Thinking Out Loud @jacqstoned
The Past

DISCLAIMER: I do not own Avatar: The Last Airbender.

A/N: This chapter deals with mental health issues— the sad, ugly part of it that includes regression and triggers. Please read with caution if you are experiencing dark days; I did not write too much that would be triggering, but that's the thing with mental health issues— you never know when it would crop up. If you are feeling suicidal, please seek professional help immediately.


CHAPTER 37: The Past

"Busted."

Katara shrieks and nearly drops her bag of toiletries. She closes Zuko's bedroom door behind her and scowls at Toph, who is smiling gleefully in her direction, arms crossed, hair unruly, and feet planted firmly on the plush carpet of the apartment.

"Toph, you scared me!" admonishes Katara, but Toph's smile just widens even more.

"You are sooo busted!" she exclaims, pointing at Katara's left shoulder. "HA! I knew it was gonna happen!"

Katara rolls her eyes and plants a hand on her hip.

"Of course you knew it was gonna happen, Toph, I already told you how I felt about Zuko," she reminds her exasperatedly, but Toph is having none of it.

"I knew it, I knew it! I am the greatest matchmaker in the world!" She punches the air with her fist, then immediately punches Katara's arm with the same vigor, ignoring her hiss of pain. "I bet it happened at the wedding, huh? Ty Lee told me you two were all blushy and smiley but she made me swear not to make a big stink about it. Even though I totally fucking knew it!"

The door opens behind them and Zuko walks out, blinking blearily. He takes one look at the scene in front of him and groans.

"Mornin', Spice King. Sugar Queen keep ya up all night?" asks Toph with a devilish grin.

Zuko sputters and blushes all the way down to his neck. Katara sighs and pats his arm reassuringly.

"Alright, alright, we get it, Toph, you win," she rolls her eyes and crosses her arms over her chest. "Although our relationship wasn't entirely built by you, you know."

"Just sayin'," Toph shrugs and sticks her tongue out at Katara. "You two wouldn't have met if it weren't for me. You so owe me."

"We don't owe you anything, Toph," replies Zuko, scowling. Toph snorts.

"Uh, yes, you do, and the sooner you admit it, the sooner I'll let it go."

"Who are you kidding?" scoffs Katara, pushing past her to go to the shared bathroom, "You never let things go, Toph."

Toph snickers as Katara shuts the bathroom door closed, before turning to Zuko, her expression sobering.

"Seriously, though. I'm real happy for you guys," Toph says softly.

Zuko smiles and ruffles her already mussed hair.

"Would it have killed you to say that to both of us?"

"What, and have Sweetness go ooey-gooey on me?" Toph gags and rolls her eyes. "Ew. No way in hell, Sparky."

With that, she stalks off to her bedroom, leaving Zuko with a bemused smile on his face.


It is lunchtime that same day, and Katara has barely taken two steps into the Jasmine Dragon when she is engulfed in a warm, bone-crushing hug.

"Miss Katara!" greets Iroh, his arms iron-clad around her, "I have heard the wonderful news! Oh, you have given this old man so much joy— I am absolutely delighted that I still have so much to look forward to in my limited existence—"

"Toph told him," supplies Zuko gruffly from behind Iroh, although there is a small smile on his face as he looks at Katara— or what little of her he could see. His smile melts into a frown. "Uncle, you're suffocating her."

"Oh yes, yes. Wouldn't want my nephew's paramour to suffocate now, do we?" The older man finally lets her go with a laugh. Zuko slaps a hand to his forehead.

"Uncle, I think the word 'girlfriend' is enough. Don't make this weird," he grumbles, and Katara giggles.

"Well, nonetheless, thank you, Iroh," she says, before smiling slyly. "Although, I think you may have seen this a long time coming, hm?"

"Ah, yes. I do have eyes, Miss Katara," Iroh replies with a wink and a big grin. "Now, come sit! Tell me everything and spare no detail— my nephew has woefully kept me in the dark."

Katara blushes, knowing exactly why Zuko didn't tell his uncle the story of what happened after she told him she loves him, and Zuko covers his own red face with his hands.

"Uh… a lady doesn't kiss and tell?" ventures Katara, earning a booming, knowing laugh from the older man.

"Oh, to be young and full of vigor," comments Iroh, before Zuko pushes him to the back room with much grumbling. He comes back alone, shaking his head.

"I'm so sorry about him," he tells Katara, rubbing the back of his neck. "His current mission in life is to plan our wedding and think of names for grandnieces and grandnephews."

"I kind of expected that," laughs Katara, before linking their fingers together and smiling up at him. "Um, actually, I just came by to ask you something."

A furrow appears between his brows.

"What is it?"

"Uh…" Katara pushes down the sudden burst of nerves wriggling in her stomach. Spirits, why is she nervous? "I, um, I wanted to…"

"Katara?"

Oh no, now she's made him nervous, too.

"I just…" She takes a deep breath and her next words come out in a rush. "Do you wanna go out and have dinner with me later?"

Zuko blinks at her for a moment, then laughs in clear relief.

"Of course I do," he tells her, tugging her closer and tucking a stray lock of hair behind her ear. "You looked so nervous, I thought Toph and Uncle scared you off."

"You can't get rid of me that easily," responds Katara, grinning. She swings their clasped hands and bites her lip. "It's just… this is, like, our first official date, you know?"

Zuko's eyes crinkle at the corners when he smiles.

"Our second," he corrects her lightly. "I don't ever want to forget our first, as disastrous as it was. I promise I won't make fun of your job this time, or assume that you want me to pay for the entire bill."

