me not continue this fic at all. Fun fact, I didn't originally plan on Zuko telling Katara about his scar, but our boy just kept talking and who was I to stop him? It made the chapter so much darker than I originally intended, but hey, it's done! I swear, I'll double the fluff in the next chapters, because whew, even I need a break from the angst. I do hope this wasn't unnecessarily heavy, and I apologize to anyone I inadvertently triggered. Please, please seek help— professional or through any safe space— if you feel the onslaught of suicidal symptoms, whether or not you've read this fic or not.
Anyway, do you guys like how their relationship is progressing? Tell me what you think, please!