"You better not," answers Katara, poking him lightly in the chest before popping up on her toes and kissing his cheek. "I love you. I better get going— it's a long bus ride back to the preschool."

"You don't want to stay for lunch?" asks Zuko bewilderedly. "You came all the way down here."

"Well, to be honest, I just really wanted to see you," admits Katara, her cheeks warming. She peers over Zuko's shoulder and giggles. "And it looks like your uncle's already packing my usual order into a to-go bag."

Zuko drops his head against her shoulder and groans.

"That eavesdropping old man."


When Katara opens her apartment door that evening, she is faced with a disgruntled Zuko, his usually messy hair parted in the middle and plastered down to the sides of his head.

She couldn't help it— she lets out a loud, unladylike snort-laugh.

Zuko crosses his arms with a frown.

"Uncle thought it was appropriate!" he defends himself, which makes Katara laugh even more. "I tried to talk him out of it!"

"Iroh should stick to making tea," Katara manages to say, still giggling as she reaches up and tousles his hair, bringing it back to its usual messiness. His annoyance warms into fondness and he kisses the top of her head as she tucks herself into his arms.

"Ready to go?" He murmurs against her hair. She buries her face in his chest with a muffled mmph of protest before reluctantly peeling herself from him.

"Let me just grab my keys and my purse."

"Where are we going, by the way?" asks Zuko, leaning against the door jamb as Katara flits about the living room.

"Well, after what you said, I actually thought of coming back to that fancy place where we had our first date, but I couldn't get a reservation on such short notice," she replies, shrugging on a light jacket and swinging her purse over her shoulder, knowing full well that she is rambling. There's still some leftover nerves in her system, as much as she tries to shake it off. "But, well— I figured, we probably won't be comfortable in such a crowded place anyway, so, if you're okay with it, maybe we could go to this noodle place I usually go to downtown?"

Zuko takes her hand as she closes the door behind her.

"I honestly don't care where we go as long as I'm with you," he says, then cringes. "Was that too cheesy?"

"It was, but I love it anyway," Katara grins at him and tightens her grip on his hand— of course he's right; what was she even nervous about, when it's the two of them together?


"Katara!" Senna greets as soon as she and Zuko duck into the relatively quiet hole-in-the-wall restaurant. The older woman wipes her hands on her apron and hugs Katara. "This is a delightful surprise. It's been awhile since we've seen you here!"

"Oh, I know! I've missed your five-flavor soup," replies Katara. "I've been so busy planning my brother's wedding for him— you know how he gets."

"Please give him our congratulations— may Tui and La guide him and his wife," Senna says, before she finally looks around and sees Zuko standing awkwardly behind Katara. "Ah! This must be the famous fiancé that Korra keeps talking about! I was wondering when Katara would bring you here."

"I think the term 'boyfriend' would suffice for now," laughs Katara as Zuko blushes self-consciously. "Senna, this is Zuko. Zuko, Senna. She's Korra's mom, and they own this restaurant."

"Nice to meet you." Zuko shakes Senna's hand, less flustered now. She smiles at him and pats the back of his hand in a motherly fashion.

"You take care of Katara, alright? We won't get to see her as much when Korra moves up from preschool."

Zuko smiles shyly.

"I will, ma'am. I'll keep her fridge stocked with seaweed noodles and sea prunes."

Senna laughs delightedly at that.

"Oh, Katara, he's a keeper!" She says as she ushers them into a booth. "Seaweed noodles and sea prunes are the way to a Southern Water Tribe girl's heart."

Katara reddens and sees Zuko smirking at her.

"Is that so?" He asks Senna conversationally, but his eyes never leave hers. Katara kicks him under the table with an embarrassed pout and he chuckles quietly.

A small head suddenly pops up from the booth behind him and a squeal drowns out whatever Senna's reply was going to be.

"Teacher Katara! Mister Fiancé!"

Senna groans as Korra clambers over the divider and plops herself on Zuko's lap. Katara giggles at his comically bulged out eyes and Korra grins toothily at both of them.

"Korra, remember our rule about talking to customers?" Senna says sternly, and Korra turns to her with a huge pout, still bouncing on Zuko's lap.

"But it's Teacher Katara and Mister Fiancée!" she whines as her mother pulls her away with an apologetic look at Katara and Zuko. "It's not stranger danger!"

"Yes, but they're not Teacher Katara and Mister Fiancée now. They're just Katara and Zuko, and they need their alone time."

"Just like you and Daddy?" asks Korra, eyes wide.

Senna grins mischievously at the couple.

"Yes, just like me and Daddy," she replies, winking at Katara. She shifts Korra in her arms and shuffles to the counter, pushing across it a couple of menus. "Just call out your orders to the kitchen, Katara. This little troublemaker needs to go to bed."

"Will do!" Katara replies, getting out of the booth and taking a menu from the counter. She hands it to Zuko, who looks at her questioningly.

"Oh, I already know my usual order," she says before he could ask anything. "Figured you might want something closer to home."

"I thought this was a Water Tribe restaurant," comments Zuko as he peruses his menu. His brow shoots up as he gets to the Fire Nation section. "What's the fire noodle challenge?"

Katara laughs.

"Of course that's the one you notice," she says with a roll of her eyes. "They serve really spicy noodles, Fire Nation-style, and if you eat the whole thing you get your photo on the wall."

She gestures at the back wall, where a handful of photos are taped. Zuko grins.

"I'm in."

"Seriously?" asks Katara, eyebrow raised. "You gotta sign a waiver for that. And it's not really a second date dish."

"What if I said I wanted to impress you?" counters Zuko, smirking. Katara scoffs.

"I'm not impressed by your superhuman spice tolerance," she says, before playfully shoving his shoulder. "Besides, you already know that the way to impress me is with sea prunes and seaweed noodles."

"Is that why—" Zuko begins, before his phone suddenly rings. He checks it and frowns.

"It's Uncle," he tells Katara, his brow wrinkling. "Sorry. I gotta take this. With how excited he was for this date to go smoothly, this has to be really important."

"Go, go— I'll wait," Katara assures him, sliding back into their booth as he gets out.

Zuko ducks out of the restaurant and into the street, pressing his phone to his ear.

"Uncle? Is something wrong?"


It isn't long before Zuko comes back, and Katara could already tell there was trouble.

"What's wrong?" she asks as soon as he walks back in, and he shakes his head furiously, his jaw clenched.

"Ozai called Uncle," he replies, his words clipped, eyes sharp. He fists his already messy hair into his hands and groans. "He wanted Uncle to testify for him."

"Tui and La— Zuko—"

"I'm so sorry, Katara," he interrupts her, voice pained. "We were having a good time and this was our second date and this just pops up all of a sudden—"

"Zuko." Katara places a hand on his fist and squeezes firmly. "If you need to talk this out with Iroh, let's go."

"But—"

"What was it you said earlier?" asks Katara, peeling his hands away from his hair so she could look him in the eye. She manages a tight smile, her eyes resolute. "I don't care where we go, as long as I'm with you."

Zuko takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly. He squeezes her hands back and nods.

"I love you," he says, the relief in his voice enough to envelop Katara whole. "I love you so much. I can't believe you're still here."

"Like I said— you can't get rid of me that easily," she flashes him a quick grin before pulling him out of the booth. "Come on, let's go. I'll just text Senna that we had an emergency."


It is at times like these that Zuko finds himself blindingly infuriated with how calm his uncle is. Only Katara's presence by his side keeps him in check while Iroh waits for the water to heat to the right temperature.

"Uncle—"

"I think jasmine would be wonderful for such a situation," his uncle says, almost to himself. He reaches ever so calmly for one of his tea canisters, and Zuko couldn't take it any more.

"Uncle, we don't need any of this damn tea!" he bursts out. Iroh remains unfazed, and Zuko clenches his jaw. "Just tell me what happened with Ozai!"

"As I have told you, my boy," sighs Iroh, opening a canister and measuring out tea leaves, "He contacted me in order to convince me to testify for him. And I said no."

"So you'll testify against him, right?" Zuko says, forcefully, a little too hopeful.

Iroh sighs again and folds his hands into the long sleeves of his robes.

"I'm afraid I will not be doing that either, Zuko."

"But— why?" sputters Zuko, aghast. "You of all people know how much he needs to be taken down!"

"I am too close to the situation, my nephew. It would not turn out well," Iroh replies, taking the kettle off the heat. "The court would simply see my testimony as that of a scorned brother trying to grab ahold of power over the family business."

"But— but— I already told Aang I would testify—"

"And you should, if you want to," interjects Iroh, pouring water into tea cups with practised ease. "If there is anyone in this world who can stand up to Ozai, it is you."

He places the cups neatly on the table between them, before sitting down and addressing them gravely.

"However, I want to warn you, nephew, that the situation is worse than we thought," he begins. "I do not want you to return to the Fire Nation and face him if it will once again poison your soul."

"I know what he's done to the company, Uncle. I've talked to the Avatar Organization's spokesperson. He's— he's a… friend... of ours," answers Zuko, reaching for a tea cup and warming his numb fingers. He exhales slowly. "Uncle. If this is my chance to save the employees from becoming Lu Ten or Azula… from becoming what I would've become..."

He sips his tea for a few moments, lost in his thoughts. If he were being honest with himself, even if it's been three years, he still trembles at the idea of coming face-to-face with Ozai; he still has to fight the almost overwhelming urge to vomit whenever he is mentioned, still has to stop himself from scratching at his scar whenever he thinks of him. And, underneath it all… there is still a part of him that loves his father, no matter how stupid and childish it seems. But he has burned all his bridges by leaving... or at least, he thought he did, but his father just keeps coming back, like a looming ghost, a storm brewing on the horizon, and if anyone else feels that way—

"I need to visit Azula," announces Zuko suddenly, setting down his cup. "If there's one thing Azula craves more than Mom's love, it's Father's approval. I just need to see for myself that he hasn't poisoned her mind even more."

He takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly.

"Uncle, I know what you're going to say. I know she's crazy—"

"I understand, nephew," says Iroh, placing a reassuring hand on his arm. Zuko realizes he's shaking. Iroh squeezes his hand. "If it were any other time, I would advise against it. But she is your sister. If I had held the same hope of changing Ozai when we were younger… of seeing the ambition that would later be his downfall…"

Iroh's eyes darken in grief and regret. He sighs and pats Zuko's hand.

"Go to her, nephew. Do not commit the same mistake I did."

"I'll come with you," adds Katara, slipping her hand into his free one. The coolness of her touch breathes life back into Zuko's frayed nerves, even as another worry springs to his mind.

"Katara—" his voice is suddenly tight, a little bit choked, "You can't come. She's volatile. She could hurt you."

"I'm tougher than I look," she replies, meeting his eyes determinedly. "And I studied Nursing, remember? I worked at a hospital for a while. I took psych classes. I know how ugly these things can get."

"You must not do this alone, nephew," murmurs Iroh. "You are going back to your past, a place full of rage and betrayal. You need someone by your side."

Both Iroh and Katara look at him expectantly, and he squirms uncomfortably.

"I— it's going to be really hard," he says lamely, but he sees the stern glint in his uncle's eyes, the stubborn tilt in Katara's jaw, and he knows convincing them is a lost cause. He sighs and pinches the bridge of his nose. "Fine. But for the record, I am not happy about this."


It is a week later that Katara finds herself in Zuko's room with her suitcase by the foot of the bed. They had booked a flight as soon as they left Iroh's, but decided they would go after Katara was finished with the last of her classes and after Sokka and Suki came back from their honeymoon.

"So why do you have a 'go bag' anyway?" Katara asks, pawing through Zuko's already-packed duffle. He scratches the back of his neck sheepishly.

"To be honest, I was… I was scared," he sighs and sits on the edge of the bed with her. He runs a hand through his hair in distress. "I thought my father would follow me here. Like I was some runaway kid. And it's even weirder that I kept it when I knew he doesn't care enough about me to beg me to come back."

"Zuko…"

"That's why I'm worried about Azula. He always favored her, and he would dangle approval like a prize, just like he did with me," he mutters, smoothing out and then rumpling the bedcovers. He sighs again. "If he convinces her to testify for him— if she agrees, after all he's done to her, to both of us, I just— I can't let that— I can't let him—"

Katara throws her arms around his middle and he curls his arm around her shoulders, holding on tightly.

"We won't let him, Zuko," she says, her voice muffled by his shirt. She squeezes harder. "I won't let it happen. I promise."

"You have to tell me the minute you're uncomfortable with her, okaya? And let's not get our hopes up too much— it might not even go well. We might already be too late," murmurs Zuko, pressing his cheek against the top of her head. "Are you sure you want to do this? I know it's a lot to deal with—"

There is some scuffling outside, then the bedroom door suddenly swings open.

"Hey bro!" Sokka strides in, holding aloft a box of cookies. "I brought you a souvenir from— oh."

"Sokka!"

Zuko and Katara quickly slide away from each other, both blushing furiously.

"Oh-kay," Sokka says, crossing his arms and wiggling his eyebrows suggestively. "So. Care to tell me what's up, you two?"

"What the hell are you doing here?" exclaims Zuko, standing up and pushing him roughly out of the room. Katara follows them, her face scrunched in irritation.

"Did you seriously go to Zuko's place first instead of mine right after your honeymoon?" Katara asks skeptically, desperate for a change of subject. "Didn't you miss me at all?"

"Hey, sis, I dropped by and you weren't there!" Sokka replies, throwing his hands up, but his teasing, knowing smirk is still in full force. He wags his finger at the two of them. "Now I know why. You two were smooching."

"Smooching?" repeats Zuko as Katara shakes her head exasperatedly. "Who the hell says that? What are you, twelve?"

"Doesn't change the fact that you were smooching!" teases Sokka, pointing triumphantly at them and making kissy faces. "Smoochy, smoochy, someone's in looove!"

Both Zuko and Katara slap a hand to their forehead.

"We weren't even being too romantic," mutters Katara with a tired sigh. "Ugh. You're the worst, Sokka."

"If you weren't being 'too romantic', what cuddly, touchy-feely thing did I see back there, huh?"

Zuko and Katara exchange a glance. Zuko clears his throat.

"We were packing and planning a trip," he finally says. "To, uh. To see my sister."

"Oooh, Ember Island Round Two?" Sokka grins mischievously. "When is it? Can Suki and I come?"

"Oh, uh, it's not Ember Island this time," explains Katara, after another questioning look at Zuko. "We're gonna be staying in Caldera City for a while. And you guys can't come. This is just for Zuko and me. Okay?"

"Oh, come on," Sokka deflates and rips open his box of cookies. "What if you two get into a fight like in Ember Island? Who's gonna smooth things over for you two? Hmm?"

"I think we'll manage just fine," replies Katara wryly, folding her arms over her chest. "You just got off a long vacation. It's our turn now. Back off."

"You're being too cagey," Sokka's eyes narrow as he munches on his cookie. "Something's up. You're not telling me something."

Zuko runs a hand down his face frustratedly.

"First Sozin is tanking, Aang's charity thing filed charges against them, I might testify against my own father, and we're gonna see if my sister— not my half-sister, my actual sister who handled the Northern Oasis project— has been manipulated by my scheming father. There, happy now?"

Sokka's jaw has dropped open and some cookie crumbs fall from his lips.

"Whoa, whoa, whoa— for real?"

Zuko rolls his eyes with a huff and crosses his arms before nodding. Sokka blinks and sobers up.

"Wow. The spirits do have a heart," he mutters to himself, though both Zuko and Katara hear him plainly. He swallows audibly. "Yue didn't die for nothing."

"Oh, Sokka," murmurs Katara, rushing over to him and enveloping him in a hug, all irritation gone. Zuko follows and places a comforting hand on Sokka's shoulder.

"I'm sorry, Sokka," he tells his friend somberly. "I'm sorry for everything that my family's company put you guys through."

"Hey, man, we've been over this— it wasn't your fault," Sokka flaps his hand dismissively at him. "But, uhhh, it was your sister's, who you'll be visiting."

He raises his eyebrows pointedly at them, waiting for an explanation. Zuko runs a hand through his hair tiredly, unsure of unloading every wrong thing that happened since the Northern Oasis project— Katara seems to sense his distress and rubs a hand soothingly over his back.

"It's a long story, Sokka," she tells her brother simply, eyeing him with a silent request to drop the subject. Sokka's eyes flicker between the two of them for a moment before he acquiesces with a sigh and a glum nod.

"Okay, okay," he tells them, holding his hands— and his cookie box— up to his shoulders. "Just make sure you both stay safe. And use protection on your 'vacation'— as much as I love you both, La knows I don't want any nieces or nephews yet, ya hear me?"

"Sokka!"


Zuko didn't know what to expect when he landed back in the country he grew up in, but the minute he stepped out of the plane and into the terminal, he is swamped with so much emotion that it feels as though he has been physically struck in the gut.

The very air smells different. The colors, the architecture, the sound of announcements being translated from the common tongue to archaic Fire Nation.

He's home.

Katara stands beside him, waiting patiently as he heaves one breath and another, holding his hand and squeezing it tight.

"It's…" he swallows around the words stuck in his throat, "It's been too long. I didn't realize how much I missed it until now."

Katara hums and rubs the pad of her thumb against his knuckles.

"What did you miss the most?"

Zuko hefts his duffle bag over his shoulder, mulling the question over, before laughing in surprise at his answer.

"The heat," he responds. "The kind of heat that even the AC can't get rid of entirely. Even the Earth Kingdom in the summer was too cold for me."

"I'm looking forward to seeing how you'd do in the South Pole," teases Katara, tugging him across the airport and towards the taxi lane. "Or even just the Northern Air Temples, to be honest."

"I won't back down from that challenge," replies Zuko easily, turning his face towards the blazing afternoon sun with a soft smile.

They get checked in at their hotel on the fringes of the central business district and had a quick lunch at the little diner— Zuko is surprised to learn that Katara had been to Caldera City before, but didn't get to explore because she was on Avatar Organization business, so he promises her he would show her all the sights after they deal with Azula.

He starts making a list in his head of every beautiful place his country had to offer, every shrine, park, or museum that is coated in centuries of history.

It feels nice to have something happy to look forward to, especially when they finally decide to go to the psychiatric facility where Zuko last saw Azula.

The inside of the building is as gloomy and dank as Zuko remembers from three years ago. There is a lone receptionist in overwashed maroon scrubs, and when they inquire after Azula, he tells them she has recently checked in, implying that she's already gone in and out of the facility in the past.

"How is she doing?" Zuko asks as the attendant leads them down a cold, poorly-lit hallway lined with doors on both sides.

"During her lucid states, she is coping well, sir. There's been quite the progress since last year— she regularly takes her meds, she takes initiative on exercising, and she no longer escapes from her therapy sessions," the attendant pauses, as though on the brink of breaking bad news. "She still suffers from the occasional hallucination and her recurring delusion, but she has become much better at telling us when they happen."

The attendant clears his throat as they stop beside a plain, numbered door.

"I, uh, do have to warn you, sir, ma'am— she is currently going through an episode; the trigger is still unknown to us, and it's been on and off for almost a month now, which was why we elected that she stay at the facility for the time being."

"Okay," Zuko exhales slowly through his mouth. "Okay. We'll be careful."

"Just knock on the door should you need any help," the attendant reminds them, before opening the door.

Azula.

The first thing he notices is that she has her back to them, her hair down— it is a disconcerting sight; he'd never seen it down from her slicked-back bun since they were in college.

"Azula?" he ventured tentatively as Katara closes the door behind them. Blindly, refusing to turn away from his sister, he reaches for Katara's hand— she grips him, tight and grounding.

"Ah, Zuzu," Azula says without turning around, "Finally."

"Sorry it took so long, Azula," Zuko rasps, voice hoarse, hand tightly squeezing Katara's.

"Well?" She tips her head, looking at him over her shoulder— just him. She doesn't acknowledge Katara's presence. "Did you get the files that I asked for?"

"I didn't. They weren't ready yet," replies Zuko, his tone weary— this is a warped version of a conversation he'd had with his sister a couple of times before. He wonders how much of his sister is still stuck in the past, unable to move forward.

Azula rolls her eyes.

"Ugh. The sooner this whole death threat thing blows over, the better," she returns to staring through the window and sighs. "I loathe working away from the office."

"I'm sure you'll be out soon," offers Zuko, voice thick.

Azula chuckles— the sound is devoid of warmth and emotion.

"Bet you're enjoying having Father's attention all to yourself," she says tonelessly, the hands clasped behind her back clenching and unclenching. Zuko swallows and starts to reply, but she cuts him off. "How's it feel, Zuzu, being an only child?"

"I'm not, Azula. That's why I'm here. You're my sister," says Zuko, but his sister speaks over him, her voice brittle.

"They all planned this, Zuzu," she says, her hands curling and uncurling faster. "They're coming for me. They know how far up the company I've come— they know how much Father trusts me, how much he listens to me. And that's going to get me killed. Oh, brother, lucky you— lucky Zuko, so mediocre he doesn't catch anyone's attention."

Zuko exhales sharply through his nose. Closes his eyes. Squeezes Katara's hand. The next words he says come from a list that the doctors gave him a long, long time ago.

"I understand that you are… frustrated. May I ask why you think they're after you, Azula?"

Azula scoffs, still staring out the window.

"They were watching me," she declares, as though it were something to be proud of. "They were watching me. They were watching… every move I made, they knew it. They can't swallow the fact that I'm simply better than them. Just like Mother. Mother and her roses and her movies…"

Her hands move, trance-like, to her long, unbound, jet black hair.

"Mother visits me more often than you," she tells Zuko emotionlessly, her dull eyes meeting his in the reflection in the window.

Zuko takes a deep breath.

"What about Father, Azula?" He asks, voice cracking. "Has Father visited you recently?"

Many things happen at once.

Azula flings himself at Zuko with a horrible shriek, her hands clawing at the air like the talons of a bird, ready to take its prey. Katara acts on instinct, jumps behind Azula and somehow manages to grab ahold of her flailing arms. Zuko bangs hard on the door and two attendants rush in and help Katara subdue Azula, who was screeching at the top of her lungs—

"How DARE YOU mention HIM to MY FACE! He will burn in HELL for all the shit he gave me! I will kill him with my bare hands the minute I see his disgusting, twisted—"

Suddenly they are out of the room, the door closed in front of them, Azula's wails echoing in the dimly-lit hallway.

Zuko staggers backwards until he is pressed up against the opposite wall, still shaking head to toe from the encounter.

Katara approaches him, gently, ever so slowly, but when her hand makes contact with his arm he finds himself violently flinching away.

"I— I thought—" he tries to explain, but everything is a jumbled mess inside him right now, every emotion fusing together into a dark, incomprehensible lump in his chest. He hears people talking, but it all feels muffled by the rushing in his ears. He presses the heels of his hands against his eyes— the puckered skin of his scar presses back against him tauntingly—

Katara says something he couldn't decipher, her hand smoothing over his curved back, and he suddenly, overwhelmingly, hates himself— loathes himself— what the hell was he thinking, dragging her into this god-awful, spirits-forsaken mess that was his life before she met him, dear Agni, what does she think of him now, how could she even touch him when she's seen what a failure of a brother— what a failure of a human— he truly is; how could she not see that this was what he could have easily become, a shell of a person with spite and rage in place of a soul, screaming at flickering illusions and looking over his shoulder for a reckoning that was obviously bound to come—

"We can drop by tomorrow," he hears her say, and he is pushing away from the wall with a growl before he could really process that she was talking to a doctor, not him.

"What's the fucking point!" He shouts— the doctor simply nods at Katara and bows away, but he doesn't give a damn anymore, because how could she— how could she— "It's useless! All the fucking trouble I went through for her, all those fucking months not being able to see out of one eye— all the times I missed her, all the times I tried to contact her, and she doesn't even fucking give a damn about me! She can get all worked up for our fucking father—"

Just like that, all the fight goes out of him. He clenches his fists and wipes angrily at his eyes and cheeks, his chest heaving. He doesn't know how his words took quite a turn, but they left him with an awful, pathetic realization— he'd wanted things to change between him and his sister.

And she still treated him as though nothing had changed.

"Zuko," Katara begins, a hard edge to her tone, and he closes his eyes tightly and averts his face— he could not deal with pity or judgement right now, especially from her, especially not when his own self-loathing is surging back tenfold—

"Zuko. Like I said," she continues pointedly, her fingers lightly grazing his closed fist, "We can drop by again tomorrow."

"How can you say that?" He croaks out, eyes still painfully shut. "You've seen what she's like. What I'm like when… when I'm with her."

"You'd be surprised at how much people can learn from having a nursing degree," she comments in her usual wry tone, and the familiarity of it brings some feeling back into Zuko's extremities. She places her hands on his shoulders and, by some miracle, a sigh of something akin to relief rushes out of him. "Zuko. Look at me."

He does, even though he almost couldn't bear to, and he is met with so much resolve in her blue eyes that he knows he would believe whatever she tells him next, no matter how unsure he is of himself at the moment.

"Your sister is getting better," she says firmly, and Zuko swallows the protests building in his throat. "She is. Her doctor said that she's improved leaps and bounds since she first came in. She's going to therapy regularly. She's recently discovered how to separate reality from her hallucinations, but he said it was still a new mechanism for her. It's going to take some time to master it, and she will still have bad days. And that's what we just saw— one of her bad days. It doesn't mean she's not getting better, or that she hasn't changed. It's just that her way of coping right now is what she was used to, and it takes time to unlearn that, especially on bad days. Your efforts were not for nothing. She's getting better. Okay?"

"I'm really sorry I dragged you into this," Zuko blurts out, not quite ready to take reassurances just yet. "You shouldn't have to—"

"Yes, but I want to," she replies, her tone brooking no argument. She smooths her hands over his shoulders and down his arms. Her tone softens, but doesn't lose its resolve. "And I would like to get to know her better, too. Both in her good days and bad. Just like how I wanna know about this part of your life— all the good and all the bad."

"I'm sorry I yelled," Zuko mutters, voice tight, not knowing what else he could say except for apologies that sound too small. "I— I didn't know why— I didn't realize how— how hard—"

"Apology accepted," Katara replies softly, bringing her hand to his marred cheek, wiping away the few drops of tears that had been caught in the ridges of broken skin. He sighs and presses a kiss to her palm and his chest lightens at the sight of her smile.

"Let's have some authentic komodo chicken for dinner," he suggests, his head pounding, aching for comfort. "I know all the good places around here."

Katara smiles brightly at him and stands on her toes to give him a small kiss.

"Let's go. We'll try again tomorrow."


They drop by the facility first thing in the morning.

The attendant greets them warmly, talking mostly with Katara, and informs them brightly that Azula was more stable today.

Zuko doesn't get his hopes up. Even Azula on her good days can be taxing to deal with, he reminds himself.

He steels himself as they stand in front of the door.

"Katara," he suddenly says, "I think I should do this alone. That way, you won't get hurt if she— if she—"

"Zuko," she pins him with a measured look, but Zuko does not back down. She furrows her brows. "I won't let you do this alone."

"I might have to," he tells her quietly but firmly. "If she doesn't trust you enough, she won't talk about— about Ozai."

She looks at him for a few moments, deliberating, before nodding with a sigh. The attendant opens the door and lets Zuko in.

Once more, Azula is facing the window, but this time she looks more composed, her hair up in her usual bun, her eyes sharp. Zuko takes a deep breath.

"Azula."

"Zuko."

She turns around slowly. Zuko tries not to stare at the multitude of raised white scars that littered her forearms.

"You're back," she says, her tone colored slightly by surprise. Zuko nods warily.

"I'm back."

"I was informed that I attacked you yesterday," she says breezily, with a slight sneer, "I didn't think you'd be brave enough to face me again."

"I almost didn't," Zuko finds himself admitting, and his sister lets out a disdainful huff.

"Well? Are we just going to stand here like idiots?" She asks, without waiting for an answer. "Let's sit outside."

She opens the door off to the side that Zuko didn't notice the day before, and disappears. He follows with much trepidation, only to see a veranda connecting other rooms, overlooking a sparse courtyard with a couple of fire trees.

Azula sits at a small metal dining set, her purse slung over one chair's backrest. She reaches into it, and Zuko steels himself—

She just pulls out a pack of menthol cigarettes, pulls one out for herself, and offers him the box and lighter.

He shakes his head as he sits down across her. She frowns.

"I know you only smoke reds, Zuzu, but don't be such a big baby," she sneers. "This is the closest thing I have to a peace offering, you know."

His brow shoots up at that.

"I know," he replies, because he does, because as Azula always lies, Azula also never shares. "I don't… I quit three years ago."

Getting burned in the fucking face will do that to you, he adds to himself morosely.

His sister frowns at him, her eyes unreadable, before tucking her stick back into the pack and shoving it in her purse. Zuko's eyebrow rises again— she always delighted in blowing smoke in his face.

She reaches instead for the stack of hard plastic cups on the table and pours herself a glass of water from a frosted plastic pitcher. Zuko tracks her movements warily, the conversation so precarious and unprecedented that he doesn't know which way it will go.

"Um. So—"

"Father visited me," Azula suddenly admits, her chipped acrylic nails tracing the rim of her cup. Her next words are sarcastically chipper and scathing and rough around the edges, as though being torn from her throat. "Now that the company's going under, I'm suddenly his new favorite person."

"That's actually why I came to see you, Azula," replies Zuko quietly.

"What, did you really think I would help you with that madman? After what he did to me?" Azula huffs. "And I thought I was the crazy one."

Zuko starts and sits up.

"Wait, what— Azula— oh Agni, that's why—" he clears his suddenly hoarse throat. "Is that why… why you never answered my calls?"

"You always said you had no one," Azula says, apropos of nothing, her fingernails tapping erratically on the metal tabletop. Her words are punctuated by loud clinks, setting Zuko's teeth on edge. "But you had Mother. And Uncle. Even Lu Ten liked you better once we all started working together. And now, you have Father all to yourself. Still Father's little helper, always willing to bend over backwards—"

"I'm no longer with the company, Azula," Zuko says firmly. He swallows against the lump in his throat. "I left after you— after he made you leave. Because he made you leave."

He sees Azula's jaw clench, sees the way she averts her gaze, the way all her fidgeting stops. He waits.

She scoffs derisively.

"How am I supposed to know if this isn't a ploy and you're just taking advantage of my current mental situation—"

"Don't you remember how bad I am at lying, Zuli?" The childhood nickname slips out of him without his notice. "Don't you want to know why I have this scar?"

She shrugs.

"Figured he played with fire and you got the brunt of it," she says bluntly. She retakes her cigarettes out and lights one with practiced precision. Her next words come in a haze of smoke. "So, what now? Am I supposed to thank you for quitting just because he fucked me over? What good did that get you, hm?"

"It was probably the best decision I ever made in my entire life," answers Zuko with every ounce of sincerity he had. He shakes his head to clear it. "I was just worried about you, that's all. That's why I visited. I knew about the trial, I knew he'd try to get you back on his side—"

"Do you think I'm such a helpless little nobody?" Azula's lips curl disgustedly, smoke curling from her nostrils. "I've been busy. I've got a fucking job in consulting. I make the same amount as I did in that fucking hellhole. It's just unfortunate that he showed up and threw me for a loop so I had to reenter this disgusting building. But I have enough paid vacation days to last me a month, so it's all settled."

Zuko gapes at her.

"You have a job?"

"That's what you take from everything I said?" She shakes her head and blows smoke at his face. "You've always been such a dum-dum."

"Sorry, sorry, it's just—" Zuko sighs and runs a hand through his hair. "I barely got a job after I quit. I'm just a waiter in Uncle's tea shop in the Earth Kingdom. You're doing even better than I am."

Azula smiles at him, sharp and cat-like, as she stubs out her cigarette on the floor with the heel of her shoe.

"That's because I've always been better at you," she says. "Did you think I'd fall back so easily into that shit-stained life? After everything he put me through?"

"Is that why you didn't answer any of my calls, or contact me?" Zuko tries again.

Azula sighs exasperatedly and takes a small sip of her water.

"Yes, actually," she confesses quietly. She scrunches her face as though she tasted something foul. "I cut all my ties from that life. It was easier."

"I thought…" Zuko swallows, his mouth dry. "I thought you were mad at me. For not protecting you."

Azula rolls her eyes and lights another cigarette.

"When have I ever needed you, Zuzu?"

"I know you can handle yourself, but back then… back then, you did need me," he murmurs as smoke billowed around him. He traces the geometric design of the table with his finger as he avoids her eyes. "And I couldn't even check up on you, because I was so afraid of him."

Azula puffs out a stream of smoke, her expression exasperated.

"You were just doing what I did, dum-dum," she tells him with an air of superiority. "You cut and left. You said it was the best decision you made. What are you ceven complaining about? Why don't you sound happier?"

"Because I left you!" Zuko blurts out, hands balling into fists under the rickety table. "I was too cowardly, not taking you out of here then, all because I thought I couldn't handle taking care of you! But it's my job, I'm your brother, and I just left you!"

He's shaking, trembling as he waits for her to say yes, you're just the same as our neglectful father, as our mother who died before I could see her again, as my supposed best friend Mai, you left me all alone with no one to turn to—

Azula just shrugs, taking his outburst in stride, and somehow her lack of retaliation shocks him more.

"You did what you had to do," she replies casually through a cloud of smoke. She stubs out her cigarette again and surveys him through steepled hands, and eerily, Zuko is reminded of Iroh. "Y'know what my therapist always says? You have to do what's right for you, no matter what you have to sacrifice."

She sighs.

"That's why I was willing to not answer your calls. At the risk of sounding weak, I will admit that I've thought about contacting you, especially in my first year here." She drums her nails against the table and refuses to look at him. "But I had to do what was best for me. Taking your calls wasn't the best course of action. I knew that the minute I hear about the company, I will crawl back. And that's just pathetic."

"That's…" Zuko slumps with a sigh. "That's exactly how I felt. When I left. But you're stronger than I am, Zuli. I had to run away to the fucking Earth Kingdom and basically had to have Uncle watch my back. I'm… I'm proud of you."

The corners of Azula's lips curve into a small smile.

"Of course you are," she says teasingly. "I'm even better at recovering from trauma than you."

Her words pull a laugh out of Zuko.

"Are you really making a competition out of this?"


They visit the facility for a few hours each day the entire week. The first time Azula meets Katara, she makes a snide comment to Zuko about 'diversifying his stocks,' to which Katara frowns and tells her she's being racist. That leads to easy banter between the two of them, something that surprises Zuko each time it happens— it seems as though his sister likes Katara, respects her somehow for calling her out instead of going along with her.

Some days it is tough, with Azula being a shell of who she is, just staring dully out the window and into the courtyard at the vivid red leaves of the fire trees. On those days, they coax her into cleaning herself up, have inane conversations, tell her Southern Water Tribe folk tales and Fire Nation epics. She perks up at the stories, like the child he once knew, and they tuck her in and leave. The two days this happens, when they come back to their hotel room, Zuko cries for his little sister, and Katara holds him as he breaks.

They ask permission from the staff to take her out of the facility on one of her better days. She projects her best appearance on that day, open and inviting and smiling less threateningly that all Zuko could do is marvel at the change. She takes them to her apartment, then to her office building, and Zuko notices that its location is as far from First Sozin as possible while still staying within the confines of Caldera City, and that fact makes him sag with relief.

When they aren't visiting Azula, they are touring the city and even the towns near the outskirts. They see flying dolphin fish and manatee whales at the Caldera Aquarium; they eat street food as the sun sets, the sky bright gold and crimson and bleeding into deep purple. They go to temples and shrines and at each one, Zuko prays for Azula and for Katara and Uncle and Toph and Sokka and Suki and Aang, for Kiyi and Ikem and the soul of his mother, all the people he loves and all the people he lost. He even throws in a small prayer for Ozai, that he may see the error in his ways, although there is not much hope in his heart when he thinks of the words to bless his father.

Suddenly, yet not so, their week in Caldera City is over, and on the last day, they spend as much time as they could with Azula before they leave for the airport. She is good that day, less volatile, yet there is a tinge of something dark in her gaze when they tell her they'll be leaving soon. It dissipates when he promises to call her as soon as he lands in the Earth Kingdom, and she only stiffens slightly when both he and Katara hug her goodbye.

On the plane, he settles into his seat with a sigh that reaches deep into his soul— Katara does too, and he holds her hand and brings it to his lips.

"I'm glad we did this," he murmurs against her skin. She smiles tiredly at him.

"I'm glad we did this, too."


A/N: We're in the final stretch! Only around two chapters left. Hope you guys enjoyed this long, loooong chapter!

Azula's symptoms are based on schizophrenia, something that my aunt had, so I only wrote the manifestation of her mental illness the way I saw it, from an outsider's point of view, from the point of view of someone who has to watch their loved one suffer and not really understand how their mind works and when it will turn against them. I understand that not all people with schizophrenia are violent, but my aunt was, and I figured Azula would be, too. Canon Azula had hallucinations, and was paranoid that people were after her, and those just told me it was closer to schizophrenia because my aunt manifested the same symptoms.

However, her experience in the facility (the dank, cold feel of the building, the hard plastic cups so there's no glass to break and hurt yourself with, and the way people would sneak in cigarettes as part of their coping) is based on my own experience after a few months of being in and out of a psych ward because I was having a psychotic break in 2019. I don't know how other countries handle mental illness and psychotic breaks, but my own experience is the experience that I can write about.

Again, if this triggered anything in you, please don't hesitate to ask for professional help.

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